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Excerpt Thursday: WHITER PASTURES by Xina Marie Uhl
This week, we're pleased to welcome author Xina Marie Uhl with her latest release, WHITER PASTURES (Icebound series). Join us again on Sunday for an author interview, with more details about the story. Here's the blurb about the novelette.
A romantic novelette in the Icebound series, an ongoing collection of polar delights.
Behold dogsleds and penguins. Howling winds and cold, pitiless wastes. This is Antarctica, where the intrepid inhabitants of the frozen ends of the earth battle the terrain, and each other, to find love—in a past much like that of the early 1900s.
Reluctant spinster Florance Barton fled to the British Antarctic base to escape a scandalous love affair. Amidst the handful of other women there, Florance is the perfect chambermaid, meek, mild, and forgettable. No one has a clue that she’s also a novice spy.
When handsome young Handy McHanagan arrives at the base, he sets everyone agog. He’s charming, artistic, and ... an accomplished gardener. His arrival may be a mistake on the part of naval command. Or is it something more sinister?
Killer seals and subzero ice storms and aren’t the only danger in Antarctica: a enemy spy is on the loose. Florance has been ordered to choose between queen and country and her heart. Because penguin is off the menu now—and murder is its replacement.
The coal pan in the bottom of the heater had jammed again. Florance had tried all of her usual fixes—shoving it in further and yanking it out quickly, shimmying it from side to side, and wedging the metal handle of her favorite scrub brush in it to pry it open—but nothing would work.
"Must you make such a racket, girl?" Electa's voice somehow managed to communicate boredom, disdain, and irritation all at once. She didn't bother looking up from her typewriter but continued to pluck the keys one by one, hunting and pecking for each as if she were a particularly choosy hen searching for the perfect piece of corn.
Florance gritted her teeth. Electa knew her name—Florance had informed her of it on at least three separate occasions—but she couldn't be bothered to call her anything other than girl. When she deigned to speak to her at all, that is.
It vexed Florance that people insisted upon referring to her as a girl when eternal spinsterhood was drawing ever nearer at twenty-nine years of age. Florance knew the reason for it, though. She was a rather quiet person, not a stupid one. The help always had to scurry hither and thither, seen but not heard, while the decent people carried on with the important work. The ability to be invisible was the very thing that had brought her to this frozen base to begin with, after all.
With a discordant screech, the coal pan slid free, unbalancing Florance so that she landed squarely on her bustle. Coal dust puffed up in a cloud around her. She sneezed. Electa rolled her kohl-lined, brilliantly blue eyes in exasperation.
"Sorry, Mum," Florance mumbled before she could stop herself. She was trying not to mewl so much. It's just that her mouth sometimes functioned apart from her intentions.
Florance patted coal dust off her once-white apron, tucked that frizzy errant piece of hair back into her bun, and slipped on her trusty leather gloves before hurrying outside to the coal bin.
A gale had ended late last night, and this morning was clear and eye-wateringly bright, as usual. The atmosphere down here seemed thinner and drier than back in dreary old England, and she had never quite gotten used to it. Workmen hauled cordage and secured lines while scientists checked the weather station for readings and polished and oiled the delicate motors, instruments, and generators that had to be maintained at all cost. At the coal bin, she swept aside the powdery white snow covering it with a few abrupt motions. Thank heavens it came easily, unlike in the dead of winter when it was often necessary to bring a sharp iron stake and a hammer to remove the solid glistening mass.
As she scooped coal out of the bin and into the pail, a bitch trotted by, three half-grown pups following in single file. Dunderwaffle must have left the kennel doors open again. This summation was supported by the sight of two male dogs snarling at one another mere yards away, hackles raised and eyes alight with malice. She had been in the line of fire of fighting mongrels once before and had suffered a nasty ankle bite as a result.
"Get!" she shouted. She lobbed several good-sized chunks of coal at them. The smaller of the two danced off, ears flattened against his skull. The other, a black husky with unsettling yellow eyes, stood his ground, looking directly at her with teeth bared. Refusing to give in to the impulse to shrink back, she shouted louder and stepped toward him. "Go away!"
His canines shone white and fierce in the sunlight, but he slunk back before turning and trotting away as if that had been his intention all along.
"Menace," she accused under her breath.
With an awkward swing, she hefted the heavy pail of coal and made her way back to the Commandant's office to finish loading the heater.
She had gone no more than a dozen yards when suddenly, the weight of the pail vanished.
"Let me help you with that, miss," said a warm, strong male voice.
"Oh!" Florance squeaked. "Why, thank you, sir."
A flash of white teeth and a cheerful grin. Lively brown eyes met hers.
"My pleasure, you can be sure." He gave a slight bow. "Handy McHanagan at your service."
Did she detect a bit of a brogue? Heavens alive! Her heart fluttered like a bird caught in a trap.
She nodded. "Miss Florance Barton. So pleased to make your acquaintance."
As they walked, she stole glances at him. Younger than her, most probably. A foot taller, at least. Thick, dark hair neatly combed back around a zigzagging side part, and underneath, a face that she found utterly, completely, transformatively gorgeous in all ways, amen. She tried to control her burgeoning excitement. He must have arrived on this morning's ship. Certainly, she would have recognized him otherwise.
On the steps of the administration building, he paused, looking out at the post as men scurried about hatless and in shirtsleeves. At twenty-three degrees Fahrenheit, she was practically sweating herself.
A vaguely troubled expression flattened his lips. "I was sure it would be different here."
"In what way, sir?"
His eyes flickered to hers, and he gave a rueful smile. "Greener."
She didn't understand for a moment. Out here, green was for tinned vegetables and putrefying wounds, nothing else. Then she realized what he meant.
"Goodness, not another one! No one told you that you were headed to Hope Bay and not Hope Cay?"
He expelled air from his nostrils as he shook his head.
"And that Hope Bay lay in Antarctica?"
"Australia . . . Antarctica. They sound a bit alike."
No, love, she thought, they most certainly don't.
"If it's any consolation, you're not the first to have made that same mistake."
"I'm afraid I need a bit more than consolation right now." He looked rather crestfallen about the whole situation.
Well, he certainly wouldn't find that inside the administrative building. Quite the opposite, instead. But she kept her opinions to herself.
About the Author
Xina Marie Uhl spends her days laboring in obscurity as a freelance writer for educational projects and dreaming of ways to scrounge up enough cash to: 1. travel the world, and 2. add to her increasing menagerie of dogs, cats, and other creatures. The rest of the time she writes fantasy, romance, historical fiction, and humor. She is the author of fantasy novelNecropolis, a collection of fantasy short stories calledThe Ruling Elite and Other Stories(with Janet Loftis),A Fairy Tail and Out of the Bag, a collection of humorous fantasy stories, and finallyThe Cat’s Guide to Human Behavior, a humorous self-help manual for cats struggling to understand their humans.
You can find her onFacebook,Twitter, andWordPress, where she writes about historical research, writing, and whatever strikes her fancy. Join her occasional newsletter for character artwork, exclusive fiction, and up-to-date news on the release of her fantasy novel, The King’s Champion, and other projects.