As it’s Valentine’s day, I’m going to copy the lovely Kate Ormand’s idea and post a little romantic extract from my book! After you’ve read about her Flo and Jett being cuties, here is Katy and Matthew being cuties too.
If you prefer, you can read it on Wattpad here.
Varna, Bulgaria, 1854
Katy had never felt such relief as the first time she managed to clean herself properly after the voyage from Southampton. It was the evening of their first day back on land, in the camp at Varna in Bulgaria. Their tent was dark and small, with only a single tiny cot, but it afforded
the privacy she needed to unwrap her chest, and it felt like a wonderful luxury. She scrubbed her skin until it was pink and the bowl of water Matthew had collected from the pump was brown and soapy.
When she finally felt clean again, she went outside to where Matthew was waiting. They were sharing the tent, just as they would have been if she really was his manservant. They couldn’t ask for another and, besides, Katy had been sleeping in a hammock next to Matthew and dozens of soldiers for weeks now, so she didn’t think it would be awkward.
“I’ll fetch you a fresh bowl of water,” she said. He nodded wearily. It had been a long journey from the steamer to the encampment, which sprawled outside the city of Varna, along the edge of a huge lake. Once they had arrived, they’d had to collect their tent and erect it. They were both exhausted.
As Katy walked to the pump, she passed the campfire where soldiers were cooking the meagre rations they’d managed to get. Katy felt a pang in her stomach. They hadn’t had any food since arriving and probably wouldn’t until the next day.
When she returned to the tent, Matthew was inside, shaving, having developed a layer of stubble during their voyage. She wouldn’t call it a beard exactly.
“Thank you,” he said, washing off the soap with the clean water she’d brought him.
“You’re welcome.” She sat on the cot and ran a brush through her hair, wincing at the build-up of tangles. She was going to need to get it cut soon. She’d kept it closely clipped ever since some of the other servant boys had teased her for her curls, saying they made her look like a girl. Now her hair was starting to curl up around her ears, and while she was androgynous enough to pass as a boy, it would be just asking for trouble to have long curly hair.
She sniffed at herself. Since she’d washed she had become very aware of the smell of her dirty clothes. “Do you think if I wash my clothes they will be dry by morning? I don’t think I can stand to wear these again. They smell horrendous.”
Matthew shrugged. “If they’re still damp then you can borrow some of mine.”
She looked up in surprise. Although she knew that he’d forgiven her for lying about her gender, this new kindness was unexpected. “Thank you,” she said softly.
He nodded, and returned his attention to shaving with an air of quiet embarrassment.
She tugged at the loose hair on the brush, admiring the mix of strands, her ginger and Matthew’s brown.
“Can I borrow some now? A shirt or something, to wear tonight?”
Matthew focused more than was necessary on washing the soap off his razor. “Yes. Take whatever you need out of my bag.”
Katy swapped her dirty shirt for Matthew’s clean one with relief. Matthew, who was washing his face, carefully kept his back to her. When she’d changed clothes, she sniffed herself again, but all she could smell now was a lingering trace of Matthew’s scent on the clean material.
Katy then tried her best to clean her clothes with just a small bowl of water and cheap soap. By the time she was finished, and the wet clothes were hung outside the tent to dry, it was dark.
Katy took a sheepskin off the cot and laid it on the floor, before making a pillow from a brown linen coat. The dirt floor didn’t look appealing, but she told herself it was better than sleeping outside, or on a ship, and settled down for the night.
“What are you doing?” Matthew asked. Arms crossed, he looked like a man on a mission. He would have been quite intimidating, if it hadn’t been for the way his hair curled around his face as it dried.
“I’m going to sleep?” she said.
“No. Stop it.”
She raised her eyebrows at him. “We’ve had quite a long journey. I think I deserve at least a nap.”
“I’m not going to make you sleep on the ground. Obviously you will take the bed.”
“We could always … share it,” she said. “Aren’t people supposed to huddle together for warmth in hostile conditions?”
He rolled his eyes, but a hint of a blush rose to his cheeks and the tips of his ears. He began violently brushing out his hair, sending water droplets flying. “That’s in the Arctic. I don’t think you’re in danger of getting frostbite here.”
“Oh, I wasn’t talking about me,” she said. “Me, I’ll be fine. I was talking about you. You’re so thin you might freeze completely through.”
“I think I can handle sleeping on the floor.”
“Well, don’t come crying to me if you’re a cold dead corpse tomorrow morning. You’re a delicate flower. I don’t think you can handle the floor.” Then when he didn’t respond, she added more firmly, “Matthew, I’m not making you sleep on the ground. I’ve caused you enough trouble as it is. Besides, I bet that cot is full of bedbugs. The ground is probably cleaner.”
“I’m not giving in, Katy.”
He started a brief staring contest, which was apparently his new method of persuading her to agree to his point of view without the hassle of actually yelling. She always squirmed under his steady gaze, but she was determined not to be the first to look away. However, this time Matthew was even more determined. She rolled her eyes, conceding defeat by overdramatically throwing off the blanket. It actually was quite cold on the floor, though, and she shivered involuntarily.
Matthew punched the air. “I win!”
“We will alternate nights. I’ll have it tonight and you can have it tomorrow. Otherwise we are both going to end up sleeping on the ground, aren’t we?”
“We are going to have the same discussion tomorrow, because I’m never taking the bed from you.”
“I’ll have a whole day to think of arguments,” she warned him.
“So will I.” He smirked.
Katy felt a rush of affection for him. She usually enjoyed their exchanges, and would have replied with something cutting, but today − in their new tent with a completely stationary floor and a proper bed, and not even one snoring soldier in here with them − she just wanted to be nice to him. He had been so forgiving and lovely to her since finding out that she was a girl, and she had never had the chance to return the favour. She’d have to wash his clothes for him and maybe find food for them both first thing tomorrow. It didn’t look like they’d be getting rations from the army any time soon. A sudden impulse overtook her and she stood up and wrapped her arms around him.
“Good night,” she murmured into his ear. He was tense, but he relaxed slowly, finally pulling her tight against him and pressing his face into her hair.
“Night,” he said back, a touch of something like surprise in his voice.
She stepped away, pulling down the shirt which had ridden uncomfortably high on her thighs. Then she climbed quickly into the cot and pulled the blanket over her.
“Matthew, thank you, really,” she said. “You’ve been so good to me.”
The corner of his mouth turned up. “It was a small matter.” He paused, and then added, “As the girl said to the soldier.”
Katy let out a thrilled, too loud laugh, and Matthew settled into the makeshift bed on the floor with an unmistakable air of self-satisfaction.
If you enjoyed this extract, you can buy The Next Together on Amazon UK, Waterstones or The Book Depository internationally, and add it on Goodreads.