A Christmas Carroll: A Strangely Beautiful Novella – by Leanna Renee Hieber
Join Headmistress Rebecca Thompson and Vicar Michael Carroll of Leanna Renee Hieber's acclaimed STRANGELY BEAUTIFUL saga as two valiant, stubborn souls face their second chance at love. Set in an eerie, gaslit Victorian London in 1888, with deliberate nods to Dickens' classic Christmas Carol, the spirits of the Strangely Beautiful saga take the Headmistress and the Vicar on a tumultuous ride through past and present to offer a beautiful future, but only if they'll accept forgiveness and redemption. With the dangerous spirit world close at hand, their lives depend on a drastic change. With cameo appearances from Miss Percy Parker and the rest of the Strangely Beautiful stars, this novella can stand alone or serve as a delightful addition to a beloved, bestselling series.
"A Christmas Carroll" is a heartwarming holiday love story that puts a unique twist on the classic Dickens tale… "A Christmas Carroll" takes as its central characters Vicar Michael Carroll (whose name the title plays on) and Headmistress Rebecca Thompson… A couple of friendly ghosts decide to take advantage of the tumult and the cheerful season to help these two characters find the love they deserve."– Julia O’Connell of The Gothic Library
"At the end, when both Rebecca and Michael were given a new understanding, I had tears in my eyes. It felt right, perfect and heartwarming. For anyone who thinks it could be too late to find love, well, this story just made you wrong didn't it?"– Lexie of For the Sake of Reading
"Set in Victorian era England, this story inspired by Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" does not miss center. A group of Demon hunters reeling from loss find the true meaning of love and friendship. I had not read any of Ms. Hieber's work before this one, I now have to read all the works in her "Strangely Beautiful" book series."– Andrea K., Goodreads
December 1888, at the edge of London's reality
Three spirits murmured to each other, standing in the luminous Liminal that separated the waiting Whisper-world from the dazzling, drawing light of the Great Beyond. The Whisper-world was quite the grey purgatory, while the Great Beyond, well…who possesses the words to describe Paradise?
The Liminal is a place where magic is discussed and made, from whence spirits receive duties and inspiration, where dreams are both created and abandoned. Where those who are worthy might become angels. It is a place where time is porous and malleable; it keeps its own clock. Here pasts are recaptured and futures glimpsed; here spirits from every walk of death—those still invested in parties on Earth—discuss their current designs on the living, for better or for worse.
The present trio at the Liminal edge was shrouded in shadow, and they contemplated parties in London, England, under the reign of Queen Victoria. Their clothing, too, represented various decades within Her Highness's extensive reign, long may she live. The spirits stood before a living portrait rendered by exquisite hands: the vast proscenium of an elaborate stage dwarfed their spirit trio. The set scene laid wide before them was a stately school on a moonlit night, dim, eerie, engaging…and awaiting its players.
The eldest of the three spirits stepped forward as if to touch this threshold upon which the past would play, a tall woman, appearing nearly forty and garbed in a plain dress. Her long, waving tresses—in life, they would have been a dark blonde—hung gamesomely down around her shoulders. Though she wore the grey-scale of death, the palette of the Whisper-world, her eyes were kind and her face very much alive.
She addressed the two spirits before her—a fair young woman and a raggedy little boy—in a boisterous Irish accent, as if she were presenting a vaudeville act, a mischievous light in her grey-hazel eyes. "Lady and gentleman, our forces of divine intervention present to you one of several scenes rather recently acted, starring our charges Headmistress Rebecca Thompson and Vicar Michael Carroll, here members of that honourable spectral patrol known as The Guard. Because we all have a history with them, we are charged now to help them."
She took the hands of her fellow spirits, and the Liminal clock set high above the stage frame—a device consisting simply of two vast, floating metal hands above shifting metal barrels of numbers arranged to display a calendar date—began to turn. The scene began to play, memory cast wide as if upon a photography plate, sounds emanating forth quite like magic.
"We must view key past moments, my fellow spirits," the eldest instructed, "and understand the hearts that are at stake. Watch and learn, so we may bring about answers to these issues."
The spirits did…
In the scene, distant music and laughter lured a tall, willowy woman with silver-streaked auburn hair from her book-filled office into the tenebrous hall of the stately, Romanesque fortress that was Athens Academy. She wore a dark woolen dress buttoned primly and proper as befitted her station as headmistress, yet sewn with just enough elegance to keep her from looking entirely the spinster. Up a grand staircase to a shadowy landing she crept, a wide, colonnaded foyer lit only by great swaths of moonlight and several low-trimmed gas lamps. Hanging back out of sight, she took in the antics of her longtime compatriots, this motley family fate had provided in her youth, the spectre-policing Guard.
A foppish blond man stood arm in arm with a gorgeous brunette, both swaying beside a broad-shouldered woman playing a waltz on a fiddle, her face mirrored the grayscale woman at the Liminal… At this, the spirit watching her living past grimaced.
Nearby stood a distinguished figure in clergyman's garb, singing a soft and tender verse in accompaniment to the strings. From the shadows the headmistress stared at him as if she'd never known or paid attention to his voice, and for a fleeting moment she appeared enchanted. But it was the center of the scene that clearly struck her a blow, the black-clad man and his ghost-pale partner who danced slowly through a wide shaft of moonlight.
The waltzing pair was clearly enraptured. Languorous steps, their bodies partaking in the close confidence only marriage could fashion… The girl in the moonlight was nothing short of an angel, graceful and blinding white, radiating love as pure as her skin, eyes and hair were colourless. Her partner stared down at her as if she were salvation incarnate, his otherwise stoic manner entirely transformed.
The headmistress donned pain like a mask. She retreated from the tableau, letting tears come as they would. Keeping to the shadows, she slipped down the stairs and to the corner of the foyer below, looking out over the courtyard. Pressing her forehead to the window, she sighed and did not hear the soft tread behind her.
His voice made her whirl. "I know that certain things do not unfold according to our desires."
It was the clergyman. He stood partly in shadow, his bushy, grey-peppered hair smoothed down from its usual chaos, and his blue eyes danced with an unusually bright light. "I know we cannot always choose who we love. And I know how it hurts to see the one we love look adoringly at someone else. I know; I have been watching you watch Alexi for years."
The headmistress registered his words, gaped, flushed and then returned to staring out the window, as if by turning away she might hide her transparent heart from his unmatched scrutiny.
"I cannot replace him," the clergyman began again, and waited patiently for her to turn. He continued with a bravery that seemed to surprise them both. "And I do not fault you your emotions, though I must admit a certain jealousy as to their bent. I do not expect to change anything with these words. I know I am bold and perhaps a fool, but I can remain silent no longer. Should you desire closer company…" His fortitude wavered and he could not continue the invitation.
He dropped his gaze and said, "I shall now return to a glass of wine. Or two. But as we're too old to play games and deny our hearts, I felt it my duty to speak. At long last. At long, long last." He then offered her his signature, winning smile that could warm the most inhuman heart, bowed slightly and retreated, leaving the headmistress clearly thunderstruck, standing alone once more in the glare of moonlight through the window.
The scene paused in its inexorable march of a now-past event, and the voyeur spirits in the Liminal turned to one another.
"What is to be done of it?" the younger female asked in her London accent, staring at the subject before her with both pity and recognition.
"And what stands between them?" said the little boy, in urchin's clothes, his voice a Scots brogue.
"They stand between themselves. And they stand grieving," the Irishwoman's spirit replied. "They need a good shaking, the both of them. Twenty years of nonsense, which shall end with us.