Today is Charity Sunday. One Sunday per month, I dedicate my blog to some worthy cause. I share a bit about the organization with you, then pledge to donate a certain amount for each comment that I receive. Over the past year, I’ve been grateful to have other authors join me in the activity, so that Charity Sunday has become a blog hop.
Your comments on today’s post will support SOLA, the School of Leadership Afghanistan. SOLA is a private boarding school for Afghani girls. I’ve devoted at least one other Charity Sunday to SOLA, but with the Taliban’s reclaiming control of the country, the school has become even more essential, and their situation more desperate. In fact, all the young women studying at SOLA are now in exile. How painful to have to choose between one’s home and an education!
If you have the time, please read this recent editorial from the Washington Post by Shabana Basij-Rasikh, SOLA’s founder. She makes a strong case that women’s education is not only a human right, it’s also an effective way to counter the cruelty and violence associated with religious extremism.
For each comment you leave on this post, I will donate two dollars to SOLA. Even if you don’t feel like commenting, though, I hope you’ll help keep the women of Afghanistan visible in the eyes of the world. These women are brave, but if we forget them, they’re all to easy to erase.
Meanwhile, as usual on Charity Sunday, I also have an excerpt to entertain you, and thank you for your visit. This is a fun and feminist snippet from my steampunk erotica novel The Pornographer’s Apprentice. Gillian is certainly a poster child for women’s education!
They paused at the second of at least four landings. Gillian could not discern just how far the stairs spiralled upward. Turning right, they traversed a carpeted hall to a door at the end. Ian gave a soft knock.
The door swung open to reveal a bright, airy room outfitted as an office. A carved mahogany desk occupied the centre of the room. The middle-aged woman seated behind it rose to her feet as Gillian and Ian stepped into her domain. “I believe you’re needed in the lab, Mr. Burns,” she said, dismissing him with a nod. He scampered away, pulling the door shut behind him.
Silk skirts rustling, Mrs. Featherstone stalked across the Oriental rug until she and Gillian were face to face. Gillian forced herself to meet the older woman’s gaze. In those hazel eyes she read suspicion, curiosity, and if she was not mistaken, a hint of lust. Gillian perhaps imagined the last emotion, influenced by the fact that Mrs. Featherstone strongly resembled the dark-haired aggressor in the Sapphic painting she’d admired earlier. Whether the licentious intent was real or not, the elegant creature’s stare kindled a rush of arousal that left Gillian aching and breathless.
In silence, each woman tried to read the other. Self-discipline and impatience warred in Gillian’s heart. The latter finally triumphed.
She held out her hand. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Featherstone. I’m Gillian Smith. As I believe you already know, I’d like to join your organisation.”
The other woman nodded, without smiling. “Straight to the point, aren’t you?” She gestured toward to one of the brocade-upholstered chairs arrayed in front of the desk. “Please be seated, Miss Smith. I’m Amelia Featherstone, Governing Director of the Toymakers Guild.”
Gillian welcomed the chance to sit. The heat of the woman’s gaze had left her feeling a bit weak. “Thank you, ma’am.” It occurred to her to wonder whether there was a Mr. Featherstone, and if so, how he coped.
Mrs. Featherstone had an interesting rather than beautiful face, with sharply defined cheekbones, a rather square jaw and an aristocratic nose. Her gleaming, near-black hair was woven into an elaborate chignon at the back of her neck, threaded with tiny pearls that matched the ones dangling from her earlobes. Though it showed no more skin than was acceptable even beyond the gates of Randerley, the cut of her dress was daring, drawing attention to her ample curves.
Rather than returning to her seat behind the desk, Mrs. Featherstone claimed a chair opposite Gillian’s. “Now then. Tell me your story. How did you find out about the Guild? And why do you want to become one of us?”
Gillian took a deep breath and tried to calm her racing heart. “I was born in Blackpool,” she began, “the only child of two engineers, Barnaby Smith and Alicia Dorn. Between them, they patented over a hundred inventions.”
“The names sound familiar. Weren’t they responsible for the virtual book reader?”
Gillian nodded. “Also the piezoelectric pocket watch and the personal gramophone.”
“Oh, my! Your family must have been quite wealthy.”
“Alas, my parents’ brilliance did not extend to managing money.” Gillian sighed. “The local schools proving to be an insufficient challenge, I was educated at home. Needless to say, I have a strong grounding in science and mathematics, though my parents did not neglect the humanities. I had intended to apply to university but during my sixteenth year, my parents lost their lives testing their solar-powered airship.”
“I believe I read about the accident in The Times. On their way to the South Seas, as I recall.” The Governing Director licked her ripe lips and leaned forward. Her green tartan bodice pulled tight over her generous bust. The lace collar exposed her pale, smooth throat.
Gillian swallowed hard, trying to collect her thoughts. She needed to impress this woman with her knowledge and intelligence. Perhaps Mrs. Featherstone was trying to seduce her. Perhaps this notion was but a product of Gillian’s salacious imagination. Either way, she needed to keep her wits about her until her position in the Guild was secured.
“By the time my parents’ creditors had all been paid, I found I was close to penniless. My only option was a position in the household of my father’s brother, a medical doctor, and his second wife. As tutor to their children, I received a small salary as well as access to my uncle’s extensive library and his laboratory. A few months after I arrived, however, my uncle passed away. My aunt by marriage was not at all fond of me. As soon as I reached the age of majority, I left.”
This was of course not the complete history, but there was little to be gained by explaining the messy business with Lyle. Aunt Martha’s son by her first husband, Lyle had hounded Gillian from the first day she arrived. On her nineteenth birthday, motivated by curiosity, ill-advised sympathy and her own clamorous desires, she’d accepted his advances, only to find she’d squandered her virginity on an ignorant and insensitive boor. In his fury at being rejected, he’d accused her of theft and unnatural sexual practices. Of course, the latter charge was in some sense true, if you considered anything other than heterosexual activity to be deviant.
Mrs. Featherstone shook her head. “What an unfortunate tale. Still, you haven’t explained how you discovered the Guild, or why you think yourself suited to the work we do.”
Gillian extracted the catalogue from her holdall. “I found this among Uncle George’s books.”
The Director leafed through the provocative pages, a smile playing on her lips. “Hmm… Yes, the winter 1886 edition was rather spectacular… But an innocent young woman like you must have found our merchandise quite shocking.”
“Not at all. You should not make assumptions about my innocence, Mrs. Featherstone.”
“You may call me Amelia, if you wish.” The woman flashed a smile that struck Gillian as distinctly predatory. “At least when we are in private.”
Gillian sat up straight and boldly met the older woman’s gaze. “I’ve made good use of the volumes in my uncle’s library, both the technical tomes and the more —artistic titles. My theoretical grounding in carnal matters is as strong as my engineering background.”
“In carnal matters, theory alone will rarely suffice.”
“I do have some practical experience as well.” Hot blood rushed to Gillian’s cheeks, though her voice remained steady. “I’m no virgin—Amelia.”
“Oh?” The brunette’s slender fingers toyed with the lace framing her throat, before fluttering like butterflies over her concealed breasts. “I am pleased to hear that. In that case, why don’t you remove your bodice?”
There it was. Gillian had not been imagining the Director’s concupiscent interest. All at once, she understood that to be accepted into the Guild, she’d have to be brazen. She was determined to meet that challenge.
Please visit the other authors joining today's event, and see what charities they are supporting!