A Very Heppel Ending

 

The doorbell rang at half-past seven in the evening, the chime echoing through the silent rectory. Charles crept to the front door. “Hello,” he whispered. “Can I help you?”

 

“Um.” A stiff-looking young man in a business suit peered around Charles. “Is the Reverend Eavis in?” 

 

“Reverend Heppel-Eavis?” Charles looked over his shoulder, caught a whiff of sour milk, and quickly faced forward again. “He is, but he can’t speak with anyone at the moment. Can I help you instead?” Joy rose like champagne bubbles, still effervescent at getting to add this. “I’m his husband, Charles Heppel-Eavis.” 

 

One day, telling strangers that he and Hugo were married might get old, he supposed, but a year was far too early. He kept finding ways to inject it into conversations, like now. “We’re married. To each other. As I said, he’s my husband.” There. Four mentions in less than a minute. Very pleasing.

 

A young woman spoke next. “He should be expecting us? We’re Vicky and Alex. Here for some wedding guidance.”

 

“Actually, it’s marriage guidance,” her fiancé said, brandishing a piece of paper. “And it’s definitely him we need to speak to. He asked us to list some reasons why we want to get married.”

 

“He did?” his fiancée asked. “You didn’t tell me that.”

 

“It’s okay, Vick. I sorted it. Here.” He passed his list to Charles who scanned bullet points for what could be a business meeting agenda. Surely Hugo hadn’t asked for this dry-as-dust list of financial benefits and tax breaks? He looked over his shoulder again as if the man himself might have the answer. 

 

No sign of him. 

 

Charles cocked his ear, listening.

 

Silence.

 

Blessed, blessed silence.

 

This time, when Charles turned back to the couple, he did something that came naturally after a long day of wrangling preschoolers. He held a finger to his lips first, then he spoke softly, his voice so low the couple needed to lean close to hear him. 

 

“Hugo would talk this through with you now if he could. I know he’d want to if he wasn’t busy, but if it’s wedding guidance you want—”

 

“Marriage guidance,” the young man repeated. “The wedding details are already sorted. Budgeted, booked, and paid for.” He smiled tightly. “I’ve got spreadsheets.” 

 

“Oh, poor you.” 

 

The young man blinked. “I mean, I’ve thought of everything important.” He checked his watch as if his time was money Charles was wasting. “Actually—”

 

Charles tapped his finger to his lips again, this time waiting until the young man nodded, silent. Then Charles continued, still speaking softly. “I don’t know about spreadsheets, but if it’s marriage guidance you’re looking for, I’m a happy-ending expert.”

 

That was true. 

 

He’d had an awful lot of happy endings over the years, but none matched up to being married to his very own holy hotness.

 

Charles let out a little sigh, remembering their own wedding, his vision misting and his voice coming out a touch thicker. “So, if you can't wait a little while for Hugo to be back with us, I can either rearrange your appointment, or we can go ahead and get started.”

 

“Started?”

 

“Yes. I’m just as much an expert on the practical aspects of a happy marriage as he is. And I promise you, the practical side is much more important than any other.” Charles felt that down to his bones. “I can show you.” 

 

“You can?” The man—Alex, Charles remembered—suddenly looked much younger. Worried. Out of his depth but doing his best to seem like he knew what he was doing. Protective too. It was right there in the way he found his fiancée’s hand without looking, trying to draw her behind him. “The vicar didn’t mention anything practical. Are you certain?”

 

“Positive.” Charles nodded, decisive. “And I’m sure I’m the best person for it, just like I’m certain that Hugo will take over with the Biblical part when he’s back with us.” He checked his watch. “I give it half an hour, tops. What do you think?” He switched his gaze to the young woman, liking how her eyes sparkled. “Vicky?”

 

“Okay,” she said, smiling. “I’m a practical person, so that’s fine by me.”

 

Her partner started to speak, stopping abruptly as both Charles and his fiancée held fingers to their lips. Then he nodded, but couldn’t seem to resist blurting, “I just wanted to know what being an expert on the practical parts of marriage means. What practical parts exactly? You mean conducting the wedding service?”

 

“No,” Charles told him. “I meant the physical aspects of marriage after the big day is over. That’s my skill set. Physical acts are the glue that holds any good marriage together. And that’s what matters, I think. I know a few sticky physical acts that I don’t mind sharing with you. Ones that work every single day for us.” He smiled. “And every night.”

 

“Y-you mean,” Alex stuttered, “You’ll show us physical acts that have worked for you in the bedroom?”

 

“Oh, no,” Charles shook his head. “No, no, no.”

 

“Ah, good.” Alex let out a relieved huff. “Because actually, that would be a bit—”

 

“Of fun?” Vicky asked, and yes, her eyes did sparkle, alight and lively. Lovely. “This is already going so much better than I expected.”

 

Charles tapped his fingers to his lips one more time, smothering a smile. “What I meant was that physical acts shouldn’t ever be limited to bedrooms. I’ll show you how you can do them all over your home to strengthen your marriage. In every room! Come on. I’ll show you. We can start in the hallway.” 

 

He let them in and then demonstrated how to tiptoe as if they were a pair of four-year-olds, not adults in their twenties. They followed him along a toy-strewn hallway, copying as Charles gathered playful debris. “A happy marriage,” Charles whispered, “means thinking about the other person’s wellbeing, even if you’ve just walked in from work, like me this evening. Caring about them, even if that means tidying up a muddle you didn’t make.” He picked up a pair of well-loved lions, slotting them back into their toy ark. “I’ve just worked all day and then sat through a teacher-training lecture. What I’d like to do now is settle down to a lovely, long binge-watch of Love Island. Instead, I’m thinking about Hugo.” 

 

He put the ark away in a toy box, saying a quiet thank you for Alex and Vicky’s contributions. “There. Look. This little physical act made a huge difference.” The hallway floor was clear, glowing in the last of the September sunshine. It was a warm and welcoming entrance now, not to mention a much safer exit if Hugo had to rush out in the middle of the night to a parishioner in a spiritual crisis. “Home should be a safe place where you know you both matter to each other. A two-minute physical act here shows that.”

 

They joined him next where he paused at an open doorway. Bookshelves lined Hugo’s study, with more volumes stacked on a desk that hadn’t been clear since the day they’d moved in. Now Charles picked up a good book from where it had fallen, his thumb rubbing its scorched edges. He set it safely on the desk before joining them again in the hallway. “My most loving physical act in Hugo’s study is to stay on this side of the threshold.”

 

“You don’t go in? Why?” Alex whispered.

 

“Because another key to a happy marriage is never, ever suggesting that your partner has enough books already.”

 

Vicky stifled laughter and muttered, “See? It isn’t only me,” to her fiancé.

 

Charles led them next to the rectory’s kitchen, where he got them to sit as he started to make tea. He set the kettle to boil on the Aga while the last of the lowering sun cast beams through the window. One fell on the supper plate he’d come home to find waiting for him, and had badly needed. This first year of being a student teacher while also working was a lot to manage, especially the evening lectures.

 

He picked up the plate. “This is proof that Hugo also got physical in the kitchen while I was at work, by making my supper. I can show him how much I appreciate that by getting physical right back.” He demonstrated, putting his supper plate into the dishwasher.

 

The young man put his hand up as if he was a student.

 

“Yes, Alex,” Charles said, always happy to reward good behaviour. 

 

“What if it’s full?”

 

“The dishwasher?” Charles blinked. “Then if it’s dirty, you run it, and if it’s clean you empty it.” Like Hugo must have this morning after Charles had left for work in a rush, leaving breakfast chaos still on the table. “And I don’t mean taking everything out only to leave it in piles on the counter.” He managed a pretty good impression of his husband, pitching his voice low and gruff. “You put everything back where it belongs, Charles, as if you’re a fully functioning adult.” Repeating it to this young couple made him chuckle. It also gave him an idea.

 

“Finishing that physical act didn’t matter to me, but it did matter to Hugo, so how about you add a few more bullet points to your list? Physical acts that really matter to you, and that would tug at your glue if they didn’t happen. Because you want to stick together for good, don’t you?”

 

They both nodded, and Charles wasn’t sure he’d ever seen anything as sweet as this stiff young man softening like butter as his fiancée met his gaze across the table. He didn’t have to fake his next gruffness. “Good. So think of two sticky acts each. Things you might not realise are important if you don’t tell each other. Any questions?”

 

Alex had one, his nose wrinkled. “What is that sour smell?” 

 

“Oh, that’s me.” Charles sniffed his shoulder, his nose wrinkling. “Occupational hazard, I’m afraid.” Another bubble of joy rose inside him. “When I’m not giving marriage guidance, or being a student teacher, I’m a—”

 

The kettle started to boil. Charles darted back to the stove before it could shriek its high-pitched whistle. He filled the pot and then put together a tea tray, stopping at another sound. It didn’t come from the kettle this time, but from a monitor, which issued a whimper. “Do help yourselves to tea. I’ll be right back.”

 

Charles hurried upstairs, pausing in the nursery doorway where he heard another whimper, a prelude to crying that, after a rough few settling-in weeks, he now recognised meant someone wasn’t hungry but needed a good long cuddle. 

 

He scooped up the reason, pressing a kiss to a tiny creased forehead and backed out of the room with a baby safe in his arms. Charles cradled him. “You do know you’re allowed to sleep for longer than twenty minutes at a time, don’t you?” He kissed a snub nose. “You’re playing merry hell with my sex life.” 

 

And, Charles had to admit, he’d never been happier. Hard to believe, but true, now he had both his heart and his hands full. 

 

“Maybe at least try not to be sick on my shoulder again? It’s a good thing you’re gorgeous,” he murmured. “For a maggot.” He looked into eyes reflecting his smile, and lost a few long, lovely minutes, swaying to silent music he hadn’t known would be this easy to dance to.

 

Because I’ve got the world’s best dance partner to trade off with.

 

He found him in the next bedroom, Hugo out for the count, a toddler snuggled against him, the bedtime book he must have been reading almost falling from his loose hold. Charles took it to see a very hungry caterpillar growing wings. He hoped these foster siblings would grow their own too, one day. 

 

Charles held the baby boy to his shoulder as he bent to kiss his sister’s blond curls, and Hugo drew in a slow and deep breath, his eyes still closed. 

 

“Just a couple more minutes, Charles,” he mumbled as if that would make up for a few weeks’ sleep deficit. Hugo covering the lion’s share of night feeds and unsettled toddler nightmares was his own physical act, sticking them closer together—superglue that couldn’t be shifted. 

 

Could Charles have juggled his degree coursework with teaching without Hugo picking up the slack here?  

 

“No,” he murmured, kissing his husband, his stubble rough under his lips, his scar a smooth contrast.

 

A couple more minutes?

 

Laughter filtered upstairs from the kitchen, a husband- and wife-to-be learning how to love each other so they’d stick together long-term too, the baby choosing that moment to leave a milky deposit on his shoulder.

 

Charles sighed and then smiled—couldn’t help it when he knew this might not be forever. They might only have sleepless nights and sour-smelling shoulders for a few weeks more, but caring for these children was another physical act that spelt love. It wasn’t wasted each time they handed back their foster placements. It banked, like coals in a fire, ready for when their prayers would be answered long term.

 

More laughter drifted up the stairs. Charles stood, ready to head down to see if he couldn’t help stick Alex and Vicky together a bit more tightly.

 

“You sleep,” he whispered first to his husband. “My maggot and I have got this.”

The Beginning 

Author note: 

I can't quite make myself type the end.

 

Thankfully, I don't have to as there's a whole cohort of new student educators about to arrive at Glynn Harber, and Charles will train alongside them. (The last two bonus scenes from Tor and Hugo featured some of the new faces you can expect to see more of in 2023.)

I also have island-based plans for 2023, so expect a busy year of new books.

Until then, I'm finishing the year with His Last Christmas in London, my first official Christmas title. It's been the sweetest distraction from Glynn Harber, and I hope you love it.

His Last Christmas in London

Con Riley © 2022

This short story is exclusive to newsletter subscribers and may not be reproduced or added to library databases such as Goodreads