Letters on WIP Wednesday

letter writerIn these days of email, instant messaging, Skype, and a myriad of other ways to connect with our loved ones, we find it hard to imagine how much distant separated families and lovers in the past, and how important letters were to keep them connected.

I am working with my friend Mariana Gabrielle on Never Kiss a Toad (being published in parts on Wattpad), where the lovers are separated for years, with letters the only contact they’re permitted, and those vetted by the heroine’s father. But my piece today is not from Toad, but from one of my short stories. I wrote Magnus and the Christmas Angel for a prize as part of my support for Cat Day, and I’m currently rewriting it as a novella, to bring some of the backstory into the foreground.

As always, share your excerpts about keeping in touch: any method, from letters and verbal messages through modern social media and the telephone, to the ansible or whatever other sci-fi device your imagination has given future heroes and heroines.

Mine doesn’t quote a letter. Instead, they’re discussing years of lettersMagnus and the Christmas Angel.

Magnus remembered her letters? From the day he left, she had written to him. A few lines a day, a letter a week, a bundle of letters posted every month. Trivial stories of a country girl on her ordinary daily round. And he had written back, letters from all down the coast of Africa, then up the other side and into Asia, and across the Pacific. Letters full of exotic stories and drawings of strange and wonderful places.

How boring he must have found her dull and commonplace ramblings.

“I kept writing,” she blurted. Letter after letter, at first sent in the hopes the missing ship would finally appear, and later put into the chest where she kept the much read, much cried over letters he had written in return.

“After my ship went down?” Magnus asked, his eyes warm.

Until the evening before her date at the altar to marry Magnus’s cousin. That letter, much smudged where she wept on it, and creased where she crushed it in her hands, lay with the others in her chest at the Abbey.

Callie nodded.

“I should like to read them,” Magnus said.

Callie shook her head, helplessly. Her domestic ramblings, her outpouring of grief after her father died, her increasing desperation as her brother spiralled down into ruin, stripping the estate to spend his wealth and eventually her dowry on horses, gambling, drink, loose women, and ever more extravagant schemes to rescue their fortunes. Abetted and egged on by his dear friend Lewis Colbrooke, who somehow always seemed to be the winner in any game of chance, and to come unscathed out of any risky venture. Until the swine won even the deeds to Blessings, and Callie took refuge with Squire Ambrose and his wife.

Magnus took her shake as refusal. “Not if you do not wish me to,” he said, the warm eagerness in his eyes turning to disappointment.

“I am afraid you will find them dull,” she explained. And far too revealing. She had censored nothing, thinking no-one would ever see them.

“Never dull.” The warmth had returned to Magnus’s eyes, and his voice slowed to the meditative tones, like rich brandied honey, that always sent a shiver through her. “They were home to me, Callie. I read them over and over and again, until they were thin with touching, and they brought me here, to Blessings and to the Abbey; to my own land, and to you. When the ship went down, I had your latest package of letters with me, inside my shirt, and as they hauled me out of the water, all I could think of was that I had a little part of you still with me.”

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Looming disasters on WIP Wednesday

curricle raceIn the last few weeks I’ve written a warehouse explosion, a social nightmare, and a near traffic accident. Disasters are good for stories.

This week, how about sharing with me those moments when all looks grim, and perhaps even the instant when hero or heroine steps in to save the day.

Here is my hero James Winderfield, from The Bluestocking and the Barbarian, and the moment he meets his heroine.

The racing curricles had negotiated the bend without disaster and were now hurtling towards the village. Long habit had James studying the path, looking to make sure the villagers were safely out of the way, and an instant later, he put Seistan at the slope.

It was steep, but nothing to the mountains they had lived in all their lives, he and his horse, and Seistan was as sure-footed as any goat. Straight down by the shortest route they hurtled, for in the path of the thoughtless lackwits and their carriages was a child—a boy, by the trousers—who had just escaped through a gate from the village’s one large house, tripped as he crossed the road, and now lay still.

It would be close. As he cleared one stone fence and then another, he could see the child beginning to sit up, shaking his head. Just winded then, and easier to reach than lying flat, thank all the angels and saints.

Out of sight for a moment as he rounded a cottage, he could hear the carriages drawing closer. Had the child recovered enough to run? No. He was still sitting in the road, mouth open, white-faced, looking as his doom approached. What kind of selfish madmen raced breast to breast, wheel to wheel, into a village?

With hand, body and voice, James set Seistan at the child, and dropped off the saddle, trusting to the horse to sweep past in the right place for James to hoist the child out of harm’s way.

One mighty heave, and they were back in the saddle. James’ shoulders would feel the weight of the boy for days, but Seistan had continued across the road, so close to the racers that James could feel the wind of their passing.

They didn’t stop. Didn’t even slow. In moments, they were gone.

The boy shaking in his arms, James turned Seistan with his knees, and walked the horse back to the gates of the big house. A crowd of women waited for them, but only one came forward as he dismounted.

“How can we ever thank you enough, sir?” She took the child from him, and handed him off to be scolded and hugged and wept over by a bevy of other females.

The woman lingered, and James too. He could hear his father and the others riding towards them, but he couldn’t take his eyes off hers. He was drowning in their chocolate brown. Did she feel it too? The Greeks said that true lovers had one soul, split at birth and placed in two bodies. He had thought it a nice conceit, until now.

“James!” His father’s voice broke him out of his trance. “James, your grandfather expects us in London.” The earl lifted his top hat with courtly grace to the woman, and rode on, certain that James would follow. Not the woman; the lady, as her voice and clothes proclaimed, though James had not noticed until now.

A lady, and by the rules of this Society, one to whom he had not been introduced. He took off his telpek, the large shaggy sheepskin hat.

“My lady, I am Elfingham. May I have the honor of knowing whom I have served this day?”

She seemed as dazed as he, which soothed him a little, and she stuttered slightly as she gave him her name. “L-L-Lady Sophia. Belvoir.” Unmarried then, or she would be known by her husband’s name or title. And a lady. He beamed at her as he remounted. He had a name. He would be able to find her.

“Thank you, sir. Lord Elfingham.”

“My lady,” James told her, “I am yours to command.”

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Shopping on WIP Wednesday

regshopHow about shopping? Do your characters go to the market or buy clothes or go out for an icecream or to the local emporium? Mine do. In my excerpt (from Prudence in Love), David has arranged to meet Prue while she is out shopping. As always, post an excerpt in the comments. I’d love to read it.

David worried that he’d not find Mist in the crowded market, but it was easy. He turned to her like a needle to a lodestone, recognising her by her walk, though she was enveloped in a cloak and hampered by a large basket.

He fell into step beside her. “Here, let me carry that.” She relinquished the basket without comment.

“How long do you have?” David asked.

“Plenty of time if we talk while I run the last of my errands. I sent the maid home with the meat and vegetables. I need to buy spices, sugar, tea, and chocolate.”

High value items, trusted to the housekeeper but not to lesser members of the household. David nodded.

“I don’t have much to report, yet,” he said. “I’ve set people to watch each of the possible victims, and I followed Lord Selby for most of last night. He has an unpleasant taste in pleasures, that man. I’ve met with Aldridge, and heard how his brother became involved. Aldridge has told the boy to stay clear of Lily Diamond until this is all cleared up.”

“Then Lord Jonathan didn’t listen. He took Miss Diamond driving yesterday afternoon, attended her party last night, and then went up to bed with her. He’s there yet, I imagine.”

“The devil he is!” David opened the door to the tea emporium, and the fragrance of the tea enfolded them.

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Servants on WIP Wednesday

servants at keyholeIn Farewell to Kindness, my hero’s servant and dearest friend arranged for his nephew to act as servant to my hero’s cousin, Major Alexander Redepenning, who is wheelchair bound after an injury.

In A Raging Madness, the teenage Jonno is still serving Alex with devoted care. Do you have a servant or employee in your WIP? How about giving us a peek! Here’s mine.

As he expected, Alex could not sleep. Jonno, after being yelled at for fussing, lay wakeful on his palate, fretting until Alex apologised.

“I am a bear, Jonno. But there is nothing to be done about the pain except wait it out, and one of us might as well get some rest. It seems you will be driving tomorrow.”

“I could heat the bricks again, sir, and we could try to draw some of the pain now you are more relaxed, like?”

Alex shook his head. “More heat is the last thing I need, lad.”

“Ice then,” Jonno suggested. “I could see if they have some ice?”

“In October?” But Jonno wouldn’t rest until he had done all he could. “Go on then. But don’t get them out of bed, Jonno. If no-one is awake, come back here.”

Jonno took the candle and left Alex in the dark, with nothing to focus his eyes on as a distraction from the pain. He listened instead. Soft patter on the window pane; the rain had started again. A burst of laughter, muffled by distance; the public room downstairs? The Alex of another time would have been down there, laughing with his friends and flirting with the bar maid. A thump overhead; something dropped?

Somewhere close, a door opened and then closed; Jonno returning? No. No light dispersed the darkness, no cheerful voice presaged another attempt to make Alex comfortable. He could have sworn it was the door to his sitting room, but the sound must have come from further along the hall for it was some time before Jonno arrived back, bearing a basin containing a towel wrapped around a block of ice that, he said, came from the inn’s ice pit.

“Very proud of it they are, sir. Ice all year round, they say. Getting towards the end of it now, of course. But there won’t be much call now, with winter coming on.”

He chatted away as he applied the brick, and Alex half listened to reports on the local harvest, the charms of the bar maids, and the gloomy forecast from the local weather prophet.

 

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Eating on WIP Wednesday

toasting-fork-e1427826270973All my readers must realise I like food; I write so much of it. Breakfasts, picnics, formal dinners, snacks… my characters stop to refuel at regular intervals. Indeed, Lord Jonathan Grenford (Gren), the younger brother of the Marquis of Aldridge and a secondary character in Prudence in Love, spends much of the book consuming vast quantities of sustenance. But he is a young and active man, and they do manage to get through a lot of food!

So this week, I’m inviting excerpts that include food. Post yours in the comments; I’d love to see it. Here’s mine, from A Raging Madness.

Susan sent the nursemaid to let the kitchen know that three of the household’s adults would be taking nursery breakfast. Soon, Alex and Ella were sitting on the hearth rug, each with a toasting fork and an apprentice. Michael, his hands tucked inside Alex’s, sat between Alex’s knees, holding the toast carefully near the flame, and Anna curled next to Ella holding the fork by herself, with gently coaching. “Slightly further back, Anna. No, not quite so far. We want it to brown, but not burn, and we want to avoid smoke.”

Curved protectively over the child, her eyes and voice soft, she took his breath away. What a mother she would have made—could still make. She would be nearly thirty now, and still fertile, he imagined. Not that it mattered. He wanted her whether they could make children together or not. If only he could persuade her to want him.

In all their weeks of talking, she had not spoken of her marriage or of the child she had lost. Or children? Alex had refrained from prying, sure that the memories pained her, but now he wished to know all her secrets.

“Burning, Unca Alex,” Michael warned. Sure enough, while his attention had been on Ella the toast had wavered too near the flame and was well alight on one corner.

“And that, Michael,” Alex explained, “is what happens if you go too near the flame.”

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Progress report and a dilemma

New books

As some of you know, I collected plots for many years before I actually started writing. I have around seven series and more stand alones floating around in my head, and captured in a OneNote database, and the characters are currently having an argument that I hope you might help me resolve.

This weekend, I’m finishing the third round of editing on Prudence in Love. It goes to Mari Christie on Monday, and she will undoubtedly send it back with more work to do, but in effect, it is on paper and out of my brain.

By the end of the month, the same will apply to The Bluestocking and the Barbarian. And, by the end of the month if not sooner, I’ll be at the halfway point in the first draft of A Raging Madness.

Hence my dilemma. Next month, I’ll want to start another first draft, so I have something to turn to when Alex and Ella won’t cooperate. But of what?

At first, I was going to do them all in chronological order. But if you look at the image above, where colours relate to series and italics to books that are either finished or well on the way to being finished, you’ll see that I’ve skipped ahead with Barbarian.

And I’ve added some books that weren’t in the original scheme.

To make things simple, I’ve taken out a heap of books that I probably won’t look at until I’ve finished some of the other series, but which one should I do next?

It was going to be Lord Danwood’s Dilemma, and then the rest of the Wages of Virtue series (Faith, Hope, and Charity are waiting in the wings).

But the book about Prudence and David turned into two books, and I plan to end Prudence in Love with the first chapter of Prudence in Peril, in which Prudence and Jonathan are imprisoned and about to be taken south to sold into slavery.

On the other hand, A Raging Madness introduces the hero of The Realm of Silence, and reintroduces its heroine, as well as the heroine of Unkept Promises. What about them? Should I keep writing the Golden Redepennings?

And at Christmas, the Belles box set will include the first of the Children of the Mountain King series, The Bluestocking and the Barbarian. It repeats the hint I gave at the end of A Baron for Becky. The Marquis of Aldridge is in love with the niece of his father’s enemy, and the lady wants no part of him. Their story is third in the Mountain King series, The Rake and the Reformer. So should I write The Healer and the Hermit next? Then, too, Lord Jonathan Grenford (Gren, Aldridge’s younger brother) makes an appearance in The Bluestocking and the Barbarian, leaving partway through to face either execution or marriage in an East European kingdom.

“What you propose is not safe, my darling boy. The Grand Army is in your way. You could be shot as a spy,” the duchess said. “Why, this friend of yours cannot even give you assurance that the Grand Duchess will not behead you on sight. It is possible that…”

“Mama, all things are possible.” Gren was lit from within, bouncing on the balls of his feet as if his joy were too big to contain. “All things but one. I have tried living without the woman I love, Mama, and that, that is impossible. Anything else, I can do. Wait and see.”

So you tell me. Which book do you think I should start on in May?

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Crisis points on WIP Wednesday

Upstairs, the little maid looks after the children in the nursery. What do the villains plan for them when they have disposed of the women?

Upstairs, the little maid looks after the children in the nursery. What do the villains plan for them when they have disposed of the women?

A few weeks ago, I talked about plotting as the process of asking ‘What could possibly go wrong?’ and then making that happen. This means a story becomes a series of moments where the hero or the heroine (or, perhaps, the villain) is heading for their goal, full steam ahead, when something happens to deflect them.

Of course we, the readers of romantic fiction, know our protagonists will eventually find their way to safe harbour, quite possibly in a far better destination than the one they planned at the start. So we sit back and enjoy the journey. Not so the poor characters who face the cliff-hanger chapter endings, the crises, blocks and turning points, the things that go wrong.

This week, I’d love you to share a crisis or turning point. Mine is from Prudence in Love. Prue and her sister Charity have been packing to leave the house Charity shared with the villainous Earl of Selby now that she has discovered his real character. But Selby and his cronies have arrived before they can escape, and are planning rape and murder. But first, Selby cannot resist showing off to his friends, by demanding that Charity demonstrate for them her competence at fellatio.

She leaned forward, opening her mouth, and slid her eyes sideways to meet Prue’s. It was enough. As Charity grabbed the most vulnerable part of Selby’s anatomy and squeezed, Prue flung herself on the hand in which Annesley held the gun and knocked it upwards. From the stairs, Barnstable gave a yell at the same time as Selby’s anguished scream.

Prue had no time to look at how the other women were faring. Annesley was larger and stronger than her, and close quarters was not how she would win this fight. Still, if she could get the pistol off him, if Charity had enough wits about her to come to Prue’s aid, they might have a chance.

He was forcing the barrel around towards Prue when Charity hit him over the shoulder with an iron pot, and the gun went off with a loud reverberating bang, throwing him backwards.

Prue sprawled where he dropped her, but was gathering her feet beneath her to throw herself back into the fray, when Charity threw herself down between Prue and Annesley. “Prue? Are you hurt?”

The swine had missed, thanks to Charity, but she had not hit him hard enough. He was leveling the pistol again, grinning broadly. On the stairs, Barnstable was dancing in place, complaining. “She bit me! I was going to be nice, little girl, but…”

Selby’s voice was high and strained, as he dragged Charity away from Prue by her hair. “You’ll pay for this, Charrie, you filthy little trollop.”

 

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A Toad is Born

The Duke of Wellbridge

The Duke of Wellbridge

Early in 2015, I was at the same FaceBook party as Mari Christie (who writes romance as Mariana Gabrielle). The author whose book launch it was asked us to show pictures of our virtual outfit for the party, and our virtual escort, and Mari and I both decided to bring a roguish rake from one of our books.

And that’s how it began.

There they both were, my Marquis of Aldridge from a book as yet unwritten, and Mari’s Nick Northope, Duke of Wellbridge, from Royal Regard, the lynch pin book in her Sailing Home series. Unregenerate rascals, they soon made two things clear to their authors. One: these rakes were old friends, with many escapades and scandals in their joint history. Two: we had better take our shenanigans out of our friend’s party before we spoiled it for her.

We were working up to the launch of the Bluestockings Belles, so we moved our characters into a month-long FaceBook party at a fictional coaching inn, along with the characters of our Belle friends and other people who wanted to play. Wellbridge, with his bride the lovely Bella, hosted the party. Aldridge spent most of it drunk. Mari and I discovered that we enjoyed impromptu co-writing.

The Marquis of Aldridge

The Marquis of Aldridge, heir to the Duke of Haverford

When the inn party ended, the Belles founded the Bluestockings Belles Bookshop on Facebook, and ever since we’ve been making up stories on line in real time with readers and anyone else who cares to join in.

What happens when two or more creative people co-tell a story comment by comment on a FaceBook thread is raw—often painfully raw. But since those first wild moments, we’ve learned to let the characters have their heads, and worry about editing later.

We’ve written a number of vignettes and even short stories and scenes for longer books this way. Someone posts an introduction and usually an image, and then the other participants bring their characters in, with the action and the thread growing as each person takes the tale another step along its tortuous journey.

That’s just the start. The next step is to capture the thread and decide point of view. The author of the point of view character rewrites the piece, layering in detail, correcting ambiguities and inconsistencies, and resolving lost plot points. Then the partner writers take a look and make their suggestions, and the first draft is done. The story still needs the usual rounds of editing and proofreading, but from this point on, the process is much the same as for any other book.

Over the last eighteen months, Wellbridge has grown into his ducal magnificence in front of the readers of the Bookshop and its predecessor the inn. Still a rogue in many ways, he is a devoted husband and father. For Aldridge, marriage is still in his future. The inn party gave me the story that was the kernel around which I built A Baron for Becky, but Aldridge did not (in that book) end up with the girl. He won’t find himself a wife until at least 2017 in real world time, and 1815 in his own.

Lady Sarah Grenford

Lady Sarah Grenford, daughter of the Duke of Haverford

But when he does, what will happen? A casual comment about what reformed rakes might be like as fathers led us to decide their approach to daughters might be very different to their approach to sons! And thus was born the idea for a vignette. Or perhaps a short story.

What if Aldridge, now the Duke of Haverford, has a daughter he adores? And what if he and his best friend would dearly love to see their children make a match of it? And what if Wellbridge’s son is a rake after the pattern of his father, and the pride of the two older retrobates’ he… Perhaps the word I am looking for is ‘loins’ rather than ‘hearts’.

We decided to write a scenario about the two fathers finding their offspring in a compromising situation, and we did. We wrote the scenario. Then we wrote what came next. Then we wrote a bit of backstory. We gave our hero a title and a nickname, and wrote a scene set in his infancy when he was a baby, and earned both from the king.

David 'Toad' Northope, Marquess of Abersham and heir to the Duke of Wellbridge

David ‘Toad’ Northope, Marquess of Abersham and heir to the Duke of Wellbridge

It wasn’t long before we decided we had a novella, and a novella in the romance genre means a happy ever after ending. So our heroine needed to grow out of being a spoiled brat who always wanted her own way, and our hero needed to find out that being a rake hurts people (including the girl he loves) as well as that only one woman would do for him.

We couldn’t do that in a novella, as it turned out. Never Kiss a Toad, by Jude Knight and Mariana Gabrielle is a novel, more than three quarters written (though much of it is still in FaceBook thread mode), and currently 110,000 words plus. We have just started publishing it on Wattpad, a thousand or so words at a time.

Long before we’ve completed the book on Wattpad, it’ll be available as a novel at our usual retailers, but probably not until next year. So why not join us on Wattpad, find out the fate of Toad and Sal, and have your say as the story grows?

Find Never Kiss a Toad on Jude Knight’s Wattpad

Find Never Kiss a Toad on Mariana Gabrielle’s Wattpad

(We’ll be taking it in turns to post, so follow us both to get a part per week.)

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Scandal and gossip on WIP Wednesday

VFS109732 Ladies Gossiping at the Opera (oil on canvas) by Barnard, Frederick (1846-1896) (attr. to) oil on canvas 39.3x37.4 Private Collection English, out of copyright

Ladies Gossiping at the Opera (oil on canvas) by Barnard, Frederick (1846-1896) 

One useful trope in the historic romance writer’s arsenal is scandal. In the highly structured societies many of us write about, social censure was a powerful sanction. It could ruin lives—not just the lives of the women gossiped about, and occasionally even the men, but also those of their families.

Have you used scandal, or the threat of scandal, as a plot point? Share a bit with us, if you would, in the comments.

Here’s mine, from A Raging Madness.

When Alex finished, Lord Henry turned to Ella. “You have shown exemplary courage, Lady Melville. Thank you for what you did for Alex. This family owes you more that we can ever repay. What are your plans? You may call on our help for anything you need. ”

Ella blushed. “Alex helped me first, my lord. He saved my life, I believe, and certainly my sanity. But I would be deeply grateful for help. I must work for my living, and I thought perhaps Susan might advise me on how to find an employer? I thought I could nurse, perhaps, or be a companion to someone elderly, as I have been these five years.”

“Oh, but…” Susan began, then fell quiet, her eyes sliding to Alex.

Lord Henry frowned. “There may be a more immediate problem, Ella. May I call you ‘Ella’, as my children do? You saved my son’s life and so I quite feel you are part of the family, my dear.”

Ella nodded her agreement, lost for words. The man was the son of an earl, and a brigadier general, and he wanted to include her in his family?

“I have met your brother-in-law, I am sorry to say. He is here in London, and he called on me to demand that I tell him the whereabouts of my son.”

“Edwin is here?” Ella said at the same time as Alex said, his mouth curving in a predatory grin, “I would be delighted to meet with Braxton, the hell-spawned bastard.”

At Lord Henry’s raised eyebrow, he muttered an apology, which Susan ignored, saying, “Braxton? You are Braxton’s mad sister!” She patted Ella’s hand again. “Not that you are, of course, I do not mean that. I mean Braxton and his wife have been spouting that story all over town. That their sister is not in her right mind, and that she has been abducted by a…” She trailed off. “Oh dear.”

“Yes,” Lord Henry murmured. “That is the problem.”

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Some like it hot, on WIP Wednesday

Some like their romance hot. Some prefer as few flames as possible and skim over the grubby bits. Some like the warmth so mild that it’s hard to believe the couple are more than just good friends.

Whatever your preference, I’d love for you to share an excerpt that convinces me that your hero and heroine are attracted to one another.

Most of my stories stop at the bedroom door, and even if character development or plot requires a sex scene on the page, I tend to focus on what the couple are feeling rather than what they are doing.

This scene that may or may not end up as part of A Raging Madness is about as explicit as it gets. Ella has just given Alex a great idea about what he can do now that he has left the army.

She heard him shift and drop to the floor, and before she was aware of his intent, he was bending over her. Perhaps he meant to kiss her cheek, but she had turned her face towards the sound of his movement, and his lips dropped on her mouth, paused, and then moulded themselves to hers.

She had been right to be afraid. One touch of his lips and she burned for more, shifting to allow him better access, opening her mouth to welcome his invading tongue. No. Not invading; no conquering assault to batter down her defences, but the long-awaited and cherished advance of a caress that set her aflame, so that she moaned and locked her hands behind his head as if she feared his escape, and he stretched above her on the narrow bed and placed his own hands gently either side of her face.

“Ella,” he said, into her open mouth, and crushed his lips to her again before she could speak, though what would she say? Alex? Yes? Stop?

He was aroused. Though he took most of his weight on his elbows and his knees, still she could feel the length of him poking into her belly. If she shifted, even a little, it would rub the place that burned. Only the cotton of her shift and his shirt kept them apart, and all the good reasons for not lifting both garments out of the way had melted in the heat of his kiss.

Thoughts scattered. She pushed herself up against him, her nipples so hard that the cotton hurt, and it was a good hurt, like the burning he both relieved and heightened as he rubbed his male organ against her, setting her squirming and moaning.

Suddenly he shifted, moving down the bed so he could move her shift sideways down one arm, freeing one breast, and seizing on the nipple with his mouth, his teeth, his tongue.

She moaned again, helpless to keep the sound from escaping, as he used one hand to tease the other nipple, and the other to gather the hem of her shift until her woman’s place was uncovered, and his hand was doing delicious things that narrowed her world to him. To Alex, and his hands and mouth and body, and what was happening to hers.

Until Alex tensed suddenly and raised his head, his hands stilling. Ella suppressed a whimper, caught and subdued the involuntary movement to draw him back, surfaced from the sea of sensation, and finally heard what he had heard. Voices, speaking low. Footsteps. The soft clap of a hand on the roof of the cabin—Jonno’s nightly salute, too soft to wake them but an acknowledgement that they heard more evenings than not.

Jonno and the O’Haras were back from the tavern, and the spell was broken.

She dropped her hands from his shoulders, trying to cover her breast and pull down her hem, blushing furiously in the dark. “I am so sorry, Alex,” she said. Though whether she was sorry to stop or sorry that they had ever started, she had no idea.

After a moment, he pulled away, swinging his legs around so that he sat beside her on the bed.

“I am not that kind of woman,” she said, trying to sound convincing to herself when her whole body was screaming to complete what they had begun.

“Right.” He sounded strained. She could hear him sucking a breath in, then letting it slowly out through his teeth.

“I cannot apologise enough…” Ella began, but Alex interrupted, his voice as courteous as ever, though she could hear the edge in it.
“The fault is mine, Ella. I meant only to salute you for the gift of my future, and I forgot myself. I..” He stopped, and took another deep breath. “I cannot bring myself to apologise. For any impression of disrespect, yes, indeed. I beg your pardon with all my heart if I have offended. But for offending you, not for kissing you.” He stood, and moved away from the bed. She could not make out what he was doing, but he had not returned to his own bed.

“It was everything I have dreamed this age,” he said, almost under his breath. This age? He had been dreaming of kissing her this age?

But she had to correct his misconception. “Each other,” she said.

Whatever he was doing—it sounded as if he was putting on his boots—he stopped. “Each other?”

“We kissed each other,” she explained.

The amusement was back when he replied. “We did, and very nicely too.”

“And we cannot do it again,” Ella warned, hoping her regret was not obvious.

“No, I suppose not. I am going to take a short walk, Ella. I won’t go far, but the cold will be… beneficial.”

He had opened the hatch and was leaving before she spoke again, giving him a gift of words in return for hers.

“It was better than I dreamed.”

His only response was a catch in his step before he continued, but a few minutes later she could hear him begin to whistle as he walked the canal path. It took her only a few bars to recognise the tune, and she smiled in the dark, mouthing the lyrics in time to his whistling.

And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup,
And I’ll not look for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise
Doth ask a drink divine;
But might I of Jove’s nectar sup,
I would not change for thine.

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