Backstory in WIP Wednesday

One of the most challenging skills in the writer’s arsenal involves the backstory. We need readers to know what led to the circumstances of the plot; what made the characters the way they are; what secrets they hide, perhaps even from themselves. But, by definition, the backstory is the events that happened before the story we’re telling. How much do we tell? How much ‘telling’ is going to disturb the flow? How can we weave backstory into our writing so that it illuminates rather than drowns?

So this week’s WIP Wednesday is for excerpts with backstory. I’ll show you mine, and you show me yours in the comments. I have two bits from The Realm of Silence, showing Gil’s and Susan’s relationship from each POV.

First, Gil:

The traffic thinned as they left the town, crossing the bridge into the country. Gil held his horse to the rear of the phaeton, giving silent thanks for the rain in the night that had laid the dust. He had little hope that staying out of Susan’s sight would lessen her ire. Any man would understand that he could not let a female relative of his oldest friends wander the roads of England on her own.

A female would not understand the duty a man had to his friends. And the goddess—her appeal in no way dimmed today by the carriage coat covering her curves—was very much a female. He would not revisit his reasons for insisting on escorting her. He’d spent long enough in the night cross-examining himself. Duty was reason enough, and the rest was irrelevant.

It was true that, for twenty-seven years, since she was a child of ten and he a mere two years older, he’d been prepared to move heaven and earth to be near her. It was also true that his heart lightened as he rode further from his responsibilities in the southwest. Not relevant. He was her brothers’ friend and her cousin’s, and therefore he would keep her from harm and help rescue her daughter.

And then Susan’s, several pages later.

“If you ride with me in the phaeton, we can discuss our strategy.” It would be a tight fit. The phaeton was not designed for three. Still, Lyons could go up behind. But Gil was shaking his head.

“No room. And your man won’t last half an hour on the footman’s perch. He should be retired, goddess.

“Don’t call me that!” He had made her childhood a misery with that nickname. One long summer of it, anyway. She had still worn the ridiculous name her parents had bestowed on her. Not just Athene, though that would have been bad enough. Joan Athene Boaducea. Jab, her brothers called her. But when Gil and two other boys had come home from school with Susan’s cousin Rede, Gil dubbed her ‘the goddess’. It had become Jab the Goddess, and she had been forced to take stern measures to win back the space to be herself.

She glared at him. To be fair, he had not been part of the tormenting; had even tried to stop it. But she could not forget that it was his mocking remark that set it off.

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Spotlight on The Demon Duke

Today’s guest is Margaret Locke, and her new release The Demon Duke.

Behind every good man is a great secret.

Banished to Yorkshire as a boy for faults his father failed to beat out of him, Damon Blackbourne has no use for English society and had vowed never to return to his family’s estate at Thorne Hill, much less London. However, when his father and brother die in a freak carriage accident, it falls on Damon to take up the mantle of the Malford dukedom and to introduce his sisters to London Society–his worst nightmare come to life.

He never planned on Lady Grace Mattersley. The beautiful debutante stirs him body and soul with her deep chocolate eyes and hesitant smiles. Until she stumbles across his dark secret.

Bookish Grace much prefers solitude and reading to social just-about-anything. Her family may be pressuring her to take on the London Season to find herself a husband, but she has other ideas. Such as writing a novel of her own. But she has no idea how to deal with the Duke of Malford.

Will she betray him to the world? Or will she be his saving Grace?

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Meet Margaret Locke

As a teen, Margaret pledged to write romances when she was older. Once an adult, however, she figured she ought to be doing grownup things, not penning stories. Thank goodness turning forty cured her of that silly notion.
Now happily ensconced again in the clutches of her first crush (romance novels!), Margaret is never happier than when sharing her passion for a grand Happy Ever After. Because love matters.
Margaret lives in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley in Virginia with her fantastic husband, two fabulous kids, and three fat cats. You can usually find her in front of some sort of screen (electronic or window); she’s come to terms with the fact she’s not an outdoors person.
You can find here here:

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Excerpt

Rexborough Ball, London Early April, 1814

Grace squeezed nearer to the wall, surveying the crowded room from her cramped corner. Bodies moved around each other as everyone jockeyed for position. It was the first grand ball of the Season, a mad crush at the Marquess of Rexborough’s expansive London estate. There was hardly space to dance, though the orchestra played gaily.

If only she could go home. Her sister Emmeline danced by with Lord Everton, a vivacious smile lighting her face. Even Rebecca’s eyes sparkled with happiness as she carefully executed her steps opposite the handsome Marquess of Emerlin.

Why could Grace not feel the same excitement?

Matilda, standing next to Grace, beamed at her other two daughters, delighting in their successes in snagging eligible men so early in the evening.

“They’re merely dancing, Mother. No need to plan the weddings.”

The dowager duchess sniffed. “At least they’re dancing. You have begged off three invitations so far.”

“Lord Oglesby has two left feet, quite possibly three, if my toes have any say. Lord Featherstone is old enough to be my grandfather. And Lord Emerlin only asked because you wished him to. You know he’s had his sights on Becca for waltzing.”

Her mother aired her face with the elaborate fan in her right hand. “I suppose it wouldn’t be a bad match. Though he is so much her elder.”

“A marquess and the eventual heir to a dukedom. Not such a bad match, indeed. And ten is not so many years. Many a young lady has married a far older gentleman.”

Matilda Mattersley opened her mouth as if to respond when a commotion started amongst the ball goers. They gave a collective gasp as a man entered the room. He was clad entirely in black—black pantaloons, black coat and waistcoat, even an ebony shirt and cravat. Thick black hair tousled wildly over his forehead. Two young ladies next to Grace tittered.

“He is of fine countenance,” one gushed.

“Who is he?” said the other.

A matron broke in, speaking sharply. “Did you not hear him announced? That’s the Duke of Malford.” She made the sign of the cross. “They say he is a devil. They call him the Demon Duke.”

“Really?” the first girl exclaimed.

The older woman slapped the girl’s knuckles with her fan. “Don’t even think about it, Alice. Come, let us seek some lemonade.”

The girl obediently followed the matron, no doubt her mother, through the mass of people.

“The Demon Duke,” Grace murmured.

The man moved farther into the room. His grin was wicked, but his shoulders tight, his eyes . . . sad. Did he notice how people edged away? How whispers raced across the room? How eyes peeped at him while pretending not to do so?

How could he not?

Sympathy flooded through Grace. “He doesn’t look devilish to me,” she said to her mother. “He looks uncomfortable. Like he wishes he were anywhere else but here.” How she could relate.

Matilda sucked a breath. “However he looks is not your concern. The Duke of Malford is not an option.”

“I do not think you have anything to fear, Mother. A man such as that would never be interested in a mouse such as me.”

A smile leaked through the dowager duchess’s pursed lips. “A mouse, indeed. It’s good to see this mouse knows to stay away from a cat. He looks rather feral.”

He is a panther, sleek and black. With the mien of a lion.

“If you’ll pardon me, Mama, I am in need of the retiring room.”

Grace slipped from the room. With everyone’s attention on the Duke, this was a good time to sneak away to the library, as she’d done at Rexborough balls a time or two before.

She pulled a book from the shelf. Ah yes. Aesop’s fables. She settled in near a window, her thoughts on the man in the ballroom.

Hadn’t Aesop said it was the mouse who saved the lion?

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The sleeping giant

In the early morning of 10 June 1886, a 17 kilometre rift opened in the mountains on the far side of this lake, spewing out steam, fire, and finely pulverised rock.

 

It sleeps on the far side of the lake with the same name. Tarawera. The translation is something like the peaks (or cliffs) that burn. And on 10 June 1886, it did, indeed, burn, and more than a dozen villages around the shores of the lake ceased to exist in a cataclysmic six hours.

Until that day, Lake Tarawera had been part of the journey to the famous Pink and White Terraces, silica deposits cascading down the hillsides of Lake Rotomahana in a series of delicately coloured terraces, studded with hot pools.  Tourists came from Europe to see this scenic wonder of the world, making the long trip by ship and then by coach and finally by whale boat or canoe.

In the early hours of the morning of 10 June, the tourist trade died, along with over 150 people.

It began with a series of violent earthquakes that woke people in the village of Te Wairoa, starting point for the Lake Tarawera crossing. When the mountain began erupting around 2am, tourists left the hotels to climb a nearby slope to see the fireworks, retreating as the great clouds of ash, lava and lightening began to rain debris down on their heads.

The view from the road down to Lake Tarawera. The mountain is in the distance. Te Wairoa was tucked behind the ridge to the right.

It was the beginning of a bombardment that would last six hours and leave the village buried in metres of mud and ash. At that, the village got off lightly. Te Wairoa was protected in a valley and sufficiently distant for most residents and visitors to survive. Those closer to the mountain were not so fortunate, their settlements completely destroyed and buried.

The Pink and White Terraces vanished, leaving a 100 metre crater that later filled with water. Ash choked the skies, so that the day was turned to night. Refugees from the disaster began to trail towards Rotorua, meeting rescue parties as they trudged.

The story of that night is told in diaries written by the tourists and European residents of the area, in the oral tales handed down through the local people, and excavated from the material thrown up by the volcano.

My novella for the Belles’ 2017 holiday box set takes place against the background of the eruption. 

 

 

 

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Intervals on WIP Wednesday

Our plots hurtle on, one adventure after another, disaster and excitement at every turn, but even fictional characters occasionally need a pleasant stroll along the straight before the next twist in the tale. A change of pace lets our readers take a breath and allows us to show character and reveal backstory in a quieter setting.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the moment of light relief, the domestic interlude, the interval in the midst of mayhem. As always, I invite you to post yours in the comments.

Mine is from The Realm of Silence. My two schoolgirl runaways have been shopping with their quarry turned kidnapper.

180 miles north, in Newcastle

“No dawdling,” Mam’selle commanded, setting a rapid pace through the busy market. For the first time on their travels, they had stopped for the day in the mid afternoon, and Mam’selle had taken full advantage of several used-clothing vendors, determined to redress her two unwelcome companions.

“Which is further evidence that she is up to no good, Amy,” Pat insisted as they hung back as much as they dared. “She thinks we are being followed and wants to disguise us.” They had been sharing a coach with Mam’selle during the day, and a bedchamber at night, limiting their opportunities for conversation.

“I’m sure you’re right, but I will be pleased to have something other than school uniform to wear.” Amy shot a glance at her friend. Pat made a pretty boy: tall, even lanky in schoolboy pantaloons, and the hair left after she’d sacrificed her heavy mop for the mission had sprung into a thousand curls. “Don’t you want to wear a dress again?”

Mam’selle had reached the inn where she’d taken a bedchamber, and was waiting for them on the step.

Pat was shaking her head. “Not really. You have no idea how much easier it is to walk, and people treat you differently, as if you have half a brain. I may still be a child, but I’m a boy child, or so they think. I am to be encouraged, not stuffed into a box and tamped down, with all the bits that don’t fit to be worried at till they drop off.”

They had caught up with Mam’selle. “Come.” She led the way up the stairs from the main hall and along the labyrinth of halls and passages to the little room they’d been assigned. She spoke to a maid they passed on the way, and not long after they’d spread their purchases out on the shared bed that took up most of the room, hot water arrived.

Mam’selle clapped her hands. “First, we shall turn Master Pat into Miss Patrice again, n’est ce pas?”

Mam’selle had an eye, no doubt about it. The lilac figured-cotton dress was of a grown-up length, with only the tips of Pat’s sensible boots showing. With her lanky calves hidden, she suddenly looked willowy rather than coltish, the ribbon under her breasts hinting at a womanly shape that the straight lines of the school uniform had obscured. Mam’selle took to the butchered hair with scissors and several lengths of ribbon whose colour matched the flowers on the dress, and in a few moments the curls framed Pat’s face.

Amy loved Pat, but had always rather pitied her for her long face, square jaw, and decided nose. Suddenly, with the new hair style, all of these features fell into new proportions, and Pat looked almost pretty.

“There.” Mam’selle’s satisfied smile grew broader at Pat’s reaction when she looked at herself in the music teacher’s small hand mirror, then stood and twisted to try to take in her new finery.

“You look lovely, Pat,” Amy told her, looking forward to her own turn in Mam’selle’s magical hands.

The dress Mam’selle had chosen for her to wear today was a light green with narrow cream stripes. “It is a little long, Miss Amelia,” Mam’selle acknowledged, “but we three shall repair that fault, and meanwhile pins shall do for this evening, oui?” She deftly plaited and twisted Amy’s hair, pinning it high on her head and pinning it with some of Mam’selle’s own pins.

“So pretty,” Pat declared, and from what she could see in the mirror, Amy had to agree. “Thank you, Mam’selle.”

Mam’selle waved her away. “Now be seated, if you will, while I repair my own toilette. I have commanded a private parlour for le diner“.

“We could await you downstairs, Mam’selle,” Amy suggested, unsurprised when Mam’selle refused with uplifted brows and a sardonic curl of the lips. Amy and Pat had sought help York, insisting that they were being kidnapped by a French spy, but the officer they had approached had laughed, and taken them back to Mam’selle, sympathising with her for the imaginations of her charges.

Before long, Mam’selle had also changed. At Doncaster on the night of their journey, she had abandoned the severe, plain, dark dresses that Mrs Fellowes mandated for her teachers. In a light floral print with her hair caught up into a simple knot of cascading curls rather than a tight bun under a white cap, she looked not much older than Amy and Pat, and certainly nothing at all like a teacher.

 

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News update

I’ve finished the raw drafts of my two novellas for Holiday anthologies, and sent them to other authors in the project for a beta read.

I’ve finished, but not yet sent back, my proofreading comments on the wonderful Blind Tribute, an historical novel set during the US civil war.

I’ve applied for an ISBN for A Suitable Husband, and will get it up onto Smashwords for the wider distribution they offer.

I’m back into writing The Realm of Silence,  next in The Golden Redepennings Series.

I have beta reading to do, a newsletter story to finish, and a print book to finish formatting and send to a prizewinner, but my writing life is calming down somewhat.

Just as well, since the rest of my universe is descending into chaos. Sigh.

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Starting on WIP Wednesday

Where is the beginning? Lewis Carroll had his king advise “Begin at the beginning, and go on till you get to the end, then stop.” As a storyteller, Carroll knew what hard advice that is to follow, for a story, a chapter, or even a letter.

Where to begin? I’ve heard advice to start anywhere, and find the beginning later. I’ve even started, I thought, way too early and written my way to the beginning. But for the most part, I can’t really get going on a story till the start feels right. 

Show me the start of your story or one of your chapters. I’m showing you the beginning of a story I’m writing for my newsletter subscribers. It’ll go out with the newsletter in July.

Dickon watched his wife clambering around the rigging, torn between demanding that she descend to the safety of the deck, and continuing to enjoy the sight from the shadows of the accessway.

It weighted the scales that, if she knew he was aboard, he’d lose the advantage of surprise and possible also his wife.  He needed to keep his identity secret until they were far enough from land that she couldn’t run again.

If he was to save his marriage—and, after talking to the enquiry agent, he half thought it might be desirable—he must first talk to his runaway bride.

She swung with confidence from rope to rope, her form masked but not obscured by the shapeless canvas trousers and smock she wore. Surely no one on the ship thought the Captain’s second mate was a man? 

She’d put on weight in the six months since he last saw her, and lost the haunted, harried look that had set his teeth on edge. Until he learned the reason for it on the night he tried to bed her, five days into their marriage. The night before she ran away.

 

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Tea with Rede

Another excerpt post. Rede has been kicking his heels at Haverford Castle while waiting for his aunt to arrive home.  The book is Farewell to Kindness, and blurb and buy links  are at the link from the book title. The first two chapters are on my excerpts page.

The sun was setting on Saturday evening, and Rede was beside himself with frustration, before the Duchess of Haverford’s coach was finally seen tooling up the road to the castle. 

He was waiting when she entered the front door, and she greeted him with pleasure. “Rede, darling. What a lovely surprise. Have you been waiting for me long?  

“Such a circus in Deal. The electors were inclined to listen to the merchants, and the merchants did not favour Haverford’s man. Not at all.  

“So I had to visit every shop in the town and buy something. The carriage, I can assure you, is laden. But Haverford believes that it may have done the trick.  

“Just as well, dear, for I have enough Christmas presents for every one of my godchildren for the next three years. And some of them are not of the best quality, I can assure you.” 

She was talking as she ascended the stairs, giving her cloak to a maid as she passed, her bonnet to a footman, and her reticule to another maid. 

“You want something, I expect. Well, you shall tell me all about it at dinner. I left most of the food I purchased at the orphanage in Margate, but I kept a pineapple for dessert. Such fun, my dear, have you tried one?” 

“No, dear aunt,” he managed to say, sliding his comment in as she paused to give her gloves to yet another maid. Or it may have been the first maid again. 

“Well, today you shall. Join me in the dining room in—shall we say one hour?” And she sailed away towards her apartments, leaving him, as always, feeling as if he had been assaulted by a friendly and affectionate hurricane. 

Over dinner, he laid all honestly before her. Well, perhaps not all. The lovely widow, betrayed by George, the three sisters, the little daughter. No need to mention that he’d played fast and loose himself with the lady’s virtue. Just that he needed to rehabilitate her. Just that he wanted to marry her and she had refused. 

“She has refused you, Rede?” Her Grace was surprised. “But you are handsome, wealthy and charming. And rich. What does she object to?” 

Rede hadn’t been able to work it out, either. “I know she cares for me, Aunt Eleanor. But she keeps saying no. The first time—to be honest, the first time I made a disaster of it. I told her… I gave her the impression that I only wanted her for a wife because she was too virtuous to be my mistress.” 

Her Grace gave a peal of laughter. “Oh Rede, you didn’t.” 

“I’m afraid I did. But the second time I assured her I wanted her for my Countess.” 

“And you told her you loved her,” the Duchess stated. 

“No. Not exactly. I told her I wanted to keep her safe. I told her I wanted to protect her.” 

“I see. And I suppose you think if you bring her into society, she will consent to marry you?” 

“I don’t know, aunt. I only know that she deserves a better life than stuck in a worker’s cottage in the back of nowhere working as a teacher so she can one day give her sister a decent life. If she won’t have me… Well, she has been to see a lawyer about a small inheritance she has coming. I thought perhaps I could make it a bit bigger. Without her knowing.” 

“You do love her,” said the Duchess, with great satisfaction. 

“Yes, but… Yes.” There were no buts. He loved her. At least he hadn’t told her so. He had no taste for laying his heart on the floor for her to walk on. 

“You need to tell her so.” The Duchess echoed and denied his thinking, all in one short sentence. “She is probably afraid you are marrying her out of a misplaced sense of duty. You are far too responsible, Rede.” 

“No, she couldn’t think that. Could she?” 

“Who knows? Well, I will do it. I cannot have my niece-in-law having her babies in scandal. I take it there is the possibility of a baby? You would not be feeling so guilty otherwise.” 

Rede was without a response for a long moment, finally huffing a laugh. “Aunt Eleanor, a hundred years ago you would have burnt as a witch,” he told her. 

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Love between the classes

This month, most of the Bluestocking Belles are publishing the novellas that were part of our 2016 box set, Holly and Hopeful Hearts.  My contributions to the set were A Suitable Husband. and The Bluestocking and the Barbarian. I’m not releasing Barbarian yet. I want to expand it into a novel. But I have A Suitable Husband up on prerelease and it will be published on 30 September.

As the Duchess of Haverford’s companion, Cedrica Grenford is not treated as a poor relation and is encouraged to mingle with Her Grace’s guests. Perhaps among the gentlemen gathered for the duchess’s house party, she will find a suitable husband?

Marcel Fournier has only one ambition: to save enough from his fees serving as chef in the houses of the ton to become the proprietor of his own fine restaurant. An affair with the duchess’s dependent would be dangerous. Anything else is impossible. Isn’t it?

So far, I just have it up on Amazon, but I’ll add other links over the next week or so. Read on for an excerpt.

✶´`´*★ ☆EXCERPT – A SUITABLE HUSBAND☆ ★.¸¸,.✶ 

“He does not look at me and see a woman. No one does.”

 Lady Sophia spoke decisively. “You are blue-devilled, my dear. Who knows whether any of us will meet a man who can see past our elderly exteriors to the treasures we all are? If we do not, you and I shall be old maids together.”

“Yes,” Lady de Courtenay agreed. “Perhaps we should set up house together. Certainly Sophia and I have no more wish to live forever on the sufferance of our brothers than you do on the Haverfords’. Who needs men, after all? Selfish, conceited creatures, always jumping to conclusions.”

This time, Mademoiselle Grenford’s laugh was more genuine.

Lady Sophia said, “Rest for an hour. Read a book. I will order a pot of tea and some cakes, and Grace and I shall deal with anything that arises.” Her voice was coming closer.

 Swiftly, before she could open the door and find him listening, Marcel retreated down the hall and around the corner, all the way back downstairs, thinking furiously.

 First, he must order a tray set with the most delicate of cups, the finest tea, and some of the little cakes from the test batch he had made that morning, in preparation for the real challenge of Christmas Day’s dinner. Each was a work of art with its own sugar flower, and it had not escaped his notice that his mademoiselle liked them.

Then, while his assistants made the tray, he must make peace. This war must end. If that meant giving Madame Pearce her way on the tower, then so be it. He could not be part of causing pain to his mademoiselle.

His! How foolish he was. He was a chef. She was an aristo, of a family with a duke, despite her humble words. Yet un chien regarde bien un évêque. A dog can take a good look at a bishop. The English proverb was similar. A cat may look at a king. What would Mademoiselle Grenford think if she knew Marcel saw her as a woman, as she put it?

Perhaps bread to go with the cakes? Bread sliced thinly and buttered by his own hand and topped by some of Madame’s conserve. A peace offering from them both.

Determined, he gave his orders to his kitchen and braved the kitchen of Madame Pearce. An odd quest, but would not a knight dare anything, brave any danger, undergo any humiliation, for the lady he must adore from afar?

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Bullies, blaggards and other nasties

Some books have real villains, with evil in their hearts and mayhem in their wake. In others, the trials our protagonists face come from circumstance, or perhaps from careless, overbearing, or self-centred relatives. I’m inviting you to put an excerpt in the comments when we see your hero or heroine having a bit of a hard time at someone else’s hands. An ex-mistress? An employee? A relative? Over to you.

This week, I’m sharing an excerpt from Forged in Fire, my 2017 Bluestocking Belles holiday box set novella. My Mrs Bletherow is not a villain, precisely. But she is certainly no sweetheart.

Mrs Bletherow was castigating her poor companion again, oblivious to her audience.

Every group was different, and most groups had someone who was troublesome. Tad Berry could cheerfully handle the drunkards, the would-be Casanovas, the know-it-alls. But he hated bullies. His muscles burned with the effort it took to keep from rescuing the Bletherow hag’s drab shadow. Not his place. She was a free adult woman, and if she chose to stay with an employer who treated her so poorly, it was nothing to do with him.

His partner nudged him. “She don’t run out of steam, that one, eh?”

“Miss Thompson should tell her to go soak her head, Atame. Old crow.”

Tad and Atame had met them in Auckland two days ago, eight tourists seeking to view what Rotorua billed as the eighth wonder of the world. Tomorrow, they’d make their way to Te Wairoa, and the day after the locals would convey them to the Pink and White Terraces, dimpled with hot pools and cascading down their respective hillsides to a peaceful lake.

All through the boat trip to Tauranga and the coach journey to this Rotorua guest house, Mrs Bletherow had found fault with everything Miss Thompson did or failed to do. She had brought her employer the wrong book, failed to block out the sun, been too slow in the queue for food, put too much milk in Mrs Bletherow’s tea. Tad wouldn’t have blamed Miss Thompson for adding arsenic.

The withered wiry maid was as sour as her mistress, and attracted none of the old harridan’s contempt. She stood now at Mrs Bletherow’s elbow, nodding along with the woman’s complaints. “You knew we would be dining properly this evening. You deliberately packed the green gown in the large trunk. You must go and find it this instant, do you hear me?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Miss Thompson said.

“See that you are quick. Parrish shall attend me in my room, and I want my gown by the time I am washed.” Mrs Bletherow sailed up the stairs, Parrish scurrying along in her wake.

Tad unfolded himself from the wall as Miss Thompson approached, her rather fine hazel eyes downcast. She began apologising while she was still several paces away. “I am very sorry for the inconvenience, Mr Berry, but I need to ask you to offload another of Mrs Bletherow’s trunks.”

“Of course, Miss Thompson. If you tell me which one, I shall bring it up to her room.”

She looked up at that, her brows drawing slightly together. “I am not sure, Mr Berry. I know which one it should be in, but Parrish finished the packing. May I come with you?”

He nodded, though the stables were no place for a lady. And Miss Thompson was a lady, and of better birth than the Bletherow, unless he missed his guess. Which, come to think of it, might be part of the reason for her ill-treatment. Not that a bully needed a reason, beyond opportunity and a suitable victim.

They needed to unload half the luggage before uncovering the trunk Miss Thompson wanted, and then it proved to be the wrong one.

Tad brushed off Miss Thompson’s apologies. “No matter. We shall just try the others.” But the gown was not in the smaller trunk, any of the leather bags, or even the hat boxes. They had offloaded all Mrs Bletherow’s baggage and even the single trunk holding her own spare wardrobe and a second belonging to Parish, and Miss Thompson had unlocked and hunted through them all.

“If this is everything, Miss Thompson,” Tad said at last, “I fear the garment has been left behind at a previous stop.”

“Do you, Mr Berry?” Tad’s hands on the straps he was rebuckling stilled at the bitter undertones in the lady’s voice, and he looked up. They were working by lamplight, but he could see well enough. Blazing eyes, thinned lips, skin drained of colour but for two hectic spots of colour high on her cheeks. Miss Thompson was quietly furious. “Perhaps you are right. I apologise for putting you to all this trouble.”

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Tea with Sally

Today’s post is an excerpt from Never Kiss a Toad, a novel I’m writing with Mariana Gabrielle. Mari and I are posting it one chapter at a time on Wattpad, and this scene comes eleven chapters in.

Never Kiss a Toad on my Wattpad profile

Never Kiss a Toad on Mari’s Wattpad profile (we’re taking it in turn to post chapters, and she has the latest.

SPOILER ALERT: This book is set thirty years after my other books that include the Duchess of Haverford. You’ll note that Her Grace has remarried, and the the Marquis of Aldridge is now Duke of Haverford, married, and the father of a debutante daughter. If you’ve read my other books, feel free to guess their respective spouses.

Sally waited for a letter, but no letter arrived. Were the mothers right? She could not forget that David had said himself that he did not wish to marry. No. Not David. Toad. He has left, and he does not love me as I love him. I will never call him David again. Toad.

Sally was out of patience with her own tears, but did not seem to be able to control them.

Then, at last, the Duchess of Winshire came, chased everyone out of the room, and folded Sally in her silken embrace.

“Tell Grandmama about it, Sarah.” Her soothing voice opened the floodgates.

“He has gone, Grandmama. Toad has gone.” The last word was a wail.

“To school in Paris, my dear. Is that such a cause for grief? He has been away to school before, and will return.”

Sally pulled back to see the duchess’s face. Did she not know? “Papa says he will not be allowed near me again. So does Uncle Wellbridge.”

“Indeed?”

Grandmama coaxed the whole story from Sally, more even than Mama or Papa knew. Sally blushed to admit she had hoped to bind Toad to her, but somehow she told her grandmother nearly everything. Not exactly what Toad had done. Not that. But everything else.

The telling seemed to exhaust the tears. At the end, she waited patiently for Grandmama’s verdict, her heart calm for the first time since that night.

“Hmm,” Grandmama said. “It is not to be denied, dear Sally, that you have been very foolish. Young Abersham, too. As have all in this sorry situation, even your Mama and Aunt Bella; my son and Wellbridge perhaps most of all. Now, what to do?”

“Will you help us, Grandmama? Will you help us to marry?”

Grandmama patted her hand. “One day, my dear, when you and Abersham have both matured a bit, if you still want it. Not yet. You both have some growing up to do. But one day.”

Sally shook her head. “But I told you. Papa says he will choose a husband for me. I would rather die, Grandmama.”

Grandmama gave her a hug. “Do not worry, child. I will talk to Haverford about this ridiculous notion of marrying you against your will. And you barely out of the schoolroom. No. There shall be no forced marriage. Now. Wash your face, my dear, while I go and talk to your mother.”

Several years ago, Papa had installed a heating system, such as those used in factories where cold fingers might lead to mistakes that damaged the work. A series of brick stoves in the basement heated air that passed up through ducts into the rooms above. Sally had quickly realised that the duct feeding hot air into her sitting room ran past her mother’s private parlour on the floor below. If she lay on the floor next to the opening with the damper fully open, she could hear all that was said.

“I hope Mother Winshire can talk some sense into the child.” That was Aunt Bella.

“Heaven knows she will not listen to me or Anthony.” Mama, heaving a sigh.

“Ah. Bella. I am glad to find you with Cherry.” Grandmama had arrived. “I can say this once, and to both of you.” Last time Sally had heard that tone, she and Toad had just broken a vase in the drawing room at Wind’s Gate, after stealing Uncle Sutton’s fencing foils for a practice match while they thought the adults otherwise occupied.

“I am deeply disappointed in you both. My granddaughter is upstairs fading away because she misses her dear friend, and that sweet boy of yours is in Paris, undoubtedly throwing himself into every dissipation the city can offer because he misses her.”

Sally’s brow creased as she thought about that. She had been trying not to think of what Toad might be doing with other women. Because he missed her? That reason had not occurred to her.

The senior duchess continued. “I blame the two of you very much for allowing things to come to this pass. No, Bella, you will have your opportunity to speak, but you shall not interrupt. That the two fathers behaved like idiots goes without saying. Men can be fools when they are upset. But really, Cherry? Bella? Split them entirely? Refuse them any contact or any hope? Do you want them to imagine themselves star-crossed lovers, united against a cruel world? For undoubtedly, that is what you have achieved.”

Sally, her ear against the vent, could not easily nod, but Grandmama was right. She and Toad were alone and without allies. She heaved a sigh. It was so very sad.

“And as for this threat from my son to choose a husband for Sally, it is intolerable. You should have put a stop to it, Cherry, and since you have not, I will. To hand Sally off to another man when her heart is fixed on Abersham? Ridiculous.”

Cherry’s voice was more uncertain than Sally had heard it. “I have told Anthony so, Mother. He is concerned that Sally will behave with another man as she did—”

“I trust you told him he should be ashamed of himself. Thinking such things of his own daughter. She loves Abersham, of course, or she would never have invited such liberties as he would take.”

“He should not have taken any liberties,” Aunt Bella insisted. “I am ashamed of him.”

“He loves her. Loves her enough, I gather, to leave her a maid. Would you tell me Wellbridge took no liberties with you, Bella? Or Haverford with you, Cherry?”

“They are barely more than children, Eleanor,” Aunt Bella protested. “It is not the same thing.”

“I was fifteen when I fell in love with Winshire,” Grandmama said, her voice going soft with memory, “and seventeen—just Sally’s age—when my father and his conspired to exile him overseas and marry me to Haverford’s father.” Her tone sharpened. “I shall not see my granddaughter suffer as I did.”

“Should we have let them marry, then, as they demanded?” Mama protested. “Mother, they are not—

“No, no. I agree they are not ready to wed. Either of them. But to leave them without hope? That is not acceptable, my dears. Let them lead their separate lives for a while: Abersham at his studies, Sally in Society making her debut. Let them learn a little, grow a little. And if they are still of the same mind in a few years? If their feelings have not changed? Well. It is the match you always wanted, you cannot deny it.”

A few years. Sally would have fought that two weeks ago, but now it felt like a gift.

“Where is my son? I have a scold for him, too.”

“He is in his study with Wellbridge,” Mama said.

“Excellent. Come, ladies, we shall present a united front, bring these stubborn men into line, and then discuss what is best to be done.”

The room below fell silent as its occupants left, and Sally sat up from her uncomfortable position by the wainscoting. Hope. She could feel it taking root, spreading peace. She would not change, she was certain. She could not be so sure of Toad. David.

But if she were just allowed the right to refuse her suitors, there was hope.

 

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