The forts of the English coast

I love George Clarke’s Restoration Man television show, and was fascinated by a recent episode that showed here in New Zealand following two separate projects to restore a Martello tower. I’d heard of them, but had no idea of their history, and once I looked it up, I knew I’d found the exact object to fill a plot hole in The Realm of Silence.

Martello towers are small round forts built along the southern and eastern of England, with a few in Ireland and Scotland. They were based on towers built in Corsica to repel the Barbary Pirates. The British navy was very impressed when they were unable to overcome one at a place called Mortello Point, though it fell to a land assault.

The war with France

So in the late 18th and early 19th century, when invasion from France was a real threat, the government embarked on a plan to build the towers, each around 40 feet tall. They were garrisoned by 15 to 24 soldiers and an officer, with food and water, sleeping quarters, and a gun on a swivel to repel sea or land invaders.

They could be accessed only through a door some 16 feet above the ground, accessed by a ladder, and were designed to withstand heavy attack.

140 were built, but the invasion plans receded with the destruction of the French fleet at Trafalgar and had faded by 1812 [edited after JSMF2’s comment, below], and they never had to be put to their intended use.



Plans gone awry on WIP Wednesday

Think ‘what could possibly go wrong’, someone suggested to me years back when I talked about developing a plot. And I’ve always been fond of the saying that when people lay plans, God laughs.

So this week’s work-in-progress Wednesday post is about plans that don’t work out or that get overrun by circumstances or that hit a brick wall. Please post your excerpt in the comments. In mine, my widow’s groom has fallen ill with a cold, just as predicted by the childhood friend who has insisted on travelling with her.

Lyons’ sneezing increased as the horses consumed the miles to Stamford. By the time they pulled into the stable yard at the Crown and Eagle, he was wheezing with each breath, and failing in his attempts to subdue paroxysms of coughing. His flushed face indicated a fever, which was probably lower than if they had not been driving into a chilly wind for the past hour.

Gil handed his horse into the care of a stable boy and came to help her down, stopping when he looked across her at Lyons. The groom leant forward and swayed, paling so alarmingly that Susan clutched at his arm and pulled him back into his seat. “Stay where you are until Lord Rutledge comes around to help you,” she commanded.

Gil was wearing his granite face again. If he hadn’t donned the expression to hide the urge to say ‘I told you so’, her instincts were completely at sea. She gave him credit for being gentleman enough not to crow. “Lyons is wretched, Rutledge. We must get him inside.”

The groom protested, but weakly, letting Gil help him to the ground, then leaning against the much taller man, his eyes shut. Gil wrapped a firm arm around him to keep him upright. “He’s burning with fever, Mrs Cunningham. Come, Lyons. Let’s get you into a bed.”

“I’ll deal with the horses,” Susan offered. “Will you ask the innkeeper to send for a doctor?” Lyons was so sunk in misery he didn’t respond. Gil supported him through another spasm of racking coughs then half carried him into the inn, and Susan turned to give her instructions to the stable hand.

She followed a servant upstairs fifteen minutes later, while another trailed behind carrying Gil’s saddle bags over his shoulder and a valise from the curricle in each hand. Lyons’ bags and her own overnight things. Susan was not fool enough to think they’d be moving on tonight. She was unsurprised when the innkeeper greeted her as Mrs Rockingham, and told her that her husband had reserved a suite upstairs and was even now with the doctor. Rockingham indeed. She could only hope Lyons recovered quickly.

She waited while the leading servant knocked at a door and then opened it to let her into a nicely appointed sitting room. A door on either side led, presumably, to bedrooms. Yes. As she crossed to the warm fire, she caught a glimpse through the open door; the corner of an iron bedstead, part of Gil’s back and one strong leg. She could hear the murmur of voices, but none of the words.

The servants put the bags in the other room. “Will there be anything else, ma’am?”

“Can your cook make a soothing tisane for my groom’s throat? And Mr Rockingham and I would appreciate a pot of tea, please. Perhaps some bread and cheese?” Gil had a prodigious appetite.

They hurried away and Susan sat to await the doctor’s verdict and to fret about her daughter, another day’s hard travel away in Doncaster.


Tea with Lillian and Ed

“Lord and Lady Somerton,” the butler announced. Lillian’s hand clenched on Ed’s arm and he covered it with his own. “As you are,” he murmured, reassuringly, but the look of surprise on the face of the woman—the grand lady—who awaited them had his dear wife shifting nervously.

But in the next moment the lady stood to greet them. “Lord and Lady Somerton. I am so glad you could accept my invitation. I am Eleanor Haverford, and if I might guess by your clothing, I would say you are a little over a century and a half out of your time.”

Ed frowned, looking around at the ornately but tastefully decorated room that showed no signs of the looting by Parliamentary forces and his own flesh and blood that had denuded his own house. “I do not understand. Your Grace.” The invitation had said she was the Duchess of Haverford, and they had come to Haverford House in London, but this mature woman was not the poor child that had recently been wed to the rigid moralist who currently held the title.

“Please, be seated,” the duchess said. “Allow me to pour you some tea.”

Ed escorted Lillian to a seat, keeping a cautious eye on her grace. She did not look insane, but a century and a half? On the other hand, she was dressed very oddly.

“I have no idea how it works,” she said, as she handed him a cup to pass to Lillian, “but every Monday afternoon I am available to visitors from anywhere in space and time. I have had some most interesting conversations. I am correct, am I not, in thinking that you are the Earl and Countess of Somerton from the time of the Interregnum?”

“I am my lord’s housekeeper,” Lillian insisted. “An earl cannot marry a maid.”

“A man can marry the woman he loves,” Ed reminded her. “The rest means nothing in our time, Your Grace.”

“I understand. It was a dreadful time in our history. I wonder if I should tell you… I was surprised when you came, my dears, because I had seen your name on the invitation and was expecting the Lord and Lady Somerton I know. They had their wedding at my estate last Christmastide, and I am pleased to say that Lady Somerton is in expectation of a happy event.”

Lillian’s hand dropped to her abdomen, protectively, and the duchess smiled.

“Descendants of my son Arthur, I suppose.” Ed shrugged. “It is good to know that the earldom survives. Interregnum, you said? So the monarchy returns?”

“In time. And your son will be a favourite of the next king, so the stories say.” She gave a significant look at Lillian’s midriff. “Your son, Lady Somerton.”

Ed and Lillian appear in The Year Without Christmas, a story from the Bluestocking Belles’ 2017 anthology, Never Too Late. They are the parents of Nick Virtue, hero of the book Tyburn, and Lillian is mother of Mark Virtue from Virtue’s Lady. Mark also appears in The Year Without Christmas, as a three-year-old. (Ed: I love Mark.)

Never Too Late has its own page on the Bluestocking Belles website, where you can learn more about each story and find buy links for most eretailers. It is still at the special price of 99c, but only until 15 November.

If you’re an Amazon US purchaser, buy it here.


The Jude Knight Manifesto

The classic bodice ripper cover shows the woman’s ambivalence about the situation she has landed in. Interestingly, some claim that these covers, whose artists were the same comic artists who had been creating superhero magazines, were actually designed to appeal to male booksellers.

At the day job this week, we had a workshop on personal branding, and did a number of exercises to find the authentic self we wanted to project when dealing with clients.

I had no trouble defining my essence: the core values and passions that define me. I’ve spent the past four years thinking about them as I created the brand for Jude Knight. They don’t change between Jude Knight the storyteller and Judy Knighton the plain English business consultant, because they are the real me.

I’m a storyteller with an abiding compassion for people and a deep desire to contribute to the wellbeing of individuals and communities.

This post results from mulling over the workshop and also several blogs and articles I’ve read this week.

Sherry Thomas, in an interview, talked about romance writing in the current political environment. She has received some flak for her views from people who seem to think she is planning to turn her novels into a political rant, but I didn’t take it that way.

To me, it seems inevitable that one’s values and attitudes will influence the themes we write about, the characters we glorify, and what we consider to be happy endings. Yes, and whether wealth and power are shown as corrupting or as virtuous, which is a very strong political statement indeed.

My values are informed by my life experiences and my Catholic faith, and I try to live by them in all I say and do. My books will always reward a passion for justice and community, and ultimately punish greed and selfishness. (Which life doesn’t always do, at least the bit of it we see, so I should, because in the world I create, I can.)

Laurie Penny, in the Unforgiving Minute, has produced one of the best #metoo articles I’ve read (and I’ve read lots). She challenges men to stop making the current post-Weinstein world about them and their desire to get laid.

In a world where men take their view of good sex from Hugh Hefner and women suffer the consequences, I firmly believe that writing bodice rippers is a degenerate act. I’m defining the term as a book set in the past, with a young, virginal heroine and a more powerful (because older, richer, or simply more brutal) hero who forces her to have non-consensual sex until they fall in love and live happily ever after. Rapist-turned-true-hero, and no-doesn’t-mean-no. For a man to write such a book is an act of violence. For a woman to do so is treachery.

My books will reward relationships founded on mutual respect. If that’s not where my couple start out, it is where they will end up. The most rakish of my heroes will need to face the emptiness in their souls where intimacy should be, and so will the heroine I have in mind for a series I’m involved with in 2019.

I strongly believe that the romance genre is feminist, in the sense that it is a genre in which women are subjects, not objects; in which women’s concerns and women’s actions are centre stage;  in which women’s sexual pleasure is based on female, not male experience.

Not all romances are feminist. I’ve dnfed* some shocking pieces of adolescent male fantasy masquerading as romance erotica, and I’ve read many stories with heroes who are controlling despots with heroines who like that in a man.

My stories won’t always have strong heroines. They won’t always have heroes who, at the beginning of the story, honour the identity of their love interest and partner with them. But that’s always going to be my goal: a true abiding love based on mutual understanding and respect.

If I am to be true to myself, I can do no other.

(More on the covers that gave a genre a bad name here and here.)

*dnf = do not finish


Edinburgh underground

This week’s Footnotes on Friday is a cry for help.

I’ve dropped one of my characters into trouble, and I need atmospheric detail and historic fact on the way to getting her out. Are any of you experts in Edinburgh’s underground?

Amy Cunningham, daughter of Susan Cunningham and granddaughter of Lord Henry Redepenning, has been kidnapped and is being held in the cellar of a house somewhere in Edinburgh. She finds that a pile of rubbish hides either a hole or a trapdoor that lets her into Edinburgh’s underground ways, where she has various adventures and experiences before being taken up by an amiable crowd of university students/apprentices/seamstresses or whatever I decide, and escorted to her family townhouse.

But which underground ways?

I’ve narrowed it down to the South Bridge Vaults or Mary King’s Close, both of which were available to me in 1812.

The Vaults are chambers formed in the arches of South Bridge, which was built in 1788. South Bridge was a shopping arcade that bridged a gully, and the 19 arches beneath it contained 120 rooms that quickly filled up with taverns, tradesmen’s workshops, and slum housing. All in the dark, and increasingly illicit and nasty.

Robert Louis Stevenson described the places in his 1878 book Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes:

“…under dark arches and down dark stairs and alleys…the way is so narrow that you can lay a hand on either wall. (There are) skulking jail-birds; unkempt, barefoot children; (an) old man, when I saw him last, wore the coat in which he had played the gentleman three years before; and that was just what gave him so preeminent an air of wretchedness.”

Mary King’s Close is a relict of a much earlier time. In a city enclosed by walls, it’s common for new buildings to be erected on top of old ones, the weight of centuries sinking the past with cellars containing what was once the street or even upper floors of a building. Legend has it that Mary King’s Close, which is under the City Chambers, was sealed up in the 1640’s to prevent still living plague victims from infecting the rest of the city. Another source I found says, more pragmatically, that the City Fathers of the time were worried about losing trade to the New Town so they:

decided to build a grand new Royal Exchange. And they found the perfect spot opposite St Giles Cathedral, with just one small problem – the streets of houses already there. But rather than knocking them down, they took the top floors off and used the lower floors as foundations. Mary King’s Close was covered over and swallowed up into the building’s basement. The sloping ground meant the houses fronting the Royal Mile were destroyed but further down the close whole houses were buried intact. []

People being people, many of the denizens refused to leave, and you could drop into the underground right up until the start of the twentieth century to have a wig made or to buy tobacco.

So which one? And what would it have seemed like to a gently-born if feisty 15-year-old Regency maiden? Can anyone help? Drop me a message on my contact page. I’d love to hear from you.


Antagonists on WIP Wednesday

Our heroes and heroines need antagonists: some outside force that unites them and allows them to work together. These characters may be outright villains, or they may merely be avaricious matchmaking mothers or interfering relatives. Antagonists, this week’s post is for you.

Authors, please share an excerpt (in the comments) showing your antagonist at his or her disagreeable worst. I have two in my excerpt; my nasty rector and his equally unpleasant sister.

From behind the curtain in the parlour, Lalamani saw Philip arrive at the gate just as the Wagley’s gig pulled up. The two who descended, as Lalamani had noticed at church, were male and female counterparts: tall, gaunt, and elderly; spry, but a little bent. They put Lalamani in mind of herons—sharp features and an alert forward-leaning stance.

Lalamani flicked the curtain back into place and hurried into the front hall in time to introduce Philip.

“Allow me to present Philip Daventry, who works for the Earl of Calne.”

Two pair of pale eyes fixed first on Lalamani and then on Philip. Brother and sister both, Lalamani noted, jutted their chins forward and lengthened their necks, increasing the resemblance to herons. Dr Wagley, dressed top to toe in black, relieved only by a white stock, clearly stinted nothing on the cut and quality of his cloth, and Miss Wagley’s grey silk gown was trimmed with, if Lalamani was not mistaken, real French lace. The contrast between their finery and Aunt Hannah’s worn and much-mended widow’s wear could scarcely be greater.

Dr Wagley surveyed Philip from top to toe, and asked, coldly, “And what do you do here, sirrah? The people of this village think highly of Mrs Thorpe, and will not see her put upon.”

“I’m glad to hear it, Dr Wagley,” Philip answered mildly. “I am here to survey the Hall, to decide what repairs are necessary.”

Miss Wagley furrowed her brow. “You are a Daventry? How closely related are you to the earl, Mr Daventry?”

“The late earl was a connection of my father’s,” Philip prevaricated.

“Did you hear that, Jeremiah?” Miss Wagley tugged on her brother’s arm, but Wagley’s harrumph suggested he was not impressed.

The conversation in the parlour limped from one pronouncement by Dr Wagley after another. He frowned upon the evangelical fervour gripping a nearby parish, was suspicious about the proposed Act of Union, despised the call by radicals to widen the vote, and was scathing about the Speenhamland system of poor relief.

Addy’s invitation to the dining room interrupted a homily on the place of women—silent and obedient.

Over dinner, Lalamani made an effort to turn the conversation. “Mr Daventry was formerly in the army. Before you arrived, he was telling us a little about the markets in Egypt.”

Dr Wagley looked dourer than before. “Nothing unsuitable for a lady, I trust.”

“Oh, Jeremiah,” his sister chirped, “Mr Daventry is a gentleman; a relative of Calne, you know.”

Philip, catching Lalamani’s desperate eye-roll, picked up the conversational ball with a story about a carpet he and his friends had bargained for and how language difficulties had almost left them with a camel instead. He made an amusing tale of it, but only Lalamani laughed.

Dr Wagley spoke into the pause. “Another excellent meal, Mrs Thorpe. Mrs Thorpe sets a fine table, Daventry.”

Lalamani did not try to resist the impulse. “My aunt is very grateful for the charity of the people of the parish, Dr Wagley, without which she would undoubtedly starve. Though…”

She felt a blow on her ankle. Philip, who had clearly guessed she was about to mention her uncle’s provision for his sister. She shot him an accusing glance, but pressed her lips tightly together.

“The care of widows,” Dr Wagley opined, “is, of course, enjoined on us in Scripture. ‘But if any provide not for his own, and especially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.’ Charity begins at home.” He nodded seriously and took another mouthful of the donated chicken.

“And,” his sister added, “it is the duty of every Christian to support the men of the cloth.” She poked suspiciously at the chicken. “I would not like to think our parishioners were stinting their duty.”

“Now, now, Euphrania,” Dr Wagley said. “We do not begrudge Mrs Thorpe a chicken or two, especially when she has visitors. Do you make a long stay, Miss Finchurch? It would not do for you to be a charge on your aunt.” He cast her an admonishing stare over the top of his glasses, which had slipped almost to the tip of his nose.

“My plans are not fixed, Dr Wagley.” Lalamani was going to ask how it was his affair, but Philip spoke first, once again preventing her from antagonising the sour old man.

“How nice that you are able to support your brother in his parish work, Miss Wagley.”


Tea with Harry

A nervous young man stands in the Duchess’s anteroom certain he has fallen asleep over his writing moments ago. His lanky form and khaki pants feel out of place among the finely carved furniture, porcelain artifacts, and gilded wallpaper of an earlier age.

He must be dreaming. He is sure of it.

A rather plain young woman in an antique, but rather business-like looking gown appears in the doorway. “Mr. Wheatly, the Duchess will see you now.”

Duchess? All doubts flee. He is most certainly dreaming. Why does it feel so real?

A dainty grey-haired woman beams at him from a settee when he enters. “Henry Wheatly! How delightful.”

“Harry,” he mumbles. “My name is Harry.”

“Of course! I had forgotten. You look very much like your great-grandfather, by the way.”

He runs a hand over his neck, puzzled. My great-grandfather? She must mean Rand Wheatly, the patriarch who first came to Canada. Can she be old enough to have known him?

“I’m sorry,” the duchess says. “You must be wondering why I summoned you here. Please sit and I will explain.”

“I’m wondering how,” he replies sinking into a small but surprisingly comfortable chair and stretching out his long legs.

A quiet moment passes while the duchess pours tea, fascinating Harry with the grace of her movements. He has seen nothing so graceful at university in Ottawa or even in his father’s house in Calgary, rough western town as it was when he grew up. She made a far lovelier sight than anything his army-training depot had to offer.

“I’m afraid I cannot tell you how I summoned you here,” she says at last. “Just know it is for your own good. I am Eleanor Haverford and I am a friend of your three times great aunt, Catherine, the Countess of Chadbourn.

Harry had been only vaguely aware that nobility lurked on his family tree. That startled him almost as much as the realization that this woman could not have possibly have known them, unless— “What year is it?” he demanded.

“1814,” she replied.

Harry choked.

“Don’t drop your tea dear, I know that shocks you.”

He had traveled back a hundred years. “How—that is, why—and who did you say you are?”

“I am Eleanor, the Duchess of Haverford, and I brought you here to warn you.”

He breathed in deeply and waited.

“I know that you have enlisted in the Expeditionary Force and expect to ship out to France any day. You signed up rather impulsively, I must say. That young woman who snagged the mayor’s nephew and dropped you cold was not worth your life, Harry. She would have made you more miserable if she married you than she did when she ran off. Your heart isn’t broken, it is merely bruised.”

Harry glared at her. “The state of my heart is not your concern, Your Grace,” he spat. “Or whoever you are,” he added under his breath.

The duchess chuckled. “Ah but it is your heart that concerns me. You have a good and tender heart, Harry, full of love and beauty. It shows in your poetry.”

Is there anything this woman does not know?

The woman leaned forward. “You are about to enter a great and terrible war. You are a courageous and valiant soul and will acquit yourself with integrity. But oh! Your heart! The darkness will overwhelm you if you let it. Despair kills, Harry. Never doubt it, particularly in a world where one must fight to stay alive every day. Worse, the darkness could kill that beautiful soul of yours and leave you dead inside even if you survive. Don’t let this happen.”

Harry sat back and studied the woman. “What precisely to you suggest I do about it?” he asked, genuinely curious.

“Stay open to beauty when you find it. Stay open to love. Love terrifies, but it is always worth the risk.”

He snorted. Duchess or no, she was a fool. “Was Lauren worth the risk?”

“Goodness no! I told you. She merely bruised you. When you find the real thing open your heart wide. You won’t be sorry.”

He sighed and put his cup down. “Thank you for your advice, Your Grace.” This old woman has no idea what she talks about. We’ll be home by summer—everyone says so—and I’ll go back to university.

“Please send me back where I belong.” Or let me wake up.

“One more thing, Harry. When the war is over, study law if you wish, but don’t let your father bully you. Do it only if you want it, but never forget you are a writer. Writing may make your heart bleed, but it is what you were born to do.”

A moment later Harry stood in a musty tent, standing in front of a camp desk with a pen in his hand. He looked down on the poem he had begun a moment ago. “What just happened?” he asked into the empty tent.

Never Too Late

Eight authors and eight different takes on four dramatic elements selected by our readers—an older heroine, a wise man, a Bible, and a compromising situation that isn’t.

Set in a variety of locations around the world over eight centuries, welcome to the romance of the Bluestocking Belles’ 2017 Holiday and More Anthology.

It’s Never Too Late to find love.

25% of proceeds benefit the Malala Fund.

Never Too Late has its own page on the Bluestocking Belles website, where you can learn more about each story and find buy links. (It’s 99c for one more week only, so buy now.)

If you’re an Amazon US purchaser, buy it here.

An excerpt from Roses in Picardy

Are men in Hell happier for a glimpse of Heaven?”

The piercing eyes gentled. “Perhaps not,” the old man said, “but a store of memories might be medicinal in coming months. Will you come back?”

Will I? He turned around to face forward, and the priest poled the boat out of the shallows, seemingly content to allow him his silence.

“How did you arrange my leave?” Harry asked at last, giving voice to a sudden insight.

“Prayer,” the priest said. Several moments later he, added, “And Col. Sutherland in the logistics office has become a friend. I suggested he had a pressing need for someone who could translate requests from villagers.”

“Don’t meddle, old man. Even if they use me, I’ll end up back in the trenches. Visits to Rosemarie Legrand would be futile in any case. The war is no closer to an end than it was two years ago.”

“Despair can be deadly in a soldier, corporal. You must hold on to hope. We all need hope, but to you, it can be life or death,” the priest said.

Life or death. He thought of the feel of the toddler on his shoulder and the colors of les hortillonnages. Life indeed.

The sound of the pole propelling them forward filled several minutes.

“So will you come back?” the old man asked softly. He didn’t appear discomforted by the long silence that followed.

“If I have a chance to come, I won’t be able to stay away,” Harry murmured, keeping his back to the priest.

“Then I will pray you have a chance,” the old man said softly.

About the Author

Caroline Warfield has been many things, from poet to librarian, from mother to nun. Now retired to the urban wilds of Eastern Pennsylvania, she divides her time between writing and seeking adventures with her grandbuddy and the prince among men she married. Her new series sends the children of the heroes of her earlier books to seek their own happiness in the far-flung corners of the British Empire. She wishes to inform readers of this post that Harry’s great-grandfather, Rand Wheatly is the hero of The Renegade Wife.

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Assumptions in WIP Wednesday

Many plots rely upon characters being wrong about the motives, feelings, and even activities of other characters. If they’re just too dumb or too self-centred to talk, the author is going to really pull out the stops to maintain my interest. But many good reasons might prevent such conversations, and so the circuses begin.

This week, I’m inviting excerpts where one character has completely misread another. My example is actually two: two short pieces from The Mouse Fights Back, my next short story for my newsletter subscribers. First Tiberius.

As always when travelling to Redfern and Mouse, his heart lightened with the miles, and he whiled away the time thinking of places he could take his sweet wife once he no longer feared for her safety, and things they could do together while they waited for that happy day.

Would she be pleased he planned to stay at Redfern until she could travel with him? He found it hard to tell how she felt about him. When they joined at night, he felt he knew her through to the bone, but in the daytime, she would slip away, speaking with shy reserve if their duties brought them together, but otherwise finding other places to be.

At least now that he had destroyed their enemies, he would be free to court his wife.

And now Mouse, whose real name is Claudia.

She feared he would not bother to visit even once a month when he knew he had attained his objective. She was, after all, a means to an end, and however considerate and courteous he was, however passionate at night, she would do well not to forget that he had married her to secure the earldom away from his uncle.

And still she loved him, tumbling a little further every time they were together, but she need not embarrass herself by letting him know.

This is immediately before Tiberius and his entourage are ambushed on the road.


Jude’s Favourite Things

Pronouns and adverbs and adjectives glowing
Phrases and clauses and paragraphs flowing
Words about cabbages; words about kings…
These are a few of my favourite things.

Titles, quotations, and epigrams witty
Narratives gripping and verse patterns pretty
Thoughts that soar upwards on poetic wings…
These are a few of my favourite things.

I’m a writer
I’m a fighter
– though my hip is sore
I simply dive into a manuscript then—
I don’t feel a thing — no more.

Research on poisons and research on horses
Legal procedures for wills and divorces
Ballrooms and phaetons and swordfights and all
These are the things that keep me on the ball.

Girls who are daring and men who adore them
Who’ll wade into danger and sacrifice for them
There isn’t much of me, I’m really quite small…
But when I am writing I’m twenty feet tall.

I’m a writer
I’m a fighter
– though my hip is sore
I simply dive into a manuscript then—
I don’t feel a thing — no more.

(Twenty-five years ago I was in business with a dear friend, doing commercial writing, and we wrote the first half of this one quiet afternoon. I came across it in a clean-out and rewrote the second half this morning.)


Tea with Alice

“Miss Crocker. What a pleasure to see you again. Please do come in. Her Grace is expecting you.”

Alice smiled and stepped over the threshold. “It’s good to see you again as well, Faversham.”

“May I take your wrap, Miss Crocker?”

“Thank you, yes.”

The grandeur of the reception room took her breath away, as it always did, with its marble fireplace, magnificent paintings, and exceedingly fine furnishings. She would have loved to remain and study the room down to the smallest detail, but it seemed unlikely she would ever have the chance. Indeed, she was most fortunate to be permitted to enter through the front door, given her lowly status as a gardener. But then, the Duchess of Haverford had some very unusual—perhaps even revolutionary—ideas about such things. What other high-ranking lady would invite her former gardener to her home for tea? Her grandfather’s long-time employer, Mrs. Manley, was another such one, but most of the ton ladies Alice had encountered tended to ignore the presence of the lower classes.

“Miss Crocker, it’s been too long!”

Alice gave a brief curtsey as she entered the lovely blue drawing room and took the seat across from her hostess, wishing she had something prettier to wear than the plain gray wool gown she saved for Sundays.

“It’s been several years at least, since you hired me to redesign your parterre garden. I hope your gardener is maintaining it properly?”

The duchess nodded. “Indeed he is, and you shall see for yourself before you leave. My garden is the envy of the ton, thanks to you.”

Alice flushed. “Thank you, your grace, but I assure you, the pleasure was mine. Designing gardens is one of my fondest amusements. I seldom have the opportunity to assist in their execution.”

The duchess leaned forward. “I am well aware of it, my dear. In fact, that is why I have invited you here this afternoon. I have a commission for you.” At that point, the housekeeper entered with the tea trolley, so Alice had to wait until Her Grace had poured the tea and invited her to partake of the lemon tarts.

A commission? A landscaping commission? But the duchess can afford to hire the best, even Sir Humphrey Repton. Why would she think of me?

“It’s kind of you to invite me to tea,” she said after taking a calming breath. “The tarts are delicious.”

“I have them sent in from M Fournier’s fine establishment. His wife is a distant relative of mine.” She smiled and indicated the plate of tarts. “Have another if you wish.”

Alice obeyed. The tarts were delicious. Grandfather would love them.

“My housekeeper will wrap some up for your excellent grandfather,” said the duchess, causing Alice to start. She knew Her Grace had a reputation for being able to read people, but could she really read people’s minds?

She took a sip of tea. “You are very kind, your grace.”

The duchess snorted. “I hope you think so after my proposition,” she said. “My reasons are really quite self-indulgent. You see, I would like to engage you to design a garden for my house in Spinney Hill.”

Alice nearly dropped her cup. “Me?”

“Your work with the garden here was exceptional, Miss Crocker. I believe you could be one of the best landscape designers in England, given the chance. And I mean to see you have the chance.”

Alice listened in disbelief as the duchess told her about a house she owned in Spinney Hill that she had established as a home for expectant mothers.

“Mitcham House is an easy carriage ride from London. You will use my carriage, of course.”

“I am truly honored, your grace, but what about my position at Vauxhall? I am engaged there six days a week in the spring and summer.”

The duchess waved her arm. “No worries. You shall have the winter to create and perfect the design, in consultation with me, of course. After the spring thaw, I shall expect you to come every day for a fortnight or so; perhaps we may be able to find you accommodation at Mitcham to avoid the tedious journey.”

A fortnight only?

“Of course, a fortnight is not nearly long enough to complete a project of this magnitude,” continued the duchess, “but you will have my gardeners to carry out much of the labor, as well as those occupants of the house who would like to learn about gardening.” She lifted her chin. “We require them to assist with household tasks while they are there, and if they should learn a few useful skills, so much the better.”

Tears welled up behind Alice’s eyelids. “You are so good!” she said shakily. “It would be my pleasure to be a part of your philanthropic venture, your grace.”

“Much will be required of you, Miss Crocker, but I sense that you are a young lady who enjoys a challenge. You will be expected to give up your free Sundays in order to supervise the work until its completion. In return, I am prepared to pay you two hundred and fifty pounds.”

Alice gasped. She had never held more than ten pounds at one time. “But-But—”

“By the time you are finished, you will have earned every penny of it, Miss Crocker. I can be a hard taskmaster. So… what do you say? Are you up to the challenge?”

Alice swallowed and sat up straight in her chair. “I am, your grace. You shall have no cause to regret giving me this remarkable opportunity.”

“I’m sure I shall not.” The duchess put down her tea cup. “Now that it’s all settled, I should like to show you how the garden you created has matured over the years. It is the envy of the neighborhood, I assure you.”

Alice nodded. She felt like shouting with joy, but somehow managed to contain herself in the presence of the duchess. Was this really happening to her?

Alice Crocker is a character in A Malicious Rumor, from the Bluestocking Belles’ 2017 anthology, Never Too Late. The events here take place in 1813, the year before she meets Peter de Luca and her life takes another unexpected turn.

Never Too Late has its own page on the Bluestocking Belles website, where you can learn more about each story and find preorder links while they are being added. (It’s 99c while in preorder, so buy now.)

If you’re an Amazon US purchaser, buy it here.