Tea with Toad

In this excerpt from Never Kiss a Toad, Eleanor Haverford has travelled to Paris shortly after her granddaughter has been compromised and her honorary great-nephew, Toad, has been sent away in disgrace.

Never Kiss a Toad is a Victorian novel I’m co-writing with Mariana Garbrielle and publishing one episode a week on Wattpad.

Toad felt the heat rising in his cheeks. At eighty, Aunt Eleanor had an old woman’s tendency to truth-telling, which made her one of his favourites among Sally’s relations, but could be deuced uncomfortable.

“It is always good to see you, of course, Aunt Eleanor, but I am confused. How long have you been in Paris? Have we an appointment I have forgotten?”

“My, my, Abersham. Demanding an appointment of a duchess four times your age? Winshire and I realized we had similar problems to be addressed in France and popped over for a few days.” Eleanor took a sip of her tea. “As for my problem, I am dissatisfied with the information I have gathered about the liberties you took with my granddaughter.”

He stared at her with his mouth flapping, unsure what to say. “Haverford told you?” He flushed and stood to pace before the fire, running his hand through his hair in a gesture he shared with his father. “You? I cannot believe he would…” He stopped and stared at her in horror. “It hasn’t become generally known, has it? She’s not been ruined?”

“No, it has not, praise heaven. Most of my information comes from Sally herself. Haverford told me only what I could glean from monosyllables; Wellbridge still less, but at volume. Cherry and Bella were somewhat more forthcoming, but they naturally do not wish to make themselves or their husbands appear culpable, and they may well be. So, yours is the last viewpoint I must consider.”

Toad looked around and took his pacing to the fire, where he added a shovel of coal.

“How do you fare here in Paris, my boy? Are you well and happy?”

Toad opened his mouth to answer, then closed it, then opened it again, but still did not speak. He finally said, “I am well, Aunt Eleanor. You?”

She sighed. “A little tired, dear.” She patted his hand to reassure him. “Sally made her debut last week, and I find I do not recover from late nights as quickly as I once did.” At Sally’s name, his hand jerked as if burned, and she withdrew hers, watching him closely.

He stiffened and looked away. “I am sure it was… lovely.”

“It was and she was, which is what you most and least wish to hear, I expect.” He ran a hand through his hair as she said, in an annoyingly blithe tone, “I have launched debutantes before, of course, but few as fetching. These modern fashions suit her very well. In white, of course, which is a very hard colour to wear well, but Sally has the hair and complexion for it. She wore the Haverford pearl-and diamond parure, of course, and her gloves, fan, and shawl were all silver. She was a fairy princess, Abersham, all moonbeams and stardust.”

He smiled and swallowed hard, caught up in envisioning his beloved in a wedding gown. “I love to see her in white.”

Aunt Eleanor snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Abersham. Abersham! Are you addled, boy? I said… I wish to hear from you.”

“What do you wish me to say?”

Her exasperated look was tinged with affection. “Silly boy. The truth, of course, as you see it, about your unfortunate plans for the ravishment and elopement of my granddaughter.”

She had timed it to the sip of his brandy. She must have, so skilfully did she make him choke. Once finished coughing, he started, “I am surprised she spoke of it. Is she…”

He was so close to the information he sought that his heart beat faster. “Can you tell me; is she well? Does she think of me fondly, or have I hurt her irreparably? I cannot tell a thing from the letters she writes under Haverford’s eye.”

“She is certainly better than she was when I arrived back in London, but still not back to her old self. Of course, she is proud; she will put on a good show.”

Before Toad could respond, a knock at the door revealed Blakeley. “My lord, as you requested earlier, dinner will be ready in three-quarters of an hour, if it pleases you.”

He looked over at Aunt Eleanor with one cocked brow. “Will you stay for dinner?”

“Thank you, Abersham. I am not dressed to dine, but if you will not regard it, nor will I.”

Once Blakeley had gone and shut the door behind him, Aunt Eleanor began again. “I would have your side of the story, dear lad, before I am too old to comprehend it.”

He laughed a bit harshly. “I set out to make Sally my wife and was thwarted and exiled. What more is there to say?”

She finished her tea, put her cup back on the saucer, then examined him carefully. “That was why you met her, was it? You compromised her to force a marriage?”

He flushed and turned his eyes away. “No! I did not mean to compromise her. Nor to marry… not yet, anyway… not from the first… but… soon after.”

Eleanor held out both hands to Toad and when he took them, said, “Collect yourself, Abersham.”

He took a breath and pulled his hands back. “She sent a note and said she needed my help. I thought she was planning a prank, or escaping her governess for an afternoon, and of course, I would help her with anything of the sort she asked.”

Her lips twitched. “Of course you would. And instead of coaxing you into a lark, she was curious about kissing.”

He gave a short nod, turning away from her incisive stare.

“And you agreed… Why?”

He stammered and rose to pace again. “She is… I had never thought she would… I mean…” He finally stopped and looked her in the eye. “She is everything to me, Your Grace, and has been since we were ten—before that, probably—and I hadn’t any idea she felt the same. I always thought she looked at me as… a friend… a brother. I thought we would marry. Our parents have talked of nothing else for years. But I wouldn’t think of seducing her. I just assumed she would… I assumed the love of a man and wife would grow from friendship… after we wed. After I could… show her my devotion without causing her dishonour.” He blushed and stammered the next words. “I agreed to kiss her because I could not resist the chance to kiss the woman I have loved since childhood.”

“Hmm.” The duchess looked at him thoughtfully. “If that is so, it seems odd you have always bedded any willing woman who came near enough.” She held up a hand to his incipient objection. “No, I believe you believe you love her. You told her you did not know how to love a wife, Abersham. How has that changed?”

What had changed between declaring himself a free man and declaring himself to Sally, was not a question he had stopped to ask.

“I had not thought myself ready to love a wife, no. But I cannot lose her, Aunt Eleanor.” He worked to keep the pleading out of his voice, but not successfully. “And I do love her. If she is my wife, I will love her the same way I do now, as I always have, but we will be allowed to… er… we will no longer live apart.

“That you can please a wife in bed, I have no doubt, given Wellbridge and Haverford. Can you be a good husband in every other sphere of your lives? What say you to the rumours you have not slept alone, or with the same girl twice, since you came to Paris?”

His hand shook as he poured. “I say they are much overblown.”

She lifted a dainty eyebrow. “Untrue? Or exaggerated?”

He downed the rest of his brandy in one gulp. After not having had a drink in several days, out of necessity as he studied for examinations, and now far too many in quick succession, it went to his head rather faster than he was accustomed to.

“Most likely both, as gossip always is. I will be faithful to Sal, if that is your concern. I have no interest in any other women if I have her. I cannot…” he blushed to the roots of his hair. “I have no interest. Must we speak of such things? You are practically my grandmother. It is not natural to discuss… marital relations with you.”

He took a gulp of his brandy, not waiting for it to warm.

To follow the adventures of our star-crossed lovers, see my page on Wattpad or Mari’s.

https://www.wattpad.com/user/marianagabrielle

https://www.wattpad.com/user/JudeKnight

 

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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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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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