Tea with Lalamani and Philip

Haverford House was built to impress, every room at more than human scale, every surface glittering with evidence of wealth and power. As Lalamani and Philip followed the butler up staircases and down halls, the ducal ancestors frowned down from painted and sculpted portraits, and even the occasional landscape appeared to disapprove of the intruder who had infiltrated these august surroundings.

Lalamani clung tighter to Philip’s arm, and resisted the urge to inform a particularly contemptuous portrait of some duke’s favourite horse that she had been invited.

At long last, the butler opened a door to a comfortable sitting room, still built on the grand scale but somehow transformed by the placement and choice of furnishings into a welcoming place that was a fit setting for the lady who awaited them.

“Lord and Lady Calne, Your Grace,” the butler announced.

Lalamani had been presented to the Duchess of Haverford once, at one of her balls — the same ball at which Lalamani had met the Earl of Calne. Three minutes in a receiving line, with a long queue of people waiting behind, but in those few moments, Her Grace had given Lalamani her complete attention and made the rank outsider, the merchant’s daughter, feel welcome.

And now the duchess’s smile of welcome was repairing the wounds to Lalamani’s self-respect inflicted by the house. “My dears, do come and take a seat. How did you find the walk through this dreadful house? Such a long way, and so much clutter. Tea, Lady Calne?”

She spooned leaves from a small tea chest into a waiting tea pot and handed it to the hovering maid to be filled from an urn.

“Thank you.” Lalamani settled herself on a small sofa, sweeping her skirts to one side so that Philip could sit comfortingly close. Though he had grown in this world no more than she, still he was born to it and had spent more time there, besides.

The duchess beamed. “I was delighted when my friend, Lord Henry Redepenning, mentioned that you and your husband first met at one of my balls, Lady Calne. Lord Henry will tell you that I like nothing better than a love match, and if I did not have a hand in this one, I am at least pleased to have provided the venue for its inception.”

“It is a love match,” Philip assured her, gravely, and she smiled.

“Yes, and it annoys you, I think, that Society is calling you a fortune hunter and your lady a social climber. It would annoy me, too, even were it true. And I can see for myself, now that I see you together, that the two of you are deeply in love, as Lord Henry assured me.”

The great lady’s frankness steadied Lalamani. It seemed the duchess had a mind to support them. What could she do, though? Lalamani repeated the wisdom of her Aunt Hannah. “Nothing can be done about gossip and scandal, except to live it down.”

Her Grace laughed. “I would not say ‘nothing’, my dear. Milk and sugar?” She added a little of both to the cup the maid handed her, then gestured for it to be brought to Lalamani.

“I am not without resources to replace one set of stories with another, Lady Calne. I invited you here to discuss what gossip about your courtship you would find most pleasing. The discovery of the hidden Calne treasure? The rescue of a beleaguered widow? A true romance that seemed fated to be unfulfilled, because of the poverty of the hero and the class of the heroine? You shall decide, and I shall make sure that Society takes you into their hearts.”

Lord Calne’s Christmas Ruby is a Christmas novella, released last month. Follow the link for blurb and buy links.

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Spotlight on Lord Calne’s Christmas Ruby

EXCERPT AND BOOK RELEASE

My new Christmas novella, Lord Calne’s Christmas Ruby, is here, and already has reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

But you wanted an excerpt, didn’t you?

Here you go, then. This is from their ‘meet cute’.

She met his smile with a quizzical tip of the head, and he ignored the five ladies standing over her. “Our dance is in a few minutes, Miss Finchurch, so I came to find you. Would you care to take a short stroll while we wait?”

Would she take the rescue, he wondered, glancing from her to the others? Three were strangers. One, he vaguely recognised. But the remaining woman… He nodded a polite but cold acknowledgement to Lady Markhurst, who had pretended to accept his courtship when he was last in Society four years ago, after recovering from the injuries that ended his army career and brought him home to England.

Lady Markhurst had soon made it clear his only attraction was his unwed cousins, one an earl and one the heir to an earl. Philip wasn’t close to either, and had not seen her since she discovered that fact. He assumed her pursuit was unsuccessful; certainly, she had wed before the end of that season, to a lowly and rather elderly baron who proved to be not as wealthy as rumour had painted.

Clearly, Philip’s attractiveness had increased with his accession to the title, since Lady Markhurst fluttered her fan and her eyelashes, and fingered the diamond drop dangling from her ornate necklace into the valley between her breasts.

“Why, Lord Calne. Surely you cannot intend to dance with a merchant’s daughter. Your inheritance cannot be in such a dire state as that. Let me save you from such a fate by offering myself as a partner instead.” The throaty note in her last sentence made it a naughty innuendo.

He ignored Lady Markhurst and her outstretched hand, offering Miss Finchurch his bad arm, which functioned well enough as a prop for a lady. Lady Markhurst’s face flushed and then whitened. She had not learned to control her temper, then.

Miss Finchurch made up her mind, set her book to one side, and stood to slip her hand into his elbow, and he turned to the door. Lady Markhurst launched another attack before they reached it.

“Do be warned, Miss Finchurch. The Calne title comes with a bankrupt estate and a crippled earl.”

Miss Finchurch gripped his arm, making him wince, and she sensed it, too, the fires she was about to turn on Lady Markhurst doused by her concern for him. He took another step towards the door.

“Ignore Lady Markhurst, Miss Finchurch. I would say her disappointment in her ambitions has made her bitter, but she was always a scold.”

His mother would have punished such rudeness, but he was well compensated by the gasps from behind him as he whisked Miss Finchurch into the hall and pulled the door closed. She was tiny; perhaps no more than five feet tall, the top of her head barely on a level with his shoulder, and he shortened his steps when he realised she was near running to keep up with him. She was, however, by no means quelled. “You and Lady Markhurst are old friends, it seems, Lord Calne.”

“Not since I discovered her heart was made of the same substance as the stones in her necklace.”

Miss Finchurch laughed, an amused gurgle. “Paste, you mean? Very appropriate! Cold, hard and false.”
“Paste? Really?”

“I am the daughter and niece of diamond merchants, Lord Calne. I would need to examine the smaller stones more closely, but the drop is decidedly not a diamond. Perhaps it is ill bred of me to disclose the lady’s secrets, so I shall compound the error by making it clear I am not looking for a husband, and if I were, I would not accept a fortune hunter under any circumstances.”

A game of truths, was it? “Nor am I looking for a wife, Miss Finchurch. Especially one prepared to take a destitute cripple for the sake of his useless title. But a dance might be safe enough? I have managed several tonight and am as yet unwed.”

That earned him the gurgle again, and they took the positions for a long dance, Philip apologising in advance for being unable to grasp with his withered left hand.

Miss Finchurch assured him she would grasp well enough for them both. “What happened, Lord Calne? Or were you born with it? Or should I not ask?”

How refreshing to meet someone who said outright what everyone else speculated about in whispers behind his back. Philip answered as simply. “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. We were crossing a newly repaired bridge in Sicily. But the French had set dynamite, and it blew up, with half the baggage train. I lost the use of one hand.”

His writing hand, but he could manage well enough with his right, after years of tutors who had punished the use of the other. “Many lost more.” His brother-in-law for one, which directly led to the deaths of his sister and her baby. She had gone into labour shortly after the news reached her in Malta, and when the child was born dead, she had turned her face to the wall and died. Or so Philip had been told when he recovered from the fever, by which time he was in England, in his uncle’s care.

“You were in the army?”

“With the Engineers.” And in charge of the repair of the bridge. He should have detected the sabotage. The deaths—all the deaths, not just those of his family—were his fault.

Their turn came in the figures of the dance, giving him time to bludgeon his mind into accepting that the room was not caving in on him; that the glittering crowd were not about to turn on him to demand his immediate conviction for dereliction of duty.

Either something in his face caused Miss Finchurch to take pity on him, or she was bored with the subject, because when they stood out next, she reopened the conversation by asking whether he enjoyed this kind of entertainment in a voice so doubtful he laughed.

“No more than you, I suspect, Miss Finchurch, though more so since fate handed me a partner who does not send me to sleep with talk of fashion and gossip. Tell me, what is a diamond assessor doing in a Haverford House entertainment? You came with Lady Carngrove, those vixens said?”

“My aunt.” The mournful tone suggested this was not a circumstance for congratulation. “I live with her. At the moment.”

If you like Christmas novellas set in the Regency, with a wee bit of a mystery and a sweet old aunt, go check out my book page for blurb and buy links.

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