Penitence on WIP Wednesday

I had two choices today, since Wednesday this week is both St Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. I’ve gone with penitence, saying sorry, or failing to do so when it was called for.

Do you have that in one of your stories? Share an excerpt. Doesn’t have to be a main character, either, although mine is. In both of my current works-in-progress, my main characters put their foot in things. Here’s my hero Bear realising that he has messed up. Don’t worry, Bear. You’ll do worse before the story is over.

As Bear drove away from the cottage later that day, he was berating himself for being every kind of idiot.

Today, he had failed Rosa not once, but several times. First, he should have realised she had nothing fit to wear to church. He’d see the much-mended and faded gowns she wore every day, and knew she’d had little to no income for years. He’d had not time to repair the matter, since it wasn’t until she paled and stiffened at the church gate that he’d even thought about what she was wearing.

What courage she had. Head up, back straight, she’d marched into church beside him as proud as a duchess in silken splendour, and if her hand trembled on his arm not a soul but him would ever know.

Second, he had not thought about the reaction of the villagers when they heard the banns. Not until the rector started speaking and the whole church went silent. Then came the buzz of whispers, and Lady Hesquith standing. They brushed through it, thanks to the squire’s intervention and the rector’s support, but Bear could have bypassed the risk by simply not taking her to Matins today.

She’d impressed him again after the service, accepting good wishes with a smile and word of thanks, and ignoring those who glowered from the distance.

Third, he’d mentioned her relationship with the squire’s family, and followed up by telling her the full story. Of course she went straight to her father when they arrived at Rose Cottage, and demanded to know whether it was true.

At first, he had been bewildered by the question, then he took one of his erratic dives into the past, and began berating Rosa, calling her Belle.

“All you thought of was yourself, Belle. You knew better than to sneak off with a gentleman, and no true gentleman would have asked it of you. Especially since Pelman was all but betrothed to your cousin. And look where your selfishness led. You disgraced and abandoned. Your uncle sick from the horror of it all, and your cousin so bitter against you that she has had Rosie thrown out of her home. The best thing you can do for any of us is go back to London and leave us alone.”

And after that, he would only say, “Go away,” until Rosa gave up.

His outbreak seemed to confirm the rector’s story, but raised more questions. How did Pelman get into the story? Not the current Pelman, clearly, since he would have been a small child or not even born at the time of the scandal. And which sister gave birth to the baby?

“Ancient history,” Rosa said, her eyes damp but her lips smiling.

Not ancient as long as it had power to affect Rosa. Bear was two weeks away from vowing to love and cherish her all his life, and he was doing a poor job of it so far.

He could fix the wardrobe; had already invited her to take a day trip to Liverpool with him on the first fine day, so they could buy what she needed without the villagers commenting. He couldn’t help but wonder about Lord Hurley’s will. Did the old man truly make no provision for his librarian and the librarian’s daughter? By all accounts, Mr Neatham had been given a pension when he retired, and Rosa had been Lord Hurley’s pet, whatever the propriety of the relationship. It needed further investigation.

As for Rosa and her cousins, he had no idea how to fix it. Rosa’s naive belief that families did feud across generations brought a grim smile. She’d never met his mother.

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Danger on WIP Wednesday

Nothing like a nice fictional piece of disaster to get our heart racing. The heroine or the hero has to survive to the end of the book, which is comforting to know, but meanwhile we authors can put them through all kinds of trials.

This week, I’m looking for excerpts about danger — physical, emotional, moral, societal: you decide. Mine is physical, and is from the subsriber-only newsletter short story I’m writing at the moment, with the plan of getting a newsletter out this week.

One more race, and Rhi would be free. No horse in all of England could catch Atlanta. By the terms of her agreement with her father, she had merely to win next week, and he would sign the new will and rip up the old one.

Her resentment rose, all the more fierce because she understood that Father acted out of love. He wanted to see her married to protect her, he said. She was too young, too inexperienced, too female to own and run the finest racehorse stud in Great Britain. And Father was dying, fading a little more with each day, which she resented more than all the rest.

Atlanta tossed her head and whickered, sensitive to Rhi’s mood. She took a deep breath, and another, letting the anger drain from her with the air she exhaled, emptying herself of everything but the joy of the horse’s movement, the freedom of the gallop, the love of the wild heath across which they raced for the sheer glory of the speed.

***

Cen watched from the shelter of a copse of trees. The mare lived up to all he’d read about her, and the rider too. He had known Rhiannon Enright would be good, but she had more than lived up to the promise she had shown as a child. Back then, she rode astride — and the gossip in London that had sent him here said she did so still, in the races held once a month for the past four months. Today, she was properly and sedately side-saddle, but the way she raced had nothing proper or sedate about it.

She flowed with the horse, the two moving as one beast, all grace, power, and beauty. The horse was magnificent, but Bucephalus was better.

As if on cue, Bucephalus whickered. Cen had tethered him upwind of the mare, and out of sight, but that meant his stallion was downwind, and would be picking up messages on the breeze. Unlikely that Rhi would hear, but better to play it safe. He’d come to find out if Atlanta was as good as they said; if the heiress was as appealing. Not that he had doubted the latter. She had won his heart when she was a baby just old enough to toddle to the stables and he perhaps a year older, if they’d guessed his age right when they found him. She had been just thirteen and his affection beginning to turn carnal when her father exiled him.

No point in dwelling in the past. The army had given him a new name, new skills, friends and a future, and now he had come full circle to the place where he began, able at last to reach out for the prize he had once believed beyond his reach. He had made up his mind, as if there had been any doubt. He would enter the race, and win her for his bride. Yes, and the stables where once he had been the lowliest of stablehands.

But as Cen stood, taking care to stay behind the undergrowth and to move smoothly and slowly, something caught his eye on the valley floor.

There. Beyond the racing mare. Movement in a hollow screened by bushes. He frowned even as he squinted to refine his focus. Horses; two, no three. And men preparing to mount.

And there! Caught in his peripheral vision, two more horses on a hillock like his own, but on the opposite side of the valley. One of the riders raised his hand in a signal to the men in the hollow, and they mounted, keeping low over their horses’ backs.

A threat to Rhi? Cen made up his mind, whistling the signal that told Bucephalus to pull at the tether and come to him. In the time it took for the horse to trot up the hill, and for Cen to adjust the tack and mount, all five of the stranger riders were ahorse and heading on an interception course for the lone female rider. What was she doing out without a groom?

Rhi had noticed her pursuers, and Atlanta was lengthening her stride, aiming for the gap between the two groups. She had the speed, if she was fresh. But Rhi and Atlanta had been racing the heath for an hour. The other horses were gaining.

Cen and Bucephalus, coming from a different vantage, might be able to put themselves between the chasing men and the woman, if they were fast enough, if she kept on the same tack. At the very least, the rogues might hesitate if they knew he was watching, though men who would assault a woman would not hesitate to dispose of such an inconvenient witness.

Atlanta faltered. Ah. Rhi had seen him. He pointed to the other riders and gestured her to keep coming, and after a moment, she nudged her horse on. But the hesitation had the nearest of her pursuers right on her heels.

The look of mingled panic and determination on Rhi’s face as she approached removed any lingering thought that the scenario might have an innocent explanation. Cen pulled the cudgel he kept in a holster hanging from his saddle, holding it aloft as Rhi passed him, and swinging it down on the shoulder of the man immediately following.

The man behind swung wide as the first rider fell, and kept after Atlanta, but Cen faced two more, and beyond them another, muffled in a greatcoat and scarf, shouting, “It’s only one man. Get rid of him.”

Cen grinned. Only one man and his horse. More than enough, though they were coming at him with guns. At his cue, Bucephalus spun around and caprioled, his hind hooves connecting solidly with one of the attacking horses as Cen ducked a bullet and threw the knife from his sleeve at the rider of the other.

A shout from the direction Rhi had fled caught his attention. A party on horseback, and known to Rhi, apparently, for she continued her wild gallop towards them. And the would-be assailant who had followed her had pulled up, and was looking back for directions.

In moments, the attack was over, the fallen men collected by their companions and the group fleeing back the way they had come. Cen let them go. A sting in his arm hinted that he hadn’t entirely evaded the bullet, but it was no more than a scratch.

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Gossip and scandal on WIP Wednesday

Gossip and scandal are the refuge of the bored, and our stories abound in people who have too little to do and too much time to take an interest in the doings of their neighbours, sometimes with malicious intent.

Today, I’m looking for excerpts where gossip, or the consequences of gossip, take centre stage. Mine is from House of Thorns.

Two weeks of mostly fine weather saw the standing part of Thorne Hall made weather tight, and had the local farmers scurrying to salvage what they could of the harvest. Papa seemed slightly better, too, enjoying daily outings in his chair as he lectured Brownlee on herbal lore and the romance poetry of medieval France.

Rosa’s new gown was delivered, and she wore it to Matins on the second fine Sunday with the new bonnet and shawl, feeling a guilty delight at outshining those who had scorned her. With an effort, she reminded herself that she was here to pray, not to show off her fine feathers, and she did penance by praying for the Pelmans and the Benfords.

The two women were waiting outside, talking to the vicar who had ridden over from a neighbouring parish since the rector had gone to stay with relatives for his convalescence. He was a young man, new to the area, and employed to cover the parish for an incumbent who had another living in Lancashire. “The wages of sin, I assure you,” Rosa heard Maud Benford say.

Rosa set her jaw, straightened her back and swept up to them, holding out her hand to the vicar as the other two drew away as if to avoid contamination. “Vicar Watson. I am Mrs Hugh Gavenor My husband and I own and are restoring Thorne Hall. I see you have already met my cousin, Maud, and her friend.

The vicar, with a nervous look at the other two women, tentatively took her hand and bowed slightly. “Mrs Gavenor. Ah… Er…”

Before he could figure out a way not to take sides, or to decide which side to take, a relief force of Rosa’s supporters joined them, introducing themselves and taking over the conversation. Miss Pelman and Mrs Benford withdrew, and the vicar, though not without several sideways glances at Rosa, accepted her presence in the middle of the chattering group.

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The would-be other woman (or man) on WIP Wednesday

In my stories, I quite often have a rival for the position of beloved. Usually one that the hero or heroine would not consider, and often a villain or villainess. It adds a certain something to contrast my innocent heroine with a nasty harpy, or my honourable hero with a wicked deceiver.

Lots of authors do the same, from what I’ve observed, so today, I’d love to see a snippet of a scene with someone who is NOT the one.

Mine is from House of Thorns. My hero is seeking help for the lady who has injured her ankle at his house, going to the only two people he knows in the village: the man who acts as steward for the property he has purchased, and the man’s sister.

“I am not here about Miss Neatham’s housing, though she must find her new accommodations very poor after Rose Cottage. Could you not find her anything more suitable?”

“In an instant, if she can afford to pay. She has no income, Gavenor, and will not be able to afford the place she is in for long.”

“Pride is cold comfort when the roof leaks.” The new voice was redolent with satisfaction. This would be Pelman’s sister. No fairy this one — rather, a hearty country-woman with the undefinable resemblance to a well-bred horse that seemed to characterise the type.

“Livia. Allow me to present Mr Gavenor, the gentleman who has purchased the Hurley estate. Gavenor, my sister.”

Bear bowed. “Charmed, Miss Pelman.”

She simpered. “Mr Gavenor, how delightful that you have joined our little community.” She prattled on about the paucity of social equals and the joys of a visit to Liverpool, not far distant across the Mersey.

That was a prime attraction of the estate. Many of those making their fortunes in Liverpool’s shipping and woollen industries would want to a country place to mark their arrival in the netherworld between their middle class origins and the upper classes who would never accept them. And Thorne Hall was ideally suited, though not if your interests were in London. The new Baron Hurley was a London man to the bone, and had been glad to get rid of the place. Bear had paid a price that would make him money even if he had to raze the ruin to the ground and start again.

Miss Pelman was attempting to dig into his plans. He ignored the hints; time enough for her to disapprove when they were accomplished.

“You may be able to help me, Miss Pelman,” he said.

“Pelman told me you have need of a housekeeper, Mr Gavenor, and I would be willing to fill the position. On a temporary basis, as a favour. You understand that I would need maids to do the actual work, of course.”

“I do not need a housekeeper, Miss Pelman. Though it is kind of you to consider it.”

“Oh? Then you have someone?”

“I have my manservant. No, Miss Pelman, that was not the favour. I…” He stopped to consider his words before he put himself and Miss Neatham in the suds. “I happened to chance on a Miss Neatham, who has twisted her ankle and is unable to return to her home tonight. I offered to check on her elderly father, and found him in some distress. Can you recommend a neighbour who might be willing to look after him for the night, until Miss Neatham is able to make appropriate arrangements?” There. That was all true enough without giving this witch some scandal to hold on to.

But it didn’t satisfy.

“Miss Neatham? Rosabel Neatham? Where is she staying? Who is she staying with?”

“A cottager has taken her in,” Bear said. “Terrible weather to be out in, too. The lady is fortunate she was close to somewhere dry.”

“Lady! Well some might call her a lady, I suppose.”

“Mr Neatham, Miss Pelman?”

“I suppose Mrs Able might oblige. She does sick bed nursing and laying out and the like. I shall give you a note. No. Better. Wait for me to get my cape and I shall take you.”

“Thank you. I won’t ask you to come out in this rain. A note and directions, and I shall manage perfectly.”

“Not at all, my dear Mr Gavenor. Why, we are neighbours now, and one must help ones neighbours. I insist.”

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Moving the courtship along on WIP Wednesday

I’m writing romance, which means courtship. Even if the relationship gets off to a rocky start or hits a rocky middle, courtship has to come into it, or there’s no romance and no story.

So this week, I’m asking for a scene that shows a crucial step in the courtship. It could be a step forward, or a step back. You decide. But something that changes the relationship. Mine is the proposal scene from House of Thorns. It is still at the all dialogue stage, and will probably change on the redraft, but here it is, raw, awkward, and as is.

“Miss Neatham, the Rector came to tell me that the village has been talking.”

“I expected it. When do you wish us to move out? I can put my weight on my ankle again.”

“I do not wish you to move out, though I will move into the village for a couple of weeks.”

“But your work… A couple of weeks… What can you mean?”

“I am doing this wrong. Look, Miss Neatham. Rosabel. Would you do me the very great honour of becoming my wife?”

“Your wife?”

“It will protect you and your father, and it would suit me very well, too. I need a wife, as these past few days have shown me. Someone to look after my house and make it into a home. I have never been more comfortable. I like having you around.

And it isn’t just that. You would be an asset to my dealings. I need to entertain from time to time, and you would show to advantage with the people with whom I do business. You are a lady to the fingertips, Rosa, and the people who buy my houses would like that.

Also, I need a child. A daughter would be best, because my great aunt’s property must be left to a girl, but we could try again if we had a son, and an heir would be rather a nice thing, I think. I had thought of adopting, but a child needs a mother, and that means a wife.”

“But… I am thirty-six.”

“I am forty-three. Which means we are both still capable of having a child.”

“Surely there are younger women with better connections…”

“I don’t want them. Silly ninnies. No conversation. I like you, Rosa. I like spending time with you.”

“Well, thank you.”

“I don’t want… Rosa, you deserve to have choices, and you won’t have them in this village. If you won’t marry me, will you let me find you and your father a house somewhere away from here, where you can live life without your aunt’s history following you?”

“You know about my aunt?”

“The Rector told me.”

“And you still want to marry me?”

“You are not your aunt, and very few families lack a skeleton or two in their closet. Marry me, Rosa. I will try to be a good husband.”

“You could find a better wife.”

“I’ve tried. And one Marriage Mart was enough. I’m never going back. If you won’t have me I’ll dwindle into a lonely old man.”

“I cannot help but feel that I benefit most from this arrangement.”

“The benefits are two way. You get a home and respectability. I get a home and all the things we have listed.”

“We have no guarantee that I am fertile.”

“That would be true no matter who I married.”

[goes away to think]

“Yes, Mr Gavenor.”

“Then you had better call me Bear. Or Hugh, if you prefer. My great aunt used to call me Hugh.”

“Hugh, then. Thank you, Hugh. I shall try to be a good wife.”

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The weather on WIP Wednesday

My current first draft WIP is set in 1816, the year without a summer, and the weather is almost another character in the book. So I figured this week I’d seek extracts from my author friends where weather becomes a plot device. Or any other natural phenomenon. If you don’t have a storm or a heat-wave, how about a volcano or a plague of locusts?

Here’s mine, from House of Thorns.

Bear walked down to the village, seeing evidence of the night’s storm on either side of him, in deeper puddles and streams, downed branches from trees, and flattened crops in the fields.

At Rose Cottage, Miss Neatham was fretting herself to flinders, though she tried not to show it. He’d seen her bite back words all morning, since he carried her downstairs and set her up in the parlour, with a book to read and strict instructions not to move. Each time he went in to ask her where to find something, or to bring her something to eat or drink, or just to check that she was following instructions, he could read the anxiety about her father on her open face. “When will you go to the village?” she did not say, but it was written clearly for him to see — a supposition she confirmed with her deep sigh of relief when he said, “The rain looks as if it is clearing. I’ll go down to the village now, Miss Neatham. I have a few things to buy, and I will check on your father.”

Miss Neatham had clearly been a provident housekeeper, for the house was fully stocked with all the staples, but they could do with some fresh bread and he’d buy more meat, too. He could not help but draw the conclusion that her financial situation took a dire turn for the worse thanks to Pelman’s intervention on his behalf.

He would have to see how the situation could be corrected. And he needed to see if Mrs Able was available for another week or so. Otherwise, Miss Neatham would go home to that horrid little hovel and put her ankle at risk by looking after the old man herself.

In the main streeet, straw had been laid on the worst mud patches, but the steep alley to Miss Neatham’s abode was scoured into deep treacherous ruts, and he kept to the sides where a few inches of relatively dry ground gave him better purchase for his boots.

The quavering voice of the old man raised in a shriek distracted him from his focus on his footing. “Help! Murder! Help!” Neatham was shouting.

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Stubbornness, pride and other gagging devices in WIP Wednesday

Why doesn’t she (or he) just tell him (or her), we yell at the page, when a few words would solve the misunderstandings and end the book in a fraction of the time. And that’s why, of course. Without the hero and the heroine at cross purposes, at least in some respects, the story would be over, and where is the fun in that?

Our challenge as authors is to make the communication blockages realistic. We don’t want our heroes or our heroines too dumb to live or too prideful to bear. They need strong, sympathetic, and realistic motivation to avoid giving the person they love the information they need to hear. And oh, how we can torture them in the meantime!

So this week, I’m inviting you to give me a scene where two of your characters are talking past each other, and not saying what they mean. Mine is a scene from quite near the end of The Realm of Silence, the title of which comes from a quote about this very issue. ““I like not only to be loved, but also to be told I am loved… the realm of silence is large enough beyond the grave.” George Eliot

“Gil, David wishes me to go to London to describe what I saw at the tower.”

Gil sucked his upper lip between his teeth, his face otherwise expressionless. “You will want to get home to your children. You should go.”

“I do not wish to leave you.” Ever. I do not want to leave you ever, you stupid man. You wonderful, confusing, stubborn, stupid man.

“I am in good hands. Chloe and Flora — yes, and Nanna and the girls — are martinets in the sick room, and I shall be back in top form in no time.”

He wasn’t hearing her deeper messages. She should take her dismissal in good part. Their idyll was over before it had begun, and she had promised herself that whatever he could offer would be enough.

“You think I should go, then.”

“I wish you could stay, goddess.” For a moment, his eyes flooded with something that spoke to the longing in hers, but then he shuttered them. “But it is best that you go.”


The following morning, Susan came to Gil’s new quarters to bid him goodbye. The sisters had transformed a screened porch into a comfortable half-bedroom half-sitting room for an invalid. He was sitting up in a chair set in a flood of sunbeams, and the heat would soon have him pushing the rug Moffatt had insisted on off his knees.

Damnable weakness. He yearned to be well enough to go with her — to string their time of closeness out by a few more days. Instead, he set himself to make a clean break of it, for her sake as well as his.

“I’ve come to say goodbye, Gil,” she said. “Or farewell, I hope. Goodbye sounds so final.”

It did. It sank like iron into his soul, tying his half-formed hopes in chains and sinking them fathoms deep. “We will always be friends, goddess,” he said, some of the ice in his heart leaking into his voice despite his best intentions.

Susan blinked rapidly and her own face stiffened, her bland Society hostess expression forming between him and what she really thought. “Of course we will, Rutledge. I am so pleased we have had this time to get to know one another again.”

Gil cast about for something to say. Something that would soften the parting. “Thank you for coming with me to meet Chloe, Susan. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”

It was the right note. The tension in her eased a little, though the mask was still in place. “Your nieces are delightful, and Chloe is stronger than she thinks. You will all do very well, I think.”

“I would have made a ham-fisted mess of it without you.” As he would, undoubtedly, of the rest of his life.

She must have heard the wistful note he could not repress, because she hesitated, examining his face.

Behind her, Chloe appeared at the door. “Susan? The little girls hope you will come up and say goodbye before you go.”

Susan considered Gil for a moment more, then looked over her shoulder at his sister-in-law. “Yes, Chloe, I’ll be right there.”

Chloe withdrew and Susan faltered and then seemed to make up her mind, crossing the room at a rush and bending to kiss Gil’s cheek. He clutched the rug to anchor his hands, which threatened to break free from his control and seize her, and never let her go.

“Come to me in London, Gil,” she commanded, her voice ragged. “This cannot be finished.”

“If you need me, I will come,” he promised, even as he shook his head.

She straightened, biting her lips until they were white, then turned and hurried out of the room, but not before he had seen the tears in her eyes.

What a bastard he was, making her cry.

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Where to start on WIP Wednesday

When I write, I have trouble starting at the beginning, because I have to find it first. In life, all beginnings continue from an earlier story, and all ends transmute into a later story. But in fiction, we need to start each book and each chapter at the beginning. At that point in time and space where at least one of the characters we care about is revealing their story, and making it matter to us.

Dear fellow authors, share a beginning with me and the blog readers, if you would. Something from a current work in progress. The start of a chapter or perhaps the start of the whole book. Mine is from The Realm of Silence, and it is the first scene in the book. At least, it is at the moment. Anything could happen in edit.

Stamford, England

1812

Gil Rutledge sat in the small garden to the side of the Crown and Eagle, and frowned at the spread provided for him to break his fast. Grilled trout with white butter sauce, soft-boiled eggs, grilled kidney, sausages, mashed potatoes, bacon, a beef pie, two different kinds of breads (one lightly toasted), bread rolls, a selection of preserves, and a dish of stewed peaches, all cooked to perfection and none of it appealing.

Two days with his sister, Madelina, had left old guilt sitting heavy on his stomach, choking his throat and souring his digestion. And the errand he was on did not improve matters.

He cut a corner off a slice of toast and loaded it with bits of bacon and a spoonful of egg. He was too old a campaigner to allow loss of appetite to stop him from refuelling. He washed the mouthful down with a sip from his coffee. It was the one part of the meal Moffat had not trusted to the inn kitchen. His soldier-servant insisted on preparing it himself, since he knew how Gil like it.

No. Not his soldier-servant. Not any more. His valet, butler, factotum. Manservant. Yes, his manservant.

Gil raised the mug to the shade of his despised older brother. “This is the worst trick you’ve played on me yet,” he muttered. The viscount’s death had landed the estranged exile with a title he never wanted, a bankrupt estate, a sister-in-law and her two frail little daughters left to his guardianship but fled from his home, and an endless snarl of legal and financial problems. And then there were Gil’s mother and his sisters.

Lena had at least consented to see him; had assured him that she no longer blamed him for her tragedies. Her forgiveness did not absolve him. He should have found another solution; should have explained better; should have kept a closer watch.

With a sigh, he took another sip, and loaded his fork again. The sooner he managed to swallow some of this food, the sooner he could be on the road.

Beyond the fence that bordered the garden, carriages were collecting their passengers from the front of the inn. Stamford was on the Great North Road, and a hub to half of England, with roads leading in every direction. As Gil stoically soldiered his way through breakfast, he watched idly, amusing himself by imagining errands and destinations.

Until one glimpsed face had him sitting forward. Surely that was Amelia Cunningham, the goddess’s eldest daughter? No. This girl was older, almost an adult though still dressed as a schoolgirl.

He frowned, trying to work out how old little Amy must be by now. He had last seen her at the beginning of 1808, just before he was posted overseas, first to Gibraltar and then to the Peninsular wars. He remembered, because that was the day he parted with the best horse a man had ever owned. More than four years ago. The goddess had been a widow these past two years and Amy must be— what? Good Lord. She would be sixteen by now.

He craned his head, trying to see under the spreading hat that shielded the girl’s face, but she climbed into a yellow post chaise with a companion — a tall stripling boy of about the same age. And the woman who followed them was definitely not the goddess; not unless she had lost all her curves, shrunk a good six inches, dyed her golden hair black, and traded her fashionable attire for a governess’s dull and shapeless garb.

No. That was not Susan Cunningham, so the girl could not have been Amy.

The door closed, the post boy mounted, the chaise headed north, and Gil went back to his repast.

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Epistles on WIP Wednesday

Snippets from letters, notes, diaries, articles, and other written texts are often a good way for our character to tell the reader what’s going on in their lives without a long scene that might otherwise bog down the plot. Do you use them? Show me and the readers an excerpt in the comments.

Mariana Gabrielle and I use this device quite often in our on-going novel Never Kiss a Toad,  (currently being published in episodes on Wattpad) and my rake Aldridge’s daughter and her rake Nick Wellbridge’s son. Sally and Toad are torn apart after being discovered in compromising circumstances (in the heir’s wing at Haverford House; if you’ve read A Baron for Becky, you’ll understand why that was adding insult to injury). They spend most of the novel in separate countries, and we use their letters to maintain their connection.

In our Christmas collection about our hero and heroine’s younger days, God Help Ye, Merry Gentleman, we offer readers more than 90,000 words of fiction: purpose-written for this book or gathered together from other stories about Sally, Toad, their families, and their friends (including the explanation of how Toad got his nickname). It goes on sale this week, as is a light-hearted way to entertain yourself this Christmas. Only USD 99c, too, so it won’t break the bank.

The following letters are in God Help Ye, and also in Never Kiss a Toad.

Christmas 1841: Sally’s letter to Toad

(Sent through the Duchess of Winshire)

January 2nd, 1841

London

Dear Toad,

We are heading home to Margate, after spending Christmastide at Wellstone. How strange it was to be there without you. I kept expecting to see you around every corner, in every room I entered, in all of our favourite places. My usual letter, sent by Papa’s hand, will be full of enthusiasm for the dinners we attended, the parties we held, the entertainments we enjoyed. My first grown-up holiday at Wellstone.

All of that is true, and none of it.

Here, where only you will see, I can tell the truth, my dearest friend. I wished myself anywhere but there. In London, even in Margate, I can pretend you are away at school or on some escapade with your friends, and will be back shortly. I have never been to Wellstone without you, and every moment of every day, I missed you.

Why did they not let you return home for Christmas, David? I cannot understand it. Papa would say only that Uncle Wellbridge thought it best, and Uncle Wellbridge would not answer at all, but kept arranging new activities for me, as though a sleigh ride or a game of charades would distract me, like a child in the nursery.

Enough of that. I do not mean to fill this letter with whinging, and give you a distaste for me. I hope all is well with you, and that you are studying hard, so you can excel in your examinations and come home at your next school break.

I feel I must tell you some of the guests at Wellstone met you in Paris, and they say you spend much of your time in gaming clubs and with women of dubious morality. I told them I did not believe them, and I did not wish to hear any more. Oh Toad, if it is true, I pray you will think of your dear mother, and others who miss you and would hate to see you demean yourself so.

I have no right to scold, and I know you have always done well at school despite your other activities. (About which I am supposed to know nothing, at least according to Papa and Uncle Wellbridge. As if I have no ears.) I can imagine you telling me it is none of my business, which is true. But even if I have no right to object to how you spend your time, I do not want you to come to harm, or to draw the kind of slanderous comment I heard this holiday at your mother’s own dining table. Please be careful and circumspect.

Do not be cross with me for writing so. We have been the closest of confidants our whole lives, which I hope gives me some small license to opine. Write and tell me that you are still my friend, for I am yours.

 

Your faithful,

Sally

 

Christmas 1841: Toad’s letter to Sally

(Sent through the Duchess of Winshire)

December 16, 1841

Dear Sally,

As you may know by now, my parents have decreed I not return to England for the winter holiday. My mother blames travel times and shipyard scheduling, but of course, my father is behind it. I am so sorry I cannot be there to visit with you and enjoy the Yuletide season together, as we have every year of our lives. I beg you understand I have done all my parents have asked to be afforded the chance to come home, if only for a few days, and have been refused in any case. I cannot see what they hold so zealously against me; but equally, I cannot fight against what I cannot see.

I am writing from my cabin on the family frigate, docked in Marseilles, and will send this through Aunt Eleanor before we set sail. With luck and a fast wind, this will arrive in time for Christmas. I wish I had posted it earlier, but I had hoped so much to see you in person. We will be on our way to Livorno in the morning, then Florence, where I will spend the holiday with Lord Piero d’Alvieri and his family at the count’s castello.

You will like Piero when you meet him, though he is even more a rogue than your David, so you must never be alone with him. He has five younger sisters, the eldest, Maddalena, a year younger than Almyra. Piero assures me we will be followed incessantly by pestilential girl children, which will remind me how much I miss my own pestilential shadow, Monkey. I’ve only just met his brother, Arturo, il conte d’Alvieri, who is quite a good chap, though Piero will forever accuse him of meddling.

Fortunate am I that he meddles, for, ever your errant boy, I managed to find myself gaoled for fighting in a gaming hell, and Arturo used his influence to secure my release. (It truly was a minor incident, resolved in less than a day.) I would think this the reason I was denied the chance to come home, but it was my mother’s letter refusing me that sent me off on the unfortunate drunken spree that resulted in my incarceration. If you can discover what I have done that is so awful as to keep me from your side, even for a visit, pray, write to me so I may rectify the error. I cannot think news of my imprisonment will help, but I have received the highest marks, and, on the whole, my life has been far less profligate than in the past.

My mother writes you will have Christmas at Wellstone, so you may be sure I hold you in my heart and my mind’s eye as I remember all the winter months we have spent there. Please write, I beg, with an account of the holiday, for I cannot expect to enjoy any of our favourite Yuletide pastimes in Italy. From Piero’s descriptions, one wonders if we will do anything but attend endless Catholic masses morning to night. (I pray you do not say so to my mother, lest she fear for my immortal Anglican soul.)

Since you are at Wellstone, and I cannot safely send a gift through all the ports of France and England, I have written to the bookshop in the village and placed ten pounds on account for you to spend as you like, and I have instructed they send to London for any book you request, without question, without bothering the dukes and duchesses about the subject matter. (I leave to you the damage to your reputation, should you choose unwisely.)

I will miss you sorely, Monkey, for there is no one else with whom I can always prevail at every parlour game. Happy Christmas and Joyous New Year, my dearest girl.

 

Ever Your,

David Abersham

 

Christmas 1842: Sally’s letter to Toad

(Sent through the Duke of Haverford)

December 12, 1842

Wind’s Gate

Dear Toad,

How odd that you will receive and be reading this letter sometime in the new year, and I am writing it in early December. Where are you at the moment, I wonder? And where will you be as this gigantic house fills with guests and then with all the festivities? I hope you are with congenial friends since you cannot be at home with us.

As I told you in my last, Grandmama has commandeered my services as her aide-de-camp, to organise the house party she was determined to hold, which is now but days away. Her role is to drop vague suggestions; mine, to scurry from attics to cellars, by way of every bedchamber and three separate kitchens, in order to carry them out.

Yes, Toad, I said three kitchens. I am sure, when we were six or seven and attempted to count all the rooms in Winds’ Gate, we failed to notice at least one of these kitchens, without which, three separate cooks and their respective staffs would murder one another (or so I have come to believe) while preparing the food needed for all the dozens of guests Grandmama has invited. Or rather, I have invited, in the name of the Duchess of Winshire, who has had very little to do with the enterprise. Still, I am certain she would be distressed should dinner consist of braised kitchen boy and roast haunch of chef, so I shall endeavour to keep the peace between the three independent domains ruled by my three gustatory tyrants.

Grandmama says I must never forget that I rule them, and indeed, Toad, you would laugh to see how I give my orders to high and low, sending out lists and minions from the sitting room Etcetera has dubbed The Command Centre.

Did I mention Etcetera is here? He came to keep company with Grandmama, and when I first saw him, I was a little in awe. He must have been sixteen the last time we met, abetting you as you tried to avoid me the Christmas after you returned from touring Europe. He has, I can assure you, grown considerably; the giant who bent over my hand bore little resemblance, aside from his fair hair, to the lanky boy who supported you in vexing me so unmercifully that winter.

I have quickly lost my shyness, for the same Etcetera lurks behind the beard and broad shoulders. As ever, he is always ready with a joke and willing to turn his hand to anything. He is not my only helper, of course. I am also ably assisted by Jonny and Almyra and several of my other cousins. The stalwarts are Elf—I should say Sutton, but it does not come easily when I have called him Elf all my life—and his sister Anna, Michael St James and his sister Henry, who have come to spend the holidays with us.

I am determined everyone will have a wonderful time. The party will fill every one of those 103 bedchambers we counted, and every day, a succession of planned activities. And the food coming out of those three kitchens would make your eyes widen and your mouth water, I can assure you!

You would be proud of your Sal, were you here, my dear friend. I wish you were.

 

Your,

Sal

 

Christmas 1842: Toad’s letter to Sally

 (Sent by courier)

December 5, 1842

Marseilles

Sally, my dearest,

I’m sorry to send this in a manner that may alarm you, but the rough man who delivered it was the only Seventh Sea sailor willing to defy Hawley—only because he is soon leaving my mother’s employ to join my new venture with Uncle Firthley, which is a great secret. I will ask Bey to explain in detail when he is in London for Sutton’s nuptials in January.

I wish you to know I will return home after my graduation, before I go to Greece—with or without the duke’s assent—and stay until the weather warms enough to easily make the passage. Yours is the first face I hope to see when I reach English shores again.

If, that is, you will have me.

I have been a damned fool, my love. With that dreadful comtesse, to start (for whom I cannot apologize abjectly enough), but every time I have behaved in a manner that might bring you shame, make you doubt my devotion, or keep me banished from England and apart from you. Until a few months ago, I was a terrible choice for a husband, and while I will never forgive your father, I begin to understand his reservations about placing you in my care. I swear to you, my sweet, I repent my wicked deeds, and beg you forgive me as I become a man upon whom you can depend for the rest of our lives.

It will be Christmastime by the time you receive this, and while I do not feel comfortable sending anything of excessive value with this particular courier, I wished you to have some token of my adoration, so I had these calling cards made when last I visited Florence with Piero. (His oldest two sisters are exceptionally talented with brush and quill, and they have adopted me as another older brother.) The cards are not the sort of thing you expect me to send for your Scrapbook, but I hope you will not mind if I bare my heart to you this once, and not more carnal assets, though both are yours in their entirety, my dear one.

I must go now, my darling, but pray, do not forsake me before I can come to you.

 

Your devoted slave,

David

Mari and I take it in turns to post a new episode, so follow us both to get the latest chapter every Friday.

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Getting to know your character on WIP Wednesday

As I near the end of the first draft of The Realm of Silence, I’m well into planning for the next book, House of Thorns. For me, the first step is usually a scene, and the scene that sparked this story came to me years ago. A woman in her early twenties, on a rickety ladder reaching for an early rose blooming on the side of a house. A late snow is beginning to fall, and below in the garden a large and angry man shouts at this intrusion, startling the woman so that she falls.

I have most of the rest of the plot now, but I’m working on character, and this week I’m inviting you other authors to share with me about one of your characters. I find out a lot about my characters before I start writing. I answer character questionnaires. I give them backstories and birthdays and hobbies. I interview them. I explore their greatest longings and their deepest wounds. I find out more when I start to write, but I’m not at that stage yet in House of Thorns.

Here’s some of what I know about Hugh Gavenor, the large shouting man, who is known as Bear.

Bear has always been big for his age. As a small child, he had a sister eleven months older, who was dainty, very clever, charming, and the apple of their parents’ eyes. She, it was, who gave Bear the nickname that has stuck to him throughout his life. His parents thought it was cute, because he was large, clumsy, and slow at his lessons (he has mild dyslexia).

The family were minor gentry: effectively farmers, but with pretensions.

When Bear was ten, his mother and sister died of an infection he brought home from the nearby village. Afterwards, his father sent him to school and pretty much became a recluse. He neglected the estate, and when he died the property sold for enough to buy Bear his colours. Bear served in the army until after Waterloo.

From early in his school career, Bear displayed a talent for trading, buying things other people didn’t want, fixing them, and selling them for a profit. This is now how he makes his living. He buys broken-down estates, does them up, and sells them to mill-owners and other newly rich so they can make believe they have moved up the classes. Bear is successful and rich, and always waiting for people to discover that he is still the large, clumsy, slow boy who was mocked at home and thrashed at school because of his mistakes in reading.

In particular, he is nervous of women, particularly clever or beautiful women, and even more if they are daintily built, as his mother and sister had been.

Naturally, my heroine is a pocket-sized Venus and as smart as can be.

Watch for a marriage of inconvenience that suits neither of them. Or so they think.

Your turn. How do you get to know your characters, and what do you know about them? An excerpt is fine, or a snippet of an interview, or just a bit of exposition.

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