Bodice rippers, feminist literature, or just good yarns (Part 3 of 3)

This is the last part of the article based on my talk at Featherston Booktown. Part 1 talked about Dangerous Books for Girls, and the first of six reasons that romances are a threat to the establishment. Part 2 gave three more reasons. So here are the last two.

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#5 Because female orgasms

Romance novels are about people falling in love, which means (whether they are at the sweet end of the spectrum or far down the other end at erotica) they are about people who feel a sexual attraction to one another. This might well be a revelation to some now, as it was 200 years ago. Women have sexual desires. Women experience sexual pleasure. And women’s feelings, sensations and experiences are different to those of men.

A novel is a safe place to explore sexuality. It can’t make you pregnant. People don’t get STDs by taking books out of the library. Romance novels tell women that a hero cares for the pleasure of his beloved; that he puts her pleasure ahead of his own. Dangerous Books indeed!

And today’s best romance writers are very good at writing about sex, unlike the authors celebrated in the annual ‘Bad Sex Awards’, from which comes this gem:

Surely supernovas explode that instant, somewhere, in some galaxy. The hut vanishes, and with it the sea and the sands – only Karun’s body, locked with mine, remains. We streak like superheroes past suns and solar systems, we dive through shoals of quarks and atomic nuclei. In celebration of our breakthrough fourth star, statisticians the world over rejoice.

Compare the list of ‘Bad Sex Award’ excerpts to the list of scenes that will get you hot and bothered, or this one, which is a first kiss.

She opened her mouth, already shaking her head, and he hurried on to say his piece before she could object. “You could marry me. I don’t flatter myself that I am a prize, but I am a better bet than Hackerton. Marry me, and let me care for you, Rose.” He bent, curving low to capture her mouth. It was as soft and full as it looked, though at first stiff and unresponsive.

But she followed his lead in this as she had in the dance, and what had begun as an impulsive gesture to prevent her from saying no became a luxurious vortex that spun him out of space and time until he was oblivious of everything except the giving, the taking, the sharing of their lips, their tongues, their mouths.

She looked dazed when he drew back. Well, good. He was dazed. He gathered her against his chest and rested his cheek on her hair. “Marry me, Rose,” he repeated.

#6 Because HEA

If a fictional heroine escapes the confines of the house, chooses love, has orgasmic sex, and dies at the end of the story, the message is clear: Don’t try this at home. But if she lives happily ever after? The message is also clear: Live the dream, girl!

In romance novels, the heroine lives. Not only that, she lives happily ever after, which is shorthand for a life of being loved for oneself and for having achieved a measure of security.
(Dangerous Books for Girls, by Maya Rodale)

Unhappy endings appear to be a convention in literary novels. They may be beautifully written, challenging, interesting, and effective in their own way. But they are not hopeful, and people need hope if they are to change their lives. Live the Dream!

While I’m here, can I just dispose of one particular feminist critique of romantic fiction, that it teaches women to believe that happiness lies in a successful love affair? Excuse me? This is a romance. Read the label on the box. If it says cornflakes, don’t grumble at finding cornflakes. If it says romance, don’t be offended by the happy ending.

The happy ending is not more nor less a fiction than all the killers brought to justice in murder mysteries, or the appearance of magical creatures and powers in fantasy novels, or technology that does not exist in science fiction. Do readers of thrillers really believe that a lone hero, with brooding good looks and the memories of an appalling childhood, will ride into town and save the day? No. It’s fiction.

But some killers are brought to justice, technology that was science fiction ten years ago is true today, sometimes one person might make a difference, and happy ending do happen.

And if some find that concept dangerous, isn’t that their problem?

Changing the world, one reader at a time

 

 

Around six months ago, I started posting my novel A Baron for Becky on Wattpad, one chapter at a time. ‘Grandmother,’ said the 15-year old, ‘don’t you realise that’s a site for fan fiction about One Direction?’

But I had read of other novelists building a following by posting there, and I figured it was worth a try. I did not know what to expect. I certainly didn’t expect the results reported in the site’s analytics. In the last few weeks, since I posted the final chapter and epilogue, ‘reads’ (Wattpad measures how many people read each part of a ‘work’) have been rising by several hundred a day. As of today, A Baron for Becky has had over 11,000 reads, and nearly half of those have been from parts of the world where romance novels are as dangerous today as they were in England two hundred years ago.

Wattpad readers 19 May

The darker the blue, the higher the concentration of readers: 15% in India, 9% in Philippines, 4.5% in Malaysia, plus readers in Pakistan, Nigeria, Uganda, Ghana, Algeria, Namibia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Peru, Suriname, Indonesia, Mexico and other places too small to show unless you zoom in on the map.

I’m writing Dangerous Books, and they’re being read by Girls.

Reading romance novels is an affirmative action

As I’ve said before, genre is not a statement about quality, it’s a way to sort books. So why is it still open season on romance novels. Why is it rare to find a romance novel in a high school syllabus, or the study of the genre at university.

Take a look at the names that the genre attracts: mommy porn, chick lit, bodice ripper—they’re all about gender. It is hard not to conclude that the unthinking dismissal, often by people who have never read a romance novel, is anti-woman. And if that’s the case, reading romance is an affirmative action.

So read romantic fiction proudly. Read the best, by all means. In my sub-genre, read Elizabeth Hoyt, or Grace Burrowes, or Courtenay Milan, or Mary Balogh, or any one of a score of other thoughtful talented writers who research carefully and write brilliantly.

Or read light frothy stuff that gives you a rest from your day job. Again, you have many fine writers to choose from.

But read a romance. By doing so, you are supporting a writer who believes that women should have the same freedom as men to make choices.

 

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A Baron for Becky long-listed for a RONE Award

RONE Award smallI’ve been missing in action with work and family commitments, but normal service will resume tomorrow with a WIP Wednesday.

I’m popping in today to tell you my exciting news. A Baron for Becky is on the long list for a RONE Award. The RONES are run by the In’D’Tale Magazine, who reviewed A Baron for Becky last year.

I was thrilled with the four-star rating they gave the book at the time; the magazine’s reviewers are parsimonious with their fours and fives. But I did not realise that a four or five star rating put you on the list for the RONES. So A Baron for Becky is one of thirty-five books, out of the hundreds of historical romances they reviewed, to go through to the next round of judging.

Next step is reader voting. In the week 23 May to 29 May, readers will be asked to vote for their favourites. I’m up against tough competition, including Mariana Gabrielle’s La Deésse Noire: The Black Goddess and Caroline Warfield’s Dangerous Weakness (she smugly notes that nearly 10% of the long list are by Bluestocking Belles—as was one of last year’s finalists).

The top rating books from that round go to the final judges, and they will decide the category winner, to be announced at the In’D’Tale Conference in October.

So it is all very exciting.

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The fate of a fallen woman

oyster-rooms_0001Life in the real Regency wasn’t all Almack’s, balls, and house parties. Even in the households of the rich and titled, a woman’s comfort and happiness depended very much on the character of whatever man headed her household—father, brother, husband. And a highly structured society where women were expected to be chaste and modest, and men to have broad experience, meant an ever-present potential for disaster.

In the lesser ranks of society, a woman might be valued for her skills, her personality, her knowledge, or whatever underpinned the economic contribution she could make to her family. A slip from chastity could be forgiven. Even a child out of wedlock was not necessarily an irretrievable disaster. An extra pair of hands was, after all, an extra pair of hands.

A proper lady

For ladies of the gentry, any smudge on the character threatened the wellbeing of the family. Ladies were decorative rather than useful; educated for little beyond amusing themselves and running a household. Their economic value lay in the family connections created through their marriage, in the children, or more particularly the sons, they would bring into the world.

English landowners practiced primogeniture, a form of inheritance designed to keep an estate unified. Primogeniture meant that lands, titles, and rights were passed intact to the deceased lord’s eldest son. If the right to rule will be passed from father to son, then a family has a great deal invested in making sure that a wife sleeps with no one but, and certainly no one before, her husband. Virginity became a necessary precondition for a good marriage.

Assuring a potential husband of the virginity of a particular maiden meant—as we who read historical romances set in those times know—setting all kinds of restrictions around young ladies. It wasn’t enough to be a virgin; a marriageable girl of gentry class must never be in circumstances that allowed gossips to speculate about what she might, or might not, have done. Reputation was everything. The loss of reputation was the end of a girl’s (and her family’s) hope of a ‘good’ marriage.

Fallen from grace

Our romances offer many paths to those who fall from grace. Her family might rally round to prove our heroine’s innocence. An angry father or brother might force a marriage which becomes a love affair, or the other party to the offence might volunteer.  Exile to the country might lead to her true virtue being discovered by a neighbour, or she might be pursued by her seducer who has finally realised that he truly loves her.

In some books, the heroine becomes one of the tens of thousands of women earning her living from the sex trade in Georgian London. Generally a mistress of a man or a succession of men. More rarely, a prostitute in a brothel or in the streets.

That’s the premise for my character, Becky. In the novel, we meet her nine or ten years after her father threw her out. Just think of it. A gently-born girl, raised with few skills beyond flower arranging and embroidery, always treated with courtesy and respect, taught nothing about her own sexuality, suddenly cast into the streets to make her own way. What must that have been like?

In historical romance, our heroines survive the horror and the abuse (or, in some books, manage to bypass it all together) to eventually find the mandatory happy-ever-after. In real life, few were so fortunate. An early death was more likely: from sexually transmitted diseases, complications of pregnancy or abortion, drink and drugs taken to dull the senses, or all of these together.

A Baron for Becky has a happy ending, though not (I hope) an entirely predictable one.  In the end, I found myself writing about marriage rather than prostitution. Becky has had a hard life, and it has left scars. Her happy ending does not come easily. But then, that’s life.

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Belle Brezing on Wanton Weekends

300px-Belle_Brezing_in_a_feather_hat_(circa_1895)I’ve another poet for you this weekend.

Belle Brezing is supposed to have been the inspiration for the character Madame Belle in Gone with the Wind. Born in 1860, raised by a drunken, violent mother and a series of stepfathers, she was seduced at 12, pregnant at 15 and married shortly after. Her husband left town after the murder of one of her two other lovers, and before the birth of her daughter.

At 19, Belle became a resident at a ‘bawdy house’, and so excelled in her new career that she started her own enterprise two years later.

She went on to open bigger and better houses until, in 1891, she opened her last and greatest.

In the book ‘Madame Belle: Sex, Money, and Influence in a Southern Brothel’, Maryjean Wall describes the opening night.

“Megowan Street had never seen commotion like Belle’s opening night in 1891. All varieties of horse-drawn vehicles pulled up in front of no. 59, dropping off male passengers wearing formal evening dress. Drivers shouted to their horses. Cabs departed as quickly as they had arrived, the drivers turning their horses sharply back toward the Phoenix Hotel to pick up more fares. In the trickle-down effect the evening had on the local economy, hack drivers made a small fortune in tips on this memorable night.

Belle Brezing's parlour“Belle had invited physicians, lawyers, judges, horsemen, businessmen, and bankers to this fete. Sweet orchestral strains poured into the street every time the door opened to admit another caller. She had hired musicians for her opening, foregoing her mechanical nickelodeon. Her staff had prepared an elegant buffet. Her bar served the finest wines and champagne.”

Belle was highly successful, though she was also indicted more than any other citizen of Lexington.

She continued to run houses for the sale of entertainment for the next 25 years, until all the houses of disrepute were closed during the first World War by order of the army. By the time they opened again, Belle’s long-time lover and her sister had both died, and she lived out her retirement as a recluse until her death in 1940.

Belle wrote this poem in her teens, perhaps before she was wed.

Kisses
Sitting tnight in my chamber, a school girl figure
and lonely, I kiss the end of my finger, that and that only.

Reveries rises from the smokey mouth. Memories linger surround
me. Boys that are married or single. Gather around me. School boys
in pantalets roumping, Boys that now are growing to be young lands,
Boys that kiked to be Kissed; and like to give kisses.

Kisses. I remember them: Those in the corner were fleetest:
Sweet were those won the Sly in the Dark were the sweetest.
Girls are tender and gentle. To woo was almost to win them.
They lips are good as ripe peaches, and cream for finger.
Girls are sometimes flirts, and coquettish; Now catch and Kiss if
you can sin: could I catch both – ah, wasent I a happy Girl.

Boys is pretty and blooming sweetly, yea sweetness over their rest!
Them I loved dearly and truely. Last and the best.

Writing by Belle Brezing, Lexington Ky

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Contemporary and Regency heroes discuss transport and children – Part 4

Here’s part 4 of the story that Keisha Page and I co-wrote about a meeting between our two heroes. Separated by 200 years and the Atlantic ocean, they discuss the very different cultures they inhabit. See Keisha’s The Word Mistress blog for the same encounter from the perspective of Alex, hero of Rhythm of Love. My hero is the Marquis of Aldridge, from A Baron for Becky. If you want to start at the beginning, here are links to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 on my blog.  

fjord_horse_vs__airplane_by_mariszAlex smiled. “Transportation is vastly different now. We have cars; they’re combustion powered wagons that can travel many hundreds of miles in a day. Imagine if a wagon were pulled by three hundred horses all working together. It’s kind of like that, but without the actual horses. I can drive to Denver in two days, if I stop to sleep. Faster if I fly.”

“You can fly?” Aldridge does his best not to look skeptical. How many brandies has Alex had?

Alex laughed.

“Not me. I get into a machine called an airplane, and it flies. The airplane can get me to Denver in about four hours.”

Alex slid the rest of his brandy across the table toward Aldridge.

“You may need this. An airplane can fly from New York City to London in less than eight hours.”

“Eight hours? I find that difficult to… I mean no insult, friend Alex, truly, but… Eight hours?” He pushed the brandy back towards Alex. “In truth, I appear to have had more than enough. Men from the 21st century. Machines that fly. Carriages that need no horses.” He shook his head slowly.

“It may be I have fallen asleep on my horse and am dreaming this whole interlude, but this is certainly the best dream stew and most unusual dream conversation I have ever had. Perhaps the dream will let me visit this New York of the far future. Will you give me a tour, Alex?”

“I would be honored to give you a tour! There’s so much for you to see! Skyscrapers and elevators and the Brooklyn Bridge. I kind of can’t believe I’m having this conversation, because it’s so, well, surreal, but yes, Aldridge! Let me show you the wonders of the twenty-first century. And if you thought the stew was good, just wait. There’s so much food for you to try!”
“Better than this stew?” Aldridge grinned. “You can keep your roast peacock and turtle soup. At the end of a day’s ride, there’s nothing better than good plain hearty fare like this. And the bread is superb.”

“Tell me about your children, Alex. How many do you have? And what are they named?”

Alex’s eyes softened and he smiled as he says, “I have three. My Ella is seventeen. She’s going to be a senior this year. She wants to spend the summer after she graduates in Europe, and I’m not so sure that’s such a hot idea. I know I’m an overprotective father, but I’m not sure she’s as ready to conquer the world as she thinks she is. Leslie and Ella’s mom both tell me that I need to let her go, but I’ve been overseas. I know what the guys there are like.”
Alex shifted in his chair. “My son Ryan is twelve. He’s almost taller than his mom already. He’s gonna be a beast. He’s on the track team and the wrestling team. He’s the fastest kid in his grade, too.”

“Samantha is ten. She is something else, man. Spoiled rotten, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I’ve gotten to spend a lot more time with her when she was younger than I did with Ella, and it made such a difference. I’ve been able to give my kids everything they’ve ever needed because of my job, but I’m not completely convinced that missing out on months of their lives at a time was worth it. What about your kids?”

Aldridge swirls his brandy in his glass. It really is an excellent drop. “I have three, too. I think my world is very different to yours, Alex. I missed the Grand Tour myself. Napoleon, you know. But in our world, it is the men who are sent off to see the world, and the women stay home.

“My Antonia — I say mine, but I did not know of her existence until she was six years of age, and to this day she knows me only as an uncle. I would not for the world attract the attention of the gossips and scandalmongers by telling anyone of our closer bond. But — ah Alex, what a girl!

“She’s smart, she’s kind, she’s every bit as lovely as her mother. I feel very privileged that they let me see her, and be an uncle to her. And anything my name and title can do to smooth her path… Her stepfather won’t ask, of course. But it is hers, nonetheless.” Undoubtedly his smile is every bit as soft and silly as the one Alex wore when talking about his girls. Antonia is ten, too. The same age as Alex’s youngest.

“And I have two boys. I was luckier with them, or perhaps kinder to their mothers would be more the truth. With each one, when I found my mistress was with child… I take precautions, Alex. I would not have you think I am careless, but they don’t always work. Well, twice now, I’ve found my chere aimee a husband who will welcome my child as his own.

“I would give a great deal to be in your shoes, and to be able to acknowledge them without hurting them and their families.”

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If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans

if-plan-a-fails-383x450God thinks I’m hilarious.

Way back in April, when I first thought about pushing the publication of Encouraging Prudence out to October to fit in with Halloween, it seemed like a good idea to write a novella for publishing in late July or early August. After all, otherwise I’d have six months without a new release!

And of course I could write the other novella; the one for the Bluestocking Belles’ Christmas anthology. I even had a title, a hero and heroine, and a vague idea of plot.

Two novellas, right? A Baron for Becky and Gingerbread Bride. And carry on with Encouraging Prudence at the same time. Easy.

And then A Baron for Becky grew. By the time I sent it off to the beta readers, it was 42,500 words. They came back with questions and comments, and I spent two weeks frantically editing and rewriting. I sent it to the editor at just over 50,000 words. My novella was now officially a novel.

I’m not going to walk you through the whole thing. Suffice it to say that Mari has done a developmental editor thing on me that has improved the book out of all sight, robbed us both of sleep, and grown the word count by another 10,000 words.

I’ve also managed to meet my Gingerbread Bride deadline, but Encouraging Prudence has languished. And there isn’t time between now and October to do it justice.

BfB cover finalAlso, life. Several people dear to me have put the hard word on about overdoing things.

If you’re waiting for David’s and Prue’s story, don’t despair. I’m around half way through and I plan to finish the first draft by the end of September or at the very outside by the end of October. But I’ve just been through my book table changing the dates to be vaguer. It will be published in 2016, and I can’t say more than that.

I’m polishing up some short stories for October, including a prequel for Encouraging Prudence, in which David and Prue are bit players in someone else’s romance. It’s a Gothic murder mystery, which should be fun.

And the Christmas box set is out in November.

Oh dear. That almost sounds like a plan.

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Two heroes. Two centuries divide them. Two different fictional worlds. Part 2

Today, I’m continuing the story Keisha Page and I wrote for her blog, The Word Mistress. Our heroes – the Marquis of Aldridge from A Baron for Becky and 1810, and Alex from Rhythm of Love and the 21st century – have found their way to a mysterious inn where the food is excellent and time no longer applies.

awY3dMbAlex’s grasp was firm for a hallucination. And he returned to the slice of fresh bread he’s cut with an enthusiasm Aldridge did not associate with ghosts. “Margate?” he asked, between mouthfuls. “Is that your home?”

“It will be,” Aldridge said, without much enthusiasm. “One of them. I mostly live in London, though.” He smiled, his expression softening. Officially, his London residence was the heir’s wing at Haverford House. But the townhouse he’d purchased for his mistress, Becky, was more of a home to him than anywhere else on the planet. “I’ll be home tomorrow,” he said.

Aldridge hoped this was true; that he’d walk out of here and it would still be 1810. “And do you live in New York, Alex?”

“I’ve been to London a few times. I’m guessing it looks much different now. Cars and pollution, and, oh, all of the new buildings that have been built. I live here, in an apartment in the Bronx. My kids live with their mother, in a house a few miles from my place. At least they’re close enough that I can see them all the time.” Alex dunked his piece of bread in his stew.

The London Aldridge knew had dirt and filth enough; pollution, certainly. Cars? He’d seen a few processions, but perhaps this modern London had more? He focussed on the part of Alex’s statement he could make sense of. The term ‘kids’ clearly meant children. “I also have children who live with their mothers, but I see little of them. You are fortunate to have yours close.”

Alex nodded.

“I am pretty lucky. My girl, Leslie, wants to move here, but if she does, then her kids’ dad wouldn’t be able to see their kids. It’s kind of a pain in the ass. Not the kids, but the making sure that everyone gets to see each other when they’re supposed to. I don’t know how anyone makes a second marriage work.”

Another statement with outlandish implications. The man had been married to the mother of his children and now wanted to be married again to someone who had children by another man? How outraged Society’s dragons would be to hear Alex refer so casually to second marriages.

“So, Aldridge, how many times have you been married?”

Aldridge ignored the question, still thinking about Alex’s statement. Perhaps his interpretation was wrong.  “May I… I do not wish to give offence, so please tell me if I breach courtesy in asking this… may I confirm that I understand correctly? Your children live with their mother. And the woman you would marry lives near the father of her children.

‘But you speak of a second marriage. You are both divorced, then? And all the parties work together so that the children can see their fathers and their mothers?”

“Dude. That is the least offensive thing you could say.” Alex smiled at Aldridge, clearly not offended.

“Yes, Leslie is divorced from her first husband, the father of her children. They both live in Denver. I am divorced from my first wife, who is the mother of my children. She lives near me here. We’re actually required by law to make things work. If Leslie moved the children here without her ex-husband’s permission, a judge could put her in jail. And so far, her husband won’t agree to let her move here.

“Truthfully, I can’t say I blame the guy, but it’s frustrating. Leslie and I… I can’t stand being without her. She lives 1800 miles away, so we only get to see each other every few months. The last time I got to see her, it was only for a couple of days; I was in the middle of a tour, so I couldn’t stay long.”

He held up his brandy snifter to catch the attention of the waitress. She nodded in his direction. He sat the glass down and looked at Aldridge.

“I didn’t realize divorce was common in 1810. Or even legal, I guess.”

“It isn’t common,” Aldridge confirmed. “It requires a Bill in Parliament, which means washing the family’s dirty linen in full view of every gossip in England.”

Not an option for any person of consequence. No decent man would do that to his wife and children, not any respectable woman, either, unless in peril of her life.

“A man can get a divorce and custody of his children if he proves his wife was unfaithful. A woman has to prove extreme cruelty, and even then she might not keep the children. A man might survive the scandal, but a woman? I can only imagine what would drive a woman to such a course.”

He took another slow sip of brandy, saying out loud the doom his father had been enjoining on him all this last visit to Margate.

“I’ll have to marry some day. When I do, it will be for the rest of my life.”

Alex said, “Oh boy. It works much differently now. It’s mostly paperwork. You file papers in court, and if a judge agrees that the division of assets is equitable, then six months later, you’re single again.”

It couldn’t possibly be as easy as that. Could it? Aldridge took another bite of the excellent bread. Alex was still talking.

“I hope it works out forever with Leslie. I love her more than I ever thought I could love someone. When we’re together, I feel like I can conquer the world. Do you have a girlfriend?”

At two score and ten, he was old for a girl, but he’d have to choose one, he supposed. A girl who was a friend? He had largely ignored this year’s crop of debutantes, but it seemed unlikely he’d find a friend in their ranks. How he wished…  Well. No point in that. “I envy you, Alex. And I hope it works out for you, too.”

“I’ll marry some women with the right lineage, and for the land or political advantage she offers my family. It doesn’t matter for me… I think I’m not capable of the kind of love you mention. But I feel sorry for the poor lady I marry.” Despite his determination, his mind drifted back to his mistress, and he heard himself saying, “If I could love, I expect I’d be head over heels for Becky, the woman I am going to now. She’s… well, she’s a fine woman. Beautiful, intelligent, kind. I could see spending the rest of my life with Becky.”

If he married his mistress, elevated her to future Duchess of Haverford, the dragons would tear her to pieces. They would never accept her. They would not rest until they had destroyed her and her children with her. He could not subject her to that horror.

See Keisha’s post for her hero’s point of view, and find out how he feels about Aldridge’s revelations.

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THE END

I’ve finished A Baron for Becky and done the first edit. It’s 46,800 words, and what I thought was going to be an epilogue turned into two more chapters, but it’s done. Once I’ve transferred my hard copy markups to the electronic copy and created book files, it’ll be off to the beta readers.

To celebrate, here’s another excerpt. Becky is reading a letter from the Duchess of Haverford.

Ah. Here is what she was looking for. She read quickly, her smile broadening. But this was perfect! Hugh would be so pleased, and so would the girls. And Miss Wilson the governess, who had come as a favour to Becky and Aldridge but was anxious to begin her promised retirement before the first snow.

She began a reply; she wouldn’t be able to send it until she had spoken to Hugh, but she wanted to waste no time.

A footfall behind her warned her an instant before her husband’s hand came over her shoulder and snatched up the letter.

“Hugh!” she turned awkwardly in the chair, and looked up into her husband’s stormy face. “Hugh? Is something wrong?”

His angry expression was fading to embarrassment as he read the first page of the letter, then turned to the signature. “The Duchess of Haverford?”

“Yes,” Becky asked. “Who did you think it was from?” She knew perfectly well what he thought. How could he?  She had given him no reason to doubt her!

“I… uh…” Embarrassment was now uppermost. He covered it by glaring at her. “Why is the Duchess writing to you? Does she mention Aldridge?”

It hadn’t occurred to Becky until this moment that they never talked about Aldridge. Never. He was supposed to be Hugh’s best friend, and had, in his own way, been a good friend to her, but in this house he had ceased to exist.

“She says he is still wearing a black-armband and3dc6b2efdd327ed0c495004f157561ae is enjoying the sympathy it wins him,” she told Hugh.

“That sounds like Aldridge.” He almost smiled, but then frowned again, looking down at the letter he still held.

Becky took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Calm. Stay calm. “I wrote to the duchess to ask her if she would find us a governess, Hugh. Miss Wilson only came for a short time, and it has already been three months.”

“Oh.” Embarrassment was winning. Good. He should be embarrassed to think so ill of her. “I… can we start over, Becky? Can I go out and come in again and just pretend this never happened?”

They should talk about it. She shouldn’t let him just brush it away. But she could never stay cross when he was smiling at her, begging her with his eyes. She smiled back and nodded, and he tiptoed to the door with ostentatiously large steps, trying to make her chuckle. Which she did, just to please him.

Moments later, he poked his head around the door again. “Becky, my love, I’m home.”

“Hugh, how lovely. You’re early.”

“I finished early, and could not wait to see my lovely wife.”

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Double standards, much? An excerpt from A Baron for Becky

EARLY-412-Group-aAldridge, impatient now that they were back at the little girl’s house, hurried her into the parlour where he’d left the twin dolls and presented them to her. She, beautifully mannered as she had been all evening, curtseyed her appreciation, then hugged him and kissed his cheek. “Thank you, Uncle Aldridge. They’re so beautiful. Look, Mama. Look how beautiful they are.”

Hugh looked. The mother, bending over her daughter who was excitedly showing the dolls’ wardrobe and their articulated arms and legs. And the child, her mother in miniature. Identical heart shaped faces; identical dark hair tied back but with tiny curls around their forehead, identical porcelain skin and cornflour blue eyes fringed with dark lashes.

So beautiful.

So intent, like the statues of the madonna he had seen in Catholic Portugal before he sold out, her eyes full of love for her daughter.

God, he needed a drink.

“Aldridge?” Aldridge was smiling fondly as he watched his mistress and her child. “Aldridge, is there any brandy in the house?”

“Not here, Overton.” Aldridge was impatient. “Just wait a bit, can’t you?”

Of course he could. It didn’t worry him at all to see this kept woman, this harlot, bent lovingly over her daughter; standing up to him—a head taller, a man, and an aristocrat—to protect her daughter. When his wife, damn her, had ignored her daughters; had regarded them as disposable pawns in her campaign to be the mother of a peer. It didn’t worry him. It didn’t.

“I’ll walk,” he said. “Miss Winstanley, my felicitations on your birth anniversary. Mrs Winstanley, my thanks for a pleasant evening. Aldridge.”

Hadn’t they passed a tavern two streets back? Surely they had.

Whatever they sold, he was drinking it.

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