Tea with Sally

Sally Grenford roamed the room, bewildered by the way it mixed familiar and unfamiliar. The note had invited her to take tea with her grandmother this Christmas afternoon, and she recognised many of the room’s appointments as treasures her grandmother kept in her private sitting room. But many were also missing; gifts she and others had given Grandmama, the experimental dagguerreotype of her and Jonny that Papa had commissioned as part of an investment in the new process, keepsakes from the merchant wanderings of the Winshires.

The proportions of the room were familiar, too, but not from the palatial townhouse where Grandmama lived with her second husband. No, Sally could swear that this was her own mother’s private suite, though from the window all she could see was fog with an occasional swirl of snow.

The portrait of Grandmama over the mantel belonged in the portrait gallery, where it had hung for as long as Sally could remember. Longer. Since Mama became Duchess of Haverford and Grandmama married her second duke, and became Duchess of Winshire.

A stir at the door had her turning, and there stood the woman in the portrait. The self-same woman. Her grandmother, but as she had been nearly thirty years before. This duchess stood to one side of the door, allowing a small troop of maids and a butler to hurry in and out setting up a side table with tea makings.

Both the duchess and Sally waited until they completed their tasks and left the room, then Sally took a tentative step forward. Familiar, but not familiar.

“Grandmama?” she asked.

The duchess hurried forward, reaching with both hands for Sally’s and in moments Sally was enveloped in Her Grace’s familiar scent, hearing the voice she had loved since before she could speak.

“Lady Sarah Grenford. You are my granddaughter, are you not? My dear, when I saw the name I hoped so much — Aldridge’s or Jonathan’s? But let me look at you. Yes, there are the Haverford eyes, and I see something of my boys about your chin. I’ll warrant you are stubborn.”

“What is happening?” Sally asked. “Where am I?”

The duchess led Sally to the sofa next to the tea table, and they sat, the duchess still holding Sally’s hand. “It is odd, is it not? I have quite recovered from being unsettled by the different people who visit me on a Monday afternoon, from many different places and times, Sarah, and I have no idea how or why. I see the names on the invitation and then they appear here in my room at Haverford House. But you have not told me whose daughter you are, dear.”

“Haverford’s,” Sally explained. “Aldridge in your time, of course.” She nodded at the portrait. “But Haverford long before I was born.”

“He finally married then. I am so glad. And so tempted to ask for more detail, but one must not, of course. Just tell me, dear, has he found love? Is he content with your mother? Oh dear. Do not answer that. What a question to ask a child!”

Sally laughed confident of the answer and delighted to reassure her grandmother, whose rattle of conversation made her more familiar by the moment. “Papa and Mama deeply love one another, and are never happier than when they are together.”

Papa had been a rake and a scoundrel when he was young, by all accounts, but Sally could not imagine him loving anyone but Mama.

The duchess gave a pleased sigh. “Then I shall be patient. It will be easier knowing that he will marry, and happily. And a beautiful daughter, too!”

“And a son.” Sally was five years older, but Jonny, the Marquis of Aldridge, was the pride of the house. Sally mostly didn’t mind.

Another pleased sigh. “Excellent. Your papa must be very proud. Now, dear, tell me what you have in your hand. Something you have brought to show me?”

On receiving the summons, Sally had picked up her favourite Christmas present; perhaps the best Christmas present she had ever received. It was not just because that the box of precisely engineered mathematical tools was exactly what she wanted, though she had not felt the lack until she unwrapped them. It was also — even mostly — that the boy who held her heart had known, acknowledged, and respected her passion for understanding the infinitely wonderful universe of numbers.

“Look, Grandmama,” she said, opening the box on her lap, eager to share. “Look what David Abersham gave me.”

Sally’s Grandmama is in 2011. Sally is fifteen, and is visiting from  1838, on the afternoon of the Christmas morning featured in God Help Ye, Merry Gentleman, the story that starts the collection of the same name, which Mariana Gabrielle and I released just before Christmas. For blurb and buy links, click on the title.

Excerpt from God Help Ye, Merry Gentleman

As she began unwrapping the first box, he murmured a bit closer to her ear, “Have you found all eight, then?”

Blushing, and with a quick glance at her parents, completely immersed in discussion with the Wellbridges, she whispered, “No, not yet. But I will.”

“I will give you the key if you promise to never ask me another question about any of it.”

“I do not need to give up my questions, for I shall find the latches without your help.”

Toad rubbed his right hand over his face and groaned. “Of course you will.” He brightened, though, as he added, “But I am afraid your questions must wait, for Etcetera and I ride out this afternoon to my cousin Smythe’s place.” Another of their set at Eton. “We will return next week for your mother’s ball, but I’d like to see my aunt and uncle and cousins before I go off to school.”

Sally sighed. “Of course, you must go, and I hope you will remember me to Lord and Lady Ostelbrooke. But we only have such a short time left before you go away to school.” She stopped herself a second too late. She mustn’t whine. She mustn’t impose herself on his time, or annoy him.

“I’ll not neglect you, Monkey. I promise. On my return, you shall have first pick of every moment of every day before I leave. And you’ll hardly know I am gone, with all the activities your mother has planned.” She hardly wished to consider what sorts of activities he, Smythe, and Etcetera had planned, once outside their parents’ purview.

“You are right, but I will miss you, Toad.”

“I will be back in no time.”

She opened the top box, a finely wrought wooden case with brass latches, that opened on three hinged tiers of mathematical instruments, a full set of more than two dozen items also wrought of brass, each piece engraved with her initials and set snugly in its own velvet-covered place.

“I found them in Germany.”  Running his finger along the side of the box in a way that made Sally shiver, Toad offered, “They are Swiss, so of course, they are as precise as can be.”

Sally couldn’t explain why she had to suddenly blink away tears. It was such a functional gift. Not something frilly or girlish or decadent, like practically every other gift she’d ever been given in fifteen years. But something that acknowledged her intellect; acknowledged and applauded the love of numbers that others, even Papa, found inexplicable and unfeminine. That Toad should give her such a gift moved her, soul-deep.

“Toad, I… thank you. I think I shall surpass Mr Galbraith’s knowledge of mathematics with these at hand.”

“Then the other box will see you the first woman admitted to Oxford.”

Something in her chest was shifting with every word he said, and she couldn’t explain it. It was seismic—and perfectly right in every respect. And completely foreign.

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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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