Tea with Morag and Caitlinn

London, 1790

Eleanor Haverford welcomed her guests to her private sitting room. Thank goodness the duke was not in residence! He would never approve of such company for her.

In the three years since news of their marriages rocked the ton, the two women before her had made no attempt to join Society. Instead, they had remained on the the most northern of the Duke of Kendal’s holdings; a Scots estate, complete with castle, that had formerly belonged to the most ancient enemies of his family, the Lorimers of Lorne.

As had her guests. The remaining two women of the Lorimer family had married the last surviving men of their traditional foes.

Society had been beside itself when the news broke. Michael Normington, Duke of Kendal, had wed his housekeeper, disappointing dozens of marriage-minded mamas and their tedious offspring. Worse, the housekeeper was worthy of the position, even though she had been hiding her own lofty origins for twenty years. And if she had been concealed in the duke’s household, no one suggested for a moment she had been up to anything unseemly, unless it was with the duke himself. Marriage covered any such sins.

Worse, for those who wanted the ducal title for a grandchild, the duke had found evidence for his first marriage, elevating his base-born son to legitimacy and a courtesy earldom. Which would have been good news if Lord Farringhurst, the new earl, had not married his new step-mother’s cousin, the two couples plighting their troth in a dual ceremony weeks before the news made its way south to Town.

“Scots ways,” her husband had declared. “Barbarians the lot of them. Even Kendal, who is English born. No idea of the proper way to behave.”

But now the Kendals and Farringhursts were in London, and a chance meeting at an inn had led them to accept Eleanor’s hospitality when the roof on their own house proved to be leaky. How her rivals in Society would seethe to know she had stolen a march on them. And Eleanor would be happy to help smooth the way of these new friends if she could. She very much liked what she’d seen of them. Why, the duchess and countess fed their own babies at the breast, and spent every spare minute in the nursery!

Eleanor placed a hand on her abdomen as she swore silently that this child, if it lived, would have the same maternal care.

“We must thank you again, duchess,” said her grace of Kendall. “We will not long trouble you. Our husbands swear the repairs will be completed in a week.”

“Indeed, an inn would have been difficult for the children,” Lady Farringhurst agreed. “We cannot thank you enough.” Upstairs in the Haverford nursery, four Normington infants were being tended by a small army of servants, from both ducal households. Her own nursemaids were glad of something to do, her son, the Marquis of Aldridge having long since been released to the schoolroom.

“It is no trouble,” Eleanor assured them. “I am delighted to have the company.” She blushed. “I do not go much into Society at this time.” With a bare two months until her confinement, and four babies lost in the ten years since Aldridge was born, she would obey her doctor’s every directive.

“Then you must call me Caitlin, and my daughter-in-law is Morag, and we shall be comfortable together,” the duchess declared.

Eleanor smiled broadly. If these were Scots ways, then she much preferred them to the ways of the haut ton. “I am Eleanor,” she said.

Morag and Caitlin, and their husbands, are the lead characters in The Lost Treasure of Lorne, which will form part of my next collection of stories, Lost in the Tale. Lost in the Tale will also include The Lost Wife, My Lost Highland Lass, and possibly one or two others. If I get myself into gear, this will come out late next month or early in September.

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Tea with Prue Virtue

Today’s post is an excerpt from my latest novel, Revealed in Mist. (Click on the link to read the blurb and find buy links.)

Prue hesitated in the street outside her next destination. Callers needed to present their card at the gate, be escorted to the front door and delivered to the butler, then wait to be announced. On most days of the week, uninvited guests below a certain rank in society would have difficulty making it past the first obstacle, but on Thursday afternoons, the Duchess of Haverford was ‘at home’ to petitioners.

Past encounters had always been initiated by Her Grace. A scented note would arrive by footman, and Prue would obey the summons and receive the duchess’s commission. Though she was always gracious, never, by word or deed, had Her Grace indicated that she and Prue had any closer relationship than employer and agent.

The entrance and public rooms of Haverford House were designed to impress lesser mortals with the greatness of the family—and their own lesser status. Prue was ushered to a room just off the lofty entrance hall. Small by Haverford standards, this waiting area nonetheless dwarfed the people waiting to see the duchess.

Two women, one middle-aged and the other a copy some twenty years younger, nervously perched on two of the ladder-backed chairs lining one wall. Next to them, but several chairs along, a lean young man with an anxious frown pretended to read some papers, shuffling them frequently, peering over the tops of his spectacles at the door to the next room. Two men strolled slowly along the wall, examining the large paintings and conversing in low whispers. A lone woman walked back and forth before the small window, hushing the baby fretting on her shoulder.

Prue took a seat and prepared for a wait. She would not tremble. She had nothing to fear. Both Tolliver and David said so, and Aldridge, too. But how she wished the waiting was over.

It seemed a long time but was only a few minutes, before a servant hurried in and approached her.

“Miss Virtue? Her Grace will see you now.”

Prue gave the other occupants an apologetic nod and followed the servant.

The duchess received her in a pretty parlour, somehow cosy despite its grand scale. Prue curtseyed to her and the woman with her. Were all petitioners waved to a seat on an elegant sofa facing Her Grace? Addressed as ‘my dear’? Asked if they should care for a cup of tea?

“Miss Virtue takes her tea black, with a slice of lemon,” the duchess told her companion. Or was the woman her secretary?

“Miss Virtue, my companion, Miss Grant. Miss Grant, Miss Virtue has been of great service to me and to those I love. I am always at home to her.”

Was Miss Grant one of the army of relatives for whom Her Grace had found employment, or perhaps one of the dozens of noble godchildren she sponsored? The young woman did not have the look of either Aldridge or his brother, nor of their parents. Prue murmured a greeting.

“I was not expecting you, Miss Virtue, was I? Is anything wrong?”

“Nothing is wrong, Your Grace. I just… I have some questions, Ma’am.”

“You should have sent a note, my dear. I will always take time to see you. I was happy to give a good report of you to my friend Lady Georgiana, of course.” As she spoke, the duchess took the tea cup from Miss Grant and passed it to her.

“Your Grace, I would like to speak with you alone, if I may. I beg your pardon, Miss Grant. I do not mean to be discourteous.”

The duchess stopped her own cup partway to her lips and put it carefully back into the saucer, examining Prue’s face carefully.

When she spoke, it was to Miss Grant. “Celia, my dear, will you let those waiting know that I will be delayed…” she consulted her lapel watch, “…thirty-five minutes, but I will see them all today? Perhaps you could arrange refreshments for them? Return on the half hour, please. That is all the time I can spare, Miss Virtue. If you need longer, I will ask you to wait or return another day.”

Prue shook her head. “The time will be ample, Ma’am. Thank you.”

As Miss Grant left the room, Prue was silent, collecting her thoughts. The duchess waited.

“You knew. You have known all along.” Prue shifted uneasily. She had not intended to sound accusing.

The duchess inclined her head in agreement, her face showing nothing but calm.

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Tea with Anne

monday-for-tea

Lady Anne Stocke and her governess present themselves on the terrace at precisely three in the afternoon to find Her Grace already waiting for them.

“Anne, my dear. And Miss Henwood. Do take a seat. Are the little girls happily amused?”

Anne seats herself next to the duchess. “Indeed, Aunt Eleanor. Kitty has gone down into the village with Miss Stirling, and Meg is helping cook make gingerbread.”

farewell-to-kindness-ebook“Would you be kind enough to pour the tea, Anne?” the duchess asked, and sat back to watch the pretty picture that the girl made as she concentrated on the ritual. She was almost seventeen, and would make her debut not this Season but the next, sponsored by the duchess as her godmother. She would ‘take’, beyond a doubt. She was pretty and lively, with a good wit and a kind heart. And she was the daughter and sister of an earl, with a healthy inheritance in trust, to be paid on marriage or when Anne turned twenty-five.

Her brother the young Earl of Selby was a foolish young man,, barely more than a boy, and far too much in the company of the dissolute Earl of Chirbury for the Duchess of Haverford’s liking. And what Anne’s father had been thinking making Chirbury guardian to his children, she could not imagine! But he would not have the disposition of the Stocke girls. The duchess might not be able to do much about Chirbury’s influence over Anne’s brother, but she was determined that neither bachelor would have a voice in who was permitted to court dear Anne. Or Kitty either, when the time came.

“Thank you, dear,” she said, accepting the tea, made just the way she liked it. Yes. Anne would take very well.

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Little does Her Grace know, but Anne’s life is about to take a dramatic turn. Read Farewell to Kindness to meet her again seven years in the future.

Farewell to Kindness won the Romance Writers of New Zealand Great Beginnings Award in 2015. Click on the link to see the blurb and read the first three chapters.

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Tea with Sophia

monday-for-tea

On this fine afternoon in September, the duchess had ordered tea served on the terrace overlooking the rose garden. “We should enjoy the sunshine while we can,” she told her goddaughter, Lady Sophia Belvoir.

Sophia had been surprised—and somewhat disconcerted—to find she was the only guest. What was Aunt Eleanor up to?

But Her Grace discussed only the weather and the roses as she poured the tea and passed the cucumber sandwiches; tiny triangles of finely sliced bread with the cool crisp vegetable melting on the tongue.

Sophia took a sip of her tea. Ah. The finest oolong with just a touch of lemon. Aunt Eleanor never forgot.

At that moment, the duchess pounced. “Tell me about Lord Elfingham, my dear.”

Sophia’s hand jerked as she returned her cup to its saucer, and it clicked loudly. She blushed. At her clumsiness, of course, not at the mention of the young viscount who had been everywhere she went for months

“You met him even before most of London, his aunt tells me,” the duchess prompted.

“Not met, exactly,” she demurred. “We were not introduced.”

Aunt Eleanor said nothing; just raised her brows in question, and after a moment Sophia added, “I was visiting the orphanage at Bentwick. A child ran out of the gate into the road, and was almost run down by racing curricles. Lord Elfingham rescued the child and returned him to the- the orphanage servants.”

Appearing from nowhere just as she emerged from the gate and saw disaster unfolding before her. Riding down on the cowering boy right under the noses of the teams that threatened to trample the child underfoot. Scooping up the runaway and leaping to safety on his magnificent stallion. Fixing her in place with a fervent gaze from his dark eyes. Haunting her in dreams ever since.

“He has been pursuing Felicity,” she told Her Grace. “Hythe will not consider it.”

The duchess’s brows rose again. “Your sister Felicity? Are you certain? It is you his eyes follow when you are at the same entertainments, Sophia.”

For a moment, Sophia’s heart leapt, but Aunt Eleanor was wrong. She was too old for the marriage mart, and had not been as beautiful as Felicity even when she was a fresh young debutante. Besides, her brother the Earl of Hythe would not countenance the connection, whichever sister was being courted.

She shook her head, not trusting her voice. “May we speak of something else?” Which was rude, but Aunt Eleanor graciously allowed it.

“Very well. Let us discuss next week’s meeting to set up the fund for the education of girls. You will take the chair, my dear?”

******

Sophia is the heroine of The Bluestocking and the Barbarian in the Belle’s box set Holly and Hopeful Hearts, now on sale.

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Tea with Cedrica

monday-for-teaCedrica stared out of the window, but she saw nothing of the scene before her: the rectory garden, bounded by a low wall, and beyond it the village lane; the gray church through a small gate to her left, and on the right another gate leading to the rectory orchard.

The view was as familiar to her as the shape of her hand—she had known both her whole life. But she sat and looked into the future, and which was unfamiliar and had no shape at all.

Whatever was she to do?

At least here, the villagers knew what to expect from Papa when he wandered off, visiting from cottage to cottage all over the district, bewildered that the parishioners of his youth were not there to greet him; that his beloved Hannah, Cedrica’s mother, was nowhere to be found.

The children and grandchildren of those parishioners would bring Papa back home, where—until today—he recognised his daughter and came back at least a little to himself.

Today, he had stared at her blankly, and become angry when she insisted that she was Cedrica. “This is a cruel joke,” he told her, with great dignity. “I must insist you leave before you upset my wife by taunting her with her childless state.”

In the end, cook had taken him upstairs and put him to bed, and Cedrica had come to the study, filled with memories of the kindest father in the world. Her long-awaited birth had killed her mother, but her Papa made sure she never wanted for affection. How many evenings had she played on this very hearth rug while he wrote his sermon? Here, he told her stories, taught her to read, helped her with her first stumbling letters. Here, as she grew older, they worked side by side, Cedrica proud to help her father with his careful little monographs on English wild flowers, and his letters to other botanists all of Europe.

Where were they now, all those friends with whom he had corresponded? She had written to them and to everyone else she could think of when she and the good people of the village could no longer hide their dear rector’s increasing confusion. Few had replied. Those who did sent only good wishes.

Good wishes would not save Papa from the bishop’s plans to put them out from the only home Cedrica had ever known. Oh, his letter was polite enough. The new rector would require the rectory. Mr Cedric Grenford would be better off in a place where people of failing minds were cared for. The bishop would be happy to write Miss Grenford a recommendation for a position. Perhaps as a companion to someone elderly?

In desperation, Cedrica had written to the last person her father would wish help from—the distant cousin whose great grandfather had banished his son, her own grandfather, for the unpardonable crime of falling in love outside of his class and station.

But the Duke of Haverford, head of the Grenford family, had not replied.

Movement on the lane caught her attention; a magnificent coach, pulled by four black horses, perfectly matched down to the one white fetlock. The equipage was slowing, stopping, one of the two footmen up behind leaping down to open the door with its ornate crest, and put down the carriage steps.

First through the door was a tall man immacutely dressed in a coat that hugged his broad shoulders and pantaloons that hugged… Cedrica schooled her eyes to turn back to the door, as the man himself did, holding out his hand to assist a lady to ascend. A very fashionable lady.

A great lady, as Cedrica would have known by her wise eyes and her kind face, even without her escort, the carriage, and the servants.

The footman opening the gate, and the gentleman gave his arm to the lady and led her towards the rectory door.

Cedrica shook herself. The door. With cook upstairs and the maid on her half day, Cedrica must answer the door, and there. That was the knocker.

Refusing to speculate; refusing to hope; Cedrica hurried into the hall and checked her appearance in the tiny mirror. Reddened eyes. Old fashioned dowdy clothes. She could smooth her hair back under her cap, and she did, but she could do nothing about the rest.

With a sigh, she answered the door.

“Please tell Miss Grenford that the Duchess of Haverford has come to call,” said the man, barely glancing away from the duchess.

“I will… That is, I am…” Cedrica trailed off. She was sure the duchess had never in her life opened her own door. Despite her embarrassment, she could not take her eyes off her illustrious visitor.

The duchess was shorter than her, and elegant in a redingote of a deep wine red that matched the silk flowers inside the brim of her straw bonnet. Yes. Cedrica had been correct. The lady’s eyes were kind, her mouth curving in a gentle smile.

“I think, Aldridge, that this is Miss Grenford. Miss Grenford, allow me to present your cousin, my son, the Marquis of Aldridge.”

Startled, Cedrica turned to look at the man that most of England called the Merry Marquis. He did not look like a dissolute rake. Although, to her knowledge, she had not before met a member of that tribe.

He bowed, a graceful gesture at odds with his dancing hazel eyes.

“Miss Grenford, your humble servant.”

Servant. What must two such aristocrats think of her opening her own door? Cedrica blurted, “It is the maid’s day off, and cook is sitting with Papa.” She could feel her own blush, heating her all the way from the roots of her hair to her- her chest.

“Aldridge, find the kitchen, dear, and put on the kettle,” Her Grace ordered. “Miss Grenford—or may I call you Cedrica? Cedrica, come and sit down, my dear, and you and I shall have a cup of tea and discuss the safest place for your Papa, and the best place for you. You have family, Cedrica, and we will not let you down.”

Cedrica, following her new sponsor blindly into the shabby parlour, could not stop the tears, and in moments she was in the duchess’s arms, crying on her shoulder.

“There, there, Cedrica. You have been very brave, but you are not alone any more,” the duchess assured her.

It was a great deal to take in, but the situation was too strange not to be believed. A duchess was sitting in her parlour, the shoulder of her gown damp with Cedrica’s tears. And in her kitchen, a marquis was making the tea. Cedrica’s sobs stopped on a shaky laugh.

“I beg your pardon, Your Grace.”

“Call me Aunt Eleanor, Cedrica. For we shall become very close, you and I. I have what I think you need, my dear. And you are just the person that I need.”

EDITED TO ADD THE FOLLOWING

Cedrica Grenford is the heroine of A Suitable Husband, a novella in the Bluestocking Belles’ holiday box set, Holly and Hopeful Hearts. The vignette above is a prequel to the novella. Cedrica also appears in the other novellas in the set, as does Her Grace. That rogue Aldridge wanders in and out of the pages, too. Find out more on the Bluestocking Belles book page.

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