Tea with Sally

Today’s post is an excerpt from Never Kiss a Toad, a novel I’m writing with Mariana Gabrielle. Mari and I are posting it one chapter at a time on Wattpad, and this scene comes eleven chapters in.

Never Kiss a Toad on my Wattpad profile

Never Kiss a Toad on Mari’s Wattpad profile (we’re taking it in turn to post chapters, and she has the latest.

SPOILER ALERT: This book is set thirty years after my other books that include the Duchess of Haverford. You’ll note that Her Grace has remarried, and the the Marquis of Aldridge is now Duke of Haverford, married, and the father of a debutante daughter. If you’ve read my other books, feel free to guess their respective spouses.

Sally waited for a letter, but no letter arrived. Were the mothers right? She could not forget that David had said himself that he did not wish to marry. No. Not David. Toad. He has left, and he does not love me as I love him. I will never call him David again. Toad.

Sally was out of patience with her own tears, but did not seem to be able to control them.

Then, at last, the Duchess of Winshire came, chased everyone out of the room, and folded Sally in her silken embrace.

“Tell Grandmama about it, Sarah.” Her soothing voice opened the floodgates.

“He has gone, Grandmama. Toad has gone.” The last word was a wail.

“To school in Paris, my dear. Is that such a cause for grief? He has been away to school before, and will return.”

Sally pulled back to see the duchess’s face. Did she not know? “Papa says he will not be allowed near me again. So does Uncle Wellbridge.”

“Indeed?”

Grandmama coaxed the whole story from Sally, more even than Mama or Papa knew. Sally blushed to admit she had hoped to bind Toad to her, but somehow she told her grandmother nearly everything. Not exactly what Toad had done. Not that. But everything else.

The telling seemed to exhaust the tears. At the end, she waited patiently for Grandmama’s verdict, her heart calm for the first time since that night.

“Hmm,” Grandmama said. “It is not to be denied, dear Sally, that you have been very foolish. Young Abersham, too. As have all in this sorry situation, even your Mama and Aunt Bella; my son and Wellbridge perhaps most of all. Now, what to do?”

“Will you help us, Grandmama? Will you help us to marry?”

Grandmama patted her hand. “One day, my dear, when you and Abersham have both matured a bit, if you still want it. Not yet. You both have some growing up to do. But one day.”

Sally shook her head. “But I told you. Papa says he will choose a husband for me. I would rather die, Grandmama.”

Grandmama gave her a hug. “Do not worry, child. I will talk to Haverford about this ridiculous notion of marrying you against your will. And you barely out of the schoolroom. No. There shall be no forced marriage. Now. Wash your face, my dear, while I go and talk to your mother.”

Several years ago, Papa had installed a heating system, such as those used in factories where cold fingers might lead to mistakes that damaged the work. A series of brick stoves in the basement heated air that passed up through ducts into the rooms above. Sally had quickly realised that the duct feeding hot air into her sitting room ran past her mother’s private parlour on the floor below. If she lay on the floor next to the opening with the damper fully open, she could hear all that was said.

“I hope Mother Winshire can talk some sense into the child.” That was Aunt Bella.

“Heaven knows she will not listen to me or Anthony.” Mama, heaving a sigh.

“Ah. Bella. I am glad to find you with Cherry.” Grandmama had arrived. “I can say this once, and to both of you.” Last time Sally had heard that tone, she and Toad had just broken a vase in the drawing room at Wind’s Gate, after stealing Uncle Sutton’s fencing foils for a practice match while they thought the adults otherwise occupied.

“I am deeply disappointed in you both. My granddaughter is upstairs fading away because she misses her dear friend, and that sweet boy of yours is in Paris, undoubtedly throwing himself into every dissipation the city can offer because he misses her.”

Sally’s brow creased as she thought about that. She had been trying not to think of what Toad might be doing with other women. Because he missed her? That reason had not occurred to her.

The senior duchess continued. “I blame the two of you very much for allowing things to come to this pass. No, Bella, you will have your opportunity to speak, but you shall not interrupt. That the two fathers behaved like idiots goes without saying. Men can be fools when they are upset. But really, Cherry? Bella? Split them entirely? Refuse them any contact or any hope? Do you want them to imagine themselves star-crossed lovers, united against a cruel world? For undoubtedly, that is what you have achieved.”

Sally, her ear against the vent, could not easily nod, but Grandmama was right. She and Toad were alone and without allies. She heaved a sigh. It was so very sad.

“And as for this threat from my son to choose a husband for Sally, it is intolerable. You should have put a stop to it, Cherry, and since you have not, I will. To hand Sally off to another man when her heart is fixed on Abersham? Ridiculous.”

Cherry’s voice was more uncertain than Sally had heard it. “I have told Anthony so, Mother. He is concerned that Sally will behave with another man as she did—”

“I trust you told him he should be ashamed of himself. Thinking such things of his own daughter. She loves Abersham, of course, or she would never have invited such liberties as he would take.”

“He should not have taken any liberties,” Aunt Bella insisted. “I am ashamed of him.”

“He loves her. Loves her enough, I gather, to leave her a maid. Would you tell me Wellbridge took no liberties with you, Bella? Or Haverford with you, Cherry?”

“They are barely more than children, Eleanor,” Aunt Bella protested. “It is not the same thing.”

“I was fifteen when I fell in love with Winshire,” Grandmama said, her voice going soft with memory, “and seventeen—just Sally’s age—when my father and his conspired to exile him overseas and marry me to Haverford’s father.” Her tone sharpened. “I shall not see my granddaughter suffer as I did.”

“Should we have let them marry, then, as they demanded?” Mama protested. “Mother, they are not—

“No, no. I agree they are not ready to wed. Either of them. But to leave them without hope? That is not acceptable, my dears. Let them lead their separate lives for a while: Abersham at his studies, Sally in Society making her debut. Let them learn a little, grow a little. And if they are still of the same mind in a few years? If their feelings have not changed? Well. It is the match you always wanted, you cannot deny it.”

A few years. Sally would have fought that two weeks ago, but now it felt like a gift.

“Where is my son? I have a scold for him, too.”

“He is in his study with Wellbridge,” Mama said.

“Excellent. Come, ladies, we shall present a united front, bring these stubborn men into line, and then discuss what is best to be done.”

The room below fell silent as its occupants left, and Sally sat up from her uncomfortable position by the wainscoting. Hope. She could feel it taking root, spreading peace. She would not change, she was certain. She could not be so sure of Toad. David.

But if she were just allowed the right to refuse her suitors, there was hope.

 

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Royal Regard meets Encouraging Prudence – the whole sordid story

Author’s note: In the virtual worlds of historical fiction, authors create whole societies of characters, interacting with real historical events and even real people. But each virtual world sits alone, never touching the worlds of other authors. Until now.

Crock and bullThe Bluestocking Belles, as part of the launch of our new website for historical romance readers, created a magical coaching inn—fittingly called ‘The Crock and Bull’—a place for characters to meet from all of our books’ worlds and those of our guests.

Mariana Gabrielle and Jude Knight soon discovered that two of their characters knew one another well. Rather too well, according to all who knew them as young men.

During the course of the party, the Duke of Wellbridge and the Marquis of Aldridge  have referred on several occasions to an incident that saw them banned from an entire town, from the Prince of Wales’ presence, and even—for a time—from England. Until now, even the Duchess of Wellbridge hasn’t known the whole truth.

What was that mysterious event? How do Aldridge and Wellbridge know each other? Why has it been so long since they’ve spoken? Are they still keeping secrets?

Now, exclusively for readers of our blogs, Mariana Gabrielle and Jude Knight have co-written a small bit of backstory shared by a young Lord Nicholas Northope (from Royal Regard) and his protégé in crime, the Merry Marquis of Aldridge (who first appears in Jude Knight’s work-in-progress, Encouraging Prudence).

We will share sections of this scandalous story the week of March 8-13, leading up to the Bluestocking Ball on March 14.

TODAY, THE STORY IN ITS ENTIRETY:

The year is 1801 in Fickleton Wells, Somerset.

Anthony Grenford, the Marquis of Aldridge

Anthony Grenford, the Marquis of Aldridge

The Marquis of Aldridge, heir to the Duke of Haverford, is 21, just down from Oxford. Lord Nicholas Northope, second son of the Duke of Wellbridge has been, at 27, racketing about England unchecked a fair few years without much purpose. And the trajectories of both young lives are about to change.

“I don’t fancy hanging so much, myself.” Lord Nicholas Northope observes, rubbing his fingertips along his throat, the iron chains at his wrist clanking as he considered the length of his neck. “I always thought if Prinny ordered it, I’d be drawn and quartered or boiled in oil. I seem to bring out his bloodlust.”

Nick looks out the window. They have been imprisoned in an old Norman tower at the home of the local baron. Fortunately. With the entire town of Fickleton Wells on the rampage, the local gaol would not have been safe. Even from this place of relative safety, he can see angry townspeople keeping watch from beyond the gate.

The two young noblemen are sitting, cramped and freezing, in torn, grimy clothes, awaiting the Prince of Wales’ pleasure after rather an uproar in one of his royal townships. Wrist and ankle shackles clank at each gesture, chains long enough to allow considered movement, but short enough to impede them if they run.

Back to the wall on the cold stone floor, Lord Aldridge, the Merry Marquis, tosses out, casually, “I don’t qualify for silk myself, you know. I’m just using my father’s second title. Hemp for me, same as you,” Nick thinks Aldridge is taking rather a ghoulish interest in the possible mechanics of his death. “Though I did rather fancy Madame La Guillotine if I were ever put to death. There is something so divinely aristocratic about it.”

“It seems one can only play so many pranks on a monarch,” Nick opines, “before one’s neck is stretched.”

“It wasn’t our fault. Those women…” Aldridge shudders. “I can’t have swived more than three or four, surely? We only had them to ourselves for one evening, after all.”

“I can’t possibly have swived all of them. Though perhaps half… There were… how many? Fifteen? Surely not.”

“I don’t remember much after the dancing. They danced beautifully, didn’t they? The rector’s daughters?”

Both men fell into rather a trance for a few minutes, remembering the plump thighs and comely smiles of the rector’s twelve lovely, lonely daughters.

“Nick, we didn’t do anything… dishonorable… Did we? They won’t really hang us? And the prince—he wouldn’t… Hell, Nick, I played with his little brothers and sisters from the time I could toddle.”

Nicholas Northope, later the Duke of Wellbridge

Nicholas Northope, later the Duke of Wellbridge

Nick shrugged, “And I might have married Sophia. You will do best not to remind him you might have touched his younger sisters with the same hands you used to defile the rector’s daughters. In fact, Aldridge, speaking as a man six years older and wiser, you will not want to mention the princesses—or defiling—at all.”

He can’t keep his chained hands away from his neck.

“My head feels very fuzzy,” Aldridge complains. “Nick, how many hands am I holding up? And what is that elephant doing in the corner?”

“Prinny won’t be fooled by false deliria. I’ve tried it once already and he caught me out by calling a physician.”

Aldridge subsides, grumbling. “Is it not worth trying? And how very like you to steal a man’s alibi before he even has the chance to use it.”

Perhaps Aldridge has a point. “The gin did have rather a sharp taste, to be sure, though. Did you not think?”

Aldridge straightens, clearly prepared to synchronize their stories. “Yes, of course. Assuredly. Quite sharp indeed.”

Nick laughs and shakes his finger. “Do not lie to your sovereign, Aldridge, and if you must, never so poorly as that. The mayor, the rector, and the squire have truth on their side. There can be no doubt of our guilt. I did visit the squire’s wife, and you did enjoy the mayor’s younger sister, no matter what we might or might not remember about the rector’s daughters. We both knew the town was on the prince’s estate—is that not why we were there? To avoid our fathers’ holdings? No, my friend, we’ve been well and truly served up for His Royal Highness’s supper.”

Aldridge utters an expletive, and sinks his head in his hands.

A sound outside the tower room brings them both to their feet. A key turns in the lock.

The Duke of Haverford brushes past the burly guard who opens the door. “Out!” he barks.

Lord Nicholas Northope is no stranger to the ducal disposition and backs into a corner first thing, a tactical error he started making in childhood and has never outgrown. Aldridge, the son of this particular angry duke, stays at rigid attention, which does not avert the ducal fire.

“You miserable, self-indulgent, beef-witted nodcocks! What on earth possessed you? What were you thinking? Don’t answer that. You were not thinking!” Nick and Aldridge shrink, inch by inch, to the size of ten-year-olds. “Northope, I blame you for this mess. Show the boy the town, I said. Give him a good time. Keep him out of trouble. What the hell do you mean by it, eh?”

If Aldridge thinks Nick will step forward to do the honorable thing and admit his part, he has lost his bloody mind.

“Aldridge,” the duke barks as his heir begins to edge to one side. “Stand, boy. I’ll get to you.” The last is uttered in a low steady monotone.

Nick sinks ever-deeper into the corner he should have abandoned when he had the chance.

“Listen to me, and listen well, you buffle-brained nincompoops. You have been banned from Fickleton Wells! Banned! The sons of two of the greatest men in the Commonwealth banned from an English town. How on earth did this happen?”

Nick clears his throat and still manages to squeak, “Patent medicine, Sir, I swear it!” He shoulders his way out of the corner, determined to give his lies confidence. “In the… in the gin… we were… we were poisoned! The brandy, too, I’ll wager. Lucky to be alive… Surely cannot be held responsible for…”

“Rubbish, Northope. Rubbish! I’ll tell you how it happened. You let a pack of women lead you by your willies. Yes, you did. Your father and I have talked to them. And paid them off, the bitches. Because…” he walks right up and taps Nick’s chest as he makes his point. “You. Let. Them. Fool. You.”

Nick’s hand runs around his neck again.

“Your Grace,” Aldridge has suddenly realized that they wouldn’t be banned if they were to be hanged. This has given him an altogether overly optimistic sense of confidence. “They say they are pregnant, Your Grace.” Haverford’s head swivels dangerously in Aldridge’s direction. “It can’t be us, Your Grace. It’s only been a week since we arrived, and surely, virile as we are, we cannot each have impregnated a dozen women in a week? Surely, not even Your Grace could—”

Nick suddenly realizes the benefit of being six years wiser.

Haverford turns all his attention on his son and heir, and Aldridge’s confidence shrinks to a needle point.

“They claim you have been visiting them for months,” Haverford explains, his suddenly gentle tones a sure sign that Aldridge is about to be very, very sorry. And then even sorrier than that.

While Aldridge tries to duck out of sight, Nick moves to a position well away from any more corners. He is a grown man, for heaven’s sake. And there are plenty of places to stand.

“I haven’t finished with you, Northope.”

“Months?” Nick responds, shaking his head, straightening his cuffs. “You’ve been coming here months, Aldridge?”

“Not I, Your Grace. It’s a lie.” Aldridge squeaks.

“I, on the other hand,” Nick offers, “just came to Fickleton Wells for a prize fight. At least that is why your son told me he was bringing me here. If he had another purpose… well… I cannot speak to that…”

Haverford casts his eyes to heaven. “No honor among thieves or scoundrels. Did the Duke of Wellbridge’s wife play him false with the village idiot? Aldridge, if your mother weren’t a saint I would swear you couldn’t be mine.”

Aldridge is casting Nick a look of deep betrayal. “Nick, how could you?”

Nick relents. There is no need to leave all the blame on Aldridge. “Admittedly, Your Grace, we had a bit more gin than two gentlemen should… But I would swear Aldridge and I were both unknown to them. And the gin had quite a sharp taste, rather like… patent medicine. I can’t help but think they are lying.”

“Of course they are lying.” Haverford throws up his hands in despair. “And of course they set out to trap you. And of course they drugged you. And of course you would drink anything put in front of you! Do you think I’m as big a fool as the two of you? But they have the whole town believing them, and the prince half believes them, too.”

“The prince,” Nick gulps. “What is Wales going to do to us?”

Haverford ignores him to continue his version of a fatherly sermon. “I have told you before, Aldridge. And you should listen, too, Northope. Never, ever, indulge yourself with the lower gentry or the middle sort. Servants, yes. Farmers’ wives and such. But never with people who can embarrass me… you. Keep a mistress. Keep ten; your allowance is large enough. Just don’t let your mother know, and stay away from the middle sort. One of our own, if you must, and if she has done her duty by her Lord. But never the middle sort. You have embarrassed me. You have embarrassed Wellbridge. And you have embarrassed the Prince of Wales.”

“On the topic of, er… Wellbridge… Sir?” Nick’s tentative voice demonstrated not an ounce of the Eton/Oxford poise he was so fond of displaying. “Did my, er… father… say what he would do? And Wales? What has he decided?”

“If it were up to me, and if Aldridge weren’t—God help the Haverford name—my heir, you’d both hang. But Prinny is inclined to be generous. I have no idea why.” He fixes Aldridge with another glare. “Your mother may have spoken to him.”

That brought up a very good point.

“Sir, Your Grace,” Nick asks, “might it be possible to bring this up with the Duchess of Wellbridge, not the duke?”

“There will be no discussion of anything with you, Northope. The king discussed it with Prinny, who discussed it with me and Wellbridge; we discussed it with your mothers, and the petty provincials in Fickleton Wells discussed it the length and breadth of England! You are asked not to find yourselves in the royal presence until such time as you are requested. You are further banned, until the general sense of noble fury is abated, from all of Prinny’s estates, his father’s, your father’s, and mine.

“Which. Will. Not. Be. Difficult.” Haverford’s finger drives the point home, “as you are both leaving England. Northope, your father has booked passage and suggests your long-delayed Grand Tour commence immediately on conclusion of this interview. Aldridge will be going to my estate in Outer Strathclyde, to study the wool trade. It is time he took a hand in estate business.”

“But Your Grace, isn’t Outer Strathclyde… didn’t you complain that you can’t seem to keep anyone there under the age of sixty?”

“Outer Strathclyde,” Nick snickers.

Aldridge looks hunted. “Outer Strathclyde,” he whimpers.

“Live to a ripe old age, they do in those parts. Something to do with the fine crisp air. Of course, all the young people have long since gone. But you could learn a lot there, Aldridge.”

“But Your Grace. You said you would never go there because you couldn’t get a woman to…” Aldridge’s voice trails off. Nick thinks he would have been better not to have opened his mouth.

Haverford, though, just smirks. “Precisely. And so the estate is neglected. But now I have no need to go. My ungrateful son—who could clearly do with fewer women—will represent me instead. And you, Northope…”

Nick knows exactly where he will be going, and if he can go without the ducal blessing, so much the better.

“Hanover, I presume?” he shrugs.

Nick has been recently considering a visit to his old friend, Adolphus, the viceroy, and Prinny will have no objection to Nick causing trouble in his brother’s viceregal Court. Northope second sons have a tradition of travel; it is how the French and Italian titles were acquired, and Nick will be more than delighted to continue the custom. Unexpected, given his brother’s infirmity, but not at all unwelcome. He does hope his father allows him a valet and enough money to eat well.

“Aldridge, you will not disappoint me,” Haverford’s mere tone of voice is a threat to both men… er, boys, who thus comply with the two burly servants come to escort the young lords to their respective transports.

“This is so unfair,” Aldridge hisses to Nick as they are separated. “You are being given the freedom of the globe, while I am being sent into celibate exile in a community of geriatric woollen weavers.”

Nick cannot help but grin. Aldridge is bearing the real punishment for their prank, and Nick is being rewarded with a merry jaunt across the Continent and no way for his father to object to it.

“I’ll remember this day, Northope,” Aldridge calls, as his keepers escort him away. “And I vow my exile will be a short one.”

Nick vows his might last forever.

***

To attend the Bluestocking Ball with Aldridge, Nick (who is now, himself, Wellbridge, at the wise old age of fifty), and dozens of other historical romance characters, go to the Bluestocking Belles’ Housewarming Party, March 14, 12 noon – 8 pm EDT.

Facebook Housewarming Party (The Bluestocking Ball): https://www.facebook.com/events/391482931013517/

Twitter Chat (the Parlour): Follow @BellesInBlue #BellesInBlue

Web Chat (the Solarium) on the Bluestocking Belles Website

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