Tea with Callie

Her Grace has heard about the wedding, and sent her carriage and her companion to the hotel Magnus chose as a refuge for the rescued bride. Caroline Thrushnet was carried off to Haverford House to be cossetted, cherished, and prepared for a second wedding, to Magnus and not Lewis, in a few days time.

Now she has followed the footman assigned to wait in the corridor outside her bed chamber, and is being ushered into a small private sitting room, clearly the domain of the duchess, who waits for her behind a large tea tray.

“Miss Thrushnet, come and sit down, my dear. Tea?”

“It would be welcome, Your Grace. I hardly know whether I am on my head or my heels.”

“Indeed. You have sustained several shocks in quick succession.”

That was putting it mildly. First being forced to marry Lewis, who had cruelly closed all other avenues when he threatened Nanny, the only person Callie had left to love. Then being rescued moments before the vows by a man she thought long since dead. And now contemplating marriage to that man, who swore that marriage to him was her only safety.

The duchess asked how Callie took her tea, and busied herself preparing a cup. “Fenchurch is my godson, Miss Thrushnet. He was a fine boy, but his sufferings have changed him. If you wish to marry him, you may do so from Haverford House. If not, then you may remain here with me.”

“But Lewis, Mr Colbrooke…” Lewis had threatened to tell the whole world that she was his whore, and she could not deny that she had lived in his house, though he had done no more than tell her in salacious detail what he would do when they were wed.

The duchess patted her hand. “I cannot deny that marriage to the Earl of Fenchurch is the best answer to his cousin’s lies, my dear. But I am not without my own resources. If you do not wish to marry Fenchurch, we shall contrive.”

Callie is the heroine of Magnus and the Christmas Angel, a story in my forthcoming collection Lost in the Tale. Magnus and the Christmas Angel is set six months after Magnus and Callie marry, and tells how they became reconciled. The excerpt that follows is from a start I made to turn the short story into a full novel or novella.

He was always correct and pleasant in front of others, and she made certain to stay in company as much as she could, but if he caught her alone she could expect to be stroked, fondled, squeezed, even pinched. And at any time she could expect him to sidle up beside her, and bend to whisper in her ear.

Such disgusting things: what he planned to do to her, what he would teach her to do to him. ‘Train’ her, he said, as if she were a dog to be brought to heel or a filly to be taught manners with a curb rein.

One of his delights was to speculate about whether he should wait until after their wedding to introduce her to her marital duties, and each night she propped a chair under the handle to prevent his entrance. Not that such a measure did more than postpone the inevitable, but at least she did not have to fear him entering to rape her while she slept. Nanny had insisted on sleeping in the dressing room, but her presence would not dissuade Lewis if he had not chosen to stay away for his own purposes.

Nor did he do more than frighten and dismay her during her waking hours. No mercy, that. He wanted to give her fear time to build, and it had worked. Now, as each turn of the carriage wheels carried her closer to the church and the vows that would imprison her for life, she fantasised about hurling herself screaming from the carriage and throwing herself at the knees of the kindest looking passer-by to beg refuge. Only the knowledge that the alternative might be even worse—for Nanny, if not for her—kept her in her seat. That, and the watchful presence of Lewis’s guard dogs.

The ride was interminable and over too soon. She climbed the steps of St George’s, flanked by the footmen, and entered at the back of the huge church; walked the great empty length of the nave towards the small crowd of Lewis’s hangers-on, sycophants, and cronies.

They watched her approach, avid-eyed, spectators at her execution. They believed her to be Lewis’s mistress already; had she not lived in his house these past six weeks? For some reason of his own, he had taken her to a hotel when they came up to London yesterday, but her reputation could now only be restored by this marriage.

She kept her back straight, her face calm; stilled the trembling of her hands by sheer force of will. No one would know she was afraid. No one but Lewis, who knew and was pleased.

When she was close enough, Lewis grabbed her hand and squeezed hard enough to leave bruises, digging in his fingers. She hid her wince, but the minister noticed and frowned, and frowned still further when Lewis instructed him to begin.

“She’s here. Get on with it man. Splice me to the damn chit. I have other engagements this afternoon, and a wife’s maidenhead to breach before I can get to them.”

“Sir!” The minister was horrified. “Your rudeness is not to be tolerated in this sacred place, and in the presence of a lady. Miss Thrushnet, such lack of respect does not bode well. It does not indeed. I urge you to consider carefully before you proceed.”

Callie shook her head. “I have no choice. Do it quickly, please.”

The minister  shook his head, but he began the words of the service. Callie barely listened, until he reached the point that he spoke to the congregation, almost, it seemed, begged the congregation. “If any of you know cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in Holy Matrimony, ye are to declare it.”

He fell silent and waited. If only someone would speak up! They would not, of course, but even so Callie turned to look at those witnessing this travesty of a wedding, ignoring Lewis’s foul words as the minister ignored his commands to proceed.

The door to the church crashed back, and a large angry man shouldered his way past Lewis’s footmen, beating them off with his walking stick and shouting, “Stop the wedding!”

His face. Callie knew that face. This was a man, and not a stripling boy, and barbaric black whorls and dots disfigured all of one side—forehead, cheek, chin, and half the nose. But she would have known him had the tattoos covered all, by his resemblance to his father and by the leap of her heart as he fought his way furiously up the nave of the church.

Magnus. It was Magnus returned from the dead to save her.

Her head felt light, and then the world spun around her and went black.

The minister caught Callie as she fell, fainting at the horror his face had become. He would have to explain. The men on the ship that rescued him grew used to his tattoos during the long voyage home. Could Callie?

But no time for that now, with Lewis shaking his fist in Magnus’s face and demanding he be removed, not that anyone seemed anxious to oblige him. Lewis’s lackeys were unconscious on the ground at the back of the church; the onlookers eyed Magnus’s stick warily, and his grin with even more caution.

Magnus looked Lewis up and down and his grin broadened. The monster who had made his youth a torment was now six inches shorter than him, and showing signs of dissipation in his broadening girth, his soft jowls. While he indulged every vice in London, Magnus had survived shipwreck, fought to earn his entrance into the elite of a warrior culture, and worked his way home from the other side of the world on a naval vessel.

Lewis turned his shoulder, ostentatiously. “Get on with it,” he told the minister. “This madman has nothing to do with us,”

The minister had lowered Callie to the ground and now stood protectively over her. His words were addressed to Magnus. “Who are you, sir? And what cause or impediment do you bring?”

Lewis argued. “He is mad, I tell you. Will no one rid us of this violent lunatic?”

Magnus ignored his cousin, but raised his voice for the benefit of the onlookers. “I am Magnus Colbrooke, Earl of Fenchurch, and this lady is my betrothed.”

Amid exclamations and questions from the onlookers, and shouted imprecations and denials from Lewis, the minister and Magnus locked gazes for a long moment. Then the minister nodded, and turned his attention to Callie, who was stirring.

Magnus had to attend to Lewis and one of the footmen, who had recovered from the blow that knocked him out and was gamely approaching again. He backed off when Magnus shook the stick at him, more frightened of another blow than of his master, who was red faced and hissing like a steam kettle.

“This is not my cousin,” Lewis shouted. “My cousin is dead. I am the Earl of Fenchurch.”

Magnus would have known Callie’s voice anywhere, though maturity had given it a depth and richness. “My dear Fenchurch,” she said, and the church hushed as everyone turned to listen. She was shaking off the minister’s supporting hand, crossing to Magnus with her hands outstretched in welcome. “You are very welcome. Sir,” she glanced back at the minister, ignoring the avid audience, “this is indeed Magnus Colbrooke, Earl of Fenchurch, and my betrothed.”

Another surge of comment from the rabble, which Magnus did not bother to untangle, instead enjoying the sensation of Calllie’s soft hand in his, and keeping a watchful eye on Lewis and his henchman.

Lewis was shaking his head. “No. I don’t know where you found him, Caroline, but this masquerade won’t work, and you will pay for it in the end.”

“You will be receiving notice from my lawyer, Lewis. I am returned, and I will be taking back my own.” Magnus gave Callie’s hand a comforting squeeze. “Starting with my betrothed, but also my houses, my estates,” he looked pointedly at Lewis’s hand, “my signet ring.”

“I deny it. I deny it.” Lewis shook his fist at the minister, who was smiling. “Do you hear me? I deny it.” He threw a threatening look at Callie. “You came here to marry me. I demand that you marry me. You promised.”

Magnus took a step towards the cur, but Callie pulled on his hand and spoke her own defiance. “I came here to marry the Earl of Fenchurch, to whom I was betrothed before he left for the ends of the earth. I stand ready to do so.” She looked up at the unscarred side of Magnus’s face and smiled. “For here he is.”

“Now?” Magnus asked. “I am willing.”

The minister, though, was shaking his head. “Miss Thrushnet, I cannot wed you to any man today. The impediment to your marriage to Mr Colbrooke is clear, and the name on the licence must be changed if you are to marry another man.”

Lewis blustered some more, but Callie ignored him, thanking the minister politely.

“I am staying at Grillions, Fenchurch,” she said. “Shall we return there so that we can talk in private?”

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Cover reveal Lost in the Tale

I’m nearly ready to release my 2017 collection of made-to-order stories. I have the stories and the cover, and I’m just waiting for the proofread files and a bit of time to set up the pre-release. No date yet, but it looks like it’ll be early September.

The short stories in the collection have only been available as print books, on Wattpad, or to party goers and newsletter subscribers as ebooks. The novella has so far been seen only by the giveaway winner who gave me the ingredients.

Like Hand-Turned Tales, Lost in the Tale will be free at all eretailers as soon as I can persuade Amazon to drop from 99c.

The Lost Wife: Teri’s refuge had been invaded: by the French, who were trying to conquer their land, and by wounded soldiers from the English forces sent to fight Napoleon’s armies. The latest injured man carried to her for nursing would be a bigger challenge than all the rest: he had once broken her heart. (short story)

The Heart of a Wolf: Ten years ago, Isadora lied to save her best friend, and lost her home and the man she loved when he would not listen to her. Ten years ago, Bastian caught his betrothed in the arms of another man, and her guilt was confirmed when she fled. Ten years on, both still burn with anger, but the lives of innocent children and the future of their werewolf kind demand that they work together. (short story)

My Lost Highland Love: Interfering relatives, misunderstandings, and mistranslations across a language barrier keep two lovers from finding one another again. The Earl of Chestlewick’s daughter comes to London from her beloved Highlands to please her father, planning to avoid the Englishman who married her and abandoned her. The Earl of Medford comes face-to-face with a ghost; a Society lady who bears the face of the Highland lass who saved his life and holds his heart. (short story)

Magnus and the Christmas Angel: Scarred by years in captivity, Magnus has fought English Society to be accepted as the true Earl of Fenchurch. Now he faces the hardest battle of all: to win the love of his wife. A night trapped in the snow with an orphaned kitten, gives Callie a Christmas gift: the chance to rediscover first love with the tattooed stranger she married. (short story)

The Lost Treasure of Lorne: For nearly 300 years, the Normingtons and the Lorimers have feuded, since a love affair ended in a curse that doomed dead Lorimers to haunt their home, the Castle of Lorne.

Now the last Marquis of Lorne, the last of the Lorimers, is one of those ghosts, and the Duke of Kendal, head of the House of Normington, holds the castle.

Kendal doesn’t care about the feud or the ghosts. He wants only to find the evidence that will legitimate the son his Lorimer bride bore him before her death, and to convince his stubborn housekeeper to marry him.

But the time allotted to the curse is running out, and his happiness depends on finding the Lost Treasure of Lorne before the 300 years draws to a close. (novella)

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Letters on WIP Wednesday

letter writerIn these days of email, instant messaging, Skype, and a myriad of other ways to connect with our loved ones, we find it hard to imagine how much distant separated families and lovers in the past, and how important letters were to keep them connected.

I am working with my friend Mariana Gabrielle on Never Kiss a Toad (being published in parts on Wattpad), where the lovers are separated for years, with letters the only contact they’re permitted, and those vetted by the heroine’s father. But my piece today is not from Toad, but from one of my short stories. I wrote Magnus and the Christmas Angel for a prize as part of my support for Cat Day, and I’m currently rewriting it as a novella, to bring some of the backstory into the foreground.

As always, share your excerpts about keeping in touch: any method, from letters and verbal messages through modern social media and the telephone, to the ansible or whatever other sci-fi device your imagination has given future heroes and heroines.

Mine doesn’t quote a letter. Instead, they’re discussing years of lettersMagnus and the Christmas Angel.

Magnus remembered her letters? From the day he left, she had written to him. A few lines a day, a letter a week, a bundle of letters posted every month. Trivial stories of a country girl on her ordinary daily round. And he had written back, letters from all down the coast of Africa, then up the other side and into Asia, and across the Pacific. Letters full of exotic stories and drawings of strange and wonderful places.

How boring he must have found her dull and commonplace ramblings.

“I kept writing,” she blurted. Letter after letter, at first sent in the hopes the missing ship would finally appear, and later put into the chest where she kept the much read, much cried over letters he had written in return.

“After my ship went down?” Magnus asked, his eyes warm.

Until the evening before her date at the altar to marry Magnus’s cousin. That letter, much smudged where she wept on it, and creased where she crushed it in her hands, lay with the others in her chest at the Abbey.

Callie nodded.

“I should like to read them,” Magnus said.

Callie shook her head, helplessly. Her domestic ramblings, her outpouring of grief after her father died, her increasing desperation as her brother spiralled down into ruin, stripping the estate to spend his wealth and eventually her dowry on horses, gambling, drink, loose women, and ever more extravagant schemes to rescue their fortunes. Abetted and egged on by his dear friend Lewis Colbrooke, who somehow always seemed to be the winner in any game of chance, and to come unscathed out of any risky venture. Until the swine won even the deeds to Blessings, and Callie took refuge with Squire Ambrose and his wife.

Magnus took her shake as refusal. “Not if you do not wish me to,” he said, the warm eagerness in his eyes turning to disappointment.

“I am afraid you will find them dull,” she explained. And far too revealing. She had censored nothing, thinking no-one would ever see them.

“Never dull.” The warmth had returned to Magnus’s eyes, and his voice slowed to the meditative tones, like rich brandied honey, that always sent a shiver through her. “They were home to me, Callie. I read them over and over and again, until they were thin with touching, and they brought me here, to Blessings and to the Abbey; to my own land, and to you. When the ship went down, I had your latest package of letters with me, inside my shirt, and as they hauled me out of the water, all I could think of was that I had a little part of you still with me.”

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Disagreements on WIP Wednesday

lady in snow broughtonI nearly forgot to post my work in progress Wednesday post! Does it still count if it is Thursday in a fair part of our spinning world?

Today’s topic is the conflict that stops our romance story from being over before it even begins! Have you ever read a story that went: they met, loved at first sight, married with the blessings of all their family and friends, and lived peaceful and prosperous lives? All very nice for the participants, but not at all exciting!

My sample comes from the made-to-order story I am writing for the person who won my cat day story. My heroine has just found her husband holding the body of her pet cat, and has leapt to an immediate conclusion.

A gasp behind him told him he was no longer alone; a voice he knew, a scent he would recognise till the day he died even if he never smelled it again, composed of the herbs she strewed among her clothes, the flower oils she used to scent her soap, and something that was ineffably Callie.

He turned to meet blazing blue-green eyes in a white face. “Imp! You brute, Magnus! What have you done?”

“I just found her, Callie. She must have been trying to bring the kitten home.”

The name just slipped out. She had told him that first day, after he had interrupted her wedding and proposed himself as groom, that no-one called her Callie anymore. So he honoured her wish, and called her Caroline. But in his heart, she would always be Callie.

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We interrupt this programme for a cuteness overdose

white-kittenI’ve sent the last story of Hand-Turned Tales off to the beta readers, and received the first feedback, which gives me sufficient confidence to finally announce a date!

My new permafree sampler book (three short stories and a novella), Hand-Turned Tales will be published as an ebook on 16 December, and as a print book with a price set for cost recovery as soon after as can be managed. Click on the link above to read about the four stories.

Meanwhile, I’ve been working on another made-to-order story, written for the winner of the Cat Day giveaway. She wanted a wounded or disabled hero, a pretty heroine, and arranged marriage, and a cat named Angel. Here’s how it starts:

Magnus and the Christmas Angel

Imp was not in the house. She had not been accidentally shut in the cellars or the attic or any of the dozen unused bedrooms, frozen in a state of readiness for guests who never came.

The children of the Fenchurch Abbey estate had searched high and low, and brought a score of cats for Callie to inspect, hoping to win the reward.

None of them were Imp.

She was not in the stables, or the dairy, or any of the sheds or other outbuildings. Callie had questioned all the servants who had cottages near the main house, and none of them had somehow acquired an elegant, imperious, elderly, and very pregnant black cat.

Or not so pregnant now. Imp had gone missing four weeks ago. Somewhere, she had nested and produced her litter. Somewhere—and half an hour ago, Callie had suddenly had an idea about where. They had not lived at Blessings for more than a year, and Imp had birthed two litters since then, her latest at Fenchurch Abbey (in Magnus’s dressing room on his cravats). But perhaps she had returned to the place that had been home for most of her life?

Callie shivered, and pulled her shawl further forward over her head. She had run impetuously from the house without first checking the weather, and without telling her maid where she was going, thinking she would not be long.

The clouds had looked ominous, but her childhood home was only a brisk walk away; she could be there, find her cat, and be back well before dark. She was not a fool. She wore a rain cape, and it never snowed this far south as early as Christmas Eve. Except, it seemed, this year.

Perhaps it would remain a few stray flakes, melting before they reached the ground, but the sky was black and heavy, and she feared she would not make it back to Fenchurch Abbey before the snow began in earnest.

The servants would fret if she stayed at Blessings overnight. Magnus would neither know nor care. He had spent more time in London than at the Abbey since their wedding. Proving his identity so he could take up his title, he said. This was true, but avoiding his unwanted wife was doubtless also on his list of reasons.

 

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