Tea with Toad

In this excerpt from Never Kiss a Toad, Eleanor Haverford has travelled to Paris shortly after her granddaughter has been compromised and her honorary great-nephew, Toad, has been sent away in disgrace.

Never Kiss a Toad is a Victorian novel I’m co-writing with Mariana Garbrielle and publishing one episode a week on Wattpad.

Toad felt the heat rising in his cheeks. At eighty, Aunt Eleanor had an old woman’s tendency to truth-telling, which made her one of his favourites among Sally’s relations, but could be deuced uncomfortable.

“It is always good to see you, of course, Aunt Eleanor, but I am confused. How long have you been in Paris? Have we an appointment I have forgotten?”

“My, my, Abersham. Demanding an appointment of a duchess four times your age? Winshire and I realized we had similar problems to be addressed in France and popped over for a few days.” Eleanor took a sip of her tea. “As for my problem, I am dissatisfied with the information I have gathered about the liberties you took with my granddaughter.”

He stared at her with his mouth flapping, unsure what to say. “Haverford told you?” He flushed and stood to pace before the fire, running his hand through his hair in a gesture he shared with his father. “You? I cannot believe he would…” He stopped and stared at her in horror. “It hasn’t become generally known, has it? She’s not been ruined?”

“No, it has not, praise heaven. Most of my information comes from Sally herself. Haverford told me only what I could glean from monosyllables; Wellbridge still less, but at volume. Cherry and Bella were somewhat more forthcoming, but they naturally do not wish to make themselves or their husbands appear culpable, and they may well be. So, yours is the last viewpoint I must consider.”

Toad looked around and took his pacing to the fire, where he added a shovel of coal.

“How do you fare here in Paris, my boy? Are you well and happy?”

Toad opened his mouth to answer, then closed it, then opened it again, but still did not speak. He finally said, “I am well, Aunt Eleanor. You?”

She sighed. “A little tired, dear.” She patted his hand to reassure him. “Sally made her debut last week, and I find I do not recover from late nights as quickly as I once did.” At Sally’s name, his hand jerked as if burned, and she withdrew hers, watching him closely.

He stiffened and looked away. “I am sure it was… lovely.”

“It was and she was, which is what you most and least wish to hear, I expect.” He ran a hand through his hair as she said, in an annoyingly blithe tone, “I have launched debutantes before, of course, but few as fetching. These modern fashions suit her very well. In white, of course, which is a very hard colour to wear well, but Sally has the hair and complexion for it. She wore the Haverford pearl-and diamond parure, of course, and her gloves, fan, and shawl were all silver. She was a fairy princess, Abersham, all moonbeams and stardust.”

He smiled and swallowed hard, caught up in envisioning his beloved in a wedding gown. “I love to see her in white.”

Aunt Eleanor snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Abersham. Abersham! Are you addled, boy? I said… I wish to hear from you.”

“What do you wish me to say?”

Her exasperated look was tinged with affection. “Silly boy. The truth, of course, as you see it, about your unfortunate plans for the ravishment and elopement of my granddaughter.”

She had timed it to the sip of his brandy. She must have, so skilfully did she make him choke. Once finished coughing, he started, “I am surprised she spoke of it. Is she…”

He was so close to the information he sought that his heart beat faster. “Can you tell me; is she well? Does she think of me fondly, or have I hurt her irreparably? I cannot tell a thing from the letters she writes under Haverford’s eye.”

“She is certainly better than she was when I arrived back in London, but still not back to her old self. Of course, she is proud; she will put on a good show.”

Before Toad could respond, a knock at the door revealed Blakeley. “My lord, as you requested earlier, dinner will be ready in three-quarters of an hour, if it pleases you.”

He looked over at Aunt Eleanor with one cocked brow. “Will you stay for dinner?”

“Thank you, Abersham. I am not dressed to dine, but if you will not regard it, nor will I.”

Once Blakeley had gone and shut the door behind him, Aunt Eleanor began again. “I would have your side of the story, dear lad, before I am too old to comprehend it.”

He laughed a bit harshly. “I set out to make Sally my wife and was thwarted and exiled. What more is there to say?”

She finished her tea, put her cup back on the saucer, then examined him carefully. “That was why you met her, was it? You compromised her to force a marriage?”

He flushed and turned his eyes away. “No! I did not mean to compromise her. Nor to marry… not yet, anyway… not from the first… but… soon after.”

Eleanor held out both hands to Toad and when he took them, said, “Collect yourself, Abersham.”

He took a breath and pulled his hands back. “She sent a note and said she needed my help. I thought she was planning a prank, or escaping her governess for an afternoon, and of course, I would help her with anything of the sort she asked.”

Her lips twitched. “Of course you would. And instead of coaxing you into a lark, she was curious about kissing.”

He gave a short nod, turning away from her incisive stare.

“And you agreed… Why?”

He stammered and rose to pace again. “She is… I had never thought she would… I mean…” He finally stopped and looked her in the eye. “She is everything to me, Your Grace, and has been since we were ten—before that, probably—and I hadn’t any idea she felt the same. I always thought she looked at me as… a friend… a brother. I thought we would marry. Our parents have talked of nothing else for years. But I wouldn’t think of seducing her. I just assumed she would… I assumed the love of a man and wife would grow from friendship… after we wed. After I could… show her my devotion without causing her dishonour.” He blushed and stammered the next words. “I agreed to kiss her because I could not resist the chance to kiss the woman I have loved since childhood.”

“Hmm.” The duchess looked at him thoughtfully. “If that is so, it seems odd you have always bedded any willing woman who came near enough.” She held up a hand to his incipient objection. “No, I believe you believe you love her. You told her you did not know how to love a wife, Abersham. How has that changed?”

What had changed between declaring himself a free man and declaring himself to Sally, was not a question he had stopped to ask.

“I had not thought myself ready to love a wife, no. But I cannot lose her, Aunt Eleanor.” He worked to keep the pleading out of his voice, but not successfully. “And I do love her. If she is my wife, I will love her the same way I do now, as I always have, but we will be allowed to… er… we will no longer live apart.

“That you can please a wife in bed, I have no doubt, given Wellbridge and Haverford. Can you be a good husband in every other sphere of your lives? What say you to the rumours you have not slept alone, or with the same girl twice, since you came to Paris?”

His hand shook as he poured. “I say they are much overblown.”

She lifted a dainty eyebrow. “Untrue? Or exaggerated?”

He downed the rest of his brandy in one gulp. After not having had a drink in several days, out of necessity as he studied for examinations, and now far too many in quick succession, it went to his head rather faster than he was accustomed to.

“Most likely both, as gossip always is. I will be faithful to Sal, if that is your concern. I have no interest in any other women if I have her. I cannot…” he blushed to the roots of his hair. “I have no interest. Must we speak of such things? You are practically my grandmother. It is not natural to discuss… marital relations with you.”

He took a gulp of his brandy, not waiting for it to warm.

To follow the adventures of our star-crossed lovers, see my page on Wattpad or Mari’s.

https://www.wattpad.com/user/marianagabrielle

https://www.wattpad.com/user/JudeKnight

 

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‘Missing you’ on WIP Wednesday

girl with treeAbsence, so old wisdom goes, makes the heart grow fonder. So we writers separate our darlings and let them worry a little. This week, I’m inviting you to post about someone who is separated from a loved one: a lover, friend, or relative.

My excerpt is from Never Kiss a Toad, which I’m writing with Mariana Gabrielle. Our teenage lovers have been separated by their parents, and my heroine is writing to Mari’s hero, feeling somewhat indignant about his latest letter but being circumspect, since her father is reading all correspondence. He needn’t think she is sitting her fretting. Even if that is exactly what she is doing. (We’re posting this a bit at a time on Wattpad. Follow us to see what happens.)

Elf would make a very nice husband. Just not for Sally.

Only one man would do for Sally, and he was off enjoying himself with every tart in Paris. But he had signed his letter ‘David.’ Surely he intended to remind her of their lovemaking. The swine! As if she could forget it. As if she could ever let another man touch her the way he was undoubtedly touching his opera dancers and whores. ‘My dearest Monkey,’ indeed. Did he think she was still a child?

“Some of my suitors are pleasing enough, but I will follow your advice about taking my time to choose a husband, Toad. I shall want to know them better before I make such a momentous decision. Will we work well together? Can we grow to love one another? Will he be faithful only to me? For I mean to have a marriage like my parents, and like Grandmama has had with Uncle Winshire. I mean for us to be friends, partners, and lovers, as well as husband and wife.”

“But I am only seventeen and mean to have some fun before I settle for a single lord and master.”

Was that what Toad was doing? Having fun before settling down? What if some other respectable female sought his ‘help’ as she had done?  It would not do to assume he had learned his lesson that night in the heir’s wing, and it would break her heart all over again if her sacrifice to save him from a forced marriage with her only led him to another.

“Be careful yourself, my dear friend. Do not allow your enthusiasm for your pursuits to lead you into a situation where marriage is your only honourable course.”

“When you do come to choose a bride, as heirs of dukes eventually must, I counsel you to find out more about them than their looks and their dowries. You would not want a wife you found boring, Toad. Look for someone who reads the books you love, laughs at the things you find funny, and enjoys the same kinds of activities that give you pleasure.”

Would he not be happiest with the girl he grew up with, who knew him better than anyone in the world, who had loved him her whole life? Sally sighed, and turned her head aside in time to stop a tear from staining the page.

“On that note, I must end this missive. My fondest regards to you always, David. Always.”

“Sally”

There. He need not think she was pining away in England waiting for him to claim her. If he could enjoy himself, so could she. And downstairs, she was keeping a room full of suitors waiting. She must go and be flattered and flirted with, and try not to drift away in a daydream where she ran off to Paris and took a job dancing at the Opera, just to catch the eye of a certain handsome rogue.

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A Toad is Born

The Duke of Wellbridge

The Duke of Wellbridge

Early in 2015, I was at the same FaceBook party as Mari Christie (who writes romance as Mariana Gabrielle). The author whose book launch it was asked us to show pictures of our virtual outfit for the party, and our virtual escort, and Mari and I both decided to bring a roguish rake from one of our books.

And that’s how it began.

There they both were, my Marquis of Aldridge from a book as yet unwritten, and Mari’s Nick Northope, Duke of Wellbridge, from Royal Regard, the lynch pin book in her Sailing Home series. Unregenerate rascals, they soon made two things clear to their authors. One: these rakes were old friends, with many escapades and scandals in their joint history. Two: we had better take our shenanigans out of our friend’s party before we spoiled it for her.

We were working up to the launch of the Bluestockings Belles, so we moved our characters into a month-long FaceBook party at a fictional coaching inn, along with the characters of our Belle friends and other people who wanted to play. Wellbridge, with his bride the lovely Bella, hosted the party. Aldridge spent most of it drunk. Mari and I discovered that we enjoyed impromptu co-writing.

The Marquis of Aldridge

The Marquis of Aldridge, heir to the Duke of Haverford

When the inn party ended, the Belles founded the Bluestockings Belles Bookshop on Facebook, and ever since we’ve been making up stories on line in real time with readers and anyone else who cares to join in.

What happens when two or more creative people co-tell a story comment by comment on a FaceBook thread is raw—often painfully raw. But since those first wild moments, we’ve learned to let the characters have their heads, and worry about editing later.

We’ve written a number of vignettes and even short stories and scenes for longer books this way. Someone posts an introduction and usually an image, and then the other participants bring their characters in, with the action and the thread growing as each person takes the tale another step along its tortuous journey.

That’s just the start. The next step is to capture the thread and decide point of view. The author of the point of view character rewrites the piece, layering in detail, correcting ambiguities and inconsistencies, and resolving lost plot points. Then the partner writers take a look and make their suggestions, and the first draft is done. The story still needs the usual rounds of editing and proofreading, but from this point on, the process is much the same as for any other book.

Over the last eighteen months, Wellbridge has grown into his ducal magnificence in front of the readers of the Bookshop and its predecessor the inn. Still a rogue in many ways, he is a devoted husband and father. For Aldridge, marriage is still in his future. The inn party gave me the story that was the kernel around which I built A Baron for Becky, but Aldridge did not (in that book) end up with the girl. He won’t find himself a wife until at least 2017 in real world time, and 1815 in his own.

Lady Sarah Grenford

Lady Sarah Grenford, daughter of the Duke of Haverford

But when he does, what will happen? A casual comment about what reformed rakes might be like as fathers led us to decide their approach to daughters might be very different to their approach to sons! And thus was born the idea for a vignette. Or perhaps a short story.

What if Aldridge, now the Duke of Haverford, has a daughter he adores? And what if he and his best friend would dearly love to see their children make a match of it? And what if Wellbridge’s son is a rake after the pattern of his father, and the pride of the two older retrobates’ he… Perhaps the word I am looking for is ‘loins’ rather than ‘hearts’.

We decided to write a scenario about the two fathers finding their offspring in a compromising situation, and we did. We wrote the scenario. Then we wrote what came next. Then we wrote a bit of backstory. We gave our hero a title and a nickname, and wrote a scene set in his infancy when he was a baby, and earned both from the king.

David 'Toad' Northope, Marquess of Abersham and heir to the Duke of Wellbridge

David ‘Toad’ Northope, Marquess of Abersham and heir to the Duke of Wellbridge

It wasn’t long before we decided we had a novella, and a novella in the romance genre means a happy ever after ending. So our heroine needed to grow out of being a spoiled brat who always wanted her own way, and our hero needed to find out that being a rake hurts people (including the girl he loves) as well as that only one woman would do for him.

We couldn’t do that in a novella, as it turned out. Never Kiss a Toad, by Jude Knight and Mariana Gabrielle is a novel, more than three quarters written (though much of it is still in FaceBook thread mode), and currently 110,000 words plus. We have just started publishing it on Wattpad, a thousand or so words at a time.

Long before we’ve completed the book on Wattpad, it’ll be available as a novel at our usual retailers, but probably not until next year. So why not join us on Wattpad, find out the fate of Toad and Sal, and have your say as the story grows?

Find Never Kiss a Toad on Jude Knight’s Wattpad

Find Never Kiss a Toad on Mariana Gabrielle’s Wattpad

(We’ll be taking it in turns to post, so follow us both to get a part per week.)

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Proposals on WIP Wednesday

I’m posting a proposal scene today. The lady in question is the heroine of Never Kiss a Toad, the book I am cowriting with Mari Christie, who writes historical romance as Mariana Gabrielle and who is a colleague of mine in the Bluestocking Belles. Sally is Lady Sarah Grenford, only daughter of the Duke of Haverford, who you may know as the Marquis of Aldridge. The man tendering the proposal is the novel’s villain.

Post your proposals, folks. I’d love to read them. And don’t forget to share!

c399bc77cf3488d42d075b56376e52c4“I think that funeral-faced wine merchant’s son wants to propose, Sally,” Etcetera told her. “Shall I make an excuse to leave the two of you alone?”

“Do not dare,” Sally warned. “I will make your life hell if you do.”

The genial giant pose slipped briefly, and it was the Nordic warrior who asked, “Do I need to break his neck for you, cousin?”

“Just do not leave me alone with him, Etcetera. I do not like the man, and I do not trust him.”

But in the week leaving up to Christmas, Crowhurst behaved like a gentleman, apart from frequent florid compliments and a tendency to treat any opinions she offered in conversation with patronising amusement. Though if those two behaviours were not gentlemanly, there were few true gentlemen in Society.

So when he found her alone in Command Central on the day before Christmas, she merely greeted him and asked him to put his finger on the ribbon that she was attempting to make into a bow. All her usual helpers were off about the great house on decorating tasks or out with Elf and Uncle James who were captaining the Yule log team. Yule logs, in fact, since no fewer than three would burn from this evening until Twelfth night: one in the chief parlour, one in the Great Hall, and one in the ballroom.

Even Etcetera had deserted her, since his mother and father, the Archduchess of Erzherzog and her consort, had arrived with their younger children.

“What are you making?” Crowhurst asked, though the bunches of mistletoe berries carefully bound among the silk ribbons and paper flowers should have made it obvious.

“We were short one kissing bough,” Sally told him. “I am remedying the defect. It is to go in Grandmama’s drawing room, so I want it to be particularly lovely.” She frowned at the bough, trying to visualise it in place. “I think it is nearly done.” She had chosen ribbons of a deep turquoise blue and a delicate pale green, and flowers in gilt paper and a softer cream tissue, all woven together on the white-washed bough with silver cords.

“I wish to just attach these glass baubles to catch the light.” They were the latest fashion—blown glass fashioned into little ornaments intended to be displayed on Christmas trees after the German fashion the royal family had adopted.

“Yes, very nice. But if it needs to be special, perhaps you should wait until one of your usual helpers returns, Lady Sarah. I am sure they would be better qualified to advise you than I.” Crowhurst’s little huff of laughter was self-deprecating.

“I am not expecting any of them for an age,” Sally said, most of her focus on binding the baubles so they were firmly attached and displayed to best advantage. “I will be finished in a moment, and then, if you are not otherwise occupied, Mr Crowhurst, perhaps you could give me a hand to carry it to Grandmama’s parlour while she is occupied with Aunt Margarete and Uncle Jonathan.”

“The Arch-Duchess,” Crowhurst said, as if he were checking which Aunt Margarete she meant, “and your father’s brother. They have arrived then?”

“Yes, thereby depriving me of all those not off somewhere decorating or out with Uncle James. You did not wish to go out with the duke to bring in the Yule log, Mr Crowhurst? There!” She sat back, satisfied with her work, and at the next moment startled to her feet as Crowhurst suddenly fell to one knee.

“Lady Sarah, I can remain silent no longer,” he declaimed.

“Please, Mr Crowhurst, do not continue.”

Crowhurst ignored her. “I am inflamed by your beauty, your charm, your wit, and I flatter myself that you are not indifferent to me. Lady Sarah, dare I hope you will favour me with your hand?”

The pompous ass. She had done everything she politely could to discourage the man. Impoliteness, then. “No, Mr Crowhurst, I will not.” Never mind that nonsense about being conscious of the honour and so on. It was not an honour at all to be desired for one’s prominent relatives and one’s fifty thousand pounds a year.

Crowhurst surged to his feet and wrapped both arms around her, pulling her tight against his body. “No need to be shy with me, sweet dove. I know you want me as much as I want you.” Sally, one arm trapped, tried to push him away with the other, but he was much larger and stronger and would not release her.

“Let me go this instant! What has got into you?”

“You have, tempting heart-breaker. Your teasing has driven me beyond manners. I am crazed by you, unkind Angel. You must be mine.” He had captured the hand with which she had tried to claw his eyes, forcing it behind her back until he could grasp both her wrists in one hand, pulling her tight against his body. He laughed when she struggled. “That’s right, little treasure. Wriggle against me. Did Abersham leave you the innocent you seem, I wonder? Shall we find out?”

Fear was rapidly winning over fury. She could scream, but no one would hear.

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All for one and one for all – Tuesday Talk

Mari Christie offers us these thoughts on marketing in the Bazillion Book Marketplace.

collaborationsquidoosmall-300x300As I work through a long list of marketing plan headings for my upcoming book release—Product, Place, Price, Promotion, et al—some things strike me again and again as similar to what I have been recommending to clients for 20 years: press kits, events, giveaways…

That said, in some ways, the direction has turned 180 degrees. For instance, given the pool of new books on Kindle, even separated by genre, for a new, unknown author, the traditional start of any marketing plan, “analyzing the competition” and “creating a competitive advantage,” is ludicrous. (“I’d like to take market share from all 1,678,423 authors ahead of me on the Amazon Rankings…”)

Further, Big Publishing no longer provides significant marketing budgets for new authors, in some cases requiring we pay not only for trips to conferences, books for signings, etc., but also for simple editing and proofreading, because they no longer want to pay salaries for in-house editors. Make no mistake, any part of the process they can force from our pockets, they will—with no compunction.

A quick scan of the television lineup any night of the week should tell us that when this model places us in competition with each other, it makes money for the media conglomerates that run American entertainment, including books. (Like in reality TV, one person will win a quarter-million-dollar prize and everyone else goes home with nothing. Amazon, however, like a television network, brings in money no matter how many books we sell.)

To counteract this corporate manipulation:

Eliminate the idea of competition.

One can differentiate a book to some extent with good cover design, solid proofreading, smart keywords, price promotions, and (if a buyer gets so far as the words) good writing, but your good writing means nothing anymore until it generates 4- and 5-star reviews in the hundreds. Even then, regular sales are a long shot even professionals can’t guarantee for well-known authors, much less an indie writer who has nothing but the fortitude to finish writing a book and the temerity to publish it.

In place of the traditional American sales model, let us all agree now that we aren’t in competition with each other, and we are (almost) all in the same leaky boat. Loyal readers in your genre will read lots of authors’ books in a lifetime. Yours might or might not be one. Don’t begrudge success where any of us find it and support each other’s efforts.

  • Seek out and connect with other authors for critique, sharing of information or research, or just for moral support. Join online and real-time groups, lists, and trade associations created for authors in general, your genre in particular. These groups exist all over the internet and in every city and state (or whatever regional boundaries exist in other parts of the world).
  • In real-life and online trade groups and on indie author promotional sites, contribute, volunteer, and become part of the community. Make friends online and they will be more likely to help you promote yourself. (Social media best practice, by all accounts, and a well-known marketing strategy since the dawn of the capitalist system. Besides, how rude—and ineffective—is it to continually post promos to groups that have no vested interest in you?)
  • Give advice when you can, and don’t be stingy with your “Lessons Learned.” We all started somewhere. (To be clear, only give advice about things for which you are qualified.)
  • Go to other indie authors for services when you can—book publishing and otherwise—and barter if you are so inclined. (Personally, if I could find another experienced professional editor to trade manuscript services, I would be over the moon.)

Collaborate.

Marketing alone is as dangerous as “groupthink,” plus, it is more expensive, more time-consuming, and more depressing when it isn’t going well. Instead of “going it alone,” share marketing concepts and stay engaged with other authors, especially in your genre. Among relatively unknown entities, more new customers will be reached by co-promotion (e.g. multiple authors throwing a communal launch party) and/or cross-promotion (e.g. two authors posting contests on each other’s blogs to win copies of both books).

As matters of regular marketing practice, consider these:

  • Be each other’s first readers and reviewers. Pay it forward by leaving reviews.
  • On social media, Like/Follow/Pin/Comment/Share each other’s work. (I am now in the habit of Liking any author page that comes across my Facebook news feed, about 10 a day, and have created a Pinterest board titled, “Other Authors’ Books.”)
  • Support reviewer blogs and social media, and Like, Comment on, Retweet, and Share reviews, announcements, giveaways, blog posts, etc. (Share this blog post! :-))
  • Support independent indie author promo sites like Microcerpt, KindleMojo, or AuthorShout, as well as the obvious, well-funded players in the market, like Amazon or Goodreads.
  • Coordinate release dates, social media “parties,” even promo sale dates, to maximize potential audience. (November 26, come to a Facebook party for my new release, Royal Regard, and at least two others in the romance genre!)

Some of these practices may seem counter-intuitive, given how steeped most of us are in the idea of zero-sum marketing, but the sales world has changed (don’t I know it!). We can no longer rely on publishers to promote us, and even if we are unprepared for the new marketing process, it is prepared to make money from—and, if we play our cards right, for—us.

Keep your sales in your own pocket. Keep your marketing under your own control. Keep the indie marketplace one that acts as a cohesive whole, rather than allowing the traditional model to pick off one of us after the other until only one person has the quarter-million-dollar prize.

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Kali counsels Becky – part 2 of 2

Continued from Kali counsels Becky – part 1 of 2

It had been some years since Kali Matai, The Black Goddess, met Mrs. Rose Darling, known as The Rose of Frampton, and it was a meeting neither wished to remember, both having been at the mercy of protectors with no morals and less conscience. During that earlier meeting, Kali had taken it upon herself to protect the sweet, young girl from the worst of the abuses at the gentlemen’s party. Kali, after all, knew better than any woman in London how to feel nothing.

When they came upon each other at Mrs. Marlowe’s Book Emporium, however, not only their prior encounter bound them, but also a mutual understanding of the way the world treats women of easy virtue—as though they have no virtues at all. Now, in an effort to help the girl again, Kali has invited her to tea to discuss a topic of great import. Or so Mrs Darling’s note had said.

 (To read the first half of their conversation, go to part 1 of 2.)

***

Kali

Lady with Swarbat by Raja Ravi Varma

“Lord Aldridge returns to me several times each week. And…” Becky colors, “he seems to need very little sleep.” Choking on the words, she finally spits out, “Truth be told, Miss Shaheen, I fear the pox.”

Kali sits back. At least the girl was not such a fool as she appeared at first glance. Falling in love with the man was forgivable—somewhat. It had even happened to Kali once. But allowing herself to be polluted by his excesses? That was a much more serious kind of folly.

“Forgive me if I offend,” Becky stammers, “but I have heard that ladies of the Orient know remedies, preventatives…”

“You are right to be concerned,” Kali says in measured tones. “On this subject, however, I have no more knowledge than any other woman well-versed in our trade. Tell me, does he wash the part of himself that is of concern? Wash it well, I mean, with strong soap?”

Becky nodded, hiding her eyes behind her lashes and allowing the hair falling across her forehead to drop like a curtain to hide her face. “Yes. He is very thorough. He… Never mind… He… Yes.”

“Good. You can, of course, ensure such cleanliness by offering to attend him in his baths. He will never decline, and it will provide you some measure of control.”

“That… I already… He rather likes me to…” Becky was scarlet to her ears

Becky

Young lady in white hat by Jean Baptiste Greuze

Kali smiled and patted her hand. “Of course he does. As I have said, men are simple creatures. Does he use sheaths when you have relations? As a matter of course? With all of the women with whom he—?” She stops short, not wanting to hurt the poor, wounded bird any more than her protector already had.

Becky gathers her dignity. “He gives me to believe that he always wears a cundum. He is not unaware of the dangers, and he wishes no mo—er, no children out of wedlock.”

“If he is consistent with you, his regular mistress, you can guess that he does with the others.” She frowns. “But do not forget that a man will say anything to lie with a woman he desires.” Sighing, she follows with, “Of course, you cannot insist. As you say, he owns the lease on your body. There are risks… to this way of life. This is one… your beautiful daughter is another.”

Kali had met Sarah briefly on one occasion, which reminded her of her own loss. Nevertheless, the girl was sweet and charming and a bright spot in her mother’s otherwise sad life.

Becky shuddered. “Sarah is only eight, Miss Shaheen. I worry about her living in the house where I… where I sell myself. And I am determined to escape this life with enough money to give her more options.”

“Many would send her away,” Kali suggests, in a tentative manner. “To school, perhaps? To a friend or family in the country?”

“I have no family—I have no friends. I fear to send her to strangers. Of course, I am also afraid to keep her with me. You will think me silly to be so uncertain, but she is the one treasure of my life, and I would do anything for her. But the best thing? I do not know.”

“I do not think you foolish, and you have a friend in me. As such, I must tell you: you have fewer choices than one might hope. You must make your own luck and control your own future, my dear. You must subtly suggest Lord Aldridge give you jewels and gold and silver ornaments, for emeralds and rubies may be sold to keep you, no matter his inclination. Should he be generous enough, you may give Sarah and yourself any life you choose.” Eyes narrowed, lips thinned, she continues, “You do not protect yourself, Miss Winstanley. This is a mistake of the most immense proportions. Much more concern than the pox.

“You allow yourself to be defined by the gentleman in your life, most of whom do not have your interests in mind. Lord Aldridge is better than some, but he is inconstant, and will leave you in the street when he tires of you. You are a strong woman—” She holds up one finger. “No, do not think to argue that point when you have survived so much. You have a mind and heart worth cultivating, and your protectors will not do so. So then, you must do it yourself. That, my dear, is the legacy for your daughter. That is what you will give her and why you will keep her safe with you.”

Becky opened her mouth, thought again about what she wanted to say, and then closed it again. After a moment, she looked up from the glass she had been examining intently.

“You are right. You are right, Miss Shaheen. He has purchased the use of my body, but his needs do not define me. Indeed,” Kali could see her intent thoughts crossing her face, “it is not my body that keeps him visiting. He has never before signed a two-year contract. Did you know that? His… a relative of his told me.

“And he comes back to me from his other women. I have something that he needs. If I can work out what that is, Miss Shaheen, then I can… I can negotiate… Jewelry, yes. A separate house and a governess for my daughter, so she be can safe and… uncorrupted. And another two-year term. I have but a year left of this one. Three more years of using his purse as he uses my body will do quite nicely. Yes. Those requisites will serve. They will serve very well.”

“All of those, my friend,” Kali laughs, “are as simple as the man himself. I will call for tea, and we shall begin today.”

###

La Deesse Noire coverMeet Kali and read her story in La Déesse Noire: The Black Goddess, to be released June 10, available for pre-order now.

Sired by a British peer, born of a paramour to Indian royalty, Kali Matai has been destined from birth to enthrall England’s most powerful noblemen—though she hadn’t counted on becoming their pawn. Finding herself under the control of ruthless men, who will not be moved by her legendary allure, she has no choice but to use her beauty toward their malicious and clandestine ends.

When those she holds most dear are placed in peril by backroom political dealings, she enlists some of the most formidable lords in England to thwart her enemies. But even with the help of the prominent gentlemen she has captivated, securing Kali’s freedom, her family, and the man she loves, will require her protectors stop at nothing to fulfill her desires.

Pre-order now for June 10 delivery:
Amazon
Amazon UK
iTunes
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To connect with Mariana Gabrielle:
www.MarianaGabrielle.com
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Meet Becky and Lord Aldridge in A Baron for Becky, to be released August 5, available for pre-order now.

BfB cover finalBecky is the envy of the courtesans of the demi-monde – the indulged mistress of the wealthy and charismatic Marquis of Aldridge. But she dreams of a normal life; one in which her daughter can have a future that does not depend on beauty, sex, and the whims of a man.

Finding herself with child, she hesitates to tell Aldridge. Will he cast her off, send her away, or keep her and condemn another child to this uncertain shadow world?

The devil-may-care face Hugh shows to the world hides a desperate sorrow; a sorrow he tries to drown with drink and riotous living. His years at war haunt him, but even more, he doesn’t want to think about the illness that robbed him of the ability to father a son. When he dies, his barony will die with him. His title will fall into abeyance, and his estate will be scooped up by the Crown.

When Aldridge surprises them both with a daring proposition, they do not expect love to be part of the bargain.

Pre-order now for August 5 delivery:
Amazon

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Kali counsels Becky – part 1 of 2

Kali

Lady with Swarbat by Raja Ravi Varma

It had been some years since Kali Matai, The Black Goddess, met Mrs Rose Darling, known as The Rose of Frampton, and it was a meeting neither wished to remember, both having been at the mercy of protectors with no morals and less conscience. During that earlier meeting, Kali had taken it upon herself to protect the sweet, young girl from the worst of the abuses at the gentlemen’s party. Kali, after all, knew better than any woman in London how to feel nothing.

When they came upon each other at Mrs Marlowe’s Book Emporium, however, not only their prior encounter bound them, but also a mutual understanding of the way the world treats women of easy virtue—as though they have no virtues at all. Now, in an effort to help the girl again, Kali has invited her to tea to discuss a topic of great import. Or so Mrs Darling’s note had said.

***

“I can offer you tea, Mrs Darling,” Kali said, “Or something more… fortifying. Palm wine or feni or sherry. I only keep brandy in my protectors’ homes.”

“May I try feni?” Becky says. She likes trying new things, and fortifying is exactly what she needs. “And if you would not mind, Miss Matai, My true name is not Mrs. Darling. I am not Rose. And I am not a… That was a name given me by a… by someone who wished to increase my… price. My real name is Winstanley, Miss Becky Winstanley.”

Kali pours out the coconut liqueur into crystal glasses and passes one across the table. “Ah, very much like Miss Matai and La Déesse Noire, then. I would be grateful if we might use our real names. I am Kali Shaheen, though I beg you not make it known outside these rooms.”

“Kali Shaheen. Miss Shaheen. It is a lovely name.”

Becky

Young woman in a white hat by Jean Baptiste Greuze

“One I have not heard in a good many years, Miss Winstanley.” Kali began, “Your note spoke of some trouble you wish to share?” Some way in which I can help?”

Becky takes a cautious sip, and then another, more appreciative, one. “It is not so much that I need help. More that I would appreciate someone to listen; someone who, perhaps, might… understand how complicated it is.”

Kali chuckles. “If it is about a man, my dear, there is nothing simpler.”

Becky smiles in return, and then turns wistful. “The man is simple enough, Kali, that is true. If his appetites are satisfied and his ego is stroked, he is happy. I am the complicated one.”

“Ah,” Kali sighs, taking another delicate sip of her feni. “Yes, women are certainly complicated, are we not? Have you some concern about Lord Aldridge?”

Her primary concern, Kali thinks, should be seeing the man does not leave her with the French pox. Rare, indeed, are gentlemen with such copious appetites, and no lightskirt in London holds any illusions about the Merry Marquis—with the possible exception of the one before her.

Kali has never dallied with him, though not from lack of trying on his part or amused interest on hers. She merely chooses to remain true to her protectors, for reasons she cannot disclose. If ever she might wish an affair merely for the enjoyment of it, however, Lord Aldridge would be near the top of the list.

“When you and I first met,” Becky begins softly, “you rightly deduced the protector I had then was not kind. You will understand, I think, what it means when I say that he was among the best of all the men by whom I have been kept.”

Kali nods. Every mistress understands all too well.

“Lord Aldridge saved me—in every sense—and more important, saved my little daughter.” Kali’s smile becomes just a bit brittle at the mention of the little girl. “Not just from more of the same, but from worse. I will always be grateful to him.”

Even a heartless rogue like Aldridge, Kali reflects, might find himself an accidental hero on occasion.

“He is always polite. He always ensures my pleasure. He is kind to my little girl. He is generous with his gifts and with his praise. He is kind, Miss Shaheen. It has been a heady experience for a girl like me.”

Smiling with a certain softness about her eyes and mouth, glad this sweet girl has had some small measure of kindness, even if at the hands of a man like Aldridge, Kali urges, “Go on.”

“It has been nine months since we signed a contract. For six months, he barely let me leave his side. You will think me foolish, but I imagined… I knew he would not marry me. Indeed, so I told his… certain members of his family. But I thought we were in love. Foolish.”

Kali raises a brow and the softness in her eyes vanishes. “Quite.” Her hand trembles just slightly as she finishes her drink and pours another, also offering it to her guest. When Becky holds out her glass, Kali pours a short ration, unsure whether the girl is accustomed to strong spirits.

Setting down the bottle, she straightens in her chair, as rigid as if she were part of her corset, not just wearing it. But for sipping the feni, her jaw is clenched tight, and her fingernails dig deeply into the palm of her hand. Still, outwardly, she is calm as an iced-over pond.

Becky’s tone is bleak. “I forgot what you told me when we met before. I forgot he is my buyer, not my lover. Not my friend. I knew it, but I forgot.” At Kali’s frown, she hastens to explain, “He did not encourage me, Miss Shaheen. It was my own doing. He did not speak of love. He did not talk of permanence. But he was kind. And I have known so little kindness.”

Kali uncurls her rigid fingers from the arm of her chair and grasps Becky’s hand. “It is an easy thing to forget when they so believe they wish to be our friends.” She sets her glass aside, taking Becky’s chilly fingers between the palms of her hands. “Do you expect he will set you aside?”

At Becky’s stricken look, Kali asks gently, “Have you savings to keep you? He has given you the deed to the house, has he not?”

Watching the crash of a fallen woman was never an easy thing, especially for those who might just as easily follow her rapid descent.

“The house and my income are mine to keep if I finish the two years, or if he chooses to end the contract early. I lose them only if I leave.” She examines her empty glass, as if looking for words within it. “Lord Aldridge’s cousin, Lord Chirbury, suggested the clause.”

“He is a wise man, then, and you are fortunate to have received his counsel.” Lord Chirbury clearly knew his cousin almost as well as the entirety of the demimonde did. “Do you not have a solicitor? A woman alone must have her own solicitor, Miss Winstanley.”

“A solicitor? A solicitor could not help me with my problem, Miss Shaheen.”

“You are not considering… Surely not.” Kali’s brows drew together. “Think, Miss Winstanley. Do not feel.”

“Considering what?” Becky’s brows drew together.

If the girl truly hadn’t thought of leaving the man with whom she had so unwisely fallen in love, Kali could not forgive herself if she were the one to suggest it. “Never you mind, sweetling.” She patted Becky’s hand. “Tell me what it is I can do to help.”

“Aldridge owns my body,” Becky says, baldly. “Or perhaps it would be truer to say he holds the lease. I need it returned to me in good condition at the end of the contract. Not for my sake. For my daughter.”

“I cannot believe,” Kali says slowly, “with what I know of Lord Aldridge, that you are concerned about maltreatment.”

Becky shakes her head.

“So, rather, you worry about… disease?” She sat back. “Or is it only your heart for which you fear?”

“Aldridge returned my heart to me when he began swiving other women and discussing it with me. It is bruised, I cannot deny, but he is a man of prodigious appetite who enjoys variety. Yet he returns to me several times each week. And…” Becky colors, “he seems to need very little sleep.” Choking on the words, she finally spits out, “Truth be told, Miss Shaheen, I fear the pox.”

(To read the rest of their conversation, come back tomorrow.)

###

La Deesse Noire coverMeet Kali and read her story in La Déesse Noire: The Black Goddess, to be released June 10, available for pre-order now.

Sired by a British peer, born of a paramour to Indian royalty, Kali Matai has been destined from birth to enthrall England’s most powerful noblemen—though she hadn’t counted on becoming their pawn. Finding herself under the control of ruthless men, who will not be moved by her legendary allure, she has no choice but to use her beauty toward their malicious and clandestine ends.

When those she holds most dear are placed in peril by backroom political dealings, she enlists some of the most formidable lords in England to thwart her enemies. But even with the help of the prominent gentlemen she has captivated, securing Kali’s freedom, her family, and the man she loves, will require her protectors stop at nothing to fulfill her desires.

Pre-order now for June 10 delivery:
Amazon
Amazon UK
iTunes
Barnes and Noble
Kobo

MariTo connect with Mariana Gabrielle:
www.MarianaGabrielle.com
Facebook
Twitter
Pinterest
Blog
Goodreads
Amazon Author page

Meet Becky and Lord Aldridge in A Baron for Becky, to be released August 5, available for pre-order now.

BfB cover finalBecky is the envy of the courtesans of the demi-monde – the indulged mistress of the wealthy and charismatic Marquis of Aldridge. But she dreams of a normal life; one in which her daughter can have a future that does not depend on beauty, sex, and the whims of a man.

Finding herself with child, she hesitates to tell Aldridge. Will he cast her off, send her away, or keep her and condemn another child to this uncertain shadow world?

The devil-may-care face Hugh shows to the world hides a desperate sorrow; a sorrow he tries to drown with drink and riotous living. His years at war haunt him, but even more, he doesn’t want to think about the illness that robbed him of the ability to father a son. When he dies, his barony will die with him. His title will fall into abeyance, and his estate will be scooped up by the Crown.

When Aldridge surprises them both with a daring proposition, they do not expect love to be part of the bargain.

Pre-order now for August 5 delivery:
Amazon

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Our choices create us

La Déesse Noire is one of those novels you keep thinking about long after you put it down. To me, the crux of the story is how the four main characters are defined and directed by the choices they make.

Kali Matai was born and raised a tawaif; one of the women entertainers who served those of the highest rank in the Murghal Empire of India. Her life was shaped by the choices made by her tawaif mother and the English peer to whom her mother was given. In England, she is the pawn of powerful men, but when all she loves is at risk, her choices give her a future she believed could never be.

Lord Birchbright once loved a tawaif and gave her two daughters. Given a choice between his forbidden family and the wealth and power waiting for him if he returns to England without them, he abandons them. His choice is to pursue power at all costs.

The book unusually has two male protagonists: Fitz and Rook. They, too, must choose between love and position. One chooses a lonely and ultimately self-centred life. The other is prepared to abandon everything he knows for the woman he loves. I loved them both, but I know which one was the hero.

Kali is one of the most engaging heroines I’ve read. I loved her dignity, her self-respect, her quiet humour, and her sharp intelligence. And I loved how hard it was for her to let her armour down; to become vulnerable; so that she could reach for her dreams. Her happy ending gave me goosebumps. I also very much enjoyed the interesting and believable secondary characters, both the villains and the friends and allies of the heroine.

Mariana Gabrielle has written a book about people on the edges; people discriminated against and even persecuted because they are different. She has done so with skill, sensitivity, and wit. She left me wanting more. I thoroughly enjoyed her Royal Regard and gave it five stars. La Déesse Noire is better. I wish I could give it seven on Amazon and Goodreads, but this is my blog, and my star system can be anything I like. So seven it is.

Disclaimer: I am a member of the same writers’ group as Mari Christie, who writes Regency novels as Mariana Gabrielle, and I was proof-reader for La Déesse Noire. This did not influence my enjoyment of my book. But don’t believe me. Read it for yourself.LDN meme

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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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