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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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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‘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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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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Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry – emotional scenes on WIP Wednesday

Never Kiss a Toad is set at the beginning of the Railway Age

Never Kiss a Toad is set at the beginning of the Railway Age

It’s our job to pull our readers out of their world and into the one we’ve created: to, as I say above, thrill, intrigue, and delight. In this week’s work in progress Wednesday, your challenge is to find me a scene that provokes a strong emotion in your readers: laughter, sorrow, fear. You choose.

I’ve chosen one from Never Kiss a Toad. This is a tender moment between Sally and her father, one that ends all too soon. Does it work?

“Can you spare a minute for your Papa, Sally?” he asked.

“Of course.” She followed him through to his study.

“You always seem to be hurrying somewhere, sweetheart,” he said. “I miss having my little princess curled up in a chair in my study, keeping me company.”

It was true, she realised. Before her debut, she had sought her father out whenever she could escape the schoolroom. Since she came out… “I have so much on, Papa,” she said. But it was Toad’s exile that came between them, even more since her father began believing lies about him. They were lies. They had to be lies.

Papa smiled, sadly. When had the last of his hair faded to grey? “I know, my love. You are very popular. If a sennight goes by and I do not receive an application for your hand, I know to expect two the following week. Am I to expect a visit from Lord Elfingham? He would make a fine husband, Sally.”

She suppressed a surge of fury. Papa should know that she waited for one proposal, and one only. Would he even tell her if it came? No. That was unfair. Papa had said from the beginning that he would not choose her husband, but would allow her to make the decision.

“He will make Henry a fine husband, Papa, when her mourning is over. If she will accept him. She has this notion that she is not fit to be a duchess because of her mother’s… Um.” Oh dear. She had not meant to discuss that with Papa of all people.

“Henrietta, is it? I hoped it was you, Sally.”

“We decided early on that we would not suit, Papa. It has always been Henry for Elf.” And Toad for Sally.

“You shall be nineteen soon, sweetheart. What would you like for your birthday?”

“Toad to be allowed home.” She had not meant to say that out loud. Her father flinched as if she had hit him, and his eyes, before he hid them by turning away, were pools of pain.

“I know you miss your childhood friend, my darling, but he… He is not as you remember him. If he came back you would suffer for it, and neither his parents or yours are prepared to risk that.”

“You say that, Papa, but you will not tell me how he has changed. You won’t give me any real reasons. And I do not believe it, Papa. Someone has been telling you lies. I know him, and I know you are wrong.”

He had his face shuttered again when he turned back to her, the cold ducal mien that she never used to see before the day it all changed. “You must trust that we know what is best for you, Sarah.

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