Aaargh! The dog ate my homework!

Or the internet ate my newsletter subscribers, which is nearly the same thing.

I have finished The Mouse Fights Back, my story for newsletter subscribers. Yay! I’m sending out a newsletter this weekend, so just in time. 9,300 words, and I love it. Hope you do, too,

If you have subscribed to my newsletter recently, can I ask you to do so again? I’ve had some technical difficulties with my coding on the website, and the subscriptions were going through to the email service provider but not being recorded. You’ll know you’re in the system when you get an automated email with a link to a free copy of Gingerbread Bride!

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The Welcome email with Gingerbread Bride is the first of three with links to free stories and books, and this weekend’s newsletter also has a link to the Christmas present Mariana Gabrielle and I are giving away to our Wattpad and newsletter subscribers. God Help Ye, Merry Gentleman is a Christmas novelette, a prequel of our early Victorian novel Never Kiss a Toad, and comes packaged with vignettes, short stories, and excerpts about the hero’s and heroine’s family and friends.

But Mouse. Here’s the promised excerpt.

☆ ★.¸¸,.✶

Claudia had no idea when she fell in love with Tiberius.

Millchurch. The earl.

Perhaps the first time they danced. Perhaps when he was so indignant on her behalf in the garden, or later on the terrace when he faced down her aunt. Certainly, she was completely smitten by the time he climbed into her room on the day of her betrothal to the loathsome Lord Demetrius.

She had been locked in all day, refused company, books, and even food. They intended to have her consent to the marriage, they told her, and she need not expect Millchurch to save her. He had always run away from trouble, even as a boy, and the announcement ensured that any fuss he made would cause enormous trouble.

Even so, she heard the racket when he banged on the front door around noon, demanding admittance, and twice again in the afternoon. So when she heard tapping on the window, she half expected to find him clinging to the wall outside. His fingers and face were white with the strain of clinging to tenuous holds in the crumbling brick, and she was quick to help him inside, shaking more with fear for him than with the strain of his weight as he hung momentarily from her arm while swinging his leg over the sill.

She closed the window behind him, and was glad she had when the key scraped in the door.

The earl slithered under the bed, and she was glad for the heavy hangings that normally so oppressed her. Just in time, because all three of her tormentors had arrived to berate her for a wicked ungrateful girl, an unnatural niece, and deficient in any personal charms to make up for her lack of intelligence and beauty.

Claudia, as always, had nothing to say. Countless beatings since her mother’s death had taught her that any answer would be wrong, so she stood, head bowed, and waited for the storm to end. She hoped that the earl would have the sense to stay hidden, for he would stand no chance against the two sturdy footmen who stood either side of the door, witnessing her humiliation.

She would, she was told after quite ten minutes of ranting, be left to think on her deficiencies until the morning, by which time she would be wise to realise her good fortune in being selected by Lord Demetrius as his bride. As the door locked behind them, she took her first deep breath since Lord Millchurch had tapped on the window.

The earl emerged, pale with anger, his eyes blazing, but he did not comment on his horrid relatives or hers. Just unwrapped coil after coil of rope from around his waist and set to tying one end to a leg of the bed.

Satisfied with the strength of the knot, he opened the window and let the rope down outside. Only then did he turn to Claudia.

“What do you wish to take with you, Miss Chause?”

A vague resentment stirred. In fairness, it must be obvious to the meanest intellect that she could not want to stay to be bullied into handing her inheritance and her person over Lord Demetrius. But surely Lord Millchurch did not expect her to climb out a window and run away with a virtual stranger, without even being asked her opinion.

“Where?” Her voice squeaked through a dry throat.

He echoed her thoughts. “You do not want to marry my uncle, do you? And they will hound you until you do if you stay here. Take only things you cannot bear to leave behind. We can replace anything else once I have you safe.”

‘Safe’. That word carried her through packing her mother’s bible, the few bits of jewelleryjewelry that her aunt had rejected as cheap, and some other personal keepsakes. The earl advised her to leave her tooth stick and most of her clothes, so in minutes she had made a bundle of her essential belongings in a spare petticoat, which he wrapped into a parcel with one of her sashes and dropped out the window.

‘Safe’, she told herself again, as he let her down the wall supported by the rope. She needed to cling to the handholds, reach for the footholds, each movement a struggle against the terror that tried to lock her limbs. But he held the rope tightly, and let her down steadily, while all the time her skin crawled with the knowledge she was exposed to view, should anyone of the household wander around to this quiet corner of the house.

Never mind that the staff were not welcome in the private garden, and that the wind was too cold for pleasure walks.
‘Safe’. It became the repeated chorus in her head as the earl climbed out of the window and walked down the wall leaning out into the rope, making it look as simple as strolling in the park.

‘Safe’ took her to Lord Millchurch’s London townhouse, where his secretary, Jasper Minch, immediately deployed a small army of large men to keep the house secure and prevent entry by anyone without the earl’s express invitation.

Jasper frightened her at first. He was large and scarred, with a nose that had been broken more than once and a way of changing his normal casual prowl into a threatening strut at the least sign of danger. Introduced to his new mistress, he nodded politely then turned his light blue eyes to Tiberius. “You are marrying your mouse? Will it serve, Tiberius?”

“If she will have me, we will make it serve, and mind your manners, Jas.”

Claudia and Tiberius talked far into the night. Perhaps that was when she fell in love with him; when she found that he listened without judging as she told him about living in the quiet corners her mother created at the edges of the contentious and aggressive lives of her father and his sister; about her certainty that her aunt, her trustee, and her trustee’s lover were living on money they stole from the inheritance left in trust to her by her mother’s father.

Lord Millchurch—he said to call him Tiberius, and she did inside her head, but her mouth would not shape the sounds—Tiberius told her about his maternal uncle, and their adventures in exotic countries; about the threat from Lord Demetrius that sent them fleeing; about the dangers he still faced, and why he needed a wife, and soon.

When he offered her a choice, he stole what remained of her heart. He wanted to marry her, he said; had intended to ask in proper form. But if the idea didn’t please her, Tiberius would still protect her. He had friends with whom she could live, whose titles and estates would protect her, or she could stay on one of his estates and he would find her a companion.

“That may be less dangerous, Claudia,” he said. “My wife and the mother of my children will be at risk as long as my uncle is free to plot against me. But I have the resources to guard you well, I promise you. I will keep you safe.”

Before she had time to think, they were married by special licence.