Tea with Alex

The best way to move Alex downstairs, his sister had decreed, was to press a chair into use and set a stout footman on each leg. Susan insisted he spend part of each day out of his room, and in truth he was going mad with only the same four walls, the same ceiling, to distract him from the pain and the craving for the oblivion of poppy juice. To which he would not surrender. He might be in agony, but at least he was in his right mind.

So here he was, dressed at least above the waist, ensconced on a sofa in the smaller of the two drawing rooms with a view out over the early Spring garden.

The blanket draped over his bandaged broken legs to hide them from sight and protect the modesty of the maids was the lightest Susan could find, most of its weight taken on cushions either side of the useless appendages. They would heal. Or so the doctors promised, though weeks ago they had proclaimed he was certain to die, so perhaps they were wrong again.

Susan had left him with a pile of books and a pack of cards, all within easy reach, and had promised him visitors to amuse him. Even so, he did not expect the butler’s announcement.

“Her Grace the Duchess of Haverford. The Marquis of Aldridge.”

Decades of conditioning had him attempting to rise—a poor effort that died in a white blaze of pain, and the gracious lady had seated herself and was holding his hand in a firm grip before he fought it back enough to be conscious of her again. And of her son, who was returning across the room from the brandy decanter, a glass in his hand.

“Redepenning,” he said, in greeting, handing over the drink. Alex let it burn down his throat, not waiting for it to warm. Breathe. In through the nose, out through the mouth. And again.

“Don’t try to talk until you are ready, Major Redepenning,” Her Grace cautioned. “The sick bed is no place for conventional manners. Besides, Aldridge and I have come to entertain you, not make you feel worse.”

Even a serving officer (at least one from his family) knew the Duchess of Haverford entertained visitors At Home on a Monday, and surely today was a Monday?

But Her Grace answered the unasked question. “I have been anxiously waiting to see for myself how you are, and today is the first that Mrs Cunningham allowed you to have visitors. So here I am, though it is a Monday, and Aldridge swears that the world shall wobble in its orbit at my departure from practice.”

“But one would not wish to be predictable, Mama,” Aldridge teased.

Alex cracked open an eyelid and then another. The room was no longer spinning, and the brandy had helped settle his nausea. He had been wrestling with his pain for long enough that the servants had brought in a tea trolley.

“Thank you for your good wishes,” he said, his voice calm, if a little strained.

The duchess gave his hand another squeeze and released it so that she could prepare herself a cup of tea. Aldridge, Alex noted, had helped himself to the brandy.

“I can see you are in pain, and look half-starved, my dear,” Her Grace said, “so I will need to take your sister’s word that your condition has improved, and forgive her for being so protective. Now. We shall not remain long, so what do you wish from us on this first visit? Shall Aldridge give you the news? Or shall I show you what we have brought to amuse you?”

“I have war, government, and court news,” Aldridge offered, “and Mama knows more than me about what is newsworthy in Society. If you want to hear about less disreputable matters,” he slid a glance sideways at his Mama, “we will ask Her Grace to step into the next room.”

The world was carrying on without him, and Alex could not summon the energy to care. “Presents, Your Grace? You are too kind.”

“My dear Major, you were raised almost a brother to my dear nephew, you are my good friend’s son, and I have known you from the cradle. I can spoil you if I wish. Besides…” She lowered her voice, “Her Majesty has told me something of the circumstances of your injury, and I am grateful on her behalf.”

Alex grimaced. All the gratitude in the world wouldn’t give him back the use of his legs.

But the duchess intended him to make the most of sitting in one place. In the ten minutes that was all she allowed herself, she loaded him with gifts, some purchased and others made specifically for him.

First, she had Aldridge and a footman bring in a table made with two legs so that it would fit across the sofa, and informed him that one with higher legs had been delivered to his bedroom.

“Now that you can sit up, Major Redepenning, you will find this surface more stable than a tray for taking meals, keeping up with your correspondence, playing cards, or whatever pleases you.”

A long procession of packages followed: books, a games board marked for backgammon on one side and chess on the other, the pieces in a matching box, several packs of cards, note paper, an inkwell that Aldridge assured him was non-spill.

So many, each showing the giver’s awareness of his interests and his limited abilities, but when Alex roused himself to express his gratitude, the duchess claimed that Aldridge had been her deputy in choosing what to bring, and Aldridge brushed off his thanks with a challenge to a game of backgammon “In a day or too, when you are more the thing.”

By the time Susan returned from whatever errand had taken her out, Alex had slept for a restless half hour and was laying out a solitaire game of patience on his new table. He greeted her with a smile, and she exclaimed with delight, “You are feeling better, Alex. I hoped you would.”

And he was, he discovered. The pain was no less, the legs no more co-operative, but the visit had done him good, reminding him that he had friends who loved him, and that the wide world still waited on the other side of this long stretch in the sickroom. He would get better. He vowed it. He owed it, after all, to the doctors, having confounded their expectations once.

This scene takes place some time in March 1807. Readers of Farewell to Kindness will see Alex, a secondary character in that book, still recovering but able to get around on crutches and in an invalid chair. My forthcoming novel, A Raging Madness (published 9 May 2017), begins in October of that same year, as does A Baron for Becky. Alex is the hero of A Raging Madness, and Aldridge could have been the hero of A Baron for Becky, but chose to please his family rather than follow his heart. Poor Aldridge.

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Tea with Sophia

monday-for-tea

On this fine afternoon in September, the duchess had ordered tea served on the terrace overlooking the rose garden. “We should enjoy the sunshine while we can,” she told her goddaughter, Lady Sophia Belvoir.

Sophia had been surprised—and somewhat disconcerted—to find she was the only guest. What was Aunt Eleanor up to?

But Her Grace discussed only the weather and the roses as she poured the tea and passed the cucumber sandwiches; tiny triangles of finely sliced bread with the cool crisp vegetable melting on the tongue.

Sophia took a sip of her tea. Ah. The finest oolong with just a touch of lemon. Aunt Eleanor never forgot.

At that moment, the duchess pounced. “Tell me about Lord Elfingham, my dear.”

Sophia’s hand jerked as she returned her cup to its saucer, and it clicked loudly. She blushed. At her clumsiness, of course, not at the mention of the young viscount who had been everywhere she went for months

“You met him even before most of London, his aunt tells me,” the duchess prompted.

“Not met, exactly,” she demurred. “We were not introduced.”

Aunt Eleanor said nothing; just raised her brows in question, and after a moment Sophia added, “I was visiting the orphanage at Bentwick. A child ran out of the gate into the road, and was almost run down by racing curricles. Lord Elfingham rescued the child and returned him to the- the orphanage servants.”

Appearing from nowhere just as she emerged from the gate and saw disaster unfolding before her. Riding down on the cowering boy right under the noses of the teams that threatened to trample the child underfoot. Scooping up the runaway and leaping to safety on his magnificent stallion. Fixing her in place with a fervent gaze from his dark eyes. Haunting her in dreams ever since.

“He has been pursuing Felicity,” she told Her Grace. “Hythe will not consider it.”

The duchess’s brows rose again. “Your sister Felicity? Are you certain? It is you his eyes follow when you are at the same entertainments, Sophia.”

For a moment, Sophia’s heart leapt, but Aunt Eleanor was wrong. She was too old for the marriage mart, and had not been as beautiful as Felicity even when she was a fresh young debutante. Besides, her brother the Earl of Hythe would not countenance the connection, whichever sister was being courted.

She shook her head, not trusting her voice. “May we speak of something else?” Which was rude, but Aunt Eleanor graciously allowed it.

“Very well. Let us discuss next week’s meeting to set up the fund for the education of girls. You will take the chair, my dear?”

******

Sophia is the heroine of The Bluestocking and the Barbarian in the Belle’s box set Holly and Hopeful Hearts, now on sale.

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Tea with Cedrica

monday-for-teaCedrica stared out of the window, but she saw nothing of the scene before her: the rectory garden, bounded by a low wall, and beyond it the village lane; the gray church through a small gate to her left, and on the right another gate leading to the rectory orchard.

The view was as familiar to her as the shape of her hand—she had known both her whole life. But she sat and looked into the future, and which was unfamiliar and had no shape at all.

Whatever was she to do?

At least here, the villagers knew what to expect from Papa when he wandered off, visiting from cottage to cottage all over the district, bewildered that the parishioners of his youth were not there to greet him; that his beloved Hannah, Cedrica’s mother, was nowhere to be found.

The children and grandchildren of those parishioners would bring Papa back home, where—until today—he recognised his daughter and came back at least a little to himself.

Today, he had stared at her blankly, and become angry when she insisted that she was Cedrica. “This is a cruel joke,” he told her, with great dignity. “I must insist you leave before you upset my wife by taunting her with her childless state.”

In the end, cook had taken him upstairs and put him to bed, and Cedrica had come to the study, filled with memories of the kindest father in the world. Her long-awaited birth had killed her mother, but her Papa made sure she never wanted for affection. How many evenings had she played on this very hearth rug while he wrote his sermon? Here, he told her stories, taught her to read, helped her with her first stumbling letters. Here, as she grew older, they worked side by side, Cedrica proud to help her father with his careful little monographs on English wild flowers, and his letters to other botanists all of Europe.

Where were they now, all those friends with whom he had corresponded? She had written to them and to everyone else she could think of when she and the good people of the village could no longer hide their dear rector’s increasing confusion. Few had replied. Those who did sent only good wishes.

Good wishes would not save Papa from the bishop’s plans to put them out from the only home Cedrica had ever known. Oh, his letter was polite enough. The new rector would require the rectory. Mr Cedric Grenford would be better off in a place where people of failing minds were cared for. The bishop would be happy to write Miss Grenford a recommendation for a position. Perhaps as a companion to someone elderly?

In desperation, Cedrica had written to the last person her father would wish help from—the distant cousin whose great grandfather had banished his son, her own grandfather, for the unpardonable crime of falling in love outside of his class and station.

But the Duke of Haverford, head of the Grenford family, had not replied.

Movement on the lane caught her attention; a magnificent coach, pulled by four black horses, perfectly matched down to the one white fetlock. The equipage was slowing, stopping, one of the two footmen up behind leaping down to open the door with its ornate crest, and put down the carriage steps.

First through the door was a tall man immacutely dressed in a coat that hugged his broad shoulders and pantaloons that hugged… Cedrica schooled her eyes to turn back to the door, as the man himself did, holding out his hand to assist a lady to ascend. A very fashionable lady.

A great lady, as Cedrica would have known by her wise eyes and her kind face, even without her escort, the carriage, and the servants.

The footman opening the gate, and the gentleman gave his arm to the lady and led her towards the rectory door.

Cedrica shook herself. The door. With cook upstairs and the maid on her half day, Cedrica must answer the door, and there. That was the knocker.

Refusing to speculate; refusing to hope; Cedrica hurried into the hall and checked her appearance in the tiny mirror. Reddened eyes. Old fashioned dowdy clothes. She could smooth her hair back under her cap, and she did, but she could do nothing about the rest.

With a sigh, she answered the door.

“Please tell Miss Grenford that the Duchess of Haverford has come to call,” said the man, barely glancing away from the duchess.

“I will… That is, I am…” Cedrica trailed off. She was sure the duchess had never in her life opened her own door. Despite her embarrassment, she could not take her eyes off her illustrious visitor.

The duchess was shorter than her, and elegant in a redingote of a deep wine red that matched the silk flowers inside the brim of her straw bonnet. Yes. Cedrica had been correct. The lady’s eyes were kind, her mouth curving in a gentle smile.

“I think, Aldridge, that this is Miss Grenford. Miss Grenford, allow me to present your cousin, my son, the Marquis of Aldridge.”

Startled, Cedrica turned to look at the man that most of England called the Merry Marquis. He did not look like a dissolute rake. Although, to her knowledge, she had not before met a member of that tribe.

He bowed, a graceful gesture at odds with his dancing hazel eyes.

“Miss Grenford, your humble servant.”

Servant. What must two such aristocrats think of her opening her own door? Cedrica blurted, “It is the maid’s day off, and cook is sitting with Papa.” She could feel her own blush, heating her all the way from the roots of her hair to her- her chest.

“Aldridge, find the kitchen, dear, and put on the kettle,” Her Grace ordered. “Miss Grenford—or may I call you Cedrica? Cedrica, come and sit down, my dear, and you and I shall have a cup of tea and discuss the safest place for your Papa, and the best place for you. You have family, Cedrica, and we will not let you down.”

Cedrica, following her new sponsor blindly into the shabby parlour, could not stop the tears, and in moments she was in the duchess’s arms, crying on her shoulder.

“There, there, Cedrica. You have been very brave, but you are not alone any more,” the duchess assured her.

It was a great deal to take in, but the situation was too strange not to be believed. A duchess was sitting in her parlour, the shoulder of her gown damp with Cedrica’s tears. And in her kitchen, a marquis was making the tea. Cedrica’s sobs stopped on a shaky laugh.

“I beg your pardon, Your Grace.”

“Call me Aunt Eleanor, Cedrica. For we shall become very close, you and I. I have what I think you need, my dear. And you are just the person that I need.”

EDITED TO ADD THE FOLLOWING

Cedrica Grenford is the heroine of A Suitable Husband, a novella in the Bluestocking Belles’ holiday box set, Holly and Hopeful Hearts. The vignette above is a prequel to the novella. Cedrica also appears in the other novellas in the set, as does Her Grace. That rogue Aldridge wanders in and out of the pages, too. Find out more on the Bluestocking Belles book page.

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Tea with Vanessa

monday-for-tea

Vanessa’s tea with the duchess
OR
A widowed father must be in want of a wife

vanessa“Welcome, Miss Sedgely! I am so pleased you could take tea with me today.”

The Duchess of Haverford was sitting at the far end of two rows of elegant chairs and settees facing each other, looking regal in her own chair of scarlet and gold as she waved Vanessa to the chair at her right. Vanessa swallowed nervously as she made a small curtsey before complying with her hostess’s wishes.

“On the contrary, Your Grace. It was kind of you to extend me an invitation.”

It was true. The Sedgelys’ tended to socialize on the fringes of the ton, not in its upper circles. Vanessa had met a duchess or two before, but never this particular one, who had a reputation for being both astute and compassionate at the same time. No doubt her purpose in inviting Vanessa to tea was to learn more about her work with the Foundling Hospital in order to determine if it was indeed a worthy charity to promote at her New Year’s ball.

The duchess smiled. “It was gratifying to see so many serious young ladies taking an interest in charitable endeavors at the meeting at Miss Clemens’s Book Palace last week. It’s not the usual thing for unmarried ladies, is it?”

Vanessa took a deep breath before answering what was to her a loaded question.

“I’m sure many would agree with you that unmarried ladies would be better occupied in searching for a husband, Your Grace. However, for ladies who choose not to marry, or who have not yet found a suitable match, I cannot think their concern for the less fortunate should be denied. If I am able to help even a few abandoned children live to be respectable and worthy citizens—”

“Which are you, Miss Sedgley?”

Vanessa stared at her blankly. “I beg your pardon?”

The duchess tilted her head to the side. “A lady who has chosen not to marry or one who has not yet found a suitable match.”

A flush crept across Vanessa’s cheeks. Until recently, she would have easily confessed to the former, but since meeting a certain widowed solicitor, she had begun to believe the married state might be for her after all.
“I-uh…”

At that point the tea trolley was wheeled in, and Her Grace favored Vanessa with a request to pour the tea.

Fortunately, she was able to manage that small task without trembling, and for a short time, there was silence as the two ladies sipped their tea and bit into the delicious lemon biscuits.

“I found it exceedingly interesting that Mr. Durand remained for the entire meeting, although he was the only gentleman to do so.”

Her Grace set her cup down on its saucer on the small table between them.

Vanessa’s face felt impossibly hot.

“Er, yes,” she said, taking another sip of tea.

The duchess’s eyebrows furrowed and released. “I find it commendable that he seems so determined to raise his daughter himself,” she said casually as she reached for another biscuit. “I understand he could have left her indefinitely with his sister.”

teatrolleyVanessa poured herself another cup of tea. Her Grace’s tea service was exquisite, but the cups were tiny and the conversation was making Vanessa’s mouth feel dry.

“Indeed.”

“A girl of that age needs a mother, of course.”

“I’m sure that Mr. Durand will do what is necessary for his daughter,” Vanessa defended. “Now, perhaps we might discuss the needs of the Foundling Hospital?”

Her Grace burst out laughing. “I really must stop teasing you, my dear. It’s rather a dreadful habit of mine. Along with matchmaking, of course. But what happens between you and Mr. Durand is really not my concern.” She shrugged. “Although I do think you could be of great help to that worthy gentleman.”

Vanessa gave her a weak smile, wishing the floor would open up and swallow her.

The duchess rang for the tea trolley to be removed.

“Now,” she said. “Do tell me more about your work with the foundlings. We have an orphanage at our Hollystone Hall estate. I’m sure Miss Grenford will organize a visit for us during the house party.”

Gratified at the turn of conversation, Vanessa took a deep breath to give her time to organize her thoughts. Now this was a topic she could handle. Speculating on her matrimonial prospects with George Durand was quite definitely not.

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Vanessa is heroine of Susana Ellis’s Valuing Vanessa, a novella in Holly and Hopeful Hearts. For more about Holly and Hopeful Hearts, including blurbs for all eight stories and preorder links, see the website of the Bluestocking Belles.

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What’s up?

leonid_pasternak_-_the_passion_of_creationI’ve been neglecting you, and I am about to start doing better.

I’m blaming winter, a touch of ill-health, a busy time at the paying job, and the decision to first refocus Revealed in Mist, then to rewrite large chunks of it, and then—when I got it back from the developmental editor—to rewrite it again. (Revealed in Mist is the book that was Prudence in Love, and before that Encouraging Prudence, and before that Embracing Prudence).

At the current pace, I’ll finish the last rewrite this week, so expect to see the book at long last before the end of the year. But the long drought in book publishing has given me time to think about my future plans, and one thing I wish to do is be more deliberate about how I post on this blog.

I’m planning four regular posts a week.

I’ll be starting each week with a new feature post: Mondays for Tea with Her Grace the Duchess of Haverford. So on Mondays, I’ll be inviting other authors to bring a character to tea with my duchess, and to talk about their book or post an excerpt (or both).

On Wednesdays, I’ll be continuing Work-in-Progress Wednesdays, where I choose a theme and post an excerpt to fit that theme, and invite other authors to post their excerpts in the comments. I love reading everyone else’s snippets.

Friday will be research day. Footnotes on Friday will be the place I post little bits from my research that intrigue or delight me, and that I think you might enjoy.

And I’m saving Sunday for a post about writing. This might be a post on the craft of writing, or an update on my current projects, or an opinion piece about anything to do with writing or the romance genre or whatever else is on my mind.

How about subscribing to my newsletter if you’re not already on the list? The signup link is on the right menu.

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