This year's title for The Regency Romantics is called 'A Most Unexpected Christmas'. So far I've managed to muddle the titles and covers twice - and have just realised the cover, I inadvertently had designed for next year's single release, shows a summer scene when the book takes place in the snow. I shall get J D Smith to change the title and use this for another book.
Here is the opening scene:
‘Mama, Amanda, you must be freezing. It’s damnably cold in here.’ Guy gathered up the fur from his knees and carefully tucked it around his sister and his mother.
‘It’s been snowing for the past hour, Bromley, should we not have stopped at the last inn and taken shelter from the blizzard?’ Harry, his junior by eight years and heir to his earldom and vast estates, shifted his weight and the carriage rocked.
‘Sit still, Harry, you’ll have us in the ditch,’ Amanda snapped. ‘Mama, I’m going to cast up my accounts if I do not get out of this carriage immediately.’ His sister was an indifferent traveller and had been begging him to curtail their journey for this past hour.
He sincerely regretted agreeing to spend the Christmas period with his uncle in Suffolk when the weather was so inclement. They would have been better to remain at home in Hertfordshire, but his siblings and mama had been determined to celebrate Christ’s name day with their cousins where there would be parties and jollity. For his maternal uncle Christmas was enjoyed in the old-fashioned way. Since his wife had died from the wasting sickness two years ago there had been nothing to celebrate at Bromley Court.
Guy leaned over and was about to unhook the leather strap that held the window when his world turned upside down. As the carriage tumbled sideways he braced himself against the sides and prayed his family would suffer no serious harm from the accident.
His sister’s scream ripped the air and then he was crushed beneath a tangle of arms and legs as the vehicle settled, with an ominous crack on its side.
‘Everyone, remain still, don’t try and get up until I can discover exactly what has occurred.’
‘Bromley, you nincompoop, we’ve overturned, even I know that.’ Harry’s voice came from the other side of the carriage.
‘Mama, Amanda, are you hurt?’ Guy carefully removed his right hand from the side of the carriage and gently touched the inert form resting on his chest. This meant him taking the weight entirely on his left arm. He was fairly sure it was his sister who was crushed against him and she was disturbingly still.
‘I am unhurt, Bromley, I landed on top of your brother and he broke my fall. Why isn’t Amanda speaking to us?’
‘She’s unconscious, Mama, but from my investigation I think her merely stunned.’ He had no idea if this was the case, but thought it wise not to send his mother into a conniption fit.
The clattering and noise that had been coming from the horses stopped and Fred, his head coachman, banged on the side of the coach. ‘My lord, you must keep still, the carriage is perilously balanced above a deep ditch. The axle broke and this tipped us over.’
‘Understood. Use the horses to pull the carriage upright, but be quick, Lady Amanda is injured.’
‘There’s a drive leading to a big house – I’ve sent Tom on one of the horses to fetch help. We’ll have you all out of there right smart, my lord.’
‘Excellent. Are the horses unharmed?’
‘Yes, my lord, but I fear the carriage is done for.’
Amanda groaned and tried to move. ‘Hush, little one, you must remain still. We shall be out of here soon and in the warm.’
As he spoke he was aware that icy water was already seeping through the door and his heavy travelling coat was becoming unpleasantly wet. He daren’t move as this might tip the carriage further into the ditch. ‘Harry, I shall need you and mama to move backwards very slowly in a minute. Be ready to stop if we start to slide further into the ditch.’
His back was already wet and if he didn’t get himself clear of the water he feared his sister would soon be damp as well as concussed.
‘Fred, tie the harness to the wheels and get the remaining animals to take the strain. We cannot wait for help to arrive. We must do something now.’
His coachman shouted his agreement and a few minutes later the coach rocked and then it slowly moved towards the road. ‘Right, my lord, all secure, you won’t tip no further.’
‘Harry, Mama, roll towards the road. Do it now.’ Guy placed one arm around his sister and then threw his considerable weight forward. The carriage groaned and creaked as if alive and slowly righted itself. They were now jammed into the well of the carriage and his sister was still not fully conscious. He had managed to protect her as the vehicle rolled and was sure she had suffered no further harm.
The door opened and Fred pulled down the steps and assisted his mother to her feet. His brother had remained where he was.
‘I didn’t want to say anything, Bromley, but I’m damned if I haven’t broken my leg.’
‘Stay where you are, old fellow, I’ll hand Amanda out and then we can see to you.’
A tall, young man stepped forward through the blizzard and held out his arms to receive Amanda’s semi-conscious body. ‘Allow me, sir, I’m Richard Hadley, I live at the Abbey. I can hold her until help arrives.’
Guy handed his sister across. ‘Here, Hadley, wrap her in this fur. There are several others in here, would you be kind enough to give them to my mother?’
Once he was sure his family were as warm and safe as they could be in the circumstances Guy turned his attention to his brother. From the angle of his leg it was a nasty break and moving him without doing further damage was going to be all but impossible.
The snow was muffling all sound and he doubted if he’d hear rescue approaching until it arrived. He strained his ears and was certain there was a horse approaching at a gallop. Tom reined in and told them a carriage was on its way.
‘Return to the house, Tom, tell them my brother has broken his leg and will require a trestle to get him to safety.’
The boy touched his cap and disappeared into the swirling whiteness.
Cressida was gazing out of the window at the flurries of snow. ‘I think this year we’ll have a white Christmas, Papa, it’s already settling.’
Her father, Colonel John Hadley, peered at her over his newspaper. ‘I shall have to cancel our New Year ball if that’s the case.’
Sarah, her younger sister by three years, jumped to her feet and ran to the window. ‘It might be pretty, but I hate the snow. I shan’t be able to ride and we shall have no visitors at all until it goes.’
‘Where is your brother? I’ve not seen him since last night.’
She and Sarah exchanged a worried glance. ‘I believe he stayed in the village, Papa, some of his friends from Oxford were passing through.’
‘As long as it’s not those rackety fellows from London – they will lead Richard into further mischief and I might not be able to extricate him next time.’
Cressida was about to turn away when Sarah clutched her arm. ‘Look, there’s a youth in livery galloping down the drive. If I’m not mistaken he’s riding a carriage horse.’
Immediately her father was on his feet. ‘There must have been an accident. Girls, inform the housekeeper that we need chambers preparing.’ He strode from the room to organise a rescue.
Cressida hurried after him eager to hear how many visitors they might expect. ‘I sincerely hope no one has been seriously hurt, the weather is worsening and I doubt anyone will get through to the doctor in the next village.’
‘Mama taught you everything she knew about healing and herbs. I doubt there’s another young lady in the county who could set a bone or stitch a wound the way you can.’ Papa smiled down at her.
‘Sarah, please find Miller whilst I prepare my basket and arrange for hot water to be fetched.’ She paused as something occurred to her. ‘I think it might be wise to have the downstairs apartment made ready in case anyone is seriously injured. It will be far easier to nurse them down here. Don’t forget there will be servants as well as the travellers to provide for.’
Her sister ran off – there was no need to remind her about warning their head groom – Sarah preferred animals to humans and her first concern would be for the horses. Since their beloved mama had died three years ago it had fallen to Cressida to take over the running of the household and all thought of having a Season had been put to one side.
For Cressida this had been a relief more than anything else for she had been dreading spending several months being ogled and crushed at a variety of routs and balls. Papa wished Sarah to make her come out in March next year – at eighteen years of age she would be a year or two older than most debutantes – but her sister was equally reluctant to go to London and be paraded like a prize heifer in front of suitable bachelors.
As she passed through the impressive entrance hall, Grimshaw, the butler, opened the front door and an icy blast of snow and wind filled the space. She waited in order to hear exactly what had transpired at the end of the drive. Knowing the extent of any injuries that had been sustained would make her task much easier.
The young coachman refused to come in after delivering his message and vaulted onto his waiting horse and thundered off down the drive again. Her father appeared, in his riding coat and beaver, on the gallery and came down the steps three at a time.
‘Earl Bromley, Lady Bromley, his mother, and his brother and sister were in the coach that overturned. Lady Amanda appears to be the only one injured, which is a relief. I shall leave Miller to arrange suitable accommodation for our unexpected guests.’
‘I’m sending a carriage to collect them, my dear, and I’ll accompany it. It’s damned dark outside and barely two o’clock. Get Cook to bring dinner forward – no doubt they’ll be sharp-set after this mishap and want to eat as soon as possible.’
‘They will be without their luggage and will require fresh garments. However, I’ll have to wait until I meet this family of aristocrats before finding them something suitable.’
‘I expect they’ll need personal servants too, get Grimshaw to find somebody for the earl and his brother, and Miller can do the same for the ladies.’
He strode off to the side door which led directly to the stables leaving her to hurry to her still room at the rear of the house. It was here that she prepared the concoctions and tisanes she prescribed for both indoor and outdoor staff. Possibly she would have been burned as a witch two hundred years ago, but nowadays most people were more enlightened.
The local physician was in his dotage and still believed that everything could be cured by bleeding. For this reason her mother had taken over the task of doctoring on their estate and had passed on her extensive knowledge to Cressida.
By the time she had assembled the things she thought she might need a quarter of an hour had passed. She carried a basket to the downstairs apartment that had been occupied by her grandfather. Whilst her father had been fighting the French, her mother and her siblings had remained with Grandfather. When the war ended last year Papa had finally come home to take over the estate which had been run in his absence by a highly competent estate manager.
Her eyes filled as she recalled the dreadful winter three years ago when Mama had died from the putrid sore throat. Her father had not heard of her demise until they were out of mourning and by then there was little point in him returning.
Richard had been sent down from Oxford shortly after Mama died and since then had fallen from one scrape to another. His intention had been to join papa’s regiment, but new officers were not needed now Bonaparte was safely captured. Where was he? Why hadn’t he returned last night?
She pushed her concerns aside; her brother was a grown man and capable of taking care of himself. She must concentrate on helping the occupants from the coach. Although the building had been in the Hadley family for generations, they were not part of the elite that ruled the country. They had no wish to be ennobled and kept well away from politics. The thought of having such top lofty folk staying with them over the Christmas period filled her with foreboding.
The house was bustling with maids and footmen fetching and carrying items for the underused apartment downstairs. This had been under holland covers since her grandfather had died and she hoped the rooms would not be damp.
Miller was directing operations and Cressida was pleased to see that fires had been lit and the chambers were no longer below freezing.
‘The beds are made and warming pans have been passed through. I’ve cleared the table by the washstand for you, Miss Hadley; will that be sufficient for your needs?’
‘Thank you, Miller, you’ve thought of everything. I expect Lord Bromley and his family will be here shortly. As soon as we can see their size and shape we can find them fresh clothes.’
‘I’ve already found nightshirts and nightgowns, underpinnings and wraps – I can have everything else collected as soon as they arrive. I’ve put Earl Bromley in the best apartment, the Dowager Lady Bromley next door to him and everything is also ready in the smaller guest chamber. Until we know who is going to be sleeping down here, I cannot complete my preparations.’
Cressida put down her basket as the housekeeper was speaking and began to arrange the things she thought she might need. ‘There must be at least two coachmen and they will need accommodation outside with our grooms and gardeners.’
‘Miss Sarah has seen to that. It’s a good thing the pantries are wellstocked because of the Christmas festivities, I doubt that anyone will be able to deliver extra provisions until the snow has gone.’
Once she was sure everything was as prepared as it could be Cressida ran upstairs and put on her stout boots, muffler and cape just in case she was required to go outside and assist when the carriage returned. She was on her way downstairs when there was a second hammering on the door.
Grimshaw spoke briefly to the person on the doorstep and then turned to her. ‘Lord Bromley’s brother has broken his leg. They want a trestle to carry him back here.’
‘Send word outside. I must go too, have my horse saddled whilst I collect what I need.’
Is it too early to wish you Happy Christmas? Thought so.
Fenella J Miller