Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Willoughby's Return

Willoughby's Return is the title of my next book, a sequel to Sense and Sensibility to be published by Sourcebooks in the autumn 2009. In this extract Marianne Brandon is visiting her mother at Barton Cottage and is obliged to spend the evening at Barton Park with the Middletons, the family who helped them out of financial straits. Marianne's past has already caught up with her on a visit to Exeter with her sister Margaret and this evening promises more of the same to our heroine's great discomfort.

With a heavy heart did Marianne dress for the evening’s entertainment. She did not wish to admit to herself that she was quite shaken by the episode of the afternoon but she did acknowledge that the last occupation she needed was to spend any length of time with Lady Middleton’s inquisitive mother, Mrs Jennings. She heard Sir John’s carriage draw to a standstill outside in the lane, the horses whinnying with impatience to be off again. Marianne adjusted the pearls at her throat and stroked the diamond on her finger as though touching it would bring William nearer to her. If only he were to accompany her to the Park. She knew he would have steered the conversation away from any subject that Marianne did not care to discuss. One look from her was usually enough and he would come to her rescue, but he was not here and she would have to make the best of it. Mrs Dashwood’s voice calling her to come down broke her reverie; she picked up her gloves and slowly descended the staircase.

The reception that greeted them all was as welcoming as it could be. Sir John Middleton, a gentleman in his mid forties, was as good looking and as congenial as ever, apologising for the lack of bodies to divert them, saying that had there been more notice of Mrs Brandon’s visit he would have secured a much larger party to dine with them. Lady Middleton, an elegant woman of two and thirty, was as reserved as her husband was frank and as cold in her manner as she had ever been on former visits. If she spoke more than a dozen words together for the entire evening, Marianne decided she would have been surprised. In complete contrast to this lady, her elderly mother was affable and merry, talking non-stop, never pausing to take a breath before she ran on to some other subject. She was a tease, full of jokes and to Marianne’s mind, was still rather vulgar. However, this aspect of Mrs Jennings’s character, Marianne was prepared to forgive for the most part for she had never forgotten the old lady’s kindness. Mrs Jennings dominated the conversation from the start and was convinced that Margaret must have a secret beau because of the way she had dressed her hair. She pretended that she had prior knowledge of his name, even when it was quite apparent to everyone else that this could not possibly be the case.

Mrs Jennings’s conversation took a turn for the worse, being made up of impertinent questions that more than hinted at her idea of Marianne being in a particular situation on account of the fact that she had detected a want of appetite at dinner. “I daresay I am correct, Mrs Brandon, am I not? I see you blush. Tell me, James is over two years old now, that’s right isn’t it? And I am sure it is about time for him to look forward to having another baby to play with.”

Marianne was as cross as she could be and could not think how to divert the course of the old lady’s banter. She soon formed a plan to amuse the whole company and give her an excuse to leave Mrs Jennings’s side. She would offer to play the pianoforte. But before she had the chance to speak or remove herself, she heard Lady Middleton suggest that her mother relate the news that she had heard in Barton village that very afternoon.

“Why, yes, I was coming to that, only I have not seen Mrs Brandon for a twelve month and we had important intelligence to divulge to one another first. Now, having got that out of the way, I must tell you I happened to see Mrs Whitaker this afternoon in the village. Poor soul, she is plagued with such ailments, it is a wonder she can walk at all. Her eldest daughter, Elizabeth, who by the bye was at school with my daughter Charlotte, was never expected to marry, what with her being such a plain sort of girl and always so very shy, but is confined and expecting her ninth child as I speak. By all accounts she is not so very timid now...” Mrs Jennings paused to laugh out loud, nudging Marianne with her elbow followed by a theatrical wink. “Do not mind me, Miss Margaret,” she added with a nod towards her direction, “but I daresay we married ladies know to what I surmise...”

Marianne winced with embarrassment and glowered at her mother. She desperately wanted to go back to the cottage and retire to bed. Mrs Dashwood averted her eyes. Mrs Jennings’s voice droned on in the background and Marianne hardly attended to a word she said. Her thoughts turned to Delaford. She wondered what William was doing. James would, no doubt, be tucked up in bed now; his dark curls tumbling over the pillow, his cherubic face flushed with sleep. It was hateful not to have said goodnight to him and she was missing him terribly. William would be in his study, reading his favourite poems, perhaps. She was quite lost in thought.

“...And Mrs Whitaker said that she is very dangerously ill, with only her faithful servants to nurse her,” Mrs Jennings continued. “Poor lady, no children of her own and no sign of the one who is to inherit. He who shall be nameless! You know to whom I refer, Mrs Dashwood.”

Marianne’s ears pricked up at the last declaration and guessed that the lady she spoke of was none other than Mrs Smith of Allenham Court, Mr Willoughby’s benefactor. Now Mrs Jennings was running through the list of Mrs Smith’s ailments and announcing as if she were the apothecary herself, that it was certain she would be dead before the week was out. Allenham would be empty, a very sad business, or so she had thought at first. “Then I bumped into Mrs Carey, whose cousin had been shopping in Exeter this afternoon. Mary Carey had seen them with her own eyes!”

“I wish you would explain with a little more comprehension, mother. Whom did Mary Carey see in Exeter this afternoon?” begged Lady Middleton, who despite affecting disinterest was clearly anxious to hear a full report.

“Mr and Mrs John Willoughby, of course!”

Mrs Dashwood coloured on hearing this information and cast a glance at her daughter. Marianne was clearly mortified and her mother grieved for her. How could Mrs Jennings be so insensitive?

“Did you not happen to see them yourselves?” the old lady enquired, directing her attention at Marianne, whose blushes were now visible to even the most unobservant of the party. Mrs Jennings looked searchingly into Marianne’s countenance, which betrayed every emotion she was feeling, though her voice spoke her hot denial. Margaret was scrutinised next but the latter was unable to speak at all, so afraid was she of betraying the truth of the matter and upsetting her sister further.

“Well, what I want to know is why they are not up at the Court attending their cousin, said I, to Mrs Carey,” Mrs Jennings blundered on, “though I intimated that he had always been somewhat of a character not to be trusted and a very cold fish to boot. And this is not all, Lord bless me. Mrs Carey said that her cousin had been in the linendraper’s just half an hour later when she not only heard the reason why the Willoughbys are refusing to be put up at Allenham, but also received the most shocking news of all!”

Marianne faltered. She felt faint and thought she might pass out at any moment.

“Apparently, Sophia Willoughby was talking to an acquaintance as she was going out of the shop, someone whom it appeared must be a near relation. She heard Mrs Willoughby saying that it was insupportable that they should stay at the Court, that the place needed completely fitting up from top to bottom and that she would not step inside it, let alone stay in the place until all was done to her satisfaction. She finished by saying that with luck, they would be able to start work within a fortnight. Now, what do you think to that? The house is to be occupied by the Willoughbys who will no doubt make it their family home. Not that there is yet any issue from that marriage to date!”

Marianne knew this to be true. The Willoughbys had not been blessed with any children in the four years they had been married. She wondered what John felt about it all, if he ever thought about the daughter he had never seen. She knew she would never have been able to bear the idea of a child of hers being brought up in the world without any acknowledgement of her existence. Perhaps John Willoughby was the cold fish Mrs Jennings described, though in her heart she protested at such an idea. She did not think him completely reprehensible. After all, he had once tried to explain his past actions to Elinor, for which he had seemed truly sorry.

Happy New Year everyone!

With love,
Jane Odiwe

Illustration from Sense and Sensibility by Brock

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Excerpt from "Laura."

Just before Christmas, our heroine, Laura, is caught in the snow.

Ross pulled his team to a stop and leaped down to the road. Laura had never been so glad to see anyone in her life. She went towards him, hands outstretched. "The back wheel is broken! There seemed to be nothing to do but wait. I'm so glad it's you!"

"You won't be when you hear what I have to say to you," he growled.

Laura stopped, and let her hands drop to her sides, schooling her expression to the polite impassivity she usually presented in public. Why had he come after her if he was angry with her? Merely to berate her? She had felt nothing but joy to see him, and his implicit rejection of her pleasure hurt. She rarely let anyone see anything of her behind the smooth façade she carefully maintained, but she'd let this man in. That might have been a mistake.

"Are you all right?" He snapped the words out, as though compelled to say them.

"Perfectly," she replied, trying to keep her voice cool, "except for one or two bruises."

"Then I take leave to tell you I didn't think you would be so foolish!"

His hard gaze swept over her form and a wave of heat passed over her, soon gone in the deadening chill of the snowstorm.

"What made you leave your tiger behind? Didn't you realise snow was on the way?"

"I never thought to check. I was so worried about Belinda."

He made a sound of disgust. "Belinda! Do you think of nothing else? Let her find her own way to perdition if she's that set on it! Why should she drag you into danger?" His voice rang loud, but was deadened by the thick blanket of snow.

Behind all the anger Laura detected real fear in his tone, breaking through in an uncertain end to his words. The thought warmed her, but so did her rising anger. The knowledge that she had behaved foolishly, combined with her relief at being rescued resulted in a surge of temper. "There was no danger when I set out. And if it wasn't for this damned snow I would have had her back by now and nobody any the wiser!" A flake settled on her nose, and she blew at it in irritation.

His boots crunching in the freshly fallen snow, Ross strode towards the wreck of her curricle and examined the wheel for himself. "That wheel is shattered," he said. "It needs to be replaced."

"I worked that out for myself," Laura did not appreciate being spoken to as though she was twelve years old. Now she was out of immediate danger, her frustration and anger came to the fore.

"We've come too far to go back to London tonight." He spun around on one heel to face her again, the ruined carriage behind him. "Dear God, woman, what did you think you were doing?"

"Saving my niece from something she is likely to regret for the rest of her life," Laura responded. "She's none of your concern, but believe me, she is mine!"

He grimaced, the corner of his mouth going up in a quirk of displeasure. "Well, she'll have to face it for herself now." He turned back to the curricle, bent and picked up Laura's portmanteau and the small case. Without looking back to see if she was following him he walked back to his own vehicle, throwing them the bags up behind. Unlike Laura he drove a low-bodied crane-neck phaeton, more stable on four wheels instead of her curricle's two.

One of Laura's chestnuts snorted. She agreed with him. "You haven't brought your tiger, either," she remarked with some satisfaction. She had caught him on his own criticism.

He darted a furious glance at her. "I had no time," he snarled.

Before he could do so, Laura moved over to the trees and untethered her team. He came over to help her, and took the leads from her. As he did so, his hard gaze travelled up to her face, where her polite façade had been replaced by simmering anger. "Where are your gloves? Do you want to get frostbite?"

Despite her desire to ignore his concern she explained, "They got wet. I took them off to dry." She fished the offending articles out from her pelisse pockets, but they were still hopelessly wet.

"It doesn't matter," he said. "You can keep your hands under your cloak. I'll be driving."

Since it was his carriage, she couldn't complain, but she felt like it. He was treating her like a child, and she had cut her eye-teeth years ago.

While Ross was busy fastening the reins of her horses to the back of his phaeton, Laura went back to the curricle and collected the spare blankets, together with any other bits and pieces she thought might come in useful. Taking one last wistful look at her ruined vehicle, which had been a fine little carriage, and fun to drive, before this stupid accident, she climbed up into the passenger seat, disdaining his proffered hand. Her efforts at rescue had ended in dismal failure and she felt foolish and humiliated.

"Where are we?" she managed.

He waited until he'd steered his team past her stricken vehicle before he replied. "I'm not quite sure. Somewhere near Berkhamsted I think. I suggest we stop at the first place we find and make inquiries. I'd better call you my sister or my wife and I won't give them my real name unless anyone recognises me."

Laura had stopped thinking about propriety a long time ago, but she supposed he must be right. Now her own reputation was at stake as well as her niece's. If the spiteful old biddies in town ever got wind of this she would be ruined. She hated society for its narrow-minded censure of any woman who stepped even slightly out of line, and she hated Lord Harris for instigating this farce in the first place. Most of all she hated herself. "Why did you come after me?"

Ross kept his concentrated gaze on the road ahead. In the dark, it would have been easy to let his vehicle wander off the camber of the road straight into one of the ditches that bordered it. "Because, unlike you I took some notice of the weather conditions. The weather grew slightly warmer this morning, a sure sign of snow on the way. I came to see you earlier, and I found your sister in great distress."

Laura's heart sank. "I told her to calm down and behave as normal."

His mouth thinned to a straight line. "I told her to go to bed and let any visitor who called know she was indisposed. She's completely unable to hide her upset." He paused, negotiating a sharp bend in the road, and then, safely around it, continued, "She can't hide her feelings for her daughter, even when it's in her interest to do so. She won't rest until she hears from us. And that," he added, glancing up at the sky, "might not be for a long time."

The snow still fell thick and fast, dropping a dead pall over everything, muffling feeling, muffling colour. Laura felt a strange sense of isolation, as though they would never reach anywhere, as though every landscape was the same as the one they were passing through now. Her eyes drooped, and she felt herself slipping into sleep.

He jerked her awake with a sharp command. "Wake up! Don't go to sleep until we've reached somewhere safe."

Startled, she lifted her head. Ross was watching the road carefully, guiding his horses through the blanketed road, her own team following behind, their hoofbeats muffled by carpet of snow. The pace was slow but steady.

"Thank God!" he muttered.

Looking ahead, Laura thought she saw the outline of a building.

As they got closer they saw lights streaming out from the windows onto the whiteness outside. Closer still, they could discern sounds, noises and then it became possible to see what the building was. An inn, or a large farmhouse. Refuge.

Ross drove up to the building. Snow covered the sign that swung on a stand outside, and a wide arch led to a yard, where coaches would customarily go. Ross drove through the archway into a small inn-yard, most of its space already taken up by a large vehicle.

The bustle inside confused Laura, who had begun to drift again. Ostlers ran about, attending to the horses from the coach. Shouts and curses rang around the enclosed yard as they worked.

The stagecoach! The large vehicle was the stage she'd been hoping to catch!

Laura stared around with dawning hope. This was not a large coaching inn, one of the recognised stages on the route, but a much smaller establishment; probably more used to catering to local trade. The yard was smaller than one accustomed to handling the coach trade and the Quality; there was only one barn to the side of it, not the neat row of stabling she was used to seeing in such establishments. The bottom of the yard boasted a collection of snow-clad outhouses, and the left hand side was taken up by the inn.

Ross thrust the reins into her hands and leaped down. "Ho! Assistance here!" he called, but he might as well have been speaking to himself. It wasn't until he walked up to a heavily muffled young man, busy unloading boxes and trunks from the back of the stagecoach that anyone paid attention to him. He laid his hand on the boy's shoulder, and forcibly turned him around. The young man started, and then waited to hear what Ross had to say.

Laura couldn't hear what he said, but it had the desired result. The attendant looked at the phaeton and the thoroughbred horses attached to it more closely. He swallowed. Ross said something sharp to him and he hurried off, returning in very little time with an older man, who similarly looked at the horses and then shook his head.

Ross came back to Laura and held out his hand to help her down. "They're not used to this level of traffic and they weren't sure they had room for the horses, but I persuaded them. This place is packed, but it's obvious we can't go any further tonight. We'll have to take what they can offer us until the morning, at least."

Silently, Laura took his hand and descended to the cobbled yard. She bit her lip. "What a coil!" she muttered.

Overhearing her remark he said tartly, "You might have thought of that earlier."

Laura couldn't understand why he was so unfair, but she was in no case to argue. She followed him into the main room of the inn, where chaos reigned.

A cacophony met her confused ears, human shouting mixing with the metallic clang of tankards and cutlery. Laura caught sight of a harassed woman carrying a tray full of pewter mugs elbowing her way through the crowd. She hoped there was something left for Ross and herself.

What looked at first like smoke turned out to be steam, rising from soaked greatcoats and travelling cloaks drying in the heat blazing from the large fireplace and the warmth of human bodies. People of all sorts jostled each other, from schoolboys to more disreputable looking characters. All were agitated, all demanded attention.

Confused, jostled, Laura was glad to feel Ross Stansfield's hand on her elbow. He moved just a little in front of her, steering a path through the crowd.

He headed straight for the fire and attracted the attention of a passing potboy by the simple expedient of placing one strong hand on his shoulder and preventing him from going any further. "Brandy," he said. "And dinner." He then increased the loyalty of the youth by pressing a gold coin into his hand. "The other half when we're comfortably settled."

Ross was gazing around the room. "Most of the stage passengers must be in here. I wonder why they stopped, instead of going on to Berkhamsted?" He was forced to shout, such was the unabated noise.

"Because," said a nearby young gentlemen, "one of the horses cast a shoe. There's a smithy not two miles from here, or so the coachman says." He raised his voice even more as the noise around them increased. Laura hadn't thought it possible before. "It looks as though we're for the night, so God knows where we're all going to sleep." He stared curiously at Laura, recognizing a lady it seemed, from his next remark. "If you want a bedroom, you'll have to make haste."

Ross bit his lip, and his expression turned grimmer. "Will you be all right here? I'll go and see what I can do."

Laura nodded meekly and Stansfield pushed his way through the crowd in search of the landlady.

He was back in a few minutes. "No rooms, not at any price," he informed her. "Not tonight at any rate. There are only three bedrooms and they're all taken. One I would not take in any case, as the occupant is sick and old. The other contains a couple who have already retired to bed and a third has been commandeered for the women and children of the coach. I can find a place for you in there, if you would like it." He paused. "It might be best, but you might not like some of the people who are due to sleep there."

"Where will you sleep?" Laura asked.

He shrugged. "There's a barn. The horses will be at one end of it, but it will be quite warm and probably more comfortable than this room, which is the only other one on offer."

Laura could see no trace of the anger he'd displayed on the road, only a warmth and deep concern.

He spoke very softly. "I'd rather not spend the night away from you, and not because of any other reason than a desire to look after you."

Laura felt the hot blood rush into her face. She saw the old-fashioned settles and hard tables. There would not be many spare blankets. Then she thought of spending a night in a small room with complete strangers, and bawling infants.

She made up her mind. "May I stay with you in the barn?" Even Ross in a temper would make her feel more safe, less unsettled than she did now. The anxiety at the back of his eyes just now called to something inside her.

Ross obviously discerned her meaning, and responded as she wished him to. "Yes of course. But the barn is likely to be colder than the room set aside for the women."

Laura felt warmth tingling back through her feet and hands, and she instinctively clenched them to restore the circulation. Their brandy arrived and that helped too. Ross took one of her hands and chafed it between his own. Considering her previous request to remain with him, Laura was in no case to argue, and the rubbing restored the warmth to her hands effectively. The trouble was, he kept one of her hands in his afterwards and she felt she could not withdraw it. Even worse, she liked it. His touch made her feel wanted, comfortable and secure. All things she hadn't felt in a long time.

Buy "Laura" here:


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas 1814

Since today is a special day, I thought you might like to read how some of my characters spend Christmas. I’m including a short extract from the second of The Aikenhead Honours Trilogy, the story of Lord Leo Aikenhead and Sophie Pietre, the woman with the most beautiful singing voice in Europe.

In His Reluctant Mistress, Leo and Sophie spend Christmas in a tiny Alpine village where they are snowed in. For fear of spoilers, I shan’t explain how they come to be there, or why, but I hope you will still enjoy the atmosphere. And the hint of mystery, too…

They had left the church behind them. Its bells had welcomed Christmas and fallen silent at last. The villagers had returned to their homes, calling out greetings to each other as they closed their doors against the cold.

Sophie and Leo walked slowly back to the edge of the village and the welcoming warmth of their inn. The only sound now was the scrunch of their boots on the crisp snow. Above them, the sky was huge and cloudless and filled with stars. Behind the village houses, snow-shrouded fir trees stood sentinel, motionless as guardsmen on parade. There was not even a whisper of wind.

Sophie sighed with pleasure. She felt a great sense of peace in this place, isolated from the outside world and from the dangers that threatened there. She found herself wishing that the roads would never re-open. She glanced up at Leo, wondering what thoughts were going through his mind. Did he feel the same?

He flashed a smile at her and tucked her arm more closely into his. He had insisted that she take no risk as they walked, though he must have known perfectly well that the firm fresh snow was not at all slippery.

Sophie had been happy to accept his excuse and his arm, for it was almost the only time they had touched since their arrival in the village. Leo had been scrupulously polite throughout, but Sophie knew that he was deliberately avoiding her whenever he could. He had to join her at mealtimes, of course, for they were supposed to be cousins. But the rest of the time, he was nowhere to be seen. She had no idea what he did all day. She had asked him, once, and received some mumbled excuse about seeing to the horses. Feeble, indeed. The inn had servants to do such menial chores.

Tonight, walking arm in arm, he was more relaxed than he had been since their flight from Italy began. Was it the coming of Christmas? The service had clearly affected him deeply, even though she doubted he had understood a word of it. The tiny village church had been crammed with people, all singing with gusto. Sophie had been asked to sing, too, for the whole village had heard her practising at the inn. She had chosen her favourite German carol, ‘Stille Nacht’, which she had sung very quietly, and unaccompanied. She had put her whole heart into it. It was probably the most moving performance she had ever given, anywhere. And it was for Leo.

‘May I say—’ Leo stopped to clear his throat. ‘May I say, madame, that your singing tonight was utterly perfect? I have never heard anything so beautiful.’

His words set up a glow around Sophie’s heart. She would treasure them, always. ‘Thank you, Lord Leo,’ she replied softly. She wanted to say something more, to build on this unexpected closeness, but it was too late. In ten paces, they would be back inside the inn.

The landlady took Leo’s heavy coat and Sophie’s fur-trimmed pelisse while they both removed the snow from their boots. ‘There is a fine fire in your parlour, signora, if you would please to go up?’ The woman was beaming at her in a peculiar way. What was going on?

Sophie went upstairs to change her boots and her gown. Then, curious, she made her way to the private parlour where Leo was to rejoin her. From the corridor, it looked a little odd, as if it was lit only by the flickering firelight. She stepped into the room. ‘Oh!’ she cried. ‘How wonderful!’ The landlady was standing proudly beside a small Christmas tree covered in tiny white candles. It reminded Sophie of the millions of stars in the midnight sky outside. So very beautiful.

A moment later, she heard Leo’s indrawn breath behind her. Was this tiny wonder new to him? She had been told that English Christmas customs were bizarre and uncouth. She turned, smiling, to explain, but he shook his head at her. Silence. His eyes were wide. She was sure she could see a hundred tiny reflections dancing there.

‘You approve, signora?’ The landlady’s words broke the spell.

Sophie started, then beamed at the woman. ‘Happy Christmas, dear lady.’ She handed over the money she had prepared. ‘And thank you for the tree. It is perfect.’

The landlady risked a quick glance at her palm. Her mouth opened and her eyes widened. It was a hugely generous gift.

But Sophie had not finished. She handed over silver coins for the other servants, too. She said they were simply gifts to celebrate Christmas, and to thank the little inn for the splendid service she and Leo had received. But, in truth, they were thank offerings for the days they had spent together in the peace of this place, and for the days they might still have to come.

The landlady’s thanks were effusive, but eventually she left them alone.

Leo looked about him. He had become a little uncomfortable, Sophie thought, now that he was alone with her. He was trying to find an excuse to leave, but she would not permit that. Not until she had finished what she had set out to do. She crossed to the fireplace and lifted the jug of mulled wine that sat by the hearth. ‘Glühwein, Lord Leo? It is wonderfully warming after a midnight walk through the snow.’ Without waiting for his answer, she poured two glasses and offered one to him.

He looked a little taken aback, but he could not refuse without appearing impolite. In all their time on the road, he had been scrupulously, infuriatingly polite.

Sophie raised her glass in a toast. ‘Happy Christmas, Lord Leo. And may we all reach Vienna well ahead of any pursuers.’ She grinned. ‘Even in your amazingly uncomfortable carriage.’

It was the ice breaker she needed. He laughed, and drank. ‘Excellent. As good as any mulled wine I have ever tasted.’

‘I should imagine so,’ Sophie replied, sipping her own wine and savouring its comforting warmth. ‘It is one of the traditions in these parts, along with the tree.’ She nodded towards the twinkling candles. ‘And there is another tradition here, on Christmas Eve. After church, we exchange—’ She stopped short. That would not do. ‘We give gifts, as you just saw me do to the landlady and her servants.’

‘Charming.’ He downed the last of his Glühwein and crossed to the fire to refill his glass.

Sophie took another tiny sip, set down her glass, and straightened the skirts of her red silk gown. It was her favourite because it became her so well. The fabric shimmered in the firelight, glowing with deeper reds and golds and purples. The tiny gift that had been hidden in her bodice was now held tightly in her fingers. She fixed her gaze on his back, and waited.

He turned, his glass halfway to his mouth. ‘Is something wrong, madame?’

‘No, Lord Leo. Nothing at all. But it is Christmas Eve, and I have a gift for you.’ She opened her clasped hands and showed him what she held.


If you want to know what Sophie’s gift was, I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book! The Aikenhead Honours Trilogy will be published in the USA and Canada in March, April, and May 2009. In the UK, book 1 is already available. Books 2 and 3 will be published in paperback in June and July 2009. Ben’s story, His Silken Seduction, will be published in Harlequin’s Undone! ebook series, in July 2009.

Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity of wishing peace and happiness now and in the New Year to all of you who love historical romance and also to everyone you love.


Christmas Away.

This year we are going away for Christmas. Wonderful! No decorations to put up, no extra cooking, I can keep working until the day we leave. Then my daughter asked if I would make a Christmas pudding as homemade ones taste so much better. Okay, that's not too much hassle. I made one large and one small and put them on to steam, became immersed in my writing and when I went back the small one had melted to the bottom of the saucepan. Thank goodness the larger one still had a millimetre of water left in the saucepan. My husband complained thatif he was paid for the time it took him to resurrect the saucepan I could have bought a dozen Christmas puddings from Marks & Spencer's.
Then my daughter asked me to make chocolate mousses, fair enough, very easy to do. But these chocolate mousse had to be three types of chocolate and layered! A hundred bowls and two hours fiddling about and then there's the problem of transporting them tomorrow.
In the current economic climate we had decided not to give presents, the grandchildren getting money. Then my daughter said we should buy adults something but not spend more than £10. Do you know, that's almost as difficult as looking for presents in the normal way -- and there's still just as many to wrap up this afternoon.
I was also reminded politely to make sure the dog had been groomed (she's coming with us of course) and to give her a bath. That joy to come later today.
This is without driving 130 miles at the crack of dawn on Christmas Day hoping not to be held up in traffic jams on the M25.
So much for the joys of going away. Next year the family can all come to me as usual.
Happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year to everyone.
Fenella Miller
The Ghosts Of Neddingfield Hall ISBN 9780709086901 Robert Hale
The House Party ISBN 9780799085362 Robert Hale

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Christmas Story from Anne Herries

My latest Regency The Rake's Rebellious story has a secondary character called George Bellingham. People have been asking me if George is to have his own story. I have written this little Christmas tempter for you and, who knows, I may come up with a book based on this excerpt. I wish you all a lovely Christmas and a Happy New Year and I want to say thank you to all my readers for supporting my books.

Regency Christmas Story

Anne Herries

George Bellingham tossed the latest Christmas greeting to arrive into the beautiful silver bowl on his desk and frowned. It was an invitation to spend the festive season with Sir Freddie and his young wife. Since Sir Freddie was his best friend, George would normally have accepted the invitation with alacrity. However, he was feeling out of sorts.
His sister and niece, who had recently become engaged, were spending Christmas at the home of her fiancé. George had been invited but had not yet agreed.
The truth of it was that he simply wasn’t in the mood for celebrating Christmas this year and he did not know why. He was a generous man and normally delighted in sending lavish gifts and trinkets to his many friends. It might, he suspected, be something to do with the fact that everyone he cared for had either married or become engaged while he remained single.
For years George had studiously avoided marriage, perhaps because he enjoyed his freedom or the ladies he preferred married other gentlemen. He had recently parted from his mistress of several years on friendly terms. Indeed, they had been little more than friends for some months.
‘You are in danger of turning into an old fuddy duddly, sir!’ George straightened an imaginary crease in his cravat, glanced at his gold pocket watch and then reached for his silver topped cane. If he were not careful he would be late for his appointment.
Leaving the house, George strode purposefully towards his club. He had recently been negotiating the purchase of a pair of horses that he believed would rival Sir Freddie’s matched blacks. He had high hopes of completing the sale today. It would not do to keep their owner waiting!
He was about to cross the square when he heard a woman’s scream. Seeking the source, he saw that a young lady was struggling as two ruffians attempted to force her into a closed carriage. George acted instinctively. Sprinting towards her, he drew the blade from his swordstick and charged at the rogues.
His sudden and bold attack took the would be abductors by surprise. They took one look at his gleaming blade and fled, the carriage setting off at a furious pace in pursuit.
George’s eyes gleamed darkly with satisfaction
‘I trust you are not hurt, miss?’
‘Thank you, no, sir. You saved me!’
George blinked as she smiled. She was he thought the most beautiful girl he had ever seen.
‘It was nothing, I assure you.’ He offered his hand. ‘I am George Bellingham at your service, miss…?’
‘Elizabeth Graham.’ She dimpled enchantingly. ‘Mama and I have just arrived in London. My father was attached to the Spanish Embassy in Madrid but he died a month ago and we had to come back to England.’
‘I am sincerely sorry for your loss, Miss Graham. I had not realised…’
Elizabeth blushed. ‘I am waiting for a new wardrobe, sir. I shall go into black as soon as my gowns are ready.’
‘You must not apologise to me.’ George looked at her thoughtfully. Her recent arrival from Spain and her mourning explained why he had not seen her in Society. ‘Would you mind telling me why those rogues were trying to abduct you?’
‘I believe they may have mistaken me for my cousin, Miss Winters, who is an heiress of some note.’
‘Miss Helen Winters?’ George saw a faint likeness, though the girls were very different in character for he knew the rather proud Miss Winters well. ‘You are related to Lord and Lady Winters?’ He was pleased as she inclined her head. ‘I am acquainted with the family. Were you on your way home?’
‘Yes, indeed. I was returning from the library…’ Elizabeth looked slightly nervous. I believe those men have gone – do you not think so?’
‘I hardly think they will attack you again today but you must take care not to walk alone in the future – and you should inform your mama and Lord Winters’ George offered his arm. ‘Perhaps you will allow me to escort you?’
‘I should feel so much safer if you were with me, sir.’
George felt an odd flutter about his heart as she took his arm. Everything suddenly seemed sharper and clearer.
He was aware of the smell of roasting chestnuts and the frosting of white on the trees and the rooftops. Even the cries of the costers had a festive ring as they offered bunches of holly and mistletoe.
‘Are you to go into the country for Christmas, Miss Graham?’
‘Oh no, my aunt will be staying in town. Do you depart for the country soon?’ Her large blue eyes met his dark gaze, her cheeks and nose pink from the cold.
‘I think I shall stay in town. In fact I am thinking of giving a party. I shall write and invite the Winters family – and both your mother and you. It will be just a small affair with no dancing so it will be perfectly proper for you to attend even in mourning – if you should care for it?’
‘I should love to come if mama agrees,’ she said her face lighting up. ‘I am acquainted with a few people in town but…I feel as if I have known you all my life.’ She blushed. ‘Perhaps that was too forward of me?’
‘Certainly not,’ George assured her. ‘I am happy to hear it, Miss Graham, for it is exactly the way I feel myself. We may have met by chance but I hope we shall become good friends.’
‘How could I not admire the man who saved me? Elizabeth asked. ‘I am certain we shall be friends.’
‘George felt an overwhelming urge to kiss her. He was however too much the gentleman to attempt it. Miss Graham was in mourning. She was a respectable young lady and an act of passion would have startled her. She must be courted in the proper manner…
George caught himself up as he realised the way his thoughts were going. However, he could not regret them for he rather thought he was in love for the first time in his life…

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Skating Party

A few years ago I wrote a short story for Christmas called "A Season for Suitors." The hero, Sebastian Fleet has a dark past and a fear of commitment and although he cares for Miss Clara Davencourt he simply cannot bring himself to the point of proposing marriage to her. But then a skating accident intervenes... I have included an extract from the story and hope you enjoy it!

He had been walking with no fixed intention, so deep in thought had he been. Now he found that he had come out into the street by one of the pleasure gardens, the Peerless Pool. In summer it was the haunt of bathers who came to swim in the fresh spring waters. Now, however, the frozen lake was full of skaters. They circled beneath the high blue sky and their excited cries mingled with the cutting sound of skates on ice. The frozen branches of the lime and fruit trees seemed to catch the sound and send its echoes tinkling back.
Sebastian paused. It was a pretty scene and in the centre of it skated a girl in crimson. He recognised Clara at once. She was surrounded by her family and friends. These were the very people with whom he would once have felt so comfortable. He found himself automatically moving to the marble steps that led down to the pool, then stopped. He had barely seen or spoken to Clara in the past fortnight and to force himself on her party now felt awkward and wrong. Besides, now he looked more closely he saw that Lords Tarver and Elton were both in attendance, like twin ugly sisters waiting for Cinderella to choose between them. It made Sebastian feel ridiculously angry. Yet he knew that Clara might well be married by the time he returned from the continent and that he should feel happy at the prospect. It was unfortunate that he was not even noble enough to want for her the thing that would achieve her greatest happiness. He acknowledged ruefully that he was the original dog in the manger. He did not want Clara enough to risk everything for her – the thought petrified him – and yet he did not wish her to find her happiness with anyone else. The tug of it was like an agonising seesaw inside him. Risk all to gain all... He was so very close to it. And yet he turned aside to leave instead.
He almost missed it; had almost turned back through the gates where the door man was still demanding his entry fee, when out of the corner of his eye he saw Clara fall. She had skated away from the others to the edge of the pool, where the ice ran beneath the branches of the bare trees. She was weaving her way under the trees, a snow queen all in red against the white of the trunks. Then there was a harsh, horrible cracking sound and Sebastian saw the dark water run between the cracks in the ice, saw Clara clutch and miss the branch overhead, and did not wait to see more. He ran. The park keeper was still shouting for his money, unaware of the accident. The other skaters were still spinning and drifting on the other side of the pond. Sebastian scrambled down the bank, careless of the snow and the branches that tore at his coat and his face, and came down onto the ice near where Clara lay.
Someone else had seen now and was shouting for help, but Sebastian reached her first. She was lying half on the ice and half in the water. She did not move. The ice cracked and shifted beneath his feet, but he ignored it. He caught a fold of her skirts and pulled fiercely.
She moved then and tried to pull herself up out of the ice but it broke beneath her hands. He grabbed one flailing wrist. There was a pain inside him so immense and a panic so smothering that he could not speak. Her wrist was wet and he could feel his grip slipping. She was sliding from his fingers and he was powerless to stop her. There was an immense crack as the ice gave beneath her and she tumbled from his grasp. Seb saw the water close over her head.
The dark images that he had thought had been buried forever flashed across his mind with such vividness that he gasped aloud. Oliver struggling against the ice, slipping away from him, disappearing from sight, his face white, his mouth open in a soundless scream… For a moment he was still with the horror of it and then he was lunging forward to seize hold of Clara before it was too late. His hand met nothing but ice and air. He reached for her again and this time, to his inexpressible relief, he touched the material of her gown. He grabbed it and pulled. There was resistance, a ripping sound, and then her skirts were free of the clutching water and he was pulling her to him fiercely. They both tumbled backwards onto the snowy bank, Clara held tight in his arms. He pressed his lips to her hair and tried to pull her closer still, until she made a muffled sound of protest.
The others were arriving now, full of questions and anxiety. Juliana and Kitty plucked Clara from his arms and fussed over her. Martin was shaking his hand and saying something, but Seb was not sure what it was. He felt sick and shaken and afraid. Martin carried Clara up the bank. Seb could hear her protesting that she was quite well and he felt breathless with relief. They were calling for a carriage to take her straight home. Clara turned to look at him and held out a hand in mute appeal, but he turned away. He was too dazed to speak to her; both by what had so nearly happened to Clara and by the hideous memories it had stirred for him. He did not want her thanks.
The fuss and bustle gave him the chance to escape. He went to a nearby coffee house and although he could see them looking for him out in the street, he stayed in his own dark corner until the last of their carriages had rolled away.
The coffee warmed him and gradually soothed his shaken emotions. He was able to force the fearsome images of the past back into the dark recesses of his mind where they belonged. Nevertheless, he knew that this was not the end. It could not be, now. For in those moments when he had held her he had told Clara that he loved her. Not in words, perhaps, but in the expression in his eyes and the touch of his hands as he held her so fiercely to him. He had known it and so had she. And he knew his stubborn love. She would seek a confrontation now. And he would have to be ready...

Happy Christmas everyone!

Nicola Cornick

Friday, December 19, 2008

A Mistletoe Moment

I love mistletoe with its ancient associations and its weird shape. I keep trying to get it to grow in one of our old apple trees, but without any luck yet.

Here is the moment when the hero and heroine of Mistletoe Masquerade, out in November in Mills & Boon’s Married by Christmas anthology, experience their first kiss - under the mistletoe, naturally.

‘Look up Daisy.’
‘Hmm?’ She tipped back her head and stared up through the bare branches. ‘Oh, a robin, how lovely. Look at the way his throat is working with the force of his singing. You would never believe such a tiny scrap could make so much noise.’
‘Look just above it.’
She refocused and he saw the tiniest twitch at the corner of her mouth when she saw what he was referring to. Then it was gone and she was saying repressively, ‘Mistletoe?’
But it had been there, that spark of mischief. He moved in front of her, put both gloved hands on the tree trunk either side of her head and leaned in. ‘Mistletoe. And we will bring down the wrath of Druids everywhere if we do not do the proper thing when beneath it, especially at this time of year.’
‘Wrathful Druids will be the very least of your problems if you try and ki…’
It was everything he had guessed it would be, kissing Daisy Lawrence. Softness, the fragrance of warm femininity and the dangerous spark of her temper as she decided whether to kiss him back or box his ears.
She tasted very faintly of peppermint. He slipped his tongue between her lips, urging them to part for him, wary that he would find her teeth, not the sweet heat inside. She was still braced against the tree, her hands by her side. She lifted them, suddenly, and as suddenly moved away, just enough to gasp, ‘Oh you wretch,’ before clasping her hands in his hair and pulling his head down to hers again.

A Merry Christmas to everyone and I hope you enjoy this charming couple from the French Modes et Manières series of early 19thc prints.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Christmas Lights

This was the night of the great "Switch On" in Mylor, the village where I live. All through the year various craft-work and jumble sales are held to raise money for the lights. Ours are now officially recognised as comparable to those at Newlyn and Mousehole - which means people actually drive from all over Cornwall to see them! The children are all given a coloured torch and they follow Santa whose open-topped sleight is driven (we're modern in Mylor!) down through the main street. As he passes, each section of lights is switched on. Everyone congregates in and around the pub car park where the official "Lighting Up" ceremony takes place. Then the local male voice choir leads the entire village singing carols. After that there's a general surge towards the village hall for cups of tea and mince pies.

Another traditional ceremony taking place in almost every school in the county is the Christingle service of light and carols. Every child is given an orange that has a candle in it to symbolise Jesus, Light of the World. Each orange is pierced by four cocktail sticks with sweets stuck on them to represent the four seasons and the fruits of the earth. A red ribbon around the middle of the orange signifies the blood shed by Jesus when he died on the cross.

Jane Jackson.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Christmas Coffee Time Tale

When I was writing "More Than a Governess" (as Sarah Mallory), I set part of the story in a lovely little village called Charnock Richard. From the coaching inn there one can look across the valley to a pretty little church on the far ridge. The view gave me an idea for another little story, set on Christmas Eve. It's a short story and you can read it in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. I've printed out the story below just in case you want to give it a try (I didn't have any photos of Charnock Richard in the snow, so I have used a more local one, but it's very seasonal and I hope it sets the mood).

Happy Christmas!

'Colonel Alston,' The landlord coughed apologetically. 'There is a lady, sir, who wonders if you would be kind enough to allow her to share your private parlour, the coffee room being so crowded.'
The gentleman standing by the fireplace turned in time to see a lady wrapped in a serviceable travelling cloak slip past the landlord and into the room.
'I do hope you will say yes,' she said in a soft, well-modulated voice. 'It is Christmas Eve, after all.'
As she pushed back her hood the gentleman's black brows went up, and a smile of recognition transformed his rather harsh features.
'Mrs Chamberlain!'
'How do you do, Philip? Pray do allow me to share your fire for a little while.'
'By all means – you will dine with me, too, I hope?' he gestured towards the window. 'With the snow still falling I apprehend that you will not be going on to Grove End until the morning.'
He pulled a chair up toward the fire for her and while she made herself comfortable he issued swift, concise instructions to their host. When he turned his attention to her once more she had divested herself of her cloak and he could see that she was arrayed in a fashionable walking dress of dove-grey that enhanced her fair colouring and accentuated the brilliance of her blue eyes. There was a faint smile in them as she watched him walking back towards her.
'Jenkins explained that their first task is to clear the road for the mailcoach. However he assures me they will dig out the lane and get me to Grove End in time for my father's Christmas Day sermon. I apprehend that the snow has delayed your journey, too?'
'Yes. I was on my way to join my parents. It will be my first Christmas since leaving the army.' He sat down opposite her, stretching his long, top-booted legs towards the fire. 'Do you travel alone?'
'No. My daughter Charlotte travels with me. My maid has taken her up to our bedchamber. She became a little fractious when I explained that we would not be able to reach her grandfather's house tonight.'
'Ah. Ned's child.' His hard grey eyes were fixed upon her. 'Does she favour him, or you?'
'Me, in looks. Although I fancy I can see Ned in her at times.'
He said abruptly, 'Do you miss him?'
Her hand fluttered, as if to fend off his question.
'Yes. A little. Do you?'
He rose and walked over to the window.
'Of course. He was my best friend.' He turned to look at her, a softer expression on his face. 'Do you remember how we all used to play together? Even when Ned and I were sent off to school we couldn't wait to get back together for the holidays. We were inseparable, the three of us.'
'Until you joined the army.'
The smile disappeared and he turned his back on her again.
'A younger son must do something, Meg. I was never fitted for the church.'
The landlord returned to set the table for supper.
'Has the snow stopped, Mr Jenkins?' asked Margaret.
'Yes ma'am. The sky is clearing now. It's going to be a cold night but I don't think we shall see any more snow. I am very hopeful that the roads can be cleared by morning.'

Margaret watched in silence as the covers were laid and a colourful array of dishes set out on the table. She was a little nervous of dining alone with a man, even one she had known since childhood, but the colonel's manner, although a little brusque, was perfectly cordial and as he introduced only the most unexceptional topics of conversation, she found herself enjoying her meal.
'Do you know,' said Philip, when they had dined and were sitting before the fire once more. 'It always surprised me that you did not return to Grove End when Ned died.'
'Why should I do that? Ned left me comfortably provided for.'
'Not that comfortably. You had to sell the estate to pay off his debts.'
Her chin went up.
'There was enough money left to buy me a house.' She hesitated. 'Besides, Papa has a wife to look after him.'
'And you do not get on with your step-mama?'
She shrugged.
'I have been my own mistress for too many years to enjoy any other role now.'
'What about company? Are you never lonely?'
'I have Charlotte.'
'A seven year old child!'
'She is all the company I want,' she said simply.
The silence descended again, until Margaret stole another look at him and murmured,
'And you, Philip. Why have you have never married?'
'I was too busy fighting first in Spain then, of course, at Waterloo.'
'But now the war is over?'
He shrugged.
'I had some prize money, and I invested wisely. That has allowed me to purchase a snug little property in Derbyshire. I do not need to marry.'
'You might fall in love,' she said softly.
With one jerky movement Philip pushed himself out of his chair.
'I thank God I am too old for folly of that sort!'
There was a quiet scratching at the door. Impatiently he strode across the room and yanked open the door. A frightened looking abigail peered up at him.
'Your pardon, sir, but I need to speak to my mistress.'
'Betty, what is it, what is wrong?' Margaret could not suppress the sharp note of anxiety as she addressed her maid, who stepped into the room and stood before her, hopping from one foot to the other.
'It's Miss Charlotte, Madam. She's gone.'
'Gone?' Margaret jumped up.
'Run away, Mistress. I just slipped downstairs to fetch some hot milk and when I got back she'd gone.'
The maid threw her apron over her head and began to wail noisily. Margaret took her by the shoulders and gave her a little shake.
'Stop it, Betty. That will not help. Now, tell me all that happened.'
'Well you know, ma'am, she was that upset when she learned we couldn't get to Grove End tonight but I'd told her that she could pray just as well from an inn - it being Christmas I even reminded her that our Lord Jesus had been worshipped in a stable. After that she ate her supper and said her prayers, sweet as a nut. I tucked her up in bed and thought she had gone off to sleep, but then she asked me to fetch her a cup of hot milk.' The maid fixed her tearful eyes upon Margaret. 'I didn't think it would do no harm, mistress. I knew there was a lot of people here tonight so I told her to lock the door behind me, which I swear she did, but then, when I came back, the room was empty.'
Philip stepped forward.
'When was this?' he asked. 'How long has she been missing?'
The maid hiccupped and wiped her eyes with the corner of her apron.
'The clock was just striking eleven when I went downstairs, sir. Oh Madam I am so sorry –'
'Yes well the thing now is to find her,' said Margaret, picking up her cloak.
'Let me go,' said Philip. 'You should stay here in case she comes back.'
'No, Betty shall do that. I must go. I will be better if I am doing something.'
'Then I shall come with you.' Philip snatched up his greatcoat and followed her out of the door.
'Thank you.' As they emerged out into the cold she stopped and pulled her cloak more closely around her. She glanced up at him.
'I think she has gone to Grove End. When we visited here in the summer we walked the two miles across the valley to the vicarage.'
'Come along then. Here, take my arm: I don't want you falling and breaking a bone.'
They stepped out of the inn and into a strange winter landscape. A thick blanket of snow covered every surface, softening the contours and gleaming pale blue-grey in the moonlight. There was no breath of wind to stir the bushes and no sound to break the silence.
'Which way?' asked Philip.
Margaret pointed.
'Through the village to the stile. You can see Grove End from there, and the path cuts directly down the valley and up the other side.'
'A simple journey, then. And you are sure she will have gone there?'
'Almost certainly. She was determined to go to church tonight.'
She set off along the road. 'Unfortunately she has inherited her father's stubborn streak. I pray it doesn't end her life the way it ended his.'
His head jerked around to look at her.
'What the devil do you mean by that? Ned's death was an accident.'
'It was, but if he had not been so determined to show everyone that he was just a good a whip as his father, it might never have happened.'
'I see,' said Philip. 'Showing off, was he?'
'Damned fool.'
She gave a shaky little laugh.
'I have thought that, on occasion, although it is not politic to say so. But that was five years ago. It does not do to dwell on the past. I am now much more concerned with my daughter.'
'So too am I. Look, here is the stile.' He helped her over. 'There are several sets of tracks here but they are too muddled to say if any of them belong to a child.'
'I know,' muttered Margaret, 'But the land falls away at the edge of this field and we shall have a good view of the valley and the path leading to Grove End. We shall be able to see her.'
She hurried on, holding her skirts up out of the snow. Philip fell into step beside her.
'I heard Tom Court made you an offer last year. My mother wrote to tell me you refused him,' he added, seeing the surprise in her eyes.
'I did.'
'May I ask why?'
'No you may not!'
'Was he not rich enough for you?'
She turned her head to look at him, her eyes blazing angrily in the moonlight.
'I have never been interested in money!'
She hastened her step and he was obliged to stride out to keep up with her.
'You were very interested in it eight years ago, when you refused me and married Ned.'
'That is not true!'
'Don't lie to me, Meg. I was a penniless younger son; I could not compare with Ned and his inheritance.'
'That's not why I married him!'
They had reached the edge of the ridge and Margaret halted, staring out over the snow-covered valley. Philip stopped beside her. They were both breathing rapidly after their swift progress across the field and they stood now, their breath forming little clouds in the frosty moonlight. The ground fell away from their feet, sloping down gently for several hundred yards before beginning a steep ascent on the far side to the little hamlet of Grove End. The church was silhouetted on the distant ridge, its bell tower and leaded roof sparkling with frost. The vicarage was a black square stood beside it. There was no light at any window, but that was not surprising, thought Margaret, for it was now nearing midnight, and her father would be rising early to attend to his Christmas Day duties.
'You were wrong.'
At his brusque words she dragged her eyes away from the horizon.
'I beg your pardon?'
'You were wrong. Charlotte didn't come this way.' He pointed. 'There are a tracks leading off to the right there, along the ridge, but nothing crossing the valley. Charlotte is not going to Grove End.'
Margaret's blood chilled. She stared out over the scene, the spotless, untouched snow. She had been so certain she would reach this point and see the little red-caped figure plodding across the valley. As fear clutched her heart she looked instinctively towards Philip. He reached out and took her hand.
'Don't worry, we'll find her. Let's go back.'
They retraced their route, anxiety quickening their steps.
'If she is not going to Grove End, then where is she?'
'We will organise a thorough search,' said Philip as they hurried towards the stile. 'She can't have gone far.' He leaped over the fence and turned back, holding out his hands to her as she climbed over the stile. 'She may have gone back to the inn. She may even now be tucked up in her bed.' He set her on the ground but did not immediately release her. Even through the heavy folds of the cloak she could feel his hands on her waist. Strong, steady. Comforting.
'Do you really think so?'
His smile was kind, but he shook his head.
'Come on, let's find out.' He took her hand again.
The village was deserted but at the far end of the street the lights from the inn cast butter-yellow squares upon the snow.
'So why did you?'
She looked up at him.
'I beg your pardon?'
'Why did you marry Ned?
She did not answer immediately.
'I loved you both,' she said slowly. 'You rather more than Ned, I think, but I was – afraid.' She gave her attention to negotiating the ruts in the snow for a moment and when she spoke again her voice was barely above a whisper. 'You were about to go to the Peninsula. I am ashamed to say I was afraid you would not come back to me.'
'So you married Ned.'
'And he broke his neck.'
'Yes. I was well served fror my timidity, was I not?'
He squeezed her fingers.
'You did what you thought best.'
'I am sorry.'
'You need not be. I know Ned loved you.'
'Yes,' she said quietly. 'He did. But not enough.'

They were nearing the inn when Philip stopped suddenly.
'What –'
'Shh.' He put his finger to his lips and nodded towards the tumble-down buildings that surrounded the inn's cobbled yard.
Margaret noted that the wooden door of one of the lean-to sheds was open, a broken line of snow standing across the black entrance. Margaret followed Philip as he moved forward quietly, taking care not to let his shadow fall across the aperture. Margaret stepped up and cautiously peered into through the door. For the most part the interior of the little barn was in darkness, but the open door allowed a shaft of silver moonlight to cast a bar of light into the shelter. A thick layer of straw was spread over the floor and wisps of hay protruded between the bars of the metal feeding rack fixed half-way along the wall. At the very edge of the light Margaret could discern the dark, shaggy shapes of two cows but in front of them, kneeling with her her head bowed, was a small, red-caped figure.
Margaret crossed the space between them in two strides and swept the little girl up into her embrace.
'Oh Charlotte we have been so worried about you!' she hugged the child and tried to stop her voice from shaking.
Charlotte put her thin little arms about her mother's neck.
'There was no need, Mama. It is Christmas Eve, and I have been praying.'
'And why could you not do that at the foot of your bed, as you usually do?'
'Because this was special. You told me, Mama, that Christmas prayers can come true, and I really, really want this one.' Margaret was carrying her out of the barn and Charlotte was suddenly aware of the tall stranger standing in the yard. 'Who are you?'
'This is Colonel Alson, Charlotte. He was a great friend of your papa's.'
Philip made a little bow.
'Delighted to make your acquaintance, Miss Chamberlain. We have been looking for you.'
'Have you?'
'Yes. Your mama was very anxious.'
'I am sorry for that.'
'Well never mind that,' said Margaret hastily. 'You are safe now and it is time you went back to bed. It must be gone midnight.'
'Too late for more prayers,' murmured Charlotte.
'Much too late,' agreed Margaret solemnly.
Philip held out his arms.
'Here, let me carry her. If Miss Chamberlain will allow me,' he added, directing a smile at Charlotte. 'You are a big girl now for your mother to carry.'
She gave him a long, appraising look. At last she nodded, and twisted towards him.
With a grin he lifted her from her mother and settled her comfortably on his arm.
'Good. Now let us go indoors.'
As they set off across the cobbled yard Margaret looked up at her daughter, whose head was resting sleepily on Philip's shoulder.
'And what is it that is so important you must send up special prayers tonight, Charlotte?'
The child gave a drowsy smile.
'I want God to give me a papa, like the other children.'
'Oh Charlotte, you know we have talked about this –'
Philip shook his head at her.
'Hush, Meg. This is Charlotte's prayer. It is not for us to interfere.' He smiled at her, and Margaret found herself blushing. She hoped her flushed cheeks would not be discernable in the moonlight.
'Of course,' she muttered. 'Let us say no more about it.'
'Quite,' said Philip. 'Perhaps you will allow me to escort you to Grove End tomorrow morning, Mrs Chamberlain? It is not too far out of my way.'
'Yes, thank you,' murmured Margaret. 'That would be very good of you.'
They had reached the inn door but before she went inside, Margaret cast one final glance up at the night sky. Surely the stars were shining just a little bit brighter?

© Sarah Mallory

Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas at Pemberley

Christmas at Pemberley - how would Elizabeth Darcy have coped if all her family descended upon her?
Mr and Mrs Bennet have been behaving uncharacteristically well - Lizzy is completely bemused by her mother who as mother-in-law to the 'great Mr Darcy' as she calls him has become as regal as a queen and determined on liking everyone and everything, even Miss Bingley. This extract is taken from the book I am currently writing - I hope you enjoy it!

To say that Elizabeth was relieved when Christmas dinner was over is something of an understatement. But she was satisfied that the meal had been an excellent one and when washed down by the majority with several glasses of wine, found everyone in congenial spirits for the game of Charades. Mr and Mrs Darcy started, followed by other willing volunteers and soon the assembled guests relaxed and started to have fun. There were some excellent puzzles and even Mrs Bennet began to enjoy herself when it came to her time, delivering hers with what she imagined was an erudite air.
Miss Bingley’s turn came next. She waited until everyone was silent for the greatest, dramatic effect, before she recited her charade by heart.

“My first has the making of honey to charm,
My second brings breakfast to bed on your arm,
My third bores a hole in leather so fine,
While united the whole breaks the heart most kind.”

She looked around the table with a smirk upon her face and played with her bracelets as if she must find another amusement to keep her occupied from waiting for answers, which surely would never come. Charades were her speciality, she knew, and surely this dull company did not have a clue.

Mrs Bennet piped up immediately speaking in the revered tones she had adopted since stepping over the Pemberley threshold. “Bees and honey go together rather well to my mind, Miss Bingley. I think ‘my first’ is a bee.”

“Well done, Mrs Bennet,” cried Mr Darcy, hardly able to keep the astonishment from his voice, “I am sure you are right, an excellent thought.”
Mrs Bennet instantly flushed as scarlet as the berries on the holly leaves adorning the portraits. She directed her best smile at her son-in-law patting her curls in a girlish manner when she thought he looked at her.

Kitty was next to surprise everyone as she proclaimed that ‘the second’ was a tray, and before they could even worry over ‘the third’, Mr Bennet declared he knew the complete answer to the riddle.

“Miss Bingley, I have found you out,” he said, raising his glass to her across the table. “Duplicity, falseness and treachery are your game, are they not?”

Miss Bingley held his studied gaze over the table and did not flinch. Elizabeth held her breath. What on earth was her father saying?

Mr Bennet smiled reassuringly at his daughter before delivering the solution with triumph. “The word ‘Betrayal’ is the answer to your charade, I think.”

For the first time Elizabeth felt some discomfort. She knew her father too well to imagine that his remarks were not given without his intentions being satirical. She knew exactly what he thought of Miss Bingley and of her mistreatment of Jane. But she need not have worried, Miss Bingley seemed not to notice, graciously accepting her defeat and when Mrs Bennet declared how clever Miss Bingley was to devise such a riddle, the latter fairly glowed with pride, and almost, but not quite, returned the compliment.

“I am so pleased you enjoy charades as well as we do here at Pemberley, Mrs Bennet,” she said. “It is an old tradition that I believe our host started in his youth. But, as long as I have been coming here I do not think I ever heard of a charade based on betrayal, although the very word has such connotations that I will forever associate with Pemberley. Mr Darcy, what do you think?”

Mr Darcy looked rather discomposed for a moment. “I cannot think to what you refer, madam,” came his answer and his expression, which formerly had been congenial immediately altered to one of haughty disdain.

“You remember, Mr Darcy, I am sure, though it is a long time since,” said Miss Bingley, who to all intents and purposes was smiling at him. “I can never think of that word without summoning up a picture in my mind of the theatricals we used to put on at Christmas. Shakespeare: love and betrayal, his universal themes. You must remember when we did Twelfth Night. You were Duke Orsini and I was Olivia. How you pined for me!”

Elizabeth was all attention. Her heart began hammering as she recollected the letter she had found in the library. So, Fitzwilliam had played Orsini, but it did not follow, she reasoned, that the Orsini implicated in the letter was her husband. There had probably been hundreds of theatricals over the years, and in any case, the letter’s recipient might have nothing to do with any of it. She waited to see his response.

“My dear Caroline, I can barely recall such an event, and I must admit, although I can remember being dressed up for many a part in my youth, the particulars escape me. Tell me, was I any good?”

This brought a laugh to echo round the room. Mr Darcy stood up and with a mock bow announced that as there were scarcely two hours left before the dancing was due to begin, that they might all wish to repair to their rooms for restoration and preparation.

In her dressing room Elizabeth prepared for the ball and though the looking glass told her that she had never felt more pleased by her appearance, her feelings were in turmoil. Caroline Bingley, it had to be said, always had the power to make her think irrationally and tonight was no exception. That lady’s allusions to the past, to a time before Elizabeth had known her husband, made her feel not only uncomfortable, but also quite envious. It was silly, she knew, but she must admit a certain jealousy when she thought about all the Christmases he must have spent in the company of Caroline Bingley and every other young woman in the vicinity.

“I know very little about my husband,” she thought. “I know he was never in love with Caroline Bingley, but does that mean that he was never in love with anyone before he met me? I have not considered such a thing before today, but I am certain that a man does not reach the age of twenty nine without experiencing an affection or infatuation, or maybe something more.”

Could the letter she found implicate her husband in some way, she considered for the first time? Lizzy did not want to think about it, but she felt sure that her mind would be put at rest with just one more enquiry. For now, she would forget about it and concentrate on the matter in hand. She scrutinised her reflection with a critical eye, but was satisfied enough to smile at the young woman who stared back at her. Elizabeth’s gown of white sarcenet fitted beautifully; accentuating her slight and graceful form, with her headdress of lace and feathers, further emphasising her colouring, her skin and hair dark as a gypsy.
There came a soft knock upon the door and when she called out, expecting to see her maid, she was delighted to find her husband instead. He carried her jewel boxes and before long he had assisted Elizabeth with their fastenings, performing this simple task in such a way as made her feel that she must be very precious as he lingered over adjusting the diamonds in her ears, placing her necklace just so and holding her hand in the gentlest manner to slide her ring onto her finger. When he had finished he stood back to look at her with such an expression of love in his eyes that Elizabeth could hardly meet them with her own.

“I love you, Mrs Darcy,” he said, leaning forward to kiss her lips. “Come, let us go, it is time to open the best Christmas ball Pemberley has ever seen.”

Happy Christmas Everyone
Jane Odiwe

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Christmas with the Swithlands

A short story for you, set in the future for Penelope and Severus, from "Alluring Secrets." It answers a question left unanswered in the book, but apart from revealing that the hero and heroine of the book eventually get together, I don't think it contains any spoilers!

Severus took another turn around the salon and heard a moan from upstairs. At least she was still alive then. His friend Peter clapped him on the shoulder. “You’ll wear a groove in that carpet.”

Severus groaned and dropped his head. “We shouldn’t have tried for a baby, not right away. But she wanted it, she said I was to forget her background.” Peter didn’t say anything, but stared at him, one eyebrow quirked. “Her mother…she had Penelope, then constant miscarriages. The last one killed her.”

Peter’s smile of reassurance turned grim. “Her family didn’t have much to do with mine, so I never knew that. I’m sorry. I know it’s hard, but try not to think about it.”

Severus took another route this time, pausing at the portrait he’d had done of them in their wedding clothes. Or what were supposed to be their wedding clothes. This one was for show, the other, in their real wedding clothes, was much smaller and resided in their bedroom. The memories relaxed him a little, even made him smile. “It was all worth it. But it won’t be if she—if she--“

“She won’t. Don’t even think it. She’s carried to term—“ He broke off at an expression on his friend’s face. “She didn’t?”

Severus met his gaze and then looked away. “A little over term, actually.”

“You mean…?” Peter crossed the room and gazed up at the portrait of Penelope. “You sly dog!”

They both looked up when they heard a cry.

Upstairs, Penelope felt supremely smug. They’d cleaned her, cleaned the baby, and now her moment of triumph had arrived. The nurse had even found her spectacles, so she could see her husband’s face the moment he entered the room. She held her child, a snoozing bundle in her arms. How such a beautiful creature should have come out of her still amazed her.

The door opened and he came in. She didn’t look up immediately, but she knew it was him. Something in the air, a tingling, sharpening feeling, or maybe they were so attuned now that they both felt it.

At last, Penelope raised her eyes and met his dark ones. She’d seen them sparking with fury, velvety with passion and alight with laughter but she’d never seen him weeping before. One tear tracked down his face from the outer corner of his right eye. She watched it, as fascinated with this tribute as she was by her baby. And it was a tribute. A token of the way Severus loved her, and she loved him.

He sat down on the bed, something that might give the nurse an apoplexy, but she wasn’t here now. She’d left them alone to welcome their child into the world.

Penelope drew aside a corner of the blanket so Severus could see his child better.

“Your heir, my lord, the young Lord Layton.”

Severus swallowed and reached out a tentative finger to touch his son’s cheek. The baby turned, alerted by the touch and Severus drew back. Penelope laughed. “He won’t break.” When Severus lifted his gaze to hers she smiled. She could afford to smile now. She’d pushed her fears aside and did as the midwife told her. Severus had insisted a physician and a nurse should also be present, but as matters turned out, they didn’t have much to do. “Here, take him.”

She lifted the babe and pushed him into Severus’s arms. “Support his head.”

After a minute or two, Severus’s arms tightened and he brought the child up to his mouth, kissing his forehead. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you both.”

His eyes were still moist when he looked at his wife again and it was a measure of his strength and confidence that he let her see how moved this moment made him. He leaned forward and pressed a gentle kiss to her lips, the sweetest she could ever remember. The baby grunted and he drew back, holding him like porcelain once more.

Penelope laughed again. “The midwife said we should have a parcel of babies. I’m made for bearing them, she says.”

Severus huffed. “I don’t want you ever to go through that again.”

They both knew he would change his mind.