Monday, August 03, 2015

The Spinster's Christmas - Chapter 9a

I’m blogging the revised version of my Regency romance, The Spinster's Christmas, so you all get a chance to read it. After I post it all, I’ll take it down from my blog, so be sure to read it while it’s being posted. It is the first book in my Lady Wynwood series.

A Regency romantic mystery

Miranda Belmoore has never felt attuned to the rest of society. Her family has never understood her blunt speech and unwillingness to bow to conventional strictures, and so they have always made her feel that there is something wrong with her. Now as a poor relation in her cousin’s house, she makes plans to escape a life of drudgery and disdain from her own family members.

Naval Captain Gerard Foremont is having difficulty adjusting to life back on land, frustrated that his career has been cut short by his severely injured knee. Guilt haunts him as he sees the strain his long convalescence has had upon his parents. As they spend Christmastide with the Belmoores, he wants to help fulfill his mother’s wish to have her orphaned niece come to stay with them.

However, an enemy has infiltrated the family party, bent on revenge and determined that Twelfth Night will end in someone’s death …

Start reading here.

***

Chapter 9a

At first, Miranda was too startled and too distraught to think. She could only feel. The fine wool of his coat against her cheek, his hand at her waist, the other at her back, pressing her close. The smell of mint, and somehow, the wildness of the sea.

A sudden burst of women’s laughter from the open door to the ballroom down the hallway made them both jump apart. And yet even out of his embrace, Miranda still felt … anchored.

She couldn’t look at him. He would see her pain, scraped raw by too many months in this house, and her desperation as she tried to snatch at the unraveling threads of who she was.

“What is it, Miranda?”

She simply shook her head.

The music from the ballroom drifted to them, lilting strains in counterpoint to laughter and gaiety. She felt more detached from life than she ever had before, standing here in the hallway while her family and neighbors danced and enjoyed themselves. Even if she were not unhappy, that sort of society was not hers. She was too different to ever belong.

Gerard picked up his cane, seized her hand, and pulled her down the hallway, away from the ballroom.

“What are you doing?” she hissed.

“Neither of us wishes to be anywhere near that.” He tilted his head back towards the open doorway, and she heard the bitter edge in his voice. When she had seen him in the ballroom earlier, he had clearly been annoyed by his two female companions, but his gaze had also strayed to the dancers. Even at fourteen years old, he had loved romping around the dance floor with the Belmoore cousins. She knew that sitting with Miss Church-Pratton and Miss Barnes had been difficult for him in more ways than one.

So she let him drag her down the hallway to the servants’ stairs at the back. They exited from the side door and skirted the house to the formal gardens.

The night sky was dark with the new moon, but Felicity had arranged for lanterns and torches to light the gardens, perhaps to dissuade guests from scandalous behaviour by attempting to illuminate any dark corners. She needn’t have worried because the air was too sharp for any to venture from the overheated ballroom.

Gerard led her next to a bright torch burning in a stand at the edge of the garden, so that the warmth from the fire kept them from shivering in the cold air. Above them and to their left came the sounds from the ballroom, but directly above them and to their right, all was darkness and quiet on the long, deserted balcony.

“It is too cold, Gerard.” Then she wished she hadn’t spoken because he removed his tailcoat, which sat loosely upon his shoulders, and draped it around her. It held his warmth and his scent, and she felt he was embracing her again.

“You mustn’t.” She was both scandalized and intrigued to see him in his waistcoat and shirtsleeves.

“After years at sea, the cold does not affect me as it once did.” Indeed, he wasn’t even shivering. “Do you remember that Christmas I found you alone in the woods? I gave you my coat then, also.”

“And then, as now, I had wanted to be alone,” she said with a hint of steel.

“You said you wished to be alone, but then you confessed that Cecil had called you a lackwit, and so I darkened his daylights for him.”

“Of course you would remember that.” Eight-year-old Gerard had been grinning and Cecil had been crying as they tussled on the front lawn.

“Whose daylights shall I darken for you now? Felicity’s?”

“Oh Gerard, do not speak nonsense.”

“What did she say to you?”

“It is silly.” She swallowed. “She was embarrassed by my dress. And my necklace. She expressed herself better than I expected—she said that she had not realized I had no appropriate attire this year for the ball or she would have given me one of her old gowns, but it was too late now. She didn’t wish me to return to the ballroom because one or two of the local women had been whispering about me.”

“How dared she?” The cold would certainly not bother him now—he was on fire with indignation. “You are her responsibility.”

“I was hurt because I quite like my gown,” Miranda said. “It is my favourite.”

There was a pause, then he suddenly gave a reluctant low laugh. “Miranda, you always know what to say to diffuse my temper.”

“Not always. You still engaged in fisticuffs with Cecil.”

“I don’t like the way they treat you.”

A part of her was comforted by his words, but another part of her was frustrated by him, because she didn’t understand why he was acting like this. “Why would you care how they treat me?”

He was surprised by her question. “Because it is all so unjust.”

“There is a great deal of injustice in this world, Gerard.”

“I cannot stand by and do nothing.” He flinched, as if remembering something, then added, “At dinner, I should have … If I had been …”

“Gerard, you feel guilt for things which have nothing to do with you.” It was making it more difficult for her to distance her feelings from him. She removed his coat to hand it to him, and the cold sliced through her gown. “You must return.”

He shrugged it back on with her help, but then he took her hand. Even through their gloves, she felt his warmth.

“I feel as though I am still at sea and need a war to fight,” he said.

“You are already helping me. I shall leave Wintrell Hall with you and your parents, and then I shall go to Cousin Laura’s home.” She did not tell him that she would try to find a position. She did not wish to be dependent even upon Cousin Laura. “I am not your war, Gerard.”

“I know that, but …” His fingertips touched her face. In the light from the torch, he looked confused.

She didn’t want him to be confused, because it only made her feel more confused. She closed her eyes and turned her cheek away. “Gerard—”

He took her chin, angling it back toward him, and then he was kissing her.

***

Next blog post: Chapter 9b

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Friday, July 31, 2015

The Spinster's Christmas - Chapter 8b

I’m blogging the revised version of my Regency romance, The Spinster's Christmas, so you all get a chance to read it. After I post it all, I’ll take it down from my blog, so be sure to read it while it’s being posted. It is the first book in my Lady Wynwood series.

A Regency romantic mystery

Miranda Belmoore has never felt attuned to the rest of society. Her family has never understood her blunt speech and unwillingness to bow to conventional strictures, and so they have always made her feel that there is something wrong with her. Now as a poor relation in her cousin’s house, she makes plans to escape a life of drudgery and disdain from her own family members.

Naval Captain Gerard Foremont is having difficulty adjusting to life back on land, frustrated that his career has been cut short by his severely injured knee. Guilt haunts him as he sees the strain his long convalescence has had upon his parents. As they spend Christmastide with the Belmoores, he wants to help fulfill his mother’s wish to have her orphaned niece come to stay with them.

However, an enemy has infiltrated the family party, bent on revenge and determined that Twelfth Night will end in someone’s death …

Start reading here.

***

Chapter 8b

“Look at Mrs. Drew, glaring daggers at me,” Lady Wynwood said. “She and my mother are mortal enemies, did you know?”

“If your mother is anything like yourself, I find it hard to believe anyone could dislike her,” Gerard said.

“Oh, you rogue.” Lady Wynwood squeezed his arm. “A year or two ago, at a rout, she and my mother had such a row that Mrs. Drew began waving her cane about, and she popped a poor young man between the legs.”

Miss Church-Pratton made a strangled sound. Her face had turned a dark puce color that clashed with her pink dress. She plied her fan frenetically and her gaze darted about the ballroom with desperation.

The country dance ended, and a young man approached, one of the squire’s sons. He was a stout lad, full of his own consequence and certain he was the catch of the county. “Miss Church-Pratton, are you free for the next dance?”

“Yes.” She nearly dragged him out to form one of the sets.

“Good gracious,” Lady Wynwood said. “I thought I would need to start reciting the contents of my linen closet before she would leave.”

Gerard turned his guffaw into a cough. “She probably would have remained if you had spoken of something so tame as your linen closet.”

“Young people these days are so starched up. We were much more scandalous in my time, I assure you. That was quite entertaining. I am so glad Miranda sent me to you.”

Miranda had known exactly how to rescue him. Gerard was grateful to her, and yet also a bit ashamed because he had not been able to help her in her acute time of need.

“I have spoken to your mother, Gerard,” Lady Wynwood said. “I believe she may be more concerned about Miranda’s status as a single young woman living under your roof.”

The ballroom grew suddenly stifling. “I offered to move to Foremont Lacy.”

“It is too near.” Lady Wynwood regarded him shrewdly. He feared for a moment that she would bring up his marital plans, but she apparently changed her mind. “I shall speak to her again. We must not give up hope. Now, help me to the sofa in the drawing room. Miss Barnes’s chair is terribly uncomfortable.”

“You could have ordered Miss Church-Pratton to relinquish her seat rather than Miss Barnes,” he said with a smile.

“I chose Miss Barnes because it was easier to send her away,” Lady Wynwood said as Gerard took her arm and helped her to her feet. “Miss Church-Pratton is remarkably stubborn. Just like her mother. One day I shall tell you all about it.”

He gave her his arm, and she entertained him with disreputable stories about herself and others, which he was not entirely certain were truthful, until they walked between the open double doors to the drawing room and he deposited her upon a sofa. “May I fetch anything for you, my lady?”

“No. I shall send one of my young cousins to procure me a cup of wassail and add a splash more sherry to it. One of them is sure to know where Cecil keeps his secret cache.”

Gerard obliged her by signaling to one of Mrs. Hathaway’s sons to attend to her before he returned to the ballroom. As he did, he noticed Felicity returning to the room, her face the mask of the gracious hostess, but without Miranda. He waited, but she did not appear behind Felicity.

The dance was nearing its end, and he did not wish to be trapped again by Miss Church-Pratton, so he quickly exited the room to search for Miranda. He had not looked forward to the ball, although he was obliged to attend, and he had not predicted the company of Miss Church-Pratton, whom he had assumed would dance with all the young men. He would rather speak to Miranda. And then perhaps he would retire rather than watching the rest of the dancing.

He looked down the hallway outside the ballroom, but at first he saw no one. Then he peered into the shadows at the end of the hallway, and saw a figure leaning against the wall. He headed toward her.

It was only when he drew near that he realized something was wrong. Her hand over her stomach trembled. Her face was whiter than the painted walls.

“Miranda.”

She saw him, and something in her eyes made him think of the faces of men who were drowning.

He strode forward, his cane dropping to the ground, and he folded her in his arms.

***

Next blog post: Chapter 9a

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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Spinster's Christmas - Chapter 8a

I’m blogging the revised version of my Regency romance, The Spinster's Christmas, so you all get a chance to read it. After I post it all, I’ll take it down from my blog, so be sure to read it while it’s being posted. It is the first book in my Lady Wynwood series.

A Regency romantic mystery

Miranda Belmoore has never felt attuned to the rest of society. Her family has never understood her blunt speech and unwillingness to bow to conventional strictures, and so they have always made her feel that there is something wrong with her. Now as a poor relation in her cousin’s house, she makes plans to escape a life of drudgery and disdain from her own family members.

Naval Captain Gerard Foremont is having difficulty adjusting to life back on land, frustrated that his career has been cut short by his severely injured knee. Guilt haunts him as he sees the strain his long convalescence has had upon his parents. As they spend Christmastide with the Belmoores, he wants to help fulfill his mother’s wish to have her orphaned niece come to stay with them.

However, an enemy has infiltrated the family party, bent on revenge and determined that Twelfth Night will end in someone’s death …

Start reading here.

***

Chapter 8a

Gerard had been helpless. Too helpless to do anything for her.

He had wanted to shout at them all to stop laughing at her, or perhaps go to her, take her hand, and pull her from the dining room. But anything of the sort would only embarrass her further.

He saw the pain in her eyes, and he saw the mask of calm settle over her face. He had never fully realized it was a mask until that moment.

There was a great deal about her that he didn’t know. That he hadn’t cared to know.

He wanted to know all those things now.

Perhaps not at this exact moment. First he had to walk again, properly, without this cursed cane. He wanted to be whole again, and independent, and regain some measure of self-respect.

Also at this exact moment, he had to somehow escape the two chattering women on either side of him before his ears bled.

He sat at the edge of the ballroom as couples swirled to the strains of a country dance. Garlands of greenery draped the walls in graceful arcs, lending the scent of the woodlands to the room, while servants moved about with cups of wassail or punch or wine. Everyone in the county who had been invited had come for the Belmoores’ annual Christmas ball.

However, the two women sitting next to him affected to have no interest in dancing. Miss Church-Pratton was charming, but he noticed that the conversation invariably circled round to herself or something related to herself. Miss Barnes was not so self-centred—she asked him question upon question about his life and interests and thought everything he did was wonderful.

Gerard felt trapped in more ways than one. He used to love dancing. He hadn’t been terribly good at it, but he had enjoyed it. He enjoyed watching it much, much less.

His knee ached as if to remind him, You’re landlocked, my boy.

“Such a crush,” Miss Church-Pratton said. “I am sure Felicity is thrilled at the attendance, but I prefer a smaller, more select party, myself.”

“Did you attend any balls, Captain Foremont?” Miss Barnes asked. “I am sure you must have been quite popular.”

He thought of his men, shirtless, dancing a jig on the upper deck. “Quite a few balls, I daresay.”

He looked up suddenly and saw Miranda across the room. She was not looking at him, but appeared to be searching the ballroom for someone. When she saw him, she smiled slightly, then her gaze slid to the two ladies with him.

And he knew in that instant that he would not be feeling this way if Miranda were sitting next to him instead.

Then someone walked into his line of sight and he could see her no longer.

“I much prefer sitting here with you, Captain Foremont,” Miss Church-Pratton said. “The young country folk whom Felicity was forced to invite are so exuberant when they dance. The men quite crush one’s dress.”

“I am sure you would never do so, Captain,” Miss Barnes said.

He thought of excusing himself on the grounds that he saw his mother signaling to him, but for the small problem that his mother was not in the ballroom and the fear that the two women would insist upon accompanying him to her.

Rescue came in the unlikely person of Lady Wynwood.

“Miss Barnes,” Lady Wynwood said, “your mother may need your assistance in the drawing room. She is partnered with Mrs. Seager at Whist and is so frustrated that she looks as though she might wring her neck.”

“Oh, goodness.” Miss Barnes hurried off to prevent her parent from committing murder.

Lady Wynwood settled into her vacated seat. “Miss Church-Pratton, Captain Foremont, lovely ball is it not? It puts me in mind of one I attended during my come-out in London. I was thrilled to be asked to dance by the most handsome boy in the room—Lord Kellerton, before he lost all his lovely golden hair and contracted the pox from his mistress.”

Gerard choked, and Miss Church-Pratton looked scandalized. Lady Wynwood was up to some sort of trick.

“I had enhanced my d├ęcolletage with some, er, strategically tucked muslin. We were engaged in a lively country dance, when a piece of muslin became untucked. You can imagine my consternation, Miss Church-Pratton. How to explain the unevenness of one’s bosom?”

Lady Wynwood stopped and looked expectantly at Miss Church-Pratton, obviously waiting for a response. The young lady actually gulped and said weakly, “Indeed.”

Gerard was forced to look away, his face flaming, unsure if he would perish from embarrassment or break a rib from holding in his laughter. He saw Miranda again. She was still looking for someone, her gloved hand fingering the paste stones at her throat that made her eyes glow like real emeralds. Compared to the more richly dressed women, she looked fresh and unspoiled, and more lovely.

But then Felicity appeared, her mouth pinched. She gripped Miranda by the elbow and dragged her out of the ballroom.

Gerard tensed, and realized he had been about to rise to go after her, rudely leaving Lady Wynwood and Miss Church-Pratton. Something about Miranda made him want to throw off all the conventions of polite society.

***

Next blog post: Chapter 8b

Order The Spinster's Christmas:

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Nook (coming soon)

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Monday, July 27, 2015

The Spinster's Christmas - Chapter 7b

I’m blogging the revised version of my Regency romance, The Spinster's Christmas, so you all get a chance to read it. After I post it all, I’ll take it down from my blog, so be sure to read it while it’s being posted. It is the first book in my Lady Wynwood series.

A Regency romantic mystery

Miranda Belmoore has never felt attuned to the rest of society. Her family has never understood her blunt speech and unwillingness to bow to conventional strictures, and so they have always made her feel that there is something wrong with her. Now as a poor relation in her cousin’s house, she makes plans to escape a life of drudgery and disdain from her own family members.

Naval Captain Gerard Foremont is having difficulty adjusting to life back on land, frustrated that his career has been cut short by his severely injured knee. Guilt haunts him as he sees the strain his long convalescence has had upon his parents. As they spend Christmastide with the Belmoores, he wants to help fulfill his mother’s wish to have her orphaned niece come to stay with them.

However, an enemy has infiltrated the family party, bent on revenge and determined that Twelfth Night will end in someone’s death …

Start reading here.

***

Chapter 7b

The servants began to serve the food, and Miranda was hard pressed to keep Paul, seated on her other side, from taking an entire leg of pheasant onto his plate. There was also roast beef, venison, goose, pork, pigeons, chicken, and fish. Miranda forced Paul to take some vegetables, which was much less difficult than it might have been had there not been so many to choose from, including carrots, lettuces, parsnips, celery, leeks, and cabbage.

Paul attacked his plate like a savage. Miranda considered admonishing him, but then decided that surely bad table manners were excused at Christmastide. Instead, she turned to her great-aunt. “Did Mrs. Seager’s son and his family come up from London?” She did not wish to open with the question she most wanted answered, and hoped to distract her aunt with her favourite topic—her neighbors’ affairs.

“No, not this year, for they are promised to his wife’s family. Mrs. Seager was feeling quite low when last I heard from her. And her nephew is in the navy, apparently fighting off a horde of mosquitoes in India, so her family gathering is small this year.”

Aunt Lavinia rambled on, not only about Mrs. Seager’s family, but also about the Drews, the Barnes, and the Wilsons as her mind wandered down its twisting trail of news.

During a lull in the conversation, Miranda asked, “Aunt, would any of your friends perhaps have need of a companion or governess?” She would prefer to accompany Ellie to the Foremont home, but she must still continue to search for a paid position that would enable her to escape Felicity, or the Beattys.

Her aunt’s eyebrows rose as her fork halted halfway to her mouth. “Good to see some pluck in you after all, my dear.”

Miranda smiled. “You will not mention this to Cecil?”

“Good gracious, why should I do that? I try to avoid speaking to the blockhead as often as possible. And his termagant of a wife is just as bad.”

“I do wish to find a position as soon as may be, perhaps even before Twelfth Night.”

“I know of nothing at the moment, my dear, but I shall speak to my friends about it when I visit them. You should have written to me earlier.”

“I feared Cecil would intercept your reply.”

“Ah, yes, the nosy man still goes through all the post, does he? He’s just like his father.”

Except that Cecil’s mother had been a soft woman, indolent but not unkind. Felicity had run roughshod over her mother-in-law.

“Have you spoken to the rector’s new wife?” Aunt Lavinia asked. “Mrs. Barnes wrote to tell me all about her. Mrs. Peterson apparently married to disoblige her well-connected family, at least until her husband’s older brother unexpectedly became heir presumptive to an earldom. She may have friends in need of a companion or governess.”

“I believe she is attending the ball tonight.” Miranda need only attend to the children after dinner before she could return downstairs to the ball.

Miranda had not attended the ball last Christmas, during her first year with Cecil after her parents died. Felicity’s youngest son had developed a putrid sore throat and so Miranda had nursed him throughout Christmas Day. He had complained bitterly at missing the Christmas pudding.

“Speaking of Mrs. Barnes, her great-nephew is now a lieutenant in the army,” Aunt Lavinia said. “She just heard from him in a letter. He was foolish enough to be bitten by a dog. She is quite concerned, for she wrote to me, ‘Lavinia, you never know about these foreign dogs. They may carry exotic diseases.’ And I must say, I do believe she is correct.”

Finally, the servants removed the dinner dishes and the candles were extinguished. The children began squirming in their seats and whispering to each other.

With dramatic flair, the butler entered the dining room bearing the large, mounded Christmas pudding on a platter, aflame with a blazing blue light, with flickers of scarlet and orange. Miranda could smell the burning brandy, which also carried the scent of citrus peel and sugar. The adults applauded while the children cheered. Carefully, the butler set the pudding on the table.

The enormity of the pudding ensured that everyone had a generous portion. As happened every year, there were cries of delight and dismay as people found on their plates the trinkets that had been stirred into the pudding. This year, Felicity was delighted to find the silver shilling, signifying wealth, while Lady Wynwood found the button for a lucky life and one of Aunt Augusta’s younger sons was disgusted by the ring he found, which predicted marriage. Perhaps most appropriately, Gerard received the miniature anchor, meaning safe harbor found.

Paul eyed Miranda’s plate, which had a larger portion of pudding than his own, so she traded with him. And then her fork hit something hard, and she pulled out the silver thimble.

She stared at it. Although she knew it was only a game, just a silly tradition, she wanted to burst into tears—she, who tried never to show her emotions, to simply present a mask of calm to all the world, as if the barbs and stings did not bother her in the least. This barb was perhaps one of the worst, and yet it was entirely accidental.

One of the children crowed, “Miranda’s got the thimble!”

There was a single heartbeat of surprised, uncomfortable silence around the table. Then Miss Church-Pratton giggled.

Felicity quickly hissed at her, and she was silenced, but her laughter caused some of the children to mimic her. Sniggers and whispers erupted, and while one or two adults hushed their children, they responded slowly to the reprimands.

Miranda’s face flamed like the brandy-soaked pudding. Yet why should she be embarrassed? She was a spinster, as the thimble signified, and it was no secret that such was her fate. Her own parents had not been able to induce a man to offer for her when she had had a dowry, before the crops had failed and her father mortgaged the farm.

But a clawed hand gripped her heart, squeezing and digging into it. She closed her eyes, focused on her breathing, tried once more to reclaim the equanimity that was the only comfort she now had.

She opened her eyes. She picked up the thimble with fingers that shook only a little and wiped it with her napkin. She said the first thing that came to mind. “How fortuitous. I had need of a new thimble.”

A different type of laughter rippled along the table, with perhaps some relief that the moment had passed.

She did not know why, but she dared to look down the table at Gerard. He was staring at her, his eyes thunderous, concerned.

Miranda held his gaze, then gave a small smile. The lines along his brow relaxed, although he did not smile back.

“Good show, my girl.” Aunt Lavinia patted her hand. “The thimble is not only for spinsterhood. It also is for thrift, a woman who saves.”

She gave a short bark of laughter, which might have had a hint of hysteria in it. “I have no money to save, Aunt Lavinia. And no household to save it for.”

“It is not always money. Women save many things.”

A small hand crept into hers from her other side. She turned to meet Paul’s fierce look.

“When I am old enough, I shall marry you, Cousin Miranda,” he said. “Then they shall see they ought not to have laughed.”

“You darling boy.” She kissed the top of his head and wrapped her arm around him briefly.

Then she bent low to whisper in his ear. “Let’s play Snapdragon near Miss Church-Pratton’s skirt.”

***

Next blog post: Chapter 8a

Order The Spinster's Christmas:

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Nook (coming soon)

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Friday, July 24, 2015

The Spinster's Christmas - Chapter 7a

I’m blogging the revised version of my Regency romance, The Spinster's Christmas, so you all get a chance to read it. After I post it all, I’ll take it down from my blog, so be sure to read it while it’s being posted. It is the first book in my Lady Wynwood series.

A Regency romantic mystery

Miranda Belmoore has never felt attuned to the rest of society. Her family has never understood her blunt speech and unwillingness to bow to conventional strictures, and so they have always made her feel that there is something wrong with her. Now as a poor relation in her cousin’s house, she makes plans to escape a life of drudgery and disdain from her own family members.

Naval Captain Gerard Foremont is having difficulty adjusting to life back on land, frustrated that his career has been cut short by his severely injured knee. Guilt haunts him as he sees the strain his long convalescence has had upon his parents. As they spend Christmastide with the Belmoores, he wants to help fulfill his mother’s wish to have her orphaned niece come to stay with them.

However, an enemy has infiltrated the family party, bent on revenge and determined that Twelfth Night will end in someone’s death …

Start reading here.

***

Chapter 7a

December 25th

“You look pretty,” Ellie said to Miranda.

“Thank you.” She stood in front of the small mirror on the wall of Miss Teel’s room, pinning her dark hair. She had made several narrow braids and coiled them in a simple pattern that looked like a more complex one, at first glance.

Miss Teel had already dressed and was helping some of the older schoolgirls with their toilettes, since the entire family were to dine together again tonight before the ball. Miranda normally took very little heed of her own dress, but tonight she wanted to look … different. Even though she knew there was no reason for it.

Not that she had much choice in what to wear. When she had been living with her parents, they had attended parties and dances, but Miranda had not always accompanied them—the crowded rooms made her feel as though she couldn’t breathe, and her conversation became even more insipid than usual. So her wardrobe even then had been small. Now, she had but two evening gowns, the dark blue one she had worn last night and this one.

It was her favourite. She had altered it herself from a gown her mother had no longer wanted, a pale green silk with the fuller cut that had recently fallen out of fashion. Miranda had trimmed it with emerald green ribbon, and then embroidered the fabric in a delicate pattern of gold leaves. It was old, and it did not fit her quite as well as she would have liked, but she was pleased at how the embroidery looked and took pleasure in the feminine way the skirt swished about her ankles.

“I must take this from you now, you scamp.” She removed the necklace from around Ellie’s neck, which she had been allowed to wear while Miranda finished dressing. It had been set with real emeralds when her mother first owned it, but their finances had forced her to sell the gems and replace them with paste. The paste stones were rather unnaturally colored and fitted badly into their settings, but Miranda liked they way they matched her eyes.

She tried to tell herself yet again that she ought not to try to impress anyone. Gerard’s opinion of her appearance shouldn’t interest her in the least, because she would never consider opening herself to someone else. No one had ever understood her, and there was too much about her that could never come to light.

She would always be who she was, she would always be how she was. So it would always be just herself.

“Shall we collect the other children and go downstairs?” she asked Ellie. The little girl jumped off the low cot on which Miranda had been temporarily sleeping while the house was so full of guests and servants.

The other nursery-maids were herding children out of the other bedrooms in the nursery wing, and Miranda helped wipe hands and faces with a damp cloth, retie sashes that had gone askew, and find a couple of lost shoes. Then they all went down to the drawing room.

Even though she was surrounded by excited children and all the family gathered for dinner, she looked up and met Gerard’s eyes as soon as she entered the room. His injury had caused him to lose some weight, but he still stood tall and proud, exuding a vitality that made all other men look weak and sickly. His dark evening coat set off his wide shoulders, and his snowy cravat was simply tied with modest shirt points, which revealed the strong line of his jaw.

He smiled at her, which made her blush and look away. Then she was embarrassed to have responded in so missish a fashion.

There was a cry as two boys began to argue over who would get the largest piece of roast beef at dinner, and she turned her attention to her charges.

She dissuaded some of the children from starting a game of jack-straws, since they were to dine soon, and directly on time, the butler opened the drawing room doors to announce that dinner was served. While the other guests proceeded into the dining room, Miranda kept a watchful eye on Paul, who delighted in playing with the greenery over the fireplace and had already caused an entire bough to tumble to the floor this morning after church.

She was one of the last to be seated, and she saw an opportunity. Her Great-Aunt Lavinia had arrived only this morning, and the elderly woman had traded seats with someone—most likely offending Felicity’s sense of propriety—and was near to the children’s chairs. Miranda traded seats with Paul in order to sit next to her great-aunt.

“Hello, Aunt Lavinia.”

“Oh! Catherine—no, Miranda, isn’t it? You look just like your mother,” Aunt Lavinia shouted. She was not the oldest person at table, but she probably had the worst sense of hearing. However, she could read lips, so Miranda made an effort to face her when speaking.

“Have you been enjoying yourself, Aunt?”

“Most certainly, dear. So many friends have returned to the neighbourhood for Christmas, so in the next few days, I shall call upon them.”

And, knowing her aunt, gossiping and collecting news. She was sister to Miranda’s grandfather and had married Sir Justin Skinnerton, whose estate bordered the Belmoore lands. A lifelong resident of the area, she was close to all the local families.

Cecil harrumphed enough that silence slowly filtered down the long table until all eyes were upon him. Then he gave a most respectful prayer, giving thanks for the food, for the Christ child, for the past harvest, for the harvest to come, for everyone’s good health, for everyone’s continued good health, and he might have continued if Paul had not whispered loudly, “When can we eat?”

Cecil cleared his throat and concluded his prayer, then stood. It signaled the servants to scurry about and serve steaming cups of wassail to all the company, including a special version using apple cider instead of ale for the children. Extra servants had been hired for the ball after dinner, so it only took a minute or two before everyone had a cup to raise.

“A toast to family and friends,” Cecil said solemnly.

The company replied, “Family and friends!” and drank.

Miranda savoured the flavour of the sweet wassail, a secret recipe passed down to each of the baronets’ wives in the Belmoore family. Felicity had made the wassail every year since Cecil’s mother had died, and Miranda admitted Felicity had a knack for it. She perhaps used less ale and more sherry, which brought out the flavours of the roasted apples, nutmeg, and ginger.

***

Next blog post: Chapter 7b

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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Spinster's Christmas - Chapter 6c

I’m blogging the revised version of my Regency romance, The Spinster's Christmas, so you all get a chance to read it. After I post it all, I’ll take it down from my blog, so be sure to read it while it’s being posted. It is the first book in my Lady Wynwood series.

A Regency romantic mystery

Miranda Belmoore has never felt attuned to the rest of society. Her family has never understood her blunt speech and unwillingness to bow to conventional strictures, and so they have always made her feel that there is something wrong with her. Now as a poor relation in her cousin’s house, she makes plans to escape a life of drudgery and disdain from her own family members.

Naval Captain Gerard Foremont is having difficulty adjusting to life back on land, frustrated that his career has been cut short by his severely injured knee. Guilt haunts him as he sees the strain his long convalescence has had upon his parents. As they spend Christmastide with the Belmoores, he wants to help fulfill his mother’s wish to have her orphaned niece come to stay with them.

However, an enemy has infiltrated the family party, bent on revenge and determined that Twelfth Night will end in someone’s death …

Start reading here.

***

Chapter 6c

The doors opened and the butler entered with a mound of raisins in a large shallow bowl. A footman lit a taper from the fire and set the brandy-soaked fruit ablaze.

Oooh rose from the children as the blue flame blazed in the darkness, turning the butler’s staid face rather sinister. As he placed the bowl upon a low table in the centre of the room, it was the adults who led the traditional song:

Here comes the flaming bowl,
Don’t he mean to take his toll,
Snip! Snap! Dragon!
Take care you don’t take too much,
Be not greedy in your clutch,
Snip! Snap! Dragon!


Then adults and children alike gathered round for a game of Snapdragon, with each person reaching in to snatch a flaming raisin and eat it without being burned. Servants hovered nearby, ready to douse any inadvertent fires set by dropped raisins.

In the darkness, Gerard contrived to sneak away from Miss Church-Pratton and move about the dark room, straining to see each of the people in shadow. Then he saw Miranda, seated by the window with a bundle in her arms. As he approached, he saw that Ellie was asleep on her lap.

“You will not allow her to play Snapdragon?” he asked.

“Most certainly not,” she retorted.

“I seem to recall that we played at a fairly young age.”

“And at that tender age, you burned both your sleeve and your eyebrows, do you recall?”

He laughed. “I had forgotten.”

She looked at the blue light in the centre of the room, which flickered as people moved in front of it. “I like the light. It is mysterious and lovely. But I admit I like it better from a distance.” She turned her face toward him, and even in the darkness he could see the gleam of her smile.

He answered with one of his own, and he reached out to touch her cheek because it seemed the most natural and necessary thing for him to do. As in the carriage when he had touched her hand, he wanted to be connected to her in a powerful way that he could not understand.

Her skin trembled beneath his fingers, and then she turned her face away.

He suddenly felt awkward and large. He clasped his hands in front of him, then behind him, then he shifted his feet, except that he put too much weight on his injured knee. He winced.

“Does it hurt you?” she asked.

He didn’t know how she could have known, in the dark. “It is stiff.”

“I shall send the poultice to you after I put Ellie to bed.” She made as if to rise, but he remembered why he had sought her out.

“Stay. I have a question to ask you.” He didn’t need to, but he put a hand on her shoulder—again, that desire to touch her. He left it there for a moment, even after she had settled back into the chair, Ellie still fast asleep in her arms.

“Have you thought more about the woman?”

“Yes.” As usual, she surprised him. “I have wondered if perhaps the attack was not by chance. But …”

When she did not continue, he said, “You are very insightful. I should like to hear your thoughts. Can you think of anyone who would wish to harm you?”

She hesitated longer than he would have expected, but then said, “No. I have no family and no fortune. I had one season in London and have spent the rest of my life in the country, first with my parents and then with Cecil.”

“But we cannot dismiss the possibility simply because we cannot think of a good motivation. You must be careful.”

She looked up at him again, and although he couldn’t see her eyes, something made him feel rather fevered. He added, “After all, Ellie is often with you. I am concerned for both of you, of course. It was only by chance that she was nearer to me in the forest, and that you were farther away from the rest of the party.”

“Of course.” Her voice sounded hollow. She rose to her feet, carrying Ellie. “If you will excuse me, I must be awake early to help Felicity with the preparations for the ball tomorrow.” The Christmas Day ball had been a tradition at Wintrell Hall much like the kissing bough.

He didn’t want her to leave him. “It sounds as though Felicity has invited all the county.”

“There are more guests this year than last year. We have hired twice the usual number of local people to help tomorrow.” She suddenly stiffened.

“What is it?” He moved closer to her.

Miranda turned, and they stood close to one another, face to face, Ellie’s sleeping form between them. He could smell lavender and lemon, soothing and yet also tart, like her.

“The villagers all know me,” she said in a low voice. “None of them would have attacked me because they all know I am a poor relation and have nothing of value. So it must have been someone newly come to the village.”

“I could make inquiries, determine whether anyone has arrived recently.”

“They will hardly speak to you, especially if it is someone who knows the woman who attacked me. Can you send your valet?”

“I am sharing my father’s man, and the local residents know him well because of my father’s longtime friendship with Mr. Belmoore.”

“Is there another servant? A stranger? Someone the woman would not know is connected to the Belmoores.”

“There is no other servant here with us who would be suitable, but …” He suddenly knew who he could use. “I will think of something.”

She smiled calmly, not needling him for more information or pouting that he would not confide in her. “Good night, Gerard.”

“Good night, Miranda.”

He watched her leave, still carrying Ellie, and then he left the drawing room through another door. He knocked on the door to the library, then opened it to an empty room.

Seating himself at Cecil’s desk, he took out a quill and paper and proceeded to write.

***

Next blog post: Chapter 7a

Order The Spinster's Christmas:

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