Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Holiday Short Story: Three Dukes & A Baby

I wrote this short story for Rita and Dani's Historical Christmas Eve Celebration in which they invite authors for short pieces on assigned themes. I took a somewhat loose definition of the word duke!

 Three Dukes and A Baby

Jonathan Bradshaw hated dukes. To be specific he hated one duke.
The day a duke ruined his life he’d ended up face down in a ditch on the Scottish side of the border, stunned and aching from the beating he’d suffered at the hands of His Grace’s lackeys. The smell of whisky cut through the mud clogging his swollen nose. That was the last straw. His pocket flask, fully charged against the chill of a northern journey in early spring, had cracked. If he managed to lug his bruised body out of the dirt, he wouldn’t be able to console his bruised soul and broken heart with the Scottish breath of life.
Waiting for his miserable existence to evaporate along with his last source of comfort, he became aware of a faint lapping sound close to his ear. Then a tiny snuffle and a wet little tongue licking his cheek. Something else was chewing on his boot. The ignominy of ending his life a meal for rats lifted him out of his torpid despair. Rolling onto his arse he found himself surrounded by a trio of puppies. Funny little things, they were, with snub noses and floppy ears and madly wagging tails. They must have been abandoned since their breeding was, to put it kindly, indeterminate. He felt a kinship with the mongrels. Had he not also been rejected by the Duke of Windlesham for his lack of the proper parentage?
The creatures yelped with joy, butting their little heads against his legs and nuzzling his hands with wet noses. One of them demanded to be picked up. When he obliged a wet warmth trickled through his fingers.
The little devil had wet himself.
Jonathan averted his eyes from his housekeeper’s festive sprig of holly and checked that the decanter was full. It was Christmas Eve, an occasion he’d dreamed of celebrating in his elegant hundred-year-old house with his wife. If he had a wife. The Duke of Windlesham said not, when he dragged his daughter from the Gretna Green smithy where the smith had just declared Mr. Jonathan Bradshaw and the Lady Anthea Winslow man and wife. A Scottish marriage apparently didn’t count unless it was consummated. As it happened the consummation had taken place, but before the ceremony. In any case, the question was moot. All efforts to find his bride had proved futile. Anthea had vanished from society, from her father’s many mansions, and, as far as Jonathan could discover, from the face of the earth.
So he’d returned to the estate he’d purchased in a vain attempt to impress the duke, who’d declared he’d never give his daughter to the son of a tradesman, however rich. Jonathan wasn’t in the habit of indulging alone, but tonight he intended to get rip roaring drunk.
Something was missing. Or rather three somethings.
“Dukes!” he called into the garden where moonlight glittered on frosted trees. “Come in boys!”
In his loathing for all things ducal, he’d decided to insult the highest rank of nobility by bestowing the title on his brood of curs. Clarence, who had a penchant for spirits, was named for the duke who was unfortunately drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine. Wellington was the boot chewer. And the dog who peed on him was honored with the title of Windlesham. But since he was fond of the little fellow, he usually just  called him Widdle. Except when he widdled.
“Clarence! Wellington! Widdle!” he shouted. Ill-bred yapping arose from the shrubbery. The dogs had either cornered a creature or found something vile-smelling to roll in. “Come, boys. If you stink it’s the stables for you, and not a bite of my supper.”
Jonathan’s amble across the lawn turned into a run when a new sound joined the cacophony of barks. Good Lord! A capacious basket wedged into the shelter of a rhododendron emitted the unmistakable howl of an angry baby.
In short order he carried the foundling inside. Without knowing much about infants, he was sure this one was very young. His ridiculously small and very red face was topped by a spindly mop of dark hair. With eyes screwed shut he emitted a level of noise astonishing for such a tiny body.
“Hey there,” he whispered, touched by such fragile helplessness. “What’s the matter?” Was he hungry, cold? Both? The only response was a continuing howl. “What do you want, little one?”
The child was tightly wrapped, a good idea outside, but his library had a good fire. He gently removed a blanket and loosened the swaddling. The perfection of the miniature hands tempted him to touch. Little fingers clutched at his giant one. The baby fell silent and regarded him with big, unfocused eyes.
The dukes sat around him, regarding him with adoring trust. He’d cared for them as orphaned babies and now it apparently fell to him to do the same for a human one. Reaching below the child’s bottom, he smiled. “Well, well,” he told the dogs. “We’ve acquired another widdler.”
His competent housekeeper, whom he’d previously dismissed for the night, responded to his ring. “Newborn, sir. I’ll take care of him and we can decide what to do tomorrow. The mother must be in a sad way to abandon her child at Christmas.”
“Bring him back here when you’ve made him comfortable.”
The infant had fallen under his protection and he’d care for it, as he would any one in need. But he felt more than casual charity for this waif. His company for Christmas was far more appealing than the bottle.
Her company, as the housekeeper informed him when she returned. “Ring again when she cries, sir. She’ll be hungry in the night. I’ve rigged up a bottle and teat for her but tomorrow she’ll need a wet nurse.”
“Show me what to do. I’ll see to her.”
For now the tiny girl slept peacefully while he watched. Dry napkins, a wet nurse, a foster mother. The needs of so helpless a creature were overwhelming. Perhaps he’d keep her. The notion surprised him. When he’d persuaded Anthea to elope with him to escape her arranged marriage, his mind had been possessed by love and earthy passion, the consequences of domesticity little regarded. He wondered if she had wed the middle-aged earl with his two dead wives and a rakish reputation. Surely he would have heard.
Unmanly tears prickled his eyes yet his heart was lighter. Fortune had brought him someone to care for, besides his trio of dukes.
He didn’t know how long he kept vigil. It was the dukes who disturbed the silence first, starting up from their sleeping heap of fur on the hearth rug. Distantly he heard the front door knocker. A glance at the mantle clock told him it was after midnight.
Christmas Day.
He opened the door to a pathetic and wondrous sight. She was bedraggled and shivering but he’d recognize her in a full face mask in the dark. His one and only love.
“Anthea!” he cried and she collapsed into his arms.
“Joanna? Do you have her? I put her down because I couldn’t carry her another step. I was coming to the house but I fainted. When I awoke she was gone.”
“She is safe, my love. Come.”
He lifted her up and bore her trembling body into the library. Her care was all for her daughter but he could wait.
Their daughter. He was a father.
“What happened?” he asked, when he had his wife curled in his lap in a large armchair, their child in her arms.
“Father kept me locked at his hunting box until the birth. He was going to take her away from me and I couldn’t bear it. Finally I found a way to escape and come to you. I’m sorry it took so long, Jonathan. I love you and I’ve never loved another.”
“Nothing matters now. I love you, I love Joanna, and we’re together.”
“I was so afraid I’d never see you again.”
He stroked her smooth dark head and drank in the lovely face he’d feared lost forever. Her cheek was chilled beneath his palm, as were the lips he traced with his thumb. Then he kissed her and felt nothing but warmth and the promise of a blissful future.
A tug on his boot interrupted the tender interlude. There was a puddle on the carpet, and one pair of eyes gazed longingly at the untouched decanter.
“My darling,” he said. “I must introduce you to the dukes.”

For my previous Christmas reads see A Gift For A Princess and A Deranged Marriage

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Monday, November 26, 2012

The Importance of Being Ernie

To celebrate the release of The Importance of Being Wicked tomorrow, my cat has made a video.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

What I Saw in England

English gardens are famous, and June is when they are at their best. The roses in particular are spectacular. Instead of telling you about my recent trip, I'm going to let the pictures speak for themselves. 

 If you want to see more, there are a few dozen on my Facebook page. Go to Photos and browse the albums England June 2012 and Another Wiltshire Garden.  (And if you feel like it, "Like" my page while you are there).

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Extra Scene from Confessions from an Arranged Marriage

For lovers of Sebastian Iverley - or simply if you'd like to see a glimpse of his feud with Blake coming to an end - I've posted an extra scene that was cut from the book. Contains spoilers so better enjoyed if you've read Confessions. Here it is! I'd love to know what you think.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Ten things you should know about Confessions From an Arranged Marriage.

1. Minerva has political ambitions. But she isn’t anything like Margaret Thatcher, though I could see Meryl Streep playing her when Meryl was much younger.

2. Lord Blakeney gets up to no good in the library, something he has Cause to Regret.

3. In Paris things are much less proper, oo-la-la. Minerva and Blake go on a date.

4. You may hate Blake at first, but you’ll love him once you know his childhood secret.

5. Minerva isn’t always as clever as she thinks. Nothing like seeing Miss Smartypants taken down a peg or two.

6. Like all good heroes, Blake knows how to come to the rescue of a lady. Even when she gets herself into trouble.

7. There’s one thing to be said for jocks: they have stamina. Also excellent muscle tone.

8. Blake may not agree, but there ARE worse things than being a duke.

9. Minerva may not agree, but there ARE worse things than marrying a duke.

10.  Blake & Minerva manage to find their way to a rapturous conclusion, but don’t take my word for it. The book is out today in a bookstore or ebook reader near you!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Contrast in Venuses

I enjoyed the comments when I posted the Goya Maja paintings here. I've drawn from elements of both these Titian portrayals of Venus in my current work in progress.  Which do you prefer, and why?
Venus and Cupid with an Organist
Venus of Urbino

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Mini-Excerpt from Confessions From An Arranged Marriage

This brief snippet has already appeared on my Facebook page. It's a glimpse of the first meeting between Minerva and Blake in the book. (They already know each other quite well, to their mutual disgust.)
A gentleman staggered through the double doors and skidded on the polished parquetry floor. At a distance of twenty feet, Minerva saw the newcomer preserve his balance by grabbing the shoulders of a large-bosomed, open-mouthed matron. Swinging her aside, his backward slide was arrested by the wall. Without a hint of embarrassment he slouched against a pilaster and scowled at the assembly.

He was as gorgeous as ever. A lock of dark blond hair with glints of gold flopped over a noble brow. No nose had ever been more perfectly carved, no jaw as firmly etched. The shapely mouth was full, sensuous and sulky, matching the expression in his dusky blue eyes.

He’d always been a handsome devil but the sight of him filled Minerva with disgust.

Lord Blakeney had arrived.

Surveying the room, his glance came to rest on her. His lips twisted into a derisive half smile and their eyes met in mutual displeasure. He shoved his back away from the wall and ambled over to her

“Our dance, I believe, Miss Montrose.” He hadn’t changed a bit.

Minerva felt a strong desire to slap his arrogant face. “Lord Blakeney,” she said with the merest hint of a curtsey. “I believe our dance was over half an hour ago.”

“This one will do just as well.”
Confessions from an Arranged Marriage releases March 27, 2012.  I will post a longer excerpt in about a month.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A "Bold Piece"

The book I'm writing now involves a lot of research into the art of the period, something I enjoy very much. I thought I'd share this pair of Goya portraits from the Prado Museum: The Naked Maja (c. 1797-1800) and The Clothed Maja (ca. 1803). The model may have been the Duchess of Alba, rumored to be the artist's lover. She certainly looks like a very sexy woman.  By the way, I love the lace-trimmed pillows, but doesn't the nude appear to be occupying a Lazy-Boy recliner?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

How I Name Characters

I’m doing a lot of it these days. I’m well into my next book and it’s the first of a brand new series. Each character–major or minor, hero or butler–has to be named. So does every village, house, and street. It’s exhausting. I have a lot of ??? in the manuscript, indicating a name to be named later.

When I name a character, the first thing I consider is his/her parents. Who were they and what were they thinking come christening time? I try and come up with something period appropriate, but if I was being realistic the odds are most characters would be named John or George, Jane or Mary. So I branch out a bit and search for names that were in use during the period and are suitable for the character’s background. And of course the name must suit the character. The heroine of The Dangerous Viscount was originally named Marianne. But she just wasn’t a Marianne. Half way through the writing process I sat down with a yellow pad and wrote down names until I hit on Diana. Her younger sister had been Arabella, but I decided her father had a thing for goddesses and Arabella became Minerva.

If a name is unusual, I usually explain it in the book. The heroine of my first book, Never Resist Temptation, was named Jacobin. Her English mother named her for King James I, the founder of her family fortune. Her French father, a moderate revolutionary, appreciated the irony that she was named for the extreme party.

But I don’t believe I ever explained how Tarquin Compton, hero of The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton, got his name. The truth is, I’m not sure. I know how I settled on his surname (not an interesting story) but Tarquin? WTF? Tarquin has been with me for a long time. He was the hero’s best friend in my first book, a work of genius that will remain forever unpublished. When I jettisoned the book and the hero, I kept Tarquin. By the time I wrote his book he was so real to me I didn’t worry about his name. There was no way I would change it. I could say his father had a passion for Roman history, but it doesn’t seem right. Besides, the Roman Tarquin was a bit of a rapist (see picture above). What I now know about the older Mr. Compton is much more down to earth. Since hindsight is 20-20 I shall now disclose that his mother had a futuristic dream about Lawrence Olivier and decided to name her son after his son. No? Never mind.