Friday, May 20, 2011

The things I do for love... of you.

Wow. Am I on a roll, or what? Three posts in one day.

So, I got back from my fabu Florida vacation, where I had actually sat down and read almost every day for a week, just so that I could provide you with feedback to help you make responsible romance choices. (And lest you think that I'm joking about the sacrifices I make on your behalf, let me remind you that a) I am quite fair-skinned, and b) I can't read in the sunlight without sunglasses. I have a reverse-raccoon look going on. ALL. FOR. YOU.) But I digress.

So, I eased my way into vacation with a li'l wall-banger by the name of A Pirate's Love by Johanna Lindsey. May have mentioned this one to you. I was thinking a shipboard romance, some warm ocean breezes, and a little swashbuckling would set the tone for my warm-weather vacay. I loves me some swashbuckling.

Simply put, I'm glad that I started it before vacation, because then I wasn't tempted to bring it on vacation. Because if I had brought it on vacation, I promise you that it would have been tossed into the Gulf of Mexico... which is polluted enough already without this it-began-as-rape-but-ended-as-love sludge. I should've checked the publication date - 1978. Couldn't get past page 50. Enough said.

I recovered quickly enough once we were on the road. And since I knew that I wouldn't have a lot of un-interrupted time for reading while locked in a car with my 3 precious children, I went for a Regency anthology It Happened One Season by Stephanie Laurens and Mary Balogh and others. I used to quite like Stephanie Laurens, you know. There was a time, eight or ten books ago, that I owned every book in the Cynster series. I enjoy prolific authors and familiar characters. But when I began to need the family trees at the beginning of each book just to try to keep the characters straight in my mind, and when I began to realize that each hero got to 2nd base exactly 1/4 of the way through the book, and 3rd base precisely 1/2 way through the book, and so forth, it all became wayy to much effort. You'll recall that I hate romances that require effort. But again, I digress.

The Stephanie Laurens part of the anthology was completely unbelievable. My bullshitometer was pinging from page 3 and it got worse from there. The Mary Balogh part was well-enough done, I suppose, but I hold Mary Balogh to a fairly high standard and I wasn't impressed. The Jacquie D'Alessandro part was lackluster enough that I'll never seek out anything else the woman's written. But the Candace Hern part was GREAT. Different, yet believable (both the storyline and the characters). Note to self: Might try more Candace Hern. But as for the anthology... totes not worth my $7.99.

I was understandably subdued by this point. Two hits, two misses. But I persevered (again, all for YOU), and moved on to a Jo Beverley Georgian romance, An Unlikely Countess. Stank! And I generally like both  Jo Beverley and Georgian roamances. So disappointing. But I can't countenance a romance where some poor peasant girl living in the slums eventually becomes, not just a countess, but a celebrated one. Oy.

Fortunately, the ugly streak ended there. I enjoyed both Wedding of the Season and Scandal of the Year by Laura Lee Guhrke, despite the fact that she's endorsed by Julia Quinn right on the cover.  Poor JQ. Anyway, the books were good. Fairly believable, true characters, though the bullshitometer did ping a bit at the way that scandals were blown over and rules were flouted.

And then. And THEN. I started reading the Pennyroyal Green series by Julie Anne Long. And the heavens opened and the angels sing and I remembered why I enjoy romance novels. Seriously. A few too many merry widows, and the plots are a teensy bit contrived, and okay, she's a little bit off with the titles and whatnot. Know what? I enjoy her writing so much I am willing to overlook all. of. that. Great vocabulary without being too stilted, good pacing, GREAT dialogue. And... actual romantic tension! Even with the most head-slappingly arrogant and headstrong heroine (Violet Redmond!), there's still something believable and sort of... loveable about her! And the characters grow like Chia Pets, right before your eyes! They actually metamorphose from these rather hard, unlikeable people into... heroes and heroines. Thanks to the power of lurve. So, yeah. Read the first 4 in the series. Love 'em. Gonna read everything she's written.

And, still on my TBR pile is none other than Breaking the Rules, the latest (and last! Boo!!) Troubleshooters novel. It's like the last chocolate croissant -- I can't bring myself to read it, because then it will be gone. And unlike chocolate croissants, there'll never be another TS book.  Profound imagery I used right there, eh? Go ahead. Take a minute. Think about it.

Soooo... have you read BTR? And also, what Julia Quinn moved you to tears (of frustration) the other night? And are you impressed  that I wrote 3 posts in one day, or are you really, really impressed?

Part 8: La fille de l'ingenue libertine

Hortense studied her reflection in the large front-hall mirror, squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, then studied herself again. The image in the glass hadn’t changed one iota – the same curly brown hair was coiled atop her head, the same medium brown eyes stared back at her thoughtfully, the same pale skin sprinkled liberally with dratted freckles covered her face and bosom, and the same plain white satin gown from two winters past covered the rest of her. Last time she’d worn this gown, Amaryllis had good-naturedly teased that Hortense had certainly “grown these past two years.” And Amaryllis was right, Hortense thought as she tried to surreptitiously yank her bodice just a teensy bit higher. “But,” she reminded herself sternly, “It’s the only gown I possess that’s suitable for dining out with the county’s ‘first family,’ so it will simply have to do.”
In the mirror, she caught a glimpse of Amaryllis waiting patiently for the butler to announce them and show them in. Hortense frowned. This business of gazing into mirrors and worrying about clothing was usually Amaryllis’s occupation, while Hortense normally amused herself by studying the ancestral portraits lining the walls of any ton-ish home, and trying to determine which of their host’s forbearers was most likely given to criminal insanity. But yesterday’s events had been extremely lowering. First, she’d withstood a verbal assault from that vicious old biddy, Lady Peppercorn. Then, she’d made an abortive attempt at clandestine investigation (because, upon reflection, well-bred ladies never “skulk”) which led to a tremendously unsettling interaction with that rude, impertinent, handsome (wait, no, make that absolutely unremarkable) man who most certainly had been skulking around the inn yard. And, to cap it all off, she’d arrived back at the vicarage just in time to hear Amaryllis triumphantly accept Lady Peppercorn’s reluctant invitation to dine with the family this evening.
Hortense had lain awake the better part of last night replaying yesterday's conversations, supremely annoyed with herself and her changeable reactions. When Mr. Preston had waylaid her at the Inn, she’d unleashed the power of The Stare and given him a proper set-down, no matter that he’d found her in a rather compromising and unladylike position. That was the Hortense she knew herself to be. But when that loathsome Lady Peppercorn had insulted her… insulted Papa, her wits had completely deserted her and she’d been unable to utter a single word in her own defense (though she’d invented a thousand witty, cutting rejoinders after the fact). She’d known that being a companion wasn’t going to be thrilling or exciting, or even as fulfilling as her life with Papa, but she hadn’t expected to feel so self-conscious or so completely out of place. Really, it was enough to make anyone broody.
Pims, the Peppercorns’ impeccably elegant butler, quickly returned and showed them into the drawing room. The room was large and lavishly, if somewhat inelegantly, decorated in greens and purples. Amaryllis clasped her hands to her chest, praising the gorgeous d├ęcor, declaring the decorator to be a genius, and pretending to be all surprise when Lady Peppercorn acknowledged that she, herself, had decorated the room. Amaryllis likened the room to pictures she had seen of Versailles in its glory. Hortense thought the room rather looked like a picture of a harem that she’d seen in one of Papa’s books, right down to purple silk pillows and French velvet drapes. She imagined that Lady Peppercorn would not find her comparison nearly as gratifying, and had to swallow a giggle at the thought. Lady Peppercorn, as though able to read Hortense’s mind, gazed pointedly at Hortense’s far-too-well-displayed bosom and smiled maliciously.
They were quickly presented to Mr. and Mrs. Dinwiddie, who owned themselves delighted to see the girls again so soon, and to Mr. Peppercorn, a short, stout, balding man with a kindly smile, the very picture of a country squire and at least 20 years older than his wife. Once these introductions had been made, the ladies were offered glasses of sherry, and the men were offered whiskey. Hortense sipped the sherry gratefully. She’d never actually had the opportunity to try it before, but she hoped it might give her a little extra courage to get through this night.
As Hortense finished her drink, the missing member of the Peppercorn family strode quickly into the room, tugging his peacock blue waistcoat into greater prominence as he did so. Lady Peppercorn turned, surprised, and reluctantly performed one final introduction. “Ladies, this is my son, Mr. Digby Peppercorn. Digby, may I introduce Miss Amaryllis Huntington and Miss Hortense Worthing? Digby, darling, I thought you were dining out this evening.”
“Indeed! Indeed I was,” Digby replied genially. “But Throckmurtel’s had to leave town for a bit, unexpectedly. Gone to Town to see the grand-pater,” he explained.
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” replied the vicar. “Is his grandfather quite ill?”
“Good Lud, no!” laughed Digby. “If anyone is in a bad way it’s Throckmurtel. Up the River Tick, don’t you know? Point non plus? Dun territory? Under the hatches? He’s had to go to his grandfather for money,” he finally explained, when Mrs. Dinwiddie’s expression remained blank. “And in any case, I’d have made certain to be at home if I’d known we were having such fascinating comp’ny,” he continued, with a tender look for Amaryllis, who blushed prettily. Hortense wasn’t sure which was worse – Digby’s absolute lack of tact regarding his friend’s finances, his sickeningly obvious flirtation with Amaryllis… or the fact that some small part of her was actually jealous that her cousin had someone to flirt with while she, most decidedly, did not. The third part was worst, she decided quickly. She refused to be envious of Digby. But she nodded yes when the maid offered to refill her sherry glass.
Lady Peppercorn pursed her lips in displeasure. “Digby, please ring for Pims, and have him inform Cook that there will be one more for dinner.”
“Best make that two, Aunt,” said a deep voice from the doorway. All eyes turned toward the tall, broad-shouldered man. He was impeccably attired in black evening wear set off by snowy white linen and a cream-colored waistcoat, his unfashionably long hair was carefully tied back in a queue, his face wore an expression of bored politeness that Hortense had never seen before, and there was nary a black cape in sight, but his eyes… Hortense would have recognized that intense green gaze anywhere. And when he turned that gaze on her and raised one sardonic eyebrow, she felt a tingling warmth bloom in her chest.
“Who let you in here?” demanded Lady Peppercorn.
All eyes in the room swung toward Lady Peppercorn, shocked by her outburst.
“Er, I did, Mother,” admitted Digby, crossing the room toward his cousin. “Met Cousin Oliver on the road home from Throckmurtel’s. M’new gray trotter, Fraus, had thrown a shoe, and Oliver stopped to offer assistance. Prime horseflesh, eh, cousin? Fraus is an Orlov Trotter,” he explained to Amaryllis. Amaryllis nodded sagely as though she met Orlov Trotters every day of her life. “I thought ‘If Oliver’s finally decided to take an interest in horseflesh, he’d best come home and see my stables,’ you know? Best stables in this part of the world,” he said proudly, slinging an arm around his cousin’s shoulder. “But I didn’t realize we were already havin’ comp’ny,” he finished, with a sheepish smile for his mother.
“Digby, I won’t have it!” Lady Peppercorn sputtered, turning purple. “You know I…”
“Enough!” interrupted Mr. Peppercorn.
“But… but, Eustace, you know that…” Lady Peppercorn interjected.
“I said enough, Myrtle. It appears that our nephew has come to dine tonight. I, for one, will welcome him,” he said, striding toward Oliver. “How are you, boy? It’s been a long, long time,” he continued, extending his hand to clasp Oliver’s.
Oliver, who had appeared rather amused by Lady Peppercorn’s outbursts and Digby’s flummery, seemed to be completely at a loss when confronted with Mr. Peppercorn’s open cordiality. He shook Mr. Peppercorn’s hand mechanically for several seconds, his brow furrowed, and he cleared his throat as though he wasn’t sure what to say.
“Pardon me, Mr. Peppercorn, but what did you say your horse’s name was?” Hortense blurted into the sudden silence. Hortense couldn’t say for certain what prompted her to interrupt. She wasn’t one to call attention to herself so boldly, even in the best of circumstances, and she’d rather enjoyed the notion that she’d relinquished the title of Lady Peppercorn’s Most Hated Guest the moment Mr. Preston had entered the room. But the silence had felt like a weight on her chest, pressing down harder and harder until she was compelled to say something.
“Er, Fraus, Ms. Worthing. All his line were named for gods. I didn’t choose the name myself, of course,” he chuckled, as if such a thing were not to be considered. “Fraus is the god of speed, if I recall correctly, although I daresay I haven’t spent much time learning about such things this decade or more,” he joked jovially. “’Higher education is for clerks and second sons,’ I always say,” he guffawed.
“Fraus?” Hortense repeated with dawning amusement. Fraus, she knew well, was the Roman god of fraud and deception. It was too, too perfect. “Ah… yes, I… I think I’ve heard of him.” She bit her lip, struggling to keep her face straight and her expression serious. Across the room, she heard Oliver make a sound somewhere between a laugh and a cough, and saw his lips quirk as he fought his own smile. She lifted her laughing eyes to his and…
Suddenly she could hear her own heartbeat, amplified a hundred or a thousand times, the rhythm pounding in her ears, drowning out all other sound. She felt every inch of her skin become more sensitive, more alert. Became intensely aware of her breathing, in-and-out, in-and-out, faster and faster. But her vision was focused entirely on his eyes. Captivated by green… so green… green like mountains, like forests, like grass. Endless fields of green where she could run and run and…
The spell ended and Hortense found herself sprawled on her hands and knees in the Peppercorns’ hideously elegant drawing room, gasping for breath.
“Hortense!” Amaryllis shouted, rushing toward her cousin.
“No, Miss Huntington!” Digby cried. “If your cousin has taken ill you must keep your distance. Such bad humours can be catching!”
“Ree-uh-lly!” Lady Peppercorn exclaimed, loading each syllable with shock and outrage.
“Miss Worthing, let me help you,” said a deep, calm voice directly in front of her. Oliver bent down and offered her his hand. But Hortense backed away from his hand, and instead pushed herself to her feet using one of Lady Peppercorn’s velvet sofas for leverage.
“I apologize,” she whispered in mortification, unable to meet anyone’s gaze. “I… I believe I fainted. I have… no idea what came over me. Please, I… please excuse me,” she stammered, and picking up her skirts, she fled the room then fled the house.
The dark quiet of the garden was a welcome change. Hortense sat on a low bench, and leaned her head against the cool stone wall behind her. Her first and only thought was ‘Amaryllis is going to be so mad at me. I’ve ruined any chance she might have had with Digby.’
“May I?”
Hortense opened her eyes, surprised to find she’d closed them, and saw Oliver gesturing to the bench next to her. “What for?” she asked rudely, closing her eyes again.
Oliver sighed and took the seat he’d indicated without answering. “You’ve been gone for quite some time, Miss Worthing. Everyone’s concerned about you.” Hortense squeezed her eyes shut more tightly, and did not reply.
He sat for several minutes before saying in a low voice, “Are you alright?”
“Oh. Me? Fine!” Hortense burst out, angrily, unable to keep silent any longer. “Let’s see… I’ve come to a dinner party, which, in retrospect was the really the first mistake, because dinner guests are expected to be charming and amiable and graceful, and I am none of those things. I have never been any of those things, and I don’t need or want to be those things. I despise people who aspire to those things,” Hortense rambled, opening her eyes now to make sure that Oliver was listening. He was. He nodded.
“But of course, it wasn’t my decision in the first place,” Hortense continued, “because I am my cousin’s companion, and whither she goest I go, or something, whether I will or no. But my dress is wrong,” she cried, grabbing a handful of her skirt and tossing it away. “And my manners are wrong. I know who Fraus is, Mr. Preston. I know Fraus and Loki and Vishwakarma and most every other god known to man. I know the legends of the werewolves and the kelpies and pookas. I speak 6 languages fluently, and can read and write in several more. And if I were a man, Mr. Preston, you would think me a braggart to list these accomplishments so baldly, but because I am a woman, I feel as though I’m confessing my sins to you. Isn’t that awful, Mr. Preston? To be really good at something, to have talents and skills, and to have to hide them, to pretend to be less than you are, just so that you can fit in?” Hortense gasped, crying in earnest now, more mortified than ever, but unable to stop the torrent of words and tears.
Oliver said nothing, but he shifted slightly on the bench and brought his arm around Hortense, pulling her head to his shoulder and pressing his handkerchief into her hand. They sat like that for some time, saying nothing, while the crickets chirped and the stars shone above them.
Finally, Hortense’s embarrassment overcame her need for comfort, and she pulled away, drying her tears and taking a deep breath. “Well, that’s done it. I cannot imagine how I could embarrass myself any more thoroughly, at any time, for the rest of my life. It’s a relief to know that I’ve survived the worst,” she said flatly.
Oliver met her eyes and smiled. Then he looked away, fixing his gaze on the shadows at the far corner of the lawn. “Miss Worthing,” he began. “I understand better than you think.” He was silent for several moments, as though collecting his thoughts, then continued. “Never, never deny who you are in order to please people like my aunt, because people like my aunt will never be pleased. If you were the personification of beauty, grace, and proper comportment, a veritable Aphrodite, Athena, and Hestia rolled into one," he said with a wink, "my aunt would declare she’d never seen a chit flaunt her accomplishments so boldly." He looked into her eyes and smiled ruefully.
In spite of everything, Hortense felt her lips quirk into an answering smile.
“You seem different from other girls, Miss Worthing," he continued. "Smarter, certainly. Wittier, too, from all I’ve seen. Don’t live your life by their rules, don’t measure yourself on their scale.”
Hortense's smile disappeared.“I don’t expect you to understand, Mr. Preston. Not really. It’s different for a man.”
Oliver barked a laugh. “Yes, indeed it is different for a man,” he said, laughing at some joke that Hortense couldn’t understand. “But the premise is the same. Do what you were made and meant to do, Hortense. It’s the only way to be happy,” he said softly, brushing her cheek with his hand.
Hortense felt her heart begin to beat faster, her entire body swaying toward Oliver. Suddenly she gasped and jumped up, backing away quickly. “Mr. Preston, I… I really must be going. My cousin… and Lady Peppercorn… they’ll be wondering… Oh, heavens! Amaryllis is going to kill me!” she moaned, as the enormity of the evening’s events suddenly became clear to her. “I’ve ruined any hope she might have had of Mr. Peppercorn!”
“Not to worry,” Oliver replied with a negligent smile. “Shortly after you left, Mrs. Dinwiddie felt herself become flushed and ill, as well. Fainted dead away on the sofa. Seems the ‘sherry’ that my estimable aunt had been serving was actually my uncle’s finest single-malt whiskey.”
“So, you mean to say that… that I was…” Hortense stammered, leaning against a nearby tree.
“Foxed, yes,” Oliver answered her unspoken question with dancing eyes.
“Good Lord!” Hortense replied, giggling. “Well, then I needn’t concern myself with explaining my emotional outburst just now, I suppose?”
“No. I wouldn’t have expected an explanation in any case. But having sampled my uncle’s whiskey on more than one occasion in my youth, I think you showed admirable restraint,” he teased, moving away from the bench and bracing his arm against the tree branch above her head.
Hortense smiled shyly up at him. For the first time all night she felt a sense of lightness, a sense of rightness, a sense of belonging. Unless she moved away again, he was going to kiss her. And at that moment, there was nothing in the world she wanted more.
His head moved slowly, slowly down toward hers, giving her plenty of time to move, to run, if she wanted to. She stayed exactly where she was. His other hand came up to rest against the side of her neck, his thumb brushing back and forth across her cheekbone, as if tracing the softness there. And then… and then… he kissed her. Just a soft brush of lips at first, a whisper of a touch, then pressing more firmly. He licked her lower lip gently, and she inhaled sharply at the sensation. As his tongue gently stroked inside her mouth, exploring, he angled her face upward, and speared his fingers through the hair at the nape of her neck.
She was lost in the sensation of it. Every part of her body felt tight, and hot, and tingling with awareness. Her hands came up to clasp behind his neck, and she found her body pressed close to his. He groaned and broke the kiss, resting his forehead on her shoulder and gasping for breath. She pressed her hands to his shoulders and her head to his chest for support.
“I’m not sorry,” he said fiercely, leaning back so that he could look in her eyes. “But, I don’t want you to think I’m taking advantage of you.”
She laughed breathlessly. “I… I’m not sorry, either,” she replied, realizing that it was true. Whatever came after this, whatever the repercussions of her behavior at the dinner party or her time in the garden with Oliver, it would be worth it. “And you needn’t worry that the whiskey has made me lose my inhibitions,” she joked. “As I’m constantly being reminded by my aunts and uncles, one can’t expect proper behavior from the daughter of a French libertine,” she said, imitating her Aunt Rose’s haughty tones.
“Pardon?” Oliver said, taking a step away from her, his eyes never leaving her face.
“My mother. She was French. A painter, from Calais. But she wasn’t a libertine, of course, that’s just something that my Aunt Rose…. What?” she asked, breaking off. His face in the moonlight was bleak, his eyes were suddenly cold. Hortense shivered. “Is it that my mother is French?” He didn’t reply, but his jaw tightened. “Dear God, it is! You… you’re just like them,” she cried, backing away.
“Come, Miss Worthing, I’ll return you to your cousin,” Oliver said stiffly.
“Please, don’t trouble yourself, Mr. Preston. I’ve found my own way this far, I’ll find my own way back.” Hortense wheeled on her heel and hurried away, unintentionally executing the best Brave Exit Speech and Flouncing Departure of her life. When she reflected on all of this later, she thought, at least she could console herself with that.

Part the Seventh: Ode to a Leather Club Chair

Oliver threw himself into the chair before the fire, careless of possible damage to his clothing. Brooding, he held up his glass of brandy up to the firelight and watched the play of light through it.

He was disgusted with himself. How many years had he been part of the Great Game? Generally he was exceptionally good at it. It was hard not to be, given his... special skills. But now? Now his instincts were failing him. That girl in the woods - her actions were highly suspicious. He should have been focused on the interrogation. Instead, he kept getting distracted by the depth of color in her brown eyes. He noticed her pulse beating faster at the base of her throat. He caught his hands wanting to touch her.

She wasn't telling the whole truth about what she had been doing in the woods - he had caught the subtle shifts in her body language as she had denied trespassing on his land. At the same time, it didn't smell like she was lying. Could it be somewhere in between? Could her presence at Radulf Castle be due to an accident that she didn't want to admit to? Then what in the world was she doing sneaking around the back of the inn?

As was his custom, Oliver took a cautious sniff before sampling the amber liquid in his glass. One could never be sure, after all, what sort of local swill might be passing for "brandy" while the boys in the Royal Navy manned their blockade. He sniffed again, this time more deeply, and felt the habitual tightness of his face slowly relax into a smile as he recognized the unmistakable scent of fine French Cognac and understood immediately how it had come to be there. A welcoming gift from old friends. He sipped and savored the slow burn of the Cognac as it warmed a path from his throat to his belly. And as his shoulders drifted back into the comfort of the ancient club chair, Oliver allowed his thoughts to drift back, as well. 

August, it had been. High summer. He'd been laying on his back in a great clump of wildflowers - daisies, wood anemones, and self heal - down by the Cove, listening to the buzzing, scratching, and chirping all around him. He'd closed his eyes, as his father had taught him, the better to concentrate and identify the source of each individual sound, each individual smell. "Watching," Father had called it. And in the months that his family had resided at Radulf Castle, Oliver had done little else.

At 12 years old, he'd been a quiet lad. Short, thin, studious, serious, freshly returned to England after years of traveling with his parents on the Continent, and brand new in the neighborhood... not to mention, heir to Radulf Castle with all its wealth and all its secrets. Fortunately, he'd also had a keen understanding of human nature and how it dealt with scrawny, rich, titled, bookish, foreign-sounding newcomers.  So when the cacophony of stomping, hooting, and laughing came close enough to drown out the song of the blackbird in the willow tree, he'd sighed and muttered, "Homo sapien. Male." to classify this species of interlopers, and sat up resignedly to see what mischief might be afoot.  And the laughter had abruptly stopped.

"Well, well, well. What have we here? Another trespasser?" the largest of the four boys had drawled. 

"I'm Oliver. Oliver Preston. From Radulf Castle. And I didn't know I was trespassing."

"Well, 'Oliver, Oliver Preston', we're the Fletchlys," gap-tooth had replied with a grin, folding his arms across his chest. "I'm Jamie, this here's my brother Tom," he jerked his chin at a slightly smaller, ginger-haired boy, with assessing blue eyes. "And that's our cousin Big Frank," he'd continued, with a nod toward the smallest of the lot, a boy carrying a large flour sack, whose pinched face and protruding teeth reminded Oliver of an enormous rodent. "And this is..."

"Digby," Oliver and Jamie had concluded at the same time. A glance showed that Digby's cherubic blond curls had been rumpled into a rat's nest and his face was screwed up tightly, as though he were trying not to cry.

"You know Digby here, do ye?" Jamie had chortled.

"He's my... cousin," Oliver had admitted, watching Digby's face grow even redder with embarrassment.

"Is he now? Why, Digby, you didn't tell us you came to spy on us with your cousin!" Jamie had said, with a hearty slap on Digby's back that had nearly sent Digby sprawling.

Digby's panic had been visible. "I... I was not spying. I was attempting to conduct a business transaction! Th-th-they asked me to b-buy some c-c-c-cognac! I... You... That is to say... well, everyone knows that you're smugglers..." he gulped. "Er. Blockade runners....I mean to say, merchants. And him! Oliver. Wha... why, he's a distant sort of cousin, don't you know? We... we've barely exchanged 10 words in our lives. And my... my mother won't let them anywhere near the house. They're..." he'd gulped. "They're not really family."

And, Oliver had thought to himself, thank Heaven for that. 

"Now, Digby, is that any way to talk about your own flesh and blood?" Tom had asked with a mournful shake of his head and an unholy glimmer of mischief in his eye. "Family's s'posed to stick together, ain't they?"

"I say we have a bit of sport, then, eh? Cousin against cousin! What say you, 'Cousin Ollie?' Are you up for the challenge?" Jamie had  asked.

Oliver had wisely remained silent. Digby's panic had ratcheted up a notch.

"See this here? Caught myself an adder this mornin'" said Jamie, gesturing to the sack at Big Frank's feet, which had begun wriggling and hissing, as if on cue. "See that undergrowth over yonder? Full of adders, it is. You ever been bitten by an adder, Ollie?" he'd asked.

"Uh... no, I don't think I... no," Oliver had stammered in reply, wiping suddenly damp palms on his trousers.

"Hmmm. Well, they're poisonous, right enough. And getting bitten? Hurts like a son of a... ahem.  But hardly anyone ever dies from an adder bite. So I'm thinkin' what we need to do here is have a wee contest. See which of you can hold yer hand in the sack with this adder for the longest time. The winner can go on home and remember to stay away from our Cove. And the loser can be our... guest for the afternoon and learn his lesson the hard way," he concluded, to appreciative hoots from Tom and Frank. "Unless, of course, you can pay your way free," he said, his eyes traveling over Digby's expensive coat and boots. "Fletchlys are always forgiving when there's a coin or two involved."

Tom had nudged the snake sack with his toe, so the hissing rose to a fever pitch. Oliver had closed his eyes, taken a deep breath to steady himself, and mentally catalogued everything on his person to see if he might have anything with which to buy his freedom. And then suddenly realized... "I'll take the snake."

"What?" Four pairs of eyes had turned to him in surprise.

Oliver had shrugged and smiled widely. "I don't have any money. I'll put my hand in the sack."

Digby's eyes had popped wide. "Do you see? Lunatics! Perhaps mother is right! Maybe every one of them is crazy. I... I'll pay. I have money... in my pocket. I brought it for the cognac... I... Just... Let me go."

And as soon as they'd taken his money, he'd run away faster than Oliver had thought possible.

Jamie had appraised Oliver shrewdly. "So, you'll put your hand in the sack, will you?"


Jamie had sighed, deflated, and dropped his hands to his hips. Then grinned suddenly. "How'd ye know?"

And Oliver had grinned in reply. "The hissing. Adders hardly ever hiss like that. What you've got there is a natrix natrix. Common water snake."

Jamie had shaken his head, still grinning, and Tom had hooted, "You're right! And it's going to end up in my little sister's bed!"

"Alright then, young Ollie. Off with you," Jamie had said, as he and his family had walked on toward the Cove.

And Oliver... he'd been curiously disappointed to be dismissed, and no longer interested in listening to the birds.

But then... "Ollie!" Tom had called. "The lads at the Cove will never believe it. Will you come on with us and tell 'em about the snake?"

And Ollie had smiled and hurried to catch up. And had spent the rest of that glorious summer, and the next, and the next, running tame along the Cove with the Fletchlys and their gang of smugglers... er, merchants. And had added to his knowledge of human nature by learning what it meant to be included and liked and trusted.

In the end, he had let Tom down, betrayed that trust... and Tom had...Tom had....

The popping of the logs in the grate called him back to the present time and place. He inhaled sharply and set the brandy snifter on the rosewood sidetable with a decisive click, filled with a sudden rage and grief that shivered through him till he howled with the pain of it. Tom Fletchly was dead, and Oliver would make damn certain that Tom's killer was brought to justice, no matter how much the brown-eyed chit tempted him. After all, he thought wryly, had great experience controlling his... animal instincts.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Part the Sixth: Containing Entirely Too Little Digby (i.e., none at all.)

Hortense wasn't experienced at soundless reconnaissance, but she flattered herself she was doing reasonably well. Of course, this... skulking (surely there must be a more dashing word for it?) took all of her concentration, causing her to move slowly. The man from the castle had quite disappeared by the time she flitted across the street and into the copse.

Disappointed, she decided to press on and see if she could spot him around the back of the inn. There were a few fits and starts, and an appallingly intimate encounter with an all-too-excitable ground squirrel, but Hortense soon found herself ensconced behind a gratifyingly leafy bush that boasted a clear view of the kitchen garden.

As she paused to catch her breath and untangle some rather forward twigs from her hair, she surveyed the scene before her. Spring's sunshine highlighted pale green sprouts, chickens clucked, and a bird sang cheerily nearby... everything was disappointingly pastoral. No intrigue in sight. Somewhat crestfallen, it occurred to Hortense that she may have been mistaken. Papa always did tease her about needing spectacles - maybe she had imagined the whole thing.

As the bird suddenly took flight, Hortense heard somewhat muffled angry voice approaching. The back door of the inn flew open "- And you'll fetch me them eggs with none of yer mewling, you bird-witted girl! Do I has to do everything around here?" A maid of all work was shoved out the door, and scrambled over to the chicken pen as the owner of the angry voice continued to stand at the door and heap abuse on her head. From the content of the diatribe, Hortense divined that the voice must belong to the Marie that Mrs. Pomfret thought "could've done a lot better" than Tom Forkley. Apparently Marie felt the same way, because a large part of her monologue consisted of bitter invective directed against the "cow-handed provincials" and how things were different in The City. The cowed maid hustled back into the inn with her eggs, and the door closed behind them, depriving Hortense of hearing the end of a potentially interesting sentence about "ale-drapers who choose to set up in the back of beyond".

Busily committing a few of the more choice phrases to memory, Hortense straightened and turned to leave. She took only one step before slamming into a hard, warm surface. Dazed, she stumbled backwards. Strong hands caught her and set her firmly on her feet. "Learn anything interesting, Madam?"

Hortense raised her eyes to meet an accusatory forest green glare. Her heart began beating faster, and her breath came unaccountably short. "I do not care for your tone, Sir."

"I don't care what you think of my tone. What are you doing crashing about in the underbrush, watching people? And who the devil are you, anyhow?"

Hortense stiffened. She may have been caught in the teensiest bit of a compromising situation, but No One was to speak to her that way. "I am a lady. You may be unfamiliar with decent manners, but it is considered extremely rude to swear at a person when you've never even been formally introduced. I will excuse your immoderate behavior on the grounds of ignorance, and I will bid you good day, sir."

He moved to block her exit. Pity, that. She had almost managed a credible haughty swish. "I hardly think a muddy eavesdropper with leaves in her hair is in the best position to lecture me about manners. A trespasser, too - weren't you traipsing on my land yesterday? Your name and your business here, madam."

Hortense fumed. Really, it was enough to make a girl speak in capital letters. "I was certainly not eavesdropping OR trespassing. I am exploring and Soaking in the Bucolic Vistas of the Countryside. My cousin is very interested in Natural Beauty, and wished to make a Study of the Landscape. We had no idea yesterday that we had ventured off our property in our harmless woodside ramble."

He caught her arm as she attempted to brush by him once again. "Come now, madam, that's doing it a bit too brown, don't you think? A packed earth chicken coop is hardly a fount of poetic inspiration. And yesterday, the sight of Radulf Castle didn't serve as a hint that you were on someone else's front lawn?"

Hortense felt unaccountably warm, and strangely aware of the feel of his hand on her arm. She stared pointed the hand until he released her. That was better. She took a deep breath, looked up and fixed him with her most Formidable Stare. "Sir, I do not have to suffer your impertinent questions. I would hate to have to mention your ill-bred conduct to the vicar and to the ladies of the neighborhood. I am quite finished with this improper conversation. Good day, sir."

This time he made no motion to stop her as she left. Good. The Formidable Stare had always worked wonders on the local butcher, as well. Papa had always affectionately said that there was no tradesman that his girl couldn't whip into shape. As she hurried back across the street to the vicarage, she snuck a quick look back. He still stood there, eyes narrowed, studying her. She quickly averted her eyes forward, and tried not to feel as though the weight of his stare was a physical sensation of warmth on her back.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A tale of bustles and kilts.

So, last night I stayed up way-the-hell late reading Lady Isabella's Scandalous Marriage by Jennifer Ashley... and that "staying up late" bit says quite a lot, actually, because I had a hella busy day yesterday involving a pre-school Christmas show and present wrapping and bread baking and preparing a roast chicken dinner for my morning-sick friend's entire family. I digress. Suffice it to say that I wasn't in the mood to stay up late at all, believe me... but I couldn't put the book down.

1. The heroine was great -- relatable, with genuine-seeming motivations. She was also sexually aware, which makes a pleasant change from all the innocent flowers I've been reading about. ("Oh, my stars. You're so... large! Are you quite sure it will fit?" gets old after a while.)
2. Which reminds me that the dialogue was also great. Parts were quite witty.
3. The cast of characters (the hero is one of 4 brothers, and I'm guessing each one's getting his own book if he hasn't already) were fairly diverse... way beyond the diversity you've come to expect when you hear the phrase "The hero is one of 4 brothers." I mean, the eldest brother is the silent, withdrawn hard-ass. And there is the horse-mad middle brother. And yes the brother in this book is the wild and carefree artist... Damn it! Fine. There's exactly as much diversity as you've come to expect when you hear the phrase "The hero is one of 4 brothers," except that the 4th brother seems to be autistic to some degree (takes phrases literally, has trouble with touching and direct eye contact, is brilliant but unable to understand or display emotions, etc.) And that's new. (Apparently, a glittery hooha can cure all manner of ills.)
4. Which reminds me, I liked that the hero and heroine had to deal with serious emotional hurdles, like alcoholism and miscarriage.
5. They also have to deal with completely preposterous hurdles, like a psychotic artist-doppelganger who tries to "steal" the hero's life. Doppelgangers are fun! Whee!
6. Have I mentioned the kilts?

1. The hero! I'm so, so sorry to say this because I was predisposed to like him. (See: kilts, above. Also, he's the artistic brother with the long hair and the reputation. *ahem* ) But this is one of those books that starts in the middle of the marriage, where we see how the gal and guy have screwed shit up, and how they've Changed and become Better People who are ready for a Real Marriage, you know? And I just didn't get that he'd changed. I mean, he kept mulling over the fact that he'd changed, and how hard it was to change, and the turning point where he began to change... but while he's reflecting on all this, I'm thinking "Dude, don't tell me, show me." Clearly Isabella was easier to please than I am, because she seemed fine with the whole thing.  Whatevs.

2. It's hard to get busy with a bustle. This book was set in the, erm, coughgrumblecough period (Note: Wikipedia says Victorian! ) rather than the Regency Period.  Clearly I know almost nothing about that period, not even its name, so I don't know what was acceptable behavior at that time, and have only the slightest idea of what was fashionable. But when they talk about him pressing his hot, hard length against her... bustle, or his having to unfasten her skirt... and her petticoats... and the tapes that hold her bustle in place, before he can get down to business... well it takes the zing out of the whole thing for me, kinda the way that butt plugs are a total mood-killer for me in contemporary romance. Bustles: Victorians:: Butt plugs: Navy SEALS.

Put that on a T-shirt...  

 3. Loose ends are so... frustrating! Midway through, the author has the couple adopt a baby (who comes to them under verrrrry sketchy circumstances that require suspension of disbelief already). The child is kind of a loose plot device that forces the characters to physically be together more often, and also forces them to deal with a loss in their past. But about 10 minutes after introducing the baby, the author hires her a nanny and hardly talks about her again until the Epilogue. I don't know why this makes me peevish, but it does. I think because she went to all the trouble of setting up this farfetched story to introduce the baby (rather than having her fall off a convenient turnip truck in front of the house), and then absolutely didn't maximize the baby or the backstory to teach us more about the guy's character and how he's changed.

Anyway, those minor issues aside, I really enjoyed the book. Add it to your TBR piles, while I go catch up on last night's sleep.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Part the Fifth, in which Amaryllis blossoms and Hortense decides to skulk.

“Hortense, dear, please try to avoid the mud puddles when you can. You’re absolutely ruining those slippers,” Amaryllis fretted.
“It’s not as though I’m trying to step in them, Amaryllis. In fact, I’m trying to very carefully step around them. It’s just not… working out as well as one would hope,” Hortense grumbled as she slipped on a particularly slick puddle.
Truly, nothing about this day was working out as well as Hortense had hoped. How could a day that started out so well, with sunshine, clear blue skies, and the promise of all sorts of mystery and intrigue, have ended up like this? That she was out strolling with Amaryllis again was bad enough. Given the events of the previous day, she thought she deserved at least a day’s reprieve from this sort of thing. Worse yet, the easy, mile-long walk along the main village road that Amaryllis promised was actually more of a stumble down a rutted, muddy lane, thanks to the previous evening’s rain. But that was not the worst part of this venture.
“Not too much further now. Just around the next bend in the road.”
No, worst, by far the worst of all, at the end of this walk she was expected to present herself to Mrs. Dinwiddie, wife of the village vicar, and spend the remainder of the afternoon taking tea and making idle chitchat, a skill she had never had much cause or opportunity to practice in the years she lived with her father.

Hortense cast a sideways glance at Amaryllis, the epitome of beauty and femininity, and sighed. Hortense knew that her cousin had flaws... had good cause to know it, after acting as her companion for the last few months. Amaryllis could be mercurial and vain, a trifle thoughtless, often silly, and more than a little selfish. But at moments like these, Hortense wondered if she wouldn’t rather be just a bit sillier, herself, if it meant that she could also be poised and socially adept and… accepted, as her cousin was.

Amaryllis smoothed imaginary stray hairs from her forehead and adjusted the wide pink ribbons that fastened her bonnet securely under her chin.

“Amaryllis, you look perfect,” Hortense said suddenly.

Amaryllis paused and gazed at Hortense with wide, amethyst eyes. “Really? Why, thank you, cousin! I worried, you know, whether this bonnet might be considered too extravagant for a country tea. But one never knows who one might meet in the village…”

“I’m sure you’re right. And it suits you, Ammy. Really,” Hortense declared sincerely.

“Oh, Hortense!” Amaryllis beamed. “And you…” Amaryllis assessed Hortense, from her skewed bonnet and perspiring face to her mud-drenched hem and ruined slippers. “You… have quite a lovely color in your cheeks. Quite… unmistakable.”

Just then, the road curved to the right and they entered the town proper. As the vicarage came into view, Amaryllis began smoothing invisible wrinkles from her rose-colored pelisse.

“Er…” Hortense tilted her head to the side and eyed her cousin critically. “Amaryllis, is there any particular reason why you’re so concerned with your appearance?”
“Oh, you know, it’s just… important to make a good impression on Mrs. Dinwiddie and… anyone else we might meet,” Amaryllis hedged.
“Anyone el…. Oh! It’s Mr. Peppercorn, isn’t it?” Hortense realized.
“Nonsense. It’s always important for one to look one’s best… although, I do think he’s such a dashing figure, don’t you? To think of the way he rescued you yesterday!” Amaryllis gushed.
Hortense thought privately that there were other adjectives she’d use to describe Mr. Peppercorn. Harmless, perhaps. Genial. Or… generally well-intentioned.
“… and his mother is a Pembroke… her father was Viscount Langley, you know?”
Hortense definitely didn’t know. And it rather boggled her mind that Amaryllis did. As her cousin rattled off incredibly detailed information about all of Mr. Peppercorn’s nearest and dearest, obviously having spent last evening poring over De Brett’s, Hortense pondered, as she often did, what sort of deficiency in her own brain prevented her from even being able to pay attention to this sort of information, let alone recall it so minutely.
“And so his great grandfather was made a baronet, for service to the Crown… Isn’t that fascinating?” Amaryllis finished, just as they reached the front door of the vicarage.
“Fascinating,” Hortense echoed miserably, as the housekeeper ushered them inside.
They found that they were not Mrs. Dinwiddie’s only callers that morning, as the vicar’s wife was already chattering animatedly to another guest. The guest, a grim but undeniably handsome middle-aged woman, was enthroned in the middle of a large settee, and appeared to be listening to Mrs. Dinwiddie’s chatter with thinly-veiled impatience. She noticed the moment the girls entered the room, and appraised them critically with sharp black eyes. Hortense straightened her posture and checked that her ruined slippers were hidden by the hem of her gown.
Mrs. Dinwiddie belatedly sprang forward to greet them, brown curls bobbing beneath her cap. “Oh, Miss Huntington! And Miss Worthing!” she exclaimed. “Welcome, welcome! I’m so thrilled to meet you at last. Lady Aberforthe has talked of little but your upcoming visit these last few months. It’s too sad that she’s been called away just as you arrived!”
“Indeed, ma’am,” replied Amaryllis smoothly. “I was quite disappointed myself. But her dear childhood friend Ambergris Pennington (nee Bartleby? Of the Lockchester Penningtons, you know?) fell ill, and my aunt rightly felt that her place was at her friend’s bedside. We expect that she’ll return soon. And in the meantime, the village ladies have been so kind in extending us invitations.”
Mrs. Worthington colored rosily. “Nonsense, my dear. Only too pleased. Come, please, sit and… Oh! Where are my manners? May I introduce you to Lady Peppercorn? She is the foremost hostesses, and her husband one of the most respected men, in our neighborhood.”
Hortense heard her cousin inhale sharply before quickly recovering herself.
“Lady Peppercorn, my dear, may I present Miss Amaryllis Huntington and Miss Hortense Worthing?”
Amaryllis greeted Mrs. Peppercorn with shining amethyst eyes and a beaming smile, a dazzling combination. Mrs. Peppercorn blinked, then narrowed her eyes as Amaryllis took her seat.
“Good afternoon, ladies!” interrupted a cheerful voice.
“Mr. Dinwiddie!” exclaimed Mrs. Dinwiddie. “What a pleasant surprise!”
“It’s not often that I have four such lovely ladies in my own parlor, and two of them newcomers to our parish. I thought I must come and say hello,” Mr. Dinwiddie returned, smiling. The vicar, a kindly man with large sideburns and twinkling blue eyes, looked to be about forty years old. And he reminded Hortense so much of her Papa that she swallowed… hard.
“We were just discussing Lady Aberforthe’s selflessness in attending her friend’s bedside, my dear,” said Mrs. Dinwiddie, as her husband sat down and she began passing out teacups.
“Miss Huntington,” cooed Lady Peppercorn. “Your aunt’s generosity is indeed well-known. It’s often said in the neighborhood that whenever disaster, death, illness, or scandal strikes, Lady Aberforthe will be the first to arrive.”
Hortense, who had been fully consumed with the challenge of balancing her teacup on its saucer without rattling it, looked up quickly at this remark, wondering if she had imagined the double meaning. Mrs. Dinwiddie looked unconcerned, but Amaryllis looked startled and her eyes narrowed. And Mr. Dinwiddie choked on a sip of his tea, and tried to cover it with a cough.
Mr. Dinwiddie cleared his throat. “Erm… Miss Worthing. Your father was quite a scholar of ancient folklore, was he not?”
“Yes, that’s right,” agreed Hortense, glad for a change of subject.
“I knew your father slightly, back at Cambridge. He and I had quite a few friends in common. I’m something of a scholar in that field, myself. In fact, I came upon a manuscript several months back that I thought he might help me translate… but before I could inquire as to his direction, I heard that he had passed away. He was a good man, my dear. You have my deepest condolences.”
“Thank you, sir,” Hortense replied gratefully. “It was an honor to work alongside him and help him in his research right up until the end. He was always patient with me, though my Greek was abysmal!” she said, smiling at the recollection. “I learned so much.”
“Good Lud!” exclaimed Lady Peppercorn in exaggerated horror. “Do you mean to tell me that your father died just recently?”
“Indeed, ma’am,” Hortense replied in confusion. “Just over half a year ago.”
“God forbid that a daughter of mine should ever disgrace my memory in such a way! Not even dead a year, and here you are gadding about the country, and not even dressed in mourning! When my father died, I couldn’t be persuaded to leave the house for an entire year, and wore nothing but bombazine for two! I knew my duty!”
“My father insisted upon it,” Hortense explained as politely as she could. “He despised mourning rituals.”
“Indeed,” sniffed Lady Peppercorn. “One would expect no less from a man who taught his daughter Greek and encouraged her to study. He would have done far better to teach you proper manners and how not to appear at a social call dressed like a ragamuffin.”
Hortense flushed deeply. They could insult her all they liked, but they should never dare to insult her Papa. She had just opened her mouth to say something ill-advised when Amaryllis caught her eye and gave a small negative shake of her head.
“Hortense, my dear,” Amaryllis began brightly. “Don’t you think that you could help Mr. Dinwiddie with his translation? Mr. Dinwiddie, would you be so good? I fear that my cousin is quite overcome with all this talk of her dear Papa, given that her grief is quite fresh,” she continued, directing the last to Lady Peppercorn. “She could do with some air.”
Hortense rose and sent a grateful glance at her cousin, who nodded slightly in acknowledgment. She felt slightly guilty about leaving her cousin at Lady Peppercorn’s mercy. But as Mr. Dinwiddie escorted her from the room, she heard Amaryllis say “You mentioned your daughter, Lady Peppercorn. How is dear Charlotte? Her engagement was the talk of the town last May, Mrs. Dinwiddie, and I heard she made Lady Peppercorn a grandmother before Christmas. No one could accuse her of being remiss in doing her duty. I’m sure she’s a great credit to you, Lady Peppercorn.” Hortense stifled a laugh. Amaryllis was in her element.
Mr. Dinwiddie showed her to his library and carefully removed a yellowing manuscript from its calf-hide wrapping.
“Why, it’s in Aramaic!” Hortense exclaimed. “My father had just begun teaching me before… before he passed. He would have been thrilled to see this,” she breathed.
“Any assistance you could give me with it would be invaluable, Miss Worthing! I…” he trailed off as the housekeeper appeared with a note.
“Ah, Miss Worthing, I’m afraid I’ve been called away. Please, do take your time with the manuscript, or even take it away with you, if you prefer. I apologize for rushing off. Shall I escort you back to the ladies?”
Hortense demurred, asserting that she was perfectly capable of seeing herself back to the parlor, and Mr. Dinwiddie took his leave.
Hortense sat down before the yellowed parchment and began the familiar task of deciphering the ancient script, searching for patterns and familiar words. Unconsciously, her thoughts turned to the many quiet evenings she’d spent hunched over her desk at home doing just this, while her father labored over a similar task at his own desk nearby. The words blurred on the page and hot tears fell from her eyes. If only Papa were here! But she gave in to the sorrow and homesickness for only a minute before hastily drying her eyes. It wouldn’t do for one of the servants or, worse, one of the ladies, to see her weep.
She was just returning the manuscript to its protective wrapping, having decided it would be better to work in privacy, when a flash of light outside the window caught her eye. Curious, she peeked out the curtains. She found that the library window faced the front yard of the Bull and Finch, the village’s only inn and tavern (as proclaimed on the wooden sign swinging by the door). The yard was deserted at this time of day, since the noon hour had long since passed and it was not nearly time for nighttime patrons to arrive at the tavern. The flash came again, and she saw that it came from something or someone hidden in a copse of bushes to the right of the yard. As she watched, a black-caped figure emerged from the bushes and walked surreptitiously (there was no other word for it, really) towards the stable. The figure was a familiar one, though she had only seen it from quite a distance the day before. She felt a tingle of awareness as the man from the Castle turned his head towards her. She let the curtain fall quickly.
Hardly aware of what she was doing, she crept quietly out of the library and down the hall, pausing for a moment to ensure that the ladies’ voices continued uninterrupted from the parlor. Then she snuck out the side door of the vicarage, taking care to leave the door unlocked behind her, and hurried across the street.