When Dani from Ramblings from This Chick assigned me my topic for her annual historical writers’ event, I admit I was a little hesitant. Most of my stories are humorous historicals, with no bloodshed involved. Dueling pistols? Swords? Fruitcake at fifty paces? I hope you’ll like the weapon I chose.
This original scene stars three old friends, and the young woman they all love. Enjoy! And have the happiest of holidays!
December 24, 1820
The Long Gallery was pitch-dark, but that wasn’t going to stop him. One way or another, Antony Howe was going to win.
Once, Bastian had been his best friend. They had been sent down from Oxford together and enjoyed all the prerequisites of young bucks on the town. They were carefree. Convivial. Unencumbered by the constraints of society.
Tony’s aim was as good as the next man’s—he’d been practicing since his school days. With a sufficient brace of candles to illuminate the room and his acute eyesight, he was prepared to target his enemy and vanquish him here tonight.
There would be a mess, of course, but that’s what servants were for.
He supposed his rage wasn’t appropriate for the Christmas season, but he was sick of Bastian and all he stood for now. He’d been a boon companion, but since he’d inherited, a stick was rammed so firmly up his—
Well, he shouldn’t be vulgar. Lily didn’t like it. But there was no question the man needed a comeuppance, and Tony was just the man to give it to him.
And then, Lily would be his, even if he had to flee the country with her.
Lord Sebastian Markham took his duty to his family seriously. Now that he was a newly-minted viscount, his sister Lily’s future and well-being were entrusted to his care. To think that Tony, idiot Tony, thought he deserved to even kiss his baby sister’s fingertips was an abomination. Bastian had known Tony since they were both in leading-strings, and he wouldn’t give the kitchen cat to him. He was fine as a friend, someone to go out drinking and gambling and whoring with, but as a brother-in-law?
Absolutely, positively not.
And anyway, the drinking and the gambling and the whoring had come to a complete stop. The Markham estate was in tatters, and if it hadn’t been for Charlie Wentworth’s sage advice, Bastian might be in the Fleet right now.
“Do you have the weapons?” Bastian asked his valet.
The man nodded. “Are you quite sure you want to do this, my lord? It’s Christmas Eve.”
“No matter what day or night it is, it must be done.”
“Couldn’t you just ask Mr. Howe to leave?”
“That would be too simple. I want him wounded. Neutralized. The cheek of him to offer for Lily!”
“Indeed, my lord. Whatever you say, my lord,” the valet said, crossing his fingers behind his back.
Five minutes later, a rap at the door interrupted Lily’s nightly hairbrushing. She was proud of her hair, a spun-gold mass that seemed to fascinate a certain gentleman. Lily smiled, thinking of that man.
He was…perfect. She’d known him forever, but he’d never been more than brotherly toward her until her come-out last spring. And then, so slowly, so casually, he’d made her fall in love with him.
It wasn’t because he was the handsomest of Bastian’s friends, for he wasn’t. But he was steady and solid and Lily knew she’d never have to worry again. There had been a lot of worrying, what with their grandfather and guardian dying this summer and poor Bastian inheriting. The estate had been left in a bit of a mess, though Bastian told her things were improving.
Thanks to Lily’s gentleman. And when that gentleman looked at her, really looked at her with his smoldering dark eyes, Lily’s stomach did a little flip and something odd happened to her insides.
Bastian’s valet stood in the doorway, blushing and averting his face from Lily’s unbound hair and frilly dressing gown.
“I think you should come to the Long Gallery, Miss Lily,” he said to the lamp. “Your brother and Mr. Howe are about to fight a duel, and I think under the conditions—”
“What?” Lily shrieked. She dropped her hairbrush and ran barefoot down the stairs, barreling straight into Charlie on the landing. Mr. Charles Christopher John Wentworth, heir to the Marquess of Rushton. She’d written his name forty-seven times in her diary tonight until her hand cramped. He stopped her from toppling over the banister and held her for perhaps a moment too long.
“Lily, my dear, what is wrong?”
“It’s Bastian and Tony,” she said breathlessly. “They’re going to kill each other!”
“But they’re dueling!”
His lips quirked. “Are they?”
She pounded a small fist on his chest. Under ordinary circumstances, she liked looking at his smiling mouth very much. Liked kissing it too, although Charlie had been too honorable and somewhat stingy with his kisses, treating her as if she was made out of fine china.
She wasn’t. And she was looking forward to proving that on her wedding night.
“How can you think this amusing, Charlie? Oh, what if we’re too late? It’s Christmas! They can’t kill each other at Christmas—it will ruin the holiday for everyone.”
“Horrors. No fruitcake or figgy pudding. Nothing but funeral meats. We will stop them, never fear. I knew I should have spoken to Bastian first.”
Lily shook her head. “I’m not some mare to be negotiated over at Tattersall’s. I’m glad you spoke to me first!” She was the one to be married, after all. Lily touched the diamond ring which hung on a silver chain around her neck. Charlie had given it to her this afternoon beneath the mistletoe.
The engagement was secret, only until Charlie had the chance to make his case to her brother tomorrow after church and before Christmas lunch. Bastian couldn’t possibly refuse. Charlie was…perfect.
“Where is this duel?”
“The Long Gallery.” She wrenched herself out of Charlie’s arms and dashed down a dim hallway, Charlie right behind her.
They entered the middle of the room which was ablaze with candelabrum and lit sconces. Centuries of Markhams looked gloomily on the proceedings from the walls. Standing at one end was Bastian, wearing a fierce scowl aimed at his oldest friend Tony Howe. Tony glared back, until he caught sight of Lily.
“Charlie, this is no place for a young lady. Take her away,” he growled.
Bastian turned. “Lily! What are you doing here?”
“I live here. And I’ve come to stop you from making fools of yourselves.”
“Too late,” Charlie murmured. “I see you boys are up to your old tricks. What are the stakes?”
Lily gasped. “They’ve done this before?”
“Oh, yes. I have, too.” Charlie walked over, picked up a roll from the basket by Bastian’s feet and lobbed it across the room. Tony ducked, and the roll splattered against the fireplace screen, showering crumbs on the floor.
“What are you doing?” Lily cried.
“Dueling with dinner rolls. Doesn’t everybody?”
“R-rolls?” Lily stuttered. They were throwing bread at one another? She’d nearly had an apoplexy running down here thinking she’d find bloodied and broken bodies on the carpet.
“Did you think they’d use pistols, my love? Even they are not such half-wits.”
Bastian bristled. “I’ll have you know…wait a second. What is this ‘my love’ business?”
“Your sister agreed to make me the happiest of men today, Bastian. Forgive me for not asking your permission.”
“You want to marry Lily?” Tony sounded dumbfounded.
“It’s not as if I am such an ugly old crone, Tony,” Lily snapped. “Some people appreciate me.” Tony had behaved very oddly lately, tripping over his feet and tongue every time she was in a room with him, as if she was a two-headed stranger.
“You had better not have ‘appreciated’ her too much, Wentworth,” her brother said, arming himself with a roll.
“Don’t be silly. Charlie has been a perfect gentleman. Just…perfect.”
“Aargh.” Tony collapsed on a chair, his hands over his ears.
“Sorry, old friend,” Charlie shouted. He must be hoping to break through the barrier. But why he should be sorry was a mystery to Lily. He hadn’t come close to hitting Tony with that roll.
She took one from the basket and contemplated throwing it at one of the young men who had caused her such consternation of Christmas Eve, a night of peace and joy. Instead, she took a bite, wishing she had some butter. She’d been much too excited to taste anything tonight at dinner.
Charlie loved her! It was the best Christmas present in the world.
All around the world! More news in the foreign rights department–the whole Ladies Unlaced series will be translated into French. I wrote an article for Love Letter magazine’s September issue, when A Scandal in Scotland, AKA In the Heart of the Highlander, releases in Germany.
And here is the lovely Portuguese cover of In the Arms of the Heiress:
Now, what’s going on with me in Maine? Plugging away on a new series. Polishing up a Christmas novella. Living it up on the lake. Feeling fortunate!
For the past few years, I’ve been asked to participate with other historical romance authors in Ramblings from this Chick’s countdown to Christmas. Here’s my 2014 effort. Happiest of holidays!
Caught in a Compromising Position on New Year’s Eve-Maggie Robinson
London, December 24, 1904
How could anyone leave their Christmas shopping until the very last minute?
Of course, Felicity had no one to shop for—she had been orphaned so long ago she had nearly forgotten her parents’ faces. But she was sure if she did have a family she would have organized matters long before December 24th.
She checked the timepiece pinned to her austere black dress. Four minutes to closing time, and this treacherously handsome lord was stomping around Dickins and Jones as if he owned the place.
Time and money were no object to him, apparently. He had a fortune so substantial that Mr. Parmenter had assigned her to follow the viscount about and give him personalized service.
So far, every suggestion she had made had been dismissed out of hand. Lord Fordham had rejected cosmetics and perfume as being much too risqué for his sister, who was old-fashioned enough to believe that clean soap and a drop of vanilla behind the ears was all a lady ever needed. Gloves were “dead boring” and “showed no imagination,” and anyway the woman had two drawers full of them. Miss Fordham was particular about hats and was boycotting the feather industry as it cruelly stole mother birds from their chicks just to make women look like they had an aviary on their heads. Even when Felicity modeled a completely unobjectionable hat covered in pink velvet roses without one hint of egret, Lord Fordham had stared hard but shook his head.
So in desperation, she wound a pale peach Venetian lace scarf around her throat and tried to look as fetching as possible. “What about this, my lord?” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her fellow shopgirls locking their cases and making for the iron staircase so they could sign out. Mr. Parmenter was near the elevators pointing to his wrist, as if Felicity wasn’t aware that any minute the Dickins and Jones chimes would ring and the doorman would pull the gates across the mahogany doors.
He squinted down at her. After an hour of acquaintance, Felicity suspected his vision was not all it should be.
Well, that was promising! Perhaps he could be got rid of after all. “Hm” wasn’t a no, as everything else had been. His sister must be very difficult to please, and it was obvious Lord Fordham was a good brother.
Mr. Parmenter had glided up beside them without Felicity even realizing. It was very disconcerting, and made him a superior if scary floor manager.
“I trust you are taking good care of Lord Fordham?”
“Yes, Mr. Parmenter. I’m doing my best.”
“Good. Then you won’t mind staying late until he’s made his selection.” He turned to the vexatious viscount, who was bent over the counter fingering a silk scarf. “Take all the time you need, my lord. Miss Raymond can see you out the employees’ door, if you don’t mind. I’ll let the night porter know to leave it unlatched on the inside. And don’t forget to giftwrap the item, Miss Raymond.”
At least the store was partially illuminated all night; Felicity wouldn’t be expected to turn off the lights. But to be left alone in the vast store with indecisive Lord Fordham and the most-likely drunken porter? It was not right, and Felicity had to bite back the mulish words she wanted to say.
The melodious chimes signaled the time—eight o’clock. The store had stayed open an extra hour on Christmas Eve for procrastinating people such as this customer, curse him.
Though it wasn’t as if Felicity had anyone to go home to, not even a cat. She lived in the Dickins and Jones dormitory a few blocks away. But its door would be locked by nine, Christmas Eve or no.
“I suppose you think I’m an awful nuisance,” Lord Fordham said when they were finally alone.
“Not at all, my lord,” Felicity lied. He was far too handsome to be a nuisance to anything but her foolish heart. It wasn’t every day that she brushed elbows with gorgeous viscounts, but she did wish he’d make up his mind. She’d been rushed off her feet for the past twelve hours, and was looking forward to a solitary cup of tea.
“I know I’ve been a pest. My sister is an invalid. She doesn’t go out much, so it’s hard to find the perfect present. She has the requisite china menagerie and embroidered handkerchiefs. Books to the ceiling. That scarf is nice, though.”
“It’s very light, but it would keep her warm.” Impulsively, Felicity threw it around Lord Fordham’s neck.
And that was her mistake. One spiderwebby end snagged against her watch, the other around his coat button.
“Drat! Do forgive me.”
He grinned down at her. “This isn’t my color at all, you know. Let me see if I can disentangle us.”
Lord Fordham’s hands were large but not clumsy. However, the lace was unforgiving, and the scarf remained stuck between them.
“I may have to tear it.”
Oh, God. The cost—and it was exorbitant—would come out of Felicity’s paychecks. Months of them.
She’d be fired, or starve. She bit a lip to stop from crying. It didn’t work.
“What’s this? Tears?” Bryant’s face was so close he could see the salesgirl’s large brown eyes water. He’d been in such a hurry he’d left his spectacles at home, idiot that he was, which had made shopping next to impossible. Everything had been a blur until now.
Miss Raymond was clear as day. She’d been extremely patient and kind with his blundering about the store. Now he realized she was extremely pretty as well. Her golden hair was tamed into a washer-woman bun, her skin was rosy, and her neat figure was close enough to touch. She smelled of starch and roses, an enticing combination that hitherto had not occurred to him.
He cupped her cheek. It was soft. Very soft. “Please don’t cry. I can take off my topcoat.”
“The scarf will rip. I’ll take off my watch first.”
Her fingers shook too much to do it.
“Allow me.” The watch was perilously anchored over her left breast. Bryant bet it was soft, too, the breast, not the watch. Good Lord, he was snagged as well. There was no way he could unpin it without—
He was a beast. But a beast ensnared by beauty.
It was that oily little man again.
“What is the meaning of this?”
Miss Raymond’s eyelashes batted like trapped butterflies. They were edged in gold and quite long. “I—he—”
“I thought you went home.” Bryant glared at him, unable to see the “viscount with umbrage” effect—if there was any—on the unctuous store manager’s face. He shoved both guilty hands in his pocket—his fingers were trembling too.
Bryant was…tempted. He had been so busy lately there had been no time for women. Except for his sister Marjorie, and that was an entirely different thing. Wouldn’t she laugh to see him in this predicament?
“So I see. Miss Raymond, I am very disappointed. Shocked. Disgusted. I had such high hopes for you. You are, of course, dismissed. I will expect you to clear your things from the Dickins and Jones lodgings at once.”
Miss Raymond swayed, and Bryant caught her. “This isn’t what it looks like, you officious twit! Miss Raymond was only demonstrating—oh, never mind.” He turned to the girl, who had lost every bit of rosiness and whose tears were flowing freely now. “Come home with me. It’s Christmas Eve, and my sister would love the company. This is all my fault. We’ll see about getting you another job.”
“I c-couldn’t possibly.”
“Of course you can. We’ll pick up your things and my driver will take us home. The poor fellow is out there in the cold. Everyone deserves someplace warm on this night of all nights.”
“At once!” the officious twit shrilled. “And where are you going with that scarf?”
Bryant reached into his pocket and threw a fistful of pound notes in Mr. Parmenter’s direction. “Merry Christmas! Now, Miss Raymond, are you ready to begin the New Year a little early?”
She blinked up at him, a tremulous smile on her face. She had lovely lips. Kissable lips. Bryant didn’t think too long before he brushed his across hers, causing the officious twit to shriek.
“Yes, my sister will love your company,” Bryant said softly. So would he. Maybe Miss Raymond and her scarf were just what they all needed for Christmas.