I’m sitting hunched over Lady B’s escritoire in the south parlor, worrying the feathery end of a quill pen between my teeth, a blank sheet of paper before me.
The orchestra is tuning up in the ballroom, and Lady B is tapping her fan on the arm of her chair in impatience. But I can’t be bothered with that. The ball will have to wait today. For there is a task at hand!
Like an aviary at a tropical menagerie, my sister authoresses of the Ballroom, all dressed for today’s ball, are a rainbow of silk and lace adorning comfortable seats across the parlor. They’re waiting quite patiently, and I feel a wild surge of grateful affection for them.
So, I suppose you’re wondering why I gathered you all here today.
Lady B: Undoubtedly, Miss Ashe.
Well, you see… (I clear my throat) I am currently embarking upon that most sacred and frequently unnerving project: Inventing My Next Hero.
Miranda: You poor dear.
I know! It’s always the best and worst part of beginning a new book. I simply adore creating the delectably perfect man for a heroine. But we all know what can happen if things go unexpectedly…
I peer around the room at them, hoping someone will pick up this cue.
No one will look at me.
Lauren: (patting Sarah’s knee) Of course you don’t.
Kate: Me neither. My heroes never, ever behave in a manner I don’t anticipate.
Lady B chokes.
Sabrina: (chuckles) And I suppose Gaelen’s heroes never embark upon fisticuffs in ballrooms.
Tessa: And Miranda’s heroines never hide in broom closets.
The quill is now in shreds between my teeth.
This isn’t about heroines! At least not this time. It’s about heroes. (I take a deep breath.) My hero, to be precise. My first duke. There, I’ve said it. I’m writing a duke. And… well…
Lady B perks up.
Lady B: Well what, dear gel?
Well, I have a pretty good idea of what I want him to be like, but I’m hoping to design him so carefully that he won’t be encouraged to get out of hand when the time comes to set him loose on his heroine. As it were. Um. But you know what I mean. Anyway, I hoped you all would give me a few ideas for him. You know, sort of like a ducal brainstorming session.
They’re all grinning at me, but they nod.
Great! Okay, so here is what I can already tell you about him. He is—
Miranda: Tall, dark, and handsome.
Now why didn’t I think of that? (I give her a Look.) But yes. Very tall, with dark, thick, silken brown waves any woman would ache to run her fingers through. Oh, and strikingly beautiful green eyes that send ladies to their knees.
Lady B: Where is his estate, Miss Ashe? And are his legs acceptable?
His legs are gorgeous. Naturally. But in point of fact he hasn’t come into his title just yet. That’s to come. He’s the heir.
Lauren: Does he have a name yet?
Oh, yes! He is Lucian Andrew Rallis Westfall. Luc to his intimates.
I look around at my friends, feeling much perkier than before. I do have a hero already! I pop a chocolate biscuit into my mouth and take a sip of tea. But he needs more.
So, what else should I make of him so that he’ll be the perfect, docile fellow to fall helplessly in love with my heroine and treat her like a princess from day one?
Gaelen: You could give him some sort of noble task to perform that makes him outrageously honorable. Honor can sometimes keep a fellow in check.
Ah! Yes! Honor! (I turn back to the blank sheet and start scribbling.) He’ll have oodles of honor! And…?
Lauren: You could make that noble task a big secret that he can’t disclose.
Mm… That works. I’m rather fond of heroes with secret identities, after all. (I scribble more notes.)
Miranda: For that sort of thing he’ll need brains. He should be brilliantly educated.
You’re so right. (Dip into the ink, then back to the page, furiously writing.)
Tessa: Discipline in a man with a mission is always a good idea. What about making him a military commander?
Kate: Perhaps a naval captain?
Oh, I do like sea captains. And he did fight in the war. (I doodle a frigate in the margin.) War hero, check! Anything else come to mind, ladies? I can’t think of—
Sabrina: He should be an exceptional lover.
Easily done. (whispering to the page) Oh, Arabella is going to be so, so happy… (I push back my chair with an excited flourish of my pen.) Well, ladies, this is perfect. I’m so glad I asked you—
Lady B: Miss Ashe, Miss MacLean has not yet contributed.
Oh! Sarah, do add something!
Sarah: If he’s going to be a duke, he has to be arrogant.
Lady B: She is perfectly correct, of course.
I totally didn’t expect this. I look around at the others for confirmation.
Miranda: Arrogant as an emperor.
Lauren: Without doubt.
Sabrina: Though, justifiably so.
Kate: With all that going for him.
Tessa: And men being how they are…
You’re right. You’re right! (I flail my hand with the now useless quill.) But if he’s arrogant, he won’t be controllable!
Gaelen: Fraid not.
But then what can I do—?
An idea bursts before me like one of those big old movie star photo flashes.
Lady B: Miss Ashe, why on earth are you grinning like my great-aunt Hortense when she hired a handsome new footman?
Oh, don’t mind me, my lady. But you know, I think I’ve just come up with an excellent plan for keeping my duke-to-be in check until he meets his heroine. At that point I’ll leave it to her, of course. But before they become acquainted, all I need to do to control him is…
The ladies lean forward in their chairs. I smile innocently.
I will take him down a peg. Of course!
You know my penchant for tortured heroes? Well here’s your chance to do the torturing! What shall it be? How will I make this heroic, powerful Adonis suffer? Be imaginative. He has to be positively tormented by the time my heroine appears to steal — and perhaps even heal — his noble heart.