It’s a quiet Saturday at Lady B’s house today. Everybody’s off packing, getting ready to go to California for the Romance Writers of America national conference. Everyone, that is, except Gaelen and me. Gaelen’s probably somewhere having tea with juvenile pickpockets, or perhaps patching up Monty’s poor battered face (being well accustomed to heroic fisticuffs, as she is).
As for me, I’m enjoying a lovely cup of tea in the library and reading up on English and European royalty in the 18th and 19th centuries for the book I’m currently writing. Albert is perched on the arm of his favorite leather upholstered and brass-studded chair, preening but mostly avoiding Harold. The house is nearly empty, but I’ve locked the door anyway. I have so few really peaceful opportunities to read these days, and I don’t want a single soul to disturb me from my research, especially since this research is so much fun! You wouldn’t believe the trials that royal princes and princesses had to put up with in those days. Or the scandals they created when they broke the rules.
For instance, take Princess Caroline of Brunswick (who plays a tiny part in How a Lady Weds a Rogue). Married to the infamous Prinny—George, the Prince of Wales, who was already illegally married to another woman—Caroline had to endure social ostracism and isolation and the death of her only child, not to mention horridly degrading insults to her virtue, intelligence, and suitability for the crown, and she was investigated not only once but twice for adultery and ultimately exiled—
<squawk!> Intruder! <squawk!>
Wait. Didn’t I say I locked the library door? My book slips from my hands as I swing around to the window. Outside it’s a typical London grey-sky summer day, and I can see very clearly the silhouette of a woman as she stands before the window. She has lots of long thick hair and she’s a bit petite, and it looks like she’s wearing some sort of full-sleeved blouse and a longish skirt.
“Oh! Is someone here?”
She has a pretty voice for a thief, I’ll give her that, a sweet, soft southern accent.
“I am,” I reply calmly because I’m an author and odd things like strangers appearing suddenly in locked rooms happens to characters in my books all the time. Or maybe not. But they could if I wanted them to. (Oh, the power!) “I’m Katharine. And who, may I ask, are you?”
She moves away from the backlighting of the window with a jingle of tiny bells on the hem of her skirt that sound oddly familiar to me and I catch a glimpse of her face. Then there’s another stupendous crash and she knocks over a piecrust table with a lamp atop it.
“Ouch! Holy cra—!”
“Crab soufflé! Holy crab soufflé!” I cut a quick glance at Albert. No sense in teaching him unsuitable modernisms, after all. Because I know what she was about to exclaim. I know it because…
“Hi, Katharine. It’s nice to meet you. I’m really sorry to barge in on you like this. My name is Zoe Am—”
“Zoe Ambrose. Yes, I know.”
She comes closer, accidentally swiping a priceless crystal vase full of flowers with her sleeve. I dive over the sofa for it. “Got it! I got it.”
<squawk!> Holy crab soufflé! <squawk!>
“Sorry! Sorry.” Zoe’s nose crinkles up. “How do you know my name?”
I set the vase carefully on the floor and wipe spilled water on my skirts. “I know your name because I recognize you. There’s only one Zoe Ambrose—” I gesture to her “—and I’ve read everything ever written about you at least four times.”
“Written about me? But I’m the writer.”
“So am I. And so is…” A glance at Albert stills my tongue. The characters in novels by The Ballroom’s authoresses aren’t typically perturbed when we remind them that we’ve created them. They’re historical, after all. Or something. Anyway, Zoe isn’t. She’s dressed like she just stepped out of a 1980’s retro convention, but she’s a 21st-century woman, and an author in her own right. But she is also most definitely a character in a romance novel by debut author Marquita Valentine, who happens to be my good friend and my beta reading partner.
Wait. A character in a contemporary romance novel is in Lady B’s house???
Now it’s my nose’s turn to crinkle.
“Zoe, what are you doing here?”
“I left my notebook in here.”
“You left your notebook in here?” I may be staring blankly. I’m a tad freaked out. She is modern, but she’s a character. Modern but a character. This is a little hard to process. I have no problem with dukes and earls and duke-vampires and ships and toucans and what-have-you in the Ballroom. But… “You were here before?”
“I was doing research for my latest Katrina Steele novel…” She looks around the room then starts walking here and there, pushing aside cushions and peering under furniture, banging into things as she goes.
“What – uh!” I grab a gilt-framed portrait of Prinny before it tumbles into the fireplace. “What kind of research?”
“I was researching English great houses. In my next book Katrina has to go to England to chase Dimitri—”
“The uber hot villain in your Katrina Steele series, who is actually modeled on the uber hot Hollywood playboy Christian Romanov who broke your heart four years ago but you can’t forget.”
Zoe swings around abruptly, catches her heel on the edge of the thick Aubussen rug Lady B just had laid in here, and lands on her bottom. “What did you just say?”
“Zoe, I love Christian too.” I can’t help smiling.
“What do you mean ‘too’? I don’t love him!” Her face goes completely red. “He’s a major a—” Her gaze darts to Albert then back at me. “—donkey hat! And only— Wait! You know him?”
“Yes. No!” I hurry to explain. “Not the way you do! I mean…” Oh no. How am I going to get myself out of this? “I mean, he’s a big Hollywood star, you know, America’s own kind of royalty, and I may have heard about how he and you… That is…” There is no way to fix this. “But wait! That’s beside the point.” A diversion tactic! “You were doing research into English great houses and you ended up here in this library in London? How on earth?”
“I don’t know. One minute I was in the library at Chatsworth—”
“Chatsworth? Home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire???”
“Yes! Chatsworth! I read about how beautiful it was and I wanted to use it as a setting for Katrina to meet Dimitri, probably in the vast gardens—”
“Gardens being wonderful for all sorts of dalliances…”
“Like sneaking away at a masked ball.” She stares dreamily off into space, a secret smile curving her lips. “Just the two of you talking and kiss—”
“You snuck away at a ball, hmm?” I cross my arms and nod knowingly. I’ve seen this before, after all.
“Yes, I mean no… er… maybe?” Her shoulders rise, her hands fluttering in the air like Albert’s wings when he’s had too many lobster patties. “Would you believe it was research?”
“Usually, yes.” I arch a brow (something I learned from the heroes we’ve had in this house). “Except that I can’t quite recall a scene like that in any of your books.”
“Ah, that was research for a future novel! I’m a plotter. Anyway, one minute I was in the library at Chatsworth admiring the original Hans Holbein portrait of Henry VIII, then the next minute I found myself here, in this library.”
“Amazing.” I’m actually amazed. I knew Lady B’s house was sort of magical, but this…?
“I know! I was so startled I dropped my notebook. The one that I jot down notes in for my stories when I don’t have my laptop.”
She crosses her arms over her chest. She’s still sitting on the floor, so she doesn’t look very tough. But I know Zoe. Any woman who can reform a truly rakish fellow like the European aristocratic Hollywood playboy Christian Romanov has to be tough in all the right places. “Then I said, ‘Oh, is someone here?’ and you said, ‘I am.’ And now here we are.”
<squawk!> Found it! <squawk!> Albert pokes his beak behind a chair and comes up with a small notebook. He hops over to Zoe on the floor.
“Oh, you sweet, sweet thing! Thank you!” She smiles beautifully and strokes his feathers and I swear to you the bird purrs. I did not know parrots purred.
“Well.” I take a big breath. “I’m glad you—”
And then she’s gone.
Vanished. Before my eyes. The library is again completely empty except for me and Albert.
<squawk!> Holy crab soufflé!
“Holy crab soufflé is right, Albert.” A little dizzy, I plop down in the comfy chair and take a fortifying sip of tea. But now I’m thinking about Zoe… and how she manages to reform the most rakish of bad boys in Marquita’s Twice Tempted…
I remember I’m here in the library to do research into European royalty. But Christian Romanov fits that description, albeit about 200 years after the time period I’m supposed to be researching. And, like I said, aren’t movie stars our own kind of royalty in the U.S.? I glance at the thick history tome on royalty that I was happily reading earlier. Then, with a guiltless little shrug, I reach for my e-reader and call up Twice Tempted.
For the next few hours, at least, the bad boys of history will just have to wait their turn.
What makes bad-boy heroes so delectably delicious that we can’t resist them? One randomly drawn commenter will win a copy of Marquita Valentine’s debut contemporary romance, Twice Tempted (e-book only!).