I figure this is a perfect topic for Saturday, since Lady B is otherwise occupied and we don’t have to make any explanations of what, exactly, a television is or how it works (because honestly, now that they’re all flatscreens and we’ve done away with the cathode ray tube, I’m not sure I could even explain it! Modern mysteries, hmmm).
Anyhow, it’s that time of year when the new fall season of TV launches, so I’m curious to know what shows our Ballroom guests are anticipating!
As for me, my favorite show — and the 21st season launches tomorrow — is always The Amazing Race. This season seems particularly made for me, because the teams include…drumroll, please…a team of goat farmers and a team of Chippendales. All that, plus Phil Keoghan and beautiful scenery from around the world? It’s TV heaven.
Jaymes and James from TAR21. I really hope they plan to race in those bow ties all season long.
I would also like to congratulate myself on planning a trip to England in October, because guess what I will get to see months before all my North American friends? Two episodes of Downton Abbey season 3, that’s what! All that Mary/Matthew, Shirley Maclaine Vs. Dowager Countess goodness will be mine.
So what are you anticipating this fall TV season? Watching anything good?
Dear Ballroomies, All September long, you have come along with us on a whirlwind tour of Choose Your Own Adventure month at the Ballroom. But today, I have designed a special tour for YOU. How well do you know your Ballroom authors? Carissa Portland, the “snoop” heroine of My Scandalous Viscount, is here to make some revelations about each of us. Wherever you see a Link below, it’ll take you to the Bio or revelant page of one of the Ballroom authors. You may get more than you bargained for! Enjoy!
* * * * *
Lady B: Miss Portland! We meet at last. I was so pleased when Gaelen sought an invitation for you to my Ballroom.
Carissa Portland, heroine of My Scandalous Viscount: My lady, it’s truly an honor.
Lady B: Well, as a niece of the Earl of Denbury, I knew you’d be most suitable for our gatherings. But I must confess, the real reason I was excited you were coming is because I hear you have a penchant for gossip to match my own.
Carissa: Gossip, my lady? Me? Never! On the contrary, I am a lady of information.
Lady B: Isn’t that the same thing?
Carissa: Not at all, ma’am. It’s all a matter of intent—what one means to do with the information one learns about others. ‘Gossip’ suggests an undertone of malice, don’t you think? Whereas ‘information’ is simply… well, knowing useful things about others.
Lady B (leaning nearer): Do you know anything useful about anyone here?
Carissa(with a slight gleam in her green eyes): Maybe.
Lady B: Oh, do tell!
Carissa: Well… since you are one of the most esteemed hostesses inLondon, I suppose you have a right to know more about your regular guests.
Lady B: You know something about my authoresses?
Carissa: A bit.
Lady B: Well?? Out with it, you marvelous sly thing!
Carissa: As you wish. (She scans the Ballroom, her painted fan half covering her face. Her gaze lingers on the cluster of authoresses hanging around the ratafia.)
Carissa: I happen to know that Katharine Ashe—
Lord Beauchamp: Hullo, ladies.
Carissa(nearly jumping out of her slippers, for unbeknownst to Lady B, he has discreetly pinched her arse when he sauntered up behind them): Don’t do that!
Lady B(looking like she might swoon): Lord Beauchamp!
Beau, with a bow: So nice to see you again, Heliotrope. You are radiant tonight.
Lady B: So charming!
Carissa:Don’t believe a word he says.
Beau: So what’s going on, then?
Lady B: Miss Portland was just about to share a few on-dits about my authoresses.
Beau: Really? (With a mocking twinkle in his sky-blue eyes.) Do tell.
Lady B: You were about to say something about Katharine Ashe? She’s right over there, my lord. (She nods toward Miss Ashe, who is beaming as certain readers say how much they enjoyed the book party for her new release.)
Beau: Ah, yes, isn’t she the lady with the smart crimson spectacles? Fetching creature…
Carissa smacks him. Must you ogle every female you see?
Beau, innocently: Who, me?
Carissa (slightly jealous): As I was saying, it might interest you to know that a major revelation has been made about Miss Ashe. It was even in the papers!
Lady B: Really? Nothing too scandalous, I hope!
Carissa (whispering): She leads a double life. It’s true.
Beau: Well, well, double life… a lady after my own heart.
Carissa: If you think that’s big, you should hear what I found out about Sarah MacLean.
Lady B’s eyes grow round. Don’t torment me!
Beau: You mean the fact that her mother was a spy for MI6?
Carissa gasps and turns to him. You know?
Beau: Of course. I read her dossier. We always know our own.
Lady B: What are you talking about?
Beau: She was stationed inParis for MI6 during the 60’s. I always knew that Sarah MacLean was good people… and must admit I’ve always had a weakness for redheads.
Red-haired Carissa gives him a reluctant smile at his pointed compliment, but at the same time, is beginning to see the difficulty in being courted by a spy.
While wondering how poor Lady Sarah ever got away with anything as a youngster, having a mother for a spy, she is unsure if she, in turn, will still be able to follow her various whims and impulses if her ongoing love/hate flirtation with Viscount Beauchamp becomes more serious.
And I’m rather sure it will. (You can read Chapter One of their story at www.gaelenfoley.com if you like!)
Lady B: It’s all too delicious! Come, what else do you know about our friends?
Carissa looks around discreetly: Well, Sabrina Darby started writing her first romance novel the day after her wedding.
Beau: Blazes! Really? Why, I don’t think even I ever inspired a women to write a whole novel after a night together, maybe a sonnet…
Lady B: Perhaps, knowledgeable as you are, Miss Portland, you could explain to me what the Californian contingent of authoresses (Sabrina, Tessa, and Kate N.) mean by a particular word they often utter. I believe it’s pronounced, “Dude.”
Lady B: More like, “duuuuude.” Is it French?
Beau: I hardly think so. And, er, pardon, but what is this California of which you speak?
Lady B: I’m not entirely sure. Some region of the American wilderness, I daresay. A strange, dry country where the earth quakes, but somehow our brave Sabrina Darby, Kate Noble and Tessa Dare have all managed to settle there.
Carissa: I hear it’s also the place where they make “movies,” which explains why Tessa Dare is not only a writer, but an up-and-coming “movie director.” Her films are not to be missed. (Click here to watch one of Tessa’s blockbusters. Seriously.) For what it’s worth, I also have reason to believe that Kate Noble’s favorite movie is a famous story of a horrible marauding shark called Jaws.
Lady B: That’s it! Just like that. Miss Portland, do you have any more tidbits on our friends?
Beau: Don’t encourage her, my lady. Carissa, why are you gossiping again?
Carissa: It’s not gossip! It’s just information.
Beau arches a brow, and once more, considers training her for a spy. Very well, my dear, what else have you got, then?
Carissa: Don’t look now, but that lady over there, in the fascinator?
Beau: Yes, nice hat. I love a lady who knows how to wear a hat.
Lady B: What? A lady at Oxford? I never heard of such a thing!
Carissa: I know, it’s very shocking. And by the way, she always gets lost because she spent every Geography class secretly reading romance novels instead of paying attention to her teacher. But if you think that’s surprising, consider this. That mild-mannered gentlewoman standing next to her—
Beau (giving our friend a smoldering once-over): Lauren Willig? Lovely…
Lady B smacks him with her fan. You’re as bad as Monty! Hush, now, you rake! Let her talk!
Beau: I can’t help it. I love women. All these blondes…
And we love our blond boys, too. Here’s a couple of possible Beau’s for your consideration and viewing pleasure…
Carissa: Perhaps it’s better if I don’t go into it—
Carissa: I see, so that’s the game you’re playing? (turning to me.) You go telling our private story about Beau and me to the whole world, and we’re not supposed to say a peep about you? That is hardly fair!
Lady B (perking up): What’s this?
Carissa: Well, one time, while she was writing our book, she came to a part where she sat in front of her computer crying like a baby—
Gaelen: That will do! Carissa, you are one of my favorite heroines, but you’d better watch your step. Don’t forget, I still control the Delete key.
Carissa: You wouldn’t!
Gaelen: Try me.
Beau: I see where I get my ruthlessness from. Delete key, indeed. Come along, darling. (Taking Carissa’s hand and tucking it through the crook of his elbow) You have worked your mischief quite enough for now. Besides, I have something better for your lips to do other than repeating gossip.
Carissa: It’s not gossip. How many times do I have to explain that?!
* * * * *
Well, Ballroom friends, I hope you’ve learned something you didn’t know before about your humble authoresses. It’s all true!
And to celebrate the release of Beau and Carissa’s story, MY SCANDALOUS VISCOUNT (on sale this week!) I’m giving away a signed (but not tearstained) copy of the book by random drawing to anyone who can tell us a good piece of funny/interesting/little known gossip—I mean “Information”—that we ought to know about YOU. *g* Don’t worry, nothing too incriminating. We just want to get to know everyone better! Thanks for being with us today. xo, Gaelen
Three weeks ago I hounded my sister authoresses, Monty and Lady B (and all our attending gentlemen) into carriages in a mad rush to return to London in time for The Ball of the Season that Lady B hosts in How a Lady Weds a Rogue. Now after snow, rain, moors, sheep, a handsome highwayman, pretty unicorns, slipping togas, too much whiskey, almost pirates and handcrafted stone furniture, we’re here!
We all tumble out of the carriage into a garden and I sigh an enormous breath of relief. But then—
“Wait.” I grip Sarah’s arm. “This isn’t Lady B’s garden.”
Vauxhall Gardens in 1779 by Thomas Rowlandson
“It’s Vauxhall Gardens,” Miranda says, pronouncing it perfectly. (I never remember to pronounce it correctly. Blame eight years of French and a French-Belgian husband?)
“But we have to be in your gardens, Lady B!” I wring my hands because that’s what heroines do when they’re distressed, I suppose, and I’ve learned a lot from my heroines about things like that, which plunges me deeper into panic because it’s at Lady B’s ball that my heroine Diantha becomes truly distressed when the man she’s expecting, her hero who has already rescued her from certain danger several times, Wyn Yale, doesn’t show up because a huge Scottish assassin has been threatening him and she— Ack! “That is to say, we have to be at your house, Lady B! Now!”
“Well, I don’t know,” says Sabrina. “There are quite a lot of nice hedges and dark corners here.”
“And any number of tasty— er— that is to say, handsome gentlemen wandering around,” Tessa adds.
“And paper lanterns,” Kate says. “We considered paper lanterns for our wedding reception decorations, you know.”
“Oh, paper lanterns really are so lovely, aren’t they?” Gaelen agrees.
Sarah nods. “More importantly they’d provide just enough light for Katharine’s heroine and hero to catch glimpses of each other’s—
They all stop. (I pause for a moment to appreciate how lovely it is to write dialogue and actions for actual live people.)
I clear my throat. “All right. You ladies—and Monty—know I’m on a pretty tight schedule here. My hero and heroine are going to have make-up se— um— enjoy a much-anticipated reconciliation in Lady B’s garden momentarily and we haven’t even begun to decorate for the ball that they’re attending.” I turn to Lady B and hope my face shows sufficient desperation. “Lady B, I beg of you, may we please go home now? Finally?”
Our hostess fixes me with a serious stare. “Yes.”
I cheer! Miranda, Sarah, Sabrina, Kate, Lauren, Gaelen and Tessa cheer! Monty cheers!
And then I realize the carriage is gone.
“The carriage is gone,” Lauren confirms.
“The carriage is gone?” Kate repeats.
“The magical carriage?” Sarah sounds downright forlorn.
“How can a magical carriage just up and disappear?” Miranda is skeptical.
“Magical carriage . . .” Monty murmurs.
And then I see it. We all see it.
Sparkles. I kid you not. Fluttering all around us in silver and gold like we’re princesses in some Disney movie.
Only our ballroom guests are this magically lovely.
“Well, we did see a unicorn, after all,” Sabrina whispers as the sparkles descend upon us.
And then, quite abruptly, we are standing in the middle of the ballroom in Lady B’s Mayfair house. We’re all dressed in our prettiest ball gowns, and our hair is perfect (though Kate’s hair is always gorgeous so hers doesn’t entirely count), Monty is dashing in ball attire, Albert has a diamond stud tucked in his feathers, and we’re all a little dazed.
But I don’t have time to be dazed. The ballroom is bare—no decorations, no refreshments, no musicians, nada! This, however, does not phase me. I am Ballroom authoress! Hear me roar!
“Ladies and gentleman?” I clap my hands. I’m excited. This is it! We’re back, we’re here, and all we need to do to ready the place for the ball in How a Lady Weds a Rogue is right here in my head. “Let’s get started!”
What do you always do to prepare for a very special party? One commenter today will win a signed copy of How a Lady Weds a Rogue (available tomorrow)!
English breakfasts are famous – for high fat and calorie content and sheer quantities of food. Think of a country house in a BBC classic production: a sideboard groaning with porridge, eggs, bacon, kippers, friend bread, kidneys, grilled mushrooms and tomatoes, etc. And lots of toast with – what else – marmalade. The orange preserve is inextricably associated with the traditional British breakfast. My own father, who has moved on from bacon and eggs to a healthier yoghurt and granola, wouldn’t dream of missing his toast and marmalade. In fact he travels with a jar of it in case he winds up in some uncivilized part of the globe where it isn’t readily available.
When did marmalade, which is made from fruits not exactly native to the local climate, become a British institution? To talk about the history of the preserve I invited Elizabeth Field to join us. Her new book Marmalade: Sweet and Savory Spreads for a Sophisticated Taste was published this month. It’s a beautiful volume, with a wealth of history and anecdotes as well as recipes and photographs that make me hungry enough to cook.
How did you become interested in marmalade?
I became interested in marmalade as an adult; I never liked it as a child. In the late ’90s I did a newspaper article on a local (Columbia County, upstate NY) male marmalade maker. It was a frigid January day, and went I walked into his kitchen the bright luscious aroma of oranges, and the sight of amber jars of marmalade on the windowsill was an immediate sensory experience. Once I tasted the marmalade, I realized what I had been missing for all those years!
When and how did marmalade become an essential part of the English breakfast?
Solid quince marmalades similar to today’s membrillo had been imported to England from Spain and Portugal from the late 15th century. They were packed in round wooden boxes, as depicted in this Still-Life with Oranges and Walnuts by the Spanish painter Luis Egidio Meléndez [1716 - 1780]
They were a rare and expensive delicacy with reputed aphrodisiac properties, and were taken by the nobility after feasts as a remedy for an upset stomach. English and French cooks made their own version of quince marmalade called alternatively cotignac, chardequince and quiddony. Sometimes it was molded into fancy, beautiful shapes.
A stag imprinted on a circle of quince paste
In Scotland, however, the climate was generally too cold for growing quince trees. Bitter (Seville) oranges had been imported since the end of the 15th century, and gentry households began candying oranges and other fruits with sugar obtained from sugar-boiling houses in Glasgow and Leith, at the end of the 17th century. The first English printed recipe for orange marmalade Scottish cookbooks was published by Mary Kettilby in 1714. Oranges and sugar were still considered medicinal, especially for warming a cold early morning stomach. And thus a big shift in eating patterns occurred: Orange marmalade was now being served at breakfast rather than after dinner.
Later in the century the Scots became famous for their breakfasts. On a journey to the western islands of Scotland in 1773, James Boswell wrote: “Not long after the dram [of whiskey], may be expected the breakfast, a meal in which the Scots, whether of the lowlands or mountains, must be confessed to excel us. The tea and coffee are accompanied, not only with butter, but with honey, conserves and marmalades.”
Orange marmalades began to be mass-produced in factories at the end of the 18th century. They became a ubiquitous part of the English breakfast, which reached epic proportions during the Victorian era. Marmalade
became (and remains) so essential to the English breakfast, that it’s impossible to imagine a morning meal without it.
What kind of marmalade would a Regency era gentleman eat?
This chap would have had a choice of orange marmalades on his table: clear, transparent ones with no visible peels; dark, robust ones with chunky peels (Dundee marmalade); ”beaten” marmalades made by pounding orange peels and pulp together with sugar and water; or amber ones with fine “chips” (peels).
Was there any difficulty getting oranges in Britain during the Napoleonic wars?
Food supplies were often cut off during this period of wartime. Then, as today, the richest people, willing to pay exorbitant prices, would have had a better shot at obtaining imported goods such as oranges, than less affluent citizens.
I always thinks of marmalade as a citrus preserve, but your book contains preserves made of other ingredients. What’s the definition of marmalade?
This is a great question. Webster’s Dictionary defines marmalade as “a soft, clear, translucent jelly holding in suspension pieces of fruit and fruit rind (orange),” but one of my favorite English cookery writers, May Byron, declares that “after long and careful investigation, I find it impossible to differentiate between jams and marmalades.” Period cookbooks offer recipes with marmalades made from all kinds of fruit, but today people generally associate marmalade with oranges and other citrus fruit.
What is your favorite recipe in the book?
It would have to be the Crème d’Arcy, a sinfully rich ice cream made from light cream, heavy cream, egg yolks, superfine sugar and traditional Seville orange marmalade. I adapted the recipe from a Scottish cookbook, The Practice of Cookery, Pastry and Confectionery, by J. Caird. (1809) It’s incredibly easy. I also like all the classic Seville orange recipes, plus some exotic variations such as passion fruit marmalade.
Marmalade ice cream! That’s something I wouldn’t have thought of. It sounds absolutely delicious. I’ll have to try the recipe. Thanks so much for visiting The Ballroom, Elizabeth. I really love the book. In fact I became so engrossed I forget to write down questions and had to start again!
What’s your favorite breakfast, traditional or modern? Do you like marmalade? If you have any question about the history of the preserve, about making it or any other marmalade related topics, Elizabeth is the right person to answer them. Her publisher, Running Press Books, has kindly offered to send a copy of her book to two commenters.
Marmalade: Sweet & Savory Spreads of a Sophisticated Taste by Elizabeth Field may be found at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other online and bricks-and-mortar bookstores.
I have been charged with a very important task, and that is to ensure that we arrive in London TODAY. No water crossings, no freak snowstorms, no pirates, no moors and highwaymen. After all, there is a certain ball to plan and I am certain Katharine and Lady B will need every day between now and Monday to do so.
Lady B: I assure you, Miss Darby, that I could plan this ball in my sleep.
I eye Lady B from my position in the corner of the coach, facing forward and near the window. (I’m not a good traveler and, although it took them nearly three weeks to realize this, the rest of my travelling companions have decided its best to let me pick my seat.)
Lady B: You doubt me?
And I don’t. However, considering the amount of days we’ve spent on the road, and the number of hours per day we’ve all spent napping the interminable hours away, it did look for a while that Lady B might have to plan in her sleep.
Of course, it’s my job today to ensure that will not be the case. And I am indeed the right person for the task. After all, I’ve never seen Magic Mike and I’m not easily impressed by a famous male face.
Doesn’t affect me at all.
Katharine: It will be fine.
She’s sitting opposite me, and I can see that she’s speaking out of a desire to convince herself it will be so.
Lauren: I’m famished.
We can’t stop. We’re so close (The landscape blurring past, etc…)
It’s Lady B making the demand, so of course, we stop. However, I don’t see any convenient copse of trees around. The edge of the nearest forest is visible a mile away.
My goodness, Look!
I look. It’s a lovely September day. I always love the English countryside. I wish I could spend as much time here in the 21st century as I do virtually in the 19th.
I hear Sarah say rather incredulously: So unicorns are real.
Which means I am clearly looking in the wrong direction.
Kate: Aside from narwhals, of course.
I’m picturing a whale with a horn when suddenly a flash of white crosses my vision. OMG. It’s actually a unicorn. As in white coat. A single horn. And absolutely stunning.
Lady B: I want to see it. Miss Dare, you have a way with animals, fetch it for me, will you?
Gaelen interrupts. “Actually, a unicorn can only be captured by a virgin. At least, according to mythology.”
We all look at each other. Eight married women and we are quite certain that despite her husband haring off with Lord B, Kate has consummated her union. If only this journey had happened at the beginning of the summer, when neither Lauren nor Kate were married.
“This is the 21st century, Sabrina.”
“Nonono! It is the 19th, I assure you.”
“Right, I heard that the horn is a symbol of virility.”
“Well we need a virgin. Albert?”
Lady B coughs.
Monty stirs from his careful ignoring of us, which he’d been doing for the better part of the last two days. He stares at us between swollen eyes, then those eyes grow wider, even as he winces in pain.
Ladies, I assure you, there is no reason to be looking at me.
I look at him doubtfully. Or hopefully? Because it really would make it so much easier if he were…
Lady B: Follow that Unicorn!
I look out the window to see that the white horned animal is speeding away from us and suddenly we are speeding after it, as if the forces of darkness will overtake the world and keep it in winter forever if we don’t find the unicorn. At a pace not at all copacetic with my stomach.
I have no idea where we are anymore. Last I knew, we were a mere 20 miles from London. Now, with my internal compass all turned around, I have no idea.
We’re in the middle of the forest thicket, and the path before us is lit with tiny candles in decorative lanterns.
We’re never going to get to London.
Except, there’s a familiar odor in the air. Like stagnant water and coal…
“London!” Miranda cries, like someone starved for sustenance and I do believe she’s right. Furthermore, somewhere in this fair city is a unicorn, sniffing after virgins like a Regency rake. The only question is, where is the unicorn? And where exactly in London are we?
Today, our wild journey has taken us onto the moors. We trundle through a desolate, forbidding, barren landscape made even less hospitable by the looming clouds, thick fog and…
Plop. Plink. Patter.
Most of us are napping, lulled to sleep by the rocking of the carriage and the sound of rain. I’ve nabbed the window-seat for this portion of the journey, and I’m staring out at the passing scenery. Suddenly a flash of wild natural beauty catches my eye.
I rap on the coach’s top and shout, “Stop the carriage!”
Monty snaps to attention. “What is it now? Pirates? Highwaymen? Raving madmen mourning their dead lovers?”
“None of the above, I hope. But something definitely worth seeing.”
I fling open the carriage door, and all the authoresses sleepily crane their necks for a glimpse. I’m pretty sure that thunk I hear is the sound of jaws dropping. But I won’t turn my head to confirm it, because out of the mist emerges one of the most perfectly formed men I’ve ever seen.
Close-cropped dark hair, ice-blue eyes, and a strong, squared jaw. He wears no shirt–only a pair of skin-tight breeches and a leather vest–and he’s soaked to his sun-bronzed skin.
“Why, hullo,” he says. “What’s a carriage full of fine ladies doing in these parts?”
Someone else takes over and introduces the authoresses and explains the nature of our journey, and I just sort of stare at the entrancing little divot between his hipbone and his waistband.
“And this is Tessa,” I hear the helpful explainer say.
Those startling ice-blue eyes focus on me.
“I carried a watermelon,” I mutter, apropos of nothing. Because it’s just that kind of moment.
“I’m Mick. In these parts, the ladies call me Magic Mick. Because I’m good with my hands.” He winks. “Why don’t you visit my cottage? I’ll have you warmed up in no time.”
Babbling like fools, we all clamber out of the carriage. Magic Mick offers his arm. There’s a mad scramble, as all eight of us jostle to accept. Fortunate, Mick has plenty of arm to go around. We’re each of us able to get a hand on the goods.
“Oh my,” I whisper. “So very…solid. Like marble.”
“If you ask me, more like a cannon barrel fashioned of cast bronze,” says Gaelen.
Katharine runs her hand along Mick’s forearm, musing. “I’d describe it as a beam of steel sheathed in velvet.”
Monty’s obviously put out by this rhapsodizing. “Please. Spare me.”
“We’re writers,” I say. “This is what we do. If it helps, we had a long conversation during your nap over whether your bruises should be described as mulberry or aubergine.”
Monty rolls his eyes–or at least, the less-swollen one. “That doesn’t help, actually.”
“You haven’t seen anything yet,” Mick says. As we crowd into his humble cottage, he begins removing his damp vest.
The vest comes off. No one can even speak.
You can thank Katharine for whole this post, actually.
“Feast your eyes, ladies.”
Oh, we’re feasting them. Gorging, more like. Our eyes are proper gluttons, devouring every sculpted contour of his muscled, hairless torso. Does he wax? I find myself thinking. Then I tell myself to stop thinking.
“I’ve something for you ladies that’s hard as Devonshire granite.”
Someone squeals. I clap my hand over my mouth, because it might have been me.
And then Mick steps aside, revealing … a chunk of granite. Actual granite.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” Visibly bulging with pride, Mick crosses his arms over his broad chest.
I tilt my head and peer at the thing. “Er… what is it?”
“What is it?” Mick laughs. “What is it? It’s a coffee table, of course.”
“Of course,” Lauren says. “A coffee table.”
We all nod our heads.
“I make custom furniture,” Mick explains. “It’s my dream. In five years, the finest houses in England will display my pieces.” He points out another lump of stone. “I’ve been working on this one for the last two weeks. It’s an armchair. I’m sure you’ll all be wanting to place orders.”
One of Mick’s satisfied customers.
Lady B is, as always, the soul of tact. But even she can find little to praise. “I must say, it doesn’t look very comfortable.”
“Of course it’s comfortable. Even against bare skin. Watch.”
We watch. Magic Mick leans forward, grasps the front of his breeches, and with one strong tug–he pulls them completely off. They’re gone. Like magic.
“Breakaway breeches,” I breathe. “I didn’t know they made such a thing.”
“Ditto for leather thongs,” Kate whispers.
“Don’t question it,” Sarah advises. “Just be thankful.”
“This is patently unfair,” Monty grouses. “My own have nine or thirteen buttons, depending on whom you ask. How does he get by with no buttons at all?”
“What a very good question,” Miranda says. “I think it calls for research.”
To demonstrate the comfort of his granite armchair, Mick lowers his nearly-naked weight onto the thing. He gyrates and thrusts his hips, sliding rhythmically against the molded stone.
“Ooh,” he moans in a deep, silky voice. “Yeah. That feels real good.”
It may be a cold, rainy day on the moors, but our fans snap open in unison. He did promise to warm us up.
Mick holds out a hand. “Any of you ladies care to join me?”
Mick’s prototype of a full dining set.
Alas, a few more minutes’ conversation proves that Mick is not interested in doing anything with us except selling us full suites of clunky, impossibly heavy furniture.
“The best thing about this stuff?” he says. “Clean-up is a breeze.”
“Yes, well. It’s been lovely, Mick, but I think we must be getting underway again.”
We make our way for the cottage’s door and hurry back toward the carriage.
Mick calls after us. “Ladies, wait. I’ve more to offer than just furniture.”
We turn, hopeful.
“I have a side business in carriage detailing,” he says.
We sigh, taking time for one last look.
Farewell, Magic Mick.
Back into the carriage we climb, warmed and enlivened by our short detour. No one seems inclined to napping just now. There’s a half-hearted attempt at a sing-a-long, but it’s quickly abandoned when Sabrina motions for silence.
“My goodness,” Sabrina presses her nose to the foggy window. “Please tell me I’m not seeing what I think I’m seeing.”
I follow her gaze. “I thought those didn’t exist! Not anymore. Not here.”
“They don’t exist,” Lauren says with certainty.
“Well,” says Monty. “Someone had better tell them so.”
White seems to be the color of the sennight. First snow and ghosts and bed sheets and togas, and now this. For — as I lean my aching head upon my palm and stroke Monty’s brow with my other hand (he has a wretched megrim, and who am I to deny comfort to a suffering lord? Hm?) while we all nurse the worst sort of post-toga party hangovers — I notice that the carriage is now winding its way between fabulously steep hills of verdant green speckled with sheep.
It’s raining — buckets. Here and there heavy grey clouds give way to taupe mists, but mostly the rain is pouring down. The sheep don’t seem to mind it, but honestly it’s a mess of a day weatherwise and . . . awfully familiar.
Wait. Can we . . . ? Is it possible that we’ve . . . ? Have we somehow driven into Wales?
Wales! My favorite place in the world!!
I shove Monty’s battered head aside (he got into trouble when the highwayman claimed that since he won the game of quarters we were playing with shots of Irish whiskey, he could choose whichever one of us he wished to carry away into the night, for which we all professed our undying gratitude to Monty while gnashing our teeth and rending our garments, figuratively speaking). I leap up from the recliner squabs and energetically rap on the coach’s ceiling.
“What on earth are you doing, Miss Ashe?” Lady B studies me through her lorgnette. The others are all asleep or in various stages of head-holding misery, except Miranda who apparently responded better to whiskey shots than the rest of us.
“Rapping on the coach ceiling so I can ask the coachman where we are.” Duh.
“You might ask me instead.”
“Oh. Well, I’ve seen loads of heroes do it in movies and I wanted to try it. So are we in Wales?”
(I hear “Home, home on the range!” warbled from the opposite seat. Perhaps Miranda wasn’t as tolerant of the whiskey as I thought.)
“We are,” Lady B confirms.
“We are! We are!” I rap harder on the ceiling. “We’ve got to stop!”
“Miss Ashe, control yourself.”
The coach is drawing to a halt and I open the door and throw down the steps before it even stops. The others are all gaping at me from inside (although in Monty’s case it might just be his split lip that’s giving him the appearance of gaping), but I don’t care. I’m here! In Wales!
I run out onto the muddy road and through a knee-high thatch of grass to the nearest stone fence. It stretches acres up a steep, emerald hill into the clouds.
“Um, Katharine?” Gaelen pokes her head out of the carriage. “Would you like an umbrella?”
“No, I’m fine!” Better than fine. I’m already soaked to the skin and my ankles are three inches deep in mud and I’ll never get the sheep poop out of the hem of my favorite rose-colored muslin, but I don’t care. I am in Wales again, the place I fell in love with three years ago and that inspired me to write How a Lady Weds a Rogue. Of the occasions I’ve been deliriously happy in my life, I count the two trips I’ve taken to Wales among the top.
Path from a little stone church down to the Wye
On my first journey there in 2009 my sister and I explored the north-western coast. A magical place of salty ocean breezes and towering medieval castles, of hidden moss-covered groves and picturesque villages, Gwynedd was heaven. I dreamed of writing a book set in the misty ruins of a castle there, and so I did. (In fact, more info to come on that book in a few weeks!)
But after that trip I wasn’t by any means finished with Wales. I longed to explore the south as well, to wend my way through the mountains and to travel the course of the River Wye, the most fashionable scenic jaunt for ladies and gentlemen taking a holiday from London in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In fact I sometimes wonder why there aren’t more Regencies featuring jaunts off to the pretty Wye — flanked by the austere ruins of medieval abbeys and intensely gorgeous green hills — when there are plenty of books set in Bath and Brighton. It’s a truly romantic setting.
The grand ruins of Tintern Abbey on the banks of the Wye River
But I’m a big hypocrite because my hero and heroine don’t travel the Wye River either. Their journey winds farther north, through the hills of Powys along the borders of Shropshire and Herefordshire, nearly all the way to Monmouthshire at the feet of the gloriously old and dark Brecon Beacons. It was there that I saw my first Mail Coach schedule affixed to a pub wall, giving me the idea for Diantha’s attempted escape in the middle of the night that lands her in a dark stable with an equally dark man. And it was there that I discovered a narrow valley so green and lush, so peaceful with its grazing sheep and fields of yellow wildflowers, that I–
I drag my attention away from the rain drenched hills. “Huh?”
Sabrina’s standing on the road next to the carriage, Lauren is descending the steps, umbrella in hand, and Kate’s head is now in the carriage doorway.
“Do you hear a strange noise?” Sabrina asks. “Like singing, maybe? Or chanting?”
I cock my ear into the downpour and then I hear it too. Rough male voices singing . . . ”Turkish Revelry”??? Naahh.
Then I hear it again.
. . . sailed upon the lonely, lonesome waters. Yes, he sailed upon the lonesome sea . . .
Let me be your pirate.
And I remember. It’s not yet September 25 and Diantha and Wyn aren’t yet technically on the road in Wales in this downpour. In fact it’s still Choose Your Own Adventure month at The Ballrom and on Thursday our readers chose . . . PIRATES!
“Everybody back in the carriage!” I shout, bounding toward them. “Now!”
It doesn’t make any sense, I know. Pirates don’t belong on the road in the middle of Wales (or really anywhere else on this journey). But if there’s one thing I know after writing four — count them, four — seafaring heroes, it’s that pirates in Regency historical romances never, ever do what you expect.
“What’s going on?” Sarah rubs the hangover out of her eyes.
“Pirates,” I mumble. “Of course.”
“I’ll thrash the blackguards!” Monty springs up. It takes four of us to push him back onto his seat.
I pound on the carriage ceiling. ”Go, please! Fast!”
The coachman is as good as guineas and the carriage jolts into action, throwing us all into a sorry heap.
“Monty, get your boot out of my underarm,” someone mutters as I untangle my limbs and skirts from authoresses and Lady B’s ostrich feathers. But we’re flying along the rainswept road already and I breathe a sigh of relief. I would have liked to hang around long enough to catch a glimpse of Diantha riding Wyn’s beautiful black thoroughbred, Wyn walking alongside, leading her through the downpour, through his homeland, taking her hand to hold when she offers it to him and . . .
But I’ll have to wait a few weeks for that, two weeks and a bit, during which anything, anything could happen on this wild trip back to London.
Where is your heaven-on-earth? What is the place you’ve been in the whole world that made you the happiest?
“We’ll have to stop,” Lady B says. “I see a light ahead.”
I refrain from rolling my eyes. We have already begun this journey in a Bigger-On-The-Inside carriage, been ransacked by a highwayman, seen Lady B shoot at said highwayman, Monty lost his buttons and now, we are being directed by Lady B towards a pinpoint of light.
I’m an authoress, I know a set piece when I see one.
But I am at Lady B’s disposal – and even though she managed to magically transport us to the Beaufetheringstone Estate just a few short weeks ago, now we have to travel back to London the slow, annoying, regular way. Therefore, as the carriage rumbles on its way towards the light, I am merely waiting. Waiting, that is, for the next contrivance.
And I do not have to wait long, before the carriage is jolted from its springs, making us go lopsided.
“What was that?” Miranda cries, grabbing hold of Monty’s buttons, presumably to steady herself.
“I believe we hit a ditch in the road,” Katharine replies, trying to peer out into the darkness. “We are not moving, we must have broken a wheel.”
Of course we did, I think, but manage to refrain from saying aloud.
“We shall simply have to walk,” Lady B declares, already gathering up her peacock muff and Albert’s cage. “It is not far.”
“But it’s snowing!” Sarah pouts. “Hard.”
Indeed. It seems that freak September snowstorm that none of us planned for and yet all of us expected has come in full force, and huge, wet globs are falling at an alarming rate. But one look from Lady B, and the comfortable confines of the surprisingly roomy and well-equipped carriage (I think some of the seats reclined fully, ala British Airlines Business Class) are abandoned, and we all trudge through the snow.
Just the cozy little place to be creeped out in during a freak snowstorm…
It is not too long before our clothes are soaked through. Luckily, it is not too much longer before our path takes us to the front door of a ramshackle building, practically hidden by overgrown shrubbery.
Lady B locates the door, and knocks on it firmly. A beefy man opens it.
“Sir, we require food and lodging. And while I am perfectly dry, my young friends will need a change of clothes.” Lady B declares, before she brushes past him and into the building.
The other authoresses and I shrug at each other, and make the same imperious nod, and move through the door.
And then, we stop dead in our tracks.
It’s a tavern. A seedy one, at that. Terribly ill kept, spider-webs everywhere, my inner OCD clean freak is FREAKING OUT. There is no one in there save us, the Beefy man, and a tired looking woman cleaning tables.
“Moira!” the beefy man calls out. “We got women here.”
“And one gentleman!” Monty calls out, obviously offended.
The man slides a glance to Monty, obviously unimpressed. “They want clothes and a room and, er, other things.”
“Ain’t got no clothes for ye,” Moira replies, not looking up from her cleaning. “But the laundry’s just been done. We have a fair number of clean sheets.”
“Moira! You cannot be thinking of having them stay!” Beefy complains.
“Why ever not? Moira saiys.
“Because we only have one room,” Beefy replies. “And it is already… occupied.”
“These ladies will pay better.” Moira replies, nodding to Lady B. Lady B nods back, and I get the feeling these two ladies are cut from the same cloth. “The occupant won’t mind, will he, love?”
Beefy shrugs, and trudged to the stairs.
“Oh, dear, I do not wish to evict anyone,” Lauren says in a low whisper.
“Let me get you your linens, and would you care for a drink?” Moira declares, lining up pint glasses.
In a flurry of moments, all eight of us are undressed, draped in sheets, and drinking merrily, all thought of the evicted tenant lost.
“Monty!” Sabrina teases. “You have to come out eventually.”
Monty, who had been changing behind the bar, pops up, a sheet slung low around his waist and another haphazardly over a (bronzed, gorgeous) shoulder.
“I am so glad that my new husband is not here to see this,” I murmur, and we all nod in agreement.
Just then a flurry of movement on the stairs catches my eye. A flash of white moving along upper landing.
“What was that?” Tessa asks – she must have seen it too.
“A ghost!” Sabrina exclaims, downing the dregs of her third ale. “The tavern is haunted! Is the tavern haunted?”
“Not haunted, miss.” Moira sighs. “Just… overstaffed at present.”
“Well, well well, what have we here?”
It’s a familiar voice. And a familiar pair of piercing blue eyes. A familiar rakish wink and a terribly charming set of shoulders.
“Highwayman!” Monty cries, leaping into action. Unfortunately, his toga is long, and he is not as familiar with walking in skirts as the rest of us, and he ends up face down on the ballroom floor, further injuring his bandaged features. Katharine and Lauren rush to his aid – unceremoniously pushing Tessa and Sarah out of the way.
“Highwayman?” Moira asks, her eyebrow up. “What does he mean ‘highwayman’?”
“What he means,” Lady B says imperiously, “is that young man attempted to rob us, not an hour ago. I insist that you call in the authorities and have him arrested!”
“I canna be doing that,” the beefy man says sheepishly, catching his breath from running down the stairs after the young, delicious… er, highwayman. (Married, Kate, you are married now, my inner monologue admonishes.)
“And why not?” Lady B demands.
“Two reasons.” Moira replies on a sigh. “Firstly, the snow is already a foot thick, no one is going anywhere tonight.”
“This is his tavern. We work for him.”
The highwayman can’t help a grin. A naughty, naughty grin. Oh my.
“Looks like we’ll be making a party of it.” He drawls. “Now, who has a spare toga for me?”
With the snow as thick as it is, it seems as if we are spending the night at the tavern – with our Highwayman, and in togas! What could possibly happen next?
Since we are enjoying beer and a toga party, we authoresses can’t help but be reminded of a certain film’s wild parties. What’s the wildest party you ever attended?