Miranda says a cabal is a group of 5, and conveniently, that’s just how many gentlemen are set to storm Lady B’s Ballroom today…if they show.
So I feel it is my duty to give you a little background on these poor gentleman, who likely have no idea what Lady B has in store for days of bachelorhood.
We already know Monty, so, let’s go to all the new exciting victi—ahem gentlemen.
Lord Harry Markman, younger brother of the Marquess of Talmadge. He’s an avid sportsman, a practical joker and convinced that, as his brother has taken care of heir and spare, he has no need to marry. (Unless of course he is short on funds at some point in the future, but he is currently in no danger of that.) On the physical side, he’s about 5’10”, with sandy blond hair and the athletic build of a man who likes to be outdoors. He served with Monty in India and recently sold his commission.
The Honorable Geoffrey Crane. This Viscount to be has known Monty since their school days. He’s tall, dark and handsome, and has a passion and talent for art, of which few outside his trusted circle are aware. He hides his moody, artistic side, as well as his polemic relationship with his family, beneath an obsession with horses and gambling. Unlike his friend Harry, Crane could use a few lessons in financial planning.
The Twins: John Barrett, Lord Avenal & Lord George Barrett. Born minutes apart, these two are throwbacks to some Viking ancestor. But their blond, blue-eyed exteriors are where their similarities end. John’s irreverent character and unwillingness to let the burden of the earldom stop his enjoyment of life differs completely from his oh-so-slightly younger brother, who enlisted as soon as he was of age and has earned numerous honors for his courage in battle. However, whereas Markman and Monty retain their joie de vivre, George carries scars that will only show to someone who cares to look closely and bridge his distant exterior.
Hmm. Something seems off. Where are the dukes? Perhaps we’d better upgrade poor Geoffrey Crane? Shall we do that?
Let’s try his bio again:
Lord Geoffrey Crane. This Duke-to-be has known Monty since their school days. He’s tall, dark and handsome, and has a passion and talent for art, of which few outside his trusted circle are aware. He hides his moody, artistic side, as well as his polemic relationship with his family, beneath an obsession with horses and gambling. Unlike his friend Harry, Crane could use a few lessons in financial planning.
I know that Lady B intends to ensure that each of these gentlemen meets his perfect mate. So today is your chance to begin directing their futures. Which romance tropes do you like best and for which of the 5 potential heroes would you like to see it happen?
When last we left them, Monty and Perdita were soaring high into the air to escape a volcanic explosion.
Unfortunately, they lost consciousness due to the high altitude.
The next thing Monty knew, he was sprawled face-down on a sandy beach, waves lapping at his ankles. His skin was crusted with fine golden sand, and his cracked lips tasted of salt. A curious hermit crab tickled his ear, and he slapped it away.
Where was he?
What a shame all my clothes were destroyed in the volcanic explosion.
He stood. No sign of her sweet face. He cupped his hands around his mouth. “PERDITA!!!”
Still no answer.
“Oh, no. No. I’ve lost her.”
Harold landed next to him, squawking something that sounded like, “That’s irony for you.”
He might have lost Perdita, but he wasn’t alone. A throng of young men and women came dashing toward him, all dressed–if one could call this ‘dressed’–in red. They soon surrounded him.
Imagine them in slow-mo, if you will.
“Oh my gosh. Mister, are you all right?”
“We saw you wash up on the shore.”
“Do you need mouth-to-mouth?”
The scarlet-clad Samaritans offered him water and some sort of nutritious ration bar. They lent him clothing of faded cotton fabric, dyed with indigo–worn and frayed at the knees, yet serviceable. After the Amazons, he was overwhelmed by such warm hospitality.
“What magical land have I reached now? Everyone is so good-looking here.” He looked down at his naked, perfectly bronzed and toned chest. “I am better looking here.”
He even caught Harold preening over his reflection.
“Where am I?” he asked.
One of the blonde ladies giggled fetchingly. “California, of course.”
“California,” he whispered. He was closer to Aunt Tropey, but still half a world away. And who could tell what had happened to his poor Perdita. “I must leave this place at once. Do any of you fair maidens know how I might find a seaworthy craft?”
“You’d better ask Bodhi. He knows everything.”
The red-clad maidens indicated a man with an unshaven jaw and blonde, shaggy hair. He sat cross-legged on the beach, applying wax to a long, mysterious board.
“Is that some sort of sea craft?” Monty asked, drawing near. “Does it float?”
“Yeah, it floats. It’s a surfboard, dude.”
He had to get back on the sea one way or another. Looking around, Monty didn’t see any other potential vessels. It was this or nothing. “Will you teach me to use it?”
“Rock and roll.”
Monty wasn’t sure he liked the sound of rocking or rolling, but he followed Bodhi into the waves.
Monty and Bodhi, one with the sea
Bodhi showed him how to paddle and stand up on the board–but no matter how vigorously Monty paddled, the waves threw him back against the shore, again and again.
“I don’t understand it. What am I doing wrong?” he asked.
“But I cannot escape this bay.”
“Why would you want to escape it?” Bodhi flashed a smile, his teeth dazzling white in his tanned face. “Look around you, man. This is paradise.”
“You don’t understand. I’m on a journey. I have duties, obligations. I must get back to England and–”
“Whoa, whoa.” Bodhi held up his hands. “Time to buck that uptight English establishment. The journey is the destination. That’s surfing, bro. It’s all about the rush. The ride.”
Puzzled, Monty followed him back out into the water. He had to admit, his own efforts weren’t working, so perhaps it was time to try Bodhi’s advice. When a perfect wave came rolling toward him, he stopped trying to escape the bay. He turned, paddled, stood up on his board–and enjoyed the ride.
As he emerged from the waves, the surge of raw, primal energy pounding through his veins was more intoxicating than opium. “That..was…”
“Pretty radical, huh?” Bodhi said.
“Magnificent.” He lifted his arms and shouted into the sea and the roar of salty wind. “I AM A GOLDEN GOD!”
“See?” Bodhi chuckled. “That’s the rush, man. You were born to surf.”
Later that evening, after a rousing game of touch football with his scantily clad rescuers and a dinner of crabs and oysters roasted over a bonfire, Monty considered. Maybe Bodhi was right, and the journey was the destination. He liked California. Sun, sand, surf. Maidens in scraps of red slowly jogging to his rescue. The rush.
Perhaps this was paradise.
But then that night, he had a dream…
When he woke the next morning, his decision was made.
“I must go at once. I am needed. As a man of honor, I cannot hide from my duty.”
“Vaya con Dios, Monty.” Bodhi clapped him on the shoulder before dashing into the surf to chase another wave.
Monty scanned the beach. A trading vessel appeared on the horizon. He jumped up and down, drawing the merchant sailors’ attention.
“Now,” he mused, “if only I had something valuable to interest them, so I could pay my passage around Cape Horn and back to the Atlantic.”
“Squawk! Blow me down!”
Monty turned to view the bird’s discovery. “Harold, my feathered friend. You’re brilliant!”
Tessa here: Okay, I’ll admit – despite living in Southern California, I am not tanned, and I have never surfed. Is there anything your local area is known for, that people travel thousands of miles to visit/do, and yet you’ve never tried?
Monty and Harold, together with the feisty and scantily-clad Anisha, floating on a huge trunk, have reached the island of the Amazons. As half a dozen of the magnificent sun-bronzed creatures escort them into their town, Anisha whispers fiercely. “Do not tell them my name or I’ll slit your from throat to gizzard.”
Always joking, that Anisha, Monty thinks, but his attention is distracted. Having been properly brought up, he tries not to stare at the magnificence before him. But one part of his brain is trying to imagine what their new acquaintances would look like with both breasts bared.
“We will take you to She Who Must Be Obeyed,” an Amazon explains.
“Is Aunt Tropey here?” Monty asks. “How jolly!”
“Silence! Men should be seen and not heard.”
The trio are taken into a magnificent audience chamber constructed from intricately woven gilt palm leaves. A beautiful woman subjects Monty to a thorough examination from head to toe.
Wish I looked better, he thinks, remembering that he isn’t allowed to speak.
“He’ll do,” the lady says dismissively. “Pity his face is messed up but the maids will see to that. The rest is good enough and he has decent legs.
Just like Aunt Tropey, but with fewer clothes.
“Take him away.” She seems to be in a very bad temper and Monty summons his courage to bear whatever indignities should follow.
Six young women subject him to brutal torture: a full body massage followed by a perfumed bath. Perdita, the youngest, prettiest maid with the softest hands applies a salve to his face and when he looks in a mirror he finds all his bruises magically healed.
“Uh, I say,” he whispers. “I can’t go out dressed like this. Where are my breeches?”
Monty displays his assets
Perdita giggles. “You look very fine. The queen candidates will be pleased.”
“What do you mean?”
“You are the next king of the island. The old queen resigns today.”
“No wonder she’s grumpy.”
“You will chose your consort and the next queen.”
“King, by Jove! How splendid.”
Perdita looks a little sad. I do believe she likes me. And I like her. I don’t suppose she’s a candidate.
He is left in an antechamber where he is reunited with Harold and the biggest bird he has ever seen.
“What ho, Harold. Introduce me to your friend.”
“Delighted to meet you, Hilo…. Whatever. What kind of a bird are you.”
“I am a roc,” the creature replies.
“You’re as big as an island. Mind if I call you Rocky? You speak English like a Londoner.”
“‘Ere, ‘ave a fig.” Rocky flaps his wings at a dish of fruit, the rush of air knocking Monty to the floor and Harold to the ceiling. “Sorry ‘bout that. I don’t know me own strength. I’d better warn you …”
But before Rocky can say more, the Amazon guards appear and lead Monty to the audience chamber where he is placed on a throne next to the bad-tempered beauty.
“Bring in the candidates!”
Three even more beautiful women appear, absolutely stark naked.
“Take this,” orders the soon-to-be-former queen, her peerless feature marred by an angry frown. She hands him a heavy golden ring engraved with runes in an ancient script. “This is the ring of power, know as The Preshus. Present it to your choice.”
The bachelorettes – er contenders - begin to dance and Monty’s eyes are out on stalks.
“Shouldn’t I interview them?” he asks. “Ask them about world peace and their favorite cricket teams? I’ve always heard compatibility is important between spouses.”
“It matters little since you’ll only be wed for a year. My husband died last night.”
“I say, I am sorry. No wonder you seem out of sorts.”
The queen shrugs. “He lacked inventiveness. I’ll be happy enough taking one of the drones to my bed but I shall miss being She Who Must Be Obeyed.
Mont gives an involuntary flex of his muscles, forgetting that they can be seen by all. “I’ll endeavor to please my bride better, just as soon as I get back from a quick trip to England. My Aunt Lady Beaufetheringstone needs me, you know.”
“You’re not going anywhere. You will be king for the year of your wife’s rule, then you will be sacrificed to the volcano. Time’s up. Name the next queen.”
Monty looks wildly around the chamber. He sees Anisha among the gathered Amazons.
“Can’t do it,” he says with a burst of inspiration. “I’m already betrothed. To Anisha.”
A collective gasp arises from crowd.
“Seize her!” cries the queen. “Rahul will pay us in gold and slave men for her return.”
“Idiot!” cries Anisha. “I told you not to say my name.”
“You didn’t mean that about the gizzard, did you?”
Anisha is dragged from the chamber, screaming curses and threats.
“Choose!” screams the queen.
“I choose Perdita.” If he has to be wed for a year and then die, it might as well be to a nice girl not a Fury. “I want her or nobody.”
“This man is unworthy. Seize them both and take them to the volcano.”
A few hours later, Monty and Perdita, bound back-to-back, are suspended over the smoking crater. A candle flame licks the rope that holds them. Strand by twisted strand is consumed by fire until only a single thread keeps them from the fire pit.
“I’m sorry, Perdita. I meant it for the best.”
“It’s all right, Monty. I love you and I wouldn’t want to live without you.”
“Better to die together, than live apart.”
He gropes for her hand and the Ring of Power, the Preshus, which was clutched in his fist, falls into the inferno. A terrifying roar like the wrath of an entire Pantheon of Gods emerges from beneath.
“Now I’ve done it.”
The last thread of rope cracks ….
A whoosh of air cuts through the din. Monty, Perdita and Harold escape on Rocky’s back as the island of the Amazons is engulfed in lava and ash.
“Oh dear! What will become of Anisha?” Monty wonders as the roc’s giant wings bear them safely out to sea.
Who is better suited to be Monty’s bride? The fiery Anisha or the gentle Perdita. What will Lady B. think? And what will Albert make of Rocky?
It’s about six months (in the 21st century; I won’t speak for Ballroom time) since Lord Montague Moylan-Hazwell (pronounced Marzipan Hatbox) burst into The Ballroom. Aside from the fact that Monty is Lady B’s nephew, we know that he has eyes as green as the grass at the Beaufetheringstone country estate (wherever that may be) and rich, wavy brown hair, with hints of coffee and mahogany. He likes to rescue damsels in distress and does so with more enthusiasm than skill. As a result, none of us has yet seen his face unmarred by cuts and cruises. His constant companion is a toucan named Harold and, lastly, he is Lord B’s heir. Though we have theories about how this genealogical aberration comes about, Lady B has not yet deigned to share it with us.
We’ve all been attempting to get close to Monty (ask Katharine about the buttons on his breeches) and each of us has learned parts of his story. Over the next few weeks we will piece them together into a coherent narrative (don’t laugh), filling in the gaps with help from our readers.
Our story begins in India, where Monty was banished by his father the duke. We’ve heard a number of highly plausible reasons for his exile but I had a hard time pinning Monty down.
*By the way, he tells me that Lady G. only invited him to her room to show him her etchings and Nothing Untoward happened.
Whatever the reason for his departure, he spent a few years in India eating curry, studying the Mahabharata, Ashtadhyayi, and Kama Sutra, and rescuing damsels. Apart from the occasional encounter with thugs and assassins, he managed to pass the time quite happily. Until, one day, he was sitting under a banyan tree, sharing a hookah with Harold.
Monty: I agree, old boy. Remarkably fine shisha. Have another toke.
Harold passes out.
Lady B: Montague! Pull yourself together.
Monty: What was that?
A vision of Lady B appears in a cloud of smoke.
Monty: Aunt Tropey! I didn’t know you were in India.
Lady B: You must come home, Montague, at once. Lord B needs you.
Monty: Right-O, Auntie T.
So Monty packed his bags, tucked Harold (who has no head for tobacco) under his arm, and booked passage on the next boat to England. Unfortunately he became confused at the dock and, instead of boarding an East Indiaman, he found himself on a leaky tub captained and crewed by some very shady characters. They were well out into the Pacific Ocean before he realized his mistake. (He had also forgotten that he was in Madras instead of Calcutta).
Monty: Stop! I must alight. I cannot head across the Pacific for Aunt Tropey needs me!
Captain (a desperado with exotic taste in jewelry and mascara): Hahaha! We’ll drop you at the next island. Maybe.
Our readers will choose Monty’s destination. Meanwhile, Monty discovered that he’d loaded the wrong trunk at the dock. When he opened the chest in his cabin, what do you think he discovered?
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?
It’s the second leg of our journey to London and the nature of our next adventure has been determined by the voters. (They ignored my pleas so we are not about to encounter a freak snow storm. Probably.) The eight authoresses, Lady B, Albert, Harold and Monty are crammed into the clown car/TARDIS/carriage. We’re all interested to observe Monty, whose face is healing up nicely. Only a day or two more and we’ll finally know what he looks like.
Sabrina wants to know where we are and Kate claims she saw Oxford down in the valley, but Gaelen is emphatic that we are in Wales “There are no spires in Wales,” Sabrina says. “It looks like the south coast to me.” Tessa breaks off her argument with Sarah about whether Corporal Thorne could take the Marquess of Bourne. “We must be near Spindle Cove. Let me look.”
“Everyone knows Sussex is nowhere near Wales,” Lauren says. “Although we’ve been in this carriage for days and we could be anywhere.”
I close my eyes and try not to think about the nightmare I went through for my forthcoming novella, THE SECOND SEDUCTION OF A LADY, calculating travel times to Scotland from an estate I’d rashly located in Somerset.
“Stop the carriage!” Monty stands up, and since he’s quite large several of us fall onto the floor. “I need to get out. Now.”
Lady B taps on the ceiling and the carriage draws to a halt.
“It’s so unfair,” Sarah says, as Monty withdraws into a stand of trees. “Men only have to unzip and point.”
“Actually,” says Katharine, “Monty has nine buttons on his breeches.”
“You counted?” Eight voices and two squawks speak as one.
Katharine shrugs. “Research.”
Seconds later we hear the carriage door open again but instead of Monty a strange face peers in. His lips are full and beautifully shaped, his chin masterful, his nose firm and shapely. Raven-dark hair flops over a noble brow. And such eyes! Piercing blue eyes, glinting through a narrow black mask.
“Stand and deliver,” he says in a basso profundo like a velvet cushion, staring down the barrel of a handsome chased silver pistol.
“Deliver what?” Lady B says at most stentorian.
“Your valuables of course, ladies. I’ll start with a kiss.”
A squeal of authoresses launches at the door with cries of “me first” and “he’s mine.” We land in the mud in a heap.
“One at a time,” the highwayman drawls. “Or maybe two. No more than three. I have some standards.”
OMG, he’s a bad boy alpha rake in need of reform. Probably a duke too. And all of us are willing to volunteer, even Kate, who five minutes ago was moping because she wasn’t in the boys’ carriage with Lord B and her new husband. The argument about whose hero he is has barely started when Monty charges out of the copse with a cry like a Viking warrior. From the corner of my eye I note that only three of the nine buttons have been fastened. I can do research too.
The highwayman stows his pistol and the fisticuffs begin. The authoresses takes bets. Albert and Harold fly overhead squawking madly. “Not the eyes!” someone says. (I strongly suspect that Albert is on the highwayman’s side, but Harold is trying in his clumsy toucanish way to assist his master.) Poor dear Monty makes a good effort, but is ultimately hampered by his breeches, which fall to his knees in mid-fight. A gunshot rings out. The highwayman leaps onto his coal back stallion and gallops away.
We all clamber back into the carriage, with some grumbling at Monty for spoiling our sport. His face looks like a butcher’s scrap heap again, the green eyes are swollen shut, and his wavy brown hair is caked in blood. Katharine removes her petticoat and tends to his wounds.
Lady B is holding a tiny gold smoking gun.
“I had no idea you were armed, Lady B.”
“I never travel without my muff pistol.” She stows it away in her peacock blue muff with purple satin lining. “I find it useful to repel villains and calm overexcited authoresses.”
It’s growing dark but we can see large wet snowflakes plopping past the window. “We’ll have to stop,” Lady B says. “I see a light ahead.”
What lies ahead of us, stranded in the middle of nowhere? What miseries or delights does that lone flickering light presage? You, the readers decide.
What’s the worst thing that ever happened to you on a journey?
As you know from Katharine’s post on Monday, things have been a little frantic at the Beaufetheringstone country estate. Monty is here with his toucan Harold…<squawk!!>
“Oh for goodness sake, Albert. Haven’t you gotten over your irritation with your cousin?”
<squawk!> Uncivilized! <squawk!>
“Fair enough. But you’d better get used to it. After all, he’s Lord B’s heir…which means if anything unfortunate happens, he shall be your sibling of sorts.”
<squawk!> Miss Noble loves me! <squawk!>
“Yes, Kate does love you. But I’m not sure Monty would part with you. What with you being Lady B’s…” and likely the heir to her fortune, which Monty will no doubt want. I keep that bit to myself.
And besides, this post isn’t about our feathered friends. It’s about the fact that Katharine has caused something of a ruckus. That is, on Monday, she was alarmed enough by the arrival of a rather nice hound to convince Lady B that she simply could not spend the autumn in the country as usual. Instead, we were all informed yesterday that Beaufetheringstone Manor was closing its doors to guests (even authoresses!) and the entire household was returning to London.
A-hem. You’re welcome.
I was fine with it, honestly. I mean, I’m a city girl. I don’t like the country and its grass and bugs and heat and…well…countryness. But I figured I at least had another few days to see if I could get Monty to take a swim in the Lake. You know, for research purposes.
Well, it turns out that when Lady B says post-haste, she means it. It turns out post-haste is today. Here. Now.
Which is why we’re all here, in Lady B’s coach.
And when I say all of us, I mean, all of us. Lady B, Monty, Albert, Harold, and eight authoresses. In a carriage.
“A surprisingly roomy carriage,” Lauren says at my shoulder.
I look up from my scribbling. “Not roomy enough for you to not read over my shoulder.”
She shrugs. “I couldn’t help it. Colin Firth wet.”
I cede the point.
Yes, this one is American. And from later in the century. But just go with it. I like it. Imagine Miranda leaning out the window and flirting with an outrider.
Miranda jumps in. “It is a roomy carriage, though. Much roomier than one would expect from the outside.”
“It’s like a clown car,” Sabrina says, relaxing against one side of the rocking conveyance.
There is a pause while we all realize that this thing is holding ten people and two birds. And we’re in 18wheneverwherever.
“It’s a little known fact that all Romancelandia carriages are roomy inside,” points out Tessa, “They have to be. For tall heroes. And…other things.”
“What other things?” Monty asks, leaning toward her with a leer.
She blushes. “Oh, you know.”
Monty grins. “I think you ought to tell me.”
“Yes, Tessa,” Kate says, “You should tell him.”
Tessa turns to her. “Shouldn’t you be with your new husband? I mean, didn’t you just get married?”
“There wasn’t room for him,” Kate says simply.
“She means he chose not to take a road trip in a carriage with eight romance authors,” Gaelen says dryly.
“Smart man,” I say. “But how is he getting back?”
“To 2012?” Kate asks.
“I meant to London, actually, but now that you mention it…”
“Best not to consider the space-time continuum too carefully,” Sabrina reminds us, eyes closed.
She’s headed for a nap, but makes a good point. I return my attention to Kate. “Well? How’s he getting back?”
“He hitched a ride with Lord B.”
There is a pause. Sabrina’s eyes fly open. “With Lord B.”
Kate nods. “I know. I was shocked, too. But the invitation came this morning, delivered to the room. Lord B likes husbands, it seems.”
“Of course he does,” Lady B speaks up for the first time, stroking Albert’s feathers. “Why wouldn’t he? Being an excellent one himself.”
We all murmur our assent and ignore the fact that Kate’s husband has received the GREATEST WEDDING PRESENT EVER. Full hours with the elusive Lord B. Hours? Days?
“How long will it take us to get back to London, anyway?” I ask.
Lady B sighs. “A good three-weeks.”
Miranda sits up. “Three weeks? Where in hell are we?”
Lady B cuts her a look. “I do not care for your tone, Miss Neville.”
“I don’t care to be in a carriage with this lot for three weeks, Lady B.”
Lady B’s gaze narrows. “You do not travel well, do you?” When no one speaks she adds, “Are you saying that none of you know the precise whereabouts of the Manor?”
We all have the grace to look chagrined.
Tessa perks up, “Well, three weeks means Scotland, right?”
“Dear me, no. The Scots!” the lady shudders.
“There’s nothing wrong with Scots, my lady,” Katharine defends.
“Not yours, of course, Miss Ashe, but generally, I find that they’ve fine legs and brute strength…” she hesitates. “Perhaps they’re not so bad after all.” She shakes her head. “Either way, we are most certainly not in Scotland. Beaufetheringstone Manor is on the Isle of Wight.”
We all pause at that. Lauren leans over me and pokes her head out the open window. “But…” she pulls her head back in. “Lady B…we’re in a carriage.”
Lady B gives Lauren a look. “I am aware.”
Lauren looks around for allies. Sabrina jumps in. “Lady B…I think Lauren is trying to say that the Isle of Wight is on an island. Which means we should be on a boat.”
Lady B returns to stroking Albert’s feathered head. “I’ve never thought much about it.”
My mouth is hanging open. “Space-time continuum issue?” I suggest.
“Or crazy hostess issue,” Gaelen says.
“I beg your pardon, Miss Foley?”
“Er…I said, hazy coasts, my lady. That must be how we missed the boat ride.”
A great snore comes from another corner of the coach. Monty is asleep. Leaning indelicately on Katharine’s shoulder. She doesn’t seem worried. In fact…yep. She’s smelling him. “He does smell of sandalwood,” she whispers.
“But there’s one thing I don’t understand,” I say.
“Just one?” Sabrina says.
“If we’re on the Isle of Wight, how will it take three weeks to get to London? Even with the missing boat?”
“Especially with the missing boat,” Lauren says happily, “Much easier to just drive.”
“We have to be prepared for anything,” Lady B says.
“What does that mean?”
“Only that, in my experience, anything can happen on long journeys,” Lady B says, cryptically.
It’s going to be a long three weeks. “I might need a drink if I’m to survive this.”
“I brought the leftover ratafia,” Tessa offers helpfully, reaching beneath her seat and extracting a lovely old bottle.
“Excellent! Now it’s a party!” Miranda says.
And then it happens…
Welcome to The Ballroom Blog Choose Your Own Adventure! For the month of September, each writer will write a scene on the road trip back to London…and set up the next post. You get to choose the next step of the story! So!
What happens to our carriage?
And what are your solutions to interminable carriage car rides?