Hello everybody. I’m very busy writing a new Darcy and Elizabeth novel — it’s an adventure story — and I’m having lots of fun with it, but since I haven’t posted for ages, I wanted to give you a wave and tell you what else I’ve been doing.
I’m part of the Regency Romantics group which is based in the UK. We’ve already published a few anthologies together. We write stories that are all sweet, traditional Regencies, more in the tradition of Georgette Heyer than the more raunchy Regency Historicals that are in vogue right now. All the authors are well established, best selling authors. I’m thrilled to be part of the group, though, to be honest, I sometimes feel a bit daunted. Everyone else is very prolific, with more than 30 novels each, while I’m the newbie, with only 4 Regency novels to my name and very much a straggler.
How do they do it? Not only do they manage to come up with endless plot ideas, but they are very disciplined in their writing. And to make matters worse, I can’t even claim to be the only Austenesque author in the group. Amanda Grange (who is in the group but isn’t in this particular anthology) is the best selling author of Mr. Darcy’s Diary and several other very successful Austen-related novels, while both Wendy Soliman and Fenella Miller have penned a few
Austenesque stories. So my one claim for fame in the group is eclipsed. Sigh.
However, there’s a big difference between being part of Regency Romantics and being part of Austen Variations and that is you. The Regency Romantics are not members of an online group like ours here at Austen Variations and at other Austenesque sites. There is nothing like being involved in the JAFF fiction community. I’ve come to know so many people and have made so many special friends that it’s become an extension of my life. Being part of it is so very special, and I’m really very fortunate and proud to belong to this wonderful fellowship of people brought together by the love of Jane Austen — and Mr. Darcy, of course.
Before I become start getting too emotional — let me get back to my original plan, which was to introduce you to my latest Regency novel: The Unexpected Duke. So without much ado, here is an excerpt from Chapter One.
A carriage accident, an inheritance, and broken promises. Isabella Chalmers has no intention of becoming a model wife, especially when
a marriage of convenience means having to deal with a crumbling mansion and a disagreeable duke…
Isabella Chalmers held back the curtain and stared at the street below. Every time a carriage rattled into Grosvenor Square, she stiffened, then relaxed when it didn’t stop in front of the townhouse. The duke had sent an express from Liverpool saying he would be coming to London within a week, but of course, there was no predicting exactly when he’d be here. It depended on the condition of the roads as well as the weather. As far as she was concerned, the later, the better.
She tried as hard as she could to bring up an image of the Duke of Silverston. She remembered a tall, gaunt man with hollow cheeks and cynical eyes. He’d had nice hands, she recalled, with long elegant fingers. Their acquaintance had been brief. Coupled with a painting of him as a ten-year-old child that hung on the landing overlooking the oak staircase, her recollection was hazy at best. She honestly didn’t know if she would be able to pick him out in a crowd.
Lord Alexander Penhurst, known to her since childhood as Penny, broke into her reverie. “Come away from the window, Belle. It won’t do to let the duke think you’re flustered at his arrival. Better to seem in control of things.” He was tucking into a plate piled full of breakfast food, oblivious to the turmoil she was experiencing.
He was right, she thought, stepping back from the window. Still, she kept her hand on the curtain, alert to any sound from outside.
“I am in control of things.”
Penny chuckled, prompting Isabella to send him a resentful look.
“I don’t know how you have the heart to eat under the circumstances. I can’t believe you’re just sitting there, munching away. You have the sensitivity of a toad. Don’t you realize the impact this will have on my life?”
“You know me all too well.” Penny grinned, got up and helped himself to more kippers and baked eggs. “Might as well make the best of it. Don’t know if I’ll be welcome anymore when the duke’s here. I’ll miss Cook’s food.”
“So now I know why you keep coming here. I thought it was my company you enjoyed.”
“Well, of course I enjoy your company, my dear Belle, but the food is definitely an important consideration.”
She snorted and looked out of the window again, considering the grey swollen clouds. Seagulls were squawking and circling above the chimneys. There was a storm brewing. She could feel it in the air.
“Maybe he’ll be delayed.” The possibility lifted her spirits.
“I hope not. You forced me to come here at this ungodly hour yesterday. Then I had to come again today. I’m not going to do it again tomorrow, I’m telling you now, even if your cook is better than mine.” He closed his eyes contentedly.
“You needn’t kick up such a fuss. It isn’t even early. It’s almost noon. Besides, I know you’re enjoying every minute. You love to watch me squirm.”
Penny gave his typical lopsided smile. “Of course I do. And I love telling you ‘I told you so’ as well. Though I still think you should get away from the window.”
She sighed and turned away from the window. “I know.” She wandered to the table, picked up a bun, took a tiny nibble, then put it down. “I just need another day to prepare myself mentally.”
“You’ve had more than enough time. You’ve been expecting him for months now. In my mind, the sooner he arrives, the better. Then the worst will be over and done with. It’s a bad business—”
Penny stopped as the door opened and Annette Chalmers stepped in. She didn’t notice the interruption. She came over to Isabella and gave her a tight hug.
“Shouldn’t you be at your lessons?” Isabella tried to sound severe but couldn’t help smiling at the young lady’s obvious excitement. Her usually pale face was glowing, the flush in her cheeks making her look very pretty.
“Oh, but how can I possibly concentrate on learning the world’s capitals on a day like this?”
Isabella was forced to concede the point. Annette was seventeen, and should be beyond the school room by now, but her education had been sadly lacking, and Isabella had insisted on continuing with lessons until the young lady came out.
“I suppose we can make an exception. What do you think, Penny?”
Annette looked at him hopefully. Isabella held back a smile. It was heart-warming to see that Penny was actually having an influence on the young woman’s development.
“Stands to reason. No point in having lessons if her mind is elsewhere.”
Annette beamed and flopped into an armchair in a very unladylike manner. “Thank you, Lord Penhurst. How did you manage to wake up so early two mornings in a row?”
Penny groaned, wagged his thick brows and prepared to answer, but Annette didn’t wait for his answer. She jumped to her feet and hurried to the window.
“When do you think my brother will arrive? Do you think I look different from how I did two years ago? Have I grown taller? Will he think I’m pretty?”
“Of course he will. How could he think otherwise?” Isabella reassured her. Annette’s confidence had improved over the last two years, after she’d been removed from her family’s influence, but it had not been an easy process. Isabella hoped all the work she’d done wasn’t going to unravel, now that the duke had returned.
The clatter of a carriage halting in front of the townhouse drew their attention.
Annette hurried to the mirror to smooth down her hair and adjust her ringlets. She was about to run out when Isabella shook her head. Annette, eager to impress the duke, sat down and clasped her hands in her lap.
The sound of the front door opening told Isabella the footmen had gone out to receive the duke. Her staff were too efficient. It had taken them less than a minute between the carriage stopping and the footmen rushing out to let down the carriage steps. For once she wished they had delayed. She had thought herself composed for the meeting, but now, to her surprise, she felt oddly nervous.
She came to her feet, took a deep breath and forced herself to relax.
The door to the breakfast room opened. “His Grace the Duke of Silverston is here to see you, Your Grace.” The butler’s face was impassive, but she could tell from the excited sounds of movement behind doors that the servants were vying to be the first to catch a glimpse of the duke.
“Thank you, Barnes.” Isabella flicked a glance towards the mirror to make double sure her appearance was acceptable. It passed her inspection.
She had been prepared for this, of course, ever since news had come that the late duke and James Chalmer’s older brothers had been killed in a carriage accident, though part of her had hoped that he was lost in the wilds of North America and wouldn’t even know about it. Then, last week, she had received an express announcing that his ship had berthed in Liverpool and informing her of the likely day of his arrival. Even then, she had hoped there would be a delay. Now there was no escape. The man who had promised never to return to England was here, and they both had to deal with the circumstances.
Meanwhile Isabella smoothed her skirts down, lifted her chin, and waited.
A man appeared in the doorway.
Isabella froze, her thoughts tumbling in a thousand different directions. She had suspected she would not recognize him, but she hadn’t expected this. The sight of the duke threw her into shock. She could hardly reconcile the man before her with the man she’d waved off two years ago. That man had been gaunt, with dark hollows under his eyes and the sallow skin of someone just recovering from typhus fever.
This was not her husband. There must be some mistake.
The man standing before her was broad-shouldered and tanned with outdoor living, exuding a masculinity that made her heart shudder. The toffee colour of his face contrasted strangely with his starched shirt and white cravat. His gold brown hair fell in unruly locks onto his face. He held his body tightly sprung, as if in preparation for an ambush. His black coat was impeccably cut but too loose around the shoulders, but it didn’t hide the firm outline of muscle underneath. She sensed that he had deliberately had the coat made unfashionably loose in order not to restrict his movements. She imagined him in the great forests of North America, stalking prey. He did not belong in an English drawing room.
The aura of restless energy in him fascinated her and repelled her at the same time. She had not counted on this at all. She had not been prepared for the fine specimen of manhood before her. She didn’t know quite what to make of him.
Luckily, Annette ran up to him at this moment, giving Isabella time to control her reaction. He held his sister at arm’s length. “Let me look at you! I can hardly believe that my little sister has grown into such a beautiful young lady.”
Annette giggled. It was exactly what she’d desperately wanted him to say. It was a point in his favor. Or maybe not. Perhaps he was naturally flirtatious. Either way, Isabella was tempted to say the same about him. I can’t believe my husband has grown into such a striking gentleman.
Then the inevitable happened and he looked towards her, his eyes resting on her with a cynical light. That was the only thing she found familiar about him. She had always felt uncomfortable under that cynical gaze. She didn’t like it any better now.
That thought enabled her to gather her scattered wits together. “Welcome back to England, Your Grace.” She held out her hand to him, curtseying formally. “You remember Lord Penhurst?”
“How could I forget?” He bowed to Penhurst. “Have you been back to Brussels recently?”
Penhurst bowed back. “No, not since we met there. Welcome to England, Your Grace. Now if you’ll excuse me, Belle, I have recalled a prior engagement.”
Isabella sent him a hurt look. How could he abandon her like this? She’d been counting on his support, and now he’d gone off and left her alone.
She turned to face the duke. His gaze caught hers and held it, challenging her.
“How does it feel to be a duchess, Your Grace?”
Yet again, Annette saved her from an awkward situation. “You needn’t be so formal just because I’m here,” she said. “You’ve been parted such a long time. I know you must wish to embrace.”
The young woman blushed as she said the words and left the room quickly. She was old enough to know her words were daring and perhaps even scandalous, but still young enough to want the two people she loved to love each other, too. She had no idea of the true situation between her brother and Isabella. Isabella had never thought it necessary to enlighten her. She hadn’t expected the duke to return, ever. Over the last weeks as he made his way back she’d tried to speak to her about it, but she couldn’t bear to disillusion her protégée. Now she wished she’d warned Annette. She wouldn’t have told her everything, of course, but at least enough so the young girl wouldn’t have unrealistic expectations.
Isabella smothered the resentment she felt at this unexpected turn of events. There was no point in sulking. Really, she couldn’t blame the duke for coming back. No one could have foreseen that his father as well as two brothers would die in the same carriage accident. She even felt sorry for him, to some extent. He’d been forced to leave the life he had made for himself in America and travel all the way back and, although he was a stranger to her, she still knew how much that return journey had cost him emotionally.
Conscious of Annette looking on, Isabella stepped forward, gave the duke her hand, leaned towards him, and kissed him on the cheek. Annette gave a little clap and beamed. Meanwhile, Isabella was pleased to see that she had taken the duke by surprise. His nostrils flared, and the cynical gaze turned questioning. She felt a certain satisfaction at catching him off guard.
Not for long. The next moment he was pulling her towards him. Panicking, she tried to pull back as his lips approached hers. Then at the last minute he turned and he kissed her on the cheek. An exotic scent that spoke of distant lands assailed her senses. She was drawn to it, enough at least to lean inwards to try and define it for herself. Spices. Cinnamon and cardamom oddly mixed in with the scent of pines as well as something else which was undefinable.
He released her suddenly, his eyes bright with amusement. “I hope the bedchamber is ready, Duchess.”
Isabella stiffened. Surely he did not expect—?
As if reading her mind, he went on. “I am weary from travel and would welcome a hot bath and a shave, if you will send me a man servant?” He turned to Annette. “If you’ll excuse me, Annette?”
Annette smiled happily.
Meanwhile, Isabella did not sigh with relief, exactly, because that would have been too obvious, but inwardly, a small part of her relaxed. She had no idea what to expect of this strange situation, but she certainly did not want it to begin badly.
“Of course,” she said, turning briskly to lead the way, though naturally he knew the house better than she did. “I have set you up in your old room. I wasn’t sure what you would prefer, but that room is one of my favourites. It’s bright and airy and I’ve had it redecorated, since some of the wallpaper was peeling off. I hope you’ll like it.”
“I hope so too.” His voice was non-committal.
When they reached the chamber, she opened the door, stopping just outside it. “I will have the servants bring up warm water for a bath. When you’re ready, let someone know and I’ll re-join you downstairs for refreshments.”
He bowed, took up her hand, and kissed it. “You are all consideration, Duchess. Just what I am looking for in a wife.”
She had to make it clear right from the beginning that she was not going to play this game. “Is it?” she said, coolly. “Then I fear that you are going to be rather disappointed.”
With that, she turned and walked away.
Also — look for my new Darcy and Elizabeth adventure, coming out in November.