Talking Titles

Choosing-a-Book-TitleGetting the right title for the right book can be a complicated business. Some authors need to have a definite title in mind before they start writing a book. It’s part of the world that they create. For others it isn’t as important and they call the book something vague until the moment comes when they need to give it a firm title. Then there are the marketing implications; a publisher will want a title to help identify a genre. Is it crime, historical, romance, horror? Those few words used on the front of a book can conjure an entire idea, a picture that, along with the style of the cover, will draw the reader in.

The “timeslip” genre has always struck me as having particularly evocative titles. They John Buchanremind me of the days when I was first reading historical fiction and enjoyed the writing of John Buchan (Greenmantle, The Dancing Floor) and Daphne Du Maurier (The House on the Strand, Jamaica Inn). Those titles, whether timeslip books or not, intrigued me with their suggestions of mystery and glamour.

Daughters of fireThese days I would be hard pressed to decide which was my favourite title by Barbara Erskine both in terms of the books and the titles themselves (Maybe Daughters of Fire on both counts). Susanna Kearsley’s titles perfectly sum up the books’ immensely atmospheric and evocative nature. Just the words “The Splendour Falls” gives me a tiny shiver of anticipation up the spine. Pam Hartshorne has totally nailed the timeslip vibe with all her fabulous titles.

It’s the association of the words, the reader’s imagination and the promise of entwined history and mystery that works for me. Each of us takes from a title the things we want, the things that spark our imagination and excite our reading senses.

When it came to choosing a title for my first timeslip I ran through many alternatives. FirstMist up was The Memory of Water, which had been the working title for the book for a long time. Then I realised that the story had changed and the water theme wasn’t as strong as it had once been. So then I thought of Winter’s Shadow. The book featured the Winter Queen, so this seemed appropriate. But it was set in summer, so maybe not. Secrets of the Winter Queen? Not so much. My editor came up with The Silent House. I wasn’t sure at first, but then it started to grow on me. But no – we decided it needed to have more of a timeslip feel. So now at last we have – drumroll:

House of Shadows.

It’s perfect for the story and I love the dark, slightly mysterious feel to it.

House of Shadows will be out in December from MIRA UK. Now all I have to do is think of a title for the next one…

What do you think of timeslip titles? Do you find them atmospheric and evocative? Which are your favourites and what do they “say” to you?

When is historical romance not historical romance?

frenchmans-creekIt’s a strange thing but lately I’ve discovered that a lot of the historical romance I enjoyed as a girl turns out not to be historical romance after all. First there were the books of Daphne Du Maurier. I wouldn’t dream of disputing the elements of horror and violence and the dark overtones that, according to newspapers such as The Guardian make her books so much more than “just” popular romances. There’s chilling malevolence in some of her books and dark shadows in all of them. But I would dispute that some of her books cannot also be described as historical romance.

So where is the problem? Is it simply a matter of Cornwalldefinition? Or is it that pesky literary snobbery that persists in sneering at romance and seeing it as “lesser”? Du Maurier herself, apparently, hated the notion of being referred to as a romantic novelist whilst adoring the idea of living in a “romantic rambling house near the sea” (The Guardian again). Menabilly, and the Cornish landscape, inspired many of her books including Frenchman’s Creek and Jamaica Inn. So it’s okay for the house and the landscape to be described as romantic but the books not?

PoldarkThen there’s Poldark. By chance – or perhaps not – we are back in “romantic” Cornwall again. I was only eleven when the first TV adaptation of Poldark was broadcast and it was hugely influential on my developing passion for historical romance. Now we have a new TV version and a slew of articles telling me that this most romantic of historical romances isn’t one because it has character depth and deals with political and social issues. So do a great many historical and contemporary romances that I have read, so I’m still waiting to understand the difference.

It feels as though it is somehow a shameful thing to approve of historical romance, to likeHistory and admire the genre and give it the credit it deserves for combining historical accuracy, intricacy, atmosphere, character depth, swashbuckling plot and romance. Ah yes, the romance. Perhaps that’s the problem – we’re back to that persistent and pernicious prejudice against romance. Even some of those reviewers who admit to enjoying the Poldark remake make it sound like a guilty pleasure, trotting out unpleasant clichés about bodice-rippers (does anyone who uses the cliché ever stop to think what it really means?) and metaphorically blushing as they admit to enjoying a smouldering hero. For me the low point was one newspaper feature that referred to the new series of Poldark as aiming to become “a housewife’s favourite.” That one really did have me wondering which century we were in.

I’ll never apologise for enjoying historical or any other sort of romance. It’s not something that requires any apology, justification or judgement against some spurious set of literary criteria. I love writing historical romance, I love reading it, I love watching it and I applaud anyone who feels the same.

Blog Round Up

carriageHere’s a quick link to three great blog pieces for history lovers this week:

Firstly, on the UK Regency Authors’ Blog, Elizabeth Hawksley talks about the importance of sons in Victorian families:

On the Word Wenches, Louise Allen blogs about the trials and tribulations of stagecoach travel in the early 19th century:

And on the Ashdown House blog is the illustrious history of the Craven A cigarette and how the development of grand Victorian smoking rooms led to the segregation of the sexes:

Happy reading!



The Treasures of Windsor Castle

Windsor 2This weekend I went to Windsor Castle to see the exhibition commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. Whilst I was there I also had the pleasure of a tour of the rest of the castle, including St George’s Chapel. I had had no idea that so many Kings and Queens had been buried at Windsor, including Edward IV, Henry VIII alongside his third wife Jane Seymour, and Charles I. I found it pretty mind-blowing to be standing on the spot they were buried, but I found the entire chapel building totally awe-inspiring and a true distillation of the phrase “steeped in history.” It would be difficult to fine anywhere more steeped in history than Windsor, in fact – from Edward III’s battle sword to the choir stalls for the Knights of the Garter, from Charles II’s bed (the imagination runs wild!) to the armoured figure of the King’s champion on horseback, it is a journey through a thousand years of history.

It’s impossible to do justice to a vast castle like Windsor in one blog piece and probably notNapoleon's cloak that interesting for the reader anyway, so I have picked out a few highlights of my trip. The first was the Waterloo Exhibition itself; in addition to a room with paintings, maps and cartoons relating to the Battle of Waterloo there were other artefacts on display including a tiny lock of Napoleon’s hair and the scarlet and gold cloak he was wearing before the battle. I really fancied trying that on but sadly I wasn’t allowed! It was a very theatrical looking item!

I also loved the Castle’s “moat garden.” The original moat surrounding the Round Tower has been an ornamental garden since the 18th century and it is full of palm trees, roses and other wonderful tropical and temperate plants.

Prince RupertThe Parliamentarian forces held Windsor during the English Civil War. Prince Rupert of the Rhine attempted unsuccessfully to recapture it and after the Restoration of the Monarchy he was appointed Constable of the Castle. He instituted a new programme of repairs and redecoration which was described thus by the diarist John Evelyn in 1670: “Prince Rupert… handsomely adorned the hall with furniture of arms, which was very singular, by disposing the pikes, muskets, pistols, bandoleers, holsters, drums… as to represent festoons, trophy-like.” It sounds like a riot of weaponry!

My most excited moment on the tour was when we were walking through Charles II’s Bohemian childrenstaterooms and I saw amongst all the Stuart artworks a painting called “The Four Eldest Children of the King of Bohemia.” I’ve never seen this “in the flesh” before and I love it. It’s painted by Von Honthorst, who painted many of the pictures in the Ashdown House collection, and it’s a group portrait of the Winter King and Queen’s elder children. Play-acting and fancy dress were a popular form of entertainment amongst the early 17th century nobility and this picture shows the Princess Elizabeth dressed as Diana, goddess of the hunt, whilst her brothers Rupert, Maurice and Charles Louis represent a group of Arcadian hunters. The boys are depicted as manly and athletic, whilst also showing that they have learned to show a lady gallantry and reverence. The dogs have also learned gallantry – the one in front is bowing!

Fashion and History at Kensington Palace

Today on the Word Wenches blog I am talking about a recent visit to the exhibitions atFashion rules Kensington Palace. From the advice on how to survive at the Georgian Court to Queen Victoria’s wedding dress, from Queen Mary’s china to Diana Princess of Wales’ shoulder pads, it was a marvellous day out! Read more about fashion, history and costume here!

The Last Battle

This weekend I visited Stow-on-the-Wold, a gorgeous market town set in the Cotswold hillsStow in Gloucestershire. One of the things that draws me to Stow is that the battle of Stow-on-the –Wold, 1646, the final battle in the English Civil War, took place just to the north of the town. Stow is at the junction of eight roads and as a result saw plenty of action during the Civil War period from 1642 – 1646. Royalist and Parliamentarian armies crossed this part of the country regularly as it was on the route to the West Country from King Charles’ base in Oxford. Charles himself stayed in the inn in the market square before the Battle of Naseby. It is now known as the King’s Arms.

Battle of StowOn the 21st March 1646 an army of three and a half thousand Royalist soldiers under the command of Sir Jacob Astley was attempting to reach the King’s headquarters at Oxford but was intercepted by a Parliamentarian force. At first the fighting went in the Royalists’ favour and they beat the Roundheads back but eventually the Parliamentarian cavalry broke through their lines and forced them to retreat towards Stow, where there was fighting in the streets and the market square between the Roundheads and the last desperate remnants of Astley’s army.

Visiting Stow today and walking around it’s narrow streets and passageways, amongst Stow churchbuildings of beautiful yellow Cotswold stone, it’s almost impossible to imagine the place as the scene of a running battle between the opposing forces in the Civil War. It feels too peaceful. Yet the monument in the church to a young Royalist Captain, who died in the battle, is a reminder that even the sleepiest places can have witnessed violence.

The royalist prisoners were held overnight in St. Edward’s Church after the battle because it was the most secure building in the town and large enough to hold such a number. They were sent to Gloucester whilst Sir Jacob Astley was imprisoned in Warwick Castle. The dead were laid in Digbeth Street, which re-enforces the legend of the streets of Stow running with blood. The site of their burial remains a mystery.

MemorialAs part of our battlefield tour we walked to the top of the hill where Sir Jacob drew up his army and looked out across the hills. It was a beautiful fresh sunny day and the rolling fields looked as peaceful as the town. Today a monument on the northern hillside commemorates the site and an engraved stone in the churchyard recognises all the men who gave their lives in the conflict.

The destruction of the last royalist field army at Stow dashed the last desperate hopes of Memorial stow churchthe Royalist cause and effectively signalled the end of the Civil War. Charles I surrendered soon afterwards. The market cross still stands in the square; it was on theses steps that that Sir Jacob Astley sat when he surrendered and here that the First Civil War was effectively ended.


Travelling in Time with Midi Berry!

MIDIToday it is my very great pleasure to welcome author Midi Berry to the blog! Midi’s debut novel, Nights of the Road, is a  captivating, multi-layered story set in 17th century England and modern day California, crossing time and continents, and exploring the idea of love and reincarnation in satisfying depth.

 Nicola :

Welcome to the blog, Midi! Nights of the Road is set in the court of King James the First and twenty-first century rock music California. These time periods and locations are not obvious partners for a time slip novel. What inspired your choices?

You’ve been writing a time slip novel too, Nicola, so you may well understand my sense that the times and places chose me. More precisely, certain characters appeared in my life and demanded I listen to them and interweave their stories.

Real-life personalities from the seventeenth century came first. That seems odd in retrospect, for I had never studied Stuart Britain, in or out of school. Researching a book in – for me – virgin historical territory provided an education in a fascinating and hitherto neglected era.

The initial trigger came in mid-2002. I was living in LA and received a surprise postcardMark from my American boyfriend. Mark is a rock drummer and he was on a European tour with members of the band Asia. I had only recently moved to California from Corsica and met Mark just after 9/11. Our relationship was new and he seemed an unlikely personality to send an old-fashioned postcard.

The image of Corfe Castle gave me a jolt. The Dorset location was right off the beaten track for Mark, whereas I had visited it often as a child, yet never mentioned it to him. The castle holds a special meaning for our family, because one of my ancestors, Maud de Braose, was imprisoned there in the early 13th century and starved to death by another ancestor, King John.

Corfe For days, the postcard flirted shamelessly with me, until I gave in and did a Google search. The first name I turned up in relation to Corfe Castle was Lady Elisabeth Hatton. I also read a BBC news item that her remains had been recovered from St. Andrews Church, Holborn, during a recent mass exhumation and I had one of those aha moments: “These bones have a tale to tell.”

After that, I spent all my free time researching Eliza and her tempestuous marriage to her powerful husband, Sir Edward Coke, who held high public office under both Elizabeth and James the First. When I read that Coke had forced their younger daughter, Frances, into teenage marriage with the infamous Duke of Buckingham’s manic-depressive brother, I got goose bumps. Then Frances began to visit me in my dreams and I woke up one morning with the sound of her voice in my ear, saying, “I want you to write my story.”

My head argued with Frances at first, because so many people had written about her during her lifetime and since. Yet the more I dug, the more contradictions I found in their tales. I realized everything I read was written about Frances or for her, but not by her. Her spirit seemed so present yet elusive, and that paradoxical combination captivated me. I decided to trust her voice in my ear and the feeling in my heart and just follow her lead.

beachI was still researching Frances and talking with her about her life, without having put pen to paper, when I wandered by the Pacific Ocean one day and found an invisible companion, a woman of my own time and place, walking at my side. We began a dialogue and from that day Sarah James also figured in my life.

I knew Sarah and Frances were somehow connected, but I did not know how. Neither would leave me in peace until I accepted that I would have to write both their stories in order to find out.

Nicola: The seventeenth and twenty-first century stories interweave seamlessly in Nights of the Road. Did you write them concurrently or separately?

I just sat down and started writing, and allowed the two women to guide me. One day Frances would do all the talking and on another day Sarah took the lead. The book unfolded over a period of months.

I am not an author who plans and structures novels carefully in advance. By the time I began to write Nights of the Road, I had researched the seventeenth century as thoroughly as my local library and Internet sources would allow, so I knew the outline of Frances’s life and key events of her world. That provided a spine for the story, although I had no idea which parts of her personal biography Frances would want to linger over and which she would wish to pass through in a hurry, or even not mention at all. She often surprised me with her choices.

John ClavellI was well into the novel before I had an inkling of how the two stories might interweave since, on the surface, their contexts were quite different. Then the mercurial character of a real-life 17th century highwayman leaped onto the stage, through a slim biography that I purchased. John Clavell had arrived! His swagger reminded me of a modern-day rock musician, Adam Ant, and suddenly I knew a lot more about what was happening to Sarah.



Now I found myself having to retrace my steps, to fill in the hitherto unknown detail about a boy whom Frances had insisted on playing with in early chapters covering her childhood, when she stayed often at Corfe Castle with Eliza.

From then, the plot became ever clearer, like words appearing when you hold invisible writing up to a flame. Yet each day, when first opening my computer, my mind was a blank and I was eager to discover what would happen next. I don’t know how you write, Nicola, but I find that my hands often know much better than my head what needs to happen. When writing ‘fiction’, I can bypass the mental struggles and inner criticism I used to experience in composing student essays, or business consulting articles, or development projects  funding proposals. I have at last come full circle – or spiral – and can write spontaneously again, just as I did in early childhood, before my mind became hung up on the ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ that I ingested from school and society.

Nicola: How long did it take you to complete the novel?

 I completed the first draft within a year of receiving Mark’s postcard. I had the novel professionally proofread and took it to a writer’s conference – the only one I have ever attended – in San Diego late in 2003. A couple of publishers expressed flattering interest, but both told me Sarah’s story would need rework. Their recommendations made sense, but gave me a headache, for I was embarking on a period of intense work and frequent long-distance travel from California to different countries of Africa. So I shelved the manuscript indefinitely.

Development projects took all my energy for the next decade, until I began to get sick on long-distance flights. By the end of 2013, my body was demanding I let go of my consulting identity, and I gave myself a year away from international travel. I picked up my unfinished 18th century Corsica novels, hoping I had grown up enough to write the second half of that trilogy, but then I came across Frances Coke again on Internet. I learned that the Craven Collection had acquired her portrait for Ashdown House, which I had ridden by often in childhood. The National Trust property is near the Uffington White Horse, where I had my first past-life experience at age eleven.

(c) National Trust, Ashdown House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationThat triggered my desire to rewrite Nights of the Road. I was delighted to discover that Sarah wanted to change from a third- to first-person narrative. This time, she and I could articulate things about past lives and reincarnation that we had been stretching to understand and express in the first version of the novel. Even so, our beloved friend Frances remained elusive about the exact nature of her relationship with Sarah. We learned the secret in the final weeks as we three rewrote the closing chapters together!

It’s been a wonderful adventure to complete this story and bring it to publication. We’re hoping that readers will get as much interest and fun from reading as Frances, Sarah and I have had in writing – and re-writing – Nights of the Road!

NightsoftheRoad com copyNights of the Road by Midi Berry is available in e-book at Amazon Kindle, Apple iBooks, Nook Books and Kobo. The paperback edition will be published in February. You can find out more about Midi, her writing and the fascinating history behind Nights of the Road by visiting the website:

Midi is offering a copy of the Nights of the Road e-book to one commenter on the blog. Please feel free to ask her any questions about the book, the history behind it or anything else you like! And I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on timeslip stories. Do you have any favourite books and authors? Or any particular time periods you enjoy reading about? 



IMG_4231-BWOver on the Word Wench Blog today we are talking about the aphrodisiac effects of snow! It’s pretty, it sends you scurrying to cuddle up with a loved one – or maybe a good book! Have you had a snowmance? Do you have a favourite snow romance? Come and tell us about it!

Saving a Lady on Christmas Eve

FrancescaA few years ago I wrote a very short story as part of a Christmas celebration on a romance website. Today, as it is Christmas Eve, I thought I would post it up here for anyone who would like to read a little romantic novella – with every best wish for the Christmas Season.

Love from Nicola


A number of years ago I wrote a series of books, the Bluestocking Brides, set in Suffolk and featuring the rakish Kestrel brothers. At the end of the series the youngest brother, Lord Stephen Kestrel, was the only one who was unmarried and lots of readers asked me if Stephen would ever have his own story.

My most recent series has been The Scandalous Women of the Ton. In book 4, NOTORIOUS, Miss Francesca Devlin marries the dissolute Marquis of Alton. Later in the series it comes out that she has been widowed and in book 6 she receives a proposal of marriage from Lord Stephen Kestrel.

This is what happened in between…

Christmas woodsThe Midwinter Villages, Suffolk, 1816

Francesca Alton wanted an adventure. A big adventure. She wanted smugglers, highwaymen and pirates, action and romance. She felt that she deserved some excitement in her life. Unfortunately all she had instead was a walk of two miles through the snow to the nearest inn. Her boots were already soaking and her feet were frozen. Hunger gnawed at her stomach.

It was typical of the Duke and Duchess to throw her out of the house on Christmas Eve and before dinner. They had only invited her to Midwinter Hall because they thought she might be carrying the heir to the Alton dukedom. It was the sole reason they had continued to acknowledge her after the death of their son Fitz four months earlier.

Chessie was not pregnant but she had had no intention of telling the Duke and Duchess. She knew that once they had no further use for her, she would be thrown out in the street without a penny. The Duke and Duchess had detested her from the start. The feeling was mutual.

Unfortunately her maid was not discreet. And so it was that shortly before dinner on Christmas Eve the Duchess had come to her and told her that she was no longer welcome at Midwinter Hall. She should not trouble to pack a bag because they had paid for everything she possessed and although they would permit her to keep the clothes she stood up in, she could take nothing else.

For the first mile of the walk to the Midwinter Inn Chessie had tried to keep her spirits upImage 2 by imagining all the adventures she might have. She had heard that the Midwinter villages were the haunt of smugglers and pirates. But as the empty road wound ahead and the snow dripped from the brim of her hat down her neck and the outline of the trees beside the road started to blur into darkness, she could no longer pretend. She had no money and no prospect of any, she would not be able to pay her shot at the inn let alone the cost of the coach to London and there would be no excitement in her life ever again.

The road passed through a thick copse where the trees drew close overhead. The bitter wind whirled the snow in Chessie’s face, blinding her. She shivered deep within her thin cloak. Then she heard the chink of a harness and the muffled clop of hooves in the snow, and a dark figure reared up out of the darkness ahead. In the same moment, someone clapped a gloved hand over her mouth. She could not draw breath to scream. Nor could she struggle because a very strong arm was clamped about her waist and she was dragged under the cover of the trees and held still against a hard masculine body.

“Quiet!” Her captor growled in her ear.

She could feel the rise and fall of his chest against her back. His breath stirred her hair. He smelled of cold air and leather and lemon cologne, and his grip on her was very sure. It was entirely delightful when it should have been frightening. Chessie gave a little wayward shiver of pleasure. The Duchess had always claimed she had no breeding and no decorum, and clearly it was true if she could tremble with enjoyment in a smuggler’s arms.

Yet there was something familiar about this smuggler. She could not see his face nor identify him in any way and yet instinctively she recognised him.

Gradually the clop of the hooves and the jingle of harness died away and her captor’s hand fell from her lips. Chessie drew in a deep breath.

“Lord Stephen!” She said.

He was still holding her with an arm about her waist and now she felt the jolt of surprise go through him. He released her, turning her around to face him. It was very dark under the trees. She could see nothing of him other than as a tall shadow against darker shadows.

“Do I know you, ma’am?” His voice was smooth and deep, with a hint of amusement. Definitely Lord Stephen Kestrel. When they had met three years before she had noticed straight away how mellow his voice was. Some men, she had thought, could seduce with their voice alone and this was one of them. The fact that he was also tall and dark and sinfully good looking was, of course, an added benefit. There had been a time when she had been a little bit in love with Stephen Kestrel. If only he had not been a younger son with his way to make in the world and if only she had not been so foolishly in love with the undeserving Fitz…

She felt a strange pang of loss.

“We met in London a few years ago,” Chessie said. “I don’t suppose you remember. I am Francesca Alton.” She almost offered him her hand, which, she realised, would be a ridiculously formal thing to do in a snowy wood in the middle of nowhere.

“Lady Alton!”  Lord Stephen sounded taken aback now. “I do apologise for grabbing you in such an ill-mannered way. I was trying to ensure that Old Jeb did not shoot you. He is as deaf as a post and trigger-happy with that blunderbuss.”

“That’s very thoughtful of you,” Chessie said. “I had no notion I would run into smugglers on Christmas Eve.”

“You did not, ma’am.” Lord Stephen’s voice was dry. “Jeb Hartley is the gamekeeper on my brother’s estate here and he is out tonight to ensure none of the local poachers are looking to supplement their Christmas table with some of our game.”

house“Oh, I see.” Chessie could feel herself blushing. Lord Stephen had taken her arm and was leading her back onto the road.  Out here in the fading daylight she could see him clearly; the tousled dark hair in which snowflakes were settling, the dark eyes, the chiselled planes of his face, the broad shoulders encased in a many-caped coat of superfine. He looked every inch the younger brother of the Duke of Kestrel whilst she probably looked like something the cat would refuse to drag in.

“All self-respecting smugglers are likely to be tucked up in front of the fire on such an inclement day drinking their contraband brandy,” he said.

“Of course,” Chessie said. “Of course they are.”

So much for her foolish dreams of adventure.

“Not that there are many in these parts any more,” Lord Stephen continued. “Nor highwaymen, nor pirates, should you be wondering.”

“Of course I was not wondering,” Chessie said sharply. “How absurd.”

“The Midwinter villages,” Lord Stephen said, “have something of a reputation for criminality.”

“Quite unwarranted, I am sure,” Chessie said.

“Quite.” His voice changed. His gaze appraised her keenly. There was a slight frown between his dark brows now. “May I escort you back to Midwinter Hall, Lady Alton? It is a bad night to be out.”

“You could,” Chessie said, “but then you would put the Duke and Duchess to the trouble of throwing me out again.”

His frown deepened. “They have cast you out on Christmas Eve?”

“I fear so,” Chessie said. “I am heading for the Midwinter Inn. I need to get a coach back to London.” She shivered as a cascade of snow slid from one of the branches and tumbled down her neck. If she spent much longer standing here she would not be able to feel her feet, they were so cold.

Lord Stephen muttered something uncomplimentary about the Duke and Duchess of Alton. She did not quite catch what it was which was perhaps a good thing. “The inn is only a few hundred yards further,” he said briefly. “I’ll walk with you.”

Chessie felt a little frisson of something that was definitely not cold tickle her spine.

“I would not dream of putting you to the trouble-” She began.

“It is no trouble.”

He offered her his arm and adapted his long stride to suit her shorter one and within five minutes they came round a bend in the road and Chessie saw the lights of the Midwinter Inn gleaming through the dusk.

“Thank goodness,” she said, through chattering teeth. “Any longer and I would have frozen to the spot.”

Lord Stephen hustled her through the doorway and into the warmth. A fire blazed in the image 3hearth. Lanterns cast a warm golden light. The ancient beams glowed with sprigs of red holly berries and rich green boughs. There was the most marvellous smell of roasting meat. Chessie’s stomach gave and enormous rumble.

“A private parlour, please, Hartigan,” Lord Stephen said, as the landlord came hurrying forward to greet them. “And two glasses of mulled wine and some hot food.”

“Oh no,” Chessie said. “Please, I can’t-”

I can’t afford any food.

She bit her lip. She had too much pride to finish the sentence.

“I was only hoping to wait in the warmth until the coach for London arrived,” she said.

“That would be next Wednesday, ma’am,” the landlord said.

That was the moment when Chessie thought that she might just cry but instead she raised her chin and said:

“In that case…” But then she stopped because she did not know what to do in that case.

“In that case,” Lord Stephen said, “we’ll take the private parlour, the mulled wine and the hot food, thank you, Hartigan,” and he guided Chessie into the parlour and helped her out of her soaking wet cloak. As he put back the hood his fingers brushed her cheek and her startled gaze flew to meet his. Their eyes held for a long moment and Chessie felt a flare of heat start at her toes and sweep through her whole body.

Oh dear. She really should learn not to be so susceptible to handsome men. Marriage to Fitz should have taught her to value character over looks. Not that Lord Stephen Kestrel was anything like her late and unlamented husband but she had heard he had been a shocking rake when he was younger and she had always been attracted to men with a dangerous reputation.

To cover her confusion she picked up the glass of mulled wine that the landlord had brought and drank half of it down in one gulp. It was delicious, warm and richly flavoured, tasting of fruit and spices. She finished the glass and accepted another. The food arrived, fragrant beef and potato pie with a crisp pastry crust. Lord Stephen kept up an easy flow of conversation and soon she found that they were chatting away like old friends, discussing her experiences of London and Lord Stephen’s travels on the continent. They laughed a lot and Chessie’s head spun and her elbow slid off the table and she felt drowsy and happy and ever so slightly drunk.

And then Lord Stephen leaned forward and said:

“How did you know that it was me earlier? You could not see me, so how did you know?”

“I recognised you,” Chessie said. “I knew your touch.”

As soon as the words were out she felt embarrassed and pressed her fingers to her lips. “I beg your pardon,” she whispered. “I think I may have had too much mulled wine. I meant that we have danced together several times and I recognised the fit of your body against mine.”

That was even worse. She was ready to sink with humiliation now. But then she looked up into his face and forgot her mortification because there was a flash of something bright and elemental in Lord Stephen’s dark eyes that made her heart race and a curl of heat unfurl deep in the pit of her stomach. His hand covered hers where it rested on the table.

“Why did you marry Alton?” He asked softly. “He was the most frightful cad.”

“I know,” Chessie said. “He was mean and vicious but I didn’t realise until it was too late. I thought I was in love with him. It was a terrible mistake. And now I am completely ruined because I have no money and have been cast out by Fitz’s family there is no coach to take me back to London to my friends, and even if there was I could not afford it, and I cannot pay you for the meal or the wine-” She stopped abruptly as Lord Stephen pulled her to her feet and kissed her. He tasted of wine and spices and the kiss was sweet and tender and made her head spin. It was so delicious, in fact, that she found herself winding her arms about his neck and kissing him with so much fervour that he kissed her again, a great deal less gently this time.

Oh dear. So that was the way it was going to be. He was going to demand payment of another sort. It was explicitly clear in the way he was holding her and his impressive state of arousal. Chessie supposed that if she was going to embark a career as a courtesan, and really what other course was open to her now with no money and no other talents, then it might be rather pleasant to start with Lord Stephen. In fact it would be more than pleasant. She felt a very wicked spark of pleasure flare inside her.

“I would be very happy to be your mistress,” she whispered, playing with the buttons on his jacket because she was too shy to look him in the eye as she made her declaration, “only my brother must never know. He would not approve. Fortunately he lives in Scotland so if we are discreet he need not find out.”

It was a moment later that she realised that the tremor in Lord Stephen’s chest came from the fact that he was laughing at her.

“I’ve heard about your brother,” Lord Stephen said, “and I would not wish to get on the wrong side of him. I am afraid it is out of the question.”

So that was that. She had been mistaken. He did not find her in the least attractive and had no desire to bed her. She would have to find another way to raise funds. Chessie felt quite downcast. She was also starting to realise that she had taken quite a lot of the mulled wine and would probably have a headache and quite a lot of regrets in the morning.

“This is what we are going to do,” Lord Stephen said softly. “Since I cannot invite you to stay with me at Midwinter Manor without ruining your reputation, I am going to pay for you to stay here until the coaches to London resume next week. I will come to see you each day, very formally and very properly. Then when you return to London I will come to call on you, very formally and very properly. And in a little while I will make you a very formal and proper offer of marriage.”

“Oh!” Chessie said. “But-”

“I have been in love with you for years,” Lord Stephen said, and suddenly his arms were about her very tightly. “I left London when you chose Fitz rather than me. I’ve stayed away ever since. I only came to Midwinter for Christmas in the hope of seeing you. I knew it was too soon-”

IMG_4231-BWChessie pressed her fingers to his lips. “It’s not too soon,” she whispered. “I loved you too but I was foolish; I valued Fitz’s fortune and title too highly and learned too late that other qualities are of far greater worth.” She smiled radiantly. “You rescued me from frozen feet and starvation on Christmas Eve, Stephen. A lady could not ask for more from her hero.”