Be Warned: These are the scribblings of a writer unruly, unsupervised, and largely unrepentant

Be Warned: These are the scribblings of a writer unruly, unsupervised, and largely unrepentant
Coming Soon!

Monday, June 19, 2017

Where do I get my wretched ideas? And why can't I be stopped?

The Peculiar Folly of Long-Legged Meg-


Persephone "Persey" Foyle, the Dowager Marchioness of Holbrooke, leads a happy, busy existence, tending her garden, overseeing her charitable missions, feuding with her stepson's wife and vetting potential suitors for her stepdaughter. As far as this lively widow is concerned her life lacks nothing.

But when a young, famously-talented designer is hired to "improve" the grounds of Holbrooke estate— a task she has managed for eight years— Persey's comfortable world is threatened. It doesn't help that he's hired by her nemesis, the new marchioness, or that his talents are all the mode among England's Georgian aristocracy. He has no chance of impressing Persey. No chance at all.

Josias Radcliffe has worked hard for his success, and although he's been warned about the dowager, no "meddlesome old crone" will stand in the way of his latest triumph. Until he runs into a pretty maid on his first day and talks her into showing him through the Holbrooke maze. Soon his course is altered, his plans changed forever.

Because the dowager has secrets and Joss is the one person who could expose her as a fraud. He knew her when she was Long-Legged Meg— a scullery maid who spun tall tales, and, so it is rumored, used her knowledge of herbs and plants to dispatch her enemies. Folk say she used those long legs to carry her away from the gallows.

But have they carried her far enough?



(copyright J. Fresina 2017)


* * * *

My inspiration for this story began with one picture (right) - by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (circa 1850-1855).

People often ask where I get my ideas. Well, they often spring from just one picture, or a dream I had, or something I watched. This intently reading young girl immediately conjured, for me, the story of Meg, a soul who wants something more for herself than the life others believe she's entitled to have. Her skies are grey, but there is a light on her face that suggests she might soon emerge into sun. And I think she has stolen a moment away from her work to sit outdoors and read her book - possibly a forbidden pleasure, definitely something her employer would never encourage if they caught her at it. Her expression is quietly absorbed, but I can't help feeling there is much going on inside her mind - a great deal of story plotting, perhaps?

In the second picture, I see another Meg quite grown up and with a bit more "spit and polish".  Would you still recognize her? She hopes not.

You can find out more about Long-Legged Meg on June 28th. Happy reading!

Jayne

(Painting on the left is of Emma, Lady Hamilton by George Romney 1782)

Thursday, June 1, 2017

On Sale!

For this weekend only you can grab a copy of LAST RAKE STANDING for only 99cents!

This was one of the very first novellas I wrote when I decided to try my hand at romance and novellas in one strike. If you're looking for a quickie read this weekend, here is your chance to pick up a bargain.

LAST RAKE STANDING (But for how long?)

In Victorian London, Emma Hale leads two lives. As Le Petite Oiseau, in corset and pink feathers, she's the reigning queen of the music hall; offstage she's a meek theatre seamstress. For years these two women have shared one body out of necessity; now they share something else—forbidden love for a man who could end their masquerade for good.

William Craven, Duke of Penhale, wants Le Petite Oiseau as his mistress, but he's also sworn to hunt down and revenge himself on the hazel-eyed girl who once shot at him with a dueling pistol. He's about to be surprised when he crosses paths with both women on the same night. And suddenly he faces a dilemma.

So which woman does Will want? The fiery, passionate actress or the quiet "mouse" hiding in her shadow?

Perhaps this notorious rake wants them both. 

 
or
 
 
 
 

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Character Showcase - Prospero "Smokey" Piper



Prospero "Smokey" Piper is a self-made man who rose from poverty by way of a bourbon distillery and he is now a very wealthy businessman, a widower with three grown daughters to manage. His main hope for them is that they will make good marriages and provide him with grandchildren of whom he can be proud. He also wants them to be happy in life and has raised them to have confidence in themselves - to know that Pipers never give up.

As he tells Epiphany, his middle daughter, "There's always another way to conquer the mountain, girl. If someone gets in our way, we go around them and over them, and we don't pay them no more mind. We're adventurers and speculators by nature."

He fears - rightly so, as it turns out - that he might have been a little lax in his daughters' upbringing after their mother died. This is never more evident than when Epiphany ("Pip") causes a scandal that rocks Boston society and makes it necessary to pack her and her sisters off into exile abroad until the furor blows over. Not knowing what else to do, he hands the girls over to his sister Queenie to chaperone in England, then sits back and hopes for the best. Perhaps they'll find titled husbands to help raise his own status in America and stop certain "high and mighty types" from looking down their noses at him.

But like all the best laid plans this one will soon run into problems.

His eldest daughter is soon engaged to the son of a viscount and Prospero is so delighted and relieved that he proceeds with the arrangements immediately, on the urging of his sister and his daughter. He's not a man who knows much about etiquette and has a warm trust in his sister's ability to spot an opportunity. As Queenie often says, "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth."

When a series of unfortunate events (no spoilers here!) leave his daughters stranded and unchaperoned in England, Pip, his wayward middle daughter, suddenly finds herself having to step up and assume the responsibilities she always thought she wanted and could manage. Meanwhile, many thousands of miles away Prospero realizes that this plan to launch his daughters into London society was, perhaps, not his wisest idea ever. But it's not the first time he's made an error or missed his aim. He has lost and won back a fortune several times over and life is, as he knows only too well, nothing if not unpredictable. Without taking a little risk once in a while, a man may as well be dead. Without rolling the dice, no game would ever be won.

Now, with all fingers crossed, he must hope that his daughter stays strong under pressure. Fortunately , he knows she's no fading lily and can protect herself.

"Mr. Prospero "Smokey" Piper, of Louisiana and various other parts unknown and best unmentioned— a man who believed that when one ran out of opportunities one simply made more— was the first ambitious and wealthy American businessman to think of this idea, not that any history book or self-professed "expert" will tell you that, because...well, just like that first attempt at building a still behind his family's outhouse as a young boy, this plan didn't exactly turn out the way he expected either.

And although explosions were inevitable, it was not his grandmother's drawers in danger this time."

Copyright Jayne Fresina 2017

Want to read more? Get DAMON UNDONE here!

Happy Reading!

 (Picture of Washington's Still)

 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

An excerpt from Damon Undone


            Pleasanter, less aggravated faces could be found before feeding time at the zoological gardens in Regent's Park, she mused. He reminded her at once of Master Grumbles, an Irish wolfhound her father once owned. That gentle giant of a dog had followed her everywhere with a misleadingly depressed expression, as if the onerous responsibility of looking after her was almost more than it could bear, despite the fact that they always had a great deal of fun together and nobody had ever told the dog it must be her companion.
            "Sir, your foot." Pointing the end of her fan downward, she gestured to the item that kept her prisoner. "If you don't mind."
            "My foot?" he snapped impatiently, his mind clearly on other matters he deemed more important. Perhaps he was thinking of a bone he'd buried and trying to remember where. "What? What about it?"
            "It's on my shawl."
            His irritable gaze finally shifted to the marble steps as he swiveled partially around. "For pity's sake! Why the devil do women need all these blessed... attachments?" he growled at the lace shawl, holding it up to peruse the large, dirty hole he'd rendered there. "Something this flimsy has no practical service whatsoever and merely gets in the way."
 
           As she too assessed the damage, her heart sank. Merrythought had only lent her the shawl because it was the general consensus, as they exited the carriage, that Pip's gown showed a grievous amount of shoulder and bosom— something nobody had noticed before they left the house because she was late coming down, dragging her feet. Pip seldom studied herself in a mirror, so little interested in what she wore that she was most likely reading a book, writing a letter, or playing solitaire while being hoisted, laced and primped into her clothes by her aunt's dutiful, but not terribly sensible maid.
            The wolfhound growled onward under his breath, "Too many frills and furbelows dangling off you. As if all the hoops and petticoats aren't enough to keep us at bay. I believe the soldiers at Agincourt wore less armor."
            Before he got any more dirt upon her sister's shawl, she snatched it from his over-sized paw and draped it over her arm. "I quite agree. I'd be more content in my drawers alone, but I suspect this society would be outraged by the sight. Believe me, I've considered it more than once, even if it was only to liven up the proceedings."
            About to dismiss her by turning away again, instead he pivoted fully around, his gaze sharpened, those cool, gun-metal grey eyes inspecting her thoroughly. She stood before him, pinned to the spot, feeling as if invisible, commanding fingers gripped her face and held it to the light. "What's wrong with you?" he demanded.
            Where does one start, she thought wryly. But, of course, she must keep up appearances, for her sisters' sake. "I cannot imagine what you mean," she replied with all necessary hauteur. "There's nothing wrong with me. At least I'm in marginally appropriate dress for a ball." He, on the other hand, was not. Surrounded by gentlemen in crisply groomed evening attire, he stood out in his top boots, riding breeches and tweed coat.
            His thick hair was damp and tousled enough to suggest a very recent ride through the rain, in great haste and hatless. The state of his boots and breeches— for he wore no spatterdashes— also revealed the muddiness of the streets through which he had traveled. Apparently he cared little for the impression he made in the grand entrance hall of Lord Courtenay's town house and had as much concern for his appearance as Pip had for her own. The mud specks across his face— which she first mistook for freckles— told her that he, unlike most gentlemen on the staircase, had not consulted any of the mirrored panels on the wall. The skewed sideways knot of his neck cloth, smudged with the same grimy prints as the fingers of his gloves, hinted at the frequent tugging of an angry, frustrated hand. Everything about him suggested disdain for convention and so much impatient haste that it seemed as if he moved at speed, even while he stood still before her. And she must be moving with him, for her heart raced and all the other people on the staircase became mere blurs of color.
            Most young men she met struck her immediately as uninteresting, their minds sluggish and as little predisposed to anything beyond their own uncomplicated, immediate pleasure as plump cats on a sunny veranda. But this man's face was guarded and clever, his eyes lit with the restless, hungry, throbbing gleam of a hungry, bustling internal life. It drew her in; made her curious and challenged at first sight. Made her want to wipe away the remaining mud spatters for him, even at the risk of being bitten.
            He squinted hard at her. "There is something wrong with you." Moving up to join her on the same step, the man persisted, "You speak... strangely."
            "Do I?"
            "Yes, there is something the matter with you."
            "I can't think what you mean."
             And then his eyes flared, "You're a bloody American."
            She drew a quick breath, standing as tall as she could— which, in her mind, was six foot at least, and in reality was a little over five feet and two scant inches. Allegedly. She was certain the measuring stick lied. "Yes," she said proudly, "I am American."
            "Why didn't you say so then?"
            Eyebrows raised, she replied, "I beg your pardon. I didn't think that was what you meant by there being something the matter with me. Something wrong with me."
            He huffed, apparently amused in an arrogant way. "Didn't you indeed?" Shaking his head, he added, "Americans at the Courtenay's spring ball. Whatever is the world coming to? Still, I suppose it's a comic novelty for the luridly curious. Last year I heard they had acrobats and a fortune teller. Lady Courtenay once rode in on a unicorn, so they say." He flicked a finger across his nose, disposing of several dried mud flecks, as he exhaled a curt sigh. "It must be exhausting coming up with a diversion nobody has yet thought of. But Americans? I didn't realize old Courtenay had such a riotous sense of humor."
            Pip smiled brightly in a manner that would have fooled nobody who knew her. "Just you wait. In a year or two we'll be all the fashion and everyone will want one. Even you."
            "I wouldn't make a wager of it." His eyes narrowed, fingers paused in the process of fidgeting with the knot of his neck cloth again. "What are you doing here in any case?"
            Now that was an odd question, she mused. "Why does one usually attend a ball?" But when answered by his silence and another thorough perusal that could only be described as darkly suspicious and slightly indecent, she added, "I'm a spy, of course. Why else would I be here amongst you miserable people? Certainly not likely to have any fun, am I? Somehow your countrymen manage to take the pleasure out of everything with all your stifling, petty rules of etiquette. You wouldn't know a good party if it ran up and slapped you. I have already been warned that I must not, under any circumstances, laugh out loud in this society."
            "A spy?" he muttered. "I might have guessed."
            "Our government sent me to understand the workings of that." With her fan she pointed up at his mouth, almost touching it, "English Stiff Upper Lip."
            He did not flinch away from her fan, but looked at it and then at her again. "And what have you discovered?"
            "That it keeps you all in a state of pompous and frigid inflexibility, so confined by your traditions, unwelcoming to foreigners and outraged by anything different or new, that you dare not move forward."
            "I can see you have your advantages as a spy, being so... short of stature. Indeed I barely knew you were there." With airy nonchalance, hands behind his back, he added, "Until you began to make noise."
            She laughed. "Oh, I may be short, but I have ways of bringing men down to my size. I wouldn't underestimate me, if I were you, sir."
            Once again he had begun to turn away, but then stopped. "And how, precisely, do you imagine you'd bring me to my knees?"
 
(copyright Jayne Fresina 2017)

* * * *

Find out how Miss Epiphany "Pip" Piper brings Damon Deverell to his knees in DAMON UNDONE - out now!

AMAZON US
AMAZON UK
TWISTED E-Publishing
     
(Image above is a beautiful detail from "Portrait of a Young Woman with a Lace Shawl" by Adelaide Salles-Wagner c. 1850)

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Character Showcase - Queenie Du Bois

In DAMON UNDONE, the heroine and her two sisters are sent to England by their wealthy father to escape scandal and, hopefully, gather a little elegant sophistication -- not to mention a few titled, landed husbands. The lady chosen to chaperone the sisters on this adventure is their aunt, a colorful, lively lady who has traveled extensively and, in the words of our heroine, is "well versed in the art of marriage and husbands, having disposed of several herself. Not all of them her own."

Queenie Du Bois likes to let everybody know that she is still grieving her last husband - a charming wastrel who died in debt - and she has no intention to marry again herself, but that doesn't stop her eagerly matchmaking for those three nieces in her charge. She takes this mission very seriously, but it's an uphill task, particularly when unsavory rumors manage to follow those young women across the Atlantic and into London drawing rooms.

Along with her brother Prospero she was born into poverty in Louisiana. Since those early days, they have both gained and lost fortunes several times over, but they possess a certain stubborn resiliency that soon helps them back on their feet and smiling after every defeat. They are never without resources for too long and will use whatever method they find at their fingertips to raise their status in life. 
For the past few years Queenie has lived a full and luxurious existence, restlessly skipping about Europe and, basically, relying on her wits. Occasionally - when necessary - she has accepted her brother's financial assistance, and now she wants to repay that debt by getting his daughters married into the aristocracy. For the time being Queenie has settled in England, where she considers herself an expert on Society  and manners, "even going so far as to speak, at times, with a frighteningly inept semblance of an English accent. Nobody had yet told her how bizarre it sounded."

Queenie is a determined lady, with a practical eye and a severe distrust of poets and lawyers. She is not averse to fighting dirty, as our hero discovers when he steps beyond his boundaries with one of her precious charges. But even he can't help admiring her fearlessness. Damon Deverell has squared off, undaunted, against some of the most vicious delinquents and cunning rogues from London's underbelly, but Queenie Du Bois could put them all in the shade.

As her niece likes to say, "One could take Queenie Du Bois out of Hog's Flank, Louisiana, dress her up and give her airs and graces, but one could not quite take the Hog's Flank out of Queenie."

DAMON UNDONE arrives Wednesday, April 26th, 2017. Happy Reading!

Jayne

copyright Jayne Fresina 2017

(Painting: A Portrait of Francisca Carolina Gonzaga de Braganca by Franz Xavier Winterhalter c. 1850)

Friday, April 21, 2017

DAMON DEVERELL is about to be undone

Is it a battle of the sexes, a comedy of errors, or a chemical reaction? Perhaps a little bit of all three...

Coming on Wednesday April 26th, DAMON UNDONE (The Deverells Book Five).


            "We're not going to get along, you and I, are we?"

            "Good god, I hope not."

            Thus begins the acquaintance of Damon Deverell and a young woman he finds under his feet one evening, at a ball to which he isn't invited She reminds him instantly of someone he knew before, but that would be impossible, of course, because she — the girl from  his past—was entirely a construct of his own imagination. Wherever this disturbingly real woman came from, he's determined to maintain a cautious distance. But when he's hired to keep an eye on her, Damon's resolve to keep it "merely business" is soon threatened by some fresh-baked muffins, a pair of ankles he wishes he'd never seen, and a certain bold, independent American woman who boasts of a "very efficient right hook".

            Miss Epiphany "Pip" Piper has been sent into exile abroad, where her father hopes she'll learn to cool off her hot temper, acquire some elegant manners, and, hopefully, find a titled husband.  Mr. Prospero "Smokey" Piper, of Louisiana and various other parts unknown and best unmentioned, claims to be the first ambitious and wealthy American businessman to think of this idea, but just like his very first boyhood attempt at building a whiskey still behind the family outhouse, this plan doesn't exactly turn out the way he expects either.

            And although explosions are inevitable, it's not his grandmother's drawers in danger this time.

            When these two stubborn young people— Damon the "merciless shark" of a lawyer, who likes his world in order, and the utterly disorderly Miss Piper, a "despicable girl of whom nothing could be made"- find themselves thrown together by mischievous fate, it's not just a battle of the sexes or even a comedy of errors, it's a chemical reaction that will change both their worlds forever.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

A Private Collection - Excerpt#3

The final excerpt I'm sharing with you this week is from Claudine's story about the third portrait in Randolph Blackwood's collection. Enjoy!


She sat on a Hepplewhite chair, her hands gathered in her lap, nodding occasionally, rarely smiling. The man with her did most of the talking, but she was evidently in charge of the fitting. The tailor fluttered around her with all the obsequiousness of the serpent around Eve.

Harry watched through the window for a few moments before he entered the shop. No one immediately came to serve him— too busy tending to the blonde and her young man at the back of the room. He’d meant to walk up to her, introduce himself and explain about the painting, but that idea fell by the wayside. His father’s solicitor had assured him Louisa Deveraux was dead. Was it possible some trick of the light had made this woman look like her?

“May I help you, sir?”

He turned, jumping slightly, scratching his unshaven chin. A short, bald fellow waited at his elbow, tape measure in hand, a haughty expression on his round face as he took in Harry’s crumpled traveling clothes and poor grooming.

“I— yes.” Harry realized the woman had looked over at him. “I need— an umbrella.”

“An umbrella, sir?”

“For this dreadful weather.”

“I’m afraid we don’t sell umbrellas, sir.”

She was still looking, something about him having caught her attention. Over the glass-fronted cabinets and through stiffly-posed wooden mannequins, their gazes caught and held. For a few seconds it seemed as if they were both entrapped by their own curiosity. She was more beautiful than her portrait. Her eyes were the same cool blue, but not so sad. They were alive, inquisitive, and intelligent.

“Perhaps a hat then,” he said, finally pulling his attention onward, his eyes skimming the shelves.

“Top hat, sir? Bowler, straw boater, tweed cap…?”

“Bring one of each and I’ll try them on.”

The bell attached to the shop door jingled again and a cool draft blew through the room. Almost at once, a high woman’s voice exclaimed, “Harry Blackwood, it is you! What are you doing in London?”

He cringed, lowering his chin into the collar of his coat. Rosamund Wakely had one of those unforgettable voices that could cut through a man’s head like a saw through butter. She also had an equally unforgettable, very large, flat pair of feet. It was almost twenty years since he was first obliged to partner her at a dance, but he still hadn’t fully recovered from the bruises. She and her tribe of equally unattractive, loud-voiced sisters grew up in a town not far from the village where he lived as a boy, and since there was a dire shortage of young girls whose families allowed them to run about after the Blackwood “spawn”, he’d had to take what he could get in those days. Thankfully, she’d quickly transferred her affections from him to his more handsome brother Luke, who barely noticed her existence. That unfulfilled passion kept her busy for a few years, until Luke went away to university and Rosamund went to live with relatives in London. The last he heard, she was married to a Lord something-or-other and had birthed a litter of four boys. All this he learned from his youngest brother, Adam, who lived and worked in London now, flourishing in his career as an architect and often coming into contact with faces from their past.

“I thought you lived up north somewhere,” Rosamund exclaimed, noisily clopping forward on her massive feet.

He finally turned to face her, feeling as if he had no more choice now than he did when he was seventeen and she first cornered him for a dance. “Roz. How nice to see you. Is the family well? Children…?” He rattled away, not even aware of what he said.

She began asking him about Luke. In the corner of his eye he saw the blonde woman stand and move slowly around a display of evening jackets on wooden forms, surreptitiously positioning herself closer.  

“I have a bone to pick with your brother,” Rosamund announced, poking him in the chest with one thuggish finger.

“Which one?” he muttered.

“Lucien, of course! The blighter promised to visit me the last time he was here, and then when he came, he shut himself up in some wretched museum and didn’t come out again.”

“That sounds like my brother.” Luke preferred books and dusty old antiquities to the company of people and usually avoided women entirely. And unlike Harry, he had no qualms about using the most monstrous lies to save himself from women like Roz.

“Claimed he caught some dreadful tropical disease while he was abroad, that all his hair and teeth had fallen out, his leg was gangrenous, and he couldn’t see anyone because he was virulently contagious. With worms.”

“Ah.”

“Is any of that true?”

He shrugged. “I— ”

The blonde moved closer, definitely listening, feigning interest in a stack of cloth samples, holding them up to the light of the window.

While most extremely fair-headed Englishwomen had ivory pale skin, hers was a soft shade of caramel, as if she belonged in a sunnier climate. She wasn’t a winter blonde like the woman in the portrait; she was all summer. When he looked at her, he could almost hear waves lapping alongside a swiftly moving vessel, hearty breezes puffing through thick canvas sails overhead. He smelled seaweed and salt, felt the sun on his face as if it was August, and he stood on the bow of a ship, staring out at the sapphire horizon, an endless expanse of heaven. For the second time that day he thought of his old pirate captain fantasy.

She was a treasure ship, a slender, flighty shape ahead of him, visible each time the sail billowed and arched.

“Well?” Roz prodded him again with her finger, bringing him back to this rainy day.

“The last time I saw Luke he didn’t have all his hair, but perhaps it grew back.”

“Grew back indeed! The man’s a rotten liar and terribly unsociable. He’ll die alone and miserable if he doesn’t get out more. What about you? Why aren’t you married yet?” She bellowed rudely in his face, “Didn’t your father just die? He must have left you plenty of money.”

The blonde turned her head slightly and he caught a twitch, a slight dimple that might herald a smile.

Harry replied, “Yes, Randolph just passed away.”

“After the life he led it’s a surprise he lasted as long as he did.”

“Quite.” He smiled, pulling on every inch of his patience, wishing Rosamund Wakely would just go away. Much the same sensation she’d given him all those years ago when he had no choice but to dance with her.

“You ought to be married,” she declared. “I don’t know why you haven’t found someone by now. You’ll be a lonely old man too.”

“I’m sure I’ll manage.”

“Don’t be flippant, Harry. You always were too flippant. You never took anything seriously, never gave any woman a chance to take you in hand. As for Lucien, he has the most deplorable manners and seems intent on playing the role of an eccentric recluse. Only Adam was ever sensible and even he can be distinctly odd at times. His fiancée, Matilda Hawkesworth, certainly has an uphill task taming him.”

Harry smirked. Aware that Adam was currently staying in the country at their father’s house, far away from London and his wealthy fiancée, but only a few convenient miles from the older woman he’d lusted after quite blatantly for the last five years, he very much doubted Miss Hawkesworth would ever succeed in taming his little brother.

“You’re getting old, you know, Harry. Soon won’t be fit for any woman and I only say that for your own good. Poor man.” She paused, tossed him a quick up and down appraisal, and then added, “Remember my sister Emily? Widowed again now. She’d be perfect for you— wouldn’t put up with your nonsense and all that gallivanting about. She soon squared her last husband away.”

“Directly into a grave it seems.”

“You can’t be a Casanova forever, you know. Time you settled down and came to heel. Where are you staying? Emily’s with me for a few weeks. I ought to get the two of you together. Emily was always rather fond of you in her silly way.”

Alarm shot through him like a bolt of lightning and he was struck dumb at the thought of the insipid, giggling Emily Wakely thrust down his throat over weak tea and scones in some stifling little parlor. If only he could be like Luke, think of some outrageous excuse and not be ashamed to use it.

And suddenly, on that grey, forbidding day, the sun came out. The blonde by the window swung around and said, “Harry, darling, do come and help me choose a pattern.”

He exhaled at last, and Roz Wakely rotated on her great flippers to look at the woman she apparently hadn’t noticed before.

“Hello, I’m Claudine Deveraux.” The stranger advanced gracefully, gloveless hand extended at the end of a long, slender arm. “I can see Harry hasn’t told you a thing about me. He can be so secretive.”

“Yes,” Roz replied. “He can, can’t he?” She stabbed Harry with a fierce scowl before returning her gaze to the other woman. “Where did he find you?” she demanded with her usual politesse.

The woman he now knew as Claudine smiled at him and said, “In his dreams.”

 * * * *

She just couldn’t help herself. The poor old fellow looked so beleaguered. It wasn’t like her to be soft, but something about his troubled, weathered face and rumpled curly head made her want to wrap him in warm scarves and feed him. She also took a quick dislike to the grasping woman who threw herself at him without mercy. Claudine had seen condescending women like this one before, so busy criticizing other people they paid no attention to their own behavior. This sort of woman was always scanning the room for a better prospect, a more advantageous connection, and trampling others to get there while actually pretending to be a benign, benevolent friend.

Claudine walked up to the man she knew only as Harry and patted his cheek, an improperly familiar gesture. “He does so hate to shop for new clothes, but it simply must be done.” Between thumb and forefinger, she squeezed his unshaven chin playfully, while he looked down at her with eyes the color of hot coffee. “Please do excuse us,” she tossed another smile over her shoulder at the gaping women. “Harry needs a fitting.” Linking her arm under his, she swept him away toward the back of the shop.

“Thank you,” he whispered. “I think.”

“Don’t mention it.”

They heard the little bell on the door ring again shortly afterward and knew the woman had gone out. Then she removed her arm from his.

“Have I ruined your reputation?” she said.

He gave a short, puzzled laugh. “I don’t think that’s possible. I’m a Blackwood. Haven’t you heard about us?”

Under all that rough stubble, he might almost be handsome, she supposed. For an old man. His teeth were very good, white and strong and all in their proper place. “Should I have?”

“Perhaps it’s better that you haven’t.” His eyes were darker now, almost black, but they were warm, thoughtful, appreciative. “And why would an association with you ruin my reputation?”

She decided not to answer that. Instead, she looked over at the front of the shop and decreed it safe for his retreat. “I do hope she isn’t waiting for you outside.”

“Perhaps you’d care to walk out with me? In case I need your protection again.”

She laughed. It couldn’t be helped. His sorrowful, puppy-dog expression was beyond even her sterling resistance. “I can walk with you as far as the corner, but then I’m afraid we must part ways, sir.”

“Must we? It seems a terrible shame. Our relationship began with so much promise.” He rubbed a hand over the stubble of his chin where she’d squeezed it earlier, and his eyes took on a new gleam, thoughtful, wily. There was a twitch in his jaw, the beginnings of a dangerous, artful smile.

Blackwood. She tried to remember if she’d ever heard the name before. She felt certain she should have, even if it was only as a warning...

Want to read more about the Blackwood brothers and their father's muses? Check out A Private Collection from all online booksellers and here.

(Painting above by Thomas Francis Dicksee)