I’m going to rip off Jimmy Kimmel’s Mean Tweets, with some Mean Reviews. I love my readers. Sometimes they don’t love me.
Some celebrity deaths hit harder than others. This week, I felt like friends had died when I heard the news that David Bowie and Alan Rickman had passed. If there’s anything we can learn from both men it’s to live life without fear.
Being a romance writer had never been in my plans. But when I lost my job at the end of 2008, I started reading romance novels as a way to escape from a world that wasn’t hiring me. Then the idea for the Kellington series popped into my head and I began writing the first one.
After being rejected by every major publisher in New York, I decided to self-publish on my agent’s recommendation. I was scared and embarrassed since I thought everyone would think I wasn’t good enough to be published. That was back in 2011, when self-publishing was still thought of as that thing eccentric people did (guilty!). But in the end, I began telling people. My friends were great about it and my frenemies were quiet enough that I didn’t hear too much ridicule.
I couldn’t afford to care about the naysayers because I was in desperate shape financially. So, the decision to self-publish wasn’t brave as much as necessary. I needed to do something to bring in some income.
As I neared 50 and had a (drunken) life evaluation one night, I decided it was time to mourn the things that would never come to be — like having children — but pursue the things which could still happen. For me, it was my first love, acting. I was living in Los Angeles and working part-time in an office with an understanding boss who would allow me to take time off for auditions. Provided I got any. I knew the odds were against me but I really didn’t want to wake up at 60 and wonder why I hadn’t tried.
Pursuing an acting career at 50 was a really tough thing to announce to the world on Facebook and I’m sure a lot of people made fun of me. Three years later, I still haven’t booked anything major, but I’ve never had this much fun. I’ve also learned that hearing no isn’t the worst thing that can happen professionally. And I hear it a lot. It’s better than looking on from the sidelines wishing I were brave enough to give it a go.
Both David Bowie and Alan Rickman were incredibly talented. They were bound to make it. If we take anything away from their deaths, besides the fact cancer is the fucking worst, it’s the power of being brave. David Bowie continually reinvented himself, taking huge chances along the way and always being true to who he was. Alan Rickman had a terrific theater career before he exploded in America as everyone’s favorite German bank robber. (To this day, I smile at the “Nakatomi” building every time I drive by.) Alan Rickman’s acting career as a middle-aged man demonstrated that you should never think the best times are behind you.
Plus, they were both smoking hot.
I once read an article that said the secret to happiness as an adult was to think about what you loved doing as a kid/teenager, then do that in some form as a grown-up. Not everyone has the luxury of pursuing their own dreams professionally when they have others to care for. But, in the end, my loss of not having had children gave me the freedom to pursue my dreams professionally. And one day I’ll think about the whole “when God shuts a door, He opens a window thing” but I’ve already cried enough so it won’t be today.
Please find the time to do that thing you loved doing as a kid or you adore now. Life is incredibly short and you have to take the opportunities to make yourself happy.
Be brave. And think about the inspiration of Alan Rickman and David Bowie.
For the week between Christmas and New Year’s, I cleaned my apartment from top to bottom (pretty much). I dreaded doing the bookcase because that would mean parting with books. Books!
Now I buy mostly e-books, but I’d accumulated quite a few paperbacks over the years and I knew some had to go. It gave new meaning to Keeper Shelf. Here’s the bookcase:
I should point out that’s the “after.” It’s the best I could do after purging, holding on to each book as I weighed its emotional value. I kept some mediocre books (like some of Stephanie Laurens’s lesser Cynsters), which got shoved in the hard-to-reach back tier. And I put the ones I reach for again and again in front, like Mary Balogh’s Slightly series, as well as Candace Camp’s Willowmere.
The rest were put in a sack that I’ll take to my mom’s.
For now, I like thinking they’re still in my apartment, within reach. Because I have a sentimental attachment to books that got me through some very sad times. And that’s how it should be.
I should also point out that those are battery-operated LED candles. Because if there’s one person who’s capable of catching her bookshelf on fire with candles, it’s me.
My friend writes a wonderful blog about life after a lay-off.
One year ago next week I was given my walking papers from Hackensack, where I had worked for over 17 years. It’s been a fabulous ride with only one complaint…it’s gone WAY TOO FAST! It’s mind boggling how quickly one year has flown. As I think about the weeks and months that have blown by it occurred to me how much that I’ve learned in the past year since being laid off.
Here are the top 10 things I’ve learned so far. Number 10 is for you Rory who wanted me to write a blog that was a bit more Martha Stewart-esque.
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I loved this. A must read for anyone who’s ever been laid off.
She has a great blog and is a terrific writer.
Everywhere I hang out as an author, I see blog posts discussing the effect of the introduction of Kindle Unlimited (KU) on authors’ sales. For those authors just waking up to this discussion, Kindle Unlimited is the subscription service Amazon introduced in July. Subscribers pay a monthly fee and can borrow all the books they want that are in the KU library. For most books by indie authors to be part of that library, the book must be enrolled in KDP Select.
If you have ever read my blog before, you will know that I found that enrolling the books in my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series in KDP Select was very rewarding—even though it meant accepting the terms of enrollment that prohibited me from selling my ebooks in other stores. If you are interested, click here for a list of the posts I have written on that subject.
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I love this blog AND I’ve really been looking forward to this book, despite having pretty much hated the previous one in the series.
STORY: Miraculously spared from death, Malcolm Sinclair erases the notorious man he once was. Reinventing himself as Thomas Glendower, he strives to make amends for his past, yet he never imagines penance might come via a secretive lady he discovers living in his secluded manor.
Rose has a plausible explanation for why she and her children are residing in Thomas’s house, but she quickly realizes he’s far too intelligent to fool. Revealing the truth is impossibly dangerous, yet day by day he wins her trust, and then her heart.
But then her enemy closes in, and Rose turns to Thomas as the only man who can protect her and the children. And when she asks for his help, Thomas finally understands his true purpose, and with unwavering commitment, he seeks his redemption the only way he can—through living the reality of loving Rose
REVIEW: As promised, after my review of
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Here’s a look at a chapter from the second Emerson book ALWAYS TRUE TO HER…
“You do not have to do this, Miss Wallace,” said James, as they stood outside Gunter’s, the famous confectioner’s in Berkeley Square.
“It is my pleasure. And since we are departing first thing in the morning for Portsmouth, this might be our only opportunity to introduce Anna to the wonders of ices and sweets.”
“Isn’t it a bit too cold for an ice?”
Miss Wallace shook her head and tsked. “It is never too cold for an ice, Lord James. Besides, we can discuss our travel arrangements while we eat.”
“I do wish you’d reconsider your decision to accompany us.” Especially since she was much more tempting than anything Gunter’s had to offer.
“I have already made by decision, my lord. Even your solicitor said the idea had merit.”
“Yes, well, I’m going to have to talk to Nick about Mr. Olson’s ideas.”
“I would talk to your brother about Mr. Olson’s odd clientele.”
“You mean, the, uh….” Here he covered Anna’s ears. “Working ladies?”
Miss Wallace’s eyes danced at him. “No, my lord, I was referring to you. Shall we enter?”
“Yes, minx. We shall,” said James as the doorman ushered them in.
They were immediately assailed with the smells of cinnamon, chocolate and baking bread as the warm fragrant air wafted toward them. The tea room wasn’t as crowded as it was on a summer’s day, but at least a quarter of the tables were filled with ladies of the ton enjoying their tea and desserts.
Well-dressed ladies of the ton.
James had paid little attention to fashion in America. Not only were there more pressing matters to attend to, but American fashion was of a different sort than that in London. Plainer. Less costly. More practical.
But as James looked at the ladies in the room – who were now staring at the new arrivals – he realized just how underdressed he and Anna were. He wasn’t sure if any of the ladies in the room recognized him. He certainly didn’t seem to know any of them. But there was no doubt that those who looked at his clothes found him wanting.
Worse than that, he could see the way the ladies were staring disapprovingly at Anna.
“Oh, dear,” said Miss Wallace with a smile she put on for show. “I am so sorry. I should have known it would be like this, but all I thought about was giving Anna a treat. Can we please ignore them and allow Anna to enjoy an ice?”
James was torn. He was not a man who backed down from challenges easily and had it just been him, he would have paid the old cats no heed. But he did not want Anna to be the recipient of their hisses.
Two matrons with their children in tow passed by them to reach the exit. Both women pulled their children behind them so they would not go near Anna. James heard one of them say “heathen.”
He could hear other whispers in the room. Though he could not make out the words, he had a feeling they were all the subject of gossip. Anna was certainly the subject of their stares.
He took a deep breath to keep from losing his temper. He did not want to embarrass either Anna or Miss Wallace. But he was finding it more and more difficult to remain silent. He was trying to figure out the best course of action when a little girl walked up to Anna.
She had black hair and green eyes and was dressed simply but elegantly. And she was staring at Anna. James prayed the girl would not be too unkind as he wondered where the devil her parents were.
The girl, who looked to be a year or two older than Anna, leaned into his daughter and said “You’re beautiful!” Then she grinned.
“Violet!” said an attractive woman in her forties with blonde hair and blue eyes, as she joined them. “I believe you are supposed to introduce yourself before striking up a conversation.” ‘
The admonition was a gentle one and the lady clearly loved the little girl. She looked to be the girl’s aunt or possibly her grandmother.
The little girl then curtsied quite properly. “I am Violet Kellington. What’s your name?” she asked Anna.
Anna darted a look at her father to see if it was all right to speak to this girl who was almost a stranger. When he nodded, she smiled shyly and whispered, “I’m Anna Emerson.”
Violet grinned again.
“Miss Kellington,” said James, who could not help being enchanted by the girl, “who is your papa? No, let me guess….you must be Lord Edward’s daughter. For you look very much like him.”
“I am!” she said with a grin, before curtsying again. “Do you know my papa?”
“I do. Along with your uncles. I went to school with them and we were all friends. I am Lord James Emerson,” he said, bowing. “Please allow me to introduce you to Miss Irene Wallace.”
Irene curtsied, even as James bowed to the woman he now recognized as the maternal aunt to the Duke of Lynwood and his family. “Miss Prudence? I had the pleasure of meeting you and Miss Maria several years ago.”
“How good of you to remember, Lord James, and what a pleasure to see you again, Miss Wallace.” Prudence Hamiltlon was the younger sister of the late Duchess of Lynwood. Her nephew, William Kellington, had become the Duke of Lynwood when he was but nineteen years old after the death of both of his parents.
“It is a pleasure, indeed, Miss Prudence,” said Irene with a warm smile.
“Miss Kellington reminds me very much of Ned,” said James. “Though, of course, a much prettier version. My brothers and I have very good memories of being at school with the Kellingtons. In fact, I’m not sure any of us would have made it through without their friendship.”
“I’m very proud of my nephews and my niece. Please join us so I can tell you what they have been doing since you last saw them. This past year alone is quite a tale to tell,” said Prue, as she motioned to a table where a brown-haired lady about her age waited.
Another group of ladies passed by, looking decidedly like they’d swallowed lemons. But this time they did not stare at Anna, but turned their disapproving glares to Miss Prudence and Miss Maria, instead. James heard one of them mutter “unnatural.”
There had always been allegations that Miss Prudence and Miss Maria were much closer than employer and companion. They’d been together for as long as James had known the Kellingtons. In fact, he’d first gotten to know the brothers as they were fighting older boys at school who’d said cruel things about the ladies’ relationship. He’d fought alongside the Kellingtons and it had forged a friendship that he remembered fondly.
At first, he hadn’t understood the older boys’ accusations. It had simply been enough that the brothers were protecting their aunt’s honor. But once James became aware of the reality of same sex love, he fought even harder at the Kellingtons’ side. As someone who’d felt so little love from his parents, he was angered that anyone would attack it where it did exist, regardless of whether it violated society’s rules and even the law itself.
Miss Prudence ignored the ladies with a dignified silence. However, once they had passed, she spoke quietly to Irene, “Perhaps I should not have invited you to join us. I have a feeling your grandmother would not approve.”
“And I have never forgotten the kindness you and Miss Maria showed me during my debut Season and in the years since,” said Irene. “We would be honored to join you.”
“Aunt Prue!” said Violet.
“I just asked Anna if she wanted to be my friend and she said yes!” Violet looked overjoyed, and even Anna seemed excited.
“Well, that settles it, then,” said Prue to James and Irene. “You simply must join us. A second generation of Kellington-Emerson friendship has formed. We must celebrate that with an ice or two.”
With that, James ushered his party to the table where Miss Maria sat. James remembered her as a shy woman who rarely spoke. She must have recognized a kindred spirit in Anna, for she engaged his daughter in conversation as they discussed different flavors of ices.
The ladies at neighboring tables continued to gossip about them. James knew Miss Prue and Miss Maria were both under the protection of the Duke and his family. But he wondered what life would be like for them if that were not the case.
“I had heard you were in America these past several years, Lord James,” said Miss Prue. “That must have been fascinating.”
James gave the ladies a much abridged accounting of what life had been like on the frontier. It was a tale suitable for ladies and children, which meant it bore little resemblance to reality. Violet was in awe of the story and asked to learn a few words of the Algonquin language. James was surprised when Anna taught them a few phrases, when she was normally shy with those she did not know well. But the two ladies and Vi were so kind, it was hard to think of them as strangers.
When Anna’s chocolate ice arrived, she wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. She stared at it for a moment, then inhaled the sweet aroma.
“You should take a bite, love, before it melts,” said James.
Anna, watched closely by the entire table, picked up her spoon, dipped it into the creamy dessert, then tentatively brought it to her mouth. She tasted it, then her whole face lit up in a smile. It was enough to make the ladies laugh. It was enough to bring James to the verge of tears. Such a simple treat. But he’d been unable to provide it for his daughter.
“Papa,” said Anna. “Would you like some?”
And how like his daughter to want to share something she obviously loved.
“No, thank you, poppet. It is for you.”
Anna in turn asked everyone else if they wanted to share. Even Violet said no, though it was obvious she was tempted.
“You said you have news about the Kellingtons?” James asked Miss Prue.
“All of them married in the last eight months, which caused no end of disappointment among the matchmaking mamas, just as Lord Ridgeway’s recent marriage did – though no one will admit it, of course.”
“Even Lynwood married?”
“Even Liam. To the former Miss Rosalind Carson, who was bosom friends with Lizzie, though I don’t know if you would have met my niece.”
“I did not have the honor before leaving for America.”
“She married someone else you may know, Lord Riverton.”
That made James grin. “I imagine Liam was surprised to learn his best friend was marrying his sister.”
“Surprise, Lord James, is much too tame a word to describe it. And you may be interested to know that Ned and his wife Jane just had a baby.”
“A boy,” said Violet with the darkest of scowls.
Miss Wallace had to stifle a laugh. “Are you disappointed to have a brother?” she asked.
“I told Mama and Papa I wanted a baby sister.”
“But brothers can be good, too,” said James. “I have two and your papa has three. Perhaps you will like having one, too.”
“But I wanted someone to play with,” said Vi.
“You can play with me,” said Anna.
“That’s true,” said James carefully. He hated to disappoint Violet when she’d just lit up at the thought of making a friend, but he was compelled by honesty to add, “but, unfortunately, Anna and I are leaving town tomorrow.”
“But you’re coming back, aren’t you?” asked Vi. “We’re going to be in London until baby Daniel is old enough to travel. Then we’re going back to Marston Vale. If we’re not here when you get back, you can come there.” She looked at him eagerly and, even worse, Anna seemed excited.
But if everything went as he hoped, James knew they wouldn’t be coming back to London or visiting Marston Vale. They would be on their way back to America. It seemed cruel to deprive Anna of her new friend, but she could make new ones in America, even though in the eight years James had lived in America, he hadn’t made many.
It was a disturbing thought.
Irene broke the silence. “That is a lovely invitation, Violet. And I am certain that Lord James and Anna will visit you the next time they are in town or in Marston Vale. And if that should not happen soon, perhaps you could write letters.”
“I would truly love that!” said Violet.
“I would, too!” said Anna, who now had a line of chocolate below her lip.
Irene dampened a napkin, then gently wiped it away as the two young girls talked about the letters they would write.
Two more ladies passed by. James heard one of them say “Some people should not be allowed in polite company.”
And that was quite enough of that.
He stood and addressed them. “Excuse me, but I could not help but overhear your remarks. No doubt that was your intent. You have the right of it. Some people shouldn’t be allowed in polite company. But since you are leaving, there will be no need to have you thrown out.”
His remarks were met with a moment of complete silence, save for the muffled laugh coming from, if he didn’t miss his mark, Miss Prudence. But in that moment, no one else at Gunter’s said a word. The two so-called ladies he’d addressed stood there with jaws inelegantly ajar.
The first woman, who looked to be in her early thirties recovered first. “Who are you to speak to two ladies thusly?”
“I am Lord James Emerson, recently returned from America with my beautiful daughter and enjoying tea with my friends. You are married, I take it, madam?”
“Yes,” said the woman, who was looking James over with some interest now that he was a roughly dressed peer, rather than some roughly dressed nobody.
“Then I would tell your husband that the next time his wife insults either my daughter or my friends, I shall treat the insult as if it came from him and act accordingly.”
That elicited gasps from the rest of the diners. It would also surely be spread about the ton within the hour.
James didn’t care.
“I believe you were leaving,” James said to the ladies. “Pray do not let me keep you.”
With that he turned his back on them and resumed his seat. An instant later, the silence of the past few minutes erupted into excited mutterings at the other tables.
At his table, all he saw were grins. Then Violet and Anna resumed their conversation and Miss Wallace and Miss Maria discussed an exhibit at the British Museum.
James became aware that Miss Prue was staring at him. “Nicely done,” she said.
“Yes, well, I hope I did not embarrass you or Miss Maria overly much.”
“Not much can embarrass me anymore. And I long ago stopped listening to the gossips. I care little for my own reputation, but I have worried how it will affect my niece and nephews and Maria, of course. I hope you are not chased away from London because of the untamed tongues of witless peers.”
He laughed at the apt description. “No, I have a farm in America. Well, there is some legal dispute at the moment, but I intend to get it back and return there with Anna.”
“That is a shame, Lord James. Your sisters and, if I might presume to say it, both of your brothers will miss you very much. I daresay your dear Anna will miss out on a great deal if you return there.”
“Yet, I have no means of supporting her if I remain here.”
“I do not know Ridgeway well, but I sincerely doubt he would bar you from returning to the family estate. Nor would Layton.”
“I do not wish to live on any man’s charity, even my brothers’.”
“That would be quite understandable, were you the only consideration. I realize I am being unforgivably forward when I have no business saying such things, but I believe your family would be much happier if you stayed, though it might necessitate putting aside some of your pride for the nonce. I believe there might even be some happiness in it for you, as well.” She glanced at Miss Wallace, who was still engrossed in her conversation with Miss Maria.
James inwardly groaned. He knew Miss Prue wouldn’t gossip about them, but if she picked up on the attraction between them, was he harming Miss Wallace’s reputation just by spending time in her company?
“You have the right of it that my family already cares a great deal for Anna and she has grown quite fond of them. But what of the rest of Society? As you noticed here today, her birth would always be the object of derision. Her marriage prospects within the ton would be slim. I would not wish to subject her to a life as a second-class citizen.”
“Will her prospects be that much better in America? Are they that much more of a tolerant people? A country that cannot rid itself of slavery is hardly a haven of equality and tolerance.”
“Slavery is an abhorrent part of American life. And you are correct that a girl of mixed Indian heritage would encounter problems, but…”
Prue looked at him kindly. “But you are determined to go your own way. To, perhaps, prove something to a dead man.”
He looked up in surprise.
She smiled kindly at him. “Young men are not so hard to understand. They either have a father they long to live up to, even when he has been dead these many years – as is the case with my nephews. Or they want to win an argument with a dead tyrant. Pray forgive my rudeness, but my position at the edge of society permits me to observe without being seen. You and your brothers – both of them – are much better men than your father. And you need do nothing more to prove it. Indeed, from the way you adore your daughter, you have already succeeded.”
James was not sure what to say. Miss Prue had hit upon thoughts he’d had, but never voiced aloud. But he did not think he could so easily set aside his pride.
“I am terribly sorry for overstepping,” said Prue. “It is one of my worst failings. Although I am not a Kellington by birth, I do love an entire family of them and I fear their meddling nature has rubbed off on me. But before I begin a dismally dull conversation about the weather, please allow me to say one more thing. There are places in the world where Maria and I could live a relatively peaceful, unnoticed life. But we will never move there because of what we would miss here. Another generation of Kellingtons is on the way and I cannot imagine missing a moment of those celebrations. I can bear any insult here, as long as I am among those I love.” She turned her gaze to Maria and Violet. “Now, Lord James, will you tell me how cold it is outside or must I?”
Twenty minutes and one cinnamon cake later, James, Miss Wallace and Anna escorted the ladies to their waiting carriage. James noticed the coachmen’s livery was quite smart, and the men themselves had the builds of pugilists. If he wasn’t mistaken, he could see that all were also armed. He had a feeling Lynwood took no chances with the ladies’ safety.
James had become quite fond of them himself.
“You will visit when you come back, won’t you?” Violet asked Anna. “I could show you my little brother. I sneak into Mama and Papa’s room to watch him sleep.”
“Violet!” said Prue. “Why are you sneaking?”
“Well, I don’t want them to know that I’m beginning to like him because I do want them to give me a baby sister next time.”
“If Papa has a baby boy, then my brother and your brother could be friends,” said Anna. “Just like you and I are friends.”
Violet liked that idea. “I hope your papa and Miss Wallace get married soon! That way your brother and my brother would be babies together.”
“Violet!” said Prue, with that loving admonition again. “I am quite certain Lord James and Miss Wallace do not need any advice on when they should get married. They will decide that quite well enough on their own.”
“But we are not betrothed,” said Miss Wallace. “We are not even…we…oh, dear.”
“Yes, well I’m sure everything will work out in the end,” said Prue. “And do be so kind as to come visit when you have returned from your journey.”
With that, the two women left in their carriage, with the well-armed servants.
And now James had ever more to think about.
London, October 1822
Lord Henry Kellington – Hal, to his family and countless friends – was exactly where he wanted to be. His face was buried in the ample bosom of a whore named Terry, while his cock was being sucked by her colleague Sherry. Both would be well-compensated for the evening’s work. Indeed, both women had nearly trampled their fellow prostitutes as Hal had walked into the brothel’s sitting room earlier to choose his evening’s entertainment. His lordship was known for being generous with both his blunt and his sexual prowess, and there wasn’t a female in the place who hadn’t wanted to accompany him upstairs.
The three of them were on a comfortable featherbed in one of the nicer rooms in the Marylebone brothel of Madame Aurelia Thurmond. Madame ran an exclusive establishment on the very edge of Mayfair. Known for the cleanliness of both the girls and the premises, it was as hard to gain membership to Madame Thurmond’s as it was to get into White’s. Harder, since White’s was known to let its members run a tab. But Madame always demanded cash at time of service.
At five and twenty, Hal was the youngest brother in the Kellington family. He was also known as the wild one of the bunch. Quick with a joke, Hal made everyone laugh. Those who didn’t know him well, which included most of the people who thought they knew him, would say that Henry Kellington never took anything seriously. He was an excellent companion for whatever lark one could imagine and he was such a ton favorite that he could usually talk his way out of any trouble. Young men loved to go out on the town with him. Young women dreamed of marrying him. Bored matrons blushed when they saw him.
It was rumored that his eldest brother, the Duke of Lynwood, was most unhappy with him at the moment. But since the Kellingtons never aired their family grievances in public – much to the dismay of the gossips – no one knew for sure.
It had been a momentous year for the Kellingtons, four brothers and one sister named for Kings and a Queen of England. A few months earlier, Hal’s second eldest brother Edward, known as Ned, had married at the age of nine and twenty. His unusual bride, Jane, worked as a surgeon in their village of Marston Vale. Even more unusual was that she’d borne Ned’s daughter Violet out of wedlock six years earlier, but he’d had no knowledge of it until he’d met up with them quite unexpectedly the previous June. What might have been a tremendous scandal was accepted by most without question because the Duke of Lynwood had made it known how pleased he was with the match.
Only a few weeks later, Hal’s younger sister Elizabeth, at one and twenty, had published a tract in the broad sheets advocating greater rights for women. It was thought she’d finally gone too far for even Lynwood to fix, but a marriage to the very eligible Marquess of Riverton had helped squelch the scandal, even if Lizzie didn’t show any signs of ceasing her political activities.
Arthur, at seven and twenty, had just wed an agent for the Home Office named Vanessa Gans. There had been a rumor that she wasn’t just common, but illegitimate as well, but when Lynwood and Riverton told everyone about her bravery in recovering some of England’s most priceless treasures, all was at least somewhat forgiven.
With three marriages in quick succession, there were only two unmarried Kellingtons left. And if the ton had any say, that would soon be remedied.
William Kellington, known as Liam to a select few, was two and thirty. Even if he hadn’t been ruggedly handsome, the duke would’ve been a target for the matchmaking mamas. As it was, he was more hunted than England’s most vicious criminals.
And while he would never be considered the catch his eldest brother was, Hal was also highly sought after as a husband, in part because, unlike Lynwood, Hal didn’t have to marry. He was currently third in line for his brother’s title and with Ned’s wife expecting a child, there was a good chance he’d be moving even further down the list. But many ladies considered him a challenge too tempting to resist.
While all of the Kellingtons were well portioned, Hal’s good looks were the most perfect. His chestnut hair was thick and fell past his shoulders. His light brown eyes were fringed with dark lashes. His lips were firm and almost always curved in a smile. He was well-muscled, but slender. And he moved with the grace of someone who was in excellent physical condition.
His family knew that Hal had taken their parents’ tragic deaths more than a decade earlier especially hard. Liam had worried at the time that Hal might never regain his previous good spirits. Even now, Liam could see behind the lighthearted mask Hal wore for others. He worried that his youngest brother was lost to a frivolous world of pleasure, showing few signs that he was ready to truly grow into adulthood. It had been a source of contention between the two for years and now that Hal was spending more time with his friend Charles Francis, the friction with Lynwood was increasing.
Charles Francis, the youngest son of the youngest son of the Earl of Westwood, was a few years older than Hal. They’d known each other casually for a few years – the ton was so small that just about every young man about town had at least a passing acquaintance with one another – but they’d begun socializing more frequently since Francis had come to Hal’s aid a few months earlier. A gang of street toughs had set upon Hal as he left a gaming hell. The attack had left him bloodied and bruised, but he’d sustained no serious injuries, thanks to Francis’s timely intervention.
Since then, they’d been thick as thieves. It was not, Lynwood liked to remind Hal, a flattering metaphor.
Currently, Charles Francis was on the other side of the room from Hal, pounding into a prostitute named Sonia from behind. He had the girl bent over the back of settee, while he watched the allegedly French Lindella Dupuis pleasure herself with a silver cock.
Hal was caught up in his own pleasure, but not quite so much that he didn’t suspect some of Lindella’s quite loud self-enjoyment was at least partially an act. But if Francis suspected, he certainly didn’t let on.
As Sherry worked her talented mouth on Hal’s cock, he drifted in a sensual haze, helped along by drink and hashish. The girls had wanted him to smoke opium. It was no secret that Madame Thurmond had connections to the drug trade that she liked to promote. Lynwood would be furious, of course, but Hal didn’t need his eldest brother to warn him away from the opiate. The previous two times he’d smoked it had been disastrous. He’d become so ill it was a wonder he hadn’t died in the flophouse he’d passed out in. As it was, he’d lost his purse and his boots. If Francis hadn’t pulled him out of there, he likely would’ve been stripped naked and had his teeth pulled.
But currently, Hal didn’t want to think of anything but Sherry and Terry working their magic on him. Unfortunately, that was not to be.
“Damn and blast!” said Francis, as he pulled his softening cock out of a protesting Sonia. He then began tapping it on her ass and rubbing it against her in an attempt to regain his erection. “Kellington, I told you we had too much to drink,” he said with a slight slur. “But you insisted we finish the damned wretched bottle.” Francis was a blond god to Hal’s darkness. He had hair the color of wheat and green eyes that never failed to incite swoons from debutantes. He was beginning to get a bit thick about the waist, but only a little. He was still the best pugilist at Gentleman Jim’s boxing salon and never passed up an opportunity to prove it.
Francis watched Hal lose himself to passion. “What say we switch whores? Maybe what I need is variety to set myself to rights again.”
Hal lifted his lids halfway to look at his friend. Francis was still spanking his cock against the poor girl’s arse and somehow Hal didn’t think variety was what was lacking. They’d both had too much to drink. It was a wonder he was able to perform at all. But he didn’t want to switch girls with Francis. For one thing, Hal was meticulously careful when he was with a prostitute. He never failed to use French letters as a precaution against both pregnancy and disease. Francis, he knew, wasn’t quite as cautious. And, after all, he was enjoying himself just fine. Hal pulled one of Terry’s breasts into his mouth and let Sherry continue.
For his part, Francis simply told Sonia and Lindella to switch places, then shoved his cock into Lindella as soon as she was in position.
The evening continued thusly.
* * *
Afterward, at a much earlier hour than usual, Hal and Francis were walking through Marylebone trying to find a hack. Francis hadn’t wanted to leave Madame Thurmond’s so soon, but Hal had family business to attend to the next morning and Lynwood had set the meeting for the abominably early hour of ten of the clock. Hal suspected it was Lynwood’s way of cutting his night short, which made Hal want to stay out all the later. But their paternal aunt, Agatha, the Countess of Crenshaw, was going to be in attendance. And he knew he needed to be, if not at his best, then at least not vomiting into a bedpan.
“There they are again,” said Francis, motioning to a group of dour-faced women huddled together, wearing grey and holding signs about the dangers of drink. “You’d think they’d have better things to do on a Friday night.” Then he looked closer at the woman in the lead. “Or perhaps not.” Their leader was well into middle-age with graying hair, a prominent nose and a look of disapproval unmistakable even from across the street. “I don’t think the owners of Dill’s will take kindly to the harassing of their clientele.”
Dill’s was a gaming hell, whose entrance was just behind the women. Even in the few moments Francis and Hal had stood there, three men who’d initially appeared to be heading into the hell had instead continued down the street.
Hal looked toward the group, automatically scanning the members’ faces as he’d been doing the last few weeks ever since spotting a beautiful young woman in a group similar to this, with mahogany hair, hazel eyes and, as unlikely as it might seem, a courtesan’s stockings. He’d only caught a quick glimpse of her legs as she’d adjusted her boot. But they’d made quite an impression.
As the reform movement gained in popularity, groups such as this were gathering in areas most frequented by noblemen out for an evening’s entertainment. Some of the women were members of religious orders. Others were the wives of tradesmen who believed the problems of the lower classes were often caused by drink, particularly the cheapest forms of gin which could cause blindness and death. And in the midst of the drink epidemic were the sons of the upper class who used poorer sections of London as their playground to do what they wanted, heedless of the cost to others.
Hal knew the temperance movement would never truly take hold, although he did understand the concerns the reformers had for London’s poor. They lived in squalor, with little assistance from the government and even less from the upper class. He had heard enough stories to know that his peers considered themselves kings outside of Mayfair. It was a most unfair situation, even if there didn’t seem to be much to be done about it.
“Where the devil did she come from?” asked Francis, as he rather inelegantly pointed to a young woman who’d come to the front of the group from her previously unseen position in the back. She had mahogany hair, hazel eyes and was a good twenty years younger than anyone else.
Hal’s gaze was riveted on the young woman, for she had to be the same one he’d seen on the earlier occasion. He wondered if she was wearing the same stockings. Then he imagined what it would take for him to find out.
His mystery woman was currently having an intense conversation with the leader of the group, who was gesturing wildly toward the entrance of the hell. The younger woman was much calmer and seemed to be advocating a different course of action. The rest of the group watched the two discuss the situation, then slowly drifted into two groups, with more of them moving toward the stocking woman.
That did not sit well with the older woman.
The older woman said something to the stocking woman that was shocking enough to make most of the group gasp, then she turned on her heel and marched toward the entrance of Dill’s, motioning for the other women to join her. After a moment’s hesitation, most of the women who’d sided with her followed. The stocking woman and her group held back.
Just as the older woman was about to enter Dill’s, two large men exited the building. Hal knew them to be the servants charged with keeping peace in the establishment. A third man exited after them. It was Conrad Patton, the manager of Dill’s. He had a slight cockney accent and a charm that was exceeded only by his ruthlessness. Only a foolish man angered Conrad Patton, whose enemies were known to either suffer accidents that left them physically incapacitated or to disappear all together.
Words were exchanged between Patton and the older woman. While Hal couldn’t quite make them out, he could tell things became heated quickly, although it looked like Patton and his men were exercising a great deal of restraint.
Suddenly, the woman spit on the ground a few inches from Patton, and Hal could see the immediate change in the man’s countenance. The stocking woman must have seen it, as well, because she stepped between the older woman and Patton, who looked like he was about to unleash his formidable temper.
Hal started across the street without even thinking about it.
“You’re not going to get involved in this, are you?” asked Francis, who leisurely followed. “Don’t you have to get home to your dear brother?”
“I can’t very well leave the ladies in danger, can I?” asked Hal, even though most of his attention was focused on only one member of the group. The one who was currently standing between the older woman and the wrath of one of the most dangerous men in London.
“At least I shall never be bored when I’m with you,” said Francis, as he caught up to his friend.
By the time they reached the entrance, a small crowd had gathered. Three young lordlings in their cups were wagering on how long the disturbance would last, while several upstairs windows had been opened to allow Dill’s patrons to watch the entertainment. The reform ladies huddled together for safety, but after a smile from Hal they parted to let him and Francis through. By the time they reached the entrance, it was obvious Patton’s patience was wearing thin.
“You and your ilk shall face damnation,” yelled the older woman to Patton, despite his standing only inches away from her. “It would serve you right to have this unholy building burned to the ground around you.”
“I don’t take kindly to threats,” said Patton. “Nasty things ‘appen to them who try to ‘urt me or my business.”
The stocking woman turned to him, trying to calm the situation. “I’m sure Mrs. Seton does not mean you or your establishment harm, Mr. Patton. Nor is our protest focused directly at any one establishment.”
“This man is the devil’s own spawn!” shouted Mrs. Seton to the crowd around her.
“Mrs. Seton!” said Hal’s stocking woman. “I am quite sure you are not helping the situation.”
“I’m certainly doing more than you,” replied the woman. “And I shall not stand for this any longer.” With that, she slapped one of Patton’s enforcers, then the other. The first exercised admirable restraint. But the second took a menacing step forward.
“Patton,” said Hal, with a slight slur to his voice. “I thought no finer entertainment could be found than inside your good establishment. You did not tell me you were producing theatricals in the street.” That elicited a few laughs from the male onlookers both on the street and at the upstairs windows. More importantly, it seemed to calm the large servant who’d been on the verge of violence.
Patton produced one of the smiles he employed on the peers he so enjoyed fleecing. “Good evening Lord Henry, Mr. Francis. I’m sorry for the commotion, but do step inside.”
“I appreciate the offer, Patton, and I shall do just that very thing,” said Hal. “But I cannot leave these lovely ladies unattended.” He smiled at Mrs. Seton, who looked like she wanted to slap him for the trouble. But as he turned his charm on the other women, he sensed a gradual thawing of the crowd. Right up until he smiled at the one woman he was most interested in impressing.
The stocking woman simply stared at him with one brow raised. “My lord, do you think to charm us unto silence? “
“Why? Is it working?” When no response was forthcoming, he continued. “Pray
forgive me if I offended you, Miss…..” He waited for her to supply her name.
He waited in vain.
“My lord, it would be most improper of me to give you my name without benefit of introduction,” said the stocking woman with an accent Hal couldn’t quite place. But there was no mistaking her hint of amusement at his obvious ploy. “My colleagues and I are trying to impress upon gentlemen such as yourself that a house of gaming is not the type of establishment they should frequent.”
So the little minx wouldn’t back down. Perhaps it was time to show her the streets were no place for a lady late at night. “Then what type of ‘house,’ do you think would be suitable for men such as Mr. Francis and me? We have recently come from quite an interesting one.”
The implication was not lost on any of the women nor on Patton, who was watching the exchange with some amusement.
“I’ll thank you not to speak of such debauchery, you scoundrel,” said Mrs. Seton. “If you were a man of any decency, you would immediately apologize.”
“My apologies, ma’am,” said Hal with a nod in her direction, “but I was speaking to your charming associate.”
“I believe,” said the stocking woman, “that the ‘house’ you should most concern yourself with is your home. Unless you are too inebriated to find it.”
There was a choked sound behind her as Patton stifled a laugh. Francis felt no such reticence and enjoyed himself loudly.
Hal found it hard not to laugh himself. He might be the worse the wear for drink, but not so cupshot as to miss both the humor and irony. He was making no progress charming the woman, which was a bit unusual. He wasn’t an arrogant man, but he was an observant one. Women – both improper and upstanding – tended to, if not melt, then at least soften around him. It was actually refreshing to find one who seemed to have little use for him. Before he could explore the intriguing possibilities she presented, the Watch arrived.
“Wot’s goin’ on ‘ere?” asked the larger of the two uniformed officers.
“Thank heaven you’ve come,” said Mrs. Seton. “You should arrest this man for harassing my friend. Then you can tell this whoremonger….” She pointed her rather bony finger at Patton. “…to let us into his business so we can shame the men inside.”
“Mrs. Seton,” said the stocking woman, “I still do not think that is a wise course of action.”
“Be quiet!” said the older woman. “I’m in charge here.”
“Actually, I’m in charge,” said the officer, with wary glances at both Patton and the two lords who’d been speaking to the ladies. “And there’s laws against people creatin’ a disturbance outside a place of business. I’m afraid you ladies will have to take yer protest somewhere else.”
“This is preposterous!” said Mrs. Seton.
“It’s also the law,” said the officer. “And you wouldn’t want us to ‘ave to take you to Bow Street.”
It looked like Mrs. Seton might want that very thing, but the stocking woman turned to the other ladies who appeared more than ready to retreat. “I believe the prudent action would be to decamp so we can fight another day,” she said. “It looks like Mr. Patton and his police force have made their position clear.”
Hal watched as she began herding the women away from Dill’s. He hadn’t missed her implication that this section of the Watch was bought and paid for by Patton. He suspected she was right. He saw Patton and the officers exchange a meaningful glance. Then he made a move to follow the stocking woman, until Francis nudged his elbow.
“Shall we?” he said, indicating Dill’s. “Surely you can stay out just a bit longer, can’t you?”
“I shall spot you ten pounds each,” said Patton, “It’s a reward for ‘elping to move the ladies on their way. It’s the least I can do for two lords such as yourself.”
“What say you, Hal?’ asked Francis once again.
Hal was torn between wanting to catch up with the stocking woman he’d thought so much about during the past few weeks and joining his friend in the hell. Considering how little progress he’d made with the woman, he took the sure thing.
“I suppose another hour wouldn’t hurt,” said Hal, as he followed his friend into Dill’s.
Hertfordshire, Near Lynwood Manor, 1810
The only thing worse than losing a bet, was losing a bet to your younger brother. Fifteen-year-old Arthur Kellington pondered the indignities of the situation as he trudged home from his errand in the village. Though the incident had occurred three days earlier, the embarrassment lingered on. To be turned down for a kiss was bad enough. But to have his brother witness the debacle from a nearby tree had been outside of enough. That Hal had laughed so hard he’d fallen from his branch was some consolation, but not enough to make up for the humiliating experience of having the comeliest serving girl at the Boar’s Bristle tell Arthur she thought he was a good lad and would make a fine man some day, but she was saving her kisses for the smithy’s son.
A lad! She’d spoken to him as if he were a mere boy, instead of a man. He could’ve told her he was already taller than his classmates at Eton. He even thought he’d be taller than his eldest brother Liam one day. More importantly, he didn’t feel like a lad. And when it came to women, he certainly didn’t have the disinterest of a younger boy. He’d admired the serving girl for months. She was two years his senior and had a smile for everyone, accompanied by curves that would interest even someone as old as Lynwood’s steward, who had just passed his fortieth birthday. Of course, in thinking back upon the matter, Arthur realized it was possible he might have misinterpreted her general friendliness for a specific interest in him that didn’t exist. Whatever had possessed him to take Hal’s bet?
Part of the reason could lie in the general restlessness that came from being the middle sibling in a family of five. It was never easy to carve out a role for yourself with so many brothers. It was harder still when your eldest brother was a duke. It wasn’t that he envied Liam the title. Far from it. Liam had taken on their late father’s ducal responsibilities a year ago at the age of nineteen and his life would never completely be his own ever again. And since their mother had died alongside their father in the carriage accident, Liam had also taken on the task of raising his brothers and sister. While their maternal aunt Prue and her companion Mariah helped wherever they could, Liam still faced much of the burden alone.
As much as Arthur loved his brother, he missed his parents dearly. Sometimes he thought he’d never feel whole again.
In the meantime, he’d just have to be more judicious in his wagers. He chafed at the serving girl’s dismissal and counted the days until he’d be back at school. In a few years – that would no doubt drag interminably – he could leave on his Grand Tour. He only hoped the continent would be at peace by then, but the prospects for that didn’t look good. Perhaps he’d go to America or the Amazon or even the Orient.
It seemed his brothers and sister already had their futures planned. Liam, Duke of Lynwood, had an infinite number of responsibilities that went along with the title. Of course, there were also quite a few perks. The serving girl probably wouldn’t have turned him down for a kiss.
Ned was seventeen and had stated his desire to go off to war. He was eagerly awaiting the day when Liam would let him buy a commission. Arthur would miss Ned terribly when he left. He wouldn’t permit himself to think of what could happen to him on the war-torn continent. The family couldn’t cope with any more tragedy.
Thirteen-year-old Hal’s thoughts for the future didn’t extend much beyond what practical joke he could play next. But the brother who kept everyone laughing seemed to have had the hardest time coping with their parents’ deaths. For weeks after the accident, he’d been unable to leave his rooms and even a year later was unable to talk about it.
Lizzie, the baby of the family at nine years of age, wanted to change the world. She was forever telling Liam to let the servants work fewer hours. Their butler Heskiss nearly had apoplexy when the girl suggested he take two weeks of holiday at Christmas. The poor bewildered man had gone to Liam asking what he’d done wrong to warrant exile from the family.
Arthur wanted to travel, to go off on his quest. In a family named for four kings and one queen of England, he felt a connection to the legendary ruler who’d commanded the Knights of the Round Table, even if it was mostly made up. But how was Arthur going to achieve great things when he couldn’t even get a kiss from a serving girl?
It didn’t help his mood that he was now on his way back from the village with the treacle tarts he owed Hal for losing the bet. It had been three days and Hal has been merciless in his teasing. It mattered little that Cook could prepare tarts in the kitchen. It was part of the bet that Arthur walk to the village every day for a week to get them, then personally serve them to Hal, who was currently back at the manor nursing a badly bruised arm caused by the fall from the tree. Arthur planned on nudging the arm none too gently when he served today’s tarts.
It was then that he heard it. At first he thought it was a bird, perhaps the shriek of a falcon. It came from the woods on the other side of the meadow he was walking past. Then the cry came again and it sounded less like a falcon and more like a person. Arthur began walking toward the sound, then broke into a run when he heard it a third time. As the cry came again, Arthur paused long enough to pick up a large stick then ran as fast as he could.
The noise brought him to a clearing in the woods. At least half a dozen lads from the village were circled around a small woman who looked to be in her late ‘30s. She had black hair which was unbound and hung in curls to her waist. She appeared to be a Gypsy from her dress. One of the sleeves on her white blouse was torn and the hem of her red skirt was hanging down, as if someone had ripped it. She was trapped by the band of lads, all of whom were much larger than she and who were cheering each other on as they lunged at her. She darted back and forth to avoid them, keeping a wary eye on her captors. She slapped and kicked at them when they got too close. Arthur could tell she was terrified, as much as she tried to hide it.
She was the bravest person he had ever seen.
“What’s going on?” he demanded as he reached the clearing and glared at the lads surrounding her. They were sons of the local gentry. He knew all of them, having spent his summers at Lynwood Manor. Most were older than he by a few years. Many were also bullies like Miles, the vicar’s son, who just the previous week had tortured a stray dog. The dog was now recovering in the Lynwood stables, after being saved by Lizzie. Miles was still sporting the blacked eye Ned had given him.
“Go to the devil Kellington,” sneered Miles. “No one wants you here.”
“Right,” said Morris, the squire’s son who’d yet to have an original thought. “No one wants you here.” At that, the other lads joined in, telling Arthur to bugger off and other colorful terms.
Miles continued. “We’re up for a bit of slap and tickle with this Gypsy slut.” He tried to make a grab for the woman, but she stepped out of the way and slapped at his hands to the amusement of the other boys. Which made Miles turn his anger on Arthur. “I don’t see Ned here to fight your battles. Or your little sister.” This made the lads laugh even more, which emboldened Miles. “You better take yourself off before we have a mind to come after you.”
Arthur eyed the other lads, most of whom outweighed him by two or three stone. “Let the woman go,” he said, wishing he had one of his brothers to back him up. He didn’t relish the beating that was sure to come. “Or answer to me.”
“Let the woman go!” parroted the squire’s son, laughing at the absurdity of the request.
Miles took a menacing step closer to Arthur. “Who do you think you are to give orders to us? Just because your brother’s a duke, don’t mean we have to listen to you. And it’s not like you can run home to daddy.”
That made the other lads laugh even harder. But Arthur didn’t hear them. He was aware only of the rage that flooded him. Not just because of Miles’s taunts. But because of the anger, fear and frustration he’d felt since the accident.
Without thinking, Arthur swung the stick around and hit the side of Miles’s jaw with a satisfying crack. He then threw the stick to the Gypsy woman, who used it to fight off the two boys closest to her.
The other three attacked Arthur, cheered on by Miles, who was holding his jaw from a safe distance away. Arthur gave a good accounting of himself, but soon fell to his knees from the kicks and blows. He hurt like the dickens, but there was more at stake than simply his own hide. He had to get up because he knew the woman would be getting the worst of it. He had to protect her.
He took another blow to the head, but retaliated with a fist to Morris’s groin. Not the most gentlemanly of moves, but fully warranted under the circumstances. Apparently, it was quite a blow, because not only did the miscreant limp off, but the other lads ran away as well with Miles leading the way. As Arthur shook his head to clear his vision, he looked for the woman, afraid of what he’d see. She was there, still holding the stick, seemingly unharmed. She was looking above him, toward the woods at his back. Arthur turned and saw the real reason the boys had run away.
The woods were filled with Gypsy men, Romany, holding any number of knives and weapons. One of the men, a little older than Arthur, approached the woman, obviously concerned for her well-being. They exchanged a few words in a foreign language, then the young man approached Arthur. He helped him to his feet then said in accented English. “You fight well for a gadji.”
Arthur nodded, unsure if that was a compliment. “Is the lady….” He turned to the Gypsy woman. “Are you all right, ma’am?”
She studied him for a moment, before smiling briefly. “Come back to the camp. We will tend to your wounds.”
“My wounds?” It took a moment for Arthur to realize his hair was matted with blood. Then the second most embarrassing moment of the week occurred as his world faded to black.
* * *
Arthur woke to find himself lying on a palette in a covered wagon. An entire home seemed to exist within the small conveyance, which was made entirely of wood except for a tarp at the door. A bedroll was tucked away under a bench. Several chests were lined up against the wall opposite him and a jar of colorful glass beads lay atop one of them. Arthur tried to sit up, but lay back when hit by a wave of dizziness.
“Be careful, Lord Arthur,” said the woman from the woods, who was sitting on a low chair in the corner of the wagon. She’d changed into a new dress and tucked her hair beneath a scarf. “You fainted from the sight of blood.” From the look of chagrin on the boy’s face, she quickly added, “A customary reaction, I assure you.”
“How do you know who I am?” he asked, as he gingerly felt the bandage on his head.
“I know many things,” she said, as she gave him a small goblet of wine. “But it is no secret who you are. We have travelled through these parts many times before. Your father used to give us permission to camp on his lands. Your brother did the same when we came here two days ago. It is a shame we must leave so soon. Drink the wine. You’ll feel much better.”
As Arthur sipped the wine, he looked at the woman. She was older than he’d first thought. There were creases at the corners of her eyes, as well as a few light lines near her mouth. Her eyes were the darkest brown, almost black. And there was something almost mystical when he looked into them.
“What is your name?” he asked.
“Sofia,” she gave him that faint smile again, then turned away. “I owe you a great debt. You saved me.”
“You saved yourself. And your friends certainly did more than I.”
“I think not,” she said as she reached for the jaw of beads. “If you had not appeared when you did, the outcome might have been much different. For everyone. I am in debt to you. It must be paid.”
Arthur took another sip of wine. “I assure you that I don’t need any type of reward. Anyone would’ve done the same. And probably not fainted at the end of it.”
“Nevertheless, I must give you something as I have no desire to feel obligated to someone I may never see again. We are preparing to move on because those delightful boys from your village may be back in greater number. We have no wish to be here when they do.” She studied him for a moment, her dark eyes probing his. “I will tell your fortune.”
Arthur’s eyes grew bleak. “I’m not sure I want to know what’s going to happen. Not if it’s bad. It’s….it’s been a bad year for my family.”
Sofia considered that for a moment. “Arthur, no life can proceed without difficulty. Some events are tragic. Others are merely unpleasant. And sometimes, when we are very lucky, challenges lead us to great happiness. You cannot live a life devoid of difficulty. But you can prepare yourself to face what may come. Wouldn’t knowing be better than not?”
Arthur wasn’t sure that was true at all. But in the end, he nodded.
Sofia placed a handful of beads on a table, then reached for a deck of cards that had colorful figures painted on them. Arthur watched her long fingers shuffle the cards over and over again. Then she laid them out on the table.
“What would you like to know?” she asked.
Arthur wasn’t quite sure what to say. He rather wanted to know why the tavern maid hadn’t kissed him, but was too embarrassed to ask. “My family,” he said at last. “What’s going to happen to my family?”
Sofia played with the deck some more, all the while keeping her eye on him. Finally, she began turning over cards and studying them. “One of your brothers…he will travel.”
That piqued Arthur’s interest. “Perhaps you’re speaking about me?”
Sofia shook her head as she studied the cards. “No. Not you. It is one of your brothers. He goes over the water. He’s in danger. But it leads him to his soul mate.”
Arthur snorted. “There’s no such thing.”
She met his eyes. “You’re very wrong, Arthur. Very wrong indeed. Your brother will tell you so, but not for several years.” She shuffled the cards again, then laid them out and turned them over. “Your sister. Your sister….she also finds her soul mate. She is a mother and is safely delivered of six children, all of whom prosper. And then she…speaks before…she speaks before your English Parliament.”
“Impossible!” said Arthur.
“Nothing is impossible,” Sofia said as she laid out the cards again. “You have another brother…he tells people not to drink spirits.”
“Must be Lynwood,” said Arthur. “He’s always telling Ned and me to stay away from his brandy.”
“No, I do not think it is his grace. I believe it is your youngest brother. He tells people to stay away from drink and gaming. And there is a woman involved.”
“I’m sure there will be many women involved, but I cannot believe the rest of Hal. Do you see anything for Liam?”
Sofia studied the cards. “The course of true love will not run smoothly.”
“When does it ever?” asked Arthur, getting ready to ask about the tavern girl.
“And now for you,” said Sofia as she lay out the cards. “You will explore the world, but not for many years.” She studied the cards intently, then her expression blanked. Something stilled in Arthur at the sight of it.
“But what happens in the meantime?” he asked.
“That is all the cards told me,” she said as she gathered up the cards and stones, avoiding meeting his eyes.
“There is more, isn’t there?” said Arthur. He put his hand on her arm. “Please tell me.”
She debated what to tell him, weighing her words carefully. “The cards only tell what is likely to happen. They’ve been wrong before. You doubted what I said about your sister and brothers.”
He had, but Arthur wanted to know what she wasn’t telling him. He needed to know. “What do you see in the cards? Please, Sofia, you must tell me.”
Sofia looked at him, the weariness of the events of the day in her eyes. “I see the woman you love being shot by a man and you being unable to get to her in time.”
There was a moment of silence. Arthur could hardly breathe. Of course there was nothing to this, just card tricks by a woman who thought she was doing him a kindness. But just the mere thought of more loss paralyzed him. He couldn’t face it. He’d never fall in love; he’d never risk it.
“Remember, Arthur,” said Sofia softly. “No life is without difficulty. But do not be afraid to live.”
At that moment, the flap to the wagon’s door was thrown open. The Romany man who’d first spoken to Sofia looked in on them.
“I’m Michun,” he said to Arthur’s unspoken question. “Lord Arthur, your family has come to retrieve you. I will take you to them.”
Michun led Arthur through the camp, which was now in the process of packing up to depart. Every member of the tribe from the eldest man to the youngest child had a task to complete to facilitate a smooth, quick departure. All eyes were on Arthur as he passed the wagons where people lived, as well as the stalls of wares the Romany sold in villages, including one that featured intricate jewelry boxes and small chests, which Arthur paused to inspect. He needed a distraction before he faced his family. He’d suddenly become quite embarrassed by all the attention focused on him, not to mention the worry he must’ve caused his family.
“We have some of the best artisans in the Rom community,” said Michun proudly. “If you see something you like, take it. We cannot thank you enough for what you did for Sofia.” Then he added softly. “I personally cannot thank you enough. She is my mother.”
Arthur looked at the man and noted the similarity to Sofia. He didn’t know what quirk of fate had made him walk by the field at just the right moment, but he was immeasurably glad he had.
Arthur turned to see Hal grinning at him. He was standing with a solemn Liam, Ned and Lizzie.
“Is it true you fainted?” Hal couldn’t believe his great good luck.
“Your brother came to my assistance,” said Sofia, as she joined them and made her curtsey to Lynwood. “He is a very brave man.”
“Arthur,” said Liam, after introductions were made, “how badly are you injured?”
“His head certainly can’t hurt as much as my arm,” said Hal. “After all, his head is much harder.”
“Might I remind you, Henry,” said Liam, “that your arm wouldn’t hurt if you hadn’t climbed that tree to spy on your brother.”
“Well someone had to make sure he told the truth about the wager.”
“What wager?” asked Lizzie.
Liam shot a quelling look at Hal, who wisely refrained from answering.
Ned dragged his eyes away from a beautiful young woman whose décolletage had also drawn Liam’s interested gaze. “Are you feeling all the thing, Arthur?”
“I’m fine,” said Arthur. “Thanks to Sofia and Michun.”
“What happened?” asked Liam.
Arthur glanced at a curious Lizzie, then back at his brother. “Some of the boys from the village – Miles and Morris and a few others – were, uh, harassing Sofia. We were able to scare them off, although it was mostly the men from the tribe.”
“I should’ve blacked both of Miles’s eyes when I had the chance,” said Ned. “Still not too late, I reckon.”
“Thank you for the thought,” said Sofia, “but we hope to depart before too long and with as little attention as possible.”
“I am the magistrate here,” said Liam, asserting himself as Lynwood. “I can prosecute to the fullest extent of the law.”
“Thank you, your grace,” said Sofia. “But the law isn’t always an impartial force, regardless of your excellent intentions.”
Liam considered the matter, then nodded.
“Did they hurt you?” Lizzie asked Sofia. Arthur looked at his sister, who was a skinny little girl in braids, holding a doll that was almost as big as she was. She’d rarely let go of it since their parents’ death. And now she was asking about an issue no little girl should ever have to think about.
Sofia smiled at the girl, then smoothed one of her braids. “Your brother was very brave and took care of me.”
Lizzie looked at Sofia, but made no response.
Michun watched the young duke appraisingly. “You are much like your father. Please accept our sincerest sympathy at his passing.”
Liam gave the briefest of nods. Ned looked off into the horizon. Hal put his arm around Lizzie, as she leaned into him. Arthur took little solace in his family’s company. His thoughts were on the future.
Michun continued. “The road beckons and it is time for us to go.”
Sofia kissed Arthur’s cheek, then he and his brothers and sister turned to walk back to Lynwood Manor. Arthur was suddenly anxious to leave the encampment, to go home and try to put his troubling future behind him. It was best to get his mind off it. Perhaps a hand of cards when he returned. That would occupy his thoughts.
Suddenly Lizzie turned and ran back to Sofia. She held up the doll that meant so much to her.
“Here!” said Lizzie as she thrust the doll into Sofia’s hands. “I don’t want you to be sad.” Lizzie looked at the doll one last time, perhaps considering whether to snatch it back again. Then she ran to her brothers and took Arthur’s hand.
Bravery, thought Arthur, took many different forms.