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

Thursday, October 3, 2019

What really happened in the village of Withering Gibbet in 1882?

For the month of October you can grab an e-book copy of THE MUTINOUS CONTEMPLATIONS OF GEMMA GROOT (An Unlikely Romance) for a special low price, so if you've been wondering whether to take a chance on that one with the spooky cover, here is your opportunity!

**

Venetia Warboys, by most accounts, a mild-mannered, generous, church-going woman, had reached her thirty-fifth year with little out of the ordinary happening in her life. Until she decided, one evening, to rise from her neatly-laid dinner table, fetch an axe from the woodshed, chop her husband into pieces and bake his gristle into some pies.

"That's the last time he'll criticize my pastry," she said calmly when apprehended in the act of selling her grisly wares.

Although her husband had been an infamous philanderer— or as much of one as an oily, simpering blob of a man could be in a small, rural market town—nobody knew what had really happened, on that last day, to cause a deadly fissure in his wife's sanity. I was the only soul to whom she gave any clue, but the six words she once whispered into my ear left me, a girl of twelve at the time, with more questions than answers.

Suffice to say, after Venetia's axe swinging rampage in the autumn of 1882, the men of Withering Gibbet took greater care of what they said and did to their wives. We had all learned some important lessons: everybody harbors dark truths; there is no such thing as "ordinary", and never buy a savory pie at the county fair, especially when the contents are described as "revelation meat".
For many years Venetia was our town's sole claim to infamy.

And then there was me.

* * * *

So begins a story of silence and noise, secrets and lies, sisters and lovers, murder and redemption. Gemma Groot grows up in the long shadow cast by an old sin, but she is about to step out of the dark and shine the light on a few startling truths about her family. With the help of a man who falls out of the sky, she will finally discover the strength she needs to revisit the past and unleash the spirit of a wronged woman.

But will she find that some skeletons are better off left buried?

Images used here: The Twins by John Everett Millais 1876 and A Backward Glance by Charles Edward Perugini c. 1870

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Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Coming soon!


The Crollalanzas —

Or,

The Partially Comical and Oft-Times Tragical History of Four Sisters and a truffle pig, told with select examples of drollery, dignified into scenes by way of dialogue, arranged for the pleasure and benefit of all curious persons.

The like never before published (mayhap with reason sound, if good profit be the aim).

Modernized, henceforth, in spelling and punctuation.



Believe little of what follows, if you like. It is always wise to be skeptical, and the woman drawn onto the page by the curves, dashes and tails of these few inked words was, herself, a notorious fabricator; once made a career of it, in fact.

      But she would maintain that the story you are about to read is just as true as most tales put to paper—verily steeped in steaming truths— although it is a strange and meandering account that may well overstretch the borders of your credibility. She would remind you that truth can be stranger than fiction; that one person’s clear and undoubting prospect can, to another, be no more trustworthy than the reflection in a distorted mirror; no less mischievously concealing than a Carnevale mask. It is a curse of humanity that there are very few things in this world, or beyond it, that we can unanimously and unequivocally agree upon to be ‘truth’.

      As she points out, our reality is virtual now; what do we know of truth anymore?

      All this said— and those warnings duly given— should you be so disposed to a fondness for whimsy, I hope you will allow yourself to be swept into the pages without concern, to idly drift along with the characters of this eccentric epistle, be still an hour or two, suspend your disbelief  with the wild abandon of pantaloons tossed asunder, and know that no harm can proceed from it.

      But now, begging your forbearance for one further moment; a word about our heroine, if I may.
From the beginning, let one thing be without doubt; it grieves me to admit that she is not the stuff of feminine ideal. The reader, therefore, should not look upon this work and think it be an example of how all women behaved, or even how many females thought in that century. In fact, the opposite is true, and I can assure you that our unbecoming, truculent heroine occasionally suffered regret for her outspoken ways; that she felt the vicious spike of envy in her breast when she saw other women who excelled at their role and shone within its confines. Yes, there were times when she wished for beauty and grace; to be a paragon of soft-voiced, docile womanhood. But such yearnings were fleeting, like the childish dreams of finding herself transformed into the warrior empress of some fantastic realm. And just as unlikely to transpire in reality.

      Perhaps, knowing from an early age that she would never fit the preferred mould of the day, Truzia Crollalanza deliberately presented herself to the world as an unrepentant malefactor, embracing her oddities with relish. There was, it turned out, some satisfaction to be had in hearing the anxious whispers of various prattle-bags and wary, toplofty gentlemen, who inquired into the state of her mind and the completeness of her faculties.

      "Is the chit quite sound?"

      "Is that young woman altogether...with us?"

      "Is she moonstruck?"

      Her sisters claimed she was a changeling. What other excuse could there be? "At least we have cured her of biting, wetting the carpet and chewing the furnishings," they would say with all solemnity. "But never let her near a sharp bodkin, if you value your eyes. And do not feed her or she will follow you home."

      In truth, by the spinster dotage of her twenty-fifth year, Truzia was happiest in an old, loose kirtle, with her hair netted and bound to keep it out of her eyes, a goose-feather quill stuck behind her ear to dry, fingers ink-stained, and her temper unapologetically disobliging. She preferred to be left alone and unobserved, so that her countenance be free to work itself into the ugliest of expressions, and her mind liberated to roam, unmolested by the demands of household chores or polite conversation. To put it lightly, by the standards of her day, she had quite failed her duties as a woman.

      But not for her would come subservience to the male gender. She sought satisfaction and distinction in other— some may say, selfish and cowardly— ways, content to write scenes of romantic love without exposing herself directly to its agonies.

      Had she ever recognized anything in her real life that resembled cupid flying overhead, she would have shot those plump kneecaps out of the cloud before that meddlesome, grotesque, nightmarish little beast could fire its own arrow.

      But, of course, with all that said, the inevitable happened.

      She had counted twenty-five years in this unsociable fashion, but before she reached the twenty-sixth anniversary of her birth, Truzia would be undone. In what was expected to be her “middle-age” this unhinged, untamable, most wretched of creatures fell in love. You will have guessed that already, a page into her history, which shows that you have greater wit than she, who did not see it coming in a thousand such pages. She, perhaps, was the only soul who remained willfully oblivious to her own romance.

      The despaired-of, ink-bespattered hussy very nearly overlooked it altogether.

      I suppose you will not like her very much and think her an ill choice for a heroine. But this is her story and I, who do not like her much myself at times, am charged with the telling of it.

      So, prithee, do not look to these pages for a lesson in morals, the banging of a political drum, or an example of good behavior finding its own reward— any more than you would read it for a lesson in history, legal counsel or religious guidance. But, if you be in sour temper or bereft of merriment, I pray you find within these pages some scratchings of entertainment. For this is nothing more than the story of one random little life and its trail of havoc, arched across the sky like the tail of a shooting star.

      We are all tiny, flickering lights that burn briefly in the hugeness of being. Our bodies float uncertainly through life, buoyed upright by bags of air under our ribs, the purpose for our existence quite unknown. We live but for the blink of an eye, or a puff of breath in the great scheme of time, but nobody is insignificant, nobody is gone that is not missed, nobody born who never touched another soul, even if they are unaware of the mark they left behind. Every life has a story worth the telling. Even hers.


The magnificently awful story of Truzia and her sisters is coming later this year. Be thee prepared.

(Top image: Elizabeth Poullet 1616 age 22 by Robert Peake)

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Special Price!

BESPOKE is on sale now, for a limited time, from all online stores. So, if you still need to grab a copy, here is your chance to find out how it all began.
Below is an excerpt and your introduction to Detective Inspector Deverell's first case in Yorkshire.

*

            The grandfather clock in the hall read three o'clock, but nobody had yet looked at it today. In fact, nobody had glanced at that face for some time. Indeed, had they been asked, it was unlikely that any soul who lived there could even have described the two French enamel griffins and the rolling moon face that travelled back and forth between them every day. The clock had been there as long as the house itself and was, like most faithful servants, taken for granted, its cogwheels steadily chopping the hours and minutes away, its pendulum swinging with a quiet, dull thud inside the tall cabinet. A sound so constant that it was ignored.
            But today something different was about to happen.
            Perhaps it had already begun.
            Click-clack, click-clack, click-clack.
            No, that ticking sound was not the clock; it was the housemaid's boot heels striking the garden path with a brisk trot, two flints close to sparking, her forward motion all bustle and twitch, propelled as if by steam engine with no safety valve. The only pressure released sputtered forth in tiny, puttering curses through a thin, resentful spout of a mouth. But it was not enough relief. The rest of her being swelled to bursting point even as those whispered breaths escaped— broken and chipped gasps as fragile as the teacups that bounced and rattled on the tray she carried.
            The gardener, hearing her approach, opened his eyes, scrambled as upright as any man could with three jugs of scrumpy inside him on an unseasonably hot day, and made a half-hearted attempt at resuming his work. Although a number of unconvincing denials were poised upon his sloppy lips, none were needed. Whether or not she had seen him napping there in the shade of the privet hedge, the housemaid had no time to berate him for once; indeed, she made no acknowledgement of his presence at all today. Her cheek, he noted, was striped with the scarlet ghost of finger marks and, a loose, dark curl of sweat-dampened hair, having escaped the white lace cap that was knocked slightly askew, stuck there across her skin like a question mark.
            His hedge shears hung useless in the air, the blades swinging wide open, as he watched her go, admiring the tight sway of her hips beneath the grey skirt of her afternoon uniform. Two wide, broderie anglaise apron strings fluttered in her wake, crisp and virginal white. He hiccupped, exhaling a hot cloud of cider fumes.
            Why hadn't she seen him there? It wasn't like Florrie not to flirt or chide. Usually both at once. Since he could barely feel his own fingers, or the tongue in his mouth, perhaps he was not really there.
            But then he felt the first drop of rain on that sticky afternoon and knew that he was indeed still flesh. Something made him look up. A shadow flew across the sky, but not with purpose like a bird. Its trajectory was a wild arc that seemed too slow, as if it fell through clear paste rather than air. A stray shuttlecock perhaps, from the riotous game of battledore taking place on the lawn? With the hedge shears in his hands he had nothing with which to shelter his gaze and the sun's glare was a blinding white veil.
            What time was it? By the strength of that brightness it must be after one o'clock.
            His back ached as if he'd been at work for hours; his stomach grumbled. He could not recall when he last ate. But nor could he recall his own name. Was it Jonah or Jack? One name he was christened, the other was given him by his employer because she didn't like the first. Such was the way the world ran, he had no say in what they called him; he was their property as much as the plants he pruned. At that moment he felt resentment at his place in life, as if something had given him an uncustomary jolt and he recognized the injustice for the first time.
            Distracted then by a noise through the open terrace doors to the conservatory, he stumbled around to see what it was. But his eyes, still smarting from the bite of the sun's teeth, could see naught but a watery blur. His mind, fogged by too much cider, could make no sense of what little blotchy shape and form it recognized. What he really wanted was to sleep. The heat was too much. Knees bent, shears forgotten, he resumed his weary squat behind the bushes and pressed his back to the wall, yawning.
            Indoors, beyond sight of any observer, the butler let a bottle of port slip through his usually steady palms, so that it shattered on the flagstone floor of a downstairs passage, leaving a weeping, blood-red stain that trickled deep into the cracks, seeping into the very foundations of the house. One drop bled under his well-polished shoe, while he watched it spread a crimson web, his own movements frozen in place, trance-like.
            Farther below, in the kitchen, a large saucepan of eggs had been left untended until it almost boiled dry, the shells banging against the sides of the pan in half an inch of fiercely bubbling water, the cook and kitchen maids nowhere to be found. The scullery maid crawled in among the pickle jars on the bottom shelf of the still-room, hiding her face against her knees and stuffing an apron into her mouth, biting down on the cloth to muffle a cry of anguish. By the servants' entrance, the hall boy, sluggish in the heat, took pause to lean one shoulder and enjoy a stolen, roasted chicken leg. But even as his mouth opened for the first bite, he glanced back and then upward at the top of the house, his body stilled, as if he heard a rumble of thunder from above. Or a sound unusual, out of place.
            Meanwhile, the youngest son of the family, who stormed through the hall and out of the front door, laughed loudly and mirthlessly at the invitation in his hand.

Lady Isolda and Mr. Ezra Welford
request the favour of your company,
for tea, frolics and delicacies
at one o'clock in the afternoon, on Sunday, September 24th, 1893
at
Welford Hall
Quipsey Thwaite, York

            "Frolics?" he hissed. "They do not know the meaning of the word." With a sneer he ripped the invitation into halves and then quarters, before letting the pieces drift to the gravel under his riding boots. He looked around, wondering where his sister had gone. Damn her. Once again she'd stuck her nose into his business and got him into trouble. Or tried.
            In this intolerable heat, he ought to strip naked and swim in the ugly, bloody fountain. Show them a true "frolicking". Make them spill their tea and lemonade. Serve them all right.
            Blind with anger, he did not see his sister escaping through the bars of an iron, trellis-work gate. Avoiding everybody by hovering in the rose garden, the daughter of the house reached to pick a late blooming flower and felt the vicious stab of a lurking thorn. And as she watched the red bead bulge against her pale skin, she muttered softly, "By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes."
            On that humid afternoon she shivered and looked up, frowning.
            High above, in a turret of the house, an old man with the mind of a child played with his doll house— an exact replica of Welford Hall— in which the tiny figure of a lady in a grand hat sprawled at the foot of some stairs, surrounded by crumbs of bread and with a smudge of rhubarb jam from his afternoon sandwiches smeared upon her head. A twig, snapped in two, lay by her side. The nurse charged with his care came up behind, breathing heavily, wiping perspiration from her forehead with a handkerchief.
            Shrill and cross in the thick heat, she exclaimed, "Lord Percival! How many times must I tell you not to play with your food?"
            "'Tis not my food," he replied with a giggle, as she wiped his sticky fingers on her handkerchief. "'Tis for the foxes."
            At that same moment, downstairs in the house, the eldest son of the Welford family paused to approve his handsome appearance in a looking-glass. Realizing he'd lost the diamond stick-pin from his ascot, he leaned forward, annoyed. The reflection of something dark fell behind him in the tall window. A dead bird, perhaps, its heart stalled by an arrow. But who would practice their archery on such a day, with the lawns full of people?
            "Did you see that, dear?" he asked his wife, belatedly aware of her presence in the drawing room behind him.
            "I never see anything, dear," came the reply, wielded like an ice-pick. "If it can be helped."
            The thing that flew through the air tumbled and tumbled for what seemed like forever. Until it finally landed with a smash into the tray of teacups carried across the lawn by the housemaid, the surprise causing her to drop everything and exhale all her steam at once.
            It was neither a shuttlecock, nor a dead bird.
            It was a boot. A new ladies boot.
            Still worn by a foot that had been squeezed into it for the first and last time earlier that morning.



*

Thank you for reading!



(Image used here : Lady with a book in the garden (1892) by Brunner Frantisek Dvorak)

Friday, July 12, 2019

Corsets, Gossip and Sad-eyed Detectives.


Today I'm sharing another exclusive excerpt from A Loveliness of Ladybirds.
Enjoy!
***
“It’s no good, Mary,” she gasped out, clutching the cast-iron bedstead. “Help me out of this bodice and loosen the wretched contraption beneath. I shan’t be able to eat a morsel at the wedding breakfast in this torturous device.”
But Lucy Greenwood waited in agony, and in vain, to be relieved of her pinching corset and the new gown over it.

“You look a fair treat, Miss Lucy,” was the only response she received, followed by the comfort of, “That shade of blue suits you. Would never expect it to, since it’s such an innocent shade, but it does.”

Ignoring the cheek of that comment, Lucy turned, with both hands on her waist, and spoke carefully. “Mary, undo me. I can barely breathe! It simply won’t do!”

Her assistant watched her lips and then gave a complacent reply. “Don’t be daft. You’re in it now, Miss Lucy. Like a sausage inside the casing. It’ll take too much bother squeezin’ you out again and the carriage will soon be here.  You don’t want to be late or they’ll start without you. Besides, you look like a picture in one o’ them ladies’ magazines. Don’t want to spoil that by getting you all undone again.”

Which will do me no earthly good when I drop down dead in the church aisle.” This time she signed with her fingers, trying to conserve her breath.

“You’ll make a handsome corpse, though.”

“I shall take comfort from that then, shall I? Better be a good-looking cadaver than a plain woman still breathing.”

“That’s the idea, Miss Lucy.” Thoroughly unconcerned by her friend and employer’s plight, Mary opened the creaky little dormer window of the bedchamber. “You stand here and take in some fresh air. You’ll feel better. There’s a nice bit o’ breeze.”

“What does it matter how much air there is about, if I cannot squeeze any into my lungs?”

But while her assistant looked out of the window and into the street below, Lucy stole a quick, sly assessment of her appearance in the long mirror.  

Reluctantly she observed how the corset beneath the gown gave her an exceedingly elegant figure, and the robin’s egg blue silk— which she had feared to be too young for her— was very becoming in the sunshine. A few too many ruffles, but it was not her choice. She must grin and bear it.

“It could be worse, I suppose,” she murmured, pressing her shoulders down and her chin up. “One does not want to look too completely heinous at the wedding of an old friend.”

“Aye. You’ll do,” Mary shouted over her shoulder. “As long as you don’t eat anything or try to sit down. Or go climbing any trees.”

“And that was just the very thing I planned to do at this wedding. Climb a tree.”

“There you are then. What’s all the fuss in aid of?”

Lucy shook her head. “My membership in The Rational Dress Society will be revoked if they ever see me in this outfit.”

And she was hungry already. Not a good beginning when there was no room to put the lightest morsel of food.

An immediate vision of herself consuming unladylike amounts of festive ham at the wedding breakfast, with burst seams, hooks flying in all directions and rolls of flesh revealed to the startled guests, rendered her dizzy with amusement suddenly. Or else blood was rushing to her head and flooding her brain, having been forced up there by the spiteful machinations of that new corset. There was certainly a strange excitability in the atmosphere on this sunny morning.

“I know how prisoners felt just as the door of the iron maiden was closed upon them,” she wheezed. “Goodbye, air! Farewell, life!”

But Mary was looking down into the street, again now, her broad, sturdy, farm-bred forearms resting on the windowsill. Whenever she was not wearing her special hair comb with the hearing device attached to pick up sounds in her deaf ear, she was in her own muffled world. Unless actually paying attention to the mouths around her, of course. She was a very adept lip-reader when she wanted to be, which was not often. Most folk, according to Mary, had nothing worth hearing to say.

“Must be a rich fellow,” she said. “The groom. Reckon that’s the carriage just pulled up.”

Lucy joined her at the window to inspect the box barouche creaking to a halt below. “I know little about Sir Buxton Hardwicke, except his political leanings.” She wrinkled her nose. “And I have nothing good to say about them.”

“My pa always says a woman shouldn’t take an interest in politics. She shouldn’t have any hopinion, he says, unless a man, as knows better than they, takes the time and trouble to give her one of his.”

“Yes, Mary, I am acquainted with your father’s views on life. They are much the same as those maintained by others of his gender. But I must manage the best I can, since I have no man so generously gifting me with a share of his opinions. Thank goodness!”

As that fine carriage stood below, the shop fronts of Charles Place were suddenly seized by a flurry of awakening business. Curtains twitched like the ruffles of Flamenco dancers’ skirts and doorknockers up and down the row required immediate polishing. Not to mention front steps— already swept once this morning— apparently demanding a second brush. And in the midst of this activity, a small figure scurried out of the shop beneath them to feed the waiting horses with some carrot.

“Look at that little nitwit, feeding our hot-pot bits ‘n pieces to somebody else’s beasts,” Mary grumbled. “She’d give our supper to the town’s stray cats every night, if I didn’t watch her!”

Little Ivy Dimmock, former workhouse waif and scullery maid, had worked at Lucy’s cake shop and tea room since the previous autumn and was mostly an eager helper, but also a day-dreamer with a terrible penchant for wandering off with a spoon in one hand, chocolate on her lips, and almost no recollection of what she was meant to be watching on the range. It did not take much to distract her. On this fresh, spring morning, with the doors and windows open to let out the kitchen heat, the clip-clop of those sleek horses, pulling a fine carriage slowly over the cobbles with great ceremony, must have drawn her away from the pots and pans.

“Best make sure she’s not left the caramel to burn again,” Mary muttered. “Dozy ‘apeth.” She hurried to the door, but paused there and signed to Lucy, “You look lovely, Miss. If that detecting fellow could see you in that dress, he’d stop dilly-dallying and pull his boots up.”

Lucy reached for a woolen shawl and tossed it over the mirror, obscuring her reflection. “I can assure you, Mary Hobson, I am not waiting for a man to do anything of the sort. How many times have I told you that I have no intention of ever marrying anybody?”

Mary signed again, “I did not mention the word marriage.”

“Good. See that you don’t!”

He says he’d never marry again, in any case.” Those quick fingers added. “Once was enough, it seems.”

“There you are then,” she snapped, pulling her window shut with a clang and a squeal of the rusty latch.

Trust Mary to choose one of his conversations as worthy of observing, she mused. There was no doubt that her surly assistant had taken a liking to Detective Inspector Deverell. And one could count the number of people Mary Hobson had time for on the fingers of half a hand— with young Ivy being the half— so this was no small achievement for the fellow. Of course, Deverell was a quiet sort of man. He did not flounder about in self-important impatience. Since all his workings went on inside, as Mary had remarked once, whenever he did speak, he had something interesting to say and, in the telling of it, he did not shout at her as if he thought her stupid. He had also bought Mary a new sewing box for Christmas, as a thank you for mending his old coat. The young woman had never quite got over it, and every time she had cause to open the lid of that pretty little box, she made sure to remind anybody nearby that he had fetched it for her all the way from London— a place she had never been and never expected to visit.

Only six months ago, London was little better than Sodom and Gomorrah, in Mary Hobson’s mind. But now, since Detective Inspector Deverell— and her smart, new sewing box with all the velvet-lined compartments— came from that place, it could be regarded with less antipathy.  Even a little awe.

The fact that she still referred to him as “That Detecting Fellow”, as if she did not recall his name, fooled nobody.

“I thought Ivy was the one with a head full of romantic nonsense,” said Lucy sharply. “It had better not rub off on you, Mary. I rely upon you to be the voice of reason when I’m not here. I cannot have you both floating in the clouds.” She swiped her bonnet from where it perched on the nearest cast-iron bed-knob. “Detective Inspector Deverell and I are friends. That is all.”

But sometimes it felt as if she spoke his name aloud much too often.

Thought about him too frequently.

Worried about winning his approval and his admiration far too much. Especially when she had no idea that he ever thought about her at all. 

Although, that was not entirely true, was it?

Lucy looked down at the bonnet in her hands, running a silk ribbon through her fingers. There were, occasionally, sparks of light in the darkness. After all, he had purchased for her a bicycle— ordered that too, at great expense no doubt, all the way from Lockreedy and Velder’s Universal Emporium in London—but he did so anonymously on that occasion, not wanting her gratitude, apparently. The man must not realize that he was the only soul to whom she’d ever confessed her desire to traverse the streets of York on her own set of wheels. So, of course, she knew at once that it was a gift from him.

But then he had bought a gift for Mary too, so perhaps it was simply a kindness and she should not read so much into it.

There were other moments too, that teased her to think he liked her company. He came sometimes for tea and listened with good-natured forbearance to her chatter. But he was not one for grand gestures, mushy poetry and passionate exclamations. On the contrary, at times he looked at Lucy as if he suspected her of plotting some wicked crime.

Lushly-maned Samson, with sudden foresight at his disposal, would have regarded Delilah and her scissors with only half as much trepidation.

She shot another frown at the veiled mirror.

Tolly Deverell was a man who would never admit that she looked nice unless the compliment was pried out of him by a crab fork. Even then he would make it seem as if she was up to no good by looking thus. Impossible man. Really, she did not know why he constantly popped up in their kitchen conversation. She ought to curb that habit before the speculation between her staff got out of hand.

Mary was watching her with narrowed eyes. “Are you and he still friends then?” she said, carefully pronouncing her words.

Lucy paused in the process of tying her bonnet ribbons under her chin. “Why?” she asked airily. “What can you mean by that? Why would he and I not be friends?”

Her assistant heaved a shrug. “Just that the last time he left here he didn’t seem to be in a very merry mood and that was a fortnight since.”

She gave a little snort. “Have you ever seen Mr. Deverell in a very merry mood, Mary?” He took life extremely seriously, carrying all the world’s troubles on his broad shoulders, as if he could trust nobody else to do it.

“He hasn’t been back since though, has he?” said Mary.

Yes, she was well aware of that. It had been two weeks and three days, actually. She resumed the tying of her bow, staring up at the low, crooked ceiling beams which appeared to her, quite suddenly, as disapproving eyebrows.

“Thought perhaps you hurt his feelings with that sharp tongue o’ yourn,” Mary added, looking at her fingernails. “Don’t know why else he’d have a face like a slapped arse when he left.”

“Mary! Language please! We do not have arses here. Slapped or otherwise. This is not a farmyard or a naughty boy’s boarding school.”

“What do we have then?”

“Posteriors. If we must have anything of the sort!”

Mary looked wryly amused. “I’d say we must. Can’t let the hot air and wind out without one.”

“And Mr. Deverell is a grown man,” Lucy added, trying not to get all high-pitched and indignant. “How on earth could I have upset him with a few words? It was merely a debate. We’ve had plenty of those before and no doubt we shall have many more.” She paused again. The thought of never enjoying another discussion with that man was intolerable, an icy spear to her heart. Surely, he would be back again to sit in her tea room, looking vastly uncomfortable among all the dainty china and making her wait on tenterhooks for his verdict of her latest creation. Of course, he would come back. Why would he not? She reached for her gloves where they sat upon the quilted coverlet. “What is the meaning of that face, Mary Hobson?”

“I’m sayin’ nowt. You know more about men than I do.”

“You most certainly will say, Mary. You began this discussion.”

“I’d best go down and make certain that dozy girl en’t set the shop ablaze.”

“Mary, you will stay here and explain what you mean by describing Mr. Deverell’s expression in those terms.”

“Now, remember, Miss Lucy, you’re to deliver the cake first to the hotel and then the coachman will take you on to the church to join the others. I’ll make certain the tiers are all set safely in the coach so they get there undamaged, shall I?”

“I will manage the cake. I do not need reminding to watch one of my own creations. I insist you tell me why you think Mr. Deverell is no longer—"

“Caramel, Miss Lucy. Burnt. Pans to scrub. Tea to brew. We cannot all stand about gawpin’ at ourselves in the glass. You know what they say about Satan and idle hands. And vanity.”

“Mary! Do not leave this room! Come back and—"

The assistant deliberately looked at her feet, backed out and shut the door, her boots clomping noisily down the stairs to the kitchen, leaving Lucy alone.

“Damn this corset!” She shouted, “And how many times have I told you not to call me Miss Lucy. I am not somebody’s maiden great aunt with an ill-tempered lapdog, a pickled liver and a lorgnette.”

No answer, of course. Mary would pretend she did not hear, even if she did.

Now Lucy truly felt constricted and hot. Just when she wanted to be serene and cool-headed in her pastel silk.

Not friends? It had not occurred to her that Deverell might be staying away deliberately. Never expecting to have his full attention, she had thought him simply busy. As was she, of course. A woman with a business to run did not have time to sit idle, wondering about gruff, sad-eyed detectives.

She told herself that constantly. Almost as often as she thought about him.


Illustrations used here: Vintage clipart and "A Cup of Tea" by Walter Granville Smith 1904.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

From Pork Pie to Apology

Today, for your enjoyment, here is an excerpt from A LOVELINESS OF LADYBIRDS, which will be unleashed upon the book reading world tomorrow. Get your copy now!



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“I suppose you’ll want to question me first,” she said, striding across the room to greet him, her expression striving for earnest and somber, but her eyes barely able to contain a bubbling excitement. Two, tiny mother-of-pearl hearts trembled from her ears. He was instantly reminded of the first time they met, when she, certain he considered her a murder suspect, had been thrilled at the prospect and completely powerless to hide her excitement.
“Why? Do you have anything of interest to tell me?”
“Detective,” she replied archly, “everything I say is of interest. You ought to know that by now.”
He heard her gown rustling as she followed him across the room.
“While you’re busy detecting, Deverell, I do not suppose you can manage to detect some pork pie, can you?” she said. “We’re all very hungry and you know how I get when I haven’t eaten.”
“Good lord, yes. We hardly need more bloodshed, do we?”
“I did not mean that you were a joke to me,” she exclaimed abruptly.
“I beg your pardon?”
“The last time we saw each other. I fear I offended you, and I hope you can forgive me.”
From pork pie to apology all in one breath. One never knew what she’d say next, he mused. Or when she would say it.
He had almost dropped his hat. His fingers went all soft and clumsy. Had their quarrel troubled her as much as it had him then? He was more pleased by that than he ought to be. But such a lift to his heart’s beat and his spirits could only be costly in the long run, for what went up must always come down.
She stood before him, waiting for some response.
How brave she was, he thought; not for the first time. She leapt right in with an apology, frank and to the point. Few folk would do the same. Of course, it had always been easier for her to express her emotions, for she was fearless. Dangerously so. She was younger, impulsive, incautious, ran at life with her arms out to embrace it. Not very good at hiding her thoughts and feelings and desires; never caring about the cost of something if she wanted it badly enough. Sometimes he felt as if he had an unfair advantage, with those eight extra years under his belt and a more taciturn nature.
But what was unfair about it? He ought to make the most of anything at his disposal when it came to dealing with this extraordinary force of nature. She had plenty of advantages over him.
This was not the time to think of Lucy Greenwood’s many attractions, however. Or to confirm them for her. She was already quite full of herself.
“Madam,” he said finally, his voice low and carefully measured, “I am here on business. Let us confine ourselves to the matter at hand, if you please.”
“I wanted to clear the air. I thought you might be dwelling upon our last meeting and—”
“I can assure you, Miss Greenwood, it has barely crossed my mind.”
“—Sinking into an enormous sulk. Not that it is easy to tell from your expression. You often look that way.”
“Men do not sulk.”
“They brood then.”
“Perhaps you think of fictional gentlemen. The sort who inhabit those romances and detective tales that certain ladies like to read.”
“On the contrary, I refer to gentlemen of my recent acquaintance. Stubborn, unromantic fellows. Mardy, as we call them in these parts. Think all women need watching over in case they harm themselves in some stupid way.”
“These fellows sound most wise and sensible. Cautious, circumspect. Led by experience rather than emotion.”
“Gentlemen, who, when they are cross about something, instead of letting the grievance out into the air, tuck it away and hope it will disappear. But instead it festers there, like an infected toenail. Simply because they never like to raise their voice and reveal what they’re truly thinking.”
He shook his head. “I cannot speak for the men whose company you lately encourage, madam, but I have enough to worry about on a daily basis, without relentlessly pondering the follies and whims of unguarded young ladies who insist they can look after themselves. I leave the temper tantrums to them.”
She gave him a distinctly doubtful look, lips pressed together, eyes narrowed.
“Miss Greenwood,” he said steadily, “consider our previous discussion quite forgotten. It is water under the bridge. And none of my appendages are infected. Now, may we get on?”
Although visibly bursting with impatience to say more on that subject, she lowered her lashes, relaxed her mouth and took a breath. “Of course. We are on formal terms today, and there are far more important things happening. I should not have mentioned it.” But it would have killed her not to. He had observed before that she liked getting troubles off her chest; could not stand to have them pressing on her for long. Tolly Deverell, however, wore his secrets as a shield, a heavy breast plate of armor, dented but unbroken. Without it he did not know what he would do; how he would balance. He was accustomed to carrying the weight.
Through the glass-paneled door he watched a timid breeze moving the pale violet buds of wisteria which framed the arch. Some were already blooming, catching that welcome blast of sunlight. It was rare to find anything more beautiful and breathtaking than a well-established wisteria plant in full bloom. Very few things brought as much cheer to his spirits, he mused, catching sight of her reflection in the glass panes. Very few.
“So here you are, Miss Greenwood. In the thick of it again, as Constable Hastings remarked.” 
“Even you will be forced to admit that I can help you with this investigation, Detective Inspector Deverell,” she said, her tone proud. “Since I was here upon the scene and I am acquainted with Miss Meridies— I mean to say, Lady Hardwicke. Gracious, I must remember that! But it’s such a stern and somber mouthful for someone like little Edie.”
“Is it?” He turned away from the view and back to her. “Why do you say so?”
“Because she’s a dainty, delicate, sweet thing. Not suited to her new name at all. Really, Edie Meridies is perfect for her. It sounds so… sunny. One cannot say it without smiling. It makes me think of a spring meadow full of tiny, wild flowers. What is it? You’re looking at me strangely.” She lifted a hand to her face, running quick fingertips across her mouth. “Is there something stuck to my face?”
“Only a light flush. Too much champagne perhaps?”
“One can never have too much champagne,” she replied airily.
“One can if one is not accustomed to it.”
Up went her chin. “Well, this one means to become accustomed to it.”

Of course, she thought he was interfering again. He shook his head, rubbed the bridge of his nose with one finger and slyly looked around the room. The other guests were a grim bunch: the men impatiently blustering about; the women clutching smelling salts. Some guests seemed affronted that he’d opened the doors to the terrace without their permission. They eyed the outdoors with apprehension, withdrawing into their corners, seeking the protection of cool, secretive shadow.
“I know that Miss Edina Meridies is not capable of murder, Deverell,” Lucy whispered again. “Whatever else has happened here, I can assure you of that much.”
Back his gaze came to her, settling there with its usual caution. “Can you?” That shade of blue suited her very well, he thought. She was aglow with spring today, shining with vitality.
“Of course. If there has been a crime committed here, I will not hesitate to speak as a character witness at the trial.” Fingers curled into a tight fist, she pressed them to her breast and declared, “I shall stand by my friend come hell or high water. Poor Edie has been used as an innocent pawn, a scapegoat in some horrid person’s crime. There can be no other explanation.”
“Don’t buy a new bonnet yet for the court appearance.”
She frowned. “What makes you think I planned to buy a new hat?”
“Experience.”
With a shake of her head she returned to the matter of her friend’s predicament. “People have been arrested and tried before, have they not, without a corpse being recovered?”
“They have. I prefer to compile a solid case before I make my accusations, however. I’m too old and unwieldy to jump to conclusions without endangering a hip.”
She rolled her eyes. Nobody had ever rolled their eyes with quite so much energy as Lucy Greenwood.
“There are, after all, other people present in the hotel,” he said, glancing around the dining room again. “Including you, madam.”
“But we have all been within sight of each other since we got here. Indeed, some have not moved at all. Mattie calls them pincushions, because they remain still even when poked and prodded. A few had to be carried here from the church in sedan chairs, despite this being a lovely day and the distance no more than a pleasant stroll. They look as if they belong inside dusty gallery frames, don’t they? Not a very amiable lot. I know that a killer requires both murderous motive and opportunity, so I’ve been wondering whether any of them might anticipate a mention in Sir Buxton’s will. Although not fit to wield a weapon themselves, they might have procured the services of a professional. Although, if that is the case, why wait to dispatch him until after the marriage vows? Surely, they stood to gain more before he married Edie. Could his mother be next? Is there some sort of affaire de coeur of which we know nothing? A deadly obsession, or a desire for vengeance? Some grievance within the family? Or could it be a political assassination, considering the victim’s seat in the House of Lords?”
“Reading the adventures of Sherlock Holmes again, Miss Greenwood?”
Her eyes flashed. “I read a great many things, Mr. Deverell.”
“Alas.” He sighed. “A dangerous occupation for a young woman with a lively imagination.”
“Is there an occupation you do not regard thus? What would you have me do in my leisure hours? Oh—” She put up her hand. “Do not tell me. I suppose you would put me away in a little box somewhere in a cupboard, so that I cannot possibly get into trouble.”
“Such precaution would lessen the likelihood of damage, madam.”
“I am not so easily broken. Just because I’m a female you imagine me fragile.”
His reply was solemn. “I said it would lessen the likelihood of damage. I did not say to what. Or to whom.”
Her lips parted in a soft huff of annoyance, but her eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “I suppose you never played with your toys when you were a little boy, but kept them pristine in their tins and boxes. I wager you were one of those awfully particular ninnies who put things away tidily and did not like other children touching their toys.”
“My brothers and I did not have toys, madam.”
“What did you play with in your day then? Rocks and stones? Fallen teeth?”
“We worked, madam. When we were not away at school, we had jobs to do.”
That stopped her. But only for a moment. “That explains a great deal,” she muttered, shaking her head.
“Only my sister was at leisure to play with dolls and, as far as I recall, they all met with rather unfortunate and macabre ends, about which she always proclaimed her innocence. I grew up, therefore, with some knowledge of wicked young ladies and their sinister ability to portray virtue and goodness, even in the face of outrageous evidence to the contrary.”
“I hope to meet your sister one day. She sounds fascinating and without a doubt she would have plenty to tell me about you. Particularly all those things you wouldn’t want me to know. All those terrible things you conceal from me.”
He could only shake his head, appalled by the idea of this woman and his sister ever pooling their resources.
“Tell me about your friend then, madam,” he said briskly. “I am all ears. What would you say in her defense if called to the dock? In your new bonnet.”
“Miss Meridies is a darling girl, who has endured many hardships. She would never harm anybody. I’ve never even heard her say a bad word about another soul and she has surely been entitled to do so in the past, after the way she was treated.”
“How was she treated?”
 A cloud swiftly passed over the sun, darkening the previously bright room and her face, as she looked over at the nearest group of potential eavesdroppers and lowered her voice. “Edie’s former fiancĂ©—an artist—broke her heart when he abandoned her for an affair with a married woman, who then stabbed him to death in a fit of jealous passion. In fact, it happened at this very hotel. We were just remarking upon the awful coincidence when Edie walked in. With the scissors.” She bit her lip. “I suppose that’s what you meant when you said there is a precedent here for missing bodies.”
He squinted as the sun came out again, its rays fiercer this time, as if to spite the cloud. “You refer to the Siddaway case.”
“Exactly. The victim then was poor Edie’s first fiancĂ©. So you see, my friend could have nursed a great deal of anger and bitterness in her heart, and nobody would blame her. But she never did.”
“How do you know she did not? It happened ten years ago, and you said you haven’t seen Miss Meridies in a dozen years or more.”
“We kept in touch with letters, and she never expressed any animosity over the entire grisly affair. Indeed, she grieved for the dead man and pitied Mrs. Siddaway— said it must have been a moment’s madness and immediately regretted. I wish I had kept the letters from Edie. I could have shown you how little anger she had, how generous she was both to the young man who broke her heart and to his lover, the woman who stole him away.”
“Then you believe Mrs. Siddaway to be guilty in that instance, despite the verdict at the trial and the lack of a body?”
“Who else could have done it, if not Mrs. Siddaway? And where is her lover if not dead?”
“I have no answers for you yet, Miss Greenwood, but here is your friend, in almost the exact same circumstance, and you are ready to proclaim her innocence without a doubt.”
She faltered then, her confidence flickering like a flame behind cracked lantern glass. “Yes, but Hywel Ellis has been missing ever since.” She stepped closer to whisper in bemusement, “I suppose you would acquit Mrs. Siddaway too, just like the jury at the trial, solely because she had a pretty face, a fine bosom, and knew how to flutter her lashes. Honestly, men!”
“Sounds as if you would think her guilty for the same reasons.”
“Not at all,” she replied primly. “I would never hold a woman’s good looks against her. But I know how men are so easily led; how they judge by appearances and how some women use that to their advantage. I do not blame the lady for making the most of whatever she had at her disposal to convince the jury that she was innocent. She was fighting for her life. But I would not have been distracted. I look at the facts, not the lady’s face.”
He scratched his head. “And the facts are?”
“She was discovered holding the bloody weapon and her lover was never seen again. If Hywel Ellis were still alive he would have come forward when she was arrested for murder, surely.”
“Why? Perhaps he wanted her arrested.”
“And hanged over a lover’s tiff?”
“But she did not hang, did she? It did not progress that far. The lady was acquitted.”
“Well, I say he must be dead,” she insisted. “Where else could he have gone? A living person does not simply disappear for ten years.”
He shrugged. “Perhaps.”
“It is impossible.”
“Not impossible, but not simple. If it were easy, a great many men would probably try it.”
“Yourself included, I suppose,” she remarked dourly.
“There are moments when invisibility would be a relief.”
She squinted against the renewed glare of sunlight. “From all that I ever read about Mr. Hywel Ellis, he was a very different sort of man to you. The last thing he wanted was to be invisible. A man like that can never have enough attention, no matter how many hearts they break in the selfish pursuit of it. No, he would never vanish. He would be incapable of it.”
“But you never met him when he was engaged to your friend?”
“I did not. She wrote to me all about him, though. Edie was utterly besotted the moment they met. I could tell from her letters. Later, of course, after the scandal with Mrs. Siddaway, I read more about him in the newspaper. He was evidently an inconstant fellow— so many other lovers came forward after it happened. Hywel Ellis was a man who lived for the attention of ladies, did not feel whole without it, and was searching for something he would never find.”
“Such as?”
“A woman to please him forever, in all his moods. A woman to prevent him from looking at any other.”
“And he would never find that?”
“Of course not. He was incapable, a selfish sort of man who could never love anybody more than he loved himself.”
“But you decided all that just from reading about him in the newspaper?”
She replied drily, “Men, Deverell, are generally not complicated creatures. Present company excluded.”
“Did you advise your friend of all this?”
“No.” She exhaled a fraught sigh and looked down at her hands. “I did not know of his many shortcomings and infidelities until later. All I knew of Mr. Ellis, in the beginning, was that his portrait paintings were much admired and great success was predicted for his future. We did not have the proof of his wandering eye back then. Had I known from the first, I would have tried to warn Edie and save her, if I could, from that heartbreak. She deserved much better.”
“Would you say that the Right Honorable Sir Buxton is better?”
“Well…” She shrugged. “He is not, or was not, a ladies’ man, at least. There are not likely to be scandals with other women.”
“You can tell that too, can you?”
She gave him a look he could only describe as salty. “Edie always wanted to be married and Sir Buxton can— or could— give her security. After the drama of her first tragic engagement, I’m sure it was a relief of some sort.”
“You mean to say that your friend settled this time?”
“Not every woman must have excitement and a life full of thrills. The older we get the wiser we become.”
“There’s hope for all of us then,” he muttered.
She looked at him from under half-lowered lashes. “A good, true, kind man is hard to find, Deverell. A sensible woman who finds one, ought to hold onto him and be patient that he will eventually see her worth. And not let silly quarrels get in the way, for example.”
Spring shone warmly upon him through the open doors again now, and it was pleasing after a long, harsh northern winter. The healing kiss of that heat on his skin made him feel rejuvenated, his leaves unfurling, his buds sprouting. He could not frown, even if he wanted to.
“What is it now? You look at me in that odd manner again,” she exclaimed. “Did you not have breakfast before you came out?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I’ve seen that drawn expression on the faces of hungry hounds and tired horses, but seldom on a grown man. You do not take proper care of yourself, Deverell. We are quite concerned about your irregular eating habits.”
“We?”
“Constable Briers, his wife Elsie, and myself.”
“Miss Greenwood, I must ask you not to discuss my eating habits with my constables.”
“With whom should I discuss it then? It is a subject in need of airing. Somebody has to be concerned about you.  Especially since you aren’t even concerned about yourself.”
“Oddly enough, madam, I seem to recall saying a similar thing to you recently and being roundly admonished for it.”
Briefly, she closed her lips and tried to look indignant, although she could hardly afford to be so, considering his reminder was entirely justified.
* * * * * 
What’s next for Detective Inspector Deverell and Miss Lucy Greenwood? Find out tomorrow in A LOVELINESS OF LADYBIRDS and in the next Bespoke novel, A DEADLY SHADE OF NIGHT.
(Images used here - A painting curiously entitled "Seventeenth Century Lady" by William Merritt Chase c. 1895; a Victorian Wedding cake advertisement; my cover, and "The Tea" by Mary Cassatt 1880)