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The good reasons behind strict courtship rules

MG 2014 posterToday, I turn my blog over to Maria Grace. She has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, but those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate in Educational Psychology. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

She has one husband, two graduate degrees and two black belts (which I find most impressive!), three sons, four undergraduate majors, five nieces, six new novels in the works, attended seven period balls, sewn eight Regency era costumes, shared her life with nine cats through the years and published her tenth book last year. Phew: just reading that makes me exhausted, even if I keep even pace both on the sons and books front. No nieces, though…Anyway: without further ado I turn you over into Maria’s capable hands – did I mention she’s something of an expert on the Regency era?


I’m so excited to be visiting with Anna today. I love her blog and all the wonderful stories she tells. Often, she writes about the consequences and intrigues associated with arranged marriage.
I can’t say I long for a return to those days myself, but it is really interesting to look at what a tizzy parents went into when society moved away from the practice.

MG pnp-man-courting-woman Felix Friedrich von EndeUntil around 1780, arranged marriages were de rigueur. It made sense – more or less – considering that marriage was a business and often political arrangement. But then the Enlightenment happened and philosophers made a mess of things that were working perfectly well – more or less.

The pesky notions of reason and individualism over tradition got people thinking that perhaps personal preference should play a role in one’s marriage choices. That led to considering love and – ack! – romance as possible players in the field and that lead to something near panic for parents and anyone else who cared about social order and stability.

But never fear, enter the conduct literature writers to rescue humanity from itself. Authors readily offered advice on how to judge character, how to behave in public toward the opposite sex, how to attract the opposite sex, even the proper way to make or refuse an offer of marriage.

Out of this advice, strict rules for behavior during courtship developed. The rules safeguarded both sexes. Gentlemen required protection from being trapped into matrimony and ladies needed to be guarded from becoming attached to men who were not honest in their intentions toward them.

Arguably, the cardinal rule of courtship became to seek compatibility and friendship rather than romance, since the former might stand the test of time and could provide far more enduring and stable relationships than fleeting passion. Young men were counseled not to embark upon courtship lightly, and young women not to give affections too easily.

MG regency englandI cannot even understand how it is flattering to a man’s vanity, to gain the affections of a deserving and too credulous woman, whom he never intends to marry. He ought to lose more in his character for integrity, than he can gain as one successful in courtship. His manner of address, consisting of a visible attachment. While his heart is not engaged, is most detestable hypocrisy. And to say that he is not bound in honour, because he has subjected himself to no specific promise, is the highest aggravation of his guilt. Were he to act in the same manner in his common transactions with mankind, his character would be forever blasted. (Gener, 1812.)

A woman is often placed in a very delicate situation. She may be distinguished by a kind of attention which is calculated to gain her affections, while it is impossible to know whether the addresses of her pretended lover will end in a serious declaration. (Gener, 1812)

Female conduct manuals universally cautioned women not to be forward in their dealings with men or to encourage their advances. A woman must never confess her feelings until absolutely convinced of his intentions. Some went so far as to insist a woman must never look at a man unless he made the first advance.

Other rules to help squelch the possibilities of romantic passion included forbidding the use of Christian names, paying compliments, driving in carriages alone together, correspondence, and any kind of intimate contact.

Young, unmarried women were never alone in the company of a gentleman or at any social event, without a chaperone. (Who knew what kind of ideas she or he could get!) Except for a walk to church or a park in the early morning, a lady could not even walk without an appropriate companion. (Of course a potential suitor would not be appropriate!) Though a lady might drive her own carriage or ride horseback, if she left the family estate, a groom must attend her.

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Not the done thing…

Naturally, all forms of touching were kept to a minimum. Sakes alive, what kind of unrestrained behavior might that lead to? Putting a lady’s shawl about her shoulders, or assisting her to mount a horse, enter a carriage or climb stairs were acceptable. A gentleman might take a lady’s arm through his, to support her while out walking. But he must never try to take her hand, even to shake it friendly-like. If he did, she must immediately withdraw it with a strong air of disapproval, whether she felt it or not.
Conversations had to be extremely discreet leaving much to be interpreted from facial expressions alone. Even those were proscribed by many advice writers.

There is another Character not quite so criminal, yet not less ridiculous; which is, that of a good humour’d Woman, one who thinketh me must always be in a Laugh, or a broad Smile, because Good-Humour is an obliging Quality… . (The Whole Duty of a Woman, 1737)

Not surprisingly, it was difficult for either party to truly discern the feelings and intentions of the other. Only at the moment an offer of marriage was made could a man declare his feelings and a woman her own in return. This was arguably the desired effect and what makes it all sound so laughable to modern viewpoints.

But there were some genuinely good reasons for all of the restrictions. While philosophy did alter some perspectives about marriage, some things did not change. At the core, marriage was still a business arrangement, men and women each bringing their part to the matter. Real property, dowries and fortunes, trades, skills (including those of keeping house), social connections (of course those might be good or bad, just saying… ) and the provision of heirs were all very real commodities in the transaction. One needed to make sure that arrangements offered equitable compensation as it were, for all involved and no one, including the extended families, was being shorted in the exchange.

It light of all the fuss, modern minds might argue in favor of simply staying single and being done with it all. However, in the day staying single was definitely not a good alternative. Society did not look with great favor upon the unmarried adult. Spinsters were considered the bane of society, but bachelors were also looked down upon as still not having come into their own in society, not quite fully participating in adult life. (Vickery, 2009) A great deal rode on establishing oneself in a comfortable married state.

MG signing-the-register-by-edmund-leighton-blairIf this weren’t enough reason for anxiety, add to it that divorce was nearly impossible to obtain. It was entirely possible that one might have only one opportunity to ‘get it right’ as it were. Granted, widowhood was common enough, and some married multiple times because of it, but it probably wasn’t a good thing to count on.

No wonder parents were in a dither that their children might make a tragic mistake choosing a marriage partner. With so much on the line, can you really blame them for supporting rules designed to keep runaway passions at bay and encourage level-headed decision making?


Thank you, Maria, for that informative piece. Must say I feel relief at not having had to negotiate such convoluted courtship rules 🙂 Now, Maria does not only write posts, she also writes books – many of them Jane Austen spin-offs, and having read one or two I can assure you she does that very well. Her latest release is called The Trouble to Check Her, and here we have that disobedient sprite, Lydia Bennet having to handle the consequences of her reprehensible behaviour (well, as per the standards of the day) in Pride and Prejudice. As per the blurb:

MG The Trouble to Check Her MEDIUM WEBLydia Bennet faces the music…

Running off with Mr. Wickham was a great joke—until everything turned arsey-varsey. That spoilsport Mr. Darcy caught them and packed Lydia off to a hideous boarding school for girls who had lost their virtue.
It would improve her character, he said.
Ridiculous, she said.
Mrs. Drummond, the school’s headmistress, has shocking expectations for the girls. They must share rooms, do chores, attend lessons, and engage in charitable work, no matter how well born they might be. She even forces them to wear mobcaps! Refusal could lead to finding themselves at the receiving end of Mrs. Drummond’s cane—if they were lucky. The unlucky ones could be dismissed and found a position … as a menial servant.
Everything and everyone at the school is uniformly horrid. Lydia hates them all, except possibly the music master, Mr. Amberson, who seems to have the oddest ideas about her. He might just understand her better than she understands herself.
Can she find a way to live up to his strange expectations, or will she spend the rest of her life as a scullery maid?

Buy links:

Should you want to know more about Maria and her books, visit her excellent blog, Random Bits of Fascination, her other blog Austen Variations or her Amazon page.

Never a pawn, ever a queen

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Millais – “Isabella” (question is, which Isabella)

Okay, I can’t resist her any longer. She’s played bit-parts in some recent posts, but today’s protagonist is of the firm conviction she deserves her moment in the limelight – by birth, if nothing else, seeing as the lady in question is rather fond of her bloodlines. So, having been browbeaten into submission, I give you Isabella of France.

Some call her a she-wolf. Towards the end of his reign, her husband probably called her a treacherous, adulterous whore. And as to Isabella, she’d restrict herself to a Gallic shrug and say “I did what I had to do. For my son.” Hmm. Not only for her son…

We shall breeze through Isabella’s early years – no matter that she pouts in protest.
“But my Papa, mes frères?” she demands when it seems I intend to skip her precious Capet family. Sorry, honey: this is not about them, remember? It is about you.(And if you want to read up about her beloved frères, why not stop by here?)
“Ah, oui,” she agrees, shining up like a beacon. So, in summary, Isabella was considered the most beautiful of women, and yes she was splendidly attired when she married Edward II in 1308 at the tender age of twelve, and yes, she was upstaged by Piers Gaveston, Edward’s current male favourite.
“Upstaged?” Isabella sniffs. “Mais non. Piers was fond of me.” As was the king, to some extent. But the king loved Piers, this upstart baron who had the rest of the English nobles gnashing their teeth.

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Edward II

Very briefly, Piers Gaveston was the second son of a Gascon minor lord. Piers entered Edward’s life when Edward was a young man not yet twenty, and an immediate – and some say unwholesome – affection sprang up between the two men. When Edward became king, he showered Piers with honours and offices, thereby alienating the other barons.
As this post is not about Piers, we will leave him to his fate for now but can conclude that ultimately the royal favourite was executed in June of 1312 – murdered, some would say – at the behest of the the barons led by Thomas of Lancaster.

Edward without Piers was an unhappy man. It was some consolation when Isabella presented him with a son and heir in November of 1312 and the next few years seem to have been good years for Isabella and Edward – she grew into her role as royal consort, and whether or not theirs was a passionate affair, there were more children. Things trundled along, the king never entirely happy with his barons, the barons never entirely taken with their king.

Enter Hugh Despenser, and the relative stability of the realm was a thing of the past. The barons cast but one look at Hugh Despenser – and his father – and shuddered. The Despensers were greedy for wealth, for land, for power, and once Hugh the younger had established himself as the king’s beloved favourite, all he had to do was snap his fingers to have his wishes come true.

At this time – around 1318 – Isabella was no longer a child. She was a mother, a queen, and was seriously disinclined to be shoved into the background by a new male favourite.
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” William Congreve wrote some four centuries after these events, but yes, Isabella felt scorned – and she blamed Hugh Despenser. The barons wholeheartedly agreed, and when the king turned a blind eye to Despenser’s unlawful execution of one of Roger Mortimer’s Welsh clients, a Llewellyn Bren, things came to a head.

EHFA Wheel of fortune

That fickle wheel of fortune…

In 1321, the barons, led by Thomas of Lancaster, Humphrey de Bohun and Roger Mortimer, rebelled. The king was forced to exile his beloved Despenser – both of them. Enraged by this humiliation, the king plotted revenge. Some months later, he had managed to turn the tables on the barons. Mortimer ended up in the Tower, de Bohun and Lancaster ended up dead.

The Despensers were reinstated. The king was overjoyed. Isabella was not. Mortimer managed to escape to France, promising to return and claim what was his. Edward and Hugh shivered in dread at this threat, and England became a dark place where it sufficed with a whispered accusation of being a Mortimer supporter for a man to lose his liberty, if not his life. Isabella became increasingly isolated, living on the fringes of a court dominated by the royal chamberlain, Hugh Despenser.

It is doubtful whether Isabella and Mortimer were in cahoots already at this point in time. In my books, I have taken the liberty of suggesting they were – it makes for a better story – but nothing indicates Isabella had ever been anything but a dutiful wife. It is therefore quite incomprehensible why Edward, on Despenser’s advice, chose to deprive Isabella of her dower lands and the related income. In one move, he had angered and humiliated his wife.

Things took a turn for the worse when the brewing conflict between England and France over Gascony exploded into outright war. It was to a large extent Hugh Despenser’s advocated policies that led to the Gascony situation. It was assuredly because of the Gascony situation that Edward II exiled Isabella’s French retainers, many of whom had been with her since 1308. In doing so, he definitely pushed Isabella into the enemy camp.

There was nothing Isabella could do but bear it. No matter that she was a queen, she had little real power, and even less so when deprived of her income. But she did have her brains – and her looks – and somehow she lulled her husband into believing she had forgiven him – or at least accepted her reduced situation.

In 1325, England decided to treat for peace with France. Edward chose Isabella as his negotiator – as sister to the French king, she was an excellent choice. She was sent over to France with a household handpicked by the king and Despenser and negotiated a peace treaty which called for the English king to do homage for his Gascony lands. “I did my job,” she whispers in my head (yes, she spends a lot of time in my head). “But I vowed never to return to Edward – not unless Despenser was banished.”

Fat chance. Edward was utterly dependent on his beloved Hugh, which was why he listened when Hugh begged him not to go to France but send his eldest son instead. Hugh feared for his life should he be left behind in England. A correct assumption, I believe.

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Isabella, future Edward III and Charles of France

In sending his son, Edward effectively handed Isabella the sword upon which he would eventually fall. The heir to the English throne arrived in France invested with the Duchy of Aquitaine, which in itself generated an important revenue stream. More importantly, the prince’s hand in marriage could be bartered for men and ships. And finally, with the young prince at her side, Isabella could paint a potential invasion as a legitimate venture, intended to release the English from the heavy yoke of the Despensers.

By late 1325 it was evident Isabella had no intention of returning to her husband’s side – or of sending her son home. Instead, she was spending more and more time with Roger Mortimer and rumours began to fly. A match made in heaven, those two: ambitious, intelligent and ruthless when so required. Personally, I am convinced theirs was a relationship built on hot, searing passion – and I’m thinking Mortimer didn’t mind rubbing Edward’s nose in the fact that he was sleeping with the queen.

Some people seem to think Isabella was some sort of pawn. To me, it is apparent Isabella and Mortimer were equal partners – she needed his military expertise, he needed her and the prince to legitimise his actions. Besides, there was that constant, simmering attraction, that which had Mortimer heatedly declaring that he would rather kill her than allow her to return to the king. After all those years with a man who did not set her first, I believe it was a novel and exhilarating experience for Isabella to find herself swept off her feet by the charismatic Mortimer.

By betrothing her son to Philippa of Hainaut, Isabella acquired the ships and men required to invade England. In September of 1326 she landed in Suffolk, declaring that she – and her army – were here on behalf of her son, thereby making Prince Edward complicit in the rebellion that would ultimately cost Edward II his throne. I don’t think the young prince was all that happy about this – in fact, at fourteen he must have been terribly conflicted.

Instead of leading his army to meet the relatively small rebel force, Edward II fled west with Hugh Despenser. Isabella and Mortimer went after, and wherever they went, they were welcomed with open arms, the aggrieved people hoping this would spell the end of the Despenser terror. They rode together, Isabella and Mortimer. Side by side, they led their army in pursuit of the fleeing king.

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Isabella before the walls of Bristol

In October, the queen and her lover arrived in Bristol. The older Hugh Despenser was behind the walls, but after a week he gave up – and was summarily tried and executed. In November of 1326, the king was captured. With him was Hugh Despenser Jr. Edward II was carried off to Kenilworth, Despenser ended up on a gallows in Hereford, dying excruciatingly while Isabella and Mortimer wined and dined in front of him.

Some months later, the king had been forced to abdicate – he’d be declared dead in September of 1327 – Edward III had been crowned, and Isabella and Mortimer confirmed as his regents. Isabella had also ensured she’d been more than compensated for her lost dower lands: her son, the new king, had been “encouraged” to grant her an annual income of 20 000 marks, equal to approximately a third of the total royal income. The lady was, putting it mildly, greedy. Note also that no equivalent grant – or anything even close to it – was made to Mortimer.

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Isabella – in armour – with Mortimer and her army

Over the coming years, Isabella and Mortimer did everything together. They travelled together, planned together, ruled together, disappeared for months at a time together. Peace and order was restored to the kingdom, capable administrators appointed throughout the realm. Except, of course, that some barons remained unhappy, chief among them Henry of Lancaster, younger brother to Thomas of Lancaster. Henry felt he deserved the role as regent. Isabella and Mortimer obviously did not agree. In late 1328, Henry rebelled, and quite a few flocked to his banner, disenchanted with the regents’ – and especially Mortimer’s – growing power.

The uprising was put down – ever the kick-ass lady, Isabella donned armour and rode side by side with Mortimer through the night to surprise Henry at his camp at Bedford. Lancaster had no choice but to submit. Mortimer and Isabella showed leniency, fining the participants rather than executing them for treason. It seemed the kingdom had finally found peace.

Except, of course, that the young king had no intention of remaining forever under the control of his mother and her lover. In this matter, Isabella showed a remarkable lack of perceptiveness. She should have recognised her own ambition in her son, seen how the boy grew into a young man – a man determined to be the perfect king, and perfect kings are rarely managed by their mothers.

When Mortimer tricked the king’s uncle, Edmund of Kent, into treachery – which led to Kent’s execution for treason – something snapped in the young King Edward. Partly, I suspect he feared that Mortimer – and loving Mama – had no intention of ever relinquishing their power. Partly, he was enraged at having been played as a pawn in the matter of Edmund. And so, our young king retired to his chambers and began to plot.

As described in a previous post, Isabella and Mortimer were ousted from power in Nottingham – quite the cloak-and-dagger stuff, involving a determined band of conspirators and a secret tunnel. Mortimer was dragged off to face trial and subsequent execution, Isabella was taken to Berkhamstead Castle, there to contemplate her manifold sins – or rather wise up to the fact that her son expected her to return all the lands and incomes she’d appropriated over the last few years. Not being stupid, she did just that – and in return she was granted lands and income equivalent to her dower, which left her more than comfortably off.

At the time of Mortimer’s execution, Isabella was thirty-five. In some aspects, her life was over, but soon enough she was a well-received guest at her son’s court. There must have been dark and dreary days when she missed her lover and the thrilling sense of power, but ultimately Isabella was a pragmatist. She’d had her days in the sun, and such halcyon days came at a price. When she died, in 1358, she chose to be buried in her wedding finery and with Edward IIs purported heart. A repudiation of Mortimer? Not necessarily – but Isabella was a Capet, the daughter of a king, the wife of a king, the mother of a king. Of course she wanted to be buried as a widowed queen!

To close this post without touching upon the fate of Edward II would be like baking a chocolate cake without chocolate. As we all know, Edward supposedly died in September of 1327 – some say murdered by Mortimer (and Isabella). I find it doubtful that Isabella would ever have countenanced murdering her deposed husband – or that Mortimer would have lowered himself to do so. In fact, I am not entirely convinced Edward II did die in 1327 – I am rather fond of the recent theories that indicate he lived abroad for a number of years. If so, maybe Isabella was one of those behind the scheme to smuggle her husband out of England and give him his freedom in return for his oath never to return. Maybe. Or maybe that’s me being romantic again. One of my major faults, they tell me…

The earl, his repudiated wife and the lady of his heart

In previous posts I have touched upon the fact that most medieval marriages were arranged, often with little consideration for the feelings of those involved. This was true for both the groom and the bride, but in general we feel sorrier for the coerced bride than her husband, probably because men had the possibility of consoling themselves elsewhere – not an option for the well-born lady unless she wanted to be labelled a whore.

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Purportedly, Richard FitzAlan

Today, I aim to introduce you to a gentleman who was as much a marital prize as was his wife, namely Richard FitzAlan, son and heir to Edmund FitzAlan, 9th Earl of Arundel, and Alice de Warenne. There are uncertainties as to when our young hero saw the light of the day, some advocating 1306, others 1313. These days, the majority seem to lean towards 1306 – but given future events it would have suited Richard to put forward a later birthdate. More of that later.

Richard grew up in turbulent times. After the death of Edward I, the political stability in England went downhill, this due to the inexperience of the new king coupled with Edward II’s penchants for favouritism. Plus things weren’t made easier by a decade of bad harvests, the constant Scottish issue (to some extent sorted by Bannockburn) and the unrest on Ireland. And then, of course, there was the matter of Hugh Despenser, the king’s favourite from 1318 or so. Our Hugh was good at alienating the other barons, most of whom regarded him as a greedy megalomaniac – a characteristic he probably had in common with quite a few of his peers.

Anyway: Richard’s father had originally sided with the barons who protested against Edward II’s dependency on Piers Gaveston. In fact, the 9th Earl of Arundel took an active part in the rebellions that ended with Piers’ death in 1312. However, in the coming years the earl grew closer to his king, and by the time Despenser took centre stage, Arundel was firmly in the royal party. To further cement his position, in 1321 Arundel married his son and heir – Richard – to the eldest Despenser daughter, Isabel. The happy couple was fifteen (or eight, if we go for the later birthdate for Richard) and nine respectively.

Arundel illustration of marriageAt the time, the wedding made perfect political sense. Edward II was inordinately fond of Hugh, and whoever the king preferred ended up with the juicer appointments. Obviously, Arundel hoped that his son would benefit from his close association with Despenser. Nothing at the time indicated that Despenser would soon be out on his ear, and the king enjoyed ruddy good health, so his reign was expected to be long and happily dominated by Hugh Despenser.

What the newlyweds thought of each other was neither here nor there. I imagine Richard as sullen and angry at being obliged to marry a girl so much his junior. Isabel was probably intimidated by the adolescent youth – but her husband stood in line to becoming one of the wealthiest men in England, heir not only to the Arundel estates but also, through his mother, to the Earldom of Surrey seeing as John de Warenne, Richard’s uncle, was a victim of a loveless marriage and lived estranged from his wife.

The years 1322- 1326 were disruptive, with the king and Despenser fighting a losing battle against the growing opposition among the king’s barons. Having the queen, Isabella of France, side with the rebels did not help. Having Roger Mortimer and Isabella invade England with the young Prince Edward, heir to the throne, at their side, definitely nailed down the coffin on the Despenser -Edward II act. Suddenly, being married to a Despenser was not so much a good thing…

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Arundel & Despenser the elder submitting to Isabella

In November of 1326 both Arundel and Hugh Despenser met their deaths. Arundel was supposedly executed with a blunt sword – a cruel and extended death – while Hugh’s death was made into a gory spectacle. Young Richard was suddenly the earl – except that he wasn’t, as his father was attainted, and so Richard FitzAlan was hastily reduced to a nobody and was obliged to flee the country.

At the time, his wife Isabel was pregnant, and was delivered of a son in 1327. Being married saved Isabel from the fate of her three younger sisters, who in a cruel act of vengeance were forced to become nuns, this despite their youth (they were approximately eleven, nine and seven when they took the veil). It did not save her from being viewed askance – anyone related to Despenser was suspect, and Isabel’s mother, Eleanor de Clare, was held in the Tower while her older brother was under siege at Caerphilly Castle.

In 1330, Edward III took control of his kingdom. Mortimer was executed, Queen Isabella was relegated to the background, and Richard FitzAlan returned to England and petitioned the king for his hereditary lands and income. Edward graciously reinstated Richard as the Earl of Arundel in 1331, and one would assume our hero, by now all of twenty-five or so, would take the opportunity to further populate his nursery – after all, his wife was clearly fertile.

No such attempts seem to have been made. Nor does Richard appear to have been all that interested in his son, little Edmund. Instead, the new Earl of Arundel invested his considerable energies and capabilities in serving his king. A competent leader of men, Arundel proved his worth in war as well as diplomacy, and from 1334 and onwards, one office after the other landed in his lap. Being one of the richer barons in England and blessed with a well-developed sense of business which further increased his wealth, Arundel was also in a position to offer financial services to the king. Such loans did not generate any income – the Church frowned on usury – but they came with other rewards, such as the king’s support in various matters.

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Crécy as per Froissart

Most of the 1330s Richard spent harrying Scotland on behalf of his king. Come the 1340s, and he was instead to be found in France, an active participant at Crécy. In between these martial endeavours, it seems Richard also fallen in love. Unfortunately, not with his wife…

The woman who had caught Richard’s eye was Eleanor of Lancaster. A widow in her mid-twenties, this lady came without the Despenser stigma. She was also the mother of a son, thereby indicating she was fertile. Perfect wife material – or so Richard thought – and it helped that he seems to have been genuinely in love with her. Problem was, Isabel was still alive. Very much so, in fact, and showing no tendencies to helpfully roll over and die anytime soon.

A man as rich as Richard could afford to set his wife up in her own household, far from his. I therefore imagine that Isabel and Richard rarely saw each other, and maybe they were both content to live their separate lives. Isabel may have resented being excluded from the heady life at court – Richard would have had no desire to parade his Despenser wife – but she was financially secure and the mother of Richard’s heir.  If her husband preferred the company of other ladies, there was little she could do but pretend not to notice, and at first his infatuation with Eleanor may have appeared as just an illicit little tryst. Soon enough, it became apparent that Richard had other plans for Eleanor.

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Guillebert de Mets – an amorous embrace

Eleanor was of royal blood (as was Isabel), her father the grandson of Henry III (Not so sure that is much to brag about, but still…) In the early 1340s, the earl of Lancaster was old – and blind – but he was a powerful magnate and he wasn’t about to tolerate his daughter living in sin, no matter how much she may have loved her paramour.  Richard couldn’t agree more.

So, in 1344, Richard FitzAlan petitioned the pope, asking that he annul his marriage to Isabel Despenser. More than twenty years after the wedding, he now admitted to having been coerced into it – both he and his wife had been too young to be able to consent – and that “by force of blows” he’d been forced to cohabit with her. Their son was not the result of a loving union, rather the fruit of an enforced bedding.
“Hmm,” said the pope, raising a sceptical eyebrow. This is when loaning the king all that money came in useful. Edward III added his voice to Richard’s, as did Lancaster, and soon enough the pope produced an annulment – and the dispensation Richard needed to marry Eleanor, seeing as she was Isabel’s first cousin.

Just like that, Isabel was no longer the Countess of Arundel. Instead, she was a woman who’d borne a child out of wedlock – a fallen woman, no less. What she may have thought of all this is unknown, but it doesn’t take all that much imagination to picture just how humiliated she must have felt. Unfortunately for Isabel, she had no powerful male relatives to fight her corner. She had no choice but to accept the settlement offered by Richard – six manors at her disposal for the rest of her life.

As to Isabel’s son, Edmund, the annulment made him illegitimate. The seventeen-year-old who’d grown up believing himself to be the heir to the Arundel and Surrey lands was now a bastard, with little to his name but what his father might deign to give him. Richard must have given Edmund something – as evidenced by the fact that Edmund went on to marry a younger daughter of the Earl of Salisbury – but it was probably a pittance compared to what Edmund had stood to inherit. I guess the father-son relationship never recovered… Actually, occasionally I wonder if there may have been question marks regarding Edmund’s paternity – how else to explain Richard’s callous treatment of his firstborn? Or maybe it was a prerequisite for his marriage to Eleanor, that the son from his first marriage be bastardised so as to ensure it was Eleanor’s children who inherited the titles. Whatever the case, poor Edmund and his mother were out on their ear.

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Photo: Nabokov, English Wikipedia

Richard and Eleanor went on to have a long and fruitful marriage. Soon enough, the pitter-patter of small feet echoed over the massive floorboards of Arundel Castle, as first Richard junior, then a further half-dozen of sons and daughters were born. I imagine Richard was content: his career flourished, his wealth increased exponentially – when he died, he was the richest man around – and he had both an heir and a spare. On top of all this, he had his Eleanor. By all accounts, theirs was a loving relationship – as demonstrated by the beautiful – and inspiring, ask Philip Larkin – memorial to them in Chichester Cathedral where they lie, side by side, holding hands through eternity. If we’re going to be precise, though, it’s only their effigies that hold hands – their bodily remains were interred in Lewes Priory.

Isabel never got an effigy. She sort of faded into obscurity. Despite determined efforts, Edmund never succeeded to his father’s wealth and title and died a bitter and angry man. He could, I suppose, comfort himself with that he, in difference to his much younger half-brother, died with his head still attached to his body. Somehow, I don’t think it helped.

Pulling the wool over Papa’s eyes

Marriage love Manesse1I have a good friend who has a most prosaic approach to life. On one occasion, we were discussing marriage, and my friend causally said that he was convinced a successful marriage had more to do with how you approached it than who you were married to.
“Eh?” I said, somewhat taken aback.
“I’m just saying I could probably have had as good a life with another woman – and you with another man.”
“I love my husband,” I said – rather stiffly.
“And I love my wife.” He smiled slowly. “But I could have loved another wife just as much.”
Well, the conversation degenerated into a heated discussion for a while, but by the time we’d finished our respective tea and coffee, I had to grudgingly admit he was right. There is no single Mr Right or Ms Right for any of us. There are multiple alternatives, and it is how we work with our relationship that will define its long-term viability – however unromantic that sounds.

Of course, most of us prefer to see marriage/relationships as something pink and fluffy. Us modern Western people are suckers for romance and therefore marry for love. Us modern Western people divorce each other when the love runs out – not an option only some generations back.

ISOTS launch picIf your expectations of marriage include sizzling passion and everlasting romance you will obviously be disappointed three years into your relationship when hubby clambers into bed with his socks on, mumbles “God, I’m tired” for the eighth night in a row, and turns his back on you. (Contrary to some beliefs, men are just as good as women at complaining about “headaches”) As a modern person who considers love and passion to be a mandatory ingredient in your relationship, chances are you’ll feel seriously short-changed. Chances are you’ll conclude the love is gone and so the relationship is terminated. Onwards and upwards to new, greener pastures… Good luck!

Historically, those new greener pastures were out of reach for most people. And if you belonged to the noble, wealthy classes no one would consider love a relevant aspect when discussing a marriage. Children – both sons and daughters – were useful assets to cement alliances and increase wealth. To us, this all seems very dreary. I am sure it could be, but I am also certain quite a few of these arranged marriages were quite happy. After all, it is all about expectations – and your approach to things.


Edward & Eleanor

One example of an arranged marriage that by all accounts developed into a strong, loving relationship is that of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile. They were wed for political reasons – Henry III needed to shore up his Spanish alliance – and no one was all that concerned about the feelings of the fifteen-year-old groom or the thirteen-year-old bride.In this case, the bride and groom took a liking to each other, and over the thirty-six years of their marriage were rarely apart – Eleanor accompanied her husband wherever he went. While fortunate in love, they were less fortunate when it came to their children. Eleanor was brought to bed of fourteen to sixteen children, of which only six reached adulthood, five daughters and one son.

His own happy marriage should have made Edward eager to consider such things as compatibility and potential for future happiness when arranging his daughters’ marriages. Not so much. Like his contemporaries, he used his daughters to create relevant alliances.

cr-GuillaumeVrelant-TheMarriageOfArthur-Guinevere 15th centuryOne of his daughters, Joan of Acre, he married off to Gilbert de Clare, earl of Hertford and Gloucester. The earl was one of the richest and most powerful men in England, and Edward hoped to tether him to the throne by wedding him to his daughter. That Gilbert was thirty years older than Joan was neither here nor there – at least not to Edward. What Joan thought of all this we don’t know, but Gilbert seems to have gone to some lengths to woo his young bride.

They were married in 1290 – the bride was eighteen, the groom pushing fifty. Five years and four children later, Gilbert was dead. Joan, however, had done her duty, giving her husband a precious son and heir as their firstborn.

One would have thought Edward would give his daughter a break: recently widowed and with four young children, maybe she could be allowed to find her second spouse on her own. Edward did not agree. Joan was still young and obviously fertile, which made her even more of a marital asset. Edward cast a beady eye over the prospective suitors and nodded approvingly at one Amadeus, Count of Savoy, a man more than twenty years Joan’s senior.

medieval sexJoan, however, had other ideas. A year or so after her husband died, she found herself attracted to a certain Ralph de Monthermer. Ralph was no great catch, he’d been one of Gilbert de Clare’s squires and had no major future prospects. But he was only two years older than Joan, young and fit, and I dare say she preferred the idea of wedding him to being sent off to please Amadeus of Savoy. Besides, it didn’t matter that Ralph was poor. Under the marital contracts drawn up between Gilbert de Clare and Joan, Joan was more than well off, Countess of Hertford and Gloucester for life.

Edward, unaware of his daughter’s infatuation with strapping Ralph, continued with his negotiations. A marriage date was tentatively set for March of 1297. Somewhat desperate, Joan decided to preempt her father, and after convincing him to knight Ralph, she married her newly-belted knight in secret. (No matter how in love, it seems Joan had certain standards: her husband had to be at least a knight. At least)

Royal,  f. 375 detail

To marry without the king’s approval was not wise. To marry without the king’s approval when said king was presently negotiating your marriage with someone else was more along the lines of crazy. I guess Joan felt she had no choice. What Ralph felt I had no idea, but there must have been moments when his guts tied themselves into knots. Edward I was not exactly known for his mild temperament.
Meanwhile, Amadeus expressed he was more than happy to wed Joan and Edward was thrilled at how the negotiations were proceeding, so I imagine he decided to inform his daughter that soon enough she’d be the new countess of Savoy.
“Umm,” said Joan, “thing is, I can’t marry him.”
“Don’t be silly, of course you can. You’ll take to your new country like a fish to water.”
“Err…Well…Papa dearest, promise you won’t be mad, but…umm…I’m already married.”

Explosion. Major, major explosion. It probably did not go as far as having Edward frothing at the mouth (so undignified!), but I dare say his droopy eyelid twitched like mad. In his rage, Edward stripped Joan of her lands and threw poor Ralph into Bristol Castle. This beautiful love story seemed headed towards a tragic ending – not that Edward cared. On top of having to deal with his rebellious daughter, he suffered the humiliation of having to apologise to Amadeus. The Count of Savoy, however, was not one to dwell on lost opportunities and I am happy to say he found another bride within some months. Whether the bride was as thrilled I have no idea, being yet another of those young girls of impeccable lineage married to a man decades her senior.

Fortunately for Ralph and Joan, Edward calmed down. Besides, Joan was already pregnant, and several people urged him to be lenient. So in August of 1297 Ralph was released from Bristol Castle and reunited with his happy wife, by then big with child.

Joan and Ralph went on to have four children together. The relationship with Edward I was never to rise above lukewarm, but Ralph proved himself capable and loyal, qualities Edward valued. There is, however, a little anecdote regarding Ralph that I do not thing Edward would have appreciated: it is said that in 1306, while Robert de Bruce was at the English court, Edward planned to arrest the Scotsman. Ralph overheard something and chose to warn Robert by sending him 12 silver pennies and a set of spurs (and it is dead obvious that this means “Flee! Ride like the devil for home!”) Robert set off at speed, which is why he was around to crush the English at Bannockburn in 1314. Somehow, this little story has Ralph climbing high in my affections – and Robert obviously agreed, seeing as when Ralph was captured at Bannockburn he was invited to dine with Robert before being released with no demand for ransom.

Back to our heroine of the day: In 1307, Joan died, not yet thirty-five. Ralph would go on to marry again, this time the sister of a certain up-and-coming Hugh Despenser, Isabel. Interestingly enough, this was also a clandestine marriage. Yet again, Ralph would be on the receiving end of a king’s anger for wedding without royal permission, but seeing as this king was Edward II, I dare say his displeasure was easier to bear.

marriage loving-coupleJoan’s son with Gilbert de Clare died young at Bannockburn. Her sons by Ralph were not exactly long-lived either. And as to Joan’s many daughters, they would, just like their mother, be married off as it best suited the interest of their relatives – in this case the English king. In difference to their mother, none of them would contract a second marriage based on such an irrelevant aspect as love. Poor them.

Of love and loss

Some months back, I posted about the unhappy Juana of Castile and her erratic behaviour when her husband died. Grief, it seemed, pushed her over the edge, and life would never again be the same. In Juana’s case, very much the truth, what with her spending over four decades locked up.

Victoria and AlbertThere are, of course, various other examples of people who have loved so much it left them vulnerable to immense heartache upon the loss of the other, and one example that immediately springs to mind is that of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

I must come clean and admit from the beginning that I am not much of a Victoria fan – or rather, of the Victorian age as such. IMO, it suffices to look at the clothes to understand why – that, and what I perceive as the hypocrisy of the age. Since some weeks back, however, I’ve had to revise my opinion of Victoria substantially – while the immediate image that pops to mind is the grieving widow in black of her latter years, she was once a spirited young woman with an amazing combination of guts and wits. And then there was Albert, and as most of you know by now, I am a sucker for love stories…

For those who know little of Victoria, one can start by stating it must have seemed very unlikely that she would one day become queen – her father was the fourth son of George III, and his chances of inheriting the throne were therefore slim. However, the future George IV only fathered one legitimate child, the Princess Charlotte (who died tragically in childbirth), the second son died without issue and while King William IV had ten illegitimate children, he had no legitimate issue. Victoria’s father, Prince Edward, therefore won the jackpot in this genetic gamble: his child would be the one to ascend the throne.

Edward was married to a German princess, Victoria of Saxe-Coburg Saalfield. The lady in question does not seem to have been the life and soul of a party, being of a serious disposition. Seeing as Prince Edward died while his daughter was as yet a baby, he had little influence in shaping his daughter’s character, which may not necessarily have been a bad thing, given that he doesn’t exactly come across as a paragon of virtues.

Victoria 800px-Denning,_Stephen_Poyntz_-_Princess_Victoria_aged_Four_-_Google_Art_ProjectInstead, Victoria was raised by her mother, and due to Victoria Senior’s overprotective behaviour, no one but the mother (and her trusted comptroller – a rather vile character called John Conroy who, together with loving Mama, tried to coerce Victoria into appointing him her private secretary. Didn’t work…) had much of a say in how Victoria was brought up. One gets the impression of an isolated child, always watched, always supervised, her every day carefully regimented. It is testament to Victoria’s inner qualities that she emerged from this dreary childhood and youth relatively unscathed.

William IV disliked his sister-in-law, a sentiment returned in full by the lady in question who considered William IV a depraved monarch, what with all those bastard children of his that grew up at court. (And kudos to William’s wife, the gracious Adelaide, for seemingly finding it in her to welcome all these offspring when she herself was destined to remain childless) Specifically, William was very concerned by what might happen should he die before Victoria’s 18th birthday – he was determined to survive long enough to ensure Victoria Senior did not become regent. Happily, he did, clinging to life until Victoria was safely beyond her 18th birthday.

Victoria became queen in 1837, stepping out of the shadow cast by her mother to begin forging her own destiny. A young queen – but by no means a stupid queen. However, there was no getting by the fact that she was a girl, and as everyone knew, women were the weaker sex. Clearly, Victoria needed a man by her side. Hmm. Victoria rather enjoyed her new-found freedom, and was in no hurry to wed.

On the other hand, there was gorgeous Albert.

Victoria 800px-Prince_Albert_-_Partridge_1840Albert was Victoria’s first cousin – a marital candidate eagerly promoted by Victoria’s mother and maternal uncle. They hoped to control the young couple and thereby influence the political development in Britain. While Albert may initially have been party to his uncle’s ambitions, soon enough the young man was genuinely in love with his prospective bride – and she with him.

They married in 1840 – after Victoria proposed to Albert (She had to: she was higher in rank). They were both twenty – very young as per our way of thinking. They also had what we in Swedish call äktenskapstycke, which translates into “marital affinity” and essentially means the bride and groom share values, interests and also certain physical aspects. Looking at Albert and Victoria, it is obvious they are related. Likewise, they were both proficient musicians, they both enjoyed drawing and shared an interest for culture in general. A marriage made in heaven, one would think.

But it wasn’t always a bed of roses: Albert was frustrated by being relegated to being “the husband, not the master”. A man of many talents and a well-developed social conscience, he went mildly stir-crazy living a life in which he was mostly expected to be decorative. Fortunately, Victoria quickly came to realise just how valuable an advisor her husband could be, and soon enough their partnership extended beyond bed and parlour to the office and beyond.

Victoria-Winterhalter_-_Queen_Victoria_1843All in all, this was a successful marriage. She had herself painted in deshabillé for him, he reciprocated by always being there for her. Together, they had nine children. Albert was a firm believer in bringing up children with plenty of light and air, and in difference to Victoria’s isolated childhood, her large brood grew up in a home full of noise and laughter. I believe both Victoria and Albert wanted to compensate for their own unhappy childhoods – Victoria’s we have touched upon above, Albert’s was somewhat more dramatic, seeing as his mother was exiled from court and he was never allowed to see her again.

By the time the couple was entering into their forties, life was good – even very good. Yes, Albert suffered from some sort of chronic disease to his bowels, but it was a manageable matter. In 1861, Victoria’s mother died. She was quite affected by this, and Albert moved in to take over more of her duties so as to give her time to grieve. There was also the matter of the worrying rumours concerning their eldest son – apparently the future Edward VII was engaging in an affair with an actress. Victoria and Albert were horrified, and Albert set off post-chase to knock some sense into junior. (And for those of us who enjoyed the TV series Lily Langtry, we know just how well that worked out…)


The whole happy family

Whatever the case, all these extra duties had a negative impact on Albert’s health. In December of 1861 he contracted typhus, and some days later he was dead. Dead. Gone from this world in the prime of his life, and Victoria was utterly devastated. The person she had come to rely on in all matters, the father of her children but first and foremost her husband, her companion through life, was no more, and she couldn’t quite fathom how she was to go on. Life, Victoria surely felt, had ended for her as well.

It hadn’t. In fact, she was to live on for 39 more years – always dressed in black. Her stockings were black. Her gloves were black. Her bonnets were black. Not so sure about her underwear…Initially, she retired almost completely from public life, incapable of facing the world without Albert at her side. As her isolation continued, people began to mutter. After all, the queen had duties to attend to, and all this grieving was considered excessive – borderline hysterical. Typical of a woman, to allow herself to be so dragged down by the loss of her husband, yet again underlining the relative frailty of the female gender.

NPG 708; Queen Victoria by Lady Julia Abercromby, after  Heinrich von Angeli

Some years later, Victoria rallied. A bit. She began to make public appearance in 1866 – but they were few and far between. Criticism mounted, and the once so popular queen was viewed askance – she should pull herself up by her bootstraps and get on with things. Ironically, her popularity rebounded after a failed assassination attempt, and by the time of the Jubilees she was restored to the position of Very Beloved Queen. Plus, of course, we have the presence of Mr Brown, Victoria’s faithful servant and (some say) potential lover. Did this mean she missed her dead husband less? I don’t think so…

Over time, Victoria’s family expanded as her children married and presented her with forty-odd grandchildren. More or less all modern European royalty is descended from this rather imposing lady and her so beloved husband. A big, bustling family, and at its midst, Victoria, always alone despite all the people that surrounded her. Alone.

To some it is granted to meet that one in a million person. Eyes meet, hearts click, and life goes on in joyous symbiosis. But such love comes at a price – all things in life come at a price – and when the other half dies, he (or she) leaves the partner torn apart, bleeding from wounds no one can see – or comprehend.

IMG_0168Over time, scabs form – humans are nothing if not resilient – but the pain, the loss is always there. At first, one lives in the hope that it is all a nightmare, that soon enough one will wake up and there he’ll be, smiling tenderly as he wipes away the tears. With time, one reconciles to the fact that he is gone, but at times, out of the corner of the eye, one sees a familiar shape, and hope clutches at the heart, throngs the throat with tears. That, I believe, is how it was for Victoria. That is how it is for all who love and lose. But, as a certain Tennyson put it, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” And you know what? I think Victoria would agree.

To my favourite damsel in distress

To my sister:

I cannot remember a day when you weren’t in my life. As I am the eldest, obviously there were such days, but it seems as if all my life I’ve had you beside me, a constant no matter what fate has thrown my way.

20151008_134404I do have vague memories of what you looked like as a small child: white-blond hair that was mostly cut short – our mother was a practical lady, and besides, none of us really had the hair quality to wear it long and flowing (still don’t) – big, big green eyes, fringed with lashes that were ridiculously long and as dark as your hair was light. You had knobbly knees. You were shy and easily intimidated by others. I, as your big sister, was happy to whack whoever hurt you – hard.

In difference to me, you were picky about food. Your preferred dish was fried eggs with ketchup. I sighed and looked away. You were always tagging after me, and while I now and then groaned and complained about this, I was mostly pleased. I climbed trees that were too high for you – you followed. I scrambled up to the five metre trampoline and jumped – you followed. Problem was you couldn’t swim…

I have no idea how many bruises and shallow cuts you got as a consequence from keeping up, but I will never, ever forget the concussion. You know, the time I tricked you into playing Tarzan, and you grabbed the low branch I suggested, hollered like Tarzan does, and…smacked straight into the trunk. I watched you dribble down the stem to collapse on the ground, and you were so still, so pale. We never played Tarzan again.

Joan_of_arc_miniature_gradedBut we played other stuff: I was the knight in shining armour, riding off to battle the evil Saracens or the nasty French (I was constantly an English knight), you were the damsel in distress, except you didn’t like the distress part, because even damsels could be brave, couldn’t they? I wasn’t so sure – you pointed me in the direction of Joan of Arc, and you were still a damsel, but a sort of kick-ass damsel, sweet and ladylike with glowing steel within.

You were generous to a fault. I gobbled down the Friday treat, you shared your remaining chocolate with me. Well, okay, sometimes I had to twist your arm a bit, which was why now and then our parents found sob notes on their pillow: ANNA WS MEEN TO ME.SHE TOK MY CANDI. (Spelling wasn’t your forte) Sometimes you told tales. “Mum, mum, Anna is playing with matches again. I think she’s burned off all her hair.” Any pyromaniac tendencies I may have had were firmly squashed by my mother after that…I guess I have to thank you, right?

We moved from country to country, and it was tough being the new kid on the block – much tougher than we ever let on to our parents, because kids are like that, aren’t they? Worst of all was returning to Sweden – we’d never lived there, had been fed stories by our mother of just how wonderful Sweden was. She missed her homeland – we stuck out like sore thumbs, products of warmer climes, different cultures. But at least we had each other. We always had each other.

Life has trundled on. We’ve had kids, experienced heartbreak and loss, lived through all those peaks and valleys that characterize a full life. And you’ve always been there. Like the damsel you insisted on being when we were children, you are still the sweetest person I know: generous to a fault, caring and considerate, you spread love in waves around you, rarely demanding anything in return. I am sad – you call. I am angry – you call, mostly to make me laugh. I am happy – you are there to share it. And when the going gets tough, then you, dear sister, whip out the honed steel and forge ahead, a knight in pink skirts – except you were never a fan of pink, but you get the picture, don’t you?

Today is your birthday. Obviously, I don’t remember your birth, but my life is full of memories of you – priceless little gems that twinkle and shine. You are my sister, my truest friend and most trusted confidant. You are one of the candles that light up my life, a pillar of strength whenever I need it.

Damsell in distress1920px-Paolo_Uccello_050With you at my side, we will continue battling dragons – a lady knight and an “undistressed” damsel is quite the awesome combo – we will cry and laugh, we will still eat far too much cake (After all, what is life without cake?) We will dance like crazy to old disco songs, take long walks that leave me huffing and puffing as you, my dear wannabe Iron Man competitor, set off at a pace that has me gasping. We will, I hope, have the opportunity to yet again gambol in the waves as we did like children, laughing ourselves silly when we played the dolphin game.

You and I, my dearest sister – always you and I.

Desde el fondo de mi corazón, desde los rincones más escondidos de mi alma – te quiero. Cuanto te quiero!

Lose some, win some – or the vagaries of time travel

I haven’t bragged about it here, but the first book in The Graham Saga, A Rip in the Veil, was recently selected Book of the Month by The Review. I am more than honoured – and proud enough to require someone to prick me before I float off…

Anyway, as part of this honour, I was invited to write a guestpost for The Review. I was sort of planning on reblogging, but The Review is on Blogger, I am on WordPress, and the resulting technical challenges are such that I have instead chosen to publish the post directly here – with the kind permission of The Review. The original post can be found here.

So, without more ado, here is a little something in which I converse with my dear Alex Graham, protagonist of The Graham Saga and by now as dear to me as my children (well, almost)


There was something dejected about Alex that autumn day. She came walking without her normal bounce, eyes turned inward, and I scooted to the side, patting at the stone beside me in invitation.
Alex sighed – deeply.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, running recent events through my head. As far as I could make out, she and Matthew were as happy as always, both of them lit up from within in each other’s presence. I pursed my mouth; at times, I worried that I’d made them too dependent on each other, thereby making them devastatingly vulnerable to the other’s absence. Should anything happen to either of them…My thoughts drifted away, and the outline of book number 2 in the series took shape, making my stomach knot itself in protest. Could I really put them through that much pain? So many horrors? Yes, I decided, I could – and I had to.

Yet another sigh from Alex returned me to the present – well, the present in the sense that here I was, having a therapeutic conversation with my make-believe (but oh, so real) protagonist of The Graham Saga. And before you all roll your eyes at me, muttering depreciating comments about batty writers, let me state that I firmly believe all writers develop strong relationships with their characters. It’s just that some prefer not to shout this to the world at large…

“Honey?” I stroked her back. The russet broadcloth strained over her rounded back, Joan’s former bodice was a tad too small, having been let out to fit Alex’s substantially rounder frame. Don’t get me wrong; it’s more a question of Joan being very thin. The woman shares her uncommon height with her brother Matthew, but where he is muscle and wide shoulders, a strong broad chest and long, powerful legs, Joan is thin and supple like a willow twig – and as unbreakable.
“One of those days,” Alex muttered. She extended her legs, studying her worn boots. “Sometimes…” She bit off, shaking her head.
“Yes?” I prompted.
“I miss it,” she said simply. “I miss the buzz, the sound of music spilling from a radio, the smell of sun on hot asphalt, the luxury of electricity, of hot water at the turn of a tap.” She kicked at a rock. “But that’s just stuff, right? I can do without the stuff…” She chuckled, somewhat sadly. “…well, I have to do without the stuff, don’t I? – but today I miss the people.”
“Like Magnus,” I said. Who wouldn’t miss a father like Magnus. Into this tall blond man, I’d poured all the qualities I would have liked in a parent – and some of them my real father most definitely had, but most he didn’t.
“Yeah.” Alex gave me quick look. “You miss him too, don’t you?”
“Magnus?” I shook my head. “I can find him anytime I want – I just have to open one of my manuscripts.”
“Uh-uh. That wasn’t what I meant.” Alex shoved at me. “I meant your father.”
Okay, so how had this conversation ended up being about me? But the thing is, it’s difficult to lie to your characters – after all, they’re a part of you, and so to lie to them is to lie to yourself.
“I do.” I smiled at nothing in particular. “But especially I miss that there is so little to miss, you know?”
“Like with my mother.” Alex’s mouth tightened. She disliked talking about Mercedes – and in her present 17th century environment it made sense not to talk about a woman who painted portals through time. Being a witch in the here and now came with substantial risks.
“Maybe.” I rubbed at a spot of something greasy on her sleeve.
“Tallow,” she explained. “Those candles stink like hell.” She leaned back, face to the weak sun, and closed her eyes. “Will I ever see them again?”
“Magnus and John, you mean?”
“No, Tony Blair and Clinton,” she retorted sarcastically. “Will I?” Her voice softened, a begging quality to it.
“I don’t know.” I took a deep breath. “If I write you back, I may not be able to ensure your return to Matthew.”
Her face paled, the fingers on the stone tightening on the moss. “Why not? You’re the writer.”
“Logic.” I tugged at a stand of faded grass. “You fell through time due to a number of circumstances. Yes, you could – potentially – be dragged back the same way. But then what? You think I’ll be able to produce yet another humongous thunderstorm?”
“But her paintings!” Alex shivered, pulling the shawl closer round her shoulders. “I can use one of them, can’t I?”
“Sorry, honey. Magnus has destroyed them all.” Not quite – but not even Magnus knew he’d missed one. I leaned close enough to see her eyes. “I can write you back – of course I can. But if I do, you’ll probably never see Matthew again.”
“Never?” Her mouth wobbled. Her gaze locked on the distant house, the dark slate of the roof wet after the recent shower. The door to the kitchen opened and the household filed out, men and women in dark clothes who spoke to each other as they made their way across the yard.
“Bible class done?” I asked, knowing for a fact Alex was more than creative when it came to avoiding these – in her opinion – far too lengthy discussions about God and faith. A point of contention between her and Matthew.
“Obviously.” She fiddled with her cap, ensuring it covered her hair. “He could come with me.”
“He could. But do you think he would be happy there?” I had serious doubts about that. Matthew Graham had his roots firmly planted in the soils of his day and age. Alex considered this in silence while adjusting her shawl and collar.
“No.” She sounded dejected. “It would kill him, I think. He belongs here.” And so, per definition, do you, I thought, smiling in her direction. Not that she noticed, all her attention trained on the house.

Matthew appeared in the doorway, and beside me Alex softened, mouth curving into a smile, hitherto so tense shoulders dropping an inch or so. She ate him with her eyes, this tall well-built man with dark, curling hair. As if drawn by magnets, his gaze leapt up the hillside, finding her. He raised his hand and came striding towards us – well, her. Sometimes, Matthew tended to ignore my presence.
“He’s mad at me,” she stated, watching his movements.
“Yeah, he doesn’t like it when you miss class,” I teased. I covered her hand. “So what will it be, Alex? Will you stay here, with him, or go back to John? To Magnus and Isaac?”
At the mention of her son, she started. “Isaac,” she said softly. “Is he alright?”
“He is. Between them, John and Magnus are spoiling him rotten.”
“So they’re all doing fine without me, aren’t they?” Alex stood up, brushing her apron into neatness.
“They are. Yes, they miss you, but life goes on.”
“It wouldn’t for him,” she said, looking at the man presently leaping up the slope. “And it wouldn’t for me either – not without him.”
“No,” I agreed. “It would be one long slow march towards death – for both of you.”
“I’m staying.” She was already moving away from me, to him.

I watched as they met, and whatever remarks he had planned to make about her absence were forgotten when she flung her arms around his neck.
“Lass?” He wiped at her face. “Why are you weeping?”
Alex just shook her head, rising on her toes to kiss him into silence. Large hands slid round her waist and drew her close – impossibly close. He murmured her name when she released his mouth, hazel eyes wide and luminous as he looked at her.

I left them to it – at times, being a writer is uncomfortably like being a Peeping Tom. With a little wave I walked off. None of them noticed, lost in their own private little world. As it should be, I suppose. After all, I’d created them to be like that – two halves made a whole, at their strongest when together, at their weakest when apart.

Hotting up my life

olivesI am a boring person. Hang on! What sort of self-depreciating nonsense is that? I am not boring, not at all. What I mean to say is that my life has certain tendencies towards the boring, conventional and predictable as it is. Not for me fast-paced adventures saving the Western civilisation from one or other threat, rarely do I have to deploy my (non-existent) martial arts skills to save my bacon. No exciting car-chases, no hand-sparring while balancing on the top of the Eiffel tower (most fortunate, as I suffer from vertigo) and never do I get to utter “shaken, not stirred” and flirt with someone while biting down on my martini olive. Okay, I suppose I could do the olive thing, but I’m not a big fan of martinis, and hubby would be anything but pleased should I bat my eyelashes at anyone but him.

By now, those amongst you that lead exceedingly exciting lives such as detailed between the lines above are shaking your heads. Clearly, the woman is off her rocker, you mutter, while massaging that very sore thigh that still carries the bruises you acquired while fighting of Bad Boy Bill the other night – all in the defence of HMS’s most sensitive secrets (and don’t we all wonder what they might be, hey?)

Gabriel_Metsu_-_Man_Writing_a_LetterI’m not off my rocker. I know my limitations, starting with less than perfect eyesight and a lack of physical speed which would make it difficult for me to keep up with Jason Bourne (sadly). And if I’m going to be quite honest, I like my well-organised life. And yet there are times when I wish… which is why I write.

My alter egos get to live all that excitement and adventure I yearn for. I have them chased over moors, leaping off thirty feet cliffs, using hands and feet to defend themselves against the bad guys, being arrested as witches, escaping certain death by swimming through the dank, slimy water of underground caves, fencing with dastardly noblemen, ducking poisoned daggers and in general doing a pretty good job of keeping themselves and their loved ones (relatively) safe. I’m too fond of my leading ladies to allow them to come to any permanent harm, but along the way they do acquire their share of bruises and scars.

“You don’t say,” Alex Graham mutters, throwing me a rather chilly look. “And not only your leading ladies, but your leading men as well. Look at him!” She glares at me, before pointing in the direction of her supine husband. I tiptoe across the room, avoiding the creaking board that always drives Matthew crazy. He prides himself on his carpentry skills, but this particular floorboard has him stumped.

In only his shirt and fast asleep, Matthew Graham looks vulnerable and tired. There are bruises everywhere, thin lines of blood decorate the worn linen of his shirt, and as to his foot… I gag.  Alex strokes his hair and murmurs something. For an instant, the corner of his mouth twitches. His hand gropes for hers and closes on it with such force his knuckles whiten. Alex kisses his temple and rests her cheek against his. Shit. I inhale, suppressing a wave of shame at what I’ve just put him through.

The relationship between Alex and her Matthew showcase just how much I am a sucker for love stories – the enduring kind, the ones where he/she will always stand by each other’s side. Fantasies, some of you may scoff. Assuredly not, I will counter, and this time based on my own life. An anything but boring aspect of my existence, I might add, because with every day my husband and I spend together, the feelings deepen further, strengthened by common experiences and memories, but also by the way we get each other, make each other laugh.

trollSo, we’ve ascertained I write to give myself (and hopefully my readers) the thrill of adventure and the heady rush of love. I also write because I need to get all those stories that populate my head out of there before my brain fries – a mental vent, so to say. Since I was a child, I’ve been gifted with an extraordinarily vivid imagination, which is why I have seen unicorns when most of the rest of the world’s population haven’t. What others see as the strands of fogs that adorn a dewy pasture in early September are to me transparent fairies, and that large rock just off the oak tree could easily be a crouching lion – or a troll, depending on how the light falls.

Adventure + imagination + love is a rather potent combination when writing a novel. Add to this my fascination with history – all sorts of history, even if I seem to have snowed in on certain centuries more than others – and it is rather obvious why I write historical fiction. Besides, if I go back far enough, I can write about people who still believed in unicorns and fairies, as yet not afflicted by the curse of rationalism that so effectively squashes imagination in this day and age.

As an aside: No wonder we no longer believe in miracles, no wonder many of us no longer have faith. We’ve been raised in a society where either it’s explainable or it doesn’t exist. And yet, strangely enough, miracles still do happen, don’t they? And while it may be explainable, I still find it a miracle that a bumblebee can fly, or that the swifts find their way back home to our barn every spring.

unicornIn conclusion, my life is not at all boring. It is filled with unicorns and medieval knights, it has reincarnated Trojan princesses, young Swedish queens, men of integrity and convictions, and a wonderful if stubborn kick-ass time traveller.
“Stubborn?” Alex says, wiping her hands on her apron. “Who are you calling stubborn?”
“She called you wonderful as well,” Matthew puts in, placing a restraining hand on his wife.
“Wonderful, hey?” Alex softens under his touch.
“Aye, that you are.” He draws her close enough to kiss the top of her head. “And stubborn. Very stubborn.”
It is a life where events of the past come alive in my head, complete with soundtrack and smells – from the very unpleasant stench of corpses rotting on a battlefield, to the drifting scent of lavender crushed in hot bathwater. It is a life where my characters sometimes suffer and weep, where they laugh through their tears and hold hands as they face whatever life throws in their way.

All in all, not a bad life. Actually, quite an excellent life, complete with my own hand-holding hero, the only man I ever bat my eyelashes at –  with or without that olive!


Of loaves and love

Judith-Leyster-childrenWhen I was a child, now and then I’d pick up a handful of gravel and throw it up in the air, catching it with the back of my hand as it rained down. All of this was accompanied by a little rhyme along the lines “How many kids will I have when I grow up?” and the answer, obviously, came in the number of pebbles that had landed on your hand. At times it was thirteen (major shudder). At other times it was one.

I must admit to doing this gravel thing out of rote. Where other girls played with dolls, I mainly used mine to attempt various versions of decapitation, and give me a choice between a heated rugby game and a make-believe tea party, and I was all for the rugby.
“A tom-boy,” my mother would sigh, giving my dirty skirt and dishevelled hair a despairing look.
“A tom-boy,” my father would grin, helping me to make yet another bow – or sword.

442px-Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_159I was thirteen when my gender caught up with me. One moment, I was as fast, as lithe and as rough as the boys. The next, I had these very tender bumps on my chest, and the boys would look much more at them than at me. My figure developed proportionally to my loss of speed and agility, and where once I was a much respected (and quite brutal) sweep, I was now no longer on the team. Major re-set of my self-image, let me tell you.
“Grow up,” my mother told me and handed me some relevant coming-of-age book to read.
“Grow up,” my father sighed and put away the wooden sword and shield, the helmet and the bow.

At fifteen, I discovered the benefits of my gender. Falling in love was a terrible, frightening experience that left me on a constant high – for the three weeks this passionate but innocent relationship lasted. He went his way, I went mine, but thanks to Tony my eyes had definitely opened to the possibilities offered by the opposite sex, and in my book they were all good – very good.
“Don’t grow up that fast,” my mother said, giving me an admonishing look. (Confusing. Teenagers have that effect on their parents, that they start contradicting themselves)
“Yeah,” my father agreed. “Not that fast.” He threw a longing look at the sword and the shield.

At twenty, I met the love of my life (and no, details of the interesting, chaotic, emotionally quite dramatic years between fifteen and twenty are not forthcoming. Use your imagination – or think about your own teenage years). It took me some time to make him realise I was his number one – seriously, men (and especially young men) can be quite dense at times. But once he did – well, we’re still together on that very heady journey we began all those years ago. My parents didn’t say all that much – they mostly beamed.

files-SalzburgResidenzgalerieStrozzischlafendeskindLargeThe love of my life, I said. And he was – is – until baby number one made her appearance. Can anyone prepare you for the rush of protective adoration that sweeps you when you see your baby? I think not, but the feeling is such that I would be fully capable to tear someone’s arms off if they threatened my child. Baby number one was perfect (and yes, I know we all think our babies are perfect, but just so you know, my babies are perfect – objectively speaking) all the way from the reddish hair that decorated her head to her itty, bitty toes. I fell utterly and irrevocably in love – again.
“Totally normal,” my mother said, counting the baby’s toes. “You were absolutely perfect too.”
“Totally normal,” my father agreed. “But this one is more perfect than you.” Huh.

DROTTN~2When I discovered I was expecting yet another child I was torn between joy and anguish. How could one possibly love two people with the devoted, fierce love I felt for our daughter? How was my heart to cope with all these emotions? My mother laughed. “The heart isn’t a loaf of bread, honey.”
“Nope,” my father said. “Not at all a loaf of bread.”
Well, thanks very much, but I knew that already.
My mother took my hand. “A loaf of bread can only be sliced into so many slices. But your heart can accommodate as many people as you choose to love. Trust me, I know.”

Turns out she was right (Phew!) These days my heart hold very many people, first and foremost my husband and our four children. Given that the kids by now are tall and strapping, the boys all young men, our daughter a woman, it is something of a miracle that they fit as well as they do inside my chest. But then I guess that’s what love is – a miracle. And maybe that’s why five loaves could feed so many at the Sermon of the Mount: Jesus wasn’t distributing bread, he was giving out love. And as to those two fish Jesus handed out – I have no idea. But give me some time and I may come up with a plausible explanation for them as well.


An Insatiable queen and her favourite

Today I have the pleasure of welcoming my author friend Ginger Myrick to my blog (She is the only person in the world I allow to call me Anna Banana – goes to show just how much I like her) This is a lady who writes like the wind and has a voracious appetite when it comes to anything historical. This time, Ginger has sunk her dainty little teeth into Marie Antoinette, and as Ginger is always Ginger, I dare say Marie Antoinette herself will be quite surprised at some of the things that happen to her. However, Marie Antoinette strikes me as a woman fully capable of taking surprises in her stride – and with dignity. Anyway, without further ado, let me turn you over into Ginger’s most capable hands!

Axel von Fersen: The Queen’s Favorite

Anyone who knows about Marie Antoinette will recognize the name of her favorite, Axel von Fersen. Although even experts in the field cannot definitively say whether they were physical lovers or not, there is no doubting that there was a strong bond between them. They shared a lifelong association that at the very least can be classified as a deep and lasting friendship. Their relationship began in their late teens and endured until Marie Antoinette’s death in 1793.

They met at an opera ball, a masked event on January 30, 1774, when Marie Antoinette was only eighteen years old and not yet Queen of France. Her husband Louis Auguste, then Dauphin, was in attendance along with his brothers and their wives, and the small circle of young royals seemed to approve of von Fersen. The Swedish count was invited to attend a few bals à la Dauphine, little informal dances given by Marie Antoinette in her personal apartments at Versailles. Although this may seem like the beginnings of a love affair, there was actually little opportunity for misbehavior, as the Dauphine would have been closely watched in her own rooms. A few months later, von Fersen left France to continue his Grand Tour of Europe, which included a visit to England where he would attempt to secure the hand of an heiress, Catherine Lyell.

Axel did not return to France for over four years. Marie Antoinette, by then Queen, immediately recognized von Fersen when he stopped in to pay court, even if the rest of the royals did not. A short while later, she invited him to one of her famous card parties, and despite the fact that she was pregnant at the time, von Fersen quickly became part of Marie Antoinette’s intimate circle, in fact, one of her favorites. He spent much time at Le Petit Trianon playing cards, lounging about, and engaging in meaningful discussions with the rest of the privileged few, whatever the queen’s whim demanded in the moment. This pleasant idyll lasted for nearly two years until he left in May of 1780 to aid the Americans in their fight for freedom.

Von Fersen had a long tradition of military service in his background and spent his formative years in military academies. He was a staunch idealist, and believed in the concept of freedom for all, although he came from a noble family and his father was one of the richest men in all of Sweden. His father served Louis XV of France in the Seven Years’ War, so there was a longtime connection to the French court, and it was as aide-de-camp to General Rochambeau that Axel the younger was assigned. A year after the arrival of l’Expédition Particulière, the unit marched south to join the Continental army under George Washington for their planned attack on New York.

Von Fersen’s duties encompassed many tasks for which he was well equipped. He filled the role of interpreter, secretary, and courier, and played a key role in organizing the objective at Yorktown that eventually led to the defeat of Cornwallis and ensured the American victory. Von Fersen was awarded the Order of Cincinnatus by Washington himself, although his own sovereign, King Gustavus III of Sweden, censured the wearing of an honor earned in a people’s revolt against their overlord.

From America, von Fersen returned to France in June of 1783, where he stayed until September before heading home to Sweden to serve King Gustavus. He spent nine months accompanying his king on a tour of Europe, eventually making their way back to Versailles to negotiate a treaty with Louis XVI. Axel then departed for his homeland once again on a mission of the utmost importance, to procure a puppy for Marie Antoinette. He brought this special breed, a Leonberger, back to her and maintained close contact through the next few years, being present for most of the major events leading up to the French Revolution.

He was in residence in the town of Versailles in October of 1789 when the Palace was stormed by a volatile mob. The royal family was taken and held at the Tuileries under strict guard, and von Fersen helped lay the groundwork to liberate them. With his military background and firsthand experience of covert operations, he was ultimately qualified to plot the escape and arranged the whole thing down to the smallest detail. At this point, he could have just played it safe and sent someone less recognizable to enact the plan, which might have been the wiser decision on his part. But due to his deep affection for Marie Antoinette, and in lesser part her husband, he refused to rely upon anyone else and drove the getaway carriage himself.

After the first leg of the journey, von Fersen unwillingly ceded control of the coach at Louis XVI’s insistence. The king did not want his people to believe he was attempting to leave France, especially aided by a foreign personage. After dismissing von Fersen, Louis was recognized when the party sought to change horses in Varennes, a mere forty miles from their destination, and the royal family was taken back to Paris.

In February 1792, von Fersen made his final visit to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at the Tuileries palace. In heavy disguise he sneaked in an unguarded side door and again urged them to escape, which Louis absolutely refused to do. He spent the night in their quarters, attempting to convince them, but left dejected the next morning unable to persuade Louis to change his mind. But the King’s refusal would not curtail his efforts. Von Fersen continued working to get Marie Antoinette out of France—one daring plan consisting of riding into the Conciergerie and taking her out on horseback—right up until she was executed in October of 1793. It is apparent that there was some extraordinary force at work behind the scenes. Spending so many years of his life to get Marie Antoinette to safety is the true testament to the devotion her bore her.

Because the veracity of their relationship will never be proven, it will always hold the allure of the unsolved mystery. In my new release—Insatiable: A Macabre History of France ~ L’Amour: Marie Antoinette—I exploit the premise that Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen were indeed lovers. I even take their relationship one step further by adopting the assertions of the gossip of the time attributing the paternity of her second son, Louis-Charles—the eventual Dauphin of France—to von Fersen. As INSATIABLE is a work of alternate history, the love affair between Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen is the least of the liberties I take with the story. But in my defense, I am not the first to do so nor will I be the last.

* * *


After sipping a glass of punch, Marie Antoinette still felt winded by her exertions. She decided to observe for a bit before returning to the chaos. She spotted an open space above the ballroom floor with an unobstructed view of the dancers. She made her way to the landing and leaned up against the banister, snapping open her fan to circulate the air over her heated face and neck. The cool breeze on her skin felt heavenly. She relaxed but went suddenly rigid when a body bumped heavily into her from behind.

She heard a deep voice mumble, “Excuse me, Madame,” but she could not help but feel he had jostled her on purpose. Some impertinent courtier come to make sport with the Dauphine, perhaps? Well, she knew how to put paid to that. She squared her shoulders, lifted her chin, and adopted the most imperious attitude she could muster. She turned with a haughty swish of her skirts, glowered at her harasser, and ceased to breathe.

She had raised her chin in order to look down upon the intruder, but in doing so, her initial gaze only reached to the center of his broad chest. When she lifted her eyes to his face, she encountered the most striking looking man she had ever beheld in her life. He was dressed in the same fashion as the others in the room—tricorn hat, powdered wig, frock coat, and breeches—but nothing he could ever do would make him look like the rest.

The shape of his face was a study in masculinity with its angular planes, straight nose, clearly defined jawline, and square chin. He had heavy eyebrows set above a pair of piercing dark eyes the color of the sky at midnight. He was athletically slender with wide shoulders, narrow hips, and well turned legs, and he bore himself regally. And tall, so tall. His whole person gave off an imposing air that did little to diminish her attraction to him but, in fact, increased it.

Marie Antoinette’s heart pounded in her chest, and her breath came in little hitching gasps, which she desperately hoped he would not notice. Any thought she had previously entertained about quashing his advances flew immediately out of her head, and she stood there, unspeaking, knowing that the pause was becoming more conspicuous by the second but helpless to break the spell. She racked her brain, trying regain her composure while he stood there looking down at her with his brooding eyes and an amused but decidedly insolent upturn to the corners of his prim mouth.

“I’m sorry, but you have caught me off-guard, Monsieur,” she finally got out, praying that her voice sounded normal.

“Yes,” he said, the maddeningly arrogant expression never leaving his face. “It seems so,” he added, not bothering to introduce himself—which would have been the polite thing to do—and letting her squirm.

She should have been put out by his flippant response, but being in his presence had the distinct effect of discombobulating her. She took a deep breath—hoping that he would not notice her flustered state—and took a moment to reflect.

They were at a bal masqué. The entire point of going incognito was to discard the strictures of etiquette for a time and just have fun. And although most of the partygoers knew the identities behind the masks, it was expected to act somewhat out of the norm and not be held accountable afterward. Artois and Provence were masters at it!

The Dauphine could not act too outrageously with her husband in attendance—besides, she was not inclined toward wild behavior—but her disguise did afford her a small measure of anonymity. With this comforting thought in mind, she allowed her natural charm and flirtatiousness to bubble to the surface and engaged in a bit of playful banter with the stranger.

“Well, I suppose I should beware then,” she replied saucily. “Your reluctance to reveal your identity may be an attempt to hide malicious intent or a disreputable past. Next thing I know you will have abducted me and held me for ransom … or worse. Should I be alarmed?”

He chuckled to himself at the scandalous picture she painted of him as a potential criminal. The upstanding Axel von Fersen, adherent to etiquette and slave to propriety, a kidnapper? It was laughable. She certainly had a vivid imagination and a quick wit, to boot. If he had caught her off-guard at first, she was fully recovered now.

“The thought had not crossed my mind until you mentioned it, although now that you have, it’s not a bad idea.”

“I suppose it’s only fair to warn you. I am a very high-ranking Lady, and your actions would launch a massive manhunt to the farthest corners of France.”

“Well then, it’s a good thing that I have the fastest horse in all of Europe.”

“Yes, but he would be burdened with the two of us,” she pointed out, placing a finger on her dimpled chin and looking up out of the corner of her eyes at him. Her long lashes veiled the big round orbs alluringly in a captivating expression that stunned him into momentary silence.

The better part of her face was covered by her mask, but he could still clearly distinguish her charms. Her skin was white and luminous, her face a lovely pale oval flushed pink by her excitement. She had a slightly aquiline nose, although small and feminine, and an adorable pouty mouth. The one thing the mask did to enhance her natural beauty was to set off her eyes to their best advantage, and he had never seen a more bewitching pair in his life.

Her eyes, her beautiful silvery blue eyes, held him mesmerized. Although he could listen to her chatter merrily on about nothing and never tire of the display—her porcelain skin and plump red lips exceedingly attractive and her delicate white hands in constant motion—he found himself drowning in her eyes. He tore his gaze away and tried to regain the thread of his concentration.

“You are quite petite,” he said, giving an appreciative once over of her shapely figure. “My horse would hardly notice the extra load. Even if he did, I’m sure he would gladly bear it.”

It was her turn to be struck speechless. She didn’t know whether to be incensed that he had inspected her in such a blatantly assessing manner or flattered that he had noticed. She struggled with her natural prudishness for a moment, wondering if it would do more harm than good to reveal her identity. She was rendered acutely conscious by his comment, but still, she did not want her time with him to end, not just yet. What to do?

* * *

The eBook editions of INSATIABLE (Kindle and Nook) are currently on sale for an introductory price of $2.99 and are available at:

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