Saturday, August 11, 2007

TRR, Chapter Two


Kelly was in the shower, scrubbing at the mildew with an old Barbie toothbrush when she heard her doorbell ring. Just perfect. She was wearing a sprung black bathing suit, practical to clean the house in during the summer, but hardly a glamorous outfit in which to answer the door. When she was done with the grout, she had planned to go out to her pool-less backyard and spray herself off with the garden hose, loving the earthy, grassy scent of the sun-warmed water. She’d lie in the plastic chaise with a glass of artificially sweetened iced tea and a thick Jo Beverley medieval.


The bell rang again. Wrapping a threadbare beach towel at her waist, she went to the front door and opened it. Beyond the screen stood a man, not especially tall or handsome or young. He did have a nice face, though, crinkly warm brown eyes, and a writhing calico cat spitting and hissing in his arms. Kelly took an involuntary step backwards.


“Good morning,” said the man. “Is this your cat?”


Kelly tamped down the urge to laugh. This would make a good “cute” meeting for one of her books, but the cat was busy digging its claws into the guy and she doubted he’d see anything at all cute in the situation. “No, it’s the Rolersons’. It’s evil. I suggest you put it down at once.”


“Where do they live?” he asked, determination and a pronounced southern accent ringing in his voice.


“Next door, but they’re not home. They’re in Florida.”


“Florida? In July? Are they insane?”


“Absolutely. So’s their cat. Katy Allen is supposed to be feeding it. There’s a cat flap in the shed.”


“So, if I put it back it will only get out again?” he asked grimly.


“I’m afraid so. Look, you’re bleeding. Let it go and I’ll put something on those scratches.”


The man disengaged the claws from his skin and unceremoniously dropped the Rolersons’ cat. It dashed off through the lattice under Kelly’s front porch.


“Great, now I’ll be stuck with it,” Kelly said cheerfully. “Come on in. I’m Kelly King, by the way. You must be the guy who bought the MacLarens’ house.” As if she didn’t know already. She’d only seen him at a distance, but he looked right. Her neighbor Franny, the source of the books and the vibrating dildo, had gone over immediately last fall with a plate of cream-cheese brownies and reported back. Nice man, nothing special. Too young for Franny is what she meant. Franny was still bravely looking for husband number three.


“Paul Laurent. Nice to meet you.” He stuck out a square bloody hand and instantly withdrew it. “Sorry, I’d really better go home and deal with this.”


“It’s all right. I used to be a kindergarten teacher. I’ve got latex gloves up the wazoo. I was just cleaning the girls’ bathroom. Follow me.” Kelly wondered what he thought of her boobs hanging down to there and her make-shift sarong. Oh well. Thank God it covered up the cottage cheese thighs.


Quite efficiently, she gloved up and cleaned the gouges that Angel, the misnamed Rolerson cat, had left on Mr. Laurent’s tanned, toned and tattooed arms.


“Ouch,” was all he said, just the once.


“What did the cat do?” asked Kelly with interest.


“Got into my garden. Untied all my runner beans. Knocked the scarecrow over too.”


“What a pest. I guess I’m glad I don’t have a vegetable garden. We used to when the girls were little, but I’m too lazy to weed now.”


Inadvertently, Paul’s eyes strayed to Kelly’s little pooch that was exposed by the ragged towel. In his opinion, a few more vegetables and a little more exercise were in order. Paul weighed himself every day, and he was exactly the same weight he’d been, give or take a few pounds, when he joined the Navy thirty-five years ago when he was just out of high school.


“I’d be happy to share the harvest,” he said, as she bandaged up the worst of the wounds on his forearm. “Do your daughters live with you?”


“Goodness, no!” Kelly laughed. “As if they would. I’d cramp their style completely. Amy’s doing a museum internship in London and Lisa’s teaching in a private school outside Boston. Dorm mistress, field hockey coach, drama and speech teacher, the whole nine yards,” she said proudly.


“You and your husband must miss them, being so far away.”


Kelly’s smile faded a bit. “I’m divorced, actually.”


“Oh? Sorry, me too. How long were you married?”


“Almost twenty-five years. You?”


“Twenty-eight, but Christine figured I was only home for about ten of them. Unfortunately, when I retired from the Navy, my wife felt I cramped her style. I’d be out for months at a time, you know. She got pretty used to running the show. Didn't need me underfoot. When she realized she’d have to look at me every morning, she decided I had to ship out again for good.”


Kelly couldn’t think what to say. Certainly Paul Laurent was not that hard to look at. Changing the subject, she asked, “Any kids?”


“Five boys.” Seeing her shock, he grinned, transforming his plain face significantly. “I did have shore leave a few times, after all. Three grandchildren so far, all girls. That’s a switch, I can tell you.”
"Would you like some soda? Iced tea?"
"I'd better straighten out the mess in the garden." He paused. “Thanks for your help. I’ll bring by some vegetables for you later in the week.”


“Oh, that’s nice of you. Good luck with Angel.”


“Who?”


“The cat.”


Paul snorted and the screen door slammed behind him. Kelly picked up the toothbrush and vigorously attacked the tiles once again.
***
She gingerly touched the deep blue anchor on his hard bicep. “Were you drunk?” she purred.


“Of course. And young. And stupid. But now, I’m right in fashion. Everyone is tattooed.”


“I’m not,” she swallowed nervously.


“You should be. He caressed the fullness of her left breast, placing a kiss above her heart. “Right here,” he whispered roughly. “My name right here, for always.”


She looked down and saw his name, magically real. “Peter,” she cried helplessly, “oh, Peter, for always.”


He entered her swiftly, and she spiraled into an abyss of pleasure, deeper than his submarine had ever plunged, wetter than the wildest storm-tossed ocean, wicked as the enemy he had once so recklessly pursued. They were free, free to love and laugh, to live again unfettered by grocery lists and hockey sticks, lesson plans and laundry. As she inhaled his sea-salt scent, the very essence of him, uniquely his own, he molded her hips in his steady square hands, driving into her remorselessly until she blossomed like the cabbage rose from his garden.


Talk about purple prose. That was about the worst thing she had ever written, and that was saying a lot. By God, that bit about the submarine was worthy of the Bulwer-Lytton contest. Kelly hit delete and put in Eleanor’s disk. Where were they? Oh, yeah. Lionel was declaring himself and Eleanor had to show she was not just an empty-headed little twit just waiting around for him to do so.
***
The Duke’s Delightful Dilemma/King

“Milady, there is the man to see you downstairs,” fluttered Heloise, her expressive dark eyes flashing.


Eleanor turned from her mirror, a strand of seed pearls in her hand. “Could you fasten these for me please?” she asked with disinterest. She had seen the duke’s splendid black horse outside, tethered to the iron hitching post. She knew exactly who was here, but she had yet to know why.


“Certainment.” Heloise’s fingers flew nimbly, coiling the gifts of the sea around her mistress’ white throat. “Do you not wish to know who the handsome milord is, who is even now pacing like a lion in the drawing room?” she tittered, laughing at her own petit joke.


“I know exactly who is here, Heloise. Please go downstairs and ask cook to prepare a tea tray for us, with whatever is at hand. Tell her not to fuss.”


“Oui, Lady Eleanor.” Heloise dashed downstairs, the better to sneak a peek at the dashing duke.


About the time Lionel, still pacing, had checked his timepiece for the fifteenth time and Eleanor had finished writing seven thank-you notes to various dowagers of the ton, she condescended to descend the stairs.


“Good afternoon, your grace.” Eleanor sank gratefully in a taupe wing chair and made a great demonstration of yawning.


“Have I fatigued you already? I haven’t said a word.”


“But no doubt you will. I am just practicing.”


“Irksome wench. I wished to say good-bye to you before I left for Fr---my grandmother’s.”


“Did you not do that yesterday at Aunt Camilla’s? I could have sworn you were quite explicit about how I was to conduct myself in your absence.”


“Lady Eleanor---Ellie---we are once again at cross-purposes.” Lionel frowned. He had not spoken to her father yet, not that it would do any good. The man was usually passed out in his club or at Mrs. Brown’s beneath some comely whore, but no doubt the old man would wake up soon enough when Lionel discussed the marriage settlements. He was prepared to be generous to a fault to secure Eleanor’s future happiness.


Eleanor now stretched, resembling nothing so much as a self-satisfied cat. She twirled an auburn curl, waiting for the duke to say his piece. Whatever he proposed, she would soundly reject. She would not succumb to the manipulations of such a (something-or-other) man. (vexing? autocratic? Buy Roget’s Thesaurus.)


Lionel cleared his throat. “Lady Eleanor, you cannot help to have observed I have had an interest in your welfare for some time. What I am about to say, I have never said to any other woman.”


Eleanor gave a brittle laugh. “What, are you now going to tell me you’ve never loved another, have desired me since I was a veritable child and wish to make me the next duchess of Cleves?”


Lionel’s full lips thinned to a sad smile. “Am I so transparent, then? You have taken the words from my mouth.”


Eleanor paled. “You’re joking!”


“I am not.” Suddenly, Lionel was at her feet, his capable hands stroking hers.


Eleanor shook her head stubbornly. “I do not love you, my lord. I have seen what happens in a loveless marriage. I will never subject myself to such misery.”


“You are not your mother, Ellie, and I am certainly not your father.”


“Are you not? I have heard all about your exploits since you were a beardless youth. I understand you even had Mrs. Brown herself, and every one knows she gives herself to very few of her patrons.”


Lionel dropped her hands in shock. “Ellie! What do you know of such things? Who has filled your head with such reprehensible rubbish?”


“Your greatest acolyte, my brother Randolph. He wants to follow in your footsteps, and is fast approaching you. You had better look over your shoulder, Lord Cleves.”


Lionel rose, a haze of red anger washing over him. “Not only is your brother an idiot and a hopeless gambler, but he is also a liar. Iris—that is, Mrs. Brown is nothing to me.”


“What about Venus? Athena? And the rest of her ‘young ladies?’ ”


He’d have to throttle Randolph soundly and then send him to Barbados to manage the Cleves sugar plantation in perpetuity. “I have never claimed to be a monk, you know,” Lionel said shortly. “I would expect subsequent to our marriage, I would not need to seek my comfort so far from home.”


“There will be no marriage, Lord Cleves. I do not choose to immolate myself on the pile of your conquests. Ah, here is our tea. Milk and sugar?”


“I don’t want any bloody tea! When I get back, we will have this discussion again.”


“With the same result, my lord. I am not interested in your offer, today, tomorrow, two weeks from now, next year, in the afterlife. Some rock cake?”


“No thank you. I see I have been premature in my request. You shall have time to think, but not, hopefully, until ‘death do us part.’ You will change your mind.”


“I won’t.”


Eleanor stared at the back of his close-fitting brown coat as Lionel, full of pride, stalked out of her drawing room. It simply would not do for him to think he could waltz in here, snap his fingers and bend her to his will.


Save. In her spiral notebook Kelly wrote, Thesaurus. Get cookbook and find out what rock cake is.
***
Eleanor dashed after him. “Lionel! Wait! There’s no point in letting all that food go to waste. Cook will be ever so cross.”

Lionel turned, glancing down at Eleanor’s appealing little face. He had a few moments to spare, he believed, before he was sent off by her into some corkbrained adventure. His valet was probably packing his bags for France this very minute. Lionel's stomach was rumbling a bit.This was probably going to be the last decent meal he'd have before he sliced off some traitor's tongue. Who could resist a pretty girl and a plate full of food? Certainly not he.


Lionel settled himself into a rickety chair. My, but the Buxtons were done-up. There wasn’t a piece of furniture fit for a man his size to sit on. But he was a hero, and properly proportioned.


“That scene went about right, I suppose, although I don't think I should have proposed quite so soon. Makes me look a bit of a wuss. Pass me a scone please, then, with some of that raspberry jam.”


Eleanor looked at his loaded Limoges plate. “You’ll get fat, my lord, and have to wear stays. You’ll creak like old Lord Piddlestone.” She lavishly buttered a warm scone, licking crumbs from her fingers, then slipped a raspberry-tinged spoon into her mouth.


Lionel closed his eyes and thought of England. And Scotland. And Wales. He shook his head and sipped his tea. Vile stuff.


“Nonsense. I have to keep fit in my line of work, yet must keep up my strength.” He bit into the delicious morsel and mumbled before swallowing, “Are you sure you won’t agree to marry me?”


Eleanor shook her head, her fringe of curls bouncing adorably around her heart-shaped face. “I don’t think I’m ready. I’ve only been out of the schoolroom for six weeks. She was going to make me much older but I talked her out of it. Who wants to be one of those ape-leading bluestockings who quotes that Wollstonecraft woman ad infinitum? None of that “take your spectacles off and lose your hairpins” stuff for me. Lucky you. Now you won’t have to fall in love with a dowdy horse-faced woman whose beauty only you can see. I’m a diamond of the first water, am I not?”


“Indeed,” replied Lionel, “and so modest, Halfling.”


Eleanor threw a slice of lemon at him. “Where was I? Of course Papa can not afford a proper come-out, but Aunt Camilla says she will see what she can do for me. I’m getting presented to Prinny in the next chapter, so I expect I’ll be allowed to attend some evening entertainments. Perhaps I’ll see you around town.”


Not quite full from the cress sandwich, ham biscuit, rock cake and scone, Lionel chomped into some frosted fruitcake with gusto. “You be careful of that old goat. He’s an awful lecher.”


“Oh, I'm sure he won’t cause me any trouble. He very rarely has much to do in any Regency romances except stand at the end of a ballroom and make people nervous.”


“Don’t forget the royal bastard series.”


“Well, I’m not about to be hijacked into those books. She might skip writing the scene altogether as she’s not perfectly sure about royal protocol. She’s going to Google, I believe. Anyway, if we get married too soon the HEA will just have to be postponed anyway because we’ll have all sorts of stupid misunderstandings and you’ll be sexually frustrated. We’re a book, you know, not a novella.”


“HEA?” Lionel’s fierce black brows knit in puzzlement. He was already frustrated enough.


“Happily Ever After, you foolish man! You know I’ll come to you in the end.”


“Not soon enough, Ellie. Hold still.” He licked a bit of frosting from the corner of her mouth, tasting vanilla, sugar and something less familiar, essence of Eleanor. Crushing her to his chest, he drank in the wonder of the woman he loved, leaving her breathless and buoyant.


“Be safe, Lion,” she whispered. “Come home to me.”


He nuzzled into her slender throat. “You won’t forget to bone-up on some elementary first-aid, will you?”


“I pledge I’ll be a regular Florence Nightingale.”


“Who?”


Eleanor patted his cheek. “Poor Lion. She’s a famous nurse from the Crimean War, but that hasn’t happened yet. Nothing to worry about. You’ll no doubt be dead by then.”


“Way to buck up a fellow, Ellie. I’ll just take my leave then while I still breathe.” He straightened his massive shoulders and marched from the drawing room, knowing he was about to be subjected to yet another dangerous indignity somewhere across the channel. Damn her anyway.
***

Sunday, January 28, 2007

TRR, Chapter One


When the cat's away, the mice have to clean up the mess.

What would happen if fictional characters hijacked their books? Writers are always complaining their heroes and heroines have minds of their own. In Third-Rate Romance, the characters can't wait for their author to leave them alone. They know if they don't take control of their own destiny, they'll never make it to a tacky clinch cover.

TRR is my Valentine to all romance writers and readers who've struggled with the conventions and have thrown a book up against a wall a time or two. It features Kelly King, who for some reason thinks she can be a romance author. Even though her husband left her for a Vegas blackjack dealer with card suits embedded in her nails and her only experience writing has been yard sale ads, Kelly is determined to put two healthy people into bed and make the relationship work, at least until The End. She's in the middle of several books, all of which will never see the light of publication unless her characters mutiny.

Chapter One introduces you first to Kelly's Regency pair, who are killing time waiting for Kelly to come and type them into another anatomically incorrect position. Kelly is of course the she they refer to. Words printed in bold are Kelly's own pathetic prose. A little later on, we meet supermodel Ella and her photographer Liam, who suffers from a problem romance heroes are never supposed to have.

Chapter One


“I don’t know why my father has to be an impoverished earl who lost the family fortune at one turn of the cards,” complained Lady Eleanor Buxton, her auburn eyebrows knotted in adorable frustration. “It’s such a cliché. Why didn’t she make him a ship’s captain so I could have sailed around the world and had an adventure or two? I might be wearing skintight breeches fighting Barbary pirates this very minute instead of lounging about Lady Caterham’s dull old drawing room.” She gave a fringed ottoman a vicious kick.

“Do think for a moment, Ellie. You know you’d only have to be captured quite early on and sold into slavery,” replied Lionel Hamilton, fourth Duke of Cleves, sixth Earl of Wynton, ninth Viscount Stacy and thirteenth Baron Gussington. “But that,” he added, pausing, “might be rather amusing.”

A long tapered finger tapped his chin and his dark eyes took on a faraway look. “Hmm. Imagine Ali Bey or some such villain looming above you, your helpless ivory limbs tied with silken ropes as he has his wicked way with you.” The duke brushed an imaginary tuft of lint off his well-toned thigh. “I confess that image quite piques my interest.” The bulge in his perfectly form-fitting inexpressibles confirmed his opinion.

“Rape is never amusing! It goes against every tenet of the romance genre since the 1970s,” Eleanor informed him, her green eyes flashing the obligatory daggers. “You know you’d have to save me before it ever came to that, and very likely you’d be imprisoned and tortured. And then she’d make me save you by some clever trick or other! Not that you’d deserve it!”

“Now, now,” Lionel said mildly, “you know we are meant for each other. You hated me on sight and have misconstrued my every action since the beginning.” He took a discreet pinch of snuff and leaned idly against a marble Corinthian column stolen from an ancient gravesite.

“Disgusting habit! And lower that damned eyebrow. I cannot endure it!”

Lionel smiled his crooked smile instead and picked at an invisible thread on the sleeve of his immaculate Weston coat. How he lived to torment the little baggage. It was simply too simple. “I can see you in the harem now, my love. Your riot of copper curls might sway the sultan initially, but I doubt he’d be fond of you long once you turned your fiery temper upon him. And you know,” he drawled, “you’d inevitably get fat. All the sugared dates, goat cheese and whatnot. I believe more pulchritude is the standard of beauty in the East.”

He cast an assessing black glance at her piquant little face. “Plus, you’d be veiled. It seems a damn shame to cover up that pert little nose, faintly freckled and twitching in anger.”

Eleanor threw herself down on the striped Sheraton sofa. “This book is insupportable! I’ll probably be doomed to act like a widgeon almost up until the end! Then you’ll settle my father’s debts anonymously and pave your way. You think you’re so darned noble.”

“Is it really such an arduous task to love me, Ellie? I’m considered quite a catch, you know. The matchmaking mamas have set their sights on me for an age,” Lionel said, somewhat hurt.

Eleanor snorted in a most unladylike fashion. “Oh, I know your artfully disarranged black hair is all the rage. Your eyes are as black as spades and twice as sharp. How you are so tan in the middle of a rainy English spring after an endless English winter is a mystery, but I’ll go along with it.” She smoothed the folds of her bottle-green riding habit. “Why am I wearing this? It’s all wrong for an afternoon visit to Lady Caterham’s drawing room,” she mumbled to herself. “She doesn’t know the difference between sarcenet and dampened muslin, I wager. Lionel,” Eleanor implored, “please hold me!”

Lionel swiftly ensconced himself on the sofa, doing his grim duty. He was unusually tall for a nineteenth century Englishman and did not find himself at all comfortable; nevertheless, he enveloped the petite trembling form of Lady Eleanor as she ruined his lapels with salty tears. His valet would no doubt give him hell.

“There now, my love, it truly won’t be a hardship, I promise you,” he murmured, his voice husky with passion. “There is quite a bit I can teach you. My manhood is throbbing already in anticipation. I am like no other rake in the ton, you know,” he added, quite convinced of his own superiority.

Eleanor sniffed. “Pooh, you’re all alike, from the crisp curls on your forehead to the starched points of your shirt collar to the toes of your polished Hessians. Just look at all the book covers if you don’t believe me. You think with just one clinch and one exposed pectoral muscle you can change my heart! And you cannot! You will never win me over!” she cried hotly.

“Do you think not?” Lionel asked, his eyes deep dark as midnight. His chiseled lips encapsulated her soft rosy ones. Feeling his companion resist briefly, he smiled inwardly as she milliseconds later yielded to his well-honed, superior skills. The scene had been written many, many times before, but was not one bit boring. Before he knew it, Eleanor’s little hand was scrabbling at the placket of his breeches. He swatted her away.

“Tut tut. Not yet, my dear. It’s far too soon. We’ve got to keep the sexual tension going,” he said, swiftly drawing up to his imposing height.

Eleanor stuck out a luscious lower lip. “Rubbish. You know we’ve got to do it four times! Why can’t we start now?”

Lionel shook his head in impatience. “We’ve only had the one major misunderstanding before today, remember.”

Eleanor sniffed. “How was I to know you saved my brother’s bacon in that gaming hell? I didn’t know you’d rip up his vowels.”

“Of course not, although, really, you should have. I’m a man of honor. I don’t habitually take advantage of less experienced youths. I admit it showed good family feeling for you to come round to my rooms at the Albany, but you know a young lady of quality never visits a gentleman in his home. It is not done. You caught me in my dressing gown.”

Eleanor bit that luscious lip, remembering the smattering of soft dark hair exposed upon the duke’s manly chest. She wondered if it would tickle her modest but perfect breasts once they finally got around to the inevitable. She stifled a giggle and gazed into her future lover’s deep, dark eyes. “Are you going to turn out to be a dreadful stickler? I’m written to be free-spirited.”

Lionel sighed. “I know, I know. You’re a rebel without a cause. You’ll be a trial to me as my duchess, I’m sure. Perhaps a few brats will settle you down.” He reluctantly sat back down onto the sofa.

“Children!” Eleanor’s green eyes gleamed with mischief. “We’d best not leave them to chance then, your grace. Shouldn’t I be enceinte before the wedding? That’s all the rage now, nearly de rigeur.” She curled herself attractively into his lap like a cream-fed kitten, openly inviting his frank gaze.

“Damnation! You’re a little witch. You know how much I want you, have wanted you since I first saw you at the Chapel Royal all those years ago.”

Eleanor wrinkled her faintly freckled nose. “I’m not sure that’s acceptable. She might have to rethink that. There’s a taint of obsession to it, and it’s not entirely natural. You’re a good twelve years older than I am.”

“So, I was twenty and you were eight. What does it signify? I knew from the first we were fated to be together.” Lionel ran his fingers through his hair in exasperation. If an ordinary man did such a thing, it would stick up every which way, but he only succeeded in making himself look even more handsome, if that were possible.

She’s coming,” Eleanor hissed, rolling off his lap and folding her gloved hands neatly. “Look supercilious. You do that so well.”

“Thank you, my dear. It is my one accomplishment,” Lionel said, his voice a velvet caress.

“No false modesty,” she hissed. “You’re a spy for the Crown. Everyone knows it.”

“Who told you?” Lionel cried, leaping up and pacing about like a caged lion.

“My brother Randolph. That’s why he sought you out that night to play cards with you. He admires you enormously and wants to join up.”

“The insolent pup! He doesn’t enough sense to fill a teacup!”

“Lionel, don’t be cruel. True, he’s very young and rash, but he wants to serve his country in some capacity and get his own book one day. Papa cannot buy him a commission---you know how it is with us,” said Eleanor, her eyes downcast.

“You know very well I’ll buy him his damn commission when I settle your father’s damn debts, Ellie! Keep him away from me until then. If Boney’s men discover I’m the Bluejay, I’m done for.”

“Bl-bluejay?” Eleanor faltered. “Why are you not called the Hawk or the Falcon?”

“Already taken,” Lionel snapped, suddenly ashamed of the ridiculous name bestowed upon him by her. “I have to leave town for a fortnight. I expect you’ll get into a world of trouble in my absence. I suppose I’ll have to untangle it all when I get back.” He drew his elegant black brows together. “I hope a scrappy little mongrel isn’t involved. I do so hate fleas. No chimney-sweeps either!”

Eleanor wrinkled her nose again, recalling snatches of several books that kept intruding in her mind every time she got stuck. “I believe I must have quite a soft spot for orphans.”

“No! Not a charitable impulse for the next few chapters, I mean it. The great Georgette Heyer may have used such plot devices brilliantly, but she is by no means in her league, I assure you. And anyway, I might even be wounded when I get back, y’know.”

“Wounded!” Eleanor’s eyes glistened with unshed tears. “How dare she?” she whispered.

“Well, it’s either that or some devilish sickness so you can nurse me back to health, and I’m far too fit to fall victim to the common cold. Infection is such a tricky thing.” Lionel meditated, wondering when sepsis was first cured. He was quite fond of all his limbs, thank you very much. “We don’t have antibiotics yet. I suspect she’ll have me be delirious and declare myself, but forget all about it after I’ve recovered.”

“You beast! How am I to take care of you? I can’t even dress myself without my French maid Heloise!”

“Your old nurse must have taught you a thing or two. Don’t you remember?” Lionel asked, tamping down his anxiety. “Don’t you have some odd crumbling leaves in the stillroom at Buxton Hall?”

Eleanor frowned in concentration, causing her delightful little nose to wrinkle with charm. “Oh, those.”

“There’s some book in your father’s library, too. Don’t worry, it will all come back to you. She’ll make sure of it.”

“Kiss me again, Lion,” Eleanor said in a small voice.

“Very well, if I must.” And so, their arms entwined, their sparkling eyes firmly closed, they resumed their position on the striped Sheraton sofa in Lady Caterham’s drawing room.
***
The Duke’s Delightful Dilemma/King

“Someone is coming, my lord!” With all her might, Eleanor pushed Lionel away. She hastily rearranged her jaunty feathered hat, tucking an errant copper curl beneath the green satin ribbon. Lionel stood up languidly, an enigmatic smile on his impossibly handsome face.

“You surprise me, Lady Eleanor. I should have thought you’d want to be discovered in my arms. It would solve all your problems,” he said scornfully. “A forced wedding. Wouldn’t your papa rub his hands in glee? Fished out of the River Tick and back on Easy Street.”

“I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last man on earth! You’re a rake and a bounder! A libertine and a scoundrel! A roué and a defiler of innocent girls!”

“Come, come, my dear. You’re doing it too brown. Think logically, if you but can. I could easily have ruined you when you came to me in the Albany begging for your scapegrace of a brother, and yet I somehow managed to restrain myself.” He examined his perfectly buffed nails.

Eleanor had the grace to color prettily. “Thank you for helping Randolph. But that doesn’t entitle you to take liberties with my person.”

“I had rather hoped you might encourage me just a little. Your person is so very attractive.” He watched in amusement as Eleanor shivered. “Perhaps I was wrong, for once. But you did so look like you needed kissing.”

Eleanor’s tart retort was silenced by the appearance of their hostess, Lady Caterham. The woman took in at once the tension in the air, and Eleanor’s very informal riding habit. There was something afoot. Eleanor was not dressed appropriately for an afternoon visit, and the Duke of Cleves looked deliciously dangerous. For one brief moment, Lady Caterham mentally consigned Lord Caterham to perdition and imagined herself in the dashing duke’s arms.

“Darling Eleanor, Cleves, do forgive me. I only just returned from my sister’s. Yet another incomprehensible domestic crisis. Shall I ring for tea?”

“Thank you, no, I cannot stay. Your butler has already seen to nearly our every need,” the duke replied, a muscle twitching mischievously in his tanned cheek. “I have brought Lady Eleanor to you. She somehow misplaced her groom when she went for her afternoon ride. I had hoped one of your staff might see her to her door.”

“Why, of course,” replied Lady Caterham. Eleanor lived only two short streets away, but she would not be so foolish to ask why Cleves did not himself escort her. Tongues would wag mercilessly if he did. The dowagers of the ton would declare the couple affianced before the elderly Buxton butler shuffled to the front door to let them in.

“You know perfectly well I have no groom, Lord Cleves! My father’s unfortunate pecuniary circumstances have sadly curtailed our household staff. Usually my maid Heloise accompanies me when I go out, but I couldn’t very well ask her to canter along next to Juno. I won’t feel shame, either, Aunt Camilla! It was far too beautiful a day to forego my ride and stay indoors.” Eleanor looked at Cleves with loathing.

Lady Caterham clucked. This foolish girl had just declared her abject poverty before a duke of the realm, a most eligible, if not the most eligible bachelor in all of society these past many seasons. But the chit’s words did not seem to register any particular shock on Cleves’ stern visage.

“I must take my leave. I’ll be out of town for the next few weeks, Lady Caterham. I know since her mother’s sad demise, Lady Eleanor looks to you for counsel. Do try to keep a watchful eye upon her. She seems determined to fly in the face of each and every convention.” With a deep bow and a brush of his warm lips on Lady Caterham’s beringed fingers, he gave Eleanor a speaking look and left the parlor.

“I hate him! How I hate him!” Eleanor stamped her little green-booted foot and threw herself into her godmother’s arms, sobbing uncontrollably.


She hit save and closed her eyes. Kelly King, Debut Romance Sensation in the tradition of….
Kelly imagined the headline in Romantic Times. She’d be on the cover, air-brushed, the moles on her left cheek painlessly removed. She’d be extensively quoted inside, attributing her inspiration to Jane Austen, all the Bronte sisters combined and the zillions of other authors she’d so recently studied. Gosh, she was practically a pillar of the whole romance publishing empire’s sales. Good thing she bought them at a discount at Wal*Mart.

Kelly took a big gulp of water from a red plastic Solo cup. Yuck. Tepid. And, if she was not mistaken, there was a graying hair floating. Getting up and going to the kitchen for a fresh cup and some ice cubes, she envisioned her interview, hopefully conducted via e-mail, so she wouldn’t stammer and generally make a fool of herself. She’d have plenty of time to tinker with the right words, showing herself to be plucky in the face of adversity, i.e., her husband’s desertion and inevitable middle-aged spread.

But really, though, it was kind of like an atheist applying to divinity school. Kelly didn’t believe in romantic love anymore. She was closer to fifty than forty, divorced, and face it, kind of fat. Thanks to her long and ultimately thankless marriage to Bob King, she did have a superb author’s name, though. Kelly King had quite a ring to it.

Her own backstory was far from fascinating. Kelly had spent the best years of her life raising their two daughters and teaching kindergarten. But both girls had graduated from college and moved on. Declining enrollment and asbestos had closed Kelly’s little village elementary school. Now everyone was bused to the new regional complex seven miles away where every staff member had at least a master’s degree. And Bob, a stolid Rotarian and top-producing Realtor, had moved to Vegas with someone he met on the Internet. It was too cliché for words, the ultimate mid-life crisis, if Kelly intended to live to be ninety-six.

Kelly went back to her desk, setting her cup far from her computer and her hair in case of another disaster. But she always resolutely ignored the bad things that had happened to her. Or the things she had let happen to her. She still possessed a generally sunny disposition and optimistic outlook. Some might have called her naïve and delusional, but she preferred to think she had been given a new opportunity to explore other avenues of productivity.

Kelly had always been a voracious reader, especially in the summertime. She read mysteries and magazines, with the occasional non-fiction book thrown in there to improve her aging mind. She tried to stay au courant, reading People and Newsweek, In Style and More, now that she was very definitively middle-aged. There was, in fact, a huge stack of magazines on the floor by her feet just waiting for her to trip over. She was planning to re-do her Inspiration Board on the wall once she felt inspired, but today was not the day. Today, she had tried to channel her favorite author, but she was fairly certain no one would confuse her with the Great Georgette.

Long ago Kelly had reveled in the Regency romances of Georgette Heyer, and when her neighbor Franny gave her a bunch of romance novels and a vibrator to “cheer her up” after Bob left, Kelly had been shocked to see how much the romance genre had changed while she was carpooling and reading The Cat in the Hat to five-year-olds. Really, these books bordered on erotica. And Kelly quite enjoyed them.

She had all the time in the world to write herself now. Why, she could lay her hands on at least seven literary starts she’d attempted between faculty meetings and visits to the orthodontist. Her Christmas card newsletters were always eagerly looked forward to by her far-flung friends for their self-effacing and witty family updates. She had been recording secretary of the women’s hospital auxiliary for the past three years. Framing the meetings’ discussions into something resembling reasonable intelligence was a work of pure fiction and not inconsiderable creative genius. She had helped her friends with convincing yard sale ads, too. Surely she had writing experience.

Kelly had been certain she could get two good-looking and feisty young people into a big feather bed a couple of times without too much trouble, but she had been wrong. On her bulletin board was a short list: amnesia, addiction. She had used these very things in her first completed, completely unpublishable book, Earrings from the Earl. She did not want to repeat herself. There was also another sign: One Year, her self-imposed deadline to get something published.

Then maybe she’d have to apply for a job at the mall. Perhaps she could be a white-coated Clinique representative. After all, she was loyal to the brand, used the products on a daily basis, and her face was still dramatically moist thanks to Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion. The white coat would cover up her fat ass, and she’d be eligible for those deep department store discounts.

She opened up her desk drawer and picked up a yellow disk. It was her “dead” book, but she didn’t have the courage to throw it out just yet. She had a sheaf of rejection letters for it, which she saved with a kind of perverse pleasure. People hated it almost as much as she did. The earl had been attractively saturnine and tortured, with a penchant for opium to assuage his old war wound. The heroine had amnesia after a carriage accident and thought the earl was her husband after he told her so, so he could protect her from ruffians in an inn and sleep with her after half-heartedly fighting what was left of his better nature. He was altogether a depraved character and the heroine wasn’t much better.

Kelly had worked so hard on goal, motivation and conflict that it took her awhile to realize she didn’t know the difference between a phaeton and a curricle, and didn’t have a clue when aspirin was invented.So gradually, Kelly had acquainted herself with the period and branched out a bit. It was too late for the earl and the idiot, but currently she was in the midst of several different stories. She kept a crib sheet on the bulletin board so she could remember everybody’s names, particularly household staff, hounds and horses. This afternoon she just wasn’t in the mood for butlers and biscuits anymore. She rejected DDD and inserted MB. It was time to check into what Liam and Ella were up to.
***
Model Behavior/King

Liam Rafferty cursed under his breath. He’d been shooting this long-legged colleen all day and didn’t have one good picture to show for it.
Redheads. They were nothing but trouble, his old mam used to say. But did he listen? No, not the great Liam Rafferty. His first wife Veronica’s flaming hair drew him like a moth to the flame. She’d wiped out their bank account and flown to the Cote D’Azur with her astrologer, who was a lesbian. So was Veronica, as it ultimately turned out. He’d been such a fool, thinking because he was Vogue’s third favorite photographer he was irresistible, even to lesbians. He’d heard Ronnie and Casey lived right on the beach and had adopted a little Chinese girl, a Libra with Scorpio rising. Good on them.


But he was still stuck in his SoHo studio with Ella Connelly, losing the light, watching her luscious full lips pout and catching sight of her dark red landing strip as she changed unselfconsciously into yet another bikini before him.

Ella tossed her curly auburn mane in frustration. Six hours. Six hours of sheer torture as Lord Liam lounged, camera in hand, studying her dispassionately with the devil’s own black eyes as though she was nothing more than a Sears’ catalog model. Well, she was Ella Connelly, for chrissakes, a supermodel these past fifteen years, ever since she was discovered at age fourteen scooping ice cream at her parents’ luncheonette in Queens. She’d immediately dropped the Mary and the ‘en’ off Ellen, added a strategic ‘a’ and was now world-famous. And she wasn’t getting older. She was getting better.

She’d even partied with Prince William, once. Who did Liam think he was, anyway? Everyone had heard the rumor about his ex-wife. He couldn’t even hold on to her; she’d left him for a woman. No wonder his long black hair was a tangled mess. He had no woman to care for him and buy him hair products.
And then the phone rang.
***
Ella sighed gratefully and plopped down on the studio floor. “Really, you’ve got to put that hair back in a ponytail. Isn’t it driving you crazy? I’ve got a scrunchy somewhere in my bag,” she said, ever prepared and helpful. “How can you even see through the lens? No wonder we’ve been at this all day.”

“What color scrunchy?” growled Liam, sliding his long fingers through his thick, shoulder-length hair.

“Pink, naturally. You know she made it my signature color. Redheads are never supposed to wear pink, so of course, I do. It establishes my independence.”

Liam groaned. “I can’t wear a pink scrunchy. Haven’t you got an ordinary rubber band anywhere?”

Ella looked around the bare studio. There were two stylists, a photographer’s assistant, forty-six bathing suits, eight pairs of sandals, five sarongs, $73,000 worth of jewelry, a beach ball and a stuffed parrot, but nothing resembling a rubber band.

“Sorry. Maybe we should quit while we’re ahead.”

“How are we ahead, then? I’ve got a deadline and I’ve got nothing.”

“Pooh, Vogue will wait for the great Liam Rafferty,” Ella teased. “Besides, I’m hungry.” She ran her moist tongue over her glossy upper lip.

Liam lifted his brow. “A top model, hungry? Tell me another. I thought you were meant to have an eating disorder.”

He watched as Ella shook her head impatiently. It’s a wonder she doesn’t knock herself unconscious with all that wild red hair, thought Liam. He imagined a shampoo shoot in slow motion, the copper strands flying seductively around her perfect face, her wet, naked body arching---

“No, no, not me, silly. You’re supposed to think I do, but it’s really your jealous assistant, Mindy.” Ella pointed. Mindy paled and made a strangled sound deep in her throat.

A cold shower was in order. But he had to eat. “Oh. All right, then. Do you fancy Chinese?”

“Ooh, please! There’s a great new place near my building.” Ella fluffed her hair unnecessarily and turned a blinding smile on Liam. “You just may get lucky afterward.”

Liam colored. “Don’t count on it, duchess. Since my wife left me, you know I can’t--- She’s made me---” He swallowed back his shame.

“Oh, you poor baby.” Suddenly, Ella was in his arms, her hazel eyes shot with gold fire. It didn’t matter one whit that the stylists and Mindy were still in the room. She rubbed the length of Liam’s tall body with the length of hers, gratified to feel the slightest arousal under the buttons of his Levis.

“Get dressed,” Liam said gruffly. “You can’t go out in that.” He waved a dismissive hand at the three-hundred and ninety-five dollar scraps of white spandex that only partly covered Ella’s spectacular breasts and bottom. “It’s January.”

“I know.” Her eyes never left his as she unhooked the golden shell clasp with the flick of one pearl-polished fingernail. Liam gasped as though he hadn’t seen her totally naked at least twenty times already today. The stylists and Mindy echoed him. Ella was magnificent, her peachy aureoles bristling with desire. She had made her boobs real, too. Plastic surgery kind of scared and repulsed her.

“Leave us,” Ella said imperiously, and the others slunk out of the studio to get three low-fat lattes, a bran muffin, a yogurt parfait and a pastrami on rye with extra sour pickles and a side of slaw, the last to be upchucked before ever digested. Poor Mindy.

“Liam,” Ella whispered, “let me make you whole again.” Her fingers traced the buttons of his jeans. “I can make you forget---what was her name?”

“I forget,” breathed Liam, losing himself under Ella’s spell. Was it possible? Could he love again? There was only one way to find out.
***