Monday, October 30, 2017

12 Days at Bleakly Manor by Michelle Griep, © 2017

Once Upon a Dickens Christmas series, Book One

The Second Chance Coin.
The Second Chance Coin

My Review:

Time stands still as changes are on the horizon, unexpectedly; a suddenly.

I was so surprised by this story ~ a quaint assembly of hodge-podge attendees to a Christmas season they will not forget; well most won't. It left me with questions about the secret cubby and its occasional inhabitant; how they kept silent without being seen. Not even a sneeze on a cold winter's night?

I wondered if the character names were part of a clue to discover their participant journey? But let's gather at Bleakly Manor and discover the intent of the visitors.

Bleakly Manor at sunrise.
Bleakly Manor at sunrise.

Two of the people have met before. Clara Chapman and Benjamin Lane had deep expectations that were hampered by an unforeseen timing of events. Were they pawns in a game of deceit?

Clara Chapman
Benjamin Lane

Longing to find the truth, they scramble to be understood without building walls of defense.

Bleakly Manor
Bleakly Manor
Image result for clue
Would you stay at Bleakly Manor, being promised your one wish could be attained? It appears cozy enough while they wait for their host to appear. Each knock at the door delivers another inkling of suspicion as the question arises, "How do they know the casual occupants and their inclusion?"

Unraveling the sequence to the end, you may await with the characters to find out their course.

EnJ*O*Y this excerpt from 12 Days at Bleakly Manor ~ Chapters One - Four

The First Day
DECEMBER 24, 1850

Chapter One

London, 1850

Christmas or not, there was nothing merry about the twisted alleys of Holywell. Clara Chapman forced one foot in front of the other, sidestepping pools of. . .well, a lady ought not think on such things, not on the morn of Christmas Eve—or any other morn, for that matter.
   Damp air seeped through her woolen cape, and she tugged her collar tighter. Fog wrapped around her shoulders, cold as an embrace from the grim reaper. Though morning had broken several hours ago, daylight tarried, seeming reluctant to make an appearance in this part of London—and likely wishing to avoid it altogether. Ancient buildings with rheumy windows leaned toward one another for support, blocking a good portion of the sky.
   She quickened her pace. If she didn’t deliver Effie’s gift soon, the poor woman would be off to her twelve-hour shift at the hatbox factory.
   Rounding a corner, Clara rapped on the very next door, then fought the urge to wipe her glove. The filthy boards, hung together more by memory than nails, rattled like bones. Her lips pursed into a wry twist. A clean snow might hide the sin of soot and grime in this neighborhood, but no. Even should a fresh coating of white bless all, the stain of so much humanity would not be erased. Not here. For the thousandth time, she breathed out the only prayer she had left.
    Why, God? Why?
   The door swung open. Effie Gedge’s smile beamed so bright and familiar, Clara’s throat tightened. How she missed this woman, her friend, her confidant—her former maid.
   “Miss Chapman? What a surprise!” Effie glanced over her shoulder, her smile faltering as she looked back at Clara. “I’d ask you in but. . .”
   Clara shoved away the awkward moment by handing over a basket. “I’ve brought you something for your Christmas dinner tomorrow. It isn’t much, but…” It was Clara’s turn to falter. “Anyway, I cannot stay, for Aunt’s developed a cough.”
   Effie’s smile returned, more brilliant than ever. “That’s kind of you, miss. Thank you. Truly.”
   The woman’s gratitude, so pure and genuine, rubbed Clara’s conscience raw. Would that she might learn to be as thankful for small things. And small it was. Her gaze slipped to the cloth-covered loaf of bread, an orange, and used tea leaves wrapped in a scrap of paper. Pressing her lips together, she faced Effie. “I wish it were more. I wish I could do more. If only we could go back to our old lives.”
   “Begging your pardon, miss.” Effie rested her hand on Clara’s arm, her fingers calloused from work no lady’s maid should ever have to perform. “But you are not to blame. I shall always hold to that. There is no ill will between us.”
   Clara hid a grimace. Of course she knew in her head she wasn’t to blame, but her heart? That fickle organ had since reverted to her old way of thinking, pulsing out “you are unloved, you are unwanted” with every subsequent beat.
   Clara forced a smile of her own and patted the woman’s hand. “You are the kind one, Effie. You’ve lost everything because of my family, and yet you smile.”
   “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. I suppose you know that as well as I, hmm?” Her fingers squeezed before she released her hold. “I wish you merry, Miss Chapman, this Christmas and always.”
   “Thank you, Effie. And a very merry Christmas be yours, as well.” She spun, eyes burning, and pushed her way back down the narrow alley before Effie saw her tears. This wasn’t fair. None of it.
   Her hired hansom waited where she’d left it. The cab was an expense she’d rather not think on, but altogether necessary, for she lived on the other side of town. She borrowed the driver’s strong grip to ascend onto the step, then when inside, settled her skirts on the seat while he shut the door.
   Only once did she glance out the window as the vehicle jostled along London’s rutted roads—and immediately repented for having done so. Two lovers walked hand in hand, the man bending close and whispering into the woman’s ear. A blush then, followed by a smile.
   Clara yanked shut the window curtain, the loneliness in her heart rabid and biting.
   That could have been her. That should have been her.
   Why, God? Why?
   She leaned her head back against the carriage. Was love to be forever denied her? First her father’s rejection, then her fiancé’s. She swallowed back a sob, wearier than twenty-five years ought to feel.
    Eventually the cab jerked to a halt, and she descended to the street. She dug into her reticule and pulled out one of her last coins to pay the driver. At this rate, she wouldn’t have to hire a cab to visit Effie next Christmas. She might very well be her neighbor.
   “Merry Christmas, miss.” The driver tipped his hat.
   “To you, as well,” she answered, then scurried toward Aunt’s town house. A lacquered carriage, with a fine pair of matched horses at the front, stood near the curb. Curious. Perhaps the owner had taken a wrong turn, for Highgate, while shabbily respectable, was no Grosvenor Square.
   Clara dashed up the few stairs and entered her home of the last nine months, taken in by the charitable heart of her Aunt Deborha Mitchell. The dear woman was increasingly infirm and housebound, but in her younger days she’d hobnobbed with people from many spheres.
   Noontide chimes rang from the sitting-room clock, accompanied by a bark of a cough. Clara untied her hat and slipped from her cloak, hanging both on a hall tree, all the while wondering how best to urge Aunt back to her bed. The woman was as stubborn as. . . She bit her lower lip. Truth be told, tenacity ran just as strongly in her own veins.
   Smoothing her skirts, she pulled her lips into a passable smile and crossed the sitting room’s threshold. “I am home, Aunt, and I really must insist you retire—oh! Forgive me.”
   She stopped at the edge of the rug. A man stood near the mantel, dressed in deep blue livery. Her gaze flickered to her aunt. “I am sorry. I did not know you had company.”
   “Come in, child.” Aunt waved her forward, the fabric of her sleeve dangling too loosely from the woman’s arm. “This involves you.”
   The man advanced, offering a creamy envelope with gilt writing embellishing the front. “I am to deliver this to Miss Clara Chapman. That is you, is it not?”
   She frowned. “It is.”
   He handed her the missive with a bow, then straightened. “I shall await you at the door, miss.”
   Her jaw dropped as he bypassed her, smelling of lavender of all things. She turned to Aunt. “I don’t understand.”
   “I should think not.” Aunt nodded toward the envelope. “Open it.”
   Clara’s name alone graced the front. The penmanship was fine. Perfect, actually. And completely foreign. Turning it over, she broke the seal and withdrew an embossed sheet of paper, reading aloud the words for Aunt to hear.
The Twelve Days of Christmas*As never’s been reveled Your presence, Miss Chapman,Is respectfully herald.Bleakly Manor’s the placeAnd after twelve nightsFive hundred poundsWill be yours by rights.
   She lowered the invitation and studied her aunt. Grey hair pulled back tightly into a chignon eased some of the wrinkles at the sides of her eyes, yet a peculiar light shone in the woman’s faded gaze. Aunt Deborha always hid wisdom, but this time, Clara suspected she secreted something more.
   “Who sent this?” Clara closed the distance between them and knelt in front of the old woman. “And why?”
   Aunt shrugged, her thin shoulders coaxing a rumble in her chest. A good throat clearing staved off a coughing spell—for now. “One * Brief explanations of historical traditions mentioned throughout this story can be found on pages 183–184. does not question an opportunity, my dear. One simply mounts it and rides.”
   “You can’t be serious.” She dissected the tiny lift of Aunt’s brows and the set of her mouth, both unwavering. Incredible. Clara sucked in a breath. “You think I should go? To Bleakly Manor, wherever that is?”
   “I think”—Aunt angled her chin—“you simply must.”
* Brief explanations of historical traditions mentioned throughout this story can be found on pages 183–184.

Chapter Two

Running an absent finger over the burnt scabs on his forearm, Benjamin Lane sagged against the cell’s stone wall, welcoming the sharp sting of pain. It wouldn’t last long. The crust would fall away, leaving a series of black numbers etched into his skin. A permanent mark, forever labeling him a convict to be feared, and driving a final stake through the heart of his efforts to be something in this world. Turning aside, he spit out the sour taste in his mouth, then his lips curled into a snarl. He was something, all right.
   An outcast.
   Anger rose in him like a mad dog, biting and completely impotent, for he had no idea who’d put him in this rat hole. The only thing he did know, he wished he didn’t. Not now. Not ever. Growling roared in his ears. Was that him? Oh, God. Not again.
   Betrayal from an enemy he could understand, but from the woman he loved? What man could fathom that? For nine months he’d turned that question over and over, examining every angle, each nuance, and still he could not reckon Clara’s duplicity.
   Why, God? Why?
   A finger at a time, Ben opened his hand and stared fiercely at a small chunk of stone, barely discernable in the darkness. Worn smooth now by nearly a year of caressing. He flipped it over, just like his unanswered questions, the sleekness of the rock against his palm reminding him he was human, not beast. Outside his cell, a shriek crawled beneath the crack in his door, reaching for him, taunting him to believe otherwise. To join the howl and become one with the pack of hopeless men.
   He flipped the rock again. The movement tethered him to sanity.
   Cocking his head, he listened with his whole body. Something more than screams crept in. The scrape of boot leather. Growing louder. Metal on metal, key battling key. The low murmur of a coarse jest shared between two guards.
   Sweat popped out on Ben’s forehead. He pressed his back into the wall, an impossible wish to disappear digging into his gut. The footsteps stopped. Only a slab of scarred wood separated him from his tormentors. Some Christmas this would be.
   The key jiggled in the lock, and his stomach twisted. It was safer to remain here. In the dark. At least in this womb of crumbling brick and blackness he still heard the cries of other prisoners, as regular as a mother’s heartbeat. He yet felt the dampness of rot on his skin, tasted the rancid gruel served once a day. Still breathed. Still lived.
   He flipped the rock again.
   The door swung open. A lantern’s glow silhouetted two ghouls.
   One stepped forward, a club in his grasp. “Out with ye, Lane. Warden’s got a little Christmas gift with yer name on it.”
   Ben wrapped his fingers tight around the stone. Should he make a run for it? Spring an attack and wrestle for the club? Go limp? He’d sigh, if he had any breath to spare, but even that seemed a precious commodity nowadays.
   No, better to face this head-on and not relinquish the last morsel of his dignity. He shuffled forward, the chains on his feet rasping. Shackles bit a fresh wound into his ankles with each step.
   Leaving behind the only haven he’d known the past nine months, he stumbled into the corridor, guards at his back, prodding, poking. He lurched along, passing other doors, other convicts, inhaling the stench and guilt of Millbank Prison. How many wretches as innocent as he perished behind those doors?
   One foot. Then the other. Drag, step. Drag, step. Until the stairway. The weight of his chains pulled him back as he ascended. By the time he reached the top, blood trickled hot over his feet.
   “Move it!”
   The guard’s club hit between his shoulder blades, knocking him forward and jarring loose his precious stone. It clacked onto the floor, as loud to him as the hammer pounding in Christ’s nails, then bounced down the stairs, taking his soul along with it.
   He wheeled about, diving for his only remainder of hope.
   But a boot caught him in the gut. A club cracked against his skull. Half-lugged, half-dead, he landed in the warden’s office like an alley cat thrown against a curb. The warden’s sigh barely registered.
   “Don’t know why I expected anything different. Thank you, gentlemen. You may wait outside. Up you go, Lane.” Warden Hacksby extended a hand.
   Ignoring the offer, Ben sucked in a breath and forced his body up, staggering until the room stopped spinning.
   “If nothing else, you are consistent.” Hacksby chuckled and seated himself behind a desk as angular as the man himself. “Do you know what day it is?”
   Ben worked out the soreness in his jaw before words could escape. “Sorry. I’ll have to check my calendar and get back to you. Or. . .wait a minute. Ahh, yes. Am I to sail for Australia today?” He narrowed his eyes. “But we both know I’ll never reach the shore.”
   “Ever the cynic, eh? Really, Lane. After all the hospitality I’ve shown you.” Hacksby tut-tutted, the curl of his lip exposing yellowed teeth. “But no. There’s been a change of plans. You’ve received another offer, should you choose to take it.”
   Bitterness slipped from Ben’s throat in a rusty laugh. “What, the gallows? A firing squad? Or has Queen Victoria invited me for Christmas tea?”
   “Aha! So you do know what day it is. Always the sly one, are you not?” Hacksby rose from his seat and leaned across the desk, a creamy envelope with Ben’s name in golden script on the front. “For you. Your freedom, possibly—providing you play by the rules. If not, you’re to be shot on sight for any escape attempt.”
   Ben eyed the paper. What trick was this? He was supposed to be transported to a labor camp halfway across the world, not handed an engraved invitation. He stiffened. This was a trap. He knew it to the deepest marrow in his bones.
   Nevertheless, he reached out, and for the smallest of moments, the warden held one edge, he the other. Liberty hanging in the balance.

Chapter Three

Despite her cold fingers, Clara rubbed away the frost on the coach’s window, then peered out into the December night. She ought be sore by now, riding such a distance over country roads, but truly, this carriage was magnificent—and so was the mansion that popped into view as they rounded a bend. She leaned closer, then reared back as her breath fogged the glass. With a furious swipe of her glove, she stared out the cleared circle, slack jawed.
   This was Bleakly Manor?
   A grand structure, torches ablaze, lit the night like the star of Bethlehem. The building stood proud at three stories tall, with candles winking behind row upon row of mullioned windows. Clearly whoever owned Bleakly didn’t care a fig about window taxes. Clara held her breath and edged closer, careful not to muddle her view with rime. Garland swagged from the roofline the entire length of the building. How on earth had they managed that? Red bows with dangling ribbons hung from each wall sconce, and as the carriage drew nearer, a gust of wind lent them life, and they waved a greeting.
   She sat back against the cushion, stunned. There was nothing bleak about this manor. Who had invited her—a lowly lady’s companion— to such an estate? Who would even want to keep company with her? And more importantly, why?
   The coach stopped, and the door opened. She gave up trying to solve such a puzzle as the footman helped her to the drive.
   “I’ll see to your bags, miss.” A lad, no more than fourteen yet dressed in as fine a livery as the older man, tipped his head in deference.
   The respectful gesture stung. She hadn’t been so favored since that awful day, that nightmare day nine months previous, when she’d stood in front of an altar in a gown of white.
   “Ready, miss?”
   The footman’s voice pulled her from the horrid memory. She lifted her skirts to follow him without tripping. “Yes.”
   She was ready, truly, to meet whoever had invited her. Perhaps if she explained the frail state of her aunt, she wouldn’t be required to stay the full Twelve Days of Christmas.
   After ascending granite stairs, she and the footman passed through an arched doorway and entered a foyer the size of Aunt’s dining and sitting rooms combined. A crystal chandelier dripped golden light over everything, from a cushioned bench against one wall to a medieval trestle table gracing the other. Fresh flowers filled a cut-glass vase atop the table. Marble tile gleamed beneath her feet, the echo of her steps reaching up to a mounted lion head on the wall in front of her, just above a closed set of doors. She couldn’t help but stare up into the cold, lifeless eyes, wondering how many people before her had done the same.
   “I should be happy to take your cloak and bonnet, miss.” The footman held out his arm.
   Her fingers shook as she unbuttoned her coat and untied her hat, though she was hard-pressed to decide if the jittery feeling was from cold air or nerves. Handing over her garments, she waited for further instruction from the tall fellow.
   But without a word, he pivoted and disappeared down a darkened hallway to her left.
   She stood, unsure, and clenched her hands for fortification, sickeningly aware of a gaze burning holes through her soul. Yet the only other pair of eyes in the foyer besides hers was the lion’s.
   She sucked in a breath. Nerves. That’s what. Had to be.
   To her right, another set of doors hid secrets, merry ones by the sound of it. Yellow light and conversation leached out through a crack between threshold and mahogany. Licking her lips, she squared her shoulders, resolved to meet the master of the house, then pushed open the door.
   Across the Turkish carpet, perched upon a chair and balancing a small box on her lap, a white-haired lady held up a quizzing glass to one eye and peered at Clara. “Oh, lovely! Such a beautiful creature. Don’t you think, Mr. Minnow?”
   “Why yes!” A lean man, more bones than flesh, jumped up from a settee and dashed toward Clara so quickly she retreated a step.
   He bowed, deep enough that his joints cracked, and held the pose longer than necessary. The scent of ginger wafted about him. When he straightened, he smiled at her with lips that were far too elastic. “Mr. Minnow at your service, mum. William Minnow, esquire. Well, not quite yet, but soon, I am certain. And you are?”
   Clara blinked. Was this the master of Bleakly Manor? A lanky eel in a suit?
   Instant remorse squeezed her chest. Who was she, a woman fallen from the graces of society, to judge the appearance of a man of substance? She dipped her head. “I am Clara Chapman.”
   “Clara Chapman! Oh, but I like the sound of that.” The elder on the chair waved a handkerchief at her. “Step nearer, dearest, and let’s look at you up close, shall we?”
   Familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the elderly, she complied, but froze several paces in front of the woman. A pink nose with whiskers poked out of the box on the lady’s lap, where a hole had been cut jaggedly into the side. Red eyes emerged, followed by a furry body and a naked tail, flesh-coloured and long. A second mouse emerged after it. The two scampered to the edge of the old lady’s knee and rose up on hind legs, testing the air with quivering noses.
   Clara stiffened. Hopefully the creatures would turn right around and disappear back into the box.
   The lady merely scrutinized her as if nothing more than a teacup and saucer rested on her lap. “Such a marvelous creature, Miss Chapman.”
   Was she speaking of her or the mice? “Th–Thank you,” she stuttered. “I am sorry, but I didn’t catch your name, ma’am?”
   “No, you did not.” The lady beamed at her. “I am Miss Scurry, and now we shall all be the jolliest of companions, shall we not?”
   “We shall, and more.” Mr. Minnow’s heels brushed against the carpet, then he reached for her hand and placed it on his arm. “Come, sit and warm yourself, my pet.”
   Pet? She barely had time to turn the word over before he escorted her to a settee near the hearth and pushed her into it.
   “I’m wondering, Miss Chapman”—Mr. Minnow smiled down at her—“not that Miss Scurry and I aren’t exceedingly grateful, for we are, but why exactly have you invited us here to share the Twelve Days with you?”
   “Me?” She shook her head, yet the movement did nothing to make sense of his question. “But you are mistaken, for I received an invitation myself.”
   “Bosh! This is a pickled herring.” Flipping out the tails of his suit coat, he joined her on the settee, much too close for propriety. “I thought you, being a lady of such grace and beauty, surely belonged to this house.”
   “I’m afraid not.” She edged away from him.
   “Sh-sh-sh.” Miss Scurry, evidently just discovering the two escapees had scampered to the top of the box, shooed both mice into the hole on the side and plugged it up with her handkerchief. “Rest, my dears.” Then she gazed over at Mr. Minnow. “Don’t fret so, my fine fellow. The day of reckoning will come soon enough, and all will be made clear.”
   Mr. Minnow clapped his hands and rubbed them together. “I suppose there’s nothing to be done for it but to wait for the host to appear.” His head swiveled, and he narrowed his eyes at Clara. “You’re sure that’s not you?”
   “I am, Mr. Minnow. Very sure.”
   She bit her lip. Clearly neither of these two eccentrics was the host. So, who was?

Chapter Four

The prison cart juddered over a hump in the road, rattling Ben’s bones. He’d curled into a ball in one corner, tucking his knees to his chest and wrapping his arms about them. Even so, after hours on end and with the chill of night bearing down, there was no stopping the chattering of his teeth. He snorted. Between teeth and bones he was quite the percussionist.
   A low “whoa now” slowed the wheels, and finally the cart stopped. Ben jerked upright, crouched and ready, the sudden hammering of his heart forgetting the cold. The long ride here had given him plenty of time to consider his situation, and he’d come to one conclusion—these were his last hours on earth.
   So be it. He’d go out fighting against such a wicked injustice and find some measure of worth in the fray.
   The scrape of a key shoved into the metal lock, then a click, a creak, and the door swung open. “Yer ride ends here, Lane. Out ye go.”
   The dark shape of the guard disappeared and light poured in. Ben’s eyes watered. Light? Was it day, then? How far had he traveled?
   He edged forward, cautious, scanning, as more and more of the world expanded into his view. Black darkened the sky, so it was still night, but torches ablaze changed the immediate area to morning.
   “Move along! I’ve still got a drive back to London.” The guard spat out a foul curse. “Ye’d think I’d signed up to be a bleedin’ jarvey. They don’t pay me enough, I tell ye. Not near enough.”
   Ben dropped out of the door and immediately wheeled about, fists up, stance wide, prepared for battle.
   The guard merely shoved the door shut and relocked it, ignoring him—and there was no one else around.
   Truly? No one? Ben stared hard into the darkness beyond the light. The expansive grounds were rimmed with trees along the perimeter, black against black. Nothing moved except the wind through barren branches. Apparently he’d been taken some distance into the countryside. He turned to face the manor. Impressive, really. Tall. Well masoned. Crenellated at the top. Perhaps used as a stronghold centuries ago.
   He spun. The cart lumbered down the curved drive, the guard urging the horses onward—without him. He was left standing alone. Unfettered. A brilliant mansion at his back and acres of freedom in front. He could run, here, now. Tear off and flee like the wind. Should he? He scrubbed a hand through his hair, recalling Hacksby’s threat.
   “You’re to be shot on sight for any escape attempt.”
   The prison cart disappeared into the night. But slowly, emerging out of that same darkness, another shape loomed larger. A carriage, and a fine one at that. Should he wait and meet head-on whomever it carried?
   Cold ached in his bare feet and up his legs, yet the pain of the unknown throbbing in his temples hurt worse. He’d have a better chance of putting up a fight if he could actually move his frozen body. Pivoting, he climbed the stairs to the main entrance and rapped the brass knocker.
   The door opened immediately, as if the butler had stood behind it waiting for him.
   “Welcome, Mr. Lane.” The man’s upper lip curled to nearly touch his nose.
   Ben smirked. He ought be ashamed of his stench, but his time at Millbank had dulled that emotion, especially when it came to issues of hygiene. Even so, he took out his manners and dusted them off. “Thank you. I see you were expecting me.”
   “Yes, sir. We have a room prepared for you after such a journey. If you would follow me.” Turning on his heel, the butler strode the length of the grand foyer toward a door with a stuffed lion head mounted above it.
   Ben studied the man as he went. He could pose a threat, for his shoulders were broad as a ceiling beam and those stout legs might pack a wallop of a kick. But the silver streaks in his hair labeled the fellow past his prime. Even so, better to keep his distance.
   He followed, leaving plenty of space between them, then paused and stared up at the lion head. Light from the chandelier reflected back brightly from those eyes, transparent, lifelike and—
   “Mr. Lane?”
   He jumped at the butler’s voice. What was wrong with him? There were bigger mysteries afoot than a dead lion. “Of course. Sorry.”
   He caught up to the man, who’d opened double doors, revealing an even bigger lobby. A wide, carpeted staircase, lit by intermittent wall sconces, led up to a first-floor gallery, where more lamps burned. Interesting that pains had been taken to decorate the outside of the manor, yet not one sprig of holly or mistletoe hung inside.
   Behind them, the front door knocker banged. Two stairs ahead of him, the butler stopped and pulled out a gold chain from his waistcoat, then flipped open the lid of a watch tethered to the end of it. His eyebrows pulled into a solid line, and a low rumble in his throat gruffed out. “Pardon me, Mr. Lane. If you’d wait here, please.”
   Here? On the stairs? A duck at rest to be shot from behind? He waited for the butler to pass, then tracked him on silent feet and slipped into the shadow cast by a massive floor clock.
   A man in a sealskin riding cloak entered, frost on his breath and hat pulled low. He stomped his boots on the tiles, irreverent of the peace.
   The butler dipped his head. “Mr. Pocket, I presume?”
   “I am.” The new arrival pulled off his hat and ran a hand through his shorn hair, the top of his head quite the contradiction to his bushy muttonchops. A rumpled dress coat peeked through the gap of his unbuttoned coat, and his trousers looked as if they’d never seen a hot iron. Clearly the man was not married, nor was he the master of the manor.
   “You were not due to arrive for another half hour, sir.” A scowl tugged down the corners of the butler’s mouth.
   Mr. Pocket twisted his lips, his great muttonchops going along for the ride. “Yet the invitation did not specify an arrival time, unless. . . ahh! I see. The deliveries were spaced out to ensure a regulated arrival schedule. Am I correct?”
   “Very clever, Inspector.”
   “Part of the job.”
   So the fellow was a lawman. Ben flattened his back against the wall, sinking deeper into the shadow of the clock. Questions ticked in his mind with each swing of the pendulum. Was Pocket sent to make sure he didn’t run or to finish him off? Or possibly set him up for something more sinister than embezzlement and fraud? But why the big charade? Why not just kill him in jail or ship him off as planned?
   “If you wouldn’t mind stepping in here until dinner, sir.” The butler opened a door in a side wall, but his back hindered Ben’s view into the room. “You may meet some of the other guests while you wait.”
   “All right. Don’t mind if I do.” Mr. Pocket swept past the man and vanished.
   Ben dashed back to the stairs, folded his arms, and leaned against the railing as if he’d never moved.
   The butler hesitated on the bottom stair only long enough to say, “My apologies for the delay, Mr. Lane. Please, let us continue.”
   Ben trailed the man as he traveled up two flights, then noted every door they passed and any corridors intersecting the one they traveled. There were two, one lit, one dark. They stopped at the farthest chamber of what he guessed to be the east wing.
   The butler opened the door but blocked him from entering. “You’ll find a bath drawn in front of the hearth, grooming toiletries on a stand opposite, and a set of dinner clothes laid out on the bed. I shall send a footman up to retrieve you in”—he reclaimed his watch once more and held it up for inspection before tucking it away—“forty-five minutes. Is that sufficient?”
   “Very generous,” he replied.
   “Very good.” The butler stepped aside, allowing him to pass, then pulled the door shut.
   Ben froze. The chamber gleamed in lamplight and gilt-striped wallpaper, so large and glorious it might overwhelm a duke. At center, a four-poster bed commanded attention, mattresses high enough to require a step stool. Against one wall stood an oversized roll-top desk and matching chair, decked out with full stationery needs. Several padded chairs and three different settees formed two distinct sitting areas. A screen offered privacy for necessary functions, and thick brocaded drapery covered what must be an enormous bank of windows.
   He changed his mind. This would overwhelm a king.
   Shaking off his stupor, he stalked to the copper basin in front of the fire. Steam rose like a mist on autumn water, smelling of sage and mint. Nine months. Nine never-ending months of filth and sweat and blood.
   He stripped off his prison garb, heedless of ripping the threadbare fabric, and kicked the soiled lump from him, uncaring that it lodged beneath the bed. Good riddance.
   Water splashed over the rim as he sank into the water, warmth washing over him like a lover’s embrace. A sob rose in his throat. This time last year, he’d bathed before dinner just like this. Dressed in fine clothes similar to those laid on the counterpane. Dined by candlelight with the woman he loved fiercely. Kissed Clara’s sweet lips until neither of them could breathe.
   What a fool.
   He snatched the bar of soap off the tray hooked to the tub’s side, then scrubbed harder than necessary. Of course this wasn’t like last Christmas Eve. It could never be.
   For he wouldn’t see Clara ever again.
Michelle Griep, 12 Days at Bleakly Manor Shiloh Run Press, an imprint of Barbour Publishing, Inc., © 2017. Used by permission.

Image result for michelle griep
author Michelle Griep
**I received a complimentary copy of this book from Barbour Publishing and was under no obligation to post a review.**


Saturday, October 28, 2017

Modern Quilt Magic: 5 Parlor Tricks to Expand Your Piecing Skills by Victoria Findlay Wolfe, © 2017

17 Captivating Projects

Modern Quilt Magic

*· A magic wand for quilters! Take the fear out of tricky piecing with simple, step-by-step instructions

· Piece 17 projects for intermediate-level quilters, including 12 quilts and 5 smaller pillows and mini quilts

· Stitch new takes on well-known techniques with award-winning quilter Victoria Findlay Wolfe (blog, teaching site).

My Review:

I preordered a signed copy of Modern Quilt Magic in July after seeing the wonky colors! Love how they are put together in an irregular pattern and not matching at all! Loved it!! The patterns of our lives are not following a trail of another but rather the path God sets before us, individually.

Cascade is what drew me in!
Arrange the Pieces
On a design wall (or the floor), arrange the pieces to create a gradational effect. I started with pairs of left and right curves from the same fabrics in an arc. Then I played with some, making matching pairs into V's and filling in with other single curves. Use the photo as a reference and have fun seeing how your fabrics work together from dark to light and back again!
   Modern Quilt Magic, 113
This scrappy quilt pattern shows Fabrics, Crib, Twin, Full, Queen, and King along with how to make the curve. Step-by-step is shown with instructions on cutting and arranging the pieces; constructing and joining the rows and finishing.

Image result for "Cascade" Victoria Findlay Wolfe, 2016, quilted by Shelly Pagliai
"Cascade" Victoria Findlay Wolfe, 2016, quilted by Shelly Pagliai

Here are topics covered: Partial-Seam Construction; Blocks with Partial Seams; Mini Made Fabric; Y-Seams; Free-Form Curves; with Coloring Design Pages and Patterns with a notation to "use a ruler to measure these inch marks to verify that printout is correctly sized."

I enjoyed this book so much I wanted to share it!

***This review was written in my own words. No compensation was received. I preordered this book from the author's website.***

The One Year® Experiencing God's Love Devotional by Sandra Byrd, © 2017


“Only one person never changes and is always with us: our Lord. With God, we can be more intimate than with any other because he is omnipresent—always with us. “So do not fear, for I am with you,” he pledges in Isaiah 41:10. “The Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you,” Deuteronomy 31:6 promises. I have long known that God loves me and loves you. But I long to experience it each and every day.” ~ author Sandra Byrd

My Review:

I have always loved Sandra Byrd's writings and in addition to several of her historicals, I have another devotional she shares ~ The One Year® Home&Garden Devotions. Her devotionals may be picked up any day and begin reading, so you don't have to wait for the new year... but, this may just be the one you choose for your Christmas gift to yourself to begin afresh on January 1, 2018. A wonderful gift to give to others, this devotional released October 3, 2017, ready now!

Why do I like these dailies? They come out of her heart and life and may bring to remembrance a similar time in your own life. A companionship of hearts ~ to boast us forward, to realize we do not stand alone, to encourage another and get us beyond our doors to share His love and life abundant. Sandra begins with a story, an applied Scripture, and a nudge for us.

Here are two excerpts from January (applies to any calendar year):


In Need of a Little Christian-­ease

So often we Christians exhort others to “have faith.” Have faith that the situation will be resolved in the right way. Believe that all will end well, although current events seem to be careening out of control. Trust that shattered relationships will be restored, that God is bigger than any situation or circumstance that we face and can overcome for and with us. Our advice is true and biblical. After all, we walk by faith and not by sight, as 2 Corinthians informs us. We’re so used to saying “just have faith,” though, that it’s become Christianese, something we casually reference but don’t practically facilitate.
   I’m here to tell you, it’s not “Christian- ­ease” to have faith in difficult times; it’s “Christian- ­hard.”
   We rejoice and praise together when times are good, but we must persevere and lean into faith in both God and his faithful followers when times are tough. God has promised that he will never leave nor forsake us, but as a child once said, I sometimes wish I had Jesus with skin on him, right here and right now, in my house.
   That little child’s prayer can be answered. The word encourage means to inspire courage or confidence in someone. People who need courage are facing a daunting, tiring, or worrisome situation. We are to help them be brave, to hold them up as it were, as they stand or fight. We experience the love of God in an unmatchable, powerful way when we act as his agents, on his behalf, offering that love to others. To “go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37) to someone who is disheartened is a marching order from Jesus Christ to all who believe.
   To whom, today or this week, can you bring a little “Christian-­ease” by your loving, helping presence? Having a “Christian-­hard” week, yourself? Be brave. Reach out to a loved one and ask for help and hugs.

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.                                                                                Hebrews 10:23‑25


Experiencing the Love of God

Training our senses, both physical and spiritual, to sense and see God at work around us takes practice. But it can be done and is well worth the effort to communicate with him in this manner every day. When we learn to discern his hands at work and act as his hands at work, we experience his love—and our partnership with him—in a deeper, more meaningful way.
   Scripture tells us that “whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father (see James 1:17, NLT), so that’s a great place to start. Got something good going on? Thank you, Lord!
   Scripture also tells us that “for whom the Lord loves He chastens” (Hebrews 12:6, NKJV). Had a gentle (or not so gentle!) correction lately, one that sent you in the right direction? Thank you, Lord!
   I have always had a thing with pennies, between God and me. When I see one I remember what is stamped on it, “In God We Trust.” It reminds me to trust him. When I’m feeling weak or worried, I often find a penny on the floor or on the ground, and I know he’s drawn my eye to it.
   One day I was under a lot of stress, and I asked the Lord, “Please reassure me.” I walked into the dry cleaner, which is owned by Christians, and heard a lovely praise song. I just knew that was from God! And then, as I paid, my eyes were drawn to a huge cup FILLED with pennies. “Need one? Take one!” it said. My eyes filled with tears. That was from him too.
   How do you see God’s work in your life in the natural world around you this week? Don’t skip past this. Stay here, prayerfully, until you can list at least five ways.






Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens.                                                                                              James 1:17, NLT
Sandra Byrd, The One Year® Experiencing God's Love Devotional, © 2017 Tyndale, © 2017. Used by permission.

Whatever the season, join in and let the Lord touch your heart with His wonderful plan for your individual life. His mercies endure forever!
And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.
Philippians 1:6 NLT
His grace is readily available to us. Discover the many and varied ways we experience the love of God!

Sandra Byrd
author Sandra Byrd
Click here to enJ*O*Y this wide selection of Sandra Byrd's writings! Something for everyone.

***I would like to thank author Sandra Byrd and Tyndale for sending me a copy of The One Year® Experiencing God's Love Devotional. This review was written in my own words. No other compensation was received.***

Friday, October 27, 2017

Where We Belong by Lynn Austin, © 2017

Not unto us, O LORD, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy, and for thy truth's sake.
Psalm 115:1

My Review:

What I liked most about this story is that is shows where they are now and then backtracks to where they were from their own description and thoughts to their situation instead of talking in the third person.

Two sisters are used by God to rescue others and show them where they belong. Coming alongside, they react from their own character until they realize it is so much better to be cared for and protected.

"I will never leave you nor forsake you."
Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that the LORD has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall put them in possession of it. It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”
Deuteronomy 31:7-8 ESV

Being on the path we are supposed to be on is so much safer than the self-care we think we are able to do to survive. Thrive is so much better. There will be challenges and conflicts to overcome, but... you will. We do not walk this earth alone. How much better when we discover we truly are where we were meant to be all along. Rebecca and Flora Hawes are two sisters who gather others to come alongside and join the adventure(s) of a lifetime. Fiesty Kate Rafferty and solemn weight-of-the-world on his shoulders, Soren Petersen, will eventually glory in their exchange ~ we hope! Readers: be aware. You will fall into this book head-on and be amazed at the story as it develops––day-by-day.

Quotes from Where We Belong:
"We must pray for her too––not that she'll change into what we want her to be, but that she'll become all that God intends her to be." (394)
"This is where we belong, isn't it? On the path that leads to serving God? Isn't that the essence of faith––walking forward, trusting what you can't see?" (448)
"The irony wasn't lost on Rebecca that both of the people she loved... were refusing to accept grace and a brand-new life." (459)
"... I want you to become all that God created you to be." (460)
"We were completely helpless out there, but God..." (464)
I loved the detail in this book, and the extensive research and application of life and Truth of the Scriptures lived out as a reference point revealed in each day of continuing to put the next foot forward.

I have read a lot of author Lynn Austin's books. This book was different; more intense and right out of life, on the street action. These people really live ~ today, yesterday, and wherever we may find ourselves. A rescue. A respite. A time of recognizing a need for a hoped-for change to bring us true life beyond the mundane. What I liked about the sisters was that they brought people along ~ a journey built for them as well, a change that will bring a smile to your lips and hope in your heart. For it is possible to be redirected in a moment when you least expect.

This seasoned author is definitely a wordsmith galore, in plentiful amounts! Funny sections, serious aims, necessary to hold it all together under the One who has called us to be His own. EnJ*O*Y! I was astonished at how the depth could be more as historical feats are recalled and presented through these characters' lives. Bravo!

Travel in 1800 adventures in Chicago, Paris, the Sinai Desert; moving forward exactly where you are to be. There is no time period that this does not apply. Live wide open to all that is yours to behold and explore.

The real-life sisters, Agnes and Margaret Smith, who inspired my newest novel, “Where We Belong,” had a favorite motto that continues to intrigue me. Whenever they were in danger or in a precarious situation they would say, “God knows when the end of our days will be. We have nothing to fear.” I borrowed their motto for my fictional sisters, Becky and Flora Hawes, to use whenever they found themselves in a sticky situation.
Blessings as you fearlessly pursue a life of adventure for Christ.
 ~ author Lynn Austin

EnJ*O*Y this excerpt from Lynn Austin's Where We Belong ~ Chapter 1




Rebecca Hawes lay awake in her tent, convinced that the howling wind was about to lift her entire camp into the air and hurl it to the far side of the desert. The desolate wasteland of the Sinai Peninsula lay beyond her tent door, thousands of miles and a world away from her home in Chicago. Sand pummeled the canvas; the thick material heaved and flapped as if trying to take flight. Rebecca gazed around in the darkness, her eyes open wide. She saw nothing. The sandstorm obliterated every ray of starlight and moonlight, making the darkness seem biblical, like one of the plagues God used to punish Egypt—a darkness that could be felt. She had thought, at age forty-five, that she would live at least another twenty years or so, but this storm just might be the end of her. Pity. There was so much more she hoped to accomplish.
   She remembered the luxurious hotel room she had left behind in Cairo two days ago and understood why the Israelites had longed to return to Egypt after camping in this wilderness, even if it meant slavery. Moses had been leading them to Mount Sinai to worship God, and she was on her way to the Monastery of Saint Catherine, built on the same site. The centuries of history invested in that mystic place fascinated her. Imagine—Emperor Justinian built the basilica at Saint Catherine’s in AD 557! She hoped she lived through the night to see it.
   An odd pounding noise caught Rebecca’s attention, a staccato beat that joined the shrieking wind and drumming canvas. She struggled to sit up on the sagging camp cot to listen. The sound, when she identified it, was a reassuring one—the Bedouin caravan drivers were securing the tent stakes shaken loose by the gale. Perhaps she wouldn’t blow away after all. How the men could see anything at all in such profound darkness was a mystery to her. She heard them speaking to their camels, the animals hissing and growling in response. Nasty beasts!
   Then a new thought occurred to her: What if the sand piled up into a mound around her tent, burying her, the equipment, the drivers, and even the camels?
   She swatted away the thought with a wave of her hand. There were much worse ways to die.
   “Becky? Are you awake?” her younger sister, Flora, whispered. She lay on a camp cot not two feet away, yet invisible in the gloom.
   “Yes, I’m here.” Rebecca groped toward the sound of Flora’s voice and found her arm, giving it a reassuring pat.
   “Well, this is certainly turning out to be an adventure, isn’t it?” Flora asked.
   Rebecca heard the suppressed laughter in Flora’s voice and grinned. “Yes, I believe this is the very definition of an adventure!” She started to laugh out loud, then buried her face in her blanket to muffle the sound. She could hear Flora doing the same. They might have been schoolgirls again, whispering after lights-out, instead of two middle-aged sisters.
   “If our society friends could see us now . . .” Flora sputtered.
   “They would have us committed to an asylum!”
   “I think Thomas Cook should add tours of the Sinai with a Bedouin camel caravan to his posh itineraries,” Flora said. “Don’t you?”
   Rebecca laughed out loud at the idea, then quickly covered her mouth again.
   “Shh . . . we’ll wake up Kate,” Flora whispered.
   “I’m already awake, Miss Flora.” Kate sounded peeved.
   “Oh, I’m so sorry, dear. It’s just that when I think of where we are and the absurdity of this storm—”
   “Yes, shouldn’t we be making social calls or raising funds for one of your charities?” Rebecca asked in her grandest voice. She and Flora laughed all over again. “We’d better control ourselves,” Rebecca finally said, “or Petersen will be sticking his somber head through the tent flap, wondering if we’ve become unbalanced.”
   “The boy has been our butler for two years, Becky. He knows full well how unbalanced we are. Remember the first time he saw us doing calisthenics in our backyard in our bloomers?”
   Her words brought more laughter, and Rebecca wiped tears from her eyes. She felt a fine layer of grit and tasted it on her lips. The wind pounded sand through every crack and seam and opening. She hoped it wouldn’t damage her photographic equipment. “Forgive us, Katie dear. We’ll settle down now, I promise. Go back to sleep.”
   “How can I sleep when I’m about to be blown away?” Kate grumbled. Rebecca couldn’t see their so-called lady’s maid in the darkness, but she could imagine the churlish frown on her face, her stiff posture and crossed arms. It had been Flora’s idea to try to transform the thieving, eighteen-year-old street urchin into their lady’s maid. Rebecca was beginning to believe it might be easier to spin straw into gold.
   “You don’t suppose we could be buried alive by morning, do you?” Flora asked. “Remember how Nimrud’s Palace was so completely engulfed by sand that the local Arabs didn’t even realize it was there until Henry Layard dug it out?”
   Rebecca smiled. “I had the very same thought. Perhaps some future archaeologist will find us a thousand years from now and wonder what on earth those crazy sisters were up to.”
   “Um . . . remind me again why we’re doing this,” Flora said.
   Rebecca heard the smile in her sister’s voice and was glad they were together. They had enjoyed exotic travel since they were schoolgirls—exploring Paris’ maze-like streets, traveling up the Nile in a dahabeeah to see the pyramids, perusing the souks and dark alleyways of places like Cairo and Jerusalem.
   “I believe we came here because we longed for an adventure, remember?” Rebecca replied. But that wasn’t the only reason. Midway through her life, Rebecca had fallen in love. Professor Timothy Dyk was brilliant, scholarly, warm, companionable—and in love with her, too. They were so well-suited that Rebecca might have been formed from the rib plucked from his side. But she couldn’t accept Timothy’s marriage proposal—not yet, anyway. Perhaps never. This quest at Saint Catherine’s was her last resort, and if it failed, she had no other recourse but to remain a spinster. Rebecca would endure sandstorms and desert perils and much, much more if she thought it would finally topple the wall between them.
   And then there was their young maid, Kate Rafferty. Who knew what effect this journey would have on her stony heart? Or on their cheerless, nineteen-year-old butler, Petersen, whom Flora had rescued from the orphan’s home? Someone had to try to reach these young people before they were lost forever. Why not Rebecca and Flora?
   One of the camels began braying loudly outside their tent. “Oh, those poor animals,” Flora said. “They have no shelter from the storm.”
   “You’re not going to invite them into our tent, are you?” Kate asked. “I know how softhearted you are, Miss Flora.”
   “Not unless they have a bath, first,” she replied, laughing. “They smell atrocious!”
   “Besides, they’re used to desert conditions,” Rebecca said. “God created them to endure sandstorms.” She didn’t believe for a moment that they had evolved through the process of natural selection as that heathen Charles Darwin proposed. His outrageous theories were in all the newspapers these days and many of the scientists she knew seemed to be embracing them. Rebecca could not, would not.
   “We should try to sleep now,” she said. “It’s certain to be a long day tomorrow.” They had traveled seven hours across the rocky desert yesterday, then risen before sunrise and traveled eight hours today before the sandstorm had forced them to hunker down. The storm had seemed both beautiful and terrifying as it rolled toward them, darkening the sky and filling the horizon like an eerie yellow thundercloud. Tomorrow’s journey would be at least as long as today’s, providing the storm blew itself out as the Bedouin sheikh assured her it would. The pace was exhausting, but Rebecca had hired the camel caravan for only forty days, including traveling time to Mount Sinai and back. She wanted to spend as many of those days as she could doing research at the monastery.
   “How much longer until we get there?” Kate asked.
   “It should take us another week to reach Saint Catherine’s.” “And are we going to have sandstorms like this every night? If so, I think we should turn around right now and go home. Besides, I don’t trust those camel drivers. Their leader keeps staring at me.”
   “It takes more than a sandstorm to make Flora and me turn back,” Rebecca said. “And I don’t think the sheikh will do you any harm. He’s probably staring because he thinks you’re pretty. Your red hair is very unusual.”
   Kate’s exasperated sigh was loud. The servant’s cot creaked and rustled as she thrashed in the dark, rolling over. “I was thinking about the Israelites when we were riding today,” Flora said. “It must have been so hard to trust God and keep walking through such desolate land. We know how their story ends and that they finally reached the Promised Land, but they had no idea what would happen next. They simply had to trust God and keep going.”
   Rebecca didn’t know how her journey through the Sinai would end either—whether her errand would lead to success and a breakthrough with Timothy or spell the end of their romance. She bid the other women good-night again and settled down on her cot, trying to get comfortable. She thought about how far they already had come—the cross-country train ride from Chicago to New York; the steamship voyage to France; another steamer through the Mediterranean and down to Cairo where they were delayed several days while arranging to meet with the Archbishop of Sinai to get permission to visit the monastery. Her ability to converse with him in Greek had impressed him greatly, and he not only granted permission but even took time to pray for their protection from the hot, desert winds that blew in from the Sahara. He had been kind—but his prayers obviously hadn’t changed God’s mind about sending the wind.
   While in Cairo, they had also hired the services of an agent, Mr. Farouk, to accompany them on their journey. He had purchased all their equipment, hired a cook, arranged for a camel caravan, and stockpiled enough food and drinking water for their entire forty-day expedition. Rebecca and Flora and their entourage then crossed the Gulf of Suez and met the Bedouin drivers and their animals. The shaggy, sun-browned men might have stepped right out of the pages of The Arabian Nights, covered from head to toe in white robes, with turbans wound around their heads and swords at their sides. After strapping dozens of crates of live chickens and turkeys to the camels, they were on their way.
   Rebecca knew it was outrageous for two unmarried women and their lady’s maid to travel alone through such rugged terrain with only their young butler—the somber yet faithful Petersen—as an escort. Who knew what sort of man this Mr. Farouk would turn out to be? Not to mention the twelve Bedouin camel drivers and their sheikh, who had insisted on joining them, carrying an ancient, rusting rifle that he waved in the air dangerously from time to time. Rebecca, however, had learned not to care what people thought. As for her safety, God already knew when the end of her days would be. She had no reason to fear.
   She did feel sorry for Petersen, though. He’d grown up on the streets of Chicago and had never ridden a horse, let alone a camel. He’d had a particularly difficult time staying comfortably seated these past two days, and she’d seen him rubbing his bottom whenever he dismounted. Neither sister had wished to subject Petersen to such discomfort, but he had insisted on coming along, sounding very biblical with his declaration that “wherever you go, I will go.” Knowing how much Petersen distrusted Kate, Rebecca suspected he’d come along to protect them from her, rather than from pagan foreigners.
   The wind howled on; the canvas thrummed. Rebecca pulled the blanket tightly around herself, seeking comfort more than warmth. What would it be like to have the man she loved sleeping beside her, curled together like spoons in a drawer, listening to the familiar rhythm of his breathing, feeling his heartbeat? She may never know. But whether Timothy was part of her future or not, Rebecca hoped that the discoveries she unearthed at Mount Sinai would make this long, perilous journey worthwhile in the end.
   She fidgeted on the narrow cot, unable to get comfortable. Trying to sleep was hopeless, the shrieking wind and pelting sand too unnerving. In spite of all her carefully made plans, Rebecca was, in this moment, helpless. Yet hadn’t she been in danger before on some of her other travels? Perhaps nothing as deadly as this sandstorm, but frightening, nonetheless. She decided to travel back through her memories to the very beginning, when it was just Father, Flora, and her—and the elderly servants who’d cared for them, of course. If Rebecca truly was about to die, at least her final thoughts would be of the people she loved.
   For as long as Rebecca could recall, Flora had been by her side—sister, best friend, confidante, and partner in adventures, great and small. . . .
Lynn Austin, Where We Belong Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group, © 2017. Used by permission.

Lynn Austin
© Cori De Roos

***Thank you to author Lynn Austin for the invitation to join the launch team for Where We Belong. This review was written in my own words. No other compensation was received.***

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Dishonorable Miss DeLancey by Carolyn Miller, © 2017

Regency Brides: A Legacy of Grace, Book 2

The Dishonorable Miss Delancey

Miss Clara DeLancey's wonderful future unfolds with the discovery of a golden friendship to mature into life beyond anything she could have imagined. And, the discovery... takes place no other than in the library at Brighton, returning books at Donaldson's!
Walking alone, even if it were only such a little way, felt so freeing. She crossed the Parade, hurrying past a draper's cart turning into Manchester Street, walked along the Steyne, and entered the library.
   --The Dishonorable Miss DeLancey, 22
And her true adventure begins!

See all noteworthy adventurers, books truly are the destiny of love and finding of true self.

As Clara is pressed into society, again, by her parents in hopes of finally finding the true love, well, maybe not seeing love, but being cared for in the manner the previous generation would so demand. I am pleased that Clara continues to realize the closeness friendship brings beyond the frivolities of supposed happily ever after; being seen at just the right engagement and being validated by invitation to a future lavish gathering.

I personally do not see why Clara is denounced as a social misfit from past observances. She followed her heart and was not the one dismissed beyond an unintended misunderstanding. I can see that happening when people are thrown together without regard for their personal care, but appearances only. Well, you will have to determine for yourself! Reading this series, you will be eager to pursue the newest return in the Spring of 2018, as the stories continue with Miss Winthrop, quietly emerging from the background.

Thank you, Carolyn Miller, for being introduced to your stories!!

Alfriston village
Brighton by the Sea

***Thank you to the author and to Kregel Publications for sending me a copy of this novel. This review was written in my own words. No other compensation was received.***

author Carolyn Miller


Carolyn Miller, her husband, and their four children live in New South Wales, Australia. The first book in a new Regency Brides series, Winning Miss Winthrop, Regency Brides: A Promise of Hope, Book I releases Spring 2018.

Books 1 and 2, Regency Brides: A Legacy of Grace series


Monday, October 16, 2017

Everywhere You Go There's a Zacchaeus Up a Tree: Small-Town Faith and Words of Wisdom by Roger Campbell, © 2017

Join in these favorite snippets published in Roger Campbell's newspaper column.

Small towns with front porches. Twilight strollings and visits to reminisce the happenings of the day.
Image result for front porch gathering

Image result for front porch gatheringI have enjoyed the encouragement and thought following the reading of these gathered selections. I would suggest they not be read one after the other, but treated as a devotional to be thought upon during the day. Very applicable to several circumstances of life; a need to be thoughtful of another, a listener, a lifter of the head.

Scripture is brought into daily living as remembrances are given from emails he received that sparked a reflective response with a good kernel for each of us to plant and watch grow in our lives. Starting a good day ~ not grumbling, but thankful.
   It has long been my practice to heed the counsel of another godly man given many years ago: "As you start your day, speak to God before speaking to anyone else. Listen for His voice before engaging in human conversation. Read His Word before reading anything else."
  --Everywhere You Go There's a Zacchaeus Up a Tree, 40.
I love this title! There may be someone searching for Jesus, out of sight in their view requiring a higher perch ~ to get above our earthly endeavors to reach what only He can give us ~ peace, love, One-on-one. Roger Campbell has relayed meeting Him places and times we may not be aware of beyond the noise. Early morning birds singing! Greeting the day as He watches over us.

I look forward to continuing to read each offering of uplifting hope as the days come anew. I will enjoy this little book with wisdom and comfort provided pointing us to the One who loves us with an everlasting love. What an honor for his family to have them compiled for generations to come.

***Thank you to Kregel Publications for sending a copy of Roger Campbell's stories. This review was written in my own words. No other compensation was received.***

Sunday, October 15, 2017

An Amish Christmas Love ~ Four Novellas by Beth Wiseman, Amy Clipston, Kelly Irvin, and Ruth Reid, © 2017

Winter Kisses by Beth Wiseman

Image result for windmill barn winter amishYou are going to love these characters! Feisty mammi who goes to the library to check out people on the Internet; her widowed daughter-in-law who finds love again; and her granddaughter who discovers first love. All wrapped up in Christmas and our Love born among men. How grateful I am.

Wayne was easily my favorite character. He went beyond himself to care for another and have Truth exposed. And this is only Novella number one! A treasure to behold. This story alone shouts, "Christmas gift."

The Christmas Cat by Amy Clipston

Image result for yellow barn catCome and meet a golden-orange cat with a golden heart. Nudged anew, Emma finds love in an unsuspected place with a Christmas Eve visit.

I especially like her "now and then" inspired memories refreshed by the gathering of young friends; so important to mingle together to restore life and hope. Each generation is warmed by the value of each other in experiencing and remembrance!

Image result for yellow barn cat winter

Katie Ann became my favorite character with her gentle caring ways and regard for her brother.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
  --Romans 15:13
A Christmastime to remember of new beginnings.

Snow Angels by Kelly Irvin

Bee County, South Texas

Image result for windmill barn winter amish
Forget the former things;
Do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
  --Isaiah 43:18-19
Back to Bee County! Have you meet these families from Kelly's previous writings? I have enJ*O*Yed "watching" the children grow up.

My husband talks to the TV; I am talking out loud to a character warning him. Referee decision? lol

A beautiful story of redemption and being rescued by Truth. My favorite character was Molly, determining to be still and leave the decision with the Lord to lead. Releasing another to Him became more important than words that muddle and confuse with no substance. I hope there is a continuance to this story in the future.

Home for Christmas by Ruth Reid

Image result for windmill barn winter amishAn unfamiliar area, walking into the wrong house, Ellie and her prized dog, Lulu, are met by the neighbor and his young daughter ~ with awe, at least by Allison, and uncertainty in the eye of her father, Ezra. Directed to her original destination, Ellie has a few mishaps that eventually get straightened out. She finds that she isn't as self-reliant as she would like to think. While Ellie has labeled Ezra as decidedly a "cat person," Lulu has chosen Allison as the perfect playmate.

A beautiful story of coming home; home to family values, and a love left to find exactly where you left it. Over the years that Ellie and her mom had been gone, her Aenti Bonnie kept a Prayer Journal that included Ellie; a heritage left just for her.

The warmth of love brings more than security, but a lifetime to discover. I really enjoyed this story and it rounds up these Novellas very satisfactory! I liked the communication and openness exposing the heart's intent. To be known as you are. So in this Novella ~ I would point to all of the characters. Favorites each one!

***Thank you to author Kelly Irvin for sending me a copy of this wonderful selection of novellas! This review was written in my own words. No other compensation was received.***

author Beth Wiseman
author Amy Clipston
author Kelly Irvin
Image result for ruth reid
author Ruth Reid

Monday, October 9, 2017

An Inconvenient Beauty by Kristi Ann Hunter, © 2017

The Hawthorne House Series, Book 4

Cover Art

My Review:

Sudbury Hall
Sudbury Hall
While their friendship goes way back to school days, Ryland and Griffith, young dukes, grow to manhood. Still confidants and advisors, they seek each other in decision-making. One is not so certain, as Griffith plans a methodical way to win a wife.

English Regency Gown Costume Sewing Pattern
Miss Frederica St. Claire and her New Season country cousin, Miss Isabella Breckenridge
Missing her Northumberland home and family, Isabella longs to return to a green countryside and fresh air. She suddenly was transported to London with her Uncle Percy and Cousin Freddie with little time to consider. Go or stay. Her uncle offers to finance her family's failing farm and provide schooling for her brother. How can she refuse? Her part? To influence young men to aid a bill in the House of Lords that her uncle has been promoting for years. Simple enough. Dancing with them at stylish balls, they will come on the at-home day and be met aforehand by Uncle and persuaded to become familiar with the need for their vote.

Regency-Men Set 2 | Richard Jenkins Photography
Griffith, Duke of Riverton
Plane Trees in Berkeley Square, London
Plane Trees in Berkeley Square ~ London

One thing going for the Duke of Riverton is strolling with the cousins amid greenery, a definite plus for time with them. The one he has chosen has other interests, leaving the cousin who definitely doesn't want to include Griffith in the trail of men she is bringing for her uncle to concur with. I liked Frederica's urgent need for a rest, resulting in the continued walk with Isabella.

A scavenger hunt during the weekend gala planned by his mother, Griffith finds a treasure of his own. Tenacity brings him to several interesting developments as he tries to find out why he is being spurned in his attempts to courtship. I liked the concurrence of the ladies in Griffith's family in encouraging him in his selection.

EnJ*O*Y this excerpt from Kristi Ann Hunter's An Inconvenient Beauty ~ Prologue & Chapter 1

To the Sovereign of all,
who has a better plan for our lives
than we could ever imagine.
Proverbs 3:5–6


Eton College, Berkshire, England, 1797

The line between boy and man was never murkier than when a father died too soon, leaving his son to walk through the foibles of youth while shouldering the responsibilities of adulthood.
   Though a part of Griffith, Duke of Riverton, knew that having to show his ripped paper to his housemaster wasn’t the worst thing that could ever happen, the eleven-year-old part of him seethed in anger. He fingered the tear in the top of his paper that meant the master teacher found his work inadequate. The head of his house was going to be angry.
   Not as angry as Griffith was, though.
   It would be better if he knew where to direct his anger. While some of it was definitely reserved for the group of upper boys who ruthlessly attacked Griffith and his friend Ryland, Duke of Marshington, there was a good bit directed at himself as well. Because of the ceaseless taunting, the snide mutterings of “As you wish, Your Grace” that rang in his ears until he heard it in his sleep, and the teachers’ delight in being able to discipline such high-ranking boys, Griffith was coming to despise the title he’d been raised to love and respect. Unlike Ryland, who had been all too pleased to obtain the title, since it meant his grandfather couldn’t torture him anymore, Griffith had adored his father and would have been more than happy not to be the duke.
   He’d have given anything to be able to ask his father what he should do now, because what he wanted was revenge. The anger at the older boys, the teachers, and himself coursed through him, burning right through his normal, logical reasoning until all he wanted to do was prove that—despite his tender years—he was no one to be crossed, that he wasn’t a boy but a young man to be reckoned with.
   The paper in his hand crumpled further as his fingers curled into a tight fist. He’d had very little time to work on his paper this week, given the several hours a day he’d had to help the groundskeeper as punishment for an escapade in the headmaster’s office. An escapade that he’d had no part in but the headmaster had been convinced he and Ryland had done.
   Rearranging all the furniture was a fairly harmless prank, but the older boys had also riffled through the files, making changes to Ryland’s and Griffith’s marks, to make it look like they’d done it. Headmaster Heath hadn’t been pleased. Griffith’s hands were raw and his muscles hurt from the hours spent shoveling bat guano into the flower beds as fertilizer as well as from the additional household chores he’d been given.
   Ryland was waiting outside the house, his arms crossed over his thin chest. Griffith towered over him, having grown enough in the past year to require having his trousers retailored twice and ordering new coats and shirts made. Another second-year boy nodded at them as he scurried into the house, not wanting to be seen with them and thereby become a target of the older boys.
   “Did you find out who invaded the headmaster’s office?” Griffith shoved his already crumpled paper into his satchel.
   Ryland nodded, lips pressed together. “The fifth years.”
   Griffith nodded at the building behind Ryland. “From our house?”
   “No. They were King’s Scholars.”
   “I guess that takes care of your plan, then.” Secretly, Griffith was relieved. As much as his anger was driving him toward revenge, the idea Ryland had come up with while they shoveled manure yesterday made Griffith more than a little nervous. Sneaking into the upper boys’ room in one of the houses in town was one thing, but the King’s Scholars house was on campus.
   “I say we do it.” Deep creases formed in Ryland’s forehead, causing a shadow to fall across his grey eyes. “If I hear ‘As you wish, Your Grace’ one more time, I’m liable to do something that will actually get me sent down from school.”
   Griffith was inclined to agree. Though violence hadn’t been part of his life, even he was feeling the urge to hit something. The urge frightened him as much as the idea of sneaking into the King’s Scholars’ boardinghouse at night.
   “I’m doing it. Tonight.” Ryland lifted an eyebrow. “Are you with me?”
   Was he? He was fairly sure that his father wouldn’t approve. But his father had left him to figure things out on his own. And if Ryland did what he planned, Griffith was going to be blamed for it whether he was involved or not. Was it better to be falsely guilty or truly guilty? Either way he’d suffer the consequences. “I’m in.”
   Thankfully, the trembling in his body didn’t reveal itself in his voice. He stuffed his hand down into his satchel and felt around for his paper, tracing his fingers along the edge until he could feel the tear in the top. It was his third in as many weeks. He’d come to school to learn, and that obviously wasn’t happening. No matter what he did, his life was at the mercy of the older boys, determined to have their own against a pair of young dukes while they could. Renewed anger rushed through him, trampling over his misgivings. He’d hold on to his paper until tomorrow. He might need the motivation tonight.

   Sneaking around the grounds of Eton at midnight was wrong.
   Then again, so was making someone’s life miserable just because you could. If he tried really hard, Griffith could convince himself that teaching these older boys a lesson now would make them better men in the future. Wasn’t that what a duke was supposed to do? Lead the elite of England to be better?
   Tension tightened his shoulders as he slipped into the darkened building behind Ryland. It was strange being on campus when everything was dark and quiet. It added to the sense of unreality. Was he really, finally, going to do something about his school difficulties? Ryland and Griffith had found each other early on, their mutual disdain for life at Eton bonding them quickly. Their first year had been horrible, with one of them still grieving the loss of his father and the other trying desperately to live down the reputation of his grandfather. Griffith had been able to convince Ryland and himself that things would be better if they just got through the first year.
   But they weren’t.
   If anything, things were worse. Now that there wasn’t a sanctioned way to make Griffith and Ryland do their bidding, the older boys were resorting to new and worse means of persecution.
   After tonight, they’d think twice. Or at the very least, they’d stop saying “As you wish.”
   “You have the paint?” Ryland whispered.
   Griffith silently held up the can of red paint he’d bought in town. Ryland nodded and slid two brushes from his pocket. His other hand reached for the latch on the door of the fifth-year boys’ dormitory.
   Sweat coated Griffith’s palms, making him clutch the paint tighter so he wouldn’t drop it. His chest felt like it was churning like the waters of the River Thames during a storm. Were they really going to do this? Somehow it didn’t seem right to slip in and face his enemies while they slept. But what else could they do? He couldn’t stand it if the year continued on the way it had started. And what would happen next year?
   “Keep it simple,” Ryland said in a toneless whisper. Griffith wasn’t even sure he’d heard it so much as sensed what was being said by the shape of Ryland’s lips.
   “Simple,” Griffith whispered back. He winced at the sound of his voice and decided to nod at Ryland instead.
   Ryland nodded back. “We get in, paint As you wish, Your Grace on the backs of their shirts, and get out.”
   A small grin touched Griffith’s lips. They’d think about the dukes every time they got dressed for the rest of the term, unless they wanted to explain to their parents why they needed new shirts.
   It would be a reminder that he and Ryland had managed to sneak into their presence and could have done something much worse.
   There was a certain biblical tone to the prank that appealed to Griffith and made him feel a bit like David facing down Saul, even if it was probably more like taking on Goliath.
   “Remember—backs of the shirts,” Ryland whispered. “We don’t want them to violate dress code.”
   At Griffith’s nod, Ryland eased the door open, pressing it tightly to the hinges so nothing squeaked.
   They crept in, taking care not to make a noise in the silent room.
   Griffith frowned. The room was too silent. He couldn’t even hear the boys breathing in their sleep.
   The room was empty.
   “Where are they?” Ryland whispered.
   As if Griffith could possibly know the answer. “Should we do it anyway?”
   Ryland nodded and the boys made short work of marking the shirts, a task made much easier by the fact that they only had to be quiet enough to avoid waking the boys in the other rooms.
   As they eased back out of the dormitory, Ryland’s grin glowed in the moonlight. “Let’s find them.”
   Griffith frowned. “Why?”
   “Because whatever they’re doing is against school rules, and we can use it to convince them to leave us alone.”
   “What we’re doing is against school rules.” Griffith rolled his eyes at his friend, wondering, not for the first time, if they would’ve gotten along with each other if they didn’t have a title in common.
   “Then, we don’t let them see us.” Ryland pulled Griffith after him, running from shadow to shadow in search of the upper boys.
   It didn’t take long to find them, huddled on the far side of the chapel, away from the dormitory, passing two bottles of pilfered liquor among them. Another two bottles lay on the ground, already emptied of their amber-colored contents. Two of the boys tried to stand up and promptly fell down on each other.
   “Are they drunk?” Griffith whispered.
   Ryland grinned. “Three sheets blown clear away by the wind, I’d guess.”
   The boys were talking among themselves, occasionally forgetting that they should probably be quiet.
   “Come on.” Ryland pulled Griffith around the corner.
   “What? Why?”
   “Because you’re bigger. You don’t have to say anything. I’ll hide behind you and do all the talking.”
   And then Ryland was pushing Griffith into the group. Careful to stay in the deeper shadows in order to hide his face, Griffith staggered and Ryland spoke from behind him, slurring his words like he was one of the drunken group. Griffith’s heart pounded from fear but also a bit of excitement. He was the same size as some of these boys, despite the difference in age, and to walk among them unnoticed was a thrill.
   “Care for a drink?” one boy slurred. “Toasting the fall of one of the young dukes.”
   Another boy laughed until he hiccupped. “Saw him slip in the manure pile this morning.”
   All the boys laughed.
   Griffith angled his head until he could see Ryland’s shadow behind him. Griffith hadn’t fallen—that meant Ryland had. His determination to have his revenge tonight made a little more sense.
   “Where’d you get the liquor?” Ryland asked.
   One boy staggered to his feet, looking proud and unstable. “Headmaster’s office. Imagine how mad he’s going to be that those two upstarts broke in again.”
   “How much better if he praised us while condemning them?” Ryland cackled and stabbed Griffith in the ribs, making him jerk his arms like a puppet. “We should do something no one would expect.”
   “He’ll send us up!” one boy nearly shouted.
   “Or make us prefects,” another said.
   “This way!” Ryland said, lifting Griffith’s arm into the air. “He’ll remember us forever!”
   The boys cheered until Ryland was forced to shush them through his muffled laughter. How could he be laughing at a time like this? Griffith was fairly certain his heart was about to explode and leave him in pieces all over the chapel wall.
   “Lead them this way,” Ryland whispered in Griffith’s ear.
   Griffith didn’t know what he was doing, but none of the boys seemed to notice when Ryland slid out from behind him and gestured for Griffith to follow him. Soon Griffith was leading his pack of drunk upper boys to the garden shed, where Ryland and Griffith had been reporting for punishment for the past week.
   The smell of the large pile of bat guano hit Griffith as they approached and he thought surely it would be strong enough to knock some sense into the crazy band behind him.
   But it didn’t.
   Ryland nudged Griffith forward, directing the boys where he wanted them to go. Soon all of the boys were grabbing buckets of bat guano and staggering down to the field below the main college.
   “What are you doing?” Griffith hissed as they led the brigade away from the garden shed with their buckets in hand. Occasionally Ryland gave out a slurred shhh and they’d talk a little softer.
   “This will be even better than the shirts,” he whispered.
   They returned to the field below the chapel, and the boys spread out with their buckets. In the chaos, Ryland came out of hiding, directing the boys where to spread their bucket contents and convincing them how proud the headmaster was going to be, how much he wanted a very special garden in the middle of the field. Griffith slid farther and farther back until he was pressed against the chapel wall, the cool stone rough against his fingers.
   If he hadn’t been confident in his friendship with Ryland, Griffith would have been terrified by the abilities he was seeing. There was no question who was orchestrating the entire thing, but when it was all over, Griffith and Ryland would honestly be able to say they hadn’t spread a bit of guano.
   One boy got sick. Another passed out, thankfully landing with his head outside of the spread manure.
   It baffled Griffith, how the same boys who had been so cruel to them in the daylight were following Ryland’s orders with the enthusiasm of puppies. Occasionally Ryland would press a bottle into a hand, and the boy would take another swallow of liquor.
   Ryland finally stood to the side, arms crossed and a sly grin on his face.
   “We need to go. They’ll check our beds soon,” Griffith whispered in Ryland’s ear.
   “Yeah,” he whispered back and then called the boys—the ones who were still standing anyway—into a circle. “We don’t want those pesky dukes to get credit for this, do we?”
   The resounding “No!” was loud enough to make Griffith cringe and consider running for his house in town.
   “Right,” Ryland continued, seemingly fearless about any chance of getting caught. “So we need to sleep right there on the edge of the field so that in the morning everyone knows who gets the credit.”
   The boys enthusiastically piled over each other and found spots on the grass.
   While the boys were settling in, Ryland grabbed an openmouthed Griffith and hauled him back up the hill. From the top Griffith looked down at the field. The letters were crude and uneven, but it clearly spelled As you wish. When they realized what they had been tricked into doing, combined with what he and Ryland had done to the shirts, those boys were going to be fighting mad.
   Ryland and Griffith left the campus and crept through the streets of the darkened town until they got back to their house. They slipped through the doorway and pressed themselves against the wall as the head boy made his rounds. When he didn’t raise an alarm, they knew the bundles of blankets and pillows they’d left in their beds had done the trick.
   Griffith slid into bed, surrounded by silence that seemed to press onto his chest until he wondered if he were somehow drowning without water. He’d never done anything like this before, and with the thrill came more than a bit of guilt. Now that the anger no longer coursed through his system, his father’s voice rang clearly through his head. This wasn’t how he or God would have wanted Griffith to handle the situation. Harmless pranks were one thing, but those boys were going to get into a heap of trouble.
   Of course, his father wasn’t there. God had left Griffith on his own to figure out how to be a man, a duke, and he was trying to do it right. But was this really the best he could do?

   Griffith slept in fits and bursts, and when a yell ripped through the house the next morning, he felt as if he’d spent those few hours wrestling with his sheets instead of sleeping in them.
   Shouts and curses could be heard up and down the street as boys spilled from their houses to run to Eton’s fields. Two first-year King’s Scholars were running from house to house, calling sentences that didn’t make any sense but letting everyone know something incredible had happened the night before. Griffith rode the excited wave of students, trying not to look guilty, praying he wouldn’t be sick.
   There was already a crowd when Griffith, Ryland, and the rest of the boys from their house arrived at the field. Utter chaos reigned as the boys held their heads and tried to defend themselves against something they weren’t completely sure they even remembered. Ryland and Griffith were mentioned, with two boys swearing Ryland had convinced them to do it.
   So the headmaster checked their shoes.
   Griffith nearly swallowed his tongue as the man told him to lift one foot and then the other. He’d been working with the guano all week, but never in his own shoes. No one wanted the stuff tracked into the dormitories. He couldn’t remember if he’d stepped in any of it last night.
   Lifting his feet didn’t faze Ryland, though. He managed to look somewhat resigned and a bit offended as his shoes were checked.
   They were both clear, and the headmaster proceeded to lay into the boys with promises of beatings and punishments.
   And he hadn’t even seen the liquor bottles yet.
   One lay on the edge of the field, seemingly unnoticed by anyone but Griffith.
   The aftermath of his evening escapades boiled around him, with the older boys getting hauled off, holding their heads and throwing accusatory looks at Ryland and Griffith. Unease clenched Griffith’s middle, making him glad that he had yet to eat breakfast.
   If he’d taken more time to think about it, would he have followed Ryland’s lead? Griffith knew that, had the boys last night not been drunk, they wouldn’t have followed Griffith anywhere.
   As much as he hoped the boys would now leave them alone, he wished there’d been another way. Surely they could have found a better way.
   “I don’t get it,” Griffith whispered to Ryland as the boys were herded back toward their rooms to dress. “Why’d you make them do that?”
   “That’s guano.”
   “I know.”
   “Fertilizer.” Ryland grinned. “Fertilizer that soaked into the grass all night. Fertilizer that they’re never going to be able to clean up completely.”
   He chuckled as he threw a hand on top of Griffith’s shoulder. “That field will read As you wish until those boys graduate. And they’re the ones who put it there.”
   Griffith threw one last look over his shoulder. The older boys were still looking around with confusion and in pain. One held his head in his hands and looked one step away from crying. Boys that were supposed to be the best England had to offer, brought low by liquor and a quick-thinking, crafty lad.
   As Griffith topped the hill, he made a vow to himself. His father had been the perfect duke, and Griffith had a lot to live up to. If he was learning anything this morning, it was that letting his anger drive him didn’t leave him confident and satisfied in the morning. He made a vow—to himself, to God, and to his late father—that he would never put himself in such a vulnerable position again. Never would someone or something else take away his control of his own actions.
   He took one last look at the crudely written words on the field. As you wish. For the past year and a half it had been a slur, a derogatory term designed to get under his skin. But now it would be his strength. He would be in control. Always.

Chapter 1

London, England, March 1815

While the limits of human ability prevented Griffith, Duke of Riverton, from being everything to everyone who depended on him for their livelihoods, he’d always assumed there was no limit to what he would do for his family.
   His mother’s current request was more than stretching those limits. “No.”
   “Miss Watters is a very particular friend of Lady Cressida. And as I am married to her father I feel obliged to ensure Cressida’s ball is a success in every way.” Griffith’s mother, Lady Blackstone, arched a brow in her son’s direction as he turned from his perusal of the crowd filling the ballroom. The former duchess may have voluntarily lowered her rank to countess when she remarried a few years earlier, but she had never released her position as matriarch of her family, despite the fact that they’d all reached adulthood.
   It was a position Griffith respected. Not only did the Word of God command that he do so, but he’d seen what his mother had gone through to raise her four children, including teaching her ten-year-old son how to manage a dukedom. That respect did not, however, extend to breaking one of his personal social rules.
   He looked away from his mother to note the girl in question—a plain young woman hovering near a doorway, her dress an unfortunate color that was remarkably similar to the ballroom wallpaper. Given her supposedly close relationship with tonight’s hostess, one would have thought the near-professional wallflower would have known to avoid that particular shade of rose. “If there is a true need for a member of our family to rescue Miss Watters from the wall—a position which I’m sure you know she takes up at every social gathering—there are other male members you can appeal to.”
   Mother’s lips pressed together into a thin line. “They are married.”
   Griffith slowly lifted his own eyebrow in a perfect imitation of his mother’s earlier expression. “I had no idea the institution affected a man’s ability to dance. No matter. Up to now they’ve shown remarkable resistance to whatever marriage-related malady might inhibit a man’s dancing talents. I’m sure they can hold it off for another night.”
   His mother said nothing, though he could tell from the crinkles forming at the corner of her eye that she wanted to laugh. Almost as much as she wanted him to dance with Miss Watters. As he only danced with women he considered family, her laughter was the only desire he was inclined to grant. One more sardonic remark from him should send her over the edge.
   “It is a comfort to know, however, that public scrutiny of my lack of dancing finesse will diminish once I’ve married. Until then I shall endeavor to plant myself among the married men on the rare occasion that I join a dancing formation with a sister or cousin. Perhaps then we shall all be equally bumblesome.”
   A brief snicker sputtered between Mother’s lips. Her rare break in decorum was like a trophy to the one who’d done everything in his power to make his mother smile again after the death of his father. As always, though, she quickly contained the outward signs of her mirth. “Bumblesome?”
   Griffith shrugged his shoulders. Their massive width, when combined with his considerable height, was one of the main reasons he didn’t perform at his best on a crowded dance floor. He was simply too large to maneuver through the steps with much grace, and bumblesome seemed the most accurate description of how he felt on the dance floor.
   She sighed. “Very well, I shall ask your brother. Despite his marriage last year, he is still popular enough to draw notice.”
   “And accomplished enough for the lady to actually enjoy her dance. If she is only to get one turn around the floor, let it be a good one.”
   Cool daggers shot from his mother’s blue eyes as she glided off to find Griffith’s younger brother, Trent. He could have told Mother that she was going in the wrong direction, but as his primary objective was to remove her from his side, he kept his silence. By his count, he had to stay in the ballroom for two more dances before his absence wouldn’t draw comment. Over the years he’d perfected the art of being seen enough that everyone knew he’d attended but not so much that he was drawn into any interactions he’d rather avoid.
   Such as dancing with a female who might even remotely be considered a marriage possibility.
   “You can’t avoid it forever, you know.”
   Griffith glanced to his left to find his good friend Ryland, Duke of Marshington. Their friendship had started at Eton, holding fast through years of change and upheaval. Now that the man had married Griffith’s sister Miranda, they were family as well. “You do.”
   Ryland grinned, the slash of white teeth standing out against his darker-than-was-fashionable skin. “I’m married.”
   With a tilt of his head, Griffith acknowledged the implications of Ryland’s true statement. “And where is my sister?”
   The grin widened. “Dancing.”
   Griffith swung his gaze to the rows of couples weaving in and out of formation on the dance floor. He could easily see over the surrounding heads, though sometimes his sister’s shorter stature still made her difficult to find. Within moments he’d located the familiar blond curls of the elder of his younger sisters. At that moment she was happily spinning around on the arm of Colin McCrae, Griffith’s other brother-in-law. His youngest sister, Georgina, stood next to them, waiting for her turn in the dance.
   It was still a surprise to see the sisters voluntarily sharing space. The friendliness had only come about in the two years since they’d married their respective husbands. Those marriages had taken a great load off of Griffith’s mind. In truth, now that Trent had also settled happily into an initially awkward marriage, there wasn’t anyone left for Griffith to guide and watch over. There hadn’t been for many months now, but Griffith had put off acknowledging the fact.
   “You really should consider taking a turn or two yourself, you know.” Ryland rocked forward on his toes and clasped his hands behind his back. Given that the man was a former spy and a master at blending in, the falsely innocent posture was obviously intentional.
   Griffith knew better than to take the bait. “I shall ask Miranda for the next set.”
   “She’ll turn you down.”
   Two years of marriage had obviously not made the man an expert on his wife. Miranda would never deny her big brother. “She never has before.”
   “She wasn’t limiting her exertions before.”
   The two men fell silent as Griffith considered the implications of Ryland’s statement. Happiness and worry warred within Griffith. It was difficult for him to remember that Miranda was not his to protect anymore. “I suppose congratulations are in order.”
   “Indeed they are.” Ryland nodded, one side of his mouth kicked up in a smirk. “We’ve a dukedom to provide an heir for, after all.” Grey eyes cut from the dancers to pin Griffith to the wall behind him. “You have one as well.”
   Griffith didn’t want to think about it. He didn’t know if it was the fact that his childhood had been cut so short or the fear of having something so vulnerable dependent on him, but the idea of children frightened Griffith like nothing else. It was, however, part of his duty, and Griffith took his duty very seriously. His younger brother would certainly breathe easier when it was ensured that the title and holdings wouldn’t pass to him. Griffith had never understood Trent’s aversion to the title, except, of course, for the fact that Griffith would have to be dead in order for Trent to inherit.
   That was a fairly decent reason not to want the title.
   He looked to Ryland. “I’ve a plan.”
   “You always do.” The last strains of the dance faded into the chatter of the ball’s attendees, and the couples dispersed while new ones took their places. By unspoken agreement the men waited for the music to drift back over the crowd before speaking again.
   Ryland inspected his fingernails. “Dare I ask what this great marriage plan consists of?”
   “Getting married.” Griffith had been formulating a plan for years. When he’d first hit London after graduating from Oxford, he’d marveled at the games society played. The scheming marriage-minded mothers and the calculating influence-craving fathers made a powerful counterforce to the desperate dowry-hungry sons and the fun-loving, attachment-avoiding bachelors. Somewhere in the middle, the debutantes drifted—each with their own level of mercenariness, but all with the same goal in mind. Griffith hadn’t wanted to deal with any of them.
   Still didn’t want to deal with them.
   His reprieve was fast disappearing, though, because Ryland had a point. Griffith needed an heir, and for that he needed a wife.
   “Do you intend to follow the family tradition?”
   Surprise at the question broke Griffith’s normally controlled countenance. “Of course.”
   All of Griffith’s family, for as long as anyone could remember, had built their marriages on a strong foundation of love. His own parents had been possibly the most notorious of the lot. Just because Griffith was approaching marriage in a logical manner did not mean he had no plans to involve love in the equation.
   The skeptical smile on Ryland’s face brought an extra stiffness to Griffith’s back. His plan was going to work. Watching his mother and siblings find love over the past three years had only assured him that his plan was a viable one, and he couldn’t resist the urge to rub it in Ryland’s face, given the other man’s chaotic journey to happiness. “Before my mother tried to steer me in an unsuitable direction tonight, I was narrowing down the candidates.”
   Ryland coughed. “Candidates? And I can’t imagine your mother suggesting you socialize with anyone unsuitable.”
   “My idea of suitable and hers do not always align.”
   “Particularly since you’ve never seen fit to share your idea.” Ryland straightened his shoulders and settled in to observe the room. He was tall, but still a good two or three inches shorter than Griffith, and possessed the ability to look like something other than a hulking mountain with legs. That didn’t mean he couldn’t be intimidating if he wanted to. His face hardened from easy humor into serious concentration. “Your target is in this room, I assume, for you to have been contemplating a campaign.”
   Griffith resisted the childish urge to roll his eyes toward the ceiling. “Target? Really, Ryland. We’re not stepping outside for pistols.”
   “You called them candidates. I’m simply upgrading your status from prize to be won to the pursuer in control. Now, be quiet. I’m analyzing.”
   Griffith waited. He leaned his shoulder against the wall behind him and crossed one foot over the other. Sweat trickled down his neck into his cravat. He hated ballrooms. They were always too crowded and too hot for a man of his size and stature to retain any sort of comfort. Normally he positioned himself near the terrace doors or an open window, but the unseasonably cold weather had prompted tonight’s host to close everything up tight. Right then Griffith would have welcomed a chilly breeze. Waiting for Ryland to make his guess wasn’t doing anything to relieve his tension.
   Minutes passed. Another song began and ended. Was Ryland still analyzing, or was he simply torturing Griffith now?
   “You want someone from the edge of the dance floor.”
   Griffith had to admire the confidence of the man’s statement. Despite the accuracy of the remark, Griffith wasn’t willing to give in that easily. “You had a one-in-four chance of selecting the correct group of ladies. And as it is by far the largest of the groups, I’m hardly impressed.”
   When the two men had attended their first balls right after graduating from Eton, they’d divided the unmarried women into four groups. The corner held the spinsters, while the walls included those whose social standing or lack of popularity kept them outside the action. The dance floor was for the most popular of women—Diamonds of the First Water, the Incomparables, the ones on whom everyone doted and who never seemed to be without a partner or two clamoring for the next dance. The edge of the dance floor, though, held most of the women. The women who danced sometimes but not always. They were popular enough but hardly fodder for the social pages.
   Ryland cast a glance over his shoulder. “Anyone else in here—your own family included—would assume you wanted someone from the dance floor. You could certainly land one, if you wished. Even the lovely Lady Alethea.”
   He could probably land anyone in this room, even if they were nearly betrothed. Young, single dukes weren’t exactly plentiful in England. Griffith had to concede Ryland’s point, however, and inclined his head to indicate his friend should continue his guess.
   It was easy to spot the woman he’d mentioned. Lady Alethea was skipping her way through the dance with a wide smile on her face and strings of jewels in her dark hair.
   It was also easy to see why most people, his family included, would assume he wanted someone like her. Everyone thought her the most sought-after woman among the marriage-minded aristocracy. Griffith’s interests lay beyond the benefits of a beautiful wife, though.
   Ryland tilted his head and looked slowly around the ballroom, murmuring to himself. “She’s too attractive. Draws too much notice. Good family, but maybe a few too many of them. You don’t want them asking you for favors.”
   Griffith forced himself not to fidget. It was remarkable how quickly Ryland was walking the lines of Griffith’s reasoning.
   “She’s too new to London. You probably spent all of last year debating the merits of various ladies.”
   “Not all of it,” Griffith grumbled. “I had to watch over the disastrous beginnings of Trent’s marriage, after all.” Fortunately, that had all worked out and Trent was now fully in love with his wife, but it had taken up a good bit of Griffith’s attention last Season.
   Fewer than five more minutes went by before Ryland turned around and crossed his arms. “You’re not going to fall in love with her.”
   Griffith raised an eyebrow and lowered his head until he was glaring down his nose at Ryland. The superior look that had sent more than one man into a cold sweat didn’t even make Ryland blink. “How do you know?”
   “The same way I know whom you’ve chosen. I get the logic—really, I do—but she’s not what you need.”
   The noise of the crowd ebbed and swelled around them as Griffith narrowed his eyes at the other duke. “You’re bluffing,” he finally said. “You want me to say the woman I’ve settled on because you don’t know who it is.”
   “Oh, I know. But mark my words—she’s not the woman for you. You don’t need someone as boring as you think you are. And trust me, old friend, she will bore you.”
   Miranda chose that moment to come bounding to her husband’s side, wide smile and flushed cheeks indicating how much she’d enjoyed her set of dances.
   Griffith nodded to his sister, marveling, as he often did, that the same shade of blond hair and green eyes that he saw in the mirror each morning looked so different in a feminine face. “I hear congratulations are in order.”
   She frowned at her husband. “This is a terrible time for you to suddenly become incapable of keeping a secret.”
   “Revealing my potential heir was a strategic move, I assure you.” Ryland took his wife’s hand and looped it through his elbow, pulling her closer against his side.
   Her smile returned. “Oh, really?”
   Griffith wanted to groan, but that would have given Miranda too much satisfaction. A man of eight and twenty should not feel the need to squirm when his little sister stared at him, even if her expression held the intensity of every headmaster he’d ever had, combined.
   “Pray tell, then, who were we discussing when I arrived?” Miranda bounced on her toes in anticipation.
   It didn’t matter now whether Ryland pulled the right name out of the crowd. Whomever he mentioned would become Miranda’s new best friend as she did everything in her power to help him marry the woman she thought he wanted. There would be no stopping her.
   Ryland grinned as he joined Miranda in staring Griffith’s direction. “Miss Frederica St. Claire.”
Kristi Ann Hunter, An Inconvenient Beauty Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group, © 2017. Used by permission.

author Kristi Ann Hunter
***Thank you to Bethany House Publishers for a copy of this fourth and final book in the Hawthorne House series. This review was written in my own words. No other compensation was received.***

~* Hawthorne House *~
A Lady of Esteem ~ eNovella
A Noble Masquerade ~ Book 1
An Elegant Façade ~ Book 2
An Uncommon Courtship ~ Book 3