Friday, June 1, 2018

Sneak Peak at Courtly Abandon

Courtly Abandon, book three of Courtly Love, was scheduled to be released by Crimson Romance in July. Due to the kerfuffle (to put it lightly) with Simon & Schuster, that has been cancelled. The good news is that the rights have been returned to me and I'm currently working toward getting it placed with another publisher. I am optimistic it will happen. Eventually.

Courtly Abandon is the story of Mistress Jane Radclyffe, one of Frances LeSieur's gentlewomen companions. Jane is a firecracker. She knows herself and what she wants. Jane's journey is, perhaps, the rockiest on a personal level because she never considered her real motivations toward her objectives. Out of the three Courtly Love books, Jane's story is the most honest love story. While it has moments that go past silly and right into ridiculous (I can't help myself) it has equal moments of joy, pain, hope, and the strength to grab on to happiness and not let go. There is no lurking bad guy (the bad guy(s) is/are right there, in your face), no intrigue, no conspiracies, no mystery to solve - just good, bad, and in-between courtiers in the country and the shenanigans that ensue.

Here is a sneak peak at the opening chapter of Courtly Abandon.

Chapter One
Holme LeSieur, Nottinghamshire, 1573

If being ladylike meant wearing corsets everyday, Jane would just have to suffer through it. Even in one of her less ornate courtly gowns, a wool dress more suited to her station, she had to wear the full ensemble complete with corset, bumroll, and farthingale. Given the confines of fashion, this was as comfortable as it was going to be. At least the wool was fine and the moss green dye even and smooth. Of all the gowns she bought when she visited Queen Elizabeth’s court at the end of last summer, this was the plainest, but even this one was trimmed in rich forest velvet. It seemed silly to get done up for a dance lesson but if she wanted to get used to movement in courtly gowns, she had to actually wear them.
She locked her chamber door behind her, tucked the key into her bosom, and practiced walking gracefully down the corridor. She imagined herself gliding, her hem just dusting the floor. Instead her legs became the clapper for the bell of her skirts. If she bent her knees a little with each step and tucked her hips forward, her skirts did not sway so much. Walking like this must make her at least an inch or two shorter—at barely an inch over five feet, she did not have much height to spare. If ladylike decorum meant shrinking, she wasn’t sure it was worth it. Cursing at her self-defeating attitude, she continued to put one awkward foot in front of the other. The woven rush mat covering the floorboards seemed to go on forever.
“Mistress Jane!”
The high squeal was the only warning she had before little Elizabeth LeSieur barreled into her arms. Luckily, Jane’s somewhat crouched walk gave her the stability not to fall flat on her back. She settled herself and shook out her skirts to fix the hem while Elizabeth babbled excitedly.
Elizabeth, what has gotten into you?”
She was gyrating in place. “Mother has brought in a new tutor. Master Percy is a gentleman and able to give dance instruction in the Italianate mode. I met him yesterday and he helped me learn a song. But today we are dancing!” She twirled once more and the ribbon slipped off the end of her braid.
Pausing only for a moment at the name, Jane picked up the ribbon and gestured Elizabeth to stand before her. Percy was a common enough name among the gentry—besides, what would her Percy be doing as a tutor? A dance instructor, no less! “You have had dance lessons for years.” She replaited the errant strands and fastened the ribbon.
“Yes, but only in country and French. The French dances are so boring. These new ones, the Italianate ones, those are what the ladies do at court.” Elizabeth did a series of mock steps in a circle that was probably intended to look courtly. “Mama says if I am to be a lady, I must know the dances. She told me to make sure you joined in—that you need the practice.”
Jane groaned inwardly. She’d had that same lecture from Frances herself.
“Well then, let us march forth and meet our fate.” Jane took Elizabeth by the hand as they reached the stairwell. “Today we shall both continue on our quest to become proper ladies.”
Elizabeth giggled and hopped down the steps, two feet at a time. “Oh Mistress Jane, you cannot be a lady. You are my friend.”
“You have no idea how correct you are.” Jane smiled as she stepped onto the landing of the second floor and crossed the broad balcony to turn and head down to the first floor. Midday light poured through the long, narrow windows, sending shafts of sunlight to guide their way to the main hall.
Together, they pushed open the heavy double doors leading to the massive room at the center of the great home. The great hall served for banquets, as a ballroom, and for tenant meetings with the magistrate of the Nottinghamshire, Master Henry LeSieur. The polished oak floors were usually covered in braided rush mats, but in honor of the dancing lessons, a quarter of the room had been cleared. For the first time, Jane saw how Holme LeSieur could indeed host visiting nobility. Perhaps Frances’s house party idea would be a great success.
“Ladies, pray sit you down. The fiddler will be joining us anon.”
At the sound of his voice, Jane’s eyes flew to the young man sitting by the massive fire place. He rose and walked toward them, as proper as a gentleman scholar should be. Stopping to reverance, he shifted his weight back and lowered himself on the one leg while presenting the other forward, his slippered foot pointed and his calf taut beneath the fine wool of his hosen. Hat over his heart, he met her eye without any sign of recognition.
 “Mistress Radclyffe, I am Master Percy Mortimer. I will serve to tutor you in dancing for these next weeks.”
Jane stood rooted to the floor, her heart pounding in her throat. Percy was here! She swallowed and remembered to breathe. Somehow she found the presence of mind to reverance in turn, acknowledging a respectful meeting of equals. “God give you good den, Master Percy.” Her voice was barely a whisper. “What would you have of us?”
He directed them to sit on the chaise before the fire and began talking about something. Dancing.
God’s blood, what was Percy doing here? Why hadn’t anyone told her he was here? Why hadn’t he sought her out?
She sat in stunned silence, just staring at him while he continued his discussion about… French bransles. How could he talk about dancing at a time like this?
He had changed so much; he was bigger now—a man. Still, with those thick sandy lashes and the serious set to his jaw, she would recognize him anywhere. She had not seen him since her marriage five years ago, since the day he told her he loved her…
How could he talk about dancing at a time like this?
Well, he was the LeSieur’s tutor—he was doing his job. Wait, why had he become a tutor?
“Mistress Radclyffe, are you well?”
Jane looked up into Percy’s heavy lidded, hazel eyes. His face was so close, she wanted to reach out and drag her fingertips across the hint of shadow on his chin, down his neck, beneath his proper pleated collar. His tawny curls, tied back, secure under his velvet cap, showed no hint of sun kiss the way they used to. He had always been serious when it came to scholarship, but the intensity in his eyes made her step back. After all these years... and here he was.
She wasn’t sure if she should laugh or cry.
“You have surprised me, Mistress Radclyffe. I would have thought you more in control of yourself. After all, you are a grown woman. Married once, soon to be married again, if I hear correctly.”
            Just as tall, but no longer lanky, his broad shoulders dwarfed her in a way that made her feel vulnerable. She had always been safe with Percy, the Percy she knew years ago. This was a man she’d never met before and she felt anything but safe.
“Pray excuse me, Elizabeth. I am not well.” She rose as gracefully as she could. “Master Percy, I thank you for your concern. Allow me to bid you welcome to Holme LeSieur. I am sorry, but I must postpone this dance lesson. I look forward to meeting with you another time.” She babbled as she rose and left the room, uncaring about the sway of her skirts.
Percy was here, handsome as ever. Eloquent, educated Percy. She had never understood what he had seen in her back then, but one thing was clear—he did not love her any longer. During everything she had endured over the past years, she had clung to the knowledge that he loved her.
She didn’t know if she could handle the next steps of her life without the comfort of that thought.
Percy cleared his throat, hoping the lump there would dissolve. Seeing Jane again after five years had been harder than he had anticipated.
“Master Percy, when can we learn the newer dances?”
Percy smiled at his young charge. She deserved his attention. “When I know you understand the subtlety of the old. The break between the steps is a full stop, a rest. You are, ever so briefly, no longer in motion with no thought that you will move. But then you surprise yourself and you do move. Try to discern the difference.”
He could tell from Elizabeth’s expression that she saw no difference. Ah, well, she was only seven.
He had last seen Jane at her wedding ceremony. Her parents had arranged the marriage with the neighboring landowner. Jane had done what she was told despite the fact that she said she loved him. But then, why would a gentlewoman run away with him, a third son with no hope of inheritance, when she could be lady of the manor? She’d told him he lived in a fantasy and married that old man as if to spite him.
He’d left to finish university within the week and never saw her again. A couple years later he’d heard that old Howard Radclyffe had died, but he refused to wonder what had become of Jane. She had made her decision.
Then again, could she really have chosen him? At sixteen she was still in her minority and would have required her father’s blessing to marry. He’d been only nineteen himself.
He knew, with his rational mind, that she had made the smart choice. That didn’t mean he could forgive her for breaking his heart.
The years had only made her more beautiful, if not any taller. Little Jane, elfin and full of laughter, so tiny he could rest his chin on the top of her head. Petite, or not, there was no denying she was a woman—of course, stylish court dresses showed much more than the gowns she used to wear. Though still sweet, her face had more angles, more personality than the childish softness he remembered. A vibrant blue, her eyes stood out beneath her gold brow and lashes. She had this habit of biting her full lower lip when she was nervous. It always drew his eye. If it weren’t for that involuntary expression, he might have thought the Jane he knew was gone entirely, lost behind perfectly coiled hair, courtly attire, and refined manners.
For all that she was bundled in a courtly gown, she vibrated with an energy he had never understood. His Jane longed to be outdoors, to live life instead of sitting and waiting for the appropriate moments. But she wasn’t his Jane any longer. No, she was the widowed Mistress Radclyffe and in the market for a new husband. She had fully accepted the role of a lady. Did she even remember the wild daughter of the forest she once was?
He should have thanked Mistress LeSieur for the position and then made his apologies and left the minute he’d heard Jane lived here.
 “Master Percy, am I not doing it correctly?” Elizabeth’s plaintive voice broke through his musings. She wore a worried look and was continuing her double bansles in a circle, clearly trying very hard to make the pause between sets obvious.
“I am sorry I got lost in my musings. I did not mean to ignore you.”
“Oh, you were ignoring me. That is much better than being cross. You looked as if you were angry.”
“Again, my apologies. I am not angry with you.”
“Are you angry with Mistress Jane then? I am sad she had to leave—she looked so lovely in her dress. I wanted to see her dance. I never knew she was a lady.”
“I am not angry with anyone, Mistress Elizabeth. Now, you have done quite well. We will resume dancing on the morrow and learn about the meaning behind the Italianate steps.”
“They mean things?” Elizabeth’s bewilderment clear in her voice.
“Oh, yes.” Percy continued, lowering himself to his haunches, eye level with his young charge. “Italianate dances tell stories. Each step means something different and all the steps work together toward a grand ending. Some stories are funny, some make no sense…”
“Why would we tell a story that makes no sense?”
“Why, are you never silly? Some of the great choreographers played subtle jokes on the dancers and the courts throughout Christendom with dances that built upon themselves only to end in a fizzle.”
“But that’s not funny.”
“If you know the meaning of all the steps, it can be.”
It was clear Elizabeth did not agree, but it did not matter. Percy stood again. “So tomorrow we will study some of the poetry from Classical Greece, then see how those poems and poets fit into modern dances.”
“Am I dismissed?”
“Until tomorrow, Mistress Elizabeth.”
Percy gestured Elizabeth to stand after her elegant reverance. She would make a wonderful little lady someday. She was already being molded into a noble ideal. She would wed an earl, or at least a baron, of her parent’s choosing. She probably already had ingrained beliefs that title and wealth were the most important things in the world.
Perhaps they were. Perhaps he was the one with a skewed perspective. Too idealistic for his own good, he would have walked across fire for one kiss from Jane. Moved mountains. Love made everything possible—or so he had believed.
Elizabeth left the room, the soles of her soft slippers not making a sound. Percy concentrated on thinking through tomorrow’s lesson as he dragged the segments of rush mats back into their proper place.
“Master Percy.”
The authority in Mistress LeSieur’s voice stopped him short. He turned and gave a low reverance. “Mistress LeSieur, we have just finished our lesson.”
Was it his imagination or did she linger longer than usual before gesturing for him rise?
“So I see. I also noted that your lesson consisted of Elizabeth dancing a double bransle by herself for more than ten minutes while you scowled.”
“I beg your pardon Mistress, but I did not scowl…”
“You scowled. And then you dismissed her early.” She stepped into the room, toeing one corner of the woven rug into place. “Your credentials are impeccable. Thus far you have shown both skill and intuition in tutoring my daughter. I have been very impressed.”
“Thank you, Mistress LeSieur.” Percy almost reveranced again, then thought the better of it.
“I was impressed until now. What made today so different?” She had hired him on the recommendation of her mother, but he had no idea how far to trust that loyalty. She had been courteous with him so far, but he hadn’t determined whether or not she was a kind woman.
She sat on one of the benches flanking the wall and smoothed out her skirts, waiting. He offered no immediate answer and she let the silence endure, reminding him of one of his more severe professors at Cambridge.
“I have a prior association with Jane… Mistress Radclyffe.”
The blunt truth was out before he could question whether or not it was a good idea.
For an instant, there was a look of concern upon his employer’s face. “Jane.” She was silent a moment longer before asking, “Pray expound.”
“Years ago my parents sent to me live with Baron Stratham and his family in preparation for going to University. They had a son of similar age and an excellent tutor. They live just east of the Ormondes in Somerset.”
She grimaced, breaking her gaze from his to straighten her gloves. They must have been badly askew given her effort. “My own son, Robert, is currently being fostered with my step-sister’s family.” She cleared her throat and met his eye once more. “I will see him again at midsummer, then he will attend Eton in the autumn.”
“It is a blessing that he is able to be with family during this transition.” He couldn’t be sure, but her eyes looked somewhat softer.
Her smile seemed softer this time. “And her husband, Master Radclyffe? He was local as well, yes?”
“Master Howard Radclyffe. His property all but encompassed Taunton Cross Park, the Ormonde’s estate.” Percy paused for a breath. “I met Mistress Radclyffe when she was thirteen, three years before she married.”
“I am sure she was quite an… energetic, young lady.” What Mistress LeSieur did not say spoke volumes.
“She was high spirited, yes. But she was very young.” The image of her laughing, skipping through the tall grass as he strummed his lute. The lips that he had never kissed curved in a smile that said more than she had known. What was she now? “She was an innocent girl.”
Mistress LeSieur raised an eyebrow, but did not naysay him. “You did not pay court to her?”
“I could never do so formally. Her value was in marriage, and I had no prospects at that time but to find some sort of gainful employment, like tutoring, after my schooling. Her father would not have accepted me.”
“Ah, but would Jane?”
She had seen right through him. “No. After everything she chose to marry old Master Radclyffe.”
Mistress LeSieur was silent for a moment that stretched on toward eternity. Percy had nothing else to add and would not let her silence goad him into saying what he should not.
That he could not forgive Jane for hurting him. That he would always love her.
Spoken or not, he was under the impression that Mistress LeSieur knew.
“Master Percy, understanding that Jane is like a part of our family, do you think you should continue on in this household?”
“In sooth, Mistress LeSieur, I do not know.”
“Tell me this, then. Will Jane have a cause for complaint at your presence?”
“No, I have never caused her hurt.”
“And never shall?”
She was extracting a promise. He reveranced again as he said, “Never maliciously.”
Mistress LeSieur rose and straightened the line of her overskirt so it was completely symmetrical on her forepart. “That is all I can ask.” Her skirts brushed against his leg as she walked by, having not yet given him leave to rise. “You make up your mind as to how much you can bear. In the meantime, I expect you to be an exemplary tutor to my daughter. If you find you are not able to act as a dance instructor to Jane, please let me know so I can make alternative arrangements as soon as may be.” She crossed the room towards the open double doors without even looking at him.
“I will be professional and courteous. I apologize for my earlier behavior.” Percy spoke almost under his breath.
He was surprised when Mistress LeSieur stopped short and faced him. She stood still for just a moment before finally gesturing for him to stand. “Mortimer is a common name hereabouts. What is the situation of your birth?”
Percy ignored the need to stretch after holding the reverance position for so long. “My birth? I thought you knew.” What an interesting question. “I am youngest of three sons. My father was the third Viscount of Kingsley. My brother is the fourth Viscount of Kingsley, currently at Kingsley Chase not far from here. Mortimer is one of the family names. I chose not to use the full name, Mortimer Harrington, so as not to play upon the connection.”
Frances’s laugh surprised him. It rang clear, echoing throughout the empty hall. Still laughing, she turned and left the room.

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