Feature, Excerpt & Giveaway: Girl Before a Mirror: A Novel by Liza Palmer

Girl Before a Mirror: A Novel by Liza Palmer

Release Date: January 27, 2015



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SYNOPSIS


The author of Conversations with a Fat Girl—optioned for HBO—returns with the hilarious and heartfelt story of a woman who must learn how to be the heroine of her own life—a journey that will teach her priceless lessons about love, friendship, family, work, and her own heart.

An account executive in a Mad Men world, Anna Wyatt is at a crossroads. Recently divorced, she’s done a lot of emotional housecleaning, including a self-imposed dating sabbatical. But now that she’s turned forty, she’s struggling to figure out what her life needs. Brainstorming to win over an important new client, she discovers a self-help book—Be the Heroine, Find Your Hero—that offers her unexpected insights and leads her to a most unlikely place: a romance writers’ conference. If she can sign the Romance Cover Model of the Year Pageant winner for her campaign—and meet the author who has inspired her to take control of her life—she’ll win the account.

For Anna, taking control means taking chances, including getting to know Sasha, her pretty young colleague on the project, and indulging in a steamy elevator ride with Lincoln Mallory, a dashing financial consultant she meets in the hotel. When the conference ends, Anna and Lincoln must decide if their intense connection is strong enough to survive outside the romantic fantasy they’ve created. Yet Lincoln is only one of Anna’s dilemmas. Now that her campaign is off the ground, others in the office want to steal her success, and her alcoholic brother, Ferdie, is spiraling out of control.

To have the life she wants—to be happy without guilt, to be accepted for herself, to love and to be loved, to just be—she has to put herself first, accept her imperfections, embrace her passions, and finally be the heroine of her own story.




EXCERPT


“I don’t understand what Bruce Springsteen has to do with why you haven’t been on a date in over a year,” Hannah says.
“You haven’t heard the ‘Thunder Road’ story?” Michael laughs.
“Everybody has a ‘Thunder Road’ story,” I say, smiling at the approaching waiter as the single candle flickers in the scoop of very pink gelato. My friends sing me “Happy Birthday” and I can’t help but smile. They’re off-key and terrible.
“Make a wish!” Allison says.
A moment. I close my eyes and breathe in.
You can wish for anything, Anna. You’re forty now. Forty. My mind riffles through the wishes I have for this next year as if they’re in a virtual photo album: me atop mountains, the breeze blowing my hair back. The pages flip and now we’re in Paris, meandering through a farmer’s market. Flip. Drinking a pint of Guinness overlooking all of Dublin. Flip. A red gingham tablecloth, a picnic, and the Jefferson Memorial. The flips are growing more manic. A gray-shingled cottage in a small beach town along the California coast. Flip. Fresh, lavendery linens, a perfect Sunday morning with nowhere to go, and a muscular chest beneath my cheek. Flip. I’m dressed to the nines and ac- cepting the Clio. Flip. I’m lying on the grass and covered in squirming golden retriever puppies.
I open my eyes. Everyone is staring at me. Concerned.
“It’s just a wish, not an exorcism,” Ferdie says, taking a swig of his beer. My mind goes blank and I blow out the candle. I’m forty years old and I have no idea what to wish for.
My friends clap as I pull the candle from the gelato and lick the end. Raspberry. The other desserts arrive and we all dig in.
“So, the ‘Thunder Road’ story,” Allison asks, pulling the chocolate monstrosity she and Michael ordered closer to her.
“I went out to dinner with this guy who worked in my building. He seemed nice enough.”
“Seemed being the operative word,” Nathan adds.
“Never a good sign,” Hannah says, taking Nathan’s hand in hers. He makes no attempt to hold Hannah’s hand back. She smiles and picks up her fork, digging into her tiramisu. We all let her think we didn’t see. We’ve been not seeing Nathan’s annoyance at Hannah for years now.
“Dinner is fine. Not terrible. Worthy of a second date, anyway, and as we’re driving home, ‘Thunder Road’ comes on the radio,” I say, stopping to take a bite of my gelato.
“That’s such a great song,” Ferdie says.
“Somehow I don’t think that’s where the story is headed,”
Hannah says, laughing. Nathan rolls his eyes.
“I just wanted to put it out there. It’s not the song’s fault,” Ferdie says.
“Always the protective brother,” Hannah says.
“He’s being protective of the song, not me. So,” I say, nudging Ferdie. “So this guy starts singing along—not really knowing the words, but enough. Enough for me to think better of him, you know?”
“Knowing the lyrics to ‘Thunder Road’ is a definite plus on a first date,” Michael adds.
“Right? And it was one of those beautiful D.C. nights right before the summer turns evil and there we are: windows down and singing along with The Boss. Then we get to that part—” Allison pulls her cardigan over her face, attempting to shield herself from what’s coming next. Michael barks out a laugh and she continues to cringe as if both I and the story I’m telling are some kind of horror film. “We get to that part, ‘you ain’t a beauty, but hey you’re alright.'” The table gasps in unison. I continue, “And the bastard motions to me.” I raise my eyebrows and hold my hand aloft. “You ain’t a beauty, but hey you’re alright.” And then I just sit back and nod.
“Your wedding vows are writing themselves,” Michael says, cracking both of us up.
“No. That . . . that didn’t happen,” Hannah says.
“Oh, yes it did,” I say, taking another bite of my gelato. “And he just . . . he just kept singing?” Hannah asks.
“Like nothing had happened. Like he was just hilariously
acting out the song,” I say.
“No no no no no,” Hannah says, picking up her wineglass.
“And it was right then—and you know I don’t care about
looks, but I sure as hell know that the person you’re dating should think you’re the most beautiful woman in the world,” I say. I catch Michael gazing at Allison as she finishes off their chocolate cake. Hannah and Nathan can’t make eye contact.
Ferdie gives me that sheepish grin of his. I know he hates this story, but telling it helps. “I needed a break. Ever since the divorce, I’d been way too focused on moving on with the wrong kind of men. But in that moment, I knew enough to know I was nowhere near ready for the right one.”
“So you put yourself—”
I interrupt Hannah. “On a Time-Out, yes.” “Since when?” she asks.
“It was just before summer last year, so—”
“A year? You’ve been doing this for over a year?” she asks. “I needed to take some inventory,” I say.
“You needed a training montage. We get it,” Michael says. “A training montage?” I ask, laughing.
“Yeah, you needed to run through North and South Philly
while being thrown oranges and then hit sides of beef,” Michael says absently. We all just look at him. He finally notices our expressions. “Please tell me you know what I’m talking about.”
“Oh, we know,” Ferdie says. “Oh, we got it,” I say.
“Thank God, I thought I had to get a new group of friends there for a minute. Who doesn’t know about Rocky?” Michael asks.
“The question is: Are you at the Philadelphia Museum of Art yet?” Allison asks, clearly more used to Michael’s Rocky analogy than the rest of us.
“That’s the only question?” I ask. She laughs.
“No, I get it. Are you ready for the fight? Ready to step into
the ring?” Michael asks.
“I think you’re taking this whole Rocky thing a bit too far,” I say.
“I mean, I don’t think Rocky analogies can ever be taken too far, but that’s just me,” he says. I laugh.
“Kids have a way of making personal inventory-taking impossible. Sadly, no training montages for us,” Hannah pipes up.
“Unless this is a training montage containing a series of clips where I try to figure out where all our money and sleep went,” Nathan says.
“Sense of self, cleanliness, how many elastic-waist pants you now own . . . ,” Allison adds.
“Chronicling all the neuroses you’ve clearly passed on to them as you watch them interact with other kids,” Michael says.
Everyone laughs, happy to move on. Hannah’s eyes dart to her wineglass, her finished dessert, and Nathan now looking at his phone under the table. She looks back up at me and I smile. Allison excuses herself to the bathroom and Hannah joins her. I take this opportunity to check the time. Ten p.m.
“You got somewhere to be?” Ferdie asks, eyeing me. “I have a plan,” I say.
“You’re Marpling someone, aren’t you,” he says. “What?” I ask innocently.
“Without question,” he says.
I ignore him. And I totally am.
It was in my second year at the local community college that I came up with my Marple Theory.
The Anna Wyatt Marple Theory is named after Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple, the elderly lady detective who brought countless criminals to justice. Miss Marple was effective because everyone underestimated her and no one ever noticed her observing, chronicling . . . working. No one ever noticed her at all. Ergo, the Anna Wyatt Marple Theory was born: If people don’t perceive you as a threat, how will they see you coming? They won’t.
A text from Audrey. It’s an address on K Street. From where we are in Adams Morgan, it won’t take me long at all to get over there.
“Your boss is texting you at ten p.m. on a Sunday?” Ferdie asks, craning over to see my phone.
“Nosy,” I say, tucking my phone back into my purse.
“Marple away, birthday girl, Marple away,” he says, finishing his beer.
I smile at Ferdie and let him chastise me. Thing is, my birth- day dinner was lovely. There were flowers delivered to my apart- ment this morning from Michael and Allison, and I had a lovely lunch with a couple of people from work. While I don’t regret or second-guess my decision to go on a dating sabbatical for the last year, I do welcome the prospect of not having to go home to an empty house just yet. Michael’s words come roaring back. Am I ready to step into the ring yet? Guess that’s a resounding no. I check back in just as Nathan is settling the bill, much to everyone’s chagrin.
“It’s on me. I insist,” he says, sending the waiter away. Hannah beams. We are all unfailingly polite and thank Nathan for his generosity. We always do. That’s the deal: he buys dinners and we act like he wasn’t a complete jerk the whole time.
“We’d better get going. The babysitter is going to think we finally made a run for it,” Michael says. Allison nods. We gather our belongings, make our way out of the restaurant, and say our goodbyes.
“Happy birthday, Anna,” Nathan says. I situate my purse over my shoulder, hold on to my phone with the address to where I’m going, and try to stabilize the beautiful handmade mug Allison made me inside the very elaborate pink gift bag it came in.
“Oh, thank you,” I say, reaching out and putting a hand on his arm. He smiles and softens for the slightest of moments, his salt-and-pepper hair ruffling in the summer wind. He says his goodbyes to everyone and walks over to his waiting car, beeping it unlocked. Hannah’s smile falters as he strides away. Michael and Allison remind me that our book club is reading Hamlet and that they’re making Danish meatballs for our gathering.
“Don’t you mean—”
“We mean Danish meatballs. They’re Danish,” Michael says as he hails a cab.
“Even though they may very closely resemble Swedish meat- balls,” Allison adds.
“Let’s just say there will be plenty of dill and discussions about what exactly happened in that closet between Gertrude and Hamlet,” Michael says, arm held high into the night sky.
“I thought we were reading Twelfth Night,” Ferdie says, scrolling through his phone.
“Nope, that’s next,” Allison says. “Next?” Hannah asks.
“We’re reading Shakespeare in order,” I say. “Nerds.” Hannah laughs.
“Proudly,” Michael says, as a cab slows in front of him. He opens the door and signals to Allison.
“Happy birthday, my darling,” she says, giving me a huge hug. “Thank you,” I say, letting her warmth surround me. One last smile and she walks over to the cab and climbs in. Once she’s in, Michael walks back over to me.
“Happy birthday,” he says, towering over me one minute, then engulfing me in a hug the next. He bends down just enough to whisper “and the rest is silence” in my ear. I can’t help but laugh. A quick squeeze and he’s climbing into the cab with Al- lison. They wave and speed off.
“I’m sorry about . . . ,” Hannah says, gesturing over to Nathan waiting in the car. Ferdie walks a few steps away to where his bike is chained to a parking meter.
“Oh, honey, don’t worry about it. Birthday dinners for your
wife’s friends are a scourge to couples everywhere,” I say.
“I keep thinking it’s a phase, you know?” she says, in a shocking moment of honesty. One I will ask her about later and she will “forget” ever happened. “How did you .  .  . how did you know it was over with Patrick?” I decide to answer with the truth.
“We were driving home from somewhere and having one of our fights—the same fight, really. Right?” Hannah nods and allows a small smile. “Always the same fight. And then this calm passed over me. Completely out of place. I remember it so viv- idly. Like I could breathe again. And then this germ of an idea:
I could get out. It shouldn’t be this hard.”
“Marriage is hard.”
“But not all the time.” Hannah pulls a tissue from her purse
and dabs at her eyes. “I’d forgotten what being happy felt like.
Happy with him, anyway. I filed for divorce a week later.”
“Happy. God, we were so happy,” Hannah says.
“I know.”
“I was much thinner back then!” Hannah laughs.
“Honey, you’re beautiful. Stop with that,” I say, watching as Hannah pulls at her clothes, trying to smooth out her growing curves. Curves made from trying to comfort herself in a loveless marriage.
“If I could just lose a little weight, you know? Maybe we
could—”
“Hannah—”
“Leave it to me to be the crying girl at your birthday,”
Hannah says, looking back at Nathan. She gives him the “just a sec” sign and he nods. God, they were so in love. They were the couple you hated because they could never keep their hands off each other. They were scandalous and hot and he was all she thought about and vice versa. Now they can’t even look at each other.
“You going to be okay?” I ask, tucking her hair behind her ear. “Yes. Of course I am. Now. Enough of my histrionics, it’s your birthday,” Hannah says, giving me a big hug. She was always such a good hugger. “Happy birthday,” she whispers in my ear.
“Thank you,” I say as we pull apart.
“Don’t work too much tonight.”
“I won’t.” Hannah reaches out and squeezes my hand. “Call if you need anything,” I say.
“I will. Ferdinand Wyatt, come over here and give me a hug.” Ferdie walks over and lets Hannah lunge into him with a hug, idly patting her back with his mitt of a hand. She busts him about getting a real job and walks off to the car.
Tonight’s festivities, while lovely in every way, still feel a bit off. In transition. There’s been a lot of that “in transition” feeling over the past year. On top of the dating hiatus, my training montage has also been about cleaning house of all the friends in my life whom I’ve outgrown or who just weren’t working anymore. And while that may be empowering in the abstract and feel impressive as I wax rhapsodic about it to my therapist, the truth of it—the daily reality of it—is much quieter. The lack of white noise in my life has been a bit harder to get used to than I thought it would be. Having people around that caused drama was, I’m finding, quite the hobby of mine. Now that it’s gone? It’s just me. In my apartment. Feeling evolved and valiant as I smugly troll the various social media of ex-friends who look like they’re having way more fun than I am.
I haven’t been ready to step into the ring, so for right now it just feels lonely. I watch as Hannah closes the door behind her, pulls the seat belt across her body, and smiles at me. Nathan says something to her and she nods. Then she looks down at her lap, her body utterly deflated. They drive off and all I can do is watch. I’ll be very happy when I don’t have to act as though I like Nathan anymore.
“I have never been around two people who hated each other more,” Ferdie says, pulling his messenger bag over his shoulder and situating the strap across his chest. His wild brown curls are cut into this end-of-summer weird fauxhawk thing that he does. He’ll shave it all off within the week. His tall frame, powerful from a lifetime of hockey, is still settling around a knee injury that left him hopeless as he disappeared into a fog of pot smoke, barroom brawls, and nights in the drunk tank. But tonight he’s cleaned up and clothed in khaki Dickies and a plain white T-shirt. Nine years my junior and quite the surprise to our parents, Ferdie looks like every kid you screamed at to get off your lawn.
“They weren’t always like that,” I say, hailing a cab.
“Well, they’re like that now,” he says. He wheels his bicycle over and wraps the chain around his waist. “So, where are you meeting Audrey?” I pass him my phone and show him the ad- dress. “Here?” he asks.
“Yeah, do you know it?” I ask, waving down a cab.
“Oh, I know it,” Ferdie says, handing me back the phone. “I worked as a bouncer for them a coupla times.” A cab pulls over and I tell him the address through the open window.
“And?” I climb into the back of the cab and settle in.
“It’s The Naughty Kitty,” Ferdie says, climbing onto his bike.
“Wait, what?”
“It’s a strip joint, Anna.”
“I . . . what?”
“Maybe you can make it rain for your fortieth,” he says.
“I don’t even know what that means,” I say, as the cab pulls away from the curb.
“You’re about to find out,” Ferdie yells after me.
As I ride to The Naughty Kitty, I allow myself to get excited. I got the idea several months ago. I’d just finished pitching an ad campaign for this line of bras and panties—or “intimates,” as the client insisted on calling them. They’d been known as the relics your grammy bought you for Christmas. Now, thanks to me, they were going to be the line of bras and panties you—yes,  you, working professional—are thinking about buying for their function as well as form. It’s a huge account and I nailed it. I’ve certainly come a long way from when I first started at Holloway/Greene as a file clerk fifteen years ago.
***

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Liza Palmer is the internationally bestselling author of Conversations with the Fat Girl.  Conversations with the Fat Girl became an international bestseller its first week in publication, as well as hitting Number 1 on the Fiction Heatseekers List in the UK the week before the book debuted.  Conversations with the Fat Girl has been optioned for series by the producers of Rome, Band of Brothers and Generation Kill.

Palmer’s second novel is Seeing Me Naked, which Publisher’s Weekly says, “consider it haute chick lit; Palmer’s prose is sharp, her characters are solid and her narrative is laced with moments of graceful sentiment.”

Her third novel, A Field Guide to Burying Your Parents, which Entertainment Weekly calls a “splendid novel” and Real Simple says “has heart and humor” was released in January 2010.

More Like Her is Palmer’s fourth novel. The book received a starred review from Library Journal in which they said, “The blend of humor and sadness is realistic and gripping, and watching Frannie figure out who she is and what matters is gratifying.”

After earning two Emmy nominations writing for the first season of VH1’s Pop Up Video, she now knows far too much about Fergie.

Palmer’s fifth novel, Nowhere but Home, is about a failed chef who decides to make last meals for the condemned in Texas. Nowhere but Home received the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction for 2013.

Palmer’s sixth novel, Girl Before a Mirror, is the story of Anna Wyatt, a driven ad exec who must attend the annual RomanceCon to land the Romance Novel Cover of Model of the year for Luxe Shower Gel’s spokesman.

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FEATURE, Excerpt & Giveaway: The Trouble With Texas Cowboys by Carolyn Brown

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Title: The Trouble With Texas Cowboys
Author: Carolyn Brown
Release Date: January 6, 2014
Genre: Contemporary (Western) Romance

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Can a girl ever have too many cowboys?

No sooner does pint-sized spitfire Jill Cleary set foot on Fiddle Creek Ranch than she finds herself in the middle of a hundred-year-old feud. Quaid Brennan and Tyrell Gallagher are both tall, handsome, and rich…and both are courting Jill to within an inch of her life. She’s doing her best to give these feuding ranchers equal time-too bad it’s dark-eyed Sawyer O’Donnell who makes her blood boil and her hormones hum…

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Sawyer’s hands circled Jill’s small waist and slowly made their way up under her shirt, massaging the tension from her muscles as he traveled upward. “You’d best say stop now if you are going to,” he said hoarsely.

Think before you say yes, her inner voice said.

No, she argued. When you start to dissect something and analyze your findings, it’s already dead. And this feels so right.

He gave her one more chance. “Then you are not saying stop?”

She drew his lips down to hers and answered him with passion.

He picked her up and carried her to the bedroom, and she shut the door so the kittens wouldn’t disturb them. She slid down his frame and stood before him, eyes locked with his as she removed his shirt, undid his belt and zipper, and slid his jeans off.

“Commando.” She smiled.

He buried his face in her hair and said, “We call it goin’ cowboy, not commando. That’s for the military guys. Now it’s my turn, darlin’, and I open presents like I talk—real slow.”

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Carolyn Brown is a New York Times bestselling author with more than sixty books published, and credits her eclectic family for her humor and writing ideas. Carolyn was born in Texas but grew up in southern Oklahoma where she and her husband, Charles, a retired English teacher, make their home. They have three grown children and enough grandchildren to keep them young.

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Social Networking Links:
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Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Carolyn-Brown/198727816879253
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/13554.Carolyn_Brown

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FEATURE, Excerpt & Q&A: By Winter’s Light: A Cynster Novel by Stephanie Laurens

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by winters light

Title: By Winter’s Light

Author: Stephanie Laurens

Date of Publication: October 28, 2014

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About By Winter’s Light:

#1 New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Laurens returns to romantic Scotland to usher in a new generation of Cynsters in an enchanting tale of mistletoe, magic, and love.

It’s December 1837, and the young adults of the Cynster clan have succeeded in having the family Christmas celebration held at snow-bound Casphairn Manor, Richard and Catriona Cynster’s home. Led by Sebastian, Marquess of Earith, and by Lucilla, future Lady of the Vale, and her twin brother, Marcus, the upcoming generation has their own plans for the holiday season.

Yet where Cynsters gather, love is never far behind—the festive occasion brings together Daniel Crosbie, tutor to Lucifer Cynster’s sons, and Claire Meadows, widow and governess to Gabriel Cynster’s daughter. Daniel and Claire have met before and the embers of an unexpected passion smolder between them, but once bitten, twice shy, Claire believes a second marriage is not in her stars. Daniel, however, is determined to press his suit. He’s seen the love the Cynsters share, and Claire is the lady with whom he dreams of sharing his life. Assisted by a bevy of Cynsters—innate matchmakers every one—Daniel strives to persuade Claire that trusting him with her hand and her heart is her right path to happiness.

Meanwhile, out riding on Christmas Eve, the young adults of the Cynster clan respond to a plea for help. Summoned to a humble dwelling in ruggedly forested mountains, Lucilla is called on to help with the difficult birth of a child, while the others rise to the challenge of helping her. With a violent storm closing in and severely limited options, the next generation of Cynsters face their first collective test—can they save this mother and child? And themselves, too?

Back at the manor, Claire is increasingly drawn to Daniel and despite her misgivings, against the backdrop of the ongoing festivities their relationship deepens. Yet she remains torn—until catastrophe strikes, and by winter’s light, she learns that love—true love—is worth any risk, any price.

A tale brimming with all the magical delights of a Scottish festive season.

 

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Q&A with Stephanie:

You state that BY WINTER’S LIGHT is an essential volume for the Cynster novels going forward. Why is that?

One of the critical features of a long-running series is readers’ feelings of returning to places and people they know – of seeing heros and heroines they have come to know as individuals go through the challenge of finding love and marrying the right man or woman for them. Knowing at least one of these characters beforehand – understanding what has made them as they are, what their strengths are, and even more importantly what weaknesses they hide – allows greater interest, empathy, and absorption for the reader.

In the case of the Cynster Next Generation, the children of the Bar Cynster couples, readers know who they are, but have seen very little of them. And as we all know, actions speak much louder than words about the caliber of people, of who they really are beneath the outer glamor. In BY WINTER’S LIGHT, readers see Lucilla, Marcus, Sebastian, Michael, Prudence, and Christopher in action, responding to external pressures and threats, and also to each other, and separately readers also learn more about Louisa and her emerging character.

Readers have more recently seen Lucilla and Marcus act in VISCOUNT BRECKENRIDGE TO THE RESCUE, but now they are a decade older, and we – both the readers and me as author – need to see more of the adults they are shaping up to be, which are insights BY WINTER’S LIGHT affords us. Unsurprisingly, the first pair of Cynster Next Generation romances are those of Lucilla and Marcus, and as they are twins, the stories are tightly linked.

Subsequently, working off the base of their characters revealed in this book, we’ll follow Sebastian, Michael, and Louisa through their romances, and later learn about Prudence and Christopher’s romances, too.

So there’s lots more Cynster novels in the pipeline?

Indeed! Lucilla’s book, THE TEMPTING OF THOMAS CARRICK, is already written, and will be released at the end of February, 2015. It will be followed by Marcus’s story, A MATCH FOR MARCUS CYNSTER, in late May, 2015. Further Cynster novels are scheduled for release in 2017.

There’s an obvious tradition that isn’t included – that of a Christmas tree. Why is that missing?

Christmas trees – the erecting and decorating of them – while echoing the decorating of a house with fir and holly, was a German custom. In the early 1800s, the only major house in England that sported a Christmas Tree was the Duchess of Rutland’s household at Belvoir Castle, because the Duchess was German. Only much later, after the marriage of Victoria to Albert, who introduced the custom of Christmas trees to the royal household, did the custom of Christmas trees become more widely adopted in England.

Victoria married Albert in 1840, so in 1837 in Scotland, the custom of a Christmas had not yet arrived.

If there was one thing you could say to readers when they pick up BY WINTER’S LIGHT, what would it be?

Put your feet up, kick back and relax, and enjoy the holidays Cynsters-style!

 

Excerpt:

CHAPTER 1

December 23, 1837
Casphairn Manor, the Vale of Casphairn, Scotland

Daniel Crosbie felt as if all his Christmases had come at once. Letting his gaze travel the Great Hall of Casphairn Manor, filled to overflowing with six Cynster families and various associated household members, he allowed himself a moment to savor both his unexpected good fortune and his consequent hope.

About him, the combined households were enjoying the hearty dinner provided to welcome them to the celebration planned for the next ten days—as Daniel understood it, a combination of Christmas, the more ancient Yuletide, and Hogmanay. Seated about the long refectory-like tables on benches rather than chairs, with eyes alight and smiles on their faces, the assembled throng was in ebullient mood. Conversation and laughter abounded; delight and expectation shone in most faces, illuminated by the warm glow of the candlelight cast from massive circular chandeliers depending from thick chains from the high-domed ceiling. The central room about which the manor was built, the Great Hall lived up to its name; the space within its thick walls of pale gray stone was large enough to accommodate the Cynster contingent, all told about sixty strong, as well as the families of the various retainers who worked in and around the manor, which functioned like a small village.

With no family of his own still alive, Daniel had spent his last ten Christmases with the Cynster family for whom he acted as tutor—the family of Mr. Alasdair Cynster and his wife, Phyllida—but this was the first time in that decade that the Cynsters had come north for Christmas. The six Cynster families present—the six families closest to the dukedom of St. Ives, those of Devil, Duke of St. Ives, his brother Richard, and his cousins Vane, Harry, Rupert, and Alasdair—invariably came together at Christmastime. They were often joined by other connected families not present on this occasion; the long journey to the Vale, in the western Lowlands of Scotland, to the home of Richard Cynster and his wife Catriona in a season that had turned icy and cold with snow on the ground much earlier than expected had discouraged all but the most determined.

Out of long-established habit, Daniel glanced at his charges—soon to be erstwhile charges—seated at the next table with their cousins and second cousins. Aidan, now sixteen years old, and Evan, fifteen, had passed out of Daniel’s immediate care when they’d gone up to Eton, yet Daniel still kept an eye on the pair when they were home—an action their parents appreciated and which the boys, at ease with him after all the years, bore with good grace. At that moment, both were talking animatedly with their male cousins in a fashion that instantly, at least in Daniel’s mind, raised the question of what the group was planning. He made a mental note to inquire later. Jason, the youngest son of the family and the last of Daniel’s true charges, was similarly occupied with the group of Cynster offspring nearer his age. Now eleven, later in the coming year, Jason, too, would start his formal schooling—a circumstance which had, for Daniel, raised the uncomfortable question of what he would do then.

Once Jason left for Eton and there were no more boys in Alasdair Cynster’s household in Colyton, in Devon, for Daniel to tutor, what would he do for a living?

The question had plagued him for several months, not least because if he was ever to have a chance at the sort of life he now knew he wanted, and, if at all possible, was determined to claim, he needed to have secure employment—a place, a position, with a steady salary or stipend.

He’d been wracking his brains, trying to think of his options, of what might be possible, when Mr. Cynster—Alasdair—had called him into the library and laid before him a proposal that, in a nutshell, was the answer to all his prayers.

On several occasions over the years, Daniel had assisted Alasdair with his interests in ancient and antique jewelry, with documenting finds and establishing provenances, and also with cataloguing and adding to the collection of rare books Alasdair had inherited from the previous owner of the manor. Alasdair, supported by Phyllida, had suggested that, once Jason had departed with his brothers for Eton, if Daniel was happy to remain in Colyton as a member of their household, they would be delighted to engage him as Alasdair’s personal secretary, an amanuensis to assist with Alasdair’s ever-expanding interests.

The suggested stipend was generous, the conditions all Daniel could have hoped for. Not only would the new position suit him, it would solve all his difficulties.

Most importantly, it cleared the way for him to offer for Claire Meadows’s hand.

He glanced along the board to his right. Clad in a soft woolen gown in a muted shade of blue, Claire—Mrs. Meadows—was sitting on the opposite side of the table, two places down. She was the governess in Rupert Cynster’s household; as Rupert and Alasdair were brothers, Claire and Daniel were often thrown together when the families gathered. It was customary in such circumstances that the attending tutors and governesses banded together, sharing responsibilities and each other’s company, as they were at present. The manor’s governess, Miss Melinda Spotswood, a comfortable matronly sort with a backbone of forged iron, was chatting to Claire. On Melinda’s other side, opposite Daniel, sat Oswald Raven, tutor at the manor; a few years older than Daniel, Raven projected a debonair façade, but he was hardworking and devoted to his charges. Raven was chatting to Mr. Samuel Morris, who was seated alongside Daniel and hailed from Vane Cynster’s household in Kent; the oldest of the group, Morris was slightly rotund and had an unfailingly genial air, yet he was a sound scholar and very capable of exerting a firm hand on his charges’ reins.

All five had met and shared duties on several occasions before; the rapport between them was comfortable and relaxed. Over the coming days, they would, between them, keep an eye on the combined flock of Cynster children—the younger ones, at least. The oldest group, the seventeen-year-olds led by eighteen-year-old Sebastian Cynster, Marquess of Earith and future head of the house, could be relied on to take care of themselves, along with the large group of sixteen- and fifteen-year-old males. But there were six boys thirteen years and under, and seven girls ranging from eight to fourteen years old, and over them the tutors and governesses would need to exert control sufficient to ensure they remained suitably occupied.

There was no telling what the engaging devils would get up to if left unsupervised.

Being governess or tutor to Cynster children was never dull or boring.

Daniel had managed to keep his gaze from Claire for all of ten minutes. Despite the color and vibrancy, the noise and distraction—despite the many handsome and outright stunningly beautiful faces around about—hers was the shining star in his firmament; regardless of where they were, regardless of competing sights and sounds, she effortlessly drew his gaze and transfixed his attention.

She’d done so from the moment he’d first seen her at one of the family’s Summer Celebrations in Cambridgeshire several years ago. They’d subsequently met on and off at various family functions, at weddings in London, at major family birthdays, and at seasonal celebrations like the current one.

With each exposure, his attraction to Claire, his focus on her, had only grown more definite, more acute, until the obvious conclusion had stared him in the face, impossible to resist, much less deny.

Utterly impossible to ignore.

“If the weather holds,” Raven said, commanding Daniel’s attention with his gaze, “and the older crew go riding as they’re planning, then we’ll need to invent some suitable pastimes to keep our charges amused.”

Seated with his back to the table at which the Cynster children were gathered, Raven had turned and asked what the animated talk had been about. Riding out to assess the position and state of the deer herds had been the answer.

Daniel nodded. “If at all possible, let’s get those left to our care out of doors.”

“Indeed,” Melinda said, turning from Claire to join the conversation. “We need to take advantage of any clear days. If it is fine enough tomorrow, I was saying to Claire that the fourteen-year-olds—the girls—might like to gather greenery to decorate the hall.” Melinda gestured to the stone walls hosting various fireplaces and archways, all presently devoid of any seasonal touches. “It’s customary to decorate them on the twenty-fourth, which is tomorrow.”

“I’d heard,” Morris said, “that there’s some tradition about the Yule log that’s followed hereabouts.” He looked to Raven for confirmation.

Raven, his hair as dark as his name would suggest, nodded. “Yes, that’s an inspired idea. Not only is it necessary to collect the right-sized logs, but the logs have to be carved. That should keep the boys amused for hours. I’ll speak to the staff about organizing whatever’s needed.”

Daniel nodded again, and his gaze drifted once more to Claire; she’d been following the conversation, her calm expression indicating her agreement with the suggestions. With her glossy mid-brown hair burnished by the candlelight, with her delicate features and milky-white skin, her lips of pale rose, lush and full, and her large hazel eyes set under finely arched brown brows, she was, to his eyes, the epitome of womanhood.

That she was a widow—had been widowed at a young age—was neither here nor there, yet the experience had, it seemed, imbued her with a certain gravitas, leaving her more reserved, more cautious, and with a more sober and serious demeanor than might be expected of a well-bred lady of twenty-seven summers.

Her station—gentry-born but fallen on hard times—was similar to, or perhaps a touch higher than, Daniel’s; he didn’t really know. Nor did he truly care. They were both as they were here and now, and what happened next … that was up to them.

He’d come to Scotland, to the Vale, determined to put his luck to the test—to seize the opportunity to speak with Claire and plead his case, to learn if she shared his hopes and if she could come to share his dreams.

A gust of laughter and conversation drew his gaze to the high table.

The six Cynster couples were seated about the table on the raised dais along one side of the room, a traditional positioning most likely dating from medieval times. In addition to those twelve—middle-aged, perhaps, yet still vibrantly handsome, articulate, active, and engaged—there were three of the older generation at one end of the board. Helena, Dowager Duchess of St. Ives, mother of Devil and Richard and elder matriarch of the clan, was seated at the end of the table closest to the hearth, and had chosen to summon Algaria, Catriona’s aging mentor, and McArdle, the ancient butler of the manor, now retired, to join her there. The three were much of an age and, judging by their glances and gestures, were busy sharing pithy observations on all others in the hall. Having met the dowager and been the object of her scrutiny on several occasions, Daniel didn’t like to think of how much she, let alone black-eyed Algaria, was seeing.

A comment in a deep voice, followed by laughter, drew Daniel’s gaze back to the twelve Cynsters of the generation that currently ruled. Their children might have been growing apace, might already have been showing signs of the forceful, powerful individuals they had the potential to become, yet the twelve seated about the high table still dominated their world.

Daniel had observed them—those six couples in particular—for the past ten years. All the males had been born to wealth, but what they’d made of it—the lives each had successfully wrought—hadn’t been based solely on inherited advantage. Each of the six possessed a certain strength—a nuanced blend of power, ability, and insight—that Daniel appreciated, admired, and aspired to. It had taken him some time to realize from where that particular strength derived—namely, from the ladies. From their marriages. From the connection—the link that was so deep, so strong, so anchoring—that each of the six males shared with his wife.

Once he’d seen and understood, Daniel had wanted the same for himself.

His gaze shifted again to Claire. Once he’d met her, he’d known whom he wanted to share just such a link with.

Now he stood on the cusp of reaching for it—of chancing his hand and hoping he could persuade her to form such a connection with him.

Whatever gaining her assent required, he would do.

Now Fate in the form of Alasdair Cynster had cleared his path, it was time to screw his courage to the sticking point and act.

Hope, anticipation, and trepidation churned in his gut.

But he was there and so was she, and he was determined to move forward. He knew how he felt about her, and he thought she felt similarly toward him. His first step, plainly, was to determine whether he was correct in believing that—and whether with encouragement, “like” could grow into something more.

 

About Stephanie Laurens:

stephanie laurens#1 New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Laurens began writing romances as an escape from the dry world of professional science. Her hobby quickly became a career when her first novel was accepted for publication, and with entirely becoming alacrity, she gave up writing about facts in favor of writing fiction.

Laurens’s novels are set in the time period of the British Regency, and her settings range from Scotland to India. Laurens has published fifty works of historical romance, including 29 New York Times bestsellers. All her works are continuously available in print and digital formats in English worldwide, and have been translated into many other languages. An international bestseller, among other accolades Laurens has received the Romance Writers of America prestigious RITA Award for Best Romance Novella 2008, for The Fall of Rogue Gerrard.

Her continuing novels featuring the Cynster family are widely regarded as classics of the genre. Other series include the Bastion Club Novels and the Black Cobra Quartet. For information on upcoming releases and updates on novels yet to come, visit Stephanie’s website.

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