New from Ruth J. Hartman: The Color of Deception

ColorofDeception 200x300When I was researching ideas for a new Regency series, I came across a story about toy panoramas from that era. Apparently, modeled after the sprawling panoramas on the ceilings of various buildings, artists began to make miniature versions of them. The intent was to make them available to children, as small toys they could carry around with them, but they quickly became popular with adults as well. Soon, women were buying the tiny pieces of art to carry around with them in their reticules. Each painting was only a few inches high and wide, and was rolled up on a thin wooden spool. The scenes could be anything the artist wanted to create, such as buildings, animals, nature, or even people. The possibilities were endless!

My story, “Color of Deception” is book one in a series of three. Each book focuses on a different Sullyard sister. Aside from being artists, each sister finds herself embroiled in her very own mystery. Books two and three will be out in the next couple of months.

Here’s the blurb for “Color of Deception”

When artist Kitty Sullyard draws a strange symbol in her toy panorama, she doesn’t expect it to be life threatening. Tossed into a situation she never asked for, she learns the hard way who not to trust.

After Kitty mysteriously disappears, Nathaniel Bexley has only a single clue with which to find her. It’s something only he would know. Will he be able to decipher the secret message she’s hidden in a drawing, or will Kitty be doomed to the hands of her kidnappers?

ruth hBeing an amateur artist myself, I loved discovering the process of how they went about creating their hand-painted panoramas. I can’t imagine creating something so tiny, or how many grueling hours it would have taken just to complete one!

I hope you enjoy book one of the Sullyard Sister Series!

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Colors of Deception on Amazon

More of Ruth Hartman on Amazon

The Starlight Chronicles by Lisa Orchard

Lisa Orchard takes us from angsty childhood to sudden adulthood in her three-part series The Starlight Chronicles. In these books, she has achieved just the right amount of no longer a girl, but not quite a woman attitude in this Young Adult / Coming of Age  trilogy.Now available as a box set containing all the titles: Gideon Lee, Lark Singer, and Starlight!

TheStarlightChroniclesBox1400x2100Lark Singer is seventeen years old and already on the way to a brilliant music career. But as she and her band, Starlight, gear up for a competition, life seems to be throwing her a few curve balls. The mysteries of her past seem to be unraveling, and she’s no longer certain she wants to know those answers or how knowing about her past will affect her difficult relationship with her mother. And when her best friend, Bean, changes things between them, all her plans for a musical future are placed in jeopardy. How can she balance her complicated personal life to keep her musical goals on track?

Box set originally released September 30, 2015

Box Set Link:
Gideon Lee:
Lark Singer:

Memories of Mom

On her birthday…

My mom wore an apron every day of her life. For as far back as I can remember, I associate my mom with aprons. She wore one when she was at home, most days from the time she got up until she finished washing the last dinner dish. Usually not the full over the shoulder, cover the chest kind,0085 just a half apron tied at the waist. She had work aprons for doing household chores, afternoon aprons, for when the chores were done and she would sit and relax for an hour or so before my dad got home. She had frilly Sunday aprons, sheer or lacy holiday aprons. Really, an apron for every occasion. She is always in my heart, but just seeing someone in an apron often brings my mom to the front of my mind.

Mom could be strict – stricter than most of my friends’ mother, really. Things friends were allowed to do, like stay out late, even as a teenager, I was not. She insisted I dress conservatively when it was not in fashion, but not to the point of sacrificing fashionable trends. She taught me to respect myself rather than flaunt myself.

Copy of Family 131But she had goofy and crazy side, too. And she was really big into doing things with me as a child. She would sit and play with me. She kept updated on the best toys so she could get them for me. And she kept Santa real for me through a lot of elaborate fancy footwork probably long past the time she should have. Later, she helped me do the same for my own children. We would go to community parties and sing-alongs at Christmas. She0026 helped me craft awkward but fun Halloween costumes. She threw birthday parties for me – even went above and beyond the year I had chicken pox on my birthday to invite kids whose parents knew they’d already had the dreaded itchy bumps. And when no friends were around because they’d gone on vacation or to summer camp, she made sure we did things together, just the two of us, like going to Sanders for ice cream sundaes.

tippyartI was not allowed more than goldfish when I was a young child because my mom was a little afraid of animals. But she helped me put together the best fish tank ever, and she did more of the cleaning out of that thing than I did. And when I was old enough to force a pet on the family, a gray cat with a tip on his tail with the unoriginal name of Tippy-Tip, she made me take full responsibility for him even as she slipped him treats of cod and haddock. And when I moved out, she insisted it would upset the cat too much for him to move with me.

Copy of Family 084We were best friends, confidants, mother and daughter. We spent time shopping together, plotting get-togethers, watching the same shows and gossiping about them. She is the one who started my love for reading. I remember being a child of about four years when she sat and read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to me. And she would give me household chores so I could earn an allowance, which she would then happily take me to spend on a new book from the book department at Hudson’s. She would also read those books with me or after me so we could talk about them. And if I didn’t quite have enough for a particular book, she slipped me the difference on loans that she never collected on.

She was so in love with my dad. They were the true definition of soul mates. She was so happy with him, even when she was ticked off at something he did or didn’t do, and he treated her like gold. When he died, some of her light went out, and it was 20 years before she followed him into eternity.

Everything I knew about being a mom, I learned from her. My parenting 0093mistakes were all originals that I made on my own. She watched my kids if I needed to run to the store and later when I had to go back to work. And she put the same effort and same quality of energy into my children as she had put into me.

Audrey May Turner Springsteen
December 6, 1925 ~ January 3, 2009


audrey lived


Orson’s Folly: Small Town, Big Secrets

And some of the secrets aren’t staying buried. In this new Orson’s Folly mini series, we’ll be following Ricky McGee and Natalie Carter as they unravel the mysteries of Orson’s Folly history through reading old journals and tracking down leads.

In Orson’s Echoes, the first installment of The Journals of Orson’s Folly, follow Ricky and Nattie out to the old McGee homestead on a quest for ghosts, where they will find lots more than they bargained for.


More than friends but not quite family. It’s complicated… and frustrating.

OrsonsEchoesNatalie Carter divides her time between her biological mother and her adoptive parents. But it’s really her bio mom’s adopted brother-in-law who causes her frustration. Sometimes it seems like he doesn’t even see her, and when he does, he treats her like a tag-along little sister.

Ricky McGee has enjoyed Natalie’s company since they met when she was only thirteen and he sixteen. Now she’s nearly seventeen and he’s feeling more than enjoyment in her presence. But their relationship is complicated, and she’s so young, and he can think of a hundred reasons why a romantic entanglement is a bad idea.

When Natalie wants to visit the old McGee homestead before she leaves from her Thanksgiving visit, she and Ricky end up in a spontaneous treasure hunt that might cost them their lives. But is it a treasure hunt gone wrong? Or a love hunt gone right?


Justin shifted his gaze to Natalie. “This one leading you into trouble?”

“No!” Nattie’s chin came up. “It was my idea to go for a quick ride.”

“Quick ride, huh?” Justin leaned to the right and looked beyond her. “Got a lot of gear packed for a quick ride.”

“You know, Dad, like you always say, never know what might come up.”

“I have said that.” Justin rubbed his jaw. “Well, I thought maybe you had it in your mind to head up to the old homestead. I guess if that’s not your plan, you won’t have any use for these.” He held up a book in his left hand, worn brown leather, cracked in places. An assortment of papers protruded beyond the borders of the book’s cover, some of them yellowed with ragged edges.

One of the old journals Natalie had found on the study bookshelves. Ricky frowned, trying not to show too much interest. But he’d never seen one that seemed to be leaking extra papers.

Nattie’s fingers moved restlessly, as if itching to reach for the old book.

Ricky held his breath. Don’t fall for it. Just keep quiet.

“I asked Ricky to take me to the homestead so I could hear the ghosts,” blurted Natalie.

Ricky winced as he watched his friend fall prey to Justin’s information-fishing expedition. Shoulders sagging, he suppressed a groan.

“I thought so.” Justin nodded, his lips lifting in a triumphant half-smile as he shot Ricky a pointedly skeptical look.

Right. Ghosts. Exactly what Ricky openly scoffed at every time someone mentioned hearing voices at the old homestead.

Justin opened the journal and slid out some of the loose sheets. Not sheets, Ricky corrected; just one paper, but folded into fourths. Justin motioned for them to follow him as he walked to the work bench.

The map he unfolded was crisp and white except for the folds, and he smoothed those as he laid it on the wooden surface. “This is a map of the Cross MC that Joe’s been working on with the county surveyor.” He traced a path along the edge of the property. “This is the longest way to the cabin, but it’s the safest. No canyon walls closing in on you. You’ll only cross the river once, and it’s usually easiest there.” He tapped the map as he met Ricky’s eyes. “It’ll add about an hour to your ride, but since you plan to be gone all day anyway, that shouldn’t trouble you.”

The vise around Ricky’s chest eased its grip. His dad was going to let them go. As long as he did it by the rules according to Justin McGee. Sighing, he gave in with a single nod.

“Thank you!” Natalie threw her arms around Justin’s neck and kissed his cheek.

“Just don’t go getting in trouble out there.” He grinned hard as his face bloomed rosy pink. Then he faced Ricky. “Okay, son, you got a two-way?”

“Yeah… they don’t work where we’re going, but—”

“They work for part of the way. And they sometimes work farther out if you can get to some high ground without trees. Until Ryan gets the satellite base system in there, it’s better than nothing.”

“Yes, sir.”

Justin held up a hand and ticked off items as he asked. “Lunch, trail mix, hunting knife, spare gloves, bandanna, scarves, flare gun…” He stared at the saddle holster and nodded at the Winchester. “Spare ammo?”

Ricky nodded. “Yep. And Nattie has all that, too.”

“What else is in Keagan’s journal?” asked Natalie, as though she couldn’t contain the question any longer.

A slow smile crept over Justin’s face. “This isn’t my granddaddy’s journal. It belonged to my great granddad, Clement Orson. A little light reading you two can cover when you stop for lunch.” He pointed to the section marked Original Homestead. “You should be there by then.” Then he folded the map and handed it to Ricky, along with the journal. “You’d best get going. Dawn’s breaking.”

He shuffled to the door and pulled it open, but glanced over his shoulder before he stepped through. “Gets dark around six these days.” Leaving the door open, he strode to the house without looking back.

Translation: be home before dark. Ricky sighed. Turning eighteen hadn’t resulted in as much freedom as he might have pictured at one time. Turning nineteen hadn’t proven much better. A comforting warmth settled in the vicinity of his heart as he secured the journal and map in his saddlebag.

Find it at your favorite e-book retailer.


For the story from the beginning, check out
The Echoes of Orson’s Folly


Travel to Destination Mackinac Island in Watercolors in the Rain

by Kay Springsteen

“Powerful and engrossing…Kay Springsteen doesn’t just tell a story…she paints it and the end result is outstanding!” — #1NYT Bestselling Author Rachel Van DykenMackinac-Island

So many things can strike a person getting off one of the three ferry services to Mackinac (pronounced Mackinaw) Island in Michigan. I imagine each individual differs in what they notice first. For me, it was the way the island, Main Street in particular, seemed to balance itself between the old and the new. Aside from emergency vehicles, the only wheels that travel about on Mackinac Island belong to bicycles and horse-drawn carriages. A primary mode of travel is by foot.


Mackinac Island is primarily a seasonal destination, starting in the spring and running until the end of October. A few touristy businesses stay open in the off season, but come winter, for the most part, the residents get to enjoy some much deserved down time.

In the height of the season, however, the island is a hustling, bustling atmosphere of charm and fun, with a little something for everyone. But don’t take my word for it. Check it out at and on Facebook at then pencil in some days next year for a stop at this lovely island in Northern


The Real World Visits the Realm of Fiction

My latest novel, Watercolors in the Rain takes place primarily takes place on Mackinac Island, amid the background of WatercolorsintheRain 500x750residents and tourists and activities of the season.

When graphic designer Eve St. Aubin walks into an art exhibit and finds herself in a heated kiss with world renowned artist Kyle Sebastian, her memories whisk her back to the summer they’d shared five years earlier. He’d been her mentor in more ways than one… until he left without a word. Now she has nothing to say to him… or at least that’s what she keeps telling herself.

When he met Eve, Kyle’s career had been in the tank. Lighting the fuse on her talent had rekindled his own artistic ability. Loving her, watching her blossom as a woman had inspired him to new heights. He’d had to let her go back then, but he always knew he’d see her again. Now that he has, he’s not prepared for the edgy woman she’s become, nor did he expect he’d still be in love with her.

When explanations aren’t that simple, and no common ground seems to be had, how will they overcome their past to create a future? Or can they? (Contains adult content and explicit language.)


Please enjoy this excerpt:

Laughter and applause came from the group standing near the water, and a middle-aged man took a bow. Another man stooped and sorted through the stones, then stood and sent one skipping across the waves.

Plink, plink, plink, pitty-pat, pitty-pat, plonk.

Another cheer rose as the stone ended its skip, swallowed by Lake Huron.

“Let me try!” said one of the women. “Help me find a stone.”

Eve turned away from the scene, and once again their gazes collided, stealing his breath. The little silver glints in her eyes reminded him of sparks rising in a trail of campfire smoke. She stopped laughing abruptly and seemed to struggle for words. Finally, she extended her hand and offered him a pickle.

“Have you done any more sketching yourself?” He accepted the container she offered and popped open the top.

She wrinkled her nose before sinking her perfect tiny teeth into her pickle. “Not really,” she admitted between bites. “Every time I get started something happens to distract me.”

“Did you bring your book?”

Eve’s glance slid to her backpack resting on the ground next to her, but she shook her head. “I did, but like I said, I haven’t done anything lately.”

Without another word, Kyle reached out and lifted her pack, setting it in front of her. “Get it out. And your pencil. I want you to sketch something for me.”

“Um, no. I’m not a trained circus animal. I don’t perform on command.” Eve pushed at the pack with a strong shake of her head. “Besides, I can’t draw under pressure.”

“Have you ever tried?” He nudged the pack in her direction again, hoping it wouldn’t come to him digging her book out himself. The mysteries of a woman’s backpack should remain mysteries.

“I’m not drawing for you.”

Kyle rocked backwards onto his own elbows. “Tell me why you’re so contrary. Are we going to go through this every time I ask you to do something?”

“Go through what?” Irritation leaked into her tone.

Kyle raised his thumb. “I ask.” Then his forefinger. “You refuse.” He added his middle and ring fingers. “I work on you and wear you down.” He lifted his pinky and shrugged. “You do it anyway.” He wiggled his fingers in front of her face.

Eve opened her mouth and drew a breath as though she was going to say something but instead let her breath out and clamped her lips closed. Sensing he was about to win, Kyle pushed himself into a sit again. He nudged the backpack in her direction.

She glared. “You are impossible.”

Kyle leveled a silent gaze on her. She’d cave any second.

“Fine,” she said on a long sigh, and reached into the pack. She opened the sketchpad to a blank page and laid it in her lap. Eyes closed, she only held the pencil loosely. He moved to sit next to her. When she opened her eyes, pencil poised above the paper, she blinked. “I can’t sketch you while you’re sitting right on top of me.”

Yeah, he’d figured she’d make the obvious choice to use him as her subject. But he wasn’t interested in revealing what she might see with her artist’s eye if it fell on him.


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Why do authors write Pride and Prejudice variations?

Have you “met” Gianna Thomas yet? If not, please allow me the honor of introducing her. Best known for her Pride and Prejudice variations, she is an up and coming traditional Regency author, definitely someone to watch.

~~~   ~~~   ~~~   ~~~   ~~~   ~~~   ~~~   ~~~

GiannaWhy do authors write Pride and Prejudice variations?

It’s an interesting question. We have the original Pride and Prejudice with all of Jane Austen’s quirky humor and misunderstandings between Darcy and Elizabeth to enjoy, but why do we need more?

For me, the original is not enough. Jane wrote a lot about the angst Darcy and Elizabeth suffered through most of the book but very little about the recognition of their love, their marriage and afterwards. Perhaps, it is a universal truth that those who love Darcy and Elizabeth just want more.

Pride and Prejudice variations, fan fiction, what ifs, vagaries, or whatevers may help satisfy that need to know more about our famous lovers. Sequels to the original give us a look at what might have been. Variations paint a little different picture of the characters we know so well, or do we? Twists on the original plot give us a taste of a new path taken and may even open up a completely different future than we ever imagined for our lovebirds.

For myself, I put 13 twists on Jane Austen’s original plot when I wrote Darcy Chooses Part 1. Part 2 is almost 100% my plot, and I have three possible P&P series and three plots for standalone books plus a plot from my publisher as well. These are in addition to nine regency romance plots, one of which is a four part series. The P&P variations are enough to keep me busy for a long while as the ideas just keep coming.

One would think that at some point we would experience a saturation of Pride and Prejudice and Elizabeth and Darcy’s adventures. Not so! One story or book leads to another and another, and we keep wanting more. TDarcy Chooses-Part 1 600newhe truth is we could read about Jane’s hero and heroine for years and not get tired of the variety of scenarios the many different authors dream up. And if they are well written, we love them almost as much as the original.

Again, for myself, I have read 300+ P&P’s and have enjoyed nearly all of them. I don’t get tired of them and have reread several of them more than once, others more than twice. Only a small number were either written so badly or contained graphic sex to the point I will not reread them or I didn’t finish them and returned them to the publisher. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the completely new plots that many authors have written and look forward to future books and stories.

Just think, a simple preacher’s daughter, a spinster who never married (and that’s another story) but wrote a tale—about two individuals who fall in love—that has come down 200+ years to become one of the most popular love stories ever written. Jane Austen was quite a lady who’s flame died much too quickly, but who’s legacy is passed on through all the P&P authors who keep Darcy and Elizabeth alive for thousands of fans worldwide. Very few will ever be able to match that appeal.

Gianna Thomas

Find Gianna on Amazon!

Jannette Spann has a new book!

RightTimeForLove_500x750(1)Right Time for Love

Brandy Wyne’s future includes an old house with plumbing problems, a new job, and caring for her mother who has suffered a stroke.

Gavin Wilkins has increased his Grandpa’s plumbing business to twice its original worth, but the old man’s got a hot lady friend with greedy hands. How can he convince his grandpa of what she’s after without hurting him? Added to his problems is the responsibility of caring for his seven-year-old niece for the summer.

Brandy can’t afford the plumbing repairs she needs, and Gavin can’t find a sitter for his niece. Ever heard of the barter system?


Short Excerpt:

Indecision marked Gavin’s brow as they stared into each other’s eyes. If he walked off, the friendship would be over… shattered like a cheap piece of glass. They would still see each other at times, but the closeness wouldn’t exist anymore, and that’s what Brandy treasured the most.

He lifted a hand to her face, a sad smile tilting the corner of his lips. “I’m twenty-nine-years-old, and so help me, I’ve never met anyone like you.”

She blinked. “So… Is that good or bad?”

His forehead dropped to hers. A slight chuckle eased the tension. “I’m still trying to decide.”

Taking his reply to mean maybe, she slid an arm around his waist and guided him inside. “Come on, I’ll see if I can’t sway your opinion.”


Find Right Time for Love (and Jannette’s other books) on:

Barnes & Novel
and other e-book retailers!

Only one word of advice I can offer! Enjoy, my sweet romantic darlings!


Tuesday Tales Picture Prompt 2/10/15

Welcome to Tuesday Tales, where a picture is not just a picture and a word is not just a word.

10392549_10204816797998580_6731879103320152270_nThe Message

Four squat black candles burned in the center of the table. Two perfect place settings, not a fork or a spoon askew, fine white china ready for three individual courses, red napkin folded in the center. The wine, deep red and full bodied, had been poured into the stemware to breathe.


Suppressing a sigh, Haley glanced at the diamond watch gracing her wrist. Eight-twenty. Paul was officially an hour and twenty minutes late. And no phone call.

How much longer could she give him before the restaurant kicked her to the curb?

A waiter seemed to materialize at her elbow. “Excuse me. Would you be Ms. Haley Bancroft?”

She lifted her gaze and took in the short black vest and snowy white shirt. “Why, yes, that’s me.”

“I have a message from Mr. Paul Whitfield.” The waiter slid a tray in front of her then discreetly stepped away.

While you were out… floated into focus on the single square of pink note paper.

“I’m not the one who’s out, Paul,” she whispered. Only he’d been there. He had to have been there to leave the note, because it was his precise handwriting that marched across the lined page.

Sorry. I can’t see you again. Happy Valentine’s Day. Love always, Paul.

Blood thundered in Haley’s ears.

Stood up! Not just stood up. Broken up! And on Valentine’s Day!

That lousy son of a bitch. He didn’t have the guts to sit down with her and break up to her face.

“Excuse me,” murmured a deep voice to her right.

Haley turned to face the speaker, followed the exquisite lines of the charcoal Armani suit up, and up, and up, past the powerful chest, to the wide shoulders, then the angular jaw, the high cheekbones, and a pair of deep blue eyes. Walnut hair, cropped close around his ears but left longer on top begged her fingers to roam through it.

“May I help you?” She resisted — barely — the urge to fan herself and swoon at the stranger’s feet.

“I hope so. My name is Malachi Vincent.” He inclined his head. “If that pink note you just got was from your boyfriend and he’s breaking up with you, I think we have something in common.” He held up a square sheet of pink paper, his lips twisted into a wry smile.

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To read more fun and fab samples, please return to Tuesday Tales by clicking here.

Tuesday Tales Snowy Surprise Picture Prompt

I am so delighted to return to the world of sample writing with Tuesday Tales. Here is the picture prompt and my contribution of 300 words!


10730975_10204202717246945_6505919334161514190_nGusts of wind sent snow dancing across the ground on miniature snow tornadoes. Six inches had fallen overnight — on top of the eight that had fallen the day before. Weather forecasters referred to it as “Snowpocalypse 2014.” Kari didn’t know about that. Every year some storm was dubbed “something-pocalypse.” But the extra layer only ensured that her mark wouldn’t be able to run.

As she skirted the rail fence enclosing the paddock, she slipped on the uneven ground and grabbed for one of the posts to steady herself and take her bearings. Another blast of frigid air stirred up a cloud of white powder as she stared in the direction of the red barn. When it cleared, she spotted her target.

Ian McAllister.

Kari narrowed her eyes and watched as he exited the barn and secured the door. The unsuspecting lout didn’t seem to know she was there. Her breath made little foggy puffs in the cold air as she trudged in the knee-deep snow, following the fence, grabbing it occasionally to keep from falling.

She was within twenty feet when he looked up and his slate gray eyes captured her in his gaze. “What?” He recoiled visibly, jaw slackened. “Kari Beck?”

Good. She’d surprised him.

“I have something for you,” she said between gasps, plunging toward him without slowing her steps. She ripped off her mitten with her teeth and dropped it in the snow as she reached into her pocket and closed her fingers around the hard object inside.

With a burst of energy, she launched herself at him, pressing him against the side of the barn. Casting an evil grin, she whipped her hand from her pocket and held the sprig of mistletoe overhead.

“Gotcha!” she murmured, as she pressed a hard kiss to his icy lips.


That’s my 300! Return to Tuesday Tales by clicking on the picture below for more wonderful samples.

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Romancing the Rogue Scavenger Hunt

Who doesn’t enjoy a good scavenger hunt? And this one will be easy. Many of you may be familiar with the Regency series I’ve been writing with Kim Bowman, the Like a Lady  SLAL newallal coverseries, featuring A Lot Like a Lady and Something Like a Lady, and coming soon Nothing Like a Lady. The upcoming holidays promise to be a busy time. Lots of you probably have plans for fun and family. But sometimes you just need to unwind. And what better way to do that than to put yourself in the company of a rogue? Well, esKape ePress has gathered no less than TEN rogues for your de-stressing pleasure, including Something Like a Lady.

romancingtherogue3d-1To celebrate this limited edition boxed set, the authors participating are hosting a scavenger hunt with some really fantastic prizes. To see all giveaways and instructions, visit:

Here’s my excerpt. There’s a quiz, so be watching the above link for my question for a chance to win an e-copy of your choice of one of the my Regency romances,  A Lot Like a Lady, my best selling Christmas Regency, The Toymaker, or my other best selling Christmas Regency, Teach Me Under the Mistletoe, AND a complete e-copy set of Vivian Roycroft’s amazing The Scoundrel of Mayfair series.


Annabella laid her fingers against his palm, and he lightly grasped her hand. His heart leapt in his chest like a deer crashing through a bramble patch.

“Shall we go, then?” he asked, tucking her hand into the crook of his elbow.

With Annabella gliding gracefully at his side, Jon hardly felt the floor beneath his feet. Their steps matched perfectly as they descended the main staircase from the galley to the salon. Midway down, he paused, unaccountably overcome with emotion at the familiar tableau before him.

Annabella angled her head and smiled up at him. “I trust we won’t have to observe the evening’s festivities from the stairs.”

Jon pulled in a deep breath and released it slowly. By evening’s end, she might well wish they’d remained on the grand staircase. He smiled, and they continued to the bottom.

The butler appeared at Jon’s elbow.

“Good evening, Samuel,” greeted Jon with a smile. “I see her grace has not yet come down. How many for dinner this evening?”

The butler’s face took on a pinched expression. “Other than yourselves and her grace, the number is five, my lord.”

Jon nodded as a caustic sensation invaded his belly. Five…

Annabella tittered behind her fan. So she could behave like an insipid young lady after all. “To look at your face, one would think you are about to head for the gallows instead of a dinner party. Do you not like your grandmother’s guests?”

It wasn’t his like or dislike Jon was concerned over. “Annie, there’s something I should—”

“Gladys Cecily Siler Durham, the Dowager Duchess of Blackmoor,” announced Samuel from the bottom of the stairway.

Too late.

Her face devoid of expression, Gran held her head with regal grace. Dressed in rich crimson velvet edged in gold, with a gossamer veil that cascaded from a jeweled head ornament and fell over her right shoulder, she looked more like a queen than a dowager duchess, and the glide in her step belied her true age. She halted at the base of the steps and waited.

Jon’s breath backed up in his lungs. She hardly seemed to have aged in the time he’d been away. Her dark hair had been shot with streaks of gray for as long as he could recall. In contrast to Annabella’s elaborate style, Gran’s tresses were pulled into a chignon at the nape of her neck from which not a single strand dared escape. Her gaze touched on him briefly before moving on to Annabella, and then to the butler, to whom she gave a barely perceptible nod.

Samuel’s voice rang across the salon. “Announcing Queen Dorothea.”

Annabella turned her head toward the doorway then looked up at Jon, confusion pinching her forehead the tiniest bit.

Resigned, he inclined his head toward his grandmother. Though the dowager made no movement, her gown fluttered near her feet. A sleek gray-and-brown striped figure emerged from behind her, nose in the air. Her slanted green eyes seemed to survey the room as she struck an aristocratic pose and remained perfectly still except for the tip of her tail, which waved back and forth like a miniature flag.

Annabella tensed and curled her fingers, digging painfully into the tender part of Jon’s inner elbow. “That’s a cat!” she accused, her whisper sounding amazingly like a hissing feline.

“Correction, Lady Seabrook.” Jon patted her hand with his until she loosened her grip. “That… is my grandmother’s favorite cat. So smile and—”

“If you finish that statement with the word ‘curtsey,’ I shall kick you,” Annabella said through gritted teeth. She lifted her lips into a stiff, forced smile and added a little too sweetly, “My lord.”

“Lord Felix and Princess Tabitha,” intoned Samuel.

Two footmen appeared at the top of the staircase. Each cradled a fat black feline against his chest. The animals seemed content to be carried down the steps.

Annabella dug her fingers into his arm once more, and Jon winced. “Those are cats,” she whispered again.

“I had no idea what an astute judge of the obvious you can be,” murmured Jon through a smile that had become excruciating to maintain. He wasn’t certain who he wanted to choke more — his verbose wife or his unconventional grandmother.

“Sir Julius and Miss Celia,” announced Samuel.

Two more footmen appeared. The marmalade tabby on the left had bright orange eyes that darted about the room, clearly marking his means of escape. Poor sot. He hadn’t a chance of leaving before the end of the evening. The cat on the right lounged uncaring as the footman trotted down the steps. Long blue-gray fur stuck out at angles, lending the illusion of a badly-combed, misplaced wig.

“I am not socializing with a pack of cats,” said Annabella quietly, her voice dripping with derision.

“Don’t fret, my darling. They don’t wish to take their meal with you, either.” Seabrook gave her hand another pat. “They have their own table.”