Friday, December 23, 2022

 I have been sadly missing in action for a while now. Good intentions apart, I have been writing on various projects but here is my Christmas story for this year. I hope you enjoy it.



“Your sister’s coming home then.”

Marg Nicholls stood, dripping, in the doorway of Hetty Pimm’s shop. Marg had lived in Lower Vale all her life, but the speed news travelled around the community irritated her. She considered it must be the postman who regularly delivered more than the mail to anyone willing to listen. The local grapevine would have expanded from there. Who needed a cell phone when they had a Barry Jones?

“Well, shut the door,” Hetty commanded, rubbing her arms against the wind gusting forcefully into the little shop. “You can use that mop and bucket to clean up your puddle, and there are old newspapers by the door to soak up what you miss.”

Marg looked down at the rivulets of water trickling off her unflattering oilskin mac and green-booted feet and shook her head, which caused more water to fly off her plastic hood. Where else but in the bastion of an English village shop would one be expected to clean up after oneself? Marg took hold of the mop and spread its cotton threads over the floor. One did not argue with Hetty. Her shop had been converted, not very imaginatively, from her cottage’s living and dining rooms, and Marg supposed she still thought of it as her home.

Shelves stacked with bottles, tins, and packets, which, to Marg’s eyes, looked not to have been dusted or changed since her last visit, lined the walls. There was just enough space for a central display stand packed with Mother’s Pride bread, Mr. Kipling cakes and biscuits on one side, and toiletries and cleaning supplies on the other. At the end of the counter, from behind which, Hetty owlishly surveyed all who entered, stood a small cooler holding milk, butter, cheese, and eggs.

Marg knew it was not Hetty’s way of doing business to ask if she could help her customers. The customer had to do the asking, and Hetty would point a gnarled finger to the items they wished to purchase. Cash would cross the counter, and that would be it. No debit or credit cards for Hetty. Anyone who missed the ‘Cash Only’ notice on the door was invited to leave. Marg had no idea how Hetty managed to keep her business going, but the locals were thankful for it as it was the only shop in their small community.

Having purchased the unsalted butter, cornstarch, and waxed paper she needed, Marg left the shop, bending her head against the roaring wind and lashing rain. She threw her shopping bag onto the passenger seat of the old Land Rover and squeezed in behind the steering wheel. The weather reflected her mood, which transferred to the gears as she viciously reefed through them.

The wipers barely cleared the rain from the windshield as the Land Rover laboured up the lane to Hill Farm, which took its name from the slopes rising steeply behind it. Bare, blackened tree branches on either side rattled above her like sabres. Marg peered ahead, steering between every pothole and wheel rut in the gravelled surface. She knew them all.

And into this moisture-laden mayhem, her sister was about to arrive. How could Ruth do this to her after all this time? Marg didn’t even need to close her eyes to see the note she’d received. It was too brief to be considered a letter.

Dear Marg

Kenny and I are in London and would love to come and spend some time with you and John. We’ll travel down on Christmas Eve and stay for a few days. Hope that’s all right. You will have stacks of that delicious shortbread you always used to make, won’t you?

Love, Ruth.

That was it. No return address on the rich but anonymous cream-coloured stationery. No telephone number, text, or email contact.

“On purpose,” Marg muttered. “She knew if I couldn’t contact her, I couldn’t say no.”

Marg parked as close as possible to the utility room door. Holding on to her plastic hood with one hand and the shopping bag with the other, she dashed to the door, thanking heaven that farmers were practical people who expected and provided for extremes of weather. The old rush matting inside the door took the brunt of her wet wellies as she kicked them off. The dogs, Harvey and Beau, brushed their damp, smelly bodies against her in welcome, soaking up the rain from her mac but leaving a swath of their yellow and black Labrador hair. She shooed them back to their beds while she hung up her outdoor clothes, pushed her feet into ratty looking but comfortable slippers and entered the warmth and peace of her kitchen.

Well, it had been peaceful when she left. Now it was something of a battlefield. Her daughter, Penny, sat grumpily on one side of the long, pine table. An antique dealer would describe it as distressed and probably sell it for a small fortune. Penny’s brother, Mark, sat opposite her. Marg’s husband, John, sat in his usual place at the head of the table. He sipped tea from a battered old enamel mug which he refused to replace. Pottery broke. Enamel chipped but lasted longer. End of argument.

Marg knew he disliked the prospect of the impending visit as much as she did. Now it looked as if the children were rebelling too.

“Ask your mother.” John pursed his lips and cast Marg a gloomy glance.

“It’s not fair, Mum,” Penny complained. “I don’t want Mark sharing my room.”

“For heavens’ sake,” Marg snapped. “Who said Mark had to share your room?”

“Well, where else are Uncle Kenny and Aunty Ruth going to sleep if not in Mark’s room? They’re not having mine.”

“I’ll sleep in Pilot’s stable and take the dogs for extra warmth,” Mark said.

“Good idea. That pony would probably appreciate the company.” Marg went to the Aga, where a large teapot sat warming and poured herself a cup of tea. Was it too early in the day to add a tot of whisky? “There’s that foam mattress and your sleeping bag from when you camped last summer with the Scouts. You should be cozy.”

“Oh, wow.” Mark suddenly looked cheerful. “Can I take a flask of hot chocolate and some cake out there with me?”

“Whatever your heart desires.” Marg passed a weary hand across her forehead as Mark scraped his chair back and rushed upstairs.

“You never let me sleep in Lark’s stable,” Penny grumbled as she stood.

“You never asked,” Marg said.

“Bloody Aunt Ruth.” Penny kicked the leg of her chair and stalked out of the kitchen.

Marg recalled when she kicked the leg of another chair, and her mother immediately told her to stop that. At twenty-two, she was old enough to know better.

Her mother’s tears and her father’s temper had flowed and raged for days, ever since her younger sister, Ruth, announced she was going to Australia with her boyfriend, Kenny Parker. Their father raged that she was going nowhere, especially with Kenny, that skinny, spotty, good-for-nothing layabout. Ruth shouted back that she was nineteen and could go where and with whom she pleased, and anyway, they had already got passports and visas. Their flight was booked and paid for, and that was that.

Marg sighed and topped her tea before sitting in Penny’s recently vacated chair. Looking around the kitchen, she realized that, except for a coat of paint and a new backsplash behind the Belfast sink, Ruth would hardly see any difference. It saddened Marg that twenty years had slipped by almost without her noticing.

The early days when she and John were first married were marvellous. They lived in the cottage across the yard, helping her parents run the family sheep farm. One of their shepherds occupied it now. He also helped raise and train their border collies. Autumn, winter, spring, and summer did not mark their seasons. Breeding, feeding, lambing, shearing, and all the other tasks necessary to maintain a well-run farm, did. Marg’s father passed away quite suddenly, leaving her mother in a permanent daze until she, too, gave up her grip on life and peacefully followed him.

Ruth’s letters then had been full of remorse that she had not been able to support Marg and John, but in her heart, Marg knew this was not true. The letters became more infrequent, and when they arrived, they told of endless blue skies, beach, pool, tennis parties, and all the excitement of shopping in Melbourne. There were postcards showing kangaroos and koalas, sheep and camels. Did they have camels in Australia?

Marg wasn’t sure but supposed it must be true for them to be on postcards. Photographs occasionally accompanied the letters bearing the legends, ‘Me at Ayers Rock,’ ‘Me scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef,’ ‘Me with opal miners.’ Me having a great time. Me having no responsibilities, me obviously not working. Me! Me! Me! Marg supposed all these adventures were because Ruth and Kenny had decided not to have a family, but what was Kenny doing all this time, Marg wondered.

Penny and Mark came back into the kitchen, still bickering. It was suddenly all too much. Marg slammed her mug down on the table, making John and the children jump.

“You listen to me,” she snapped, standing and gripping the back of her chair as if to gain strength from the solid wood of it. “Ruth has been gone for twenty years. She’s not coming back to live here. She’s coming for a couple of days’ visit. The least you can do is be accommodating and welcoming. Ruth’s your aunt, for heaven’s sake. Hill Farm was her home before it was yours. Yes, she chose to leave, just as your father and I chose to stay here and run the farm, and that’s all there is to it.” Marg paused for breath. “Penny, Mark, I don’t want to hear another peep out of the pair of you. And you, John, can stop looking like you’ve lost a pound and found sixpence. Ruth’s my sister. She’s the only family I have outside of you lot. She may never get to come home again, and what chance have I to visit Australia, even if I was invited? Oh.” Marg stopped as something became blindingly clear to her. “You’re afraid I’ll want to go back with her.”

John blustered it was no such thing, and Penny and Mark quickly removed themselves from the kitchen, sensing a disagreement brewing between their parents.

Marg pinned John with a fierce glare. “That’s it, isn’t it? It’s not the fact that Ruth’s coming to stay but that I might want to leave.”

John spread his big hands with their square-tipped fingers down on the table and pushed himself out of his chair. “You’ve got to admit you used to get pretty mopey when you got Ruth’s letters. I knew I couldn’t put a step right for a few days after they arrived. I put it down to jealousy.”

Marg bit her lip, knowing John only spoke the truth. She nodded slowly. “It seemed like she had an easier life than ours.”

“But you don’t know that.” John gripped her shoulder. “And who knows what kind of dance Kenny might have led her? Come on. I’ll help you make up the bed in Mark’s room.”




Marg could not quite believe how they managed to pull everything together. For once, Penny and Mark did everything she asked of them without arguing. They fetched boxes of decorations from the attic and arranged the blue and silver tree on its stand. Now, on Christmas Eve morning, everything was as festive and ready as it could be for Ruth and Kenny’s arrival. There was only one thing left to do. Marg didn’t even need her mother’s old cookbook. She knew the shortbread recipe by heart. Beat one cup of brown sugar into two cups of softened butter, then add four to four and a half cups of all-purpose flour. Simple.

She placed the butter and sugar in her mixing bowl and beat it until it was fluffy, then carefully mixed in most of the flour. The dough was too soft, so she added more flour until satisfied with the consistency. Humming to herself, she sprinkled flour onto her pastry board, took the dough and began to knead it. She should have made it yesterday and left it to chill overnight in the refrigerator. Now she could only give it half an hour but filled that time with trimming Brussels sprouts while she waited.

Marg kept a close eye on the clock as she listened for the oven timer. At least the family was out from under her feet while she busied herself with the food preparation. Another glance at the clock had her reaching for the chilled dough. She transferred this to a sheet of parchment paper and rolled it out. When she had an almost perfect rectangle, she placed it on a baking sheet and cut it into finger-sized strips. Using a fork, she pricked each strip several times before putting the tray back in the fridge for another half an hour and then turning the oven on to preheat.

Her mother had made the preparation of Christmas dinner, and all the trimmings look so easy, Marg thought now. She had paid attention and helped her mother, while Ruth always managed to find something else to do and stay out of the way. Marg grinned while taking the baking tray from the fridge and slipping it into the oven. If Kenny had expected a home-cooked meal every evening, she didn’t mind betting he was one disappointed man. The sound of car doors slamming made her look up, frowning. They couldn’t be here already, could they? She wiped her hands on her apron and opened the back door but gasped at the figure filling the doorway.

“Kenny?” She looked up at the well-built man with a tanned face and laughing grey eyes.

“G’day, Marg. Here, take these.” He handed her the shopping bags he carried.

“Kenny?” she repeated, still squinting at him. Of the skinny, spotty youth she remembered, there was no sign. “My Lord, Australia’s been good to you.”

“We made the most of our opportunities, that’s for sure.” Kenny stepped inside. “Hope we’re not too early, but someone’s been hopping around like a shrimp on a barbie since early this morning. Now she’s gone all shy.”

“No, I haven’t.”

Kenny moved out of the way, and tears sprang to Marg’s eyes when she saw her sister. Kenny, she would have passed on the street and not known him, but Ruth, her dark brown hair now fetchingly streaked with grey, she would have known anywhere. The years rolled away as they fell into each other’s arms, hugging each other tightly, words, for now, unnecessary. All the talking and catching up could come later.

Mark and John came in from the yard. Penny wandered downstairs, a little shy but intrigued to meet the visitors. Marg was happy to introduce her sister and brother-in-law to the children. For once, Penny and Mark behaved impeccably. Mark asked Kenny what Australia was like and grinned at the response, “bloody hot, mate.”

Ruth turned her head and sniffed. “Is something burning?”

Marg’s hands flew to her face. “Oh, no.” She raced to the oven, grabbed a tea towel and opened the door. Smoke billowed out. She wafted it away and stared in dismay at the tray.

“Mum,” Penny breathed, stunned at the sight of the blackened offerings. “You never burn anything.”

Marg shook her head as she emptied the tray into the waste bin. “There’s a first time for everything, I suppose.” She looked at her sister. “Sorry, Ruth. I so wanted everything to be just right for your homecoming.”

Ruth stepped forward and hugged Marg. “Tell you what, why don’t we have coffee and then you and I will make shortbread together.”

Marg stared at her. “You? Make shortbread?”

“You’d be surprised at what Ruthie can make.” Kenny pulled out a chair and sat on it. “She’s been writing a cookery column for our local paper for the last few years.”

Marg’s mouth fell open. “A cookery column?”

Ruth nodded. “It’s been quite successful too. But in my last post, I promised my readers a shortbread recipe. Would you please–pretty please– share yours?”

Marg thought of all the times Ruth was MIA when it came to anything in the kitchen. She heard again her mother’s grumbles, the mutterings that Ruth would likely live on fast-food and fresh air, and now, Ruth was asking for help making shortbread. Marg smiled, then started to laugh.

“How can I refuse?” She shook her head. “Mum would be so impressed, and as it’s her recipe, I don’t see why not, but we’ll have to run down to Hetty’s for more butter.”

“Good Lord, is she still running the shop?” Ruth sounded incredulous.

Marg nodded. They collected their coats and left John and Kenny chatting as if they’d only seen each other yesterday while Penny and Mark fired questions at Kenny about life in Australia.

“They can come out for a visit any time they like,” Ruth said quietly as they headed outside. “You and John too.”

Marg paused as she opened the Land Rover’s door. “Ruth, I will do my best to make it happen. But if we come for a visit, I expect you to make shortbread.”

Ruth clambered up into the passenger seat. “I’ve missed you, sis. I’ve missed all this.” She indicated the sweep of the hillside dotted with sheep, the windswept trees and hedgerows, and the lowering grey sky. “But you know what I’ve missed most?”

Marg swallowed the lump in her throat and shook her head as she turned the key in the ignition.

“Family,” Ruth said, raising her voice over the cough and splutter of the engine as it came to life. “Us. I remember all those Christmases when I’d do anything to get out of doing chores, and now I so wish I hadn’t.”

The rain started as Marg pulled up in front of Hetty’s shop. The sisters sat looking at the bow windows on either side of the door, the sturdy limestone walls, and the slightly overhanging roof.

“Hasn’t changed a bit,” Ruth commented as they left the vehicle and stepped across the narrow pavement.

Marg pushed the door open, listening to the clamour of the overhead, old-fashioned doorbell. Hetty looked up from behind her counter. There was no welcoming smile, just her usual owlish look, but Marg was sure there was a slight twitch at the corner of her mouth when she saw Ruth.

“You’re home then,” Hetty said.




Thursday, July 21, 2022

Another Milestone


Yes, folks, I made the Books We Love bestseller list for 2021. It's always a pleasure to know that readers have been appreciating your books. Every time I say I'm putting writing behind me and retiring, I come up with another idea, then I reach a milestone like this, and off I go again. 

My next book will be another contemporary western romance entitled Loving Georgia Caldwell. The blurb is written, the cover image selected, now I just have to write it. Publication date is September 1st, 2023. I can't think of a better way to celebrate what will be my 80th birthday! It's more than a year away but I can't quite believe it. Where have the years gone? Has anyone got any ideas?

The Magic of a Horse


Belinda and Lancer

 Most people have an interest or hobby about which they are passionate. It could be gardening, golf, quilting or fishing. For me, it is horses. My parents, as non-horsey people, never understood where my passion for all things equine stemmed, but I lay this lifelong love of horses squarely on my father’s shoulders.

He faced a lengthy recovery period after surgery at the end of WWII that had nothing to do with war wounds. His occupational therapy of choice was making soft toys for his then unseen baby daughter. He arrived home when I was two years old. I promptly howled at him but was quickly pacified by the beautifully made animals he brought with him—a pink rabbit, an elephant, two dogs, one white and the other black, and a blue felt horse with an arched neck and flowing mane and tail. ‘Horsey’ became my instant love and constant companion.

In the post-war era, we still had door-to-door deliveries, and I quickly learned the sound and names of the vendors’ horses and ponies. At six and seven years old, spending long summer holidays in Cornwall, I knew and rode every one of the beach ponies. At eight years old, I had my first formal riding lesson. At nine and ten, I spent the summer holidays with my grandmother and two cousins who were as horse-mad as me. It wasn’t long before we found riding stables where we worked all summer for our rides. We handled the most bloody-minded ponies imaginable, unaware at the time of the valuable lessons they taught us. When I was thirteen, we moved to an urban area with not a horse in sight, but I read about horses, drew horses, and hand-crafted horses from pipe-cleaners and wool.

When I was sixteen and contemplating a career, my parents refused to let me leave home and take up the prized working-pupil position I so coveted, which would have earned me a horse riding instructor’s certificate. At eighteen, I left home anyway and worked in a hunting stable until marriage and family ended that career. When my daughter, by now a teenager, became interested in riding, we haunted our local riding stables. Most evenings after riding, we would go to the local pub, The Ragged Cot. It was here one evening that, after some quick calculations on a napkin, she announced, “You know, Mum, with what we spend at the stables, we could have a horse of our own.”

My old dream of having a horse resurfaced. If we did this together, then having a horse became financially viable. Between us, we agreed on our criteria. Our horse would have to be of medium height and hardy as, having no stable, it would have to live out. It had to be good in traffic as we had the prospect of a lot of road riding before we got to bridle paths and other off-road tracks. Sex, age, and colour were optional. Versatility for combining our equestrian ambitions was essential. We started scouring the classifieds and travelled all over our county and two neighbouring ones, only to become quickly disillusioned with the vagaries of advertising.

A horse described as ‘onward bound’ had no brakes. A mare described as a ‘good jumper’ was and proved it several times by jumping out of her paddock. After four days of a two-week trial and seeing the probability of numerous looming liabilities, we returned her to her owner. As summer came to a close and we had not found our dream horse, we decided to end our search for that year. Then, in the last week of September, I opened the local paper and was immediately drawn to an advert that read: ‘15hh chestnut gelding for sale. Six-hundred pounds including tack.’

Right size, great price and, I thought, too good to be true. I put the paper aside but picked up the phone two days later. The young woman who answered sounded breathless, as if she’d been running, and said, “Oh, I’m so glad you called!” Did we know each other? But no, Diana was simply anxious to sell her horse as her wedding to a non-horse person was only weeks away.

“Could you tell me a bit about your horse?” I asked.

“Well,” she began, “his name is Paunt House Royal Lancer, and he’s a full-bred Arab and—”

I stopped her there. We didn’t want a full-bred anything, especially something as exotic as an Arab horse.

“But you must at least come and meet him,” she exclaimed. “He’s a lovely person.”

Now, the concept of a horse being a ‘lovely person’ was a bit beyond me, but I got swept up in her enthusiasm and arranged to meet her and her horse the following Sunday. She said to look for a white-walled house with a red-tiled roof beside a bus stop. We had no trouble following her directions. Paddocks and neatly kept flowerbeds surrounded the house. As my daughter and I walked up the garden path, the front door opened, and Diana greeted us like old friends.

“You’re perfect,” she said as she looked us over. “Lancer is going to love you. This way.”

We followed her around the back of the house, slightly bemused by her certainty that we would be Lancer’s new owners. We stopped at the paddock gate, immediately entranced with the sight before us. Beauty, it is said, is in the eye of the beholder, but here beauty stood almost knee-deep in lush green grass.

Here was a horse whose coat glowed as brightly as the crust of a loaf of bread fresh from the oven. The graceful curve of his neck and head, the crescent-shaped tips of his ears and the flaring, questing nostrils declared him a true Arab horse, the fabled drinker of the wind. Behind the fringe of his thick forelock, we could see one full, round eye, gleaming with interest, intelligence, and unmistakable kindness.

We stood silent and stunned as he came toward us. His legs parted the grass soundlessly, making him appear to glide rather than walk. His warm and moist, sweet-smelling breath washed over us as he gently nuzzled us in turn. We drank in the magic of his greeting and called him ours.

Monday, June 6, 2022

A New Review

 Authors appreciate an honest review and I was very happy to have this one from Theresa Wilson of Wanderlust Canadian here.

His Dark Enchantress was my first published novel and I still have a soft spot for the heroine, Emmaline. You can look at her details here on my Books We Love author page, or go here for purchase platforms.

Friday, June 3, 2022

 Phoebe Fisher is live! The paperback edition will be available on June 15th, 2022.

Out of all my heroines, Phoebe was the most fun to write. Here are some of the locations in Gloucester that I used for settings in the story.

The front entrance to the 1,000-year-old Gloucester Cathedral with its impressive statuary above the door.

The New Inn, Gloucester, is believed to be the finest galleried inn in England and dates back to the 15th century. I used these images to recreate The Bell Inn.

Robert Raikes published the Gloucester Journal but was better known for his promotion of Sunday schools which were the forerunner of the English state schooling system.

I always enjoy visiting my family and my home county and can't wait for the next visit.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

An Invitation to . . .

 . . . Phoebe's wedding. Regency weddings were far simpler events than they often are today. Members of the ton, the upper echelons of society, married at St. George's Parish Church, located in Mayfair. As many as three ceremonies a day took place there, which did not give much time between one couple and the next. So there was no decorating the church as is often the way these days. The white wedding gown that is so much the hallmark of modern weddings did not become popular until Queen Victoria married Prince Albert on the 10th of February 1840. 

But back to Phoebe. For a simple family wedding, there would be very few in attendance. The minister and clerk, bride and groom, their parents, and their friends. The bride might have had a bridesmaid and the groom a best man. These would have also stood witness to the marriage. The bride might have worn her best dress, sometimes, her only dress and a light meal would have been served in the bride's home. 

Phoebe's father and aunt insist that she have a new outfit for her wedding. For this, I made use of illustrations in Tom Tierney's Fashions of the Regency Period Paper Dolls (Dover Publications Inc 1996.) I have never gone as far as cutting these out as the book is far more useful to me in its entirety.

I chose the jacket and bodice of one design and added it to the skirt of another. The spencer jacket is rose-pink crushed velvet, the gown is lavender satin with purple trim. Her frilled bonnet is trimmed with rose-pink crushed velvet ribbon, and she wears purple satin shoes. 

Next week, I'll show you what her groom, Lord Andrew Fitzgibbon, will wear.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

What's New in 2022

 So here I am, at it again. Writing, that is. The current work in progress is Those Regency Belles Book 3, Phoebe Fisher. Here's the premise:

Phoebe Fisher’s generous dowry attracts many suitors. When they discover Phoebe’s one notable and outstanding flaw, they depart as quickly as they arrive, and she loses hope of ever finding a suitor who will love her just as she is.

After an absence of ten years, Andrew Fitzgibbon returns home to discover he is the sole heir to his deceased uncle’s title and estates, but it will take a fortune to save it. Although reluctant to press his suit to a young lady simply for her wealth, Andrew finds her intriguing and suggests a union that might suit them both. Phoebe agrees, but then events from Andrew’s past cloud their new life together.

Will these threats make or break them? Will their marriage of convenience grow into a love match, or will Pheobe never know what it is to love and be loved?

Today I'm also designing Phoebe's wedding gown. I'll show you that next week.