One of the comforting things about romance is that we know the couple will end up alive and together, walking off arm and arm into a brighter future. Which is a good thing when writers like me put our poor characters into ghastly situations. Romances are part of the wider category of love stories, but you’re guaranteed a happy ending in a romance; not necessarily in a love story.

Romance isn’t the only genre with a guarantee, of course. In suspense novels, the hero will win against all the odds. In a crime novel, the detective will solve the case. In literary novels (on the whole), everything will turn pear shaped.

I write love stories because the relationships between people are endlessly interesting, never more so than in the crucible of attraction and affection that is falling in love. And I write romances because I like happy endings.

In my novels, things can get grim, which is why I tend to call them regency noir. I make only two guarantees. There will be a romance, and the book will have a hopeful ending. Beyond that, I’ve introduced a hero after half the book was over, I’ve killed a popular secondary character, I’ve had a prologue in the point of view of a character who was dead before the beginning of Chapter 1. Tell me a ‘rule’ and I’ll immediately start making up plots that don’t meet it.

So what about you? What do you like in your romances? What would make you stop reading? What would make you throw the book at the wall?

Is she insane? Or fleeing unbelievable abuse?

Alex has found Ella asleep on the sofa in the sitting room of his inn suite. She is barefoot, in her shift, and wrapped in a blanket — and terrified that she’ll be found by her brother-in-law. When the brother-in-law knocks on the door of the suite, Alex hides Ella and denies having seen her. This scene follows.

Alex poured the coffee, his rinsed shaving mug doing service for Jonno’s portion. Ella sat and sipped while Jonno cleared the table and pushed the serving trolley out of the way. At Alex’s gesture, he sat on the stool again.

“Now, Lady Melville. What trouble are you in, and how can we help?” And should he believe a word she said? She did not act like a lunatic, apart from appearing half-naked in his room in the middle of the night. Apart from the panicked response to her brother-in-law.

That she had taken opium in some form was beyond a doubt. The contracted pupils, the loss of appetite, the shaky hand, the restless shifting in her seat, all spoke to that. Thanks to his injury, Alex had far too close and personal an experience of the symptoms to mistake them. The bruises on her jaw hinted that the drug taking might not have been voluntary, but perhaps her keepers needed to drug her to keep her calm.

Sane or not, Alex hoped he would not need to hand her back to Braxton. Her fear might be irrational, but when she had stood at bay, begging for his help, he had been thrown back ten years. Not that she begged him then. But he left camp on a short trip for supplies, and returned to find Ella married and much changed, her fire banked; her joy extinguished. That time, he had ignored her plight, hardened his heart and left her to the fate she had engineered. And had suffered with her as the consequences quenched her vitality and sucked away the last of her childhood. Suffered, and been powerless to help.

“I have been drugged,” Ella said baldly. “Twice a day. For weeks now. They won’t tell me why. If I refuse, they force me.”

“‘They’ being Braxton and his wife?” Alex prompted.

“And Constance’s dresser.”

“Go on.” He was careful to show no disbelief, no surprise.

“I have been kept in my room. They locked the door. They took all my clothes, my shoes. I saw you out the window and so I came. Will you help me, Alex?”

“I can take you to the rector.” Even as he said it he remembered the plump little man greasing at Braxton’s elbow. Ella would find no help there.

“No!” Her rejection was instant and panicked. “He will give me back and they will send me to that place. No, Alex. You do not know what they plan for me.” She was weeping. Alex had seen her calm under cannon fire, dry-eyed at her father’s funeral, efficient and unemotional in the midst of the carnage of a hospital tent after a battle. He had never seen her weep.

He captured her hands, and kept his voice low and soothing. “I do not, Ella. Tell me.”

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