Friday’s Feature with Michelle Griep

 

Michelle Griep’s been writing since she first discovered blank wall space and Crayolas. She is the author of historical romances: The Captured Bride, The Innkeeper’s Daughter, 12 Days at Bleakly Manor, The Captive Heart, Brentwood’s Ward, A Heart Deceived, and Gallimore, but also leaped the historical fence into the realm of contemporary with the zany romantic mystery Out of the Frying Pan. If you’d like to keep up with her escapades, find her at www.michellegriep.com or stalk her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Pinterest.

 

 

A mysterious invitation to spend Christmas at an English manor home may bring danger…and love?

England, 1851: When Clara Chapman receives an intriguing invitation to spend Christmas at an English manor home, she is hesitant yet feels compelled to attend—for if she remains the duration of the twelve-day celebration, she is promised a sum of five hundred pounds.

But is she walking into danger? It appears so, especially when she comes face to face with one of the other guests—her former fiancé, Benjamin Lane.

Imprisoned unjustly, Ben wants revenge on whoever stole his honor. When he’s given the chance to gain his freedom, he jumps at it—and is faced with the anger of the woman he stood up at the altar. Brought together under mysterious circumstances, Clara and Ben discover that what they’ve been striving for isn’t what ultimately matters.

What matters most is what Christmas is all about . . . love.

Pour a cup of tea and settle in for Book 1 of the Once Upon a Dickens Christmas series–a page-turning Victorian-era holiday tale–by Michelle Griep, a reader and critic favorite.

Click here to get your copy of 12 Days at Bleakly Manor.


Read an expert of Michelle’s book 12 Days at Bleakly Manor.

CHAPTER ONE

London, 1850

Christmas or not, there was nothing merry about the twisted alleys of Holywell. Clara Chapman forced one foot in front of the other, sidestepping pools of. . .well, a lady ought not think on such things, not on the morn of Christmas Eve—or any other morn, for that matter.

Damp air seeped through her woolen cape, and she tugged her collar tighter. Fog wrapped around her shoulders, cold as an embrace from the grim reaper. Though morning had broken several hours ago, daylight tarried to make an appearance in this part of London—and likely never would. Ancient buildings with rheumy windows leaned toward one another for support, blocking a good portion of the sky.

She quickened her pace. If she didn’t deliver Effie’s gift soon, the poor woman would be off to her twelve-hour shift at the hatbox factory.

Rounding a corner, Clara rapped on the very next door, then fought the urge to wipe her glove afterward. The filthy boards, hung together more by memory than nails, rattled like bones. Her lips pursed into a wry twist. A clean snow might hide the sin of soot and grime in this neighborhood, but no. Even should a fresh coating of white bless all, the stain of so much humanity would not be erased. Not here. For the thousandth time, she breathed out the only prayer she had left.

Why God? Why?

The door swung open. Effie Gedge’s smile beamed so bright and familiar, Clara’s throat tightened. How she missed this woman, her friend, her confidant—her former maid.

“Miss Chapman? What a surprise!” Effie glanced over her shoulder, her smile faltering as she looked back at Clara. “I’d ask you in but. . .”

Clara shoved away the awkward moment by handing over a basket. “I’ve brought you something for your Christmas dinner tomorrow. It isn’t much, but…” It was Clara’s turn to falter. “Anyway, I cannot stay, for Aunt’s developed a cough.”

Effie’s smile returned, more brilliant than ever. “That’s kind of you, miss. Thank you. Truly.”

The woman’s gratitude, so pure and genuine, rubbed Clara’s conscience raw. Would that she might learn to be as thankful for small things. And small it was. Her gaze slipped to the cloth-covered loaf of bread, an orange, and used tea leaves wrapped in a scrap of paper. Pressing her lips together, she faced Effie. “I wish it were more. I wish I could do more. If only we could go back to our old lives.”

“Begging your pardon, miss.” Effie rested her hand on Clara’s arm, her fingers calloused from work no lady’s maid should ever have to perform. “But you are not to blame. I shall always hold to that. There is no ill will between us.”

Clara hid a grimace. Of course she knew in her head she wasn’t to blame, but her heart? That fickle organ had since reverted to her old way of thinking, pulsing out, “you are unloved, you are unwanted,” with every subsequent beat.

“Miss?”

Clara forced a smile of her own and patted the woman’s hand. “You are the kind one, Effie. You’ve lost everything because of my family, and yet you smile.”

“The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. I suppose you know that as well as I, hmm?” Her fingers squeezed before she released her hold. “I wish you merry, Miss Chapman, this Christmas and always.”

“Thank you, Effie. And a very merry Christmas be yours as well.” She spun, eyes burning, and pushed her way back down the narrow alley before Effie saw her tears. This wasn’t fair. None of it.

Her hired hansom waited where she’d left it. The cab was an expense she’d rather not think on, but altogether necessary, for she lived on the other side of town. She borrowed the driver’s strong grip to ascend onto the step, then when inside, settled her skirts on the seat while he shut the door.

Only once did she glance out the window as the vehicle jostled along London’s rutted roads—and immediately repented for having looked out. Two lovers walked hand in hand, the man bending close and whispering into the woman’s ear. A blush then, followed by a smile.

Clara yanked shut the window curtain, the loneliness in her heart rabid and biting.

That could’ve been her. That should’ve been her.

Why, God? Why?

She leaned her head back against the carriage. Was love to be forever denied her? First her father’s rejection, then her fiancé’s. She swallowed back a sob, wearier than twenty-five years ought to feel.

Eventually, the cab jerked to a halt, and she descended onto the street. She dug into her reticule and pulled out one of her last coins to pay the driver. At this rate, she wouldn’t have to hire a cab to visit Effie next Christmas. She might very well be her neighbor.

“Merry Christmas, miss.” The driver tipped his hat.

“To you as well,” she answered, then scurried toward Aunt’s townhouse. A lacquered carriage, with a fine pair of matched horses at the front, stood near the curb. Curious. Perhaps the owner had taken a wrong turn, for Highgate, while shabbily reputable, was no Grosvenor Square.

Clara dashed up the few stairs and entered her home of the last nine months, taken in by the charitable heart of her Aunt Deborha Mitchell. The dear woman was increasingly infirm and housebound, but in her younger days she’d hobnobbed with people from many spheres.

Noontide chimes rang from the sitting room clock, accompanied by a bark of a cough. Clara untied her hat and slipped from her cloak, hanging both on a hall tree, all the while wondering how best to urge Aunt back to her bed. The woman was as stubborn as. . . She bit her lower lip. Truth be told, tenacity ran just as strongly in her own veins.

Smoothing her skirts, she pulled her lips into a passable smile and crossed the sitting room’s threshold. “I am home, Aunt, and I really must insist you retire—oh! Forgive me.”

She stopped at the edge of the rug. A man stood near the mantel, dressed in deep blue livery. Her gaze flickered to her aunt. “I am sorry. I did not know you had company.”

“Come in, child.” Aunt waved her forward, the fabric of her sleeve dangling too loosely from the woman’s arm. “This involves you.”

The man advanced, offering a creamy envelope with gilt writing embellishing the front. “I am to deliver this to Miss Clara Chapman. That is you, is it not?”

She frowned. “It is.”

He handed her the missive with a bow, then straightened. “I shall await you at the door, miss.”

Her jaw dropped as he bypassed her, smelling of lavender of all things. She turned to Aunt. “I don’t understand.”

“I should think not.” Aunt nodded toward the envelope. “Open it.”

Clara’s name alone graced the front. The penmanship was fine. Perfect, actually. And completely foreign. Turning it over, she broke the seal and pulled out an embossed sheet of paper, reading aloud the words for Aunt to hear.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

As never’s been reveled

Your presence, Miss Chapman,

Is respectfully herald.
Bleakly Manor’s the place

And after twelve nights

Five hundred pounds

Will be yours by rights.

She lowered the invitation and studied her aunt. Grey hair pulled back tightly into a chignon eased some of the wrinkles at the sides of her eyes, yet a peculiar light shone in the woman’s faded gaze. Aunt Deborha always hid wisdom, but this time, Clara suspected she secreted something more.

“Who sent this?” Clara closed the distance between them and knelt in front of the old woman. “And why?”

Aunt shrugged, her thin shoulders coaxing a rumble in her chest. A good throat clearing staved off a coughing spell—for now. “One does not question an opportunity, my dear. One simply mounts it and rides.”

“You can’t be serious.” She dissected the tiny lift of Aunt’s brows and the set of her mouth, both unwavering. Incredible. Clara sucked in a breath. “You think I should go? To Bleakly Manor, wherever that is?”

“I think,” Aunt angled her chin, “you simply must.”

A Prayer for Texas Teachers

I normally use my blog to promote other authors. Today, during our National Day of Prayer, I’m going to devote it to all Texas teachers in Harvey’s path. As I am one.

A few schools in the state have already started, while the majority were scheduled to start the week Harvey made his historic and tragic appearance, causing the first day to be pushed back for weeks or maybe months. For those who aren’t teachers, let me tell you what the first day of school is typically like—specifically for elementary teachers.

Stressful.

No other word can sum it up like stressful does. We’re meeting with parents who have a hard time saying goodbye. They come into our rooms and linger there until the principal politely asks them to exit the building. When they  leave, we have 20 or more anxious little faces pinning us down with eyes that say “I’m depending on you to take care of me now”. I always start by telling my students we’re going to be a family for the next nine months. We’re here for each other. We’re going to support each other and make this the best year ever. Those kids may be young, but they get it. Right away, they’re all in and ready to go forward. After putting away supplies, taking several restroom breaks, explaining procedures, rules, and hallway etiquette, we take them to lunch. Then it’s recess, more reviewing of procedures, and thirty minutes before the end of the day we all send up a pray to God that dismissal goes smoothly. Teachers will tell you that the only thing we care about on the first day of school is getting them fed and getting them home.

Home will mean something very different this year.

Although my house was spared, I feel very undeserving of the blessing I’ve received. I know there will be students in my classroom who have lost their homes and are displaced. Teachers who have lost everything will be expected to go back to work and do a job that is hard under normal circumstances. I don’t know yet what that first day will be like, but I know it will be the hardest one I’ve ever had. I’m sure every teacher on the Texas Gulf Coast is feeling the same way right now, whether they suffered damage or not. But no matter what we’ve been through, are going through, or will go through down the road…it’s still our responsibility to educate these kids. It’s our job to make them feel safe, love them, build them up, encourage them and get them through this storm. Teachers, we have a big job ahead of us and I have no doubt we’re going to make this year great for our students. Most likely, THIS will be their greatest year ever.

Heavenly Father, I pray today for the teachers whom you called into this profession. I pray that you strengthen, guide, and lead us during this difficult time as we do our part to help communities rebuild by taking care of the children you are sending to us in the aftermath of this storm. I pray, Father, that you give us the wisdom to be flexible to the needs of our students and give them a safe and happy place to come to each day. Thank you for the strength you have given, the love that you pour out over us, and the blessings you’ve bestowed upon us. I ask this in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”Philippians 4:13

Friday’s Feature with Jan Elder

JAN ELDER is an inspirational romance writer with a passion for telling stories other women can relate to on a deep level. She strives to write the kind of book that will strengthen the reader’s faith, introducing the reader to a loving and forgiving Lord who walks beside us in our daily lives, while also providing an entertaining and engrossing love story.

Happily married for fourteen years to loving (and supportive) husband, Steve, the two live in central Maryland along with Jamie (a chubby black and white tuxedo cat), and Shu-Shu (a willowy tortoiseshell cat). On the weekends, Jan and Steve comb the nearby countryside in search of the perfect ice cream flavor.


Jan is a fellow Pelican Book Group author. Here is an excerpt of her latest new release.

A Semi-Sweet Summer

CHAPTER ONE

Cassidy Cooper was elbow deep in a cardboard carton when the front door banged shut. Who would walk in without knocking? She grabbed the first thing she could get her hands on—a plastic colander. She could do better. She reached deeper into the packing box and pulled out a shiny, never-used skillet.

“Yoo-hoo,” called a shrill female voice.

Yoo-hoo? Who said yoo-hoo? Cassidy vaulted to her feet and hefted the weighty frying pan over her head.

A pixie-sized female peeked into the kitchen. “Hi. I’m Gabby. I heard from the movers you were driving in today, so I stopped in to introduce myself.”

This Gabby girl was quite pretty in a homespun sort of way. With long, black tresses whisked back from her face with a hair band, and faded jeans complete with huge holes in the knees, she looked harmless enough, but yikes! She’d walked right into Cassidy’s house without an invitation.

“Do you have a last name, Gabby?” Cassidy clanged the pan on the kitchen counter and stared down the intruder. She would wait politely for an apology, but she kept her hand around the handle on principle.

Gabby tilted her head and grinned. “Gabby Reyes. And you’re Cassie, right? Savannah said you were funny. You can let go of the skillet now.” Gabby stuck out her hand and stood…waiting.

Her stepsister had told this girl about her? She released her grip on the pan and offered a tentative hand in return. “I prefer Cassidy.” She disengaged and wiped damp palms on her khakis. “Thanks for stopping by, but I was in the middle of unpacking the car.”

Gabby pouted cupid-shaped lips. “But I’m here to help.”

The girl couldn’t take a hint. Cassidy needed to walk away, even if the box beside her still wasn’t

unpacked. She left Gabby standing in the kitchen and trundled back to the car for another load. After getting up in the wee hours and driving six hundred miles, her weary legs were beginning to shake.

Gabby bounced along behind, trailing her like a golden retriever puppy. “Nice car. I love the reddish color. It matches your red highlights. They look great in your blonde hair.”

Gracious, she was chatty. Cassidy hadn’t exactly bought the car to harmonize with her hair, but she’d take the compliment. “So I’ve been told. I needed a car for small town life with no public transportation. I always took the L in Chicago.” And she wished she were still there. Her stepsister’s death was so unexpected. And so totally gut wrenching.

Gabby reached for a load, extending eager hands. Cassidy relented, reverently handing her a couple of lamps. “Please be careful with those. They’re expensive.”

With arms piled high with beige silk throw pillows, Cassidy slammed the door of the coupe with a bump of her hip. Thankfully, the movers had arrived yesterday with her belongings, but even if they hadn’t, she’d stowed a few of her favorite things in her car to keep them safe. She climbed the three stairs to the covered porch and entered her new home, towing along with an invisible thread, a determined Gabby.

Her new home. Where fat groundhogs sunned by the roadside, fuzzy rabbits munched on clover-dotted lawns, and squirrels chattered from the shelter of trees swaying in a warm spring breeze. Yippee. She was back in the sticks of rural Maryland.

She tossed the pillows on her living room couch and then crossed her arms. Savannah’s belongings still furnished most of the place. How was she going to deal with that? Her head whirled as she stared at the hideous piece of furniture sitting catty-corner. Mismatched couches were unacceptable. The daily reminder of how their two lives had clashed would be intolerable. Savannah’s yellow and blue plaid would have to go.

Cassidy turned in a circle and absorbed the décor. Her stepsister had lived simply, so not too much to get rid of. She’d call those estate sale people first thing next week, and she’d function better once the place looked like hers, not Savannah’s. This bungalow might be small compared to the substantial farmhouses she’d passed on the way, but it had twice the square footage of the condo she’d left behind.

It just wasn’t located in Chicago. She sighed. She missed city life already. The anonymous lifestyle that came from living in a high-rise. The busyness that left her too tired to think.

People-pleasing Gabby tenderly placed the lamps on one of the four end tables and raised her eyes, hopeful. A hesitant smile graced her lips.

Cassidy planted her feet in the middle of the living room, hands at her waist. “Unfortunately, I don’t have anything to offer you at the moment.”

“Oh!” Gabby literally jumped for joy. “Hold a sec.”

The young woman bounded out of the room, leapt off the front porch, and scampered down the

driveway. Through the dusty panes of the picture window, Cassidy had a great view of Gabby’s ample hips and tiny waist as she reached into the back seat of her car. Unlike Cassidy’s too-slender shape, Gabby’s figure was an hourglass, the kind of woman men noticed in a crowd.

Gabby sailed back up the stairs, and presented a loaf-sized package, still warm. “It’s lemon pudding pound cake. I made it myself. From scratch. It’s Savannah’s recipe.”

Her little sister’s recipe? Cassidy didn’t even know Savannah liked to bake. With a lump in her throat the size of the Rock of Gibraltar, Cassidy dared to reach over and pat Gabby’s arm. Once. “Thank you. I’m sure I’ll enjoy it.”

Cassidy deposited the package of buttery goodness on the coffee table and smiled—a bit stiff—

but she tried for genuine.

Gabby stared pointedly at the cake swathed in plastic wrap, her head lifting with question marks in her eyes.

Oh. “I don’t have any coffee made, but would you like a slice of cake?”

“Would I ever.” Gabby slid her fingers up and down the silk pillows and amped up the bighearted grin to a generous wattage.

Cassidy shuffled to the kitchen and opened a box marked plates and cups. Now, where to find flatware? Despite explicit instructions, the moving men had stacked her possessions willy-nilly. She swiveled to find Gabby rooting through cardboard boxes of her stuff. She’d have to keep an eye on her surprise guest. Did Gabby think just because she’d been a friend of Savannah’s, she was automatically Cassidy’s friend as well?

Gabby flopped to the kitchen floor and crossed her legs under her. “Cassie, I mean, Cassidy? That’ll be hard, by the way. Your sister called you Cassie.”

“I haven’t been Cassie since high school.” Cassidy lifted the plates out of the box, stacked them on the counter, and opened a nearby cupboard at random. The shelves were already chock-full of kitchen paraphernalia. Of course. What had she been thinking?

A photo taped to the inside of the cabinet door caught her eye—Savannah in shorts and a yellow T-shirt when she was twelve or thirteen. And Cassidy stood next to her, her arm snaked around Savannah’s waist. They were posing at the county fair, a Ferris wheel spinning behind them, the special smile of a carefree summer day plastered on their faces. That was the summer before the divorce between her mother and her stepfather—when the world still made sense.

Without warning, Cassidy’s eyes misted. She tried to blink away the moisture but failed miserably. Leukemia might have whisked Savannah to heaven, but Cassidy was here to finish what her sister had started. If she hadn’t returned, the guilt and shame of turning her back on her little sister would forever lay heavy on her heart.

In an instant, Gabby was off the floor pulling Cassidy into a hug, swiping tears out of her own eyes. “I know. I miss her, too.” Gabby sniffled.

Cassidy drew in a sharp breath. Gabby patted her on the back and Cassidy loosened taut shoulders, accepting the comfort—for fifteen seconds. That was all she could handle. She wasn’t ready for this, and she certainly wasn’t ready to be in a strange woman’s arms.

Gabby clamped down on her bottom lip and stepped back. “Uh, Savannah kept her plates in that cupboard to the left, and glasses are to the right.” She pointed. “Can I help you unpack after we have cake?”

At least Gabby had enough sense not to belabor the moment. Cassidy’s defenses softened. She was being too hard on the kid. Kid? Gabby was what, in her early twenties? A scant five or six years younger. Cassidy had never felt so old.

And way too young to lose a little sister.

She stowed her own plates back in the box. Maybe in the kitchen she could use a few of Savannah’s things. Now, what to do about Gabby? The girl might be harmless, but Cassidy still didn’t want the woman pawing through her personal items. “I really am thankful for the offer, but I’m good. It’s been a long drive, and I want to turn in early. All I have to do is find stuff for the night.”

Gabby grabbed a napkin from the tabletop and wiped her eyes, her brow creasing. “You didn’t pack a first-night box?”

“A what?”

“You know. A box with everything you need for the first twenty-four hours so you don’t have to scrounge around searching for essentials. Towels, shampoo, change of clothes, toothbrush…” She stopped talking and angled her head again as if she was doing her very best to figure Cassidy out. “Oh, well. I guess you didn’t, but we can do it together. Find your stuff, I mean.”

A first-night box. Huh. Maybe she’d remember to do a bit more planning before she moved again, but right now, it looked as if she’d be staying for a while. She’d quit her job, told her pushy boyfriend to take a hike, and listed her condominium. According to Savannah’s estate lawyer, this house was hers now.

So why was she turning away free help? Gabby might be a tad overzealous, but a little assistance would make life easier. Cassidy sniffed. And perhaps having her here in the house would keep her from thinking about Savannah. Cassidy wasn’t anywhere near ready to fall apart. But she was suddenly too limp even to consider unpacking.

“You know what, Gabby? Let’s go out for coffee, my treat, and then maybe we’ll have the energy to tackle this mess. Where’s the nearest Starbucks?”

Gabby’s dark eyes opened wide. “Nearest Starbucks? Why would you go there? There’s a great diner in town with the best coffee. And if we’re talking dinner, Katie’s Eats makes the most scrumptious fried chicken on the planet. And real mashed potatoes. And yummy gravy, and…”

Cassidy quit listening after the words fried chicken. When had she last allowed herself that sinful delicacy? She hadn’t been eating well for a couple of months. Or sleeping. Visions of Savannah stealthily crept up on her. She needed to eat more food or she would have to buy new clothes. “Sounds like a plan.”

“Really? What fun. We can have cake when we get back.”

Cassidy pushed aside some boxes on the kitchen table until she spied her suede purse. As they exited the house, she double-checked the lock.

Gabby snickered. “You don’t have to do that here.”

Cassidy raised her eyebrows. Yeah, right. As if she would ever leave a house unlocked. After living in Chicago for most of her childhood, and then again from age sixteen, she suspected it was biologically impossible. She’d already planned to add extra locks to all the doors and windows. Bad things happened if one wasn’t prepared.

Gabby loped to her ancient car and jumped in. “I’ll drive,” she called out the window.

With weighted steps, Cassidy headed toward the car and crumpled into the passenger seat. “Where’d you get all that energy? Don’t country people meander?”

She vaguely remembered when her life felt more like a brisk walk than the frantic gallop of her life in the big city. Vaguely.

“Us country-people tend to stroll through life and enjoy the journey—unless there’s fried chicken involved. Then it’s every man, woman, or child for themselves. Ready?” Gabby shifted into gear and prepared for take-off.

Out of the corner of Cassidy’s eye, something huge and decidedly bovine moved over by her property line. “Hold up.”

Gabby pulled up short and Cassidy stiff-legged it out of the car. She strode across the lawn, her heels sinking into clover with every step. When she was ten feet away from a mangled fence, she spied a man headed in her direction, picking his way across the field next door. His periwinkle-blue cotton shirt stretched across broad, muscular shoulders, his thick, dark-brown hair was ruffled by the light breeze.

OK, he had nice, wide shoulders, but she had a damaged fence. She stepped closer. The oxford button-down fit him as if it was made for his fine physique. Her ex-boyfriend’s London tailor couldn’t have done any better.

Cassidy moved another step closer. The man’s chestnut-brown eyes, with a hint of copper, zeroed in on hers as he swiped an errant lock of hair off his forehead.

Hunter Gray?

The blast from her past nearly slapped her to the ground. In high school, she’d pined for this man from afar. In her adolescent journal, she’d waxed lyrical about his many fine attributes. She’d lain awake countless nights dreaming of the dimples in his face, his broad chest…and his lips.

And then, at the end of her sophomore year, he’d ruined it all. Her passion swung the other direction—hatred for his despicable self.

Hunter whistled through his teeth, a slow smile gracing his lips. “Well, hello, neighbor.”

“Is that your animal on my lawn?” She knew a bovine when she saw one, and this one was impressive. Long, long legs, massive hooves, and…who knew cows could be so whopping enormous?

The cow turned dark, liquid eyes on Cassidy and she could swear the creature smirked. Wickedly. As if it were claiming the lawn as its own.

“Oh, you mean Marigold?”

He named his cows after flowers? “Yes. Why is Marigold on my lawn?”

“What can I say? She’s the adventurous type.” He pushed a hand through hair the color of brisk iced tea—that wavy, tousled hair. “Don’t worry. I’ll fix your fence.”

She screwed up her face until she found the semblance of a smile. “Fine. And I’d appreciate it if you’d get your cow off my turf. Now.”

Why wasn’t she over this stomach-clenching angst? She’d forgiven him years ago, so why did the rusty barb of humiliation pin her like a bug to a board?

She smothered a sigh just as the recalcitrant cow lifted her tail and plopped a cow-pie on spring-green grass.


Available at: Amazon.com

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