A Recipe for Happiness, Maureen Huxley Style

IMG_0158

Maureen Huxley’s Orange Cakes

In Confessions of a Dangerous Lord (Book Seven of the Rescued from Ruin series), Lady Maureen Huxley is scandalously fond of cookery—quite a peculiar thing for an earl’s daughter during the English Regency, I admit. Most aristocratic ladies just bossed their cook around. But not Maureen. She prefers to get her hands dirty. She’s even developed a few of her own “receipts” (the historic term for recipes). One of them is her orange cakes, which are featured in the book.

Maureen’s recipe (as I conceived it with my own limited knowledge of cookery) was adapted from historical recipes for cakes of various sorts, but it’s primarily a pound cake, a simple, yummy treat that’s been around since the eighteenth century. Some of the recipes I drew from were in books such as Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (first published 1747) and A Complete System of Cookery by John Simpson, the cook for the Marquis of Buckingham (1806), as well as videos of cake-making techniques in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries (such as the one at the bottom of this post from Jas. Townsend and Son). However, Maureen’s recipe is my creation, and therefore any historical errors—or odd flavors—are likewise entirely mine.

These orange cakes are simple to make, rich with butter and eggs, and lightly sweet with a subtle hint of orange and an optional sugar glaze for the top. I’ve adapted the recipe for the modern cook with, you know, electricity and such, but if you want to take a shot at making it the old-fashioned way, feel free to whisk everything by hand and bake it in a wood-fired oven. Kidding. I don’t recommend that. Hope you enjoy. —Elisa

MAUREEN’S ORANGE CAKES

Ingredients
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour (unbleached)
1 3/4 cups powdered sugar
1/2 pound (2 sticks) salted butter
5 large, whole eggs + 2 whites
Orange zest (approx. 1 tsp)
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier (orange liqueur) — may substitute 2 tsp orange extract
4 tablespoons orange juice

Equipment
Hand mixer or stand mixer with whisk attachment (or strong arms, a good wire whisk, and about an hour’s time)
Large-muffin tins or small-cake tins — I used two 6-cup, large-muffin tins (the kind that make the really BIG cupcakes)
Bowls aplenty

Instructions
1. Start by buttering and flouring your tins. Be generous. Don’t skip this part. Trust me.
2. Pre-heat your oven to 325°F (165°C)
3. In one bowl, combine flour, nutmeg, and orange zest; stir so the zest distributes evenly.
4. In another bowl, combine softened butter and sugar; cream together by beating with hand mixer for about 5 minutes. It will look like it’s not combining well at first. Be persistent. After a while, it will come together until it resembles thick frosting.
5. In a third bowl, and using clean attachments, beat the eggs and egg whites until they are light and foamy (about 10 minutes).
6. By turns, fold the eggs and flour mixture into the creamed butter.
7. Add the orange juice and orange liqueur (Grand Marnier)
8. Mix well until you have a thick batter, taking care not to deflate it too much. You may need to use the hand mixer again for a minute or so to get everything well combined.
9. Ladle the batter into the tins, filling them about half to two-thirds full
10. Bake at 325°F for about 18 to 22 minutes (reduce time for convection) or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Don’t worry if they look like little volcanoes. Butter cakes do that.
11. Let them cool for about 10 minutes, then turn them out onto a tray or plate.
12. While still warm, drizzle with Orange Sugar Glaze (optional; recipe below).

OPTIONAL ORANGE SUGAR GLAZE

Ingredients
1 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon Grand Marnier
2 tablespoons orange juice
1/2 teaspoon orange zest

Instructions
Stir all ingredients together until the glaze is runny enough to drizzle.
Add more orange juice or sugar to adjust consistency to your liking.

*Note: These cakes have a soft, fine, dense texture and are best served warm with a lovely spot of tea and a good book.

Here’s the 18th-century pound cake video I referenced above, from Jas. Townsend & Son.

Paperback Dreams (or When Digital Just Won’t Do)

printbooksrescuedfromruin_v2In the dim, dusty hush of a corner bookshop, insulated by paperback walls boasting script-font titles, buxom ladies, and shirtless men, I found my place. It was early days. I was young and glad for ceiling-high bookshelves that kept me hidden. What kind of girl gobbles up those trashy romances, anyway?

Answer: This kind of girl. The kind who loves the smell of paper and ink and the glue that binds. The kind who first adored anything Sweet Valley or Beverly Cleary because a kid only knows what she likes, not what she’s supposed to like. The kind who would rather be swept up in a gut-twisting love story than put to sleep by a highbrow literary masterpiece.

Yep, that’s me. A sucker for those trashy romances.

And I fell in love with the entire genre … in paper. There’s just something about it, isn’t there? The permanence. The snap and swish of the page turning. The little love crinkles that form in the cover when you’ve read the same book over and over. Those things can’t be duplicated in digits or screens.

Don’t get me wrong—my Kindle rocks. I’m old enough now to answer with an eyebrow-waggling grin when nosy, judgmental prudes frown disapprovingly at the trashy paperback in my hands like they’re my nosy, judgmental Great Aunt Prudence. And yet, I cherish that Kindle mystery. Thanks to this clever device, you haven’t the foggiest idea what I’m reading, Auntie Pru. Might be James Joyce. Might be EL James. Frankly, my dear, you can kiss my Kindle. Plus, an e-reader really lightens the load on a long trip. So, there’s that.

Nevertheless, paper holds a certain magic that e-books can’t quite match. And that’s why I’m thrilled to now offer Books One through Five of the Rescued from Ruin series in paperback at Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com. Because paper was my first love (yours, too?), and despite the undeniable conveniences of digital, it still holds my heart like a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf. —Elisa

For Love of the Game — And the Men Who Play It

field-sport-ball-americaToday, I celebrate manly men. Gorgeous men. Talented men.

Men who throw a funny-shaped brown ball forty yards with perfect angle and trajectory to drop the thing like a gift into the hands of a player running at high speed, all while evading the 350-pound wall of hard plastic and harder muscle closing in like a fight-maddened fist.

Men who flatten other men with freight-train force while simultaneously grappling for said ball, retrieving said ball, and carrying said ball down a fifty-yard stretch to shift the balance from defeat to victory.

Men who leap with the grace and speed of a cheetah to pluck said ball from an impossible height, exercising such awareness of space and position that they remember to drag two toes along the turf and tuck their hands beneath the pigskin so it doesn’t hit the ground when they do, doesn’t move or otherwise imply they lacked full possession.

Yep, the regular season of the National Football League is in full swing. I know what you’re thinking—why would a historical romance author be blogging about the NFL? Answer: Because I love it. Everything about it. And, after some consideration, I’ve selected my top five hottest guys in the aforementioned NFL for the 2016 season.

Consider it a public service, wherever you fall on the interest-o-meter. If you’re a pro football fan, you’ll be especially alert when you hear a particular player’s name. (“The dishes can wait. J.J. Watt just got another sack.”) If you’re not a fan but are forced to tolerate the sport because your significant other has it on all day Sunday, you’ll have an excuse to gaze at the sidelines intently, pretending you’re concerned about the guy undergoing concussion protocol. (“Oh, is that Luke Kuechly? I hope he’s okay. A crying shame to damage the goods—er, to lose a talented middle linebacker in a tough defensive game.”) And, if you’re completely uninterested and have never watched a single tackle, sack, long bomb, Hail Mary, sideline reception, quarterback sneak, or end zone dance, these guys just might tempt you to tune in.

My list is far from random. I have strict criteria for my selections:

First, the guy has to be, at MINIMUM, a decent player. Not great, perhaps. There are too few of those. But he must be competent at what he does.

Second, he must have a certain appeal. Whether it’s handsomeness in a classic sense or a heart-melting smile or the solidity of bedrock, he has to make a girl want to watch football, or at least peruse a few pics on Facebook, maybe even save those pics to a Pinterest board for later contemplation. Hmm.

Third, he must not be a total ass, either on or off the field. That may sound like a low bar, but character is tough to assess from a distance, and most people are a mixed bag of good and bad. Besides, I only know what’s reported in the press, and the press likes to play favorites. That said, you’d be surprised how many great players are also stellar human beings.

So, let’s begin. If you’ve followed my picks from the previous two NFL seasons, you won’t be surprised by some of this year’s selections. For one thing, I’m a Seahawks fan. For another, J.J. Watt is pretty much permanently emblazoned upon my hot guy Hall of Fame wall. But there are a couple newbies who might interest you. We’ll start there.


jimmy_garopollo1. Jimmy Garoppolo

Second-string quarterback for the New England Patriots

Geez, it’s like there’s some kind of hotness quota running the show over at Patriots recruiting headquarters. Don’t believe me? Take a peek at his two receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola or tight end Rob Gronkowski. Even so, the young Mr. Garoppolo might just top them all in terms of sheer handsomeness, even as he steps into the shoes of part-time GQ cover model Tom Brady (another hottie, but one serving a four-game suspension because of deflated balls; no, I’m not kidding). It’s too soon to tell if young, handsome Jimmy is Hall of Fame material, but he’s performed ably in his first two regular-season outings, so he’s certainly worth watching. In more ways than one.


derek_carr_2016_pro_bowl2. Derek Carr

Quarterback for the Oakland Raiders

It’s the eyes, I think. Impossibly pale and riveting. Plus, he’s a fresh, confident talent leading his team on a steep climb from the basement of the NFL to at least the first or second floor. That’s no small task. And, although he’s only 25, he’s a married-with-two-kids kind of guy. Refreshing in this era of nightclubbing, DUI arrests, and paternity suits. (Side note: His brother David ain’t half bad either.)


jj_watt_signs_autographs_in_june_20143. J.J. Watt

Defensive end for the Houston Texans

A big, not-entirely-handsome, ferocious defensive end who enjoys lifting 1,000-pound tires in his off time, the 6-foot-5 Mr. Watt can play tight end, too, just in case you need his mad skills on offense. That’s good, because the Texans have struggled for the past few seasons, so whatever success they find often rests on J.J.’s massive shoulders. With all that talent and the constant accolades (he’s widely regarded as the best defensive player in the game), you’d think he’d be arrogant or dumb or a loudmouth. But no. He’s known for being an all-around great guy off the field, doing lots of charity work and staying late at practice to sign autographs and take pics with fans. Frankly, he’s my dream guy. But, then, I’m clearly not alone in that perspective.


4. Luke Kuechly

Linebacker for the Carolina Panthers

He’s got a squeaky-clean persona, a kind of shy, civilized innocence off the field that makes you think he’d rather die than drop an f-bomb in front of his mother. Then you see him play football, and all notions of his sweet, slightly awkward boyishness disappear. He’s fierce and beautiful. Smart and instinctive. A tremendous player whose spectacular career is only just getting started.


russell_wilson_at_seahawks_vs_redskins_on_october_6_20145. Russell Wilson

Quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks

Watch an interview with DangerRuss, and you’ll understand immediately what his new wife, Ciara, sees in him. Those puppy-dog eyes light up while he’s talking about the kids he visits every week at Children’s Hospital. His positivity and passion for whatever he’s doing—charitable work, football, his wife, his faith—is both palpable and contagious. Plus, he’s a great player who has had to overcome a longstanding bias against QBs under 6 feet (he’s 5’11” on a good day with tall cleats). He’s triumphed over adversity without losing his trademark poise and optimism, even in the face of a heartbreaking Super Bowl loss two years ago. He keeps going, frustrating defenses time and again both with his legs and his arm. A recent ankle injury notwithstanding, he’s impressive every time his cleats touch turf. And, for that matter, every time he appears in public. What more could you ask?


That’s it! My top five hot guys to watch during the 2016 NFL season. Agree? Disagree? Want to suggest candidates for the 2017 list? Feel free to comment below. We all have our favorites; that’s the fun part, after all. —Elisa

The Year I Never Could Have Pictured

beach-677553_1920One year ago today, I held my breath and pressed a button and published my very first novel. That may sound easy—it’s just words on electronic pages, right?—but it wasn’t. It was scary. Most of us have valid reasons why our dreams don’t become a reality. Practical things like a job or an illness or a relationship or family obligations tug our focus off-center. Worse, internal demons like fear and doubt and discomfort further fog the view. Eventually, your proverbial camera is taking fuzzy, gray pictures of the ground beneath you instead of vivid shots of the landscape before you. Oh, you might try to raise the lens occasionally, but you talk yourself out of it. “Why bother?” you say. “Focus on the everyday stuff and get your head out of the clouds.”

The problem is you have it exactly backwards. The clouds are actually comprised of everyday stuff, and they’re all at ground level. That’s what fog is, incidentally. Clouds at ground level. Necessities and distractions—many of them vital if you want to, you know, keep eating and pay your rent—may be part of life, but they are not the point of life. It’s only when a bolt of wind comes along (a job ending, in my case) that you begin to suspect you’ve been looking at the ground too long. That maybe the waterline or the mountain or the sunrise will be better for keeping you on course or at least bringing color to an otherwise gray world. My waterline was becoming a full-time romance author.

Now, some may scoff at such a peculiar ambition. Small, slightly cheesy potatoes, right? Why not shoot for something more “respectable” or “worthwhile” or “serious”? Believe me, all these thoughts occurred to me. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve decided it’s bizarre to rebuff our gifts and the dreams they hatch, a bit like holding a funny-shaped puzzle piece in your hand, looking at a matching emptiness in the puzzle, and then wondering why the space can’t be bigger or smaller or less pointy. You have the piece that fits, silly. How about placing it and seeing what emerges?

pieces-of-the-puzzle-592824_1920A year ago today, I placed my piece of the puzzle into its emptiness and completed a picture more resplendent, rewarding, and just plain right than any imaginary landscape. (Don’t you love it when reality outstrips fantasy? Me, too.) Don’t get me wrong; perfect it is not, nor should anyone expect it to be. Being a self-published author, while tremendously rewarding, is a lot of hard work, late hours, and talking yourself out of being offended, exasperated, or overwhelmed. Also, I’m not well suited to every aspect of this life. Self-promotion is tough for us introverted types, for example. Writing feeds me. That’s my reward for doing the not-so-fun stuff.

As in most things that force you to grow, however, pain comes with the territory. Don’t let it stop you. Whatever wacky thing you’ve secretly yearned to do—adopting a kid, becoming a professional dog trainer, owning a karaoke bar, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail—if it’s right, don’t let doubt or discomfort dissuade you. Dreams stay dreams because, deep inside, we know the process will require us to expand until our bones hurt. It’s easy to talk yourself into staying safe inside the fog. But here’s my unsolicited advice to my fellow dreamers, for what it’s worth: This year, add your piece to the puzzle. The picture will not come alive until you do. —Elisa

Have Yourself a Regency Christmas

Red lantern in the snowChristmas is kind of a big deal. If you’ve been anywhere other than a cave in the past 100 years or so, it’s hard to deny. Carolers at the mall. Twinkle lights on every lamppost. Fat guys in red suits ringing a bell outside the grocery store. You know—’tis the season. The question is, was it always this way? Of course the answer is no. Everything changes. So how was Christmas celebrated during the Regency period in England?

To answer that question, first I have to state that I am American, and Brits and Americans have slightly different holiday traditions even today, when our cultures co-mingle in an online global soup. If I post about “Black Friday” on Facebook, for example, I still wonder if my British friends will understand the term, just as I’m a little confused by “Boxing Day.” Who knew the sport of boxing was that popular in England? Go figure.

So, in researching how Christmas was observed and celebrated in early-19th-century England, I had to be careful about making assumptions, such as the notion that Christmas has always been as big a deal in England as it is in America. (Hint: It hasn’t. You can thank the English civil war and a Puritan government for that.)

Let’s start there. In the mid-1600s, England’s monarchy was ousted for a while, and the Puritans moved into power. What before had been a season filled with revelry (drinking ale, playing games, dancing, feasting, and general merry-making), was declared hopelessly pagan, papist, and other loathsome “p” words. Celebrations that once included holly and ivy and wassailing and the Yule log were outlawed. Squashed. No wassail for you!

Unsurprisingly, the masses weren’t too keen on this war on Christmas. It made the Puritans unpopular and may have contributed in a small way to their eventual ouster and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Still, Christmas being outlawed had an impact, and for a while afterwards, the merry-making remained subdued and localized.

The holiday made a comeback in the late-17th and 18th centuries, and it was deliberately promoted in Victorian times with the help of some famous (Charles Dickens) and not-so-famous Brits. But during the Regency, especially among aristocrats and gentry (the snooty set), it was considered a bit rustic and old-fashioned to celebrate with all those fun, frolicsome traditions. Jane Austen, many have observed, seldom mentions Christmas in her letters, and only a handful of times in her books, one example being in chapter 14 of Persuasion, when the heroine appears dismayed by the boisterous, retro revelry of the Musgroves at Uppercross. Kids cavorting around a blazing fire? How gauche!

There are few Regency-era paintings or drawings of Christmas gatherings, few references to large-scale celebrating in letters and diaries of the time. This could be because it was simply a religious observance, a part of life, and not the festive extravaganza it later became. It could also be that increasing industrialization in larger towns and cities discouraged the lengthy twelve-day celebration among the working class. There’s work to do, people! No time for wassailing.

Charles Green painting, Christmas Comes But Once a Year

This appears to be a lovely scene of a Regency-era Christmas dinner, but it was actually an illustration by Victorian artist Charles Green, published in 1896.

Alternatively, some have argued that Regency England did, in fact, revel and frolic and get merry around Christmastime, but that most conventional life experiences (holidays, weddings, etc.) were not romanticized and recorded for posterity the way they were in the Victorian era. In fact, many of the supposed Regency lifestyle paintings you see around the web originated in the late 19th century, when nostalgia for simpler times inspired the work of artists such as Edmund Blair Leighton and illustrators such as George Goodwin Kilburne. Whatever the reasons for the lack of emphasis on Christmas during the early 19th century, we are left with the impression that the holiday was important, but not necessarily the “Most Wonderful Time of the Year” in the eyes of Regency society.

All that being said, people did celebrate, and they did have some common traditions, which I will outline here. My goal is not to pretend expertise—there are far better experts who have researched and written extensively on the subject—but to give you a flavor for what a lady or gentleman of that time might experience during Christmastide, which lasted from Christmas Eve through Epiphany or Twelfth Night (January 6). In many cases, the traditions will sound quite familiar.

Woman giving giftOn the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Ah, gift-giving. For some, the joy of the season is at least partly about seeing loved ones’ faces light up on Christmas morning when they tear open bright paper and find the shiny thing they wheedled from Santa waiting inside. Well, I hate to be the bearer of boring news, but Santa wasn’t really a factor in early-19th-century England. And, surprisingly, neither were gifts. Some families might give gifts to children, and there was definitely an element of giving to the poor (more about that later), but it didn’t become commonplace to exchange gifts among family and friends at Christmastime until later in the century, when advertisers in the U.S. figured out it could be a goldmine. St. Nicholas (not the jolly elf Santa Claus or Father Christmas, but the real guy) had a day of his own on December 6, and some in Northern Europe gave trinkets and treats on that day. However, the pile of gifts under the tree? Sorry. No gifts, unless they were for kids or the impoverished. And probably no tree (Christmas trees were introduced in England by Queen Charlotte—Prinny’s mum—in 1800, and enjoyed some minor popularity among the elite, but didn’t become truly ubiquitous until Queen Victoria and her beloved Albert fully popularized them in the 1840s and 50s).

Holly boughDeck the halls
Boughs of holly? Yep, they had those, along with other greenery, such as ivy, rosemary, bay, and laurel gracing the mantel and the banister and even tops of paintings. Since it was bad luck to bring greenery into the house before Christmas Eve, there was no getting a jump on your Christmas decorating. Last-minute draping was the rule of thumb. Mistletoe, with its kissing tradition, also was brought into many homes, though it wasn’t available everywhere in England. Kissing boughs served as a suitable replacement or addition. A sphere of twigs dressed up with greenery and fruit, the kissing bough appears to have been more popular among the common folk than the snoots, but it’s been a tradition in England since the Middle Ages. The rules regarding kissing beneath it resemble those we all know from mistletoe. Lastly, paper decorations cut into various shapes also adorned homes during this time, as did more candles than usual.

Faithful friends who are dear to us gather near to us once more
Christmas was considered a good time to gather with loved ones and enjoy a nice meal, a warm fire, and a flaming pudding. (More about that later.) This time of year was often marked by the return of boys who had been away at school, as observed by the American writer Washington Irving in his ode to idealized England, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. If you were wealthy, it’s likely you were at your country house, rather than in London. Families tended to retreat to the country around the end of June and often stayed away from town until Parliament resumed in January or February. Some, if they happened to be in London in autumn, would deliberately travel back to their country houses for Christmas. However, there was no hard-and-fast rule. If you had reason to be in town in late December, then you would most likely celebrate in London. You’ll notice this crop up in Desperately Seeking a Scoundrel.

Christmas dinner plate

Roasted goose was a popular item on the Christmas dinner menu.

Oh, bring us a figgy pudding
A big dinner was a big part of the celebration—boar’s head (really, a pig’s head; eww), roasted goose, beef, venison, and other meats; mince pies; and loads of side dishes. But the indispensable element was Christmas pudding. Now, if you’re American, you might be picturing a bowl of thick, custard-like yumminess, perhaps flavored with chocolate. Mmm. That sounds nice. However, “pudding” in England has a different meaning. It’s more like a round, spicy fruitcake. The Christmas or “plum” pudding consists of (depending on the recipe) breadcrumbs, eggs, suet, nuts, dried fruit such as raisins and currants, spices like nutmeg and ginger and cloves, and liquor. Yep, liquor, usually brandy. Hey, no wonder it was so popular. In fact, there’s a tradition of pouring more liquor over the top of it when served at table and lighting the thing on fire. I kid you not. Fruitcake flambé. Extraordinary. Cooks would make these heavy-duty desserts weeks before Christmas on “stir-up Sunday,” the last Sunday before Advent. They were boiled inside a cloth then hung up in storage until being unveiled (and, presumably, devoured) on Christmas.

Flaming Christmas pudding

A Christmas pudding being set ablaze. Adding liquor and presenting the dessert flambe style was somewhat of a tradition. Photo by Jay Springett from London, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Here we come a-wassailing
Wassail is a funny term that has several meanings. First, it refers to the salutations and well wishes accompanying a drink—kind of a spiced wine punch—which was served in a wassail bowl. Traditionally, this beverage (also called wassail) was served with some ceremony by the master of the house to lesser beings who lived and worked around his property. It was a gesture of largess and happy tidings at Christmastime. Wassailing also refers to the practice of organized begging that occurred around Christmas, in which bands of kids, neighbors, and general peasantry wandered door to door singing songs and, well, begging for handouts. It’s like a cross between trick-or-treating and caroling. This was an old tradition not much in practice during the Regency. If it was done at all, it was in the country and involved the lower classes. However, the spiced wine in a big bowl? Yeah, that happened.

Roaring fire

A roaring fire was a common tradition at Christmas, hearkening back to the Yule logs of yore.

See the blazing Yule before us
The true tradition of a Yule log starts waaayy back in the Iron Age, when Celts and Gaels celebrated the winter solstice by burning logs dressed up with herbs and greenery, then attributed magical powers to the ashes. Fast-forward to the Middle Ages, when families would drag a sizable log or tree root into their house on Christmas Eve, put it in the main fireplace, light it with a scrap from the previous year’s Yule log, and keep it burning through the night. It was supposed to be large enough that it could be burned each day through Epiphany (January 6), or Twelfth Night, to ensure good luck in the new year. During the Regency, most people—even the rich—didn’t have fireplaces big enough for that tradition, so true Yule logs weren’t as common as just having a really BIG fire. Still, it was a practice mentioned in accounts such as Washington Irving’s, so it must have still been done in a few places.

The Music Room by George Goodwin

Another Victorian depiction of Regency life, this painting is The Music Room by George Goodwin Kilburne.

Echoing their joyous strains
Music and dancing were two elements that accompanied celebrations of all kinds throughout the year, and Christmas was no exception. Picture ladies and gentlemen attending a lovely ball or fete at a neighbor’s country house, a blazing fire going, greenery everywhere, and guests dancing to the sprightly strains of a reel. Or a young lady at the pianoforte playing a country tune to delight the gathered family. Most popular Christmas carols such as we now enjoy in every elevator and clothing boutique and supermarket this time of year hadn’t been written yet. A handful did exist—notably, “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” and “The First Noel”—but if these were sung at all, it was either in church as hymns or perhaps occasionally as folk songs. But probably not around the ol’ pianoforte with the grandparents watching in their goofy Christmas sweaters.

ChurchOf peace on earth, good will to men
Typically, a family would attend church services early on Christmas day, but that was not the end of the story. For many, charitable giving was a critical component of the holiday. Christmas boxes—church collections and gifts for the poor—were distributed the day after Christmas, known during the Regency as St. Stephen’s Day. In fact, this tradition evolved and later became known as Boxing Day, which, it turns out, isn’t so much about shirtless men hitting each other (surprise!); instead, it denotes the day when the affluent and comfortably well-off “boxed up” gifts for servants and tradesmen. A Christmas bonus, if you will.

On the twelfth day of Christmas
Whew! You’ve made it. Christmas is over, the boxes have been delivered to the poor unfortunates, and you can get on with life, right? Wrong. The Twelve Days of Christmas was no joke. Christmastide ran all the way through Twelfth Night on January 6, which had wildly popular traditions and celebrations all its own, including a feast, games, charades, and the custom of “misrule” or turning social roles and identities on their heads. Traditionally, a King and Queen of Misrule would be chosen at random (even the lowliest could be royal for a night) when everyone drew slips of paper with different characters to portray for the evening, including those of King and Queen. Twelfth Night even had its own cake! It was usually richly decorated, costly to make or buy, and often had a crown or two on top. The King and Queen of Misrule would be most pleased.

Hot Chocolate in the snowHave yourself a merry little Christmas
So, that’s a lot of information to digest. Let’s boil it down to my original question: What was Christmas like during the Regency? If you were a young lady or gentleman of some means, it would go something like this: A few weeks before Christmas, your cook would prepare the pudding. You might or might not be aware of it, depending on how close you were with your cook. Or how much you liked pudding. On Christmas Eve, you (or, more likely, your servants) would gather up boughs of greenery (holly, ivy, and the rest) and start draping them over various surfaces in your home. If you’re really into the traditions, you might craft and hang a kissing bough or mistletoe and hope fondly that someone special would catch you beneath it. During the day, you might enjoy riding or skating (if the ice is thick) or possibly hunting or shooting with the friends and family who have come for an extended visit. If you venture into your local village, you might see bands of rustic peasants wassailing door to door, or you might hear talk of dragging a real Yule log to someone’s house. Naturally, you would sniff in disdain at their hopelessly backward traditions.

Angel figureOn Christmas Day, you would attend church, where a choir might sing hymns related to Christmas … or not. After services, you’d return home and prepare for festivities to come, mainly a large dinner, which commences around 4 p.m. You would dine on roasted meat and mince pies and then watch in wonder as cook lights the pudding on fire. Then, you would go to the main “party” room in the house (drawing room, music room) drink some yummy wassail from a bowl, enjoy music and dancing and games, and get roasted by the blazing fireplace. Of course, you’d wish everyone a “happy Christmas” or “merry Christmas,” as you prefer. The day after Christmas, you and your family would deliver Christmas boxes to the poor and to your servants and the tradesmen that you do business with. Days later, on Twelfth Night, you would feast and party and cavort with family and friends once again, playing charades and pretending to be someone else for the evening before eating a slice of special cake topped with a royal crown.

See? It’s just like our Christmas. Okay, not really. But aren’t you happy to have learned a little about where some of our holiday traditions came from? Yeah, me too. Now, get out there and wassail away, fellow reveler. And have a very merry, happy Christmas. –Elisa

Coming Soon: Desperately Seeking a Scoundrel

Stone CottageWe’re getting closer to the release of Book Three in the Rescued from Ruin series—can you feel the excitement? Okay, it would probably help if I gave you a few details. I’m tentatively planning the release for late November 2015, but I may have to push it to early December. But it’s coming! I promise. 🙂 And I’ll keep you all posted on Facebook and through my newsletter.

Meanwhile, let’s start with the story:

Desperately Seeking a Scoundrel (Rescued from Ruin: Book Three)
by Elisa Braden

Desperately seeking a fiancé …
Miss Sarah Battersby is in dire need of a man, preferably one skilled at deception. Upon her father’s death, she will be left with no home and nary a penny. With time running out, she must either accept the proposal of a man she loathes, or stall long enough to secure a teaching position by telling one teensy, trifling lie—that she is promised to someone else. The problem? He does not technically exist. But Sarah refuses to be defeated by insignificant details. The answer lies in finding the right man for the job. And, as luck would have it, she has stumbled on just the candidate … though he could use a little patching up.

Desperately seeking a refuge …
Where Lord Colin Lacey goes, trouble follows—even when he attempts to do right. Tortured and hunted by a brutal criminal, he is rescued from death’s door by the stubborn, oddly fetching Miss Battersby. In return, she asks one small favor: Pretend to be her fiancé. Temporarily, of course. With danger nipping his heels, he knows it is wrong to want her, wrong to agree to her terms. But when has Colin Lacey ever done the sensible thing?

Desperately seeking a love to conquer all …
As lies turn to longing, and longing to something deeper, they realize it will take more than passion to see them through the danger to come. They will need a plan. They will need family. Above all, they will need a love strong enough to steel a lady’s resolve and transform a scoundrel’s heart.

*****

Darkened StreetExcerpt Time!
To tide you over until the release, I thought I’d offer up a sneak preview, which you’ll also find at the end of The Truth About Cads and Dukes, if you’ve purchased or re-downloaded it this week or later.

Desperately Seeking a Scoundrel
(Rescued from Ruin: Book Three)
by Elisa Braden

August 25, 1817
Whitechapel

  Death waited, patient and foul. Blood marked Colin Lacey’s wrists where they were bound above him, wetting his arms down to his shoulders, but the flow had long since slowed to a stop, replaced by numbness. The butcher’s hook held the ropes fast, held him at the butcher’s mercy.

  None would be granted.

  “Pity you did not exhibit equal reticence at the tables, my lord,” the butcher murmured. “A modicum of restraint might have saved us both much aggravation.” A sigh, then the snick of a knife leaving its sheath served as reviled punctuation.

  Bright, cold agony sliced. Silver light flashed behind swollen eyelids as air hissed through teeth and into lungs. The flesh over his ribs gaped and wept in a warm flow.

  “One word, my lord. A name. And this shall end.”

  His shirt had been torn from his back hours earlier. It now hung in three rags from the waist of his trousers. He fancied if he ever managed to break loose from his bindings, the cloth would prove convenient for soaking up his blood.

  Rusty laughter shook inside his chest. He was never leaving this putrid place, thick with late-day heat and the odor of animals that came here to die. No, his bones would join those of cattle and swine. He was not so foolish as to believe a name would save him, either his or anyone else’s.

  “Come now. You are the brother of a duke. His heir at present, yes?” The butcher paused as though Colin might answer, then answered himself in his oddly soft, cultured voice. “Yes. The heir to the Duke of Blackmore has little need for credit at my humble gaming houses. After the Home Office took an untoward interest in my businesses, the coincidence was rather more than credulity could bear. To whom did you provide information?”

  Long silence earned him another stripe, just below the last. This time, although pain flashed, it was but a white peak amidst a range of equally jagged mountains.

  A door creaked. Boots shuffled. “Beggin’ your pardon, Mr. Syder.”

  “Benning. I trust this interruption is of a vital nature.”

  “Y-yes, sir.” Boots scraped and shambled again, then the low London voice came from only feet away. “Johnstone sent word the Gallows Club was raided. Roughly an hour past.”

  If Syder ever grew angry, Colin suspected it would sound like the dark silence that followed Benning’s news. But Syder had not built an empire of thievery, brutality, and vice by being a slave to intemperance.

  “Who was it?”

  “Two of Kirkwood’s men, along wif seven more we never seen. Took Johnstone, they did.”

  More silence, then a sigh from Syder. “My lord, I fear I must leave you in Mr. Benning’s tender care. Might I suggest you loosen your tongue? He is less subtle than I in his ministrations.”

  Reflexively, Colin swallowed against his rising gorge. Footsteps, calm and evenly paced, receded until a door squeaked open and closed. Knuckles popped.

  “You lasted longer than most, m’lord. Grant ye that.” Benning, whom Colin remembered as a massive, pockmarked brute with hands the size of millstones, shifted near enough that his bulk deadened the noise of livestock outside the door. His breath wafted over Colin’s swollen face. It smelled of ale and onions.

  “Kill me,” he whispered, his aching jaw scarcely able to form the words. “For I have nothing to say to you.”

  “You’re like to die, sure enough.” Colin sensed the grin in the brute’s voice. “But not just yet.” Heavy bootfalls thudded against the hardened dirt, heading in the direction of the table on the far side of the space. It was where Syder had assembled his tools—knives and other blades mainly, but also hammers and saws. After Benning’s initial beating, Colin’s eyes had swollen shut. In some ways, that had been a mercy. But now, he wished to know what Benning was retrieving, which instrument would be the source of his next dose of agony.

  Metal scraped wood as Benning lifted the tool, whatever it was, from the table. Colin’s heart lurched into a frantic rhythm. Why he now panicked, he could not say. It could be no worse than what he had already endured. Could it?

  Benning drew close. A damp breeze of ale and onions bathed Colin’s forehead. A millstone fist gripped his forearm, just below the rope.

  Dear God. Was he about to lose his hand?

  He heard himself wheezing, struggling, hectic and piteous. His mind flew backward from the horrifying reality, crouching at the rear of his skull.

  His hand. He would never play again. Never feel a woman’s flesh.

  Dear. Holy. God.

  His arms jerked. The blade bit. He could not feel it, could only sense the motion and pressure as Benning worked it back and forth. Suddenly, his hands released, his arms falling agonizingly down. His legs left him, and he collapsed. Stunned. Useless. A heap at Benning’s feet.

  “Eh,” the brute grunted, nudging Colin’s knee with his boot. “No time fer that, m’lord. I’s paid to cut you loose. Not get nipped by Syder.”

  Colin’s blood pounded inside his head, at war with his panting breaths, forming a deafening cacophony. “P-paid?” he managed.

  The rope binding his ankles was yanked and severed. “Aye.”

  Attempting to move his arms, Colin groaned as needles flared across the numb flesh. The fire slowly spread until he had to grit his teeth to keep from screaming.

  The scraps of his shirt were yanked from his waistband, torn into strips, and wrapped tightly around his ribs. A massive thumb stretched his eyelid. A blurry, pockmarked face peered back at him, thick lips downturned. “You’ll ’ave to force ’em open. They’ll come right in a day or two, but by then you’ll be dead iffen you don’t run fast and far. Understand?”

  “Yes.” He felt the wormy trembling begin beneath his skin. Sensation returned to his shoulders, making him want to vomit up the pain. He could scarcely move his arms, but at least he still had his hands. For that, he was most thankful. “Who paid you? Was it my brother?”

  Benning stood from his crouch and moved to the corner where Colin’s coat had been tossed. He stooped to retrieve it. “Nah. Doubtful he knows anything.” The man’s dialect was thick and round, sounding more like, “Dow’foh ’ee knows anyfing.” Before this year, having rarely associated with men of Benning’s ilk, Colin might have had trouble following his mutterings. Much had changed.

  “Then, who? I took you for Syder’s man exclusively.”

  Benning circled behind him, gripped him beneath his arms and pulled him to his feet in a rough motion. Colin could not stop his pitiful groan as excruciating pain tore through his shoulders. His legs at first refused to hold him. Shamefully, he slumped against Benning, who steadied him with a heavy forearm around his chest and began forcing his arms into the sleeves of his coat.

  “Things change. The nob pays better.”

  Panting roughly, head swimming, Colin paused to catch his breath as Benning came around to face him and quickly fastened his buttons like a nursemaid dressing an infant. “Who is the nob, Benning?”

  The blurry brute finished his task and moved to the door, cracking it to peer out. “I can get you to your ’orse. No more’n that.”

  “Whoever it is, he must have offered a princely sum. Syder will not pursue only me for this.”

  Benning returned to Colin’s side, grasped his arm and hauled him forward, dragging his stumbling, bleeding, weakened body toward the door. “It’s touched I am by your concern, m’lord. Fact is I don’t plan to stay put. Best you do likewise.” Benning stuffed a hat onto Colin’s aching head, tugged it low over his swollen brow.

  The darkness at the end of dusk disguised their movements as they crept through the stockyard. A few cows shifted and lowed at their passing, but no shouts of alarm sounded. Soon they entered a stable, where Benning apparently had already saddled Matilda. The pretty bay mare snuffled Colin’s outstretched hand.

  “Good to see you, love,” Colin whispered, stroking her warm nose. His arms, still weak, quickly fell back to his sides as Benning led her to a mounting block.

  “Think you can manage it?” he asked.

  Forcing his eyes to open further and swallowing down his lingering nausea, Colin gave his best imitation of his old self. “The day I cannot mount a female is the day I am cold in the grave, Benning.”

  The man snorted and waved to the block. “Them’s prophetic words, m’lord. Prophetic words, indeed.”

*****

Copyright 2015 by Elisa Braden
All rights reserved.

*****

What’s Next When You Start With Ruin?

Open BookMany readers have been asking what’s coming next in the Rescued from Ruin series. Will Chatham get his own book? What about Colin and Dunston and Tannenbrook? The truth is I have so many stories in my head, it’s hard to keep them all straight. Characters clamor and command my attention like babies squalling for a bottle. Nuts? Probably. But that’s the life of a writer. We hear imaginary voices and heed their demands. There’s likely a medication for that, but I haven’t found it.

In any case, I have a bevy of books planned, and in the interest of assuaging your curiosity, here is the tentative line-up, coming as quickly as I can write—which admittedly is not as fast as I would like it to be.

– In case you missed them, Books One and Two are available here:
The Madness of Viscount Atherbourne (Released: January 2015)
The Truth About Cads and Dukes (Released: May 2015)
– Book Three is Colin’s story, and will be released this fall. More announcements, including story description, excerpts, and cover reveal, coming soon.
– Book Four is about Chatham.
– Book Five belongs to Atherbourne’s best friend, Lord Tannenbrook.
– In Books Six through Who-Knows-How-Many, Lord Dunston will have his day, along with more characters you haven’t met yet … and some you have.

So, as you can see, the series is far from finished. Ruin might seem like a narrow theme, but it takes many forms—damage to a lady’s reputation, fallout from a disastrous mistake or traumatic event, a serious financial bind, and so on. Starting from a low point in characters’ lives leaves a lot of interesting territory to explore. In Regency England, solutions to scandals or serious difficulties were sometimes straightforward (marriage could solve any number of ills), but true redemption is rarely so simple. We humans are complex and contradictory. That’s what makes us fascinating. It’s also why I love throwing characters together, adding the catalysts of struggle, attraction, and love, and seeing what happens. Will the series continue? Oh, yeah. Because my characters want their stories told, and when they speak, I listen.

If you’d like to stay up-to-date on new releases and announcements, you can sign up for my free newsletter (I hate spam, so I only send one out when I have something important to share), visit my Facebook page, and/or follow me on Twitter.

I hope you’ll come along for the ride. This is going to be fun. —Elisa