Friday, July 30, 2010

Exclusive Peek: Love Lessons at Midnight by Shirl Henke

From Shirl Henke:

Amber Wolverton, a seventeen-year-old noblewoman, was forced to wed an older marquess who so brutalized her that she fled for her life to London. Rob St. John, a young earl who worked tirelessly in Parliament to stop the exploitation of women, felt he required tutoring from a courtesan to please his future bride. He went to the infamous House of Dreams for his “lessons” and she was the woman in charge.

That’s the opening of LOVE LESSONS AT MIDNIGHT. But I did not see Amber as a courtesan, and Rob was definitely not a rake. How does an author write a Regency avoiding the clichés of the subgenre? I spent weeks scratching my head until I was almost bald and bleeding. Gradually, it came to me. I wish a muse had landed on my shoulder and given me easy answers, but as Frank Yerby said long ago, “Only amateurs believe in inspiration.” I sat at my desk until I squeezed out every detail about these vulnerable protagonists’ lives. Then I knew enough to begin writing Amber and Rob’s story.

The woman who rescued Amber from the streets was a madam who became a mother-figure. Grace Winston never intended for Amber to work in her business. Instead, she sent the girl to the Continent to receive a classical education. When Amber returned she took over the daily operations of the bordello, renaming it the “House of Dreams,” a place where men could live out their fantasies. She became the mysterious Lady Fantasia whose face remained hidden in shadows, her body off limits to all patrons. Soon the House of Dreams became all the rage with the ton.

Rob’s dilemma was a little more complicated and took longer for me to solve. Normally titled Englishmen did not give a fig if their wives were satisfied in bed, but Rob was not like most Englishmen of his era. He had been married as a young man studying for the priesthood and hoped for a happy and faithful relationship such as his parents shared. But his spoiled wife was frigid and locked him out of her bedroom, making him feel inadequate. After her death, he became heir to an earldom and had to produce an heir. Rob did not want a repeat of his first disastrous marriage, hence his desperate gambit asking the beautiful madam for help.

Hmm, I started to see how the characters would..."play" together (pun intended). Amber is attracted to the handsome Rob, yet would never dare to be his teacher...or would she? She has heard the courtesans explain that they earn their lucrative incomes by pleasing men, not the other way around. This man is uniquely appealing. He actually wants to give pleasure to his "teacher." She will never have a chance such as this again. Unwittingly, he even offers her a way to feel safe—he asks that the lessons be in complete darkness. Rob says this is to spare the modesty of his future bride, but Amber suspects it is also because of his own insecurity.

While I was prying Amber and Rob's secrets from them, I began to meet the diverse and often amusing cast of characters connected to the House of Dreams. What had begun as a single Regency suddenly bloomed into a House of Dreams Trilogy. I knew that Amber’s best friend and "bodyguard" Jeni had to have her own story, and that an innocent young girl rescued by Amber, much as Grace had rescued her, would also make a splendid heroine. When I mention them to my editor, she asked me to write their stories after I finished LOVE LESSONS. But I set Jeni and Lorna's futures aside to concentrate on Amber and Rob.

Once I figured out who they were, I could envision the first scene. In fact, I came up with what I thought was a grabber of an opening line. "After spending two years trying to close my business, you now wish to hire me?" she asks, astonished by the earl’s request. The two strike a bargain. Rob will learn to be a good lover and Amber will learn what being made love to feels like. Of course, he has no idea that the woman who comes to him in darkness is Lady Fantasia herself. Neither realizes just how complicated their "lessons" will become. But then, neither intends to fall in love with the other.

Exclusive Excerpt:

Below they cross verbal swords as madam and customer just before the first lesson begins:

On the stroke of midnight, Rob entered the House of Dreams by the rear door for the second time. As arranged, he walked down the deserted hallway to Lady Fantasia’s quarters. The door was ajar. He tapped discreetly and she answered. “Please come in and have a seat.”

As at their first meeting, she sat in shadows. He fought the urge to walk over to her and take a good look at her face. Did it match her clipped, cultured voice? Some instinct honed on the battlefield made him resist. This was no woman to anger.

Amber could sense the tension in his body. He was wound as tightly as a the spring on a timepiece. So was she, but she had spent many trying years learning to conceal it. I am in control here. This is a secure place where I belong. But once she was in bed with him...She pushed the frightening thought aside and took a calming breath, knowing her lines as well as the best trained actor at Drury Lane.

“After some consideration, I have selected a young woman who will suit your needs perfectly,” she began.

Rob felt his fingers tighten around the wooden chair arm. “Then tell me where I am to meet her and—”

“Do not rush your fences, m’lord. ‘Tis the downfall of most men.” She could see his face flush as he forced himself to settle back in the chair. “You must know a few things about Gabrielle. She is a French émigrée, forced from her home by the tyrant. All of her family are dead, her birthright gone. She was...ill-treated before her escape and has little reason to trust men. She is not a courtesan. I have explained your requirements and Gabrielle is agreeable. She will be as grateful for the darkness as will you.”

Rob muttered an oath of outrage. “A woman who was abused—and you want me” he stammered to a halt.

“Precisely. She has known cruelty, but you will show her kindness. Every woman knows what pleases her...if only a man is willing to go slowly and take instruction regarding what she wants. You are blessed with one who is willing to tell you what she wants.”

He turned the idea over in his mind. Perhaps this was a stroke of genius. His throat constricted as he asked, “This would be her fantasy then?”

Amber nodded, not trusting her own voice for a moment. What he said was far too close to the truth for her own comfort. Gathering her thoughts, she continued, “You may rest assured that a young woman such as Gabrielle will not feign pleasure. She would not have any idea how to do so...but culmination may take...several visits. Do you agree to these conditions?”

It was Rob’s turn to nod, speechlessly.

“Gabrielle may be nervous. Stroke her, kiss her, above all, ask her what does and does not please her as you proceed."

Swallowing for courage, Rob answered, “Yes, yes, I can do that.” I will do that. “Perhaps it is not so very different from getting a skittish mount to trust one.”

Amber felt an unexpected tinge of humor and released a husky chuckle. “Were you perchance in the cavalry, m’lord?” she asked.

“Two years on the Peninsula,” he replied. “I have been told I have a way with animals. If only it could be transferred to women!” he blurted out, then felt his face flame and cursed silently.

“Perhaps women and mares do have a bit in common, but do not be disappointed if Gabrielle fails to whinny for you.”

Under other circumstances, Rob would have appreciated her glib retort. But the situation was far too painfully embarrassing for him. “If she tells me what to do, I will do it,” he gritted out.

The "love" lessons begin when Lady Fantasia becomes Gabrielle under cover of darkness...

Summary from Amazon:

No one knows the true identity of the mysterious madam who runs London-s most notorious brothel, The House of Dreams. This is the place where a man-s wildest dreams can come true, but even in his most secret fantasies, Robert St. John has not imagined the pleasure he will find or the danger he will court while seducing its mistress.

Available now at Amazon (print).


aromagik said...

Sounds excellent!


VampFanGirl said...

It's so funny that this post went up today. Earlier, a friend called me saying she just downloaded this book, read it, and loved it. Combined with her enthusiasm and this enlightening post about its creation, I'm hooked!

Carole said...

@VampFanGirl Sounds like you're meant to read this! :)

Lindsey said...

I love the concept of this book! I wasn't very interested by the blurb alone, but taken with the author's explanation, I find myself quite intrigued. It certainly looks like a refreshing departure from the "Regency Rake" trope, so frequently present in historicals (and while I do love a good rake, it's great for some variation once in awhile).

Carole said...

@Lindsey I agree! I'm getting tired of reading about rakes.

IheartBrookings said...

Sounds like a truly interesting read.

Riley said...

For any who are still undecided: This is a really wonderful book. The plot is incredibly interesting, the characters are beautifully developed, and the writing is superb. I highly, highly recommend it.

Shirl Henke said...

Hi Aromagik, VampFanGirl, Lindsey, lheartBrookings and Riley!

So happy you had such good words to say about the first book in my new trilogy, LOVE LESSONS AT MIDNIGHT. I really like turning the Regency genre on its head like this. Thanks for spreading the word and happy reading to all.

Shirl Henke

Carole said...

Hi Shirl, thanks for dropping by and for giving us this wonderful excerpt!

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