So very excited to welcome back Joana Starnes to Austenesque Reviews today! If you haven’t noticed, Joana has been quite the busy author lately. She has had three novels come out in the last 12 months and has been on all sorts of wonderful and envy-inspiring holidays throughout England, including Bath, London, The Lake District, Lyme Park (Pemberley 1995), and Cornwall! This photo of the coast is just stunning, isn’t it?
Thanks, Meredith, for welcoming me back at Austenesque Reviews to talk about my latest novel. It’s such a joy to be here again!
‘The Falmouth Connection’ is a ‘Pride & Prejudice’ variation that begins at Hunsford around the time when Mr. Darcy decides to go ahead and make his disastrous first proposal.
He does not get the opportunity – and we all know that it’s for the best! He has no inkling though and is severely disappointed when Elizabeth is suddenly summoned to Falmouth to meet a great-aunt she never knew she had.
Little does Mr. Darcy know that as a result they would both become embroiled in a tale of deceit and peril. There would be smugglers involved, of course – it is 18th century Cornwall after all! But smugglers are the least of Mr. Darcy’s worries as he finds himself forced to question other people’s motives and especially Lord Trevellyan’s, a landowner of great consequence whom he suspects to be a dangerous man and, worse still, a rival.
And then there is a troublesome French connection and all manner of secrets and lies, in a land that feels alien to Mr. Darcy. A land where few – if any – are what they seem to be…
But let’s leave the ‘cloak and dagger’ for the moment! I have chosen something rather different for the excerpt I would like to share with you today. I have chosen one of the scenes between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy – which is what most of us read fan-fiction for anyway!
The scene is set in a garden very much like this one:
But you will have to imagine it in the middle of the night. It’s very late and there is no moon, not anymore. It’s very dark, much darker than in this nighttime picture. Too dark, in fact, to see what is before your very eyes.
A few hours earlier, Elizabeth had been obliged to venture out – and she had found more than she had bargained for in the woods surrounding her great-aunt’s gardens. And now she is returning to the house after a series of troublesome encounters, only to discover that the eventful night is not over yet!
Breathless with the swift trek uphill and with the terrors of the night, Elizabeth hurried to the house. The garden door would not be open, surely. Would they hear her if she knocked? Perhaps not. Perhaps she should walk around to the main entrance.
She rushed forth noiselessly over the damp grass – and stumbled into something or someone in the darkness, only to find herself caught and held tightly in strong arms that would not let her fall, yet at the same time prevented all escape!
Before the cry of utter horror could leave her lips, a deep voice, warm and earnest, stilled her struggles and set her thoroughly at ease – for she would have recognised that voice anywhere.
“Sshh. You are safe. You are safe. You need not fear me. Forgive me for startling you thus! You have nothing to fear. Thank goodness, you are safe!”
The words did not sink in. Not yet. Not quite. But their fervent cadence reached her, along with the overwhelming certainty that this was not some unknown aggressor. It was Mr. Darcy – and she clung to the folds of his cloak with all her might, shaking like a leaf. Not for fear, though. The fear vanished as though it never was, to be replaced by the strangest weakness. Had he not held her, she might have collapsed, for her knees felt useless, about to give way, and her head was swimming.
‘It must be the shock,’ some wispy threads of reason sensibly claimed, but at this point she could barely heed them.
Still shaking, and still gripping the folds of his cloak with trembling fingers, she could not think straight. She could only feel. And the only feeling she could readily identify, from the tumult and confusion that seemed to reign inside her, was unspeakable relief that at long last this was someone she could fully trust. Someone who came from her own safe, sane world, and not from this terrifying other, where one could not tell one’s friends from one’s foes!
She was not cold – at least she did not think she was – and yet she felt herself shaking from head to foot with a violent shiver. Or was it a sob? Or both? Most certainly a sob this time, and then another, deep and wracking. She could not control them, which was terrifying in itself. She struggled for breath – and yet did not withdraw from the tight clasp of those arms, but unconsciously drew nearer.
Support and succour and safe haven. How strange that she had never felt as safe before! It was the oddest certainty that nothing could harm her now, and the relief made her positively dizzy, after the events of this long night, without a doubt the most frightful she had experienced in her entire tame existence!
The sobs subsided, tempered by the novel thought, and no less by the equally novel, barely perceptible sensations. A light touch of warm lips on her brow, sliding to her temple. Cold fingertips brushing against her cheek – and yet the trail of their caress was not cold at all. It was hot. And tingling. Another touch of a cold fingertip on her lower lip, in a light stroke, so light that she could barely feel it.
Her senses, previously dulled by the dizzying weakness, came suddenly alive, like hissing candles lit in very quick succession. She felt his breath upon her cheek, warm, rapid and uneven, and her own breath turned fast and shallow, as though to match the pace of his – then grew faster still when the narrow gap was closed, and his lips touched her cheekbone. They lingered there, dropping light, feathery kisses, and the cold fingertips were on her chin now, tilting her face upwards – or perhaps she had already done so of her own accord; she truly could not tell.
“Elizabeth…” she heard him whisper, his lips still trailing a soft line on her cheek, and then the whisper gave way to a harsh intake of breath – and his lips were on hers. No longer soft and tentative, but searching. Deepening the kiss, over a length of time that seemed to be measured in thundering heartbeats. Her eyes flew open, yet she could barely see his face. The moon had long since hidden behind clouds and they were in the deepest shadows. She reached up, her hands seeking blindly until her fingertips encountered the hard jaw, the cheeks, ever so slightly rough, not perfectly clean-shaven any longer, and she explored their shape, strangely glad of the darkness as she stroked their contours, never before touched, yet ever so familiar just the same.
Under her touch, the jaw tensed, and she could hear his breath becoming ragged as the kiss deepened even further into something her thoughts could not encompass. In truth, there was no room for thoughts, not anymore – otherwise she might as well begin to wonder what on earth was she doing in the gardens of Landennis in the middle of the night, kissed breathless by none other than Mr. Darcy, whose offer of marriage she had refused a few hours ago!
There was no sense, no reason, just the exquisite kiss and the night that suddenly felt warm and gloriously perfect, after the reign of fear and of doubt. Come to think of doubt though, she might as well begin to doubt her sanity for allowing this to happen – but as his hands roamed across her back, clasping her so fiercely that she could barely breathe, she closed her eyes again, relishing the madness and the bewildering sensation of homecoming, into strong arms that would keep her safe.
Her fingers travelled to the back of his head to stroke his hair, tangle themselves in it, as he brought her even closer – something she would not have thought remotely possible before – and his lips left hers to drop feverish kisses over her cheeks, her eyelids, only to return, just as insistent, just as searching, hungry. And she could not, would not deny him, any more than she could deny herself. Instead, her own lips parted, to better taste his delectable flavour, and a low sound rose in his throat at that, sending a shiver through her, from her scalp to her very toes.
She must have taken leave of her senses lately – or perhaps it was this most unnerving night, or the soothing darkness, that made her lose touch with the world as it was, or at least as it should be. What madness had possessed her, to compel her to behave so wantonly, so wholly without boundaries or reason? And indeed heartlessly as well – for would he not be justified in thinking that she had reconsidered her rejection?
Had she? Had she reconsidered? She had not… More to the point, she had considered nothing. She had not been guided in the least by reason over the last few moments – minutes – deliciously undetermined time that they had spent together in exquisite abandon, flaunting every rule, every consideration, every precept!
In the end, she could not truly tell who broke the kiss. It might have been herself, in some belated acknowledgement of right and wrong. It might have been him – or perhaps both, in joint recognition of their untenable position, or simply in sudden need of air. Her breath did come very fast indeed, in forceful gasps, as though she had just run all the way up the hill, from the village – and his did also. Elizabeth could feel it on her tingling skin, and raised her face to it – only to find his lips again with a staggering, explosive burst of joy. It must have been the need of air then, earlier, and not some other argument that common sense dictated.
Yet common sense had to prevail before too long or, if not sense, then decency and also common kindness, for surely she must not continue to mislead him in this fashion!
With a faint sigh, she brought herself to turn her head away. Yet she did not withdraw from him completely, vainly searching for something to say that would convey the substance of her thoughts. Words would not come though, and that was little wonder, for there was no hope to do the faintest justice to the complex turmoil toying with her senses.
Before she even tried, she was thoroughly distracted by strong hands cradling her to his chest, keeping her there, cherished and protected. And warm lips brushed against her cheek, next to her ear, as the deep voice spoke words of deep contrition.
“Forgive me. Pray forgive me! That was… beyond the pale. I should not have taken advantage of –… Forgive me!”
She could not let him continue to apologise for a fault that was as much her own as his – or even more so hers – and so, unthinkingly, Elizabeth raised her hand to his mouth. Another shiver coursed along her spine at the feel of his lips against her fingers. Worse still, she audibly gasped when his hand came up to cover hers and raised it by a fraction, until his lips were pressed against her palm, sending unnerving, nay, highly disturbing tremors through her. Not tremors, but veritable earthquakes!
She swallowed and withdrew her hand, lest the staggering new sensations remove every remaining trace of sanity and compel her to tangle her fingers in his hair again and bring him back to her, his lips crushing hers as they did before, for those glorious moments!
This time she did endeavour to withdraw from his embrace – it was by far the most sensible option – and although her intent was not immediately perceived, or perhaps it was perceived with great reluctance, his hold eventually slackened, and she was released. Yet his hands lingered on her arms, then lightly traced along them until her own hands were in his – which was just as well for, unreasonable as it might have been, Elizabeth felt she could have scarcely borne a full and immediate separation.
“Are you –…?”
“Why are you here?” they began at once, both in hushed whispers.
For her part, Elizabeth could only regret the ill-judged and far too abrupt question, particularly as it seemed to convey the false impression that it was meant as censure.
“I had no intention to cause you any discomfort, I assure you,” the retort came, wistful and earnest, making her even more acutely aware of her error.
She hastened to correct it.
“Oh, I know that! Pray forgive me, I did not wish to imply that I was anything but glad.”
Upon reflection, that was the wrong thing to say as well, although for different reasons, and before they were drawn into stormy waters, Elizabeth was swift to amend:
“I am very grateful for your unstinting kindness, Mr. Darcy, and I am distraught to think of the trouble and discomfort you must have endured, but tonight I am very glad to have come across someone I can trust –…”
She got to say no more. Her hands were carried to his lips again, if only for a lingering kiss on the back of her fingers, rather than the deeply unsettling feel of his mouth pressed against her palm, and Elizabeth found herself rather relieved by that – and also strangely and perversely disappointed.
“I should have paid more heed to your warning,” she brought herself to add, before her own unruly thoughts could gain further purchase. “You were in the right about Lord Trevellyan – he is not what he seems.”
“What makes you say that?” he instantly asked, his tone alert and anxious.
For the first time since the beginning of their unparalleled encounter a few minutes ago, Elizabeth was rather sorry for the lack of light. Reading his countenance was something she had never mastered, so ascertaining his reactions from the mere sound of his voice seemed a hopeless task. Nevertheless, she felt compelled to answer.
“He was in the woods… He came upon me, as I was walking to the village with Morwenna – ”
Her sentence was cut short by his sharp intake of breath, and her hands were clasped so tightly it was almost painful.
“Can you tell me where he is now?” he asked after a long moment, in a voice so rasping and so dreadfully uneven that he did not sound like himself at all.
“I… No, I cannot. I heard him say to his men that they should rejoin the others, but he did not say where…”
Her words were met by yet another gasp – nay, by forced deep breaths rather, as though he was struggling to quell the most violent distemper.
“His men! Did they – … How many?”
“Three – but of those, only one went with him. The other two were sent to attend Morwenna and myself.”
“I… beg your pardon? To attend you?”
“Aye. And Morwenna also. Escort her to the village – to her brother.”
His voice seemed to falter.
“Forgive me, I… do not seem to understand. I do not wish to… grieve you in any way, but may I be allowed to know… what happened, when you encountered Lord Trevellyan?”
It’s so very naughty of me to leave this on a cliffhanger, I know! But leave a comment to enter the giveaway and you might find out what happens next before anybody else does!
Thanks for visiting and reading and thanks again Meredith for having me here! It’s such a pleasure to feature at Austenesque Reviews and you’re so very kind to invite me!
Oh my goodness! That excerpt just made me melt into a puddle! Can’t wait to read the rest, Joana!!! You delight in teasing us, don’t you?!? I have so many questions! Thank you for sharing such a beautifully romantic excerpt with us today!
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Today, Joana brings with her two copies of newly released novel, The Falmouth Connection (2 ebooks), for me to giveaway to TWO lucky winners!
To enter this giveaway, leave a question, a comment, or some love for Joana below!
- This giveaway is open worldwide. Thank you, Joana!
- This giveaway ends November 5th!