The Rules of Gentility by Janet Mullany

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Theryn Fleming


Janet Mullany was one of our original forum hosts at Toasted Cheese, and the winner of the first annual Dead of Winter writing contest. In the decade since she left TC, Janet has published more than a dozen books in a variety of romance sub-genres.

The Rules of Gentility (William Morrow, 2007) is a gentle parody of Regency (Jane Austen era) romances. Philomena “Philly” Wellesley-Clegg, age 19, is a girl obsessed with bonnets (buying them, beribboning them…). Since she is very nearly an old maid, she is preoccupied with making lists of potential husbands (à la Bridget Jones), all of which she finds unsuitable for various reasons. Her love of bonnets exceeds that for any suitor. That is, until Inigo Linsley, youngest brother of her best friend’s husband, kisses her. After “The Kiss,” Philly loses all interest in bonnets. Hilarity—in the form of increasinging improbable situations—ensues when she enters into a fake engagement with Inigo to save herself from another suitor.

Janet’s writing always showed her sense of humor and that was readily apparent here. The Rules of Gentility is a light, funny story that mashes up modern chick-lit elements with Regency mainstays. She pokes fun at the conventions of the genre, but in a way that shows her genuine fondness for it. The humor makes this a story with appeal to an audience beyond those who regularly read Regency romances, though fans of the genre will likely appreciate the many insider references more than the casual reader.

An interview with Janet is forthcoming at Absolute Blank. In the meantime, you can get a taste of her fiction by delving into the archives, where you’ll find three stories: “Snow, the Seven, and the Moon,” “The Companions are Chosen,” and “A Perfect Evening.” Janet also wrote “Enter At Your Own Risk: The Strange, Twilight World of Writing Competitions” for Absolute Blank.

In addition to her website, you can find Janet on Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads, and at The Risky Regencies, a collaborative blog.

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Email: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

Snow, The Seven, And The Moon

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Janet Mullany


Hair as black as ebony, skin as white as snow, she leans into the mirror to apply lipstick as red as blood. She twitches her tight black leather miniskirt into place and goes back out into the bar with the confident stride of a woman who knows her territory. The air is loud with the clack of a game of pool and the high lonesome wail of a steel guitar from the jukebox. She slides onto her stool at the bar, and taps a cigarette out of its case. She senses the men hovering behind her, hears the scrape of a match, the snap of a lighter. Holding back her hair with one hand, she steadies the stranger’s hand with the other as he moves to her side. A slight buzz from his fingers to hers, pale against his darker skin.

“Buy you a drink, honey?” He has a slow, twangy voice, the sort of voice that suggests rumpled sheets, woodsmoke, a golden burn of hard liquor.

She indicates her half-full bottle of beer, and shrugs. “I’m still working on this one, cowboy. I don’t take on more than I can handle.”

He leans forward. His eyes are as blue as a robin’s egg, his hair almost as dark as hers. “Never? You’ve never taken a risk? Gone for the wild side?”

“That’s not what I said.” She smiles and blows smoke at him.

He watches her as she drains the bottle of beer and slips off the stool. “You’re going?”

“Yeah. I’m expected. I’ve got seven of them waiting for me at home. It’s the longest night of the year, remember? We have a busy night ahead.”

“Seven? Seven what?”

“Seven guys.” She gestures with a hand at hip level. “Sorta short, but real loving.”

“You’re kidding.” He looks confused. “You’ve got seven kids?”

She laughs, calls out good night to the bartender, and leaves. She can feel him watching her, all the way across the uneven wood floor until she pushes open the door and takes a lungful of the night air that burns her throat and makes her gasp. Must be ten below at least. The stars blaze in the black velvet of the sky and the moon is like a white blind eye.

*

“That, my friend,” says the bartender, “Is Dr. Morgan Cantrell, otherwise known as the Wolf Lady. Quite a gal.” He pops open a bottle of beer and slides it down the counter. Gary catches it, fumbling, still unnerved by the woman’s self-possession, the touch of her fingers on his, and the scent of her long black hair as it brushed against his arm.

“Wolf Lady?”

“Yep. That’s what they call her. Runs a refuge for wild animals, wolves mainly. The ranchers didn’t like her too much at first, but she’s okay. They say she was a hotshot at some college back east, got burned out, came here and bought the old Frazer place a few years back.”

“And she comes in here every Friday?”

The bartender laughs. “More like every full moon. She comes into town, buys up some supplies, gets her mail, drops by for a hamburger and beer, and leaves every guy in here with his tongue hanging out. She always leaves on her own, her choice.”

Gary stares at the beads of moisture that gather on his bottle and repeats her name to himself. Morgan Cantrell. It has the rhythm and pull of a melody, the beat of a bird’s wings in flight.

“Well, well. You’re in luck, son.” The bartender tosses a bundle of envelopes towards him. “The doctor left her mail behind. Protect and serve, right?”

*

The guys are waiting for her. She hears them burst into song as she pulls into the driveway, and as she picks her way through the snow in her high heels, throws her head back and replies. Inside the house she kicks off the high heels, discards the skirt and pulls on a pair of jeans. As she pushes her feet into insulated boots, she checks the computer. She has mail, three of the messages from Mark. She curls her lip and deletes them without reading them. She knows what he says, what he says every time, the master of honeyed words and deception. Forgive me, things will be different, I’ve changed, I still love you. We can work it out. When she thinks of him, the sites of her injuries, the scars and healed fractures, ache and itch. She shuts down the computer, pulls on gloves and a hat and goes out into the moonlight. Her first stop is the barn, where she opens the door a crack. The two hawks and owl in residence shuffle on their perches. In the shed, the raccoon with her leg in a splint chitters a greeting, while the smaller birds sleep soundly, heads under wings.

Boo is the first to arrive to her call, followed by Hiram and Randy. “Hey, Boo,” she says. “How’s the leg?” He grins at her, tongue lolling, and rolls onto his back; she notes that he’s submissive, but keeping his distance. She had worried that he had bonded to her too strongly after she’d found him as a pup with a badly fractured leg, starving and dehydrated, but still ferocious enough to make her grateful for the leather gauntlets she wore. He was her first, and she had cried when she locked the door against him and forced him to go back to his own kind.

Boo stands, stretches, and muscles the other two out of the way, teeth bared. He’s not yet alpha male, but he’s young and strong and working his way up. Here comes Iris, teats heavy, out for a night on the town away from the responsibilities of motherhood, followed by Isadora. Boris and Gus must be babysitting tonight. The wolves prance and frolic around her. She lets Boo approach her and duck his head so she can scratch the creamy ruff of fur at his neck for a moment, before he pulls away, breath steaming in the night air.

She isn’t clear about what happens next. There’s a patch of ice on the snow, her foot shoots out from under her, and she feels herself fall. Mark, she tries to say, please don’t, honey.

He has her face pressed against the mirror, against the splintering glass. Tell me, he says. Who is it? Don’t lie to me. Don’t ever lie to me, bitch.

I’m sorry. Please don’t hurt me. Please.

There’s an explosion of bright light, shards of pain dart into her skull, then darkness.

*

Gary squints at the map and eases the squad car up the snow-packed road. He hopes it’s not too early to call, and also that she will not greet visitors with a shotgun. He finds it hard to reconcile the image of the recluse of the backwoods with the siren he met last night in the bar. He glances again at her mail; even so near the holidays, there’s very little personal there, mainly letters from universities and wildlife research groups. He approaches her house, not much more than a two-room cabin, with a thin wisp of smoke rising from the stovepipe. As he gets out of the car the cold air snatches his breath away. He bangs on the door. There’s no reply. Maybe she’s out tending to her animals. “Anyone home?” he calls.

He follows a trail of footsteps, lightly dusted with a sprinkling of snow, to a small barn, and opens the door. Three huge, fierce birds glare at him and lift their wings. One utters a small, piercing shriek. He backs out, and looks around. The footsteps lead into an open meadow, and he sees a mass of darkness against the white, and, dear God, is that blood? As his eyes become accustomed to the dazzle of sun on snow, he makes out the shapes, five of them, rangy, muscular and watchful. At first he thinks they are dogs, then sees the pale eyes and powerful jaws. The wolves surround a spill of black hair and pale blue fabric. He recognizes the down jacket she’d worn last night. He holds his breath. No one moves.

As he runs for the car, he recalls all the stories he’s heard about wolves. There has never been an accurate record of an attack on a human; it’s all myth. Ranchers he’s met have told him how the wolves don’t hesitate to attack calves; naturalists claim the wolf staple is rodents. They are cold-blooded killers; they look after each other’s young and are loyal to their families.

After he’s called for an ambulance he turns back to the meadow, gun in hand, and releases the safety catch. To his surprise the wolves are still there, staring at him. It occurs to him that he need only fire the gun in the air to make them run, but his anger grows. The ranchers are right; they are not to be trusted; they are vermin, pure and simple.

As he raises his gun, one of them, a large, mostly black male with a ruff of pale fur, rises to his feet and shakes off the snow that has settled on its back. Gary hesitates. He looks into the animal’s pale eyes and hears it make a surprisingly dog-like whine. The other wolves stir, but stay where they are. He sees now that the woman’s face is unmarked, except for the blood matting her hair and staining the snow, and that her head rests on the flank of one of the wolves. The standing wolf creeps forward, saliva on its jaws, and leaving a trail of urine in the snow. Its tail is tucked between its legs as it whines again, and shudders with fear.

Gary takes a cautious step forward. The wolf pants and cringes. Now Gary’s close enough to see that the woman’s breath mingles with the wolves’, that they are clustered together with her for warmth and protection. “You did good,” he says. He slowly lowers himself to a squat, aware of how he towers over the terrified animal. “Real good. It’s okay.” He watches Morgan’s chest move with her breaths, and the small puffs of vapor that rise from her lips. Her skin is even paler than he remembered, colorless except for a purple web of old scars at her forehead and neck. The wolf backs away from him, noses at Morgan’s face, and lies down next to her again. Gary sees two shadows become whole at the treeline; a pair of wolves stands there, watching. The rest of the family, he guesses.

When the ambulance arrives, the wolves jump up, shake themselves and run to join the two watchers. All seven of them disappear into the forest.

*

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I can’t remember things. Do I know you?”

Even with her head swathed in bandages and wearing a hospital gown she still takes his breath away.

“We met in Jake’s saloon,” he says. “You left your mail there.”

“Oh. Yes.” Her lashes rest on her cheeks for a moment. Then she opens her eyes. “I didn’t recognize you in uniform. You found me, didn’t you?”

“Me and some others. How’re you feeling?”

“Not bad.” She takes the bundle of mail from him. “Terrible. I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”

“Gary Johnson.” They shake hands formally and smile at each other. “Look, I don’t want to tire you. I just wanted to see how you were doing. I took a look at your bulletin board in the kitchen, where you’ve got the feeding schedule written out, and I gave your hawks a mouse…” he winced, remembering the plastic bag in the freezer full of matted, shrivelled gray corpses. “And I called your emergency person, and he’s taken over.”

“Thank you,” she says. She fumbles through her mail, finds a large envelope and tears it open. She picks out a large glossy photograph of the wolves in daylight, grouped in a meadow spotted with wildflowers. “They looked after me, didn’t they? The nurses said I stank of dog when they brought me in. They stayed all night.”

“Yeah. It was…” He shrugged. He still didn’t believe it himself. He certainly doesn’t know the words to express the wonder of that moment when he realized what the pack had done, how they had kept a vigil through that long, bitter night.

“I took these last summer.” She looks through the photographs, and hands them to him one by one. “Here’s Boo.” It’s the big one who approached him. She tells him the others’ names, silly endearing names that other women might give to kittens.

“You want me to go tell them you’re okay?”

“Sure. Go along about moonrise. Howl and wait for them to show.” She looks at him and smiles. “You do know how to howl, don’t you?”

“I’ll find my wild side,” he says, and takes her hand.

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Originally from England, Janet Mullany now lives outside Washington, DC, with her family, a rabbit and a cat. Her non-writing work includes a diverse career as archaeologist, classical music radio announcer and arts administrator. She is currently at work on a historical romance and a mainstream fiction novel. Janet can be reached at janetmly[at]erols.com.

The Companions Are Chosen

Best of the Boards
Janet Mullany


Smeg raised the shining blade above his head. “Who will join me, brothers? I stand before you, earth-tempered, mindful of the great quest on which I am called, to boldly go where even elvenfolk unevenly wander askance.”

There was a stir in the great hall under the sputtering torches. A figure stepped forward, clad in mail and girt with leather thongs. “I am Mighty Phlegm, cousin to Dork the Bile and Veinous the Vile. I thirst for adventure and hunger for fame and lust for immortality.”

Smeg’s eyes narrowed as he lowered his blade, and fingered the flashing jewels of its hilt, fingers idly caressing the bulbous glowing ruby of the pommel. “Aye. So it may be. Is that Dork the Bile who lives by the Lake of Forgetfulness or Dork the Bile who sells eels ‘neath the Castle Thunderous portcullis?”

“It is neither. My cousin is Dork the Bile who lives down the lane.”

A gasp arose. Pitch fell from the torch and flame flared among the rushes on the floor. A servant rushed forward to stamp out the fire with his bare feet.

“You shall join us,” Smeg announced and took the other in a rough male embrace. Disentangling their beards, he bellowed, “There are no more?”

“Aye, sir.” A thready voice rose from the depths of the hall where base men and hounds vied for scraps thrown from the high table.

A low rumbling arose in the flickering glare. “Sacrilege. Who dares speak?”

Smeg’s eyes fell on the huddled figure at his feet. “Who are you, scum?”

Dork unsheathed a sword that rippled like flame ‘neath water in the holy shrine of the Maidens of the Mothers of the Grateful Dead. “I will end his insolence ere the great clock of the Indigos strikes fifteen.”

“Stay.” Smeg strode forward, one hand on his swordhilt, the other clasping a bejewelled horn cup of mead that reflected the intense ardor of his eyes. He gestured forcefully, “Speak, dog.”

“Lord, I am but a humble jester. I will lighten your nights with song, I will juggle sundry implements neath the midday sun, I will provide jolly japes and pleasant diversions, I will sing many a catch and teach your companions amusing rounds to lighten their loads. When danger looms, I will caper and jest ’til the enemy is o’ercome with merriment and wets his britches. All this I can do, sir, and more.”

Smeg reflected. “It is well.”

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Janet, a.k.a. elailah, can be reached at janetmly[at]erols.com. You can also find her at the Toasted Cheese forums and Monday Motivation chat.

A Perfect Evening

Fiction
Janet Mullany


“I really don’t want to go,” Liz grumbled. “Zip me up, honey.”

“Breathe in.”

“Oh shit. I could get into this before the baby. Wait. Ouch. Oof. Okay.”

Will watched her with affection as she swivelled in front of the mirror, peering over her shoulder. Probably best not to tell her her butt looked big in that dress, and she never believed him when he told her how sexy it was. Damn. “We could stay here and fool around,” he suggested, easing his tie loose.

“Hell, we’re going. With a babysitter and all. I’m not missing out on this. I bet the food will be great, though I won’t be able to eat in this dress. And we’ll meet those famous people.”

*

“You take this. You offer it to the guests. You get their dirty glasses and stuff. On a different tray, right? I don’t want to see no dirty glasses come back in on the hor d’oeuvres trays, gottit? You got questions, you ask Betsy, she knows the drill. What’s your name?”

“Billy.”

“Okay. You call me Lou. C’mon, get moving, I don’t want no slackers here, college boy.”

Billy hoisted the tray onto his shoulder. The short blonde girl smiled at him, and lifted her tray of champagne glasses. “Don’t worry, you’ll do fine.”

“Thanks. Is he always like this?”

“He’s okay. He’s my dad.”

“Oh.”

*

“I look fat.” Her face crumpled like a disappointed child’s.

“Darling, you look just fine. It’s the different mirror.”

“Oh God. I look huge, I look like a size six. I should never have had that Hershey’s bar.” She dabbed at her eyes and looked with longing at the bathroom door. “You go on down. I’ll come down in a minute.”

“Beth, don’t do it.”

“I want to clean my teeth.”

He could smell chocolate and vomit on her breath. He looked at her miniscule purse; there was barely room in it for a lipstick, let alone a toothbrush. “Like hell you do. Here.” He offered her a breath mint. “Less than one calorie, it says.”

“You just don’t get it, Liam. All the calories add up. I keep telling you.”

He took her arm and began to pull her out of the bedroom, towards the stairs where their hostess waited below.

*

“You wouldn’t believe what I’ve been through,” Elizabeth said. “This town… I’m exhausted.”

“Poor darling,” said Kimberly.

“I spent hours on the phone this week with the caterer and the florist. And it’s impossible to get good help here. I had a local girl in to do the cleaning, and you wouldn’t believe her attitude.”

“That’s just too awful.”

Elizabeth took a gulp of champagne and smiled bravely. “Well, I was determined that this evening should be absolutely perfect, even if I had to work my fingers to the bone. I’m so glad you could come up from the city. People here have no idea.”

“I think it’s darling that you invited your neighbors. I just hope they appreciate Beth and Liam.”

“Well. They don’t get out much.” Elizabeth curled her lip. “But Beth and Liam were in People magazine. Not that I ever read it, of course.”

“I heard somewhere that they were on Entertainment Tonight.” They both smirked.

“God. Well, I know their publicist is too tacky for words. Excuse me.” Elizabeth frowned at the young man handing hor d’oeuvres and looked pointedly at a cluster of dirty plates on a side table. He hesitated, and turned away. Really, she thought. This town. And where was William? He should be here with her to greet their guests.

*

I am twenty-three, typed William. I have long blonde hair and pert, luscious tits. I love to get guys horny.

OK!!!! The message flashed back. I’m hung real good.

 

“William.”

“Yes, dear.” He clicked the mouse. “Just checking the portfolio, dear.”

“Our guests are arriving.” She waited as he logged off and shut down the computer. “Beth and Liam are freshening up. They should be down soon.”

As they left the study, Elizabeth rushed forward to greet the director and his famous wife as they descended the staircase. There was a smattering of applause. An attractive woman, wearing a bright blue dress that was rather too tight, dropped a crab puff onto the off-white carpet. “Oops,” she said and giggled. William watched her dress ride up over her thighs as she bent over. Lovely.

*

“You’re doing great,” Betsy said. She slid a panful of canapes onto a tray. “Is this your first catering job?”

“Yeah. It’s crazy, it’s like you’re invisible. Hey, did you see Liam and Beth Fairhaven?”

“I don’t see what the big deal is. I mean, they’re famous and all that, but he’s real short and she’s skinny.”

“I saw her in A Streetcar Named Desire.”

“You what?”

“A play. She was good. But I think—”

“Hey, get those trays moving, college boy. Betsy, you get over here. I got stuff for you to do.”

“—but I think you’re prettier,” Billy whispered to her, and hefted the tray onto his shoulder.

*

“You’ve never hunted? You didn’t go out with your daddy or nothing?”

“Afraid not.” Liam looked around the room, and began to edge away.

“You should come out with me and my buddies when the season starts. It’s a big thing in this town, getting your buck.”

“Fabulous, ah, Will. I’ll let you know, okay?”

“And a snowmobile, man. You gotta have one of those.”

*

“I don’t go to the theater much,” the woman in the awful blue dress said to her. “But I love your dress.”

“Thanks. Yours is nice too.”

“We’re real excited about having celebrities in our town. If you don’t mind me saying—” she hesitated, and leaned closer. “I know you just want to die when your beauty shop messes up. I mean, I once had a permanent go bad, and I cried for two days, but I did it myself, and that was a big mistake. I think you’re real brave to come out with, you know… I’ll take you to the beauty shop, introduce you around a bit. Arlynn’s a real good friend, and I’m sure she could fix you up. We could get our nails done and everything.”

“This haircut cost one hundred and twenty dollars in New York,” Beth said with the chilling edge to her voice that made audiences shiver in their seats. “My hairdresser is one of the best in the world.”

“One hundred and twenty dollars?” The woman looked horrified. “Heck, they ripped you off good, honey.”

Beth reached out and shovelled a handful of canapes into her mouth. She grabbed the tray from the waiter. “You smalltown bitch!” she screamed in a spray of phyllo pastry crumbs. She began to choke, and choke.

“Darling—” Liam stepped forward.

“Stand aside, sir.” The waiter pushed past, grasped Beth around her tiny waist and performed the Heimlich manoever. “Pre-med,” he explained to the suddenly silent room.

*

“There will be no tip,” Elizabeth said. “The evening was a disaster. Do you know how much it will cost me to clean the carpet?”

“Look, lady. If your guests puke up on your carpet, it ain’t my fault. My crew worked real well, the food was great, you got a good deal on this. Not to mention Billy saving that lady’s life.”

Lou turned to look at his crew. Good kids. They made a nice couple, and he was certainly better than that last boyfriend she’d had, that loser. Billy helped Betsy into her coat, and she turned to smile at the young man over her shoulder. “Okay kids,” he said. “We’re going home. You, college boy, keep your hands to yourself. You can come over for dinner on Sunday if Betsy wants you to.”

“Guess I do,” she said. “Thanks, Billy. Thanks, dad.”

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Janet Mullany lives outside Washington DC with a cat, a rabbit and other family members. She works sporadically on two novels. Janet can be reached at janetmly[at]erols.com.