I’ve been trying to decide whether or not to do this for a while in a ‘yes-I-will, no-I-won’t’ tug of war that occasionally drives me crazy. Somehow it’s worse than sending something off for a competition – go figure!- because once I’ve sent that I can forget about it, but given my policy on not removing posts without seriously good reason, this’ll be here waving at me for as long as this blog is. Enough of that or I’ll talk myself out of it again. So here goes. Below is an extract from my novel, (title still undetermined) a scene from the second chapter:
Clasping a simple pearl necklace around her throat, drops of pearl falling from her ears, Amelia stood in front of her glass to assess the final effect.
“The fan with ivory sticks and painted roses, Coral. I am certain I still have it.”
“Found it, m’lady, it—” As she straightened, Coral turned and caught her breath. “M’lady! You look. . .”
“Overdressed? Too old to be wearing such a gown?”
“Stunning,” the maid stated firmly.
Amelia’s smile grew. She ran her hands lightly down the dress in a strangely nervous, wondering manner, her eyes flickering to meet her maid’s in the mirror. “Truly, Cora? It is not too. . .”
“It’s perfect, m’lady, and you look beautiful.” Long evening gloves were eased on, then an artistically draped shawl added about her mistress’s arms before reticule and fan were handed over.
Once again Amelia looked into the glass, trying to see herself as others might.
Dark blonde hair was stylishly arranged, rosebuds made from the same material as the gown nestled in the curls and a few strands teased down to soften the face. The expected features were all present and formed a reasonably pleasant whole: light grey eyes, straight nose, skin unmarked by illness or blemish, a usually-pale complexion given a soft colour just for tonight. The skilfully-designed dress clung to some curves while skimming over others, and just a hint of satin-clad toe peeked from beneath the hem.
Amelia sighed to herself, and then brightened. She would never be a beauty, but she was not ill-favoured, and she knew there was something about herself that appealed to the gentlemen. She also knew she had never looked better. With Coral’s wishes for a wonderful evening following her from the room, she went downstairs to the waiting carriage.
The day had moved on by a whole hour before Lady Amelia Markham finally entered the ballroom of the Earl of Westbourne and his Lady. From her door to theirs had been a solid queue of carriages, all waiting impatiently as they crept forwards, each having to set their occupants at the steps before moving out of the way. She could have walked the distance in ten minutes! However it would never do to arrive on foot – some hosts had been known to refuse entry to any who dared – so she possessed herself of what patience she could. Of course, following the queuing of the carriages, one then had to stand in line awaiting entrance.
“Lord Westbourne, it is an honour.” Amelia curtseyed to her host, a man skinny where others were portly, who dressed with an impressive balancing of precise flamboyance that matched his wife perfectly. “I would say the evening appears set to outshine all others, only that might be taken as an insult to previous occasions.”
“Lady Markham! It is always a pleasure to see you – your wit and beauty bring me endless enjoyment in my old age.”
“My lord, if you are old then some of those present would be relics, and that does not seem fair to them.” Knowing she was holding up the queue, her satisfaction only increased as Lord Westbourne leant closer and lowered his voice.
“Turned your thoughts to marriage yet, hey? One such as you should not be without a husband.”
Despite the not-so-subtle gaze of his wife, she also inclined her body forward. “How am I to think of marriage when the only true gentlemen are already taken?”
“True, true.” This particular gentleman had become rather preoccupied with something below her chin. With regret he drew himself upright and managed to continue on topic. “There are a few good fellows among those left though, so you keep your eyes open.”
“I always do, my lord,” and dipping a curtsey, she moved along.
At long last entering the ballroom and beginning the search for someone she actually wished to converse with, Amelia was surprised to be addressed from behind.
“Lady Amelia Markham?” a decidedly male voice queried.
Spinning about, it took her a moment to place the owner. “Harry? Harry Rosse? Whatever are you doing in London?”
The young gentleman bowed with a boyish grin. “Father decided it was about time I came to town and I needed no urging! I knew you were here of course, but it is wonderful to see you again, and out of black!” Her smile turned uncomfortable and Harry was immediately stung with remorse. “Lord! I’m so sorry, I—”
Spotting another gentleman approaching, Amelia was quick to change the subject, speaking as though the newcomer interrupted an established conversation. “Yes indeed, I am dancing tonight, Mr Rosse and would be honoured to save you a dance. I fear we will have to catch up later though, for here is Lord Blakeley come to torment me!” She breathed a sigh of relief as, although at first startled, Harry quickly recovered and followed her lead. She introduced the two men and after a brief, somewhat stilted conversation, Harry withdrew.
“Friend of yours?” drawled Lord Blakeley, watching Harry disappear into the crowds.
“Jealous, my lord?”
“Not at all. Merely curious as to why a beautiful, sophisticated lady such as yourself should waste her time with a boy barely out of leading strings.”
Concealing the unexpected spurt of anger his words caused, Amelia laughed lightly. “I know Harry from years ago. I met him in Shropshire.”
“Ah, ancestral seat of the Earls of Bradford. That would explain it.”
Though curious as to what he thought explained, she was content to let the subject drop.
“So, Lord Blakeley, are you planning any further excursions in the near future? The boating the other week was most enjoyable, and rather a success I thought.”
“It is most kind of you to say so, Lady Markham. As it happens I do have an idea in mind. Do I take it I may include you in my future plans?”
Something in his expression caused Amelia to feel the need to tread carefully. “I am sure any of those who have been privileged enough to be included in an event of your organising would be glad to accept your kind invitation.” The emphasis was of the slightest, but it was apparently enough to make him blink. Whatever she had seen, or thought she had seen, was gone, and Lord Blakeley’s bland reply made her wonder even more if she were imagining things.
In an abrupt about-face, she felt she had to reassure him. “What I mean to say is that I am honoured you would think of me, my lord. You always manage to make even the most humdrum of outings exciting.” Unaccountably flustered, she closed her mouth on any further ramblings. She couldn’t for the life of her work out what was affecting her so. She hadn’t behaved like this since shortly after her marriage— That was it! Again that fortune teller was causing trouble, disturbing the past to the detriment of the present. It had to stop.
Noting the humorous curiosity in Lord Blakeley’s eye Amelia knew she had to get away, but to do so she would have to gain control of her suddenly unreliable composure.
“Good. Now that is settled, may I request the pleasure of your company for a dance?”
Murmuring an affirmative, she took the opportunity afforded by his writing on her dance card to glance around, and as soon as he finished, she made her escape. “Oh, pray excuse me, my lord, I see Mrs Thomson and I simply must speak with her.”
“Lady Markham.” Lord Blakeley bowed, watching with a keen intensity as the lady curtseyed and made her way to her friend. He considered Lady Markham to be stunning female in any circumstances but tonight, with her honey hair framing her small-featured face, curls tumbling from her crown to brush her pale shoulders, which rose delightfully from the deep rose satin décolletage, she was exquisite.
Putting her earlier difficulties out of her mind, Amelia found that chatting with Sophia did much to restore her equilibrium. Indeed, after ten minutes she felt nearly herself again, although as a precaution she withdrew as soon as she politely could to the room set aside for ladies. Checking inside she saw that it was currently occupied by a group of excited debutantes, so she slipped quickly away. Wandering down corridors she found a salon, hushed and still, and she blessed the cooler air that brushed over her skin. For a few minutes she simply sat, and then, noticing a mirror, she stood with new determination and checked her appearance. She straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin. She was Lady Amelia Markham. She had been through much in her life and survived; now she had a role to play, and play it she would.
With these thoughts giving her strength, Lady Markham returned to the ballroom, fully prepared to make the most of the evening.
A final flourish from the violins and the dancers paused. . . then bowed with the long-drawn out chord. Amelia rose from her graceful dip, smiling as she reached out her hand to her partner.
“That was a wonderful dance, Harry. You’ve improved so since the summer.” Taking her arm to lead her from the dance-floor he blushed, though in mortification or pleasure she was uncertain. “I truly mean it as a compliment! So few gentlemen of my acquaintance even know of their faults, and would never dream of trying to remedy them. I admire you greatly.”
Though he was too young for her, not to mention an old friend, out of habit she flirted, making a point of classing him among the gentlemen in her speech, voicing praise earnestly, and showing her admiration in her eyes and the way her hand clasped his arm. Like most, he was not immune to flattery, and having the attention of the most sought-after and talked-of woman of the last Season was quite an achievement.
After she caught him staring at her for the second time, Harry coloured painfully and hurried into speech. “Would you care for some lemonade? Or perhaps you should like to sit down. Or take a turn about the gardens?”
Her soft hand restrained his impetuous action. “Come, Harry, you know me better than that! There is no need to be nervous. Let us sit and talk until I am claimed for my next dance. Perhaps over there.” She indicated a secluded bench, half-hidden from the main room by a pillar and skilfully placed potted plant. She feared she might have to persuade him – the propriety of such a seat might arouse comment in some, however all he did was glance down at her once before leading her over.
He managed quite skilfully, Amelia mused. Avoiding or deflecting their acquaintances, moving confidently and looking very fine in his evening dress. It was as well for him that she held him in such high regard. And that he had little in the way of expectations. In fact she often felt quite cousinly toward the boy, surprising many by her continued and sincere interest in his welfare, Lord Blakeley being the most recent to join their number.
Then again, perhaps there was not so much of the boy about him these days was her next surprising thought, and objectively she considered her subject. He had filled out, she realised. The shoulders of his coat were broad and strong-looking, while evening breeches showed off naturally athletic legs. His face was not handsome and his hair was a disorderly brown mop, often falling into innocent hazel eyes. . . However it was a kind face, and honest, and sometimes she wished. . .
“My lady?” Harry had reached the seat and was waiting for her to sit. Amelia pulled in her thoughts sharply and smiled once more.
“I have told you before to call me Amelia.”
“And I have agreed to do so when we are private, which this is not.” She considered arguing the point but decided against it. Instead she peered through the concealing fern.
The room beyond was crammed with people all dressed in their best, so many colours and so many shades, all set off with glittering jewels: rings flashing as people talked, and earrings jangling as they turned this way and that. The orchestra was quiet at present. Curtains pulled back and windows open to the night. Candles swaying in draughts. Flowers drooping in the heat. People talking. People laughing. People shouting and fainting and arguing and whispering—
“Amelia? Are you well? Are you sure you do not want a drink?”
She rallied herself at his concern. “No, no, Harry. I am quite well. A trifle warm, but I am better now. Tell me of your family.” It was a topic picked at random, its sole purpose to distract.
“Well as you know, my younger brother still has hopes for the army, though my father— Mother and Father are well by the way, but Father—”
A part of Amelia was fascinated by the following narration of brothers and sisters and the dog stealing the housekeeper’s favourite feather duster, but though she laughed and questioned, she actually paid little attention to what was being said. After all, how did the kitchen boy getting stuck in the apple tree relate to her? Did it matter if little Mary fell in the pond and couldn’t get out? She had her own problems to worry about. Her own plan to follow.
On that thought, she could not prevent her mind skimming over the reasons for her current predicament – her dearly departed husband, James, being the main one.
James had never been fond of plans. He was more of a ‘do what you want, when you want, and damn anyone else and the consequences’ sort of creature. Which was why, after the deed was done and she had a chance to think of such matters, she had only counted on receiving the widow’s third. Instead she discovered that not only had he made a will but, even more astonishing, she herself was the beneficiary! The larger portion of James’ estate was hers, in fact everything not entailed. It still raised a warm thrill within her, the idea of having her own house and money, with no-one to dictate how she used it. And once the required period of mourning was over, there were as many parties and dances and picnics as she could wish for.
Unfortunately, maintaining a London establishment was expensive and a Season even more so – especially when one indulged oneself as Amelia had done that first year.
Money ran out.
However she had a scheme in mind to repair that circumstance and the initial preparations were begun. Perhaps hers was a cold way to view the world, and the wrong way to get along in it, but what else was she to do? She would not starve for a few morals, and she was hardly the only one. She was how the world had made her.
She was how the world had made her, but—
“I do believe this is my dance, Lady Markham.” Interrupting both her own melancholy thoughts and Harry’s friendly chatter was her next dance partner. Sweet, innocent Harry stopped talking and gave Amelia a lingering glance before standing, bowing, and walking away. Sometimes she wished—
Breathing a regretful breath, Amelia set herself to charm the gentleman. “I would be honoured, sir.” Though she couldn’t help stealing a last glance as her youthful dream walked away. . . Returning to her part, she took the offered arm, pressing close to the gentleman’s side as they moved through the crush. Once they found their places there was barely a moment before a single violin drew the first chords. The couples bowed and then began the first, intricate steps.
After several dances Amelia found herself free, and joined a group of ladies she knew well. They had all seen several Seasons and were considered by many to be ‘on the shelf’. Amelia despised the term as overly harsh and judgemental, carrying as it did the implication of a lost cause, lonely spinsterhood and being tied to relations who did not really want one. Of course, it wasn’t applicable to herself, even if she did feel a certain kinship with the outcasts.
They stood together, commenting on gowns, passing judgement on the dancers, and generally gossiping. Amelia, forgetting she had promised the next dance to Lord Blakeley, excused herself from the group to attempt to reach a window and a breath of air. Already a warm night, as the evening progressed the ballroom became stifling: the hundreds of candles, the press of bodies, the exertion of dancing, all combined to raise the temperature. . . and much more regrettably, the assault on one’s senses of various smells. Judging by some of the less-than-elegant faints she had witnessed, Amelia suspected that some of the ladies had genuinely been overcome by the combination, and she had no wish to make such a spectacle of herself.
Others had had the same thought however, and the windows were now inaccessible. Lady Westbourne, being an experienced and excellent hostess, recognized the growing problem and sent servants to hang lanterns in the gardens before throwing open all of the doors. As a consequence, a veritable surge of perspiring aristocracy spilled out into the mild night air and the frivolity continued.
In fact it was only as the sky began to brighten with the new day that the last clatter of departing carriage wheels faded away, and a tired but triumphant Lord and Lady Westbourne could seek their beds.
If you’ve got this far, thank you for persevering! Any feedback will be read and taken under consideration, though please don’t just make harsh comments for no reason. Constructive stuff, that’s what we want! Or simply nice comments would be awesome too 🙂