Vision in blue, p.1
Vision in Blue, page 1
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
VISION IN BLUE
BERKLEY SENSATION / published by arrangement with the author
BERKLEY SENSATION edition / February 2005
BERKLEY SENSATION e-edition / June 2005
Copyright © 2005 by Cheryl Zach.
Excerpt from Truly a Wife copyright © 2005 by Rebecca Hagan Lee.
Cover art by Leslie Peck.
Cover design by Lesley Worrell.
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Titles by Nicole Byrd
LADY IN WAITING
WIDOW IN SCARLET
BEAUTY IN BLACK
VISION IN BLUE
Dedicated, with great love and pride, to my daughter Michelle as she embarks on exciting new journeys
The letter arrived on her birthday.
Big-eyed at being entrusted with such an important errand, one of the first-year girls intercepted Gemma on her way to the music room.
“Thank you, Mary,” Gemma said as she took the letter. It was larger and heavier than the usual quarterly note. Hope leaped, unbidden and unsought, from the place deep inside where she usually crammed it down.
“Yes, miss.” The little girl dipped a curtsy as she would to one of the teachers before trotting back to her classroom.
Gemma hid a sigh. She was as old, in fact, as some of the instructors and to the younger students, she must look much the same. Although officially now a parlor-boarder, she sometimes helped out with the children, listening patiently as they played scales on the pianoforte or checking their spelling on ink-blotted essays, remembering when she had been this small. When she had been that age, the brick walls of the school had seemed a fortress, protecting and succoring her. Lately, they seemed more like a prison.
Today, she turned one and twenty. Many girls her age were already married, were mothers, even, and she occasionally received correspondence from friends she’d gone to school with, friends who had left three or four years ago to go on to the real business of life. Of course, they had somewhere to go.
She might have that chance, too, to fall in love and marry, create a family and defy the emptiness of her life, if she only knew if she had the right to wed a respectable man.
Gemma looked at the thick packet. The outer sheet, with her name and address: Miss Gemma Smith, Miss Maysham’s Academy for Select Young Ladies, Yorkshire, was penned in the tiny precise writing of the solicitor who had, for years past, forwarded her quarterly allowance, along with a few impersonal lines noting that her school fees had been paid. But she had had her allowance only a few weeks ago; what was this about? She was not expecting birthday greetings: Certainly, the man had never written anything personal in all the years he had handled her affairs. Was it possible that—
She broke the wax seal and read the first sheet with increasing incredulity.
Dear Miss Smith: Two decades ago, I was instructed to forward you this missive on the occasion of your one and twentieth birthday. I remain, your servant, Augustus Peevey, Solicitor.
The inner packet, which was labeled only Gemma, had a wax seal, too, unbroken, though she could not make out its impression. The paper was of fine quality, and this script more delicate, with larger loops and swirls. Somehow, it suggested a woman’s pen. Gemma’s heart beat fast, now, and she felt her breath coming quickly. Trembling, she broke the seal and scanned the letter, then—not believing her eyes—read it again, and yet again.
Then she pressed the sheet to her chest and felt behind her for the wooden bench at the edge of the hall. Her knees were weak, and Gemma collapsed onto it.
Her world had suddenly expanded outward, and nothing would ever be the same.
No doubt about it, money had its uses. Miss Louisa Crookshank straightened the seam of her new navy blue traveling costume and smiled, careful not to appear smug. She was known in some circles as “the Comely Miss Crookshank,” and she knew that appearing satisfied with one’s self did not generally serve to enhance one’s natural beauty.
But the fact remained, being in possession of a comfortable fortune made all the difference. Since she had achieved her one and twentieth birthday during the final days of winter, she was at last in possession of the fortune she had inherited from her father. True, her uncle Charles still nominally controlled her funds, but her uncle was a dear, and it usually took little effort to coax him into agreement with her latest scheme. Which was how she came to be sitting in her own elegant, newly purchased chaise, on the way to her most cherished goal: London.
At long last!
She had tried last year to have a proper London Season, a coming-out long delayed by the sad fact of her father’s death and the resulting year of mourning, then by other family concerns. But when she had arrived in London, nothing had gone according to plan. Remembering the disasters that had brought her brief sojourn in the capital to such an abrupt and unhappy end, Louisa shuddered. But this year, it would be different, this year—
The carriage jolted to a stop. Louisa clutched the seat to avoid being thrown onto the floor. On the other side of the carriage, Miss Pomshack, her hired but very respectable companion, had been dozing. Now, the older lady jerked awake and gave a small shriek. “What is it, Miss Louisa? Are we attacked by brigands?”
“Of course not,” Louisa retorted, trying to make out a familiar form through the rain-streaked window, but torrents of liquid obscured her view. She pushed open the door just a little, ignoring the wet gusts that dampened her skirt and the draft of cold air that swept through the carriage. Miss Pomshack screeched again and
Her fiancé, Sir Lucas Englewood, curly brown hair plastered to his head—the wind must have knocked off his hat again—rode his steed closer to the carriage. He had insisted on riding, and although Louisa had invited him sweetly inside the chaise when the first drops began to fall, he had scoffed at her suggestion. “A little rain never hurt a fellow,” he had said gaily.
He didn’t look so happy now. “It’s no use, Louisa,” he told her. “The rain isn’t letting up, and the road’s turning to soup. The team can barely pull the carriage. There’s a decent-looking inn just ahead. We’re going to have to stop and wait for the weather to improve.”
Louisa bit back a protest. She had so wanted to end the day with her long-awaited arrival in London. But, gazing at the sheets of rain that cloaked any view of the countryside, she nodded reluctantly and shut the door.
In a moment, the carriage moved again, lurching as the team pulled hard against the grasping mud. Bracing herself, Louisa sighed.
Perhaps money couldn’t accomplish everything.
When they hurried into the inn, heads bowed against waves of water that drenched them thoroughly, she found they were not the only travelers to take shelter from the storm.
Inside, the innkeeper bowed and smirked and was as obsequious as the most demanding member of the Ton could require, but the fact remained, there was no private parlor to be had. “But the travelers from the stage are a nice, quiet bunch, miss, and I’ll make sure that no one bothers you. And me wife is cooking up a grand dinner, which will lift your spirits no end.”
Sir Lucas frowned as he escorted Louisa to a seat in the corner of the room and helped her shed her sodden cloak. She would have preferred to be closer to the fire, which Miss Pomshack also eyed with longing, but Lucas was, as usual, more concerned with the proprieties.
The public coach, it seemed, had also had to make an unscheduled stop. Several men crowded around the leaping fire, lifting their coattails and drying rain-soaked coats and broad backsides all at once, talking in loud voices about market shares and the price of wool. The whole room smelt of damp wool, the scent mingling with smoke from the fire, as well as the fumes from one particularly noxious pipe, which an elderly man sitting by the hearth had clamped between thin lips.
Perhaps, all in all, Louisa favored her distant corner.
“At least I was able to obtain a bedchamber for you and Miss Pomshack,” Lucas told her.
“We have to share a room?” Louisa protested, though she kept her voice low. Her companion was shaking out her pelisse and didn’t seem to notice the quiet complaint.
“It’s the last one,” Lucas told her. “I’ll have to camp out in the parlor with the other men, so count your blessings.”
Sighing, she nodded. “Thank you, Lucas, for looking out for me so well.” She smiled up at him.
His chest seemed to swell visibly. “I promised your uncle I would see to your safety, didn’t I?” he told her, his tone dignified. “You will not come to any harm this year!”
Not wanting to discuss last year’s perilous adventures, Louisa frowned. Her near-escapes were now only painful memories, and she had no wish to relive them.
The innkeeper brought them all steaming cups of mulled wine. Glad she had not yet removed her gloves, Louisa held the hot pewter cup carefully and sipped.
A pleasant warmth spread through her, and some of her disappointment ebbed. She was on the way to London; this was only a momentary delay. Very well, not momentary, exactly, but still brief.
Lucas excused himself to check on the carriage and team, to be sure the horses, including his own handsome gelding, were properly rubbed down and fed. Left alone with Miss Pomshack, who seemed interested only in her cup of wine, Louisa glanced around the room. This time, she noticed one lone female sitting a bit apart from the group of men.
What was a woman, who was, Louisa noted, dressed most respectably—if not richly—doing alone on the coach? This woman, who looked not much older than Louisa herself, kept her gaze down and seemed to be doing everything she could to avoid contact with the other passengers. Did she have no one to travel with her?
Louisa’s ready curiosity stirred. Besides, she was bored, and there was a long evening ahead with no one to talk to except Miss P, who was not much of a conversationalist, and dear Lucas, who would probably spend hours in the stables until he was sure that all the horses were seen to. Acting on impulse as she often did, Louisa stood, and before her companion could object, marched across the room.
She paused in front of the other woman, who looked up at her in surprise.
“Forgive me,” Louisa said, her tone cheerful. “But you seem to be alone. Would you not like to share some wine with us?”
The young woman flushed. She had dark hair tucked beneath a somewhat soggy bonnet and unusual eyes, of a blue so dark and rich that they put one in mind of ocean depths on a sunny day. Her skin was fair, and when she spoke, her voice sounded educated and genteel.
“I would not wish to intrude,” she said, looking unsure.
“Not at all. I know this is not precisely a proper introduction, but I am Miss Louisa Crookshank of Bath, but just now on my way to London for the Season.”
The stranger still hesitated. “It’s very good of you, but are you sure your mother will approve?”
“Oh, Miss Pomshack is my companion; my mother died years ago,” Louisa explained matter-of-factly. “I had no female relatives available just now to chaperone. I have aunts, but one has a new baby and isn’t interested in the Season”—she shook her head at such madness—“and the other is newly married and taking an extended honeymoon around the world. I get letters from the strangest places, I assure you. She was riding camels and exploring pyramids the last I heard. However, she does send the most delightful gifts. I have a Persian shawl—light as air but very warm, and such colors—that is utterly divine.”
The other woman smiled. Louisa was glad to see it; the stranger had been looking rather downcast. Mind you, Louisa’s bubbly good spirits usually had that effect on people. “Come along,” she coaxed. “A more congenial group is just what you need on such a miserable day. And you can eat dinner with us, instead of with the men on the coach, which would be much more to your liking, I’m sure?”
The light outside the rain-streaked windows was fading, and the group at the fireplace growing noisier.
The young woman seemed to make up her mind. She stood and gave a small curtsy. “Thank you, you’re very kind. I am Miss Gemma Smith, for several years a student at Miss Maysham’s Academy for Select Young Ladies, just outside of York. I have only recently left.”
Louisa led the way back to their corner, where she introduced Miss Pomshack and beckoned to the innkeeper to bring more wine.
Soon they were comfortably settled. Miss Smith removed her damp bonnet and attempted to push her hair back into order.
“Are you traveling to London for the Season or to visit family?” Louisa asked politely, trying not to sound too inquisitive.
The other young lady hesitated. “It is for family reasons, yes,” she agreed, taking a long drink from her cup.
This did little to enlighten Louisa. She decided to explain some of her own circumstances. Perhaps this would put Miss Smith more at ease and more apt to share her situation.
“I am traveling with my companion and my fiancé, Sir Lucas Englewood,” she told the stranger. She glanced down at the topaz betrothal ring on her finger.
“Oh, my felicitations,” the other girl said.
“Thank you. Lucas wanted us to be married this spring, but I have so wanted a real London Season first—I’ve never even had a proper coming-out—that I saw no reason to rush into matrimony, as dear to me as Lucas is. Not to mention—” Louisa lowered her voice in respect. “After the sad death last fall of Princess Charlotte in childbirth, well, it somewhat lessened my eagerness to rush into the married sta
Miss Smith nodded. It had been a national calamity. The princess had been very popular, unlike her volatile father, the Prince Regent, and her loss had been genuinely mourned. The prince had been most cast about at losing his only child, or so it was rumored. But the prince was a fun-loving man, and Louisa was privately hoping that this spring’s Season would not be too much subdued by the tragedy.
“Do you have a home in London?” the other lady asked, trying to rub away the water spots on her gray traveling costume as it slowly dried. “Or are you staying at a hotel?”
Louisa smiled. “I have rented a very nice house in town, fully furnished and with a small staff, at a quite reasonable rate,” she explained. “Lucas has taken rooms for the time being. He’s feeling very proper just now and doesn’t think it would be suitable to stay with me, even with another lady to chaperone. But after Lucas and I are married, I hope to purchase the house or one like it. My uncle handled the lease, and I have not yet seen the residence myself, but he assures me I will be pleased.”
“How lovely.” The other girl sounded a bit wistful.
“And I suppose you are going to stay with family? You will have to call on me once you are settled,” Louisa suggested. She liked the look of this girl, with her intelligent blue eyes and her reluctance to put herself forward; her manners were very nice. “Were you in London last year? I have the feeling I have seen you before.”
For some reason, the girl flushed. “No, this is my first visit. I do have family in London, but, um, they are not yet aware that I am coming.”
That was unusual, but it would have been bad form to remark upon it. Generally, a lady did not set out until she was sure she had a safe haven at the end of the journey; big cities—as Louisa’s aunts were only too eager to remind her—could present many dangers for young ladies on their own.
“Perhaps your letters have passed in the mail,” Louisa suggested, trying to sound as if this were not an odd-sounding situation.
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