Authors: Sarita Leone
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either 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.
2013 by Sarita Leone
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author or The Wild Rose Press, Inc. except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
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The Wild Rose Press, Inc.
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First English Tea Rose Edition, 2013
Digital ISBN 978-1-61217-828-8
Love Letters Series
Published in the United States of America
For the love of my life, Vito Leone. Always.
London, April 1814
An iron will kept her penmanship steady but it did little—nothing at all, actually—to still the enormous cluster of butterflies fluttering madly in her midsection. Of course, there were no insects in her gut but it certainly felt like there might be. Two clusters, perhaps.
The sensation was foreign and she hated it.
When the last t was crossed, she placed the gold-filigreed writing instrument on the leather blotter before her with a sigh of relief.
. She had found the strength to write it.
Once the letter was posted, there would be no turning back. Not that she wanted to turn back. Quite the opposite, in fact. Whatever happened next, the truth would finally be revealed.
She would go to her grave with a clear conscience, even if it meant this time spent still on earth might be less than comfortable. Hopefully, things would calm down eventually but until then…who could ever say how a young lady would react?
An oft-used phrase shot through her mind, her beloved’s gravelly voice as clear as if he stood behind her.
Come hell or high water.
She smirked, glancing at the letter a last time.
A matter of grave importance awaits you.
Please present yourself as swiftly as possible at 247 Coventry Garden Lane, London.
Explanation to be proffered upon your arrival.
An interested party
A quick peal of the silver desktop bell brought a uniformed butler before she finished sealing the envelope.
She handed him the missive. “I’d like this to go out immediately, Henry.”
He took it with a nod, turned and walked from the room.
Leaning back in the buttery soft leather desk chair, she tapped a finger against her lower lip and said softly, “There it goes, my love. Come hell or high water, I shall tell that girl the truth. Mark my words; she will know what came before her…and what lies ahead of her.”
Essex, two days later
Elise Fulbright had never been much of a lingerer but the warm breeze that kissed her cheeks and the sun’s heat on the back of her neck enticed her to dawdle in the kitchen garden for an extra moment. She sat back on her heels, her white cotton nightdress billowing around her ankles, hiding bare feet. The freshly cut mint sprigs nestled in her lap perfumed the air with their sweet scent.
For one brief moment, she felt snatched from her ordinary existence and into heaven.
Pulling the aroma into her lungs, she relished this short idyllic interlude. Morning, the most tranquil time of the day, sped by on gossamer wings. All too soon, she would be tossed into the controlled commotion that was her life.
Others might believe her mad rush from morning to night was a temporary condition that might someday be alleviated but Elise knew better. The circumstances of her life were set and there was no way to escape them. She had only to look to her mother for confirmation of the fact.
The kitchen door creaked behind her, its hinges rusty after the harsh winter’s lashings, but there was no reason to turn around.
“Is tea ready yet?”
While it had never been a conscious decision to spoil Louise, the damage had somehow been done.
She turned to face Louise, noticing as she did the sting on the sensitive area just above the collar of her nightdress.
Great. Just what she needed, a sunburned neck.
She prickled at the sight of Louise’s pointed stare. It made her conscious of her dirty feet, braided hair and tatty attire. The temptation to escape the confinements of her day—even for a scant moment or two—had let her ignore decorum. She would have to wash the grime from her toes, dress quickly and hope her nightdress hadn’t gotten too soiled. It was scarcely more than a sheer drape now, but it was her favorite and she resisted offering it up for dust rags. That day would come eventually, but for now the garment was safe.
The condition of her clothing notwithstanding, the censure in her sister’s gaze nearly sent Elise’s hand to her hair and words of explanation to her lips. Almost, but not quite. She restrained herself, refusing to be made to feel less than adequate by someone whose bottom she had helped powder.
Despite the early hour, Louise looked groomed to perfection. Auburn hair neatly coiled, curls dangling beside her pearl-studded earlobes as precisely as if the point from her nose to temples had been calibrated and the curling tongs placed accordingly. A creamy complexion, the tiniest pink bow mouth and periwinkle-blue eyes gave the seventeen-year-old the appearance of an angel.
In this case, looks were deceiving. Louise was far from angelic, although Elise did think she kept her purity. Had they lived in London or come from an upper level in society, where the young beauty would garner much interest, there would be greater cause for concern regarding Louise’s virtue. Since neither was the case, Elise felt relatively certain her sister remained chaste. For now.
“Well?” The pink lips formed a pout. “The tea? Have you made it yet?”
Louise ran a hand over her slender form, pushing her yellow skirt flat against her abdomen. She was thin, almost painfully so, and instantly Elise forgot her irritation. Their life was harder than most. Who could blame Louise’s insensitivity? Or her selfishness, even?
Gathering the mint in one hand, she stood and brushed the dirt from the hem of her nightdress.
“You just walked through the kitchen. Did you see the brown betty sitting on the table?” She crossed the yard and climbed two red brick steps to the stoop. Gazing fondly down at her sister, she nudged, “Well? Did you? Or are you chastising me for lingering out of doors when you’d rather I keep busy readying your breakfast?”
Louise had the grace to look slightly chagrined. “It seems late, is all. You usually have tea brewed and eggs in their little cups by now. Mother is nearly all set, as well. She’ll also wonder why the meal isn’t prepared.”
Holding the mint high, Elise smiled. “I believe you’ll both be glad I took the time to cut some of this. And we are not having boiled eggs this morning. I baked orange scones last night before I went to bed. Think of how tasty they’ll be topped with mint butter.”
When Louise clapped her hands together, her appreciation for the treat glowingly apparent, Elise noticed the envelope her sister held. She inclined her head toward the item.
“What is that?”
Louise thrust the envelope forward. “I nearly forgot. An early post, I suppose. It was stuck in the letterbox when I came downstairs. Addressed to you.”
“Probably another letter from Cornelia. She hinted in her last one that it is dreadfully dull in Bath. Her father is taking the waters for his rheumatism but she and her mother are bored to tears. Really, how much soaking and drinking can a body stand?”
Cornelia Wesley had been her best friend since they had been toddlers. She, too, came from a family of modest means, lived just down the lane and had been a logical choice for companionship since their mothers were as close as sisters. Mr. Wesley, a largish man with a jolly nature despite his aching bones, often acted as a father figure to Elise and Louise. They even called him Uncle Wesley.
“No, it’s not from Bath. Perhaps Cornelia has found something to do other than bathing.”
“Who from, then? No one writes me. It has been a lark receiving Cornelia’s letters, even if they have been rather sedate. I had hoped she might catch the eye of a dashing man but it seems she has landed smack dab in the center of a sea of invalids. Elderly invalids, at that.”
“Of course she has. Bath is hardly London, now is it? And it is where the infirm go for healing, remember? Whatever were you thinking—an eligible bachelor in Bath? Now
“One can hope, little sister. Besides, when you reach our age—well, I daresay
shall be married by the time you’re twenty—”
“I should hope so! I’d rather go queer in the attic than end up an old maid.” Horror flashed in the striking blue eyes as soon as the words were out. Louise clapped a hand over her lips, and then whispered through her fingers. “Oh, Elise, I am sorry. Pay no attention to me, please.”
“Don’t worry, dear, I never do. Now, as I was saying, when you turn twenty your outlook on who might merit suitable romantic interest changes. Dramatically, in some cases. Cornelia is desperate for a husband and I cannot help but hope she finds one. Even if he is somewhat long in the tooth,” she added with a smile.
While she didn’t share her friend’s voracious desire to wed, Elise was not immune to the possibility of marriage. Only in her case, it must be for love and
love. She wasn’t going to settle for a man just because she felt her assets drooping or society looking unfavorably upon her. Moreover, she did not intend to be threatened into marriage by impending spinsterhood. No, better to be alone than unhappy, she firmly believed—especially since it was patently clear that men were not to be trusted. Again, she only had to look to her mother’s disastrous romantic history for conviction.
“Now, the letter?” The sun was rising quickly. If she didn’t hurry, her hectic schedule would turn frenzied.
They exchanged mint for post.
A quick glance at the unfamiliar writing sent the tiny hairs on the nape of her burnt neck standing at attention. The penmanship boasted more swirls, curlicues and precisely positioned dots and dashes than one envelope had any right to hold. That there was a mix-up in the post was her first reaction. Instinct made her read the flowing words—twice—but it was meant for her, all right. She turned the expensive vellum over and examined the return address.
Chills shot up Elise’s spine. The sun disappeared behind a cloud and she drew her shawl tightly across her chest while she ruminated on the words before her. A London address, one that held no meaning since they weren’t wealthy, fashionable or connected enough to know anyone in the city.
Her mouth went dry. There was no reason for it, but hadn’t she lived her whole life knowing some things happened without good explanation? It was how the three of them, Elise, Louise and their mother, found themselves in their current situation—by lack of one man’s reason.
Still, this sudden reaction to an ordinary piece of paper was uncharacteristic, and Elise knew it. Not that knowing something and preventing it were one in the same.
Louise startled her out of her musings.
“Well? Are you going to open it or merely stare at it?” An emphatic wave of the aromatic herbs in her fist scented the air between them. “No time to dally, is there? We’re already behind schedule. Let us see who wants what—or who wants to offer something. Perhaps you’ve won some kitchen staff—now wouldn’t that be a dream?”
“Enough shilly-shallying. I cannot have won staff—or anything else, for that matter—since I never enter contests. They are silly, as I’m always telling you. And you’re right; we’re letting time get away from us.” Elise turned the envelope over again and ran a fingertip across her name. It looked so elegant in the fine hand, far too elegant for one wearing such humble garb. “Why don’t you prepare breakfast while I get dressed? Mother is sure to be downstairs any moment now and we don’t want to keep her waiting, do we?”
It was an unfair tactic, using their mother as reason to assume the duty, but Elise didn’t feel guilty. Her sister rarely set foot near the stove so nudging her there in this instance couldn’t do any harm. Her resolve softened at the hurt look on the younger woman’s face so she added an incentive.