Surprise! (Well, not a big surprise if you've interacted with me in the last month or so) I have a novella coming out this summer! It's in the hands of some amazing beta readers right now and I can't wait to dive in and turn that sweet little baby rough draft into a polished novella ready to brighten a reader's day.
I've been playing around with the idea of making my own cover in Canva. This is my first attempt, and I can assure you it won't be the last! If I can't make it better than this, I will invest in a professional cover designer, never fear. ;)
Without further ado, I give you the first (unedited, and therefore subject to change) chapter of this sweet little story. Cheers!
June 1, 1813
Virginia made sure her mother was not looking at her and then took and buttered a second scone for breakfast. She was not exactly in danger of losing her girlish figure, but her mother would’ve criticized her had she noticed. As she ate, she stared out the window and ignored her mother’s never ending monologue recounting all of the juicy society gossip she was supposed to crave.
But she found she craved only scones and freedom.
“And Lady Fitzgibbon’s granddaughter is getting married to a tradesman!” her mother, the Duchess of Dorset, said with relish.
Virginia blinked a couple times. Her mother was looking at her expectantly now, waiting for a response. “Really?” she managed.
“Yes, I know! We never thought she of all people would stoop so low, but everyone knows her father was a bit too speculative and lost half their fortune on some harebrained scheme or other. One cannot be too surprised that she has had to forego respectability in favor of a fortune. But I could never bear to shake hands with a tradesman, let alone marry one.”
“Then it is fortunate that you are already married, Mother,” Virginia said.
“What was that?” her mother snapped.
“Nothing,” she said quickly. Her mother never let a flippant remark go unpunished.
Her mother squinted at Virginia before nodding approvingly at her respectful silence. She set down the paper she had been reading, and Virginia set her scone down--her appetite was gone.
“Virginia, have your maid set your hair to rights. It looks a bit untidy. Then let us go out walking. Everyone of import will be out on the promenade at this hour. Must you wear that horribly plain blue morning gown? At least put on a necklace. Five minutes, darling!”
Virginia obediently stood and walked upstairs to her room. As she opened the door, she heard a slight shuffle in the corner.
“Oh, it’s only you, milady,” her maid said with relief. She had a biscuit in one hand and a novel in the other. “I came up here to clean your fireplace.” She took another bite of her biscuit. “And have a bit of breakfast,” she said with her mouth full.
Virginia smiled. “You’re welcome to escape here as often as you feel you need to, Mandie. You know that.”
Mandie grinned and finished the rest of the biscuit in a hurry, standing from her chair. “Sit,” she said, her mouth still full of crumbs.
Virginia obediently sat before her dressing table and Mandie dusted off her hands before unpinning the messy bits of Virginia’s coiffure, combing them, and neatly repinning them. Too soon, the duchess was calling up the stairs for Virginia and Virginia rose to her feet.
“Chin up, milady,” Mandie reminded her. “You never know but you might meet a handsome new beau out along the promenade!”
Mandie gave a wink and Virginia could not help but smile. She wished she could remain at home with Mandie all day, but when she first came out into society four years ago she had become an unwilling extension of her mother. The duchess had been eager to parade her daughter before the haut ton and revel in their approval of her. Virginia had hated every moment of it.
Her first season she had been determined to enjoy herself, but her nerves had made her giggle a bit too loudly once and made her the subject of ridicule. She had misstepped while dancing and had been teased for weeks afterward. Two or three suitors had initially caught her interest before she realized they were only fortune hunters who found her a dead bore. It had seemed that all of the young ladies in society were eager to feign friendship with her, due to her father’s rank, but even those she befriended inevitably spread vicious gossip about her.
It had now been over a year since she had willingly gone out in society without being commanded or coerced. She had been blessed with beauty and a wealthy, titled family, but it had been far more of a curse than a blessing to her. It seemed that others around her were always either determined to tear her down or to tolerate her presence only to profit from her in some way. She had learned not to trust anyone but Mandie.
As she was about to walk out the door to meet her mother, Virginia paused. “Come with us, Mandie,” she begged. “Please. Then perhaps we can go off on our own for a spell.”
Mandie smiled. “You don’t need to ask me twice!” Mandie hurried out of her apron and into a light spencer well suited to the brisk late spring weather and followed Virginia out the door.
The duchess did not mind having Virginia’s maid accompany them. After all, who else would carry their purchases should they find something lovely in a shop window?
As her mother prattled on beside her, Virginia turned to Mandie and made a face. Mandie snorted with laughter and the duchess frowned disapprovingly at her, which made Virginia swallow a laugh too.
“Oh!” Virginia said. “Look there, Mother. I see your friend Lady Stanfield. Would you not like to visit with her while Mandie and I walk along the marina just over there?”
The duchess hardly listened. “All right, Virginia. Lady Stanfield! Have you heard the latest news?”
Virginia hurried away with Mandie’s arm in hers. “Come, Mandie! If we hurry she will not be able to keep up with us.”
“Where are we going?”
“Anywhere she isn’t,” Virginia muttered, determined to get a bit of breathing room from her mother before playing her favorite game of make-believe. Once they were out of sight and in the midst of the main bustling market crowd at the marina, Virginia let out a sigh.
Mandie tried to pull her arm out of Virginia’s but Virginia held tight. “Milady?” Mandie asked.
“Mandie, call me Virginia,” Virginia said.
“What? Last time I did that the cook heard me doing that she threatened to box my ears.”
“Well, the cook isn’t here, is she? Please?”
Mandie shook her head. “What has gotten into you, my la--er, Virginia?”
Virginia smiled. “Do you ever dream of being ordinary, Mandie? If we were not lady and maid but simply friends?”
Mandie chuckled. “We are already friends, Virginia. We have been for quite some time.”
“I know that, but sometimes I like to play pretend that my mother runs a boarding house and my father sells fish.”
Mandie shook her head. “And most little girls dream of being a princess in a tower like you.”
Virginia wrinkled her nose. “That’s only because they don’t know how miserable it is.”
Mandie smiled and patted Virginia’s hand comfortingly. “There, there. At least you have me. You could have ended up with someone far less interesting than I.”
“In truth, I don’t know what I would do without you, Mandie!”
“Nor do I,” her maid answered cheekily. “Oh, don’t look now, but there’s a handsome stranger giving you a look. Just over there to your right. Wait a moment. Don’t look. Wait. There! Did you see him?”
Virginia laughed and shook her head. “What are you talking about, Mandie?” she asked. Virginia cast her eyes about to see who Mandie could’ve been talking about and saw that a tall, handsome man with dark hair was smiling a crooked grin at her. She looked away from his face, her cheeks pink from his obvious admiration, and noticed that he was favoring one leg and used a crutch. She frowned when she saw the crutch. Was he a cripple, begging? She reached into her pocket to see if she carried any coins and found she only had a spare shilling or two. But perhaps it would help him.
“What are you doing?” Mandie hissed as Virginia began walking toward him. “You haven’t been introduced!” she teased.
Virginia cleared her throat as they drew nearer to the young man. When there were only a few feet between them, Virginia stopped. He carried no container for spare coins, and looked quite clean and well-kept upon closer inspection. He was quite obviously not a beggar. Her face flamed as she realized her mistake, but it was already too late.
“Hello there, Miss. I’m afraid we’re unacquainted, but I’d love to remedy that,” the man said.
Virginia smiled shyly. There was a certain gentleness in his tone that put her at ease despite the natural awkwardness of the situation. “My name is Virginia,” she said. “Virginia . . . Sowell. And this is my friend Mandie Heron.”
Mandie shot her a look briefly, but nodded politely to the young man.
“Ralph Clifton,” the man said. “It is very nice to meet you, Miss Sowell. Miss Heron.”
“It is nice to meet you too!” Virginia said with a smile. And it was. It certainly wasn’t every day she was able to meet a handsome stranger without the burden of his first knowing her father, title, and lineage.
He surveyed her curiously. “Can I help you?” he asked.
Virginia’s cheeks flushed as she remembered her mistake. “I . . . I saw your crutch,” she admitted. “And I was going to ask you the same.”
He looked mildly ruffled, but after a moment he laughed. “It serves me right,” he said. “I injured myself a few weeks ago and the navy doesn’t want me at the moment. I’ve been out of commission for a spell now. I am begging, after a fashion, but for honest work, not coins. I ought to be able to walk on it again soon without the aid of this blasted thing,” he said, gesturing to the crutch, “but for now I must seem pathetic, for no one has hired me.”
“Pathetic! No,” Virginia insisted. “Never pathetic.”
He smiled at her in a way that made her feel warm to her toes, but she told herself it was only the June sunshine.
“We were just out walking,” Mandie said. “If you would care to join us, Mr. Clifton?”
Virginia shot her a look, but Ralph agreed quickly and walked alongside Virginia. “You haven’t happened to hear of any work for a man like me, have you?” he asked.
Virginia shook her head. “No, I can’t say that I have. But if I hear of something I will be certain to let you know.”
Mr. Clifton’s answering smile was filled with mischief. “Oh, you’ll be letting me know, will you? And how will you be finding me again, exactly?”
Virginia felt a sudden shock of courage and a smile crept onto her face. “You’re going to tell us your direction, of course!” she said.
“My lady,” he said, formally, “is that proper?”