The Bride Behind the Curtain (8 page)

BOOK: The Bride Behind the Curtain
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“I think of his failure all the time,” she murmured. “But we have to believe. If we did otherwise, we would break Mama's heart.”

“I know.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “But if we do not prepare for the possibility, we do not do any good, for her or Papa, or ourselves. These lives we make in England may well be the only ones we have.”

Marie stared at the fire for a long time, her brow deeply furrowed. Overhead, James heard the steady footsteps of the nurse moving back and forth. Mama said something in her querulous voice. The nurse responded calmly.

“You were supposed to get married,” Marie said. “What happened between you and your milady Patience? The Windfords have been back for weeks now. I see the cards.” She gestured to the unopened letters on the mantelpiece. “And I see you do not answer.”

James hung his head. “I couldn't do it. I tried, but I found I couldn't live with myself, or Lady Patience.”

“This is a very bad time to grow fastidious, Brother.”

“What's the matter, Marie?”

Marie bit her lip. “I've been very stupid, James. I walked out of Madame Flaubert's today.”

“Oh, Marie . . .”

“I couldn't do it anymore, James!” His sister leaped to her feet and paced across the small parlor, slashing both hands through the air as she spoke. “Not one more ridiculous order, one more girl condemned to become the object of ridicule, one more scolding for my sloppy beadwork, or for altering a pattern that was impossible to produce as she directed . . .”

James stood to block his sister's path. “Never mind, Marie,” he said firmly as he folded her into a brother's embrace and kissed the top of her head. “You should have left her long ago. Do you know what will you do?”

“There is a possibility. I was going to turn them away, but now . . .” She shrugged and pulled away from him.

“Them?”

Marie nodded. “A most strange trio of young girls with some idea of creating whole new wardrobes based on their own designs, or perhaps it is the designs of only one of them. I don't know. I was not paying much attention then. Madame Flaubert would never permit me to take on outside work, and one of them was very clear that Madame should have no part of the project.” She smiled. “You will laugh, brother, but it was Lady Adele Windford, your Patience's sister.”

James's heart skipped a beat, but he managed to confine his expression to a thin smile. “Was she the designer?”

“Yes. I did look at the book she brought, and some of the ideas were not bad, for untutored English girls. They said they could pay, but . . . well. No.” Marie dropped back into her chair. “The thing was ridiculous this morning and impossible now.”

“But why?” demanded James. “This is the very chance you have been waiting for. These are prominent young ladies. If they appear in your gowns, the fashionable world will beat a path to your door. Madame Flaubert would be left behind in your dust.”

Marie rolled his eyes at the naiveté of all older brothers. “And if they become laughingstocks, they do it in my gowns, not Madame Flaubert's. I will be scorned by all the fashionables and driven to factory work.”

“But you might succeed. These young ladies are determined and clever.”

Marie's gaze grew sharp. So did her voice. “You don't even know who these young ladies are, Brother.”

James realized his mistake and quickly tried to put on an air of insouciance. “I recall Lady Adele, I think. We danced a waltz, I believe.” He paused. “How did she seem when you talked to her?”

“You believe you waltzed, and yet you want to know how she was? How considerate you are, my dear brother.” Marie's eyes flashed with humor and intelligence, both equally sharp. “She seemed well. She was certainly excited about this project.”

“Well. Not tired? Not sad or hectored at all?” He leaned forward. “Truly well? And these designs, they were hers? What did you think of them, really?”

“James,” said Marie sternly, and for a moment his sister looked very like their mother when she'd been in health. “What is going on?”

“I am taking a risk, Marie,” he said. “But I hope to gain . . . greater things at the end. Why should you not do the same?”

“And if we both fail together, Brother? If you are ruined by speculation and I cannot find work because these girls failed at their game and Madame Flaubert told everyone I am lazy and sloppy? What of us and our parents then?”

There was only one honest answer James could give. “I don't know, Marie.”

Brother and sister looked at each other for a very long time. In the end it was Marie who shrugged and turned away. “Ah well. I have nothing to do. I will go see these so-ambitious girls.” She cocked her head so he saw the gleam in one blue eye. “And perhaps, if I at some point find I've a note in hand, I might find the chance to give it to milady Adele from a man who believes he waltzed with her once.”

XI

My Dearest,

I know we said it would be best to have no contact, but I could not resist this chance to write. Know that I am well and hard at work on my reformation. In fact, my removal into the halls of daylight and respectability is being noted. I every day meet old acquaintances from the gaming rooms who wonder aloud where I have been and remark on what my absence may mean.

You may be sure that those feelings we spoke of during our brief, bright moment together remain true and strong.

Please write, if it is safe. If not, any word spoken to your seamstress will reach me. She is my sister, and you may trust her absolutely.

I am yours,

J.

***

“His sister!” Adele stared at the young woman in the plain black dress who sat across the paper-covered tea table from her. They sat together with their mass of sketches and notes in the cozy front parlor of Deborah Sewell's house at No. 48 Wimpole Street.


C'est vrai
,” said Mademoiselle Marie, with a very Gallic shrug. “You will find, however, I am by far the more sensible of the two.”

His sister.
Adele struggled to keep from repeating the words aloud. Of course she'd known Mademoiselle Marie's surname was Beauclaire. It was a common enough name among the French émigrés of London, as was the combination of black hair and blue eyes. When Miss Sewell recommended the modiste's assistant as their seamstress, Adele did admittedly hope the woman might have some connection with James. Perhaps she was a cousin. But
sister
? That much Adele had never suspected. James had not mentioned a sister, and neither had Miss Sewell, who, as a friend of James's, must surely have known. And if Miss Sewell had known, she would have said something, wouldn't she?

Mademoiselle Marie coughed. “I am charged to bring him a reply, if there is one.”

“I . . . Oh yes, I think there may be.” Adele made herself fold the letter and set it aside. “How . . . how is your brother? I have not seen him since our house party.”

“He is in excellent spirits and health,” Marie told her casually. “I attribute it to the new hours he keeps.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. He has turned from the gaming tables, you know, and become an investor in your great English stock market.”

“Really? How interesting.” Adele fought to keep her remarks conversational and was painfully aware that she failed. “And it agrees with him?”

“Something most certainly does.” This remark was as offhand as all the others. Marie picked up one of the sketches from the pile on Miss Sewell's tea table. “Now, milady, if I may turn your attention back to this walking costume? It will do fairly well as it is, but if we gather the waist a little more . . . so . . .”

Adele tried to concentrate on the dresses, but failed so miserably that Marie declared she would have to return the next day, as “milady” plainly had other things on her mind.

Adele excused herself to the writing desk in the corner to pen her reply to James while Mademoiselle Marie began clearing up the mass of fabric samples, sketches, and pattern cards that had been scattered across the tables, and the chairs, and the sofa of the green sitting room. No. 48 was a much smaller house than Adele was used to, but very snug and by far the most casually conducted home she'd ever been in. Miss Sewell had granted Adele, Helene, and Madelene permission to use the residence as freely as they would their own homes. She had even presented them each with keys. Adele spent a few hours here almost every day, usually giving Aunt Kearsely to understand she'd been invited to call. Adele had been worried about what Aunt Kearsely would say regarding her spending so much time calling on the lady novelist. As matters transpired, however, Aunt Kearsely was delighted that Miss Sewell had “taken an interest” in her niece.

“Of course Adele has always had such an excellent personality and delightful conversation, she would be a fine addition to any literary salon,” Mrs. Kearsely told her friends. This favorable opinion was bolstered by the fact that with Adele calling so frequently on Miss Sewell, Miss Sewell was obliged to return the favor and come to supper at Windford House, which was a fine feather for Aunt Kearsely's social cap.

Adele opened up the portable writing desk on the table in the corner to pull out paper and pen. But as she faced the blank page, hesitation arose.

Behind her, Mademoiselle Marie coughed again. Adele winced and began to write.

My dearest . . .

No name, in case someone sees this . . .

I am well, and I think of you often . . .
Every second of every day. I wonder what you're saying, what you're doing, who you're with, and is she pretty? Have you begun to regret what you pledged at New Year's? Or choosing me instead of Patience?

No. That at least she could be fairly sure about. The little season was a time of subdued entertainments, quiet suppers, and card parties for only ten or eleven guests, growing gradually larger as more people returned to town. However, each time Patience had confidently expected James to be present at such a gathering, she'd been disappointed. If James meant to change his mind, he would not be keeping so far away from Patience. Would he?

My own transformation is meeting with some success.

It was so exciting, to watch her daydreams made real in silk and muslin, fine woolens and beading. The time was flying by. At least, the days were. The nights—when she had time to lie awake and think of nothing but James—those were endless.

Your sister is wonderfully skilled . . .

Sister? Truly? Why hadn't Miss Sewell
told
her? She knew Adele was, well . . . connected to James.

I have so much to say, and yet I cannot think of any of it now with the pen in my hand . . .

That, of course, was not true. She could think of far too much to say, and do. Oh, most especially do. Every time Adele closed her eyes, she felt James beside her. It was as if they were still in the curtained alcove together. She could imagine him all too clearly as she lay in her bed at home. She felt his hands stroking her skin. His mouth feathering kisses along her throat, down to her breasts, her belly, and lower, to her private parts.

She'd had no idea that people did such things—at least, not good English people. Helene, however, had produced several utterly shocking and clearly illustrated books to show Adele and Madelene. She'd thought Madelene was going to faint as she turned the pages. Helene's reasoning was that if they were going to go among society as desirable objects, they were sure to encounter their share of aristocratic rogues and rakes. It would be beneficial, Helene opined, to have some understanding of what those rogues and rakes were after, besides their money, of course.

“Innocence is only ignorance in polite company,” Helene declared. “You can't defend yourself without proper understanding.”

What was even more shocking was that when Miss Sewell caught them poring over the volumes, she didn't confiscate them. In fact, she loaned them an additional book from her personal library. Hers was a medical text about the physical process of conception, with notes on preventative techniques. With more illustrations.

Aunt Kearsely would have died of apoplexy on the spot.

All those illustrations, that lyrical poetry and plain, dry language, combined with the memory of James's touch and the wish to feel the delight of his body pressed against hers. Adele tossed and turned, searching for sleep. She rubbed herself all over, trying to imagine it was James who touched her, this way, and this, and this. The results . . . well, the results were surprising, but they did nothing to lessen her desires.

Adele shook herself and continued writing.

You must believe I am yours,

A.

Her cheeks burned as she quickly sanded and sealed the letter and handed it to Marie. The note was inadequate to the point of ridiculous, but it was all she had. It did not come anywhere close to expressing what she wanted. She wanted James. She wanted to walk with him and laugh with him and dance with him. She wanted him to see the dresses she was working on. She wanted him in her bed, not her imagination, so they could do all the things she'd seen in Helene's shocking books.

***

Adele showed Mademoiselle Marie to the door herself. Miss Sewell kept very few servants. Then, she walked along the narrow corridor to the back parlor, which had been converted to a book room. Miss Sewell herself sat beside the fire with Madelene and Helene, with Helene's fat, detailed visiting book spread open on the table between them, along with several stacks of notes and a few visiting cards.

“Is Mademoiselle Marie gone?” asked Miss Sewell. “She must be almost ready to begin your fittings.”

“Yes,” said Adele. “Her progress is really remarkable.” She paused and looked directly at Miss Sewell. “I did not know she was James Beauclaire's sister.”

“Well, think of that!” cried Madelene.

“Yes, think of that,” repeated Helene, only much less happily. “She is capable of doing what we need, isn't she, Adele?”

Miss Sewell didn't say one word. She didn't even blink under Adele's steady regard.

The truth was, Adele didn't entirely know what to think of the woman who had agreed to be their chaperone. She had never met anyone like Miss Sewell. There were times when she called to find the woman with her hair down about her shoulders, clad in nothing but a nightdress and a silk wrapper, her hands covered with dust and ink from perusing old manuscripts. She never changed if she didn't feel like it. She ate sandwiches and drank tea at her desk, laughed out loud, and even whistled tunes as she worked. She received men singly and in groups, sometimes in that same costume, with her ink-stained hands on full display.

It wasn't that she had no care of her appearance. When she chose, she could dress as carefully and elegantly as any society hostess Adele had ever seen.

“It's a costume,” she told Adele. “The great thing is to be aware it's a costume, one I put on and take off when
I
choose. This”—she gestured at her bronze silk gown —“means as much about who I really am as the color of its hide means to the horse.”

The idea had stunned Adele. Aunt Kearsely had always taught her nieces that their clothes, their appearance, their demeanor were the deepest and truest expressions of themselves and their breeding. All her education—all those lectures and lessons—had been to make sure that appearances, and therefore the girls, were perfectly correct.

If her appearance wasn't herself, who was she? And who were all those women in all those parlors and ballrooms?

“But isn't that what we're doing?” murmured Adele. “Aren't we all working to become something we're not?”

“If you were, I'd never have joined your project,” Miss Sewell answered. “But you three, I am pleased and proud to say, are working to become more yourselves every day.”

Adele heard this, and she went away. She couldn't quite make herself believe it. But she wondered, and she thought, and she looked at the women and girls around her, and she kept on wondering.

Just as she wondered who Miss Sewell really was, and why she'd decided to take on their project. Oh, when she agreeed she'd answered breezily enough. “I accept your proposal, and you may keep your money. You'll need all of it. As a critic of the haut ton, the spectacle of you three standing society on its head will be payment enough for me.”

But her last set of critical observations about the haut ton had ended up in the pages of a novel. Was she planning another even now, and would it feature three audacious girls who dared to take on society? And just what ending did this woman with her razor wit and laughing eyes intend for those girls?

Not that Miss Sewell had been anything but generous so far. Perhaps most importantly, she'd secured them all invitations to Mrs. Wrexford's ball for the opening of the season proper. While not on the scale of Almack's, Mrs. Wrexford's ball was highly popular, and the cream of the ton would be in attendance, eager for a chance to view one another and what the season might bring.

“Adele?” Miss Sewell said. “I believe Helene asked if Mademoiselle Marie is capable.”

“What?” Adele shook herself. Of course the others knew of her attraction to James. It had been impossible to keep the secret from the two girls who had over the course of the past month become not only her coconspirators, but her best friends. “Oh yes. She's more than capable. Her ideas are improving everything. Although she does say she may have to take on another assistant to have things ready in time.”

“Th-that will mean an extra expense?” asked Madelene.

“I'm afraid it will. I told her no, but . . .”

“Oh no. I can manage. That is, I think I can. Mister Thorpe has been very supportive so far.” Mr. Thorpe was Madelene's principal trustee. It was another year before she had full control of her own money and so must go through him to request any advance over her monthly allowance. Adele had no idea what Madelene was telling the dour banker, but he'd been astonishingly forthcoming.

“I'm afraid we're asking a lot of you,” Adele said to Madelene. “I will pay you back, I promise.”

“I don't mind, really. It's . . . it's nice for once to have the money going to, well, something that I can be happy about.”

None of them had any answer to that. Adele remembered Madelene's brother, Lewis, and his horrid behavior at the house party, including those times she'd glimpsed him in the card room and wondered just where he got the money to keep playing, and losing.

“Come help us update the visiting lists, Adele.” Helene shifted sideways on the sofa. “I've just procured a card from Mrs. Trentwell. I think that's one Madelene and I might well take ourselves, which would free you for another meeting with Mademoiselle Marie, if it's needed?”

BOOK: The Bride Behind the Curtain
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