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Henley, March 1818
Two letters that Eve was expecting arrived that morning, two letters that gave no hint of the storm they would soon let loose. Eve took them with her into the breakfast room and read them as she absently sipped her tea. The first letter she opened was from her publisher, Leigh Fleming, reminding her of the symposium and reception he hosted for all his authors and their friends every year at the Clarendon Hotel. The second was from Lady Sayers, inviting her, along with the other writers, to spend a few days at her home in London after the symposium was over. What was unusual about Lady Sayers's invitation was that her ladyship wanted Eve to extend her visit to take in the Season.
Eve didn't have to think about how she would answer Leigh's invitation. A writer's life was a lonely one, and she had come to look forward to these get-togethers with other authors, all of them females. In the last few years, their Gothic tales of romance and mystery had taken the public by storm. Women adored their stories, though gentlemen more often than not laughed themselves silly or treated their books with disdain. As a result, no writer of Gothic romances dared reveal her true identity. Instead, each used a pseudonym. They were celebrities, but invisible celebrities, except to one another and a trusted few. Eve didn't mind. The monies accumulating in her bank account were ample reward for doing what she liked to do best. She was born to be a writer. Hadn't Mama always said so
The invitation from Lady Sayers required a little more thought. She was a fellow writer who lived in the lovely district of Kennington, and when she wasn't writing, she mixed with the cream of society. Even before Eve was published, her ladyship had been hosting these weeklong get-togethers at her house after the symposium was over. Writers looked forward to this relaxing time together, perhaps even more than they looked forward to the symposium. Lady Sayers was fun to be with. She was what was euphemistically called "an original." Though she was only fifty, she had buried four husbands. She painted her nails and face. She was outspoken. Some said she was outrageous, and in her younger days had stirred up more trouble than any Gothic heroine could hope to meet.
Eve was flattered by the invitation to prolong her visit, but she was also wary. She suspected that Lady Sayers might be playing matchmaker. All the same, Eve had an excellent reason for taking her ladyship up on her offer.
It registered that a silence had fallen on the breakfast table, and Eve looked up to find that her companion was studying her speculatively. Miss Millicent Claverley was Eve's aunt on her mother's side, and she and Eve had been close ever since Miss Claverley arrived to take over the care of her brother-in-law's household after her sister's tragic death. When Eve's father married again, Miss Claverley returned to her own house in Henley, and Eve joined her soon after. It was an arrangement that seemed to suit everyone, particularly the new stepmother.
No one knew exactly how old Miss Claverley was. Her age had hovered around her late forties for the last several years. There were no telltale threads of silver in her coiffured dark curls. Miss Claverley wouldn't have allowed it. She was an attractive woman, nicely rounded though far from plump, and liked to dress in the current mode.
Eve held up the letter from Lady Sayers. "Lady Sayers has invited us to spend a few weeks in London to take in the Season after the symposium. "Miss Claverley nodded. "Yes, I know, dear." When Eve frowned, Miss Claverley made a clicking sound. "No, I did not read your mind. That was your mother's gift, not mine. Anyhow, I received a letter from Lady Sayers, too. That's how I know. I didn't say anything until you had read your letter first."
No one, thought Eve, had ever said that the Claverleys were an ordinary family, leastways on the distaff side. Some called them fey, others called them witches. Eve called them clever. They had an uncanny aptitude for making connections, and they made the most of it. It was a game they played, just like a magician with his bag of tricks. When her Claverley cousins came for a visit, she felt that the house had been invaded by a swarm of mischievous sprites. For the most part, she regarded them with amused tolerance, but when they went too far, she was not above astounding them with a few tricks of her own.
In her own case, she put all her Claverley cleverness into her writing. As an author, she always knew what her characters were thinking and feeling. She didn't have to read their minds.
She nibbled on dry toast as her aunt spoke.
"You know, Eve, it might not be a bad thing. You need to be taken out of yourself. There's more to life than writing. And Sally Sayers will be good for you, good for both of us. She knows how to enjoy life."
Eve's response was dry. "So I've noticed. There's never a dull moment when Lady Sayers is around."
Miss Claverley smiled. "Oh, I think that's all an act. From what I've observed, it's not uncommon among writers to adopt a larger-than-life personality when they are in the public eye. You do it yourself, only with you, it's the opposite."
Miss Claverley nodded. "With your hair pulled back, and that lace cap on your head, you could pass for a governess or a schoolteacher."
"I do it because I want my books to be taken seriously!" protested Eve.
"Really? Good grief! If I took them seriously, I'd be frightened out of my mind. Your men are deliciously wicked, but I'm glad I can't meet them in real life. A word of advice, Eve? Pretty yourself up to look like one of your heroines. It's what your readers expect."
"But I don't want to be noticed. I don't want to be recognized when I go shopping in Bond Street. I want to protect my privacy."
"If you dress like a frump, you will be noticed."
Eve made a rude sound.
Undaunted, Miss Claverley topped up Eve's cup from the teapot. "Lady Sayers mentions that her niece, Liza, will join her, and now that she has turned eighteen, she'll be making her come-out."
This was what interested Eve. A young girl's come-out had given her an idea for a book.
"And," Miss Claverley went on, "it's not as though you'll be a rival for her suitors. At your age, you'll be more like a chaperon to the girl, so you need not worry that Sally will be hounding young men to pay you court. Her hopes will be pinned on her niece."
Eve almost took offense. "At my age? I'm only four-and-twenty! And Lady Sayers knows I would not dream of pilfering her niece's beaux. She has far more to fear from you. You see every male as a potential conquest."
"Nonsense! I'm interested in people, that's all. Men lead exciting lives. They do things women would be censored for if they tried to copy them." She thought for a moment, then said musingly, "I think that's why women are snapping up your books. They live vicariously through your heroines. They're not afraid to try anything."
Eve cupped her ear. "Was that a compliment I heard?"
Her aunt used both hands to bring her cup to her smiling lips. When she set the cup down, she said grudgingly, "I believe it was."
Eve laughed. She thoroughly enjoyed this good-natured bantering between herself and her aunt. It was like playing a game of chess.
"So, it's all settled, then," said Miss Claverley. "We're off to London to take in the Season?"
Eve's eyes narrowed on her aunt's innocent expression. "I've just realized something. It's you Lady Sayers wants as a companion. I can see it now. You'll be free to enjoy yourselves, and I'll be lumbered with the niece."
"Silly girl! I'll be there to chaperon you, you know, in case you run off with a fortune hunter."
They both chuckled at the unlikely prospect.After a moment, Miss Claverley said, "Do you mind telling me why you want a Season in London? Dare I hope that you're seriously considering the idea of matrimony?"
Miss Claverley sat back. "For you, of course."
"What would be the point? You'd only steal all my suitors. What man would look at me when my chaperon is far more dashing?"
"Someone who likes a quiet life," retorted her aunt. "Poor man, he'll wake up one morning and realize that he has been duped. You're dashing on the inside, Eve, as we both know. All right. So the subject of matrimony has been set aside for the moment. Then if you're not interested in finding a husband, why take in the Season?"
Eve's gray eyes darkened to violet, a sure sign that she was excited about something. "I'm setting my next story in London at the height of the Season. I want to be part of what's going on. I want to see how the ton lives. I need to know what a young girl feels at her first ball, what she hopes for, dreams about. The same goes for her parents and the young men who court her. You know me. I can't write a story until I've pinned down all the details."
Her aunt was silent for a long time. Finally, she said, "Be careful, Eve. People in high places will go to any lengths to protect their privacy. And if they find themselves in one of your books, there is no saying what they will do."
"I know better than that," protested Eve. "My characters come from my imagination. Any resemblance to a living person would be coincidental."
"All the same, be careful, Eve."
"I will. I promise."
There was an interval of silence, then Miss Claverley's expression cleared. "Now, tell me about the letter from your publisher, and before you make any arch remarks at my expense, I will own to having recognized that the address is in his handwriting. I presume he is hosting his annual reception at the Clarendon?"
Eve nodded. "For writers and their friends, so I'm counting on you to lend me your support."
Miss Claverley beamed. "I wouldn't miss it for the world."
They ate their meager breakfast of tea and toast in companionable silence. Miss Claverley was reflecting that Eve was so like her mother, Antonia, that it made her heart achethose animated violet-gray eyes, the sooty lashes and brows, the luxuriant mane of dark hair she rarely tamed with pins or ribbons, except in company. But the resemblance went deeper than that. She'd known that one day Eve would acknowledge her mother's legacy. That day was drawing near. The signs were all there. Miss Claverley was afraid, and she didn't know why she was afraid.
Suddenly conscious that Eve's eyes were on her, she said the first thing that came into her head. "If we are going to take in the Season, we'll need suitable clothes. Is there enough time to have a few things made up before we go?"
Eve drank the last of her tea. "Lady Sayers says we should wait till we get to town before we have anything made up. Her modiste knows all the latest styles."
"But think of the cost! London prices are over the moon."
Eve rested her elbows on the table, cupped her chin in her hands, and smiled into her aunt's eyes. "What do we care? Mrs. Barrymore is paying the shot."
"Aunt! That's me! Eve Dearing! You surely haven't forgotten that Mrs. Barrymore is the celebrated author who pays for all the little luxuries we enjoy?"
Miss Claverley replied with great dignity, "Of course I know who Mrs. Barrymore is. What I didn't know was that she had money to spare."
"Bags of it," said Eve, grinning.
"Mmm. Maybe I should write a book."
"Maybe you should."
When Eve left the breakfast room, her shadow, Dexter, a descendant of the beloved Sheba, left his post at the front door and trotted after her. On reaching her bedchamber, Eve went straight to her escritoire and dashed off a note to her publisher, then sat for a moment, chewing on the end of her pen as she contemplated the projected trip to town.
"You know, Dexter," she said at last, "there's something holding me back. I know I want to accept Lady Sayers's invitation, but I can't seem to get the words down on paper."
In her mind's eye, she saw a ballroom with glittering chandeliers. Beautiful young debutantes and their handsome partners whirled around the floor. Beyond them, through the glass doors to the terrace, lay the gardens, bathed in moonlight.
The scene was all too familiar. She'd dreamed about it for years. This was how her stories came to her, in her dreams, but only this dream had the power to make her tremble.
She corrected herself. Her other stories had taken place in settings she drew from memory, from famous gardens that she had visited as a child. The ballroom and debutantes were completely beyond her experience. Then where had this setting come from? She felt as though she recognized it.
She gave a self-conscious laugh. "Will you listen to me? I'm beginning to sound like my crazy Claverley cousins."
Dexter's soulful black eyes were trained on his mistress as she gazed into space.
Eve's thoughts had shifted to her parents, especially her mother. As a child, she'd never questioned the way things were. Her father had been busy making a name for himself as a landscape gardener. As a result, he was absent a good deal of the time, traveling all over England. Whenever it was convenient, she and her mother would pack up and join him. That carefree existence came to a devastating end when Antonia died and Eve's father remarried a scant year after her mother's death. She hadn't wanted a new mother and, with childlike doggedness, had refused to be parted from Aunt Millicent.
It was the beginning of a long estrangement between father and daughter that had lasted to the present day, not a quarrel or a falling-out but a tepid relationship that never quite warmed the heart.
It was inevitable, Eve told herself. She was passionate about her mother and could not bear to see another woman take her place. Martha, her father's wife, was the opposite of her mother, and that rankled, too. Where Antonia had been artistic in many areaswriting, sketching, playing musical instrumentsMartha was happier in the stillroom, counting her jars of jam and pickles. Life with Antonia was an adventure. Martha had her feet planted firmly on the ground.
Maybe that's why her father chose someone so different from her mother to be his second wife. Maybe life with Antonia was too unsettling. Maybe her gift of sensing what her husband was thinking and feeling was too uncomfortable to be borne. And maybe he thought the same about his daughter.