Read an Excerpt
April 5, 1812
"She doesn't even know how to dance," one of the young ladies snickered.
Her cheeks burning, Virginia Hughes was acutely aware of the dozen young women standing queued behind her in the ballroom. She had been singled out by the dance master and was now being given a lecture on the sissonne ballotté, one of the steps used in the quadrille. Not only did she not comprehend the step, she didn't care. She had no interest in dancing, none whatsoevershe only wished to go home to Sweet Briar.
"But you must never cease with polite conversation, Miss Hughes, even in the execution of a step. Otherwise you will be severely misconstrued," the dark, slim master was admonishing.
Virginia really didn't hear him. She closed her eyes and it was as if she had been swept away to another time and place, one far better than the formidable walls of the Marmott School for Genteel Young Ladies.
Virginia breathed deeply and was consumed with the heady scent of honeysuckle; it was followed by the far stronger and more potent scent of the black Virginia earth, turned up now for the spring burning. She could picture the dark fields, stretching away as far as her eye dared see, parallel lines of slaves made white by their clothes as they spread the coals, and closer, the sweeping lawns, rose gardens and ancient oaks and elms surrounding the handsome brick house that her father had built. "She could have been built in England," he'd said proudly, many times, "a hundred years ago. No one can take a look at her and know any differently."
Virginia missed Sweet Briar, but not half as much as she missed her parents. A wave of grief crashed over her, so much so her eyes flew open and she found herself standing back in the damnable ballroom of the school she had been sent to, the dance master looking extremely put out, his hands on his slim hips, a grim expression on his dark Italian face.
"What's she doing with her eyes screwed up like that?" someone whispered.
"She's crying, that's what she's doing," came a haughty reply.
Virginia knew it was the blond beauty, Sarah Lewis who was, according to Sarah, the most coveted debutante in Richmond. Or would be, when she came out at the end of the year. Virginia turned, fury overcoming her, and strode toward Sarah. Virginia was very petite and far too thin, with a small triangular face that held sharp cheekbones and brilliant violet eyes; her dark hair, waist long, was forced painfully up, as she refused to cut it, and appeared in danger of crushing her with its massive weight. Sarah was a good three inches taller than Virginia, not to mention a stone heavier. Virginia didn't care.
She'd been in her first fight when she was six, a fisticuffs, and when her father had broken up the match, she'd learned she was fighting like a girl. Instruction in how to throw a solid punchlike a boyhad followed, much to her mother's dismay. Virginia could not only throw a solid punch, she could shoot the top off a bottle at fifty feet with a hunting rifle. She didn't stop until she was nose to nose with Sarahwhich required standing on her tiptoes.
"Dancing is for fools like you," she cried, "and your name should be Dancing Fool Sarah."
Sarah gasped, stepping back, her eyes wideand then the anger came. "Signor Rossini! Did you hear what the country bumpkin said to me?"
Virginia held her head impossibly higher. "This country bumpkin owns an entire plantationall five thousand acres of it. And if I know my mathwhich I dothen that makes me one hell of a lot richer than you, Miss Dancing Fool."
"You're jealous,"' Sarah hissed, "because you're skinny and ugly and no one wants you...which is why you are here!"
Virginia landed hard on her heels. Something cracked open inside of her, and it was painful and sharp. Because Sarah had spoken the truth. No one wanted her, she was alone, and dear God, how awfully it hurt.
Sarah saw that her barb had hit home. She smiled. "Everyone knows. Everyone knows you've been sent here until your majority! That's three years, Miss Hughes. You will be old and wrinkled before you ever go home to your farm!"
"That's enough," Signor Rossini said. "Both of you ladies step over to"
Virginia didn't wait to hear the rest. She turned and ran from the ballroom, certain there were more titters behind her, hating Sarah, hating the other girls, the dance master, the whole school and even her parents... How could they have left her? How?
In the hallway she collapsed to the floor, hugging her thin knees to her breasts, praying the pain would go away. And she even hated God, because He had taken her parents away from her in one terrible blow, on that awful rainy night last fall. "Oh, Papa," she whispered against her bony knee. "I miss you so."
She knew she must not cry. She would die before letting anyone see her cry. But she had never felt so lost and alone before. In fact, she had never been lost and alone before. There had been sunny days spent riding across the plantation with her father and evenings in front of the hearth while Mama embroidered and Papa read. There had been a house full of slaves, each and every one of whom she had known since the very day of her birth. There had been Tillie, her best friend in the entire world, never mind that she was a house slave two years older than Virginia. She hugged her knees harder, inhaling deeply and blinking furiously. It was a long moment before she regained her composure.
And when she did, she sat up straighter. What had Sarah said? That she was to remain at the school until her majority? But that was impossible! She had just turned eighteen and that meant she would be stuck in this awful prison for another three years.
Virginia stood up, not bothering to brush any dust from her black skirts, which she wore in mourning. It had been six months since the tragic carriage accident that had taken her parents' lives and while the headmistress had expressed an interest in Virginia giving up mourning, she had solidly refused. She intended to mourn her parents forever. She still could not understand why God had let them die.
But surely that witch Sarah Lewis did not know what she was speaking about.
Very disturbed, Virginia hurried down the wood-paneled hall. Her only relative was an uncle, Harold Hughes, the Earl of Eastleigh. After her parents had died, he had sent his condolences and instructions for her to proceed to the Marmott School in Richmond, as he was now her official guardian. Virginia barely recalled any of this; her life then had been reduced to a blur of pain and grief. One day she had found herself in the school, not quite recalling how she had gotten there, only vaguely remembering being in Tillie's arms one last time, the two girls sobbing goodbyes. Once the initial grief had lessened, she and Tillie had exchanged a series of lettersSweet Briar was eighty miles south of Richmond and just a few miles from Norfolk. Virginia had learned that the earl was trustee of her estate and that he had ordered everything to continue to be managed as it had been before his brother's death. Surely, if Sarah was correct, Tillie would have told her of such a terrible and cruel intention on the part of her guardian. Unless she herself did not know of it....
Thinking of Tillie and Sweet Briar always made her homesick. The urge to return home was suddenly overwhelming. She was eighteen, and many young women her age were affianced or even married with their own households. Before their deaths her parents hadn't raised the subject of marriage, for which Virginia had been grateful. She wasn't quite sure what was wrong with her, but marriageand young menhad never occupied her mind. Instead, since the age of five, when Randall Hughes had mounted her on his horse in front of him, she had worked side by side with her father every single day. She knew every inch of Sweet Briar, every tree, every leaf, every flower. (The plantation was a hundred acres, not five thousand, but Sarah Lewis had needed to be taken down a peg or two.) She knew all about tobacco, the crop that was Sweet Briar. She knew the best ways to transplant the seedling crop, the best way to cure the harvested leaves, the best auction houses. Like her father, she had followed the price per bale with avid interestand fervent hope. Every summer she and her father would dismount and walk through the tobacco fields, fingering the leafy plants in dirty hands, inhaling their succulent aroma, judging the quality of their harvest.
She had had other duties and responsibilities as well. No one was kinder than her mother, and no one knew herbs and healing better. No one cared more about their slaves. Virginia had attended dozens of fevers and flux, right by her mother's side. She was never afraid to walk into the slave quarters when someone was illin fact, she packed a darn good poultice. Although Mama had not allowed her to attend any birthings, Virginia could birth foals, too, and had spent many a night waiting for a pregnant mare to deliver. Why shouldn't she be at home now, running Sweet Briar with their foreman, James MacGregor? Was there any point in being at this damnable school? She'd been born to run the plantation. Sweet Briar was in her blood, her soul.
Virginia knew she wasn't a lady. She'd been wearing britches from the moment she had figured out that there were britches, and she liked them better than skirts. Papa hadn't caredhe'd been proud of her outspoken ways, her natural horsemanship, her keen eye. He had thought her beautiful, toohe'd always called her his little wild rose but every father thought so of a daughter. Virginia knew that wasn't true. She was too thin and she had too much hair to ever be considered fair. Not that she cared. She was far too smart to want to be a lady.
Mama had been tolerant of her husband and her daughter. Both of Virginia's brothers had died at birth, first Todd and then little Charles when she was six. That was when Mama had first looked the other way about the britches, the horses, the hunting. She had cried for weeks, prayed in the family chapel and, somehow, found peace. After that, her smiles and sunny warmth had returnedbut there had been no more pregnancies, as if she and Papa had made a silent pact.
Virginia couldn't comprehend why any woman would even want to be a lady. A lady had to follow rules. Most of the rules were annoying, but some were downright oppressive. Being a lady was like being a slave who didn't have the fine home of Sweet Briar. Being a lady was no different from being in shackles.
Virginia paused before the headmistress's office, the decision already made. Whether Sarah Lewis had spoken the truth or not, it no longer mattered. It was time to go home. In fact, making the decision felt good. For the first time since her parents had died, she felt strongand brave. It was a wonderful way to feel. It was the way she had felt right up until the minister had come to their door to tell her that her parents were dead.
She knocked on the fine mahogany door.
Mrs. Towne, a plump, pleasant lady, gestured her inside. Her kind eyes held Virginia's, solemn now, when usually they held dancing lights. "I'm afraid you will have to learn to dance sooner or later, Miss Hughes."
Virginia grimaced. The one person she almost liked at the school was the headmistress. "Why?"
Mrs. Towne was briefly surprised. "Do sit down, my dear."
Virginia sat, then realized her knees were apart, her hands dangling off the arms of the chair, and quickly rearranged herself, not because she wished to be proper, but because she did not want to antagonize the headmistress now. She clamped her knees together, clasped her hands and thought about how fine it would be to be in her britches and astride her horse.
Mrs. Towne smiled. "It isn't that difficult to cooperate, dear."
"Actually, it is." Virginia was also very stubborn. That trait her mother had bemoaned.
"Virginia, ladies must dance. How else will you attend a proper party and enjoy yourself?"
Virginia didn't hesitate. "I have no use for parties, ma'am. I have no use for dancing. Frankly, it's time for me to go home."
Mrs. Towne stared in mild surprise.
Virginia forgot about sitting properly. "It's not true, is it? What that wicked Sarah Lewis said? Surely I am not to remain hereforgottena prisonerfor another three years?"
Mrs. Towne was grim. "Miss Lewis must have overheard me speaking privately with Mrs. Blakely. My dear, we did receive such instructions from your uncle."
Virginia was shocked speechless and she could only stare. It was a moment before she could even think.
For a while, she had been afraid that Eastleigh would send for her, forcing her to go to England, where she had no wish to go. That, at least, was one dilemma she did not have to face. But he would lock her up in this school for three more years? She'd already been here six months and she hated it! Virginia would not have it. Oh, no. She was going home.
Mrs. Towne was speaking. "I know that three years seems like a very long time, but actually, considering the way you were raised, it is probably the amount of time we need to fully instruct you in all the social graces you shall need to succeed in society, my dear. And there is good news. Your uncle intends to see you wed upon your majority."
Virginia was on her feet, beyond shock. "What?"
Mrs. Towne blinked. "I should have known you would be dismayed by the proposal. Every well-born young lady marries, and you are no exception. He intends to find a suitable husband for you"
Mrs. Towne was now the one speechless.
Anger consumed Virginia. "First he sends me here? Then he thinks to lock me away for three years? Then he will send me to another prisona marriage with a stranger? No, I think not!"
"No, Mrs. Towne. You see, I will marry one day, but I will marry for love and only love. A grand passionlike my parents had." Tears blurred her vision. There would be no compromise. One day she would find a man like her father, the kind of love her parents had so obviously shared. There would becould beno compromise.