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Is it possible that only months ago I was in Sicily? Thalia wrote in her journal, balancing the leather-bound book carefully on her lap desk as the carriage jolted along. It must have been a dream indeed, for when I look out of the window now I know I have truly woken up.
The gently rolling lane, surrounded on all sides by the lush, fresh green of hedgerows, the expanse of fields and villages, could not have been more different than the sun-blasted Sicilian plains. Thalia closed her eyes, and for an instant she could swear she smelled the hot scent of lemons on the air. Could feel the warm breeze brush her sleeve against her arm, like the most fleeting caress.
But then the carriage bounced over another rut in the English road, pushing her out of her memories.
She opened her eyes, and smiled at her sister Calliope de Vere, Lady Westwood, who sat across from her. Calliope smiled back, but Thalia could see that it was an effort. Despite the cushions and blankets piled around her, despite the quantities of tea and calves' foot jelly Thalia kept pressing on her, Calliope was still pale. Her brown eyes seemed enormous in her white face.
That pallor was one of the reasons for this journey to Bath. Calliope had not yet recovered from baby Psyche's long and difficult birth, had indeed just become thinner and more tired as the days went on. Her appetite was not good, and she had no energy for her usual organising and taking care of everyone.
Thalia knew it was time to worry when her eldest sister had no interest in ordering her around. She hoped that her brother-in-law Cameron's idea, that Calliope should take the waters and rest for a few weeks, would do the trick. He had gone ahead to find a suitable house, and Thalia had organised the journey.
In the flurry of engaging nurses and maids, packing and closing up the London house, she had almost forgotten Sicily and Marco. Almost.
'What are you writing?' Calliope asked, checking the basket where Psyche slept amid satin blankets. The baby had blessedly fallen asleep after miles spent wailing. 'A new play?'
'Just a few notes in my journal,' Thalia answered. She tucked the little volume away. 'I haven't yet begun a new play.'
Calliope sighed. 'I fear that is my fault. I have kept you so very busy you've scarcely had time to breathe since you returned from Italy!'
'I don't mind in the least. What are sisters for, if not to help in times of need?'
'Then we are fortunate indeed to be so peculiarly rich in sisters!' Calliope said with a laugh. 'And now nieces and stepmothers.'
'We are a family of females to be sure.' Thalia peered down at Psyche, so deceptively angelic in her pink satin and lace, black hair like her mother's curling softly on her pretty head. Her little nose wrinkled as Thalia smoothed back a strand. 'Psyche has proved herself to be a Chase through and through already.'
Calliope gave her sleeping daughter a soft smile. 'She does have a will of iron.'
'And lungs to match.'
'She will never refrain from expressing herself, I fear.'
'Will she turn out like her Aunt Clio?'
'A duchess? She just might.' Calliope eased the coverlets around Psyche's shoulders, and settled herself carefully back on her seat. 'I do confess I was utterly astonished to hear of Clio's marriage. She and Averton despised each other! After what happened in Yorkshire…'
Thalia remembered Clio's wedding in the Protestant chapel in Santa Lucia, how very radiant she was as she had taken her Duke's hand and repeated her vows. How he had raised the veil on her bonnet and kissed her, the two of them seemingly bound in their own little sunlit world. 'Magical things can happen in Italy.'
'So I understand.' Calliope peered closely at Thalia from beneath the narrow brim of her hat, making Thalia squirm just a bit. When they were children, Calliope always knew when Thalia had done something naughty, and she could elicit guilty confessions in no time. It was no different now.
'What of you, then, Thalia dear?' Calliope said. 'Did magical things happen to you there?'
Thalia shook her head, memories of Clio's wedding shifting into a starlit night. A masked ball, a dance. 'Not at all, I'm afraid. I'm exactly the same as I was before I went.'
Thalia could see that Calliope did not believe her, but she seemed too tired to pry. Yet. 'Poor Thalia. You must play nurse to me after such a grand holiday! And now I am dragging you off to fusty old Bath. I fear the Upper Rooms can hold no charms like ancient ruins. Or Italian men and their dark eyes!'
Thalia glanced sharply at Calliope, trying to see if there was anything behind that 'dark eyes' remark. If she knew, and was teasing about it. Calliope just gave her an innocent smile.
'Oh, I have hopes of Bath, never fear,' Thalia said lightly. 'The theatre, the parks, the old Roman sites. The wealthy men seeking cures for their gout and young wives to wheel their chairs about. Perhaps there will be some overfed German prince there, and I will outrank even Clio! Princess Thalia. Sounds nice, don't you think, Cal?'
Calliope laughed, her pale cheeks taking on a hint of pink at last. 'It will sound nice until you find yourself in some drafty Hessian castle! I suspect that would not suit you at all.'
'I dare say you are right. I haven't the temperament for cold winters or draughty castles.'
'Not after Italy?'
'Exactly so. But Bath will have its charms, not the least of which will be seeing you well and strong again. The waters will do you good.'
'I hope so. I am so tired of being tired,' Calliope said wearily, the first hint of any complaint Thalia had heard from her.
Thalia leaned forwards in concern, tucking a blanket closer around Calliope's knees. 'Are you in pain, Cal? Should we stop for a rest? This infernal jostling…'
'No, no.' Calliope caught Thalia's hand, stilling her fussing. 'Bath is not far, I'm sure. I want to try to make it before nightfall. I long to see Cameron.'
'As I'm sure he longs to see you.' Calliope and her husband had hardly been parted since their marriage. Thalia didn't know how they could stand it, they were so very devoted.
'He says he has found a fine house right on the Royal Crescent, where we can be near everything,' Calliope said. 'I do want you to have some fun while we're there, not spend all your time at my sickbed.'
Thalia laughed, even more worried now and trying to hide it. 'What sickbed? You will be too busy promenading around the Pump Room for that! And I am happy just to be with you and little Psyche. We have been too long parted.'
'Yes. If only Clio were here!' Calliope squeezed Thalia's hand. 'Our little trio would be complete again.'
Psyche chose that moment to wake up, letting out a lusty shout that shook the carriage to its silk-lined walls.
'It appears we would be a quartet now,' Calliope said, lifting her daughter from the basket.
Thalia gazed out the window again. The rolling lanes, the hedgerows, had at last given way, and the carriage turned onto one of the bridges leading over the Avon into Bath itself. Five elegant arches rose over the bridge, forming a new view of the town and the hills beyond.
Even after the dramatic landscapes of Italy, Thalia had to admit Bath was quite pretty. It looked like the rising layers of a fancy wedding cake fashioned in pale gold stone, sweeping up along the hill slopes. As a Chase, the daughter and granddaughter of classical scholars, Thalia approved of the city's classical lines, all neat rows of columns and clean-cut corners.
At this distance, the dirt and noise all towns produced could not yet be seen or heard. It seemed a doll's city, built for pleasure. Built for gentle strolls and polite conversations, for good health and conviviality. For new dreams—if she could only find them.
As Psyche cried on, they rolled off the bridge into the city, the carriage jolting along the stone streets with the endless flow of traffic. Thalia studied the well-dressed families in their barouches, the dashing couples perched high on their phaeton seats. The pedestrians on the walkways, showing off their fashionable clothes as maids scurried behind them laden with packages.
The shop windows displayed a variety of fine wares—lengths of muslins and silks, bonnets, books and prints, china, glistening pyramids of sweets. Thalia remembered dusty little Santa Lucia, its ancient markets and little shops.
She lowered the window and inhaled deeply of the mingled scents of dirt and horses, sugary cinnamon from a bakery, the faint metallic tang of the waters that hung over everything. She was far from Sicily indeed. And none of the men they passed were in the least like Marco di Fabrizzi.
Calliope peered over her shoulder, rocking Psyche in her arms. Even the baby seemed fascinated by the town, as she ceased to scream and gazed about with wide brown eyes.
'You see, Thalia,' Calliope said. 'Bath is not so very bad, even Psyche thinks so. Look, there is a sign for the Theatre Royal, they're performing Romeo and Juliet next week! We must go. A little bit of Italy right here.'
Thalia smiled at her sister, and at Psyche, who had popped her tiny fingers into her mouth as she watched the sunlight gleam on the mellow Bath stone. 'I always do enjoy the theatre, of course. But you must not tire yourself, Cal. We can always go later.'
'Pah! Sitting in the theatre is hardly likely to do me harm, unless someone chucks an orange at my head. I don't want to be a poor invalid,' Calliope said stubbornly.
They quickly left the more crowded lanes behind, making their way to the comforts and quiet of the Royal Crescent.
The neighbourhood Cameron had chosen for their holiday was an elegant sweep of thirty houses, built in deceptively simple Palladian style for Bath's most exclusive occupants. How very perturbed those snobby builders would be, Thalia thought, to see the arrival of two bluestockings and a squalling infant! Even if Cal was a countess. The Chase girls had never been much for stuffiness. It was too time consuming.
But she had to admit it was very pretty, and suited to their classical studies. The carriage swayed slowly along the gentle curve of the crescent, past immaculately scrubbed front steps and austere columns. The houses exuded a quiet, prosperous serenity, the perfect place for Calliope to rest.
'We can take walks here in the mornings,' Calliope said, pointing toward the walkway around a large, open, grassy space across from the curve of houses. 'There in Crescent Fields.'
'Only if it is early enough! We would not want to be run over by fashionable promenaders.' Thalia watched a couple stroll past, the lady in an embroidered yellow spencer and large feathered bonnet, the lead of a prancing pug dog in her hand. The wide brim of her hat hid her face, and even half-obscured her tall escort.
Yet even in a fleeting glimpse there seemed something so strangely familiar in that male figure. Those lean shoulders in dark blue superfine. Was he someone she knew?
But she had little time to speculate on the man's identity, as their carriage at last jolted to a halt before a house near the end of the crescent curve. A footman hurried down the front stoop to open the carriage door, and right behind him was Calliope's husband.
Cameron de Vere, the Earl of Westwood, was a very good match for her sister, Thalia always thought. They were both darkly beautiful, kind-hearted, and devoted to the study of ancient history. Yet he was full of humour and light, where Calliope could be intense, and they balanced each other. No two people had surely ever made a happier life together than they.
Cam's face, usually so smiling and handsome, looked worried today as he took his wife's hand and gently helped her down from the carriage.
Thalia took Psyche, cradling her close as they watched Calliope and Cameron embrace in full view of the Crescent's passers-by. Cam held her so very close, as if she was a precious piece of ancient alabaster, and Calliope arched into him as if she was home at last, her head on his shoulder.
Thalia felt a wistful pang as she observed them together, a quick flash of loneliness. How very right they were together! Like two halves of a Roman coin.
And how solitary she was.
Yet there was not time for self-pity. It was not Thalia's way, either, to waste time wishing for what she did not have! Not when there was so much she did have, so much she needed to do.
The footman helped her to the pavement, and she handed Psyche to the waiting nurse, who had followed in a second carriage with the other servants. She carried the baby into the house just as a great squall went up.
'Thalia!' Cameron said, kissing her cheek. 'How well and pretty you look, sister. The Bath air agrees with you already.'
Thalia laughed as Calliope playfully slapped her husband's arm. 'She is blooming and pretty, while I, your poor wife, am a pale invalid?'
'I never said you were poor…' Cameron protested teasingly.
'Just pale, then?'
'Never! You are my Grecian rose, always. And now, fair rose, let me show you to your new bower.'
He swept Calliope into his arms, carrying her up the shallow steps, beneath the classical pediment into the house. Cal protested, yet Thalia could see she was tired and glad of the help. Thalia scooped up a bandbox a footman had left on the pavement and hurried after them.
The entrance hall was cool and dim after the sunny day, smelling of fresh flowers and lemon polish, with a flagstone floor and pale marbled wallpaper. Cameron led them through an archway to the tall inner hall, where a staircase curved to the upper floors. Psyche was already up there somewhere, shouting her protests at the new surroundings.
Cameron carried his wife into a drawing room off the hall, a fine room with gold damask walls and draperies. Coral-coloured silk couches and chairs were grouped around a tea table, already set with refreshments.
Next to the windows were a pianoforte and a harp. As Cameron settled Calliope on the couch, Thalia wandered over to examine the instruments.
'These are very fine,' she said, picking out a little tune on the keys. 'I can play for you in the evenings, Cal! I learned lots of new songs in Italy.'