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A CHANGE of FORTUNE
By Jen Turano
Baker Publishing GroupCopyright © 2012 Jennifer L. Turano
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNew York, 1880
Miss Eliza Sumner turned the page of the book she was reading aloud, glancing up and biting back a smile at the unusual sight of her two charges, Grace and Lily, listening attentively to her. She lowered her gaze and continued reading, raising her voice dramatically when she got to a riveting passage regarding a motley band of pirates.
"There you are, Miss Sumner," a voice exclaimed from the doorway.
Eliza set the book aside and hurried to her feet as her employer, Mrs. Cora Watson, advanced into the room.
"I've been searching everywhere for you," Mrs. Watson proclaimed.
As it was a normal occurrence for Eliza to spend her evenings in the schoolroom, she was a bit perplexed by Mrs. Watson's statement, but felt it best to keep that particular thought to herself.
"Here," Mrs. Watson said, thrusting a bundle of silk into Eliza's hands, "I need you to put this on immediately."
"I do beg your pardon, Mrs. Watson, but am I to understand you've taken issue with my gown?"
"Certainly not. Your gown is completely acceptable for the schoolroom, but I need your services at dinner."
"You wish me to serve the meal?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Mrs. Watson said.
Eliza eyed the massive amount of fabric in her hand and cautiously shook it out, unable to suppress a shudder as yard after yard of hideous color unfolded before her eyes. "Is this ... a dinner gown?"
"Mother, surely you don't expect Miss Sumner to wear that," Grace said, scurrying to Eliza's side. "Why, it's the most revolting shade of ..." She paused and looked up at Eliza. "What color would you call that?"
"I believe the proper term would be puce," Eliza supplied.
"I think the proper term should be ugly," Lily piped up, joining her sister with her nose wrinkled. "It'll clash with her red hair, Mother."
"I know," Mrs. Watson said, "but it's the only gown I have on hand at the moment." She turned to Eliza. "Please don't take offense at this, Miss Sumner, but you're rather stout in build, and the only member of my family possessed of a similar figure is my aunt Mildred, who just happened to leave this gown the last time she visited."
As Eliza's "stoutness" was the result of layers of linen wrapped around her middle, she took no offense at all over Mrs. Watson's remark. Before she could formulate a suitable response, Grace let out a snort.
"Aunt Mildred only left that gown because she knew it was awful and not of the current fashion. Poor Miss Sumner will barely be able to walk, seeing as how the skirt is so long."
"She'll simply have to make the best of it unless she has a dinner gown of her own to wear."
Eliza bit her lip. While it was true she possessed more than her fair share of dinner gowns, they were currently back in England, and now was hardly the time to ponder that particular subject. She could not allow Mrs. Watson to discover the pesky little fact that she was in actuality Lady Eliza Sumner, not plain Miss, nor could she divulge the fact that her father had been the Earl of Sefton. She cleared her throat. "I'm sorry to say I have no formal attire at my disposal."
"Hmm, pity that," Mrs. Watson replied. "You'll have to wear Aunt Mildred's gown."
"May I be so bold as to ask what you require of me at your dinner?" Eliza asked.
"Oh, forgive me," Mrs. Watson said, wiping her brow absently with the back of her hand. "Agatha's developed spots. You need to take her place at the table."
Eliza stifled a groan. One of the main reasons she'd sought out employment as a governess was so she could remain inconspicuous, and attending a dinner party hosted by one of the upcoming social leaders of New York City was not exactly what she had had in mind when she accepted the position.
"But, Mrs. Watson," Eliza began, "surely you don't believe ..."
"I cannot have an uneven number at the table," Mrs. Watson interrupted. "I finally received an acceptance from the Trumans, and Mr. Watson would not be pleased if I did anything to embarrass him, such as sitting down to dinner with an odd number of guests."
"Father must want to sell Mr. Truman a huge vat of soap," Grace declared.
"It's hardly proper for a young lady, Grace, to discuss business," Mrs. Watson said before turning back to Eliza. "I expect you downstairs in thirty minutes."
"Don't you believe your guests will consider it bad form for me to attend your dinner party?" Eliza asked, wincing when she heard the clear note of desperation in her voice.
Mrs. Watson narrowed her eyes. "Did your letter of reference not state you were proficient in the subject of etiquette?"
"Well, yes, certainly, but ..."
"And did it not also state you are a distant relation of the aristocracy?"
Eliza nodded, knowing perfectly well her "distant relation" to the aristocracy was not very distant.
"Then I would have to assume you've attended a formal dinner in the past."
"I have not attended a formal dinner in quite some time."
"Has that caused you to forget your manners?" Mrs. Watson asked.
"Ahh ... I don't believe so."
"Then there is absolutely no reason for you to balk at my request. I would have to believe you are well equipped to handle the silver."
"I am the governess," Eliza muttered.
"No one needs to know that, dear."
"I would have to believe someone at the dinner table will ask me my name," Eliza said.
"I suggest you tell them you're Miss Sumner."
"What if they ask me more questions?"
Mrs. Watson released a sigh. "My dear, I don't wish to cause you distress, but quite frankly, you are not the type of woman with whom one wishes to enter into conversation at a dinner party."
Eliza swallowed a laugh. Apparently her attempt at disguising her appearance and her true identity could be deemed a success.
"I really must get back downstairs," Mrs. Watson continued, seemingly unaware of the fact that she'd delivered Eliza an insult and a compliment in the same breath. "I have numerous details left unresolved, and I want everything to be perfect." She sent Eliza a nod. "I'll try to find a maid to help you into that gown."
Eliza watched Mrs. Watson walk through the door before shifting her gaze to Grace and Lily. "Our story will have to wait for another day."
"We were just getting to the good part," Grace complained. "I'm sorry my mother is being so demanding. She used to be somewhat fun."
"I don't remember her being fun," Lily remarked.
"That's because you were born after Father's business became successful," Grace said. "Mother wasn't responsible for hosting so many parties, and I'm afraid it's given her a bit of an edge." She sighed. "Agatha remembers a time when even Father was fun."
"Speaking of Agatha," Eliza said, "what type of spots do you think she has at the moment? Should someone send for a physician?"
"She hardly needs a physician," Grace said with a grin. "Agatha is only suffering from rebellious spots because Mother invited gentlemen tonight who are known to be eligible bachelors."
"Am I to understand there's nothing wrong with her?" Eliza asked.
"She's a bit crazy, but honestly, Agatha's always been that way."
Eliza felt her lips twitch. "Maybe I should pay Agatha a visit and call her on her ruse so I won't have to don this gown and make a complete cake of myself."
"You talk funny sometimes," Lily said.
"I imagine it comes from being British."
"Your accent is charming," Grace said. "I bet if I spoke like you all the boys would fall in love with me."
"As you are too young to even contemplate boys, being all of eleven years old, I think we'll return to the subject at hand. Where is your sister?" Eliza asked.
"She's gone into hiding and won't turn up until after dinner," Grace said.
"Wonderful," Eliza muttered before she walked over to the discarded book, picked it up, and handed it to Grace. "You may continue reading this to your sister, and you'll have to fill me in on the story line when we meet again two days from now. Tomorrow is Sunday, my day off, but I'll be waiting with bated breath to discover what happens with the pirates."
She turned on her heel and strode into the hallway, making her way to her room. She closed the door and allowed her shoulders to slump as she gulped in deep breaths of air, the reality of her situation setting in.
This was a disaster.
She moved to her bed and dropped the dinner gown on top of the covers, spreading the fabric out even as her eyes narrowed. There was no way she would be able to fit into it, no matter how "stout" Mrs. Watson claimed her aunt to be, because the gown had a cinched waist, a waist that would balk if she tried to squeeze her stuffing into it.
She unbuttoned the front of her serviceable gown and shrugged out of it, her hands moving immediately to the front ties of her specially made corset. She made short shrift of unlacing the ribbons and began unwinding one of the strips of linen she'd used to pad her figure. She dropped the cloth to the ground, retied her corset, and then snagged the gown off the bed, wrestling it over her head. It got stuck halfway down her body.
She squirmed out of it, unlaced her corset, and unwound another strip of cloth, her fingers moving rapidly as she suddenly recalled that Mrs. Watson was supposed to send a maid to assist her. She squeezed into the gown and buttoned it up the best she could before she scooped the abandoned linen off the floor and stuffed it beneath her mattress. She struggled to button the last few buttons, but finally admitted defeat when she simply couldn't reach them.
She could only hope the maid didn't notice anything unusual. She grinned. Honestly, if she didn't look unusual at the moment, she'd eat this gown. She moved to the mirror, grabbing hold of a chest of drawers when she tripped on the hem. She twitched the fabric out of her way and straightened, her grin widening when she got a good look at her reflection.
She looked like an opera singer.
Large blue eyes stared back at her out of a pale face, which had a smattering of freckles marching along the bridge of her nose. Her grin turned into a smile, showing straight white teeth and causing a dimple to pop out on her right cheek. Her smile faded as her eyes lifted to her hair, which she had pulled tightly away from her face and secured in a matronly bun and which in no way resembled the intricate styles of her past. She shook herself. There was no time for reflection just now.
Her gaze traveled the length of her body, and her mouth dropped open. Although she'd managed to get the gown over her middle, it now gaped around the neckline and she was at a loss as to how to fix that little problem. She tugged the material up only to have it slide back down the moment she let go.
"Pins," she declared, spinning on her heel and stumbling over to a table, which held a battered jewelry box some former governess had apparently left behind. She rummaged around in it for a minute and managed to locate a few pins. She jabbed them into the fabric and moved back to the mirror.
"That's hardly better, but it will have to do," she told her reflection.
Would anyone be able to recognize her? Her gaze lingered on the dumpy and unusually shaped woman staring back at her. Who would ever believe she'd once been the most sought after woman in London? What would her friends think if they could see her now?
"You don't have any friends," she muttered, turning away from the mirror as a knock sounded on her door.
The door opened, and a maid by the name of Mary entered the room. "Mrs. Watson asked me to assist you, but it seems you managed nicely on your own."
"I still have a few buttons I can't reach."
Mary stepped to Eliza's side and quickly buttoned her up. "What an interesting color."
"Lily thinks it clashes with my hair," Eliza said.
"It does at that, but I must say, it's not all horrible. The color draws attention to your eyes."
"That will never do." Eliza moved back to the jewelry box and pushed the contents around, delighted when she located an old pair of spectacles. She shoved them on her face and then promptly lost her balance as the room swam out of focus.
"I didn't know you wore spectacles," Mary said.
Eliza thought Mary might be frowning in her direction, but as she couldn't clearly see her face, she wasn't sure. "I only wear them on very rare occasions, dinners mostly. Spectacles make it easier to see the silver."
"I've never heard of such a thing, but if you can't see the silver, I suppose you should keep them on," Mary said. "Pity though, seeing as you have such lovely eyes and Mr. Hamilton Beckett is expected tonight." Mary lowered her voice. "He's the most sought after gentleman in New York."
"Then I would have to believe it would be difficult for me to garner his attention with or without my spectacles," Eliza said wryly. "I am the governess, and the only reason I've been pressed into service is because Agatha has developed spots."
Mary made a tsking noise under her breath.
Eliza frowned. "Do you know about Agatha's spots?"
"The entire house knows about the spots."
"Does Agatha make a habit of refusing to attend her mother's dinners?" Eliza asked.
"No, but I believe the poor dear has finally had enough of her mother's schemes. I overheard them earlier today, and they were engaged in a bit of a tiff. I don't believe Miss Agatha appreciated the fact that Mrs. Watson was forcing her to sit next to Mr. Beckett at dinner."
"I thought you said Mr. Beckett was the most sought after gentleman in New York?"
"He is, but I think Miss Agatha finds him too old," Mary said.
"How old is he?"
"He might be thirty."
"Thirty is hardly old."
"Not to you."
Eliza stifled a laugh. Here was further proof her disguise was a success, seeing as how she was only twenty-one years old, not much older than Agatha. She sent Mary a smile and then headed for the door. "Thank you for your help, Mary."
"Maybe you should say some extra prayers to help you get though the evening," Mary suggested.
Since Eliza was less than pleased with God at the moment, seeing as how He had not helped her sort through the mess she currently found herself in, she ignored Mary's statement.
"Would you like me to help you down the stairs?" Mary asked as Eliza ran smack-dab into the doorframe.
"That won't be necessary," Eliza said as she sailed through the door, ruining the effect by tripping on the trailing fabric of her gown.
"I'll say those prayers for you," Mary called as Eliza straightened and slowly walked down the hall.
The steps proved to be quite the obstacle, and she finally had to push the spectacles down her nose in order to navigate them. She paused on the first landing to tug her hem out from under her feet, and as she did so, she saw a pair of eyes peering at her through a crack in a door.
"Agatha," she muttered.
The door shut with a snap.
Eliza considered marching over to the door and demanding Agatha take her rightful place at the table, but the arrival of another maid distracted her. She shoved the spectacles back up her nose.
"Miss Sumner, Mrs. Watson is asking about you," the maid said. "My, don't you look ... fetching."
Eliza released an unladylike snort. "I think hideous would be a more appropriate word."
"You might have a point," the maid said. "Do you need help getting down to the dining room, since you seem to be dragging a large amount of skirt behind you?"
"I'll be fine," Eliza said, sending the closed door one last look before she continued on her way, vowing to herself she would have a few words with Agatha if she survived the evening.
After what seemed like hours, but was only minutes, she finally managed to reach the end of the stairs and cautiously made her way to the dining room.
"Miss Sumner," Mrs. Watson exclaimed, appearing at Eliza's side. "What took you so long?"
"I apologize, Mrs. Watson, but I had a bit of difficulty maneuvering down the steps."
Eliza couldn't be certain, but she thought she saw Mrs. Watson's lips quiver.
"Oh dear, that gown is worse than I imagined," Mrs. Watson declared as she took Eliza by the arm and peered into her face. "I must say, those spectacles are the perfect accessory. They make you look eccentric, which will go far in explaining the gown."
As Eliza was trying for inconspicuous, the last thing she wanted to hear was that she'd managed "eccentric."
"This is a horrible idea," she mumbled.
"Nonsense," Mrs. Watson said, steering Eliza through a crowd of people and coming to a halt in front of an incredibly long table.
Excerpted from A CHANGE of FORTUNE by Jen Turano Copyright © 2012 by Jennifer L. Turano. Excerpted by permission of Baker Publishing Group. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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