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A Lady of High Regard
By Tracie Peterson
Baker Publishing GroupCopyright © 2007 Tracie Peterson
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePhiladelphia June 1852
A slight breeze blew across the room, causing Mia Stanley's single candle to flicker and dance. Leaning away from the writing desk where she'd worked most of the evening, Mia pressed a hand to her growling stomach. She was starving, but there was no time to indulge. And at this hour, their cook, Mrs. McGuire, would be quite cross to have her kitchen dirtied.
Mia's papers suddenly scattered as the breeze increased. "Stuff and nonsense," she muttered, scurrying to recover her work. Mia decided then to conclude her writing for the evening. As if on cue, the grandfather clock at the top of the stairs began to chime. It was nine o'clock.
Time had gotten away from her. Without thought to blot her last line of writing, Mia stacked her papers and secured them by placing several copies of Godey's Lady's Book atop. She would no doubt be late for her meeting if she delayed much longer.
Glancing down at her silk gown, Mia knew it would be unsuitable for the tasks ahead. Yet she could hardly call for Ruth to come and help her change. That would take too much time.
"I should have thought to have them help me when I first retired," she said. The pale blue gown had been quite appropriate for an evening of refined dinner guests and music but would cause her too much attention in the poorer section of town.
Then an idea came to mind. Her mother was known for discarding her gowns and giving them to the maids and such when she'd grown tired of them. Mia had pulled one such gown from the pile just before Ruth had happily taken the collection away. The gown would be large enough to pull on over the silk and was conservative enough to hide any immediate suggestion of wealth. As she recalled, her mother had only used the dress for gardening and overseeing the cleaning of the attic.
Struggling in the dim light, Mia adjusted the gown and did up the buttons, grateful they were on the front of the bodice instead of the back. Wrapping her hip-length blond hair in a tight knot, Mia covered the mass with a scarf in the style of the fishermen's wives and slave girls. With this accomplished, she found her oldest and ugliest shawl and pulled it tight around her shoulders. It was plenty warm outside, but the shawl would age her appearance even more. Instead of looking twenty-four, she hoped the costume would make her at least a believable thirty or thirty-four.
"Better still if I looked fifty."
Mia tucked a few coins into her pocket, knowing that a little money often proved useful in exchanges of information. She worried that if she didn't hurry, she'd never reach the church in time to meet with Mrs. Smith. The woman had only agreed because Mia had promised to keep her identity a secret, and Mia feared that if she was late the woman might be too frightened to stay.
Taking up the candle, Mia opened the door slowly and listened. The deafening silence assured her that the house was finally at rest. Her parents were blessedly people of the clock. They kept their hours as a matter of serious consideration. Lyman Stanley was known to say that a man could not run a business or family without strict adherence to the time. And because of such a belief, he was now in bed, most likely fast asleep despite the fact that there was still a dusky glow of sunset in the summer skies.
Mia tiptoed across the highly polished oak floors. The candlelight reflected the disapproving stares of ancient ancestors whose portraits lined the vast hall. Great-grandfather Stanley seemed particularly perturbed this evening, Mia thought as she caught his narrowed eyes and tight expression.
"I'm doing this for a good cause," she told him as if admonishing a child. The candle flickered, and she almost imagined the old gentleman had offered an exasperated sigh. It did nothing to deter Mia.
Knowing she'd be less likely heard exiting the drawing room door to the gardens, Mia carefully pushed back the extravagant folds of her mother's lace curtains and unlatched the French doors. They didn't make so much as a creak, but the rush of air blew out her candle and instantly left Mia in darkness. Outside, the light was fading fast, and while the moon seemed to offer some assistance, Mia paused to decide whether she should take a lantern.
"I should have to go to the kitchen if I want one and risk making enough noise to raise the dead. That definitely won't do," she argued in a whisper. And it really wasn't so very far to the church. There were gaslights along some of the streets, so she wouldn't have to be in pitch black the entire time.
"And if I don't hurry, Mrs. Smith will be gone, and all of this will be for naught."
That settled the matter, and Mia left all thoughts of a lantern behind as she closed the door. The warm smells of the summer air assaulted her as Mia stepped into the garden. The sweet scent of her mother's roses mingled with honeysuckle and a dozen other flowers rose up to inspire Mia's senses.
The garden, sheltered by large bender oaks and buckeye trees, was her mother's delight. Aldora tended the grounds with strictest diligence. She lavished her attention upon her flowers as though they were her children. Often she could be found instructing one of the servants to trim this or that, while she plucked and planted alongside. Mia thought her mother's talent amazing, for they always had the most beautiful gardens of anyone in Philadelphia.
Thick lilac bushes lined the boundaries between the Stanley and Wilson houses, but their blossoms were long since past. Farther in the garden a variety of flowering trees offered a canopy of shade during warm summer days. Of everything here, Mia thought the lilacs to be her favorites. She'd loved them since she'd been a small child. The scent always reminded her of pleasant days spent playing in the garden with her sisters or of sitting and listening to her father read on lazy afternoons. Of course, they also reminded her of Garrett.
Garrett Wilson was the son of her father's partner, George Wilson. They owned the property next to the Stanleys and had been an institution in their family for as long as Mia had memories. Garrett, some eight years her senior, had been a faithful companion to Mia off and on throughout her life. He was the brother she'd never had-the good friend who would always listen to her troubles-the only man she trusted besides her father.
In early years Mrs. Wilson had often come to share tea in the Stanley gardens. In turn, the Stanley women would enjoy pleasant respites at the Wilson estate. The two older women found great solace in each other's company; both had lost young sons to different diseases and now doted upon their remaining children.
In later years when home from school, Garrett would sometimes accompany his mother to the Stanley garden, sharing tea with Mia and her mother and two sisters. After his mother had passed away and Garrett was busy working for his father's business, his visits were less frequent. Nevertheless, Garrett seemed quite happy to join the Stanley women from time to time and tell them all the news from his travels. And since the Wilsons and Stanleys imported a great many products from across the seas, Garrett's travels were often lengthy and his accounts detailed. Mia loved to hear Garrett's stories of searching for the perfect crystal or china to bring home for American society. He always managed to share some humorous adventure or fascinating anecdote.
As Mia hurried down Walnut Street she couldn't help but smile. Garrett was such a good man. And as such, he deserved to have a good wife. Mia had long considered the situation, and as the resident matchmaker who had seen her younger sisters quite happily settled, she was certain she could remedy the situation for her dear friend. She already had half a dozen young ladies in mind and hoped that with the few parties that would take place before so many families deserted the town for the summer, she could secure a wife for Garrett Wilson.
Mia stopped in her tracks as a noise caught her attention. There it was again. Someone was hurrying to follow her. The heaviness of the footsteps suggested a man. She ducked into the nearby shrubbery, catching her shawl on a waxy leafed branch.
"Oh bother," she muttered, gently tugging the knitted piece until it pulled loose. The sound of footsteps grew ever closer as Mia cowered in the darkness. There was no telling who might be on the walk this evening. It might be a completely innocent situation of a person merely making his way home. On the other hand, it might be someone sent to stop her from her appointed task-the danger of which was not lost on Mia.
Garrett Wilson stopped and looked down the darkened street. He'd seen Mia come this way, of that he had no doubt. But now she seemed to have simply vanished.
"The little minx. What must she be up to?"
He ran his hand back through his hair and clenched his jaw. She was always causing some sort of fuss, risking life and limb for one silly exploit or another. This time, however, she was definitely not making a wise decision. Heading toward the poorer part of town at this hour was certainly a danger to her well-being. Garrett knew for a fact that robberies and personal assaults were a constant problem in this neighborhood. Why, only the week before, one of the wealthiest men in the city had had his life threatened during a robbery. As a lady of regard, this was clearly not a wise decision.
Watching from his bedroom window, Garrett had been rather stunned to see Mia slip outside into the Stanley garden. At first he hadn't been sure it was Mia, but as she approached the gate her manner of walk gave her away. Lately Mia had been doing some very dangerous sneaking around. Twice Garrett had followed her, but never had it been so late in the evening. If her father knew, he would not approve.
Without concern for his own welfare, Garrett had hurried through the house, pulling on his coat as he went. He had determined to follow after her on foot, and maybe even confront her if he caught up to her in time. But now he'd lost her and a fear gripped him like none he'd known before. It was always dangerous for women to be out on their own, but especially so at night.
He turned and headed up the street to his right, hoping that perhaps Mia had come this way and he'd simply missed seeing her turn. He walked for some twenty or thirty yards before deciding it was futile. She was gone.
"What are you up to, Mia Stanley?" he murmured, shaking his head. Why couldn't she just be content to sit at home and embroider like other young ladies of society?
He could hardly even imagine Mia sitting sedately at an embroidery frame, working tiny little stitches into some beautifully appointed piece of artistry, her full lips turned up in just a hint of a smile, her long lashes veiling dark blue eyes. But as his imagination ran wild, Garrett laughed out loud to picture four inches of mud at the hem of her stylish but torn gown, streaks of wavy blond hair falling down around her shoulders from a chignon that had endured one too many mad dashes about town. Mia was every bit the lady her mother had raised her to be, but there was something of an impish child in her as well.
"Oh, Mia. What are we to do with you?"
Garrett walked slowly back to Walnut Street, where the opulent homes of the wealthy lined the drive in their graceful, decorative manner. His father had insisted that Garrett remain in the family house, even though his mother was long dead and his father had taken another wife. But Garrett was anxious for a home of his own. His stepmother, Mercy, was a likeable woman who doted on Garrett, along with the three daughters she'd given his father-the youngest of which had only been born two weeks before.
Garrett adored his stepsisters. Agnes, age eight, and Bliss, not yet six, were delightful girls who had managed to charm themselves into Garrett's heart from birth. Much the way Mia had done. The girls seemed to return his affection, seeking him out for horsey rides and penny candy. No doubt baby Lenore would grow up to be the same way.
It was funny how his father's marriage to Mercy and the girls' subsequent births only made Garrett more desirous to have such things for himself. His friends had been certain that living in such an environment would drive Garrett even deeper into bachelorhood. But exactly the opposite was true. Garrett longed to be married-to have a woman look at him with the same kind of adoration that Mercy offered his father. He longed to cradle his own daughter or son and to offer gifts and trinkets to children he'd created out of passion for the love of his life. But so far, God had not seen fit to bring such things into his life, and Garrett was trying hard to maintain his patience.
Mia came to mind again. She was out there alone doing who knew what, no doubt for the sake of that magazine she loved so much. Why Lyman Stanley had ever allowed his daughter to work was beyond Garrett. Mia's friends saw it as a wonderful novelty and enjoyed contributing poetry and recipes to the cause. Mia's family, as far as Garrett could tell, tolerated it as a passing fancy-an indulgence to their only remaining child at home.
"A dangerous indulgence if you ask me."
Garrett went to the carriage house to wake the driver, then thought better of it. It would do little good to roam aimlessly on the streets. If Mia didn't want to be found, she wouldn't be found. He knew her well enough to know that much. Still, he was torn. He felt that he should do something. She was out there alone, and who knew what harm someone might cause her? He then grinned and shook his head. "Or what harm she might cause someone else."
* * *
It was nearly eleven before Mia slipped back into the house and secured the French doors. She had learned a great deal from Mrs. Smith. The truth was quite ugly, as truth often could be, but it gave Mia insight into the rumored problems she'd been seeking to expose.
Hurrying upstairs in the dark, she sought the refuge of her bedroom before lighting a candle. She was just relegating the shawl and gown to a trunk at the foot of her bed when a light knocking sounded on her door.
"Come in," she called, straightening quickly, as if completely innocent of any mischief.
"Miss, I wondered if I could help you dress for bed?"
Mia smiled at the woman. "Of course, Ruth. I'm ready to retire. I'm sorry to have kept you up."
"I came earlier, but you were gone."
Mia's smile broadened. "You won't be saying anything, will you?"
Ruth shook her head and returned a grin. "Just like all the other times, Miss Mia, I will be as silent as the grave."
"And of course, I will reward your loyalty," Mia said conspiratorially. "I've been telling Jason all about you and he seems quite smitten. I don't think we'll have any trouble bringing him around to matrimonial thoughts."
"Oh, miss, do you really think so?" Ruth questioned as she began unfastening the silk gown.
"I do. I have arranged for you and Jason to have some time away from the house. I plan to send you on a mission across town and will see that Jason accompanies you."
Ruth giggled and helped Mia from the gown. "I'm grateful, miss. No telling how long it might have taken without your help."
"Well, I'm quite gifted when it comes to matching people. Look at the good grooms I picked for my sisters. They are both very happily matched, and Ann is already expecting a child. Then, of course, there are my friends." Mia shrugged. "It just seems to be a gift God has given me, and I shan't be guilty of hiding my talents."
"No, miss. That would be tragedy."
"I think so too, Ruth." Mia slipped into her soft white sleeping gown and turned as Ruth gathered her things. "You'll be sure and see that the mud is cleaned from my hem before Mother spies it, won't you?"
"I'll see to it first thing in the morning. You can count on me," she promised.
Mia went to her writing desk and cast a quick glance back over her shoulder. "Thank you, Ruth. No one ever had a better friend."
She could see the pride in Ruth's expression as the girl exited the room. The satisfaction gave Mia a feeling of warmth. There was good and bad in life. Ruth was the better side of her experiences, while the things Mrs. Smith had told her were the very worst.
Picking up her pen, Mia took her seat and began to write.
"The seamen's wives are being threatened, even to the point of death. Someone is forcing them to do unspeakable things, extorting monies that clearly are not owed, even threatening to take away their children to settle for debts they cannot hope to pay. What is to be done?"
She underlined the last line three times as if the action might somehow give her clarity for the situation.
"What is to be done?" she asked the empty room. "What can I do?"
Excerpted from A Lady of High Regard by Tracie Peterson Copyright © 2007 by Tracie Peterson. Excerpted by permission.
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