Read an Excerpt
The Lord Next Door
By Gayle Callen
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Gayle Callen
All right reserved.
Victoria Shelby closed her childhood journal, feeling utterly foolish for writing in it after so many years. As if a servant could help her now, when everything was so bleak. She'd thought of Tom occasionally through the years, wondering if he'd moved away, if he'd married. But for days now, she'd found herself thinking about him frequently, and at the oddest times. It was growing more and more difficult to banish him from her thoughts. And marriage? Desperation must surely be driving her mad.
She looked about her sparse bedchamber, bare of anything of value but her simple furniture. It had once been such a magnificent town house, and now it seemed so empty, just like the sedate future she used to imagine for herself.
She'd been a foolish, naive girl.
With a sigh, Victoria smoothed down her mourning dress and left her room for the uncertainty of the master suite, where her mother now lived alone. She paused in the doorway and met the gaze of Mrs. Wayneflete, their housekeeper and last remaining servant. She wore her usual uniform of black silk dress, lace collar, and close white cap. No matter their situation, Mrs. Wayneflete could always be counted upon to remain unflappable. Together, they turned to stare at Victoria's mother, who clutched a vase to her bosom and stubbornly turned her back on them.
"Victoria, I will not part with this," Mama said, her defiance a hollow, pale sound. Her eyes were now lined with dark shadows and looked at nothing most of the time. Sadness bent her shoulders and strands of gray hair escaped the pins. "Your father gave it to me for our anniversary. He brought it from -- "
"I remember," Victoria interrupted gently. "But Father would understand that we need to eat."
Her mother had a strange tendency to forget their circumstances, and Victoria found herself growing ever more impatient. Didn't she realize that they had all sacrificed? Victoria had sold her beloved piano, and Mrs. Wayneflete had taken no wages in many a month. Mama was waiting for salvation, but there was no one left to save them. Victoria wished she could convince her mother it was better to face the future than wallow in the past. But since Father's death ten months before, her mother's spirits continued to sink, though Victoria's cheerful letters to her sisters did not dwell on that sad fact. There was no need to worry them any more than necessary.
Victoria sighed and turned a brisk smile to her housekeeper. "Mrs. Wayneflete, do you have another suggestion for an item that will keep us in food this week? I do believe that Mr. Tillman quite looks forward to haggling with me over a price."
"You're an easy woman to respect, Miss Victoria," Mrs. Wayneflete said with a fond smile.
"Then there is Mr. Billingsly, the merchant from Cheapside. I could pit the two proprietors against one another for a better price." Victoria's laughter died when she saw her mother staring at her.
"How can you find amusement in this?" Mama whispered. "Your father is dead."
"Oh, Mama, of course I know that. But we are not dead, and we owe it to ourselves to go on living."
Victoria pushed those sad memories away. Since that terrible day, she and her mother had seemed to switch places, as her mother foundered under the knowledge that her own husband had left them penniless. The long overdue mortgage on the town house, their last remaining property, had been bought by a distant cousin, who had agreed to let them remain until he returned to England with his family -- two months from now. Time was running out.
Her sisters were doing what they could, but their earnings barely supported themselves. Meriel had used her logical nature and excellent education to find a position as a governess. Louisa's sweetness and patience had enabled her to become a companion to an elderly lady. Victoria had thought she was doing her share by keeping their meager household running, for she had not her sisters' talents. Lately she'd felt the urge to do more, to prove that she was no longer that shy girl who used to think she deserved so little in life. Had all she ever aspired to be was her mother's companion and caretaker? Yes, it once would have given her the chance to immerse herself in her beloved musical compositions. But that silly girl had come to know firsthand the harsh realities of life without privilege. And it was time to do something more.
"I do believe there is a clock in Meriel's room," Mrs. Wayneflete said. "Quite an old, fancy piece. Would that do?"
"Of course." Victoria nodded briskly, having long since accepted that she was the one to make all the family decisions. "Mama, you can have the vase for a while longer."
"Something will happen, Victoria," her mother said, a look of shining hope in her dull eyes. "You'll see."
Victoria's thoughts were tinged with sarcasm that was uncalled for. It was so easy for her to lose patience with her mother these days, though good breeding kept her from expressing her opinions. Mama had once aspired to the highest reaches of society, as if riches could make the ton forget that Mr. Shelby had been their trusted banker, not their equal. It had frustrated her mother terribly that wealth had allowed her to live in the same exclusive neighborhood as the nobility, but not to mingle with them.
That unrealistic hope shining from her mother's eyes made Victoria even more determined. There had to be a solution.
She thought of Tom again, that boy she'd never met, but with whom she'd shared the intimacy of her every thought. She had to stop such silly daydreaming and get on with the day. She wrote the clock into her household journal, where she kept lists of the items they'd had to sell.
Excerpted from The Lord Next Door by Gayle Callen Copyright © 2005 by Gayle Callen. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.