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The first time she appeared was during the Hargrove’s ball.
Like a dream, the specter floated from the shadows.
Conversation ceased. All eyes looked her way.
Her slim body emphasized the simple, yet elegant, cloth-of-gold gown. The white silk cloak emanated a soft, subtle glow in the flickering candlelight. Concealed under the cloak’s hood, and the veil that shrouded her face, she teased the imagination with her sensuous movements.
Ladies’ fans labored furiously; the gentlemen smiled their approval.
She floated slowly around the room, as if on air, with the cloak drifting behind her.
Then, as suddenly as she’d appeared, she slipped into the shadows and was gone.
Motionless, the Lords and Ladies stared at each other in silent amazement.
Questions bubbled to the surface. Who was she? Where had she come from? Where did she go?
Several men jumped into action, racing out into the night, but soon returned. They’d found no trace of the mystical entity, ‘Lady Mysterious’.
(Adelle’s POV) I’ve been stuck here in the office, trying to do the work of two people but I can’t keep up. Our business is growing, but I need to order the supplies for the coming summer, and deal with the myriad of other details. It’s an almost impossible task, even under normal circumstances.
And what about the coming summer … when nearly a hundred orphans arrive, along with the extra staff needed to care for them? It’s frightening to even think about it.
Our children, well, they have needs, and they suffer minor ailments and injuries from time to time. They keep me busy, even if I had nothing else to do. Because I haven’t had the time for them, the younger ones, too young to understand why their mother is so busy, have started causing problems in the schoolroom. The tutor has told me of the shenanigans they’ve perpetrated. They need me.
And, I need them.
The head housekeeper is leaving at the end of the week. She’s with child and won’t be returning. I haven’t had the time to interview for her replacement so there’s chaos below stairs.
There was a mutiny in the barn a couple of weeks ago. Half of the men left in a huff, unhappy with the head groom’s rules. Walter is sleeping in the barn to make sure the animals are safe until he can hire more men. I miss him in our bed; I don’t sleep well without him.
It seems our lives are falling apart. There are times when I flee up the stairs to cry in private before returning to the battle.
This morning, I was up before dawn, working in the office. Later, I made sure the children were all up, dressed, fed, and on their way to the schoolroom. I returned here and picked up where I left off, trying desperately to stem the tide that threatens to overwhelm me.
After several hours, I leaned back in the chair and closed my tired eyes. I could feel a major headache creeping in. I rubbed my neck and felt the tight muscles there. In seconds, I felt myself drifting off to sleep. Blessed sleep. Oh, how I needed sleep.
Moments later, I sensed someone near so I looked. Deanna stood in the doorway, wrapped in a blanket and looking like death incarnate.
“Deanna.” I jumped to my feet. “You shouldn’t be out of bed.” I took three steps toward her to chase her back upstairs. The room went black. I collapsed onto the floor.
(Adelle’s POV) I think back to the ‘awful years’, before my volunteering, and I cringe. I hurt so many people so many times. I didn’t see it then, but I was hurting myself as well, perhaps even more than I hurt anyone else.
There was one last ‘awful years’ episode I should mention before closing the door on that part of my life.
Several years later, the entire family was in London, at Adelle House, the family’s London town home. Moria was expecting guests for the evening. Miss Blackwell, by then her friend and mentor, was coming and bringing her friend, Florence Nightingale, whom Moria had never met but had heard much about from Miss Blackwell. Moria asked me to help her dress, as she wanted to look her best. Old habits are hard to break; without giving it a thought, I recommended a dark blue gown, knowing Moria would look terrible in it, while I’d shine in a gold gown with green trim. Mother, in the room with us at the time, had anticipated this. What ensued was the usual argument except, this time, Moria, already nervous about meeting Miss Nightingale, had endured this ongoing disagreement far too many times. In a rare display of emotion, she exploded, interrupting the wrangling between Mother and me.
But this time, it was different. I still don’t know if it was because it wasn’t Mother’s tired, old litany, or if it was because it was the always forgiving Moria. This time, I heard the words and felt the pain. For the first time in my life, I truly understood what I’d felt for all those years, the anger, rage, hate, betrayal, abandonment, pain, all of it, had been about me, and no one else. The love of my family had been there all along, but the other emotions had gotten in the way.
Mother had often referred to me as a troubled child, a term I hated. But, she’d been right. I was troubled and, without realizing it, or intending it, I’d made my life, and the lives of everyone around me, miserable. I was jealous of Moria, almost from the beginning, which blinded me to everything else. My anger at my sister because she was mother’s favorite knew no bounds. I never saw the love both Mother and Father had for me. In them, there was, every bit as much love for me as they had for Moria, and all my siblings. While Mother tried countless times to get through to me, I never heard her.
(Adelle’s POV) “But, Adelle, you’re not hearing what we’re saying.Nothing has changed for you in London. If you continue your pursuit of a duke, you will, no doubt, always be some man’s plaything but never his wife.” This is what I’d expected, and predictably received, upon joining my parents after supper in the parlor.
“No, Father, I don’t believe that. I’ve spent countless hours thinking about this. You’re not hearing what I’m saying either. My plan, when I get to London, is to find a companion, someone like Rhona. As I see it, the perfect companion will be a younger daughter of a peer. If I can find such a woman, I’ll gain contacts, introductions and, most importantly, a friend. We can talk, go shopping, or see the sights together. I win all the way around. With Theo, I appeared almost out of thin air, with no known history or connections, nothing to offer. But, he learned the hard way the unknown can hurt you. I wasn’t the plaything he thought I was. If I go in through my companion, I’ll become known, my history and connections will become common knowledge, and, as a legitimate member of their society, I can gain acceptance.”
“That’s logical, to a point, but if, and I must emphasize if, it works, it could take a long time. You’re twenty-one, already old for marriage. You’ve said it yourself, most of your friends are married, and more than a few have children. All your work toward acceptance may be for nothing as you get older.”
I splayed my fingers, palms up, and shrugged. “Then I’ll marry an older man.”
“She’s determined, if nothing else,” Father groused.
Janelle nodded. “That she is.”
Speaking now in low tones, Father and Mother continued their conversation. “What if we allow her to go, but give her a time limit, say two years? She’ll be twenty-three, which is pushing it. If she hasn’t found her duke in two years, she’s to come home.”
“To what?” I heard Mother say, and I silently agreed: my future wasn’t here. I knew that.
“Yes, that’s true. Are her chances at marriage better here than in London? Perhaps not. There are certainly fewer men here, and no dukes at all,” Father mused. “If only she wasn’t so insistent about marrying a duke. That does limit the number of prospective spouses.”
“And what if we don’t let her go at all? What will she do?”
I watched as they spoke so softly to each other that I couldn’t hear much. As frustrating as it was, I had to let them work it out between them. When the buzz of their conversation ended, I looked up and saw they were studying me. I held their gaze. I couldn’t afford to look guilty or appear to be hiding something.
(Adelle’s POV) I arrived in London on November 1st, 1854, with a large pile of trunks.My most treasured possession, of everything I had with me, was the old portmanteau I had with me when I lived at the orphanage. In it, I kept important items, the details of my plan, clothing designs, and cloth for the clothing, my requirements for a companion, and a myriad of other details. Strangely, I understood then what the leather medicine bag meant to Moria because of what the portmanteau now meant to me. I seldom let it out of my sight unless I knew it was safe and not in plain view for anyone to see.
Smythe appeared, as if by magic, and welcomed me. He asked me about my choice of rooms. When I said I wanted the duke and duchess’s suite, his eyes widened slightly and he refused, telling me that was the only suite in the house that was off limits to guests. They were reserved for Sinjin and Alexis, and no one else. Grandmother, now the Dowager Duchess, would now be required to take another room.
I had my heart set on that suite, but decided I wanted and needed the cooperation of the staff more, so I took another room down the hall. I asked Smythe to send a maid to help unpack my trunks. He nodded, then signaled several footmen to take my trunks upstairs.
Minutes later, Gloria, who had been our shared maid the previous year, and more recently, Moria’s maid, arrived. I did some of the work, but Gloria emptied the trunks into the wardrobe and drawers, then saw to their removal to storage.
As she put my clothes away, I asked her, “Gloria, I’d like to hire a companion. Do you know of any suitable women who might be interested in the position? Perhaps a younger daughter of a peer looking for a genteel income, or maybe a peer’s wife or widow who’s fallen on hard times.”
“I can’t say, ma’am, unless I knew your requirements.”
I read from my list.
“Ma’am, I don’t think you’ll find anyone with all those skills.”
“Hmm. What would you remove from the list?”
“Well, why do you need a seamstress when we have several here who would be more than happy to do the work?”
“I need someone who is trustworthy.”
Gloria stopped putting clothes into the wardrobe and came to stand near where I was sitting. “I think you’ll find, ma’am, everyone here is quite trustworthy. If they want to keep their position, and most do, they keep their mouths shut. There are a few who have been here who didn’t have the sense to keep quiet, but they’re long gone.”
(Adelle’s POV) The time had come. The day of the first ball had arrived.
“Come Deanna, it’s time to get ready.”
Standing her ground, she challenged me one more time. “Adelle, are you sure you want to go through with this?”
“Of course.” I flashed the palms of my hands as I raised my eyebrows. “The looks on their faces will be worth it. You’ll see.”
Deanna sighed, “Very well, here’s the petticoat.”
In a few minutes, I was ready. I sat at the dressing table and put the gold head covering on, carefully tucking my hair inside it. Not a single strand of my black hair was visible.
Next, I pulled the cloak around my shoulders, tied the veil around my head, and pulled the cloak hood over my head. White gloves completed the outfit.
I was ready.
“You look beautiful,” Deanna said, her voice flat.
“But.” She shrugged and sighed.
“I know, I’m playing with fire, I’m crazy to do this, I don’t know what I’m getting myself into, and I’ll probably get caught. But, it’s gone beyond those concerns. Look at it this way. You’re the daughter of a baron. My uncle is a duke. Are we so different from those who received invitations? Your oldest sister is there with her husband who isn’t a peer at all, but a wealthy businessman. I’m American and you’re the youngest daughter, so we’re outcasts. There’s a ball going on right now. We have every right to be there but, instead, we’re here, planning a scandal. So, we’re going to simply show up, invitation or not.”
I watched Deanna as she digested this information, wondering if I’d ever win her over. With the hours I’d spent in my room at the orphanage thinking about my plan, I was sure I’d thought of every possible problem and worked out solutions, sometimes more than one. Being seen or caught before or after my appearance in the ballroom had been my biggest problem. But, now, the time travel skill changed everything.
Deanna still wasn’t convinced, but she put on her cloak.
“It’s time to go.” I put the dark, winter cloak over my outfit and pulled the hood over my head.
In an instant, we were standing outside the ballroom. Through the window, we could see the goings on. Champagne flowed like water. The musicians were playing for the dancers, while other guests stood or sat talking amongst themselves.
I’d chosen this door because it is the furthest from the buffet tables where most of the guests were congregating.
I untied the winter cloak and shrugged it off. Deanna caught it and draped it over her arm.
(Adelle’s POV) “There seems to be an abundance of men tonight,” I said.
“True. It happens at these events, and it’s nearly always too many men. But it’s not a problem. When a host realizes there are too many of one gender promising to attend, the appropriate number of the opposite gender is purchased for the evening.”
“Purchased?” I was confused.
Deanna cocked her head and stared at me, unmoving. In a moment, I realized what she meant, and was stunned. “You jest, right? Are you saying some of the female guests here tonight are whores?”
“Adelle. Such language,” she said with mock sternness. Then, with a smile, she added, “Yes, and not your ordinary street-corner variety, either. These are the high-priced ladies.”
“But you and I are outcasts?” I couldn’t help but wonder at the incongruity of the situation.
Deanna shrugged, palms open. “Such is the way of our world.”
I clenched my fists and through gritted teeth, and said, “Oh, this has got to change.”
“Agreed, but how?”
“We’ll find a way.” I started thinking of ways ‘Lady Mysterious’ could draw attention to the inequality of women.
“Adelle, another coach.” She paused, then giggled. “And, what do you know? Here they are, the ‘ladies of the evening’.”
A total of six young ladies, and an older woman, perhaps a chaperone, stepped from the large coach. Wait a minute … a chaperone? I had to ponder on that for a moment. The ladies weren’t at all what I expected. I’d seen and heard about what Deanna had called ‘street corner ladies’, scantily dressed, painted, often sickly-looking women. Every one of these women arriving now could easily pass as Lady Somebody. Their gowns were rich and beautiful, and their hair was arranged at the height of fashion. I thought to myself that I would not let my husband attend an event such as this without me if these ladies would also be present.
We watched as dozens of coaches arrived, discussing the occupants of each one. Most were lord, or lord and lady something. Among the solo men, some were old, some not good looking. They didn’t interest me at all, even if they were dukes.
What did interest me was the number of ladies who had copied my gown design, to one degree or another. I wanted to see these ladies with their cloaks off to better see what they’d done to my design. When the flow of incoming coaches slowed, then stopped, I took us to a sheltered spot outside the ballroom. It was cold, but I only planned to be there for a few minutes. From there, we could see if any of the ladies had also copied the light-weight cloak.
(Adelle’s POV) The following week, when we did our reconnaissance on the day before the ball, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The Blackley’s mansion was huge, towering four floors over the gardens below. There had to be a hundred rooms, maybe more, in this house. I trembled at the thought of the number of guests in attendance.
What’s more, there was snow in the air. London, Deanna informed me, seldom sees much more than a dusting of the white stuff, but the New Englander in me knows when a storm is coming.
If it does snow, even if it is a dusting, it will add a new dimension to my ‘Lady Mysterious’ appearance. When I leave the ballroom, the gentlemen who choose to pursue me will note the snowfall and expect to find footprints to follow. I can almost hear them telling each other, ‘Ah-ha. She can’t get away this time.’
I smiled. Sorry, gentlemen, no footprints.
The next night, we stood in the darkness outside the ballroom which, like everything else here, was enormous. Most of the waiters and guests were staying well away from the vast wall of windows, probably because of the cold. Everyone was congregating around the big fireplaces on the opposite wall.
Snowflakes were visible in the air, blowing in every direction.
“Look!” Deanna whispered, pointing. Everyone’s attention had suddenly turned to the footmen opening the big doors leading to the foyer. Moments later, several dozen people, led by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and flanked by, according to Deanna, Lord and Lady Blackley strode into the room.
We looked at each other. Without a word, we returned to my room.
“We’ll wait here for the excitement of the queen’s arrival to subside, but not too long or she’ll have departed.”
“You can’t be serious. You’re going to turn ‘Lady Mysterious’ loose in the ballroom with the queen and prince there?” Deanna looked exasperated.
“Why not? It’s actually a stroke of luck … pure genius. A room full of people can say I was there but many won’t believe them, especially tonight when there won’t be any footprints to follow. But, if Queen Victoria sees me, then I was there.”
“But, there are many more people there now, including the royal guards. That puts a different face on what you’re doing. What will you do if you’re challenged?”
“Why would they? I’m a woman, alone, unarmed, nowhere near anyone, and an enigma. Of course, they want to know more about me, especially who I am, but why would they want to harm me? I’m not a threat to anyone.”
“Ugh,” Deanna nearly shouted in frustration. “They don’t know you’re not a threat. Can’t you see how dangerous this is?”
(Adelle’s POV) Deanna offered the formal introduction. “Uncle Edgar, Lord Hastings, I’d like you to meet Miss Adelle Grayson, daughter of Richard, and niece of Lord Saint John Grayson, the Duke of Devonwood.”
As Lord Hastings took my hand, I did my very best royal curtsey. The surprise registered in his eyes when he bid me rise. “Have you met Her Highness, Miss Grayson?”
“Indeed I have, m’lord. Uncle Sinjin, at the urging of my grandparents, arranged for the Grayson family to have an audience with the queen and her prince. My family so impressed the queen she invited us to dine with them and to stay for a children’s ball afterward. It was a most entertaining evening.”
“What did you do to impress her?”
“As soon as we had the queen’s invitation in hand, Grandmother Susannah and Aunt Alexis, both of whom had been to court, started teaching all of us proper behavior. When the thirty or so of us descended upon the Throne Room, the queen appreciated my grandmother and aunt’s efforts.”
“What about you? Were you impressed?”
“What do you mean?”
“Were you impressed by the queen?”
What kind of question was that? Doesn’t the queen impress everyone? But, I didn’t want to appear to be naive, so I utilized the haughtiness I’d seen so many of the ladies use. “She is indeed quite a lady.”
Lord Hastings chuckled and released my hand, after kissing it. “Quite non-committal, my dear. Please, be seated. Is that the American in you, or were you simply underwhelmed?”
I smiled as I settled myself onto a settee, carefully arranging my skirts. Lord Hastings sat next to me. Deanna and her uncle sat across from us. “Underwhelmed? She’s the leader of a government that at one time, not so long ago, held sway over a quarter of the world’s population. That, kind sir, is not something to be underwhelmed about. Still, she has countless underlings who do the actual work, and the mighty empire is fading away. She spends her days entertaining dignitaries from other countries, granting wishes for her subjects, and accumulating personal wealth.”
Lord Hastings smiled. “Said like a true American. But, there is some accuracy there.”
I warned myself to avoid inflammatory subjects, at least until I knew more about him. I needed a safe topic. “I understand your holding is northwest of London.”
“Indeed, ma’am. There’s a triangle of cities: Northampton, Bedford, and Milton Keynes. My holding is within the triangle formed by those cities.”
“I see.” Of course, I didn’t see. I didn’t know anything about London, or even the Devonwood area, never mind any other part of the country, but it was a safe subject. “Deanna told me your title is quite old.”
(Adelle’s POV) I rolled onto my stomach. “He’s not in love with ‘Lady Mysterious’. He’s fascinated with her because she walks like his dead wife. Oh, and I don’t ride.” I made fists with my hands, my knuckles white with my efforts. “It would be so nice to have a legitimate reason for his not liking me. Grrr.” I punched my pillow repeatedly, venting my anger and frustration.
“There’s no accounting for tastes. I wonder if he’d marry ‘Lady Mysterious’ for her walk,” Deanna said, sarcastically.
“I actually considered, for a moment, enticing him with ‘Lady Mysterious’, but decided that even if I could, it would be pointless.” I paused for a breath, “Deanna, I need to find a man who will love me for me, not because I’ve taught myself to be a lady.”
“Oh-ho!” She was startled, “Well, there’s a significant change in attitude. Not focused on a duke anymore?”
“Yes and no. Yes, I still want to be a duchess. But, I’m beginning to realize being a duchess isn’t necessarily a goal unto itself.”
Deanna looked thoughtful. “You know, you’ve never once said anything about love. It’s been about being a duchess for the money, the power, and, I suspect, the challenge of the chase. What about love?”
“What about it?” I’d never given it a thought.
“Isn’t love a consideration?”
“No. Love hurts.”
“Huh? What do you mean, ‘love hurts’?”
“You meet someone, you fall in love, that someone betrays you or does something hurtful and all you’re left with is pain. Love hurts.” I shrugged.
“Have you ever been in love?”
“I don’t know.”
“So how do you know it hurts?”
“I had schoolgirl crushes and every one of them hurt, but they were nothing compared to how I felt after Theo.”
“Hmm. I’m sure that was painful, especially when you found him with his lady.”
“Then, his parents came to Adelle House and told my father a relationship between their son and me could never be. As an American, I was ‘less than an English commoner’.”
“Ouch. That had to hurt, but, not unexpected in the world you’re trying to break into. So, Theo hurt you, and you’re slamming the door on love forever?”
“I slammed that door many years ago.” I paused, and asked her the same question she’d asked me, “Have you ever been in love?” Maybe she could shed some light on this mysterious part of courtship.
Deanna didn’t say anything for a moment. I could see she was struggling with something. Then, gazing out the window with a faraway look in her eyes, she sighed, and said, “Yes.”
Yes? Jumping from the bed, I donned my robe, and moved to a chair near her, all ears. “Tell me.”
(Adelle’s POV) Uncle Sinjin and Aunt Alexis entered the room. Uncle Sinjin introduced Aunt Alexis to Deanna, then said, “Our trunks are outside the front door, and Colin is there with Kitten.”
“Kitten? Kitten’s going to London?”
“Deanna and Kitten hit it off right away, even while I was still busy with the customers this morning. Afterward, I sent Colin out with Deanna for a ride. It’s a perfect match. So, yes, Mother. I gave Kitten to Deanna.”
“Oh, how wonderful. Are you excited, dear?”
“I can’t tell you how thrilled I am. She’s amazing, and so well trained.”
“Well, Adelle, Deanna, shall we go? Mother, will you be all right here with the staff?”
“Of course, dear. I’ve lived here for sixty-four years now, a good deal longer than I ever dreamed I would. I’ll be fine. Don’t worry.” Grandmother patted Uncle Sinjin’s arm. “But thank you for your concern. You young folks go and have fun in London.”
With hugs for everyone, she saw Uncle Sinjin, Aunt Alexis, Deanna and me out the door.
I was more than a little nervous about moving such a volume all at once. I carefully considered where I wanted to materialize. It was tricky. Not all of the staff at Adelle House knew of the MacKendall powers, and I was sure none of the neighbors knew. But we had to materialize outside because of Kitten. I chose a spot alongside the house where the trees shielded the sight from the neighbors. If any of the staff saw us arrive, well, another staff member or two would know about the MacKendall family skills. As Gloria had pointed out, the staff knew when to be discreet.
Fortunately, everything went according to plan. As soon as we materialized, I whispered to Deanna, “Please, run in and take everything ‘Lady Mysterious’-related and hide it somewhere, but not in my room. Uncle Sinjin and Aunt Alexis will be in the duke and duchess’s suite, but I’m sure Aunt Alexis will want to check my wardrobe to see what I have to wear to a ball. She mustn’t find anything connecting me to ‘Lady Mysterious’.”
“Agreed.” She hurried off to do my bidding.
Several footmen appeared and took the trunks inside. Uncle Sinjin took Kitten to the barn.
Deanna rejoined us, hoping Aunt Alexis hadn’t noticed her brief absence. She whispered, “Everything’s in my room, stuffed into several hatboxes in the bottom of my wardrobe.” I breathed a sigh of relief.
With the arrival of the duke and duchess, life at Adelle House changed significantly. Meals would be properly prepared and served. Smythe arranged for the additional staff needed for the duration of their stay.
(Adelle’s POV) When the coach pulled to a stop, Uncle Sinjin alighted and found his friend, William, standing nearby.
“William, my good man. How are you?” I heard Uncle Sinjin say with zeal as he shook his friend’s hand.
From inside the coach, I heard a deep voice respond, “Fine, fine, Sinjin, my friend, Anna and I were surprised and delighted to get an invitation request from you. We didn’t know you were in London, nor did we know you were making the rounds of the balls this season. What brings you to London?”
By that time, Devonwood footmen had helped the rest of us from the coach. We joined Uncle Sinjin on the walkway. Lord William turned to Aunt Alexis. “Lady Alexis, charmed, as usual.”
“Likewise, Lord William.” Alexis curtsied.
Uncle Sinjin drew me to his side. “And, I’d like you to meet my niece, Miss Adelle Grayson.”
Lord Pearson was silent as he eyed me critically. His scrutiny left me feeling uncomfortable, but I met his gaze. It appeared he knew me, but how? Had he seen me about town with Lord Hastings?
“This young woman is your niece?”
“Yes. She’s my brother Richard’s eldest daughter. Alexis and I are in London to help her take her place in society. She’s the only one of the family going back to Lord David and Lady Adelle who has any interest in being part of London society.” I noted that Uncle Sinjin had emphasized ‘Adelle’ slightly, to point out I was named for the former Duchess of Devonwood.
“I see.” Turning to me, he smiled, but the smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Well, young lady, we’ll have to see what we can do about opening a few doors for you. I’m delighted to meet you. Had I known you were Sinjin’s niece, we’d have met before this.” He bowed over my offered hand as I curtsied.
Right, I thought. In what century? It didn’t take much to figure out the ‘American nobody’ gossip had preceded me. Still smiling, I shivered. This didn’t bode well.
Aloud, I said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, as well, Lord Pearson.”
Without another word, he turned away from me and looked at Deanna, then spoke to Uncle Sinjin. “I say, Sinjin, you have an abundance of lovely ladies with you this evening.”
Uncle Sinjin smiled. “Lord William, this is Lady Deanna Langston, Adelle’s companion.”
“Ah, yes, of course. Lord Stokes’ niece. Delighted, m’lady.” He took Deanna’s hand, bowing over it as she curtsied.
“Likewise, Lord Pearson.”
“Ah, I see my wife is putting the receiving line in order in the ballroom. I’ll see all of you again soon.” He turned and hurried to his wife.