Flight of Fancy
This is the first chapter of the first romance novel that I ever wrote, which is currently unpublished and will (thankfully) remain so.
This is not a book that I think is commercially publishable, or that I think could be made commercially publishable even with a lot of work. This book is just not there. The only change I made to this before posting it is that I changed the hero's name. There is a reason I did that—and you can probably guess that reason. But, for your amusement—and for your amusement only—here it is!
London, May 19, 1817.
Claire Cunningham paused on the gritty stone threshold of the servant’s entrance, slippers in hand. It should, she thought, have been exciting to sneak out of her father’s London home at two in the morning. Her flight was precipitated by a suitor, a wealthy Viscount; any right-thinking young lady should have swooned in delight.
She peered into the clammy darkness. Well, she wasn’t thinking right. The moon had set and a thick haze obscured all but the brightest stars. Claire could barely make out the silhouettes of the trees, ink-black on coal, dancing in the square across the way. She dropped her shoes on the ground; they disappeared into the gloom with a muffled clatter.
It would be romantic, Claire thought, finding the edge of one slipper with her toe, if she were going to meet the fellow. And if the fellow were worth meeting. But he was cold—his ice-blue eyes never seemed to see her. He was thrice her age. She stepped into the second slipper. He hadn’t aged well, for that matter; he’d developed an enormous gut, and walked at a snail’s pace. What hair he had clumped around his ears, and he was missing half his teeth. She wouldn’t really have minded any of that. Claire wouldn’t even have minded that his widowed sister shadowed him everywhere he went. Except that she could smell his breath from six paces. Seven, if he breathed heavily.
She had counted.
Nobody was about. Good. She didn’t plan to stay out long, but the walls of her room had seemed to press down upon her. She’d had to get away, if only for a few minutes. The lecture her father had delivered that afternoon hadn’t been new, but with only six weeks left in the Season, it left her feeling caged. She needed to get away, if only for a few minutes.
“Claire,” her father had said. “You know I want what is best for you and your brother.”
Translating from Caiden Cunningham into English was one of the talents Claire had developed in order to get through the last years with some civility. This line was easy. Mostly, her father had meant, I want what is best for your brother, who will carry on the family name.
“I worked hard.” He’d plucked morosely at the counterpane that covered his now-useless legs. “I want nothing more than that you and your brother should have the social opportunities that I lacked.”
Claire silently translated this as well: You must marry a man with a title. And then you must introduce your brother, so that he can marry a girl from a similarly-connected family.
“Am I asking so much? My business partner is desperately in love with you. The Viscount of Morping is an excellent match. What more could you want?”
This one baffled her at first. She could think of quite a few things she’d want. Humor. Hair. Hygiene. But she had eventually deciphered the sentiment. She was almost twenty-one and not exceptionally pretty. It was nonetheless her duty to open the ton’s doors to her younger brother; it was then Ned’s duty to use the fortune that her father had amassed to buy himself a wife.
“I respect your wishes, Claire. If you can find someone else—someone with a title, mind you—you may marry him with my blessing.”
Claire hadn’t quite figured out why she had no other suitors. She supposed it had something to do with the Vile Viscount’s noxious tenacity. True, her face was a little too thin for fashion. Also true, her father had made the bulk of his fortune through trade. But she wasn’t a complete antidote, and she had a respectable dowry. Weren’t there supposed to be hordes of barons out there with pockets to let? Oh, gentlemen danced with her, and seemed interested for a day. But the interest always seemed to evaporate shortly after. Even though she’d been nothing but kind and pleasant. That, and her twenty thousand pounds, should have fetched someone besides Morping. But it hadn’t, and damn the gothic novels anyway. The dreaded fortune-hunting villains had apparently all set their sights elsewhere.
“I’ve given you a whole season,” her father continued. “Really, have you found anyone else you prefer?”
Well. If Claire were to close her eyes and randomly jab a hatpin into the ranks of available men, she would hit one she preferred. But men were unlikely to offer marriage to girls that stabbed them. Even more unlikely, she amended mentally. There was no point in broaching the matter.
“Claire,” her father said, gently patting her hand, “I know you have doubts. But Morping simply could not be as bad as you fear.”
Ha. All references to the Vile Viscount were easy to decode. She mentally removed the “not.”
“I appreciate everything you’ve done. You—you’ve done everything a dutiful daughter would.”
She had acted dutifully, Claire thought guiltily. After she’d learned of her father’s accident, she had tended him lovingly, never contradicting his edicts. She owed him that much. But she had only been able to keep up her facade of dutifulness by translating his comments in her head. For the thousandth time, Claire reminded herself that her father didn’t deserve her sarcasm. Not after what she’d done to him.
“I do think this is best for you. Just think—the man can’t possibly live much longer. And you’ll be wealthy when he passes away.”
And there was the crux of the matter. When the best thing one could say of one’s only suitor was that he was likely to die, ape-leading was a preferable alternative. But ape-leading wouldn’t help her brother, and it would destroy her father.
“You have six weeks,” her father had finished with a sigh. “I’m sure some other gentleman admires you. Just wait. And if not, well ….”
No need to finish that thought. Claire could afford to wait. After all, the Vile Viscount had promised to do the same.
“Yes, Papa,” she had said meekly.
She did not feel meek at all.
In past years, when the responsibility of caring for her father had sat too heavily, she’d slipped out at night. A few seconds of forbidden freedom—alone with herself, away from others, blanketed in starlit silence—lifted her spirits. In past years, however, she had lived with her father in their country cottage, a retreat ordered by the doctor.
As she peered around the London streets, she began to think that escape in London had not been such a good idea. Light was scarce; she could barely make out the small garden in the square in front of the house. But she could hear sounds—human sounds—in the distance. She suddenly recalled that the less savory parts of town weren’t so far away after all.
Well. In another few weeks, she would likely hold her nose—both literally and figuratively—and marry the Viscount. But tonight she’d remember what it was like before her father’s accident. She wouldn’t go far. And in another ten minutes she would go back to the house.
She darted across the street. A small path ran through the middle of the square and a cluster of shrubs, burgeoning with tiny leaves, green-black against the green-brown of the soil, shaded a wrought-iron bench. She sank down on it gratefully. It was colder than she expected for a May evening, and every bit as damp. She was suddenly glad that she had taken the thick brown cloak, and she pulled the hood over her head.
Breathe in. Breathe out. It wasn’t so bad, she told herself. Why, her father—really, the man was quite reasonable. He needn’t have given her such a dowry, she thought. Nor a Season, not with the Viscount already on her hook. For that matter, she should count herself lucky that she had somehow managed to captivate a Viscount.
It was an unfortunate thought. She had no idea what the man saw in her. Surely he didn’t care about her fortune. Immediately, Claire found her mind veering off into the most perverse musings. Perhaps, she thought, if she were to steadily stuff herself with pastries, she could lose her trim figure. Perhaps she could hack off her hair—or better yet, ask Agatha, the upstairs maid, if she knew of any washes that would render her dark tresses dull and lifeless. And many women wore ill-fitting dresses—surely she could endeavor to find a gown or two in some bilious shade of orange. She could hide her large eyes behind spectacles. Then she’d see if Old Vile still wanted her!
Or maybe the alteration would destroy her slim chances of finding another husband. And it was even more likely that the Vile Viscount’s rheumy vision would detect no change in her person. After all, he was silly enough to like her as she was.
Claire sighed noisily. “Drat.”
“Good heavens!” exclaimed a voice not quite six feet away. “A female!”
As Mr. Patrick Simons reached for the next notebook in his pile, a most annoying sound intruded upon his consciousness. It took him a few seconds to banish data on bird migration from his mind, and remember that he sat in his comfortable book-lined study. His copy-books were carefully stacked along one side of the desk; data in aggregate marched down the pages in front of him. And Weebles was whining. Now that he became aware of his surroundings, he realized that Weebles had been whining for quite a while. He had promised to take the dog for a walk at half past midnight. And now it was—why—he guiltily glanced at the clock—Good Lord. It was two in the morning. When had that happened?
“Sorry, Weebles,” he muttered.
It was too late to fetch the rope and exercise the dog properly in Hyde Park, he decided. A quick jaunt around the neighborhood would have to suffice. He shut the copy book. The cover was marked in Patrick’s meticulous hand: “Sociable Plover: Sightings, 1812 through —.” He had started the notebook when he was barely twenty; he hoped to finish it out this year. Beneath it sat his notes on the Curlew Sandpiper, the Whimbrel, the Redshank, the Greenshank, and the Grey Phalarope. Not to mention the reams and reams of data he had collected on starlings and swallows.
But he was getting distracted again, and really, he didn’t mean to stay awake until five the next morning. Not again. He pulled on his boots—his heavy boots, the comfortable ones he used for floundering through swamps—and shrugged into his great coat. He checked the pockets for paper—after all, if he was going to be out at night, at the very least, he could observe some nocturnal species.
“Come on,” he motioned, and the large white dog shook its head, ears flopping as it followed him out the door.
The night was crisp and cool. It was also quiet. Patrick listened attentively for signs of animal life—insects or birds. It was too early in spring for crickets; all he heard was the quick rasp of a handful of beetles, hidden in the dark on a nearby tree. It was too dark to identify them, but he formed an image in his mind: black abdomens, moving too quickly to be anything other than a blur. Bird fodder. Patrick stopped to pull out lead and scrawl on the paper: magpies? QxC. At least, he hoped he wrote that. It was certainly too dark to see. Weebles swiftly took on an ambling lead.
“Did you know,” he told the waving white tail in front of him, “that some people still believe that swallows hibernate in winter?” Weebles paused to do business for a second at the corner.
“Yes, exactly,” Patrick continued. “That is precisely how I feel about the matter.” They continued on in companionable silence for several minutes longer. Weebles was tired, his ears drooping slightly. Really, Patrick promised himself, he would walk his dog earlier in the evening. He would. And if that meant that he would have to put down his notes on migration, well … he could do it. He could do it any time he wanted to.
He crossed over the next street. The square ringed by houses was an excellent place for a late-night ramble with a canine. The path bisecting the square was fringed by feather grass and clumps of sedge; a cluster of well-trimmed barberry bushes waved branches head-high. There ought to be thriving colonies of bugs out and about at this time of year, just now breaking out of the eggs so carefully laid the year before. Patrick listened attentively for the gentle skritch of wing upon wing or the unmistakable sound of insect mandibles carefully chewing leafs into bits. But what he heard, as he set down the path, was not the sound of any bug. It was the unmistakable sound of human breath blowing out in frustration, not more than a few yards from him. He froze.
“Drat,” said a clear voice.
“Good heavens!” Patrick exclaimed before he could stop himself. “A female!”
Claire formed an impression of great height and a deep—a very deep—cultured voice. The dense shrubbery on the square filtered out most of the light from the street lamp on the corner. She hoped that his view of her was as darkened as hers of his. A man—a gentleman, from the cadences of his voice—would never let a young single girl sit alone in a park at night. Her life flashed in front of her eyes. When her father found out, he would marry her to the Vile Viscount immediately. She would spend the rest of her life hoping to lose her sense of smell.
A well-bred girl would likely run away. Or, Claire amended, at least she would die of shame. But Claire couldn’t very well bolt back to the townhouse. That would give away her identity as neatly as if she handed the strange gentleman a calling card. As for dying—well, shame, however mortifying, was just not as effective a method of doing one’s self in as, say, pistols. Or knives.
That left deceit. No well-bred girl would fib, Claire cautioned herself. And for the last three years, she had so carefully limited her deceitful side to internal monologues. Then again, no well-bred girl would be caught wandering the streets—very well, the manicured squares—of London in the dead of night. It was high time, Claire decided, that she lied to someone other than herself. When one was cast into doubt, she thought grimly, it was best to accuse someone else. After all, mendacity and misdirection went hand-in-glove.
“What are you doing here?” The cross woman’s voice cut through the dense blackness of the night.
Patrick searched for a few seconds to find the source of the voice. He made out a darkened form, sitting on a bench. And then a more visible white form, tail-wagging, poked its nose level with the bench. Weebles sniffed what Patrick supposed was the lady’s lap.
“Weebles, desist.” Weebles happily snuffled away.
“Not well-trained, is he?”
Patrick blinked. Whoever it was spoke in carefully cultured tones. A lady, then. Not only a lady, but a lady with the brisk self-confidence to ask questions of strangers, and expect immediate answers. Hidden from the light as she was, he couldn’t make out her features, but he imagined a staid matron—not elderly, but not young either. Perhaps she was fifty. Patrick thought of his aunt—crusty well before her time—and felt his throat ease slightly. He could converse with older, belligerent females; it was only the young ones that left him tongue-tied. But her next words caught him off guard.
“Aren’t you worried for your safety?”
“I—oh—what—pardon?” He didn’t dress like a gentleman, but his dog was large and imposing. He’d never feared, out late at night. Perhaps he should have done so. But she continued.
“A man alone at night?”
His manners were somewhat scramble-brained. But even he knew that something was terribly backwards about this query. “I thought that, as a rule, ladies had a great deal more to worry about than men,” he said apologetically.
“I think not,” she said.
There was a pause. Patrick wondered briefly if she had company. No—Weebles would have detected it before now. “Haven’t you read the papers?”
Likely she was not referring to the scientific papers that circulated among his fellow ornithologists. Or the mathematical monographs that he read with pleasure. “Not…as such.”
“Then you haven’t read about the marauding gangs of young women.”
Patrick had a sudden vision of dozens of pastel-clad debutantes wandering the streets and giggling en masse. His throat almost froze just thinking about them.
“No. I’d not.”
“I hear they prey on men.”
Some female insects did precisely the same thing, Patrick thought.
“Robbery and such?” he asked. “Or something more nefarious?”
“Oh. Um. Well. Something more nefarious of course.”
“Let’s see. White slavery, I’m sure.”
“Oh dear,” Patrick said with a sigh. “They’ll be after my dog for sure.”
She burst into laughter, and the subject of their conversation thumped a tail briefly against the ground.
“I have no idea why you’d make up such a story. Although I am beginning to think that you, madam, could muster up enough marauding to terrify any man.”
She leaned forward. “And are you frightened?” She sounded pleased by the prospect.
“Alas, no. I am shockingly befuddled.”
“That’s almost as good,” she gloated in satisfaction.
“My first point of befuddlement,” Patrick continued, “is that I can’t figure out why you would lie about such an easily verifiable fact.”
“Did you know that it’s nearly impossible to prove things that are true?”
“Ah. Here is a second point of befuddlement.”
“No, really. Try it. Say something that is undeniably true.”
“Nonsense. They only levitate.”
“But in order to levitate they would have to be lighter than air. How, then, could they alight on the ground?”
“Well,” she said, “likely they clutch the earth with their claws to keep from being flung into the atmosphere.”
“And why do they beat their wings?”
“A primitive form of avian communication, naturally.”
Patrick considered this. “As a scientific matter, the simplest explanation is likely to be the best.”
“Best for what purpose?”
Patrick’s brow furrowed. “The best explanation for…well”—dash it all, nobody had ever asked that question—”for explaining.”
“There you have it,” she said archly. “The most complicated explanation is undoubtedly superior if one’s purpose is something other than explanation.”
Patrick took several deep breaths. He felt as if he stood atop a very tall tower. “What purpose,” he finally asked, “can one conceivably have other than explanation?”
“One could seek to avoid explaining.”
He felt as if he had been pushed from that tower.
“Why the devil would you want to do that?” Wait—he hadn’t meant to say “devil” to a lady. But the answer to his question came to him before he could apologize. It belatedly struck Patrick that the unknown woman had never given any sort of explanation for her presence in the park.
“Who are you, anyway?”
An ominously long pause stretched. It was finally broken by the far-off toll of a clock striking the half-hour.
“Ellen,” she answered weakly. “Ellen…Saunders.”
Almost assuredly another lie. It suddenly occurred to Patrick that the woman was probably making an assignation, and that he was undoubtedly in the way. He had known that husbands and wives weren’t faithful in the ton—it was yet another reason he gave himself to be thankful that he couldn’t speak around attractive young women. But he had thought there was an air about the woman—well, he couldn’t exactly call it truthful, as she’d fed him a pack of lies. But he had supposed that she was basically honorable. He made a mental note never again to confuse intelligence for integrity.
“Madame Ellen,” Patrick said quietly, “I believe it is time for me to be off.” He did not miss her faint sigh of relief. Collecting his dog, who had started to dig up clumps of turf, Patrick slowly trudged back to his house.
He needed to go directly to bed, Patrick thought as he locked the front door behind him. It was extremely late. He was tired. And yet, as he passed his study, the stack of copy books called out to him. Not that he felt compelled to peruse his data on bird migration at this late hour. No.
Slowly, he entered the room. He removed an empty unmarked book from a drawer and sat at the desk. For a long moment, he stared at the cover. Then he dipped his pen once and began to write.
First, he labeled the cover. “Unknown Female Specimen: Sightings, 1817 through—” He left the ending date blank.
Two in the morning, May 13, 1817.
A curious specimen, unlike anything else I’ve heard. Initial guess is that the observed female specimen was approximately thirty-five to forty years in age. Light too dim to observe other characteristics.
Patrick paused for a long moment, attempting to describe the interaction. Usually, he stuck to facts: a description of the plumage of the bird, for instance, and various pieces of information about the time of year, the daytime temperature, and where the bird had been observed. He thought about all the facts he could add to his report. There was the sound of her voice: a clear and steady alto. But the bare description couldn’t capture the musical expressiveness he had heard, or the satisfied self-confidence she had radiated. And at first, he had been almost positive she had smelled of jasmine—a jasmine soap, he had thought. But he had been several yards away, and the transitory smell had only wafted by in a light breeze. Now, he wasn’t sure if she really smelled of jasmine or if the air had simply sweetened in her presence.
He hadn’t even seen the woman, and for the first time in many years, facts seemed inadequate to encompass his experience. Most birds couldn’t talk back. After a long pause, he set quill to paper again.
I believe she turned my world on its head.
A longer pause. And then—despite his suspicions about her character—he found himself adding yet another line.
I believe I rather enjoyed it.