The vote is in, and an overwhelming number of you voted for an excerpt from the new, Victorian-set work in progress.
The runner up was a Colin and Eloise portion from The Passion of the Purple Plumeria, so I’ll be posting that for next week’s Teaser Tuesday.
Today’s teaser comes with a caveat: this work is very much still in progress, so the chapter you’re about to read below may well change during revisions.
Here’s a very quick plot synopsis before we begin: this stand alone novel goes back and forth between 2009 and 1849, as a woman raised in New York is drawn back to the suburbs of London by an unexpected inheritance left to her by an unknown great-aunt. In the old house on Herne Hill, she finds a lost Preraphaelite painting that leads her to the hidden tale of a forbidden love and a hushed up family scandal with reverberations across the generations.
Since the request was for the Victorian bit, I’ve given you an excerpt from the Victorian rather than the modern portion of the book.
A quick word on the cast of characters you’re about to meet: Imogen is our historical heroine, Arthur is her husband, Evie her stepdaughter, and Jane her husband’s first wife’s sister (which is just as complicated as it sounds). They were all officially introduced in an earlier chapter, but I wanted to share this one with you, since it’s the chapter where we first meet our Preraphaelite painters….
Herne Hill, 1849
Arthur hadn’t told her that there would guests for dinner.
Imogen paused in the doorway of the drawing room, her skirts belling gently around her legs. The sound of voices had alerted her even before she had approached, male voices, raised in spirited conversation, interspersed by Evie’s high, lilting laugh.
It was Evie who saw her first, her pretty young face lighting up. Breaking off her conversation, she raised a hand in greeting to Imogen, and the two men to whom she had speaking turned with her. One was tall and fair, with a carefully maintained mustache. He was dressed in the height of fashion in a tight-waisted frock coat and a waistcoat of a dull but expensive fabric. The other was shorter, with long, waving locks, a buff coat, and a cravat knotted in a tight bow at the neck, the very caricature of an artist.
There was another man in the back of the room, in quiet conversation with Arthur. His back was to Imogen; all she saw was close-cropped dark hair.
They must be more of Arthur’s protégées. He collected people as he did manuscripts, trading them off when he grew bored.
Imogen felt a moment of malicious amusement. Three male guests for dinner, and none of them announced. Jane must be down in the kitchen, cajoling Cook into stretching the soup and shredding the hens into timbale. The table would be unbalanced, but Arthur never cared for things like that. Jane did, but Jane would never naysay Arthur. Jane was, Imogen had realized years ago, quietly and painfully in love with Arthur.
And Arthur was simply Arthur. Belatedly aware of her presence, he turned, holding out a hand to her.
Arthur held out a hand, smiling. “Imogen, my love. Come and greet our guests.”
What a misleading word, that “our”. It pleased Arthur to pretend that she had some role in the household, some place in it, as gracious chatelaine, if nothing else. It masked the fact that everything, every object, every wish, every whim, was his, her only task to be ornamental, to smile lovingly at him with the feigned echo of the love she had once believed she bore him.
Sometimes, she thought back with astonishment to that sixteen year old girl she had been, poor naïve sixteen, still dreaming of knights in shining armor, convinced that Arthur was the embodiment of all her maiden dreams.
The years had been kind to Arthur, but there was no disguising the fact that he had broadened and settled into comfortable middle age. His once ginger hair had faded in parts to gray; the whiskers she had once found so dashing had grown bristled and bushy. He looked more and more like the portrait of his father that hung above the mantel, a prosperous merchant with a merchant’s mind, smug in the constant counting of his treasures.
Of which she, for some reason, was one.
Arranging her paisley shawl more securely around her shoulders, Imogen moved gracefully across the room, taking her husband’s proffered hand, letting him tuck her arm through his. Arthur liked to show her off, she knew, just as he liked to display the Book of Hours in the study, or the fifteenth century triptych in the hall. Outside, it was dark already, the early dark of February, but the firelight reflected prettily off the purple poplin of her dress, picking out the richness of mother of pearl buttons and silk braid.
“Gentlemen,” she said, her smile nicely calculated to include them all, while marking no one in particular. Over the years, she had become very good at playing Arthur’s hostess, at showing the face he wished for her to show. “Welcome.”
“We are now,” said the man with the wild dark curls, flashing her a smile intended to be dangerous. Imogen couldn’t help but be amused by it, the dash and bravado of it all, a little boy playing at Casanova.
“My love,” said Arthur, leading her forward like a visiting dignitary, “I should like to present to you Mr. Rossetti.”
The man with the careless cravat and the tousled curls pressed his hand to his heart.
“Mr. Fotheringay-Vaughn.” Blond and elegant, the second man essayed a languid bow. He had cultivated the look of perpetual ennui that went with his tightly tailored waistcoat and carefully tied cravat.
“—and Mr. Thorne.” That was the third man, quiet and dark. He inclined his head in greeting, but made no move closer. He put Imogen in mind of a jungle beast, quiet and alert. “They have come to visit our collection.”
There was no need to specify which collection; there was only the one that counted, Arthur’s collection of medieval objets d’art, carefully selected and enlarged over time. Imogen could see her father’s Book of Hours lying open on the card table, Arthur’s pride and showpiece.
“You must have a powerful love of antiquities to venture out on such an inclement day,” said Imogen lightly. The rain had been hissing and spitting down all day, the sky the color of sleet, the ground an unappealing blend of mud and slush. “Are you also collectors, then?”
“Call us admirers, rather,” said Rossetti. His teeth flashed in a smile. “Our pockets are to let.”
The blond man, Fotheringay-Vaughn, looked pained. He fingered his expensive enamel watch fob. “Yours, perhaps.”
Thorne alone made no response. Alone of the three, he stayed clear of the female presence, withdrawing with Arthur to the table by the window.
“These gentlemen are all artists, Mama.” Evie hastened to fill the gap. “They have come for inspiration.” She spoke the final word with touching conviction.
“And have you found it, then?” Imogen asked.
“Most certainly,” drawled Fotheringay-Vaughn. His eyes were on Evie, frankly admiring.
Evie’s cheeks went pink and her eyes were wide as saucers.
Bother. Bother and botheration.
Imogen looked to Arthur, but Arthur was deep in conversation with Thorne, their heads bent over the Book of Hours as Thorne sketched something in a notebook with a quick, sure hand.
Not that Arthur would be any use; Imogen had warned him, time and again, that he was keeping his daughter too close, that she needed to be allowed to try her charms on the inoffensive sons of neighbors, under the watchful eye of half a dozen earnest mamas. She would be an heiress when the time came. Not a great heiress, not the sort who made waves in Society and elicited articles in the Illustrated London Times, but she would have a tidy enough sum to bring to her future husband. Especially for an artist with pockets to let and expensive taste in watch fobs.
Kept close as she was, Evie was likely to be easy prey for the first plausible fortune-hunter who came her way.
“As you were, my dear?” Arthur had chucked Imogen under the chin and laughed a little laugh to show that he was joking.
The idea, of course, was risible, the fortune was his; she had been all but penniless when he married her. Jane had certainly remarked upon it often enough. And yet…. And yet. Imogen wondered if the arrow had fallen quite so far from the mark as he had intended. He might not have married her for money, but she had been gulled by him all the same, had, in her naivete, believed him something quite other than what he was.
She was determined that Evie shouldn’t make the same mistake; when Evie married, it should be for love, or at least some form of real and lasting affection, not on the strength of a compliment and an illusion.
Sometimes, Imogen wasn’t sure what it was that Arthur wanted from her, had ever wanted from her. They hadn’t shared a bed since the second miscarriage, when she was nineteen.
Confused and lonely, she had made what cautious overtures she could, but she had been politely and firmly turned away, sent off to bed like an erring child with a pat on the shoulder and a kiss on the brow. There had been a slight air of censure, just enough to let her know that attempting to proposition one’s husband was poor form. Arthur never criticized right out; he only looked grave. He had looked very grave those nights when she had appeared in his bedroom in her nightrail, grave and disappointed at her unwomanly forwardness.
Imogen knew she had no plausible cause for complaint. Arthur had never laid a hand on her, which was more than could be said for many husbands. He only looked grave and shook his head over the deficiencies of her upbringing. It was for her own good, he told her, frowning over infractions, rewarding good behavior with an abstracted smile and a gentle pat on the cheek. There were no scenes behind closed doors. In both public and private, Arthur was as painstakingly solicitous of her as he had been that first day he brought her home.
So devoted, sighed the neighborhood matrons. So considerate.
Did it make her a bad and ungrateful woman that there were times when Arthur’s vaunted solicitude made her nails dig into her palms? There were times when she felt it smothering her, times when she wanted to scream loud enough to wake the echoes in the quiet, velvet draped house, loud enough to send Jane running down the stairs, loud enough to make the mirrors crack.
Arthur attributed her strange freaks of discontent, her odd desires for occupation, to her failure to bear a child. Attempts to explain that her restlessness wasn’t anything to do with thwarted maternal impulses fell on deaf ears. She had been deprived of the joy of a woman’s highest calling; it was no wonder she was difficult. The resulting mixture of forbearance and pity made Imogen gnash her teeth.
In one thing and one thing only had Imogen been successful. She had persuaded Arthur—against Jane’s loud opposition—to dismiss the useless Miss Lymon and allow Imogen to take over Evie’s education. Sometimes, she thought that those years in the schoolroom with Evie were all that had kept her from packing a bag and slipping out a window in the middle of the night. Evie would never make a scholar; she hadn’t the interest or the dedication. She had a facile, if shallow, intelligence, an infectious charm, and an affectionate nature. Imogen knew her for what she was and loved her unreservedly.
She wouldn’t, couldn’t let Evie make the same mistake she had, not Evie, the closest thing to a child she was ever likely to have.
“Goodness, how interesting,” said Imogen loudly. “It is so seldom one gets to see real artists at work.”
She crossed carefully between Evie and Vaughn, sliding her arm through her stepdaughter’s, ranging herself between them. She was taller than Evie by half a head; if she didn’t entirely block her stepdaughter’s view of the older man, at least she impeded it.
She squeezed Evie’s arm affectionately. She was so slight, so unprotected, her Evie. No matter. She had Imogen to protect her. And Arthur meant well, for all Evie was still, in his head, about nine and in pinafores.
“You must tell me more of your visit,” Imogen said to Rossetti. “Was there anything in particular in my husband’s collection that you came to see?”
“Anything!” said Rossetti, with a sweeping gesture. “Everything! It has been a revelation.” The word must have pleased him because he repeated it. “A revelation! I had seen the works of such painters before only in crude, printed copies. To see the originals….”
“Was a revelation?” Imogen provided, with a hint of a smile.
“Like a heavenly vision,” said Rossetti extravagantly. “Did you know that in all of our National Gallery, there is only one work painted by an artist prior to Raphael?”
Next to him, Fotheringay-Vaughn rolled his eyes.
Imogen found Rossetti’s enthusiasm rather charming. Had she been like that once? Yes, a very long time ago, when she had thought she would help Arthur in his work and they would immerse themselves in medieval manuscripts together. Such a utopian vision and so very far from the life she now led. “I must confess. I was unaware of that. There are several lovely Reynolds, however.”
“Sir Joshua Reynolds!” Rossetti was deeply indignant. “Sir Sloshua, more like! His meaningless rules have stifled generations of English painters. There is no life in his paintings, no color. Do you know that he has decreed that all landscapes must be painted in shades of brown?”
Imogen felt her lips relax into a smile. “I fear that does seem to be the color of our countryside at present.”
“Yes, but think of May!” said Rossetti passionately. “Think of the sun gilding the fresh, green grass and the roses unfurling their first velvet petals. There is a world of color and light just waiting to be captured on canvas.”
Despite herself, Imogen was moved by his words. “I am sure that if anyone can, you shall, Mr. Rossetti,” she said.
“Not if the Academy has its way,” said Mr. Rossetti darkly.
“The Academy does its best.” It was Thorne, who, with Arthur, had come to join them. Imogen didn’t miss the warning look he sent his friend. “I wouldn’t say ill of them.”
His voice was deep and rich, with the hint of a regional accent he made no attempt to hide, the vowels flattened, the consonants soft. He was older than his peers, closer, Imogen imagined, to her own age than Rossetti, who looked to be scarcely older than Evie. The sun had burnt his skin brown and etched lines on his lean face.
Imogen found herself intrigued by what it was he wasn’t saying. “What would you say of the Academy, then, Mr. Thorne?”
“Oh, Thorne is one for painting, not for talking,” said Rossetti merrily. “He believes in saving his breath to wield his brush. He leaves the grand manifestos to the rest of us.”
“Have you a grand manifesto, then?” asked Evie breathlessly. The question was for Rossetti, but her eyes were on Vaughn. Blast, blast, and blast again.
“This lot do,” said Vaughn indolently. His fixed his gaze on Evie. “My only creed is to paint beauty where I find it.”
That, decided Imogen, was quite enough. Leaning down to put her mouth to the girl’s ear, she murmured, “Evie, dearest, would you go and see what’s keeping your Aunt Jane?” She deliberately made her voice droll. “I should hate to think she’s been kidnapped by Cook.”
“Yes, Mama.” Evie always made a point of calling her mama.
For a moment, Imogen fought against a wave of bleak despair. What was she to do when Evie was gone? Well, she would face it when she faced it. She just needed to see her happily settled, with someone who appreciated her for her many excellences of spirit, not for the money Arthur had settled in the Funds.
“If you will excuse me?” Evie’s words were painfully dignified, stilted even, but her voice betrayed her youth. She still curtsied like a schoolgirl, awkwardly, her eyes darting up to for approval. “I must see to supper.”
The gentlemen made the appropriate polite noises. Rossetti picked up immediately where he had left off, saying something about throwing off the shackles of artistic constraint. Imogen wasn’t quite listening. Neither was Fotheringay-Vaughn. His eyes followed Evie as she left the room.
The other man, Thorne, was watching Imogen.
She caught him watching her, watching her watching Vaughn, and there was recognition in his eyes, as though he knew exactly what she was about—as though he knew and were watching her as one might a caged beast in a menagerie! His eyes ought to have been black, with that coloring, but instead, they were a pale brown, the color of amber, or of aged sherry, light and bright and far too observant.
Imogen bit back the angry words the rose immediately to her throat. Instead, she adopted her most painfully proper expression, pushing the anger, the indignation, down, down, down and away, down beneath her stays, compressed into a tiny little ball as shiny and hard as a locket, a locket with a picture in it no one could see.
What right had he to judge her? It was no business of his, no business at all.
“How fascinating,” she said politely to Mr. Rossetti, and turned her face away from the other man’s disturbing amber eyes.