When Charles Dickens and Louisa May Alcott were writing, it was quite common for their work to be published in serial form–one chapter at a time. I was chatting with my sister the other day and she reminded me I did something like that a couple years ago with A Duke for All Seasons. Each month I posted a new chapter and invited readers to comment and suggest new directions for the story to take. I managed to get seven or eight chapters posted before I had to abandon it to work on contracted stories, but I felt I owed my readers an ending. So I came back to Bella and Sebastian’s love story and finished it up.
Now I’d like to offer up a different sort of Regency story in regular segments. This one has a dash of paranormal along with the beautiful gowns and exaggerated manners. I’m not sure of the title yet. I’m torn between The Education of Miss Cassandra Darkin, The Fire Mage’s Lover or Lord of Flames. Maybe you can help me decide or even suggest one of your own.
I’ll publish a new chapter twice a month, around the 1st and the 15th. But in the meantime, here’s my opener:
“If once to Almack’s you belong, Like monarchs you can do no wrong;
But banished thence on Wednesday night, By Jove, you can do nothing right.”
~ by Henry Luttrell,
illegitimate son of an earl
who nevertheless possessed an Almack’s voucher by virtue of his wit!
“I am not responsible for that fire.” Cassandra Darkin was certain of it.
The handkerchief bunched in her fist would have been damp if not for her gloves. Who would have guessed white silk was such an effective mask for clammy palms?
“Of course you’re not responsible, dearest.”
Cassandra startled guiltily when her older sister Daphne patted her forearm. She hadn’t meant to speak her fear aloud.
“What a silly notion,” Daphne continued. “You weren’t even particularly close when the candle flame leaped from the wall sconce to the ostrich plume on Lady Waldgren’s turban.”
“Make that the ridiculous ostrich plume on the odious Lady Waldgren’s turban,” Cassie amended. Her sister cast a warning glance, but didn’t disagree. No one who’d felt the sting of Lady Waldgren’s waspish tongue would argue with Cassandra’s assessment, both of her ensemble and her character.
However, they’d probably take care to express it less publicly.
Daphne was right about the rest though. Cassandra hadn’t been near when the feather burst into flames, but she had passed by the wretched gossip prior to the incident and distinctly heard her name in whispered conversation. The hissed tone was enough to tell Cassie that Lady Waldgren’s comments were not kindly meant.
Fortunately, Lord Waldgren’s quick action and obvious glee at being able to rip off his wife’s outlandish headgear and stomp it into oblivion averted a tragedy. After that, the evening at Almack’s progressed with hardly a hiccup over the minor curfuffle.
Only that week, there had been three unexplained fires at Sir Henry Darkin’s unassuming, yet fashionably situated townhouse. One flame ignited in the breakfast room when Cassandra’s father announced he’d heard at Brook’s that the son of Lord Bellefonte, their country neighbor, was courting the daughter of an earl.
The other fires had erupted in Cassandra’s bed chamber on two separate occasions after that. Once when she was trying to decide which gown to wear to a soirée that Roderick Bellefonte was expected to attend and then again later when Cassandra returned home that evening and told her abigail to burn the peach silk moiré because she’d never wear it again.
If Cassandra hadn’t been speaking of burning when the candle on her dressing table toppled over of its own accord, she might never have wondered if the frequent fires were somehow her fault. She had been present each time, but that did not mean she was responsible.
Still, to err on the side of caution, Cassandra stationed herself in a dark corner of the assembly room, far from any sources of flame.
“For heaven’s sake, Cassie, sit up straight,” Daphne said as they watched the dancers move through the prescribed steps of the quadrille. “You look like a wilted lily.”
Cassandra felt like one too, but her bodice was low cut enough to keep her shoulders rounded. “I wish I’d insisted on that fichu.”
“Nonsense. Your décolletage is perfectly appropriate for evening. Look at Lady Cowper. She’s not a bit dismayed over baring her shoulders and a good bit more.” Daphne arched her spine, her own pert mounds shown to good effect in the Empire style. Of course, since Daphne had already accepted the suit of the son of a baron in Kent, she had no need to preen so. “There are plenty of bosoms on display this night.”
“Yet the only bosom I’m concerned with is mine.” Cassie was aware she sounded like a bluestocking spinster, but she couldn’t help herself. In truth, she wished she could hide all of her, not just her bosom, until the Season was over. Or better yet, convince her father to return to Wiltshire without waiting to see if his youngest daughter would ‘take’ in the collective mind of Polite Society.
She had several strikes against her. She was a good three years older than most of the other debutantes in this Season’s crop. Her father was a mere knight, clinging to the lowest rung of the ton’s hierarchy. To make matters worse, Cassandra had the unfortunate habit of speaking her mind first and considering her words later.
Sir Orlando Mayne passed by with a dance partner on his arm, sending Cassandra a quick appraising glance and a wink. Heat crept up her neck. Sir Orlando was Roderick’s closest friend.
What has Roddy told him?
“How do you expect to sell the goods if you don’t display the wares?” Daphne whispered, her words never marring the toothsome smile she offered to the room.
“You’re quite right,” Cassie snapped. “Perhaps I should hire a tradesman’s window and put myself on display full time.”
“Now you’re being vulgar. We are not in trade.”
“Not anymore you mean.”
Their father had returned from India when Cassandra was ten years old with plenty of wealth to show for his stint in the Gorgeous East. He was subsequently dubbed ‘Sir Henry’ for service to the Crown, but even with a knighthood, the Darkins were too nouveau riche for full inclusion by the ton. It was only because Countess Esterhazy’s cousin owed their father an astronomical gambling debt, which he was willing to forgive, that they’d been given the opportunity to purchase a coveted Almack’s voucher.
Daphne had explained that it would take another two generations before their father’s progeny would be fully considered ‘good ton.’
“I don’t make the rules,” she said airily. “But I’m certainly glad my baron’s son is light enough in the pockets not to mind that my blood isn’t as blue as his. In any case, it’ll be ever so nice to be Lady Mooreland someday.”
Unfortunately, Roderick Bellefonte’s father was not in dun territory. Along with thousands of acres, he had plenty of coin. What the viscount needed was a politically and socially advantageous match for his son and heir in order to increase the family’s standing and range of influence. Against such requirements, the second daughter of a fairly recently made knight did not signify.
No matter his personal feelings, Roderick couldn’t disappoint his father by turning his eyes to Cassie.
She understood that. Certainly she did. If she truly loved him, she’d want what was best for him. It would be selfish of her to try to hold him back.
But she wished with all her heart that she’d held herself back.
Does it show? Another of Roderick’s friends smiled at her. Perhaps the mark of sensual experience was perfectly visible to those who knew to look for it. Her gaze dropped to the dance-worn floor.
Framed by the loose, mouse-brown curls at both of her temples, a pair of spit-shined shoes with silver buckles appeared on the hardwood in her line of vision.
“Will you do me the honor of this dance, Miss Cassandra?”
She looked up the sleek stockings, past the correct knee britches, starched white shirtfront and cutaway jacket. Sir Orlando’s boyishly round face was attached to the request.
A lady was always supposed to accept an offer to dance from a gentleman to whom she’d been properly introduced. She’d known Orlando for years. They’d played together as children when he visited Roderick’s family. The boys would sneak over the rambling rock wall that separated the viscount’s land from her father’s. She and Daphne excelled at being fair maidens in need of rescue from dragons lurking in the hay mow. Roderick and Orlando were their worthy champions, subduing menacing hay bales with a single blow.
Cassandra wondered what sort of game Orlando wanted to play with her now.
No, I’m imagining things. There’s no slyness in his gaze.
Even so, she almost pleaded a headache. Then across the room, Roderick entered with Lady Sylvia on his arm. In another moment Cassandra’s heart would cease beating and she’d have the perfect excuse not to join Sir Orlando in the gavotte.
Lady Sylvia was slim, but not lacking in curves in the proper places. Blessed with fashionably blonde curls, she also boasted a flawless pale complexion unmarred by so much as a single freckle. The earl’s daughter floated across the room as if her kid soled slippers wouldn’t deign to touch the floor. By rights, a being of that exquisite loveliness ought to have been winged.
How could I have been so monumentally stupid?
Even if Lady Sylvia hadn’t possessed such overwhelming social advantage, there was still no way Cassie could compete with that brand of ethereal charm.
Roderick leaned down and whispered in the lady’s ear. Lady Sylvia laughed, a merry silvery sort of laugh that lifted the hearts of everyone near her simply by virtue of its otherworldly cheer.
Sir Orlando cleared his throat.
Cassie had no excuse to refuse him. Despite expectations to the contrary, her heart continued to pump in her chest. However, something unnamable smoldered in the space around it.
The burning malevolence wasn’t directed at Lady Sylvia. She couldn’t help being beautiful and wellborn. And Cassie couldn’t fault Roderick for choosing to woo her. Two such pretty people deserved each other.
Cassandra’s ire was reserved for herself. Every candle in the room flared for the space of two blinks.
“Of course I’ll dance with you, Sir Orlando,” Cassandra said, rising and making a correct curtsey. She forced a smile. “The honor is mine.”
So that’s Chapter One. I have to warn you that we haven’t met our hero yet. What do you think of the characters you’ve seen so far? Where do you think we should head from here? What should the title be?