“Harry! Harry, please come here. I need you.”
With a sigh, Harry put her book aside and rose to stand. Her feet ached in her cousin's too-large boots and her second-hand petticoats drooped to the floor. I have to make time to alter this monstrosity. But she knew better. The petticoat had been tripping her for months, and yet, when she had a chance, it was a novel, not a needle, that drew her attention.
“Harry, please hurry!”
Harry hurried down the hall from her small bedroom under the eaves to her cousin's larger room on the second floor, careful to keep her noisy boots confined to the soft black and red runner, lest they boom like thunder on the floorboards. A racket like that would certainly draw Uncle Malcom's attention… again. That's the last thing I want.
She wrestled the cranky crystal knob on her cousin's bedroom door until the catch conceded to release, and slipped into the room.
“What is it, Fanny?” she asked. But even as she spoke, Harry knew the answer. Her cousin, Fanny, stood in the center of her room in her underwear, muttering under her breath as she laced her corset to the carved mahogany bedpost. Her pale forehead shone with sweat and her black hair clung to it.
“Fanny, stop,” Harry urged. “We tightened that thing already, remember? You don't need to do that.”
“It's not enough,” Fanny whined, her rosebud lip poking out into a pout.
“Why not?” Harry crossed the floor and smoothed Fanny's hair back. “It's not necessary to turn yourself inside out, you know. You have an enviable figure. Why tight-lace?”
Fanny looked down at her generous bosom, her tiny waist, artificially narrowed by years of tight-lacing, and her perfect, round hips. “Once William proposes to me, then I'll loosen my laces, but until then… I can't let my guard down. What if I have to make another match?”
Harry closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Her own, much looser-fitting garment restricted her, but not to the point of dizziness. “You won't,” she insisted. “William adores you. He has your father's permission to court you. You'll be his bride before you know it, but what happens if you pass out tonight? You'll miss all the fun, and they'll have to loosen your laces anyway.”
Fanny's pout in no way diminished. “That's easy enough for you to say. You don't have to worry about finding a worthy husband.”
Harry bit her lip. “You're right.” And how kind of you to remind me I've gone from a poor relation with few prospects, to a domestic with none. Then she sighed. Fanny's comment had not been made from cruelty. “At any rate, I still think you'll be fine with it the way we had it. And you won't need to worry. Heaven forbid if something were to happen to William, you'd have a line of suitors waiting to claim you whether you tight-lace or not.”
“Do you really think so?” Fanny's huge blue eyes widened until they seemed to swallow up all of her pale, heart-shaped face.
“I know so,” Harry replied, patting her cousin's shoulder. “Now, why not bathe your face in some cool water and let's get you dressed. You have a big night tonight.”
Fanny beamed, no doubt thinking of her beloved William, and Harry relaxed. Her cousin's obsession with her looks bothered the bookish young woman, but she had to admit, they were more likely to win her a comfortable existence than any tome ever written. It's not like you would have been popular anyway, Harry Fletcher. Not with your… she let the dangerous thought trail off. Taking slow, deliberate steps, carefully placing her boots on the floorboards so as to avoid stomping, she approached a wardrobe in a carved wood. Red-paneled doors gave way to rows of hanging dresses, each one worth far more than she earned in a year. Harry pulled out the midnight blue and lace ball gown her cousin had commissioned for tonight's dinner.
“It's dreadfully hot,” Fanny commented as she splashed cold water on her face.
“It is,” Harry agreed, carefully removing the dress from the wardrobe and laying it out on the gold brocade bedclothes. “Did your father say when we're leaving?”
“To Brighton?” Fanny turned away from the ewer on her mirrored commode and approached the window, parting the curtains a crack to peer out onto the loud and dusty street. “He said it depends on me. If I can bring William up to scratch in the next week or so, we'll have to wait until all the arrangements are made. Otherwise we'll leave next week and he'll have to catch up with us there… or wait until next season.”
Harry grimaced. Fanny certainly would not like either of those options. I suspect there's to be a great deal of pouting in my future.
Fanny turned from the window and Harry carried the corset to her, settling it around Fanny's perfect figure and beginning the laborious fastening process. Thank goodness she didn't tighten it any more. That can't be healthy. But Fanny didn't worry about her health, only about her beauty, so Harry had no choice but to accommodate her.
* * *
Devin tossed the document onto his desk with a sigh, then threw his hands into the air, upsetting a cup of tea, which spilled over his paperwork.
“Damnation,” he growled, flinging himself to his feet and sweeping away as much of the tepid beverage as he could before it stained the wood. The will he'd been drafting was ruined and he'd have to start over. “I love my job. I love my job. I LOVE my job!” he reminded himself. “Anything is better than that noisy, sweaty factory with Father and Chris telling me what to do.”
Taking a deep breath, Devin screwed up the paper and tossed it into the bin. At least you didn't upset the inkwell, dolt. Too aggravated with himself to restart the document that had taken him several hours to prepare, Devin rose carefully, managing for once to avoid hitting his head on one of the low rafters, and ducked into the out-of-doors in search of a cup of tea that didn't endanger his paperwork.
Exiting his place of business – little more than a box hung with brown brocade curtains – Devin blinked in the sparkling June sunlight and rambled down a street lined cheek by jowl on one side with a row of brightly colored but narrow homes. On the opposite side, adjacent to the building in which his office formed a small portion of the first floor, other shops and businesses competed with each other by decorating picture windows with gaudy displays of lace, hats, toys, cigarettes, and other goods and services, just waiting for the first influx of holidaymakers from London. Après moi, le déluge, Devin thought irreverently. Not that he was going anywhere. His business remained fairly steady regardless of the socialites who tended to flood Brighton after Midsummer's Eve. Only a week to go now. A week and the lovely solitude of the coast, which refreshed him after long hours hunched over his too-small desk in the semi-darkness, would be crowded with pretty and expensive-looking young ladies, trying desperately to be noticed by a gentleman who was titled, wealthy, young, handsome and kind. In short, a phantasm.
Devin sighed again, the cool ocean breeze insufficient to lift his melancholy. Only a week until that damned Sir Fletcher will arrive and demand his will… which I just ruined. If he likes it, all's well and I can draw up a marriage contract for his daughter. If not, I'll lose the most lucrative client I've ever had.Recalling the pressure that cramped his back and hands until he felt as though he'd tripled his twenty-five years, Devin's comforting sunlit walk began to feel like a dangerous indulgence. Must get back to the will. Ducking into his favorite tea house, he took a seat and awaited the arrival of the owner, his favorite lusty widow, Mrs. Murphy. As he waited, he scanned the stuffy interior. Suffocating pink striped fabrics billowed from the tables and clustered around the windows, as though trying to smother the diners with their aggressive cheer.
Sure enough, Margaret Murphy arrived at his side in a moment, with two cups of steaming tea and a plate of scones.
“Hullo, Mr. Bennett,” she said in the impartial, businesslike voice that always startled him as she took a seat by his side. How can such a passionate person feign coolness so well?
“Mrs. Murphy,” he replied in a parody of blandness.
Her emerald eyes twinkled with humor at their discreet exchange.