Friday, November 21, 2014

Straight and True Excerpt

Finally, here is an excerpt of my first book. I hope you like it!


Chapter One

Wiltshire, England, August 1820

“IT WOULD BE A PERFECT house party,” Isabella Reed declared, “if Lady Trammell had not invited Alexander Brent.” She peered out the window as their carriage rolled through Hilburn Park. They were a mere mile from the house itself. “I suppose she had to. He is her nephew after all.”
Her Aunt Lucy, sitting opposite, looked up from reading Ivanhoe. “I thought Mr. Brent was in the continent.”
“He arrived in England a fortnight ago, and it is a fortnight too early in my opinion.” Isabella sank back into the squabs. “He has already spent three years touring Europe, why could he not have stayed away for a month or two more?”
The reprieve from Alex’s obnoxious presence had been heavenly. The only fly in the ointment in that otherwise idyllic period was Nathan Trammell’s indifference to her, but she had plans to rectify that soon.
Unfortunately, she was unlikely to make any headway in the bright orange frock her mother had insisted she wear. The garish color made Isabella’s complexion look sallow, and the four tiers of flounces on the skirt seemed excessive for a carriage dress. Had her mother been more like Aunt Lucy—stylish and elegant instead of ostentatious—perhaps Isabella would be married to Nathan by now.
Aunt Lucy set aside her book. “Why do you dislike Mr. Brent so much? He has always seemed like a perfectly pleasant young man.”
“Pleasant?” Isabella huffed. “Not to those who have been the subject of his teasing and his pranks. Have you forgotten? He took apart the clockwork carousel you gave me for my birthday. It is still in pieces.”
She could put it back together now, but she wanted at least one reminder of his many transgressions. Of course, her decision had nothing at all to do with the fact that studying the carousel’s different parts had proved helpful in designing her mechanical seamstress.
“You would have done the same thing eventually,” said Aunt Lucy.
“But it was mine to take apart. Besides, he tricked me into giving him permission to dismantle it.”
“You were ten, and he was what? Twelve? Perhaps it is time you forgave him his youthful imprudence. It has been a decade.”
“He was almost thirteen,” said Isabella. “Three months shy of it, to be exact. And no, I don’t think I can forgive him—not when he has never apologized for it. He is, by far, the most ill-mannered person I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet. His arrogance rivals that of a Greek god, though no one would ever mistake him for one. Big head, scrawny body”—she ticked off Alex’s physical imperfections on her fingers, warming up to the subject—“crooked nose, bushy eyebrows, shifty eyes, wild hair…oh, and swollen lips.”
“My goodness! I don’t quite remember him being so grotesque.”
Isabella shrugged. She might have exaggerated a little. But truly, the man was repulsive, and she was not looking forward to seeing him again.
They soon stopped in front of the house’s entrance. Isabella nudged their maid, Mary, who had fallen asleep during the twenty-minute drive from the Reed estate of Fallmead to Hilburn Park. The two estates bordered each other, though the houses themselves were three miles apart by carriage. To visit the Trammells, Isabella usually took a shorter and more direct route on horseback, but the amount of luggage she and her aunt brought for the month-long house party made transport by carriage necessary.
As one footman began unloading their trunks and another assisted Aunt Lucy down the carriage, Isabella thought, not for the first time, that staying as houseguests when they lived so close by was ridiculous. Not that she was complaining. She treasured any time spent at Hilburn Park, where the mutual warmth and affection its residents enjoyed suffused the entire house. It was a far cry from the cold civility she experienced at home.
Besides, a month under the same roof with the man of her dreams—for once without her mother’s interference—was just the opportunity she needed to convince Nathan that they were meant for each other. 
 Once Aunt Lucy and Mary were safely on the ground, Isabella slid across the seat toward the door, all the while scanning the entrance for Nathan. Sadly, the object of her affection was nowhere in sight.
Disappointed, she gripped the gloved hand proffered by the footman and stepped down from the vehicle. When the footman failed to release her hand, she tried to tug it free, but his hold on her fingers only tightened. Surprised, she glanced to her side.
Like blinders on a horse, the wide brim of her bonnet had obscured her peripheral vision, and it was not until then that she realized the footman was not a footman at all. He was not wearing livery, for one, and the self-assurance in his countenance was one she had never seen on a servant. But he looked familiar. In fact, he reminded her of—
“Miss Reed,” he said, his voice smooth and deep, “you look even lovelier than when I last saw you.”
Isabella stared at him, taking in his height, his broad shoulders and strong jaw, his dark brown hair ruffling in the slight breeze.
The realization stunned her, and she gaped at him.
He grinned, his deep brown eyes twinkling with merriment. “Ah, I can see that you have not forgotten me.”
Chagrined at her reaction, Isabella gathered her composure. “Mr. Brent,” she said coolly, pulling her hand from his grasp as she took a step back. “How are you?”
“Glad to be back in England. Did you miss me?”
“You were away? How odd. I had not even noticed your absence.”
Alex chuckled. “Shame. I must endeavor to make more of an impression.” He turned to her aunt and gave a respectful bow. “Miss Winters, it is a pleasure to see you again.”
Aunt Lucy appeared amused. “Mr. Brent, you are looking far better than some of us remember.”
He raised a well-formed brow. “Why, thank you. I am delighted to exceed some people’s expectations.”
Heat rose to Isabella’s cheeks. She wished she could melt into the gravel, if only to avoid her aunt’s perceptive gaze. But then the next best thing happened: Nathan came out to greet them.
“Miss Reed! I am so glad you are here,” he said. “And you too, Miss Winters. My sister has been eagerly awaiting your arrival since breakfast.”
“Mr. Trammell!” Isabella hated how breathless she sounded when she said his name, but he was, in a word, breathtaking. With chestnut hair and deep green eyes, a well-proportioned body, and an exquisite sense of style, he was by far the handsomest man of her acquaintance. “You’re here. I thought perhaps you were detained in London.”
He gifted her with a dazzling smile. “As much as I would have liked to stay in Town longer, I dared not brave Mother’s wrath.” He offered his arm to Aunt Lucy, who readily took it. “Shall we all go in?”
Isabella watched wistfully as Nathan and her aunt made their way toward the house, imagining that she was the one hanging onto his arm.  She had fallen in love with him at the age of eleven, when he had rescued her after her mare had bucked her off. Like a knight in shining armor, he had swept her off her feet—well, more like plucked her from the muddy ground and sat her on his horse—and brought her all the way back to Fallmead, where she spent a week in bed nursing a sprained ankle. The confinement had been worth it, if only for the bouquet of flowers she received from him every day.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to settle for an inferior escort.”
Startled, Isabella looked up at the source of the voice and realized that Alex still stood there, watching her gawk at Nathan. She flushed with embarrassment and steeled herself against the mocking that would inevitably follow. To her surprise, none came from Alex’s lips. Not even a smirk. Instead, he held out his arm to her, his expression serious.
She nodded, for once feeling charitably toward him, and tucked her hand in the crook of his arm. His muscles felt hard underneath her fingertips, even with his coat as a barrier.
The last time they had stood in such close proximity was three years ago, when they danced the waltz at Lady Laurence’s annual ball and collided with another couple in the middle of the ballroom. The Alex she knew had been rather ungainly; the gentleman beside her was anything but. His strides were sure, his bearing confident, and there was an easy grace in the way he moved. It was astounding what three years can do.
They reached the foyer at the same time Philippa Trammell came bounding down the central staircase.
“What took you so long?” she demanded.
“It takes a while to pack enough clothes to last a month,” Isabella replied, releasing Alex’s arm.
“You could have just asked for your things to be sent over. It is not as if you live very far.”
“If I did that, it would not feel as if I were going to a proper house party.”
Philippa rolled her eyes. “We have been waiting for you all morning.”
“You mean you have been waiting all morning.”
“No, I mean we: Alex and I. For the past hour, he has been glancing out the window every five minutes, no doubt looking out for your carriage.”
Isabella narrowed her eyes at Alex, who looked embarrassed. When they were young, such anticipation on his part meant that he had something unpleasant planned for her: an insect in her soup, a spider in her bed, a bucket of water atop a slightly open door.
“Lying in wait, were you?” she said, all her charitable feelings gone.  “And, pray tell, what traps have you set up for me that you would so eagerly anticipate my arrival?”
For someone accused of something nefarious, Alex looked unaccountably relieved. “Traps?” he asked, all innocence. “Unless you consider being forced to endure my company a trap, I have no idea what you mean.”
“Enough of that, both of you,” said Philippa, grabbing Isabella’s hand. “Come, Isabella. We have much to discuss. You will have many opportunities to endure my cousin’s company later. For now, you’ll have the pleasure of mine.”

Seventeen other guests were expected at Hilburn Park. Although Isabella already knew most of them, her friend spent a good hour providing a detailed description of each one’s character, finances, and situation in life. As if that weren’t sufficiently torturous, Philippa spent another hour explaining, with excruciating thoroughness, the merits of one gentleman in particular—Lord Kendall of Lancashire—and her plans to be the next Lady Kendall.
By the time Isabella made it to her assigned bedroom, she was already tired of the people with whom she was going to spend the month, though they had yet to arrive.
“There you are, miss,” said Mary. She was carefully arranging Isabella’s jewelry on the dressing table, having already unpacked and put away her mistress’s other belongings. “I’ve been wanting to ask you what you plan on wearing for dinner.”
Isabella collapsed on the bed, arms spread out, and groaned. A couple of hours ago, she had been looking forward to the dinner party with much anticipation. Now, thanks to Philippa, the mere thought of it exhausted her.
“I don’t suppose I could plead a megrim?”
Mary frowned. “If you’re ill, miss, I’m sure Lady Trammell would understand. But I don’t know that she would be too happy about it.”
Isabella sighed. “No, she would not.” It would make the numbers uneven—a disaster for any self-respecting hostess.
She closed her eyes and contemplated her attire for the evening. It was her chance to make an impression on Nathan—the kind of impression that she had failed to make for the last three seasons, the kind that would make him regard her as more than a neighbor and friend.
She opened her eyes. “I think I shall go with the gold and ivory gown. The one with seed pearls.”
Mary nodded. “That’s a pretty dress on you, if you don’t mind me saying. I don’t know why you never wore it in London.”
“Mama does not approve of it.”
“But why?” Mary blurted out and immediately looked mortified. “I’m sorry, miss. I am sure it’s not my place to question her ladyship’s decision.”
“You need not worry about it. I have asked my mother the same question.”
Mary waited expectantly, but Isabella did not elaborate. There was no need to reveal that her mother’s sole objection to the dress was that Isabella had designed and sewn it. It would only confirm her mother’s reputation as a snob.
Lady Reed believed that to be fashionable, one must have a modiste and only those who could not afford one made their own clothes. Isabella supposed that in most cases having a modiste was an advantage. But when one’s modiste merely catered to the atrocious taste of one’s mother, then it was better to do without.
“Whatever her objections,” Isabella said instead, “my mother is not here to voice them.” Her mother was on her way to Bath, thankfully, to take the waters with the Duke and Duchess of Ingram. Her father was still in London, likely with his mistress.
“Well then, it’s settled, miss.”
Mary finished arranging Isabella’s jewelry and took her leave. A few minutes later, a knock on the door pulled Isabella from the verge of dozing off. 
Isabella sat up, patting into place some blonde curls that had come undone. “Come in!”
Aunt Lucy entered the room, looking young and fresh in a blue cambric gown. It was difficult to imagine that she was almost two and thirty.
“So,” she said, settling into the only armchair in the room, “it appears that a stay in the continent has done wonders for Mr. Brent.”
Isabella stifled a groan. She should have known that her aunt would not let the subject of Alex pass.
“It has certainly shrunk his enormous head,” Aunt Lucy continued.
“His head is still big,” muttered Isabella. “His body simply caught up with it.”
“And what a fine body it is, is it not?”
“Aunt Lucy! What a thing to say!”
“Well, it’s true. There’s no point denying it in a private conversation. As for his crooked nose, it must have straightened itself in the last three years for I saw no more than a slight bump on the bridge. And his gaze has become quite earnest, especially when watching you.”
Isabella ignored the teasing note in her aunt’s voice. “He was not watching me.”
“How would you know? You were busy staring at Mr. Trammell.”
Isabella remained silent. She had no defense to that.
Aunt Lucy went on. “Now as for Mr. Brent’s lips, they are full, yes, but I would not say they are swollen, would you? Indeed, I would say, they were…”
Sensuous. The word came unbidden to Isabella. Why would she think that? It wasn’t as if she wanted to kiss him. She shook her head in an attempt to get rid of such a ridiculous thought.
“Isabella?” Aunt Lucy was looking at her strangely.
“What? Nothing. His hair is still wild.”
“Well, I have to grant you that. But it suits him, don’t you think?”
Isabella decided to end the conversation. It would not do to think any more of Alex, with his earnest gaze and sensuous lips and untamed locks that begged to be touched. “Oh, Aunt Lucy, if I admit that Mr. Brent looks better than I expected, will you leave me alone?”
Aunt Lucy looked surprised. “Why, yes, of course,” she said innocently. Too innocently. She rose, smoothed her skirts primly, and headed to the door. With her hand on the knob, she paused and turned. “Although I wonder—when the man is so obviously attractive—why such an admission would be a severe hardship on your part.”
And with that, Aunt Lucy left, leaving Isabella to contemplate the unexpected transformation of Mr. Alexander Brent.