May 1816, London
It was all a little dizzying. Lady Romilly Docherty looked around the glimmering ballroom at the gold chandeliers, bouquets of roses fairly brimming from their vases and satin-clad men and women who moved with complete grace and elegance. The roses had been her sister, Kate’s choice—the bride always had the final say in decorations, after all.
Romilly peered through the crowd, her eyes falling on the happy couple across the room. Her sister, a marchioness now on the arm of Lord Norman Flanaghan, had a title that superseded even her father’s. Kate was Lady Whitehaven, the glimmering jewel of the Season who had managed to find a love match despite the odds.
It was just like Kate to do such a thing—petite, with chocolate hair and enchanting blue eyes, she’d managed to turn the eyes of many Scottish boys before their father inherited the earldom in a surprise change of fortune at the start of 1815. In one strange moment, he went from being Mr Edwin Docherty to the Earl of Carlisle, with a grand estate and a seat in the House of Lords. Kate had risen to the challenge of her new position with grace and poise, landing the best of the eligible bachelors in her circle without breaking a sweat.
She seemed so natural in this glittering room, amid all these strange and beautiful people. Romilly felt like the opposite. She was nearly a head taller than her sister, slight and almost waif-like compared to the celebrated Grecian forms in fashion. She had pale red hair—a gift from her late grandmother, her father always said—and a fair complexion to match. The only thing she shared in common with Kate was her bright blue eyes, which she now used to survey the room for an escape.
She felt out of place, but then again, she always felt out of place, and her family’s turn in fortune had only deepened the sensation. Her father was beside himself with delight at the possibility of advancing in the world, but for Romilly, it was just another thing that highlighted her stiffness. She did not have Kate’s courage or beauty to carry her through the endless social calls, and now, at two and twenty, was well past the age when a lady of her standing should have been introduced to the ton.
“Stop staring at your sister from the side of the ballroom,” her father said, coming up to her elbow with a cup of punch in his hand. “You should be dancing.”
She turned and looked at him with a slight smile. He had once been a tall man, but age and worry had bent his back so that he was just beneath her own eye level. He had greying hair and age spots, and his lips sagged into what seemed an interminable frown. The gift of the earldom, something he often declared to be “the most fortunate thing ever to befall our family,” seemed, in truth, to have brought him only a dull sense of satisfaction and a constant clutching for more. Romilly knew that her marriage was the next “more” for which he would be reaching—especially now that Kate was safely married up to a handsome marquess.
“I believe, Papa, a woman is supposed to be asked before going onto the dance floor,” she said drily.
He did not answer this question, only raised a hand glittering with rings to summon a small dandy of a gentleman from a nearby table who had already been looking in her direction. “I’m sure Lord Elliot would be happy to oblige,” he said.
“Papa, no,” she said quickly, blushing. “I think that if no gentlemen wish to dance with me, it hardly suits you to twist their arms.”
“He was already interested, I assure you,” her father said dismissively. “We were speaking of your charms only moments ago.”
My, my, you work fast. Romilly bit back her discomfort at the thought of dancing with a stranger … or dancing at all. She put on a smile to greet the aforementioned Lord Elliot, who was wearing an astonishing Parisian overcoat in a deep violet pattern with a cravat tied high enough to threaten his airflow.
“Lord Elliot,” her father said, smiling broadly. “Allow me to introduce you to my daughter, Lady Romilly.” Romilly did not miss how proud he sounded when he said the word lady. “I know you were seeking a proper introduction—and perhaps a dance partner.”
Lord Elliot had a sheen of sweat on his brow and smiled ingratiatingly up at Romilly. “It would be my honour, My Lady, if you would accompany me to the dance floor for a turn. I believe it is to be a country dance, with which I am sure you are acquainted.”
Romilly could see he meant no insult by this assumption, but her father blanched at once. “She knows all the dances,” he said, fidgeting with the lace on his sleeves. He obviously viewed the man’s comment as a reflection on their humbler beginnings. “Country dances, to be sure, but also the Scottish reels and the new one from the Continent.”
“The waltz,” Romilly reminded him.
“Yes,” poor Lord Elliot said slowly, looking a little confused, “but the next dance is a country dance. It will not do to know the waltz.”
“Yes,” Romilly rushed to put him at ease. “I am happy to accompany you.”
The first strains of the dance floated from the quartet in the corner, and Lord Elliot pulled Romilly out amid the other dancers. She felt strange beside all the small women in the line, towering above most of them. She even had a few inches on her partner, who did not seem to notice. In fact, he was looking rather concerned with his own matters at present, tugging his cravat and wiping sweat from his forehead.
The music began and the dancers bowed and curtsied to each other in greeting before leaping lightly into the first steps. It was a simple dance, one of the first Romilly had ever learned, with a brief step forward, a skip back, and then a repetition followed by a switching of places with your neighbor. The progression was a pleasant one and culminated, when you and your partner reached the end of the line, in a triumphant skip together back up a tunnel of dancer’s arms raised overhead.
After only the second rotation through, however, she noticed a reticence in Lord Elliot, who seemed to be finding it difficult to make conversation.
“Damned hot it is tonight,” he said, taking a moment to wipe his brow again before offering her the now-damp hand. He winced, realizing his words, and added apologetically, “I am sorry for the insensitive language, My Lady.”
“You need not apologize,” she assured him. “Are you quite well, Lord Elliot?”
“It is only this meddlesome thing,” he said, his fingers fluttering to his necktie and then back to her hand to lead her through a small spin. The two stepped apart as the dance required and then back together again.
Romilly meant to skip back into line, but at that moment, Lord Elliot hesitated, swayed a moment noncommittally side to side, and then fainted dead away into her arms. Romilly stumbled backwards and would have fallen herself under the weight of the man if it hadn’t been for another gentleman in the dance standing just behind her. She didn’t see her guardian angel, only felt him catch her elbows to keep her from falling as poor Lord Elliot crumpled the rest of the way to the ground.
There was a combined gasp and a pause in the music as two footmen rushed forward to pull the unconscious man from the floor. Romilly followed awkwardly behind, unsure what etiquette now required of her. Was she to bring him smelling salts? Would that be too presumptuous? She hardly knew the man.
The footmen answered the predicament for her, pulling Lord Elliot off into one of the side alcoves and summoning his friend over to handle the matter. Romilly meant to slip away, but before she did, she felt a hand on her elbow and turned to see her tutor and friend, Mrs Rebecca Langton, at her side.
Mrs Langton was a severe character under the best circumstances, wearing a tight bun that accented her sharp, bird-like features and a grey ballgown that reached all the way to her throat and wrists, with little left to the imagination. Despite this rather cliché governess attire, she had a gentle look in her eyes and a tenderness in her touch as she guided Romilly away from the party.
“Well, that was certainly interesting to behold,” she said. “Why don’t you come with me and get a little air?”
Romilly smiled gratefully. “I would love to step away, but you don’t need to worry about me. It wasn’t me who fainted, after all.”
“Yes, whatever did you say to that poor gentleman to make him fall dead away?” Mrs Langston said, hiding a smile. “Were you sharing your thoughts on women’s rights, my dear? You know that can be quite shocking to the male sensibility.”
Romilly laughed outright, turning with her companion into the hall and, beyond that, out to the terrace. “No,” she said. “I wish I could claim such power, but in truth, I think his cravat was to blame. I have never heard of such a tightly wound necktie, except, perhaps, with the hangman.”
Mrs Langston snorted in laughter. The night air outside the Whitehaven manor was cool and refreshing. It had not yet absorbed the sticky warmth of summer and was soothing against Romilly’s warm skin.
“It is so beautiful out here,” she said softly, leaning against the stone railing and looking into the garden beyond. It was lit with small paper lanterns, glimmering like fireflies in the dark. “With all the care Kate put into the decorations, I am surprised there are not more people out here to enjoy the magic.”
“It is always that way,” Mrs Langston said simply. “At least in London. These houses are decorated until they look as though they will burst under the weight of all that beauty, and then guests stay all together indoors to be seen to best advantage in their silks and satins. ’Tis a pity.”
“Not a terrible pity.” Romilly smiled at her, “For it has allowed us to enjoy this magic in relative peace and solitude.”
Mrs Langston looked at her with softness in her eyes. “You’re doing well tonight, Lady Romilly,” she said at last. “I know it is not your preferred evening, but you are conducting yourself admirably under the circumstances.”
“Thank you,” Romilly said gratefully. “It seems your lessons have not gone all to waste after all.”
Her tutor smiled. “I’m going back inside and fetch us some fresh lemonade,” she said. “I am parched, and you look as though a little refreshment would do you good.”
“Indeed!” Romilly said. “I would go myself, but I would rather the people forget my face until poor Lord Elliot has recovered from his embarrassment. Who knows what the wagging tongues have concocted to explain his affliction? No doubt my dancing will be named as the primary offender.”
Her companion laughed lightly and left. Romilly took a deep breath in her absence, the mirth of the moment slipping away as she was alone again with her thoughts. In the twinkling garden below, a few shapes moved gracefully along the paths. Perhaps some people are enjoying the moonlight after all, she mused, turning to the right and going down the stone steps leading from the veranda to the garden below.
The music was fainter down here, and the air even cooler against her skin. Romilly caught a glimpse of herself in the tall windows beneath the veranda—lit with lanternlight, slim and frail and dressed in a forest green gown that skimmed her shoulders and left her bare and strikingly white in the darkness. Kate had protested her choice of dress, declaring it unfitting for a morning wedding ceremony, but Romilly did not want to bother with a tailor and guessed—rightly—that in the end, her father and sister would be too consumed with the details of the current wedding to worry about little Romilly’s choice of silk.
The day had been long, from the ceremony to the breakfast and then into the afternoon and evening festivities. It was unusual for a bride and groom to remain around as long as Kate and Norman had chosen to stay with their guests, but Romilly knew the wedded couple did it out of kindness. They knew they were the most impressive couple in the ton, and everyone would want to boast of their festivities.
Romilly looked away from her reflection and walked deeper into the garden, passing a small group of girls gossiping near the house and then turning onto a well-trimmed grass path over which her slippers whispered almost noiselessly.
It was this silent step that caused her to startle the gentleman she found around the next corner. He was half in shadow, sitting beneath a tree with only a single nearby lantern for light, scribbling away in a notebook. The smoke from his pipe wafted up, sweet and musty, backlit by the lantern. She could see he was a tall man, even though he was sitting, but his face and body were turned partially away from her, and she could not make out his countenance. Something about the curl of the smoke against the light, the ferocity of the man’s scribbling, and his solitude intrigued her, however, and she took a few steps closer.
Her slippered foot stepped on a twig that had fallen from the tree overhead, and the snap of it seemed to wake the man from his concentration. He looked up suddenly, jumping and turning towards her so that the full light of the lantern flooded his face. He looked about thirty years of age—perhaps older—with a severe countenance and a swarthy complexion. That, and his dark hair curling about his ears, made Romilly think of some exotic, far-off place. He did not look English or sound so when he cried out at the sight of her.
She jumped, taking a startled step backwards. “I beg your pardon; I was just walking.”
He looked as though he was trying to catch his breath from the fright of her sudden appearance but had the presence of mind to quickly tuck the book in his hand behind him on the bench, setting his writing implement alongside. “Just walking?” he grumbled. “More like stalking. Are you a real woman or a longana?”
“A … longana?’” she asked, not understanding. “I don’t know what that is.”
He looked at her for a long moment as though seeing her for the first time. “Step into the light.”
Romilly looked around for a moment. They were not alone—not in the way society would condemn. She could see the group of girls giggling amongst themselves only a few lengths away. Still, something about this interaction felt strange and fantastical, as though she and the dark man were the only two people in the garden, perhaps in the world. She took a step forward, then another.
The man drew back a little and looked at her with a frank, measured gaze. Romilly had the strange sensation that he was evaluating her honestly—with neither prejudice nor flattery. He raised his eyebrows. “Yes,” he said at last. “I stand by my earlier assertion. You have all the marks of a longana about you, and I shall not change my mind until you prove otherwise.”
Romilly tried to gain her bearings in the conversation. “I am not sure if you are insulting me or not. Perhaps you could enlighten me as to what in the world a ‘longana’ is, and I will determine for myself.”
“Spoken exactly like a longana would speak,” the man said, a mischievous smile curling the corners of his mouth. “Fine,” he asserted. “I will tell you. But first, you must sit beside me so I can see you more clearly. Additionally, if you continue standing, it makes me feel as though I ought to stand in your presence out of respect.”
“Oughtn’t you to have already stood when you first saw me at your side?” Romilly asked, hiding a smile.
“And what of it?”
“I’m only saying that any chance at respect has already evaporated,” she said with a shrug.
He glowered. “Sit and stop turning my words back on me. It is not something I am used to enduring.” She sat and folded her hands in her lap. He pulled out his pipe and inspected it. “I suppose you will next tell me that I ought not to smoke while you are here.”
“It is not generally considered proper in the presence of a lady.” She felt as if she was parroting Mrs Langston and looked back towards the veranda. It was still empty.
The man raised his eyebrows. “But there I have the best of you, for we have still not determined that you are a lady, or even … human.” He raised his eyebrow and took a slow, calculated puff from his pipe before continuing. There was something devilish in his look. “For a longana, my dear lady is a legendary aquatic figure who first appears in the myths of Cadore.”
“Ah, yes. You would know the place since it is the world from which you hail.” He took another puff. “They are quite intelligent and beautiful and have an extraordinary ability to determine natural events.” He lowered his voice as though telling a ghost story to a child. “And they are known for being light of hoof and quick to appear and disappear.”
Romilly smiled despite herself. “Hoof?” she said. “My lack of hooves did not signal to you my authenticity as a real human woman?”
The man sat back and shrugged as though her protestations were to no end. “A longana is a powerful and mysterious creature, able to trick the eye.” He looked briefly at her green skirt. “Plus, your gown is quite long. It may hide hooves … I am not one to make assumptions.”
She laughed outright. “I assure you, sir, that I am not a longana. There is nothing in the least mysterious or mythical about me.”
“What is your name then, lady?” he asked. She noticed that he had taken his pipe out, despite his earlier posturing, and set it aside on the bench.
“I am Lady Romilly Docherty,” she said softly. She was used to speaking in proper English, carefully coached by her father and Mrs Langston, but when she said her full name, her Scottish blood sometimes crept in.
“Ah,” the man said, leaning back. The lantern light threw strange shadows on his brown skin. “So you are Scottish. That explains it. Of course, you are not a true Italian sprite but a faerie of the North.” He sobered somewhat and let the amusement slip from his tone. “Docherty … are you related to the bride, then?”
“She is my sister.”
“Ah.” He smiled, but there was something sad in that gaze. It was as though, in leaving the fictional world of faeries and sprites, a little life drained from his expression. “Well, she has made Whitehaven a lucky man.”
“I think so,” Romilly said slowly. “I have given you my name even though we have not been properly introduced. I believe you now owe me yours.”
“Owe you? And if I refuse, how shall you collect?” he asked, arching an eyebrow. There was a challenge in his voice, thinly cloaked in amusement.
She smiled and waited patiently, not engaging in his teasing this time. After a moment, he relented. “I am Lord Benedict Sagre.”
She noted the Italian surname first, thinking that it made sense of his tanned skin and favourite myths. She felt he was cloaked in some mystery—as though she’d met him before or at least heard his name, although she could not name the place.
She examined his face in the highly-contrasted light. He looked like a brooding man in a Caravaggio painting, highlighted by chiaroscuro. “And how are you acquainted with the groom? I assume you are here for the groom.”
Her question seemed to remove all the air from the space between them. Sagre cleared his throat and picked up his pipe, turning it over to dump the leaves onto the ground between his feet. He used the heel of his shoe to grind out any residual embers.
“’Tis a quiet night,” he said gruffly, not answering her question. “Too quiet. On a night like this, a man can hear himself think.”
“And that is not a good thing?” Romilly asked.
He stood abruptly, towering over her. He was much taller than she’d guessed. “You ask quite a few questions, My Lady. I cannot account for it.”
“Most people think I’m rather quiet.”
“Most people are fools.” He spoke angrily as though impatient to be rid of her. She could not understand what had shifted his mood so suddenly. At one moment, he was a teasing, mischievous stranger. At the next, he was brewing above her like a storm ready to break forth.
“Have I said something to offend you, sir?” she asked, standing slowly.
He sighed. “Of course not; how could you?” Tucking his pipe into his coat pocket, he gave a sharp bow. “I suppose I should bid you good evening, My Lady.” He took a few steps away, then paused, and said in a low voice, “Don’t cast a spell on me once I’m gone.”
Then he strode away down the lane, leaving Romilly alone behind him. She looked up at the terrace and caught sight of Mrs Langston peering out into the garden, clearly looking for her. She raised a hand in greeting to show the lady where she was and then glanced back at the bench, catching sight of something out of the corner of her eye.
It was Lord Sagre’s notebook, left behind by accident. She thought about leaving it there, feeling certain he would recollect it was missing and return for it, but something would not allow her to simply walk away.
She picked it up, as though pushed forward by some unseen source, and briefly flipped open the cover, scanning the pages before closing it and holding it behind her skirts. She would peruse the contents later, though her conscience warned her sharply against it.
Twelve months later
Benedict walked up to the front of the ornate room, taking his place in front of London’s academic crème de la crème to the sound of polite laughter and the sight of expectant smiles. A few women were in attendance; he could glimpse slim figures in the back of the room, but mostly it was gentlemen in wool and top hats, smelling of cigar smoke and sherry.
He cleared his throat, shifting uncomfortably to look at the waiting faces. “Good day to you all,” he said. “What a pleasure it is to come here today to speak with you.”
Silence. Waiting. Benedict remembered when engagements like this—as the guest speaker at a London literary salon—filled him with joy and anticipation. Those had been days of excitement and delight, when he actually believed what he was saying and was proud of his work.
“Our own Samuel Johnson once said that what is written without effort is, in general, read without pleasure,” he said, glancing at the notes he had written beforehand. He now held them before him, pinned to a leather pad. “He meant, of course, that we authors have a monumental task ahead of us—that of real effort to speak the truth even when it does not serve us well.”
“We must be … honest, above all.” He felt his own words accusing him. “It is not good to weave worlds of intrigue and interest, to sell novels and inspire crowds if our work is not true to our authentic self. The reader, no matter their education, should be valued. They can see through a farce. They can see when an author is not giving of themselves but has instead constructed a narrative around what is pleasing and popular. Effort and authenticity must exist in the written word to truly move the world.”
He looked out over the crowd, hating the way those faces turned towards him so eagerly, the way a few young students in the front of the room scribbled notes as though his mouth was bringing forth the wisdom of the age. Take your own advice, his mind screamed at him. When was the last time you put forth anything real? When was the last time you wrote anything honest?
He winced and cleared his throat, having lost his place on the page. “In the world of a novelist, it might seem foolish to speak of what is real since everything we write is, in fact, a fictional fabrication. The truth remains that even the strangest of these fictional stories, rooted in a world of myth or the realm of the impossible, must in some way be centred in what is real—that is to say, in human emotion.”
He paused and looked to the front row. The event facilitator, a gentleman of advanced years with white tufts of hair clinging around his ears, nodded in encouragement.
“Now,” Benedict went on, “perhaps I can open the floor to questions. In such spheres of learning it is good to have an open discourse.”
Hands raised around the room. All men, of course. The shadow-like women in the back would likely not interject their thoughts amid this room of gentlemen. Benedict pointed to a distinguished gentleman with spectacles in the front row.
“What authors influence you?” the man asked. Benedict reached into the recesses of his mind to recall the man’s name.
“Dr Martin, an excellent question, to be sure,” he said. “I appreciate a variety of works. You may have noticed the influence of Samuel Johnson and Samuel Richardson in my work, but I assure you I am not limited to ‘Samuels’.” A ripple of laughter filled the room. “As much as I would like to distance myself from the over-sentimentality I see rising in modern poetry, I cannot help being influenced by the descriptions so vividly shown by writers like Wordsworth and Blake.”
“And Byron?” a young man at the front asked. The room laughed. Byron, while fabulously popular, was not well respected in a room like this, full to the brim with academics and ‘sober minds.’
“Byron has his merits,” Benedict said, clearing his throat. The laughter eased. Benedict was not a personal fan of the man who had set London aflutter with this scandalous love poetry, but he never liked to see another creative mocked in the open sphere. “His poetry will likely stand the test of time.”
“He’s a passing fad, I believe,” Dr Martin said with a sniff.
“Anyone else?” Benedict asked. He chose a young man halfway back in the crowd, who looked quite eager.
The young man stood, reading his question from a page before him, apparently having scribbled it out in preparation for the talk. “What advice would you give to young authors attempting to follow in your footsteps?”
Benedict raised his eyebrow. “Don’t.” Laughter, again. He pointed to another man in the crowd. “You, sir.”
The man stood, wiping sweat from his balding head. “Yes, I wondered if you might comment on the popularity of the Gothic novel. I do not see your work taking a turn for the fantastic, but I am curious if there is a draw to write what the public wants, even if it does not suit your own sensibilities.”
This question hit a little too close to home. Benedict chose his words carefully. “I would urge honesty to every author, for a descent into sensationalism will only result in an obscuring of truth.” It was not an answer, and he was ashamed of his vagueness, but the room nodded sagely as though he had said something quite wise.
All at once, he saw a hand from the back that was not attached to a thick wool coat. It was a small, white wrist, wrapped around with delicate lace.
“You there,” he said. “In the back.” A gentleman stood, and he shook his head. “No, behind you.”
The room of men turned, and a slender figure stood uncomfortably. Benedict felt a quick shock to his system. He recognized her—this bluestocking woman who had the gall to ask him a question in front of this intimidating array of intellectual minds. It was his faerie shadow who had surprised him at Norman’s wedding. What was her name? Ah, yes. Romilly.
She looked directly at him as though issuing a challenge. “Yes, thank you, Lord Sagre. My question involves Miss Frances Burney and her various novels—in particular, Evelina and Cecilia come to mind—where she addresses female sensibility. Is this a subject you find ‘honest’ or merely a passing fad of the age?”
Benedict was taken aback by not only the intelligence of the question, but the courage with which it was spoken. Surely Romilly had recognized him immediately, yet she made no call upon their previous acquaintance or hesitated in her inquiry. In fact, it was he who stumbled now in his response.
“I do not know that I … my novels have not yet explored deeply the … Miss Furney is indeed a remarkable authoress …” he took a breath, getting back on track again, “and I have the highest respect for her work. I would not pretend to address female sensibility with the grace and elegance she manages, but I do not think it a matter of mere popular interest. The place of a woman in society will continue to fascinate in the days to come, and I believe may even be deserving of the central stage.”
She smiled briefly, nodded, and resumed her seat. Benedict managed to field a few more questions before closing his talk, but all the time, his mind was fixed on one thing—the shine of pale copper hair that he could still see at the back of the room and how he might find a way to continue his conversation with Romilly after the event closed.
He was grateful, then, to see the Duchess of Torquay swoop towards him at the close of his talk, with Romilly at her side. It appeared that Romilly was part of the duchess’ assembly, Women of Note, which showed an interest in academic and intellectual pursuits despite the derision of their male peers.
He had spoken with a few women from the assembly before, but they were often relegated to the side of formal literary discussions. It seemed that the duchess, a short, stout woman with fire in her eyes and a trailing black gown, did not mean to be pushed aside this time.
“Good day, Lord Sagre,” she said, coming to a sweeping stop a few feet away from him and bowing her head in greeting. “I would like a word with you.”
She was flanked by three women, all in much plainer dresses with their hair pulled back in severe burns and their faces expectant. Romilly stood slightly behind them, her eyes piercing blue, copper curls framing her pale face. She wore a plain cream muslin edged with lace and seemed to stand out even here with the women from the meeting.
He looked at her for a long moment and then with difficulty brought his attention to the duchess.
“Your Grace, I am happy to oblige you. What did you think of my talk?”
“Marvellously done, good sir,” she said, her tone nasal and superior. “I have often thought of that very necessity—honesty in the world of the author is sadly lacking. I came to follow up on a mention you made of Samuel Johnson. I was recently re-reading his brief series, The Idler, and found it to be missing a certain vim and vigour. I was surprised to find that he is one of your influences when he can be so incredibly dry. Your own work, sir, is most engaging.”
“I believe The Idler to have been a piece of work done mostly as a procrastination from his efforts in the study of Shakespeare, which had grown too much for him,” Benedict answered evenly. “He himself admitted that The Rambler was a superior series.” He looked at the women, who seemed eager to participate in the conversation the duchess had begun. “Do any of you know what The Rambler had that The Idler lacked?”
The woman furthest to the left, who looked to be in her late forties, cleared her throat and answered tentatively, “Primarily the bulk and prolific nature of his writing, I would say. I believe Dr Johnson published quite feverishly in his earlier work. He wrote the essays with astonishing speed.”
Benedict smiled. “Yes, and it was the first time he really dove into the spiritual and philosophical matters he was uncovering. His later series was a diversion, not the highlight of his own thoughts, and so did not have the same gravity.” He saw a small frown cross Romilly’s face. “And you, My Lady?” he asked. “You disagree with me?”
She looked at him directly, the same challenge in her gaze that had existed when she asked her earlier question. “I do not disagree with the bulk of what you are saying,” she said softly, “but I perhaps disagree with how we, as a group, are critiquing Dr Johnson. One slightly less verbose series does not reflect badly on his body of work. We all have times when our writing is not at its most stellar.”
“Perhaps you are right,” Benedict said, “but critique is necessary and must be viewed without emotion attached. Dr Johnson himself would appreciate the critique, as it showed minds alive and engaged with his work. He would not like to be pandered to with good opinion.”
A flash of fury entered those crystal blue eyes. “I am not one for pandering,” she said. “Only positing that Dr Johnson’s dry manner in The Idler and his brevity are not necessarily worthy of critique. I believe his point was more easily made, and he resisted the urge to add extra pages for the sake of profit and sale.” Her chin set. “Many authors of our day could learn from his example.”
“Heavens, Lady Romilly,” the duchess said, looking a little pained. “You are speaking your mind rather freely.”
“We are part of Women of Note, after all,” one of her companions, a severe young woman in spectacles, said, sniffing. She looked across the room and seemed to catch sight of someone she knew. “There is the provost himself!” she cried. “Come, Your Grace. We need to ask him about the couplets you found before he slips away.”
The group turned to leave, but Benedict caught Romilly’s elbow before she moved. She looked down at his hand sharply, and he immediately removed it. “Stay a moment,” he said in a low voice.
She looked at the retreating members of her assembly and then back at him. “Lord Sagre,” she said quietly, crossing her arms. “Why did you not tell me who you were when we first met?”
“I told you my name.” He hid a smile. “It is not my fault that you did not recognize my work. I ought to be insulted.”
“Not in the least,” Romilly said, blushing a little. “My ignorance is an embarrassment, but no reflection on the quality of your writing.”
Benedict raised his eyebrows. “And what do you think of the quality of my writing?” He nodded at the pile of forest green books stacked neatly at the front of the room. “Have you read my latest, or are you here as a first-time observer without knowledge of my work?”
Romilly looked uncomfortable. “You publish under the name ‘Benedict S.’ I did not know who you were until today, but I am quite familiar with your work.” She looked towards the pile of books. “And yes, I’ve read The Bride of Milan.”
He tilted his head to the side, evaluating her closely. She was not meeting his gaze, and a blush crept into her pale cheeks, disclosing her obvious discomfort. “You didn’t like it, did you?” he pressed.
She shook her head. “That’s not what I said. I think … your descriptions of Italy are quite good. Clearly, you know the place well, and you bring those details to bear.”
He narrowed his eyes. “And?”
She stumbled for words, looking behind her as though plotting her escape. “Your characters are … vivid.”
He gave a coarse laugh. “Do you remember our first meeting, Lady Romilly?”
She swallowed hard. “Indeed.”
“It was quite fantastical, in the dark garden with the music and the lantern light. You appeared out of nowhere and terrified me.” He raised a single eyebrow. “In my recollection of that night, I thought it wholly possible that you were not real at all but merely a figment of my imagination.”
“So you said,” she said drily.
“But one thing I do remember is that you were quite honest and direct,” he said. “You put my own fabrications to shame, actually. I am disappointed to find that you are not honest in all things.”
She sighed. “Your writing is quite popular, Lord Sagre. What does it matter what I think of it? All London falls at the feet of your heroes, and I’m sure the Continent swoons for your heroines.”
He didn’t know why, but he knew her opinion suddenly mattered more than anyone else’s. “And you?”
“I …” she paused, and he saw a look of gentle conviction settle in her eyes. “I think you’ve written better.”
“Better? My earlier novels?” he asked.
She bit her lip but did not reply. He changed the subject—for the moment at least. “I am quite surprised to find you here in an assembly of bluestockings, My Lady. It does not strike me as something your father would approve of.”
“My father does not condone these meetings,” she agreed, “but he does not forbid them, either. I am still allowed some small freedoms—at least, until I am married.”
“Ah, yes,” he sighed. “How very predictable you are. I imagine you, the duchess, and all her followers often read Mary Wollstonecraft and sigh over the prison that marriage can be.”
She looked up at him soberly, refusing to be teased. “And you, Lord Sagre? I suppose you are biting at the bit to be married?”
She had hit too close to home. A memory of marriage came to him—fleeting, full of betrayal, smelling like roses—and he took an almost imperceptible step backwards. She noticed it and gave a wry smile.
“See?” she said. “It is not only us women that see that cage marriage can be.” She looked across the room and raised her hand. “I see my companion, Mrs Langston. I must go to her. Good day, Lord Sagre.”
He didn’t want her to leave—not yet. “You can’t go. You say that I’ve written better—do tell me what in my repertoire actually meets with your approval.” He thought back on some of his early titles. “Camden Chase? Elliot?”
“Not anything like that—” she began and stopped suddenly as though she had said too much.
Benedict didn’t know what it was, exactly—perhaps the guilty way Romilly’s eyes darted into the distance, perhaps her nearness reminding him of that summer evening a year ago, perhaps the mysterious faerie nature of her presence—but he suddenly remembered something he’d forgotten over the past months.
“Lady Romilly,” he said, frowning. “You aren’t referencing my little notebook of stray thoughts, are you? The one I was writing in the night we met?” Her eyes confirmed that he was much closer to the truth than he’d been a moment before. “Did you find it? I misplaced it that night, and when I returned, the maids insisted they hadn’t seen it.”
Romilly sucked in her breath. “I really must go, My Lord,” she said, dropping into a quick curtsy and making her way across the room.
“Wait—” he hurried to follow her, but after only a few steps, he was met with Dr Martin, glowering in front of him.
“I don’t appreciate the way the students remained quiet during your comment about the philosophy of Voltaire …” the older man began droning on about the intellectual lack of young people. Benedict looked hopelessly past him and caught sight of Romilly’s slim form slipping out the door beside that of another woman. She paused for only a moment and looked back at him, but as soon as she saw his gaze, she looked away and ducked out of sight.
She has my book, he thought. I’m certain of it. And he meant to get it back. He might even indulge in a bit of umbrage that she had held onto his personal property for so long. He tried not to acknowledge the truth—that he was relieved he had an excuse to see her again.
“Reshaping a Viscount’s Heart” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Lady Romilly’s life takes an unexpected turn when her father inherits an earldom, thrusting her into a world of intricate social dynamics. Struggling to find her footing within the aristocracy, Romilly discovers a sense of belonging among a group of bluestocking women who share her passion for intellectual pursuits. Her desire for independence and purpose leads her to a fateful encounter with a viscount and author haunted by his own past…
Will she find what she is looking for as she becomes both his muse and his salvation?
Benedict, once a literary luminary, is trapped in the shadows of his personal tragedy. The arrival of Lady Romilly rekindles his creativity and awakens emotions he thought long lost. As they collaborate on a novel and grow closer, the lines between friendship and something deeper blur. Yet, the scars of Benedict’s history and the watchful eyes of London’s elite threaten to unravel their budding relationship…
Can he break free from the shadows of his past and allow himself to embrace the radiant light that Lady Romilly brings into his life?
In a world where class divides and societal expectations loom large, Romilly and Benedict’s shared journey becomes a testament to the power of intellect, friendship, and love. As they grapple with their own vulnerabilities and navigate the challenges of a society that seeks to confine them, can they summon the courage to embrace their feelings and choose a future that defies convention or will their love be lost to eternity?
“Reshaping a Viscount’s Heart” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.