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Temporary Paradise

CHAPTER ONE

London, 1765

Magnolias on Gold Velvet Clothc. 1888-1890, Martin Johnson Heade

Magnolias on Gold Velvet Clothc. 1888-1890, Martin Johnson Heade

“And with this last bit of lace in the back,” the dressmaker declared, her plump face beaming like the noonday sun, “you are nothing short of perfection.” She fussed with the train, flicked at the sleeves, then took a delicate step backward, her breaths coming out in soft little puffs, as if anything more strenuous would befall calamity on the bride-to-be who stood before her.

“Heavenly,” Sophia Haliday’s mother whispered.

“Like an angel,” her best friend, Emily Aldershot, agreed.

Sophia herself, swathed in what felt like acres of brocaded blue silk and gossamer lace, responded by forcing her lips into a radiant smile, determined to show that she shared the collective enthusiasm. After all, it was not every day that a brewer’s daughter stood on the verge of entering the ranks of nobility.

Chez Angeline, the dressmaker’s shop, was a frenzy of activity, with seamstresses marching to and fro like lines of worker ants. Sharp instructions were issued from the wealthy patrons as bolt after bolt of cloth, each more beautiful than the last, was brought forth to be examined and inspected with the shrewdness of seasoned horse trading. Shears clipped through heavy brocades, needles plunged, tapes measured. The aroma of burning wood from the room’s fireplace mingled with the faint sweetness of small cakes that were heaped on plates and available for any client in need of refreshment. It was beautifully appointed, with tasteful furniture and paintings befitting the status of the clientele. And lately it was a room with which Sophia had become intimately familiar as she was primped and preened like the viscountess she would be in just a few short months.

“Sophia.” Her mother’s voice broke through her woolgathering. “You’ve not taken ill, have you?”

“No no, of course not. I — ”

“More likely just dreaming,” Emily broke in, “about how exciting your life as viscountess will be.”

“Yes,” Sophia promptly agreed, “very exciting.” With a quick shake of the head she cleared her mind and refocused on the task at hand. Her gaze fell upon a young seamstress who was bringing out a bolt of cloth for them to inspect. “Would Viscount Retford like that one?” she asked, indicating the shimmering emerald green silk.

“Oh, I should think so,” Emily replied. “It’s the exact same color as a plant.”

Sophia barely had time to stifle the giggle on her lips as her mother shot Emily a scolding glance. “Viscount Retford’s interest in botany has brought him much respect in the scientific community,” she said sternly, “and I do not believe poking fun of that is warranted.”

Emily looked sheepish. Though not actually one of Frances Haliday’s children, Emily had been Sophia’s friend for so long that she was almost thought of as another daughter and, as such, was not excluded from the occasional reprimands her other children received. “I beg pardon, ma’am. I have naught but the highest respect for Lord Retford’s scientific pursuits.”

Frances smiled and brushed a speck of lint from Emily’s gown. “I know that, Emily. You are a kind girl. Perhaps the pending marriage has made me more anxious than I realize. There is still much to do and time is running out.”

“But the wardrobe is nearly finished,” Sophia reminded her mother, eager to help soothe frazzled nerves. Frances Haliday wasn’t the only one who was uneasy. Sophia herself had been on edge for months, only too aware that before long she’d be exchanging wedding vows that would change her life forever.

Frances summoned Angeline. “Let’s get her out of this dress and into the gown for this evening,” she said. “It is ready, is it not?”

“Oh, indeed it is, madam,” the dressmaker proudly replied. “Just as you instructed.”

Young assistants surrounded Sophia and began unbuttoning and unpinning the wedding dress so that she could try on her gown for the evening’s ball. The gown, as Angeline had assured them, was perfect. After arranging for its delivery later that afternoon, the three women finished their business in the shop and then made their way home. Emily was dropped off first, and then the Haliday coach wound its way through London’s West End toward number forty-four, Berkeley Square. It was an elegant, gracious home, one that no doubt would have brought pride to Sophia’s great-grandfather, Horace Haliday, whose limitless ambition had started the family brewery that flourished to this day.

Sophia gave her cloak to a housemaid as she made her way down a hallway toward the main staircase, breathing in the fragrance of freshly cut roses from the garden. Dozens of them were placed throughout the home in tasteful Chinese vases. Oil paintings lined the walls, imported Italian furniture decorated the rooms. The home was spotless, given an extra scrub today because Viscount Retford would be arriving this evening to escort Sophia to the assembly. She smiled as she thought of George, as she sometimes called him in private, and his quiet, dignified ways. What a gentleman he was. No doubt he would make a fine husband. If only —

“Sophia!” Her brother, Mark, came racing up the stairway behind her. “I’ve been looking for you.”

“Oh?”

“I’ve got something to show you.” They continued up the stairway together. “Something I’ve been working on. Where have you been?”

“I was out shopping.”

“Again?”

She smiled as he rolled his eyes in mock exasperation. “Yes, again. There is a lot to be done before the wedding, you know, and it takes time. The wardrobe alone has required over a dozen visits.”

“As if Retford’s going to notice anything you wear.”

“Mark!”

“Oh, nevermind him, and come into the parlor with me. I’ve been working on ideas for expanding the brewery and I want your opinion.”

Pages: 1 2 3 4

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with my webmaster, Alla. {photo credits: Alessandro Bologna}