Excerpt: Fair as a Star

Excerpt: Fair as a Star

Book 1: Victorian Romantics

Somerset, England
July 1864

Beryl Burnham stared out the window of the carriage as it rolled down the narrow country road that ran through the center of Shepton Worthy. Her gaze drifted over the familiar landscape. More than a year had passed since she’d last seen the ancient curving oaks, the rhododendrons rising as high as the cottages they flanked, and the damask roses drooping over low garden walls. Nothing had changed. The village looked as it always had—a veritable pattern card of pastoral perfection.

The only thing that had ever stood out had been Beryl herself.

And now she was home.

It was a suffocating sensation, as much as a joyful one.

What she needed was a moment of fresh air. A chance to stretch her legs, and to break free from the cloying sense of inevitability that had settled over her the moment their train had pulled up to the village’s small platform halt.

She lowered the window as the carriage passed the village church. It was a narrow building of worn gray stone, with a Gothic severity to its angles that was belied by the riot of red, blue, and yellow wildflowers that brightened the churchyard, and the soft, fragrant blooms framing the heavy wooden doors.

The open doors.

“Stop the coach!” she called out to the driver.

Across from her, Aunt Hortensia was startled from her nap. “What’s this?” Her hooded eyes snapped open as the carriage came to a halt. “Have we arrived?”

“Very nearly,” Beryl said. “Only another mile.”

“Another mile?” Aunt Hortensia withdrew a handkerchief from her beaded reticule to dab at her mouth. She was a stately woman on the other side of sixty who had the unfortunate habit of drooling as she dozed. “Then why have we stopped, pray?”

“It’s the church,” Beryl said. “The doors are open.”

“What on earth does that signify?”

“It means that Mr. Rivenhall is presently inside. I must pay my respects.” Beryl was surprised by the urgency of her desire to see him. She and Mark Rivenhall had always been friends. But this was something else. Something different. It coiled tight inside of her. A need so keen that it cut like a knife. As if seeing him would fortify her for what was to come.

And perhaps it might.

Mark had a knack for lifting her spirits. For making her smile, whether in person, or through the many letters he’d written to her during her absence. Sweet, humorous letters. They’d arrived with some regularity, as reliable as Mark was himself. She’d come to depend on those letters. To look for them each week, with as much eager anticipation as a child looking forward to a treat.

“One of the Rivenhall triplets?” Aunt Hortensia gave a scandalized blink. “Most certainly not. You aren’t fit to be seen, my girl.”

“I look well enough.” She was wearing one of the dresses her aunt had purchased for her in Paris. A white cotton day dress, with billowing sleeves and wide flounced skirts trimmed in the same grass-green satin ribbon as the delicate green belt that circled her waist. It was all a bit wrinkled, truth be told, and she’d perspired under the arms a little, but Mark wouldn’t care. He was a curate. A man of God. Not the sort to heed such things.

“Nonsense,” Aunt Hortensia scoffed. “Mr. Rivenhall is soon to be your brother-in-law. You may call on him after you’ve bathed and changed from the journey. After you’ve seen your parents—and your betrothed.”

“Mr. Rivenhall won’t mind.” Beryl opened the carriage door before the liveried footman could reach it to assist her. “Go on without me, Aunt. I’ll walk the rest of the way home.”

Aunt Hortensia’s voice rose. “Beryl Elizabeth Burnham—”

“I promise I’ll be quick.” Beryl permitted the footman to hand her down. “Don’t wait for me.”

With that, she swung open the rose-festooned churchyard gate—stirring a waft of heady perfume into the sultry summer air—and walked the short distance to the front doors of the church. Voices emanated from within. An elderly lady was complaining loudly. Beryl recognized the distinctive shrill tone. It was one of the village’s foremost gossips, Mrs. Doolittle, venting her spleen about her neighbor.

And in response, an equally recognizable deep baritone, uttering a monosyllabic assent here, and a sympathetic murmur there. No one was as understanding as Mark Rivenhall.

He stood with his back to Beryl, his broad shoulders outlined in his cassock, and his seal-brown hair carelessly mussed from too often raking his fingers through it. He was as sweetly familiar to her as Shepton Worthy itself.

The Rivenhall triplets was a name often used to describe the three brothers. But they weren’t triplets at all. They’d only been born one year after the other in quick succession. First Henry, now a baronet. And then Jack, a soldier who had tragically met his end last year in Bhutan. And finally, Mark, curate to the current vicar of Shepton Worthy.

“She didn’t even apologize,” Mrs. Doolittle said. “You see why you must intervene. If you don’t, I shall withdraw from the committee. And the fete will be the worse for it, I can promise you—” She broke off abruptly at the sight of Beryl advancing up the nave. “Miss Burnham!”

Mark appeared to still for an instant—in surprise, Beryl hoped—before slowly turning to look at her. The expression in his blue eyes was difficult to read, but the smile that spread over his face was welcoming enough. It was the same ready smile with which he greeted all of his parishioners. “Miss Burnham. I wasn’t aware you’d returned.”

“Only just. I was passing and saw the doors open. I thought…” Beryl trailed off, feeling all at once the impulsiveness of her gesture. Mark wasn’t happy to see her. That was plain enough. His mouth was smiling, but his eyes definitely were not. “Forgive the interruption.”

“Not at all. Mrs. Doolittle and I are quite finished.”

Mrs. Doolittle looked from Beryl to Mark and back again. She was a petite white-haired lady, clad in unrelieved black crepe. Her eyes were as sharp as a hunting hawk’s behind her wire-rimmed spectacles, forever scanning about for fresh morsels of tittle-tattle. “Over a year in Paris,” she remarked. “A pleasure trip, I’m told.”

“It was.” Beryl forced a smile. “My aunt and I had a marvelous time.”

Mrs. Doolittle sniffed. “You missed the funeral. But that’s none of my business.” She inclined her head to Mark. “Mr. Rivenhall. Good day.”

“Good day, ma’am.”

Beryl bit her tongue until Mrs. Doolittle had exited the church.

“You mustn’t mind her,” Mark said.

“I never have. I’m not likely to start now.”

“No, indeed.” He took a step closer to her, only to come to an awkward halt. His fingers pushed through his already disheveled hair, his smile turning a little rueful. “I wish I’d known you were coming.”

“Didn’t Henry tell you? I mentioned it to him when last I wrote. I’d have written to you as well, but—”

“It wasn’t necessary.”

“Did you receive my last letter?”

“I did. Thank you.”

She came closer to him. “And thank you. All of the letters you wrote to me—”

“They were only trifles.”

“‘Trifles make the sum of life,’” she quoted to him. It was from David Copperfield. She and Mark shared a love of Mr. Dickens’s novels. It was how they’d first become friends. “Your letters were very welcome. They entertained me to no end. I believe I read the one about Mrs. Jenkins’s nephew and the pony a dozen times. It never failed to make me laugh.”

“I’m glad I could amuse you.”

If Beryl didn’t know him better, she might have imagined there was a trace of coolness in his words. She searched his face. “You look well.”

“And you…” One hand lifted in a vague gesture, only to fall back to his side. He cleared his throat. “You look—”

“Yes, I know. Rather worse for wear.” She gave her rumpled skirts a shake. “Aunt Hortensia warned me not to come in. She said I wasn’t fit to be seen. But I had to see you. I wanted to tell you how much I appreciated your letters over the past year, and the fact that you never…you never—”

“What?”

“You never reproached me for not being here for Jack’s funeral.”

Mark’s brows lowered. He took another step toward her. “Has Henry done so?”

“Not in so many words, but I know I disappointed him. I daresay it seemed like I didn’t care, leaving as abruptly as I did. I’m afraid he was hurt by my absence.”

“Henry will survive. If it’s any comfort, he hardly noticed my presence at the funeral, let alone your absence. A year from now he won’t remember who was there and who wasn’t, nor will any of the villagers.”

“I hope you’re right.”

“Have you seen him yet?” Mark asked.

Beryl shook her head. “I haven’t even been home. Aunt Hortensia went ahead with the carriage. I’m to walk the rest of the way to the Grange.”

His gaze held hers. “You came here first?”

Warmth crept into her cheeks. “I did.” She gave a self-conscious laugh. “I suppose I wanted to see a friendly face before I entered the lion’s den.”

The strange look in his eyes—so guarded and wary—seemed to soften. “Shall I walk you back?”

Some of the tension in her shoulders eased. “Can you?”

“I’ll lock up the church.”

“Isn’t Mr. Venable about?” Beryl had half expected to see the antiquated vicar. He’d been a fixture at the church ever since she was a girl. A white-haired relic, even then.

“He’s confined to his bed. His health has been failing of late. I believe he’s finally beginning to seriously contemplate retirement.”

“And then you’ll be made vicar?”

“That’s the idea.” Mark’s smile dimmed. “It’s ultimately up to Henry.” He tugged at the front of his cassock. “Will you give me a moment to change?”

“Of course.” Beryl waited in the aisle, her gloved hands clasped in front of her. She didn’t want to go home. Didn’t want to resume the life she’d left a year ago.

Not that Paris had been much better.

There had been more distraction there, certainly. But her secret burden had lurked in the background—through all of her visits to the fashionable shops and her meals at elegant cafés and patisseries—waiting to once again wrap itself around her heart. It wasn’t a continuous source of distress, no more than it had been in Shepton Worthy. But it was there. A dark cloud only temporarily eclipsed by the sun.

Mark appeared again in short order, wearing a white linen shirt, with dark woolen trousers and matching waistcoat. His frock coat was draped over his arm.

He wasn’t as tall as Henry, nor as brawny as Jack had been—though he still dwarfed Beryl in both height and breadth. But it wasn’t his build that made Mark attractive. It was the kindness about him. The sparkle of roguish good humor that made his blue eyes crinkle and his mouth quirk. That humor had been present in all of his letters. Had made her laugh when she felt like weeping.

“Shall we set off?” he asked.

“By all means.” She followed him out of the church, waiting on the steps as he locked the doors. “I didn’t mean to importune your time.”

“Nonsense. I’m glad for the fresh air.” He walked alongside her through the churchyard, hands thrust in his pockets. “Glad I was your first stop.”

“I thought you were put out.”

“Surprised,” he admitted. “You took me off of my guard. I hadn’t expected you to return until September.”

“Yes, well…Aunt Hortensia didn’t feel there was any point in staying away any longer. Not with the wedding approaching.”

Mark bent his head to conceal a frown. “It is looming ahead, isn’t it?”

“Less than three months away.” It was impossible not to think of it. Impossible not to contemplate the absolute inevitability of it all. Even in Paris, where she’d been meant to be resting and recovering herself, Aunt Hortensia had insisted that the bulk of their time be spent shopping for Beryl’s wedding clothes.

Less than three months.

She was beginning to feel like a prize pig being forced down an increasingly narrow chute.

“October fifteenth,” Mark said. “I have it written down in my diary.”

As did she. Written down and underlined in heavy pencil. She moistened her lips. “Is Henry much changed?”

“He’s been keeping himself busy with estate matters. But that’s no different than usual. Truth be told, I haven’t seen him very often.”

She looked at him. “Why not?”

“I’ve had too much work to do, what with Mr. Venable being ill, and the villagers needing my input on plans for the summer fete. There have been disputes between some of the ladies about how to proceed this year. Old grievances and such. I’ve been called upon to play mediator.”

“No wonder Mr. Venable has decided to take to his bed.”

“Yes, his indisposition is rather convenient. He never did like settling arguments between parishioners, not with any degree of nuance. It was all he could do to make it through the Christmas pageant this year. By the end of it, he was reduced to advising everyone to ‘cut the baby in half,’ like Solomon.”

Beryl laughed. “If only every problem could be solved with such efficiency.”

“With an appropriate Bible verse or a meaningful quote from scripture? Venable believes it can.”

“You don’t, I take it.”

“I find it easier to listen to their complaints than to force them to a biblical solution. They only want to be heard.”

She looped her arm through his. “And you’re a superlative listener.”

His muscles tensed at her touch, and then relaxed. “We can’t all be baronets or war heroes.”

Rays of sunshine shone down through the branches of the oaks that lined the road, filtering through the leaves to warm Beryl’s face. “Do you miss him?”

Mark didn’t need to ask who she meant. “Every day. Sometimes, when something humorous happens in the village, I still have the urge to write to him. I have to remind myself that he’s gone.”

She squeezed his arm. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here for you.”

“For Henry, you mean.”

“For both of you. I’m afraid I haven’t been a very good friend. I’ve been selfish. Absent when you most—” She stopped herself. There was no point in self-recrimination. “But I mean to remedy that. From now on, I’m completely at your service. Anything you require of me, you need only ask.”

“Anything?” He smiled.

“So long as my mother and Henry can spare me. I don’t mean to be idle.”

“You never were.”

“No,” she said. “Only restless.”

He touched the back of her gloved hand as it curled around his arm. His fingers brushed over the small whitework figure she’d stitched into the fabric. “Is this one of your own designs?”

“It is.”

“A dragonfly?”

“A damselfly.” She’d worked on it in the evenings during her final weeks in Paris. The thread had been chosen with care to perfectly match her gloves, each stitch placed with faithful intention. “They were often flitting about near the Seine. I was able to sketch some images to work from.”

He traced the embroidery. “Hiding in plain sight.”

“That’s the beauty of whitework. It’s never ostentatious.” It was her favorite form of embroidery, white thread on matching white fabric. She liked to place small figures on the corner of a linen handkerchief or the hemmed cuff of a cambric undersleeve. Secret stitches that hid in plain sight, just as Mark had said. The sort that were discovered unexpectedly, and that gave the finder an instant of surprised delight.

He looked at her. “You have a formidable talent.”

Her mouth tilted up at one corner. “For whitework.”

“Don’t be dismissive of it.”

“I’m not. I only dispute what you call it. A formidable talent. As if there’s anything particularly formidable about embroidery. It’s a ladies’ pastime, that’s all. Something to fill the empty hours. It has no real worth outside of a moment’s pleasure in looking at it.”

“It gives you pleasure, doesn’t it? The hours you spend in creating it? That alone makes it a thing of value.”

She privately conceded his point. Her whitework embroidery did have value to her. It steadied her mind, and gave her the means to be creative. To exercise a skill which she imagined to be similar to that of a miniature portrait painter, albeit with a needle and thread.

“You gave me an embroidered handkerchief once,” he said. “Do you remember?”

“Of course.” She’d given one to Henry as well. It had been years ago. A small Christmas gift to each of them. “I’m surprised that you do.”

“I still have it.”

Her eyes met his. “Do you?”

“Naturally,” he said. “It’s one of my treasures.”

Heat rose in her cheeks. “Nonsense.”

“It is.” A glint of humor shone in his gaze. “Do you know, I rather envy my brother. He has a lifetime of such artfully stitched linens to look forward to. Nearly invisible dragonflies and damselflies and whatever other insects take your fancy.”

“Insects. Really. I do occasionally stitch other things.”

“Such as? I can only recall ladybirds and centipedes—”

“I’ve never embroidered a centipede in my life.”

“Caterpillars, then.”

She failed to suppress a smile. “It was butterflies, you wretch. As well you know.”

He flashed her a grin. “Ah, yes. Quite right. I expect you’ve given them up, now that you’ve turned your attention to damselflies.”

“No, indeed. Butterflies are still my favorite subjects.” She was endlessly fascinated by their delicate majesty. By their wings, as colorfully patterned as the stained-glass windows in a great cathedral.

But it was more than that.

“I like things that change into other things,” she said. “That have the ability to transform into something beautiful.”

“Everything you stitch is beautiful,” he said.

The compliment filled Beryl with a warm glow. Despite her protestations, she took pride in her whitework. His recognition of it meant the world to her. “You’re very kind to say so.”

“It’s the truth, merely.”

Up ahead, the road split in two at the trunk of an enormous oak. The Grange was to the left, Rivenhall Park to the right.

She and Mark came to a halt.

There was no more point in delaying. It was time to go home. To see her mother and sister, and to face her future with Henry. Beryl no longer felt suffocated by the prospect. Being with Mark had given her room to breathe, just as it always did.

“I’d best go the rest of the way on my own.” She slid her arm from his. “Thank you for accompanying me this far.”

“Will I see you again?” he asked.

“Undoubtedly. In church on Sunday, if not before.” On impulse, she stretched up to press a brief, grateful kiss to his cheek. “Goodbye for now.”

He didn’t say anything. Didn’t move or even seem to breathe. As she turned away from him to walk down the left branch of the road, she had the strange sense he was still standing where she’d left him. Frozen to the spot, watching her.

She didn’t look back to find out.

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