Authors: Meagan McKinney
“But it should have been your right to have the world in your palm. And instead you’ve been left without.” Evvie again grew serious.
Lissa was not about to let this conversation go further. She said simply, “It should have been both our rights, I suppose, but then, such is fate. Now are we going to stand here until the arcade has sold out of lamb for
George’s dinner? He’s only a little boy, you know. I’d hate to see him miss a meal because his sisters became prostrate with grief and couldn’t move from their threshold.”
“Oh, you ninny! Let’s be off then. I shall never be so serious again.” Evvie shook her head, then walked briskly at her sister’s side in the cool October morn.
The village of Nodding Knoll was not far away. Their cottage—astutely named Violet Croft for in May their lawn was like a carpet of purple—sat on the edge of the old Alcester estate, and it had been built on the side closest to Nodding Knoll. The old estate house sat almost a half mile behind the cottage in a grove of gnarled oaks. Unkempt and abandoned, it was now owned by Brandts, Limited, in London, which for years had been unsuccessful in selling it.
Lissa disliked walking by the gates of Alcester House. She did so only when she was feeling particularly melancholy. Then she would stand at the rusting ornate gates and survey the weeds and crumbling marble that had once been her home. Alcester House sat like a withering old woman ready for the graveyard, and usually the sight of it only depressed her further.
But sometimes, usually late in the summer, she would take heart. Among the weeds and mustard, she would find a single perfect rose—a staunch reminder of the grand garden that had once grown there—a reminder of everything that had once been. It was a sign of endurance—as she and Evvie and George had endured. And when she would see that tiny blush-colored bloom, her whole outlook would change and she would find the courage to continue.
Now as Lissa walked with her sister on the wide cobbled path that served as the village’s only road, her mind was on something else entirely. She was chagrined to note how busy the road was this morning. Wagons rolled by leaving behind the scent of linseed oil, which was used in painting, and freshly cut lumber. Of course, she knew where the wagons were headed. Several dark-green han
som cabs, obviously hired from London, went by also, and she speculated that they were probably filled with skilled workers brought up from the city. They were headed for the castle that loomed behind them, where the sandstone turrets towered above the brilliant autumn elms.
She’d known about the new marquis’s coming for several days now, but for some reason she hadn’t been able to summon the nonchalance she needed in order to tell Evvie about it. But now as one vehicle after another filed past them on the narrow road, her sister brought up the subject.
“What is the bustle about, Lissa? I’ve never heard so many carriages and wagons on this road.” Evvie slipped on a cobble and clung to Lissa’s arm for support.
Lissa clutched her sister, perhaps a bit too tightly. She wished she didn’t have to tell Evvie now, for she would want a full description of all the activity. Evvie would also ask too many probing questions, and those she couldn’t bear to answer. But there was no avoiding it now.
“The marquis is returning.” There. She’d said it.
Evvie was speechless. When she did find her tongue, she gasped out, “You mean Lord Powerscourt? The new marquis?”
“Yes.” The word caught in her throat. Unable to stand another second of the conversation, Lissa continued along the road so briskly that Evvie was practically running by her side.
“Oh, Lissa . . .” Evvie finally moaned. “When?”
“In two weeks, I hear.” That thought alone terrified her. She silently begged Evvie to cease her questioning. Evvie did.
“Shall we get to market before the butcher sells all of his mutton?” Lissa refused to acknowledge her sister’s shocked expression. When Evvie nodded, they continued on their way without another word.
Nodding Knoll’s arcaded market was not too crowded, Lissa noted thankfully, for the housewives had
already been there at dawn to haggle down the prices with the sleepy shopkeepers. They strolled along the stalls, stopping to admire some pink satin ribbons and a pair of fine calfskin gloves. As usual, gypsies possessed several stalls at the end of the arcade where they sold charms and dried lavender. Their dark looks and wild ways intimidated many of Nodding Knoll’s citizens, but Lissa had always felt drawn to them. Today was no exception. Now as she discreetly met their gazes, a little thrill went down her spine. And though she was loathe to admit it, she supposed she was remembering another such gaze, one that she knew was best forgotten.
After leaving the gypsies, they made all their domestic purchases and stopped last at a fruit stand. Lissa couldn’t help but be attracted to the rare oranges the seller had stacked in a pyramid near his money box. She took the top orange down and held it to Evvie’s nose. Both girls reveled in the precious, exotic scent.
“Two for a quid, ladies.” The fruitseller smiled jovially as he courted the two pretty Alcester girls.
“Harry McBain, now you know we can’t afford to pay almost half a guinea for one orange,” Evvie exclaimed.
“The price is right steep.” Harry looked over his shoulder. His elderly mother was sitting on a stool knitting. When the two ladies had walked up, Mrs. McBain had stared right at them, frowning.
Harry turned back to Evvie. “Me mum thinks to get it from the gentry. They’ll pay a quid—and more—for oranges.”
“But not us, I’m afraid.” Lissa reluctantly pried her gaze from the pyramid of oranges. With trepidation, she watched Harry’s mother rise from her seat.
“Anything else for you, ladies?” Harry had seen his mother coming. When Lissa put in her order for a dozen baking apples, Harry’s mother grudgingly resumed her seat.
“Here you go, Miss Alcester.” As he brought them
their apples, he leaned over the wooden counter to drop them in Lissa’s basket. But as he did so, he left one apple out. With sleight of hand, he pulled an orange from the front of the pyramid and immediately replaced the hole with the apple. The costly orange then dropped into their basket.
Lissa started to thank the kindly man, but she immediately silenced herself, for his elderly mother was already stomping to the front. She was sure Mrs. McBain hadn’t seen the orange go into her basket. However, Harry’s mother had long ago made it clear she didn’t want her son to fraternize any longer than necessary with the Alcester girls. And she supposed that was exactly what Mrs. McBain was thinking now.
Her suspicions proved all too correct. As they left, Lissa overheard Mrs. McBain whisper to her irritated son, “They haven’t a quid more than we do, and besides, you know what
The “her” in question had to be herself, Lissa knew, for much to the townspeople’s chagrin, she had grown to look shockingly like her late mother. She was grateful that Evvie had somehow been kept out of the gossip, probably because of her affliction, and also because her quiet, disarming beauty put everyone in a respectful mood. But she herself had had no such luck.
Though Lissa always kept to herself, her looks alone seemed to bring out the worst kind of suspicions in people. It pained her every time she was likened to Rebecca Alcester. While she had loved her mother and hated to see her memory so despised, Lissa knew only too well that she had never really known Rebecca. Her mother’s life had been parties and London and ballgowns, not her children. Despite this, Lissa had adored her; adored her as she would an angel who, from time to time, would descend upon her daughter’s dull little life and make it sparkle if only for a day. Rebecca Alcester had been too glorious to touch, too ethereal to hold. Her father, William Alcester,
had ultimately been the one to pay the price for loving such a creature.
Now no remaining Alcester was ever going to be allowed to forget their mother’s chronic infidelities, particularly Lissa, who had turned out even more fatally beautiful than her mother. That was why Lissa did without, saved every tuppence she could, so that one day they would be able to get away from picturesque little Nodding Knoll. Every day the town choked her just a little bit more, and she ached for the day they could afford to move.
Wishing away Mrs. McBain’s words, Lissa pictured again the imaginary little town where the Alcesters would make a new start. She then looked at Evvie, praying all the while that her sister hadn’t heard the old woman’s parting words. But there was no such hope. Evvie’s face had turned pinched as it often did when someone said something cruel and there was nothing she could do about it.
But Lissa’s spirits sagged only for a moment. She looked behind her. As Harry kept an ear on his mother’s admonitions, he turned to her and gave her a saucy wink. Harry McBain had a weakness for the ladies, but he still made her feel much better and she renewed her pace with much more vigor.
“Come, Evvie, Bishop’s Mercantile next. Let’s see what Great-aunt Sophie has for us this month. Then we’ll come back and buy all of those wretched oranges!”
Evvie gratefully kept up with her sister’s steps.
Lissa loved Bishop’s Mercantile. The tiny little store sold everything from rye flour and Chinese tea to cashmere shawls and pruning shears. This was where she had bought Evvie’s bonnet—shamefully on credit, but Mr. Bishop would not take no for an answer—and where they came to pick up their mail in the tiny village of Nodding Knoll. Lissa also loved the fact that the little store boasted no less than nine resident felines. The Bishops were notorious for putting up strays.
Mr. Bishop was a neatly groomed, short man, and his
wife—whom Lissa suspected as the cat lover—was as kindhearted as she was plump. The Bishops made an odd couple, for Mrs. Bishop outweighed her husband by at least six stone. But anyone who ever met Mathilde Bishop was immediately taken in by her warmth, and Mr. Bishop, Lissa had surmised, had long ago fallen under his wife’s spell. He adored her.
“Good morning, ladies.” Mrs. Bishop, her gold-gray hair neatly arranged in sausage curls, sailed toward them. She immediately grasped Evvie’s hand and patted it.
“Mrs. Bishop,” Evvie acknowledged, smiling brilliantly.
“We’re going to browse, I think. But we’ve come for Sophie’s post though. Is it in?” Lissa inquired.
“Yes, it is, my dear. I shall get Mr. Bishop to fetch it for you this minute.” The woman released Evvie’s hand. She then added enticingly, “We have a few new toilet waters, girls. Why don’t you dears look there first?”
Lissa needed no prodding. She was already leading Evvie to the dark oak counter where the perfumes were displayed. Both girls loved the Mercantile even if, now, most of their purchases were made with their imaginations rather than their purses.
Lissa gently moved a fat gray tom from his sleeping quarters on the counter and handed an open bottle to Evvie. “Smell this. It’s ‘Passel’s Oil of Cloves.’ What do you think?”
Evvie took one whiff and wrinkled her nose. Even the tom made a face and backed away.
“Too strong?” Lissa replaced the bottle onto a blue willow platter crammed with vials. “How is this? This is ‘Linsey’s Violet Water.’ ”
“Too sweet!” Evvie turned that one down too.
“This is it. ‘Gray’s One Hundred Roses.’ ”
the one. Much better.” Her sister brought the bottle to her nose a second time, but she was stopped when Lissa put a warning hand on her arm.
“Oh, Evvie, don’t start but there’s a man watching you,” she whispered.
“A man?” Evvie blushed quite prettily. “There are other customers in here?”
“He just walked in. He’s browsing by the gent’s coat catalogs, but I daresay, he doesn’t buy his frock coats from them. He’s much too well dressed.” Lissa tightened her grip on her sister’s arm. Her glance darted across the store, then she whispered, “Oh, Evvie, don’t move. He’s staring quite boldly now.
Evvie colored profusely. “Oh, Lissa, he must be staring at you, not me! I’m the mousy one . . .”
“Pooh! You’re a beauty. And he is staring at you. Let me look again.” Casually she took a perfume bottle and lifted it to her nose. Her sparkling blue eyes slid to one side and she took another covert glance at the mysterious gentleman who seemed so interested in them.
“What does he look like?” Evvie whispered.
For Evvie’s sake, Lissa made her description as detailed as she could. “He’s rather handsome. Quite handsome actually. He’s tall and wears spectacles, but those make him look very intelligent and dignified. He possesses a rather classic Englishman’s face. He has blond hair. Let me see . . .” She stole another glance. “And he hardly looks forty but I would guess that to be his age for he does possess some lines around his eyes and mouth.”
“I wonder who he is. You’ve never seen him before?”
“Not that I can remember. However, something does seem familiar about him. Perhaps Mother and Father knew him. I don’t know.” She took another peek at the gentleman but this time he was conversing with Mr. Bishop.
“. . . so sorry. I regret they’ve not come in yet. But I promise to have them before the marquis arrives at Powerscourt. You have my word, Mr. Jones.” Mr. Bishop’s voice boomed clear across the shop.
“Did you hear, Lissa?” Evvie grasped her arm and whispered. “Jones. He must be the gentleman who is Pow
erscourt’s estate manager. He’s here seeing to the castle. And Mother and Father surely must have known him for they knew the old marquis quite well. That’s why he seems familiar. Lissa?”
But Lissa didn’t hear her. The very name Powerscourt stabbed at her heart. It brought up all kinds of emotions that she preferred stayed buried.
“Yes?” She turned her attention to her sister.
“Are you thinking of . . . Ivan?” Evvie gently prodded.
“I see.” Somehow Evvie found her sister’s cheek and patted it comfortingly.
Feeling almost ill, Lissa put down the perfume bottle and said, “Let’s get Great-aunt Sophie’s post and go home. George will be home from school before we’ve made him supper.”