An American Regency, set in Creole New Orleans
The Story Begins
New York City
December 31, 1793
President Washington leaned over Sarah’s hand. “Happy New Year, Sarah, you look lovely tonight. Is that a new gown you’re wearing?”
“Yes,” she stuttered as she curtseyed. Her heart raced like a run of sixteenth notes. With her mother and father behind her, she stood in the receiving line in the presidential mansion on Broad Way. She wore a light blue satin dress in the latest, slimmer silhouette.
The president smiled indulgently. “It is charming on you. It brings out your eyes.” Yes, she did have her father’s ice-blue eyes and straight, walnut brown hair. For the millionth time she wished she had instead inherited her mother’s luxuriant chestnut waves. But to the president, she only smiled tremulously in return.
“Christiane!” Washington exclaimed and embraced her mother. “You will always be the belle of any ball! You become more beautiful with each year!”
Sarah pursed her lips.
“Flattering as always.” Her mother smiled and shook her head at him.
“Not at all, my dear,” Mrs. Washington put in. “John, good evening.”
“My lady,” John replied as he bent over her hand. “Thank you for having us tonight.”
“Oh, it wouldn’t be a celebration if we didn’t have our dear friends with us,” the president’s wife said.
“Yes, Christiane,” Washington said, “I was just thinking this evening of the little party we had at Valley Forge on New Year’s Eve. Do you remember it?”
“Yes, Mr. President, that was the year….” Christiane stopped suddenly. Then she said quickly, “Our circumstances are certainly different tonight.”
“Yes, indeed,” Mrs. Washington picked up the thread.
Sarah stood and tried to appear as though she had not understood her mother’s slip.
President Washington had innocently touched the topic that her family had avoided all fall, the fact of Sarah’s own illegitimate birth.
Fifteen years ago at Valley Forge her mother had been expecting her while in Philadelphia her father had served with the British army. Didn’t they think she could figure it out herself? After the ill-fated day this had become public knowledge, her father had explained patiently to her that she became legitimate when he and her mother had finally married. He seemed to think that made everything all right. Her fingers turned white and cold as she tightened her grip on her beaded reticule.
After Christiane promised President Washington a dance of his choosing, they made their way down the line. Sarah wondered if it were her imagination that the greetings they received after the Washington’s were perfunctory in the extreme. But no one dared to snub those welcomed by the Washingtons.
Then Sarah saw Hester across the room and smiled. Her friend was talking to a few acquaintances of theirs from finishing school, the finishing school Sarah had been expelled from after the scandal. For a fraction of a second Sarah had the awful premonition that Hester might snub her. But Hester, dressed in a pink frilled gown, caught Sarah’s glance, made a quick apology and moved elegantly, but swiftly to her side.
“Sarah,” Hester breathed and then she greeted Sarah’s parents.
“You young ladies, don’t want to be troubled with parents tonight,” her father said with forced gaiety. “Go on and join your friends.”
Sarah, still feeling uncertain, allowed Hester to lead her away. They paused at the edge of the ballroom near two tall potted plants. Not yet sixteen and “out,” they were still more observers, then participants here. Hester touched her friend’s arm in a delicate gesture, she had obviously practiced well. “Eliot will be here tonight.”
“Eliot Farraday?” Sarah said, her lips brittle.
“Of course, and he will speak to you.”
Sarah was lifted up and terrified at the same time. “How could you–”
“His cousin Lavinia told me. He thinks the scan…,” Hester faltered here.
Sarah felt her face grow tighter.
“Anyway,” Hester went on, “he will speak to you.”
“Well, he needn’t do me any favor–”
“Oh, don’t be so difficult. You want him to, don’t you?”
“We will see,” Sarah replied calmly, but her pulse skipped a beat.
The two girls joined the other of Miss Harper’s young ladies that had been fortunate enough to be invited. Sarah exchanged civil greetings with each of her former classmates. She also noted the schoolmistress Miss Harper across the room glaring at her. Feeling acutely out of place, she averted her eyes and listened to the other girls chatter politely.
“There’s Eliot,” Hester whispered into Sarah’s right ear. “He’s being received.”
Without turning her head, Sarah cast her gaze toward the receiving line. She saw him. The top of the young man’s head came up to the president’s chin. His wavy, black hair was pulled into a sedate club at the back of his neck. He was wearing a well-tailored suit of brown. For a moment Sarah let her eye focus on the smooth line of his spine and almost stopped breathing.
“Students, please come with me. You need to visit the withdrawing room,” Miss Harper said, startling Sarah. The three discomfited girls including Hester trailed after their guardian like chicks following a hen.
Sarah’s face burned. The spinster’s message had been clear: they should not be socializing with Sarah Eastham. The nearby dancers walked through another minuet. Eliot Farraday was partnering his mother.
Glancing over at the grandfather clock, she saw that midnight was nearing. In a way it would be a relief since then the tension of this pins-and-needles evening would be nearly over. In another way, she hated for the party to end. How long would it be till she were invited to another? She realized she needed was a few minutes away from the suffocating presence of so many disapproving faces.
She was well acquainted with the mansion and found her way down the hall to an alcove with a window seat. For a few seconds she hid amid the bouffant sheers of the bay window. The candle sconce glimmered across from her against the ivory wall.
“Miss Eastham, good evening.” The sound of Eliot Farraday’s subdued voice raced through her, making the hair on the back of neck prickle.
She turned slightly and curtseyed automatically. “Mr. Farraday.”
He kissed her hand, but did not release it. “I have been hoping for an opportunity to speak to you this evening–privately.”
She stiffened at his last word.
“Not because I hesitate to show my admiration of you to all,” he hurried to say.
The moonlight on the cold, clear night poured over them. His handsome face was so close, winged eyebrows, strong chin, and luminous eyes. She could hear him breathing and his larger hand still gripped hers, making it feel small and so feminine.
He continued, “But because I wished for a few moments with you–alone.”
Again his last word affected her. Abruptly she sat down, pulling her hand from his.
“I hope I have said nothing amiss.”
“No, of course not. Please sit,” Sarah said, taking herself in hand. “I was merely startled.”
“Certainly.” There was a pause while he pulled up his tails and sat.
Sarah was grateful for their isolation and dimness of the light. She could feel herself blushing.
He cleared his throat. “Miss Eastham, I feel so much the slight shown to you by Miss Harper. I feel it especially, since I am responsible, I fear.”
“Yes, you see, I don’t know if you noticed but I often visited my cousin Lavinia at Miss Harper’s home.”
“Well, after the day of the debate when your…,” his voice faltered. “Anyway my mother said that she thought perhaps she ought to remove Lavinia from Miss Harper’s because of you. I am afraid, I allowed myself to become a bit heated in my response. I let her know of my admiration for you and how unjust it was for you to be held accountable for something that happened so long ago–especially something in a time of war.”
“Oh?” She touched her neckline and under her hand, she felt her heart pounding.
“In any case, it had just the opposite effect I wished for. I fear my mother stirred some of the other mothers and you know the outcome.”
She sighed in reply.
“Miss Eastham, I am sincerely sorry. I wish to make a further confession, if you will permit me?”
“If you wish,” she whispered, short of breath.
“I did not visit Miss Harper’s to see my cousin. I came to see you.”
Now Sarah could not breathe at all. Without thinking, she touched his arm as though to reassure herself that he was really next to her.
Eagerly he clasped his hand over her frozen fingers. “I have watched you all evening. Your proud chin has not dipped as your so-called friends deserted you.” With his other hand he lifted her chin toward him. “You are a noble woman in the finest sense of the word.”
Sarah inhaled suddenly.
“And I have a favor to ask of you.”
“What?” she murmured, smiling at him in the moonlight and candleglow.
Still grasping her fingers, he stood up. “Miss Eastham, will you please grant me the last dance of 1793?”
Sarah’s lips opened in amazement. She was hardly able to believe her ears. He wanted to dance with her. But she had not come out yet. It was not done. “Yes, I will dance with you.”
“Miss Eastham,” he responded in a rush, “you are wonderful. Come quickly. It has already begun.”
Hand-in-hand, they swept toward the music. Sarah flushed with excitement. They entered the hall and Eliot took her in his arms. As they danced, Sarah was only conscious of his deep blue eyes on her, his hand at the small of her back, the exciting, almost risque music of the Viennese waltz. The glowing candelabras and sconces seemed to twirl by her; though she was moving, not they. The music ended and the church bells all around the mansion began tolling, chiming.
Still in a haze, Sarah curtseyed deeply and didn’t rise.
Eliot bent over her hand, his eyes glowing. “Thank you, Miss Eastham. Happy New Year.”
“And you, Mr. Farraday,” she replied with her whole heart. Around them there were many hurrahs, some kissing, and the singing of “Auld Lang Syne”. Eliot and Sarah remained frozen, in tableau, till finally Sarah remembered herself and rose. Still holding hands, they stood quietly amid the frivolity.
Then disapproving and thin-lipped Miss Harper was beside them. “Mr. Farraday, your mother is ill and needs you to escort her home.”
Eliot looked stricken with acute embarrassment, but gave the correct reply and excused himself.
Then Sarah was alone, hollow and humiliated.”
So the story begins. If you’ve read La Belle Christiane, you know all about the scandal of Sarah’s illegitimate birth. But you don’t need to know anything about the first book to enjoy and understand the second book, Lady Sarah.
Today I’ve posted the Prologue that sets the story in motion. Next Wednesday I’ll post Chapter One, but after that if you want to receive a chapter a week, you need to go up to the top right of this page (look for the lime green border) and enter your email so you will receive as a subscriber. I’m hoping you will enjoy the story and give me feedback along the way! I think it will be a lively ride! Don’t miss getting onboard!–Lyn