To those who have been reading my blog lately, you’ll know I’m fighting with the last chapter or so of my next book, The Firstborn. It’s a charming (hopefully?) Regency romance about two “firstborn” people from separate families (Lord Finnian Haughton and Mrs. Sophia Brixton) who spend all of their free time cleaning up after their younger, more scandal-prone siblings.
Today, I’m sharing a large chunk of the first chapter with you, in which we’re introduced to Finnian and – through conversation – Sophia.
And here’s hoping that my next post is a huge, celebratory affair about how I finally finished this bugger of a book!
(Oh, and if you’re interested? My inspiration for Finnian, just wandering around, contemplating life before he crushes said existence out of a lovely flower.)
There were too many letters. An inordinate amount of them, spilling out of crevices and sliding out of their well-organized stacks. Most were invitations, a fact that irritated Lord Finnian Haughton to no end. Invitations to balls, to routs, to garden parties and afternoon teas, where he would be expected to deal with the attentions of no small number of simpering females. And all of them with their eyelashes fluttering while a mere turn and snap of their fans spoke a language he would never be able to decipher.
This morning’s stack of cards sat on his desk, the light spilling in through the window, sending a solitary beam across the topmost letter. A glance at the direction told him more than he needed to know. The lettering was too fine and flowery, a woman’s hand, and a noticeable aroma emanated from the paper, as if it had been glazed with rose water before being sent round to his townhouse.
He understood their interest in him, and his position in polite society. He was a man. A gentleman. A titled gentleman with a rather large fortune. And, most bothersome of all, a titled gentleman, possessed of a large fortune, who—according to that polite society which insisted on tossing flowery cards and invitations at him as if they were tossing bread crumbs to a duck in a pond—had decided to remain stubbornly ensconced in his current life as a bachelor.
He gave the corner of his newspaper a shake and reached out for his cup of tea. From another part of the house, he heard a knock on the front door, followed by the measured step of Gleeson showing no haste in his effort to answer it. Haughton waited, his eyes gazing at a vague point beyond the edge of the newspaper as the butler’s steps made their way towards his study. Another knock, this one on his own door, and a grey, tonsured head bowed itself into the room.
“It’s Mr. Winston, my lord. Shall I…?”
Haughton nodded in reply to the unfinished query. Gleeson disappeared, the steps receded, and he folded his newspaper into a stiff rectangle that landed with an audible smack on top of the pile of invitations.
Haughton glanced up at the door as another man, this one dressed in a coat and trousers of a dull, forgettable color, entered the sunlit room.
“Winston.” Haughton sat up in his own chair and indicated the one opposite him with a wave of his hand. “I didn’t expect to see you again so soon.”
Winston strolled forward, his hands clasped around both hat and gloves, neither of which had managed to be relinquished to the butler upon his arrival. He let out a sigh as he lowered himself into his seat, scratched his chin, and ran a bare hand over his neatly trimmed brown hair.
“Have you breakfasted?” Haughton asked, his eyes taking in the obvious wear on the man’s suit and the scuffs on his boots.
“Yes, early.” Those two words revealed an accent that held no connection to any town or borough within fifty miles of London. Haughton had never inquired after Winston’s origins, and Winston had never made any move to volunteer the information.
“So.” Haughton cleared his throat. “Since you’re not here to dine with me, I take it you’ve…”
“I’ve found her.”
Haughton looked up from his cup. The dregs of his tea slid down his throat, leaving a bitter aftertaste that threatened to linger on his tongue for some time. “And the child?”
Winston nodded, his chin dipping down to touch the simple folds of his neckcloth. “A bouncing, blustering specimen of childhood. Quite a healthy thing, he looks to be.”
A breath slid out of Haughton’s lungs as he allowed his own head to tip back. He found himself staring up at a ceiling painted with all manner of cherubs and pudgy, angelic creatures, their grotesque smiles having beamed down on his own head, and his father’s before him, since his mother had commissioned the ghastly artwork some three decades before.
“The woman.” Haughton shut his eyes. He would have to paint over that damned ceiling one of these days, perhaps once this latest mess was cleared away. “What was her name? Susan?”
“Sophia,” Winston provided. “Sophia Brixton.”
“Sophia…” An image of a young woman appeared in his mind: short and curved, with dark hair and fair skin beneath rouged cheeks and rouged nipples and anything else that it was fashion to have rouged. It was a type, he realized. His brother’s type, and never had David dared to deviate from the original template. “What have you learned about her?”
“Currently lives in Stantreath,” Winston said, as he sat up in the chair and reached inside his coat for a small pad of paper. A brush of his thumb across his tongue and he began to flick through the pages. “Up in Northumberland, right near to the coast. She’s got herself a tidy little cottage that she shares with one sister.” He licked his thumb again and turned another page. “Parents are gone. Father was a tradesman, ran a rag and bottle shop of some sort. The younger sister, that would be one Lucy Penrose, has no fortune of her own. Mrs. Brixton possesses an annuity of a mere fifty pounds per annum.”
“Wait.” Haughton held up one hand as one of the details finally wriggled its way to the forefront of his thoughts. “Mrs. Brixton? She is married?”
“A widow, as far as the gossip travels. But I was unable to discover any proof a previous marriage or of the prior existence of a Mr. Brixton.”
Haughton raised one eyebrow. “You believe she’s lying?”
Winston tilted his head to one side. “You know I’m not one for guesses and conjecture. But I would not rule out a false marriage in order to pass off the child as legitimate.”
“Of course.” Haughton grumbled under his breath and pushed himself out of his chair. He shook his head, pushed his fingers through his own dark hair, and moved to stand in front of the window. “Go on,” he prompted after a moment. “I want to know everything.”
“Well…” Another lick of the thumb, another turn of the page. “There’s Stantreath… cottage… Ah, yes, here we are. There’s no maid in the household, but there is a hired girl who helps out several times a week. Ah… She attends services regularly, rarely leaves the child at home, um… dresses modestly, above average height, red hair…”
“What was that?” Haughton spun on his heel as he turned away from the window. “That last bit? What did you say?”
“Erm… red hair?”
“No.” Haughton shook his head. “That cannot be right. My brother abhors red hair, especially when it comes to the fairer sex.”
Winston raised one shoulder as he tipped his head to one side. “Perhaps the boy has had a change of heart.”
“Or perhaps he succumbed to a moment of uncharacteristic desperation.”
Winston’s eyebrows pushed upwards into his forehead. “Or… perhaps this Mrs. Brixton possesses some other charm, something beyond a mere head of hair.”
Haughton sniffed. “You know as well as I, my brother is incapable of looking beyond anything but the most superficial of charms.”
“Which means that he was probably so inebriated at the time that he wouldn’t have known whether he was making love to a real, warm-blooded woman or a freshly plumped cushion.”