Excerpt from A Lady in Disguise
"Emma, dear! Close that window and sit down. You must cease behaving like a gawking peasant this instant."
Lady Emma Weston sighed at her aunt's words and at the bang of her walking stick against the carriage floor. That admonishing sound was as familiar to her as her own voice, and she knew it meant she had best obey with alacrity. She took a deep breath of cool, blessed fresh air, then ducked back into her seat and let her maid, Natasha, close the window. They had traveled for so long, for what seemed like eternity, and the carriage had become stuffy and dull, with only the occasional glimpse of passing scenery on the Dover Road to relieve the monotony.
Just like my life, Emma thought wryly. She had hoped the journey to England as part of Tsar Alexander's retinue to attend the peace celebrations would bring some excitement, some magic into her existence. She had been born in England but had not seen it since she was six years old—since her parents died so tragically young and she went to live with her aunt and uncle in Russia.
Yet, now she realized this voyage was just more of the same, more of the rules and protocols she had lived under in her aunt and uncle's home. More of maintaining perfect outward decorum, while screaming inside for something, anything, different.
Her aunt—the sister of her late mother and long married to a Russian nobleman—loved her. Emma knew that. Yet Aunt Lydia and Uncle Nicholas had a position to maintain, and it was Emma's duty to help them do that. She did not mind, truly—they had given her a home when she was young and frightened, had looked after her, cared for her when she was scared and bewildered by her sudden change of homes. But, oh! How she had dreamed of what things would be like once the hated Napoleon was driven from Russia and she could leave her family's country estate and be presented at the court in St. Petersburg! Books, her only real companions, had fueled fantastical dreams of handsome dance partners, beautiful gowns, dashing sleigh rides and skating parties.
Emma sighed, and shifted restlessly on the carriage seat.
She had the gowns now, to be sure, but not much else. Every handsome young man who dared to approach her was frightened away by her aunt's stern glances or her uncle's lofty position as one of the Tsar's chief advisors.
Now she was on her way to London, one of the greatest cities in all the world! Not only that, but her nineteenth birthday was fast approaching, and she would at last be considered grown up, a lady. The world should be a glorious place for her. But all she saw stretching ahead of her was more rules, more restrictions, more protocol.
She almost sighed again and slumped back against the cushions, but she managed to stop herself in time. A lady maintained proper posture at all times. She always appeared serene and cheerful. She never laughed too loud or danced too long with any one partner.
Natasha reached up to fuss with Emma's bow-trimmed bonnet and the collar of her blue velvet spencer, while her aunt peered at her closely.
Aunt Lydia, the Countess Suvarova, looked far younger than her fifty-something years, and her green eyes were sharper than those of many a young miss. Or of any sharpshooter in the army, which was a more apt description, since Emma always felt she was caught in the fireline when her aunt looked at her in that way. Aunt Lydia folded her gray-gloved hands atop the ivory head of her stick and continued to watch Emma. Her expression was fond but exasperated, like a mother's looking at a toddler who had spilled its milk for the fourth time.
"Were you looking at those soldiers, Emma?" she asked.
"Indeed, no, Aunt Lydia!" Emma protested. She hadn't been watching the Tsar's outriders in their handsome green uniforms—she knew that was a waste of time. Aunt Lydia would surely never approve of any of them, even if Emma did see one she liked. "I was looking at the scenery."
Aunt Lydia glanced briefly out the window, at the passing hedgerows and meadows. "It does not look like something that would engage your interest."
"I have not seen England in a very long time. And anything is better than being on that ship, with only water to look at."
Lydia's expression softened. "Poor Emma. We have been traveling a very long while. And we have not seen your uncle since he came to England with the Grand Duchess of Oldenburg in March. But we will soon be in London, and things will be more interesting for you there."
Interesting if one enjoyed state dinners and balls where one could only dance with elderly relatives, Emma thought. She just smiled at her aunt, though, and said, "Of course. It will be wonderful to see Uncle Nicholas again."
Lydia gave her a sly little glance. "A young man called Sir Jeremy Ashbey will be there, as well. Your uncle has written to me about how much he likes him. Perhaps we will meet him at the military review tomorrow."
Emma looked at her, puzzled. Whoever was Sir Jeremy Ashbey? An Englishman her uncle knew? She could not recall her uncle or her aunt ever mentioning him. "Sir Jeremy Ashbey?"
"Perhaps you heard of him when you were a child. His family's estate marches with the one your parents left you, Weston Manor."
Since Emma's parents had died when she was six and she had been in Russia ever since, it was hardly surprising that she did not remember him being mentioned. She shook her head.
"He was attached to the British embassy in St. Petersburg but returned to England with the Grand Duchess's party. Your uncle writes that he is very impressed with his manners."
Emma felt a faint stirring of interest and trepidation, perhaps even dread. This was the first time her aunt had ever spoken of any young man, except to warn Emma to stay away from them all. Who was this Sir Jeremy Ashbey, and what did her praise of him mean? Surely if her aunt and uncle liked him, he lived a life just like theirs—bound by duty.
Her questions would have to wait, however, for they had at long last reached the edge of London itself.
Emma leaned over as far as she dared to watch the city move past the window. London was very different from St. Petersburg with its gold and cream and pale blue colors and canal-laced streets. The colors here were darker, the houses narrower, the streets crowded with excited merrymakers. The carriage jostled as it struck the uneven cobbles of the city streets.
She was rather disappointed by the lack of bright colors, but she was enthralled by the shop window displays. They passed drapers, stationers, confectioners, booksellers, all with windows full of shimmering, enticing goods and draped with flags and bunting. She wondered if she could persuade her aunt to agree to a shopping expedition later.
Yet, even more enthralling than the shops were the people. People in simple attire stood on the walkways alongside well-dressed individuals, jostling to watch the carriages pass, hoping for a glimpse of the Tsar himself. One little girl, an adorable cherub in a pink muslin dress and tiny straw bonnet, looked so amazed and wide-eyed that Emma could not help but wave at her.
The delighted child waved back.
"Emma!" Aunt Lydia cried disapprovingly. "Do not wave."
"I'm sorry, Aunt Lydia." Emma folded her hands demurely in her lap, but she could not quell her growing excitement.
London was truly splendid, so full of glorious life and energy. If only she could walk about and explore it all, really take it all in! She wanted to smell all the strange scents, talk to people, hear them. Not just peer at them from inside the carriage.