Authors: Beatrice Donahue
THE BLUE HOUR
Copyright © Beatrice Donahue 2013
Cover picture © Depositphotos / Kiselev Andrey
Published by LadyLit Ltd - Hong Kong
All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of characters to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. The author holds exclusive rights to this work. Unauthorised duplication is prohibited.
For Jocelyn, Tracy and Rachel—without whom all my hours would be blue.
When I was little, I owned a tiny book, given to me by my father.
The Legend of Briar Rose
told the story of a princess who fell asleep for a hundred years, while all around her, the room grew twined with thorns. I would lie in bed at night with my arms laid by my sides, sheet arranged just so, and imagine I was my royal namesake, dreaming patiently of her new beginning. That was back when I still held on to the secret hope I could be anything.
Sometimes I fancy I will try to seek out that edition, with its painting of the girl with long golden hair. It was by the Brothers Grimm, I believe. But I never have. In truth, I know I never will. I was a good girl back then, and I am now—although I no longer believe in fairy tales. I put those and many other things aside when I married Charles.
And this is why Charles married me. Dependable, dutiful me. I’m under no illusions that our pairing was entirely circumstantial: any other in a situation desperate enough would have done just as well. My mother-in-law often reminds me how, given my
—this word always uttered with added emphasis, underlined with a meaningful glance—my marriage to Charles was the height of good fortune. And it was. In the early days, I dared to dream it was my own new start. A life of service would have normally been the only option for a girl like me; I was offered this other opportunity. A chance to marry up, and become a middle-class housewife.
I took it. I never allow myself to evaluate that choice.
Dusty light filters through chandeliers set high above the small-town hotel ballroom, casting hazy patterns on peach-coloured walls. I hate it here, uncomfortable not only in the surroundings but the very clothes I have to wear. The constant rustle of my taffeta gown, chosen and made for me by my mother-in-law, makes me long for the soft flannel of my housecoat.
Something cold sinks in my stomach as I guess it will be a while. From the rosy shine already blooming at the tip of Charles’s nose to the raucous laughter that skittles from the gentlemen’s table, all signs point to a long night.
The glance at my husband makes me straighten a little in my seat and tug unsuccessfully at the neckline of the hateful dress. Waves of incessant chatter wash over me, barely breaking against my inner thoughts. I smile absently at the source of the tide of gossip and begin to polish my spectacles.
This, then, is the general course of these meandering evenings, but tonight, something is different. As the fabric of my dress scratches over the first lens, small, unusual hooks set into Grace’s normally predictable monologue snare my attention.
“Straight from the horse’s mouth. Foreign money... artist... frightfully wealthy in her own right.”
I blink, shooting Grace an apologetic smile.
“Sorry. Miles away. Say that again?”
She pauses. My glasses lie abandoned in my lap, but I see perfectly well through the silence: lips pursed, feline green eyes cast at the ceiling. Still, after an indignant huff she picks up her tale readily enough.
she’s supposed to be insanely rich in her own right—which is why she gets away with it.”
She sits back triumphantly in her seat. I take a careful last sip of my near-empty drink, wondering how to ask exactly to what and to whom she’s referring. I needn’t have worried.
“So imagine; it’s not for a family named Perkins, after all. That great monstrosity of a house is for her alone—a
! Did you ever? Just fancy!”
I set the glass down hard, no longer in any doubt about her subject. The gleaming white house, perched up on nearby cliffs overlooking the sea, dubbed the “Wedding Cake” by my father-in-law and promptly parroted by everyone for miles around. All find his description of the brand new house, with its clean, geometric lines, the height of hilarity. When its controversial plans were approved by the Parish Council, scandalised whispers of bribery ruffled net curtains in our staid village below for months. Now, finally complete, the sight of the Wedding Cake still incites equal measures of outrage and excitement. I secretly adore it.
Thoroughly tangled in Grace’s careful threads of intrigue, I jam my spectacles back onto the bridge of my nose and gape. Her smile indicates my reaction is at last satisfactory. With her motor practically purring to have caught an attentive audience, I feel her warm to her theme.
“And, heavens above, by all accounts, an
She makes the word sound like a tropical disease. I lean forward in spite of myself.
. A brave new world that has sung to me since childhood of unattainable glamour, daring music, and exciting technology. In disappointing contrast, our coastal English village might well be the sleepiest spot in the British Isles. I’ve certainly never met someone from the great, mysterious continent across the Atlantic, and the prospect is tantalising, even if she
an old maid.
“I overheard James on the telephone. Old Chicago money, apparently, and—well, we all know nothing’s old in the United States, so she’s bound to be brash.” Grace sniffs delicately, touching a hand to meticulously-set flaxen hair. “Calls herself an artist. Of course, if
were an heiress, perhaps
might have dabbled in painting, and never married.” Her airiness only just fails to cover the envy it aims to conceal. Her eyes slide along the room and settle briefly on the blond head of her husband, James. Perhaps she feels my gaze: she jerks suddenly, throwing me a sideways glance so defiant, it seems a dare to challenge her.
But I am good, reliable Rose. When I stay silent, she gives a thin smile and reverts to her constant chatter about the tall farm-hand she’s currently fixating on, while I go back to wishing myself at home in bed.
I sleep entirely too much, that much is certain. It has become my pastime. I go to bed far too early at every given opportunity, which in turn has become another source of cold tension between Charles and me. My mother-in-law delights in telling me such behaviour is neither “natural or seemly conduct” for a young woman like myself. It has come to me, lately, that perhaps sleep is an escape of sorts. This quietly hideous rigmarole—nights like this one—sums up my life. There is really nothing else, nor will there ever be. I dreamed of children once. Since being married to Charles, though, those dreams shifted in tone. I cried when Dr Cross pronounced me barren, selfish tears for the baby I would never hold—but also, perhaps, relieved ones on behalf of whichever poor soul would be spared.
A foamy tidemark rings my empty glass. I normally only ever have one drink, preferring to keep my wits about me. If I risk another, then say something careless... Charles will be liable to fly into a rage on the way home. Like I said, I’m a good girl. With a mother as poor as she was ambitious, I could hardly have been much else. I lived my life with my widowed mother as I’ve conducted my marriage; never doing anything that might land me in trouble. Yet the terrible temper I always suspected beneath Charles’s taut exterior has proven worse than I’d ever thought, on the few occasions I’ve inadvertently roused it.
At those times, he has endeavoured to teach me a lesson. And I have endeavoured to learn.
Braying laughter travels through the blue haze of smoke and music, bouncing off the moulded plaster and light fittings. I don’t know what quiet madness makes me stand, but I’m on my feet, pushing out my chair.
“Do you want another?” My words match my pulse—giddy.
Her pretty face is blank. “Another what?”
“Heavens, Grace. Another drink.”
I’ve never been to the bar myself, much less ordered drinks at one. Neither has Grace, for all I am aware. A momentary spark of surprise behind the jade cools almost instantly into speculation.
“If you do, I will. I’ll have a gin fizz.”
Charles’s back is still turned. The set of his shoulders tells a story I have no desire to hear. I nod and pivot on my heel before I lose my nerve, pressing through the smoky room towards its long bar and row of clientele facing the mirrored wall of bottles.
In the line of jacketed backs arranged in groups of twos and threes, one lone figure stands out as though lit from within.
I notice her skin first. Pearlescent under the dim lighting, I am certain it will always shine in my memory, whenever I think back to this night. Between the sharp crop of dark hair and the form-fitting black sheath beneath, more skin is exposed than I’ve ever seen on another woman, let alone in public. Her dress is backless, with no room underneath for either corset, or any underclothes I can imagine. I feel the slow creep of a flush and look away. All around, people seem to be carefully ignoring this exotic spectacle in a way that I, for all my innate self-preservation, can not.
Fascinated, I drift on, unaware of the movement of my feet. They draw me up beside her where she balances on a stool, jutted shoulder blades gleaming as she leans in towards the bar.
I am immediately over-conscious of my own limbs. Cursing whatever recklessness has brought me here, I stand stiffly, small evening bag clasped like a protective charm on the sticky walnut. I examine the wood underneath my forearms, milky from the careless slosh of too many drinks. After allowing my breathing to settle, I raise my head.
In the mirrored display behind the bottles, a pair of eyes watches me. I can’t determine their colour in the low light, but I do see how they don’t falter or look away when met by my own. Pulse quickening, I turn my head towards their owner as slowly as I can manage.
Dark hair ends dramatically at her chin, softened by finger waves. I instantly know, without having any way of being reliably informed, this daring style is at the cutting-edge of fashion. Scarlet lips curve upwards at the edges. I find myself focusing on the way the bottom one is plumper than the top, then they split into a flash of white.
The mundane word, spoken from those lips in that musical voice, has a drawn-out sound that I feel in my stomach. It makes me forget I am standing at a bar unaccompanied for the first time in my life. It gives me a feeling one might expect from driving at speed over an unseen bump in the road.
Under the frank gaze, I am drab in my taffeta and steel-rimmed glasses. My long blonde hair, of which there always seems far too much, is pinned out of the way. I become aware I’m staring, just as she is, and drop my gaze, then clear my throat.
Beside her simple “hello”
my greeting somehow manages to sound stuffy and old-fashioned, but the smile grows. A slim bare arm extends. I stare at the ethereal hand for a moment before I can remember to release my grip on my evening bag and grasp it. Her touch is cool. My mouth has somehow fallen open.
“I’m Rose—Rosina. Rosina King.”
Her eyes are the colour of gunmetal. My blood warms under their continued stare.
“Rosina King,” she repeats through the half-smile. My name sounds daring from the vivid red mouth, the accent unmistakably American. “Charmed. And what do you do with your days, Rosina King?”
“I... I’m a housewife. I’m married.”
“Of course you are.”
Her eyes flick away, over the men in the room, surmising. Evidently finding nothing to hold her attention, she looks back to me with another small smile.