Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The First Chapter of NQD

I've posted the first chapter of 'Not Quite Darcy' below. It'll be available on Jan 6th from Amazon and other 'fine retailers.' Ha! I've always wanted to say that.  Next stop: The Home Shopping Network! Okay, with no further yammering - chapter 1!

 “You can’t leave the ball, my pet,” Lord Coleridge Darrington murmured into her ear.
Anastasia shivered with desire as he grasped her by the waist, pressing her body against his hard…
Brring. Brring. A sound tore Eliza from the pages of her book and plopped her back
behind the office desk at the empty model home.
“Goddamn phone.” She pulled her eyes from her book and shot a death glare at the
cursed plastic, blinking intrusion.
She set her paperback facedown on the desk and picked up the receiver. “Olde Stone
Forest Manors. This is Eliza Pepper. How may I serve you?” Serve you? She despised that greeting. Each time she said it, the words chipped away a sliver of her soul.
“Liza! Skip here.” Her boss’s overly enthused voiced buzzed in her ear. “How’d we do
this week?”
This week had gone pretty much like every week had gone since the big housing bust,
but Skip already knew this. Selling McMansions in a crap economy was only for the very
foolish or very desperate. Eliza herself was a little of both.
“Fifteen walk-ins.” Eliza tidied up her desk in preparation for the weekend. “And I
booked a return for you tomorrow morning at ten.” She glanced up at the white plaster
vaulted ceiling. The skylights winked in a fading light.
“Is the applicant viable?” Skip asked.
“Looks good so far.” Eliza grabbed her book bag and began placing her paperbacks
inside. “He’s a writer for Prison Dance-Off.” Save her from a world where reality shows
needed writers.
“Well.” Skip sounded disappointed. “I suppose one is better than nada. Talk to you next
week, Liza.”
“Next week then,” Eliza said, trying and failing to fake enthusiasm. She wondered if her
boss of over a year would ever bother to actually learn her name.
She hung up, then tucked her business cards into the top drawer and replaced them
with Skip’s. She picked up her dog-eared historical romance. After marking her place,
she turned to the cover. She glanced back at her boss’s card. The windblown, half-dressed English lord was so much easier on her eyes than Skip’s plastic, grinning visage. She looked back at her book.
“Thank you, Lord Darrington. You got me through another week. Which reminds
me—we have a date after work, don’t we?” Her voice echoed off the stuccoed walls. “And talking to yourself is a sane thing to do when you have a job like mine. It’s only when the voices talk back that they classify you as certifiable.”
She skipped down the steps and slid behind the wheel of her compact with a grin.
She positively thrummed with anticipation by the time she eased her Mazda into the
flow of rush-hour traffic. After fifteen minutes of stop-and-go lurching, she pulled into
the downtown shopping district, surprised to find an empty space directly in front of her
destination. She couldn’t help but feel as though Lady Fortune had tossed a favor over the
fence as she nosed her car into the spot.
Times Past. The elaborate script of the store’s sign was tasteful, discreet. When she’d
spotted the shop a few days ago, it had looked promising, but she’d been just late enough
for work that she hadn’t had time to get a good look. Wanting to relish the experience, she stopped before the window to savor the wonders it held.
The display was crammed with delights. An old-fashioned writing desk was wedged
between a set of antique chairs. A tea set, carefully arranged, perched on top of a pile of
Dickens’ books. Front and center was a dress. But it wasn’t a dress—not exactly. It was The Dress. The bait which had hooked her while driving past earlier that week. Up close, with only a sheet of glass in her way, the gown was so stunning it took her a moment before she remembered to exhale.
To Eliza’s semi-trained eye, the dress appeared to be straight out of the Victorian era. It
was perfection. Made of moss-green brushed satin, it was trimmed with black lace. Its wide sleeves tapered down to end in a delicate point at the wrist. The folds of the material seemed to shimmer with motion, even though the gown itself remained perfectly still.
The mannequin’s face hid behind her tastefully placed fan. A small bit of paper was
pinned to the gown’s bodice, in the exact spot where someone might wear a “Hello! My
Name is ______” tag. The message printed on it in elaborate script read, Time is short. Make it count.
A shiver skated up Eliza’s spine. What an odd note to find pinned to an antique dress.
Though it proclaimed its strange message to anyone who paused to look close enough, the warning felt personal, intimate.
Never the sort to be put off by peculiarities, Eliza twisted the doorknob and stepped
inside the intriguing store. A tinkling bell above the door announced her arrival.
She scanned the interior with eager eyes. The shop seemed devoid of sales staff, but
was stuffed to the point of bursting with an eclectic mishmash of items from bygone eras.
Shelves were packed with clothing and knickknacks arranged in no kind of order. Men’s
vests mixed with old wooden toys and kitchen gadgets were heaped in a pile on an elaborate fireplace grate.
It was a delightful mess.
Eliza stepped toward the gown in the window. She slid her hand through the folds of
green fabric, touching the material lightly. She closed her eyes and allowed a smile.
“May I help you?” An English-accented voice asked from behind her. Eliza bit back
an eep of surprise and turned around. An old, stooped man stood a few feet away. He was
dressed in Victorian garb, a gray and black suit with vest and cravat. To complete the picture, he even sported a pair of white muttonchop sideburns.
She gave the man a wide grin. “Hi.”
“Good afternoon.” His lips parted in a friendly smile. “Do you require my assistance?”
“You have an English accent,” Eliza blurted.
The old man nodded. “It’s an unfortunate side effect.”
“Of what?”
“Being English.”
The man was wonderfully odd and seemed the perfect proprietor for such a shop. Eliza
clapped her hands together. “Ha, that’s great. And we have so few antique stores in Cali. So happy to see you’ve come along. I’m Eliza Pepper.”
“Ah, how very friendly of you, Miss Pepper. Archibald York, at your service.” He gave a
formal bow, from the waist.
“Beautiful dress,” she said, turning her attention back to the window.
“It is. Over a hundred and thirty years old, that gown. It’s quite dear.”
“Do you mean dear as in adorable, or dear as in expensive, the way English people do?
You can’t mean deer as in mammal. I guess you mean the English one.”
He chuckled. “What a singular way you have with language, Miss Pepper. And you
seem quite fluent in the English version of English as well. I must inquire, are you also an
aficionado of times past?”
She nodded vigorously. “Oh yeah. The Victorian era is my absolute favorite. I read
about it all the time.”
“Ah, a scholar of the nineteenth century, are you?”
“Sure. Back home I’ve got more than a hundred books on it.” To mask her guilt, she
turned her attention back toward the dress. No need for York to know that her research
consisted of romance novels and—when she was feeling particularly ambitious—Jane
“That’s excellent news,” York said.
“I can’t seem to find a price tag on the gown. It’s probably way out of my range, but I
have to ask—how much is it?” She hoped her attempt to change the subject didn’t sound as transparent as it felt.
“I suppose that might rather depend on a great number of things.” He smiled at her in
a grandfatherly way. What a peculiar answer to what had to be the most common question asked of a storekeeper.
“What’s the asking price?” she pressed.
“My…compatriot, err, my partner, is doing paperwork in the office. He could give you
the particulars of that dress, I believe. If you’ll come with me.”
York turned and shuffled through the burdened tables toward the back of the store.
Red drapes shrouded the doorway. He tugged them back and stepped aside to allow Eliza
to enter.
Where the shop had been an untidy jumble, the back room was ordered and artfully
arranged. A small sofa huddled in the corner beneath a lace-curtained window, and gold framed scenes of the English countryside graced the walls. An old-fashioned roll-top desk sat in the center of the room and Eliza could just spot the top of a man’s head behind it. A large rectangular object hung on the wall beyond the desk. Though it was covered by a black cloth, the mysterious object dominated the room.
“James? I believe we have a promising potential.” York paused for a moment and flitted a glance toward Eliza. “I mean to say, ehm, this young lady is interested in making a purchase.
I thought you might speak with her.”
The man behind the desk stood. He looked to be in his mid-thirties and he, too, was
dressed in Victorian garb, but with a far more devastating effect than York. His tight, gray suit coat emphasized his broad shoulders and his glossy black hair was just long enough to brush the edge of his collar. A hint of five o’clock shadow darkened his perfectly chiseled chin. If only that crisp white shirt were unbuttoned and a strong breeze managed to blow through the room, he’d look like he’d stepped from the cover of one of Eliza’s books.
She raised her gaze to look into his eyes. Stormy, as she knew they would be. Suddenly,
her legs felt like they’d been turned into overcooked pasta. Completely out of her depth, she gave her best approximation of a smile.
“Ah,” she heard herself say. Polysyllabic words, or any words at all, had jumped ship.
“I beg your pardon?” His upper-class accent dropped the Rs, turning pardon into pahdon.
When she tried to take a breath, her lungs were entirely uncooperative. If she fainted
dead away, would he catch her, or would she just end up laid out across the floor? The
chance of feeling those arms around her might be worth the risk of concussion.
“Allow me to introduce Miss Eliza Pepper,” York said. “Miss Pepper, this is my partner,
Mr. James Lancaster.”
After turning her gaze from Tall Dark and Devastating, she stared at York until her
legs returned to their less noodly state and her breathing normalized. “The dress? I was
wondering how much it was.”
“Dress? Again, I must ask to beg your pardon, Miss Pepper. Which dress would you be
referring to?” Lancaster’s baritone rumbled.
Before she could answer, York spoke. “Miss Pepper is a scholar of the nineteenth
century. I thought her a most promising candidate.”
“Is that so?” James Lancaster appraised her with a haughty look that made Eliza
immediately think of Mr. Darcy.
“I think there’s been some confusion.” Eliza wasn’t in a hurry to say goodbye and yet
they’d clearly misunderstood who she was. “I’m not here to apply for a job. I’m just interested in the gown in the window.”
Lancaster swept his well-manicured fingers toward the chair in front of his desk. “Please
have a seat.” His voice was commanding and Eliza found herself halfway sitting before she’d made a conscious decision to do so.
“Do you interview all your customers? It must be exhausting.”
“We don’t interview all our customers, no. In a month, you would be the second—
interviewee—as you put it.”
She felt a spark of irritation that he’d ignored her question about the dress yet again. But
then he turned his gray eyes on her and something in her chest melted into a gooey puddle.
“So, Miss Pepper. You’ve studied the Victorian era, have you?”
“I’ve read a library full of books on the subject, yes.” Which wasn’t a lie, technically. Just mostly.
Lancaster tented his fingers on the desktop and looked at her with skeptical eyes.
“Before we discuss the dress, please allow me an indulgence. Do you consider yourself
to be an adventurous person?”
“Ah, maybe? And what does it have to do with the dress? Is being edgy a purchase
requirement or something? Only bungee jumpers need apply?”
“You have a most peculiar manner of speech, miss,” Lancaster said in a flat tone.
“I’m peculiar? Me? I’m just asking about the dress. You’re the one with the creepy
personal questions.”
“I assure you that my intentions are anything but ‘creepy,’ as you so charmingly phrased
it.” The man had the nerve to look affronted. He might reduce her knees to jelly, but the
Lord of the Manor ’tude was beginning to rub her a little raw.
“Miss Pepper, please,” York said. “You must forgive James’s manner. He’s better at the
business end of things. I tend to handle the social aspects of our partnership.”
“Well, I just wanted to know—”
“Yes, I understand,” York continued. “And we’ll get to that, you have my word on the
matter. It’s just that meeting you, discovering you’ve studied the nineteenth century—you seemed a perfect fit for another endeavor.”
“Archie, I hardly think we’re well enough acquainted with Miss Pepper make the
ambitious leap to that assumption,” Lancaster said.
“You are overly cautious in these matters, James. And our window here isn’t unlimited,
you know. We’re far behind quota as it is.”
Lancaster sighed and appraised Eliza with raised brows.
Eliza twisted her purse strap between her fingers, conflicted. Part of her wanted to
jump out of the chair and make a break for the exit. But another part of her, the bigger, more curious part, longed to linger. Besides, McBroodypants Lancaster seemed so adverse to her that it egged on her stubborn side.
She pushed a little further, folding her arms. “The dress. How much?”
York gave a good-natured chuckle. “She’s got determination, James. We could do worse.”
“We could also wait for a more suitable candidate,” Lancaster said.
“You felt we could wait during the Rasputin situation as well,” York grumbled. “Need I
remind you how that turned out?”
With a twang, Eliza felt her last thread of patience snap. “This right here is why people
shop online.” She stood, her purse gripped firmly in her hand, and stepped toward the door.
York moved to block her path and offered an apologetic smile. “Miss Pepper, forgive
our somewhat cryptic manner. I fear we’ve tried your patience most horribly. I do feel,
however, that once you’ve heard us out, you’ll find it worth your time.”
Eliza took another step toward the door.
“In addition,” York said, holding out his palm, “to thank you for your time, I’m willing
to offer you the gown in the window for twenty dollars.”
Lancaster made blustering sounds behind her back. Though she was no expert, the
gown had to be worth several hundred.
“I’d be robbing you. Fifty bucks. Not a dollar less than fifty.”
“And she’s got a strong sense of ethics.” York beamed a smug smile over her shoulder to
his partner. “At this point, your reluctance is only a matter of pride.”
“Very well.” Lancaster’s tone was resigned. “If you’d please just give us a few more
moments of your time. No more than thirty minutes. We have a proposal for you. After
which, should you choose to accept or reject our offer, the gown shall be yours for the
ridiculous sum of fifty dollars.”
Eliza shook her head. She knew she should feel victorious, but the whole situation kept
twisting and turning in such odd ways she had difficulty keeping up.
She stepped back and eased herself into the chair. Her stomach twisted. She only hoped
her exterior projected calm and cool, since her insides were currently in freak-out mode.
“Okay, it’s a deal,” she said. “Give me your pitch.”
“My…pitch?” Lancaster asked.
“Yeah. Your spiel. Go ahead and try to sell me some Amway or make me listen to your
indie demo or whatever it is you’re building toward here.”