Cold April Excerpt

Throngs of people crowded the dock at Southampton. Passengers disembarking from the ship, and visitors who came to welcome them, mingled with automobiles and horse-drawn vehicles.

Elizabeth Shallcross hurried through the crush, her eyes darting from side to side. Her hat, although not as wide-brimmed as fashionable women wore those days, covered most of her hair and made scanning the crowd a bit of a challenge. Silently, she berated herself for losing contact with Lord and Lady Wheatly at the last moment.

Suddenly, an arm went around her waist from behind and pulled her violently to one side. A scream started in her throat.

"Please don’t be frightened." The male voice was close to her ear. "You were almost run down by a careless lorry driver."

Elizabeth whipped her head around to see a four-wheeled cart in the very spot she’d occupied a few moments before. She could have touched the side of it if she wanted.

Her heart still pumping wildly from the incident, she looked up at the man who’d rescued her from being trampled. He was tall and broad-shouldered, yet slender, wearing the unmistakable clothes of a gentleman, including hat and gloves.

His gaze swept over her, and he smiled and bowed. "I must apologize for my rather rough treatment, but it seemed necessary if you were to remain standing."

His accent puzzled her--not quite all English nor all American. Having just spent three years in New York, she recognized American accents.

She smiled back at him. "No apology is necessary. On the contrary, it’s I who should thank you for keeping me out of harm’s way."

He seemed to be in his early thirties and, in her opinion, quite good-looking, especially since he wore no beard or mustache. Thankfully, fewer men those days kept up the practice of sporting facial hair. King George wore a beard, but Mr. Taft, the President of the United States, had only a mustache.

"If I’m not being too bold, may I ask if I may assist you further? You seemed to be searching for someone in this crowd. Perhaps I could find a safer place for you to wait?"

Since he was obviously a gentleman, she had no qualms about telling him the circumstances. "You’re right. I am waiting for someone--Lord and Lady Wheatly--with whom I’ve just returned from America."

He gave a broad grin. "What a coincidence. I came here today to meet them myself. Are you a relative of the Wheatlys?"

"No." She decided quickly that explaining her position would be awkward as well as unnecessary and said no more.

"Forgive me." He touched the brim of his hat. "I should have introduced myself at once. My name is Richard Graham."

"Elizabeth Shallcross."

He took her gloved hand in his. "What a delightful coincidence. Since you are a friend of Lady Wheatly, I expect we shall see a great deal of one another in future. I shall look forward to it."

His smile and the length of time he held her hand in his could mean only one thing. He was flirting with her, obviously wanting to become better acquainted. She’d had admiring glances before and suspected he might, as other men she’d met recently had done, attempt to pursue a closer relationship. His next words confirmed her opinion.

"You say you were with the Wheatlys in America?"

"Yes, I was."

"I understand the Bennetts are planning a welcome-home party for them. No doubt you will be attending." Without giving her time to answer, he went on. "If no one is escorting you to the soiree, may I offer my services in that regard?"

Elizabeth felt her cheeks warm. How marvelous it would be to attend such a party, and in Graham’s company at that. But the acceptance she framed in her mind never became spoken words.

An imposing voice--which she recognized at once as belonging to Lord Wheatly--broke the little tete-a-tete and Mr. Graham released Elizabeth’s hand.

"Richard, my boy," Wheatly said to her companion, "how good of you to come to meet us."

Almost at once, Lady Wheatly appeared behind her husband, both hands occupied holding onto those of her two children. And behind her, a uniformed steward pushed a heavy-duty cart laden with steamer trunks, boxes and leather bags.

Richard Graham bowed again. "Lady Wheatly. Sir. I took the liberty of engaging a large motorcar for your return to London. The rack on top will hold all your luggage. I hope that meets with your approval."

"Capital," Wheatly said. "Very thoughtful of you."

Penelope, who was eight years old, pulled her hand out of her mother’s and rushed to Elizabeth’s side.

"I see you have met the children’s governess," Lady Wheatly said to Graham. "Elizabeth Shallcross. But we call her Beth. We somehow lost touch with one another leaving the ship, but it seems you have found her for us."

After taking Penelope’s hand in hers, Beth looked up at Lady Wheatly. "I’m so sorry if I caused you any worry. I returned to my stateroom for the gift I’d purchased for my mother."

During her explanation, Beth watched the smile fade from Mr. Graham’s face. She knew exactly what he thought. No doubt an aristocrat, he’d presumed her to be one as well. Now he knew she was only an employee of the Wheatlys’. So much for his offer to be her escort to a party. A knot formed in her midriff. In spite of changing times, the class system was obviously still alive and well in twentieth century England.

A half-hearted smile reappeared on Richard Graham’s face. "Yes, Miss Shallcross and I have met." He paused. "However, I’m not sure if there will be room in the motorcar..."

Beth spoke again. "I shan’t need a ride back to town, Mr. Graham. I expect my parents will be meeting me here very soon."

"Admirable," Lord Wheatly said.

Lady Wheatly leaned toward Beth. "But this is au revoir and not good-bye. You remember we have much to discuss, and I shall expect you to call on us in a day or so. When it is convenient and you’re rested from the crossing."

"Yes, Ma’am." She dropped her gaze, unwilling to look at the others any longer. Why had she allowed herself to be enticed even for a moment when Richard Graham introduced himself earlier? She should have known nothing would come of it. She supposed her three years in New York were responsible for such optimism. Little, if any, class consciousness existed there.

"Well, let us be on our way," Lord Wheatly said. "Richard, is the motorcar nearby?"

Mr. Graham stared at the procession of automobiles threading their way through the slowly-diminishing crowd. "I believe I see it now." He paused. "Miss Shallcross, a pleasure to meet you."

She detected no warmth in the smile he gave her then, but she nodded her head for an instant and said nothing.

Both Penelope and Charles, who was six, gave her the polite handshakes she’d taught them to give when greeting or parting from others. She watched them enter the large silver limousine where the steward arranged the luggage on top. She recognized it, from magazine pictures she’d seen, as a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud. Seemingly almost as large as a railroad passenger car, it provided plenty of room for her, especially if Mr. Graham were to sit in the front seat with the chauffeur.

But he apparently preferred not to include her, and the steward placed her own steamer trunk at her feet. Although she chafed at the slight, her common sense told her she didn’t want Mr. Graham to see where she lived anyway. She curtsied to Lord and Lady Wheatly, and they, too, climbed into the vehicle. Richard Graham apparently entered from the other side, and she didn’t see him again.

She sighed. Most likely she would never see the man again.

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