Sapphire Unveiled

Chapter 1 Sapphire

 

“I can’t very well sell them when you’re wearing them, now can I, Mrs. Claridge?” Papa says as he gives Mama a quick kiss directly on her lips, something he’s never done in front of me.

Heat rushes to my cheeks.

“In front of the children, Byron?” Mama’s cheeks flame red as she lays a hand on his chest and pushes him away. I’m the only other person in the room besides the servant, so I know she’s referring to me.

Mama slips off the opal and emerald ring, unclips the matching necklace from her delicate throat, pulls the wires from her ears, and drops the set into his open palm with a flourish.

“These are for Mrs. Smith from Mr. Smith for Christmas.” Papa lowers his voice and adds, “You have an entire box full of jewelry I made specially for you. Why don’t you wear those.”

She gives him a saucy smile that turns her embarrassed blush into something quite coquettish.

Then Papa winks at me as he passes us and lifts his coat from the hook by the front door before his servant can hand it to him. “I will make all my girls something new. Sales have been excellent as always this time of year. I could afford to make you each a dozen pieces, if I had the time.”

“I don’t need gifts, Papa,” I whisper, though I know I will accept whatever he gives me. I always do, and cherish them, perhaps even flaunt them a little.

He slips both arms into the coat sleeves and stands a little taller. “But you shall have them anyway, my dear Miss Sapphire Joy.”

Papa plants a kiss on my head, though I’m nearly as tall as he is now, and he has to stand on his toes to do it. He still insists, though now the kiss almost always lands on my forehead.

“Where are you going? Church isn’t for another hour,” Mama says.

According to the King, women may not have any authority over men, but Mama’s tone keeps Papa from slipping out the door. He turns, meets her gaze. “I have some unfinished business I must attend to.”

“On a Sunday?” Mama’s tone is ice.

“Not that kind of work. The Lord’s work.” He pecks her on the lips. Again. But this time I don’t look away. “Pick me up at the store on your way.”

The door clicks shut behind him and I’m left standing with Mama in uncomfortable silence. Papa never works Sundays. Why would he work in his jewelry store now, and say it’s for the Lord? The question leaves my nerves humming.

“Not a word of this to your sisters,” Mama warns, though her eyes are starry and smiling. She might’ve given him an icy tone, but her heart probably melted them before her words ever reached his ears. “Your papa knows better than to give such public displays of affection.”

I’ve never kissed a man, haven’t found one with whom I’d be willing to live out my days. But the way Papa kissed Mama, I think I’d enjoy being kissed like that someday, with such love and tenderness.

Mama still watches me and I fear she’s read my thoughts in my eyes so I look back to the closed door.

“You look so much like your brother.”

My gaze snaps back to her. Mama’s eyes are filled with tears. She produces a handkerchief and swipes at each of them. “Forgive me. I should be over this by now.”

“It’s only been a year, Mama. My heart hasn’t healed yet, either.” My brother, Garnet, and I might’ve been the exact same age down to near minutes, but I always looked up to him because of what he could do with his hands, the way he could shape metal into something beautiful and almost alive. My favorite is a small butterfly that winds up and the wings move up and down. I’d wear it in my hair to church if Mama would let me, but she says it would be too distracting for the preacher. I suppose she’s right.

Mama’s lips turn down a little. “Your heart hasn’t healed yet because you still don’t believe Garnet is gone.”

“That’s not the reason for my uneasiness.” The way Papa swiftly relocated us after Garnet died of unknown causes—I think my brother was murdered.

Mama shakes her head. “Never mind. Go make sure your sisters are getting ready. You know how Emma and Opal tend to get distracted. And tell Amy to let Neva do her hair this time, for heaven’s sake. I don’t want her looking like I brought her in off the streets as a charity case.”

I hide my smile as I turn away to obey Mama. She doesn’t realize their independent streaks come from her—or perhaps she does and refuses to admit it.

Ruby and Amethyst haven’t shirked their morning styling. In fact, quite the opposite since certain boys began attending services. Emerald has barely reached eight years and still has very little interest in her appearance, and is the most like me, but Opal has always had the mind of a princess, and I catch her trying to put her hair in a much older style than her ten years.

I spend the least amount of time before the mirror of them all—except Emma—and I only do this much because a good impression is important to Mama, and to the Claridge name.

I let my servant, Neva, dress me in a blue gown finer than most in the city, the fabric light and airy, with a sweeping neckline, showing just enough skin to show off the diamond studded, gold cross necklace Papa gave me for my eighteenth birthday.

And I let Neva curl my hair and pin it up in such delicate ways it looks as if a fairy styled it. I smear fresh fruit scented cream over my face to hide all my freckles; I wouldn’t dare let gentile people discover I spend long hours outdoors in the sun like a servant—we all have our secrets. Pomegranate lightly stains my lips and I consider wiping it off, but I don’t.

Thick charcoal died lanolin sweeps my already dark lashes into impossible lengths—this I like. At least anyone who looks my way will be drawn to my eyes rather than my lips, or anywhere else. Eyes are the windows to the soul and I’d much rather someone be inspecting my soul, than thinking about how my lips taste. Perhaps if I find the right man I’ll change my mind, but those kinds have yet to meet me, and certainly haven’t discovered my family’s church—yet.

I pin the butterfly in my hair anyway. When I head downstairs, I watch to see if Mama notices. Her lips form a thin line, but she says nothing.

My only older sister, Ruby, embraces me. “You look lovely, Sapphire. Stunning.”

“So do you,” I say, returning her affectionate touch. She doesn’t know it, but she’s every bit as pretty as she says I am, same light eyes, dark hair, tall stature. My other sisters take more after Mama, shorter, lighter hair, dark eyes, and there is nothing wrong with that, either.

Amethyst makes a grand entrance down the stairs, twirling when she reaches the bottom. “I can hardly wait until my coming out party.”

Mama’s eyes narrow on her. “Wipe off that color. Your lips and cheeks are too pink.”

There’s barely a hint of color, but it’s enough to draw Mama’s notice.

Amethyst’s face falls into a pout. She’s sixteen and far to eager to be out in society, drawing the attention of suitors.

Ruby leans close to whisper, “I told it was too much.”

She frowns up at her. “Any little bit is too much.” And she turns and hurries back up the stairs.

Minutes later, we are all seated in the carriage while Mama runs through a list of rules for us to follow, rules I’m almost certain she adds to weekly and memorizes the night before church.

But I don’t listen. It’s too fine a day after the storm left behind a fresh thin blanket of snow hiding the cobblestones. And the way the sun shines makes it glisten like Papa’s diamonds.

The team of mechanical horses whines and whirs as they move, guided expertly under Wade’s hands. Their hooves click loudly against the stones, sparks hidden under the snow. I’ll trade away the metal sparks for the shimmering blanket of snow any day.

Wade holds the reins like he would for any heart-pumping, lung-breathing set of horses, but the reins communicate with the complex system beneath. I’d only just scratched the surface of understanding their mechanics when Garnet’s lessons abruptly ended upon his death, along with my desire to pursue learning any more on the subject.

But if I had to, I could at least direct the team myself. Even thinking about the metal horses has my heart aching with memories, so I fasten my eyes on the white-coated world around me; it’s the only time the city appears new and clean, and the air somewhat breathable.

We’re so very fortunate Papa moved us back home to his large country estate last year. I’d loathe living in town in the crowded apartments with tainted air. People from the worst part of town cough more than they speak. And a few minutes of walking the streets always cover me from head to toe in a layer of soot. I’m grateful for the carriage.

The clip clop of hooves—real hooves—approach us from behind. I resist looking.

Mama still recites her list of rules of conduct. We need not her list to help find ourselves husbands. It’s decent men we need, and those are hard to come by, no matter how much wealth they possess.

My resolve against my own curiosity weakens and I stick my head out the window to see who comes.

Mr. Osborne and his two sons, twenty-one-year-old Mr. Evan Osborne, and the younger one, who’s name I can’t remember. Evan Osborne has a face so pleasant I’ve never been able to forget it, though I’ve seen it but rarely because they attend the church on the opposite side of town from ours. As uncommon as it is to see them, it’s even more rare on a Sunday.

Their Brougham is pulled by mechanical horses, but the true clip-clop of hooves comes from the eldest son, riding alongside on a tall, red roan. He sees me, smiles, and lifts his hand in a wave.

His father follows this by giving me a look of disapproval.

I catch the younger son grinning in amusement before Mama starts scolding me for breaking rule twenty-nine, inappropriate conduct with men.

I lean my head back inside. I had no idea what a vast range of indecencies rule twenty-nine included. I would’ve thought rule fourteen would be enough to cover it; always act ladylike, even when you think no one is watching.

Perhaps she knows me well enough to try to scare me with a weightier rule of hers. I know I only act like a perfect lady when it suits me. Who wants to stand perfectly straight, talk softly, and giggle behind gloved hands all the time? Good heavens, why wasn’t I born a boy?

The carriage slows as we pull around outside Claridge Jewelry. It stops with an uncommon jerk. My window faces the store and I notice a dark form on the ground. It rests against the bottom of the door, propping it slightly open. An injured dog, maybe?

Papa would never leave his door open in this weather.

Wade jumps from the front and heads for the shop, and I’m right behind him, ignoring Mama’s protests of my breaking yet another rule. She’ll probably threaten to have the number fourteen tattooed somewhere I’ll always see it.

“Miss, don’t come close.”

Servants don’t command me, but something about Wade’s voice is wrong.

I don’t stop until I am close enough to see there’s a face, a person.

“Papa!”

He lies on his side, unmoving, hand stuck in a patch of fresh snow, frozen stiff, and his eyes stare unseeing at the wall inches from his face.

“Papa, get up!”

“He won’t be getting up, Miss,” our servant says, hat clutched to his chest.

The earth seems to halt in its orbit as my brain and heart struggle to understand. He’s not moving. He’ll never move again.

My loss of him shatters me, crushing every other feeling but pain amplified so strong I can’t breathe. He was everything to me, the way Garnet had been, stable, strong, smart, funny—caring and kind. How can I live without him…?

I make the sign of the cross over my chest, mumbling an agonized prayer I don’t even recognize. A plea, but for what? I know very well, nothing will ever be fine again.

Knowledge of my surroundings floats around me but I’m no longer part of it. Strangers shift closer to gawk. Mama and my sisters approach. Gasps, shouts, and cries to God fill the air. They grow louder, like a drum beating inside my head. I cry and jam my hand against my mouth to hide my sobs as this pain seems to keep carving out a gaping hole in my chest.

This is all wrong. He was perfectly healthy. There was no reason for sudden death.

Unless sudden death runs in the family, like with Garnet. But I don’t believe that, not for a moment. Something had to have happened to him. He was—on his way to work and—

No, Papa couldn’t have been lying here for long or someone would’ve noticed him already. He had to have come from somewhere else, and only just arrived, which means—his private business didn’t include going to the shop. But why would he keep his destination secret?

“Papa, why? Why did you leave me? What happened to you?”

There’s no answer. I didn’t expect one.

Mama’s hands grasp my shoulders and I shake harder, broken beyond repair. I look back at my four sisters and see echoes of my pain on their faces. We feel his loss so deeply, yet only one thing can make this moment even worse. The laws of ownership. We’ve not only just lost our dearest Papa, but everything we owned is gone with him, passed on to our selfish Uncle Fredrick Silcox, Papa’s property, his wealth. We have nothing to our names. We will soon be evicted from our home and left to scrounge the unforgiving streets of Delhampton as beggars grateful for rotten bread, for a flea infested pillow, for a moldy roof overhead.

No. I shudder and drop my head into my hands.

The sound of the crowd fades into an unearthly silence as my thoughts close in on me. A plan takes form in my head, a terrible plan, one that only has the slightest chance of succeeding, and most of all hinges entirely on the generosity of the good doctor. I have to try.

I don’t chance turning around, but I tune into the murmur of the crowd that has gathered behind me. Someone shouts for a doctor.

No, I need them to bring me to the doctor.

I’ve seen how hearts have suddenly stopped for older men, ones that have worked too hard for too many years. Why couldn’t a heart stop for sudden, crushing grief? My heart certainly feels as if it’s about to stop, or be squeezed out of my chest.

I clutch at my heart and cry out, twisting my face into an expression of agony that’s not entirely contrived. After a timed delay, I collapse onto the ground.

I keep still, eyes closed, barely breathing at all. The cold dampness already seeps into me.

If any part of this goes awry, if I get taken to the wrong doctor, if the right doctor doesn’t agree to help me, we will lose everything.

I hear Mama talking to someone, her voice strained and I feel a stab of guilt for causing her worry. But she’ll thank me in the end, if I can pull this off.

Strong arms slide beneath me and I resist the urge to open my eyes to see who holds me. No person has ever been this close to me besides my sisters, and even then, not since we were young and allowed to wrestle and play boyish games. I try not to think about the male holding me against his chest and imagine someone older and weathered, wearing one of the ridiculous white wigs that are long out of fashion.

There is a step up and a sway, and I imagine I’m carried into a small carriage.

There’s a growl. “Evan—”

“Please drive, Father.” His chest rumbles against me as he speaks and I think if I wasn’t already pretending a faint, or heart attack, I might very well have a real one. Evan? He’s quite attractive, and young, and everything I didn’t want to expose myself to—lying in a young man’s arms?

My heart hammers inside my chest and I can feel the heat rising to my cheeks. I only hope he doesn’t notice—especially his father.

They are silent as they drive, or rather, race, down the cobbled streets. The ride is rough though Evan does his best to keep me still, holding me close against his chest.

His warmth radiates onto my forehead and I catch the scent of him. I never realized a man could smell different from Papa.

Another wave of grief stabs my heart and I fear I’m having a real heart attack. After all my falseness, I’d probably deserve it.

Evan jumps down before the carriage has a chance to stop and he’s running. My slippers brush the side of a doorframe and the temperature on my face changes from icy to warm and slightly humid.

“You’re lucky I haven’t left for church yet.”

I’m relieved to recognize the voice of the good doctor, Leon Walters.

“Bring her back here. Set her on the table and wait out there. Better yet, bring her mother. Girl’s are always more comfortable this way.”

“Yes, of course.”

The doctor called it a table, but I feel a firm bed beneath my back and Evan Osborne’s warm arms finally pull away from me.

A cold disk presses against my chest for a moment, something the doctor does, I’d imagine.

The door creaks open again. “Is she going to be all right?” Mama asks.

“Her heart is strong, breathing is much stronger than I’ve seen for someone suffering from a faint.”

“Oh, thank God! I couldn’t lose two of them in one day. Can’t you wake her?”

“Mrs. Claridge, I believe she already is awake.”

My eyes fly open and I spring upright.

He takes a step back, but I grab his wrists so he can’t escape what I have to say. “Please, Dr. Walters. I need everyone to believe I died. It’s the only way to help my family. If you care even the smallest bit what happens to us, please do this for me. You know we’ll lose everything without a living heir.”

Dr. Walters gently but firmly withdraws his wrists from my grasp. “Exactly how, young lady, does dying help you with any of this?”

“Don’t you see? If I’m dead, I can come back as my brother. No one here knows Garnet’s dead. I look close enough to him to play it off.” My gaze snaps between the two. “Mama knows I’m boyish enough, good with horses. I’m tall. I can run. Please, doctor, it’s our only chance.”

He shakes his head and turns to Mama. “Ma’am, I could provide one better. I could marry you.”

Tears shimmer in Mama’s eyes and spill onto her cheeks. Such expression of feeling from her in a public place has me speechless. “I just lost the love of my live. I’m incapable of marrying another man just now.”

“It would only be to save your assets and your livelihood, Mrs. Claridge.”

“You’re a good man, doctor. I’ll consider your offer.”

I straighten. “Are you not hearing me?”

He pins his gaze on me. “As a doctor, my first rule is to do no harm, that includes lying.”

“Being thrown out of our house is harm!”

“Sapphire Joy!”

“No, Mama. He knows nothing about jewels. He can’t run the store, and only a man can legally do that.”

“And you want to remind me I’ve lost my son while I’m grieving your papa?”

Dr. Walters sighs. “Your daughter has a point. I know nothing about jewels. Even if I did marry you, we’d have to sell your fine house to cover the cost of living. We could move to somewhere larger than my apartment. It wasn’t meant for a family as large as yours. Only a bachelor, see? And I keep long hours. You’d have most days completely to yourself.”

Mama watches me and I feel like a pheasant in the sights of a hunter. I see the steel that makes her so independent, her intense fire that quieted to a warm glow under Papa’s love. Without it, her strength resembles survival.

Then she straightens and squares her shoulders. “All right. Sapphire Joy dies.” Quieter, she adds, “I hope you know what you’re doing. If you fumble this and implicate us all, we will lose more than our livelihood.”

I can’t believe this is really happening. “It’s only for a year, until I can make enough sales to close out the store and provide handsome dowries. By then, I’m sure Ruby or Amethyst will have settled on decent husbands and Garnet can disappear again.”

Dr. Walters rubs his chin. “There might be a better way. If you don’t intend to carry on this charade for your entire life, dying might not be in your best interest.”

“What do you mean?” Mama asks for me.

“I can send you home, Miss Sapphire, forbid anyone to see you while you recover from the impact of your father’s death. Then you could settle your family’s affairs, I could court your mother proper. After, Miss Sapphire can return to normal life.”

“I’d be expected to attend Papa’s funeral.”

“Don’t see why you couldn’t attend. Garnet doesn’t get word in time to make it to the funeral.”

Mama studies him as if seeing the doctor for the first time. “You truly care.”

Dr. Walters turns to her. The atmosphere changes and it’s as if I’m not even in the room anymore, a spell of silence passing between them.

Then they both remember me. Dr. Walters removes his stethoscope and places it on the stand while Mama comes closer to me.

“The law is wrong, but it’s still the law. This could cost me my job.” He jabs his finger in my direction. “Should anyone find out about this, I disavow knowing anything. I truly believed you were ill.”

I slide off the bed onto my feet. “Thank you, doctor!”

His hands brace on his hips, exasperation on his face. “No more than one year, understand? I can’t believe I’m doing this.”

“You won’t regret it. I’ll help fund your practice when I can, as Garnet.”

“That’s not why I’m doing this,” he says, but then a half grin quirks his mouth. “But I will expect payments for my house visits.”

“Of course,” Mama says, “I wouldn’t expect otherwise.”

“All right. The charade begins now.” Dr. Walters looks me in the eyes. “Your grief is so strong, you can’t function.”

“That’s not far from the truth,” I whisper.

“Is that young man outside?”

“Yes,” Mama says.

“Good. He can carry you home in a faint, ‘cause opening that mouth of your could get you into trouble. Beyond my medical business, I don’t want to know anything about what you’re up to. It’s better for everyone, understand? And I never met your brother, so don’t slip up and act like you know me.”

“No one here has met him, as far as I know,” I say. “That’s the point.”

“Do you understand me?”

“Yes, doctor, I understand.”

“Good. Let’s get the invalid home, shall we?”