Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Allegra's Song by Alicia Rasley: Character Interview & Excerpt

The warrior returns... but he never really comes home. Allegra has longed for the return of her soldier husband. But when the war ends, he is more distant than ever. After months of trying to reach him, she leaves to chaperone her husband-hunting younger sister at a duchess's house party. Only then does Nicholas know that to win her, he must leave the war behind and truly come home to her for good.

Chapter One

June 11, 1816


As soon as she heard the front door close behind her visitor, Allegra went back to her piano. This was a particularly knotty section of the concerto, and she was just as glad she could practice it without an audience, especially one as discerning as Keverne.
But she’d hardly got started again when the doorknocker sounded and the maid let in someone new. Allegra sighed and rose from her bench, turning to discover who else was intruding on her rehearsal time.
“Allegra!" came the imperious call, and Allegra started forward to the door, something like dread filling her.
When she saw her sisters in the hall, she managed a welcoming smile. "Maggie! My word, what are you doing here? And Yvette!" She ran over and gave her younger sister a quick hug, exclaiming, as she always did, "Why, you're as tall as I am!" as if achieving her meager height were something to applaud.
 Maggie, half a head taller than her sisters, endured a somewhat more awkward embrace.
 "You weren't expecting us?" Yvette inquired.
 "Should I be? Your last letter said you weren't coming, and that was weeks ago." Allegra's gaze shifted from one travel-weary sister to the other, and she added, "But explanations can wait. I'll ring for tea."
 "Not in here, I hope," Maggie said repressively.
 Allegra looked around the little music studio, surprised to see that the only available seat was a low cabinet designed to hold sheet music. "No, we'll go downstairs. I don't keep furniture in here. It soaks up the sound." As they left the room, she called out to her butler to fetch the tea tray.
 In the drawing room, Yvette curled up on the window seat where she could gaze out upon the sunny kitchen garden. Maggie selected a wingback chair and pulled off her bonnet, replacing it with a simple muslin cap she took from her reticule. The cap was rather wrinkled, but Maggie seemed not to notice as she pinned it firmly to her bright hair.
 "Now," Allegra said, "I'm glad to see you of course, but why are you here?" Dropping onto the ottoman, she kicked off her slippers and drew her feet up under her rose cambric skirt. She was six-and-twenty, three years younger than Maggie, four years older than Yvette, and, by virtue of her marriage, the only sister with a home of her own. Two, in fact—this little townhouse in Mount Street, and the family estate in Kent.
“No, no, Allie,” Yvette said mischievously. “Before we tell you, you must identify that gentleman who was just leaving as we arrived.” She sighed. “You know, the one with the physique of a Corinthian and the smile of a roué. He winked at me!”
“I’m sure he did,” Allegra said. “He’s an incorrigible flirt.”
Irrepressibly, Yvette went on. "I knew he must be a friend of yours, paying a visit."
"I sincerely trust not." Maggie's low, melodious voice held a tinge of censure. "Married ladies shouldn't have such friends. Or unmarried ones, for that matter."
Allegra wasn't going to let this stand, even—especially—from her elder sister. "I'll choose my own friends, thank you."
"Well, I understand why you'd choose him. He isn't as handsome as your husband, Allegra," Yvette admitted, "but he had an undeniable charm."
 "Charm." Maggie pronounced the word with disdain. "Charm is no excuse for insolence, Yvette."
Except for their spectacular dark blue Drewe eyes, the sisters looked nothing alike. Maggie was a tall woman with copper red hair kept tamed in a tight knot. She considered herself plain, and to the dismay of her sisters, took pains to dress in a manner that would promote this image. She had a masterful chin, a straight nose, and skin that was fine and clear over elegant cheekbones. As for her mouth, it was generous enough to be kissable, but few men noticed that since it was so often pursed.
 Allegra was indisputably the beauty of the family. Even now, with long strands of her dark hair escaping its braid, she would have drawn admiration. Her face had a wild delicacy—rose-brushed ivory skin, a sulky mouth, high cheekbones shadowed by long eyelashes. She was slender, with quick hands and graceful motions that inspired unanswerable questions in men's minds.
 Yvette had a pretty, elfin face and a halo of golden curls she kept short for ease rather than fashion. Her mouth was wide and her chin firm, and her spritelike slimness and healthy color came from outdoor activities, for she was wont to spend her time roaming the fields and woods.
Maggie was still looking censorious, clearly about to launch into a lecture about the dangers of visits from rakes, so Allegra said quickly, “I am overalt to see you both! But I thought you were staying in the country this spring!”
"We must have outrun our letter," Yvette remarked as the tea tray arrived. "We did send one, you know, to tell you that we had changed our minds. I've decided to look in London for a husband after all. The boys one meets in the country are too inclined to be emotional."
"But Yvette, the season is over! Everyone is leaving town. There aren't any husbands to be found."
"Oh, come now, Allie. London is full of men. What about that prime-looking specimen who was just visiting?"
Allegra, pouring tea, looked up with alarm. "Keverne? My heavens, Yvette, he must be almost twice your age. I know he doesn't look it, but I think he is nearly forty."
Yvette tilted her head, her expression cryptic. "Well, he's still in town, so I expect there must be others."
"Keverne's about to leave for the country, and then go abroad. Yvette, in another week, everyone of any consequence will be gone. Why didn't you come in April as I asked you?"
"I wasn't desperate enough then. But now I am finding it hard to live under another's thumb!"
Allegra carried a teacup over to her. "Theodosia is making things difficult?"
Yvette accepted the cup with a nod, her face tight and suddenly rather unhappy. Allegra didn't need any elaboration.  Yvettte wasn't one to complain, but they all knew their stepmother had long ago made herself the autocrat of Yarwood Manor. There was no disputing her authority, as she was the widow of the late Earl of Yarwood, but even more important, the mother of his heir, though by a roundabout route—she was his first cousin's wife before she became his second countess. Now, as dowager, she ruled her son Basil's life and thus the manor that had been the sisters' childhood home. Now that her son, their cousin and their father's heir, had come home from Oxford, she was even more jealous of her position as chatelaine.
"It's been worse since Theodosia decided I'm casting out lures to Basil. She keeps hinting that he can do better than me now that he's an earl, though why she should think so I have no notion. After all, I am an earl's daughter. But now Basil thinks I want him, and last week he—he tried to kiss me." She grimaced. "I was about to pinch him when Maggie came along."
"I hit him on the head with my parasol. He went squealing to Theodosia, and—" Maggie permitted herself a small smile—"well, you can imagine the uproar. The thought of living there any longer is insupportable."
"I only wish you had realized that two months ago. But we must contrive." Allegra studied her younger sister. "So you see marriage as the way out of Theodosia's clutches."
"Yes, of course. If I marry, I will have my own home, and my own life. And Maggie—" she said artlessly, "can come along!"
"If your prospective husband doesn't mind," Allegra said sotto voce. But her voce apparently wasn't sotto enough, for her elder sister cast her a sharp glance.  Quickly she added, "Would you consider a soldier? I've got a whole regiment of them at home in Kent."
"No. I mean no offense to Nicholas and his friends, but the lot of a soldier's wife isn't for me."
"Well, I can't deny it is demanding." For a moment Allegra faltered, then she gathered her thoughts. "No soldier then. No roués either, is that right, Maggie?"
"I wouldn't want a rake," Yvette said. "I was just funning you about Keverne. A man like that would be too demanding, always expecting romance and repartee. I prefer someone... easy."
"Easy?" Allegra repeated, for she truly hadn't met many easy men.
"You know. Undemanding. Wealthy. Competent as a landowner."
Allegra stared at her for a moment. How very different they were! When she was a young maiden, all she wanted was a handsome, courageous hero to sweep her away and make her romantic dreams come true. Well, she reminded herself, she'd found just that sort of man, and look where it got her.  She closed off that thought, so unproductive now, and smiled at Yvette. "Never fear, we shall think of something. If nothing else, the Bond Street shops are still open, so at least we can dress you for conquest."
Because it was a safe topic, Allegra kept the conversation focused on fashion while they finished their tea. She then led her sisters upstairs, a pair of menservants following with their baggage.
"This should suit you, Yvette," she said, flinging open the door to a guest room. "It looks out over the garden, so you will feel more at home."
Yvette tossed her bonnet upon the counterpane and went to the window to assess the view. Opening the casement, she leaned out to breathe in the light scent of the linden tree that brushed the side of the house, then glanced back over her shoulder. "I warn you I'm going to be very selective, Allie. Not just any pleasant husband will do."
"Difficult child," Allegra said dryly. "First you come so late most of the good men have already been caught, then you announce you mean to be choosy. Perhaps you should make up a list of your requirements while you are at it."
Yvette only smiled, and Allegra led Maggie on down the corridor to another bedchamber. With a wave of her hand, she directed the placement of her sister's luggage.
"Now let me see what you need to supplement your wardrobe." Allegra opened Maggie's trunk and peered inside.
"My wardrobe is perfectly adequate."
"That is why I must help you. Your judgment is unreliable in such matters."
Muttering that she would not waste good money on fripperies, Maggie cast a disapproving glance at Allegra's silk-clad ankles, revealed as she placed Maggie's bonnet on the top of the chest. "It's not I who needs a husband."
"Perhaps not, but Yvette's prospective bridegrooms will worry about the size of her dowry if her eldest sister wears gowns that show through at the elbows." She held up Maggie's favorite dress, and put her hand into the sleeve. It was true—her wriggling fingers could be sighted through the thin fabric.
"Truthfully, Allegra, do you think she has any kind of chance this late in the season?"
Allegra frowned at a threadbare shawl. "If we can find a clutch of bachelors, I'm sure she can win one of them. She's as pretty as can stare, and Grandmama left her a healthy portion." She broke off and glanced sidelong at her sister. "Do you mean to live with her and the perfectly complacent husband?"
This short syllable didn't leave much room for argument. "You can live with us, of course. It's the least I can do after all the care you gave to us when we were young. Nicholas would be glad—"
Maggie cut short this dutiful invitation. "I mean to get a cottage of my own in the country." She compressed her lips and changed the subject. "Where is my favorite nephew?"
"Timothy is with his father in Kent." Allegra carefully transferred a pile of stockings from the trunk to an empty drawer and added a sachet on top.
"Then . . . why are you here?"
"Signor Martelli was in London to play for the Regent. He agreed to give me lessons." Allegra glanced up quickly, then moved back to the trunk. "It was too great an opportunity to decline, but it meant I had to come to town."
"How much longer will he stay?"
Allegra knelt so that the open lid hid her face. "Actually, he left a fortnight ago."
"And you're still in London? Alone?"
Uttered in that tone, it sounded the most scandalous of states. "I'm not alone," Allegra said hurriedly. "Timothy left only last week, and Nicholas's great-aunt lives in this house."
"You mean the one who never comes out of her room except to go to vespers? She's no sort of chaperone."
Allegra stood up, her arms full of shifts and shawls. "I'm eight years married," she said coolly. "I need no chaperone." She set the pile on the bed and started for the door. "I think you can do this yourself, can't you? Or shall I send my maid to assist you?"
"Just a moment, Allegra." It was Maggie's commanding voice. Allegra paused in the doorway as her elder sister said, almost accusingly, "Nicholas hasn't been back from the war a year now. Surely you're happy to have him home safe. You were so wildly in love when you married him."
Allegra slanted a look over her shoulder, her complexion slightly flushed with emotion. "You never believed that, did you? That we were truly in love?"
"I didn't." Maggie stopped and took a deep breath. "Or rather, I thought that his being a soldier would be hard on you. But you handled it better than I could have predicted."
"I wanted to make a life for him to come back to."
"But now he is back, and you're here. Allegra, it doesn't make sense." Coaxingly, Maggie said, "Come, now, if you've quarreled, you must make it up."
"Maggie, please. You don't understand. We aren't in perfect harmony, but we haven't quarreled. It is only that he's changed."
"Did you think he would not after so many years of war? Surely you didn't expect him to remain that wild twenty-year-old boy you ran away with. Of course he's changed, and lucky for you he has." Maggie cleared her throat, for the first time looking a trifle unsure. "Unless you mean . . ." Her voice came out sounding strangled. "I understand, really I do. I've heard men take offense if a wife denies ... er ... conjugal rights."
"Denies?" Allegra shook her head, laughing without much humor. "You must think me a pretty sort of wife. I've never denied Nicholas. Nor have I wanted to."
Color crept up Maggie's neck. "Then if you two can manage that, why are you separated?"
"Maggie, what you call conjugal rights is only—" Allegra broke off. She might have explained to another married lady, but though Maggie was older, she was a maiden. "It's a natural sort of thing. But nothing changes, no matter how lovely the interlude is."
"Well, surely that is better than being all alone."
"Oh, no. This is better. Don't you know? No, you can't, can you?"
"What can't I know?"
"That the loneliest time in the world is when a man makes love to you and then leaves you alone."
A step sounded, and Yvette appeared in the doorway. Her face was so solemn it was evident she'd heard that last line.
"Yvette." It was Allegra's turn to flush.
"I think being left alone sounds lovely," Yvette put in thoughtfully. "I should like a husband who didn't expect more of me than that."
Allegra looked as though she would have liked to argue, but thought better of it. "Well," she said tartly, "don't forget to add that to your list of requirements. 'Doesn't expect much.'"
"I already have." Unoffended, Yvette studied Allegra, her expression openly curious. "What about Lord Keverne? Is he a special friend of yours?"
"Not a special friend. Just a friend. He's a bit of a rake, my dear. Definitely not marriage material. And," she added with an edge of irony, "I think he would expect a great deal."
"A rake," Maggie repeated, eyes narrowed. "Nicholas is not here, and you allow rakes into your house? But I suppose I should not be surprised. When it comes to a handsome face, you've always been susceptible."
"Susceptible?" Allegra spoke the word slowly, angry color mounting in her cheeks. "I am not susceptible. You make it sound as if I cannot be trusted by myself, when I have been on my own for years. Now that Nicholas is home, he has let me have a holiday in town, and if he doesn't object to my stay here, I hardly think it's your place to do so."
The line had been drawn, and Maggie stepped back from it. "Just be cautious," she warned. "Men like that can be dangerous."
Allegra's expression softened into a smile. "Maggie, darling, I think I know more about men like that than you do. Keverne likes music, that's all. He comes to hear me play."
 Maggie gave her a long, appraising look, but Allegra only made a face and said, "Speaking of music—"
 "We were speaking of rakes," Yvette corrected.
 "Speaking of music," Allegra went on, "I've had a thought. The London season may be over, but the house party season is only beginning. In fact, I just received an invitation to the grandest of them all."
 Her gaiety magically restored, she seized Maggie and Yvette by the hand and pulled them out the door and along the corridor. "The Duchess of Falconthorpe considers herself a Patroness of the Arts," she explained. "I think she wishes me to be her next protegée, for she's invited me to direct her musical evenings. I hadn't really planned to accept, but now I think I shall, upon the condition that I may bring the two of you along."
 They arrived back at the music room, where she released their hands and went to her piano. "Now where did I put that invitation?" She felt a blush creep up her cheeks, and hoped it didn't suggest who might have delivered it. "The duke and duchess have the most wonderful place in Sussex. It's quite as splendid as Chatsworth, and is mentioned in all the guide books. There is to be a masquerade and a treasure hunt and games—ah, here it is."
 From the top of a pile of sheet music, she took a card rimmed in gold and thrust it at Yvette.
 "Your ticket to romance, dearest. We're going to Falconthorpe!"

Alicia Rasley: Interview with a Character From Allegra's Song, a Traditional Regency Novella.

(Nicholas is a soldier who has returned from the Peninsular war to a wife he hardly knows.  Months later, he's still distracted and disoriented, and she has given up trying to reach him.  He doesn't really wake up to her unhappiness until she's left him for a few days.  Now what I'm going to do is start with an unthreatening question, and then, when I have the poor fella relaxed, get more intrusive.  It's almost like I'm hypnotizing him.  I'm also going to ask him to describe the exterior where he was, what he saw, what he heard so that I can use that to write the setting details later.
(Yes, I'm entirely aware that Nicholas is a figment of my imagination.  I'm not crazy, you know. I'm just a fiction-writer.  We have to be able to know we're inventing these people, and still let them become themselves.  It's rather like parenting.)
How has it been, this peace?
Nicholas Trent speaks: Dull.  Frankly, it's been dull.  I'm still in the Army, training the troops, and we parade and do expeditions, but it seems rather futile.

But still, you must be glad to be home again with your family....

     I don't know.  It should be....  Those first months are rather a blur.  I wasn't wounded, except for a slash on my arm, nothing much, but I felt feverish all the time.  Not really feverish, just blurred.  As if I were in a fog.  It was just so strange, being home.  It was my home, but it was so different from what I remember.  My parents weren't there, that was the biggest change.  They'd both died while I was gone.  I knew it, of course, but I don't think I really understood it till I got home and they weren't there.  And there we were, Allegra and I, in the master suite.  My parents' room.  It was... strange.  I didn't like it. Foolish of me, I suppose.  I couldn't sleep there.  So I took to sleeping in my old room, down the hall.  I'd visit Allegra, of course.  Odd, isn't it, that I could do‑‑ that, but I couldn't sleep there afterwards.
Why not?

     I don't know.  Guilt?  No.  Not guilt.  My parents got sick and died; it wasn't to do with me.  But I couldn't get caught up with the time.  It's as if the whole world had moved on while I was at war.  The house was redone, modernized.  My parents grew old and died, and Timmy wasn't a baby any more, and Allegra‑‑
And Allegra?
She was grown.  A woman.  I hadn't really noticed that.  She'd been just a girl when I married her.  You know.  Foolish notions.  Stars in her eyes.  She used to write these letters to me, while I was away, and she'd dot her i's with little fat circles.  The sort of things governesses tried to beat out of girls, you know.  And I didn't really notice, but last week I was looking through all those letters‑‑ hundreds of them, almost seven years worth‑‑ and I realized somewhere a few years ago she stopped using those little circles. 

Why were you looking through those old letters?
Looking for her.  She's been gone for a couple weeks. And I'd forgotten what she is like.  I felt like it had been years, not days, since I'd seen her.  I couldn't remember what she looked like.  Oh, I could remember her in a ballgown, with her hair up, a portrait‑sort of memory.  But I couldn't remember her the other ways, like when she's frowning and biting her lip as she reads through a piece of music and imagines how it will sound.  Or when she's feeling cross with Timothy, or when she's laughing with him.  Or at night, in the moonlight, with her hair down on her bare shoulders.  I couldn't remember any of those memories.  So I read over her letters.
Tell me where you were, when you read the letters. What was it like, that scene?
I don't recall... come to think of it, I was in the attic.  I went up to find a chair to replace a broken one in the dining room.  And I saw that leather satchel, the one from when I was in Portugal, the one I used to put her letters in.  It was hanging on a post on the wall, just dangling from the strap, and it was half open, so one letter was sticking out.
Did you take the letters downstairs to read?
I was going to, but when I started stuffing that letter back in, I saw her handwriting, and I sat down on that replacement chair, and opened the satchel, and started reading.  I'd had them organized by year, and so I started with the earliest years.

Wasn't it dark in the attic?

         Not at first. It was the middle of the afternoon, and the light was streaming in through the gable windows.  You know how the light is that time of day?  Kind of white golden, and up there in the attic, it sparkled on every bit of dust in the air.  And there was a lot of dust.  I wasn't choking on it, but I could taste it in my throat.  But I didn't really mind. I just kept opening letters.  Sometimes I could smell her perfume on them. You know how women do that sprinkle a little bit of perfume on the page.  I guess it's a hint that we should buy them more.  But I could smell that perfume over the dusty smell, and sometimes it was almost like she was, oh, just behind me, so I could sense her but not see her.
Was there any noise?
It's an old house, so sometimes I could hear the rafters creaking.  There was a breeze up that rattled at the windows too.  You know how old glass rattles, like an old man coughing.  Other than that, all I could hear was the paper crackling when I opened a letter.

It must have taken a long time.

            Yes, but it was good. I could remember her better then, after I read them.
 But you'd just been living with her for nearly a year since the war ended.  You should have some fresh memories.
I should have, but I don't.  She was there, I remember that‑‑ in the house, at the supper table, in the bed.  And she made everything comfortable for me, which was pleasant‑‑ except I'm not used to comfort, and sometimes it was annoying, to have her keep asking what did I want to do.  Did I want to redo my father's study, did I want to buy a few more mounts for the stables, did I want to go to London for the season.  Did I want salt on my eggs.  Did I want to hear that new sonata she'd learned.  Did I want to have another child. Did I want to be alone. That's all I remember, really, all those questions.  I reckon she wouldn't have asked them if she didn't want to know. But I was supposed to say yes or no, when‑‑ when I didn't really have an answer.  So sometimes I said yes, and sometimes I said no, and she'd go off and do what she thought was best anyway.   So I remember she asked me, do you want me to go, and I said‑‑ I don't remember. Yes or no, one of those two. And she did what she wanted to do, went her own way.  That's the problem with us.  We never needed each other. Oh, we thought we did, and each time we parted, I felt that need, sharp like an arrow, right in my heart.  But we had to go on living, and we did, both of us, and so we just learned not to need each other. It hurt too much. So...well, she does well without me. She has her own interests, her own way. But it's time now, I think, for us to start needing each other again.

Alicia Rasley is a RITA-award winning Regency novelist who has been published by major publishers such as Dell, NAL, and Kensington. Her women’s fiction novel The Year She Fell has been a Kindle bestseller in the fiction category.
Her articles on writing and the Regency period have been widely distributed, and many are collected on her website, www.rasley.com. She also blogs about writing and editing at www.edittorrent.blogspot.com.  Currently she teaches and tutors writers at two state colleges and in workshops around North America.  She lives with her husband Jeff, another writer and a retired attorney. The elder of their sons is training to be a military officer, and the younger is a production assistant in Hollywood.
Check out the Amazon page for other Regencies by Rasley.
v     Rakish heroes.
v     Reckless heroines.
v     Elegant stores.

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