Home > Portrait of Peril (Victorian Mystery #5)

Portrait of Peril (Victorian Mystery #5)
Author: Laura Joh Rowland

 


London, October 1890

 

 

CHAPTER 1


“If I fall, will you hold me up?” I whisper to Lord Hugh Staunton.

“At your service.” He smiles and tucks my hand around his arm.

We’re standing inside the door of St. Peter’s Church in Bethnal Green. My ears ring with anxiety that drowns out the pealing bells and organ music. As we enter the sanctuary, I’m afraid I’ll trip on the hem of my wedding dress, a simple, modest frock in dove-gray silk blushed with pink. I didn’t want a white gown; that’s for a young, virginal bride, and I’m a thirty-three-year-old woman of considerable experience. My hands are clammy in my white kid gloves. My bouquet of white roses trembles.

“Relax, Sarah,” Hugh says. “This is nothing compared to a day on the job.”

Hugh and I are crime photographers and reporters for the Daily World newspaper, and too many of our assignments have involved confrontations with murderers. I flex my left shoulder, which still aches from the gunshot wound I incurred during the last confrontation. But although I narrowly escaped death, my life afterward returned to some semblance of normalcy. I can’t imagine this day as resulting in anything less than a complete upheaval of my existence, a transformation of myself from a spinster into a wife.

Hugh and I start down the aisle. The church is cold and smells of burning candles. Colored light from the stained-glass windows bathes us. I’m already out of step with the organ playing the bridal march. The aisle seems a hundred miles long. As we near the guests who rise from their seats at the front of the church, I’m glad the clerk at the dress shop talked me into buying a veil. Pinned to my coronet of braids, it shields me from close scrutiny. On my left, my few friends turn to watch me and smile. They’re vastly outnumbered by the guests on the other side. My betrothed’s aunts and uncles, cousins and family friends, none of whom I’ve ever met, crane their necks. I hear murmurs of “She doesn’t look like her pictures in the newspaper.” I falter, uncomfortably reminded that I’m notorious on account of the Daily World’s coverage of my exploits.

“That’s Lord Hugh Staunton,” someone whispers. “Gorgeous, isn’t he?”

Muted grumbles echo through the church, and now it’s Hugh’s turn to falter. The guests must have heard about the scandal two years ago, when the vice squadron raided a club for homosexual men and Hugh was among those caught in compromising circumstances.

Someone else whispers, “Why is he walking her down the aisle?”

Hugh is my dear friend, who has stood by me through the most perilous times in my life, despite the cost to himself. My one regret about this day is that my father, Benjamin Bain, can’t do the honors. He’d been missing for twenty-four years before we reunited last month. The prime suspect in the 1866 murder of a young girl, he’s a fugitive from the law. He lives under a false name and avoids the public eye lest he be recognized, reported to the police, and arrested. The punishment for murder is, of course, death by hanging.

Now I spot my future mother- and father-in-law. She’s small, slender, and pretty, dressed in blue. He’s in his best brown suit, leaning on a cane. Doubt tinges his smile. Her smile doesn’t conceal her dislike of me, and the peacock feather in her hat quivers with her antagonism. I experience a sudden urge to turn and run. What am I getting myself into? Is it too late to back out? I clench my jaw and direct my gaze straight ahead.

White candles and a bouquet of white roses adorn the altar. In front of it stands the solemn vicar in his black cassock and white surplice. My bridesmaid—my half sister Sally Albert—smiles and dabs her handkerchief at tears that have fallen on her rose-colored frock. My other dear friend, fourteen-year-old Mick O’Reilly, grins behind my camera and tripod, holding the flashlamp. His red hair sticks up in a cowlick, but his freckled face is scrubbed clean, and he hasn’t had time to outgrow his new suit. Not every bride is lucky enough to have at her wedding two friends with whom she’s faced death and survived, who’ve proven themselves willing to die for her. And there, with his best man, is my soon-to-be husband, Detective Sergeant Thomas Barrett. He’s so handsome in his dark-gray morning coat and striped trousers, black tie, and white waistcoat and shirt, a white gardenia boutonniere on his lapel. He’s tamed his unruly dark hair with pomade. As he smiles at me, his crystalline gray eyes brim with love.

Everyone else recedes into a blur. He’s the man I fell for the moment I first laid eyes on him, when my attraction seemed doomed to be unrequited. And now he’s mine! I’m barely conscious of Hugh releasing my hand, Sally taking my bouquet, the organ music stopping, and explosions of white light as Mick takes photographs. As Barrett and I stand side by side, my heart races with such giddy joy that if it weren’t for the audience and the solemnity of the occasion, I would jump up and down. This ceremony is no longer an ordeal but a gateway to a new life that I’m eager to begin.

The vicar says, “In the presence of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we have come together to witness the marriage of Sarah Bain and Thomas Barrett, to share their joy and to celebrate their love.” After his speech about the purpose and sanctity of marriage, he says, “If anyone present knows a reason why they should not marry, declare it now or forever hold your peace.”

When Barrett’s mother doesn’t speak up, I sigh with relief.

“Thomas, will you take Sarah to be your wife? Will you love her, comfort her, honor and protect her, and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?”

I’m not used to thinking of, let alone calling, Barrett by his Christian name, but I suppose I’ll have to start soon.

“I will,” he says.

“Sarah, will you take Thomas to be your husband? Will you love him, comfort him, honor, obey, and protect him, and, forsaking all others, be faithful to him as long as you both shall live?”

“I will.” My voice trembles with my lifelong fear of speaking in front of an audience.

After prayers and a Bible reading, Barrett and I face each other; we join hands, and the vicar prompts us through our vows.

“I, Thomas, take you, Sarah, to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.”

He looks more serious than I’ve ever seen him, and I’m so moved that I stumble through my vows and hardly attend to what I’m saying. “I, Sarah, take you, Thomas … till death us do part.”

“Heavenly Father,” the vicar says, “let this ring be a symbol of eternal love and faithfulness, to remind Thomas and Sarah of the vow and covenant which they have made.”

Barrett tugs on my left glove to bare my finger through the slit designed for that purpose. He slips the plain gold band on my finger. The ring feels strange, but it fits, and it’s warm from his hand.

“I hereby proclaim you husband and wife.” The vicar joins our hands together. “Those whom God has joined together, let no one put asunder.”

Barrett pulls me closer to him. He lifts my veil, his smile turns mischievous, and his eyes gleam with daring. He lowers his face to mine.

Oh my God—he’s going to kiss me!

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