Romance Fiction posted March 16, 2012 Chapters: -1- 2... 

This work has reached the exceptional level
The Sevarins descend on Madison Park.

A chapter in the book The Sixth Season

The Early Bird...

by Sissy

When the carriage rolled to a stop, Anna straightened and opened her eyes. She couldn't wait to get out. The long drive in the plush, stuffy confines of the small equipage had caused a headache and a strong desire for fresh air. When she'd tried to open a window earlier, the Viscountess had stayed her hand, worried over their hair. Anna rubbed her forehead as her mother and sister, Leigh, chatted, gathering their reticules and smoothing down their dresses. They were nearly two hours early, part of her mother's plan to make sure the Earl of Leeds noticed Leigh before the others arrived.

Anna bent to look out the window closest to her. Manicured emerald lawns rolled down to the edge of a sparkling lake. The grass seemed too green, almost fake, no hint of brown or yellow anywhere, making her wonder how many gardeners worked on this estate. She turned her gaze out the opposite window: an enormous limestone edifice in impeccable condition stretched three stories high, reaching toward the bright blue sky. Anna sat back. She'd never seen its like. All the house parties she'd attended in the five years she'd been out - this mansion took the prize. She glanced back at her family. Her mother oohed and ahhed over the number of windows carved in the house's facade, while her sister straightened her gloves and patted her hair.

The carriage door swung open and a welcome breeze fluttered in. A footman helped the Viscountess of Sedgewick down, then assisted Anna's younger sister. Anna smiled as the footman stared at Leigh, his mouth dropping open. It still amazed her, the reactions of men when they first laid eyes on Leigh. Her sister's petite frame, startling ice blue eyes, light blond hair and engaging smile had crowned her one of the Season's 'Incomparables'. She'd been called a living china doll - her porcelain skin perfectly smooth and without blemish, her patrician features without flaw. Her latest admirer finally jerked his gaze back to the carriage and held out a hand as Anna started to step down. He misjudged her height, dropping his hand too low, and she stumbled as she reached for it. She managed to land on her feet, grabbing his arm in the process to make sure she didn't fall forward onto her knees.

"Anna!" the Viscountess chided in a loud whisper. "Mind yourself."

The footman shot her an apologetic look before his gaze strayed back to Leigh.

"Sorry, Mother," Anna said, flushing. By the open front doors of the mansion, the butler stood facing her, hands clasped in front of his stomach, expression inscrutable. Anna stepped forward and smiled. "Hello."

He bowed his head. "Welcome to Madison Park."

Anna turned toward her mother, who stood a few paces away with her back to the house, staring out over the front lawns and whispering to Leigh. She paid no mind to Anna or the butler. Anna returned her attention to the short, uniformed man. "Thank you. I must apologize. I fear we are quite early in our arrival for the house party."

His stoic, stern demeanor never cracked. "Yes, Miss..."

"Sevarin. And your name is?"

A moment passed before he replied. "Graves."

"Nice to meet you, Graves." Anna walked closer to the bottom of the steps, giving up on the other two members of her family. "Let me speak for my mother and sister - we are really sorry for the imposition."

"You are not imposing in the least." Christopher Stratton, Earl of Leeds, strode outside and down the five half round slate steps toward her. Anna turned her smile to him and her breath actually caught in her throat. Goodness, he's even more handsome up close. She'd only seen him from afar at parties, save their introduction five years ago. His hair, a light brown shot through with blond, his dark blue eyes, and welcoming grin made heat rise to her cheeks.

He glanced at her mother and sister, then back to her, eyebrows raised. "Well, these types of parties are known to be more informal, so allow me to introduce myself, since I don't think we've met before. I am Chris Stratton."

"Anna Sevarin, my lord." She curtsied, then half turned. "Mother?"

Clara spun around. "What is it that -- oh!" Her annoyance dropped away and eased into a softer tone. "My lord, hello." She curtseyed. "How lovely of you to welcome us personally."

"Hello, Viscountess." He bowed. "Welcome." He nodded to Leigh. "Miss Sevarin."

"Hello, my lord." Leigh dropped a graceful curtsy. "Thank you for inviting us. We are looking forward to the weekend's festivities."

"Glad to hear it. I believe my mother has quite a few events planned."

Anna couldn't help but watch him as he spoke to her sister. His gaze turned appreciative as he took in Leigh's face and form, but then, to Anna's surprise, he turned back to her. "I do not recall seeing you at the first two balls this season, Miss Sevarin. Did you attend the Duke of Hawthorne's event?"

"I did." She prayed he wouldn't ask where she'd been during that ball. He didn't seem to know her, or know of her, for that matter.

"That was such a crush. And the Stanfields'? I was horribly late for that party. I had attended Keane's latest play and was detained."

"Oh, me too, my lord. I did not make it to the Stanfields' soiree at all. The play ran way too long and there was that awful carriage accident just outside the theater."

His eyes lit up and he took a step closer. "You attended? What did you think?" Being the sole recipient of his attention made her want to retreat a few paces. His direct, interested countenance made Anna grip her hands together in front of her. She forced herself to relax her shoulders and breathe. Her mother stiffened next to her, dampening Anna's enthusiasm for the conversation and made her wish she'd answered in a more mundane manner. But she had to reply. She couldn't not answer him.

"I did not think it was his greatest performance. But the play itself was very good." She tried to meet his gaze for more than a moment, but still intimidated by his undivided attention, she glanced at her hands. She didn't want to look at her mother, either. Continuing this conversation would only anger the Viscountess and further cement Anna's notorious bluestocking status.

"I agree, Miss Sevarin. Definitely not his best. But perhaps with a few runs, it will improve."

She returned her eyes to his face, but he now looked toward Leigh. "Do you enjoy the theater?"

"A good play can be quite diverting." Her dimpled smile drew the Earl her way.

He nodded. "Did you attend the play your sister and I are speaking of?"

"I did not, my lord."

"This is quite a house you have here," Clara cut in.

He backed up and straightened his shoulders. "Thank you, but I cannot take credit for it." He smiled. "Some ancestor built it over a hundred years ago. It has been improved upon, of course, and modernized. I would be happy to arrange a tour, but first, would you care for some refreshments?"

Clara stepped in front of Anna, Leigh at her side. Anna retreated to the rear as they walked up the steps and inside. Black and white marble tiles paved the immense foyer, the pattern making Anna dizzy. She glanced at the ceiling three stories up; a huge chandelier hung gracefully above her head. Anna let her eyes run along the grand staircase, which curved in a half circle to the second floor, then another half circle to the third. Portraits lined the white walls on either side of the stairs. The first, off to her right, caught her attention. An older woman looked out over the foyer, an amused expression gracing her otherwise quite haughty features. She sat in a high-backed Queen Anne chair, her elegant hands resting in her lap. Drawn to the woman's expression, Anna moved closer to study it. The woman appeared intelligent, self possessed, with the same color eyes as the current Earl--

"Miss Sevarin." The butler's soft tone intruded on her thoughts.

"May I ask who this woman is? This is such a lovely portrait."

"That was the Earl's great-grandmother. My father served as her butler here at Madison Park."

"Really, Graves?" Anna glanced his way. "I feel like she must've been quite an interesting person. The way the painter captured her features, and the look in her eyes."

"She was. Please ask the Earl to tell you about her, if you get the chance. She lived into her late nineties, and the stories are well worth hearing." He smiled, his stern features melting into a more approachable mien. "Your party has gone into the Green Salon for tea."

"Oh! Goodness, how long was I standing here? Excuse me." Shaking her head, she turned toward the rear of the foyer, then noticed all of the doors and smiled. "I can't imagine where the Green Salon may be, Graves."

"This way, Miss." He led the way to two open doors, halfway down the foyer, off to the right. Anna hesitated in the doorway. Green and rose predominated, with Aubusson carpets lying about the parquet floor. Couches and chairs were grouped together about the long room. Windows ran from floor to ceiling, at the front and back of the room, and two large fireplaces were built into the long wall directly across from her. She stepped in. "Pray excuse my inattention," she said to Chris. "I was caught by the portrait of your great-grandmother."

He grinned. "That is a good one, is it not? I think she must've been pleased with that portrait. She married the seventh Earl --" he dropped his voice, his smile widening, "-- an inveterate drunk and a gambler."

"Surely that was just nasty gossip!" Clara cried.

"But he was, Viscountess. And she ran the Earldom while he lived a dissolute existence. He died quite young and she never remarried. She not only ran all of the estates, she also raised six children."

Anna seated herself next to her mother, keeping her eyes on Chris Stratton. "Six children?" She accepted a cup of tea the maid held out. "Thank you." 

"And only one a son." He paused. "My grandfather."

"Was he as colorful as she?" Anna asked, unable to help herself.

"Oh, no. Very straightlaced, unfortunately." He smiled again. Anna dropped her gaze, taking a sip of tea.

"Is your mother here, my lord?" Leigh asked.

"She is en route, I am sure. She needed to go to the village for a few items this morning." He paused. "Now, if you will excuse me. Graves, or my housekeeper, Mrs. Graves, will make sure you are settled into your rooms. I have a few matters of business to attend to before the other guests arrive. If you require anything, do not hesitate to ask."

Clara beamed. "Thank you."

He bowed before exiting the room. Anna watched him go. The Earl had seemed friendly, and he certainly was good looking. With his wealth and social standing -- no wonder he was high on every mother's list of marriageable men. However, it was rumored that he had no wish to marry, that his own mother had gotten this house party together of the most eligible girls of the past two Seasons, hoping he would show some interest in one or two. Anna had heard he planned on travelling extensively before eventually settling down.

"The theater, Anna?" Clara's voice cut off her train of thought.

"I am sorry, Mother. He brought it up and I really did not know how to turn the conversation."

"Oh, it is alright, Mama." Leigh spoke. "He certainly enjoys the theater, it seems. What is the harm in Anna talking about it if he introduced the topic? Neither you or I could've conversed about that actor's performance."

Surprised, Anna shot a look to her sister. Having little to nothing in common except the same last name and a slight resemblance around the nose and mouth, they weren't very close. Leigh met Anna's gaze, shook her head and rolled her eyes. Anna wished she could smile, but instead took another long sip of her warm tea.


"Come out" - refers to being formally launched into society.

Please let me know what doesn't read smoothly. Is this a good enough first chapter? Do you get a sense of the Sevarin family dynamics?

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