Secrets of a Summer Night

Page 1


London, 1841

Although Annabelle Peyton had been warned all her life never to take money from strangers, she made an exception one day…and quickly discovered why she should have heeded her mother’s advice.

It was one of her brother Jeremy’s rare holidays from school, and as was their habit, he and Annabelle had gone to see the latest panorama show in Leicester Square. It had taken two weeks of household economy to save the money necessary to pay for the tickets. As the only surviving offspring of the Peyton family, Annabelle and her younger brother had always been unusually close despite the ten-year difference in their ages. Childhood illnesses had taken the two infants who had been born after Annabelle, neither of them having lived to see their first birthday.

“Annabelle,” Jeremy said as he returned from the panorama ticket stand, “do you have any more money?”

She shook her head and gave him a quizzical glance. “I’m afraid not. Why?”

Sighing shortly, Jeremy pushed back a swath of honey-colored hair that had fallen over his forehead. “They’ve doubled the price for this show—apparently it’s far more expensive than their usual production.”

“The advertisement in the paper said nothing about higher prices,” Annabelle said indignantly. Lowering her voice, she muttered, “Hell’s bells,” as she opened her drawstring purse in the hopes of finding an overlooked coin.

The twelve-year-old Jeremy cast a grim glance at the huge banner that had been hung over the columned entrance of the panorama theater…. THE FALL OF THEROMAN EMPIRE: A SHOW OF MAXIMUM ILLUSION WITH DIORAMIC VIEWS. Since its opening a fortnight earlier, the show had been crammed with visitors who had been impatient to experience the wonders of the Roman Empire and its tragic fall—“like going back in time”—people raved afterward. The usual sort of panorama consisted of a canvas hung in a circular room, surrounding viewers with an intricately painted scene. Sometimes music and special lighting were used to make the view even more entertaining, while a lecturer moved around the circle to describe faraway places or famous battles.

According to the Times, however, this new production was a “dioramic” view, which meant that the painted canvas was made of transparent oiled calico, illuminated from the front and sometimes from the back, with special filtered lights. Three hundred and fifty viewers stood on a roundabout in the center, which was operated by two men, so that the entire audience was slowly rotated during the show. The interplay of light, silvered glass, filters, and actors hired to play the part of beleaguered Romans, resulted in an effect that was labeled an “animated exhibition.” From what Annabelle had read, the final climactic moments of simulated erupting volcanoes was so realistic that some of the women in the audience had screamed and fainted.

Taking the purse from Annabelle’s busy hands, Jeremy pulled the drawstring and handed it back to Annabelle. “We have enough for one ticket,” he said in a matter-of-fact manner. “You go inside. I didn’t want to see the show anyway.”

Knowing that he was lying for her benefit, Annabelle shook her head. “Absolutely not. You go in. I can see a panorama anytime I want—you’re the one who’s always away at school. And the show is only a quarter hour long. I will visit one of the nearby shops while you’re inside.”

“Shopping with no money?” Jeremey asked, his blue eyes frankly skeptical. “Oh, that sounds like loads of fun.”

“The point of shopping is to look at things, not to buy.”

Jeremy snorted. “That’s something that poor people say to console themselves while they’re walking along Bond Street. Besides, I’m not going to let you go anywhere alone—you’ll have every male in the vicinity pouncing on you.”

“Don’t be silly,” Annabelle muttered.

Her brother grinned suddenly. His gaze swept over her fine-boned face, her blue eyes, and the swath of pinned-up curls that gleamed brown and gold beneath the tidy brim of her hat. “Don’t bother with false modesty. You’re well aware of your effect on men, and, to my knowledge, you don’t hesitate to make use of it.”

Annabelle reacted to his teasing with a pretend-frown. “To your knowledge? Ha! What do you know of my interactions with men, when you’re away at school most of the time?”

Jeremy’s expression sobered. “That’s going to change,” he said. “I’m not going back to school this time—I can help you and Mama a damn sight more by getting a job.”

Her eyes widened. “Jeremy, you’ll do no such thing. It would break Mama’s heart, and if Papa were alive—”

“Annabelle,” he interrupted in a low voice, “we have no money. We can’t even scrape up five extra shillings for a panorama ticket—”

“And a fine job you would get,” Annabelle said sardonically, “with no education, and no advantageous connections. Unless you’re hoping to become a street sweeper or an errand boy, you had better stay in school until you’re fit for decent employment. Meanwhile, I’m going to find some rich gentleman to marry, then everything will be all right.”

“A fine husband you’ll catch with no dowry,” Jeremy retorted.

They frowned at each other until the doors were opened and the crowd surged past them to enter the rotunda. Sliding a protective arm around Annabelle, Jeremy eased her away from the crush. “Forget the panorama,” he said flatly. “We’ll do something else instead—something fun that doesn’t cost anything.”