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First Page: Ruled by Desire, historical romance

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London, 1881

James Standish’s life changed with a single, whispered word.

“Divorce …”

He sat in his favorite spot in the Reform Club, the Times a crisp, paper shield between him and the world. In the club’s library, peace reigned, disturbed only by the rustle of pages turning and an occasional murmur of conversation.

“Divorce …”

That word, uttered by one gentleman exchanging sotto voce gossip with another, slipped through his mental filter, insidious as a thief. No need to wonder who they discussed. The Thorne marriage had finally collapsed in upon itself and everyone was talking.

Snapping his newspaper taut, he tried to concentrate.

Shuffling footsteps, punctuated by dull, rhythmic thuds, set his teeth on edge. He knew who approached. The whispers grew louder as other voices joined the hushed discussion. He closed his eyes, and then set his paper aside.

Mr. Henry Lytton, Francesca Thorne’s uncle, clumped across the Persian carpet toward the fire crackling in the grate. An old, frail-looking gentleman, he always walked with the aid of a silver-topped cane. He must have got caught in the downpour. His graying hair straggled unkempt over his shoulders, drops of rain still clinging to it. His mouth formed a grim line as he lowered himself into a chair. If he appeared cast down, who could blame him?

James had heard the rumors. Everyone had. Francesca—Fran, as he used to call her—was in London. She’d appeared quite unexpectedly mere months before her tenth wedding anniversary. No one would’ve remarked on it if her destination had been the Thorne house, but with temerity uncharacteristic of the woman he’d once known, she’d installed herself at the Cavendish hotel. Why she’d chosen to flout convention in this way was the subject of fervid debate.

He was curious, but his only source of news was Edward Thorne, Fran’s far from impartial husband. Hence James found himself in a difficult position. As Thorne’s oldest friend, he knew where his loyalties should—and would—lay, but he’d always had a soft spot for Fran.

He crossed the room toward the fire, and spent several moments warming his hands, though they were not the least bit cold. “May I join you?” he asked, once Lytton seemed comfortably settled.

The old man nodded his assent. “Standish.”

As James sat, Lytton offered him a cigar from a black-lacquered case.

They smoked in companionable silence, the pungent vapor mingling with the communal fog.

He would never be so crass as to offend the old man’s pride by prying into his personal affairs, but he wanted to be on hand if Lytton did take it into his head to reveal more about Fran’s situation.

Lytton was always taciturn but, at length, he sighed. “I suppose you’ve heard about this sad business with my niece?”

“I heard she’s in London.” To admit more would be indelicate. But if it were just a harmless visit to town, no one would care.

“At the Cavendish, confound her. She ought to go back to the country where Thorne left her and, I’m sure, intended for her to remain.”

“She hasn’t been to London in years. A brief change of scene can work wonders.” An artful evasion. The Thorne marriage was an unmitigated failure.

At first James, along with everyone else, pretended not to notice the decided chill in the marital air. After all, no one wanted a scandal.

Apart from Fran, it would seem.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

8 Comments

  1. Kate Sherwood
    Aug 04, 2013 @ 09:15:08

    I really like the setting, and the plot sounds interesting. And I think you did a good job with the tone on this first page.

    That said… how would the page read if you explained a little less and made your readers wonder a bit more? You’re giving us a lot of backstory – it’s fairly well integrated, but there’s still a lot of it – and I don’t think you need to. It’s already hard to build any real tension in Romance – we all KNOW how the story’s going to end – so I think giving too much information too fast can be a really costly mistake.

    Start with this scene, sure. But maybe just hint at the scandal. Leave us wondering. What did she do? Why? What led up to this? Oh my goodness, I must know more!

    Also, while the ‘changed his life with a single word’ bit is stylistically effective, I’m not sure it stands up to scrutiny. The character obviously already knows about the divorce. So his life has already been changed, surely, and I’m sure it took more than one word to do it.

    I know, if you didn’t put the backstory in we’d all be bitching about how we don’t know what’s going on and how are we supposed to judge a page when we can’t even figure out what the main drama is going to be! But in terms of a book I’d want to read? I like to figure things out as I go, not get bombed with a huge pile of information right off the top.

    (PS – I waited for HOURS so I wouldn’t be the first poster again today, but I have to go out and do stuff, so… I’m posting! Sorry if I’m first).

  2. cleo
    Aug 04, 2013 @ 09:31:31

    I’m intrigued. The first couple sentences pulled me in. Then I got bogged down in the descriptions and backstory. I’m a bit confused about the gossip – is she actually getting a divorce or is it just speculation at this point? The last few sentences seem choppy to me – it seems like a set up for infodumping, not a natual conversation. I would read a little further, to see if I like the heroine.

  3. cleo
    Aug 04, 2013 @ 09:34:24

    @Kate Sherwood: you beat me by a minute

  4. reader
    Aug 04, 2013 @ 10:22:04

    This is well written, but it feels like a story opening and a plot I’ve read way too many times before. I hope it’s not an Age of Innocence type of retread. I’m still waiting for something fresh in historicals and I’m not getting a feeling this is it.

    It might be a more fun opening if he accidentally ran into Fran, herself, at the hotel. A first page consisting of gossip doesn’t pull me into the story as well as something more immediate.

    I would cut “paper” from “the Times, a crisp paper shield” because we already know it’s paper. Also I think “shuffling” and “clumping” are two different sounds.

    I’d cut this sentence entirely: “Hence James found himself in a difficult position.”
    The sentence before and after it already make his difficult position clear to the reader.

    I do like your voice and style. If this proved to be a more original storyline, I’d buy the book.

  5. theo
    Aug 04, 2013 @ 12:11:52

    You don’t say who is initiating the divorce on this page, at least if you try to, I’m not picking up on it. But you need to make sure you’ve done your research here. Many, many readers are sticklers for accuracy above all else and even in Victorian times, it was still very easy for wealthy men to divorce their spouses for infidelity. Proven or not didn’t matter. However, everything the wife brought to the marriage prior to remained the husband’s.

    Women on the other hand had to prove without a shadow of a doubt that their men had ‘done them wrong,’ and if they couldn’t, the divorce ruled in favor of the husband if it was brought to fruition however, the laws applied either way. It wasn’t until 1882 or 1883, I believe that women could sue for custody of the children. They too were the husband’s property and as such, she had no rights to them.

    And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

    Also, a married woman at a hotel when her husband has a perfectly good house in town would create a huge scandal. Treat it as such. Lytton should be much more outraged at it in some way. Even if he’s emotionally closed, shaking hands, red face, forceful words, anything would show his outrage better than just “confound her.” Dialog is a wonderful thing but there are times when observations by the chatting party are called for and Standish can certainly see the outrage, even if it’s not in the sentence itself.

    So, that aside, if the husband dies suddenly, you’d have a story I’d want to read. I’d want to know what happened, who killed him and why because of course, suspicion would fall on either the wife or Standish and it might be fun to find the truth. Your voice is good, the writing is good though less backstory and more showing would be better here. I agree with reader on where the story might start better.

    But for a simple divorce/unrequited love story, it’s unfortunately been done.

  6. Carol McKenzie
    Aug 04, 2013 @ 12:16:44

    Historical romance isn’t something I read a great deal of, but I might be interested enough with this to read further, but only if something happened to hook me within the next few pages. This opening is familiar, but many historical romances…romances in general…can use standard plot fare. If you have a fresh way of presenting it, then I’d give it a go.

    Also, told from the hero’s POV (assuming James is the hero) would be something new for me, since the ones I have read have been from the heroine’s POV. That wouldn’t be a turn off for me, just something different.

    Just a quibble with word choice: I was pulled out of the story by this sentence: “…the pungent vapor mingling with the communal fog.”

    I didn’t want the word ‘vapor’, which made me think of e-cigarettes and something produced by steam, not cigar smoke. And I wanted ‘fug’ instead of fog. Fog again is, to me, misty and wet. Cigar smoke would be thick and smokey…and fug was what I thought of.

    Also, not sure how divorce worked in 1881 London. I’m assuming it was a scandal, but if I were to read further, I’d want an accurate recounting of the perils involved in Fran’s divorce and James’s involvement with her.

    Thanks for sharing your work.

  7. Author
    Aug 04, 2013 @ 17:20:42

    Thank you for all your helpful comments. This scene is one that I recently cut from the manuscript, but then a version of the m/s starting with this scene was selected as a finalist in two contests, and I started to second guess that decision. This has been an invaluable opportunity to see how this scene plays as the start of the story with a variety of readers, and in a way it’s good to have it confirmed that I was probably right to take it out.

    With regards to Victorian divorce law, I’ve been very careful. The story is set after the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act, but before the 1882 Married Women’s Property Act. There’s a scene later between Fran and her lawyer when they discuss her standing and the grounds she’ll need, as well as her chance of success and the consequences. She knows there’s no prospect of her being received in “good” society, or of her family making peace with her decision.

    Thank you all again for taking the time to comment.

  8. Maria
    Aug 06, 2013 @ 06:28:18

    Only one thing kills this. Backstory. It starts with the uncle. Get rid of it.

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