I rush down the steps of my London home and almost shoulder my servant Millie out of the way. It is much too late; Millie has already obtained the mail.
“Well?” inquire I, picking at my nails. “Any such letters for me?”
“No, Miss Lovie, and I do wish you would stop questioning me every time the post arrived!”
I fight a groan. “It is no secret I am eager to hear from my papa.”
Millie gives a teasing glare. I am rather tired of being treated as a maid by the hands of my cousins, even though we had a servant for these such occasions. The day Papa returns, I will leave and go home.
Millie rifles through the post in the living room. “Oh—it looks as though we’ve received someone else’s letter!”
I spin around and take the post to examine. I do not recognize the name. “I wonder what’s inside.”
“Oh, Miss Lovie, no.”
I giggle. “Live a little, Millie! It will do no harm. I shall seal it when finished! No one will know it has been tampered with!” I dash upstairs to the attic—or my bedroom, I should say. There is enough space for me to share a room with my cousin Harriet, but she is insistent I do not share with her. She threw an entire tantrum!
I sit upon the chair at my desk overlooking the city through the circular window and I delicately open the letter.
March 4, 1816
Dear Doctor Willis,
I am writing to you in concern for my sister, Anne. She is young and has fallen incredibly ill. We are but a day’s ride from London and I should appreciate it if you were to visit us. She has seen multiple doctors, though none can determine her condition. She is but of fourteen years of age and is my only sister. My mother and father are in distress, for my younger brother died moments after birth and they cannot stand the death of another child. We have very little money, but have run out of hope. Another doctor has suggested your name. In the meantime, I keep my sister company and joy by reading to her. She adores listening to poetry. I pray that you shall help so she can be well enough to read it on her own.
Oh, no! This is incredibly terrible! A young man’s sister has fallen ill; I cannot filch his last chance at hope. As I fold the parchment, I run downstairs. “Millie! Millie! We must deliver this letter immediately.”
Inside the kitchen are my three cousins, Ellen, Harriet, and Ruby. Millie sets plates of chicken before them. I bite my lip. “Oh… I was unaware we were dining. Uncle Fred hasn’t arrived home yet.”
“He sent letter that we are to dine without him,” says Ellen, cutting into her meal.
“Why wasn’t I summoned?”
There is no answer from any of them. Millie gulps and walks toward me. “What is it, Miss Lovie?”
I breathe in deeply. The letter. “Oh! This letter. We must deliver it tonight. The young man’s sister has fallen ill and it is his letter to a doctor. We must deliver it. We must.”
“Are you filching people’s mail, Eleanor?” Ruby asks with scorn in her tone.
“No,” I say, “it was simply delivered to the wrong address. It is good I did open it, for now I shall rush it to him!”
“Oh, not tonight,” says Millie. “It is dark and Master Fred has not come home yet. You shan’t venture by yourself.”
I shake my head. “But his sister! She is ill.”
“Let her go,” Harriet says to our servant, plopping a piece of food into her mouth. “It should be quite an adventure for her.”
“A learning experience, probably,” says Ruby, and Ellen giggles. Ruby and I are often confused as sisters, as she has tan skin, slightly browner than the rest of my cousins’.
I know not why my cousins detest my very existence so. Ever since Papa has left me with Uncle Fred four years ago, I have been longing for him since. I have received no inkling as to where he is in the world, but as soon as I do, I will venture off to find him myself. But now, I must deliver this!
“Wonderful; I shall dress according—”
“My answer is no, Miss Lovie. It is much too dangerous for a woman like you to take such a—”
“A woman like me?”
“A gypsy,” Harriet sings, and the rest of my cousins fall into giggles. “Eleanor Harlot, a gypsy of men’s beds. Oh—Harlow, I meant.”
My cousins laugh more and Millie turns around and scolds them. I am gone before my servant turns back around. It is much too dangerous for me to take a trip alone.
I am inside my bed room, standing before the looking glass. The candles reflect dancing light among my brown features. I tug at the cream-colored ribbon in my hair until my chestnut curls cascade down my back.
I stare at the letter in my other hand. My cousins offer no such hope for my papa. I am Eleanor Harlow. Papa called me Lennie, until he realized how much of a romantic I am, then Lennie became Lovie.
Lovie and her love letters.
My fingers graze the parchment as I wander over to my desk. This poor Mister Riley. I wish I could deliver the letter tonight! Perhaps as a way to assist his feelings, I shall apologize in a letter of my own, among suggestions to read to his sister. I have quite a collection of works.
March 8, 1816
Dear Mister Riley,
I must begin with expressing my deepest sorrows for the conditions of your sister, Anne. You likely wonder who I am. Allow me to also begin with my utmost apologies. Your letter has arrived at my home in London by mistake and, despite the objections of my servant, I allowed my curiosity to overcome my senses. I am rather glad of it, for I can now make haste to delivering it to the correct address. As a form of apology, I should like to suggest poets you may read to your sister. I am rather educated in poetry and novels and have such suggestions to fill your time from now until Anne’s health.
I suggest: William Shakespeare, William Blake, William Wordsworth, John Keats, and I should suggest a highly esteemed American poet, Phillis Wheatley, for her publications have had a profound impact upon my uncle Fred.
At first sunlight, I urge Millie out of bed to deliver the letter. We do so, and I set my own letter in the post. Upon the days of no reply, I lose a bit of hope. Perhaps Mister Leon is offended at my letter and finds no need to reply.
I allow my usual readings and writings to refill my days. One evening, I sit among candlelight on my reading chair and there is a knock at my door. It creaks open.
“Miss Lovie? Sorry to bother, but a letter has arrived for you.”
I shut my book as hope begins to rise in my stomach. “Papa?”
Millie purses her lips and frowns. “No. It’s from a… Leon Riley? I know not if you know of such a name.”
My chest tightens. Mister Riley! I almost forgot about him!
“Yes, I do!” I exclaim, getting up. “Well, I don’t, but—” I extend my hand and accept the letter. Millie leaves. I sit on my bed, my silk nightgown absorbing the sweat on my palms. Papa bought me this nightgown the year I moved in with Uncle Fred.
March 13, 1816
Dear Miss Lovie Harlow,
I admit, I was hesitant to respond. The only reason I am is because of my sister, Anne, whom you know of. I took the liberty to read her few works by the poets you suggested and she adored them. It brought her joy in this unfortunate distress. It brings me quite discomfort to know another has read my personal correspondence, but, you are right, it is good it was you. Thank you for hastily delivering my letter, Miss Harlow. And I must admit, you have a rather odd name. I have not met a woman named Lovie before in my entire time of life. Although, it has quite a charm to it. Lovie Harlow, the maiden who reads. I have read Phillis Wheatley times before, and your uncle Fred, I’ve no doubt, is now a wonderful man for reading her works. There is no such demon like the rabid hatred of another race. What of your family? I should think you have a sibling named Kisses, or Heart.
Oh, a charming man, this Leon Riley! I rush to my desk to respond instantly.
March 19, 1816
Dear Mister Leon Riley,
I am ever so relieved to know that you do not find me disagreeable for my deed. Pray tell, has Doctor Willis arrived? I truly hope he has, for Anne is a girl deserving of health. I know not of her, though she has a very caring brother, and therefore she is agreeable. As for my name, I’m afraid it is a nickname. My full name is Eleanor Harlow. My papa nicknamed me Lovie for my love of romance, much of a contrast to the remainder of my family. I am very shy to admit, but I was born out of wedlock. My servant and cousins encourage me to hide this as a fact, but I am unashamed of myself, though I remain shy. I live with my uncle Fred and my three cousins. They struggle to find kindness amongst me. I am aware I have shared so much about myself. Please share more of you so I do not feel alone.
This is utterly absurd! I am explaining my entire life to this man I hardly know! Everything about this is a bad idea, but I cannot go halfway. He is a stranger. Could there be such harm in this? Perhaps so, but I must take risks!
March 27, 1816
Dear Miss Lovie Harlow,
There is something endearing about your candor. We live amongst a society where truth is not valued, but rather a guise. That is an unfortunate situation you are in, Eleanor. I hope the situation with your family will be resolved. You seem as a girl deserving of such kindness. Do tell, is your father there? I should assume that such cruelty would not be tolerated by a worthy father. As for my own situation, I live upon the countryside with my family. We have not much money and live inside a small house, although I am lucky enough to admit I have my own bed chambers. Well, not so lucky, if I say. I would have shared it with my brother, if he survived the tribulations of a new life. My parents tend to a farm day in and day out, and I find myself most happy among horses. The journeys they take me on each day is exhilarating. I have not ridden much, as my sister is in need of my assistance. Thank you for your inquiry about the status of Doctor Willis. I’m afraid he has declined our request of his services due to our lack of money. Anne is not doing so well in result. I will continue to read her the works you have suggested to ease her pain. I request you tell me more of yourself to distract my mind from these trying times.
I am so very touched to receive Mister Riley’s post. It breaks my heart, however, to hear of Anne’s condition. It is atrocious! Miss Riley’s life should not be deemed by such money! I mull over a response for one-to-two days, and I receive more post from Mister Riley before I sit down to write.
Dear Miss Lovie Harlow,
I write to you with a heavy heart—Anne has passed on. She has succumbed to her illness and I remain the final child of my parents. I know not why writing to you offers a relief I have not found in my property. My only sister is gone from me, Miss Lovie, and I’m afraid I feel lost.
I collapse onto the closest bench in the park. Oh, Mister Riley… Oh, Anne… I rush home to write back immediately.
April 3, 1816
Dear Mister Leon Riley,
Allow me to offer my deepest condolences. I cannot imagine the suffering through losing a beloved family member. I should send you as much affections as I possibly can from my home here in London. You are rather far, but imagine I am right there beside you! I should suggest you tend to your horses, for horse riding seems a lovely, lovely hobby to hold. Anne is an angel amongst God now, and she peers down on you! Be sure to offer your family my condolences as well. There is no value in how large or small a family may be. Large or small, you and your family have such an incomparable value, Mister Riley. I dare say that my papa does not stand in my day-to-day life. He has brought me to Uncle Fred some years ago, and I have been here ever since. I urge you to hold your mother and father closer and closer as the days go by.
April 9, 1816
Dear Miss Lovie Harlow,
In this time of grief, your letters have shown me such light. Thank you for that. I am sorry to hear of your father’s disappearance. I hope he will appear soon. You are correct in holding family close, especially during times of grief. It should, however, bring me joy to speak of such other matters, so as to distract my mind from the raging grief within. I should hope one day we may meet, though I have no idea of your appearance. Allow me to begin: I am a man of six feet and two inches high. It is too tall to become a jockey, as I have heard, but it aids me in tending to my family’s farm. I am a man of fair complexion and dark hair. If I had such a painting, I should think to send it, but I have the money to neither be painted nor send such an item.
April 15, 1816
Dear Mister Leon Riley,
There is no doubt in my mind that you are the handsomest in all of England! Your heart is amiable, and therefore you must be handsome! I’m afraid I am not a woman of fair complexion. I have been ever so described as “dark-skinned,” but my mother is much darker than I! (My mother passed when I was just a babe.) I explain I am of brown complexion with hair of a darker shade. I am shy to admit its curl! Oh, Mister Riley, please let us move to another topic! I should think of myself as attractive, but not enough to keep the eye of any man!
We are to have dinner with Uncle Fred and his friends. It is a night I shall dread, but I fight through it nonetheless. I am in Harriet’s bed chambers, helping Millie get her into her dress. I myself have not dressed yet, for Uncle Fred insisted Millie and I help my cousins!
Ellen and Ruby sit on Harriet’s bed, absolutely useless, and gossiping as though they are thirteen and not eighteen!
Uncle Fred waltzes through the door with a letter in his hand. “Lovie, there is something in the post for you. From a… Leon?”
My chest tightens. Oh, how I dread this letter, too! All in all, I am somewhat surprised there is a reply, for it is hard for a woman like me to find an agreeable man. However, it is noticeable that Mister Riley himself is an agreeable man, so how dare I assume otherwise!
But my cousin Harriet snatches my post from Uncle Fred. “Who dares to send you a letter, Eleanor?”
“Harriet! Give it here!”
She holds the letter out of my reach and steps down from the dais. Her dress is not entirely laced up, but she saunters around the room and opens my letter. She laughs among the first words. “Miss Lovie Harlow! Who on earth calls you Miss other than our servant!”
“Miss Harriet, please!” Mille shrieks.
Ruby and Ellen continue giggling, but I wish to disappear as someone reads my personal correspondence. I snatch Harriet’s wrist and take back my letter.
Harriet gasps. “How dare you—”
“Oh, don’t look so surprised, you wretch!”
My cousins and Millie gasp, but I care very little. I run up into my bed chambers and shut the door. I hold the letter against my chest, hoping to calm down my rapidly beating heart. To think my wretched cousins almost discovered my secret—the one thing, the one person, who brings me comfort.
April 19, 1816
Dear Miss Lovie Harlow,
Well, madame, as you’ve said, I know your heart. You are a woman of intelligence and compassion and therefore your heart and self are beautiful. I, myself, am shy to admit such a fact: I am of four and twenty years old, and none such women desire my hand due to my financials and desire to tend to horses all day long. I pray you do not feel alone in the idea that you may feel undesired, for I understand such a feeling. However, you sound quite stunning, Eleanor. What is it you truly prefer? Eleanor or Lovie? Lovie is quite charming, though Eleanor has a regal ring to it. Nonetheless, it is your desire, and I shall comply with whichever you choose.
My heart and belly warm. Oh, the way he makes me blush so! I find myself falling for Mister Leon Riley.
It’s now been over a year since I’ve started exchanging letters with Mister Leon Riley. The letters with him are the days I look forward to. Harriet has married a man who is not very kind, but it means she has moved from our house in London.
Uncle Fred says he has a dinner tonight with lots of eligible men for me and I have no interest in any man who is not Mister Riley.
Millie stands behind me, lacing up my corset as I open Mister Riley’s most recent letter.
June 1, 1817
Dear My Darling Lovie,
I write to you bearing wonderful news, my Lovie. On the 15 of June, I will be journeying to London for the celebrations of the opening of the Waterloo Bridge that will be in the following week. I hope that you will attend and therefore I will finally get to meet you. The past year of exchanging letters has made me fall deeply in love with you. I know I have told you this, and you me, but I am eager. Please write back presently.
I almost drop the letter. He is coming to London! He is going to be here!
“Millie!” I shout and turn around. “Oh, Millie, can you believe it! Mister Riley is coming to London! He is coming to London to finally meet me, oh can you believe it? I can’t! How I’ve dreamed of this!”
Millie smiles. “Truly, Miss Lovie? He is truly coming?”
“Yes! Here! Read!” I shove the letter into her hand and scour my dresses as she reads. She is ecstatic as I! I may finally meet the love of my life and I may marry! Oh, this is all too much! It is true! Leon Riley is coming to me…
Uncle Fred is a prominent employee of the Somerset House and I urgently write back for Mister Riley to meet me there, for my cousins and I shall be there, enjoying the festivities. The countless attempts Uncle Fred has made to pair with eligible men has failed miserably every time. No man has ever touched my heart the way Mister Riley has.
On the day of, Millie gives me extra care with dressing me. It takes us the whole of three hours! I wear a white dress adorned with pink flowers. Millie braids my hair into a beautiful bun with curls framing my face. She bids me to wait and rushes out of my room. Moments later, she returns.
“Flowers from the garden for your hair, Miss,” she says with a smile.
“Wonderful idea, Millie!”
She wishes me good luck as I leave, and my cousins and I step into the carriage. Harriet and her husband Mister Middleton join us; he is a quiet man and does not often speak, and when he does, it is to Harriet.
I constantly stretch my neck in search for Mister Riley, then chide myself. I have no idea who I am looking for! He may have passed me a dozen times. There are many tall men of fair complexion and dark hair.
Somerset House has closed. My cousins and I stand in the courtyard, awaiting our carriage as the remainder of guests take their time leaving.
“Why so sullen, Gypsy Harlot?” Ruby asks. “Did not you find many customers today?”
“You are cruel, Ruby Jenkins.”
“I may be cruel, but at least I am beautiful,” she sings.
I roll my eyes and turn away. More and more guests are finding their way toward the exit. I see our carriage arrive at the front and my gaze falls to the ground.
My chest seizes at one last chance of seeing Mister Riley today. But when I look up, the stranger has his attention on Ruby. His hand extends and gently takes Ruby’s. Ruby hardly responds and raises a brow.
“I must say, you’re much more beautiful than I thought,” the man says, and my shoulders fall. It is… him?
“Mister Riley?” I whisper.
Ruby snorts and snatches her hand away. Mister Riley looks up, startled, and his gaze falls on me. Tall. Fair complexion. Dark hair. He is as handsome as the devil. And he thinks I am Ruby! I cannot imagine his disappointment among finding I am Lovie Harlow. Ruby is not fair. She is of one or two shades lighter than I with brown curls of her own. But she is not me.
“Miss Lovie?” he asks.
Ruby then laughs and looks at Ellen and Harriet. “He thought I was her! I don’t know whether to be offended.”
I gulp and take the skirt of my dress and lift it. I turn and dart toward the north west wing, to the arches. I hear Mister Riley shouting behind me as he follows, but it matters none. It is highly inappropriate and improper, but there is nothing else I can think of to do. It is ruined. It is utterly ruined! My wretch of a cousin will never allow me to forget that the love of my life thought I was her.
“Miss Lovie! Eleanor, please!”
I do not slow until I reach the shade of the arches. His footsteps echo behind me and I pick up my walking pace.
“Leave me alone!” I shout over my shoulder, curls getting caught in my vision.
Mister Riley’s footsteps cease, and his loud recitation makes me stop: “The morn awakes, and wide extends her rays, / On ev’ry leaf the gentle zephyr plays; / Harmonious lays the feather’d race resume, / Dart the bright eye, and shake the painted plume. / Ye shady groves, your verdant gloom display / To shield your poet from the burning day.”
I stop walking and slowly turn around. It is an excerpt from a poem by Phillis Wheatley. My favorite poem by her. He knows that. He also knows the torture my cousins put me through. Mister Riley walks closer. He is out of breath and regards me carefully.
“I found myself delayed and was frightened I would miss the opportunity to see you for the first time. Therefore, I rushed upon searching for you,” he explains. “That is your… favorite poem. I wanted to impress you upon meeting you. I was… I was nervous, Miss Lovie. I greatly apologize for what I’ve just done. It is a mistake I wish I could retreat. While you are more stunning and elegant than I ever could have imagined, it matters none what you look like, for your heart is my heart, and my soul is your soul. Please do forgive me.”
Oh, Mister Leon Riley. He is so very handsome. He wears a deep blue tailcoat with two rows of gold buttons. His trousers are white and his tall boots are black. He does not look as though he has as little money as he claims. But he is… here. This is him.
“Mister Riley?” I whisper, stepping closer. “Is it truly you?”
He nods. “It is I, my darling Lovie. It is I…”
Our solitude his highly improper, but we are no longer a secret. We are no longer hidden messages. He stands before me, beautiful as ever.
I gulp. “I should like you to kiss me now.”
Leon blinks. “I’m—I’m—that is not appropriate at the mome—”
“My papa has left me a generous dowry. As cruel as they are, you are not the man my family would permit me to marry. Nor am I the woman you are destined to be with. I’m afraid members of this society do not desire my being with anyone not of my complexion nor my standing. I do not believe we will ever be appropriate to anyone who does not believe in us, and therefore, Mister Riley, I should like you to kiss me. Now.”
He waits silently. Upon my lack of continuation, Leon walks closer and wraps his arms around my body. I have never been in such proximity with a man. When he kisses me, I melt into his arms and hold the sides of his face to keep myself upright. My fingers slide into the hair at his nape.
At last, I have found home.