From the incomparable Fern Michaels comes a timeless story of desire, ambition, and star-crossed love, stretching from the bustling streets of 19th century London to the untamed beauty of Australia.
Since she was a young girl, Chelsea Myles has performed with her uncle Cosmo's theater troupe, entertaining London's roughest crowds while Cosmo picks customers' pockets. Fate has given her no other means of surviving. Until one night, a robbery goes awry and Chelsea is left holding a fortune in gold--enough to buy her passage to Australia, and the chance of a new life.
On board the vessel bound for New South Wales, Chelsea meets charismatic Quaid Tanner, who's returning to his vineyard in Sydney. Their affair is as brief as it is blissful, for Quaid holds a secret that must keep them apart. But beneath the endless skies of this bold new land, two passionate hearts will defy the odds and overcome every obstacle to find a way back to each other. . .
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February 22, 2011
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Excerpt from To Taste The Wine by Fern Michaels
There was a bite of oncoming winter in the air, and a chill wind gusted down the narrow, poorly lit alley. Chelsea Myles shrank from the noisy scurrying of rats and tried to ignore the stench from the open sewer. The brick walls of the adjacent buildings were dripping with green mold and moisture, and she shivered involuntarily, looking down to avoid the sight. One of her shoes, thin-soled and worn, was soaked from a careless step into a puddle.
It had rained again. It always seemed to rain. Chelsea curled her full upper lip and scowled. Rain and dampness only added to the mildew rotting her cheaply made stage costumes. Already there were times on stage when it was almost impossible to say her lines without sneezing or choking. Angrily, she kicked the aged trunk by her side and gasped in dismay when one of the slats split, revealing its contents. She just knew Uncle Cosmo had no tools or expertise to repair the trunk. This would be just one more inconvenience to tolerate.
Chelsea crossed her arms over her breasts and stamped her foot. What was she, a respectable, dedicated stage actress, doing with Cosmo's fifth-rate troupe, playing for pennies at local street fairs? Unlike the others, she came by her talent naturally, memorizing lines, with comprehension and ease. Yes, she was too good for this, much too good--and Uncle Cosmo had no right to keep belittling her talent. Chelsea bristled as she remembered how he'd told her she should stop fooling herself and recognize that it was her face and not her ability that made her a favorite with the audience, especially the male audience. "Chelsea, darling child," he would declaim, posturing dramatically whenever she complained about the costumes, "an actress of real ability could wear flour sacking and convince the audience that she was Queen Elizabeth herself!"
"And what would he know about actresses?" Chelsea grumbled, pushing the various articles back through the hole in the trunk. "All Uncle Cosmo wants is a big street audience so he can have their pockets picked while I mesmerize the poor, dumb fools.'' She thought again with distaste of the scanty costumes Cosmo demanded she wear, which revealed either too much cleavage or leg. She sniffed, feeling terribly sorry for herself. At twenty-three, she wasn't getting any younger; Uncle Cosmo, who had taken her under his wing at eleven when she was orphaned, had promised that by the age of twenty she'd be a famous actress with all of Europe at her feet. Fool that she was, she'd believed him. She was no smarter than the homely widows Cosmo romanced and cheated out of their money.
Her self-pitying reminiscences were interrupted when Uncle Cosmo's latest prot?g?e ran into the alley. Molly was an urchin, pure and simple. She could barely speak the King's English, but Cosmo had promised to make her an actress. More likely, Chelsea thought with an unladylike snort, he'd make Molly a slick little pickpocket. "Molly, slow down!" she cried sharply. "Watch you don't splash muddy water on my skirts!"
"Yes, miss, but Mr. Perragutt told me to tell you something, and he said to do it right away, like. It's urgent, it is!"
"There's nothing Uncle Cosmo could tell me that's urgent unless it's that the queen herself has come to watch our performance this evening." A sudden jolt of panic stiffened Chelsea's spine. "It's not the law, is it, Molly? I told Uncle Cosmo he'd gone too far when he marked the constable's wife for Swift Billy to snatch her purse!"
"No, no, nothin' like that, Miss Chelsea," Molly assured her importantly. "Mr. Perragutt said there's a real gent in the audience tonight. Worth a few pounds, by the look of him, he is. Mr. Perragutt said he could be very important to all of us."
"Important for the sake of his wallet, he means. And whoever he is, he's no gentleman if he's come slumming to this part of London to watch a sad lot like ourselves."
Molly seemed disappointed in the way Chelsea received her news. "Anyways, Mr. Perragutt said you'd know what to do."
"Uncle Cosmo means that while I'm on stage I should make an effort to capture the man's attention so Swift Billy can do his work, that's the beginning and end of it," Chelsea told her disgustedly. "Wake up, Molly, get your head out of the clouds. You're a nice girl; you don't belong with Uncle Cosmo and the rest of us."
"I don't want my head out of the clouds, Miss Chelsea. I like it up here, and I know if I do everything Mr. Perragutt says, someday I'll be just as grand and important as you are. You're a stage star, miss. I know I'll never be beautiful like you, but Mr. Perragutt said he's goin' to make me into a lady, a real lady! Mr. Perragutt said you'll teach me everything he taught you. You will, won't you, Miss Chelsea?"
Chelsea sighed inwardly. What was the point in hurting Molly's feelings? Still, genuine pity and concern prompted her to say kindly, "Molly, Uncle Cosmo is a crooked little weasel, and I hate to admit I'm related to him by blood. He's going to get us all a stay in jail if we don't keep our wits about us. He's right about one thing, though. I'm going to make something of myself one of these days. If I can keep two steps ahead of the law, that is."
"Oh, Miss Chelsea, you're such a lady. All nice manners and so refined like. I want to be just like you, putting on airs and walking so dainty. And when some of them men out front get familiar with you, I love the way you stop them dead with just a quirk of your eyebrow. Can you teach me, Miss Chelsea?" Molly asked, looking wistfully at her idol. "Can you?"
"Becoming a lady is a very noble ambition, Molly, and you could do worse, I suppose, than to model yourself after me," Chelsea replied after a moment's deliberation. "The first thing you have to do to be a lady is to tell Uncle Cosmo an emphatic no when he sets up a mark for you tonight. Look him right in the eye and tell him you have too much honor and character to stoop to thievery. You tell him right to his face you'd rather starve than steal."
"But I don't like bein' hungry, Miss Chelsea," Molly whined. "You've got your honor and character already, so I suppose you didn't mind it too much."
Chelsea glanced at Molly, then quickly looked away. She thought about the times she'd been hungry--starving really--but even worse was the loneliness and the fear. And at the tender age of eleven, she hadn't known which was worse. It all seemed so long ago, almost as if it had happened to someone else in another life. But it hadn't. The dirty, ragged child who had hidden in alleyways and cellars was herself.
Her memories were sharp, painful, and there were times, like now, when they returned in a sudden rush, like the sea overcoming the shore, obliterating the present and returning her to the past.
She had lived then in a section of London bordering Knightsbridge. Mum and Da had a little shop just off Candlewick Street where they sold dry goods and notions and Mum's home-baked pastries and freshly preserved jams. If Chelsea closed her eyes, she could smell the wonderful aromas coming from the kitchen behind the shop; she could still hear Da's booming voice as he welcomed a familiar face into the shop.
"Will there be anythin' else?" Da would ask as he licked the tip of his pencil before tallying up the bill. Chelsea liked to sit near him behind the counter, the sun streaming in through the shop window to warm her even on the coldest winter day. Warmer than the sun was Da's smile, and the way he'd wink at her to jump down from her stool and run to open the door for a cash customer.
She was an only child, a rarity in Knightsbridge, where the families numbered nine or ten, often even more. And she was spoiled, or so it was said--nurtured on love and rewarded with candy. Mum was handy with a needle, and Chelsea's dresses were never too short or shabby. The newest dimities and lisle wools hung in her room, and Da saw to it that she had two new pairs of shoes every year. Her coats were the warmest, and Mum always knitted her a new pair of gloves. Chelsea was possibly the best-dressed child in the little academy school at the end of Saul's Lane, except perhaps for the undertaker's daughters, who weren't very pretty in spite of their costly dresses. But even more precious than the security and comfort Mum and Da offered were their love and approval, something she hadn't appreciated until too late. . . .
"You're a good girl, Chelsea." Trudie Myles smiled weakly at her daughter. "I'll be up and about tomorrow for certain. It's just a cold that's got me so low."
"Da says you're to drink this tea, and in a bit he'll come in and bring you a coddled egg." Chelsea placed the cup on the bedside table and began to fuss with her mother's pillows. Mum's eyes were bright with fever, and the little girl could hear the rasping in her mother's chest whenever she tried to take a deep breath. "Da says the doctor will be around this afternoon."
"It's just a cold. He shouldn't fuss so much. I'll be up and about tomorrow, you'll see."
Chelsea accepted her mother's reassuring smile, but she shared her Da's worry. Over the last month several of their neighbors had died, old and young alike. They were blaming it on the night air that rolled in from the outlying marshes at this time of the year; Reverend Lipcott said it was God's way of bringing the faithful back to heaven. Chelsea wasn't so certain Reverend Lipcott was right. Old man Stifel had died of the fever, and everyone knew God would have no use for the likes of him up in heaven.
Mum died of the fever two nights later, the same night Da began coughing and complaining of pains in his chest and head. When the doctor came to make the death pronouncement, he looked at Jonathan Myles and shook his head. Several days later Chelsea realized the doctor had made two death pronouncements that night.
All of London was in a panic because of the epidemic. When Jonathan died, his creditors came to the shop and confiscated stock in payment for outstanding bills. As word spread quickly, the shop shelves were rapidly depleted.
A man from Whitehall held court in Da's shop, checking through the ledgers and awarding settlements to the creditors.
Chelsea couldn't begin to understand it all. Engulfed in her grief, she huddled in the room at the back of the shop and listened dully to the transactions. No one paid her the least amount of attention, and even she hadn't given a thought to her future until she heard her name mentioned by the man from Whitehall.
"Chelsea Myles. Do you know of any living relative who might take the child in?" He was speaking to Mrs. Cavendish, the mother of eight children.
"I know Trudie has a brother somewhere," the woman responded thoughtfully. "Some kind of an actor or something. Trudie was quite proud of him, although Johnny wouldn't ha' given a pence for the likes of him. Can't say I'd know where he is. Poor Chelsea, she's a sweet little thing, you know. I'd take her, but we've hardly enough to feed the eight we have, you understand."
"If someone doesn't come forward for the child before tomorrow, she'll be taken to St. Matthew's Home," the man from Whitehall told Mrs. Cavendish. "The landlord wants to take the shop back. He already has another tenant. Can't blame the fellow. An empty shop doesn't bring in the rent, does it?"
"No. But I'd hate to see that little girl go to St. Matthew's. It's hardly an orphanage, is it? More a poorhouse. They'll put her to work God knows where. Perhaps I could take her for a night or two, just until her uncle shows up."
The man shook his head firmly. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Cavendish, but the notice has been put in the newspapers and the man hasn't come forward. I've seen things like this before, and mark my words, it's best to deal with it straight from the beginning. Someone from St. Matthew's will be here in the morning."
"Well, keep your voice down," Mrs. Cavendish warned. "We don't want the poor thing to hear, do we? Bad enough she's lost her mum and da and her life will never be the same. We don't want to put a fright to her when tomorrow's soon enough."
Chelsea huddled against the closed door. She hadn't washed her face for more than a week, and now tears streaked her cheeks, creating rivulets of white against the grime. "A fright," Mrs. Cavendish had said. Nothing could be more frightening than losing the only people in the world who cared about you. The only family, except for Uncle Cosmo, Mum's only brother, whom she hadn't seen in a dog's age. And now they were talking about sending her to St. Matthew's. Chelsea knew exactly what that meant; the children teased one another about it when they wanted to be mean. St. Matthew's, the poorhouse, where people died and never had enough to eat, and where you lived and worked and were sent out to service.
Chelsea pressed her knuckles against her teeth. She didn't want to die! She didn't want to lie in the cold ground like Mum and Da! Where was Uncle Cosmo? Why hadn't he come to his only sister's funeral, and why hadn't he come forward to take her away before St. Matthew's took her?
She crawled away from the door, through Mum's kitchen and back to the alcove where Mum and Da had slept. Beside the window was a trunk where Mum kept her things; "little memories," she liked to call them--all the papers Chelsea brought home from school and the family Bible and letters and newsprint. The thin, yellowed newspaper clippings mostly concerned Cosmo Perragutt, Trudie Myles's brother, an actor with a theater company in London's Cheapside.
Chelsea snuffled as she dug through the trunk looking for the clippings. She wouldn't go to St. Matthew's poorhouse, never in a million years. If Uncle Cosmo didn't come for her, then she'd go to him. He had to be in London somewhere, and she'd find him. She wiped her tears, smearing the grime on her cheeks. Her long black lashes were star points, wet and glistening, and her pink lips moved as she read through the clippings, searching for the latest one.
Even as she searched, Chelsea had the vague feeling she was doing something wrong, something Da wouldn't have liked. He'd never thought much of Uncle Cosmo, and whenever his extravagantly mannered brother-in-law made one of his rare visits to his sister, Da's face would darken and his smiling mouth would grow tense and hard, as though he were biting his tongue. Mum made it a point not to mention her brother in front of Da unless it was necessary.
Yes, all the signals were there. Da hadn't much use for Mr. Cosmo Perragutt and disliked him the same way he disliked some of the salesmen who came to the shop with their courtly manners and cheap wares. But Chelsea was certain that Mum wouldn't have cared for her brother as much as she did or have been so happy to see him whenever he came by if at heart he wasn't a good, kind man. It was that kindness Chelsea depended upon now.
Later that evening Mrs. Cavendish came to the back door with a supper tray for Chelsea. The meat pasty and slab of buttered bread tempted the girl's appetite, and the mug of cider looked cool and refreshing.
''I don't know why you insist on staying down here in the cold," Mrs. Cavendish clucked maternally. "God knows the place is forbidding enough with the shelves stripped and the floor bare. Come upstairs to the flat, Chelsea. You'll have the other children for company, and there's a fire in the grate to warm your bones."
Longingly, Chelsea envisioned herself playing with her friends in front of a cheerful fire. But she knew Mrs. Cavendish would insist on her staying the night, tucking her into bed beside little Anna, and then she'd be trapped until they came to take her to St. Matthew's in the morning. "Thank you, Mrs. Cavendish," she replied after a moment, "but I'm fine where I am."
Mrs. Cavendish frowned, her hands clasped over her round belly. '`I wish you would, Chelsea. Your mum would want you to be warm and cozy. She was a good woman, your mum, and your da had the way of a gentleman, I always said." An expression of sorrow crossed the woman's face. ''Well then, I've got to be gettin' back to my own brood. If you change your mind, you're welcome."
Chelsea listened for Mrs. Cavendish to close the door behind her before she bit into the steaming pasty and tore into the bread. She'd had nothing to eat since morning, and she was ravenous. After her supper, she washed her face and hands and smoothed her hair, giving the first thought to her appearance in days. All her clothes, except for what she was wearing and one of her oldest coats, had been confiscated for debts. When she left the shop for the last time, she closed the door firmly behind her, confident that she would soon find her uncle and thus escape the fate of St. Matthew's.
Unfortunately, finding someone in a city the size and scope of London was not as easy as Chelsea's eleven-yearold optimism had led her to believe. It took her nearly three days of wandering city streets before she even reached the Cheapside area. She was so frightened the man from Whitehall might be searching for her that she hesitated to ask the most likely-looking adults for directions, thus limiting her inquiries to beggars and children hardly older than herself. The first night after leaving the shop, she wandered the streets all night long, afraid of the darkness and, worse, of the blackened alleyways, from which came terrifying grunts and hushed voices. The second day, too exhausted to walk any farther, she stopped to rest in the warming sunshine beside a butcher's shop. She fell asleep, but before long a man's boot prodded her awake and a rough voice began yelling about dirty little ragamuffins laying about the doorway of his respectable business.
Hungry, tired, dirty, and cold, Chelsea continued her search on the third day, until by some sort of miracle she found herself standing under the marquee of the Briarside Theatre. It was the middle of the afternoon, and everything was locked up tight; when she knocked timidly upon the great brass-inlaid double doors, there was no answer.
"Whatcha doin' hangin' about here?" asked a voice behind her. "I never seen you here before."