Rachel has been in love with the 19th century all her life. When she buys an old photograph in a garage sale, she believes the man in the faded, sepia image could be everything she ever wished for. His eyes seem follow her around the room. He invades her dreams each night.
But he’s surely been dead for a hundred years or more.
In an attempt to be near where he once lived, she travels to the wild West Coast of Tasmania. Perhaps there she’ll be able to appease the aching need for him that’s invaded her soul.
“Your coffee, miss.”
Rachel's thoughts were focused on the sepia-toned photo on the table in front of her. She looked up at the server, confused for a moment.
Propping the photo against the salt and pepper shakers in the center of the table, she mindlessly spooned several teaspoons of sugar into the white china mug and stirred the drink.
“You want anything to eat?” asked the server.
“No.” She wanted to study the picture, not eat. “No, thank you. This will be fine.”
Pushing the steaming mug to one side, she concentrated on the photograph. The man would have been in his mid-thirties, she guessed, perhaps ten years older than she was now. Dark hair, carefully parted and brushed to one side, curled around his ears. He was clean-shaven, with a well-defined jawline and a finely molded mouth. His eyes were a light color—grey or blue or hazel, it was impossible to tell. A high, stiff-looking collar ensured he held his pose for the camera. A softly knotted, striped silk tie complemented a buttoned-up waistcoat and a smartly tailored jacket with satin-lined lapels.
What color were his eyes? Rachel wondered.
She reached for her coffee. She needed it, she realized, as the caffeine registered. She'd barely eaten since leaving Hobart late that morning.
The brown, cardboard frame bore the photographer's imprint and a year: Wm. Simmondson, Zeehan, Tasmania 1898. And on the back, scrawled in pencil and barely legible, was another name: G. Lewis.
What did the G. stand for?
Gordon perhaps, like the river? Graeme? Garry? What names were popular in the 1860s, when he would have been born? Where was he born? From the photo he looked English, but he could have been Australian, or American, or Northern European. He was light-skinned, but that gave her little to go on.
“Miss, … miss?”
Rachel looked up at the waitress.
“I'm sorry, miss, but the café's about to close. I have to clean up.”
Rachel pushed her chair back and gathered up her big tapestry bag and overcoat. She'd have to find somewhere to sleep. It was far too late to drive home now. She'd passed a motel on her way into Zeehan. She'd find it again and see if they had a room free.
After paying for the coffee at the counter, she let herself out the double glass doors of the Heritage Centre and Mining Museum, bracing herself for the chill and the inevitable rain. The downpour must have recently ceased, however, and weak sunlight filtered out from under heavy, dark clouds in a final, feeble attempt at cheerfulness before night descended.
She would walk for a while and clear her head before she did anything else.
“The forecast said thunderstorms for tonight, miss.”
Rachel hadn't realized the girl from the café was standing behind her, waiting to lock the main doors to the building.
“Going to be huge, I heard. I just love thunderstorms, don't you?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Are you planning on being in town for long?”
“Just overnight, I think.”
“You're in luck then, there's a big fancy dress gig on at the Gaiety tonight. Still a few tickets left, if you're interested in going.”
“What's the Gaiety?”
“It's the old theater, you can see it from here.” The girl pointed up the street to a Victorian-era building. “It's all been restored, and they're having the grand re-opening party tonight. Dancing girls and all.” The girl looked Rachel up and down. “You could go as you are.”
Rachel knew what the server meant. Her long, patterned skirt skimmed the top of her laced-up, low-heeled ankle boots. The short red velvet jacket she'd found in an antique shop flared over her hips and was a perfect match for her white, high-necked, embroidered blouse. Her red curls—always unmanageable—were tucked into a floppy, black, broad-brimmed hat. She'd pinned an elaborate broach in the shape of a sunburst to the front of the huge, ex-military greatcoat she'd retrieved from an army disposal store.
She was the only person she knew who still wore a petticoat.
Her passion was searching second-hand shops and garage sales for old, interesting treasures. She'd carefully restore any ancient garments she found with needle and thread and her great-grandmother's treadle sewing machine.
Her hobby had led her to the photograph.
On a perfectly normal Saturday a week earlier, she'd been browsing through a cardboard carton of rubbish outside a 19th century sandstone cottage in one of the steep back streets of West Hobart. Old brass door handles competed with chipped pottery and broken strings of beads. She'd given up on the prospect of finding anything interesting, when the hint of a frame caught her eye. Carefully sliding the junk to one side, she extracted the faded photograph now tucked safely in her bag.
After paying the owner the fifty-cents asking price, she'd taken her unlikely prize home. In her basement flat in New Town, she propped the photo on the mantelpiece together with her other finds from that day—a small, brown jug with a lovely glaze and a sewing basket from the 1950s—and gone to her afternoon ballet class. After sitting behind a computer at work all week, ballet was an excellent way of keeping fit and working off steam.
But the photo of G. Lewis refused to leave her alone.
Those light-colored eyes followed her around the room when she was home and haunted her memory when she was at work.
Fantasies of long-fingered, masculine hands caressing her body kept her awake until the early hours. When she finally managed to sleep, thoughts of him invaded her dreams.
Six days later she'd reached her limit.
Late afternoon light filtered through the lace curtains at the large window.
Rachel could see her reflection in the oval mirror set in the center door of the vast, ornately carved, blackwood wardrobe. Her bright red curls tumbled freely onto her shoulders and down her back. Her small breasts pressed against the fabric of the plain, white camisole, the darker pink of her aureoles showing faintly through the fine material. An elaborately boned corset of white, embossed satin constrained her waist. Below the corset, lace-frilled drawers came almost to her knees and met black stockings held up by frilly garters.
Rachel had adored Victorian dress for as long as she could remember, but she knew she'd never dressed with quite this attention to detail.
As is often the way in dreams, she slowly became aware of the bed in the room. Its impressive head and foot were black wrought iron, embellished by a brass knob at each corner. The sheets were fine, white cotton, and the pillowcases were trimmed with layers of broderie anglaise. The quilt, in light blues and soft browns, was one of the finest she'd ever seen. She longed to examine the fine hand stitching, the complex pattern of squares and diamonds, and the exquisite, antique fabrics.
In the bed was G. Lewis.
He was awake, and gazing back at her.
“Come to bed,” he said.
She felt herself blush. “I can't,” she stammered. “I don't know how to ...”
“Do you need some assistance?” His eyes twinkled.
“Yes, I ...” She wasn't about to admit to him that she'd never worn clothes like these before.
“Then, my dear, this afternoon I will be your maid.”
Rachel almost wished he hadn't. Something—some energy, some excitement—rose up in her chest. Her heart pounded as though trying to escape her rib cage.
She caught another glimpse of herself in the mirror. Her lips were parted, her face was as flushed as though she'd just run a marathon.
She was twenty-five years old, but she'd always known she was too eccentric, too much an anachronism for the men she met. With the exception of one short-lived, disastrous relationship many years ago, she'd had little experience in the bedroom.
Were these feelings normal? she wondered.
He threw back the quilt and stepped onto the floor.
She noticed, with an element of relief, that a long, knitted garment covered him from waist to ankles. As he walked toward her across the bare wooden boards, she became aware how tall he was—several inches taller than herself—before powerful arms came around her and pulled her gently into his chest.
She relaxed against him. His hands stroked her back.
“Are you sure you're ready for this, my dear? We can wait.”
“I'm sure,” she answered, revelling in his embrace. She could feel his heart beating, feel his soft chest hair and hard muscles, feel his warm breath against her cheek. She knew without a doubt she wanted to be with this man in every possible way.
He released her, but long, deft fingers returned to tackle the laces of her corset.
“Why do you wear this cage? If I had my way, they'd be banned!” He threw the garment onto a chair.
“Going without a corset would not be proper,” Rachel heard herself say.
“Proper be damned!”
Rachel sucked in her breath and felt herself blush even more hotly.
“My apologies, my love, I should not have sworn in front of a lady.”
“I take no offense.” She lowered her eyes and blushed again. “After all, what we are about to do is hardly proper, is it?”
“I will say this again, my love, I will wait for you. We can catch Thursday’s train up to Burnie, and find a church or a registry office. I want you to be my wife, you know that.”
“I do want this,” Rachel answered. “I want to show you just how much you mean to me.”
His reply was to delicately, reverently touch his lips to hers. She felt her entire body respond as she surrendered to the gentleness of his touch, the movement of his warm lips on hers. The kiss deepened until it was as though her universe comprised nothing but the kiss and the man, flying through the stars together, like a painting she'd once seen in another time and another place.
“My love,” he repeated, as he undid tiny shell buttons down the front of her camisole. Soon the garment joined the corset on the chair. He trailed kisses down her neck and across her shoulder, while his right hand enfolded her left breast. With his other arm he held her as she relaxed and let her head fall back.
“Such skin,” he murmured, “such wonderful breasts. Like silk ... Like satin ...”
With finger and thumb, he teased her nipple into a hard peak, then lowered his head to take it into his mouth. She felt the warm wetness, the hardness of his teeth, the caress of his tongue, and gasped as he suckled. When he stopped, she wanted to beg him to resume but found speech was impossible.
“Allow me to relieve you of these.” He tugged on the tape holding up her drawers. They slid to the floor, and she stepped out of them, now clad only in her black stockings and garters.
He released her and stepped back.
“Are you sure you're ready?”
He undid the fly buttons of his undergarment and slipped it off.
He was beautiful, she could think of no other word. Broad shoulders, a flat stomach, and a triangle of light brown hair across his chest. Narrow hips, long, strong legs, and lightly furred thighs. His erection emerged proudly from its nest of darker hair, and she felt herself blush yet again.
She thought she would faint from sheer pleasure when he picked her up and placed her on the bed. He lay down next to her, and without touching, looked into her eyes.
“My dear.” She wondered why his tone was suddenly so solemn. “Do you realize there may be some pain?”
“But I'm not ...”