Across the Blue
Isabella Grayson’s shoes sank into the plush red carpet of Broadlands’ south hall, and she released a soft sigh. What luxury! Her parents strolled ahead of her with their new estate agent, Mr. Fielding, and her sister, Sylvia, walked beside her.
Bella slipped her arm through Sylvia’s and leaned closer. “My stars, have you ever seen anything like this?”
Sylvia’s blue eyes darted from the large paintings hanging on the wall to the six white sculptures evenly spaced down the hallway. “It looks like a palace or an art gallery.”
“Exactly.” Bella exchanged a smile with Sylvia, and they continued through the hall together.
Bella had visited many lovely homes in London after her presentation at court and the rounds of balls and dinner parties during her first two seasons, but she’d never seen a more lavish home than Broadlands, her family’s new country estate.
Her father, Charles Grayson, had purchased it practically sight unseen when he heard it was for sale a few weeks ago. His solicitor had handled most of the details, and this was the first time he and the family were touring their new home.
He puffed out his chest and surveyed the hall with a critical eye. “If this doesn’t impress those London toffs, I don’t know what will.” Her father turned to the butler. “Pierson, has Sir Richard taken away everything he wants?”
The butler’s lips pulled down at the corners. “Yes sir. The last of the family’s furnishings were removed two days ago.”
“Very good.” He turned to Bella’s mother. “Well, Madelyn, what do you think?”
“It’s beautiful, Charles, but it makes my head swim just thinking about managing all of this.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll hire enough staff to take care of everything.”
Her mother’s unsettled gaze traveled down the long hall. “I can’t imagine what we’ll do with all this space.”
“We’ll entertain!” Bella’s father boomed. “Shooting parties, dinner parties, house parties.” He lifted his eyes to the painted ceiling. “We’ll invite all the right people to Broadlands and make all the connections I need.”
“Now, Charles, we’ve come to the country so you can get more rest and take care of your health.”
Bella’s father huffed and waved off his wife’s words.
Bella’s shoulders tensed as she watched her parents. Her father owned three prestigious London newspapers, the Daily Mail,
the Evening Standard,
and the London Herald,
but his rise to fame on Fleet Street and his drive to gain a fortune had taken a toll on his health and strained his relationships with his family.
Bella hoped moving to Broadlands would motivate him to change his ways and balance work and rest. But her father had a different goal in mind. He wanted to bridge the gap between old money and new, and close the distance between himself and those who had inherited rank, titles, and respected family names.
Mr. Fielding pushed open a set of large double doors. “This is the drawing room.” He smiled and extended his hand. “Broadlands is a remarkable example of mid-Victorian architecture. The house is built of white magnesian limestone quarried right here on the estate in the 1860s. It was decorated and furnished by Lapworth Brothers of London.”
Her father strode into the drawing room, looking like a proud king surveying his new kingdom. The butler pulled the chain attached to the chandelier, and the gas flames flickered to life.
Bella’s breath caught as she lifted her gaze to the glittering lights and painted ceiling. They were stunning and certain to impress the guests her father planned to entertain. She lowered her gaze and looked around the drawing room. Coral patterned silk covered the walls, and heavy gold-and-coral drapes hung around the four tall windows. On her right, an elaborately carved white marble mantelpiece surrounded the fireplace with a gilded mirror above.
The furniture the previous owners had left behind looked as though it had been made for the room—overstuffed chairs and couches in matching shades of coral and gold, a grand piano, and several tables and display cases.
Sylvia’s face glowed as she looked around the drawing room. “If we pushed back the furniture and rolled up the carpets, this room would be large enough for a ball.”
Bella smiled, her heart warming as she watched her sister. Sylvia had recently turned eighteen and would take part in the London season for the first time that spring. No doubt her beauty, charm, and caring disposition would make her shine among the other debutantes. In a few weeks, she would probably have a line of suitors eager to win her hand. But their parents had a firm list of qualifications, and they would only give their consent to a young man from a wealthy, respected family who was in line to inherit a title and an estate.
Memories of Bella’s past two seasons rose in her mind, dampening her spirits. She had suffered through a series of ill-fated introductions and unpleasant pursuits by young men who had nothing more in mind than marrying her for her future inheritance. It had been painful and embarrassing, and she didn’t want to repeat it this year.
If she ever married, it would be for love, to a man who cared more about her than her fortune.
Mr. Fielding motioned toward the doors on the outer wall. “These open onto the south terrace and lawns, with a view to the fountain garden and the sunken gardens beyond.” He pushed open the doors and stood aside for the family to pass through.
Bella stepped outside and pulled in a deep breath of cool, fresh air. The February morning was clear and bright with only a slight breeze that teased her nose and carried the scent of tilled earth and cedar trees.
The gardens were neatly trimmed, but mostly brown while they waited out their winter’s rest. She crossed her arms against the chill and was glad she’d left her coat on for the tour of the house.
A low buzzing came from beyond the trees, and she turned and scanned the field across the road. The persistent noise grew louder, but she couldn’t see its source.
“What is that racket?” Her father frowned.
Mr. Fielding lifted his hand to shade his eyes and looked across the road. “I’m sorry, sir. I have no idea.”
No sooner had those words left his mouth than an airplane swooped over the tree line and flew across the field toward them.
Bella’s mouth fell open, and she lifted her hands to her heart. “It’s a flying machine!”
Sylvia gasped and clutched Bella’s arm.
“By George, it is!” Her father glanced over his shoulder at the family, his grin spreading wide. “Look at that! Just like the one we saw in France!”
Bella’s mother hurried to his side. “But it looks different from Mr. Wright’s flying machine.”
Last August the family had been on holiday near Le Mans when they heard Wilbur Wright planned to demonstrate his Wright Flyer at a racetrack not far from the city. They joined journalists, aviation enthusiasts, local dignitaries, and townsfolk to watch the American aviator fly his airplane for the first time in Europe. After waiting several hours, they’d finally watched him take off with ease. He circled the field several times before he landed with a precision and skill that outshined every other aviator in Europe. The crowd went wild and rushed onto the field to congratulate him and take a closer look at his amazing flying machine. It was a thrilling memory she would never forget.
“Who is that aviator?” Her father pointed across the field. “And what is he doing flying at Broadlands?”
The airplane’s wing dipped, and the pilot circled back toward the trees.
“I don’t know, sir. But I’ll certainly look into it. He shouldn’t be flying over Broadlands without your permission.”
Bella was about to protest and tell Mr. Fielding her father was an avid supporter of aviation, but the airplane’s engine sputtered and cut out. The flying machine tilted to the left and the nose dipped toward earth. Bella gasped and lifted her hand to cover her mouth.
The airplane descended at an alarming rate and landed hard, sending a shower of brown grass and leaves into the air as it bumped across the field with its left wingtip dragging along the ground.
Before the plane came to a stop, her father hustled down the terrace steps and jogged toward the road.
“Charles, be careful!” Mother called.
Bella pulled away from Sylvia and hurried after him.
“Bella, come back!” Her mother’s words reached her ears, but she didn’t stop. What if the pilot was hurt? She couldn’t stand at a distance when he might be injured and need assistance.
The gray-haired agent passed Bella and soon caught up with her father. She grabbed up her skirt and ran across the road and into the field after the men.
They approached the plane from the back, and as they came closer, the pilot ripped off his flat cap and slapped it on his leg.
“Are you all right?” her father called, making his way around to the front of the airplane. Bella and Mr. Fielding followed close behind.
The pilot lifted his head and scowled at her father. “I’m fine, but my airplane isn’t.”
Bella released a shaky breath, thankful he was not injured.
He grumbled under his breath as he climbed down and stalked toward the broken wing. Ignoring them, he squatted to examine the crumpled wingtip buried in the dirt.
“This is disastrous.” He lowered his goggles and dropped them around his neck.
A jolt of surprise traveled through Bella. He was not middle-aged like Wilbur Wright. Instead, he looked as though he were in his early twenties, close to her age. She studied his face for a moment, noting his unique amber eyes and strong jaw. She had the distinct impression she’d seen him somewhere before, though she couldn’t recall where.
The pilot ran his hand through his dark blond, wavy hair, then he brushed the dirt away from the wingtip and tugged on one of the support wires. Shaking his head, he rose and limped a few steps toward the body of the plane.
Bella’s heart clenched, and she reached out her hand. “You’re limping… Are you sure you’re not hurt?”
He glanced her way, and some unreadable emotion flickered in his eyes. “It’s an old injury. I’m all right.” But his gruff voice made his frustration clear.
The sound of horses’ hooves traveled across the field, and Bella looked up. A large farm wagon pulled by a team of two came through the trees and rolled toward them.
“Who is that?” Her father looked at Mr. Fielding and then nodded toward the wagon.
“I’m sorry, sir. I’ve never seen him before.”
Her father sent Fielding a pointed look. “There seems to be a lot happening here at Broadlands that you know nothing about.”
Fielding’s face turned ruddy. He stepped toward the pilot and cleared his throat. “Who gave you permission to conduct your flying machine experiments at Broadlands?”
The pilot turned his glare on Fielding. “You own the air over this field?”
“No, Mr. Grayson is the owner of Broadlands, and this is his private estate.”
The pilot huffed. “Well, he doesn’t own the sky above it, and I certainly didn’t intend to land in his field.”
“Whether you intended to or not, you’ve crashed your flying machine on his property. It’s much too dangerous to be conducting your experiments so close to Mr. Grayson’s home.”
“I had control of my plane even after the engine died. I wouldn’t have crashed into his house. I would think that’s quite obvious.”
Bella could hardly hold back her smile. The aviator was not only handsome, but he was also quite clever and able to hold his own against the stuffy agent.
Fielding narrowed his eyes. “There is no need to be impertinent, young man.”
The pilot’s eyes flashed. “I’m not being impertinent. I’m simply stating the facts.”
Fielding looked ready to argue that point, but her father lifted his hand.
“I’ll handle this, Mr. Fielding.” Bella’s father stepped forward. “I’m Charles Grayson, the new owner of Broadlands.”
The pilot shot Bella a quick look, then met her father’s gaze. “James Drake, the owner of this Steed IV.” He nodded toward his downed flying machine.
The wagon rolled to a stop a short distance away. An older man wearing a long rumpled overcoat and red necktie climbed down. A breeze sent his long white hair flowing back from his angular face. He looked at least seventy, but he moved with the agility of a much younger man. Two lads, who looked about twelve or thirteen and who were dressed in simple country clothes, climbed down after him.
“James, are you hurt?” The older man strode around the plane toward them.
James’s expression eased. “No, but the wing is damaged and I’m afraid the wheel supports are bent.”
“But you’re all right?”
“Yes. I’m fine.”
The older man approached Mr. Grayson. “Good morning, sir. I’m Professor Thaddeus Pierpont Steed, and you are?”
“Mr. Charles Grayson of Broadlands.” Her father glanced toward the house.
“Ah, I see.” The professor smiled. “And you’ve met my protégé, Mr. James Drake?”
“Yes, we’ve met.”
“Good. We’re pleased to make your acquaintance.” He smiled at Bella. “And this young lady?”
“My daughter, Isabella.”
She smiled at the professor.
He nodded to her, then shifted his gaze to Mr. Fielding. “And you, sir?”
“Fielding is my name. I’m Mr. Grayson’s estate manager, and as I was saying to that young man, Broadlands is a private estate. No one should be flying so close to the house.”
The professor lifted his index finger. “Ah, that is a very good point.” He shifted his gaze to the flying machine. “And as you can see, Mr. Drake had turned away from the house and was headed back toward Mrs. Shelby’s farm. That’s where we have our workshop and have been perfecting our design and conducting our experiments.”
Mr. Fielding cocked his head. “Mrs. Martha Shelby?”
“Yes sir. She is a very kind friend who has allowed us to use her farm as our base of operations. Her large open fields are ideal for takeoff and landing.”
Mr. Fielding leaned toward her father and lowered his voice. “Mrs. Shelby is one of your tenant farmers, sir. She’s a widow and manages Green Meadow Farm with the help of her son.”
Her father nodded. “I see.”
A thrill raced through Bella. They were conducting their experiments right here at Broadlands. Perhaps she’d see Mr. Drake flying again soon.
The professor studied her father for a moment, and then his dark eyes lit up. “Are you the
Mr. Charles Grayson, the owner of the Daily Mail
Her father straightened and puffed out his chest. “That’s right. I own the London Herald,
the Evening Standard,
and the Daily Mail.
The professor took hold of her father’s hand and pumped it heartily. “Well, sir, we are certainly very happy to meet you.”
Her father smiled, looking pleased the professor was aware of his reputation. “I’m very interested in aviation. I often say it’s the next great frontier and worthy of government and private support.”