All Dressed in White EPB

Tessa St. Croix was not a natural-born liar.

She was a charmer, perhaps. A flirt. A minx-y, chattery coquette. A reckless taker of risks. But a liar? A natural liar?

Not particularly. Not smoothly or boldly or effectively. Not without feeling as if the acid of the lie was burning a hole through the underside of her heart and her spirit was slowly leaking out.

Lying was a challenge for Tessa, perhaps because of her parents, who had always given her everything her heart desired, and her four brothers, who had doted on her since birth. Hers was a charmed existence, simple and expected and fun. On what occasion did she have to lie, considering all this?

The lies (or rather, the failed lies) began in October of 1830, when a trio of marriages swept the village of Pixham in Surrey like a crisp autumn wind. Tessa was one of three local girls, all friends, all with dowries well over £10,000, who sprinted down the aisle in less than six weeks’ time.

“And married to who?” the gossips had asked. Because the men rode into Pixham, bold as you please, made the acquaintance of Tessa and her friends, and before anyone could say, “And from where do you hail, sir?” they were betrothed to the girls, then married, then . . . gone.

The girls’ immediate removal from Surrey was perhaps the most alarming bit. The brides were uprooted after their weddings and installed in a townhome in London, in the posh new neighborhood of Belgravia, while the three grooms sailed out of the country. The friends made a life for themselves together in London, the so-called Brides of Belgravia, while the men pursued a foreign venture that promised to make them richer than their wildest dreams.

The first girl to marry and leave Surrey was Miss Sabine Noble, Pixham’s great beauty. Sabine had always been sharp-tongued and proud, and in the scheme of things, her hasty marriage caused the least alarm. It was said that she had not been the same since her father died, and when a domineering uncle moved in to look after Sabine and her mother, no one expected her to remain in Surrey for long.

The next friend to marry was Lady Wilhelmina Hunnicut, the daughter of Pixham’s highest-ranking peer. As such, Lady Willow married the only titled gentleman of the lot, an earl from Yorkshire, with a castle and ancient ruins and mines of coal. Despite the speed of their union, a young earl marrying the daughter of a peer was not so very odd, after all.

But the last of the friends to marry was our own failed liar, Miss Tessa St. Croix, and the gossips of Surrey struggled with the whys and hows of this marriage for years to come.

Some said Tessa had grown weary of courting country gentlemen, of their hunting and horses and dogs. Some said she cast one glance on her handsome groom-to-be and fell in love at first sight. Others said her father influenced the match, because the young man she married was a London shipping merchant with grand plans, and Tessa’s father was a lucrative shareholder in the West India Docks.

But the real reason Tessa St. Croix married a man she barely knew (and the reason the gossips would never learn) was that she was ten weeks pregnant on the day she walked down the aisle.

Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say Tessa assumed she was ten weeks pregnant. Ten weeks was her most prudent guess. In truth, she was vague about the date. Vagueness was, in fact, the pervading view of her pregnancy overall. She could no more understand the schedule of her changing body than she could explain how the pregnancy came about. One moment she had been up against a tree, kissing Captain Neil Marking, handsome and charming and newly garrisoned in Surrey; and in the next, her skirts were hitched up and the kiss had gone sloppy and toothy and she was trying to find the breath to cry out.

By the time she found her voice, it had been altogether too late. The captain was beyond hearing. Her attempts to push him away were as futile as pushing away the tree. Five minutes later, he had whispered what a good girl she had been and how happy she had made him.

The irony of those affirmations had been Tessa’s clearest memory. Because six weeks later, when she sought him out to inform him of the baby, he had said the opposite.

“You’re a very bad girl, aren’t you?” he said. “And I’m very disappointed. Why, you’re just like all the other very bad, very disappointing girls, Miss St. Croix.”

After that, he had bowed briskly, backed away carelessly, and softly closed the door in her face. Three days later, his regiment left Surrey for the Isle of Wight.

In Tessa’s estimation, the conception of the child plus Captain Marking’s rejection had taken, all told, ten minutes. In the months that followed, as Tessa’s petite body had swelled into pregnancy, she could not really say what had happened—not during that strange mix of fear and shame against the tree, and not in the cold, breathless shock of the garrison stoop.

The only thing she knew for sure was that the man she married two months later was not the father of the baby, and that he knew nothing of her condition.

And that had felt like a very great shame—a larger shame, perhaps, than the troubling predicament of the captain and the tree and the baby. It was a shame because she had ended up liking her new husband, Mr. Joseph Chance, very much.

The notion that Mr. Chance might want Tessa and another man’s baby had not even crossed her mind. In this, Captain Marking had taught her the lesson she would never forget. No one, Tessa thought, could know of her pregnancy. Not Joseph Chance, not her parents, not the doctor who had been summoned to treat the unexplained nausea that plagued the early days. And so she endeavored to lie. And if Tessa had been able to sustain the lie of her unborn baby—if she were a natural-born liar—her new husband never would have known.

But Tessa St. Croix was not a natural-born liar.