"The Late Bloom," by Christina Silverio, is the First Place winning story in the romance category for the Tenth Annual Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of this year's awards, including an exclusive interview with the Grand Prize winner and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2015 issue of Writer's Digest. And click here for more information about entering the Eleventh Annual Popular Fiction Awards.
In this bonus online exclusives, you can read Silverio's winning entry.
The Late Bloom
by Christina Silverio
Pausing at the top of the stairs, Arabella smoothed her skirts with trembling fingers. As she descended to the first floor of her family’s London townhome she attempted to still her anxiety by concentrating on the silky smooth wood of the banister under her hand. In the other hand she clasped a worn leather book tightly, pressing it against her unsettled stomach. Her feet hesitated just a moment before touching down on the plush runner that would take her to the drawing room.
It was only then she became aware of the thick, cloying scent of too many hothouse blooms in an enclosed space. She glanced about the hallway, where bouquets of all kinds crowded every available surface, their cards on prominent display. She smiled wryly. Surely her parent’s house had never looked quite so festive during her first season.
The deep rumble of indistinct male voices suddenly cut through her musings. She eyed the drawing room door, her trepidation returning. Her mother would be furious if she did not make an appearance. Never mind that not a one of the gentlemen within was there for her, she was expected to be present. Involuntarily she brought the book up to her chest, her knuckles white. Squaring her shoulders and breathing deeply through her nose, she forced her leaden feet to move her forward.
She quietly slid through the door. Immediately her eyes met those of her mother across the room. That lady’s lips thinned when she saw her eldest daughter and she tapped at her temple. Flushing, Arabella reached up and reluctantly pulled off her spectacles, sliding them securely into the small pocket in her skirt. She then turned her attention to the room.
The scene was familiar now, one she had seen daily in the two weeks since her sister’s spectacular debut. However, familiarity did not breed ease. She took in the room with wide eyes, feeling the strain begin behind them as she attempted to bring it into focus.
But she did not need her spectacles to recognize their guests. They had all become regulars in their drawing room, each one wealthy, eligible, and vying for her sister’s favor. The only difference this afternoon was the quantity, for though she could not credit it, there seemed to be even more gentlemen here today than usual. They all talked over each other, their compliments flowing like wine.
And in the midst of it all was Harriet, talking animatedly, her hair glowing golden in the afternoon sunlight streaming through the windows, her dress a confection of sweet pale pink to match the blush staining her porcelain cheeks. Arabella smiled as she watched her sister, glad to see she was comfortable and in her element. Relieved it was not her there in the midst of so much attention.
Harriet looked up then, smiling in unfeigned delight when she spotted Arabella lurking by the door.
“Gentlemen, I believe you are all acquainted with my sister Miss Knowles?”
General murmurs all around, their greetings polite but uninterested before they turned back to Harriet. Arabella curtsied awkwardly to the room, and was about to turn toward her customary corner when a voice rose above the others.
“Miss Harriet, I have not had the pleasure of making your sister’s acquaintance.”
Arabella felt panic clutch her. She swung her gaze to the far side of the room where the voice had come from. A slim figure dressed all in brown had risen from his seat. She found herself squinting in an attempt to make him out. But all she could ascertain was he was lank, and quite tall, with a shock of deep brown hair.
“Ah, Mr. Dormer. My apologies. Arabella, may I present Mr. Randall Dormer. Mr. Dormer, my elder sister, Miss Arabella Knowles.”
To Arabella’s horror he began to move toward her, his steps long and fluid. Her muscles froze in anxiety as he approached.
And then he was before her, bowing elegantly. His face was plain, too long to be handsome, his hair too unkempt for the latest fashion. But his eyes were warm and kind. And centered on her. They crinkled at the corners as he smiled down at her. Arabella felt herself flush to her very roots.
“Miss Knowles, it is a pleasure,” he said, his voice rich and deep. Flustered, she curtsied a moment later than polite.
“Mr. Dormer,” she murmured through stiff lips. Keeping her eyes averted, she retreated to her usual corner to join her mother.
“Arabella, must you always be so rude?” her mother hissed.
“Sorry, Mama,” Arabella murmured by rote. Her mother’s sharp eyes on her all the while, she forced her stiff fingers to release her book and reached for her embroidery. She heard the faint huff of exasperation from her mother, knew that once again she had displeased her.
She felt tears prickle behind her eyes but bent industriously over her work. It seemed she was a constant source of frustration and embarrassment to her parents. She was awkward, shy, never said the right thing, when she said anything at all.
Eventually her busy fingers calmed her tortured thoughts, however, and she was able to let her mind wander. She found it inextricably coming to rest on the tall man with the kind eyes.
Mr. Randall Dormer. Yet another suitor for her sister’s hand. Most of the men who orbited about Harriet gave Arabella only the barest of attention in order to appease her sister. Not a one of them had ever taken the time to look or talk directly to her. She felt a shiver travel down her spine at the way his warm eyes had caressed her face. Against her will she glanced in his direction. She felt a shock go through her when she saw his face turned toward her. No, she thought desperately, surely he could not be looking at her.
No one ever looked at her, much to her relief. She hazarded a second look at him, fighting the urge to pull out her spectacles. Yet it certainly seemed as if his attention was on her. But he was here for her sister. She shook her head, her lips tightening, her brow furrowing. He was simply being polite, she finally decided.
Not much later she sensed movement from his corner of the room. Every nerve ending prickled. She forced her eyes to remain on her embroidery, even as she felt him standing before her.
“Miss Knowles,” he said softly, and though his voice was low and gentle she felt herself start. Her needle pricked her finger at the sudden movement and she let out a quick gasp of pain.
He knelt beside her, and his face suddenly filled her vision, his features coming into focus. He ignored her mother’s exclamation of surprise, instead pulling out a snowy linen handkerchief and offering it to her.
“My apologies, Miss Knowles,” he said. “I didn’t mean to startle you.” When she made no move to take the handkerchief he gently reached out and took hold of her injured hand, pressing the cloth to it. He wore no gloves, and the warmth and intimacy from the touch of his skin on hers made her heart speed up. She stared at their joined hands for a moment in confusion before yanking her hand back to her chest, his handkerchief clutched in her fingers.
“I am quite alright, thank you, sir,” she managed, lowering her eyes. Her gaze came to rest on his hand, still extended toward her, his fingers long and tapered and tan. He let it drop after a moment and then stood.
“It was a pleasure meeting you. I hope to do so again,” he said in his lovely voice. She felt her throat close even as she tried to form a reply. In the end she merely nodded. She listened as he made his leave of her mother and sister, watched as he left the room with another gentleman. And all about them the laughter and conversation continued, as if some momentous thing had not just occurred in their midst. She looked down at the linen in her hands, smoothing it with her fingers. A small bit of embroidery in one corner caught her eye, his initials in a pale green thread. She pressed it to her chest again, her thoughts in a whirl.
She glanced up then, saw the exasperation and disappointment on her mother’s face and felt her stomach drop. And then she looked at Harriet. Her sister was ignoring her suitors and looking back at her thoughtfully, a small smile playing about her mouth.
Flushing, Arabella rose and made a mumbled excuse to her mother. She picked up her book and, with the linen still pressed to her heart, fled the room.
Mr. Dormer was in their drawing room again the following day they welcomed callers, and the one after that. Over the course of the next several weeks his face was a regular mainstay there. Always he approached her, bowing over her hand. And always she grew flustered, tongue-tied and unable to speak.
She wanted to cry each time he turned from her to take his typical place across the room. She wanted so badly to have the ease to converse with him, to learn about him and tell him about herself and all the secret places of her heart. He must think her an
imbecile. And yet, at each meeting he talked to her with such sweetness, such gentleness that she finally felt herself begin to respond to him. He may have been there to court her sister, but he was kind to her, patient as no other had been. She began to think she might actually be able to overcome her shyness with him. To finally have a friend.
However, one day she entered the drawing room, her eyes eagerly searching the room, and he was not there.
Disappointment washed over her. It was only as she felt the light within her dim that she realized just how much she had been looking forward to seeing him. Feeling a fool, she made vague greetings and headed to her corner, her feet heavy. She took up her embroidery as usual, tried to work the thread into the fabric, but after a short while it tangled horribly. She attempted to work the knot but it would not give, and her heart was not in it. She placed it aside and sat silently with her hands clasped in her lap, her eyes on the floor. She was being ridiculous, she thought. He did not come to see her, after all. She had no claim on him. He was there for her sister. And goodness, the man was entitled to have other appointments and responsibilities. He could not be expected to be here day after day.
And yet she had come to look with pleasure on his presence. Though they had never conversed with more than the most inane of pleasantries (and she herself hardly ever a participant), his constant kindness to her was beginning to break down her anxiety. But she was foolish to think there was anything more than just a nice man showing her common courtesy.
Suddenly she felt the back of her neck prickling with awareness. She looked up, and there he was, striding with his long-legged gait into the room. His eyes rested immediately on her, and even without her spectacles she could see the smile breaking out over his face. She felt herself warm, felt an answering smile stretch tentatively across her own lips.
He walked directly to her, gave her mother a polite greeting. And then he was before her. It was only at that moment that she saw the bouquet in his hand.
“Miss Knowles, you look lovely this morning,” he said softly. And then he did the most remarkable thing. He held the bouquet out to her. Her!
She looked at the ivory colored roses uncomprehendingly for a moment, a pale blush just staining the edges of the creamy petals. She so longed to reach out for them. She looked up into his face, saw his eyes crinkle at the corners. And still he held the flowers out to her patiently.
She reached out then, took hold of the bouquet. Cradling it in her arms, she buried her nose in the soft blooms and breathed deeply. When she returned her gaze to him she smiled, a genuine smile with no hesitation.
“Thank you, Mr. Dormer. They are beautiful.” She saw his smile widen, and she felt quite content to simply stare up into a face that was becoming more dear to her with each passing day.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw her mother motion to a maid to take the flowers from her. Arabella handed them into the maid’s keeping reluctantly. She looked after them with longing until Mr. Dormer’s voice once more brought her attention back to him.
“May I?” he asked, motioning to the seat next to her.
She blushed and nodded. To her surprise her mother rose and excused herself, hurrying to the door to discuss something with the butler. And then she was alone with him. Well, she thought ruefully, as alone as one could be in a room full of people. As Mr. Dormer settled himself she clenched her hands together and took a deep breath, attempting to build up her courage. And then she blurted, “I did not think you were coming today.”
His eyes settled on her face. “I would not miss it, Miss Knowles.” His voice was low, and rumbled through her in a maddening way. She looked back down at her lap, her mind churning, trying to think of something, anything to say. But her mind was a blank. She was beginning to panic, felt her throat close up, when he suddenly looked at the book that was lying on the seat near her.
“What book do you have there?”
Mutely she handed it to him, watched his lean fingers turn the worn leather gently in his hands.
“Wordsworth!” he exclaimed, a wistful look entering his eyes. “How I do love his work.” He looked up at her. “And what is your favorite. Wait!” he exclaimed before she could answer. “Let me try and guess.” He began to flip through the pages, slowing and then suddenly stopping when he came to one that was more dog-eared than the rest. “I believe it is ‘Lucy Gray’?”
Her eyes lit up and she nodded.
“Such a sad poem. I admit to finding a certain melancholy beauty that draws one to all of the Lucy poems, don’t you agree?”
“Indeed,” she replied, finding great relief in the ease which the words were coming. “I am overcome with such sadness while reading them, but can feel the great emotion behind their creation. I wonder if there was a Lucy in his own life.”
His eyes softened at her speech, and she found she could not look away from them. “I have wondered the same,” he confessed quietly.
For the next twenty minutes they talked softly of poetry and novels. Never had Arabella felt so at ease other than with her family. It was as if a dam had burst, and words and feelings poured from her. More than once she caught him looking at her with some unnamed emotion in his eyes that made her blush. And still they talked on.
At the end of his visit he rose and bent over her hand. She tried valiantly to hide her disappointment at his leaving.
“I hope to continue our discussion soon. Will you be attending the Moffat musicale tonight?”
“Yes, I will be there,” she replied.
His smile deepened. “I look forward to tonight, then. Until this evening, Miss Knowles.”
She looked at the door long after he left, a small smile on her face.
Arabella entered the Moffat’s home with a sense of anticipation. For the first time that she could remember, the ever present anxiety and shyness that had weighed heavily on her shoulders was lifted a bit, allowing her to breathe easier and take in her surroundings with a new appreciation. Even without her spectacles the candles seemed brighter tonight, the colors more vibrant. She stopped with her mother as she greeted some friends and Harriet and her father went ahead into the music room. Her eyes scanned the crowd, squinting, searching for that one particular head of brown hair, those wonderfully gentle brown eyes that affected her like no other. Perhaps he cared for her a bit. Perhaps there was something more than friendship between them. The flowers, his interest in her thoughts, all pointed to yes. She felt truly hopeful for the first time in so very long.
Her mother finally extricated herself, and they made their own way to the music room. Arabella looked about with bright eyes. And then she spotted him not far from her, along one side of the room. Her lips began to lift in a smile. But it died a quick death.
Mr. Dormer was leaning quite close over a young lady, whispering in her ear. His long frame was curled over her, his lips mere inches from her cheek. And then he leaned back, a smile upon his face, and the young lady laughed up at him. It was only then that
she saw who the lady was. Her sister, Harriet. No other could have hair that vibrant shade of yellow, no other could shine as she did.
Arabella felt her world drop out from under her. She had thought he had asked about their presence here tonight for her sake. But it seemed he had other hopes in mind.
She clutched at the dress over her stomach, tears pricking behind her eyes. She found it hard to breathe. She needed to leave. Above all else she needed to leave before he saw her with her broken heart in her eyes. She began to back out of the room. Her father’s hand on her arm, however, halted her escape.
“Arabella, what is it? You look unwell.”
She swallowed past the lump in her throat. “I’m feeling poorly, Father,” she gasped. “I need to go home.”
He looked over her pale features with concern before nodding. “I will take you. Just let me tell your mother.”
She nodded jerkily. As he moved toward her mother she gave one last long look at Mr. Dormer and her sister. And then she turned and did not look back.
Arabella spent the next two days in her room, curtains drawn, food that she had no appetite for sent to her on a tray. She wasted long hours staring at the bouquet he had brought her, unable to throw it away. She had laid her book of Wordsworth poems beside it, and his handkerchief on top of that. All were reminders of painful, foolish hopes, and she would not allow herself to forget them.
Harriet was a constant presence, and though it hurt to think that Mr. Dormer had been in love with her sister all along, she could not find it in her heart to turn her away.
“Come take a walk with me,” Harriet pleaded on the morning of the third day. “Please, my dear. The sun is finally shining and I vow I will expire if I don’t get out of doors this very instant.”
Arabella smiled. The thought of exercise in the morning sunshine was enough to invigorate even her dull spirits. “I believe I could stretch my legs as well. Let me get my bonnet and we can be off.”
The two sisters exited their townhouse a short while later arm in arm, a maid trailing dutifully behind. As soon as they were out of sight of the house Arabella took out her spectacles, placing them on her nose and patting them with a relieved smile. They made their way down Brook Street, past Grosvenor Square and straight on to Hyde Park. Arabella breathed in the warm air, enjoying the feel of the sun and the sound of her sister’s bright chatter. Already she was feeling her spirits lift. She would put Mr. Dormer from her mind, she vowed, and not let him ruin the peace of a perfectly lovely morning. They turned along a shady footpath. Suddenly Harriet stopped.
“Good morning, Mr. Dormer,” she said cheerfully.
Arabella gasped in dismay, her eyes flying up to see Mr. Dormer and his friend, a Mr. Hubert, walking their way. She tried to escape, but as Harriet’s arm was clasped firmly about her own she had no choice but to turn back to the gentlemen, murmuring a polite greeting and nothing more. As the three others conversed, however, her eyes were inevitably drawn to Mr. Dormer. She was taken aback when she saw his gaze already resting on her, that same kind light brightening up his plain features into ones she cherished. How she wished she could dislike him, or at the very least feel nothing for him at all. Instead she felt her heart speed up, her eyes grow soft with longing. It was some moments later before she realized that Harriet and Mr. Hubert had walked off a ways on their own, leaving her quite alone with Mr. Dormer.
He stepped closer to her when he saw her uncertainty. “You wear spectacles,” he remarked softly. When she blushed and fumbled for them, attempting to remove them, he stayed her hand. “No, please. They suit you. You look lovely in them.” She stilled, unable to meet his gaze. He continued gently, “I missed you at the musicale the other night. I heard you were forced to leave due to illness. I hope you are much improved.”
She raised her chin a fraction, determined to hide her heart, which must surely be shining from her eyes.
“Yes, thank you. I’m feeling much better. I hope you enjoyed the performance?”
He reached out, took up her gloved hand. Arabella gasped at the unexpected contact, but found she could not – did not want to – pull away.
“It was a dull affair without you there,” he replied quietly.
She felt confusion course through her. “But Harriet was there. Surely she is the reason you wanted us there?”
He looked at her blankly for a moment, before a sudden dawning understanding lit his face. “Miss Harriet? Is that what you thought?”
“Yes,” she replied slowly, her voice growing hesitant. “I saw you with her. I believed you had come to an understanding.”
He started to shake his head before she was through. “No, you misunderstood. I am not courting your sister. I merely wanted to talk with her, to ask her to meet me here. With you.” He took a step closer, squeezing her fingers gently. “I wanted a chance to see you, alone, without the presence of the others.”
She gazed up at his face, hope blossoming, finally allowing herself to see the tenderness in his eyes as he looked down at her. “Mr. Dormer…” she whispered, quite unable to think of anything else to say.
He brought her fingers up to his lips, kissed them, a mere brush of his mouth, and yet she felt it through her entire being. “Won’t you call me Randall, Arabella?” he murmured against her knuckles.
“Randall,” she said quietly, happily, her eyes shining.
“You have not known me long, I know. But could you possibly find it in your heart to care for me a bit? I do so care for you, Arabella. Very much.”
Instead of speaking she laid her free hand against his cheek, a smile lighting her face. And she could see, in the happiness that shone from his eyes at her simple answer, that he understood her, and she loved him for it. And she knew her heart had found its home.