Alene Wecker's Online Library
George & the Dragon
An Engagement of Sorts
An Engagement of Errors
Engagement of Sorts: I have more deleted scenes than finished scenes of this work because it was my debut novel and I had no idea what I was doing! The scenes I've chosen to include here, however, are scenes that are referenced throughout the book, so I thought it might be fun for readers to be able to peak behind the curtain. You get to see Anne wearing breeches, falling in the lake, and burning the lacemaker's wares, respectively. Poor Anne. But her folly sure makes for some great entertainment. ;)
Prologue: The Hunt
A Falling Out
Of Lace and Men
Engagement of Errors: I originally wrote this with a Austen-esque omniscient narrator, but my publisher recommended that I change the point of view to a limited omniscience. The following three scenes are ones that just didn't quite make the cut in the POV shift. I hope you enjoy them!
Sebastian & Charlotte
George and the Dragon
In a time when the Romans ruled the world, George and his twin sister, Morgan, ruled their fortress in Isca. Well, actually, it was their father, General Moylin, who oversaw the soldiers and everything that went on there. But that meant he was always busy, busy, busy—too busy to notice what George and Morgan were up to.
And their mother? Well, she was busy, too, doing whatever thing leaders did. George didn’t know what that was, exactly, but it wasn’t watching after the twins, that was for sure.
Once, when George asked his mom to go fishing, she said, “Heavens, no! I have a meeting, and I couldn’t show up with mud on my shoes, now, could I?”
George didn’t see why not. Was she meeting with the shoemaker?
“Go find Morgan,” his mother said. “I’m sure she would love to catch fish, frogs, and fireflies.” (Whew! Say that five times fast.)
George did, then found Morgan and made her say, “fish, frogs, and fireflies,” five times even faster. And then the two of them walked off in search of a fat fish to fry for dinner. (Say that five times fast if you can. I’ll wait.)
Now, even though George and Morgan had the run of the place and spent lots of time roaming the fortress and playing together, you should know that they had school too. (Well, kind of. School was a little different back then.) What they had was a great-great-uncle named old Wizard Watkins who taught them to read, write, and do magic.
Yes, magic. Real magic, like moving things with a flick of their wands. (Can you imagine that? You would never have to crawl on your elbows and knees to get your shoes from under the bed if you could just swoosh, swoosh, swoosh away with your magic wand.)
Morgan was very good with air magic, swishing things around wherever and whenever she wanted. Using spells like color-glow and fire-light, she would send sparkly balls of color dancing about her room. And (if I do say so myself, and I do, because I am the narrator and I can say whatever I want) she spent too much time making herself look pretty with her magic. She liked to make her blonde hair as shiny as the sun and add magical sparkles to her dresses.
But George? Well, he didn’t care about his hair, which was usually the color of dirt. (If he bathed more often, you might notice that his hair was actually the same color as Morgan’s.) And he certainly didn’t want any magical sparkles on his dresses. (Yes, dresses. Back then, men, women, and children all wore what we would call a dress, but they called them tunics. Some people still use the word tunic for a knee-length shirt like the Romans wore.)
No, George never used his magic to make things bright and shiny or add sparkles to his tunics. In fact, he hardly ever used magic at all, to the disappointment of old Wizard Watkins.
It wasn’t that George didn’t like magic. He loved it. But where Morgan could do every spell the first time she tried, George’s spells always seemed to go wrong.
Whenever he tried to read a spell, the letters got jumbled. He wasn’t always sure which letter was p and which was q. (And as anyone who has tried to cast a spell would know, if you get your letters mixed up, your spell gets mixed up too. And mixed-up spells can be very messy.)
One day, George’s nanny called him from his room, where he was practicing with his sword. “You forgot to clear your bowl after breakfast. Come down here right now and do it.”
“Isn’t that why we have servants?” George muttered. But he made sure Nanny didn’t hear him or else he would end up doing everyone else’s dishes for a week.
“Don’t wait until the oatmeal dries and gets all sticky,” Nanny called again.
“I know, I know,” George mumbled, pulling a book called Household Magic from under his bed.
“Let’s see here . . .” George looked for spells that would wash the dishes for him so he wouldn’t have to go downstairs. After all, why should he have to wash his dishes when his sister never had to do anything but whoosh, whoosh, whoosh all day long?
“Ah, this should do it.” He waved his wand. “Bubble, bubble, fix my trouble. Wash my dishes double, double.”
It was a neat spell. And it wasn’t really George’s fault that the spell went wrong. It was just that whenever he tried to use water magic, well . . . he was just too powerful for his own good, that’s what. His water magic was so strong that when he read a spell, he summoned water to his eyes, making the page hard to read. (Have you ever tried to read a book underwater? It’s not easy, I can tell you that. And maybe . . . yeah, don’t try that at home. I don’t want you ruining this book in the bathtub. It’s not a water book, ok? OK!?! Right. No putting this book underwater.)
As I was saying, George’s water magic was so strong he had a hard time reading the words in his spell book. And where he should have said, “Wash my dishes on the double,” he had said, “Wash my dishes double, double.” And with too-strong water magic and two-times-doubled bubbles, boy was he in trouble!
Nanny screamed first. “George Moylin! (He knew he was in trouble when she used his first and last names). “What have you done?!”
Engagement of Sorts
October 23, 1812
The coach swayed, knocking my head against the window. I scooted infinitesimally closer to Mother, careful not to infringe upon her space. Were I to accidentally provoke her, she would have no compunction about turning the coach around and denying me the privilege of tonight’s ball. I was lucky enough that she had still decided to come, my sister’s absence notwithstanding.
“Remember, Anne,” Mother began her threats as we neared Hinwick House, “this ball shall be a test. You must prove to me that you have finally learned to comport yourself with the decency that befits a lady of your station. If you do, I shall allow you to stay home while I take Charlotte to London for her Season. Otherwise, I shall be forced to take you with me—as unpleasant a prospect as that seems—to ensure you don’t get into trouble.”
I would like to say Mother was bluffing, but I had seen her play faro before; she did not know how to bluff.
Enduring a Season, with all its accompanying strictures and rigid rules of etiquette, was the last thing I wanted. Thankfully, mother had never inflicted such a fate upon me; she considered it a waste of resources. “Yes, Mama. I am not the same wild girl I used to be.” Or maybe I was, but I had learned how to feign submission. In another two years, when I reached my majority and both Lizzie and Charlotte had married and secured their futures, I planned to escape Mother’s leash.
She cleared her throat. “You have certainly made progress, else I would never allow you to stay home with no one but Father and John to moderate your nature.”
I swallowed my retort. I could point out that John was more reckless than I had ever been, but such entreaties would only bring the sting of Mother’s bony hand across my cheek. He was both male and heir; being wild was his birthright. I was the “willful” middle daughter, with neither Lizzie’s perfect propriety nor Charlotte’s charm.
We turned onto the crushed gravel drive of Hinwick House, its limestone shining like a beacon in the light of the moon. Unlike Rushden Hall, with its mismatched appendages built in every century since the fourteenth, Hinwick House had been constructed all at once and modeled after the style of Buckingham House. It was, in every way, impressive.
The front doors opened, my cloak was taken, and we were brought into the well-lit hall, already filled with guests. Mother and I waited to greet the hosts while I took in the room. A nervous energy fueled me when I saw so many people present, most of whom were completely unknown to me. I always thrilled at the chance to meet new people, especially because Mother granted me a longer tether on occasions such as these.
Angel Skinner and her mother forged through the throng to meet us. Will Skinner, Angel’s brother, served as the vicar in our parish. As a member of the only other genteel family who lived within miles of us, Angel and I had grown as close as sisters.
“I didn’t know it would be such a crush,” Mother said.
Mrs. Skinner, who accumulated and dispensed gossip like a bee collects and distributes pollen, said in her shrill voice, “Yes, the Orlebars have assembled quite the hunting party. People have flocked here from all over. There is even a Colonel Thoroton from Nottinghamshire whom several young ladies have traveled from London to see.”
“I would not travel that far for the prince regent himself,” Angel said.
Angel spoke from experience. Though she hated the task, she often accompanied her elderly aunt to Bath, Brighton, and London.
“Not everyone is as reluctant a traveler as you,” I said. I had never been allowed to go with her. Mother never let me out of her sights.
“Colonel Thoroton is not just any gentleman,” Mrs. Skinner said. “He recently inherited Flintham Hall in Nottinghamshire. I hear it’s twice—no, thrice—the size of Hinwick House. And he is only four and twenty.” She paused to fan herself, obviously relishing in the attention she earned as the gatekeeper of gossip. “Rumor has it that when his father died, the colonel had to leave his post with the Coldstream Guards and is just now on his way to Town to find a wife. You had better acquire an introduction.”
Angel leaned over to me, whispering, “Though little good it will likely do you. The man dismissed me without a word. I suppose he has no interest in the sister of a lowly vicar.”
I pressed her hand in a show of understanding.
In the next moment, Mr. and Mrs. Orlebar greeted us and chatted amicably with Mother before Mr. Orlebar escorted us to the colonel for the desired introduction. “Colonel Thornton, I have two neighbors I am pleased to introduce you to. Here are Mrs. and Miss Fletcher.”
Were it not for his eligibility, I doubted any who gazed on Colonel Thoroton would have considered him handsome outright, his scarlet regimentals notwithstanding. His face was not scarred from combat, nor was he a corpulent colonel, but a weak chin, a round face, and a stiffly starched collar combined to produce the appearance of jowls. A man of military distinction should know better than to allow himself to be hemmed in like that, I should think.
I curtsied politely enough to impress a duke, but the colonel didn’t even glance in my direction. Determined not to be fobbed off, I inquired, “Have you just come from the continent? My sister’s husband was in—”
But he neither looked at me nor acknowledged the question, interrupting me with a gruff, “Charmed.”
Though I had never been so thoroughly snubbed in my life, I bit back the spirited set-down which would have made Mother balk. Instead, I turned sharply on my heel and
collided into another gentleman from the colonel’s party. “I beg your pardon,” I said, annoyed that he had stolen my opportunity for a haughty departure.
He reached out to steady me. “Not all. I can assure you the pleasure was all
I scoffed. “Yes. If there was any pleasure to be had, it was most certainly all yours.” I wrested my arm from his gloved clutches.
He laughed loudly, drawing my eyes to his handsome face. But wait—
I knew this gentleman.
What was his name? I stared into his eyes as he searched mine but could not find within their depths the surname I sought. I offered a curt curtsy and hurried on my way to rejoin the Skinners with Mother right behind me.
Once out of earshot, I whispered to her, “Who was that gentleman?”
She replied loudly in slow, concise tones, “Colonel Thoroton of the Coldstream Guards.”
I forced a smile. “I meant the gentleman I bumped into after the colonel’s dismissal.”
She looked over her shoulder to appraise him. “The one immaculately dressed in the poppy-colored waistcoat?”
I looked at him again and nodded. I had been too busy staring into his eyes to have noticed his absurdly vibrant attire.
“I have never met him in my life.”
But where had we been introduced if Mother did not know him?
Mother situated Angel and me as close to the twirling couples as possible, then distanced herself so we could attract dance partners like lures for fish. I would have enjoyed dancing with a gentleman of the colonel’s social standing but was relegated to
scanning the ball for more willing partners.
“Where are Charlotte and John this evening?” Angel asked.
“My sister feigned a headache so she could finish reading her novel, and John and Mr. Smith took the barouche.” And a good thing too. No doubt Mr. Smith would have found some way to sit entirely too close to me if we’d had to share a carriage. He was the most odious house guest imaginable. “What about your brother?”
Angel shrugged. “Will is around here somewhere.”
I could usually depend on the overzealous vicar to offer me the first dance. “Surely our chaperones could have managed more than one introduction before seeing to their own entertainment. I don’t recognize a soul past the Orlebars, and they are busy hosting.”
Angel fanned herself, causing the loose ringlets that normally framed her face to billow about her ears. “What of that gentleman you bumped into? The one standing next to Colonel Thoroton?”
I looked back at him, willing myself to conjure a surname from his curly brown hair or chiseled jaw. “I am sure I have met him before, but I cannot recall his name.”
Angel sent him a coy glance. “His manner and bearing are much nicer than the colonel’s. He’s more handsome too.”
“Why don’t you ask your mother for an introduction? Or should I ask her for you?” I winked at Angel.
She swatted me with her fan. “Don’t you dare, Anne. Mother’s attempts at matchmaking are bad enough without your interference.” She grabbed my arm. “I see Mr. Smith. Shall we hide before he spots you?”
“We had better.” We turned away from the dance floor and attempted to become wallflowers.
Mr. Smith had come to Rushden to buy one of Father’s horses. When Father had invited him to stay for a bit of hunting, I had been struck by his handsome appearance and looked forward to furthering our acquaintance. At the first opportunity to speak without being overheard, Mr. Smith had whispered, “You are gorgeous, by the way.” While flattered at first by his attentions, the excitement soured after his eyes slipped with alarming frequency to my bodice. As if that weren’t atrocious enough, he came across me alone in the garden one day and not only tried to steal a kiss, but also had the audacity to offer a carte blanche.
That man had some nerve. I had no idea why he thought I might be amenable to become his mistress; he never so much as looked at Charlotte, though she was more
beautiful than me by far. But whatever the reason for his lechery, I had spent the majority of the week both avoiding him and abusing him to Angel.
My brother and Mr. Smith approached us, our attempts at hiding notwithstanding.
“I have not attended a ball this crowded since London,” John said.
I self-consciously fiddled with my hair and checked that the lace of my bodice had not slipped. While I normally thought well of my womanly figure, standing in Mr. Smith’s presence was enough to make me feel insufficiently attired. I longed for a shawl to hide in, in spite of the room’s warmth.
“Miss Fletcher,” Mr. Smith said, “would you care to dance?”
Not with him ogling me for the entirety. But neither did I want to decline and be forced to sit out the whole evening like an invalid. I scanned the ballroom again but saw no one who was familiar enough to approach. Where was Angel’s brother when I needed him?
The only person I could see whom I could even remotely call an acquaintance was the colonel and his handsome friend; both men were surrounded by women like barnacles on a ship. The colonel’s friend must have sensed my gaze upon him, for he turned and looked in my direction. I smiled slightly. He nodded briefly in return, and that would be all the reprieve I would receive. It would have to do.
Keeping my sights on him, I responded to Mr. Smith. “I am afraid my first dance has already been claimed. If you will excuse me.”
Walking away was easy, but heaven help me, I would need a miracle to pull off the charade I had concocted without looking the fool. Though my palms grew sweaty inside my gloves, I gathered all the confidence I could muster and strode to the dandy, whose eyebrows raised lazily at my approach. The other members of his party turned to me, their looks souring and their conversation abating in pace with my arrival.
I addressed the ladies. “I am sorry to have disturbed your lively conversation, but I really ought to offer my salutations to a family friend.” Turning to the gentleman, I said cheerily, “It has been so very long. How do you do?”
He pursed his lips as if he were trying to restrain laughter, causing his dimples to press into creases. “It has been entirely too long. How do you do?”
I knew a moment’s relief, grateful that he recognized me. “I have been better.”
He seemed surprised that I gave him an honest response. Men always were.
“But I am glad I have found you and can claim that dance you promised me years ago. Do you remember?” I sent a prayer heavenward that his friendly manner would entice him to play along with this farce.
His searching eyes compelled me to look away. He stepped to the side a few paces, and I followed him, distancing both of us from his acquaintances. His voice came soft and felt far off. “I promised a great many things years ago, but I no longer dance, so you do not have to bestow that foolishly requested favor upon me.”
Of course that was his response. How absurd of me to have had the audacityto—
He took one step closer so that I felt his warm breath on my exposed neck as he whispered, “But perhaps I shall grant the next impertinent request that falls from those
deliciously pert lips.” He was so close that I could feel his mouth pull into a grin, sending
shivers down my spine.
I stepped away immediately. I need not guess what sort of “request” he had in mind. Curse my luck; I had bounced from the company of one cad into another. “Oh . . . I am afraid my heart was set on that dance. Well, um . . .” I was mumbling, and I never mumbled. “If you are opposed to dancing in general . . . that is to say, if you are unable . . .” His flirtation had completely ungrounded me. I stepped farther away from him and
glanced back at my group, knowing I would be forced to return like a pup with its tail
between its legs and accept Mr. Smith’s offer. The thought threatened tears.
Mr. Smith, noticing my glance, broke away from the group and came slinking toward me.
That was it. I had to do something. I leaned back towards the unknown gentleman, speaking as quietly as possible so the females of the company, who stood mere paces away, would not hear. “Then perhaps you would be willing to find another scapegoat for me? Any scapegrace will do, really.” Could he see my distress?
Not likely, since all he did was laugh raucously and draw the attention of more than his party. But he kept his response to a conspiratorial whisper, again stepping too close to me. “Though many have called me a scapegrace, I have been around long enough to know better than to be goaded by a bewitching woman.”
He took a step away, and my lungs filled with air. I had hardly realized I’d stopped breathing. Sweeping his arm to the side, he displayed his group, all female, save the colonel. “To which of my companions would you like an introduction?” His voice sounded too loud, and the malicious look of several ladies indicated they both heard and understood the gist of our tête-à-tête. “The colonel would refuse, and the ladies would prove terrible partners for you, due to their gender.” He paused here and took another step closer to me, whispering again. “They also turn jealous when outshined by one so beneath their touch.”
I sucked in a breath. His words flattered and humiliated in turns but did not help. Useless dandy.
My body tensed as Mr. Smith flanked me from behind my left shoulder. Since I refused to turn and acknowledge him, I was able to note the appraising glances of the women in Colonel Thoroton’s retinue. They must have appreciated Mr. Smith’s handsome physique, for though I would have thought it impossible, they all seemed to stand a little taller and smile even more inanely.
“Ah, Mr. Smith, what luck. My good friend here”—If only I could remember his name—“was introducing me to his entourage who might benefit from a fine dance
partner such as yourself.”
My bet proved well-placed, for many of the women joined us, and in quick order, Mr. Smith led one exquisitely dressed girl to join the dance.
Without the weight of Mr. Smith’s presence pressing into me, I smiled cheekily. “Please consider the scapegoat you just provided as a perfectly sufficient substitute for the favor of your dance. It was noble of you to have offered one of your own disciples, even if only because you were too cowardly to place yourself on the altar.” I left before I could see his reaction. This time, I did not bump into anyone.
The sound of his boisterous laughter followed me all the way to where John and Angel should have been. But they had gone to the dance floor together, the little traitors. I sighed at their betrayal, but before I could search for Mother, a pair of gloved hands covered my eyes. The familiar scent of dusty tomes assaulted me.
I wished he would not do such things in a crowded hall where anyone might misinterpret his familiarity. “And where have you been hiding yourself, Mr. Skinner?” I said. “I could have used your assistance a moment ago.”
He gave a throaty chuckle and dropped his hands, though his left hand trailed down my arm to clasp my wrist. He used that leverage to turn me to him before he raised my hand to his lips. “No surprising you, is there?”
“Not when it comes to you.” His overtures to me were quite predictable, though misguided. We would never suit, and I could not fathom why he failed to see that.
“Someday, Miss Fletcher, I hope to change that. But for now, dance with me?”
I nodded my consent and soon found myself swept away with the vicar and past the dandy with the outlandish waistcoat. I couldn’t help but notice the way he alternately smirked at me or glared at Will every time my dance steps brought me closer to him. I wondered, idly, what it might feel like to dance with a man as tall as he.
Though my dainty sister Charlotte always claimed jealousy over my Hellenic proportions, I wished that didn’t place my full bodice—which often struggled to contain
its burden during the vigorous steps of a country dance—directly into a shorter man’s
line of sight. Though Will was not short, per se, he still stood an inch or two shorter than me; at least, his eyes remained fastened on mine.
I danced with countless partners after Will, but the flirtatious glances the dandy sent me prevented me from giving any of them my full attention. Instead, I found myself wondering what kind of remarks sent his unholy laughter to desecrate the propriety of the ballroom.
Who was he and where had we met? I couldn’t recall and decided I had better cast him out of my mind before I misstepped or said something untoward. I wouldn’t have a dandy ruin my chances for a little bit of freedom.
In the end, it was the vicar who rescued me from the dance floor. “Would you like a drink?”
I nodded gratefully, and Will escorted me to the table of refreshments in the adjoining room.
“Have you enjoyed yourself?”
“Very much, in spite of dancing with some eccentric and—well, quite frankly, ill-mannered—gentlemen from London.” I sipped the punch he offered, thankful for the refreshment after so much dancing. “I had thought the rules of etiquette were even stricter in Town, but I am starting to wonder if Mother has just been pulling the wool over my eyes.”
“No, your mother is correct. Things are stricter . . .” He swirled his punch while gathering his thoughts. With a lowered voice, he added, “But ever since the prince regent gained popularity, eccentricities have become more permissible. Maybe that is what you experienced tonight.” He finished his drink and set his glass on the table.
Eccentricities? Hope blossomed in my chest like an eagle unfurling its wings. If London was a place where eccentricities were permitted with greater frequency, then perhaps, after my sisters were safely married, I would find a sense of belonging there. I certainly had not found it within my own home.
“Anne, are you all right?”
“Never better actually.” I shook away thoughts of London. “So, is that why a gentleman flirted with me something awful tonight? He is of the Regent’s ilk?” Though my hackles had risen at the dandy’s flirtations, at least he never leered at me like Mr. Smith had.
Will’s brows puckered into a scowl. “You should not allow gentlemen to flirt with you, mon enfant.”
I bristled at his patronizing tone; Will chastised me almost as often as Mother. “I am neither a child nor yours to so label.”
“No, Anne, you have always been in your own keeping, even as much as your mother and governess have tried their best to prevent it.” He offered a lopsided grin, as if one side of his mouth knew he should not smile at my antics but the other could not refrain. “I pity the man that should someday try to take possession of your indomitable spirit.”
“So do I. It’s why I shall never marry.” I had no desire to trade a mother who ruled over me until I reached my majority for a husband who would lord over me for life.
“Neither is the man without the woman nor the woman without the man, in the Lord. It is your duty to marry and serve your husband.”
Ugh, vicars. Serve or slave?
The dandy strolled into the room with a lady on each arm, offering me a welcome distraction. He nudged past Will and me to attain beverages for his companions. In order to stop the vicar’s forthcoming lecture on marriage, I turned to the dandy and blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “What a practical waistcoat you have chosen, sir.”
“Practical?” he spluttered, his face contorted in a show of abject horror.
Dash it all. Why had I chosen that particular word? If only I had spared a moment to think before speaking. In for a penny, I guess. “Yes, quite practical. You may spill punch on your waistcoat to no effect. It may even enliven the ensemble.”
His eyes widened while his face flushed. Apparently, one should not criticize a dandy’s choice of attire.
Well, at least I had circumvented Will’s lecture. Probably.
I placed my glass of orgeat back on the table and stuck my hand out for Will to offer me an escort. He hastily threaded my arm through his, and together, we fled the room. I looked over my shoulder, hoping my comment had not made the gentleman livid enough to create a scene, but he only shook his head, his shoulders lifting in silent laughter.
“Do you know him?” Will asked, stalling our progress back into the still-packed hall.
“We have met before, though I cannot recall his name. Do you know him?”
“No, and I cannot believe you would say something so impertinent to a stranger, Anne. You grow too bold.” He frowned at me.
“Please don’t tell my mother.”
He brought a knuckle to his mouth, pretending to cough. “Are you afraid I shall tattle on you, Miss Fletcher?”
“Perhaps.” I might have been brave, but Mother was terrifying. She would lock me in the larder with the rats if she heard tale of my insult, then force me to accompany her to London.
He took my gloved hand in his and raised it to his lips, whispering, “You should know by now where my allegiance lies.” His brows quivered eagerly.
I withdrew my hand, both grateful for his loyalty and frustrated with the passion in his eyes which I knew I could not match. Not that I didn’t care for Will; I did. He had been a good friend to me, especially when it came to defending me from both our mothers. But, over the course of the last year, he had begun to see me differently. And I didn’t like it. Not one bit.
Afraid that someone might have spied his fervor, I glanced back through the open doors into the room with the refreshments. The dandy had been watching me, but looked quickly away, bending over slightly to whisper something into the ear of his blonde companion; she laughed haughtily.
My blood boiled with the suspicion that they were mocking me. I turned my back on them, prodding Will to escort me to our mothers, who stood talking to an unknown young lady.
Mrs. Skinner grabbed Will’s arm, pulling him away from me. “Will, you must meet Miss Loveland. She’s a cousin of ours.”
“Indeed?” William bowed gallantly. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
As Miss Loveland bowed, curls the color of freshly tilled earth danced about her shoulders. With the same dark eyes and fair skin that Angel and Will boasted, it was
easy to see the resemblance. “I am pleased to learn I have cousins in this area.”
Mrs. Skinner’s voice cut through all the other ballroom chatter. “A distant relation, to be sure.” She turned to miss Loveland. “Now, if I have this right, your father, who is a solicitor, married Pheobe Skinner,” she turned to Will again, “Pheobe is your father’s
cousin, you know,”
Miss Loveland gave Will a coy smile. “Yes, that’s right—”
Mrs. Skinner did not give her the chance to finish. “She lives in London, but she and her Father are here by special invitation from the Orlebars—her father is their solicitor, you know. But now the poor poppet has naught to do while her papa hunts grouse. You ought to visit her.”
Will glanced at me briefly but responded, “Of course. It would be an honor.”
“Yes, you must call on me,” she said, smiling demurely.
From the corner of my eye, I noticed the handsome dandy extract himself from his entourage and walk toward me with a mischievous grin on his face. Afraid that he
would say something scandalous in front of Mother, I pulled her aside. “I am quite tired.
Perhaps we had better return home and allow the Skinners to better acquaint themselves with their cousin.”
Mother consented to an early departure, and we made our goodbyes, but the dandy cut off our escape.
“I am sorry to have disturbed your lively conversation, but I really ought to offer
my salutations to a family friend,” he said affably. “It has been so very long. How do you do?”
Clever man to turn my own words against me in this fashion. Now it was my turn to trip around this conversation without embarrassing myself. “I cannot be much better or worse than I was a few minutes ago when we conversed over the punch bowl.” I
fanned myself, feigning innocence. “Or perhaps you were speaking to my mother?”
A crease formed between Mother’s brows. “I am sorry, but I do not recall . . .” She looked between him and me in confusion.
“Mr. Thomas Paling, ma’am.” He bowed and looked at me expectantly.
Thomas Paling? The name was unfamiliar. Had we been complete strangers after all? My stomach twisted at the thought. “Mr. Paling, pray excuse us, but Mother and I were just leaving.” I hoped the comment would preclude me from the necessity of offering an introduction, certain that this flirtatious gentleman would somehow use the knowledge of my name against me.
“Perhaps we shall meet again?”
Not if I could help it.
But Mother eyed him with an appreciative gleam, his immaculate dress and bearing testifying to his good name. Thankfully, she remained unaware of the shocking innuendos he’d been tossing my way. “Perhaps,” Mother said.
I whisked her away before Mr. Paling could say anything scandalous. Feeling eyes upon me, I looked over my shoulder. Back in the still-crowded ballroom that sparkled in the candlelight, Mr. Paling watched my exit while Will eyed Mr. Paling.
Engagement of Errors
December 22, 1812
When Mrs. Elisabeth Ascough’s pains began, she was ecstatic, for the day of her deliverance had arrived. Not only would the discomforts of pregnancy soon be a thing of the past, but the birth of this child would put an end to the quagmire of uncertainty she had endured since her husband’s death. As her spasms threatened to make outtards of her innards, however, she began to pray for deliverance of a different sort.
But Elisabeth was an expert at enduring pain with grace. Knowing that her suffering would soon end, she gritted her teeth and bore it all in silence, her panting and the squeezing of Nurse Bixby’s hands the only indication she was suffering from anything more than mild indigestion.
The nurse tried to distract her with conversation. “Do you think it shall be a boy, Mrs. Ascough?”
Elisabeth’s nearest friend—both literally and figuratively, as Mrs. Maria Bell shared a wall in their London townhouse—was the one who responded. “Oh, it had better be, else poor Lizzie will lose everything.”
Elisabeth, not wanting her business bandied about in so cavalier a fashion, glared at her friend but was too busy clenching her teeth to stop Maria’s chatter.
Maria continued, unabashed. “You see, Bixby, her husband died without leaving provision for Lizzie in his will. So, if she has a son, he will inherit the townhouse and the not insignificant Ascough fortune. If it is a girl, however, it all falls to her late husband’s younger brother, and Lizzie will be left practically destitute.”
“I see,” the nurse said, giving Elisabeth’s hand a gentle pat. “Then, for your sake, Mrs. Ascough, I hope it shall be a boy.”
Elisabeth’s twitching eye was the only response she gave, unintentional though it was.
Mrs. Fletcher, Elisabeth’s mother, sat in the corner of the room in a quiet parallel to her daughter’s, giving only an occasional tsk to indicate her perennial disapproval of everyone around her. Most likely, she was incensed by the presence of Maria’s husband, the young and not unattractive doctor who was attending Elisabeth. Or perhaps her disdain was currently aimed at Maria’s incessant prattling. Given that Mrs. Fletcher’s conversation and expression were as stony as the gargoyles atop Notre Dame, it was impossible to tell.
Maria filled the void in conversation with the one thing least likely to assuage Elisabeth’s pains: a vivid and lengthy description of her own ordeal, ending with “I thought I would expire on the spot, but Charles assured me all was well, and he promised I, like millions of others before me, would survive to tell the tale of child-birth. And here I am, just as he said, and Sophia was born as healthy as could be.” Maria paused for a moment to rub her protruding belly, but when no one else took up the topic, she plowed forward. “I envy you, Lizzie. Really, I do. I still have weeks before I reach my confinement once again, and I am already twice your size. You wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to navigate rolling over. I feel like a beached whale, and I shall only grow bigger. I haven’t slept well for an age at least! You are so tiny that you shall never understand. And in a few short hours, your pain shall all be over. How I envy you.”
Elisabeth could not spare the breath to silence her friend, so in the end, it was Bixby who prevented Elisabeth from enduring more such comparisons. “Why, Mrs. Ascough, you have the grip of a milkmaid.” Bixby pulled her hands free and shook them. “Most ladies’ hands feel as limp as a fish at the market.”
Elisabeth didn’t particularly care to be likened to either a fish or a milkmaid and determined not to misuse the old woman in such a fashion. But, for perhaps the first time in her life, Elisabeth’s willpower failed, for as the next wave hit, she found herself crushing Bixby’s calloused hands yet again.
“Doctor, if you don’t tend to your patient now, I’m afraid she might break my bones.”
Mr. Bell nodded, sending a shock of black hair across his handsome brow, and examined his patient’s progress. “You really are the strong silent type, aren’t you Mrs. Ascough? I would not have thought it, but you are crowning already.”
“What does that mean?” Elisabeth asked in a harsh whisper, her throat parched. “Is something wrong?”
“It means you can go ahead and push,” Mr. Bell said.
Elisabeth did as she was told. She always did.
There was a burning sensation, which increased, but the pain seemed to lessen. Stretched taut, she sent a silent prayer that she would not burst at the seams like her threadbare doll had when her sister Anne had tugged on the leg too hard.
“There. Very good. Another few pushes like that and you will soon be done,” the doctor said, but to Elisabeth, the voice sounded muffled, as if she were under water. Spots of black swam across her vision. With each agonizing push, the inky darkness crept in further.
A baby’s cry rent the evening’s silence, but Elisabeth did not hear nor could she feel the doctor’s ministrations while delivering the afterbirth. The murky tunnel she had been fighting through collapsed around her, briefly rendering her unconscious.
By the time Elisabeth came to, gasped, and blinked away the remaining darkness, Bixby was rubbing the infant down.
Elisabeth’s mother stood and brushed out her skirts, finally demonstrating interest in the scene before her. “Well, is it a boy?” she asked.
No one answered. Bixby handed the swaddled babe to Elisabeth.
Her hands shook as she took the infant, but whether from exhaustion or trepidation, she did not know.
The baby wailed, its tiny chin quivering in tandem with its vibrato. Elisabeth’s heart felt both warmer and bigger as it flooded heat through her veins. She succumbed to the insurmountable urge to soothe the child’s protest. “Oh sweetheart, I know how you feel. But it’s all over now,” she murmured in its ear.
The child nuzzled Elisabeth’s neck, settling its cry into a soft mewl.
Mrs. Fletcher cleared her throat impatiently. “Well?”
With quivering fingers, Elisabeth unwrapped the blanket …
They had lost everything.
Miss Charlotte Fletcher, Elisabeth’s youngest sister, had more experience reading romances than pursuing them, but then she had rarely needed to pursue anything in all her seventeen years of existence. With a sweet smile and a bat of her ridiculously long lashes, even her cantankerous parents frequently bowed to her whims. Thus, she struggled to understand how it was she ended up alone at the Kehr ball.
Her mother, who had always served as Charlotte’s chaperone, had made a last-minute decision to stay home with Elisabeth this evening, sending Charlotte on with Elisabeth’s in-laws, the Ascoughs. Usually, her mother or sisters helped to anchor her, reminding her of names, ranks, titles, and so forth. But they could not help her today, and the Misses Ascough’s partners had already claimed their hands for the cotillion. Charlotte’s had not.
When Mr. Corbyn had asked if he might be able to have the supper dance, she had offered him the cotillion instead, hoping that the alliteration between his name and the dance would help her memory. But though she remembered the name, she could not remember if Mr. Corbyn was the bespectacled gentleman or the short, balding man twice her age. Or perhaps he was the one whose wiry hair frizzed about, impervious to the copious amounts of pomade that he used to tame his curls? Regardless of which gentleman he was, the fact remained that he was not here, and Charlotte felt adrift. She had never sat out a dance before. Not once.
“Miss Fletcher?” a soft voice said from behind her left shoulder.
Charlotte turned to see the gentleman with spectacles hailing her.
“May I have this dance?” he asked.
Mr. Corbyn would not need to ask if he could have the dance; ergo, Charlotte reasoned that this gentleman must be someone else. “I am sorry, but the dance has already been claimed.” She smiled shyly. “But if Mr. Corbyn does not show, I shall be happy to accommodate you.”
The gentleman stiffened, then brushed an invisible piece of lint off his cuff. “I am Mr. Corbyn.”
Charlotte’s smile deepened as she tried to cover her faux pas. “See, I thought so, but when you asked if you could have the dance, I grew confused.”
He offered a regretful smile. “Of course. I’m sure, being new to town, you have had many names and faces to memorize. I only wish mine could have been more memorable.”
“Oh, no. It’s not that at all.”
But Charlotte’s smile was not balm enough to his wounded pride. He bowed as woodenly as a marionette. “I hope you find the rest of the gentlemen you dance with more remarkable than I am. Good day, Miss Fletcher.” He left her with her mouth agape.
Charlotte considered this terribly ungallant. Not even the most conceited hero in her books would have acted that way. After all, they never minded when she had to refresh the memory of their names by re-reading a page or two.
Charlotte could feel eyes upon her and imagined that ladies had already begun their vicious gossip on how she had earned Mr. Corbyn’s snub. Her eyes began to burn, and, not knowing where to go or to whom she could turn, she fled the hall.
After poking her head into the lady’s withdrawing room—which was far too crowded for her purposes—she continued down the corridor until she spied a double door, which stood ajar. She peeked her head into the dark room. “Hello,” she called, hoping no one would respond. “Is anyone here?”
When no one answered, she entered and shut the door, placing her back against it. “Thank Heavens,” she muttered, and slid down the frame, coming to rest in a seated position with her knees in front of her.
Why was all of this so very hard? As the youngest, she had watched both her sisters marry and fantasized about her turn for a Season. But now that she was here, it was all so overwhelming! The gentlemen seemed to swarm about her, uttering the same platitudes. She could not even tell them apart, let alone get to know them. She had only been in London for a matter of weeks, but her mother chided her every day for not having secured a match.
If her brother hadn’t frittered away their fortune at the races, Charlotte could take her time to actually enjoy the Season. But it was only a matter of time now before news of her penury became known.
Charlotte startled. “Who’s there?” She strained her ears, but all she heard was the rustling of her skirts as she stood. The room was too dark to see anyone. She reached behind her, fumbling for the doorknob when the draperies were thrown aside. Moonlight flooded in, illuminating the silhouette of a great, hulking figure.
She gasped. “Pardon me! I hadn’t meant to intrude.” Her hand found the knob for the door, and she tugged on it, fear preventing her from turning her back on this giant of a man.
The figure beckoned her closer.
She shook her head in violent protest, though she had to take a step or two toward him to open the door. With the light from the corridor spilling in, she could see him point at himself and then the door, mimicking quitting the room.
His gesticulations reminded her of the old, deaf man from her village. “Pardon me, but are you mute?”
He opened his mouth as if to speak, then shrugged and nodded, before looking down.
There was something about the vulnerability of that shrug—or the way that he would not meet her eyes—that softened her alarm. Instead, she felt compelled to set him at ease. “Then I can hardly blame you for not having responded to my query. I am Charlotte Fletcher.”
“Sebastian Kehr,” he said, his voice soft and low.
“Oh!” He was definitely not mute, nor did his speech have that muffled quality of the hard of hearing, and if Charlotte wasn’t mistaken—which she very well might be—she was at the Kehr’s residence now. But then, shouldn’t he be out in the throng, hosting? Perhaps he was a reclusive distant cousin. She wanted to ask, but he began mumbling.
“Exc … Entsch … p-p-pardon m-m-me,” he said, rushing toward the door with a panicked look in his eyes.
As Charlotte stepped aside to let him pass, the light from the corridor illuminated his strong cheekbones and square jaw. The man fairly exuded rugged masculinity. She was suddenly disappointed to watch his broad shoulders retreat down the corridor.
Deciding to make good use of his sacrifice, she crossed to a large and rather comfortable looking chair by the window. A book and candle with a still-smoking wick lay on a table next to the chair. She picked up the slim volume and sat, noticing that, though the library itself was extremely frigid—what with it being December and not a single coal in the grate—the velvet of the chair was warm.
By the light of the moon, she inspected the book: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare. So, Mr. Kehr was not the brawny buffoon his stature and speech indicated?
Footsteps floated down the corridor toward her.
Charlotte, adept at hiding from overzealous suitors, started to shield herself behind the chair, but was stalled by the nasally voice of Mr. Henry Ascough, Elisabeth’s brother-in-law. “Miss Fletcher?” He called for her in a sing-song voice.
Charlotte sighed and exited the room, meeting him in the corridor. The man, amiable though he was, had an acute lack of social grace, so interacting with him often tried Charlotte’s patience.
“What were you doing in Kehr’s library?” he asked.
“In the dark?”
Apparently so. “I blew out the candle when I heard your voice.”
“Ah. But who would choose Shakespeare over dancing?” He studied her as if she were a rare specimen of a bird.
“I would.” And apparently, so would Mr. Kehr, though she would never drag his name into the conversation, incriminating them both.
Henry shook his head. “I can’t make heads nor tails out of a quarter of Shakespeare’s prose. Might as well be Greek.” He scratched the back of his neck. “Although, I understand Greek better, quite frankly.”
His eyes glossed over, and Charlotte coughed politely to regain his attention, which had a tendency to wander. “Has the cotillion ended?”
Henry startled and handed her a missive. “No. I am supposed to give you this. The footman said it was from your mother.”
Charlotte broke the wax seal and read the slanted scrawl: “A girl. You know what to do.” She swallowed past the lump in her throat. Her sister had not born the heir they’d all hoped for. Now, it was up to Charlotte to save the family from financial ruin. She needed to marry and marry well.
She tried to smile at the gentleman who had just inherited the Ascough fortune, leaving Elisabeth with nothing more than her dowry. Her mother’s message was cryptic enough to not be incriminating, but her previous instructions had been clear: If Elisabeth birthed a girl, Charlotte was supposed to use whatever means necessary to ensnare Henry, securing the Ascough fortune once more.
And now here she was, alone with him in the corridor where someone might happen upon them at any moment. The setting was exactly what her mother would have wished for, but Charlotte could not bring herself to act. She hated conflict, and the idea of even batting her lashes at a gentleman for the purpose of beguiling him nauseated her. She wanted to run away, not entrap the poor man. Besides, he was already courting someone else. It would be too cruel.
“Miss Fletcher? Are you well?”
“No, I don’t think I am. Would you take me home please? I need to see my sister.”
Long before Elisabeth was ready, she woke to the sound of Charlotte barreling into the room. “I can’t believe you sent me to that horrid ball instead of letting me attend you.”
Elisabeth adjusted the folds of her dressing gown so it covered her more fully. “I don’t want your attention now either.” Seeing the hurt look on her sister’s face, she added, “It’s been a long night, and I’d like to sleep.”
But Charlotte was not to be deterred. “If you had time to send for Mr. Bell, you most certainly could have sent for me. I am your sister after all.”
Elisabeth closed her eyes against this nonsensical remark and nestled back into her pillows. “Mr. Bell lives next door, Lottie. And it all happened rather quickly.”
The baby stirred and cried out.
Charlotte crossed to the bed, her demeanor softening once she spied the little bundle in Elisabeth’s arms. “Sorry. I hadn’t realized she was with you. Perhaps I should not have—”
“Barged in like Joan of Arc on her mission to Orleans?”
Charlotte folded her hands in front of her and bowed her head in a show of penitence. “I’m sorry to have woken her, but now that she is awake, can I hold her?”
Elisabeth handed the baby to her aunt, who rocked the infant, instantly calming her. “Oh, Lizzie. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful in all my life.”
“Her name is Lydia.”
Charlotte’s lower lip protruded into a pout. “I had hoped you might name her after her favorite auntie.”
“I’m afraid Anne is too common of a name,” Elisabeth teased.
“Oh, you wouldn’t dare!” Charlotte huffed. “Not when I shall be the most doting aunt ever to walk the earth. I’d much rather spend my time reading a book and holding this sweet little one than being snubbed on the ballroom floor.”
“You’ve never been snubbed in your life.”
Charlotte sunk into the chair and stuck her chin out defiantly. “Yes, I have. Listen to what Mr. Corbyn did.”
While she related her skewed view of events, Elisabeth successfully extrapolated the truth. “Charlotte! How could you have forgotten someone like Mr. Corbyn? His fortune puts the Ascough’s to the blush. Besides that, his glasses are as thick as my fist. One might think he would stand out.”
Charlotte only shrugged. “I had the same superficial conversation with him as I did with every other gentleman of my acquaintance. It’s not my fault he’s so boring.”
“Boring? What could be better than that?” Elisabeth asked with some asperity. “Boring gentlemen do not fritter away their fortunes nor abandon their wives to fight Napoleon,” as both her brother and husband had done, respectively.
Charlotte shrugged. “Perhaps there are worse things than being a bore. But don’t you think finding love would be infinitely preferable?”
Elisabeth didn’t bother to countenance the idea. With zero prospects, she wasn’t at liberty to even hope for love. Perhaps if she possessed Charlotte’s beauty … but though Elisabeth was tolerable enough to look at, she was no nonpareil.
A postpartum induced rage surprised the normally even-tempered Elisabeth when she considered Charlotte’s wanton waste of God-given abilities. “Was there no one at the ball sufficiently glorious to catch your notice?”
A wistful smile played about Charlotte’s lips. “There was one gentleman. Do you know Mr. Sebastian Kehr?”
Elisabeth sat up so she could see Charlotte’s face. “Yes, of course I know him. He is a particular friend of Henry’s. Why do you ask?”
“He was hiding in his library during the ball, reading Shakespeare.” She sighed. “Lizzie, I think he might be my soulmate.”
Elisabeth repressed the urge to roll her eyes and instead leaned back upon her pillows. “Soulmates don’t exist, Lottie. You—especially you—need to marry someone firmly grounded, and Mr. Kehr is not that person.”
Charlotte wrinkled her nose. “What makes you say that? Because he is inarticulate?”
“No. I would welcome a man capable of holding his tongue.” The heavens knew her husband never had. “My qualm with Mr. Kehr is that he has neither a profession nor ambition.”
Charlotte laughed. “The mark of a true gentleman.”
Elisabeth shook her head. “He is a younger son without an estate or the hope of an inheritance. He needs a profession of some sort.” When Charlotte opened her mouth to speak, Elisabeth preempted her. “I’m sure he is a very good type of person, but the fact remains that he lacks the capability to support a family, and therefore, there is no point in pursuing the acquaintance.”
Charlotte sighed. “I suppose you are right, Lizzie.” She rocked Lydia for a few minutes, which was all it took for Elisabeth to walk the line between wakefulness and sleep. Charlotte’s whispered question trembled through the room. “Lizzie? What will we do?”
Elisabeth answered without opening her eyes. “We marry money, Lottie, and hope it brings us happiness as well.” It hadn’t before, but she had to try again. This time, for Lydia.
“I suppose we must.” Charlotte consecrated their sacrifice with her tears.
April 1807-Five years before An Engagement of Sorts Begins
Father grunted when he saw me in buckskin breeches, but he didn’t object. “If you are coming, Anne, hurry up. We need to catch the vermin before they can wreak any more havoc.”
I grinned as I mounted, glad he was willing to ignore Mother’s edicts.
John yawned. “I'll lay you five to one the hounds can’t pick up any scent at all. It’s too wet.”
But the dogs already pulled on their leads, begging to be unleashed. Father released them and they began snooping around the chicken coop.
“I will take those odds and lay double or nothing that I am the first to reach the quarry,” I said.
John snorted. “First to be unseated, more like, but I accept your wager.” He shook his long, meaty finger at me. “But I warn you, Anne, you should have stayed in bed. You look like you could use the rest.” He yawned again, rubbing sleep from his eyes.
“Almost as much as you.”
My brother chuckled. “You may be right, at that. I hear the new vicar has brought a younger sister to live with him. We may both need to start looking presentable if we are to have another genteel family in the vicinity. And you will have to practice your curtsy.”
I laughed at the image of me curtsying. Mother had tried to teach Lizzie, Charlotte, and me how to become proper ladies, but I had proved a less than apt pupil. Not that John’s tutor ever had any difficulties with me. In fact, he often praised me for my excellence in French, Latin, and Geography. It wasn’t my fault John’s subjects were more interesting than Mother’s lessons in etiquette. She had threatened to hire a governess, but Father protected me, insisting that John’s tutor could teach us all we needed to know and more, at no extra expense.
A lone bay split the morning air; the hounds took off. I spurred my chestnut forward, but Father and John, mounted on the fastest horses, easily outstripped me over the open fields. The chill air stung my eyes, making them water, but I couldn’t risk slowing to wipe them; I kept an eye to the hounds.
When they reached the woods, the dogs disappeared into a thicket heavy with underbrush. Father veered onto a clear path to the left, obviously hoping to cut them off farther on. John veered right. I forced my horse straight into the thicket, jumping over hedges and dodging low hanging limbs. Branches scraped at my cheeks and sleeves, but I urged my chestnut onward. The baying hounds grew louder, and I spotted glimpses of red rushing through the wood.
My heart pounded in tandem with the horse’s hooves as we neared the fox. This was it. I would be first to the quarry, as I had said. Father would be so proud of me.
The ear-splitting baying quickly changed to snarls and barks as the dogs nipped at the fox’s heels. The vixen slipped under a rock, and the hounds barked maniacally, surrounding their prey. The lead dog reached his head into the den and pulled out the fox, shaking her back and forth like a rag doll. She howled, but the hound would not let go. Though I looked away, I could not keep from hearing the fox’s panicked sounds, its howling turning into a keening whine before it was silenced forever.
The exhilaration drained from my limbs, leaving a general sense of nausea in its wake. Perhaps Mother had been right; ladies did not belong on the hunt.
John arrived moments later and dismounted. He did his best to calm the hounds, but they were still too excited. “There must be some pups under the rock.” He pushed the dogs aside and tried to reach his hand in, but came up empty. He leaned over, struggling to move the stone. “Give me a hand, Anne.”
I dismounted and nudged past the hounds towards the large rock, trying to avoid touching the dog whose snout was matted with blood. Though we pulled with all our might, the stone would not budge.
Father joined us and threw his considerable bulk to the task, but the rock remained stationary. “John, have you tried reaching in already?”
“Yes, but my forearm gets stuck.”
Father turned to consider me with one hand on his hip. “Have you tried yet?”
“I don’t want to stick my hand in that dark hole. Who knows what may be lurking?”
His look brooked no empathy. “And I didn’t want my wife to bear me three useless girls, yet here we are. Make your skinny arms useful and see if there are any pups in there.”
I glared at Father. “It wasn’t my fault I was born a girl.”
His eyes softened. “You are not so bad, despite your gender. But don’t tell your mother I said so.”
I smiled. “Your secret is safe with me.” If Mother knew half the things he allowed me to get away with, she would have both our heads.
The hounds continued baying and Father nudged me. “Well, go on now.”
I did as I was told. At fourteen years of age, I stood as tall as most men but had yet to fill out my frame. My long arms fit easily into the space and I patted blindly around the leaves and dirt. My hand touched something that wriggled. I squeaked and pulled my arm out.
John laughed at me, but Father scowled. I steeled myself and reached in once more, this time extracting the most beautiful little pup I had ever seen. Covered in a downy fuzz, it yipped and cuddled into my hand, seeking my warmth.
Father grabbed the pup from me and promptly wrung its neck. Though I longed to protect the darling little creatures, we repeated the process until the whole litter had been snuffed out like candles. Father threw the last to the ground and wiped his hands on his buckskins. I dusted my hands together, but couldn’t wipe away my guilt.
He clapped me on the shoulder in what was surely intended as a friendly gesture. “Were you the first one here?”
“You did well today. You saved the rest of our chickens from these little ones.”
I nodded weakly, knowing I should feel pride at earning Father’s hard-to-earn praise. But looking at the bodies littering the ground, I couldn’t muster the sentiment. A wet nose prodded my hand, and I scratched the hound absently.
“You must smell like a vixen,” John teased, as the dogs crowded around me.
My hair fell over my eyes, and I tucked a stray lock behind my ear, noticing afterwards that my hand was slick with blood. I hastily wiped it on the leg of my breeches and pushed the dog’s bloody muzzle away from me. “Go away, you blunderbusses. I’m not a fox.”
John chuckled until I mounted his colt. “Hey!”
I stalled him with a finger in the air. “You laid me double or nothing. I get to ride your colt for the next ten days.”
“But . . . but . . .” John spluttered.
Father laughed at him. “Not much fun being bested by a girl, is it?” The dogs continued sniffing, but their telltale baying had stopped. “All right, then,” Father said, beginning to leash the hounds. “Let’s head home.”
John mounted my chestnut and spurred her forward. “Race you to the stables,” he called over his shoulder.
Even with his head start, he was no match for me on his colt. I virtually flew across the landscape, my heart lightening with every step. But when I arrived at the stable, there were extra horses. “Who are the visitors?” I asked the groom.
“Can’t rightly say, Miss. All’s I did was take their horses, but there were two ladies and a gentleman, that I know.”
I nodded and silently made my way around the house towards the servants’ entrance, hoping to evade Mother and her visitors. But the massive front door swung open right as I walked past. A shrill, feminine voice startled me. “Why, this must be your son, now.”
I jumped toward the shrubbery, intending to hide, but checked myself; hiding in the bushes would only punctuate my strange appearance. I steeled myself against Mother’sscathing disapproval, but there would be no way to avoid it now. I might as well meet my fate.
I turned around, but rather than meeting Mother’s cold blue eyes, I stared into the warm brown eyes of a gentleman hardly older than John. His lips twitched as he spoke. “Mama, I believe you are in error. It would appear the Fletchers have another daughter.”
I looked over the gentleman’s shoulder to see twin responses from the middle-aged woman and the girl who looked to be about my age, both with a gloved hand raised to cover their mouths.
“Anne, this is the new vicar, Mr. Skinner.” I didn’t have to look at Mother to hear the humiliation in her voice. “And his mother, Mrs. Skinner. And his sister, Miss Angel Skinner.”
The vicar bowed while his sister curtsied. Mrs. Skinner stared at me, her hand still frozen in front of her mouth. I attempted to curtsy.
“Are you hurt?” the vicar asked, concern lacing his voice.
I laughed aloud. “No. I’m just not accustomed to . . . um . . . well, curtseying.”
“I wasn’t referring to your awkward address. You have blood on you,” he said mirthlessly.
I looked down at the blood on my hand and wiped it again
on my breeches. “Not mine. The fox’s.”
“Well, then.” He cleared his throat. “I suppose that’s fine.”
“Fetch my smelling salts,” Mrs. Skinner said in a panicked voice.
The vicar turned and offered his arm to his mother. “I’m sure you’ll be fine in a moment,” he said as he led her towards the stables.
Miss Skinner approached me. “Mama usually faints at the sight of blood, so if you can believe it, this might be considered an improvement.”
“I have never caused anyone to faint at the sight of me before.”
Her dark brown eyes twinkled with mischief. “I should hope not. Have you really been hunting?”
“I think I’m going to enjoy living in the country,” she said decidedly. “Make sure to call at the vicarage often. I was afraid the country would bore me to Bedlam, but I can see that shall not be the case with you living only a quarter-mile off.” She smiled warmly and rushed to catch up with her mother.
“Angel, dear, you should not converse with the feral one.” Though several yards away, the shrillness of Mrs. Skinner’s voice carried her words quite clearly.
The feral one? My cheeks flamed and I turned to flee.
Mother grabbed my wrist before I could escape. “Anne, don’t think you will outrun your punishment.” Mother placed her free hand to her temple and massaged it in little circles. “No more, do you hear? If you slip into another pair of breeches and gallivant across the countryside like a ruffian, I will shoot your horse myself.”
“No!” I shrieked. “You wouldn’t.” But looking at the coldness in Mother’s eyes, I knew she would. She would shoot her in cold blood and never even feel a twinge of remorse. I shuddered.
“A lady does not raise her voice, nor talk back to her mother.”
“But I am not a Lady,” I said through gritted teeth. “And I have no desire to become one.”
Her grip tightened on my wrist. “You want people to call you feral? To faint at the sight of you? Look at yourself, Anne.” She released me and stepped back, appraising me from head to foot. “Blood on your face. Hair unkempt. Stained breeches and an ill-fitted coat.”
I looked down, mumbling. “John comes home like this most every day and you never lecture him for it.”
Mother grabbed my chin and forced me to look into her eyes. “John will have to run the estate someday. You will not. You will have to marry.”
“I don’t want to.” I tried to look down again, but Mother kept my chin forced up.
“I know. But your sisters do. And if you keep up this behavior, you will ruin their chances. Is that what you want?”
“Yes,” I lied. Of course I didn’t want to make Lizzie and Charlotte unhappy. But neither did I—
Mother slapped me across the face. Hard. My vision blurred, the world around me momentarily hazy.
“Starting now, Anne, you will become a lady, or else.”
I ran toward my room before she had the chance to elucidate the threat. Mother’s threats were never empty. Never. I pulled on my hair in frustration, only then realizing that I had little bits of dead leaves and branch tips caught in my mane. I fingered through it, then grabbed the brush off my vanity, catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror on the way.
My reflection pulled me up short. With fox blood on one cheek and a long scrape along the other, I looked positively feral, just as Mrs. Skinner had said. And I had run into a handsome vicar while in this state.
What must he have thought of me?
It was over a month before I was allowed out of the house again. Mother had secured a governess whose “accomplishments” amounted to nothing more than sewing stitches in neat little rows. How on earth that could ever be counted as an accomplishment, I would never understand. But eventually, Mother decided I was making progress and I was allowed the freedom to resume my morning rides.
“Where is my horse?” I asked, fiddling with the awkward layers of my brand new riding habit.
Father threw a side-saddle on a dappled grey mare. “I sold her and bought you this one instead.”
Anger billowed up inside me. I had not even been granted the chance to say goodbye to Harriet; now she was gone? Isucked in a breath, held it for the count of ten, then blew it out slowly, just like my new governess instructed.
Lands, but it actually helped.
I turned my attention to the dappled gray mare. I knew better than to look a gift horse in the mouth, though that was the first thing I did. Her yellow teeth had grown as long as my thumb, but she showed no signs of mistreatment.
Father scuffed the ground with his foot, avoiding my gaze. “I know she has none of the spirit you are used to, but Mother insisted I find you a docile mare.”
Docile. Obedient. Sweet. Mother struggled to cultivate those particular traits in me, so she’d mired me with a halfdead mare instead. “Well, let’s see how she rides.” With the groom’s assistance, I mounted the gentle horse and took her across the meadows to the south of our own Rushden Hall, testing out her trot and canter before breaking into a gallop. Though not fast, she did not hesitate when I urged her to jump over a fallen log.
I returned to the stables and dismounted, patting her grey coat. I could hear Father’s approach, but I didn’t turn to him. “She would be a good horse for Charlotte.” My little sister had never really taken to horses.
Father looked at me sternly. “Take her or leave her. It’s all the same to me. But either way, you are not allowed access to any of the other horses. Not anymore.”
“No. This horse and none other. And I’ll not be protecting you from your mother anymore. From now on, you are in her hands. Do you understand?”
He stared at me until I agreed.
“Good. Now,” he turned to the groom, “make sure all the stablehands know. Anyone who allows Anne to ride any horse other than this old mare will have to find other employment.”
I couldn’t really be mad at Father; it was Mother who had convinced him to take yet another freedom away from me. Little by little, piece by piece, I was learning what it was to become a lady. It meant smiling inanely, holding my tongue, and becoming a dead bore.
I mounted the horse again, spurring her into the copse of woods to the east. She might be the most docile of mares, but at least she was mine. I broke her into another gallop, pushing away my frustrations. When she ran fast enough, I could pretend I was still free.
August 1812-Two months before An Engagement of Sorts Begins
I watched Will’s shoulders flex as he shoved the paddle into the water, wondering at the attraction that drew my gaze. His small frame gave as little recommendation as did the freckles that paraded across the bridge of his nose. And yet, when he caught my glance and offered a tilted smile, I couldn’t refrain from returning it in kind.
I looked away when I noticed his sister’s scrutiny. While Angel and I talked openly about most everything under the sun, we had never broached the subject of the affection kindling between her brother and me. I sometimes wished she paid us as little heed as my siblings did: Charlotte sat inches away, but judging from the copy of Gulliver’s Travels that swallowed her face, she may as well have been in Lilliput, while John stubbornly argued that pineapple ice tastes better than parmesan ice, oblivious to our apathy.
Will tried to stop my brother’s monologue. “Yes John, pineapple ices are all well and good, but it seems unfair to regale our sisters with such talk when they have never been to Gunter’s and therefore cannot proffer an opinion.”
“Unfair? Poppycock. I’m helping them refine their palates so they can make fashionable choices when they go to London.” He turned to Angel. “Miss Skinner, I’m sure you will feel gratitude at being so well-informed when you take a Season.”
Will winced and Angel fidgeted with her bonnet’s ribbons, but she smiled nonetheless. “Yes, I’m sure I shall be very grateful to you indeed, should that auspicious day ever arrive.”
Poor Angel. The Skinners could not possibly finance a Season. But what Angel lacked in money, she more than made up for in tact.
I rebuked my brother since she was too polite to do so. “John, if you want Charlotte to do well in London, perhaps you could model how to engage in conversations that actually interest people or how to—”
John flicked his paddle at me, splashing scum infested waters on my face. I really should have premeditated my actions like Angel or Charlotte would have, but instead, I lunged for John’s paddle, intending to splash the putrid water on his face. He dodged and my momentum propelled me precariously close to the edge of the boat.
“No!” I wheeled my arms frantically. “No! No! No! Aaaah!” I squealed as I tumbled head-first into the frigid, fetid water.
I struggled to right myself, thrashing my arms and legs about, but my appendages could find no purchase. The water was too murky to see which way was up. I grew disoriented then began to panic. I would probably die here, a well-deserved testament to my own rash behaviour. But before I could meet my untimely demise, someone tugged me above the surface. I gasped for air then sputtered away the sour water that invaded my mouth and nose.
“Stop struggling,” Will said, straining to keep me afloat as I splashed about.
“There, now. Place your feet on the ground. It isn’t that deep.”
Looking at Will, I realized that he was not swimming at all, but stood with the water lapping at his shoulders. Humiliation threatened to paralyze me, but Will assisted with a hand wrapped firmly about my waist. He pressed me protectively into his side as I found my footing.
My brother laughed heartily at my plight and I pushed away from Will, embarrassed to be found in such an intimate position with the vicar. “Thank you for your assistance, Mr. Skinner, but you shouldn’t have. I’m sure I would have righted myself eventually.”
“It would certainly mark against me as a gentleman if I allowed you to drown in my presence.”
John was laughing so hard, he had to drape the paddles across his legs so he wouldn’t drop them. “You look like a drowned kitten,” he guffawed, and slapped his knee. “Serves you right, I’d say.”
My blood boiled. “If you hadn’t splashed water in my face—”
Will’s whisper stalled me. “Let’s not add any more uncouth words to your indecorous appearance, shall we?” His brown eyes sparkled with humor as he extricated a string of scum that dangled off the brim of my bonnet.
Perhaps John had the right of it by laughing at me; I must look outside of ridiculous with pond detritus drooping off my person, but I was too embarrassed to laugh. “Thank you, Mr. Skinner, for rescuing me. Now, would you be so kind as to assist me back into the boat?”
“Oh no you don’t,” Angel protested. “If you try tumbling in here, the whole thing is liable to capsize. And as lovely a figure as you cut, I would prefer to keep myself dry.” Angel, my one and only friend in life, denied me passage.
“She has a point, Miss Fletcher,” Will said. “I believe it would be best if we walk to the bank while John rows our sisters over to the dock.”
“I suppose I could do that,” John said, picking up the paddles and turning the boat toward the far shore.
Which left me alone with the vicar. I had never been alone with a gentleman before, though I had often dreamt of such scenarios. Nervous, embarrassed, and suddenly shy, I spun away from him and began trudging toward the bank with a series of uncoordinated shoves off the squishy bottom, half-swimming and half-walking. I lost my kid boots in the sludge. Knowing that they must already be ruined, I made no attempt to rescue them.
Will waded through the muck beside me. “John said you used to catch tadpoles in this pond when you were still in leading strings?”
“If only I still used leading strings,” I said. “Then you could have caught me before I capsized.”
“No. I was too far away. And with your proclivity for accidents, your leads probably would have snagged on some rock or crevice under the water.”
“A gruesome death,” I said, shivering. Once I waded close enough to shore that the water only came to my waist, I stood and began walking like a civilized human rather than a creature born of bogs and gothic lore.
“Don’t worry. Nothing in this world could ever sink you, Anne. I know you would fight tooth and nail to escape your confines.”
I stumbled over a tree branch, and Will reached out to steady me. He smiled but then looked quickly away, muttering, “Even if your only confine is a transparent dress.”
What? I looked down self-consciously.
Oh. Oh no! The delicate linen of my morning dress was all but transparent; I may as well have stood before the vicar in nothing more than my stays. I dropped back into the water, hunched on my heels, and inched away from Will. “Do you think you could fetch me a shawl?”
He laughed. “You look like a crab scuttling about.”
I probably did, in more ways than one. My face, for example, felt as red-hot as a boiled lobster. “Or a blanket?” I asked lamely.
He surveyed my predicament with one hand on his hip, his lopsided smile a little too bright. The next thing I knew, he swept me off my feet. Literally. I found myself cradled in his arms, looking into his variegated eyes that seemed to flicker in the sunshine like fire. But then he tripped, and we both fell forward.
I was thrust supine into the water, the coolness extinguishing the flame from my cheeks. I righted myself but remained crouched, afraid of further exposure.
“I didn’t realize you would be such a heavy burden,” Will muttered, straitening and rubbing his back.
I tried to ignore the insult, but fury and embarrassment warred too strongly. Yes, I was both tall and broad for my gender, but he was a midget of a man. “Perhaps you should refrain from attempting gallantries beyond your strength, dumping me into the water, then blaming your weakness on me.” My chattering teeth undermined the vehemence of my voice.
He glared at me, all his previous humor eradicated. “You are exasperating, you know. Just what am I going to do with you?”
The question was a weighty one. For the past four years, he had been my vicar, as upstanding a member of the community as ever there was. And of course, he was also the older brother of the friend whom I loved like a sister. That made him like a brother, of sorts. But lately? There was something more, some fragile, tremulous thing between us, and I did not know what to make of it. What was he going to do with me indeed? “I suppose you could give me your coat.”
He tried shrugging out of it, but the sodden fabric, form-fitting even when dry, remained plastered to his arms.
I reached a hand toward his cuff and gave it a slight tug, accidentally brushing his hand in the process.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Will jerked his hand away from mine.
“I was attempting to help you.”
His eyebrows lowered, hooding his glare. “The last thing I need is to be undressed by a girl who looks no better than a street walker. I’m a vicar, you know. I’ve a reputation to maintain.”
“A street walker!” I spluttered. “How dare you call me such a thing? I fell in a lake; that doesn’t make me a prostitute. I have a reputation to maintain as well, you know.”
He snorted. “Yes, and what a reputation it is.” His voice began to rise. “If you premeditated even a small portion of your words and actions . . .” But he did not finish his statement. He took a deep breath and then tried again at a normal volume. “As a clergyman, it’s my duty to act . . .” But he didn’t finish that thought either, running his hand through his hair instead. Under his breath, he muttered, “Raddlepated chit.”
Well. I supposed I could forget about whatever tenuous attraction I had begun to feel between us. It was certainly not there now. I stood to my full height, an inch or two taller than he. If he wasn’t going to fetch me a shawl or allow me to help him with his coat, then I shouldn’t be the one to blame for my appearance. I walked to the shore with my head held high. I wouldn’t be caught dead scuttling around in the mud just to garner his unattainable approval.
When I reached the shore, I stripped off my soaked gloves and bonnet, flinging them both onto the rocky ground.
“I’m sorry, Anne,” Will’s voice whispered in my ear.
I startled at his unexpected nearness, back-handing him purely from instinct.
He yelled an indecipherable explitive.
What had I done? I whirled around to survey the damage.
He flinched as if I was going to box his ears once more.
“I’m so sorry. I hadn’t even heard your approach, and my hand came up of it’s own accord, I swear.”
He prodded his mouth gingerly, then scrunched up his nose and wiggled it as if he needed to sneeze. “That was just instinct?”
“Yes. I’m so sorry,” I repeated, not knowing what else to say. I had hit him quite hard, hard enough that my knuckles began to throb. I shook the pain from my hand.
Will grimaced. “I shall have to remember your uncanny reflexes in the future, then.” His top lip began swelling.
I stretched my hand towards his mouth but stopped short, afraid of how he might respond to the overly familiar gesture.
His fingers found mine and he pulled my hand towards his lips, brushing a kiss across my knuckles. “Your hands are like ice.” He took my other hand in his as well, pressing my palms together then chafing them between his.
I pulled away, uncertain, unsure. Yes, I respected Will. Admired him. I had even been flattered at his growing attention. But now that we were here together, alone? It felt wrong. I turned away from him, and looked out over the pond that looked too placid in comparison to all the emotions brewing inside me. “You were right, Will. If only I’d utilized the tiniest portion of foresight, I could have prevented this situation which threatens both our reputations. But try as I might, my actions constantly circumvent my brain. I’m too impetuous.” He didn’t respond and I couldn’t look at him, afraid of both a frank agreement and an adoring denial.
I heard him walk away, but when I looked over my shoulder, he had only removed himself to a massive wedge shaped rock that seemed to collect the sunlight. I had to squint to notice that Will had succeeded in removing his coat and reclined slightly on the surface of the stone. “Come, Anne, your teeth are chattering uncontrollably. Feel how warm this rock is.”
But I no longer held any desire to be alone with him, especially not in my bedraggled state with my dress clinging to my legs.
After a time, he walked
back toward me, “I’m coming behind you to give you my coat, Anne. Please don’t hit me again.”
I chuckled, turning to him.
Oh. Oh dear. He had succeeded in removing not only his coat but his waistcoat and cravat as well. His wet shirt clung to his torso and I could easily spy masses of dark chest hair teeming under the surface like moulded cheese under a too long unattended cheesecloth.
I stared at the chest hair that sprouted out of the open V of his shirt. That was . . . ahem . . . a bit nauseating. I woodenly took his coat from him. I tried to slide my arms in, but they were too chubby fit into his narrow, form-fitting sleeves.
Great. I pulled the fabric back off and draped it over my shoulders, grateful that at least it provided a bit of cover.
But then I realized that Will was staring at me with a softness in his eyes that I couldn’t summon. He leaned toward me, staring at my mouth, only a breath away.
But I couldn’t kiss him. I just couldn’t. The very thought turned my stomach. I spun back to view the lake. “Are you not uncomfortable to be alone with me in your shirtsleeves?”
I could feel his gaze upon me and I could only imagine what a figure I cut as my dress clung mercilessly to every curve. “No, Anne. Spending time with you is as comfortable as wearing a coat to get me through a chilly night, and I am just as loathe to have to part with you when the time comes.” He grasped the fabric that draped over my shoulder, rubbing it between his fingers.
But his coat was not warm now. It hung limply, wet, cold, and smothering. His affection for me fit about as well as his coat did. I wanted nothing more than to shrug out of it, to shrug him off, but didn’t know how to do so without hurting him.
Eventually he said, “I’ll leave you now, but I’ll send Angel and Charlotte to you with a shawl or blanket.” He took my hand in his and I knew he wanted me to turn towards him, but I refused, so he placed a kiss on the back of my hand. “And don’t fret. I’ll never allow any harm to come to you or your reputation. I promise.”
“Thank you.” I did not turn to acknowledge the chivalrous remark or to see the hurt my disinterest had caused, but continued to stare at the lake. A small flock of geese had settled upon it and ducked their heads in the water, feeding on the pond’s vegetation.
Once I was sure Will had truly left, I turned towards the large rock, warming myself by leaning upon it, just as Will had suggested. The heat felt good upon my back and some of the ill ease I’d felt dissipated along with my shivers. Eventually, I climbed upon the rock and spread out to enjoy as much sun as possible.
Angel’s words woke me. “You shouldn’t lay in the sun like that, you know. You’ll freckle.”
I sat up, hugging my knees to my chin and hiding my naked ankles. My dress had begun to dry but still stood thick with mud. “I’d hardly list my sun exposure as the worst of today’s solecisms.”
Charlotte laughed, handing me a coarse wool blanket that smelled heavily of the stables. “Yes, well, you shouldn’t have fallen into the water either, but we assumed you’d already reached that conclusion. Of course, it did grant you a private audience with Mr. Skinner, so perhaps it wasn’t all that bad.” She settled onto the rock next to me.
I gaped at her, surprised that she decided to broach the subject which had heretofore been taboo.
“What did you two talk about?” Angel asked, settling down on the other side of me.
“Did he say anything romantic?” Charlotte asked. She no doubt hoped for a love story which would rival those of her novels.
I snorted. “Well, he did compare me to a coat.”
“A coat?” Angel asked, baffled.
“He said that spending time with me was like wearing an overcoat on a cold winter’s night, and he was just as loathe to part with me when the time came.”
Charlotte sighed. “What response did you give?”
Had I responded at all? No, he had walked away from me. “I gave none.”
Charlotte scolded. “You unromantic monster! How could you say nothing when he was as good as declaring for you?”
“Declaring for me? He declared me to be a coat. He wants to wear me like an article of clothing.”
“It’s romantic,” Angel said.
Charlotte, the authority on romance, nodded eagerly.
“Is it really?” I thought romantic statements would make me swoon and fill me with desire. But Will’s attention had morphed from pleasant to uncomfortable to nauseating.
Thus our strange ritual began like a carefully planned dance. He advanced. I retreated. Always circling one another, never stating our truths.
I thought I might return his affection, but now I knew that I loved him as a brother and could never give him more of my heart than that. I doubted I would ever give my heart to anyone. No. It was mine. And it would stay mine forever.
October 1812-One week before An Engagement of Sorts begins
I leaned forwards and patted Buttercup’s dappled grey coat, coaxing her to quicken her pace, but the old mare couldn’t be bothered.
Angel slowed until I caught up. “It’s a good thing Buttercup tires easily. If she was more spirited, you would probably force her through the woods like a lunatic fleeing Bedlam.”
I harrumphed. “I just exercise her enough to keep her healthy. Without me, Buttercup probably would have lost the will to live years ago.” She was the most docile, gentle-mannered, obedient creature imaginable. Mother struggled to cultivate those particular traits in me, so she mired me with a half-dead mare instead.
“How have you enjoyed hosting John’s hunting party?” Angel asked. “Mr. Smith is quite handsome.”
I looked back at the groom to ensure he was not within earshot. “If Mr. Smith steals a glance down my bodice one more time, I shall have to find some way to accidentally stab him with my embroidery needle.”
Angel winced. “I’m sorry, Anne. That sounds terrible.”
“And as if his leering weren’t enough, he constantly plies me with innuendos.”
“How can John abide him?”
“You know my brother,” I said. “He is not exactly the best study of character. And Mr. Smith has this way of smiling so innocently, the rest of my family is ignorant of his ungentlemanly ways.” I shivered.
Angel reached out and placed a gloved hand on my arm. “You should tell your Father about Mr. Smith.”
I looked up at the coalescing clouds as I gathered my thoughts. “I’ve thought about it, but Father and John are too hot-headed. What if they demanded a duel? And Mother would find some way to blame me for his attentions. You know how everything is always my fault.”
I attempted to change the subject. “Are you going to be attending the Hinwick Ball?”
She nodded. “And I hear the Orlebars are hosting a large hunting party. Women are said to be scarce. Perhaps you shall find your perfect beau there.”
I snorted. “You know as well as I that I have no intention of ever marrying.”
Angel smiled mischievously. “Then I dare you to wear breeches to the Hinwick ball. You do cut a particularly handsome profile in those breeches.”
One time. She had seen me wear breeches one time, and she still would not let me live it down. “If you ever rode to hounds you would understand why I snuck out of the house in those trousers. Its impossible to jump over fallen logs and gates on a side-saddle.”
Angel tossed a wicked grin over her shoulder as she spurred her filly into a trot.
We rode the rest of the way to Widow Moulton’s house in silence. The smell of chimney smoke wafted on the autumnal breeze, and I flipped the collar of my riding habit up, providing me with a little more warmth.
We stopped in front of a small cottage in desperate need of whitewashing. Price helped us dismount, handed me the gingham-lined charity basket, then took Buttercup’s reins.
Angel rapped on the door with a sense of confidence I struggled to muster.
Charity calls always made me nervous. Invariably, I would say or do something wrong.
But as the vicar’s sister, Angel had practiced and mastered the art of the charity visit. I just needed to follow her lead. I could do that. At least Mother wasn’t here to criticize my every move.
As soon as Mrs. Moulton opened the narrow door, sounds of rowdy children assailed us.
I looked at Mrs. Moulton in surprise. I had expected her to be older. Much older. She looked hardly a day over thirty.
Mrs. Moulton ushered us in, then, with a slotted spoon in one hand and the other on her hip, said, “James. John. Tommy. Stop your caterwauling or you’ll feel my wrath.” She shook her spoon threateningly, but the matching grins on the urchin’s faces indicated that Mrs. Moulton would not be enacting her threats.
The eldest boy approached Angel. “Have you brought us sweets?”
“Such naughty presumptions, James. When have I ever been known to bring sweets?” Angel winked at me. She had obviously visited the Moultons many times, even though Mr. Moulton died just last month.
“How old are you, James?” I asked.
“Be turnin’ sev’n soon.” Seven? He looked to be four or five, just a scrawny little whip of a thing.
A grubby hand tugged on the skirt of my riding dress. “Treats?” the middle child asked hopefully.
I looked to Angel for help, but she turned away from me to hug Mrs. Moulton. “How old are your brothers, James?” I asked.
“Four n’ one.”
Was that old enough? “I’ve brought almond biscuits, but you may only have one if your mother agrees.”
Mrs. Moulton nodded and I sighed inwardly. For once, I had said something right. I handed out the treats to the two oldest and approached the youngest who was still in leading strings and tied to the leg of the table. He reached for me, but I hesitated. Did he even have teeth? It would be just like me to hand out something an infant could choke on. I gave the biscuit to Mrs. Moulton just to be safe.
Mrs. Moulton gave him the treat before untying him and handing him to James. “Go outside now and don’t come back in until the Misses are done with their visit.”
The boys needed no urging, and all three escaped with their booty.
Mrs. Moulton sighed. “How I ever get anything done with those three underfoot, I shall never know.”
I had been wondering the same thing. They were too young to work, and Mrs. Moulton would never be able to take care of them and put in a day’s hard labor in the fields.
I placed my basket on the table. Widow Moulton smiled and thanked me, but I could tell from the press of her lips that she hated accepting charity.
Mrs. Moulton retrieved two stools from somewhere and brought them out for us to sit on, swiping them clean with her apron. I eyed the stools dubiously.
Angel plopped down without hesitation, however, so I brushed my fears aside and sat. The stool felt sturdier than it looked.
“Miss Fletcher, it’s a pleasure to see you.” Mrs. Moulton said graciously. In truth, I should have visited her sooner.
“Do you have any family in town, Mrs. Moulton?” I asked.
“Sarah, if you please ma’am. And, yes, my sister Anne Title.”
“The miller’s wife. Will you and the boys be able to move in with them?” I was proud of myself for knowing the names of the miller and his wife. Maybe I wouldn’t make a bungle of this particular visit.
“They’ve promised to do what they can, but can’t force myself on them, what with their own ‘uns to look after. They’ve six bairns.”
“Bears?” I whispered to Angel, hoping she could interpret; Widow Moulton’s accent was too thick to translate into serviceable English.
“Children,” Angel whispered back. She allowed her eyes to glance towards heaven and gave a hefty sigh, literally praying for patience. She did that often in my presence.
Mrs. Moulton glanced self-consciously at her hands; my whispering had unnerved her. Perhaps she had heard me and felt ashamed for using the terms “bairns” instead of “children.” Drats. Faux pas number one.
“If the Titles can’t tend your children, then perhaps you will move to the workhouse?” She would be provided with food, lodgings, and someone to keep an eye on the children while she worked.
But Sarah looked appalled at the notion, “I’ll not have my chilluns raised in some workhouse, not while I can help it.” She was obviously offended.
Faux pas number two.
“Sarah is a lacemaker,” Angel said.
Oh. That was much better than having to work in the fields. “May I see some of your lace?” If it was any good, I could purchase some.
I’m not sure what I had expected from this young widow in the dingy, cramped cottage, but when she pulled a heavy chest out of a hidden cubby and showed us some of the pieces she had made, I was flummoxed. Yards of handmade bobbin lace in all sorts of patterns were passed reverently from her fingertips to mine. I had no idea such caliber workmanship could emanate from this shoddy workshop. Not even at the milliners and mantua makers in Northampton had I seen lace of such delicacy and precision.
“Extraordinary. How is this made?” I handed the lace back to her reverently.
Sarah smiled and brought over a pillow that looked like a porcupine caught in a spider’s web with pins wrestling to free themselves of the superfluous threads. The other side of the porcupine was spitting out a web of lace, only a few inches long.
“Just started a new pattern. The pins ‘old the threads where they need to lie while the bobbins ‘elp weave the thread in ‘n’ out.”
“Among the genteel, ladies are considered accomplished for being able to set a neat stitch; you put us all to the blush. How much would you sell this length for, Sarah?
“That’s nine yards there. The agent’d give me a pound for it.”
Just a pound for nine yards of lace? It would sell in the Northamptonshire shops for twice that sum, at least. “Would you be interested in selling to me directly? I could always use some lace to trim my dresses.”
Angel nudged me. “You will need a lot of lace if you plan on trimming your ample decolettage,” she whispered.
I glared at her. “I need it for my hemline, thank you very much. I keep growing taller, it seems.”
Mrs. Moulton’s eyes grew wide; I was already taller than her late husband and most of my male acquaintances. It was one of the many reasons Mother had long ago labeled me hopelessly destined for spinsterhood.
“I’ll buy it for two pounds.”
“I said I’d ruther not be ‘ceptin charity just yet,” Sarah said quietly, though her scarlet cheeks spoke loudly enough. Lud, but I had managed to offend her again.
I looked at Angel for help but she shook her head at me and quirked a corner of her mouth up in an approximation of a smile; she expected me to bail myself out of my own mess.
“Sarah, your lace easily outclasses the best of laces that sell for a pound a yard. I’m not offering you charity but am selfishly looking forward to trimming a dress of mine rather on the cheap.”
Sarah remained dubious, so Angel added, “If Miss Fletcher claims selfishness, I would not doubt her motives.”
I glared at Angel again. She could be as insufferable as my own sisters at times.
Hesitantly, Mrs. Moulton agreed.
“Will you show me all your patterns?”
She shrugged. “I only have these patterns today.” She handed me three different lengths of fabric.
I narrowed my eyes to inspect the intricate patterns. Two held floral designs but the third was made of diamond shapes. Or were those squares on point?
Mrs. Moulton handed me a candle and I held it close to the pattern. Yes, diamonds. That would go perfectly with my Ruby necklace and diamond earrings. Their patterns were nearly identical. In fact, if I followed Angel’s advice and added some to my decolletage . . .
The cheap tallow candle spluttered, throwing acrid smoke up my nostrils. I hastily blew on the wick, but the candle did not blow out, retaliating by peppering my face with hot wax.
Stunned, I dropped the candle . . . and the lace.
The lace ignited like a flame-thirsty wick, and in seconds, all three patterns were ablaze.
Mrs. Moulton screamed and pushed me out of the way. She took off her shawl, threw it over the flame, and stomped on it.
I stared, still stunned, long after the fire was extinguished.
I had just used a widow’s livelihood as kindling.
This had to have been the least charitable “charity” visit in all of the human race. How could I have done this?
Angel lifted the remnants of the shawl. Ash lay upon the carpet in a delicate patterns, like a snake that had shed its skin.
“Well, I suppose I shall be buying all three spools, then.”
Mrs. Moulton’s head whipped towards me. “What good’ll it do you?”
“Mrs. Moulton,” I said firmly. “I just burned a hole in your carpet. How many hours will you need to work in order to buy another one?”
She looked at me gravely, but did not answer.
That’s what I thought. I had come to offer charity, not destroy a widow’s livelihood.
“Besides, I was just telling Angel I had the need for a rug with a hole in the middle, wasn’t I?”
Angel replied without skipping a beat. “Yes, to make room for the dollhouse.”
A dollhouse? Really? “Yes, we shall have to have your boys up to Rushden Hall to see the dollhouse in the nursery. It’s for my sister Lizzy’s child. You know she’s expecting.”
Mrs. Moulton looked between the two of us with a sense of bewilderment and murmured a congratulations.
“So ten pounds total for the lace, the carpet, and your shawl. Would you mind keeping the rug until my brother is ready to build the dollhouse? It would be so very kind of you.”
She nodded weakly.
I smiled, glad she was still too shocked at my capacity for destruction to be offended at my more than generous offer, especially considering that I would never collect on her dirty old rug with barely singed fibers.
Still, I would have to beg Father for the money.
Mother would have my head.
“I shall send the groom over with the money later today.”
She wrung her hands together.
“I’m so sorry.”
She started to cry. Lud. First, her husband died, and now I set her parlor aflame. I vowed to never attend another charity visit ever again.
Angel and I left as expeditiously as possible.
After we had mounted, and begun our trek back, Angel smiled at me. “That was very generous of you.”
I scoffed. “Yes. Very generous to burn down a widow’s home.”
“Ten pounds is more than she will make in a month. Don’t be surprised if she builds a little shrine to St. Anne.”
I urged Buttercup to a trot. I didn’t want to hear Angel make excuses for me. Even though I promised to pay for the damages, I was still appalled at my own reckless behaviour. Who goes around setting fire to a widow’s parlor?
Me. That’s who. Anne Fletcher the Destroyer.
When I arrived home, the butler informed me that Mr. Skinner was waiting for me in the parlor.
Lud, what did he want? I handed Weatherby my bonnet before heading towards the parlor. Will sat on the sofa, nervously tapping his feet. “What’s the matter? You seem nervous.”
He laughed in a strained voice. “Me? Nervous?”
Strange. He couldn’t have possibly heard what I’d done yet. Not if he was waiting here for me.
I plopped down on the sofa next to him. “I just went with your sister to visit Widow Moulton, and you’ll never believe what happened.”
Will placed his hand on mine. I snapped my eyes to his. In the five years we had known eachother, he had never touched me like that.
“Anne, I have a deep regard for you.”
What? No, oh no. He couldn’t possibly be serious.
Me? Become the vicar’s wife? Begin making daily charity calls?
I bit my lip to keep from laughing in his face.
Engagement of Errors
No one answered, but that was only because Mr. Sebastian Kehr, who sat in the corner of the library, had no desire to be discovered. He had already snuffed his candle when he heard the soft shuffling of footsteps.
“Thank Heavens,” the young woman said as she came in and shut the door behind her. Her small form slid down the door frame and Mr. Kehr heard the tell-tale sniffling that foretold a fit of sobs.
Oh dear. What was he to do? He should make his presence known, for surely this female would not have shut herself in if she knew she was in the presence of a gentleman. But now, as always, the words refused to form.
It wasn’t that Mr. Kehr was dumb. No. Far from it, in fact. It was simply that in the presence of females, his tongue absolutely refused to function properly. The prettier the female, the worse were his nerves. And though he had only spied the lady’s silhouette before she closed the door and encased them both in blackness, the damage had been done. From the grace of her movements, he already knew she was a beauty.
Sebastian spoke several languages fluently, but in her presence, he couldn’t iterate a word in any of them. Curse his tongue and her along with it! But his hands were not nearly as clumsy as his mouth. He clapped his book shut.
She startled. “Who’s there?” From the rustling of her skirts, he knew she now stood.
Sebastian crossed to the window, throwing the draperies to the side. Light flooded in, and he turned to view his tormentor.
By the light of the pale moon, she looked like a nymph, with eyes far too large and luminescent to be anything other than fey, set in a heart shaped face. A beauty indeed.
“I beg your pardon,” she said, as she dashed the tears from her eyes. “I had not meant to intrude.” Her lip quivered and she made to leave.
Sebastian, wanting to set her at ease, smiled and beckoned her back in.
She shook her head violently.
He smiled again, pointed once at her, motioned her towards the chair, shoved his thumb at his own chest, and mimicked him quitting the room.
He could see realization as it dawned over her beautiful face. “You are mute.”
Only sometimes. It hurt to hear her assessment, but he did not contradict her. In this instance, that was fair enough. He shrugged.
“Then I can hardly blame you for not having responded to my query. I am Charlotte Fletcher.”
“Sebastian Kehr,” he managed, then bowed. Speaking his own name was feasible, though his tongue felt thick in his mouth. He stared at his toes, unwilling to meet her eyes. “Entsch. . . exc . .. pardon me,” he said once he’d chosen the right language. He walked to the door, accidentally making eye contact with Miss Fletcher. Her eyes grew wide at his approach, fear evident.
Sebastian winced. Though his height and bulk caused him to tower over ladies, he was the last man on earth capable of harming one of them. Why couldn’t they sense that? Did his size and inarticulate nature automatically relegate him to nothing more than a monster?
He stormed past Miss Fletcher and down the corridor. Now that his sanctuary had been invaded, he might as well round up a few friends to play cards with him. Hopefully, his parents wouldn’t spot him and force him into feminine company.
Blasted fey-blessed chit.
Engagement of Errors
The Christening- Elisabeth's perspective
The consequences of Prime Minister Perceval’s assassination were not insignificant. For example, while Perceval strongly opposed the slave trade, Lord Liverpool’s administration turned a blind eye to the problem. Perceval had also insisted on keeping Wellington’s army on the field, eventually turning the tide of the Napoleonic war in England’s favor.
But Mrs. Fletcher only took an interest in current affairs insomuch as they effected her personally. And since she had nought to do with the slave trade, she kept herself ignorant of those sordid details. Keeping Wellington on the field, however, had created a widow of her daughter, and she was quick to misappropriate the blame.
While traveling to St. James for Elisabeth’s churching, Mrs. Fletcher imparted her ignorant views to her daughters. “If only someone would have thought to assassinate the man sooner, Elisabeth would not be a widow.”
“Mother!” Charlotte exclaimed.
The coach hit a particularly large bump, and Lydia startled in her mother’s arms. Elisabeth rocked her gently while attempting to impart a less solipsistic view to her mother. “If it weren’t for Wellington and the British soldiers, perhaps Napoleon would have razed the countryside here just as well as he did on the Peninsula. You might well have been the one made a widow when Rushden Hall was ransacked.”
When Mrs. Fletcher pouted, she looked disconcertingly like Charlotte. And though she agreed with Elisabeth’s logic, she would never say so, believing that expressing approval would somehow spoil her daughter’s sound mind. “At least Perceval’s death lengthened the Parliamentary Season,” she conceded.
Charlotte’s brow wrinkled. “It did?”
“Yes,” Mrs. Fletcher said. “Normally they don’t meet until after Easter.”
Elisabeth waited for her mother to say more before she corrected her with the utmost tact. “It’s true. Mayfair is usually deserted until Spring, when Parliament begins and the great Lords and Ladies descend upon their townhouses. Thanks to November’s general election, all the peerage was called to London early, and the majority have decided to stay for the winter.”
Mrs. Fletcher nodded, as if that was exactly what she had said, which, of course, it wasn’t. “The lengthened Season means that the two of you can marry before everyone leaves for the summer.”
Elisabeth and Charlotte exchanged worried glances. Though Elisabeth had cut her confinement short so she could begin socializing again, she knew she would still be hard-pressed to find a suitable match in such a short time.
Though Mrs. Fletcher noticed their concern, she went about alleviating it in exactly the wrong way. “If Anne—of all people—could meet a man of Mr. Paling’s standing and marry him in two months time, I expect the two of you shall not have any trouble.”
Neither Elisabeth nor Charlotte attempted to defend their sister. Though Anne was charming, in her own way, her willfulness had always placed her in her mother’s black books; they had long ago stopped trying to change that. But comparing the girls to their sister only served to make both of them feel more anxious, for they pitted their own shortcomings against Anne’s strengths.
Mrs. Fletcher stopped haranguing them when they arrived at St. James and entered through the heavy wooden doors.
Though especially frigid today, sunshine filtered through the stained glass windows, casting fragmented rainbows across the whitewashed walls.
Charlotte gasped and threw her head back to take it all in.
“Quite stunning, isn’t it?” Elisabeth said. “It’s where James and I were married.”
“I would like to have been there,” Charlotte said wistfully. Their mother, who had accompanied Elisabeth into town for the Season, was the only one from the family in attendance. “I’m sure you made a striking bride. Were there rainbows dancing about then as well?”
Elisabeth’s eyes gave a far-off look, but Mrs. Fletcher responded, “No. It was raining that day.”
Charlotte shivered, wondering if the foul weather had been a sign from the Heavens of her sister’s ill-fated marriage. Perhaps if she had married for love, the sun would not have been shrouded in its mourning attire and rainbows would have danced in celebration?
Mrs. Fletcher’s ill-timed words compounded her worries. “I hope you and Mr. Ascough will both marry here as well.”
Charlotte suppressed the urge to scoff. In the three weeks since Lydia had been born, Charlotte had tried—quite unsuccessfully—to feel something other than irritation when conversing with Henry. And though she had resigned herself to marrying someone with money, surely she could at least find a man she could respect?
But Mrs. Fletcher would not care for such arguments. Luckily, Charlotte knew how to handle her mother’s heavy-handedness. It was time. She smiled innocently. “But I thought the Ascoughs were new money? Surely you would want me to marry better than that?”
Mrs. Fletcher blinked rapidly in the face of her suggestion. “New money is better than no money at all.”
“Yes, I quite agree,” Charlotte said with a smile. “And if Mr. Ascough buys a house in the country and officially joins the gentry, I’m sure he will be a superb match. But without an estate to his name, I’m afraid others shall view him as nothing more than an ill-mannered brute from the merchant class.”
Elisabeth hated hearing her in-laws so maligned. “The Ascoughs are hardly heathens. Why, you’ve heard the Misses Ascough play the piano-forte. They are among some of the most accomplished ladies of our acquaintance.”
Charlotte tilted her head, considering her sister. “They are refined, to be sure. I only wish Mr. Henry Ascough could boast the same amount of refinement as they do. You must admit he lacks their polish.”
How could anyone refute such a truthful statement? Henry was about as polished as a rusty nail.
Charlotte was met with silence. She sighed. “It certainly isn’t his fault that, in spite of his education, he remains aloof to society’s machinations. He needs a good wife to take him by the reins and lead him along. It’s a pity Lizzie can’t marry him, for she is just the type whom Mr. Ascough needs. If it weren’t for those silly consanguinity laws, she would have an easy way out of her troubles, for he is no more her brother than he is mine.”
Again, Elisabeth could not refute Charlotte’s claim. “I would marry him in a trice, social ineptitudes and all, since it would provide Lydia with security. And I wish the same for you, Lottie.” Her brow furrowed. “But make sure the marriage settlement provides more for you than just your dowry in case of his untimely demise.”
Mrs. Fletcher crossed herself. “Who could possibly have known that such a hale young man would die so young? Such a waste. Such a pity.” She sighed. “But there is nothing for it now, is there? Charlotte, dear, do you really think you might be able to make an even better match than Mr. Ascough?”
Charlotte nodded shyly.
“Well then,” Mrs. Fletcher narrowed her calculating eyes. “I invite you to try.”
Charlotte tilted her head like a puppy begging for table scraps. “And you will not push me towards Mr. Ascough in the meanwhile?”
Her mother nodded.
Charlotte, sensing her leash loosen somewhat, kissed her mother’s cheek. “I promise to find the best match possible.” Someone she could at the very least respect. “Thank you.”
Though Mrs. Fletcher was usually as prickly as a thistle, she had a soft spot for her youngest daughter. Everyone did, really. Mrs. Fletcher patted her cheek fondly.
When Elisabeth’s in-laws arrived, Mr. Peabody, the curate, came out of the vestry to speak with them.
Henry fiddled with his cravat. “I’ve never been to one of these before. I’m a bit nervous,” he said, his nasally voice resonating a little too well through the nearly empty church.
Mr. Peabody smiled. “As the godparent, your part is simple. After Elisabeth’s vows, you promise to guide the child spiritually. And then we do the Christening.”
Elisabeth passed the sleeping baby, cocooned in blankets to ward away the January chill, into Charlotte’s arms. Only Lydia’s eyes and nose could be seen. Charlotte pulled the blanket down a smidge so Lydia’s mouth was unobstructed. Though still asleep, her lips moved silently, sucking on the insides of her cheeks.
Mr. Peabody began Elisabeth’s churching, his voice echoing about the wooden pews. “For as much as it hath pleased Almighty God of his goodness to give you safe deliverance, and hath preserved you in the great danger of childbirth; you shall therefore give hearty thanks to God.”
Elisabeth’s steady voice offered the anticipated response. “I am well pleased that the Lord hath heard the voice of my prayer. The snares of death compassed me round; and the pains of hell got hold upon me.”
Charlotte, startled at the morbidity of the words, suddenly felt grateful to have missed the birth. She glanced at the beautiful babe in her arms and wondered if death and the pains of hell always preceded miracles.
The curate then asked that the godparents step forward. Charlotte did so.
After some prodding from his mother, Henry joined her. “Sorry. I was wool-gathering,” he whispered to Charlotte.
Wool-gathering. If only the man could sell all the wool his head had gathered, he could make his own fortune.
They each pledged to guide Lydia in their spiritual lives, then the curate sprinkled water across Lydia’s face. The babe screamed, but the ceremony was already over. Charlotte brought Lydia to her shoulder and tried to soothe her.
Mr. Ascough scowled. “Can’t you keep that baby quiet? We are in a church, after all,” he whispered.
Freed from her mother’s compulsion to marry Henry, Charlotte was able to soften the edge off her response. “You would probably cry too if the curate threw cold water on your face while you slept.”
“But why would he do that? Mr. Peabody is a good enough chap.”
Charlotte smiled at him but excused herself, handing Lydia to her mother and calling for the coach. She knew further conversation with him would try her patience; life was too short to be vexed, especially when running away came so easily.
They all retired to the Ascough townhouse where Elisabeth was hosting a celebratory breakfast. Or tried to host it. Rather, Lydia had demanded to be fed first, and Elisabeth was obliged to excuse herself.
She sat on the rocking chair in her bedchamber, nursed Lydia, and silently fumed. She was needed in the breakfast room to ensure that conversation flowed smoothly between her two families. She quite literally could not afford to offend Henry, not when he held the purse strings.
Elisabeth began rocking faster and faster, hoping that somehow the quick motion would speed Lydia through her task. But the babe seemed as famished as ever. Elisabeth worried she was not producing enough milk; that there would never be enough; that she was doing it wrong. She had wanted to nurse Lydia and prove, even if only to herself, that she was a better mother to Lydia than her own mother had been to her. But she could not be father, mother, nurse, and debutante. It simply was too much. She needed help. And she had already sent Bixby away to assist Maria while she neared her confinement.
Elisabeth sighed, feeling all her failures compound into one. Her mother had been right all along; it was time for her to start interviewing wet nurses.
Finally, Lydia seemed sated.
Elisabeth descended the stairs, devastated to see that that the company had already finished eating and now sat in the drawing room.
“Let me hold my granddaughter, won’t you Lizzie?” Mrs. Ascough asked.
Elisabeth worried her lip between her teeth. What if Lydia cast up her accounts? She should not have rushed her so.
“Come, now, Lizzie. I’ve raised four children of my own. I shan’t hurt her.”
“No, of course not.” Elisabeth hurriedly handed her over. “It’s just that sometimes milk doesn’t seem to agree with her.”
“I’ll be careful,” Mrs. Ascough said, arranging a blanket over her shoulder and then rubbing Lydia’s back in slow circles.
Lydia accommodated her grandmother by releasing a most unbecoming sound.
“How come I’m not alowwed to make noises like that while in mixed company?” Mr. Ascough complained.
Charlotte and Elisabeth both giggled.
“Henry, go look at that painting,” Mrs. Ascough pointed at a portrait across the room, “and see who it is. One of your great-grandfathers but I forget which one.”
“Yes, of course.”
As soon as he left, Mrs. Ascough spoke. “Do sit down, Lizzie. You, of all people, should not be forced to stand when you are still recovering from the ordeal. I had thought I had raised him better.”
Elisabeth acknowledged her fatigue and sat gratefully. “Henry is a fine gentleman.” Just not very observant. “Besides, I could have sat next to my mother.”
Mrs. Ascough returned her attention to the babe in her arms. “She looks just like James.” She paused and sniffled. “I wish he could see her.”
Lizzie did too and unexpectedly found herself struggling to tamp down a bubble of anger. Though she had worked at forgiving her late husband for abandoning her, her emotions had felt especially unwieldy of late. Lizzie carefully filed the anger away and smiled, “I wish he could see her as well.”
Lydia was passed into Grace’s arms. The Misses Ascough cooed and smiled, and Lizzie turned her attention to Henry, who had finished surveying the painting and now stood looking at a Chinese vase. Was he valuing the object in his head, or picturing what color curtains he would purchase to match it once he tossed Lizzie out?
Mrs. Ascough nudged her daughter-in-law. “Talk to him. Ask him outright what he intends to do. We both know he will not understand hints.”
But Elisabeth worried pestering him would only prod him to expedite her removal. If she avoided the topic altogether . . . he might never dispossess her.
“Go on, now,” Mrs. Ascough said kindly. “Better to face the truth than live in a constant state of worry.”
But was it?
Mrs. Ascough gave Elisabeth another nudge and she crossed the room to face him, pressing a hand to her abdomen to settle her nerves. “So which of your great-grandfathers was displayed in the portrait?”
He shrugged. “Someone long dead that I have never heard of. I figured Mother just wanted an excuse to send me away.”
His honest—and astute—response stunned Elizabeth. “I think she just wanted to give me a place to sit.”
He turned to consider his sister-in-law. “But you are standing now.”
“Yes, I . . . ” Lizzie braced herself and asked the dreaded question. “I want to speak with you about your plans for this townhouse.”
Lizzie considered how to tactfully spell everything out for him. “Since I did not birth an heir, this townhouse is officially yours to do with as you please.”
He scrunched his nose as if he’d just eaten a lemon. “What, is it in need of renovation of some sort?”
Lizzie repressed her exasperation. “No, not those kinds of plans. When do you plan on taking possession?”
His eyes glossed over. “When I was studying law, I learned that possession is nine points in the law. I have no reason to press the other three.”
Lizzie wasn’t quite sure she followed. “Do you mean to say that you won’t dispossess me?”
He reared back his head. “Gracious, no. I have no desire to run my own household; it sounds dreadfully fatiguing. I’d much rather continue to have Mother take care of all of that.”
Elisabeth suddenly felt weak and grabbed his arm to brace herself.
He scratched his chin absently. “Of course, you shall have to find another home when I marry.”
When. Not if, though she had a hard time imagining anyone falling for Henry. Though kind and handsome enough, his social ineptitude would try the patience of a saint. “Are you courting anyone?”
“There is one girl,” Henry said, a wistful smile playing about his lips. “Miss Susannah Scott.”
Lizzie’s stomach dropped. Susannah was the most vicious debutante to have ever crossed Elisabeth’s path. When James had showed a preference for Lizzie instead of her, Susannah had circulated heinous falsehoods about Elizabeth’s parentage. And apparently she had decided to set her cap at poor Henry now. That would never do; Henry wasn’t clever enough to see through her machinations. A desire to protect her brother-in-law momentarily overwhelmed her.
“I know Miss Scott,” Elisabeth said, measuring her words carefully, “She was out when I had my Season. I only wonder why such a beautiful girl has not yet married.”
A crease formed along Mr. Ascough’s brow, but he said nothing.
Elisabeth assumed him incapable of following such indirect insinuations, but she dared not say more. No, she would need another tack. She would need to distract him with a kinder soul, one who wouldn’t eat him alive and toss her into the streets. Someone like . . .
She didn’t have a mean bone in her body. She was seated next to the Misses Ascough, admiring her niece. “Have you had a chance to hold the baby yet?”
He startled, quite literally having forgotten Lizzie’s presence.
I hope Charlotte forgives me. “Come.” Lizzie dragged him forwards. “You should hold your niece and god-daughter.” She sat down, leaving him just enough room to sit between her and her sister.
Charlotte turned her large blue eyes towards him. “Would you like to hold her?”
Whether he did or not, no one could refuse Charlotte.
Elisabeth smiled as she watched the scene unfold. Charlotte would put all thoughts of Miss Susannah Scott out of Henry’s mind. She would save them all.
Engagement of Errors
The Christening, Charlotte's prospective
Charlotte was not looking forward to standing for an hour in the cold, dark church. She knew the only reason she had been selected as Lydia’s godparent was because she was expected to make a brilliant match. But Charlotte would prefer to curl into a ball and read a book by the fire. She had already found a copy of A Midsummer’s Night Dream and planned on reading it so she would have something to talk to Mr. Kehr about—if she ever had the chance to see him again.
When she arrived at St. James, however, she was pleased to find the interior bathed with light. The morning sunlight filtered through the stained glass windows, casting fragmented rainbows across the whitewashed walls.
“Quite stunning, isn’t it? It’s where James and I were married,” Elisabeth said.
“I would like to have been there,” Charlotte said wistfully. Mother was the only one from the family who had traveled to London to help Lizzie prepare her trousseau and witness the occasion. “I’m sure you made a striking bride. Were there rainbows dancing about then as well?”
Elisabeth’s eyes gave a far-off look. “No. It was raining dreadfully that day.”
Charlotte shivered. Had the foul weather been a sign from the Heavens of her sister’s loveless and ill-fated marriage? Charlotte hoped that when she wedded, the church would fill with rainbows and light to match the happiness and love in her heart, rather than shrouding the sun in mourning grey. Charlotte shivered again and tucked her fingers into her fur muff.
“And this is where you and Mr. Ascough shall marry, no doubt,” said Mrs. Fletcher.
Charlotte knew well enough how to handle her mother’s heavy-handedness. She smiled innocently. “But I thought the Ascoughs were new money? Surely, you would want me to marry better than that.”
Mrs. Fletcher blinked rapidly in the face of her suggestion.
“New money is better than no money at all,” Elisabeth responded.
“Yes, of course,” Charlotte said. “And if Mr. Ascough buys a house in the country and officially joins the gentry, I’m sure he will be a superb match, but still not as good as a family of wealth, family connections, and excellent breeding.”
Elisabeth scoffed. “The Ascoughs are hardly heathens. The Misses Ascough are among some of the most accomplished ladies of our acquaintance.”
Charlotte tilted her head, considering her sister. “They are refined, to be sure. I only wish that Mr. Ascough held the same amount of refinement as they—or your James. I’m afraid Mr. Ascough, bless his heart, will find it more difficult to navigate the circles of the ton than the rest of the family.”
Charlotte was met with silence. Perfect. She sighed. “But he really is such a dear man. It certainly isn’t his fault that, in spite of his education, he remains aloof of how to navigate society.” Or conjure up a single independent thought. “He needs a good wife to help him along. Of course, Lizzie is the one who could help him the most. Why, she would take him by the reins and have him trained in no time at all. It’s a pity she can’t marry him, thanks to those silly consanguinity laws. I mean, he’s no more your brother than he is mine.”
Elisabeth clucked her tongue. “I would marry him in a trice, if I could, just like you should, Lottie.” Her brow furrowed. “But make sure the marriage settlement provides more for you than just your dowry in case of his untimely demise.”
Mrs. Fletcher crossed herself. “Who could have possibly known that such a hale young man would die so young. Such a waste. Such a pity.” She sighed. “But there is nothing for it now, is there? Charlotte, dear, I do believe you are right. Mr. Ascough may not make the best possible match. Let’s just see what the Season brings, shall we? Both of you should feel ecstatic that, what with the general election, Parliament met early this year, and the Season shall be prolonged.”
Charlotte kissed her mother’s cheek. “I am beyond delighted, Mother, that I have so much time. Thank you.”
Though Mrs. Fletcher was usually as prickly as a thistle, she had a soft spot for her youngest daughter. Everyone did, really. Mrs. Fletcher pinched her cheek. “Now, let’s hope it is time enough.”
Charlotte nodded, considering how many Seasons she would be granted. She knew her brother had amassed some gambling debts, but didn’t know how far into dun territory he lay. Far enough that they would never be able to rent a townhouse. As soon as Mr. Ascough decided to cast them out and take up residence, her Season—and chances at finding love–would be over.
The Ascoughs arrived soon enough, and the curate, Mr. Peabody, came out of the vestry to speak with them.
Mr. Ascough fiddled with his cravat, as if his valet had tied it too tight. “I’ve never been to one of these before. I’m a bit nervous.”
The curate smiled. “There is nothing to be worried about. You just promise to guide the child spiritually. And then the Christening.”
“Er . . .” he turned to Elisabeth. “What are we Christening her again? Libby?”
The Misses Ascough cast their eyes heavenward.
Charlotte couldn’t blame them. She thought my own brother was a bit of a clod, but Mr. Ascough made him seem a genius.
Elisabeth tactfully skirted the uncomfortable scenario by holding aloft her baby, and nodding to the curate. “May I present Miss Lydia Ascough.”
“Oh.” Mr. Ascough rubbed his chin. “That will get confusing. That’s my mother’s name, you know.”
Mrs. Ascough huffed. “Yes, Henry. Not everyone is so feather-brained as you.” A bit belatedly, she softened the rebuke, “seem to think them.”
Miss Ascough and Miss Grace’s lips twitched at their mother’s insult, but Henry remained oblivious.
Elisabeth handled him with tact once again. “Since she shall never meet her father, I thought it fitting to name her after the woman who raised him.”
Mr. Ascough scratched his head, not quite following Lizzie’s prolific usage of personal pronouns.
Mrs. Ascough sighed. “Me. The baby is named after me, Henry.”
“Oh right. Capital idea, then.”
The curate cleared his throat and addressed Mr. Ascough. “All clear?”
“Of course. It’s not like I would forget my own mother’s name.”
Charlotte had to bite her to tongue to keep from laughing at him. The poor fool.
Elisabeth passed the sleeping baby, cocooned in blankets to ward away the January chill, into Charlotte’s arms. Only Lydia’s eyes and nose could be seen. Charlotte pulled the blanket down a smidge so Lydia’s mouth was unobstructed. Though still asleep, her lips moved silently, sucking on the insides of her cheeks, her mouth forming a silent o. Utterly adorable.
The curate began Elisabeth’s churching, his voice echoing about the wooden pews. “For as much as it hath pleased Almighty God of his goodness to give you safe deliverance, and hath preserved you in the great danger of childbirth; you shall therefore give hearty thanks to God.”
Elisabeth’s steady voice offered the anticipated response. “I am well pleased that the Lord hath heard the voice of my prayer. The snares of death compassed me round; and the pains of hell got hold upon me.”
Lud! Those were the words of the ceremony? Perhaps Charlotte should be glad she had been spared witnessing the birth. She glanced at the beautiful babe in her arms and wondered if death and the pains of hell always preceded miracles.
The curate then asked that the godparents step forward. Charlotte did so.
After some prodding from his mother, Mr. Ascough joined her. “Sorry. I was wool-gathering,” he whispered to Charlotte.
Wool-gathering. If only the man could sell all the wool he gathered in his head, he could make his own fortune. But Charlotte had, on more than one occasion, been accused of daydreaming herself, so she could hardly blame him. She sent him a gentle smile.
Charlotte had anticipated the awkwardness of standing next to Mr. Ascough, each of them pledging to be parents of a type to Lydia, but Mr. Ascough’s expression was as vacant as a statue’s. He certainly had not intimated with so much as a lifted brow or twitching lips that their joint roles as Godparents granted them any special bond.
They each pledged to guide Lydia in their spiritual lives, then the curate sprinkled water across Lydia’s face.
The babe screamed, but the ceremony was over. Charlotte brought Lydia to her shoulder and tried to soothe her.
Mr. Ascough scowled. “Can’t you keep that baby quiet? We are in a church, after all,” he whispered.
Good-natured Charlotte only smiled at the dunce. “You would probably cry too if the curate threw cold water on your face while you slept.”
“But why would he do that? Mr. Peabody is a good enough chap.”
Charlotte only shook at her head rather than attempt to explain the obvious to the poor man. Life was too short to be vexed.