The Seventh Suitor
"It's not fair!" Harriet Frost shouted at her sister's firmly shut bedchamber door. That same door had been slammed in Harriet's face not two seconds before her uncharacteristic outburst, when Jessabelle had informed her sister and brother, Obadiah, that they just had to help her unload her latest fiancé.
"This makes seven, doesn't it?" inquired Obie, who was a tall, freckle-faced boy of seventeen. Harriet, a year his senior, frowned.
"Seven too many, if you ask me. And why should we be the ones to always scare off Belle's beaux? I'd give anything for one-tenth her men problems."
"Unfortunately, Belle has decided this time to jilt the Earl of Wolverton, of all the rotten luck."
"Wolverton's a man just like all the rest, isn't he? What could be so difficult about getting another man to jilt the ever-suffering Belle Frost? Poor thing," Harriet whispered in exact imitation of a jealous old tabby with six unmarriageable daughters. "Her beauty draws them like flies to honey, and then her true nature drives them away. How sad."
Jessabelle. Twenty years old and jilted six times since her debut two years ago, she was known as "Jilted Jessabelle" in London's upper circles. Why she was so often left at the altar, no one could imagine, for Miss Frost had been voted an Incomparable from the moment she entered society's spotlight.
Obie laughed, although he drew Harriet away from Belle's door, lest she overhear and bring her wrath down on them both.
"We'll need a new plan of action," he said. "Wolverton isn't just any man, no matter what you think. He's a top 'o the trees Corinthian and won't be taken in as easily as Belle's other suitors."
"He proposed, didn't he?" Harriet said sarcastically.
"He's going to require a direct and honest approach," Obie continued, ignoring her. "And I know just the young lady for the job." He looked his sister squarely in the eye.
"Oh, no! I can't ... I mean ... his lordship would never believe ... No! I won't do it, Obadiah Frost. You can't make me!"
Miss Harriet Frost found her knees shaking with fright as she was ushered into the earl's library by a pasty-faced butler. Why couldn't Obie be here instead of her, she thought wildly, or at least by her side?
"His lordship will be down in a moment, miss." Although Harriet's maid had accompanied her, she got the distinct impression that the earl's majordomo disapproved of young ladies calling on his master. If he could only know how much Harriet disapproved of her reason for calling on his lordship. Certainly it had been the fact that she was Miss Frost's sister that allowed her to get this far in the first place. Harriet frowned, hoping the butler did not think she was grimacing over him or his master.
Harriet sighed as she took a seat on the plush maroon velvet sofa in his lordship's library. Where Belle was blessed with bright golden curls and china blue eyes, Harriet had mousy brown hair and her eyes were a mixture of blue and gray. In addition, she felt her own five and a half feet slim frame to be inferior to her sister's more Amazon proportions. It just wasn't fair that Belle attracted more beaux than anyone, despite her penchant for being jilted.
As to being jilted, Harriet knew better. Belle, a consummate flirt, attracted men in droves, only to find a more desirable man every time she became engaged. Whoever said the grass was greener on the other side of the park had certainly been describing her sister.
The first suitor left Belle in the lurch quite innocently enough. Unknown to the Frost siblings, who argued frequently, the gentleman could not tolerate family dissention and decided Miss Frost's charms did not outweigh her volatile relationship with her brother and sister. After that, Belle found she rather liked being engaged more than she did the thought of being married, and blackmailed Harriet and Obie into getting rid of fiancés two and three. As Harriet and her brother were wont to get into scrapes they did not want their gentle, scholarly father to discover, that had not been a difficult task for a shrewd older sister to accomplish.
Suitor number four, a wealthy but untitled man who lived in the north country, had been a tougher nut to crack, but Harriet and Obie were totally convincing as mentally ill family members, giving the young man pause as to the future of his own offspring. As his own mother was insane, he decided the odds were too great and cried off at the last minute. Harriet could not help but smile at the memory, for it had been Mr. Wallace's own comment about his mother that had given her the idea.
It was an amused Harriet that Gerald Worth, the fifth Earl of Wolverton, saw as he entered the room.
Harriet looked up at her sister's fiancé and frowned. It surprised her that her sister was eager to give up such a handsome and wealthy catch. His lordship had warm brown eyes and dark, wavy hair, but the welcoming smile that quite lit up the dark room almost made Harriet waver in her resolve. Obie was wrong. She should not be there. She felt an almost physical pain at having to ask his lordship to jilt her sister
"Let Belle get herself jilted," she murmured, completely forgetting the earl's presence.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Oh, I am sorry you caught me woolgathering, my lord." Harriet sprang from the sofa and curtsied.
"That is quite all right, Miss Harriet. I may call you Miss Harriet, might I not? After all, we are soon to be brother and sister."
"Yes, well, um, that is what I have called to speak to you about, Lord Wolverton. I wish you to jilt my sister."
"You wish me to what?" His lordship's pleasant countenance changed to one of incredulity.
"I wish you to jilt my sister. What portion of that sentence did you not understand?"
"Miss Frost, I find your request beneath contempt. Obviously you wish to see your poor sister's fate repeated for a seventh time. Can you not contain what I feel is sibling jealousy for once and let your sister put her past to rest?"
"Jealousy?" she squeaked. "I jealous of Belle? Really, my lord..."
"And how not? It is obvious that you are not her equal in either brains or beauty, so it stands to reason you are jealous of her good fortune. And now you wish me to jilt the unfortunate Miss Frost? I think not."
"Actually, Belle is about to jilt you, my lord. That's why I'm here. Obie and I decided you deserved better than our usual machinations, not to mention Belle's. She told us to get rid of you because she plans to elope."
"Elope? Who is this fortunate fellow?"
"I know not. But she is, even now, on her way to Gretna Green."
"And how does your family view this?" Wolverton asked. Harriet blushed.
"Actually, they haven't a clue. Papa spends most of his life at his club or in his study, and Aunt Phoebe never leaves her bed except to escort Belle to parties and Almack's. Mama died about five years ago and we three have mostly been on our own since then. That is why there has been no one to keep us in check when we get rid of Belle's suitors." She regretted that statement as soon as it left her mouth.
"Am I to understand that I am not the first to be sent packing?" His voice was bland - almost too bland.
Harriet, tired of the entire business, said, "Of course not. Do you not wonder how my sister, in all her beauty, came to be known as 'The Jilted Jessabelle'?"
"I know I am her seventh fiancé, but I fail to see - "
"Do you remember suitor number four?" she asked sweetly.
"A Mr. Wallace, I believe."
"And do you know why Mr. Wallace left poor little Belle in the lurch, my lord?"
"Miss Frost told me it was because he feared spreading the mental illness prevalent in his family." The earl frowned, wondering where all this was leading.
"It is true his mother has a touch of insanity, according to Mr. Wallace himself. It wasn't until he noticed the same streak in his fiancée's brother and sister that he changed his wedding plans."
"I can only conclude, once again, that you are jealous of your sister, Miss Frost."
"Believe me, my lord, I would not like to be in my sister's slippers for an instant! Underneath that fairy princess exterior lies a wicked witch. The only reason Obie and I turned to scaring off Belle's suitors was because she forced us to."
"Are you insinuating that Miss Frost has been stooping to blackmail to make her suitors cry off?"
"I'm not insinuating anything, my lord, I'm telling."
"But why? Why me? Why now?"
"I do not know," Harriet said with all sincerity. She felt uncomfortable having to reveal her sister's true nature to this handsome man. Was it possible that he really loved Belle? "I can only surmise that she prefers the engaged state to the married one," she concluded with a sigh.
"Come, come, Miss Frost," he said gently. "You were only trying to help your sister, much as you may regret it. Tell me, what were your plans after such a revelation?"
Harriet blushed. "I ... I don't know. Obie told me not to worry, that things would take care of themselves." A sudden thought occurred to her: Obie meant for her to gain Wolverton's attention and get him to replace Belle with herself. The thought made her blush a deep red.
"Excuse me, but I do not feel well, and I wish to go home."
"No. You say your sister doesn't want to marry me? It's a little too late for that, don't you think? After all, the wedding is tomorrow."
"Well, I ... it is a little too late, isn't it? I suppose you had better go home with me and talk to father. He might not be very obliging..."
"Miss Frost, I can safely say your entire family has been unobliging. It's not the usual thing to have one jilt me. Did it ever occur to you that I might not want to be jilted? I have my pride, you know, and I have just learned that I'm the only man to be jilted by 'The Jilted Jessabelle.' What a time the tattlemongers will have with that story. It has occurred to me..."
Harriet did not like the strange glint that appeared in his lordship's eyes.
"My need to marry and produce an heir did not go away just because Miss Frost has no wish to be leg-shackled. Miss Harriet, I believe her younger sister will have to take her place," he continued in a voice that brooked no opposition.
"Come now," he commanded, putting an arm like a steel band about her shoulders and leading her out of the parlor. "I'll take you home. You've got a busy day tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" Harriet's brain was in such a flurry, all she could do was repeat key words.
"Certainly. I want you to look your best, my dear. Being the bride means you will be the center of attention."
"Oh, didn't I explain well enough? If you don't take your sister's place at the altar tomorrow, the entire ton will know your family for who and what they all are - yourself included - confidence artists of the first degree!"
When Harriet and Wolverton returned to the Frost residence on Mount Street, they found the household in an uproar. Sir Laurence Frost was present, as was Obie, and Harriet found her father needlessly applying a vinaigrette under Aunt Phoebe's nose. The poor woman was lying prostrate on the drawing room sofa.
"That probably will not wash, Papa," Harriet told him. She took the vial and tucked it back into Aunt Phoebe's reticule. It was useless, but her aunt would go nowhere without it. "Aunt Phoebe is one of those souls destined to be immune to such things. Obie, if you please..."
Harriet motioned everyone to stand back as Obie pulled a sheaf of lilies from a vase that stood on a nearby occasional table and poured the water directly on top of his aunt's head. She woke up sputtering and coughing and cursing Jessabelle.
"Belle?" Sir Laurence quickly asked. "What is this about Belle? I received an urgent message from you, Phoebe, about the children, but I'll need some explanation before I know who to beat with my crop." Merry blue-gray eyes like his younger daughter's twinkled at his family, unconsciously including Wolverton in their gaze.
"Really, Laurence, this is no time to make sport. Belle has eloped!" she told her brother. Then she threw a hand over her forehead in a poor imitation of Sarah Siddons and slumped back on the sofa in another faint, still dripping wet.
Wolverton and Harriet exchanged knowing glances.
"The very devil!" Sir Laurence bellowed. "That damn fool Wolverton! The wedding is tomorrow!"
"For shame!" Obie added with a smirk.
"Phoebe! Damn it all, woman, wake up and tell me what in the world is going on!" Sir Laurence threw roses out of another vase and anointed his sister. Aunt Phoebe awoke in the same manner as before.
"Laurence, my hair! And this is a new cap! I am sure to catch a chill now," she moaned. "See, even my teeth are starting to chatter," she claimed, not seeming to notice that her brother was shaking the life out of her.
"If you ever treat me like that..." Harriet warned Obie under her breath.
"If you ever act like that..." Obie countered.
"Children, that will be enough," Wolverton told them before confronting Sir Laurence. "Can someone please tell me what happened to Belle?"
"She ran off with that jackanapes Wolverton!" the baronet bellowed before realizing that "jackanapes Wolverton" was standing in front of him.
"Oh, Wolverton, you must know this is not my fault..." Aunt Phoebe started to blather. A gesture from the earl cut her off.
"Just start at the beginning, if you please, Miss Frost."
"Well, Belle came home in high dudgeon this afternoon, but seemed more lighthearted after a short nap, when a posy and a note were delivered. I assumed they were from you, my lord, but I must have been mistaken. She excused herself and went upstairs. I laid down here, for I am only allowed up and down the stairs twice a day - an order from my physician, you know - and took a few sips of my tonic, finally falling asleep. When I awoke, I sent my dresser, Saunders, to check on Belle. Saunders came running back within moments to say Belle had packed all her clothes and gone. That's when I sent for you, Laurence."
"And was there a note, Miss Frost?"
"Oh, yes, how silly of me," Aunt Phoebe tittered. She handed it to the earl.
"Hmmm. It appears Miss Frost has eloped with Mr. Richardson."
"If we start now, my lord," Harriet piped up, "we may be able to catch them ere they reach Gretna."
"Not a chance. Sir Laurence, might I have a word with you in private?"
"But Papa, Belle has eloped!" Harriet cried. She knew not what Wolverton might tell her father. Or not tell her father. Either way, she was lost if they left the room.
"I believe, Sir Laurence," Wolverton interjected, ignoring Harriet's outburst, "that as a jilted suitor, I have a right to speak with you in private."
"Of course. Excuse us, Harriet, Phoebe."
Harriet sat dejectedly on the sofa next to her aunt and watched as that lady took a few swigs of tonic from a hip flask.
"I'm doomed," she moaned after the men left the room. Obie came over and held her hand.
"Cheer up, Harriet. Wolverton's first-rate. You'll be well cared for."
Harriet suddenly remembered her brother's part in all this nonsense. "You! You...you poor excuse for a human being!" she cried. Launching herself at her brother, she tried to pummel his head into his body. Aunt Phoebe looked on in a daze until Sir Laurence and the earl returned.
"Harriet!" Sir Laurence shouted even as he tried to separate his children. "Try to show some decorum! After all, you are practically a married woman!"
"Oh," Harriet groaned, "It's happening. What about Belle?"
"What about her? She has made her own bed, Harriet," her father told her. "And while she will always be welcome in this family, the scandal may be too much for Phoebe. I'm taking her and Obie back to Wiltshire after the wedding. We need time for everything to blow over. I believe Wolverton will be taking you out of town, as well."
"Wedding?" Aunt Phoebe said faintly. "There isn't going to be a wedding. Belle..."
"Has made her own decision, Phoebe. Wolverton is going to marry Harriet, remember?"
Harriet wondered, and not for the first time, if her aunt's tonic was laced with laudanum.
"Yes, sister dear," Sir Laurence told her gently, "we've had everything planned for weeks. The wedding is tomorrow."
"Remember, Aunt Phoebe?" Wolverton added, "I thought I was in love with Belle, but it is Harriet I finally offered for. The wrong name was printed in the Gazette."
"Oh, the Gazette. What will we tell everyone?"
"Exactly what I just told you, Phoebe dear. Come upstairs, sister," Sir Laurence said gently. "You've had a long day and you will have an even longer one tomorrow. I'm sure Wolverton and Harriet want to be alone for a few moments. Obie?"
"But Laurence, it is not proper for Harriet and..."
"I said it is all right, Phoebe. After all, they are to be married." The two left the room together, Phoebe hanging from her brother's arm. Obie followed, but not without casting curious glances over his shoulder.
Married! Harriet sat down hard on the sofa. She didn't see the look Wolverton gave her, but sat looking at the pale white hands she twisted in her lap.
"Quiet! Not a word!" she snapped. "You...you had better leave. After all," she mimicked her father, "you have a long day tomorrow."
"I don't know why you are going through with this..." Harriet continued before Wolverton could speak. "After all, it is not as if you loved me." She did not see the earl stiffen.
"Of course not. I believe I said something earlier this evening about needing a wife and heir, and that one Frost sister would do as well as another."
"Yes. Lucky me." She was still sitting there, staring off into nothingness, when the earl took his leave.
Despite Harriet's nervousness, and the fact that she spent half the night taking in Belle's wedding gown, everything about the wedding seemed to run smoothly. The ceremony was small and the wedding breakfast exclusive, although that did not keep the guests from wondering aloud about the change in brides. Wolverton laughed it off at the breakfast.
"By the time I got to know Harriet, and Jessabelle and I decided we no longer suited, it was too late to change the invitations. Harriet's sister's elopement just happened to coincide with our wedding," he added, since that was already common knowledge. The earl fooled no one, of course, but his version of events was carefully repeated, for fear of his wrath.
Many of the guests were ready to believe his story, too, for he treated his new bride tenderly, and was attentive to her needs. Harriet tried not to squirm under his constant touch, occasional embrace and constant filling of her wineglass. Really, if Wolverton thought to get her in her cups, he had another think coming.
"You look lovely my dear," he said in a low voice at one point during the breakfast, the sincerity of his compliment surprising Harriet and putting her to the blush. Dressed in Belle's gown of pink satin, heavily encrusted with seed pearls, she was well aware that she had very little with which to fill out the deep décolletage of the gown, but its color suited her complexion. Belle's maid had piled her brown curls high with silk rosebuds and her mother's cobweb veil framed her face.
"You really mean that, don't you?" she asked incredulously when she could find her voice. "No one has ever said that before." She shyly dropped her eyes from his face. Wolverton took one of her hands in his and, even though a long, white kid glove covered hers, she could feel his warmth.
Then Obie gained their attention.
"Wolverton, will you allow me to visit you over the holidays?"
The earl looked at his new brother-in-law, and then at Harriet, who was holding her breath.
"I believe that might be arranged," he told them.
Harriet was amazed and dismayed to learn they were leaving London immediately after the wedding breakfast, as she had been informed of nothing.
"Yes, you must come visit soon," Wolverton told Obie. "If you don't mind traveling to Hertfordshire. In fact, we're off for there as soon as Lady Wolverton changes her gown." Harriet received a pointed look, as if she knew this and delayed on purpose.
"I wonder your family did not attend the wedding, my lord," she said upon hearing they lived not too far north of London.
"My aunt dislikes London," was all he replied before turning back to Obie and ignoring her.
Unwilling to begin her marriage in a taking, especially in front of her brother, Harriet only gave them a sweet smile, excused herself and vowed not to talk to Wolverton for however long it took to reach his home.
She almost cried when she retired to her room, where a maid waited to help her into her serviceable brown traveling gown. Having already packed her belongings for what she thought would be a short move to the earl's London home, her bare room now seemed a greater reminder that her new life would begin so much further away.
Later that day, Harriet watched the countryside out the carriage window to avoid eye contact with her husband, although she found the fields, pastures, crops and livestock boring after several hours of nothing else. Fortunately, the earl had his nose buried in a sheaf of papers and did not seem to notice her existence. Sighing softly, she wondered if this was something she would have to get used to for the rest of her life.
"This next village is Wolvern, and after that is the land surrounding Wolverton Hall."
Harriet jumped. She had no idea the earl had lowered his reading material long enough to notice his surroundings. He looked at her curiously.
"What do you think of our little corner of the world?"
"Quaint." Goodness, Harriet, she told herself, surely you could come up with something better than "quaint"? Obviously, the earl felt the same.
"Quaint," he repeated with a faint sneer. "A bit too rustic for our little town miss?"
"Oh, no! I enjoy the country when I'm in Sussex, and I plan to do the same here."
The earl shrugged and returned to his papers. Harriet wondered if he thought she was as shallow as her sister and she worried about that for a few miles.
Her worry increased as the carriage entered a drive through a beautiful park and pulled under the pillared portico of a stately old manor house of creamy yellow stone. A butler, the exact twin of his London counterpart, approached.
"Welcome home, m'lord." Behind him stood an army of household staff, which he took upon himself to introduce to the new countess as soon as she entered the front hall. She was beginning to wonder how she would learn everyone's names when three young bodies whizzed past and threw themselves at the earl.
"Uncle Gerald! Uncle Gerald!" they cried, not stopping their wild dance long enough for Harriet to tell if they were boys or girls.
"Children, that will be quite enough," drawled a young lady of fifteen or sixteen from a doorway. "Uncle Gerald has brought you a new aunt and she can't possibly want to stay now that she has seen what savages you are."
Harriet smiled gratefully, but the girl's face was impassive.
"Come, come, children," a dour-faced governess called from behind the older girl. "Run along to the drawing room for tea and his lordship will meet you in there."
A wild yell rose from the three youngsters, whom Harriet could now see were two boys and a little girl, and they dashed down the hall, the others following at a slower, more sedate pace.
"Come in, Gerald, come in," a crochety female voice called from the drawing room as the earl paused in the threshold with his new bride. "Bring the gel in," she demanded.
"Lovely," said an elderly gentleman. He sat in a corner of the room gazing out onto the side lawn.
"Passable," the old woman said with a sniff. If the gentleman was elderly, the woman was positively ancient. Seated ramrod-straight in a ladderback chair and wearing a black bombazine gown, she had hair piled in the elaborate puffs and piles of an era gone by and reminded one of an ugly old crow.
"I think she's beautiful," the little girl, who appeared to be six or seven, interjected.
"No one asked you, infant," the older girl sneered.
"That is enough!" barked the earl. "I'll thank some of you to keep civil tongues in your heads concerning my new countess. Harriet, this is my Great-Aunt Victoria, the dowager countess," he said, beginning the introductions.
Harriet curtsied instinctively, earning a nod of approval from the crow.
"Near the window is my Uncle Oscar." Harriet nodded and the old man smiled. "With their governess, Miss Lynch, are my nephews, Rory and Ian Worth, and their sister, Sidney. And this is my ward, Miss Zoe Witherspoon. Everyone, please see that Harriet receives a warm welcome to her new home - and that is not a request."
The earl led Harriet over to a sofa in front of the tea tray, indicating that she should do the pouring. Zoe, who had been sitting adjacent to the tray, flounced over to another seat by herself.
"Lady Wolverton?" She asked the older lady. "Lemon? Sugar?" The crow smiled, showing a few yellow teeth, and requested sugar, three lumps.
"Lord Oscar?" Technically, her husband should have been served first, as befitted his station, or second, in deference to the dowager, but Harriet could see that in terms of venerability, he came third. The earl nodded his approval of her hierarchy and Zoe scowled. Lord Oscar strolled over to doctor his own tea.
"I have odd ways, m'dear," he explained. She watched as he mixed a squeeze of lemon, a spoonful of cream and two lumps of sugar in his saucer before adding a soupçon of tea.
After Wolverton had been served, Zoe grudgingly helped Miss Lynch get the children situated before accepting a cup herself.
"That went off rather well," the earl said with some satisfaction later as he escorted her to their suite. Harriet only shrugged. He may have felt at home, but she had a ways to go before she would feel secure in her new position.
That evening, when everyone retired, Harriet returned to the bedchamber she had been told adjoined through a common dressing room into the earl's room.
Nervously, she allowed her new maid, Jenny, to help her undress and put on a diaphanous nightgown, one that had been intended, she was sure, for her sister. The fact that she tripped over the hem on her way to the bed was more than enough clue for her.
She climbed in, though, after hitching her gown up, and slid under the soft silk counterpane. Biting her lip and dismissing the maid, she waited for the earl.
She waited nervously for twenty minutes, curiously for twenty more, and then angrily for at least ten minutes more before climbing out of bed. Pulling the nightgown up to mid-calf and marching through the dressing room to the other side, she swept into his bedchamber.
There she was brought up short by the sight of Wolverton seated in front of the fire, wrapped in a burgundy brocade dressing gown and drinking brandy. She dropped her gown in surprise, certain she would find him either absent or sleeping.
"Oh!" she exclaimed. "I should just..." Turning, she tripped on her gown and fell flat on her face. Neither one of them moved.
"I could use some assistance here," she finally said into the thick rug underneath her as minutes ticked by.
"Of course! I'm so sorry, Lady Wolverton!" The earl came over to her side and tried to help her to her feet, but she was angry enough by then to refuse his aid.
"I'll get to my own feet when I'm good and ready," she told him. She rose to her knees, carefully pulling the nightdress up so that she would not trip again, and walked to the dressing room door.
"I am well aware that my sister, had she tripped at all, would have been helped to her feet immediately - not that she would have been forced to even come to her husband's room! You may have married plain old Harriet, sir, but that does not mean I will be treated with less respect than my sister. I will just say this once in regard to her - beauty is only skin deep! Until you can learn to accord me due consideration, you may have a wife, but there will be no heir! Good night!"
She marched back into her own room, slammed the door and locked it, crawled into bed and cried herself to sleep.
"Dash it all, Perkins! Where the devil is his lordship!" Harriet heard a husky female voice exclaim from the hall that next afternoon. "Never mind. I'll dash upstairs and borrow from Zoe and be down in a trice. Damned rain, soaking my new habit..."
The voice trailed off as it rose up the stairs to, presumably, Zoe's room. Harriet had received a tour that morning from the housekeeper, and knew, generally, where that might be. About twenty minutes later she looked up from the book she had been reading in the library, only to find her husband, who was seated in the same room at his desk, brimming with amusement.
"Harriet," he said, "I am about to introduce you to a very old and dear friend..."
"Old? Not bloody likely, Gerry, not while I'm able to take a fence! You must be the new Lady Wolverton! I'm Anjelica Danvers - Lady Danvers, if you'd rather, but you can call me Jellie."
As the tall woman with fierce red hair did somewhat resemble a jar of strawberry jam, Harriet found herself smiling.
Lady Danvers, an energetic woman in her late twenties, bent to buss her on the cheek before grabbing Wolverton in a bear hug. Harriet stared in amazement as her muscular, athletic husband actually grunted.
"Still soft, I see," Lady Danvers joked. "Excuse us, Lady Wolverton, but we've known each other since we were in leading strings and refuse to stand on ceremony. She's a damned fine-looking filly, Gerry. Never thought you'd bring home one like her, though - I always thought you were one for the delicate thoroughbreds..."
Wolverton winced at her words.
"Can't stay long, really, only until my habit steam-dries a bit, but Marcus wishes you both, Uncle Oscar, Aunt Victoria and young Zoe to come to dinner on Tuesday next. I've invited half the county - they want to ogle the bride, of course - because I've told them they can't call here just yet."
Harriet could only stare at the talkative, forceful woman, who plunked herself down on the settee and stretched out to her full length. A sudden cry at the door caught everyone's attention.
"Aunt Jellie! Aunt Jellie!" The children assaulted her where she lay. "What did you bring us today? Where are Elliott and Belinda? Can you stay for tea?" were all heard at once as Lady Danvers allowed them to crawl all over her.
"Nothing special today, brats. Elliott and Belinda are home, warm and dry in the nursery. Of course, I'll stay, you young jackanapes," she told Rory. "If it is all right with your new aunt, of course." Five pairs of eyes suddenly confronted Harriet, who had been silently watching the proceedings.
"We would be delighted, Lady Danvers," she said. And she meant it.
Lady Danvers let the children pull her into the drawing room, and Harriet and Wolverton brought up the rear. However, Harriet refused his arm.
She watched as Lady Danvers greeted Uncle Oscar with a joke, the dowager with a kiss on the cheek and Zoe with a wink, helping herself to a cup of tea before anyone could offer.
Anjelica had come over to Wolverton for one purpose today, and that was to scope out Gerry's new wife. Her husband, Sir Marcus, had tried to dissuade her, but Anjelica would not be deterred.
"The man goes to Town for a couple of months, announces he's marrying none other than Jessabelle Frost and then comes home with someone named Harriet?" Her maid had been in at first light with that information. She had waited until the afternoon to visit, at any rate, the rain giving her a perfect excuse to call.
Once she arrived at Wolverton, though, she could see that the situation was tense. A honeymooning couple should not be on either side of the library, for one thing, with Gerry working studiously on estate business, something she knew he took seriously but disliked intensely.
After she had enjoyed a cup of tea, she asked Harriet if she could use her room to change back into her habit. Harriet agreed and took her upstairs.
"So," Anjelica said as she got dressed behind a screen painted with blues and whites to resemble ocean waves. "What do you think of Wolverton?"
"The man or the estate?"
"I think the estate is lovely."
"And that's all."
Lady Danvers grinned on her side of the screen. She did so love mysteries.
"Did Gerry ever have a chance to tell you about his family?" she asked.
"He has had plenty of chances," Harriet angrily replied, picking up items on her vanity and setting them back down without looking at them.
"I, for one, am glad he didn't. Or wouldn't. Let me tell you about them - as an old family friend and non-impartial observer."
"Er ... go on."
Anjelica smiled, pleased to have the lady's attention.
"First, of course, is the dowager. Aunt Victoria is rather an invalid; she has problems with her joints. She also has a field of prized goats you must see - and a special pet, Clementina."
"How ... interesting."
Anjelica emerged from behind the screen and sat down at Harriet's vanity. Picking up a powder puff, she proceeded to take the shine off her face. "I've always liked this room. Gerry's mother decorated it ... blues and greens were her favorites, and she wanted the room to look like a mermaid's lair."
"She succeeded," Harriet replied as Lady Danvers pointed out shell medallions holding up the drapes and the sea horses on the four corners of her bed. "But about the family..." she prodded.
"Ah, yes, and then there is Uncle Oscar. Just wait until either his next shipment of soldiers or the latest military dispatches arrive."
"Lord Oscar has appropriated the entire side garden, and when the next dispatches appear in the papers, he will be out there arranging his two-inch tin soldiers to reflect the war in Spain. We were quite impressed last year with the layout of Salamanca."
"The children are not quite so eccentric. Yet. The Worths, whose father was his cousin, run wild when Gerry is not here to control them. Miss Zoe, the daughter of an old friend, thinks she is an adult and gets a little high-handed at times. All they want, of course, is someone to pay attention to them." She rose from the vanity, patted Harriet's hand and smiled. "I think Wolverton made the right choice."
The two made their way downstairs and Lady Danvers went to the green baize door that separated the kitchen from the main part of the house.
"I know my way to the stables. It has been a pleasure to meet you, Lady Wolverton. Don't be a stranger, either. The children come to visit every Tuesday, and I would love for you to come with them." With a wave, she was gone, leaving Harriet to stare thoughtfully after her.
Harriet went back up to her room and mulled over everything she had learned, and one thing was perfectly clear. This household needed her even more than her own family had. Who knew she would be trading one family of eccentrics for another?
Sitting down in the vanity chair so recently vacated by Lady Danvers, she took a good look at herself. Did she have what it took to help run this family? Did she have what it took to interest her husband?
Her hair was rather mousy in color, but it was thick and healthy. Her eyes were pretty, and thickly lashed. She was not beautiful like her sister, but her sister would have been less than useless in a household like this. Jessabelle was mean; Harriet was not, no matter what Wolverton had accused her of being.
Wolverton. She didn't know what to make of him.
The day before they married, he had called her names. At their wedding, he had been kind and attentive. During tea yesterday, he had been her staunch supporter. Last night he had been rude and distracted. Today he had just been... there.
With a sigh, she decided to take a nap before dressing for dinner. Wolverton was almost too complex for her unsophisticated mind to decipher.
Sometime during the night Harriet had come to the resolution that she would win over Wolverton's family. Maybe if she made a place for herself in the house, Wolverton, as well, might find a place for her in his life, too.
Harriet was no coward, but she knew it was always best to start at the bottom and work one's way to the top. That meant she needed to begin in the nursery, with young Sidney. After all, a six-year-old friend was better than no friend at all.
Her idea was providential, it seemed, when she reached that suite of rooms only to hear Sidney sobbing. Peering in the door, she saw the girl seated on her nanny's lap, crying her eyes out.
"May I come in?" Harriet asked, and was bid enter by the nanny. Sidney was too busy weeping to pay much attention, giving Harriet a chance to look about her instead.
The nursery was clean and airy, with gauzy curtains in the open windows and a polished wood floor that reflected the morning sun. Harriet settled next to Nanny in a comfortable rocking chair.
"Whatever is the matter?" she asked.
"Next Tuesday is my birthday," Sidney said in a teary voice, looking up at the sound of Harriet's voice.
"You are crying because your birthday is next week? Do you wish to stay six forever?"
"No!" Sidney hotly replied. "I want to be seven! Uncle Gerald said I could get my own pony when I was seven. But he forgot..." Harriet suppressed a chuckle.
"How could he forget when you have yet to have your birthday, poppet?"
"Because I heard him tell Aunt Jellie he was buying me a doll! I don't want a doll! I want a pony!"
"I don't blame you." Harriet smiled and Sidney looked at her new aunt with more interest than she had before. With an apologetic glance at Nanny, she slid off her lap and approached Harriet.
"Did you have a pony when you were seven?" Sidney asked, her blue eyes wide.
"Oh, no - I had to wait until I was eight, I'm sure!"
"It's all right, Aunt Harriet..." Sidney patted her arm. "I may call you Aunt Harriet, may I not? Nanny said so."
"Of course you may. Now, about that pony..."
"Aunt Jellie raises them! Belinda Danvers has one and she's not even six yet!" Sidney was clearly envious and Harriet wondered if Miss Danvers' privileges had contributed to some of the girl's tears.
Fortunately, Wolverton's presence in the library the day before had included the introduction of several household accounts and a draftbook exclusively for Harriet. The account contained a staggering amount of money in a London bank, and when Harriet had exclaimed she did not require new gowns, Wolverton had said her clothing allowance was separate.
"I couldn't possibly!" she had cried, knowing she possessed an almost-new wardrobe, purchased for her London season.
Now, she thought about that money and reasoned presents could be purchased with it, even ponies.
"Lady Danvers? Perhaps we should go for a drive, Sidney. We might pay a call on Lady Danvers and possibly visit Miss Danvers, if she is available?"
Nanny and Sidney both appeared relieved at her words and the servant promised to have Miss Sidney ready for an outing "directly."
Harriet could not help but smile as she headed downstairs to collect her own outerwear and order a carriage. If Lady Danvers was agreeable, Sidney's birthday would be a success.
Unbeknownst to Harriet, her husband, on his way to confer with his steward, was momentarily surprised by her happy expression, and wondered briefly who had put it there. He knew, with no little guilt, that it was not him.
The ride to Danvers Park went smoothly, and by unspoken agreement, the two ladies did not mention ponies or birthdays. Instead, Harriet was regaled with stories of how Sidney spent her days, and how she was allowed to play with Belinda at least once a week.
"Even though sometimes we don't play so good," Harriet was informed. She refrained from correcting the child and only remarked that sometimes it was difficult to get along with everyone.
"I wish I had a sister," Sidney said wistfully. "I would never, ever disagree with her!"
"Oh, I imagine you would a time or two, poppet. Now brothers..." Harriet was torn. Obie had been her best friend until he had betrayed her. Still, she missed him dreadfully.
Then there was Jessabelle. They had never been what Harriet thought sisters were supposed to be.
Jessabelle never shared her clothes, not even to volunteer a hair ribbon, she never deigned to speak to her siblings unless she wanted something, and she never cared what her siblings were doing unless she could get something out if it for no investment of her time and energy.
Her memories were cut blissfully short by their arrival at Danvers Park, where they were in time to join Lady Danvers and her children at tea.
Master Elliot was a tall, thin redhead of seven, and Miss Belinda Danvers was a golden little butterball who squealed in delight when her dearest friend Sidney was announced.
"Lady Wolverton!" Anjelica's pleasure was as evident as her daughter's as she rose to usher her unexpected guests into the room. After introducing her children, she rang for more tea and then instructed the three youngsters to take the entire platter of biscuits into a far corner of the room so that she might enjoy a comfortable coze with Lady Wolverton.
"I apologize for not calling on you again," Anjelica began, "but after telling the neighbors they could not, my husband said I must heed my own mandate. But I gather from your determined expression and young companion that you are here on a mission of sorts?"
"I hope you do not mind - Sidney wants a pony for her birthday and I am determined she shall have one."
"And so she ... You have not spoken with Gerry on this matter?"
"Actually, no. Sidney was crying today because she overheard her uncle tell you she is to receive a doll, and she wants a pony."
Anjelica was hard-pressed not to laugh. Gerry had thought Sidney was eavesdropping the other day when they were discussing the purchase of one of her ponies, and had changed the subject. Then they were interrupted and no definite plans had been made.
Here was his wife, now, hoping to settle the deal without Gerry's knowledge. Anjelica had every intention of fulfilling her new neighbor's request.
Indulging in idle chat until the children polished off the biscuits and Lady Wolverton finished her tea, Anjelica sent the young ones upstairs to play and took her guest out to the stables.
"I have only one pony available right now," she apologized, "but he's docile enough for Sidney."
"How much will he cost?" Lady Wolverton asked after examining the little brown fellow. Anjelica named a figure that was agreeable, and they arranged for the pony to come to Wolverton the next Tuesday morning.
After another short visit back in the house, Lady Wolverton decided they had been away from home long enough, collected Sidney and left, well-pleased with herself.
Wolverton stopped by Danvers Park on his way home from visiting one of his tenants, intent on sealing the deal with Jellie over the pony.
"He's not available anymore," she said smugly when he found her in the stables.
"What do you mean not available? I'm looking right at him!" he insisted.
"Yes, but he is no longer for sale. I sold him earlier today. Really, Gerry, if you want the worm, you have to be the early bird!"
"Damn it, Jellie, you knew that pony was to go to Sidney!"
"And so it shall; you just won't be the one buying it," she teased, as pleased with herself as Harriet had been earlier.
"Who bought him, then? Uncle Oscar? Zoe?"
Jellie laughed, and the sound filled the stables to the rafters. "Do either of them have that sort of blunt? For that matter, does your wife? I made the deal with her, if you must know, but I did not ask for money yet."
Wolverton was taken aback. Harriet had purchased the pony? How did she know?
"Yes, she has the blunt. I expected her to spend it on herself, though. How the devil did she discover the plans to buy the... Now I know why she looked so pleased earlier today." He started to laugh.
"I did not think you would mind ... it's not like he was bought for someone besides Sidney."
And Harriet will have earned the affection of at least one member of the family, Wolverton thought with some satisfaction. Not that she did not already have that of another...
© 2003 Copyright held by the author.