George joined his relatives in the drawing room to give Sarah a chance to rest. He spent more than an hour talking to his brother Stephen, whom he had not seen since the last time he'd visited Brook End nearly two years ago; and to his uncle and aunt who wished to know all about the circumstances of his sudden marriage. They did approve of it and were much disposed to like his wife, he discovered, but they were curious nevertheless. At any rate, he consoled himself, having found out everything there was to know about his wedding from him they would not plague Sarah. Considering her timid nature, meeting his relatives must be trying enough for her even without being interrogated by formidable aunts.
His marriage had certainly made a difference in his standing among his family, he thought as he finally left the drawing room and made his way upstairs to the Tapestry Room. Being the youngest had brought with itself some severe disadvantages - he'd always been the one to wear the oldest clothes, had hardly ever had any toys of his own (his six older brothers had only let him play with whatever they had grown out of or had lost interest in), and once he'd been old enough to move out of the nursery he'd naturally been given the smallest bedroom in a remote corner of the house. To be fair, he had liked his room; it was cosy and its size made it easy to keep warm in winter. Besides, even the smallest bedroom in the house was better than having to share a larger one with his elder brothers, who appreciated their privacy just as much as he did. All that was over, however. His old bedroom would be turned into a guest room now, he guessed, to be allotted to some single gentleman or other whenever the house was full of guests and no better accommodation available.
The Tapestry Room was on the top floor of the house and its windows overlooked the garden. There were two huge and valuable tapestries decorating the walls, hence the name. But although a surfeit of tapestries often rendered a room gloomy and uncomfortable in George's opinion, this was not the case with the Tapestry Room in Brook End. The large windows and whitewashed walls gave the room a light and airy aspect, and the brightly-coloured pastoral scenes in the tapestries were much more pleasant to look at than those mythological creatures or hunting motifs he'd seen in tapestries in other houses. There was even a small dressing room attached to the bedchamber; a luxury he'd had to do without in his old room.
He found Sarah sitting in that dressing room, with her maid putting some finishing touches to her hair.
"Did you get some rest?" he asked her, giving up his intention of having a bath. Sarah would probably not be finished in time for him to get ready before dinner if he did bathe. A quick wash would have to do; he was certain she did not want him to take all his clothes off in front of her, and to say the truth he was not ready for that kind of thing either. Having to sleep in the same bed that night when they'd never done so before was bad enough, although he only had himself to blame for that circumstance. If he'd ever made an attempt to sleep in his wife's room, he was sure Sarah would have allowed him to do so. He wished he had tried, but the truth was that he'd been quite happy to spend his nights in his own bed, and there was nothing he could do about that now.
"I did." She smiled. "I lay down on the bed for half an hour or so. The room is lovely, isn't it?"
"I'm glad you like it."
"I will be finished in a minute or two and then you can have the dressing room to yourself," Sarah said.
"Oh, there's no hurry," George said politely. "Take your time."
Sarah laughed. "And how annoyed you would be if I took you up on that offer!"
"Do you think I'd admit it if it was so?" George asked, smiling in spite of himself.
"You probably would not. That makes it all the more important for me to learn to read the signs, don't you think?"
Miss Perkins, having finished with Sarah's hair, stepped back. Sarah gave her reflection in the mirror a critical look, and nodded. "That will do," she said. "Well done, Perkins. You may go now."
Perkins left, and Sarah got up from her chair. "Well? Do you think I'll do you credit?" she asked.
"You'll do more than that. You will sweep everyone off their feet," George said. She was looking very pretty tonight.
Sarah blushed slightly, and said quickly, "I'll leave you to yourself now, shall I? We don't want to be late for dinner."
She was in quite a hurry to get out of the room, George thought and speculated that this was because the thought of being there while he got ready embarrassed her. This did not bode well for their first night together. He'd have to be very careful so as not to alarm her.
At the dinner table, Sarah was seated between two of her brothers-in-law, Stephen and Reggie. Of the two, she liked Stephen better - he had an air of good-nature that his younger brother lacked. Besides she suspected Reggie of amusing himself at her expense. Even with her extremely limited experience with members of the opposite sex she recognised his manner towards her as openly admiring and half-flirtatious and deemed it inappropriate. Of course it might be, she reflected, willing to give her brother-in-law the benefit of doubt, that Reggie was unaware of the impression his conduct was giving her and that he did not mean to make her uncomfortable. Still, she felt more at ease with Stephen. Maybe this was because he was a married man and therefore safe company. He would be easy to confide in if ever she needed to confide in anyone but George, she thought as she told him about her home, her parents and her upbringing. It was not that he was prying; he was merely as open about his own affairs as he seemed to expect her to be about hers, and she was quite willing to go along with that.
"Shall we hear you preach your sermon on Christmas Day?" she asked him, as their conversation turned to the Edenthorpe family's Yuletide traditions.
"No; I am afraid not. Brook End does not belong to my parish. I'll be doing my duty in Exton - a clergyman is not supposed to let his parishioners down on such a day as Christmas."
"That is true," Sarah said. "Yet it is a pity. I was looking forward to hearing you - but I guess it will not do for us to attend the Christmas service in Exton if we are supposed to go elsewhere."
Stephen laughed. "You need not repine," he said. "My sermons are neither more instructive nor more entertaining than my worthy colleague's. Mr Paulett is a very learned man; I have the greatest respect for him."
"Do you know him well?"
"Yes, I do; for apart from having tutored me when I was a boy he is also my father-in-law."
"Indeed! So you must have been acquainted with your wife for a long time."
"I did know her, naturally, but I did not care much for her when she was a little girl and only began to notice her when she came back from school. She is the only woman I have ever met who is not only interested in scholarly debates but actually manages to take part in them - and to hold her own in them, too. It's no wonder I was impressed when I realised how clever she was. Once I'd got used to our inspiring conversations I realised I no longer wanted to live without them."
It seemed strange to Sarah that a man should fall in love with the brilliance of a woman's intellect and not just her beauty, but she did like the idea that such a thing was possible. There was a chance then that George, who was clearly not appreciating her looks as he ought to, no matter what he said to the contrary, might be impressed with her good sense at one point. After all she was anything but bird-brained. There must be something he liked about her. Sooner or later she would discover what that was and find her way from there.
"Sarah - I may call you Sarah, I hope?" Reggie said. "There are ladies who prefer to be reminded of their married state every time someone addresses them, and if you are one of those I shall be happy to humour you. But I do not think such formalities are necessary among members of the same family."
"I do not need a reminder, thank you," Sarah said. "I am perfectly aware of being married."
"Splendid." Reggie showed no sign of discomfiture, in spite of the rebuff. "We'll get along famously, I'm sure." Sarah was not quite as certain of that, but did not say so.
"Will you go to town for the season, or will you remain in the country?" Reggie asked.
"I have every intention of going to London," Sarah replied. "And George has every intention of taking me there. Will you be there too, or are you planning to go back to Spain soon?"
"I won't be able to stay for the entire season, but I hope to be still in town when you make your début," Reggie replied.
"Indeed? Why? It cannot be such an interesting event as that, and you do not strike me as the kind of person who enjoys attending social functions," Sarah replied.
"That's because we are not well acquainted yet," Reggie said. "I think I'll enjoy showing my new sister-in-law the ropes, as the saying goes, and I'm ready to fight my brother for the honour of dancing the first waltz with you."
Sarah supposed that he was joking, and laughed dutifully. "It is not at all necessary for you to do that," she said. "I will dance my first waltz with my husband or no one."
"Those are harsh words, dear sister." Reggie grinned. "But one must not give up hope too soon. I'll be happy to escort you to Almack's, should George find himself unable to do so, which I'm sure he will one day or another. He is not too fond of the place, I am sorry to say."
"I will let you know if I ever need your assistance," Sarah said politely.
"And I'll be only too glad to help."
Sarah did not doubt that, but decided that she'd stay at home for weeks rather than ask Reggie to accompany her anywhere.
Sarah had not planned to tell George about her conversation with Reggie, but she soon found out that he must have been watching them closely and had an inkling of what Reggie had said to her.
"I hope you don't mind Reggie," he said as they went to bed that night. "He's the family clown - thinks he's being funny but most of the time he isn't."
"Oh, I do not mind him," Sarah said airily. "Though I am not sure what to think of him. Is he ever serious?"
"He's a good sort on the whole," George said. "Doesn't mean any harm, and he doesn't mean to be annoying either. It is just that some of his jokes go against the grain with me, if you know what I mean. But he's often helped me out of a tight spot - when push comes to shove you can depend on him. He's never let me down."
"Of course he hasn't. He is your brother," Sarah said, smiling.
George got into bed next to her. "Well, then," he said, gave her a quick kiss and blew out his candle. "Good night."
"Good night," Sarah said with a sigh, settled into her pillows, and decided to try and go to sleep. It was exactly what George was doing, after all.
When Sarah awoke, George was already up. She could hear him move about in the dressing room, talking to his valet in a low voice, probably to make sure he did not disturb her. She leant back in her pillows, suppressing a sigh. Why did he have to be so … so polite all the time? She knew this complaint was ridiculous. Surely a polite husband was better than a rude one; a considerate spouse was infinitely to be preferred to one who did not think about her feelings at all. The problem was that while George was being civil and considerate, he had no idea what her feelings really were, and did not make any noticeable effort to discover them. Sarah remembered what Sir George had told her during their last conversation - that no man could be expected to know what he had not been told. But how could she tell George - and more importantly, make him understand - that his constant civility was beginning to grate on her nerves; that his indifferent kindness hurt her? That she wanted him to treat her like a wife, not a baby sister? It had been her fault too, she had to admit - if she had not been so terrified about the marriage bed things might have been different. Could she blame George for treating her like a child after her refusal to act like a grown woman? The fault was not entirely his. This time, Sarah did sigh.
The door to the dressing room opened quietly, and George came in, dressed for riding.
"Good morning," Sarah said.
"Good morning! I hope I didn't wake you," George said, came over and sat down on the bed. "I'm sorry if I did. It's still early, and yesterday was a trying day for you. I felt you needed some rest."
"You did not wake me," Sarah replied. "And I am perfectly rested, thank you. Are you riding out?"
"Yes; Henry wants to show us some improvements he has made on the estate. We will be back for breakfast. I hope you do not mind?"
"Oh no; I will be fine. Will your other brothers go with you too?"
"Yes; all of them. It will be almost like the old times, except that there will be only five of us."
"Then I hope you will make the most of it and never mind about me," Sarah said. George gave her a grateful smile and bent down to kiss her.
"Very well. I will see you at breakfast then, and if you like we can always go for a ride in the afternoon. It'll be warmer by then, too."
Not five minutes after George had left, Perkins came in with a cup of hot chocolate and some bread and butter for her mistress. While Sarah was eating, she pulled the curtains open and then went to the dressing room to prepare Sarah's clothes for her. Sarah, having finished her meal, got out of bed and went to the window.
It was a beautiful day, but cold. There was frost on the window panes, and the garden outside looked as if someone had thrown a white, glittery veil over the lawn and the shrubs. The yew topiaries looked glorious.
"I think I will go for a walk in the garden, Perkins," she said.
"But it is cold outside, ma'am!" the maid protested.
"I know it is cold outside but I do not mind. I'll take the fur-lined pelisse and the matching bonnet; they'll keep me quite warm."
Half an hour later, Sarah was on her way downstairs when she encountered her sister-in-law, Mary.
"Going out so early?" Mary asked her.
"Yes; I want to go for a walk in the garden before the frost is gone. It looks so beautiful, doesn't it?"
"It certainly does," Mary agreed. "If you do not mind waiting for another ten minutes, I'd like to accompany you - we did not get the opportunity to become properly acquainted last night, did we? But I must look in on my girls first."
"I'd love you to come along," Sarah said. "May I visit your children, or does your nurse object to strangers coming to see them?"
"Even if she did you are not a stranger; you are their aunt." Mary smiled. "And I know they will be delighted to meet you - they have talked of little else ever since we got the news of your marriage. They are very fond of their Uncle George, you must know, even though they do not see much of him."
"Then let us hope they will also be fond of me. I do not know much about children, I am afraid - I have not had the opportunity to meet any."
"Just be yourself," Mary recommended. "You cannot go wrong with that."
George paid rather more attention to what his brother Henry told them on their tour of the estate than he'd done on similar occasions before his marriage. Henry was a good landlord he knew; one who spent a great deal of time attending to his estate and making every effort to improve it. He was well respected among his tenants and painstaking in doing his duty. The estate had had much to bear lately due to the fact that his lordship had six brothers, all of whom had had to be provided for, and it was of utmost importance to him to recover these losses to be able to hand a thriving estate over to his - as yet unborn - son. George was surprised and even amused to find that the brother whom he had often thought of as an utter bore had suddenly become the man whose example he would do well to follow. It probably served him right.
On their way back to the house, George allowed himself to fall behind with his brother Reggie. There was something he needed to say to him, and he did not want anyone to overhear their conversation. Although he had not said so to Sarah, he knew pretty well what Reggie had been trying to do the previous evening, and he strongly resented it. He knew, of course, that it had not been Sarah's fault - in fact, by the way she'd looked George had been pretty certain that she had anything but welcomed Reggie's attentions. He suspected that Reggie had flirted with Sarah to set his teeth on edge, and to amuse himself at his youngest brother's expense. If that was so, he had better learn that although George had as much sense of humour as the next man he was not going to tolerate his wife becoming the victim of one of Reggie's pranks.
"You remember when I broke your nose?" he asked casually as they rode towards Brook End, with Henry, Stephen and Oliver leading the way.
"Don't I just," Reggie replied, with a short laugh.
"Do you want to repeat the experience?"
Reggie stopped his horse, and George followed suit. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"What do you think I'm talking about?" George asked. "Use your brain."
"Honestly, I have no idea," Reggie said. "What's wrong with you?"
"There's nothing wrong with me, but there must be a great deal wrong with you if you think I'll let you make my wife the butt of your jokes without doing anything to prevent you," George said fiercely.
"So you do care, do you?" Reggie said. The laugh had quite disappeared from his voice. "Who'd have thought it?" he added pensively.
"I can break your nose yet," George threatened.
"Or die trying," Reggie replied. "Let me tell you that I've learned a thing or two in the army, brother dear. Now listen carefully to what I'm going to say. It is not, and has never been, my intention to hurt or insult your wife, or to make jokes at her expense. If she thinks so, I'll apologise the moment I get back home. I did want to discover how things stand between the two of you. I'll admit to that, though it seems to me now that I did not choose the best method. To be honest, your marriage has me in a puzzle still. I can't quite see why you married her in the first place."
"Careful, Reggie," George warned his brother.
"What I mean is that she is a pretty, amiable young lady - virtuous, too - and her fortune is certainly something that won't come amiss in a gentleman's wife. Still, I've got a nagging feeling that you don't care for her above half." He hesitated, then added, "Never mind. It's none of my business. Forget what I said. You've made a good choice - whether Sarah's made a good choice as well remains to be seen."
"What the hell do you mean?" George demanded.
Reggie laughed. "Use your brain."
"You are good with children," Mary remarked as they made their way across the topiary garden towards the park.
"Do you really think so?" Sarah asked.
"You have taken your nieces by storm," Mary said. "I can certainly speak for my daughters, though maybe not for Oliver and Caroline's girl. But she seemed happy enough in your company, too."
"That does not necessarily mean I am good with children; it merely means that they were curious to meet their new aunt."
"Their curiosity would have been short-lived if they'd decided they did not like you," Mary said. "You will find that out soon enough when you have children of your own."
Sarah did not like to think of having children of her own - the thought of being a mother terrified her even more than the idea of having to perform her marital duties ever had. She was quite certain that she'd fail miserably in both roles, that of a mother and a wife.
"I am sorry if I embarrassed you," Mary said gently. "I am too outspoken sometimes - my besetting sin, my father calls it though Stephen says he does not mind. I suppose having been married for several years myself I have completely forgotten what it was like for me to be newly-wed and not yet accustomed to having a husband. Everything's so new, isn't it? And you really do not need any nosy females prying into your affairs, relatives or no."
This made Sarah laugh. "You did not embarrass me," she said. "It is just that I cannot think of myself as a mother yet."
"I couldn't think of myself as a mother either, before I became one," Mary said. "The mere notion seemed absurd to me. I was much too busy with setting up house in Exton Vicarage, attending to my share of the parish affairs and keeping up with my studies."
"Your husband has told me that you have a great deal of book-learning," Sarah said. "Did your parents not object?"
"It would not have mattered to me even if they had; I'd have found a way to learn anyway. But my father is of the opinion that being female is not a sufficient excuse for not getting a proper education, so that was never a problem for me."
"And your mother? I do not remember much about my mother, but to my knowledge I have never seen her with a book. She did read the Ladies' Monthly Museum - I have found some old editions in our house which must have belonged to her - but as for improving books ..."
"My mother hardly ever disagrees with my father," Mary said. "I believe she finds it easier not to."
"Mind you, he is not an unkind man, just a very forceful character. I take after him in that respect. It is a good thing I found a husband who tolerates that character trait in me, isn't it? For the most part, my mother lets my father have his way, unless a matter is both very close to her heart and goes against her principles. Making one's children learn as much as they can is not necessarily wrong, so she found no reason to object. Of course she took great care that I should not restrict my learning to Latin, Greek and Mathematics - she made me learn all the things an accomplished female is supposed to know as well. I believe it was on the understanding that I should not neglect this part of my education that she let my father teach me the Classics."
"It must be nice to have something to talk about with your husband - apart from household affairs and the children, that is."
Mary laughed. "Oh, once we're done with parish affairs, household matters and the children we hardly ever get to discussing the Aeneid these days. - But surely you have things to talk about with your husband even though you are not acquainted with Greek and Latin literature?
Of all the Edenthorpes, George is the least bookish so that cannot matter to him!"
"That's true," Sarah admitted. "I mean to say, I know he is not bookish. Though he does read to me occasionally."
"That's more than he has ever done for anyone as far as I know," Mary said, smiling. "He must be very fond of you."
Sarah blushed. "I hope so," she murmured, avoiding to look at her sister-in-law in order to hide her embarrassment.
"Oh dear, I've done it again," Mary said cheerfully. "We had better spare your blushes and go back to the house. Breakfast will be ready soon, and the men will be back too. Besides, I know Helena will want to show you around the house, and it is not done to keep one's hostess waiting."
In a matter of two days, Sarah had become acquainted with everyone staying at Brook End. Among her new relatives her mother-in-law, Mary, and Helena were the ones she felt most comfortable with, although she also liked George's brother Stephen very much. She greatly respected his intelligence and learning and thought him a principled and trustworthy man - very much like George, in fact. He did not have George's good looks but he had a general air of benevolence that made her feel at ease whenever she found herself in his company. His lordship - as George called him whenever he was out of earshot - was very kind to her too, but she stood a little in awe of him. He was such a correct gentleman, rather stuffy she thought. So she constantly feared that she'd make some social gaffe in his presence and that he'd think the worse of her for doing so, which was hardly conducive to establishing a real friendship between them.
George's aunt and uncle treated her with indifference but not unkindly, and his brother Oliver, too, did not take much interest in her. He had accepted her readily enough, it seemed, and whenever he did talk to her he was perfectly civil and obliging, but he did not go out of his way to please her, which suited Sarah very well. He was too much like his eldest brother to make her feel comfortable with him. Oliver's wife, Caroline, spent most of her time in the nursery and in her room. Her daughter, Frances, was two years old and appeared to stand in need of constant attendance from her mother. The elder Lady Edenthorpe hinted that Caroline was expecting an Interesting Event in the foreseeable future, and Mary told Sarah that her sister-in-law had been ill for most of her first pregnancy, so Sarah surmised that Caroline just did not feel well enough to join everyone in the drawing room during the day and did not blame her for mostly keeping to her room. She did wonder, however, why Caroline had braved the journey from London to Northamptonshire in her delicate condition. Surely this could not have done her any good? She knew nothing about pregnancy, of course, and it did not seem to upset any of the ladies who did know what it was like to be expecting, so she guessed everything was going its usual course and there was no need for her to worry. Like her husband, Caroline was pleasant enough when she found herself in Sarah's company but appeared too wrapped up in her own concerns to take much notice of her youngest sister-in-law. It did not look as if Sarah was going to get to know her really well.
Then there was Reggie. Sarah did not know what to make of him. After what she still considered to be his improper attempt at flirtation on her first evening in Brook End he'd been a picture of propriety. Still she did not trust him to keep up his good behaviour, and therefore treated Reggie with caution. It would not do to drop her reserve with him, she felt; he'd take full advantage of every chance he got and she was determined not to give him any. This was a pity, because in spite of his inappropriate sense of humour he seemed to be a likeable sort on the whole. Still, it was better to be safe than sorry, and so she kept him at arm's length, which he appeared to accept without ill-feeling.
Wishing to make herself useful to her hostess, Sarah readily took part in the Christmas preparations. According to her mother-in-law, a dance for the family and their neighbours on Christmas Eve was one of the Edenthorpes' prized Christmas traditions, and there was much to do in preparation for the event. Sarah took it upon her to decorate the entrance hall and the drawing room and enlisted George's help. George seemed quite happy to oblige her, although he did find her reluctance to climb a mere stepladder rather amusing.
"Why are you laughing?" she asked indignantly. "It's not at all funny!"
"Sorry, love," George replied, still grinning. "I just think it is strange that a woman who does not mind riding huge horses should be afraid of heights. Horses move, even!"
"That's quite different," Sarah protested, blushing. "I was taught to ride almost as soon as I could walk, but I was always warned away from steep stairs and ladders, so I grew to be afraid of them. Even if I was not I cannot but think that it is unladylike to climb ladders when there are gentlemen present."
"Don't let him tease you," Reggie commented. "If George cannot be bothered to assist you, I'll do it. I'm not afraid of ladders at all, and I don't mind climbing them even in mixed company."
"You won't," George said, rather more fiercely than was warranted by the occasion Sarah thought. "I never said I wasn't going to help her. If you tell me what you want me to do with that garland, Sarah, I'll put it up for you." Reggie laughed, gave Sarah a wink, and left them to their work. His offer of assistance had probably not been all that sincere after all. Still, Sarah thought George's reaction to it had been odd.
"That was rather uncivil of you," she remarked.
"The way you dealt with Reggie just now," Sarah said. "I'm sure he only wanted to help."
"Did he?" George replied. "Then why did he leave?"
"I'd have left too after having been barked at in this fashion," Sarah said.
"As a military man and one of seven brothers I'd say he ought to be accustomed to being barked at, as you chose to phrase it," George said. "If he isn't, it's about time he learns to cope with it. Now will you tell me where you want me to put up that garland or not?"
It was obvious that George did not want to discuss his brother with her, and so Sarah dropped the subject. It was true, after all, that a military man was in all likelihood used to being addressed in a rough manner and was not the kind of man to be offended by it. Besides, never having had any siblings of her own she did not know in what way brothers habitually spoke to each other, but she supposed that they were not always polite. From what she'd been able to see of other children when she was a child and visiting her parents' friends and their families, brothers could be rough in their treatment of their siblings, male or female. Even sisters could, she thought, remembering one occasion when a Miss Harvey - aged ten at the time - had boxed her younger sister's ears because she'd dared borrow one of her dolls for Sarah to play with. A noisy fight had ensued, until their governess had intervened and banished them both to the schoolroom. Maybe brothers and sisters did bring out the worst in people. So she did not dwell on the subject and merely gave George his instructions regarding the hall decorations, which he carried out to everyone's satisfaction.
Youthful as she was Sarah certainly looked the part of a young married woman, George mused as he led her downstairs to the dining room on Christmas Eve. She was wearing an emerald-green and white evening gown that she'd had made from materials he'd sent her from London - though he had no recollection of buying them. It became her, he thought, and guessed he had his mother to thank for choosing the fabrics so well. Her hair, too, was done in a most becoming style - there was nothing for him to blush for in his wife's appearance. Her youth did show in her girlish excitement over an insignificant Christmas Eve dance among friends. When he had asked her what was so special about it, she reminded him that it was going to be her first ball - a grand name, certainly, for a mere neighbourhood affair, but for a girl who had been married more or less out of the schoolroom he guessed it was an important event. She had not been out in society yet, he remembered. No wonder she was thrilled.
"I guess I'll have to dance the first two with you tonight," he said as they crossed the festively decorated hall.
"Only if you want to," she said tartly. "Otherwise you need not. Do not feel obliged to dance with me just because others may not choose to do so."
"I do want to dance the first two dances with you!" George protested, and sighed. "Sorry. I guess I have an unfortunate way of expressing myself sometimes - I did not mean to say I felt obliged to dance with you. Apart from that I do not think you'll ever lack partners. You are much too pretty to sit out as much as a single dance."
That compliment appeared to please her; at least she smiled a little. "Thank you, but I do not think I am all that pretty."
"Yes, you are. Coming to think of it I'd better ask you for the supper dance too, or I won't see you again all evening."
"I'll be happy to dance the supper dance with you," Sarah said. "And the first two."
Although she had never had a chance to dance in public so far, Sarah considered herself quite a good dancer. Mrs Simmonds, who was very fond of dancing and excelled at it, had taken good care that her charge did not neglect this part of a young lady's education. Sarah had practised her steps regularly, under Mrs Simmonds' stern and critical eye, and therefore did not find it too difficult to shine on the dance floor. Even her husband seemed impressed.
"I had no idea you danced so well," he admitted during their first dance of the evening. "You never said so."
"I am not in the habit of singing my own praises," Sarah said. "As you know." At least he should by now, she thought.
"Oh, I know that. It's just - well, I thought you did not care for it overly much, that's all, though I have no idea how I came to believe it. Looks as if I was mistaken."
Sarah assumed that her initial shyness and awkwardness had led him to think so, but kept her suspicion to herself. Instead she smiled at him, and said, "Very much mistaken in fact. - At least you need not worry about what picture I'll present at Almack's."
"I never worried about that," George said. "I don't frequent the place."
"Surely you'll go there with me?"
"I certainly will, if you like. Provided you get a voucher."
"Do you doubt it? Your mother says she will have no difficulty in procuring one for me."
"Then I'd say that is settled. We will be regular visitors to the assembly rooms until you grow tired of the place."
"Is it possible for one to grow tired of Almack's?"
"Not just possible, but probable." George paused. "For me, at least," he added. "But I've got to admit I was never all that fond of dances and assemblies in the first place. The youngest of seven is not much of a desirable dancing partner, and I did not choose to go where I knew I'd be ignored."
George grinned. "For heaven's sake don't pity me! Looking at how the matchmaking mamas and their ambitious daughters used to chase after my brother Henry I am sure I got the better deal. He did not even have any excuse for not attending, since my mother made sure he would."
"Poor Lord Edenthorpe then! I hope he could count on his brothers' support at least."
"But naturally. We all supported him in our own special way."
"This sounds ominous."
"He never had to worry about me; I was quite harmless, actually. Joseph and Reggie, now, were quite another story."
Sarah could readily believe that. She had not met Joseph yet, but if he was anything like his brother Reggie the pair of them would have been trouble.
At the end of the first two country dances, George was curiously reluctant to give his wife up to her next dancing partner; a neighbour and long-time friend of the family - highly respectable too. There'd be many such occasions in the future, he knew, and there was no need for him to worry that Sarah would get herself into mischief. He knew she would not. She was too well-behaved for that, and too shy to become a favourite with the men. So he had better get used to her dancing with other gentlemen; there was no harm in that. She was clever and well-mannered and would not cross the line of what was perfectly proper. Still …
George watched her as she took her place in the set and the musicians struck up their next tune. She gave her partner such a lovely smile, curtseying before she started the dance - surely that amount of friendliness was quite unnecessary? Sarah, he realised, was far from shy tonight. She was talking to her partner with perfect ease, was moving with a grace rarely to be seen among the ladies George knew - only his sister-in-law Helena could compare with her in that respect - and that dress of hers brought out the best in her. She was pretty and in excellent spirits, and her partner appeared to be quite taken with her, damn him!
Then the realisation struck George almost like lightning. Sarah was no longer the girl he'd thought her to be. His wife was a grown woman, and fool that he was he'd probably been the last one to notice.
Unable to continue watching her dance without dragging her away from her partner, George went off in search of a stiff drink.
Sarah was thoroughly enjoying herself. Mr Taylor, whom Lord Edenthorpe had introduced to her as one of his closest friends, was a pleasant dancing partner. He was about his lordship's age, owned a small estate nearby, and his family had been friends with the Edenthorpes for as long as he could remember.
"Then you are well acquainted with my husband?" Sarah asked.
"Not as well as with his eldest brothers. He is considerably younger than us after all. By the time he was old enough to tag along with us we spent most of our time at school, so we didn't see much of him."
"Of course. I quite forgot," Sarah said. "An age difference of nine years among children is rather much."
"My younger brother used to be a close friend of your husband's, however."
"Indeed? Is he here tonight?"Sarah hoped she did not sound too eager, but she would have dearly loved to meet George's childhood friend. Mr Taylor smiled, but kindly; her show of indifference had not deceived him.
"No; he is at sea at the moment. Somewhere around the Cape of Good Hope, I reckon."
"Oh - is he a sailor, then? Like my brother-in-law..." She hesitated and flushed, realising that she had forgotten that particular brother-in-law's name. How awkward that was! He'd think her such a fool!
"John," Mr Taylor supplied. "Never mind, Mrs Edenthorpe - there are rather a lot of Edenthorpes to keep track of, aren't there? Difficult to remember all their names, especially if you haven't met them yet. - Yes, my brother is a sailor like him."
"But not stationed in the West Indies like John," Sarah said, trying to make up for having forgotten her brother-in-law's name by indicating that she did know about his current whereabouts. "Isn't it rather dangerous, sailing around the Cape at this time of the year? I seem to remember my father saying something to that effect once."
"As far as I know, it is dangerous at all times. It wasn't called Cape of Storms for nothing. You know rather more about geography than any lady I know - always excepting Mrs Stephen Edenthorpe, who knows just about everything."
"She is marvellous, isn't she?" Sarah beamed.
"She certainly is a redoubtable lady," Mr Taylor agreed.
"You make her sound like an old tartar," Sarah said, laughing.
"Now that she is not!" Mr Taylor protested. "But you still haven't told me why you appear to be so well-educated in geographical matters."
"Doesn't everyone learn some basic geography? Why should it surprise you that I know the whereabouts of the Cape of Good Hope?"
"I am sorry if I have offended you, Mrs Edenthorpe. I did not mean to. Most ladies I know do have some basic knowledge of geography, but it does not usually stretch beyond the the British Isles; or Europe at the most. Your notion of what is basic knowledge and mine seem to differ."
"I was born in Calcutta, Mr Taylor, though my parents returned to England when I was hardly out of leading strings. Sometimes my father took me to the library and showed me the route we'd travelled on our way back. I used to enjoy that."
"I surely would have enjoyed it too, although I'd have resented having been too young to make the most of the journey," Mr Taylor remarked. "So you have no recollections of India?"
"None at all, I am afraid. As I said, I was still very little when we left."
"A pity; I would have liked to compare your recollections with my brother's. He seems very fond of the place."
"Oh, he has been to Bengal before then?"
"Yes; this is his third journey."
"In that case he will be able to tell me all about it when he returns," Sarah remarked. "Are you a traveller too, Mr Taylor?"
"Not really; I only travel if I have to," Mr Taylor replied. "Though it is a lack of opportunity, not inclination. Someone has to look after the estate."
"True; an estate does not run itself. My husband says so too. But you are able to go to Town occasionally, I hope?"
"Occasionally, whenever I have business there. Are you?"
"I haven't been to Town yet, but my husband is going to take me there for the season."
"I shall make a point of being there, too, then," Mr Taylor said, laughing. "It will be interesting to watch you taking the Ton by storm. For I am sure that is what you will do."
Sarah blushed, for although she knew better than to take Mr Taylor's compliment too seriously it did please her. She also liked the idea of him being in Town when she was - he was an agreeable gentleman, and she was very willing to further their acquaintance.
Her next partner was a Mr Randall, a young man not much older than herself. Mary had introduced him to her; his father was the principal landlord and a churchwarden in Exton, which meant that the family was well-known to her. Mr Randall was an earnest and well-mannered young man, and it was evident that he was not in the habit of dancing or talking to ladies. He was much too busy minding his steps to provide her with easy conversation, although he did make an effort. He had just finished his first term in Cambridge and had come home for the Christmas holidays, he told her. University life was not quite what he had expected at first; he'd thought his fellow students would be of a more sober and scholarly turn of mind than was really the case but he was not one to complain; he was doing well and that was all that counted. Mr Randall complimented her on her looks and her dancing, but seemed quite content to escort her back to her seat when the music stopped. He only remained for long enough to thank her for a delightful dance and to offer her some refreshment, which she declined. Then, with a bow, he left her.
Reggie, who had watched their progress across the room, chuckled. "There goes one who hasn't yet discovered the benefits of sitting with a beautiful lady," he said.
"Should he have discovered them?" Sarah asked. "He cannot be a day older than eighteen!"
"He isn't," said Reggie. "Still, if I compare him to myself at that age..."
"I had rather not know what you were like at eighteen, Reggie," Sarah said severely.
"Then I shan't tell you," Reggie said.
"While I do not know much about very young gentlemen," Sarah said, "I should say they must find it a perfect bore to waste time and effort on entertaining a married woman. I perfectly understand that."
"That's what I meant when I said he hasn't discovered the benefits yet," Reggie said laughingly. "Unlike an unmarried lady, a married one will never have any serious designs on a young man. He may practise his charm on her without having to fear the consequences."
"Such as an irate husband, maybe?" Sarah asked.
"I have yet to see the husband who objects to such a thing; always provided that both his wife and the young man in question adhere to the rules of decorum. You will find that it is a general practice among the Ton. Nothing to lose a moment of sleep over."
Sarah was spared having to think of a proper way to express her outrage, for at that moment George appeared at her side and led her to the set.
"Are you enjoying yourself?" he asked her as they took their place among the dancers.
"Oh yes; everyone is very kind to me. How come you never told me about your friend, Mr Taylor?"
"He's not my friend; he's Henry's."
"I am talking about his brother, the sailor."
"I haven't met Richard Taylor for ages; I don't know where he is these days," George said. "If there'd been any likelihood of you meeting him here I would have told you about him, naturally. He used to be my closest friend when I was a boy, but that changed when he went off to sea. It is difficult to keep up a friendship with a man who is never there."
"That is sad," Sarah said.
"It is - I would like you to meet him; he is a capital fellow," George said. "So you talked to Taylor about his brother?"
"That, and India, which Mr Richard Taylor seems to like very much. Mr Randall told me all about life in Cambridge."
"Not all, I trust; only the things a lady is supposed to know," George said with a grin.
"Do you think he knows the things a lady is not supposed to know?" Sarah asked. "I am not sure he does. Do you?"
"Yes, and I am not going to tell you."
"How unkind of you!"
"So you were not very impressed with young Randall then?"
"Not very. Maybe Reggie is right and he still needs to practise his charm."
"Not with my wife, thank you very much!" George did not appear to like the idea of anyone charming his wife, Sarah noted with some satisfaction.
"He was rather nice, just - not very grown up, you know," she confided. "And I am well aware how odd that must sound, considering that I am probably not much older than Mr Randall."
"Younger, in fact. But in my experience girls grow up much more quickly than boys. When I was eighteen, I was absolutely terrified of girls my age."
"Were you indeed? Why was that?"
"Because I badly wanted to impress them but knew I couldn't," George said, smiling ruefully. "That does put a spoke in one's wheel, doesn't it?"
"What made you think you could not impress the ladies?" Sarah asked, genuinely surprised that her husband, who had always looked like the picture of calm self-assurance to her, had ever suffered a single qualm when it came to his effect on the gentle sex. He must have broken hearts left, right and centre!
"I was the youngest of seven," George explained. "And I did not think I had the qualities any of my brothers possessed. I had nothing to recommend me - I had no title, nor was I rich like Henry, I wasn't clever like Stephen and Oliver, I didn't have Reggie's charm -"
"I do not think Reggie particularly charming," Sarah interrupted him.
"I am glad to hear it," George said. "Still, when I was eighteen he was very much what I wanted to be, and he knew it. Where was I?"
"We were talking about Reggie's non-existent charm."
George laughed. "Don't let him hear that; the poor fellow would feel absolutely crushed if he did. Well, there was nothing I could be proud of, apart from my sporting success, and one doesn't talk to ladies about having won a dozen mills or having got in a hit over Gentleman Jackson's guard, or about one's success in the hunting field. That would bore them to tears rather than impress them!"
"You really won a dozen mills?" Sarah asked, her eyes gleaming. She'd never thought that her mild-mannered husband had it in him to fight!
"More than a dozen, actually, but I am telling you this in the strictest confidence." He winked, and Sarah laughed.
"Can you teach me to box?"
"Certainly not!" he cried, horrified.
"I thought you would not. A pity! It looks as if it might come in useful once I get to London."
The music stopped, and George took her arm to take her to the dining room. "Who gave you such a picture of London, my love?"
"No one in particular. But when I heard your brother Oliver talk about the dangerous criminals one comes across in Town, I thought I had better learn to defend myself."
"You will never get close to any of the really dangerous places; I'll make sure of that," George assured her. "But if it gives you any comfort I can teach you to shoot."
"I will like that," Sarah said. She did not really want to learn to shoot - and she had not been really keen on learning to box either - but she was going to take part in anything that meant she would have to spend more time with George. And he'd called her his love. On their way to the dining room, Sarah trod on air.
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