Posted on Monday, 15 March 2004
In the year 18--, just before the Season was to open, three of London's society grande dames met in the house of one of them to speculate on the coming year. It had become a standard practice for the three women since their own debuts into Society many years ago, though the number of years was inexact and would never have been repeated by anyone. At least, not to their faces. A number of people were more than eager to speculate that they had debuted long before the Colonies had claimed independence from England, but to do so in their hearing would have meant sudden death in Society. As no one wished that, the subject was never mentioned.
Lady Camellia Bakenbatch, Countess Wrothes, had been a handsome girl in her youth, courted by many a rogue for her fortune. Lady Camellia had held out for love and thought she had found it in the Earl of Wrothes. When rumour reached her that the earl was to propose to a beautiful country girl, she had decided to take matters into her own hands and had won him the way her mother had won her father-by seducing him. Having attained her greatest wish, Lady Camellia was content thereafter to rule Society as she had been raised to do. Many a young woman's place in Society was made or broken from the simplest of words spoken from the countess, who thought herself to be the best judge of what constituted a true lady.
Lady Agatha Winterrode, the widow of a baronet, had not been beautiful but had been fortunate enough to have a fortune that rivaled her close friend's. It had also been her great fortune to marry Sir Francis Winterrode after enduring the marriage market for five years. Sir Francis had been in his fifties at the time of their marriage and had done her the courtesy of dying six years later, leaving her with a son. Lady Winterrode, to the surprise of everyone but most especially herself, became known as an arbiter of fashion, having an unerring aptitude for knowing what was fashionable and what was not. When an invitation from Lady Winterrode arrived for a young woman who lacked fashionable attire but was considered by the countess to be a lady, she knew what the discussion would be about and considered herself grateful.
Mrs. Prudence Gordon was the wife of a mere gentleman, but of the three was quite possibly the most content. Mrs. Gordon had not had beauty or fortune, but she had had a lively intelligence and wit and had captured a eye of Mr. Edward Gordon many years ago. Mr. Gordon was himself possessed of great wit and intelligence, as well as a more-than-respectable fortune. Mrs. Gordon was well-liked by Society, something Lady Camellia and Lady Winterrode never attained. Indeed, many people within the ton wondered why Mrs. Gordon remained friends with the other two women, but on the rare occasions some blunderer would ask the question, Mrs. Gordon would simply smile and say, "Some things in life cannot be explained."
Whatever the reason, the three women had been friends for most of their lives and were quite happy with the way things were. This Season was to be no exception, hence the meeting to discuss the year's newest crop of debutantes and to track the progress of debutantes from years past.p1 In their many years of watching young girls blossom into beauties and eventually brides, the trio had made a great many observations and predictions about how well this particular girl would marry or whether another girl would ever find a husband with her silly mother prattling about any man who came within a ten-foot distance of the poor girl. While their predictions were not always in accordance with others, it was generally the case that one or the other of them knew exactly what would happen to a debutante within weeks of her first bow into Society.
"I can honestly say that we have the finest group of debutantes ever this year," Lady Camellia said with pride. "I do not think I have ever seen a lovelier set, except perhaps for six years ago when the eldest of the Fitzwilliam girls made her debut. Do you recall, Agatha? There was oh, dear, I can never quite remember her name. Something out of Shakespeare, I recall. All the Fitzwilliams name their children from Shakespeare."
"Cordelia," Mrs. Gordon told her. "The eldest was Lady Cordelia, and I agree with you that she was quite lovely. Not quite as sweet as she appeared, though."
"What nonsense, Prudence. She was as sweet a girl as any I ever saw," Lady Winterrode objected.
"Any girl would have seemed sweet next to her cousin. Or perhaps it would be better to say that any girl's behaviour would have looked better next to Miss de Bourgh's at the time. Having had the benefit of becoming acquainted with Lady Denby, I find her to be a charming woman."
"Charming? She is rude and-"
"You only say that because she had the audacity to say what no one else would to you," Mrs. Gordon stopped Lady Camellia before she could continue. "Now please, let us not reflect on that incident. Since she married Lord Robin almost five years ago, she has altered a great deal. Even you must concur with that, Camellia."
Lady Camellia did not look as though she agreed but did not argue with her friend. Anne de Bourgh, or rather, Lady Anne Hamilton, was one of the few women about whom they did not share an opinion.
"Lady Cordelia has not improved upon closer acquaintance," Lady Winterrode added meekly. "I heard tales of what she did in France before her marriage----"
"Yes, yes," Lady Camellia said, attempting to brush that aside. Lady Cordelia Fitzwilliam had gained her full approval upon her entrance into Society, but had proved herself far different than her appearance when her father, for some reason, had allowed her to travel to France to stay with relatives there. Her reported behaviour while there had greatly disappointed her secret patroness.
"Who is coming out this year?" Lady Winterrode asked quickly to bring the conversation back to the present.
Lady Camellia, believing that orderliness and efficiency were of the essence even in casual conversation, withdrew from her reticule a paper with a list of names. "Miss Tara Willis. She is Roarke's granddaughter."
"Ah, but what an unfortunate father," Lady Winterrode pointed out. "Lady Aurelia married quite poorly when she married him. One should expect better from a duke's daughter."
"There is one black ewe in every family," Mrs. Gordon said. "Lady Aurelia simply happens to be the one in Roarke's."
"Quite honestly, the things I hear about that Roarke, we should be surprised any of those children turned out well. He was not supposed to inherit the dukedom, you know," Lady Camellia confided. "And I have heard that there was some mystery as to the cause of his brother's death."
"Oh, Camellia, really," Mrs. Gordon said in an exasperated tone. "If everyone were guilty of the things people claim they have done, all of England would be in prison."
"What of the girl?" Lady Winterrode asked eagerly.
"Quite beautiful, of course. What else would you expect from Aurelia?"
"To be fair, however, Geoffrey Willis was a devilishly handsome man himself," Mrs. Gordon said.
Lady Camellia shifted her glasses before reading the next name. "Miss Nicolette Harvey."
"Not Jamesie's daughter!" Mrs. Gordon exclaimed.
"The very same."
"Good heavens! When did she get to be old enough for a debut in Society? The last time I saw her, she was a little redheaded moppet as tiny as anything."
"She is nearly eighteen and from all accounts very stunning." Another shift of the glasses. "Miss Laura Banning."
There was a small groan from the other two. Laura Banning had two elder sisters. The first sister, Lavinia, had been beautiful, gentle, and sweet-natured, and had married before her first Season was through. Tragically, she had died in childbirth less than eighteen months later. Laura's other sister, Lydia, had been just as beautiful as Lavinia but a complete hellion. She had felt no compulsion to act in a ladylike manner and had nearly brought scandal on the entire Banning family. Fortunately, her father had acted quickly and had forced Lydia into marriage with an elderly duke, who had the foresight to die within a year of their marriage. Since then, Lydia had been completely unmanageable. Society was bracing itself for the third daughter, of whom little was known. Would she be like Lavinia or like Lydia?
"Miss Melanie Cameron," Lady Camellia said.
"How do I know that name?" Lady Winterrode pondered. "The name Cameron strikes me as being familiar, though I know not how."
"You probably know of her brothers, Nigel and Leonard," Lady Camellia said with a pointed glance at her two friends.
"Of Nigel, I know a great deal," Lady Winterrode said with a frown. "One hears so much of his...escapades. Is it true that his father banished him to the Continent after he fought that duel with Lord Stephenson over his daughter?"
"I fear it is," Mrs. Gordon replied.
"And the daughter is no better than the brother," Lady Camellia added, "or so I have heard. Why else would her father have sent her away to France for three years? The girl is nearly twenty and is just now making her debut in London. If you ask me, it proves there is something wrong with the girl."
"Poor Leonard," Lady Winterrode said with a note of sadness in her voice. "That poor young man tries so hard to overcome his elder brother's reputation. I had hoped he would have a chance of succeeding with Nigel gone. Now he must deal with the sister, and Lord only knows if Leonard will ever find a bride, for who would marry into such a family?"
"We do not know that the sister...what was her name again? Oh! It was Melanie. We do not know if she has turned out as wild as her first brother, but even supposing her to be as well-mannered as Mr. Leonard Cameron, she shall have a great deal to overcome in order to marry well...large dowry notwithstanding."
"Indeed," Lady Camellia murmured before moving on. "Miss Violet Cavendish."
"At last," Mrs. Gordon exclaimed. "I thought that horrible sister of hers would never marry."
"She did marry well," Lady Winterrode protested.
"A sight better than she deserved," Lady Camellia muttered. "Beautiful outside, but within Lord, here's hoping this new Cavendish flower has a better character. Ah, now, who is next Lady Maria Cole. Wexley's youngest."
"Who on earth is Wexley?" Lady Winterrode asked.
"A widower with four daughters. The three eldest married country gentlemen, but this youngest appears to have had little luck, which is why they are here. Agatha, dearest, I have seen the girl and if she turns out as well as I think, she shall need your excellent guidance."
Mrs. Gordon sipped her tea and remained silent. Her friends knew what she thought of their meddling in such affairs. She had no problem with speculating about these young girls of whom she truly knew little beyond their ancestry, but anything beyond that bothered her more and more as the years progressed. Not enough to prevent it, of course, but her conscience still felt a slight sting.
"Lady Alice Warrick, second daughter of the Earl of Scalingford. Plain girl, utterly hopeless," Lady Camellia said dismissively. "I saw her last month tch. No elegance, in spite of all that breeding."
"The eldest sister is not married, is she?" Mrs. Gordon inquired.
"No, poor girl. At least she tried, but this one does not seem to care at all." Lady Camellia frowned at the piece of paper, having lost her place, but she found the last name she had mentioned and continued. "Lady Claudia Halliday and Lady Augusta Halliday."
"How do I know that family name?" Lady Winterrode asked.
"The Earl of Hemmings' daughters. Beautiful girls, absolutely ravishing, well-mannered, certain to marry early."
"Hemmings?" Lady Winterrode raised her hand to her mouth. "Was it not his son who..."
"Who married the eldest Banning girl? Yes, it was." Lady Camellia set her list aside, although there was yet another name to be mentioned. "I have heard he could be coming to London for the Season."
"Have you really?" Lady Winterrode said. "I had heard he was still in deep mourning for his viscountess. He truly loved her, you know." There was a note of disapproval in her voice, for love was not something she considered to be proper in Society marriages.
Mrs. Gordon said, "It was a sad day when dear Lavinia died. She was such a wonderful lady. I feel certain that she could have tamed that sister of hers, if only..."
"No one could have tamed that...that disgrace," Lady Camellia said. "Not even Lady Axelby."
"As I understand it, Lord Rupert is under pressure from his father to produce an heir," Mrs. Gordon said. "According to Mrs. Templeton, he and his father have had several arguments on the subject. I do not suppose I can blame Lord Rupert for being reluctant to remarry."
"I understand that he went so far as to suggestion to his father that the title could pass on to his daughter," Lady Winterrode said with another disapproving look. "Well, it simply is not done."
"Has Hemmings suggested to his son that his daughter needs a mother?" Lady Camellia asked. "He should remarry for no other reason than that, although the man has a duty to his future title. Lady Axelby was a wonderful woman, yes, but she has been gone these two years. But is it certain that he is coming for the Season?"
"I suppose he is to come in order to support his sisters," Mrs. Gordon said. "And keep watch over them as well. You know that the earl's health is not what it once was."
"Do you know, I would not have attributed his continued mourning to be the result of love," Lady Winterrode confided. "I always suspected he only married Lavinia Banning because Anne de Bourgh married Lord Robin Hamilton. Anyone with eyes could see..."
Mrs. Gordon shook her head. Although she had never quite figured out the identity of the lady Lord Rupert Halliday had pined for before his marriage, she knew it had not been Anne de Bourgh. She had been unable to convince her friends of it without certain knowledge of whom the other woman had been. She folded her hands in her lap and resolved to invite Lord Rupert to her next dinner, should he be in town for the Season.
"Were there any other names we needed to discuss?" Lady Winterrode asked.
Lady Camellia grabbed her sheet of paper, nearly crumpling it in the process. She looked at the last name on the list and said, "This is rather unusual. We were just speaking of the family, and here is the last of the names that matter. Lady Juliet Fitzwilliam is to make her debut."
"Lady Juliet?" Lady Winterrode questioned. "Is she not full young to be out in Society?"
"Seventeen," Mrs. Gordon replied. "I must agree, she is too young, not to mention the fact that her elder sister is yet unmarried."
"Lady Ariel," Lady Camellia said with a broad smile. "I spoke with their mother just the other day. Lady Matlock told me that it was Lady Ariel's idea to allow her sister to debut this year rather than waiting another year or until she got married. According to the countess, Lady Juliet has grown a bit wild and needs a good example of how to behave in Society. It is hoped that her sister shall be able to provide that for her."
"Who would be better than the most proper young lady in England?" Lady Winterrode agreed. "Such ease, such manners, such impeccable breeding! And so beautiful! With such style!"
"It is a shame she is yet unmarried," Mrs. Gordon added with a small sigh. "I cannot understand it. Lady Ariel is everything a man should want in a wife. The years only seem to add to her beauty, and yet she enters her third Season without finding a husband."
"Well, Prudence, you did not hear this from me, but according to Lady Matlock, her daughter has received any number of marriage proposals and has refused them all," Lady Camellia said in a low voice, although there were only the three of them in the room.
"I do hope this means she is not turning out to be like her cousin, vowing to never marry," Lady Winterrode murmured.
"Oh, not at all! Lady Matlock said that Ariel has very high standards. She went so far as to say that she has a list she keeps about her person describing the perfect husband. Again, this must be kept between the three of us, but the countess told me that Ariel is waiting to marry a man who meets all of the criteria on her list."
"Heavens! Someone needs to tell that child that no man shall ever be perfect!" Mrs. Gordon exclaimed. "Not even my Ned comes close to being an ideal husband."
While the other two continued to debate the virtues and follies of the young woman in question, and drifted on to wonder just how wild Lady Juliet would turn out to be, Mrs. Gordon sipped her tea and thought of Lady Ariel.
It seemed strange to her that her friends swore they first saw her three years ago at the St. Cecelia's ball, when she made her official bow into Society, when they had all been present two years before that at a costume ball given by her parents. Perhaps the events which had taken place during that evening had been too shocking to allow them to recall that Lady Ariel had, for a very brief time, appeared in the most scandalous costume she had ever seen.
She had been dressed as William Shakespeare. Most people assumed she was a young boy, but Mrs. Gordon had heard her talking to another Shakespeare----who had turned out to be Lord Rupert Halliday, if she remembered correctly. It was clear that the younger of the Shakespeares was a young woman. Mrs. Gordon had remembered thinking at the time that she was bound to be more trouble than her cousin Anne de Bourgh and her sister Lady Cordelia combined when she finally debuted. She had a sparkle in her eyes that hinted at a mischievous nature. Mrs. Gordon would have approved, except that one could not possibly approve of the costume she chose to wear that night.
Two years later, however, when Lady Ariel Fitzwilliam, second daughter of the Earl and Countess of Matlock, made her debut, she quickly became known as a young woman of high morals. A young woman of even temper, cool reasoning, and elegance. The wilder men of the ton were not quite as enraptured with the fiery beauty once they came to understand the coolness that lay beneath. She was not cold-hearted, though many a man said she was. She abided by the rules of Society and disapproved of those who did not.
She would not be rushed into a hasty marriage such as that of her sister. She went out of her way to avoid fortune-hunters and rogues, dancing with the gentlemen of whom her father approved. She made friends easily because she was not known to gossip, though none of the young ladies who called her friend could say with all honesty that they knew her well. She was loyal to a fault, however, and they could trust her. Despite the fact that she was an acknowledged Incomparable, her beauty did not seem to hinder her. She was, in short, the most proper young lady in England.
When Mrs. Gordon was first officially introduced to Lady Ariel, she had expected to see more of the mischievous girl she had seen at the costume ball. Instead, it appeared as though all traces of the girl were gone forever, for the only thing Mrs. Gordon had seen in Lady Ariel's eyes was an odd trace of sadness.
Mrs. Gordon could not help thinking it a great shame, but also wondered what could have possibly happened to a girl of eighteen that would change her in less than three years.
In a fashionable townhouse not far from where the three women were taking tea and exchanging predictions for the upcoming Season, Lady Ariel Jade Fitzwilliam lay upon her bed, reading a novel of a serious stamp for young ladies. She had been a voracious reader from childhood, although in her early teens her father would not have approved of her choices. Now, however, she did nothing of which her father, the Earl of Matlock, would not approve.
Had she been privy to the conversation about herself and her family which was taking place down the street, she would have been able to assure the three women that her sister Juliet was not truly wild. Introducing her into society a year early and before her elder sister was married was an attempt by her father to keep Juliet from carrying out her threat to run away on the first ship sailing for America and marrying James Penhalligan. Even Ariel's sensible argument that after six years James Penhalligan would probably have no idea who she was did not deter Juliet. Her sister was convinced that she would marry her American boy, and no one would stop her! Juliet was certain that coming to London would make it easier for her to find a ship to stow away on.
Juliet had no clue what she was going up against in her sister. Ariel was determined not to let Juliet embarrass the family in such a way. Was it not enough that Cordelia had nearly brought a house of ruin on their heads five years ago and continued to do so? Were they to go through this with Isabella and Miranda as well?
With a small frown, Ariel set her book down and rubbed her forehead, trying to ward off the headache she feared would come. She inevitably got one when she thought of her family.
It was not that she did not love her family. It was just that she wished they were not so well, scandal-prone. It had started outside of Ariel's immediate family, when her cousin Darcy had married a servant's daughter. Even worse was the fact that she was a servant's daughter who had been engaged to another man!
Then there was Anne. Ariel loved Anne dearly, and had once wanted to be like her, but now that Ariel was an adult she realized that Anne had paid a dear price to be as she was. The former "Bad-Tempered Heiress" was content now, happily married to Robin Hamilton and the mother of two young daughters, but to this day people still talked about the way Anne had acted before her marriage and the haste with which her marriage came about.
In the same year that Anne married Lord Robin, Cordelia had privately shamed the family by arranging for Anne's attempted kidnapping at the hands of Evan Brixton and publicly shamed them by her bad behaviour in France, which was where she opted to go after Anne's marriage. When she returned to England, to everyone's surprise, the Marquis of Wakefield was waiting for her. In spite of what he had heard about her, Jason Siddens still wanted to marry her. Cordelia, knowing she was out of choices, accepted his proposal. Seven months later, it became obvious to everyone why.
Ariel sighed. At least her sister had had enough sense to give birth to a daughter. Jason Siddens had vowed to duel with anyone who said Michelle was not his, but everyone knew the truth and thought him very foolish. Ariel supposed it just proved that love was blind. Thank God it was a girl, though. She doubted that the marquis would have loved Cordelia enough to allow an illegitimate child to inherit his title. His heir presumptive certainly would not have allowed such a thing to happen.
With such examples before her, it would not have surprised the ton were Lady Ariel to turn out like her sister and cousin. Indeed, Ariel had been well on her way at the age of sixteen to being a hoyden. She read frivolous, scandalous novels and made bold statements to men and dressed in shocking costumes
Ariel felt heat rush to her cheeks and knew she was blushing. Thank God no one had seemed to figure out that she was the younger Shakespeare at that costume party five years ago. She would have died of shame now if anyone had.
Yes, Ariel Jade Fitzwilliam had been poised to be as outrageous as Anne at her worst, speaking her mind, disagreeing with men when they were wrong rather than pretending they were brilliant just because they were men, and doing what she pleased rather than what Society deemed appropriate within reason. Her main goal, however, had been to marry Lord Rupert Halliday, Viscount Axelby, heir to the Earl of Hemmings. She had been in love with the gentle, friendly viscount since the day he had come ostensibly to call on Anne but in reality had come to see her sister Cordelia.
Unfortunately, Lord Rupert saw her as nothing but a nuisance. Ariel had presumed this had something to do with the age difference between them, for he had said that she was a mere two years older than his twin sisters. Looking back on the few brief conversations they had, Ariel could see that she had gone about it all wrong.
She had not realized how wrong she had been until the day four years earlier when Cordelia had spitefully informed her that Rupert Halliday was engaged to marry Miss Lavinia Banning, and had shown her the announcement in the Times to reinforce her statement.
"Miss Banning is such a lady," Cordelia had said, her voice full of false concern. "Beautiful----well, of course, you have seen her. She's the one with the black hair and those dark eyes. She is quite lively but not too bold, they say, and well-mannered and graceful. And of course, she has a good fortune and is from a good family. Lord Rupert has done very well for himself, but of course you couldn't expect him to throw himself away on some foolish headstrong girl who would only cause him grief."
Ariel had been tempted to ask her sister which of those traits she herself did or did not possess, but she refused to rise to the occasion. She knew Cordelia wanted a reaction and the best she could do was disappoint her. Ariel had merely said, "How nice for her."
Once Cordelia was gone, Ariel had run to her room and sobbed for two days. She had thought telling Lord Rupert she loved him would be enough. She thought he would wait until she was out. She had been certain she could convince him that she had all of Cordelia's good qualities without having any of her bad ones. Instead, he married Lavinia Banning and had gotten exactly what he wanted----a proper lady.
Lady Matlock had dealt with a daughter's grief before, and when Ariel took to her room, she feared she would soon be dealing with another Cordelia. What Lady Matlock did not know was what had caused the upset. Cordelia refused to say, but trying to get any information out of her was difficult since Cordelia still felt her parents had betrayed her by allowing Lord Robin to marry Anne. The Fitzwilliams braced themselves for what would come when Ariel eventually emerged from her room.
Which was why they were startled when the girl who had entered the room emerged a young woman. There was an unmistakable hint of sadness in her eyes, but they were calm and no longer teary. Ariel was seventeen years old, but even then she knew that her heart would never recover from the upset it had received. It would not be her lot in life to have a husband she loved, but she could find a man to respect and admire. In return, it would only be fair if she were to be a proper wife, which is what she set about to become.
People were stunned when the well-mannered, pleasing Lady Ariel did not find a husband in her first two years in society. They would have been even more stunned to discover that Ariel had planned it that way. She wanted two years to get an idea of what sort of man she wished to marry, which had led to the list of virtues, which had then led to the list of eligible men. It was a sad commentary on the life and times of English men that this last list was short.
Ariel took the list out of her pocket and looked over the six names she had decided upon. They appeared to be perfect matches for her, and had been added to the list after great consideration. Now all that remained was for her to get to know them a little better throughout the course of this Season, decide which one she liked the best, and let him know she would be receptive to an offer of marriage...in a ladylike way.
It was the way Ariel Jade Fitzwilliam did things now. It was the best way to go about finding a husband. Marrying for love was foolish, for look what inevitably happened! People were made miserable. She had seen enough examples of it to put her off the idea permanently.
Yes, she thought with a small, satisfied smile, her way was the best. And she would be happy. She was determined it would be so.
Posted on Tuesday, 14 September 2004
Lord Rupert Halliday, Viscount Axelby, had once been known as an easy-going young man of good fortune. Friendly to a fault, generous, brilliant at the card tables, an amiable dance partner, trustworthy confidante.
He had looks to match his personality, with his brown hair with faint red highlights and honest brown eyes. He had been a favourite of the ton. The fact that he was rarely mentioned by any of the marriageable young ladies as a possible husband was not something which bothered him. Rupert had once figured that when it was time for him to marry, he would do what his father had done----find a country girl of good family, and possibly good fortune, and marry her quickly before anyone else discovered her and start a family.
Rupert had not expected love to throw his life so completely off-course that it would never recover, but from the moment Lady Cordelia Fitzwilliam strolled into the St. Cecelia's ball six years earlier, his plans for the future were altered forever. He, like nearly every other gentleman present that evening, had fallen in love with the beautiful Lady Cordelia. Rupert, like every other man who courted her, had used any plan available to win her heart.
Unlike the others, however, Rupert had eventually discovered that Lady Cordelia had no heart. He had discovered this in the most painful fashion when he overheard her plotting the abduction of her cousin Anne. She had been desperate enough to marry Lord Robin to plot with a man whom she had known to be evil.
Rupert, with some coaxing from Lady Cordelia's younger sister, had informed the Earl of Matlock of his daughter's plan and foiled it. Robin and Anne were married, and Cordelia had gone away to France, only to marry quickly upon her return to England and gave and give birth to a child that was clearly not her husband's.
By the time of her return, however, Rupert had already found himself falling in love with someone else, someone far different from Cordelia, although Rupert had not thought it possible at first.
Lavinia Banning had been entering her first Season that year. Her parents were new money, not that such a thing ever mattered to him. She had spent most of her life in Hertfordshire, which made her seem more lively than the usual girls who came to London. She was charming and guileless. She seemed the complete opposite of Lady Cordelia Fitzwilliam, and although he did not completely trust his instincts, he proposed to her.
Lavinia had been delighted, and her innocent joy at his proposal was the spark which melted his deepest reservations about marrying her. They had married a few months later, to his father's relief, and settled at one of his father's estates in Somerset. There, Rupert spent the happiest time of his life since his childhood, falling more in love with his wife every day.
They had appeared in London for two short months the following Season, until Lavinia had discovered she was with child. Rupert had insisted that they return to Somerset until after the child was born, believing that the country air would be best for his wife and their baby.
Then the hideous blow had fallen. Lavinia, whose pregnancy had been unremarkable, spent thirty-eight hours in childbirth. In the end, just as the infant took its' first breath, the mother took her last.
The child, a girl Rupert had named Amanda, somehow survived. Rupert had gone into deep mourning, seeing few people other than his closest friends and family. Rather than reject the child who had brought about her mother's death, Rupert thanked God daily that the girl was alive. Lavinia had loved their child so much and had sacrificed everything for her that Rupert would not have dreamed of rejecting the girl.
The first year of his mourning had passed in a haze. Rupert remembered little other than the daily struggle to get out of bed in the mornings, spending as much time with Amanda as possible, and the support of his loved ones. In the second year, however, things began to change.
Everyone went from supporting him as he continued to mourn Lavinia to telling him he needed to move forward and marry again.
Marry? Who could he possibly marry after Lavinia? How could he sully the memory of the short time he had with her by marrying another so soon after her death? How could he possibly stand to have his daughter call another woman 'Mama'? How could he disgrace the sanctity of marriage by marrying a woman merely to produce an heir?
Rupert turned a deaf ear to his family's pleas. He went so far as to leave his father's house and go to join the Bannings in the country.
He found little solace with the Lavinia's family, however. Although they loved him dearly, and it was always a joy for them to see Lavinia's daughter, they also felt that Rupert should remarry.
"There is a part of me that will always mourn for her. I know the same holds true for you, my son," Arthur Banning had said with sadness. "But Lavinia would not have wanted..."
"Sir, please do not tell me she would not have wanted me to spend my life grieving for her," Rupert had said. "I have heard that from any number of people, but please, not from you."
"But I must tell you that, because I know it to be true. Lavinia was such a happy girl. She would not want anyone suffering for longer than they must."
Rupert knew Arthur was telling him the truth but he still could not bring himself to consider marrying again.
Returning to Elsinore Manner, Rupert was again assailed by his father.
"You must marry, m'boy, if for no other reason than to provide an heir," Geoffrey Halliday, Earl of Hemmings, told his son. "Marry one of the Barkley girls. They may not have much money but they are a trio of the prettiest girls in the country, sweet as anything, and..."
"I will tell you for the last time, Father, I have no wish to remarry," Rupert said angrily. "Let Cousin Clarke have the title when I am gone."
"Absolutely not. That fop! He would go through the entire Halliday fortune within the month, and I doubt he would provide for your mother and sisters. Amanda shall have a fortune, but what would your mother and sisters have? Would you like to see them out in the cold, starving and without a friend?"
"Father, your scenario depends on two things happening---your death and mine, both coming fairly soon. As you are in excellent health---"
"That is not what Mr. Perry tells me."
"You pay that swindler to tell you what it suits you to hear. But as you are in excellent health, and so am I, there is a very good chance that the twins shall be married before we die. I have no doubt that one of their husbands would be willing to take Mama in should I precede her in death."
Lord Geoffrey did not like logic to interfere with his plans to have see his grandson born before he died. He was determined that the Halliday name not die out with Rupert.
"Rupert..." Lord Geoffrey sighed. "I know you loved Lavinia. I was afraid for a long time that you would never fall in love after Anne de Bourgh married, for I know you loved her. Oh, do not deny it to me, son. I know the truth."
"No, you do not."
"You married a girl much like her, only with more prudence. How do you explain that?"
Rupert sighed. "I fell in love with Lavinia for herself, not for her resemblance to another woman. How many times must we go through this? Why can you not leave the matter alone?"
"Because you are my son and heir. And as the future Earl of Hemmings, you have a duty to the title. It has never passed out of the main line, which is what you are threatening to let happen with this foolishness about never marrying again. And if your next suggestion is to let Amanda inherit, I shall not have it. Your cousin Clarke would...well, I would rather not think of what that fop would do if you were to try to name Amanda your heir."
"If I were to marry again, sir, my future wife would have to be like Lavinia. She would be a paragon of virtue. She would be trustworthy, honest, elegant, accomplished, and a credit to her family and to mine. She would be intelligent but not obstinate. In fact, she would have to be the most proper lady in England. And as such a shining example of womanhood does not exist since Lavinia died, I have resolved never to marry."
Lord Geoffrey thought quickly. He knew of one young lady who possessed every single one of those virtues, and what luck! She was currently unmarried!
"I know of the perfect wife for you," he told his son. "She is everything you have listed and more. Beautiful, with a good dowry and from one of the best families in England."
"I cannot believe it."
"Then come to London and see for yourself. Your sisters are making their debuts and shall need looking after, and I am not as young as I once was, you know. It shall be easier for you to do it than I."
"You must be jesting. Me, go to London? That is the last place I wish to go. Besides, I am still in mourning."
"Lavinia has been gone for more than..."
"Do not start that again! Just because Society deems that one year is all that a person needs to mourn does not mean that I..."
"You shall have to go for a Season sometime-"
"I would rather be hanged."
"Now, son, you know as well as I do that the best way to recover from something bad is to give it another try."
Rupert hesitated. Had he not married Lavinia thinking that very thing? "Marriage is a completely different proposition from riding a horse, sir."
"But the principle is the same. You need a wife, Rupert. You need someone to bring happiness and laughter back into your life. The lady I am thinking of is just the person to do it."
Rupert wanted to shout in frustration, but he had more respect for his father than that. Finally, knowing he would not be leaving the room until he did so, he asked, "Who is she? Who is this paragon of womanhood you would like to see me marry?"
"She is one of Matlock's daughters. Lady Ariel Fitzwilliam."
Rupert burst into laughter---cold, harsh laughter. "Now I know you are jesting. Lady Ariel, a model of virtue? That vixen would not know what virtuous behaviour was if she tripped over it."
"You are no doubt thinking of Lady Ariel's older sister, Lady Cordelia, or one of her younger sisters, but that is not the girl I mean. Lady Ariel is nothing like those other Fitzwilliam wildcats. She is modest, soft-spoken, elegant, beautiful, dutiful, accomplished...they call her the most proper young lady in England. If that is what you wish in a wife, Rupert, then there she is, ready for the taking."
Rupert shook his head. "The Lady Ariel Fitzwilliam I recall was a girl dressed up as William Shakespeare at her mother's costume ball five years ago. She told me to my face that---" Rupert stopped, not wanting to sully the girl's reputation.
"I do not know who you saw that night, but it most certainly was not Lady Ariel. She has not put a foot wrong since she made her debut. There are any number of eligible men pining after her, like there were for her sister, but she shall not settle for any but the best. I have heard she has compiled a list of criteria she wants to have in a husband."
"Which is proof enough that she is obstinate. Surely her father should choose a husband for her rather than let her go through a ridiculous charade such as that."
"I don't know. Oliver Fitzwilliam, after all, is the one who vowed he would not allow Lady Cordelia to marry until her cousin did. The debacle with his oldest daughter has mellowed him somewhat." Lord Geoffrey considered his options. "I shall make you a deal, Rupert. Come to London, at least for the girls' debuts. Lady Ariel shall be there and you can judge her for yourself. You shall see that she is the best possible candidate for you. If you do not find her so, then you may do as you choose."
"And you shall not bother me again about marrying? Ever again?"
Lord Geoffrey looked as though this were the last thing he wished to agree to, but he gave his consent to that.
"Very well. I shall be glad to have you off my back for good," Rupert said.
"If you do not believe the girl is what I say she is, talk to your friends. Talk to Lady Denby. She knows the truth," his father advised. "And I look forward to seeing you about London, planning your courtship of Lady Ariel."
When men sprout wings and learn to fly, Rupert thought sourly.
In the months that had followed Lavinia's death, Rupert had come to rely on his two best friends more than anyone else. The main reason for this was that neither of them had hounded him about remarrying. He feared he had become a nuisance, but both Lord Robin Hamilton and Sir Lysander Overton had insisted that he was not so. After all, both men had been comforted by him at some point in their long friendship, so it was only fair that he finally have his turn.
With the Halliday household in an uproar over the upcoming Season, Rupert decided to withdraw to a quieter place. With his father's reminder that he had promised to come to London ringing in his ears, Rupert set out for Denby Park, where there would be mayhem of a better sort---that of innocent children. Amanda would be delighted to see Robin's two girls.
"Rupert!" Anne called, delighted as ever to see her friend when he was announced. "How lovely to see you!"
"It is good to see you as well, Anne."
Before either Rupert or Anne could say anything else, a pair of blurs in pink dresses raced down the hallway and barreled into Rupert's legs. Anne shook her head. "Now girls, what have I said about running in the house?"
Dark-haired Portia, who had recently celebrated her third birthday, stuck her thumb in her mouth and mumbled, "No running."
Ophelia, a redheaded imp who was four, grinned and said, "But you run when Papa comes home from a long trip."
"I believe she has you there, Anne," Rupert said.
"How are my favorite two wood sprites?"
"Terrors," Ophelia announced proudly.
"Yes, they are," Anne agreed. "Look, Uncle Rupert has brought Amanda with him! Now, take Amanda and her nurse to Miss Mansfield so Mama can talk to Uncle Rupert in peace."
"Yes, Mama," they said in unison before darting off, leaving Amanda's capable nurse following in their wake.
Anne smiled as her children disappeared. "Lord, I love them to death, but ever since their cousins Grace and Bennet came for a visit last month, they have been next to impossible. Grace was such a sweetheart that my two hellions had to act doubly bad to make up for it."
Rupert chuckled. "Why do I suspect that this was a familiar scene to the elders in your family?"
"I have no idea of what you speak. I was a sweet child. I did not go bad until I was older. My girls are getting a much faster start than I did."
"Bragging about our children again, dear?"
Rupert looked up to see Robin walking down the hall to greet him.
"I do every chance I get," Anne replied as Robin and Rupert shook hands. "Rupert, we were just sitting down to tea when you arrived. Would you care to join us once Cosmo shows you to your room?"
"By all means," he said with a bow. Then he stopped. "Cosmo?"
"The new butler," Robin muttered. "You shall be lucky if the fellow knows where the guest rooms are."
"What happened to Stames?"
"He decided that he was too old to be chasing after a pair of little monsters like Ophelia and Portia."
Robin frowned at his wife. "He was nearly eighty, darling. I do not think I would like to be chasing after two children under the age of five, especially when they are like our children, when I am his age. And what with it soon to be three..."
Rupert stared at his friends, only now noticing the gentle swell beneath Anne's gown. "Rob, you old dog! Why did you not tell me?"
Of course, the answer stared him in the face. It would not have done to send news of their impending happiness as he was in mourning for his wife. It would have been doubly cruel to do it considering how Lavinia had died.
"I am happy for you both, truly I am," he assured them, giving Anne a hug. "Are you convinced it shall be a son this time, Anne?"
"It had better be. I am not at all sure I wish to continue having children until a son arrives. Ah, here is Cosmo. Cosmo, show the viscount to his room, please."
Anne sounded disgruntled, but Rupert knew the truth. If Robin wanted to have fifty children, Anne would be willing to bear them all.
Such a change had overcome the former "Bad-Tempered Heiress" since her marriage, Rupert thought with a smile as the inept new butler hesitated at the top of the stairs, not sure which way he should lead him. While Anne Hamilton was never going to be a model of ladylike behaviour, being too outspoken and forthright to bother with womanly graces, the bad temper was a thing of the past. Love had matured her, giving her a glow she had not had before her marriage and making her one of the most beautiful women in society. Love had also allowed her to show her compassionate side to people, and so she was on the board of several charities when in London and was a welcome sight to the poor people who lived in the country.
While some people would never like Anne or even admit she had changed, the ton in general approved of Lady Denby.
"'Tis right here, m'lord," Cosmo mumbled, opening a door. "Here ye go."
Rupert took one look inside, heard high-pitched squealing, and sighed. "Cosmo, you have led me to the nursery."
Twenty minutes later, after several more wrong doors and embarrassed blushes from the new butler, Rupert had been shown to his room and returned on his own to the front parlor where Anne and Robin awaited him.
"He is getting better," Anne said when he appeared.
"Face it, darling. We are going to have to find another butler. It was a lovely thought, giving old Mrs. Tomlinson's son a chance to prove himself worthy of the position, but he has not done so and we cannot continue this way."
Anne sighed. "We shall be leaving for London soon. Perhaps he may improve while we are gone. By the time we come home, we may be pleasantly surprised. Please say the decision can wait until then...please?"
Rupert felt a giant sting of envy shoot through him, listening to them talk to each other. He sat down and tried to look unaffected by the scene, but suddenly the loving way Anne and Robin talked to each other reminded him of how life had been with Lavinia. He wondered sadly whether or not he would ever stop being reminded of her.
"Oh, all right, the boy can stay on until we return home. But I swear to you, Lady Denby, if he has not improved by that time, he is gone."
"Agreed," Anne said, pleased. She poured tea for the three of them and handed Rupert a cup. "So, what brings you away from Elsinore Manor?"
Rupert took a sip of his tea, nearly burning his tongue in the process. He should have known that the inquisitive Anne would ask that question. "My father," he answered.
Robin smothered his laughter long enough to ask, "Is it the usual business?"
"Of course." Rupert grimaced. "Only this time, he and I have come to an agreement."
"How is that?"
"Despite the fact that I am still in mourning for my wife, I am going to London and joining the social whirl. You may not be aware that my sisters are making their debuts this year."
Anne plunked her teacup onto the saucer. "Are they really old enough for that? Good heavens, they were only little girls yesterday."
"Believe it or not, they are eighteen this last month."
"So you are going to see them launched and then leave?" Robin asked.
Rupert nodded. "Yes. But first, my father has coerced me into meeting one unmarried woman, one he claims shall meet my exacting standards."
"I was not aware you had standards. Although I also was not aware you were thinking of remarrying," Robin said.
"I am not thinking of remarrying. My father is thinking of my remarrying, but I have no plans for matrimony at present or any other time."
"What are your standards?" Anne asked.
Rupert repeated the criteria he had given his father, making sure to add a couple more that surely would not describe Lady Ariel.
"Good grief," Anne said with a vicious frown when he finished. "You are not purchasing a horse, Rupert, for goodness' sake. You are finding a wife."
"I beg your pardon, Lady Denby, but you miss the point. I am not trying to find a wife. As a matter of fact, a wife is absolutely the last thing I want. No matter what name my father suggests, I am not going to marry her. Hence, the list of impossible criteria."
"Oh, I see. I must have misunderstood you. I thought you were looking for a wife, but I understand now."
Rupert was relieved when Anne did not shout at him, but he supposed that she truly did understand his position, as she had once said she would never marry.
"Well, if you ever do consider marrying a woman with just those attributes, you might want to consider my cousin Ariel. In spite of all the promise she showed to grow up just like me when she was younger, she has grown up to be a true lady. She is everything on your list, to my regret."
Rupert set his cup and saucer on the tray in front of him before he spilled scalding tea all over himself. "I remember your cousin, Anne, but I do not remember her being anything resembling a 'true lady.'"
"Oh, five years ago when you last saw her you would have been correct," Anne said. "Five years ago she was wonderful. She read very interesting novels and spoke her mind and was delightful. She was well on her way to being a true Original until one day Cordelia..."
Anne fell silent at the mention of her former close friend and confidante. Rupert always sensed that Cordelia's betrayal the night of that ill-fated masquerade ball still haunted her, but Anne had said nothing since that night.
Whenever they met in public, both women were coldly polite to each other. In Anne's case, it was because she did not wish to further besmirch the Fitzwilliam name. Cordelia, however, did not attempt to cut Anne because she was well aware of the power Anne held in spite of her lower rank. She was not a fool.
"What did Cordelia do?" Rupert asked, fighting hard to keep the bitterness from his tone.
"No one knows. Ariel would only say that she had had a pleasant chat with Cordelia, and Cordelia refused to say anything except that they had been gossiping and she had no idea what had distressed her sister so. Whatever did happen, Ariel cried in her room for two days and was never the same after that. All the life went out of her, and ever since then she has been prim and proper and...well, I do not want to say boring, but I must speak the truth and there it is."
Rupert shook his head. "It seems hard for me to visualize, but I suppose that is only because my first impressions were of a girl far too bold for her own good."
Anne smiled. "I know. She was wonderful."
Robin was again trying to muffle his laughter with less success this time. "Well, whatever it was Cordelia told her sister four years ago, Ariel has been her father's pride and joy ever since. If you are serious about what you are looking for in a wife, she would be the perfect wife for you. However, you should make your decision quickly because she has every intention of being married by the end of this Season."
"Yes. My father mentioned that she has a list," Rupert said. "Foolish business. It is almost as bad as that decree he made several years ago concerning your marriage, Anne."
"It is almost as bad as the criteria you have listed for your future wife," Anne retorted. "The two of you seem perfect for each other, it seems."
Rupert did not meet her eyes. "I do not think that likely. I am determined never to marry again, because I had something wonderful once. Lavinia...well, there is no replacing her. To remarry would not only be an injustice to the woman I choose but also to Lavinia's memory."
This statement was apparently enough to satisfy his friends, for neither Anne nor Robin said anything. But just as Rupert thought the subject definitely closed, he noticed a spark in Anne's eyes that clearly signaled that she had been challenged.
She would be greatly disappointed, for he had no intention of changing his mind.
Posted on Wednesday, 26 January 2005
"I tell you, I shall not be introduced to any of your 'fine, upstanding gentlemen,' Papa, I shall not! I have told you so many times that James shall come for me soon, and I shall marry him and go to America!"
"For the last time, Juliet Anne Fitzwilliam, you are not going to marry that presumptuous upstart! You are an earl's daughter and you shall remember your place!"
Ariel groaned and longed for a pillow to pull over her head, or any sort of relief from the yelling that had been taking place since her parents had agreed with her idea of bringing Juliet to London for her first Season. Actually, the yelling had been going on longer than that, because two days prior to that decision, Miranda and Isabella had informed their father that Juliet had booked passage on a ship bound for Baltimore. Ariel could not blame the two youngest Fitzwilliams for informing their parents of Juliet's intentions, but she knew that the reason they had done so was not out of concern for her well-being but rather out of pique because she had refused to meet their blackmail demands.
"My place? What place is that, Papa? On some worthless birdbrain's arm, in his house, in his bed, and not allowed to be anything more than an ornament? Not allowed to be happy? Is that what you wish for me?"
"She is going too far," Lady Matlock murmured as she snipped a thread from her embroidery piece. "All that talk of...of marital matters. Well...it is not seemly."
"She is being overdramatic," Ariel said, pausing from her own work to make sure she was doing it properly. "You would think she was the Juliet she was named after, the way she carries on. Only her Romeo is nothing like Shakespeare's. For heaven's sake, they have not seen each other for six years. They have exchanged not so much as a letter, and yet she insists that he loves her as she loves him and they shall marry. I fear she is getting herself into a state of passion for nothing."
Her mother looked at her curiously. "You do not have a high opinion of romantic love, do you?"
Ariel frowned. "If you could tell me what is so wonderful about it, perhaps I would appreciate love more. As far as I can tell, the only thing that happens when a person's feelings are aroused is heartache." She turned her attention back to the embroidery and tried to ignore the continuing tempest taking place in the library.
"Dearest, I wish..." Lady Matlock hesitated too long, and was unable to say what she wanted to say. She wished Ariel would trust her with the secret of what Cordelia had said to upset her so much four years ago, but she knew it was a futile endeavour.
"I no longer believe in wishing for things that cannot be," Ariel said quietly. "Perhaps if I were younger and had less experience in the world, I could believe in things as Juliet does. I am not romantic, you know. I never have been."
Lady Matlock knew that was not true but did not contradict Ariel. Her daughter may not have said anything, but Lady Matlock knew that the only thing that could have hurt a girl as young as Ariel had been was a man, someone she had loved who had not loved her in return.
A moment later, the door to the sunny north parlor opened and a whirlwind of vibrant green skirts scurried about the room.
Juliet was the only one of the five girls who had not inherited the Fitzwilliam red hair, although she had inherited more than her fair share of the infamous Fitzwilliam temper. Juliet's hair was a beautiful dark brown, which contrasted well with her alabaster complexion and made her blue eyes even more vivid than they already were. Although Juliet was not beautiful, she did have a unique sort of looks that would bewitch any number of suitors.
Juliet's scurrying lasted for about a minute before she finally collapsed dramatically into a chair. Ariel set down her embroidery and clapped. Juliet glared at her.
"There is no need to be sarcastic, Ariel," she said.
"There is no need for theatrics here, Juliet," Ariel admonished. "If you were to sit down in that chair any harder, it would break."
"Tish tosh. These chairs have borne the weight of people far heavier than myself without breaking."
"I suspect that the weight of all your hopes and dreams would be enough to crush it."
"Mamma, would you tell her to stop being mean to me?" Juliet implored.
"Ariel, dear, that was a bit harsh," Lady Matlock said.
"A thousand apologies. But really, you nearly swooned into that chair, Juliet. Papa is nowhere about to see you doing it, so why bother?"
"In the hopes that I might fall and break something so that he would feel guilty and let me leave." Juliet sighed heavily. "I do not know why I bother to let you upset me. You don't know what I suffer."
"What do you mean by that?"
Juliet smiled slyly. "I just mean that before you could experience anything like what I am going through, you must first have a heart. As it is well known that you long ago gave yours up to be considered the most angelic girl in all the world, it must be assumed that you do not know what it is like to be in love."
Ariel went very still. Juliet continued to blather on to their mother about how Papa was being most unfair about the entire situation, which she was certain could be resolved with one well-worded letter.
"It must be assumed that you do not know what it is like to be in love."
Ariel pressed a hand to her heart, which despite her sister's insinuations was where it should be, feeling as though she had been mortally wounded. She slowly rose from her seat and gathered her sewing together.
"Ariel, is everything all right?" she heard her mother ask.
"Of course, Mama. I am fine, just a bit restless. I think I shall go for a walk."
"Are you certain?"
Ariel nodded calmly. "Thank you for your concern, but I am fine. I shall be even better after my walk. Would you care to join me, Juliet, or is walking too dreary an activity for someone who is suffering from heartbreak and oppression?" Ariel extended the offer with all kindness. She understood that Juliet was upset, and that she would not have said what she had otherwise.
Juliet's eyes narrowed, but she said, "I should very much like to take a walk, thank you. I have a desire to stop at Mrs. Miggins' shop. Claudia told me that the latest Paris fashions have arrived and I want to see them."
"I intended to walk through the park, actually."
"There is no harm in doing a little shopping, and since you shall be out, would you be so kind as to stop at the Mrs. MacReady's and pick up that new hat I ordered?" Lady Matlock smiled.
"Of course, Mama," Ariel said reluctantly, knowing that her mother wanted Juliet out of the house and that Juliet would not come with her if they were not to go where she wished.
I swear, Mama spoils this girl so much it is no wonder she is outraged at the thought of not getting to marry the man she loves, Ariel thought.
Within ten minutes, the two sisters were making their way to the shops, Juliet rushing ahead and having to be reminded by Ariel that a lady did not rush about like a small child, advice that Juliet ignored, as she ignored all the advice Ariel gave her.
Ariel finally surrendered as she came to the realization that although Juliet was rushing, she was not getting so far ahead that she disappeared from view. She concentrated instead on enjoying the fresh air, ignoring Juliet as much as she was being ignored, and trying to forget the painful memories Juliet had stirred up with her careless comment. By the time Juliet slowed down to talk to her, Ariel believed she had managed to get past the worst of her memories.
"Claudia thinks the new fashions are rather daring, but Augusta said she thought they were nice," Juliet was saying. "I was not sure I should believe them, as they arrived in London just yesterday, but Claudia told me that her mother's first order of business was to get them properly outfitted for their debut. Augusta told me it should be quite an affair. Even their elusive brother is to be there. You know, if I did not love James and he did not love me, I might have considered attracting his interest. Augusta says that he swears never to marry again, and under normal circumstances, that is just the sort of challenge I cannot resist."
"Claudia and Augusta who?" Ariel asked. Juliet had a boundless circle of friends. Ariel had trouble remembering all of their names. Were Claudia and Augusta the Watkins sisters, their country neighbors to the east? Or were they the Townsend cousins whose acquaintance Juliet had made during a visit to Pemberley last fall?
"Lady Claudia and Lady Augusta. The Halliday twins. You no doubt remember their brother, Viscount Axelby. They say he still mourns for his saint of a wife, you know."
Ariel stopped walking. "Rupert Halliday is in London?" she asked, her voice shaking.
Juliet gave her a puzzled look. "That is what I was told. According to Claudia, he made a deal with his father----you know, the Earl of Hemmings----about meeting a young lady his father picked out for him."
Four years of dissembling should have enabled Ariel to continue walking as though the news did not disturb her, yet something must have been evident to Juliet, for she remarked upon it.
"Why do you look so shocked?" Juliet asked. "Does not his presence violate your rules of propriety? Lady Axelby has been gone for some time, not that men must follow the same rules of mourning as we women must."
"I wish you would stop thinking of me as some sort of schoolmarm with a book of rules for a heart," Ariel replied. "What Lord Rupert Halliday does or does not do is of no concern to me. I was just surprised to hear that he was in town, that is all."
"From what Claudia told me, he likely shall not be in town for long," Juliet confided. "His father is to introduce him to this young lady at the twins' debut ball. If Lord Rupert does not find her suitable, his father is not to pester him about remarrying ever again."
"Do the twins know the name of the lady that the earl is recommending to his son?" Ariel asked, wishing she did not desire to know the answer.
"They did not figure that out. All they know is that Rupert listed a number of impossible standards he wishes in his next wife----hardly surprising, I suppose, when one considers to whom he was married----and that the earl agreed to leave him alone if Rupert did not agree that this young woman met those standards. Personally, I think that a man who insists that his wife be so...well, if one were to consider the criteria he listed, the only lady in England who would qualify to be his wife is you. Which makes me wonder about his mental faculties."
"Juliet, tell me...were you always so ill-mannered or has this trait only started appearing since we arrived in London?"
"I am not being ill-mannered, I am being honest. There is a difference, and I must speak as I find."
"I know you have been taught the difference between being forthright and being deliberately provocative. There is absolutely nothing wrong with following Society's rules. In fact, it is far wiser to do so, because not following them leads to trouble. If you require proof, you need look no further than our own sister."
"I do not intend to fall for any man's honeyed lies, no matter how sweet the temptation is."
"Not even Mr. Penhalligan's?"
"How many times must I tell you, Papa, and everyone that James is going to marry me?"
"When did he propose to you, Juliet? When the two of you were children? I hardly think that counts."
"He was fourteen. He was practically a man."
"Miranda is fourteen, and yet the other day you called her a little girl."
"Men mature quicker than women. It is a proven fact."
Ariel laughed. "That is foolishness and you know it. I do not know why you continue to persist in this hopeless notion that this boy is going to appear suddenly and marry you. You have had no contact with him..." A niggling suspicion bored into her mind. "Have you?"
"Of course not," Juliet replied quickly. Too quickly.
"Juliet!" Ariel was horrified. "You have been writing to that boy? Have you no sense of decency?"
"What's so indecent about writing my fiancÚ? And be assured, Ariel, he is going to marry me. He asked me to marry him last year, and he sent me a little portrait of himself so that I would know what he looked like now. He is so handsome, more handsome than any man of my acquaintance."
"When we get back home, I am going to Papa straight away."
"Then I shall not tell you the name of the lady Lord Rupert is to be introduced to at the twins' debut," Juliet goaded.
Ariel stopped walking again, because it was unnecessary for Juliet to tell her. By the way Juliet had said it, she already knew. The Earl of Hemmings was going to introduce his son to her.
"I still intend to tell Papa," Ariel said. "I do not care who this mystery woman is. The viscount has said he shall not marry again, and I doubt he wavers from his decision, so it shall be a one-time meeting and that shall be that. Whereas you are threatening to throw your entire life away."
"If you tell Papa, I shall...I shall...I shall poison myself."
Ariel rolled her eyes. "I have not fallen for that in years."
"I mean it! James wrote me that he is coming for me in the spring, and I intend to marry him before we set sail, with Papa's permission or without. But if you interfere..." Juliet's eyes clouded with tears. "Ariel, I know I tease you about having no heart."
"You call that teasing?"
"I know you have one, and I know that you care about me."
"That does not mean I am about to become your conspirator in this matter. Papa has said no."
"He is being such a snob about it! If I do not care that James does not have a title, and that he's an American, why should it bother him? We shall be married and gone forever. It would not be like Cordelia's situation at all." The tears spilled. "I love him, Ariel. I love him so much, and I always have. Please, do not let Papa tear us apart. I can bring him to reason, I know I can, and by the time James arrives, he shall consent to our marriage. Surely...surely, there was once a time when you loved someone so much you were willing to do whatever it took to be with them?"
Ariel knew she was being manipulated, but she also knew Juliet was right. Ariel did want her happiness, and if this young man was the one to make her happy, perhaps Ariel could intervene with their father. At the very least, she could keep silent about their secret engagement.
"I shall say nothing...for now," Ariel said. "But know that if Papa is not swayed, and I think you do mean to elope with James, I shall tell our father all."
"You are the very best of sisters, Ariel!" Juliet threw her arms around her sister. "Thank you, thank you, thank you!"
Ariel smiled. "You are welcome. Now, we must get walking or we shall never reach the dress shop before sunset."
"I cannot believe I let the two of you talk me into this senseless activity," Rupert muttered as the open carriage made its' way through the streets of London to Mrs. Miggins' shop. "Why I should have to go to a dress shop is beyond my comprehension."
Rupert stared at his twin sisters, sitting across from him in the carriage. The sisters were not identical, although they shared many of the same mannerisms and were known to finish each other's sentences.
Claudia was statuesque and slender, with the Halliday family's brownish-red hair and warm brown eyes. She always had a healthy glow which made her pretty face almost beautiful. Her complexion was dusted lightly with freckles, a sign of Claudia's love of the outdoors. As a child, she had always been up a tree or on a horse, galloping without thought to her personal safety. Age had not seemed to bring much change to her personality. Rupert was surprised that she was submitting to this Season with little indignation, for Claudia did not like being away from the country.
The only physical feature Augusta shared with her sister was her figure, which was also neat and slender. Augusta, however, was nearly half a foot shorter than Claudia. Augusta resembled their mother, with her golden curls and blue-grey eyes. Augusta enjoyed the outdoors as Claudia did; however, horses terrified her and she was much more likely to be found walking about the grounds, a dreamy look in her eyes. Rupert had seen her under a tree on some days, sheets of paper in her hand, hastily scribbling her thoughts. More often than not she returned home with ink-stained skirts.
"Mama is having to oversee preparations for the ball," Claudia said.
"And Papa is at his club," Augusta added.
"Which left you as the only person who could escort us to Mrs. Miggins', as Papa insisted we have a proper escort." Claudia glanced at her sister in a way that brought Rupert's senses to full attention.
The twins were up to something, he just knew it. He also knew there would be no hope of getting them to confess the truth, which meant he would have to play along for now.
Please, Lord, do not let this be too embarrassing. And if it is at all possible, could this not involve any sort of attempt at matchmaking? I have had more than enough of that for one lifetime, thank You.
"I want you to know that I have no plans to actually enter the establishment," he told them. "I shall remain in the carriage."
"If you insist," Augusta said calmly, but she looked at Claudia with something akin to panic in her eyes.
Rupert looked about at the city he had once loved so much. They were not moving so rapidly that he could not see the fashionable people walking about. He saw Mrs. Katherine Trawley, who had once been Miss Katherine Butler, a pretty but shy debutante. Miss Butler had confided to him that she loved Mr. Edmund Trawley, the equally shy heir to a shipping fortune. Rupert had introduced Miss Butler to Mr. Trawley and allowed nature to do the rest.
Lady Rosaline Montague had been a flighty, headstrong young woman seven years ago. She had wanted only one man, the Duke of Masters, but fate had not been on her side. Rupert remembered giving her a handkerchief to cry into, wishing he could allow her to lean on his shoulder. That would not have been proper, however, so he settled for giving her encouragement and watching as she married for comfort and companionship.
Mr. Archibald Thacker had been a wastrel who should have died in a duel with the Earl of Dunlop. Rupert had stood as the young man's second when no one else would and had prevented the hotheaded earl from shooting Archie in the back. Archie, terrified at how close he had come to death, had reformed his life over time. Rupert had heard rumours that he was to marry Miss Deborah Smythe at Michaelmas.
Each person he passed looked startled but delighted to see him, giving him jaunty waves. When his carriage pulled to a stop in front of the dress shop, a woman in her late thirties approached with a daughter of about fifteen, waving furiously as Rupert stepped out of the carriage.
"Viscount Axelby! How delightful to see you again!" she exclaimed, smiling.
Rupert smiled in return, but he did not feel any joy in the smile as he had in the past, nor did he suspect from the sad look in the lady's eyes that it was anything like it once had been.
Lady Josephine Bowers, Countess of Bunting, had been one of the first young ladies to discover that Lord Rupert Halliday made a wonderful confidante. He had been friendly and obliging and never improper. He had encouraged her to follow her heart over her family's urging to marry a wealthy but dull duke, and Lady Josie had done so, causing a bit of a scandal by marrying Lord Frederick in Gretna Green.
Rupert made his bows to Lady Josie and was introduced to her daughter, Lady Daphne.
"I told Daff that if you are still unmarried when she makes her debut, she should not hesitate to marry you," Lady Josie said.
From the look on Daphne's face, it did not appear as though she had any interest in marrying him. Rupert sighed and thought, Some things never change.
"I thank you for the recommendation, Lady Josie, but I think Lady Daphne would prefer someone closer to her own age." Rupert smiled at the girl to reassure her that he had no interest in her. "And I have no plans to remarry anytime soon."
"Now, Lord Rupert, I do not want to hear that. You are a wonderful man and would make any woman the perfect husband."
"I fear that would not be the case, but I thank you for the thought just the same."
"Nonsense! All you need to do is find the right woman, and everything shall fall into place. You wait and see."
Rupert bit back that he did not think the "right woman" existed, at least not for him, because he did not want a lecture in a public place. Especially not with his scheming sisters watching with avid interest.
His sisters! Escape was at hand. "Forgive me, Lady Josie, but I have been remiss. I should introduce my sisters to you. Lady Josie, this is Lady Claudia and Lady Augusta Halliday. Girls, this is Lady Josephine Bowers, the Countess of Bunting, and her daughter, Lady Daphne. My sisters are making their come-out this year." The twins, still in the carriage, nodded and smiled politely at Lady Josie and her daughter.
"Heavens! Has that much time passed, Lord Rupert? It seems as though you were speaking of them as young children just yesterday."
"They were but three when we met," he said.
"Rupert, really," Claudia muttered. "How many more people are going to come up to us and say the very same thing?"
"More than I can think to count, so I would keep that in mind if I were you," Rupert replied. "The two of you are free to go into the shop while I speak to the countess, if you wish."
Claudia practically vaulted out of the carriage in her eagerness to be inside. Rupert almost made a comment to her but let it go as Augusta calmly stepped out and walked into the shop after her sister. Rupert shut the carriage door after them and turned back to the countess.
He found that the countess's attention had been diverted by a pair of young ladies. One of them was a stunning redhead, the other a brunette. There was enough of a resemblance between them to see that they were sisters. Both of them seemed familiar to him, but he could not figure out how he knew them.
Rupert entered the carriage so he would not have to enter the conversation, content instead to look at his surroundings. His gaze, however, kept going back to the redhead. There was definitely something familiar about her, more so than the other girl, who looked as though she were plotting to make an escape.
The word that kept coming to mind when he looked at her was "sedate." Her composure never changed, her voice never raised, her face never flushed. She wore a demure, verging-on-unfashionable brown walking dress in a sturdy material where the others wore more fashionable, flimsier gowns. Her hair was pulled into a tidy bun at the crown of her head, no curls to be seen in the style or at her temples, which was the fashion these days. Behind gold-rimmed glasses, her dark blue eyes did not have the usual sparkle one expected to see with a debutante or newly married woman, one of which she had to be. Instead, there was something oddly sad in them, as though she had experienced a great loss and had never quite gotten over it. Neither she nor her sister were wearing mourning clothes, however.
Rupert frowned, puzzled, looking closer at her eyes. He had thought they were blue, but now that he was concentrating on them more, he realized that they were not blue at all, but violet.
Moonlight gleaming off of gold-rimmed spectacles, behind which a pair of violet eyes looked fearfully at him. Reddish-blond hair slipping out of the combs designed to hold it in place.
Rupert's eyes widened as he realized who the young lady was.
He almost groaned. The last person in the world he needed to see was Lady Ariel Fitzwilliam, the outrageous girl who had brazenly informed him she planned to marry him, who had dressed as William Shakespeare in an outfit so scandalous that he was tempted to turn her over his knee when he had first noticed her wearing it.
"I do not believe the two of you have been introduced," Lady Josie was saying. "Lord Rupert! I was just saying to Lady Ariel that I do not think you two have been introduced."
"On the contrary, Lady Josie, I have known Lady Ariel for some time," Rupert said coolly. "Lady Denby is her cousin, if you recall."
"Of course. I had forgotten." Lady Josie smiled.
"Good afternoon, Lord Rupert. It is good to see you again," Ariel said with a proper bow. She did not, to his great surprise, say anything more to him. Indeed, he was surprised to discover that she seemed determined to ignore him.
It must be a trick to get me to notice her, by pretending she does not care.
"Do you remember me, Lord Rupert? Lady Juliet Fitzwilliam," the brunette said, making a less-than-proper bow.
"Juliet," Ariel hissed. "Remember your manners."
Juliet rolled her eyes when her sister's back was turned.
"I do remember you, Lady Juliet," Rupert said, and he did, vaguely. Was Juliet the sister with the fixation on an American boy or was she the one who danced with all the grace of a knock-kneed bear?
No matter. He wanted as little to do with anyone named Fitzwilliam as possible, so remembering exactly what Juliet had been doing when he had seen her last did not matter.
"Excuse me...Lord Rupert? Are your sisters inside the shop?" Juliet asked.
"Yes," he said absently.
Juliet rushed into the shop, leaving behind her exasperated sister. Ariel closed her eyes and grimaced, as though her sister's hoydenish behaviour was an embarrassment.
You are the last person who should be embarrassed by a little enthusiasm, Lady Ariel.
"Forgive my sister, Lady Josie. She is high-spirited," Ariel said.
"Quite all right, my dear. My Daff is the same way at times. How does your cousin Anne do?"
"Very well. I believe she is to come for part of the Season but must return home..." Ariel lowered her voice and murmured, "...for her confinement."
"I was not aware that Lady Denby was in a delicate condition," Lady Josie said. "Did she not just have a child?"
"Portia is now three, so it has been a while. I do not know what they shall call this child if they have another girl. Anne says she is making a point of using names that have not been used by other family members, but it is getting more and more difficult."
"Yes. I understand that your brother Michael named his children Desdemona, Bianca, and Beatrice."
"They are now joined by little Hal, and everyone is quite happy about that."
"Wonderful! Your father must have been thrilled, though I am surprised he did not post an announcement in the papers."
"Papa believes that is Michael's responsibility, and you know how Michael is about such things. He does not think them necessary."
Rupert had been trying to ignore them, but despite himself, his eyes kept flickering back to look at Ariel. The more he noticed her, the more he was starting to believe that she was not pretending to ignore him, but was actually ignoring him. It was disconcerting, but it did allow him to take another look at her.
The sadness in her eyes touched him more than anything else about her, though he still could not figure out why. He did not know of any close family member dying recently, or else Anne would have told him. Perhaps Ariel had been in love----actually in love, not that foolish infatuation she had called love five years ago----and had lost him.
In all outward appearances, however, his father was correct. Ariel Fitzwilliam looked like a very proper young lady, seeming to fit every part of his description of the perfect wife. But Rupert knew the truth, that underneath the demure gown and the tidy hair lurked a spitfire who was probably as shocking as her older sister.
"Well, isn't this a cozy scene."
Rupert's heart lurched at the all-too-familiar voice. He had been so busy trying to figure out Ariel that he had not noticed her arrival, but here she stood.
Very little had changed about Lady Cordelia Siddens in the five years since she had made her desperate attempt to come between Anne and Robin. Her hair was still a vibrant reddish-gold, her eyes were still blue, her figure only slightly more mature since the birth of her daughter. But Rupert saw beyond the outward appearance that had fooled all of London then and continued to fool most of them now. He saw the malicious glint that had once been a girlish gleam in her eyes. He saw her rosebud lips twist into a vicious grin where there had once been flirtatious smiles.
He saw the woman who had nearly destroyed her cousin's life instead of the beautiful, carefree debutante he had loved so greatly.
Rupert was grateful that Cordelia had never known of his love. If she had, God only knew what she might have done with it. God only knows what he might have done for her.
Rupert saw Ariel freeze. Her eyes went cold, though he told himself it was his imagination that he saw her chin tremble ever so slightly.
"Ariel! You are looking lovely today," Cordelia said, giving her sister an airy kiss on the cheek. Ariel did not return the gesture. "Lady Josie, and...your daughter. How nice."
"Good afternoon, Del," Ariel said calmly.
"And Lord Rupert! It is always good to see you." Not that one could tell from her tone, which was pure ice. Shortly before Cordelia had returned to England and married Wakefield, her father had warned Rupert that Cordelia knew about that he had been the one to tell Matlock about her plans.
"Likewise, Lady Cordelia."
"I was so sorry to hear about your wife. Died in childbirth, I heard."
"Yes," he mumbled.
"How tragic it must have been to lose the love of your life in such a disastrous way. Although I did not know her well, Lavinia----excuse me, I meant Lady Axelby----seemed a good sort of girl." Lady Cordelia made 'good' sound like a curse rather than a compliment. "Just the sort I imagined you would marry."
"She was truly a great lady. Lord Rupert loved her very much," Lady Josie said, her manner ruffled although she could know nothing of what had transpired between Lady Cordelia and Lord Rupert.
"Yes, she was. A paradigm of charm, beauty, and grace, was she not, Ariel? You probably knew her better than I would have."
Rupert was confused by the smug look Cordelia gave her sister. When he looked to see Ariel's reaction, he was more confused that there did not appear to be any.
"I was not fortunate enough to know Lady Axelby well," Ariel said. "However, I never heard anything but the highest praise for her."
"You must still miss Lavinia----or rather, Lady Axelby----a great deal. I understand the child lived?"
For the life of him, Rupert was not certain where Cordelia was taking this conversation, but he could be certain that it was not for any good purpose.
"Yes, Amanda survived the birth," he said.
"A miracle, I'm sure. And is she with you here, in London?" Cordelia asked. "I only ask because I would be surprised that you would have anything to do with her. We have established that you loved Lavinia----"
"Lady Axelby," Rupert said with difficulty, recognizing the insult Cordelia meant to express every time she referred to Lavinia by her name rather than her title.
"Yes, forgive me, I keep forgetting that. You loved Lady Axelby, and presumably she loved you. It has also been established..."
Rupert was saved from hearing Cordelia's inevitable conclusion by Ariel. "What brings you out at this time of day, Cordelia? I would have thought you would be afraid of the sun, since it does such dreadful things to your complexion."
Rupert choked back his laughter as Cordelia turned a mottled shade of red. It was not as becoming as blushes once were to her.
"I wish I could stay and talk with you longer, dear, but Daff needs to get back home for lessons." Lady Josie smiled falsely, and it was clear that she did not care for the Marchioness. "It is good to see you in London again, Lord Rupert. Give my regards to your family, Lady Ariel."
"I shall," Ariel said warmly, smiling as the two women walked away and left her alone with her sister.
"I have heard that you have come up with some sort of list of prospective husbands, Ariel. Are there any gentlemen of whom I might have heard?" Cordelia asked.
Rupert did not miss the pointed glance Cordelia gave him, nor the very quick, panicked one Ariel sent his way. Good Lord, had his father been announcing his matchmaking intentions about town?
"You should not worry about that," Ariel said, her voice surprising calm. "I shall find my own husband soon, have no fear."
"I certainly hope you do. One-and-twenty is getting to be...well, rather on the shelf these days. I would not want you to become a dried-up spinster, whose looks fade away over time and whom people talk about in pitying tones."
"I have no fears about that," Ariel said. "I know what I am looking for in a husband, and my standards shall be met."
"Oh?" Cordelia's eyes again traveled to Rupert in a way that made him very uncomfortable. "Really? Are congratulations in order? Or are you perhaps thinking of an elopement? That would certainly be romantic, but not something that the perfect, angelic, ladylike Lady Ariel Fitzwilliam would ever think of doing."
"You have committed enough social gaffes for one family," Ariel said. "I know what you are thinking, and I shall not deign to deny it. The notion is absurd."
"Is it? Should I ask him?" When Cordelia looked at him again, Rupert realized he was the subject of their conversation. He looked at Ariel for confirmation, but she was not looking at him.
"If you wish to make a fool of yourself, feel free. I care not. Now, if you would excuse me, I should be keeping an eye on Juliet. If I allow her to get away from me, she shall be on the next ship bound for America." Without acknowledging him, Ariel entered the shop.
Cordelia's eyes were very cold as she turned back to Rupert.
"How is your husband, Lady Cordelia?" he asked politely.
"He is quite well, thank you."
"And your daughter?"
"Michelle is exactly like her mother, or so people tell me." Cordelia preened momentarily.
"Then God help the little girl," Rupert said coldly. "Would you be so kind as to tell my sisters that I shall be back shortly, but I had an urgent errand?"
He did not bother giving her time to answer, indicating to the driver that he was ready to leave. The carriage lurched forward. As it traveled to his gentleman's club, Rupert was left to ponder what had just taken place, and to wonder why that sadness in Ariel's eyes plagued him.