An Arranged Betrothal
With a Spinster
With a Spinster
“Good morning, miss,” Sally Bisley said as she opened the door and entered the chamber.
Rowena Whitworth turned from her vanity, where she had been brushing out her dark-brown hair, and smiled at her lady’s maid.
“Good morning, Sally,” she said. “Did you sleep well?”
Sally nodded, returning her mistress’s warm smile.
“I did,” she said. “You certainly look bright and fresh this morning.”
“It is a lovely day,” she said, gesturing at the warm April morning sunshine streaming in through her bedchamber window. It illuminated the room’s mahogany furniture and yellow and pale-blue décor. “I was thinking of spending a good portion of the day in the gardens. Perhaps a picnic with Sybil and some outdoor crocheting. Benji will love it,” she added, glancing across with an affectionate smile at the bed, where a small brown puppy lay curled up and dozing, snoring slightly.
Sally’s face brightened, and she nodded.
“Oh, that does sound lovely,” she said. “I can see to it that a picnic lunch is prepared whenever you wish.”
“Wonderful,” she said.
Together, she and Sally walked over to her wardrobe. After much deliberation, the pair chose a beautiful, pale-purple morning dress for her to wear for breakfast. Then, Sally styled her hair in a loose, elegant bun atop her head, with ringlets delicately hanging in front of her ears. She adorned the hairstyle with a purple ribbon, and Rowena was ready for the morning.
Sally escorted Rowena to the drawing room of her family’s country seat. She immediately noticed the absence of her father as she took a seat beside her younger sister, Sybil. And judging from the expression on Martha Whitworth’s face, she could guess what had happened.
“Good morning, Mother,” Rowena said warmly, hoping to lift her mother’s spirits.
The Viscountess Worthingwood gave her daughter a warm but wan smile.
“Good morning, darling,” she said tiredly. “You look lovely.”
“Thank you,” she said. Then, she turned to Sybil. “How would you like to spend the day in the gardens with me and Benji, Sister?”
Sybil was opening her mouth to respond when their father entered the drawing room. One look at his alcohol-reddened eyes and mussed hair confirmed what she had first suspected about his tardiness.
“Good morning, my dears,” Gerald Whitworth said in honeyed tones.
The women returned the greeting, and Rowena saw her mother bite her lip. She suddenly had the feeling something was amiss. It was not unusual to see her father in such a state. It was well known in their family that he was an elbow-crooker and often drank a bit too much. But it was not normal for her mother to seem so pensive. What had happened to worry her so?
The viscount stumbled his way to a chair beside his wife, wearing a crumpled shirt below his waistcoat and a badly tied cravat. Sybil exchanged a worried glance with Rowena, telling her that her sister sensed something, as well.
“How did you sleep, dear?” the viscount asked his wife, giving her a kiss on the cheek.
The viscountess tried to smile, but the fatigue showed in the lines around her mouth.
“Well enough,” she said. “Have something to eat, darling.”
Everyone tried to pretend she hadn’t suggested it to help him combat the aftereffects of his night of drinking. The viscount helped himself to the small spread of scrambled and boiled eggs and leftover pieces of beef from dinner the evening before. Rowena had noticed her family’s recent increase in thrifty habits, but she put it down to her father having a slow business period.
The family ate in silence for a few minutes. Rowena recalled her idea for the day, and she turned to face her sister.
“Sybil,” she said, “we didn’t finish discussing our day in the gardens. I thought we might take Benji for a walk through the gardens, have a picnic lunch, and then maybe enjoy some crocheting in the shade.”
Sybil nodded eagerly.
“That sounds lovely,” she said. “I would be delighted to join you.”
Rowena rejoiced. She nodded to Sally, who promptly excused herself to inform the cook of their picnic plans.
The viscount cleared his throat loudly, startling all three women. Rowena saw her mother winced, but she couldn’t fathom why. The room fell silent again, and the women looked at the viscount expectantly. He rose unsteadily to his feet, and something in his sheepish smile made Rowena’s earlier uneasiness return.
“My darling ladies,” he said, his voice somehow even sweeter than before, “I have an announcement I would like to make.”
Sybil and Rowena looked at their father expectantly, but Lady Worthingwood did not look up from her plate. No doubt, whatever his lordship was about to say had already been discussed with their mother.
“Of course, Father,” Rowena said, not sure if her father was waiting for his declaration to be acknowledged.
The viscount nodded.
“I have decided that you, my dear Rowena, will take part in the upcoming Season in London,” he said.
Rowena’s mouth fell open. She stared at her father as though he had grown horns on either side of his head. Surely, she had misheard him. At the age of twenty-two, she was a spinster. She had accepted that fate several years ago, and she had never expressed any interest in attending another Season. Spinsters had no place at debut balls and Season parties. Was she going mad? Or was her father?
“I beg your pardon, Father?” she managed to ask, looking to her mother for clarification, but the viscountess was looking at her plate. So, finding none, Rowena turned her dumbfounded gaze back to her father, who was smiling as though he had just announced they were going on a nice trip.
“Yes, dear,” he said, almost proudly, though Rowena could now see, in the bags under his eyes and the tic in his cheek, signs of tension and strain underlying his falsely cheerful demeanor. “We shall be leaving for London in the next two days. I am certainly looking forward to it, and I am sure the three of you must be, as well.”
With that, he sat back down, immediately returning to his food. Rowena, however, had lost all appetite. She glanced at her sister, who looked happy with the news. When she looked at her mother, however, she saw the viscountess’s lip trembling and she would not meet her daughter’s gaze.
“Oh, it will be wonderful,” Sybil said, cutting through the tension of which she seemed blissfully unaware. “I can hardly wait to attend my first Season! It’s so exciting, isn’t it, Rowena?”
Rowena instantly forced a smile and nodded, though she couldn’t quite manage to speak. Even if she could have, she didn’t dare say anything to take away from her younger sister’s happy mood. But in truth, she was horrified with the idea.
Fear flooded her, and her palms grew damp. What would the ton say when she—already considered a spinster, having failed to find a husband despite several previous Seasons, and with a scandalous past to boot—suddenly started attending social events again after all this time? She well knew the answer: They would say. “Rowena Whitworth is desperate to find a husband.” Oh, Lord, she thought, her heart sinking. I shall be the subject of gossip all over Town!
And that was not the worst of it. She knew there could be only one reason why Lady Worthingwood expected her eldest daughter to attend the upcoming Season. As the realization struck her, Rowena found herself struggling to swallow the bile that suddenly rose in her throat. Feeling almost faint, she pushed her plate aside. Clearly, the reason was that, as Sybil had not yet come out and, therefore, would not be on the marriage mart until the following year, it was she herself whom her father planned to marry off.
Fortunately, Sybil seemed not to notice her sister’s change in mood. She engaged in a bright conversation with their mother about going through her wardrobe and finding her best dresses to pack for London. Rowena kept her eyes fixed on her uneaten food, trying to understand what her father could be thinking. If he indeed wished for her to marry, then why now? And why so suddenly? And why had he delivered the news on such short notice?
Rowena was glad when she could finally excuse herself from breakfast. She was feeling the onset of a megrim, and she exited the room as quickly as she could without drawing attention. She knew her father had taken to drinking a great deal more, and much more often, of late. But had he completely forgotten about her own disastrous debut Season?
“Darling,” the viscountess called meekly just as Rowena reached the stairs. “Are you all right?”
Rowena whirled around, blinking back tears of anger and confusion as she looked at her mother.
“How can Father expect me to endure another Season after what Jason did to me?” she moaned. A wave of nausea hit her and her head started to pound at the thought of the Viscount Mulington, and she had to hold her breath to keep from being ill.
Her mother looked at her with sad, guilty eyes. She took her daughter’s arm and gently led her away from the stairs.
“Will you take a walk in the garden with me?” she asked softly.
Rowena started to protest. But the expression on her mother’s face told her that it was less a desire than a necessity. Reluctantly, Rowena nodded and followed her mother to the back door of their small country townhome.
The fresh air in the garden was marginally helpful in soothing Rowena’s megrim, but her heart was still pounding, and her mind still spinning. She walked arm in arm with her mother, rubbing her temple, only vaguely aware of the warm sunshine on her skin and the lovely bird song around them.
“I am sorry that your father’s announcement came as such a surprise,” the viscountess said. “I tried to convince him to allow me to mention it sooner, but he insisted it should be this way.” She sounded as though she was trying to choose her words carefully. For some reason, that set Rowena on edge.
“Well, that it certainly was,” she said. “But I do not understand. Why has he decided on all this so suddenly? And what makes him think that I have any business attending a Season, after everything that happened with Jason?”
The viscountess glanced at her daughter, and Rowena saw she was furiously chewing her lip. Rowena held her breath, waiting for her mother to speak again.
“We are in terrible trouble, darling,” she said at last. She had never sounded more tired or resigned, and Rowena’s heart ached for her. “In fact, we are in dire straits.”
Rowena turned to face her mother, taking her gently by the shoulders to stop her in her tracks.
“What do you mean?” she asked. “What’s happened?”
The viscountess took a deep breath, looking away from her daughter, shame in her eyes.
“Our fortune is almost gone, dear,” she said. It was clear to Rowena that her mother was struggling to keep her emotions under control, and Rowena didn’t want to make things worse for her. But she didn’t understand how the viscountess’s words could be true.
“But how can that be, Mother?” she asked, her brows knitting. “Haven’t Father’s investments and business ventures always been successful and prosperous? Are you saying something serious has happened to change that?”
The viscountess glanced up at her daughter, and Rowena saw tears in her eyes.
“I do not know, exactly,” she said, sounding truthful enough. But Rowena thought she could also detect an air of suspicion in her mother’s voice. She sighed heavily.
“So, has some venture failed?” she asked.
Her mother nodded.
“I believe that’s part of it,” she replied. “Your father wouldn’t tell me much. Just that we are in financial trouble, and that he believes finding a wealthy husband for you is the only way to salvage our situation. He hopes such a match will benefit the entire family and rescue us from ruin.”
Rowena felt her face go numb. She could not believe the fate of her family now rested solely on her shoulders.
“But why?” she asked, beginning to panic. “How could he possibly think such a thing? What makes him think any gentleman would ever want to marry a spinster like me, let alone a wealthy one?”
The viscountess embraced her daughter and patted her back, but it offered Rowena little comfort.
“I know this is hard, darling,” the viscountess said, “and I am very sorry. But please, I must ask you to keep this discussion between us. Do not speak a word of this to your sisters.”
Rowena stepped back to look at her mother’s face. The viscountess looked exhausted, with blue rings beneath her eyes and skin as pale as paper. Despite her own distress, Rowena’s heart went out to her. What was afoot was just as unfair to her mother as it was to her. And her making a scene would not make things any better. Besides, her elder sister Nancy had been through enough with the loss of her husband to a sudden illness two years prior. Rowena hated keeping secrets, but perhaps this was one that should be kept.
With another heavy sigh, Rowena nodded.
“I promise, Mother,” she said. “I will not tell Nancy or Sybil.”
Andrew spent much of the first few days after returning to London closeted with his mother in his father’s old study. Usually, he tried to avoid his mother as much as possible, so as to reduce her opportunities to put pressure on him to bend to her wishes. However, as he had been away from London for some time, there was also much work to be done, some of which required her help.
Though Andrew was a mere baron, he was nevertheless very wealthy. His late father had made wise investments throughout his life, and they continued to draw in great profits for the family to enjoy. It was the reason why Andrew had been able to do so little in the way of work while staying in the country. But now, he had letters to write, meetings to attend, and new business ventures of his own to try to establish.
A week after being back in London, Andrew joined his mother for breakfast. After the meal, he intended to spend the morning writing to some of his father’s business associates regarding the matter of shipments and any requisite business trips.
His father had not been a likable man, not even to his family. The late baron had been cruel, caring only for amassing wealth, and obsessed with proving that a baron was just as distinguished as any duke.
Andrew wondered if his associates in London were of like minds. He certainly hoped not. He was very much the opposite of his father. The idea of working with such men made Andrew’s stomach churn.
“Have you forgotten your manners?” Lady Elsbrook, his mother, asked in her usual prim way.
Andrew resisted the urge to roll his eyes as he realized he had passed her seat without bowing and kissing her cheek. He did so then, giving her a tight smile.
“Good morning, Mother,” he said stiffly. “Forgive me. I am thinking of the work I must attend to directly after breakfast.”
The dowager baroness nodded in acknowledgment.
“I understand you have pressing business,” she said, “but a man must never forget proper behavior, not even when in the comfort of his own home.”
Andrew bit his tongue as he took his seat. It would do no good to point out that his father had always been too busy calculating his next profitable venture to bother with proper conduct during mealtimes at home.
“Forgive me,” he said again.
The baroness nodded again, seemingly satisfied with his repentance.
“I hope you do not have any plans for this evening,” she said. “My friends, the Earl and Countess of Kinswood, and their daughter, Lady Viola, are joining us for dinner.”
Andrew held his breath to refrain from sighing heavily. He knew his mother loved social events, especially those that took place during the London Season. And he did not, in fact, have any plans.
He had made a point of avoiding speaking with anyone who might lead to him having to make plans. Still, he hated it when his mother sprang such things upon him at short notice, probably to make it impossible for him to refuse to attend.
He managed to force a smile and raise his eyebrows casually to feign interest.
“This dinner wouldn’t happen to be an attempt to play matchmaker between Lady Viola and me, would it?” he asked as lightheartedly as he could.
His mother was unamused. She frowned and shook her head.
“What a ridiculous idea, Andrew,” she said. “At any rate, holding such a dinner cannot be anything but beneficial to us. I do not need to remind you that the family’s bloodline rests solely on your shoulders.”
At this, Andrew laughed sincerely, if a bit dryly. He noted she didn’t directly answer his question. There was little chance she would tell him if matchmaking was her intention, even though they both knew well that it almost certainly was. He looked at his mother and shook his head in bemusement.
“And I do not need to remind you that I am not your only son,” he said. “Thus, it does not rest solely on my shoulders to continue our family line.”
The dowager baroness sighed with obvious exasperation.
“You cannot rely on Jacob,” she said. “He still has many years to go before he can even consider settling down.”
Andrew murmured noncommittally, though he did not see his mother’s point. Jacob was away touring Italy, and, though he was a few years younger than Andrew, it would be quite some time before he would return home and prepare to seek a wife. Indeed, he might very well have already met a young lady before leaving England and plan to marry her when he returned.
“I think you have too little faith in Jacob,” he said. “He is a very capable and level-headed man. Surely, more so than me.”
The baroness frowned again and shook her head, rising to her feet.
“It is not he who bears the title of baron,” she said. “Nor is it his birthright. Truly, you are just as stubborn as your father was.”
Andrew tried not to shudder at the thought of being anything like his father. The late baron’s poor example as a husband and father was the very reason why Andrew did not wish to marry and produce heirs.
It was a conversation he’d had many times with Lady Elsbrook, and one she always seemed eager to forget the minute it had concluded. He was just about to open the discussion once more when the dowager baroness suddenly thrust a sheet of paper at him.
“At least consider the marriage mart,” she said, her tone simultaneously sharp and resigned.
As soon as Andrew took the paper from her, his mother turned on her heel and left the room. Andrew couldn’t help smiling in bemusement. He didn’t enjoy upsetting his mother. Even though she was very prim and proper, he loved her. But she was so strict about adhering to the traditions of the ton that she often worked herself up into a frenzy at the idea of doing anything differently.
But when he looked down at the paper, his smile melted. It was a list of names, and Andrew quickly realized they belonged solely to women. More accurately, they were the names of young, unmarried women of the ton! He read it again to be sure his eyes weren’t still asleep. But there they were on the paper, and he shook his head and sighed in exasperation.
She is nothing if not tenacious, he thought bitterly as he tucked the paper haphazardly into his coat pocket. Then, eager to avoid his mother for the rest of the day, he locked himself in his study. There was plenty of work to do, but he had no interest in any of it. He sat facing the wall behind his desk, sipping brandy, and thinking of his childhood.
He had, as a young man, fancied the idea of marrying a good woman and having a family with her. But as the years had passed, and he had seen the example his father set for his son in his roles as man, husband, and father, he wanted less and less to do with the notion.
He had been taught to prepare for the eventuality of having his own family, principally, of course, to produce an heir. But now he was faced with the reality of being forced to take on the shackles of marriage, he loathed the idea. Why couldn’t he simply hand over the mantle to Jacob if he wished? He had half hoped his brother would marry first, so he could hand over the family title and fortune to Jacob with reasonable hope that his mother wouldn’t object. Now, he would never get that chance.
At some point, he must have fallen asleep. The next thing he knew, the clock on the mantel chimed three in the afternoon, startling him awake.
He rubbed his eyes, noticing with relief that he hadn’t spilled any of the brandy still in the glass he had apparently fallen asleep holding. He finished it quickly and put away the glass, then rose from the desk. It was time to begin getting ready for his mother’s dinner party. With a groan, he left his study and trudged his way up to his bedchambers.
“Your bath is almost ready, sir,” Wallace, his valet , told him as Andrew entered his rooms a few moments later.
“Thank you, Wallace,” Andrew sighed, pulling off his cravat irritably and throwing it over the back of a chair. The coat joined it seconds later. He kicked off his shoes. More cans of hot water were brought up by footmen from below, and soon Andrew was wallowing in the tub, wishing he could stay there for the evening. He leaned back and allowed Wallace to shave him before getting out and drying off.
While Wallace moved calmly to and fro about his business, Andrew sat down on the bed and said, “I suppose I’d better make the best of this brief respite. It’ll be the only peace I’ll probably get for the rest of the evening.”
“Well, sir, I’m sorry to hear you say that. Perhaps it would lighten your spirits to hear that the cook has prepared an excellent joint of beef for tonight, with plenty of horseradish sauce? I know that’s your favorite.”
“Hmmm,” Andrew murmured, getting up again so that Wallace could help him into a clean shirt. He rubbed his chin and cracked a half smile. “That certainly is good news, and I heartily thank you for it, Wallace. Unfortunately, I shall be forced to share it with the guests, whose company will doubtless kill my appetite anyway. And, of course, Lady Elwood has ensured a young, unmarried lady is among them.”
“I suppose that is a mother’s duty, and the dowager baroness is always a stickler for that,” the valet murmured.
“I can see you smiling, Wallace,” came Andrew’s muffled complaint as the shirt slid over his head.
“Me, sir? Never, sir,” Wallace calmly replied, taking up the black stockings and trousers from the bed. “Please, sit, sir.”
Andrew did as he was bid, watching Wallace’s face intently as the valet deftly drew the stockings over his master’s feet and secured them with garters.
“I can see the corners of your mouth twitching,” Andrew admonished, frowning. At that point, Wallace’s smile got the better of him, and both men started laughing.
“I’m so glad to be able to provide you with some amusement, Wallace,” Andrew said when they had recovered themselves somewhat. He stood up to step into his clean trousers.
“Sorry, sir,” the valet replied, clearly struggling to regain his composure as he tucked in the shirt, fastened the buttons, and tightened the back.
“Don’t suppose you fancy taking my place at dinner, do you?” Andrew asked, brows raised speculatively.
“I’d be only too delighted, sir, but I think the guests would object. It is the baron himself they come to dine with, not his valet.”
“I suppose you’re right. Damn shame, though,” Andrew sighed, shrugging into the richly embroidered satin waistcoat Wallace held out to him.
“I won’t even be able to get drunk,” he added mournfully, his breath catching as Wallace tightened the waistcoat strings and tied them off. “I’ll have to make stupid small talk the whole time.” He paused to pull at the new outfit and briefly admired himself in the looking glass. “Hmm, not bad.”
He sat down on a stool by his dressing table, and Wallace deftly worked with a comb to bring some order to his master’s somewhat unruly light-brown hair. Then, the valet helped him into his patent leather shoes. Like an automaton, Andrew rose yet again, and suffered while Wallace tied his cravat in a tight, complicated knot, complaining the man was ‘trying to strangle’ him.
Andrew stood patiently while Wallace added a few dabs of gentleman’s sandalwood and lemon cologne strategically about his person, then helped his master into his favorite midnight-blue velvet coat.
Andrew smirked at his reflection as Wallace brushed him down, and he imagined the expression on his mother’s face when she saw him. She couldn’t say he hadn’t made an effort. And she should just be happy that he was attending her dinner at all.
His mother was coming from her bedchambers just as he emerged from his own. Her satin gown was elegant, but he had to smile at her high, single feather headdress—currently all the rage— as it bobbed along with her every step. Her face was flushed, revealing her excitement at the coming dinner, but when she saw Andrew, she paused to inspect him from head to toe.
“It will do, I suppose,” she said, frowning, “but you could have tried a little bit harder to be fashionable.”
“Are we ready?” he asked, ignoring her comments and offering his arm. His mother gave her infamous huff before taking it, and they set off down the hallway towards the staircase.
“Well, I certainly am,” she said. “Please, try to make our guests feel welcome.”
Andrew gave his mother a wide, fake grin.
“I live to serve,” he said.
They waited but a few minutes in the drawing room before hearing their guests arrive. The butler entered shortly afterwards and announced the arrival of Lord and Lady Kinswood and Lady Violet. As they were shown in, the dowager rose to greet her friends, followed by Andrew, and she made the usual tedious, formal introductions propriety demanded.
Andrew vaguely recognized the older couple. The earl was tall and spare with luxurious whiskers, his wife plump and pink-cheeked, and sporting a feather headdress similar to his mother’s. Lady Viola turned out to be quite pretty, with pale-blonde hair, light-green eyes, and a dimple in her cheek. But when he greeted her, he could not see a spark of intelligence in her eyes. Moreover, she seemed quite unable to take her eyes off him, which made him squirm inside.
“Welcome to our home, my lord, my ladies,” he declared once the formal introductions were over, his voice oozing a warmth he didn’t feel. “My mother and I are honored to have you join us for dinner, which should be served at any moment.” The earl and countess nodded gracefully, all smiles, as they made small talk with his mother. Andrew pretended to be listening, but he was really trying to avoid meeting Lady Violet’s eyes, which were still fixed upon him.
To his enormous relief the butler came to announce dinner, and thank the Lord, he wasn’t required to escort Lady Violet into the dining room; the two ladies went in arm in arm, chattering gaily, and the earl escorted his daughter, with Andrew following up the rear. Andrew took his place at the head of the table and waited while everyone settled in, with Lady Viola to his immediate right. His mother’s doing, obviously. Then, he signaled for service, the wine was poured, and the meal began.
During the soup course, his mother and Lady Kinswood immediately began a lively discussion of the Season, while the earl ate in silence.
“It is lovely weather we have been having lately, is it not?” Lady Viola said, stirring her soup with her spoon, but drinking not a mouthful that he could see. Andrew mustered another smile and nodded, again not looking directly at her.
“It is, indeed,” he said. As is to be expected for late spring, he added silently.
Andrew was preparing to engage the earl in business talk in the hopes of discouraging any further conversation from Lady Viola. But he had forgotten the whole reason for his mother holding the dinner. She spoke directly to Lady Viola, the purpose in her voice loud and clear—to spark a conversation between the singletons.
“I am sure you have many lovely new dresses for the Season, my dear,” she said. “The one you are wearing now is a wonderful shade of green. It suits you perfectly. Do you not agree, Son?”
Andrew clenched his jaw. Now he would be expected to compliment the young woman, which would serve as further encouragement. He vowed to make his mother regret trying to force her onto him if it was the last thing he did.
“It is lovely, indeed,” Andrew said, not looking up from his soup.
“Thank you,” Lady Viola gushed. “Mama has had a blue one, a pink one, and a yellow one made for me just like it. Oh, and I am going to buy a purple one with feathers on the side and . . .” Andrew’s eyes glazed over. What brainless prattle! He feared he would go mad if he continued listening to her mindless droning about her dresses. How could the men of the ton ever be truly interested in such featherbrained women?
The following courses were no less painful to him. He managed to work in a little business conversation with Lord Kinswood and avoid talking directly to his daughter, but that promptly ceased just before dessert was served, when the earl blatantly laid his cards on the table.
“Our Viola is seeking to marry by the end of this Season,” he said pointedly to Andrew. “Lady Worthingwood tells us that you are looking to do the same.”
“Does she, indeed?” Andrew hedged, struggling to suppress his annoyance. “Well, as to that, I have spoken with Mother on the subject of marriage in the past, as is natural, but I do not consider myself under great pressure to wed at this time. Love isn’t something to be rushed, after all.”
At that, Lady Viola giggled like a schoolgirl. He heard the murmurs of approval from Lady Viola’s parents, just as he could feel the daggers his mother’s eyes sent him. He didn’t care. If she was foolish enough to go telling people he was looking to get leg-shackled, she couldn’t complain if he threw a few obstacles in her way. Not only did he not want to get married, but he knew he certainly did not want to marry Lady Viola, daughter of an earl or not. He simply could not stomach the thought of spending his life with someone as empty-headed as her. No matter what his mother said to whom.
“Oh, I can hardly wait to make my debut next year,” Sybil gushed as the carriage took the Whitworth women and their lady’s maids to Cresingdale Manor. Benji snoozed fitfully in Sally’s arms, worn out from the excitement of traveling in the carriage.
Rowena had been dreading returning to London, and she hated the thought of attending the Season. But as the carriage drew closer to the manor, she felt a tinge of excitement.
It had been almost two years since she had seen her eldest sister, Lady Nancy Cresswall. Nancy had lost her beloved husband, Colin, the Earl of Cresswall, two years prior to a sudden illness. The family had stayed for a few months to help Nancy through her mourning period, but straitened finances had prevented them from visiting her regularly. Rowena could hardly wait to see the dowager countess. Her sister was the only happy thing London still held for her.
As Sybil prattled on about her excitement about her debut, Rowena realized that, if she didn’t find a husband this year, Sybil would likely have to wait for her chance to debut. It was typically the responsibility of fathers to fund their daughters’ debutante balls.
However, given her family’s dire financial position, it would have fallen to Sybil’s brother-in-law. Now, the earl’s untimely death had removed that option. That meant the responsibility was now Rowena’s, and hers alone.
She tried to swallow the apprehension she felt as the carriage came to a stop in front of Cresingdale Manor. The pressure on her was immense, but she could not allow herself to give into it. She never wanted her younger sister to see how distressed she was to have to make such a sacrifice. And she was determined not to ruin the first chance she’d had to spend with her older sister in such a long time.
Roger, the butler, opened the front door of the manor just as the footmen helped the women from the carriage. As they approached the grand, red-brick mansion, he bowed deeply.
“Welcome to Cresingdale Manor, ladies,” he said, ushering them inside warmly.
The women entered, and Rowena gave Roger a friendly smile. She had only met the tall, balding man a few times, but he had always been kind to her during her earlier stay at the house.
“It is good to see you again, Roger,” she said.
The butler bowed again, and she thought she saw him blush.
“Her ladyship is waiting in the upstairs drawing room,” he said. “Please, follow me.”
The women and their maids complied, cooing over the mansion. It looked much as it had the last time they had visited, with the walls lined with various paintings, and the floors covered with richly patterned rugs. But there were differences. New paintings had appeared on the walls, including a new portrait of the late earl in the great hall. And the curtains, though the same shade of maroon, looked new and fresh. Rowena wondered if redecorating had been Nancy’s way of coping with the loss of her husband.
When the women reached the upstairs drawing room, Nancy was waiting in the doorway. Rowena noticed that, though her sister was just a few years older than her, her dark brown hair was starting to show streaks of gray. Rowena’s heart squeezed as she, her mother, and Sybil embraced the dowager countess.
“Oh, my girls,” Nancy said, kissing each one of them on the cheek. “How I have missed you all. Please, come and join me for tea.”
The women filed in, gasping at the new décor in the drawing room. It had once been a simple but elegant brown and red scheme. Now, it was filled with light colored tapestries and furniture, with beige wallpaper.
“It looks wonderful in here, dear,” the viscountess said, smiling warmly at her eldest daughter.
Rowena and Sybil nodded in agreement as Nancy smiled sadly.
“Thank you,” she said. “Colin and I had planned to make all these changes before he died. I wanted to carry out his wishes to honor him.”
Rowena grasped her eldest sister’s hand and squeezed it gently.
“He would love it, Sister,” she said.
Nancy gestured for the women to sit while her lady’s maid began serving the tea. Once that was done, the viscountess turned to her eldest daughter with concerned, loving eyes.
“How are you faring, darling?” she asked. “I do regret being unable to come and visit you more often.”
Nancy shook her head, giving her mother a doting smile.
“Do not apologize to me, Mother,” she said. “I completely understand. Your letters helped me tremendously. Not a minute went by that I did not know just how much my family loved and supported me.” She glanced at Rowena and winked as she spoke.
Rowena blushed and smiled down at her teacup. She had written almost those very words in one of her letters to Nancy. It touched her that her sister had held them so close to her heart.
“That’s right,” Sybil chimed in. “There was not a single moment when we stopped loving or supporting you either, Sister. I only wish we could have brought you home with us.”
Nancy shook her head patiently.
“I have my late husband’s fortune to ensure that the estate affairs are handled properly and that I have everything I need,” she said. “There was no need to impose on my family.”
The viscountess took her eldest daughter’s hand.
“Darling, it would hardly have been an imposition,” she said. Only Rowena detected the hint of untruth in her mother’s eyes as she spoke. “You are always welcome back home, should the need arise.”
Nancy smiled again at her mother.
“I know, and I am so grateful,” she said. “But I am managing well enough. And it gets easier as time goes by.”
The viscountess smiled at her daughter again.
“I am so proud of you, dear,” she said.
Nancy blushed, turning her attention to Rowena.
“Speaking of pride,” she said, beaming, clearly ready for a change of subject, “I am very proud of you, as well, Sister.”
Rowena blinked, confused.
“Me?” she asked. “Why?”
“Because you have decided to attend the Season,” she said. “I think it is wonderful. And I am sure you will enjoy yourself.”
Rowena struggled hard not to grimace. Of course, Nancy knew she would be taking part in the Season. Their parents would have told Nancy when they announced they were returning to London. Still, she had hoped to avoid that topic during their visit with her eldest sister. She forced herself to muster a smile.
“Oh, I am quite looking forward to it,” she lied.
Rowena could see her mother tense up, but the viscountess said nothing. Rowena wished she could magically vanish into thin air. It was bad enough that she had to attend the Season and find a husband. She hated having to lie to her sisters about her reasons for it, as well.
“I knew you would be,” Nancy said excitedly. “Oh, did Mother tell you about the party I will be hosting in two days’ time?”
Rowena shook her head, her stomach twisting. She had been silly enough to think she wouldn’t have to rush straight into the Season’s events. She had hoped she might have some time to settle back into London before the parties and balls began.
Still, she supposed that her first event being hosted by her sister might make things easier. It was certainly better than starting with one held at a perfect stranger’s home. Or worse, at the home of someone who remembered the scandal with Jason.
“Oh, she didn’t mention it,” Rowena said, trying her best to keep any accusation or apprehension out of her voice. “But I am sure it will be lovely.”
Nancy nodded, grinning.
“I have been planning it for months,” she said. “Several of London’s prominent bachelors will be in attendance. I am sure you will have no shortage of gentlemen wanting to dance with you. You are so very beautiful, dear Sister.”
“Um, thank you,” Rowena said, swallowing a fresh wave of bile. After what her sister had been through, Rowena did not expect Nancy to remember what Jason had done to her. She had, after all, only been married shortly before, and none of the scandal had impacted on her.
But that wasn’t Rowena’s biggest concern: it was her certainty that none of the gentlemen at the party would wish to even glance in her direction. Even if Nancy had forgotten about the scandal, Rowena knew the rest of the ton had not. And those gentlemen who didn’t know wouldn’t want a twenty-two-year-old spinster for a wife. Still, she could not allow her sister to think she was unhappy about attending her party.
“I am very excited,” she said, feeling terrible for lying so blatantly.
“Wonderful,” she said. “Do you have any plans to see the modiste beforehand?”
Rowena felt the color drain from her face. She knew well that there was no money for new dresses. But she couldn’t tell her sister that without having to divulge what her mother had told her. She glanced at the viscountess for any indication of what she should say. Fortunately, her mother was smiling at her eldest daughter, albeit a bit too brightly.
“Rowena has decided to wear her dresses from the previous Season,” she said.
“But why don’t you wish to buy new dresses, Sister?” Nancy asked, looking at Rowena in confusion.
Rowena shrugged, loathing her father’s drinking with her entire soul in that moment.
“This has all happened so suddenly,” she said quickly. “I suppose I just thought it would be easier.”
She felt miserable at the lies she was having to tell. But ever-caring Nancy smiled softly at her and shook her head.
“No, Sister,” she said. “We can’t have you wearing old dresses. I have some I can no longer wear. We can have you try them on, and we will have any necessary alterations made.” Rowena silently breathed a sigh of relief. For a moment, she had feared that Nancy would offer to make time to take her shopping. Her sister would have found out then that their parents were close to being ruined.
“Thank you, Nan, that sounds lovely,” she said, her smile genuine this time.
Nancy grinned, clearly pleased with the compromise.
“Come, then,” she said, walking over to her sister and taking her hands. “Let us get started.”
The women followed Nancy to her bedchambers, where there was a wardrobe filled with dresses. Rowena secretly admitted they were much nicer than her old ones. She hardly paid them any mind, however. All she could think about was how close her sister had come to learning the truth which their mother was trying so hard to keep from her.
She was also thinking about the upcoming Season and the humiliation that surely awaited her. Was this truly the right thing to do to save her family? Or would they only end up suffering more shame?
Let me know your thoughts!
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This Post Has 2 Comments
As always, I was hooked in the first few paragraphs!!
I’m already hooked and look forward to the rest of the story. As usual, you have described the way of life in the ton along with the expectations for successful marriages, whether or not there is love involved.