Authors: May Burnett
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Regency, #Historical Romance
The Amberley Chronicles
The Impostor Debutante
My Last Marchioness
The Sister Quest
A Regency Romance
In late April of 1817, by far the most elegant and fashionable wedding celebrated among the ton were the nuptials of George Ellsworthy, the Earl of Amberley, and Lady Marianne Wetherby, only daughter of the Marquess of Pell. Nobody was surprised that St. George’s on Hanover Square was full to capacity on the happy occasion; both the groom and his new countess were popular leaders of society, and their families, friends, and hangers-on were legion.
Lady Amberley, the groom’s mother, was among the most joyful in the large crowd. From now on she would be known as the dowager countess, but that was a small price to pay for having achieved such a suitable alliance for her beloved first-born son.
Ever since George had come up from university some eight years earlier, his mother had lived in terror of having to acknowledge some nobody - or even worse, some actress or adventuress - as her successor. She knew George to be a good-hearted and romantic young man, and as a wealthy Earl, one of the foremost catches on the marriage mart. She had privately thought him very likely to be trapped by someone completely unsuitable. However, all her fears turned out to have been in vain, when George had become engaged to dear Marianne instead. Lady Amberley had done her utmost to promote the match, but had to admit to herself that it probably would have happened even without her doing. From their first encounter, the two young people had appeared irresistibly drawn to each other. The choir singing so beautifully, the incense, and the shining faces of the congregation before her were merely the logical culmination of an uncomplicated and universally welcomed courtship.
The bride’s virginal bouquet of white flowers made Lady Amberley remember for a moment, with uncharacteristic sentimentality, her own wedding some thirty years ago. Alas, that recollection led to another, far less welcome one. Her chief bridesmaid had been her younger sister Amelia, dead these seven, no, almost eight years now ….. A slight twinge of guilt disturbed her elation. For years she had successfully shoved the thought of Amelia far away, but on this occasion, possibly because she was in a church and unwontedly mellow, she decided to finally do something about poor Amelia’s daughter.
After all, George was safely married now, James was still too young and careless to think of marriage, and she had at least three years until Minerva, the youngest of her brood, would emerge from the schoolroom. By then, Amelia’s daughter Belinda would long be married off, if the girl was even marginally attractive and her aunt had not lost her touch as a matchmaker.
Having mentally settled this problem to her satisfaction, Lady Amberley returned to fond contemplation of her four surviving children. Jennifer, her older daughter, had come up from Bristol to attend her brother’s wedding, and stood next to her husband, Mr. Bartholomew Potts. Her mother knew she was increasing again, for the second time, but the high waists of current fashion helped to hide this fact from the curious.
The Potts name was not old or distinguished, but that regrettable fact was outweighed by the family’s enormous and still growing shipping fortune. Through his marriage to an Earl’s daughter, Mr. Potts now had the entrée to a more sophisticated society, and his wife, Lady Jennifer Potts, had everything her heart could desire and money could buy. It would not be long before Mr. Potts styled himself Sir Bartholomew or Lord Something-or-other, Lady Amberley mused, if Jennifer and he thought it worth the outlay on various political donations.
On Jennifer’s other side stood the youngest of the siblings, Minerva, dressed in pale blue gauze. At fourteen she promised to be even prettier than Jennifer; but she was also deplorably outspoken and curious. Despite these faults, Lady Amberley had no doubt that she would be able to shoot her off creditably when the time came.
George, of course, was standing up next to his new bride, divinely handsome and radiant with pride and joy. Was he maybe too much in love? In Lady Amberley’s experience, love was a bad basis for marriage. It could so easily lead to disenchantment once the first flush of fascination passed. However, now was not the moment to cavil;
let them enjoy it while they can
, she thought indulgently. Some things were beyond even her control.
Her younger son James, at nearly twenty-four, might be considered even more handsome than George by an objective observer. He stood half a head taller than his brother, and had the same clear grey eyes and dark lashes. He shared Jennifer and Minerva’s glossy chestnut locks, while George’s were an indeterminate ash blond. Too bad that as a mere younger son, the Honourable James Ellsworthy was not as great a catch as his older sibling. Moreover, as soon as George and Marianne produced their first son, his market value would sink even further.
Was James thinking of that today? His deadpan expression was hard to fathom, even for his mother. They did not spend much time together these days. James had his own lodgings and rarely sought her out, though George and Minerva saw him fairly often.
Even so, today she looked with pride at this second boy of hers, now unquestionably a handsome and supremely fashionable, if expensive young man. With his elegance, connections, birth, and good looks, was it too much to hope that he would eventually marry some rich heiress? Lady Amberley resolved to turn her mind in this direction, as soon as she had disposed of the bothersome Belinda.
Had her niece had the slightest inkling of Lady Amberley’s intentions, she would have been surprised indeed. Belinda had no great opinion of her late mother’s older sister, who was moreover her godmother. Lady Amberley had been completely absent during the hardest times in Belinda’s life.
Except perhaps as a toddler, she had never set eyes on her only aunt. Now she never would, for her eyesight, which had been gradually worsening since her late teens, was all but gone.
That did not mean Belinda was ignorant of the Ellsworthy family’s affairs. Her former governess, now retired to the capital, sent regular missives detailing current ton events, sometimes at exhaustive length.
As she was listening to her half-sister Charlotte reading to her from Miss Everly’s most recent letter, Belinda was sitting on a shabby but comfortable chaise-longue in the main room of the small townhouse to which she had recently moved. Her long legs were stretched out before her, covered by the skirt of an old but warm and soft woollen gown and a thick blanket, supplementing the warmth from the small fireplace. In Yorkshire the temperature was still cool despite momentarily sunny weather. In fact, the whole year had been uncommonly cold so far.
“Your cousin Amberley is getting married on Friday 11
at St. George’s, Hanover Square. They say that twenty seamstresses worked on Lady Marianne’s wedding gown!”
Charlotte paused in her reading and remarked, “That is today! Why wouldn’t they have invited you to this wedding? You are the bridegroom’s first cousin, after all.”
“I couldn’t have gone anyway, so it’s just as well they did not.” Belinda replied serenely. She smiled the inward smile that Charlotte knew meant she was happy and content. For most of their childhood and adolescence, it had rarely appeared, but since Belinda’s marriage to her beloved Richard four months ago, it was becoming more and more frequent.
“They couldn’t have known that, though – they don’t know anything about you, or us.”
“Well, if they did not invite me to my cousin’s wedding, I cannot complain, for I never invited them to mine,” Belinda pointed out. “As you just said yourself, they can have no idea of our circumstances.”
“I know we have always disliked the very idea of your fashionable relatives, Bel, and mother’s stories about her childhood did not paint a very attractive picture of them. But maybe you ought to apply to them for help after all.”
Charlotte spoke reluctantly, for she hated the thought of asking for help even more than Belinda did. Both sisters had inherited their share of pride, and in her case, due to the circumstances of her birth, it was even more ingrained than in the respectably born Belinda.
Belinda knew how desperate the situation had to be if Charlotte was willing to throw aside the prejudices of a lifetime.
“Is there really no other choice, Charlie?” she asked, rubbing her right hand over the soft fabric of her blanket. “You have always managed to find a way before.”
Charlotte sighed, deciding on partial honesty. “The white mare needed to be shod, and I had to use the money set aside for seedlings. With the uncommonly long winter we had to use more coal, and it is so dear… There’s never enough cash, no matter how I scrimp and save. We simply cannot go on as we have been doing. You are all right living here with Richard, but I cannot keep up the estate any longer without access to working capital. The price we got for our jewels will barely pay the next month’s wages.” Charlotte did not mention her suspicion that she had not got the best price possible for their pieces. That jeweller in York had undoubtedly guessed that she was selling under dire pressure; it was a common enough story. “It is so maddening that all these problems would simply go away if only you got control of your inheritance. Of course, by rights, Richard ought to do it in your place.”
Belinda frowned. “You know how he feels about that, Charlie. Richard still has this unreasonable fear that we will be torn apart if our marriage comes to the attention of my relatives. That is nonsense, of course, as he and
are the only family I acknowledge. However, I am not willing to argue the matter with him again.”
Charlotte knew she would not be budged from that position. She shrugged ruefully. “Richard may even be right. I do understand his fear that a marriage with a nearly blind girl so far above his own station and fortune may cause problems, or that someone will try to have it invalidated. Richard is a wonderful man and an excellent physician, but his family has no influence compared to an Earl. But something
“Charlie, you have always been the one to think of solutions to all our problems. Surely you can do that once again.”
Charlotte did not immediately reply. The responsibility for a large estate and its numerous dependents was sometimes a heavier burden than she wanted Belinda to guess.
“I’m trying,” she said at last. “In fact, I can think of little else these days. But the problem is in London, and we are stuck here in Yorkshire. Now let’s see what else Miss Everly has to tell us about this wedding...”
In the event it was Belinda herself who came up with the plan, as soon as Charlotte had read her the surprising invitation from the Dowager Lady Amberley.
This missive had been delivered to Brinkley Manor, the Yardleys’ ancestral estate on which Belinda and Charlotte had grown up. Despite being the presumptive owner of the Manor since her father’s death some sixteen months previously, Belinda had preferred to move into her new husband’s modest house, so much more conveniently located for Dr. Seymour’s growing medical practice. Within days she knew every inch of the inside and gardens so well, and moved around with so much assurance, that nobody who was unaware of her infirmity would have suspected it.
Charlotte, the default mistress of the manor, drove over daily in the gig. Her sturdy mare found the way mostly by herself, leaving Charlotte to think and worry the whole way. Once arrived, Charlotte lost no time in breaking the seal and unfolding the single sheet.
My dear niece,
Charlotte read, ignoring Belinda’s delicate snort. “
Now that the mourning period for your father has passed, it is time
you came to visit me here in London, and meet the rest of the family. My eldest son, the Earl, is currently on his wedding trip, and the season is soon drawing to an end, but at least this will give us time to bring you up to snuff in time for the autumn little season. Do not bring many clothes, for Yorkshire fashions will not do in town.”
“My mourning period ended over six months ago, easily in time for this season,” Belinda acerbically observed. “And that observation about bringing me up to snuff, and her sneering reference to Yorkshire fashions, are really the outside of enough.”
Charlotte shrugged, and read on. “
You will not need to bring your female companion: in fact it will be best if you pension her off. I fully expect that you will make some eligible connection while staying with me, so there will be no further need for her services.
“She obviously has forgotten your name,” Belinda noted. “I imagine that people outside her own station do not merit much attention in my aunt’s eyes.”
“I suppose that is just as well”, Charlotte wryly remarked. “You must admit that we deliberately gave her a false impression in that letter three years ago.”
“Sometimes the ends justify the means, and that was one of those cases,” Belinda maintained. They were silent for a moment, thinking back to another unpleasant letter by Aunt Amberley, who had aroused herself, a mere two years after her sister’s death, to enquire about the propriety of her god-daughter’s continued residence in Brinkley Manor,
while her father, Sir Rudolph Yardley, was gadding about in London and on the Continent. Belinda had written back (dictating to Charlotte) that a respectable married lady, Mrs. Peter Conway, whose husband was off with the army, was in residence to lend her countenance and keep her company.
This had been the literal truth. At the time Charlotte had already been married for several months to a Lieutenant Conway, who had promptly abandoned her after running through the modest dowry their father had provided. Lady Amberley was not to know that Mrs. Conway was Belinda’s illegitimate half-sister, who had been brought up together with her and was a mere two years older.
“Even if her impression were correct, how on earth does she imagine I could afford to pension you off?” Belinda asked. “But go on, dear.”
“I am sending a carriage to pick you up on the morning of Monday May 18
, make sure to be ready to depart without delay.
Your affectionate aunt,
Millicent Ellsworthy, Lady Amberley
“Did she really sign like that, with her full name and title?” Belinda asked.
“Yes, it’s right here, in black and white.”
“You will notice that she does not give me any opportunity to decline her invitation. She seems to assume that I will meekly fall in with her wishes.”
“Well, her invitation comes too late, as you already arranged your own marriage as soon as you were of age. You can write back and tell your aunt so.”
Belinda thought for a while, imagining herself with normal vision, travelling to enjoy her aunt’s belated hospitality and match-making within her own social class. The prospect did not entice her at all. But – an idea came to her.
“What if you went in my stead?”
“What do you mean?”
“Charlie, you know we need to sort out this inheritance tangle. We cannot do anything here in Yorkshire, except write to my father’s lawyer, and he has not answered any letters for many months now. If you – as me – were in London, backed by an Earl’s family, he could not go on ignoring us. Once we have control of my money, you could leave with some excuse, and come back, all problems resolved.”
“That is absurd! Your aunt is clearly expecting some shy, virginal debutante, if a bit older than usual. I am past twenty-three, and have been married – still am married – and besides, she is your relative on your mother’s side, not related to me at all. If she found out about this, she could have me sent to prison for fraud. Clearly she intends to buy clothes for you.”
“But consider, Charlie! We look alike, and you could pass for a mature twenty-one, I am sure. You know everything I do about our family, including mother’s stories about life with her overbearing sister Millicent. We have rarely met anybody outside our immediate vicinity here in Yorkshire. Is there anything at all that could give you away?”
“Except my unladylike and outspoken ways, you mean? My impatience with cant and polite manners? My lifelong contempt for the useless popinjays making up fashionable society?”
“Those are all things you could put aside. Remember that your birth mother was an actress – surely you have enough of her talent to carry off a simple charade for a few days, two or three weeks at most?” Belinda paused for a long moment, before adding the coup de grace. “Of course if you feel unequal to the task of hoodwinking a bunch of useless popinjays, as you call them, then no more need be said.”
“You wretch! Of course I daresay I
do it, but it doesn’t feel right.”
“If my aunt does not recognise me or you, it is her own fault for having ignored me all these years. I do not feel that we owe her any particular loyalty. And once we have the money, we can pay her back for any clothes she bought you. Charlie, we
need to settle our affairs.”
“Yes, I know - but to leave at the beginning of summer, when there is so much to do at the estate!”
“Getting our money is going to help the estate much more than anything you can do here,” Belinda pointed out. She smiled. Despite Charlotte’s hard head, Belinda almost always got her way in the end. “In case my aunt finds you out, I will give you a letter for her, explaining that you were acting with my full authority and permission.”
“Yes, or she may fancy that I murdered you to take your place,” Charlotte said. She knew as well as Belinda that she was going to do it, misgivings or not. And the prospect of meeting these mythical relatives at long last, and see something of London after a lifetime in Yorkshire, did have its attractions. How often, in younger years, had she imagined what it would be like to live among the ton and have a season? For the last few years she had put all those fanciful notions aside, to focus on immediate necessities, but Charlotte could not deny a long-harboured curiosity and even a small thrill at the risk she’d be taking.
“I just hope this doesn’t end in disaster, Bel.”