Authors: Holly Bush
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Victorian, #Regency, #Romantic Comedy, #Historical Romance
“Yes, I had the pleasure of meeting Miss Sheldon when we first arrived.”
The oldest smiled brilliantly with pale hair piled in fashionable ringlets with one lone escapee trailing down toward her cleavage. A pale blue dress made her eyes stand out as if they were stars in the night landscape.
“What do you think of our little party, Your Grace? I do just love an assemblage such as this,” Miss Juliet Sheldon said.
Thornsby titled his head, recalling his opinion of the group. Much closer to the wren’s assessment than to this blond package’s, now blinking up at him in wonder. “Such festive decorations and lively music,” he heard himself repeat. He stole a look at the wren.
“Original,” she murmured.
“Did you see the little bows at the corners of the buffet, my lord? Juliet and I fashioned those all on our own. I think they’re quite perfect. Don’t you Matilda?” asked the other Miss Sheldon.
“They are lovely, Alexandra,” Matilda said.
“And all on their own,” the Countess said with a nod of pride. “My daughters are so well-versed in such matters. I simply have no idea where they get their ideas, but as you see, they are a triumph.”
Thornsby nodded politely. “Quite an addition, my dears.”
“And Mother is far too modest. She is the one who orchestrates these beautiful surroundings,” the eldest added fondly and turned back to him. “Have you seen the buffet? Mother had Cook make the most dazzling garnish with sugared fruit.”
“Why no,” he began.
The younger girl’s smile dropped. “Someone smeared the faces of all the little butter angels.”
Thornsby continued to nod as the two sisters and the mother began a systematic assessment of what devil may have stolen the lox and muddied the butters. Just as he would hope the subject was dwindling away, one of them began it anew. They all spoke at once. Laughed at once. His head was pounding. He looked at Matilda. Her eyes were closed.
“Matilda. You’ve something red all over your gloves,” the Countess said sympathetically.
“Perhaps the cherry glaze,” one offered.
“Or the tomato jelly.”
“The tomato jelly was sitting directly beside the butter angels, Matilda. Did you see who smeared their little faces?” the Countess asked.
“No Mother, I’m sorry, I did not see who smeared the butter angels. But I do need to change my gloves. Excuse me,” she said as she stepped past him.
She was leaving him mired in twirling pastries and finger bows. Deserting him. And the brat had the most self-satisfied smirk on her face he’d ever seen. He stopped her with a hand on her elbow. “Is there more than one door in this room?”
“Two, Your Grace. I have yet to decide if that is quite enough for you, though.”
The mother said quietly. “Your hair’s come undone, Matilda, dear. Have Mimi attend you.”
The wren’s hand went immediately to her head and she hurried from the room.
* * *
Athena nodded her brother’s direction. “Looks as though Freddy is getting along tolerably well. The oldest Juliet is certainly handsome,” she said to Smithly. Andrew was staring at her in the strangest way. He’d been most solicitous all evening. “What? Has my hair gone awry? Have I mint jelly on my mouth?”
“Not at all, Athena. You look lovely this evening.”
Athena stared at him. It didn’t appear he was making sport of her. Opposite in fact. Andrew looked terribly sincere. She looked around the room because looking at Andrew looking at her was making her warm all over.
“This old thing?” she said and picked at her gown. “I’ve had it since forever.”
Andrew shyly touched her hand hidden in the folds of her skirt. He looked around the room as well. She didn’t withdraw her hand, though, and that fact may have emboldened him to speak his mind.
“Don’t ever mistake yourself for any woman. You are far from ordinary, Athena.”
Athena’s eyes opened wide. Freddy must have retold the embarrassing moment in her chambers. Heat flashed in her face, and she pulled her hand to her waist. “Ungallant of my brother to repeat that conversation.” Athena touched her hand to her hair. “I’m well aware of my shortcomings. And he hardly needed to remind you.”
“You are high-handed and arrogant. Far too forward and set in your ways like a bachelor.” Andrew said. He stepped directly in front of her and waited till she met his eye. “You are also fascinating. Far brighter than I’ll ever be and beautiful when you drop that perpetual frown you wear. And I have loved you from afar since I’ve been in short pants.”
Athena stopped breathing. Andrew had said, she thought he had said, that he loved her. It couldn’t be. He was young, dashing and never looked at her as anything but the severe sister of his best friend. “I’m older than you.”
Andrew stepped to her side to let another guest pass. They resumed looking out over the crowd. “And I am untitled. A fop. A dandy. I remember each label you’ve assigned me. So I suppose we will roll along beside each other with Freddy in common till we’re too old to find anyone else.”
Athena clasped her hands till her knuckles were white. “I suppose so, Andrew.”
* * *
The cranberry sauce on her gloves was a stroke of luck. Once gone from the dining rooms, Matilda didn’t bother returning. Her mother found her in her nightclothes huddled in a chair by the fire, book in hand.
“Why haven’t you come back to the party, Matilda?” Frances asked.
“A small headache. Nothing to concern yourself with.” Matilda looked up at her Mother. “Go enjoy yourself.”
Frances sat down. “You’re sure a headache is all?”
“Yes. Just a headache,” Matilda said. She pushed her glasses up her nose and saw her mother staring at her quizzically.
“The Duke seemed most taken with you, Matilda.”
She laughed. “Hardly Mother. With Juliet and Alexandra about I doubt that seriously.”
“Don’t compare yourself to your sisters, dear. Each of you are very special in your own way.”
Those kind words struck a chord in Matilda. Her mother wasn’t brilliant by any measure but she on occasion said exactly the right thing at precisely the right time. This was one of those moments. Matilda stared at the fire.
“You are beautiful and clever,” Frances added.
So clever, in fact, that on occasion Frances wondered if this woman were part of the Sheldon family. Matilda had since her earliest days been the problem solver, the thinker in the family. Leading in the classroom, in supper discussions Frances could not follow, even advising her father on estate matters. Had Frances not given birth to Matilda herself, nothing would have convinced her that she was, in fact, her own daughter.
“Why wouldn’t you think the Duke is interested in you?” Frances asked.
Matilda dropped her book to her lap. “Maybe I’m not interested in him, Mother.”
“Not interested? Why ever not? The man is handsome and titled.”
Because she could not envision herself living her life with a self-centered ne’er-do-well without the wherewithal to read a book or find some meaning in his life past parties like every other titled guest at Maplewood.
“There must be more than that to a man’s worth, Mother. Certainly more than that to a man I’ll tie myself to for forty years,” Matilda replied.
Frances eyed her daughter. “I am certain your requirements in a husband exceed Alexandra or Juliet’s. You would shrivel up and die if you hadn’t someone to argue with.”
“Is that what I do, Mother? Argue? Yes, I imagine it is.”
“Your father says you assert your opinion forcefully. I tend to agree with him. You do know he relies on those opinions on many occasions.”
Matilda smiled. She’d been privy to her father’s study and the estate business for as long as she remembered. “I can’t imagine a husband allowing a wife the same liberties.”
“It would depend most definitely on the husband.” Frances stood and tapped her lip with her finger. “He would have to be as clever as you, no doubt. And smart enough to see past those glasses and the dreadful dresses you hide behind.” Frances dropped her gaze to her daughter’s face. “You do hide behind them, dear. As if your test of a man includes listening to you first and looking at you later.”
When did Frances Sheldon gain such insight? Did she watch her daughter choose the plainest dullest gowns and least flattering hairstyle from some magical perch in Matilda’s bedroom? Her mother had hit the mark most accurately. If a man could not see past her sisters, her wealth and her looks, what possible use could he be to her? Frances walked to the door, a vision of beauty and style even at forty-eight years of age. And apparently with more insight than Matilda had given her credit for.
Frances Sheldon turned back to her daughter as she reached the door with a troubled look on her face. “James says that Mother Sheldon ruined the faces of all my little butter angels. I can hardly believe it. Goodnight, my dear.”
n the morning, Matilda watched from the window as houseguests gathered on horseback for the hunt. She could see Alexandra and Juliet amongst the crowd of neighing, pawing thoroughbreds and their riders. One sister in mint green velvet, one in dark blue, they both laughed and their feather hats bounced accordingly. Matilda donned her brown serge dress and stood in front of her full-length mirror. Was Mother right? Did she hide herself in drab colors? Matilda shook off the notion. The man she was to meet in an hour would hardly care about the color of her dress. Jack Steel was a dear.
James had a footman prepare the coach, and she rattled off in the barouche towards her brownstone. She would slip back by mid-afternoon, and no one would be the wiser for it.
* * *
The Duke of Thornsby watched the brown wren scuttle off towards the stable looking over her shoulder as she went. He had chosen not to chase the fox this morning and Athena had glared at him.
“Twill be the perfect opportunity to show you manly skills, Freddy.” Athena lifted her hand to shade her eyes. “Perhaps you could endeavor to get lost in the woods with one of them. Rescue them and all that nonsense.”
“Athena! If I came out of the woods towing one of those virgins behind me, the Earl would have me at the altar in short order.”
Andrew stilled as he attempted to mount his stallion. He turned back. “I say, Thornsby. That’s the point of this weekend. Is it not?”
Thornsby shoved his hands in his pockets. “I suppose so.”
“Then what is the problem, Freddy? Mount up,” Athena said shrilly.
“Dear Lord, Athena. That screeching of yours is no balm to my pounding head,” Andrew said.
“In your cups again, Smithly.” Athena said and turned the head of her horse to follow the procession. “I suppose I should expect such behavior from you after all these years.”
Blessedly, Athena and Andrew were too involved with their own argument to see him slink away. It was good to know things were back to normal with the two of them. They’d seemed too distracted last evening to even argue with each other. Quite out of the ordinary and strangely unsettling.
With little thought to his destination he saddled a horse, to the dismay of the Bisset groom. Thornsby found himself heading in the direction he’d seen Matilda go in the carriage from Maplewood past the outskirts of the city towards the heart of London. With no chaperone. Just a footman and driver. Did these Sheldons not care for her safety? For her reputation? He followed her to a home in a middle class section of town. It was nearly falling down from his quick assessment. Shutters hung precariously around empty paned windows. Whole sections of roof looked near collapse. What was this place? She was standing at the door, inserting a key when a young man bounded up the steps.
Thornsby observed the two of them. The man, although dressed neatly, was certainly not a gentleman. The wren smiled and handed the man a key. An assignation? She had a lover? Was this where they conducted their trysts? That thought did not settle well. He dismounted, tethered his horse and tiptoed up the front steps. The door stood open and he could hear her voice from inside.
“I want the bedrooms to be especially nice, Jack,” she said. “A place for fond memories. I’m sure there will be many, many children very quickly. I’m sure you can ascertain on your own the obvious repairs. We’ll need new window glass. And the chimneys repaired. And so on.”
“The roof may need replaced. I haven’t gotten up there to do a thorough inspection. We don’t want the rain falling down on our little ones’ heads as they sleep.”
Their little ones!
Was the wren already with child? Dear God. Did she plan on living here with this man? Thornsby snuck a peak around the door to see her. She was hugging her waist and smiling. Albeit in a dress the color of the mud on his horses hooves. But that smile! It was enchanting, really. Her face lit up with each suggestion or comment. She advised the lover to begin with the roof and the walls before the painting. Smart chit, he’d give her that.
“I really must tell my family of our plans, Jack. I don’t feel right keeping a secret from them this long. And they may not be pleased.”
“How could your family doubt you? No more kinder or nobler intentions to be found. Bring them here, show them your plans . . .”
“Our plans, Jack. I couldn’t even begin to undertake this without you.”
Bloody well unlikely.
A Cockney brood of brats needed a stallion, Thornsby railed silently.
Thornsby slunk down the steps. He’d heard enough. He rode back to the Bisset stables unable to fathom what she was about. Matilda Sheldon was, no doubt, the smart one of her family as Athena had predicted. His interests should focus on her sisters. Thornsby groaned. He envisioned the eldest, for age alone, as his choice in a conquest, sitting at the dining table at Winterbourne. It was a tedious vision, indeed. She would be tittering along happily about the fold of the napkin while Athena’s face tightened further. For himself, he imagined, after many days in her company, his ears would bleed from the onslaught.