Authors: Holly Bush
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Victorian, #Regency, #Romantic Comedy, #Historical Romance
“Slandered our Matilda?” Frances asked. “I hope you set him to rights, dear.”
All of the dueling conversations ceased waiting to hear Fran Sheldon’s story.
“I certainly did, my dear. Won’t have anyone, even a duke, talk nonsense about Matilda or any of you. I set him straight in short order,” Fran said and looked at Matilda. “Wouldn’t you agree?”
Matilda smiled at her father’s late-coming righteous indignation. “You certainly did, Father.”
“What could he have possibly have said about Matilda?” Alexandra asked.
Fran Sheldon gestured with the spoon from the dish of peas. “Said she was having a tryst with a common laborer.”
Frances Sheldon covered her mouth with a gasp.
“No,” Juliet said.
“A tryst? How dreadful,” Alexandra added.
“Where in heavens name did he ever get an idea like that?” Frances asked, hand on her heaving chest.
Fran Sheldon smiled broadly. “Our dear Matilda is going to open an orphanage. What say you?”
“An orphanage?” Alexandra repeated.
“A tryst with an orphan?” Juliet asked.
“Always thought orphans as being too young for that sort of thing. Been wrong before, though,” Fitz said and motioned the footman for more dessert.
“The person the Duke saw me talking to is a tradesman I’ve employed to fix the house I’m going to use as an orphanage. Thorny drew his own dreadful, wicked conclusions and told Father,” Matilda said to clear the air.
“I thought his title was Thornsby?” Alexandra asked.
“Just a play on words. His name is Thornsby,” Matilda added.
. I get it now. Thornsby. Thorny. How clever, Matilda,” Juliet said with a laugh. She sobered. “I don’t like him casting aspersions on your character. Not one little bit.”
“We will call him Thorny the next time we see him, Juliet,” Alexandra said with a giggle.
“I will never speak to him again,” Juliet said. “Not ever.”
“There is no need for you to trouble yourself, Juliet. I don’t care what the man thinks of me or my orphanage,” Matilda said.
“Where does one find orphans?” Frances asked.
Fitz nodded. “To be a real orphanage, you’ll need orphans, I’d say.”
“Never a shortage, unfortunately,” Matilda said. She continued on, telling them about her plans and her house. They, to Matilda’s shock, listened intently, interrupting very few times for her family. “So I’ve had meetings with clergyman. I imagine they know more orphans than I can possibly house.”
Matilda looked around the table. Her family was staring at her. Then they plied her with questions. Had she gone to see the clergymen, unescorted? She assured her mother, she had not. Ethel had come along. Why was she doing it? She had the means and the need was apparent. How did she come up with the idea?
Matilda shrugged and answered honestly. “I really haven’t any notion.”
“Well, whatever the reasons,” Frances said with a sigh, “we simply must help.”
“Right you are, dear,” Fran replied.
The room was silent, and Matilda looked at her parents and siblings, now deep in thought. All but Fitz. He stabbed the remaining beef from Juliet’s plate and ate it. Matilda was mentally counting the cash contributions her family might be willing to part with.
“I shall have Cook purchase all the food stuffs you’ll need,” Fran said. “Franklin and I will deliver them.” He nodded to his daughters.
“We could make curtains,” Juliet ventured.
“How dull,” Alexandra said. “No, Juliet, you and I will make the orphans their clothes.”
“Splendid,” Juliet said to Alexandra. “Or lessons on the pianoforte. Will there be a pianoforte, Matilda?”
“I could teach the boys to fence,” Fitz said. “Even orphans should know how to fence.”
Matilda’s eyes were wide. Her family was taking their contributions very seriously. Her father had never delivered anything anywhere. Juliet and Alexandra’s sewing never reached farther than samplers. And Fitz had volunteered to teach the young boys to fence of all things. Her mother sighed.
“It must be done. I will cancel my Costly Colours games with Lady Fitzroy from this day forward. Will be the only way to have time to do what I must,” Frances Sheldon said. She smiled fondly at Matilda. “I intend to do my very best for Matilda’s orphanage.”
“What is it you intend to do, Mother?”
“Why teach the classroom, of course.”
Everyone around the table was nodding and making plans. Matilda looked at her Mother. She knew for a fact that neither of her sisters could spell from their time when Frances Sheldon helped in the classroom to the obvious dismay of the governess. But she could hardly doubt her family’s enthusiasm. She could never break their hearts and refuse their gifts.
“Wonderful,” Matilda said and raised her wine glass. “The Sheldon Home for Children appreciates all you’ve offered.”
All shrieked, each one, when Matilda announced the name.
* * *
“Have I had a message from Lady Athena, Withrow?” Thornsby asked his butler. It was Friday evening, and Athena should have arrived home by now. After leaving Maplewood, she’d intended to stay a few days with a friend of hers, Lady Wilma, in London. He’d ridden his horse home and left the coach and footman to see Athena to her destination
“Nay, sir. I have not,” the starchy servant replied.
“I wonder where she could be,” Thornsby asked aloud. There was no one in the dining room to answer his question other than a footman posted at the door. He sat alone at the head of a twenty-five-foot length of gleaming mahogany. Thornsby and Athena had dined together nearly every night, with Smithly sometimes. The thought of Smithly kissing Athena in the hallway made him clench his teeth, and he smacked his sterling fork on the table.
The Sheldon girls were most likely uninterested in becoming his Duchess after hearing the tale the wren had no doubt shared. His sister had a suitor she did not need. He could not manage to snare a bride that he needed desperately. He had six months till his thirtieth birthday. Plenty of time to make his rounds of balls and assemblies. Plenty of time to find a wife.
But by Saturday, Thornsby was in a panic. Athena had not arrived home. Could she have been overtaken by highwaymen on her way home? Come down with an illness? Thornsby had just instructed Withrow to have his horse saddled intending to ride to Lady Wilma’s home when the butler opened the door. Athena and Smithly flew in arm-in-arm.
“Freddy!” Athena said and ran to her brother. She gave him a sisterly hug and kiss. “I have so much to tell you.”
“Athena! My God. I have been worried to death about you. You sent no message. I was sure you had been left for dead on the side of the road,” Thornsby said and gave into his alarm. He’d slept little the night before. He hadn’t really had a taste of life without her other than the past three days. Thornsby did not care for it. Over the years, he supposed he’d become accustomed to her conversation and her causes, and it was dreadfully quiet without her. He raised his head from their embrace.
“Smithly. Leave and don’t come back for quite some time,” Thornsby growled.
“Be back in a month as a matter of fact,” Andrew said with a smile.
“Not quite long enough,” Thornsby said. He looked at Athena. “You are all right? I was terribly worried, Athena.”
“I’m fine, Freddy. Wonderful in fact,” Athena said.
His sister was smiling broadly. That was odd. “Where have you been, Athena?”
“Why, Scotland, of course,” Athena said.
Thornsby titled his head. “Scotland? What of Lady Wilma? Whatever did you go to . . . ”
“Gretna Greene,” Smithly volunteered. He turned to Athena. “Best go get packed.”
Athena walked to Andrew and laid her hand on his cheek. “I’ll hurry.”
And then Thornsby saw it. “Is that a ring on your finger?”
Smithly pulled Athena close and smiled. “Customary to give the wife a ring on her wedding day, Freddy.”
“Your wife?” Thornsby shouted.
“We must be on our way by four at the latest, Athena,” Smithly said. He kissed his wife on the nose. “Mrs. Andrew Smithly, I mean.”
“In my study, Athena. Smithly, stay here,” Thornsby bellowed. He watched the two of them whisper and smile silly smiles. He marched off.
Athena seated herself across from her brother after she joined him in his study. “What do you need, Freddy? I can only let Mildred pack so much without being there to supervise.”
“You mean to carry on with this silly plan,” Thornsby whispered. He watched his sister’s face produce the scowl he was accustomed to.
“I am married, Thornsby. Nothing you can do about it.” Athena leaned forward. “You heard us in the hallway at Maplewood. Certainly you understood?”
“I understand nothing, Athena. Nothing at all,” Thornsby said. “We could attempt to get you an annulment.”
“I don’t want an annulment. I am well and truly married,” Athena said. Thornsby’s face colored.
“Whatever is wrong, Freddy? Smithly is your best friend? I have known him for years. He has mountains of money. And he loves me,” Athena said. “You should be happy.”
“He loves you?” Thornsby repeated. “And pigs will fly. He’s surely used that endearment on many occasions.” He knew the second the words left his lips they’d been the wrong ones. “I didn’t mean it like that, Athena.”
“Particularly cruel of you, Freddy,” Athena said. “I will not bore you with all the details, but I am convinced that Andrew loves me, and I most definitely love him.”
Thornsby stared out the window. His sister, his confidante, had sprouted wings. “I am truly sorry, Athena. If you love him and he loves you, then I must and will be happy for you both.”
Athena stared at her brother. “What is it, Freddy? We’ve no secrets. We never have.”
Thornsby pursed his lips into a crooked grin. “Just odd, don’t you think? I went to Maplewood for a bride, and you came home with a husband.”
“We’ve been together too long, Freddy. We’re sister and brother, not man and wife. Each of us needs to find the right one to share this life with. I have. You will as well,” Athena said.
Thornsby shrugged his shoulders. “Whom will I talk to? Who will do all the things you do here?”
“A wife, Freddy. A wife. Not some silly chit that’s splendid to behold for a brief time. For God’s sake, you’ll be bored in a thrice with some debutante on your arm,” Athena said and stood.
“So I should find an ugly girl and marry her forthwith,” Thornsby said.
“As Andrew did, you’re saying,” Athena clipped off.
“No, no,” Thornsby denied.
“I see no beauty when I look in the mirror, Freddy. It hardly matters. Andrew says I’m the most beautiful woman in the world. And I believe he means it,” Athena said. “Perhaps you should look past ringlets and cleavage. Might find someone worthy to fill my shoes around here.”
Thornsby watched his sister march towards the door. She stopped briefly.
“Oh, and Freddy, you simply must straighten out this issue with the Gilbert children. Mrs. Plumsbly’s daughter is granting her more grandchildren any day now. I’ve already told her that she may take as much time as she needs to attend her daughter.” Athena smiled and pulled the door closed on her brother’s sputtering.
* * *
“Oysters?” Matilda said weakly.
“Crate of it at a most expedient price. Couldn’t pass is up,” Fran Sheldon replied.
Matilda and her father were inspecting the boxes stacked in the cold room behind the kitchens of Maplewood. “I doubt these children will have much taste for oysters.” She looked up at her father’s face. His enthusiasm was dwindling. “But The Sheldon Home for Children is most grateful for your contribution.”
“And there are sacks of flour and sugar. Potatoes. Jarred fruit,” Fran Sheldon said with a wide smile. “Cook helped with the list I took to the grocers. Can’t buy fresh goods till your little ones are in and settled.”
Whenever the Sheldon family’s eagerness waned, Matilda mentioned the name of the orphanage, and undoubtedly, they rallied. “You went to the market yourself?” Matilda asked.
“Never seen anything like it. Franklin and I spent the whole day there. They sell everything, I tell you, Matilda. Everything,” Fran said enthusiastically.
Matilda nodded weakly. She wondered if her father believed their household supplies appeared magically in the pantry. “Imagine that,” Matilda said. She heard her mother calling her father’s name.
“Right here, darling,” Fran called from the door.
Frances Sheldon stepped into the cool room. “You simply must take me to the booksellers this instant, my dear.”
“Certainly, dear,” Fran Sheldon replied. “You wish to purchase a book?”
“I’m in a dreadful pickle, Fran.” Francis turned to her daughter. “Oh Matilda, I didn’t see you there.”
“A pickle, Mother?” Matilda asked.
“Are we having company, my dear?” Francis asked as she surveyed the stacked boxes.
“Company? Not on my schedule, I don’t believe. James usually alerts me to that sort of thing. Why do you ask?” Fran said.
“The store room is quite full,” Francis replied. “I don’t have guests on my schedule either. I wonder what Cook was thinking?”
Fran Sheldon laughed and touched his wife’s arm. “These are supplies for Matilda’s orphanage, my dear. Franklin and I spent the entire day yesterday at the markets. I simply must take you there.”
“The markets?” Francis asked. “What all do they sell?”
Matilda clapped her hands together, and her parents turned.
“Yes, dear,” they said in unison.
“A pickle, Mother?” Matilda asked. “What seems to be the problem?”
“Didn’t get pickles, Matilda,” Fran said. “No room in the barouche for a barrel.”
“Mother. You said when you walked in here you had to get to the booksellers. You said you were in a pickle.”
Fran and Frances looked at each other and laughed. “A pickle?” her father said. “You didn’t get any,” her mother replied.
Matilda’s eye twitched. “Is there something Father or I could help you with?”
Frances Sheldon stared at her daughter. The light of recognition shone moments later. “Dreadful situation, dear. Your father simply must take me to the booksellers.”