The tall, thin blonde running up the front drive was wet, her bonnet askew and dripping, and not an umbrella in sight. She was laughing and waving her reticule, heedless of the freezing rain.
“Amy!” she called again as she reached the portico that covered the drive in front of the manor.
Her sister, a darker-haired and slightly-older young lady standing just inside the front door, fussed over the girl and did not give her a chance to tell her news until she had been ushered up to her room, stripped of her clothing and immersed in a hot hip bath.
“Amy! I picked up the post when I went into the village today and you will never guess who has written to you and I!”
Amy had no idea. After all, few people wrote to them or their reclusive parent, even more so in the past year since their mother had died. The family, which consisted of their baronet father, Sir Lionel Harte, themselves and their father’s Cousin Minerva, had just gotten out of black clothes.
Amy was one and twenty, and would have been preparing for another season in London had she not been in mourning. Lucy, at nineteen, should have been presented the year before. Now it seemed as if none of that would be possible. Their mother had been the only person concerned for their futures. Or so they had recently concluded. Their father was too absentminded to notice and their cousin… It was just after Christmas and they were certain they were doomed to spend the spring in the Cotswolds.
“Achoo!” Lucy sneezed. By the sound of things, Lucy would be in bed for a few days. “Oh, no!” She sneezed again. “That letter is from Lady Linvale! An invitation to come to her winter house party!”
Amy assisted Lucy out of the tub and stood by with a warmed nightrail as her sister toweled dry.
“I’m sure it won’t matter. Cousin Minerva will advise against it and Papa will agree with whatever she decides,” Amy glumly replied.
“But if he should say yes,” Lucy persisted, “you must go. The viscountess has five sons. Five! One is the viscount, one is a major in the army…”
“…And one is a clergyman, I suppose,” Amy tartly replied. It was the British way. The first son received the property and the title, the second went into the Army and the third went into the Church. Amy wondered what the other two sons did for a living.
“How do you know all this?”
“Lady Linvale. You were at school, it seemed, whenever she would visit.” Lucy, of a more delicate constitution than her sister, had stayed home with a governess. “She’s a lovely lady, Amy – you would like her.”
“I am sure I should. If only…” Lucy sneezed again and Amy hustled her into bed, her words forgotten as she urged her sister to get some rest.
Sir Lionel Harte was a scholarly gentleman, given to pondering ancient civilizations and not paying much attention to the world about him. Dinner conversation usually revolved around Greek government and Roman ruins, and that evening was no exception.
Lucy’s ill health was acknowledged with a nod from her father and an admonishment from her cousin not to bother Sir Lionel with such things. “But if she is worse in the morning,” Cousin Minerva said with a simper when the baronet looked surprised at her words, “we shall send for the apothecary.”
Amy hid a smile even as she politely agreed. Cousin Minerva Blakeley had set her cap at the baronet the minute she had set foot in the house, cementing her position by handling the household – including the young ladies – agreeing with everything he said and cutting expenses in half.
Their cousin’s cheese-paring ways, no doubt, accounted for Lucy’s illness. The late Lady Harte had kept umbrellas and such for general use, but Cousin Minerva hated to provide the servants and the young ladies with luxuries, as she called them, and had not replaced them when they ripped or broke.
She was also going to disapprove of any invitations the girls received, which was why Amy had to approach her father alone. She knew her cousin would expect her to adjourn to the drawing room with her immediately after dinner, so she had to head that off first.
Stay in the dining room with her father or follow him to his study…
In an innocent voice her sister would be proud of, Amy said over dessert (which consisted of a few grapes, a small wedge of cheese and a piece of melon) that she was sure she had spied a few peaches in the kitchens that afternoon and she was surprised not to see a slice on her plate.
Cousin Minerva’s parsimonious nose twitched. She hadn’t ordered peaches. What were peaches doing in the kitchens? Excusing herself, that lady ran off as fast as her size-too-small slippers could carry her.
Amy heard the footman behind her snicker, but she did not dare follow suit. The servants did not care for either Cousin Minerva or her cook, and neither did the Harte sisters. Amy felt no qualms about turning her cousin onto that particular servant.
Once Minerva was out of the way, Amy pulled the letter out of the back of her sash. Her father was pondering Pompeii and polishing off Cousin Minerva’s fruit and cheese, his own already consumed. Amy pushed her own plate over, which caught his attention.
“Not hungry, my dear? You will keep me posted about Lucinda, won’t you?”
“Of course, Papa. And look what I have!” She held out the letter and he obediently took it. He paused a couple of times in its reading, but only to beam at his eldest daughter.
“How kind of her. Naturally, you and your sister must go. Lady Linvale was your mother’s dearest friend and it is less than a day’s journey.”
Amy was all smiles at this pronouncement. “Thank you, Papa!” She threw her arms about his neck and kissed him heartily on the cheek. “Papa?”
“You won’t mention this to Cousin Minerva, will you?”
“Why ever not?”
“She is not invited, for one, and I did not want her to feel bad because of it,” Amy said piously. “If we could tell her when Lady Linvale’s carriage arrives…” The servants would enjoy the subterfuge, she was certain, as evidenced by the wink she received from the other footman behind her father’s back.
“An excellent notion. The poor woman has few friends and there is no need to rub salt in the wound. Be certain to keep your preparations from coming to her notice, my dear. I have some correspondence to attend to in the study,” he added, rising from his chair. “Including a note to the viscountess.”
Amy rose with him and hugged him once more. She sighed with pleasure after he left the room.
“A house party!” she said to the footmen as they cleared the table. Wait till she told Lucy! “Would you be so kind as to inform Miss Blakeley that I have developed an ache in my head and am retiring for the rest of the evening?”
The two servants bowed their acceptance of this mission with wide smiles. Miss Blakeley abhorred illness of any sort.
Lucy, who would have squealed in delight at the prospect of a visit to Linvale Hall, was too sick to do more than give her sister a weak smile when she heard about the trip. Amy felt sorry for Lucy for catching a chill and also for leaving her behind with their cousin.
“But think of all the fun you shall have,” Lucy said two days later, sitting up in bed and frowning over what their cousin thought of as appropriate invalid food – a tiny bowl of jelly, a piece of dry toast and a cup of weak tea. “Think of the food! Not a custard in sight!” she said with disgust after searching her luncheon tray.
Amy chuckled and reached over to squeeze her sister’s hand.
“Are you all packed?” Lucy knew she was – Amy’s trunks had been filled in her room, one their cousin hadn’t set foot in since she had fallen ill. “I plan on feigning illness for a few days after your departure,” she added with a laugh. “Anything to avoid Cousin Minerva once she realizes she has been thwarted.”
“You had better stay in bed anyway,” Amy advised when Lucy’s laugh turned into a cough. Her sister was known for getting out of bed too soon and causing a relapse. When Lucy began to protest, Amy played her trump card.
“Mama would not be happy if you did not stay abed!”
Lucy unhappily agreed. “Besides, I must stay and make sure Cousin Minerva does not get her hooks in Papa.”
“I do not think there is any danger of that.” They giggled together. Their father had showed he could be more observant than they gave him credit for. He was visiting Lucy every morning and then announcing his activity at breakfast, ensuring that his cousin avoided him like the plague all day.
“You go, have a wonderful time, fall in love, get married and send for me. Once we are gone, Papa will send our cousin away and hire a housekeeper instead.”
“I will go and have a good time. Lady Linvale will see to that. But fall in love? Get married? You may dream all you wish, little sister, but it’s not likely to happen.”
Amy left the house almost without a hitch the next morning. The trunks and bandboxes had been loaded onto the viscountess’ carriage, Amy was dressed in her best traveling clothes and Sir Lionel was handing money over to his daughter when Cousin Minerva appeared suddenly in the main hall.
“What is this?” she demanded.
“Amelia has been invited to spend some time with an old friend of my late wife’s,” the baronet said at his absentminded best. “Did I not tell you?”
“No, you did not. Neither did anyone else.” She glared about the room and her gaze landed on Amy. Amy gave her a sweet smile.
“Isn’t it wonderful? A house party ending with a grand ball!” She was vague on purpose. If her cousin did not know where to find her or when she was to return, she could not call her home early on false pretenses. “And I cannot keep the horses waiting too long. Poor Lucy! I do wish she could have come…” She kissed her father goodbye.
“I have already been in to see your sister this morning and she has promised to stay in bed,” her father replied. “We want her hale and hearty on your return.”
Cousin Minerva, about to protest these entire proceedings, yelped and retreated back upstairs.
“Thank you, Papa,” Amy whispered as she gave him a hug.
“I shall send Lucinda to you as soon as I can,” he whispered in return.
Amy’s smile was bright as she was handed into the carriage, where her ladyship’s maid awaited. She waved out the window as long as she could and then settled down for the journey.
The journey was not above twenty miles and after a stop to change horses, Amy arrived at Linvale Hall in the late afternoon. The maid Lady Linvale sent to provide for her comfort along the way, named Sally, handed her over to Porter the butler as soon as she was ushered into the house. He greeted her with a formal air, one she hoped was not prevalent throughout the house. After all, she had heard Lady Linvale spoken of as relaxed and cheerful by her sister. If Lucy thought the viscountess was anything but relaxed and cheerful, she would have said so.
Her fears were groundless when a small, plump woman came down the stairs trailed by a tall, colorless young lady in gray.
“Miss Harte! I would know you anywhere! You look just like your dear mother…” Lady Linvale sniffled and seemed as if she might cry, but she bravely hugged Amy in welcome instead. “I am sorry Lucy could not come with you, but her health, naturally, is more important.” The clock chimed five times and the viscountess jumped.
“Oh, dear! Time to dress for dinner. Would you like a tray in your room, or will you dine with the family?”
“I should like to come down for dinner.” Amy was not overly tired and she was curious about Lady Linvale’s sons.
“Wonderful! I’d like you to meet my companion, Miss Eleanor Winters. Ellie, why don’t you show Miss Harte to her room. I’m so happy you are here!” she added, bouncing off to leave a smiling Amy and a quiet Miss Winters.
Amy liked her first impression of her hostess, but she had to wonder if the lady’s companion could give her more insight into the Armstrongs. The girl was quiet as she took Amy up to the second floor, only speaking to explain that Amy, like herself and Lady Cynthia Shaw, were on that floor with the viscountess.
“The gentleman are on the first floor.” There was no explanation, and Miss Winters gave no encouragement for the questions going around in Amy’s head. But she forgot half of them anyway when she entered the bedchamber assigned to her.
“It’s beautiful!” She had to go around the blue and white room and exclaim over the toile chair covers, the pale blue rug so plush she thought she might sink right into it, and the blue embroidery on the silk counterpane.
There was a tap at the door and Miss Winters admitted Sally. One of Amy’s white gowns hung over her arm.
“I’ve taken the liberty, miss, of fetching one of your gowns and pressing it, seeing as your belongings won’t be coming up till you’ve gone down to dinner.”
“That’s very kind of you, Sally.”
“Her ladyship suggested it and said I was to fetch her blue paisley shawl fer you, too.”
So Lady Linvale was kind and thoughtful, as well as energetic and cheerful.
Miss Winters excused herself to dress for dinner, leaving Amy with the maid. That girl seemed more chatty now that she was in her own home, but by the time Amy washed up, had her hair done and was being helped into the borrowed shawl, the gong rang and she was being met in the hall by the companion. There had been no time for questions.
Downstairs, in a gold and burgundy salon, she was given into Lady Linvale’s care.
“Come meet the family! Ellie you have met, and my niece is not down yet, but I have five handsome sons!”
Amy was pulled over to where a dark-haired gentleman in regimentals was pouring drinks and she accepted a small sherry from him. His mother introduced him as Major Robert Armstrong.
“I understand your sister is feeling poorly,” he said kindly after niceties were exchanged. “I hope she will be able to join us in a few days. Mama is so happy to have you here, she has organized more outings than twenty ladies could fit into one visit.”
“Such cheek!” Lady Linvale exclaimed, but gave her son a fond grin. “He is eldest but one,” she told Amy as they continued around the room. “And this is my middle child, the Rev. Thomas Armstrong.”
Amy hid a smile – her own estimation of the occupations of her ladyship’s sons had been spot on.
“Here is Edward… Edward, put that book down and make your bows to Miss Harte! Edward is a terribly clever educator at the Physicians College in London.”
The fifth son was Charlie, a student at Cambridge where, it seemed, he was not yet certain of a career path.
“In the meantime, I am spending my holiday tutoring a neighbor’s son in mathematics,” that young man said.
“And courting that same neighbor’s daughter,” the major said with a laugh. Everyone but Miss Winters and a man standing by the mantle joined in.
“This, my dear Miss Harte, is my eldest son, Lord Linvale,” her ladyship said, leading her over to the hearth. Introductions were made and then Lady Linvale went off to discover her absent niece’s whereabouts.
Green-gray eyes glittered as the man Amy had just met looked down his aristocratic nose at his mother’s guest.
“I hope you are not here to catch a husband, Miss Harte. I won’t allow my brothers to be taken in so easily.”
Amy gasped. The nerve of him, to just assume she was a husband hunter! She was no such thing, and she opened her mouth to give him a stinging set-down when a tall, beautiful blonde in pale blue silk stepped into the room.
“Cynthia!” The viscount strode forward to welcome the cold-eyed latecomer, leaving Amy with no audience for her blistering retort. She could only stand there and stare at the young lady with the rest of them, the reaction the girl no doubt had orchestrated and considered her due.
Lady Linvale detached her eldest son from Lady Cynthia’s hand and brought the ice princess forward to be introduced to Amy.
“Cynthia, dear, this is our newest guest, Miss Harte. Amy, my niece, Lady Cynthia Shaw.”
“How do you do?” Amy asked politely.
Lady Cynthia yawned and asked her aunt if there would be any outdoor activities on the morrow. “I hate going outside,” she drawled.
Amy was appalled at the girl’s lack of manners and Lady Linvale was turning an interesting shade of puce over the cut given to her guest. Without a by-your-leave, Lady Cynthia wandered over to where her cousins congregated, leaving Amy and her hostess to stare at each other.
Dinner was no less awkward. Amy was on her host’s left, but he ignored her, spending the meal speaking to Lady Cynthia, on his right, of people only they seemed to know. Not that Amy was completely snubbed. Young Charlie Armstrong, on her left, kept up a string of bright chatter that kept her amused through some tender lamb, haricots vert, roasted duckling and braised celery, on into an apricot trifle, assorted jellies and a silver platter of sweetmeats.
Amy ate her dessert with enthusiasm, even after Lady Cynthia had turned it all down saying she didn’t dare ruin her figure. Amy knew herself to be nicely rounded and also that she would manage to get in some exercise, so she ignored the other lady.
“I like to see a girl with a healthy appetite,” Charlie said.
“I think someone has an admirer,” Lady Cynthia said in a loud whisper to the viscount. He, in turn, glared at Amy as if it were all her fault.
“I think it is time we ladies retired to the drawing room,” the viscountess said hastily, rising from her chair.
“Yes, ma’am,” Miss Winters said meekly. “Shall I fetch a shawl from upstairs?”
“No, dear, I’m perfectly warm,” Lady Linvale assured her as they headed down the hall.
“Besides, Miss, er, Guest will be glad to give yours back to you,” Lady Cynthia said snidely.
“That will be enough!” her ladyship snapped. “Or else you may spend the rest of the evening writing to your father, explaining why you are going home early!” The viscountess stomped off, Miss Winters scampering behind.
Amy looked away from the furious Lady Cynthia and hurried after them. She was not surprised, either, when the other girl slipped into the drawing room a few minutes later, acting as if she had never been reprimanded in her life. Probably hadn’t been, either.
“Miss Harte is definitely a diamond of the first water!” Charlie said enthusiastically after the ladies were gone and the covers had been removed from the table.
“You may think that if you wish,” the viscount said stiffly.
“Oh, come now, Marcus,” the major chided. “She’s beautiful! Mama says her sister is at least her equal!” He picked up his glass of port and took Cynthia’s recently vacated chair. “It’s going to be a lovely holiday.” All his brothers, except the eldest, laughed at his jest. “Even Cousin Ellie is not without her attributes.”
“Cousin Ellie is kind,” Professor Edward Armstrong said shyly. “Which is more than I can say for some people.”
“You should not disparage our cousin in such a manner, Ned,” the vicar insisted.
“We should pick on the Harte beauty instead?” Charlie teased.
“Of course not!”
“Why not?” the viscount asked. Everyone stared at him as if he had sprouted two heads and a horn.
“She’s mother’s guest!” the vicar said, as if that settled everything.
“And very nice,” Charlie added.
“And beautiful,” the major and professor said in unison.
“And obviously here to find a husband,” the viscount insisted. His brothers all roared with laughter.
“Poor Marcus! Cynthia sets her cap for him and now he thinks everyone else is, too. Who’s next?” the major cried.
“Cousin Ellie!” Charlie joked.
“I did not say Miss Harte was here for me,” his lordship said defensively. “She might well have her mind set on any one of us.”
“You’re the true prize, though, Marcus,” the vicar reminded him. “If she is after a husband, you will be her target.”
“I’ve already warned her away from us all,” came the angry reply. Again there was silence in the room. The major was the first to react.
“Tell me you are in jest, that you haven’t already said something to her,” he groaned.
“I think he has,” Charlie said in a loud whisper. “She ignored him at dinner.”
The other two brothers moaned and the vicar bowed his head, as if in prayer.
“A few words at the beginning of a visit will not go amiss.”
“And won’t you feel foolish, Marcus, when she goes home empty-handed.”
“Not at all. I will consider my job well done.”
If Amy noticed the increase in brotherly attention once the gentlemen joined the ladies after dinner, she did not remark on it. It made her curious, but it was not unwelcome. She had been rather isolated in the past year. Now she began to blossom under the gentle teasing and open admiration of four out of five Armstrong brothers.
The major and the vicar expressed sorrow at the passing of her mother, a lady they had met several times in their youth, and sympathy over her sister’s illness and inability to come to Linvale Hall at the moment.
“You should like Miss Lucy,” their mother said. “She is such a sweet girl.”
Amy was about to agree and expound on her sister’s virtues when Lady Cynthia spoke up from where she sat with the viscount.
“Sweet usually means no looks to speak of,” she drawled. “After all, Cousin Ellie is sweet.” The companion blushed.
Lady Linvale looked at Lady Cynthia sharply. Evidently her threat did not mean much to the younger lady now that the viscount was in the room. That gentleman made no move to correct her, either, but Lady Linvale came to Lucy’s defense.
“Miss Lucy must be an exception, then,” the viscountess replied. “But you may judge for yourself should she come to us before the ball. If you are still here,” she warned her niece before recalling a piece of news. “Grimsley says the pond is hard enough for skating!”
Charlie gave a shout of joy and even his brothers looked pleased.
“May I send word to the Vartons?” Charlie asked. “Will and Teddy have been wanting to skate since our return.”
“And they will bring Miss Varton with them, most likely,” the major said with a clout to his youngest brother’s shoulder. Charlie only nodded eagerly.
“Do you skate, Miss Harte?” the vicar asked.
“Oh, yes!” Amy readily answered.
“Good! That makes us four, you and the three Vartons,” Charlie said.
“I will come, too,” the viscount suddenly announced.
“You haven’t skated in a donkey’s age, Marcus!” the professor exclaimed.
“Don’t think you need to come just to keep an eye on things,” the major insisted.
“I’m not,” he replied.
“If Marcus is going, so am I!” Lady Cynthia announced. “But I’m just a delicate flower and I shall need some assistance,” she said in a little-girl voice guaranteed to draw the attention back to herself and set Amy’s teeth on edge. “Some of us are not great, strapping farm girls.”
“No, indeed, we are not,” Amy agreed, deliberately misunderstanding. She would not be drawn into retaliation. “Do you not skate, Miss Winters?” she asked the companion.
“Cousin Ellie abhors fun and prefers to make a martyr of herself. She’s a poor relation, you know,” Lady Cynthia said in a stage whisper.
“What has that to do with anything?” Amy asked. “I daresay Lady Linvale can spare you for a few hours, Miss Winters. Won’t you come? There are plenty of us to help you, should you need it.”
Miss Winters looked to Lady Linvale for approval, and when the viscountess nodded with a bright smile, she agreed, provided someone had skates for her.
“In a house full of boys?” her ladyship said with a laugh. “We have plenty! Miss Harte and Cynthia shall need them, as well. Robert, will you be in charge of that tomorrow? Excellent. Now, if you gentlemen will excuse us, we will retire. Ellie did a number of errands for me today, Miss Harte will be exhausted from her journey and Cynthia…” She paused for effect. “Cynthia needs her beauty sleep.”
Amy almost laughed out loud and was glad when several of the Armstrong gentlemen did just that.
The next day dawned clear and sunny, but cold, and Amy looked out her window to see Lady Linvale's garden fountain was frozen solid. It boded well for whatever body of water the Armstrongs skated upon. Putting on a warm woolen gown of a pretty plum color, she did her own hair and went downstairs in search of breakfast.
A footman directed her to a small family parlor, empty except for a servant and a sideboard loaded down with eggs, ham, kidneys, bacon, toast, a large variety of jam pots and a bowl of hothouse fruit. The man on duty filled a plate with her choices and brought her a pot of tea. She was alone only as long as it took to pour a cup when Professor Armstrong and Miss Winters came in together.
"I did not realize until late last night that you are cousin to the family," Amy remarked to Miss Winters after she and the professor had been served.
"My mother and Lady Linvale were cousins. When my parents died, Cousin Beryl took me in as her companion."
"She took you in," the professor amended, "but you chose to be her companion."
"I will not be a charity case!" Miss Winters snapped, the first sign of life Amy had seen in the other lady.
"You know Mother would never treat you as such," he replied with a sigh. "If Cynthia became an orphan tomorrow, she would not be treated thusly, either."
"Lady Cynthia is not penniless."
"Neither are you!"
Amy's gaze moved back and forth between the professor and the companion as if they were playing battledore and shuttlecock.
"I receive an allowance from Cousin Marcus, which I insist on earning by offering my assistance to your mother."
"Marcus has offered you a dowry, as well."
"No one wants plain Miss Winters when they could have lovely Lady Cynthia." Miss Winters put her napkin on the table, took a sip of tea and rose to her feet. "I am no longer hungry. I shall see you again when we go skating," she said politely to Amy and left the room.
"What was all that about?" Charlie asked as he sat down next to his brother and began to tackle the food on his cousin's untouched plate.
"The usual," his brother said with another sigh.
Charlie shrugged. "So let her have her way. One of these days, in the unlikely event of her marriage, Marcus can renew his offer of a dowry and everyone will be happy."
"What do you mean, 'unlikely'?" the professor said indignantly.
"What?" Charlie was taken unawares, being more interested in food than his cousin. "Well, you know..." he gestured vaguely. "Plain as a pikestaff, a dowdy wardrobe, no conversation..."
"Has everyone gone insane around here?" his brother asked wildly. "Marcus insulting Miss Harte, you picking on Cousin Ellie... What next?"
Amy looked up in alarm when her name was mentioned. Did everyone know of Lord Linvale's words to her? She came to her feet and calmly excused herself. Like Miss Winters, she was no longer hungry. All she wished to do now was go upstairs, pack her belongings and return home. At least there she counted her father and sister as allies against her own cousin's machinations. She was not only out of her league here, but friendless.
She wished she could approach Lady Linvale with all her troubles, but she hardly knew her. How, too, would that lady take a report of her eldest son's rudeness? Thoughts of the viscount and his snooty cousin kept her from running home. If she left now, they would think she had been scared off - and she was no quitter.
Ignoring the pleas of the gentlemen to disregard what had just been said, Amy left the room and wandered the house, searching for a private retreat. She found one in the conservatory at the back of the house. It was, thankfully, empty, and she sat on a bench next to a pond that housed the goldfish that most likely inhabited the outdoor pool in more felicitous weather. In her own little place, she indulged in a few tears and strengthened her resolve not to go home. Indeed, Cousin Minerva would never let her live it down if she did.
Resigned to make the most of her visit, Amy joined the family later in the drawing room, dressed in her outdoor wear. A pair of skates had been given to her by Sally, who had also helped to find half boots thick enough to keep her feet warm and fit the skates.
"I hope you have a good time," the viscountess said sincerely, tightening the scarf around Amy's throat, much like her own mother would have done.
Amy, having already had a good cry, found herself close to tears once more. "Yes, ma'am, as do I."
"Are we ready to go?" Charlie asked, bounding into the room.
"We are waiting on Cynthia," his mother said.
"Why don't we head to the pond?" the major suggested. "Marcus could wait for her. She would not mind." All his brothers, except for the viscount, snickered at that remark.
"Let's go!" Charlie cried. "Come on, Miss Harte! We'll take the path past the gardens," he told his brother and held out an arm to their guest.
Amy ignored his lordship's glare as she took Charlie's arm and allowed him to escort her out a pair of French doors and onto a terrace. Behind her, the major offered his assistance to Miss Winters, leaving the vicar and professor to bring up the rear.
"I'll have tea and chocolate ready when you return," Lady Linvale called right before shutting the door against the cold.
The party trooped out through the woods, bare and white, to a pond nestled within a grove of ancient oaks. One or two of the trunks had fallen with the passing of the years, creating natural benches for summer swimmers and winter skaters to relax upon. A pair of young men and a young lady in a blue cloak were seated around a brazier, warming their hands and strapping on their skates. They caught sight of the party of newcomers and waved.
"Charlie!" they called. "Thank you for the invitation!"
He grinned and made proper introductions of the Varton family to Amy before directing her to a log and offering to help with her skates.
While she and Miss Winters were receiving assistance, Amy heard the companion moan and looked up to see Lady Cynthia make a grand entrance.
A vision in white, the lady's pale blonde hair almost blended in with a little fur-trimmed hat, wool coat and gown, and fur mittens. To Amy, the girl looked almost washed out. That did not seem to make a difference to the Varton lads, who could only stare in awe as Lord Linvale helped his cousin sit. He knelt to pick up one dainty, white boot.
"You are so kind to help me with my skates, Cousin Marcus," she said in a little-girl voice, even as she shot Amy and Miss Winters a triumphant glance.
"All set?" In his enthusiasm, Charlie pulled on a tree limb, sending snow flying. A wet clump of it landed on the back of Lady Cynthia's neck and she squealed with surprise before berating her cousin. He, in turn, grinned and egged her on until even Amy and Miss Winters looked at each other and giggled. That brought Lady Cynthia's tirade to an abrupt end.
"My cousin thinks he is amusing," she said to the crowd of onlookers. "This is just a little game we play. Isn't that right, Charles?"
Charlie made her a mocking bow. "One I enjoy immensely.” Everyone breathed a sigh of relief and began to make their way to the edge of the pond.
"I had old Gus check for thin ice earlier," Charlie said. "It's over there in the center, where the ice has more bubbles," he told everyone. "But there is enough room around it to skate safely. Shall we?"
Miss Varton stepped forward and took Charlie's arm and they slid off together, chatting and laughing as they circled the pond.
Amy went next, by herself, although she turned down a couple of offers for a partner, including one from Mr. Nigel Varton, the elder of the two brothers. She was in no mood for conversation and wished for a little solitude on the ice. Behind her, Professor Armstrong had cajoled Miss Winters into holding onto his arm. Her skating skills were such that she needed assistance.
Lady Cynthia made a show of requiring help, insisting that she could not possibly skate by herself.
"Great, healthy girls can manage by themselves," she said, her voice carrying across the ice. "I'm much more delicate..."
Amy had the satisfaction of seeing Lord Linvale skate off on his own as the major and the Varton brothers jumped to do Lady Cynthia's bidding. Amy snickered at the chagrin on that lady's face when the viscount left her to the attentions of the other gentlemen.
"You skate well," he said, suddenly at her elbow. She almost faltered, not realizing she was his goal, but managed at the last minute to keep her balance.
"Thank you," Amy coldly replied.
"You did not allow one of the gentlemen to support you," he explained.
"I can skate without any aid. Some of us are not helpless kittens."
"No," he agreed mildly. "I don't think you are helpless." There was no sarcasm or rancor in his voice at all. Without another word, he skated away, leaving a confused Amy in his wake.
The major and the vicar joined her and the three glided about companionably for a while.
"I am curious," Amy said at one point to the Rev. Armstrong. "You have the living here, don't you?"
"For a year now," he said. "We keep it in the family when we can, but Marcus was not going to force out our last vicar. He was getting on in years, but I was his curate until he finally went to live with his daughter."
"And yet you live here?"
The vicar laughed. "Oh, no. There is a vicarage in the village and I live there, but not when all my brothers are home for a holiday."
"Which suits his old crow of a housekeeper just fine," the major said with a laugh.
"Be nice to Mrs. Timmons, Robert," he was admonished. "Or she will quit making that cherry cordial you are fond of," he teased.
"Oh." The look on his face was comical and Amy found herself laughing out loud. The sound seemed to gain the attention of some of the other gentlemen. One of the Varton brothers, Charlie, and even Lord Linvale, who was conversing with Miss Winters and the professor, looked her way.
Charlie skated over, always eager to be in the most jolly group, leaving Miss Varton to fend for herself. Amy was keeping the young lady in sight out of the corner of her eye, though. Perhaps it was because of her pretty blue cloak. Whatever the reason, she was the first to notice the girl was skating closer and closer to the center of the pond.
"Excuse me a moment," she finally said to her group. Lord Linvale looked up as she moved away, took in the situation and headed their way from the other direction.
Miss Varton seemed to panic, as if she thought the viscount and Amy were after her. She kept inching backwards hoping to avoid them both. She appeared to have forgotten about the thin ice, even if the other two had not, and just as Amy reached her and grabbed hold with both hands, the ice cracked.
Amy flung Miss Varton away from the possibility of an icy dip in the pond, falling to her knees as water seeped up around her, immediately soaking her all the way through her woolens to her skin.
"Don't move!" his lordship barked.
Amy heard another crack, this one from behind her.
"Rob!" he shouted. "Get a rope! Now!" The major, used to taking orders, didn't hesitate. He ran off to fetch what was requested.
"Someone see to Miss Varton," Lord Linvale ordered. She had landed on her backside, and she was weeping. The vicar went to her side and insisted she come up to the house and be tended by his mother. The viscount told the professor to take the other ladies indoors, as well. "You there!" he shouted to Charlie and the Vartons. "Stay here! I might need you!" He turned to Amy.
"You've stayed still. Good. Once we get a rope, I'm going to throw it out to you."
Amy nodded, too scared to say a word. A shout was heard and everyone, from the ladies having their skates removed to the viscount, looked up. The major had brought rope and a couple of stable hands. A rope was quickly tossed out to the viscount and he edged the end of it to Amy.
"Tie that carefully around your waist, in case you fall through." He had another rope by then and had tied that one around himself before stretching out on the ice. "They will pull me in slowly," he explained, "and I will pull you in turn. Lie flat, Miss Harte, so you put less pressure on one spot. You're going to get even more wet than you already are," he apologized, "but it cannot be helped." Water was still coming up through the cracks.
Amy nodded and slid down onto the ice. The viscount signaled his brother and began to slide backwards, bringing Amy with him. All the while, he spoke softly, encouraging her to remain as calm as she had been and praising her for saving Miss Varton from a sure dunking or worse.
Amy was amazed in the transformation from arrogant lord to compassionate man and let his deep voice pull her along as much as the rope around her waist. Even his eyes appeared warmer - a hint of spring on an austere winter day. She gripped the rope like the lifeline it was, grateful for her gloves, else she was sure she would have suffered from burns on her hands. Water soaked the front of her coat and began to freeze as she was dragged across the ice. She felt like her entire body was on pins and needles, her teeth began to chatter and she was certain she would be numb all over in a matter of seconds.
"A few more minutes, Miss Harte," Lord Linvale assured her, "and you will be out of the dangerous area."
Once on thicker ice, where they could stand, he whipped off his cloak and wrapped it around her before picking her up and carrying her off the surface of the pond. On the bank, when she expected to be placed on her feet, he kept walking, calling for Charlie to run ahead and make sure the staff was prepared for a couple of cold, wet people.
Lord Linvale did not set Amy down until he had reached her bedchamber door, where his mother and Sally waited to attend her. Amy thanked him, received a gruff reply and was almost pushed into her room. There she was tenderly ministered to by her hostess and maid.
Amy wasn't allowed out of bed for the rest of the day or night, despite the apothecary's assurance that she had not taken ill, and her own insistence that she felt fine.
"Your family would never forgive me if anything happened to you," Lady Linvale said, clearly fretting. "Indeed, I should never forgive myself."
Amy took pity on the viscountess and agreed to remain in bed until the next morning, providing her condition did not worsen. To alleviate some of her guest's boredom, her ladyship allowed the other girls to visit, including Miss Varton, who was to stay overnight rather than go out again into the cold.
Fortunately for Amy, Lady Cynthia did not bother to take her aunt up on the invitation. Miss Winters came with a cup of tea and some biscuits and sat quietly for fifteen minutes. Miss Varton also stopped by, but she was far from quiet. She had been in the drawing room with the Armstrongs and now she was absolutely livid.
"How dared you save me like that!" she hissed. "All I hear now from Charlie is Miss Harte this and Miss Harte that! I wish you had never come here, because now he will never look at me again!" With a wail loud enough to wake the dead, the girl ran from the room, leaving Amy dumbfounded and slightly miffed. The next time someone needed their life saved, Amy would step back and let another do the job.
Amy lay awake most of the night and once more seriously considered packing and leaving. She had been insulted by several people, but Miss Varton’s words were the worst, making her even more rude than Lord Linvale and Lady Cynthia, if that were possible. Amy had put herself in danger to save the girl and all she could do was complain. Complain about something Amy had no control over, at that! At dawn, she came to a decision. She would find Charlie Armstrong and convince him to pay more attention to Miss Varton and forget Amy's own part in this entire drama.
Tracking down Charlie was easier than she expected. When she reached the bottom of the main staircase, he was waiting for her. Because she wished to speak to him privately, the fact that he wished to discuss something of the utmost importance with her only played into her scheme.
"Shall we go into the library?" he wondered. "There will not be anyone about yet."
Amy agreed. Once settled in front of the fire, she began to speak, but he cut her off.
"Miss Harte, ever since you have arrived you seemed to set what was turning into a staid house party on its ear. Not only did you raise Cynthia's hackles, but you've got Marcus watching you wherever you go. Now you have saved Miss Varton. That silly prattle would have gone through the ice but for your quick thinking, and would have surely drowned. She has none of your sense."
Amy should have told him she had done nothing to earn neither censure nor praise from anyone, and that the 'silly prattle' might not have been so foolish if he had paid her more attention. She had no idea what had antagonized Lady Cynthia, but she knew exactly why his lordship kept an eye on her. He was afraid she would attract one of his precious brothers. Seated in front of one now, she could not help but feel a bit triumphant in that department.
"I think we would suit very well, Miss Harte," he was saying and she realized this situation was going further than she wished. "I cannot help myself, Miss Harte!" he said passionately, dropping to one knee in front of her. "I am all admiration for your heroism!"
"Please, Mr. Armstrong!" she pleaded. "Come up off the floor!"
"I appreciate the gesture, sir. I am honored you should single me out, but I won't put you through making an offer only to turn you down."
"Turn me down?"
"You are still a student, Mr. Armstrong. We are of an age... You aren't even certain of a career path yet. I doubt you are ready for the responsibility of a wife, let alone the children that would surely follow."
He gulped. "Children?"
Amy chuckled. "You are not so naive as to think they would not come afterwards?"
"I suppose I had not thought of them at all. Perhaps I have been a bit hasty…"
"That is all right, Mr. Armstrong." She was quick to forgive now that he seemed to come to his senses.
"Charlie," he corrected.
"Charlie. You have a few years yet to worry about a family. And, if I am not mistaken, the lady's attention you have captured is not yet eighteen. I am certain she needs a few years to grow up in, as well." If pressed, Amy could almost guarantee it.
"The very one. I believe she is a bit put out by your inattention, and while you and I might agree she is being a bit childish, you could reassure her of your regard before she goes home today."
"I think you should. Do you believe she is in the drawing room with your mother, perhaps?"
"I'll go look now, before I miss her." He caught up Amy's hand and kissed it fervently. "Thank you for being so understanding, Miss Harte. And so wise."
Amy gave him a gentle smile. "Shall we make this discussion our little secret?" she suggested. The last thing she wanted was for the viscount to hear of this and ring a peal over her head. Or Charlie's.
He apologized for leaving her by herself in the library and ran from the room.
Amy laughed at his enthusiasm, but not for long. A door leading to another room was open and Lord Linvale stood in it, clapping slowly.
"Brava, Miss Harte. That was quite a tender moment, wasn't it? The wise female giving the young pup such advice as to ensure she will not be forgotten in the future."
Amy turned red. "How dare you insinuate such a thing?"
"Because I refuse to believe you are here only because my mother invited you."
"Did it ever occur to you that I might just want to get out of my home once in awhile and enjoy the company of other people?"
"No. After all, what could you be escaping from? You have a loving family, a decent allowance, I daresay, and a roof over your head. Why leave?"
Amy refused to tell him exactly why she had left. Cousin Minerva was a pain, but she was Amy's pain and he would not believe her, or he would pity her, and she could not bear for him to do either.
"Aren't you going to chase down your brother and keep him from being caught in someone else's clutches?" she asked sweetly. "After all, he is running from me to Miss Varton."
"I know how to deal with Miss Varton, should the need arise," he dismissively replied.
"Whereas I am an unknown entity."
"Good. I've never been one of those before. I think I shall quite like it."
He stared at her.
"And next time I receive a proposal from one of your brothers, I'd appreciate it if you would alert me to your presence." Then, perhaps, she could avoid more offers.
"I assure you, Miss Harte, there will be no more proposals from my brothers!"
"Then we have nothing more to say to each other, my lord." She rose gracefully and left the room, unsure why she continued staying in such a madhouse.
On her way to the drawing room, where she vaguely thought the family was situated, she was stopped by a footman who asked her to join her ladyship in the viscountess' rooms. Amy instantly agreed, not being at all enamored of her previous destination. A maid met her at the top of the stairs and led her into a little sun room that overlooked the gardens, still blanketed with snow.
"It's a beautiful view, isn't it?" the viscountess asked as Amy looked out over the white, icy grounds. "When my husband died, I gave the master chambers to Marcus and I moved up here. I have always loved this suite. It was made for my mother-in-law when I was a new bride and I used to come up for tea or a private coze quite frequently. You would have liked my sons' grandmother. She was not one to give up easily. In fact, she outlived her husband by a good twenty years. I hope to be able to do the same..." Her voice tapered off.
"Do have a seat, Miss Harte," she continued after a moment. "May I call you Amy? That is what I call you to myself, having heard it from your mother for many years. She was proud to have such sweet, intelligent daughters." A maid brought in a tea tray. "I do apologize that we haven't had a little private chat sooner, but you have been settling in - and saving lives!"
"I just happened to notice..." Amy mumbled.
"You were very brave! Even Marcus said so, and he is rarely complimentary to our sex these days."
Far from being honored to have earned one of his lordship's few accolades, however, Amy frowned, her recent conversation with the viscount still fresh in her mind.
"Oh, dear," Lady Linvale murmured. "I'd hoped he would not have subjected you to his bitterness so soon, but I see he has wasted no time."
"I apologize for my eldest son, because he will find no need to do it himself. He had a betrothal turn sour a couple of years ago and has been an absolute bear about love, engagements and marriage ever since. I have disliked seeing him like this, when his father and I were so happy together. It pains me to see him make so much of Cynthia, as well. He is aware of her grasping, manipulative nature, and yet he says she will make him the perfect wife, because neither of them are under any illusions as to what the other one wants. It's terribly sad."
Amy could only agree, especially in regards to his marrying Lady Cynthia. But only for the current Lady Linvale’s sake and for any children they might have.
"If they marry, I plan to move to Bath. We have a lovely Dower House here, but I'll not live that close to the perfectly-matched couple." She patted Amy's hand. "But here now... You didn't come for a visit just to hear of my troubles. Lucy says you have enough of your own. Don't worry about that cousin, though. Your father is not the sort to marry so foolishly, or so soon."
"When did you hear from Lucy?"
The viscountess laughed. "Didn't she tell you we are regular correspondents?"
"No..." Lucy, that sly puss, had some explaining to do!
"Ever since your cousin took possession of the household, she and I have been plotting for you to come here for a visit. She had hoped to come with you, of course, but I think we might get her here in time for the ball."
"When did you hear from her?" Amy insisted.
"This morning! Just one moment..." Lady Linvale jumped up and ran to the little escritoire in one corner of the room. "This was the other reason for inviting you up. I have a note for you." She brought a single sheet of paper over to Amy. "Here you are. Why don't I just go count linens or something," she tactfully added, leaving Amy alone to read her letter.
Dearest sister, I hope this finds you healthy and happy and settled in at Linvale Hall. I miss you so much! The 'so' was heavily outlined and underlined and Amy chuckled as she pictured Lucy writing to her.
Papa sends his love and Cousin Minerva does not. In fact, she is driving us all mad in her vain, insistent attempt to discover your whereabouts.
I have asked Lady Linvale not to reply for that reason and I must ask you to do the same. Our cousin has increased surveillance concerning the post, outgoing as well as incoming, and it took some subterfuge to get this letter out of the house. I don't know what she will do if she learns where you are, but she is so intent on it, it scares me to think what might happen. Not that Papa or I would let her harm a hair on your head! In fact, plans are afoot here to oust the intruder. I shall keep you posted. Then Papa will bring me to Linvale Hall and we shall all be able to celebrate together.
Much love, Lucy
Amy hugged the knowledge of a routing of Cousin Minerva to herself, but she would tell Lady Linvale of it later, if that lady did not already know. And if Papa could come with Lucy...
"That would be perfect!" she said aloud, reading that part of the letter once more.
"I beg your pardon, Miss Harte," the viscount said from the doorway. "I thought I would find my mother here."
"She was," Amy said warily. "She has gone to count linens."
"I see. I'll find her myself."
"You do that." After all, Amy was not his servant.
The viscount scowled at her and she scowled back. Even knowing his history, she could find no excuse for his continued bad manners. Her mother would have been shocked to see her eldest stoop to his level, but at the moment, her mother's strictures were the furthest thing from her mind.
Fortunately, Lady Linvale returned at that moment. She came in around her tall son and beamed at Amy.
"Did that make you feel better?" she asked.
"Yes, ma'am." Amy gave her a small smile and excused herself.
"Such a sweet girl, but such a sad family situation," the viscountess said after Amy was out of earshot. She waved her son into the room.
"I hope you appreciate my sometimes spendthrift ways after what I'm about to tell you," she warned.
"I'll keep that in mind, Mama." He sat in a chair across from his parent. Since he did not stop her and she didn't want him to, she jumped right into a narrative of how difficult Amy's life had been in the past year.
"Surely the cousin is not that bad," he scoffed when she finished.
"I am not making this up, Marcus," she tartly replied. "Your father used to say the same sorts of things..."
"You've been known to embroider tales when it suited you," he said pointedly.
"But you know how dearly I loved Lady Harte." She ignored his last comment. "And I don't need you being so rude to our guest, no matter what you think of young ladies!"
"What exactly did you say to her? All I heard was that you had insulted the poor girl."
"Who said? Charlie? Ned?"
"Does it matter?" She glared at him.
"No, ma'am," he said meekly.
"Then what did you say?" The sweet, motherly viscountess could turn ferocious on her precious sons when she needed to, and it never failed to cow them into doing or saying what she asked.
"I suggested she was at our home to find a husband."
Lady Linvale groaned. "You didn't... Oh, Marcus, how could you tip my hand like that?" she wailed.
"I beg your pardon. You mean to say she is here for a husband?"
"Well, of course she is! She should do very well for Ned or Thomas, don't you think? So sweet and gentle... She would make a lovely professor's wife or a vicar's helpmeet...." she mused.
"Let me get this straight, Mama. She is here to find herself a husband..." His grin was positively feral, but his mother's next words deflated any triumph he felt at being found correct in his assumptions.
"Oh, she doesn't know. Not that she hasn't guessed now that you've shot off your mouth!"
"I am not sorry, Mama, believe me," he said dryly.
"Don't I know it," she grumbled.
"May I ask why you chose Ned or Tom, however?"
The viscountess smirked. "Her temperament, of course. She would dislike military life and she is not quite up to your standards, not if you have already insulted her, so why not Ned or Tom? Charlie, naturally, is much too young, although Miss Varton will be at just the right level of maturity for him in a couple of years."
"You don't think your best friend's daughter isn't good enough to be a viscountess?"
"I didn't say that. She would be a better one than Cynthia. Your cousin would never give the manor or the tenants the level of care they deserve and she'd always be flitting off to Town. No, I said Miss Harte has not measured up to your expectations." She watched her son ponder a few home truths while she rang for her maid. It was fun sometimes to reduce the lot of them to a pack of fidgety lads, but now she wanted Marcus to think about his future like the intelligent man she knew him to be.
She hoped it would be sooner than later that he considered his initial reaction to Amy. He would not have been so cruel to the dear girl if he weren't fighting off an attraction he did not want to acknowledge. She blessed Ned and Thomas both for telling her of that little development. It only proved her motherly instincts were correct where Marcus and Amy were concerned.
As for Lucy... She thought about Amy's sister for a moment and knew it was imperative that the girl come to the manor as soon as possible. How else was she going to meet her own future husband?
Feeling as if she were well on her way to fulfilling one of Lady Harte's last requests, she dismissed her son and went into her bedroom to discuss with her maid what to wear for dinner.
And if her own wishes happened to coincide with her late friend's fondest desire... all the better!
Another day, another exciting moment at Linvale Hall, Amy thought with some trepidation, because this was the day Lady Linvale wished to see what the young ladies were to wear to her winter ball.
Amy was sure it was only a formality on the behalf of Lady Cynthia – she had yet to see that lady in anything twice. Amy, on the other hand, had already worn her yellow gown to dinner more than once. However, it was possible the viscountess wished to keep her other female houseguests from embarrassing themselves with their attire.
Lady Linvale gathered them all in Lady Cynthia’s room first, where that girl’s maid produced a white silk confection so beautiful, everyone sighed. Amy was sure the young lady was going to look like an angel, even if her heart was as black as night. The gown was floaty and foamy and glittering with golden threads. All Lady Cynthia needed was a halo and wings. Too bad she already owned a pitchfork.
"This old thing?" she had declared, giving the other girls a "top this if you can" look.
In Amy’s room, no one but Lady Cynthia could find fault with the eau de nil satin that Sally had laid out on the bed.
"Are you certain green is your color?" Lady Cynthia asked, poking her pitchfork figuratively in Amy’s backside.
"Of course it is!" Lady Linvale insisted. "And I have the most perfect jade set for you to wear!" she said to Amy. It appeared this inspection was also a chance for the viscountess to pretend she had daughters with which to share her jewelry. Amy wasn’t about to burst that bubble.
"But what about me, Aunt Beryl?" Cynthia whined. "Can’t I borrow your diamonds?"
"You are too young for diamonds!" Her aunt dismissed that notion with a laugh. "Besides, they are reserved only for the viscountess – dowager or otherwise."
In a word, Amy thought with un-Christianlike smugness, over their hostess’ dead body. Lady Cynthia glared at her aunt as if she would like to arrange such a thing.
Miss Winters did not seem comfortable in her own room, for several possible reasons. The first might stem from Cynthia’s visible disdain for the companion’s meager accommodations. Anything of real value seemed to have been removed – without permission.
"Whatever have you done with all my decorations?" the viscountess demanded of her cousin’s daughter.
"A companion would not live in such luxury, my lady, and indeed I am not used to it."
"Nonsense!" Lady Linvale exclaimed. "Your mother always had nice things around her, so I know you have not been living in penury all your life."
"A companion would not…"
"Oh, hang being a companion!" Lady Linvale all but shouted. "I don’t want you to be a companion! I want you to be a privileged member of this family!"
"No buts, my dear. I’ll wager you haven’t a gown for the ball, either. Come with me!" She took Miss Winters by the hand and hauled her from the room. Where they were headed, Amy had no idea, but she followed quickly behind. Lady Cynthia brought up the rear until she realized they were headed downstairs and towards a green baize door that separated the family from their servants. She refused to go any further and wandered off to see what the gentlemen were up to.
Amy trailed behind as Lady Linvale took Miss Winters into a room filled with fabrics and trims.
"Miss Marvin has graciously come from the village today to measure you for a new gown, Eleanor. What color do you think will suit, Amy dear?"
"Pink," Amy replied without hesitation. "It will go well with her coloring and is about as far away from gray and dark blue as one can get."
"Perfect!" Lady Linvale grabbed a bolt of pink sarcenet off a shelf and held a handful of it up against the girl’s face. "Just perfect! Now, Ellie, off with that gown…"
"What?" Miss Winters looked at the other three and blushed.
"No need to show such maidenly sensibilities in front of… Perhaps there is…" the viscountess decided, her cousin’s face turning bright red. She motioned for Amy to leave the room with her. "I forgot Ellie did not grow up with sisters and she is a bit more modest around other females than we are."
Amy agreed, but when she headed down the hall that led her back through the servants’ quarters and up to the main part of the house, Lady Linvale stayed her with a touch of her hand.
"Hear that?" There were faint sounds coming from the other end of the hall. "That’s the sound of Ned in his laboratory! Come see!"
Amy was intrigued. She had never seen a laboratory before, had never known anyone who had one.
"Ned set one up when he was ten or so. He has always been interested in science and experiments."
"What sorts of experiments?"
"Chemical reactions, mostly. I used to be afraid he would blow us all up. Fortunately for the manor, he has either learned how not to explode things, or else he only causes explosions in London. I understand they are quite tolerant of his ‘hobby’ at the physicians’ college."
"How interesting," Amy sincerely replied. She had lived such a sheltered life, despite having gone off to school, so anything that furthered her education in life was a wonder to her.
"Come in!" Professor Armstrong invited when his mother and her guest reached the threshold of his laboratory. "Especially you, Miss Harte."
"Thank you." She gave him a bright smile. She liked all of Lady Linvale’s sons, save one, but Professor Armstrong was even more likeable due to his kindnesses to Miss Winters. "What are you working on today?" she asked.
He had a small fire lit in a metal bowl under a metal frame that held a glass beaker.
"I’m trying to see if these two chemicals are compatible," he explained. One was a yellow powder and the other was a clear liquid. "Acid," he said, following her gaze.
A footman appeared in the room and requested her ladyship’s presence in the kitchens. "I’ll return in a moment," she said, and left.
"What brings you down to this part of the house?" the professor asked conversationally.
"Lady Linvale and I accompanied Miss Winters down to have a gown made for the ball."
"It’s about time!" he exclaimed.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Cousin Ellie – Miss Winters – could be treated like a daughter of the house if she would just allow it."
"So I gather. But we all have our pride," Amy gently reminded him. "I daresay she more than most."
The professor nodded. "Would you tell me the color of her gown?" he requested. "I should like to send her flowers the evening of the ball to match her dress."
Amy was pleased and told him about the pink sarcenet.
"I hope you are not boring Miss Harte, now, Ned," the viscount drawled from the doorway.
"Not at all," Amy assured him. "And perhaps it is the other way around. While I am not by nature of student of science, I am not as close-minded as some people. Who could say if today is the day I embark on a scientific career culminating in a wondrous discovery, all due to the professor’s tutelage?"
"Females cannot be scientists!" Linvale scoffed.
"Women can be whatever they wish. Their only limitation, as far as I can see, is men."
"Well said, Miss Harte!" The professor gave her an encouraging grin.
"You are a follower, no doubt, of that Wollstonecraft female’s principles regarding the equality of women?" the viscount asked.
"I have not heard of her, but she sounds intriguing. I must look into this. Is it possible that more than one intelligent female believes in such things?" she mocked. "Dare I ask if any of her writings are in your library?"
"You’ll find it damn near impossible to discover any there."
"Mama has a book in her sun room," the professor said.
"You stay out of this!" the viscount ordered.
The professor started at the unexpected fury in his brother’s voice and took a step back, loosening his hold on the acid. It dropped into the liquid on the burner and exploded.
"Bloody hell!" the viscount roared. Down the hall, a shriek was heard. When the acrid smoke cleared, the professor had been blown back against the wall, but was conscious and hastily removing residue from his face, lest the mild acid he was using burn his skin. Amy was not so fortunate. The force had pushed her in the other direction and she lay crumpled like a rag doll against a bookcase.
Lord Linvale cursed and ran to her side just as Miss Winters came in, hastily dressed from her fitting, and went directly to her cousin Ned.
"Edward! What happened?"
"I’m not quite sure… The acid dropped into the bowl and… boom!"
"I told you the acid and the powder would do this," she said matter-of-factly. "And now you have no eyebrows. Go change your clothes while I start sweeping up."
"Yes, Ellie," the professor said meekly. "But what about Miss Harte?"
Miss Winters looked up to see Miss Harte resting limply in Lord Linvale’s arms.
"Cousin Marcus will tend to Miss Harte. Go change clothes!"
Once again the apothecary was summoned, but this time the pronouncement was more serious.
"Concussion," he told an anxious viscountess and her eldest son. "Someone will have to sit with her and wake her up every couple of hours."
Amy had gained consciousness just as Lord Linvale was settling her on her bed.
"Her maid and I will," Lady Linvale volunteered. Hovering behind her, Sally nodded vigorously.
"Mama…" her son said, as if in protest.
"Not now, Marcus," she snapped. "She’s a guest!"
"Go away, Marcus!"
The viscount stalked out without another word.
"Now that Thundercloud is gone," his mother said to the apothecary, rolling her eyes, "what do I need to do?"
While Mr. Thompson gave instructions for Amy’s care to Lady Linvale, the viscount ordered his carriage ready as soon as could be arranged. His valet was instructed to pack clothing for overnight, but he dismissed the man’s offer to accompany him wherever he was headed.
"There is no need," his lordship told the servant in a reassuring voice. "’Tis only a short journey and I shall return in the morning. In the meantime, why don’t you see if there is anything Lady Linvale requires in regard to nursing Miss Harte?"
He arrived on Sir Lionel Harte’s doorstep in the latter part of the afternoon, after the wintery sun had already set, and asked immediately for the baronet. A footman dithered, wondering aloud whether or not he should alert Miss Blakeley first, and Lord Linvale demanded to know if that lady was the gentleman’s cousin. Upon hearing that she was, he refused to see anyone but the baronet.
The quaking footman left him cooling his heels in the front hall and that was where Lucy, alerted to a guest by her vigilant maid, found him moments later. Floating down the stairs in white muslin, her golden hair gleaming, she looked like an angel. The viscount, who had taken a seat, stood immediately.
"May I be of some assistance?" she asked sweetly.
"Lord Linvale to see Sir Lionel Harte," he told her.
"Lord Linvale!" She should have known his looks – the brothers she had met had similar features.
The footman reappeared and said Sir Lionel would receive him.
"Of course he will! I will show him in," Lucy said to the servant and tucked her hand up under Lord Linvale’s arm.
"We cannot speak freely, but I must say, I wish you had not come!" Lucy whispered. "Cousin Minerva will discover Amy’s whereabouts and bring her home and we shall never leave this place!"
"Miss Harte, I hardly think…"
"Who is this?" Cousin Minerva appeared in front of them. "Why was I not informed we had a visitor?" she demanded.
"Because he is not here to see you, Minerva," Sir Lionel said from the study door. "Come in, my lord, and make yourself comfortable."
The viscount was led into a library that was easily twice as large as his own, before Miss Lucy dropped his arm.
"May I stay, Papa?" she begged.
The baronet looked at his guest. "Is this visit of an extremely personal and delicate nature, my lord?"
"Yes, but…" For the third time that day, the viscount was unable to finish a sentence and explain himself.
"You will see him at dinner, then, my child."
Lucy could only nod and drop the viscount a curtsy and then she quickly closed the library door on Cousin Minerva and herself.
Once Lucy had departed, Sir Lionel invited his unexpected guest to sit. He remembered to offer the viscount a drink, but the man declined.
"I can assume that whatever has brought you here today concerns my daughter Amelia."
"I am afraid Miss Harte has not had too fine a time of it at my home."
"My cousin has been less than friendly, Miss Harte put herself in grave danger on thin ice when she saved another young lady from falling through, and today she suffered a concussion when my brother had an explosion in his laboratory." He felt guilty by not owning up to his own rudeness, but he did not want to upset or overburden the baronet. Or so he told himself.
"Quite an adventure," Sir Lionel said slowly.
"You could term it so, yes," Linvale dryly agreed.
"And despite all this, you wish to ask for her hand?"
"I am not here to obtain your permission, sir!" the younger man exclaimed. "I am here only to inform you of your daughter's injury! I had thought to escort you to her, and bring her sister to cheer her."
"I see. I apologize for misunderstanding you, my lord. Lucy and I shall certainly make preparations to come to Linvale Hall."
"I thought we could leave on the morrow, sir."
"At first light? An excellent notion. I will give word to my cousin, who keeps house for me, that you require a room for the night." He checked the clock on the mantel and took note of the time. "We dine at six, my lord. I believe there is sufficient time for you to dress for that."
"Yes, thank you." They rose and shook hands.
"I cannot thank you enough for thinking of us."
"It was the least I could do, considering she has not had a good time of it so far. Your presence and that of your daughter might improve matters."
"Are you certain you are not asking for Amelia's hand? Your action seems rather more than that of a host."
The viscount flushed, unwilling to tell this quiet gentleman how guilty he felt and how he thought this gesture might atone for some of what he had done.
"I assure you, I am not. If you will direct me to whomever is to arrange for a room..."
"Oh, yes." Sir Lionel went to the door and called loudly for Cousin Minerva, who was standing right outside in the hallway. "I beg your pardon, Cousin," he apologized when he realized he had not only yelled in her ear, but had hit her with the door. "Lord Linvale will require a room and he will be joining us for dinner."
"Won't you come with me, my lord?" Minerva asked sweetly. "And you must tell me where you are from and how you know the family..."
Marcus had forgotten about the cousin and what his mother had said about her, until now. Far be it from him to ruin all that. Miss Harte did not need any more ammunition against him. And if he needed any more reminder of that, Miss Lucinda could be seen peeking out of a doorway down the hall, drawing her finger across the front of her neck. Marcus found himself actually winking at the chit before turning to her cousin. What was it about the Harte ladies that brought about unwanted reactions in the opposite sex?
"Actually, Lady, er, Miss, er..."
"Miss Blakely," she said with a sniff.
"Er, yes, Miss Blakely. I'm from Sussex. Near Brighton, actually. My mother is an old friend of the late Lady Harte." He had better not fib about the relationship, even as he gave her the wrong location for his home. Miss Lucinda was also in danger of discovery if Miss Blakely was leading him to the doorway she had popped out of a moment earlier, so he took her arm and steered the older lady toward the stairs.
"Miss Harte says you are a model of efficiency," he soothed her when she began to protest that his room still had to be readied. "I've no doubt you have the staff on its toes. I shall be content to wait in the upstairs hall while you and the maids put a room to rights."
"Amelia said that about me?" She preened. "What a dear, sweet girl she is!"
They all gathered downstairs just before six and the baronet gave his guest a generous whisky before his cousin could offer what would no doubt be a very stingy amount. Lucinda was eager to grill the viscount about her sister, but she could not in front of Cousin Minerva. She was, however, grateful to the gentleman for keeping their secrets. She found his information about Sussex extremely amusing, having heard all from her cousin just moments before the viscount joined them in the drawing room, and would have to have her maid spread it around the staff that Amy was in the south. Too bad the viscount had not said Cornwall, but that was expecting too much.
Lucy had no doubt Cousin Minerva would be sending someone down to Sussex to search for Amy and drag her home on some pretext or other, so the further south, the better. She must let some other false clues leak out to those few loyal to her cousin. In the meantime, she had been instructed by her father's valet to quietly pack a small trunk; she and her father were to leave the next morning with the viscount.
Lucy was excited about this, but schooled her features to display polite interest in their visitor and nothing else.
"Tell me more about your home in Sussex, my lord," Cousin Minerva pressed once dinner had been announced and they had all trooped dutifully into the cavernous dining room.
Tonight there were two whole braces of candles, Lucy noted. She had been placed on her father's left, her cousin across from her, with Lord Linvale on Minerva's right.
"But you don't..." the baronet began, sure the Armstrongs were not in the south. Lucy gently kicked her father's shin and he shut his mouth. Cousin Minerva did not seem to notice, as she did not wish to miss a word from their guest.
"Near Brighton, isn't it?" Lucy asked.
"An interesting place, Brighton," Sir Lionel mused. "We used to go sea bathing..."
"Do you like sea bathing, my lord? Are you near the water?" Minerva quizzed.
"Near enough," the viscount truthfully replied. After all, he did live near a pond. "And yes, I do swim."
"Splendid! Not that this is the weather for it, of course..."
"What has Amy been up to?" Lucy asked. Her cousin frowned at her for speaking across the table, but Lucy did not care. There were only the four of them, after all.
"She has been ice skating and she is preparing for my mother's Winter Ball."
"How exciting!" Lucy clasped her hands together and her eyes were shining. Her sister was having such an adventure, she was sure!
"Was not Miss Lucinda invited to this house party?" Minerva said archly, hoping to punish Lucy for her outburst.
"Yes," Lucy answered sadly, appropriately dismayed.
"Perhaps next time," Lord Linvale murmured, playing along.
"And yet there seems to be some problem with Amelia, my lord?"
Lucy sighed. Cousin Minerva was like a dog with a bone!
"She has suffered a concussion due to a... laboratory explosion," he carefully replied. "I promised my mother I would deliver the news in person."
"How kind," Cousin Minerva said. "And will you stay a couple of days before returning?"
So she could send someone to follow, Lucy thought in disgust. She nodded slowly at the viscount, although she did not think he truly wished to betray their plans, else he would have done so by now.
"I should like that, Miss Blakely," he agreed.
Lucy refrained from blowing out the breath she was holding, but did sag slightly in her seat.
After the meal - a bit more generous due, no doubt, to their guest - Lucy was told by her cousin to go upstairs to bed.
"You need your rest," she snapped at the girl, "and I am far too busy to sit with you until - or if - the gentlemen join us in the drawing room."
Lucy reluctantly agreed, but only because it was expected of her. She actually had packing to finish and a few more rumors to spread. Not to mention figuring a way to get her trunk downstairs without being seen.
That was easier than she thought. A footman came up and asked her maid if Miss Lucy's trunk should be put in storage, as per her father's request. The maid made much over the fact that her young lady had been too ill to go with Miss Harte, and how it was too late, unfortunately, to send her off. He agreed and took the trunk, the maid escorting him down the hall.
"You're to be down in the stable yard before dawn, Miss Lucy," she said with a wink as she came back in to ready her charge for bed.
They left early the next morning, as planned.
“I left Minerva a letter,” the baronet told his daughter. ‘I suggested that we no longer needed her assistance and I thanked her for helping us through our period of mourning. I strongly hinted that an extended visit to Cousin Harriet in Scotland would make a good holiday for her after dealing with us for so long.”
“Cousin Harriet could squeeze blood out of a turnip,” Lucy muttered. “She ought to feel right at home.”
After Amy had been woken every couple of hours through the night, she was pronounced well enough to nap the next morning, and she slept through a visit from her father and sister. She didn’t even know they were in residence until Lady Linvale breezed in that afternoon looking like a cat who had gotten a canary.
“It is the most wonderful thing, my love!” she softly exclaimed, aware that Amy might have the very devil of a head. “Everyone is so concerned about your accident. Now, you just sit up here and I shall let them all come in for a few minutes.”
Amy, in a befuddled state, was not so sure her accident had been a wonderful thing, but she went along with Lady Linvale, who was quite pleased about something.
“I must not tire you out,” she was told as that lady plumped up pillows and helped her into a lacy bed jacket that did not belong to her. “So the most important visitors may come in first.”
Amy leaned back against her pillows and sighed. Surely ‘important’ did not mean Lady Cynthia, and she was definitely not receiving any of the gentlemen in her bedchamber, so who could…
“Amy!” Lucy squealed as quietly as possible and ran forward to give her sister a hug.
“Lucy! What are you… Papa?” Amy burst into tears at the sight of her father. She hadn’t realized until that moment just how much she had missed them both.
“There, there,” he said awkwardly, dropping a kiss on her forehead and patting her shoulder. “Your young man said you had been injured, so we came as soon as we could.”
“I fully expect Minerva to be gone by time we return home,” her father told her.
“Which will not be until after the Winter Ball!” Lucy said with excitement. “Papa has agreed to stay at Lady Linvale’s invitation!”
Amy could not help but smile at her sister’s enthusiasm, despite her headache.
“But we must not keep you from your rest, my dear.”
“You said ‘my young man,’ Papa?” Amy wondered. After all, she had no such thing, as far as she knew, and if one of those Armstrong men was passing himself off as one, he had another think coming. “Who might that be?”
Lucy giggled. “Lord Linvale, of course! He even spent the night before bringing us here today. Cousin Minerva was in knots trying to figure out what was going on.”
Lucy would have stayed and said more, but Lady Linvale was ushering them all out of the room before admitting Miss Winters.
“I’m sorry you were hurt,” she said, bringing in a tray with two cups of tea and a plate of biscuits. “Ned did not mean it, you know.” She sat down by the side of the bed and handed Amy a cup.
“I know it was an accident. Do not trouble yourself that I have taken the professor in strong dislike.”
“Thank you,” the companion said with relief. She picked up the other cup and sipped at her tea.
“You are quite the champion of that gentleman, aren’t you?” Amy asked shrewdly.
Before Miss Winters could reply, but not before Amy noticed her furious blush, there was a knock on the door. Sally, coming out of the dressing room, admitted Lord Linvale and Professor Armstrong, both bearing bouquets.
“We dare not come in,” the viscount said, although he was eyeing Amy intently, to ascertain the extent of her injuries, as well as he could from his distance. Sally took the flowers with a smile and the gentlemen bowed to Amy.
“We look forward to seeing you among us again soon,” the professor said. Then they were gone.
“Isn’t he a handsome man?” Miss Winters asked.
“Very,” Amy agreed.
“You must help me gain his attention, Miss Harte,” Miss Winters suddenly pleaded.
“Lord Linvale?” Amy replied more sharply than she had intended.
“No! I was speaking of my cousin, Edward! You thought I meant Cousin Marcus?”
It was Amy’s turn to blush.
“You will help me?” Miss Winters pleaded.
“I’ll do what I can,” Amy promised.
Elsewhere, Lady Linvale had whisked Sir Lionel off for a private coze, leaving Lucy with the major, the vicar and Lady Cynthia. Charlie had gone to the Vartons' house to tutor his friend. Lady Cynthia, extremely put out that both Miss Hartes were attracting attention, was trying to punish the younger one by ignoring her.
Lucy, enjoying the sole attention of two Armstrong brothers, could not care less what Lady Cynthia was doing. Cynthia, actually, was playing the pianoforte loud enough that they were required to raise their voices to speak.
"I am very happy to finally meet you, Miss Lucy," the major said on her right. She was seated between the two gentlemen on a settee.
"Thank you, Major Armstrong."
"You must come see my vicarage whilst you are here, Miss Lucy," the vicar added.
"I should love to. And you, Lady Cynthia?" she called, an imp of mischief gleaming in her blue eyes. "You will come with us? I am certain there will be parishioners to visit, the sick to tend and babies to play with." She got a cold shoulder in reply.
"There are plenty," the Reverend Armstrong assured her.
"I am looking forward to it, sir. Shall we set a day when my sister is able to accompany us?"
"The apothecary says your sister may get up tomorrow. If she is up to it, might I suggest the day after?" the viscount said, coming into the room.
"Marcus!" Lady Cynthia exclaimed. "Where have you been all day? Come here!"
He nodded to Lucy and his brothers and went to stand next to his cousin, She instantly abandoned her playing, stood and began to whisper in his ear. Lucy continued to flirt mildly with the other two gentlemen, although she had to admit that the major, above all others, captured her attention the most.
Upstairs, the professor sat in the hallway outside Miss Harte's room, concerned for that lady's welfare. He felt terrible that she had injured herself in his laboratory and he worried about the best way to apologize. Marcus had sat with him a long while, but now he had gone to check on Miss Lucy. Perhaps Cousin Ellie could help him. She had a knack for knowing the right thing to do.
His cousin opened Miss Harte's door at that moment and came out with a tray of tea things.
"How is she?" he demanded, jumping to his feet.
"She is resting comfortably. I believe she will be allowed to join us downstairs tomorrow." She stood there expectantly, thinking he might offer to carry the tray, like he often did, but he was preoccupied with Miss Harte.
"I wonder if I might get in to see her for a moment," he mused.
Miss Winters lost her temper. She was not angry at Amy, of course. That lady had already offered some excellent advice to help her win Ned's affection. But Ned was another story altogether. "Ooooh!" she cried, picking up a cup and pouring its half-finished contents over his head. He yelped in surprise.
"Shhh!" Miss Winters admonished with a smirk. "We cannot disturb Miss Harte!" With a smug smile and a feeling of having gained some of his attention, she took the tray off to the kitchens without a backward glance.
That evening, Lucy brought up a tray for her sister and then settled on the bed while Amy ate.
"Can you believe it? Custard! Soup! Warm, fresh bread! You are living like a queen!"
"You are queer in the attic if you think custard and bread are the height of luxury, dearest. I shall have to blame Cousin Minerva for such a condition," Amy said sympathetically, although her eyes twinkled with merriment, as did her sister's. "I am sorry you had to stay behind last week. How is your cold?"
"I am as right as rain," Lucy assured her. "And so envious of all this male company! Miss Winters is nice, of course, but I cannot warm to Lady Cynthia," she confessed.
Amy was not surprised. Who could warm to the girl? She stopped spooning up custard long enough to pat her sister's hand.
"The Armstrong men are as handsome as I remember," Lucy continued. "And so courteous! You must have made a very good impression on his lordship. Imagine coming all that way to tell us of your injury in person! He could have easily sent an express. How is your head?"
"Fine when I am not confronted with prattle-boxes like yourself."
Lucy giggled. "I know! I know! But I am so excited to be here, and I cannot help but thank your injury for that small miracle. Did you know there were three whole courses at dinner this evening? With several removes!"
"Oh, my! All I got was a custard!"
"Don't forget the fresh bread!" Lucy admonished her with a grin. "If I have to eat two-day-old bread ever again, I shall scream."
"Cousin Minerva is rather dreadful," Amy agreed. "How did she take your leaving?"
"I have no idea. We slipped out of the house before dawn, like thieves."
"Even Lord Linvale?" Amy found that difficult to imagine.
"He was as game as a pebble and he knew how to deal with Cousin Minerva at every turn. It was almost as if he knew she was the enemy. I suppose Lady Linvale told him of our 'problem.'"
Amy had to suppose so, too. She did not recall telling him anything of the sort and no one else knew. In fact, the only things she had said to the viscount had been terse replies to his taunts.
"So," Lucy said in a matter-of-fact tone, as if she could follow her sister's thoughts. "What do you think of Lord Linvale?"
Amy paused. What should she tell her sister? That the man had been incredibly rude to her? She might tell her everything later, but right now, Lucy would become indignant for her sake and might even say something to Papa. Then he might have to take action and Amy did not wish him to do that. She had to be nice about what she said without being untruthful.
"Lord Linvale is a handsome man, isn't he?" Too bad he knew it. "And he can be kind." She still wasn't quite sure what his game had been when he had gone to her home.
"Very handsome," Lucy agreed. "The major is, too."
Amy smiled as her sister launched into a comparison of all five Armstrong gentlemen. Lucy considered Charlie a mere lad, and was sympathetic, in a good sisterly manner, when Amy related parts of the ice skating fiasco.
"Professor Armstrong is in love with Miss Winters," Lucy continued. "And she with him."
"You could see that in less than a day?" Amy was astounded.
"Oh, yes! Doesn't everyone? Well, perhaps not Lady Cynthia, but then, it doesn't involve her, does it? But Miss Winters is not speaking to the professor at the moment."
"I advised her not to."
"Good." Lucy approved of that tactic. "I don't think he quite appreciates her worth."
"He will," Amy said confidently. "But only if she ignores him for a bit.”
"The Reverend Armstrong is a nice gentleman. So thoughtful and attentive." Lucy moved on to the next brother on her list. "I rather like his quiet confidence, but he is so much less dashing than the major."
Did Lucy know that her eyes lit up every time she mentioned the major? Amy rather thought not. "They are charming companions," she agreed. "And asked after you almost as soon as I arrived, but I could not tell you, because you forbade me to write."
Lucy gave a contented sigh and snuggled down further in the bed to lay her head on Amy's shoulder. "I believe I will enjoy having two handsome men vying for my attention., but I shall leave Lord Linvale to you. The two of you will suit each other splendidly."
"What? I have no designs on Lord Linvale!" Amy hotly insisted. If word got about that she did, she would never hear the end of it from the viscount!
Lucy giggled. "That is precisely why he likes you, I think. You have no designs on him."
No, Amy thought bitterly, only on his brothers. All she said aloud, however, was, "He likes me? Are you certain?"
"He came to tell us about your injury, he left Cousin Minerva behind without a qualm and he talked about you all the way here. And he has haunted the hall outside today, checking on your progress."
"He did not!"
"He did. I think you have an admirer, Amelia Harte."
"I think it's time for bed, Lucinda."
"May I stay in here?" Lucy pleaded. "Then I can help if you need anything."
Amy was easily swayed, but only because she had missed her sister terribly. "All right, but tell the maids where you are so no one worries about you not sleeping in your own bed."
Lucy grinned and ran off to collect her nightclothes and inform Sally of her whereabouts.
The next day was uneventful as Amy got back on her feet. Miss Winters was still ignoring the professor and Charlie had added himself to Lucy’s growing list of admirers, but otherwise the house was quiet.
The plan to have tea at the vicarage was met with approval by everyone but Lady Cynthia, but when she learned Lord Linvale was to go, she agreed to be one of the party. Only Sir Lionel and Lady Linvale were to stay behind, she because she had ball arrangements to tend to and he because he had discovered the Linvale library.
The viscount had hired a couple of sleighs and horses from the village and they sat on the frosty front drive the morning of the outing. One was hitched to a pair of bays and the other to one black and one white horse. Each sleigh seated four to six people, although room was not required for the vicar, who had gone ahead.
Lucy had already accepted an invitation to sit between Major Armstrong and his youngest brother, leaving Amy to sit with the professor. She was getting tired of hearing that gentleman’s apologies for the accident, and she knew she was only in that particular seat because Miss Winters silently refused to share a sleigh with him.
That lady, oblivious to the expression on Lady Cynthia’s face, climbed in to sit with Lord Linvale in the other sleigh, leaving Cynthia to either squeeze in with them or sit in the back. She finally chose the rear seat, no doubt, Amy thought, to keep from crushing her skirts.
Amy was distracted from that thought a moment later by the sight of Lord Linvale’s glove-covered hands as they picked up the ribbons. How had she never noticed before how broad and capable-looking they seemed?
“Don’t you agree, Miss Harte?” the major was asking. She did not answer, but when he followed her line of sight, all he could see were either the reins in his brother’s hands, or the black horse’s rump. “I was saying to Miss Lucy that there were plenty of indoor activities here at the manor. Don’t you agree?”
Amy came out of her trance to see three people in front of her waiting for a reply.
“Oh, yes. Skating, sledding, ice fishing…”
Lucy giggled and turned to her companions. “Never mind her. I’m sure there are games and puzzles, billiards…”
“You play billiards, Miss Lucy?” Charlie eagerly asked.
“Not very well,” Lucy confessed. Amy almost snorted. Lucy excelled at indoor games like cards and billiards, having spent a lot of time indoors because of constant ill health. She nudged Lucy just the smallest bit from behind, but her sister ignored her.
“We would be happy to help you improve your game,” the major offered.
“That would be lovely,” Lucy innocently agreed.
The viscount chose that moment to spring his horses, and the major quickly followed suit. They spoke of other activities then, including the ball, until they reached the vicarage.
The Reverend Armstrong came out to greet them and quickly ushered them into a warm parlor. A sour-faced old woman was waiting to serve them tea, and when she was introduced as Mrs. Timmons, Amy and Lucy both looked at one another in surprise.
"Are you related, by chance, to Sally Timmons?" Amy enquired. Lucy nodded. They were sharing Sally, and both had gotten to know her fairly quickly. The transformation of the vicar's housekeeper from prune-faced to a kinder countenance was remarkable.
"Indeed I am, miss," she replied. "She is my late husband's niece. The Timmonses have long been in service to the nobles in this area." After that, Mrs. Timmons offered to give them a tour of the house, which was quite large. Miss Winters and Lady Cynthia were invited to join them, but only the companion accompanied the girls.
"The vicars have very often been supplied by the Armstrong family, which has provided the funds over the years to expand what was once a small stone cottage," Mrs. Timmons explained as she showed them about. "You can see part of the original house here..." They were in the kitchen. "There are six bedchambers upstairs and we have two parlors, a dining room and a study."
Once they had seen the vicarage, it was suggested by someone that they view the church, but all agreed it should be after they had eaten. It was over seed cake and cups of a very strong brew that the reverend received the message that a Mrs. Barlow's husband had died and could he come straight away?
He exchanged a look with his elder brothers and agreed. "Would you all care to join us?" he invited his company. "The Barlow family is large and the children will be in need of some assistance."
"I will join you, then, if I may," Amy offered. She knew all too well what it was like to lose a parent and wondered how old the children were.
"I shall come, too," said Lucy. Miss Winters and the professor were quick to agree. Only Lady Cynthia and Charlie declined.
Wraps were promptly found and they wedged themselves into one sleigh, leaving the other for Lady Cynthia and Charlie, who would then be able to return to the manor at their leisure.
The Barlow house - hovel, in Amy's estimation - was but a short drive and she could not help but contrast it with the warm, secure farmhouses around it. Several small children were outside playing in filthy snow and inside the small, two-story dwelling could be heard the sound of wailing.
The vicar went in first and then beckoned to the viscount. By the time the major and the professor escorted in the ladies, they were not to be seen, although the murmur of voices could be heard from an adjacent room.
In addition to the three urchins outside, Amy counted eight children total, with the eldest a frightened-looking lad of about fourteen. Lucy and Miss Winters sat down with the glum children by the hearth. Amy followed the gentlemen over to the older lad and took his hand while she introduced herself.
"I'm Miss Harte. I take it you are now the man of the family? What may I do to assist you?" she gently asked.
"Yes, miss, but we don't need..." He looked at the major, who nodded encouragement. "We could use some food, miss."
"And shoes for the little ones?" she asked softly.
Amy looked about. "Do you have enough blankets and warm cloaks for the children?" Everything was so threadbare, including their clothing, and the room was cold.
"And you will need some firewood. Shall we set about securing some, Ned?" The major did not wait for his brother to reply, but as he headed out the door, the younger man was right on his heels.
Amy took that opportunity to retire to a corner with the young man. She had seen families like this before on her father's estate. "What shall you do now that you are responsible for your family?" she wondered.
The Barlow boy was unable to reply, because he had spied Lord Linvale standing behind her and had jumped to his feet.
"Will you excuse us, Miss Harte? I would speak to Mr. Barlow privately for a moment."
"Of course." She looked at the viscount, but could not guess as to his mood. Moving over to Lucy's side, she suggested they bring in the children. Miss Winters was already putting a kettle on the meager fire and when the tots outside protested coming in, Amy and Lucy promised hot tea, even as they wondered how they were going to provide it.
Fortunately, a servant arrived from the vicarage with a packet of tea and some biscuits, and a box of food was shortly delivered from the manor. It seemed others had not been idle. Lucy began the daunting task of cleaning up the children, Amy tidied the main room and Miss Winters brewed tea, passing around mugs of it before starting on a stew for dinner. By the time the gentlemen returned with more wood and Mrs. Barlow came out of her room, appearing red-eyed and wan, the young ones were warmed by the tea and eager to be fed.
Lord Linvale had taken the Barlow boy for a walk, but the lad came bursting back into the cottage with the news that his lordship was taking him on as a stable hand and they would be able to continue living at the cottage.
While the others were off tending to the Barlow family, Charlie Armstrong was driving his cousin back to Linvale Hall. If Lady Cynthia's tirade was any indication, he was doing a poor job of it.
"Do you have to drive so slow?" she asked.
"The horses can only go so quickly through the drifts, Cousin Cynthia," Charlie said for the tenth time through gritted teeth.
"Marcus had no difficulty earlier!"
"Marcus was driving on a cleared road behind another sleigh," Charlie reminded her.
"What has that to do with it? If you do not hurry up, I shall have to take over. I'm considered quite the whip, you know," she said proudly.
"You think you can drive this better than I am?" Charlie slowed the horses down even further, his eyes snapping with anger and not a small bit of challenge.
"I most certainly do! Give me those ribbons!" she insisted.
Charlie hesitated only a moment before handing over the reins. "Let us see what you can do then."
Lady Cynthia slapped the ribbons on the rumps of the bays and they started up again at the same slow pace at which Charlie had been driving them.
"See? They have to pick their feet up to get through the snow."
"This would not be a problem if we had used the same road we came in on. Why are we going this way?"
"Because it takes us into the back of the stables instead of to the front of the house."
"But I'm cold! You cannot expect me to walk from the stables!"
"The horses are cold, too!" He noticed she was pushing those horses harder than he had and he became concerned. "Slow down! Who told you that you could drive well?"
"Mr. Hardy did, last summer at Papa's house party."
"Hardy is a mutton-headed chap who was obviously trying to turn to you up sweet. Give me those reins."
"No! You said I could drive, so I am driving!" She pulled the reins out of his grasp and the horses went off the road to the right. Alarmed, Charlie pulled on the ribbons below her hands, guiding the horses back to the road.
"You ham-handed cow! You're going to land us in a ditch!"
"Don't be silly, Charlie," she replied, ignoring his insult. "There aren't any ditches in the winter. They are filled with snow." She yanked the reins away again and the horses turned off to the right once more.
"That makes about the worst sense of anything I've ever heard, you bacon-brain!" he shouted.
"You've never been nice to me!" she shrilly replied. They continued to squabble, paying no attention to the horses until one of them fell through the snow with a squeal.
"Told you!" Charlie got out of the sleigh and waded slowly through the snow to unhitch the wild-eyed horses, speaking softly to them as he led them carefully to the road.
"What about me?" Cynthia demanded, standing up in the front of the sleigh. "Come get me, Charlie! Now!"
"I cannot! I have to hold the horses," he called back. "Come on. Climb out of there and help me walk these two home."
"If you think I am going to lead a smelly horse back to the house in all this snow, you are much mistaken, Charlie Armstrong!"
"Suit yourself. Stay in there and wait for Marcus to possibly come this way or wait for me to send someone for the sleigh."
"It's your decision," he said airily, heading off with the horses. He got about twenty feet, Cynthia screaming behind him the entire time, when Farmer Owens' son Bart appeared.
Bart Owens was a tall, strapping man in his mid-twenties, with shaggy blonde hair and bright blue eyes, who had been a friend and playmate to the Armstrong brothers in years past. Back then, even Marcus had not been so high in the instep that he hadn't played and fished and hunted with the local lads.
"Mr. Charlie!" Bart called.
"Bart! Am I glad to see you. Give me a hand, will you?"
The farmer's son reached for a horse, but Charlie shook his head, a very evil thought forming in it. "Not the horses. I've got them under control. No, I need you to retrieve my cousin from the sleigh. Could you take her to your house until someone can come drive her home? I fear for her health if she stays out here much longer."
"A young lady?" The taller man scratched his head. "I don't know..."
Charlie recalled that Bart was shy around females, having been raised alone by his father. Still, he was Cynthia's best bet to getting warm, since she insisted on staying behind. "She will get frostbite, most likely, if she continues to be exposed to the elements," he cajoled. "Could you not escort her to your father's hearth? I am certain he will know what to do with her.
Bart nodded and bowed respectfully before trudging off through the drifts to collect Lady Cynthia.
Charlie continued the slow journey home, but he could not resist one backward glance. With a grin he watched as Bart Owens unceremoniously slung Cynthia over his shoulder like a sack of grain and carried her off to his house. Her screams of protest rung in Charlie's ears long after he was out of range.
"How could you do such a thing, Charlie Armstrong!" Lady Cynthia shouted, stomping into the drawing room a couple of hours later only to find everyone else warm and cozy, toasting crumpets by the fire and drinking tea.
"I beg your pardon, Cousin Cynthia, but I could not leave you out there to freeze," Charlie innocently replied.
"You left me to be manhandled by that... that... pig person!"
Everyone looked on in amusement, having already heard of the incident from Charlie.
"Isn't that a bit harsh, Cynthia? After all, he is a pig farmer, and an excellent one at that," said the major. "I've no doubt the sausage you partook of so willingly this morning came from his place."
"But... but..." she stuttered. "You don't know how ill I was used at that farm!" Her cousins looked at each other in alarm.
"He did not harm you?" the viscount asked, having come in behind Lady Cynthia, whom he had just retrieved in the other sleigh.
"He dared not lay a finger on me! However, that place you call a farmhouse was most horrid! They did not offer me tea and I was forced to view their new piglets!" She shuddered.
Lord Linvale, to Amy's surprise, chuckled. "Forced to see piglets? How terribly you were abused!" Everyone laughed.
"Well, it was suggested and I was so wretchedly bored and you would not get there fast enough! How could I refuse?"
"Poor, poor Cynthia," Charlie said with a straight face. "When I asked Owens to take care of you, I had no idea he would torture you with... piglets!"
Porter cleared his throat as he stood in the drawing room doorway, a pained expression on his face. "Begging your pardon, my lord, Lady Linvale, but a, er, gift has arrived from the Owens farm. For Lady Cynthia."
"See, Cynthia? The Owneses are very kind to send you a reminder of your visit." The viscountess was grinning.
A footman came in with a small black piglet tied to one end of a rope. The little fellow stopped to snuffle Porter, who sighed and rolled his eyes heavenward, before trotting happily over to Lady Cynthia. The footman, gingerly holding the rope, gave it to the lady as quickly as he could and backed away. Lady Linvale excused the servants and they went gratefully back to their posts.
"What am I going to do with this?" Cynthia demanded.
"Send him to the kitchens?" Charlie suggested.
"Name him?" Amy said.
"Excellent idea, Miss Harte!" the major exclaimed. "Because you cannot return it, cousin. That would be in very poor... taste."
"Or porcine taste, as the case may be," Amy agreed with a laugh.
Cynthia did not like being laughed at. "Fine! Then you name it!" she challenged Amy.
"All right. Let's see..." The little piggy was black. "How about... Smokehouse?" Everyone but Cynthia laughed. "I'm sure I can do better, though. Why not... Rasher? No, no, I have it!" she said excitedly, her face flushed with laughter. "Hamlet!"
They all applauded her efforts and she stood and curtsied.
"Hamlet it is, then," the viscount agreed. Amy looked at him quizzically. Why was he being so nice?
The little pig snorted, as if satisfied that the task of naming him had been completed, and he sat down complacently on Lady Cynthia's feet.
"Did you see the look on Lady Cynthia's face when the little pig sat on her?" Lucy crowed. "Famous!" The two sisters had retired to Amy's room after dinner that evening.
Amy grinned. She was glad someone here could share her sense of the ridiculous. She had been so lonely without her sister to confide in.
"Yet, I don't understand how you can be so hard on Lord Linvale! He has been more than amiable since before our arrival."
Amy groaned. If she heard one more time that the viscount was a saint for bringing her family to her, she thought she might be ill. Lucy had finally been told what his lordship had said to Amy on her arrival, and how he continued to hold her to blame for his brothers' actions towards her, and yet Lucy still found it difficult to believe.
"Do you know why he made Jem Barlow a stable hand?" Lucy asked, seemingly bent on keeping the viscount in a good light. Amy did not know, nor did she want to. But Lucy was going to tell her anyway. "Because he has a way with horses. Almost as if he can communicate with them. Lord Linvale plans on grooming him for the position of stable master one day, if you will pardon the pun."
"How do you know all of this?"
"The major is a font of information. And, of course, the funds will not go amiss in the Barlow household." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "The father drank all the money away..."
Amy was not surprised. "That is most obvious. When did you speak to Major Armstrong?"
"This afternoon... He showed me the conservatory." She had the grace to blush.
"So that is where you were when you were supposed to be up here dressing for dinner!" She thought Lucy had been cutting it rather fine. "And?"
"And what?" Lucy was looking everywhere but at her sister.
"What sort of things does Lady Linvale have in her conservatory?" Amy had no idea - the only time she had been in there was to have a good cry. But she could not resist twigging Lucy about her 'tour.'
"Oh, you know... Orchids and palms and other... plants."
"Hmmm... Did he try to kiss you?"
"What? Oh, no, no, no!" Lucy's countenance was dreamy, however, as if she had wished him to.
"I take it you are in here to ask me if you can share a bed again?"
Lucy giggled. "Of course! I've already told Sally that I will be here."
Amy sighed and shook her head, mumbling something about sisters as she climbed into bed. However, she was glad, once again, that Lucy was there.
At the Harte home, Minerva was in a royal rage.
Kick her out after all she had done for them? How dare they! And how dare they all leave without her permission? She was in charge - hadn't she done everything she could to make herself indispensable to Sir Lionel? And he had the nerve to suggest she go to Harriet in Scotland? No, thank you! Her sister was so tight, she could squeeze blood from a turnip! Minerva was glad she was so much more generous than that.
At least she had an idea of where to look for the Hartes. They were at Linvale Hall, in Sussex, near Brighton. She would go there herself, then, and pay a little visit. Especially to Amelia, whose fault this all was. If she had not accepted an invitation from Lady Linvale (and how did such a letter get past Minerva?) all of this would not have come about. Little Miss Amelia, who had managed to attach a viscount in just a few days, was going to pay.
All Minerva wanted was to step into the late Lady Harte's shoes, in name as well as position, and have her own establishment. The family part she could do without, especially now that she had seen just how loyal the Harte sisters were to her. Ungrateful wretches!
After all the time and effort she had invested in showing how well suited she was to be their father's next wife... Come to think of it, Miss Lucy was just as duplicitous as her sister.
Minerva settled down in a drawing room chair and thought about her options. Murder was out, although a bit of maiming would make her feel better. Ugly rumors about the girls and the viscount - who had been taken in so quickly by the both of them - would be better. After all, when had Miss Lucy even been able to speak to the man to coerce him into taking them to Linvale Hall, unless she had gone into his room that night? No wonder he was now her willing slave. If Minerva had thought such an action would have worked on Sir Lionel, she would have done the same thing ages ago. Too late for that now.
Hollering for her bags to be packed and a coach to be secured for the next morning, she decided to go to Sussex as soon as she could to see what damage could be done.
Amy left Lucy sleeping soundly the next morning, dressed herself rather than disturb Sally, and slipped down to breakfast. The only other person abroad that morning seemed to be Miss Winters, who was more than happy, she said, to have such a congenial companion with which to break her fast.
“I hope you had a pleasant night,” Miss Winters said as Amy fixed a plate, took a seat and poured a cup of tea.
“Very much so. My sister has been sleeping in my bed, so happy is she to see me once again. “
“Miss Lucy does seem the naturally happy sort.”
“She is,” Amy agreed. She scraped some butter across the top of a piece of toast before reaching for the jam pot. “Hmmm, strawberry! And you, Miss Winters? Did you have a good night?”
“No. I am next door to Lady Cynthia and I am unsure whether the snores I heard all night were hers or the pig’s.”
“Why, Cousin Ellie!” the professor exclaimed, stopping in the doorway. “That is the first time I have ever heard an unkind word from you!”
Miss Winters turned her head away and did not answer. Amy felt sorry for the professor at that moment. He looked so stricken, she had to do something to get these two together. The silent treatment had probably gone on long enough. But that task was made more difficult when Miss Winters excused herself, her breakfast half uneaten, as it had been the other day. It was a wonder the girl got any nourishment at all.
Once she was gone, however, the professor wasted no time in bringing up the subject of Miss Winters.
“Do you know, Miss Harte, why my cousin has been ignoring me?”
“I do, sir, but it is not for me to say why. You should ask Miss Winters.”
“But that is just it!” he said dejectedly. He bypassed the sideboard filled with food in favor of a cup of tea. “I have no idea how to approach her or know what to say.”
“How do you feel about her?” Amy asked. If he could tell her, he could tell Miss Winters. “I know. Why don’t you pretend I am Miss Winters and you can tell me what is in your heart. It might help you form the words you wish to say to her.”
“Would you do that?”
“Absolutely,” she assured him.
He came over to sit next to her at the table, angling his chair so that he faced her. She smiled to encourage him and he took one of her hands in his.
“Cousin Ellie, er, Miss Winters… Ellie. Since you have come to live with Mother, I have been impressed with the way you have taken care of her. I know you have your pride and while I often quizzed you on accepting more from the family, I’ve also admired you for the way you don’t take advantage of your situation.” He faltered.
“Go on,” she urged. “I think you are doing fine so far.”
“Thank you.” He squeezed her hand. “I know I have not been here every day, but when I have visited, I have seen nothing but a sweet, caring young woman. The changes you have wrought on this family have been remarkable. You have shown presence of mind, compassion, intelligence and a sense of humor since your arrival and I cannot help but admire you. I should like to have those special qualities in my life on a permanent basis.” He sat back and regarded her seriously and Amy, a bit choked up, had the sense to remember to break into applause.
“Bravo! Will you go now to speak to her?” she wondered.
“Of course. While these things are all fresh in your mind. And don’t forget to profess your undying love. Ladies like to hear such things. That was a brave thing you did – now think of how much braver you will be when you lay your heart at her feet.”
“Now?” he repeated in a quavery voice.
“Now,” Amy firmly replied. He left the room slowly, as if going to his doom, but he finally disappeared from view. She heard him say something to someone in the hall, but she had gone back to her tea and toast and paid it no mind. He was probably asking a footman where to find Miss Winters. To her surprise, Lord Linvale came storming into the room.
“What the devil was that all about?” he demanded.
Amy, having recovered from the shock of his sudden appearance, tried not to laugh. She picked up her cup and took a sip of tea. “What?” This time she had the confidence in knowing the professor’s goal was not herself. Linvale could rant and rail at her all he wished. While he did so, his brother would be off somewhere attempting to win the lady’s hand. Knowing what she did of Miss Winters’ feelings, it would not be difficult.
“Pray, what is so amusing, Miss Harte? My brother’s proposal to you?”
“Proposal? Please, Lord Linvale, let us not get started on your idiotic belief that I am here to steal one of your precious brothers from under your vigilant nose!” Vigilant, her foot. Amy would wager he knew nothing of Lucy and the major in the conservatory…
“Idiotic! I heard with my own ears just now that my brother is quite taken with you and that he has admired you since you arrived.”
Amy burst out laughing. “Oh, yes! He admires me so much, he went running off as soon as he had disclosed his feelings!”
“Ned has been known to be shy around females,” he admitted. “What was your reply? Did you accept? Are you to become my sister?” He looked thunderous.
Amy calmly sliced into the ham on her plate. “Eavesdropping is such a naughty habit, my lord. One never hears the entire story, do they?” She took a bite of meat, enjoying Linvale’s discomfort far more than she was sure she should.
He took the chair his brother had so recently vacated and stared at her.
“You are too smug. Is your head swollen after hearing Ned say you have shown compassion, intelligence and a sense of humor?”
“I am feeling very smug, actually, because your brother was practicing those words on me so he could say them to Miss Winters.”
The expression on the viscount’s face was more than she had hoped for.
“Are you saying that Ned…. And Eleanor…”
She thought it was a good thing he was already seated.
“I had no idea…”
Amy took a small amount of pity on him and patted his hand. “If Miss Winters’ previous reactions are any indication, his suit will be very welcome.”
“What? I cannot allow it!” He stood too quickly and his chair fell backwards.
“Oh, no!” Amy protested. “You cannot inflict your view of females onto your brother! I am sorry if your life did not turn out the way you planned, but your plan is not the professor’s!” She had to think of some way to stop him from ruining his brother’s big moment.
“Are you quite finished, Miss Harte?” he asked haughtily.
“Not quite.” Picking up her cup of tea, now cold, she dashed it against the front of his breeches. “Now I am,” she said sweetly and rose gracefully from her chair. “Who knows what sort of grief your brother will come to while you are changing clothes?” With a sly smile, she walked out of the room. Of course, he might hunt Ned down in wet clothing, but something told Amy the man was more fastidious than that.
Amy had given Lucy an abbreviated version of that morning's events when she returned to her room, and they speculated as to how long it would be until a happy announcement was made. They did not have long to wait. As Lucy sat up in bed eating toast and Amy allowed Sally to fix her hair for the Sunday morning service, Lady Linvale burst in without knocking, her eyes sparkling, her cheeks flushed.
"My dears, you will never guess what has happened!"
Amy and Lucy exchanged smiles. "Something has occurred? It is only 10 o'clock!" Lucy exclaimed.
"Whatever is it?" Amy wondered.
"Something exciting! Ned has made an offer to Ellie and she has accepted! Isn't it wonderful?"
"Prodigiously!" Amy agreed with a wide grin. Sally stepped back, which allowed her to rise and hug Lady Linvale. "I am so thrilled - they are such a perfect couple."
"Indeed they are!" Lucy chirped. She set aside her breakfast tray and hopped out of bed to join them.
"I have already extended an invitation to the neighbors to join us for dinner this evening to celebrate."
"How fun!" Lucy was always ready to meet new people.
"And we shall have all sorts of reasons now to rejoice at my ball! There will be games and prizes, dancing and the crowning of the traditional king and queen. I make this party open to everyone, you know. All our tenants and the villagers will be here. Merchants... farmers... even servants!"
Amy could not imagine that going over very well with Lady Cynthia, but she could dredge up no sympathy for the protests she knew would be forthcoming.
"Cynthia may very well use the occasion to thank the Owenses for her cute little pig," her ladyship said with a wicked grin. "They always attend the party!"
The three of them exchanged amused glances and then burst out laughing.
Amy had not registered the fact that "the neighbors" were the Vartons, but it was brought to her attention when they arrived that evening. She had not seen Miss Varton since she had been so boldly chastised for taking away Charlie's attention.
"Hmmm..." Lucy said in her ear. They were seated together on a sofa in the drawing room. "Have you met the young men?"
"When we were skating," she whispered back. "That is the infamous Miss Varton."
"Ooooh! I must meet her now."
They watched as Charlie bounded forward, earning a pleased smile from Miss Varton. Lady Linvale brought the elder Vartons over to meet first Sir Lionel and then his daughters, whom were delighted to be introduced such friendly-faced people. Lady Linvale placed Mrs. Varton next to Amy, and they immediately engaged in conversation.
"Thank you for such a kind note," Mrs. Varton said. She had sent a tearful letter and a bouquet of hothouse flowers to Amy as soon as her sons had told her of the skating accident. Amy had been more than happy to send a note in reply, despite Miss Varton's harsh words. "We had a full report from Lord Linvale, later, and we cannot be more grateful to you." She patted Amy's hand.
"Thank you, but anyone would have done the same." Once again, though, his lordship surprised her and she did not know what to think of him. Fortunately, since she had soaked his trousers, he had been avoiding her.
Miss Varton approached and was made known to Lucy, who looked on with interest as the young lady indicated to her mother that she wished to take her place on the sofa. Mrs. Varton excused herself, saying she wished to congratulate the happy couple, and moved on. Her daughter sat down, but looked everywhere except at Amy.
"I wish to apologize for my ghastly behavior, Miss Harte," she finally said, her voice soft. "I was so worried about losing Charlie's attentions, I acted horribly. Can you forgive my jealousy and the things I said?"
Miss Varton was looking at her now, and seemed sincere. And since Amy was still rather heart-whole and had never had any interest in Charlie in the first place, other than as a friend and amusing companion, what else could she do? "Of course, Miss Varton."
"Oh, thank you! Thank you for not telling anyone else what I said, either!"
Amy had told Lucy, of course, but no one else. "How did you know that?"
"Charlie would have given my ears such a blistering, did he know, and Lord Linvale would never forgive me, either."
"He spoke so glowingly of you to Mama and Papa, my conscience was quite pricked. When we were invited to dinner, I was so happy to be able to see you again." She leaned over and addressed Lucy. "You were not here, then, were you?"
"My father and I delayed our visit until I could recover from a slight cold."
"But you are well enough for the ball tomorrow night?"
"Yes, thank you, I am. Have you attended one of her ladyship's parties before?"
"Last year! I was newly turned sixteen and so thrilled that Lady Linvale included me for the first time. That was where I first danced with Charlie," she said dreamily. Lucy giggled and Miss Varton blushed.
Lord Linvale delivered glasses of sherry to them and moved on, but was replaced a moment later with Charlie and Major Armstrong. They engaged Miss Varton and Lucy in conversation and Amy, feeling de trop, looked about for somewhere to go.
Miss Winters and the professor were speaking quietly between themselves, Lady Cynthia had cornered the viscount and the older people were getting to know each other as well. That left the vicar and the Varton boys so she excused herself and joined those gentlemen.
"Miss Harte!" The Rev. Armstrong welcomed her with a smile. "You remember Mr. Varton and Mr. Daniel Varton?"
Amy allowed that she most certainly did and curtsied politely.
"We are speaking of Mama's ball. May I hope you will partner me in one set?" the vicar asked.
"And I," the elder Varton brother said enthusiastically. His sibling nodded, wishing to be included on her dance card.
"I should be honored to dance with all of you." The offers made her happy. She had been isolated for so long and these requests more than made up for all she had recently endured.
"May I also assist you in filling your dance card early, Miss Harte?" The viscount had appeared at her side and she did not notice the other gentlemen melting away.
"If you promise not to say a word about me having designs on your brothers."
"I promise. If I behave myself, will you give me the second set and the supper dance?"
"If I am able. After all, we could be ordered to do differently by their majesties."
"Ah, I had forgotten about the king and queen. Perhaps we shall be fortunate to find the beans, and then we could do as we pleased amongst ourselves."
She eyed him a bit warily. Was he jesting? She did not get a chance to find out, because Porter appeared and announced dinner.
Amy rather enjoyed the plethora of gentlemen at the dinner table. Lady Linvale had so many to place about, she had put Charlie and Daniel Varton in the center; Amy was seated next to them. No one seemed to mind that they held sway over the conversation and they kept everyone entertained with stories of Cambridge right up until dessert. They had even prompted the older men, including Sir Lionel, to relate a few of their own school-day tales. But while Lord Linvale did not discourage the fellows, neither did he join the discussion. He wore a strange expression, almost one of sorrow, but Amy was not seated near enough to ask him about it.
When the ladies finally left the men to their port, Cynthia bored them to tears as she complained about the topic of discussion at the dinner table. Lady Linvale eventually persuaded her to play some music to distance her from the rest of them, and when she gladly went, the other ladies each breathed a sigh of relief.
They were breathing something entirely different a moment later. Hamlet came trotting in through the half-opened drawing room door and made a beeline for his mistress. Shouts were heard from down the hall and then shrieks from Miss Varton. The piglet that had brushed by her so quickly was covered in muddy, malodorous filth. He had left tiny cloven hoof marks on the Axminster and a large smear across the bottom of Miss Varton's white gown.
The butler and a footman had followed the piggy tracks to the ladies, but halted just inside the doorway. Mrs. Varton was calming her daughter, Lady Linvale was visibly amused, Amy and Lucy were about to burst and even Miss Winters had cracked a smile. But Lady Cynthia was the biggest surprise. She had the piglet up under one arm, completely ruining her diaphanous evening gown, and was bearing down on the servants.
"Honestly! I ask you to take Hamlet out for a walk," she chided the footman, "and look what you have allowed!" She turned the pig around to face her and made kissy noises at him. He grunted happily in return. "Come along, my little sweetmeat. Mummy is going to make sure you get a nice, bubbly bath!" With a sharp look at Porter and the footman, they all headed off to the kitchens. Lady Cynthia's baby talk to the pig could be heard in their wake.
The gentlemen must have out in the hall, altered to the contretemps by Miss Varton's shrieks, because they piled into the drawing room as soon as Lady Cynthia and her entourage disappeared.
"What in the devil is going on in here?" Lord Linvale demanded, looking from Amy to his mother and back again. Lady Linvale could not regain her composure enough to answer and indicated that Amy should respond in her stead.
"We had an extra after-dinner guest, my lord," she said. Lucy giggled and Amy nudged her. "The appearance of Lady Cynthia's little pig was a bit unwelcome and he managed to clean himself off on Miss Varton's pretty gown."
"I see." That was all he said. What else could he say, she wondered?
The drawing room was in need of an airing and had to have the pig tracks removed, and Lady Linvale suggested they repair to the music room. Miss Varton was not happy, however, with her soiled gown, and Mrs. Varton said it was time to go home.
"But you cannot! Not yet! We have to toast our happy couple!" Lady Linvale protested.
The Vartons could not argue with that, so while Miss Varton was hurried off to sponge the worst of the mud from her gown, the rest of the company adjourned to the other room.
Lucy was asked to play some light music and Porter brought in glasses and a couple of bottles of sparkling wine. While he poured and they waited for Miss Varton to return, Amy found herself in a quiet corner with the viscount.
"You were quite amused by my cousin's antics this evening," he said.
Amy grinned. "If you had seen the expressions on everyone’s faces, you would have been laughing too, my lord."
"Perhaps. I am not quite sure what to make of Cynthia and her pig."
"You will have to get used to him sooner or later, most likely."
"When you marry your cousin, I've no doubt her dowry shall include little Hamlet."
"Fortunately for me, I have no intention now of marrying my cousin."
"But your mother said..."
"My mother tends to exaggerate, Miss Harte. Although she had not, it appears, when it comes to complaining about your cousin. My decision, however, is of a recent origin."
"Oh." Why had he changed his mind? He was still vocal enough when it came to his brothers. And yet... he was capable of such kindness. Hadn't he carried her all the way back to the house from the pond? She could have walked, but he hadn't even given her a choice.
He had carried her upstairs after her laboratory accident, as well. Then he had gone to collect her family. He had provided for the Barlows above what another landlord would have done. He did not side with his cousin any more when she became rude. He had raised no public objection to his brother's betrothal. What was happening?
Miss Varton returned and everyone was handed a glass of champagne. The viscount made the first toast, and then the other gentlemen took turns congratulating the professor and teasing Miss Winters. After their glasses had been filled several times over and Amy was feeling warmly muzzy-headed, she was surprised to see Lord Linvale raise his glass for another toast.
"As to marriage or celibacy, let a man take which course he will, he will be sure to repent."
Everyone laughed, thinking he was jesting, and Sir Lionel was complimenting him on quoting Socrates, but Amy did not even smile. Here was the man who had railed against his brother's marriage to her earlier that day. Amy was both triumphant and saddened that her initial opinion of him had been vindicated.
Amy and Lucy received an invitation the next morning from Lady Cynthia, of all people, to go for a walk after breakfast. They reluctantly agreed, only to discover at the morning meal that Miss Winters, too, was to come. That made it more palatable.
They all met in the front hall, bundled up against the cold, but Cynthia hesitated to go outside until her maid brought Hamlet downstairs in a knitted coat of bright blue wool.
“How adorable!” Lucy exclaimed and the pig grunted at her merrily. She bent to scratch his ears. “May I take his lead?”
“Perhaps someday soon,” Cynthia said condescendingly. “For now I will walk him. I am quite worried about the handling he received last night…”
Lucy snickered behind her gloved hand as she headed outdoors after the proud young lady walking the pig. Amy and Miss Winters brought up the rear, Amy wondering why they had even been invited, if Lady Cynthia was going to ignore them.
“Cousin Thomas is to read the banns for us beginning this Sunday,” Ellie said with a shy smile. “And we will be married in a few weeks, right before Ned must return to London. It is our dearest wish that you and your family will stay long enough to attend. Ned is to speak to your father about it this morning.”
“I hope he agrees.” Amy would stay for Lady Linvale and Miss Winters, if no one else.
“I have allowed Cousin Marcus to provide a dowry,” Ellie added and laughed. “At least the money will not be leaving the family, although we will not spend it. Ned is arranging for lodgings outside the college, for he could not live there and be wed, and he makes enough to support a family.”
They crunched up the front drive discussing what Miss Winters might need for her new home and Lucy fell back to join them. Ahead, Lady Cynthia, seemingly in her own little world, walked her pig, but her sudden howl of anger and surprise startled them out of their conversation.
“Charlie Armstrong! I know you did this!” Lady Cynthia had stooped down to brush a broken snowball off Hamlet’s head when another flew from somewhere behind the hedge and hit her on the rear end. “Charlie!”
Amy chuckled and scooped up some snow, sending it sailing over the hedge.
“Hey!” a man’s voice exclaimed. It wasn’t Charlie, although the hoot of laughter that followed belonged to him.
Lucy made a few snowballs in quick succession and led her sister and Miss Winters quietly around the side of the hedge before handing them to Amy, who had a good arm. With a war cry, Amy pelted the major, Charlie and, surprisingly, the viscount, while the other two ladies provided her with more ammunition, trying to duck the snow being fired in their direction.
The men were smart – they had built a wall of ice around them already, leaving only the ladies unprotected. But Amy was quick and she lobbed some well-placed balls at the enemy while Lucy packed snow in front of them as best she could.
“We see how well Miss Harte throws,” Charlie taunted, “but what about you other two?”
The answer to that was a flurry of snowballs sent directly at his face by Miss Winters, who was applauded by her teammates for showing such skill. The retaliation was swift, but Lucy’s low wall held, and as the ladies were shorter than the gentlemen, they were protected somewhat by the hard, white projectiles.
When the gentlemen finally called a cease fire and suggested chocolate in front of the drawing room fire, everyone was tired enough to agree. Only when they all came back up the drive to the house did they realize Cynthia and her pig were nowhere to be found. When asked, a footman informed his lordship that the lady and her pet had returned earlier.
Cynthia did not know where the kitchens were, and had to ask for directions, but she knew she had to get Hamlet out of the line of fire back on the lawn. She did not want him catching cold, and she was worried that he was not getting the right food. For that, she had to lower herself to speak to her aunt’s cook.
The low, darkened kitchens, however, were teeming with activity and she and Hamlet were forced to wait at the table with a cup of tea and some biscuits while the head cook finished kneading and forming the Twelfth Night cakes. Cynthia found herself watching that lady pressing one bean into each cake, making dimples where they were placed.
An idea began forming in her head. If she were queen for the evening and ensured Marcus was given the correct slice from the other cake…
But how to find the dimples once the cakes were baked and decorated? She picked up Hamlet and without explanation, appreciation or apology, went to find her aunt. Hamlet could wait while she made what would sound like a very generous offer to be in charge of the cake decorating and serving.
After warming up by the fire, the major suggested a game.
“Miss Lucy needs a billiards lesson,” he insisted.
“Miss Lucy needs to not fleece her host and his brothers,” Amy whispered to her sister, whose blue eyes had lit up at the thought of doing just that.
“Only a little supplemental pin money,” she whispered in return. “I rather like the idea of tipping the servants with their masters’ money.”
Amy shook her head at Lucy’s cheek and they and Miss Winters went with the major, Charlie, the viscount and the professor, who had joined them once they came indoors, to the billiards room.
“I have played this a few times, you know," Lucy said in a coy tone that had Charlie and the second eldest Armstrong both offering to give her a few pointers.
Amy sat back with the newly engaged couple and smirked. "Watch this," she whispered to Miss Winters.
"Shall we make it a bit interesting, sir?" Lucy asked the major, batting her eyelashes at him.
"I could not take any of your money, Miss Lucy."
"I could!" Charlie cried. The viscount clouted him on the shoulder.
"Oh, I wasn't thinking of money," Lucy all but purred.
The major was staring intently into Lucy's face. "What exactly did you have in mind, Miss Lucy?"
She giggled. "A boon, perhaps? If you win, I grant you one favor. If I win, you are in my debt instead."
"That sounds fair enough." They shook hands while Lord Linvale set up the table for a game and indicated Lucy should go first.
Amy watched with mute satisfaction as Lucy asked the major to show her what angle he used with a cue, received some personal instruction and then proceeded to trounce that gentleman into the ground. He never even got a chance to play.
"That was famous!" Charlie exclaimed.
"It had to be luck," Lord Linvale scoffed.
"If you insist," Lucy said sweetly. "Want to make a wager that says I cannot do that again?"
"Against me or Charlie?" he replied.
"All right, Miss Lucy. I wager ten pounds you will not beat Charlie. He's the best player in the family."
"Next to yourself," Charlie amended.
"I just happen to have ten pounds!" Lucy said happily. She stuck out her hand and the viscount clasped it.
"Is she truly that good?" Miss Winters softly asked Amy. "Should I be making a side bet with Ned on this?"
"Want some extra pin money?" was Amy's only reply. She watched with no little amusement as Miss Winters transacted a quick exchange with her fiancé. "Now, watch..." She settled back in her chair once more to enjoy the show.
"You are looking particularly smug, Miss Harte..."
Amy did not realize the viscount had been watching her until he spoke. "I have a lot of faith in my sister, sir."
"And yet you do nothing to capitalize on that faith? I find that difficult to believe."
"Believe it, my lord. I know my sister is capable of winning, but I seek no gain from the venture."
"You are a rare female, then, who does not wager on the 'sure thing,' Miss Harte," was Lord Linvale's bitter reply.
Amy could not answer, but she thought it rather sad that the gentleman continued to color his perception of every other female by the treatment he had received at the hand of one faithless member of her sex.
"Miss Harte is rare in the fact that she is above wagering on her own sister, regardless of her sister's skill," the vicar said kindly, coming into the room. "And for that she is to be commended. However, my money is on Miss Lucy."
Lucy had been about to start, but she paused. "With whom will you wager, sir?"
"Marcus, of course!" He strode over to his eldest brother with a grin. "If Miss Lucy wins, you will not make Cynthia the next viscountess."
There were several gasps heard in the otherwise silent room, but the viscount only laughed.
"I have not had that notion for several days now, Tom, so we should find something else to wager upon."
"You do not jest?" the vicar asked earnestly.
"No, I do not."
"Thank the good Lord!" his brother replied. "You are not angry with me for suggesting such a thing?"
"I would be if I were still considering such a move."
"Then shall we wager on our usual bottle of port?" The viscount nodded. "Will you proceed, Miss Lucy?"
Charlie, like his brother before him, did not get a chance to play.
"I don't believe it!" Lord Linvale exclaimed. Behind him, money exchanged hands between a disgruntled Charlie and a beaming major. Amy thought Major Armstrong might be happy that Lucy was beating everyone, and not just him.
In fact, the major gave Lucy's shoulder a squeeze and said she was more than welcome to fleece his brother officers at any time.
"I still say she is extremely fortunate... What if, Miss Lucy, you played me and I went first?" the viscount asked.
"That would be fine," she calmly replied. "Shall we double that last wager, then?"
"You are going to lose that pin money, but I suppose you are determined."
"I am." She indicated that he was to begin.
Amy watched the other brothers, and Miss Winters, whisper among themselves and she wondered how much the lady had won from the professor already.
The match started out dead even. The viscount sank three balls, and then missed, and then Lucy did the same. Amy thought perhaps her sister was a bit nervous about this game, because she kept biting her lip. Lord Linvale missed his next turn, and Lucy took that opportunity to relax and sail right through until she won. Everyone applauded and the viscount bowed to his most worthy opponent.
"If you will come to my study, Miss Lucy, I shall pay up at once. And I haven't forgotten you, Tom," he called over his shoulder as he led Lucy from the room. "Your bottle of port will be sent to the vicarage."
Lucy went with Lord Linvale down the hall and into his private sanctum, and she wandered about, not touching anything, as he went to his desk.
"I must beg your forgiveness, Miss Lucy," he said as he counted out some banknotes.
"Oh? Have you done something wrong?"
"I have doubted your abilities, and am now paying dearly for it."
Lucy dimpled. "I was not offended."
"But your sister was."
"Then I will be sure to let her know you have apologized," Lucy said with a wink and took the money he offered. "And perhaps you will be a bit kinder to her in the future? She only has the best interest of others at heart."
"I am beginning to see that truth, Miss Lucy. You don't need to tell her that, however."
"I had no intention of doing so. Some things just need to be proved."
Amy and Lucy were dressing for the ball when a maid stopped by with a silver tray. On it were a creamy white camellia and a small nosegay of the same flower for Lucy, and a green and lavender orchid for Amy.
"No flowers to carry?" Lucy teased, but Amy did not mind her at all. She was glad not to have to hold flowers all evening. Lucy was going to wish she could set hers down somewhere before the night was over.
Amy picked up the card under the flower and smiled. The orchid, it read in a bold, masculine hand, was from the entire Armstrong family.
"How sweet!" Lucy exclaimed, reading her own cards. "The flower for my hair is from the family. The posy is from..." She hesitated. "An admirer."
"A military one, I'm certain," Amy knowingly replied. She and Sally exchanged amused glances in the mirror as the maid affixed the orchid to her dark curls.
"Perhaps." Lucy giggled, giving it away. "That flower is perfect with your gown!"
Amy agreed and moved over to where Lady Linvale had sent up food. There was to be no family dinner that evening, but their hostess had provided sustenance to stave off hunger pangs. Later there would be cake to determine the evening's royalty, followed by a lavish buffet supper at midnight.
When Amy and Lucy finally went downstairs, Lady Linvale and her eldest were in the front hall waiting to receive guests. The girls were directed into the ballroom to wait with their father and the remaining members of the Armstrong family, but it did not take long for the Vartons and others to arrive, and soon the vicar and major had the Harte sisters introduced to a variety of early guests. Amy was particularly interested in the Owenses, father and son.
"That is a very sweet little pig you sent Lady Cynthia," she said to Bart Owens.
"She is one of our best," he replied with a shy smile.
"She? I don't believe anyone bothered to see if it was male or female..."
"We agreed, miss, that little Rosebud looked just like her ladyship," the elder Owens said.
"She?" Amy repeated, knowing she must sound like a parrot.
"Aye, miss. Rosebud is out of Petunia and
Amy could not imagine anything of the sort, but was greatly amused just the same. "Er,
"Aye. T'other three boars are..."
"Let me guess. Eton,
"Aye! You're as keen on pigs as her ladyship, I gather."
"Er, no, not really. And your other sows are Daisy, Tulip and Lavender?" she guessed.
"Close, miss. Daisy, Aster and Violet."
"Daffodil shows promise," the younger Owens reminded his father.
"Aye. And Daffodil. Rosebud, as well." Farmer Owens spied Lady Cynthia and the men excused themselves to speak to her about the eventual breeding of her pig. Amy wondered if she could get close enough to hear that conversation when she noticed a certain gentleman. Lord Linvale had come into the ballroom and raised his hand to gain everyone's attention. Amy did not realize until that moment that the ballroom was now full.
"Welcome, everyone!" he called. "We're very pleased to see you here this evening. In a moment, servants will be handing out Twelfth Night cake so we might determine royalty for the evening. As you know, the gentleman and lady who find a bean in their slice will be crowned king and queen."
Cynthia had already begun to cut cake and her own piece was safely secured in front of her before she started slicing into the cake for the men. The matching piece was also set aside and she smiled brightly as her cousin approached.
"Here, Cousin Marcus!" she sang as he reached the table. "I've saved you a..." The slice was gone. While she had tried to dazzle him with her smile, one of the footmen had taken the piece of cake she was saving for the viscount. Who knew where it would turn up?
It was not turning out to be a good evening for her already. First, the pig farmers had dared approach her. Secondly, they had the nerve to tell her that her piglet was female! Now this!
It got worse. Just when she decided to scrap her plan and put her own piece of cake back into circulation, Marcus picked it up and handed it to her. He had a piece of his own in his other hand.
"Shall we eat cake together? Perhaps one of us will be fortunate tonight."
She gave him a weak smile and bit savagely into her slice, almost breaking a tooth as it connected with the bean.
"Ouch!" She spat the bean out into her hand.
"A winner! Congratulations!" Lord Linvale said warmly. "Come with me."
She tossed the bean onto her plate and followed her cousin to the front of the room, just as a few people exclaimed with delight and the pig farmer, Bart Owens, was led to her side by her aunt.
"Ladies and gentlemen!" Marcus called to the crowd. "May I introduce their majesties of Misrule, King Bart Owens..." The pig farmer raised one hand and waved shyly to the crowd as Lady Linvale put an ornate paper crown on his head.
"...And Queen Lady Cynthia Shaw!" She found herself crowned in the same manner and led to a heavy chair on a dias where she was seated next to the farmer. He did not look too rustic that evening - at least he had dressed for a party - but he was still a farmer! Who raised pigs!
"What have I done?" she moaned.
Lucy was still giving Sir Bart a billiards lesson when the major reappeared and asked if he could speak to her for a moment. She readily agreed and excused them both, but not before admonishing her pupil to practice.
She then followed Robert to the conservatory without a murmur, because if he planned to repeat his advances of the other evening, she was in full accord. He led her to their usual bench and sat her down.
“Miss Harte… Lucy…” he said, clearly nervous. She was instantly curious. This brave, adorable military man of hers was never at a loss for words or confidence. “Do you recall what I said here two nights ago?”
“That we would formalize everything after you received your posting,” she summarized.
‘Yes.” He pulled the still-sealed packet out of his coat. “Here it is.” He set it down on the bench next to her. “However, I would be a fool if I based an offer on my orders.”
Yes, you would, she agreed, but she wasn’t about to point it out – especially at a time like this.
“That is… What I mean to say is…”
Lucy was delighted by this anxious suitor. It was a side of him she had not seen until now. “Yes?” That did not mean she was going to make it easy on him.
“I love you, Lucy, and I want you to be with me wherever I am posted. I don’t care if that makes me selfish or not.”
Lucy reached out a hand and pulled Robert down to her side, both of them ignoring the fact that he was seated on his orders.
“Are you asking me to marry you before you open your letter? Or do you just want me to run away with you when you leave?” she teased.
“Lucy! I want you to marry me!”
“I accept.” She tugged on the lapels of his coat and pulled his mouth down to hers, to seal their betrothal. It was, she thought, extremely satisfying.
“And now,” she said, blue eyes soft from the kiss, “you need to open that packet. Let us see where we are going.” Please let it be India, she said to herself as he laughed and pulled the letter out from underneath him.
“I had to ask before I read this,” he told her, breaking the wax seal, “because it is more important that we be together, regardless of where we go.”
“I understand, and I appreciate that more than you can know. But I was going to get you to propose and go with you wherever you went,” she confessed. “I dare anyone – even you – to separate us.”
“My little dragon,” he said fondly, giving her another kiss. A kiss that continued for quite a while, the orders forgotten in his lap. Lucy felt quite smug about that when they finally parted, content in the knowledge that she was more important than his new post.
The next moment they were both eagerly opening the missive, both breathing the magic word, “India,” together as they read.
Lucy was thrilled. Her physician had recommended a warmer climate for her, and this was about as warm as she could imagine. She was fascinated by the country too. She had found several books on the subject in Lord Linvale’s library. Library…
“Robert! You must speak to Papa! I cannot imagine him refusing your suit, but he must be told first!”
The major squeezed her hand in his. “Of course I will speak to him first. In the meantime, you should get back to your pupil.”
Lucy giggled, having forgotten about Sir Bart. “Yes, Major!” She saluted him, giggled again and offered her lips up for another kiss before they had to part.
The next day, it was a large party that set out on horseback into the snowy landscape surrounding Linvale Manor. Three sets of betrothed couples in the lead – Major Armstrong and Lucy, Professor Armstrong and Miss Winters, and Sir Bart Owens and Lady Cynthia.
Amy held back with the unattached gentlemen, her horse at a slow walk. Lord Linvale brought his own mount up to hers.
“Not too cold, Miss Harte?” he asked kindly.
“I am fine,” she assured him. “Just not willing to intrude on the couples.”
“I understand. Your father was quick enough to give his blessing to my brother.”
Amy chuckled. “Lucy said ancient Egypt was more interesting and your brother was less so – a nod of agreement was all he had time for.” She was smiling, quite used to taking second place to her father’s research. “He would not have been so fortunate if my mother had been here.”
“Tell me about her,” the viscount urged. “My mother thought she was the most wonderful person in her life, after her own family.”
“She was wonderful,” Amy said with a misty smile. “She ran the estate so that my father could work undisturbed, and yet we did not want for her attention. She had friends everywhere, but she rarely left our home. Her correspondence, however, was extensive. She was level-headed and calm, and everyone came to her or wrote for her advice.”
“You are like her, then.”
Amy blushed. “I would like to be so some day. Lucy is the one, ironically, who has the wanderlust in the family. I have had to leave home by necessity – to school and on family visits – but she is the one who wished to go. And now she is going to India! She could not be more happy, and I am pleased for her. Hopefully, the climate will improve her state of health.”
She looked up to see her sister spur her horse into action, the major keeping up with her easily. The professor and Miss Winters were moving at a sedate trot, but Lady Cynthia was urging Sir Bart to catch up with her cousin and Lucy. Even the vicar and Charlie had moved forward, leaving Amy and the viscount behind.
“You do not seem to be protesting this latest engagement,” she said.
“For all the good it would do me, even if I did not approve. Your sister is a formidable opponent in everything else and I would surely lose. Yet, I do not disapprove, so you may rest easy that you and I will not disagree on this, Miss Harte.”
“Oh, dear,” Amy said in a teasing manner. “I was so looking forward to an argument, my lord.”
“My clothing has sustained enough damage.”
Amy laughed. “You are gaining wisdom in your old age.”
“I am not yet eight and twenty, Miss Harte,” he protested, but he was smiling.
What Amy was going to say was forestalled by a rabbit hopping suddenly across the road in front of Sir Bart. A bit shaky on horseback, he shied away from it, startling his horse, which bolted. Lord Linvale urged his horse to follow and Amy watched as he rode down the knight and caught hold of the reins, slowing down both mounts.
Amy was hailed by Lucy and realized she had stopped her own horse to watch the scene unfold.
“Amy?” Lucy asked. “Are you quite the thing?”
Her sister shook herself out of a daze. “I am fine.” More than fine, she thought. That had been a brilliant move!
They all had tea and chocolate in the warmth of the drawing room afterward. Everyone was fairly tired and silent, but Cynthia seemed torn between asking her betrothed if he was recovered from her fright, and scolding her cousins for not keeping a better eye on the wildlife.
Lucy and the major exchanged amused glances until she noticed her sister alternating between staring into space and watching the viscount. Her fiancé noticed it as well.
“What is wrong with your sister?”
“I am not certain. Could it be she finally noticed your brother? Every time he looks her way – which is frequently – she looks away. I shall try to talk with her later and see what is going on. If they have crossed swords once more…” She left the threat hanging and the major chuckled.
“My little dragon will make him pay?”
“Just remember he is to become your brother soon.”
“Oh.” Lucy had forgotten. “In that case, I promise to hear his side of the story before I make him pay.”
Robert grinned. “That is my girl!”
Porter opened the drawing room doors, gaining everyone’s attention. “Lord Edward Shaw, the Earl of Farnham,” he announced, and Lady Cynthia’s father stalked in.
“Where’s this blackguard who has publicly compromised my pride and joy?” he bellowed.
“Papa!” Cynthia squeaked. “You were not supposed to be here yet!”
“Not supposed to be here?” he hollered, advancing on his daughter. “You are mauled at a ball in front of hundreds of people, forced to become betrothed to a farmer, and I don’t ride out immediately to find out why your cousins have failed to protect your honor?”
“What in the world did you say in that letter?” the major asked his brother.
“I was as diplomatic as possible, but you know him…” Marcus rose smoothly and placed himself between the earl and Lady Cynthia. “Welcome to Linvale, Uncle.”
Amy sighed, catching Lucy’s attention. Why, she looked as if she thought the viscount was a gallant knight in shining armor. When had that happened? It explained her earlier actions, as well.
“Why don’t we gentlemen adjourn to my study and discuss this calmly,” Linvale suggested. “Oh, and I must introduce you to our guests.” He took the earl’s arm and propelled him toward Amy.
“Miss Harte, her sister, Miss Lucy, and you know Cousin Ellie.” The earl bowed to the sisters and nodded to Miss Winters. “And this is Sir Bart Owens.”
Sir Bart had stood and was bowing easily to the earl. Lucy felt like applauding.
“Sir Bart Owens?” the earl asked sharply. “You did not say he was a baronet!”
“I shall explain everything, Uncle, in my study.”
“I shall stay and keep the ladies entertained,” the professor offered, giving his younger brother a speaking glance. The other gentlemen, including Sir Bart, were filing out of the room.
“I wouldn’t miss this for the world!” Charlie cried and followed them out, closing the drawing room doors behind him.
“Well!” Lucy exclaimed. “That is bound to be interesting!”
“Papa is so angry!” Lady Cynthia said, burying her face in her hands.
“Cousin Marcus will take care of everything,” Miss Winters assured her.
“He will!” Lucy agreed. She looked for confirmation from Amy, but her sister was staring at the closed doors. Lucy grinned and sidled over to where she sat. “Lord Linvale is rather amazing, is he not?” she teased.
“Amazing,” Amy repeated, not tearing her eyes away from their current focus.
“Did you see the way he saved Sir Bart from certain injury earlier today?” Lucy asked.
“Amazing,” Amy dreamily replied.
Lucy smirked at the other two ladies and even Cynthia, seemingly resigned to her future, did not take offense. Apparently she had given up all claim to her cousin, which was just as well, Lucy thought. She did not approve of close relatives marrying.
“It was quite masterful,” Cynthia said, getting into the spirit of the game.
Even Miss Winters joined in. “He deserves a medal for bravery.”
The others laughed and Amy, just realizing she sounded like a mooncalf, blushed.
“Now that we have some privacy, I want to hear what happened,” the earl demanded. “From you!” He pointed one plump finger at Sir Bart.
“Uncle…” Marcus began. Poor Owens was shaking in his boots.
“You stay out of this!” the earl demanded of his nephew. “Now talk!”
“I… You see…”
“It was the pig,” Charlie said, coming to his rescue. “He gave a pig to Cynthia and it escaped during Mother’s ball.” He glared at his uncle, as if to say that he should have attended his sister’s ball. Marcus put a warning hand on his shoulder.
“The piglet – it really is not very big,” the major said, picking up the thread of the story, “got into the dining room and tried to pull food off the table.” He chuckled.
“A roasted pig head landed on her little head,” the vicar added, “and she could not see where she was going. It had scared her…” He made the pig sound like a sympathetic character, and the earl seemed to melt just a bit.
“She ran into the ballroom,” Charlie said dramatically, “and began knocking over guests!”
“And some of the other guests hit myself and Lady Cynthia,” Owens said apologetically, speaking smoothly for the first time. Marcus smiled at him in encouragement. “And I fell over on top of her. In the ballroom. In front of many people,” he added with a blush.
“If this was just an accident, then,” the earl said jovially, "We should be able to take care of the damage without a wedding!”
All the other gentlemen shook their heads. “It was in front of very many people, Uncle,” the viscount admitted.
“And you did not say anything at the time?” The earl’s already-florid face was taking on a ruddier hue.
“It was too late!” Sir Bart exclaimed. “He was too far away to help cover up any embarrassment, and I did not know what to say.”
“Well, what do you have to say for yourself now?”
“That I wish to marry your daughter for herself, not just her reputation, and I can afford her, as well.”
“Owens has been knighted by the regent,” Marcus interjected.
“What has that to do with any bloody thing?” the earl wondered. “He don’t pay his bills on time! Everybody knows that!”
Surprisingly, Owens nodded in agreement. “He is notoriously late with them. Fortunately, I supply hams to many other people. If you will give me a moment of your time later, my lord, you are more than welcome to come look at the bookkeeping.”
“Squire Owens keeps a ready supply of your favorite whisky,” Marcus whispered in his uncle’s ear.
“Squire? Whisky?” he whispered back. Marcus nodded. “I shall attend to the matter after a meal and a bit of a lie-down,” he told the room at large. Everyone relaxed.
Elsewhere in the house, after the teasing of Amy had died down, Porter returned to the drawing room doors. There were visitors to announce.
“Lady Ffolkes and Miss Blakeley, to see his lordship,” he said somewhat apologetically to Professor Armstrong.
Before the professor could reply, the two women pushed past the butler and into the room.
“Darlings!” Lady Ffolkes cried dramatically, her arms sweeping wide. Then she realized she knew no one assembled. “Oh.”
In the meantime, Amy and Lucy looked at each other in alarm. Cousin Minerva!
Amy put on her company face as the professor stepped forward and introduced himself to Lady Ffolkes.
“I am certain my brother will be available soon, my lady. Will you have a seat and some tea in the meantime?” He sent a quick look to the waiting Porter, who bowed and left the room, leaving the doors open behind him. Whether or not he went to alert Lady Linvale, fetch hot water or both, Amy was not sure.
“And your companion is very welcome, as well,” the professor said kindly, indicating Cousin Minerva. Amy and Lucy exchanged amused smirks.
Miss Blakeley shot her cousins sour looks and took a place next to Lady Ffolkes.
“We were in the neighborhood and thought to pay a call on my dear Linvale,” Lady Ffolkes gushed.
“I am astonished he would remain your friend after you jilted him,” Amy said calmly, taking a slice of cake from a plate in front of her. Everyone but Lady Folkes gasped, and that lady shot daggers at Amy.
“And who are you, pray tell, and what are you doing here?” was the snippy reply.
“Miss Harte. I am a guess of Lady Linvale’s for the holidays.”
“How remiss of me, Lady Ffolkes,” the professor said hastily. “These are the Harte sisters, my cousin, Lady Cynthia Shaw, and my fiancée, Miss Winters.”
Lady Ffolkes ignored everyone except Amy. “So you are Lady Linvale’s guest…” Her tone implied that Amy was nothing to Lord Linvale. Perhaps she was not, but that did not mean Amy was any less welcome in the house. Not anymore.
Lady Linvale took that moment to breeze into the room, a wide smile on her face.
“Lady Ffolkes! How kind of you to call! I am certain you wished to assure yourself that Marcus is getting along just fine without you! I am so happy to report that he is! Splendidly. And you are Miss Blakeley? What a coincidence that you should call with Lady Ffolkes. I was just telling Lionel this morning that you ought to be in Scotland by now. The weather has not been cooperative, has it? So now you are on your way north and wish to bid your family farewell! How exquisitely polite of you!”
A footman entered with a pot of hot water, followed by Porter with more cake.
“Tea time already?” Lady Linvale gave no one else a chance to speak. “You must stay for that. Edward, darling, be a dear and bring me that book on ancient Egypt I was reading this morning. You will find it in the study. Such a sweet son. So devoted to me. And Ellie, of course,” she said once he had left the room. “You have a son now, do you not, Lady Ffolkes?” she queried. That lady shook her head. “No? Any children at all? No? How sad. Children are a blessing. I have five sons, you know, and I am so proud of them all!”
She paused to make tea, but when Amy half rose to leave, gave her such a quelling glare, she sat right back down. She only hoped Lady Linvale knew what she was doing.
“Miss Harte, be a dear and hand around the tea. Lucy, love, pass out the cake.”
All the gentlemen suddenly appeared en masse in the doorway, causing Lucy to squeak and drop the cake plate. Amy was reminded of the night the pig messed up Miss Varton’s gown and was hard pressed not to laugh.
“I understand we have company,” the viscount said smoothly. Coming in, he approached Cousin Minerva. “Miss Blakeley! A pleasure! Did you enjoy the journey?”
“Sussex!” she hissed in reply.
“Did I say that? How forgetful of me. My mother has family in Sussex…”
“Indeed I do!” Lady Linvale interjected. “My sister lives in Brighton. She keeps me notified of all the gossip down there.” She smiled sweetly at Lady Ffolkes, who had been the basis of some of the news. “I vow, she is up on every rig!”
“Uncle, allow me to introduce Lady Ffolkes and Miss Blakeley…” the viscount said and the earl stepped forward. He bowed to Lady Folkes, but he took Cousin Minerva’s hand and kissed it. Lucy giggled. Cousin Minerva goggled at him.
“And my brothers…” He introduced the rest of his family, including Sir Bart and Sir Lionel. The baronet had emerged from the library at the urgings of the professor.
Cousin Minerva seemed on the verge of joining her cousin on a love seat near the fire, but the earl began a conversation with her and she was forced by good manners to reply. Amy felt like giggling, but refrained herself.
The other gentlemen found seating throughout the spacious room and the last to sit was the viscount. To Amy’s surprise, he chose the stool at her feet.
“It was almost like I was watching a play,” Amy confessed to Lucy as they dressed for dinner. Lady Linvale seemed almost possessive of Papa. The earl took a fancy to Cousin Minerva. Lord Linvale…”
“Paid you marked attention, as it should be. You are by far the most beautiful lady in the house and you are also kind, not like Lady Ffolkes. Did she truly jilt Lord Linvale a couple of years ago? And why was Lady Linvale baiting her about children?”
“You noticed that, as well.” Amy sat in front of the dressing table as Lucy lovingly brushed her sister’s hair. They were well aware that the time they could spend together was coming to an end. Lucy was to sail to India with her new husband two days after the wedding, which was to be as soon as the banns were completely called. “It sounds to me as if the lady has failed to provide any children to her husband. What a shame.” She smirked at her sister’s reflection.
“How sad,” Lucy commiserated, winking back. “But what are we to do about Cousin Minerva?”
“Nothing for now, I imagine. I confess I am tired of having to deal with her. Lady Linvale invited her to stay. Lady Ffolkes, too.” They were both a bit confused by that. “It would not surprise me if she has a plan.”
Lucy agreed. “She is very good at plans. She matched the major and myself up before we ever met! And you and…”
“I mean… That is… Well, you never know what might happen.”
“With whom?” Amy’s eyes closed dangerously, even though she was willing her sister to say the correct name.
“With the viscount.” Lucy looked at her sharply when Amy breathed a sigh of relief. “Whom you like!” she squealed. “And might even love!”
“Love,” Amy echoed. She was not replying in the affirmative, or at least thought she was not, but that is how Lucy took her answer.
“Ooooh! Amy is in love!” She hugged her sister tightly and proceeded to sweep all her hair into an elegant chignon. “You have to look extra special this evening. Lady Ffolkes may be married, and she may not be Lord Linvale’s most favorite person, but she is still competition.”
“Lucy…” Amy warned. “This is not a competition.”
“Of course is it. Now, you sit here. I’ll ring for Sally and I know between the two of us and Lady Linvale’s maid we can make you look absolutely perfect!”
Amy looked absolutely perfect, Marcus thought as she came down the stairs for dinner with her sister. Her dark hair was pulled back with just the tiniest of tendrils trailing over her bare shoulders, her gown of peach sarsenet covered in spangly net made her skin glow and she cast her blue eyes downward when he reached for her hand.
“Good evening, Miss Harte. May I say you look lovely this evening?”
“Thank you.” She allowed her hand to linger in his, and he wondered over the development until Miss Lucy cleared her throat and held out a white kid glove for him to bow over.
They went into the drawing room together where everyone else, except for Lady Ffolkes, was already assembled. The earl was once more monopolizing Miss Blakeley, leaving Cynthia to sit with her fiancé without a comment from her father. Marcus rather thought his uncle was resigned to the match, after their discussion earlier that day.
“I hope I am not late for dinner,” Lady Ffolkes said as she made an entrance into the room, an entrance worthy of Cynthia’s earlier days. She looked like a frightful peacock in several different colors that did not quite match. “I was fatigued by the journey and could not wake up!”
“Some people need more beauty sleep than others,” Lady Linvale said soothingly, leading her over to where Robert was pouring sherry for everyone. Porter entered at that moment, and Marcus expected him to announce dinner, but the usually staid butler came in and slammed the doors as if the hounds of hell were behind him.
“Lord Ffolkes has arrived,” he said breathlessly. Lady Ffolkes blanched.
“Well, don’t just stand there, Porter. Show him in!” said Linvale.
“I fear he is not dressed for dinner, my lord.”
Marcus sighed. “We will excuse him that. I suspect he has come to collect his wife, and he is more than welcome to her."
“Linvale!” Lady Ffolkes wailed. “Do I mean that little to you?”
“Yes,” he said succinctly, ignoring the audience they shared, except for one person. She was seated in her usual calm manner, sipping sherry and watching the proceedings with a small smile. He did not need an excitable wife. She was going to be perfect. She already was. “You gave up all rights to me when you married Ffolkes. Is there a specific reason he is here, no doubt wanting my head, if Porter is any indication?”
“I did send him a note telling him where I was headed…” she said in a small voice. “And I might have hinted at a few things.”
“What?” Amy came out of her chair. “You implied that you and Marcus are… That you…” Everyone stared at her, but Lady Linvale was smiling like a cat in the cream pitcher. “How dare you!”
“What is it to you?” Lady Ffolkes demanded.
“You are using the gentleman that I love as a pawn in your petty little games and I want it stopped this instant!”
The Armstrong brothers except Marcus all applauded just as Lord Ffolkes came into the room.
“Linvale! I ought to call you…” He stopped when the applause registered and the fact that there were so many people gathered in what his wife intimated was a love nest. “That is…”
“How do you do, Lord Ffolkes?” Amy stepped forward with her hand out. He took it out of automatic manners, still looking at Marcus. Marcus looked blandly back at him. It seemed that his darling was taking matters into her own hands, and he was perfectly willing to let her. Especially after such a confession.
“I am Miss Harte. I am so pleased you are here to collect your wife. She is causing some trouble and I believe it is time she went home. Spend some time with her, my lord. Give her a few children to worry over. Have her open the county fair. But please, keep her at home, will you not?”
“I, er, actually… Claire!” he said sternly to his wife. “You are leaving with me right now.”
“But my clothes are upstairs! I’ve been invited to stay! I am dressed for dinner!”
“You may have your clothes sent on. We are leaving. We will spend the evening in our London house, where you have plenty of clothes.”
Lady Ffolkes stood up, but she did not budge. Marcus watched as Rosebud slipped into the room, came around behind the lady and bumped into her legs, sending her sprawling forward into her husband’s arms.
“That is more the thing,” he said gruffly. “Shall we?” he asked his wife politely, although no one could mistake his determination. They left together, Rosebud trailing behind them as if to make sure they were gone. One down, and he was content to let Miss Blakeley stay, as long as the earl was interested. It was a bit too convenient a solution, but he was not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Or a gift pig, for that matter.
Porter returned moments later with a rare smile. “Dinner is served.”
Amy wanted the floor to open up and suck her in, so she did not have to face Marcus. What he must think of her declaration! She got through dinner well enough, having been placed toward the center of the table. It appeared that the newly engaged ladies were to be given the best seats, a fact she did not mind at all. It was a surprise that she should be so at ease here at Linvale Hall now, when everything seemed to be a slight when she first arrived. She snuck a peek at Linvale, but he was smiling and listening to Lucy relate some tale or other.
Afterwards, when the ladies went to the drawing room together, Lady Cynthia held her back a moment.
“Miss Harte… I have been a horrid person to you and I wish to apologize. And no one is making me say that either!” she said somewhat proudly.
“It is all right, Lady Cynthia. May I wish you ever happiness in the future?” Amy was too nice a person to hold a grudge for very long, and Lady Cynthia seemed to improve every time she saw her.
“Thank you. I think I am going to be very happy,” the other girl said brightly and continued on to the drawing room. Amy was about to follow when Lord Linvale called her name.
“A word with you, please?” he asked. She nodded, but was afraid to face him, and stared at their feet as he led her where she knew not. It was into his study. She would have preferred the conservatory, but that seemed to be the exclusive territory of Lucy and her major. It was too cold for the terrace, she surmised.
“Yes?” she asked when he had closed the door.
“You said something interesting earlier this evening, when defending me so well to Lord Ffolkes.”
“You thought it was interesting?” Amy looked up for the first time.
“More than interesting. I found it delightful. Amazing.”
“Amazing?” She was more hopeful by the minute. “You did not mind?”
“How can I say I am perfectly capable of defending myself when I have such a lovely champion?” She found him suddenly by her side, holding her hand in his. He lifted it to his lips. “If you were completely honest about your admission…”
“I was! I am!” This was definitely going well.
“Then I have a confession of my own. I love you, Amelia Harte. Will you join the growing number of Hartes wishing to align themselves with my family?”
Amy frowned. “Growing? Lucy…”
“Is not the only one interested in Armstrongs. Your father approached me right before dinner with a request to court my mother.”
Amy laughed. “I am surprised!”
“As am I! It seems that while we have all been playing our own games of courtship, so has she – by making herself indispensable to his work. She has been a capable secretary, and even shares his interest.”
“Even my mother did not do that,” she said in wonder. “It seems I am the last in line, then. But I was going to accept at any rate,” she said with a shy smile. It seemed a kiss from the viscount was to be her only answer.
Two weeks later, Edward Armstrong and Elinor Winters wed in the old chapel at Linvale Manor, followed in a week by Sir Bart Owens and Lady Cynthia Shaw. After a sennight, there was a triple ceremony in the village church, the chapel deemed too small to accommodate those wishing to see Major Armstrong take Miss Lucy Harte to wife, for Lady Linvale and Sir Lionel Harte to tie the knot and Viscount Linvale and Miss Harte to be leg-shackled for life. All five weddings were presided over by the Rev. Thomas Armstrong.
Several of the brides, not worried about Charlie Armstrong’s future, began to worry about the vicar. He should be accorded the domestic felicity they were going to strive for in their own lives. But his love life will have to wait for another story…