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“Mama, it is more than a year since Papa passed away. I believe we could attend the assembly at Stenning without causing a scandal.” Lydia reached out and squeezed her mother’s hand. “A ball is exactly what we both need before the arrival of Uncle Edward next week. I wish he was not coming for I am not overly fond of him.”
Her mother smiled. “My love, my brother-in-law is a perfectly pleasant gentleman; I cannot think why you have taken him in such dislike. He cannot be blamed for inheriting the title from father, and, as far as I’m aware he has no intention of interfering with our lives in any way. Ravenscroft remains mine for my lifetime, as does the interest from the trust fund and income from the estate. Also your inheritance is substantial and kept quite separate from the estate funds.”
“I know that, Mama, so why does he wish to come here at all? After all he came to the funeral, surely that’s enough? Papa and he were not close, were they?”
Her mother fiddled with the buttons on her sleeve before answering. “They had a falling out many years ago, before you were born. I expect he wishes he had made his peace with his brother before your papa was taken ill.”
Lydia jumped up, shook out the creases from her morning gown, and prepared to depart. “In which case I shall say no more about it, and make an effort to welcome him as the future owner of my home and the head of the household.” Her mother was obviously ready to forgive and forget, so she must do the same.
“Have we purchased tickets for the assembly, my dear? I do hope it is not already oversubscribed – I can see you have quite set your heart on going.”
“I sent Jenny into town two days ago. All we have to decide is what we are going to wear. It seems an age since either of us was wearing anything but black and lavender.”
“We are fortunate, my love, that gowns still have a high waist.” She laughed. “Imagine having to wear a ball gown that was outmoded!”
“You could not be out of fashion if you tried, Mama. You look more like my sister than my parent. Indeed, your hair is as golden as it always was and I swear you have hardly any more wrinkles than I.”
“Despite my great age, do you mean? Remember, darling girl, I was a child bride and you were born less than a year after I was wed.”
Lydia returned and dropping to her knees, embraced her mother. “I love you, Mama, I meant no disrespect.” She scrambled up and shook her head. “If I was as beautiful as you, I expect I should already be married myself.”
“My dear, do not fish for compliments. Although your hair is brown, your eyes are fine and your figure exemplary. You are a beautiful young lady and well you know it. If you had been able to make your come out two years ago you might well have been a mother by now.”
“Good grief! That is a sobering thought, Mama. However, as you only managed to produce me in seventeen years of marriage, I might not be obliged to bear a child so soon or as frequently as some of your friends.”
“This is not a suitable conversation, Lydia, for an unmarried girl. I am shocked by your lack of decorum. Lady Alice is not a good influence on you, I fear. She is a flighty young miss and it is high time her father stepped in and found her a serious husband.”
“We have decided not to accept any offer of matrimony before we reach our majority – therefore we have a further two years to enjoy our freedom.” Lydia headed for the drawing room door determined to escape before her mother would take issue with her outrageous statement.
She hurried across the spacious vestibule and almost ran up the stairs. Alice had promised to visit this afternoon and help with the selection of her ensemble. Her friend was also an only daughter, but not an only child as she had three much older brothers. The earl and his countess had been surprised, but delighted, at the unexpected arrival of a girl after a gap of ten years. Consequently Alice had grown up petted and spoilt by her adoring family.
Whatever the reasons for Alice’s somewhat wild behaviour, Lydia loved her dearly and did her best to restrain the worst of her excesses. She smiled as she recalled the almost elopement two years ago – she had been obliged to lock her friend in a closet to prevent her creeping out to meet her erstwhile husband. The young man in question had been an impecunious younger son, harmless enough, but quite unsuitable for Alice.
The autumn sun flooded into her parlour making the highly polished furniture glow and the crystal drops in the small chandelier sparkle. She headed for her bedchamber and called out to her maid. “Jenny, what have you found for me? Do I have anything suitable for the assembly?”
The girl appeared from the dressing room her arms full of gowns. “You have four, Miss Lydia, that might do. I can soon add a ruffle or two if you want me to copy the latest fashion plates in La Belle Assemblée.”
“I cannot abide frills so intend to ignore that trend.” Jenny draped the garments across the bed. “I had forgotten I had so many to choose from.”
She picked up an evening dress in the finest forget-me-not blue tulle. “I have never worn this one, Jenny. It is perfect – the neckline is not too daring and the little blue flowers set it off perfectly. I believe I have gloves, slippers, reticule and fan to match.”
“And you have the sapphire parure left to you by your grandmother, Lady Richmond,” Jenny said.
“I think sapphires would be too much for a local ball, Jenny. Perhaps I can find ribbon to match the forget-me-nots around the hem and neck and thread it through my hair? I’m almost certain Miss Maidstone said she was expecting a new delivery of haberdashery last week.”
Lydia looked at the mantel clock. There was ample time to walk into the village and make a purchase and still be home in time for her friend’s visit. “Jenny, please find my walking boots. We shall go at once and buy the ribbon we need.”
The walk to the village was no more than a mile and was accomplished without mishap. The pavements were busy with like-minded shoppers. There was a small gathering of excited young ladies standing in front of the assembly hall. Lydia hurried over to see what all the commotion was about.
One of the group, the cherries on her bonnet bobbing dangerously, rushed over to greet her. “Miss Richmond, have you heard the news? A cavalry regiment is to be billeted in the empty barracks at Weeley. Imagine that! Our very own regiment of officers close by.”
“Miss Collins, how very exciting. I wonder if they will be in residence in time to attend the assembly ball next week?”
The young ladies exclaimed in delight at the thought of having a surplus of handsome young men to dance with instead of the usual, lacklustre local gentlemen.
Another girl clapped her hands and spun, sending the skirt of her pastel green muslin swirling, and revealing more of her ankles than was seemly. “Do you have tickets, Miss Richmond?”
“I do indeed, Miss Rushton. I was already eagerly anticipating the event, but now I’m almost beside myself.” Lydia put on a suitably excited expression. These girls were not close friends, mere acquaintances, the daughters of local gentry, and did not move in the same stifling atmosphere as herself and Alice. They had no maids in attendance and were allowed to come and go from their homes as they pleased. She wished she was allowed such freedom.
“I wonder if the duke will favour us with an appearance. Mama told me he has a house party at the moment – some gentlemen and their ladies down for the shooting. Do tell us, Miss Richmond, if they are to come.” The speaker, a pretty girl in a pink striped walking dress, clutched her bosom and stared starry eyed at Lydia.
The gathering completely blocked the pathway and a disgruntled matron clucked and tutted as she was obliged to step into the street in order to pass by.
“I am not privy to the movements of the Duke of Stenning. He is our neighbour and was a friend of my father’s. I don’t believe I’ve spoken to him this past two months.” She shook her head. “And anyway, I don’t believe he has ever attended an assembly ball, so why should he do so now?”
A sigh of disappointment rippled around the circle but then Miss Collins, ever a pragmatist, laughed gaily. “He is way above our touch, but we shall have a dozen or more officers to dance with. There’s nothing I like better than a military gentleman.”
“Pray excuse me, ladies, I have still to go to the haberdashers and must hurry as I’m expecting a visitor this afternoon.”
The girls politely stepped aside allowing Lydia and Jenny to pass. The babble of their chatter followed her into the cool interior of the shop. There were three customers being attended to by smartly dressed assistants but there was no sign of the proprietor. However, Miss Maidstone emerged immediately and greeted Lydia with a small curtsy and a smile.
“Good morning, Miss Richmond, how can I help you today?”
Less than twenty minutes later Lydia was on her way home delighted to have found an exact match for the forget-me-nots sewn to her ball gown. She nodded and smiled at several acquaintances that didn’t stop to pass the time of day. Fortunately the gaggle of girls and moved elsewhere, no doubt to discuss at length the arrival of the regiment.
Usually she chatted to Jenny when they were out together, but today she wished to mull over something that had been said to her earlier. When she had denied speaking to the duke, she had told a falsehood. His grace visited at least once a week, usually to impart some local news to her mother or offer advice on her investments. Although she was usually present, she rarely spoke directly to him herself.
He was nearer her mother’s age than hers, and although scrupulously polite and unfailingly charming, she found him unnerving and difficult to converse with. He was – he was a formidable man. He stood more than two yards high and his shoulders were extremely broad. He wore his dark hair short, an uncompromising style which suited his demeanour. He treated her more as a child than a woman grown and she was grateful for this. Being teased and talked down to meant she was not expected to join in the conversation and thus show her ignorance of adult matters.
Her lips curved as she recalled the last time they had met. He had ridden over on his latest acquisition, a magnificent bay stallion, and had invited her to give an opinion on the animal. She had been about to go inside after a brisk walk around the lake. Her face had been hot, her hem mired and her boots muddy – hardly an appealing sight. She had mumbled something complimentary and scuttled in like a frightened rabbit. His laughter had followed her and she didn’t blame him one jot for finding her a figure of fun.
On her return she ran upstairs to remove her gloves and bonnet and replace her walking boots with indoor slippers before hurrying down to the drawing room to share the exciting news. She burst in only to find her mother was not alone.
The duke stood and greeted her affectionately. “Miss Richmond, what a delightful surprise. I understood from her ladyship that you had gone to the village.” His expression was bland but she could see amusement dancing in his eyes.
“I am back now, your grace…” She faltered and her cheeks suffused with colour. Why was it she always sounded like a pea goose when speaking to him?
“Indeed you are, my dear, and looking quite delightful too.” He raised an eyebrow and glanced at a sofa reminding her etiquette demanded he remain on his feet until she was seated. Drat the man!
Ignoring his comment she dropped beside her mother intending to tell her the good news. “Mama, you will never guess what I was told in the village.”
“Lydia, my love, your news must wait. We have far more pressing matters to discuss.”
What could possibly be more important than the arrival of the cavalry regiment? She bit back her pert reply and tried to look interested. “Yes, Mama, what is it you wish to tell me that also involves our guest?”
She risked a glance in his direction and wished she hadn’t. He was not impressed by her comment.
“The duke’s sister, Lady Margaret Dunwoody, has offered to bring you out. Is that not kind of her? With your dear papa so recently deceased I cannot face the hustle and bustle of Town at the moment, so without this help you would not get your season at all.”
“Thank you, sir, I do appreciate Lady Margaret offering to sponsor me in March. However, I have no wish to leave my mother to gad about in London. Having attended several informal parties this summer, I believe that I can be considered out already.”
Who was the more astonished by her statement was hard to tell. Her mother was rendered speechless and the duke’s eyes widened in shock. He recovered first.
“Stuff and nonsense! Lady Richmond will manage perfectly well in your absence as well you know. All young ladies want to have a season in Town. You are no different—”
Lydia was on her feet incensed by his assumption that he knew her motives. “I beg your pardon, your grace, but I disagree. You have no right to dictate my movements for you are not a member of my family.” She glared at him and he glared right back. “Lord Richmond is arriving next week to take up his responsibilities as head of the household and my legal guardian. It is to him that I shall defer and not to—”
A choking sound coming from the sofa gave her pause. Her mother was about to explode. Lydia had never seen her parent so angry. Not waiting for the tirade to descend on her head she headed rapidly for the open door. Her heart was hammering against her ribs. She could scarcely breathe. What could have possessed her to speak so intemperately?
Mama would have her return if she could find her. Therefore she would not go to her apartment but hide in the maze until the coast was clear. She hurtled through the house and out through the garden-room and on to the terrace that ran around the south side of the building.
She was gasping for breath when she catapulted into the welcome darkness of the ancient maze. There was a small summer house in the centre where she could wait out the storm in comfort. She had played in this place so often as a child that she could instinctively find her way in any direction and had no recourse to take the flag from the stand in with her. Strangers were advised to wave this when they became hopelessly lost amidst the greenery.
The sun no longer shone into the maze and the summer house was not as welcoming as she had hoped. She wished she’d had the forethought to collect a wrap before she’d dashed out here. Mama should have calmed down within half an hour – surely she could sit here comfortably for such a short period of time? She was in the process of brushing off the debris from the wooden seat when there was a slight noise behind her.
She turned expecting to find a squirrel or a bird. Instead the duke stood there. He did not look at all friendly. “Your grace, what are you doing here? Did my mother send you to ring a peal over me?”
He stepped forward and loomed over her. “No, Miss Richmond, I am here on my own business.” He gestured to the bench. “Shall we be seated?”
Feeling decidedly foolish, Lydia squashed herself in the farthest corner praying he would leave a suitable gap between them. “I apologise if I offended you, sir, but—”
“You offended your mother, young lady, which is far more serious. In my opinion you have been overindulged and it is high time someone took you in hand.”
She stiffened and pressed her back hard against the wall. “How I behave is none of your concern, sir. I have a perfectly satisfactory guardian who is quite content with my behaviour.” This was the second time she had referred to her uncle in this way – no doubt he would be surprised to discover he was expected to take an active role in her life. Mama had insisted, after the funeral, that there was no need for any interference from him.
The duke stretched out his long legs and examined the toes of his immaculate Hessians for non-existent dust. The silence stretched. Why didn’t the wretched man say something? Then he swivelled and pinned her with his arctic blue gaze.
“Miss Richmond, my sister offered to sponsor you out of the kindness of heart. She has her own progeny to launch but was prepared to give up her valuable time on your behalf. Yet you chose to toss it back as if of no importance.” He paused and Lydia wondered if she was expected to comment. He frowned and she drew breath to speak but reconsidered.
“Why in God’s name would you turn down an offer any debutante in the land would be thrilled to have?”