Read an Excerpt
Cat Mansard stifled an irritated sigh as her cousin held up one more piece of lacy finery for her admiration. Weddings and trousseaux were not terribly interesting, she reflected, particularly if they were not one's own. Cat was certainly not jealous of her cousin's good fortune. As far as she was concerned, Cecily was welcome to John Winters and his fortune. John was wealthy, handsome, kind ... and altogether dull. Fortunately, however, he made an ideal match for Cecily Keating: she was terribly pretty and sweet, but no prodigy. On the other hand, those who knew Catherine Mansard had pronounced her temper uncertain, her manners unconventional, and her sharp wit somewhat daunting in a woman.
"You will have a Season in London, of course," Cecily was saying, "and before long I shall know scores of people to whom I can introduce you, and they will help us find an eligible bachelor for you."
"Not likely," returned Cat, smoothing the folds of a delicate ecru nightgown. "In the first place, I've no intention of throwing in my lot with that artificial game they call the London Season. Why they do not call it 'daughters on the auction block' and have done with it, I cannot guess. And second, it is hardly likely that anyone would assist a new acquaintance in search of introductions, for there is not a person on the globe who isn't sharp on the lookout for husbands for their own eight or nine deserving nieces or cousins. Besides, Cecily, those who are eligible have turned out to be such fools! Remember Bath?! Great heavens, I vow I thought I'd perish if we had to spend another week breathing the same air as those foppish buffoons."
"You judged them too harshly, Cat. We metsome perfectly agreeable young men in Bath. After all, I met John in Bath! You scared them off with all of your books and quotations--not to mention the occasional fit of bad temper! I vow there must be nothing you like better than to shock an entire room into silence." Cecily shook her golden curls and posed in front of the mirror with her wedding veil before turning to face her cousin accusingly. "If you're not careful, Cat Mansard, you'll live out your days as the Spinster of Sparrowell Hall."
"There are worse things than spinsterhood," Cat remarked as she looked at their two reflections in the mirror, her own dark features and angular face contrasting sharply with Cecily's golden, more rounded beauty. "I have no intention of playing predator or victim in London or anywhere else. I've got sufficient fortune to last me two lifetimes, and a well-stocked library besides. I shall leave them both to your future children, of course, so it's in your best interests to leave me in the country with none but Parson Tweedle for temptation. I shall be very happy, very eccentric and, above all, mistress of my fate!"
"Gammon!" Cecily exclaimed. "I pray you do not take me for a brainless bumble, Cat. There is not a female in the world who does not long for love, and you, I warrant, are no exception, for all you wish to appear so!" Then, she smiled at Cat with a mysterious expression, "I have quite different plans for you, my dear. Before you know it, I shall have you following me down the aisle!"
What on earth was Cecily up to now? She had tried her hand at matchmaking before, always with disastrous results. Cat grimaced at the memory of several well-intentioned, bland young men who had retreated from her unconventional behavior and conversation in hasty confusion. But before Cat could pursue Cecily's comment further, they were interrupted by a knock at the door as Felicia, who had served as the girls' maid for the last three years, breezed into the chamber with a perfunctory curtsy.
"Miss Cat, there's Mr. Snagworth downstairs to see you about some estate business as your uncle's not in. He's waiting for you in the library."
Casting her cousin a warning look, Cat availed herself of this opportunity to escape further perusal of the wedding finery. Outside the door, she was met with an enthusiastic greeting from her Aberdeen terriers, Caesar and Brutus, who had been scratching and whining at the chamber door with admirable persistence for the last half hour. The two mischievous villains had been banished from Cecily's chamber after having wrought havoc with her trousseau on at least one occasion.
Cat had found their antics exceedingly amusing; this afternoon, however, she noted the tears of frustration rising in her cousin's eyes as the dogs burrowed their wet noses into a stack of lavender-scented linens. Reluctantly, their mistress had shooed them out. Now, they bounced energetically about her feet as she made her way down the magnificent central staircase past the portraits of her ancestors, all of whom seemed to be frowning at her with decided disdain. She had a good idea what they would be thinking, were they alive. A young lady meeting with the estate manager! Most indecorous! She smiled and flounced past them.
Entering the library, Cat looked about her. There was no sign of Snagworth, but perhaps he had stepped out to enjoy the brightness of the day. The French doors to the adjoining walled garden were open, letting in the sunshine and scent of new roses. The library was Cat's favorite room, not only because of its beauty, rich with Oriental carpets and mahogany shelves lined with well-loved volumes. This was the room in which Cat had spent so many quiet hours with her grandmother, healing the wound of her parents' untimely deaths when Cat was ten.
Gran had undertaken Cat's rearing with enthusiasm and imagination. Although she had loved her son and daughter-in-law, she had always found them desperately conventional and did all she could to foster a sense of social responsibility and intellectual curiosity in her granddaughter. Together, Cat and Gran had read and talked about books and issues of the day. "Don't hide your brains," Gran had told her often. "A man who's worth anything wants a woman with a brain, not a simpering smile. Your grandfather did."
Those years with Gran had been all too short, however. When Gran died five years later, Cat wondered if the void left by her death could ever be filled. Of course, Uncle Martin and Aunt Leah had come to Sparrowell Hall to be with Cat and direct the affairs of the estate. They were good people, pleasant people, who had gallantly shouldered the task of reining in their unpredictable, outspoken niece. She and her cousin Cecily had become fast friends as well, but the moods and tirades that Gran had understood and smoothed over often left Cat's other relations in puzzled silence. After several fruitless months, they had philosophically and wearily given up their endeavors. During the years that followed, they had found several opportunities to be thankful that Cat had sufficient fortune and beauty to offset her liabilities when the time came for her to marry. All things considered, however, the five years until Cat attained her majority had provided them with more joy than sorrow.
Cecily's forthcoming marriage coincided neatly with Cat's coming of age. She would celebrate her twentieth birthday at the end of the week, come into her inheritance, and Aunt Lean and Uncle Martin, now suddenly relieved of their responsibilities, looked forward anxiously to the time when they could return to their own small estate in the Lake District. When Cat had announced several months earlier that she neither wanted nor needed their help in running the estate, she had met with embarrassingly little protest from her guardians. Immediately, Uncle Martin had taken pains to acquaint her with the duties she would soon assume. Indeed, ever since her announcement, both he and her aunt had worn the look of prisoners who couldn't quite believe the good fortune of a sudden and early reprieve.
Before agreeing to the plan, however, her guardians had insisted that Cat introduce some sort of older, reliable companion to Sparrowell for the sake of propriety. This was easily acceded to, for, while Cat looked forward to her independence, she did not really wish for the isolation she would be forced to endure without such companionship. Without proper chaperonage, even Cat recognized that, as an unmarried lady of position, she could neither call nor undertake visits of any length. Hence, Cat considered herself fortunate indeed in being able to convince her former governess, Miss Eveline Bartlett, to undertake the role of companion. While Cat had been the guilty author of the few moments of anger Miss Bartlett had experienced in life, Cat had always sensed a sympathy between them and hoped they could be friends.
Cat made her way through the library and looked out into the little garden. There, behind a camellia bush, she spied Snagworth engaged in some curious, and obviously covert, activity by the wall. "Snagworth!" she called out. "Whatever are you about?"
"Eh, what's that?!" he stammered, brushing his hands off on his waistcoat as he stepped into the sunlight. He was a bent little man whose red face bespoke an appetite for spirits, but a good manager by all accounts. "Ah, Miss Catherine, you're a prompt one, ain't you! Not like some young folks who'd leave a poor auld man waiting. Well, you ask yourself," he laughed nervously, "'what's auld Snagworth doing in the garden?' Well, you're a sharp one indeed and caught me at a little act of charity. Feeding the squirrels, I was. Squirrels are very dear creatures, ain't they? Nature's little gift, I always say."
Cat looked at him closely. Uncle Martin had always spoken highly of Snagworth and vowed the man had proved his worth many times in the two years since he had been engaged, but this sudden interest in the well-being of squirrels took her aback. Dear creatures indeed! Only a month ago, she had heard him refer to squirrels as vermin. "Rats with bushy tails," he had called them. Whatever could be behind this turn around, she wondered?
"Well, Miss Catherine, just a few estate items, just a few papers for you to sign, as your uncle's engaged. Nothing difficult. I won't be taking you from the wedding plans for long. I know how this business turns a girl's head. And soon we'll be hearing the same sweet bells for you. Never a doubt about it."
If Snagworth had been dealing with her longer, Cat thought, he would have known the folly of his words. Thus far, however, his dealings had been almost entirely with Uncle Martin. Lately, she had gradually begun to assume responsibility, but Uncle Martin's pacifying presence had helped her to hold her temper in check. Once her guardians had made their departure, Snagworth would learn about her quickly enough. She smiled as she envisioned the scene. Cat glanced quickly over the documents, a purchase of supplies and a change of tenancy for one of the families who farmed on the estate. Nothing of any consequence, she thought as she signed.
"Well done, well done," chortled Snagworth condescendingly, rocking back and forth on his heels and smiling. "We'll get on just fine then, Miss Catherine. There'll be no problems with the estate at all. Just trust auld Snagworth and all will be well. All will be well indeed."
So, Cat sniffed to herself, Snagworth thought it was a fine accomplishment for a woman to be able to sign a few papers? She could hardly wait to see his surprise when he discovered that, after the to-do surrounding Cecily's wedding subsided, she intended to sit down with him and go over all of the estate books in detail, no matter how long it took. This news could wait, however. As Snagworth took his leave, bowing his way out of the room, Cat indulged in the uncharitable pleasure of imagining the discomfiture he would meet in the next several weeks.
The thousand-odd last minute preparations for the next day's nuptials went late into the evening and it was with gratitude that Cat finally curled into the crisp lavender scent of her feather bed. Sleep did not come immediately, but when it did, her dreams were disconcerting, plagued with visions of Snagworth kneeling before her saying, "Ah, Miss Catherine, my dearest love, say you'll be mine and I'll dress you from head to toe in the softest of squirrel skins." In her sleep, Cat shuddered, frowned, and turned over.