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Emma Capehart sat staring glumly at the letter before her. She had been receiving threatening letters for the past eighteen months; now the ax had fallen. She had read it till the words were engraved on her mind, her spirits sinking lower at each perusal.
Dear Lady Capehart--Emma: (Papa was impressed by the late Sir John's baronetcy and insisted on using that "Lady.")
Now that you are out of mourning and will be gradually returning into Society, we can no longer put off finding you a more reliable chaperone than Miss Foxworth. You are still too young, at two and twenty, to manage your own affairs, and I fear that Miss Foxworth will be but little help to you. Your aunt Hildegarde has kindly agreed to remove to Whitehern to stay with you until you have made another match. I need hardly say this is a grave imposition on her goodwill, and indeed she will be sorely missed at home.
She will require a week's time to prepare. Let us know when it will be convenient for you to send your carriage for her. See that you give her a room without drafts--her rheumatism is at her again. You will speak to your housekeeper about your aunt's diet. Any sort of pork is slow poison to her.
Two closely written sheets outlined the arrangements that must be made to harbor Aunt Hildegarde. Emma paid little heed to any of them. She was determined not to have this Tartar foisted on her. Hildegarde Milmont had made life a hell at home for seventeen years. The best part of marrying John had been escaping her. Perhaps that was why she had married him....
At times Emma felt guilty for not grieving her late husband's death more deeply. She had loved John, hadn't she? Yet there was nodenying that once she had overcome the initial shock of his passing, she had felt something akin to relief. How could it be possible? The happiest years of her life were those since marrying John. But she had soon sensed something lacking--some passion, or romance. John had been a good deal older than she, of course. She had never had any other beaux to compare him with.
Since his death she had enjoyed being her own mistress, ordering the house and meals to her own whim. She had been looking forward to the greater freedom of dinner parties and assemblies and beaux when her mourning period was up.
And now the fateful letter had arrived. She knew as surely as she knew her own name that Aunt Hildegarde would come and deprive her of those treats. She would arrive with her possets and shawls, her pills and tisanes, and turn the house into a hospital. One was tempted to say Hildegard enjoyed ill health, but it wasn't true. She didn't enjoy anything except nagging.
No parti would pass muster with Hildegarde, if he were pleasing to Emma. From the bishop of Canterbury to the Prince Regent, the inhabitants of this world were just not up to Hildegarde's high standards. It was odd that this misanthrope should be so determined to see the human race perpetuated; yet the one thing that brought a light to her faded eyes was making matches and having those matches bear fruit. What a husband Hildegarde would choose for her! Some teetotaling complainer like herself.
Emma looked around the handsome Blue Saloon, furnished in expensive good taste, and sighed as her mind roved over the recent past. John had come to visit relatives near her home in Wiltshire. He had seen her in church, arranged an introduction the next day, fallen in love with her, and married her within three months.
Not even Hildegarde could find a fault in him. Indeed, there was no fault to find. John was as near perfect as a man could be. So why had the joy faded from their marriage? Perhaps if she had had a child her life would have been fuller.
But even if she'd had children, Papa would have insisted she have a strict chaperone after John's death. The only way of escaping it was to find another husband at once. Where would she find such another jewel as John? He gave her whatever she wanted--nothing was too extravagant for his Emma. More gowns and bonnets and jewelry than she had ever had in her whole life. The only thing he denied her was the thing she craved most--a Season in London.
Her family had no connections there who could introduce her to the ton. John's relatives were older aunts, who did not go into Society. What she required, then, was a husband who spent the Season in London. One gentleman was at the top of her list--her neighbor and John's good friend, Nicholas Arden, Lord Hansard, of Waterdown Hall. He and Emma had carried on an innocent flirtation from the first day they met.
"You have shown us all the way, John," he had said, taking Emma's hand and lifting it to his lips. It was the first time a gentleman had ever done that to Emma. She had been shocked, and thrilled to the marrow of her bones. "Where are the rest of us to find such a jewel as your Emma?"
Nick played the gallant at the local balls, always making a point of standing up with her for the waltzes. John did not waltz. When Nick went up to London, he brought back the latest novels and magazines to her. She felt fairly sure he would offer for her, now that she was free.
What she had not decided was whether she would accept him. He was handsome and gallant, and of course wealthy. It would be a great match in every way. Even Hildegarde, who shared her brother's love of a title, would not find much wrong with it. But then Hildegarde didn't know about Mrs. Pettigrew. Emma had already decided she would insist Nick turn off his mistress if she married him.
The greatest hurdle was the timing of his offer. If she could get a proposal from him very soon, she could write to Papa that she had received an unexceptionable offer. An offer from Lord Hansard would obviate inconveniencing Hildegarde, who disliked travel. Papa wrote the truth when he said that her coming was a duty and a sacrifice. And Lord Hansard's offer need not be accepted....
Nicholas was stopping by that very evening to bring her some silk from London. How she looked forward to putting off her mourning gowns! Papa had insisted on black for the entire eighteen months. To switch to half mourning after twelve months would have been an insult not only to John, but to God. Perhaps Nick would offer for her this very evening, now that her mourning period was over.
Her woolgathering was interrupted by Miss Foxworth.
"What has your papa to say, Emma?" she asked, lifting her eyes from her novel. They were faded blue eyes, set in a pale face, surrounded by rusty hair bound up in an unbecoming lace cap. Miss Foxworth was a poor relation of John's from the neighborhood. She had removed to Whitehern at the time of John's death. At fifty years, Miriam Foxworth had given up any notion of elegance. She lived in a wonderful make-believe world of put-upon heroines, wicked villains, and heroes who made all right in the end.
"He wants Aunt Hildegarde to come to stay with me," Emma said.
"Oh dear! She is the one you don't care for, is she not?"
"She is very strict."
"Pity." Even as Miss Foxworth spoke, her eyes returned to the page. She looked up again, a frown puckering her brow. "Will she want me to leave? So kind of you to have me. Of course, I could always go back to Cousin Millicent and George." These cousins did not live in such high style as Lady Capehart.
"Of course you must stay," Emma said.
Miss Foxworth resumed her reading, and Emma went back to her planning. Emma's besetting sin was impetuosity. Within the twinkling of a bedpost, she had decided she must wring an offer from Nicholas tonight when he called. She rose suddenly, her mind made up.
"I'm going upstairs, Miss Foxworth. Call me when Lord Hansard arrives."
"Very well, dear," Miss Foxworth replied, without looking up.
Emma darted abovestairs to prepare a toilette to seduce Lord Hansard into an offer of marriage. She had not yet taken her colored gowns out of camphor. She regretted that she was still wearing black, yet it was becoming to her.
For evening wear she had chosen a gown cut low enough at the bodice to be fashionable without being indiscreet. It clung to the graceful curves of her lithe young body and provided a dramatic contrast to her creamy complexion. Her hair was as black as her gown and of the same silken texture. Lamplight brought a flicker of iridescence to the smooth waves drawn back from a high forehead. Her wide-set eyes were the stormy gray-green of the Atlantic on an overcast day and looked as bottomless.
The severity of black hair and gray eyes was lightened by a small nose, slightly retroussé to give her an insouciant air. A set of full lips added a touch of the coquette.
It had come as a surprise to Emma to hear from John that she was beautiful. Aunt Hildegarde had convinced her she had a "common" look, by which she meant, perhaps, that Emma was attractive to gentlemen. Nicholas had certainly seemed to think so. His attentions had not diminished at John's death, but they had changed subtly in character. He was too well-bred to flirt with a grieving widow. He had come as often as before to offer his assistance in estate matters.
Emma, having gone at seventeen years directly from her papa's home to her husband's, was a perfect greenhead in some areas. She hardly knew what procedure should be followed when she made a new match. As she was a widow, would the offer come directly to herself?
Miss Foxworth was nominally her chaperon, but Nicholas knew that Emma ruled the roost. She didn't want Nicholas to confer with her papa on the engagement. That would lend it a seriousness and certainty she wanted to avoid. Hildegarde would rush the news directly to the journals. A private understanding between Nick and herself was what Emma wanted. Then if it broke down, it could be kept a secret from the locals. She would tell Papa she was considering the offer. Letters might be exchanged for months on such a weighty matter.
But first she had to get her offer. If he didn't come up to scratch, could she not suggest it herself? It was not unusual for a lady's papa or guardian to suggest a match to an eligible gentleman. With no papa at hand, who else could do it but herself? As these thoughts ran through her mind, there was a tap at the door. Mary, the downstairs maid, peeped in.
"Lord Hansard is belowstairs, ma'am," she said.
"Thank you, Mary."
Emma set down her brush and gave herself a last look in the mirror. Her eyes glowed with excitement at the daring of her plan. A rosy flush bloomed on her cheeks as she lifted the perfume bottle and dabbed the stopper behind her ears. Then she took up a cashmere shawl and went down to meet Lord Hansard.