Read an Excerpt
Fate, Drusilla decided with rising anticipation, was being extremely kind. She listened to her mother read the contents of the letter from her old school friend. It seemed that Mama's connection from so long ago, now holding the impressive title of Marchioness of Brentford, was in need of a companion while she recovered from an illness.
They were seated in the cozy morning room, gathered before the fire. Drusilla perched on the wing chair, eagerly waiting to hear what came next.
"It seems you are needed, my dear," Mrs. Herbert said in surprised accents, staring at her fourth daughter in delight. "She recalled my mentioning you girls and hopes I should be able to spare you, Drusilla, for a time. Not just anyone would do, you see. I must have remarked on what an excellent manager you have become."
Drusilla tamped down her excitement when she faced reality. "But if I were to go, that would leave you with only Tabitha for company. Other than Father, of course." Papa was not around all that much;
his duties as rector of the parish kept him much occupied when he wasn't composing learned treatises on some obscure point of religion.
"The other girls are bound to return home at one point or another. My, this has been an eventful March." Mrs. Herbert stared off into space a few moments before turning her attention to Drusilla, offering her a fond look.
Then Mrs. Herbert frowned, and Drusilla wondered what nasty thing was to interfere. Of course, this request was bound to be too good to be true. Her heart plunged to her toes with the thought that she had high hopes only to find them dashed.
"There is, of course, the matter of her ladyship's son," Mrs.Herbert said. "She has in past letters bemoaned his unwillingness to marry and the wild life he leads in London, pursuing women and in general appearing to think life is one long lark. Fortunately, he would not be apt to be at their country residence, so you would be safe from any attentions he might send your way."
Drusilla thought the prospect of attentions from a London buck to a prim girl from the rectory highly unlikely. Not wishing to disillusion her mother on this score, she kept silent about any prospects, scandalous or otherwise.
"Since your sister Nympha sent us that marvelous package of lace, we should be able to create some very nice gowns, quite suitable for life at Brentford Court."
"She sent us each money as well, Mama," Drusilla reminded. "I should be able to present myself in garments quite proper for a companion." She made a wry face at Tabitha. She knew her younger sister would sympathize with her yearnings for stylish dresses.
"As to that, I do not see why we must garb you in drab things. She was Lady Violet Greene when we were in school, and she adored wearing the latest styles. I doubt she has changed much." Mrs. Herbert rose from her chair. "I fancy the notion of sending you dressed in the height of fashion, my dear. I think it will be a credit to your father."
Tabitha smothered whatever she intended to retort to that comment with a hasty cough.
"Yes, indeed. Mama." Family pride was to come to Drusilla's rescue. All of a sudden life held excitement, the promise of unknown delights. True, she would be at the beck and call of an ailing woman the age of her mother. But if they were good friends, surely she must be a kind person?
"We will send an acceptance at once, then go into Tunbridge Wells to buy all the fabric you shall need for a complete wardrobe."
Drusilla exchanged a delighted look with Tabitha. Odd, they had just been musing about how dull it was in the village with their three older sisters gone from home. And then the letter came--the third astounding letter this month.
Garbed in modish attire, Drusilla would be able to venture forth, ready for any adventure that might occur. That it was highly unlikely she would encounter such while caring for an older lady in the seclusion of her country estate didn't bother Drusilla. Normally a practical girl, her daydreams were allowed to take form and bloom.
The letter agreeing to Drusilla's visit was sent off, and a suitably delighted reply came back including details of Drusilla's trip. The local mantua maker obtained extra help, and before she could believe it, Drusilla had a wardrobe assembled. True, it was a modest one, but she had the sort of gowns she had yearned to possess for ever so long.
The day of departure found her garbed in a charming white muslin round gown under a blue silk pelisse trimmed in matching blue plush velvet. She wore a dashing bonnet of the same blue silk and velvet that had the dearest feather curling around the brim. Blue as well, of course. The color matched her eyes, and she knew it flattered her honey blond curls. A glance in her looking glass showed that excitement brought a becoming pink to her cheeks, and she curved her lips in happy anticipation.
The knowledge that in her trunk reposed any number of smart dresses and gowns, a stylish spencer, and more slippers than she had owned heretofore gave her confidence.
Placing a foot on the step of the carriage sent for her, she entered the first stage of her journey to Brentford Court in the distant country of Herefordshire.
Tabitha ran a finger over the crest on the carriage door. "Enjoy all you can," she urged quietly so Papa wouldn't hear. He expected Drusilla to work all the time.
"I shall, believe me." Drusilla waved to her parents and brother, sharing a special smile with Tabitha as the carriage set forth. She was off and away!
The March wind whipped some stray papers along St. James's Street along with a gentleman's tall hat. The fellow chased it, catching hold as he cornered it by the entrance to the esteemed White's, considered the supreme London club for gentlemen. Donning the hat after a casual brushing off, he entered the club, depositing said hat with the porter. He went around the corner to the morning room, where he found the man he sought--Brentford.
"I say, old man, never had such a fine time as I did at your country place. At least," Lord Taylor amended, "not for some years." He looked to another man seated nearby for confirmation who nodded his agreement. "Your mother looks splendid, positively top-of-the-trees. Handsome woman, I must say. Certainly gave a fine party. Never know she had been ill." He smiled, a gleam lighting his eyes. "Why, she kept us all on our toes. The young lady who keeps her company was rather fetching as well, if I do say so. Comely lass, wouldn't you say, Osman? Sensible, too."
Adrian Richmond, the Marquess of Brentford, lounged back in one of the comfortable club chairs to be found in the morning room of White's. Not even his closest friend would have spotted his rising ire. He rubbed his jaw, listening with apparent pleasure to the accolades heaped on the beauty of his country home, his delightful and charming mother, and not the least of it, her companion--a companion he had known nothing about!
He had spent a productive morning with his tailor, deciding on a new coat of the finest Bath cloth in a muted mulberry, a superb cream Marcella waistcoat, and a pair of fine black pantaloons in a smooth wool. He had been in the best of spirits when he had strolled into White's, assured of his welcome. Now he brushed off a speck of dust from his pristine biscuit breeches, examined the shine of his Hessians, glanced at the sleeve of his corbeau coat from which the spotless linen cuff of his shirt extended the proper length. It was a means of calming his vexation.
"This young woman is a wonder, Brentford. I have been at your country estate in the past, but this mere slip of a girl has the place running on oiled wheels." His father's close friend and still friend to his mother, Lord Osman, peered at him not far from where Adrian sat in silence, at last broken by him.
"A most worthy young lady, I take it?" Adrian kept the sarcasm out of his voice with effort. One who knew him well would have taken note of the darkening of his brown eyes, flashing with rising ire. Why had he not been informed of this young woman? To learn his mother had hired a companion was not all that bad, but he should have been told.
"What do you mean by 'worthy,' dear boy? Hardly so. She is an enchantress. Why, were I twenty years younger--and not wed--I'd have tried to attract her myself. But then, surely you must have met her?" Lord Taylor queried.
"She truly sounds a paragon. Boring lot, paragons--eh, Ives?" Adrian exchanged a cynical glance with the man at his side, Reginald, Lord Ives, raising an eyebrow as he did. "I regret to say I've not met this jewel."
"I daresay there are occasional exceptions to the rule, Brentford." The gray eyes that returned his gaze held a measure of reserve, quite as though the owner knew personally of such a thing. Ives continued, "She actually may be all they claim."
Adrian stared at his good friend for a few moments, then rubbed his jaw again, deep in thought. At last he said in his low-pitched voice, "Perhaps it is time I paid my mother a visit. She wrote she is much better, but I'd see for myself."
"What? At the height of the season?" Lord Osman cried in dismay. "It is one thing for those of us of the older generation to jaunt off for a party, but were you to leave, all the hostesses of the ton would be desolate."
"I think you overestimate my attraction, Osman." He turned to his companion. "Perhaps you will join me?"
"Perhaps," Ives said with a considering frown. "However, I think it best were you to have time alone with your mother, without the distractions of others. Besides, I am obligated to a number of dinners and a few balls. I'd not care to raise the ire of any hostess by failing to appear!" Ives gave Adrian an ironic look.
"True. I have engagements as well." Adrian considered the matter in silence while Taylor and Osman chatted on about the delights found at Brentford Court. He did have obligations in London that must be met. No one of any character at all accepted a dinner invitation, then begged off at the last minute. It simply wasn't done. He listened with half an ear to the concluding remarks about his mother and her companion before the topic was changed at last.
The others wandered off at last to seek friends.
Adrian rose, bid Ives farewell for the time being, and headed for his London house still mulling over the matter of his mother and this worthy young miss who appeared to have taken over his country home. He would wager this clever chit was buttering up his mother in the hope she would bestow some of her generous income on her. He knew the sort--grasping females, the lot of them. He had encountered more than a few along the way. Perhaps there was time in which to prevent disaster? His mother was not likely to hand out sums of money on a whim. Surely he could take care of business in Town first?
Well, he would attend the promised dinners, look in on a few balls, then once free, he would head for Brentford Court. And he would send this young interloper packing.
Drusilla surveyed the bedroom with a near-professional eye. The bed was freshly made with lavender-scented sheets; all was in readiness for a guest. She believed in preparedness. There were a few books placed on the bedside table should the guest desire something to aid in sleep. She had put a fresh supply of paper, a nicely sharpened quill pen, and a full inkpot on the writing desk. The room had been well aired, too.
As she walked downstairs, she considered all that had occurred since she arrived at the Court in March. She had been welcomed warmly and made to feel completely at home.
The beautiful room she had been given was done in shades of blue and cream with a marvelously comfortable four-poster bed, and she was treated to life as she had never known it. The wardrobe was far larger than needed to hold her modest array of garments, but she refused the marchioness's kind offer to augment her selection. To have a chaise longue by the window overlooking the gardens to the rear of the house was treat enough. She could sit here in idle moments--which admittedly were few--to contemplate the gorgeous view.
The marchioness was a delight. Tall and a little too slim, likely a result of her illness, she had perfect posture and a regal presence, yet wasn't intimidating in the least. Her dark hair was streaked with gray, and there were fine lines by her sable-brown eyes, but those eyes saw everything of note. Best of all was her smile, which she bestowed on Drusilla often.
She bloomed with the tender care that Drusilla lavished on her. Poor darling, she must have been dreadfully lonely before, with little company to amuse her hours. Drusilla had quietly altered that.
She saw to it that the house was run with little bother to her ladyship, enlisting the help of Priddy and Mrs. Simpson. The butler and housekeeper, aging retainers who adored their mistress, were eager to do anything to make her life easier. So Drusilla had stepped in and, after first consulting with Mrs. Simpson, began doing many of the little tasks the housekeeper now found difficult.
The little party Drusilla dreamed up had turned out a wonderful success. The elderly gentlemen and ladies, while few in number, had entertained the marchioness splendidly. Drusilla, recalling the things her parents and others their age liked to do, set out to see the visitors were well amused. It had worked, too. Of course the marchioness had been cosseted and kept from overdoing, but she had enjoyed the small gathering so much.
It was time to cheer the marchioness with some music. It was pleasant that they both enjoyed the same composers and the same pieces.
"All is in readiness for your next influx of company, ma'am. We will not be caught unprepared." Drusilla offered a quick curtsy while giving an impish smile.
"Dear girl, what would I do without you," Lady Brentford said with a fond smile. "When I asked your mother if she might spare her daughter, I had no idea what a jewel I was to acquire."
Drusilla laughed lightly in amusement. "I am not so out of the ordinary, ma'am." She quickly sought the pianoforte and began to play the music she knew her ladyship enjoyed.
While playing the lively sonata by Mozart, she considered her present situation. She had no idea how long she might remain here, but it behooved her to make the best of things and do her duty by the lady who obviously needed someone to be with her. Of course she would have liked to be tending her own household, but fine gentlemen didn't grow on trees, particularly for a rector's daughter. Not that she was penniless. She merely had a modest portion, nothing to tempt a gentleman unless he had an abundance of his own. That she was a comely miss she dismissed, never having nurtured a high opinion of her looks. After all, she had four lovely sisters as well as a brother who took delight in puncturing any vanity.
She wondered about the son. Thankfully, he had not appeared on the scene. She hoped the attractions of London would be sufficient to hold his interest for months to come. Not that she had heard evil of him--in spite of the rumor that he disliked women--not trusting them, Mrs. Simpson had confided with relish. She'd hinted of a love gone wrong with a predatory woman of the wrong sort--whatever that might be.
Rather, it was that he rarely came here and never for long. How sad for the lonely lady who had endured her illness with such fortitude. Now she made excellent progress, no thanks to that neglectful offspring. If he did show up at the door, Drusilla had a mind to give him a scold for his dereliction of duty to his only living parent. She couldn't imagine treating her dear parents with such lack of care or consideration.
What the marchioness required was someone to take an interest in her well-being and urge her to improve. It was an enjoyable task, one that Drusilla had taken to with a will. She had efficiently instituted a number of comforts offering relief for her ladyship. What a joy it had been to see her improve. Dru concluded the Mozart.
"Now what would you like me to play for you?" Dru inquired, her voice and manner bright.
"Something soothing, I think. Do you believe I might have another party? I should like to invite Lord Osman again. Some younger people as well. Perhaps I may entice Adrian here. He comes so seldom, I fear it is too dull for his amusement." She frowned, looking a little sad.
What Drusilla thought of having to lure one's own son to visit was not uttered. She turned the pages of the music before her while she thought. "I do not see why such an entertainment could not be done. Is there anything more agreeable than a gathering of friends?"
"Oh, good." Her ladyship's face cleared, and she beamed a smile at Drusilla. "I hoped you would concur with me. I think it would be rather nice if there was a young gentleman about your age. These older men, while pleasant for me, are not the thing for you, my dear."
"Dear Ma'am, I am not here to find a husband!"
"I did not say you had to marry the chap, merely have company." The marchioness gave Drusilla such an innocent look, it was immediately suspect.
"And who else might you wish to invite?" Drusilla thought the matter of a gentleman to amuse her best ignored. How could she oversee a party if she had to entertain some man she didn't know--and probably didn't care two pins about?
"Well, Lady Felicia Tait is a charming young woman. I have long thought she would be an excellent wife for Adrian. She has a fine dowry and is a pretty behaved girl." She glanced at Drusilla before looking down at the needlework in her lap. "You shall write invitations to the list I will give you. Priddy will know where the addresses for them are--in the library desk, I believe."
"It will be my pleasure, ma'am." If this lonely lady wanted company, she would have it. And Drusilla would see to it that she did not overtax her strength or become overly stimulated.
Drusilla settled on a piece of music that she knew her ladyship found tranquil and began to play. She wasn't polished, but her playing had improved measurably while using the fine Broadwood grand pianoforte that stood in the corner of the drawing room. It was a far cry from the spinet housed at the rectory.
Later that afternoon while the marchioness took her nap, Drusilla spent some time in the library at the immense desk that took pride of place in the center of the far end of the room. Tall windows that opened out onto the terrace were behind the desk, providing extra light for the person seated there.
Priddy, that elderly but most efficient butler, found all the required addresses for the list of names. He handed them to Drusilla with a question in his eyes.
"Her ladyship desires another party, Priddy."
"I see his lordship's name on that list. Not likely that he will attend. A trifle dull, I should think, Miss Herbert. He's a top-of-the-trees London gentleman, if you follow my thinking. A party in the country at the height of the London Season would hardly appeal to him."
"Well, I shall make a point of urging him to come. Perhaps I can think of words that will entice him? Since Lady Felicia is on the list, he might be attracted with the promise of her company." She gave the butler a grin before settling down to hot-pressed paper, fine quality ink, and a good pen with one of those new steel nibs that truly made writing an enjoyment.
The directions for his lordship were in the Mayfair area of London, something she expected. His mother had said he had rented out the grand mansion built by his father years ago. It seemed that Lord Brentford found a small, neat house more to his liking.
Well, it would be sensible, she supposed, for a single man not to rattle around in the family mansion. Sad, though, in a way. He ought to be married with a clutch of grandchildren for her ladyship to enjoy.
Setting aside her vague dislike for the yet-to-be-met gentleman, she completed writing and addressing the invitations. She had a good hand, as did all the girls at the rectory. Their father had seen to that part of their education. He insisted every young lady should have a fine hand, able to write well so that her words could be easily read. She could do her sums as well, and calculate bills with ease.
When finished with the invitations, she handed the results to Priddy before going to gaze out of the window in the drawing room. Since it was on the ground floor, the gardens seemed close and inviting. It was a mild day with a sun shining down on the scene. She quite longed to stroll among the beds of flowers the marchioness had instructed the gardener to plant.
The tulips were bursting into bloom, as were anemones and primroses. The Brentford Court gardens were exceptionally beautiful now and likely to remain so all the year. The head gardener was devoted to her ladyship and exerted himself to please her. The extensive lawns were scythed to impeccable smoothness. The marchioness could stroll across to admire the blooms without fear of stumbling.
So, after her refreshing nap, they did just that. Leaving the house by one of the French windows, they wandered through the garden. The flower beds were praised, the colors sighed over, and the scent inhaled with delight. Drusilla picked a cluster of the blooms for her ladyship so she might sniff the scent, feel the satiny petals.
"I am so glad you are here with me, dear girl. I'd not likely meander along these flowers were I alone."
There was no self-pity in her ladyship's words. Rather she was matter-of-fact in her statement. She knew her limitations and attempted to stay within them. Drusilla coaxed her to try that little bit more, improve that tiny speck each day, extending those limits. They understood each other well, her ladyship going along with Drusilla's suggestions with a knowing smile. Time and again she remarked how like a daughter Drusilla had come to be.
"I suppose I cannot claim you here forever. Some handsome fellow will steal you away from me, I feel sure. But until then, I intend to enjoy your company." She gave Drusilla a sweet smile that held a merest hint of mischief.
When rain threatened, they hurried to the house and settled with a tea tray before a nicely blazing fire in the drawing room. Lady Brentford's favorite place on the ground floor. She applied herself to her needlework. Kitty, a plump silver-striped tabby, curled up by her feet, creating the perfect image of domesticity.
She glanced at Drusilla from her needlework to remark, "I do hope Adrian will come. I've not seen him for ages. Not that I am one of those mothers who ask for constant attention from a son, especially one as much in demand as Adrian. But it would be nice to see him."
Drusilla returned a stiff smile, thinking she would most definitely give his lofty lordship a piece of her mind should he deign to share his exalted company with them. The very idea that he should believe the paltry offerings of London more important than the health and well-being of his mother! Drusilla quite longed to give him a sound tongue-lashing.
At the Metcalf ball, Adrian bowed to the young woman before him, trying to recall her name. They had been introduced, he was certain, but her name had made no impression on him, nor had she. He sighed inwardly and swept her off to partake in a lively reel.
Really, the fulfillment of the obligations that remained before he could head down to Brentford Court were most trying. The dinner prior to the ball had been excellent. The company was boring. Or perhaps it was just himself?
At last the dance ended and Adrian wondered how soon he might leave without offending the couple who had invited him. Their son. Harry, was a particular friend of his.
"Nice do, eh, Brentford?" Gray eyes lit with laughter met his. Lord Ives said, "I know how you dote on balls and the like."
"Ives. Just when I was ready to do a flit. Are you about ready to leave all this?" Adrian gestured to the colorful throng now performing an elegant country-dance.
"I promised to follow you some while after you go. Perhaps this girl isn't what you suspect." Lord Ives bent his head, studying his polished patent dancing slippers with seeming interest. "She might be one of those rare creatures who enjoy helping others. Didn't your mother write that her father is a rector? I should think a girl from the rectory would be accustomed to doing good deeds."
"Good deeds, bah." Adrian smiled politely and bowed in the direction of one of the leading lights of Society.
"Pity you cannot put the past behind you." Then, likely knowing he had said more than he ought, Lord Ives began an amusing anecdote on a mutual friend that lightened the mood considerably.
Later, while enjoying the light supper offered at midnight, Adrian's thoughts returned to the remark his friend had made. Putting the past behind him was something he had not bothered to do, he supposed. Ives insisted it had turned him into a woman hater, a true misogynist. Adrian didn't think so. He still enjoyed a dance, a pretty dinner partner. He simply didn't trust them.
It was several days later that the missive arrived with his post. Adrian broke the seal, then unfolded the letter. It was an invitation to his own home! By Jove, this was the outside of enough! He took note of the date when it was hoped he could arrive, and decided he would go a day or two early. Nothing like catching the enemy off guard!
He knew the handwriting was not his mother's, so it must belong to the companion. She prettily begged him to join the small gathering in honor of his mother's birthday. He had forgotten that was coming up, the family not given to lavish displays for such events. But her words were couched in phrases designed to make him feel the veriest cad if he didn't appear. Lady Felicia Tail's delightful company was hinted at--if she accepted, and she would.
He would attend, all right. And he would send this calculating hussy back to the village where she belonged. She could jolly well tend the biddies there and leave his mother--and her fortune--safely behind.
He couldn't wait to meet her.