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First Season/Bride to be
By Jane Ashford
Sourcebooks, Inc.Copyright © 1983 Jane LeCompte
All rights reserved.
"Well, I don't like it here," said Nicholas Wyndham, looking around the elegantly furnished blue drawing room with a jaundiced eye. There was nothing obviously offensive in the delicately molded white ceiling, the thick Turkey carpet, or the fashionable French tables and sofas, but his brother, Sir William, the elder by a year, seemed to concur. He grimaced sympathetically and shrugged. "We must do something!"
"But, Nicky, what could we possibly do?" William's deep blue eyes widened.
Nicholas sighed. He and his brother looked much alike, resembling their mother in soft brown hair, pale coloring, and fine bone structure. And William was a splendid fellow for a tramp through the woods or a wild gallop, neck or nothing, behind the local hounds. But Nicky often felt that their father's heir lacked some quality that he himself possessed in abundance. "Scores of things!" he retorted, drumming his slender fingers on his knee and considering.
Sir William Wyndham, very conscious of his responsibility as head of the family, sat straighter in the blue velvet armchair and shook his head. "Now, Nicky, don't begin one of your high flights."
His brother snorted. "You've been pleased enough with some of them. What about Mr. Winston?"
William grinned. Mr. Winston, a late and unlamented tutor in the Wyndham household, had left it precipitously. "That was Susan, not you."
"It was my idea to set her on him."
"Yes, but ..."
"Well, I admit that Susan is enough for anyone."
As the brothers pondered this truism, in perfect agreement, the subject of it came hurtling through the double doors that led to the hall, leaving them standing open behind her. "Here you are!" She stood, hands on hips, green eyes smoldering. "I suppose you thought I shouldn't find you here?"
They eyed her warily. Susan Wyndham, the youngest of the family, had inherited a mass of flaming red hair from her paternal forebears and an irresistible temper from sources unknown. Her brothers had long since learned to respect her opinions. "We thought you were busy upstairs," ventured Nick.
"You didn't! How could I be, in this beastly place? I hate it here." Coming farther into the room, she subsided into the armchair opposite William with a flurry of white muslin skirts.
"All of us do," agreed William, putting his chin in his hand.
"Well, we should go back home, then," replied his sister. "Let us speak to Mama at once." She made as if to rise.
William laughed shortly, and Nicholas said, "Mama is out. And, besides, she likes it. I heard her say so."
Susan's auburn brows came together, and her full lower lip began to protrude. Both brothers braced themselves. But before she could gather voice for an initial blast, there was a soft sound from the doorway and then a scraping noise from behind the sofa where Nicholas sat. "Daisy?" wondered Susan.
"Oh no." William sprang up and shut the doors. "Is he scratching the table? Nicky, look and see."
Reluctantly, Nicholas peered over the sofa back, directly into the yellow eyes of an immense ginger tomcat, who had sunk his front claws into the scrolled leg of a Louis Seize table. Holding the boy's gaze, the cat bent slowly forward and fastened his teeth on the same object. Nicholas shuddered and drew back. "Yes."
"Get him!" William ran around the sofa.
"Daisy!" shrieked Susan, leaping to the rescue. The cat streaked under the couch, coming out directly under Nicky's feet and causing him to jerk them up convulsively.
"Come on," shouted William. "We'll corner him."
His brother swallowed and rose, squaring his shoulders. "I'm coming." He moved forward like a soldier going into battle.
"No," cried Susan. She ran over and scooped the animal into her arms, his oversized body drooping on all sides. "Leave her alone!"
William sighed again. "Him, Susan. I keep telling you. I can't understand why you had to drag that horrid creature off the streets. You might have had a kitten of your own if you'd asked, and not some wretched alley cat."
"She was starving," replied Susan with finality, caressing Daisy's flat head. The cat purred but continued to stare at the Wyndham brothers with malicious glee.
William gazed at the gigantic animal skeptically, but merely shrugged. Nicholas shuddered again and turned away.
"Daisy can help us," added Susan, lugging him back to the armchair and settling him across her lap.
"Help us what?" asked William.
"Get home again." Susan's dimples showed. "Cook doesn't like her."
"None of the servants do," agreed Nick, in a tone that suggested he was wholeheartedly of their opinion.
"Yes." Susan smiled again.
"That don't signify." William was superior. "They'll simply get rid of the cat. They wouldn't ..."
His sister's green eyes flashed, and she drew herself up. "I should like to see them try!"
"Yes, but, Susan —"
"This isn't getting us anywhere," interrupted Nick. "We have to decide what we're going to do. I can't bear it much longer." He glanced at Daisy.
"Nor I," agreed Susan. "London is the dreariest place I've ever been."
"Well, I can't see what we ..." began William, but at that moment the drawing-room doors opened again to reveal two ladies in modish evening dress.
"Whatever am I to do with her, Anabel?" the elder was saying. "She ..." They saw the Wyndhams.
"What are you doing downstairs at this hour?" exclaimed the other woman. "Why aren't you getting into bed?"
"We were just talking, Mama," replied Sir William Wyndham, full of the maturity of his ten years. "I was about to take the children up."
His brother's lip curled.
"I don't want to go to bed," protested Susan, six. "Nor does Daisy." She held up the cat's head so that her mother and grandmother could see it over the chair arm. "She's not the least sleepy."
Both women looked pained. "I daresay not," answered Lady Anabel Wyndham. "But you must go up." She sent a footman in the hall to fetch Nurse, who arrived a few moments later in a confusion of starched white and protests that she had been searching for the children throughout the upper floors. "That is no doubt why they came down here," responded their mother, shepherding the three toward the stairs.
"Will you come up and say good night?" begged nine-year-old Nicholas.
"In a little while, if you get into bed."
Susan grimaced, but they went.
"Really, Anabel," said Lady Sybil Goring when they had the drawing room to themselves. "Shouldn't the boys be in school? They aren't a very good influence on Susan, apparently."
Anabel laughed. "I assure you it is quite the other way about, Mother. But you're right, they should go. I have been trying to bring myself to send them for a year." She shook her head.
"I'm sure they've been a great comfort. But, Anabel, it has been three years since Ralph died."
"I know." She looked down again and sighed. "It doesn't seem so long."
Her mother watched her with pity and some impatience. She had married Anabel off very young to a most eligible baronet, and she had thought her well and happily settled until the untimely death of Sir Ralph Wyndham three years before. At that tragedy, she had understood and respected her daughter's grief, allowing her every indulgence in her power and taking care not to manage her life, as she had been greatly tempted to do. Lady Goring's powerful common sense quite often led her to intervene in her friends' and family's decisions. But now she thought it was time Anabel shook off her despondence and began again. She was, after all, not yet thirty, and she did not look the least like the mother of three growing children. Indeed, with her soft brown ringlets, large, expressive blue eyes, and delicately made frame, Anabel could have passed for a girl of twenty. Only her mother knew that her fragility was deceptive: Anabel might look as if a strong wind would carry her away, but she had great reserves of strength.
Accordingly, Sybil had swept her daughter up to London for the season, over her protests, and she was determined that its gaieties should dispel the last clouds of bereavement. Her only concern was the children, whom Anabel had insisted upon bringing. They seemed out of spirits in town, and their unhappiness was the one thing that might spur Anabel to open rebellion. "I was wrong to let your father convince me to marry you without a come-out," she murmured. She did not realize that she had spoken aloud until Anabel looked up, smiled, and shook her head.
"I didn't mind, Mama."
"That is because you knew no better. You had no taste of town life, and you still have not. You don't know what you missed."
"I know what I gained." Anabel smiled reminiscently.
Her mother ignored her. "But we shall make up for that now. You shall go to all the balls and entertainments just as if it were your debut, only you will enjoy them a great deal more because you have the freedom of a married woman." As soon as she said this, she wished she hadn't, but Anabel merely shook her head again.
"I am too old for a debut."
"Wait until you have gone about a bit before you decide."
"This ball tonight ..."
"Oh, it is not a ball. A trial before the season really begins, nothing more. You must not go by it."
"Mama." Anabel smiled. "Content yourself with managing Georgina. I shall stay in the background."
"Nonsense," snapped Lady Goring, but this brought back her earlier grievance. "Anabel, what am I to do about Georgina? I'm sure when I told your uncle that I would bring her out I was happy to help. He hasn't been up from the country since Clara died, fifteen years ago. But now that I have seen her ..." She made a helpless gesture.
"What precisely is wrong with her?" asked Anabel, who had not yet met her much younger cousin. "She arrived this afternoon?"
"While you were shopping."
"Is she coming down to dinner?"
"I suppose so. I mean, I should count on it." She laughed bitterly.
A footman opened the double doors to admit a girl of seventeen or eighteen to the drawing room, and Anabel saw at once what her mother had meant. Georgina Goring possessed an altogether too ample abundance of flesh. Her frame went well beyond youthful plumpness, and as if to call attention to the unfortunate flaw in her appearance, she entered eating a large cream-filled chocolate.
"Georgina, dear," murmured Lady Goring in a faint voice.
"Hullo," replied Georgina around the candy. "Is it dinnertime?"
Anabel bit her lower lip.
"Nearly, dear. This is your cousin Anabel. My daughter, you know."
"Hullo," said Georgina again. "Are you coming out this season too?"
Her smile broadened. "In a manner of speaking."
Georgina nodded. "You will do better than I. It is all so stupid. I don't see why I need bother." She took a twist of silver paper from the pocket of her pink muslin gown, extracted another chocolate, and ate it.
Lady Goring made a stifled noise. "You won't care for any dinner, will you, Georgina, if you keep eating sweets."
"Oh, yes, I shall."
Anabel looked from one to the other. Perhaps this visit to town would be more amusing than she had expected. When her mother had first insisted that she come to London, she had refused. For three years her life had revolved around her children, and before that she had become accustomed to living in the country. She had neighbors to rely on for company and aid, and she knew her family loved the outdoors. But her mother had overborne her objections, holding out the lures of excitement and change. Anabel had been tempted, she knew, and she had also realized that her children needed her less and less with each passing year. The boys should go to school, and Susan was nothing if not independent. She had consented half reluctantly, but now her lively sense of the absurd was aroused by the contest of wills she saw shaping before her, and she felt the first stirrings of gratitude. She had been feeling a bit old and weary lately. Perhaps her mother was right.
She glanced from the older woman to Georgina again. She knew her mother's strength of purpose only too well, but something in Georgina's expression suggested that Lady Goring might have met her match. The girl seemed both stubborn and not particularly concerned with Lady Goring's opinion. Surveying her, Anabel realized that she was not really unattractive. Though undoubtedly fleshy, she had fine pale blond hair and gray eyes with thick dark lashes. Her hands were lovely. Turning, Anabel met her mother's gaze, and her lips twitched. It was compounded of chagrin and a dawning fanatical determination.
"Dinner is served, madam," said the butler from the doorway. Georgina followed him eagerly into the hall.
"You see?" said Lady Goring in a low voice.
"She is a little plump. From the way you were talking, I expected a hunchback at least."
"A little? Anabel!"
"Well, Mama ..."
"You may think it a good joke, but I have promised to bring the girl out and find her a husband, if possible, of course. Her fortune is only moderate; I had hoped she would be pretty. If only the current fashions were more flattering to ... but these waists, and no lacing at all." She shook her head. "Chocolates! How can she?"
Anabel started toward the door. Georgina would be wondering what had become of them.
Her mother's chin came up as she turned to follow. "I have two weeks before the season officially begins," she finished. "I'm sure a great deal can be accomplished in that time. She must come with us tonight, but it is a mere hop. Hardly anyone will be there."
"Perhaps we needn't go, then," replied Anabel mischievously as they walked down the corridor.
"Anabel! Don't you begin now, or I shall certainly go distracted."
"Indeed I shall. If anyone had told me that I should sponsor the first seasons of a thirty- year-old woman and an absolutely ... massive schoolgirl, I should unhesitatingly have pronounced them mad."
Anabel began to laugh. "Not quite thirty, Mama."
"How can you be so unfeeling?" Lady Goring met her daughter's dancing eyes and started to smile. Linking arms with her, she strode into the dining room, where Georgina was already seated and looking impatient. "Amuse yourself while you may," she concluded. "I shall triumph in the end — wait and see."CHAPTER 2
It was fortunate, thought Anabel as the three of them descended from the carriage at the front door of the Rivingtons' festively lit town house, that this ball was not one of the great events of the season. Neither Georgina nor Lady Goring was in the best of tempers after wrangling throughout dinner over what the girl should or should not eat. Indeed, Anabel herself had started to feel the strain of the contest of wills before she thought to remind her mother of the time. Georgina had not spoken once during the short journey, and Lady Goring's comments, though general, had retained an acerbic tone. Anabel was very glad to give her wrap to a footman and climb the stairs to greet her hostess. She would avoid her family until the entertainment put them in better frame, she decided.
The ballroom was more crowded than she had expected, and the hum of talk and glitter of evening dress abruptly reminded Anabel that she loved parties. She had scarcely attended one since her husband died, at first because she was in mourning and then because she had somehow gotten out of the habit. Now she felt a rising excitement. London parties must be quite different from the dinners and small assemblies of the country. She had told her mother that she hadn't minded missing her long-ago debut, but she remembered now that this wasn't entirely true. She had pined a little for the balls and routs and Venetian breakfasts until she became so contented with Ralph and the children.
"Lady Wyndham," said a voice behind her. "I didn't know you were in town."
Anabel turned and greeted a woman she had met some time ago at a house party. "Mrs. Brandon, how pleasant to see you again." She would have an easier time now than she would have had at eighteen, she realized. There were one or two familiar faces in the room.
When they had exchanged commonplace news, Mrs. Brandon added, "You must come and meet my daughter. It is her first appearance in society, and she is naturally a bit uneasy. She will be so happy to see an acquaintance."
Excerpted from First Season/Bride to be by Jane Ashford. Copyright © 1983 Jane LeCompte. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
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