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Miss Griselda Grant stood in the center of the small, charming parlor of her home in Thornapple Square, London, carefully scrutinizing the room. It was a handsome room, the epitome of elegance and beauty, traditionally called the Ladies' Parlor. Simon Grant had designed it as a luxurious yet cozy place where his wife and daughter and their special guests might be comfortable on occasions when the more formal elegance of the drawing room did not appeal. Miss Grant's butler waited for her verdict. Finally the girl turned to him with her enchanting smile.
"It's perfect, Wiggins," she said. "Thank Millie and Prue for me. The Ladies' Parlor has never looked better."
Wiggins sighed his relief. Every servant in the house was well aware that Miss Griselda was expecting a most important visitor. Mr. Regis Southerleigh, only son and heir to a minor baronetcy in the counties, was coming to call upon the orphaned heiress of Simon Grant, merchant prince of the city of London. Much as they admired their young mistress, none of the staff had dared to hope for such a match. True, the nobleman was only a baronet's son, and his lands, which ran contiguous to the well-kept country estate of the Grants, were heavily mortgaged, but he was an honorable, and county, and would elevate Miss Grant into polite society.
"Is my brother at home?" Griselda's question interrupted Wiggins's rosy dreams.
The butler stopped smiling. He knew as well as Griselda did that Sholto Grant was a Drawback. Young, spoiled, impetuous, by turns sulky and obstreperous, he was still the titular head of the house and the man of the family. It was to him that Regis must present his proposal.And so it was essential that Griselda's young brother be on hand to receive the nobleman's offer.
"He is in his room, Miss Zelda. Calver informs me he was rather late getting home last night, and... not himself--"
"Oh, dear!" Griselda exclaimed. "I suppose that means he came home shot in the neck and is badly hung over this morning. Wretched boy! How could he?"
Wiggins hadn't the heart to rebuke his young mistress for her unseemly language. He'd watched her grow into a beautiful young woman, and what was more remarkable, take over the management of the town house and the farm with courage and good sense when her parents were killed. He had observed her patience and tact in dealing with her brother. Five years her junior, Sholto had been his mother's darling and a disappointment to his father. On the death of both parents in an accident, the fourteen-year-old Sholto had confidently expected to take over his father's enormous fortune. When he heard that his sister was to be his guardian until he reached his majority, he was affronted.
Worse was to follow. He was informed that, under a most rigid trust, a substantial amount of money was to be given, quarterly, to Mr. Grant's older child, and that from these funds Griselda was to pay all bills and give Sholto what he characterized as a beggarly pittance. His rage was unbounded. In fact, he behaved so reprehensibly, shouting and stamping his feet, that the lawyer, tight-lipped, packed up his papers, informed Miss Grant he would wait upon her when she was alone, and left Thornapple Square in a huff comparable to Sholto's.
After lawyer Heathrow had finished describing the unpleasant interview to his junior partner, who was also his son, he concluded, "In all fairness to the young cub, I must admit that I had many serious reservations when Simon Grant gave me his instructions. Such an enormous sum outright to his daughter upon her marriage--"
"She'll be the target of every fortune hunter in Europe," said Heathrow Junior, gloomily.
His father nodded agreement. "Even more reprehensible, it seemed to me, was the provision that, in the event of his demise before his son's majority had been reached, the daughter should have control of the entire quarterly allowance until she marries or the boy becomes twenty-one. At which point we are to continue the administration of the estate until the youth reaches the age of thirty."
"It is easy to see what opinion the testator held of his son," suggested Heathrow Junior.
"With justice, as we now observe," added his parent sternly. "Such a childish display of ill-temper I have never, thank God, been forced to put up with until today. I suppose we can only be grateful that the girl is a remarkably sensible female--"
"A contradiction in terms," ventured his son, and was rewarded by quite a hearty chuckle from his parent. Though it ruffled his dignity to have to consult a female on important matters, he had decided that Miss Griselda Grant would be a much more satisfactory client to deal with than her spoiled brat of a brother.
In the next three years Griselda's good sense and patience were tried to their limits. Master Sholto pouted, protested, whined, raged, and borrowed money from her. She held the line firmly yet fairly, and managed her brother better than their mother had ever done. It was a struggle. Cook, who detested Sholto, said darkly that he was a nasty little scrub and would come to no good end, and what a pity it was that Miss Griselda had to waste so much time on him and his scrapes that might better be spent looking out for her own future.
But today it seemed that a glowing future might be possible for their darling. Mr. Regis Southerleigh had requested an appointment with Miss Grant for two o'clock, to be followed by one with the head of the family at precisely two-fifteen.
Griselda's smile was a little wry as she considered the neatness and dispatch of her suitor's timing. He evidently considered a quarter of an hour ample time to make his declaration and receive her reply. Obviously he anticipated a favorable answer, after which he would state his intentions to Mr. Sholto Grant. She frowned. It was to be hoped that Sholto, well primed for the interview, would behave himself. He was in some awe of Regis Southerleigh, and very much aware of the honor the nobleman was doing his family.
The old butler had been watching her with concern. "It'll be all right, Miss Zelda," he said. "Master Sholto won't want to put anything in the way of the match."
Griselda nodded briskly. She had few secrets from this old and faithful servant, and none which concerned Sholto.
"Considering that he will come into a very large sum of money when I marry, I believe you are right, Wiggins," she said with an impish smile. "Giving due regard to Mr. Southerleigh's agenda, I think you should be prepared to serve the best brandy in the library as soon as you show him into the room. It will break the ice."
Wiggins ventured a question. "Miss Zelda -- are you sure this is what you want?"
The girl smiled reassuringly. "Yes, Wiggins, I'm sure."
But after he had left the room, she considered the question carefully. Regis resembled his father: narrow shoulders, lean frame, even the slightly protuberant pale blue eyes and the large aquiline nose. Since he had also inherited all the heavy humorlessness of his dear mamma, it was easy to understand Wiggins's concern. But Regis was a good man, Griselda reassured herself. He had no vices -- he had told her so himself. He had been educated at Eton; he would be able to talk of other things besides hunting. He would share the security and dignity of his position with her. Best of all, since Regis, a rigidly high-principled young man, did not approve of the frivolity and license of the Beau Monde, they would spend eleven-twelfths of the year at his parents' estate, Leigh Hall, whose boundaries ran with those of Grant Farm.
Griselda's heart warmed at the thought. She had always adored living at the farm. Though luxuriously appointed, it had always been a working farm -- Simon Grant would have tolerated no other -- and it had a well-trained staff of servants and farm laborers. It made a handsome profit every year, and in addition, it furnished a bountiful supply of vegetables, fruit, cheeses, hams, fresh eggs, and well-hung meats to the tables at Thornapple Square. There were fine horses in the stables, and Griselda loved to ride. Best of all, there were the orchards, with a merry little stream running through them and out into a sunny meadow. This was Griselda's favorite part of the property. In the spring she had played or walked under a fragrant cover of blossoms. In late summer she had climbed the trees and munched the apples which jeweled the branches, or made her hands and face sticky with the sweet, sun-warmed flesh of late peaches. In the winter she admired the exquisite patterns of bare black branches against snowy fields, and listened to the tiny song of the stream under ice.
Here also she had met and played with Regis without his parents' knowledge. He had been a stiff, consequential little boy, very lonely as a result of his dear mamma's conviction that nobody in the neighborhood was good enough for him to associate with. Lady Agena Southerleigh prided herself upon the fact that she did not know the names of above six people in the district, and exchanged visits with only three families, but her son slipped away to enjoy the companionship of the pretty little girl on the great estate to the west. Griselda felt sorry for him. She never mocked him. She let him win at many of their games, and she invariably supplied delicious snacks during their play.
Now the plain little boy had grown up and wanted to marry her. If she accepted Regis's proposal, she could leave lonely, dangerous London, and keep Sholto safe from harm in the country.
You know he'll hate it, her conscience shouted. He's bound to refuse to live in Sussex even if Regis's parents are willing to invite him. And he's always loathed the farm -- it's the only thing Father left you that he isn't jealous of. Are you ready to abandon Sholto to the lures of London?
"The Heathrows will prevent him from doing anything too disastrous," she tried to placate her conscience.
"Hah!" said her conscience, unplacated.
Hah, indeed. Griselda sighed. She would have to persuade -- all right, bribe! -- Sholto to make his headquarters at the farm and accompany her husband's family to London for their customary one month at the height of the Season. Perhaps she could get him married to some girl of good family who could settle him down. She sighed again. Even his glittering prospects might not be enough to attract the kind of girl she wanted for Sholto. But that was for the future. The immediate problem was to make sure that Sholto was up, dressed, and clear-headed enough to receive, with proper dignity, Mr. Regis Southerleigh, who, if he followed his schedule, would be presenting himself in Thornapple Square in exactly twenty minutes.
Copyright © 1980 by Elizabeth Chater