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Miss Hetta Stanton was given the thin violet-scented envelope when it arrived, and sat down with it in a straight-backed chair at a Sheraton writing desk. The somber gray skirts of her high-waisted frock fell in subdued folds about her slender feet so that only the toes of her slippers peeped under the hem. The letter from her godmother, Lady Beatrice Pelborne, came as a welcome surprise and she slit it open impatiently with a silver letter knife. She read the letter with eager eyes, but soon a faint frown appeared between her arched brows. When she reached the elegantly scrawled signature, she folded the parchment with painstaking care. Hetta fell into deep thought with the missive held between her slim fingers, her hazel eyes oblivious to the brilliant morning outside the study window. After a few moments she pulled a blank sheet toward her and took up a pen to write a short note. She sanded the freshly written sheet, then folded and sealed it with wax.
From across the room a short portly gentleman wearing a severe black frock coat and wig looked up from the weighty volume on his lap. He marked his place carefully with one finger, blinking owlishly through the spectacles perched on the end of his nose. "Urgent business, Miss Hetta?"
"Yes, Cheton, I suppose you may say so. It seems that my dear godmother is desperate for my company. She cites acute boredom as the root of her distress and begs that I visit her for the Season since I shall soon put off mourning clothes. She wishes to foot the bill for my come-out, saying that she knows I may be relied upon to humor a decrepit old woman." Cheton hid a sudden cough behind his hand and Hetta laughed at him. "I, too, discountthat touch. I half-believe that she is ageless."
"Lady Pelborne has frequently struck me as being very capable and shrewd," Cheton agreed.
Hetta lifted her brows and gave him a level look. "Is that the reason you made free to solicit her help on my behalf without my knowledge, Cheton?"
Cheton blinked and a ruddy hue flushed his plump cheeks. "Yes, my lady," he said quietly. "My pardon if you are displeased, but I felt it to be my duty to yourself, and to the late lord, to appraise Lady Pelborne of your circumstances. I perceived the situation here at Meldingcourt to have become untenable for you since your father's death."
Hetta was touched by her old friend's loyalty. "Thank you for your concern, Cheton. I have always known that you held my father's interests, and my own, in the greatest esteem." She smiled and the faint frown eased between her brows. "I do admit that the thought of a London Season is irresistible. These last few months have been extraordinarily unpleasant, quite beside Papa's absence. Cousin Jonathan is most persistent."
"If you will permit my blunt speech, Miss Hetta, I consider the manner in which the Honorable Jonathan Markham has attempted to ingratiate himself an impertinence beyond belief," said Cheton roundly.
"How can you say so, Cheton?" Hetta asked in gentle mockery. "He has been at such pains to make himself agreeable and assures me that once we are wed, I shall take my place among the best of the ton. A country miss such as myself must be flattered to receive the notice of so fashionable a buck."
Cheton snorted and firmly adjusted his spectacles. "The Stanton family is one of the most respected in England, as well you know, miss! You may look as high as you please for a suitable husband. The good Lady Pelborne shall certainly introduce you to a score of gentlemen who shall be more than honored to escort the mistress of Meldingcourt."
"And in London I need not endure Cousin Jonathan's importunities." Hetta looked across at him, her eyes dancing. "I am certain that you must have painted a most lurid picture of my circumstances for my godmother to bestir herself so suddenly, Cheton. Have you made me the princess beleaguered behind her own castle walls?"
"Indeed so," said Cheton with a faint smile. "Though I never strayed from my natural reticence, I was able to make Lady Pelborne aware of the peculiar evils that beset the course of your days."
Hetta stared at him in amazed awe. "I perceive that I have grossly underrated your talents, Cheton. Only a Banbury man could have appealed so expertly to Lady Pelborne's lowest instincts."
"Indeed not. Miss Stanton." Cheton's voice was dry. "I hold the Lady Pelborne in the highest regard. Her taste for the dramatic is known to be unparalleled."
Hetta gave him a speaking look. "I have penned an acceptance to Lady Pelborne for her kind invitation and shall have it posted immediately. I intend to post down to London myself as quickly as it may be arranged."
"Then, with your permission I shall order out one of your father's carriages and instruct two of the footmen to ready themselves to accompany you," said Cheton, laying aside his volume and beginning to rise from his chair.
Hetta shook her head, staying him with a gesture. "I shall not be using one of Papa's coaches. I intend to hire a chaise. There shall be no need for outriders from Melding-court."
Cheton sank back in his chair, staring at her in surprise. "But--"
She cut him short with a gesture reminiscent of the late lord her father. "I have made up my mind. Papa's carriages are all so antiquated that it would mean another day or more on the road. A chaise shall be quicker by far. And I have a wish to travel in a different style than I have ever before done."
"But a hired chaise will be most uncomfortable compared to a carriage," said Cheton hopefully. He saw the determination in her eyes. "At least take outriders with you, Miss Hetta. Lady Pelborne will most assuredly frown upon such an undistinguished arrival."
Hetta knew it to be true. Lady Pelborne insisted upon traveling in the style befitting her consequence and would expect no less from the late viscount's proper daughter. However, Hetta would not allow herself to be swayed. She smiled affectionately at her old friend's anxious eyes. "Dearest Cheton, I realize your concern is all for my safety and comfort. It is appreciated, believe me, but in this instance I am adamant. Come, Cheton! It is such a little change, after all. If it will make you rest easier, I shall take Papa's pistol with me for protection." From Cheton's expression this suggestion did not seem to have found much favor with him. Ignoring his long face, Hetta rang the hand bell on her desk.
The oaken door opened and a footman in dark-green livery stepped in. "Yes, my lady?"
Hetta held out the missive she had penned to her godmother and he came forward to take it. "Post this, please, and have someone send to the village for a hired carriage. Then have Maggie sent to me in my rooms." As she spoke, she rose from the desk. The footman bowed and went to the door, holding it for her. Her straight full skirt brushed behind her across the carpet.
She turned in the doorway, a slender figure with magnificent chestnut hair plaited in an unfashionable coronet around her head. Her brows were raised inquiringly. Cheton was struck by the steady regard of her hazel eyes. It reminded him strongly of her father, who had been a man of generous heart and character. "Take care of yourself, won't you?" said Cheton gruffly.
Hetta smiled faintly. "I shall try, Cheton." She went out and the paneled door was gently closed behind her.
Cheton sighed to himself. He could not like it. Master Stanton would have wanted his neck for allowing Hetta to override him. But the daughter was as headstrong as her father ever was. Cheton sincerely hoped that Lady Pelborne would prove equal to the task of conducting her goddaughter through her first London Season. He smiled; what he knew of the indomitable Lady Pelborne went far to reassure him. He adjusted the spectacles and bent once more to the volume on his knees.
In the hall Hetta was unsurprised by the sight of a familiar figure. Since her father's untimely death from a fall while riding, her cousin Jonathan Markham had made it a point to see how she went on. With uncharacteristic cynicism she sometimes wondered that his family feeling coincided so neatly with her father's death because she had never known him to visit before.
The gentleman was at that moment handing a footman his high-crowned beaver and brown kid gloves. "Good morning, cousin. What is this nonsense about hiring a carriage?" he asked, advancing toward Hetta. He was of a stocky medium build, shown to advantage in a blue superfine coat and top boots, and wore his red-brown hair cropped close.
Hetta nodded at the footman who had her letter to speed him on his way, then addressed her cousin coolly. "I suppose you have come to argue with Cheton again. You will find him in the study. You will excuse me, I know."
His rather hard blue eyes studied her face. "I shall see your esteemed man of business in a moment, my dear. Why is it that you require a carriage?"
"It is none of your concern, Cousin Jonathan," said Hetta, and made to brush past him to the stairs.
Markham took her elbow firmly so that she was compelled to stop. "Anything that concerns you, fair cousin, must concern me. Pray join me for a moment in the drawing room." He ushered Hetta into the drawing room and closed the door. Hetta moved away from him farther into the room. Markham looked across at her, his hand still on the knob. "Your attitude is quite shocking, my dear. Believe me, it is hardly good ton to brush off a visitor so rudely, especially before the servants."
Hetta raised her well-defined brows. "I am astounded that you consider yourself a visitor, Jonathan. It seems to me that you have been running tame at Meldingcourt forever."
Markham wagged a finger at her and moved to the fireplace. "You've a sharp tongue, cousin. Not every man would be so tolerant as I. However, we digress: let me understand why you have sent to hire a carriage when you have three that must be perfectly suitable if you wish to visit in the neighborhood or go to the village. Or perhaps I mistake the reason? Surely you have not anticipated my early departure from this charming place." He smiled as though it was an absurdity that she could ever wish to see his back.
"Quite the contrary. It is I who am leaving." Hetta had the satisfaction of seeing his complacent smile wiped away.
"What the devil are you talking about?" he asked sharply.
"My godmother is suffering an agitation of the nerves and requires my presence. Naturally I must go to her, and I have simply chosen to hire a carriage for my journey. I shall probably be departing for London within an hour or two," said Hetta calmly. She studied Markham's frown and said sweetly, "Surely there can be no objection, cousin?"
He looked up, still frowning. "This comes very sudden. You can not have considered the discomforts of such a journey. I fear that I can not allow you to wear yourself out for the whims of one selfish old woman."
"Your fears do not enter into it," Hetta said calmly. "Pray recall that though my father's will has left you some authority in the workings of the estate until my majority, you were not named my guardian."
Markham's lip curled. "Yes! I am most uncomfortably aware that my hands are virtually tied. Master Cheton opposes me on business at almost every turn while you consistently reject my advice. I truly despair of ever bringing you into fashion, cousin. You could be a taking little thing properly rigged out."
"Surely that duty falls on my guardian. Lady Pelborne. I am certain that you see that I but obey my lawful guardian's wishes in undertaking this journey," said Hetta with quiet pointedness.
"I find it preposterous that your father should have left his only daughter in the charge of a doddering old woman, who is known to be no more than a common actress," exclaimed Markham. "Surely he must have realized that a mere woman--and especially one such as Lady Pelborne--could not safeguard your interests as well as I."
"On the contrary, it was quite understandable," Hetta retorted crushingly. "Even though you were the sole remaining male relation to our family, you were personally unknown to my father. Naturally he felt easier leaving me under the aegis of one he knew could be trusted to care for me and sponsor me into the best of polite society. Even you, cousin, must admit that an invitation to a ball given by Lady Beatrice Pelborne is prized by any member of the ton."
"Yes, Lady Pelborne can be most influential in certain circles when she so chooses," said Markham slowly, his eyes narrowing in thought. He smiled at Hetta, dispelling the calculating look. "I most certainly see your wisdom, my dear. Assuredly you must visit our dear Lady Pelborne. Pray remember me to her kindly."
"I take it that you have no objection to my visit, then?" Hetta asked with irony.
"Quite the contrary, cousin, I wish you to have a most comfortable visit," said Markham. "I shall expect you back in a fortnight."
Hetta raised her chin. Her eyes held a dangerous sparkle. "You assume much, cousin. My godmother reminded me in her kind letter that it has been a year since Papa's death. She has offered to sponsor me into society this Season, and I have accepted. Wasn't that handsome of her?"
"What? Surely you jest," exclaimed Markham with a ludicrous expression of surprise.
Hetta smiled, delighted that she had at last thrown him off balance. "I admit that it came as quite a surprise to me as well. I had not really expected it of her, you see. Though I have always been aware that Lady Pelborne holds me in affection and that she fully intended one day to sponsor me, I have never deemed it practical to count on that day. My godmother has always seemed to me to be a bit whimsical." She realized how she must sound and put a hand to her cheek. "Oh, dear, I must sound perfectly horrid."
"Not at all, cousin. You were merely making an observation of reality. I, too, find it best to deal in practicalities rather than chance," Markham said absently. "However, this is an event I had not foreseen."
"Nor had I," Hetta said, wondering at his tone. "I am quite in spirits to think of the round of panics, but I am most particularly anticipating the many new personages I am sure to meet. This past year we rarely heard what was happening until the news was quite stale. I shall be glad to converse with those who have seen more of the world than I."
"I assume that you are referring to the dashing young blades just home from their romp with Bonaparte." Markham gave a bark of laughter. "My dear cousin, they shall be dangling after the pretty young debutantes, not a country miss of almost one-and-twenty who possesses not a whit of town bronze."
Hetta looked at him, stung. Her voice was cold. "There are times when you try my good nature too far, cousin! Pray excuse me. I have kept Maggie waiting long enough." She swept him a stiff curtsy and turned to the door.
"Hetta!" He leapt forward to intercept her at the door and, taking her hand, said softly, "Dear cousin, can you not understand and forgive me? It is my jealous ardor for you that causes me to speak so. To be deprived of your fresh and unspoiled company, even for a short while, is a dismal prospect for me." His eyes on hers, he carried her slender fingers to his lips. "Could you not forgo these pleasures until we may journey to London together?"
Hetta disengaged her hand and stepped back, opening her eyes wide. "Why, cousin, it was you who convinced me that I should go. Often I have regretted my sad lack of the town polish that you so admire. It is my hope that a London Season will inspire me with a certain dash and elegance."
"I understand that I have angered you." Markham pulled at his lower lip. "I quite see that you are set on this course; very well. I presume that you shall have outriders for protection? One hears rumors of unrest of late."
"I do not anticipate trouble, cousin," Hetta said shortly.
Markham bowed and stepped back, allowing her access to the door. "Of course not. Naturally I shall follow you with all speed."
"Certainly, if that is your wish. But pray do not fear that I shall trespass on our kinship, cousin," said Hetta. "I shall remember to treat you as I shall any other gentleman who may choose to call." She swept out of the drawing room, leaving Markham with an expression of brooding discontent on his face.
Posted December 14, 2010
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