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The funeral cortège was a long one; the old Earl of Bo-stock had been respected, if not greatly loved, in the Lincolnshire village from which he took his name. He had lived to a great age, over eighty, so it was said, and had outlived wife and sons, and the only family left to mourn were his grandson Harry, now the new Earl, Harry's wife, Jane, and his twin sister, Anne. She, most of all, mourned the passing of her grandfather. In his latter years the Earl had become almost a recluse, irascible, opinionated and intolerant where everyone but his beloved granddaughter was concerned. She had been the apple of his eye, the joy of his old age and his constant companion. And now he was gone.
Anne watched from the window as the coffin, on its carriage drawn by black plumed horses, left Sutton Park, followed by other carriages containing male members of the family, some of whom were so distantly related she had never met them before. Behind them in the procession were many of her grandfather's friends and close associates. The day was overcast, cooler than of late and threatening rain, though none as yet had fallen. It was a day in keeping with the sombre occasion.
Anne turned as her aunt came into the room. "I thought he would live for ever," she said, giving her a wan smile. "I cannot believe he has gone."
"We all have to go sooner or later." Although she was forty, Georgiana Bartrum still had the petite figure of a girl; her features were unlined and her hair was still raven black and topped by a lace-edged black cap. "Be thankful that he lived so long..."
"I wish I could have gone to the funeral, seen him laid to rest."
"My dear Anne, you know ladies do not go to funerals."
Anne sighed, doing her best not to weep; Grandfather would have considered it a weakness. "I don't feel like a lady, I feel like a little girl, lost and bereft."
"I know, my dear, but that will pass in time." Her voice faltered and Anne went at once to put her arm round her.
"Oh, Aunt Georgie, I am so sorry, I did not mean to make you sad too."
Her aunt, her mother's much younger sister, was herself in mourning for a beloved husband who had died suddenly eighteen months before, but, on hearing of the demise of the Earl, had come down from the Lake District for the funeral, determined to put her grief aside for the sake of her niece. "You must not wish the old Earl back," she said, dabbing at her eyes with a wisp of handkerchief. "He was a great age and could do nothing for himself at the end. He is with his wife and your dear mama and papa now and you must think of yourself."
Her aunt had put her finger on the problem. Twenty-seven years old and unmarried, Anne could not contemplate her future with equanimity. Harry and Jane wanted her to make her home with them, but though she loved them dearly, she did not think it would serve. Ape leader, old maid, maiden aunt were words that leapt to her mind. Why had she turned down every offer of marriage made to her when she was still young enough to be thought marriageable? Not quite every offer—there had been one she would have accepted from a perfectly eligible young man with whom she had imagined herself in love. They had been dealing famously with each other and she had been expecting an offer.
And then her brother, serving as a very young Hussar lieutenant, became involved in the scandal over Mary Ann Clarke, the Duke of York's one-time mistress, who had been using her influence with the Duke to sell promotions. It had been unpleasant at the time, but it had all blown over, although not before the gentleman in question had decided to beat a hasty retreat. Grandfather had said if he was so easily blown in the wind he was not worthy of her, which had been small comfort at the time.
That had been five years ago and since then she had been wary and refused every offer. Those who came after had not been ineligible, ugly or cruel, and yet she had rejected them all. She had made excuses not only to them but to herself: her grandfather was old and ill and could not manage without her; she looked after his household, wrote letters for him, read to him, ran errands and even fed him when he became too feeble to feed himself. She had also assumed the charitable duties on the estate and in the village that her mother would have done had she lived. And now it was too late; her grandfather was dead and she was well past marriageable age.
Now no one needed her. Jane was easily able to fulfil the task of the lady of the manor, though she pretended she would need Anne's help. But Anne could not while away the remainder of her life, doing embroidery and being a companion to her sister-in-law, however much she loved her. She loved her little nephew too, and therein lay much of her unease. She longed for children of her own with a fierce passion that made her miserable, and seeing little William, toddling about on his unsteady two-year-old legs, giggling when she held out her arms to catch him, made her want to weep. She had to make a life for herself, a life that she would find fulfilling, so that her lack of children did not become an unhealthy obsession.
"But what am I to do?" she asked her aunt. "My usefulness is at an end..."
"Nonsense! You have your whole life before you. We must find you a husband—"
"Husband! At my age!" Anne gave a cracked laugh. "Who would have me?"
"We shall have to see, shall we not?" 'Aunt Georgie, I do hope you are not scheming on my behalf, because I tell you now it will not work. I am not beautiful, I am too outspoken and independent and have had my own way far too long...'Like her grandfather, she was passionate about things she cared for, could not tolerate fools, hated fops, could not abide idleness and had a fiery temper when roused.
"None of which is an impediment that I can see." 'An impediment to what?" Jane had entered the room, carrying a squirming William in her arms. The child was in a bright blue dress, which made a sharp contrast to the sombre gowns of the women. He held out his arms to Anne, who took him and sat down with him on her lap, rubbing her cheek against the silky softness of his hair.
"Marriage," Anne said. "Aunt Bartrum thinks she can find me a husband."
Jane stood and looked at her sister-in-law, while William nestled his head into Anne's shoulder and began to suck his thumb. Anne was tall and graceful; she was not pretty so much as classically beautiful. Her rich brown hair and amber eyes were her greatest assets. Jane had often wondered why Anne had never married, why she had allowed the old Earl to impose on her so much. He had an army of servants to help him; she need not have made herself his dogsbody. Was she perhaps afraid of matrimony? "Do you want a husband? You always said you did not want to marry."
"It was Aunt Bartrum's idea, not mine." 'I hope you do not think that you have to leave here, Anne," Jane said. "This has always been your home and it always will be. I should feel mortified if you thought otherwise. Whatever would we do without you?"
"Manage very well, I think," Anne said, pretending to laugh. "But there is nothing for me to do here, nothing important, that is. No raison d'être."
"Fustian! You are you, my friend, my dear sister, my bulwark. There are any number of things for you to do. You are simply feeling a little low."
"And that is why I propose to take her away and provide a little diversion," Mrs Bartrum put in. "Anne needs to see that there is more to the world than Sutton Park and its environs. Why, she did not even go to London for the Season this year..."
"Grandfather was too ill to be left," Anne put in. "That I grant you, but now you must take stock and I do not think you can do it here."
Anne gave a shaky laugh, recognising the truth of this. "But there is a great difference between providing a little diversion and finding me a husband, don't you think?"
"One may lead to the other." 'But the Season is over,'Jane said, taking William from Anne and handing him to his nurse, who had come to fetch him. "There will be no one in town now."
"And I am long past playing the field among the eligibles of the ton," Anne said, watching the nurse disappear with her burden, her heart aching to have her own child in her arms. Could she marry for the sake of having a child? Why hadn't she asked herself that question years before when it might have been a possibility? "For goodness' sake, I had my come-out ten years ago."
"I do not propose going to town," Mrs Bartrum said. "I had thought of going to Bath, but that is old fashioned and full of dowagers and bumbling old men and, though I am content to live quietly and remember the happiness I once had, that will not serve for you. We need to find some life. We'll go to Brighton."
"Brighton?" 'Yes, there are all manner of diversions there and good company. Now the war is ended, there are army officers and naval men and half the beau monde down from London..."
"Rakes and demi-reps," Anne said. "Hanging on to the coat-tails of the Regent."
Her aunt laughed. "But very diverting rakes and demireps." Seriously, she added, "They are not all like that. I know many who are honourable gentlemen and ladies who go to take the water and are perfectly respectable. We can avoid the disreputable. I intend to go and I need a companion..."
"But I am in mourning, I cannot go out and about in society..."
"Oh, yes, you can," Jane said, suddenly realising that was just what Anne needed to fetch her out of the dismals. "You know perfectly well it was Grandfather's express wish that you would not put on mourning for him and how do you obey him?" She looked at the heavy black silk gown Anne wore, with its jet buttons and black lace edging. "By resorting to black without a speck of colour and it certainly does not become you."
Her grandfather had indeed instructed her not to go into mourning for him. "You have given up your youth for me," he had said the day before he died. It had been a great effort to speak, but he would not be silenced. "It was selfish of me to allow it, but when I hand in my accounts, I want you to feel carefree and happy. Cheer if you like." He had smiled at her protests. "I mean it. Do all the things you have missed. Will you do that?" She had promised to obey him. And she would, but not today. Today she felt too sad and her black clothes were in keeping with her mood. "I know,'she told her sister-in-law. "But I could not wear colour today."
"No, but you can tomorrow. I know you have a light mauve that would be entirely suitable. And there is that cream muslin and a grey jaconet which are not vivid at all. I shall ask Harry what he thinks."
"As if Harry had the first idea about ladies' fashions! Why, he is guided by you even to what he wears himself, otherwise I declare he would wear a pink shirt with a bright orange waistcoat."
The jest lightened the atmosphere a little and they settled down to take tea while they waited for the men to return, when a more sumptuous spread would be offered. Anne, sipping her tea, was thoughtful. Should she accept her aunt's offer? It might give her time to reflect on what she should do: stay at Sutton Park being a maiden aunt to William and any other children who might arrive, until they grew up and left the nest and she became old and crotchety before her time, or venture into the world and see what it had to offer? She had still made no decision when the room was suddenly filled with men, all talking at once.
"He had a good send-off," Harry said, joining his wife. "And the whole village turned out to see the coffin go by. They stood in silence with heads bowed. I was deeply moved."