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Miss Philippa Wintercombe sat reading in a corner of the drawing room of Alderley Hall, while her aunt, Lady Alderley, passed cups of tea to her houseguests.
"We must settle on a play!" said Miss Lancelyn-Greene with what was doubtless intended to be a fetching pout. "Christmas is less than a week away, Lady Alderley. There must be something planned for Twelfth Night! Otherwise the gentlemen will simply play billiards all day, and sit for ever over their port and brandy after dinner."
She cast an affronted glance at Lord Bellingham, who, deprived of masculine drinking companions, was reduced to snoring on the sofa, a neglected brandy on the wine table beside him.
"Very true, my dear," agreed Lady Alderley, delicately not looking at her somnolent brother-in-law as she poured a cup of tea and passed it to Mrs Lancelyn-Greene. "And that would never do. "Tis inconvenient enough that Dominic is not come home yet, but to have him spending all his time in the billiard room would be very bad indeed. I am not quite sure why he has chosen to remain away so long, but it is time and more that he was home."
Her sister, Lady Bellingham, was heard to mutter something about irresponsible young men.
"Does he know that I am here?'asked Miss Lancelyn-Greene, patting a golden curl into place.
Philippa pulled her shawl more closely about her against the sort of draught inevitable in a building built four hundred years earlier to keep out people rather than cold air, and told herself yet again that her cousin Dominic's marriage plans were no bread and butter of hers.
"I was most careful to make sure he knew that you and your mama were being kind enough to bear me company,"Lady Alderley assured Hermione.
Hermione's pout became a trifle sulky. "Oh, I dare say he is still in a miff because I said he should not go back to war last spring. As if the war could not be won without him! If only he had admitted that he was being foolish, all would have been well."
"Indeed," said Mrs Lancelyn-Greene, sipping her tea daintily. "One would have hoped that Lord Alderley might have seen the foolishness of his decision, and it is very sad that he has lost the sight in one eye, but I dare say there is no real harm done."
"Quite so," agreed Lady Bellingham.
Pippa's self-control wobbled dangerously. "Gentlemen," she said, "do tend to take broken engagements personally. Selfish of them, no doubt, but there it is." She took great pride in the dispassionate tone she achieved, when she would have liked nothing better than to fling her book at Hermione's head.
Lady Bellingham and Mrs Lancelyn-Greene favoured her with flinty stares over their tea cups, but neither deigned to reply.
Hermione, however, took the remark at face value. "Very true, Philly," she said. "Why Dominic chose to break the engagement is a mystery to me!"
The suggestion that Dominic had done anything so dishonourable as break his betrothal was too much for Pippa. Abandoning irony, she opted for the direct approach. "I was under the impression that you broke the engagement, Hermione," she said bluntly, "when you told Dominic that it was unfair to expect you to wait any longer than his period of mourning for your wedding day, and that he might be killed or even come back badly wounded. You asked to be released from the betrothal, and he agreed."
The gelid look on Mrs Lancelyn-Greene's face suggested that this recollection was less than welcome. "You forget your place, Philippa!'snapped Lady Bellingham. Pippa bit her lip. Lady Bellingham had very definite ideas on what constituted her 'place' these days.
"Oh, well. That is all behind us now," said Hermione dismissively. "And if I am willing to patch up the quarrel after the horrid way he behaved--sneaking off at dawn, not even saying goodbye to anyone!" She swelled in indignation at the memory, and swept on, "I am sure he has no need to be in a fit of the sullens!"
This time Pippa said nothing and returned to her book. She would have to count the stars in the Milky Way to expurgate all the unladylike things she was likely to say.
"I dare say," said Lady Alderley in placatory tones, "that dear Dominic is as much in love as ever, but is merely being a little stubborn." She pursed her lips. "I cannot understand what else would have kept him away all this time now the surgeons have mended his hand. Why, there will be scarce anyone of quality in town at the moment!"
Knowing her cousin, Pippa suspected that 'dear Dominic'was amusing himself in town with company of quite inferior quality.
Hermione sniffed. "I suppose he thinks he is teaching me a lesson,'she said. "Anyway, the important thing now is to plan our theatricals and decide upon a play. He must come home for Christmas, after all."
Lady Bellingham looked puzzled. "I thought you were settled on Cinderella or The Sleeping Beauty."
"Oh, yes,'said Hermione, "but when I thought about it--why, "twas silly!"
Despite herself, Pippa looked up again, her curiosity piqued. Hermione went on. "Why, in The Sleeping Beauty, she is asleep the whole time! They do dance at the ball in Cinderella, but there is so little time for them to become acquainted and fall in love! Ridiculous!"
Pippa stifled the very cynical thought that a lack of acquaintance had never proved a barrier to matrimony with an ancient title--even if the title's dibs weren't quite in tune. As an heiress, Hermione had enough dibs to tune up an entire orchestra.
"Is the lack of acquaintance such a problem?" she asked mildly. "They are fairytales. Surely if one can believe in a fairy with a wand, or a girl sleeping for a hundred years, one need not baulk at love at first sight."
"That is not at all to the point, Philippa," said Lady Alderley. "I am sure that it will be far more effective if Dominic and dear Hermione--ah, that is, the Prince and Princess are onstage together a great deal." She and Mrs Lancelyn-Greene exchanged a meaningful glance.
"More believable," elaborated Mrs Lancelyn-Greene. "Oh," said Pippa. "I see."
She did indeed see now. She was not so lost in the mists of iambic pentameter as to be totally blind to what was afoot. Everyone wanted to see the quarrel between Hermione and Dominic resolved in an advantageous marriage.
"Do you think Dominic will like playing Prince Charming, Hermione?"
Hermione stared. "Why ever should he not?"
Pippa could think of several reasons, but it was rather like something not working in translation--if Hermione couldn't see why not for herself, then it would be useless telling her.
"Anyway, I think perhaps La Belle et la Bête will suit us best," said Hermione happily.
Pippa's book fell from suddenly nerveless fingers. "La Belle et la Bête?" she repeated.
Hermione stared. "Beauty and the Beast, Philly,'she translated in condescending tones. "Goodness! And you are supposed to be so bookish, too!"
Stung, Pippa said, "I know the story, Hermione." Temptation lured. "Rather like the story of Jephthah in the Old Testament," she added, with malice aforethought, "except that instead of sacrificing his virgin daughter outright, the father hands her over to the Beast."
"Really, Philippa!" said Lady Alderley, spots of colour flaring on her cheeks. "Must you be so crude?"
"I beg your pardon, Aunt," said Pippa. "After all,'continued Hermione, "Beauty does live in the Beast's palace. So we, er...they have plenty of time to fall in love."
Pippa felt her fingers clench into fists as she remembered Dominic's blank eyes as he rode out from Alderley to rejoin Wellington last spring, his betrothal ended. "Yes, indeed,'she said brightly. "And if you feel the ending is a trifle predictable, you could always revert to the biblical version and cut the girl's throat."
"Philippa!" In unison from LadyAlderley and Lady Bellingham. "I beg your pardon, Aunts." Judging by their expressions, Pippa's apologies convinced neither lady.
"Oh, no! We couldn't do that!" said Hermione, her large blue eyes wide. "It wouldn't be the least bit romantic!"
She turned to Lady Alderley. "I do think, though, that it is just the thing. Don't you, ma'am?"
After a final quelling glare at Pippa, Lady Alderley considered the matter. "Well, yes, dear. I do think it might answer, but it is only a story. We need a play."
Hermione dismissed that objection with a wave of one dainty hand. "Oh, that is a trifle. I am sure nothing could be easier than writing a play! I dare say I can toss it off in an evening!"
Pippa hid behind her book and forced her lips to utter stillness. "Philly? Have you some paper? And a pen? I shall start immediately."
Provided with paper, pencil, ruler, some ink and a pen, Hermione began ruling lines at the sofa table, accompanied by the occasional snore.
A moment later she put down the ruler and said crossly, "Oh, dull stuff!"
Mrs Lancelyn-Greene said sweetly, "Poor darling. But Miss Wintercombe is idle. Perhaps she might rule your lines while you start writing."
Lady Alderley concurred. "An excellent idea. Philippa will not mind at all." She turned to Pippa. "Will you, dear?"
"Not at all," lied Pippa, accepting retribution for the suggestion that Hermione should have her throat cut onstage.
Collecting a supply of paper, the pencil and ruler, she settled her little writing box on her lap and began to rule lines. Mrs Lancelyn-Greene and Lady Alderley settled to a discussion of the relative merits of April weddings as opposed to May... "One must consider the weather of course," said Mrs Lancelyn-Greene.
"Very true," said Lady Alderley, frowning. "Although," she added, "earlier might be rather better than later."
A horrified squeak from Hermione heralded disaster. "Oh! I have broken a nail on this wretched pen cutter."
Resigning herself to the inevitable, Pippa held out her hand for the offending cutter and the pen. It took five minutes and several attempts before the pen was trimmed to Hermione's exacting standards.
For a while there was silence as Hermione gazed at a blank page--except for the neatly ruled lines. Rather, Pippa thought, as though she expected the words to miraculously appear by themselves. Then Hermoine began painstakingly to write.
Pippa heaved a silent sigh of relief. Once you started, it was much easier.
A moment later Hermione said crossly, "Really, this is dreadfully boring! And I have ink all over my fingers! You did not trim the pen properly, Philly. Come and look!"
Pippa stood up and walked over to the sofa table. She cast a glance at the current page. It already had several crossings out and numerous spelling mistakes adorned with smudges.
"Beauty has an a in it," she observed, reaching for the pen and cutter again. "Between the e and the u."
Hermione glared at her.
Unperturbed, Pippa trimmed the pen and, despite her disapproval, said, "You might find it useful to jot down a list of the characters and give them names."
"Characters?" 'The people in the play," explained Pippa patiently. "Beauty's sisters, her father. I think she had a couple of brothers, too, though you could cut them. Then you would know who was meant to be speaking. And to whom. Then you need to divide the action into scenes. And acts."
Hermione stared. "Really? How dull. But then, I dare say you could do that, couldn't you, Philly?"
Pippa opened her mouth to refuse, but Lady Alderley chimed in, "An excellent idea, Hermione. Philippa will not mind in the least."
Wishing she had not succumbed to her better nature and offered any suggestion at all, Pippa sat down again and listed the main characters. Then, thinking her way through the story, she jotted down a list of suggested scenes, dividing them into three acts. Finished, she handed the pages to Hermione.
"There you are,'she said.And, unable to resist a final jab, added, "Unless you would like me to write the play for you as well?"
Hermione looked affronted and Mrs Lancelyn-Greene gave Pippa a glare that would have chilled an iceberg. Utterly unconcerned, Pippa returned to ruling lines. Lady Alderley, Lady Bellingham and Mrs Lancelyn-Greene resumed their quiet discussion of possible wedding dates, interrupted only by snores from the sofa.
Several moments passed and a corresponding number of ruled sheets were crumpled and hurled in the general direction of the fireplace.
Then, "Do you know..." Hermione mused '...that is quite a good notion."
"What is, dear?" asked Lady Alderley. "That Philly should write the play," explained Hermione. "But then it would not be your play, Hermione,'Pippa pointed out, cursing mentally that she had not retired to bed, or at least kept her mouth shut.
"Oh, but it was all my idea," said Hermione. "You're just writing it down. And of course I shall, you know, tidy it up a little afterwards," she continued happily. "It will still be my play. How nice my name will look on the programme--you can do those too, Philly, can you not? I dare say there will not be time to have them properly printed." Then, in tones of great condescension, she added, "I suppose you could put your own name under mine. As an assistant or something."
"How frightfully kind of you," said Pippa as sincerely as she could.
"A very good idea, Hermione," said Lady Alderley. "It will give Philippa something to do." 'And if Dominic doesn't come home?" asked Pippa. Lady Alderley waved that aside. "Nonsense. I wrote to Dominic yesterday,'she said. "Dear Cousin Alex was very happy to take it up to town for me and put Dominic in mind of his duty!"
Two mornings later, Dominic James Martindale, sixth Viscount Alderley, cracked open an eye and groaned. Even with the curtains closed, the bleak grey of a cloudy, early December day struck like a battery of nine pounders. His head ached, and he'd had more than enough brandy last night to ensure that he slept the clock round. What the hell had woken him? He groped on the other side of the bed. No. Empty now.
The noise came again. Footsteps.
Someone was moving round in the parlour of his lodgings. Briggs, his valet. He eased his aching head back to the pillow and swore. Hell and the devil. It was Briggs's day off. There shouldn't be anyone there--unless...no, Clarissa had left. His memory focused; Briggs had removed her before leaving.
Swearing, he staggered out of bed and pulled on a dressing gown. Catching sight of himself in the looking glass on the tallboy, he flinched. His appearance had not been improved by a night of wine--well, brandy; women--only one; and song--not song exactly, but Clarissa had certainly been vocal.
He needed a shave, but in this state he'd probably cut his own throat. Tugging the sash of the dressing gown tight, he stalked out of his bedchamber and along the short corridor to the parlour. Anyone possessing the infernal cheek to invade his lodgings could take him as they found him.