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"He is a disgrace!" Mrs. Couch said. "A disgrace to the country, I say!"
Folie, her mind having drifted to the wind-whipped apple blossoms outside the window, thought for an instant that her caller was referring to the disreputable object at which Mrs. Couch was staring in indignation. Folie sought vainly for an appropriate reply—certainly Master George Couch was a disgrace, but to agree with his vehement mother on this point seemed a trifle hazardous. Mrs. Couch was no feeble dame.
George, uncowed by his mother's fury, turned to Folie and said confidingly, "Yes, ma'am, and his water is purple!"
"George!" Mrs. Couch gasped, turning an interesting shade of that color herself. "You must not—Oh!"
Folie realized that the topic was rather to do with mad old King George than His Majesty's untidy namesake regaling himself on lemon cakes in her parlor. "That is not drawing room talk, you know, George," she said, with a sidelong glance at the boy. "We shall all swoon."
"Oh, I say! I should like that!" George asserted.
"Yes, and Mama would adore it, so pray do not encourage her!" Melinda said, tossing her bright honey curls back.
"I thought Mrs. Hamilton would like to know," George said. "She's interested in that sort of—"
"George!" Mrs. Couch snapped.
Folie smiled. "You may tell me later, George, out behind the dustbins."
"Mama!" Melinda said, in much the same warning tone that Mrs. Couch had used with her son.
Folie merely replied with a superior smirk. For a full ten seconds Melinda, having matured to a beautiful and demure maiden of eighteen, managed to maintain a disapproving expression. Then her perfectly straight Grecian nose twitched, and she dropped her eyes to her lap. Several faint tremors disturbed her otherwise modest bosom.
Fortunately Mrs. Couch, their primary hope for entree into Society for Melinda's debut season, did not appear to notice this fall from grace. "It was the Prince Regent to whom I referred, George," Mrs. Couch said firmly, and then lowered her voice to a heroic whisper. "If he should go mad like his father, I know not what we shall do!"
"The first thing," Folie mused, "if they do lock him up, would be to make sure our Ladies' Committee gets supervision of the church bazaar. He owns such a number of extravagant objects, I vow we could rebuild the steeple this very year on a single estate sale."
Melinda properly ignored such disrespect toward the Prince Regent. "The papers say it is merely that he fell and sprained his ankle," she said. "He has taken to his bed to recover."
Mrs. Couch began to argue that this certainly proved the regent's mind to be weak, since any sane man of his enormous bulk must know that he could not accomplish a Highland Fling with any degree of safety. Folie watched the postman wander from door to door of the village's main street, his collar blown up against his neck and his scarf tails whipping in the spring wind. She did not expect him to cross to her door. When he did, her eyebrows lifted.
She stood up. "Now where is that Sally with more hot water for the tea? Do pardon me while I find her!"
Closing the drawing room door on Melinda's look of inquiry, she ran down the stairs in time to find the housemaid bidding the postman good day. There were two letters in Sally's hand, a thin one and a fat packet.
The cook, just coming up from the kitchen, gave Folie a dry look. "You make good speed on the stairs, ma'am, for a lady of your age."
Folie stuck out her tongue. "Just because I am thirty today! And refused to have a great number of cakes and a party, so that you have no opportunity to tell me that I eat too many sweets for my mature widow's digestion!"
"Perhaps there is a special birthday greeting, ma'am!" Sally said, proffering the post shyly.
"Perhaps it is! From our solicitors!" Folie gave the packet a mock grimace. "Always so attentive, dear Mssrs. Hawkridge and James."
She looked down at the address on the letter. For an instant she held the paper between her two hands, frowning at it. Then her face grew still. She slipped the letter into her pocket, grasped the banister, and ran up the stairs. She paused at the landing and whispered, "Pray, Sally—tell Mrs. Couch that I've taken a blinding headache and must lie down!"
* * *
Four years and three months it had been since she had seen that particular handwriting, that blue seal, the unmistakable Mrs. Charles Hamilton, the distinctive curl of the F in My dear Folly. She sat at her desk overlooking the red tulips and peeking green leaves in the back garden, smoothing open the paper.
My dear Folly.
She stared at her own name for a moment. For some reason, she hardly knew what, tears blurred the letters. She sniffed and blinked, looking up at the tulips. "Really, ma'am," she murmured reprovingly to herself.
It was nostalgia. It took her back so vividly. Four years ago, she had been just out of mourning for Charles. Good kind steady Charles, gone much too early at sixty-one. For five years before that, a married woman, she had smiled whenever she'd seen this handwriting in the post; smiled and grown as breathless as if she were falling from a high cliff, and run up the stairs to this desk just as she had today.
My dear Folly,
I have left you languishing on your lilypad for a criminal length of time, princess. Can you forgive me? A dragon distracted me, just a small one, nothing to worry about, but I pursued him into an uncommonly sultry desert (you know how India is) and seem to have lost my way there. To be candid, I recall very little of it—I have no sense of direction, which is a great trial for a knight errant—but in the end I seem to discover myself in England. I think there was a magic door or a key or something of that sort involved. At any rate, I am at Solinger and you and Miss Melinda are commanded to repair here directly. On the instant. I am her guardian, you know, since my father's death. So I may command these things. And I do.
Your Knight, Robert Cambourne
Folie shook her head. She read it again, and laughed angrily, giddily, to herself. "You must be mad!" she whispered.
An investigation of the fat packet and its contents showed that the travel plans and expenses had all been arranged by the efficient and attentive Mssrs. Hawkridge and James.
The bedroom door opened. "Whatever is it?" As Folie turned, Melinda slipped in, her pretty face clouded with worry. "What's the news?"
Folie stood up from the chair. "Your guardian wishes to see you."
"Oh." Melinda's expression relaxed. "Well, that is not so bad! Sally and Cook said that from the look upon your face, it was something very shocking."
"It is shocking," Folie said dryly. "Considering that he has not lifted a finger on your behalf in years!"
"Lieutenant Cambourne? Well, he has been in India, has he not?" Melinda's lashes swept upward. "Surely he does not expect us to travel out there!"
"No, only as far as Buckinghamshire, I'm afraid. He is at Solinger Abbey."
"Solinger! Oh, I shall like to see that place! It must be very grand."
"As grand as all the gems in India can make it, I have no doubt. But happily for our self-respect, we need not concern ourselves with vulgar calculating designs on the Cambourne fortune. He is married."
"I shall pay him no mind, then." Melinda gave a pert grin. "Besides, as a calculating hussy, I insist upon having all the sport of hunting down my own rich bachelor—perhaps a few years younger!"
"Why, today of all days, is this household so haunted by allusions to decrepitude and old age?" Folie exclaimed. "The poor gentleman is but four years older than I. But never mind, if he is too dilapidated for your taste, you shall simper prettily at him anyway. We might move to his house in town for the season if—"
"Of course! Of course! Oh, Mama, you are wicked!"
"If the notion should happen to occur to him," Folie finished gravely.
"That will be no problem. You can wrap him about your little finger," Melinda said.
"I quite doubt that. He has not written since—" Folie paused. "Shortly after your papa died, God bless him. But we shall do our best to squeeze Lieutenant Cambourne for our own nefarious purposes. You are to leave for Buckinghamshire tomorrow."
"Tomorrow! As soon as that?"
Folie waved a limp hand at the packet. "Hawkridge and James," she said helplessly. "You know how they are."
Melinda made an unladylike snort. "I know for a certainty that you can wrap them about your finger. Why should we hurry so?"
"I see no reason to delay. Your spring wardrobe is quite ready."
"But the packing—"
"Why, have you never stayed up all night to pack for a mad flight from your evil creditors? It is most diverting." She walked past Melinda, sliding a finger under her stepdaughter's chin. "Seize your gowns and what's left of your jewels, my child, and you shall be off to skin fresh pigeons!"
"Such a shady character you are, Mama," Melinda said fondly.
"I know," Folie said from beyond the door. "I really believe I should have been born a highwayman."
* * *
She finished packing for her stepdaughter at 4 a.m., long after a somnolent Melinda had fallen asleep in a chair and been coaxed off to bed. Folie decided it was best simply to stay awake until seven, when the post chaise was scheduled to arrive at their door. She made herself a cup of tea in the kitchen and sat alone at the table, reading the letter again.
Her sweet knight. From half a world away, he had come to her through his letters, whimsical and intriguing, shy and flirtatious, a unicorn stranded in the solid beef of the Indian Army.
She sipped her tea and toyed with the corner of the paper. It had been a woman's dream, of course. All an impossible fancy.
She had not been able to remain angry at him. In the days after his last letter, she had hated him; hated herself for what she had allowed to happen to her. But that had faded, slowly faded, with time and an eternity of heartache. How could she blame him for deceit, for drawing her into loving him, when she had slipped and skidded so easily down that slope herself? She could hardly remember the unhappy girl she must have been, to develop such a passion for a man who was no more than ink upon paper.
It was best, the way he had done it. She did not doubt that. Folie knew herself; she had longed to write him, to maintain a connection, to remain friends. And yet at the same time she had known how impossible it must be—that she could not keep her heart out of it.
So she had not written. Only thought of him every day of the past four years, until he was a habit, a smile and a gentle stroke of the blue cashmere shawl when she rose, a little prayer for him each night.
Only a few months after his last letter, Mssrs. Hawkridge and James had informed her that the father had passed away, and Lieutenant Robert Cambourne, being next named in the will, was now her stepdaughter's guardian. But nothing had changed, no letter had come to her from him, and Folie had ceased watching for the post.
At least, she had ceased hoping. She had thought that she would watch for the rest of her life.
But now ...
Now he asked her to come to him. Commanded it. By his letter, she thought his character must be much the same, but she was not so sure of her own. In the years after Charles' death, her heart had toughened in some places and grown softer in others. She and Melinda had become friends, and friendship had grown into a deep love.
Melinda was her priority now. Folie could remember the silent, frozen battles from her stepdaughter's childhood, but she could no longer feel them. Somewhere along the way the two women had thawed to one another—there was nothing in Folie's life more important than that Melinda should make an excellent marriage, a happy marriage. And Folie would settle somewhere close by, but not too close by, perfectly comfortable on Charles' modest pension, and there would be children to spoil and perhaps if she were fortunate some entertaining females to gossip with, and ...
And she was commanded to meet him. To go to his home, to see his wife. A wave of despair washed over her. She did not want to meet him. She wanted him to stay forever as he had been in her memory, a perfect knight. Her knight, hers alone.
Her throat closed too quickly as she swallowed another sip of tea. She wrinkled her nose. With a deep unsteady breath, she folded the letter, slipped it into her apron, and stood up to wash her cup.
* * *
"Mama, this is perfectly absurd!" Melinda exclaimed, standing between her trunk and valise on the front stoop. An early morning fog obscured most of the village street. "I will not go alone!"
"Sally will do as a companion for the journey. The letters say you will be there before dark," Folie said, bending down to check the leather buckle on the valise. "I really do not feel well enough to travel, and once you've arrived, Mrs. Cambourne will be a proper chaperon."
"If you don't feel well, then all the more reason I should remain here with you!" Melinda turned to Sally, pulling back the stylish gray hood of her cloak. "You must go for Dr. Martin directly."
"No, no!" Folie said. "It's not as bad as that. Just a touch of the headache."
Melinda looked at her suspiciously. "Certainly your eyes are quite puffy and dull," she said. "You look as if you've been weeping all night."
"Thank you so much," Folie said. "I feel as if I have been packing all night!"
"Well, I did not insist upon it! This is entirely silly. It's no wonder you feel unwell, staying up till all hours. I simply do not see why there is this great rush—"
'"There, that will be the postchaise," Folie said, straightening up at the sound of hooves and a creaking jingle that carried through the fog.
Down the street, a handsome carriage materialized, the horses moving at a slow walk jwhile the postboy, mounted on the leader, peered about at the houses. There were even two footmen up behind, a most luxurious touch. Folie lifted her hand and called out to them.
"I am not going," Melinda announced. "I will not go without you, Mama."
The vehicle came to a halt before Bridgend House. Next door, a parlor window opened and the two Misses Nunney leaned out like a pair of capped and gray-headed puppets.
"Of course you are going," Folie said under her breath. She motioned to the baggage as the two footmen leaped down. "This is all."
One of them came up the steps and bowed to her. "Mrs. Hamilton?"
"Yes," Folie said, looking up at the burly young man. In spite of his polished bow, there was an air of toughness about him, as if he could turn his hand to dock work as well as a lady's luggage. "Come, Sally, where is the small basket, the one I packed for inside the cab?"
"Here, ma'am." The maid picked up the basket.
"Put it in, then." Folie turned to the footman, who had made no move to begin loading. She waved her hand toward the trunk. "No doubt that one should be put up first," she said helpfully.
"I beg your pardon, ma'am," he said, "I'm to inquire if one of these cases is yours?"
"No, I am afraid not. I'm not well enough to travel."
Folie gave her stepdaughter a pointed glare. "Do not make a scene, Melinda. Half the village is watching. Sally, do put that basket in the chaise!"
"Beg pardon, ma'am." The footman produced a letter from his pocket. Folie tried to hide the little twist of her heart as she saw the familiar lettering. She slipped the note into her apron pocket.
The footman made another bow. "Mr. Cambourne sent instructions that you must read directly his letter that I put into your hands."
"Indeed!" Folie stood straight. "I don't believe I am under any obligation to him to do so."
"Yes, ma'am," the footman said. "Then I am not to do any loading, by Mr. Cambourne's instructions."
"I beg your pardon?" Folie exclaimed.
"Whatever has got into you, Mama?" Melinda hissed, waving cheerfully at the Misses Nunney. "Only read the gentleman's note. Perhaps it is a change of plan!"
Folie stepped back into the house, pulled the door closed and tore open the seal on his folded letter, scowling.
You are digging in your heels, I see, if you are reading this. My sweet Folly, I know this is difficult for you. You need not forgive me, or even speak to me if you like, but muster your courage. You are no coward, of that I am certain. But if you do not come now, I shall not waste time about retrieving you in person.
Excerpted from My Sweet Folly by Laura Kinsale. Copyright © 2013 Hedgehog Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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