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'Well?' said Letitia, closing the door of the parlour behind her, shutting off the gentle hum of voices. 'What do you think? Shall you beg Mama to come and rescue me, or shall you tell her how capable I am?'
Garnet placed an arm through hers and pressed it to her side. 'Mama knows how capable you are, dearest. She simply didn't want you to do this all on your own, that's all. It doesn't fit in with her plans for any of us, least of all her eldest daughter.'
'Well' Letitia smiled, acknowledging the truth 'she always knew I'd go down a different path. She must have expected it. A pity she couldn't find time to come and see for herself, though. She knows how to make her displeasure felt, doesn't she?'
Persephone, Garnet's twin, was like her sister in everything except in the degree of assertiveness. 'Oh, Mama's displeasure is no rare thing these days, Lettie,' she said. 'You know how easy it's been to set up her bristles since we lost Papa. You're well out of it, but not too far for us to visit whenever we like.'
'You approve, then?'
'Of course we do,' the twins chorused. 'Very select. Seven lovely young ladies. Hanging on your every word. So respectful. Yes, Miss Boyce, no, Miss Boyce.'
'Stop!' Letitia begged them, laughing. 'It's only their first term. They'll soon be pitching the gammon like the rest of us.'
The white hallway was bright with spring sunshine that bounced off the jug of creamy lilac blooms and shone in patches upon the pink-toned Axminster rug. Through two open doors could be seen a polished post-chaise with the Boyce crest upon the panel, a liveried postilion sitting erect upon one of the horses while another waitedon the pavement beside the folding steps.
A large bay gelding was brought to a standstill behind the coach, its rider showing no sign of impatience as the three, with arms linked, came to stand beneath the elegant white portico, still finding last-minute messages to send, approvals to be repeated, thanks and farewells mixed like potpourri.
'Lord Rayne is to escort us back to London,' Persephone whispered, unable to prevent a deeper shade of pink creeping into her cheeks. 'He's so gentlemanly, Lettie.'
'He's taking us to Almack's this evening,' Garnet added, her eyes shining with excitement. 'It will be the most horrendous bore, but Mama insists on it.'
This, Letitia knew, was intended to convince her that they would not enjoy it much and that she would enjoy it less, even if she too had been invited by the handsomest beau of their acquaintance. She glanced up at him, then wished she had not, for he caught her eye in a look that seemed to reflect, with added amusement, a certain perception that was by no means enthusiastic. Without prejudice, her glance might have agreed with her sisters' description of him as the most perfect tulip, the best-dressed, the most eligible parti, a Corinthian out of the very topmost drawer.
But Letitia was prejudiced by the other epithets she had heard, not so glowing, that although he was wealthy and titledand who in their right minds could ignore that?he was also a rake. And what was her mother doing to allow her younger sisters to be seen exclusively in his company, she would like to have known. Granted, her lovely sisters had reached their twenty-second birthday some months ago, quite a serious matter for any ambitious mother. But Lord Seton Rayne, younger son of the Marquess of Sheen, must by now have had every heiress in London hurled at him, despite his reputation, and still he had not made a permanent choice.
The look Letitia caught, the one that made her turn hastily away, seemed to have read her like a book. His slow blink returned to her, telling her in words as clear as the town crier that she might disapprove all she liked, but she had nothing to fear, that unmarried females who ran seminaries were of no interest to him except as objects of amusement, however well connected they might be.
But if Letitia hoped to avoid an introduction, it was not to be. 'Come,' said Garnet, gently urging her forward. 'Will you not allow me to present Lord Rayne to you before we leave? My lord, you said how you longed to meet our elder sister. Well, here she is.'
He bowed from the saddle, touching the brim of his grey beaver with the silver knob of his whip, his dark eyes taking in her tall figure as ifshe thoughthe was about to make a bid at Tattersalls for a good general-purpose sort of hack. 'Miss Boyce,' he said, 'I am pleased to meet you at last. I had begun to suspect that you were a figment of your sisters' imaginations.'
'I can well believe it, my lord,' she replied, unsmiling. 'I suppose you must meet so few women of independence, these days.' Making it clear that this briefest of exchanges was at an end, she turned away to place a kiss upon her sisters' cheeks, to shoo them into the carriage and to watch them move off, waving merrily.
Responding to a signal from his rider, the bay gelding took his place on the far side of the carriage and pranced away, swishing his tail as if to cock a snook at the lone figure on the pavement who could not quite understand why she felt so buffle-headed and gauche. Had she been unnecessarily defensive? Had she taken his greeting the wrong way? Would he have noticed? Did it matter if he had?
She walked back into the shadowy hall, studied the nearest brass doorknob, then turned it and entered the room, relieved to be back in her natural element. Seven heads lifted, sure that Miss Boyce would find something complimentary to say about their drawings of daffodils.
It was not that she begrudged her sisters a single moment of fun with the pick of London's available bachelors, never having enjoyed being caught up in the social whirl of balls, routs and drawing-rooms, house-parties and assemblies. Her twin sisters did, and popular they were, too. Well mannered, well dressed and gregarious, they graced every event with their petite charm and blonde curling hair, not least because there were two of them. Good value by any hostess's standards. By their demanding mother's standards they were worth their weight in gold and a liability, for she could not conceive how one could be married without the other, and where did one find two equally wealthy titled bachelors, these days? The twins were just as sceptical.
The problem of mates for her eldest daughter had rarely occupied Lady Boyce's sleepless nights as it did with the twins, for Letitia might as well have been a boy for all the interest she showed in finding a husband. For her, the schoolroom had never been a place to escape from, her father's vast library had been a favourite haunt, and a visit to a museum, a lecture on the structure of the ode, or a discussion on Greek vases and their classification was more in her line than an obligation to dine with her mother's gossipy guests in their gracious Mayfair home. She did, of course, do her duty in this respect, but most of her friends were artists, poets, politicians and writers.
Her late father had understood his daughter perfectlyher socialite mother did not. After her father's sudden death in the hunting field, Letitia had made her bid for complete freedom away from her mother's dominance. Her father would have approved, though it was her mother's elder brother, Uncle Aspinall, who had helped her to purchase Number 24 Paradise Road in Richmond, in the county of Surrey. He had also been the only one of her relatives, apart from her sisters, to approve of her plan to open a seminary there.
'A seminary?' Lady Boyce had said, as if her daughter had blasphemed. 'How do you ever expect to attract a husband, Letitia, if you're stuck in a seminary with young gels all day? Really, how can you be so vexatious?'
'I shall not be stuck in it all day, Mama,' she had said. 'It's not going to be that kind of seminary. And they won't be much younger than seventeen, just on the eve of their coming-out. There's so much they ought to know at that age,' she added, remembering the deficiencies of Mrs Wood's Seminary for the Daughters of Gentlemen. 'If Papa had not talked to me about interesting things, I would have been as tongue-tied as most of the other girls at Mrs Wood's.'
And tongue-tied is one thing no one could ever accuse you of being,' her mother retorted, not intending the compliment. 'But I wish you would consider my feelings for once, Letitia. How I'm going to explain this to my friends I really don't know. They may look on eccentricity in the older generation as something to be expected, but no one expects it from a twenty-four-year-old who ought to be turning her mind to raising a family. It's most embarrassing.'
'It was never my wish to be an embarrassment, Mama, and I have nothing against men, or marriage, or families, either. But I have never been able to understand why educating one's mind is acceptable in a man, but frowned on in a woman. Papa never thought women's brains were inferior to men's, did he? It was he who taught me to read.'
'Your Papa, God rest his soul, had radical views about most things, Letitia, but when he left you a sizeable legacy to do with as you pleased, I doubt if he ever thought it would please you to run completely wild, buy your own house and make an utter cake of yourself.'
'Uncle Aspinall doesn't think so, Mama. And thank heaven for it. Without his help I don't think I could have managed half so well.'
This comparison did nothing to mollify Lady Boyce. 'Aspinall,' she snapped, 'has no children of his own, which is why he knows so little about what parents want. I hardly expected he would side with me on this matter, and I was right as usual, but if he likes the idea of having a blue-stocking for a niece, there's little I can do about it. Indeed I suspected you were inclined that way when you tried to conceal a Latin dictionary in your reticule when we went to Lady Aldyth's rout party. Was there ever such a trial to a devoted mother?' Lady Boyce's imposing figure described a convincing swoon that would have done justice to Mrs Siddons, landing gracefully on a striped brocade settee with lion's paws feet.
It was from both parents that Letitia had inherited the height that had not afflicted her sisters to the same extent. For a woman, she was taller than average, which had never done much to help when she was obliged to look down upon so many of her dancing partners. Sitting down with men to talk was more comfortable for both parties, Letitia being blessed with a serene loveliness that, combined with an ability to talk interestingly and without affectation on any number of current affairs, captivated the more liberal-minded men of her acquaintance. Whether it helped for her to have fine ash-blonde hair that strayed in wisps over her face and neck resisting all efforts to contain it, or to have large eyes the colour of thunderclouds rimmed by unusually dark lashes, or to have a figure that Juno herself would have been proud to own, were not things that occupied Letitia's mind, for in the wide unchartered territory of men's preferences she was lamentably ignorant.
The priority in most men's minds, her mother had told all three of her daughters, were that they should remain innocent, be adept at all the social graces and, above all, show no inclination to be bookish. If there was anything a man deplored above all else, it was a woman who knew more than he did on any subject except domestic matters. The twins had no wish to argue with that, but Letitia understood that it was far too generalised to be true, for there were men she knew personally who had accepted her exactly as she was, bookish or not. Unfortunately for Lady Boyce, these same men were not interested in marrying her eldest daughter, either, because they were already married or too engrossed in their own special subjects to be leg-shackled to a wife and family.
If Letitia was affected by this lopsided state of affairs, she never let it show except, occasionally, by an inclination to pity both the men and women who lived by such shallow conventions. Nevertheless, the stark truth was that book-learning and marriage rarely mixed and that, as she had now earned a reputation as being 'Lady Boyce's unconventional eldest daughter', she was highly unlikely to find a mate of haut ton as her mother would have preferred.
'What will people say?' whined Lady Boyce for the fiftieth time. 'That I threw you out to make shift for yourself? You have no need to earn your own living, Letitia. It's simply not done by women of your standing, you know.'
But it had been done, and so far Lady Boyce had been too busy to visit Number 24 Paradise Road, relying on the twins' information to fuel the smouldering fires of her disapproval. Naturally, she urged them to tell Letitia about the ball she was planning, the guests she would be entertaining, the visits, the soirees, the titled men they were meeting. They had brought her a copy of the newly published novel by the author of The Infidel, which all society had talked about last year. They were sure it would not be available in Richmond for some time, though their mother had deemed it a wasted gesture. 'Lettie will not read that kind of thing,' she had told them.
'What kind of thing, Mama?' they had asked, innocently.
'That kind of thing. Novels. Racy novels.'
'Is it racy, Mama?'
'Oh, I don't know, dears. It looks racy to me. What's it called? Waynethorpe Manor? Sure to be.'
'So you haven't read it, Mama?'
'Me? Read such rubbish? Why, no, of course not.'
'Then how can you judge it, Mama?'
'Oh, I flicked through it when I was in Hatchards, and I could tell. I don't see Letitia reading it unless it explains how to tell a Turner from a Reynolds, which I'm sure I don't care about unless there's a difference in the price.'
Meant to tease, the conversation veered predictably into areas about which Lady Boyce had strong views, but no knowledge. The twins smiled and took the book to Richmond, just the same.
Letitia picked up the brown paper package and opened it, finding the three volumes of brown leather tooled with gold lettering. She peeped at the title page of the first one.
A Novel in Three Volumes by the Author of The Infidel
Printed for the Mercury Press, Leadenhall Street