Read an Excerpt
Rules of Engagement
By Kathryn Caskie
Warner ForeverCopyright © 2004 Kathryn Caskie
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRule One
Those whose ranks are united in purpose will be victorious.
London, April 1814
Eliza Merriweather watched her sister pace the floor of their great aunts' Hanover Square town house with such unforgiving force that she was compelled to examine the Turkish carpet for damage.
"If your aim is to wear a hole through to the wood, Grace, you've not succeeded. Best pick up your gait." Eliza grinned through the tendrils of steam rising from her teacup and relaxed back against the blissfully plump settee.
With an exasperated sigh, Grace halted. "I shall wait as long as it takes, Eliza. I will have your promise."
Eliza set the blue and cream teacup on the table and crossed her arms over her chest. "I told you I would behave. What more would you ask of me?"
"To refrain from making a spectacle of yourself at every turn, else I shall never find a husband and this entire season will be for naught!"
Eliza laughed. "Oh, how you go on. Do relax, Grace, else before you know it, strawberries will be erupting all over your pretty face."
With a little gasp of horror, Grace's gaze sought out the ancient looking glass on the wall and she frantically patted her cheeks, as if probing for any indication of blemish.
"Darling, you know I desire yourhappiness beyond my own, but I do not know how much pomp I can endure."
As Grace turned her head back to Eliza, a frustrated groan slipped out through her clenched teeth. "If you will not step into formation for my sake, then consider our aunts. Can you not do as they ask, at least for the season? You owe them that much-and more."
"No one is more grateful than I for their generosity. Heavens, they took us in. I have not forgotten."
"They did much more than that, Eliza." Grace sat down beside her. "They saw our sister into Mrs. Bellbury's School for Young Ladies. Even if our parents still lived, we never could have afforded Meredith's fees and tuition."
"I realize that, but-" "And our aunts have agreed to sponsor a season for us both. The least you could do is smile through a few balls." Eliza blew a dark wisp of hair from her face. "Yes, I could manage to survive a few. But why? I have no intention of marrying. None."
"But Eliza-" "No, my mind is set. Once this infernal season is through, I am off to Italy. I will not be dissuaded from studying painting. I won't. So I ask you, why should Aunt Letitia and Aunt Viola waste their money on gowns and adornments for me?"
Grace exhaled through her nostrils, drawing Eliza's attention back to her. "I do not understand what you hold against marriage. I, myself, cannot think of a more honorable state for a woman."
"I hold nothing against wedded bliss." If such a thing exists. In all her life, Eliza had never seen evidence of it. And most certainly not at home.
Rising, Eliza moved toward the window where a half-finished painting perched on a wooden easel, awaiting her return. With great care, she lifted it in her hands.
Breathing in the welcoming scent of the oils, she tilted the canvas slightly toward the window, allowing the afternoon light to illuminate the sun-dappled landscape she'd rendered.
"I am an artist, Grace." Still clutching the canvas, Eliza turned. "But unlike Mother, I will not allow the gift God has given me to wither and die simply because a husband demands my full attention. My art means too much to me."
Grace shook her hands in the air. "La, Eliza. Not all men are like Father. Many husbands encourage leisure pursuits." "Encourage, yes. But with marriage comes children."
She raised a sardonic brow. "There go your leisure hours. Then there will always be parties and balls to attend. And of course the staff and household must also be managed-"
"Stop." Grace clapped her hands over her ears momentarily. "Yes, a married woman has many responsibilities. But that is no reason to detest marriage so."
"I do not detest marriage," Eliza said, setting the painting against the easel back once more. "I just do not choose it for myself. After all, I see nothing wrong with following my heart instead of Society's dictates."
Eliza crossed the room and plopped down next to Grace. "Besides, not everyone excels at domestic and social pursuits so well as you, my dear." She hugged her sister close, smiling as Grace's soft golden curls tickled her cheek.
Grace nudged her away, trying very hard not to grin. Coming to her feet, Eliza moved before the waning fire. "My, but there is a chill in the air. What do you say we ask Mrs. Penny to brew a bit more tea?"
"I will not give in so easily," Grace replied. "I will have your promise. You know what this season means to me. I cannot have you spoiling it. Swear it."
"All right." Eliza placed her hand over her heart. "I swear I will do as our aunts say. But once the season has concluded, I have other plans." Eliza widened her eyes. "Sufficient?"
"It will have to do, I suppose." Eliza laughed as she extended a hand and drew Grace to her feet. Arms linked, they passed the bell pull and instead headed into the passageway for the cozy warmth of the kitchen.
In the late General's well-stocked library, Viola Featherton returned a marble-papered book to its low shelf and straightened her aching back, feeling every one of her seventy-four years.
"The gels' season must begin on proper footing," she said, turning to face her plump twin. "What will we do if we cannot find the book, Sister?"
"Stop fretting. We'll find it. Just keep looking," Letitia chided. "I tell you, it's here somewhere."
Viola was doubtful. Already scores of books had been removed from the shelves and stacked on the desk and in piles on the floor.
Resting her slight weight against her ebony cane, Viola fought back a grimace as she watched Letitia scour the eye-level library shelves. The division of labor hardly seemed fair, for if she was not mistaken, Letitia had not bent for a book even once, while she, herself, had spent the last hour upon her knees. Still, Viola knew she shouldn't begrudge Letitia. After all, her sister was the eldest, by three minutes anyway, and therefore less able to stoop than Viola. At least, so Letitia had claimed.
Mr. Edgar, their frosty-haired manservant, was perched near the top rung of a wheeled library ladder. He glanced down nervously, then squeezed his eyes closed.
Letitia set her hands on her ample hips and looked up at him. "Do open your eyes, Edgar. We shall never locate the book if you insist on such nonsense."
Edgar opened one eye, then the other, and hurriedly scanned the books on the top shelf. "I am sorry, my lady. I do not see the volume up here. May I come down now?" "Might I suggest trying the shelves behind the glass doors next?" Viola asked, smiling sweetly at Edgar as she gestured with her cane to a bookcase several feet away.
The manservant bit his lip and eased his foot down a rung. Before he could fully descend, Letitia impatiently grasped the ladder and tried to push it toward the next set of shelves.
Edgar grappled for the shelf to steady himself, but instead, three oversized volumes came away in his hands. Eyes wide, he fell to the carpet with a thud. Two wavering towers of books teetered and then toppled over him.
"Edgar!" Viola caned her way across the carpet to him. "Are you injured?"
The manservant winced, but shook his head. "You should be more careful, Letitia," Viola scolded, as she pulled a thick crimson tome off Edgar's chest and handed it to her sister. "You might have injured him."
But it seemed Letitia paid Viola no mind. Something about the book seemed to snare her interest. She slid her thick spectacles onto her nose, then turned the volume over in her hands. Her rheumy eyes brightened. "Viola, I believe Edgar has done it."
Pushing a pile of books from the library table, Letitia placed the volume on its polished surface. Her pudgy finger raced across the first two pages. She looked up at Viola. "Yes! He's located Papa's book of rules."
As Edgar climbed out from beneath the hillock of books and began the arduous task of replacing the volumes on the shelves, Viola steadied herself against her cane and joined her sister.
Her hand trembled with anticipation as she drew her lorgnette from the drawer, then held the glasses to her eyes. Squinting, she tilted her head until her poor eyes could make out the title page's bold heading.
"Why, you're right, Sister. This is it!" She gazed up at Letitia, feeling a pleased smile warm her lips. "We should begin tonight, don't you think?"
"Absolutely. Right away, in fact." Letitia whirled around. "Edgar, have our grandnieces meet us in the parlor-immediately."
Eliza and Grace were seated in the parlor when the click of walking sticks in the passageway heralded their aunts' arrival.
With great solemnity, Aunt Letitia and Aunt Viola took their places before the Pembroke table and stood as though an announcement of great import was to be made.
Aunt Viola cleared her long throat and began. "Years ago, Letitia and I were about to enter our first season when our mother died. Even for some years after the mourning period, in deference to our father's deep despair, we did not partake in the season's festivities. We were not courted. We received no offers despite the General's esteemed standing in society." A forlorn sigh escaped her. Then, quite suddenly, Aunt Viola's eyelids fluttered and she gasped a quick warning. "Spell ..."
Viola's chin hit her chest and she wavered to and fro as her eyelids fell shut.
With nary a trace of worry on her round face, Aunt Letitia guided Viola back into a seat a second before her sister's knees buckled beneath her.
Then, seeming confident Viola was not about to tumble from her chair, Aunt Letitia turned once more to face Eliza and Grace.
"Now, where did she leave off?" she asked. "Y-you received no offers," Eliza offered helpfully as she glanced at Viola, who showed no sign yet of waking from her spell. Her aunt's sudden sleeping spells were a regular occurrence in the household, and though the suddenness of them always startled Eliza, she knew she needn't be concerned. Aunt Viola would awaken soon enough, fit as a filly on a spring day.
"Right you are," Aunt Letitia replied. "When Papa died some years later, we reentered Society. But we were past the marrying age and were put on a shelf as spinsters." She reached for her sleeping sister's hand and squeezed it. "You cannot imagine the half life of a spinster. Never quite belonging. Never truly loved or appreciated-"
"But Auntie," Eliza cut in, "you are free to make your own choices. You are independent. No one tells you what you can and cannot do with your life-"
"And no one shares my bed at night. No children come to visit me. I have no grandchildren to spoil. Do you not understand, Eliza? A spinster's course is a lonely one." Tears glittered like starlight in Aunt Letitia's lashes.
The heartbreak in her aunt's voice prickled the backs of Eliza's eyes. It would be different for her, she told herself. She had her art, after all.
Aunt Viola's hand jerked, bringing a smile to Aunt Letitia's lips. "Good, good. Sister is returning to us now," she said, settling Viola's hand back atop her own knobby knee.
She looked at Eliza, then at Grace. "The point of all this is that we do not intend to allow the same fate to befall either of you." With a precise nod, she signaled to Edgar, who crossed the room and placed a thick red book before the elderly aunts.
Eliza stared at the dusty tome and puzzled over its significance. Rising, she moved to the Pembroke table and ran her finger across the book's faded gilt title. "Rules of Engagement," Eliza read aloud. She looked up at her aunts for further explanation, but they only smiled back with delighted expectation.
Opening the heavy book to its middle, Eliza quickly scanned its pages and saw it was filled with military ruses and stratagem. This was even more perplexing.
What were her aunts planning to do with a book on strategies for war? Eliza snapped her head upright. "I do not understand."
Aunt Viola raised her head slowly, then snorted and grinned. She took Letitia's proffered arm, and, finding her balance, moved to the table and closed the book. She tapped a nail on the fading cover. "Read the title, dear. Rules of Engagement. It's a primer, you see, on how to get engaged."
Aunt Letitia clapped her hands. "With this book, we have all the strategies necessary to see both you and Grace engaged by season's end. 'Twill be like the season we never had."
Eliza wavered, trying to make sense of what she'd heard. But there was no sense in this. None whatsoever. Her aunts had mistaken a military strategy text for an instruction manual for getting engaged!
"Auntie, this book is-" Grace clasped Eliza's hand and pulled her back to the settee. "Remember your promise, Eliza."
"But Grace, you do not understand, this book-" "I do not need to understand. Can you not see what this means to them?" her sister whispered.
Eliza looked at Aunt Viola, who was now cradling the precious rule book in her hands. She turned to Aunt Letitia, whose eyes were alight with hope.
Eliza squeezed her lids closed. Oh, for mercy's sake. She couldn't do it. Couldn't tell them the truth. Not without breaking their hearts.
Opening her eyes, Eliza forced a smile. "This book is exactly what we need. How lucky for us that you remembered it."
Grace released her pent breath. Skirting the table, Aunt Letitia pressed a kiss to Eliza's cheek. "We knew you both would be pleased. We shall begin at once. Edgar, bring the sherry. This is a celebration!"
Eliza and Grace joined their aunts around the table as Edgar served the libation.
A giggle of excitement escaped from Aunt Viola's lips as she set the book down again and opened it. She positioned her lorgnette and focused on the large dark heading at the top of the page-no doubt all her aging eyes could make out. "Rule One," Aunt Viola read. "Those whose ranks are united in purpose will be victorious."
"We have achieved our first objective," Aunt Letitia announced. "From this moment onward, we are one in our purpose-to see you both engaged by the end of the season."
"Hear! Hear!" Grace cheered, looking toward Eliza.
"Hear, hear," Eliza murmured, staring with shock at the crimson book between them.
What sort of madness had she just agreed to?
Excerpted from Rules of Engagement by Kathryn Caskie Copyright © 2004 by Kathryn Caskie. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.