"Your cheeks are looking alarmingly flushed, Christine," her mother remarked, setting her embroidery down in her lap the better to observe her daughter. "And your eyes are very bright. I hope you are not coming down with a fever."
Christine laughed. "I have been at the vicarage, playing with the children," she explained. "Alexander wanted to play cricket, but after a few minutes it became clear that Marianne could not catch a ball and Robin could not hit one. We played hide-and-seek instead, though Alexander thought it was somewhat beneath his dignity now that he is nine years old until I asked him how his poor aunt must feel, then, at the age of twenty-nine. I was it all the time, of course. We had great fun until Charles poked his head out of the study window and asked us—rhetorically, I suppose—how he was ever to get his sermon finished with all the noise we were making. So Hazel gave us all a glass of lemonade and shooed the children off to the parlor to read quietly, poor things, and I came home."
"I suppose," her eldest sister, Eleanor, said, looking up from her book and observing Christine over the tops of her spectacles, "you did not wear your bonnet while you frolicked with our niece and nephews. That is not just a flush. It is a sunburn."
"How can one poke one's head into small hiding places if it is swollen to twice its size with a bonnet?" Christine asked reasonably. She began to arrange the flowers she had cut from the garden on her way inside, in a vase of water she had brought with her from the kitchen.
"And your hair looks like a bird's nest," Eleanor added.
"That is soon corrected." Christine rumpled her short curls with both hands and laughed. "There. Is that better?"
Eleanor shook her head before returning her attention to her book—but not before smiling.
There was a comfortable hush in the room again while they all concentrated upon their chosen activities. But the silence—tempered by the chirping of birds and the whirring of insects from beyond the open window—was broken after a few minutes by the sound of horses' hooves clopping along the village street in the direction of Hyacinth Cottage, and the rumble of wheels. There was more than one horse, and the wheels were heavy ones. It must be the carriage from Schofield Park, Baron Renable's country seat, which was a mere two miles away, Christine thought absently.
None of them took any particular notice of the carriage's approach. Lady Renable often used it when she went visiting, even though a gig would have served her purpose just as well, or a horse—or her feet. Eleanor often described Lady Renable as frivolous and ostentatious, and it was not an inaccurate description. She was also Christine's friend.
And then it became obvious that the horses were slowing. The carriage wheels squeaked in protest. All three ladies looked up.
"I do believe," Eleanor said, peering out the window over her spectacles again, "Lady Renable must be coming here. To what do we owe the honor, I wonder. Were you expecting her, Christine?"
"I knew I should have changed my cap after luncheon," their mother said. "Send Mrs. Skinner running upstairs for a clean one if you will, Christine."
"The one you are wearing is quite becoming enough, Mama," Christine assured her, finishing the flower arrangement quickly and crossing the room to kiss her mother's forehead. "It is only Melanie."
"Of course it is only Lady Renable. That is the whole point," her mother said, exasperated. But she did not renew her plea for a different cap to be sent for.
It did not take a genius to guess why Melanie was coming here either.
"I daresay she is coming to ask why you refused her invitation," Eleanor said, echoing her thought. "And I daresay she will not take no for an answer now that she has come in person. Poor Christine. Do you want to run up to your room and have me tell her that you seem to have come down with a touch of smallpox?"
Christine laughed while their mother threw up her hands in horror.
Indeed Melanie was not famed for taking no for an answer. Whatever Christine was doing, and she was almost always busy with something—teaching at the village school several times a week, visiting and helping the elderly and infirm or a new mother or a sick child or a friend, calling at the vicarage to amuse and play with the children, since in her estimation Charles and her sister Hazel neglected them altogether too much with the excuse that children did not need adults to play with them when they had one another—no matter what Christine was doing, Melanie always chose to believe that she must be simply languishing in the hope that someone would appear with a frivolous diversion.
Of course, Melanie was a friend, and Christine really did enjoy spending time with her—and with her children. But there were limits. She surely was coming here to renew in person the invitation that a servant had brought in writing yesterday. Christine had written back with a tactfully worded but firm refusal. Indeed, she had refused just as firmly a whole month ago when first asked.
The carriage drew to a halt before the garden gate with a great deal of noise and fuss, doubtless drawing the attention of every villager to the fact that the baroness was condescending to call upon Mrs. Thompson and her daughters at Hyacinth Cottage. There were the sounds of opening doors and slamming doors, and then someone—probably the coachman, since it certainly would not be Melanie herself—knocked imperiously on the house door.
Christine sighed and seated herself at the table, her mother put away her embroidery and adjusted her cap, and Eleanor, with a smirk, looked down at her book.
A few moments later Melanie, Lady Renable, swept into the room past Mrs. Skinner, the housekeeper, who had opened the door to announce her. She was, as usual, dressed absurdly for the country. She looked as elaborately turned out as if she were planning a promenade in Hyde Park in London. Bright plumes waved high above the large, stiff poke of her bonnet, giving the illusion of height. A lorgnette was clutched in one of her gloved hands. She seemed to half fill the room.
Christine smiled at her with amused affection.
"Ah, there you are, Christine," she said grandly after inclining her head graciously to the other ladies and asking how they did.
"Here I am," Christine agreed. "How do you do, Melanie? Do take the chair across from Mama's."
But her ladyship waved away the invitation with her lorgnette.
"I have not a moment to spare," she said. "I do not doubt I will bring on one of my migraines before the day is over. I regret that you have made this visit necessary, Christine. My written invitation ought to have sufficed, you know. I cannot imagine why you wrote back with a refusal. Bertie believes you are being coy and declares that it would serve you right if I did not come in person to persuade you. He often says ridiculous things. I know why you refused, and I have come here to tell you that you are sometimes ridiculous too. It is because Basil and Hermione are coming, is it not, and for some reason you quarreled with them after Oscar died. But that was a long time ago, and you have as much right to come as they do. Oscar was, after all, Basil's brother, and though he is gone, poor man, you are still and always will be connected by marriage to our family. Christine, you must not be stubborn. Or modest. You must remember that you are the widow of a viscount's brother."
Christine was not likely to forget, though sometimes she wished she could. She had been married for seven years to Oscar Derrick, brother of Basil, Viscount Elrick, and cousin of Lady Renable. They had met at Schofield Park at the very first house party Melanie hosted there after her marriage to Bertie, Baron Renable. It had been a brilliant match for Christine, the daughter of a gentleman of such slender means that he had been obliged to augment his income by becoming the village schoolmaster.
Now Melanie wanted her friend to attend another of her house parties.
"It is truly kind of you to ask me," Christine said. "But I would really rather not come, you know."
"Nonsense!" Melanie raised the lorgnette to her eyes and looked about the room with it, an affectation that always amused both Christine and Eleanor, who dipped her head behind her book now to hide her smile. "Of course you want to come. Whoever would not? Mama will be there with Audrey and Sir Lewis Wiseman—the party is in honor of their betrothal, though it has, of course, already been announced. Even Hector has been talked into coming, though you know he can never be persuaded to enjoy himself unless one of us forces him into it."
"And Justin too?" Christine asked. Audrey was Melanie's young sister, Hector and Justin, her brothers. Justin had been Christine's friend since their first acquaintance at that long-ago house party—almost her only friend, it had seemed during the last few years of her marriage.
"Of course Justin is coming too," Melanie said. "Does he not go everywhere—and does he not spend more time with me than with anyone else? You have always got along famously with my family. But even apart from them, we are expecting a large crowd of distinguished, agreeable guests, and we have any number of pleasurable activities planned for everyone's amusement, morning, noon, and night. You must come. I absolutely insist upon it."
"Oh, Melanie," Christine began, "I would really—"
"You ought to go, Christine," her mother urged her, "and enjoy yourself. You are always so busy on other people's behalf."
"You might as well say yes now," Eleanor added, peering over her spectacles again rather than removing them until their visitor had left and she could return her undivided attention to her book. "You know Lady Renable will not leave here until she has talked you into it."
Christine looked at her, exasperated, but her sister's eyes merely twinkled back into her own. Why did no one ever invite Eleanor to entertainments like this? But Christine knew the answer. At the age of thirty-four, her eldest sister had settled into middle age and a placid spinsterhood as their mother's prop and stay without any regretful glance back at her youth. It was a course she had chosen quite deliberately after the only beau she had ever had was killed in the Peninsular Wars years ago, and no man had changed her mind since then, though a few had tried.
"You are quite right, Miss Thompson," Melanie said, her bonnet plumes nodding approvingly in Eleanor's direction. "The most provoking thing has happened. Hector has been his usual impulsive self."
Hector Magnus, Viscount Mowbury, was a bookish semirecluse. Christine could not imagine him doing anything impulsive.
Melanie drummed her gloved fingers on the tabletop. "He has absolutely no idea how to go on, the poor dear," she said. "He has had the audacity to invite a friend of his to come here with him, assuring the man that the invitation came from me. And he very obligingly informed me of this turn of events only two days ago—far too late for me to invite another willing lady to make numbers even again."
Ah! All was suddenly clear. Christine's written invitation had come yesterday morning, the day after social disaster had loomed on the horizon of Melanie's world.
"You must come," Melanie said again. "Dear Christine, you absolutely must. It would be an unthinkable disgrace to be forced to host a house party at which the numbers are not even. You could not possibly wish such a thing upon me—especially when it is in your power to save me."
"It would be a dreadful shame," Christine's mother agreed, "when Christine is here with nothing particular to do for the next two weeks."
"Mama!" Christine protested. Eleanor's eyes were still twinkling at her over the tops of her spectacles.
She sighed—aloud. She had been quite determined to resist. She had married into the ton nine years ago. At the time she had been thrilled beyond words. Even apart from the fact that she had been head over ears in love with Oscar, she had been elated at the prospect of moving upward into more exalted social circles. And all had been well for a few years—with both her marriage and the ton. And then everything had started to go wrong—everything. She still felt bewildered and hurt when she remembered. And when she remembered the end . . . Well, she had blocked it quite effectively as the only way to save her sanity and regain her spirits, and she needed no reminder now. She really did not want to see Hermione and Basil ever again.
But she had a weakness where people in trouble were concerned. And Melanie really did seem to be in a bit of a bind. She set such great store by her reputation as a hostess who did everything with meticulous correctness. And, when all was said and done, they were friends.
"Perhaps," she suggested hopefully, "I can remain here and come over to Schofield a few times to join the party."
"But Bertie would have to call out the carriage to take you home every night and send it to bring you every morning," Melanie said. "It would be just too inconvenient, Christine."
"I could walk over," Christine suggested.
Melanie set one hand to her bosom as if to still her palpitating heart.
"And arrive each day with a dusty or muddy hem and rosy cheeks and windblown hair?" she said. "That would be quite as bad as not having you at all. You must come to stay. That is all there is to it. All our guests will be arriving the day after tomorrow. I will have the carriage sent during the morning so that you may settle in early."
Christine realized that the moment for a firm refusal had passed. She was doomed to attend one of Melanie's house parties, it seemed. But gracious heaven, she had nothing to wear and no money with which to rush out to buy a new wardrobe—not that there was anywhere to rush to, within fifty miles anyway. Melanie had recently returned from a Season in London, where she had gone to help sponsor her sister's come-out and presentation to the queen. All her guests—except Christine!—were probably coming from there too, bringing their London finery and their London manners with them. This was the stuff of nightmares.