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The clock in the reception hall downstairs chimed noon. Having spent much of the morning working and re-working a piece which transcribed the basics of her theory on the mathematics of beauty into a form which could be easily understood by the readers of The Kaleidoscope journal, Cressie now stared unhappily at her reflection in the tall looking-glass. Had she allowed sufficient time to summon her maid, perhaps her unruly curls would bear less resemblance to a bird's nest, but it was too late now. The morning gown of brown-printed cotton patterned with cream and burntorange flashes and trimmed with navy satin ribbon was one of her favourites. The sleeves, contrary to the current fashion, were only slightly puffed, and came down almost to her knuckles, hiding her ink-stained fingers from sight. The skirts were, also contrary to fashion, not quite bell-shaped, and the hem was trimmed with only one flounce. Sombre and serious was the effect she was aiming for. Cressie pulled a face. Washed-out, plain and rather ragged around the edges was what she had achieved. 'As usual,' she muttered, turning away from her reflection with a shrug.
Making her way downstairs, she braced herself for the encounter ahead. Whatever the reason behind her father's request to speak with her, she could be certain it was not going to be a pleasant experience. 'Be a man,' Cressie said to herself with a defiant swish of her skirts as she tapped on the door of the book room. Curtsying briefly, she took a seat in front of the imposing walnut desk. 'Father.'
Lord Henry Armstrong, still handsome at fifty-five years of age, nodded curtly. 'Ah, Cressida, there you are. I had a letter from your stepmother this morning. You may congratulate me. Sir Gilbert Mountjoy has confirmed that she is increasing.'
'Again!' Bella had already produced four boys in eight years, there was surely no need for yet moreand in any event, Cressie had supposed her father to be well past that sort of thing. She screwed up her nose. Not that she wanted to contemplate her father and Bella and that sort of thing. She caught his eye and attempted to rearrange her expression into something more congratulatory. 'Another half-sibling. How veryagreeable. A sister would make a most pleasant change, would it not?'
Lord Armstrong drummed his fingers on his blotter and glared at his daughter. 'I would hope Bella would have the good sense to produce me another son. Daughters have their uses but it is sons who provide the wherewithal to secure the family's position in society.'
He made his children sound like chess pieces in some arrogant game, Cressie thought bitterly, though she chose not to voice it. She knew her father well enough, and this was a mere preamble. If he wanted to speak to her it invariably meant he wanted her to do something for him. Daughters have their uses right enough!
'To the matter in hand,' Lord Armstrong said, bestowing on Cressie the sort of benevolent smile that had averted a hundred diplomatic incidents and placated a myriad of courtiers and officials across Europe. The effect on his daughter was rather the opposite. Whatever he was about to say, she would not like. 'Your stepmother has not been in her customary rude health. The good Sir Gilbert has confined her to bed. It is most inconvenient, for with Bella indisposed, it means Cordelia's coming-out will have to be postponed.'
Cressie's rather stiff smile faded. 'Oh no! Cordelia will be most upset, she has been counting the days. Cannot my Aunt Sophia take Bella's place for the Season?'
'Your aunt is a fine woman and has been an enormous support to me over the years, but she is not as young as she was. If only it were just a question of Cordelia. I have no doubt that your sister will go off quickly, for she's a little beauty. I have Barchester in mind for her, you must know, he has excellent connections. However, it is not simply a question of Cordelia, is it? There is your own unmarried state to consider. I had intended that Bella would act as escort for you both this Season. You cannot prevaricate indefinitely, Cressida.'
The veteran diplomat looked meaningfully at his daughter, who wondered rebelliously if her father had any idea of what he'd be up against, trying to coerce Cordelia into wedding a man whose full, gleaming set of teeth owed their existence in his mouth to their removal from the gums of one of his tenants, if rumour was to be believed. 'If Lord Barchester is your ambition for Cordelia,' Cressie said, keeping her eyes fixed on her clasped hands, 'then it is to be hoped that he is more enamoured with her than he was with myself.'
'Hmm.' Lord Armstrong drummed his fingers again. 'That, Cressida, is an excellent point.'
'It is?' Cressie said warily. She was not used to praise of any sort from her father.
'Indeed. You are twenty-eight now.'
'No matter. The point is you have scared the devil out of every eligible man I've put your way, and the fact is that I intend to put some of them your sister's way. They'll not want you standing beside her like a spectre when I do. As I mentioned earlier, your Aunt Sophia is too advanced in years to adequately present two gals in one Season, so it seems I must choose. Cordelia will likely fly off the shelf. I think my ambitions for you will have to be temporarily put into abeyance. No, do not, I pray, feign disappointment, daughter,' Lord Armstrong added caustically. 'No crocodile tears, I beg you.'
Cressie's clasped hands curled into fists. Over the years, it had become her determined policy never to let her father see how easily he could bruise her feelings. That he still managed to do so was one of the things which vexed her most. She understood him very well yet still, no matter how predictable were his barbs, they invariably hurt. She had long ceased thinking that he would ever understand her, far less value her, but somehow she felt compelled to keep trying. Why was it so difficult to fit her emotions to her understanding! She sighed. Because he was her father and she loved him, she supposed. Though she found it very hard to like him.
Lord Armstrong frowned down at the letter from his spouse. 'Do not, either, delude yourself that you are entirely off the hook. I have another pressing problem that you can assist me with. Apparently that damned governess of the boys has fled her post. James put a pig's bladder filled with water in her bed, and the woman left without giving any notice.' The diplomat gave a bark of laughter. 'Chip off the old block, young James. We used to get up to the same jape at Harrow when I was a stripling.'
'James,' Cressie said feelingly, 'is not high-spirited but utterly spoilt. What's more, where James leads Harry follows.' She might have known that this would turn out to be about her father's precious sons. She loved her half-brothers well enough, even if they were thoroughly spoilt, but her father's preoccupation with them to the exclusion of everything, and everyone, else, grated.
'The nub of the matter is that my wife is clearly in no position to secure a suitable new governess posthaste, and I myself, it goes without saying, have many weighty matters of state to attend to. Wellington relies on me completely, you know.' It was an illusion, Cressie knew, but she could swear that her father visibly puffed up as he made this pronouncement. 'However, my boys' education must not be interrupted,' he continued, 'I have great plans for all of them. I have pondered on this, and it seems to me that the solution is obvious.'
'It is?' Cressie said doubtfully.
'It certainly is to me. You, Cressida, will be governess to my sons. That way, Cordelia will be able to come out this Season as planned. Placing you in the position of governess removes you most expediently from Cordelia's arena, and spares you from being a burden by making use of that brain you are so proud of. My sons' education will not be jeopardised. With a bit of luck we may even have Cordelia married by the autumn. And there is the added bonus of having you on hand at Killellan Manor while Bella is indisposed, thus providing you with the opportunity to forge a more amenable relationship with your stepmother than hitherto.' Lord Armstrong beamed at his daughter. 'If I say so myself, I have devised a most elegant and satisfactory solution to a potentially difficult situation. Which, one supposes, is why Wellington values my diplomatic skills so highly.'
Cressie's thoughts were, however, far from diplomatic. Presented with what she had no doubt was a fait accompli, her instinct was to find some way of sabotaging her father's carefully laid plans. But even as she opened her mouth to protest, it came to her that perhaps she could turn the situation to her advantage.
'You wish me to act as governess?' Her brain worked feverishly. Her brothers were taxing, but if she could manage to teach James and Harry the principles of geometry using the primer she had written, it might provide her publishers with the evidence they needed to commit to a print date. Freyworth and Son had initially been most enthusiastic when she first visited their offices, and most reassuring on the subject of discretion. The firm had, Mr Freyworth told her, several lady writers on their books who wished, for various reasons, to remain anonymous. Surely such practical proof as she would obtain from successfully instructing her brothers would persuade him that her book really was a viable commercial proposition? Selling her primer would be the first step to financial independence, which was the first step towards freedom. And who knew, if she managed his precious boys better than any of the other governesses, she might finally gain her father's approbation. Although that, Cressie conceded, was unlikely.
Even more importantly, accepting his proposal meant that she would not have to spend a seventh Season mouldering away on the shelf while her father schemed and plotted an alliance. So far, he had stopped short of taking out an advertisement on the front page of the Morning Post along with the intimations of patents pending, but who knew what he might do if he became desperate enough. One daughter, without looks but of excellent lineage and diplomatic connections, offered to ambitious man with acceptable pedigree and political aspirations. Tory preferred, but Whig considered. No tradesmen or time wasters.
Now she thought of it, it was a distinct possibility for, as Lord Armstrong never tired of pointing out, she possessed neither the poise nor beauty of any of her other sisters. That she was the clever one was no consolation whatsoever to Cressie, when she thought of how incredibly foolishly she had behaved during that fiasco of her third Season, by surrendering her one marketable asset to Giles Peyton. That she could have been so desperateCressie shuddered. Even now, the memory was mortifying. It had been a disaster in every possible way save oneher reputation, if not her hymen, was intact, for her erstwhile lover and intended husband had hastily taken up a commission shortly afterwards, leaving her in sole possession of the unpalatable facts.
In more recent Seasons, her father's attempts to marry her off had smacked of desperation, but he had never once flagged in his manipulations. He thought he was manipulating her now, but if she kept her cards close to her chest, she might just manage to turn the tables. Cressie felt a small glow inside her. Whether it was self-satisfaction or a feeling of empowerment she wasn't sure, but it was a feeling she liked. 'Very well, Father, I will do as you ask and act as governess to the boys.'
She kept her voice carefully restrained, for to hint that she wished to do as he said would be a major tactical error. It seemed she had hit just the right note of reluctant compliance, for Lord Armstrong nodded brusquely. 'Of course they will require a proper male tutor before they go to Harrow, but in the meantime the rudiments of mathematics, Latin and GreekI believe I can rely on you for those.'
Lord Armstrong, seeing that his remark had hit home, smiled. 'I am aware, Cressida, that you consider your erudition rather above the requirements of my sons. It is my fault. I have been an over-indulgent parent,' he said in all sincerity. 'I should have put an end to these studies of yours long ago. I see they have given you a most inflated view of your own intellect. It is no wonder that you have failed to bring any man up to scratch.'
Was it true? Was she conceited?
'Next year,' Lord Armstrong continued inexorably, 'when Cordelia is off my hands, I shall expect you to accept the first offer of marriage I arrange for you. It is your duty, and I expect you to honour it. Do I make myself clear?'
It had always been made abundantly clear to her that, as a daughter, as a mere female, her purpose was to serve, but her father had never before laid it out so clearly and unequivocally.
'Cressida, I asked you a question. Do I make myself clear?'
She hesitated, torn between bitter hurt and impotent fury. Silently, she pledged that she would use this year to find a way, any way save telling him the awful, shameful truth of her dalliance with Giles, of placing herself firmly on the shelf and just as importantly, of establishing herself as an independent and wholly un-dependent female. Cressie glared at her father. 'You make yourself abundantly clear.'
'Excellent,' Lord Armstrong replied with infuriating calm. 'Now, to other matters. Ah' he broke off as a tap on the study door heralded the arrival of his butler 'that will be him now.'
'Signor di Matteo awaits his lordship's pleasure,' the butler intoned.
'The portrait-painter fellow,' Lord Armstrong casually informed his daughter, as if this should be the most obvious thing in the world. 'You shall relieve your stepmother of that burden also, Cressida.'