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Lady Frances frowned in concentration as she searched once again for the error that was keeping the accounts from balancing. She sighed and looked out the window hoping to clear her mind. That was a mistake. A second glance proved the figures no more comprehensible than they had been before. The sight of fields beginning to sprout after the last few warm wet days, and the fringe of green buds on the tree by the mellowed brick of the garden wall, made her long to be out-of-doors, smelling the newly washed hedgerows and feeling the warm sun on her face. "Botheration!" she exclaimed, and shut the ledger with a decisive snap. This interrupted the sound sleep of the terrier at her feet. He woke with a start and looked up expectantly, as did his more lethargic companion, a large, battered tabby cat who opened an inquiring eye.
"Come on, Wellington," she called. "I've had enough for one day. Let's get some fresh air."
Unfortunately, as they headed for the door, they were stopped in mid-escape by the sound of hooves on the gravel drive. Wellington sat down with a snort of disgust as a very agitated young lady burst into the entrance, brushing aside Higgins, the butler, in her haste to pour out her problems to Frances.
"Oh, Frances," she wailed, "my uncle has returned from Vienna and positively orders me and Cousin Honoria up to London. He insists that I come out this Season! You know Ned would be miserable there, and we can't possibly leave him here. Besides, I don't want to be a lady of fashion, simper all day long, and think of nothing but shopping and changing clothes. I want to be like you, free to enjoy the country and my books and not have to pretend to care about doughtydowagers and their eager, eligible prospects." Here she paused for breath while Higgins took her hat and gloves.
Kitty Mainwaring was a diminutive girt with large brown eyes, tumbled brown curls, and a pert nose. The impish features were overcast with worry, but otherwise it was a face that should have made its owner look forward to being the toast of the Season rather than an unwilling participant.
"Do come in, Kitty. Higgins will bring some tea directly and we can consider this further. In the meantime, come into the library. There's a fire to take off the chill, but the windows afford us a view of spring." Kitty allowed herself to be ensconced in a chair with a cup of tea and then waited patiently as Lady Frances settled herself. "Now, then, I quite agree with you that balls, flirting, and endless shopping make an empty life, but hundreds of people seem to enjoy that sort of life above any other, and it can be amusing for a while." Lady Frances tactfully refrained from mentioning the misery of standing alone at Almack's for lack of partners who would discuss something beyond the set of their coats and their hopes for favorite racehorses. Nor did she speak of her grateful return to her own books and country pursuits when the death of her father and his unusual will placed her at twenty in charge of the entire estate as well as the nine-year-old twins, Cassandra and Frederick. "Besides, my dear, you're far too lively and pretty to live alone the rest of your days. And you certainly have no prospects around here to share your life."
Kitty frowned. "But you aren't alone. You ride whenever you wish, wherever you wish. You read and write your children's books." She lowered her voice in alluding to this activity, which was a carefully guarded secret. "And you're constantly avoiding Lady Featherstone and her daughters because they're always discussing the latest fashionable on-dits."
"Yes, but I am older and more serious than you are. I don't necessarily avoid marriage, but I have found that anyone serious enough to talk of something other than fashion usually wishes to prose on about himself and his estate. I wouldn't mind sharing my life with someone interesting, but I have never met such a person. I am sure that with your looks and address you'll attract a swarm of young eligibles, and surely one among the crowd would suit." Lady Frances spoke as though she were an antidote, when in fact it had been a combination of intelligence and natural reserve rather than lack of countenance that had kept her in the less-crowded ends of London ballrooms. Eager partners initially attracted by her classical features and elegant figure were rendered uneasy by the glint of humor they saw creep into her expressive hazel eyes if they spent more than one dance describing the difficulties developing a cravat style that was intricate enough to be distinctive without being so elaborate as to be laughable. This humorous look was instantly interpreted as criticism by uneasy young aspirants to fashion, and it was not appreciated in the least. Lady Frances had not been successful with the members of her own sex either. Though brunettes were all the rage, her straight nose, tawny hair, delicate complexion, and generous inheritance made her enough of a threat to her marriage-mad companions that they were only too delighted to label her as "blue" because she actually listened to the plays and concerts she attended and refused to ridicule Lady Lucinda D'Arcourt, who, in spite of being an earl's daughter, and a wealthy one at that, was a shocking quiz and insisted on wearing the most outmoded frocks and huge bonnets. Nor would she discuss the latest escapades of Lady Caro Lamb, maintaining that she was sorry for the creature despite her shocking behavior and dampened muslins. But as the Season wore on and novelty wore off. Lady Frances had found herself left more and more to her own devices. It was with a queer son of relief that she learned of her father's death and his unusual wish that she look after the estate and her family. His loss was severe in a family as close and loving as the Cresswells, but all of the children knew that Lord Cresswell had never been happy after their mother's death ten years before.
Lord and Lady Cresswell had been unusual in their devotion to each other. Both scholars of considerable standing, they had spent the early years of their marriage traveling around Greece and the classical world, working on their own translations of the more obscure Greek poets, and even venturing into Egypt until driven home by Napoleon and his designs on the world. It was their example of close friendship, love, and shared intellectual passion that provided Frances with a model of marriage that was both inspiring and, given her limited choice, discouraging. Having explored the temples of Greece and Rome as a child, and having received an education as good as if not better man that of most of her male counterparts, she soon round herself bored and slightly disgusted with the local gentry.
Kitty broke in on these unfortunate recollections. "Perhaps you are right. It would be fun to see the Tower and all the other London sights. And how delightful it would be simply to go to Hatchard's to procure the latest books! I suppose I am mostly put off by the suddenness of it and the peremptory tone of his letter. You know how I still miss Mama and Papa and the good times Ned and I had with them. They were always so affectionate and gay that the idea of having anyone as a guardian in their place, especially Lord Mainwaring, is daunting. I am sure he is haughty and cold. Why, he never visited us when they were alive, and he barely even acknowledged our existence until they were killed. I have heard that he's terribly fashionable. And, you must admit, the idea of leaving dear old Camberly to lead a terribly stiff and a la mode life in some imposing town house is more frightening than exciting." With this. Kitty produced a heavy sheet of crested stationery and handed it to Frances for her perusal. "My dear niece, Lady Streatham has agreed to chaperone your come-out. I shall send my groom and the post chaise for you in three week's time. Mainwaring."
"It does not sound as welcoming as it might, but remember that Lord Mainwaring is a busy man and probably considers his providing you with a Season generous rather than threatening. You mustn't attribute his previous disinterest to coldness. After all, he has spent the last year attached to Castlereagh in Vienna, and several before that attending to the business interests in the colonies left him by his uncle. So you see, my dear, even were he devoted to you and Ned, he would not have been much at Camberly." Examining the bold black script and the forcefulness of the scrawled "Mainwaring," Frances privately agreed that its writer was probably as arrogant as Kitty feared.
All further reflection and conversation were halted by the eruption of a whirlwind as the large and battered tomcat dashed across the room and leapt into the safety of a nearby chair. He was closely followed by Wellington and two rather disheveled eleven-year-olds. Wellington came to a screeching halt in front of the chair, while the cat, surveying him from the safety of his perch, switched his tail tantalizingly and made a swipe with a chubby paw. "Art, arf!" was the encouraging reply as the dog, followed by his feline companion, raced to the other side of the room, narrowly missing the tea table. "Cassie, do grab Nelson before he overturns the cake stand. It's all very well for them to chase each other, but must they always do it at teatime? Freddie, pick up Wellington and put him by the fire. However did all of you get so muddy and wet? And say hello to Kitty, both of you." The twins, with mops of curly blond hair and rosy cheeks now lightly smeared with mud, were barely distinguishable except for dress. Both grinned and did as they were bidden.
"Well, you see, we heard Wellington barking, so we followed and discovered that Nelson was stuck in a tree. You know that with only one eye he can see well enough to climb up but not well enough to get back down, silly thing. Freddie tried to climb up to get him, but he wasn't tall enough to reach the first branch so I had to stand on his shoulders. I slipped the first time," added Cassie matter-of-factly, pointing to a grass stain on the front of her frock and her muddy footprints on the shoulders of her brother's jacket.
"Oh." Frances accepted the explanation with aplomb, wondering aloud to no one in particular, "When will Nelson learn to extricate himself from his scrapes on his own? If Wellington hadn't pulled him out of the pond when those nasty village boys threw him in, we never would have had him in the first place. It's not as though he were a fine specimen of the feline species, are you. Nelson?" Nelson smiled apologetically as he rubbed against the hand that rubbed just the right spots.
Freddie spoke in their pet's defense. "But he's such fun for Wellington because he knows just how to chase him and play hide-and-seek."
"Arf, arf," agreed Wellington wholeheartedly.
Frances rang for Higgins to bring more tea and cakes, the earlier supply having completely disappeared the minute the twins entered the room. London and Lord Mainwaring were forgotten as the children related the latest tale of the hole in Farmer Stubbs's fence, which had allowed the sow and her piglets into the lane and nearly caused the wreck of the squire's gig. "You should have seen it, Frances," said Freddie through a mouthful of cake. "The squire came round the corner into the lane at a slapping pace and almost ran over the runt. Wellington saved the day, though, because he herded them all to one side. What a Trojan!"
"And then Cassie nipped in and grabbed the runt just as the wheel came by."
"So I see," Frances remarked, surveying the splashes on Cassie's pinafore.
Unable to refrain from adding her bit to the tale, Cassie burst in, "Squire Tilden was so angry. You should have seen him! His face was all red and he was shouting and calling Farmer Stubbs a good-for-nothing. And he is too, because he said it would have been better for the runt to be killed. Can you credit such meanness? The runt couldn't help it that it was the smallest of the litter. So I took the dear little thing because it was squeaking so and I gave it to John Coachman because I didn't think you would want it in the house in spite of its being quite clean and pink with the sweetest ears and curly tail you've ever seen. Can we keep him, dearest Fanny, please?"
Fully aware of her younger sister's passion for animals of any type, Frances recognized that she was in for a long battle. She grimaced, but nodded, adding, "Off with you now. You must run get cleaned up and then we'll review your history lesson from this morning."
"What a good sister you are! No wonder they love you," Kitty observed.
"Well, you know, having such a pet is the best way to teach any number of valuable lessons in responsibility, estate management, even natural history, if you will. And you know how much I value my own excellent education, which was all the work of both Father and Mother. I feel, if nothing else, that I owe it to them to share it with the twins." The touch of sadness which had crept into her voice was quickly banished as she gave herself a mental shake, ringing for Higgins and adding briskly, "But you mustn't be leaving your own brother to a lonely tea. Here's Higgins with your hat and gloves. Off with you now. I shall ride over tomorrow after I've thought it over, and see if I can devise some way to help you turn Mainwaring's orders to your best advantage."
"Oh, thank you ever so much, Frances. I do hate to burden you when you have so much to attend to, but Cousin Honoria, though she lends propriety, is too flighty to contribute much else, and I have had no one to advise me how to go on since dear Papa and Mama..." Here Kitty's voice was suspended by tears.
"It's no trouble at all, and I am happy to help," Frances assured her, but refrained from commenting that advice from her was probably far more sensible than any Kitty would have gotten from two such hopelessly romantic and indulgent parents as the late Lord and Lady Mainwaring had been.