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In a charming breakfast parlour overlooking a sweep of wintry parkland in the county of Nottingham, three people were partaking of the first meal of the day in an atmosphere of quiet refinement and elegance.
Miss Ross placed her slice of toast neatly upon her breakfast plate, wiped her fingers in a ladylike manner with her linen napkin and smiled at her sister-in-law.
'Over my dead body.'
'Dessy!' Charlton spluttered into his morning coffee. Decima felt dizzy, as though something inside her had snapped. Had she really just said that?
Charlton put down his cup and wiped his lips with an irritable dab. 'What is the reason for that outburst? Hermione merely suggested that we should pay a visit this afternoon to our neighbours the Jardines. I told you about them—they have only been at High Hayes for six months and are a most charming family.'
'Who just happen to have a most charming and eligible gentleman staying with them, if what Hermione told me last night is correct.' Some stranger was inhabiting her body, uttering all the things she had always thought and had never dared articulate.
Nine years of increasingly desperate attempts by her family to marry her off had left Decima with an acute sense of when another 'suitable' match was threatening. She always did as she was bid and trailed along obediently to make painful conversation to the unfortunate gentleman concerned.
Obediently and spinelessly, she told herself, staring blankly at the platter of ham and eggs before her half-brother. Now, without any conscious volition on her part, it seemed the spineless worm was finally turning.
'We could have visited them at any time in the past fortnight, but I collect this gentleman only arrived two days ago and therefore we must go now,' she added, heaping coals on the blaze.
She glanced out of the window, suppressing a shiver despite the warmth of the room. The lowering sky was threatening snow after a week of dry, cold weather, but to escape this fresh humiliation she was quite ready to pack her bags and set forth at once. Why had walking out never occurred to her before? It was hardly as though she were a prisoner with nowhere else to go.
'Why, yes, Mrs Jardine's brother. An unmarried, titled gentleman as it happens, but that is not why I suggested we call.' Lady Carmichael, an unconvincing liar at the best of times, faltered to a halt as Decima's grey eyes came to rest on her and looked imploringly at her husband for support.
'One does not wish to intrude upon family Christmas gatherings,' Charlton blustered, slapping down his newspaper. His wife jumped. 'Naturally we could not call before.'
Decima regarded her half-brother with a calm that she was far from feeling. What she wanted to do was enquire bitterly why he persisted in humiliating her by parading her in front of yet another potential suitor whose lukewarm attempts at civility were bound to remind her yet again why she was still a spinster at the age of twenty-seven. But even her new-found rebellious courage failed her at that point.
'We have made upward of a dozen calls this holiday, Charlton, and have received as many,' she said mildly. 'Why should the Jardines alone be so exclusive?'
Really, Charlton's expression of baffled frustration would be amusing—if only she did not know that he was quite incapable of understanding her feelings and would most certainly plough on with his insensitive matchmaking come hell or high water.
'It is nothing to do with Mrs Jardine's brother,' he stated with unconvincing authority, ignoring her question. 'I don't know why you cannot oblige Hermione by accompanying her on a social call, Dessy.'
'Well, Charlton, one reason is that I will be leaving today.' Decima put the lid on the preserve jar, concentrating on stopping her hand shaking. Never before had she been able to stand up to his bullying, but then, she saw in a flash of self-realisation, never before had she been legally and financially free of him. At least, she would be in two days' time, on New Year's Day.
'What! Don't be absurd, Dessy. Leaving? You have hardly been here a sennight.' Around the walls the footmen stood, blank-faced. Charlton ignored their presence as usual; it never occurred to him that browbeating his sister before an audience of what he considered to be menials might cause her distress, or them discomfort.
'Two weeks and a day, actually,' Decima interjected, and was ignored.
'I made certain that you would stay here at Longwater for at least a month. You always stay a month at Christmas.'
And I told you when I arrived that I intended staying for a fortnight, did I not, Hermione?'
'Why, yes, but I did not regard it…'
And Augusta will be expecting me. So I must finish my breakfast and set Pru to packing or the morning will be well-advanced before we set out.' Charlton was becoming alarmingly red. Decima took a last bite of toast she found she no longer had any appetite for and turned to smile at the butler. 'Felbrigg, please will you send to the stables and ask the postilions to have my carriage at the front door for half past ten?'
'Certainly, Miss Ross. I will also send a footman up with your luggage.' Decima suspected that Felbrigg rather approved of her; he was certainly able to ignore his master's infuriated gobblings with aplomb.
'You will do no such thing, Dessy! Just look at the weather, it will be snowing in a minute.' As she got to her feet Charlton glared past her in frustrated rage to a portrait of his own father, side by side with the petite figure of their mother. 'I can only assume that you get this stubborn, disobliging streak from your father, along with so much else. You certainly do not inherit it from our dear mama.'
Decima glanced at Hermione's distressed face and bit back the bitter retort that was on her lips. The worm that was turning seemed to be a full-grown adder, but to let it loose now would only wound her sister-in-law. She forced a smile. 'It was a lovely stay, Hermione, but I really must be leaving now or Augusta will fret.'
Decima made herself walk calmly to the door. As Felbrigg shut it behind her, she heard Hermione say with disastrous clarity, 'Oh, poor dear Dessy! What are we going to do with her?'
Six miles away Viscount Weston raised a dark and sceptical eyebrow at his youngest sister. 'What are you up to, Sally? You know I said this was a flying visit and I was leaving by the end of the week.'
'Up to? Why, nothing, Adam dear, I only wanted to know if you were going to be here in case our neighbours, the Carmichaels, call.' Lady Jardine fussed with the coffee pot. 'Another cup?'
'No, thank you. And what is the attraction of the Carmi-chaels?' Sally assumed an air of innocence, belied by her heightened colour. Adam smiled slightly—Sal had always been as easy to read as a book. An eligible daughter?'
'Oh, no, not a daughter,' she replied, with what he could tell was relief at being able to deny something.
An ineligible middle-aged sister,' his brother-in-law put in suddenly, emerging from behind his Times with an irritable rustle of newsprint. 'Carmichael's desperate to get her off his hands by all accounts. I do not know why you let yourself get drawn into this silly scheme of Lady Carmichael's, Sally. If Adam wants a wife, he is more than capable of finding one himself.'
'She is not middle-aged,' his affronted wife snapped. 'She is under thirty, I am certain, and Hermione Carmichael tells me she is intelligent and amiable—and very well-to-do.'
Adam is in no need of a wealthy wife,' her loving spouse retorted, 'and you know as well as I do what intelligent and amiable means. She'll be as plain as a pikestaff and probably a bluestocking to boot.'
'Thank you, George, a masterful piece of deduction if I may say so. I gather neither of you has set eyes on the lady?' Adam flicked a crumb off his coat sleeve and thought about what his brother-in-law had said. He was certainly in no need to hang out for a well-dowered bride, but as for finding himself a wife, he was not so sure.
Not sure whether he ever wanted to be leg-shackled and not sure either that the woman for him was there to be found in any case. With a ready-made and eminently satisfactory heir already to hand, the matter was one that could be very comfortably shelved.
'No, we have not met her.' Sally sounded sulky. 'But I am sure they will call today—look at the weather, anyone can see it is about to snow soon and tomorrow might be too late.'
'It will certainly be too late, my dear.' Adam stood up and grinned affectionately at his favourite sister. 'In view of the weather, I will be setting out for Brightshill this morning.'
'Running shy?' Sir George enquired with a straight face.
'Running like a fox before hounds,'Adam agreed amiably, refusing to be insulted. 'Now, don't pout at me, Sal; you know I said this would only be a short stay. I've a house party due in two days, so I'd have to be leaving tomorrow morning at the latest in any case.'
'Wretch,' his loving sister threw at him as he left the room. 'I declare you are an unrepentant bachelor. You are certainly an ungrateful brother—you deserve a plain bluestocking!'
Decima stared unseeing out of the carriage window at the passing landscape. It gave her no pleasure to be at outs with Charlton and Hermione; she would have quite happily stayed another week at Longwater if only they had left her in peace. Cousin Augusta, the placid eccentric whose Norfolk home she shared, would greet her return with pleasure, or her absence for a little longer with equanimity—just so long as she had her new glasshouse to occupy her.
This ability not to fuss was much prized by Decima, although she did wish sometimes that Augusta could comprehend how miserable her other relatives' attempts at matchmaking and their scarcely veiled pity made her. But then Augusta had never had any trouble doing exactly what she wanted, when she wanted to, and found it difficult to understand Decima's compliance.
Widowed young with the death of her elderly, rich and extremely dull husband, Augusta had emerged from mourning and scandalised all and sundry by declaring that she was devoting herself to gardening, painting—very badly, as it turned out—and rural seclusion.
At the age of five and twenty Decima, in disgrace for failing to please when paraded in frilly pink muslin before a depressing dowager and her equally depressing and chinless son, was sent to rusticate in Norfolk. The cousins formed an instant attachment and she was allowed to stay there.
'Out of sight and out of mind,' she had said hopefully at the time. Although not, it had proved, completely out of mind. She suspected that Charlton and her various aunts made notes at regular intervals upon their calendars that read 'Marry Off Poor Dear Dessy', and took it in turns to summon her to stay while they produced yet another hapless bachelor or widower for her. And always, meekly and spinelessly, she had gone along with their schemes, knowing each and every one was doomed to failure. And each and every one left another scar on her confidence and her happiness.
Enough was enough, she had decided while helping Pru fold garments into her travelling trunk. Why it had taken until breakfast this morning for the penny to drop and for her to realise that, by coming into control of her inheritance, she had also come into not just the ability but the right to control her own life, she did not know. It was part and parcel of the passivity she had shown in the face of her family's constant reminders of what a disappointment she was to them. Of course, the kinder of them agreed, she not could actually help it. She was a sweet girl, but what, with her disadvantages, could one expect?
Decima bit her lip. If she looked critically at her life since she was seventeen she could see it as a series of evasions, of passive resistance aimed at stopping people doing things to her. Well, now it was time to start being positive. Just as soon as she had decided what it was she wanted to be positive about—that was the first thing.
She certainly had much to learn about taking control of her life. Why, it had just taken three months, since her twenty-seventh birthday, for her to realise that the fortune, which she had always known she possessed, was the key to more than financial independence. Charlton had been very cunning, giving her a generous allowance that more than covered her needs and her occasional fancies—nothing to rebel against there, no reason to grasp the prospect of access to her entire capital with desperation.
After today, Decima decided, she would leave immediately on each and every occasion in the future when her relatives tried to matchmake. If she was not there to hear them, what did it matter how much they lamented her shortcomings?
She was reviewing this resolution, and deciding that it was an admirable one for New Year, when Pru exclaimed, 'Look at this weather, Miss Dessy! This is taking an age—we only passed that dreadful ale- house, the Red Cock, twenty minutes ago.'
Startled out of her reverie, Decima focused on the view. It was indeed alarming. Although it was only about two in the afternoon, the light was heavy and gloomy as it fought its way through the swirling snowflakes. Great mounds of snow hid the line of roadside hedges, the verges were an expanse of unbroken white and the trees, which at this point formed a little coppice, were already bending under their burden.
'Oh, bother.' She scrubbed at the glass, which had clouded with her warm breath. 'I thought we would make Oakham for a late luncheon quite easily, now we will be lucky to arrive there for supper. I suppose we will have to stay at the Sun in Splendour overnight.'
'It's a good inn,' the maid remarked. 'It will be no pain to stay there, and in this weather I don't expect there'll be that many folks out on the roads. You should get a nice private parlour with no trouble.' She sneezed violently and disappeared into a vast handkerchief.
The prospect of a roaring fire, an excellent supper and the Sun's renowned feather beds was appealing. And there would be no one to nag her. She could kick off her shoes, drink hot chocolate curled up in a chair with a really frivolous novel and go to bed when she felt like it. Decima contemplated this plan with some smugness until the carriage came to a sudden halt.