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A Wallflower Christmas
By Lisa Kleypas
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2008 Lisa Kleypas
All rights reserved.
"It's official," Lillian, Lady Westcliff, said with satisfaction, setting aside the letter from her brother. "Rafe will reach London in precisely a fortnight. And the clipper's name is the Whirlwind, which I think is quite apt in light of his impending betrothal."
She glanced down at Annabelle and Evie, who were both on the parlor floor working on a massive circle of red velvet. They had gathered at Lillian's London house, Marsden Terrace, for an afternoon of tea and conversation.
At the moment Annabelle and Evie were making a tree skirt, or rather trying to salvage the fabric from Lillian's previous efforts. Evie was snipping at a piece of brocade ribbon that had been stitched unevenly on one side, while Annabelle was busy cutting a new edge of fabric and pinning it.
The only one missing was Lillian's younger sister, Daisy, who lived in Bristol with her new husband. Annabelle longed to see Daisy and find out how marriage suited her. Thankfully they would all be together soon for the Christmas holiday in Hampshire.
"Do you think your brother will have any difficulty convincing Lady Natalie to marry him?" Annabelle asked, frowning as she encountered a large, dark stain on the fabric.
"Oh, not at all," Lillian said breezily. "He's handsome, charming, and very rich. What could Lady Natalie possibly object to, aside from the fact that he's an American?"
"Well, Daisy said he's a rake. And some young women might not —"
"Nonsense!" Lillian exclaimed. "Rafe is not at all a rake. Oh, he's sown a few oats, but what red-blooded man hasn't?"
Annabelle regarded her doubtfully. Although Lillian's younger sister Daisy was generally regarded as a dreamer and a romantic, she had a streak of clear-eyed pragmatism that made her judgments quite reliable. If Daisy had said their oldest brother was a rake, there was undoubtedly strong evidence to support the assertion.
"Does he drink and gamble?" Annabelle asked Lillian.
A wary frown. "On occasion."
"Does he behave in rude or improper ways?"
"He's a Bowman. We don't know any better."
"Does he pursue women?"
"Has he ever been faithful to one woman? Has he ever fallen in love?"
Lillian frowned at her. "Not that I'm aware of."
Annabelle glanced at Evie with raised brows. "What do you think, Evie?"
"Rake," came the succinct reply.
"Oh, all right," Lillian grumbled. "I suppose he is a rake. But that may not be an impediment to his courtship of Lady Natalie. Some women like rakes. Look at Evie."
Evie continued to snip doggedly through the brocade ribbon, while a smile curved her lips. "I don't l-like all rakes," she said, her gaze on her work. "Just one."
Evie, the gentlest and most soft-spoken of them all, had been the one least likely to capture the heart of the notorious Lord St. Vincent, who had been the definitive rake. Although Evie, with her round blue eyes and blazing red hair, possessed a rare and unconventional beauty, she was unbearably shy. And there was the stammer. But Evie also had a reserve of quiet strength and a gallant spirit that seemed to have seduced her husband utterly.
"And that former rake obviously adores you beyond reason," Annabelle said. She paused, studying Evie intently before asking softly, "Is St. Vincent pleased about the baby, dear?"
"Oh, yes, he's —" Evie broke off and gave Annabelle a wide-eyed glance of surprise. "How did you know?"
Annabelle grinned. "I've noticed your new gowns all have front and back pleats that can be let out as your figure expands. It's an instant giveaway, dear."
"You're expecting?" Lillian asked, letting out a tomboyish whoop of delight. She launched off the settee and dropped beside Evie, throwing her long arms around her. "That is capital news! How are you feeling? Are you queasy yet?"
"Only when I saw what you had done to the tree skirt," Evie said, laughing at her friend's exuberance. It was often difficult to remember that Lillian was a countess. Her spontaneous nature had not been subdued one whit by her new social prominence.
"Oh, you should not be on the floor," Lillian exclaimed. "Here, give me the scissors, and I'll work on this dratted thing —"
"No," Evie and Annabelle said at the same time.
"Lillian, dear," Annabelle continued firmly, "you are not to come anywhere near this tree skirt. What you do with a needle and thread should be considered a criminal act."
"I do try," Lillian protested with a lopsided grin, settling back on her heels. "I start out with such good intentions, but then I get tired of making all those tiny stitches, and I start to hurry through it. But we must have a tree skirt, a very large one. Otherwise there will be nothing to catch the drips of wax when the tree candles are lit."
"Would you mind telling me what this stain is from?" Annabelle pointed to a dark ugly splotch on the velvet.
Lillian's grin turned sheepish. "I thought perhaps we could arrange that part in the back. I spilled a glass of wine on it."
"You were drinking while sewing?" Annabelle asked, thinking that explained quite a lot.
"I hoped it would help me to relax. Sewing makes me nervous."
Annabelle gave her a quizzical smile. "Why?"
"It reminds me of all the times my mother would stand over me while I worked on my sampler. And whenever I made a mistake, she rapped my knuckles with a ruler." Lillian gave a self-deprecating grin, but for once the amusement didn't reach her lively brown eyes. "I was a terrible child."
"You were a dear child, I'm sure," Annabelle said gently. She had never been quite certain how Lillian and Daisy Bowman had turned out so well, given their upbringing. Thomas and Mercedes Bowman somehow managed to be demanding, critical, and neglectful, which was quite a feat.
Three years earlier the Bowmans had brought their two daughters to London after discovering that even their great fortune could not induce anyone from the New York upper circles to marry the girls.
Through a combination of hard work, luck, and a necessary ruthlessness, Thomas Bowman had established one of the largest and fastest-growing soap companies in the world. Now that soap was becoming affordable for the masses, the Bowmans' manufactories in New York and Bristol could scarcely keep up with the demand.
It took more than money, however, to achieve a place in New York society. Heiresses of undistinguished bloodlines, such as Lillian and Daisy, were not at all desirable to their male counterparts, who also wanted to marry up. Therefore London, with its ever-growing pool of impoverished aristocrats, was fertile hunting ground for American nouveaux riches.
With Lillian, ironically, the Bowmans had reached their highest pinnacle in having married her to Marcus, Lord Westcliff. No one could have believed that the reserved and powerful earl would wed a headstrong girl like Lillian. But Westcliff had seen beneath Lillian's brash façade to the vulnerability and fiercely loving heart she tried so hard to conceal.
"I was a hellion," Lillian said frankly, "and so was Rafe. Our other brothers, Ransom and Rhys, were always a bit better behaved, although that's not saying much. And Daisy would take part in my troublemaking, but most of the time she daydreamed and lived in her books."
"Lillian," Annabelle asked, carefully rolling a length of ribbon, "why has your brother agreed to meet with Lady Natalie and the Blandfords? Is he truly ready to marry? Has he need of the money, or is he seeking to please your father?"
"I'm not certain," Lillian said. "I don't think it's the money. Rafe has made a fortune in Wall Street speculations, some of them a bit unscrupulous. I suspect he may finally have tired of being at loggerheads with Father. Or perhaps ..." She hesitated, a shadow crossing her face.
"Perhaps?" Evie prompted softly.
"Well, Rafe affects a carefree façade, but he has never been a terribly happy person. Mother and Father were abominable to him. To all of us, really. They would never let us play with anyone they thought was beneath us. And they thought everyone was beneath us. The twins had each other, and of course Daisy and I were always together. But Rafe was always alone. Father wanted him to be a serious-minded boy, so Rafe was kept isolated from other children. Rafe was never allowed to do anything that Father considered frivolous."
"So he eventually rebelled," Annabelle said.
Lillian grinned briefly. "Oh, yes." Her amusement faded. "But now I wonder ... what happens when a young man is tired of being serious, and also tired of rebelling? What's left after that?"
"Apparently we'll find out."
"I want him to be happy," Lillian said. "To find someone he could care about."
Evie regarded them both thoughtfully. "Has anyone actually met Lady Natalie? Do we know anyth-thing about her character?"
"I haven't met her," Lillian admitted, "but she has a wonderful reputation. She's a sheltered girl who came out in society last year and was quite sought after. I've heard she is lovely and exceedingly well bred." She paused and made a face. "Rafe will frighten her to death. God knows why the Blandfords are advocating the marriage. It must be that they need the money. Father would pay anything to pump more blue blood into the family."
"I wish we could speak with s-someone who is acquainted with her," Evie mused. "Someone who might advise your brother, give him little hints about things she likes, her f-favorite flowers, that sort of thing."
"She has a companion," Lillian volunteered. "A poor cousin named Hannah-something. I wonder if we could invite her to tea before Rafe meets Lady Natalie?"
"I think that's a splendid idea," Annabelle exclaimed. "If she's even a little forthcoming about Lady Natalie, it could help Rafe's case immensely."
"Yes, you must go," Lord Blandford said decisively.
Hannah stood before him in the parlor of the Blandford home in Mayfair. It was one of the smaller, older houses in the fashionable residential district, tucked in a little enclave near Hyde Park on the west.
Comprised of handsome squares and broad thoroughfares, Mayfair was home to many privileged aristocratic families. But in the past decade there had been new development in the area, oversized mansions and towering Gothic-style houses cropping up in the north, where the recently moneyed class was establishing itself.
"Do anything you can," Blandford continued, "to help facilitate an attachment between my daughter and Mr. Bowman."
Hannah stared at him in disbelief. Lord Blandford had always been a man of discernment and taste. She could scarcely believe that he would want Natalie, his only child, to be married off to a crass American manufacturer's son. Natalie was beautiful, polished, and mature beyond her twenty years. She could have any man she chose.
"Uncle," Hannah said carefully, "I would never dream of questioning your judgment, but —"
"But you want to know if I've taken leave of my senses?" he asked, and chuckled as she nodded. He gestured to the upholstered armchair on the other side of the hearth. "Have a seat, my dear."
They did not often have the opportunity to speak privately. But Lady Blandford and Natalie were visiting a cousin who had taken ill, and it had been decided that Hannah would remain in London to prepare Natalie's clothes and personal items for the upcoming holiday in Hampshire.
Staring into the wise, kind face of the man who had been so generous to her, Hannah asked, "May I speak frankly, Uncle?"
His eyes twinkled at that. "I have never known you to speak otherwise, Hannah."
"Yes, well ... I showed you Lady Westcliff's invitation to tea as a courtesy, but I had not intended to accept it."
"Because the only reason they would want to invite me is to ferret out information about Natalie, and also to impress me with all the supposed virtues of Mr. Bowman. And Uncle, it is obvious that Lady Westcliff's brother is not nearly good enough for Natalie!"
"It appears he has been tried and convicted already," Lord Blandford said mildly. "Are you so severe upon Americans, Hannah?"
"It's not that he's American," Hannah protested. "Or at least, that's not his fault. But his culture, his values, his appetites are entirely foreign to someone like Natalie. She could never be happy with him."
"Appetites?" Blandford asked, raising his brows.
"Yes, for money and power. And although he is a person of consequence in New York, he has no rank here. Natalie isn't used to that. It's an awkward match."
"You're right, of course," Blandford surprised her by saying. He settled back in his chair, weaving his fingers together. Blandford was a pleasant, placid-faced man, his head large and well shaped, the bald skin hugging his skull tightly and then draping in more relaxed folds around his eyes, cheeks, and jowls. The substantial framework of his body was lank and bony, as if nature had forgotten to weave the necessary amount of muscle to support his skeleton.
"It is an awkward match in some regards," Blandford continued. "But it may be the saving of future generations of the family. My dear, you are very nearly a daughter to me, so I will speak bluntly. There is no son to inherit the title after me, and I will not leave Natalie and Lady Blandford to the questionable generosity of the next Lord Blandford. They must be provided for. To my profound regret, I will not be able to leave a satisfactory income for them, as most of the Blandford monies and lands are entailed."
"But there are Englishmen of means who would dearly love to marry Natalie. Lord Travers, for example. He and Natalie share a great affinity, and he has generous means at his disposal —"
"Acceptable means," Blandford corrected quietly. "Not generous. And nothing close to what Bowman has now, not to mention his future inheritance."
Hannah was bewildered. In all the years she had known Lord Blandford, he had never displayed an outward concern for wealth. It was not done among men of his station, who disdained conversations about finance as bourgeois and far beneath them. What had prompted this worry over money?
Reading her expression, Blandford smiled morosely. "Ah, Hannah. How can I explain adequately? The world is moving altogether too fast for men like me. Too many new ways of doing things. Before I can adjust to the way something changes, it changes yet again. They say before long the railway will cover every green acre of England. The masses will all have soap and tinned food and ready-made clothing, and the distance between us and them will grow quite narrow."
Hannah listened intently, aware that she, with her lack of fortune and undistinguished birth, straddled the line between Blandford's own class and "the masses."
"Is that a bad thing, Uncle?"
"Not entirely," Blandford said after a long hesitation. "Though I do regret that blood and gentility are coming to mean so little. The future is upon us, and it belongs to climbers like the Bowmans. And to men like Lord Westcliff, who are willing to sacrifice what they must to keep pace with it."
The earl of Westcliff was Raphael Bowman's brother-in-law. He had arguably the most distinguished lineage in England, with blood more blue than the Queen's. And yet he was known as a progressive, both politically and financially. Among his many investments, Westcliff had garnered a fortune from the development of the locomotive industry, and he was said to take a keen interest in mercantile matters. All this while most of the peerage was still content to garner its profits from the centuries-old tradition of maintaining tenants on its private lands.
"Then you desire the connection to Lord Westcliff, as well as the Bowmans," Hannah said.
"Of course. It will put my daughter in a unique position, marrying a wealthy American and having a brother-in-law such as Westcliff. As the wife of a Bowman, she will be seated at the lower end of the table ... but it will be Westcliff's table, and that is no small consideration."
"I see," she said pensively.
"But you don't agree?"
No. Hannah was far from persuaded that her beloved Natalie should have to make do with an ill-mannered boor as a husband, merely to have Lord Westcliff as a brother-in-law. However, she was certainly not going to impugn Lord Blandford's judgment. At least not aloud.
"I defer to your wisdom, Uncle. However, I do hope that the advantages — or disadvantages — of this match will reveal themselves quickly."
Excerpted from A Wallflower Christmas by Lisa Kleypas. Copyright © 2008 Lisa Kleypas. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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