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Wedding Bells for Beatrice
By Betty Neels
MacMillan Publishing Company.Copyright © 1995 Betty Neels
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLADY DOWLEY'S Christmas party was in full swing, an event which achieved the very pinnacle of social life in the village of Little Estling, remotely situated as it was some nine miles from Aylesbury and well away from the main road. Remote though it was, it had more than its fair share of landed gentry and the retired professional classes scattered in and around the small place, carrying on tradition: cricket in summer, garden parties, church bazaars, carol-singing at Christmas ...
The large ornate drawing-room in Lady Dowley's Victorian mansion was full of people, not because she was especially liked in the neighbourhood but because she offered refreshments of a kind most of them were quite unable to afford: smoked salmon, Parma ham, delicious bits and pieces poised on minuscule scraps of toast. The wines were good too; her late husband had assembled a nice cellar before he died. She was an overbearing woman, still handsome in a middle-aged way and prone to interfere in other people's affairs and with a deep-rooted conviction that she was always right. It would have upset her very much to know that her friends and acquaintances pitied her and, despite not liking her over-much, would be prepared to go to her aid if it should ever be required.
Happily unaware of this, she surged to and fro, being gracious to those she considered a little beneath her socially and effusive to those she saw as her equals, and presently she fetched up before a middle-aged, thick-set man with a calm wise face and shrewd eyes.
"Dr Crawley, how delightful to see you." She glanced around her. "And your dear wife?" She didn't give him time to answer. "And your lovely daughter?"
Dr Crawley said comfortably, "They are here, Lady Dowley, no doubt having a good gossip with someone or other. You're keeping well? And Phoebe?"
"I told her that she simply had to come - I go to all the trouble of asking any number of interesting people." She looked over his shoulder. "You must excuse me; there is a very old firm friend - do remember me to your wife if I shouldn't see her ... Perhaps she will come to tea soon."
Dr Crawley made a non-committal noise. His wife, a sweet-tempered woman with a retiring disposition, was none the less the granddaughter of an earl, therefore to be cultivated by his hostess. Dr Crawley, whose family had lived on the outskirts of the village for generations, and who knew every single inhabitant, gave a derisive snort and then turned to see who was tapping him on the shoulder.
His daughter Beatrice was a head taller than he, a splendidly shaped girl standing five feet ten inches tall in her bare feet and as pretty as a picture. She had light brown hair, long and straight and coiled in the nape of her neck, large grey eyes with sweeping lashes the same colour as her hair, a delicate nose and a wide, sweetly curved mouth above a determined chin. She was smiling.
"Father, cheer up - we'll be able to leave in another half-hour or so. I've left Mother with Mrs Hodge discussing knitting patterns." She stopped abruptly as a pair of hands covered her eyes from behind. "Derek, it is you, isn't it? Has the path lab thrown you out at last?"
She put up a hand to her forehead. "Don't you dare to make my hair untidy, it took me hours ...!"
The hands dropped and she was turned round, smiling, offering a cheek for his casual kiss, aware that there was someone with him. A man of vast proportions with grey hair cut very short and heavy-lidded blue eyes. It was an unpleasant shock to see that he was looking at her with a detached coolness so that her smile faded. He doesn't like me, she thought uncertainly, but we don't even know each other ...
"Beatrice, this is Gijs van der Eekerk - Gijs, this is Beatrice Crawley; we've known each other since we were trundled out in our prams. Years ago."
She shot him a look - any minute now he would tell this man how old she was. She held out a hand and said, "How do you do?" and had it engulfed in a firm grip. "Are you visiting Derek?" she asked, wanting to hear his voice.
"For a day or so." He stood, looking down at her, making no effort to hold the kind of social conversation she expected.
"You're Dutch?" she asked for the sake of something to say. "You know England well?"
"I come over fairly frequently - this is a very pretty part of the country."
She agreed and wished heartily that Derek and her father would stop whatever they were saying to each other and help out with the talk.
"What a pity it is that convention prevents us from saying what we wish to say and forces us to make small talk about the weather."
He had a deep voice and his English was faultless with only a slight accent. She stared at him, at a loss for words for a moment. Then she said, "That wouldn't do at all." She spoke sharply. "But I think you would like to."
He smiled then, a small smile which made her feel foolish although she had no idea why. "Indeed I would, and I must warn you that at times I do." He paused. "Speak my mind."
"Then I am sorry for whoever has to listen to you," she said with a snap. "You'll excuse me? I see someone I want to talk to."
She left him and he watched her go before joining her father and his friend.
She knew everyone there, going from group to group, exchanging gossip, and all the while knowing that she would have to find the wretched man and apologise for her rudeness. All the same, she reminded herself, she had meant it.
Her mother and father were on the point of leaving when she saw him again, talking to the Reverend Mr Perkins. She made her way slowly towards them, intent on getting the business over since they weren't likely to meet again.
The rector saw her first. "Beatrice - I've been wanting a word with you - come over to the rectory in the morning, will you ...?" He looked apologetically at the man beside him. "Christmas, you know - such a busy time." He held out a hand. "A pleasure meeting you, and I hope it may be repeated." He beamed at Beatrice. "I leave you in good hands; Beatrice is a sweet girl." He trotted off, unaware of the effect of his words.
Excerpted from Wedding Bells for Beatrice by Betty Neels Copyright © 1995 by Betty Neels. Excerpted by permission.
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