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Irene covered a sigh as her sister-in-law continued her descriptionin detailof the gown she had purchased yesterday. It was not that Irene disliked talk of fashion; indeed, she was fonder than she cared to admit of conversations regarding styles and colors and accessories. It was listening to Maura converse about clothes that bored Irene to the point of unconsciousness, for anything Maura discussed was ultimately more about Maura and her own taste or perspicacity or beauty than it was about the subject at hand.
Maura was, quite simply, the sun around which all interests and all people circled, at least in her own mind. She was unremittingly self-centered, which Irene would not have minded so much if she had not been thoroughly dull and prosaic, as well.
Irene glanced around the room at the faces of the other women. None of their three visitors, she saw, looked as indifferent or bored as she felt. She wondered if her own expression conveyed as little of her inner reaction. It was difficult to tell, no doubt because all the well-bred ladies had been brought up, as she had, to convey a polite interest in other people's conversations, no matter how tedious they were.
Irene's mother, Lady Claire, was one of the women now listening to Maura with a pleasant and interested look on her face. She would, of course, have considered it bad form to have allowed any other expression to mar her features, but Irene knew that more was involved; her mother was frightened to express a dislike for, or even a disinterest in, anything her daughter-in-law had to say. For the past year, ever since Humphrey had married Maura and brought her back here to live with them, Lady Claire had walked on eggshells, knowing that Maura was now the true power in the household, and could make her and her daughter's life a misery.
Of course, in Irene's opinion, having to bow to Maura's every whim already made life a misery, so it seemed foolish to work so hard to avoid the woman's ire. Nor did she think that her brother Humphrey was so weak-willed as to turn his mother and sister out of their home if Maura took it into her head to demand that. However, she knew that it was certainly within his power to do so, as well as in Maura's nature to selfishly demand such a thing. And it was, unfortunately, quite true that she and her mother had been left virtually penniless upon Lord Wyngate's death and were completely dependent upon her brother's generosity.
Lord Wyngate had died three years ago in a fall from his horse after a particularly heavy bout of drinking. Irene had been, frankly, somewhat surprised at the grief she had felt. After all the years of battling with the man and despising him, there had, it seemed, been a core of love inside her that even his wicked behavior had been unable to entirely squelch. However, there was no denying that his demise had also evoked a great sense of relief in all those connected to him.
There were no more bill collectors lurking outside their door; that had stopped once Humphrey had sat down with their creditors and worked out a plan to pay his father's debts in full. Nor were shady characters popping up looking for Lord Wyngate anymore. They had no further need to fear that he would bring some scandal to the family name. And, most of all, his presence no longer hung over the house like some dark cloud, forcing everyone do whatever they could to avoid running into him or doing anything that might set off one of his fits of rage.
It was not until after Lord Wyngate was dead that, upon hearing one of the upstairs maids singing a cheerful song as she polished the furniture, Irene realized just how silent and cold the house had been. Suddenly, despite the black wreath on the front door and the black cloth draped above Lord Wyngate's portrait, the house was a lighter, brighter place.
Her younger brother, Humphrey, a rather serious, shy young man, had, of course, inherited the title and estate from their father. Aside from the entailed land and the house in London, Lord Wyngate had left little but debts for his heir; for his widow and daughter there had been nothing.
However, Humphrey was a loving son and brother, and he was happy to provide for Irene and Claire. Two years younger than Irene, he had always looked up to and relied upon her. In their childhood, it had been she who had shielded him from their father's curses and blows.
Humphrey had set about settling his father's debts and rebuilding the estate, leaving it to his sister to run the household, as she long had done for her mother. Life had moved along smoothly enough as they emerged from the period of mourning into a resumption of social activities. The debts had been largely repaid, and though there was a heavy mortgage on the entailed land that had passed to Humphrey, the money situation had loosened enough to allow for new dresses and the giving and attending of parties.
Irene knew that some found her life pitiable, as she was in her midtwenties and still unmarried, facing life as a spinster, but she did not care. The fact was that she was happy and useful, and she was not one of those women those she privately characterized as foolish femaleswho found her life empty if it was not connected to a man's. Indeed, having witnessed the storms of marriage, she was certain that her life without a husband was far preferable to the one most married women endured.
Then Humphrey had taken a hunting trip to the North of England with a friend. His visit had been extended by first one week, then two, and at the end of the third week, he had returned home, flushed and happy with the news that he was engaged to be married.
Maura Ponsonby, the daughter of a local squire, had caught Humphrey's eye
and then his lonely heart. She was a jewel, he informed them, and he was the luckiest man alive. They would, he assured them, love Maura just as he did.
When they met Maura, it was easy enough to see why he had fallen in love with her. She was pretty, and she showered Humphrey with attention and affection. However, it did not take them long to see how she also controlled him with her pretty pouting and lively flirtation turning stony and un-yielding when she did not get her way.
All smiles and charmingly deferential to Lady Claire before she married Humphrey, she swept into the house after the wedding full of self-importance. As the new Lady Wyngate, she made it quite clear to both Claire and Irene that she was now in charge. Though Irene had intended to turn over the running of Wyngate Hall to Maura, the woman gave her no opportunity to do so, merely informed the housekeeper and butler that she would now be in charge of all decisions regarding the household.
Maura seized every opportunity to show that she was of primary rank in the house, inserting herself into any conversation, informing the butler whom they would or would not receive as callers and when they were at home to such visits, and boldly accepting or declining invitations for Irene and Claire, as well as for herself and her husband.
Lady Claire, as was her way, had submitted meekly to such behavior. Irene, of course, had refused to knuckle under, and the result had been a long series of skirmishes between the two women.
Now Maura, perhaps sensing Irene's disinterest, broke off in the middle of her description of the bows that adorned the hem of her dress and turned toward Irene, eyes wide, smiling in an arch way that made Irene itch to slap her. "But we are boring poor Irene with our talk of frills and furbelows, aren't we, dear?" She turned gaily toward the other women, saying, "Irene has little interest in fashion, I fear. Try as I might, I can hardly ever convince her to let me buy her a thing to wear."
Maura shook her head, a picture of loving despair over Irene's odd ways, setting her soft dark curls bobbing.
"You are so generous, my dear Lady Wyngate," murmured Mrs. Littlebridge.
"I am well content with my clothes," Irene responded coolly.
Lady Claire, as always, quickly stepped into the conversation to avoid the possibility of conflict. "Miss Cantwell, you must tell us about the wedding at Redfields. I am sure we are all eager to hear about it."
Irene's mother had chosen the topic well. The marriage of the Viscount Leighton to Constance Woodley a week before had been the highlight of the social year, and an invitation to witness the wedding at Leighton's family estate had been highly sought after. All those who had managed to attend were assured of being welcomed almost everywhere for their description of the wedding.
"Yes, indeed," Mrs. Littlebridge agreed. An inveterate social climber, she loved nothing more than gossip and storing up tales that she could repeat to make herself appear more important than she was. "Was the bride radiant?"
"She is pretty in her own way," Miss Cantwell admitted. "But no family to speak of. One cannot help but feel that the viscount has married down."
"Of course." Mrs. Littlebridge nodded sagely. "A bit of a country mouse, I hear."
"Exactly." Miss Cantwell gave the other woman a thin smile. "But then, Leighton always has been a bit
Irene, who felt sure that Miss Cantwell's opinion of the viscount's oddity sprang more from that very eligible bach-elor's complete disinterest in her own person than from anything else, said, "I quite like Miss Woodleyor I should say now, Lady Leighton. I find her refreshingly unpretentious."
Maura let out a little brittle laugh. "You would find that admirable, of course, Irene. Not everyone admires a lack of refinement as you do, I fear."
"I believe Lady Leighton was a good friend of the viscount's sister, was she not?" Lady Claire said quickly.
"Oh, yes, Lady Haughston took her on as one of her projects," Mrs. Littlebridge affirmed. "She introduced the girl to her brother, of course."
"And before that, she completely made the girl over." Mrs. Cantwell spoke up. "Constance Woodley was an utter dowd before Lady Haughston came along and turned her into a swan."
"She has a knack for it," Lady Claire commented. "There was that Bainborough girl last Season, and before that, Miss Everhart. Made excellent marriages, both of them."
"Indeed." Mrs. Cantwell nodded. "Lady Haughston has a golden touch. Everyone knows that if she takes a girl up, that girl is destined to make a good marriage."
"Why, Irene," Maura said playfully. "Perhaps we should ask Lady Haughston to help you find a husband."
"Thank you, Maura, but I am not looking for one," Irene replied tartly, looking the other woman in the eyes.
"Not looking for a husband?" Mrs. Littlebridge said lightly, and gave a laugh. "Really, Lady Irene, what young girl is not looking for a husband?"
"I, for one," Irene replied flatly.
Mrs. Littlebridge's eyebrows lifted a little in disbelief.
"Such words are fine for pride's sake," Maura commented, casting a knowing smile toward their trio of callers.
"But you are among friends here, Irene. We all know that any woman's true aim in life is to marry. Otherwise, what is she to do? Live in another woman's house all her life?" She paused and turned her gaze to Irene. "Of course, Lord Wyngate and I would like nothing better than to have you as our companion for the rest of our lives. But I am thinking of you and your happiness. You really should talk to Lady Haughston about it. She is a friend of yours, is she not?"
Irene heard the bitterness that underlay her sister-in-law's sweet tone. It had always been a thorn in Maura's side that she had come from a provincial family of genteel breeding but unimportant name, that she had not spent her life, as Irene had, among the ton, known to and received by anyone of consequence.
"I know Lady Haughston, of course," Irene replied. "But we are no more than social acquaintances, really. I would not call Lady Haughston my friend."
"Ah, but then, there are so few who could be called your friend," Maura tossed back.
There was a moment of startled silence at that cutting remark, but then Maura adopted an expression of embarrassment and raised her hands to her cheeks. "Oh, my, how that must sound! Of course, I did not mean that you have no friends, dear sister. There are a number of them, of course. Are there not, Lady Claire?" She cast an appealing glance at Irene's mother.
"Yes, of course." Color stained Claire's cheeks. "There is Miss Livermore."
"Of course!" Maura exclaimed, her expression clearly stating her relief that Irene's mother had managed to come up with an example. "And then the vicar's wife back at the country house is so fond of you." She paused, then shrugged, as though abandoning the futile search for friends, and leaned forward, looking at Irene earnestly as she said, "You know that I want only what is best for you, don't you, dear? All any of us want is for you to be happy. Isn't that true, Lady Claire?"
"Yes, of course," Claire agreed, glancing unhappily at her daughter.
"But I am happy, Mother," Irene lied, then turned back to Maura, continuing in a flat tone, "How could I be anything but happy, after all, living here with you, dear sister?"
Maura ignored her words, going on in the same earnest, helpful way. "I want only to help you, Irene. To improve your life. I am sure you must know that. Unfortunately, not everyone knows you as I do. They see only your demeanor. Your sharp tongue, my dear, keeps people at bay. However much they might want to get to know you better, your, well, your acerbic wit, your bluntness, frightens people away. It is for that reason that you have so few bosom friends, so few suitors. Your manner is most unappealing to men."
She looked to her friends for confirmation. "A man does not want a wife who will correct him or who will ring a peal over his head if he does something amiss. Is that not true, ladies?"
Irene's eyes flashed, and she said tightly, "Your information, while no doubt well intentioned, is of little use to me. As I told you, I am not interested in acquiring a husband."
"Now, now, Lady Irene," Mrs. Cantwell began, with a condescending smile that grated on Irene's nerves.
Irene swung toward her, and the light in her eyes made the other woman swallow whatever she had been planning to say. "I do not wish to marry. I refuse to marry. I have no intention of giving any man control over me. I will not meekly become some man's chattel or let some man with less wit than I have tell me what to think or say or do."
She stopped, pressing her lips together, regretting that she had let Maura push her into revealing so much of herself.
Across from her, Maura let out a little laugh and cast a wry look at the other women, saying, "A woman does not have to be under a man's thumb, dear. She simply makes him think that he is in control. She just has to learn how to lead a man into doing exactly what she wishes. The trick, of course, is in making him believe that it was all his idea."
Their visitors joined Maura in her arch laughter, and Mrs. Littlebridge added, "Indeed, Lady Wyngate, that is the way of the world."
"I have no interest in such pretense and trickery," Irene retorted. "I would rather remain a spinster than have to cajole and lie to be able to do what I should have every right to do."
Maura clucked her tongue, looking sympathetic. "Irene, my dear, we are not saying you should deceive anyone. I am merely talking about making the most of your looks and covering up
certain aspects of your character. You dress much too plainly." She gestured with disdain toward Irene's body. "That gown you are wearing, for instance. Why must it be that drab shade of brown? And you have no need to wear such a high neckline. Why not show off your shoulders and arms a little? Even your evening gowns have such an air of severityit is no wonder men rarely ask you to dance! Is it not enough that you are so tall? Must you stand so arrow straight and hide your shape?"
Irene could hear the real frustration creeping into Maura's saccharine tones, and she knew that however much her sister-in-law might enjoy pointing out Irene's defects under the guise of helpful advice, Maura was also honestly put out by Irene's lack of suitors. Maura would love to be rid of her altogether, and marriage was the only option open to her, short of murderwhich not even Irene would accuse Maura of being capable of. No matter how much Humphrey was under his wife's thumb, even Maura must know he would not agree to turning his own sister out of the house, and in any case, the woman surely knew that such callous treatment of her husband's sister would earn her the disapproval of the ton. No, as long as Irene remained unmarried, Maura was saddled with hera fact that doubtless irritated her almost as much as it did Irene.