Authors: Mary Jo Putney
Tags: #Regency Romance
CAROUSEL OF HEARTS
Mary Jo Putney
With a qualm that would have amazed the polite world, the dowager Lady Forrester drew a deep breath before announcing, “Since you refuse to engage a companion, I’ve done it for you.”
Lady Antonia Thornton had been carefully darkening her brows, but at the statement she whipped her bright head around to stare at her aunt. “You did
she asked in a dangerous tone.
Strong men had been known to crumble under the beautiful Lady Antonia’s cinnamon-brown gaze, but her aunt was made of sterner stuff. Lady Forrester had deliberately chosen to approach her niece in the young woman’s boudoir, hoping that the informal setting might make the girl more malleable.
It had been a very slim hope. “I have engaged a companion for you. It is bad enough that you insist on setting up your own establishment now that your father is dead, but it is unthinkable that you should live alone.”
Antonia swiveled around on the chair to face her aunt. “I am twenty-four years old, the daughter of the ninth Earl of Spenston, a baroness in my own right, and the mistress of my own indecently large fortune,” she said coolly. “Why the devil should I have to tolerate the vagaries of some insipid, bantling-brained female?”
“Because you are a part of society, no matter how much you choose to think otherwise,” Lady Forrester snapped. “Even birth and wealth will not allow you unlimited license. Already you have the reputation as a bluestocking and an eccentric even before you jilted Lord Ramsay. What would your father say if he were alive?”
Antonia stood, drawing herself up to her full, impressive height. “My father would have encouraged me to do what I thought best. He abhorred missishness and was the one who taught me how foolish most social rules are.”
The dowager realized it had been a mistake to invoke Antonia’s father. The late earl had been a politician noted for his radical beliefs, and he’d passed those beliefs on to his daughter.
Trying a more conciliatory tack, Lady Forrester said, “I won’t deny that many of society’s strictures are foolish. However, paying lip service will give you more freedom to do what you wish. Your father would have been the first to recommend holding your fire for the battles that matter most.”
Seeing that her words were having some effect, she continued, “I know better than to engage a companion who is, as you so vulgarly put it, ‘bantling-brained.’ Judith Winslow is a young widow, a connection of my husband’s family. She’s only a couple of years older than you, very intelligent, and no more missish than you are. I think you would deal extremely well together.”
“I don’t care if she’s a Fellow of the Royal Society!” Antonia exclaimed. “I don’t want a companion, and that’s final. Go foist your poor relation off on someone else.”
The door to Lady Antonia’s boudoir was open, so every word of the battling ladyships carried clearly to the slight young woman who sat in the adjoining sitting room, hands and expression carefully blank. Judith Winslow was used to being unwanted. As an orphan she had been shuttled between the homes of various relations, treated as something between a charity girl and a nursery maid.
Judith had learned early that to be noticed by men invited trouble, so for safety’s sake she’d learned to dress drably. Dowdiness had served her well. The only person who had ever shown serious interest in her was the curate who had briefly been her husband.
She didn’t learn till later that Edwin Winslow’s real wish had been to acquire a nurse for the fatal illness he’d concealed until after their marriage. At least his attentions had been honorable.
In spite of her appearance of calm, the hand Judith raised to subdue a strand of chestnut hair trembled. She had known this journey was a mistake. But Lady Forrester had been insistent and she was not an easy woman to withstand.
Well, in a few minutes it would be over and they could leave. Surely Lady Forrester would allow Judith to stay at her home for a few weeks while the poor relation searched the London agencies for a situation.
She listened to the raised voices critically. Her situation had made her expert in judging other people’s moods, and it was clear that Lady Antonia was not amused by her aunt’s presumption.
Judith had had quite enough of being passed around the Forrester family like a parcel of worn clothes. It was time to find a position on merit. Perhaps she would be lucky enough to find an employer who wanted his daughters educated in natural philosophy as well as embroidery and sketching.
Lady Forrester abruptly gave up the fight. “Very well, if you won’t have Mrs. Winslow, tell her yourself. She in your sitting room.”
“What!” Lady Antonia’s rich contralto rose to a new level of outrage. “You dragged that poor woman over here and left her where she would hear us brangling? I’ve known you to do some cow-handed things. Aunt Lettie, but this is the outside of enough. How
The statement was accompanied by the sound of swift footsteps. Judith was already on her feet when Lady Antonia swept into the sitting room, but she was hard-pressed not to gasp.
She’d heard that Lady Antonia was beautiful and had taken the evaluation with a grain of salt. Though all heiresses are beautiful by definition, the lady’s intemperate language implied a masculine sort of female. But there was nothing the least bit masculine about the dazzling young woman who appeared.
Lady Antonia had a perfection of form and feature that mere money could never have achieved. Above average height, she had a splendid figure and a glowing vitality that illuminated the sitting room. Her most striking feature was a cascade of hair that was neither red nor gold, but a shimmering color somewhere in between, a molten shade reminiscent of apricots and sunsets.
Her wide, direct eyes were a warm brown with cinnamon depths, and her mobile, high-cheek boned face looked better suited to laughter than tears. Even mourning could not dim her sparkle. Indeed, she looked magnificent in black.
With weary resignation, Judith’s eyes met Lady Antonia’s across the width of the room. In the face of such splendor, Judith drew in on herself, unconsciously raising her chin as she waited to be sent away. She had survived worse than this. It had not been her idea to come, so she had no reason to feel humiliated by her rejection.
The moment stretched as the young women’s gazes locked and held. Though her aunt had said the proposed companion was young, Antonia was still surprised at the widow’s youthfulness.
Mrs. Winslow looked scarcely old enough to have been married, much less widowed. She was small-boned and fragile of build, her thick chestnut hair pulled severely back, her fair complexion drained of color by her mourning blacks. Though her face would have been attractive under other circumstances, today her translucent skin was stark and tight over the delicate bones.
Clothing was a mere detail. What struck Antonia was the fine gray eyes that returned Antonia’s gaze with bleak bravery.
In a flash of insight, Antonia sensed a lifetime of forced patience, of poverty, of hopelessness. The life of an outsider who lives on the sufferance of others.
Yet Judith Winslow was not defeated. There was strength and courage in those clear eyes that held her own. Antonia responded to those qualities, wondering if she herself would be equally brave under such circumstances. “I’m sorry you heard that, Mrs. Winslow. You’ll have gathered that I find the idea of a companion quite insupportable.”
The widow lifted her small chin as if bracing for a blow, and her gallantry triggered one of Antonia’s impulsive decisions. “I don’t need a companion or a slave, but one can always use more friends.” She crossed the room and offered her hand. “Shall we see if we can be friends?”
The expressive gray eyes registered shock, then a rush of emotion that came perilously near tears. Antonia understood the other woman’s struggle for composure. When one is hurting, kindness can be harder to accept than cruelty.
Mastering herself, Judith Winslow accepted Antonia’s hand. “I should like that very much,” she said in a soft, cultured voice. “Very much indeed.”
Though Antonia did not know it then, the casual, unthinking generosity that was the despair and delight of her intimates had just won her a lifetime’s loyalty.
Antonia gazed at the book in her lap and realized that her eyes had traversed the page three times, yet she couldn’t remember a single word. In fact, she didn’t even remember what the book was. A novel, apparently.
She raised her head and glanced across the sitting room to Judith. “Do you think Adam will be here soon? It must be almost noon.”
Curled up in the window seat with her embroidery, Judith offered a sympathetic smile. “It is now five minutes later than the last time you asked that question, and midday won’t be here for some time yet.’’
Antonia wrinkled her nose ruefully and gave up on her book, setting it on a table before starting to pace the sitting room with long impatient strides. For the hundredth time since receiving her cousin’s letter the month before, she fretted, “If I had known what ship he was arriving on, I could have met him.”
As she had on numerous other occasions, Judith patiently replied, “I’m sure that is exactly why he didn’t tell you. Even though you haven’t seen each other in eight years, obviously your cousin remembers you very well. He must have known you would go rushing down to the port in person, and the Isle of Dogs is hardly the place for a lady to wait.”
“Don’t you dare be logical!’’ Antonia exclaimed, laughing in spite of herself. She went back to pacing the sitting room, where the two women spent much of their time when they were in London. Less formal than the drawing room, it commanded a fine view of Grosvenor Square. The furniture was chosen more for comfort than for style, and books, periodicals, and musical instruments gave the room a friendly air. It was not as good as being at her estate, Thornleigh, but it was the most welcoming spot in the house.
Absently plucking the strings of Judith’s harp, she said, “You’re quite right. Even after eight years Adam knows me better than anyone else.”
Adam Yorke was not a near relation, only her second cousin, but they had been raised together. Three years older than Antonia, he was the brother she had never had. When they were young, he had been the most important person in her world; she had even once thought. . .
She cut the thought off sharply. What mattered was that he was her best friend. Antonia shot Judith a quick, guilty glance. Well, Adam was her best male friend. One can be close to friends in different ways. Certainly Judith was the closest female friend Antonia had ever had.
As she had done approximately once a day for over two years, Antonia blessed the chance that had brought Judith into her life. Though the women appeared very different on the surface, their minds, opinions, and humor matched beautifully. Judith was the best of companions, while at the same time respecting Antonia’s need for privacy, because Judith herself needed time alone.
Aunt Lettie still preened herself on the success of her meddling and took considerable pleasure in the fact that Judith’s calm good sense checked some of Antonia’s wilder starts.
In return, Judith had blossomed in an atmosphere where she was not only encouraged, but required, to speak her mind. The pale little widow was gone forever. Now she was a quietly lovely young woman, her rich chestnut hair falling in gentle waves around a delicate face that looked younger than her twenty-eight years.
The two women had emerged from mourning about the same time, and Antonia had taken the occasion to coax her companion into a new wardrobe, arguing that it was Judith’s duty to be in her best looks, since Antonia was the one required to see her. Judith would have balked if she had known how much her elegantly simple clothing cost, but the bills were a secret between Antonia and the fashionable modiste both women patronized.
Abandoning the harp, Antonia crossed to the mantel and lifted a graceful wood sculpture of a peregrine falcon resting on a branch, its head cocked to one side, as if recalling the joy of flight. Adam had carved the falcon when he was fifteen, giving it to her for her twelfth birthday. She stroked the polished wood lovingly. It was beautifully made; her
cousin had always been clever with his hands. As children, they had roamed the hills hunting nests together, taking care not to frighten the parent birds so the eggs and babies wouldn’t be neglected.
As Antonia set the sculpture back on the mantel, Judith said slowly, “I probably shouldn’t even suggest this, but have you considered how much your cousin might have changed over the years? He was scarcely twenty-one when he went to the East Indies. He’s a man now. Things might not be the same.”
“Nonsense!” Antonia caressed the satiny wood again. “With all the letters we’ve exchanged over the years, I would have noticed if Adam had suddenly become someone else. He’ll have changed some, of course—who doesn’t change in eight years?—but he’ll still be Adam.”