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Authors: Gayle Buck

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Miss Dower's Paragon

BOOK: Miss Dower's Paragon
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MISS DOWER’S PARAGON

 

Gayle Buck

 

Chapter One

 

Miss Evelyn Dower sat primly on the garden bench, her ruffled skirts spread about her ankles. Chamomile blossoms clung to the hem of her skirt, adding their soft, clean scent to the fresh spring air. A warm breeze played in the new leaves in the tree above Miss Dower’s head and caressed her face. She paid scarce heed to her delightful surroundings, however, as her attention was occupied to the exclusion of all else.

Evelyn’s fulminating gaze rested on the two figures that approached her from across the lawn.

Her mother was escorted by a well-set young gentleman, who negotiated the way for himself and his companion with a feline grace and power. While the gentleman solicitously supported Mrs. Dower over the sloping ground, his magnificent leonine head was inclined attentively to hear her conversation.

As the two made their way closer to Evelyn’s bowery seat, the gentleman sent several admiring glances in her direction. However, contrary to what might be expected of a young lady who found herself the object of a handsome gentleman’s regard, Evelyn did not feel the least flutter of gratification.

On the contrary, Evelyn’s frown intensified. The displeasure in her tawny eyes deepened when the gentleman caught her gaze. He had the audacity to smile at her. She caught her soft lip between her teeth and turned her head away in vexation.

Evelyn had known Peter Hawkins very nearly all of her life. As a young girl she had worshipped him, but she had never been bold enough to make her childish feelings known to him. And through the years, her feelings had not changed in any degree. Not when she saw him again upon his return from Oxford, nor upon his return from his travels. Rather, her emotions had been underscored by how the quiet, reserved youth had grown to splendid manhood.

Only a few short weeks ago, Mr. Hawkins’s present devotion would have driven the soft color of confusion into her cheeks. She would have counted herself the most fortunate of young ladies and received his advances with all the dazed happiness of any other lovestruck maiden.

However, that was all at an end.

On the very day that Evelyn was informed that Peter Hawkins had been granted permission to pay his addresses to her, she suffered a complete revulsion of feelings for the gentleman. The circumstances of his suit precipitated this state, for through them her pride had been trampled and her affections had been callously discounted.

Even now, three weeks later, Evelyn could not forget every moment of that humiliating interview with her mother. Her thoughts turned inward as she remembered yet again that particular evening, when she had received a summons that she was to come to her mother’s sitting room before retiring.

Evelyn had entered the frilly room feeling only a mild curiosity. It was not unusual for Mrs. Dower to recall something of note that she wished to relate to her daughter from the day’s round of callers or some trivial household crisis.

On the evening in question, Mrs. Dower turned from her mirror and exclaimed, “My dearest Evelyn, you shall never guess! I have had such a day that I am left all in a whirl.”

Evelyn sat down in her usual place in a wingback chair. She regarded her mother with a genuine fondness and tolerance. “Indeed, Mama. Pray tell me, have the Reverend Smythe’s roses bloomed early this year?”

“Now you are funning me and you really must not. Why, everyone knows it will be at least another month before the dear reverend’s prize blooms come into bud,” said Mrs. Dower.

“My pardon, Mama. Of course it was silly of me to think it could be that which has put you into hoops. But do tell me your news. I am always ready to hear your little anecdotes,” said Evelyn with perfect truth.

She had long since learned to piece together the bits dropped by her mother’s flighty tongue and she now held an emerging picture of the society which she had not yet entered that would have astonished Mrs. Dower by its accuracy. In fact, Evelyn had digested hints of some matters that would not in the ordinary way have come to the ears of a young lady who was just emerging from the schoolroom.

“I took tea with that horridly stiff Lady Pomerancy. Surely you know of her ladyship. She is grandmother to that handsome young gentleman, Peter Hawkins. How such a fine young gentleman could have survived tutelage under that one’s stem nose, I cannot conceive,” said Mrs. Dower, shaking her head at the mystery.

“However did you come to do such a thing?” asked Evelyn.

She rather unsuccessfully ignored the bump of her heart at mention of Mr. Peter Hawkins. She had fancied herself in love with him forever, it seemed, but it would not do to become so wrapped up in her fantasies that she forgot the truth.

He had taken no particular notice in her at all; at least, he had not until he had returned from the Continent. Then she had thought on one or two occasions to have caught a certain gleam in his eyes when she chanced to meet his gaze during Sunday services in the chapel, but she had never been certain that she excited more than a passing appreciation in the gentleman.

Whenever they met after the services or in the village, he was unfailingly polite and kind in his attentions to both herself and to her mother. There had been no distinguishable difference in his manners toward her than there was in the grave respect that he accorded Mrs. Dower.

It was the frustration of Evelyn’s life, for even when she had been a small girl and he a grand three years older, he had treated her in just the same polite, distant, and considerate fashion.

“It is an odd thing for me to have done, is it not?” agreed Mrs. Dower. “However, Lady Pomerancy had sent me an invitation, which I felt I could not possibly ignore. She has always terrified me. I am in such a quake whenever we meet that she might find disfavor with my cap or ribbons or perhaps think me too terribly frivolous.”

Evelyn laughed. “But you are terribly frivolous. Mama, you know you are!”

Mrs. Dower’s anxious frown dissolved into a smile. “Yes, I know that I am, but that is not quite the same thing as being thought it by some crusty personage. You will say it is chickenhearted of me, dearest, but really, I have never been able to overcome my awe of such persons.”

“Chickenhearted, indeed, but never mind. You are my own dear mama,” said Evelyn, rising from her seat to bestow a kiss on her parent’s cheek. Often she had wondered, as she did now, what it would have been like to have had a mother similar to everyone else’s. She had never really felt like her mother’s daughter. Instead, she had felt more like an aunt or an elder sister to Mrs. Dower.

Mrs. Dower had enjoyed a rather complacent existence, first as the petted daughter of a wealthy squire and then as the cosseted wife of a promising and rising politician. She had regarded her husband’s untimely death—he had succumbed upon slipping on the cobbles in the rain and fatally striking his head—as unfortunate but not greatly grievous to her own pleasant pursuits of quiet entertaining, her shopping, her gardening, and, of course, the spoiling of her young daughter.

The girl’s serious upbringing had been left to the nurse who had been engaged by the father and then to a governess, both of whom, fortunately, had been esteemable characters who recognized that little Evelyn Dower might have inherited her mother’s lovely hair and features, but her character was very like her father’s—questing, impatient, and quick. It had been they who managed to bring the girl to a recognition of her own gifts and to the beginning of an understanding of human foibles.

As Evelyn became older, she had come to regard her mother much in the same light as had her father, as someone to be indulged and to be amused by and perhaps to be a shade protective of. Evelyn felt she had nothing in common with her mother besides a physical likeness and a shared taste for romances. As she thought it, she said, “Shall I read to you this evening, Mama?”

“Oh, dearest!” Mrs. Dower blinked away sentimental tears. She was a somewhat scatterbrained, good-natured creature, generally considered to be still quite pretty though she was grown a little plump due to her indolent nature. She did not aspire to great passions or opinions, those being too fatiguing to maintain, but she did regard her sole progeny with loving fondness, and in the course of her daughter’s growing up she had always kept her daughter’s interests close to her heart. She smiled tremulously. “You are such a good daughter to me. I do not know how I shall go on without you, I truly do not. But I mean to do my best, so you must not be anxious on my account.”

“Whatever do you mean, Mama?” asked Evelyn, startled.

“Why, haven’t I said? What a perfect pea-goose I am, when
that
is what has put me in such a whirl!”

“What has put you in a whirl, Mama?” Evelyn inquired patiently, having long since learned how to deal with her mother’s hyperbole.

“Your marriage, dearest Evelyn! It is all arranged, you see.”

“My marriage!”

Evelyn regarded her mother blankly.

Mrs. Dower complacently patted her hair, very pleased with the reaction that she had garnered with her announcement. “I was quite as bowled out as you, I assure you. That is what Lady Pomerancy wished to discuss with me over tea. She has decided that you will make the perfect bride for her grandson, Peter Hawkins, and I was given to understand the plan suits him admirably. It is not wonderful?”

Mrs. Dower ended on a mingled note of triumph and congratulation. She was disconcerted when the stunned expression in her daughter’s gold-brown eyes gave way to wrath.

“I am to wed Peter Hawkins?! And at Lady Pomerancy’s bidding!”

Evelyn struggled to contain her feelings, but she could not help a burst of recrimination. “Oh, Mama, how
could
you?” She leaped up and took a hasty turn about the room.

Mrs. Dower’s smile faltered. “But I felt certain that you would like it excessively, Evelyn. Why, you have been mad after young Peter since you were in pinafores.”

Evelyn’s face burned with indignation and embarrassment. She had not known before that her mother had gathered that much truth about her unspoken feelings. “Whether I was
mad
after Mr. Hawkins or not is quite beside the point.”

“That is nonsense, dearest. I would not have agreed to the match otherwise, for I wish only for your happiness,” said Mrs. Dower.

Evelyn’s eyes were very bright. Pressing her fingers against her flushed cheeks, she cried, “Mama, can you not understand? It is not a proposal from the gentleman’s
grandmother
that I wish to entertain!”

“Pray do not be silly, Evelyn. Of course it is not Lady Pomerancy who is to solicit your hand, but Peter Hawkins. I do hope that he’ll do the romantic thing and go down on bended knee.”

Evelyn recoiled. She had often dreamed of receiving an impassioned declaration that would fulfill all the romance of her soul. Now to envision Peter Hawkins going down on bended knee before her, because he had been urged to do so by his grandmother, struck her as a monstrous ludicrousy.

At the sound of her daughter’s wild laugh, Mrs. Dower cocked her head in concern and alarm. “Really, I do not know how you came to think such a thing. When I recall how many times Miss Phibbs assured me that you were admirably quick and bright of intellect, I cannot be other than bewildered now by your cloth-headed mistake. Even I am not so gooseish, my dearest one.”

Caught between laughter and tears, Evelyn shook her head. “Dear Fussy Phibbs, I do miss her. Do not fret, Mama! It is all perfectly plain to me, never fear. I am to receive an offer for my hand from Peter Hawkins because Lady Pomerancy approves of the match.”

“That is it exactly,” Mrs. Dower nodded, much relieved.

Evelyn took another hasty turn about the bedroom, tossing over her shoulder, “I shall not receive him, Mama.”

“Evelyn! Are you mad? Of course you must receive him!” exclaimed Mrs. Dower in acute dismay.

Evelyn faced her parent. Her face was white, only the glittering of her tawny eyes betraying color. “No, I cannot possibly. I am far too sunk by humiliation and pique to do so, you must see that!”

Evelyn saw that her mother was going to remonstrate with her. “Pray do not think to persuade me to it, Mama! I have given you my last word on the matter. I shall not receive Mr. Hawkins.”

“But you must! He is coming tomorrow to do the thing in a formal and proper fashion,” said Mrs. Dower.

“Proper! Yes, indeed, Mr. Hawkins will certainly do all that is proper!” exclaimed Evelyn scornfully.

“Oh, my dear! Pray, pray—!” Mrs. Dower earnestly appealed to her daughter. “Do not speak in that fashion. You have just the look of your father about the eyes whenever he had worked himself up into one of his passions. It never did him the least good that I could see, for he set up the backs of perfectly credible personages and exhausted himself in the bargain. One is made so uncomfortable by such freakish tempers.”

Mrs. Dower saw that her stricture was not having the salutary effect that she had intended. She reached out her hand to touch her daughter’s muslin sleeve. “Dearest Evelyn, pray say that you will receive young Peter Hawkins. I gave my word to Lady Pomerancy, you see, and I very much fear she would speak to me in that positively cutting way she has when she dislikes one’s little witticisms, and I know this would be a graver offense by far. Oh, Evelyn! I am begging you. Pray say that you will receive him! I do not insist that you accept his suit if it is repugnant to you, though I quite thought that—but not another word on
that
head shall you have from me. Only do,
do
receive him, at least!”

BOOK: Miss Dower's Paragon
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