Read The Bridal Season Online

Authors: Connie Brockway

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General, #Regency

The Bridal Season (2 page)

BOOK: The Bridal Season
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That was the charm as well as the problem with living in so
small a market town as Little Bidewell. If one were “in town,” eventually one
was bound to come across everyone else “in town”—whether at the greengrocer’s,
Murrow’s Tearoom, the dry goods store, the bank, or the church.

“It is, of course, your decision,” Elliot said, fixing
Himplerump’s florid face with a steady gaze. “But, Arthur, even though you have
a legal right to deny Burkett’s easement request, the law was intended to
protect your rights, not punish a man for his political leanings.”

Himplerump’s jowls quivered with indignation.

“I know you are not a vindictive man, Arthur.” In actuality,
Elliot knew exactly the opposite, but was willing to sacrifice the truth in the
name of harmony. A short distance off, the incoming train whistle blew.

“Drat,” he said, looking around at the approaching train and
then back at his companion. “At least wait a while before doing anything you
may regret. Now, if you’ll pardon me, I must greet this society lady Miss
Bigglesworth has hired to produce Angela’s marriage celebration.”

But Himplerump wasn’t willing to let the matter go yet. “Kip
says I ought to stand by my guns.”

Kip was Arthur’s only child and heir; a handsome youth who’d,
unfortunately, discovered the mirror at an early age.

Elliot’s mild voice grew steely. “I assure you, you will be
best served by making your views known in a manner that offends neither your
conscience nor Burkett’s pocketbook.”

“All right,” Squire Himplerump blustered. “But mind, only
because you say so, Elliot, and I know that you, unlike another I could name,
are—like me—a gentleman.”

Elliot’s lips twitched but he managed to say gravely enough,
“I certainly aspire to be so, Arthur.”

With a sniff, Himplerump turned and stomped back to the
platform where the London train was shuddering to a stop. Eglantyne and Angela
Bigglesworth pushed forward, anxiously anticipating the appearance of the
miracle worker. And a miracle worker is precisely what this Lady Agatha Whyte
would have to be in order to convince the Marquis of Cotton’s family, the
Sheffields, to unbend backs stiffened by one hundred years of self-conceit and
welcome little Angela Bigglesworth into their fold.

Elliot had met the Sheffields long ago when, for one brief
season, he’d cut a minor swathe through Society. The Sheffields had not been
impressed with him. Or rather his lack of title
had
impressed them with
the knowledge that they needed to extend him no more than the barest
civilities. No, the Sheffields would not take kindly to a little nobody’s
daughter marrying into their illustrious ranks. No matter that the
Bigglesworths, like the Marches, had been working this land while the
Sheffields were but up-and-coming villeins on some Viking’s farm.

Elliot glanced at Eglantyne Bigglesworth. Her homely, narrow
face was fraught with worry. Beside her stood her niece, Angela, blond, pretty,
the picture of budding English womanhood, except for the uncharacteristically
pinched set of her rosebud mouth and the slight shadows beneath her eyes.

Eglantyne noticed Elliot’s attention and offered a wan smile.
As the Bigglesworths’ groom was laid up with the gout and Angela’s father Anton
had stayed behind at home to prepare for their guest, Eglantyne had enlisted
Elliot and his carriage to bring the wedding planner to The Hollies.

He could not refuse. Sir Elliot March was, first and foremost,
a gentleman. Besides, he was vastly fond of the Bigglesworths. It was Eglantyne
who’d offered him solace when his mother had died. He only hoped Lady Agatha
could do a tenth of what Eglantyne expected of her.

The train conductor threw open the door and leapt down to the
platform, turning to pull out a stair block from inside. “Little Bidewell! All
off for Little Bidewell!”

The few occupants began to emerge. The vicar’s housekeeper
preceded her two giggling girl cousins, come to spend a summer in the country.
Following them came a middle-aged gentleman in a checkered coat clutching to
his chest the raggedy portmanteau that marked him as a salesman. And then ...
no one.

The conductor checked his pocket watch and hurried toward the
station, muttering about getting his “cuppa tea.” Eglantyne and Angela traded
alarmed glances.

“Well,” Angela swallowed, “I am sure there is a very good
explan—”

“There she is!” Eglantyne cried. “Lady Agatha! Here! Yoo-hoo!”

Elliot turned his attention to the first-class compartment. A
woman was moving along the inside aisle past the windows. There was some sort
of enormous contraption on her head. A hat, he supposed dubiously. The door at
the end of the car opened and the woman paused, silhouetted against the bright
setting sun.

Elliot’s gaze sharpened. She had the figure and style that the
American chap—Gibson, was it?—had recently made so popular, a figure revealed
by a form-fitting lace dress that flowed like a second skin over a frankly
voluptuous form.

Apparently she’d not heard Eglantyne, for she did not
acknowledge the older woman’s greeting. Instead, she looked behind her,
pivoted, and bent sharply at the waist, displaying her lushly curved bottom in
a most provocative manner. Beside Elliot, Squire Himplerump caught his breath.

“I say, Lady Agatha! Lady Agatha!”

Lady Agatha, still bent over, looked around. The broad brim of
her ridiculously huge hat shadowed most of her face, but Elliot could make out
a decisive chin, angular jaw, and unexpectedly large mouth. She was younger
than Eglantyne had led them to expect. Much younger.

His gaze narrowed. He’d made some discreet inquiries about
Lady Agatha Whyte as soon as Eglantyne had told him of her plan to employ the
supposed duke’s daughter to produce Angela’s wedding festivities. He’d
discovered that Lady Agatha Whyte of Whyte’s Nuptial Celebrations really was a
“lady,” the eldest child of the impecunious Duke of Lally. But he’d somehow
formed the idea that she was in her thirties.

Lady Agatha straightened, scooping up a small,
disreputable-looking black dog that had been hidden by her skirts, and turned.
The sunlight hit her full in the face, revealing her best features, her eyes,
which were a deep, rich brown. Not a spectacular beauty, by any means, but her
looks were interesting, catching one’s attention.

“I’m sorry,” she said in a husky voice. “I’m afraid I didn’t
realize you were addressing me. I am—”

“No need to apologize, my dear lady,” Eglantyne interrupted in
her enthusiasm. “Drat hard to hear over the train engine, isn’t it?”

“Indeed. But you see I am not—”

Whatever Lady Agatha “was not” was lost in the sudden bawl of
the train whistle.

“We are so glad you are here. I admit, we were a bit worried,
what with the train being late and all. But no worries now, eh? Everything is
just fine now that you are here!” Eglantyne bellowed, blushing when the whistle
abruptly quit and she was still shouting. She cleared her throat. “Your things
arrived a few days ago.”

Lady Agatha, in the act of redistributing the weight of her
dog, stilled. “My things?”

“Yes,” Angela said, finding her voice. “All sorts of
fascinating trunks and boxes and bags.”

“Really?” Lady Agatha said.

“Not that we pried!” Eglantyne quickly assured her. “We just
saw them passing up the stairs, don’t you know.”

They waited, Eglantyne with a sheepish smile, and poor Angela
looking as though she wished the earth would open up and swallow her whole.

“Elliot!”

Elliot turned to see Paul and Catherine Bunting coming toward
him down the platform.

“Saw you from across the street, Elliot,” Paul greeted him on
making his side. “Thought we’d come over and say hallo. Catherine claims she
had a positive pash for Murrow’s treacle pudding, but I ‘spect she really
wanted to get a glimpse of this Lady Agatha,” Paul said loudly. He leaned
forward, saying only slightly less loudly, “Suppose you’re here to fetch her
back to The Hollies, what?”

“Yes,” Elliot agreed, his gaze returning to the auburn-haired
woman.

Paul’s loud voice had caught her attention. She looked
directly at Elliot. It seemed to him she realized his slight embarrassment and
it amused her. He inclined his head.

And then she smiled.

Elliot forgot his manners. Certainly he forgot Paul and
Catherine Bunting. He simply stood staring at
her,
because when she
smiled everything changed.

The maturity her face lacked in repose appeared in the knowing
crook of her brow, in the irrepressible shiver of her lower lip. There was wry
humor there, and mischievousness, but an intangible sweetness, too.

It looked as if she didn’t want to smile but couldn’t help
herself. One had the impression that she owned the most delicious secret and
so
wanted to share it. Her dark eyes danced and unexpected dimples appeared in
each cheek.

She returned her attention to the Bigglesworths. “Why, how
very kind you are to have personally come to collect me!” she trilled. She
scrunched the dog up against her face. It stared up at her in canine
incredulity. “Look, er, Lambikins,” she cooed, “see the nice people?”

She set the dog down and swept one arm out in an embracing
gesture. A handkerchief appeared in her hand and she brought it slowly up to
dab at her eyes, the picture of a sentimental woman overcome with
appreciation—an image utterly belied by her wicked eyes. “Thank you. Oh, thank
you so very much.”

Elliot’s natural skepticism resurfaced. Lady Agatha Whyte was
reportedly extremely shy of publicity. She avoided self-promotion as vulgar;
she’d never even allowed her image to appear in the newspapers. Yet here she
stood, accepting Eglantyne’s accolades with every appearance of delight.

She dimpled coquettishly and flowed down the steps.

Flowed.
There was no other word for it. One minute she
stood poised atop the stairs, the next she was on the platform. He had never
seen a lady walk like that, move like that.

He gave himself a mental shake. He was being absurd and—dear
God. Paul and Catherine must think him an utter fool! He turned to speak but
Paul, too, seemed to have succumbed to whatever spell Lady Agatha had woven.

“You are Lady Agatha, then?” Eglantyne was saying, and when
the redheaded woman nodded, wide-eyed, she went on. “Of course you are! But
when you didn’t answer at once, well... Never mind.

“Dear
Lady Agatha! I do hope your trip was uneventful
and not too uncomfortable? Such a long way to come and such close quarters.

“And what must you think of us? Allow me to introduce myself;
I am Eglantyne Bigglesworth, who has had the pleasure of corresponding with
you. It’s so nice to meet you at long last!”

“Entirely
my
pleasure, ma’am, I assure you,” Lady
Agatha said with the utmost sincerity, even though amusement still played about
her wide, ripe mouth.

“And this,” Eglantyne’s eyes shone with pride, “this is our
bride-to-be, our little Angela.”

“I am captivated, Miss Bigglesworth, utterly captivated,” Lady
Agatha enthused, taking Angela’s hands in hers. “Such a pretty thing! How lucky
your young man is!”

Eglantyne caught sight of the Buntings and Elliot and waved
them over. “Oh! How delightful! Here are our neighbors. May I present Lord Paul
Bunting and his wife, Catherine?”

Catherine inclined her head, a little stiffly Elliot thought.
He hoped she wasn’t coming down with something. Even though it had been years
since they’d once been engaged, he still cared deeply for her. Paul bowed,
beaming with pleasure.

“And here’s a happy chance! The Vances. Hallo! Miss Elizabeth!
Come and meet Lady Agatha!”

Eglantyne hailed the Vances, who were making slow progress
down the sidewalk. Beth’s studied nonchalance was a bit too exaggerated for
their sudden appearance in front of the train station to be purely
coincidental.

Old Colonel Vance leaned toward his long-suffering,
middle-aged daughter and shouted, “What? What did she say?”

“Lady Agatha,
Father!” Beth answered in a loud, calm
voice. “Come to make Miss Angela’s wedding pretty!”

“Miss Angle’s already pretty enough without some ass—”

Turning bright red, Beth wrapped an arm around the old man’s
shoulders and hustled him along before he could finish his sentence. “Pray
excuse us! I fear Papa’s not feeling well!” she called over her shoulder.

“Later, then!” Eglantyne turned in relief and spied Elliot.
“Oh! And how could I be so remiss? Please, allow me to introduce our dear
friend, Sir Elliot March.”

He approached slowly, hoping his gait adequately masked his
limp. His leg often stiffened in colder weather and the day had been
unseasonably cool, if bright. Eglantyne leaned toward Lady Agatha and he heard
her whisper, “War wound.”

He removed his hat and bowed, feeling doubly awkward. If only
he could cure Eglantyne of her heavy-handed romanticization of his military
career.

He raised his head and met the red-haired woman’s gaze. Her
eyes widened, as though in startled recognition. They were the oddest shade of
brown. Rich, intoxicating, like tawny port.

“My pleasure,” he heard himself say as if from far off.

“Sir.” She sounded breathless.

“Sir Elliot and his father share bachelor quarters about a
half mile from The Hollies,” Eglantyne rattled on. “We take terrible advantage
of them, I’m afraid.”

“Not at all,” Elliot murmured, captivated by the soft stain of
color climbing Lady Agatha’s cheeks.

“Indeed, yes,” Eglantyne said. “Sir Elliot’s been kind enough
to offer to drive us to the house since our own driver is indisposed.”

“Gout,” Angela announced. “Suffers terribly for it.”

The lovely young woman reluctantly looked away from him toward
Angela. “In my experience, people with the gout are given to drink. My maid
drank.” She nodded sagely. “Like a fish.”

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