Read The Bridal Season Online

Authors: Connie Brockway

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

The Bridal Season (5 page)

BOOK: The Bridal Season
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“I’m sure you’re right,” Letty said, unbuttoning her
lavender-dyed kid gloves. “You must be very excited about the wedding.”

“Oh, yes,” breathed Grace. “It’s like something in fairy tales
now, isn’t it?”

“Is it? How so?” Letty asked invitingly.

“Well,” the housekeeper said, settling her arms comfortably
across her middle, “last year Miss Angela is invited by one of her former
school chums—she went to a very fine finishing school, you know—to go on
vacation with her and her family to one of those lakeside hotels in Cumbria.
The second morning there she goes down to the pier to fish, and while she’s
there a very nice-looking young bloke joins her.

“However, it soon becomes clear that he don’t know one end of
the hook from another, and Miss Angela, who is the soul of kindness, offers to
bait his hook for him. He accepts and introduces himself as plain old Hugh
Sheffield—never mentioning as how he is a marquis.

“As will happen, one thing leads to another and the young
people get to know each other and gets fond of each other,” Grace’s dark eyes
glanced up quickly, “in a purely innocent sort of way.”

Where a healthy boy and girl are concerned, innocence seldom
enters the picture, let alone
pure
innocence, Letty thought, but only
said, “How romantic!”

“It gets even better,” Grace replied. “At the end of the month
the marquis—who Miss Angela still don’t know is a marquis—leaves, and Miss
Angela comes home and mopes around until another friend of hers from school—a
friend what’s family is well up in Society—invites her to London for the
Season.

“And Miss Eglantyne, thinking that a spot of gaiety might be
just the thing to lift Miss Angela out of the doldrums, packs her off. And
guess what?”

“She meets Prince Charming again? Or rather Marquis
Marvelous,” Letty said.

Grace nodded vigorously. “Yes, and
he
tells
her
that
he’s been looking for her all about town and had begun to think that she was
just like Cinderella, and that some wicked stepmother was keeping her in the
scullery, washing vegetable marrows, and that he was going to search for her
door to door only he hadn’t even the clue of a glass slipper to guide him by.
Ain’t that just lovely?” Grace sighed.

“Couldn’t he have contacted the hotel and asked for her
address?” Letty asked. “Hotels always ask for forwarding addresses in case
something gets left behind. A marquis certainly would know that.”

Grace scowled, opened her mouth, shut it, scowled harder. “I
suspect he wasn’t thinking very clearly, bein’ so madly in love and all,” she
said in a hard, brook-no-argument voice.

Oops,
Letty thought. Now she’d done it. Romantics hated
being hit square between the eyes with logic.

“Undoubtedly you are right,” she said soothingly. The deep
furrows between Grace’s brows relaxed. “And that
is
a pretty story. I
suppose it was only a matter of weeks after their meeting in London that the
marquis revealed himself as the heir to a wondrous fortune and begged Miss
Angela to be his bride.”

“That’s right!” Grace said, delighted.

“And I imagine Miss Angela at first said, ‘No!’ thinking
herself by far his social inferior?”

“Why, yes!” Grace intoned, clearly impressed.

“But he squelched her fears, finally convincing her that he
would never be complete without her!” she finished dramatically.

“Exactly!” Grace said wonderingly. “How’d you know?”

Because three quarters of London’s Gaiety Theatre operettas
were fashioned on those exact same lines, and she’d seen every one. Even been
in the chorus of a couple.

She smiled wisely for Grace’s benefit, but inside she couldn’t
help but feel a bit gratified that real life actually sometimes worked out like
that. It gave her a bit of hope.

Of course, if any bloke with a title and pockets full of gold
asked for her hand, he wouldn’t need to be asking twice. She wasn’t a fool.

“I’ve seen much in my career,” she said enigmatically and let
it go at that as she began unpinning her hat.

“I heard how you haven’t got a maid,” Grace said. “So, I’ll
just send a girl up to help you—”

“No!” Letty swept her hat from her head and tossed it next to
Fagin. Which one of these pieces of luggage contained Lady Agatha’s clothing?
“I’m not exactly sure what’s where. That’s one of the reasons I gave my maid
the sack—I mean, terminated her employment. She didn’t keep things straight.”

“Oh.”

“I daresay I’ll deal well enough on my own this once. You
mentioned the man I sent?” Letty hurriedly tried to channel the conversation to
safer ground.

“The caterer? Nice enough fer a foreigner. Seemed to know his
business and all. Left a lot of notes for you.”

“Left? You mean he’s not here?”

“Mr. Beauford went back to London three days ago,” Grace said
in puzzlement. “You didn’t know, mum? Well, that’s help for you.”

Gratitude nearly brought Letty to her knees. Mr. Beauford was
a caterer! Then, her relief fading, she said, “I suppose he’ll be back soon?”

“Three days before the wedding to prepare the food and his
staff. Just like usual, he said.” Grace responded.

“And so it is,” Letty said happily, patting the older woman’s
arm. She was safe for the time being. No need to hurry off. She could have a
tray of food, sleep on a feather mattress, and tomorrow she could search
through Lady Agatha’s trunks.

A clean escape depended on the Bigglesworths’ thinking that
Lady Agatha had run out on them, taking some of her things with her. She had to
be careful that even after she left they still thought she was Lady Agatha. She
disliked the idea of Sir Elliot on her trail even more than Nick Sparkle.

“Grace,” she said, “as you are the most senior member of the
staff here at The Hollies—”

“Not me, mum. That’d be Cabot.”

“Cabot?”

“The butler. Miss Eglantyne imported him from London as soon
as Miss Angela got herself engaged last year. Give the family panache, she said.”

“Oh. How nice.”

“Some say,” the housekeeper returned primly. “But I thinks a
true gentleman don’t need panache. Like Sir Elliot. You won’t see him bringing
in some hoity-toity butler to tell him how to dress or what wine to drink.”

Letty, in the act of wandering about the room tallying the net
worth of various bits of expensive bric-a-brac, stopped like a hound on point.
“Sir Elliot.”

Grace nodded. “A true gentleman.”

“Indeed.” She affected nonchalance, sauntering over to the bed
and picking up her hat. She fussed with a spray of lilacs. It only made sense
to learn what she could about the local magistrate. “Sir Elliot does, indeed,
seem most agreeable.”

“Oh, he is that,” Grace answered enthusiastically. “Lest you
stand before him in court. I hear he can flay a man to honesty using just his
words and his wit.”

And where had he sharpened those wits? Letty thought
sardonically. By trading barbs with the local poacher? “He’s most agreeable to
look at, too.”

“Oh, my, yes! And even more so now than when he was young.”
Grace leaned forward and whispered, “He’s grown into it.”

“Into it?”

“The nose.”

“Ah! I see. Yes, I suspect so grand a feature would overwhelm
a young, callow face, though Sir Elliot hardly seems the sort to have ever been
callow.” She let her words trail off into a question.

“Never,” Grace said. “Always been the first to answer duty’s
call. Never seen him shirk a responsibility, nor shun an issue what needs
addressing.”

“Damn.”

“Mum?”

“Damp.” Letty said, lifting up one of Fagin’s limp forelegs.
“His paws are damp. I’m afraid he’s marked up the coverlet. Now what were we
talking about? Ah, yes. Sir Elliot March. I confess,” her eyes grew innocently
round, “I find it amazing that such a paragon has escaped the matrimonial nets
that must be cast his way.”

“That’s a fact. The ladies do go on somethin’ about Sir
Elliot. Not that any stands a chance of, er, nettin’ him.”

“No?”

Grace pulled a long face and shook her head.

“And why is that?”

“It’s his heart, mum,” the housekeeper sighed. “It’s been
broken lo these many years and ain’t no one been able to mend it.”

“Who broke it?” Letty asked.

“Catherine Bunting.”

“That charming blond bloke’s pasty-skinned wife?”

Grace choked and Letty clapped her on the back. After a minute
she regained her breath and continued. “That’s the one, mum. Before Sir Elliot
went off to foreign parts to fight fer Her Majesty, he and Mrs. Bunting, what
was then Miss Catherine Meadows, had a sort of understanding.”

“They were engaged?”

Grace shifted uneasily on her feet. “Well, practically. At
least everyone expected them to get married, but then Sir Elliot come back from
those heathen climes as thin as a reed and white as chalk. That’s where his
limp comes from, you know. War wound.”

What limp?

“But then, afore we know it, Catherine Meadows is engaged to
Sir Elliot’s best friend, Lord Paul, and Sir Elliot is standing up for him at
the wedding. But he’d changed, you see. He went off a lighthearted rascal and
come back a harder man.” She sniffed, glanced sidelong at Letty, and said, “Not
to say a word against Catherine Bunting.”

Letty could have found plenty to say, but managed to hold her
tongue. Poor Sir Elliot. How must he have felt, a war hero returned to find his
sweetheart had left him for his best friend? Though how any woman could prefer
Paul Bunting to Sir Elliot March was a mystery.

“A regular saint, she is,” Grace’s voice cut across Letty’s
thoughts. “Tends to the poor, visits the sick, organizes the annual church
bazaar, and provides the altar flowers. If only she’d see straight on women’s
suffrage ...” Grace shrugged.

“Hm,” Letty said noncommittally.

A few minutes later Grace left and Letty, feeling vaguely
dissatisfied and unable to pinpoint the reason why, decided to have a look-see
around the outside of the house. It always paid to know the quickest way out of
a place and, as the Bigglesworths would be dining, now was as good a time as
any.

She opened the door and peered outside. Seeing no one about,
she slipped into the hall and retraced her earlier steps. Someone, she thought,
should teach Sir Elliot a fundamental rule of the heart; there was no sense in
crying over spilt milk. Especially since once spilt it spoiled.

She stopped.
Why
was she thinking about him? She should
be applauding herself on her impersonation of Lady Agatha, or thinking about
the best way to go once she left Little Bidewell, not imagining ways to
rekindle passion in the man most dangerous to her. A man who would have her in
jail if he even suspected what she was about to do.

She started walking again.

But, try as she might, her imagination would not shut up.

Chapter 5

An enigmatic smile is worth

ten pages of dialogue.

 

“GUESS WHERE I BEEN?” GRACE COLLAPSED against the door in the
servant’s hall, her hands clasped over her heart.

“Where?” asked Merry, pausing with her tea half raised to her
lips. The other servants seated about the table waited.

“I been bein’ charted up by none other than Lady Agatha Whyte
herself, that’s where I been.”

“Never!”

“True.” Grace pointed to the steaming pot of tea. Immediately
Merry poured her out a cup and set it at the housekeeper’s place at the head of
the table. At the other end of the table Cabot, the butler, attempted to look
uninterested. Grace wasn’t having any of it.

She took her seat, arranging her skirts as eight faces watched
her expectantly.

“Well?” Merry demanded in exasperation. “What’s she like?”

“She ain’t a bit hoity-toity,” Gracie said, daintily sipping
her tea. Cabot wasn’t the only one with good manners. “I can see why she’s
managed so well. She has a chatty way with her and is ever so common.”

Cabot snorted with disapproval.

“In the nicest sense of the word,” Grace went on, ignoring
him. “She asked all sorts of questions.”

“What sorts of questions?” The boot boy asked.

“About Miss Angela and the marquis, of course, but mostly she
was interested in—” Grace set down her teacup, placed her palms flat against
the table, and leaned forward “—Sir Elliot.”

“Go on,” breathed the tweenie.

Grace settled back. “Tha’s right. And I’m thinkin’ that what
with Sir Elliot bein’ recommended fer a barony and Lady Agatha bein’ a duke’s
daughter, she would make him a right proper bride.”

“You must be jesting,” Cabot said. “You can’t seriously be
playing matchmaker for Sir Elliot and Lady Agatha?”

Grace sniffed. “Wot if I am? Where’s the harm? If things don’t
work out, well, Lady Agatha is going to be gone in a few weeks. And if things
do
work out, well, don’t you think Sir Elliot deserves a duke’s daughter?” She
impaled Cabot with a glare. The others, quick to take umbrage over an imagined
social slight to the local hero, followed suit.

“It has nothing to do with what Sir Elliot does or does not
deserve,” Cabot replied. “It has to do with interfering in people’s lives.”

“Ach!” Grace flapped her hand, dismissing his conceits. “Who
of us would have ended up where we are if someone hadn’t had the good sense to
interfere with us?”

And with that impeccable piece of logic effectively stifling
Cabot’s protests, the conversation turned to the particulars of “interference.”

 

“Elliot?” Professor Atticus March called out upon hearing the
front door close. A breeze stirred the curtains covering the library’s French
doors and Atticus shivered. He was an old man and the night was cold.

Fighting the impulse to simply wait for Elliot and then
request that he shut the doors, Atticus rose with difficulty and closed them
himself. Elliot had come home when he’d had heart failure eighteen months ago.
That was long enough.

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