Read The Heart's Companion Online

Authors: Holly Newman

Tags: #Romance

The Heart's Companion

 

"Good Morning, Elsbeth!"

Lady Elsbeth Ainstree twitched in surprise, bumping the round mahogany table and setting the china clattering. Her fine-boned hand fluttered to the fichu about her neck. She took a deep breath. "Really Jane, there is simply no need to sneak up on me. You’re getting quite as bad as the boys," she said in a patently long suffering tone.

Miss Jane Grantley laughed as she entered the sunny salon used for family breakfasts. She skirted the table and crossed the room to a credenza laden with covered silver platters and urns of coffee and hot chocolate. She poured herself a cup of coffee. "I wonder if I’m actually getting that bad or if it isn’t your hearing that’s going. After all, you are getting so old...." She slid gracefully into the chair across from her aunt, her green eyes wide with playful innocence.

Lady Elsbeth pursed her lips primly, but her glowing hazel eyes betrayed her. "Wretch," she returned mildly. "You mark my words, young woman. I’ll have my revenge, for you are treading the same path I did."

"Why? Because I chose to leave London before the end of the season? What would you have me do? Ignore Miss Bailee’s heartfelt plea for release from her commitment here? Really, Elsbeth," Jane drawled theatrically, "who am I to stand in Cupid’s way?" She took a sip of coffee, her dark-lashed eyes glinting mischievously over the rim of the cup.

Recalling the agitated, crossed, and recrossed lines of the letter that brought them to Penwick Park, Lady Elsbeth choked down a laugh along with a bite of sausage. "Stuff and nonsense," she returned austerely, refusing to give vent to her own amusement. She carefully placed her fork on the edge of her plate and folded her hands in her lap. "Nurse Twinkleham is perfectly capable of caring for Bertram and Edward, to say nothing of the rest of the obscenely large staff your sister employs here. Furthermore, the absence of a governess for the few months until their parents return from the continent would not be lamented by the children. And after reading that garbled letter Miss Bailee wrote, I have my doubts as to the woman’s steadying influence on the boys." Her brown curls bobbed in emphasis. She reached for her hot chocolate.

"Your last statement is true enough," Jane admitted. "But though I love Twink dearly, for she was my own nurse, I have my doubts as to her ability to handle my rapscallion nephews. Remember the incident the day after Miss Bailee blissfully departed?"

Lady Elsbeth shuddered, then smiled ruefully. "Poor Nagel. He is worrying himself to flinders that the household will fall apart in his enforced absence."

"It was never together enough to warrant falling apart!" retorted Jane. "And that broken leg is as much his fault as the boys. If he had been watching where he was going.... "

"I disagree. A cricket bat does not belong in the middle of the Great Hall floor. It’s not as if it is a room typically strewn with all manner of items."

Jane conceded that point. "What makes the temporary handicap so distressing is the knowledge that Jeremy has readily accepted and taken over Nagel’s duties, except in his abilities to manage the boys. They are no tamer now than the day we arrived."

"I believe you exaggerate, Jane. They have not done anything untoward in days."

Jane looked at her steadily for a moment, and then she smiled. "Just the other day one of the young chambermaids discovered the boys were trying to develop a worm farm in a chamber pot," she said dryly.

"A chamber pot?" Lady Elsbeth paused, awed by the notion. She shook her head. "I really shall have to have a talk with Bertram. There was no need to go to all that trouble. The herb garden is rife with worms, and there are several patches of soil that could stand to be turned." She picked up a fork and stabbed at a slice of meat.

Laughing, Jane leaned across the small table, whispering beguilingly. "Confess, you are enjoying your time here."

"What I am enjoying," Lady Elsbeth corrected, trying to ignore Jane’s playfulness, "is your company. Being your chaperon and companion has been the least arduous and most entertaining of any family duty our various relatives have imposed on me." She slid a piece of meat into her mouth as if to say that was the end of the issue.

Jane shook her head, refusing to allow her aunt the final word. "That is entirely your own fault for allowing them to take advantage of your single state and ride roughshod over you. And that includes my father, as well!" She rose to refill her coffee cup and place a muffin on her plate.

Lady Elsbeth glanced over and looked askance at the meager fare Jane set before herself. She did not comment as her mind churned over her niece’s pronouncement. "Dearest, one does not begin by expecting to be taken advantage of. One first has the notion of being helpful in times of need. Or as an escape from society."

"By which, I am to infer, you mean my situation?" Jane suggested archly.

Lady Elsbeth shrugged and offered her niece a gentle smile. "I see too many parallels, my dear." Her mouth tightened. "I would not have that for you."

"You talk as if you are in your dotage and I am on the brink!"

"I may only be three and thirty, which I shall grant you is young enough in years, however, it is not an age men marry. I am long past any hope of that event, and I trust I have acceded to my fate with dignity."

Staring wide-eyed at her aunt, Jane gasped and sputtered. "Elsbeth!" she finally managed. "Of all the caper-witted nonsense!"

"No. It is not caper-witted nonsense. You, Jane, are twenty. It will not be long before society whispers behind gloved hands and fans that you are on the shelf. They may grant you time due to your wealth, but even that will be fleeting if you insist on avoiding introductions to eligible gentlemen. Oh, Jane, Jane, please heed me! Do not allow your life to wither away!" Lady Elsbeth twisted her napkin in anguish.

Jane looked shrewdly at her aunt. "But what brought this up now? We have been here over six weeks and society has long left London for the summer hiatus in Bath, Brighton, or some other watering spot where people parade about, displaying their finery like so many peacocks."

Lady Elsbeth looked down guiltily at the pile of correspondence by her plate. Her fingers shifted through the small pile, then closed over one in particular. She chewed on her lower lip. "I’ve had a letter from Serena," she finally said.

Jane’s eyes narrowed, and one black, finely arched brow rose.

Lady Elsbeth grimaced at the mask of hauteur sliding over Jane’s face. Her niece could be so damnably cool and forbidding when she chose. It was no wonder many people fixed her with uncomplimentary sobriquets; though, in honesty, her appearance was a perfect foil for arrogance. Her looks were far too exotic to be classically beautiful. She was tall with a willowy frame. Her hair was as blue-black as the ocean on a moonless night, in startling contrast to her pearl-white skin and seafoam-green eyes. When she entered a room, all eyes looked in her direction. It was something Lady Elsbeth felt Jane must notice, yet she seemed oblivious to the sensations she caused. Her manner in company was unfailingly cool, yet gracious. Few outside the family were privileged to see her true warmth and humor. It was a sad waste.

Lady Elsbeth had lived with Jane for almost a year. She joined the Grantley household when her brother-in-law, Sir Jasper Grantley, grew restless and decided it was once again time to shake the dust of England from his boots. Nonetheless, Lady Elsbeth did not pretend that in the time she’d lived with Jane she’d come to understand her niece. So different were Jane’s public and private selves that sometimes it was like living with two different people. In another person. Lady Elsbeth might have laid the blame for the public persona on shyness, but that was not the answer in Jane’s case for she possessed quite a bit of confidence. It was almost as if she lacked confidence in other people, as though she were burdened with memories of a shattering disappointment which left her as skittish as a young colt.

No matter. The underlying truth was glaringly obvious. Jane was twenty and without marital prospects. Considering that she possessed a handsome competence and stood to inherit more from that freewheeling adventurer she called a father, her attitude was simply not to be understood. Nor, to Lady Elsbeth’s mind, countenanced. Lady Elsbeth sighed to herself.

"I know you are not overly fond of your Aunt Serena," she began slowly.

"Elsbeth," Jane interrupted, "do not try to wrap it up in clean linen. You know as well as I that Lady Serena Tipton has the manners of a grasping, conniving shopkeeper."

"Jane, I must protest! That is unjust."

Her niece glared at her, the emerald of her eyes deepening in color. "And her daughter Millicent would make an alley cat yowl," she finished defiantly, her chin jutting forward, her posture rigid.

Lady Elsbeth sighed. "I have always known there is animosity between you two; yet neither party has seen fit to explain the matter. It is very daunting to be caught in the middle of something when one doesn’t even know what that something is . . ." She looked expectantly at her niece.

Jane’s lips thinned and her eyes took on a faraway expression, but she did not explain. She waved her hand airily, dismissing the conversation. "It was all a very long time ago and probably best forgotten," she declared firmly.

Leaning back in her chair, Lady Elsbeth philosophically accepted her failure. She’d actually held little hope of Jane confiding in her at this juncture, though her reticence did increase her curiosity. One long slender finger restlessly tapped the letter. "That is why," she began carefully, "I was interested in Serena’s letter. She writes most sincerely about your situation and laments your single state."

Actually, she had scolded her younger sister for her failure to find Jane a husband, but Lady Elsbeth did not see fit to divulge that information to Jane. "She believes you are merely lacking the proper environment for attracting gentlemen. She even praises us for retiring to the country when we did for she is convinced a rural setting will be more conducive to matrimonial matters."

"Oh, really, Elsbeth. What does she take me for? A milkmaid?"

Lady Elsbeth laughed. "My dear, I hardly think anyone could make that mistake. No, she writes that the social whirl has become too artificial and therefore not a proper conduit for making alliances. That is why she is in Margate for the summer, visiting Aunt Agatha Arbuthnot."

"Toadying Great Aunt Agatha for her East India Company riches? I thought Tipton left her comfortably well-heeled. "

"Jane, this penchant of yours for cant has got to stop. But to your statement about enough, I don’t think the word enough exists for Serena. "

"That I believe."

"By the way, Serena advises against traveling from London to Margate by way of a Margate hoy, though sailing on those sloops is popular these days. I gather she is annoyed that its popularity is shared by the middle classes."

"I’ve always known Lady Tipton to be an insufferable snob."

"Yes, that I shan’t argue with you. She has been like that ever since our brother, Simon, died in a riding accident. He was her twin. They were devoted to each other, and Simon was everyone’s darling. I don’t know why it should have altered her as it did, but there it is. But I’m digressing. Serena says she has achieved the notion that a provincial environment inspires matrimony. "

Jane choked and sputtered on a sip of coffee. "That is the most featherbrained notion I have heard! Next to you being too old, that is."

She coughed lightly to clear her throat; then her eyes narrowed until they resembled a stalking cat’s. "I wonder who told her that, for I doubt she thought it up. The woman is not capable of an original idea. And I ask you, Elsbeth, who does she expect me to marry? This neighborhood is hardly replete with eligible single men. The only one I can account for is Henry Culpepper, and since he is only eight, I sincerely question his eligibility."

"There is the Earl of Royce," Lady Elsbeth suggested. "Though I don’t think she means for you to marry him. I gather she has set her sights on him as a possible second husband for Millicent."

"Royce! He hasn’t been in England for years! Or has the prodigal returned? Is he at Margate wooing and ruining? Odd that. With his hedonistic reputation I would have thought if he were in England he’d be with Prinny’s crowd in Brighton!"

"Didn’t you know? He is in England! And in residence at Royceland Hall. He has been for a week or more, according to Mrs. Chitterdean. I swear that dear woman fatigues me just watching her. She is a wonderfully amiable soul, and such a dedicated helpmate for Reverend Chitterdean. They are well wedded in that respect. But she also manages to know all the news in the neighborhood more swiftly than any servants who, I swear, Jane, are generally the first to know everything."

Jane dabbed her napkin to her lips to brush away crumbs. "I can well understand Mrs. Chitterdean’s knowledge. Most likely the earl paid a duty call on the reverend, for isn’t the reverend’s living from Royce’s gift? But how came Lady Tipton by her information?"

Lady Elsbeth shrugged. "Serena wrote assuming I was as well informed as she." She looked swiftly over at her niece, then dropped her gaze to her correspondence, her fingers nervously creasing one corner of a cream bond card. "The earl’s presence at Royceland is the reason she is coming here next week," she added with studied lightness.

"What?!" Jane exploded out of her seat, much in the manner Lady Elsbeth envisioned she would upon hearing that bit of intelligence.

"And Millicent," she continued quickly. "Actually, I gather they will be bringing a small house party with them. A group on their way to Brighton for some social event or other. She convinced them to break their journey here."

"If she is coming from Margate, Penwick Park is not on the road to Brighton. Besides, she is taking a great deal for granted."

She paused, a frown drawing her raven brows together. "You should write back to her and say this is not a good time for a visit. Say the children are sick, or something."

"Jane, so long as the Earl of Royce is in the neighborhood, I doubt anything would give her a moment’s pause. And you know, your sister Mary espouses an open house policy. I’m certain she and Delbert often have the strangest assortment of people here."

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