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Authors: Carla Kelly

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With This Ring (6 page)

BOOK: With This Ring
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That’s how I feel, too,” Kitty said
happily. She made a face. “I cannot see what possessed you to
remain a moment longer than necessary, and whatever were you
thinking of, to ruin your dress?”


I can’t imagine,” Lydia said. She
sat Kitty down at the stool in front of her dressing
table.


Next to your looks, that is your
biggest problem, Lyddy dear,” Kitty said as she smiled at her
reflection. “You have no imagination. You never would have thought
to faint, would you?”

Of course not, Lydia thought. I was
too busy taking care of a dying man. Her hands were rock steady as
she combed her sister’s hair.


I thought not, Lyddy,” Kitty said
as she raised her chin and turned her face to this side, and then
that. “Tell me, sister, which is my best side? I need to know, so I
can claim the chair that shows me to best advantage.”


I rather think one is like the
other,” Lydia said.


No, silly! I have studied this
matter for hours in front of the mirror, and can reach no
conclusion.” She looked at Lydia in the mirror, her eyes
anxious.

I have spent an afternoon watching a
man die, and you want to know which side of your pretty face is the
prettiest? Lydia thought. No wonder I am so tired. “It is your
right side, Kitty,” she said finally as she pulled back her
sister’s mass of shining gold curls and anchored it expertly with
pins and ribbon. “I am certain of it.”

Kitty turned her head so her right
profile showed. After a moment’s earnest concentration, she smiled
at herself in the mirror. “You are right!” She leaped up and kissed
Lydia. “Oh, this is
such
a weight off my mind!”

 

Kitty left an hour later in the
company of the young gentlemen and ladies who had braved the rough
society of Wellington’s soldiers to spread about a little hypocrisy
as their patriotic duty. From her accustomed spot at the top of the
stairs, Lydia watched them go. Mama had made no mention of dinner,
and she did not wish to press the issue. Lydia returned to her
room, tired right down to her toes.

She stood at the window for a long
moment, trying to get up the energy to remove her dress. She closed
the draperies finally, wishing that when she opened them, the view
would be foggy Devon. “Or Northumberland,” she said suddenly.
“Laying aside damp sheets and too much oatmeal, I imagine you will
be glad to get home to clean air, and nothing more dangerous than
Highlands cattle on your hills, Major Reed!”

It is something to look forward to,
she thought as she unbuttoned her dress and stepped out of it.
There were few pins in her hair; Mama had shaken most of them loose
downstairs. She sat on her bed and brushed her hair, long and
brown, but just brown, as her eyes were just brown, and the
sprinkling of freckles on her nose just brown and irredeemable of
removal. And my mouth is too wide, and my cheekbones have no
character, and my forehead is too high. She brushed harder. But how
fortunate I am to have Mama and Kitty to point out all my failings,
she thought. Thanks to them, I have never been compelled to devote
hours to mirror gazing, like poor Kitty.

Her hands were shapely, she knew,
and there was nothing really wrong with her figure, beyond a
tendency to overgenerosity through the bosom, which was not at all
fashionable these days. My bosom was à la mode three hundred years
ago, she thought with a smile. Raphael would have loved to paint
me, if he could have overlooked an ordinary face. And why not?
Everyone else does.

The bed was cold, but she climbed
into it with a sigh, grateful she had no wounds that stank and
throbbed, and no one to worry about except herself. And nothing to
look forward to, she considered again as she closed her eyes.
Unlike you, Major Reed. She sighed and turned over, seeking warmth
where there was none. I cannot even return to St. Barnabas tomorrow
to see how you are doing.

I wish I had the courage to just
leave the house tomorrow morning and return to that church, she
thought, then put it from her mind. Lydia, you have wished and
wished for things all your life, but you have forgotten the most
important wish of all, she told herself: You need to wish for a
braver heart.

 

 

Chapter Three

S
he dreamed
of Picton’s Own Battery, all one-legged, one-armed, and one-eyed
men in dirty uniforms hauling their guns back and forth down Holly
Street, aiming and firing upon passersby. The pounding of the guns
was relentless, even when she put her pillow over her head to mute
the sound.

When it wouldn’t go away, she opened
her eyes and removed the pillow. Someone was pounding on her door.
How singular, she thought. Can it be that Kitty has somewhere to go
before …. She raised her head and stared at the clock beside
her bed …
nine
in the morning? It cannot be. The world will
end first.


Just a moment,” she called as she
reached for her robe. Her slippers were nowhere in sight, so she
padded barefoot to her door and opened it, then stepped back in
amazement.

Her first thought was that Birnam
Wood must have come to Dunsinane, except that these were flowers,
beautiful flowers, more flowers than she had ever seen in one
container—roses, daisies, lilies of the valley, heliotrope, violets
tucked here and there, and most impressive irises. It was a
conglomeration of an English garden, and she stared in
stupefaction, and then delight.


Oh, do bring them in, Mackles.
Mackles?” she asked, unable to see who carried them.

The footman staggered forward and
deposited his burden on the table by the window. “These are for
me?” she gasped, walking around the enormous bouquet, rearranging a
flower here, touching a fern there. She breathed in the
conglomeration of fragrances, marveling that the total accumulation
could smell so wonderful.


No one else, Miss Perkins,” the
footman said. “Begging your pardon, miss, but I wanted to bring
them here before ….” He coughed politely. “Well, Miss Kitty
might assume they were hers.” He scratched his head. “I disremember
when Miss Kitty had such an offering. Miss Perkins, you must have a
real admirer!”


I can’t imagine who it would be,”
she replied honestly. “I hope there is a note. We’ll probably
discover that these were intended for another house.”

There was a note. It was anchored in
the ribbon and hidden by a fairy fern. She broke the seal and
spread out the note as Mama, her eyes wide, charged into the room
and plumped herself down.


Surely these are for Kitty,” Mama
said.

Lydia read the note, shaking her
head in amazement. “No, Mama, they are mine.” She read the note out
loud. “ ’My Dear Miss Perkins, The men and I of Battery B
wanted you to know of our gratitude for the kind service you
rendered yesterday. Angels are notoriously hard to find, but you
were there. Regards, etc., Major Samuel E.H. Reed, Lord Laren of
Laren Hall, Northumberland, Battery B Commanding, Third Division.’
He has good handwriting, Mama.” She handed the note to her mother.
“I am amazed.”

Her mother snatched the note from
her hand and read it again, her lips moving. “ ’Pon my word!”
she exclaimed, then read it again. “Lord Laren?” she
asked.


I believe he is an earl, Mama,
although you would be hard put to believe it,” she said. “You never
saw a more scraggly haired, shabby fellow.”


I am astounded,” Mama said as she
walked around the flowery tribute, too.

So you are astounded, Mama, Lydia
thought with amusement. Here Kitty has flirted on the fringes with
baronets and second sons, while an earl sends me flowers. I
wonder ….

The footman, who had left the room,
returned with another announcement. “Lady Perkins, there is a
second bouquet in the drawing room, and it is addressed to
you.”

Lydia looked at her mother, barely
able to contain her delight. I think I am in the hands of a
thoroughgoing rascal, she thought, if that note downstairs says
what I think it will. No wonder Wellington triumphed in the
Peninsula; the men he leads are positively unscrupulous.


Do let us go downstairs, Mama, and
see what we find,” she said. She descended the stairs calmly as
Mama thundered ahead, her wrap billowing around her like a topsail.
Lydia paused at the foot of the stairs as Mama, shrieking now, ran
into the entranceway, suddenly rendered far less shabby by a
majestic bouquet of the reddest roses Lydia could
remember.

Mama fumbled at the note lying
beside the roses, finally handing it to Lydia. “Open this!” she
demanded. “I vow I am all aflutter!”

At least
I
am not giving you
heart palpitations, Lydia thought as she picked up one of her
hairpins still lying on the floor from last night’s encounter, and
slit open the note. She handed it to her mother, who read it, her
eyes growing wider and wider. “Daughter!” she exclaimed. “This is
amazing!”


Do read the note, Mama,” Lydia
said.

Mama read it out loud, her voice
trembling. “‘My dear Lady Luisa, You are to be congratulated on the
rearing of a daughter as kind and useful as Miss Perkins. One
rarely meets a parent who is so willing to sacrifice a daughter for
a day of philanthropy among those who serve their country. You
should be praised for your sagacity. If only I had the words to
tell you what I truly think of you. Regards, etc., Major Samuel
E.H. Reed, Lord Laren of Laren Hall, Northumberland, Battery B
Commanding, Third Division.’” Mama sank into a chair. “Daughter, I
doubt there is a single rose left in any flower shop in London.”
She stared at Lydia, unable to say more.

I can play this right, Lydia thought
suddenly as she watched the amazement in Mama’s face. She picked up
the rest of her hairpins from the floor until she felt sufficiently
calm to look at her mother again. Keep your voice normal, Lydia,
she cautioned herself. Choose your words carefully. Major Reed has
given you a toss into the saddle, if you use it right. An offhand
disinterested tone would be best about now.


Do you know, Mama, it is a pity
that you forbade me to return to St. Barnabas.” She sighed, with
what she thought was a rather good imitation of Kitty. “Ah, well.
Major Reed will manage without me, as you so helpfully pointed out
last night. Excuse me, Mama. I should dress, shouldn’t
I?”

She went upstairs quietly, leaving
Mama to stare at the flowers and then the note again. This could
come to nothing, she thought as she dressed quickly. Mama is not
easily led. Lydia looked at her bouquet again, breathing in the
fragrance so riotous and exquisite at the same time. But I doubt
that even Mama has ever met someone as determined as Major Reed.
She smiled. Quite possibly he gets his way even more frequently
than Kitty. I shall have to ask him, provided I see him again, and
he is in the right mood.

Mama was nowhere in evidence when
Lydia came downstairs again. The breakfast room was empty, except
for the butler, who poured her tea. The twinkle in his eyes was
most pronounced, telling her without words that the tale of the
early morning flowers had spread from below stairs to the
attic.


Stanton, did you see my flowers,
and Mama’s?” she asked as she helped herself to eggs and
bacon.


It would be hard to miss them, Miss
Perkins,” he replied.

The door opened then, and admitted
her father. He took a cautious peek around the door before he
entered the room. Seeing only her, he sighed and came in, making
himself small in his chair and allowing Stanton to pour tea. After
one cautious sip and then another, he relaxed.


Papa, did you see the
flowers?”

He smiled and nodded. “Do you have
an extravagant admirer, Lydia?”


No, Papa, just a poor, wounded
veteran I was trying to help at St. Barnabas yesterday,” she
replied, passing him the eggs. “I think he was
delirious.”

Papa shook his head. “Men don’t send
flowers when they are delirious, daughter. Do have a care.” He
spooned eggs on his plate. “Of course, your poor mother is even now
sneezing from the effects of the flowers. Such a pity,” he said,
sounding anything but sad.

Lydia made some appropriate comment,
hardly daring to look at her parent. I shall go into whoops over
Papa’s sympathy, she thought. She took a few bites of egg, a drink
of tea, then regarded her father. “Tell me, Papa, would it bother
you if I returned to St. Barnabas?”

Startled to be addressed, he nearly
spilled his tea. “Lydia, you know your mother’s views on the
subject.” He looked down at the cup. “She was amply clear last
night.”


I know, Papa, I know,” Lydia said.
“But how do
you
feel about it?”

As he looked around to see if anyone
could overhear him, she burned inside with embarrassment for him.
Oh, Papa, when did you get this way? she thought. I remember a time
before Kitty was born when you played with me in the evenings and
we laughed together. Was I suddenly too plain when Kitty came
along?


I won’t do anything against Mama’s
wishes, if that is what concerns you,” she assured him when the
silence stretched out. “I just wondered what you
thought.”

BOOK: With This Ring
8.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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