Georgiana Montgomery awoke feeling rested but in a leisurely mood. It was one of the benefits of dwelling in the country; one didn’t have to worry about early morning callers. However, when Georgiana opened her hazel eyes enough to look around, she found the bright sunshine to be irresistible.
Fairly jumping out of bed, she rang the bell at her bedside to call for Lucy, her lady’s maid. Georgiana found herself smiling, as she moved the drapes aside to better glimpse the glorious day. She didn’t manage to enjoy it for long before she heard a light tap at her door and turned to see Lucy entering.
“Morning, Miss,” Lucy said with a small curtsy.
“Good morning, Lucy!” Georgiana enthusiastically replied, as she placed herself in the usual spot for Lucy to help her dress.
Georgiana saw Lucy smile slightly as she set to work. “I take it you intend to go riding this morning, Miss?”
Georgiana grinned as she put her arms up for Lucy. “Of course! Such a fine morning as this should always be spent on horseback. I will go for a ride directly after breakfast.”
Lucy nodded and prepared to dress her mistress accordingly. “You know, Miss, I think you know as much about the horses as your uncle, Lord Irvington, does.”
Georgiana laughed, then became more thoughtful. “Yes. I suppose I do. I have certainly learned a lot about horses these last two years since moving to my uncle’s country seat. Aunt Adelaide may not scold me directly, since she knows I have grown to love them, but I can tell she thinks it slightly unladylike to be so well acquainted with horses as I am.”
“Oh, I don’t think she really minds at all, Miss, as long as it makes you smile. And you don’t go about flaunting your knowledge of horses when we have gentlemen callers, so she has nothing to complain about.”
“Oh, but could you imagine her expression were I to do such a thing?” Georgiana almost laughed.
“I believe she would find it amusing herself, though she would doubtless scold you after the fact.”
“Yes! And Uncle Jonas would have to hide his smile behind his hand to avoid giving himself away!” Georgiana continued, finding the whole imagined situation highly entertaining.
Their conversation was interrupted while various items of clothing were slipped over Georgiana’s head, as Lucy finished helping her dress.
“And how shall I do your hair this morning, Miss?”
“Hmmm…” Georgiana glanced thoughtfully into the mirror. “I think a French braid will be suitable for today.”
Lucy nodded and began work on the top of the braid. “Very well, Miss. I take it you will be dropping by the neighboring estate, then? Mr. Rowley has mentioned once or twice how well this style suits you.”
“I think he has mentioned it more than that,” Georgiana replied with amusement. “But, as my best friend and honorary big brother, it is Ambrose’s job to tell me when something looks well on me. Don’t you agree this style complements the shape of my face?”
“Indeed, it does, Miss. Will that be all?” Lucy asked as she neatly finished off the end of the thick, ash-blonde braid and secured it firmly.
Georgianna paused and then nodded. “Yes. Thank you, Lucy.”
“My pleasure, Miss,” Lucy replied with a curtsy before beginning to tidy up.
Georgiana hummed a tune to herself as she headed towards the main dining room, her thoughts on the horses, as she planned to sneak them a few sugar lumps from the table. The sounds of her aunt and uncle talking to each other as she neared the dining room pulled her out of her thoughts.
“Why, good morning!” she said brightly as she entered the room. Then, she put on a playful pout as she hugged her aunt. “And I thought I would be the first one to breakfast today.”
Georgiana did not attempt to hug her uncle Jonas, as he had a cup of scalding hot tea in his hands, instead simply returning the smile he gave her. Only then did she notice a slight hesitation, as Jonas’s hazel eyes glanced for a moment at the blue eyes of her aunt Adelaide. Wondering what it could mean, she felt some of her cheerfulness fade as she slowly took her seat.
“So, dear,” Jonas began. Georgiana already knew whatever he said would be something she didn’t want to hear. “We would very much like you to come to London with us this year for the season.”
Georgiana instantly tensed, her stomach twisting into knots at the mere thought. “No, thank you … I just … I don’t believe it is wise for me to go so soon,” she replied as she pointedly looked away from her aunt and uncle and started putting food on her plate. She hoped that would be the end of the matter, just as it had been last year.
Her uncle sighed but didn’t give in this time. “I know you have … reservations about going back to London. That is why I didn’t push you to go last year, and your aunt and I made our excuses, so we could all stay in the country together. This year, your aunt and I are going, and you can’t stay here all alone.”
Georgina swallowed hard, not feeling at all hungry anymore. She could already imagine the feel of the stares she was bound to receive if she attended the season. “I … I, um. I understand… Couldn’t I stay somewhere else? Just for this year? Perhaps with one of my cousins? I really don’t want to go. I would like the rumors to die down just a little more. Perhaps in another year or two?”
“And we understand that, too, dear,” her aunt quickly replied, placing a hand on her husband’s arm. “Staying away from social gatherings may eventually help people forget a little more about you and Walt- I mean, Baron Bartlett, to be sure. However, it will also give them fuel for other rumors. We don’t have to stay for the whole season if it proves too much for you, but we think it would be best if you attended as many events as possible.”
“That’s right, dear,” her uncle added. “We are not asking you to search for a husband or anything like that. If you do meet someone there, well, we shall have no objections. We just want you to be happy. But to keep postponing something as important as this … well, isn’t it better to get things of this nature settled sooner rather than later?”
Georgiana felt her eyes watering and had a strong desire to shake him in a defiant refusal to go anywhere near London again—to go anywhere near the place where her heart had been broken and her lover had essentially abandoned her nearly two years ago without a word or any explanation.
She heard more than saw Adelaide get up and move behind her; her aunt’s arms wrapped around her shoulders before she spoke again. “And as far as rumors go, I hear those concerning you are not as bad as you might expect.”
That brought to mind some of the rumors Georgiana heard before she had all but fled to Uncle Jonas’ country estate. They had hinted she must have done something terrible to offend the baron to cause him to behave in such a manner. Or that he had discovered something distasteful about her, enough to make him deem her unworthy of his attention. Though she had not heard as much, she had fully expected, and feared, the next logical direction for the rumors to take would be for the gossips to suggest she was not chaste.
She felt her aunt smooth her hair affectionately. “I understand how you feel, Georgiana, but your uncle is right. It is best to get this over with. You used to enjoy the season so much, and I know you can enjoy it again if you give yourself a chance. We won’t force you to come with us but, please, do it for us?”
However, as much as Georgiana loathed the thought of being subjected to the ton’s scrutiny once more, she recognized her aunt had a point. She heaved a long sigh of defeat and resigned herself to her fate.
Her aunt and uncle had done so much for her after all, taking her in at the tender age of five when her parents had died. They had already raised their own children, who lived far away for the most part. They hadn’t needed to start all over again by raising her. It wouldn’t kill her to do this for them.
“Is Ambrose going this year?” she asked hopefully, as her aunt kissed the top of her head before going back to her seat beside Jonas.
“I don’t know,” her uncle replied. “He may not be. He hasn’t said anything about going, and he has made no secret of the fact he dislikes having to attend such events.”
Georgiana felt herself tensing again at the thought of facing all those curious stares alone… “Very well. I will consider going but only if he goes with us. With my best friend by my side, I will be able to endure all the gossip. I honestly don’t think I could even begin to manage without him. Not if you insist upon my going.”
Her aunt and uncle seemed to consider this, and Georgiana almost held her breath as she waited to hear what they would say. She nearly sighed with relief when her uncle looked at her aunt before slowly nodding his head.
“Very well. I can see having an escort would spare you from some of the worst gossip.”
“And he could escort you home if necessary and prevent you from feeling lonely should Jonas and I become preoccupied talking business with the other old married couples,” Adelaide added approvingly.
“Very well. I suppose I should go and see Ambrose directly after breakfast and ask him,” Georgiana said before absentmindedly taking a bite of toast.
“And I will tell Lucy to start packing for you,” her aunt said with a smile, as she also resumed eating.
“And what if he says no?”
Jonas chuckled, “That boy has never been able to say no to you. Even when you played together as children, if you set your mind on something, he would protest for a time, but his compliance always proved inevitable.”
Georgiana had to smile at some of the memories her uncle’s words brought back to her. “Now, now, I think you are giving me far too much credit.”
Her uncle raised an eyebrow at her. “Very well, name one instance where he unquestionably held out against you,” he challenged. “I am not counting the times when he compromised to meet you halfway! I mean a time when he outright stuck to his guns and refused to do whatever it was you wanted of him and did not apologize for doing so.”
Georgiana thought hard on this while she ate. There was that time— No, he had compromised then, too, by getting the puppy himself and letting her play with it as much as she liked. And what about that time she had insisted they go to help look for that stray horse, even though it was raining buckets, and there was a danger of flooding?
She opened her mouth to remind her uncle about that, but then paused. No, she remembered now; he had apologized the very next morning. Did that count as an apology, if he had only been apologizing about the fact she had become upset with him for not being willing to help her?
She frowned as she heard her uncle start to chuckle. He raised his cup at her, as though in a toast to the fact he was right. She glared back at him. “Just because I am not good at thinking on the spot does not mean you are right, Uncle.”
“Mmm … I am sure,” her aunt cut in with a playfully patronizing air.
Georgiana could not resist a little huff at her aunt before deciding she had eaten all she cared to for the time being. After all, this morning’s topic had hardly helped her appetite. With one last bite, she rose from her chair to leave.
“Well, I am going for a ride and to talk to Ambrose about— I will ask him to come to London with us for the season. He might say no, as two weeks is hardly enough time to prepare.”
“But you will honestly try to convince him?” her uncle asked.
Georgiana paused for a moment at the door. “Yes, uncle, I will do my best to get him to come,” she affirmed.
Just a few moments later, she was out of the house and at the stables. Seeing her favorite horse waiting and saddled for her instantly put the smile back on her face. “Thank you for having him ready for me, John.”
“I knew you would be wanting to ride this morning Miss.”
“And you, you are such a pretty boy, aren’t you, Caspian?” she asked, as she stroked the pure black nose of the horse in front of her, while accepting the reins from John. “I am dreadfully sorry I have forgotten your sugar this morning.”
With almost no assistance from John, Georgiana was soon in the saddle, high on Caspian’s back. “I will likely have a long ride today, but I may stop along the way and walk on foot for a while. Still, I would like you to be ready to cool him down if needed when I return.”
“Of course, Miss. I hope you enjoy your ride.”
Georgiana did not waste any more time, setting Caspian’s head straight for where she hoped to find Ambrose. She knew full well she would not be able to enjoy her ride at all until she knew what his answer would be.
The ride to the neighboring estate, which often seemed too long, now felt far too short. Worse, she still had no idea how to bring up the subject with Ambrose. At times like these, she wished he were her brother in blood as well as in spirit. Then, he would be living with her uncle and aunt in the same household, and he would already know about their plans.
She sighed, knowing such thoughts were nothing more than wishful thinking, as she maneuvered Caspian to a stop near the stables of the Ambrose’s estate.
“Please send to ask Mr. Rowley to join me for a ride,” she told one of the nearby stable hands, who had been tending to the horses. “And, if he says he is too busy, tell him I have an urgent matter to discuss with him this morning.”
“Right away, Miss Montgomery.”
Georgiana watched the young boy bolt away to do as she had asked, confident Ambrose would not keep her waiting long. Absentmindedly pursing her lips, she debated whether she should talk about some happier topics to open the conversation or if it would be better to make her request first.
“Well, if you are making that face then it must be something serious.”
Georgiana was almost startled by the sound of her friend’s voice, hearing the mildly teasing tone without being the slightest bit offended. “It is serious,” she replied honestly. “But first, has anything of consequence happened with you lately?”
“No. I can’t say anything has. At least, not since we saw each other two days ago.”
At that moment, their conversation was interrupted by the stable hand bringing Ambrose’s horse out for him. It was only after he had mounted and they had started off at a slow pace that he asked the inevitable question. “So, what is wrong, Georgie?”
Georgiana didn’t bother to reply at first, not even with a playful denial, as she might have done on any other day. “My aunt and uncle are going to London for the season, and they want me to go with them,” she told him simply.
Ambrose seemed taken aback at that. “Are you serious? It is far too soon to even be thinking of something like that! You did tell them you wouldn’t go, of course. They can hardly expect you to after— Wait. Are you saying you want to go?”
“Well… I wouldn’t say I truly like the idea, but they did make several convincing arguments. And Uncle is right about it being something that it is better not to postpone any longer.”
“Not to postpone? Why must it be done at all? I thought you enjoyed it here in the country. It is certainly better than mingling with those hateful gossips. You know you will have to deal with them if you go.”
“I know. And that is why I am hoping you will agree to come with us,” she replied gently.
Ambrose looked as though he didn’t know quite what to make of her less than subtle request. His blue eyes showed he was deep in thought, while the sun shone on his blonde hair. “But why do you want to go at all? You cannot claim you are close with anyone who is going to be there.”
“True. But I still remember my first season. I may have learned to love horses and the outdoors over the last two years, but a part of me still loves the excitement, the beautiful dresses, and the dancing, which left my poor feet almost too sore to walk upon. While I might be glad the season only lasts for a part of the year, I confess I miss those bits.”
“And why do you need me to go?” Ambrose asked.
Georgiana could tell by his voice he was already halfway resigned to going with her. All she had to do now to clinch his agreement was to finally convince him. “Because … I need my best friend by my side to give me the courage to face all those hateful gossips you mention. More than that, I might need a shoulder to cry on if it all becomes too much to bear.”
Ambrose was silent for a long while, and she let him think about it. She knew he had hated attending the season on the few occasions he had been forced to. While she wanted him there, she didn’t want him to feel forced into going with her. However, by this time, having remembered some of the good times she had enjoyed in London, a part of her was already considering going without him.
She heard him sigh loudly. “I’ll come. Perhaps not for the whole season or every event, but I will come.”
Georgiana grinned, but tried not to make her triumph at getting her own way too obvious. “Thank you. After we have had our ride, I will leave you alone for the most part until we arrive in London, to give you adequate time to prepare.”
“And shouldn’t you go home to start packing for yourself?”
“Actually, Aunt Adelaide is probably already directing Lucy to do that for me as we speak.”
“Yes, I can easily picture that,” he replied, and his smile started to return.
Georgiana returned it with one of her own, as she changed the subject to a discussion of some of her aunt’s past actions. Though their ride wasn’t a particularly long one, she nevertheless felt it made a peaceful prelude to the turmoil that might lay ahead.
Walter Harris, Baron Bartlett, let out the satisfied sigh of a job well done, as he opened the door to his uncle’s home. Though tedious at times, getting hands-on experience with his uncle’s wine business was something he found interesting.
“Ah, hello Walter, and how was your today?” his aunt asked when she saw him. Her French accent was still quite thick, but her pronunciation was good.
“It is ‘your day’ not ‘your today,” he gently corrected the petite French woman, with whom his uncle had fallen in love and married. “And it was a good day, Aunt Anne-Marie. Nothing special happened.”
“That is good. You have received a letter from your mother this morning. I set it by your bedside for you.”
“Thank you. I need to change for dinner anyway,” he replied as he headed towards his room. Walter felt a twinge of guilt as he thought about how long it had been since he had seen his mother. However, he also knew how much his uncle Edward needed his help here in France.
Walter glanced at the letter, postponing opening it until after he had dressed. He knew he mustn’t wait until after dinner to read it, since everyone in attendance would likely ask him what it said the moment he got to the table.
Grabbing the letter, he mentally scolded himself for not being happier to hear from his mother. Walter sat on the edge of the bed as he read the contents of the letter:
My dearest Son,
I was pleased to get your last letter and to hear how well your uncle’s wine business is doing with your help. It sounds as though your cousin Felicia is helping in some ways herself, and I am glad you two have been getting on so well together.
I had been hoping Edward would only need your help for a short while. However, it seems as though you postpone returning home to England with every letter you send. Truly, I understand your uncle needs the help, but perhaps he could hire someone to take over your duties for a time?
Though I miss you dearly, I would not mind your absence if that were the only reason. The truth is, I feel I am getting on in years and am unable to continue tending to things on my own.
In short, you are needed at home, my son. Your uncle is still able and has your aunt and cousin there to help him. I have no one but you.
Consider it my early birthday present if you must, though I won’t stop you from buying me another when the actual day comes. It has been nearly two years since I last saw you, and I am longing to find out how you are faring in person and not simply through letters.
All my love,
Your affectionate Mother
Walter sighed as he folded the letter and put it away with the others he had received from his mother. While she had hinted she would like him to return in almost every letter she had sent in recent months, this was the first time she had been so direct about it.
Still, he was certain things weren’t as serious at home as she seemed to think they were. Besides, his uncle needed his help. His father would not have liked it if his own son refused to help his younger brother when he needed it!
Confident in his decision, Walter headed downstairs to join his uncle’s family for dinner. As soon as he entered the room, he saw his cousin Felicia had already heard about the letter.
However, he feigned complete ignorance until they were all seated. At that point, Felicia could not contain herself for a moment longer.
“So, how is your letter?”
“It’s good,” he replied, being deliberately vague. There were moments when he enjoyed being difficult. He elicited the reaction he had been hoping for when Felicia playfully scowled at him. Meanwhile, his aunt and uncle simply looked on with amusement as they ate.
“You know what I mean! What has your mother got to say? How are things in London?”
“Mother didn’t say much about that in her letter.”
“So, it should be easy for you to tell me everything she does say.”
“She… Well, she wants me to go back to London. At least for a while.”
That caught his uncle’s attention. “Oh? So, do you plan to return?”
Walter looked up with surprise at his uncle’s question. “Not if I can help it, Uncle. You need me here, don’t you? More so than ever this year, since you have invested in your own vineyard to avoid having to buy your grapes each year. This will be the first year you will be able to make wine from grapes grown in your own vineyard.”
“Look, I may not know Sylvia well, but I am sure your mother would not have asked you to return home without having a good reason for doing so.”
Walter looked away, trying again to tamp down the slight feeling of guilt he felt about the situation. Felicia seemed to catch the look and asked, “What is it? She has mentioned the reason why she wants you home, hasn’t she?”
“Well…” Walter glanced at his uncle and knew there was no way he could avoid sharing the full contents of the letter. “She says managing my father’s assets is becoming too much for her to manage nowadays, and she would like me to come back and take care of them for her.”
“And you are seriously considering staying here?” his uncle asked incredulously.
Walter thought for a moment, and then nodded. “I am needed more here. You are still building your business and expanding it. The businesses my father left merely need to be maintained.”
“Even maintaining a business can be a lot of work. Sometimes things happen; markets can change in a moment, and rapid changes to the business must be made in response to such things. What did your mother say exactly?”
“Just that she feels she is too old and tending to everything is now too much for her, and she wants me at home to take over. But I am sure she could ask any one of my father’s friends still living in London to help her if she truly needs assistance.”
“Getting someone else, even a close friend, to help is not the same as family. Besides, any friend of your father’s will likely have their own affairs to attend to. And they might prove not to be a true friend, and, well, that could lead to disaster. That is why I was so glad for your help here. True, I will miss having you, but I can manage.”
“Only by hiring someone to help you, which entails the same difficulties you have just pointed out with my mother getting someone else to help her.”
“Perhaps, but I can oversee their work and know what to look for if I am at all suspicious of them. Sylvia might not be able to do that nearly as well. I think she needs you more than I do, especially if she is outright asking for your help. Does she mention any specific problems?”
“Well, she might feel unable to do so in a letter.”
Walter couldn’t think of a reply, and not for lack of trying. It wasn’t that he was avoiding going home, but after what had happened … well, there were people he would rather not see. A large part of him missed his mother dearly, and he had no difficulty admitting it, even though he was a man of twenty-six.
“Very well, Uncle. I’ll go.”
A week later…
Walter was glad the trip to London was finally over as the ship came into dock. Though not prone to seasickness himself, some of the other passengers had had stomachs not quite as strong. It was partially for that reason he waited on deck while they docked.
He had to keep out of the way while the ship set anchor, or they would send him back below again. Being above decks allowed him to be the first to disembark, and he made a beeline for the black lacquered carriage bearing his family’s crest on its doors.
“Hello, Fredrick,” he called to the coachman, while the footman went to get his luggage.
“It is good to see you again, Lord Bartlett,” Fredrick replied as Walter stepped into the carriage.
He nearly fell backwards in surprise to find his waiting inside for him. The next moment, he had his arms around her in an embrace, a smile on his face.
“It is so good to see you!” he said as he moved her to arm’s length to look at her more closely.
“It is so good to see you, too, Walter,” she replied as she began to fondly inspect him.
Now Walter was able to get a good look at his mother, he found himself shocked at how much she had aged. True, she had already had a fair amount of gray in her light brown hair two years ago but now there was more gray than brown. And all the new wrinkles and worry lines…
“Well, I am here to stay for a long while,” Walter told her, making the decision right then. The statement made his mother seem to hesitate about something, before she appeared to brush aside whatever thoughts were in her mind to smile back at him, while the carriage started moving.
“And I will gladly keep you here as long as you will stay,” she told him, putting a hand on his cheek, and patting it gently. “I had hoped your ship would dock earlier in the day, but it seems we have just enough time for us to return home and for you to prepare for dinner.”
“And I suppose you are going to insist on it not being a minute late?” he teased, remembering how strict his mother was about having meals on time. Walter settled in beside his mother with an arm around her.
“Now, more than ever. You won’t have any trouble being on time, so long as you don’t waste time or get distracted.”
“To be fair, Mother, that only happened a handful of times when I was a child,” Walter replied. Then he saw the lift of his mother’s eyebrows. “I don’t count those times.”
Sylvia smiled and shook her head at him, as though he was still a naughty child. “Well, enough of all that. Tell me more about your journey here, how you got on in France, and everything else. You did try your best in your letters, but it was not nearly enough. I want all the details.”
“Where shall I start?”
“Hmm. With the basics of your journey. We should have time for that before we arrive at the townhouse.”
So, Walter obeyed, telling her everything he could think of in the carriage, and then going straight to his room when they reached the house. Part of him was still in shock at how much his mother had aged in two short years.
The small twinges of guilt he had sometimes felt in France now had him on the rack. While he still didn’t want to be in London, he resolved to stay for as long as she needed him. Perhaps, he might even be able to convince his mother to return to France with him?
Despite his musings, Walter was able to concentrate on the task at hand well enough to reach the dining hall with exactly one minute to spare. His mother glanced pointedly at the clock as he pulled out her chair for her.
“So, shall I resume telling you about the happenings on the ship?”
“No, thank you, dear … I think we shall have plenty of time for that later,” Sylvia replied hesitantly.
“What is it, Mother?” he asked, picking up on the fact she wanted to say something important.
“I have considered not broaching this particular subject for a while. However, if you are to … it is, perhaps, best to discuss it now, in case … certain preparations need to be made.” Seeing Walter was looking at her and listening attentively, she continued. “Walter, dear, you mentioned earlier your plan to stay here for some time. So, may I take that to mean you intend to leave again at some point?”
Walter could tell his mother was choosing her words carefully, so he took a moment to do the same. “Yes, I do. For certain reasons, I don’t think I can ever truly feel at home here. At least, not yet.”
Sylvia sighed. “That was the one thing you have never explained to me, and I won’t press you to tell me why you left until you wish to. However, I must ask you to at least consider staying in London permanently. You may think of staying only long enough to get things sorted out on my behalf, but, once you leave, I fear matters will fall into disarray again.”
“I can hire someone to take care of those matters for us.”
“But these are more than just sources of income for our family. You know full well the music school meant a lot to your father and that he wanted to expand it. I must also remind you of a promise you made to your father. Tell me, have you met any French girls you are interested in marrying?”
Walter almost winced, feeling for all the world like a schoolboy being scolded again. “No. I haven’t forgotten promising Father that, as his only child, I would marry and have a son of my own to carry on the family name. And while I have not changed my mind, I am still uninterested in marrying a French girl—though I do adore my aunt Anne-Marie.”
Sylvia seemed content to let the silence settle as they began to eat. Finally, she asked, “And just when do you plan to carry out your promise to your father?”
Walter knew his mother had a point. He still had every intention of keeping his promise to his dear father, but the thought of getting close to someone again after— It was something he could barely stand to think about.
Still, he would let his mother arrange his marriage if he had to, to keep his promise. He knew she would have no difficulty in doing so. Since he doubted he would ever fall in love again, that was a serious consideration. There was no sense in postponing it. If he settled down with a wife, perhaps there would also be more to keep him in London, where his mother clearly needed him.
“What do you suggest, Mother?”
“I want you to attend the season this year. Hopefully, to both find a bride, and to consider building up your father’s businesses.”
“Very well,” he replied, trying to put on a smile. “I trust you will point me in the right direction?” With any luck, the person he left England to get away from wouldn’t be there.
His mother looked surprised at his agreeing so easily. “If you wish me to. Just make an effort to find a girl you like. I know you want to find someone to love, and I would like that, too, of course, but love requires a certain amount of hard work.”
“I will try, I promise,” he said, as he reached out and clasped one of his hands over hers, squeezing it for a moment before pulling his hand back. “So, when and where is the first event of the season I am to attend?”
“We will start off by attending the ball being hosted at Burford Manor. It is in a little over a week from now, so you will need to arrange to see your tailor to be properly attired for it before then. Shall I say we shall both attend, then?”
“Yes, Mother, I will let you accept whatever invitations you see fit on my behalf, so I may concentrate on looking over the business affairs.”
Georgiana stood in front of the mirror for the final fitting of the last of the gowns she would need for the season. As expected, the French modistes was fairly overflowing with young ladies of the ton coming and going on the same errand.
“What do you think, Aunt Adelaide?”
“Oh, I think you look perfectly lovely. That pale pink suits you so well. It has been so long since I have seen you in a ball gown, I know, but you truly look splendid in this one. You must wear it at the ball at Burford Manor tomorrow night!”
Georgiana felt herself sadden at the compliment, though she did her best to put a smile on her face. Such praise only reminded her of when she had first met Walter…
She had been on her way to the dancefloor as the music started to play. She had yet to be asked by any gentlemen to dance but had been confident she would be, and she had not been mistaken. No sooner had she made it clear she intended to dance, three young gentlemen had approached her.
“May I have the next-”
“That color suits-”
Georgiana had smiled almost coyly but sincerely at them both, and at the third gentlemen, who seemed to realize he stood no chance of a dance with her at that time.
“Perhaps you should try again, one at a time?”
She had found it quite entertaining, seeing the two gentlemen exchange less than friendly glances. Finally, the man she recognized as Baron Bartlett, being higher in rank than the other, spoke first.
“I was attempting to tell you that pink is assuredly your color and suits your complexion exquisitely, Miss Montgomery. Of course, the best way to show it off to everyone present is on the dancefloor, where the lighting is even better.”
“And I came over here expressly to ask you to dance myself,” the other gentlemen had put in hastily.
Georgiana had pretended to consider their words, though, in her heart, her decision had already been made. “My apologies, good sir, but I am afraid Baron Bartlett has secured this dance, due to the pretty way he has asked for it. But you may have the next one.”
The other gentleman had bowed out as graciously as he could after writing his name on her card for the next dance. The next moment, Georgiana had taken the arm of the baron.
As he led her into position to dance, he had asked her, “So, you know of me? I would have remembered being introduced to you, Miss Montgomery, I am sure.”
She had raised her eyebrows as the dance began. “Oh? It seems you know of me also, though I am equally certain we have never been formally introduced before.”
“Perhaps we should make up for lost time, then.”
“You can step down now, Miss.” Georgiana was drawn out of the past, as the seamstress directed her to step off the small pedestal where she had been standing while her hemline was examined.
“Here, let me help you, dear,” Adelaide said, and offered a hand to Georgiana.
Holding Adelaide’s hand, Georgiana couldn’t help but notice a few more ladies enter the modiste’s. Even after her feet were on the ground, she kept her hand tightly gripping her aunt’s. Instead of going forward in greeting, Georgiana was acutely aware of the fact the women had instantly noticed her presence and began whispering amongst themselves. While not directly discourteous, the slight was keenly felt.
“Are you alright, dear?”
Georgiana sighed, resolutely turning her full attention to her aunt. “Yes. Perfectly.”
Her false smile did not deceive her aunt, however, who quickly perceived the problem. “Do not pay them any mind. Part of their whispering is no doubt simply because no one has been expecting you to attend the season, and they are surprised.”
“Surprised people can still overcome their surprise enough to greet one.”
“And shrinking back as you are is not helping matters,” Adelaide firmly told her, then seemed to sense how her words may have sounded. “I don’t mean to be harsh, dear, but you must try to put on an air of confidence, even if you don’t feel so. Confidence gives the impression there is nothing to gossip about. Fear implies there is something you are afraid others will find out.”
“And you recommend I do that?” Georgiana asked. She tried to stand taller and found herself wishing it were Ambrose by her side instead of her aunt. Though Adelaide was kind, she was also four inches shorter than Georgiana, which gave Georgiana nothing to hide behind.
“Think on anything but what you assume people are gossiping about. Preferably, something pleasant. You may find your love of horses proves useful at such times.” The last few words were spoken by Adelaide with a faint smile, which Georgiana found she was almost able to return.
“Very well, then. I will try to think more about horses,” she replied almost tartly, her tone vaguely implying she would do much more than her aunt had suggested.
Adelaide sighed in fond exasperation as they exited the modiste’s. “If you must … in order to keep that smile on your face, then I have no objections.”
The rest of the morning was every bit as busy. The newly completed dresses needed to be put away, calling cards had to be given out and received, and Aunt Adelaide was planning a garden tea party to rival all others and desired Georgiana’s opinions on the arrangements.
“Tell me, dear, do you think the tables should be arranged like this? Or, like this?”
“Honestly, Aunt, does it make a difference in this case?”
“Of course, it does! I am well-known for my garden parties, and I must prove mine are still among the best, so every detail matters.”
“Well, I am certain you will succeed in getting every detail perfect,” Georgiana told her. Then, seeing Adelaide was now too occupied to notice, she slipped away before she could be asked another question.
A few moments later, Georgiana sighed wearily, as she finally sat down to rest after the flurry of the long morning. Though exciting at moments, she had forgotten the rush before the season could be quite tiring at times.
She decided she needed some time to herself. So, glancing around, she stole into her room to retrieve the book she had placed there to read.
Peeking out of the door, she waited until a servant had passed before exiting her room and stealthily making her way to a quiet part of the house.
Glancing around one last time, Georgiana settled herself comfortably in the window seat. Opening her book, she soon became so lost in it, she nearly threw her book in the air when she realized her maid was suddenly standing before her, and the fading light from the window showed it was quite late in the evening.
“Miss Georgiana, your friend Mr. Rowley is here to see you,” Lucy announced.
“Oh, thank you, Lucy. Here, take my book and put it by my bedside for later,” Georgiana told her maid, quickly handing it to her. Rushing down the stairs with a smile on her face, Georgiana nearly ran into Ambrose the bottom of the stairs.
Ambrose caught her by the shoulders to steady her. “Easy, there.”
“Thank you! I am glad you are here. These last three days in London waiting for you to arrive have been … well, I suppose I can’t call them dull, but I assuredly cannot refer to them as enjoyable.”
Ambrose looked at her for a long moment, as though determining just how bad the last few days might have been for her. “Shall we…” he paused to think, “…Shall we take a stroll around the rose garden?”
“That sounds perfect,” she replied with an appreciative smile. “Though it is still early in the year, it should be warm enough.”
He held out his arm, allowing her to take it as they started outside at a leisurely pace. It was lovely in the gardens, with the sun close to the horizon and the early roses in full bloom. Finally, Ambrose broke the silence.
“I suppose it would be too much to hope you have changed your mind about attending the season?”
Georgiana almost grimaced, then she sighed. “No. I am determined. I am going to through with it.”
“Then, tell me what has happened?”
“Earlier today, Aunt Adelaide and I were at the modiste’s, and, well…” She sighed. “The gossiping has already started.”
Ambrose had seemed to understand exactly what had occurred, despite her few words. While Georgiana knew he could use that to tell her she should take it as proof she should go back to the country. But Ambrose didn’t say any of that.
Instead, after a long silence, during which they continued to walk, he looked at her and said, “You do know you have nothing to worry about, don’t you?”
Georgiana tilted her head to the side. “You mean, as my aunt said, they may not actually be talking about me at all?”
Ambrose shook his head. “No, no. What I mean is that, even if some of them are talking about you, they will only be those who do not know you. While their words may sting, they can’t truly hurt you.”
“I suppose you have a point … but it doesn’t feel so. Mary will not be attending, and Lucy and Elizabeth are already married. In fact, most of the girls I knew two seasons ago are either married, or not attending.”
“Tomorrow you will see. You have nothing to worry about, and I will be at your side for the entire time. Should anyone avoid you based on hearsay, it is their loss.”
“Thank you, Ambrose,” she told him, giving his arm a squeeze, as she tried once more to brush aside her anxiety about attending the ball at Burford Manor. “I really do appreciate your support, more so since I know you despise these things.”
“Of course. It is my intention always to be here when you need me. But now, I believe you need your rest more than another turn about the garden with me.”
Georgiana pouted, but let herself be led back towards the house. “Do you truly think I shall sleep?”
“You should at least try. I know your aunt will agree with me.”
“I suppose I could … after I finish the chapter of the book I am reading. You really should read Mansfield Park. I can hardly wait until I can get a copy of Miss Austen’s new book, Emma.”
“I think I will leave those books to you,” Ambrose chuckled, stopping at the side door of the house. “Still, don’t try to stay up to read the whole book. I know you have read it before, so you have no excuse.”
“I shall try. Goodnight, Ambrose,” Georgiana said as she gave him a sisterly peck on his cheek.
As Georgiana made her way to bed, she dearly hoped Ambrose was right about there being nothing to worry about. At least Lord Bartlett was in France, the last she had heard, so there was no fear of running into him.
Walter felt resigned as he made his way to breakfast with his mother in the main dining room. He had much to do that day; he was still catching up on the current state of the family business affairs and looking over paperwork. Even seeing how cheerful his mother looked did little to improve his mood.
“Good morning, Walter.”
“Good morning, Mother,” he replied as he seated her.
“Whatever you do today, you must not forget about the ball at Burford Manor this evening. I have heard it is to be a particularly lavish event, since it is also Viscount Burford’s birthday.”
Sylvia seemed quite excited about the event. “I hear there will be hundreds of lights in the gardens for those who may wish to wander away from the dancing later in the evening. And then, the musicians they have hired…”
While his mother continued, Walter listened and nodded at the appropriate times, as he began to eat his coddled eggs and toast. While he could appreciate beauty as much as any man, such details had never held much interest for him.
However, as a viscount, Lord Burford was a rank above that of baron. Therefore, he listened just enough to glean any useful tidbits he might employ in polite conversation later.
“More to the point,” his mother’s change to serious tone caught his attention, “Lord Burford’s youngest child, and only daughter, has just come of marriageable age. You wished me to point you in the right direction, and she would be a good match for you.”
Walter could find no objection. He was sure his mother would not have mentioned the young lady as a possible good match unless it were true. And, while he might think a new debutante a little young, objectively, she would be more likely to successfully give him the heir he needed.
“I will make certain I am introduced to her at the ball tonight.”
“Good. And I trust you will try to become acquainted with her? I know you can be charming when you choose.”
“Yes, Mother, I will,” he promised. “But, for now, I have some business to attend to. I will take the carriage if you have no need of it.”
Sylvia shook her head. “No, but just be sure to keep an eye on the time.”
“I will,” Walter replied as, with one last bite of toast, he rose from the table. On the previous evening, he had ordered the carriage to be ready for him that morning, so there was no delay in his departure.
First, the offices near the docks must be visited again, to retrieve the newly completed ledgers regarding the cargo and profits of the two ships he owned.
Then, he visited the small shop in London primarily supplied primarily by his ships. Walter had a mind to change some of the range of items currently sold in the shop.
To do so, he first needed to look over the shop, to see where new wares might be best displayed, and, perhaps, rearrange the rest, as well as consider many other related details. After getting a few ideas, Walter headed out of the shop deep in thought, colliding with someone on the pavement with a forceful bump.
“Pardon me. I wasn’t looking where I was going,” he instantly replied, as he lent a hand to the man before him.
“Apology accepted, young man. I could have—” the older man paused. “Why, young Walter? Is that you?”
Walter focused on the face in front of him, a grin quickly appearing on his face as recognition came to him. “Henry? Henry Lucas?” he asked incredulously.
Henry grasped his hand and shook it vigorously with a grin of his own. “It is so good to see you after all these years! When I got back from the Far East last year, you were one of the first people I looked up, only to find you were in France. When did you return?”
“Only recently. My mother has convinced me to attend the season. But, come, tell me about yourself. It has been … what, five years? But your time in the East hasn’t weakened your grip, my friend!” Walter remarked, wincing at the man’s forceful grip. Henry laughed but let go of his young friend’s hand. “We must catch up. What are you doing now?”
Walter pulled out his pocket watch, noting it was already afternoon. “I have nothing more to do today as far as business is concerned. But I must be home in time to prepare for the ball this evening.”
“Well, that gives us a couple of hours! That is plenty of time to get started. Have you eaten anything since breakfast?”
“No. Do you have somewhere in mind?”
“Have you been to Huxley’s?” Henry put a hand on Walter’s shoulder as they headed to the latter’s carriage. When Walter shook his head to the contrary, he continued, “Well, then, this will be a treat.”
After telling the coachman where to go, Henry told him a little about where they were heading. “Huxley’s is a prominent gentlemen’s club. They have drinks there, but we should be able to get a little something to eat, as well. It is still fairly new, but already extremely popular.”
“I haven’t been back in London long enough to hear of it yet, I suppose. And, besides, I am not much of a gambler, as you know, though I am not against the occasional bet on a good horse or some other such thing.”
“Oh, do not worry about that. True, there is plenty of gambling done at Huxley’s, but there is also a wide variety of other things to do there for a gentleman like yourself who only gambles in moderation. That is partially why it has grown so much in the two or three years since it was founded.
“The location is, perhaps, another reason why it is flourishing. On that same street are many other amusements are appropriate for young gentlemen. There is even a bit of boxing to be had at a club there, a sport which I have taken up myself.”
“Really? Well, I suppose that accounts for your iron grip!”
“You should try it sometime, or at least stop by long enough to let me introduce you around.”
“It would seem I am due a number of introductions. It is surprising, considering I have been gone for less than two years,” he replied, as the carriage came to a stop at their destination.
“Well, let us start here! Though you are only here today as my guest, I have no doubt you could easily become a member if you wanted to. A good introduction is the first step in that direction.”
Walter soon found when Henry had said he would introduce him to people at the club, he didn’t do introductions by half measures. He met two gentlemen near the door, Henry took him by the whist tables and introduced him to the half a dozen men there, and then found another one or two along the way to a small dining area.
In each case, Walter was told their name, rank, occupation, and a little about them. Walter knew he would only be able to remember perhaps half of the information, but one or two stood out as possible friends, and he resolved to make a better acquaintance with them.
In the dining area, there were a few foods such as cold pork, cheeses, hot tea, and a few other items for the gentlemen to help themselves to. As Walter put some of the selection on his plate, he turned the conversation towards the topic he most wanted to hear about.
“So, how was the Far East? You haven’t told me much about it yet. Was it as exciting as you thought it would be?”
“Yes and no,” Henry replied as they sat. “Certainly, the customs are strange, and new, and interesting. However, though novel at first, some aspects of life there can become rather tedious.”
“Give me an example.”
“Well, talking to people can be a challenge in itself at times. I did try to learn to talk Mandarin, to get around the tedious process of having to have a translator, but that language requires such strict pronunciation, it was easier to pay them to learn English!
“Also, I don’t think anything can beat a good English horse when traveling on horseback. While they do travel that way over there, their horses are not as good for riding … or it might be the way they make their saddles…”
Walter listened with attention as Henry went on to describe some of the strange animals of the Far East, even going so far as to loudly imitate the sounds that one or two of them made, not caring at all that they were in a public place. Then again, even when Walter was a boy, Henry had always been an animated person.
When Walter had finished eating, he looked at his pocket watch and nearly jumped out of his chair. “I am sorry, Henry, but I must go! The ball at Burford Manor starts within the next hour, and you know how Mother is about being on time.”
“Yes, do not think about it for a moment; get out of here and hurry off to your scolding,” Henry told him in a teasing manner as they waved farewell.
They both knew, while the late Lord Bartlett had always used to look the other way if his son was late, Lady Bartlett was far stricter in that area, and never overlooked tardiness.
Walter asked the coachman to go quickly, and the man willingly used his whip to hurry the horses, shortening the time of their journey home, and Walter was soon hurrying up the steps and to his room.
“Are you just arriving, dear?” he heard his mother ask from her room, where she was no doubt getting ready.
“Yes, but I will be ready on time,” Walter replied without stopping. Soon he was in his room and out of hearing. Rushing through his preparations, he was soon down the stairs and by the front door once more, where he found his mother already waiting for him.
“Come now. I would tell you to go and straighten yourself up and then come back down, but there is no time for that now,” she told him as she took his arm and hurried him to the carriage.
The moment they were inside, Sylvia began to straighten his clothes, smooth his hair, and attend to other small details about his person. “You did say you would be on time, Walter. Really, you are a grown man, after all. What is your excuse this time?”
“I ran into an old friend. Do you remember Henry Lucas?”
Sylvia sighed. “Yes, I remember him. As I recall, he was the cause of your being late more than once before he left, and even caused your own father to be late once or twice.”
“And that is what you remember him for?”
She raised her eyebrows at him, as though to ask what other reason there could be. “We shall be there soon. If the Viscount’s daughter is occupied elsewhere, you must ensure you are still introduced to her.”
“I will, Mother,” he assured her.
“Though they may be a rank above us, I do not doubt they will consider you a good match for their daughter. I have heard one or two of her older brothers are known for frequenting the gambling tables.”
“So, you feel they won’t mind about us being a step lower in rank, since our income is possibly larger than theirs?”
“Oh, I have no doubt our income is greater. Your father did extremely well in that area and invested wisely. You are still of noble rank, and you have an excellent reputation, with no terrible vices. They can have no objection at all.”
“I am pleased you think so highly of me, Mother,” Walter replied half teasingly and half sarcastically, as they arrived at Burford Manor.
Stepping out of the carriage, they were escorted by a butler to the drawing-room, where their coats were taken. Standing nearby, were the Viscount and Viscountess.
“Good evening, Baron Bartlett, Lady Bartlett,” Viscount Burford said in greeting to Walter and his mother.
“Good evening, my mother and I are pleased to be here, Lord Burford, Lady Burford.”
“And we are equally pleased to see you are back from France and able to attend. May I introduce my daughter, Clarissa?” the viscount said, motioning to his daughter standing nearby.
“It is my honor to meet you, Miss Rutherford,” Walter told her with a bow, noting her small size, auburn hair, and brown eyes.
Those eyes were highlighted as she fluttered her eyelashes at him as she curtsied. “The pleasure is mine, Lord Bartlett.”
Walter noticed she glanced at her mother before asking him, “Shall we take a turn around the room while we wait for dinner to be announced, Lord Bartlett?”
“That sounds delightful,” he told her as he held out his arm for her to take.
Just as she had linked arms with him and they had gone a few steps, the attention of the whole room shifted towards the doors again. “Perhaps we should wait for a moment, so you may be introduced to the newest guests?”
“Of course,” she replied politely.
As they turned to look at the door, Walter froze where he stood. There, coming in the door, were the Earl and Countess of Irvington. Behind them were the last two people on earth he ever wanted to see again: Georgiana, accompanied by Ambrose Rowley.
By now, he supposed it was Mr. and Mrs. Rowley. The thought took his mind to the past, and his stomach suddenly twisted into knots. That had been the reason he had left England two years ago.
While he was still frozen looking at her, Georgiana happened to glance at him. Her eyes locked with his own from near the entrance, and both seemed be unable to look away.
There was a quiet whispering, but whether it concerned her or the fact they had been staring at each other for a scandalous amount of time, Walter couldn’t have said, even if he had noticed.
He vaguely heard something being said in a loud voice, at which point Georgiana averted her gaze. However, it was feeling someone give his arm a light squeeze which finally allowed him to turn his eyes away from Georgiana.
“Lord Bartlett,” Miss Rutherford said, clearly trying to get his attention. “The butler has just announced dinner is ready.”
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