What the Fates Decree

     

In which the duchess tries to convince her sister in-law they should send their daughters to Scotland without them.

      London, Late July, 1842

      Seated in the dining room at their London residence, Lia, the Duchess of Caversham, watched as her only daughter Isabel, her niece Charlotte, and their dearest friend, Penelope, departed for their morning ride. It would be one of their last together in London until next spring, as the Halden family planned to leave town later in the week.

      After four seasons out in society, only one of the three girls had shown any interest in a gentleman—and that ended with Penelope’s heart broken after several weeks of infatuation with the young man. Lia was beginning to think if she wanted to see her daughter settled, she would have to help matters along. With this in mind, she planned to send a note inviting her sister-in-law, Elise, Countess Camden, and their close friend Beverly, Viscountess Huddleston to come for tea later today. They needed to discuss an upcoming house party in Scotland that just might be the perfect venue for their daughters to meet eligible gentlemen who weren’t the usual London fare.

      Lia was of the opinion their daughters were never going to find husbands with the judgmental eyes of London society and the gossip columnists watching and criticizing their every move. The young misses needed exposure to different young men. Heaven knew the ones they’d met thus far hadn’t piqued their interest. Or, maybe even the same young men except in a more relaxed atmosphere. There, perhaps the young ladies and gentlemen would have the opportunity to learn about each other, thus encouraging relationships to grow, Lia wasn’t certain.

      But the one thing she was sure about was that a change of scenery was called for.

       

      "I wanted to talk to you both about going to Rathcavan,” Lia said to Elise and Beverly, as the ladies all sat in the drawing room several hours later.

      “I was hoping that was why you called us over,” Beverly said, as she lifted her gaze from her tea cup. “Because I wanted to talk about that as well.”

      Elise must have sensed that something was amiss in Beverly’s voice because she asked, “We are going to Rathcavan for the hunt, are we not?”

      Lia shook her head. “I know this is a momentous celebration for Lady Adina, but you know I am not as eager to hunt as you two.” She lifted her cup and sipped her tea. Returning the fine Limoges porcelain cup to it’s equally fine saucer, she continued. “Besides, I have a plan. One I would like for you to listen to Elise, as I know you will need the most convincing.”

      She recalled the invitation from the Lady Adina, Countess Fitzhugh. The countess was turning seventy-five, and wanted to commemorate the occasion doing what she has loved since she was a child—riding with her hounds. But, this was no ordinary hunt. It was to be a month-long house party at her estate in Scotland, with several weeks of hunting and shooting, culminating with a country dance celebrating the countess’ birthday.

      Both Elise and Beverly gave her curious stares, Elise’s expression a little more censorious than Beverly’s.

      “What is this plan?” Elise asked.

      Lia heard the caution in Elise’s voice.

      “I think we allow our daughters to go without us.”

      “You cannot possibly mean that,” Elise said, the shock evident by the slight screech at the end of her statement. “Besides, Michael would never allow it,” her sister in law snapped, “what with the queen being shot at again earlier this month. And Ren… You know he fears someone wanting to get to him by hurting what he treasures most—his family. Why… it’s the very reason your daughter has two guards.”

      Lia thought her sister-in-law grasped at any excuse to justify her journey to Scotland with Beverly, but kept that to herself.

      “I must go. Lady Adina is my husband’s favorite aunt, his mother’s twin. He would be worried if Penny and I didn’t attend.” Beverly looked concerned, and she had every right to be.

      “Oh, I think you should go, Beverly,” Lia said. “But, Elise…”

      Elise shook her head. “Michael would never agree.”

      Her sister-in-law would be the hardest to persuade. If Lia could get Elise to understand her reasoning, then she was certain they could both persuade their husbands to allow their daughters to go. “It’s all in the presentation, Elise. You have to make it seem like a positive thing to have Charlotte go with Penelope and Isabel.

      “Why do you not want to go, Lia?” Elise asked.

      She deserved an honest answer. “Because it’s cold and wet in October, and I’d rather spend that time with the baby I still have at home, and my husband. I want to be near a warm fire, in my own home.”

      Beverly set her cup and saucer down on the table with a little more force than normal, startling both Lia and Elise.

      “What’s the matter?” asked Elise. “Did Lady Adina want Lia to come in particular?”

      “No, no. That’s not it at all,” Beverly replied. Meeting Lia’s gaze, she continued. “But… Now that I know you’re staying home… I was wondering if maybe I could impose upon you to keep Penelope for that time.”

      “Why?” Elise said, disappointment heavily tinging her voice. “I thought we were going to surprise the girls and take them with us.”

      “I’m not certain that we should. You see,” Beverly explained, “I just received a letter this morning, from Kip’s cousin by marriage, Lady Edgar. Lady Edgar, or Margaret, is Aunt Adina’s daughter-in-law, and Margaret is aunt to the new Earl Fitzhugh and his sister, Miss Olivia Houghton. Margaret sponsored Olivia this season in Edinburgh. Well, it seems that Olivia is newly betrothed to a friend of her brother’s.”

      When Beverly paused, Lia asked, “But isn’t that a good thing? I mean, the lady is marrying someone known to her brother. Fitzhugh certainly cannot find fault in the young man as he is his friend.”

      Elise straightened her shoulders. “And we all know, I would never fault the arrangement. I married my brother’s best friend and it’s worked out beautifully.”

      Beverly did not show any relief at their words, so Lia asked her to explain.

      “It isn’t so much that the young lady is betrothed. It’s who she’s betrothed to that makes me wonder if the girls should go to Rathcavan at all.”

      Lia gave Beverly a curious stare.

      “Well,” Elise said, “if we left the girls with Lia at Haldenwood, then we certainly wouldn’t have to worry about them being in Scotland among strangers.”

      “They are not strangers, Elise,” Lia said. “They are Kip’s family.”

      “Yes, they are my husband’s family,” Beverly said, “Except… Maybe the girls…”

      Elise asked their friend to continue—likely because she saw one of her fondest activities, fox hunting, and at one of her favorite places, Rathcavan, fading before her eyes. “Beverly? Whatever is the matter?”

      “Because their family was in mourning last year, this year with the new earl seated, the young miss had her very first season at nineteen, in Edinburgh, not London. She only met the earl’s friend less than one month ago when he arrived to visit his friend.”

      “That is rather fast,” Elise mused. “The girl just met the man, whereas I’d known Michael my entire life.”

      “Yes… Well…” Beverly looked uncomfortable, almost near tears, and it was breaking Lia’s heart.

      “Oh, dearest, whatever the problem is, the three of us can handle it,” Lia jumped in to reassure her.

      “Lia’s right. Whatever it is, we can manage it,” Elise said, finally realizing the distress bearing down on their friend.

      Beverly took a deep breath to collect herself and continued. “The reason Margaret wrote to me was because this young man’s name had sounded familiar to her. When she realized where she’d heard the name before, she became concerned, and searched my letters for confirmation… You see, I’d previously communicated to her about Penelope’s heartache last year, and…”

      “Beverly, dear,” Lia whispered, likely so as not to attract the attention of the maid who had come in with a fresh pot of tea. “You’re making me nervous.”

      Beverly leaned forward, her choked whisper, frightening both she and Elise. “You’re never going to believe who the groom-to-be is.”

      Lia tried to think of any eligible young men she knew in Scotland, but Elise drew in a sharp breath, for she had obviously figured out who the groom-to-be was. Lia, though, was unable to deduce the identity of the young man.

      “No,” Elise whispered. “Tell me it’s not who I think it is.”

      Beverly nodded. Her grave expression confirming, at least for Elise, the identity of the man. But Lia was still drawing a blank.

      “How…” Elise queried. “I don’t understand. How does he know the new earl?”

      And just then Lia realized the only person it could be—the same man who’d disappeared the year before after getting Penelope’s hopes up. What he’d done, leading Penelope to believe he cared for her, then leaving suddenly as he did without word of why or where he was going was abominable.

      Beverly confirmed Elise’s guess. “Yes, none other than Mr. Nathaniel Gregorio Santiago,” she said. “Olivia has betrothed herself to Penny’s Nathaniel! The same man who broke my daughter’s heart last year.”

      Elise’s mouth was gaping in astonishment. Lia thought surely hers had to have been as well, for it could not be possible that there are two men with that exact same name.

      “Are we certain it’s the same young man?” The look in Beverly’s eyes told Lia they most definitely were speaking of the same Mr. Santiago.

      She had heard the pertinent details from Isabel. The young man had played Penelope false, saying he was interested in her—even that he wanted to speak to her father. The morning he was to have met with the Viscount, Penelope’s young man never made the appointment. It was believed he got cold feet and disappeared—fleeing London to return to his father’s ancestral home in Spain.

      As usual, Elise jumped in and began questioning Beverly. “Has Penelope mentioned him recently? Perhaps she wouldn’t care? It has been over a year. Surely she cannot feel anything akin to affection for him.”

      Beverly’s perfectly arranged blonde curls shook vigorously to and fro atop her head. “She never mentions him, but her heart still aches for him, I can tell. It’s because she never mentions him that I know this. And… Kip would expect us to participate in his aunt’s birthday celebration. He isn’t able to return from Mumbai, and has practically insisted—in his sweet way, of course—that we go. If I decline, it would cause him undue worry. He might think I took another fall.”

      Beverly was right. Kip worried over her and Penelope a great deal. As was proved the previous spring, when Beverly had taken a fall from a horse. He’d stayed at Fenwicke Hall with his wife for as long as he could, until he’d been called back to London by his superiors at the Foreign Office, who directed his immediate return to India. Beverly’s husband left only after she’d given him a promise that she would not ride a green horse again unless he was with her.

      “I would certainly understand if you chose to leave the girls with me so you and Elise can go for Lady Adina’s birthday and hunt,” Lia said. “But…”

      “How does he know the new Earl?” Elise asked again. “I was under the impression Mr. Santiago was from Spain.”

      “I don’t know,” Beverly replied. “Margaret never explained the connection.”

      Lia’s mind mulled over the situation at hand. This shocking development would surely upset Penelope. But the entire reason for sending her daughter to Scotland without her, was to give her own daughter some latitude, or freedom to navigate certain situations as the adult she would soon be. She needed to learn how to make adult decisions and behave as an adult, while in the safety of a home known to the family. Rathcavan was far enough away from London that the newspaper columnists, and the gossipy old harridans who frequented the events in Town, would not interfere with any budding romance for either of the three younger ladies should a relationship take root.

      More than anything, Lia wished that Isabel, at twenty-one, could find a love as great as the one she’d found with Ren. Except Lia would never want her daughter to go through the nightmarish hell she’d gone through to find it. By the time she was twenty, Lia had already given birth to Marcus. At her daughter’s age, she was carrying Isabel. Lia was glad the three girls were older than she, Elise, and Beverly had been before getting married and having children. The girls had had time to enjoy their youth and search for a love match, though without much luck thus far.

      Lia sensed it was now time for maternal assistance to help matters along. She saw the girls’ reactions, though fleeting, each time another friend of theirs made a match—particularly a love match. Lia caught the “Why not me?” look in her daughter’s eyes when she thought her mother wasn’t watching.

      And that was why Lia decided to send her daughter to Scotland with Beverly, and she hoped to convince Elise to do the same. For a fleeting moment she thought she should perhaps reconsider, especially with this new twist regarding Miss Houghton’s betrothal.

      Or… Maybe not.

      Their daughters were all beautiful and well-educated young ladies. Perhaps Isabel’s skills in things such as playing the piano forte, singing, and needlework lacked perfection, but she could dance beautifully. And all three could sit a horse better than most men. They should, after all they had learned from the best—their aunts Elise and Beverly.

      All three girls had been given an opportunity that few young ladies in their society were allowed. Their daughters had been promised by their parents that they could marry for love, on the condition that the men were acceptable to their fathers. Lia felt, though, that perhaps the girls were taking advantage of this parental license, for no young men were on the girls’ short lists for potential mates.

      Not one. And this was after four full seasons officially out in society. Worse yet, the three showed no desire to become serious about the search for a husband. It was so unlike all the other girls of their age who were already betrothed and getting married—some already mothers.

      So perhaps giving the girls a little free rein, as Elise was wont to say, would be what was necessary to help things along. Ren was a very protective father. Sometimes too much so. But then, so were Michael and Kip. None of the girls had much freedom, being under the watchful eye of either one of the family or an armed footman or guard since their first season.

      And now, since the queen had been shot at—no less than three times in a matter of a few months—Ren was even more concerned for the safety of his family. He had wanted to remove them all to Haldenwood and never allow them to leave, but Lia had been able to make him see reason.

      She’d told him that she refused to live her life in fear of what could happen. She also didn’t want her children fearing members of the lower classes, and had reminded Ren that his cousin and her own aunt were of their class and were both despicable humans, as was the man who’d abducted Elise all those years ago.

      The three girls, including the broken-hearted Penelope, were very private with their emotions. They were never going to fall in love if they were under the constant scrutiny of the thousands of people in London during a social season. Lia had witnessed society’s criticism of every misstep by their daughters. Never to the point of cruelty because she, Elise and Beverly had significant social clout of their own, but she was aware of the curiosity their daughters had become because of their closeness, their aloofness with the gentlemen, and their bold fashion sense.

      The gossip reporters, as well as many others in the ton, were constantly discussing the three young ladies’ latest dresses, to whom they were seen speaking, and at which functions. Predicting spouses for the three girls, discussing which gentlemen had the benefit of bloodline, upbringing, and wealth had become a weekly joke this season.

      Because of their reserved nature and unmarried status, the press had given the girls a nickname—the Ice Maidens. The most painful of all for Lia to contend with, was reading the name given to her daughter in particular—Lady Ice. Try as she might, she’d never been able to counter that defamation. Not even when she’d given the girls the idea to wear their Fates costumes, in hopes that the gossip writers would begin calling them something else in their newspaper columns.

      And as she thought more about the house party in Scotland, Lia concluded that getting away from England would be good for the girls. Her daughter, niece and goddaughter needed to learn how to navigate certain situations, even passionate ones. Lia was still Italian no matter that she lived in England, and Italians understood that sometimes passion should be given the chance to flourish and grow. That’s what their girls needed—a chance to explore relationships away from the watchful eyes of those who would criticize or gossip.

      That thought firmly in her mind, she said to her sister-in-law, “I still believe we let our daughters go to Scotland without us, Elise.”

      “How can you say that? Mr. Santiago’s presence will be torture for Penelope!” Elise would resist Lia’s idea no matter what she said to try and convince her. Unless she could see the benefit the girls going, Elise was not likely to change her mind.

      “It is not going to be easy for Penelope to go to Scotland,” Lia explained. “She will need her friends as moral and emotional support to get through the event with her former innamorato, now betrothed to her cousin. And Beverly would be our daughters’ chaperone. I can ask Marcus to go with them to be their male guardian. He might enjoy a diversion. There will be other eligible young ladies there.”

      Lia could see Elise and Beverly starting to consider her idea.

      “The new earl will be in attendance to his grandmother,” Lia said. “And will likely have many friends with him, take my word. These will be young men the girls don’t know, or won’t have met, in the relaxed atmosphere of a house party. Young men don’t usually go to events like this without bringing a few friends to help them pass the time. They’re just like ladies in that regard. They go to balls, their clubs, or even the theater in groups, like schools of fish.” She paused, and witnessed Elise’s tight-lipped, staunch skepticism. “You know I’m right. Why, Marcus does it almost nightly.”

      It looked like Beverly was starting to understand her meaning. But Elise still needed more convincing.

      “Elise, we need to give them room to spread their wings. At their age, we were married and had children. The girls are twenty-one years old. I think all three of them could benefit from time away from our watchful eyes, to fall in love. It will never happen while we’re two steps away. They’re too comfortable in their situations.”

      “I get your meaning,” Beverly said, a hopeful little smile on her face growing. “Like birds leaving a nest, they need a little push to learn to fly.” And just as easily as that smile came, it vanished when she remembered her daughter’s situation. “But… This is my daughter’s heart we’re talking about. If she comes with me to Scotland, it will be like pulling the bandage off a wound that may not be completely healed.”

      “Lia, I have seen birds fall to the ground and die because they weren’t ready to fly,” Elise said. “Charlotte is my only daughter.”

      “As is Isabel,” Lia said.

      “Penelope is my only child,” added Beverly. “It’s her heart that would be broken seeing this young man with her cousin. She thought he cared for her!”

      Elise worried her lower lip, a habit she’d had for as long as Lia had known her. It meant she was considering what she was saying. A good sign. She continued making her case.

      “Beverly will be with them,” Lia said. She could see her sister-in-law considering her idea. She didn’t see any reason why going to the party with the mother of one of the guests as chaperone would raise eyebrows—all the families had been invited.

      “I really wanted to hunt Rathcavan again,” Elise pouted. “It’s a challenging terrain and the dowager has the best bloodstock I’ve ever had the privilege to ride.”

      “Really, Elise?” Lia teased. “Besides, think on this… If this month in Scotland progresses as I hope it will, you might be riding there much more frequently.”

      “I’m sure one of the reasons Kip wants me to bring Penelope is because he’s hoping she might take a liking to this relative of his,” Beverly said. “Penny’s never met the new earl. And Kip has mentioned on more than one occasion that the young man is nothing like his predecessor, and that he is a very intelligent and responsible young man.”

      “But Mr. Santiago will be attendance,” Elise reminded them both. “He broke Penny’s heart. How do you think she would feel watching someone she once loved profess his undying affection for another?”

      “It won’t be easy. Nothing like that ever is. But, this might help Penelope move on. After all, it’s been a long time since he disappeared—”

      “Without saying goodbye, mind you!” Elise had to remind everyone.

      “I will be with her, as will Isabel, and Charlotte hopefully.” Beverly smiled at Lia. “I believe this idea could have merit. I will be with the girls the entire time.”

      Lia was silent a moment while she mulled over Beverly’s words. “Maybe…” Lia paused as an idea came to her. “Maybe you shouldn’t be with them the entire time.”

      “Lia, do you know what you’re saying?”

      The nearly apoplectic expression on her sister-in-law’s face would be humorous under any other circumstance. Lia just nodded, a quiet resolve welling in her over this new twist to her plan. “Of course I do, Elise.” Turning her attention back to Beverly, she said, “What if you leave and visit Henrietta Ormelee in Edinburgh for a few days? Or even a week? The other day she mentioned that she would be opening her house there because the queen will be in residence during the same time you will be at Rathcavan. She’s planning on hosting her majesty for dinner at least once.”

      Elise shook her head vigorously. “But… Leave the girls unchaperoned? Never!”

      “Elise,” Lia began, “How can we let our little birds fly if we’re unwilling to let them out of their cages? We have raised them to be intelligent and rational young ladies, with strong morals and spotless reputations. It is beyond time to let them be the women we know they can be.”

      Her sister-in-law appeared to consider Lia’s words, but when she shook her head, Lia knew she had failed in her persuasion.

      “This could backfire on us all,” Elise stated. “And the ones to be most injured would be one or more of our daughters.” Elise made a final plea to Beverly. "Especially Penny."

      All three women stared at each other a moment, mulling over what Elise had just said.

      “I know you think what I have proposed is unconventional and it likely is,” Lia said. “But I am not afraid for their safety, for they will have their guards. I am not afraid for their reputations, for they will have Beverly, Lady Adina, and Lady Edgar there. Perhaps even Marcus. You know he’s always had this ability to keep the girls in check, especially when Isabel gets excited about something.”

      Beverly stood and began to pace the length of the carpet in drawing room. “Lia’s right, Elise. We have to trust our girls, give them their heads if you will. Just like training a horse. How many times have you told me that there comes a time when you’ve done all you can and you have to let them go to someone else. Hopefully, that someone will appreciate them for the magnificent creatures they are.”

      Lia smiled, she’d won Beverly over. But Elise was like her brother Ren when it came to protecting family. Likely because of what they’d gone through with their parents’ deaths and Elise’s abduction, though all that had happened many years ago. Their daughters were guarded at all times, per their fathers’ wishes.

      “If Beverly went to Edinburgh, it would leave three young ladies unchaperoned,” Elise protested one last time. Lia could tell Elise was almost swayed by her logic.

      “No. They would have Lady Adina and Lady Edgar,” Beverly said. “And if the girls wish me to stay, I will. If they decide they want to accompany me to Edinburgh, I would bring them with me.”

      “Elise,” Lia said, giving her argument one last push. “I think our daughters are all very clever and sensible young ladies. There are not likely to be any problems, and quite possibly one, or more, could come away from this house party with a betrothal. And if we’re lucky, maybe even all three!” She put her hand to her breast. “I feel in my heart that this will be a good thing for all three girls.”

      “I would have to clear this with Michael…”

      “Of course we should let our husbands know the girls are going with Beverly,” Lia said. “But beyond that, I’m not planning to tell Ren. I certainly don’t want to tell him that I’m hoping Isabel finds a husband. He’ll just tell me I’m meddling again.”

      Lia lifted her tea cup and gave Beverly a wink as she finished the sweet amber liquid that had gone cool while she was plotting. If she wasn’t completely certain that this was the right thing to do, she wouldn’t have suggested it. She just hoped she’d convinced Elise because she didn’t think Isabel would want to go if Charlotte wasn’t allowed.

      “Well, seeing as this house party isn’t until October, I have a while to make up my mind. I will want Michael’s opinion as well.” Elise pushed her cup and saucer toward the center of the small tray table, and gave Lia a bemused stare. “Let’s hope the papers in Scotland haven’t taken to gossiping about our daughters. I’d hate for them to propagate that horrible name that dreadful columnist at The Times continually uses for them.”

      Lia agreed. What the columnist called Isabel, Charlotte, and Penelope, on more than one occasion was unwarranted. Their daughters were not Ice Maidens. They were very passionate young ladies, with strong opinions, and a close bond of friendship. They loved their horses and treasured their relationships. They also had high standards for any man who wished to claim their hearts. And claiming hearts was imperative. Their daughters had been encouraged to marry for love by their mothers. Clearly any man would have to appreciate those same qualities in order to earn the affection of their daughters.

      Lia had high hopes that in Scotland, away from their usual crowd in London, the gossips, and the newspaper columnists, that their daughters might find these men. “Let’s not mention this to the girls just yet,” Lia said. “This will give you time to decide, Elise.”

      “Thank you.” Elise met both their gazes momentarily and sighed. “No one wants their daughter to find her true love as much as I. But I also know Charlotte has been feeling a little less than…” Elise shook her head slowly. Lia could tell she was struggling to come up with the correct emotion to convey what Charlotte was feeling.

      “I don’t know what it is—if she feels as if she isn’t as pretty as Isabel and Penelope, or as desirable by men. I get the feeling her confidence has been shaken recently and I don’t know what caused it. A part of me wants to help her, but I know she must do this on her own.”

      Lia jumped on the admission. “That’s why I think we allow them to navigate this house party without us to coddle them. It could serve to build confidence in all three girls.”

      “They’ll be safe among Kip’s family.” Beverly’s cheerful smile brought Lia’s out, too.

      “They will be chaperoned and guarded,” Lia said. “And you know Marcus won’t allow them to get in over their heads or act improperly.”

      “Not that Charlotte ever would,” Elise declared.

      “Neither would Isabel.”

      “Nor Penelope.”

      “Yes, our little darlings are all perfect angels.” Lia grinned, remembering their children’s younger days when hoyden might have been a better description for all three girls. “It’s a wonder they aren’t all married by now.” Her subtle irony was not lost on her friends. As if they each remembered their children’s antics, all three women burst into laughter.


Where Elise makes a discovery about herself.


      Elise rested her head against the deep-cushioned, leather wingback chair in her husband’s office. It was her favorite place to sit in the afternoons, while she waited for him to come home from his club. The soft leather smelled like the cigars Michael occasionally smoked. It was an earthy and sweet scent. Like him. And this was where she wanted to be when he walked into the house.

      With all the uncertainty in life, she knew if she kept her close, Charlotte would be safe. Because she feared what might happen without her being there, she seriously struggled with sending her daughter to Scotland.

      If she were honest, there was a tiny, childish part of her that was jealous. Lady Adina had some excellent horses in her stable. Several years back, Elise had purchased a few mares from the woman. How she’d love to go back to Rathcavan for an entire month with Beverly. The lands were vast, the terrain was exciting to race across, and Elise hadn’t been in several years.

      But Beverly and Lia had a valid point. Their daughters had been out for four seasons. That was three and a half years on the marriage mart. And in that time they met the many eligible young men who came to London in search of appropriate brides. Only one of the three girls had shown interest in a young man. Penelope had fancied a man the previous year—a young man whose family was barely connected, his mother was a younger daughter of a baronet, and his Spaniard father was in trade. He was neither noble nor wealthy. He was from Spain and had come to England for his university studies, remaining after graduation. He’d made the rounds of some of the events last year, attending with a few of his friends.

      After somehow winning Penelope’s heart, he had disappeared without any explanation, leaving her heartbroken. It was a difficult thing for a mother to watch, even if Penelope wasn’t her own child. Charlotte and Isabel had rallied around their friend. For the rest of last year’s season, the three young ladies had avoided events where they knew their friends with beaux would be in attendance. It was too painful for Penelope to be around happy couples. The threesome went to musicales, the theater, teas, museums, rides in the park, even poetry readings, but only with other ladies. Charlotte and Isabel had even avoided mingling with men to help their friend through her heartbreak.

      It was not different from what Elise had done for Beverly when she’d had her heart broken. But, where she and Beverly planned and manipulated situations to their benefit, Charlotte did not. Neither did Penelope, nor Isabel. Perhaps Elise and Beverly were so conniving when they were younger because they didn’t have mothers for most of their youth.

      More than anything, Elise feared her daughter getting her heart broken. Having experienced it herself once, the pain of a broken heart wasn’t something she would wish for her sweet Charlotte.

      Lia was right, their three girls had been sheltered, perhaps even indulged. In giving them what they most loved—the often excessive time with their horses and the advanced riding instruction—their daughters missed out on some of the other things normal girls their age would have experienced.

      They should have had first loves and, possibly, broken hearts by now. Many girls their age were already married, even mothers. They were married and mothers by their daughters’ age.

      At nineteen, Elise had been abducted and almost horrifically abused at the hands of a young man she had initially trusted. And to this very day, it influenced her. As a mother, she’d tried to warn Charlotte to be careful not to give any young man hopes that she was interested unless she truly was. Before any young man could come courting, her father had to give his approval. Yes, she had promised her daughter she could have love, but Elise wanted Charlotte to always be mindful that she gave no man any false hope, and did not encourage him unless she was seriously considering spending the rest of her life with him. She didn’t want Charlotte to anger any young man to the point he might harm her.

      Then it struck her. Had Elise warned her daughter to the point of frightening her away from all young men?

      Remorse washed over her. Had Elise caused her daughter to fear the opposite sex? Had she transposed her fear onto her daughter?

      If so, she’d done her daughter an enormous disservice. Not all young men were like the one who’d abducted her. There were honorable and worthy young men out there in society who would make Charlotte an excellent husband. She just had to find them. And Charlotte was never going to find a young man if Elise didn’t let her daughter have some freedom.

      Elise had to take a leap of faith that Lia was right about this. She had to trust that their daughters would best learn how to navigate their romantic lives away from the watchful eye of their mothers and society gossips.

      Her daughter could return home more dispirited than before. Elise wanted to protect Charlotte, but keeping her home while Penelope and Isabel went to Scotland wouldn’t prevent a broken heart.

      Even worse, keeping Charlotte at home would tell her daughter that she, the mother who loved her, didn’t trust her to make safe and adult decisions. Or as Lia said earlier that day, Charlotte would never learn to fly. She needed to trust Charlotte and give her her head. She would have to let go, just as she would a horse who was ready to move on to another home, another rider.

      Elise had a decision to make. On the one hand, if she chose to send Charlotte, she would be devastated if her precious daughter was hurt, either physically or emotionally. And on the other hand, Charlotte would be terribly upset, and rightfully so, to have her two best friends go on this adventure while her mother still wanted to treat her like a child and keep her close to her skirts.

      Lia and Beverly said they would understand if she decided to not let her daughter go. If Charlotte stayed home, then more than likely Isabel and Penelope would decide to remain at home as well. It was what their girls did. One never went without the others. That one characteristic reminded the entire ton of their mothers when they were younger.

      To bring the comparison even closer, for the past two years, the girls had each worn one of their mothers’ more famous costumes to the Whippleworth’s annual masque, causing some to begin calling Charlotte, Isabel, and Penelope, The Young Fates, a name given to their mothers some twenty years earlier. She had to admit that she’d enjoyed seeing the girls wear their dresses. And to improve on their costume, their daughters had carried it a step further, clasping tight to a gold cord between them most of the night, solidifying the mythological image.

      Was she being unreasonable to fear so for her daughter’s well-being? She’d have to learn to let go of her oldest child at some point. Charlotte was the daughter of her heart. And at twenty-one, she was very nearly an exact replica of Elise, equally tall and thin, but with her father’s dark brown hair and expressive brown eyes.

      To Elise, Charlotte was the most beautiful and graceful young lady currently out in society. But, just the other day, her precious daughter had confided to her that she felt the more awkward of the three because of her height. She didn’t feel as feminine as Isabel or Penelope. Her daughter said she’d wished she had larger breasts and hips, or some curl to her hair. Fighting tears, Elise could only commiserate—because her daughter had every single one of her features.

      She wished Charlotte could see what an unmatched beauty she was. Elise could see it in her daughter, though she, too, hadn’t been able to see it in herself in her younger days. She wished she could pour the wisdom she’d acquired with age into Charlotte’s head, so her daughter would not have to go through the pain of earning it.

      Elise believed that somewhere out there was a man who would appreciate Charlotte for the beautiful spirit she had inside, and for her physical beauty. That’s what she wanted for her daughter—a man who would love her for who she was, not for her connections or dowry. Perhaps this paragon of gentlemanly virtue was in Scotland. Heaven knew her daughter wasn’t having any luck finding him in London.

      The rational side of her knew the girls and Marcus would be fine because they would have guards protecting them. And if she stayed home, she could spend that month at home with the young horses her grooms were starting under saddle. She loved riding when the air had a chilly nip to it. The cooler temperatures made both Elise and her horses feel more alive.

      The boys would be away at their schools—her son Andrew at Eton, and Jonathan starting his first year at Oxford. She adored all three of her children. But admittedly, more time had been shared with Charlotte as she grew up. It was the reason they were so close. Her daughter had been educated in their home. They shared breakfast and dinner each day. Charlotte had inherited Elise’s love and way with horses, as had Penelope from Beverly, and Isabel from her father. Lia had decided long ago that she was not adept at riding horses and rode in carriages, with drivers and footmen to protect her, per her husband’s command.

      When it came to the safety of his family, her brother took no chances. So, if Lia was hoping to get her husband to agree to allow their two oldest children on such a journey, she would have to convince Ren that they would be safe. And even then, her husband would probably hire more guards just to be sure.

      For Elise, it would likely be the opposite. Michael would think that as long as Charlotte was protected by one of their footmen and properly chaperoned, it would be a wonderful idea for her to go with Beverly to Lady Fitzhugh’s event. He would see it as an opportunity for Charlotte to meet new people and have fun with her friends at the same time.

      She’d given it much consideration of late. Elise knew she was the one who had to get over the fear that that someone might hurt her daughter. The fear was likely a remnant of her trauma all those years ago. It had been horrible, both she and Lia suffering at the hands of different men trying to hurt Ren by hurting them. Because of that, she knew her brother would take no chances with their safety. Elise wouldn’t even have to ask him to make sure there were enough guards. He would do it for his own peace of mind.

      She heard muted voices, then footsteps in the hallway. Michael being greeted by their butler. Her husband asked after her, and she smiled to herself. She loved him so very much. He was a wise man and much like Lia, in that he didn’t see the world as inherently evil. Whereas there were more days of late when she did. Especially since the recent attempts on the queen’s life.

      Elise gave her husband a little smile as he entered the room. His handsome face still warmed her from within. Her love for him had only grown deeper each year of their marriage. He came over to her and kissed the top of her head, a habit of his for as long as she could remember.

      “How are you my darling?” His voice sounded almost cheerful this afternoon.

      “Well, thank you.” Tilting her face up, she closed her eyes and waited for the tender kiss on her lips that came after the kiss on her head. He was a man of habit. Next, he’d pour himself a drink and ask if she’d like one. He always asked.

      Michael went to the sideboard and poured himself a half glass of whisky. “Would you care for a glass of wine?” he asked over his shoulder.

      “Yes, please,” she replied. “Tonight, I could use a glass. I might even need two before I come to a decision.”

      He handed her the wine glass and sat next to her in the matching wingback chair, his facing the unlit hearth. The weather had been warm enough lately to not require a fire until much later in the evening, if at all.

      “Tell me, my minx,” Michael said after taking a sip of his liquor, “what has you in such a cudgel? Does the milliner have a hat you fancy?”

      Elise gave Michael a worried smile, then told him about the invitation to Rathcavan and her concerns for letting Charlotte go without her.

      “I think they will be fine, as long as they each have a guard to accompany them when they are outside of the home.” He leaned back in the chair and crossed one leg over the other before taking another sip of the dark amber liquid. “I believe the girls will enjoy getting away from town for a while.”

      “I know they will enjoy and appreciate the time out of the spotlight.” She remembered how people gossiped about her and Beverly, and knew her daughter and goddaughters suffered the same. “And it’s always a good feeling to be out of sight from those judgmental harridans who gossip.”

      “I believe them to be as safe there as they would be at Woodhenge, Haldenwood, or Fenwicke Hall,” Michael assured her.

      She was unable to meet his gaze, knowing he was likely right. But it did nothing to ease the fear she had that Charlotte might get her heart broken and she wouldn’t be there to comfort her. There were so many times when she was younger that she wished her mother, or Amelia, had still been alive. Because she had no mother to talk to when Michael had broken her heart. At the time, she was afraid to burden her grandmother who was already frail at the time of her debut. And all she had were her friends, Beverly and Lia.

      To this very day, Elise regretted her rudeness to Lia when they were first introduced. She remembered thinking Lia an interloper looking to change everything at Haldenwood, everyone else be damned. But Elise had been so very wrong about her. Lia had been a young lady in need of a friend, as much as she and Beverly were in need of a friend who thought about things in a more rational way—something she had been incapable of doing at the time.

      Too, Lia had always been a much better judge of character than Elise.

      She stared into her glass trying not to cry. “You have more faith in people than I do,” she whispered.

      He gave her a sympathetic little smile, one that told her he understood where her sentiment came from. When he spoke, his voice was soft and sincere. “Even with all that has happened to our family and friends, and the queen, I still believe in the inherent goodness of mankind.”

      Elise remembered how she had gone against her initial instinct and trusted the man who abducted her. She’d been a bad judge of his character and made a mental note to talk to her daughter about heeding the warnings of the other women, including Beverly, who would be chaperoning them.

      And also about trusting your gut when it came to men.


That which a mother does for her daughter.


      Beverly lifted the quill to begin her nightly letter to her husband. It was how they stayed in touch with the day-to-day events in each others’ lives. After leaving his commission in the army upon ascending to his title and marrying her, he had begun a life in the Foreign Service as a diplomat for the Crown, at the recommendation of her father, who’d done the same up until his passing. She’d wanted to travel with Kip when Penelope was young, but he thought it more important for their daughter to be raised and educated at home in England.

      She envied Lia and Elise that their husbands were home with them virtually every night and that they were able to have siblings for their children. Kip had been traumatized by Penelope’s birth. Especially when he thought she was going to die. After she’d recovered he’d told her he loved her too much to put her through that again.

      Then he began to take assignments out of the country. And if Beverly hadn’t hated the Foreign Service before for taking her father from her for most of her life, she hated it now. But her husband wasn’t happy living the life of a landless nobleman. He’d wanted to effect change in the world through the diplomatic channels that had opened up to him because of his military training, and her father’s urging. Her husband was a happier diplomat, than he was an idle gentleman. Beverly couldn’t deny him that which made him feel fulfilled, just as he would never deny her that which made her happy—her daughter, her friendship with Elise and Lia, and her horses.

      When he’d first begun to travel, gossips whispered behind her back that her husband was unhappy with his decision to marry her. She remembered the night he surprised her, having arrived from Dublin unplanned. Her maid informed him where she was, and he’d arrived at the Rutherford’s annual ball to find her on the dance floor with Elise’s husband, Michael. It was a scene straight from a fairytale in her mind. Her handsome husband cut in, asking his friend for permission to dance with her, his wife.

      For the rest of that evening, and duration of his stay, Kip was the most attentive, affectionate husband in all London. But she learned later, that he returned home unannounced because the Prime Minister had called upon him to take another, more urgent, assignment in India, where unrest was flaring up in the northern regions.

      Kip had promised her that he was not going to India in a military capacity. His task was negotiations.

      And for the past six years, he had come home for a month or two every year. In his last letter, he’d said he would be home for Christmas this year.

      This life was familiar to her, as her father had done the same for many years. And though Beverly’s mother had died when she was young, Penelope still had her to guide her as she grew into adulthood. Perhaps after Penny married, Beverly could travel with her husband to his assignments. She missed Kip greatly while he was away, and she’d often thought that if he were home more, perhaps she might have had another child. It was still possible, if she could keep him in the country long enough. She wasn’t past her childbearing years yet. Though Kip would probably have hysterics if she turned up pregnant. Silly man.

      But if she had another child, her husband would insist she remain in England while he continued to travel as a political envoy. If she married off Penny, there was a very good chance that she might once again be a bit more of a priority in her husband’s life.

      She wanted that so very much, but not at the expense of her daughter’s happiness.

      Penelope didn’t share confidences with her. Beverly wasn’t sure that was normal. But not having a mother of her own, she wasn’t exactly sure what normal really was. Lia and Elise had both said their daughters didn’t confide their innermost thoughts and desires with them either. Of the three of them, Lia was the only one who’d had the benefit of a mother for most of her younger life, and she said that she didn’t remember sharing confidences with her mother at all.

      Dipping the tip into the ink well, Beverly began,

       

      Good evening, my darling,

       

      I pray this night finds you feeling well. I am, of course, missing you greatly as usual.

      Well, my lord, another social season has ended. I’m making plans for closing up the townhouse for our return to Fenwicke Hall next week. Penelope will likely go to Woodhenge to stay with Charlotte for a few weeks before joining me.

      Remember the invitation to Rathcavan we received last week? And do you remember that I initially I had my reservations about going? Well, once I realized that my main reason for not wanting to attend was entirely selfish, I knew I had to change my thinking for Penelope’s sake. Because I haven’t regained my full confidence in the saddle yet, I wouldn’t feel comfortable riding out with the first flight hunters. But I also could not deny Penelope (and Isabel and Charlotte) the opportunity to ride with your aunt on Rathcavan lands. The girls would get such inspiration from her. I know I do each time I visit with her. So I have decided to go to your Aunt Adina’s birthday celebration and hunt.

      I’m glad I didn’t immediately respond to decline her invitation, because a few days after I received Lady Adina’s letter, I received another from your cousin, Margaret. It seems the new earl’s sister, Lady Olivia, is betrothed to a young man, having met him less than one month ago. And now there will be a betrothal ball at the end of the month that we’re there.

      So it has now been decided that Penny and I, along with Charlotte, and Isabel, will all attend. Both Lia and Elise have said they wish to remain behind to spend time with their husbands and younger children.

      Of course, you know I wish you could be with us to celebrate your niece’s engagement. I also wish our daughter could find love. She needs a man who can appreciate her for the exceptional young lady we know her to be.

      A year has passed since her heart was broken by that young man from Spain. If I hadn’t been recuperating from my fall at Fenwicke Hall I would have met him. You know how upset I was that I could not be with Penelope when she was going through her disappointment. I wasn’t there to hold her through her tears, and blame myself for her returning home from town early nursing a broken heart.

      Penny seems to have recovered somewhat from the heartbreak. While she is socializing with her friends and attending functions, she is not the same young lady she was before her young man disappeared. She shows absolutely no interest in finding a husband right now. Though, I hope she might change her mind in Scotland, where there are sure to be new faces, including young men she’s not previously met. Surely if she meets the right man, she will fall in love with him, as I did with you.

      I will, of course, keep you apprised of our plans as we get closer to departing for Rathcavan. It would be wonderful if you could join us. Not only would it be a splendid birthday surprise for your aunt, but also for Penelope and myself. We all miss you very much. Me especially. Every night we’re not together makes me wish I were with you in Mumbai.

      I will close for now, my darling. Know that I pray for your safe return daily.

       

      All my love,

      B.

       

      Beverly sealed the letter and added it to the pouch she would send with a footman to her husband’s secretary at the diplomatic offices, just as she did each week. And when her footman returned each week, he brought her another one exactly like it, containing letters for her and Penny, from Kip.

      She then wrote two short notes, one to Elise, the other to Lia, asking them over for tea the next day to discuss the invitation again. Hopefully Elise had come to a decision. But whether she did or did not, Beverly would have to wait until tomorrow to find out.

       

      The maid closed the door to her drawing room and Beverly poured tea for herself and her two dearest friends. She filled the china cups to the perfect level of one third of an inch below the rim, leaving the right amount of room for two spoons of sugar, and a dash of milk should her guests wish it.

      Some habits stuck with you throughout life, such as this one—even though she knew neither Elise nor Lia took milk in their tea.

      She remembered when she was a child, how one of her early governesses tried to instill in her the requirements for being the perfect hostess. She’d been the first of a long succession of governesses her papa had hired to raise Beverly with the proper skills to find her future husband—something he could not do himself, as he was frequently away doing his work as a diplomat. This particular woman was a very strict disciplinarian, who’d lasted barely three months. The day Lord Hepplewhite found his daughter in tears after the lesson on stirring tea in the cup without sloshing, splashing, or spilling, her dear papa had fired that first governess.

      Truth was, Beverly had been tired of practicing her pouring, serving, stirring, and whatnot, that she had become bored to tears, quite literally. She’d much rather have been out riding her pony. And ever one to jump on an opportunity to turn something tedious into something more exciting, Beverly had heard her father enter the house and thus began her display of theatrics. Yes, she’d been a manipulative brat as a child. One who’d craved the affection and attention of her only parent.

      Then she met the twin of her heart, Elise Halden. From that day forward she and Elise had been inseparable. Elise was like a sister to her, and Lia had become her best friend almost the instant she met the duchess. They were fortunate in that their husbands also got along. As a young lady of noble birth, but without much family of her own, Beverly was grateful this family had taken her in and made her one of them.

      She handed Elise her cup and saucer. She couldn’t read her expression, and Beverly thought she still might have to convince Elise that she will watch over Charlotte—over all the girls—as if they were her own. Now that she decided that it would do Penelope good to go to Rathcavan, she thought having Isabel and Charlotte along would help her daughter face Mr. Santiago again. Even if her daughter thought she had already dealt with the heartache, Beverly knew that just seeing the object of her past desire with another young lady would be painful. Hopefully, her friends’ support through the reopening of that old wound would ease the pain of it. And perhaps Penelope would discover that the old wound was not so painful after all. Beverly could only hope. But she wanted her daughter’s friends along just in case they were needed.

      Beverly thought she saw Elise smile but it was such a faint smile tucked away in her light brown gaze, she wasn’t sure. Handing her the cup and saucer, Beverly had to ask. “Have you decided, Elise?” She tried to keep her voice free of any trace of happiness, at least until she knew what her friend’s decision would be.

      “I have,” Elise replied. “As I said yesterday, I wanted to discuss this with Michael. He is fine with Charlotte being away for a month.”

      Lia set her cup down. “Good, now we can all make arrangements for the girls. As I suspected, Ren insists that Isabel’s guards travel with her, and I can accept that. And though I haven’t asked Marcus yet, he will go if I insist.”

      A great relief washed over Beverly. “I believe the girls will have a very nice time, Elise. And if they decide they wish for me to stay and not visit Henrietta Ormelee, I am more than willing to spend the entire time at Rathcavan.” She glanced at the door behind her to make sure it was still closed. “I cannot tell you how relieved I am that Isabel and Charlotte will be with Penelope when she sees Mr. Santiago again. She will surely need their support.”

      “I hope you are right in thinking she can handle the shock of seeing him with her cousin,” Elise said. “It would have torn me up inside to see Michael with another woman.”

      “It did,” Beverly said. “Remember the punch incident at the theater?” Beverly reminded Elise of the night they both went to the theater with Kip and Captain Wilson. Kip was Elise’s escort that night, and their foursome, along with Captain Wilson’s sister, arrived to the Caversham box, only to find Michael already there with Lady Caroline Randolph and her mother. What ensued later was something Kip and Beverly still found humorous, twenty-two years later. As Elise tells the story, it was an accident bumping into Michael as he held drinks. And as Michael tells it, he did whatever he needed to do to get Elise alone.

      “Oh,” Elise twisted her lips in contemplation. “You are correct, but I was incredibly tough. And I’m afraid… I’m afraid that Penelope’s heart will break all over again seeing…

      “You needn’t fear that Penny’s heart could break more than it already did when the man she was growing to love disappeared from her life without a word as to where he was going, or whether he would return. Nothing.” Beverly hoped she was right about this. If she was wrong it was her daughter’s heart that would break again. And she, Penelope’s mother, would be responsible.

      “In a way,” Lia said softly, “this could be just the sort of ending she needs—a finality, if you will.”

      Elise set her cup on the table and added her sugar. “Have you reconsidered not telling her about her cousin’s betrothal? And, more importantly, who the groom is?”

      Beverly sighed and closed her eyes, wishing there was some way around this one issue. But there was not. “I’ve given this some thought. Remember, we’re speaking of my dearest and only child. Would it hurt less to know who her cousin is marrying before they marry, or after the wedding? And, I believe she should know beforehand. If it were me, I would want to know. Too, I would never consider putting her through this if I didn’t think it might help her to move forward with finding another man to love.”

      “I hope you’re both right,” Elise said.

      The sound of their daughters entering the front door of the Beverly’s Mayfair home reached her ears. It was an almost exuberant, chattering sound—something Beverly hadn’t heard from her daughter in a while. It had been normal up until a year ago. Very normal.

      “Do we tell them about the trip now?” Lia asked, looking toward Elise and Beverly for agreement.

      “I don’t see why not. Waiting until she and I are alone would mean she would not have her friends to help her through any upset. If she were to get upset. What do you think, Elise?” As she asked this, Beverly heard the girls’ progress up the steps. Soon, they would be at the door to the drawing room, and the fact that it was closed might arouse suspicion because Beverly usually kept doors open in warm weather.

      She stepped to the door and set her hand on the knob. “Shall I invite them in? And do we tell Penelope now?”

      Only after both her friends agreed, did she open the door, just in time to see her daughter leading both Isabel and Charlotte to the library across the hall.

      Greeting the girls with a smile, Beverly said, “Penny, when you’re done there, can you girls come in here a moment?”

      “Certainly,” her daughter replied. “I was just going to get a book for Charlotte.”

      Penelope had become reserved, even reclusive during the past year. Before her great disappointment, Penny had been an outgoing, smiling, happy young lady. One who enjoyed being with people, going to balls, the theater, and other events.

      Beverly wanted to mend her daughter’s heart. If Mr. Santiago had any feeling—even one tiny bit—for Penny, he would explain his actions and apologize. Penelope deserved at least that much.

      And Beverly would have to make certain that she stayed close by when the two met again. Because it was bound to stir painful feelings, no matter what her daughter might say to the contrary.

      A few minutes later, the three girls entered her morning room, Isabel and Charlotte sitting in the Chippendale chairs across from the settee where Elise and Lia sat.

      “What are we being called in for?” Penelope leaned a hip against the arm of the chair where Charlotte sat, flipping through the pages of the book she’d just retrieved. “If it’s because we jumped the bench in the park, I promise we didn’t know there was a man sleeping on it until…” The gasp from the mothers forced Penelope to lift her gaze from the pages. “Oh…” Penny closed her mouth in a very dramatic fashion when she realized her mother didn’t know about her jumping in the park. She straightened and explained, “Our approach was from the rear, so we didn’t see the man on the bench at all.”

      “I know you ladies enjoy riding when there aren’t the crowds in the park,” Elise said. “Your mother and I adored it as well. But maybe you should refrain from jumping. Save that for the country. Falling out of a sidesaddle, wearing skirts… It’s so undignified. Take it from me.”

      Beverly choked back a laugh. She and Elise had done the same thing, jumping those benches in Hyde Park, and she could hear Ren’s voice now, admonishing them for their antics.

      “No, we hadn’t heard about the man sleeping on the bench,” Beverly said.

      “He never woke up,” Charlotte chimed in. “And when we were on our way back to the mews, he was sitting upright, so he wasn’t dead.”

      “I see I must have a word with your grooms,” Lia said.

      “Please no, mama,” Isabel said. “We’re leaving in a few days.” Lia’s daughter turned a worried glance to all three mothers. “If someone hasn’t reported on our jumping in the park, why have you called us in? Have the papers said we’ve done something else? I assure you, we…”

      “Not at all, Isabel,” Beverly replied. With a glance to her friends, Beverly went on. “I would like to know if you three would like to accompany me to Aunt Adina’s birthday celebration and hunt this October.”

      “You mean, I can bring Isabel and Charlotte?” Penny’s amber-brown eyes started to glow with excitement. She explained her delight to her friends. “I haven’t been to Rathcavan since we’ve come out. My great aunt has prime horseflesh in her stables and there’s a hunt of some sort almost every day. Well, weather permitting. After all, it is in Scotland in autumn.”

      “Oh, it doesn’t rain every day,” Beverly said. “It just seems that way.”

      Excitement began to well up in the three young ladies. She was encouraged that Penelope was interested in attending, though that was likely to change the moment her daughter knew what she’d not said thus far. “Lady Adina’s birthday celebration is the first weekend of our arrival, and there is likely to be a ball to commemorate her seventy-fifth birthday.”

      Penelope could barely hide her excitement. “Having my dearest friends will make the obligatory trip north to papa’s relatives so much more interesting for me.”

      This was the daughter she remembered from before last spring. This was her normally effervescent Penny. She hated that she had to reopen that old wound.

      Beverly again glanced at Elise and Lia, drawing her strength to proceed from her friends. “And, as if that is not enough, it seems the new earl’s sister, your cousin Olivia, has become engaged to marry. There will be a ball celebrating the betrothal on the weekend before we return home.”

      “That’s nice for her,” Penny said in an off-handed fashion, then immediately, and excitedly starting talking about early morning fox hunts with Charlotte and Isabel.

      “You might want to hear all that your mother has to say, Penelope, before making plans to hunt each day,” Lia said.

      Penny then returned to her task of flipping pages in the book, still searching, or pretending to search, for something irrelevant to the discussion before them. “What more is there to know,” she said with an indifferent tone and dismissive manner. “Olivia is getting married. Good for her. I hope her husband-to-be has an enormous amount of patience, and an even bigger purse. Because he’ll need both to have any happiness with her.”

      “Penelope!” Beverly didn’t like correcting her daughter in front of her friends, but she had no recourse. She didn’t raise her daughter to be so mean-spirited about anyone.

      “I can understand why you might be lashing out, but she is your cousin, and a sweet girl.”

      “Mother,” her daughter continued, with the same disaffected tone, “she doesn’t like horses.”

      “Not all women like horses as you all do, Penelope,” Lia said with a quiet authority and confidence that comes from being at ease with ones self. “I find them large and a bit… frightening.”

      To Beverly’s ears, her daughter’s words sounded demeaning to all who didn’t have the passion for the hunt, or even riding in general. And that hurt Beverly as much as she was sure it hurt Lia.

      “I think you owe your godmother an apology, Penelope. Now. That was uncalled for.” Beverly could see Penelope understood her meaning.

      Lifting her gaze from the pages of her book, she gave Lia a sincere expression as she apologized. “I am sorry, your grace,” Penelope said. “I should not have spoken so broadly. My cousin is a lovely young lady with interests vastly different from mine, and I likely have not had enough time to get to know her as well as I do Charlotte and Isabel.”

      “That is true, Penny,” said Beverly, herself nervous from having withheld the full story until now. “And I hope you’ll still want to come with me to Rathcavan after I tell you the rest of the news.”

      “What news is that?” Penelope said as she returned to scanning the pages of the book she held, seemingly uninterested in anything her mother had to say now that she had her apology out of the way.

      “The man that Olivia is marrying is someone known to you.” Her daughter lifted her eyes to her, and Beverly studied Penelope’s expression, and found no worry on her brow yet, but she knew for certain that it would change. “She is marrying a friend of her half-brother’s.” Penelope tilt her head with curiosity. It was a habit she’d learned from her father.

      “She’s newly betrothed to a Mr. Nathaniel Santiago.”

      Charlotte and Isabel sucked in a breath, recognizing the name immediately. For her daughter, though, the response she sought was there, even if only for a fraction of a second. And just as she recognized that flash of recognition in her daughter’s eyes, it was gone. Hidden behind that wall of emotion she only shared with Isabel and Charlotte.

      “That’s nice for the two of them,” Penelope said in that same disinterested voice, now tinged with bitterness. She resumed flipping through the pages of the book with an intensity that bordered viciousness, searching for something of importance to show Charlotte.

      She did her best to maintain her calm, knowing her daughter’s heart was likely breaking anew. “Do you still wish to attend the party?” Beverly asked. “It will mean one month in Scotland, in the presence of—”

      Penelope stood and handed the book to her friend. “—In the presence of a man who obviously wasn’t worth the time I spent upset about his disappearance. He was such a coward that he didn’t have the courage to tell me he was leaving. He didn’t even send me a note.” After glancing down at Charlotte and Isabel, Penelope took a deep breath and said to Beverly, “I would love to go, Mama. I want to go for the hunt, to visit with my father’s favorite aunt. And I want to go especially to show the fickle Mr. Santiago that he didn’t break my heart. In fact, he hardened it to others like him.”

      Her daughter gave her a forced smile, and Beverly recognized the false bravery behind the glow in her daughter’s eyes. She knew this because Penelope’s beautiful brown eyes were on the verge of filling with tears.

      “You’ll see,” Penelope stated. “I am a much stronger woman than I was before I met him.”


The End