Excerpt: The Winter Bride
Book 2: The Chance Sisters
London, December 1816
Below them in the hall, the Honorable Frederick Monkton-Coombes paced restlessly, long, loose-limbed strides in gleaming high boots. Dressed in a many-caped coat of superfine merino, and holding a curly brimmed beaver hat in his long fingers, he was the epitome of masculine elegance.
He looked up and met Damaris’s gaze. She forced herself to look away.
“Freddy, my dear boy, how very punctual you are,” Lady Beatrice said.
“Punctual?” He glanced at the clock in the hall. “But it’s—”
“We won’t be long. The girls and I need a moment’s privacy.” She gave him an enigmatic look. “A female thing, you understand. Featherby, fetch a pot of coffee and some muffins for Mr. Monkton-Coombes.”
“No, really, I—”
“Nonsense, I know how much you love your muffins and Cook has made a fresh batch especially. We won’t be long,” Lady Beatrice declared and swept the girls into a small sitting room farther down the hall.
As the door closed behind her the old lady raised her lorgnette and turned it on Damaris. “Now, m’gel, what’s all this about you not making your come-out with Jane in the spring?”
Damaris bit her lip. “I don’t want to get married. I have . . .” She swallowed. “I have an abhorrence of marriage.”
There was a short, shocked silence.
“And what,” Lady Beatrice said after a moment, “does getting married have to do with making your come-out?”
All three girls blinked at her in surprise. “But isn’t that the whole purpose of a come-out?” Jane said. “To find us husbands? That’s why they call it the marriage mart.”
“It’s some people’s purpose,” Lady Beatrice conceded graciously. “Most people’s, perhaps. We are not most people.”
Jane looked worried. “But I want to find a husband.”
“I know, Jane dear, and I’m looking forward to seeing all the young fellows making cakes of themselves over you. Don’t fret, you’ll have your pick of them.” The old lady turned to Damaris. “As for you, my dear gel, nobody said you had to find a husband.”
“But I thought—”
“Oh, the young men will make cakes of themselves over you too, I’m sure, and quite a number of the old ones as well, as we’ve seen at my literary society. You’ll have plenty of eligible offers, take my word for it—and a few ineligible ones. But there’s no need to accept any of them.”
“But . . .” Damaris frowned. “If I don’t find a husband, isn’t it a terrible waste of money?”
Lady Beatrice’s elegantly plucked and dyed eyebrows rose. “Waste of money? Pish-tush, what nonsense is this? There is only one reason for you to make your come-out, Damaris—to have fun.”
“Fun?” Damaris echoed, bewildered. Squandering a fortune on her so that she could have fun?
“You’ve had precious little fun in your life, haven’t you, my dear?”
Damaris swallowed. “How did you know?”
The old lady snorted. “Daughter of a missionary? Raised in the Wilds of Foreign? One could make a wild guess.” She chuckled at Damaris’s expression. “Cheer up, my dear, nobody will compel you to marry. It would, however, please me greatly if you made your come-out with Jane, attending balls and routs and parties, dancing till dawn, wearing Daisy’s beautiful dresses—and making her the most fashionable mantua maker of the season—”
“From your mouth to God’s ears,” Daisy said fervently.
“—having flocks of men falling over themselves to please you—bringing you champagne and ratafia and delicious morsels from the supper table, sending you bouquets and posies in the morning, writing poems to your eyes—such delightful nonsense.” The old lady sighed reminiscently, leaned forward and patted Damaris’s hand. “You don’t need to take any of it seriously and no one will press you to do anything you don’t want to do. Leave the husband hunting to young Jane here. You and I, my dear, we’ll just have fun.”
There was such kindness and understanding in the shrewd old eyes that Damaris felt a lump forming in her throat. Lady Beatrice hadn’t even asked her why marriage was so abhorrent to her. She swallowed. “You don’t mind that I don’t want . . . that I . . .”
Lady Beatrice squeezed her hand and said softly, “My dear gel, you told me when we first met that you never wanted to get married. Did you think I had forgotten?”
Lady Beatrice had been ill and bedridden at the time. Why would she have remembered what a strange girl had told her? Why would she have cared?
“Why would you do this for me?”
The old lady smiled. “You gels have brought me such happiness at a time of life when I thought it was all over. It would give me enormous pleasure to give you a season of carefree, uncomplicated fun—without any obligation to anyone.” She squeezed Damaris’s hand again. “So will you do it for me, Damaris? Kick up your heels, just for a season, and live a frivolous, entirely pleasure-filled existence? Not for yourself, but to please an old lady?” She attempted such an unconvincing mock-pathetic expression that Damaris gave a shaky laugh and hugged her.
“Since you put it like that, dear Lady Beatrice, I can hardly refuse. But it’s very generous of you.” Too generous.
The old lady flapped a dismissive hand. “Pish-tush, what nonsense! Now, come along, gels, Mr. Monkton-Coombes will have finished his muffins, and while all men should be kept waiting a little—it keeps them nicely on edge, I find—it does not do to keep them dangling too long. And when one finally joins them, they must be made to feel that the waiting was worthwhile. So make yourselves beautiful, gels, and when you see Mr. Monkton-Coombes, smile.”
~ ~ ~
Freddy stared gloomily at the plate before him. Lady Bea was convinced that muffins were the Monkton-Coombes food of choice. Max’s fault, blast him. He’d told his aunt that Freddy was obsessed with muffins, and of course the old girl didn’t realize he meant females of the reforming, marrying, pestilential sort. So she had him served with these blasted bun things each time he called. And expected him to eat them. With enthusiasm.
He picked up a muffin, hefted it lightly and eyed the fire with a narrowed gaze. It was a good blaze, strong enough to reduce a muffin to ash in a short time. He raised the muffin, aimed and was about to toss it in the fire when feminine footsteps sounded in the hall. Dropping the muffin, he turned toward the open doorway and saw four smartly dressed females advancing toward him, smiling.
The hairs on the back of his neck rose. Why the devil were they grinning at him like that? What did they know? What did they want?
He had a powerful urge to flee.