Warnings - See Part 1.
FREDERICA AND THE VISCOUNTESS
The red ball rocketed into the corner pocket with a satisfying clunk.
"Three points," cried Joanna, throwing her brother a glance over her shoulder.
Edmund's wife, who was standing next to him, looked wide-eyed, and the Viscountess's heart sank. She had only been at Thornbury Park a week, but she still seemed constantly to be offending the Dunster siblings' finer feelings.
"You should have used the cue rest, Joanna." Twinkling blue eyes belied her brother's reproving tone. "It is not considered decent for a lady," he stressed the word slightly, "to sprawl all over the billiard table."
She pushed herself upright and retrieved the ball from the table pocket. What shot should she try next? A cannon? "I didn't reveal anything I ought not to, Edmund, thanks to these." She patted a breech-clad thigh. She had been riding this morning - astride, much to Chaloner Dunster's disgust - and had opted not to change out of her riding outfit, which would have caused little comment except that she preferred male attire.
She bent over the table's edge, sighted along the cue, and made her shot, striking first Edmund's cue ball then the red ball. "Two points."
"It is always unequal playing billiards with you," complained her brother.
She flashed him a grin and lined up her next shot. "We could play something else. Piquet?"
"You always win."
"We could go shooting instead?"
"'Tis out of season. And my clay pigeon shooting is not up to your standard, I fancy."
The red ball clunked into the pocket again.
"You used not to be such a poor sport, Edmund."
"And you used not to be such a good one."
The Viscountess laughed and brushed a speck of dirt off the leather tip of her cue.
Things had at first been tense between them, but they had soon fallen back into their easy ways, resuming the banter of childhood. Of course, things weren't quite as they had been. Edmund now had a wife and three children - so far, she had succeeded in staying out of the little horrors' way. As for his wife....
Caroline was, at least, trying to make allowances. It was clear her sister-in-law wanted to like Joanna, if only for her husband's sake, but she was wary, perhaps expecting the Viscountess to lapse into scandal and in the process hurt Edmund. It was understandable. The only way to convince Caroline of her sincerity was to persist. Caroline's brother, however.... Well, sometimes Chaloner Dunster could do with a swift kick up the rear. And Joanna was currently wearing just the riding boots for the job.
Clunk. "Two points."
Thinking of Chaloner put her in mind of Miss Bertram, who was wont to visit him once or twice a week. It had become a favourite pastime with Joanna to spot the small figure walking briskly towards Thornbury Park with her sister in tow. Amelia was the younger and prettier of the two, but also, by all accounts, the more empty-headed. It was Miss Bertram herself who interested the Viscountess, though she could not have said why.
When she had first seen the little fair-headed woman, much bedraggled and shepherding her hysterical sister into the coach, she had not taken much notice of her, other than to admire her figure and the way her wet muslin clung to it. Now, she found herself scanning the estate for signs of the young woman, and passing the time conjecturing about her circumstances and attitudes.
For example. Did the fact that Frederica wore the same walking dress each time indicate poverty, frugality, or pragmatism? Was the simple, slightly dated style her own choice or one imposed on her by others? Why, at twenty-seven, had she not married - was she too choosy, bad-tempered, or was it simply a lack of suitors?
Joanna potted the red ball. "Three points."
Not that Miss Bertram lacked suitors any more apparently. Chaloner had high hopes, Edmund had confided. Frederica would be wasted on that dullard, she decided. He would do better to look to her sister.
She fluffed her next shot on purpose, and Edmund grunted, "At last!" and took his turn at the table.
The Viscountess leaned her hip against the wall, ostensible watching her brother but really wondering what was for lunch.
Her appetite had returned and she felt much less tired than she had. Maybe it was the country air, or simply being able to relax at last. Or maybe it was the luxurious bed - she hadn't slept so well or so long in ages. Or woken so spryly - going to bed sober might have something to do with that, of course. Why, this morning Dorothea had even commented about the lack of dark circles around Joanna's eyes. Perhaps she had been looking as dissipated as Perry and never realised it.
Ivory balls clacked together, and Edmund murmured, "Two points."
"Well done, my dear." Caroline clapped her hands.
Joanna smiled and turned her gaze out of the window. Edmund's country house was beautifully situated. One thousand rolling acres of grass, woodland, and farmland stretched in all directions, and she had yet to explore it all on horseback.
"Is Miss Bertram due to come this afternoon?" she asked idly.
"Oh dear!" Caroline's exclamation made Joanna look round. "I had forgot all about her. I arranged to visit Mrs Penson and take her some of cook's delicious beef broth." Joanna had early on learned that Edmund's wife was as concerned for the welfare of the estate workers as her husband. "She has been quite poorly you know."
Joanna leaned on her cue. "Why is that a difficulty?"
The Viscountess's sister-in-law shot her an exasperated glance. "Miss Bertram cannot possibly meet my brother unchaperoned. He would not countenance it." She looked at her husband. "Is that not so, Edmund?"
"Indeed it is. Chaloner has very decided views on the matter." He leaned over the billiard table and took another shot.
"Then leave the door open," suggested Joanna.
"That will not do either. But there is another solution to hand. Joanna can take your place, Caroline."
"Indeed she cannot!" His wife's cheeks reddened. "I beg your pardon, your ladyship. I did not mean...."
"Please, do not apologise," said Joanna, hoping she didn't sound as nettled as she felt. It was one thing for her to object to the idea, quite another for her brother's wife. "I understand completely. My reputation is hardly conducive to such a respectable role."
Caroline looked relieved to be so quickly understood.
"Nevertheless," continued Joanna, driven by some devilish impulse, "I am female, married, and over 30. And are those not the primary requirements for the post?" Belatedly, it occurred to her that she was talking herself into a corner.
"Indeed." Edmund straightened, cue in one hand, and looked at his wife. "And if my sister is willing to help us out of this little difficulty, my dear, it is churlish to refuse."
Caroline flushed a darker shade. "But Chaloner -"
"Is a guest in my house," he reminded her. "He will respect my opinion on this matter."
Seeing her plans for a brisk ride after lunch disappearing rapidly, Joanna added, "But we must surely heed your wife's feelings on the matter, Edmund. A trusted female servant would do as well. Failing that, it is the simplest matter to despatch a footman to Chawleigh House with a message...." She trailed off as Edmund turned towards her, his blue eyes knowing.
"The matter is settled. It will not be so hard for you to spend half an hour quietly in the drawing room, Joanna. You have a book to read, do you not?" He raised an eyebrow.
Viscountess Norland ground her teeth but nodded. She had indeed, and now regretted telling him as much.
"You are determined to turn me respectable," she murmured, as she brushed past her brother to take her turn at billiards.
Edmund gave her a smug smile. "And you will, of course, wear more suitable clothing."
Joanna resisted the urge to brain him with her cue.
The opening of the drawing-room door roused Viscountess Norland. She marked her place with her finger and looked up. "Good afternoon, Mr Dunster."
Chaloner's lips thinned. "Good afternoon."
He hadn't used her title and his tone was barely civil, but she ignored the slight. After all, a respectable chaperone (a notion that still made her smirk inwardly) could afford to, surely?
Edmund had left that morning's Gazette lying on a chair, and his sour-faced brother-in-law grabbed it, sat down, and hid himself behind it, turning the pages noisily.
Joanna shook her head at his childish antics and returned to her reading - the latest novel by the anonymous author of 'Waverley'.
Dorothea had recommended it. "It should have action and romance enough to suit even your ladyship's lurid tastes," she'd said, before tut-tutting at the muddy state of the Viscountess's boots and whisking them away for cleaning.
So far, her maid had been right. The book's young hero (whose surname, oddly enough, was the same as Frederica's) had been kidnapped by smugglers and taken to Holland. It looked as if he was going to India next. Strange place, India. Exotic and colourful, hot and dirty and dangerous. She had preferred Greece.
The clock on the mantelpiece began to chime the half-hour. Simultaneously, Chaloner folded his newspaper and the door opened.
Miss Bertram stood framed in the doorway. Her gaze took in the room and its inhabitants, halting when it arrived at Joanna's seat by the window. Green eyes widened, and soft lips parted before closing again.
"Good afternoon, your ladyship. I was expecting Mrs Lynton."
"Unfortunately, my sister had a pressing engagement elsewhere, Miss Bertram," said Chaloner, before Joanna could reply. "Edmund proposed his sister as replacement."
He had risen swiftly to his feet and now advanced towards the fair-headed woman, taking her gloved hand, a gesture that clearly took Frederica aback if her heightened colour was any indication. She let him lead her to a seat, where she smoothed her walking dress - the same one as always - and regained her aplomb.
Joanna nodded acknowledgement of the young woman's greeting, then wrenched her gaze back to the pages of her book. For some reason 'Guy Mannering' seemed duller than it had.
She found herself eavesdropping on the murmur of conversation going on a few feet from her. Not that it amounted to much. So far, Chaloner had discussed the weather (the sunny afternoon made Joanna long to be outside) and asked after the health of every single member of Frederica's family, including the servants.
She tried not to roll her eyes. If these two were destined for marriage (as everyone seemed so certain they were) they had leaped over the 'young lovers courting' phase of their relationship and gone straight into 'old married couple'. She had never seen a pair so ill suited, or so lacking in that vital spark.
The words on the page in front of her failed to register. Instead, she became aware that Frederica and Chaloner, independently of one another, kept darting covert glances in her direction. It dawned on her that her presence was affecting the couple in a way that Caroline's presumably did not. Edmund had not foreseen that.
The health of all parties successfully negotiated, an awkward pause ensued. It was Frederica who broke it.
"And how is Symond Hall progressing?"
Joanna hid a grimace. Chaloner had talked at length to all and sundry at Thornbury Park on that particular subject, to the point where even his sister had grown weary of it. Frederica's conversational gambit had the effect she no doubt intended though, and Chaloner brightened considerably and began to talk.
"Oh, very well, Miss Bertram. Could not be better, in fact. The workmen have refurbished the dining parlour, conservatory, and library ... to my specifications exactly, they assure me." He went on at length, cataloguing what had been knocked down and rebuilt, the precise shade of the curtains, the exact width of stripe on the fashionable wallpaper. Joanna thought the green eyes became slightly glazed, though from this distance it was hard to tell.
"It will be considerably different than it was in my great uncle's day," concluded Chaloner at last, leaning forward in his seat. "Do you like the Chinese style, Miss Bertram?"
In Joanna's opinion, the chinoisery affected by the Prince Regent was best confined to his Marine Pavilion in Brighton, and ill suited for a gentleman's country house. She listened interestedly to Frederica's reply.
There was a long pause. The answer, when it came, was a masterpiece of diplomacy and evasion and Joanna applauded silently. Although Frederica seemed of Joanna's opinion, her reply was also enough to satisfy Chaloner.
"Of course, the lady of Symond Hall, when there is one," he gave his fair companion a complacent, slightly knowing look that made her cheeks go pink, "will be able to add her own touches to the décor, should she wish."
"How thoughtful of you, Mr Dunster."
Joanna realised she had read the same sentence ten times and was still none the wiser. She turned the page, the slight rustle attracting attention, which she pretended not to notice. She was relieved when the couple looked away again.
A glance at the clock showed that, though it felt like a week, only ten minutes had passed. She suppressed a sigh and thought wistfully of the riding she could be doing.
Another pause was followed by Frederica asking about Mrs Lynton's 'pressing engagement'.
"My sister is visiting Mrs Penson," Chaloner informed her. "She has been poorly, as I think she mentioned to you on a previous occasion. Caroline is the soul of kindness. She is also acutely aware of the duties and obligations that go with her position as Edmund's wife."
Joanna could almost feel his gaze burning into her. He was playing a new game, she sensed. Superficially, his comments might be addressed to Frederica, but they were aimed at her and at her expense.
"Indeed," said Frederica. "She has always been generosity itself to my sister and myself."
"As have your family to her. Miss Amelia is such a help with the children, is she not?"
"But that is no hardship! For she enjoys playing with them."
"Nevertheless, such conduct is exemplary. A woman's interests should always centre around her children and home, do you not agree?"
Joanna resisted the urge to say something rude. Frederica uttered some noncommittal remark and deftly changed the subject. Soon the couple were discussing next week's ball.
"And will any of your friends be going?" asked Frederica.
"Alas, no, Miss Bertram," returned Chaloner. "I had hoped a friend might be able to come, but he declined. Too busy in town, he said, but I think the truth is he dislikes dancing."
Frederica laughed, and Joanna's ears pricked up at the welcome sound. "Not all men like balls. My father has always preferred to stay by the fire, with a cigar, a glass of brandy, and a good book."
Chaloner smiled. "Good is the operative word. A book should improve the mind. So many of today's ills arise from women reading unsuitable literature." He glanced meaningfully at Joanna.
"Though I am inclined to agree with you in the case of Mrs Radcliffe's novels," said Frederica, for the first time sounding annoyed, "you are too harsh on my sex, Mr Dunster. Are we allowed no respite from our daily lives, no escape, even for a moment?"
His barb had clearly hit an unintended target and he flushed. "I beg your pardon, Miss Bertram." Joanna smirked as he struggled to backtrack. "I do not include you in my strictures, of course."
After that, the conversation circled around less controversial topics, such as the attractions of Bath (which Joanna had always thought unutterably dull; she preferred Paris and the theatre - that was where she had met Marie) and when they had last visited there.
At last, the clock on the mantelpiece began to chime the hour. As the other two inhabitants of the drawing room rose to their feet, Joanna did likewise, resisting the urge to stretch the cramp from her limbs. A good gallop was what she needed, to blow the cobwebs away.
She followed them to the door. There, Frederica's gaze dropped to the title of the book she carried then lifted to scrutinise her face. Joanna raised an eyebrow in query, and found herself on the receiving end of a rueful grin, which she felt compelled to return. The smile had transformed the other woman's face into something altogether charming. All too soon, the moment was over, though, and Frederica was turning away, taking her leave of them both.
When the fair-headed woman had gone up to the schoolroom in search of her sister, Chaloner threw Joanna a disgusted glance and strode off towards his own chamber.
"So glad I could be of assistance, Mr Dunster," she called after him. "No trouble at all." He didn't deign to reply, but turned the corner out of sight. She shook her head at his behaviour. "'Pon my word! The man's a fool."
Back in her own chambers, she found that Dorothea, prescient as always, had laid out her clean boots and her riding wear. She donned the skin-tight breeches, single-breasted waistcoat, and double-breasted coat quickly, and headed for the stables....
After the dappled gloom of the woods, the sunlight was dazzling. Frederica glanced at her sister as they emerged into the open. "Put on your bonnet, Amelia. The sun is too fierce."
Amelia was enjoying the warmth, and merely twirled her bonnet by its ribbons. Frederica sighed and shook her head.
They continued on, taking the path that led towards the Lyntons' hay meadow. Amelia had expressed a wish to see how the labourers were progressing and Frederica had happily agreed.
Three days ago, they had stopped to watch the teams of men moving in lines down the meadow. The easy rhythm of the scythes as they cut the grass and broad-leaved clover close to the ground was almost hypnotic. Every hand was needed when it came to gathering in the winter fodder, and behind the red-faced men had come women and children, the latter laughing and darting about like swallows as they helped turn the freshly cut grass so it would dry more evenly.
Sometimes, Edmund Lynton himself worked alongside his labourers, apparently, but there had been no sign of him on Monday. This year at least, thought Frederica, regarding with pleasure the countryside she loved so much, the weather would not ruin the crop - June was determined to show July its sunniest face.
"They are there!" Amelia started forward. "Look."
There were indeed signs of activity in the meadow up ahead, but a heat haze distorted the view. As they drew closer, though, Frederica could make out the rosy cheeks of the sweating labourers, as they pitched forkfuls of dried grass up onto the carts, and the brown of weathered faces and forearms.
Amelia stopped by the fence, her presence earning her smiles and tugged forelocks. She seemed content for it to be so.
"Your bonnet!" reminded Frederica; the sun was beating down and there was no shelter.
Grumbling under her breath, her sister put it on and tied the ribbons under her chin, then resumed her scrutiny of the bustling meadow. "Oh! Is that not Edmund?"
Frederica followed Amelia's pointing finger. A labourer wielding a pitchfork, a gentleman by his clothes, was tossing the grass up onto a cart. "I do believe it is." Edmund had discarded his coat and neckcloth and rolled up his shirtsleeves.
She squinted at the figure receiving the hay on top of the cart, who was also wearing gentleman's clothing. There was something familiar about him.
"Who is that?" wondered Amelia.
The man's long black hair was gathered in a queue to keep it out of his face. But there was something about the way the damp shirt clung to him, and the full hips shown to advantage by snug-fitting beige cloth trousers.... "Good Lord!" She put a hand to her mouth. "I do believe it's the Viscountess."
Amelia regarded her as though she had taken leave of her senses. "How can that be?" Then she looked again, and her mouth dropped open. "But she is wielding a pitchfork like the men! And look at what she is wearing!" Her cheeks flushed. "Outrageous! We should retreat at once, Frederica. Before they notice us."
At that moment, Edmund looked up and caught sight of the two young women. His face broke into a smile, and he threw down his pitchfork and strode towards them. As he walked, he yelled something over his shoulder, and the figure on top of the cart straightened then leaped to the ground with easy grace and followed him.
"Too late," muttered Amelia.
"Miss Bertram, Miss Amelia," panted Edmund, as he leaned on the fence. "Have you come to watch us haymaking?" He pulled out a red kerchief and mopped sweat and dust from his brow. "It is hard work, as you can see, but we were short-handed. I hope you will not think the less of me."
"No indeed, Mr Lynton," said Frederica. "Rather the reverse. For the hay must be got in before the weather changes, must it not?"
"It must indeed."
Though she was speaking to Edmund, Frederica's gaze kept returning to the person coming up behind him. Viscountess Norland had grass seeds in her hair and dirt on her face. Her shirtsleeves were ripped and her trousers dusty and grass-stained, but she seemed unconcerned about her appearance.
She realised she was staring and regarded her hands while she composed herself. "Your ladyship."
"Good morning, Miss Bertram, Miss Amelia. I trust you are both well? My brother has me earning my keep, as you see." The Viscountess wiped her face on her sleeve, redistributing the dirt, then smiled, her teeth brilliant against the grime. She looked like a street urchin.
Frederica found herself unable to resist that radiant smile. "Indeed. It is a fine morning for hay making, is it not?"
"Too hot for my liking," said Edmund.
Viscountess Norland gave him a wry glance. "Hot? You should try living in Greece, brother."
"I think not."
Amelia was still staring at the Viscountess's clothes, and Frederica kicked her unobtrusively on the ankle. She hissed in startlement, then plastered a stiff smile on her face. The Viscountess gave her a curious glance but returned her attention to Frederica.
Her eyes were a much paler shade of blue than her brother's. Quite striking, observed Frederica. And they were looking right back at her. A dark eyebrow rose in query, and she flushed and searched for something to say.
"Your brother pressed you into his service, your ladyship?"
"Now there you are quite wrong, Miss Bertram. Foolishly, I volunteered for this penal servitude." The fond glance she gave Edmund took the sting from her words. "It was this or kick up my heels at Thornbury Park. I am easily bored, I'm afraid, and must take plenty of exercise. It is a sad flaw in my character, is it not, Edmund?"
The Viscountess threw him a look of mock outrage and Frederica stifled a grin.
Amelia stood silent beside her. It was up to Frederica to keep the conversation flowing. "Ah. Then you have finished your book?" she enquired.
The tall woman nodded and was about to reply when one of the labourers, a grey-bearded old man in a worn smock, approached and to Frederica's amazement called out, "Beggin' your pardon, your ladyship, but we need you back on the cart."
Far from appearing annoyed, the Viscountess gave the man a friendly wave and yelled back, "Then I will come at once, Ned."
She turned back to them. "If you'll excuse me, Miss Bertram, Miss Amelia. The foreman calls and I must go." And go she did, haring back towards the cart and vaulting up on top of it with the ease of a gazelle. There, she proceeded to receive a pitchfork of dried grass and start distributing it evenly.
Edmund glanced at his sister. "Ay, and I must go too, or I'll never hear the end of it." His grin was rueful. "Ned has worked this meadow since he was a lad," he explained. "I defer to him in all matters concerning it. Good morning to you, ladies. Enjoy the rest of your walk."
The Bertram sisters watched their neighbour pick up the pitchfork he had dropped, then exchanged glances and started the journey home.
"Well!" said Amelia, as they walked. "That was very queer."
For a while they walked in thoughtful silence.
"It is indeed ironic," observed Frederica eventually, "that the only one of our acquaintance entitled to call herself 'ladyship' should care so little for ladylike conduct." She was torn between disapproval and admiration. She knew she should be shocked, but instead she felt oddly thrilled by the Viscountess's behaviour. And her appearance had been so .... singular!
Chawleigh House came into sight, and they walked briskly towards it.
"Whatever will Mama say when we tell her?" asked Amelia.
Frederica gave a mock-shudder. "I cannot imagine!" But she could, all too well, and in the event, she was proved right.
"Shocking! Disgraceful behaviour, Mr Bertram! And our two girls witness to such a thing! You must do something about that... that woman. At once."
"Do what, my dear?" He turned the pages of his newspaper. "Tell her that you disapprove. I hardly think that will change the Viscountess's ways."
"I suppose next you'll be advocating that our own daughters borrow their brother's clothes and go haymaking with the villagers!"
He pursed his lips in apparent consideration. "Frederica. What do you think? Are you eager to try your hand at haymaking?"
She knew from the twinkle in his eyes that he did not mean the question seriously. "No, Papa. Walking is quite sufficient exercise for me."
Beside her on the drawing-room sofa, Amelia nodded. "I do not think I would make a good haymaker."
"You see, Mrs Bertram. While it may suit the Viscountess, such activities would not suit either of our girls, so you must put such schemes out of your head." He turned back to his newspaper.
Their mother gave him an uncertain look. "I was not suggesting... How can you possibly... " She frowned and for a moment was silent, then she returned to her original topic. "That awful woman! A Viscountess should have more respect for her position. Has she not considered the unsettling effect of her behaviour on the villagers? Why, before we know it -"
"Perhaps it has not occurred to you, my dear," Mr Bertram interrupted his wife, "but it has certainly occurred to me. If the Viscountess is helping her brother bring in his hay, and occasionally acting as chaperone when Mrs Lynton is unavailable, then she has far less time to spend on scandalous pursuits. Now, tell me, Mrs Bertram? Is that not in fact a blessing in disguise?"
As their mother lapsed into frustrated silence, Frederica and Amelia exchanged glances - Frederica's amused, Amelia's thoughtful.
"Peace and quiet at last!" muttered their father. "Now perhaps I may read."
Frederica set off alone to walk the three miles to Thornbury Park. Amelia had pleaded a sick headache. Whether it was the result of leaving off her bonnet yesterday, or a wish on her sister's part to avoid seeing the Viscountess so soon after their rather startling encounter in the hay meadow, Frederica was unsure - she had not enquired too deeply.
She was glad to be alone for once. Amelia tended to prattle, about the rapidly approaching ball, or the magnificent figure Lt. so-and-so cut in his uniform, or her latest trial with poor, boring Mr Smith. She was profoundly glad to be able to walk at her own pace, enjoying the sunshine and the surrounding countryside, and listening to the musical trill of a blackbird.
As Thornbury Park came into view, though, her spirits lowered. A trial of her own lay ahead. Chaloner Dunster was close to proposing, she was sure of it. His manner towards her had changed markedly since that awkward occasion when Viscountess Norland had acted as their chaperone.
He had taken to smiling fondly at her. He also insisted on complimenting her constantly, remarking on each and every little thing. He had admired the fineness of her eyes, the length of her eyelashes, the nobleness of her profile, the height of her forehead, the fullness of her lips and slenderness of her ankles. He approved the sensible cut of her clothes, and applauded her love of walking. Her opinions were astute for a woman, her sentiments a credit to her sex.... And each time she must thank him, of course. It was becoming tedious.
At first she had felt flattered, then she saw beyond the smile and honeyed words and sensed he was doing and saying such things because it was expected of him. But who was she to judge his actions? Was she not as false?
Frederica rang the doorbell, and a footman appeared and showed her into the drawing room. The displeasure on Chaloner's face when he saw her took her aback, before she realised its true cause. The Viscountess was sitting by the window, quill in hand.
"Good afternoon, Mr Dunster. Your ladyship."
The dark-haired woman nodded a greeting, then returned to her writing. She was wearing more conventional attire, today, noted Frederica, suppressing a smile at the thought of what Chaloner would have made of yesterday's outfit.
Assuming a winning smile, he rose to his feet. "Miss Bertram. As always, it is delightful to see you." He captured her gloved hand, then led her to a seat.
"My sister was called away once more. I fear Mrs Penson has taken a turn for the worse."
"I am very sorry to hear that, Mr Dunster."
The conversation started out as it always did, with observations about the weather and enquiries after the health of their various relatives, Chaloner expressing concern for Amelia's sick headache then forgetting all about her.
Frederica threw him a number of conversational sops, including a mention of Symond Hall, but he didn't take them. He seemed more inclined to make barbed comments at his sister-in-law's expense. It was an unpleasant side to his character of which she had been unaware prior to Viscountess Norland's arrival. It took all her self-control not to snap at him and much steering of the conversation into more tactful waters.
If he had planned to make his declaration to her, he clearly felt unable to do so in the presence of Viscountess Norland. Relief surged through her, followed by a wave of guilt and depression. It was only putting off the inevitable.
In spite of her best efforts, she found her gaze straying constantly towards the quiet figure at the writing table, who was sometimes writing, sometimes staring out of the window, and on one occasion, sucking the end of her quill. For the umpteenth time, she dragged her eyes away and tried to listen, without grinding her teeth, to the decided opinions of the man she would probably marry.
At last, the clock on the mantel chimed the hour, releasing her from purgatory.
She lost no time in setting off to walk back to Chawleigh, but had gone only a few yards when the sound of running footsteps and a shouted, "Miss Bertram," made her pause and turn round. Viscountess Norland was hurrying towards her.
She scanned her surroundings. There was no one else near - she was indeed the Viscountess's target. Her heart began to race. "Y... your ladyship?"
"I see you are alone today, Miss Bertram. May I walk with you?"
"That ... would be pleasant," said Frederica politely if not exactly truthfully.
Blue eyes examined her. "Ah, but you are merely being kind. I do not wish to intrude. Enjoy your walk, Miss Bertram." The other woman turned away.
"Wait." This unexpected show of consideration had quite disarmed Frederica. Chaloner would not have been so thoughtful, she felt sure. "Please. Walk with me."
The Viscountess hesitated then nodded, and fell into step beside Frederica. "Thank you."
They strolled a few paces in silence. Frederica's heart had returned to its normal rhythm, and she was beginning to relax when the Viscountess observed, "The last half hour must have been very dull for you, Miss Bertram. My fault, I fear. My presence seems to irk Mr Dunster. But it could not be helped. Caroline was called away at short notice and would go."
Frederica wondered if her cheeks were as red as they felt. Viscountess Norland was nothing if not direct, she was fast discovering. She felt an urge to reply in kind, and gave in to it.
"Dull for you too, your ladyship."
An unladylike snort took her aback. "All this 'your ladyship' this, 'your ladyship' that, Miss Bertram. It is so long-winded. Joanna is my name." She looked at Frederica expectantly.
Frederica blinked. "You wish me to call you by your name?"
"It is true I have been called many things by many people, some of them unrepeatable in polite company, but, yes, I wish you to call me Joanna." The Viscountess smiled.
"Oh!" She flushed. "Then... J... Joanna, please, call me Frederica."
Joanna nodded. "Much better, Frederica."
They walked on in silence once more, Frederica musing on the odd twist of fate that had led her to be on first name terms with a Viscountess. Then she remembered her manners and cast around for something to talk about.
"You have finished your book?"
"Ah yes, we were interrupted when last you asked," said Joanna, glancing at her. "I have. And Dorothea has reclaimed it from me. And rapped my knuckles soundly for dog-earing the pages into the bargain."
Frederica blinked. "Dorothea?"
"My abigail. You met her."
"In the coach the day of the storm. Plump. Thick eyebrows."
Frederica restrained herself to a muffled, "Ah."
"You are surprised I read my maid's books and allow her to chide me."
She was, but she was also reluctant to admit it.
"She has been with me ten years and takes a great many liberties," said the Viscountess placidly. "She is also a friend and knows my taste in literature ... and a great many other things."
Frederica was sure her eyes must be bulging. "Ah," she repeated.
"I do not read a great deal as a rule," continued Viscountess Norland. "I lack application, so Dorothea informs me. But you read, I think, do you not, Frederica?"
Relieved that the conversation was heading for safer ground, she nodded.
"Do you have a favourite author?" prompted her companion.
"Oh. Pardon me, your... Joanna. Yes. Though I do not know her name. She is the author of such works as 'Sense and Sensibility' and 'Pride and Prejudice'."
The Viscountess looked thoughtful. "I have heard of them. Would you recommend them to me?"
Frederica felt her cheeks warming. How to reply? "I do not think so, your... Joanna," she said carefully. "They are wonderfully well done novels of their kind, and I very much enjoyed them, but the author herself admits that she paints 'little pieces of ivory'. If I do not miss my guess, you would prefer something more..." she searched for the word, "colourful. Sweeping vistas rather than dainty miniatures."
Her fear she might have offended the Viscountess proved groundless when the other woman threw back her head in a delighted guffaw. "'Colourful', eh? You may be right, Frederica. I do like my books to have plenty of action in 'em. A duel, smugglers, pirates, pretty damsels in distress..." She glanced slyly at her walking companion. "Gallons of blood at the very least."
Frederica was uncertain if she was being teased, so she restricted herself to an enigmatic smile. Joanna returned the expression in kind.
They had reached the oak tree whether she and Amelia had taken shelter from the storm.
The Viscountess looked at it then at Frederica. "Your sister has a less robust constitution than you, I think?"
She considered. "I do not think so, but she is more careless of her health."
"She is very young. Only twenty still, I gather?"
"Nineteen," corrected Frederica.
Joanna sighed. "At that age many are careless, and some are very foolish indeed. Fortunately, with age comes wisdom... if we are lucky to survive so long." Her gaze seemed far away, and Frederica wondered if she was speaking of herself.
"You talk like a crone," she said lightly, "instead of a woman of one-and-thirty."
Joanna laughed and bobbed a mock curtsey. "Why, thank you. Such wisdom coming from a youngster of seven-and-twenty."
She was startled that the other woman should know her exact age, then she realised that, very likely, conversation at Thornbury Park turned occasionally to the subject of herself and her sister. It would be unusual if the Viscountess had not heard details from her brother and her sister-in-law.
Frederica realised she was finding the Viscountess's company surprisingly congenial, for all it was disconcerting. Much more congenial than Chaloner's. Though the conversation did occasionally verge on the improper, she felt easy with her. She wondered if this indicated a flaw in her own character, a want of morals perhaps. She wished she could talk to someone about it, but there was only her father, and somehow she didn't think-
"You are far, far away, Frederica."
Awareness of her surroundings came back with a rush. "I beg your pardon, your ladyship. I did not mean -"
"And we are back to 'your ladyship'." The tone was frosty.
Frederica's cheeks warmed. "Joanna." She regarded the other woman intently then relaxed. "But you are teasing me."
"I am," agreed the Viscountess, giving her a brilliant smile.
They resumed their walk, and Frederica cast a sidelong glance at Joanna. "Is it true you once fought a duel?"
Joanna missed a step then looked at her. "Yes, it is true."
Her eyes widened. She had imagined it to be exaggeration.
"I took a bullet for my pains." The Viscountess indicated her right shoulder with one gloved hand. "It was a year ago, in Paris. The wound still aches when the weather is damp."
"And your opponent?"
"De Livry? Dead as a doornail."
For a few paces, there was a sombre silence.
"Did he deserve it?" asked Frederica at last.
"Yes." Joanna gave her a rueful grin. "But I would say that, would I not?"
She had remained close-mouthed on the cause of the duel, noted Frederica. Disappointed, she confined herself to a neutral, "Indeed."
They walked on a few paces more.
"Have you ever visited Paris?"
"Have you never desired to go?"
"No. I am content to remain here." She gestured at the countryside. "And why would I not be? Have you ever seen anything so beautiful as Kent?"
"Indeed, it is lovely," agreed the other woman. She raised an eyebrow, an expression that was becoming familiar to Frederica. "But have you really never had a hankering to travel? Be honest now."
The glib reply died on Frederica's lips. She considered. "Perhaps I did hanker after such a thing when I was younger," she admitted after a long silence. "But I knew it was beyond my reach, Joanna, so I put it out of my head."
The Viscountess was nodding, as though her answer had confirmed something. "You are a pragmatist. Determined to make the best of your circumstances, no matter how unpalatable they are. Is that the case with Mr Dunster?"
The intimate question shocked Frederica. For a moment she was literally speechless. Then words returned.
"How dare you judge me! You with your title and your wealth. How could someone like you possibly understand the dilemma that faces someone in my position?"
"I beg your pardon." Joanna face was the picture of remorse. "That was tactless and impertinent of me and I apologise." She reached for Frederica's hand, refusing all attempts to evade her. "Dorothea tells me that I have the manners of a barbarian and I fear she is correct."
Frederica dropped her gaze, but Joanna ducked her head and peered up at her. The concern and sincerity in the Viscountess's eyes seemed genuine, and Frederica felt her anger fading as rapidly as it had arisen. The sensation of gloved hands rubbing hers was distracting, as soothing as it was oddly stimulating, but she made no attempt to free herself. Her cheeks must be a brilliant red, she was sure.
"Please, forgive me and forget I ever raised the subject," continued the Viscountess, straightening when Frederica felt able to look her in the eye once more. "I would not have offended you for the world."
Fortunately for both women, perhaps, the thudding of hoofbeats drew their attention to something completely different. A rider was galloping along the road towards them on a bay thoroughbred, a dandy by the tightness of his breeches and the cut of his green coat.
The Viscountess rubbed Frederica's hand one last time then released it. "Can it be?"
Frederica stared at the approaching rider. "Your brother is expecting a visitor?"
"He has come to see me, I fancy. That is an old friend of mine. Perry ... Lord Peregrine."
A friend? Then why was there a touch of apprehension in the Viscountess's eyes? But as the rider drew near, the other woman's face broke into a smile and she walked towards him.
As the thoroughbred thundered towards Joanna, Frederica's heart was in her mouth, but the Viscountess showed no fear. When the horse was almost upon her, the rider with the preposterously high collar and intricately tied neckcloth jerked sharply on the reins and pulled it to a halt a pace from her. She reached up and patted the horse's lathered neck then took off a glove and rubbed her hand over its nose.
"Who is this beauty?"
The horse lipped her hand.
"His name is Lightning." The man dismounted, his highly polished boots hitting the earth with a thump. "Apt, don't you think, Joanna? Got him yesterday. Couldn't resist putting him through his paces."
The new arrival's gaze fell on the silently watching Frederica and he smiled. "But who is this charming little thing? Introduce me, do. Where are your manners, Joanna?"
Some would have found him charming, supposed Frederica. But she found his tone patronising. Something about this handsome stranger made her nape hairs bristle.
"This is our neighbour, Miss Bertram," said Joanna. "Miss Bertram meet Lord Peregrine, eldest son of the Earl of Painswick."
"My lord." She curtseyed and he bowed slightly in return.
"She is of no interest to you, Perry," continued the Viscountess, before he could speak. "She is spoken for."
Frederica blinked in astonishment at Joanna's bluntness, then became thoughtful. At her words, disgruntlement had flitted across his face, then disappeared. Once more Lord Peregrine was all smiling charm.
"I have been escorting Miss Bertram home." Joanna turned towards Frederica, her gaze solicitous. "You are more than halfway, Miss Bertram. Will you be content to continue the rest of the way alone?"
The return to a formal mode of address had not gone unnoticed by Frederica. She nodded. "Indeed, your ladyship. I shall manage very well. You have been kindness itself, but now you must see to your guest. I shall take my leave of you both. Good afternoon, your ladyship, your lordship." She curtseyed to each of them in turn then walked briskly away.
For some reason, the day seemed gloomier than it had, the countryside less beautiful, but the brilliant smile the Viscountess bestowed on her just before she left remained vivid all the way home.
Lord Peregrine fell into step beside the Viscountess, tugging the rein until the thoroughbred followed dutifully behind him. "'Tis very selfish of you, keeping a pretty young thing like Miss Bertram to yourself, Joanna."
"Have you taken leave of your senses?"
"Don't deny it. I saw you." He tapped the top of his cane against his nose and smiled. "You were holding hands."
"I had upset Miss Bertram and was trying to restore her equilibrium, you fool. She is to marry Chaloner Dunster."
He laughed. "'Trying to restore her equilibrium', eh? I must remember that turn of phrase."
She held her tongue. If Perry was determined to misunderstand her, it was best to let the matter drop.
"Has this Dunster fellow proposed to Miss Bertram yet?"
"No. But he will. It is only a matter of time."
Perry shrugged. "But since when has the fact a pretty woman is married deterred you ... or me, come to that?"
Joanna grabbed his arm and dragged him to a halt.
"Mind my sleeve!" Indignantly he smoothed the marks she had left on the green cloth.
"Let me make something clear," she hissed. "While you are my guest at Thornbury Park, you will be on your best behaviour at all times. These people are my family and friends and they matter to me. They are simple country folk, not world-weary libertines."
Lord Peregrine began to object at this description of himself but her raised finger stopped him.
"There will be no seducing of ladies, married or unmarried (no, not even the servants), no baiting of gentlemen until they are enraged into asking you to give them satisfaction. You will not humiliate or hurt anyone. You are my guest, and you will behave like one."
He pouted. "Am I to have no fun at all?"
"This is not a joke, Perry." She dropped her voice to its lowest register. "If you do not agree to my conditions, then you had better turn round right now and ride back to London." She waited for the threat to sink in.
He sighed. "As you wish."
They walked on a few paces in silence.
"'Pon my soul, Joanna. I had forgot how fierce you get when someone crosses you." He gave a mock shudder. "Thought it was to be pistols at dawn between us for a moment."
"I would win."
"Undoubtedly. Which is why I would never challenge you."
"I am glad we are clear on that point."
"We are indeed."
Thornbury Park was now visible up ahead. And Perry gazed at it and gave an appreciative whistle. "That is your brother's place?"
"He has done well for himself."
"Edmund bought it for a song. He has always been more canny about money matters than I." She glanced at the horse trailing along behind her companion. "Which reminds me, did your father cough up the blunt?"
Lord Peregrine gave her a rueful glance. "Unfortunately not. My tiresome Papa has decided that I should take responsibility for my finances. He sent me packing without so much as a guinea."
"But surely, Lightning...."
"Oh, I won him in a bet." He turned and stroked the horse's nose. "Didn't I, old boy?"
She stared at him. "What if you had lost?"
He plucked a greenfly from his red waistcoat, careful not to leave a stain. "It was a sure thing."
Given her recent risk-taking activities on the Exchange, she felt unable to rebuke him for his giddiness, so she restricted herself to, "Same old Perry."
"So you have decided to throw yourself on my brother's mercy rather than starve?"
He gave her a wounded look. "I promised to entertain you, did I not?"
"You did indeed."
For the past few minutes, they had been walking up the drive to Thornbury Park, and now the liveried footman came hurrying out to greet them.
"Will you please inform my brother we have an unexpected guest," called Joanna. "And after that, take care of Lord Peregrine's horse, will you, Walter?"
"Very good, your ladyship." He darted back inside the house.
She glanced at the thoroughbred, which nickered and shook its mane at her. "Where are your trunks?"
"My valet is bringing them down tomorrow," said Lord Peregrine. "I trust your brother can lend me a nightshirt in the meantime?"
"To be sure."
They closed the remaining few yards to the front door, and Walter reappeared.
"Mr and Mrs Lynton, and Mr Dunster, are awaiting you and your guest in the drawing-room, your ladyship." Relieving Perry of his mount, the footman led the magnificent beast round to the stables.
Joanna stepped into the hall, removing her bonnet and gloves as she did so. She handed them to the waiting Dorothea, whose dark brows drew together at the sight of Perry. Edmund's butler relieved his lordship of his top hat, gloves, and cane. Then they made their way down the passage to the drawing room.
Edmund rose to his feet as they entered, his gaze travelling to the man following Joanna. "So we are to have a guest, Joanna?"
Disquiet lurked behind his smile, though only those who knew him well would realise it. She threw him a reassuring glance. He should not regret opening his house to her, on that she was determined.
"Lord Peregrine is an old friend, Edmund. I invited him down while I was in London." Swiftly she made the introductions.
Edmund was pleasant and welcoming; Perry's compliments made Caroline blush with pleasure; and Chaloner kept eyeing Perry's neckcloth with such open astonishment that Joanna wanted to laugh out loud.
Perry's "I apologise if my unexpected arrival has put you to any inconvenience," instantly disarmed any objection they might have had. Then he went on to amuse Caroline with tales about Almack's, ask Edmund for advice about managing an estate as large as Thornbury Park. ("For I shall one day inherit Painswick House, and will need all the help I can get."). As for Chaloner, Perry mentioned that he had met Miss Bertram and how her appearance and manners were admirable and just as they ought to be (All this based on such a fleeting meeting, thought Joanna wryly). To cap it all, he drank the cup of tea Caroline handed him with every appearance of enjoyment - which since he loathed the stuff was remarkable. Joanna was torn between amusement and admiration at this display.
By the end of an hour, the matter was settled to everyone's satisfaction. Of course Lord Peregrine must stay for a while. He would be much needed company for Joanna, who had been exhibiting signs of boredom with country pursuits in recent days. (Edmund laughingly overruled her protestations to the contrary, and she had to concede that she had indeed been feeling a little restless.) A nightshirt was found. And servants were dispatched to make a bedchamber ready.
Dorothea was waiting for Viscountess Norland in her chamber, her expression stormy. "What's he doing here?"
"I'm afraid I invited him," admitted Joanna. "While we were staying at The George. I ran into him at Rotten Row."
A snort greeted that remark but she ignored it. She divested herself of her half boots then straightened and turned her back so that her maid could unbutton her cambric walking dress.
"Itís partly your fault, you know." She turned an accusing eye in Dorothea's direction. "You told me I would be bored in the country." She stepped out of her dress. "And even you must admit, Perry is damned entertaining."
"As though you ever take notice of a thing I say," muttered the other woman, shaking out the dress before folding it neatly, then fetching a satin evening dress from the wardrobe.
"I know." She sighed. "And I am sorry now." She looked pleadingly at her abigail. "But he has promised me he will behave."
"And you believe him?" Dorothea tutted.
"Perry is my friend."
"He was your friend, your ladyship. But you are not the person you used to be."
Joanna allowed herself to be buttoned into her dress then pulled on her matching gloves. "In any event, I have resolved to keep a close eye on him. And I have warned him most particularly to leave Frederica alone."
She bent to put on her shoes and when she straightened found Dorothea's wide-eyed gaze fixed on her. She blinked.
"Tell me you have not fallen for her," said her maid.
"Miss Bertram, of course. I notice you are now on first name terms with the young woman."
Joanna sighed. "You too?"
"Do I need to remind your ladyship of what you said about not setting the cat among the pigeons in your brother's back yard? Miss Bertram is to marry Mr Dunster. Everyone at Thornbury knows it."
"You go too far, Dorothea! Nothing of significance has happened between Fred ... Miss Bertram and me, nor will it. I have too much respect for her, and for Edmund. But Perry showed a marked interest in the young woman - he met her while I was escorting her back to Chawleigh House - so I must perforce warn him off." Her abigail look unconvinced. "He has agreed to behave himself while he is here," she continued, nettled. "And that's an end to it."
Dorothea sniffed. "I'm sure I'm sorry I ever doubted you, your ladyship. If you know what you are about, then all is well and good and I will say no more about it." She fetched her sewing box, sat down, and busied herself with her mending.
Joanna checked her appearance in the mirror and prepared to go down to dinner. For all her abigail's faith in her, did she really know what she was about? Sometimes she wasn't sure.
Joanna's mount was tiring rapidly. Even so, he didn't baulk at the hedge but leaped it gamely, clearing it with inches to spare.
"Whoa, Chestnut." She patted the labouring horse on the neck and reined him to a halt. "There now. Rest easy. You have had enough, I think." She dismounted and took off her gloves, then grabbed a handful of grass and began to rub some of the sweat from his neck and flanks. He was trembling all over. "What a brave heart you have," she murmured. "No wonder you are Edmund's favourite hunter."
Up ahead, Perry had turned back. When he was still some distance from her he shouted, "Do you concede?"
"I do. You have won your bet," she called.
The race had been an uneven one from the start, Edmund's old hunter against Lord Peregrine's thoroughbred. She had accepted more because she wanted to blow the cobwebs away than to win the wager, such as it was.
Perry halted beside her and dismounted. "I would have not won so easily in the old days."
"Indeed you would not. Conqueror would have been more than a match for Lightning." She threw away the grass and picked the residue of stalks and seeds off her palms before wiping them on her breeches. A green stain resulted. Dorothea would not be pleased.
"Conqueror was that fierce black beast who tried to bite me, was he not? What happened to him?"
"Lord knows. I had to sell him to pay my debts. Put out to stud somewhere, I imagine." Chestnut nudged her shoulder and she laughed. "No more brushing for now, boy. My arm is tired."
She began to lead him back the way they had come, and Perry fell in step beside her. The two horses eyed one another warily.
"My winnings?" reminded Perry.
"Forgive me." She pulled out a guinea and tossed it to him. He caught it, and regarded it ruefully before pocketing it.
"In the old days, our bet would have been a more substantial one. This will buy Lightning a carrot or two at best."
"The old days are over, Perry. I have turned over a new leaf. Why, just the other day, I was helping my brother with the haymaking."
His eyebrows shot up. "I hope you will not expect me to do the same."
She snorted. "No. But you will not be bored. There is a ball at the assembly rooms on Friday night. That should be more to your taste."
"Ah, dancing. More to my taste indeed."
They walked on, the silence broken only by the thudding of hooves, creaking of leather, and panting of the horses. Chestnut soon recovered his wind, she was pleased to see.
Perry laughed suddenly. "Remember that cricket ball of yours? Cost me 400 guineas, if I remember. Now that was a bet!"
She smiled, remembering. He had not believed her when she said she could cause a letter to cover 50 miles in an hour. It had taken some organising - she had had to track down twenty skilled cricketers - but she had done it. She had enclosed her letter in a hollow cricket ball and made the cricketers stand in a carefully measured circle throwing the ball as fast as they could. They had more than managed the distance in the time allotted.
"It was a love letter, was it not?"
She winced. "Ay. To Florentia, my first real passion."
"Ah yes, the courtesan. Was she not fifteen years older than you?"
They stopped at a brook and allowed the horses to drink.
"Indeed," said Joanna. "Florentia taught me much about the ways of love, and for that I shall always be grateful. She also, however, threw me over the week after the cricket ball bet. Something about my persistent ogling of the ladies in Rotten Row, if I recall." She pretended to be aggrieved and Perry guffawed as she had intended.
"You always had a roving eye," he said. "Courtesans, actresses ... the more colourful their occupation the better." He pursed his lips. "Strange. I would not have thought a quiet little country mouse like Miss Bertram would attract your attention."
She threw him an exasperated glance. "You are barking up the wrong tree, Perry. And what's worse, you are in danger of becoming a bore."
H grimaced in mock horror. "Good Lord. A bore? You have cut me to the quick, m' dear."
Joanna judged that Chestnut was fit to be ridden once more. "Shall we ride? I am hungry, and -" She pulled out her pocket watch and checked it - "it is nearly time for lunch." She mounted up and waited for Perry to do the same.
"Good." He put a booted foot in the stirrup and heaved himself into the saddle. "After last night's excellent dinner, I am eager to see what your brother's cook has given us for lunch."
She kneed Chestnut into a trot, and they set off for Thornbury Park.
CONTINUED IN PART 3