Warnings - See Part 1.
FREDERICA AND THE VISCOUNTESS
It was the night of the ball. All day, Amelia had been driving everyone at Chawleigh to distraction with her dithering about what she should wear. She had changed her dress twice and her hairstyle three times, quite wearing out the maid in the process. Frederica had no such difficulties - only one of her evening dresses, the cream satin, would suit a ball, and she would wear her hair as she always did.
Amelia was also full of speculation about who would be there. "For if I have to dance with Mr Smith again I shall surely die!"
Eventually, Frederica shook her head at such histrionics and left her sister to her own devices.
When they arrived, the assembly rooms were already quite full, and while their mother went to greet her friends, and Amelia headed for the soldiers congregating at the far end near the punchbowl, Frederica scanned the milling faces anxiously. There was no sign of a party from Thornbury Park, and she was unsure whether to be relieved or annoyed. Not dancing with Chaloner would be no loss (she feared he was the type to step on her toes) but she had been looking forward to seeing people's reactions to the notorious Viscountess in their midst, and, if she were honest, to renewing her acquaintance with the woman herself. (She had been unable to banish their last encounter from her thoughts.)
Her sister darted past, pursued by poor Herbert Smith. When next she spied them, Amelia was dancing the Le Boulanger with a dashing Lieutenant while Mr Smith looked as though someone had killed his dog.
"Not dancing, Miss Bertram?"
She turned to find old Squire Nicholls regarding her kindly. "Mr Dunster claimed this first dance from me but has not yet arrived."
"A late entrance is all the rage, I believe."
As if in response to his remark, a commotion by the door drew their attention. The throng parted to allow through a party of well dressed ladies and gentlemen. Edmund and Caroline Lynton were in the lead, greeting people as they passed with broad smiles and kind words. Following behind them came a rather sulky-looking Chaloner Dunster. And bringing up the rear was a handsome couple whose height, clothes, carriage, and demeanour were attracting glances and murmurs of admiration, envy, and not a little outrage.
Frederica stared along with the rest. Joanna was wearing a crimson-velvet ball dress, with a frill à la Parisienne, and white kid gloves and shoes. Pearls studded her raven-black hair. She looked magnificent!
"Who is that?" asked the Squire.
She came to herself with a start. "Viscountess Norland and Lord Peregrine, eldest son of the Earl of Painswick."
"You are very well informed, Miss Bertram."
She blushed then wondered why she had. "To be sure. For they are our closest neighbours."
Chaloner spotted her and made his way towards her. She braced herself and summoned up a welcoming smile.
"I apologise for missing the first dance. Unfortunately Edmund insisted we wait for the entire party. Who would have believed a neckcloth could take so much tying?" The glance he threw a blithely unaware Lord Peregrine was filled with disdain.
Meanwhile, the orchestra had struck up a cotillion, and couples were taking their places in a square. Lord Peregrine had lost no time in finding himself a pretty young partner, she saw. The girl's eyes were bright with excitement, her colour so high Frederica feared she might faint.
Chaloner assumed a gallant expression that put her in mind of a cow. "May I have this dance?"
"With pleasure," she lied, allowing him to lead her out onto the floor.
By the time the dance had run its course, her toes were smarting, and her temper was on edge. Her shame-faced partner helped her limp to a seat while he went in search of refreshment.
"There goes a medical curiosity. For surely Mr Dunster has two left feet."
The familiar voice from behind made her twist round in her seat. Joanna's eyes were twinkling. Frederica gave the other woman a quelling look, which caused Joanna's smile to broaden further.
"But I'm sure you would say," continued the Viscountess irrepressibly, "that Mr Dunster has the intention to dance well, he merely lacks the means."
"I would do no such thing," hissed Frederica. "Please, your ladyship! He will be back any moment."
"Tsk, Frederica. Back to 'your ladyship', I see. And what are Mr Dunster's feelings to me, pray? He has no concern for mine." But she changed the topic. "Now there is a much better dancer."
Frederica followed the other woman's gaze to where Lord Peregrine was dancing the Sir Roger de Coverley with yet another pretty young woman. A young lieutenant glared daggers at him.
"If looks could kill," murmured Viscountess Norland.
"Indeed. Is that wise of him?"
"Perry is never wise. There is no amusement in it."
At that moment, Chaloner pushed his way between the bystanders and came towards them, a glass of orgeat in each hand. He gave Viscountess Norland a cold glance, and handed Frederica her drink. She took a sip of the excessively sweet syrup of orange and almond, and tried to look as though she was enjoying it.
Joanna laughed under her breath and moved away. When later Frederica saw her, she was dancing a waltz with Lord Peregrine, every eye in the place fixed on them. The waltz was still considered scandalous by many due to the close embrace it necessitated, but apparently Lord Peregrine had particularly requested it. She frowned and looked away, annoyed with Joanna yet not sure why. Later, when his lordship was dancing a reel with Amelia - their third dance in a row together - there was no sign of the Viscountess, and enquiries revealed she had grown bored and left early.
Frederica sighed and went to join her mother, who was watching Amelia and Perry with unabashed delight.
"Their third dance! What a catch he would be for your sister, Frederica."
"I do not think it either likely or wise, Mama."
"Oh pooh! What do you know about it, pray?"
Chaloner came up beside her. "May I have the next dance, Miss Bertram?"
"You may," she said glumly, and, when the orchestra struck up a quadrille, a dance that was still so new she was doubtful she would remember the steps and certain he would not, she wished the evening well and truly over.
A surprise visit the next day from Frederica's oldest brother Edward, his wife Louisa, and their two small children, kept her from her appointment with Chaloner. She did not regret it. She feared from his behaviour towards her at the ball that their next meeting would be significant. And so it proved. For when she saw him three days later, Viscountess Norland was out with Lord Peregrine, and without her presence to daunt him and with his sister's prompting and support, Chaloner formally asked Frederica to be his wife.
It could have been worse, she supposed. He could have attempted a more concrete demonstration of his affection (at least he had been honest enough to avoid the word 'love'). As it was, he merely assumed a soulful expression (which reminded her of that cow again) and pressed her hand to his lips.
She had pictured herself accepting his proposal, but now the moment had arrived, indecision paralysed her. If the mere thought of it made her heart sink, what kind of a marriage lay in prospect? One which would see her comfortably provided for, and which her family would seize on with relief, certainly. But was that enough? Chaloner was a good man, a kind and gentle (if rather dull) man, she reminded herself. Such a match was unlikely to come her way again. Refuse it and she was likely condemning herself to old-maidhood. But still she could not decide.
Frederica stuttered her thanks to Chaloner for the great honour he had done her, begged for time to consider his proposal, and promised a reply when next they met. Then, under the Dunster siblings' equally disappointed gaze, she made good her escape.
As she climbed the stairs up to the schoolroom in search of her sister, raised voices, a man's and a woman's, met her.
"This is insupportable!"
"You are making a mountain out of a molehill, Joanna. It is not as if I am pursuing her sister...."
Frederica turned the corner into the passageway and halted. Viscountess Norland and Lord Peregrine were standing nose to nose outside the schoolroom door. The Viscountess's cheeks were flushed with fury. His lordship was affecting amused boredom, but Frederica thought she detected irritation in his gaze.
They broke off their conversation at her appearance. Joanna smoothed her expression into a bland mask while he donned polished charm.
"Miss Bertram." Lord Peregrine bowed. "Have you come in search of your sister?"
She curtsied. "Yes, your lordship, your ladyship."
Joanna gestured. "She is in the schoolroom." Her tone was brusque, but Frederica sensed that she was not the target and took no offence.
"Thank you." As nonchalantly as she could manage, she moved past them, knocked on the door, and, at her sister's muffled "Enter", turned the handle and pushed it open.
A scuffling noise and an exclamation made her turn, in time to see Joanna hurrying Lord Peregrine away, her iron grip on his sleeve prompting outraged protests. She blinked, shook her head in wonder, then continued into the schoolroom.
Amelia was trying to settle a squabble - the three Lynton children had very decided ideas about which toys they should play with. She looked up and gave Frederica a harassed glance. "Is it time to leave?"
"Yes. We must go at once."
Her announcement prompted much whining and clinging as the children realised they were to lose their Aunt Amelia, but a promise that she would soon come again settled them. Her sister put on her bonnet and gloves, and told them to play quietly, then went next door to fetch the children's governess, Miss Lang.
Frederica held her tongue with difficulty all the way down the stairs and out of Thornbury Park's front door. Halfway down the gravelled drive though, she felt able to speak.
"What in the world is going on, Amelia? The Viscountess and Lord Peregrine were arguing outside your door."
Amelia rolled her eyes. "Oh Lord. It was too tiresome for words, Frederica. She marched right in without so much as a 'by your leave', told his lordship he had no right to be there, and practically dragged him outside. We were having such fun too. The children were distraught."
Frederica blinked and missed a step. "Lord Peregrine was with you? Unchaperoned!"
"As if any of that matters," said Amelia crossly. "He only came to help me with the children, and the governess was next door all the time."
"That is not the point."
Her sister waved a dismissive hand. "The Viscountess is merely jealous, for she sees that I might get him instead of her."
"'Get him'? Amelia, the Viscountess is already married!"
"That doesn't signify." Amelia gave a dreamy sigh. "He is handsome, is he not? Much better looking than Mr Herbert, and much more amusing besides. And such a good dancer. Did I tell you he danced three times with me at the ball? ... I did? And Lord Peregrine danced only once with poor Georgette Fontley. She was so annoyed she could cry."
"Did you see his clothes? His neckcloth is the latest style." Amelia twirled her reticule. "He was telling me all about Painswick House. He will inherit it when his father dies, you know."
"This will not do, Amelia! He belongs to the 'fast set'. Papa will be furious!"
"Fiddlesticks. He was the perfect gentleman and so good with the children." She glanced at Frederica. "Besides, who are you to begrudge me his company? You have Chaloner." She blinked as though remembering something. "Has he offered for you?" Frederica nodded, and her sister clapped her hands together and skipped a few steps. "Mama will be so pleased. You accepted him, I take it?"
She sighed. "Not yet."
A shocked gasp met that admission. "Are you mad? After all your efforts to bring him to this point? Whatever possessed you, Frederica? No wonder you are so sour about me and Lord Peregrine."
"The one subject has nothing to do with the other."
Her sister shot her an arch glance. "Indeed!"
They walked on, Amelia babbling about everything and nothing, Frederica's thoughts whirling.
"Lord Peregrine says the Viscountess is not as amusing as she once was."
The mention of Joanna caught Frederica's attention and she looked up. "I beg your pardon?"
"She used to make outrageous bets with him. There was something about a letter inside a cricket ball, I believe."
"A cricket ball?" Frederica gave her sister a bewildered glance.
"And climbing up a steep tower to hang a pair of lady's drawers from a flagpole."
Frederica was shocked. She had known her sister was dangerously lax in her attitudes, but to talk of undergarments with a man while unchaperoned.... "Really, Amelia!"
"And once," continued her sister, unperturbed, "she even recreated the Duke of Queensberry's 'Race Against Time', only she drove the carriage herself."
Intrigued by Amelia's chattering in spite of herself, Frederica tried to remember the details. Sixty years ago, 'Old Q' (as he was known) had wagered that a four-wheeled carriage drawn by four horses could travel nineteen miles in an hour. He had stripped away the frame, removed the seat, and used silk traces, and silk and whalebone harnesses. With nothing to sit on or cling to, and the roads so poor, it was immensely dangerous for the driver. The Duke's groom had managed it though. And so, apparently, had Joanna.
"She could have been killed!"
But Amelia's attention had already moved on.
Frederica sighed and returned to her own concerns, her thoughts so fragmented they were making her dizzy. One minute she was picturing herself as Mrs Chaloner Dunster, Mistress of Symond Hall, the next she was wondering what Lord Peregrine could possible want with her silly sister. And as for that snatch of conversation she had overheard:
"It is not as if I am pursuing her sister...."
Had the Viscountess and Lord Peregrine been talking about her?
By the time they reached Chawleigh House Frederica had a headache, and when Amelia went skipping indoors, shouting out to anyone within earshot, "Mama, Chaloner has proposed to Frederica but she has not accepted him!" she knew the ordeal had just begun.
Mrs Bertram pressed a hand to her chest. Her face was pale and she looked as though she were about to faint. "What is this about Mr Dunster proposing and you not accepting him, Frederica?"
"Yet." Frederica shot her sister an annoyed glance. "I have not accepted him yet, Mama."
"Thank the Lord." Her mother collapsed back into her chair. "For a moment.... Well, no matter. You will accept his proposal tomorrow and that will be the end of it."
Frederica bit her lip. "But I am by no means certain I will accept him."
Mrs Bertram's hand flew to her mouth. "Why, whatever can you mean?" Mr Bertram looked up from his newspaper in surprise.
"Yes, Frederica," added Amelia. "How can you be so selfish? For you must know that if you do not marry it will blight my prospects considerably."
"Amelia!" Their father frowned her to silence then turned a grave gaze on Frederica. "What is it that disturbs you about the match, my dear?"
"Oh do not pander to her," said his wife. "She is being foolish. Tell her to accept his offer at once."
"I will do no such thing, Mrs Bertram. Frederica's happiness is important to me. And I venture to say that, out of all this family, she is the one person who is never foolish."
Both Amelia and her mother blinked at this bald statement.
"Your thoughts on the matter, Frederica," persisted her father.
She reddened and fiddled with her gloves. "I am not sure I know them myself, Papa."
"You do not love Chaloner, I take it?"
"Good heavens, is that all?" said her mother. "I did not love Mr Bertram when I married him but that did not stop me."
"Indeed no," murmured Mr Bertram. "And now look where we are!" He addressed Frederica once more. "But he is kind to you, and fond of you, is he not?"
"And you would be mistress of Symond Hall," added Amelia. "Think of that!"
Their father nodded. "She would indeed. But you do not think all this will be enough to make you happy, Frederica?"
"I fear not."
Mrs Bertram's exclamation drew a stern glance from her husband and she subsided.
"Do you know what would make you happy?"
"No, Papa," said Frederica miserably. "I am sorry."
He pursed his lips. "Well, well. No need to apologise, my dear. You take after me, I fear. A pretty face, nice clothes, a comfortable life are enough for your brothers and sisters, but your intelligence is too keen for such things alone to make you truly happy."
"Oh, pshaw! Do not go putting such ideas into her head, Mr Bertram. She will grow to love Mr Dunster, and if she does not, well in time she will have her own children to dote on and a country house to run. What more could she want?"
"What more indeed?"
His gaze locked with Frederica's, and at that moment she knew that he did indeed understand her. She also realised what it was she wanted: an affectionate companion of the heart and the mind; someone to share her most intimate thoughts with, to laugh with her (and maybe even at her, if it was kindly meant), to agree with her opinions (or challenge them if she was in error). Someone who was always lively, honest, and interesting, and most of all someone who would understand her and make her feel cherished and alive.
That someone was not Chaloner Dunster. But knowing that did not help her decision one jot.
"And if she refuses Mr Dunster, what is to become of her?" continued her mother. "Is she to be a spinster in a mobcap? For such a fortunate match will not come her way again, you can be sure."
"If wearing such a cap would make our daughter happy, then that is what I would encourage her to do." Mr Bertram glanced at Frederica once more. "But alas, I fear it would not."
"Oh! It is all that woman's fault," shrieked her mother. "I told you not to let our daughters keep company with her, but you would overrule me, and this is the result."
He blinked at his wife. "I take it you are referring to Viscountess Norland? And how, precisely, is this her fault?"
"She has set a bad example with her own marriage. And now Frederica looks set to follow her."
"I hardly think the circumstances are the same, Mrs Bertram. But in any case, that is beside the point at present." He folded his paper, rose and crossed to stand beside Frederica. "You must make this decision for yourself, my dear." He rested his hand on her shoulder. "For you alone will bear the consequences."
She sighed. "I know, Papa."
"But whatever you decide, whether it is to marry Mr Dunster or stay with us, or to become a governess of someone else's shrieking brats, or a companion to a cantankerous old widow, I will endorse your choice as long as it makes you happy."
"She cannot stay here with us," protested Mrs Bertram. "You know how much it costs to house our daughters, and only the other day you were recommending economies -"
Her turned and stopped her with a raised hand. "Ay, to you, Madam. Frederica has ever been economical. But that is not the issue here. And I have made my position clear." Regarding Frederica once more, he said, "Decide for yourself, my dear, but think carefully and do not take too long."
Frederica had just finished her breakfast and sat down to reread 'Pride and Prejudice' (it would calm her current state of perturbation to lose herself in fiction, she hoped) when she heard a commotion at the front door. Leaving the drawing room, she headed along the passage towards the hall.
Mr Bertram had that morning ridden over to see his steward, so in his absence, their mother was greeting the guest. She simpered at someone Frederica could not yet see, asking him 'to what did they owe the honour?' The footman relieved their visitor of his hat, cane, and gloves, then her mother stepped aside and revealed his identity. Lord Peregrine.
Frederica's pulse began to race as she searched for Viscountess Norland, who must surely be with his lordship. He was alone.
Disappointed and puzzled, she stepped forward, just as he answered, "I have come to pay my respects to your daughter, Madam."
"To ... to Frederica?"
"Your other daughter." His gaze fell on Frederica and he bowed and said gallantly, "Not that both aren't as pretty as a picture. But your eldest daughter is spoken for, is she not?"
Mrs Bertram smiled. "Indeed we believe so."
Since Frederica had still not been able to make up her mind, and had spent the night tossing and turning and when she did sleep having the most awful nightmares, she kept quiet.
Her curtsey in response to his lordship's bow attracted her mother's attention at last. "Don't just stand there, Frederica. Go and fetch Amelia. We must not keep his lordship waiting. This way, Lord Peregrine."
With a last curious glance, Frederica made her way upstairs to the bedchamber she shared with her sister. On learning who her visitor was, Amelia became all of a fluster. She wanted to change into a less shabby and more flattering dress, or if not that, into different shoes at least. And was her hair not looking most ugly today? The maid had done a slapdash job, perhaps she should call her to redress it -
"Good Lord," said Frederica, her patience at an end. "Every moment you delay leaves him to Mama's tender mercies and you know how mortifying she can be. At this very moment, she is probably entertaining Lord Peregrine with stories of your most embarrassing exploits, from babyhood to the present day. If not, then she is cataloguing your accomplishments, and as always excusing your singing because you look so charming while doing it even if you cannot hold a tune, and -"
But Amelia was already out of the bedchamber and half way down the stairs. Frederica rolled her eyes and followed at a more sedate pace, still puzzling on the whereabouts of the missing Joanna, who surely would not have allowed her friend to come here on his own.
She took her seat next to her sister and regarded Lord Peregrine closely. Handsome he had been, she allowed, though his looks were fading fast, and even his á la mode clothes and hairstyle couldn't disguise the fact. He must be at least fifteen years older than Amelia, and if he was anything like Joanna had travelled extensively. She could not imagine what such a man could possibly see in her giddy young sister.
"And you, Miss Bertram?" With a start, she became aware that his keen gaze was fixed on her. "Are you well? You look ... tired, if you will forgive the observation. Unlike your sister who is positively vibrant this morning."
Amelia beamed at the remark.
"I am well enough," said Frederica, nettled in spite of herself and aware of the amused glint in his eyes. Now was her chance. "I am surprised the Viscountess did not accompany you."
His smile widened. "It is so like you to concern yourself with her affairs, Miss Bertram. She was called away on business." He turned to her mother and explained, "A house in the neighbourhood has taken her fancy and she has gone to discuss terms with the owners."
The smile vanished from Mrs Bertram's face. "Viscountess Norland is thinking of living here permanently?" Her dismay was obvious and Frederica flushed at such rudeness.
"Astonishing, is it not?" continued Lord Peregrine unperturbed. "It could simply be that she wishes to remain near her brother, to be sure, but I doubt that. There must be something else in the county that attracts her."
His eyes locked with Frederica's as he spoke and a saturnine eyebrow rose. She blinked then dropped her gaze, her thoughts whirling. To what was he referring?
"But I fear we are boring Miss Amelia. Do you ride, my dear?"
"Not as often as I would like," came her sister's reply. "For Papa is always taking the horse for his own use and never thinks of my needs."
Frederica kept her jaw from dropping with some difficulty. She tried to catch her sister's eye, but Amelia was deliberately ignoring her.
"I rode over on my latest acquisition, Lightning. A thoroughbred. Magnificent animal, wouldn't you say, Miss Bertram?"
All eyes turned in her direction and Amelia looked surprised that her sister should know such a thing. "Indeed, your lordship. He is a fine horse."
"Too high-spirited for a lady in normal circumstances, undoubtedly, but if I were to lead him while the lady in question rode him, I think he would be docile enough. What do you say, Miss Amelia." He gave her a winning smile. "Would you care to try him?"
Amelia clapped her hands together in delight. "I would love to." She turned to her mother. "May I, Mama?"
Frederica leaned forward and murmured to her mother, "Is this not very forward for so early an acquaintance?"
But Mrs Bertram waved her away. "Where is the harm?" She raised her voice. "Of course you may, Amelia. Especially since his lordship assures me it is perfectly safe. Is that not so, your lordship."
"Indeed it is, dear lady." He beamed at her and rose. "No time like the present, eh?"
They decamped outside to where Lightning had been tethered and was contentedly cropping the grass. Amelia was immediately lovesick for the bay horse, and could not stop cooing and petting him. For his part, Lightning became skittish and refused to be touched, until Lord Peregrine rubbed him on the nose and muttered something in his ear. After that, he seemed resigned to his fate.
Amelia instructed a servant to fetch her sidesaddle, and Lord Peregrine obligingly replaced his saddle with hers. Then his lordship lifted her up, waited for her to make herself comfortable, and started leading Lightning up and down in front of the house.
It was impossible to overhear the low conversation between the beautiful rider and her aristocratic groom, but whatever it concerned seemed to elicit laughter from him and many brilliant glances from her. Though her mother was looking on with delight, Frederica became more and more concerned. She could have sworn that his lordship rested his hand on her sister's knee at one point, and worse still that Amelia did not object. But when he turned the horse round and led it back towards her and her mother, there was no sign of the errant hand.
She wished her father were here, or Joanna come to that. They would know how to deal with the predatory Lord, she was sure. Whereas her mother patently did not. Indeed, so taken was she with the magnificence of Amelia's 'catch', she was practically throwing her youngest daughter at him....
Viscountess Norland turned her brother's gig towards Thornbury Park with a satisfied sigh. Mr Barton had driven a hard bargain, but she had driven a harder one. Murviton was just the thing - the house was a good deal smaller than Thornbury to be sure, and the grounds a tenth the size, but it was in excellent repair and well within her financial compass. Besides, she had imposed on her brother long enough.
She imagined herself taking the air in Murviton's beautiful rose garden with a certain young woman with fine green eyes, then sighed and chided herself. Frederica would probably marry Mr Dunster and he would spirit her off to Norfolk, and that would be an end to it.
"Do you think you will like your new home, Dorothea?"
"It's certainly an improvement on that hovel in Paris, your ladyship."
"Hovel? I emptied my purse paying for that establishment."
"Two measly rooms, and cockroaches everywhere." Her maid sniffed. "I grew used to the sound of crunching underfoot."
Joanna stifled a grin. "There should be few cockroaches at Murviton."
"So I should hope." The gig travelled on a little before Dorothea pursed her lips and said, "But I cannot run such a large establishment alone, your ladyship."
"No indeed. You shall hire as many servants as you see fit. Within reason, of course. My finances may presently be flush, thanks to the Iron Duke, but let us not go overboard."
She pushed back her bonnet to allow the summer breeze to cool her face, and found herself grinning. "My own country house. What a novelty!"
"Rented," reminded Dorothea.
"Ay. But it's a start."
"You do not think you will be bored to tears, remaining in one place?"
Joanna raised an eyebrow at the woman sitting beside her. "We shall still go visiting."
Dorothea's gaze was sly, and Joanna snorted. "You know me too well. But I fear Miss Bertram will be lost to the clutches of Mr Dunster soon. I was thinking more of Edmund. It has been wonderful being on terms with him again. I had forgot the pleasures of family."
"And the horrors of offspring."
"His children are rather hard on both the ears and the clothes," agreed Joanna, thinking of an incident involving young George Lynton, a glass of lemonade, and her new kid halfboots. "But I plan to stay out of their way until they attain maturity."
"What about Lord Peregrine, your ladyship?"
"What about him?"
"Will he be welcome at Murviton?"
"I see no reason why not, Dorothea. But he will probably wish to give me a wide berth. For he says I am become boring company these days."
"And about time too."
"You were meant to say I am not boring."
Her abigail's eyes gleamed. "I know."
The Viscountess turned the gig into the gravelled drive and started the approach to Thornbury Park. "Tut! Why I put up with your impertinence I do not know."
"Because no one else will?"
The footman had come out to greet them, and she brought the horse to a stop.
"Thank you, Walter." She handed him the reins, and stepped down.
"Er herm... your ladyship."
His cheeks had reddened, and she paused, intrigued. "Yes?"
"Miss Bertram arrived but a moment ago, dishevelled and winded from running."
Joanna frowned. For Frederica to run all the way from Chawleigh, something must be wrong.
"She is in the drawing-room with Mr Lynton," continued the footman. "But she came seeking you. I thought you would wish to know."
"Thank you, Walter. That was kindly done. I will go there directly."
She didn't stop to discard her hat and gloves, but headed straight along the passage towards the drawing room.
"You must be mistaken, Miss Bertram." Edmund's voice was muffled by the door. "No friend of my sister's would do such a thing."
"No one would more gladly be mistaken than I. But Amelia is missing!"
Without ceremony, she pushed open the door. Two heads, one as dark as her own, one fair, turned to face her.
Frederica gave a glad cry, "Joanna!" and ran towards her, gloved hands reaching. "Is Lord Peregrine with you? Oh please say he is."
"Perry? Why no. I left him in Edmund's care." The hope in Frederica's eyes died and Joanna took the other woman's hands and pressed them. She turned to regard her brother. "You said you would show him round the estate, Edmund."
"He left soon after you. Pressing business of some kind." He shrugged. "I could not stop him, sister. But surely, Miss Bertram must be mistaken. Your friend would not do such a thing."
She kept her disquiet to herself. "Perry has not returned from his 'pressing business' yet?"
Joanna turned back to Frederica. "What exactly is the matter? Tell me, my dear." She led her back to her seat and they both sat down.
"He came to see Amelia this morning.... Lord Peregrine, I mean. He talked with Mama, and let Amelia ride Lightning. Now there is no sign of him or his horse. And Amelia is missing."
"What are you saying? Perry and Amelia?"
"I fear so. Papa was visiting a friend so Mama was supposed to be chaperoning my sister. But she was convinced that Lord Peregrine was interested in making an offer and left them alone together."
"But surely, you -"
Green eyes flashed. "You must know I would never willingly leave my sister alone with that man, Joanna."
"I beg your pardon."
"The housekeeper needed to consult about something and as my mother was busy with our visitor...."
Joanna's mind was whirling. Eloping with a pretty young woman smitten with his charms was just the kind of thing Perry would do for a jape. And once he had had his fun, he would toss her away like a creased neckcloth, with no thought for her ruined reputation. But to do such a thing to Amelia, when he knew how Joanna felt about her sister....
That thought gave her pause and a nasty idea began to germinate. Though she had kept her lucrative speculation on the Exchange secret, her old friend now knew she had money enough to rent her own residence. What if this were merely an attempt to secure some for himself?
Movement in the doorway turned out to be her abigail, eyes bright with curiosity.
"Dorothea," she called. "Will you see if Perry's valet is in his room?"
The plump woman nodded and hurried away. Moments later she was back, her face grim. "He is gone, your ladyship. And taken all his master's trunks with him."
"'S blood!" The oath slipped out before she could stop it and she threw Frederica an apologetic glance. "I am afraid you are right," she told her. "That rogue has almost certainly eloped with your sister." Pale cheeks went even paler and she feared Frederica might faint. She patted her hand. "But all is not yet lost."
She turned to her brother. "A fast horse if you please, Edmund, and a light carriage that will seat three - your dogcart will do." He nodded and darted out into the passage where she heard him issuing instructions. To Dorothea she said, "Fetch me the box on my bedside table. And the money-bag from the bottom drawer "
The maid's eyes widened but she did as she was bid.
"Will you come with me, Frederica? Your sister may need you."
Pale eyelashes blinked, and the other woman visibly pulled herself together. "Of course."
"But where will you go, Joanna." Edmund had returned. "Painswick House?"
She snorted. "The last place he will go is to his father's residence. No, he will hide in one of his favourite haunts. I will run him to earth there."
"But what if he has gone somewhere quite different," broke in Frederica. "What if you cannot trace - "
"He knows I will not let him take your sister without a fight. It is the one aspect of this affair that gives me hope."
Frederica stared at her. "I don't understand."
Joanna couldn't meet her gaze. "I am his target." Guilt threatened to overwhelm her. She should have known she could not leave her past behind so easily. She had brought Lord Peregrine into her brother's house, and this was the result. "Amelia is but a bargaining chip, a means of extorting money from me."
The other woman looked dazed. "But I thought he was rich!"
"Stony broke," corrected Joanna. "His father has cut him off."
The footman appeared in the doorway. "The dogcart is ready, your ladyship." He turned to address Edmund. "And Chestnut is in the traces, as you requested, Mr Lynton."
Her brother nodded. "Thank you, Walter."
Dorothea eased past the footman. "Here are the things you asked for, your ladyship."
Viscountess Norland tucked the heavy moneybag in her pocket and accepted the walnut-veneered box. "Come, Frederica. There is no more time to waste if we are to save your sister's reputation."
She strode along the passageway, Frederica hard on her heels, and was heading for the front door when a man's voice called,
"Miss Bertram. Miss Bertram. Wait, please. No one told me you were here. Have you come to give me your answer?"
Joanna spun on her heel, and saw Chaloner Dunster coming across the vestibule towards them. She glanced at Frederica, whose cheeks were now a flaming red.
"Mr Dunster, I - " Words failed the young woman and she threw a pleading glance at Joanna.
"I'm afraid, Mr Dunster, that Miss Bertram and I are bent on urgent business. She will have to give you your reply when we return."
He looked put out. "But -"
"When we return," snapped the Viscountess.
If looks could kill she would have been lying dead on the hall floor, but she couldn't have cared less.
"Come, my dear. Our carriage awaits." Placing the palm of her hand in the small of Frederica's back, she guided her firmly out the front door.
The Viscountess glanced at her wan companion. "Are you well, Frederica?"
They had been travelling in silence for quarter of an hour, Joanna concentrating on controlling Chestnut, who had at first fought against the traces but was now resigned to pulling the dogcart.
"My sister," came the simple reply.
"Indeed. But if it is any consolation, I am convinced Lord Peregrine, for all his faults, will not harm Amelia. She is but a sprat to catch a mackerel." She chewed her lower lip. "Though it will undoubtedly distress your sister to learn it."
Anxious green eyes regarded her. "What if you are wrong, Joanna?"
"I am not. But if I am and he has harmed her...." She patted the object on her lap.
"What is that?"
She handed the box to the other woman, who blinked at its weight and almost dropped it. Joanna flicked the reins, and Chestnut increased his pace.
A soft snick from beside her proved to be the catch being unhooked. She watched from the corner of her eye as Frederica eased the polished case open. Green eyes widened at the sight of the two Manton duelling pistols snuggling in the velvet interior.
"You mean to use these?" Her companion's voice was a mere whisper.
"Only as a last resort."
Frederica gave the deadly weapons a last look, then closed the box and snicked the catch closed. Joanna was pleased the young woman hadn't thrown a fit or swooned. Frederica continued to grow in her estimation.
Abruptly, they were in a village, Chestnut's hooves and the dogcart's large wheels splashing through a stream and making a gaggle of geese honk with alarm. Startled looks from the villagers followed their progress, then they were out the other side and speeding through the Kent countryside once more.
After a few more miles, the signpost for Dover appeared up ahead. With a sigh of relief, Joanna slowed Chestnut and swung the dogcart onto the turnpike. The going should be easier from now on.
"Dover? I would have thought London the more likely destination."
"Perry will be planning to leave for the Continent as soon as he is in funds." The Viscountess threw her companion a rueful glance. "This will not be the first time England has got too hot for him."
Green eyes examined her. "You speak as though from personal experience."
She nodded. "I am not proud of my past, Frederica. I was very wild. But I cannot change it, for all I might wish to."
"No indeed. We can only learn to live with our pasts, no matter how bad."
Joanna gave her an indulgent smile. "I do not think you can have much bad to live with, Frederica."
For a few minutes, there was silence except for the rumbling of the wheels and the clopping of Chestnut's hooves, then Frederica turned to look at her again. "Do you visit your husband and child? You never speak of them."
The Viscountess blinked. Of all the remarks she had expected, that had not been among them. "No."
Pale cheeks flushed. "I beg your pardon. It is painful for you and also none of my concern."
Joanna sighed. "You mistake the reason for my reticence, my dear. It is not that I find it painful so much as ... I am ashamed."
"Of deserting them?"
"Is that the account they give of me? No, do not answer that. I can see from your expression that it is." She smiled a little bitterly. "I can imagine only too well the lurid tales. It is of no matter. I have grown inured to what people think of me." She realised that this statement was no longer true, and said, surprised, "Though I find I do care that you have a good opinion of me."
The other woman looked confused.
Joanna hesitated for a long moment then took the plunge. "The bargain was always that I would leave once I had produced an heir and make no claim on Norland's estate."
"The Viscount does not much like women, Frederica." This was something of an understatement, considering the succession of young Adonises that Norland used to invite to his country estate, but she would rather not shock the sheltered young woman sitting beside her. "But he badly needed an heir and thought with my looks I would produce him a handsome one."
She smiled at Frederica's expression. "I know I am considered striking. Why should I pretend otherwise?" She found it charming that Frederica bowed her head and began to examine her gloved fingers, her cheeks pinking.
"For a considerable sum," continued Joanna, "I agreed to marry Norland and give him an heir." She suppressed a shudder." It is fortunate that our firstborn was not a girl, or I would have had to endure more of his attentions. The day our son was born, the Viscount took him from me and gave him to a wetnurse."
"Oh, that was cruel of him indeed!"
She shrugged. "Was it? I did not care. The boy was but a means to an end."
"That seems so .... so cold-blooded." Frederica looked shocked.
"It sounds so it because it was so. I was young and heartless and craved travel and adventure. And I had not the means to satisfy that craving."
"Even so, the Viscount took advantage of you. You were ... what age when you married?"
"And he a great deal older."
"One and twenty years older to be exact." The other woman's determination to see good in her touched her. "But that is beside the point, Frederica. Do not waste your sympathy on me. I got what I wanted from the bargain."
"But not your son."
"No, not him. But then, I did not want him. And by all accounts he has grown up a spoiled and objectionable youth." She glanced at the other woman. "You will think me very unnatural, but it is the truth."
"How could the Viscount do such a thing?"
"Very easily, my dear. I had signed a paper agreeing to give the boy up and leave immediately after the birth."
"Had he no second thoughts?"
"None. And he held me to the letter of my agreement. I was fortunate Dorothea was there, for I could barely walk. I collected the money (Norland is a man of his word, at least) and left, never to return."
There was silence while Frederica considered what she had heard. "'A considerable sum', you said?"
"Ten thousand pounds." Joanna's smile was rueful. " And within two years I had spent it all."
Frederica blinked. "All of it?"
"Every guinea." Chestnut was slowing, and she flicked the rein. "So you see, Frederica, I am every bit as bad as Perry. I sold my child for money."
"The person you were then did," said her companion stoutly, "but I do not think the person you are now would."
Joanna merely smiled at her.
"But if you spent it all...."
"Oh, I have recouped that sum and more and spent it many times over since," said Joanna. "Dorothea and I have often lived on stale crusts but never for long. I am nothing if not ... resourceful."
"So if Perry ... Lord Peregrine demands money, you can afford to pay?"
"I have no intention of paying him what he demands."
Frederica raised a hand to her mouth. "But my sister!"
"Be easy. I will pay him what he needs, for old times' sake." Joanna patted the box on her lap. "And these will back my play."
"Old times' sake?"
"He was a good friend once." She turned to look at her companion. "I will not let any harm come to your sister. His lordship is at this very moment waiting for me to come to him, I am sure of it."
"What if you are wrong?"
"I am not. I know him."
"Not well enough to anticipate this latest exploit."
She deserved that. "Alas, I had relaxed my guard. Once, I would have seen this coming. But lately... Well, lately I have been distracted by other matters." Such as a modest manner, a pretty face, and a fine pair of green eyes.
They were nearing a coaching inn called The Crown, and she reined in Chestnut to a trot. "So," she said quietly. "Will you trust me, Frederica? Tell me now."
For a moment there was silence, then, "I will, your ladyship."
The murmured reply brought a smile to Joanna's face and a warm glow to her heart.
CONTINUED IN PART 4