Warnings - See Part 1.
FREDERICA AND THE VISCOUNTESS
"Stay here. I will enquire within." The Viscountess handed Frederica the reins.
"Oh! But may I not- "
But Joanna had already leaped down, refused the attentions of the ostler running towards them, and disappeared inside The Crown.
"Upon my word! She is my sister," grumbled Frederica, settling herself to wait as patiently as she was able.
A few minutes later her tall companion reappeared at the inn's entrance, her expression frustrated. "No sign of them, not even for five guineas' reward."
Frederica's heart sank, but she said nothing. Joanna hopped up onto the two-wheeled carriage, took the reins from her, and set them in motion once more.
Five miles farther down the turnpike, The Bell's landlord proved just as ignorant of their quarry. Frederica was by now conjuring up scenes that would not have been out of place in a gothic novel. She became aware that pale blue eyes were regarding her keenly. A hand reached across and pressed hers.
"Do not give up hope yet. We have scarce begun, Frederica. There must be 15 coaching inns on this route."
"What if you are wrong. What if even now he and Amelia are at Dover, taking ship for France?"
The other woman shook her head. "On what will they live? Air? No, my dear. It will not do."
Joanna's reasoning gave her some comfort. But there was no sign of their quarry at either The Black Swan, The Bull, or The Star and Garter. A milestone announced they were halfway to Dover, and a look at Frederica's pocket watch indicated it was getting on for dinnertime when they turned into The King's Head.
The Viscountess gave the dogcart into the care of an ostler, asking him to water the flagging horse and apportioning money for a nosebag. Then she took Frederica upstairs to the dining room for a cold collation, overriding her protests with a brusque, "My dear, you must eat something for the good of your health!"
Though they had both missed lunch, anxiety had diminished Frederica's appetite, and she was able to force down only a few mouthfuls of cold pork. Joanna's appetite was heartier and she contented herself with watching her companion eat, glad that the seat was more comfortable than the dogcart's hard bench.
At length the Viscountess set aside her plate and wiped her lips on a napkin. She beckoned the waiter, gave him some coins, then requested quietly, "Would you ask the landlord if he would be so kind as to attend me?"
He nodded and departed. Joanna rose, walked to the window, and looked out. After a moment, Frederica joined her. They were regarding the activity in the yard below - a packed stage was in the process of leaving - when the sound of the door opening made them turn.
A little man with side-whiskers, his ample stomach straining a brown cloth coat at the seams, came bustling into the dining room. "And how may I help you, ladies?"
Joanna regarded him gravely. "We are in pursuit of a couple - a gentleman of five-and-thirty and a young woman of nineteen, this lady's sister." She gestured at Frederica. "We believe they travelled this road today."
"Indeed!" The landlord became thoughtful.
"The gentleman is about my height, his clothes and hair tending towards the dandyish. The young woman's height matches that of my companion. She is fair, very pretty, and dressed in -" She turned to Frederica and raised an eyebrow.
"A Turkey red muslin morning dress," she supplied.
Joanna nodded her thanks. "I have no details about their carriage, but the gentleman is in possession of a magnificent thoroughbred bay. There may also be a valet with them."
"There is," said the man with the whiskers.
Frederica took an involuntary step forward. "Are they here?"
"Alas, ma'am, no longer. They availed themselves of lunch then drove away."
Disappointment surged through her and she took herself to task. Joanna had been proved correct so far. She must hope she was correct in the other particulars.
The landlord was examined Frederica's face. "You are like your sister," he concluded. Then, frowning, "Are they eloping?"
"If marriage were indeed the gentleman's aim, I would be more sanguine," said the Viscountess bluntly. "Ay, you may well look shocked, sir!" She took five guineas from her moneybag and pressed them on him. "You have already been most helpful. If there is anything more?"
He pocketed the money, his manner becoming subtly more deferential. "They are in a phaeton, ma'am. They left around three o'clock and seemed in no great hurry."
Joanna gave Frederica a significant glance. "Then they are not planning on reaching Dover tonight. They intend to put up somewhere on the road. That is good news indeed."
"Let us hope so," she murmured.
When it became clear that the landlord could offer little more in the way of information, they took their leave of him and made their way out of The King's Head. Joanne repossessed their refreshed horse and handed Frederica up into the dogcart.
"Courage, Frederica," urged the Viscountess, as she drove them back out onto the turnpike. "They will soon be within our sights."
At The White Hart, a prosperous coaching inn twenty miles further on, Joanna made Frederica wait in the dogcart while she enquired within. She emerged wearing a grim smile.
"Success! They are staying here under the name of Mr and Mrs John Smith." She grimaced at the false name. "Their valet is in a separate room."
Frederica leaped to her feet. "Joanna! Please help me down and take me to Amelia!"
"I do not think it wise." The other woman reached for the box she had deposited on the dogcart's seat and, taking one of the pistols from it, calmly began to load the weapon.
Frederica was outraged. "But-"
"No buts, my dear. Lord Peregrine is dangerous and the circumstances we find him in are bound to be indelicate. Even if you have no care for your reputation, I do. One sister ruined is quite enough!"
"I mean it." The Viscountess turned on her such a forbidding look, she found herself meekly sitting back down. "You are here for one reason only, to take charge of your sister. Allow me to deal with the rest."
"Very well," she grumbled, conscious that their heated exchange was in danger of attracting the attention of the inn's employees and other patrons.
"Thank you." Joanna softened her glare. "I will not betray your trust." She reached for her shawl, and draped it over the pistol. "Wish me good fortune."
"I do. And please be careful," whispered Frederica.
The Viscountess gave her a small smile, and walked away.
Frederica had no idea how long she had been waiting - it seemed hours but was probably only minutes - when she heard a loud voice coming from The White Hart's stable.
"I know that horse, I tell you! It belongs to an old friend of mine." The words were slurred. "Won it in bet. Damned close run thing it was too! But that's Perry for you."
She twisted round in her seat, and watched as a man in a ribbed-silk evening tailcoat and ankle-length trousers, their colour indeterminate in the gathering darkness, emerged into the yard. A worried ostler was at his heels.
"You are mistaken, Sir. A Mr John Smith is the owner of that animal." The servant reached out his hand. "Sir, you cannot just barge in on the gentleman and lady unannounced!"
"Who are you to tell me what I can and cannot do? Just watch me." A hand clasped his biceps and he shook it off. "Stop pawing me, man. This coat's brand new and your hands are filthy!" The man reeled across the yard, and Frederica shrank back in her seat. Luck was against her. He stopped beside the dogcart and gazed owlishly up at her.
"Good evening, ma'am! Name's Compton. At your service." He took off his top hat and bowed, almost falling over in the process. The ostler steadied him, and was shaken off for his pains. "Taking the night air, are you?" The drunk gestured widely, almost hitting the servant in the face. "And what a night it is! The moon is full. The air is sweet." He sucked in a deep breath that instantly provoked a coughing fit.
"Please, Mr Compton," muttered the ostler, throwing Frederica an apologetic glance. "You are not well. Let me take you to your room."
Compton eventually recovered his breath and straightened. "And I say I am well enough." He seemed to have forgotten all about Frederica. "I must visit my old friend Perry." His eye gleamed with sudden merriment. "He has a lady with him, you say? The rogue! I wonder who she is!"
"There is no 'Perry' staying here! For the hundredth time, Sir, a Mr Smith owns that horse."
"And for the hundredth time, I tell you, he is Lord Peregrine's! Now go away and leave me in peace!"
The servant, hands twitching helplessly, watched Compton stagger towards the coaching inn's entrance, then, muttering under his breath, returned to the stable. On impulse, Frederica jumped down from the dogcart and followed the drunken man indoors.
The White Hart's night porter was absent from his post, so it was a matter of moments for the inebriated man in the tailcoat to lean over the table, pull the visitor's book towards him, and scan its pages.
"John Smith. No. 17," muttered Compton. "Now where the deuce is that? Upstairs, I'll warrant. And knowing Perry, the best room in the place!"
Chuckling to himself, he staggered towards the stairs, unaware of Frederica's presence a few paces behind him. She followed as silently as she could, using the shadows for cover.
At the first landing, he hesitated and muttered, then shook his head and set off up the stairs once more. One of the inn's patrons, a thin man in a caped overcoat, top hat and cane, chose that moment to come down the stairs. Compton tried to stand aside, but stumbled and fell against him. The other man pushed him away with a curse and was still cursing when he passed Frederica. He checked his gait and regarded her frankly. She blushed and ducked her head and was relieved when he continued on down.
Squashing an urge to retreat to the safety of the dogcart waiting unattended in the yard (she hoped the horse would not wander too far), she took a breath and hurried on. The only thing that mattered was her sister's safety and reputation, and if this Compton fellow saw Amelia in Lord Peregrine's room.... Goodness only knows what Joanna would say when she found out that Frederica had disobeyed instructions. But she would face that hurdle later.
"Aha!" came a slurred voice from the next landing, and she was just in time to see her quarry setting off along the shadowy passageway. She scurried after him, watching Compton press his bulbous nose to each door and peer shortsightedly at the numbers painted on them. 14... 15... 16...
He stopped at room 17, shuffled his feet, chuckled to himself, then raised his fist and began to pound.
"Perry!" Bang bang. "It's Compton here." Bang. "Mr and Mrs John Smith, eh? That's original!" Bang bang. "Can't fool me though. That nag of yours is unmistakable, Perry." Bang, bang bang. "Come on, old fellow. Let's see this 'lady' of yours, eh? Who is she? Someone else's wife, I'll be bound!"
All along the passageway, doors were opening and the inn's patrons - some angry, some fearful - were peering out. An old woman in a mobcap took one look at them then, like a cuckoo clock, ducked back inside and slammed the door.
Frederica could take no more. She darted forward.
"Please, sir." She curtseyed, keeping her head slightly averted in the hope he would mistake her for a chambermaid. "You are waking our guests. Will you not return to your own room?"
"Know you, donít I?" Compton's fist paused mid-pound, and he blinked at her.
"Come away, sir." She placed a hand on his arm, just as it occurred to him to do what he should have done in the first place - try the doorknob.
The door to Room 17 swung open with a creak, and Compton surged through it in triumph. "Aha!"
Frederica peered round his shoulder and started with dismay. Lying on the bed, half undressed, those clothes they still wore unbuttoned and dishevelled, were Viscountess Norland and Lord Peregrine. They were locked in a fervent embrace.
Joanna and Perry? Surely it couldn't be .... She put a hand to her mouth. Much as she wanted to, she could not seem to turn away. Such kisses! They looked as if they were trying to devour one another! There was no sign of her sister.
The two on the bed broke off their embrace and turned annoyed glances Compton's way. Lord Peregrine was the first to speak.
"What the devil do you mean by interrupting us?"
"Who is this fool, Perry? Some friend of yours?" Joanna's pale blue gaze was icy.
Compton began to shake with laughter. "Good god, it's Viscountess Norland! Perry, old fellow, I had no idea you and she ..."
A feeling of nausea overtook Frederica. She turned and fled the scene.
The horse had only wandered as far as the stable. It nickered at Frederica as she scrambled up into the dogcart and sat on the hard seat.
Her heart was pounding and confusion made her head ache. She couldn't get the scene she had just witnessed out of her head. She supposed she should be pleased it had not come to a duel, but somehow it had been much worse to see the Viscountess and Lord Peregrine doing ... that.
What a fool I've been!
The impulse to ride for home was strong and she reached for the reins then relinquished them again. Amelia. She could not leave without Amelia.
She hid her face in her hands. "Trust her," Joanna had said. But was her sister even at The White Hart? She had blithely gone along with everything the Viscountess told her. But just suppose....
Running footsteps heading towards her snagged her attention. She looked up angrily, expecting to see Joanna with some all too plausible excuse on her lips. But it was Amelia's tear-stained face gazing up at her.
"Oh, Frederica. I am so glad you have come. How could he send me away like that? He said he loved me!"
"Amelia!" Relieved beyond measure, she jumped down from the carriage and hugged her sister. "Are you well? Did he hurt you?"
"Perry would never do anything I did not want him to," came her sister's muffled reply. "Everything was perfect until she turned up!"
That wasn't quite what Frederica had asked but she bit her tongue. She released her hold and stepped back, the better to examine her sister's face. Amelia looked more angry than heartbroken, she decided, feeling her anxiety ease.
"Perry is the most diverting company - I don't know when I have laughed so much in my life!" said Amelia. "I would have been mistress of Painswick House. Just think of all the balls I could have given! And you could have visited me, and we would have had a high old time!" She blew her nose on a sodden handkerchief.
"How can you be so foolish?" Frederica resisted the urge to shake her sister. "Lord Peregrine would never have wed you, Amelia! He is penniless. He must marry money." Belatedly she wondered if even that was true. She had only Joanna's word for it, after all.
"That wouldn't have mattered, Frederica. He loved me, I am certain of it. I had just to be patient and he would have married me in the end." Amelia's lips thinned. "And then she turned up. Oh! Why did she have to spoil everything?" She stamped her foot.
Frederica frowned. "But surely, it is better to know now that he loves the Viscountess than to discover it later?"
Her sister blinked. "That Perry loves her? Don't be such a goose! That was a sham for his friend's benefit. It's her money he loves. To think that he would allow her to buy him off for a paltry 300 guineas!" Her face crumpled and she began to cry once more.
Frederica handed her sister her own handkerchief and puzzled over what she had learned. There had been no sign of Amelia in room 17, yet here she was. And how had she known Frederica was waiting in the dogcart unless Joanna had told her?
"Amelia, where were you when Mr Compton burst in to Lord Peregrine's room?"
Her sister blew her nose. "In the closet," she muttered.
"Is that not insupportable? But I had no choice." Amelia's tone was indignant. "The Viscountess pushed me in. And she is so strong that willy-nilly in I must go! .... It stank of mothballs, Frederica. I thought I should choke on the stench!"
"The closet!" she repeated.
"Are you deaf?" asked her sister crossly. "It was that or under the bed. And I told her ladyship roundly what I thought of that idea!" She turned and eyed the dogcart. "Could you not have chosen a more comfortable carriage, Frederica?"
"We chose for speed not comfort!"
Amelia's eyes brightened. "You should have seen me in Perry's phaeton. I was the finest lady you ever did see!"
Frederica didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Her mercurial sister had plainly taken no harm from her escapade. Her reputation was also intact. For which Joanna, if she had at last understood events correctly, was to be thanked.
She helped Amelia up into the dogcart . Her sister insisted on taking one of the front seats until it was pointed out to her that she would be sitting next to the Viscountess. This thought daunted her so much she settled on the rear-facing seat with scarcely a grumble. It couldn't last.
"It is getting quite chill. Must we wait for the Viscountess?" asked Amelia, after they had sat in silence for all of a minute. "Can you not drive us home, Frederica?"
"We must wait," she said shortly. "And while we do so, tell me everything that happened from the moment you left Chawleigh...."
"No doubt it will be all round London tomorrow," said Joanna, watching the drunken Compton depart and forcing herself not to dwell on the memory of Frederica's face. Shock, hurt, disgust.... Those expressive green eyes had betrayed the young woman's emotions all too clearly. If only she had done as she was told and waited in the dogcart!
"The two of us embracing in an inn on the Dover road?" Lord Peregrine gave his neckcloth a judicious twitch, then buttoned up his waistcoat. "Of course. Who could resist such a juicy titbit?"
She reached for a shoe and slipped it on. "It seems I am still to be Notorious Norland, thanks to you."
He put on his coat, then reached for the moneybag she had given him and tossed it experimentally from hand to hand. Its contents clinked. "A man has to live."
"At my expense." She couldn't keep the bitterness from her voice.
"You got off lightly, thanks to your 'friendly persuader'." He gestured at the pistol lying on the bed. Pressed against his ribs, it had cut his demand substantially, besides preventing him from taking advantage of their staged embrace.
She snorted. "Be thankful I didn't kill you."
A servant was passing their door, and Perry stopped him and asked him to send his valet to him. He turned back to her and smiled winningly. "Come with me, Joanna. We could have some good times. Just like the old days."
She threw him an exasperated glance. "When will you accept it? Those days are over. I am not who I was."
He fingered his lips reflexively. "Are you so sure?"
"Acting, my dear Perry. My feelings were not engaged."
"Neither were mine," he said quickly. But a flash of hurt in his eyes revealed otherwise.
She shook her head and paced over to the window. In the yard below, two lantern-silhouetted figures were sitting huddled in the dogcart. Night had fallen and the temperature was dropping. She would have to find them all rooms, but she had no intention of staying at The White Hart.
"They are waiting for me. I must go."
He curled his lip. "To your Miss Bertram?"
"Ay. To her." She regarded him coolly. She now knew if she hadn't before that he belonged to her past not her present. "Goodbye, Perry. For old times' sake, I wish you well. But I devoutly hope I never to see you again!"
He assumed a mask of studied indifference. "As you wish." He straightened to his full height and bowed. "Goodbye, your ladyship."
She curtseyed. "Goodbye, your lordship."
Joanna was halfway down the passage when his voice floated after her, "But I still think it is a shameful waste!"
"I beg to differ," she murmured.
An awkward silence held sway as the dogcart rumbled back along the turnpike towards The King's Head. Viscountess Norland glanced at the young woman sitting beside her then away again. Frederica had scarcely looked at her let alone spoken to her since she climbed up into the dogcart and took the reins. She was either avoiding her, or preoccupied with something (and Joanna had a good idea with what). Or both.
She sighed and drove on. Five minutes further on, she noticed that the other woman had started to shiver.
"Are you cold?"
At the sound of her voice, Frederica started. "Indeed, I am beginning to feel the chill a little," came the quiet reply.
"A little!" cried Amelia from the rear seat. "Then you are fortunate indeed. I am like an icicle!"
Frederica twisted round. "Oh, Amelia. Stop exaggerating!"
"I am not!"
"It cannot be much longer," soothed Joanna, flicking the reins. Five minutes later, the dim glow of lanterns appeared in the distance. "There is the coaching inn."
"At last," muttered Amelia. Frederica was lost in her own thoughts again.
It was with relief that Joanna turned the dogcart into the yard. She reined Chestnut to a halt, then allowed the King's Head's ostler to take charge of the horse and carriage while she ushered her shivering charges indoors.
The bewhiskered landlord greeted them all with a beaming smile and didn't bat an eyelid at their lack of luggage. "All is well again, ma'am?"
"As you see." Joanna ignored Amelia's curious glance.
She rented two good-sized rooms and requested that a light supper and some mulled wine be sent up. While a maid escorted the Bertram sisters to their room, she made her way further up the passage to hers, where she was pleased to find a small fire burning in the grate.
Closing the door behind her, she flung herself on the bed. But as she lay there, hands clasped behind her head, staring up at the ceiling and trying to clear her mind of the day's turmoil, she realised there was still one task to be undertaken. When the servant brought her supper, she asked him for paper, pen, ink, and sealing wax, which he returned with moments later.
Joanna wolfed down her food, barely noticing what it was, then spent the next half hour toasting her toes in front of the flickering fire, sipping her mulled wine, and screwing up draft after draft of a letter to Mr and Mrs Bertram. Finally, the wording was to her liking, the hand reasonably legible with scarcely a single blot. With a satisfied grunt she waved the ink dry in front of the fire then folded and sealed the letter and impressed the cooling wax with her signet ring.
When a knock came at the door she thought it was the express messenger she had sent for.
"Come in." She looked up expectantly as the door creaked open.
A fair head peeped round it. "Am I disturbing you?"
"Frederica!" Joanna put down her letter and rose hastily to her feet. "No. As you see." A sudden thought struck her. "Is your sister unwell?" Surreptitiously she slid her feet into her shoes.
"Oh no! She is sleeping soundly. The effects of a full stomach and the mulled wine, I think." Frederica shut the door behind her. "It is not on her behalf that I have come."
"Oh." Joanna resumed her seat and gestured for the other woman to do likewise. "What did you wish to say to me?"
Frederica opened her mouth, but a knock at the door made her close it again.
"Come in," called an annoyed Joanna.
It was the express messenger. She handed him the letter, and gave him instructions about where to find Chawleigh House and who to give the letter to, stressed twice that he was to refuse payment (and pressed the correct sum into his hand), all the while conscious of Frederica's curious gaze. When he had gone, the fair-headed woman was regarding her with a smile.
"How thoughtful of you to think of setting my parents' minds at ease and to defray their expenses," said Frederica. "And how like you."
Joanna found herself blushing. She grabbed the poker and tended to the fire; perhaps Frederica would think she was merely hot. "Think nothing of it."
"I will not! When I think of what you have done for my sister today. For all my family ... for we should surely have shared in Amelia's disgrace."
Joanna put the poker back in its rack and turned to face the other woman. "It was the least I could do, Frederica, since it was by my offices that Perry met your sister in the first place."
But the other woman was shaking her head. "That will not do. You make light of it but I know what it cost you, Joanna. I gleaned the details from my sister and pieced them together. You paid him 300 guineas from your own purse. Not only that, you sacrificed your own reputation so that my foolish sister's might be saved."
"You give me too much credit, my dear. I have no reputation left to sacrifice!"
"I do not believe that." Frederica stood directly in front of her. "And neither do you."
Joanna's heart was pounding like a drum. To know that Frederica had not turned away from her after all, was in fact regarding her with something like admiration.... "And I repeat," she said, returning the other woman's frank gaze with a smile, "you give me too much credit."
Frederica tossed her head. "Well, well. If I cannot convince you, then I am sure my parents will in due course."
The Viscountess winced.
"What is wrong?"
"Do not be so sure. They will undoubtedly learn of my part in this affair from tomorrow's paper. Perry's drunken friend has a loose tongue and connections at The Gazette. By the time Perry told me, it was too late to bribe Compton to silence."
Frederica sighed. "Then I will make sure my parents know the truth. But I am sorry you must go through this, Joanna. If only there were some way...."
"There is not." She shrugged. "As long as those whose opinions I value still think well of me."
"I do." Frederica reached out and pressed her hand in hers. "Believe me."
Joanna smiled and returned the pressure. "Thank you."
For a moment longer they held one another's gaze, then a yawn overtook Frederica.
"I do beg your pardon!"
Joanna laughed. "It is late and we both need our rest. Tomorrow there is yet more travelling, and who knows what else?"
Frederica walked to the door. "Upon my word, I hope it is less eventful than today!"
"As do I." Viscountess Norland regarded the other woman warmly. "Sleep well, Frederica."
"You too, Joanna."
But Joanna's slumbers were disturbed. For, though both women had avoided the subject of Chaloner Dunster and Frederica's answer to his proposal, it was in her thoughts nonetheless.
Frederica, dressed all in white, was walking down the aisle towards the smiling Mr Dunster. Joanna could only watch in anguish as they stood before the altar and took their solemn vows.
Then the scene changed, and she found herself, wearing riding clothes, kicking her old horse Conqueror into a gallop. She was chasing a phaeton, and the reason soon became clear. Frederica and her new husband were the carriage's occupants, with eyes for no one but each other. Joanna cried out to Frederica to wait for her, but if the other woman heard her she gave no sign.
No matter how fast she drove Conqueror, the carriage continued to draw effortlessly away, until finally it disappeared over a hill into the distance....
The journey back to Chawleigh was passing far too quickly for Frederica's liking. It was a fine morning, the sunshine felt warm on her back, and if she ignored Amelia's endless prattle from the rear seat of the dogcart, she could pretend she was out for a pleasant drive with Viscountess Norland. And she certainly had no wish to speed her meeting with Chaloner Dunster.
For the umpteenth time she glanced at the woman sitting quietly beside her. Joanna looked weary and rumpled and out of sorts, for all the attentions of the inn servant assigned to help them wash and dress. Frederica supposed she must look in similar condition. Though she had been almost dead on her feet when she took her leave of Joanna last night, wondering what she should say to Chaloner had kept her awake until the early hours.
It had not been easy, deciding what to do. The advantages of her match with Mr Dunster were many and various. Her parents and neighbours would all welcome it, as would Chaloner himself - he wanted a mistress for his country house, and she would do as well as any. It would ensure she was comfortably settled for the rest of her life. And there would undoubtedly be children.
But weighed against that was her sudden realisation that, in her hour of need, it was not to Chaloner that she had turned. Her first thought, on hearing of Amelia's disappearance, had been to seek help from the Viscountess. And her instinct had been sound - Joanna had proved more than equal to the task.
Would Chaloner have acted so quickly and resolutely to follow the eloping pair? More likely he would have hesitated, and by then they would have been in France and Amelia's virtue lost for good. Would he have paid off Lord Peregrine from his own funds, or failing that challenged him to a duel? She did not think so. Chaloner was a gentle man - he favoured words over deeds - and would have been helpless against someone as ruthless as Perry. More crucially still, would he have sacrificed his own reputation for Amelia's? Again, she thought not.
The dogcart came abreast of a signpost, and the Viscountess turned the horse towards Chawleigh saying, "Only ten miles now!"
Frederica found herself staring at the other woman's profile, comparing it to Chaloner's. Joanna's high cheekbones, straight nose, and noble brow were the more striking, as were her eyes which were of an infinitely preferable hue....
An enquiring glance from those same blue eyes made her blush and turn her gaze away. After she had managed to calm her beating heart, her thoughts resumed their unfavourable comparison of Chaloner to Joanna.
She was being deeply unfair to him, she acknowledged. It would have been impossible for Chaloner to have known Perry's favourite haunts as Joanna did. As for realising that it was money Perry wanted rather than Amelia, he had not been friends with his lordship for years the way Joanna had. But this very unfairness was yet more evidence that she did not care for him. It would be only common decency to release him so that he might find someone better suited.
But if she did refuse his offer, if she relinquished her claim to be the mistress of Symond Hall, what choices remained open to her? Spinsterhood? Clinically, she considered that state. Remaining a spinster was not such a very bad thing, surely, and better than marrying someone she did not love. As for children, acting the loving aunt to her nephews and nieces would satisfy that need. As long as she could see Joanna now and then....
She turned to regard her companion once more. "I hear you have rented a house close by. Murviton, is it not?"
Joanna gave her a tired smile. "Indeed. Have you visited the place?"
"No, but I would like to." She blushed as she realised how forward that sounded.
"It has a charming rose garden," continued Joanna, apparently unaware of her gaffe. "The scent is astonishing. You would love it, I think. You must come and visit some day.... Amelia too, of course."
"That would be pleasant." Frederica chewed the inside of her lip. "When do you leave to set up residence there?"
"My plans are ... uncertain at present. But after this latest exploit, my brother will surely want to see the back of me sooner rather than later!" She gave Frederica a rueful smile. "What of your plans, Frederica. Have you decided what you will tell Mr Dunster?"
She bit her lip then nodded. Silence fell, and she was acutely aware of Joanna's keen gaze and of Amelia's listening presence. But she could not bring herself to speak of her decision. For what if her courage failed her at the last and she took the easy route and accepted Chaloner?
"I perfectly understand your reticence," said Joanna, breaking the awkward silence. "You quite naturally wish to discuss it with him first." She flicked the reins. "May I wish you every happiness, whatever your decision?"
They rode the rest of the way in silence.
"Amelia! Frederica!" The front door had opened and their mother was hurrying towards them before the dogcart had come to a halt. "My dear girls! Are you both returned to me safe and sound after your ordeal?" Their father watched them from the doorway.
"We are well, Mama," called Frederica. "Thanks to Viscountess Norland."
Mrs Bertram glared at Joanna and dropped a reluctant curtsey that mortified Frederica. No greeting? No word of thanks, not even for the letter the Viscountess had so thoughtfully sent by express mail? She felt ashamed of her mother. Could she but know how much their family owed to Joanna....
"Oh, Mama!" Amelia had been helped down from the carriage by a servant, and now threw herself against her mother's breast. "He would have married me eventually, Mama," she sobbed. "And I would have been mistress of Painswick House. If it had not been for the Viscountess...."
"There, there, my dear." Their voices faded as they went indoors. Frederica's attention shifted to her father.
"I'm much obliged to you, your ladyship, for bringing my daughters safe home." Mr Bertram bowed politely enough to the Viscountess, but his tone was frosty. "Come inside, Frederica. I am sure we have much to talk about."
The servant was waiting to help her down, but she hesitated. "Please accept my apologies for my family's ungracious behaviour," she murmured.
"It doesn't signify, my dear." Joanna's face was studiedly neutral. "No doubt your parents have seen this morning's Gazette and are merely reacting accordingly." She gestured at the waiting servant. "Step down, my dear. The comforts of home await you and I must get this carriage back to my brother."
Reluctantly Frederica allowed herself to be handed down.
"Goodbye, Miss Bertram," said the Viscountess.
The formal mode of address made Frederica turn and frown. Joanna had picked up the reins and was urging the horse into motion.
Something about the set of the other woman's shoulders made her call out impulsively, "I will come to Thornbury Park this afternoon to give Mr Dunster my answer. Perhaps I will see you then?"
For a moment she thought Joanna had not heard her, then a gloved hand rose in acknowledgement and the Viscountess turned and smiled at her.
With a small sigh of relief, she watched the dogcart until it had turned out of the drive. Then she turned to her silently waiting father. "You have something to say to me, Papa?"
He nodded. "Come, my dear."
"You must break your association with Viscountess Norland, Frederica." Mr Bertram gestured at the newspaper lying open on his desk. "We agreed to give her the benefit of the doubt, but she has proved as disreputable as ever."
She opened her mouth to speak but his raised hand stopped her.
"I know she brought Amelia back safe, child. But if it had not been for her, that foolish girl would not have come into Lord Peregrine's sphere of influence in the first place!" He shook his head. "How I can have raised daughters so level-headed as you and so empty-headed as Amelia escapes me! Though considering your mother's temperament, it should not. Perhaps it is as well you did not both turn out empty-headed!"
She could contain herself no longer. "Papa! If you only knew the truth of what Joanna has done for us!"
He blinked at her in astonishment. "'Joanna', is it?" She blushed. "Well, well," he said, after a short pause. "A judge must hear all sides of the case before pronouncing sentence. Perhaps you will tell me 'Joanna's' side?"
So tell him she did, holding nothing back, and gesticulating wildly as she did so. At last she drew to a close. There was silence in the library apart from the ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece.
"Upon my word! Three hundred guineas, you say?" He sounded quite overcome. "And this -" he gestured at the paper, "a red herring to draw the press away from Amelia?"
"Well, well. That throws quite a different light on things. Upon my word!" He rose and began to pace. "To find myself so indebted to the Viscountess...." He paced a bit more then halted and sighed. "I must repay her, of course."
"You may offer, but I suspect she will not take it." Frederica bit her lip. "Will you tell Mama the particulars? I cannot bear it that she was so rude to Joanna. She does not deserve such shabby treatment."
He smiled fondly at her. "You have always had a kind heart, my dear. And of course you want only what is best for your friends, among whose number you have clearly included Viscountess Norland. Well, I will try. But as you must know by now, your mother hears what she wants to hear."
He patted her hand. "I said will try." He folded up the paper and set it aside. "Now, as to that other matter...."
"Your decision about Mr Dunster. Have you made it yet?" He sat down, steepled his fingers, and regarded her with interest.
Her heart began to race and she fiddled with her gloves while she decided how to proceed. "What would you say were I to refuse him?"
Her father's silence made her look up. "I would say, be sure that is what you really want, Frederica. For a match such as Chaloner Dunster will not likely come your way again."
"I know. But I do not love him, Papa."
"Ah." His eyes filled with sadness. "I was afraid you might say that. Some may marry without love and still find enough in their situation to make them happy." He pursed his lips. "But I fear that you, my dear, from what I have observed, are not among their number."
Her father's confirmation of her innermost feelings was both welcome and unwelcome. She sighed.
"But will you be happy as a spinster, my dear?" he continued. "Can you forego the pleasures of companionship, of children?"
"How can I know the answer to that? But I will try, with all my heart. For there are other forms of companionship than that of a husband, are there not, and there will always be my nephews and nieces to spoil."
"My dear girl." He stood up and came round his desk, his arms open wide. She leaned against his chest and let him embrace her, feeling the prick of tears against her eyelids. "I want only for you to be happy," he said. "If you must refuse Mr Dunster to be so, then do it with my blessing."
"Thank you, Papa."
"But do not on any account let your mother know that I said so!"
Laughter bubbled up inside her, pushing the tears away.
Frederica trudged down the drive from Thornbury Park. Things had started out well enough. Edmund Lynton had greeted her warmly on her arrival and asked after Amelia's health and her own. Then he had ushered her into the drawing room where Chaloner was eagerly awaiting her. From that point on, things had gone rapidly down hill.
To say Chaloner was displeased with her refusal was to put it mildly. At first he had thought she was joking. When it became clear she wasnít, he became by turns confused, disbelieving, and hurt. Finally had come real anger. She had never seen him angry before, and to think that she had been the cause of it gave her real pain. He had given her a stiff bow and a cold look then stalked off to his room. Meekly, she had let herself out, only to run into Mr and Mrs Lynton. Caroline had learned of her brother's treatment and she too turned cold towards her. Edmund looked merely disappointed.
As for Joanna, the one person she could have expected to take her side was unavailable. "Out riding," said a servant.
Frederica twirled her reticule and castigated herself as she walked. Who did she think she was, turning down the position of Mrs Dunster just because it went against her inclination? Angry tears came to her eyes. "Foolish, foolish girl! Now what will become of you?"
The sound of hoofbeats made her look up. A rider was coming towards her, but she could not make out who it was. She dashed the tears from her eyes and looked again.
Viscountess Norland was wearing breeches and sitting astride. Male attire suited her, decided Frederica, openly staring as the other woman reined her horse in, dismounted, and strode towards her.
"Frederica! Have you paid your visit to Thornbury Park?"
"You refused Mr Dunster, I presume?"
She felt suddenly indignant. "Then you presume a great deal, your ladyship!"
A radiant smile lit up the Viscountess's face. "But you have not denied it. Good."
"Such presumption -"
"Is rather deduction, my dear. You are walking alone. If you had just accepted my proposal, I would not leave you so."
Frederica blinked. Being with the Viscountess was always disconcerting, and this occasion looked like being no exception. She contented herself with a weak, "Oh."
"I was afraid you would accept him. I am glad you did not." The tall woman grabbed her horse's reins, and fell into step beside Frederica as they walked.
"I do not know why you should be glad! I would have been mistress of Symond Hall. What am I now to do?"
"Whatever you want. He was not right for you, Frederica."
"And who are you to say who is or is not right for me?"
The other woman merely laughed and Frederica stared at her. She seemed quite changed from the tense, forlorn figure of this morning. "You are happy!"
"What has happened to make you so?"
"You have refused Mr Dunster when I feared you would not." Joanna glanced at her. "And besides, I have been thinking, and I believe I have found the solution to your predicament and mine."
A warm glow had suffused Frederica at the other woman's words. "And what predicament is that, pray?"
"That we are both destined to be old maids."
"That is to be my fate, I agree, but you are married with a child and so cannot be a maid, and besides, I have heard you need never lack for company if you desire it!"
The Viscountess's smile widened. "I do believe you are being indelicate." She wagged a finger in mock disapproval. "I am shocked, Frederica! Shocked!"
Frederica blushed and wondered what had come over her.
"I will not beat about the bush," continued Joanna, taking her hand. "I want you to come with me to Murviton... as my companion."
She opened her mouth then closed it again. Words seemed to have deserted her. "Your c...companion?"
"Yes. You have heard of such a thing?"
"Of course. A poor relation doomed to be at the beck and call of her rich employer, to placate her every whim."
Joanna's eyes danced. "I could not have put it better myself. Whim is a good word, an accurate word. I am determined to have lots of whims."
Frederica pursed her lips and tried not to smile. "You think a good deal of yourself!"
"Can you deny that you enjoy my company?"
"No, I cannot deny it."
"As I enjoy yours."
A dark eyebrow rose. "Can you not tell?"
"I think you enjoy making sport of me," said Frederica.
"I do. And for that I apologise." Joanna pressed her hand. "But will you think about my offer, my dear? It is seriously meant."
Frederica stopped and turned to gaze at other woman. Her expression was as grave as she had ever seen it. "I have never had so attractive an offer, Joanna," she said frankly. "But this is a big step. I must talk to my father."
"Of course. Take as long as you like. Discuss it with whomsoever you like. Consult the soothsayers, toss a coin, pull petals from daisies.... As long as in the end your answer is yes."
She laughed. "And what if I say no?"
Joanna waved dismissively. "Then I will repeat my offer at regular intervals ad nauseam, until at last you grow tired of resisting me and say yes."
"You are very persistent."
"It is my middle name."
"I thought your middle name was Notorious?"
"From now on it is Persistent."
Blue eyes held hers, and she saw something in them she had not seen in Chaloner's gaze - warmth and honest affection. This time her decision was intuitive and instant. "I will talk to my father," she said. "And I will say yes."
Joanna was returning from walking the dogs (she had persuaded Frederica to let her buy two golden retrievers) when she saw her abigail hurrying out of Murviton's back door to intercept her.
"What is it, Dorothea?" she called.
"Miss Bertram's parents have arrived earlier than expected!" The red-faced maid, came to a halt in front of her and pressed a hand to her side while she got her breath back. "And they have brought Mr and Mrs Dunster with them."
"Have they, by God!" Joanna pursed her lips. "How does Amelia look?"
"As you would imagine, your ladyship - insufferably pleased to be the new mistress of Symond Hall! I expect she will pull rank over her sister at dinner."
"Knowing Frederica, she will be happy to let her."
Joanna whistled the dogs to heel. Cowper obeyed instantly, but Sefton had to be called twice. (Much to Frederica's scandalised amusement, the Viscountess had named the dogs after two ladies on Almack's current committee, which had barred her after her supposed tryst with Perry.)
"Has cook been informed we have two extra guests for dinner?"
Dorothea nodded. "It is all in hand."
"Good. Where are they now?"
"Miss Bertram is entertaining them in the drawing room. She requests you to join her as soon as is convenient and," the maid hesitated then continued delicately, "suggests you wear a dress."
Joanna let out a bark of laughter. "Does she indeed? Very well, tell her I will be there as soon as I have changed, then attend me in my chamber."
"Very good, your ladyship." Dorothea curtseyed and hurried away.
Joanna gave the dogs into the care of a footman, tugged off her boots (Frederica took exception to having mud tracked over their carpets), and climbed the stairs to the chamber she shared with the fair-haired woman. Dorothea had already selected and laid out a blue satin afternoon dress, with shoes and gloves of a lighter shade. She stripped off her coat, waistcoat, and shirt, peeled off her breeches, and allowed Dorothea to button her into her new attire.
There was no time to do anything much with her hair, so her abigail, tutting throughout, swept it back into a bun at the nape of her neck. A last check in the mirror satisfied her she would not shame Frederica, then she set off downstairs.
Frederica was pouring milk into china cups when Joanna entered the drawing-room and she threw Joanna a look of pure relief. She grinned and, after greeting their guests, went at once to her side.
"Is this dress to your liking?"
Frederica appraised her. "Blue becomes you. Thank you, Joanna. I know it must be tiresome for you."
"My pleasure. Are they behaving themselves?"
"Father is bored out of his wits, mother thinks we should buy new curtains as these are horrendously shabby and old-fashioned, and Amelia is acting like royalty rather than plain old Mrs Dunster." She put down the milk jug and reached for the silver teapot. "As for Chaloner, he has been showing off dreadfully - I think he is trying to make me realise what I missed. But I am already aware of it, and grateful beyond measure for my narrow escape!"
Joanna laughed. "If only he knew that he has you to thank for throwing Amelia in his path...."
"Shhh!" Frederica looked round, but their guests were talking amongst themselves and had not heard Joanna's remark. "Well," she continued in a low voice, "they are much better suited. For she is pretty and silly, and already as obsessed with Symond Hall as he is. And he is much richer and handsomer than Herbert Smith ever was."
"A perfect match."
"You are joking, but I believe it truly is, Joanna. Even better, now she has landed Chaloner, Amelia never mentions Lord Peregrine, whereas once he was the subject of every other sentence."
"A blessing indeed!"
"There, the tea is poured." Frederica put down the teapot and reached for the heavy tray, but Joanna beat her to it.
"Allow me." A quick press of her hand was her reward.
They joined their guests on the sofa, Joanna placing the tray on a convenient table and Frederica passing out the cups of tea. And if the newly wed Mr and Mrs Dunster were surprised to be offered the sugar bowl and tongs by a Viscountess (Joanna never stood on ceremony in her own house), they hid it well.
The afternoon passed into evening in talk and laughter and exchanges of glances between Joanna and Frederica. The Dunsters were full of their recent honeymoon in Sussex (they had stopped off in Kent on their way back to Norfolk) and their plans for Symond Hall. Mrs Bertram's excessive admiration of everything they said grew tiresome, but Joanna resolved to be patient for Frederica's sake. As for Mr Bertram, his opinion seemed to be similar to her own, for he too bit his lip from time to time, and whenever his gaze fell on his eldest daughter, a gentle smile curved his lips.
"My daughter is looking very well, your ladyship," he commented when they had a moment to themselves - Frederica was playing the pianoforte Joanna had had installed for her, and Amelia was turning the pages.
"Indeed she is."
"When first she told me you had asked her to be your companion I had my doubts," he confided. "But she was confident you would make her happy so I could not deny her. She has been proved correct, I venture. And for that I thank you."
"No need," she said gruffly. "For I have got as much and more from our bargain. She has turned Murviton from a house into a home - something I had not realised I missed so badly until I had it once more."
"Nevertheless." He smiled and changed the subject. "How are those unruly dogs of yours? Answering to your commands yet?"
"Cowper is coming along nicely, Mr Bertram. Sefton still has his own ideas ...."
Later, after a hearty dinner (where Amelia had indeed claimed precedence over her unmarried sister), Joanna and Frederica waved off their guests in their carriages, directed the servants to lock up, and retired to their bedchamber.
Joanna helped Frederica out of her dress, stays, chemise and petticoat, then set to work on garters and stockings. "It went well, did it not?" She ran a finger down a bare leg, receiving part yelp part giggle for her pains.
"Apart from the drawing room curtains, which I do not think my mother will ever like." Frederica instructed her to turn round and began unbuttoning Joanna's dress.
"'Shabby' indeed!" Joanna looked over her shoulder. "She should have seen my Paris house. Dorothea continues to upbraid me for the cockroaches."
Frederica gave a mock shudder. "I trust you will never expect me to stay in such a place!"
"No indeed." A kiss on her shoulder signalled Frederica was done.
Joanna let her dress pool round her ankles, flung her undone stays aside, and pulled the chemise over her head. While she was at her most vulnerable, nimble fingers tickled her ribs. In her efforts to avoid her tormentor, she ripped the seam of her dress.
"Now look what I have done!" she complained. "Dorothea will nag me for days!" The hangdog expression she assumed merely made Frederica laugh harder.
"If the curtains are shabby, they merely match the rest of Murviton," continued Joanna, resuming their earlier conversation, "which I would class as comfortable rather than shabby. Indeed comfort was one of its chief attractions, that and the rose garden and the fact it was so near to Chawleigh."
"You have certainly made me feel very comfortable here," said Frederica, smiling and stepping out of the drawers she now wore as a result of Joanna's influence (they were still considered shocking in some circles).
"I'm happy to hear it." She stripped off her own drawers and reached for the nightgown Dorothea had laid out for her. But the shake of a fair head told her it was not required, so she grinned and flung it across the room.
Frederica's own nightgown soon followed hers, then the other woman slipped into bed. "I think my father approves of you."
Joanna slid in beside her and pulled her close. "If he saw us now, he would sing a different song!"
"Then let us thank the Lord he cannot." Frederica pulled Joanna's head down and kissed her deeply.
When she had recovered her breath, the Viscountess took a moment to marvel at the changes eight months had wrought.
They had begun their new life at Murviton as particular friends, though the world thought them mistress and companion. But as she had hoped, friendship had deepened into something else.
Joanna had taken things slowly, but Frederica showed no signs of repulsing her advances, indeed she seemed to welcome them. In the early days she was like a young colt, skittish and ready to bolt should Joanna's kisses and caresses stray too far beyond the bounds of propriety. But gradually her confidence grew, and she showed signs of relishing the Viscountess's increasingly bold touches.
The night Joanna finally coaxed Frederica into her bed and showed her just how good one woman could make another feel had been exhilarating. Under Joanna's patient tuition, and with the aid of a glass or two of madeira to relax her, Frederica's trepidation and reserve had vanished like early morning mist. The younger woman's ardent response had delighted the Viscountess, and, as the hands roaming over her now indicated, Frederica had been eager to repeat the experience as frequently as possible ever since.
She returned her thoughts to the here and now and began returning the caresses, to Frederica's evident delight....
After they had made love, they flopped back exhausted onto the pillows, an already sleepy Frederica cradled in Joanna's arms. Joanna formed the sheets and blankets into a cocoon around them both.
"What shall we do tomorrow?" she murmured in a delicate ear. "Edmund has invited us to dine, but we need not go if there is something else you would prefer." Relations between their households had cooled for a while, but had warmed considerably since Chaloner transferred his attentions to Amelia.
Frederica gave a languid stretch that reminded Joanna of a sated cat and yawned. "I care not." Absently she traced the scar on Joanna's shoulder then stroked her cheek and snuggled closer. "Even haymaking would be acceptable if I could but do it with you beside me."
Joanna smiled in the darkness. "Then I shall take care always to be beside you, my love."
Her answer was a soft snore.
A big thank you to Nene Adams, who pointed out some truly appalling anachronisms (Donít ask!), and to Advocate and Redhawk whose eagle eyes spotted several typos.
In reality, the cricket ball bet was devised by the Duke of Queensberry.