Carteret Place, March 1818
A storm was brewing at The Place, but it was difficult to tell at a glance. The skies were clear, and it was a fine morning, the sun warming the red bricks of the fine old Elizabethan manor house. The air, whilst crisp and cold stirred the birds to circle lazily around the many tall chimneys. Home - that is for Lavinia Carteret - was never peaceful, but it was comfortable and safe. Why would she ever leave it while her father needed her?
“I do so want to fall in love!” Miranda Carteret’s voice was muffled as she flung herself dramatically onto her sister’s bed. “Really Mirry, life is not like those vulgar novels you read.” Goaded into the unusual use of her sister’s childhood name, Lavinia eyed her sister warily as she waited to hear what she would say next. As it was, Miranda’s hair was falling down from the neat chignon again in a tangle of dark curls about her shoulders. She had a dreamy – and for Miranda – definitely dangerous look in her grey eyes. “I hope that Miss Mountjoy doesn’t see you like that. You know how she hates us to be untidy.” The bird-like and anxious looking governess, attempted to rule them with a rod of iron. Sadly, this as with everything else had little effect on Miranda. Lavinia, generally acknowledged to be the more sensible of the two sisters, was as was her habit neatly dressed, her dark hair tucked repressively under the lace cap of a woman well past her last prayers, or so Miranda frequently told her. Of course, they were both unfashionably tall; never mind brunettes so to the world they would never be called beauties. But who needed to be wearing beautiful dresses and expensive jewellery anyway?
“Oh, don’t be so stuffy. You know you want to leave this horrid village as much as I.” Rolling her eyes, Miranda folded her arms and waited for her sister’s response. “It’s not that horrid really.” Lavinia sighed. Sometimes she felt so tired. “It’s just that you know how Papa hates to entertain since Mama died.” “Poor Mama. I do miss her so.” Miranda’s eyes filled with tears as she thought of her mother. “Six years already…” Lavinia turned away quickly to face the window. She couldn’t allow Miranda to see her pain. Despite the fact that there was only six minutes between their births, she had always seemed to be so much younger. How to explain to her that love did not mean marriage, and escape with no dowry and no chance to meet eligible young men was impossible. Thank goodness she was always able to divert her so easily. “Did Papa say anything about the letter he received this morning?” “Not yet. He’s been shut in his Library all morning.” Selfish, thoughtless, Papa. “Miss Miranda!” A sharp knock came on the door disturbing the girls’ peace. “Miss, your father is asking for you in the Library.” “Thank you Sims, I shall go down to him now.” Miranda mentally girded her loins as she called through the door. Stopping suddenly and twisting around to her sister her eyes widened. “I wonder if this has anything to do with the letter?” she cried in sudden excitement. “This could be our chance to finally do something for a change. Just think! Do you think that Cousin Maria has invited us to stay at Kingseat? “I sincerely doubt it. I don’t think she’s forgiven you for teasing her poor cat yet.” Lavinia said with a twinkle in her eyes. “I really don’t think the poor creature appreciated your blue velvet ribbons threaded through its fur, and it did get very upset on her favourite Aubusson rug too. You had better go down before Papa becomes overset.”
The Library at Carteret Place was as gloomy as its current occupant. Decorated in the style of centuries before with old-fashioned dark panelling and uncomfortable chairs, Sir James Carteret had spent a lifetime filling the shelves with books he never read. Books he never allowed anyone to read. As Miranda knocked at the Library door, he carefully laid down the letter he had been reading. “Come in, Miranda m’dear. Been waiting for you these last 10 minutes.” Curtseying obediently to her father at the door, she crossed to stand in front of his desk. “You asked to see me Papa?” “Never mind the vulgar curiosity, sit down girl!” As she sat demurely in the lumpy leather chair before her father’s treasured mahogany desk, he picked up the letter again and smoothed its creased folds agitatedly. Oh no, not again. Papa is about to ring a peal about my head. Suddenly deflated from her earlier excitement, she waited miserably for the sermon to come. “Letter from your Great Aunt Augusta.” Sir James wheezed, setting the letter down and staring at Miranda. “Now you girls are grown, it’s past time you were sent to her, she says. Time you had your Come-Out. Can’t see why she wants you littering the place, but seems she does. She’s to arrive tomorrow – she’ll then take you up to town with her on Monday. See that you’re ready to greet her. And grateful!” During this diatribe, Miranda had unconsciously leant forward in the uncomfortable chair in surprise. Stammering a little, all she could manage was “thank you Papa.” Before fleeing the Library in search of her sister. “Shut the door girl!” followed her from the room.
“Really Miss Lavinia, I’m sure Old Potts can go to the village this afternoon!” If Lavinia had ever visited the theatre, she could have believed that the scene before her could have come from only the most dramatic of plays. Her arms akimbo, the older woman was now producing puffs of flour as she gesticulated wildly in her agitation. “Please don’t disturb yourself Mrs Moss; I am sure that collecting my father’s books in the village will not be any problem for me at all. I will take one of the Footmen with me - whomever that can be spared. You know how Papa dislikes anyone else collecting them.” Lavinia smiled fondly at the old Housekeeper. For six years she had been the only mother there could be to her, and to Miranda. Wringing her hands, Mrs Moss opened her mouth to speak again. “Really, Mrs Moss I will be completely protected. A Prize Fight indeed, in Little Canfield of all places!” Mrs Moss’ face began to turn alarmingly red as her anxiety for her young charge grew. In desperation Lavinia briefly considered the idea of leaving the house through the Pantry door. Or perhaps the small window with the rickety latch. Though, Mrs Moss was hardly a gorgon after all. Saved by the sudden ringing of one of the servant bells, Lavinia prepared to make good her escape. “It’s the Library again.” Sims nodded towards the red-cheeked Housekeeper knowingly. “Daresay the Master will be in a rare taking again. Sorry Miss.” Lavinia grimaced at the truth of the statement. “Please do not worry about me Sims. Please go up to my father, I shall leave on my errand at once.” Lavinia made good her escape while Sims distracted Mrs Moss. Now too late to wait for a servant and tugging the basket over her arm she turned determinedly down the drive for the short walk into the village. There was no time to waste, better to leave while she could. Probably Sims would need both Footmen if her father was in one of his moods.
Dressed in a battered old bonnet and her second best pelisse, it was all she could hope to get to the village and back with her father’s books before anyone noticed she was missing. Really, it was too vexing; she was not a child any more. Looking despondently at her newly darned gloves Lavinia wished fervently that she had dressed more appropriately today of all days. All the young blades of the town must be here she thought wryly barely sensing her own danger. Only as one in particular began to break away from a group of friends and walk determinedly in her direction did her heart really begin to pound and her eyes dart, looking for safety.
“Here’s a rare beauty! Who knew such a commodity could be found in such a backwater!” The rather sweaty young man grabbed her arm and swung her around to twist her basket in order to drag her to one side. Being hardly a time to think of another person’s hygiene or lack thereof, and hardly knowing what to do she struggled against her captor uselessly. He was too strong, and she could not twist her body sufficiently in order to lash out. Trying to scream, the sheer noise of the groups of men as well as the general hustle and bustle would make it difficult to be heard. Futilely, she wished again that she had never left home this morning.
The 6th Earl of Thornbury was bored. He was possibly even too bored to think of a fitting explanation of why he was the said state. Perhaps it was the company he was keeping. With a wry smile curling his lips at his own misfortune, the Earl paused to negotiate to narrow track into the tiny village of Little Canfield. How Charles had managed to persuade him this backwater was the best place to go for the prize fight he had no idea. Was it his restlessness that led him into such things? He didn’t use to think so. Perhaps he was feeling his age at last. His mother would most certainly tell him it was time to set up his nursery and do his duty to the family now that Alexander was gone. Damned if he wasn’t so fond of her, he would have pensioned her off to the country years ago. Although his mother frequently told him how old she was becoming, she was only in her early fifties, and if nothing else young at heart – so she could hardly call him ageing. Over six feet tall with his mother’s black hair and dark blue eyes he was not an antidote either, despite his lack of wealth. He still had the house and estate, for now anyway. A small movement at the side of the Inn caught his eye. What was the damned woman doing walking the streets in the middle of a prize fight? Noticing the man pulling the woman violently back, he stopped his curricle and with an oath, tossed the reins to his servant and jumped down quickly.
As the panic set in, Lavinia only dimly heard a shout behind her and as the grip of her assailant briefly slackened in surprise, it allowed her to break his hold and turn and run.
Thornbury detested bullies. God knows he’d met enough of them in his time. The poor woman was probably going to expire with fright! Probably some middle-aged matron, who had never been treated in such a way. Without even having to reprimand the young man – the coward he was – had begun to automatically step backwards as if sensing his authority. “My apologies sir, I did not mean to encroach on your territory.” Hands raised placatingly, he took himself off quickly, his easy quarry no longer for the taking. Ready to plant a facer on him the Earl moved forward menacingly.
Lavinia, sensing the opportunity for escape, gathered her scattered wits pushing her now loose hair from her face, clutched her basket to her chest as if using it as a shield. Raising her chin in the air, and staring definitely into the blazing blue eyes of her rescuer she knew that she had to thank him. “I must thank you sir for your, er…assistance.” Before she could utter another word the gentleman, for that was what the smartly dressed man must be bit out “Where is your escort? Your husband or manservant?” Flushing she frostily replied “I thank you for the good service you did for me sir, but I do not owe you an explanation, and I really must go. I am late already for my errand.” Furiously, Thornbury responded. How dare the woman speak to him in such an uncivil manner? “You madam are an impertinent and an ungrateful wretch!” All she could do was gasp in dismay. How could this day have gone so wrong? The gentleman exhaled suddenly and turned sharply away. “Forgive me, are you unharmed?” She nodded mutely, puzzled by the sudden change in attitude. “I was concerned for your safety…” Looking at the woman again, he discovered that she was much younger than he had originally thought. Reaching forward he lifted her chin gently with one long finger, examining the face beyond the tangle of dark hair and the now sadly squashed bonnet. “Sir, I really must go now…” Smiling all at once, he allowed his legendary charm to appear. “May I not claim a kiss from the lady I have lately rescued?” Her face must be scarlet by now she thought desperately. Would this man never leave her alone? This time, it was not a fear she felt, but a sense of curiosity and excitement as he without waiting for a response gently placed his arm around her slender waist, and leaned in for the kiss. Gently, as softly as a butterfly’s wing he brushed his mouth across hers back and forth before deepening the kiss. Lavinia’s eyes closed as she let herself just for once – only feel. Sensing the woman’s surrender, Thornbury forced himself to break off the kiss, and step back in surprise. Not for many years had he had such an immediate reaction to a woman. Eyes opening, she stared at him in confusion, her lovely grey eyes huge in her pale face. A sudden burst of applause made both of them jump, and Lavinia used the moment to make good her escape from the village. Still stunned by his reaction, Thornbury touched his lips and smiled. Now to find out where his lovely damsel lived…and damn the prize fight.
“Aunt Augusta, how lovely to see you!” Her sister always knew how to greet the old lady with the maximum amount of fuss thought Lavinia drily. Though it was not as if she had recently emerged from her bedchamber after an hour of urgent repair to her hair and her pride after that…man! Unconsciously, she touched her mouth in remembrance of his kiss. Losing track of the conversation in the Drawing Room, the arrogant and handsome face swam briefly into her mind. Goodness knows what she would have done if she hadn’t managed to sneak in the house using the servant’s stairs and have enough time to change for dinner. Thankfully her father had yet to stir from his Library to ask where his books were also. She forced her attention back to her Aunt. The old harridan had taken to arranging her hair with feathers bigger than the exotic birds that she had seen in one of her father’s books. A rare bird and a rare moment indeed where he actually took time to look at one. Seventy-five if she was a day, Great Aunt Augusta dressed like one of the brightly plumed creatures she so admired. Though one could hardly call her late unlamented husband Great Uncle George anything other than a poor sparrow. Never allowed to utter a word in his wife’s’ presence, he even went to his death without a word of complaint.
“Now then girls, stand up straight, let me look at you.” The be-feathered creature apprised them critically through one of her husband’s old quizzing-glasses. “Hmm, well Miranda-girl, you’ll do I suppose with a bit of work from a London Modiste. Madame Parisot I suppose.” With a sniff, she looked away from Lavinia and tossed the quizzing glass into the tea tray. “You will be ready to leave on Monday child.” Sensing what was to come, Lavinia looked sharply at her sister. Her mouth was already slightly open as if to argue. “Of course Miranda will be ready and happy to leave with you on Monday Ma’am. I know how much she appreciates what you are doing for her.” Aunt Augusta’s feathers dipped and bobbed alarmingly as she turned to look at her elder niece. “Doing it a bit too brown girl, always did remind me of your father.” She added disparagingly. Though she could hardly blame her, it was true – her papa could be embarrassingly ingratiating towards his Aunt. “Well girls, I suppose your father is not coming down for dinner then?” At the girls’ silent nods, she sighed gustily. “To be expected I suppose. Let us go in then!” Grabbing her sister’s arm as her Aunt wielded her cane and began stabbing the carpet towards the door to the hallway, Miranda took the chance to hiss urgently “but what about you? She means you can’t come to London with us doesn’t she?” “Not now, Miranda, Aunt August will hear you.” “I have a plan…” “You always do Miranda.” “Yes, but I have not told you of this one yet.” Pausing as if for effect she waited for her sister to pay attention. “You will come with me to London…as my maid!” With that Miranda clapped her hands together in delight and skipped towards her Aunt, offering her arm as they made their way to dinner.
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