Lady Elizabeth Mary Stratton finished scrubbing the stone floor of the entry hall. She brushed aside a strand of her long honey-blond hair that had gotten loose from its braid and got up from her knees to dump the filthy wash water.
Outside, she took deep breaths of the clean cool fall air and dumped the dirty water in the weeds by the kitchen door. The sun was still high, so she had plenty of time to get ready for her tea party. Mildred, the cook, was making the little pink and yellow cakes that Agatha and Christine liked so much, and Gramp had Jamie and Charlie out hunting rabbits. As long as he could keep her brothers out until dusk like he had promised, she could look forward to a pleasant visit with her friends.
She put away the cleaning supplies and checked the progress in the kitchen for the fourth time. Mildred, old and fat but light on her feet, had a happy smile for her very young mistress as she iced a dozen little cakes. She was rarely asked to bake anymore, and she enjoyed it. Elizabeth was tempted to steal one of the delicacies but she resisted. She wasn’t a child anymore; she was eighteen and had the responsibility of running the household.
Elizabeth went to the parlor and checked everything again. She had cleaned it this morning and threatened her younger brothers with dire mayhem if they went in and dirtied it before her little party. She gave a sigh of relief when she saw that it was still pristine. She brushed a little at the seat of one chair, but she couldn’t brush away the signs of wear. Well, it was as nice as it was going to get, and Agatha and Christine never minded that the furniture was old and worn. The fire was laid but not lit; she would light it just before her friends were to arrive, no sense in wasting fuel heating an empty room.
She ran quickly up the front stairs to her room. It was a very small one over the kitchen, so it was warmed by the cooking fires and didn’t need a fireplace of its own. Of course in summer it could get beastly hot, but she could always open the shutters and hope for a breeze.
She didn’t really mind having such a small room. Before the accident, she had had a huge room with a canopied bed, ruffled curtains, a rocking chair, and lots of beautiful dolls. That part of the house was closed up now and empty. Of course back then they had also had servants besides Mildred and her husband Gilbert. Thinking of the accident made her turn to the small portrait of her parents that was the room’s only decoration aside from Betsy. She had been allowed to keep one doll, and she had chosen the old worn doll she had had since forever rather than any of the beautiful newer ones. She loved Betsy, and someday she wanted to give it to her own daughter to love.
James and Patricia Stratton had been a handsome couple, and Elizabeth’s memories of them were of hugs and laughter, birthday presents, and outings. And then one night, coming back from a party, their horses had spooked and run away with their carriage. The whole lot had ended up in a deep ravine, the only survivor one horse that had screamed in pain until it was given mercy. She hadn’t been there or seen it, and it was only a year since Gramp had told her the details of it when she had asked; Jamie and Charlie still only knew that their parents had died in a carriage accident.
Elizabeth washed as well as she could in her basin, and put her hair up in a way that she hoped was reasonably fashionable. Choosing a dress was difficult. The weather was too warm for winter clothes and she had nothing specifically for fall. She selected a green print gown that was really a bit too summery for the time of year, but would have to do. Agatha had given it to her since it was last year’s style, but Elizabeth was a good four inches taller than her friend. Fortunately, the gown had had a large hem, so when she let it down the dress was actually long enough for her. Christine was two inches shorter yet, and while her old gowns fit Elizabeth with some judicious tucking, most of what she offered needed added fabric at the hem and a great deal of work.
Her shoes didn’t match the gown; her longer feet simply couldn’t be condensed into shoes that fit her friends, so she wore brown slippers. They didn’t show very much below the floor-length dress anyway.
Elizabeth trotted lightly down the stairs and checked the clock on the mantel in the parlor. It was almost time; Agatha and Christine wouldn’t be fashionably late since there would only be the three of them. She lit the fire and watched it a few seconds to be sure it caught properly. James was in charge of firewood, laying the fires, and cleaning out the ashes, and she had to admit for a twelve-year-old he did a good job. He was a serious boy who knew someday he would be Baron Stratton, lord of not much since most of the estate had been sold off bit by bit over the generations to pay the taxes, gambling debts, servants wages, or just the food bills. Their parents had run the debts up even higher, living as if they had no financial problems, and Gramp had had to sell most of the furniture and artwork to get them even again.
She heard the carriage coming up the drive and went to the front door and opened it. The handsome black carriage and matching grays rumbled to a stop at the steps. There was no crest on the carriage door. Her friends weren’t nobility; they were just wealthy as well as nice.
Agatha was her age and Christine a year older, but they allowed the coachman to assist them down as if they were great ladies. Elizabeth was used to them opening the door and jumping down themselves, but they were all at the age to be acting like adults now. And what gentleman would want a rowdy hoyden for a wife?
Dark-haired Agatha was in a russet silk with a matching jacket and hat, and blond Christine wore gold with black accessories. Both smiled and hugged her before they went in, but they didn’t linger; there was much to say.
In the foyer Agatha said, “I knew that hem would be enough. It looks wonderful on you.”
Elizabeth twirled for her, and Christine added, “It’s lovely. I think it looks better on you than it ever did on Agatha.”
Agatha gave her a playfully affronted look, and then they all giggled. The color did look better on Elizabeth, and there was no jealousy between them. After all, they had been friends for ten years or so, long before such things mattered to them even a little bit.
They went into the parlor, and her friends divested themselves of their hats and jackets, tossing them on the loveseat. It made Elizabeth happy to see how well they accepted the absence of a butler. The room was starting to warm, and as they settled Mildred came in with the good tea set and put it on the table and then left to fetch the cakes. Elizabeth poured, being careful to perform the ritual properly. One never knew when one would be called upon to serve tea in the presence of someone who would care about such things, and they were all practicing their skills these days.
As soon as Mildred had brought in the cakes and left, Elizabeth sprang up and shut the parlor door behind her. Not that Mildred would bother to eavesdrop, but it just seemed more private.
“All right, tell me,” Elizabeth demanded, returning to her chair as her friends sipped their tea as elegantly as they could manage.
“About what?” Christine asked, pretending not to know.
“Christine! About John, of course. Did he ask after me?”
“Don’t tease her,” Agatha said around a bite of cake. “He did. He seemed most disappointed you weren’t there.”
Christine added, “Of course we couldn’t really explain, so we just said you had another engagement. I think the poor boy spent the rest of the evening trying to figure out where you had gone and why he hadn’t been invited too.”
“I wish I could hold a ball of my own,” Elizabeth said a little sadly. “It would make it so much easier to see him. Did he pine all night?”
“Hardly. He danced half the dances with Miriam Radley, and he even took her for a walk in the garden,” Christine blurted out, but looked sorry at Elizabeth’s obvious disappointment.
“The cad,” added Agatha loyally.
“Well, I suppose I can’t blame him too much. I can’t come to most of the social functions around here. What about Franklin? Was he attentive, Agatha?”
Agatha rolled her eyes. “Yes, he dogged me all night.”
“Why don’t you like him? He’s so big and handsome. I wish he would pay some attention to me,” Christine remarked.
Before Agatha could answer, there was the sound of a horse coming up the drive at a gallop. The three girls looked at each other, but none had an explanation. Elizabeth got up and went to the front door, leaving the door to the parlor open behind her so her friends could eavesdrop.
The rider was a young man in livery, but not any colors that she recognized. He dismounted and marched up to the door. He announced, “I have a missive from his Grace, Maximillian, Duke of Aggradon, for Baron Thomas Stratton.”
Elizabeth put out her hand. “I’m his granddaughter. I’ll give it to him.”
He held the letter away from her and gave her a suspicious look. “I’m sorry, miss, but my orders are to put it in his hand personally. Is he here?”
Who did he think she was, the maid? “Not at the moment,” she said, wondering if the young man thought he would be invited in.
“Then he must be sent for,” the messenger demanded rudely.
“Well then, you can wait here, and I’ll see if he can be found,” Elizabeth replied and closed the door in his face. There was no way she was inviting him in to wait in the parlor in the middle of her tea party, and she had no place else to put him except the kitchen. Besides, she didn’t like him one bit.
She hurried there now, calling for Mildred who was having her own cup of tea. “Mildred, there’s a messenger at the door from Duke Maximillian for Gramp. Do you think Gilbert could find him?”
“I expect so, miss. I’ll send him directly. The bit of field and woods the boys hunt in isn’t overly large.”
Mildred went to find her husband, and Elizabeth returned to her friends, but she knew with a sinking feeling her little party was nearly over. She had so wanted to have a nice few hours entertaining them as a very small payback for all the times they had invited her to their less formal gatherings and all they had given her. But along with Gramp would be her brothers, and there would be no peace and quiet after that, especially if they had actually bagged any game.
She closed the parlor door behind her and started the conversation up again, but all of them were curious about the message from the duke, and they spent more time listening for the return of the men of the house than to their gossip.
Finally she heard banging and thumping from the kitchen, Charlie’s high ten-year-old voice loudly describing the hunt, and then Gramp’s heavy footsteps approaching. The tea party stopped, and Elizabeth went to the parlor door and opened it. “He’s out there, Gramp,” she said, pointing to the front door.
Gramp opened the door, and the liveried servant jumped up from where he had been sitting on the steps and presented himself at rigid attention, holding out a thick, creamy envelope with the duke’s seal. Elizabeth always wondered how Gramp did that. One moment he was just their grandfather dressed in dirty old hunting clothes, the next he was Baron Stratton, and everyone knew it without him saying a word.
The man apparently thought he was going to get a tip, but Gramp just took the envelope, said, “Thank you,” politely, and then closed the door. Elizabeth and her friends gathered around him excitedly; it wasn’t every day one received a message from a duke.
“What is it, Gramp? Open it,” Elizabeth urged.
“It is a letter addressed to me, young lady, and I will open it in my study. Good afternoon Miss Marham, Miss Hadderly,” he added to Agatha and Christine. Gramp took the letter and walked away, leaving them frustrated in the entry hall.
Jamie was standing quietly in the doorway of the hall from the kitchen. As soon as Gramp left, he grinned and said, “We got two rabbits. Good eating tonight!”
Before Elizabeth could reprimand him for being impolite and not greeting her friends properly, Charlie came barreling through the entryway and spotted the remains of the tea party. “Hey, cake!” He ran in and grabbed the last two little cakes and held them up in his washed but still not very clean hands. “Can I have them?”
Elizabeth certainly didn’t want them anymore, so she said, “Yes, but give one to your brother.” Charlie immediately shoved a cake in his mouth and presented the other to Jamie, who ate his more slowly, savoring the rare sweet.
Agatha and Christine knew the party was over now that the boys were back. The Strattons didn’t have a governess to watch the youngsters, so they mostly did what they pleased, which often meant plaguing their sister. The girls gathered their things and the three of them walked out on the porch and down the drive toward the coach. They dawdled, continuing their gossip for a few minutes since they were alone except for the coachman, who was used to their prattle and ignored it.
Finally, the cool air prompted final good-byes, and the coachman helped Agatha and Christine up into the coach, both restraining themselves and pretending they actually needed the assistance. Elizabeth waved as the coach drove away, sorry to see them go so soon.
Elizabeth went back in, wondering if Gramp would tell her what the letter was about. He didn’t like to talk to her about upsetting things like their financial problems, so sometimes he didn’t share everything. He was old-fashioned enough to believe that some things were men’s business only.
But when she went in, he was in the parlor waiting for her. “Come in and close the door,” he said soberly. Elizabeth was a little alarmed; Gramp usually talked to Jamie about things, not her. In fact, every Sunday afternoon he took her little brother into his cramped office and closed the door and updated him about the state of the estate and their finances. It was a lot for a twelve-year-old, but Gramp was old and Jamie was the heir. Gramp considered her to be clever, but she was just a woman and couldn’t be expected to worry about money. She did, of course, but there was nothing she could do about it anyway, except to be as frugal as possible.
“This letter is from our liege, the Duke of Aggradon,” he started to say. She knew that, but didn’t interrupt. “It’s about you.”
“Me?” She thought quickly, trying to discover what she could possibly have done that would have attracted the attention of a duke.
“You are being considered as a possible marriage partner for Prince Henry.”
Elizabeth just gaped at him. She was what with whom?
Gramp continued despite her lack of response. “Tomorrow we will have a visitor, a representative of the Crown who will want to talk with me and probably you. He will have a sketch artist with him to do a simple portrait of you, so I expect you to look your best and be at your most ladylike.”
Elizabeth finally found her voice. “Who is Prince Henry? I’ve never heard of him.”
“He’s the king’s…fourth or fifth son, I’m not sure which. Elizabeth, if someone in this family made a royal connection…you have no dowry to speak of, but the duke knows that. However, the marriage price…my dear, this could be the miracle I’ve been hoping for.”
“You mean…you’d sell me?” Elizabeth was a little frightened; surely kindly old Gramp didn’t mean that.
“Oh, it’s not like that, not at all. You must marry someone, and in our current state you’re not going to get many offers. You’re eighteen already, and you haven’t had a single proposal, or even any serious interest. You don’t want to spend your life being an old maid and living here with your brothers, do you?”
“No, of course not, but eighteen isn’t old. Agatha is eighteen and Christine is nineteen—”
“And both have already turned down proposals. You did know that, didn’t you? They’re being selective. They have their eyes on certain young men, and with their wealth, both will marry when they choose. I expect by spring there will be quite a few engagements and weddings among your age mates. This”—he waggled the envelope at her—“could be your only real chance at a good match. It’s for you as much as for the family.”
Elizabeth said in a small voice, “I understand. Can I go now?” She needed to think and plan. She hadn’t decided yet whether this was a good thing or a bad thing.
“Yes, go make sure your best gown is clean and ready for tomorrow. If you need it, I will give you a refresher on the finer points of behaving like a true lady.”
Elizabeth just nodded, but then shook her head; she could imitate her mother perfectly, she didn’t need any advice on that. She walked quickly out of the parlor and ran up the stairs to her room. She wasn’t crying; she was more stunned than anything. She had always known she wouldn’t have many choices in a husband, but she had expected to marry someone she knew and at least liked. And there had always been that hope that some dashing, wealthy young man would fall madly in love with her, and she with him.
John had shown some interest, but she knew in her heart he was just flirting, probably to make Miriam jealous. She had always known her dream was unlikely, but this letter was the end of that hope. That was what hurt, really.
She could sabotage the whole thing, of course. It wouldn’t be hard to be sloppy and childish in front of the duke’s man, but she rejected the idea. Gramp was right; if marrying a man she had never met would help the family, she should do it. Jamie and Charlie deserved the chance to be real lords, not just impoverished boys with excellent bloodlines. They should have a good education with tutors, and Gramp had dreamed of starting a horse breeding farm, but they no longer had the necessary land or money to buy breeding stock. If she could make tomorrow’s delegation want her badly enough, the marriage price could buy all that and a real future for Strattons yet to come.
She opened her armoire and looked through her clothes, determined to make the best showing she could.
Dinner that night was excellent. Mildred had stewed the rabbits, made dumplings, and picked fresh carrots and beans from Elizabeth’s little garden. Gramp explained to the boys simply that tomorrow they were to bathe, dress in their finest clothes, and comport themselves as gentlemen. Their lives depended on it because if they didn’t, he would string them up in the barn and leave them there. He said it quietly, but so solemnly that their eyes got big, and Jamie just said, “Yes, sir.” Charlie looked between his brother and Baron Stratton, gulped and barely squeaked, “Yes, sir,” too. They knew, of course, that he really wouldn’t, but he was serious about their behavior.
Elizabeth stayed up half the night reworking a turquoise silk dress. It was three seasons out of date, but the fabric was good. With a few changes, it would do. Her practical sewing skills were excellent; she had had to learn to do the mending and to sew Gramp’s and her brothers’ shirts, and after six years, she had gotten quite good at remaking dresses for herself from her friends’ cast-offs.
In the morning Elizabeth bathed first and then put on her best underclothes and stockings, and lastly the remade dress. She considered trying to put her hair up in an elaborate style, but she didn’t really know how and finally decided to leave it simple. She had very little of her mother’s jewelry, everything with stones had been sold, but she had plain gold earrings and a matching locket. She looked at herself in the mirror; the turquoise suited her, and she was satisfied. If she didn’t impress the duke’s man, he had to be blind. Now if she could just behave as well as she looked, perhaps, she would end up a princess.
She went down and sat in the parlor. Gramp—no, Baron Stratton was there in his good black suit with his pipe. Jamie and Charlie came in soon after, clean to their fingernails and their hair brushed into submission. She noticed Jamie’s suit was a little small, and he had his arms tucked in close to his sides so it didn’t show as much. Charlie’s was a hand-me-down and still a little big on him, but it would have to do.
They sat in the parlor and listened to the clock tick. The letter hadn’t said what time the duke’s man would come, it could be hours. The baron rehearsed the boys on their manners and had them do some practice bows to keep them occupied and also to make sure Jamie’s seams wouldn’t split.
It was nearly lunchtime when they heard the coach. Old Gilbert was dressed in his Sunday suit and would answer the door. He was a rough man who did the outside yard and barn work, definitely not a butler, but he would limit his speech to, “Yes sir,” and be the closest he could come.
The two men who stepped down from the coach weren’t very impressive. One was short and round, expensively dressed, and bustled about importantly; the other was average height, carried a sketch pad and a case, and looked nervous.
They introduced themselves as Baron Greenway and Mr. Long, and Baron Stratton introduced his family. The boys said their greetings and bowed nicely, and Elizabeth curtsied. Jamie and Charlie were then dismissed to their rooms, and the two barons went to Gramp’s office. The sketch artist stayed with her, making her sit here, then over there, and finally settling her where he thought the light was best. He told her not to move, but relax; it would only take an hour or so.
She sat up straight and put a little, hopefully refined-looking smile on her face. She tried to look like a princess, but then she had never seen one, so she could only use her imagination. She imagined a tall, handsome, intelligent, muscular prince with superb manners courting her, and that moved the smile to her eyes as well. Perhaps he would give her exotic flowers, jewelry that he would say was shamed by her beauty, trinkets, and oh, a fine riding horse. She hadn’t ridden since she had outgrown Billy their pony. He was the only horse they had left, and after the accident she had given him up to Jamie and Charlie since she was getting too big for him anyway.
Perhaps Prince Henry would turn out to be the man of her dreams after all. They could fall madly in love with each other, couldn’t they? It seemed unlikely since they had never met, but it was still possible. Maybe that’s why it hadn’t happened yet, because she hadn’t met the prince.
She was lost in pleasant daydreams when Mr. Long announced he was done. He showed her the portrait, which at least looked something like her, although she had an unusually dreamy expression on her face. He packed his materials away, but took out a small case. From that, he unpacked ink, a pen, paper, and a blotter and told her she should wait for Baron Greenway, who would want to speak to her.
He left her alone in the parlor, and she waited. She couldn’t get the daydream back; she was nervous now, not knowing what the baron would expect of her. Eventually she heard Gramp’s voice in the hall, and then the door opened and Baron Greenway came in alone. She rose and curtsied. He gave her a small nod back.
“Lady Elizabeth, if I could have a little of your time, I have just a few questions.” They sat down, and he took up the writing materials.
“Of course, Your Lordship.” Just give him the answers he wants to hear and don’t giggle, she thought.
“You are eighteen?” After her nod, he continued, “Your mother was one of six children, correct?”
“Yes, Your Lordship.” What difference did that make? He seemed to be writing much more than she was saying.
“Your grandfather tells me you have had some education and can read.”
“Yes, Your Lordship, I can read and write and do figures.” He noted that down. She wished she could see everything he was writing, but the angle of his writing pad prevented that.
“Do you speak Frankish?”
“No, Your Lordship, but I’m sure I could learn if need be.” Why did she need to speak a foreign language? The baron was scribbling some more.
“Hmm, good, good.” He looked up at her, finally giving her his full attention. “As a good wife, you know you would be expected to be obedient to your husband and do your wifely duties.”
“Yes, Your Lordship.” Obedient, really? Elizabeth understood the “wifely duties” euphemism. She wanted children, so of course, as long as her prince did his part.
“What do you do to occupy yourself?”
Oh, I scrub the floors, beat the rugs, do the laundry, tend the garden, keep my brothers from tearing the place apart, mend everyone’s clothes…“I like to sew, Your Lordship.”
“A fine occupation for a woman. Do you ride?”
“Not recently, in our circumstances…”
“Ah, yes, I understand. Well, I think that’s about all.” He started packing up the writing materials in the little case. “Do you have any questions for me?”
“Your Lordship, could you tell me a little about Prince Henry?”
“Not much, I’m afraid. I’ve never met him. The king’s fifth son, I believe. I really must go now.” He rose, and she did also and curtsied again as he turned away and left the room.
Baron Stratton showed him out, and Gilbert handed him his hat and cane and did a reasonably good impersonation of a butler. As the carriage rumbled down the drive, Gramp called up the stairs, “You can change now, boys,” and was answered by a couple of cheers.
Gramp came in to the parlor, and Elizabeth had to tell him everything the Baron said to her and what she said to him. When done she asked, “What did he say to you? Did he talk about a marriage price?”
“A little, but it’s early yet. There are four young Anglian ladies under consideration; he believes you have the best bloodlines. You do of course, King Albert the Great on my side of the family and William I on your mother’s.”
Elizabeth knew her grandfather well, and she could see he was trying to hide something. It was her life, she had to know. “Gramp, what’s wrong? And don’t say ‘nothing.’ I can tell something is bothering you.”
“Oh, it’s probably nothing, but I keep wondering why they’re not using Prince Henry for a foreign alliance. That’s what they usually do with extra princes and princesses. Why do they want a local girl?”
“Do you think there might be something wrong with him?” Her stomach was starting to hurt, and not only because it was midafternoon and they hadn’t had lunch yet.
“No, of course not. It’s probably just some convoluted court intrigue or something. You know, balance of power, keeping the local lords happy, that sort of thing. Besides, if you are selected, the marriage wouldn’t be until next fall so you would have plenty of time to back out if there is something really wrong with him.”
“I could back out? Wouldn’t that nullify the marriage contract and cause some sort of repercussions for you and the boys?”
“It would, and I wouldn’t want you to break the contract except in extreme circumstances, but if the man is a drooling idiot or something, then yes, you could back out and come home, whatever the penalties are.”
“Now you’re being silly. If he’s a drooling idiot, why would they want him to marry and produce drooling idiot children? It doesn’t seem likely to me.”
“Me either,” said Gramp with a chuckle. “Let’s get some lunch, I’m starving.”