“But he is rumored to be mad! You cannot seriously intend for us to go to this event stepmother – you simply cannot!” Charlotte was near to tears of frustration due to the impenetrable lack of reason that was her stepmother.
“I dare say if he wasn’t rumored to be somewhat insane he’d be married by now to some noblewoman or other from a neighboring hamlet! But his madness is our chance! My daughter or my stepdaughter could be Lady Edenmorrow by the end of the month.” Mrs. Church squealed with delight. Helena, her daughter squealed as well and clapped her slender hands. Her golden curls bounced about her face as she practically vibrated with excitement.
“An entire fortnight of balls, hunts, dinners, and entertainments at the manor with his Lordship! And surely he will pick one of us! Why our family is closest to being nobility I dare say. It’s not as if Abigail Flagg or Lucy Smith has any chance.” Helena curled a ringlet around her finger and sighed dramatically. “At the end of the month I should be a true Lady and everything will be….just wonderful.” Helena said sighing dramatically once more. Dramatic sighs were perhaps her greatest talent.
Charlotte pressed her fingers to her temples in frustration. She wondered for the thousandth time why she loved her stepsister so much. The girl had about enough brains to fill a spoon. Not a very large one either. The delicate kind you would use to stir your tea in a fine china cup. “HE IS MAD! A madman has invited twelve maidens to spend a fortnight in his manor for “a festival of pleasures” before deciding to marry one of them…only one. How many of those maidens do you think will leave as maidens? And is the one who is to be his bride going to be any luckier? Espoused to an insane Lord whose ailing father might die at any moment and leave her utterly at the mercy of his deranged son? This is truly the most irrational I have ever seen the two of you behave, and I have seen you squander the entirety of my father’s fortune on frivolities and ribbons. You are incomparable!” Charlotte finished…instantly aware that she had gone too far.
Mrs. Church pursed her lips. “I see that you are jealous of Helena and are therefore trying to put her off attending this advantageous event! You know that as a high minded and outspoken twenty two year old maid you have little or no chance against your much younger and more good natured seventeen year old step sister. You just can’t bear it that she shall be your mistress and have all the prestige whilst you spend your spinsterhood in this house alone. No man wants to marry a girl - a woman – with a tongue like a razor blade.” Mrs. Church took Helena’s golden head to her chest. “Don’t you pay any mind to your stepsister. That red-headed creature is merely jealous of how sure you are to win his heart. I am convinced he is a perfect gentleman and the rumors are merely that! Don’t fret my dear one.”
Charlotte raked her hand through her tousled hair. “Well in that you are correct. Helena is prettier and gentler of nature than I and will no doubt secure a better match. That is the very reason that I wish to protect her from such things. I would not wish my sister…”
“STEP-sister – my Helena shares no blood of yours you imp.” injected Mrs. Church with great insistence. She regarded Charlotte then with great scrutiny. Was Helena prettier? Charlotte was tall – too tall – her gaze could meet many a man eye to eye. Her hair was a deep auburn that glowed red in the candlelight and her steely gray eyes had an intensity of intelligence in them that was frightening. Charlotte was a great beauty, but like a coiled viper is a great beauty. If her father hadn’t insisted on over-educating her and treating her as a son all those years she might have had a hope of being rid of her! But every suitor she had brought in for Charlotte had been left dumbfounded by the girl’s defiant nature. Charlotte thought herself better than the ploughman or the farmer’s son and had asked the poor men (who couldn’t even read) their thoughts on Shakespeare and the Iliad. The horrid creature was always flouting her disgusting education. No no. His lordship would surely prefer the doe eyed gaze of her daughter to the melting stare of her stepdaughter. There could be no harm in letting Charlotte attend…provided she not be furnished with any particularly attractive dresses. And if Charlotte was right about his lordship having unwholesome intentions towards the girls he intended to reject – then perhaps it was best if Helena did attend with a protector of sorts.
“Yes – she is my stepsister. But as she was a mere babe when she came to live with me I doubt I could care for her more if she were of my father’s blood.” Charlotte saw deep resentment and anger cross her stepmother’s face. In a quiet and placating tone she added “I see that I cannot dissuade you from insisting in that we go – and indeed we have no choice as it has been decreed by our Squire.” Charlotte sighed inwardly, perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad after all. It was the late 18th century, “Lords Rights” were hardly ever taken anymore, at least not by the more centrally located nobility. The closer to the crown of England the better the behavior of the gentry. Their little hamlet could not be called particularly close to the palace, but surely some decorum should be expected.
Mrs. Church inclined her head slightly in the smallest of nods acknowledging her stepdaughter’s point in the merest of ways. “You will go – with open eyes. Now go collect that wedding ring of your mother’s you keep in your upper drawer. Don’t think I don’t know you still have it wrapped up in a handkerchief up there. It must be sold. Helena needs a new hunting gown and a new ball gown. It would never do to have her seen twice in the same one and you are to be there a fortnight!” Charlotte’s eyed widened in surprise.
“Please don’t! That is the most private and important thing in my possession. I haven’t had a new dress these last three years and I haven’t complained! You cannot have the ring – you simply cannot. I refuse.” Her stepmother seemed to grow and stretch with her fury.
“You live under my roof and you will do as I say! What does it matter how old your dresses are? No one will even be looking at you! Get me the ring or I shall throw you out and be done with you for good!” Her stepmother shouted, looking purple and liverish like a Punch and Judy hand puppet. Helena put her hands to her mouth
“Oh please mother don’t! Don’t throw her out! You’ll give her the ring won’t you Charlotte? I couldn’t bear to be without you.” Helena turned her eyes to Charlotte imploringly. Charlotte turned on her heel and left the room pulsating with anger. Why was she cursed with a heart so soft and yielding that she would give up this ring? Why was she so weak and spineless that even now she was putting her hand inside the drawer and drawing out the one thing she couldn’t bear to part with? Helena needed 14 days of hunting dresses and ball gowns. Charlotte had 3 of each and 2 day dresses…all several years out of season. Helena would leave the house with 4 trunks of over 30 gowns. The expense was ludicrous. She doubted even the Princess of England had as many gowns and fripperies as her spoiled stepsister. Every room of their house was a mausoleum of stark empty walls and carpetless halls from her stepmother’s spend thrift ways. She came slowly down the stairs and set the ring in her stepmother’s hand.
“There now, that wasn’t so hard was it? It was either that or sell you off into indentured servitude to foot the bill.” She pocketed the ring with a malicious grin. Charlotte gave her a furious glare and walked out of the house without speaking. She had learned that when she was overcome by a fit of temper it was best not to speak or she would surely get herself into more trouble.
“Have you ever seen such rude and ungrateful behavior? I didn’t have to care for her after her father’s death! I could have sent her away or simply given her to the nearest orphanage – for that is what she is! But no – she would rather have you sent off to meet his lordship looking like a pauper than part with a silly little ring she will never wear. Temper like that doesn’t find a husband.”
“But mother…” Helena began feebly. Then stopped. There would be no use in arguing.
“This ‘fortnight of pleasures’ is a ridiculous idea and I will have no part of it!” Lord Richard shouted, knocking a silver water jug off a table onto the floor splashing his father somewhat. The elder Lord Edenmorrow simply brushed the droplets off of his velvet robes calmly as if nothing had occurred.
“You are out of options my son. Your bad behavior has scared off every eligible noblewoman in the area. This party- this mountain of expense that I must bear is your only hope in securing a wife before I die of disappointment and regret and leave my hamlet and tenants with no heir! You will do as I ask, and you will purport yourself with decorum and gentility towards these young ladies. And at the end of this event we shall have your wedding. I do not care to which so long as she is young and healthy enough to bear you a son. If you must indulge your madness do so with the weakest and most unlikely ladies. That is all I ask, and I think even you could adhere to such a request.”
Richard strode about his father’s library with the vigor of a man barely able to contain his rage. He considered knocking over one of his father’s prized Greek statues but thought better of it. “How can you speak of me as if I were nothing but an unruly horse you wished to stud? I am your son and I would enjoy the courtesy…”
His father interrupted “Because you are no more than an unruly stallion that I have been unable to break. You may be my son – but you are not the one I…your brother was the heir I wanted and if I could work my will upon this Earth it would have been you that died of scarlet fever and not your brother.” Lord Edenmorrow rose from his red velvet library chair slowly as his joints were inflamed and his leg was riddled with gout. “You may leave me now Richard before you break anything I truly care about. Go riding or something. It is clear that you are riled up beyond your ability to cope. And not too fast either – I would hate to have you break your neck before you impregnated one of our unlucky tenants.”
“Insufferable man!” Richard shouted slamming the door behind him. He knew that all his fathers’ ghastly oil paintings would be swaying on the walls with the force of the reverberations. There was a mad Lord in this Manor but it was surely not him. Surely not. To be sure he was possessed of a rare temper and a need to destroy and vexate – but that could all be explained by his tortured upbringing and being raised by his wretched goat of a father. No – the mad one was most certainly the nearly bed ridden old fool who fancied himself a Greek God as opposed to a mere titular Lord. He ran his hand across his forehead and through his curly brown hair in an attempt to slow the thoughts under them which came unbidden – fast and furious. All of them terrible – insane ways to punish his father. “Do not give in. Do not give in!” He chided himself as he flew down the corridor. He must be to the woods before he was overwhelmed by his destructive desires. He strode as fast as possible out the manor doors and across the gardens. A valet stopped him on his way.
“Does his lordship require a horse? Or his bow?” Richard turned towards the poor valet with a face like the sculpture of the god Hades in his father’s library – handsome and horrible in expression enough to make any person quake in fear. There had been enough talk of horses that day. If he were given one now he knew he would take out his wrath on the poor creature. “No horse. But do get me a spear.” The valet trembled slightly.
“A spear my Lord – Surely not. You would prefer a more elegant weapon if you wish to hunt.” The valet looked at him imploringly as if willing Richard to be a normal gentleman.
“I know you have spears. I have seen the boys out in the gardens killing gophers and the like often enough. GET ME A SPEAR!” He demanded giving the man a push to the shoulder. Nodding the valet was off at run – both to get away from his lordship and also to return with the spear as fast as possible and then be truly away. Richard stamped his foot with impatience. Perhaps stabbing a few gophers would cool his blood – if not he could always look out for a wild boar or something. Pity there were no more dragons left when you wanted one. Didn’t that always seem to be the way?
The valet burst gasping into the stables. A boy was at work turning the hay with a spear looking for rats.
“The spear, boy – give me the spear!”
“But sir, I am to kill the rats sir. The stable master has commanded me sir. I dare not displease him.” The boy answered with a wide eyed expression. The valet grasped the spear from the boy’s hand.
“So find a sharp stick. His lordship has demanded a spear and should I displease him we will both be in danger.” The boy was perplexed.
“What could he want with a spear?” But the valet was already rushing away. He spoke briskly over his shoulder to the boy.
“He is a madman! How am I to know what he wants? I only hope I get it back fast enough that his first victim isn’t me!” With that he disappeared over the hill leaving the boy alone. What am I to do now? The boy wondered. And in his first week at the manor too. He kicked the straw.
Lord Richard’s valet returned to him and handed over the spear. “A spear your lordship, as commanded.” The poor man gasped. Richard leveled the spear at his servant.
“Have you any idea Edward, what it is I intend to hunt?” The man shook slightly – he was an old man and couldn’t be more afraid of his young master.
“I couldn’t guess Sir. Please do not let me slow you with my chatter – you may proceed to the woods as you will my Lord.” His servant answered trembling. Richard laughed.
“I like you Edward. Be off with you now.” With that his Lordship strode toward the copses, a spear in his hand with his long curled hair loose around his shoulders.
“My name is Edwin.” The valet mumbled pathetically to himself before heading back into the house.
“The carriage is here Charlotte! It is here!” Helena was jumping up and down with excitement. Her bouncy little figure clearly not sufficiently corseted. “We are to be taken to the manor in his lordship’s private carriage!”
Charlotte dragged the last of Helena’s many trunks to the door. Her slender frame was very near to breaking from having brought them all down the stairs. If I turn sideways she thought to herself, spare as I am I might disappear altogether and escape this horrid day altogether.
“His Lordship is sure to have a good many carriages, and the means with which to rent several more. I am sure that all the young ladies will be properly escorted. It is not to be read as excessive favor on his part. Do guard your feelings, please Helena.” Charlotte begged. And how will we be leaving the Manor? She wondered to herself…in the undertaker’s cart? Then she mentally chided herself for being so morose.
“Oh take some pleasure in life won’t you Charlotte?” Helena implored clasping her stepsister’s hand. “Answer the door won’t you?! I just couldn’t.” Charlotte sighed. Of course it made no matter if she were mistaken for a servant – and who wouldn’t in the gray day dress she was wearing? Helena the great and wonderful must not be! Not that anyone would; not trussed up as she was in scarlet satin like a Christmas goose. Charlotte took a deep breath and mentally rehearsed before opening the door.
“You must be our coachmen! Do please excuse my eagerness in not waiting for a servant to answer the door for me – they all seem to be elsewhere and I am ludicrously excited to begin this grand adventure.” Charlotte said with delicate facetiousness. The coachman looked surprised but nodded his assent and began loading the trunks onto the luggage rack atop the carriage. Charlotte was assisted second into the carriage after her bright and bouncy sister. The coachman needn’t know they only had one servant left…and she a cook. Helena’s reputation must remain. She must marry and well to please Stepmother…and God willing take their darling mother with her. Just not to this madman please. Charlotte begged the heavens silently as she seated herself across from her sister.
“Oh Charlotte!” Her stepsister fluttered as the carriage began moving. “We are off! I do not think I have ever been so excited in my life. Perhaps I shall expire of excitement! I do feel quite faint. Feel my forehead…do I feel faint?” Charlotte laughed out loud (a terribly unladylike thing to do).
“Oh Helena you cannot feel faintness at the forehead! That is temperature…and while yours may be elevated – I think it likely to be the excessive layers of satin and crinoline you are wearing – not any illness or fit of pique.”
“Oh of course you are correct! You always are you know. And I am always silly. So silly.” Helena looked down at her lap. Charlotte sighed.
“Do not reproach yourself! Anyone could work themselves up into a fit, I say a veritable fit of silliness over the thought of doing nothing but the most amusing of activities for 2 full weeks. You may be as excited as you like dear sister.” Charlotte chided herself for being such a draught of cold water all the time. As she was miserable in her situation it seemed as though she couldn’t help trying to spread her misery like a plague to those around her. She vowed to be less insufferable these next two weeks. After all – she shouldn’t expect more of herself than she was likely to be able to deliver.
Helena chattered inanely about the salmon colored ribbons on her red dress and whether or not they had really been the wisest choice – after all it was nearly last season’s color and it was such a pity she had no way of changing the color now. Finally Helena was startled from her fixation by the realization that they were now in a long line of carriages – carriages that were being unloading lady by lady and being greeted by a tall handsome man in a blue jacket of the highest quality.
“Oh Charlotte! It is his lordship! No handsomer man could possibly walk this Earth! Do you see him? Is there a better view from your window?” Helena nearly toppled the carriage climbing over her sister’s lap to check her window. “NO! There isn’t. How utterly vexing. I want to know the color of his eyes! I can see his beautiful brown hair and broad shoulders and perfect posture from here – but a man’s eyes…that is how you can fall in love at first sight!” Helena collapsed with great affectation into a pile of ruffles upon the opposite cushion. Then she sat bolt upright. “Suppose, suppose HE falls in love at first sight with one of the girls in the carriages in front of us? Suppose we are already too late?! Do you think I could ask the coachmen to go around?” Helena banged on the ceiling to let the coachman seated above know she needed to speak with him. “Then we could be presented sooner? Or would that look over eager perhaps? I would not want to look over eager…” Charlotte rolled her eyes. The coachman popped his head in.
“Sorry Sir! I meant to ask if we were soon to arrive – but I see now that we have! Very silly of me. Do go back to your post sir.” Charlotte said as the coachman’s head disappeared once more. “Helena you could not look more eager if you were a puppy jumping about with a big red ribbon on your neck. No you may not ask the coachmen to go round! If you do so it will be in alarmingly bad taste. Please calm yourself and wait our turn.” Charlotte rested her forehead on the cool glass of the carriage window. He was strikingly handsome – he didn’t look mad…just out of sorts and bored. He had a very imposing figure, tall and well built…Good gracious how like a silly girl. She was embarrassed at the need to rein in her thoughts. There was no chance that he would pick her – a girl of mannish height, too slim a figure and a tongue like a razor blade as she was constantly reminded so very kindly by her stepmother.
It was at least an hour’s wait as the 6 carriages in front of them disgorged Lucy Smith, Kaylie McKellon, Regina and Rosemary Steele, Carlotta Highburry, Winifred Parks, and Hannah Broadsmith. Each was greeted, kissed upon the hand and sent up to the manor by his lordship. Finally their carriage door was opened and Helena pounced out like a kitten after a ball of string – barely touching a fingertip to the proffered hand of the coachman. Lord Richard took her hand. His valet announced them: “The sisters Church my lord. Helena and Charlotte.”
“Charmed.” He said simply and kissed it. Helena blushed to match the color of her dress.
“So very pleased to meet you your Lordship – so very pleased.” She batted her eyes up at him. “You have such fine green eyes. The loveliest I confess I’ve ever seen.” Helena simpered.
“Enough Helena please. I’m sure his lordship knows the color of his eyes.” Charlotte nodded at him and was about to walk past until her took her hand and kissed it.
“You will not tell me what a great pleasure it is to meet me?” He asked his eyes issuing a challenge. Damn. Now she would have to say something shocking, words rose in her throat and she was powerless to fight them back.
“You may not recall our first meeting my Lord – we were both only children. But given the nature of it and the fact that I do not know if you have outgrown such tendencies I have not decided if meeting you once more is a great pleasure or not. If you will forgive me saying so – I could lie and flatter your vanity but you do not strike me as a man who enjoys being flattered.” He laughed aloud.
“If it were a hundred years ago I dare say we would have you flogged for such a speech! But alas it is not. Since you have told me that my company is so displeasing to you – your punishment shall be to sit beside me at dinner. Edward old chap – see that whatever seating chart my father had drawn up is destroyed and that the Misses…” “Church” his valet interjected. “That the Misses Church are seated on either side of me.” Helena gasped in delight.
“Church is it?” He asked. “Someone in your past lineage was a vicar then?” Charlotte nodded. “A long line of them indeed. My father in fact was the 3rd son of a noble family and as he would inherit neither lands nor fortune as such he became a vicar himself. It was only after his death of course that we lost the vicarage and become your tenants.”
“Ahh – so my dinner conversation will no doubt be long sermons on piety and fear and hatred of the flesh then?” His eyes challenged her once more. Damn this man! His very demeanor demanded that she behave appallingly!
“No. I have no passion for sermons. Nor do I have any hatred of my flesh – it fits quite well – neither too loose nor too tight. And as for fear – well there is no need. I have not the spines of a porcupine nor the poisonous slime of an Amazonian tree frog.”
“CHARLOTTE!” Helena exclaimed. “You will forgive my stepsister…her father had no sons you see and raised her like a boy! Gave her free run of the library and I’m afraid taught her far too many exotic and unladylike things. She truly cannot help herself – my mother is always scolding her for the awful things she says.” His lordship smiled.
“I can see full well that your sister has neither spines nor slime – but you are rather buttoned up…beyond the call of fashion in that high-necked dress and long gloves. How am I to know you are not to be feared?” Charlotte inclined her head to the side.
“I apologize for the dress – perhaps the cut of my dinner gown shall prove more educational for you.”
“Oh I very much hope so…” He said with significant emphasis and he withdrew her glove and kissed her hand lasciviously.
“Your Lordship!” said his valet sharply. “There are still 3 more carriages waiting with ladies who expect a personal greeting as well. He glared balefully at his Lord while he shooed Charlotte and Helena up the limestone path toward the manor house.
“Honestly Charlotte! Slime? Spines? I had to tell him we were mere stepsisters. What if he thought that slime and spines were a family trait? You have ruined my chances before the fortnight has even begun!” wailed Helena with great petulance. Charlotte put her arm around her and drew her sister’s blond head to her chest.
“If I do my very best to behave at dinner – will you forgive me?” Charlotte asked with a polite expression. Helena sighed and nodded.
“Only if you are extremely well behaved.….and you must not…I mean…just be pleasant Charlotte just be sweet and lovely and not so prickly all the time. For me – please!?”
“I will endeavor to please you – truly I shall, but you know that polite conversation is not in my nature!” Charlotte replied with an impish grin.
Lord Richard watched the two young ladies walk away. “Remarkable girls don’t you think Edward?” his valet coughed loudly into his hand. “A Miss Abigail Flagg has been standing here awhile your lordship in need of a greeting.” Richard turned around in surprise. A beautiful young brown eyed creature with dark silky hair was indeed standing in front of him with politely hidden impatience. “She is the daughter of your father’s game keeper and huntsman – your father is very eager that you should treat this charming young lady with the utmost decorum.” Richard smirked.
“I see my father has it all planned out my dear.” He kissed her hand. “Why go to all the trouble of this two week long event – when these two weeks could be our honeymoon? Let us have my father summon the vicar and be done with it this evening. Shall we?” Miss Abigail was visibly startled. Her eyes widened and she looked both suspicious and frightened.
“Don’t look at me so dear one. If you’re the one I will marry, you are almost certainly not the one I will eat.” She gasped.
“Surely you’ve heard of my madness? Cannibalism I’m afraid is its most significant consequence. Nothing you can’t live with I’m sure. The fair sex is designed to bear the trials of marriage is it not?” Miss Flagg turned pale and rushed off toward the Manor house. Richard’s valet was near to fainting – the elder Lord had charged him with keeping his son in line during these greetings and mention of cannibalism was certainly not what he’d had in mind.
“What possessed you to behave in such a manner?! You frightened the most amiable of them all nearly out of her wits!” Richard laughed.
“Precisely. If she packs up and heads home immediately I will write her the tenderest of apologies and even a proposal. If she stays then she is clearly only interested in my money and title and is willing to do anything to get at them. It was a simple test…nothing more. You worry too much Edward.” He glanced at Edwin thoughtfully. He had been calling the man Edward now for 6 months and Edwin had not plucked up the courage to correct him. Perhaps the valet liked the name Edward? He would have to start calling him something far more ridiculous. Eduardo? Ernest? Eberhard? Yes that would do it.
“Do summon the next one from her carriage Eberhard – I shall behave.” Edwin looked at him with surprise, only to meet his Lordship’s most sinister and mischievous smile.
“Help me tie my corset tighter Charlotte! I want my waist to be as small as yours for dinner!” Helena had changed into a shimmering golden dress suitable for dinner and dancing that set off her golden hair like a lit candle.
“With the lovely embellishments your figure has that mine does not – our figures will never look alike.” Said Charlotte. For herself she had a black satin gown with a green lace collar. Her stepmother had bought it thinking that it would make Charlotte look dour and pale but instead the very low green collar set off her milky skin and the dark shiny color embellished the deep auburn lights in her hair making Charlotte look like a fay creature in it. A fact her stepmother always denied – discouraging her from wearing it at every turn by telling her that she looked like sour milk in it. It was for that reason Charlotte chose it – she had no wish to look desirable whilst seated beside his lordship.
“What did you mean when you said ‘at your last meeting’ to his lordship? I was not aware the two of you ever having had an acquaintance!” Asked Helena as she used a hot clay roller to add ringlets about her face.
“It was years ago – I was only 8, so you would have been 3. I was walking in the woods near the edge of my father’s vicarage which, as you know, borders this Estate. I saw a tall boy of 13 or so with a butterfly net. He had caught the most beautiful yellow butterfly in it. I approached him to see it better as I was very fond of butterflies. He gave me the most awful look and asked me how I thought it would look with one wing. I told him that it was only a very small person who would harm the smallest of creatures. That incensed him and he asked how I thought it would fare with no wings at all. I confess I flew into a rage, took his net, broke the stick and set the butterfly free. He was so surprised I don’t think he knew what to do. He simply turned and ran back to the manor. I learned afterwards from my father that his mother had just died. He told me that the boy was probably in such pain that he wanted something else to feel as terrible as he did and that I should not think too poorly of him. But as I too had lost my mother – and had molested no animals, I thought very poorly of him indeed.” Helena put down her curler.
“Perhaps grief strikes different people differently? Perhaps his madness is only grief – he has after all, lost a mother, brother and fiancé. Perhaps I can cure his bitter heart and make him happy once more! And of course I shall be happy too, I dare say, as I shall have every luxury I have ever desired! What more does one desire from a husband than that he provide the sort of life a woman feels she could find the most comfort in?” Helena strung a strand of pearls about her neck. “These aren’t too much for dinner are they?” She asked. Helena looked rather like a fine piece of confectionery, bedecked like a wedding cake.
“No my dear.” Said Charlotte in thinly veiled sarcasm. “Not if you save your diamonds for the grand ball.” Helena kissed her cheek.
“You are always so wise!” Helena proclaimed, adding another strand of pearls.
The two sisters were guided to seats on either side of Lord Richard. Down the sides of the table were the other 10 girls and the elder Lord Edenmorrow was seated at the other end. Behind Richard stood his valet Edwin.
I cannot believe that I am to be babysat by Edwin throughout dinner as well! Richard thought to himself as his wine was poured. He set his hand firmly on the carafe indicating that it should be left by the pourer rather than taken back to the kitchen. He glanced at the young lady who had been sat by his right side. It was the grey swan from that morning – and yet she had somehow transformed herself from a skinny governess into some wild thing caught in a cobweb. Her neckline was low indeed – showing a perfect and ample chest that was both spine and poison free. Her hair had been curled into tendrils about her face and coiled in a long mass over one shoulder. She looked like a fairy caught betwixt worlds. Then her bouncy sister sat down on his other side spoiling the illusion with her overflowing and golden presence.
“I can’t tell you my lord how very pleased we are that you have chosen us to dine alongside you!” The bouncy one cooed. Richard took a long sip.
“Then don’t.” The younger Miss Church seemed surprised and flounced a bit in her chair unintentionally. He smirked. “You do have a bouncy little carriage don’t you?”
“Oh no your lordship – the carriage ride was aa smooth as glass – you keep the roads in such excellent order.” The elder one laid a hand on her shoulder.
“Helena…please.” Miss Church said tightly. Richard leaned back in his chair.
“I see your sister did not comprehend my complement – although you did. Perhaps you would have me explain it to her in more plain terms?” Charlotte’s cheeks flushed scarlet.
“I would rather you did not.” Helena looked perplexed.
“Oh please Charlotte if his lordship has paid me a compliment and I have been too thistle-headed to interpret it please do let him make it more plain!”
“Helena don’t.” Charlotte was doing her very best to be civil but he was making it beyond difficult. A beautiful butternut squash soup had just been set down. It was a rich egg yolk color with a swirl of sweet cream across the top.
“How lovely!” Said Helena picking up a spoon.
“Yes, I had it specially made for your sister. I know how fond she is of butterfly soup.” He gave her a languid smile.
“Butterfly?” Said Helena setting down her spoon. The girls next to her did likewise.
“Oh honestly!” said Charlotte in exasperation. “It is squash soup. He is merely baiting you for sport. Do not allow yourself to be so easily teased Helena.” Charlotte took a large mouthful of the soup. “I’m glad to see however that your madness has not affected your memory my Lord. Our childhood acquaintance is still fresh in your mind?” His father glowered at him from the other end of the table and nodded to a server. The soup was quietly cleared and a fish course of oysters hastily brought. The girls at his father’s end of the table looked confused by the change as they had not overheard Lord Richard’s earlier remarks.
“Do you not wish for me to pay complements to your sister because you would rather I pay them to you Miss Church?” He asked locking eyes.
“I think it is clear to everyone that I am only here as my sister’s escort and therefor have no need of your complements.” Charlotte said quietly.
“Only an escort? Are you not an eligible maid?” He asked with significant emphasis. Charlotte picked up her oyster knife and slid it under her oyster freeing it more viciously than necessary.
“Maid I may be though my stepmother informs me that eligible I am not. I am too skinny and too red of hair to be pretty and far too disagreeable to make anyone a suitable wife – let alone a Lady.” She sawed at her second oyster with extra vigor. He ran a finger across the back of her shoulders ending in his arm around her so that he was close enough to mock whisper in her ear.
“Aspects of your figure – spineless and poisonless are at last on display to the extent that I cannot in good conscience call all of you skinny.” Helena drew a sharp intake of breath at such boldness on the part of his lordship.
“Did I do it wrong? Is one supposed to put his arm around a lady thusly?” He traced his finger tip across her collar bone to the opposite shoulder so that his face was mere inches from hers. Without entirely meaning to she dropped her oyster so that her oyster knife happened to be pointing in his direction. He leaned back in his chair with his hands raised in a gesture of surrender.
“Do you honestly mean to shuck me Miss Church?” She was cool and calm as she laid down her knife – her color had not risen and her voice had no waiver in it.
“No my Lord – I merely lost my grip on my oyster…as you have lost yours on your good graces. And try though you might Lord Richard you will have a very difficult time shocking me.” Indomitable girl. This might not be the tedious Hell he had assumed it would be, not if he had this wild creature to tame. His valet bent over him.
“Your father suggests you might excuse yourself as you are clearly unwell my Lord. You have perhaps had too much wine?” Lord Richard would not be chastised like a child in front of 12 of his female tenants. If his father had thought he began this evening with bad behavior…
“No no Eberhard old chap – I am quite well. Miss Church merely had some sort of insect on her dress. Do relay that message to my father. Don’t you corroborate my story Miss Church?” Charlotte raised her eyebrows.
“Indeed there was a truly horrible insect crawling about my person – but I do not expect it to attempt to do so again.” The valet sighed with relief and retreated back towards his Senior Lord. Helena fidgeted a bit, frustrated that all the attention seemed to be being paid to her sister – and that she understood so little of what was being said. So – as she often did she picked the very worst topic she could possibly choose and voiced it aloud.
“My Lord, I hope you do not think me impertinent, but I had heard several years back that you were to be married. However, as we are all here now, I rather assume that means the happy occasion did not come to pass. Might I ask the reason? I mean aside from her death of course…” Helena winced…even she realized she might have over-stepped.
“Helena!” Charlotte admonished. Her stepsister had the worst habit of saying the most audacious things when she wanted attention.
“No no – don’t rebuke her. A little openness has long been desired in the situation. My darling fiancé to whom I had given my whole heart and would gladly have sacrificed my very soul – changed her affections from myself to my elder brother when it dawned upon her rather delicate little mind that as the younger brother my income and estates would be minimal. Apparently estate law had been left out of her education while embroidery and eye batting were prominently featured. As my brother would inherit this fine manor, extreme wealth and the title she found herself inexplicably more in love with him. My brother deeply, for his part, enjoyed making me miserable – and so he married her instead. In a queer twist of fate both of them were dead from scarlet fever within the year. Many people surmise that I am some sort of magician and cursed them with this grievous fate. What do you think?” He asked taking her chin in his hand. Helena tucked her chin pulling away.
“I don’t believe in magic.” She stammered.
“As well you shouldn’t. I am fairly certain that his Lordship began the rumor himself as it is clear he enjoys it when people fear him.” Charlotte said admonishing him. Lord Richard leaned back in his chair.
“And yet you have no fear of me. Nor do you seem particularly desirous to impress or ensnare me. Shall I work harder?” He licked his tongue across the front of his teeth before smiling once more.
“As a Lord I should think you would not need to work very hard at anything. Are not all your pursuits those of leisure? Please do not strain yourself for my sake.” Charlotte met his eyes, despite having been scolded for such things by her stepmother on more occasions than she could count. Boldness was almost always mistaken by men to be brazenness.
“Your austere answer shows me that I shall need to work harder! But I see that we will need to speak alone if our conversation is truly to accomplish anything.” He glanced meaningfully at Helena who was preening like a peacock attempting to get him to return his attentions to her.
“Your Lordship knows well that such a thing would be impossible as a lady and a gentleman who are unmarried must never be without escort.” Charlotte reminded him with exacting politeness.
“But you said yourself that YOU are the escort – you may be your own. And you further admitted to being no kind of a lady at all. Obviously there is no impediment to your taking a cup of hot chocolate with me in my quarters this evening.” Charlotte bit her lip to avoid gasping – she wouldn’t allow herself to give him the satisfaction of knowing that he had indeed shocked her with such a brazen invitation – and in front of others! She had read enough to know what a Lord meant when he asked one of his inferiors to drink hot chocolate with him in his quarters. A hot beverage was not what was to be offered up. She was quiet and cold when she replied.
“I’m afraid my Lord that I do not enjoy hot beverages. They hurt my teeth.” He could see in her eyes that she was only feigning misunderstanding.
“But surely that cannot be true! A girl as coated in an icy exterior as you are? I would be remiss if I did not offer you something hot.” He said placing his hand on top of hers. She withdrew it immediately.
“As I said – there is nothing that you could offer me in your chambers that I think I would enjoy.” He took her hand back and kissed it.
“I would so enjoy attempting to prove you wrong…” Helena squirmed, she had been too long without attention again.
“I like hot chocolate!” She said. “It is my absolute most very favorite beverage in the world!” Charlotte stiffened.
“Helena stop.” His Lordship put down Charlotte’s hand and picked up Helena’s.
“Then it is entirely settled. This lovely Miss Church will have hot chocolate with me tonight as the elder Miss Church demurred my invitation.” Helena blushed and bit her pretty red bottom lip as he kissed her hand.
“Please my Lord.” Charlotte looked at him with eyes that for the first time looked entirely human. Pleading, entreating, undeniable, they begged him inaudibly. He knew too well that although nothing other than the drinking of hot liquids would occur with her insipid sister, the girl’s reputation would be destroyed nonetheless.
The arrival of the meat course broke their gaze and forced him to release Helena’s hand in order to pick up both a knife and fork. Kaylie Mckellon who was seated at Charlotte’s elbow took this opportunity to attempt to whisper to her friend.
“Charlotte – you must be more polite. It is clear he prefers you, but you may lose him to Helena if you are not more agreeable.” Charlotte squeezed her friend’s hand.
“I am not the slightest bit worried about that Kaylie. I have always known that I would be an embittered spinster long after you and Helena are wed my dear friend.” Richard perked up his ears.
“You young ladies are of long acquaintance?” He asked noticing the girl next to Charlotte for the first time. She was a pleasant looking girl with black hair, plump cheeks and little freckles. She had an upturned button of a nose and her overall appearance was that of some kind of adorable pet.
“Oh yes ever so! My father replaced Charlotte’s in the vicarage after his death. She was always accidently ending up in our yard! She would intend to walk home from school or return from one of her wanders but would wind up at our door. I was never able to be rid of her. We have been best friends since we were not 12 years old.”
“That is utterly charming. So rare to see such lasting friendships these days.” Richard replied smiling to himself as his grand plan to stay amused this fortnight unfolded in his mind like a treasure map.
Dinner was concluding with trifle of mixed berries and sponge cake. Charlotte and Kaylie were conversing quietly by his side and Helena was batting her eyes and making a spectacle of herself attempting to get him to look at her.
“I hate to interrupt you Miss Charlotte but I must ask you a question about tomorrow’s hunt.” She turned towards him.
“And that is?”
“If you break my net at our first meeting, and threaten me with a knife on our 3rd meeting – should I allow you to be armed for tomorrow’s hunt?” Helena lifted her chin from her hand where she had been posing in the picture of boredom for some time waiting for his Lordship to notice.
“3rd meeting? Are you counting this morning as your second? Or have you seen each other before?” She asked. How unfair that her stepsister should be so intimately connected with his Lordship’s family while she be left in the dark!
“No not this morning. Let Miss Charlotte prove she remembers.” He rose from the dinner table. “But you haven’t answered my question Miss Charlotte…will I be safe if I arm you?” He gave her another languid half smile.
“To be sure my Lord. I only hunt superior prey… I leave rabbits and rats to boys with sticks.” She returned his smile with one as serpentine as his own. He exhaled sharply. She had him undone – she was as utterly wicked as he was.