A Ghost of a Chance
By the end of two days, frustration levels were high and everyone wished the guests would arrive, if only for a diversion. Bianca informed her sister and aunt that the spirit, William, was unbelievably stubborn. While he rarely stacked books in the library anymore, she was also nowhere closer to discovering his unfinished business.
"He and Maurice spend their time playing chess and moaning about not being able to smoke cigars. I am quite the odd man out!" she complained.
Muriel would just smile and run off for a comfortable coze with her friend Eleanor; they were the only two who seemed unconcerned by this development.
The countess could barely keep a civil tongue in her head every evening at dinner, the earl was becoming increasingly nervous about his title and position, and Lord Meare did not like being forced into devising entertainments for his mother's guests. That is what he said to Nera the evening before the first guests were expected.
"You seem to me the sort of young ladies who know how to amuse yourselves," he noted as they waited in the drawing room before dinner under the glare of his mother. "Which is why I cannot understand how other females only drift about aimlessly unless they have a schedule to follow."
"Perhaps they were not taught self-reliance, my lord. Or maybe they are capable of organizing their own days, but require an audience as proof they are not idle? What have you planned? Sketching parties, rides to ruins and archery in the lower gardens?"
"All perfectly suitable activities for a house party, Miss Morrow," he defensively replied.
"I am not disagreeing with your agenda, my lord. I merely wonder if you have put some free time into the schedule. In the mornings, perhaps?"
He nodded. "My mother does not leave her rooms until after noon, as well, which will work in our favor when it comes to the library."
Nera could find no fault with that, even though she tried.
"Has your sister had any success?"
"Unfortunately, no. The spirit and Maurice would rather play chess."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Tis true," Nera said with a long-suffering sigh. "And please, do not ask me where they play. I am not quite certain."
Dinner was announced, ending their conversation and leaving Nera to marvel at the civility between them.
That night, after everyone had retired, Drew found himself cornered by his mother in the private parlor that adjoined his bedchamber.
"To what do I owe this visit, Mama?" he wondered, none too pleased to have his pre-bedtime brandy interrupted by his mother. Still, he bid her come in, and she seated herself in a chair. He chose to stand.
"I am concerned about the attention you are paying Miss Morrow," she said, cutting to the chase.
"What attention, Mama?"
"Marked attention! I am at the end of my patience watching your grandmother sit back and let you pay court to that young lady, and that Mrs. Abernathy is not much better! Why, she stares into space quite often, no doubt counting how many children she believes you will produce!"
"Court? Children?" Drew grew alarmed. If his mother and grandmother, and her aunt, thought he was ... Was Miss Morrow thinking the same thing?
"You do well to look so aghast, Drew. The young lady, while she might show impeccable manners in public, is still a Morrow. A Morrow!"
He frowned. "What has that to do with anything?"
"Oh, come now, son -- you know what happened. It was the scandal of the season!"
He shook his head, drawing a blank.
"A few years ago?" the countess said impatiently. "Their mother ran off with a married man. She was married as well, of course. They say it killed her husband."
"I fail to see what that has to do with their daughters."
"Oh, Drew! How naïve you can be sometimes!" she snapped. "No one wants a wife who might follow in her mother's footsteps!"
"There is no reason why they should. Miss Morrow seems to be an almost sensible person, at least." Even if her sister was flighty at the best of times. At least, she always seemed a bit oblivious to her surroundings, and her mind was filled with fanciful things.
"There is no reason why they should not, either! Listen to me, Drew -- I am ordering you to pay less attention to Miss Morrow, lest she expect more of you than I am willing to give!"
Drew's eyebrows rose considerably at that statement.
"Are you telling me, Mother, that I am not free to make my own decisions?"
His mother was too involved in her own thoughts to see the warning signs of his anger.
"You will do as I say when it comes to a wife! I have not worked this hard to become countess just to have you ruin everything by making a misalliance. You must be wed soon, to the bride of my choosing, so I may train her to be the perfect successor. You will produce at least one heir to secure everything, and then I may rest easy."
"You have said some ridiculous things in your life, Mama, but the drivel you just spouted has to be the most idiotic scheme I have heard in a good, long while." He strode to the door. "I shall marry where and when I choose, madam, and if you think either she or I will be controlled by you in the future, you have another think coming. Rest assured I have no designs on Miss Morrow, but neither shall I find myself paying court to any of the pretty little puppets you wish to parade in front of me over the next fortnight! Good evening, Mama!" He opened the door with a flourish, his neck flushed with anger where he had already loosened his cravat.
"This is not finished, Drew," his mother warned as she walked out. Only the glitter of her frosty blue eyes showed her own anger. "If you continue to single out Miss Morrow, I can assure you, you will find yourself betrothed to someone else in a heartbeat!"
Guests arrived throughout the next day, but Nera had been led to believe that introductions would not be made until just before dinner, when the entire company would be assembled. Bianca had gone off to the library happily enough, leaving her sister to tack up a torn flounce on her one good dinner dress.
"We are going to look the veriest bumpkins, appearing in the same gowns night after night," she had said with a sigh to Bianca, the only person to which she would ever voice her concerns.
"No one is going to notice us, dearest," Bianca had assured her before tripping off with Maurice, but Nera was not so sure. "Besides," Bianca had added as a parting shot, "we have new ballgowns no one has ever seen before!"
Nera was confused. They had ballgowns? She distinctly remembered packing all their clothes, and there had been nothing new in the trunks. She had always known her sister to live in another world, but this was carrying that a bit too far.
Their white gowns, fortunately, did not look out of place among the other young ladies that evening as they were introduced around to the assembled guests. And by that time, Nera was too busy trying to remember names and faces to even care what she wore.
There were a Lord and Lady Cranston, baron and baroness, and their daughter, Sophia, a giggly girl with the features of a delicate china doll, all blue eyes and blonde hair that Nera always supposed was in vogue. Lady Cranston's eyes widened somewhat at mention of the Morrow name, but she said nothing.
Mrs. Wilkes, a widow wearing half-mourning, was introduced as a cousin of Lady Sandwell's, and she had a daughter with her, Miss Tamara Wilkes, and her son, Col. Randolph Wilkes. Nera was not surprised when the colonel fixed his sights on Bianca and did not look away. Bianca's ethereal countenance was in direct competition with Miss Cranston, possibly. The darker Miss Wilkes was what most people would call pretty, but not beautiful.
She noted that each family of guests boasted both a daughter and a title, if they had one, that was lower in rank to the countess. Sir Joseph and Lady Woodbury had their eldest daughter with them, although Lady Woodbury remarked that it would be a few years before her next three daughters would be old enough to enjoy a season in London. Miss Victoria Woodbury might even be around for that, Nera thought, feeling sorry for girl, with her carroty red hair and freckles.
Last to be introduced were Mr. Thompson and his two offspring, Geraldine and Joel. Miss Thompson was possibly going to give Miss Cranston a run for her money with the viscount, Nera thought, being also of that same porcelain doll coloring. The Mr. Thompsons were both fair-haired, as well, and the younger one gave Nera a genuine smile as their acquaintances were made.
The countess made a point of excluding the Morrow twins from the company of the other young ladies, but Nera was not offended for herself. She did not want the viscount, but Bianca should be allowed within the ranks of the blooded fillies vying for his lordship's attentions. She was of impeccable lineage, she was beautiful and she was also fated for Lord Meare -- what more could Lady Sandwell want?
"It seems as if we're off to the races," the colonel said softly to her, indicating his cousin and entourage with a glass of whisky. "But you and your sister are still in the starting gate."
"I have no designs on becoming a viscountess," Nera noted, "and my sister does not play games of that sort, either."
"Interesting," he noted. "As well as refreshing. There isn't a mother here who wouldn't give her eyeteeth for Drew to single out her daughter, except my own parent. It will be amusing to see him dodge their traps and give equal attention to everyone."
"Are you always this candid?" she wondered, thinking he was being rather open to a young lady he had just met.
"To a fault," the gentleman replied, and she had to smile at the way his dark eyes crinkled when he grinned. "But we military men are allowed to get away with directness. It also helps if you let people think you might be sent to the Continent at any moment, and must be excused for plain speaking."
Nera laughed. "I wish I was a military man, then, so I might say what I wanted without censure."
"Feel free to speak your mind around me, Miss Morrow. I have a feeling we shall be thrown into company frequently, and there is nothing more annoying than a young miss who simpers and prevaricates."
"I shall keep that in mind."
"Your sister is very quiet," he remarked, looking over to where Bianca sat demurely with their aunt.
"She is. But I shall tell you a secret," Nera said with an impish smile. "She loves a good ghost story."
After dinner, where Nera found herself placed between an unresponsive Sir Joseph and the polite elder Mr. Thompson, she followed the ladies back to the drawing room. Bianca had made friends with the freckled Miss Woodbury, and the two sat on a sofa in quiet conversation. Lady Sandwell had surrounded herself with her cronies, and Lady Eleanor and Aunt Muriel had their heads together. Miss Cranston and Miss Thompson stood by the pianoforte, urging each other to perform first.
"Sizing up the competition, no doubt," Mrs. Wilkes murmured in Nera's ear. She was reminded of the way the colonel had approached her earlier.
"They are either both virtuosos, then, or terrible players," she replied with a smile.
"I recommend something stronger than tea in your cup," Miss Wilkes added. "It will help soften the ordeal."
"I hope the tea tray arrives soon, then," Nera noted as Miss Cranston sat down to the instrument and began banging on the keys.
"I have hopes for an improvement in skills once the gentlemen return," Mrs. Wilkes said.
"Is straight talk a family trait?" Nera asked, bringing smiles to the faces of the Wilkes ladies.
"I fear it is true. Rand -- the colonel - often says he is pleased to have been born into a family that is tolerant of such a thing," Miss Wilkes noted.
"He is your only brother?"
Miss Wilkes sighed. "I have four brothers. Rand is the second eldest."
"My Tamara is the youngest," Mrs. Wilkes told her as the three seated themselves on a sofa. Nera found herself flanked by the other ladies. "A lovely gift after four sons. Tell me about yourself, Miss Morrow. We rarely get to London for the season."
"I have never been," Nera admitted. "My sister and I live quietly with our aunt, Mrs. Abernathy."
"It is a pleasure to see Mrs. Abernathy once more. We were all frequent visitors here years ago, when my children were younger, and always enjoyed your aunt's company. Her talents," Mrs. Wilkes said in a softer voice, "are quite interesting. She used to entertain us with a demonstration from time to time."
"Aunt Muriel is certainly unique," Nera agreed, not sure what else she could say. Not many people so openly discussed Aunt Muriel's gifts.
"It is all right, my dear, if you do not wish to discuss it," Mrs. Wilkes said when Nera was quiet.
They all winced as Miss Cranston hit a sour chord, gave each other pained looks, and then laughed. Miss Cranston shot them all an angry look just as the gentlemen came through the drawing room doors, and that brought an expression of merriment to Nera's eyes which was still there when Colonel Wilkes sat down across from her.
Miss Cranston's countenance quickly changed to something broodingly artistic as she launched into a technically perfect piece by Beethoven. Miss Thompson, waiting her turn, scowled, apparently unaware she was being watched, and flounced off to sit with her brother. He absently patted her hand, but seemed otherwise oblivious to her plight.
"I fear Miss Thompson will find more than her brother unresponsive," the colonel said, following Nera's interest in the drama. "We are to play billiards after you ladies retire, and more than one gentleman is looking forward to that, I assure you."
Next to Nera, Miss Wilkes laughed. "I wonder who proposed such an activity? It is a shame we ladies are not invited."
"You would no doubt fleece half the men here, if it were allowed, little sister."
"You play billiards?" Nera asked in some surprise. It was a game she had been steered clear of as a girl, and had not had the chance to observe as a young lady.
"Little sisters are wont to tag along, sometimes, Miss Morrow, and my father did not discourage the pursuit, especially after I became quite good at the game."
"Your mother did not prevent it, either," Mrs. Wilkes reminded her daughter. "Or the shooting and riding."
"I concede the shooting to you, Miss Wilkes, but riding..." Nera sighed. "I have not been on a horse this age."
"Drew plans all manner of outings, Miss Morrow," the colonel said. "There will be plenty of mounts to choose from. I do hope you and your sister will participate."
"Thank you, yes, we both miss riding, and I am sure we shall." If she had something suitable to wear. She must appear to be one of the house party guests, she justified to herself. If that meant finding herself on horseback for the first time in several years to maintain that fiction, so be it.
Bianca and Miss Woodbury joined them at that point, and they made a merry group as the colonel encouraged all four young ladies to confess their worst riding mistakes.
Across the room, Drew watched as his Wilkes cousins, Miss Woodbury and the Morrow sisters made a happy circle. He was envious of their easy camaraderie while he was forced to turn pages for a simpering Miss Cranston. His mother had already warned him that Miss Thompson was next at the pianoforte, right before she pulled most of the older guests into making up tables for whist.
"Some people are quite rude," Miss Cranston said in a scathing tone, nodding toward the Wilkeses and Morrows.
"On the contrary, Miss Cranston. You are here to provide background music, and I am pleased to see guests enjoying themselves."
"I thought I was the evening's entertainment!" the young lady protested. "Not to be shunted into the scenery!"
"I suppose you thought wrong, then, Miss Cranston. You may cheer yourself up, however, with the knowledge that my mother will plan a musical evening or two while you are here. If you will excuse me, I see her beckoning to me now."
Without another word, he bowed and approached his mother, leaving Miss Cranston's mouth opening and closing in surprise at his abrupt departure.
"You are getting along well with Miss Cranston?" the countess quizzed him, after browbeating her cousin, Mrs. Wilkes, into taking her place at the card table. "She is a lovely girl."
"I told you, Mama, that my life is my own. Miss Cranston is a self-centered chit who thinks we should all stop what we are doing and listen to her play."
Lady Sandwell frowned. "Self-centered, you say? I did not realize... It is of no matter... She is still trainable..."
"Mama," Drew warned.
"Yes, Drew..." she said with a sigh. "Why, thank you for the lovely music, Miss Cranston," she called, moving off to the pianoforte. "You will want to give those lovely and talented fingers a rest. Miss Thompson?"
Miss Thompson did not need to be asked twice, and from where Nera sat, it looked as if the young lady literally slid Miss Cranston off the other side of the bench.
"You will turn the pages for her, Colonel Wilkes," the countess commanded. Next to Nera, Miss Wilkes stifled a laugh.
Later, when Lady Sandwell let it be known that the ladies could retire, Nera found herself approached by Lord Meare.
"I need to speak with you," he whispered, ostensibly bidding her a good evening. "In the library in half an hour?"
Nera nodded and wished him a pleasant night before following the dowager and her family to the other side of the house. Fortunately for her, Bianca dressed for bed quickly, and went right off to sleep. Nera waited until she heard slow and easy breathing from her sister before slipping out of their room.
There was no one around as she walked quietly down the hall to the entrance to the dowager's wing, and the way was clear straight through to the library. When she let herself in, there were only a few candles lit, giving the room an eerie glow. The viscount stood with his back to her, contemplating a stack of books.
"What does this... thing want of us?" he murmured.
"If I knew, I would not still be here," Nera answered.
Miss Morrow!" Lord Meare whirled around to face her.
"You were expecting someone else?" She was amused.
"No ... That is..." The viscount appeared flustered. "I did not hear you come in."
"I am here now," she gently replied. "You wished to speak to me?"
"Yes..." He ran a hand through his hair, tousling it and no doubt headed for a lecture from his valet. "I hardly know where to begin."
"The beginning is a good place."
"Yes, the beginning. What are your expectations, Miss Morrow, as they pertain to myself?"
Nera was confused. "I do not understand, my lord. What expectations?"
"I can tell you now, Miss Morrow, that I am not paying court to you, nor should you expect that in the future!" he continued, as if she had not spoken.
"I do not expect it now, my lord, or ever."
"You should know that I ... What?" It was his turn to be confused. "You do not think I have been paying marked attention to you this past week?"
"Attention, yes, but not marked. Whom else are you to speak with? My aunt? My sister, as you have no doubt noticed, does not say much, whereas I am quite outspoken. As there were no other young people in the household at the time, what were you to do? Now, I suppose, with so many diversions, you will be splitting your time amongst all the people. That I do expect, my lord, though I do not think my opinion counts in all this." She did not know whether to be insulted or entertained by his assumption, so she chose amusement. After all, none of this mattered in the end.
"So you are not expecting me to offer for your hand?"
"No. Were you planning on it?"
"Excellent. Then I am free to go?"
"What? Oh, yes! Good evening, Miss Morrow."
"Good evening." Nera dropped a curtsy and went to bed with a smile on her face.
After Miss Morrow had retired, Drew sat in the library by himself for a short while, reluctant to return to the billiard room where the guests, he was certain, could entertain themselves.
"She doesn't want me," he said for the tenth time. "How could she not want me?" He knew it was the height of conceit, but he was Viscount Meare, or would be, officially, in less than two weeks' time. What young lady did not wish to be a viscountess, and, eventually, a countess? Miss Cranston or Miss Thompson would accept him without hesitation, and even his young cousin, Tamara, would consider it advantageous. Miss Woodbury would know she could not get a better offer, but her mother was as much a social climber as Lady Sandwell. Even if she did not like him, she would be forced to make the alliance.
What was wrong with Miss Morrow? She, of all the young ladies, with the exception of her sister, should want to become his wife. She had her mother's reputation to live down, after all, and would be above reproach as a viscountess. Drew hated to admit it, but Miss Morrow's attitude rankled. He might just have to do something about it, but what could he do that would not be misconstrued?
"Make her fall for me anyway?" he wondered, feeling the veriest cad for even having such a thought. Evidently something or someone felt the same way, because the top book on the stack next to him flew off and smacked him in the back of his head.
"Who's there?" he asked, bewildered. The room was quiet -- no one else was around.
The first full day of the house party dawned bright and clear, and when Nera woke, it was to find Bianca gone and a maid waiting with a cup of tea. She was helped into her gown and invited to share breakfast with the rest of the party in the main morning parlor. As it was not too far from the library, Nera agreed and made her way there, where she found Miss Wilkes and most of the gentlemen at the table.
The earl signaled to a footman to provide Miss Morrow with tea, and another servant held out a chair between the colonel and his sister.
"Is it true, Miss Morrow, that your aunt is famous for telling fortunes?" Miss Wilkes asked, wide-eyed, as toast and jam were placed in front of Nera on the table.
"I do not know that she tells fortunes, Miss Wilkes. She lives very quietly these days."
"Mama says she used to entertain everyone at house parties with her readings and cards. Perhaps she might do so here?"
"You will have to ask her yourself," Nera prevaricated, not wanting to commit her aunt to anything.
"I believe I shall."
"If she requires persuading," the colonel said to his sister, "the dowager might be of some assistance."
"Excellent notion, Rand!" She sat back happily, contemplating her future, as Nera requested eggs and ham from the sideboard.
"Your sister is not an early riser?" the colonel enquired.
"She is, sir, but has something else besides breakfast to occupy her this morning." She hoped it sounded as if Bianca had a fitting or something, and was not off communing with ghosts in the library.
"I see. If you ladies will excuse me, then, I have finished breakfast and I have some business to attend to." He rose and bowed, waved to the other gentlemen and left the room.
Nera did not think anything of his disappearance, as she was immediately distracted by Miss Wilkes and food. It was not until later, when she appeared in the library that she discovered the colonel's ‘business.' He was seated on a reading table, one Hessian boot swinging off the side, and contemplating a stack of books.
"It is like this most nights, you say?" he was quizzing Bianca.
"Not as much now that he has gained someone's attention," she replied. "But it is his fault he is not getting his message across since my arrival," she said tartly, eyeing the books. "It is as if he were drawing all this out."
"Perhaps he is waiting for something?"
"I wish he would tell me. You do not think it odd that I can talk to him?" she wondered, cocking her head to one side.
"Nonsense! This house has been haunted ever since I can remember -- when we were children, we used to sneak out of the nursery at night and hunt for the White Lady."
"She is a shy creature, and no doubt led you and your cousin on a merry chase."
"Not Drew!" the colonel said with a barking laugh. "He stayed in bed! Said ghosts do not exist. But Uncle Robert and I knew better. They are here."
"Definitely. I've counted several, although this one is my main focus."
"I am certain he is... Did you feel that?" he asked, in awe rather than in fear.
"Feel what?" Bianca asked, her lips twisting into a smile.
"Something just patted me on the back."
Bianca gave him a slow smile, as if pleased to have found a kindred spirit amongst so many unbelievers.
"I am not surprised his lordship did not go on your midnight ghost hunts with you," Nera said, coming fully into the room and gaining their attention. "He has stated time and again that he does not believe in them."
"Still doesn't, eh?" the colonel asked. "What a shame."
Especially since he was going to be living with a medium the rest of his life, Nera thought. Of all the hare-brained things Fate had come up with, this pairing had to be the worst. If she had not seen the vision personally, she never would have believed it. But the scenes were never wrong. It was all very confusing.
"Colonel Wilkes is going to arrange for all the young ladies to meet in the stables this afternoon, Nera, to choose horses. I am looking forward to being on horseback again!" Bianca said with real delight.
"I am, as well!" her sister assured her. "But what shall we wear?"
"Aunt Muriel says she will provide us with something suitable, and not to worry. We shall be there, Colonel," Bianca assured him.
"Excellent! It would not be the same if you were not in attendance," he said gallantly, and she blushed.
Nera looked with interest from the colonel to her sister and back again. Was there going to be a problem here? The gentleman was clearly attracted to Bianca, although there was little wonder there. Most men were. But Nera did not know a polite way to warn him off, even if he would end up getting hurt. She did not want that, either.
The Wilkes family had been so nice, not holding the past against her. She could not say that about anyone else yet, although Miss Woodbury had seemed polite enough to Bianca the evening before.
The viscount poked his head in the library door, nodded to the Morrow sisters and noted the colonel's presence. True to his agreement, he diverted the colonel's attention to the stables, asking if he would help him choose mounts for the ladies in advance. As the colonel had already shown interest in this matter, he readily agreed, and they left.
"The colonel is a nice gentleman," Nera tentatively noted, thinking to sound her sister out before this went too far. She had seen sometimes how Fate pushed people into certain situations, initially against their will. In the end, they always seemed happy, or at least resigned to their future, but at some cost to themselves or others.
"He noted my absence at breakfast, came looking for me and said he was certain books were not as appetizing as bacon," Bianca said with a smile. "Even better -- he is a believer!"
"I heard." It was worse than she feared, if he shared her sister's thoughts on that subject, especially when the viscount did not. Still, there was time to show Lord Meare that there were things of another plane on this world.
"Have you developed a tendre for Colonel Wilkes?" she asked bluntly.
Bianca blushed. "No! I only met him yesterday!"
"You and I both know that has nothing to do with it."
"True. William tells me he is an honorable man."
"Aha!" Nera cried. "William is acquainted with the colonel!"
"Not necessarily," her sister pointed out. "If the Wilkeses have visited Sandwell for years, even a long-time spirit resident is going to be able to vouch for his character."
Be that as it may, Nera had her suspicions as to William's identity, and if he recommended the colonel, he must have known him in life.
"What does William say about the immediate family, then?" Nera was no gossip, but if the library ghost was sabotaging Fate's efforts to bring Bianca and the viscount together, she wished to know about it.
"He says the earl is weak and guided by his wife. The countess is a social-climbing shrew. The young viscount and the missing heir are the only two worth a tinker's damn."
As Bianca was rattling this off in a clinical manner, Nera merely nodded and did not comment on the profanity. Sometimes Bianca did not realize what she was repeating.
"Did Lady Eleanor not tell you that her eldest son ran off to India years ago? If he can be produced by a certain date, he will be the next earl."
Actually, Nera had forgotten the dowager's words. The arrival of the viscount into that meeting had distracted her.
"Supposedly, Lady Sandwell is coinciding the date with a ball in two weeks. She plans to announce her official ascension to her title at that time."
"Fascinating! Does William know where the heir is?" Some spirits, such as Maurice, could move between astral planes to discover such things, or gain information from others of their kind.
"If he or Maurice know, they are not saying a word," Bianca said sadly.
"That means Lord Meare would become merely a mister..." Nera mused. "What a pity." She knew she did not sound sincere.
"Not necessarily. William says his lordship's character could handle a change in his life situation. And if the missing gentleman is unmarried, it is possible his brother and nephew could still inherit, eventually."
"Would it bother you if he became Mister Lambert?" Nera wondered.
"Why should it?"
Nera had not realized she had asked that question aloud. "No reason. I wonder what some of these other guests would think, should the eldest son be found?"
Bianca giggled. "He would not be so sought after, would he?"
Nera laughed, too. "No, he would not." She was not so sure he wouldn't be devastated, though, no matter what William told her sister.
"Shall we go back to our room now, and see what Aunt Muriel has come up with for riding clothes?" Bianca suggested.
"That sounds like a wonderful idea," Nera agreed.
The riding clothes turned out to be two full habits that Lady Eleanor had ordered retrieved from the attics, and cleaned and mended for the young ladies.
Nera's was a black poplin skirt full enough to fit over the saddle without getting in the way, a white silk blouse and a black jacket with white frogs and black velvet trim. A dark felt hat with a white feather completed the ensemble.
"You look beautiful!" Bianca exclaimed as Nera stood in front of a cheval mirror looking at herself with real pleasure. The outfit suited her down to the ground. "And there will not be a lady to hold a candle to you on the field."
"I am not in any sort of competition," she reminded her sister.
"Does it matter? No one will be able to look down on you when you look so poised and elegant. I know how you are on horseback."
"A bruising rider, is she?" Lady Eleanor asked Bianca. "Then she will do quite well with one of Drew's more spirited fillies."
"A sedate mount will do for me," Nera said. "May I remind you that I am no competitor?"
"Pooh!" Lady Eleanor turned to Bianca and held out a periwinkle linen habit. "You will look the veriest angel in this. I am so fortunate that riding styles do not come and go as quickly as other fashions. These belonged to the late wife of my eldest son and I am certain she would want you to have them."
"Your son was married?"
"Mercy me, yes! To the sweetest young lady you ever met. Sadly, she died in childbirth, the babe with her, and he was never the same. He ran off to India soon after that. We have been trying to get in touch with him, you know ..."
Nera was touched by the sadness in Lady Eleanor's eyes and she took her hand and squeezed it. "I hope he comes home to you, or lets you know in some way that he is still alive."
"He is alive," Bianca said suddenly, as surprised as the rest of them that such words popped out of her mouth. "Maurice just told me it is so. Where he is, I do not know. Maurice is being rather close-mouthed about this entire business." She spoke accusingly, but Nera knew it was not directed at the living.
"Maurice has his own reasons for doing things," Nera reminded her. "You know that better than any one."
The young ladies of the party, along with any brothers and fathers they might have, were assembled in the stables to receive horses to use for the duration of their visit. Nera was impressed in spite of herself over the length and breadth of Sandwell's choices, and the colonel, who had escorted his sister, Nera and Bianca outside, told her it was all due to his cousin, Lord Meare.
"Drew will no doubt modestly deny this, but the expansion of the Sandwell stables came about through his extensive efforts. Each foal is carefully planned through bloodline research."
Much like she had heard of marriage alliances made in London, Nera thought with a small smile. It was just as well Bianca would not have to go through that torture after all.
"Who is first?" the viscount asked the ladies. "Ah, Miss Cranston!" That girl was waving her arms and jumping up and down.
"I am the highest ranking of us all," she reminded him.
"Of course," he murmured. "Do you like to hunt, Miss Cranston?"
"Oh, yes!" she insisted. "That is, if you do, my lord."
Nera rolled her eyes. How obvious could one girl get?
"I hunt, too, my lord," Miss Thompson said, moving forward.
"My Geraldine is a capital rider," Mr. Thompson agreed.
"Very well, then, Miss Thompson, you may have Bettina, and Miss Cranston will ride Paulette."
"What did he do?" the colonel wondered under his breath. "Name them all after opera dancers?"
Beside him, Nera put a hand to her mouth.
"Miss Woodbury may have Ophelia for the length of her stay, and Wilhelmina will be at my cousin Miss Wilkes' disposal."
"Or courtesans," Nera whispered, which brought grins to her companions' faces.
"Miss Bianca? I thought this white Arabian might suit you," Lord Meare said, gaining their attention. "Her name is Henrietta."
"I chose her for you," the colonel said softly. "So do not give Drew the credit for that one."
"And Miss Morrow, you will be pleased, I think, with Belle." He indicated a roan mare in the stall in front of her, a beautiful creature with a white star on her forehead.
"She is darling!" Nera cried, moving forward to pet her. The viscount stayed her with a hand for but a moment, handed her an apple, and then allowed her to proceed.
Nera could have spent all day being nuzzled by the horse, who was friendly and had taken to her immediately, but the gentlemen were moving towards horses of their own and the stable hands had saddles ready for the ladies' mounts. It was only then that Nera realized she and her sister were not out of place in their borrowed habits. The other girls were arrayed in similar outfits. Making a mental note to thank Lady Eleanor later, she stood aside to allow a groom to put a sidesaddle on Belle.
The horse proved to be as sweet in the field as she was in the stall, and Nera, finding herself in the center of the pack of riders, reveled in being on horseback once more.
"You seem to be enjoying this, Miss Morrow," the elder Mr. Thompson said as Lord Meare led them on a ride to a stone circle in the vicinity.
"Very much so!" she replied with a brilliant smile. "I have not ridden in ages, so this is a rare treat."
"You keep no horses at home?"
Nera laughed. "One horse to pull my aunt's gig, but truly, we live so quietly, we scarce notice the deprivation."
"I am not certain I could live without my horses."
"You must hunt, then." Nera could remember her father's string of hunters, and his obsession with the sport. Perhaps her mother's defection had some basis in fact, after all. Nera knew she would not wish to be ignored for the sake of a hobby that could be so time consuming it superseded everything else in life.
"To give Lord Meare credit, however, most of his horses are bred for speed on the race track, not how well they take a fence."
"He prefers a point-to-point, then, over a steeple chase?"
"Lord Meare!" Mr. Thompson called ahead. "Miss Morrow seems to share some of your knowledge of horse racing!"
Nera flushed when the viscount, who was in front with Miss Cranston and Miss Thompson, turned his head.
"Is that so?"
"I have never been to a race before," she protested, "but I have read books on the subject. I am hardly a proficient."
"Some people should not put themselves forward on false pretenses," Miss Cranston said piously.
"She did not put herself forward," Lord Meare noted. "Mr. Thompson did."
"Truly, I did not wish to call attention to myself," Nera demurred.
"I beg your pardon, Miss Morrow," Mr. Thompson apologized when the viscount's attention was diverted by Miss Thompson over a wayside rabbit. "I suppose I am used to a young lady who requires constant amusing."
"It is of no moment, Mr. Thompson," she assured him.
"Still, I find it refreshing for a young lady not to put herself forward."
Nera wanted to point out that the only ladies doing so now were his daughter and Miss Cranston, but that would be rude. Miss Woodbury rode next to Bianca, who was also flanked by the colonel, and Miss Wilkes was conversing with the younger Mr. Thompson.
When they reached the stone circle, it was to find a small marquee had been set up off to one side by the Sandwell servants, and refreshments were available for the thirsty riders. Nera was helped out of the saddle by Mr. Thompson, who also insisted on procuring her a glass of lemonade.
"I was correct in choosing Belle for you, Miss Morrow," Lord Meare said as she tethered her mount. "You have a good seat."
"Why... Thank you, my lord," she said, flustered, and he grinned at her before moving on to his other guests.
After thirsts had been quenched, most of the party set out to explore the stones.
"In this part of Somerset we do not boast as large a circle as Stonehenge, as you can see," Lord Meare explained, "but some are still impressive."
Nera had to agree. The stones were of monolithic proportions when one was standing below them, and she was amazed at how precisely they were placed.
"Do the locals come out here and dance around them under a full moon?" Miss Thompson playfully asked of the viscount.
"Or are they haunted by a pair of lovers who could not be together in life?" Miss Cranston wondered, not to be outdone.
"There are no such things as ghosts," Lord Meare stiffly replied. "As for the locals, Miss Thompson, I doubt it."
He might be surprised, then, Nera thought with a smirk. Superstitions and strange customs abounded in most villages and she doubted this area was any different. Lord Meare did not believe, however, so his father's tenants did not, either, by association. Ha.
Nera had nothing against such practices, even though her own family's talents were not based on mysticism. They had occasionally been labeled witches, but Aunt Muriel, who had always been tolerant of the local practitioners of witchcraft, knew they were completely different. She had made certain her great-nieces knew how to recognize witches, and show respect for their work. She wondered if there were any in this vicinity, or if they had all been weeded out by the narrow-minded Lord Meare.
"No ghosts of lovers, Miss Cranston," Bianca said, "but there is an old hermit who likes it here."
"A ghost hermit?"
Hermits on one's land were all the rage, Nera had recently learned, and she had been surprised that wealthy landowners allowed such things on their estates. There was no accounting for some peoples' tastes.
"No," Bianca was saying. "A live hermit."
"How do you know?" Miss Thompson snidely asked.
If the ability to act as rudely as Lady Sandwell was the main criteria for becoming the next viscountess, Nera thought, it would be a toss-up between Miss Thompson and Miss Cranston for the position. A pair of nastier young ladies she had never met in her life.
"What is this place used for then?" Miss Woodbury asked.
"The celebration of the seasons, and nothing more," Bianca replied. "Although the ancient Druids performed rituals here in times gone past."
Nera saw her sister nod respectfully at nothing anyone else could see and supposed a Druid must still be in residence.
The sun was warm on Nera's face and she said she was going to sit down in the shade of the marquee and enjoy some more lemonade. Mr. Thompson offered to escort her.
"I would not be surprised if you ended up with a stepmother," Miss Cranston said to Miss Thompson as they watched Miss Morrow leave the stone circle.
"What do you mean by that?" Drew heard Miss Thompson ask.
"Surely you have noticed the way your father has been sniffing around Miss Morrow since they met? ‘Ride with me, Miss Morrow! Let me walk you back to the marquee, Miss Morrow!'" she mocked.
Drew frowned. It was true Mr. Thompson was a widower, but he was old enough to be Miss Morrow's father. He knew gentlemen who married much younger ladies, of course, but usually when they did not already have an heir, and Mr. Thompson's son looked healthy enough. The Thompsons were not titled, but they were an old family with plenty of the ready. Miss Morrow could do worse, and Mr. Thompson would be able to overlook that lady's mother's damage to the family's reputation. The thought of her married to that gentleman, however, left a bad taste in his mouth. In Miss Thompson's, as well, if her sour expression was any indication.
"I think I shall join them for some lemonade," she said and excused herself.
Miss Cranston smiled in triumph, having effectively eliminated any and all competition for the moment. Drew, however, had no intention of being snared by any young lady. He had meant every word he ever said to his mother on the subject. He was not yet ready to marry. Besides, there was still time for Uncle Robert to reappear, and if that happened, Drew knew he and his father would gratefully withdraw from the lists.
Indeed, he did not even draw an allowance from his family. He had an inheritance from his maternal grandmother that had been invested in both the ‘Change and in a horse farm in Lincolnshire. True, he stayed in the family townhouse in London, but they all used that residence at their convenience. His mother had always preferred to live in town, as long as he could recall, but the earl was most often found at Sandwell, even when Drew's grandfather was alive. The two men had enjoyed similar agricultural pursuits. It had been expedient, however, for Drew's mother and grandmother to live apart, so Lady Eleanor had graciously conceded the townhouse to her daughter-in-law.
A part of Drew, even now, wished his Uncle Robert to reappear, so that he was not forced to entertain young ladies such as Miss Thompson and Miss Cranston. They would give him short shrift, he was certain, if he were plain Mr. Lambert.
"Will you walk with me to that cunning copse over there, Lord Meare?" Miss Cranston indicated a small clearing off to one side of the circle with her parasol. "What are those adorable creatures scampering about?"
"Those are squirrels, Miss Cranston," he dryly replied. "Are you not at all acquainted with them?"
Oh, squirrels!" she exclaimed. "I know what those are! Still, I have never seen one in the wild."
"Not even in Hyde Park?" he wondered, incredulously.
"Aren't they put away every evening in town?"
"I will gladly escort you over to them, Miss Cranston," the younger Mr. Thompson offered.
"Oh, no. If Lord Meare insists they are the same as in Hyde Park, I have no need to see them here." She unfurled her sunshade and wandered off, leaving the two young men to look at each other in bewilderment and exasperation.
"I should like above anything to fix Miss Cranston's interest," Mr. Thompson confessed. "She is a goddess!"
Drew wanted to tell the other man what Miss Cranston really was, but he did not want Mr. Thompson to draw his cork. The lady wasn't worth brawling over. Besides, he was too busy keeping an eye on the older Mr. Thompson and Miss Morrow, who had been joined by Miss Thompson. To her credit, Miss Morrow seemed to be friendly toward a stupid chit who had yet to be civil. Good manners showed, his grandmother always said.
Miss Bianca laughed and caught his attention, and he was pleased to note how well she enjoyed his cousin's company. That would be a good match. His Wilkes cousins were honest and unpretentious, and rather fanciful, so they could well tolerate a lady with Miss Bianca's notions. He did not think her delusional, and would have counseled against her if he thought she was insane. No, she was just... different. Such a difference would be accepted by the Wilkses, where it would not be tolerated elsewhere.
He would have to encourage Rand and Miss Bianca to spend some time getting to know each other better, and laughed at his ideas of matchmaking. If he could, he would put Mr. Thompson with Miss Cranston, despite his own misgivings about the lady.
If Mr. Thompson was looking for a second wife, Miss Woodbury would suit him just fine, but not Miss Morrow. No, Miss Morrow deserved something better. He was just not quite sure what. Or whom.
The next morning, Nera skipped breakfast in the main parlor. Mr. Thompson had been paying her marked attention the day before, and while she was flattered that he gave her quiet compliments and was concerned for her well-being, she was rather uncomfortable around him and his daughter. Especially when Miss Thompson made not-so-veiled references to her father not needing a new wife. It amused her to think she was a candidate for that position, until she realized the young lady's father was not put off by his daughter's words. Hence her avoidance of the Thompsons the next day.
Instead of going to the library with Bianca, however, she decided to take a turn in the garden. The countess -- or perhaps the dowager before her -- had outfitted the formal gardens with marble statues, fountains and a folly that resembled a Greek temple. It was not exactly her style, so she went further afield, in search of a bit of wilderness. It seemed to suit her mood that morning.
That was how she managed to stumble across the hermit's hut at the edge of the manicured park. It was a small stone building, a one-room shelter, she surmised, considering its size. A shaggy-haired, bearded man with piercing black eyes sat in the doorway, a clay pipe in his mouth.
"Good day to you," she said politely when he did not run away. He nodded in reply, but did not speak.
"I am Miss Morrow," she introduced herself, not sure what else to say.
"A guest up at the house?" he asked in a rusty voice.
It was her turn to nod. "A guest of sorts," she clarified, lest anyone, even a hermit, get the wrong idea.
"Of sorts?" He smiled in amusement.
"My aunt and sister and I are guests of the dowager, not the current countess."
"She's a lovely person. Aunt Muriel has known her for years and years."
"You know her?" Nera was excited by that, even though she did not know why.
"Word gets out," was all he said.
"I suppose it does." Her stomach, still empty, took that moment to rumble, and the hermit broke into an understanding grin. Nera noted that his teeth were whole and bright, and that surprised her somewhat. What sort of person became a hermit?
"Want some bread?" A clean hand reached out with a roll for her and she took it, again amazed that someone who lived in such primitive surroundings could be so clean.
"Thank you." Nera did not waste much time consuming the roll, and by the time she was done, he had produced a tankard of cider for her to wash it down with. She polished that off, too, and he gave her another brilliant smile.
"I have to run along now, but it was very nice meeting you, sir."
"And you, Miss." With a final nod, he got up and disappeared into his hut.
Nera continued her walk and found a path that ended up circling back into the formal gardens. There she found her sister walking with the colonel, both of them participating in an animated conversation. It was the most interaction her sister had with someone besides her family or the dead in years, and it was unfortunate that their newfound friendship could go no further.
She stepped up the pace to interrupt them when she was hailed by Lord Meare.
"Good morning, Miss Morrow! We missed you at breakfast!"
Nera prayed she was not wearing any crumbs as she told the viscount that she had not been hungry. "I was in the mood for a walk," she confessed.
"How did you enjoy the ride yesterday?" he asked.
"It was wonderful! Thank you so much for the use of Belle!" This she could reply to sincerely, because she had been very pleased with the mare.
"I am glad you enjoyed your ride and were pleased with Belle. I have a farm in Lincolnshire where I breed my own horses."
"That is what I have been told. I find it odd that a titled gentleman such as yourself engages in actual work. You do physical work on your farm, do you not?"
"Indeed, I do, when I am not in London managing funds and doing the pretty for my mother's sake."
"You prefer the country?" Singular.
"Indeed, I do," he repeated with a boyish grin. "You must not have met many noblemen, Miss Morrow, to have such a limited view of us. We are not all idle wastrels."
"I never said you were."
"You did not have to. Your face gives you away."
"Every emotion you feel, every thought you have flits across your features for the veriest second."
"Prove it!" she cried, alarmed that she could be read so easily.
"You think I am good for nothing but gracing Almack's with my presence," he said with a smug smile. "Or, barring that, indulging in such a dissipated lifestyle, I have little use for an honest day's work."
Nera gasped. It was as if he had Aunt Muriel's talent for reading minds. Yet he said he got his information from her face.
He shot her a triumphant look. "I assure you, Miss Morrow, I am not such a frippery fellow as all that."
"So I see."
"Excellent! I could not rest easy if you thought me a profligate. What have you planned for the day?"
"Miss Wilkes has offered to give me lessons in the waltz."
"You do not know the steps?"
"I have not yet been in a situation to learn them, my lord. My family and I live a quiet existence in a sleepy village, except those times when my aunt's services are required by some family or other. Even then we are not exactly honored guests. We are more like..."
"Rat catchers? He suggested in her pause.
Nera laughed in spite of herself. "A rather apt description. We come in, solve a problem and then leave." She doubted the spirits would appreciate being called rats, but it was definitely similar.
"About those dance lessons," he said.
"Shall we go find my cousin together? I wonder how she planned to teach you without music, or without a partner should she play for you. Does your sister know the steps?"
"She is as ignorant of them as I."
"Very well, then, she should be included in the instruction." He called to the colonel and Bianca, and asked them all to follow him across the lawn to a series of terraced French windows.
"The ballroom," he announced, throwing open a set of doors at one end of the terrace. Miss Wilkes looked up from the pianoforte with a smile.
"Rand! Drew! How perfect!"
"We are here to offer ourselves as partners," the viscount told her.
"I looked for you earlier to ask if you would oblige me in this, but it does not signify now that you are here. Will you walk the ladies through this first, without music?" she requested.
"I would be happy to," her brother agreed. "Will you partner me, Miss Bianca?"
Nera's eyes flashed. This was not how it was supposed to happen! But her sister agreed with alacrity, leaving Nera to the viscount. Perhaps his lordship might become jealous. That might work. With a lighter heart, she curtsied to Lord Meare as he bowed. However, when he put a hand on her waist, she jumped and turned a rosy red.
"I am not so certain this is correct, my lord." She had heard this dance was scandalous, but she never knew why. Now she did. The gentleman actually held the lady while they danced! Across the way, Bianca was blushing, too, but she did not attempt to remove the colonel's hand. Nera hoped the viscount saw it.
"Now, Miss Morrow, we put your hand on my shoulder."
Nera could not believe the gentleman would stand this close, and she tried to look anywhere but at his face. Unfortunately, looking down only brought the rest of his body into view, and her thoughts were as scandalous as this dance. She averted her eyes sideways and concentrated on her sister's efforts.
"Look at me, Miss Morrow," Lord Meare commanded, and her eyes flew back to his face.
"You must put your other hand in mine," he instructed, humor gleaming in his dark eyes.
"Yes, my lord," she agreed, although she was still looking at his face and could not have said when her hand joined with his.
"Very good. Now, I am going to count and lead you around the room, and you follow. One, two, three; one, two three..." he said.
Nera looked down and watched his feet for a moment, and it occurred to her that her opposite feet must move in the same pattern. She faltered, but his hand on her waist supported her, and she was kindly instructed to start over.
"I am sorry," she tried to apologize, but he readily excused her.
"It takes some practice not only to master the steps, but to become used to being held by a gentleman."
"Yes, it does take some getting used to."
"Am I upsetting you, Miss Morrow?"
"N-n-no, my lord." Not in the way he meant, at least. How did you tell a gentleman that you were beginning to enjoy the physical contact? You did not. Or you did and were labeled a wanton, or worse.
"Ah, I see you are comprehending the steps," he said, causing her to look down and trip over her own feet. "Do not look down," he suggested. "Look up here. You will learn not to concentrate on your feet so that you may converse with your partner."
"People talk while they do this?" she wondered.
He chuckled. "Yes, they do. You will understand once you have practiced more. Cousin Tamara?" he called. "Are we ready to add music?"
She nodded. "Miss Bianca is doing very well, indeed, and Miss Morrow might find it easier to put the steps to a rhythm." Miss Wilkes turned to the pianoforte keys and struck up a tune in three-quarter time.
Nera paused for a moment, got the timing into her head and looked into the viscount's eyes.
"I am here to support you," he assured her, and she recalled that he could read her face.
"Thank you," she murmured.
"It is my pleasure."
After a half hour or so of being propelled around the ballroom, Nera was more than in agreement when the viscount called a halt. As if on cue, a servant came in with a tray of lemonade, and they all surged forward gratefully for the cool drink.
That was when Nera got a good look at her surroundings. They were in the ballroom of her vision, and she almost dropped her glass in surprise.
"Are you feeling quite the thing, Miss Morrow?" Lord Meare asked solicitously, leading her over to a small gilt chair.
"I ... I am fine, my lord," she assured him. "I was just startled by a thought, was all."
Bianca, taking a seat next to her, patted her hand, even though she did not know of this specific vision. She was, however, used to her sister getting these odd expressions on her face. Was she that transparent to everyone? The thought was sobering.
Yes, this was the same ballroom -- sans people and lit candles, of course. The same polished wood floor, the same gods and goddesses on the ceiling, the same mauve velvet curtains. It was very odd to see the same room as in her dream, but not the same.
"Your mother's ball is at the end of her party?" she asked faintly.
"Plenty of time to practice the waltz before then," the colonel said jovially.
"Yes, there is," she murmured, although that was not at all what she was thinking.
"We shall be right here to support you," the viscount said, just as he had said during the dance.
"Yes, thank you," was her weak reply. And she noticed that he had never once appeared to be jealous of his cousin's attentions to her sister. She was going to have to work on that.
©2007, 2008 Copyright held by the author.