The tall, thin blonde running up the front drive was wet, her bonnet askew and dripping, and not an umbrella in sight. She was laughing and waving her reticule, heedless of the freezing rain.
"Amy!" she called again as she reached the portico that covered the drive in front of the manor.
Her sister, a darker-haired and slightly-older young lady standing just inside the front door, fussed over the girl and did not give her a chance to tell her news until she had been ushered up to her room, stripped of her clothing and immersed in a hot hip bath.
"Amy! I picked up the post when I went into the village today and you will never guess who has written to you and I!"
Amy had no idea. After all, few people wrote to them or their reclusive parent, even more so in the past year since their mother had died. The family, which consisted of their baronet father, Sir Lionel Harte, themselves and their father's Cousin Minerva, had just gotten out of black clothes.
Amy was one and twenty, and would have been preparing for another season in London had she not been in mourning. Lucy, at nineteen, should have been presented the year before. Now it seemed as if none of that would be possible. Their mother had been the only person concerned for their futures. Or so they had recently concluded. Their father was too absentminded to notice and their cousin... It was just after Christmas and they were certain they were doomed to spend the spring in the Cotswolds.
"Achoo!" Lucy sneezed. By the sound of things, Lucy would be in bed for a few days. "Oh, no!" She sneezed again. "That letter is from Lady Linvale! An invitation to come to her winter house party!"
Amy assisted Lucy out of the tub and stood by with a warmed nightrail as her sister toweled dry.
"I'm sure it won't matter. Cousin Minerva will advise against it and Papa will agree with whatever she decides," Amy glumly replied.
"But if he should say yes," Lucy persisted, "you must go. The viscountess has five sons. Five! One is the viscount, one is a major in the army..."
"...And one is a clergyman, I suppose," Amy tartly replied. It was the British way. The first son received the property and the title, the second went into the Army and the third went into the Church. Amy wondered what the other two sons did for a living.
"How do you know all this?"
"Lady Linvale. You were at school, it seemed, whenever she would visit." Lucy, of a more delicate constitution than her sister, had stayed home with a governess. "She's a lovely lady, Amy -- you would like her."
"I am sure I should. If only..." Lucy sneezed again and Amy hustled her into bed, her words forgotten as she urged her sister to get some rest.
Sir Lionel Harte was a scholarly gentleman, given to pondering ancient civilizations and not paying much attention to the world about him. Dinner conversation usually revolved around Greek government and Roman ruins, and that evening was no exception.
Lucy's ill health was acknowledged with a nod from her father and an admonishment from her cousin not to bother Sir Lionel with such things. "But if she is worse in the morning," Cousin Minerva said with a simper when the baronet looked surprised at her words, "we shall send for the apothecary."
Amy hid a smile even as she politely agreed. Cousin Minerva Blakeley had set her cap at the baronet the minute she had set foot in the house, cementing her position by handling the household -- including the young ladies -- agreeing with everything he said and cutting expenses in half.
Their cousin's cheese-paring ways, no doubt, accounted for Lucy's illness. The late Lady Harte had kept umbrellas and such for general use, but Cousin Minerva hated to provide the servants and the young ladies with luxuries, as she called them, and had not replaced them when they ripped or broke.
She was also going to disapprove of any invitations the girls received, which was why Amy had to approach her father alone. She knew her cousin would expect her to adjourn to the drawing room with her immediately after dinner, so she had to head that off first.
Stay in the dining room with her father or follow him to his study...
In an innocent voice her sister would be proud of, Amy said over dessert (which consisted of a few grapes, a small wedge of cheese and a piece of melon) that she was sure she had spied a few peaches in the kitchens that afternoon and she was surprised not to see a slice on her plate.
Cousin Minerva's parsimonious nose twitched. She hadn't ordered peaches. What were peaches doing in the kitchens? Excusing herself, that lady ran off as fast as her size-too-small slippers could carry her.
Amy heard the footman behind her snicker, but she did not dare follow suit. The servants did not care for either Cousin Minerva or her cook, and neither did the Harte sisters. Amy felt no qualms about turning her cousin onto that particular servant.
Once Minerva was out of the way, Amy pulled the letter out of the back of her sash. Her father was pondering Pompeii and polishing off Cousin Minerva's fruit and cheese, his own already consumed. Amy pushed her own plate over, which caught his attention.
"Not hungry, my dear? You will keep me posted about Lucinda, won't you?"
"Of course, Papa. And look what I have!" She held out the letter and he obediently took it. He paused a couple of times in its reading, but only to beam at his eldest daughter.
"How kind of her. Naturally, you and your sister must go. Lady Linvale was your mother's dearest friend and it is less than a day's journey."
Amy was all smiles at this pronouncement. "Thank you, Papa!" She threw her arms about his neck and kissed him heartily on the cheek. "Papa?"
"You won't mention this to Cousin Minerva, will you?"
"Why ever not?"
"She is not invited, for one, and I did not want her to feel bad because of it," Amy said piously. "If we could tell her when Lady Linvale's carriage arrives..." The servants would enjoy the subterfuge, she was certain, as evidenced by the wink she received from the other footman behind her father's back.
"An excellent notion. The poor woman has few friends and there is no need to rub salt in the wound. Be certain to keep your preparations from coming to her notice, my dear. I have some correspondence to attend to in the study," he added, rising from his chair. "Including a note to the viscountess."
Amy rose with him and hugged him once more. She sighed with pleasure after he left the room.
"A house party!" she said to the footmen as they cleared the table. Wait till she told Lucy! "Would you be so kind as to inform Miss Blakeley that I have developed an ache in my head and am retiring for the rest of the evening?"
The two servants bowed their acceptance of this mission with wide smiles. Miss Blakeley abhorred illness of any sort.
Lucy, who would have squealed in delight at the prospect of a visit to Linvale Hall, was too sick to do more than give her sister a weak smile when she heard about the trip. Amy felt sorry for Lucy for catching a chill and also for leaving her behind with their cousin.
"But think of all the fun you shall have," Lucy said two days later, sitting up in bed and frowning over what their cousin thought of as appropriate invalid food -- a tiny bowl of jelly, a piece of dry toast and a cup of weak tea. "Think of the food! Not a custard in sight!" she said with disgust after searching her luncheon tray.
Amy chuckled and reached over to squeeze her sister's hand.
"Are you all packed?" Lucy knew she was -- Amy's trunks had been filled in her room, one their cousin hadn't set foot in since she had fallen ill. "I plan on feigning illness for a few days after your departure," she added with a laugh. "Anything to avoid Cousin Minerva once she realizes she has been thwarted."
"You had better stay in bed anyway," Amy advised when Lucy's laugh turned into a cough. Her sister was known for getting out of bed too soon and causing a relapse. When Lucy began to protest, Amy played her trump card.
"Mama would not be happy if you did not stay abed!"
Lucy unhappily agreed. "Besides, I must stay and make sure Cousin Minerva does not get her hooks in Papa."
"I do not think there is any danger of that." They giggled together. Their father had showed he could be more observant than they gave him credit for. He was visiting Lucy every morning and then announcing his activity at breakfast, ensuring that his cousin avoided him like the plague all day.
"You go, have a wonderful time, fall in love, get married and send for me. Once we are gone, Papa will send our cousin away and hire a housekeeper instead."
"I will go and have a good time. Lady Linvale will see to that. But fall in love? Get married? You may dream all you wish, little sister, but it's not likely to happen."
Amy left the house almost without a hitch the next morning. The trunks and bandboxes had been loaded onto the viscountess' carriage, Amy was dressed in her best traveling clothes and Sir Lionel was handing money over to his daughter when Cousin Minerva appeared suddenly in the main hall.
"What is this?" she demanded.
"Amelia has been invited to spend some time with an old friend of my late wife's," the baronet said at his absentminded best. "Did I not tell you?"
"No, you did not. Neither did anyone else." She glared about the room and her gaze landed on Amy. Amy gave her a sweet smile.
"Isn't it wonderful? A house party ending with a grand ball!" She was vague on purpose. If her cousin did not know where to find her or when she was to return, she could not call her home early on false pretenses. "And I cannot keep the horses waiting too long. Poor Lucy! I do wish she could have come..." She kissed her father goodbye.
"I have already been in to see your sister this morning and she has promised to stay in bed," her father replied. "We want her hale and hearty on your return."
Cousin Minerva, about to protest these entire proceedings, yelped and retreated back upstairs.
"Thank you, Papa," Amy whispered as she gave him a hug.
"I shall send Lucinda to you as soon as I can," he whispered in return.
Amy's smile was bright as she was handed into the carriage, where her ladyship's maid awaited. She waved out the window as long as she could and then settled down for the journey.
The journey was not above twenty miles and after a stop to change horses, Amy arrived at Linvale Hall in the late afternoon. The maid Lady Linvale sent to provide for her comfort along the way, named Sally, handed her over to Porter the butler as soon as she was ushered into the house. He greeted her with a formal air, one she hoped was not prevalent throughout the house. After all, she had heard Lady Linvale spoken of as relaxed and cheerful by her sister. If Lucy thought the viscountess was anything but relaxed and cheerful, she would have said so.
Her fears were groundless when a small, plump woman came down the stairs trailed by a tall, colorless young lady in gray.
"Miss Harte! I would know you anywhere! You look just like your dear mother..." Lady Linvale sniffled and seemed as if she might cry, but she bravely hugged Amy in welcome instead. "I am sorry Lucy could not come with you, but her health, naturally, is more important." The clock chimed five times and the viscountess jumped.
"Oh, dear! Time to dress for dinner. Would you like a tray in your room, or will you dine with the family?"
"I should like to come down for dinner." Amy was not overly tired and she was curious about Lady Linvale's sons.
"Wonderful! I'd like you to meet my companion, Miss Eleanor Winters. Ellie, why don't you show Miss Harte to her room. I'm so happy you are here!" she added, bouncing off to leave a smiling Amy and a quiet Miss Winters.
Amy liked her first impression of her hostess, but she had to wonder if the lady's companion could give her more insight into the Armstrongs. The girl was quiet as she took Amy up to the second floor, only speaking to explain that Amy, like herself and Lady Cynthia Shaw, were on that floor with the viscountess.
"The gentleman are on the first floor." There was no explanation, and Miss Winters gave no encouragement for the questions going around in Amy's head. But she forgot half of them anyway when she entered the bedchamber assigned to her.
"It's beautiful!" She had to go around the blue and white room and exclaim over the toile chair covers, the pale blue rug so plush she thought she might sink right into it, and the blue embroidery on the silk counterpane.
There was a tap at the door and Miss Winters admitted Sally. One of Amy's white gowns hung over her arm.
"I've taken the liberty, miss, of fetching one of your gowns and pressing it, seeing as your belongings won't be coming up till you've gone down to dinner."
"That's very kind of you, Sally."
"Her ladyship suggested it and said I was to fetch her blue paisley shawl fer you, too."
So Lady Linvale was kind and thoughtful, as well as energetic and cheerful.
Miss Winters excused herself to dress for dinner, leaving Amy with the maid. That girl seemed more chatty now that she was in her own home, but by the time Amy washed up, had her hair done and was being helped into the borrowed shawl, the gong rang and she was being met in the hall by the companion. There had been no time for questions.
Downstairs, in a gold and burgundy salon, she was given into Lady Linvale's care.
"Come meet the family! Ellie you have met, and my niece is not down yet, but I have five handsome sons!"
Amy was pulled over to where a dark-haired gentleman in regimentals was pouring drinks and she accepted a small sherry from him. His mother introduced him as Major Robert Armstrong.
"I understand your sister is feeling poorly," he said kindly after niceties were exchanged. "I hope she will be able to join us in a few days. Mama is so happy to have you here, she has organized more outings than twenty ladies could fit into one visit."
"Such cheek!" Lady Linvale exclaimed, but gave her son a fond grin. "He is eldest but one," she told Amy as they continued around the room. "And this is my middle child, the Rev. Thomas Armstrong."
Amy hid a smile -- her own estimation of the occupations of her ladyship's sons had been spot on.
"Here is Edward ... Edward, put that book down and make your bows to Miss Harte! Edward is a terribly clever educator at the Physicians College in London."
The fifth son was Charlie, a student at Cambridge where, it seemed, he was not yet certain of a career path.
"In the meantime, I am spending my holiday tutoring a neighbor's son in mathematics," that young man said.
"And courting that same neighbor's daughter," the major said with a laugh. Everyone but Miss Winters and a man standing by the mantle joined in.
"This, my dear Miss Harte, is my eldest son, Lord Linvale," her ladyship said, leading her over to the hearth. Introductions were made and then Lady Linvale went off to discover her absent niece's whereabouts.
Green-gray eyes glittered as the man Amy had just met looked down his aristocratic nose at his mother's guest.
"I hope you are not here to catch a husband, Miss Harte. I won't allow my brothers to be taken in so easily."
Amy gasped. The nerve of him, to just assume she was a husband hunter! She was no such thing, and she opened her mouth to give him a stinging set-down when a tall, beautiful blonde in pale blue silk stepped into the room.
"Cynthia!" The viscount strode forward to welcome the cold-eyed latecomer, leaving Amy with no audience for her blistering retort. She could only stand there and stare at the young lady with the rest of them, the reaction the girl no doubt had orchestrated and considered her due.
Lady Linvale detached her eldest son from Lady Cynthia's hand and brought the ice princess forward to be introduced to Amy.
"Cynthia, dear, this is our newest guest, Miss Harte. Amy, my niece, Lady Cynthia Shaw."
"How do you do?" Amy asked politely.
Lady Cynthia yawned and asked her aunt if there would be any outdoor activities on the morrow. "I hate going outside," she drawled.
Amy was appalled at the girl's lack of manners and Lady Linvale was turning an interesting shade of puce over the cut given to her guest. Without a by-your-leave, Lady Cynthia wandered over to where her cousins congregated, leaving Amy and her hostess to stare at each other.
Dinner was no less awkward. Amy was on her host's left, but he ignored her, spending the meal speaking to Lady Cynthia, on his right, of people only they seemed to know. Not that Amy was completely snubbed. Young Charlie Armstrong, on her left, kept up a string of bright chatter that kept her amused through some tender lamb, haricots vert, roasted duckling and braised celery, on into an apricot trifle, assorted jellies and a silver platter of sweetmeats.
Amy ate her dessert with enthusiasm, even after Lady Cynthia had turned it all down saying she didn't dare ruin her figure. Amy knew herself to be nicely rounded and also that she would manage to get in some exercise, so she ignored the other lady.
"I like to see a girl with a healthy appetite," Charlie said.
"I think someone has an admirer," Lady Cynthia said in a loud whisper to the viscount. He, in turn, glared at Amy as if it were all her fault.
"I think it is time we ladies retired to the drawing room," the viscountess said hastily, rising from her chair.
"Yes, ma'am," Miss Winters said meekly. "Shall I fetch a shawl from upstairs?"
"No, dear, I'm perfectly warm," Lady Linvale assured her as they headed down the hall.
"Besides, Miss, er, Guest will be glad to give yours back to you," Lady Cynthia said snidely.
"That will be enough!" her ladyship snapped. "Or else you may spend the rest of the evening writing to your father, explaining why you are going home early!" The viscountess stomped off, Miss Winters scampering behind.
Amy looked away from the furious Lady Cynthia and hurried after them. She was not surprised, either, when the other girl slipped into the drawing room a few minutes later, acting as if she had never been reprimanded in her life. Probably hadn't been, either.
"Miss Harte is definitely a diamond of the first water!" Charlie said enthusiastically after the ladies were gone and the covers had been removed from the table.
"You may think that if you wish," the viscount said stiffly.
"Oh, come now, Marcus," the major chided. "She's beautiful! Mama says her sister is at least her equal!" He picked up his glass of port and took Cynthia's recently vacated chair. "It's going to be a lovely holiday." All his brothers, except the eldest, laughed at his jest. "Even Cousin Ellie is not without her attributes."
"Cousin Ellie is kind," Professor Edward Armstrong said shyly. "Which is more than I can say for some people."
"You should not disparage our cousin in such a manner, Ned," the vicar insisted.
"We should pick on the Harte beauty instead?" Charlie teased.
"Of course not!"
"Why not?" the viscount asked. Everyone stared at him as if he had sprouted two heads and a horn.
"She's mother's guest!" the vicar said, as if that settled everything.
"And very nice," Charlie added.
"And beautiful," the major and professor said in unison.
"And obviously here to find a husband," the viscount insisted. His brothers all roared with laughter.
"Poor Marcus! Cynthia sets her cap for him and now he thinks everyone else is, too. Who's next?" the major cried.
"Cousin Ellie!" Charlie joked.
"I did not say Miss Harte was here for me," his lordship said defensively. "She might well have her mind set on any one of us."
"You're the true prize, though, Marcus," the vicar reminded him. "If she is after a husband, you will be her target."
"I've already warned her away from us all," came the angry reply. Again there was silence in the room. The major was the first to react.
"Tell me you are in jest, that you haven't already said something to her," he groaned.
"I think he has," Charlie said in a loud whisper. "She ignored him at dinner."
The other two brothers moaned and the vicar bowed his head, as if in prayer.
"A few words at the beginning of a visit will not go amiss."
"And won't you feel foolish, Marcus, when she goes home empty-handed."
"Not at all. I will consider my job well done."
If Amy noticed the increase in brotherly attention once the gentlemen joined the ladies after dinner, she did not remark on it. It made her curious, but it was not unwelcome. She had been rather isolated in the past year. Now she began to blossom under the gentle teasing and open admiration of four out of five Armstrong brothers.
The major and the vicar expressed sorrow at the passing of her mother, a lady they had met several times in their youth, and sympathy over her sister's illness and inability to come to Linvale Hall at the moment.
"You should like Miss Lucy," their mother said. "She is such a sweet girl."
Amy was about to agree and expound on her sister's virtues when Lady Cynthia spoke up from where she sat with the viscount.
"Sweet usually means no looks to speak of," she drawled. "After all, Cousin Ellie is sweet." The companion blushed.
Lady Linvale looked at Lady Cynthia sharply. Evidently her threat did not mean much to the younger lady now that the viscount was in the room. That gentleman made no move to correct her, either, but Lady Linvale came to Lucy's defense.
"Miss Lucy must be an exception, then," the viscountess replied. "But you may judge for yourself should she come to us before the ball. If you are still here," she warned her niece before recalling a piece of news. "Grimsley says the pond is hard enough for skating!"
Charlie gave a shout of joy and even his brothers looked pleased.
"May I send word to the Vartons?" Charlie asked. "Will and Teddy have been wanting to skate since our return."
"And they will bring Miss Varton with them, most likely," the major said with a clout to his youngest brother's shoulder. Charlie only nodded eagerly.
"Do you skate, Miss Harte?" the vicar asked.
"Oh, yes!" Amy readily answered.
"Good! That makes us four, you and the three Vartons," Charlie said.
"I will come, too," the viscount suddenly announced.
"You haven't skated in a donkey's age, Marcus!" the professor exclaimed.
"Don't think you need to come just to keep an eye on things," the major insisted.
"I'm not," he replied.
"If Marcus is going, so am I!" Lady Cynthia announced. "But I'm just a delicate flower and I shall need some assistance," she said in a little-girl voice guaranteed to draw the attention back to herself and set Amy's teeth on edge. "Some of us are not great, strapping farm girls."
"No, indeed, we are not," Amy agreed, deliberately misunderstanding. She would not be drawn into retaliation. "Do you not skate, Miss Winters?" she asked the companion.
"Cousin Ellie abhors fun and prefers to make a martyr of herself. She's a poor relation, you know," Lady Cynthia said in a stage whisper.
"What has that to do with anything?" Amy asked. "I daresay Lady Linvale can spare you for a few hours, Miss Winters. Won't you come? There are plenty of us to help you, should you need it."
Miss Winters looked to Lady Linvale for approval, and when the viscountess nodded with a bright smile, she agreed, provided someone had skates for her.
"In a house full of boys?" her ladyship said with a laugh. "We have plenty! Miss Harte and Cynthia shall need them, as well. Robert, will you be in charge of that tomorrow? Excellent. Now, if you gentlemen will excuse us, we will retire. Ellie did a number of errands for me today, Miss Harte will be exhausted from her journey and Cynthia..." She paused for effect. "Cynthia needs her beauty sleep."
Amy almost laughed out loud and was glad when several of the Armstrong gentlemen did just that.
The next day dawned clear and sunny, but cold, and Amy looked out her window to see Lady Linvale's garden fountain was frozen solid. It boded well for whatever body of water the Armstrongs skated upon. Putting on a warm woolen gown of a pretty plum color, she did her own hair and went downstairs in search of breakfast.
A footman directed her to a small family parlor, empty except for a servant and a sideboard loaded down with eggs, ham, kidneys, bacon, toast, a large variety of jam pots and a bowl of hothouse fruit. The man on duty filled a plate with her choices and brought her a pot of tea. She was alone only as long as it took to pour a cup when Professor Armstrong and Miss Winters came in together.
"I did not realize until late last night that you are cousin to the family," Amy remarked to Miss Winters after she and the professor had been served.
"My mother and Lady Linvale were cousins. When my parents died, Cousin Beryl took me in as her companion."
"She took you in," the professor amended, "but you chose to be her companion."
"I will not be a charity case!" Miss Winters snapped, the first sign of life Amy had seen in the other lady.
"You know Mother would never treat you as such," he replied with a sigh. "If Cynthia became an orphan tomorrow, she would not be treated thusly, either."
"Lady Cynthia is not penniless."
"Neither are you!"
Amy's gaze moved back and forth between the professor and the companion as if they were playing battledore and shuttlecock.
"I receive an allowance from Cousin Marcus, which I insist on earning by offering my assistance to your mother."
"Marcus has offered you a dowry, as well."
"No one wants plain Miss Winters when they could have lovely Lady Cynthia." Miss Winters put her napkin on the table, took a sip of tea and rose to her feet. "I am no longer hungry. I shall see you again when we go skating," she said politely to Amy and left the room.
"What was all that about?" Charlie asked as he sat down next to his brother and began to tackle the food on his cousin's untouched plate.
"The usual," his brother said with another sigh.
Charlie shrugged. "So let her have her way. One of these days, in the unlikely event of her marriage, Marcus can renew his offer of a dowry and everyone will be happy."
"What do you mean, 'unlikely'?" the professor said indignantly.
"What?" Charlie was taken unawares, being more interested in food than his cousin. "Well, you know..." he gestured vaguely. "Plain as a pikestaff, a dowdy wardrobe, no conversation..."
"Has everyone gone insane around here?" his brother asked wildly. "Marcus insulting Miss Harte, you picking on Cousin Ellie... What next?"
Amy looked up in alarm when her name was mentioned. Did everyone know of Lord Linvale's words to her? She came to her feet and calmly excused herself. Like Miss Winters, she was no longer hungry. All she wished to do now was go upstairs, pack her belongings and return home. At least there she counted her father and sister as allies against her own cousin's machinations. She was not only out of her league here, but friendless.
She wished she could approach Lady Linvale with all her troubles, but she hardly knew her. How, too, would that lady take a report of her eldest son's rudeness? Thoughts of the viscount and his snooty cousin kept her from running home. If she left now, they would think she had been scared off - and she was no quitter.
Ignoring the pleas of the gentlemen to disregard what had just been said, Amy left the room and wandered the house, searching for a private retreat. She found one in the conservatory at the back of the house. It was, thankfully, empty, and she sat on a bench next to a pond that housed the goldfish that most likely inhabited the outdoor pool in more felicitous weather. In her own little place, she indulged in a few tears and strengthened her resolve not to go home. Indeed, Cousin Minerva would never let her live it down if she did.
Resigned to make the most of her visit, Amy joined the family later in the drawing room, dressed in her outdoor wear. A pair of skates had been given to her by Sally, who had also helped to find half boots thick enough to keep her feet warm and fit the skates.
"I hope you have a good time," the viscountess said sincerely, tightening the scarf around Amy's throat, much like her own mother would have done.
Amy, having already had a good cry, found herself close to tears once more. "Yes, ma'am, as do I."
"Are we ready to go?" Charlie asked, bounding into the room.
"We are waiting on Cynthia," his mother said.
"Why don't we head to the pond?" the major suggested. "Marcus could wait for her. She would not mind." All his brothers, except for the viscount, snickered at that remark.
"Let's go!" Charlie cried. "Come on, Miss Harte! We'll take the path past the gardens," he told his brother and held out an arm to their guest.
Amy ignored his lordship's glare as she took Charlie's arm and allowed him to escort her out a pair of French doors and onto a terrace. Behind her, the major offered his assistance to Miss Winters, leaving the vicar and professor to bring up the rear.
"I'll have tea and chocolate ready when you return," Lady Linvale called right before shutting the door against the cold.
The party trooped out through the woods, bare and white, to a pond nestled within a grove of ancient oaks. One or two of the trunks had fallen with the passing of the years, creating natural benches for summer swimmers and winter skaters to relax upon. A pair of young men and a young lady in a blue cloak were seated around a brazier, warming their hands and strapping on their skates. They caught sight of the party of newcomers and waved.
"Charlie!" they called. "Thank you for the invitation!"
He grinned and made proper introductions of the Varton family to Amy before directing her to a log and offering to help with her skates.
While she and Miss Winters were receiving assistance, Amy heard the companion moan and looked up to see Lady Cynthia make a grand entrance.
A vision in white, the lady's pale blonde hair almost blended in with a little fur-trimmed hat, wool coat and gown, and fur mittens. To Amy, the girl looked almost washed out. That did not seem to make a difference to the Varton lads, who could only stare in awe as Lord Linvale helped his cousin sit. He knelt to pick up one dainty, white boot.
"You are so kind to help me with my skates, Cousin Marcus," she said in a little-girl voice, even as she shot Amy and Miss Winters a triumphant glance.
"All set?" In his enthusiasm, Charlie pulled on a tree limb, sending snow flying. A wet clump of it landed on the back of Lady Cynthia's neck and she squealed with surprise before berating her cousin. He, in turn, grinned and egged her on until even Amy and Miss Winters looked at each other and giggled. That brought Lady Cynthia's tirade to an abrupt end.
"My cousin thinks he is amusing," she said to the crowd of onlookers. "This is just a little game we play. Isn't that right, Charles?"
Charlie made her a mocking bow. "One I enjoy immensely." Everyone breathed a sigh of relief and began to make their way to the edge of the pond.
"I had old Gus check for thin ice earlier," Charlie said. "It's over there in the center, where the ice has more bubbles," he told everyone. "But there is enough room around it to skate safely. Shall we?"
Miss Varton stepped forward and took Charlie's arm and they slid off together, chatting and laughing as they circled the pond.
Amy went next, by herself, although she turned down a couple of offers for a partner, including one from Mr. Nigel Varton, the elder of the two brothers. She was in no mood for conversation and wished for a little solitude on the ice. Behind her, Professor Armstrong had cajoled Miss Winters into holding onto his arm. Her skating skills were such that she needed assistance.
Lady Cynthia made a show of requiring help, insisting that she could not possibly skate by herself.
"Great, healthy girls can manage by themselves," she said, her voice carrying across the ice. "I'm much more delicate..."
Amy had the satisfaction of seeing Lord Linvale skate off on his own as the major and the Varton brothers jumped to do Lady Cynthia's bidding. Amy snickered at the chagrin on that lady's face when the viscount left her to the attentions of the other gentlemen.
"You skate well," he said, suddenly at her elbow. She almost faltered, not realizing she was his goal, but managed at the last minute to keep her balance.
"Thank you," Amy coldly replied.
"You did not allow one of the gentlemen to support you," he explained.
"I can skate without any aid. Some of us are not helpless kittens."
"No," he agreed mildly. "I don't think you are helpless." There was no sarcasm or rancor in his voice at all. Without another word, he skated away, leaving a confused Amy in his wake.
The major and the vicar joined her and the three glided about companionably for a while.
"I am curious," Amy said at one point to the Rev. Armstrong. "You have the living here, don't you?"
"For a year now," he said. "We keep it in the family when we can, but Marcus was not going to force out our last vicar. He was getting on in years, but I was his curate until he finally went to live with his daughter."
"And yet you live here?"
The vicar laughed. "Oh, no. There is a vicarage in the village and I live there, but not when all my brothers are home for a holiday."
"Which suits his old crow of a housekeeper just fine," the major said with a laugh.
"Be nice to Mrs. Timmons, Robert," he was admonished. "Or she will quit making that cherry cordial you are fond of," he teased.
"Oh." The look on his face was comical and Amy found herself laughing out loud. The sound seemed to gain the attention of some of the other gentlemen. One of the Varton brothers, Charlie, and even Lord Linvale, who was conversing with Miss Winters and the professor, looked her way.
Charlie skated over, always eager to be in the most jolly group, leaving Miss Varton to fend for herself. Amy was keeping the young lady in sight out of the corner of her eye, though. Perhaps it was because of her pretty blue cloak. Whatever the reason, she was the first to notice the girl was skating closer and closer to the center of the pond.
"Excuse me a moment," she finally said to her group. Lord Linvale looked up as she moved away, took in the situation and headed their way from the other direction.
Miss Varton seemed to panic, as if she thought the viscount and Amy were after her. She kept inching backwards hoping to avoid them both. She appeared to have forgotten about the thin ice, even if the other two had not, and just as Amy reached her and grabbed hold with both hands, the ice cracked.
Amy flung Miss Varton away from the possibility of an icy dip in the pond, falling to her knees as water seeped up around her, immediately soaking her all the way through her woolens to her skin.
"Don't move!" his lordship barked.
Amy heard another crack, this one from behind her.
"Rob!" he shouted. "Get a rope! Now!" The major, used to taking orders, didn't hesitate. He ran off to fetch what was requested.
"Someone see to Miss Varton," Lord Linvale ordered. She had landed on her backside, and she was weeping. The vicar went to her side and insisted she come up to the house and be tended by his mother. The viscount told the professor to take the other ladies indoors, as well. "You there!" he shouted to Charlie and the Vartons. "Stay here! I might need you!" He turned to Amy.
"You've stayed still. Good. Once we get a rope, I'm going to throw it out to you."
Amy nodded, too scared to say a word. A shout was heard and everyone, from the ladies having their skates removed to the viscount, looked up. The major had brought rope and a couple of stable hands. A rope was quickly tossed out to the viscount and he edged the end of it to Amy.
"Tie that carefully around your waist, in case you fall through." He had another rope by then and had tied that one around himself before stretching out on the ice. "They will pull me in slowly," he explained, "and I will pull you in turn. Lie flat, Miss Harte, so you put less pressure on one spot. You're going to get even more wet than you already are," he apologized, "but it cannot be helped." Water was still coming up through the cracks.
Amy nodded and slid down onto the ice. The viscount signaled his brother and began to slide backwards, bringing Amy with him. All the while, he spoke softly, encouraging her to remain as calm as she had been and praising her for saving Miss Varton from a sure dunking or worse.
Amy was amazed in the transformation from arrogant lord to compassionate man and let his deep voice pull her along as much as the rope around her waist. Even his eyes appeared warmer - a hint of spring on an austere winter day. She gripped the rope like the lifeline it was, grateful for her gloves, else she was sure she would have suffered from burns on her hands. Water soaked the front of her coat and began to freeze as she was dragged across the ice. She felt like her entire body was on pins and needles, her teeth began to chatter and she was certain she would be numb all over in a matter of seconds.
"A few more minutes, Miss Harte," Lord Linvale assured her, "and you will be out of the dangerous area."
Once on thicker ice, where they could stand, he whipped off his cloak and wrapped it around her before picking her up and carrying her off the surface of the pond. On the bank, when she expected to be placed on her feet, he kept walking, calling for Charlie to run ahead and make sure the staff was prepared for a couple of cold, wet people.
Lord Linvale did not set Amy down until he had reached her bedchamber door, where his mother and Sally waited to attend her. Amy thanked him, received a gruff reply and was almost pushed into her room. There she was tenderly ministered to by her hostess and maid.
Amy wasn't allowed out of bed for the rest of the day or night, despite the apothecary's assurance that she had not taken ill, and her own insistence that she felt fine.
"Your family would never forgive me if anything happened to you," Lady Linvale said, clearly fretting. "Indeed, I should never forgive myself."
Amy took pity on the viscountess and agreed to remain in bed until the next morning, providing her condition did not worsen. To alleviate some of her guest's boredom, her ladyship allowed the other girls to visit, including Miss Varton, who was to stay overnight rather than go out again into the cold.
Fortunately for Amy, Lady Cynthia did not bother to take her aunt up on the invitation. Miss Winters came with a cup of tea and some biscuits and sat quietly for fifteen minutes. Miss Varton also stopped by, but she was far from quiet. She had been in the drawing room with the Armstrongs and now she was absolutely livid.
"How dared you save me like that!" she hissed. "All I hear now from Charlie is Miss Harte this and Miss Harte that! I wish you had never come here, because now he will never look at me again!" With a wail loud enough to wake the dead, the girl ran from the room, leaving Amy dumbfounded and slightly miffed. The next time someone needed their life saved, Amy would step back and let another do the job.
Amy lay awake most of the night and once more seriously considered packing and leaving. She had been insulted by several people, but Miss Varton's words were the worst, making her even more rude than Lord Linvale and Lady Cynthia, if that were possible. Amy had put herself in danger to save the girl and all she could do was complain. Complain about something Amy had no control over, at that! At dawn, she came to a decision. She would find Charlie Armstrong and convince him to pay more attention to Miss Varton and forget Amy's own part in this entire drama.
Tracking down Charlie was easier than she expected. When she reached the bottom of the main staircase, he was waiting for her. Because she wished to speak to him privately, the fact that he wished to discuss something of the utmost importance with her only played into her scheme.
"Shall we go into the library?" he wondered. "There will not be anyone about yet."
Amy agreed. Once settled in front of the fire, she began to speak, but he cut her off.
"Miss Harte, ever since you have arrived you seemed to set what was turning into a staid house party on its ear. Not only did you raise Cynthia's hackles, but you've got Marcus watching you wherever you go. Now you have saved Miss Varton. That silly prattle would have gone through the ice but for your quick thinking, and would have surely drowned. She has none of your sense."
Amy should have told him she had done nothing to earn neither censure nor praise from anyone, and that the 'silly prattle' might not have been so foolish if he had paid her more attention. She had no idea what had antagonized Lady Cynthia, but she knew exactly why his lordship kept an eye on her. He was afraid she would attract one of his precious brothers. Seated in front of one now, she could not help but feel a bit triumphant in that department.
"I think we would suit very well, Miss Harte," he was saying and she realized this situation was going further than she wished. "I cannot help myself, Miss Harte!" he said passionately, dropping to one knee in front of her. "I am all admiration for your heroism!"
"Please, Mr. Armstrong!" she pleaded. "Come up off the floor!"
"I appreciate the gesture, sir. I am honored you should single me out, but I won't put you through making an offer only to turn you down."
"Turn me down?"
"You are still a student, Mr. Armstrong. We are of an age ... You aren't even certain of a career path yet. I doubt you are ready for the responsibility of a wife, let alone the children that would surely follow."
He gulped. "Children?"
Amy chuckled. "You are not so naive as to think they would not come afterwards?"
"I suppose I had not thought of them at all. Perhaps I have been a bit hasty..."
"That is all right, Mr. Armstrong." She was quick to forgive now that he seemed to come to his senses.
"Charlie," he corrected.
"Charlie. You have a few years yet to worry about a family. And, if I am not mistaken, the lady's attention you have captured is not yet eighteen. I am certain she needs a few years to grow up in, as well." If pressed, Amy could almost guarantee it.
"The very one. I believe she is a bit put out by your inattention, and while you and I might agree she is being a bit childish, you could reassure her of your regard before she goes home today."
"I think you should. Do you believe she is in the drawing room with your mother, perhaps?"
"I'll go look now, before I miss her." He caught up Amy's hand and kissed it fervently. "Thank you for being so understanding, Miss Harte. And so wise."
Amy gave him a gentle smile. "Shall we make this discussion our little secret?" she suggested. The last thing she wanted was for the viscount to hear of this and ring a peal over her head. Or Charlie's.
He apologized for leaving her by herself in the library and ran from the room.
Amy laughed at his enthusiasm, but not for long. A door leading to another room was open and Lord Linvale stood in it, clapping slowly.
"Brava, Miss Harte. That was quite a tender moment, wasn't it? The wise female giving the young pup such advice as to ensure she will not be forgotten in the future."
Amy turned red. "How dare you insinuate such a thing?"
"Because I refuse to believe you are here only because my mother invited you."
"Did it ever occur to you that I might just want to get out of my home once in awhile and enjoy the company of other people?"
"No. After all, what could you be escaping from? You have a loving family, a decent allowance, I daresay, and a roof over your head. Why leave?"
Amy refused to tell him exactly why she had left. Cousin Minerva was a pain, but she was Amy's pain and he would not believe her, or he would pity her, and she could not bear for him to do either.
"Aren't you going to chase down your brother and keep him from being caught in someone else's clutches?" she asked sweetly. "After all, he is running from me to Miss Varton."
"I know how to deal with Miss Varton, should the need arise," he dismissively replied.
"Whereas I am an unknown entity."
"Good. I've never been one of those before. I think I shall quite like it."
He stared at her.
"And next time I receive a proposal from one of your brothers, I'd appreciate it if you would alert me to your presence." Then, perhaps, she could avoid more offers.
"I assure you, Miss Harte, there will be no more proposals from my brothers!"
"Then we have noting more to say to each other, my lord." She rose gracefully and left the room, unsure why she continued staying in such a madhouse.
On her way to the drawing room, where she vaguely thought the family was situated, she was stopped by a footman who asked her to join her ladyship in the viscountess' rooms. Amy instantly agreed, not being at all enamored of her previous destination. A maid met her at the top of the stairs and led her into a little sun room that overlooked the gardens, still blanketed with snow.
"It's a beautiful view, isn't it?" the viscountess asked as Amy looked out over the white, icy grounds. "When my husband died, I gave the master chambers to Marcus and I moved up here. I have always loved this suite. It was made for my mother-in-law when I was a new bride and I used to come up for tea or a private coze quite frequently. You would have liked my sons' grandmother. She was not one to give up easily. In fact, she outlived her husband by a good twenty years. I hope to be able to do the same..." Her voice tapered off.
"Do have a seat, Miss Harte," she continued after a moment. "May I call you Amy? That is what I call you to myself, having heard it from your mother for many years. She was proud to have such sweet, intelligent daughters." A maid brought in a tea tray. "I do apologize that we haven't had a little private chat sooner, but you have been settling in - and saving lives!"
"I just happened to notice..." Amy mumbled.
"You were very brave! Even Marcus said so, and he is rarely complimentary to our sex these days."
Far from being honored to have earned one of his lordship's few accolades, however, Amy frowned, her recent conversation with the viscount still fresh in her mind.
"Oh, dear," Lady Linvale murmured. "I'd hoped he would not have subjected you to his bitterness so soon, but I see he has wasted no time."
"I apologize for my eldest son, because he will find no need to do it himself. He had a betrothal turn sour a couple of years ago and has been an absolute bear about love, engagements and marriage ever since. I have disliked seeing him like this, when his father and I were so happy together. It pains me to see him make so much of Cynthia, as well. He is aware of her grasping, manipulative nature, and yet he says she will make him the perfect wife, because neither of them are under any illusions as to what the other one wants. It's terribly sad."
Amy could only agree, especially in regards to his marrying Lady Cynthia. But only for the current Lady Linvale's sake and for any children they might have.
"If they marry, I plan to move to Bath. We have a lovely Dower House here, but I'll not live that close to the perfectly-matched couple." She patted Amy's hand. "But here now... You didn't come for a visit just to hear of my troubles. Lucy says you have enough of your own. Don't worry about that cousin, though. Your father is not the sort to marry so foolishly, or so soon."
"When did you hear from Lucy?"
The viscountess laughed. "Didn't she tell you we are regular correspondents?"
"No..." Lucy, that sly puss, had some explaining to do!
"Ever since your cousin took possession of the household, she and I have been plotting for you to come here for a visit. She had hoped to come with you, of course, but I think we might get her here in time for the ball."
"When did you hear from her?" Amy insisted.
"This morning! Just one moment..." Lady Linvale jumped up and ran to the little escritoire in one corner of the room. "This was the other reason for inviting you up. I have a note for you." She brought a single sheet of paper over to Amy. "Here you are. Why don't I just go count linens or something," she tactfully added, leaving Amy alone to read her letter.
Dearest sister, I hope this finds you healthy and happy and settled in at Linvale Hall. I miss you so much! The 'so' was heavily outlined and underlined and Amy chuckled as she pictured Lucy writing to her.
Papa sends his love and Cousin Minerva does not. In fact, she is driving us all mad in her vain, insistent attempt to discover your whereabouts.
I have asked Lady Linvale not to reply for that reason and I must ask you to do the same. Our cousin has increased surveillance concerning the post, outgoing as well as incoming, and it took some subterfuge to get this letter out of the house. I don't know what she will do if she learns where you are, but she is so intent on it, it scares me to think what might happen. Not that Papa or I would let her harm a hair on your head! In fact, plans are afoot here to oust the intruder. I shall keep you posted. Then Papa will bring me to Linvale Hall and we shall all be able to celebrate together.
Much love, Lucy,
Amy hugged the knowledge of a routing of Cousin Minerva to herself, but she would tell Lady Linvale of it later, if that lady did not already know. And if Papa could come with Lucy...
"That would be perfect!" she said aloud, reading that part of the letter once more.
"I beg your pardon, Miss Harte," the viscount said from the doorway. "I thought I would find my mother here."
"She was," Amy said warily. "She has gone to count linens."
"I see. I'll find her myself."
"You do that." After all, Amy was not his servant.
The viscount scowled at her and she scowled back. Even knowing his history, she could find no excuse for his continued bad manners. Her mother would have been shocked to see her eldest stoop to his level, but at the moment, her mother's strictures were the furthest thing from her mind.
Fortunately, Lady Linvale returned at that moment. She came in around her tall son and beamed at Amy.
"Did that make you feel better?" she asked.
"Yes, ma'am." Amy gave her a small smile and excused herself.
"Such a sweet girl, but such a sad family situation," the viscountess said after Amy was out of earshot. She waved her son into the room.
"I hope you appreciate my sometimes spendthrift ways after what I'm about to tell you," she warned.
"I'll keep that in mind, Mama." He sat in a chair across from his parent. Since he did not stop her and she didn't want him to, she jumped right into a narrative of how difficult Amy's life had been in the past year.
"Surely the cousin is not that bad," he scoffed when she finished.
"I am not making this up, Marcus," she tartly replied. "Your father used to say the same sorts of things..."
"You've been known to embroider tales when it suited you," he said pointedly.
"But you know how dearly I loved Lady Harte." She ignored his last comment. "And I don't need you being so rude to our guest, no matter what you think of young ladies!"
"What exactly did you say to her? All I heard was that you had insulted the poor girl."
"Who said? Charlie? Ned?"
"Does it matter?" She glared at him.
"No, ma'am," he said meekly.
"Then what did you say?" The sweet, motherly viscountess could turn ferocious on her precious sons when she needed to, and it never failed to cow them into doing or saying what she asked.
"I suggested she was at our home to find a husband."
Lady Linvale groaned. "You didn't... Oh, Marcus, how could you tip my hand like that?" she wailed.
"I beg your pardon. You mean to say she is here for a husband?"
"Well, of course she is! She should do very well for Ned or Thomas, don't you think? So sweet and gentle... She would make a lovely professor's wife or a vicar's helpmeet...." she mused.
"Let me get this straight, Mama. She is here to find herself a husband..." His grin was positively feral, but his mother's next words deflated any triumph he felt at being found correct in his assumptions.
"Oh, she doesn't know. Not that she hasn't guessed now that you've shot off your mouth!"
"I am not sorry, Mama, believe me," he said dryly.
"Don't I know it," she grumbled.
"May I ask why you chose Ned or Tom, however?"
The viscountess smirked. "Her temperament, of course. She would dislike military life and she is not quite up to your standards, not if you have already insulted her, so why not Ned or Tom? Charlie, naturally, is much too young, although Miss Varton will be at just the right level of maturity for him in a couple of years."
"You don't think your best friend's daughter isn't good enough to be a viscountess?"
"I didn't say that. She would be a better one than Cynthia. Your cousin would never give the manor or the tenants the level of care they deserve and she'd always be flitting off to Town. No, I said Miss Harte has not measured up to your expectations." She watched her son ponder a few home truths while she rang for her maid. It was fun sometimes to reduce the lot of them to a pack of fidgety lads, but now she wanted Marcus to think about his future like the intelligent man she knew him to be.
She hoped it would be sooner than later that he considered his initial reaction to Amy. He would not have been so cruel to the dear girl if he weren't fighting off an attraction he did not want to acknowledge. She blessed Ned and Thomas both for telling her of that little development. It only proved her motherly instincts were correct where Marcus and Amy were concerned.
As for Lucy ... She thought about Amy's sister for a moment and knew it was imperative that the girl come to the manor as soon as possible. How else was she going to meet her own future husband?
Feeling as if she were well on her way to fulfilling one of Lady Harte's last requests, she dismissed her son and went into her bedroom to discuss with her maid what to wear for dinner.
And if her own wishes happened to coincide with her late friend's fondest desire... all the better!
Another day, another exciting moment at Linvale Hall, Amy thought with some trepidation, because this was the day Lady Linvale wished to see what the young ladies were to wear to her winter ball.
Amy was sure it was only a formality on the behalf of Lady Cynthia -- she had yet to see that lady in anything twice. Amy, on the other hand, had already worn her yellow gown to dinner more than once. However, it was possible the viscountess wished to keep her other female houseguests from embarrassing themselves with their attire.
Lady Linvale gathered them all in Lady Cynthia's room first, where that girl's maid produced a white silk confection so beautiful, everyone sighed. Amy was sure the young lady was going to look like an angel, even if her heart was as black as night. The gown was floaty and foamy and glittering with golden threads. All Lady Cynthia needed was a halo and wings. Too bad she already owned a pitchfork.
"This old thing?" she had declared, giving the other girls a "top this if you can" look.
In Amy's room, no one but Lady Cynthia could find fault with the eau de nil satin that Sally had laid out on the bed.
"Are you certain green is your color?" Lady Cynthia asked, poking her pitchfork figuratively in Amy's backside.
"Of course it is!" Lady Linvale insisted. "And I have the most perfect jade set for you to wear!" she said to Amy. It appeared this inspection was also a chance for the viscountess to pretend she had daughters with which to share her jewelry. Amy wasn't about to burst that bubble.
"But what about me, Aunt Beryl?" Cynthia whined. "Can't I borrow your diamonds?"
"You are too young for diamonds!" Her aunt dismissed that notion with a laugh. "Besides, they are reserved only for the viscountess -- dowager or otherwise."
In a word, Amy thought with un-Christianlike smugness, over their hostess' dead body. Lady Cynthia glared at her aunt as if she would like to arrange such a thing.
Miss Winters did not seem comfortable in her own room, for several possible reasons. The first might stem from Cynthia's visible disdain for the companion's meager accommodations. Anything of real value seemed to have been removed -- without permission.
"Whatever have you done with all my decorations?" the viscountess demanded of her cousin's daughter.
"A companion would not live in such luxury, my lady, and indeed I am not used to it."
"Nonsense!" Lady Linvale exclaimed. "Your mother always had nice things around her, so I know you have not been living in penury all your life."
"A companion would not..."
"Oh, hang being a companion!" Lady Linvale all but shouted. "I don't want you to be a companion! I want you to be a privileged member of this family!"
"No buts, my dear. I'll wager you haven't a gown for the ball, either. Come with me!" She took Miss Winters by the hand and hauled her from the room. Where they were headed, Amy had no idea, but she followed quickly behind. Lady Cynthia brought up the rear until she realized they were headed downstairs and towards a green baize door that separated the family from their servants. She refused to go any further and wandered off to see what the gentlemen were up to.
Amy trailed behind as Lady Linvale took Miss Winters into a room filled with fabrics and trims.
"Miss Marvin has graciously come from the village today to measure you for a new gown, Eleanor. What color do you think will suit, Amy dear?"
"Pink," Amy replied without hesitation. "It will go well with her coloring and is about as far away from gray and dark blue as one can get."
"Perfect!" Lady Linvale grabbed a bolt of pink sarcenet off a shelf and held a handful of it up against the girl's face. "Just perfect! Now, Ellie, off with that gown..."
"What?" Miss Winters looked at the other three and blushed.
"No need to show such maidenly sensibilities in front of... Perhaps there is..." the viscountess decided, her cousin's face turning bright red. She motioned for Amy to leave the room with her. "I forgot Ellie did not grow up with sisters and she is a bit more modest around other females than we are."
Amy agreed, but when she headed down the hall that led her back through the servants' quarters and up to the main part of the house, Lady Linvale stayed her with a touch of her hand.
"Hear that?" There were faint sounds coming from the other end of the hall. "That's the sound of Ned in his laboratory! Come see!"
Amy was intrigued. She had never seen a laboratory before, had never known anyone who had one.
"Ned set one up when he was ten or so. He has always been interested in science and experiments."
"What sorts of experiments?"
"Chemical reactions, mostly. I used to be afraid he would blow us all up. Fortunately for the manor, he has either learned how not to explode things, or else he only causes explosions in London. I understand they are quite tolerant of his ‘hobby' at the physicians' college."
"How interesting," Amy sincerely replied. She had lived such a sheltered life, despite having gone off to school, so anything that furthered her education in life was a wonder to her.
"Come in!" Professor Armstrong invited when his mother and her guest reached the threshold of his laboratory. "Especially you, Miss Harte."
"Thank you." She gave him a bright smile. She liked all of Lady Linvale's sons, save one, but Professor Armstrong was even more likeable due to his kindnesses to Miss Winters. "What are you working on today?" she asked.
He had a small fire lit in a metal bowl under a metal frame that held a glass beaker.
"I'm trying to see if these two chemicals are compatible," he explained. One was a yellow powder and the other was a clear liquid. "Acid," he said, following her gaze.
A footman appeared in the room and requested her ladyship's presence in the kitchens. "I'll return in a moment," she said, and left.
"What brings you down to this part of the house?" the professor asked conversationally.
"Lady Linvale and I accompanied Miss Winters down to have a gown made for the ball."
"It's about time!" he exclaimed.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Cousin Ellie -- Miss Winters -- could be treated like a daughter of the house if she would just allow it."
"So I gather. But we all have our pride," Amy gently reminded him. "I daresay she more than most."
The professor nodded. "Would you tell me the color of her gown?" he requested. "I should like to send her flowers the evening of the ball to match her dress."
Amy was pleased and told him about the pink sarcenet.
"I hope you are not boring Miss Harte, now, Ned," the viscount drawled from the doorway.
"Not at all," Amy assured him. "And perhaps it is the other way around. While I am not by nature of student of science, I am not as close-minded as some people. Who could say if today is the day I embark on a scientific career culminating in a wondrous discovery, all due to the professor's tutelage?"
"Females cannot be scientists!" Linvale scoffed.
"Women can be whatever they wish. Their only limitation, as far as I can see, is men."
"Well said, Miss Harte!" The professor gave her an encouraging grin.
"You are a follower, no doubt, of that Wollstonecraft female's principles regarding the equality of women?" the viscount asked.
"I have not heard of her, but she sounds intriguing. I must look into this. Is it possible that more than one intelligent female believes in such things?" she mocked. "Dare I ask if any of her writings are in your library?"
"You'll find it damn near impossible to discover any there."
"Mama has a book in her sun room," the professor said.
"You stay out of this!" the viscount ordered.
The professor started at the unexpected fury in his brother's voice and took a step back, loosening his hold on the acid. It dropped into the liquid on the burner and exploded.
"Bloody hell!" the viscount roared. Down the hall, a shriek was heard. When the acrid smoke cleared, the professor had been blown back against the wall, but was conscious and hastily removing residue from his face, lest the mild acid he was using burn his skin. Amy was not so fortunate. The force had pushed her in the other direction and she lay crumpled like a rag doll against a bookcase.
Lord Linvale cursed and ran to her side just as Miss Winters came in, hastily dressed from her fitting, and went directly to her cousin Ned.
"Edward! What happened?"
"I'm not quite sure ... The acid dropped into the bowl and... boom!"
"I told you the acid and the powder would do this," she said matter-of-factly. "And now you have no eyebrows. Go change your clothes while I start sweeping up."
"Yes, Ellie," the professor said meekly. "But what about Miss Harte?"
Miss Winters looked up to see Miss Harte resting limply in Lord Linvale's arms.
"Cousin Marcus will tend to Miss Harte. Go change clothes!"
Once again the apothecary was summoned, but this time the pronouncement was more serious.
"Concussion," he told an anxious viscountess and her eldest son. "Someone will have to sit with her and wake her up every couple of hours."
Amy had gained consciousness just as Lord Linvale was settling her on her bed.
"Her maid and I will," Lady Linvale volunteered. Hovering behind her, Sally nodded vigorously.
"Mama..." her son said, as if in protest.
"Not now, Marcus," she snapped. "She's a guest!"
"Go away, Marcus!"
The viscount stalked out without another word.
"Now that Thundercloud is gone," his mother said to the apothecary, rolling her eyes, "what do I need to do?"
While Mr. Thompson gave instructions for Amy's care to Lady Linvale, the viscount ordered his carriage ready as soon as could be arranged. His valet was instructed to pack clothing for overnight, but he dismissed the man's offer to accompany him wherever he was headed.
"There is no need," his lordship told the servant in a reassuring voice. "'Tis only a short journey and I shall return in the morning. In the meantime, why don't you see if there is anything Lady Linvale requires in regard to nursing Miss Harte?"
He arrived on Sir Lionel Harte's doorstep in the latter part of the afternoon, after the wintry sun had already set, and asked immediately for the baronet. A footman dithered, wondering aloud whether or not he should alert Miss Blakeley first, and Lord Linvale demanded to know if that lady was the gentleman's cousin. Upon hearing that she was, he refused to see anyone but the baronet.
The quaking footman left him cooling his heels in the front hall and that was where Lucy, alerted to a guest by her vigilant maid, found him moments later. Floating down the stairs in white muslin, her golden hair gleaming, she looked like an angel. The viscount, who had taken a seat, stood immediately.
"May I be of some assistance?" she asked sweetly.
"Lord Linvale to see Sir Lionel Harte," he told her.
"Lord Linvale!" She should have known his looks -- the brothers she had met had similar features.
The footman reappeared and said Sir Lionel would receive him.
"Of course he will! I will show him in," Lucy said to the servant and tucked her hand up under Lord Linvale's arm.
"We cannot speak freely, but I must say, I wish you had not come!" Lucy whispered. "Cousin Minerva will discover Amy's whereabouts and bring her home and we shall never leave this place!"
"Miss Harte, I hardly think..."
"Who is this?" Cousin Minerva appeared in front of them. "Why was I not informed we had a visitor?" she demanded.
"Because he is not here to see you, Minerva," Sir Lionel said from the study door. "Come in, my lord, and make yourself comfortable."
The viscount was led into a library that was easily twice as large as his own, before Miss Lucy dropped his arm.
"May I stay, Papa?" she begged.
The baronet looked at his guest. "Is this visit of an extremely personal and delicate nature, my lord?"
"Yes, but..." For the third time that day, the viscount was unable to finish a sentence and explain himself.
"You will see him at dinner, then, my child."
Lucy could only nod and drop the viscount a curtsy and then she quickly closed the library door on Cousin Minerva and herself.
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