Lady Arabella Pryce, a young minx of eighteen and of prodigious good fortune, was in London for the Little Season of 1818 and intent on garnering no little attention.
She found herself shunted in the background at Ryder, the family estate in Somerset, where her adored sister-in-law, Samantha, was soon to present her brother, the earl, with his first-born child. Since both the dowager and Jack were treating poor Samantha as if she were about to break, Arabella was quite bored.
She tried alleviating her ennui by visiting Vinelands, the neighboring estate of her relatives, the Duke and Duchess of Halbourne, but it was equally boring there, when their graces were even in residence. Their daughter, Lady Seawright, also was with child and they spent most of the their time with her.
Finally, Arabella had prevailed upon the dowager Countess of Seawright, who was her grace's closest friend, to take her to London. Eustacia Seawright was not overly fond of her daughter-in-law and did not plan to hover over her the way everyone else did. She was more than glad to escape, at least until her grandchild was born.
Which was how Arabella managed, her first week back in London, to find herself in Lady Seawright's grand salon facing Lord Cosmo Villiers. He was down on one knee. She was unhappy.
To Arabella's credit, she loved Cosmo dearly and had no desire greater than to be his wife. Eventually. He was heir to a marquisate and she would be a marchioness. Someday. In the meantime, she was eighteen and looking for some excitement, not to mention a bit of attention. Cosmo was only offering commitment and responsibility. Pooh!
So, naturally, she turned him down.
"But this is what I thought you wanted!" he exclaimed.
"I do, but not just yet," she tried to explain.
"Not just yet?"
"I want a season!"
"You had a season!"
That was true. Arabella had been presented to the Ton that past spring. "I was only here because Samantha was to come! It is not the same thing as having my own."
"That makes no sense, Scarabella!" He was trying to tease her out of her pet.
"Makes perfect sense, Bozo! I only want a bit of attention, Cosmo," she pleaded. "A few devoted swains I can throw over at the end of the season so I may settle down to matrimonial bliss with you."
"You are a cruel, heartless chit! I have never heard such a thing!"
"Oh, grow up, Bozo!" she grumbled, quite put out that he thought she lacked proper feeling for others. "Females -- even gentlemen -- do it all the time!"
"You will not catch me doing such a thing!"
"No? Then where was my proposal at the end of last season? Engaged couples to be had all over the place and not an offer in sight for poor Arabella."
Cosmo blushed. "Would you have accepted me?"
"Yes, I would have. Do you think I liked Valerie and Samantha getting all the attention of being brides without me?"
"There you are -- back to the attention. Is that all you ever think about?"
"It is now! You should have snatched me up while you had the chance!" She flopped back on the sofa and struck a die-away pose.
"Fustian! All you have to do is accept me now and you shall have all the attention you desire."
"Hardly," she said with a sniff. "Lady Seawright does not wish to return to Brighton just yet and my family is preoccupied with the impending additions to the fold." She was certain Jack would have mentioned at least his own expected addition to one of his closest friends. "I will not get a chance to be feted and petted for making a brilliant match until after the babes arrive. Besides, no one is betrothed this early in the season. It just is not done. Makes people wonder why you have to rush."
"It is true! No, I will not be the object of speculation," she insisted. "I would much rather wait a month or two and be the object of many congratulations."
"What if I am not around by then?" he taunted.
She was not the sort to show consternation at such an idea, even if that very thought niggled her fertile imagination.
"Then we were not meant to be," was all she could say.
"Would you accept the next gentleman to come along?" he wondered, finally rising from one knee.
"No, I do not think so," she promptly replied. "I should more likely become an old maid."
"Arabella! You could end such nonsense by accepting me. We need not announce our betrothal at once, if it pleases you. I love you and I would do anything you wish of me."
She considered that and decided a secret engagement was exciting enough, and accepted. After all, how many girls could boast of such a thing? Actually, none, if they wished it to remain a secret.
"You realize, Bozo, that in agreeing to such a thing, I am now a cruel, heartless chit and you are my willing accomplice?"
He scowled. "I am well aware of that fact and would not be driven to it if it were not for you. Try not to lead on any gentlemen, will you?"
"I shall try..." she agreed, a twinkle in her eye. He kissed her hand, and then her lips, briefly, and excused himself as soon as possible. Arabella was a bit put out, but she had, at least, a private understanding.
"Are you betrothed?" the dowager Lady Seawright wanted to know later at dinner. She was well aware that Arabella had spent a good half hour alone with Lord Cosmo Villiers.
"I do hope you did not accept so quickly. I have just settled in and do not wish to rusticate right away. As much as I adore the duchess, I cannot abide all that fussing! It is not her first grandchild, even if it is mine. Knowing Valerie, it will be a girl first just to spite me. I am sure Samantha will be much more accommodating in providing Jack with an heir."
"I daresay she shall," Arabella agreed with a grin. "Samantha is most accommodating. And it might please you to know that Lord Cosmo and I have decided to wait until the end of the season to announce an attachment."
"Wise girl. Why let a betrothal ruin a perfectly good time?"
"I should have called you in to say that to Lord Cosmo," Arabella said with a giggle. "It might have shut him up sooner."
"Was he so dreadfully encroaching, then?" the dowager asked sympathetically, even as she concentrated on cutting up the chicken on her plate. "No doubt he will spend his time dancing attendance on every female in the room except you, just to prove he can."
Arabella frowned. "Do you think so?"
"Depend on it, my love. Men are inconstant creatures. I should know..." Her own marriage had been unhappy and she took out a bit of lingering frustration by sawing on a chicken wing. Arabella took pity on her and reached over to remove the poor, roasted fowl from sure destruction.
"But I only intended for me to expand my horizons before settling down!" Arabella whined, knowing perfectly well she sounded like a spoiled brat. She got the wing detached and returned it to Lady Seawright's plate.
"That is the problem with men, my dear girl. They think what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander!"
Arabella turned savage on her own chicken and reduced it to a pile of shavings in no time.
Sauce for the gander, indeed, Arabella thought with some satisfaction that next night at Almack's. Cosmo was most attentive and had already danced with her once. He was down for two dances, and no other gentleman on her dance card was listed twice.
She sat with Cosmo's mother and sister between sets, Lady Seawright having pawned her off on the Villierses for the evening. The dowager countess had gone off, no doubt, to play cards and gossip with friends as she pleased. Normally, Arabella would have been annoyed - she liked Lady Henrietta, but Lady Corbridge was a nightmare.
Tonight, however, with the idea that Lady Corbridge would one day be her mother-in-law, she was putting forth an effort to be nice. Or at the very least, polite. And trying to talk gentlemen into dancing with Henrietta. Discreetly, of course. There was no need to humiliate her future sister.
Suddenly, a hush descended on the room and Arabella looked up to see an angelic creature part the crowds.
"Who is that?" she whispered to Henrietta.
"Have you not yet seen Miss Macy?" Henrietta softly replied. "She is all the crack this season!"
The young lady in question had blonde hair so pale it was almost silver, large brown eyes and a sweet countenance. Her features were perfectly symmetrical and she was a pocket Venus whose frailness seemed to attract gentlemen in droves.
"She is quite nice," Henrietta added. "We conversed at Lady Pennington's ball for more than fifteen minutes last week."
Arabella was impressed. In her experience, beautiful young ladies did not have the time of day for the more plain ones. Unless ... This was not the first time someone had made use of Henrietta, although Arabella could not imagine why it was so this time.
"What did you speak of?"
"Nothing consequential. The weather. The season so far. I do not recall anything else." She gave Arabella a quizzical glance.
"I was merely curious as to what an angel discusses with mere mortals."
"I was as astonished as ... Look! She is coming over here!
Arabella saw that the angel was ascending on them and just as Miss Macy reached their party, Cosmo appeared.
"Lord Cosmo!" the ethereal young lady exclaimed in a voice that fell like a light, sparkling waterfall. "You must reacquaint me with your sister and introduce me to the lovely young lady at her side."
"As you please. You remember my sister, Lady Henrietta. And this is our friend, Lady Arabella Pryce."
"Lady Arabella!" The angel held out one hand. Arabella took it and they smiled at each other. "Someone told me you are the most ravishing creature, and I see he was not exaggerating." Her sideways glance at Cosmo told Arabella who the author of that statement had been. She wondered how long he had known the young lady.
The musicians, who had been taking a break, began to warm up for a waltz and that was the cue for several of the young men about Miss Macy to excuse themselves to locate their next partners. The lady dismissed them with a careless air and Arabella, whose partner was Cosmo, waited patiently for him to claim her.
To her surprise, Miss Macy turned to him and smiled. "I believe this is our dance, Lord Cosmo."
Cosmo opened his mouth, shut it, opened it again and finally nodded. While Arabella struggled not to gape at the retreating couple, Cosmo shot her an apologetic glance over his shoulder.
"I was certain..." Henrietta began, trying to read Arabella's dance card.
"It is impolite to contradict a lady, is it not?" Arabella asked, fighting back tears. "Excuse me. I need to retire for a moment."
Henrietta nodded and watched her retreat, concerned, because this was most unlike her friend. A gentleman approached and she politely excused Arabella, saying the young lady had torn a flounce. To her amazement, the gentleman smiled.
"I would say I am sorry to hear it, except I am not here for Lady Arabella, whoever she is."
"Mr. Macy, how droll you are," Lady Corbridge tittered. "Everyone knows Lady Arabella Pryce!" The way the marchioness spoke, it was clear she was not being kind.
Henrietta blushed, because she did not share the sentiment expressed by her mother. "I do not believe we are acquainted, sir."
"Henrietta! You spent time talking with the gentleman's sister and you have yet to meet Mr. Macy?" Lady Corbridge made it quite clear that the fault was all her daughter's in this matter.
"A grievous error on my part, my lady," Mr. Macy smoothly replied. "I was not present the other evening when my sister became acquainted with your daughter. Would you allow me this waltz, Lady Henrietta?"
Henrietta gaped, open-mouthed, at this request. Mr. Macy had a countenance similar to his sister's, although in darker shades, and as such was as much in demand as Miss Macy. He wanted to dance with her?
"Me?" she croaked, still not believing her good fortune.
"Yes, you, Lady Henrietta."
A bit wary -- perhaps Arabella's cynicism was rubbing off on her -- Henrietta rose and took his hand. "If you insist," she said a bit ungraciously. Her mother gasped, but he merely laughed and escorted her to the dance floor.
"You have permission?" he asked belatedly.
"Yes." She did not tell him she had only waltzed once, because it was unnecessary. He was quite skilled in leading her about the floor. Not only that, but he also waited until she got her bearings before beginning a conversation.
"What do you do for entertainment, Lady Henrietta?"
"I ride, and I visit the book shops and lending libraries ... needlework, but only because Mama insists ... I practice the pianoforte ... I like the theatre and the opera, as well."
It was not the one thing she thought he would pick up on, and she was well aware that such an admittance was a death knell for most young ladies.
"What sort of books?"
"History, travel, politics, novels, gardening..."
"Does that bother you?"
"Actually, no. I am a MP from Guildford, in Surrey, and I do not usually find young ladies of the ton -- young ladies of any sort -- interested in something that occupies my time."
"You are a MP?" She was impressed.
"I cannot tell you I have some high-flown principles regarding helping my fellow man, and all that, Lady Henrietta. I do not pretend to be as noble as that."
At least he was honest. That was quite the oxymoron. "Then why are you in politics, Mr. Macy?"
"Because my father expects it."
Henrietta, who knew all about a parent's expectations, merely nodded in understanding.
"At least I strive to provide my folks with quality representation, no matter what my reasons."
"That is commendable."
"Do you like the park, Lady Henrietta?" he asked.
"I suppose I do. Fresh air and sunshine are good for everyone. Sometimes I bring my sketch book and make pictures of people and scenes."
"Would you go with me to the park Friday afternoon?"
"I am going to have to break you of that answer," he said in a stern voice belied by the twinkle in his dark eyes. "Yes, you!"
"I should be delighted, providing my mother says I may."
"Is your mother the sort to say no?"
"Then I shall call for you at four o'clock."
Arabella was not one to back down from a fight, but she was also more sensitive than most people realized, and Cosmo's actions hurt. She was still fuming in the retiring room when her friend, Miss Rachel Winterbottom, came in.
"What is wrong?" Rachel asked instantly upon seeing Arabella's face.
"Is it that apparent?"
"Only to me, because I know you are much too cheerful and optimistic as a matter of course. You look like you just lost your best friend."
"I am truly vexed, but I do not wish to discuss it at the moment." She gave the room a significant glance.
Rachel nodded. Almack's was a hotbed of gossip. Including the latest on-dit, that Lord Cosmo Villiers had become enamored (like most every other male in London ) of Miss Macy's angelic beauty. In front of Lady Arabella.
"I should be delighted to call on you, Lady Arabella, now that I know you are returned to Town. Are you at Halbourne House or Lord Ryder's townhouse?"
"We arrived yesterday," Arabella confessed, aware that she should have sent a note around to Rachel before now. "I am staying with the dowager countess at Seawright House."
Rachel smiled. "How very nice! Lady Seawright is a delightful character. And your sister? She is in good health?"
Arabella beamed, Cosmo forgotten for the moment. "Lady Ryder enjoys the best of health and we are all anxiously awaiting the arrival of an heir." That reminded Arabella that she was to become an aunt and that Rachel was one already.
"You will enjoy having a niece or nephew," Rachel said happily, as if she could read Arabella's mind.
"In the meantime, you have returned to us here in town, where you will no doubt be the center of attention."
"Perhaps I shall have to share the limelight."
"I have news concerning that matter that I shall impart to you on the morrow. Are you feeling better now? You probably wish to go home, but trust me, that will make matters worse."
Arabella knew her departure now would be taken as a withdrawal from the lists, so she squared her shoulders, quit feeling sorry for herself and put on a bright smile.
"Shall I tell you that the lady's brother waltzed with Lady Henrietta?" Rachel said confidentially as they walked arm in arm back to the main room.
Arabella had missed meeting Mr. Macy and did not quite understand what Rachel was saying.
"The very handsome Mr. Macy," her friend explained. "MP from Surrey , with the face and build of a Greek god. Lady Corbridge is in alt and sweet Henrietta is practically glowing!"
Arabella could not help but smile. "Henrietta deserves such attention. I should like to see this paragon."
"I thought you might. Have no fear, it will not be out of our way. The gentleman is sitting out this set with Lady Corbridge and Lady Henrietta." The two girls giggled and set out to meet Henrietta's beau.
"Is not Mr. Macy divine?" Rachel asked the next afternoon as she and Arabella sat in a window seat in Lady Seawright's drawing room.
Arabella laughed. "He only has eyes for Henrietta!" She was still unhappy with Cosmo, but she could not find fault with Mr. Macy's attentions to her friend. A pity his sister would now be thrown into Cosmo's way because of it, not that the young lady wasn't capable of making her own opportunities.
Someone wanted to be a marchioness, she concluded, for after observing Miss Macy handling her many suitors the evening before, if it was a mere husband the lady wanted, one with money, even without a title, there were plenty for her to choose from. Miss Macy, however, had shown a marked preference for those who were either earls or marquesses, or had the hope of being one in the future. One of those was Cosmo, who had better not forget that he had already spoken for Arabella. She should remind him of that, by telling him of Lady Seawright's knowledge of their secret agreement.
"I fear Lord Cosmo has forgotten that he is all but betrothed to you," Rachel said, as if reading her mind. "Indeed, there are many of us -- Miss Macy included -- who considered you already engaged."
"As of a couple of days ago, we are." The more people who knew this, the better chance she had of routing the other young lady.
"But what if the lady arranges the situation to suit herself? I would not put it past her to place Cosmo in a compromising situation."
Arabella paled. "She would not!" she whispered, although she feared it would be so.
"She seems quite determined to have him, as there are no dukes currently available."
"Social climber," Arabella said with a sniff, although she was pleased that Rachel had noticed Miss Macy's favorites, as well.
"And as such, will do anything to reach the highest rung on the ladder," Rachel reminded her.
"Do not worry about Cosmo, though. Your friends will make certain she does not trap him into something he will later regret."
"No!" Arabella insisted. "If he is so much a nodcock as to be caught in her trap, they deserve each other. I love him dearly, but I refuse to interfere."
Rachel gave her a skeptical look, but she could only agree. "Although, it will be quite interesting if Henrietta can bring Mr. Macy up to scratch and have his sister fail with Lord Cosmo."
"What do you know of Mr. Macy?" Arabella asked, concerned for her friend, as well as being pleased with Henrietta's apparent conquest.
"By all accounts, he is an amiable gentleman who makes friends wherever he goes."
"Yes, but does he keep them? Does he have any income besides that of an MP? He and his sister seem well off, but it could be window dressing."
Rachel's responding grin was positively evil. "Perhaps your betrothed should check into this? He is the lady's brother, after all."
"Why, I believe he is." Arabella's smile was equally wicked. "The more he knows about the Macys, the better."
As it turned out (much to Arabella's chagrin), the Macys had a comfortable income, earned from their father's estate in Surrey, there were very few skeletons in the family closet (an elopement here and there, but nothing as scandalous as had graced the Villiers family in previous generations) and Mr. Macy had tentatively approached Lady Corbridge in pursuit of Henrietta's hand.
Arabella watched in amazement over the next couple of weeks as the young MP appeared wherever Henrietta was, be it Almack's, a music recital or a coming-out ball for her cousin. The betting books, Cosmo confessed to Arabella, were full of wagers concerning his sister and Mr. Macy.
"And yourself and the gentleman's sister?" she asked sweetly. She wanted Cosmo of his own free will, but she was not above a dig or two, especially as he seemed to spend a lot of time with that other lady.
"A few," he confessed with a blush.
"Do you wish to be released from our betrothal?" Arabella had always been brutally honest and even though her heart would break if he said yes, this time was no exception.
"Lord, no, Arabella! I love you, not Miss Macy. We are often thrown into company together, is all. I have to provide my sister with a chaperone. We could be doing this together, you realize, if you had married me last month when I asked you. Are you enjoying yourself?"
"No," she miserably replied. "How was I to know Miss Macy would come along and try to entice you away from me?" She realized what she had just said and clapped a hand over her mouth.
Cosmo only chuckled. "I could never let that happen, Scarabella."
"See that you do not, Bozo."
"Any word from Jack?"
"Only that Samantha is happy and healthy. It is the only thing that matters to him at the moment, which is as it should be." Despite her many worries at the moment, Arabella felt she could take care of herself.
"That reminds me. I will write to Jack tomorrow and ask for his permission to marry you."
"You have not done so before now?" she exclaimed. So that was why there had been no mention of it in the letters she had from home. The scoundrel!
"This was secret, if you recall," Cosmo said in his defense.
"Oh, yes, I remember! But you still need to inform my brother!" If she had a pillow -- or a stray elephant, perhaps -- at hand, she would have stuffed it down his throat. "It should only be a secret between us and the rest of the world, not our families!"
"And just how do you propose I tell my mother about this?"
"With your mouth?" she sarcastically suggested. "Or barring that, you could put it in writing."
"Aren't you the clever one, Scarabella?" He stood abruptly, his face flushed. "Perhaps I will not do any of this because that would tie me to a shrew such as yourself forever. If I wanted that, I would marry my mother! I think I will find another girl to marry -- one who is sweet and gentle and doesn't mock me. Have a good life, Arabella!" He stormed out of the room, but she was not one to sit and let him walk away without a word. She reached him just as he got to the foyer.
"Are you jilting me, Cosmo Villiers? Because I will not stand for it! I will not have someone like Miss Sly Puss Macy laughing at me, no, sir! I am jilting you, do you hear me?"
"As long as we are breaking it off, I do not care who does the jilting. Goodbye, Arabella."
This time, she did not follow as he let himself quietly out the front door. This time, she ran to her room, threw herself on the bed and cried her heart out.
In the next couple of weeks, the Villiers siblings seemed to live in the Macys' pockets. Everywhere Arabella went, the four were always together.
At first, Henrietta tried to include her, but Cosmo and Miss Macy both made it clear that Arabella was not a welcome addition to the party. Arabella still had her share of admirers, of course. Not everyone had defected to Miss Macy's camp. But she felt wretched. All she wanted was Cosmo.
Cosmo was unhappy, as well, but he thought Arabella should pay for the way she treated him. And as far as filling her place, Miss Macy seemed more than willing. He was in a fair way of considering offering for her, too, until one evening, three weeks after his argument with Arabella, when he and Henrietta were at a musical soiree. One, thankfully, that Arabella had chosen not to attend.
Henrietta was feeling suddenly unwell, and she asked her brother to escort her to a private parlor, until she was feeling more the thing. What they did not realize was that the small balcony off the room was already occupied. Occupied by Miss Macy and another gentleman.
"When are you going to quit toying with Villiers and run away with me? The man asked.
"I do not plan to quit ‘toying' with Lord Cosmo," Miss Macy replied. "I am going to marry him."
"But Lydia , you love me!"
"I know, but you cannot afford to keep me in the style to which I am accustomed, and you do not have a title. I do not plan on giving you up, of course."
"Of course not!" the man hotly agreed. "But if you should become with child..."
"Cosmo is such an idiot. All I have to do is seduce him and he will think it is his."
Cosmo and Henrietta looked at each other in horror and slowly began to back out of the room.
"And your brother?" the unknown man asked. Henrietta stayed Cosmo with a touch of her hand.
"He is truly besotted with Lady Henrietta. So much so, he hasn't even noticed what I have been up to." Her laugh was wicked.
Cosmo and Henrietta let themselves back out into the hall and shut the door quietly behind them. Without a word to each other, they made their way to the front of the hostess' house, called for the carriage and collected their wraps. It was not until they were well on their way home that Cosmo finally spoke."
"That was a close call."
Henrietta nodded. She knew what he meant. "What are we going to do?"
"I am going to leave town. I have a sudden urge to supervise the spring planting."
"Leaving me to pick up the pieces?"
"You will have the besotted Mr. Macy, will you not?"
Henrietta blushed. "I like him very much, but do I want his sister for my sister? I cannot tell him why I am suddenly not as friendly as I had been, you know."
"The lady's reputation is already beyond redemption, in our sight, but I refuse to be the one to call attention to the fact."
"What about Arabella?"
"What about her?"
"You know you love her, and she has been miserable without you."
"She will not want me now," he sadly replied. "Besides, how am I to apologize? ‘Forgive me for having been duped by another lady, will you take me back'? I think not."
Henrietta was sorry to see her beloved brother so downtrodden, but she could not think of anything good to say.
"So I will leave and you will accept the inestimable Mr. Macy," he concluded.
"Not unless something is done about his sister."
"I would like to see how you accomplish that."
Henrietta did, too. She was not clever like Rachel Winterbottom. Or Arabella... "You just run along and rusticate," she told him calmly. "I will think of something."
"I have only accepted this invitation to tea, Henrietta, because I saw a line in the newspaper that said Bozo has gone out of town. To ready the old pile for his intended bride?" she wondered.
Henrietta shot her a wounded look. "Please, Arabella. I am having a difficult time as it is fobbing off the barracuda and her brother. I do not need your comments on top of that."
Arabella apologized immediately, but she was also intrigued, having never heard Henrietta call anyone a barracuda before. "What gentleman leaves town without telling his beloved where he is going and when he will return?" she asked.
"One who is too craven to tell his true beloved that he made a mistake."
Arabella frowned. Surely Henrietta was not speaking of her. "So he left you here to deal with the Macys. There is something you are not telling me, Henrietta, but I will let that pass only because I am interested in this discussion."
"I thought you might be," the other young lady dryly replied.
Miss Winterbottom was announced and once she was settled, Henrietta launched into a detailed description of what had been overheard.
"Lord Cosmo has left town rather than dealing with the Macys?" Rachel asked, all agog.
"No," Cosmo said from the doorway. "That was a cowardly thing for me to even consider," he said to Miss Winterbottom and his sister, not looking at Arabella. "I was halfway to Clevedon and realized I had made a mistake. Several, in fact."
Arabella was not sure he was going to look at, let alone speak to her, when he made a request of his sister and their friend. "Ladies, might I have a word alone with Arabella?"
When she raised her eyes to his, she saw hesitation, and something else, and indicated that it was all right if the others left. If anything, her gesture was a bit impatient. She was suddenly wishing them to Jericho.
Once they were gone, however, she settled back on the sofa, all business. "You have five minutes, Bozo, to explain yourself. I promise not to interrupt. After that I will have five minutes for a rebuttal."
"Agreed." He began pacing the rug, seemingly unsure of where to begin.
"I am trying to gather my thoughts, Scarabella, if you do not mind. Besides, you promised not to speak. I have loved you for a long time, but you are so bossy and high-handed, I don't know where to begin."
"How about going back to the part where you have loved me for a long time?" she prompted.
He glanced at her and she shut her mouth.
"A long time. Ever since that first university summer holiday when I came to Ryder with Jack. Here was this gangly, coltish chit of twelve who was still a child in so many ways. She climbed trees, played cricket like a champion and rode a horse like a Fury. I saw not the child, but the promise of a strong, independent woman."
"Oh, Cosmo," she whispered.
"Imagine my surprise when Jack often lamented your lack of social status in the neighborhood. I could not imagine anyone not being as enamored of you as I was." He paused and ran a hand through his hair, tangling up what was surely a Brutus a any valet would be proud of. "But I could not show my hand. You were too young, and I told myself I was not yet ready to settle down. Sowing my wild oats passed the time, at any rate, while I waited for you to grow up. What I did not realize until recently was how I was not maturing in the meantime. I apologize for that."
Pacing ensued. "Then Samantha came along and turned Jack's life upside down. I do not think showing up foxed at a church service is exactly the way to gain one's undying devotion, but it seems to have worked for them. I am so happy she came into your lives, for many reasons, but especially for how it brought you to town. Minx," he said fondly.
"You were the same as always, Arabella: A beautiful mix of gorgeous person and outspoken, slightly cynical frankness. Being an honest speaker myself, I cannot imagine a future tied to a namby-pamby miss who agrees with everything I say and do. But, as you know, I was a fool and did not declare myself last year when everyone around us smelled of April and May. Like a bigger fool, I thought you were wrong to not accept me when I finally offered."
Arabella wanted to speak several times during this speech, but held back because she had given Cosmo her word that she would not.
"Well?" he now wondered. "My time is up."
"But you did not yet address the situation with Miss Macy!"
He shrugged. "I was an even bigger fool about her. I thought you had rejected me completely and she was a good substitute."
"Rejected? You started it, by paying attention to that two-bit, who..."
"Shhh!" In three strides, Cosmo was on the sofa holding a hand to her mouth. "She may be all that, but a gentleman protects a lady's reputation, no matter what."
Arabella's eyes grew wide. "Is that why you...?"
"Yes. I could not say anything mean about her, but I could not stay in town and allow her to make a dupe of me, either. Not when I had already come to the conclusion that I still loved someone else."
Arabella raised a hand to his cheek. "Oh, Cosmo!"
"And now it is your turn."
"All I want to say is this." Arabella threw herself into his arms and kissed him soundly. "That means I am sorry, apology accepted, I love you, and marry me," she said when he gave her a chance to speak.
"Accepted, no need, I love you, too, and yes," he happily replied. That deserved another long kiss.
"That is right, children," Henrietta said from the doorway. "Kiss and make up. But that does not solve our problem with the Macys. Mr. Macy has been pressing me for a reason for your unexplained departure, and his sister talks about you constantly when I am in her company. I just wish to slap her and tell her to quit being such a hypocrite."
"Henrietta!" Rachel said from behind her friend, although she was laughing. "First things first. Lord Cosmo must put your engagement in the papers. That will start tongues wagging. You are betrothed, are you not?" She gave them a stern look.
"Yes, but I cannot do that!" Cosmo insisted. "Not without Jack's permission!"
Henrietta made a rude sound. "You should have secured that ages ago, you paperskull."
"That is what I have told him time and again," Arabella smugly replied.
"You should listen to Arabella more often." Henrietta shook her head. "Now get going and secure Lord Ryder's permission. And if you delay, I warn you that Arabella, Rachel and I shall take matters into our own hands."
Cosmo left the room -- and town -- with due haste.
Permission was readily secured ("What took you so long, Cosmo?"), messages and packages for Arabella were pressed upon him by the countess and the dowager, and he was pleased to report upon his return that Lady Seawright had been delivered early of a healthy boy.
The dowager countess of Seawright, Arabella's hostess, was thrilled and even more so when Lady Corbridge, upon learning of her son's betrothal, asked Arabella to move in with her and Henrietta. Lady Seawright jumped at the chance to become acquainted with her first grandchild, and left town at the earliest possible moment.
Arabella did not mind. Cosmo called upon his mother every day and was conscientious enough to take Arabella into society every evening.
Mr. Macy was a frequent caller, as well, and his sister was treated with calm acceptance by Henrietta and Arabella, if only because they were not certain what she might do in retaliation. That she was angry at this turn of events was evident in the way she sneered at Arabella and constantly tried to make her look clumsy in front of everyone else. They smoothed over this physical revenge as best they could, but they forgot about the lady's poisoned tongue.
"Is it true?" someone asked Arabella one Wednesday evening at Almack's.
"Is what true?" she asked, curious.
"That Miss Macy carries Lord Cosmo's child and he became betrothed to you to avoid responsibility for it?" the young lady tittered.
"Where did you hear that?" Arabella's heart filled with dread. Her eyes sought out Cosmo in the crowd, but he was nowhere to be seen. She felt deserted.
"What does it matter?" The girl flitted off, not even waiting for a reply.
Several people around her were giving Arabella odd looks and she did not have to wonder why. Seeking out Henrietta, who had just come off the dance floor with Mr. Macy, she asked them both to join her for a moment in a quiet spot. She quickly told them what she had heard.
Mr. Macy turned white and Arabella thought he was going to faint. "Is this true?" he asked.
"Of course it is not!" Henrietta hotly exclaimed. "If your sister is increasing, it's by that man she was talking to at Lady Morley's musical soiree!"
Mr. Macy stared at Henrietta in dismay. "What man?"
"I do not know," Henrietta whispered. "Cosmo and I never saw him, we only heard his voice."
"What did it sound like?" he demanded, taking Henrietta by the shoulders as if he were going to shake her. He suddenly realized where he was, and did not, although they were attracting some attention. "Never mind," he said. "I believe I know who it was."
"We cannot yet be certain your sister's condition is as I heard it, either," Arabella pointed out.
"Why would someone say that about herself if it was not true?" Henrietta asked.
"How do you know my sister ever opened her mouth?" Mr. Macy wondered coldly.
Henrietta's eyes flashed. "Who else would say anything at all? In my opinion, this is a case of a woman scorned."
"I know my sister better than that, Lady Henrietta."
He stiffened. "I do not like this way this conversation is headed. Good evening, Lady Henrietta, Lady Arabella." He bowed as if movement of any kind were painful, and left.
Henrietta, to her credit, looked sad, but had received more than her share of instruction on how to behave in public. Especially in such a hotbed of gossip as Almack's. Arabella took her friend's hand and squeezed it. There was nothing to say, at least not at the moment. She took Henrietta back to Lady Corbridge and suggested that Henrietta was feeling unwell. Henrietta did not protest. Lady Corbridge took one look at her pale daughter and agreed with Arabella.
Arabella was thankful that nothing was said about gossip concerning Cosmo, which meant Lady Corbridge had not yet heard the news (highly doubtful) or she was putting on a good front. Arabella had to admire her if it was the latter.
Rachel came over early the next morning, even before the two young ladies had finished breakfast. When a footman announced that she was calling, Henrietta insisted she be brought into the morning parlor. Rachel, when she arrived, seemed about to burst with something.
"What is it?" Arabella asked as Henrietta dismissed the servants and poured out tea.
"Guess who has eloped?"
"Miss Macy." It was Arabella's fondest wish and she just blurted it out.
"You have already heard?" Rachel's face fell. "It only happened last night!"
"It was merely a good guess," Arabella assured her. "And we do not have the details. Do sit down and tell us what you know."
When Rachel was settled with her tea, and a piece of toast covered in strawberry jam, she launched into the particulars.
It seemed that everyone now knew that Miss Macy had been enamored of an Army captain, a friend of the family, for years but her father had not considered him wealthy enough. She set her sights on Cosmo, instead, but was still in love with her captain.
"So they eloped?"
"No!" Rachel exclaimed. "Miss Macy ran off with Mr. Harvey!"
"Who?" Arabella did not know a Mr. Harvey.
"Balding, older man with plenty of money. Stands to inherit an earldom when his even more elderly uncle dies," Rachel explained.
"With a redcoat on the side," Henrietta murmured.
Arabella was both shocked and amused. "Henrietta!"
"It is merely the truth!" her friend insisted. "But I have been wondering, Rachel, how you managed to hear about this so early?"
"Mr. Macy called on us first thing this morning to give me the news. He also told me that his sister started that rumor. Mama was in alt, thinking the handsome MP was transferring his attentions to me, but I am not so disillusioned." She gave Henrietta a pointed look and the other lady had the grace to blush.
"That still does not excuse his behavior last night!" she insisted.
"I wondered why he called on me instead of you," Rachel said. She withdrew a note from her reticule and handed it to Henrietta. "I thought perhaps this was a billet-doux, but it seems I was mistaken."
"I do not want it," Henrietta stubbornly replied.
"Henrietta! Take it!" Arabella urged. "At least see what he says."
"What who says?" Cosmo asked, coming into the room. He dropped a kiss on the top of Arabella's head as he went to the sideboard.
"Where were you last night?" she demanded.
"Having a discussion with Mr. Harvey," Cosmo said with an innocent smile.
"What?" The young ladies exclaimed in chorus.
"So it was you who convinced him to elope with Miss Macy!" Arabella said.
"I had heard the gossip yesterday and knew something must be done. I tried to warn you away from Almack's, but you had already gone by time I could let you know I had everything in hand. Was it so very dreadful?"
"Horrible!" Arabella shuddered. "The pitying looks were the worst!"
"I apologize profusely, my dearest Arabella -- and Henrietta -- for putting you through that."
"It is of no moment now, Cosmo," Arabella happily replied. "And we probably looked all the better for making an appearance."
"That's my girl! Now, Henrietta, tell me which of your many suitors is writing to you this fair day? Mr. Macy, perhaps?" He brought a laden plate over to the table and sat down next to his intended.
"It is most likely a letter of great apology," her brother said, "and I have told him he may not tender one in person until I have your consent."
"How did you...?" Henrietta looked at her letter, confusion written all over her face.
"I visited with several people last night," he said. "Only in Mr. Macy's case, he came to see me."
"To call you out?" Arabella wondered, wide-eyed.
"Actually, no. He had left Almack's in a temper, gone home to discover a note from his already-eloping sister, who obligingly confessed her part in a very nasty rumor, and came to see me straight away." His voice and expression softened. "He loves you, Henrietta, and it would behoove you to read what he has to say. Then you will find him in the first-floor salon, his heart in his hand."
Henrietta did not even open her note, but ran from the room, a wide smile on her lips.
"All's well that end's well," Rachel said with a happy sigh. "And my work here is done. Mama will be heartbroken when she reads of Henrietta's betrothal in the papers, but I will get some entertainment out of her vapors." She stood, kissed Arabella goodbye and told Cosmo she would see herself out of the house. "I know when I am de trop."
"You will find someone yourself some day, Miss Winterbottom," Cosmo said kindly, rising to his feet.
"I am certain of it," she replied. Blowing another kiss to Arabella, she left the room.
"Well..." Cosmo began, seating himself once more. "I think my sister is on her way to being settled."
"What do you think will happen to the gossip concerning Miss Macy and ourselves?"
"It will be less than a nine-day's wonder, I expect. My friends are already telling people that Miss Macy was using that rumor to cover up her planned elopement with Mr. Harvey."
"If you will. I do not think it will harm us for long, and if we show a united front to society, they will realize it is unfounded."
"What about Miss Macy's redcoat?"
"What about him?" Cosmo replied. "He is her problem, and Mr. Harvey's, but not ours."
"But he could cause some embarrassment to Mr. Macy and Henrietta."
"I believe they will find a way to separate themselves from any scandal that might arise. I doubt that it will ever come to that. Mr. Harvey will no doubt turn a blind eye to his wife's indiscretions once she gives him a couple of children that resemble him."
Arabella rose from her chair and deposited herself in Cosmo's lap before he could stand. She curled her arms around his neck and kissed him. "You will never have reason to wonder about your own children, Bozo."
"I am very certain of that, Scarabella. We just need to discuss how long it will be before we get to that point."
Arabella felt herself blush. "I do not want to waste any more time, but I do not want to be thought of like Miss Macy." There would be plenty of people counting the months between the elopement and the birth of a first child, and Arabella did not want Cosmo and herself considered in the same light. "Shall we say two months from now?" she suggested.
"One month," Cosmo immediately countered. "At Ryder so your sister may attend."
"At Ryder," Arabella agreed.
"However, you will have to lodge Mama and Henrietta. I will manage an invitation from their graces to stay at the castle."
"If you can tear them away from Seawright," Arabella warned. "Although I like to think they would come home for our wedding."
"I am fairly certain they will, and perhaps the dowager will come with them."
"I would like that." She sighed and laid her head on Cosmo's shoulder. "To think I almost lost you."
"But you did not."
"I do not want anything to happen to you now, either. I am so scared and nervous, I keep thinking something or someone will tear you away from me now that I finally have you."
"Shall I move in here so you know where I am?" he teased.
"Cosmo! Your mother would have apoplexy if you even suggested such a thing!"
"Is that bad?" he asked in an innocent voice that belied the impish grin on his face.
"Yes, if only because we would have to postpone the wedding for a decent time of mourning."
Cosmo laughed aloud. "Still my same Scarabella, aren't you?"
"I refuse to change my ways for you, Bozo."
He gathered her tightly to his chest. "Don't you dare ever change, Scarabella. Don't ever change."
Two months later...
"You are the most beautiful bride!" Samantha exclaimed, minutely adjusting the cobweb veil that had been in the Pryce family for generations. She had worn it, as well, Arabella knew, and there was some legend that said it ensured a first-born son. She looked at the baby in her mother's arms and the one Henrietta was cuddling, and thought the veil had been working a bit too well to give Samantha twins. Jack, in true male fashion, was taking all the credit.
"My luck will be to give Cosmo only daughters, two at a time," she said in her irrepressible manner. Henrietta giggled. "Do not laugh, Henrietta. Your mother wants to borrow this veil for your own wedding next month."
Henrietta blushed as she always did when either a wedding or Mr. Macy were mentioned. At least the two had made up, and were betrothed. Henrietta had even received a congratulatory letter from Mrs. Harvey, although the lady would never apologize for anything she had ever said or done that was harmful in any way. Henrietta had shrugged it off and said she and Mr. Macy planned on being distantly polite to his sister. Arabella understood scandal of any sort would only hurt Mr. Macy's standing in the political world. She also knew Henrietta would stand by him come what may, though, and that was how it should be.
"Are you ready?" Lady Seawright came into the castle bedchamber where they were assembled. "Everyone is waiting in the chapel. Even the groom!"
"Thank you, Valerie," the dowager countess of Ryder said. "Samantha, you and Lady Henrietta go on ahead with the babies." Everyone cleared out of the room, leaving Arabella alone with her mother.
"You are truly are a beautiful bride, my darling girl. I know you will be happy. I wish you nothing but joy for the rest of your life." Lady Ryder was close to tears.
"Oh, Mama!" Arabella wrapped her arms around her mother's thin shoulders, oblivious to her gown and veil. "Consider what you say. I am marrying Cosmo! Do you really believe we can go more than a day or two without an argument?"
"You could try," her mother suggested with a sniff.
"Where is the fun in that? Besides," she wickedly added, "we would have no reason to make up!" With a laugh and a swirl of perfumed skirts, she led her mother out of the room and toward the wedding.
Moments later, as she scanned the occupants of the chapel, she looked across Jack's arm and saw Rachel Winterbottom. Rachel was seated with that dragon of a mother of hers, and she had red-rimmed eyes and a swollen nose. Surely Rachel was not crying tears of joy.
Unfortunately, Arabella was handed over to Cosmo in front of the vicar and she had no time left to consider why her friend was so forlorn.
In fact, she forgot everything but her hand, in Cosmo's as she became his forever.
© 2006, 2007 Copyright held by the author.