The Fickle Bride


Chapter 6

Lady Mary Andell had been married, much against her will, to a friend of her father's, twenty years her senior and a widower twice over. In her day, young women did not have much choice when their fathers had made a decision about their future, so at first it had seemed as if Lady Mary would accept her fate without making too much of a fuss about it.

On the morning after her wedding, however, she had arrived back at her father's house and refused to return to her husband, come what may.

"She actually threatened to kill him, should he ever dare to come near her, and vowed to kill herself as well rather than let him touch her again. Her family knew her well enough to realise that this was no empty threat on her part," Lord Asterby said. "Lady Mary was perfectly equal to going through with these things."

"Good heavens! What can have happened to make her flee her husband's house and come back to her father's for protection?" Barbara asked.

"We do not know for certain, for neither she nor her husband ever mentioned the matter to anyone," Lord Asterby said earnestly. "That is to say, she must have confided in her father, and from what happened afterwards I assume it must have been something horrible. He allowed her to remain under his roof, and used his influence to gain an annulment of her marriage -- not an easy thing to achieve, even for the Duke of Burwell, so there must have been a good reason. The scandal could not be avoided, though. Lady Mary remained in her father's house for the rest of her life -- no one wanted to try their luck with a woman who had run away from her husband and threatened to murder him."

Barbara could imagine that. She knew that Lady Mary would have been referred to as "damaged goods" -- the fact that she had been married would not have helped her in the least. No wonder she looked grim in that portrait -- Lady Mary's life could not have been an easy one. She had been trapped in a dreadful marriage through no fault of her own, and had paid dearly for daring to escape from it. And on top of it all, she had been turned into some kind of bogey to scare children into doing as they were bid. In Barbara's opinion, Lady Mary was to be pitied rather than feared, and so she said to Lord Asterby. He agreed.

"As a boy, I did not see it that way, of course," he admitted, "because I did not understand matters. But now I do. Poor Lady Mary indeed."

As Lord Asterby had predicted, the Duchess was waiting for them in the Blue Drawing Room, and immediately demanded to know whether Barbara had enjoyed her tour of the house.

"Very much," Barbara assured her, and while they were drinking their tea and eating their cake they discussed Burwell Castle and its amenities.

"Too bad it is too late in the day for a tour of the gardens," the Duchess finally said. "I understand you take an interest in gardening, as your sister does?"

Barbara answered in the affirmative, which made the Duchess tell her son that they would invite Miss Markham to come over another day, to have a proper tour of the gardens.

"I am very proud of them," the Duchess announced, and Barbara replied that, from what she had seen of the gardens from the windows, the Duchess had every reason to be proud of them.

"It is such a pity that my husband does not want to get rid of this formal terrace," the Duchess remarked. "I would prefer something.... more natural. What do you say, Miss Markham?"

"I quite like the look of the formal flowerbeds, your grace," Barbara said. "They are more colourful."

"The Duke wants them to stay because they remind him of his mother," the Duchess explained. "She was the one who had them made that way, and whatever else I did to the gardens he would not hear of having them replaced with something more modern."

"My mother could never reconcile herself to the formal terrace, could you, ma'am?" Lord Asterby teased his mother.

"Indeed I could not. It is quite vexing, though I must say that in every other matter his grace is a perfectly reasonable husband."

"It must be a great comfort to him to know that," Lord Asterby remarked dryly, giving Barbara a smile and ... a wink? She could not be certain, but it had almost looked like one. The manners in this household were indeed most informal, she thought, but she could not help but like this. The Andells were so refreshingly lacking in self-importance; one could not help but take the entire family to one's heart.

Once they had finished their repast, Lord Asterby sent for their horses and Thompson, and soon they found themselves on their way back to Borrowdale House. This time, they took the shortest route back to her sister's home, and soon -- too soon for her taste -- Barbara had to take leave of Lord Asterby.

"Are you going to come in to see your brother?" she asked him as they walked from the stables towards the house.

"Not tonight," Lord Asterby said. "Otherwise I will be late for dinner, and my mother has some very strict views on punctuality. I do not fancy one of her gentle reminders."

Knowing the Duchess the way she did, Barbara suspected that her reminders were not as gentle as the expression might lead one to believe.

"Very well then," she said, stopping outside the front door. "Thank you very much for an extraordinarily pleasant afternoon, my lord. Burwell Castle is a magnificent home, and I am glad you could find the time to let me see it."

There was a slight blush in his lordship's countenance when he demurred.

"Indeed," Barbara persevered, "I am very much afraid that your mother set you a very tedious task, and I appreciate your readiness to sacrifice an entire afternoon for my entertainment all the more."

"Miss Markham, you are quite mistaken," Lord Asterby said, earnestly looking into Barbara's eyes. "The truth is that it was a pleasure showing you my ancestral home -- I enjoyed this afternoon and your company very much, and I am happy to hear that you have also found it enjoyable. Good night, Miss Markham! Give my regards to your sister, and tell her and my brother I will call on them tomorrow."

He bowed, and walked back towards the stables, leaning rather more heavily on his stick than he usually did. Barbara supposed he was probably very tired by now, and felt almost sorry for having been the cause of his fatigue. Almost ... for she could not really regret having passed an agreeable afternoon in his company.

On his way back to Burwell Castle, Lord Asterby pondered the afternoon he had spent with Miss Markham. He had truly enjoyed himself showing her around his family home, and telling her all those stories attached to it. She had been really interested in what he had had to say, not like some other women who merely faked interest because they wished to ingratiate themselves. She had also been a pleasant conversation partner -- her reactions had been natural, not designed to force any counter-reaction out of him. He had felt much more at ease with her than he usually did when talking to young ladies. Lord Asterby attributed this to the fact that she was engaged to be married. There was no more need for her to try and catch a husband at all cost -- she had already done so. Neither was there any need for him to watch his step around her -- he could be himself, and talk to her in the way he usually spoke to his family and friends. What a refreshing change, Lord Asterby thought, and hoped Miss Markham would stay with her sister for a while. He had planned to go back to Asterby Court soon, but seriously considered staying after all. His business in Wiltshire could wait, and his family really needed him here.

Getting off his horse in front of his father's stables, Lord Asterby felt a sharp pain in his right leg, the one he had seriously injured in that riding accident ten years back. Perhaps he had overtaxed his strength, he thought, but he was far too young to spend the rest of his life on some sofa, allowing himself to be coddled. It would drive him mad -- indeed, it had almost done so when he had been obliged to keep to his bed after taking that fall -- and he could well understand why his sister-in-law did not take too kindly to being obliged to stay in bed.

He limped towards the house, leaning heavily on his stick to take as much weight off his leg as he could. By the time he entered the house, the pain had already got better. Still, his mother who was just at that moment coming down the stairs recognised the signs.

"Is your leg giving you any trouble, Matthew?" she asked him, looking worried.

"Only a bit, Mother," Lord Asterby lied.

With a guilty look, the Duchess apologised for having put him to so much trouble -- she should have known, she said, that walking around the entire house as well as riding to Borrowdale House and back would prove too much for his bad leg, well though he was doing usually.

"Nonsense, Mother," Lord Asterby reassured her. "It is the weather, more likely -- I think it is going to rain tomorrow. And I really enjoyed giving Miss Markham a tour of the house, so please do not feel guilty about having asked me to do it."

His mother did not argue about that -- her son's predictions regarding the weather had been remarkably accurate ever since he had broken his leg in that riding accident. Any change in the weather made itself felt. Well, he had only himself to blame for that. There was probably no creature on earth more foolish than an eighteen-year-old youth trying to impress girls. Or maybe there was, but he had yet to hear of one.

With a sigh, he walked up the stairs to his room to change into some attire suitable for dinner.

Barbara found her brother-in-law in the drawing room, in an obvious state of anxiety. He spun round to face her the moment she opened the door, and looked rather tense.

"Is anything the matter?" Barbara asked him, hoping nothing had happened to Kate while she had been gone. What a dreadful ending to an otherwise pleasant day this would be, she thought.

"Kate was not feeling all that well, so I sent for the doctor," Lord Gregory said gloomily. "He is with her now, but they will not let me go into her room. I want to know what is going on up there, dash it!"

"Of course you do," Barbara said, trying to soothe him. "Do you want me to go upstairs and inquire?"

With a rueful grin, Lord Gregory confessed that he had already done so -- some ten to fifteen times.

"Phibbs told me not to worry and to let him do his work without any more interference," he said.

"This sounds like a sensible piece of advice to me," Barbara said. "I am sure if anything was wrong somebody would have informed you by now."

She sat down on the sofa and did her best to draw her brother-in-law into conversation, and for a while she was even successful. But when the door opened and the butler ushered an elderly gentleman into the drawing room, Lord Gregory almost pounced on the unfortunate individual.

"What is wrong with my wife, Phibbs?" he demanded to know.

"Nothing of an alarming nature, my lord," the doctor replied calmly. "I realise that you think you have every reason to be anxious, but indeed there is nothing wrong with her ladyship. The pain she felt in the afternoon had nothing to do with her being an expecting mother. As far as I can tell, both she and the child are in good health."

"Thank God," Lord Gregory breathed, and remembered his manners. "Mr. Phibbs, our family doctor, Barbara. -- This is Miss Markham, my sister-in-law, Phibbs."

"Ah yes -- her ladyship did say she had her sister staying here at the moment. An excellent notion, my lord, if I may be so bold as to say so. It appears that her ladyship is in much better spirits than when I last saw her."

"I am glad to hear my visit is doing my sister good," Barbara said.

"Oh, without doubt, it does," Mr. Phibbs replied. "There is some.... private matter I need to discuss with you, my lord, if you can find the time..."

The doctor threw a cautious glance at Barbara, as if to indicate that the matter he wished to discuss was not suitable for the ears of a young, single female. Barbara took the hint and excused herself, in the safe knowledge that she would get the truth out of Kate in no time. Though there were certain aspects of married life Kate would not discuss with Barbara (and rightly so, Barbara thought -- some things were just none of her business, and to say the truth she did not even want to know about them), she saw no problem with talking about her pregnancy with her, and frequently did.

As Barbara had foreseen, Kate was quite ready to tell her what had happened. Apparently she had felt some pain in her stomach, and had been foolish enough to say so within her husband's hearing. Lord Gregory, who had turned into a positive mother hen of late, had sent for Mr. Phibbs without Kate's knowledge.

"Whenever I feel the slightest twitch in my side, he thinks I am about to go into premature labour," Kate complained. "I know I should not be vexed with him; this is our first child, he does not know much about these matters and he wants to do his best to be a supportive husband and a good father -- but he is beginning to get on my nerves." Kate sighed. "I am a contrary creature, I am afraid, and an unfeeling one too. Poor Gregory, he deserves a better wife than me."

Barbara could sympathise with both -- with Gregory, the young husband and father-to-be who was anxious to do the right thing, as well as with Kate whose nerves had suffered from being shut up in her room for weeks and who did not like her husband hovering about her like an overprotective mother hen.

"Anyway, I got Mr. Phibbs to have a word with him," Kate said. "Gregory will not take any advice from me; maybe he will listen to an experienced doctor. If that does not help I will have to set the Duchess on him. No one can deny that she knows a thing or two about childbirth. Only I want to keep this in reserve, as some kind of last resort. I am pretty sure no man wants to speak to his mother about pregnancy and childbirth."

Barbara could well imagine that Lord Gregory might not relish such an interview with his mother, and agreed that the Duchess should only be applied to if all else failed.

"I really am the most ungrateful wretch alive," Kate sighed. "There I got myself the sweetest husband in the world and all I do is complain."



Chapter 7

It rained heavily the next morning, which made Barbara assume that Lord Asterby would hardly come over to see them that day. She was conscious of feeling some regret -- she liked him, and had been looking forward to seeing him again. But he would not ride over from Burwell Castle in such dreadful weather, she thought, and decided to spend the morning with Kate and Emma, and maybe occupy herself with her sketch book later on.

The morning passed very quietly, with both Barbara and Kate adhering to that programme of sedate entertainment. Lord Gregory had some business to attend to and so he did not join them in Kate's sitting room until luncheon.

During their meal, he and Kate talked about everyday matters, though occasionally Lord Gregory directed a question at Barbara to draw her into the conversation.

"What a dreary day this is," he exclaimed as he got up from the table and looked out of the window. "You must be bored to death in here!"

Kate informed him that she cared little about the weather, since she was cooped up in that room of hers no matter what the weather was like outside.

"I know," Lord Gregory said. "How about some card games, ladies? We could play Speculation, or if you do not mind we could alternate and play Piquet. Too bad there is no one else here, or we could play whist instead."

Barbara could see that her sister would like to play cards, and so she readily agreed to the scheme, though she was not much of a card player herself. While they were waiting for the card table to be carried up to her ladyship's private sitting room, however, the butler announced a guest -- my Lord Asterby.

"So you did come after all," Barbara said once she had greeted the visitor. "I was not sure you would, in such weather." She only became aware of the bright welcoming smile she had given him when she received an equally bright one in return.

"I said I would, didn't I?" he asked. "My mother sends her compliments, Kate, and says she will send you those embroidery patterns you asked for the other day as soon as she has found them. She is certain they must be somewhere in the nursery."

"Oh! The baby clothes! Tell her grace that I am much obliged to her," Kate replied. "Do you know you are a godsend, Matthew? We had just decided to play cards, but with only three of us one would always be excluded. Would you mind very much if we asked you to join us?"

"Whist?" Lord Asterby asked, looking none too pleased.

"Well, yes ... unless we can persuade you to play Piquet with Barbara while Gregory and I play Piquet too. Or we could play Speculation -- what do you say?"

"Anything you wish, dearest of my sisters," Lord Asterby said with a grin.

"For shame! You do not have any sisters but me," Kate laughed.

"You'd even be my favourite if I had a dozen," Lord Asterby said gallantly and agreed to make the fourth at their whist table.

They drew lots first, to determine who was to play with whom, and Barbara ended up with Lord Asterby as her partner (though she suspected Kate had cheated to be allowed to play with her husband).

"I must warn you, my lord," Barbara said as she took her place at the card table. "I am not a very skilled whist player."

"Nor am I," Lord Asterby admitted, smiling. "But we will try our best to stand up to my brother and your sister, shall we?"

"I will," Barbara said. "I am only afraid my best will not be good enough."

"Never mind, Miss Markham, we will find a way to turn even the most disastrous of defeats into a moral victory."

"He is really good at that," Lord Gregory remarked, taking his seat and shuffling the cards. "One could also say he is an awfully bad loser."

"No one likes losing very much, I daresay," Lord Asterby said calmly. "At least I am frank about it."

"Good one, brother," Lord Gregory said, and dealt. "I hope you will remember there are ladies present though. There is only so much frankness they will want to tolerate from you."

"I may be a bad loser, but I am not such an ugly customer as that," Lord Asterby retorted.

They spent an hour or two playing whist, until Kate laid her cards onto the table and announced that she was tired, and would retire to her room for a while. Lord Gregory immediately looked guilty, but she laughed and told him that surely she could feel tired occasionally without anyone being to blame for it -- "except the young rascal, who chose this of all afternoons to turn one somersault after another, at least this was how it felt."

She wished the rest of the party a pleasant afternoon, and went off to her bedroom, with her maid to attend to her.

"So what are we going to do now?" Lord Gregory asked. "Does any of you have an idea?"

"We could put the Long Gallery to its proper use," Lord Asterby suggested.

"What do you mean by that, my lord?" Barbara asked.

"I think I know what he means," Lord Gregory said with a grin. "If you will be so kind as to take Miss Markham up to the Gallery, Matthew, I will see what I can do."

"And you are not going to tell me what we are going to do there?"

"Not yet," Lord Gregory laughed. "But it is a perfectly respectable plan. Trust us."

"It would only be fair, Gregory, to tell Miss Markham that there used to be days when it was not wise to trust us," Lord Asterby said. "Though for my part, I admit I have outgrown mischief. Regrettably."

"I know. You have become a dead bore, brother." Lord Gregory gave a mock bow, and went off to do whatever it was that he was planning.

Barbara gave Lord Asterby a doubting look. "So, what am I to expect?" she asked.

"We really succeeded in worrying you, didn't we?" He smiled. "According to some history books, galleries were often used as some kind of playground in bad weather. This is what I was referring to."

"And what are we going to play?"

"We will have to go upstairs to the gallery to find out," Lord Asterby said and offered her his arm. "Shall we go?"

They walked upstairs into what was known as the Long Gallery, a light and airy room with several huge windows to one side, and a row of exquisite French tapestries to the other. The plasterwork on the high ceiling was almost as fine as any to be found in Burwell Castle, Barbara thought.

The housekeeper had shown Barbara into the rooms adjacent to the Long Gallery -- one suite of rooms was going to be the baby's nursery, and was all ready to receive its occupant. Next to it, there was going to be a schoolroom. Barbara could almost imagine the sound of little feet running along the Gallery, and felt that this house was a good place to bring up children in.

And the child's father was perfectly suited to join in any piece of devilry his offspring would be up to, it appeared. Barbara and Lord Asterby had waited for no longer than five minutes, sitting in one of the window seats, when he appeared, carrying two battledores and a shuttlecock.

"Here I am," he announced. "Anyone up for a game or two?"

Barbara laughed. "You cannot be serious," she said.

"And why not, ma'am?" Lord Gregory asked, assuming a haughty air. "Surely I may play battledore and shuttlecock in my own house if I feel like it?"

"It is useless to oppose him when he is in that mood, Miss Markham," Lord Asterby said. "It will be best if we join him in whatever outrageous venture he has in mind."

"I'll have you know that there is nothing reprehensible in my plan," Lord Gregory said.

"As you say, brother," Lord Asterby said. "Unless you wish to incur your wife's wrath, you might want to put those Chinese vases out of the way though. I do not know why she is so fond of them, but I have a feeling as if she would not take too kindly to any of them being broken. She might even refuse to hear reason in the matter of putting the Long Gallery to its proper use."

"I hate it when my brother is being reasonable," Lord Gregory said with a grin. "Come and lend a hand, or does it not please your lordship to do so?"

Lord Asterby got up, and between them the two brothers managed to put all the breakables out of harm's way.

"Fine," Lord Gregory said. "Would you like to join in the game, Barbara, or are you going to leave all the fun to us?"

"I may be a trifle out of practice," Barbara admitted. "As a child I used to love the game, but I have not played it for ages!"

"All the better for us," Lord Gregory laughed.

"You are not being very gentlemanly, Gregory," Lord Asterby remarked. "You do realise that we should let Miss Markham win at least once?"

"You let her win, then." Lord Gregory grinned. "I will not -- unless she deserves to. Ladies do not want their victories handed to them on a silver plate. You should know better than suggest such a thing."

He handed Barbara one of the battledores, and they took up their positions opposite each other. Barbara felt pretty awkward at first; it took her some time to regain her playing skill, but once it had returned to her she was having a great deal of fun. Lord Asterby had taken it upon himself to act as an umpire, and Barbara took great delight in listening to the arguments his decisions started between him and his brother. More than once she found herself laughing so hard she almost dropped her battledore.

"Fair enough," Lord Gregory finally said, after having accused his brother of being partial and incapable of making a single fair decision (laughingly, however, and Lord Asterby had not taken umbrage at the accusation). "It is your turn, Asterby."

"Ah!" Lord Asterby turned to Barbara. "I am always Asterby to him when I have sufficiently annoyed him. It is my turn to do what, Gregory?"

"It is about time you played with Barbara," Lord Gregory said, thrusting his battledore into his brother's hand. "Off you go and enjoy yourself. Let the old married man sit down and get some rest."

"How about Miss Markham getting some rest?" Lord Asterby inquired.

"She does not need any," Lord Gregory said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Look at her -- she is quite capable of beating you to flinders, just as she beat me."

Lord Asterby laughed. "Are you ready for another match, Miss Markham?"

"Certainly, sir. Quite ready to take on the entire family, should it become necessary," Barbara laughed. "It takes more than Lord Gregory's feeble attempts to defeat me!"

"Never mind, Gregory," Lord Asterby said over his shoulder, taking up his position opposite her. "I will avenge you -- our family honour is at stake."

"Do your worst, Asterby," Lord Gregory said.

For a moment, Barbara doubted whether Lord Asterby's bad leg would allow him to play, but her doubts were soon laid to rest. He was an opponent to be reckoned with, very quick in his movements and precise in his aim. In fact, Barbara found it very difficult to keep up with him, let alone win against him. Within a couple of minutes, he had won the first set.

"You take no prisoners, it seems," Barbara remarked.

"No, I do not -- why should I be doing such a thing?" he asked. "You showed no mercy on my brother -- look at the poor fellow, he is positively shattered! It is more than a man can bear!"

"Yes, I do pity him with all my heart," Barbara laughed.

The outcome of the second set was no different to that of the first one, and so Barbara good-naturedly accepted her defeat, not wishing Lord Asterby to strain his leg any more than would do him good. She did wonder, though, how a man who never danced at assemblies, stating his disability as an excuse, was suddenly able to play battledore and shuttlecock for more than half an hour with no ill-effects whatsoever. This was something she dearly wished to know, but being aware that any question on this matter would be intolerably rude she kept silent.

"I have not had so much fun in ages," she merely said, sitting down in the window seat.

"Neither have I," Lord Asterby admitted. "Not since my accident, certainly."

"I did hear that you had sustained some lasting injury in an accident," Barbara remarked.

"Oh, it is not so bad, most of the times. I simply need to take care not to overtax that bad leg of mine," he replied lightly.

"I do hope our game has done you no harm, then, my lord," Barbara said, putting her scruples aside since he had started on the topic. "I have been told you did not dance for that exact reason."

"Yes, so I keep telling people," Lord Asterby said with a faint smile. "Does that lower me in your esteem? When I returned to London after having somewhat recovered from my injuries, I did try to dance a couple of times, only I was often obliged to sit out a dance with my partner. You should have seen the looks of anguish they gave me on these occasions -- only when they thought I would not notice them, naturally. One does treat a Marquis with a great deal of deference, you must know, no matter what annoying habits he may have. But I did take note of it nevertheless, and gave up on dancing after that. I daresay I would be able to dance one or two dances now without any ill effects to my leg, having grown stronger that I was then, but in my position it is very dangerous to single a young lady out. I would find myself in trouble before long, and I am a cautious man, Miss Markham. That is to say I have not always been one, but I have grown more guarded in those past few years."

At that moment, Lord Gregory remembered his duties as a host, and led Barbara and his brother downstairs to the drawing room, where he rang for some refreshment to be brought to them. Lord Asterby had a cup of tea with them, before he sent a footman to the stables to have his carriage brought up to the house. Again, Barbara became conscious of a distinct feeling of regret when he was gone. Lord Gregory did his best to amuse her, but, Barbara thought, even though her brother-in-law was very kind to her talking to him was just not the same as talking to his brother.



Chapter 8

It went on raining during the following three days, and since hardly anyone ventured out of the house in such weather as this, Kate, Barbara and Lord Gregory were more or less left to themselves. Even the ducal family chose to remain at Burwell Castle, rather than travel the four miles to Borrowdale House through the pouring rain.

So Kate and Barbara tried to keep themselves busy as well as they could. They finished their reading of Emma, and since Lord Asterby had not yet provided them with the other novel by the same author he had promised them, Barbara got The Romance of the Forest from Lord Gregory's library. Mrs. Radcliffe's work did not quite suit her own taste, but she knew that Kate was partial to that kind of literature, and she felt it was her duty to keep her sister amused somehow.

During the afternoons, when Kate was resting, Barbara played cards or chess with Lord Gregory, and wrote some letters. It was about time to let her parents know how things were going on in Borrowdale House, and besides she wanted to know what progress her mother was making in her preparations for Barbara's wedding.

It was strange, but she had started to avoid thinking of her upcoming nuptials of late. When she had accepted Mr. Nash's suit, she had been convinced that it was the right thing to do; she needed security, and Mr. Nash offered her just that. But now she was beginning to have second thoughts. Perhaps it had been a bad idea coming to Kate's home, and seeing what her marriage was like -- Barbara knew that her own marriage would be nowhere like her sister's. Her husband would not be as affectionate as Kate's, nor would he be as amusing. Mr. Nash would look after her, and make sure she had a comfortable life; there was no doubt about that. But there would never be the kind of intimacy between them that Barbara could discern between her sister and brother-in-law, and whenever Lord Gregory took Kate in his arms, or kissed her, or merely gave her hand an affectionate squeeze, Barbara felt a tiny pang of envy. This was how things were supposed to be, she felt, yet she was almost certain that it was not how things would be for her.

She managed to banish her qualms by telling herself that not all people were the same; that while Kate and she were sisters they were really very different, and that what was suitable for Kate would by no means suit her. She had no desire of having Mr. Nash around her all the time, the way Lord Gregory was hovering about Kate. It would drive her mad, she was certain. Besides, she had never found Mr. Nash's tokens of affection all that gratifying -- probably because she was not in love with him. She would get over that, Barbara was sure. Most marriages were not made in Heaven, she knew that. But they would end up being quite happy, as long as one did not allow one's expectations to be too high.

Mr. Nash was not the kind of man she would have dreamed of marrying when she had thought of marriage during her girlhood. But he was a decent man; he was not wealthy but had a sufficient income, was about to embark on a brilliant career, and, most of all, he had asked her. The alternative to marrying him was staying single and becoming a burden to her family, and that, Barbara thought, was out of the question. Besides, Barbara was not one to go back on her word. She had promised Mr. Nash to marry him, so marry him she would. What she was experiencing at the moment was merely cold feet -- and Barbara knew that even Kate had grown slightly panicky as her wedding day had approached. And Kate's marriage had turned out well...

It did not help that Barbara had a rather disturbing dream one night. Coming to think of it, the dream itself had not been disturbing at all, on the contrary, it had been most agreeable, but the fact that she could have had such a dream in the first place was highly alarming.

In the beginning, it had been harmless enough. The Duchess, Barbara's mother, and Lord Asterby had picked Barbara up for an outing, and they had gone to see some castle ruins situated in a dense forest. While exploring those ruins, both the Duchess and Barbara's mother had vanished, but that had not seemed to bother Barbara or Lord Asterby in the least; it had seemed perfectly normal to both of them. They had walked around, holding each other's hand, and perfectly content with where they were and what they were doing. They climbed to the top of one tower (suddenly, the castle was a ruin no longer, it seemed -- at least the tower had been in perfect repair), and from up there they had had a good view of the surrounding countryside -- a place Barbara had never seen before. On their way down, Barbara suddenly stumbled -- and ended up in Lord Asterby's arms. She had felt entirely comfortable there, and had smiled up at him. He had smiled back -- and had kissed her. That was when Barbara had woken up, shocked at having had such an improper dream.

She was engaged to be married, after all, so even dreaming of kissing anyone but her fiancé -- and actually enjoying it - indicated a flightiness that Barbara was not going to tolerate in herself. And Lord Asterby too, of all men -- how could she ever face him again? Fine, he did not know that she had had such a dream involving him, but she knew it, and if she was certain of one thing it was that she would remember that dream -- and blush to remember it -- whenever she saw him. It was mortifying in the highest degree.

With a sigh, Barbara lay back in her pillows to try and catch some more sleep. This was the kind of thing one had to expect when being overexposed to Mrs. Radcliffe's novels, she supposed.

The next day, the rain stopped, and it was not long after luncheon that the Duchess' carriage stopped in front of Borrowdale House. Barbara was sitting with Kate, as usual, and reading to her from The Romance of the Forest, when the butler came into the room and announced Her Grace of Burwell.

The Duchess appeared to be in an excellent mood. She had come to see them for two reasons, she said. Firstly, she had found the embroidery patterns she had promised Kate -- at last, and whoever had hidden them at the bottom of a trunk in the nursery she really did not know -- and secondly, she wanted to ask Barbara to join her on a shopping excursion to Bath the following day. Barbara, in consequence of several days of having her movements restricted to the house, eagerly accepted the invitation, after making sure that Kate would not miss her if she were gone for a day.

"Of course you may go," Kate said. "You are neither my servant nor my prisoner. I do appreciate the way you have been looking after me, but you are entitled to some time for yourself, you know."

"I am going to call on a friend in Bath, too," the Duchess continued, "but you need not come along with me while I do. My son is going to Bath too, having to perform some business for his father, and he has agreed to show you the sights."

"Oh!" Barbara flushed, remembering the dream she had had the night before. "But...I am sure his lordship has more important things to do!"

"None that I know of," the Duchess said dismissively. "And why should he have any objection to taking a walk in the company of a pretty young lady such as yourself? He is not such as slow-top as that, surely! Besides you may rest assured that he would not have said he'd do so unless it was what he wished to do anyway. I know my son. He can find his way out of any obligation that does not strike his fancy."

Barbara was not certain whether this was good news or bad. If Lord Asterby were to take a liking to her, the situation might grow extremely awkward for both of them. She was about to be married, and though she did not know her future husband very well, she was certain that he would object to an intimate friendship between his wife and another man.

Still, there was no way she could think of to refuse Lord Asterby's escort on her walk in Bath without appearing churlish -- how was she to explain how she felt about it, or why? Besides, she did like his company, and so far he had not given her any reason to suppose that his interest in her was anything out of the ordinary. Most likely he just wanted to be of assistance, knowing that his brother and sister-in-law were not able to entertain their guest in a proper style. Ten to one she was worrying about something that was not even worth wasting a single thought about.

Barbara was not the only one to wonder about Lord Asterby's complaisance whenever her person was involved. It surprised his lordship himself as well.

He was not usually the kind of man to go out of his way to amuse any of his parents' guests -- or his brother's, for that matter. While he was willing to assist in whatever was reasonable, there was nothing reasonable in the amount of interest he was taking in Miss Markham, and that began to worry him.

Miss Markham was a fascinating young woman, as much was certain. She was not a conventional beauty, but nevertheless attractive. He liked the warm glow in her eyes when she spoke of something -- or someone -- that was close to her heart, and it had not escaped his notice that the glow was missing when she talked of her fiancé. Not that it was any of his business, but one could not help but become aware of it.

She had neither her sister's prettiness nor her charm, but she was intelligent, lively, and her laugh was contagious. Of the two sisters, Lord Asterby thought, she was the more endearing one. Not that he disliked Kate -- on the contrary, he liked her a great deal, and thought that his brother could hardly have done better for himself. But Miss Markham, he was afraid, was the kind of woman he could easily fall in love with if he was not careful.

That was reason enough for him to stay well away from her, or at least that was what a wise man would have done, unless he wanted end up in trouble right up to his neck. Lord Asterby was not able to explain to himself why this seemed so difficult to him, but he did not want to keep his distance. He enjoyed Miss Markham's company, and as long as he kept in mind that she was as good as married to someone else, he would be able to enjoy her company without any ill-effects for either of them. Or so he hoped.

Barbara got up early and spent a great deal of time in front of her dressing mirror the next morning. She had rejected two gowns before she settled on a light blue one with a lace collar, not too low-cut, that made her almost look like a governess or paid companion, had it not been for the costliness of the material and the fashionable cut which would be apparent to anyone who knew a thing or two about fashion. The Duchess should have no reason to blush for her young friend.

A dark blue pelisse and matching bonnet rounded off her toilette. All in all, Barbara thought as she looked into the mirror, she would do very well. She was looking neat, but no one would be able to accuse her of having had any intention to impress Lord Asterby when choosing her dress.

The Duchess' carriage arrived punctually, and her grace and Lord Asterby paid Kate a short visit before they were to start their shopping expedition. Kate, who had had time to have a closer look at the embroidery patterns her mother-in-law had brought her the day before, placed some orders with them. Barbara was to go to one particular shop in Milsom Street, and order material for her latest embroidery project, some curtains for the baby's cradle.

The Duchess applauded the notion -- it did Kate good to keep herself busy, she remarked, and commended Kate's good sense in doing so.

"I cannot stand those moping females, those who would let themselves be upset because of mere trifles," she announced. "I thank God every day for having sent my son a wife of a different cut. Not but that you will have to look after yourself, my dear, there is no denying that. How is the little one today?"

"At his liveliest," Kate replied, laughingly. "He woke me up at five in the morning."

By now, Barbara had got used to her sister referring to her child as him.

"He is an early riser then," the Duchess said, with some satisfaction in her tone of voice.

"Yes, he appears to be in a great hurry with everything he does," Kate agreed.

"Do try to keep him where he is for yet a while," the Duchess recommended. "There is no better place for him right now."

"I will do my best, ma'am," Kate said. "Even though I know young gentlemen are not usually in the habit of listening to their mothers' advice."

Barbara caught Lord Asterby's eye and had to suppress a laugh. It was clear that he, too, had to fight hard to hide his amusement. Many a young lady - and gentleman, too, Barbara supposed -- would have been embarrassed by the Duchess' direct approach to the matter of pregnancy, and would have expected her to keep quiet about it while there was a gentleman present -- even if the gentleman was her own son. Not so the Duchess, who took leave to inform her son that he had better not try to make her believe he knew nothing about these matters, for that would be a feat quite beyond his power.

"I will say this for my sons, all of them," the Duchess announced as they walked down the stairs towards the carriage. "None of them is a strait-laced hypocrite."

"We could not be, Mother," Lord Asterby said, his eyes sparkling with mischief. "No one ever taught us how it is done."

He held out his hand to assist both his mother and Barbara in getting into the carriage, and got in and sat down opposite them.



Chapter 9

"I like people to speak their mind about things," the Duchess said. "I do so myself, you may have noticed, Miss Markham, and strongly believe that everyone should do so."

"But are there not situations, your grace, in which one would be better advised to keep one's opinion to oneself?" Barbara asked cautiously.

It was Lord Asterby who answered the question in his mother's stead. "Not in my mother's world," he said dryly. "The Duchess of Burwell's opinion is always important. And often impertinent."

"You are a true son of mine, then," the Duchess snapped.

"Certainly; no one could mistake me for anyone else's," Lord Asterby retorted, and, before his mother could reply in kind, changed the direction of their discourse. "Miss Markham, do you have any plans for your first visit to Bath?"

"No -- I did not have an opportunity to think much about it," Barbara admitted. "Kate merely told me about the shops I must not miss -- oh, and she told me to remind you of the novel you promised to procure for us. The one written by the same author as Emma."

"I have not forgotten about it," Lord Asterby said. "I take it you liked Emma, then?" He gave Barbara an intent look, and suddenly she remembered that silly dream she had had.

Blushing, she said, "It was ... most amusing. I...I like the author's style, and ... her wit."

"Yes, she is brilliant," Lord Asterby agreed, and Barbara could not get rid of the feeling that she was still under some sort of scrutiny. Not trusting herself to say anything right now, she kept silent, and turned her gaze towards the scenery passing by outside the window.
Her feelings were ridiculous of course -- there was no way Lord Asterby could have known what she had seen in that dream of hers, so there was no plausible reason for her to be ashamed of herself; yet this was exactly how she felt. She only hoped he would not notice it, or comment on it if he did. She could not explain it to him, after all, and felt that he would see right through any excuse she would try to make. He was the kind of person who would.

"We will start our tour of the town in Molland's," the Duchess said. "We will stay away from the Pump Room, which is where all the Bath quizzes assemble to exchange gossip every morning -- an abominable habit, I think, and the waters are such as I would not subject you to for the world -- but we will have some of Molland's marzipan, which is really good. Don't make a face, Matthew, you need not eat any if you do not like it."

"Thank you, Mother," Lord Asterby said ironically.

"Then we will do our shopping," the Duchess continued the programme she had come up with for Barbara's amusement. "I know you have only just bought your trousseau and may not need anything right now, but I will show you the best shops nevertheless -- one never knows when such knowledge might come in useful."

"Indeed, ma'am," Barbara said, having sufficiently recovered from her attack of awkwardness to contribute to the conversation.

"Then we will have a light nuncheon at the York House Hotel -- the best hotel in Bath, Miss Markham -- you will see to that, won't you, Matthew, while Miss Markham and I are doing our shopping?"

Lord Asterby murmured that he would.

"And then I will go to visit Lady Graham, while you take Miss Markham for a walk in Sydney Gardens, and show her the Abbey Church if her taste runs in that direction," the Duchess concluded.

"I daresay Miss Markham will prefer the gardens to the Abbey," Lord Asterby said, smiling at Barbara. Why did he have to smile at her so often, Barbara thought. Did he not realise that this smile had the most unfortunate effect on her? She felt herself blushing again.

"How long do you mean to stay with Lady Graham, Mother?" Lord Asterby asked. "I was wondering if there would be time enough for a walk from the Royal Crescent downhill, across Pulteney Bridge, and down Great Pulteney Street to Sydney Gardens."

"This is a rather long walk you are planning," the Duchess said, and turned to Barbara. "Are you sure you are up to it, Miss Markham?"

"I am a good walker, your grace," Barbara replied.

"It is a walk across the entire town," the Duchess said. "A charming one, I admit, but do keep in mind that you will have been shopping all morning before setting out to it, and there is nothing more tiring than a shopping expedition."

"A long walk will be just the thing then," Barbara said. "Unless you do not want to stay with your friend that long, your grace. I would not wish to keep you waiting."

"Oh, there is no danger of that," the Duchess laughed. "Whenever my friend Lady Graham and I get together, we make the most of it. We will have a cosy chat, the two of us, and I am more likely to keep you waiting than the other way round."

"That is true, Miss Markham," Lord Asterby remarked. "And I ought to mention that my mother has not seen Lady Graham in a while. They have a great deal of news to catch up on, I am afraid. Perhaps we had better walk all the way to Bathhampton and ask her to pick us up there."

"Impertinent boy!" the Duchess exclaimed, though she was laughing. "What you mean to say is that we are a pair of old gossips!"

"Certainly not. Between you, you and my father succeeded in teaching me some manners, Mother," Lord Asterby protested.

Barbara turned her attention back to the scenery, not wishing to take part in this discussion.

"Have you had any news from home, Miss Markham," the Duchess finally asked.

"Not yet, your grace. I did send my mother and my fiancé a letter the day before yesterday, but I have not received a reply from either of them yet."

"You will, one of these days," the Duchess remarked.

Barbara smiled. "I strongly hope so," she said. "Would it not be a sad thing if no one missed me?"

"It would be a sad thing indeed," Lord Asterby said, "but I do not think you need have any fear in that direction."

"I do not. But I know everyone is busy back home," Barbara said. "They do know that I am well, and therefore they need not worry too much about me. So writing letters to me may not be on top of their priority list."

It seemed as if Lord Asterby wanted to say something, but kept his opinion to himself. Instead, he restricted himself to giving Barbara some information on the places they passed, and, when they approached Bath, pointed out some buildings of note to her. There was nothing in the least lover-like in his demeanour, yet Barbara still felt slightly embarrassed when thinking of her dream. She only hoped he would not notice anything out of the ordinary.

The carriage stopped in front of Molland's tea shop and confectionery in Milsom Street, and the Duchess immediately swept inside the establishment, with Barbara and Lord Asterby following in her wake. It did not take Barbara long to discover that her grace of Burwell was a well-known and immensely respected personage in Bath. So was her son, apparently.

The proprietor of the shop recognised the Duchess at once, and ushered her party to the most comfortable table to be found in the shop -- away from the window, where nosy passers-by would be able to see them, but not too far away from it to prevent the Duchess from seeing what was going on outside in what was the busiest shopping street in town.

Curtseying low, and with a serving-maid at her heels, the owner of the shop inquired how her grace was these days.

"Perfectly well, thank you," the Duchess said. "And I would be all the better for some tea. What would you like, Miss Markham? Some tea, too?"

Barbara agreed, and the Duchess ordered some tea for her as well. "And some of your marzipan and pralines," she added, turning to Barbara again. "You must try their marzipan," she said, her voice indicating that she would brook no opposition in the matter. "It is the best I have ever eaten."

The shop owner looked furtively around, to see whether anyone had overheard her grace's remark -- it would be all over Bath by tomorrow morning, and she would surely benefit from it.

Lord Asterby took his mother's overruling behaviour in good grace, and merely ordered some coffee for himself. Being the only gentleman in their party, it would have been his duty to order refreshments for the ladies, but the Duchess had not let him get a word in edgewise, and he knew better than to start an argument with her in public.

The serving-maid returned with their refreshments, and the Duchess urged Barbara to try some of the confectioneries on the large plate.

"You will find they are second to none," she said. "I defy even Gunter to come up with anything similar."

"He need not, Mother. He is doing very well with his sorbets and ices," Lord Asterby said, giving Barbara a grin. "Do give them a try, Miss Markham. I will not; but then I am not partial to sweetmeats of any kind."

Barbara remembered that he had given the sweet desserts a wide berth when she had dined at Burwell Castle, and that he had had some fruit instead.

"Is there any particular reason why you do not like them?" she inquired, choosing a praline from the collection on the plate.

"I do not think so. I simply never did, not even as a child. I always found them too sweet for my taste."

"A notion I encouraged, I confess," the Duchess said. "I know my fondness for sweets is reprehensible and unhealthy as well. I am glad at least one of my sons escaped this particular legacy."

Lord Asterby laughed. "You are welcome to eat as many sweetmeats as you can manage, Mother," he said. "I do not think this habit of yours reprehensible in the least. We all have our weaknesses -- I simply do not share that particular one with you."

"You do not know what you are missing," the Duchess remarked, before she too turned her attention to the plate and its delicious contents.

Barbara ate three pralines and left the rest to the Duchess. Instead, she drank her tea and watched the proceedings outside.

"Do you often come to Bath, your grace?" she finally asked her hostess.

"Not as often as I used to, but I am quite well-known here," the Duchess said. "When I was younger, I used to come here almost every week. You will find that the Bath shops are almost as fashionable as those in London, and in my day the place was as full as it could hold with people from all over the country. It was quite the thing to come here and drink the waters in those days, but only few people come here now. If I had had any daughters, I daresay I would have let them try their feet in society in Bath first, before letting them go to London, but that turned out to be unnecessary. Social life in Bath is rather insipid, but it would have been better than throwing the poor girls into the cold water to sink or swim, as the saying goes."

Barbara agreed. She, too, had been allowed to attend some local assemblies before embarking on her first London Season. Her mother's opinion had been quite the same as the Duchess'.

Having finished their tea and pralines, they left Molland's and, while the Duchess took Barbara to all the important shops, Lord Asterby went off in the opposite direction to bespeak a private parlour and luncheon at the York House Hotel, where they would meet when the ladies had finished their shopping.



Chapter 10

Lord Asterby was glad that his presence was not wanted while the ladies did their shopping. It was not one of his favourite pastimes to give his opinion on items of female clothing, or to decide between the respective merits of two fabrics that looked exactly the same to him. He much preferred dealing with the obsequious waiter at the York House, to study the bill of fare and choose what they would be having for lunch. He then proceeded to his father's lawyer's chambers, to ask for said gentleman's legal advice in a matter of business.

Once this affair was settled, he set off towards a bookshop in George Street to purchase two novels -- Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice -- for his sister-in-law. The proprietor of the shop, flattered that his lordship should favour the premises with his attendance instead of merely sending word that he required some books, as so many gentlemen of his standing were in the habit of doing, made so bold as to inform him that a new novel by the same author would soon be available. Furnished with this valuable piece of knowledge, Lord Asterby left the shop and was just going to return to the York House, there to await his mother and Miss Markham's arrival, when a shout from the other side of the street made him stop in his tracks.

He found himself addressed by the Honourable Richard Leslie, an old school friend of his.

"What on earth brings you to Bath?" Mr. Leslie demanded, crossing the street to shake Lord Asterby's hand.

"I escorted my mother here, and a guest of my sister-in-law's -- Miss Markham."

"So this is where Miss Markham disappeared to! How is she?"

"Very well, as far as I know. You are acquainted with her?"

"Slightly. -- So you are staying with your parents at the moment? How come?"

"My father has asked me to help him with some business matters. He is not as young as he used to be, and wants me to learn how to handle the reins while he is still there to advise me -- and he is the kind of father who wants to hear my opinion of the things he does, keeping in mind that I am the one who's going to inherit the lot. Though I strongly suspect he will outlive us all."

"Oh, it is like that, sometimes. I daresay one gets some odd thoughts in one's head when growing old," Mr. Leslie said lightly. "I am here to visit my great-aunt -- she has an enormous fortune, and I have high hopes of inheriting her money, so I have to remind her of my existence now and then. Just to make sure she won't take it into her head to leave her fortune to some orphanage instead."

"How could it be otherwise?" Lord Asterby asked. Leslie was well off actually, as he knew, but somehow he always seemed to be short of money, thanks to his utter inability to manage his financial affairs. "She wouldn't see you it were not for that fortune of hers, am I right? How is the lady?"

"Distressingly well," Mr. Leslie replied, making a face. "And so Miss Markham is staying with her sister! God, but if that's all it is why is Nash keeping so close about it?"

"I have no idea. Ask him."

"Mind you, I think the girl is wasted on him anyway. If she had a proper dowry, I'd have asked for her hand in marriage myself, but younger sons cannot marry to please themselves."

"They can, but if their purse is a matter so close to their heart as it is to you I am afraid there is nothing to be done about it," Lord Asterby said dryly.

"Do not judge me, sir. I know money has never been a problem of yours."

"Unfortunately. Would you prefer to have one of mine in exchange for that particular one?" Lord Asterby asked, grinning.

"Lord, no!" Mr. Leslie exclaimed. "But really, if Miss Markham had had something a bit more substantial to recommend her -- apart from her fantastic figure..."

"I had no idea you were so crude, Leslie," Lord Asterby interrupted his friend. He did not like Leslie talking of Miss Markham in that disrespectful manner.

"Oh, don't act as if you hadn't noticed it -- one cannot help but see it," Mr. Leslie said, taking offence. "Everything in its place, eh?"

"It is not a question of noticing it or not. It is rather a question of noticing it and yet behaving like a gentleman about it."

"You almost sound like my father," Mr. Leslie said reproachfully. "Very well. I do wonder why Nash didn't tell me where she was when I asked him, though."

Lord Asterby laughed. "If you discussed her figure with him in the manner you mentioned it to me, it would be hardly surprising," he said. "The only thing that would surprise me in that case is that he did not knock you down."

"He could not, no matter how hard he tried," Mr. Leslie said, grinning. It was probably true, too, Lord Asterby thought. Leslie was one of the best boxers among his acquaintance.

The two friends discussed some mutual acquaintances, before Mr. Leslie took his leave -- he was to call on his great-aunt and escort her to the Pump Room, he said -- and Lord Asterby directed his steps towards the York House, where the private parlour he had bespoken was ready for the ladies to arrive.

They did not keep him waiting for long. Both ladies seemed to be in excellent spirits when they entered the parlour, and upon inquiry informed him that they had both been successful in their errands. Lord Asterby could not help noticing Miss Markham's fresh complexion, and that pelisse of hers which showed off her figure to the best advantage. Leslie had been right; her figure was ... what was he thinking? Miss Markham's build was certainly no concern of his, Lord Asterby reminded himself. On the other hand, what kind of man would he be if he did not take note of this kind of thing? He was not blind, after all, nor was he dead, which would have been the only valid explanations for not becoming aware of Miss Markham's charms. Surely there was no harm in finding a woman attractive, as long as one did not act on it, he thought. Even if she was betrothed to another man.

He did feel drawn to her, though, Lord Asterby had to admit. Continuing the acquaintance might well turn out to be a real danger to him, but he did not want to cut it. Come what may, the problem would only be his, and he would be able to handle it, he thought.

The food was excellent, and his mother monopolised most of the conversation, giving him an exact account of which shops she had honoured with her custom, and what she had bought in each of them. He patiently listened to her report, occasionally catching Miss Markham's eye and smiling at her.

She was remarkably silent that day; he had already noticed that during their journey to Bath, and wondered what the reason might be. He hoped it was nothing he had said or done -- but he could not think of having said anything that might have caused some kind of misunderstanding. Yet whenever he addressed her, Miss Markham answered readily enough at first, and then broke off and blushed. This did not bode well for their walk across Bath, he feared. If only he knew what had caused this untypical pattern of behaviour in her!

Although Barbara had enjoyed herself so far, she somewhat dreaded the walk with Lord Asterby -- and at the same time she was looking forward to it. Never before had she had such conflicting emotions regarding a gentleman, wishing to be with him one moment and hoping he would be far away the moment she was in his company. It was certainly annoying -- Barbara was on the verge of becoming very angry with herself. This kind of unreasonable conduct was not in her nature.

Once they had finished their luncheon they stepped outside, where the Duchess' carriage was waiting to drive them to the Royal Crescent. Lady Graham, being the widow of a wealthy peer, had taken up residence in this highly exclusive neighbourhood, and felt very comfortable lording over Bath society the way she did. She and the Duchess had been good friends ever since their childhood, Lord Asterby informed Barbara as they walked along Brock Street towards the Circus, and it was unlikely they would be willing to part before an hour or very likely more had passed.

Bath was a very elegant town, Barbara thought. She could readily imagine what the place must have been like some sixty years before, when the watering-place had still been in high fashion. Things had gone quieter now, but the buildings were still impressive, and the Bath residents were very proud of the entertainments their town had to offer, even if they might appear rather flat to someone used to the gaieties of London.

The theatre, Lord Asterby informed Barbara, had a very good reputation -- there was some high quality acting to be seen there, and his parents had been known to go to Bath often, to spend an evening at the theatre or the Assembly Rooms if they had felt like it.

"What about you, my lord?" Barbara asked. "Do you go there sometimes?"

"To the theatre, yes, when I am staying with my parents. I do not live in Burwell Castle, you must know."

"My sister told me so. You have an estate of your own, in Wiltshire, have you not?"

"I do, and it keeps me rather busy." Lord Asterby smiled. "Neither of my parents believes in throwing their offspring into cold water to learn to swim, so my father thought it would be a good idea to let me manage the Asterby estate so I could learn how to keep an eye on things. I moved there when I came of age, and it has been my principal residence ever since."

"His grace is very wise," Barbara said.

"He is," Lord Asterby said quietly. "Of late, however, he has expressed his wish that I take more interest in his business as well, which is why I have spent some more time in Burwell recently."

"Oh!" Barbara did not really know what to say -- she was not well enough acquainted with his grace to be able to tell whether this was a good sign or a bad one. She had thought he looked healthy enough, though, when she had dined at the Castle.

In the meantime they had reached Milsom Street again and were heading south towards Pulteney Bridge. Before crossing the bridge, Lord Asterby suggested they walk along the river to have a look at it.

"It is one of my favourite buildings in Bath," he said, and Barbara agreed with him that the sight of Pulteney Bridge and Weir was surely something to remember.

They were walking along Great Pulteney Street towards Sydney Gardens when Barbara caught sight of an acquaintance -- an aunt of Mr. Nash's, a Mrs. Carstairs - and feeling that it would cause a great deal of hard feelings if it became known that Barbara had been in Bath and not called on Mrs. Carstairs (the lady being of the kind who was quick to perceive a slight where none had been intended), she hurried over to pay her respects to her.

Mrs. Carstairs was greatly surprised to see her in Bath; she said she had expected Barbara to be in London to prepare for her wedding.

"So I was, ma'am, until we received a letter from my brother-in-law, asking whether any of us could be spared to look after my sister, who is not feeling very well at the moment."

"I thought you had another sister," Mrs. Carstairs said disapprovingly, indicating that Elizabeth should have been the one to visit Kate, and not Barbara.

"So I have, but my mother thought it was the better notion to send me. Elizabeth is the youngest; she is barely sixteen years old and not a suitable companion for a lady in my sister Kate's condition, and my mother needed to stay in town for the wedding preparations, which, she assures me, she is perfectly capable of handling without my assistance."

"I am sure Lady Markham knows what she is doing," Mrs. Carstairs remarked.

"I trust her implicitly," Barbara said, forcing a smile. Once she was married, she thought, she would make an effort to keep their contact with that part of her husband's family to a reasonable minimum.

"And what brings you to Bath, Miss Markham?" Mrs. Carstairs inquired. Barbara could not help but think that she was being cross-questioned, and did not like the notion. It was not as if she was doing anything wrong, after all.

"The Duchess of Burwell has asked me to keep her company, since she had some errands in Bath," she said coolly, hoping that this would impress her fiancé's aunt enough to stop her from asking any more questions. "I suppose you are acquainted with Lord Asterby, her eldest son? He has kindly offered to escort me to Sydney Gardens, where we are to meet the Duchess again."

Lord Asterby bowed politely, and Mrs. Carstairs curtseyed slightly. The glare she gave him did not bode well -- apparently she took exception at any young man but her nephew escorting Barbara anywhere.

"Where is your maid?" she asked bluntly.

"At Borrowdale House, attending to her work, I believe," Barbara said, trying to convey a message to Mrs. Carstairs -- the message being that her maid's whereabouts were none of Mrs. Carstairs' business.

"Oh! Well, in my day a young lady would not have been permitted to walk across town alone with a gentleman," Mrs. Carstairs replied, unabashed.

"But surely an exception may be made for family members, ma'am." Lord Asterby had finally decided to join the conversation, it seemed.

"I suppose so," Mrs. Carstairs said graciously, though her affability did not sound very convincing. Her voice could have made hell freeze over. "I had better be going -- I have an appointment with a friend at the Pump Room."

Barbara was very happy to take her leave of the tiresome woman, who had acted up like the Guardian of Virtue, and her relief was probably written all over her face, plain to see for everyone who looked at her.

"There she goes," Lord Asterby said dryly as they watched her walk towards the bridge. "And she did not even offer to act as your chaperone. Let us get away from here before the idea occurs to her."

"She probably believes my reputation is past mending," Barbara laughed. "Good Lord, what does she think can happen between us while we are both walking down a public street in broad daylight? It is not as if ..." She broke off and blushed, remembering her dream and the highly improper way she had behaved in it.

"True," Lord Asterby agreed, smiling. "It is not as if ... whatever." He offered her his arm. "Shall we defy the Bath quizzes and continue our walk, Miss Markham? We do still want to take a turn in Sydney Gardens, don't we, and we do not wish to keep my mother waiting either."

After a moment's hesitation, Barbara laid her hand on his arm and they proceeded towards the famous Sydney Gardens, to enjoy some more of Bath's beauty before embarking on the long journey home.


©2007, 2008 Copyright held by the author.






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