No one saw Tabitha standing in the doorway of her brother, Tauney’s, room.
James, the valet, lifted clothes out of Tauney’s trunks in large stacks instead of loading them in. Neat, color-coordinated piles of breeches and jackets decorated his bedding, and Tabitha’s worry increased.
She shook her head. “We are already so late.”
Tauney, only nine months her elder, finished giving more animated instructions to James and then waved his hand in her direction. “Late. Psht. The party doesn’t even begin for two days.”
Of course, he would refuse to understand. As the only girl in a family of four brothers, and his closest sibling, she felt responsible for him. She tried another tactic. “If we don’t leave now, we will have to delay our journey an extra day, and stay at a local inn.”
The valet rushed past them, at last packing clothing into Tauney’s trunks.
“The local inns. How dreadful.” Tauney grimaced. “Do you remember the last time we stayed in one?” His face, so comical, mouth twisted in disgust, Tabitha couldn’t help but laugh.
“But that is exactly my point, though it wasn’t as bad as you say.”
“For you. My valet had to sleep in the barn. And of course wasn’t even presentable when he came to help me get ready in the morning.” His voice lowered to a whisper. “He flicked hay off his person.” Tauney shuddered. “In my presence. It fell to the floor by my foot and I had to train one eye on it while dressing so as to rid my room of it later.” He leaned closer. “Didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Good valets are difficult to find, you know.”
She had often felt pity for his valet.
Her brother was of the opinion that if women spent so many hours concerned with their own appearances, they would appreciate the same from men.
Tabitha couldn’t argue with that sentiment, especially if they smelled nice. The memory of a distinct earthy aroma warmed her. And she wondered if he had arrived. She turned to hide her blush, because Tauney would ask immediately for the cause.
She hurried down the stairs. If they were to avoid a war like Napoleon had never seen, she would need to calm some storms in her other brothers.
The balls on the pool table cracked and rolled; the sound of some dropping into holes made her smile. Memories of many a Christmas when their father was still alive, teaching the young Eastons how to play pool, brought a comforting sense of family and home.
She had some of the best men of the ton standing right here in her study. Three men—and one upstairs who sometimes had feathers for brains, the kind you weaved into your hairstyle at fancy balls.
“Well, where is he?” Edward, the eldest, frowned.
She laughed, “He has decided on a new color scheme in just these past couple hours.”
When the others groaned, she held up her hand, “But has promised he is almost finished. I have to admit I am a bit excited to see what he and James accomplish in so little time.”
“Well I most certainly am not.” Edward’s frown deepened. “We promised the countess not to be late. She asked for our particular assistance in helping some of the ladies feel welcome.”
Julius humphed. “Of course she did. Trying to hitch us to a woman like all the other mothers in the ton. If it wasn’t for you, little sister, I would have stayed far away from this house party.” As handsome as Julius was, with so many women vying for his hand, he naturally felt a bit stifled. She could well understand the sentiment.
“Come now man, the hunt.” Oscar, the fun-loving Corinthian of the bunch, grinned. “You have yet to best me in the hunt.” He eyed his next shot. “This will not be the year of course.” He sent another ball in a blur across the table and then raised an eyebrow. “But I would think you’d be anxious to try.”
Julius took his turn at pool, knocking in all four of the balls. With a satisfied grin, he said,
“This is the year, dear brother.”
“Ha-Ha!” Tabitha loved it when they puffed and bristled in fun. “Shall I make a wager?” She won all sorts of money from her brothers, especially when they were pitted against each other.
Julius laughed. “A wager she says! If the matrons could hear you now!”
“We’ve corrupted her.” Edward’s eyes held warmth, and she knew a part of him was secretly pleased. “I knew it would happen. What diamond talks as you do?”
Oscar, ever positive, added, “And yet she is a diamond. The books at Whites are filled with their own wagers as to who will win her hand.”
Every brother’s face went ashen.
She blushed. “It’s not as if there is anything to worry about…” But how embarrassing to be discussed in such a manner amongst the men.
Edward looked positively ill, loosened his cravat, and she began to wonder what had them so concerned.
“What could possibly go wrong?” She looked from face to face. A new sense of foreboding began in the back of her throat in a particular, pointed tightness.
After a silence no one filled, Edward finally said, “It wouldn’t hurt for each of you brothers to be looking for wives as well, wealthy ones.”
Julius pounded his brother’s back. “Always the responsible one.” Then he turned to Tabitha. “You are the one we need to focus on this year, Tabby Cat.”
“Well, it certainly won’t help if you go around addressing me like that.”
“Why not? Your endearing nickname hasn’t turned Henry away.”
“Turned me away from what?”
Tabitha’s stomach flipped, and she whirled around to face the sixth member of their party.
Tall, filling the doorway, sharp chiseled jawline, eyes sparkling in amusement, he leaned against the doorframe. As their dear family friend from childhood, most of her memories growing up included Henry. But all the same, every time she saw him, the same energy coursed through her. She grinned up at him in welcome, but he was looking at Julius.
He jabbed a thumb in her direction. “Turned you away from spending time with Tabby Cat, here.” Her cynical brother winked. “She thinks her nickname might not be the thing.”
She dipped her head to hide the blush. “Henry’s opinion doesn’t count.”
“Ho, Ho!!” Julius nudged him. “Do you hear that? You don’t count.”
Henry winked at her. “I suppose she means because I am like a brother? Always present even when you don’t want me.” His warm eyes twinkled at her.
She shrugged, looking away. He will never see. How can I make him see?
Julius shoved him a little bit, ready for Henry’s retaliation. “You’ve heard it often enough and yet here you are.”
“Glutton for punishment.” He snatched away the stick and took a turn hitting a ball across the table. “And who says I am here for Tabby? Cook’s meat pie can’t be beat in any house.”
She lifted her chin, suddenly defiant. “Besides, I have no desire to be married.”
Laughter filled the room.
Oscar shook his head. “Like that’ll ever happen.”
“Tabitha Easton, on the shelf.”
But then Edward moved closer, concern on his face. “Ever?”
She sat in the nearest chair. “I suppose it will be a wonderful pastime someday.”
“Pastime she says. Pastime.” Julius shook his head. “Let me tell you dear sister. Marriage is much more than a mere pastime. Once shackled in a church, the new union would take up our whole lives.” He began pacing. “Like a gentle lead on a new mare. At first she likes the feel. It’s soft and nice, appears harmless—but then it pulls tight, and tighter until ack!” He demonstrated a noose around the throat with his hands. “It cinches so tight you cannot break away.”
A part of her tightened inside like that rope, and she wasn’t sure why.
Henry cleared his throat, bent down beside her chair, and put his arm across her shoulders.
She felt her neck heat and turned to him, searching his eyes, inches from her own. His expression, playful, full of warmth, she could barely breathe and forced herself to swallow.
“Come now, it isn’t as bad as all that.” Henry’s eyes turned tender. “Let’s not ruin it for her.”
Before she could stop herself, she leaned closer.
His voice, like a warm breeze, “Marriage would be wonderful to the right person, someone to share the thoughts you tell no one else. Your closest friend…”
She smiled and closed her eyes. Friend. Would he want such a thing with her? They were friends. Perhaps he was considering it. As she searched his face, nothing seemed different, and yet, there was a new sparkle in his eyes. She grinned in response.
Then the brothers burst into laughter, and her irritation rose. She stood to leave.
Julius rested a hand on Henry’s shoulder. “Is that what you do with the women, Henry? Bear your inmost thoughts?”
Oscar looked perplexed. “I don’t have inmost thoughts.”
“None of us do.” Julius’s eyes held the tears of laughter. “No wonder Henry can’t hang onto a single woman.”
Tabitha turned in the doorway. “Well, I thought it lovely.” She tried to show support as her eyes met Henry’s.
His wink sent her insides flipping in funny circles, and she placed a hand on her stomach.
Then he took a hit at the nearest of three balls, the game forgotten by the others. “Of course she thinks it’s lovely, being a woman. I don’t expect the rest of your sorry selves to understand.”
Oscar snatched back his stick. “Whoa there, our sister is not a woman.”
Julius laughed. “Oh yes she is! Have you seen her lately?”
She wished to hide beneath the floorboards. And felt so lonely for a sister it nearly caused pain. Ever since her mother had taken ill, she had precious few moments with anyone female she could trust.
“Well we best get used to the idea.” Oscar held up one finger. “Because all the men at this house party are going to notice.”
Henry nodded. “Especially when she wears green.”
Her face blazed and she couldn’t take any more. “I am right here, you know.”
“At least you get to listen in.” Edward waved a hand in her direction. “This conversation doesn’t require your participation.”
Indignation rose. And a great pit of fear deepened. Could they have no care for her thoughts on the matter?
Oscar stood taller. “Yes. We will review the strategies to keep you protected when we arrive. Only the very worthy shall get past us.”
Henry cleared his throat. “Have we decided who she is to marry?”
Tabitha trembled. To hear that question spoken so carelessly by his lips… “I believe that
decision is mine.” Her voice cracked. She rested a hand on Edward’s arm. “These choices are best left in the hands of those they most affect.”
Her eldest brother did have sympathy in his eyes, but he said, “Well, it’s not really your decision after all. Father left me in charge of your welfare and wrote a specific section in the will about how I was to go about ensuring a good and productive marriage arrangement.”
“We will consider your opinion, of course.” Julius’s calm tones lessoned her mounting discomfort. “But we are all attending this infernal party because we need reinforcements to keep the leeches away.”
“Leeches?” This party was sounding more dreadful every moment.
Julius grimaced. “Yes, those undesirables who seek fortune.”
Oscar chimed in. “Or that we don’t like…”
“Or have any sniveling habits, or can’t play cards worth—”
“Or don’t know how to hunt a fox…” Henry added, moving to stand beside her again.
She loved the surge of tingles that shot through her as much as she wanted to slink away and hide from them.
“Or any who enjoy battledore.” Oscar’s calculating expression increased Tabitha’s irritation.
They all stopped. Edward asked, “What’s wrong with battledore?”
“Oh nothing. I just can’t have anyone being overly good at it and beat me at all the family gatherings.”
Julius squinted, considering. “You’ve hit upon something. Shall we have limits on card playing ability too then? We could win money off this chap.”
Tabitha said, “Now you are being ridiculous.” She was about ready to stomp away. How would she endure an entire carriage ride of the same?
“But truly, sister.” Edward finished putting away all the sticks and balls. “He is to join our family, be one of the brothers. We must make certain he will be a good fit.”
“And respect you.” Henry’s eyes showed deep sympathy. “I too am roped into this. Not all gentlemen behave as a gentleman should. And we are here to make sure you don’t have to converse with any of those other sorts.”
“I do have a chaperone.”
Oscar returned balls to the table and smacked one into a pocket. “Who? Mrs. Hemming?” He laughed. “She’ll be asleep against the wall.”
Tabitha was secretly pleased that was the case. All this hovering was beginning to feel less like help and more like smothering. She moved to leave.
Tauney joined her in the doorway. “Why are you all just sitting around? Let’s load the carriage and be off!”
“At last!” Edward put away Oscar’s stick. “You are as ridiculous as Prinny with your fashion nonsense.”
After an interminable ride in the carriage—they only stayed one night in a respectable inn—they were at last arriving in front of the Countess Du’ Brevan’s home in a deluge of rain. The front approach itself took twenty minutes, wheels slogging through wet shale.
And now the great expanse of her lovely house stretched in front of them.
Tabitha lifted the covering over their window to see the approach to the estate. Beech trees lined their entry, limbs bent under the weight of the torrent, but the water brought out a lovely shade of pink in the shale rock of the drive. The whole scene felt otherworldly and for the first time, a measure of hope and enjoyment rose within her when thinking of the party. “I do love Somerstone Manor.” She longed to get lost on the grounds, walking among the flowers and hedges in the countess’ expansive gardens.
Mrs. Hemming snored in the corner.
“As long as we can get out of this carriage, I don’t care where we stay.” Oscar sat stiffly, wedged and jostled against his brothers. Rain pounded the roof, their mounts following behind. Four, broad shouldered, impatient men sat pinned together in damp clothing, forced to ride inside once the rain commenced.
They arrived in the hall, shaking water off their persons, the brothers forming a line to Tabitha’s front, Henry at her side.
The Countess stepped forward. “We are so happy you have come, Lord Easton.” She held out her hand and Edward bowed over it, the others bowing with him and Tabitha lowered in a deep curtsey.
Three gentlemen caught Tabitha’s eye, coming down the stairs. Anthony Pemberton, one of the Pinkerton twins, and Reginald Beauchamp: three of the most sought after men in the ton, all in one place. Was every person here beautiful? “Oh. My. I wonder who else the countess has included in her invitations.”
Edward followed her gaze and immediately bristled. “Brothers. As soon as we change, let us meet in my room to receive our assignments.”
Henry placed his hand on hers. “Will you be all right? I believe I’ve been summoned elsewhere.”
“Yes, quite.” She indicated Mrs. Hemming who was already bustling her away to get out of these wet things before she caught a chill.
Many eyes watched her move up the stairs. Accustomed to attention, she did not let it rattle her too much. But she would have much preferred a smaller gathering.
Reginald Beauchamp approached on the stairway, flipping his hair away to reveal a brilliant pair of green eyes. She held out her hand. “Hello, Mr. Beauchamp. Pleased to see you again.” He was more handsome than any man deserved to be. A pity his attention never focused very long in one direction.
He bowed, and his kiss lingered on her gloved knuckles.
“Come child. We must get you warmed.” Mrs. Hemming scowled at poor Mr. Beauchamp.
He raised his eyebrow in amusement. Then he turned back to Tabitha. “Will I be seeing you at dinner?”
“Yes, she is going to eat, now if you’ll excuse us.”
“Mrs. Hemming, really.” Deep embarrassment filled her. Added to that the discomfort of travel and a slipping sense of control over her life, the emotion almost overwhelmed her. Grasping for something, any decision completely her own, in a moment of pure rebellion, she stepped closer to Mr. Beauchamp, quirked her lips in a half grin, and said,
“Unless you want to meet before.”
His eyes flew open in shock, then he recovered, a teasing glint lighting his face.
“You surprise me.”
***Following are links to the rest of Tabitha’s Folly, in reverse order to the beginning at the bottom.
- Twenty-Two: A Choice in the Dark - She followed the group at the back, caught up in the quiet steps, the whispers, the occasional squeals from the ladies amongst them. Then a hand touched her arm, warm, gentle. And a finger gestured that she be quiet.… Continue reading →
- Eighteen: Blast his New Attraction - With water still pooled in his boots, Henry watched Tabitha walk away, a thick blanket wrapped around her and dragging at her feet...wide eyes peered over the wool, trained on him...… Continue reading →
- Eleven: Awash in the River - After being caught alone with a footman in the piano room, Tabitha had expected little good could come of dinner, especially as she was so determined to express her disapproval of Henry.… Continue reading →
- Seven: A Delicious Distraction is Afoot - Unless you want to meet sooner. Tabitha paced the floor of her bedroom in great agitation. “What was I thinking? What am I doing?” She wrung her hands so much, they began to chafe. She had presented herself—she had been so… so, forward, so like a woman of the night, or one of those widows… Continue reading →
- Five: Shocking Proposition - No one saw Tabitha standing in the doorway of her brother, Tauney’s, room. James, the valet, lifted clothes out of Tauney’s trunks in large stacks instead of loading them in. Neat, color-coordinated piles of breeches and jackets decorated his bedding, and Tabitha’s worry increased. She shook her head. “We are already so late.” Tauney, only… Continue reading →
- In the Quiet Before Delicious Mayhem Begins - Damen, most valued footman of the Countess Du’Breven, walked precisely three steps behind his employer, cradling her dog in his arms. She waved impatiently but kept at her slow pace. “Come Damen, I insist upon personally inspecting each of the rooms before our guests arrive.” Of all the ridiculous notions. “Shall we visit all 365… Continue reading →