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Brynnde’s thoroughbred kicked up dust as she spurred him up the tree-lined carriageway. She kept her own head low under her wide-brimmed hat, more in the hopes of not being noticed than for keeping the dust from her eyes. She was in trouble and she knew it.
She rode astride the horse, having “borrowed” some of her older brother Nicolas’ clothing. It was something she did often, and her family had long since ceased to prevent her, except on days like today—days when important guests were expected to arrive. Brynnde had ridden out early that morning, fully intending to be back and presentable before nuncheon, but she had managed to get herself into a long conversation with Mrs. Davershire, wife of the gamekeeper, which had led to a visit to the gardener Mr. MacDonald to check on the recovery of his broken leg, and so she had lost track of the time.
If the tenants were at all appalled at the sight of a daughter of the house riding in masculine fashion, they kept it to themselves. Surely, in Brynnde’s mind, that topic of conversation around Aux Arbres and the nearby village of Barrow Wood would have worn itself out long ago.
But now they would have something new to fuel the gossip, namely Brynnde’s disgraceful arrival.
She came to the front of the house and was off the horse even before they’d come to a full stop. Tossing the reins to a groom who came rushing forward, Brynnde dashed into the house and headed directly for the stairs. But she hadn’t climbed more than three rungs when the familiar sound of her mother’s throat clearing stopped her. Turning slowly, she saw her mother’s plump but imperious figure standing in the parlour doorway.
“Brynnde,” was all her mother said. It was all she needed to say.
Brynnde hung her head, the wide brim of her hat hiding her eyes.
“Take the hat off,” said her mother.
Without raising her head, Brynnde reached up and pulled the hat from her long, dark, loose curls.
Lucienne Archambault, known in company as Lady Averland, glanced over her shoulder into the parlour then reached back and eased the door shut so that their guests might not hear or see what was occurring in the main hall. “Again, Brynnde. You know we’ve given you long leash around Aux Arbres, never demanding half of what we might, letting you run wild all over the countryside. All we ever ask is that you act with some grace, some propriety in front of company, and yet you can’t even seem to manage that. Do you want to ruin your sister’s chances?”
Brynnde swallowed hard, keeping hot words in the back of her throat. “No,” she whispered. It was all she could trust herself to say.
“I can’t hear you,” her mother said.
Her mother nodded with small satisfaction. “Very well. Go on up and get yourself together. Tessa’s in blue, so why don’t you wear your rose?” It sounded more like a command than a suggestion.
“Always need to show Tessa to advantage,” Brynnde muttered under her breath as she pushed into her room. She tossed her hat onto the bed then tossed herself after it, lying on her back to stare up at the canopy. The soft greens and cream colors of her room helped soothe her bubbling anger.
Once her breathing had returned to normal, Brynnde got up, shed her brother’s filched garments and went to the washbasin to clean up. She twitched the rose tea gown from her armoire—a dress she had a personal distaste for, but then what did she care what these people saw her in?—and rang for Molly to come help her with it. Then she settled herself in front of her vanity to pull up her hair while she waited for her maid.
Molly was a sweet girl, and always quick to answer the bell, especially when she knew her mistress was already late. “Oh, this is such a nice one,” Molly said when she saw which gown Brynnde had lay out.
Brynnde snorted. “It’s a terrible color, and you know it. But mother insisted.”
Molly didn’t answer. Instead she waited patiently while Brynnde finished pinning her natural ringlets—Brynnde took pride in doing her own hair—and then helped her mistress into her dress.
Brynnde took a deep breath at the threshold to the parlour. From inside came the continuous murmur of conversation; already the sound of it made Brynnde sleepy.
Straightening her shoulders, she stepped into the room. The talk trickled to a halt as everyone turned to regard her. Brynnde coolly returned the stares.
“Lady Darley,” her mother said, rising from the settee, “may I present my other daughter? Brynnde, this is Lady Darley.”
Of course Brynnde knew exactly who Lady Darley was; she’d heard of nothing but the Darleys for months. Brynnde made the pretty curtsy as she’d been instructed many times over then sought a seat on the edge of the party, across from her sister.
Contessa—Tessa for short—was summarily considered the beauty of the family and the Archambaults’ best chance at a solid claim to society. Bernaud Archambault was a baron, Lord Averland, but the title was still relatively new, going only so far back as Brynnde’s great-grandfather. It didn’t help matters that the family came from French stock, now that the France had declared war on Britain.
Brynnde’s mother was determined that the Archambaults would solidify their status by making strong matches in society. Brynnde’s older brother would certainly have his choice of valuable brides—Nicolas might not rank high in society, but he was rich and also stunningly handsome, and he had any number of local young misses dangling after him, although he hadn’t shown any interest yet in settling down. And Brynnde’s younger sister Tessa was a beauty; she would be an Incomparable should she make it as far as a London season. But Lady Averland was hoping that expense would not be necessary if Tessa could be betrothed before then.
As for Brynnde, it had been determined that she was unlikely to “take” in London. Not that she was sorry not to have had a Season; she would hate to be away from Aux Arbres, unable to ride the countryside and visit the tenants. Brynnde never once considered that she might not be welcome to stay at Aux Arbres once Nicolas married and started a family of his own.
Now, across from her, Tessa lifted a delicate eyebrow. Tessa was fair, her hair silvery blonde and full in its curls, her eyes the same color as the pale blue of her dress. Tessa had a small rosebud mouth and was dainty in size, while Brynnde was tall and willowy, her mouth more generous and her features stronger. But she shared the same blue eyes as her sister, brother, and father.
“I don’t recall seeing you in London last Season,” Lady Darley declared, breaking into Brynnde’s thoughts and causing her to turn.
“Surely you cannot remember everyone you saw in London?” Brynnde asked.
Lady Darley reared up in her padded silk chair, and Lady Averland hastily interjected, “Brynnde was not well enough last year to endure the rigors of a Season in London.”
Brynnde looked to Tessa; it was the first she’d heard that she had been ill. Across from her, Tessa’s pink mouth twitched in an unbecoming smirk.
Lady Darley turned her attention back to Brynnde with renewed interest. “She’s well enough now, I daresay?” she inquired, sounding for all the world as if she might be appraising a horse.
“Certainly,” said Lady Averland.
“Then, Miss Archambault, will you be sharing the upcoming Season with your sister?”
Brynnde looked to her mother for an answer, and Lady Averland began, “Actually…”
“Surely the girl can answer for herself?” Lady Darley said, her eyes remaining fixed on Brynnde.
“Indeed I can,” Brynnde replied. “And I won’t be sharing the London Season with my sister. I have absolutely no desire to be traded off like a heifer, my money for some man’s title.”
If Brynnde hoped for a dramatic reaction, she was disappointed. Lady Darley only nodded. “But do you have a head on your shoulders, girl? Can you be useful?”
“I’m educated, if that is what you are asking,” Brynnde said.
“More than embroidery and pretty speech and dancing?”
“I have a head for numbers, actually. Maman can tell you that I often handle the accounts at Aux Arbres.”
But Lady Darley didn’t bother to ask Lady Averland for confirmation; she merely took a sip of her tea.
“Where are Lady Julia and Lady Eleanor? I thought they would be arriving with you.” Lady Averland remarked after an interval.
“They will be coming up with Graeme and Garrick,” said Lady Darley mildly. “My hope is that they will arrive in time for dinner. It is good of you to take us a full day earlier than the other guests; I simply detest arriving at a house party with everyone else. It makes it so difficult to feel settled.”
“Well, of course, we are delighted to have you stay,” Lady Averland said.
The conversation went on to cover whom would be attending, a list imprinted on Brynnde’s brain through constant repetition the past weeks. Brynnde tuned out the dialogue and stared out the window at the sunlight slipping over the spring hedges. The grounds of Aux Arbres were fresh and green and Brynnde wished she could be riding over them right then, far from the stuffy parlour.
Finally, Lady Darley rose from her seat in indication that tea was at an end. Lady Averland and her daughters rose as well. Brynnde looked again at Tessa, whom so far as Brynnde knew, had not spoken a word the entire time. After Lady Darley and their mother exited, Brynnde threw her arms up in a rather unladylike stretch and let loose a gaping yawn.
“She would arrive without Graeme or Garrick,” Tessa grumped. “Now how will I catch either of them before everyone else arrives?”
“You heard Lady Darley,” said Brynnde, “they should arrive tonight, and the others begin arriving tomorrow. Besides, you know Maman has planned this whole thing to showcase your charms, so there won’t be any rivals to detract from you.”
Tessa was clearly not persuaded as her creamy brow furrowed. “Perhaps,” she conceded, though her pout remained. “I’m going up to nap before dinner; I don’t want to appear tired when they arrive.”
Far from tired herself, Brynnde went out to stroll about the garden that she’d been admiring from the parlour. She hadn’t been out long when she spied Nicolas striding across the lawns after a day of riding the estate.
“Bryn!” he called when she waved to him. “Are our illustrious guests arrived?” he asked as she fell in step beside him to head back towards the house.
“Lady Darley is here, although I did not see the earl,” Brynnde said. “The rest of the family is expected to come some time before dinner.”
Nicolas grinned. “I’m sure Tess is all a-twitter.”
“She was rather put out about it, actually. She’s afraid she may have some competition and would like a head start.”
“Competition?” Nicolas scoffed. “But Contessa is the loveliest creature on the planet! An Incomparable!”
Brynnde knew her brother did not speak with any sense of irony; it was generally accepted within the family that Tessa was the loveliest creature on the planet, or at the very least in England. “Don’t remind her,” Brynnde said. “She’s insufferable enough as it is, and won’t be able to do the pretty with a swelled head.”
Nicolas laughed and guided Brynnde into the house, giving her a peck on her forehead. “Sounds like someone is jealous. No worries, Bryn, there will be plenty to go around. After all, Tessa can only pick one in the end.”
With that, he headed up the stairs to wash for dinner.
“Jealous my left shoe,” Brynnde grumbled as she paced her room. Molly was on her way up with hot water for washing.
“Molly, do you think I’m jealous of my sister?” Brynnde asked when her maid entered with the water.
“You? Jealous? Of Miss Tessa?” Molly asked in huffing grunts as she lugged the water to the washstand. “What for?”
“Exactly!” Brynnde agreed, stopping her pacing and drawing herself up to stand by the fireplace. “Tessa may be pretty, but she’s so addlepated! She has no real conversation outside of fashion and low-slung gossip. She barely said a word to Lady Darley this afternoon.”
Molly swallowed any thoughts she may have had on the subject as she went to the armoire to select a dinner dress for her mistress. “Did you have any idea which gown you might like to wear tonight?”
“The green one, I think,” Brynnde said, moving to the washbasin.
“Oh, that one do look nice on you! As I hear it, the Darleys have two available young men in the family,” Molly added slyly.
“And if I dare make eyes at either one of them, both Tessa and Maman will be all over me like scalded cats,” Brynnde replied. “Not that I’m interested in the least.”
Molly merely remarked, “They did arrive just a bit ago.”
“Maybe they’ll be too fatigued from their journey to join us then,” mused Brynnde.
“Oh, I doubt that,” said Molly. “They were a right enthusiastic bunch, chatting and laughing. I wonder you didn’t hear them coming up the stairs.”
“Mm,” was all Brynnde said. She was done with her washing and had slipped on the gown Molly had laid out for her.
Molly came over to lace it up. “What about your hair?” she asked.
Brynnde glanced at herself in the long mirror standing in the corner of the room. “Mm,” she said again, and the moment Molly was done with her laces, she took a seat at the vanity.
Brynnde did not often bother with dressing her hair, preferring to let it fall loose and despite her age and mother’s antipathy, but she was quite capable of managing it without help when the occasion called for it. “Maybe my diamond pins,” she said. “But no, that’s far too fancy for a simple dinner. I should save something like that for the ball. Maybe just ribbons then.”
Molly nodded her agreement and went to the drawer where the ribbons and trimmings were kept. She selected cream ones to match the lace trimming on Brynnde’s dress. Against Brynnde’s dark curls, the ribbons were bright like wedding doves.
“There,” Molly said with satisfaction after tying the ribbons into Brynnde’s hair. “Right pretty. Miss Tessa can’t look any lovelier than you.”
They gathered in the drawing room after the dinner bell rang, and Brynnde stood awkwardly by one of the bookcases, watching everyone else mingle. Both Graeme and Garrick Sommerford were tall, with fair hair. Garrick, the older son, was leaner than his more robust brother, and tanner; he had a worldlier look about him. Brynnde remembered someone having mentioned that Garrick Sommerford spent much time abroad, and when he was in England he was typically in London and almost never at the family estate of Ridgemow.
Graeme, on the other hand, seemed very warm and outgoing. He talked knowledgeably of country matters, speaking fondly of Ridgemow.
“Yes,” Garrick’s voice rose above the general chatter, “Graeme looks after things while I’m traveling. I fear I’ll never be able to take the reins from him at this rate.”
“If you’d just stay home long enough to learn the ins and outs of it,” Lord Darley remarked. Although he made his tone light, Brynnde spied a hardness around his eyes as he spoke.
Garrick glanced at his father and away, his stormy slate-colored eyes finding the windows so that he gazed out at the darkening lawns while sipping his wine.
Graeme laughed, his own mood honestly light. “I’m reluctant to give it up,” he said, “although I suppose at some time I’m going to have to.”
Jemmings appeared at the parlour door to announce that dinner was ready, and the party moved into the dining room. Unheeding of precedence, Brynnde fell behind the others ladies found herself walking beside Garrick.
“Am I to understand that you travel a good deal?” asked Brynnde.
If he was surprised or put out by having her there, he had manners enough to hide it. “I do. I enjoy it. And I find the country unutterably dull.”
“I am sorry, then, that you were coerced into coming to our house party.”
“Well, it was either come along or knock around Ridgemow alone,” Garrick said.
“So we are the lesser of two evils.”
Garrick actually grinned at that. “Oh, Miss Archambault, I cannot imagine you to be the lesser of anything.”
Brynnde was saved from responding for they had arrived at the dining room. Brynnde took her seat between her brother and Graeme Sommerford, and across from Tessa, who had the prime spot of being beside Garrick. Throughout the meal, Brynnde watched Tessa bat her eyelashes, smile and simper. It was rather like a show. Brynnde glanced across at Garrick once or twice to see his reaction, but his face was inscrutable. He seemed not to be paying attention to Tessa’s prattle, giving only the most limited answers he could manage without being impolite.
Graeme showed much more favor towards Tessa’s chatter. Which, Brynnde thought, was just as well considering he was clearly a much more affable character. But Tessa rode again and again at Garrick, attempting to win his approval, because of course she would want the heir.
Brynnde also noticed that Nicolas managed the dual attentions of Julia and Eleanor Sommerford quite nicely, showing fair amounts of charm to both. But knowing Nicolas, Brynnde was certain that he was mostly entertaining himself and wasn’t truly romantically interested in either of the girls. She only hoped he didn’t end up injuring any feelings.
“Have you had the opportunity to travel at all, Miss Archambault?” Garrick asked over the main course. Brynnde was not immediately aware that he was addressing her, and it took her a moment to respond.
“I visited France when I was younger. We have family there.”
While the rest of the table shifted uncomfortably, Garrick did not bat an eyelash. “Only to France?” he inquired.
“I am afraid so. My travels have been limited. But I’ve been very happy here at Aux Arbres.”
“To be happy in such a situation… It doesn’t suggest much vivacity of mind,” Garrick observed mildly.
Brynnde’s mouth fell open in astonishment. Surely this man, this guest, son of an earl or no, hadn’t just insulted her at her own table! She looked down the table to see what the others’ reactions were. Both Julia’s and Eleanor’s heads were bent, but Brynnde could still see the bright red of their cheeks as they blushed furiously. Meanwhile, Tessa’s blue eyes sparked with amusement.
Graeme cleared his throat and sallied into the void of conversation. “It seems to me, Miss Archambault, that you must enjoy the country a great deal, as I do.”
Brynnde rewarded him with a smile, sparing a sharp glance for Garrick. He smiled pleasantly in return. “Graeme is something of a dullard himself,” he remarked.
Nicolas could not remain quiet now. “Are you suggesting my sister is a dullard, sir?”
“I find that hard to imagine,” Garrick admitted, “but as I’ve hadn’t enough opportunity yet to make any true acquaintance…” He shrugged.
“That’s enough,” Lady Darley said roundly.
“Perhaps the ladies should take their dessert in the parlour,” Lady Averland suggested.
Lady Darley rose from her seat in silent acquiescence, the men scrambling to stand in her wake, and the rest of the ladies at the table followed the sweep of Lady Darley’s canary-colored silk as she exited the dining room without a word.
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