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by Joan Smith
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: Miranda has been widowed for two years when she accompanies her neighbors to London. Her intent is not to find a husband--nor is it to find a less virtuous arrangement! Lord Bolton's reputation precedes him and though he is rich and charming, the daughter of a clergyman knows enough to beware of such insidious wiles.
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 2001
eBookwise Release Date: July 2003
41 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [205 KB]
Reading time: 142-199 min.
"I am thinking of changing my name, Miranda," Mrs. Hazard said to her neighbor and best friend, Lady Wetherby, as they sat in Miranda's garden, taking afternoon tea.
The blinking of Lady Wetherby's wide-set green eyes was the only sign of her astonishment. "Indeed, ma'am. I had no idea. I am very happy for you," she replied with her usual composure. "May I inquire whom you are marrying?"
"Nobody!" Mrs. Hazard said, and burst into a loud guffaw, her ample bosoms shaking until her pink cheeks turned red, striking a discordant note with her rust-colored curls.
The ladies were a startling contrast in appearance, breeding, age, fortune, interests, and all those details that usually conspire to turn acquaintances into friends. Lady Wetherby was a quiet, refined gentlewoman of good birth and breeding and small fortune. Mrs. Hazard was as noisy as a brass band, as common as clover, as rich as a nabob and getting richer every day from her late husband's string of patent medicines.
The only things they had in common were that they were both widows, and were neighbors. Yet an unlikely friendship had grown over the two years since Mrs. Hazard had removed from Manchester with her daughter to purchase a fine country estate in Surrey and turn it into a gaudy mansion.
Unfortunately, she had stripped the priceless Chinese wall covering from the east wing, whitewashed some fine carvings by Grinling Gibbons in the saloon and thrown the Queen Anne chairs on the bonfire before making Lady Wetherby's acquaintance. Mrs. Hazard had little use for antiquity or secondhand furnishings. She preferred things shiny and new. All this had happened some time ago, and in no way affected their friendship.
Perhaps their lonesomeness drew them together. Hornby Hall, the late Sir John Wetherby's estate, was somewhat isolated, and while Miranda was on good terms with the locals, she did not often see them, whereas Hazard Hall, formerly known as The Laurels, was within walking distance.
Not that Mrs. Hazard and her daughter, Dorothy, were likely to walk. Even for the short hike to Hornby they had their spanking new carriage harnessed up and came with a groom and a footman. Miranda often walked to the Laurels, however. In her mind, she could not call the Laurels anything but the Laurels, even after Mrs. Hazard had cut down half the trees that gave it its name.
"But then why should you change your name? Miranda asked in confusion. "And pray, what are you changing it to?"
"Ffoulkes-Hazard, with two f's," Mrs. Hazard announced, and watched from her sharp snuff-brown eyes for Miranda's reaction. Lady Wetherby was her barometer for reading the vagaries of gentility.
Although Miranda was seething with curiosity, she asked with perfect equanimity "Why, ma'am, if you don't mind my asking?"
"For the looks of it, dear, and the sound. Hazard has a cheap sound, like a game of cards."
"I cannot agree with you. Hazard is a good old name. And everyone knows your name is Hazard." Miranda also knew her maiden name was Sykes, so where had the Ffoulkes come from?
"They don't know it in London," the dame replied. "I am taking my Dotty up to London to nab a fashionable beau. I had hoped she would catch Lord Ippswitch's eye, but I hear he has gone and offered for that muffin-faced chit of Lord Egan's. I sent Dotty into the village this afternoon to buy a new bonnet to cheer her up. There is not another title available for miles around. Not that I care two peas for a title, but it was something Lyle always wanted." Her late husband, Lyle, was held responsible for any lavish desire she was ashamed to claim for her own.
"Dorothy is going to make her debut?" Miranda cried. It was beyond her formidable self-control to keep her voice low. Dorothy was twenty-five years old, and looked it. She was nearly a decade too old to be making her curtsey at St. James's. How would Mrs. Hazard arrange it? She had no friends high enough in society to handle the complications of a court debut. Her sole acquaintance in London was a cousin called Bertie Beazly, who handled her business affairs.
"Mercy me, no. Dotty is far past it. No, we are just going for a visit, to give her a taste of the high life. We shan't be invited to the better parties, of course, but we'll hire theater boxes and have some parties ourselves. Bertie has hired me a dandy mansion on Berkeley Square. With luck, Dotty will nab someone. So that is why we are changing our names to Ffoulkes-Hazard. I had a great aunt married to a fellow called Henry Ffoulkes. Every time I see the name Ffoulkes in the social columns I think it could be some connection to me. It lends a touch of class, eh? What do you think, Miranda? The truth, now."
"I think it is foolish and unnecessary."
"But Lyle's patent medicines! Everyone knows his name was Lyle Hazard. It's on every bottle. "Owner and prop., Lyle Hazard, Manchester." I wouldn't want anyone to know the money came from trade. It would ruin Dotty's chances."
Miranda just shook her head. "When such a lot of money has come, I don't think you need worry. Whitbread is accepted everywhere."
"The beer fellow. Yes, but still, no need to broadcast we're in trade, eh, now that we live here at Hazard Hall?"
"That is up to you, of course. Well, Mrs. Hazard, I shall miss you very much," she said with real feeling, and already a twinge of lonesomeness. "When will you be leaving?"
"As soon as Bertie hires extra servants and gets the house ready. I am taking over some of Lord Croft's servants. He owns the house I am hiring. Do you think you could get yourself pulled together in a week?"
"I?" Miranda gasped. "But I'm not going with you."
"Of course you are, dear. I wouldn't dream of leaving you behind with your head stuck in one of those dull old books you read. It'll do you the world of good. There is no saying you might not nab someone yourself, for you really don't look the least bit hagged. And don't worry about the expense. It's paid."
"That is very kind, but I couldn't possibly accept."
"Pshaw. You'll earn your keep. You are to be our cicisbeo, or whatever they call it. Someone to show us the ropes."
"But it's years since I made my debut, Mrs. Hazard. Over a decade, and even then, I did not move in the first circles."
"There is no saying we will either, Miranda, for without making her curtsy at court, Dotty won't get a toe into the really first class places. But there, it's better to see Rome from outside than not to see Rome at all."
"No, really. I couldn't."
The argument continued for two days, but really it was lost almost as soon as it began. Miranda would miss the Hazards, but that was not the only reason she finally agreed. It was two years since her husband's death. She had just turned thirty, and was beginning to grow restless in her retirement. She did not particularly want another husband, unless he should be someone very special. She didn't know quite what she wanted, but she knew she wanted more than rusticity and reading. She felt a churning excitement inside when Mrs. Hazard spoke of London and the theater, and parties.
And really Mrs. Hazard had no notion how to proceed in polite society. She had no suitable friends in London. Miranda had kept up a correspondence with one old friend, Lydia Sinden, who had married and lived in London. Lydia wrote back an enthusiastic reply requesting that Miranda let her know when she was to arrive. They must get together.
The party left late in September in Mrs. Hazard's well-sprung, elegant chaise drawn by four matched bays. Miranda was to be their mentor in those areas where she was more experienced than they. She could help chaperon Dotty (who was only five years younger than herself, but was to be twenty for the duration of the visit).
Miranda felt, when she entered the elaborate mansion on Berkeley Square, that she had bitten off a good deal more than she could chew. She had never run a house with twenty-four indoor servants, everyone of them looking down his nose at their new mistress and pretending not to hear when he was called.
"Here, lad, take these bags upstairs," Mrs. Hazard said.
A slender footman looked down his needle nose at her and said "Were you speaking to me, madam? My name is not lad. When Lord Croft is in residence, he calls me Gibbons. That is my name."
Mrs. Hazard appeared quite defeated by such arrogance. She was easily intimidated by a title. Miranda knew it was best to begin as you meant to go on, and took charge.
"You are dismissed, Gibbons," she said. "Pack your gear and leave at once. I shall see that Lord Croft hears of this impertinence." Of course Gibbons would be re-instated, but this would trim him into line.
Mrs. Hazard just stood with her mouth open, as if a robin had attacked an eagle. She had never heard Miranda Wetherby act so firm before. She was like cream with her own servants. Gibbons stood with his lips moving but no sound issuing from them. His face was white. The group of servants around him looked frightened to death. It was obviously a conspiracy, with Gibbons the ring leader, bent on having some sport at the hands of these provincials.
Gibbons turned and fled, with something strangely like tears in his gooseberry eyes. Samson, the butler, had heard from his stand near the door, and came rushing forth to ensure his own continued employment.
"Here, Jones, you and Peters, get the ladies? trunks upstairs, and no monkey business. You, Bess, unpack for the ladies." Then he turned back to Miranda. "May I offer you tea, madam?" he asked in a honeyed voice, assuming Miranda was Mrs. Ffoulkes-Hazard.
"Ma'am?" Miranda asked, turning to her hostess.
"Please. Thank you," Mrs. Hazard said, and staggered into the saloon to recuperate.
"It fair took the air out of my lungs, such brass from a servant," she was soon confiding. "I didn't know which way to look. Upon my word, is that how servants carry on in London?"
"No, it is not," Miranda said. "But I doubt you'll have any trouble with them in future."
The butler soon appeared with the tea tray. He handed Miranda a letter. She opened it and exclaimed "It is from my old friend, Lydia Sinden. She married Lord Cowell's younger son, Lord Robert Dauntry. Scarcely a feather to fly with, but his papa got him some sinecure at court. They are excellent ton. She wants us to attend a small dancing party this evening."
Mrs. Hazard's broad face broke into a gleeful smile. "There now, what did I tell you? You've earned your keep before we are even settled in." She looked around the room, already planning her own party.
The saloon was huge and full of gilt and blue velvet and bibelots and large, dark paintings. It was not at all to her own taste, but Miranda seemed to like it, so no doubt it was all the crack. She felt like a duchess as she sat scheming how to find a husband for Dotty.
In a similar mansion on Hanover Square, another mama sat in a saloon not her own nursing a similar problem. The saloon in which the Dowager Lady Bolton sat belonged to her stepson, Lord Bolton, and there was the problem. She had managed to get her late husband's biddable eldest son married to her cousin, Helen. This ought, by rights, to have left her safe when her own husband died. But alas, Helen's husband had fallen off his yacht while racing off the Isle of Wight, caught pneumonia and died before producing an heir, pitching the younger son, Maxwell, into the title and estates. She had never felt it necessary to ingratiate a mere younger son.
Colonel Maxwell Scully, lately returned from the Peninsula, was a horse of another color. He had no love for his papa's second wife, and didn't bother to pretend he had. Even the widow's pension and the occupation of the Dower House were in doubt now, with two widowed Lady Boltons to be taken care of. For the nonce, they were all staying at Hanover Square. Maxwell wanted to enjoy some socializing after his sojourn in Spain, and the elder Lady Bolton wanted him to fall in love with Helen, his brother's widow.
That would tidy everything up nicely. She could go back to being the only Dowager Lady Bolton, with legal right to the dowager's pension and Dower House. And of course Helen was like a daughter to her, so Hanover Square would also continue to be her home. Helen might even soften Maxwell's hard heart to do something for Jeremy West, the older dowager's son by her first marriage, who scraped along on the small competence left him by his papa.
She felt it inevitable that Maxwell would fall in love with Helen eventually. Helen was an ethereal blond beauty, with big blue eyes and a helpless air that turned most gentlemen into putty in her hands. Unfortunately, the war had hardened Maxwell. She saw something very like contempt on his harsh visage when Helen cried. And she cried beautifully.
The scheming lady was flipping through a small stack of invitations when the delectable Helen joined her before dinner for a glass of sherry.
"What are we doing this evening, Cousin?" Helen asked. She called her stepmother-in-law Cousin or her Christian name, Adelaide, to avoid the pesky shared title.
"Here are the cards. I wonder which Maxwell will attend. Lady Hertford's will be the best party, but of course he will not go there."
Helen was happy to hear it. She was the ambitious sort of lady who would have married Maxwell if he asked her, but some renegade corner of her heart was infatuated with an older and perhaps even richer roué, Alfred Hume, who would not be invited to Lady Hertford's, for it seemed he was so unwise as to have won money from the lady's very special friend, the Prince Regent.
"Max will probably go to the Dauntry's dancing party," Helen said. "That is where the younger crowd will be. You know how he loves to dance." Alfred also loved to dance, preferably with younger ladies.
"It would be just like him to go there. The worst invitation we have. But we had best go, I expect. What will you wear, dear?"
"My new blue silk taffeta with the gauze overskirt."
The Dowager Lady Bolton nodded her satisfaction. She had recommended the gown. Maxwell's heart must be hard indeed if he could resist that madly expensive piece of enchantment.