The Lady and the Spy by Ruth A. Casie
February 14, 1815
Lady Patrice Montgomery Edgemont, young widow of the late Lord Benedict Edgemont, 3rd Earl of Gosforth entered The Rostov Tearoom. She was home in Sommer-by-the-Sea, permanently. Her extended stay in London was a distant memory and she had every intention to keep it that way.
She stomped her feet to remove the slush from her boots and brushed the snow from her primrose yellow pelisse. After wearing black for ten months, she swore she’d never wear the color again.
This snowstorm was as unexpected as her early return. She shouldn’t have left, but in a moment of uncharacteristic weakness her mother won the day.
“You’ll stay in London with your father and me. You shouldn’t be alone mourning your loving husband.”
Loving husband. That sounded well and good, but she felt no need to mourn over something that didn’t exist.
A year and a day. Really? Two weeks’ mourning was more than enough. But after several arguments, Patrice relented. She closed her country home, The Mooring, in Sommer-by-the-Sea with plans to reopen it in April when her year and one day was over. But that didn’t suit her mother either.
“One doesn’t rusticate in the country until the end of the Season, in June.” As if she didn’t know. Like a relentless woodpecker, Lady Montgomery nagged, jabbed, and stabbed away until Patrice threw her hands in the air and gave in. She’d return north the first of July.
But after last week’s final indignity she refused to stay in London a moment longer. Without a word to anyone, she packed herself up and with her lady’s maid, Jean, returned to Sommer-by-the-Sea. A year and a day. The end of the Season be damned.
She arrived two days ago with her bags in hand at Marianna Ravencroft’s doorstep to a surprised but warm welcome.
The coach ride had been brutal, but the shock on Anna’s face when she entered the parlor was priceless. Anna quickly rallied. It didn’t take long before they were once again sharing a room as they had at Mrs. Bainbridge’s Sommer-by-the-Sea Female Seminary.
Removing the last of the snow from her boots, Patrice soaked up the familiar tearoom that bustled with activity. After staring at the drab furnishings at Montgomery Hall, she thrilled at seeing the painted blue walls with blue damask wallpaper insets in white wainscot panels. She looked across the neat rows of tables, each dressed in a crisp white linen cloth with a lace overlay. Small vases filled with a bouquet of red quince, winter heather, and white snowdrops added a soft and bright finishing touch to the room.
Patrice took a deep breath and enjoyed the grassy aroma of green tea and the astringent scent of the black variety along with the mouth-watering fragrance of warm bread, and sweet scones. The turmoil of the last year slid away. She felt lighter, her spirits brighter. Restored.
The server passed with a tureen of soup. The savory fragrance of the tearoom’s signature mushroom barley soup stirred memories best left buried deep in the St. Petersburg snow. She blinked and quickly squashed the budding images before they could develop.
As bundled as she was, a chill crossed her shoulders and up her neck. It was an uneasy, unnerving, under-scrutiny feeling. A warning voice went off in her head, someone was watching. She glanced to her right. Tatiana Chernokov, proprietress of the tearoom, was actively engaged in a discussion with a gentleman.
Gentlemanmay have been an overstatement. A further glance had Patrice appalled that Tanya allowed the man into the tearoom and had not directed him to the kitchen door. She was a kind soul, and well thought of by the ton. This man could be her downfall.
Tanya’s back was to her. The man faced Patrice and stared at her intently.
She took a better look. While his appearance was more “vagabond” than “gentleman,” it was his clothes that appeared out of place, not the man. From his loose black trousers, snug white shirt, fitted brown waistcoat, to his broad-brimmed gray hat, it was clear to her he wore the wrong costume.
He had a rugged look with a full beard, and long, curly hair pulled back in a romantic, wild way. But his fixed gaze held her captive. His compelling eyes were summer-sky blue and oddly familiar. Could she have met him before?
He smiled and tilted his head in an arrogant yet elegant nod. Her heart jumped in her chest. The excitement had her heart racing.
Tanya turned, a surprised expression on her face, and gave Patrice a wave. She nodded, leaving Tanya and the man to figure out which of them she acknowledged. Even she wasn’t certain.
She did have to admit the man was appealing.
Her mother would have a convulsion if she had a hint of her daughter’s thoughts. She bit her cheek to stifle her smile. Poor Mother would never understand attraction. Position, title, assets, and gossip were the things that drove her.
Patrice glanced around the room and found her friends seated at a back table. They were a close group of graduates from Mrs. Bainbridge’s who met weekly, either at the tearoom or the seminary’s salon.
As she made her way to her friends, she tried to figure out where she had encountered the man. Nothing came to mind. It was useless at the moment. She would remember sooner or later.
Patrice didn’t know if she was annoyed or pleased that the only empty chair faced Tanya and the man. She avoided looking at him and chatted with her friends. When she did look up, she was once again caught in his snare. The audacity. God’s toes, was she destined to be attracted to a rake in any clothing? It had certainly proved to be her pattern of late.
She dragged her glance away and immediately felt a void, an emptiness. Ridiculous. What was she, some naïve schoolgirl whose head could be easily turned? And by whom? She placed her reticule on her lap all the while schooling herself not to look at the doorway.
“Welcome home.” Hattie grabbed her hand and gave it a squeeze. “I was taken aback when Anna told us you had returned. We didn’t expect you until July.”
Effie placed a scone on Patrice’s plate and took one for herself. “Is it true you’re home to stay?”
“I enjoyed being here for the Harvest Festival in November. I missed you all terribly and I am past the stage of residing in my parents’ home.”
“I was surprised you went to stay with your parents.” Effie poured Patrice a cup of hot tea. “Your London address is a perfectly grand home.”
Anna nudged Patrice. “Who are you staring at?”
Patrice gave Anna a shocked glare while Hattie and Effie glanced toward the doorway.
“Who is he?” Effie’s voice was soft, almost playful, her tone conspiratorial.
God’s big toe.She was staring at him, again. Something in the back of her mind kept poking her. She couldn’t fit the man with a place. She casually turned toward her friends.
“You’ll have to ask Tanya. He does appear familiar, but I can’t place him. He must remind me of someone. But I have no idea who.” Had she seen him in passing somewhere along her journey? The road, the inn, someplace? Patrice placed the linen serviette on her lap, her mind not letting go of the puzzle.
“What were they saying? You were standing next to them.” Effie picked up a scone and slathered it with raspberry jam.
“Effie.” Patrice sounded indignant, but her mood quickly cooled. “My Russian is rusty. I didn’t get much past ‘What are you doing here?’ They spoke too quickly for me.”
“You can ask Tanya, if you dare.” Something flicked across Hattie’s face. “I love Tanya, but she’s like my mother. She and my grandmother speak German when they don’t want any of us to understand what they’re saying. Including my father.”
“You know your father speaks fluent German.” Patrice glanced at the ceiling with a someone-give-me-strength look. “So does everyone else in your family.”
“You know that, and I know that, but Mother? No.” Hattie could hardly keep the laughter out of her voice. “I asked her once and she proudly told me that father has many talents, but speaking a foreign language was not one of them. Which made me laugh. And yes, Father taught my sister and me German, with instructions never to tell Mother.”
“So much for your mother’s private talks.” Patrice lifted her teacup in a salute.
“That’s all very enlightening. But that’s not what I want to talk about.” Hattie’s expression went serious. “We said little when you were home in November, but we’ve all been concerned about you since…”
Patrice leaned toward Hattie and covered her friend’s hand with her own. “Edgemont’s passing was difficult to bear. Thank you, and I say that with all my heart. Your letters kept me sane at a time when madness surrounded me. The ton can be so cruel.” Even she heard the sneer in her voice.
“I never thought the gossip or scandal sheets were harmful, simply entertaining.” Hattie’s declaration didn’t surprise Patrice. She would have agreed if she wasn’t their target.
“Of course you wouldn’t. Their so-called polite conversations are verbal duels, fencing matches. I refuse to thrust and parry for groups of spectators. I prefer an intimate dagger attack. Swift, clean, and done.”
Patrice’s thoughts randomly jumped to last year’s trip to St. Petersburg. She’d been pleasantly surprised when she and her husband traveled with Ambassador Cathcart to St. Petersburg. Had it been only ten months since that voyage? It seemed like a lifetime ago.
Edgemont’s intentions for an evening with her alone may have been well-intentioned, but as pleasant, witty, and likeable as her husband was, he couldn’t keep a promise, at least not to her.
Her husband’s pained expression when he was called to a meeting was little consolation. Intellectually, she understood business came first. Emotionally, it was disappointing. Graciously, Prince Baranov came to the rescue and played her escort to the ballet and dinner.
How odd. She hadn’t thought of that evening with the prince in some time.
Effie’s chatter brought her back to the present.
“I’m sorry, Effie, what were you saying?” Patrice poured a cup of tea, passed up the sugar Anna offered, and took a splash of milk.
“I was shocked when I read your letter. How dare someone ask for the name of your husband’s mistress.” Effie’s choice of topic would have left a deep wound had she not been one of Patrice’s good friends. With these women, nothing was censored.
“Perhaps the gossip columnist is afraid her husband is on the market for a mistress.” Anna folded and unfolded her linen serviette, her expression worried and wary.
Effie stabbed her fork into a tart. “I still can’t believe the mistress’s husband killed—”
“Effie.” Hattie poked her elbow into Effie’s side. “Patrice is sitting right here.”
“Oh, Patrice.” Effie dropped her fork. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“Please, you know my marriage was not a love match. We knew each other since we were children. It seemed the natural course of events, but it was an arrangement. A mistress? None of his friends were aware of any liaisons. At least that is what they felt compelled to tell me.” The words stuck in her throat like a dry piece of bread she couldn’t get down. “It’s strange. I didn’t think he would ever… it doesn’t matter now.” She threw her shoulders back and held her head high. “I shouldn’t have been surprised.”
That wasn’t the truth. She was incredibly surprised. There had been affection between them, but love? Not the type that takes your breath away when you heard his voice. Not the type that made your heart jump out of your chest when you saw him. Not that type at all. And if there was no emotional bond between them, why did his betrayal hurt her so?
Once again she felt the uncertainty and instability of his passing. The pain of his infidelity. The endless days of numbness that turned into anger.
Anna poured the last drops of tea into her cup. She opened the teapot and glanced inside. “Oh dear, the pot is empty.”
“The tarts are gone as well.” Effie held up the empty plate. “You can refresh the tea while I get more tarts.” Effie turned to Hattie and Patrice. “We’ll be back.”
Hattie slid her chair a bit closer to Patrice. “You know you can tell us everything. There have never been any secrets between any of us. You know we are not those London women telling secrets to whomever is willing to listen.”
Patrice didn’t doubt Hattie’s sincerity, nor that of the others. Slowly, the guard she had cemented in place gave way.
“Your letters and Mrs. Bainbridge’s books and articles, even the ones about Napoleon, were a distraction from those difficult times. For weeks Edgemont’s murder and his widow were fodder for the ton. It was the one time I was grateful for mother’s insistence that I do not accept callers.”
“Except George Armstrong?”
“Mother treated him as staff, and to her, staff aren’t people of concern.” Patrice let out a strangled laugh that sounded more strained than pleasant. “Mr. Armstrong was a businessman who worked with my father. We were each relegated to specific rooms at specific times, so we didn’t disturb the running of the house or Mother’s afternoon court. I only saw him in passing and when I did, we never spoke.
“It was Mother who led to us becoming acquainted. She had an early caller and pushed me into the library. Imagine my surprise when I found it occupied by Mr. Armstrong. I stood there like a timid mouse, not able to go back the way I came, my only escape through the garden door.
“He was quick to point out the library was big enough for a grand ball, let alone two people reading. I remember how his gentle voice dipped low, his apologetic tone filled with caring, closeness, concern. It was as if he interrupted me.
“Up until then, I hadn’t gotten more than a passing glance of his straight blonde hair. I couldn’t have told you the color of his eyes. Now I took a good look. He was pleasant to look at, dressed as he was in the latest fashion with a polished look of an accomplished gentleman. He wore a hunter green morning coat over a white linen shirt with a patterned cravat, and soft white leather breeches.”
“And his eyes? What color were they?”
Patrice glanced at Anna. “Dark brown, so dark they could be mistaken for black.” A bubble of a laugh burst out of her mouth.
“Patrice, that’s not fair. You’re in your head. Let me in. What has you wondering off?”
“It’s nothing, Hattie. Something Mr. Armstrong said.”
“Oh, no. You will not keep that to yourself.”
“If you must know, when we discussed sharing the room, he likened himself to a goldfish.”
Hattie pulled back a bit, her mouth gaping open.
“Much like you look at the moment.” Patrice finished the last of her tea and tried to hide her smile. “Armstrong mentioned that his lips moved when he read, like a goldfish. I was stunned by his absurd statement, the image of his cheeks pressed together and lips moving like a fish had me laughing so hard I wasn’t able to stop.” Patrice took on a more serious attitude.
“The more I laughed, the more something deep inside me fought to be free. Free to feel, free to smile, free to live. I couldn’t keep it locked away any longer. I let it loose, and I felt…” Patrice searched for the word.
Patrice was too startled by Hattie’s suggestions to say anything.
“All from imagining Mr. Armstrong’s goldfish lips.”
“If he helped you through your grief, and have no illusions, you were grieving, I would think he was a wonderful man.”
“He was at first. He was attentive and thoughtful. For weeks I was a ghost in my parents’ house – dejected, neglected, overprotected. His words had my heart racing like a thoroughbred, yet all I wanted was to sprint from the room.”
“Why? He sounds like a good man.”
“His smile was warm, yet made me feel exposed, a touch uncomfortable.”
“You know what you want. Don’t be afraid of it when it’s within your grasp.” Hattie always did have a positive outlook. But if only she knew. There were times when you reached for something, and you were burned.
“How can I be sure? I thought I knew Edgemont.”
“You’re an intelligent woman. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You were giddy about Mr. Armstrong when you were here for the festival.”
“My parents encouraged the relationship. We spent many afternoons together. He gave me a gift.” Patrice settled her breath while Hattie was so excited, she nearly jumped out of her chair. “A deck of playing cards. He said he saw them and thought of me.”
Hattie gasped and reached a comforting hand toward Patrice.
“Exactly. I thought it was some cruel joke. Surely he knew my brother had been shot dead over a card game at a gambling den. The ton enjoyed that bit of gossip on the heels of Edgemont’s murder. What other reason would cards bring me to mind.” Patrice covered the comforting hand with her own. “I didn’t mean to upset you. It wasn’t that at all. It was the picture of a bouquet of flowers on the back that had attracted him.”
“That’s a relief. He had a simple explanation. You are still too sensitive to Brian’s passing. I don’t see why you were so off put by Mr. Armstrong.”
“Sorry we took so long.” Effie took her seat. “Tanya will bring the tarts when they are ready.”
Anna freshened everyone’s tea. “Careful, it’s hot.”
“Pass me the milk, please.” Effie held her hand out. “Did you have a difficult time reaching Sommer-by-the-Sea? It seems this snow has been falling for days.”
Patrice was thankful she changed the subject.
“It wasn’t snowing in London when I left. The coach was rather comfortable until we reached Harrogate. I woke on the last day of our journey to a blizzard. A day’s ride turned into two days. It made me think of how we turned Mrs. Bainbridge’s garden into a battlefield, each of us wearing a red wool cap, and tossing snow at each other.”
“Those were good times.” Anna laughed. “I hadn’t thought of those days in a long time.”
“What hadn’t you thought about?” Tanya approached carrying a bundle that she put on the empty table behind her and a dish of tarts she put in front of Effie.
“Winter days in the seminary garden when we used the snow as a good excuse to attack each other, then take turns sliding down the steep slope on a carpet. Patrice was the best at sliding. She took us into her icehouse. We had turns going down the ramp.” Effie helped herself to a chocolate tart.
“Until Brian told my father, who was very upset with us. I hadn’t thought of that adventure in a long time.” Patrice smiled softly and had another sip of tea.
“Somehow I cannot imagine you ladies sliding on the ice or tossing snow at each other.” Tanya smiled. “Although, I did the same with my brother in St. Petersburg. He always let me win.”
“Are you sure you’re not giving him more credit than he deserves?” Patrice said.
“No, not at all. My aim was laughable. I tossed the snow, missed him, but he fell down no matter where the snowball landed.”
“You must have a sweet brother. Mine put stones in his snowballs and threw them at everyone, especially me,” Patrice said. “He was not sweet. To him, winning was everything. It eventually was his undoing.”
“Alicia was the best at throwing snowballs.” Patrice wondered if Anna purposefully moved the conversation along. “And Patrice was our commander. She would do anything to win and usually did. Everyone wanted to be on her team, but we complained. She had you digging holes in the deep snow to make traps, rigging branches to slap the enemy down, and covering patches of ice with snow so they’d slip.”
“I remember coming inside after we were thoroughly exhausted and cold. Mrs. Bainbridge would have hot chocolate and biscuits ready for us, along with towels she kept warm by the hearth.” Effie looked at the fresh tarts and debated. “These are heart shaped. How lovely. For Valentine’s Day?”
“They’re my Valentine to you.” Tanya picked up the plate and passed it along.
“We have Valentines to share as well.” Anna removed a neatly folded paper from her reticule. “Ladies, put them into the center of the table and we’ll each take one. Patrice, you go first.”
“Anna, aren’t we going to wait for the others?” Patrice asked.
“Dorothea sent word she wouldn’t be joining us. Her father was called away and she is seeing to his office. Katherine is still in Bath. I’m afraid it is Hattie, Effie and me.”
The ladies took out intricately folded pieces of paper, each with Be My Valentine carefully penned on the front.
Patrice took her Valentine out of her reticule. The ritual started out as a game she introduced to them. As children she, Brian, and Edgemont folded paper intricately to hide messages. They would exchange them and see who could figure out the proper way to get to the hidden message. There was only one way to begin. Find that key fold and the rest was easy.
The memory brought her up short. Those early days when she and Brian were close, when they cared about each other, what had become of them? By the time she understood what was happening to him it was too late to help him, protect him. He wasn’t strong enough to protect himself against their mother.
Her early interference was the reason she was sent to the seminary. Out of the house. Out of Brian’s life. Her visits home were painful. The Brian she adored was gone. The man he became was nothing like the sweet loving boy she knew.
What good was reliving the past? It couldn’t be changed. She blinked away the memory and directed her thoughts to the present.
“While you make delicious treats,” Patrice held up her Valentine, “we write special poems for each other to enjoy.”
“But I don’t have one to share with you.” Tanya stared at the folded paper and chewed her lip.
“I brought two. You must sit down, in Dorothea’s seat, or you will fall down swooning. We take our Valentines very seriously. We have a simple process. You choose a Valentine from the center of the table, read it out loud, then pick who reads next.”
Tanya took the vacant seat, chose a Valentine, and worked carefully to open it. Patrice watched as she glanced at the message. Tanya raised her head, a smile across her face.
“The rose is red, the violet’s blue,
The honey’s sweet, and so are you.
Thou are my love, and I am thine.
I drew thee to my Valentine:
The lot was cast and then I drew,
And Fortune said it should be you.”
“The drawing is wonderful.” She turned it around to show the others a picture of a bouquet of roses. “The sentiment and the roses are both very lovely.” Tanya looked around the table. “Anna, you’re next.”
Anna’s hand hovered over the pile and finally settled on a paper. She unfolded it and read.
“Beneath the rose there you will find
A pleasing subject to your mind
See virtuous courtship, calm repose.
It’s innocent, yet, under the rose.”
“I so look forward to these verses,” Anna said. “This is the only way I’m ever going to get a Valentine and I’m happy it’s from you.” She around the table. “Effie, you’re next.”
Effie chose one of the three remaining papers and unfolded it.
“May we dear youth together prove.
The bliss and joy of faithful love.
And may true love our hearts entwine.
On this best day of Valentine.”
Patricia pasted a benign smile on her face. Virtuous courtship was one thing, but faithful love was a dream. It only existed in Valentine verses or in stories. She was glad her friends were enjoying themselves, but for her, the holiday was empty.
Hattie took the next to the last paper on the table.
“The rose is fairest when it’s budding new
The rose is sweetest washed with morning dew
Hope is brightest when drawn from fears
And love is loveliest when embalmed with tears.”
“This is a charming tradition, exchanging Valentines.” Tanya examined the note.
“I agree. We don’t need to wait for some gentleman to send them. We can exchange Valentines with each other,” Effie said.
“I wrote this on my way from London, for Mr. Armstrong.” Patrice opened the last paper.
“You stupid vain conceited fool,
Why ogle and wantonly drool.
I’m sure no damsel will incline,
To choose you for her Valentine.”
“You didn’t give that to him, did you?” Effie wasn’t the only one shocked by her Valentine. “He would not find it funny.”
“In November you said your parents were all for him. What changed their mind?” Anna folded her Valentine and put it in her reticule.
“What makes you think they are the ones with the changed mind? I imagine they are quite cross with me.”
“What did you do? We’ve been very patient. We expected to read the engagement announcement when you returned to London in November. Instead, three months later you’re at Anna’s doorstep.”
“It’s not what I did, but what George Armstrong did, or more correctly what he didn’t do. When I returned to London in November he was nowhere to be seen. Mr. Armstrong was gone.”
“Oh dear, I thought…” Effie’s shocked face melted into concern. “If he was gone, why did your father call you back to London?”
“There were rumors Edgemont’s holdings were expected to collapse. The company’s solicitor Joseph Peters refused to tell my father anything, so I went to see him.
“Mr. Peters sat behind Edgemont’s desk and blamed the failing on my husband’s poor management. He was surprised but cooperative when I asked to see the accounts. His broad grin that showed his very straight white teeth was gracious, but I didn’t believe him for one minute. He didn’t count on me understanding the documents. I have been managing my trust for some time and have done a good job of it. I assure you reviewing Edgemont’s accounts was enlightening.”
“Men can be so thickheaded,” Hattie said.
“I left his office and hired a new solicitor at once, Hughes, Swift, and Lacey.” She turned to Anna. “I have your father to thank. I remembered him speaking about the firm on more than one occasion. I took the liberty of mentioning your father’s name. Mr. Lacey saw me at once. Three weeks later he reported that they found some unscrupulous activity in handling Edgemont’s accounts after his passing. They were all executed by Peters. In other words, he stole from the business.”
“Then Joseph Peters was the JP mentioned in the papers as having been ruined by the dead,” Hattie said. “Father remarked at dinner just the other day that JP was begging for business. I never thought to ask him the identity of JP.”
“I did not ruin Mr. Peters. He ruined himself. By removing him I was able to secure and stabilize the business. With Mr. Lacey’s help, I took an active role in Edgemont’s business and spent the last two months turning it to right. We were able to restore the stolen funds and property. Since then, I’ve overseen the business. My new solicitor was able to keep my involvement discreet.”
Everyone was silent.
Patrice drank her tea, managing to maintain a façade of indifference.
“Mr. Armstrong returned to London last week.” Patrice tossed out the words and waited for her friends to react.
“Returned? Did he tell you where he had been?” Effie was always full of questions.
“Why he left without a word?” Anna asked.
“That’s why you’re here,” Tanya added. “You didn’t stay to see him.”
“No.” She put her teacup down. “I did not. I was told Mr. Armstrong and my father made inquiries into Edgemont’s business. Thankfully, Mr. Lacey directed them both to me. I believe that is why Mr. Armstrong was at Montgomery Hall asking my father for my hand.” Patrice dismissively waved her hand. She held her head high. “He’s not interested in me. It’s Edgemont’s very successful business he wants.”
She took a sip of the tepid tea as the sting of reality washed over her. “I saw no reason to stay in London.” Her tone was as matter-of-fact as her words. But inside, she was anything but calm.
In November, she traveled to Sommer-by-the-Sea for the Harvest Festival and to support another of Mrs. Bainbridge graduate’s, her friend Lady Alicia Hartley, who was reading her new book at Mrs. Miller’s Circulating Library.
She planned to stay with her friends longer than a fortnight but returned to London after receiving a message from her father. In truth, she looked forward to telling Mr. Armstrong about her adventure.
The carriage had barely stopped when she got out and dashed into the house, expecting some sort of welcome. There was none. She pulled off her gloves and removed her hat as she hurried into the library. Empty. She went through the adjoining door to the drawing room.
There she found her father and Joseph Peters, the Edgemont solicitor. She glanced around the room, but no one else was there.
In her heart of hearts, she knew Mr. Armstrong was gone.
Her father sat her down and with Mr. Peters began to make demands. Something about Edgemont’s finances near collapse.
She barely heard what they said. She used all her energy to breathe. When she had enough, she got up and left the room leaving her father and Peters speechless.
Two weeks went by without any word from Mr. Armstrong.
His sudden absence in London led to more gossip. Some she simply couldn’t ignore.
“I noticed Mr. Armstrong has been absent of late,” she said to her father, while she had her soup at dinner.
“Bright young man. We finished our dealings. Yes, a bright young man.”
Was that all her father had to say? She turned to her mother.
“He was a pleasant diversion, I’m sure. Not the sort of man a woman of your stature commands.”
“Oh, that’s surprising. According to today’s gossip it was the other way around, I was found to be beneath him.”
Her father nearly choked on his bisque. In a fit of rage, he threw down his serviette and bellowed.
She turned to him, an over exaggerated look of surprise on her face.
“I don’t understand why you’re upset. That’s what was said. Lady Ashcroft sat in our drawing room this afternoon while Mother announced it loud enough when she played court with several others.” She turned to her mother who looked horrified.
The coldness in Patrice’s eyes made her mother flinch. “You and the other women… laughed.”
Patrice put down her soup spoon and placed her serviette on the table. “I have a headache. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll take the remainder of my dinner in my room.”
“Patrice, come back here,” her mother demanded. “It was simply the play on words that was—”
“Indecent, insulting, inexcusable.” Patrice glanced over her shoulder at her mother. “And hurtful.”
There was no need to hear her mother’s explanation. Nothing she said could make it better. It was her mother’s voice she heard make the comment. It was her mother’s distinctive laugh that carried out into the hall. It was her mother’s friends who tried to quiet her in case someone else would hear. No, there was nothing her mother could say that would make it better.
“I’m sure the topic was the talk of your friend’s tables this evening. I wonder how that sat with their husbands and the impact on Father’s reputation, what little he has left after Brian.”
“How dare you speak of your brother—”
“You mean the brother that nearly bankrupted Father and tore his reputation to shreds. Oh, yes, that brother.” Patrice paused. “May he rest in peace. God knows, he’s given us none.”
As she made her way up the stairs the entire house listened to her father’s tirade, her mother trying to explain.
Patrice almost prayed for someone else to befall some great disaster so the focus would move away from her. She went to her room and counted the days until her return to Sommer-by-the-Sea.
The following day her mother was too ill to come downstairs although she managed to visit Lady Ashcroft early, before the usual calling hour. Patrice, on the other hand, was once again a prisoner in her parents’ home.
As weeks turned into months, she gave up any hope that Mr. Armstrong would return or send word. Perhaps she had misread his intentions. He hadn’t taken any liberties. Not that he didn’t try. There were plenty of playful insinuations.
Autumn slowly turned to winter. The trees in the garden were bare. The flowers were long gone. The days were gray and cold.
She stared out her bedroom window. Four more months and she’d return to Sommer-by-the-Sea. Tomorrow would have been her third wedding anniversary. It was difficult to think that only last year she and Edgemont had traveled to St. Petersburg. She had such hopes for the trip. It started with promise but ended in total disaster.
The clopping of horses’ hooves stopping in front of their door drew her attention. It was too early for callers.
George Armstrong stepped down from the carriage and went to the door.
Her heart didn’t skip a beat. Her head didn’t swim with anticipation. She was past being angry and all the way to indifferent.
Without any need to see him, she returned to her chair by the hearth and picked up the essay Mrs. Bainbridge had sent to her about the attributes of Napoleon Bonaparte. She had been reading for a half hour when her mother burst into her room.
“How wonderful. Your father is speaking with Armstrong. I told you to be patient. He’s come to offer for you. Come to the drawing room.”
She stared at her mother as if she were daft.
“Mother, you were very clear that he was—” She chose her words carefully. “Not the man for me. Why is he speaking to Father? I’m a widow and responsible for myself. Shouldn’t he be speaking with me? And marriage? I haven’t seen or heard from him in months.” She went back to her reading. “Marriage. He mentioned nothing before his absence. If he should ask, tell him I’m not taking callers today. The audacity of the man.”
“That’s not true. He spoke to your father in the summer and again in November.” Her mother drew in a sharp breath. “Come to the drawing room.”
Patrice said nothing. She didn’t move, didn’t flinch, didn’t breathe.
Her mother, unable to look her in the eye, twisted her handkerchief into knots and gave her a smile that was more grimace and ready for an argument than a discussion.
Still Patrice said nothing. She learned a long time ago silence was her best weapon.
“While you were up north.” Her mother stopped playing with the piece of linen and finally looked at her.
Patrice lowered the papers. Her mother was saying something but all she heard was the thunder of her own heartbeat.
“Father did what?” She glared at her mother. Slowly she got to her feet. “What have you both been up to?”
“Don’t give me that look. He came to your father in the spring about Edgemont’s financial situation. As dismal as it was he still asked for your hand. I told them both, dear Edgemont wasn’t cold in his grave. It was only months since he passed. You couldn’t think of marrying at the time. No, not for a year and one day.” Her mother wagged her finger. “It was out of the question.”
“Why wasn’t I told? And why was father talking about Edgemont’s business? He has no control over it. I do. And what gave you or Father the right to interfere between Mr. Armstrong and me? I’m no longer—”
“You had been so distraught. Your father and Armstrong were doing what was best.”
“For whom? Certainly not me.”
“It’s Mr. Armstrong that turned Edgemont’s company around. I overheard him mention a new solicitor he engaged, a Mr. Lacey.”
“He engaged?” Her voice was raised. “He did no such thing. Mr. Lacey works for me. I hired him. I pay him. I make all the decisions for the company.”
“Mr. Armstrong did mention that he needed you to speak to Mr. Lacey. I don’t see why. You know nothing about how to run a business. If your brother were alive—”
“I’d be bankrupt. All Brian knew how to do was wheedle money out of you and cheat others out of theirs and gamble it away. He was most proficient at that. He did it so well he got himself killed. Shot in the head.”
Her mother gave her a horrified look. “This is why your father and Mr. Armstrong stepped in. You’re too emotional. You’re still upset about Edgemont’s passing. It certainly wasn’t time for you to remarry. You wait here,” her mother said over her shoulder as she hurried toward the door. Patrice wasn’t sure if it was to get away from her or to reach father and Mr. Armstrong.
“I’ll tell your father you’ll be down shortly.” Her mother stopped her hand on the latch and turned. “No, not so quickly. I think thirty minutes possibly forty-five would be best. He made you wait what was it dear, three months.” She smiled and was gone.
Married. To George Armstrong. And how dare he speak to Mr. Lacey.
The Napoleon essay abandoned, she placed a bookmark on the page, and noticed a sentence that the headmistress had marked.
“Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action has arrived, stop thinking and go.”
Stop thinking and go. Indeed. Patrice stared at the door for several heartbeats deliberating, then tucked the papers back into the folio.
“Thank you, Mrs. Bainbridge. I’ve been doing what everyone else wants, listening to the innuendos, thoughtless comments, sitting by idly, removed instead of involved. I should have done this months ago.”
Twenty minutes later, the staff was shocked into silence when she and Jean entered the servants’ hall carrying their luggage.
“Lady Edgemont. I wasn’t aware you were leaving today,” Mr. Carter, the butler, looked at her portmanteau.
“It has been a long time coming. The carriage please.” She was glad only Mr. and Mrs. Carter were present. “I would rather you not mention—”
“Call Lady Edgemont a public carriage. She won’t want to take one from the house,” the housekeeper said. “Jean, come with me. We’ll put a basket together for you both.”
Mr. Carter took her portmanteau and showed her to a seat by the hearth.
With the decision made, Patrice was eager to be on her way. Every moment she remained was painful.
Jean and Mrs. Carter returned with a basket.
“There is some reading material for you,” Mrs. Carter said.
Patrice lifted the cloth on top of the basket and found a stack of letters tied with string. All of them were addressed to her. Patrice gave the housekeeper a questioning stare.
“Lady Montgomery requested that all calling cards and letters sent to you be held while you were in mourning.” The housekeeper eyed her husband. “Except those from Mrs. Bainbridge and your friends.”
“It is most fortunate that I am no longer in mourning.” Patrice replaced the cloth over the basket.
“I didn’t like keeping them from you,” the housekeeper muttered.
“Thank you, Mrs. Carter.”
“The carriage is waiting for you in the alley.” The butler picked up her portmanteau.
“That won’t be necessary, Mr. Carter. You both have done enough. I don’t want to get anyone else involved.” She thanked the couple and with Jean, left through the servant entrance. She wasn’t a coward, but she didn’t want a scene and more gossip, and if she were honest, she didn’t want to see her parents or Mr. Armstrong.
On the second day of their trip, she looked at the calling cards and letters that had been sent to her. She read each one. Some were from people who were unknown to her. She assumed they were from Edgemont’s business acquaintances. Others were from her friends in Sommer-by-the-Sea, her mother’s friends, Count and Countess Pushchin. There was a second bundle of messages from more friends, a priest from Russia, Prussian Prince Gebhard von Blucher, and the Grand Duke of the House of Breuce.
The rest of the four-day ride was a blur. That part of her life was over.
Roused from her musing, Patrice gave herself a shake and looked at her friends around the table. “At last, I’m home. I mourned Edgemont. I even set his business on its proper course and kept it out of money hungry hands. The Edgemont line died with him. The book is closed, not only on that part of my life, and the part with George Armstrong, but on all men. To be blunt, they can all go to the devil.”