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Reforming the Viscount

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Chapter Three

‘Mama Lyddy, can you show me how to press flowers?’

Lydia looked up from her perusal of the meagre stock of invitations spread upon the desk. There were only two events they might attend tonight. A musical evening at Lord and Lady Chepstow’s, or a sort of rout party at the Lutterworths’.

She knew Robert would want her to persuade Rose to attend the musical evening. They did not receive many such invitations from persons of rank. Society hostesses were not warming to Rose. With all her money, and her exotic beauty, she was a distinct threat to the chances of their own daughters. And Robert would keep discouraging the ones who had sons who would definitely have benefited from a match with the daughter of a nabob.

Not that Rose looked at all downcast. In fact, she was smiling broadly as she waved her corsage from the night before.

‘I want to do what you did,’ she said. ‘I want to keep a scrapbook of my Season. And so I simply must preserve a bloom from the corsage I wore on the night I danced with my very first aristocrat.’

As Rose smiled dreamily, Lydia wondered how many scrapbooks had been filled with flowers hopelessly smitten young girls had preserved as mementoes of an encounter with Lord Rothersthorpe.

‘Of course, it is not as if I have a posy from an admirer, yet,’ Rose continued. ‘Not like you.’ She plumped herself down on a stool at Lydia’s side. ‘Oh, won’t you tell me all about the man who sent you those violets you have in your own scrapbook? You must have had very strong feelings for whoever gave them to you. For you sighed and went all misty-eyed when you turned over that page.’

Had she? Oh, lord, she’d tried so hard not to reveal her weakness for Lord Rothersthorpe, as she must now think of him. While Rose’s father had still been alive, she’d deliberately suppressed all thoughts of him, not wanting to be disloyal. And even once he’d died, well…it would still have been a form of betrayal to wish things had been other than they were. Colonel Morgan had been very good to her, in his way.

‘It was a silly infatuation, nothing more,’ she said. And last night had proved just how silly.

‘But you just said you were infatuated with him. So you must have—’

‘I did as I was told,’ she interrupted. ‘It was my duenna who insisted I create that scrapbook I showed you. I think she thought it would give me gainful employment during slack hours when she didn’t know quite what to do with me.’ She rubbed at a tension spot she could feel forming in the very centre of her forehead. She really, really did not want Rose badgering her about anything that might lead to her discovering that, once, Lord Rothersthorpe had got to the brink of proposing to her, before coming to his senses. He’d made it so obvious, last night, that he’d considered he’d had a lucky escape that she couldn’t bear to let anyone discover how deeply her feelings for him had run.

‘I really don’t even know why I kept the silly thing all these years. Or why I dragged it out to show you when we were discussing your Season. I was utterly miserable the whole time.’

‘Not the whole time, surely?’ Rose leant her elbow on the desk and rested her chin on her cupped palm. ‘Or you would not have spent three whole minutes staring at that arrangement of dried violets with that faraway look in your eyes.’

‘Three whole minutes?’ She shifted in her seat, taking care to avoid Rose’s inquisitive stare. ‘You are surely exaggerating.’

‘Oh, but it was.’

‘I was probably thinking of something quite different. A…a shopping list. Or wondering how soon we would be able to discover who are the best modistes this year. I am so out of touch.’

‘You are trying to hide something!’ Rose grinned impishly. ‘Were you in love with someone, before you married Papa? Did you have an admirer? Oh, how romantic! Won’t you tell me?’

Sometimes, she did not know quite how to handle Rose. She was so perceptive it was no easy matter to fob her off.

‘He did not send me this posy because he wished to become my suitor. He sent it out of sympathy because I had been ill, that was all.’ Though now she wasn’t looking at everything Rothersthorpe did through blinkers, she recalled that she’d been ill several times and he’d only sent her a posy once.

At the time, she’d been elated by the note that had accompanied it, which told her that he’d missed her at the ball she had told him she was to attend and how he hoped she would recover speedily so he could dance with her again.

And then almost crushed by his awkwardness the next time they’d met. The way he’d attempted to brush aside the whole incident, making up some tale about a ragged flower seller and a win on the horses, and what was a fellow to do?

And he’d looked so worried he might have raised false hopes by sending her those flowers, she’d felt obliged to reassure him.

‘You should take care,’ she’d said playfully, ‘not to make a habit of sending poorly young ladies flowers in that fashion, or one day one of them might get the wrong idea. And then where would you be?’

His relief had been so palpable it had cut her to the quick.

Had he ever done anything but hurt her?

‘It was ridiculously sentimental of me to preserve the entire thing,’ right down to the ribbon, she finally admitted, to herself as much as Rose. ‘But then it was the only posy I received my entire Season. From any man. For whatever reason. But I repeat, there was never any chance of anything romantic developing between us,’ she said, with just a touch of asperity creeping into her voice as she recalled his words from the night before. ‘The romantic thing was the way your father came to my rescue…’

‘Pooh,’ said Rose scornfully. ‘There was never a man less romantic than Papa. He treated you as though you were one of his platoon most of the time. Barking orders at you and practically expecting you to salute…’

‘Rose, you will not speak with such disrespect of your papa. He was a good man. A decent man. He gave me a home and—’

‘And made you work hard for your keep,’ Rose persisted.

‘He gave me a home and a family,’ Lydia continued firmly. ‘And I grew very fond of him. I know he had a bit of a temper, but you yourself know that his bark was always worse than his bite. For heaven’s sake, he’d been in the army all his life. Of course he was prone to barking orders, as you put it. It was just his way. And what is more, young lady, it was you who taught me exactly how little he truly was to be feared. I was not in your house five minutes before I saw you had him wrapped round your little finger, you and your sister both. The way you used to just sit there, waiting until he’d finished his tirade, and then tilt your heads to one side and smile up at him in the full knowledge that he was helpless to refuse you two anything. And he expected me to teach you and Marigold how to behave!’ She flung up her hands in mock horror, causing Rose to giggle.

‘Well, I could never teach either of you anything about how to wrap poor unsuspecting males around your fingers, but if you really want to begin a scrapbook,’ she said, turning to the corsage Rose had tossed on to the desk, ‘I can teach you how to preserve flowers.’

‘I think you are trying to steer me away from the subject of your own posy,’ Rose observed astutely.

‘Yes, because it is painful for me to think about it,’ she admitted. ‘I…well, I did become rather too attached to him.’

‘Oh,’ said Rose, immediately contrite. ‘I would not hurt you for the world. And if he really was your first love, and then you had to marry Papa instead…oh…I am sorry. Forgive me?’

‘I never said he was my first love,’ she protested, blushing.

‘I will not mention him again,’ said Rose, filling Lydia with relief. ‘Though I should love to know who it was. And if he is married now…’

Lydia winced. She might have known that Rose’s idea of not mentioning the donor of her posy of violets would be to launch immediately into a volley of questions.

‘The first thing we need to do,’ said Lydia, firmly changing the subject, ‘is to separate the bunch, so that we can press each flower individually. Although it might be better to select just one bloom, or we will need a dozen scrapbooks. You will have many occasions you may want to commemorate in a similar way.’

‘Do you think so?’

‘Of course you will. I dare say you already have a pile of tickets and programmes from various events we have attended already.’

‘That’s true.’

‘But before we start, I am mindful that in a very short while we are likely to have a room full of callers—’ one of whom was bound to be Lord Rothersthorpe, since a man should always call upon his partners from the previous night’s entertainment ‘—and we have not yet discussed which event you would like to attend this evening.’

Rose beamed at her. ‘That is what I love about you, Mama Lyddy. You never try to dictate to me.’

‘What would be the point?’ Lydia pursed her lips. ‘I learned long ago that it is far too much like hard work to attempt to cross you.

Besides, I never felt I was old enough to tell you what to do. I feel more like…an older sister, than a mother to you.’ At least, she had until last night, when for the first time Lord Rothersthorpe’s cutting comments had made her feel every inch the chaperon.

Although she would not, absolutely not be the kind of chaperon he so despised. She was not, and never would be, a dragon, pushing her charge into situations that would make her miserable.

‘I shall, of course, give you my advice, but that is all. You must make up your own mind.’

‘I only wish I could. About where I want to go tonight, I mean. I…I think,’ she said, with a slight blush, ‘that I shall be able to tell you later, though.’

‘Oh?’ It was not like Rose to be so indecisive, but then she’d never come under the influence of a practised charmer like Rothersthorpe before. If she knew anything about Rose, she was not going to declare her intentions about where to go tonight until she’d discovered where he meant to go. She took a penknife and sliced through the ribbon which had held Rose’s corsage together with jerky finality.

‘Well, there is no rush,’ she said to Rose as she pulled the corsage apart. ‘It would just be preferable to warn Robert, one way or the other. He has not your love of spontaneity.’

They spent the next few minutes selecting the best blooms for preservation, finding sheets of blotting paper and dragging the heaviest books down from the shelves.

By the time the doorknocker heralded the arrival of their first morning caller, not only Lydia’s writing desk, but also the marble-topped console table under the window were strewn with all the paraphernalia associated with their activity.

Rose glanced at the mess they’d made, then at the door with alarm.

‘Do not be afraid to let your admirers see you employed in some genteel pursuit, Rose. My own chaperon told me that men like to imagine their future wives being gainfully employed.’ Though what was gainful about pressing flowers, or, in her own case, creating acres of decorative embroidery, she could not think.

Surely it would be better to demonstrate an ability to plan a menu for twenty guests at a moment’s notice, or deal with the personal problems of servants in such a way that the household continued to run smoothly? In her experience, that was what her husband had valued about her.

If Colonel Morgan had thought all she did all day was sit around pressing flowers, he would have been most annoyed.

Still, they were not talking about her, but about Rose. And she was determined to prove to Lord Rothersthorpe that their relationship was a good one. The kind of chaperon he’d implied she was would never let her charge enjoy herself so much that the room got strewn with flowers and books like this, would she? She would have her sitting on a chair looking like a waxwork dummy. Only rather more rigid.

Though the effect was spoiled, somewhat, when he didn’t come with the first wave of gentlemen. Mr Crimmer and Mr Bentley, who were sons of wealthy businessmen, grinned at one another when they realised they were first and, making straight for Rose, they pulled up seats as close to her as they dared.

She would greet him as graciously as she received any of the others, of course. And no matter what he said, or did, she was not going to lash out as she’d done the night before. She’d spent many hours, when she should have been asleep, reliving the few minutes when he’d dumped her on Colonel Morgan’s sofa, then fled for the hills. And come to the conclusion that if he could look upon it as a lucky escape, then so could she.

Next to arrive were the two naval officers whose names she could never recall. She really ought to, they were here so often. The trouble was that in almost identical uniforms, and with their blue eyes, fair hair and hard jaws, there was little to tell them apart.

Although when pressed, Robert declared he couldn’t recall the names of half the fellows who cluttered up his house these days, either. ‘Never knew I had so many friends, until I produced an attractive sister,’ he’d snarled.

In the light of his usually overprotective attitude towards Rose, she was a little surprised he had not come in the moment the clock struck eleven, to keep a watchful eye on proceedings. He always grumbled that though he could not actually bar any of these fellows from his house, he could at least let them know he would not permit any of them to take liberties with his sister.

Was it too much to hope he’d taken her words last night to heart?

Or had it been the way Rose had deliberately caused a stir by dancing, when Robert’s earlier refusal had meant she should not have done so?

Well, whatever had caused him to stay away, Lydia could only be glad. The atmosphere was a lot less fraught than usual. Mr Crimmer and Mr Bentley were genially competing to be the one from whom she accepted her scissors, or a withered bloom.

But in spite of the atmosphere that prevailed over the others, every time the doorknocker sounded, she felt herself winding up a little tighter.

The room was feeling somewhat crowded when a young lawyer and Lord Abergele came in one after the other. She had to admire Lord Abergele’s persistence. In spite of Robert’s continual discouragement, he kept on coming right back for yet another rebuff. She supposed he had hopes that his handsome face, and the speaking looks he gave Rose from those limpid green eyes, would soften her to the extent she would defy her brother. He might well succeed. There was nothing Rose liked more than a challenge.

And she was certainly rising to the challenge of having a room full of suitors vying for her attention. Rose managed them all with a dexterity that filled Lydia with admiration. If she felt a preference for any of them, she was taking such care not to show it that not even Lydia could attempt a guess.

Until Lord Rothersthorpe walked in.

Rose’s face lit up, then she actually stood up, crossed the room and held out her hand.

She hadn’t minded when the others paused only to shake her hand and utter the briefest of commonplaces, before making for Rose. But when he virtually ignored her, it really hurt.

She felt completely in tune with the men who glowered at Rothersthorpe as he bowed over Rose’s extended hand, though at least they had the freedom to leave when they couldn’t bear watching the pair admiring each other any longer.

As they began to drift away, in varying attitudes of despondency, it was left entirely to Lydia to bid them farewell, since Rose was engrossed in showing Lord Rothersthorpe what she had been doing with her corsage.

She supposed she ought to reprimand Rose for such lack of manners, but she was still striving to prove she was not a repressive ogress. Besides which, she knew exactly the effect Lord Rothersthorpe could have on a female. She had stretched her own chaperon’s tolerance to the limits, in order to snatch a few moments with him in private, even if it was only the limited privacy of the corner of a crowded room.

She could even excuse Lord Abergele for furtively stuffing the slice of cake he’d been eating into his pocket before shaking her hand in farewell. Lord Rothersthorpe had such an unsettling effect that there was no telling what madness he could provoke.

When the others had all gone, Lydia chose a chair as far from Rose’s work table as she could, sat down and smoothed out her skirts with hands that were not quite steady.

She was not eavesdropping. Absolutely not. It was just that it was quite impossible not to hear every word they were saying, now that they were the only ones left. She had no choice but to sit and listen to him flirting gently with her charge.

If he had wanted to humiliate her, he could not have chosen a better method.

‘Lord Chepstow? Yes, he is a friend of mine,’ Lord Rothersthorpe was saying. ‘And, yes, I do have an invitation to his musical evening.’

Just as she suspected. Rose was determined to find out where Lord Rothersthorpe was going, before making her own plans for the evening.

Her insides tightened and twisted into a knot as she watched the animation in Rose’s face. However would she cope if these two made a match of it?

She would just have to, that was all. It wasn’t as if she’d ever dared hope she might become…something, to him. This was nothing new. It was just…well, it was quite a different thing, knowing she had no chance, in her head, and seeing him courting another woman, right before her eyes.

Oh, why had their paths had to cross now, like this? Why could he not have been safely married to someone else?

If he really began to court Rose in earnest, whatever was she going to do?

Nothing. Nothing, of course.

She loved Rose. She wanted Rose to be happy.

So she would just have to stamp down hard on these pangs of jealousy, whenever they took hold of her.

He had never been hers. She had long since accepted that fact. She had. Once she’d married Colonel Morgan, she’d made a point of counting her blessings, daily, and refusing to allow herself to hanker after the impossible. In that way, she’d gradually schooled herself to be content with her lot.

Only now it was looking as though it might not have been impossible. If only Lord Rothersthorpe had changed into this pillar of society sooner…if only he’d cared enough for her to have become this man that people now admired…

But he hadn’t. That was what she had to remember. He hadn’t turned his fortunes around because he’d wanted to provide her with a home and security. On the contrary, his feelings for her had been so fleeting that he was standing here today, flirting with Rose whilst discounting her very presence in the room.

‘But no,’ he was saying with a laugh that sent a bitter pang shafting right through her. Once upon a time he had exerted himself to amuse her, as he was now attempting to amuse Rose.

Though it was utterly ludicrous to feel as though he was deliberately attempting to gouge her heart out of her chest with a teaspoon.

‘I shall not be attending the Chepstows’ musicale. It is Wednesday. Almack’s beckons.’

Rose’s face fell as dramatically as did her own stomach. In her own case it was because his determination to attend Almack’s meant that he really was serious about finding a wife.

She’d known it, deep down. His behaviour last night had told her, even before Robert had started to talk about how men of his class always settled down, eventually. He had not gone to the card room at all. And when he’d danced, he had done so with an eligible girl, not just one of the wallflowers.

Though in Rose’s case, the despondency was because of the impossibility of gaining vouchers.

‘As if I would want to attend such a stuffy club,’ said Rose with a toss of her head. ‘From what I hear, it is all rules and regulations, and people looking down their noses at everyone.’

‘Yet that is where a gentleman has to go when he is searching for a bride,’ he said to her with a meaningful look

‘Well, if a man wants to marry me,’ replied Rose mutinously, ‘he will have to come looking for me where I am.’

Lord Rothersthorpe finally turned towards Lydia and deigned to speak.

‘You have your hands full with your spirited young charge, do you not, Mrs Morgan?’

The words might have sounded as though he was expressing sympathy, but she could not forget what he’d said the night before, about preferring a girl who spoke her mind to one who became easily tongue-tied. Besides, there was a challenging glitter in his eyes which she was beginning to recognise. It gave her the distinct impression he had only brought her into the conversation in order to taunt her.

‘On the contrary,’ she said firmly. ‘I am in complete agreement with her. Rose has no need to go hunting for a husband. Any man who wishes to marry her must do her the courtesy of demonstrating that he values her enough to court her properly.’

‘Strange,’ he said, with a lift of one eyebrow. ‘Your attitude towards marriage appears to have undergone a complete reversal since you were having your own Season.’

How could he fling that in her face? How could he mock her for letting him treat her so contemptibly? Oh, how she wished she’d had the strength to turn him from her door when he’d come calling in those days. Instead of letting him…toy with her.

‘It is not my attitude that is in question here,’ she said coldly, looking him straight in the eyes. ‘But the attitude of any man who would aspire to the hand of my stepdaughter.’

He bowed his head. ‘I stand corrected,’ he said. Then he turned back to Rose. ‘And accept my apologies if I implied that you are not worthy of pursuit. When I spoke of your spirit, it was entirely from admiration, I do assure you. I dislike the kind of girls who put on die-away airs to make men feel they need a champion. A man needs a partner when he chooses a wife, not a woman so feeble she could never be anything but an encumbrance.’

Well, he could not have made his feelings plainer if he had walked up to her and slapped her face. He despised her for having been so weak and vulnerable, when he’d known her, did he? It was just as well she hadn’t told Mrs Westerly what he’d said as he’d carried her into the house, then, or she would have clapped him in matrimonial irons so fast he wouldn’t have known what hit him. And he would have been stuck with her and all her…encumbrances. If he was being this determined to let her know he regretted having almost proposed to her, then it was a good job she hadn’t taken him seriously.

Not for the first time, she thanked God Colonel Morgan had seen fit to marry her. He had never, ever looked upon her as an encumbrance. Oh, Rose might have said he made her work hard for her keep, but at least he made her feel as though she could play a valuable role within his household.

Lord Rothersthorpe had done himself no favours with Rose, either, to judge from the way she was looking at him as though she had never seen him before. The way she had felt last night, when she’d first begun to suspect she had been mistaken about his nature. Rose might be a little outspoken, but she was also a tender-hearted girl. She was bound to recoil from a man who could speak so callously of people who had some form of disadvantage.

Thank heaven Rose had spotted that in him now. She would not waste years pining for a man who turned out not to have been worth a single one of the tears she’d shed over him.

And even though he would still be out somewhere looking for a suitable wife, at least she wouldn’t have to watch him do it. She thought she could probably handle the news of his marriage to anyone, so long as it wasn’t Rose. It would have been extremely painful to have watched them making a life together, having children together, growing old together, when he had so neatly wriggled out of having to do any such thing with her.

As Rose made an appropriate reply, she deliberately looked away. And it was then Lydia noticed her hands had clenched until they’d formed fists.

Well, now she could unclench them. Rose had seen through him. Whoever Lord Rothersthorpe decided to marry, it was highly unlikely to be Rose. So she wouldn’t have to purchase Rose’s trousseau and write out invitations, and organise the wedding breakfast, all the while feeling as though she was being torn apart inside.

Before she had much time to wonder why she still felt as though Lord Rothersthorpe’s marriage was an issue that would cause her such grief, when she’d just decided he was not worth a single one of the tears she’d shed after he’d demonstrated that she didn’t mean enough to him to give up his bachelor freedoms for, the door burst open and Robert strode in.

‘Thought you had better see this, Mama Lyddy,’ he said, waving a letter he was clutching in his hand. ‘Oh,’ he said, coming to a halt when he spied Rothersthorpe. ‘I thought all Rose’s admirers had left.’

‘All but me,’ he replied, crossing the room with his hand extended.

Robert folded the letter swiftly before accepting his hand. ‘Have you had tea?’ Robert glanced at the detritus left behind by the pack of Rose’s younger suitors.

‘I do beg your pardon,’ said Lydia, aghast to discover that she’d spent the entire duration of his visit flailing around in a morass of negative emotions which had apparently robbed her of the ability to act as a competent hostess. ‘I shall ring for some more. If you are staying?’

‘Please do not trouble yourself now,’ he replied sarcastically. ‘I can see your stepson has some pressing business he wishes to discuss with you.’

‘Yes,’ said Robert, looking rather taken aback by Lord Rothersthorpe’s rudeness. ‘Very pressing business, as a matter of fact.’

‘And I have still to call upon Miss Hill.’

Of course. His other dance partner from the night before.

She did not miss the way Rose’s lips tightened in displeasure at his announcement that this had been a mere duty call.

Oh dear. That was two marks against him.

So it came as no surprise when, the moment he’d left, Rose informed her that she rather thought she would as soon go to the Lutter-worths’ soirée, as anywhere.

The one place where they were certain not to encounter Lord Rothersthorpe, even if he did decide to take Rose’s hint and abandon his plans to attend Almack’s. Now that he was in the market, he would have so many invitations to choose from that he would be spoilt for choice. And he’d become so very top-lofty nowadays, to judge from their two brief meetings, that he would not deign to enter the house of a family that had made their fortune from pickles.

‘I am sorry,’ said Robert, ‘but I really do think you should read this.’ He pulled out the folded letter from the pocket where he’d tucked it earlier. ‘It is from Marigold.’

‘Oh. Is there some problem at Westdene?’

‘It is Cissy, I’m afraid.’

‘No!’ She snatched the letter from him with a trembling hand.

‘I did not want to worry you about her before,’ Robert confessed. ‘But all the reports I have received suggest she is growing worse by the day.’

Lydia sank down on to a chair to read the letter. Rose came up behind her, so she could read over her shoulder.

‘Robert,’ said Rose with a soft gasp, when she came to the middle of the page. ‘How could you have kept this from us?’

‘Because I thought she would improve! I thought at first, when Mrs Broome wrote that she was not doing very well, that it was only to be expected, but that after a reasonable period of time, she would settle down. And I did not want to worry you. I did not want any shadow to fall over your Season, Rose.’

He paced to the console table and began to fiddle with the flowers scattered across its surface.

‘Things have not always been between us as they should. I regret that now, and I wanted to…to make it up to you. I wanted this time in London to be perfect…’

‘And to think I was grateful for the way you took charge of the more tedious aspects of organising this trip to town,’ Lydia breathed. She’d actually told him that she could not have picked a finer house than this one he’d rented for them, nor staffed it with more suitable servants. She’d appreciated the fact that he’d seen to the provision of carriages and horses, and been incredibly impressed when he’d even managed, through the amazingly wide circle of acquaintances he had, to arrange for Rose to have a court presentation. And all the time, he’d been keeping…this from her.

She looked down at the letter which she’d crushed between her fingers.

‘But no more. This has gone too far. We must return to Westdene,’ she said, getting to her feet and moving towards the door. ‘And I am sorry, Rose, but this means the end of your Season—’

‘Not necessarily,’ put in Robert.

‘Of course it does,’ cried Rose. ‘Lydia has to go to Cissy. And I cannot stay in town without a proper chaperon. And anyway, how could you think I would want to stay here now I know what it has cost Cissy?’

‘I didn’t, of course. It is just that I think I have found a way to deal with this problem without curtailing your Season completely.’

‘Cissy is not a problem,’ said Rose indignantly. ‘She is a darling!’

Lydia looked at the way brother and sister were squaring up to each other and sighed. They’d come so far in the months since their father’s death. The Colonel had been hopeless at demonstrating his feelings for his children when they’d been little. It had left Robert resentful at being sent away to school in England while he’d kept the girls with him, and them feeling secondbest. They only saw that he’d been educated as an English gentleman, while they’d had ayahs and tutors. It had taken some time to explain that the Colonel had been afraid Robert might succumb to some tropical infection, as his English mother had done. That he was trying to protect him, rather than rejecting him. And that, conversely, he couldn’t bear to be parted from all his children.

She could not let all their newly established rapport disintegrate, just because Lord Rothersthorpe had put her out of countenance. For that was what it boiled down to. She had been angry before Robert had even entered the room.

‘I think we should both try to calm down and hear what Robert has to say,’ she said wearily. ‘There is no sense in us all falling out with each other.’

While she sank into the nearest chair, Rose flounced on to another and folded her arms.

‘It was meeting Lord Rothersthorpe that put me in mind of a solution, funnily enough,’ Robert began. ‘It made me recall how I used to treat the house, before Lydia married Father. How I used to invite parties of friends to row up and picnic in the grounds. And how popular those outings used to be.’

‘You mean, even though we will be staying at Westdene, we could still write and invite people down for the day?’ Rose sat up straighter. ‘Yes, that would work. What do you think, Mama Lyddy?’

Lydia flushed and looked down at her feet. It had been on one of those picnics that Lord Rothersthorpe had raised her hopes, for those few brief, exhilarating minutes. Robert surely was not going to suggest she organise another? It would mean reliving the pain of rejection all over again.

Fortunately, before she could draw breath to voice her reluctance, Robert spoke again.

‘That was not quite what I had in mind. I rather thought we might have a fully fledged house party. Mama Lyddy accused me of not letting you get to know any of these young men who claim to have been smitten by you. So I thought, if you have them about you all day, we will soon discover what they are really made of.’

Rose let out a shriek of delight, leapt to her feet and flung her arms round Robert’s neck.

‘Robert, you are brilliant! It is just the thing. I need only invite—’ she broke off with a blush ‘—the people I really like. And we will soon see what they are really made of, by the way they react to Cissy.’

‘Ah,’ said Robert with a frown. ‘I had not thought of that. And really, you know, perhaps that wouldn’t be quite fair. You cannot use Cissy as some sort of…test.’

‘What did you expect when you suggested having visitors, then, Robert?’ Lydia fumed. ‘Did you think I would keep her hidden away?’

‘Well, no. But she spends most of her time in the nursery, anyway.’

‘If anyone,’ said Rose, ‘says one unkind word to Cissy, I will send them packing.’

‘It might be a little too late for Cissy by then, though…’ said Robert pensively.

‘She is not as fragile as all that,’ said Lydia. ‘Provided we are there to love her, she will not care what anyone else may say to her, or think of her.’

‘Are you quite sure?’

‘Oh, yes.’ Well, probably. ‘And as Rose has so astutely pointed out, what better way to find out what a person is really made of, than to force him to confront a girl with all of Cissy’s disadvantages?’


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