Life has given Penelope Drayton very little hope. After years of preparations, 1806 is the year that she is determined to create her own hope. The successful execution of her plan would grant her independence, but failure would certainly be her ruination. Just when her plan begins to meet with difficulty, she finds a faithful ally in Miss Violet Wyndham.
Violet's brother, Mr. Ashbridge Wyndham, has but one objective for London's Social Season: escape unscathed. With his mysterious benefactor, he is suddenly a sought-after prize for the matchmaking mamas. Unfortunately for him, marriage is the last thing he wants at present. His sister Violet, with her shy but calming spirit, is the only part of the Season which he finds tolerable.
When Penelope and Ash meet through their mutual affection for Violet, will God use the acquaintance to begin healing for both of these wounded hearts?
Claymore Abbey, Leicester
The low voices in the room drifted to the young girl’s ears. She was only fifteen, yet fully aware of the implications of what had transpired. The solicitor, who had already read the will, conferred in hushed tones with the bailiff and butler beside the large desk.
It had been his desk, but no longer.
The uncharacteristically bright light from windows behind the men cast their forms into shadow. The girl could not see their faces from her perch on the wingback chair beside the fireplace, giving her an unsettled feeling in her chest and her stomach. Huddled closely on the other side of the room were the housekeeper and the girl’s great-aunt, the only family present at this time.
The wingback chair dwarfed the girl’s small frame. Her sweet face, set into the proper expression of placid grief – the late baron had been ill for quite some time, so his demise was not altogether unexpected – hid the inner turmoil which nearly prevented her ability to nod her head politely when Aunt quietly asked her whether she was well. Perhaps she was not hiding the turmoil as well as she had thought.
Beside her chair was another, identical in appearance with one exception: it was conspicuously empty. The new Baron, a young man who should have been the chair’s occupant, was at Cambridge, unable to return due to exams. Or that was the reason cited in the hastily-scribbled express received by his sister the previous day.
So it was in loneliness that the girl kept the funeral vigil in the black-draped room with only her aunt for comfort. She rode in the carriage first to the church for the funeral sermon, and then to the burial site for the internment. She did not remember very much of that day, with the exception of the ostrich feathers on the black Belgians’ heads, dark ink stains against the dull sky. Those were etched into her memory – the way they danced in the wind, belying the somber occasion. Walking back to the carriage after the body had been buried, she could not look away from the feathers as they joyously dipped and rippled. They reflected the feelings of her heart, feelings she must hide. For the first time, hope was fostered – a hope that she would cling to until the time that she might reach out and grasp her full freedom.
Early January 1806
Mr. Ashbridge Wyndham purposely slowed his steps to accommodate the small, dainty stride of his sister Rose. Violet, born between them, had a tall, willowy frame and easily kept stride with him. Rose never hurried her stride to keep pace with her siblings. She ever acted the lady. If only her perception of what constitutes a lady was more in line with Violet’s, he thought. The elder of the two sisters, while born only two years before the other, seemed to possess the sense of a woman beyond her years.
“We must be sure to be seen,” chirped Rose, her breath fogging in the cold air. He believed with certainty that she was imitating something her mother had said.
“Who would see you?” he queried. “You are not out; no one knows who the devil you are.”
“Ash!” murmured Violet. “Rose is of a tender age and should by no means hear such speech.”
“Oh Vi,” said Rose, blinking her wide eyes, “must you be so picksome? At sixteen, I am nearly of an age to be out in Society. Our brother has said nothing I’ve not already heard.”
Ash glanced at Violet in time to see a blush bloom on her cheeks. She remained irritatingly silent, doing not a thing to deter the younger sister from speaking to her in such a manner.
“You’ve no reason to be so high in the instep, Rose,” he was compelled to retort on Violet’s behalf. “You claim a lady’s sensibilities in refraining from exerting yourself in your pace, and yet show no sensibility in speaking to your own sister.”
“She is unfailingly proper!” cried Rose.
“It is my hope that I behave in a manner pleasing to the Lord, though I perhaps am too quiet and ought to speak more openly with others.” Violet’s quietly-spoken words barely reached Ash’s ears, though Rose seemed to hear them quite well.
“You mean to say that you ought to speak more openly with the gentlemen.”
“I-I did not–”
“A gentleman wishes for some enjoyment in speaking with a lady, Vi,” Rose teased her sister. “Gentlemen cannot be secured by strictly proper behavior.”
“Indeed?” asked Ash. “And what can you possibly know of securing a gentleman?”
“More than you know of securing a wife!” she bit back.
Ash felt a rush of sound within his ears as his heart raced, pumping his blood fast; he had not expected such a centered attack from the girl. Just as he was about to open his mouth with a scathing dressing-down, Violet spoke up.
“Rose, did your friend Miss Cottsworth have her miniature made, as she had planned?”
Ash half-listened to his silly youngest sister prattle on about the latest gossip surrounding the so-called “Invisible Painter” who had never been seen, and yet his work was inexplicably sought-after.
Perhaps not so terribly inexplicable. All of Society is intrigued by those who live outside of what is expected, but so few dare to do it themselves. Instead they claim to adore and dote on the eccentrics—so long as those eccentrics maintain a healthy distance.
He was not truly interested in what Rose had to say, but he was glad that the situation was diffused. He raised his left hand to briefly squeeze Violet’s where it rested on his right forearm, and she smiled shyly at him. He returned her smile, grateful for her consideration.
“And it is said,” continued Rose, “that there is a two-month delay for a sitting. Lawks! Can you imagine scheduling a sitting two months before it is to take place? I would so love to have my portrait painted by him. Amelia Cottsworth showed me hers. She has an uncommonly large nose, and while the painter did a true likeness, he also painted her face at the ideal angle as to disguise its prominence. One can only imagine how well I shall appear when portrayed by one so talented!”
They had arrived at the cobbler’s shop where Mrs. Wyndham instructed them to meet her, and Ash opened the door and ushered his sisters inside. They passed through the door, over which hung a sign inscribed with the name Phillips. Warmth, along with the scent of leather, immediately assaulted him, and the cobbler approached to greet them until Mrs. Wyndham waved him away. Her pale golden hair, grown silvery in recent years, framed her still-handsome face. She had been waiting for them inside the shop, having taken their family carriage to the establishment after adjuring the younger people that a walk would do them good and of greater import – afford them the opportunity to be seen. While many of the members of Society were still arriving in London, those present were already preparing for the upcoming Social Season.
“I do hope at the least three members of the peerage saw you, as you all certainly dawdled long enough for the entirety to have made your acquaintance,” she said to Ash, referring to those titled individuals at the top of the Beau Monde – those who were at the height of Society and known for their discriminating taste in those whom they deemed worthy of their notice. They set the tone for what was considered fashionable, as was indicated by their favoring the French term for the word tone; if a person was considered good ton, then he was accepted with open arms into Society.
Mrs. Wyndham’s voice, while pleasant in its modulations to an unfamiliar ear, carried an edge recognizable by the brother and sisters. As he was now the master of their family’s small estate, Ash knew that the widow would not attempt to cross him. She had been carefully pleasant to him since the passing of the late Mr. Wyndham, but her strict manner toward Violet had by no means abated. Her following words caused him to fear, though, that this shopping trip would be more unpleasant than usual for his sister.
Mrs. Wyndham had shifted her attention to the girl and was saying, “We must purchase items which will show you to advantage, child, or you will never find a suitable match. Shame you are so thin. I daresay Rose–” and here she turned to look fondly at the younger sister “–shall cut a splendid figure when she makes her debut.”
Ash found himself gritting his teeth to keep his voice silent. Why is that woman incapable of using kind words with Violet? The poor girl has never treated her with contempt, or anything other than the respect that a mother deserves, in all her nineteen years.
Mrs. Wyndham turned back to Violet, with a clearly disappointed glance over the girl’s figure. “But we shall do what we are able.”
As a means of distracting himself, Ash wandered about the small shop, fingering some of the sample boots set about on small shelves and tables. His own shoes and boots he ordered from a more fashionable establishment, but Mrs. Wyndham had deemed this shop sufficient for Violet. Soon, two pairs of dancing slippers, one pair of half-boots, and three of everyday shoes were ordered. The old cobbler bore any snide remarks from Mrs. Wyndham with a humble fortitude, and was rewarded handsomely for his forbearance with a large order. Ash wished his own reward would be as precious as the cobbler seemed to consider his, if his shining eyes were any indication.
Upon leaving the shop, Mrs. Wyndham directed the three young people into the carriage before entering it first, not even glancing back to see whether they followed. Obedience was expected.
Ash handed up his sisters before climbing into the carriage himself. The seat beside Violet was vacant, thankfully, and he flipped up the tails of his coat beneath his greatcoat before sitting beside her.
“Next is the milliner’s,” began Mrs. Wyndham.
“Certainly you do not require my presence, ma’am,” he interrupted. “I’ve no useful opinions to offer.”
“Indeed I do, Ashbridge!” Mrs. Wyndham insisted. He thought, not for the first time, that she must use his given name as a means of annoying him. “Certainly not for the hats or gloves, but when we order a dress, you must give your opinion. You know better than we what a young man would enjoy seeing in a gown, and I depend upon your opinion. It is imperative that we find a match for Violet as soon as possible. When Rose makes her come-out, she cannot have an unmarried sister hovering about, or Society shall wonder what is wrong with our family.”
A quick glance at Violet revealed a blush stealing up her cheeks at the woman’s words, and Ash felt his ire rise in the too-familiar rush of heat and pounding of his heart.
“Indeed they shall not wonder at all, ma’am,” he argued, fighting to keep his voice level. He wanted nothing more than to leave and go to the Fencing Academy he and his friends frequented; it was quite close to the milliner’s shop, and he had hoped to walk over there after delivering the ladies to their next destination. One look at Violet’s face, however, lowered and with eyes blinking at a suspiciously high rate, he decided that she needed his presence more than he needed be rid of Mrs. Wyndham’s. With a breath to quiet his nerves, he conceded, “Nevertheless, I can see how my presence with this shopping party might be beneficial. I shall accompany you.”
Mrs. Wyndham and Rose began discussing which style of bonnet best suited Violet, and to what extreme of fashion she might attain, but Ash pointedly ignored them and turned to the sister beside him. Her eyes no longer blinked as much, but they were noticeably glossy, even in the dim light of the carriage. He knew she had been fighting off tears.
Ash subtly squeezed her hand, offering a slight smile. Her attempt at returning it was almost convincing, and he was satisfied for the time being. Too dangerous to say more in such close quarters with the others, he cautioned himself. Perhaps we may walk to the drapers from the milliner’s, and speak then.
At the milliner’s, Ash again wandered about, looking at some of the more extravagant hats, the trim of which he was sure must have surpassed the weight of the actual hat. Feathers, silk flowers, fruits, and fabrics all had their places, some in combination and some alone. He spied a smart little bonnet tucked in amongst the others: blue with white ribbon and a single white flower on the side. A glance at the ladies of his party revealed Mrs. Wyndham and Rose settling an extravagant concoction upon Violet’s head. Her eyes were wide in alarm, and her lips pressed together, the tension about her mouth clearly displaying her distress to anyone observant enough to look. Of course the other two ladies were oblivious.
Ash waved over the proprietor’s assistant, as the man himself was busy with the ladies. The girl approached immediately, and he saw that her hair was the same color of pale straw as the man’s. His daughter? He wondered. Her dark blue eyes were clear and her cheeks took on a rosy hue when she drew near. Ash knew that his fair hair, steely blue eyes, and evenly-proportioned features gave him an appearance that was pleasing to the eye, but still it felt odd to him when a female reacted as the milliner’s daughter did. His time spent in Society had taught him that for ladies of the upper echelons, it was a man’s place in the ton, not his character or even necessarily his appearance, that determined his value, and therefore his desirability.
“I should like to purchase this,” he began, gesturing to the bonnet.
“Certainly, sir,” the girl said, reaching to remove the item from its stand. “Shall I add it to your mother’s order?”
“No, thank you, miss. It is a gift.”
“I see. For a lady?”
“For my sister,” he amended her assumption. “But please wrap it and have it delivered to me; here is my card with the direction.”
“Of course.” She accepted also the coin he offered, plenty to pay for both the purchase and the delivery boy. “May I be so bold to say she will be pleased with this gift?”
“You may,” he smiled. “I fear she does not appreciate the same . . . extremes of fashion, shall we say, enjoyed by the other ladies of my family.”
“Yes,” she said, smiling at him. He returned her gaze until she started, cleared her throat, and said, “I, er–I’ll have this delivered before evening.”
Ash made his way back to the ladies, just in time to hear Mrs. Wyndham say to the proprietor, “We shall also need some feathers for her court dress.”
“I’ve an excellent selection, here,” said he, bringing out a sampling of feathers.
After some debate, and minimal input from Violet, several plumes were chosen for a fan and a headdress, and the proprietor and his daughter began to wrap up the purchases. Ash carried them to the carriage, and handed Mrs. Wyndham and Rose into it before offering Violet his arm.
“We should enjoy a walk, ma’am, if that is agreeable to you,” he said. “Which draper’s do you mean to patronize? The one at the corner, near the bookseller’s?”
“Indeed,” said Mrs. Wyndham. “I shall begin looking for a good silk for your court dress, Violet, for that is of utmost importance. And a velvet for the train. Come as quickly as you may, Ash, but I believe you are correct in suggesting a walk. Violet is looking rather pale after the milliner’s, and some fresh air would make her complexion tolerable.”
Ash said nothing as he stepped back from the carriage.
“So she means to present you in Court?” he asked Violet as the carriage rolled away.
“Would you like me to accompany you?”
“Would you need a new suit?” she asked. “I know that you do not enjoy shopping, or the formalities associated with Court.”
“Likely, yes, but I would gladly suffer through if it would put you at ease.”
Violet smiled fondly at him before saying, “I believe this is something I must face alone.”
“I see. Quite grown of you, and all that,” he intoned, an exaggeratedly pinched expression on his face.
Violet immediately recognized his teasing and giggled. “You are absurd.”
“Perhaps, but it did bring a smile to your face.”
Violet chuckled, shaking her head. “Have I been so unpleasant this morning?”
“You!” exclaimed Ash. “Indeed not. I was thinking more of Mrs. Wyndham’s treatment of you.”
Ever one to dismiss other’s offenses, Violet frowned slightly and said, “I cannot understand your refusal to refer to our mama by that term. It must always be Mrs. Wyndham with you.”
“Yes, well.” Ash shook his head, unable to explain to his sweet sister just why he refused to acknowledge the woman as his mama.
Violet, almost expectedly sensing his discomfort, and wishing to sooth it, said, “Either way, I think that I am now prepared to face the draper’s.”
“Excellent. However,” he paused dramatically, “are you prepared to face Mrs. Wyndham?”
Violet again giggled. “I believe so.”
Ash smiled and patted her hand where it lay upon his arm, and they continued in companionable silence. It was nice to see a glimmer of the girl his sister had once been.
By the time they all returned home after visiting the draper’s, fabric for two white dresses, three sets of sleeves for the white dresses, four new day dresses, and several other unmentionables were purchased and promised to be sent directly to the dressmaker’s. Several ball gowns had also been ordered, including the one to be worn for Violet’s presentation in Court. A pelisse and two spencers Violet had from last winter were deemed sufficient for her outerwear. The party returned to their rented house on Wardour Street, eager for rest after the extensive shopping excursion.
Morning sunlight filtered through the windows in her family’s Town-house, illuminating the sitting room. The house had been built under the direction of Penelope’s ancestor, Mr. Albert Drayton, who became Lord Albert Claymore, the first Baron Claymore. Her brother Cornelius now held the title, and knowing what she did of her brother currently, her father before, and all of their predecessors, it was no surprise at all that their family had never been granted a higher-ranking title over the years. She was curious, rather, that it had not yet been stripped of them.
After her brushes were arranged to her satisfaction, Penelope ensured that her paints were all closed tightly – they would be useless if they dried – and removed her apron. As she was folding the rose-colored fabric, her great-aunt strode gracefully into the room.
I sincerely hope to walk with half her grace when I have reached my sixties, Penelope thought.
“Good morning, Aunt,” greeted Penelope with a smile and a curtsy.
“Is it? I slept so soundly that I feared it to be much later than morning.”
“Did not your maid inform you of the time?”
“Cannot be relied upon.” Miss Esther Breckenridge sank slowly into the chair she usually occupied, which was covered by a sheet. “Why is my chair covered? It was not covered yesterday, was it? I cannot have turned senile overnight.”
“You’ve not, Aunt Essie.” Penelope tucked her apron into its place beside her paint-box, and retrieved her fichu from the chair near her aunt’s. Shaking out the triangular piece of sheer fabric, she draped it over her shoulders and around her neck, bringing the longest points of the triangle together and tucking them into the front of her gown. “Remember, we are having some updates made to this room. The craftsmen covered the furniture to keep the dust off until they have completed their work.”
“Oh yes.” Aunt Essie stood from her chair and approached Penelope. “Allow me to assist you,” she offered, tucking the shorter point of the triangle into the back of the gown. “Your seams are worn, dear, and the neckline is beginning to fray.”
Penelope was immensely glad she was not prone to blushing, as was the case for many other twenty-year-olds of the ton; she was sure she otherwise would have. “Yes, Aunt, this is one of my older gowns. You know I do not paint in any dress that is less than two years old.” What she did not say was that she had spent much of her monthly allowance on a warm new pelisse for her dear aunt. She did not wish for her to take a chill during the early part of the Season, before the air began to grow warmer with the approach of summer. Parliament was set to open on the twenty-first of January, and the air was still frigid and the winds sharp. The Season would not see warmer temperatures for several weeks, at least.
“You are a good girl, Penny,” said Aunt Essie fondly as she settled herself into the chair once again.
“Thank you, Aunt,” Penelope grinned, seating herself as well.
Aunt Essie picked up some mending, looked critically for a moment at the damaged dress-hem, and selected a thread and needle. “How long have you been saving for these improvements, dear?”
“Two years,” Penelope admitted. “We could not very well entertain visitors with the plaster coming down and the carpets threadbare, could we?”
“Indeed not,” agreed her aunt. “Though this room did very well for us during the previous Season.”
“Yes, but we did not receive visitors the last Season; we left Town to visit your distant cousin. You know that my hope is to entertain a great deal more this year than last.”
“And did your brother contribute to the improvements to his home?”
Penelope was perfectly aware that her aunt knew the answer to her own question, and sent the elder woman a wry grin. “You know that he has promised me use of this house, when he did not have any obligation to do so; he comes for the Season, but prefers to remain at Claymore Abbey the rest of the year.”
“With his penchant for gaming, lightskirts, and drink, I should think he would prefer Town to the country.”
“Aunt! I am shocked that you even know those words!” Penelope was quite pleased at her ability to hide her grin. Her aunt, while a proper lady in every way, was no naïve miss.
“And am I to be shocked that you also give the appearance of familiarity with them?” Aunt Essie quipped. “Let us strike a deal. I shall not mention them again if you do not.”
Penelope laughed. “Very well. Regardless of what you should have expected, Cornelius prefers the country because the collectors rarely wish to travel to the Abbey. The roads are in poor repair, and more than one rig has been immobilized on the way.”
“Shall we call him clever for this?”
“Neglect of his estate and duties which result in a fortuitous circumstance for him is hardly clever.”
“I suppose not,” agreed Aunt Essie. “But one must admit that there is a necessary dedication to dereliction in order to achieve such advanced degrees of disrepair.”
Penelope again laughed, glad to have a reason for it. Her life had not always presented her opportunity for such cheerful behavior, but she felt that she was finally close to grasping happiness and keeping it.
“How much longer until this room is fit to be seen?” Aunt Essie asked.
“I hope in a few weeks’ time; certainly by the start of the Season,” Penelope replied. “The master carpenter is nearly finished. Then the carpets may be laid, and the plaster applied. I asked that the wall-treatments remain simple, as simplicity seems to be the rule of the day. And glad I am of it, for pale paints and light draperies are much less costly than scrolling wallpapers and velvet draperies.”
“Indeed they are. And then what, Penny? You shall be prepared to entertain your suitors?”
Penelope scoffed. “You are familiar with the plan, Aunt. There will be no suitors. If all proceeds as I wish, we shall be set up quite well by this time next year.”
“And you are certain this is your wish, my child?” Aunt Essie’s voice became soft and wistful. “
comes at a
dear cost – that of having someone to call your own.” Independence
“You seem to be quite content with your choices, Aunt,” returned Penelope.
“I am. I have learned to be content in all circumstances.” Aunt Essie smiled in a manner that caused Penelope to wonder if she was keeping a wonderful secret. “But I also know the cost of independence, and how very dear it is.”
“So if you could start again, you would choose differently?”
“It is not for me to speculate on what might have been,” Aunt Essie replied with a gentle shake of her head. “You, though, you have your life before you. Will you live it closed off and alone, or will you welcome whomever the Lord might send?”
Penelope’s aunt seldom chastised or even hinted that she might entertain a difference of opinion; even more seldom did she express herself in so direct a manner. Therefore, it was after a moment’s reflection that Penelope answered quietly, almost asking a question with her tone, “I have you, Aunt.”
The older woman smiled fondly. “Of course you do, my dear. But remember, I will not be here forever. Before you commit to this path, be sure it is what you truly desire, and what the Lord desires for you.”
Penelope had a strong urge to squirm, but forced herself instead to look her aunt in the eye as she replied. “It is what I wish.”
Penelope cared little what the Lord wished for her. If the Heavenly Father was anything like her papa had been, she supposed she was better off choosing for herself. There was precious little she could do to command her own life, but Penelope was determined to grasp that precious little and run with it as fast and as far as she possibly could. She knew what she wanted, and she knew that she would allow nothing to stop her.
Sarah grew up in
and received her Bachelor's degree from Concordia University Chicago. She
married her husband Karl after college, and has lived in Ohio Missouri,
Michigan, and Alabama
before moving to .
Along the way, she and her husband had three wonderful children and received
guardianship of a fourth. Besides writing, she enjoys volunteering at church,
sewing historic clothing, and spending time with her family. Texas
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Off to read another great book!
Sandra M. Hart