When the post arrived, the letter surprised Miss Ophelia Trent. She stared at her name written in the stylized black script for a long time, wondering who could have sent it. She had no friends other than those in the village and they would certainly not have sent such formal correspondence. Using her father’s letter opener, she broke the wax and caressed the soft vellum.
The Company of Miss Ophelia Trent
is requested at the home of
The Duke and Duchess of Caymore
For a Celebratory Ball
15 October 1811
Ophelia adjusted her spectacles, and read it again. Surely, there must be some mistake. Lady Penelope had sent her an invitation to a ball? It made no sense.
Her only encounter with the young duchess had been a humiliating experience. During the early summer, Ophelia had read an advertisement in the Ladies Gazette requiring a wife for a Viscount. Ophelia sent the required letter of introduction and was promptly invited to an interview. Upon arriving at the Bainbridge Hotel, no sooner had she sat down when Lady Penelope, the intermediary handling the Viscount’s interests, broke the bad news. It seemed the Viscount had changed his mind at the last minute and was no longer searching for a wife.
However, Ophelia knew from reading the papers that soon after her secret mortification, the Viscount had married a very proper Lady Wheeler. Ophelia could not say for certain that Viscount Winsbarren had indeed been the man in the advertisement, but his nuptials were the only ones of note.
The question remained as to why Lady Penelope would send her an invitation to a Christmas Ball. Ophelia held very little standing in Society, a baronet’s daughter without a farthing to her name. Could this be a prank? Would Lady Penelope be so cruel? No, Ophelia could not credit it. She had thought very highly of Lady Penelope. There must be another explanation. She wondered if she should write to the duchess and ask, but that seemed childish.
Ophelia couldn’t possibly attend such a gathering; for one, she knew not a single soul in Society. She also had nothing appropriate to wear, and lastly, she had no coach. She decided to show the invitation to her mother and obtain her thoughts. Her mother would know what to do, how to turn down the invitation without offending.
“Oh, but dearest, you must go,” her mother cried after seeing it.
She appreciated her mother’s enthusiasm, but the hard reality was they had no funds. “Mother, we can ill afford such a luxury.” Ophelia’s firm tone held no doubt.
“Fie, I shall find a way.” Her mother twirled her hand in the air as if to wipe away the problem. “You must not miss this opportunity. Think of all the men you shall meet, of all the connections you will make. Pray, this is a miracle come to you, Ophelia. You would never refuse a miracle, would you?”
“No, of course not,” she said. “But I do not know how we shall find the money.
is an hour by coach, a new gown, and slippers to purchase, not to mention accommodation. Mother, the expense is impossible.” Ophelia threw herself onto the worn brocade chair in her mother’s bedchamber. London
“Listen to me, my darling. I shall take care of everything. After all you have done for me, ‘tis the least I can do for you.” Lady Trent reached for her daughter’s hand. “Do not trouble yourself with the worry. I may not have been able to give you all you should have had, but I will give you this if it is the last thing I do.”
“Mother, do not speak in such a way. You are finally well and I will not listen to your talk of expiring on me, especially as it would be my fault.”
Lady Trent smiled. “I am not going to die until I see you married off, my dear, mark my words. Furthermore, I may just hold on until I am bouncing at least four grandchildren on my knee.”
Ophelia smiled, if only for her mother’s benefit. Perhaps there was a way for her to attend Lady Penelope’s ball, but she wouldn’t hold out any hope.
For the next week, Ophelia disregarded the upcoming ball as she went about her daily household chores. She resigned herself that attending the gala was not possible, no matter what her mother may think. Her mother, on the other hand, waited impatiently every day for the post to arrive. Lady Trent had sent out various missives, the first in a very long time, and though curious as to what they contained, Ophelia never asked. If writing to old friends made her mother happy, then Ophelia remained content.
One afternoon, her eldest brother, Charles, arrived home and Ophelia puzzled over why he and her mother holed themselves up in her sitting room, unnaturally like her mother to be so surreptitious. An hour later, Charles seemed jubilant as he descended the back stairs.
“So,” he said. “You have managed to winkle an invitation to a fancy
ball.” He picked up her hands and twirled her around the small kitchen. “What did you do to deserve that, I wonder?” London
“Charles, please.” Horrified at the thought anyone would guess her humiliating secret, she slapped at his hands. “You shall upset my pie.”
Charles sank down on the bench at the table. He picked an apple from the basket and bit into it. “The Duchess of Caymore is quite the thing, you know. I hear she spends more on a shawl in one buy than the whole of Beckhamton has to eat in a month.”
Ophelia gathered up her apple filling and spooned it into the tart shell. “Charles, I could not think so unkindly toward Lady Penelope. She seemed very nice.”
“Yes, well, nice is one thing, a gad-about Town is entirely another. Why would you wish to be friends with her? On another thought, how did you manage to become friends with her?”
“We are not friends, merely acquaintance. I met her one day whilst I was in
Charles raised a brow. “And what, pray tell, were you doing in
Ophelia turned her head away so he could not see the blush she knew was rising on her cheeks, and told him the story she had concocted in case she had been seen. “If you must know, last June I answered an advertisement in the Ladies Gazette for hiring on as a parlour maid. Now that my mother is doing so well, and I thought, as I should never find a husband, I may as well look for a living. I was thinking of your Baronetcy you see, and how your new wife would not like a spinster sister living under her roof.” The lie came off quickly and Ophelia was pleased Charles would never guess the real reason she had been in Town.
“Ophelia, Minerva loves you, as we all do. She would never cast you out of your own home.”
“I know, Charles. Truly I do. But that is not to say I am still not a millstone tied about your neck, and my mother to some extent as well. I thought, perhaps if I could find employment, that would lessen the load you must carry.” Ophelia brushed a floured hand across her cheek to stem a quick tear.
“Ophelia, dearest, you must not think so cruelly toward yourself. Our father chose wisely in his new wife, and stepmother for me, and you, and our brothers and sisters, have been a delight I would not trade for the world. My only regret is that I should have taken better care of you. I should have given you a Season when you were of age, so you would not be in the precarious situation you now find yourself. I take the full responsibility of that.”
“No, Charles. There was nothing for it then. The children were still little, and with Mother so ill, I could never have deserted them, or you. With Father’s death, you had more important things on your mind than a come-out for me. I am exceedingly grateful that our brothers and sisters were able to benefit from all your hard work.”
“Yes, but you paid the ultimate price, did you not? How can you find a man worthy of all your charm and grace in this village? I thought perhaps Reginald would do nicely, but then he up and married that little tart. I still have not forgiven him, you know.”
Ophelia finished pinching the crust and placed the pie in the oven. “Charles, Reginald would never have married me. We did not suit.”
“Still,” Charles mused. “He was the last single man in Beckhamton.”
Ophelia turned from the oven, a smile on her face. “You forget Sir Walter.”
Charles laughed. “Sir Walter. Hah! Even if he did ask for your hand I would refuse it.”
“But think of all the money I would inherit when he dies.” Ophelia laughed.
They both knew the old man was a spendthrift and squandered every farthing he had on horses, women of ill repute, and horrible fashion.
“You are too good for the likes of him, for any man really,” Charles said. “No, I believe our mother is right. You shall go to
and attend this fancy ball, and find yourself a true and noble lord for your husband.” London
“Charles, I have gone round this preposterous notion with Mother already. There are no funds. Our household is in a precarious state of economy as it is, and with your wedding to Minerva in the spring, we must do our best to save further. I should hate to have you embarrassed on your wedding day. And then there is the honeymoon to consider.”
“Minerva and I have spoken of all that. We will spend our honeymoon in
. Her cousins have agreed to let us their house for a fortnight, so there is no worry there. As for the wedding breakfast itself, Minerva’s family is sparing no expense. They realize with a Baronet in the family they must do their best to shine their own silver properly.” Bath
“Charles, you are absolutely naughty for thinking that way.” Ophelia picked up an apple and began peeling.
“Well, what good is a title if I cannot use it to my advantage every once in a while.” He stilled her hand with his. “And I shall use it so you may attend the ball. Our mother has convinced me you must be present, and although I am only a baronet, it allows me a larger amount of credit. Mother has explained you will need new finery, a gown and all that. I shall also see about a coach and two. Perhaps Sir Walter is good for something after all.”
“Charles, there are still the accommodations. I cannot possibly put up in an hotel. ‘Tis an enormous extravagance we cannot afford.”
“Ah, but you see my dear, that is where Mother is proving her mettle. It seems she has a cousin in
Wood who is more than willing to put you up. For as long as needs be, she said. So your accommodations are settled. The gown and slippers, however, may prove to be another matter altogether. I do not wish to be penurious, but do you not have anything you could repurpose?” Charles sighed. “Forgive me, dearest. I know you do not. Perhaps Minerva may.” St. John’s
“Charles, that is sweet, but Minerva and I of two different sizes. I would never fit in anything she owns.” Ophelia looked down the long length of her gown. Taking after her parents in stature, she stood almost as tall as Charles did. She slapped her hand on the table. “Although, now that I think on it, there is a box of old gowns of Mother’s in the attic. Mayhap I might find something there.” She smiled at her brother. “Oh, Charles, do you really think I would be able to attend?”
Charles took up her hand and kissed it. “For you sister, I will pay the Devil.”
The attic was a hodge-podge of old furnishings and trunks, dust and spiders. Ophelia opened several of the trunks, but did not find the gowns. Holding her candle higher, she spied a leather-bound portmanteau in the corner. Dragging it across the floor to the small window, she eased open the cracked bindings. Inside she found what she looked for. Gathering the mass of materials in her arms, she blew out the candle and made her way downstairs to her bedchamber.
She spread them across her counterpane and marveled at their unconventional beauty. With whalebone corsets, crinoline hoops, organza petticoats, and bows as big as a cow’s head, her mother’s gowns were completely out of fashion. Ophelia collected her sewing basket to transform one of them into something she could wear.
An ivory silk creation with seed pearls sewn along the bodice and hem caught her eye for the ball, and her mind swirled with possibilities. It hung in simple folds when she took out the hoop skirt. Ophelia was quite satisfied with how the layers of fabric cascaded to the floor when she slipped it over her head. It would be nothing to sew a ribbon around the waist for the new empire style. She ran back to the attic and found a pair of slippers to match. However, when she brought them down to the light of her bedchamber, she found to her dismay mice had gotten at them. She cringed at the expense of new.
Ophelia went to her mother’s room.
“I was beginning to wonder if there was an elephant in the attic,” her mother said. “Ah, I see you’ve found my old gown.”
“Charles seemed to think I would be able to attend Lady Penelope’s ball after all, so I took it upon myself to see if there was anything worth reworking in the attic. I hope you do not mind, Mother.”
“Of course not. Is that the one you’ve chosen?” Lady Trent reached her hand across the bed and touched the silk. “Oh yes, that will do nicely. Always my favorite, ‘twas the one that caught your father’s eye, so it was very lucky for me. I hope it brings you the same luck.”
“I do not think I shall be so lucky, Mother, but I think it is becoming.” Ophelia held the skirt out and swayed to imaginary music. “’Twill be lovely for dancing, do you not think?”
Lady Trent smiled. “You will be the loveliest girl at the ball. A fairy princess, my darling.”
Terrified on the one hand, giddy on the other, Ophelia wondered if she should change her mind about attending. A country-dance in the village was one thing. This ball was another altogether. “I should hate to embarrass myself,” she said.
“Nonsense.” Her mother sniffed. “We may not be
aristocrats, but we are certainly not fish-mongers. Your father was a very well respected member of this community, and I have done my best to raise you to the station to which you were born. Your manners are impeccable, no one could find fault with your musical abilities, and you have been acting as hostess in my stead all these many years. You, my darling, are the epitome of social grace and standing, and worthy of becoming even a duke’s most beloved wife.” London
Ophelia sank down on the bed. “But Mother, this is
. I may be all of those things, but I am still a country girl at heart. I do not wish to be better than I ought and bring shame to the family.” London
Lady Trent sat upright in her bed. “You could never bring shame to our family, so take that thought out of your head.” She primped the coverlet before she said, “As you know, I have written to my cousin Josephine in
Wood and she is expecting you on the thirteenth. She allowed she has a small equipage for your disposal. There are shops in St. John's Wood for you to buy slippers and a serviceable cloak for the evening. Unfortunately, this leaves little in the way of extra for you.” St. John’s
“There is nothing else I should need, Mother. And I should not wish to take every last pence we own just for the privilege of one night in Town.” She hesitated. “I think I should turn down the invitation, Mother. This is becoming more of an encumbrance than needs be.”
“Absolutely not. You will attend this ball if I must accompany you in my nightrail and dressing robe.”
Ophelia laughed. “What a sight that would be.”
Lady Trent smiled. “Yes, but I should love to see you dancing, even if just for a moment.”
Ophelia took her mother’s hand. “Someday, Mother. Someday.”
The weather held, although storm clouds threatened, and the roads remained clear as Ophelia journeyed to
Wood on the mail coach. Lady Trent had insisted Charles not owe a favor to Sir Walter by borrowing his carriage. The mail coach was stuffy, and the two men who sat across from Ophelia eyed her lasciviously. Ophelia took off her spectacles and wiped them with her handkerchief. The men’s faces became blurred and she wondered if she should keep them off, that way she would not have to see their ugly countenance. St. John’s
Cousin Josephine’s manservant met Ophelia at the coaching inn, and as they traveled further into
Wood, her stomach began to form a small knot of apprehension. With every house they passed, another question formed in her mind. What would Cousin Josephine be like? Would Ophelia be able to find a pair of slippers? Whom would she meet at Lady Penelope’s? Was it even possible to meet a man and fall in love at a ball? Would it rain for the next three days together? St. John’s
The landaulet pulled into a long drive and stopped with a jerk in front of a large manor house. The carriage door opened and before Ophelia stepped a foot on the ground, a short round woman dressed in a simple calico gown and a mobcap appeared on the stoop.
“Oh, dearie, bless my soul, if you are not the image of your mother!” The old lady cried and held out her hands.
“Cousin Josephine,” Ophelia said walking toward her. “I cannot thank you enough for the kind invitation.” Enveloped in a hug, Ophelia’s knot of apprehension disappeared.
“Nonsense, ‘tis the least I can do for Rebecca.” Josephine patted Ophelia’s hand. “Come, come, let us get inside where ‘tis warm.
will take care of your bags.” Jackson
Cousin Josephine dragged Ophelia into the weary looking, yet comfortable house. “This is the formal parlour, which I rarely use. The dining room,” she said as they walked down the hall. “My late husband’s library and here is my own little sitting room. Come now, take off your things, and tell me how your mother fairs.” She made a tittering noise. “I’m afraid I do not have the servants I once did when my dear husband was alive. ‘Tis just Jackson and Maisie, and she’s off this afternoon to visit the grocer, but we shall have tea and cakes in just a moment.”
“Oh, I do not expect to be waited on, Cousin.” Ophelia took off her serviceable coat and bonnet. “I can do for myself.”
“You are my guest, and will do nothing of the sort. Now sit, and tell me all about this invitation you received from Lady Caymore.”
Cousin Josephine proved to be a font of information where the beau monde was concerned, telling Ophelia the latest in gossip from
. Ophelia was glad her cousin proved so knowledgeable. Perhaps with a little information about the fashionable crowd, she might feel more comfortable in their midst. London
“And I’m sure your mother explained,” the old lady nattered on, “although I cannot traipse about Town the way I used to, I have informed my seamstress in
Wood about your need for a fashionable cape. She assures me she has severable available when you arrive. I’ve set the appointment for ten o’clock tomorrow. As for slippers, there is a shop I used to frequent, and you may find what you are looking for there, but I’ve mentioned to St. John’s that he may need to take your further afield. But you shall cross that bridge when you come to it.” Jackson
The rest of the day passed quietly, the two women amiable in each other’s company in front of the fire. The storm had arrived and icy rain beat upon the windows. Even if she did not succeed in finding a husband, Ophelia had found a great friend in Cousin Josephine.
The next day dawned sunny, although freezing, and as she and Jackson set out for the seamstress, Ophelia enjoyed the prospect of being out of Beckhamton. Businesses of all shapes and sizes lined High Street, and people bustled about making haste on the wintry morning. A farmer led a cow with her calf, the poor little thing bleating loudly as she walked behind her mother, her breath frosty in the air. They arrived at the dressmaker’s and
handed her down from the carriage. Ophelia wished she had more time to visit all the shops, for this was nothing like her own village. Jackson
“I shall try and make all due haste,” Ophelia said stamping her cold feet, as
closed the door. Jackson
“’Tis all right, Miss. Take as much time as you need. I must walk old Jerome so he does not cramp in the cold. If you do not see me when you depart the shop, I shall only be walking on the street.” He tipped his hat, climbed aboard, and flipped the reins.
Ophelia dodged a puddle, and entered Mrs. Perkins’ little shop. The modiste showed her several choices of outerwear, most out of her budget. After much deliberation, Ophelia chose a dark blue velvet cape that would offset the ivory silk of her gown. Of the second best material, it would suffice for the evening as no one would see it anyway, and the lining was of the softest wool so it would be warm for traveling in the carriage.
Gathering her wrapped parcel, Ophelia stepped out of the shop and searched the street for
. Looking right, she did not see him. She turned to search in the other direction and found herself momentarily stunned, and then on her backside on the ground, her package flung from her hands and the contents of her reticule scattered all across the walk. Jackson
“Oh, do forgive me,” said a masculine voice. “I am so terribly sorry. Are you all right?”
Ophelia adjusted her spectacles and looked up from her position on the ground. A disheveled man stood before her, with long brown hair hanging in his eyes, and the smell of horses clinging to his dirty clothes. However, a master sculptor had molded his face. Donatello’s masculine angles and Botticelli’s soft edges played across his countenance. Even the hand he held out to her was strong, with straight fingers and blunt nails. Surprisingly, his hand was clean. His beautiful brown eyes astounded her with their profundity of concern.
“I’m afraid I was lost in my own thoughts,” he explained as he helped her up. “Pray are you well?”
Ophelia straightened her bonnet, shook out her skirts, and brushed her hand across the back of her coat to remove any dirt that lingered. The man bent and picked up her package, one corner of which had ripped, that had found its way into the same puddle she had avoided earlier.
“Please forgive me,” he said as he handed it to her. “By all means allow me to pay for the cleaning.” He bent again to retrieve the contents of her reticule.
Ophelia stood there in silence and watched, as he seemed to use only one hand to retrieve her things. His left arm hung at his side, yet jerked as if it wanted to be of service and could not. He did not look as if he could afford to pay for a cup of coffee, and Ophelia was just as capable at cleaning her own clothes. She could not allow him to pay for this.
“That is not necessary, sir,” she said as he handed her the reticule.
“No, I must insist. Is this where you purchased it?” He pointed to Mrs. Perkins shop.
“Then please, allow me.” He led her back into the shop, explained what had transpired to Mrs. Perkins, and asked if she could clean the item. He slipped a card from his jacket and passed it along the counter. “Send the bill to this address. And could you have the garment sent round to….” He looked to Ophelia.
“Cummings Hall,” she said.
“Cummings Hall,” he said to Mrs. Perkins.
Mrs. Perkins beamed. “Of course, I shall clean it and have it sent round this afternoon.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Perkins.” The man took Ophelia’s elbow and steered her out to the street once again.
“I should hardly know how to thank you, sir,” Ophelia said. “You did not have to go to such lengths. ‘Twas an accident after all.”
“Nonsense, it was the least I could do. Are you sure you are well? Nothing broken, nothing sprained?” He looked her up and down.
“No.” she smiled. “Only my pride.”
“May I escort you to your next destination, perhaps?” He held out his good hand.
“No, thank you. I am only waiting for my cousin’s carriage. The driver is walking the old horse so he does not cramp in the weather.”
“Good man,” he said. “You mentioned Cummings Hall. Out on the west side of
Wood?” St. John’s
“Yes, I am staying with my cousin, Lady Josephine. I have an invitation to a lovely ball the day after tomorrow. Unfortunately, I am in sore need of a few things to wear, which is why I’m shopping in town today.” Now why did she tell him that?
“And I’ve spoiled your new cape,” he said.
“No, ‘tis only a smudge. It should come fine with a simple scrub. No harm done.” She spied
. “Ah, here he comes.” She pointed to the landaulet. Jackson
“Well,” he said, “Do not let me detain you any further. And again, let me apologize for smashing you to the ground.”
Ophelia smiled. “Apology accepted, Mr. ….”
“Merrit. Thomas Merrit, at your service.” He bowed slightly.
“Thank you again, Mr. Merrit. It was unnecessary to have the garment cleaned, but I am grateful nonetheless.”
“Have fun at your ball,” he said as he closed the door.
Ophelia sat back against the leather seat and smiled. This was certainly an interesting way to begin her stay in
Ophelia found the shoemaker had no slippers in her size. He could make them up and have them ready for the next afternoon. That would have to do; otherwise, she would have no shoes other than her half boots to wear for the ball. Thanking the cobbler, Ophelia waited on the walk for
. She looked left and right hoping to see Mr. Merrit again, but that was pure whimsy. Although he was very handsome, and quite the thing to have her cape cleaned and sent to the Hall, he was a working man. Not her mother’s idea of husband material. Lady Trent had always said Ophelia should marry no less than her station, no more than two steps above. Hah! As if a Viscount would ride into Beckhamton and whisk her away on a magical moonbeam. Jackson
Ophelia had given up any notion of ever marrying. At nine-and-twenty, she had no illusions left. Her life had been spent taking care of her mother and younger siblings, and although she never resented them, sometimes she would be swept up in a fair bout of melancholy at the loss of her dreams. Now, she had no idea of what those dreams even consisted, certainly not a husband. As a bespectacled spinster without a dowry, who would have her?
Her mother seemed to think an introduction at a ball was all it would take and Ophelia would be free of the confines of Beckhamton. Ophelia knew better. Life was not a fairy tale found in a storybook. Love did not happen with a single glance.
And though Ophelia knew her life was plain and ordinary, she still wasn’t sure if a life in Society was exactly what she wanted either. She’d heard of the debauchery, and intrigues, the scandals that surrounded members of the ten thousand. She wanted no part of that. But perhaps, a bit of the fashionable life mightn’t be so bad. At least it would come with a sturdy roof, and a full cupboard. A pretty gown, a warm shawl, and a new book every once and again would do her heart very well indeed.
Ophelia brought her gloved hands to her mouth and blew on them in the carriage as
Jackson drove her through the streets of Wood. Her thoughts turned once again to Mr. Merrit. Perhaps if he hadn’t been so nice, she would have found him easy to forget. However, his eyes told the story of his soul, and in their depths, she could see genuine kindness. If he’d had a bath and decent clothes, she would fantasize about taking him home to meet her mother and Charles. St. John’s
She smiled to herself for being so foolish, to think of a man that way and only knowing him for less than ten minutes. Her silliness must be due to the
Upon her arrival at the Hall, Cousin Josephine asked why she had no packages. When Ophelia recounted the story of her cape and its subsequent rescue, Josephine immediately wanted to know all the details.
“And you say his name was Merrit?” Josephine asked.
“Yes, Thomas Merrit. Why? Is he of your acquaintance?” Ophelia was intrigued.
“I do not think so personally, but his name does sound rather familiar.” She made a tittering noise. “I’m afraid my senses are not what they used to be.”
“Well, ‘tis no matter. I shan’t see him again.” Ophelia smiled through her disappointment. “However, I hope you do not mind, I shall need the carriage again tomorrow to pick up my slippers.”
“Of course, dearie.
is at your disposal.” Jackson
“You are very kind, Cousin.”
“’Tis a pleasure having you here. I’ve been so long alone prattling around this old house, I wonder if I should go mad some times.”
“Mayhap you would like to visit Mother in Beckhamton when I return. We could ride together if that is a concern.” Her mother would welcome the company very much.
Josephine smiled broadly. “Oh, do not tempt an old woman, dearie. You may find I will take you up on your kind offer.”
“Then by all means do,” Ophelia said. “It would be a great pleasure for all of us. Mother has also been alone. Her illness these many years has kept her housebound and she sees little in the way of acquaintance. She would be delighted to have you, as would I.”
Josephine tittered with excitement. “Then I do believe I shall. ‘Twill be nothing to close up the house. Have you accommodation for
and Maisie and an old horse? We could take my carriage instead of the mail coach and save you a little on your funds.” Jackson
“That is very kind of you, Cousin. I believe Charles would be exceedingly pleased if I returned home with a little in my pocket.”
“Wonderful. Then it is decided.” Josephine clapped her hands in delight.
Ophelia was glad she had brought a little happiness to her old cousin.
The next day, as Ophelia left Cummings Hall to return to the cobbler to pick up her shoes, a light ran began to fall. Ophelia hoped the weather wouldn’t hinder her progress overmuch. With the cape delivered, and her gown hung in the armoire, the only piece missing to her ensemble were the slippers.
Halfway to the village, the hot bricks
had placed in the carriage were losing their heat. Ophelia had known they wouldn’t last long, but prayed at least until they had reached the outskirts of the town. She drew the carriage blanket tighter around her shoulders. Jackson
Suddenly the horse screamed, the carriage lurched, and Ophelia fell to the floor. She heard
yell over the rumble of thunder, and then the carriage teetered on two wheels for a moment before it overturned. Ophelia screamed and landed hard against the small window, which was now on the ground. She lay there, stunned. Her mind registered they’d had an accident, and she needed to check on poor Jackson , but she remained where she was. She couldn’t seem to find the courage to move, afraid of what she might find. Jackson
“Miss, Miss, are ye’ all right?”
’s voice called to her from outside. Jackson
. I believe so.” Tentatively she moved her legs and arms and found them in working order. Her head ached, presumably from banging it when she fell. She reached her hand up to her eyes and discovered her glasses missing. Squinting in the gloom, she searched around where she lay. Breathing a sigh of relief when she located them, she placed them on her nose and found them twisted. Well, they would have to do until Charles could set them to rights. Jackson
The carriage door ripped open and
’s face peered down at her, along with a steady stream of rain. The sight of him above her was almost comical and she stifled a laugh. She leaned up on her elbows. “What happened?” Jackson
“Lightning. Spooked Jerome and he turned us into a ditch. Forgive me, Miss. Are ye’ sure you be all right?”
.” She sat upright, leaning her back against the roof of the landaulet. “Just a small bump on the head. I wonder, though, how am I to get out of here?” Jackson
“Aye, I’m fine. I jumped before the carriage turned.”
“And Jerome?” Ophelia shuddered at the thought of a wounded horse.
“Shaken, but unharmed. He may be old, but he has a strong constitution. I blinded him with my coat so he will not spook again.” He looked over his shoulder.
Ophelia heard the sounds of an approaching carriage. Oh, thank the Heavens.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“I am well, Mr. Merrit. Thank you for stopping.”
“I was headed this way,” he said while climbing up on the box. He slithered down into the confines of the overturned equipage.
Ophelia maneuvered her body against the roof, which was now the wall. She glanced at his face and found him smiling at her.
“I must admit, I was hoping to run into you again, but not quite like this.” He reached for her hand and helped her to stand.
With barely enough room for the two of them to fit in the carriage doorway, she found herself pressed close to his body. Heat emanated from him, and although he still smelled faintly of horses, his clothes were clean. An uncontrollable urge to wrap her arms around him overtook her.
“Shall we see about getting you out?” he asked and kneeled. “If you would place your foot upon my leg, here.” He patted his thigh. “I believe that will give you enough clearance to be able to sit upon the frame. Then you shall be able to swing your legs over the side, and my man will help you down.”
Ophelia did as told, and found herself upright on terra firma once more. The rain had become a torrent, and Ophelia shivered as she tried to gather her wits over what had just happened. It seemed impossible she had survived an overturned carriage accident.
Mr. Merrit climbed through the door and jumped to land beside her.
“Thank you for the rescue, Mr. Merrit,” Ophelia said. “I am ever so obliged.” She placed her hand on the underside of the carriage and leaned into it before she slid to the ground.
“Come, we must get you to Cummings before you catch your death.” In the next moment, Mr. Merrit picked her up, carried her to his waiting coach and placed her inside, then took off his great coat and wrapped her in it. “Rest here for two minutes together while I see about your carriage, and then I shall set you home.” He smiled, touched her face with a gentle hand, and was gone.
Ophelia closed her eyes against the pounding ache in her head, and buried herself into his coat. Its aroma was soothing, like a sunny day in a meadow, and she relaxed into its warmth.
When next she opened her eyes, she was in her bed, in her nightclothes, with a blazing fire in the hearth.
“How do you feel?” Cousin Josephine asked.
“A bit worse for the wear, but I take it I am alive.” She looked around the room half-hoping to see Mr. Merrit.
“Yes, you are, very much alive. The apothecary’s been and gone, and said the bump on your head will subside in a few days. Are you hungry, dearie? You’ve slept well into the evening.”
Ophelia pulled herself up to lean against her pillows. “Oh no, ‘tis evening. I’ve been sleeping all this time?”
“Off and on. You would wake, and then sleep, and wake again.” Josephine rose from the chair and slipped a hand across Ophelia’s forehead. “At least you have no fever. We were quite worried about that. You were soaked through to the skin. Maisie and I had to peel the layers off you.”
“How are Jackson and Jerome? Did they make it home safely?” Poor
. Poor Jerome. Jackson
“Yes, they did, thanks to Mr. Merrit. I must say he has most certainly taken a shine to you, dearie. He was ever so concerned about your well-being. Why, he was the one who went for the apothecary.”
“He was?” Ophelia blushed to her toes.
“Oh my yes. He carried you into the house and into your bedchamber before I even knew what was about. He built up the fire in your room, waited until Maisie and I were finished with you, and then went to fetch Mr. Winters. Only until the assessment came back that you would recover did he seem to ease.”
“Oh my, how shall I ever repay his kindness?” Ophelia couldn’t begin to fathom it.
“I do not believe any thanks are necessary. He seemed exceedingly obliged to be of service.” Josephine giggled. “I do believe he likes you, dearie.”
“He does not even know me.”
“What does that matter? Affection between a man and a woman is instant. There is no need to know someone. Either you like a person, or you do not. And I do believe our Mr. Merrit likes you indeed.” Josephine giggled again.
Ophelia admitted her cousin might be right in that quarter. She found she had liked Mr. Merrit from the moment he held out his hand to her in the street. However, two meetings of less than ten minutes each did not make for anything other than a passing acquaintance. Moreover, with the ball to attend tomorrow night, she might meet any number of men and form a more intriguing acquaintance.
“Oh, my slippers,” Ophelia cried. “I never did manage to retrieve them from the shoemaker. Oh, and the carriage. I guess I should not worry about the ball now.” She sunk down into her pillows.
“No, ‘tis all right. When Mr. Merrit discovered the reason you were out in the storm, he had your slippers delivered to the Hall. They arrived a little while ago. And as he knew about your ball, offered his own carriage to convey you.”
“Pray he did not.” Ophelia was aghast. He could not.
“He did.” Josephine smiled. “I told you, he does like you very much indeed.”
“Oh, I shall never be able to repay such a kindness.”
“Dearie, do not fret so. It will be all right.” Josephine took her hand. “Now there, do not worry. Everything will be just as it should be.”
Ophelia looked at Josephine and wondered how she could remain so calm. Her mother would be all aflutter if she knew the lengths Mr. Merrit had gone these last two days. First the cape, then the rescue, now the slippers, and loan of a carriage. Charles would be beside himself as well. In her family, favors were returned promptly. How could they ever begin to return these?
“Now,” Josephine stood. “You need your rest, if you will attend the festivities tomorrow evening. Mr. Winters declared you were not concussed, but he would like you to remain still over the next day. As for the ball, he recommends no strenuous dancing. But I shall give you all his instructions on the morrow. For now, why do you not go back to sleep. You had a terrible fright today.” Josephine leaned down and kissed Ophelia on the forehead. “If you need anything, I’ve left a bell by your bedside. Maisie will be sure to hear it. She has ears like a cat.” With that, she quit the room.
Ophelia lay there and wondered again how she would ever be able to repay Mr. Merrit’s kindness.
Ophelia slept well, and woke on the day of the ball with only a slight ache in her shoulder. Salicylic powder took it away, and she regained her bright spirits. Her first real ball! The smile hardly left her face, and Cousin Josephine was pleased Ophelia seemed well enough to attend.
Late in the morning, Ophelia lay on the chaise in Josephine’s sitting room when
brought in a large box. Jackson
“Flowers for you, Miss,” he said. “I shall retrieve a vase so you may arrange them.”
Ophelia untied the string, opened the box, and nearly wept. Peonies, her favorite, and in this weather! She could not fathom it. She found the card.
I hope you are feeling better. Have fun at your ball tonight. My carriage will arrive at half-eight. T. Merrit
Oh, the man was too good to be true. He must be an Angel come down from the Heavens. Charles must find a way to thank him properly. She did not know what consisted between men in lieu of favors bestowed upon sisters, but surely, there must be a code of etiquette and she would do everything in her power to ensure Mr. Merrit found generous recompense.
Cousin Josephine came in a few moments later and exclaimed on the sight of Ophelia’s flowers, “Oh my, dearie, those are exquisite.” She gave Ophelia a large smile. “I believe your Mr. Merrit holds you in very high esteem.”
Ophelia dared not credit Josephine’s assumptions. It would only lead to heartbreak she was sure. “Cousin, although it may seem that way, do not presume his kindness to me is anything more than gentlemanlike behaviour. My spectacles have always made me appear helpless to some.” She adjusted them on her nose. The twist in the frame gave her an uncomfortable view.
“That may be true in some cases,” Josephine said. “But I cannot think so in Mr. Merrit’s. His concern for you after the accident was palpable. It seems he took the responsibility for it on his own shoulders.”
“Oh, but that is nonsense. He was nowhere near the carriage when it overturned, and Jerome was indeed the cause.”
“Ah, but that is what is so remarkable about your Mr. Merrit. After you departed with
for town, Mr. Merrit came to call upon you. I did not know of this until late last night. Maisie answered his knock and she told him you and Jackson had only just set off. It seems he was only moments behind you on the road. Serendipitous, is it not?” Jackson
Ophelia leaned back against the chaise. Mr. Merrit had come to call? Mr. Merrit had come to call! Only once, in her very young adulthood had a man come to call on her in Beckhamton. How surprising was it now, she could not even remember the man’s name.
“Goodness me,” Ophelia said softly. “That is serendipitous.”
Josephine smiled broadly.
“I wonder if he will come today,” Ophelia mused.
“No,” Josephine said. “He related to me after Mr. Winters had gone that he was required in
for at least a sennight. With your injuries so fresh upon us, the thought we might not be here when he returned escaped me. I am sorry, dearie.” London
Ophelia knew her meetings with Mr. Merrit were wholly by chance. Her premise from the beginning of this adventure had been to come to
to attend Lady Penelope’s ball to find a husband. And that is what she would have to do. Alas, Mr. Merrit was not her destiny as much as she wished him to be. However, she could take great enjoyment in knowing he had come to call once. London
“Well,” Ophelia said. “’Tis no matter. I shall regret I could not thank him properly for his attentions. Perhaps Charles will be able to find him when we return to Beckhamton.”
Ophelia rested for the remainder of the day, ate a light supper with Josephine in the evening, and then Maisie helped her with her toilette and gown. She tried to forget about Mr. Merrit, but his face had a way of creeping into her thoughts. She was not so missish to think he would care overmuch and die of a broken heart when he did not find her at Cummings Hall upon his return to
Wood. However, the thought of his pining for her, if just a little, made her smile. She did not know whether she missed him, or the thought of their missed opportunity at getting to know one another better. St. John’s
Her hair done up in a becoming style, the ivory gown encasing her lithe form, the slippers the perfect shade, Ophelia did not recognize herself in the cheval glass in her room. She wished her mother could see her right then, to see how beautiful she looked, even if for just this one night. She slipped her glasses off and placed them on her night table. Wouldn’t do to look addle-pated in front of Society.
She descended the stairs holding tightly to the banister and found Cousin Josephine’s blurry form waiting for her in the hall.
“Oh dearie, I do not recognize you! You are absolutely exquisite and will be sure to have half the men at this affair swooning from the sight of you.”
Ophelia laughed. “Cousin you are too kind. Nonetheless, I am still me and I’m sure no man will swoon. Besides, without my spectacles, every face will be just a vague impression.”
Josephine laughed. “I wager you would recognize Mr. Merrit’s countenance in an instant, spectacles or no. I will also wager you have at least three men desiring to dance attendance on you this evening.”
At the mention of Mr. Merrit’s name, Ophelia’s stomach gave a little jump. “I thank you for your compliments, but I’m sure I will only find a quiet corner in which to stand. I have no acquaintance in Town, therefore no one to speak to. Lady Penelope would hardly be expected to cater to my needs.” And Mr. Merrit would hardly be invited to a fashionable ball.
“You may be surprised at what you will find, dearie. You are a beautiful young woman with charming manners. You will have no trouble finding new friends.”
There was a knock on the door. Ophelia’s nerves bounced. Mr. Merrit’s carriage had arrived and there was no turning back now. She donned her cape while
placed hot bricks in the coach. Jackson
Josephine embraced her. “Oh, dearie, take every opportunity to enjoy yourself.”
“I shall. Thank you, Cousin.”
Ophelia thanked Mr. Merrit’s driver when he handed her into the luxurious carriage. She may not be a fairy princess, but she sure felt like one. A beautiful carriage blanket and pillow lay upon the fine leather squabs. Two carriage lights burned brightly on either side and lit the road. As they set off down the drive, the springs were of such instrumentation, she barely felt jostled.
How could Mr. Merrit afford such grandeur? His clothing suggested he was a working man. His manners, that of a genteel. But this? A splendid carriage with two magnificent horses to pull it? It seemed out of character for a man such as him.
She leaned back against the seat. Perhaps he had borrowed it from a neighbor. Hadn’t Charles wanted to borrow Sir Walter’s equipage for her to travel? Or he might work for a great house and this was an unused conveyance for the evening. Either way, it left her slightly unsettled, as another favor owed.
Soon the lights of
were shining through the windows and Ophelia gaped at the sight of them. Like stars come down from the Heavens, they twinkled everywhere. It was a pity she could not see more of the city before she left for Beckhamton. Although her trip last summer had proved difficult, and her time spent there exceedingly short, she had loved the activity. Perhaps not for long periods of time, but short visits might not be too taxing. Wouldn’t it be delightful if she and her mother could visit? London
The carriage slowed and then stopped altogether. Ophelia took in a deep breath. The coach dipped as Mr. Merrit’s driver descended. Fluttery wings tickled her stomach. The door opened and the coachman brought down the steps.
“We’ve arrived, Miss.”
Ophelia took his hand, stepped down, and stood awestruck in front of the palatial mansion. Could she turn and hop back into the coach? This was too much to take in. How could she ever begin to feel comfortable in such a place?
“My name is
Graves, Miss. When you wish to depart, ask the footman to call.”
“Yes, of course, thank you,” Ophelia said absently. She presumed the footman would know how to do such a thing.
She walked to the front door, and there stood a rather austere looking man dressed in requisite black.
“Welcome to Caymore House,” he said stiffly. “I am the butler, Quiggins. May I enquire if you are Miss Trent?”
Overcome with surprise, Ophelia merely nodded in response.
“Lady Penny has asked me to escort you to her immediately upon your arrival. If you would allow me your wrap.” He led her into the foyer where he helped her off with her cape and handed it off to a footman. He bowed slightly. “If you would follow me.”
Ophelia followed him up the mahogany staircase. She heard musicians tuning their instruments further down to the right. Footmen dressed in formal livery carried trays of food and drink to another room on the left.
The man stopped in front of the open doorway to a large imposing parlour. “Miss Ophelia Trent,” he intoned.
Ophelia noticed the people in the room all turn and look at her. The fluttery wings in her stomach beat a ferocious tattoo trying to escape. Oh goodness, she could not embarrass herself now.
“Miss Trent, I am so glad you could attend,” Lady Penelope said as she glided across the room.
Ophelia curtsied on shaking legs. “I was delighted by your most kind invitation.”
Lady Penelope laughed a light tinkling sound. “Pray ‘twas the least I could do after your disappointment last summer.”
Ophelia cringed inwardly and wondered how many guests had heard the story. She would be a laughingstock within minutes.
“Come, I would like to introduce you to my friends.” She linked her arm through Ophelia’s and then leaned closer to whisper, “I have told no one of what transpired that day at the Bainbridge, I have only said you are a dear friend from childhood. I hope you do not mind.”
“No, of course not.” What else could she say?
“Here now,” Lady Penelope said, landing at a group of fashionable ladies. “Miss Ophelia Trent may I introduce you to Lady Violet, Marchioness of Haverlane, Lady Fiona, Duchess of Cantin, Lady Amanda, Viscountess Gaines, and Lady Rowena, Viscountess Winsbarren. Ladies, this is Miss Ophelia Trent, the woman I’ve been telling you about.”
Ophelia drew down into a deep curtsy.
“May I say what an exquisite gown you are wearing, Miss Trent,” said Rowena. “’Tis absolutely stunning.”
She reached out and touched the ivory silk.
“I agree,” Fiona said.
Ophelia couldn’t quite catch her breath. Surely they were in jest. “Thank you,” she murmured.
“The seed pearls make the neckline. Do you not think so, Fiona?” Rowena asked.
“Oh yes, one cannot find pearls of that size or color anymore. I believe they are quite the antiquity now.”
“You must forgive Fiona and Rowena, Miss Trent.” Penelope placed her hand on Ophelia’s arm. “They are quite the pair when it comes to fashion. Each has had the unique opportunity to sew their own clothes and with every new gown they see, they must take it apart piece by piece.”
Ophelia smiled. “I do not mind. As a matter of fact, this is indeed an antiquity, my mother’s gown from well before I was born. I’ve had the pleasure of reworking it myself.”
“Well, it certainly becomes you,” Amanda said.
“Tell me, Miss Trent, from where do you hail?” Violet asked.
“A small town of little consequence, Beckhamton, an hour or so north of
“Such a long way to travel for a ball,” remarked Amanda.
“I’ve had the pleasure of staying with my cousin, Josephine, at Cummings Hall in
Wood, these three days together,” Ophelia explained. St. John’s
“That is a very lovely village, is it not?” asked Violet. “Haverlane and I traveled through there on our way to Easterly last summer.”
“I dare say I have only been to the village once,” Ophelia said. “On my latest foray, the day before yesterday, my carriage overturned and ….”
“Your carriage overturned!” Penelope looked at her with awe. “And you came to my ball. What a frightful experience. Are you sure you are feeling well enough?”
“Yes, of course,” Ophelia reassured her. “I only sustained a bump on the back of my head. ‘Twas a small carriage. It did not have far to fall.”
“Goodness me,” Fiona said, “I should think you would wish to stay abed.”
“I did yesterday. But I am well, now, as you see. Besides, I could not disappoint my mother. She wishes to hear about my experience tonight.”
“Her mother is an invalid and requires Miss Trent to remain by her side,” Penelope explained to the group, although Ophelia wondered how she could know such a thing. “I’m surprised she allowed you to attend.”
“My mother was quite in rapture with the invitation and insisted,” Ophelia said. “She has great hope for me that I will find a husband tonight.” She gave a short laugh. “My mother seems to think all it will take is one smile and the poor man will be so fascinated by my allure, he will fall madly in love with me.”
Violet laughed as well. “Why do mothers think that way? I declare, my own mother had the very same reasoning.”
“It is a shame they do not realize how truly hard it is in this day and age to find a man worthy enough of our charms,” Fiona said. “Although the pool is wide to choose from, it takes a steady hand to land the right fish.”
All the women laughed, and Ophelia relaxed immeasurably. The evening had begun and all her anxiety fled.
Quiggins returned and bowed to Penelope. “The guests have begun to arrive, my lady.”
“Oh, where is my husband?” She looked around the room. “Ah, there he is. Talking horses again, I’m sure. Well, my dear,” she addressed Ophelia, “I leave you in good hands. My friends will not soon desert you. However, I must attend to my guests. I shall find you again after I have done my duties.”
Penelope left and headed toward her husband, whereupon he left his group of companions and they quit the room.
“I dare say we should probably go into the ballroom before all the best spots are taken,” Violet said. “You know what a crush these things can be. I have no desire to fight the crowd to gain the terrace.”
The other women agreed and as one moved to the hall. Ophelia glanced behind her and watched the men follow. She smiled to herself. Yes, it may take a steady hand to land the best fish, but it was the string between the two that held them in place.
In the ballroom, chandeliers dripped with gold ribbons, holly leaves and berries adorned the mantels of the two massive fireplaces, and in the corner stood an enormous pine tree decorated in ribbons, candy, and festive flowers of every hue and size. Ophelia had never seen anything like it. She caught a glimpse of the giant Yule log near one of the hearths.
“This is breathtaking,” she said to no one in particular.
“Violet helped with the decorations,” Amanda said.
“I lived among Her Majesty’s household when I was a child,” Violet explained. “Queen Charlotte believed in decorating every room thus for Christmastide. It was a magnificent sight to behold.”
“Just as this,” Fiona remarked. “You have outdone even Penny’s expectations, I should think.”
They moved to the doors that stood open to the cold night breezes.
“Our husbands, when they join us, do not like to be cloistered amid the throng,” said Rowena. “Therefore, we have found it best to be near the open air. It does leave one with a slight chill. However, we can stand it as long as they block the wind.”
Fiona laughed. “Or they keep us dancing.”
The men joined them several minutes later. Introductions made all around, Ophelia tried not to feel uncomfortable when she met Lord Winsbarren. Exceedingly handsome, Ophelia would give her last shilling to hear the story of how Lady Rowena captured his heart.
The Marquess of Haverlane doted on Lady Violet, his hand always touching her in some fashion. The Duke of Cantin made Lady Fiona laugh with his outrageous imitations of their acquaintance. Viscount and Viscountess Gaines shared looks and smiles as if they could read each other’s minds. Ophelia tried to quell the pangs of jealousy amid all the displays of love and affection.
Another lord, the Earl of Davingdale joined them, but had not bothered to be presented to her. He stood on the outskirts of the group and only spoke when pointedly asked a question. He seemed extremely uncomfortable.
Hundreds of people filled the ballroom quickly, and Ophelia was grateful they were standing near the fresh air. An old lady hobbled up to the group, thumping her cane loudly across the floor.
“Have you ever seen such a shameful disgrace?” she asked.
“To what do you refer, Lady Olivia?” asked Violet.
“That damnable toady, Stockton. Drunk as a mayfly on St. Monica’s Day. I do not understand why Penny felt the need to invite him. Especially as you are her dear friend.” She looked pointedly at Fiona.
“Penny did indeed ask if I would mind his attendance,” Fiona said. “I assured her he would not bother me in the least. He knows he cannot come within a hair’s breadth of me or Robert will pummel him again.”
Another story Ophelia would surely love to hear.
The woman who was Lady Olivia fixed her stare on Ophelia. “And who might you be? Why did not Penny introduce us earlier?”
Ophelia sank into a deep curtsy.
“Enough,” She thumped her cane. “I am not a royal to deserve that kind of bowing and scraping.”
“Lady Olivia, this is Miss Ophelia Trent,” Violet said. “Miss Trent, this is Lady Olivia Leighton, Dowager Duchess of Caymore, and Penny’s most beloved aunt.”
“So you’re the one,” the old lady said. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, gel. Tell me, who is your mother? Who is your family?”
“Lady Rebecca Trent, née Cadwell. My father was Charles Trent, Baronet of Beckhamton. My brother, Charles, holds the title now.”
“Yes, of course, I should have recognized you immediately. You resemble your mother when she was a girl. How is she? Is she still abed?”
“No, Your Grace, my mother is quite improved, thank you.” How could this woman know so much of her mother?
“When you see her, do tell her I wish to hear from her. It has been far too long. Where are you staying? In Town?”
“No, Your Grace, with my cousin Lady Cummings in
Wood.” St. John’s
“Lady Cummings? Is your cousin?” Lady Olivia seemed flabbergasted. “Heaven help us, this is a small world is it not. Josephine and I were very good friends when her John and my Fuzzy were in Parliament together. Goodness me, it is almost twenty years since we’ve spoken. Her husband passed much sooner than mine and I’m afraid I lost all contact with her. How is she?”
“She is very well. I will be sure to pass along her regards this evening.”
“I should very much like to see her in person. Perhaps I shall call round in the next day or two.”
“Forgive me, Your Grace. My cousin travels with me to Beckhamton tomorrow. My mother only gave me leave for three days hospitality to attend Lady Penelope’s ball.”
The old woman thumped her cane. “Nonsense. I shall send a letter explaining to your mother about the delay. We shall dine here together tomorrow. Tell Josephine I will await her for luncheon. Two o’clock. Do not be late.” With that, she walked away, her cane thumping loudly across the parquet.
Humiliated by the set-down in front of her new friends, Ophelia wanted to crawl under the floor.
,” Amanda said. “Dare I say you have indeed made a splendid conquest.” Trent
“A conquest?” Ophelia was stunned. “I felt more like a schoolgirl being chastised for running late to classes.”
“You were invited to luncheon,” Violet interjected. “That is something nearly everyone covets, but hardly ever acquires.”
“You could do no better than to have Lady Olivia in your corner,” Fiona said. “She is a very powerful woman.”
Ophelia could hardly credit it. First an invitation to the ball, now an invitation to luncheon at the Dowager Caymore’s table. Perhaps her mother was right. This was indeed turning into a trip of miracles. Now if only Mr. Merrit would walk through the doors, she could die a happy death.
The musicians signaled the commencement of the dancing. Ophelia watched Penelope and her husband lead the first line of a country-dance. Ophelia watched enviously as all her new acquaintances moved to the dance floor.
A tall handsome man stood before her and bowed. “Miss Trent, my name is Jonathon Garrick. Lady Violet asked me to introduce myself as she was on her way to the dance floor.”
“It is very nice to make your acquaintance, Mr. Garrick.”
“I know this is very forward of me, but would you care to dance?”
Ophelia smiled. “Mr. Garrick, that would be lovely, thank you.”
Mr. Garrick proved to be a delightful dancer. He did not step on her toes, and moved with a grace that belied his imposing height.
When he brought her back to the corner of the terrace, Ophelia thanked him again for the dance. As she stood there uncertain as to what she should do, several gentlemen asked for introductions and as her dance card filled, Ophelia wanted to cry from happiness. She had never in her whole life met with such agreeable and amiable companionship. The affinity she felt meeting Lady Penelope’s friends gave her a new outlook, at least for the night. Her troubles melted away along with the concerns about her old-fashioned gown. She had received numerous compliments on it from men as well as women.
Mr. Garrick danced with Ophelia several times. Surely, it was not like a man to be so singular in his attentions, but Ophelia did not examine it too closely. This was a once in a lifetime prospect, for she knew she would never be given another invitation to a ball. Her life revolved around her family, but just for tonight, she would enjoy herself.
After her dance with Lord Culpepper, Ophelia found herself standing next to the Earl of Davingdale. Her friends were chatting with other people and she found herself smiling at the Earl. What she could see of him. Without her spectacles, everything close to her was blurry.
“Forgive me,” she said. “We have not been introduced. My name is Miss Trent.”
He glanced down at her. “Davingdale.”
“Is this not a lovely evening?”
“Yes, if you like these affairs.”
“You are not having a pleasant time?”
“I am here reluctantly. I do not generally attend these events.”
“Ah, Davingdale,” Penelope said as she approached them. “Have you met our lovely Miss Trent?”
“Yes, Lady Pen, we have been introduced.”
“Delightful. Pray, why do not you take her for a turn then? I hear the musicians tuning up for a waltz. The first of the evening.”
“Forgive me,” he said to Ophelia. “I do not dance. If you would excuse me.” He nodded to both women and walked away.
Penelope gave a nervous laugh. “You must excuse Davingdale. He has not been the same since his injury in the war and tends to shy away from women. He feels they are only after him for his money and his title. Please do not take offence. I can assure you, out of this milieu, he is indeed a very lovely man.”
“I do not take offence,” Ophelia said. “However, I find it odd he would think I am looking to become his wife after only a simple introduction.”
“Davingdale does not trust our species I’m afraid. He had a fiancée before the war who left him upon his return when she found his injuries were severe enough to impede him from, how shall we say, dancing in the correct manner. There was another woman, a year or so ago, whom we all thought had captured his heart, but he found she cuckolded him while waiting to become Countess and gain his fortune. I had so hoped he would look upon you with a favorable eye, as you are not the usual woman he meets. Alas, my matchmaking skills in this endeavor were sorely lacking. I see now, I should have handled it differently.”
“’Tis quite all right, Lady Penelope. Although my mother may wish I found a husband this night, I have no thought on that quarter, especially as this will be my only experience in Society. I cannot hope to gain a man’s affections in one evening.”
“You are too wise by half, Miss Trent.” Penelope patted her arm. “Tell me, are you engaged at present? My mother wishes to make your acquaintance. I believe she knows your mother.”
Ophelia dutifully followed and spent the next hour in the dowager corner conversing with several of her mother’s old friends. Ophelia, surprised so many people remembered her mother and father, cherished the memories they presented her. Perhaps in the spring she and her mother could return, so her mother could meet them all again.
Ophelia danced several more times, and when Mr. Garrick asked her for the supper waltz, Ophelia looked around hoping to see Mr. Merrit. Though she liked Mr. Garrick, she had somehow acquired the notion Mr. Merrit would arrive and sweep her into his arms for this special dance.
However, Mr. Garrick proved lovely to dance with and as the music ended and they stood on the edge of the parquet, Mr. Garrick leaned down and asked, “Have you an escort for supper?”
If she had been dancing with Mr. Merritt, she would now be going into supper with him. “Why, no,” Ophelia said.
“Allow me.” He proffered his arm. “Although, shall we wait until this mass has thinned?” Mr. Garrick asked as they neared the overcrowded dining room. His warm hand rested over hers on his arm.
“Yes, if you like,” Ophelia said. “Perhaps we could find a chair.” Her feet hurt from all the dancing.
“As you wish.” Mr. Garrick led her to a small table and chairs on the opposite side of the great room.
When Ophelia settled her skirts, she looked at Mr. Garrick. He merely stared at her. Her blurred vision prevented her from seeing his expression. Perhaps she should be the one to speak first.
“Mr. Garrick, I want to thank you so very much for your kindness this evening. It has been most welcome.”
“I must confess, Miss Trent, and forgive me for being so forward, but you have quite bewitched me.”
“Mr. Garrick,” Ophelia whispered. “Surely, not.” The idea of bewitching him seemed impossible. She had learned earlier in the evening he had resigned his commission in the Navy after Trafalgar. Perhaps he had suffered a head injury and did not think clearly.
“Yes,” he said. “You have. When Lady Violet suggested I make your acquaintance, I never thought I would feel such powerful emotions.”
“Miss Trent, allow me to say you are the sweetest, gentlest, creature I could ever hope to meet, and if I were a man with any sense, I would declare my affections immediately. Say I may court you. Say I may call upon your family. I know this is rather sudden, but say you will be my wife.”
“Mr. Garrick!” Ophelia could not be hearing him correctly. Surely, he did not just say he wanted her for his wife.
“Miss Trent,” he said solemnly. “I know this seems a bit of a shock, to myself as well, but I have been searching for a woman of your caliber for a very long time, and have never found her. Until now. I vowed when such a time came, I would not waste another moment vacillating between my head and my heart.” He got down on one knee and took up her hand. “Miss Trent, I am entirely in your hands.”
Of all the things Ophelia had previously thought about this night, garnering a marriage proposal had never been one of them. Her mother may have thought it, but never she.
“Mr. Garrick,” Ophelia said, gathering her wits. “Having only just met, I am a bit overwhelmed by your passion. As for your proposal of marriage, I am hardly in a position to accept at this moment, so we shall see what the future brings. That being said, I believe I would like you to escort me into supper now.”
Mr. Garrick kissed her hand and helped her up, his smile outshining the candles in the chandelier. “Your wish is my command, my dear.”
In the supper room, Ophelia felt restricted in a way she had never experienced before. She had no wish to hurt Mr. Garrick’s feelings, but how could she say ‘yes’ to a marriage proposal after only five dances? Her brother Charles would have an apoplexy. Charles wanted her to marry, but she was sure, not like this. She did not even know Mr. Garrick.
They ate their small repast with several friends of Mr. Garrick’s, although Ophelia longed to be sitting with Penelope and the rest of the women she had met. While charming and highly attentive, Mr. Garrick’s mention of their anticipated understanding left Ophelia embarrassed when they all raised their glasses to her. How could she tell him in front of his friends he had mistaken her answer.
Excusing herself from the supper table, Ophelia found the ladies retiring room, and Lady Olivia.
“How are you finding yourself, gel?” The old woman sat fanning herself in a small chair by the open window.
“I must confess a bit overwhelmed at the moment.” Ophelia sat in the chair next to her.
“Garrick proposed, did he?”
“How did you know?” Was anything sacred in this Town?
“I saw him on his knee before supper. Garrick’s a good man. Has a pretty estate, a good living. A little soon to be making an offer, but after his debacle with Violet last summer, I believe he’s learned his lesson.”
“Mr. Garrick and Lady Violet?” Ophelia whispered. Another story she would love to hear.
“Oh yes. Alas, it is not my tale to tell. However, Garrick has been wife hunting ever since. My advice, wait awhile yet. Do not take the first proposal you are offered. I know you feel at your age, you should. But you should wish to marry someone with whom you share great affection right from the beginning. Marrying for the sake of marriage and hoping it will turn into love will only lead to heartbreak and disappointment. As women, we are usually only given one chance at finding happiness in this life. Making a mistake like that is a burden you do not wish to carry.”
“With my life, such as it is, I do not wish my brother to carry my burden either.” Ophelia sighed.
“Your brother would not carry it if he did not love you. He could have forced you off on someone years ago if he did not. He is a good man. Wait, child. Wait for love. It is right around the corner. I can feel it.” With that, Lady Olivia heaved herself out of her chair and headed for the door. With her hand on the latch, she turned and said, “Do not forget, two o’clock for luncheon.”
Ophelia sat for a moment longer wondering at the conversation. Lady Olivia was quite the enigma.
Leaving the room, she walked down the hall to return to the ballroom and she saw a figure at the top of the stairs…could it be? Her vision in close range without her spectacles gave everything she saw a hazy appearance, but her far sight was indeed excellent. Could it truly be Mr. Merrit?
She flew down the hall. Where did he go? He was right there a moment ago. She was sure it was he. Descending the stairs, she saw a group of gentlemen standing about in front of the doors to the library. Reaching the bottom, she dared not move closer, there were certain things a woman should never do. Invade their privacy was one. But she had seen Mr. Merrit. She knew she had.
“May I be of service, Miss?” The butler, Quiggins, stood at her elbow.
“Forgive me. I’m looking for someone I thought I knew. He was here just a moment ago.”
“Mr. Merrit, Mr. Thomas Merrit.”
“Yes, Miss, he was here. He just left.”
Her whole world collapsed in that moment. He had been there, at this ball, on this night, and now he was gone. Ophelia choked back her disappointment.
“Miss, are you well?”
“No. Yes. Thank you. Forgive me.” She stared out at the open doorway. Mr. Merrit was out there somewhere. How foolish would she be if she went after him? As the seconds ticked by, indecision gave way to despair. She would never find him now. “Would you mind calling my carriage? My driver’s name for the evening is
“Very good, Miss. Shall I retrieve your wrap while you make your good-byes to Lady Penny?”
“Yes, thank you very much. I shall only be a minute.”
Ophelia walked slowly up the stairs. How could she not have seen Mr. Merrit before this? If he had been downstairs for most of the evening, that would explain it, but he had been upstairs when she had been with Lady Olivia, which must mean he had been in the ballroom, or at least the dining room. Her last chance to see him was gone, snatched away like a catkin on the breeze.
She found Penelope and took her leave with the promise to see her at luncheon on the morrow.
Penelope smiled. “I’m so glad you will be attending. ‘Tis a small group and always pleasant company. It will be lovely to have you and your cousin joining us,” the duchess said.
Ophelia did not bother to say good-bye to Mr. Garrick. Lady Olivia was right. If it had not been for her sighting Mr. Merrit, Ophelia may have made the biggest mistake of her life. Yes, she finally admitted, Cousin Josephine was right as well, a person could fall in love in an instant. Unfortunately, her heart now belonged entirely to Mr. Merrit and she may never see him again.
Tomorrow at luncheon, she would discreetly ask Lady Penelope if she knew him.
The next morning, Josephine’s excitement over the prospect of having luncheon with Lady Olivia knew no bounds. She prattled on over Ophelia’s late breakfast about the times they had spent in each other’s company, with and without their husbands. Lady Olivia it seemed, was a champion of the lower classes, and along with the Duke of Cantin’s father and her late husband Fitzhugh, Lady Olivia had founded girls and boys homes for orphans. She brought in tutors for their education, trades people for apprenticing the older children, and had even taken a few into her own home to train as upstairs servants.
Ophelia tried to appear fascinated by her cousin’s former friend, but nothing could dispel her sadness over missing the opportunity of meeting Mr. Merrit at the ball. And although she did look forward to the luncheon at the Caymore mansion, she did not quite have the gaiety she would have liked.
appeared to clear her dishes, Ophelia asked if he could possibly fix her spectacles. “I am having the most dreadful time with them. They lean to one side and I find my neck contorts to the same angle. My brother Charles usually takes care of them but I cannot wait that long. If I do not wear them, I end up with a frightful headache.” She took them off and handed them to the servant. Jackson
“Of course, Miss, I’ll see what I can do,” he said and left the room.
“Is that why you are out of sorts today, dearie? From not wearing your spectacles last night?”
“No, Cousin. It seems Mr. Merrit was at the ball and I did not get a chance to speak with him.” Ophelia brought her fingers to her eyes and rubbed them.
“Oh, no, I am so sorry. I know how much you wanted to see him.”
“Well, there is certainly nothing I may do about it now.”
Josephine reached over and patted her hand. “I have a feeling you will meet him again very soon.”
“If that I could. We have the luncheon, and then our trip to Beckhamton. I do not even know if he lives in
Wood. For all I know, he may be from the northernmost tip of St. John’s .” Scotland
“Please do not fret so. I have every good feeling about your Mr. Merrit that he will show up before we depart for Beckhamton.”
Ophelia smiled at her cousin. If only it were true.
Ophelia wondered if Lady Olivia would appear as inscrutable as she had been last night. How did she know so much about her family when they were so long removed from Society? How did she know what lay in Ophelia’s heart when she barely knew it herself? And what about the cryptic message, that love was right around the corner? Seeing Mr. Merrit at the top of the stairs had given her pause. Was the old woman a witch?
When they arrived at Caymore House, Quiggins met them at the door, took their coats, and showed them to a yellow salon on the first floor. “Miss Trent and Lady Cummings,” he said.
Lady Olivia was the first to greet them. She enveloped Josephine with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “Oh my dearest, it is so good to see you again.”
“And I you,” said Josephine.
“And Miss Trent,” Lady Olivia said.
“Now, now, none of that shall we. Come, Josephine, let me introduce you round my family and friends.” Lady Olivia took Josephine by the arm and walked her over to the Duke of Cantin, Viscount Gaines, and the Marquess of Haverlane.
Penelope glided over the Aubusson carpet. “Miss Trent, how lovely you could join us. You know everyone.” She turned and waved her hand across the room. Violet, Fiona, and Amanda were standing with Lady Penelope’s husband, William, the Duke of Caymore. “Would you like a glass of lemonade, tea, ratafia, perhaps?”
“Oh no, thank you. I shall wait until luncheon if you do not mind.”
“Very well then. We are only waiting for Davingdale to arrive. He is usually exceedingly prompt for these kinds of engagements. He knows my Quiggins will not wait a meal for anyone.” She smiled. “Come, let us say hello, shall we?” She led Ophelia over to the group near the window.
Ophelia enjoyed chatting with everyone, and found Lady Penelope’s husband most amiable. She had not had the pleasure of his company last night at the ball, and his twinkling eyes, and humorous wit had her giggling like a young girl.
Quiggins announced luncheon at exactly two-fifteen and the group proceeded to a small, yet lavish dining room across the hall. The table had been set with a different pattern of china than the one used last night for the ball, and Ophelia could only assume it was the finest in the house.
goblets sparkled, the silverware gleamed, and the fire in the hearth burned a perfect temperature. Crystal
Lady Olivia sat to the right of William, with Josephine by her side and Ophelia enjoyed the company of Penelope’s left and Viscount Gaines across from her. The chair to her left was unoccupied, presumably for Davingdale. Ophelia couldn’t help wonder if Penelope had laid the seating arrangements that way on purpose. Perhaps Davingdale knew and that was why he remained absent.
Under Quiggins’ watchful eye, luncheon was served. A superb gastronomic feast of five full courses, Ophelia was sure she had never eaten so sumptuously in all her life. The company was unequal to any she had shared thus, and she couldn’t remember a time when she laughed quite so much.
The footmen cleared the last of the dishes from the cheese and fruit course. Decadent desserts were sitting on a trolley tray in the corner, and silver coffee and tea services were being prepared on the buffet along the wall.
Ophelia, engaged in conversation with Violet, had her back to the door when Quiggins announced, “The Earl of Davingdale.”
William pushed back his chair. “Well, it’s about time, Davingdale. Where have you been? You know Quiggins will not wait. Pen is quite put out.”
Ophelia turned to look at the late arrival. His face last night had been a blur, and she now wanted a better look at it, to see if his hauteur matched his countenance. She gasped.
“Forgive me, Lady Pen,” Davingdale said. “I had important business in
Wood.” His gaze lit upon Ophelia. “Ophelia! What are you doing here?” St. John’s
Oh good God, it was him! “Mr. Merrit? What are you doing here?”
“Ophelia?” William stood. “This is the lady you rescued?”
“Davingdale, how do you come by such familiarity with our Miss Trent?” Penelope put down her glass and stood as well.
“Miss Trent?” Davingdale pushed his hair back from his face. “Miss Trent? You are the woman I met last night? Why were you not wearing your spectacles?”
Ophelia found her voice. “Yes, I am. They were damaged in the accident. I only had them fixed this morning.”
“What do you mean rescued?” Lady Olivia demanded.
William explained. “Davingdale said he rescued a woman from a carriage accident the other day. In picking her up when she fainted, it seems it brought back the use of his bad arm. He only knew her as Ophelia.”
“Miss Trent,” Penelope interjected, “you were in a carriage accident the other day were you not?”
“Yes, I was. And Mr. Thomas Merrit rescued me.” Ophelia looked at the man standing before her. “But you are Davingdale?”
Lady Olivia banged her hand on the table. “Now does not that sound like Davingdale, to use his given name to escape an entanglement?”
“Ophelia.” Davingdale moved around the table. “Miss Trent, forgive my manners last night. I had no idea it was you. You were dressed so differently from our previous meetings. Had I known it was you….”
“Pray tell, what meetings?” The Duke of Cantin pushed his chair back and stood as well. “You claim to have rescued her, which would imply only one.” His voice held an amused tone.
Davingdale had the decency to blush. “We met on her first day in the village when I accidentally knocked her down and sent her new cape into a mud puddle.”
“Davingdale!” Amanda threw her napkin on the table.
“It was an accident,” Ophelia whispered.
“It seems a very happy one.” Violet patted Ophelia’s hand.
The air crackled with excitement. Ophelia glanced down the table at Cousin Josephine, and found her with tears in her eyes.
“Miss Trent, may I speak with you privately?” Davingdale walked toward her. “Would you all excuse us?”
He stood beside her and held out his hand. Ophelia grasped his fingers and noticed he held hers with his bad arm. She looked up into his face. He smiled, took her hand, and wrapped it around his arm. The dining room was silent as he led her out to the hall and down the marble floor. Opening a door at the front of the house, they entered another sitting room.
“Miss Trent,” he said bringing her to the chaise. “Please allow me to speak directly.”
Ophelia sat down on shaky limbs. She could not catch her breath for the pounding of her heart, and the fluttering wings in her stomach.
He paced the floor. “From the moment we met on the street, I have had this feeling about you I cannot seem to shake. You intrigued me, and I felt the need to further our acquaintance. I called on you the next day, the day of your accident. I had hoped you would not think me too forward, but I could not get you out of my mind. When I found you lying in the bottom of the carriage, powerful emotions overtook me, and they somehow managed to bring what was dead in my arm back to life again. For that, I will always be indebted.” He sat next to her on the chaise.
“Had I only known it was you last night, but I had no idea. By some very strange reasoning, I never gave a thought that your last name was not Cummings. When you mentioned you were staying at Cummings Hall, I just presumed. Your cousin only referred to you as Ophelia. And I did not recognize you last night. I had never seen your hair, being covered by a bonnet both times we met, or even your form hidden under your coat. And with your spectacles…please forgive me.”
“I saw you leaving last night,” Ophelia said breathlessly. “I saw you in the hall at the top of the stairs. By the time I reached the bottom you were gone.”
“Funnily enough, I was outside speaking with
“I departed right after you did,” Ophelia said. “I could not bear to remain knowing I had missed my last opportunity to see you.
Graves took me home and I was going to give him a note for you, but it was late, and I did not want to keep the horses out in the cold. I had no idea what to say. We were supposed to leave for Beckhamton this morning. Only Lady Olivia insisted Cousin Josephine and I dine with her for luncheon.”
He sat back. “I just came from the Hall to see you. I was invited to this luncheon, but I knew Lady Pen had decided to play matchmaker again. I knew it last night when she wanted me to dance with you. Had I only known.”
He took up her hand and held it tightly. “Ophelia, I know we have only just met, and this may seem exceedingly forward, but I should like to know you better. I should like to share a future with you. May I speak with your family? Would they think it strange?”
Ophelia smiled. Didn’t Mr. Garrick utter almost those same words last night? How could they seem so right coming from one man and not the other?
“Thomas,” he said.
“Thomas, are you sure? You do not even know me.”
“What is there to know? I fell in love with you the moment you insisted I not have your cape cleaned.”
Ophelia smiled. “And I fell in love with you because you did.”
Davingdale placed his hand on Ophelia’s cheek and gazed deeply into her eyes. He leaned down and pressed his lips gently upon hers. The fluttering wings in her stomach ceased. She had never felt so sure about anything in her life.
He leaned back and looked at her. “You have found my heart and made me whole again.”
His lips sought hers once more and they shared a passionate kiss. A lifetime of loneliness melted away from Ophelia’s soul. She may not know this man now, but she would relish every second of their life together in trying. Desire, need, and the unexplainable yearning for each other left them breathless.
Ophelia broke away from his kiss and gazed at her new love. “As much as I cherish this time together, do you not think we should rejoin the others?”
Davingdale through back his head and laughed. “Of course, if you wish. But I should say now, you will be returning with me, alone, in my carriage, to Cummings Hall.”
“It would be my pleasure,” Ophelia said.
Davingdale helped her up, and brought his lips to hers once more.
And when they finished the kiss, they went to join the others for coffee and dessert.
On a warm sunny morning in early November, the Earl of Davingdale married Miss Ophelia Trent. Their wedding breakfast was held in the the ballroom at the Bainbridge Hotel.
Lady Trent, the bride’s mother, beamed when she saw her daughter dancing with her new husband wearing the ivory silk dress that had caught her own husband’s eye thirty-two years before.
Ophelia’s friends wept with joy, and their husbands grinned at the good fortune of the earl.
Lady Olivia and Cousin Josephine shared secret smiles throughout the day. It seemed their plan had worked.