The Pembrokes of Wildemoore Hall were hosting a house party with some fifteen guests, if the reports were true, and tonight a ball would honor the party. Families from miles around would attend, including Mrs. Ellen Stanhope and her daughters. Her husband, Mr. Anthony Stanhope, had yet to return from estate business but would in all likelihood arrive home in time to make an appearance.
In three quarters of an hour, the ball would begin, which meant that Ellen and her daughters should be departing at once. If she’d had her wish, they would have departed as soon as Cornsby had brought about the carriage, some fifteen minutes hence, and yet it stood out front waiting, while she stood inside, waiting for her daughters to finish their toilette.
Ellen paced the front hall, wondering whether to send one of the maids up to check on the girls, although Diana’s maid, Rose, was already there, of course.
Mrs. Wimbley, the housekeeper, came down the hall and eyed the staircase. “Shall I go see if something is the matter?”
Something inside Ellen’s heart tweaked the slightest bit — perhaps mother’s intuition — so instead of sending Mrs. Wimbley upstairs, she said, “I think I’ll check on them myself, but thank you, Mrs. Wimbley.”
“Very well, Mrs. Stanhope,” the housekeeper said as Ellen marched to the stairs and went up.
Not a minute later, she opened Diana’s bedroom door to find all three of her daughters inside, bustling about, talking in whispers and then laughing at whatever another had said. To Ellen’s relief, her two younger daughters, Catherine and Mary-Anne, appeared to be ready — fully dressed, with their hair up, curled and tied with ribbons. Catherine wore a necklace with a single pearl resting in the hollow of her throat, and Mary-Anne had fresh pink roses pinned to her dress and woven into her hair.
But Diana’s hair was down, and instead of wearing one of her ball gowns, she stood before a full-length mirror in the corner and held up two gowns, taking turns placing the pale-blue taffeta in front of the brown silk, then tilting her head as she considered one dress, only to switch it with the other, tilt her head the other direction, and bite her lip with indecision.
Her maid stood to the side, holding yet two more gowns and looking flushed. Tendrils had escaped her bun and had curled as a result of the exertion it took to dress her charge.
At Ellen’s entrance, the poor maid’s face blanched white. “I’m so sorry they’re not ready, Mrs. Stanhope,” Rose said, bobbing at the knee and lowering her gaze to the floor. “I’ve been trying—”
“It’s quite all right,” Ellen said. “It’s not your fault that my eldest daughter is suddenly obsessed with fashion.” She crossed to the mirror and admired the yellow silk, which Diana was now considering along with the brown, having taken it from Rose’s hands after shoving away earlier.
“Yellow becomes your hair,” Ellen said. “And that gown has always been a favorite of yours.” The words were all true in spite of her motives for saying them — hoping to hasten the decision. “I just … don’t … know …” Diana sighed. “Which color do you think—” Her voice cut off so quickly that her mother knew quite well Diana was hiding something. Had there been any doubt about the matter, the look that plainly showed a fear of discovery, which Diana gave her two sisters, only confirmed her suspicions.
Ellen took the brown dress from Diana’s hand and returned it to Rose. “Put this one away as well. Miss Stanhope will be wearing the yellow.”
“Yes’m,” Rose said, bobbing again, then shooting Diana a worried look before hurrying to return the gowns to the wardrobe.
For a moment, the three young women said nothing, remarkably silent — which might as well have been a flag waving the message that they were harboring a secret. Ellen sat on the small bench at Diana’s vanity table and clasped her hands, trying to look at ease rather than rushed and annoyed at the continued delay. Had she known her family would be late, she wouldn’t have ordered the carriage already. She hated making anyone wait — or being made to wait, either — and that included the help as well as the Pembrokes.
“So tell me … what is the gentleman’s name?” Ellen asked, keeping her voice as light as possible.
Catherine’s and Mary-Anne’s eyes widened with surprise, and they looked at each other, as if shocked that their mother had figured something out — as if Ellen hadn’t been young once herself, with the same idealized view of the world and men and romance. She turned her gaze to Diana, eyebrows raised in question. In spite of herself, Ellen couldn’t help but be a bit entertained at seeing bright pink buds brightening her daughter’s cheeks and Diana averting her gaze from her mother’s.
“I…” Diana seemed to study the rug’s design with an intensity no floor covering could justify, as if she hadn’t seen this very rug every day of her life. “What I meant to say…”
When her voice trailed off again, Ellen debated whether to let her daughter squirm a little longer but decided to put the girl out of her misery. “I remember,” she said gently. “When I met your father, I was about your age, you know.”
The words made her heart ache a bit. She missed those days, when, more than two decades previous, she’d believed that she’d achieved what so many other women never had — marrying the perfect man. That he would always set her heart beating fast, whisper in her ear about her beauty, about how she was nothing short of an angel sent from heaven to live among mortals. In short, that she would live happily, in romantic bliss, for the rest of her days.
Of course, such fairy dreams don’t last, and as was so often the case, she hadn’t thought past the wedding altar. The bliss and euphoria of becoming Mrs. Anthony Stanhope had lasted a few years, but eventually it faded, so slowly, in the face of hum-drum reality that even she hadn’t noticed until the bliss had evaporated completely as the morning dew in the sun.
Ellen still prided herself on the fact that she and her husband had never had a genuine row. They had never disagreed so hotly that they raised their voices or became so angry that they spent days in simmering silence. She’d known of plenty women who complained of such things.
No, she and Anthony had simply grown apart. First it was his business trips to London and regarding the estate, which she never resented, of course; a landed gentleman must manage his affairs. And she’d found herself busier in managing the household, especially as she’d discovered that she had a knack for such things as schedules and menus and budgets and discussing issues with Mrs. Wimbley and Hughes, the butler.
And through those same years, of course, came one daughter and then another and another; Ellen had spent nearly nine months with each confinement flat on her back, unable to bear the smell of food or keep down more than a sip or two of broth and the occasional biscuit with tea.
Her maid had ensured that few people ever bothered her during her confinement, which at the time, in her misery, she’d viewed as a good thing. She often wondered now, though, whether Anthony had ever wanted to see her during those months of constant illness. Had he worried over her wellbeing? Had he taken notice of her absence at the dinner table, or had he been so busy with the estate and hosting guests and who knew what else that he’d noted her empty chair but hadn’t ever missed her?
Their fourth and final child, a boy, had died at birth, and that was when Ellen had wanted her Anthony back. She’d needed to be held in the arms of the one man whom she could cry with, who could hold her in his strong arms and assure her that all would be well, that he would stay with her as long as she wanted him to. But after the stillbirth of baby William, her husband hadn’t come to her, at least not in that way. He’d visited her, of course, and when he’d come to her room, he’d spoken in solemn, sad tones.
She’d yearned for him to sit on her bed and pull her into his arms, to whisper into her ear about how sorry he was. To cry with her. But by then, none of that was possible because they’d become near strangers. Naturally, he wouldn’t have sat down or done any other such thing that belonged to those who were truly intimate. As they had once been but were no longer. She didn’t ask him to mourn with her, and he didn’t ask it of her either.
Even now, twelve years later, she didn’t know what he had felt — what he yet felt — about the loss of his only son.
She still missed the man she married. She missed the woman he’d married too, for that matter. How had she changed so much that her own husband didn’t know how to speak to her in anything but cordial, polite tones?
“Mother?” Catherine said, pulling Ellen out of her thoughts.
“I’m sorry,” she said, realizing that the girls had returned to their chatter about dresses — Rose had even brought back the pale-blue taffeta for additional consideration. “I got distracted for a moment.” She smoothed her dress, cleared her throat, and tried again, although this time, maintaining her composure proved challenging for a reason other than impatience. “Diana, my sweet girl, the color of your dress won’t matter. I am sure that, whoever he is, he’s already smitten with you. When he sees you tonight, he will see nothing but the stars in your eyes, I assure you.”
Truth. A bitter truth, for Ellen remembered Anthony looking at her that way.
Diana smiled softly, clearly pleased, but when she spoke, her voice had a tone of suspicion in it. “Are you in earnest? Or are you saying so just to get me dressed quickly? I know we’ll be late, but—”
“I’m quite sincere, I assure you,” Ellen said. “And yet…” She hesitated, not sure if she dared give the advice she so wanted to. After all, at the age of her eldest daughter, she wouldn’t have paid any heed to such words.
“Mother, what is it? You seem so serious all at once.” Diana handed Catherine the yellow gown, then pulled a short stool closer and sat on it, leaning toward Ellen, an expression of concern etched in her features.
Ellen looked from one daughter to the next, taking in the image of each one and wondering where, indeed, the time had gone. It hadn’t been so long ago that she’d held each of them in her arms. She took a deep breath and gave her best advice. “I want you all to remember that a good match is what is most important — a man who can provide and care for you and your future children. A man with a reputation and honor to uphold. Emotion and romance is all well and good, but—”
“Oh, I adore Lord Byron’s poetry,” Mary-Anne said, mock-swooning onto the bed. “I could read his romantic poems all night long and never tire of them.”
“That is the very thing I am cautioning you against,” Ellen said, smiling sadly. She was quite serious now that the subject had been broached. “A man who is worthy of your love needn’t be the kind who dances best or who most sets your heart aflutter.”
“Oh, Mother,” Catherine said with a giant sigh. “Let us have some fun while we’re young.”
With one finger raised, Ellen went on. “I never said you couldn’t enjoy yourselves, only that the time will come when—”
“If memory serves,” Diana interrupted. “You were quite smitten with Father. Or so I’ve heard.”
Now it was Ellen’s turn to blush. “I was indeed, and he with me, if I may say so. He was devastatingly handsome.”
“And a wonderful dancer?” Catherine asked, clearly baiting her. “You married the man who set your heart aflutter, and it all worked out. Why shouldn’t we do the same? There’s no need to pick either a good match or being in love. I say, choose both.” She turned to Diana.
Which brings us back to the moment. I don’t want to miss any more of the ball at Wildemoore than we already will have. Wear the yellow, won’t you? Rose can fix your hair in a snap, and we can be on our way.”
When Diana seemed to soften, even taking the gown back, Mary-Anne spoke up, clearly wanting to add her own log to the fire. “Besides, I’m sure Mr. Whitcomb will be quite prompt, and you don’t want him dancing with too many other young women simply because you aren’t there, do you?”
Her tone was teasing, but Diana’s reaction appeared akin to receiving a mortal wound. If looks could sew a mouth shut, Mary-Anne would never have spoken again.
Ellen had been so close to getting Diana dressed, although she considered the conversation a success if only because she now knew the name of her daughter’s beau. She tried to ease the tension by first, not reacting immediately to the name, and second, by standing and walking toward the door to the hall.
She opened it, but before going out, said, “Mr. Whitcomb, is it? He is quite handsome, isn’t he? He comes from a good family, and from what little I know of him, he might well be a very good match.”
She grinned at her daughters and walked out, rather pleased with herself for leaving them speechless. But when she closed the door behind her, a waterfall of memories rushed into her mind, one after the other, bringing with it a wellspring of long-buried emotions.
She remembered times in past years when she’d seen glimpses of the Anthony Stanhope she’d fallen in love with, when she’d felt the same love of old rush forth anew. When she’d seen glimpses of the same love returned in his eyes.
But as sweet as those memories were, the most recent such memories were from several years ago.
I did make a good match, and I have a good life, she thought as she made her way back down the stairs. It may not be the life I thought I would have, but it is a good one, and I’m happy.
Then why couldn’t she stop wondering if she could have prevented her and Anthony from drifting apart?
And why, a little voice in her heart demanded, if romance was as silly as she’d implied to her daughter, were tears blurring her vision at the idea that she could have lost Anthony’s love forever?
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THE AFFAIR AT WILDEMOORE