By Elaine McGerailt
"It just isn't right!" Miranda Trentworth jammed the bright red gilly flowers into the vase with such force that water splattered all over her black dress. Why had she ever let her mother talk her into helping prepare for the fete tomorrow?
"Is anything the matter, Miss?"
Startled, Miranda whirled around. Wickham, the gardener, stood patiently before her holding a brightly colored bouquet of sweetbrier, stocks and gilly flowers. She hadn't heard his steps crunch the gravel on the floor of the orangery.
"Nothing new," she muttered, "except I'm wondering if I'll ever be through here." She picked up the vase of flowers she'd been arranging and held it out. "Just set the flowers down and take this to Mother, if you please. I'm sure she'll find at least one square inch of space that she hasn't filled yet."
"Of course Miss. Be happy to. But I do hope her Ladyship is about done, though. This last batch of flowers is all that's left in the cutting garden. Her Ladyship suggested we cut some of your father's roses, but I knew you'd take it amiss."
Miranda's temper flared and her eyes blazed with a blue flame. How could her mother be so insensitive? The wild yellow roses her father had brought back from China had been his one, all consuming, passion in life. "Did she actually suggest that?" Miranda clenched her fist and swallowed with barely suppressed fury. "Wickham, I assure you, I will not be badgered or bullied into gutting Father's rose garden for this fete. If you so much as set one foot in there, I'll...."
"Now, now, Miss. You know I wouldn't do that. The master meant a lot to me too."
Miranda felt her face flush. How could she be so thoughtless as to take her frustration out on Wickham? She mustered a weak smile, handed him the vase, and motioned him toward the house. "Take these to Mother, please. And Wickham, I'm sorry. It's just that sometimes..." Miranda shrugged, and her voice trailed off into a embarrassed silence.
"That's all right, Miss." He nodded and headed toward the door, and then turned back toward her. "Miss, I know how hard it's been for you since the master died, but you shouldn't take everything so serious all the time. At least the shindy tomorrow is for a right good cause. In fact Miss, Reverend Bidwell was just up at the house telling her Ladyship how much the money from tomorrow's fete is going to mean to those poor orphans."
"Maybe you're right, Wickham. I just don't know anymore." Pulling a stool up to her potting bench, Miranda almost collapsed onto it. The last rays of the summer sun drifted in through the glass overhead and surrounded her in a kaleidoscope of light and shadow that seemed to mirror her thoughts.
Why was it no one else thought there was anything wrong with having a large fete for the entire countryside barely four months after her father had died. Hot, bitter tears began to well up in her eyes. She was silly to let all of this hurt so much, but she couldn't help it. Nothing that had happened had been fair. She'd lost Ravenhill to her cousin Thomas, her father's return trip to China had gone up in smoke, along with her chances of going along, and she was still living with the embarrassment of having written that silly letter to Peter.
Miranda put another flower into the vase. Her father had only been dead a month when she'd written Peter and poured out all of her troubles. That part alone would have been all right if she hadn't impulsively added how much she missed him and how desperately she was looking forward to his return to England. Young ladies of breeding simply did not write letters like hers, but it wasn't until after she'd posted it that she'd realized how easily Peter could have misconstrued her meaning.
The gravel crunched behind her and Miranda picked up the vase she'd just finished arranging, expecting to hand it to Wickham. Instead, her cousin Thomas Brooksbank stood behind her. He was a man of medium height with brown hair, brown eyes and a square build. She'd once heard someone remark that Thomas's looks and intellect were in inverse proportion. The speaker had intended it as a left handed compliment, of course. Thomas Brooksbank, so popular opinion went, had the making of a prime minister in him, and one didn't insult him lightly. Miranda though, had privately interpreted the remark a little differently. Zero divided by zero was still zero, and that was exactly what she thought of Thomas.
"There you are, Miranda. I've been looking for you all afternoon. What on earth are you doing with that vase of flowers?"
"Arranging it for Mother's fete."
"Miranda, I've told you before not to do that. You'll completely destroy the efficient management of the servants if you continue to insist on doing their work for them."
Miranda sighed under her breath. Thomas was determined to make his influence felt in every corner of Ravenhill, even if he had to manufacture problems to do it. Still, there was no sense arguing with him. She'd tried that before and it had gotten her nowhere. "Yes Thomas." She set the vase down and slid off her stool. "I'm finished here anyway."
Thomas held out his arm for her. "Good. I want you to take a walk with me."
Miranda took his arm with some trepidation. What on earth did he want to complain about now?
They left the orangery and headed along the walk away from the house. Preparations for the fete were everywhere. Tables, that would be laden with food tomorrow, were already set out and profusely decorated with garlands of flowers. They walked by brightly painted booths that had been erected to house the different fund raising activities, and continued past the colorful tent of the gypsy fortune teller her mother had hired.
Thomas squeezed her arm and smiled down at her. "You know how much I've always liked and respected you, Miranda.."
What a flagrant untruth. They'd found one another's company intolerable for as long as she could remember. What kind of game was he playing?
"I realize we've had some spats over the years, but I've watched you grow into a fine young lady, who I find most attractive." Thomas stopped and faced Miranda.
A prickly sensation moved down her back. "What do you want, Thomas?"
"Want?" His tone sounded wounded. "Can't a man simply pay his respects to his attractive young cousin without being accused of wanting something?" He ran his hands lightly up her arms, stepped closer to her, and gave her body a raking gaze.
Miranda gulped a nervous breath. Was he going to bring up that ridiculous offer of a marriage of convenience again? She had hoped her refusal two months ago had been clear enough. Anxiously she pulled back from him. Whatever his intentions were, she didn't want any part of them. "I really have to be getting back to the house.."
Thomas moved closer to her again. "Of course my dear, but I had thought we might walk down by Sorrows Acre. I hear the flowers are in bloom all across the meadow."
Miranda bristled with indignation. Flowers, my foot! Did he really think she was so naive she didn't know about what went on in that little house out in Sorrows Acre? But, why on earth would he be attempting to seduce her? Unless, of course, he felt that by compromising her reputation she'd be forced to marry him. She bit back the scathing reply that had formed in her mind and instead said, "Thank you again for you offer, but I really have to get back to help Mother with the preparations."
Thomas shrugged and offered his arm again. Miranda demurred. "No, I wouldn't think about making you cut your walk short. Take as long as you want. I promise I'll have cook hold dinner for you." And with any luck you'll get lost and never come back, she thought as she spun on her heel and left him standing there.
The party the next afternoon was considered by those in the know to be the social success of the season. Lady Greystone, arrayed in a stylishly low cut black muslin gown, cheerfully geeted her guests, while Thomas stood near by and acted his new part as Lord of the Manor.
Miranda moved through the dense throng of people toward the vacant bench under the elm tree. It could have been worse, she thought. Instead of shunning her mother for flaunting social customs as she had feared, and if she were honest with herself, she secretly hoped they might; all the guests had treated her mother as if nothing out of the ordinary was going on. It seemed the Haute Ton might still be gossiping behind their hands but they were all here and they all seemed willing to spend their money in support of her mother's current cause.
Miranda settled down on the stone bench and smoothed the skirt of her heavy, black silk dress. Maybe the day would turn out to be an uneventful one after all, and she could find some time to chat with Dr. Southerby about the new variety of herb he had given her a month ago.
Miranda had just decided to go look for him when she saw Lady Jerrold, a matchmaking mother from a neighboring estate, approaching her. Resigning herself to her fate, Miranda smiled weakly. "Good afternoon, Lady Jerrold. I'm so happy you could attend."
"Yes I'm sure you are you poor child. It must be nice to know that there is at least one sympathetic person among this crowd of hedonists." She patted Miranda's hand. "How are you holding up under the strain of it all?"
"Father's been gone four months now so..."
Lady Jerrold interrupted. "No, No. I didn't mean your father, I meant your mother. It can't be easy for such a sensitive girl to sit by and watch her own mother act so İ how shall I put it delicately, unrestrained."
"Has Mother done something you disapprove of, Lady Jerrold?"Miranda was amazed to find herself furious at the woman's attempt to condemn her mother. Blood did seem to be thicker than water after all.
"I'm sorry my dear. I just thought you might be a little upset to find your mother dancing around like a common gypsy."
Miranda hurriedly took leave of Lady Jerrold and ran toward the sound of the guitar music. She found her mother and several other ladies behind the west wing of the main house. They stood there, in a small group, watching the flamenco dancers with rapt fascination. The scene looked innocent enough, she thought with a sigh of relief. Then to Miranda's utter shame the flamenco dancer chose her mother out of the crowd and extended his hand.
Oh Lord! She sighed to herself. Lady Jerrold had been right after all. Her mother was actually going to dance with that man. With a sense of increasing dread, Miranda could already hear what the Ton would say once they'd seen her mother, with her skirt hiked up well past her knees and her long red hair undone and flying free, dancing to the music of the gypsy's guitar. They might forgive something as mundane as adultery, but dancing about like a common gypsy?
Unable to bear what she was sure to be her mother's final fall from grace, Miranda whirled around and ran blindly toward the house. She'd reached the door to the west wing and was about to take refuge in her room when, to her surprise, she heard a voice she thought she recognized.
"My good sir, remind me never to deal with your firm again. The condition of your coach was abominable. While I certainly..."
Miranda's knuckles whitened as she convulsively gripped the door handle. That had to be Peter. But what was he doing here? And how could she face him, especially since he must think her little better than a brazen hussy. Conflicting emotions warred within her. Her instinctive desire was to run to him and throw her arms around him; Peter at least would understand about her mother and Thomas. But if she did something that unrestrained, it might only serve to further any wrong impression Peter might have gotten from her letter. Oh well, she certainly couldn't stand here dithering about it all day long. She did desperately want to see him, and she could clear up any mistaken impressions later. Turning the corner of the house, her heart leapt. "Peter is that really you?"
Peter gave a snort of frustration. "Course it is, my girl. Who else would be foolish enough to drive all this way from London on such a miserably hot day."
Impulsively, despite everything she intended, Miranda flung her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly.
Gently disengaging himself, Peter patted Miranda's hand. "There, there, Miri. I'm happy to see you too, but if you're not careful you'll ruin my cravat and it took me almost an hour to tie it this morning."
"Oh, Peter. Stop being so silly. Come back with me to the house and you can freshen up after that long trip from London."
"Thanks, Miri. It really was grueling. The carriage was abysmal. The driver must have found every bump in the road. But, before we go in, I should pay my respects to Lady Greystone. Where is she?"
"Please don't ask, Peter. You'll hear about it soon enough, and I'd rather spare you the scandal. At least till you've had time to rest and freshen up."
"Scandal? Who's she run off with this time? The groom?"
"Run off with the groom? Why on earth would you say a thing like that? No, she's dancing with the gypsies!" Miranda was perplexed at Peter's reaction; something about his tone bothered her. It had an almost a biting sarcastic edge to it that she'd never noticed before.
"She's doing what? Oh, Miri, that's famous. I have to give your mother credit. Gypsies! She'll be the talk of the Ton, and won't those old birds at Almack's be furious?"
"But Peter, don't you understand that's what I'm talking about? She will be the talk of the town."
Peter saw the look of utter humiliation on her face, and began to get nervous. Maybe marrying Miranda wasn't such a good idea after all. He hadn't realized just how prudish and silly she had become about certain things. Visions of her carrying on in a similar fashion about Isabella, flashed through his mind, but he pushed the thoughts firmly aside. He'd come here to get married and he wasn't about to let anything stop him. Even if it meant ignoring a little childish foolishness from his future bride. He'd have plenty of time to educate her to the true state of the world after they were married.
A week later, after the last house guest from the fete had gone home, Ravenhill began to return to normal; except for the persistent heat. Even in midİAugust the evenings in Kent could usually be counted on to be pleasant, if not cool. But tonight, the air hung around the small party in the drawing room like a blanket.
"And when she fell off her horse the hoop of her skirt went straight up, and Lord Allister got a most intriguing view of all of the lady's personal charms." Peter Ross sat on the green and blue striped silk couch and awaited the reaction of his attentive audience. He tugged at his high starched collar, and ever so slightly loosened his perfectly tied cravat.
"Peter, you can't really be implying that she wasn't wearing anything at all underneath?" Miranda shook her head incredulously, and then had to tuck an errant strand of silvery blond hair back up on top of her head. Peter was a wonderful story teller, but she'd learned a long time ago that he wasn't above embellishing his tales to improve their entertainment value.
"Oh come on Miri. Don't be such a spoilsport. She might have been wearing silk stockings, but the view was enticing enough that he married her three months later."
Miranda blushed, and then reached over to tug on Peter's earlobe. "You should have your ears boxed for inventing such a story."
Her mother's tinkling laugh filled the room. "For the first time tonight Peter, my daughter and I are in agreement. That's worse blarney than an Irishman would dare tell, and I don't believe a word of it. Lillian Allister is much too good a horsewoman to have ever taken that kind of spill. And certainly not for the purpose of enticing a pathetic creature like Mortimor Allister to the altar.
"But Lady Trentworth, I have it on the best authority that it is true. Besides, how can you fault me for telling it when it's the only thing all evening that has brought a smile to Miranda's face."
Miranda felt an urge to kick him. Being the center of attention always made her uncomfortable and she hated being teased, even by Peter. She hadn't always reacted that way, but circumstances over the last four months had conspired to remove most of her capacity for gaiety. Glaring across the room at her mother she thought, why did Father ever bring you back from Ireland?
When her father had received the letter from a friend telling him that the man his wife, Deirdre, had run off with had died and left her in virtual poverty in County Clare; Miranda and her father had had one of their rare arguments. She had explained to her father that it was poetic justice and that he ought to leave her mother there, but of course, he wouldn't listen. He'd insisted on bringing her back to Ravenhill.
Darrein Trentworth's own version of the prodigal son, Miranda reflected bitterly. And just like the older son in the parable, she had stood by as her father killed the fatted calf to welcome his errant wife home. Miranda watched her mother fan her well displayed bosom, under Thomas's approving gaze and thought, if only Father could see you now maybe he would have realized I was right all along.
"God it's hot in here." Thomas tore his gaze away from Deirdre and stood up in evident agitation.
Deirdre laughed and flirtatiously began to fan the air in front of Thomas. "Why Thomas, I didn't realize the heat effected you so much. Here, let me help you cool down." Thomas stood there for a moment, looking down at her mother with naked hunger, until Deirdre finally lowered her eyes.
Miranda was sure if she'd been in her mother's place she would have been completely disconcerted and a little angry if any man had looked at her that way, but apparently Deirdre felt differently. She must, because she was once again fanning herself and sweetly asking him, "Thomas, I think a glass of sherry might be refreshing. Would you be a dear and get one for me."
Watching Thomas as he hurried to do her mother's bidding, Miranda had to admit that her mother had a way with men. Theyseemed to buzz around her, like bees to the honey. First her father, then Kevin, and now, even her cousin Thomas seemed caught in her mother's web. Of course, it was possible that Thomas simply lusted after anything that was female. Only yesterday, he had cornered her in the still room on the pretext of discussing the future of Ravenhill. Yet the look he had given her seemed to communicate that he had other thoughts on his mind. At least he hadn't suggested another stroll to Sorrows Acre. Miranda shivered and did her best to repress that last thought. Then again all of this was simply her imagination. Why would Thomas even take a second look at her with her mother around?
One look at Deirdre explained most of the attraction she had for men. Even though Deirdre's dress would have been considered the height of fashion by the Haute Ton, Miranda felt there was still something almost indecent in the amount of flesh the lavender colored silk gown exposed. It wasn't that Deirdre was heavy. Despite her small frame, no man alive would have judged her full bosom and generous hips as too much of a good thing.
In comparison, Miranda knew her figure was striking in its dissimilarity. While Deirdre was all curves; at eighteen, Miranda's high pointed breasts seemed to be little more than a delicate promise, and her narrow waist still tapered into boyishly slim hips. Fire and Ice had been her father favorite term for his wife and his daughter. With a bitter shake of her head she recalled her warning to him that if he wasn't careful he could get burned. But Darrein Trentworth was a proud stubborn man. He hadn't listened, and it had killed him. Peter pulled her from her revery with a light thump on the head.
"Miri, have you gone soft in there? Would you like a glass of water with lemon in it?"
"Yes, thank you," she said smiling at him. Peter arose from the couch and walked to the other side of the drawing room to pour her drink. Peter, at least, was one man who didn't seem
susceptible to her mother's spell. He seemed to like Deirdre, and they got on well enough together, but Miranda had never seen him worship at her mother's feet the way Thomas did.
At that moment Thomas returned with Deirdre's sherry. Rather than walk around the couch and stand in front of her to hand her the glass, he stopped behind her and leaned over the couch in a manner that struck Miranda as cloyingly familiar. His forearm rested on her left shoulder and Deirdre flashed one of her most charming smiles as she took the proffered glass.
Thomas didn't move his arm but allowed his hand to rest on the top of her breast. The next time her mother exhaled, Miranda was absolutely sure Thomas's hand would find its way into the bodice of her dress. Even with her mother's liberal attitude, Miranda was sure she would finally do something this time to put Thomas in his place. But all Deirdre did was reach up and pat his fingers. "Thank you Thomas. Now come sit down."
Shock rolled over Miranda. Her mother hadn't even seemed irritated. My God, she thought, they must be having an affair. My mother has actually seduced my cousin. Panic began to rise in her breast, and her breath quickened.
"Miri, are you all right? You look white as a sheet." Peter stood in front of her, holding her drink. "Would you like to go for a walk in the garden? It might be cooler outside."
Peter had thrown her a life line. A few minutes more and she might have drowned in a sea of panic. Ever since her father's death she'd felt trapped in a world she no longer understood. Her mother was behaving wantonly, and Thomas had inherited her beloved Ravenhill. Despite the will, what had once been her home by right, was now her home only by her cousin's suffrage. She took the glass and she got to her feet. "Thank you Peter. It is terribly warm in here. I do believe I would rather sit in the garden for a few minutes"
Once out the french doors, Miranda almost ran to the back end of the garden. The full moon drenched the vine covered walls of the gazebo with a lambent glow. Dropping down onto the large wooden chair she pulled her feet up into the seat and wrapped her arm around her knees. Oh, blast it all. Her dress was damp. She held up her glass in the bright moonlight and realized that she must have spilled half of it in her rush to seek a safe haven.
"Miri, are you going to tell me what's wrong?" Peter gingerly perched his lanky six foot frame on the edge of the chair next to hers. Peter was an impeccable dresser and he always worried about anything that might damage his attire, and the wooden furniture in Miranda's garden had been at the head of his list for a number of years. Splinters were quite hellish on skin tight breeches. Miranda burst into tears. She knew she was acting foolishly, but she really didn't know what else to do. The scene she had just witnessed in the drawing room was simply too much to bear. Looking over at Peter, she tried to stifle a sob. "Do you think I'm being childish?"
"Probably, but since I have absolutely no idea what's upset you, I really can't be the judge." He took his handkerchief out and handed it to her. "Now wipe your nose and tell Peter what the problem is, all right?"
Looking over at him, Miranda had the strongest urge to go to him, wedge herself into the chair beside him and ask him to hold her. She had never really had the type of relationship with Peter that would make that action appropriate. But tonight she felt the need for someone to hold her and tell her everything would work out. "Oh Peter, what am I going to do. You saw them. My God, it's not only disgusting, it's humiliating to watch. How could she? Her own nephew."
"Miri, what them are you referring to? Your mother and Thomas?"
Miranda sniffed. "Of course I am. Who else would I be talking about?" Without waiting for his reply she continued in a rush. "I actually think they're having an affair!"
There, she'd finally said it. The feeling had been building for some time, but she'd always pushed it aside and treated it as a dirty little niggly thought in the back of her mind. But she couldn't deny it any longer. Not after what she'd witnessed tonight. Thomas wanted Deirdre, and her mother wanted..... what?
"Miri, you have to be wrong. I know what you think of your mother, but Thomas....." Peter sat there in surprise.
"But Thomas nothing! He's only five years younger, and it's my father he's related to not my mother. Peter, he practically had his hand inside her bodice." Miranda shuddered in revulsion.
"Miranda that's enough! You're unnecessarily agitating yourself. I am sure absolutely nothing of the sort happened." Peter got out of his chair and began to pace back and forth across the gazebo.
Miranda sat at the edge of her seat and nervously tapped her fingers on the arm of the chair. "Peter, please! I'm not crazy. You don't understand, do you? They have it all planned. Yesterday, when Mother was talking was prattling on about Thomas and Ravenhill I couldn't fathom what it was she was talking about, but now it's all becoming quite clear." Her voice was beginning to raise and words began to run together.
He walked over and took both her hands in his. "I don't think you're crazy. Calm down and tell me what you think is going on?
"Yesterday, Mother asked me if I'd ever considered getting married. She `confided in me' that Father left Ravenhill to Thomas and the money to me to insure that he and I would decide to do the
`right' thing. Don't you see? They have it all worked out. Thomas marries me for the money from Father's estate and he still has Mother as his mistress. Oh Peter, what am I to do?"
Miranda once again burst into tears. She knew, to the absolute depth of her soul, that her assessment of the situation was correct. And the most galling part about it was that she was powerless to stop it. She could run away, but she had very little money, and since Thomas had been left as her guardian, using any part of her inheritance to finance the venture was out of the question. Unfortunately, so was living without money. Miranda was had no delusions about life for the poor. She certainly didn't require much to support herself; fancy clothes and jewels held no appeal for her, but the thought of abject poverty was frightening. No, sooner or later they would wear down her resistance and she would give in.
To Miranda's astonishment, Peter pulled her out of the chair and into his arms. He held her gently against his chest and ran his fingers down her long thick hair. "Miri, stop crying, please. Will you promise to calm down, go into the house and go to sleep if I tell you that tomorrow I'll resolve all of this to your satisfaction? Will you do that for me?"
She looked up at him in astonishment. Such decisiveness was out of character for Peter. He must be trying to humor her. There was no way he could resolve her difficulties, but she was too tired and upset to argue. Anyway, he was right. Nothing more could be done tonight about her dreadful situation. Best to follow his advice and go to bed. Maybe she could think of a solution in the morning. Sniffling, she looked up at him. "Thank you for being such a good friend. You're right, I am tired."
Taking the crumpled handkerchief out of her clenched fist, Peter gently dried her eyes. "You're ruining my brand new shirt, Miri. Now, be a good girl and run along to bed. I promise it will all work out in the morning."
İDonna Fitzgerald 1985 - 2007