1815 Sussex, England Early Spring
"Abominable! Absolutely abominable!" Miss cried. On the hearth rug, Digger uncurled from a comfortable nap and opened his eyes. If something was wrong, he should know about it. He was Miss's dog and it was up to him to protect her.
Miss looked up from the low stool by the fire. For a moment she left off polishing the muddy riding boot propped between her breeches-clad knees, but it was only to wave the blacking rag about wildly and shake her copper-colored curls in utter disbelief. Her green eyes flashed fire and her normally cheerful mouth bent downward into a petulant frown.
Digger sat up to scratch at a bothersome itch behind his right ear. It couldn't be a flea, Miss didn't allow fleas in the house. And if one happened to get on him, she got rid of it in a hurry. Should he nose Daphne awake? She could be pretty snappy if he waked her from a sleep. But this sounded serious, something she ought to hear, something important about their future. Theirs and Miss's.
He was the finest beagle for miles around, best at tracking the fox and other kinds of hunting, but he'd been raised an outdoor dog and stayed there till Miss, after her Papa's death, decided to bring him into the house. So when it came to understanding humans, especially female ones and their peculiar ways, his nose couldn't help him. For that kind of thing he needed Daphne. He put his head down on his paws, close to hers. He just wished she needed him.
He nosed her again, warily, and she opened one eye to look at him sleepily through the beautiful tangle of hair that covered her face. Then she cocked a small delicate ear and her big brown eyes came wide awake. With a look at him, she raised her head to listen better. He heaved a sigh of relief and let himself relax. No need to worry now. Daphne would figure it out.
"I love it here in Sussex," Miss went on. "I don't want a Season in London. How could Papa treat me in such knack-witted fashion? Rest his dear departed soul."
From the rocker where she was mending stockings, Birdy Peters laughed. How like her charge to insult her dear departed papa in one breath and revere him in the next. But then, when her papa was alive, Dimity had always been outspoken, always done as she pleased. Why should she be any different now that he was gone to his reward?
"You mustn't laugh," Dimity said, attacking the other boot in a fashion that threatened to spread mud through the entire tidy kitchen. "A husband!" she cried, waving the boot rag again. "Now I ask you, what on God's good earth should I do with a husband?"
Though it was obvious that Dimity didn't expect an answer, Birdy was tempted to give her one. She herself could think of several quite good things to do with a husband. In fact, she was going to do them--just as soon as Miss Dimity could be settled. Birdy'd been keeping company with Thomas the groom these six years now, since she'd turned nineteen, and she was tired of all these years of waiting. She wanted to be Thomas's wife. And soon!
"You aren't answering me," Dimity complained, holding the boot off at arm's length and turning it from side to side to see if she'd missed any mud.
Birdy smiled. "Sure and what can I say? You'll manage to have your own way somehow--like you always do. I've not a doubt of it."
Dimity pouted prettily. Oh, the girl had taking ways all right. Always had. She could get round her Papa easy as pie, and she knew it.
"But Papa isn't here for me to smile at," she said, with a woeful look. "And, I don't know about Uncle Rupert--perhaps he doesn't respond in the same way Papa did."
She stuck the rag back in the polishing kit. "This is really horrible news." Crossing her eyes, she scrinched up her face in the expression that meant she was disgusted. "Oh, yes, this is above all things exasperating! How can that tub of lard possibly choose me a proper husband?"
Birdy swallowed a sigh. "Now Miss Dimity, mayhap your uncle ain't as heavy as he used to be."
Dimity gave an unladylike snort. "The way he was used to eating? He's probably twice as fat as I remember him. And, I remember him as big." She extended her arms as far as they would go. "Very big."
"You'd best be thinking kinder of your uncle," Birdy warned, trying to hide a smile. "After all, he did say you could bring the dogs, and your aunt is a good soul. A very good soul."
Dimity smiled then, a real genuine smile this time. "Oh, I do think kindly of my aunt. Dear Aunt Clementine. She always sang me silly songs and fed me sweets. All I wanted." Her smile turned speculative. "Maybe I can persuade her to help me get around Uncle Rupert. She always did favor me."
Birdy shook her head. "I don't think so, miss. Your aunt's the flighty sort, you know. She ain't got too much in the way of understanding. I think she won't never stand up against yer uncle. And, it's him that's gonna have the say-so over you."
Dimity glared at the boot as though it had turned into her offending uncle. "But Birdy, he doesn't know the front end of a horse from the rear!"
Birdy chuckled. "Ain't nobody said knowing horseflesh were necessary for husband choosing."
"Well, it is," Dimity insisted stoutly. "How can I possibly trust the judgment of a man who doesn't know horses?"
"I 'spect you'll have to." Though she knew better than to say so, Birdy felt Dimity's papa shouldn't have given her so much freedom in the stable. The poor girl losing her mama when she was only ten was bad enough, and that starchy old priss of a governess Miss Figmore weren't no substitute for anybody's mama. Good thing Birdy'd been there, been Miss Dimity's friend, and sometime accomplice.
After all, the old baron had done the best he could without no wife to help him. He'd loved his daughter. That's why he taught her all he knew about horses--maybe too much about horses. But he loved the animals so much, he couldn't see that he might be hurting the child he loved, too.
Even in his will he was trying to help Dimity, whether the child knew it or not. Strange, she always thought of Dimity as a child though she was full-growed now, nineteen years old, and there was only six years difference in their ages.
"Your papa must have thought your uncle knows men," Birdy said. "Else he wouldn't have given it to him to do the choosing. Your Papa was a careful man. Specially about you. He loved you an awful lot, but you know that."
Dimity dropped the boot to the floor beside its clean fellow and swiped a dirty hand across her cheek, leaving a streak of boot blacking against her fair skin. "Oh, if only this whole abominable business was over and done with."
Birdy's eyebrows shot up. The child couldn't have changed her mind that easy. Not Miss Dimity, celebrated through the whole county for her stubborn, some even said bullheaded, ways. "You can't mean that you want to get married?"
Dimity leaped to her feet. "Of course not. Don't be such a ninnyhammer. I simply want the stupid Season to be over so I can get back here where I belong, with Belle Ami and the other horses. Papa's will said one Season, one Season only. And if no suitable husband presents himself, I'm off free and clear. Then I can come home, have my allowance, and raise my horses. Finally. In peace.
Birdy nodded. "That's what it says, all right. We both heard the solicitor say so. But, Miss Dimity, your Uncle Rupert, he believes women got to be married. Got to be. No exceptions." She hid a little smile. "If I 'member rightly from the last time he was here, no exceptions is yer uncle's favorite expression."
Dimity's brows came together in a frown Birdy knew well, usually to her sorrow. "Well, I don't want to marry," Dimity declared, though with a little tremble to her voice that Birdy had never heard before. "I don't intend to marry. I don't. Uncle Rupert will just have to accept that."
"'Fraid not," Birdy said with a sigh. This looked like real trouble. Dimity'd never done anything she didn't want to do. But this Uncle Rupert, he were a man not to be moved. "Way I 'member him, your uncle don't accept nothing he don't want to. Not from no woman anyhow. The will says it plain--you got to marry any man that offers for you iffen your uncle says he'll do. And you kin be sure he'll find one. Somewheres."
"Great galloping cannon balls!" Dimity shouted, slamming her hands down on her hips. "Was ever a woman so bedeviled by men? Why can't they just leave me to my horses?"
Birdy shrugged. "It ain't done, that's why. Women ain't to be allowed to run things--not even their own lives." She snorted. "'Specially their own lives. Men thinks they know how things oughta be." Like Thomas, who insisted that their marriage was out of the question till Miss Dimity's future was all settled, right and proper. "So if we women wants things to go our way, we got to make men think it's their idea."
Dimity made another face. "Goodness, Birdy, I've known that since I was six. But I haven't seen Uncle Rupert for these five years. Why, I don't know if he'd even recognize me any more." She frowned, wrinkling her forehead in thought. "Maybe it'd be better if I worked on the suitors, somehow made them not want to offer for me. But my dowry's really goodsized, and I'm not ugly enough to scare them off."
She wasn't ugly at all, as the girl well knew. But given Dimity's faults--and she had aplenty, even for those who loved her--still, vanity wasn't one of them. "Too bad," Birdy said, only half joking. "You shoulda been born ugly, with a squint maybe, and grown to such a size that no man'd want you. A frightful prospect that'd be."
"Yes, too bad." With a wicked grin, Dimity picked up her boots. "I'm going out again. The stallion still needs exercised."
Birdy sighed. "Now Miss Dimity, you know March ain't no time to be riding about the countryside. It's bitter cold out, and there's all that snow and everthing."
Dimity shrugged. "Snow doesn't bother me. Besides, you know I do my best thinking on horseback." She grinned again. "Especially when I ride astride."
Birdy let that pass. It was an old argument, one she never won. Besides, once they were in London, Dimity'd have to abide by what was proper. Her uncle would surely see to that. "But, what about going to your uncle's?" she asked. "What about your come out?"
Dimity shrugged and turned to the door. "We don't have to leave for London till after Easter. By then I'll think of something. Trust me."
When Digger followed Miss out the door, Daphne put her head down on her paws. She wasn't going out in such foul weather, not for man nor beast. It would get her all wet and tangle her hair. Let Digger follow Miss and run through the mud and snow. He liked that sort of thing, though she couldn't imagine why anyone would want to leave the comfort of the nice warm kitchen to go running around the countryside in such nasty weather.
Trust her, Miss had told Birdy. Trust her, indeed! What a thing to say. Many times Birdie had done that very thing--trusted Miss--and it had always been a mistake. Always. Whatever hare-brained scheme Miss came up with to prevent getting herself one of these husbands, more than likely it would mean trouble for them all. But at least she was taking them along to London. They--she and Digger--could keep Miss safe from husbands, whatever they were.
Digger didn't look like much. She had no idea why Miss had brought him into the house--a hound with short hair and long floppy ears. Not at all Daphne's kind of dog. She was, after all, of the best blood. But she had to admit, Digger had learned quickly. He didn't make messes and he was company of a sort. Better than no one anyway. He loved Miss, so she could be sure of his help with this husband thing. A good thing, too. Sometimes Miss's starts were too much for one dog to take care of, even one as smart as Daphne. She closed her eyes. Time for a little nap.