The door to the parlour opened and my sister-in-law bustled inside. A gust of wind followed her stocky shape and some of the pasteboard invitations on the mantelpiece fluttered to the floor. I put down my book and stood, then bent to retrieve the cards. We couldn't accept most of them. We were still in mourning, our shield from our importunate neighbours, but not for much longer.
Martha held a wicker basket covered with a fine linen cloth. "Rose, dear, I have some treats for old Mrs. Hoarty in the village. Will you take them to her?"
Restless and bored, I was glad of any distraction. "I'd love to."
I tucked the invitations back behind the clock to join the others. "Never mind," Martha said, following my wistful look. "We should be able to attend social events again soon."
"The end of this month. I never thought I'd miss attending those dreary functions, but I'd welcome anything that killed some time."
Martha smiled. "Never mind," she repeated, and then went, as was her way, to the heart of my dissatisfaction, "I'm sure he'll be here soon."
She meant my betrothed and beloved, Richard Kerre, Lord Strang. After a month apart, I missed him terribly. And I could not distract myself by attending the local social functions, although invitations arrived every day, not unconnected, I suspected, with the news of my betrothal. But we were in mourning, for cousins we had only met once, and felt little for. But since my brother James had inherited the title they'd held, we had to enter the required period of three months' full mourning and three months' half.
"Is Lizzie coming?" I paused before the mirror to tidy my hair. I'd never found a maid who could cope with my thick, curly chestnut mane, and it was forever tumbling out of its pins. I sighed and tucked the loose strands away. I smiled at my reflection, then sighed again. No, I still couldn't see it.
"What is it, dear?" Sharp-eyed Martha had seen my doubt.
I turned away from the mirror. "I still can't see why he should want me. Why not choose Lizzie?" I smoothed the folds of my gown, and shook it out at the back. It was of plain grey wool, one I'd had made after my father died. That reminder of deeply felt, sincere mourning, was one reason I felt like a hypocrite now. On the first day of April, we reverted to wearing colours again and a full social life. I could hardly wait.
"Lord Strang has fallen head-over-heels for you." Martha smiled. She had a pleasant smile that made everything she said reasonable. She always denigrated her homely looks, but I don't think she had ever been properly aware of that smile. "And you with him. You brightened, just at the mention of his name then. Don't ask why, dear, just accept it."
I still felt I would wake one day and still be Miss Golightly of Devonshire, the overlooked elder sister of the beautiful Lizzie. I had resigned myself to the role of dependant old maid long before I met Richard, thinking my future would consist of caring for nieces and nephews, not children of my own. Years of constant denigration by the local belles had given me a feeling of inferiority I found hard to shake off.
I turned away to give myself time to regain my composure and then looked back at my sister-in-law. It had happened to her, too. My brother James was tall and handsome, but he'd fallen in love with homely Martha, and after ten years of marriage, was still in love with her.
When I left the parlour with Martha, the sounds of the manor house became more noticeable. We walked through to the small hall, and I heard the shouts and clanging coming up from the kitchen below, a state of constant activity, mingling with childish cries from the nursery above. "Have you given the children a holiday from their studies?"
"Mr. Somerfield is ill." Martha referred to the tutor who came in every day. "I couldn't see to it myself, so I decided they could make do with the nursery maids today." Martha and James had three children. With my sisters Lizzie and Ruth and my brother Ian, it made for an overcrowded dwelling place, but I was used to it and hardly noticed any more.
I found my sturdy leather shoes and sat on one of the hard hall chairs to put them on. I fumbled with the heavy brass buckles. The sound coming from the children upstairs rose around me. "I'll send them outside soon," mused Martha, as though she had read my thoughts.
"Not to go to Mrs. Hoarty's," I said, not without some alarm. "She's much too fragile to cope with small children."
Martha sighed. "I'm afraid she is. But she's a patient soul, never complains."
A door at the back of the hall opened and in swept Lizzie, already wearing her outdoor shoes and cloak. Her attention went to the basket at my feet. "Has Martha asked you to go to Mrs. Hoarty's? May I come with you, Rose? If I have to stay in much longer listening to that noise, I swear I'll run mad."
Lizzie lit up the hall with her beauty and vitality. Even before our recent change of fortune, she'd been the queen of Devonshire society, and now she was even more alluring to the local beaux. A shame the mourning kept her from them. She felt it badly, and knew her chief rival, Eustacia Terry, would steal a march on her in her absence. Lizzie had a different mother than I, accounting for her golden beauty and my own dark colouring, but I wasn't jealous. Her sweet, generous nature precluded that, but sometimes, in the recesses of my secret self, I longed for some of that dazzling loveliness for myself. Especially since I'd met Richard. I would love to be beautiful for him.
Pushing my thoughts to the back of my mind, I answered her with a smile. "Mrs. Hoarty would be happy to see you. How can you make mourning look so good?"
"Well black suits me better than it does you. Your skin has a creamy tone that looks best with a touch of colour." She grinned. "We'll be out of black soon, and then we'll show them."
I laughed, and was still laughing when I ran up the stairs to my room to fetch my cloak.
I'd never thought of my bedroom as small before, but crammed with items for my trousseau it seemed to have shrunk in size. The jewel bright colours of the rich satins and silks mocked my dull grey wool gown.
Stopping at the bed, I picked up a blue satin petticoat and smoothed my fingers over its sensuous softness, caressing it before I put it back. I'd never spent so much money on clothes before, and the total cost of the treasure laid out here made me dizzy. The petticoats and gowns had all been sewn and embroidered by the best craftsmen Exeter offered. Some fabrics, lace and ribbons had been brought up from London, just for me.
If I had married a local man, I would have embroidered many of my linens myself, but the suddenness of my engagement left no time for that, so these too were brought in. Richard wouldn't wait for me to sew my trousseau. He'd only been deterred from marrying me immediately because of our state of mourning and the pleas of his family and mine.
Ranks of delicate satin shoes faced me from their station by the window. All for me. In one startling month my brother had become an earl and I'd met and fallen in love with the most astonishing man I'd ever met. That he loved me back continued to astonish me.
The maid would put most of these things away later, and return my bedroom to its quiet, comfortable self. I grinned. The cabin of a pirate ship might look like this after a raid. I would probably be expected to dress in this finery every day after I married. The thought intimidated me, made me feel foolish, a fraud. I liked to dress in something simple, preferably something I could get into with a minimum of help, not spend hours on my toilette.
On impulse, I crossed to the dressing table and picked up the scent bottle. At least I could smell good. I anointed my wrists and throat in some of the perfume before I left with my plain cloak to join my sister downstairs.
Lizzie and I left the house and went down the drive. "You don't mind walking all the way to the end of the village?"
Lizzie laughed. "I can manage."
"You couldn't when we were little and had to walk to Church." Our father had insisted that we walk on Sundays, one tradition my brother James thankfully hadn't followed. "You were always the one who complained the loudest, and ended up being carried."
Lizzie gave me an unrepentant grin. "It worked every time."
I tipped my head back and breathed in the sweet air of my native county. March brought winds and the promise of spring, growing warmer towards the end of the month, but a nip remained in the air. The sun gained in confidence as spring approached, not a trace of rain hung in the sky.
The wrought iron gates at the end of the drive had rusted into their places, so seldom were they closed. A road ran past the gates, leading to the other large house in the district, Peacock's. When we glanced along the path, we saw our neighbours and friends, Tom Skerrit and his younger sister Georgiana, walking towards us.
Tom led his favourite hack. I assumed Tom was heading for the smithy. That meant they would be going our way, so we stopped to wait for them.
"Good morning, Tom."