In October the world floods into the Metropolis, the great Wen of London, its boundaries seeping wider and wider every year as the west of the city expands to accommodate more people. By "the world", I mean the fashionable world, of course. The inhabitants, the people who make London their home have been there all along, sweltering in the summer heat, but the fashionable part of town begins to fill up again, ostensibly to attend the new Parliamentary session, but in reality to gather together after the summer. Knockers reappear on doors and superior footmen in gaudy livery lounge outside them, waiting for the next illustrious guest to appear from a shiny, crested landau. Then they will snap to attention and take the proffered cards inside for inspection by the unseen house owners.
When our carriage drew up outside the fašade of Hareton House, the shiny black door opened to reveal the familiar figure of our old butler, Marsh. I took heart when I saw his steady, rotund features, fitting as well here as ever they did in the old manor in Devonshire.
A footman let down the carriage steps for us and I stepped forward to greet my old friend. "Good morning, Marsh, how are you?"
"Well, thank you, my lady." He glanced at my husband, resplendent in his town glory. Richard smiled beatifically at him.
Marsh took us straight upstairs to the drawing room, where the whole family, children included, assembled to greet us. I was stupidly nervous at meeting them again. The last time I'd seen them was on my wedding day in April and now it was October. I'd never been apart from them for so long before and so much had happened, I felt like a stranger.
Richard bowed to the company but they didn't wait for my curtsey.
My sister-in-law, Martha, Lady Hareton, swiftly followed by my sister, Lizzie, surged forward to take me into their arms, one after the other and plant resounding kisses on my cheeks. I was far more accustomed to receiving this kind of welcome than the formal one I'd received the day before at Southwood House, where Richard's parents lived. But I endured both with equal equanimity.
Martha included Richard in her smile. "You must be looking after her well, my lord." Her clothes were of better quality than the ones she used to wear but Martha was just the same. It warmed me to see her round, smiling face, unchanged and homely.
"I try." Richard glanced at me and smiled.
Lizzie took my hands, holding them loosely in her own. "You look positively fashionable, my love. Where did you get that delicious gown? And are you wearing a hoop?"
I laughed and glanced down at the pretty jonquil confection. "I got it in Paris. And no, I'm not wearing a hoop. It's the fashion for informal wear."
"You'll become a leader of fashion, my dear," Lizzie teased. Holding my hand, she drew me into the room and I faced my beloved elder brother, James.
The Earl of Hareton stood before the fire, hands dug in his breeches' pockets but he loosed them and enveloped me in a bear hug. "Happy?" he murmured, his breath warm on my ear.
"Blissful," I assured him. He released me and I went to sit with my husband.
My youngest sister would make her come-out this season, the first of our family to do so in the centre of the fashionable world, the so-called Marriage Market. At seventeen Ruth bade fair to be as beautiful as Lizzie, if not possessed of the same vivacity which had made Lizzie so popular a member of Devonshire society. Ruth had lost her scowl, previously a permanent feature.
What was left was a pretty girl, with a heart-shaped face and blue eyes, hair fairer than Lizzie's glorious gold, who looked at me directly and answered questions without equivocation. I thought she would do well but I was glad I didn't have to go through the ordeal. In Exeter society, Lizzie had overshadowed me; now two of them could dazzle and encourage everyone to overlook me. The difference was that I didn't care anymore.
Martha's children, Walter, Mary and Frederick, were more neatly dressed than I was accustomed to but Walter had a smudge on his cheek that reassured me that he was still a scamp underneath his new finery. They remained politely silent, well trained but fidgety.
"Has Lizzie many admirers yet?" I asked. My sister's followers had been legion in Exeter.
Although Martha was but twelve years older, she smiled in a motherly way. "The house overflows with them." Lizzie had the grace to lower her eyes but she peered up through her long lashes in a most immodest way.
Martha glared at her. "The season hasn't formally begun yet. She'll have to learn how to control her admirers, or we'll be snowed under when it gets under way. We've planned a ball for Ruth's come-out after our presentation." She paused, biting her lip. I thought she was probably nervous about it. "You should find your invitation at Southwood house. She'll be inundated and Lizzie too." She regarded the girls, sitting so demurely on the sofa together, so pretty, then turned back to us. "And you should hear what they're saying about you, Rose."
"What?" I was startled yet again by the thought of anyone being interested in me. "What could they be saying?"
Amusement gleaming in her eyes Martha leaned forward--one perennially overlooked woman speaking to another. "Don't forget, not many people have seen you yet and they have seen Lizzie and Ruth. The rumours I've heard say you're the most beauteous, most elegant woman of the three. They're looking for the new Gunnings, you see, and the fact Lord Strang chose you makes them think you are the best."
Richard slanted me a look of considerable amusement. "With apologies to the ladies present, that is evidently my opinion, too." He'd been a leader of fashionable society for years.
I didn't care anymore. "As soon as they see me, they'll pass over to the girls. Besides, I'm safely married."
Richard chuckled. "There's no such thing in this society but that is something I also wish to ensure that everyone understands."
Martha arched one thick eyebrow. "Will you continue living at Southwood House with your mother-in-law?"
"Probably not. We'd prefer to set up our own establishment. Lady Southwood is kind but..."
Richard took over. "I have some addresses. We'll look at them when we have the time."
The door opened but I didn't look around, thinking it was the maid with some tea but when I saw Richard stand and bow, I knew I was mistaken.
He was bowing to Georgiana Skerrit. And there was her brother Tom. Without pausing to think, I shrieked and threw myself at him, forgetting all my society manners in my delight. "Tom, Tom, what are you doing here?"
He disentangled himself, laughing. "I thought you were supposed to be a fashionable lady now?" He held me at arm's length and looked me up and down, his expression changing from delight to something akin to awe. "And I can see you are."
Tom was my oldest friend, the son of the squire of Darkwater. Just as tall and smiling that crooked smile I remembered so well from our childhood scrape. A shadow lay between us, but I did my best to ignore it.
"Rose, you look wonderful."
"I've never been so happy." It was as if there was no one else in the room but us. We used to spend hours together in the woods, sitting side by side on a tree branch, talking about what we would do and where we would go. I could almost smell the scent of rain on the leaves.
We took a seat on the sofa I'd previously occupied with Richard. It said a lot for my relationship with my husband that he would move aside without demur. Because he knew who I loved now. "What are you planning to do in your visit, Tom?"
"I'm going to do the things I've dreamed about. Visit the cockfights at Hyde Park, saunter into the coffee houses, visit the theatre, go for boxing lessons with--"
Laughing, I interrupted him. "Then you won't have time to escort Georgiana."
"Well, she will want to see the shops and the female part of life I can't help her with. I can't be with her all the time."
"Indeed not," Lizzie broke in. "I have plans for Georgiana."
I smiled at my old friend, delighted to see him again. "You look well, Tom. Have you fully recovered?"
A shadow crossed Tom's face and I was sorry I had brought the matter up, but it worried me. His physical injuries had been considerable. "I'm perfectly well." He hesitated before he touched my hand. I hated the hesitation. "And you?"
"Restored to full health and cosseted beyond my wildest dreams," I assured him. Actually, the cosseting could be unnerving. Richard saw to it I was well looked after without curtailing any of the freedoms to which I was entitled. I found my wishes attended to almost before I'd thought of them.
Later, Martha wished to show me the house but she told everyone else to stay where they were, so we went off on our own. The house was magnificent, with a set of reception rooms constituting the pearl in the luxurious oyster. But it didn't suit Martha, somehow.
Although Martha was barely twelve years older than I, she had a motherly nature and she always tried to take special care of me. She saw me as the waif of the family. For many years everyone assumed I would be the spinster left at home to help her in her duties.
I could talk to her honestly. "I'm truly happy. I'm looked after and loved. I've never regretted anything I've done in the last year."
Martha had been concerned that I clutched at straws with Richard, taking the first man who offered for me, when there was no longer any need to do so after James inherited the title. Richard had a fearsome reputation as a libertine, never staying with any woman for long and Martha still thought of him that way. She knew I valued loyalty in all things. "We've visited Southwood House of course, since the Southwoods came up to town. I was wondering if you were content there."
"No." I couldn't tell her about Lady Southwood's managing nature but I could tell her of other pressures. "Lord Southwood wants an heir and although he doesn't say anything, you can almost feel his anxiety."
Martha took my hand and patted it. "It was a year before I got in the family way with Walter. You're not to let it worry you."
I shrugged. It did hurt that I wasn't yet pregnant but I wouldn't let anyone see my hurt. "That's what Richard says. There's a cousin, so the title won't die and it's only been six months since we married. But we'd be happier in our own establishment. He has preferences and ways I'd like to look after myself, not leave to someone else's servants."
Martha smiled. "I must have taught you well, then. Have you anywhere in mind?"
I went over to the harpsichord by the window and lifted the lid, trying a few notes. It was out of tune. "We'd like one of those smaller houses in the West End but we don't know if we'll buy or lease yet. Richard has a house in Oxfordshire and another one nearer to London I haven't seen yet. Richard says we'll consult with his secretary, when he gets one and we'll go through it together."
Martha raised her brows. "I thought he was a man given to making up his own mind, not to allowing anyone else to help him decide anything."
"He wants me content with all the arrangements." I replaced the lid of the instrument. "He's given me a full share in Thompson's, you know."
Her look was disparaging. "That staff agency? Surely that's not your main concern."
"No, but it's an important indication of his intentions. He built Thompson's up himself, you see. It has nothing to do with the family or inherited wealth." In fact, Thompson's Registry Office was wide reaching and much more lucrative than most people knew.
We returned to the drawing room. Despite its size, it looked crowded. I felt a pang, thinking how much I would prefer to be staying here instead of at Southwood House, but those days were gone. I was rather surprised I associated those days of desperation and entrapment with so much contentment. Perhaps it was more the fear of the unknown, of the life to come.