Emelia Wells had known two things with certainty since she first stepped into her role as the social center of Northampton and wealthy daughter of a prosperous merchant—she loved parties, and parties hated her. What’s more, her family knew it as well.
“It’s not that I have any desire to cast disparagement,” her younger sister, Hannah, said nervously, tugging at a loose curl. “It’s only that I wish to offer my assistance. You know what father always says: what can go wrong, will go wrong.”
With anyone else, this might have been a dramatic overstatement, but Emelia hid a smile at the words, knowing they were absolutely correct in her case. Just last Friday she’d hosted a little picnic with close friends that had turned into a sprint for cover in an unexpected rainstorm. A few months before, the ball she’d worked on for weeks had ended prematurely when an elegant brocade had caught fire at the far end of the hall. Thankfully, the house hadn’t been in real danger—a servant had seen the tiny conflagration and taken the smoking rug out to the lawn before it burned the building down—but the guests had still gone screaming for cover, and Emelia was left holding the fragments of yet another social disaster.
“I really don’t know how it always happens,” she said now, laughing good naturedly at her sister’s worry. They were sitting together on the back lawn, fashioning paper flowers for the garden decorations. “I try to go over the details again and again, and yet things almost always go to seed when I least expect it.”
“And you keep trying,” Hannah said softly.
Emelia knew that for Hannah, this wasn’t exactly a compliment. Hannah was very shy and careful, and though Emelia knew her bold side as only a sister could, she also knew that had Hannah thrown even one soiree that ended in disaster she would have given up the hostess game for good. Hannah had often said that she didn’t understand how Emelia could try so hard again and again, even in the face of social defeat. She was a year younger than nineteen-year-old Emelia, and the two were about as different as sisters could be.
Emelia had always admired Hannah’s dark brown curls and wide brown eyes, inherited from their mother—a renowned beauty. Emelia had the same chocolate eyes, but her hair was fair and wavy without any of Hannah’s ringlet quality. Emelia was a powerhouse of energy and emotion. Hannah was quiet and cautious, adhering to the rules at all times and punishing herself mentally if she overstepped in any way. Emelia was haphazard, full of grand visions and ideas with little follow-through—Hannah was a planner and a thinker.
“You know why I keep trying.” Emelia twisted a piece of wire around the base of the paper blossom and then used her long fingers to fluff out the petals in a full arc. “I would rather spend a day surrounded by people who I’d frightened with a carpet inferno than spend all my time locked up indoors with books and embroidery.”
“You and your adventures,” Hannah said with a smile.
“You may roll your eyes and toss your head at me all you like, but some people enjoy the excitement of wondering whether or not the social event of the season will end with a slippery marble staircase or salt in the wine.”
“That last one was not a mishap,” Hannah scolded gently, raising her eyebrows at Emelia. “It was a real event caused by yours and Brody’s antics when you were children.”
Emelia widened her eyes. “Mine and Brody’s? Are you really going to remove yourself from the occasion? We would never have been able to pull it off if you hadn’t agreed to distract father for us. There’s a prankster in you yet, Hannah, if you’d only let her out to play every once in a while.”
Hannah blushed and focused intently on the work in her hands. The warm morning sun lit the pale gold highlights in her dark curls. Emelia looked at her with tenderness, and then let her eyes drift around the garden. It was all arranged for the afternoon soiree; a picnic and games sort of day with fine food and friends. There was a net set up on the manicured lawn for badminton, a fine array of crochet hoops in one corner, and a beautiful bed of flowers surrounding the tables and chairs and wide lace umbrellas over all.
“It really does look perfect,” she mused softly. “I’m almost disappointed.”
Two maids bustled onto the scene with their arms laden with baskets. They took fine stemware and linens out of the baskets and began laying the tables. When they were finished, the oldest of them, Alice, came over with a little curtsy to give the mistress of the party her update.
“We’ve the meal all arranged to be distributed in the downstairs if you’d like to look it over, and the courtyard has been opened up for the guests to leave their carriages to the livery boy. They can circumvent the inside of the house and come straight to the gardens.” She gave a little curtsy. “We did have a few questions about the final guest list. Will your father be in attendance?”
Emelia nodded. Arthur Wells was a less frequent face at these kinds of events since the passing of his wife two years before, but he’d promised Emelia that he would come. She was glad—she thought he spent all too much time indoors, his head in his books and his worries wrinkling his forehead.
“And the Shaw brothers, ma’am.”
“Of course, the younger—but I’d hardly expect to see the elder here.” Emelia went on to outline the rest of the guest list and then watched as the maids went off towards the main house to finish their preparations. She stood and smoothed her skirts, turning to Hannah. “Would you mind tying these flowers up? I’ll go make sure all is in order with the food, and then I will be back to help welcome everyone.”
Hannah nodded. “Don’t forget to take off your pinafore.”
Emelia would have, of course, forgotten. She fumbled with the strings as she made her way to the kitchen staging room off the lower floor of her father’s mansion. It was a pretty little place, well-lit, with fine windows and two long tables upon which the food had been laid in preparation for the guests. The spread was magnificent: a roasted duck in the center, a boar’s head, an assortment of fine fruit and vegetable dishes, a tureen of savoury soup, two full platters of meat pies, and a cake as glorious as could be imagined, trimmed with white and gold.
Emelia looked it all over, finding more delicacies at every turn. When the cook appeared from the kitchen, her plump face bright with the heat of the kitchen and her eyes expectant, Emelia was able to give a worthy report.
“It’s a fine thing you’ve done here, Aggie,” she said with a wink. “A fine thing indeed. I don’t know that I can wait until the party arrives. I think I’ll have to get into those asparagus spears right away.”
Aggie shook her head, knowing the little mistress she’d fed all her life was teasing as usual.
“You’ll feel the weight of my spoon again if you do, Miss Emelia.” She smiled though, belying her words. “I’m going back to the kitchen to finish the rolls. You can stay as long as you like.”
Emelia hung up her apron on a hook, smoothing her hands over the fine white muslin gown underneath. Hannah had an eye for fashion that Emelia had never inherited, and had insisted earlier that day that Emelia wear simple white with little white posies woven into her hair. Hannah had done something similar, with pale yellow instead of white, and Emelia thought now, looking at the glorious spread of food, that they’d somehow managed to coordinate with the little pats of freshly-churned butter sprinkled here and there among the glorious spread.
She smiled at the thought, snagged a spear of asparagus after all, and made her way back outside. There was a rumble of a carriage already on the front patio, and she knew that the first of the guests would have arrived. She finished the vegetable, licked the sauce off her fingers, and hurried across the lawn to where Hannah was tying on the last of the flowers.
“Is the food up to snuff?” her sister asked.
“More than. Aggie’s outdone herself yet again.” Emelia helped hold the ribbon while the last bow was tied, and then gave her sister a playful tap on the shoulder. “Thank you for your help.”
“My pleasure.” Hannah craned her neck towards the house. “I heard someone pull into the front drive. Do you know who was the first to arrive?”
Her question was answered by a sudden flurry of activity as the first guest rounded the corner of her house in a cloud of pink silk and fine white lace. Lady Michelle Parker, young and beautiful with dark black hair and creamy skin, floated rather than walked towards them with her parasol snapped open above her head and two of her own maids trailing behind.
“You invited her?” Hannah asked under her breath, holding a stiff smile in place. “But she’s…”
She trailed off, and Emelia thought wryly that it wasn’t really necessary for Hannah to finish that sentence. Michelle Parker had grown up alongside the two sisters, their better in every accomplishment, with a fine dowry and a reputed wealth beyond the public’s knowledge. She used her appearance to maximum benefit, and Emelia thought her only real downside was the flaw that was most grating—she was vain beyond belief, and hand in hand with this vapidity came a certain condescension upon every woman she thought less beautiful than she, which, it turned out, was every woman everywhere.
“Of course I invited her,” Emelia retorted under her breath, applying the same stiff smile to her own face. “She’s a long-time family friend, and it would have looked bad indeed if we had excluded her from a social event where others in our mutual circles could attend. I will say,” she added under her breath, “that I don’t know why she always need arrive first. I think we would all be able to bear the deprivation of her presence for a few minutes, at least.”
“Well, have fun with that,” Hannah said quickly, turning before Michelle was halfway across the lawn and making her way towards the house. “I’m off to find Father.”
“Traitor,” Emelia hissed good-naturedly under her breath.
She gathered her skirts and walked towards Michelle. It was, of course, the only decent thing to do as the hostess. With nobody else yet in attendance, it would look ill-mannered indeed to wait patiently across the lawn without going to meet her first guest. Before she’d even reached the other woman’s side, however, Michelle was making her regret the journey.
“What a glorious day it is,” she called out, waving her free hand. “Although if you could manage to pick a day that was just a bit cooler next time, I wouldn’t be required to bring my retinue.” She nodded at the maids and then whispered behind her hand, loudly enough that maids and anyone else in the vicinity could hear, “It’s just so hard to find good help these days, and I feel it’s such a drag to be followed about.”
Emelia cast a look at the maid holding the parasol and then tried to keep the frustration out of her voice. “Of course, Miss Parker. But it’s not quite so warm as you might think. As you can see, I’m managing quite fine without a hat or parasol, and we have coverings over the tables.”
“Oh, but I couldn’t be so flagrant with my own skin health.” Michelle let loose a little gasp. “You and Hannah both have such ruddy complexions—it bears up well under the sunshine—and you’ve never seemed to care about your skin going a bit brown during the season, but if I got even a bit of sun on this white skin my main attribute would be destroyed. Destroyed.” She leant forward and gave a little wink.
Emelia tried to think of a response to such flagrant vanity and settled instead on something her mother had taught her years ago: if you can’t think of something nice to say, best to keep your mouth in check. She smiled, curtsied, and wordlessly led her guest to the first table.
No sooner had she arrived than the rest of the guests began to line up at the front courtyard. She could hear the rush of the carriages, the calls of the stable boys trying to keep up, and Hannah’s greeting on the distant breeze. Two more people rounded the corner—matron sisters from down the road who had been a part of Emelia’s childhood, and one of her father’s friends, Judge Nichols.
“Tell me you’ve a grand meal prepared,” Michelle was saying. She took out her fan. “I do so love picnic fare.”
“Oh, it’s swell,” Emelia said automatically, straining behind the new arrivals in search of a familiar tall form. “The cook outdid herself.”
“My dear, I know picnics are casual occasions,” Michelle whispered behind her fan. “But there’s no need to use vulgar words like ‘swell,’ we aren’t children anymore.”
“If I remember,” Emelia answered crisply, turning to greet the next round of guests. “Even when we were children you didn’t allow the word swell.”
She turned on her heel and made her way over to the sisters, resisting the urge to look back and see the effect of her words on the primping princess she’d left behind in a moment of rare, stunned, silence.
“Miss Mary, Miss Eleanor, I’m delighted to have you.” Emelia curtsied before the two older women. They were both clad in their best gowns; this she knew from the years of fine events she’d shared with them—bright and almost peacock-like in their finery. They had stayed unmarried, although there were rumors that years ago Miss Mary had been madly in love with a naval officer. Something had gone awry, though, and the two sisters had lived on in the cottage down the way with their wimples and their graying curls. They were far below the status of Arthur Wells and his two daughters, but the merchant had always been kind to them for the sake of his wife, who had prized their company above all others.
“Delighted to be had, as always,” Miss Eleanor said with a little curtsy, the pearl necklace rolling from one side of her chest to the other. “And on such a warm day as well.”
Emelia held back a little sigh. “Is it so very warm? That’s the second time someone’s mentioned it.”
She looked up to see Hannah walking out arm in arm with their father. He’d changed into the coat he usually wore on business, fine attire indeed from a man who spent most days locked in his dressing gown scribbling away at the books and waiting for his ships to come in from their travels. She raised a hand in greeting, and they answered with a similar motion.
“Ah, and Judge Nichols!” She bowed her head in greeting. “Father will be delighted to have your company today as well.”
“Perhaps he will learn from the feeling and agree to come with me hunting one of these weekends,” the older man said with good-natured teasing. “He keeps standing me up for facts and figures in those ledgers of his.”
Next came a family with children, the new couple that had moved in next door a few years ago, and the four young ones set about at once cavorting about the lawn. There were two girls rolling the crochet balls back and forth between the hoops, and two boys scrambling over each other to get at the badminton raquets. After the family was settled, there were only a few more young people to arrive. Amid this last crew, Emelia caught sight of a familiar, striding form. She turned to Hannah.
“Thank goodness, Brody’s here at last. Why does he always wait so long to come? He leaves me with all the socialising and no one to make it more enjoyable with his teasing.”
Hannah rolled her eyes. “Come now, Emelia. You’ve always loved the socializing, Brody or not.” She shaded her eyes with her hands. “Wait, Montgomery’s with him.”
Brody Shaw was a long-time friend of the family. He and his older brother, Montgomery, had grown up alongside the girls. Montgomery was seven years older than Emelia, however, so within a few years of their friendship he outgrew their childish games and buried himself in studies at his father’s behest. She knew him less well than she knew Brody, who was her age and a match in every way for her charm and drama. He was her best friend, the boy she’d known since she was a little girl, and the man that her parents had fondly teased her about as she blossomed into womanhood. The Shaws were a good family; not quite as wealthy as the Wells, surely, but respectable indeed. Emelia pushed that last thought from her mind. The idea of romance with Brody was not new to her, but it made her oddly uncomfortable; she preferred to pretend that life would continue forever like this: unattached young people in sparkling garden parties without talk of love.
“I’m surprised Montgomery’s here,” Emelia said at last, winking at Hannah. “You’d think his intellect and his books would keep him well and truly away from such frivolous circles.”
“You’re always so hard on him,” Hannah said quietly. “He shouldn’t be faulted for working hard and making something of himself.”
“I don’t fault him for that,” Emelia said airily, “only for the way he has of bringing down the mood whenever he does agree to come to one of my parties.”
“He is very different from his brother,” Hannah answered.
She’d barely said as much when the young men joined them. Both boys were tall with dark hair and green eyes, although Brody’s seemed at least two shades darker than Montgomery’s, and was always finely combed in a perfect swath of thick hair. His suits were well-tailored, and the rakish charm in his eye lent him the air of a dandy that Emelia would have been suspicious of had she not grown up knowing the kindness that lay under that frivolous exterior. Montgomery, on the other hand, had his longer brown hair in a tousled mess, as though he’d spent the night rummaging through old medical books again. He was handsome too, but in a more rugged way than his brother. There was a shadow of a beard on his chin, and distant intensity in his eyes.
Brody bowed at once in front of the girls, unfurling his wrist in an overdramatic imitation of the French court.
“My dear Emelia and Hannah, what a pleasure to see you this fine day. I was fair fainting away for want of your company. Wasn’t I, Montgomery?”
Montgomery raised his eyebrows with a wry smile that came somewhere just shy of indulgent. He said nothing.
“Don’t mind my brother,” Brody went on with a wink in Emelia’s direction. “He isn’t one for social engagements, as you well know, and protested my bringing him here to the utmost degree.” He paused when Montgomery met this comment with a furrow of his brow. “Don’t try to disagree with me.”
Montgomery cleared his throat, his jaw working before he spoke. “My brother seems to forget, as always, that there are things polite to discuss at events like this, and things that are impolite. Suffice it to say, at the present I am not regretting my decision to attend in the least.”
Emelia hid a smile. Regardless of his words, Montgomery seemed awkward and uncomfortable in this setting. He looked at her and then at Hannah, but both times he seemed to be somewhere far away, his thoughts elsewhere. She remembered a time when they were children, frolicking along the riverbank behind the Wells’ estate, and she’d gotten into a fight with Brody when he knocked over her little cabin of sticks and mud by the riverside.
“Emelia,” fifteen-year-old Montgomery had said sagely, shaking his finger at her, “there will come a day when all these childish matters can be put behind you.”
She’d lost trust for him in that moment, her childish self put out by a young boy bringing sober adult thoughts to a playground, and if she were honest she’d never gained it back. Not that she suspected him of anything awful—just that she wondered always if he still looked on her actions like an older adult frowning upon the childish frivolities of a girl.
“Well,” she said, pointedly moving towards the field where a game of badminton awaited. “Will you gentlemen play opposite us on the field?”
“Of course,” Brody said quickly. Montgomery hesitated, and before he answered, another voice chimed into the close circle. It was Lady Michelle Parker, fanning herself, a servant and parasol close at her side.
“I’m happy to play, if you will allow me.” She gave a little curtsy. “As long as I can be on the side in the shade. I wouldn’t want to harm my complexion.”
“But if you’re playing there won’t be room for—” Hannah began, but before she could continue Emelia stepped forward in the role of hostess, doing her best to keep the frustration out of her voice.
“Of course you can play,” she said quickly. “I was just thinking that I would like to watch and learn the skill a bit more. It’s so hard to determine proper technique when one is in the thick of it.”
“I’ve seen you play before,” Montgomery said suddenly. “And I know that you’ve no want for technique in the least. Please, play you four and give me the benefit of an excuse to speak with your father and the judge.” He gave a stiff bow and left the group, heading off across the lawn towards those gathered at the tables.
Emelia felt a growing annoyance at the pink-clad lady across from her, who tittered into her fan and sent a sad glance following Montgomery’s departing form. “Well, now,” Michelle said with a mock pout, “that’s a disappointment if I ever knew one. Who ever heard of an imbalanced badminton game? Only one gentleman in the match?”
“I’m sure we’ll manage,” Emelia said, a bit more shortly than she meant. She took off towards the net, gathering the supplies and handing them out as she did in an effort to mask the annoyance building inside her. A hostess should always bring grace to her parties, that much her mother had taught her, and to snap at one’s guest at the very beginning of such event would be the height of insolence.
She served across the net, partnered with Brody, opposite Hannah and Michelle. The shuttlecock flew a little awry, but Hannah still dove for it and sent it back over. When the round had ended, Michelle scolded Hannah, saying, “You ought to let wild serves like that sink in the grass. No use doing their job for them.”
Emelia risked a glance at Brody, but he seemed to take it all in good fun. “Lady Michelle, I’m sorry to say we didn’t see you on our picnic outing a week past. It rained something dreadful, but in the end it was a marvelous good time.”
She blushed. “I was otherwise engaged, but I did miss your company as well.” She fingered the racquet and sent a glance towards the tables. “Tell me, was your brother in attendance? It’s so rare to see him at events like this.”
As soon as she’d looked away, Brody cast a glance in Emelia’s direction: wide eyes and a mocking smile. He was up to something, but she wasn’t sure what. All she knew for sure was that she wanted the game to end so she could surround herself with guests other than Lady Michelle Parker.
It took an extra round to close the match, and by the time they were walking back to the tables to eat, Emelia was sweating and out of breath. She pushed a damp curl of hair back behind one ear and fanned herself.
“Heavens,” Michelle said as she passed her. “That’s why I chose the shade, dear.”
Emelia didn’t point out that it would have been impossible for all three ladies to be in the shade, seeing as Michelle had dethroned Montgomery from his position with Brody opposite Hannah and Emelia. Instead, she focused her attentions on the next part of the party. She looked towards the staging room where she’d inspected the feast and saw a rather strange sight. The door was open and, standing there and waving rather urgently, was Aggie.
“Is something wrong?” Hannah whispered under her breath.
Brody was there all at once, leaning over the sisters’ shoulders as a coconspirator. “Let me guess,” he said in a low voice, “we’ve got a bit of a problem.”
“We don’t know that,” Emelia protested, but her heart said otherwise. She took off across the lawn, motioning for Hannah to accompany Michelle back to the remainder of the party. Brody followed, as she knew he would. Even when they were at each other’s throats he seemed to have her back.
As she neared the kitchen door, Emelia felt her heart dropping. Something was definitely wrong.
“Is dinner ready to be served?” she asked.
Aggie was twisting the folds of her apron in her hands, her eyes awash with horror. “Dinner won’t be served at all, miss,” she said in a hoarse tone. “The most awful thing has happened, miss, come and see.”
She stepped aside and Emelia pushed into the room with Brody at her heels. The tables that she had seen only an hour ago laden with delicacies and meats beyond compare were now in utter shambles. The cake was a mangled mess spread across piles of vegetables and shuffled bread and rolls. Everything looked like it had been trampled, and some things had noticeable bite marks. The duck, in particular, had been viciously attacked, and nothing but a few shreds of meat still clung to the bones. On the floor, very near to Emelia’s feet, lay a mostly-consumed boar’s head. The skull glared up at her reproachfully.
“What happened?” she gasped.
“Someone left the door open,” Aggie said. “The hunting dogs got in, and you know how they can be. They took everything there was to eat and gobbled it all up before we got a chance to stop them. I’ll find the maid who did it and dispose of her at once, I promise, miss. I’m so sorry. I know how things like this matter to you, and you’re always trying so hard.”
Emelia’s heart sank even further. She put a hand on the cook’s shoulder and shook her head.
“No, Aggie. No need to go on a hunt for some poor maid to blame. I was in here inspecting the food only a short while ago—you will remember—and now that I think of it, I can’t recall shutting the door. This fiasco is entirely my doing.”
There was a moment of silence and then Brody let out a burst of unrestrained laughter. Both women turned to look at him in mild annoyance, but their gaze seemed to only tickle him further and in an instant he was doubled over at the waist, chortling as though he couldn’t stop even if he wanted to.
“Brody.” Emelia frowned at him. “Brody, this is not the time.” She wanted quite suddenly to cry but suppressed the feeling. “I’m so sorry, Aggie. I’m so, so sorry.”
The cook was looking at the boar’s head at her feet, a frown creasing her lips. She kept her gaze intently there, and Emelia wished there was something she could do to help. She’d destroyed, in one moment of carelessness, the whole of the cook’s attempts at a beautiful feast. A moment passed where Brody was stifling laughter and Emelia was staring at the cook with a sinking feeling of failure; then, quite suddenly, a small chuckle came from the mouth of the cook. Before Emelia pulled out of her shock long enough to really understand what was happening, the chuckle was joined by a good-natured laugh, and then close on its heels a string of laughter.
“I suppose,” the cook said at last, wiping her eyes, “that I couldn’t have asked for a more grateful clientele.”
Emelia watched in amazement as Brody and the cook dissolved again into laughter, and when they came up at last for air she said in mild wonderment, “But what are we going to do?”
“Do?” the cook raised her hands. “What is there to do?”
Brody stopped laughing and put a kind hand on Emelia’s shoulder. “You do have to admit, Emmy, this happens more often than not with your events.”
She stomped her foot then, disappointed at the childish action but wanting to get the two’s attention as quickly as possible.
“Perhaps we can refrain from more criticism and put our mind to how we’re going to tell our guests that the dogs ate the food.”
“Right.” Brody sobered completely, though Emelia still saw a twinkle in his eye. “I suppose it falls to me to yet again save the day.” He winked at the cook. “I really am her knight in shining armor. Emmy, you won’t be telling anyone that the dogs at the food, because other than you no one knows about this mishap. No, instead you shall go out there with a simple peasant fare and sell it as the rustic country experience. It will be novel!”
Both women stared at him blankly, the cook now recovered from her fit of hilarity. “Rustic?” Aggie asked.
“You have some fine port, if I remember correctly, and bread and cheese. We’ll just serve that on platters with some fresh fruit from the cellar and everyone will feel like free and wild goatherds. Come, it will be the favourite talk of the town.”
Emelia wondered whether or not she should protest, but the more she considered Brody’s idea, the more sense it made to her. If she couldn’t pull off the ultimate elegant event, than all that remained was to attempt something a bit more in tune with their environment. Rustic living and the wild romantic life was all the rage since William Blake’s illuminated poems had come into popular opinion, and selling a party as an intentionally simple excursion would be enchanting to everyone; even Michelle and her sparkling lace parasol couldn’t find fault with that sort of innovation.
Aggie seemed relieved too. “At least I won’t be back in the kitchen whipping up another duck,” she said with one last chuckle.
“I’ll reimburse you for your time, Aggie, of course, and everything that was lost.”
“Hush, sweetie,” Aggie said, and then, as though remembering proper manners around Brody, she tacked on lamely, “I mean, Miss Emelia.”
The hunting dog fiasco turned out to be the last dramatic happening of the party. Once the food was laid out the guests fell upon it with exclamations of hunger and delight. There were no complaints, not even from Michelle Parker and her superior taste buds. After luncheon there were more games, a brief showing of talent from one of the young people who offered to recite a poem, and some more conversation. Emelia found herself looking around and one point in the afternoon, marveling at what Brody’s clear head had brought to what would ordinarily have been a disaster.
When the last of the guests had gone home, Emelia turned around to see Brody still sitting in the garden, one leg crossed over the other knee, sipping wine and talking to Hannah and her father. She walked over and ran her hands down the front of her skirt.
“Well, it came off in the end.” She smiled, then looked around. “Is Montgomery still here?”
“He ducked out hours ago, said he had business at your gamekeeper’s hut.” Brody yawned. “Just an excuse to get a bit of air, I’m sure. But I’m sure he had a lovely time all around.”
“I’m sure,” Hannah said, exchanging a quick glance with Emelia. She stood and held out her hand to their father. “Are you ready to go in, Papa? The evening air will be here soon and we’d best claim our place by the fireside before it comes.” She turned and curtsied to Brody. “Goodbye, Brody.”
He waved his hand with amused dismissal. “Since when do you curtsy for me, Miss Hannah? Take your posh and correct ways inside.”
As Hannah turned to go, Emelia saw a hint of something hidden in her eyes. She made a mental note to ask her sister about it later and then stood, holding out her hand to Brody.
“Let me walk you to your horse,” she said teasingly.
He stood and she slipped her arm into his elbow, as was their habit after years of friendship. They walked together towards the stables.
“You know, it stirs up rumors for me to linger at your home like this,” Brody said, arching an eyebrow and looking down at her. There was a comfortable camaraderie between them, and Emelia knew at once what he was speaking of. She rolled her eyes.
“Oh, please. You hear one matron at a tea talking about how you and I are going to have some forever life together and you won’t leave off teasing me about it.”
Brody shrugged. “When life hands you material…”
“And why? Because we’re close friends?”
“People have gotten married for less.” Brody laughed.
Emelia bit her lip and thought. There had been a time a few years ago, when she was a younger girl and fresh into thoughts of romance and love, that she had settled upon Brody with a small, harmless crush. It had not been long-lasting—he was always more annoying with her than he was charming—but it had sparked a feeling of reservation about the topic. She liked her friendship with Brody and she didn’t want it to change again.
“We have much in common,” Brody was continuing on as though she’d already responded. “We both love parties, hunting, fashion, and art. If we were married we’d have a grand time of it travelling the world and traipsing around on each other’s arms.”
“Brody, if it were any other girl you were saying all this to there would be some confusion about your motives,” Emelia scolded him. “You really ought to be more careful about your teasing.”
“I’m just saying,” he went on with the same casual air about himself, “that it’s a viable option?”
“Is it?” Emelia frowned. “Because I’m not so sure. I think love is another necessary ingredient to marriage, Brody, and while I care for you as a friend and I know you return the sentiment, I don’t think either of us could claim romantic love anymore.”
“Fiddlesticks!” Brody exclaimed, falling back on one of the childish phrases they had most enjoyed. “Romantic love is the least necessary component of all. Do you know why?”
Emelia rolled her eyes at this familiar line of argument. “Ah, yes. That’s right. You don’t believe in love, real love. You think the whole world is faking it, putting on some sort of act so us single people will be taken in by the whole charade.”
“Well, I don’t think the entire world is in on the act. In fact, I’d dare you to point out any couple in your acquaintance that you think really love one another. They all act so distantly and cold. I don’t see a single one of them who has affection after they’re married. Yes, there are some who put up a show of love in the throes of youth, but I think that is more biological than anything. After marriage and the sealing of the pact, all those vestiges are sure to drain away.”
“My parents,” Emelia said quietly. “They still cared about each other.”
“Now, wait.” Brody sobered ever so slightly. “You can’t use your dearly departed mother as an example, Emelia.” Again, if Emelia hadn’t watched how much Brody cared for and respected her mother, she would have taken offense. She also knew that Brody himself wasn’t a stranger to the pain associated with the loss of a parent. “And anyway,” he went on. “This would be an instance of the exception proving the rule.”
“Well, then,” Emelia said. “Be off with you. Live a life in search of sparkling people and beware lest you pick one too delightful, else you might be in danger of the thing you don’t think exists.” She shoved off from his arm playfully. “I, in the meantime, am going to keep my heart open to romance. I hope to fall in love, and while I think good friends could make a go of it, I am going to hold out for the time being in the hopes that something real will come my way.”
Brody grinned, his eyes dancing. “Alright then, little hold out. But if I’m right and there’s no love to be had for you, we should marry in ten years if you’ve escaped the grip of matrimony. Friends will trump romantic love any day.”
Brody pushed her lightly on the shoulder. “Now you’ve lost your shine. What did I do to bring that about?”
“I wish you wouldn’t joke about that,” she said. “There are gossips in these parts, and you already talked about how you overheard whispers about us among the people. Possibly there were such whispers today at the event. I did play badminton on your team.”
“And you know,” Brody said with mock sobriety, “that badminton is the most seductive of games.”
“Hush.” Emelia pursed her lips together. “I’m serious, Brody. You should have said something to those women weeks ago when you heard them talking about how much time we spend together. You should have stopped the gossip then and there.”
“Haven’t you heard the Shakespearean confession that ‘the lady doth protest too much?’ It would only fuel the fires of speculation if I came to your defense.” Brody shrugged. “And besides, what does it matter? Emelia, I know it might be that they’re all mistaken about us, and perhaps there is some natural embarrassment, but in the end it will do no harm.”
“It will do no harm to you, Brody,” Emelia scolded. “Really, you can be such a boy sometimes. You and the other men in the county can go to as many social outings as you want and flirt with as many ladies as you desire and then fade back into the background without any strings attached, but if I were to behave that way my reputation would be tarnished. Not only would this come back on the Wells’ name, hurting my father’s business and my sister’s prospects, but it would come back on me as well. Do you think true love would even think of stopping at my door when it thought I was already occupied with some other dashing fellow?”
“Dashing?” Brody raised an eyebrow.
“You’re infuriating,” Emelia snapped.
“Come on,” Brody pressed. “You think that if anyone mistakenly thinks we’ve been romantic, it would compromise your reputation? I think it might improve it. I think it’s naïve to think people haven’t already married us off. The expectation that we’d end up mixing the Wells and Shaw names sometimes in the future has always been there, and it doesn’t matter how adamant you are—it will continue to hang over us.”
“Well, the expectation is not held by me,” she said, relenting at last into his teasing with a little smile.
He sighed with an overdramatic gesture of relief. “Thank heavens. The lady at last gets off her high horse.”
She stole another glance at him as they neared the stables and wondered for a brief moment if it was a practical plan. Brody was right—they had a good, solid friendship, and would enjoy spending time together forever—but something held her back. He’d grown into more of a friend over the last few years; he’d grown into a brother. And that made the idea of marriage seem more ridiculous than if they’d been only light acquaintances.
“How about this,” she said, putting her nose into the air in an imitation of posh sophistication. “I shall no longer give you long lectures on the meaning and worth of true romantic love, and you shall no longer feed the rumors of our nonexistent but apparently impending marriage.”
Brody put his hand to his chin as though weighing both options. He looked from one direction to the other, mimicking the motions of a judge uncertain what to choose. Emelia punched him, good-naturedly but hard, in the arm, and he jumped away from her in mock annoyance.
“Alright,” he said at last. “I suppose I will relent for now.”
Emelia changed tacks. “I’m surprised you brought Montgomery today.”
“Montgomery is not the sort of man that can be brought anywhere he does not want to go,” Brody said with amusement. “But I was surprised he wanted to attend as well. I suppose even the most frozen of marble statues require a brief outing into society every now and again.”
“He’s not that bad,” Emelia said, her face relaxing into a smile. “I think he brings a lot to an excursion, actually.” She bit her lip. “I don’t think I’ve seen him since your father’s funeral.”
Brody’s face sobered. Their father, Alistair Shaw, had been a well-respected member of the community, a chemist who had paid Montgomery’s way through the physician’s school in London and, in so doing, raised him to the status of gentleman. Six months ago Alistair Shaw had been taken suddenly and inexplicably ill, and had passed away in the space of a few hours. Brody had been there, but he said Montgomery had arrived only a few minutes before his father died, and the blow had been hard on them both.
“I’m sorry,” Emelia added softly. “I didn’t mean to touch on a difficult subject.”
“The difficult subject is always there,” Brody said kindly, “even if you don’t touch on it. You have nothing for which to apologise.” He looked down at his hands. “I’m doing well enough—you probably saw as much from my behavior today. Some days are harder than others, but I don’t bear the same guilt that Montgomery does.”
“He was a physician who arrived at his own father’s deathbed too late to offer life-giving assistance.” Brody put a hand through his dark hair. “I keep trying to tell him that father wouldn’t want him to torture himself, but they were always so close—inseparable in many ways—and I can feel the sting of guilt on Montgomery, so inescapable.”
“What could he have done?” Emelia asked.
“Probably nothing.” Brody gave a sigh and forced a smile. “Look, I don’t want to bring down the tone of your magical day with talk of all this. The proper time of mourning has ended, and though I know you have grace for the conversation, I don’t want to burden you unduly.”
“My mother’s been dead for years,” Emelia said softly, “and I still miss her every day. There’s no prescribed time for recovering from this, Brody.”
“I know that, but I worry about Montgomery. He’s taking the death very hard, Emelia. He’s buried in his work, and he rarely talks to me anymore. I thought he came today in an effort to embrace life again, but he left so quickly.” Brody looked towards the gamekeeper’s hut down the hill. “I should go rouse him from whatever solitude he’s sought.”
“I’m sorry, Brody.” Emelia could see that for all of Brody’s talk about the grace and understanding, he felt some measure of responsibility for his brother’s state. “Please,” she added. “You’re not alone. If there’s anything—anything at all—I can do, don’t hesitate to ask. I want to help.”
“A Lady’s Perfect Match” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Emelia Wells is a wealthy merchant’s daughter and hosting social events is what she loves the most. When her childhood friend asks her to lift his brother’s spirits by finding him a wife, she finds the challenge quite intriguing. Little does she know, though, that by getting involved in love games, she could have her own heart fooled. Will she ever admit that the man she is trying to uplift might be the one who makes her own heart fly? Or will she back down due to the overwhelming situation she and her friend have fallen into?
Montgomery Shaw has recently lost his beloved father and has experienced unbearable pain and loss. His father inspired him to study medicine and now he has become a real gentleman, wishing to offer to others. Even though he is determined to never fall in love, reality proves him wrong. When his brother’s best friend, Emilia, approaches him, he won’t be able to neglect the feelings he starts to develop. But is he ready to chase the love he has denied all this time or will his fear of heartbreak make him refuse happiness?
Montgomery does want love despite his losses, but if he is not willing to open up, he will lose the love of his life. Emelia has never felt such an affection for any man and doesn’t know how to express herself, but this one may get away if she doesn’t speak up. Can they all sort out this confusion and find their perfect matches by each other’s side?
“A Lady’s Perfect Match” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.