Lingfield Little Hall, Surrey, February 1818
As the Lingfield carriage pulled up outside the entrance to the little hall, Rowena, almost all grown up now at sixteen, dashed out to greet her sister and her brother-in-law, the Countess and the Earl of Lingfield. It had been a slippery ride over from the manor next door, and the baby turned out to be travel sick. Rowena did not wait for Henry the groom to jump down and open the door as she yanked at it, but Lady Emily did not care about such things. She was simply relieved that the relatively short journey was at an end for she needed to have a wash and wipe down her coat.
Rowena’s mouth formed a wide O, and she gasped, “Oh, she is beautiful!” Taking the bundle from her sister’s arms, she turned and called over her shoulder, “Mother will be delighted to meet her.” She tripped back inside the little hall, taking great care of her precious package.
Lord Ainsley laughed as he helped his wife down from the carriage. “Now, I know you do not need any help, but you have not long had a baby and I wish to take great care of you.”
Emily smiled her gratitude and took hold of his out-stretched hand. She had long given up on her protestations that she was as capable as anyone at anything. She knew that her husband did not mean anything by it, and besides, since she had fallen pregnant, she had found that she did indeed need help with a lot of things she had previously managed alone.
As they breezed into the house, Emily called after her sister, “I do hope you are looking after our little Julia!”
She found her sister and her mother in the large parlour in front of the fire, Mrs. Belinda Lawson already cooing and making other indecipherable noises at the child in her arms. Her cousin Katharine was there too. She and Rowena had been practically inseparable for the past three years and often took it in turns to stay at the other’s house.
Belinda looked up at her eldest daughter, a silly, soppy look on her face. “She is adorable, my dear. Thank you so much for bringing her here to see us.” Then she looked down at the baby and said in a silly high voice, “I am going to spoil you so much, yes I am!”
Ingrid the maid came and relieved Ainsley and Emily of their outer clothes and promised that she would be back shortly with a tea tray.
“I am afraid my wife will need more than some tea,” said Ainsley. “Since she became pregnant, she has eaten like a horse, and it has not stopped now that our daughter is here.”
“She’ll need t’keep ‘er strength up, mi’lord,” said the maid, jumping to her former mistress’ defence. But everyone knew he was only teasing in his usual kind manner. When she returned with the tray, it was full to overflowing with little snacks as well as a full pot of tea and all the trimmings.
When it became clear that Belinda was not going to let anyone else have a hold of her granddaughter, Rowena said to Ainsley, “Would you care to come and listen to me play the piano?”
“I would like that very much,” he agreed, taking his cup and saucer with him into the great hall. He was followed by Katharine, who took a last glance at the baby before leaving the room.
Meanwhile, Emily sat down next to her mother and relaxed while the older woman rocked the child.
“Rowena seems to have come along with her piano playing,” Emily remarked.
“Yes,” agreed her mother, keeping her eyes on the babe in her arms.
“And to think we thought that she was tone deaf.”
Belinda’s head snapped up briefly. “It was you who thought she was tone deaf, daughter.” She returned her attention to little Julia.
“That is very true,” laughed Emily. She rested her head against the back of the settee.
For a moment, they listened while Rowena cautiously picked out a few bars. After a brief pause, the tune turned into something more confident and rowdy.
“Ah,” said Belinda. “Katharine and Rowena are playing one of their favourite duets. I do so love to listen to them both play.”
Emily sighed with contentment. Her mother and her sister had swiftly fallen into a positively idyllic lifestyle since she had left home. She was very happy for them, and glad that they also seemed to be happy.
“Your husband is very good with your sister,” said her mother.
“He is good with everyone he meets,” agreed Emily.
“You chose well,” nodded her mother.
They sat and listened to the girls play the piano while Emily sipped at her tea and nibbled on a sandwich.
When the three of them returned to the parlour, Emily turned to her sister and said, “We have received an invitation to one of London’s more prestigious parties.”
Rowena peeped at the baby before sitting in one of the armchairs. Her cousin sat in the other and Ainsley hovered in front of the fire, still holding his teacup and saucer.
“Ooh, did you bring it with you?” asked Rowena.
“I most certainly did, for I knew you would want to see it.” She rifled through her bag and withdrew the grand invitation, handing it to her sister.
“How exciting,” said Rowena, reading from the card. “The Marchioness of Salisbury. How wonderful!”
“There is an item in the newspaper about the party too,” said Ainsley. “Would you like me to save it for you?”
“Ooh, yes please,” said Rowena.
“Especially if you are going,” agreed her cousin.
The two girls looked knowingly at each other and then Katharine nodded, urging Rowena on.
“Would you throw a ball for us?” asked Rowena. “At the manor?”
Ainsley exchanged a glance with his wife and said, “I think we can arrange that.”
The two girls jumped up and ran squealing from the room, as if they were children once more.
Lingfield Manor, Surrey, March 1818
The manor looked resplendent with all the bunting and other decorations everywhere. The event had been planned to the most minuscule detail, with a guest list that rivalled no other in the county. It was to be both Rowena and Katharine’s first ever ball, and Ainsley and Emily had every intention of making it as memorable as they could.
The house was at the busiest Emily had ever seen it, though she was sure it must have been so when Ainsley’s late parents lived there. Tradesmen and women of all types came and went, but it did not faze Emily at all. In fact, she quite enjoyed all the organisation and planning that went with it. However, they were surprised when four guests in particular turned up, uninvited and unexpected.
Emily followed her husband into the parlour to see who had decided to drop in on them, and her hand flew to her mouth as she gasped with shock.
Ainsley said, “What are you doing here?”
“I thought it was about time that you met my family,” said his brother, Oswald.
Emily pushed past Ainsley and greeted the captain.
When she turned to the woman with him, she said, “You must be Mrs. Titterington.”
“Please, call me Elizabeth,” said Oswald’s wife.
“Then you must call me Emily,” she replied. “And you have brought your two children with you,” Emily said, kneeling on the floor to say hello to the toddler and her slightly older brother.
“Yes, this is Charles Junior and his sister Rebecca.”
“Rebecca is closer to our own daughter’s age,” said Emily. “Although Julia is only two months old. Would you like to see her?”
Elizabeth smiled her gratitude and agreed.
“I will ask Daisy to take you to the nursery,” Emily said, pulling at the cord beside the fire. “I will come up and join you presently.”
She thought it best that Oswald’s wife and children were out of the way while Ainsley spoke with his brother, but she had no intention of leaving them alone. Her husband was already quietly seething.”
“Emily,” he said, “will you not go with our guest to the nursery?”
“I will,” she replied. “When we have both greeted Captain Oswald properly.” She stubbornly sat on one of the upright chairs and pretended to be watching something through the window.
Ainsley blew out a massive sigh but turned to his brother all the same.
“I ask again: what are you doing here?”
“And I say again, I thought it was time that you met my family,” replied the Captain. “Time that you met your family.”
Ainsley paced up and down while his brother leaned nonchalantly against the wall.
“I hope you are not here for money,” said Ainsley. “I have my own family to support now and have no intention of baling you out over and over again.”
“Then it is fortunate that I do not need you to do so,” said Captain Oswald, examining his fingernails.
Emily noted that he still had that arrogant air to him, but his face was not as smug looking as it used to be.
“And besides,” said Oswald, “I did not wish for my wife to miss the first ball that this family has hosted since our mother passed away.”
“You are not coming to our ball!” blustered Ainsley. “In fact, if you insist on hanging around, I will cancel the blessed thing.”
“You would not do that to my sister,” said Emily gently. “You know how much she and her cousin have been looking forward to it.”
“Then I suggest that my brother leaves this house immediately,” he said, pointing a finger at Oswald.
“I say, old man,” sighed Oswald, making his brother visibly flinch with the term of endearment.
“I am not your old man!” Ainsley replied for the first time ever. “I am your brother!”
“Very well, brother,” said Oswald, bowing his head as an apology. “But it has been three years. I have not seen you – either of you – since my wedding, and you barely stayed for long then.”
“I only stayed long enough to see you do the deed,” said Ainsley through gritted teeth.
“When did you get home?” asked Emily, trying to lighten the atmosphere a little.
Oswald continued to stare at his brother for a moment before turning his gaze to her.
“We arrived from Ireland a month ago and have been spending some time with my wife’s family. They were, of course, delighted to see the children, and to meet their granddaughter for the first time,” he said pointedly, addressing his comments to Ainsley. “You did very well to ignore them, brother, but they are your nephew and your niece. I thought that you might like to meet them.” He turned to face Emily once more, his face asking for her help.
She nodded and she stood up and joined her husband, making him stand still for a moment.
Ainsley looked down at her and said, “My brother’s selfishness almost took you from me.”
“But it did not,” she murmured, “as well you can see.” She could feel him calming down now. He had been shaking slightly before, either with anger or surprise, but he was pulling himself together again. “I will go up to the nursery and get to know my sister-in-law. The two of you can stay in here, or in your study, but you will at least speak to each other.”
He nodded down at her.
“We will go to my study,” he said, storming from the room. Captain Oswald began to follow him but paused in the doorway.
“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you, Emily. And please accept my apology for all that I put you through.”
Without giving her a chance to reply, he was out the door himself.
Emily took a deep breath and smoothed the creases out of her frock. She glanced in a mirror on the wall, pinched her cheeks, and smiled at herself. Then she left the room and headed upstairs to the nursery, hoping that everything would work out.
“I have asked my brother and his family to stay for a few days,” announced Ainsley much later.
Emily was in her sitting room, alone, making the most of a few minutes peace, reading a book. She lay a strip of fabric between the pages to mark her place and put the book to one side.
“I am very pleased to hear it,” she replied. “Have you spoken to your sister-in-law?”
“Yes,” he nodded, joining her on the chaise longue. “She appears to be a good woman, and for some reason seems to at least love my brother.”
“He is a rather handsome fellow,” she replied. “And he is her husband. I am very glad that she does love him.”
“He does not deserve it,” snapped Ainsley.
“Perhaps he has made it up to her,” she replied.
Ainsley picked up the book and looked at the cover. “What on Earth is this?”
“You can read very well, husband,” she said. “What does it say?”
He could not pronounce it, which annoyed her just a little, for she was hoping he would tell her how to say it.
He tried again.
“Frank-en-stine,” he said, reading it phonetically, and she nodded in agreement.
“Yes,” she said. “I thought so too.”
“Is it any good?” he asked, examining it front and back.
“I do not yet know,” she replied. “I have only just started to read it, but I believe it to be a ghost story of sorts.”
“Hmm,” he said, and he tossed the book to one side. “I hope you do not intend to sit up here reading all night when we have a ball.”
She was happy because he now seemed to be back to his usual self.
“The first one since your mother passed away apparently,” she teased.
He had the good grace to blush. “There was never any need until now.”
“Not even to introduce your new wife to the county’s gentry?” she asked.
“My wife would not appreciate such a gesture,” he joked. “And besides, her manners are appalling.”
They laughed at the memory and he dropped a kiss on her smiling lips. Then another, and then another.
“Husband!” she admonished, pushing him away. “We have a party to prepare for. Guests to greet. And you,” she poked him in the chest with a finger, “you need to get to know your nephew and niece.”
He held his mouth above hers for just a moment, but then sighed. “You are right. You are always right.” He pulled away. “But do not think I will forget. I will come back to claim my prize when the ball is over.”
“Thank you,” she said, getting up and following him into his own chambers.
“For what?” he asked, undoing his shirt and opening his closet. “For giving you a stay of execution until after the party?”
“For putting on this party for my sister. For allowing your brother to stay.”
“I have not forgiven him,” he said, over his shoulder.
“No not yet,” she agreed. “But you will.”
When the ball began, Ainsley stepped up onto the dais where the small orchestra were waiting to play, chinking a glass with a spoon.
All eyes turned to their host to see what he had to say.
“First of all,” he said, “I would like to welcome you all to my home – to our home.”
A general murmur of appreciation rippled through the crowd.
“Not only is this the first time that I formally introduce you to my wife,” he waved an arm towards the edge of the dais where Emily stood watching him, hands clasped in front of her chest, “but this is also our sister and her cousin’s first ball.” Rowena and Katharine stood next to Emily and giggled and smiled in a huddle together.
The guests clapped politely and smiled towards the two girls. The band behind him was poised to begin proceedings, but Ainsley had not finished.
“I would also like to welcome my brother, who has come home from the war, thankfully unscathed.” Oswald and Elizabeth hovered by the door, but Emily turned and gestured for them to come further into the room. “And, of course,” added Ainsley, “his lovely wife.”
Another ripple of applause drifted around the ball room. The leader of the orchestra watched Ainsley with anticipation, his hands suspended in mid-air as he awaited his cue to start.
“Please, enjoy yourselves, one and all,” he said, and finally nodded towards the musicians before stepping down off the dais to more polite appreciation from those present.
The music started as Ainsley greeted his wife, holding out his arm.
“Would you do me the honour?” he asked.
“Of course,” she smiled.
As they swirled around the dance floor, surrounded by loved ones and treasured guests, Emily said again, “Thank you, Ainsley.”
“You are welcome, Emily,” he replied. “But for what are you thanking me?”
“For being such a forgiving and loving man,” she explained.
“On the contrary,” he said. “It is I who should be thanking you.”
Now it was her turn to ask, “What for?”
“For giving our love a chance.”