Authors: Carola Dunn
Tags: #Four Regency Romance Novellas
A SECOND SPRING
4 Regency novellas
The Dower House
“The best thing about being a grandmother,” said Catriona placidly, “is that if Donald falls in,
have to fish him out, not I.”
Letty laughed. “Unfortunately, Daphne is just as likely to fall in. If they both take the plunge at once, Mama, you may be called upon to help.”
Lady Catriona March and her daughter stood on the bank of the ornamental lake. Among the reeds, in an aged rowboat tied to a rickety jetty, Letty’s seven-year-old twins played at pirates. With bulrushes for cutlasses they hacked harmlessly at each other, the August sun bright on their copper curls.
Even as the ladies watched, the boat began to sink with a bubbling sigh.
“The water is not very deep,” said Letty with her usual optimism, “and it is a warm day. I hope they can manage without me, as I foolishly put on my new gown.” She glanced up the slope at the sprawling manor of Lincolnshire stone before moving to the near end of the jetty.
Knee-deep in muddy water, Donald and Daphne argued about whose fault it was that their pirate ship had sunk. Dearly as she loved her grandchildren, Catriona’s thoughts were on their mother, slender and graceful in lavender-green sprigged muslin. She had not missed Letty’s backward glance at the manor house, nor its connection with her new gown.
The new heir to the baronetcy and to Marchbank had arrived last night. Catriona knew little about Sir Gideon March, except that the lawyers had at last found him in Canada a year after Jeremy’s death. He was Jeremy’s uncle’s grandson, a distant cousin, and though there had been no positive breach, the two branches of the family had lost contact. She did not know Sir Gideon’s age, nor even if he had a wife. Whether he would bring life and gaiety back to Marchbank, she could not guess.
Letty deserved a little gaiety. Wed at seventeen to her childhood sweetheart, widowed after three weeks of married life, she was a devoted mother and seemed content with their quiet life at the Dower House. Yet she was too young, too pretty to resign herself to widowhood.
Catriona herself found a proper resignation difficult to attain. She, too, had married at seventeen and borne her only child not a year later, but she had had Jeremy’s love and support for long years thereafter. His absence now was an aching void in her life.
At her age, that void was not to be filled. Letty was another matter. Somewhere in the wide world was the man who could mend her broken heart and who would not flinch at taking on a pair of energetic twins.
“My feet are stuck in the mud, Mama,” said Daphne gleefully.
“So are mine,” Donald clamoured.
“I can’t move a single inch.”
“Perhaps we’ll grow roots, Daph, and turn into plants like in that story Grandmama read us.”
“You mean Narcissus? I can’t see my face in the water, though.”
“There’s too many ripples. Keep still.”
“For heaven’s sake, children!” Letty took a tentative step onto the dilapidated jetty. “Lean this way and hold out your hands, Daphne. I shall try to reach you and pull you out.”
“May I be of assistance, ma’am?” The deep, amused voice came from behind Catriona.
With a startled gasp, she turned. A tall, powerful gentleman in buckskins and a walnut brown coat raised his hat to her, revealing thick black hair with the merest hint of grey at the temples. Dark eyes smiled down at her from a sun–bronzed face.
“Thank you, sir. I daresay my daughter will be glad of your aid.”
“Your daughter?” For a moment he looked surprised, then his gaze went beyond her. “Perhaps introductions had best wait,” he exclaimed, and strode past her.
Letty crouched on the edge of the jetty, precariously reaching towards Daphne. Their fintertips were a good six inches apart. If they met, Letty was more likely to land in the water than to pull the child out.
“Wait!” called the stranger imperatively. “I believe I can reach her, ma’am.”
Looking round, Letty rose from her undignified position in one graceful movement. “Do you think so, sir? That is very kind of you. You may be splashed, I fear.” She stepped back to be out of his way.
“A little water won’t hurt me.”
mud,” said Donald with relish
“And pondweed,” Daphne chimed in, draping a strand of greeenery around her neck. “Look at my necklace.”
Undeterred, the gentleman set foot on the jetty. He had taken two paces when his foot went through the rotten wood. The whole structure prommptly disintegrated, dumping him and Letty to flounder in the water among floating planks.
The twins, overcome by giggles, clutched at each other and both sat down. Catriona bit her lip, her chin quivering in her struggle to suppress unseemly merriment. She was undone when a shout of mirth behind her announced the arrival of another newcomer. Her laughter escaped her control, and she was breathless when she finally managed to give her attention to the second stranger.
Ten or twelve years younger than the first, in his late twenties, he was nearly as tall, equally strong-looking but tending more to a lean, sinewy build. His complexion, too, was browned by the sun. Fair hair, blue eyes, and a broad grin completed the picture of a handsome Buck.
“Need a hand, Gideon?” he called.
So the older gentleman was the new baronet.
“Not unless you fancy a swim, coz,” he answered wryly. Finding his feet, he rose from the shallows like a Triton from the depths. He took Letty’s hand, pulled her up, and disregarding the muddy water cascading from their persons, he said with gallant courtesy, “Permit me to offer you my arm, ma’am.”
She cast a laughing glance up at him and accepted. Her straw bonnet sagged about her ears, but far worse, her gown clung to her body, the thin muslin almost transparent. As they made their way to the bank, Catriona wondered despairingly what she could use to cover her daughter’s scarcely decent form.
“If only I had worn a shawl, or even a spencer!”
No longer amused, the young man beside her tore his wide-eyed gaze from Letty. “Take my coat, ma’am,” he said in a slightly unsteady voice. Stripping off the bottle-green garment, he handed it to Catriona.
She hurried forward with it. Sir Gideon heaved himself out of the water and turned back to haul Letty onto the bank. With a smile for her mother, standing by with the coat, she reached up to take his hands. A moment later she was on dry land. Her eyes widened as she caught sight of the second gentleman, now in his shirt sleeves.
A flush mantled her cheeks. “Mama, pray let us go home at once,” she begged, hastily pulling the coat on and buttoning it.
“Will you not come up to the house to dry off?” Sir Gideon invited them. “The children, too, of course.”
They all turned back to the lake, where Donald and Daphne were now wrestling in the muddy water.
“We cannot possibly inflict those two on you!” Catriona exclaimed. “In any case, they all need dry clothes, and the Dower House is not much farther off.”
Lady Catriona March?” said the baronet. “We enquired for you at the Dower House, and your servant said you had walked this way, but I couldn’t believe…” He glanced from Catriona to Letty and back. “I took you for sisters. To tell the truth, I had supposed the dowager to be an older lady.”
“You don’t look a bit like one’s notion of a dowager, ma’am,” his cousin agreed.
“Lady Catriona, I’m Gideon March, as you will doubtless have guessed. Allow me to present my cousin, Harry Talgarth.”
Mr Talgarth bowed. Catriona’s lips twitched as she gravely introduced the dripping Letty to the dripping baronet and his dry but shirt-sleeved cousin. “My daughter, Mrs Rosebay.”
“How do you do, Sir Gideon, Mr Talgarth.” Letty was beginning to shiver. “I am most grateful for your help, but pray excuse us now. I want to go home! Daphne, Donald, come out at once.”
“We can’t Mama.”
“We’re not pirates anymore.”
“We’re sea serpents.”
“We’ll die if we leave the water.”
Harry Talgarth reached the water’s edge in two strides. “Out!” he commanded.
Four bright blue eyes turned on him with more speculative interest than alarm, but after a moment the twins decided to obey. They slithered up the muddy bank à la serpent, completing the devastation of their clothes.
However lively and argumentative, they were well-taught. Daphne cursied and Donald bowed. The sight was almost too much for Catriona, and then she met Sir Gideon’s twinkling eyes. They both burst out laughing.
The children glanced at each other and shrugged their shoulders.
“Let’s be racehorses,” Daphne proposed.
“I’ll get home before you.”
They dashed off.
“Straight home, and go in through the kitchen,” Letty called after them. She looked chagrined.
“Come on, darling, you will take a chill,” said Catriona. “Excuse us gentlemen. We shall be happy to receive you later this afternoon—at four, say?—though I cannot promise your coat will be fit to return to you by then, Mr Talgarth.”
“No matter, ma’am. I only hope it preserves Mrs Rosebay from a chill.”
“We shall see you at four,” said Sir Gideon, “without fail. I’m badly in need of a lady’s advice.”
So he was not married, Catriona thought as they parted. Gallant and charming, with a splendid sense of humour, he would suit Letty to a T. To be sure, he was considerably older, but Jeremy had been twenty years older than herself, and she had come to love him dearly.
She had been shocked, though when her father, the Earl of Dunshannon, had insisted on wedding the youngest of his many daughters to a suitor she considered positively elderly. Best not to say anything to Letty until she was better acquainted with Sir Gideon. It had not passed Catriona’s notice that Letty had been instantly at ease with him, amused by their mutual mishap. Not until she saw Harry Talgarth had she shown a ny sign of embarrassment.
“What must they think of us, Mama?” Letty wailed.”I have never been so mortified in my life. I made an utter cake of myself, and then the children misbehaving…”
“They were no worse than high-spirited and their usual imaginative selves. Indeed, I was quite proud of them when they remembered their manners, even if I could not help laughing. And it was Sir Gideon, not you, who demolished the jetty, though I do think you would have had a ducking anyway,” she added to be fair. “I must say, he took his soaking very well.”
Letty sighed. “Yes he was all that is gentlemanly. But Mr Talgarth stared at me
“And lent you his coat. Come, let us forget the incident and start afresh.”
“If only they will forget. Still, I daresay Mr Talgarth will soon go away, and Sir Gideon will be a pleasant neighbour.”
“I am sure he will.” Catriona heard the note of hope in her own voice and chided herself for being a matchmaking mama. Not to mention overhasty: she had taken an instant liking to Sir Gideon, but after all, she still knew very little of him. A pleasant manner and attractive person by no means proved him to be a man of character and principle.
* * * *
Standing in the sun at her chamber window, Letty brushed her long, damp hair and wished it were more like Mama’s, a rich, chestnut colour, instead of her own paler hue. Papa had called it Titian, but to Bart she had always been “Carrots.” Perhaps if she had been blond, or if her eyes were green like Mama’s rather than commonplace blue, he would have…
With a deliberate effort, she shook off the unwonted mood of self-pity. Bart was six years gone, buried on a Spanish mountainside, and she had long since learnt to live with the memory of those three disastrous weeks.
“Mama?” Daphne peeked round the door, then came in. Dressed in a clean white pinafore embroidered with ivy leaves, her red curls combed into a semblance of order, she was a sight to lighten a mother’s heart. “Mama, Betsy says she’s nearly finished with Grandmama and is your hair dry enough to braid?”
“Tell her yes, lovie. You are looking very pretty.”
“My hair was tied in
Betsy thought she’d have to cut it all off. I could’ve worn a wig, like Grandpapa did when he was young. Mama, Grandmama says me and Donald—”
“Donald and I.”
“…can take tea with you, but I have to ask you first.”
“If you both promise to behave yourselves.”
“We’ll sit ever so quietly in our corner and look at picture books.”
The twins had never been known to sit quietly in a corner for more than ten minutes, but Letty decided that, as a close neighbour, Sir Gideon must accustom himself to them. As a visitor, Mr Talgarth’s opinion mattered not a whit to her, she thought defiantly. How stern he had sounded when he ordered her children out of the lake!
Daphne added a proviso. “Except when we’re eating. Sarah’s making jam tarts.”
Twenty minutes later, her hair braided and pinned up beneath a lace cap with a ribbon that matched her blue gown, Letty joined her mother in the sitting room. Mama was still wearing half mourning, though it was eighteen months since Papa died. Her dark lilac gown trimmed with black ribbons suited her remarkably well. Nonetheless, her eyes opened by Sir Gideon’s and Mr Talgarth’s comments, Letty resolved to persuade her it was time she put off black gloves. She was too young to dress like a dowager.