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Authors: Mary Burchell

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Choose the One You'll Marry

BOOK: Choose the One You'll Marry
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CHOOSE THE ONE YOU’LL MARRY

Mary Burchell

“Keep away from Michael Harling!

Ruth would never have submitted to blackmail for her own protection, but the secret Charmian Deal threatened to disclose would hurt a lonely old woman who could lose everything she most wanted.

Besides, the price of Charmian’s silence was only Ruth’s promise not to be friendly with Michael Harling, and Ruth could hardly mind that. She was halfway in love with Angus Everton, and had never given Michael a thought. Until now...

 

CHAPTER ONE

Mrs. Tadcaster
held out the letter almost at arm’s length, for she had grown rather farsighted with the years.

“It’s from Aunt Henrietta,” she announced, to a more or less indifferent family, busy with its own breakfast-time problems and the necessity of being in reasonably good time for school, office or workshop, as the case might be.

“I haven’t heard of her for twenty years or more.” Used to the self-absorption of her family at this hour, Mrs. Tadcaster required no direct replies in order to keep her monologue going. “I thought she was dead, to tell the truth. Or abroad, anyway.”

“Not quite the same thing,” observed Leonard, with the air of patronage peculiar to sons who are fond of their parents but deplore their lack of that clear-sighted vision vouchsafed only to those between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one.

“Has she anything interesting to say?” Ruth, busily buttering her last piece of toast, had arrived at the age of courtesy and some appreciation of her parents, so she made at least a show of being interested in her mother’s Aunt Henrietta.

Mrs. Tadcaster, now deep in the letter again, did not reply at once. She turned a page, went on reading and then exclaimed, “I simply don’t believe it!”

“Don’t believe what?” inquired her husband, looking up from the
Daily Telegraph.

“What’s the date today?” asked his wife, with seeming irrelevance.

“The fourth. Why?”

“It can’t be the fourth!” Mrs. Tadcaster looked aghast.

“It has to be,” stated Susannah, with all the assurance of her twelve years. “Yesterday was the third.”

“Then that means they’re coming today!”

“Who are?” inquired her husband patiently.

“Well, I’m telling you,” said Mrs.
Tadcaster
, under the impression that she real
l
y was. “Aunt Henrietta and her nephew. Right out of the blue, like that! When I thought she was abroad.”

“Or dead,” Leonard reminded her.

“Who,” asked Mr.
Tadcaster
, with an air of having just three minutes in which to settle the matter, “is Aunt Henrietta?”

“Oh, Richard, don’t be tiresome! You
know.
She gave us our canteen of cutlery for our wedding present. And very well it’s worn, too.” Mrs.
Tadcaster
picked up a fork and examined it with approval. “She was a great friend of mother’s. In fact, she was more or less my godmother.”

“Why only more or less?” Leonard inquired with interest. “She surely was or was not.”

“Well, she
should
have been, only my father didn’t like her,” explained Mrs.
Tadcaster
, as though that cleared up the whole situation.

Everyone except Ruth, who was sympathetic by nature, looked inclined to take the view of Mrs. Tadcaster’s father.

“Well, that’s all rather old history,” Leonard pointed out good-humoredly. “What’s the latest chapter?”

“Well, you see—”

“Tell it
quickly,
mother,” implored Susannah, “or I’ll be late for school.”

“The quickest thing would be to read the letter aloud,” suggested Ruth.

“You read it, darling. I’ve mislaid my spectacles again,” her mother said, and she thrust the letter into her elder daughter’s hand.

“ ‘Dear Bonnie—’ ” began Ruth, and then paused and looked surprised. “Who on earth is Bonnie?”

“I am.” Her mother blushed slightly and smilingly patted her still very pretty hair. “That was my nickname when I was a girl. It’s so funny and nice to have someone call me that again.”

“It must be.” Ruth smiled, too, and looked, for a moment, as though she saw her mother from a surprising and unusual angle.

Dear Bonnie,

No doubt you will be very much surprised to hear from me again after all these years. It must be twenty
-
five years since we saw each other and nearly twenty since we even corresponded. But I’ve recently come back to the old country from Australia, and I would love to meet you again.

My nephew, Michael, is visiting Castlemore on business, and I am taking the opportunity of accompanying him. (As you see, I have not grown less impulsive with years!) I do hope I shall find you at the old address. But we shall be staying some days, so I shall have an opportunity of tracking you down, so long as you are still in the district.

We expect to arrive on the fourth. Michael will be busy, but I shall come along to see you as soon as I arrive.

With love and kind remembrances,

Henrietta Curtis

“There! What do you think of that?” Mrs. Tadcaster now sounded rather proud of Aunt Henrietta and her unpredictable behavior.

“Impulsive, as she says. And rather inconsiderate,” remarked Leonard. “And I don’t like the expression ‘track you down.’ She sounds difficult to shake off.”

“I don’t want to shake her off,” replied his mother, slightly offended. “What do you say, Richard?”

“That it’s time I was going,” replied her husband in a cowardly way. “Do what you like, my dear. Susannah, do you want a lift to school?”

“Oh, yes,
please.”
Susannah, who had been listening almost openmouthed to all this, leaped suddenly to her feet, cast a distracted glance at the clock, and proceeded to scrabble frantically after various school books and articles of clothing.

“Will you be in this evening, Ruth?” Mrs. Tadcaster inquired a little anxiously. “I’m sure Aunt Henrietta will want to meet you all.”

“Yes, I’ll be in,” Ruth promised. “I wonder where they’re staying? Perhaps we shall have them at the Excelsior,” and she looked interested. For Ruth was employed in the reception office of one of the principal hotels in Castlemore and naturally took a somewhat proprietorial interest in anyone who stayed there.

“I won’t be in,” Leonard said hastily. “I have a date at the tennis club.”

“Then who’s going to talk to the nephew, poor boy? He probably feels rather lost, coming all the way from Australia to a strange country.”

“If he’s got as far as this, he probably knows his way around all right,” Leonard replied callously. “Ruth will look after him. If it had been a niece, I’d have been more interested.” And with a laugh and a good-natured peck at his mother’s cheek, he departed in the wake of his father and his younger sister.

“I wouldn’t like to seem inhospitable,” Mrs. Tadcaster said pensively to Ruth.

“You couldn’t, darling, if you tried,” Ruth assured her. “Aunt Henrietta can’t arrive from the other side of the world at a few hours’ notice and expect to find us all lined up to meet her. We’ll make quite a good showing without Len. Don’t worry.”

Then she, too, kissed her mother and went off, leaving the affairs of the household to Mrs. Tadcaster and the invaluable Mrs. Semmel, a local lady of immense efficiency and decided view, who had come to “oblige” for a few weeks when Susannah was born, and stayed ever since to help direct the destinies of the Tadcaster household.

On her way to the hotel—which was a short bus ride or a long walk from her home, as you cared to look at it—Ruth reflected a little on the visit of Aunt Henrietta, but much more upon the very charming way Angus Everton had spoken to her the previous evening, when he had come to the desk to inquire about some mail that should have arrived from London.

Ruth was not more susceptible than most girls of her age. But at twenty-two one is entitled to feel agreeably stirred by the smiling attentions of good-looking men, especially if they have already acquired a certain standing and distinction in their own particular world.

Angus Everton was a television producer. But so subtly and rapidly do the meanings of familiar words change in these days that it is necessary to explain immediately that he had nothing to do with producing plays. He produced what is commonly known as “a feature.” And his particular feature was a weekly program that specialized in bringing before an admiring public aspects of, and personalities from, the world of the arts. Literature, painting, music and the theater all had their place on Angus Everton’s program.

Most of the initial work was done in London. But the studio from which the program was televised was situated in Castlemore, because from there it was easier to reach the particular public to whom Angus Everton’s program was addressed. And, although we are aware that this has something to do with the radius of beams or waves or even, possibly, something called electronics, we freely confess that the whole thing is a mystery to us.

What interested Ruth was that every week, from Tuesday evening until Thursday morning, Angus Everton and his secretary, accompanied by one or two assistants of varying degrees of importance, stayed at the Excelsior. So did the personalities who appeared during that week on Angus Everton’s feature—which had the self-explanatory, though unoriginal, title of

Arts and Artists.”

Naturally, this added a good deal of interest to Ruth’s work at the reception desk, and no one can blame her for feeling that Tuesday, Wednesday—and to a lesser degree, Thursday—were the important days of the week.

This particular day was Wednesday, and when Ruth arrived at the hotel she was not surprised to see three handsome cars standing nose to tail outside the Excelsior. In the parlance of Angus Everton and his staff, this was called “laying on transport.” But as soon as she entered the hotel, she realized that all was not well.

A group of people, unquestionably the kind who ap
peared on
“Arts and Artists,”
were engaged in
what
seemed to
be a discussion of
s
ome
energy and
e
ven
acrimony. In the center of the group stood Angus Everton, looking, for the first time in Ruth’s knowledge of him, somewhat harassed and put out. At the sight of her, however, his face cleared—flatteringly and rather touchingly,
s
he thought—and he
exclaimed,
“Here’s
Miss
Tadcaster!
She’ll know all you
want
to know.”
And
without more ado, Ruth found herself sucked into the whirlpool of discussion, as it were, and her advice being sought on a variety of details, from train times to the possibility of having a shampoo and set without an appointment.

“Maxine is down with flu,” explained Angus Everton—for thus was his glamorous secretary most suitably named. “And I’m just lost without her.”

Ruth was terribly sorry to think of his being lost on any occasion. But on the very day of his-program, when it was necessary that everything should go smoothly and with as little nerve strain as possible, such a situation called out all her sympathies. So, with the most unusual disregard for what was happening in her own reception office, she devoted the next ten minutes to smoothing out Angus Everton’s difficulties, and was rewarded by a brilliant smile and the heartwarming accolade, “If I ever lose Maxine, I’ll have you for my secretary!”

Coloring with pleasure, and still tingling with a sense of achievement, Ruth went on to her own place in the hotel’s system. But here something much less heartwarming awaited her.

Standing at the reception desk was a tall man in a heavy coat, and even from the back he looked annoyed. Only then did Ruth remember that Minnie Donaldson, the early
-
morning operator, had told her the previous day that she simply must leave on time, as she had to take her mother to the hospital for an early appointment. For something like twelve minutes now, the reception office must have been virtually unattended.

Hastily Ruth entered the reception office by the door at the side of the counter, and as she did so the tall man eyed her sardonically and said, “Does anything function in this place?”

“I—beg your pardon—” Casting her hat from her head onto the nearest peg and coloring again—but this time not with pleasure—Ruth approached the counter, now from the other side.

“I’ve been waiting for at least seven minutes—” he consulted his watch, as though checking the last second “—and no one seems even remotely interested in whether or not I stay in this hotel.”

“I’m most terribly sorry. The early operator had to go to the hospital and—”

“And you were too busy enjoying yourself with your own friends, I noticed,” was the curt reply.
“Well, suppose you allow me to register now.”

Ruth bit her lip as she turned the register around for his signature and offered him a pen.

“Thanks. I have my own pen,” he said, in the tone of one who suspected even the pens were inefficient in this hotel. And then, turning to an elderly lady who sat in one of the chairs near the desk, he added, “Shall I register for you, too, Aunt Henrietta?”

“Aunt Henrietta!” echoed Ruth, unable to stop herself. But then, seeing the glance of astonished distaste on the man’s face, she realized that she must sound as though she were just impertinently repeating something she found funny or remarkable.

“I—I’m sorry,” she stammered. “But you see, I have—I mean my mother has—an Aunt Henrietta, too, and—”

“Really?” he said, and until that moment Ruth had not known how much chilly indifference could be packed into one word.

She dropped her eyes in complete confusion and did not even look at Aunt Henrietta, until an unusually well
-
pitched voice said, “Why, you must be Eileen Tadcaster’s daughter! You’re exactly like the photograph—I mean, you’re like her as a girl.”

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