Authors: Joan Smith
Tags: #Regency Romance
Mrs. Hermitage raised her elbow and gave her elder daughter a surreptitious poke in the ribs. A toss of the mother’s head and the language of the eye told Sally the lovers by the grate were to be left alone. Not loath to abandon such dull company, Sally picked up a magazine as an excuse to move far across the saloon to a reading lamp. Within seconds Mrs. Hermitage took her netting box and joined her. A certain smiling unsteadiness around the elder lady’s lips gave rise to wild hopes.
“Has Derwent come up to scratch, Mama?”
Sally asked eagerly.
“The thing is as well as done.”
Mrs. Hermitage breathed a sigh of exquisite relief. She stole a glance to the grate and a tear misted her eye. Melanie, her favorite though it would never do to say so, looked like a princess from a fairytale. Firelight shimmered on her blond curls and caressed the perfection of her profile as she gazed steadily into the eyes of her Prince Charming, Lord Derwent.
“It will be the salvation of us, Sal. Such shallow waters as we have been swimming in since your papa went and died on me.”
Dying prematurely was the meanest trick ever played by Mr. Hermitage, a man who was infamous for his tricks. Sally had been just on the verge of coming out four years ago when her father had played off
his last stunt. She certainly would have nabbed a parti. The family lived in high style in a fine rented mansion on St. Charles Street and knew everyone. No thought of future penury ever bothered the Hermitages. Papa was the outstanding solicitor in the city. Members of Parliament and peers consulted him on their more arcane problems. Drawing up a will or a marriage settlement was nothing to him. He handed it over to one of his many minions and busied himself with weightier stuff.
A noble estate whose ownership was in question, or some complicated government matter, was what he considered worth his time, both financially and mentally. The Hermit, as he was called by the legal world, had been that rara avis, a legend in his own lifetime. It was said he had the keenest legal mind
in England and could charge what he wished for his services. He charged plenty, but still the spending of his wife and his two daughters had managed to put a hole in his earnings.
“Did Derwent speak to you? Did he make a formal offer?”
Sally asked her mother.
“No, informal. He must speak to his uncle first.”
Sally said. Her pretty face hardened at the name.
Looking at her, Mrs. Hermitage was extremely grateful that her younger daughter had brought a gentleman up to scratch, for it was far from certain her elder would ever accomplish such a feat in the provinces, despite her looks. Her jet-black hair, her green eyes and trim figure hadn’t won her a single offer. There was just a certain something in Sal that put the local men off. Her brasher style would have taken in London, but it had not taken in Brighton or Bath or Ashford, their present home. Too bold, that was it. She favored her papa in mind and manners. Blunt, assertive, always ready to push you aside and take hold of the reins herself.
Mrs. Hermitage’s mind wandered vaguely over her recent domiciles and the impossibility of finding a place to live that was both cheap and pleasant. She had realized that she must remove from expensive London when Herbie died. They went first to a lavish seaside home in Brighton whose rent and requirement for servants were no less than the London abode. This was followed by a move to the less expensive Bath, but even in Bath she managed to run through three thousand in one year. The next stop was Kent, where she could not seem to hobble along on less than twenty-five hundred. She cut every corner known to geometry, but still the annual expenses outran the ever-diminishing interest and they were living on their capital.
Mrs. Hermitage now had fifteen thousand and was in no immediate trouble, but there lurked the knowledge that at some future date they would find themselves living on nothing a year. To avoid this awful fate, she spent like a drunken sailor, outfitting her two hopes for the future in the height of fashion. The girls knew she worried about money, but Papa always used to scold her about her spending, and the daughters had no idea that what they were spending was their future security.
That Sally, the elder, had reached a ripe one and twenty without a suitable offer was a little frightening, but Mama’s real hopes were pinned on Melanie. Lord Derwent, come to visit his cousins the Colchesters, had no sooner set an eye on her blond curls and sweet smile than he had extended his week-long visit to a month and spent the better part of it sitting in the Hermitage saloon, mooning over her. He was on the verge of an offer; there was not a doubt in the world of it, and it had been revealed to the mother just moments ago why the offer had taken so long, if four weeks could be considered long in such a matter.
“He requires his guardian’s approval before offering, for he is a minor. Not below twenty-one—he is twenty-three—but according to the terms of his father’s will, till his twenty-fifth birthday his money is doled out by his uncle, and he is now seeking that gentleman’s approval. Without it he could not afford to run a proper household.”
The name Monstuart, already half hated by the eager family, was often on Derwent’s lips. He called him Monty on those rare occasions when the guardian proved biddable, and Lord Monstuart when he was out of sorts.
“There is no reason why Lord Monstuart should withhold his approval,”
Sally said. “Melanie is well bred, and we are not precisely paupers.”
Mrs. Hermitage pursed her lips and let her daughter dream on. If Sal had the faintest idea how close they were to it, she would institute an unpleasant regime of not buying any clothes, and probably moving into a shabby set of rooms somewhere.
“It seems Monstuart favors a second cousin, Lady Mary DeBeirs.”
“How long has he had Lady Mary in his eye for Derwent? Is it a long-standing attachment?”
“Derwent didn’t say, dear.”
Sally raised her eyes ceilingward in frustration. “Don’t you think we should find out?”
Her mother began tut-tutting and saying it
seemed a shame to interrupt them; they looked so
“If we’re living in a fool’s paradise, let us learn it now,”
Sally retorted, and went to the grate to pose her question to Derwent. “How long has Monstuart had in mind for you to offer for Lady Mary?”
she asked bluntly.
“Oh, lord, since the egg,”
Derwent told her, smiling placidly. He was a happy man. A slight frown occasionally caused a pleat between his eyes, but it was so infrequent that it had not yet left its calling card. He was fair-haired and blue-eyed, a well-setup gentleman whom Sally secretly considered a fop. To her sister, however, she never uttered a word of disparagement. Melanie adored him, and for her sake Sally was determined to be at peace with him.
It had occurred to her early in the romance that Derwent and Melanie would be living in London, Lord Monstuart willing, and Sally foresaw some very agreeable visits to their domicile. Ashford bored her. She had not been formally presented in London, but she had attended some informal parties, the theater, and the opera. Fashionable drives through Hyde Park in the afternoon were well remembered, as were some interesting dinner parties at home, where she had been allowed to sit at the table since she was sixteen.
Even at that immature age she had possessed a great deal of conversation and countenance and had been a favorite of the gentlemen. If only she could attach someone like Derwent... But not
much like him, of course. Better an existence in Kent with the prospect of eventually getting to London with a gentleman she could respect than to get to London by marrying a silly fop, just for the change of venue, to use Papa’s word.
Sally privately acknowledged that she was getting on in years, but her looks had not yet begun to deteriorate. In fact, they had reached their peak, and it was exigent that Mellie marry Derwent, go to London with him, and invite Sally for a visit. Her interest in forwarding the match was not solely nor even mostly selfish. Melanie was in love, as she reiterated twenty times a day. To hear that Lord Monstuart had had a different alliance in mind for Derwent for some twenty-odd years was not encouraging news.
“Has there been an actual understanding between you and Lady Mary?”
she asked Derwent.
“Nothing of the sort. In fact, Monty said himself when we were there at Christmas that I ought to wait a couple of years before offering for her.”
“What did you say?”
“I agreed with him. Absolutely. I wasn’t at all eager to have her.”
“It’s a pity you didn’t say so, instead of intimating you would offer in a few years.”
The three conspirators exchanged a speaking glance. Derwent ran tame enough in the house that he knew what a burden Sally Hermitage was to her family. “What was she like?”
“She’s nothing out of the ordinary, I promise you, Miss Hermitage,”
he said with a warm eye at her extraordinary sister. “It was only her fortune that Monty had his eye on for me.”
“An heiress, is she?”
Mrs. Hermitage asked with a falling heart. Not a pound of dowry could she see her way clear to granting Mellie. Her present interest was only seven hundred and fifty a year, and to give Mellie money would diminish it to a dangerously low level.
It did not escape Sally’s sharp eyes that her mother was incommoded by the news, and she made a mental note to discover the exact sum of their dowries. No offer had been received thus far, and no firm sum had been mentioned recently, but Papa used to speak of ten thousand each. No doubt Lord Monstuart would wish a greater heiress, but Der-went was well to grass. Monstuart might also prefer Lady Mary’s title to plain Miss Melanie. Papa had chosen to enter a profession, but both his and his wife’s families were more than genteel.
“Thirty thousand is the sum bruited about,”
Der-went told them.
“Oh, dear. I expect such a sum
very loudly bruited,”
Mrs. Hermitage declared.
“Not in the least,”
Derwent told her. “Monty said not to mention it to a soul, or the world would be at her doorstep.”
Given such a crafty and money-grubbing guardian as this to contend with, Mrs. Hermitage fell into a fit of the dismals and began calculating how she could do without a few thousand of her meager savings.
“Money has nothing to say about it,”
Derwent went on cheerfully. “Of course, Lord Monstuart will cut up a little stiff. I expect that, but the fact of the matter is in two years’
time I shall be my own man, and he can’t stop me from marrying Mellie. Why, I could marry her today and he couldn’t stop me—
only my money. We can live on her dowry for two years if it comes to that. Naturally I would repay every sou, absolutely,”
he assured her.
Melanie had no fault to find with this scheme, but it was clear as a pikestaff to Sally that her mother was gasping in discomfort.
“When does Lord Monstuart come?”
“I wrote him two weeks ago and have had an answer today. He will come as soon as he can get away. He took a little time to answer, as he was at a houseparty and could not like to leave.”
The whole family felt it was the mark of a negligent guardian to put his own pleasure before his charge’s welfare, and Sally was immensely relieved. A hint of her feelings put Derwent on the defensive.
“He’ll come. Never doubt it. He sometimes takes a little while to come and see my ...”
He fell into a confused silence but soon continued. “The thing is he thinks my infatuation will pass, likely.”
Melanie looked at him in wrath, but her wrath was not for her lover, who apparently had more than once applied to his guardian to come and look over a likely bride. No, her wrath was for this tardy guardian, and she gave vent to it in no uncertain terms.
“He’ll soon be here. He is at Beauwood, you see. That is the problem,”
“Is it far away?”
Mrs. Hermitage asked.
“Lord no, not above fifty or so miles, but he’s with Lady Dennison and her Whiggish set and won’t want to leave.”
“Who is Lady Dennison?”
The lover fell silent again, wondering how to intimate to an angel the exact nature of his guardian, who was off
carousing with his latest flirt. “His friend,”
Derwent finished limply.
Melanie had no idea what was meant by the umbrella word. “It seems to me you ought to be more to him than a friend,”
she said, pouting.
“Well, there’s politics involved in it, too. It’s only Whigs who go to Beauwood. But you’re right, of course, absolutely. He never puts my interests first.”
were one of the most maddening things about him. They were not uttered with any sense of conviction. They seemed to mean something more like
Sally looked at her sister askance as her opinion of Lord Monstuart plunged to new depths. This match was coming to look more unlikely by the moment. A suitor whose infatuation promised to be short-lived, a guardian cunning enough to know it and whose own character was such that he wanted the boy to wed an heiress—all this promised little chance of success. Throw in a flirt to detain Monstuart for any length of time, and where were they? Then, too, there was the disquieting doubt engendered by Mama’s reaction to the mention of dowry. All in all, Sally was eager for Derwent to leave so she could question her mother.