The Yuletide Countess: Harriet's Traditional Regency Romance

BOOK: The Yuletide Countess: Harriet's Traditional Regency Romance
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The Yuletide Countess

Harriet's Traditional
Regency Romance

By Alicia Quigley

Text copyright © 2014 Alicia Quigley

All Rights Reserved

Harriet’s
story is dedicated to all those who hope for their own Christmas Happily Ever
After. It’s never too late…

Chapter 1

 

Dearest
Pippa,

We set forth
tomorrow on our annual journey to Scotland, and I take this opportunity to once
more have Lord Wereham frank a letter for me before our departure. As you know,
I always eagerly anticipate our annual sojourn in the northern heath, with the
gorse, the heather, and the hills, as lovely backdrops to our summer. Such a
winter and spring it has been! I vow the solitude of Isobel’s delightful
cottage will be a welcome change, what with all the visitors we have had of
late! Between both Lord Francis Wheaton and Lady Morgan descending on us at
Kitswold this past spring, and then Lady Morgan’s company in London at the
beginning of the Season, it seems as though I have scarcely had a moment to
myself since last Christmas.

Wagons
laden with tools for Isobel’s everlasting digging, and the books she has not
copies of in Scotland, as well as much of our baggage, have all gone on ahead
of us, so we have only to take with us what we need for the few days on the
road. We will travel in Isobel’s comfortable chaise, which is such a blessing,
and her maid will travel with us as well, a much cherished convenience,
although she, poor thing, must ride with her back to the horses all those weary
miles.

My great
disappointment as we depart on our annual pilgrimage to Ballydendargan is that
no engagement was forthcoming between Isobel and Lord Francis. I would wager a
pretty penny that there is far more between them than meets the eye, although I
cannot say exactly what that might be. I am almost certain he has made her an
offer and been turned down, but there is something else about them that eludes
my understanding. Perhaps the next two months will give me the time to winkle
it out of her, though Isobel is notoriously close-mouthed about her personal
doings.

It grows
late, dearest Pippa, and my candle is guttering, so I will close here. I will
write to you this summer, but not so often as the past months. The post charges
from Scotland are so heavy, and I will be without a frank to save you the
pennies for postage. Give my best love to all of the family and most especially
little Lizzie, whose little pink cheeks I love so.

 Affectionately,
Harriet

The northern
summer sun was still high in the sky when an elegant post chaise, its shining
black lacquer panels covered in mud and dust from a long journey, rattled down
the short span of cobbles that was the main road of Ballydendargan village.
Harriet Walcott peered out the window, delighted to see the familiar scene.

“Here we are
in dear Ballydendargan again!” she exclaimed. “How beautiful it looks in the
summer sun. These long days are perfect for travel, and we are so fortunate to
have arrived without the need for another night at an inn.”

“That is one
of the charms of these very long northern summer days,” her companion agreed.
Miss Isobel Paley leaned forward and looked out the window, a smile curving her
well-formed lips. “It looks much as it did last year. How good it is to be
back.”

“Oh yes,”
Harriet agreed fervently. “I look forward with enthusiasm each year to our time
at Dargenwater Cottage. Scotland has such a place in my heart that I wonder if
some long forgotten ancestor hailed from these Hibernian hills.”

“You are never
more poetic than when you speak of Scotland,” Isobel laughed. “How fortunate I
am to have a companion who loves it as much as I do, although for very
different reasons.”

“I will never
understand your fondness for those diggings and the little bits of stone and
metal you find, but I am glad for my sake that you pursue your studies in a
place so beautiful and welcoming,” Harriet responded.

Isobel turned
away from the window and sat back against the cushioned seat with a sigh. “Now
for the longest part of the trip,” she said. “These last two miles to the
cottage seem endless, just when one wishes most heartily to be out of the
carriage, and enjoying a cup of tea.”

Harriet had no
response, and the two ladies fell silent as the horses plodded through the
village and down the valley to Dargenwater Cottage. As they pulled up to the
entrance to Isobel’s summer home, the rays of the evening sun were gilding the
front of it, and the pretty cottage ornée looked its most welcoming. Summer
blooms tumbled over one another in the beds before the house, and a miniature
lawn welcomed them in front of the graveled drive. Such a small house, used
only a few months of the year, had a similarly sized staff, and only two
manservants, three maids, and a cook appeared to welcome them. The steps were
let down, and Harriet and Isobel emerged, a trifle travel-stained, but very
happy to be at their destination.

“Oh, it is too
lovely,” breathed Harriet. “Each year I am surprised by how beautiful it is
here at Dargenwater Cottage! I always tell myself that I will remember, but
somehow I always find myself delighted again!”

Isobel
threaded an arm through hers, and squeezed it affectionately. “It is lovely,”
she agreed. “And I can hardly wait to begin my excavations. I wrote ahead to
make sure that laborers were employed, so that I might begin immediately.”

Harriet
chuckled and shook her head. “All I can think of is the beauties of Scotland
and enjoying the summer breezes and long days, and you do nothing but worry
about your antiquities! We are an odd pairing indeed!”

“But a happy
one,” said Isobel. The two women entered the small but charmingly appointed
hall of the cottage, while the servants bustled about, fetching the luggage
from the carriage. Isobel took off her dashing hat and laid it in on a table.

“See that tea
is brought to the drawing room,” she said to the hovering footman. “And tell Mrs.
McGreavey that we will want dinner later. It need not be anything fancy, as she
did not know the exact date of our arrival. And make sure that the workmen are
notified to be at the excavation tomorrow.”

The servant
bowed, and Isobel and Harriet entered the drawing room, where Harriet sank down
into a comfortable chair with a sigh. “How lucky I am, Isobel,” she said.
“Truly, I cannot think of anything else in the world that I might need to make
me happy.”

Isobel laughed
and sat down across from her. “Not even a cup of tea?” she teased.

“Well, perhaps
that,” said Harriet. “I am very thirsty, I must admit. Not that I should
complain; the dryness of the roads has made our journey much easier. Only think
if it had rained! We might have been several more days on the road!”

“You shall
have your tea shortly, and then you will need nothing more to be happy,” said
Isobel. “And I will be very happy as well, for I will have not only tea, but
the prospect of some months of work ahead. London during the Season is lovely,
but I sometimes begin to wonder if anyone there thinks of aught but ball gowns
and carriages!”

Harriet gave
her a sidelong glance. “Surely not everyone in London is so lacking in
intellect as you seem to think, though I vow that many of the young women
presented this Season appeared to want for common sense. What of Lord Francis
Wheaton? It seems to me that the two of you had some lovely conversations about
literature and Greek art.”

Under
Harriet’s interested gaze, Isobel turned a bright pink. “Lord Francis is all
very well,” she said hastily. “He can speak intelligently about some things if
he has a mind to, but I fear he is far more interested in—in frivolity,” she
said sternly.

“Do you think
so?” asked Harriet. “I had rather thought he was a gentleman with a serious
turn of mind, who yet managed to see the ridiculousness that is so often thrust
upon us. But you, of course, know him far better than I do, my dear. I must
concede to your superior knowledge of Lord Francis.”

“It is not
that I dislike him, of course,” said Isobel airily.

“Oh, of course
not,” said Harriet. “I once thought that Lord Francis took a very particular
interest in you, but perhaps it is just as well that he did not make you an
offer. It seems that you are determined the two of you will not suit, and it
may be true that Lord Francis has need of a woman who would take his interests
more to heart.”

“Are you
saying that you think I would make Lord Francis a poor wife?” asked Isobel,
peeved despite herself.

“Oh, not at
all, my dear, you would make any man a wonderful wife if you so chose,” said
Harriet hastily. “You know how very much I admire you, my dear. It is only that
you are so firm that you will not wed, and, while Lord Francis seemed to take
to you very particularly, I’m far too fond of the young man to wish upon him an
unwilling bride! I do think highly enough of Lord Francis to wish him an
enthusiastic and loving helpmate! Do you not agree?”

“Of course I
agree,” said Isobel, a touch shortly. “He will no doubt find himself an acceptable
bride sometime soon. You seem uncommonly interested in Lord Francis this
evening, Cousin.”

 

“Do I? I
suppose it is because we spoke of being happy. That is my one regret, you know,
that I never married. Oh, do not feel sorry for me, child,” she said, as Isobel
made a sympathetic face. “I do not sit about mourning something that could not
be, and I am very pleased with your company and our amusements. But if I were
some years younger—well, I suppose I might well set my cap at Lord Francis
myself. He is very handsome, and so charming—and even you, Isobel, cannot deny
that!”

“I do not deny
it,” began Isobel with a touch of temper, annoyed to find herself so put out by
their conversation. She looked around as the door opened and a maid entered
with the tea tray. “And here is the tea!’ she announced gratefully.

Harriet smiled
slyly as Isobel busied herself with the teacups and the two women soon fell to
planning the next day’s activities.

Chapter 2.

 

The next day
was bright and sunny, and, as Isobel had already disappeared, intent on
beginning her excavations as soon as possible, Harriet decided that a brief
walk down to the Dargenwater would be a pleasant way to spend the morning. She
would take her sketchbook, and enjoy the music of the rushing stream while
recording the beauties of the countryside. She added her small box of
watercolors and a few brushes to the satchel along with the sketchbook, and
with the between stairs maid carrying her bag, as well as the hasty addition of
an easel, a blanket, and a folding chair, she set off. The morning was every
bit as lovely as it appeared from inside the house as they walked along the
path that led to neighboring Glencairn Castle.

Part of the
way to Glencairn, another, smaller trail led down a gentle slope to the stream,
its broad banks covered in grass. The water chuckled over the rocks in the
stream bed, the sunlight glinted off its surface, and innumerable blue
harebells dotted the grass, their heads bobbing in the breeze. Harriet sighed
happily.

“Nan, I will
set up the easel. Do open the chair and spread the blanket,” she said.

“Aye, Miss,”
the maid replied, moving quickly to obey the order.

Harriet
struggled a bit with the easel, but soon it was upright, the chair placed next
to it. She surveyed her handiwork with satisfaction. “Spread the blanket for
yourself, Nan,” she added. “I don’t wish to be here alone, so you will stay
with me.”

The maid
spread the blanket with alacrity and sat down, promptly dozing off. Harriet
gave her sympathetic glance, knowing that rest of any kind was limited for
tweenies, let alone the luxury of a late morning nap. Harriet sketched
contentedly for some time, intent on capturing the idyllic scene before her.
She had just finished filling her jar with water, opening her watercolors, and
putting the first color to her paper, when young voices filtered through the
music of the brook. She looked up, startled by the sudden noise amidst the
whispering breeze, the gurgle of the water, and birdsong.

Two children,
a girl and boy, and a lady of the same indeterminate age as Harriet emerged
from the trees on the path to the river and walked into the sunlight. Harriet
realized instantly that these could only be the progeny of Lord Glencairn and
their governess. The two children, seeing the easel from a distance, were
unable to resist the temptation of seeing the painting and broke into a run,
leaving their governess behind, following at a more sedate pace. As they
approached her, Harriet rose from her chair and smiled.

“What are you
painting?” the girl asked.

“This lovely
view of the stream and the woods,” said Harriet. “I am enchanted by the scenery
hereabouts.”

The girl eyed the
sketch critically. “I have begun taking watercolor lessons,” she said. “I find
it rather dull.”

“I remember
when I was first taught watercolors; I found it dreadfully dull as well,
perhaps because it was yet another lesson,” said Harriet cheerfully. “But now,
because no one is forcing me to do it, I enjoy it a great deal. It allows me to
capture beautiful days like this one, and it is a wonderful excuse to be out of
doors, rather than inside, tending to household duties.”

The girl had
been joined by her younger brother, who chuckled. “I must say, she seems to be
a good deal better at this than you are, Sophy,” he said.

“She has
probably had a great deal less practice,” observed Harriet. “I’m sure she will
paint delightfully soon.”

The children
watched as Harriet dipped her brush in the paint and began to add color to a
rock sketched on her canvas. Just as she added the first wash of paint, the
governess walked up to the little group.

“Douglas,
Sophy, you should not be imposing on a lady with whom you are not acquainted,”
she chided them.

Harriet turned
toward her with a smile. “I love children,” she declared. “I’m delighted to
have the chance to make their, and your, acquaintance.” She held her hand out
to the governess. “I am Miss Harriet Walcott. I live in Dargenwater Cottage
during the summers with Miss Isobel Paley.”

“Miss
Catherine Dalburn, governess to Lord Glencairn’s children,” said the woman in a
cultured voice. “This is Douglas Learmouth, Viscount Kincraig, and Lady Sophia
Learmouth.”

An exchange of
sympathetic glances passed between the two women, an acknowledgement and
understanding of their mutual genteel poverty, and the need to seek employment
suited to a gentlewoman of limited means. Miss Dalburn was taller than Harriet,
and lean where Harriet was rounded, but friendly brown eyes gazed down to her
blue ones, and Harriet immediately felt pleasure in meeting another woman in
the vicinity of Dargenwater Cottage with whom she might occasionally enjoy a
comfortable coze.

“Won’t you and
the children join me for a few minutes?” Harriet asked politely. “I’d be very
happy to let them attempt a dabble with the water colors.”

“Won’t you
wish to finish it yourself, after the effort you have put into the sketch?”

“Not at all.
I’m a mere amateur, and came out this morning more to enjoy the sunshine and
birdsong than with the aim of producing a watercolor. ‘Tis primarily an
excuse,” Harriet replied. She handed the brush to Douglas. “Here dip it in the
water, then the color, and see what happens.”

“Yes, do show
us how much better you are at watercolors than I am,” teased his sister.

The boy
carefully followed Harriet’s instructions and succeeded in applying a wash to
the paper, but appeared to be in imminent danger of painting his shirt as well.
She gently grasped his straying forearm saying, “Be careful of your clothes,
Douglas. Miss Dalburn won’t wish to bring you home quite dirty.”

 

“As to that,
Miss Walcott, Lord Glencairn is more likely to worry if the children return
looking too neat. He is a great one for seeing the children outdoors and
active.”

“And does Lady
Glencairn agree with him?”

“Lady
Glencairn died ten years ago, God rest her kind soul. She is very much missed.”

“How sad for
the children and his lordship both. It’s difficult for children to be so long
without a mother’s care.”

“The earl
feels the loss of her very much. She was much younger than he, and quite
lovely. He was very fond of her. Douglas does not remember his mama, and so has
grown used to her loss. It is harder for Sophia, as her memories of Lady
Glencairn were more formed.”

During their
conversation, the maid had woken from her sleep, and somewhat sheepishly roused
herself, and now stood behind the little party. Harriet beckoned to her.

“Nan, please
walk with Lord Kincraig and Lady Sophia along the stream while Miss Dalburn and
I become better acquainted,” she requested.

Nan’s morning
away from her usual duties was proving longer and more entertaining than she
had expected, so she complied readily. Catherine and Harriet watched the trio
walk toward the stream, the children already cheerfully squabbling with each
other about their relative talents as painters. Harriet smiled.

“What
beautiful children,” she said. “How long have you been employed in Lord
Glencairn’s household?”

“I came two
years after Lady Glencairn’s death. Sophia was old enough to start real
lessons, and though Douglas still required a nursemaid for a year, it was
decided that with the loss of his mother, it was better for him to spend more
time with his sister and a genteel woman at an earlier age.”

“They seem to
be very clever,” Harriet observed.

“I am very
fond of them,” said Catherine. “I was sorry when Douglas was sent away to
school, and am glad that Sophy will remain with me. It is so nice that he is
home for the summer. They do miss each other when they are apart.”

“Sent away?”
Harriet echoed. “It is so far to the great schools in the south. It must be a
difficult trip back at half term, and the poor lad must miss what family he has
left.”     

“Yes, but
without a mama, it is so difficult for Lord Glencairn, so I suppose it is
best.”

Harriet looked
thoughtful, and then turned the subject. “I am delighted to find a gentlewoman
so close by Dargenwater Cottage. Perhaps you will come and drink tea with me on
your next half day? We must become better acquainted.”

“My half days
are Thursday, and Lord Glencairn is kind enough to allow me every Sunday,” Miss
Dalburn replied.

“Today is
Tuesday,” Harriet answered cheerfully. “You must come to us on Thursday. Miss
Paley will be as delighted as I am to make you acquaintance. Since she will be
much occupied earlier in the afternoon, you and I will have time for a
comfortable coze. “

“Thank you for
the invitation, Miss Walcott, I’ll await the day eagerly,” said Catherine. “And
now, I suppose I should gather up my charges and return to the house for their
lessons. As much as Lord Glencairn desires that they be out of doors, he
realizes that their minds must be nurtured as well.”

She acted on
her words, by waving to Nan, who was near the banks of the Dargenwater with
Douglas and Sophia. As they drew closer, Catherine and Harriet made their good
byes, and soon the group could be seen walking back into the woods from which
they had emerged. Harriet looked up at the sky, and saw the sun was no longer
overhead.

“Goodness
Nan,” she exclaimed. “How long we have lingered here. Roll up the blanket
please, and fold the chair while I attend to the easel.”

BOOK: The Yuletide Countess: Harriet's Traditional Regency Romance
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