The Country Affairbysushi_taco©
"Mary, your hair is fine! The carriage is at the gate, now please stop stalling," Elizabeth Beauclerk called upstairs for her sister.
The house had been buzzing all morning, preparing for the family's long journey west from their home in London to the countryside of Worcestershire. With a quick twist of dark wavy hair she pinned the last curl in place and looked at herself in the mirror. She tied her straw bonnet over her hair and smoothed down the folds of her powder blue dress. The color matched her sister's eyes more than her own golden hazel. She wasn't as beautiful as fair Elizabeth, but it would do.
The country beckoned, far away from the noisy streets of London; the constant bustle by daylight and the smell of burning mitre by night. Ahead of her lay sculpted rose gardens, the wave of wild grasses on the hillside and still marsh ponds mirroring the clear sky.
Countryside citizens were something else entirely. Gossips abound in the countryside and for a proper lady, there was little to do but confine oneself to the social morays of a sitting room, away from the wild grasslands, the ponds, and the rose gardens. The thought filled Mary with distaste. There was an escape from those and it was in the feel of grass under her feet, the rock of a boat or the gallop of a horse.
She was not a proper lady. Her heart belonged to the wild free spaces and the outdoors. More than once Mary had nearly scandalized her family by riding out alone in the country or taking a carriage through London without an escort. She seldom cared what others thought and had no intention to marry. She was the youngest daughter of the Duke of St. Albans. Her family was wealthy and respected but kept itself out of the epicenter of the ton.
Her sister Elizabeth had made sure of that early on. Swept up in prewar romance, Lizzie married young to a charming officer who left soon after their wedding night and promptly froze to death on the steppes of Russia. The heartbroken Elizabeth vowed to never marry again, and solidified her position in an affair with a married Viscount that cost their father dearly financially to cover it up and save the reputation of both. Lizzie had been very selective about her liaisons since.
After witnessing Lizzie's ill fated love life, Mary decided that staying a virgin Duchess was her best bet, and was content dying an old maid, her heart unbroken, her family unscandalized. Her brother would carry the title, anyway.
"MARY!" Lizzie broke her reverie.
"I'm coming, forgoodnessake! It's not like Wellesley House will burn down without us," Mary said, grabbing her shawl. She slung it through her elbows and ran her hands along the banister as she descended the staircase.
"I want to get there before Claire Townshend gets her hands on Lord Raynham! We are late enough now to miss the entrances and the first dance. Any more fussing over your curls and we'd miss dinner entirely."
Mary rolled her eyes, "I really don't think you have to worry about Claire Townshend, Lizzie," she said, the driver's gloved hand assisting her into the carriage, "Word has it she'll be married to some gentleman or another by season's end. Her brother's marriage has yet to produce an heir, and as you well know, Mrs. Townsend is increasingly tired of her antics."
Claire; Lizzie's nemesis. She was the other young war widow of the ton and like Elizabeth engaged in unspoken affairs with its gentleman rakes. As with all people who are so alike in circumstance and temperament, they thoroughly despised each other and competed savagely over potential lovers. To hide their rivalry, they spoke only the highest of each other in letters and public graciousness. Oftentimes their feigned civility hidden behind silk fans would make Mary want to wretch.
The door shut behind the Beauclerks. Mary looked up. At least the skies were clear today, and the weather warm: a far cry from the past week. Rain soaked mud clung to the wheels of the carriage and the gutters.
With a hand up, Mary climbed into the carriage alongside Lizzie, across from their parents, Lord Aubrey and Lady Louisa. The first event of the season was always held a short ways outside London, but this time it was to be deep in the countryside of Worcestershire at the sprawling estate of the Wellesley's. Mary puzzled at why they were going so far out of their usual way for such a trifle. The last two years the Beauclerk family was not seen at the first country party of the season and after Lizzie's ill-fated tryst with Viscount Falmouth, Mary didn't think that her father would be so quick to thrust the family into the limelight.
The carriage bounced along the road, swaying side to side on the sun-baked ridges of mud. The rain of the past week had mercifully stopped, revealing fresh spring earth. The smell was occasionally putrid close to the Thames this time of year and Mary was glad to be escaping the city briefly for the countryside. Gradually the boundaries of London and the musty smell of the Thames gave way to small clumps of cottages, neatly trimmed hedges and the scent of clover.
It would take until the afternoon to arrive at the guest cottage in Croome Park, and the Beauclerk girls sat in almost eerie silence with their parents. Mary occupied herself with crochet, enjoying the quiet as best she could. Lizzie usually chattered through these rides, but this time sat looking out the window, her blonde curls bouncing through her coiffure.
The sole sound of wheels squeaking lightly under the sedan was finally interrupted by Lord Aubrey clearing his throat to speak, "Mary, child," her father began haltingly. His words usually flowed freely, laced with the odd joke and a smile. Now his face was pinched. This wasn't like him, "I don't know if you are aware of the reason for our going to Worcestershire today."
"I'm sorry Father, what was that?"
"Our reason for visiting Wellesley," he said clearing a dried throat, "and staying at Croome Court as guests of the Earl of Coventry actually pertains to you."
Mary wrinkled her nose, perplexed, "Why me?"
"Our family has come to an important decision about your... future."
Mary's blood froze. This conversation could only have one end, "Father, I—"
"Daughter, please listen, do not protest just yet," he said gently, "Your mother and I have been in communication with the Earl. As you may not know, he was very tragically widowed the year before last and is in search of a new wife."
"Father, you know I have no intention to marry. I am perfectly content—"
Her mother chimed in, "I know what you believe suits you but you are very young to the ways of the world. Please trust our judgment, daughter," Lady Louisa paused, choosing her next words carefully, "Your sister Lizzie..."
Mary looked over to her sister, "How is my fate in any way intertwined with that of Lizzie? And she is the eldest daughter and unmarried! Shouldn't she be called upon before I? You know very well that my intent was never to wed."
Lord Aubrey continued, "Mary, we've had enough issues caused by handsome unattached daughters to deal with the last two years—"
"So I must be punished, then? You would betroth me against my wishes?" Mary was livid. She felt as though her whole family was conspiring against her. And to a widower earl who was probably wigged and ancient with children older than she. She felt as though she were being punished with marriage because of her sister's indiscretions.
"Mary trust me," Lizzie said quietly, "Their decision had nothing to do with me."
Lizzie sighed, "Only recently, Mary, I promise. And I was sworn not to say a word."
"This is wholly and completely unfair!"
"Daughter, please do not be cross with us," her mother said, growing frustrated.
"I have every right to be cross. Has my entire family not just conspired against me?" Mary turned back to their father who was pinching his index finger and thumb against the bridge of his nose, exasperated.
"Child, you are young in the ways of this world and there are some very hard truths you must learn to survive in it. The Duchy of St. Albans is a very old line and a wealthy one, but an isolated line none the less. The Prince Regent, God save him, is wanton with his connections and grants Lordships to the brothers of his mistresses regardless of the family that he is replacing. Now the Earl of Coventry is well connected at court. Your brother has no chance at advancing or even protecting our line. He does not have a mind for courtly politics, and I am too old. I loathe the thought of putting the future of the Duchy of St. Albans on your shoulders but that is the reality, daughter."
"But why would the Earl not take the eldest of us?" Mary said testily.
Lizzie interrupted, "Because he specifically asked for you."
"Why? No one heard about the—" Mary stopped herself. Not even privately would the family speak of the affair with the Viscount of Falmouth. Lord Aubrey had spent a small fortune in bribes quashing servant rumors alone. Mary dropped her eyes, "Sister, I did not mean to offend you."
"No, Mary it's quite all right. I take no offense. I very much enjoy la vie libérée," she grinned. Lady Louisa rolled her eyes as Lord Aubrey failed to conceal a smile.
"But it's not for you," Lizzie continued trying to cajole her little sister, "And while your planned chastity is most admirable, sister, it's not worth the cost of a mistake. Please take my experience as your warning."
Mary sighed, staring at her lap. There was no choice. Her family looked to her to save them from potentially being stripped of title. Nothing could stop the engagement. But of all the women in the ton, there had to be reason why she was selected, "Why did he choose me?"
"Lord Coventry saw you at the end of last season and told your father he thought it inappropriate to approach our family on the heels of the upcoming hunt and still within a season of the passing of his wife," Lady Louisa answered.
Mary simply looked out the window, biting back tears. Old and overly formal. At least he could have made his presence known to her last season so she would have had time to prepare.
Lord Aubrey spoke, "I wouldn't do anything as brash as force you to meet him tonight at Wellesley, but you will be formally introduced in two days at his estate and become the new Countess of Coventry at St. Andrews in a fortnight."
So it was final. There was no sense in protesting; it was already set. It made sense, it was already decided, and it raged against Mary's heart. She bit her lip and bit back her tears to stare silently out the window. Worcestershire and her fate rose in the distance as the horses' heavy shoes clomped against the road.
* * * * *
Mary only picked at her supper. He was here in this room somewhere. Her heart beat through her chest and her stomach turned. In less than two weeks she would be alone with this unknown man, her soul and body in his hands. She tried to think of other things, but her eyes couldn't stop staring over her crystal water goblet, pausing on each withered widower, wondering if this or that one was the man who would come to possess her. Two weeks. In a fortnight she would be married fulfilling her wifely duties to family and to her... husband. She nearly choked.
Could it be the bespectacled man with the gray hair and aquiline beak? The decrepit aging fop with the long fingernails leaning against his cane and dressed as though he was from another time? She shuddered and felt her stomach turn once more.
Across from her were Lizzie and Claire. They had practically fallen over themselves with mutual feigned courtesy as everyone entered the hall. Claire said something that Mary couldn't make out followed by a tittering laugh as Lizzie's fan flew immediately to her face to hide her revulsion. Mary glanced away. Two weeks. There wasn't a fan in the world that could hide her anxiety. She wanted to scream or to run away. Her free hand twisted in her lap, the peach silken-gloved fingers wringing themselves silently.
"Ms. Beauclerk, we are quite delighted to have you and your lovely sister for this occasion," the gentleman next to her crooned.
Mary looked up. Lord Raynham, Lizzie's intended conquest. She threw on her best smile, "Why thank you Mr. Raynham. We are likewise delighted to be so surrounded by our friends here in the country."
"Beautiful gardens here. And the weather cleared just in time last night so all of us may enjoy it. You know, there is a lake not too far distant at Croome Court," he continued. Mary squirmed inside, first at the mention of her new prison, second at his terrible conversation. Why was Lizzie after him? Lord, help her sister if he was as dull in the bedroom as he was in polite conversation, no matter how tall and handsome he was.
"A garden you say?" Mary figured that any dull conversation was better than the terror of wondering which gentleman in this room was her intended. Let him drone on. It was good enough distraction from thinking of ancient hands roaming... She paled, let the thought escape and smiled once more at Raynham's halting rambling.
"My dear Lord Raynham," Claire interrupted in her syrupy high-pitched voice. Her silken silver fan came down from her belladonna darkened eyes and bleach-lightened blonde tendrils, "Surely we can provide you with better distractions than cavorting around a silly garden."
Mary barely managed to hide an eye roll as she glanced over at her sister. Lizzie's eyes turned to daggers as she joined in "Oh sweet Claire! Perhaps the distractions you dream of are not to our dear Lord's liking," She turned to Raynham with a smile, "I shall be happy to walk with you in the garden tomorrow Mr. Raynham, if you would have me."
The guileless poor Raynham was oblivious to their competition and blushed at the attention. Mary shook her head. The game was on, and her fleeting distraction past. She tuned out the rest of their conversation. Something about a new dance the younger members of the ton would be trying later, a new and scandalous Continental affair known simply as the waltz. Glancing left she was met by crystal blue eyes.
A young man stared at her from the distant end of the table then quickly averted his eyes back his conversation with another gentleman. Mary did the same, pretending to be engrossed in Claire and Lizzie's merry war over their spoils, Mr. Raynham. Minutes later, her eyes pulled back in his direction. A slight bump on his nose from where it looked like it had been broken years before, but his face was otherwise perfect in every way. Mary tried to catch the sound of his voice in the distance, nearly hearing it over the din of the crowd. She startled as her admiring reverie was returned.
There were his eyes again! But this time he did not look away from her. His stare bored into her. The voices of her sister and Claire battling over Raynham disappeared into an echo and all that existed for her was the vision of this man. Her eyes remained locked with his. A slight smile curled his thin soft lips upward and he opened them to speak. Mary...
"Mary!" Claire jolted her back. "Tell us. Do you think Mr. Raynham should like a ride through the country?"
"It depends on who does the riding, Claire," Mary said in quiet riposte. Claire drew in a surprised breath; her eyes wide open at Mary's bold insinuation. Her fan flew to her face to hide her gasp. Lizzie suppressed a laugh behind hers. Mary got up to leave the table, "If you will excuse me..."
Dinner ended and the guests filed into the ballroom. A cello's solo echoed through the hall, followed quickly by a violin and a harp as the guests dispersed through the manor, chattering gaily over the musical trio. Soft slippers landed in time on the marble floor. No one had asked her to dance. Word traveled fast. Everyone here knew she was betrothed. They wouldn't be foolish enough to dance with the future wife of the Earl of Coventry, the man who had the ear of the Prince Regent.
Mary's eyes flew to the elderly gentlemen in the room leaning or sitting against walls. Not even Lord Coventry revealed himself to her. Her heart sank and mixed emotions flew about in her head. She was to be Coventry's wife, yet he would not dance with her! Was he too frail to do that? Was she marrying a corpse? Or worse yet, was she to marry a man whose attentions would be more focused on his stable boy than on her? She felt as though she should have felt a relief at the idea of being so ignored, but her heart told her that if she were to be married, and give that great sacrifice on her wedding night, it should be to someone who at least wanted her. Or did she? She imagined herself an early widow, wearing black weeds for years after her beauty had run its course and then sitting alone in her inherited manor for the rest of her days, or being forced out by his previous children into an isolated cottage to die alone and forgotten.
It was all so uncertain! Tears welled up in her eyes. She took one look at the room clouding up before her and made her way quickly to the door, then ran. Her shawl trailed behind her swishing skirts as she bolted down the hallway and through the back. The sky was washed out by a full moon and the maze of the garden lay below her lit in silver, the front hedges awash in the gold of the interior hallway. Tears rolled down her cheeks. She removed her left glove to brush them away without staining the peach silk and crumpled it in her hand. Mary caught her breath for a moment, and then hurried once more.
It wasn't long before the music faded into the distance and all that could be heard were the soft tap of her slippers across the Versailles tiles. She dropped to a bench, her head in her hands and looked down to find her removed glove gone from her grip, lost somewhere in the garden. She cursed herself for letting go of it and laid her head in her hands once more. Only the chirp of an early season cricket kept her company. She ran the toe of her slipper against an uprooted tile in front of her, a patch of dandelion poking out of the crack. The chill of the evening did not temper her sadness. She was numb and hardly felt it, in fact.
Honor. Duty. Family. Her will and her very life collapsed before her. She was a woman, she knew, but to submit to this indignity was beyond her training, her expectations, and desires.
Her desire be damned, as far as anyone was concerned! And now she would assume the mantle of Lady Coventry, married to a man she had never met. This county was to be her prison, forever shut away at Croome Court. She sobbed quietly to herself, wishing she could sprout wings and fly away from here. She didn't hear footsteps padding closer along the quiet walkway.
"How is it so lovely a creature," the voice said, startling her, "can be so very sad?"
Mary looked up at its source. It was the man with the blue eyes from dinner. A shiver went through the center of her along with a surrendering ease at his tender voice. She stiffened. He was most likely a rake, and had followed her out here, hoping to turn her misery into an easy conquest. She kept up her guard, "I appreciate your kindness but I wish to be left alone right now."
She wiped away tears only to see him remove a silk handkerchief from his interior breast pocket and hold it close to her face. Mary took the kerchief, wiping her eyes, and then examining it closer. It bore an embroidered royal blue letter on the corner, "D. What does 'D' stand for?"
"Deerhurst. William Deerhurst. But you may call me Will."
"I shall call you Mr. Deerhurst, thank you," Mary said. She was a maid but not a fool. Letting this man, albeit this very attractive man, into her association would spell certain disaster for her. Attractive. She tried to strike the idea of him from her head, but every glance back into those clear blue eyes undermined her resolve.