From the Timeless Regency Collection, An Evening at Almack's
The Heart's Choice, by Sally Britton
“Do stop dawdling, Matilda.”
One would think, given her sister’s tone, that Mattie was a delinquent child rather than the elder of the two and quite firmly the more responsible sister.
“Stopping to greet our neighbors, especially those of respectable age and rank, is not dawdling,” Mattie corrected, attempting to keep up with her younger sister.
“It is when we have better things to do.” Beatrice sniffed but finally slowed her rather unladylike stride. “And when the person you stop to speak to is that horrid Lady Fenlock. You know she delights in spreading rumors about me.”
Rumors that were, Mattie knew, very well founded. Beatrice had something of a reputation for being a flirt.
“She is also someone we need if we hope to be invited anywhere this Season.” Mattie looked at her younger sister from the corner of her eye, studying the artful way Beatrice’s sun-gold hair escaped her bonnet in playful ringlets. Her sister truly was lovely as Aphrodite and a contrast to Mattie in almost every way.
Mattie was older by four years, and at age twenty-six didn’t mind being considered on the shelf. Her hair was darker, her eyes muddier, and her complexion not so faultlessly pale as her sister’s. Beatrice was tall and willowy, Mattie of an average height and shape. Beatrice could command a room with ease and Mattie much preferred being an observer on the edges of most parties.
“As long as we have vouchers, we will do well enough,” Beatrice argued. “We do not need old gossipy geese to beg us invitations, Matilda. We are attractive young ladies, daughters of nobility.” She narrowed her eyes. “Our family has commanded respect for generations.” Beatrice tilted her nose into the air and walked at a faster clip again.
It took a firm hold on her tongue to keep Mattie from replying to that remark. Managing her family’s estate was far easier than managing Beatrice. The Granthorne barony had meant something for nearly a hundred years, but Mattie knew that in a single generation it could crumble like the ruins of their ancestors’ castle. And should people discover their father’s ailment, Bridget would not even be completely to blame.
Mattie’s steps on the walk slowed as she considered her father’s condition, one for which his doctor could give them no cure. Her heart ached at the thought of losing the man who had been her hero all her life. Her sister didn’t seem to notice when Mattie fell behind.
If Mattie could persuade Beatrice to focus long enough to marry her off, she just might salvage the family name, her father’s dignity, and her mother’s pride. Beatrice must stop being so stubborn about everything to do with marriage. Many of her worthier callers had disappeared after the previous year. Her sister, at twenty-two, didn’t command the devotees she had at eighteen and nineteen. But there was one man who might do.
Mr. Arthur Redhurst, a gentleman of means if not in possession of a title, would make a fine husband for Miss Beatrice Rayment, younger daughter of the sixth Baron Granthorne. They would do well together. Both mothers—and Mattie—thought so.
While Mattie had been thinking, Beatrice walked ahead of her by nearly twenty yards, but Mattie refused to run to catch up. They were on the street of their townhouse, after all, and she could at least see her sister well enough to stop any real trouble from happening. Or so she thought, until she saw a gentleman had stopped on the walk, doffing his hat to speak with Beatrice.
Narrowing her eyes, Mattie maintained her even speed and tried to determine who the man was. He was tall and dark haired, and his words carried to her clearly in the air, in a voice as unexpected as it was familiar.
“Miss Beatrice, good afternoon. It is a pleasure to see you after so long.”
It cannot be. Mattie’s heart lightened, a feeling suspiciously like hope stealing into her heart. But that was ridiculous. Seeing an old acquaintance, even if it was him, ought not cause such sensations.
Beatrice curtsied and Mattie slowed her step, only a few feet away now, waiting for her sister to identify the gentleman.
“Good afternoon,” Beatrice said as she returned to her full height. “Pardon me, but how do you know my name? I do not believe we have met.”
Beatrice raised a hand to her cheek, batting her eyelashes in her most coquettish manner. Mattie ground her teeth together. No. Beatrice must not be allowed to toy with this man’s feelings, innocent flirtation or not.
“Oh, we’ve met, Miss Beatrice. In fact, I’ve known you for years. You do not know me?” He spoke with a lilt to his voice Mattie had always found rather charming. What on earth was he doing here, on their street? And how could Beatrice not recognize the man who had grown up practically on their doorstep?
Beatrice shook her head, tilting her head coyly. “Sir, I would remember meeting someone such as you. I never forget a handsome gentleman, and it is really too bad of you to pretend to know me. We must be properly introduced or there will be gossip.”
The Meet Cute
If you prefer to stay away from spoilers, don't read this post. :-) It's the Meet-Cute from Harry's story, which will be available at the end of this month!
NOTE: This is the scene as it appears now, before edits. A few small things could change.
The future hung before him like a question mark at the end of a page. He needed to move forward with his life, but how did one do that when one couldn’t decide in which direction to go?
“Stop right there, you horrid beast!”
Harry scuffled to a stop and lifted his head, looking around in shock. Had someone been addressing him?
“You know you’re too old and fat to climb any higher, and I am too old and refined to come climbing up after you,” the voice continued, feminine frustration coloring every word. “Come down this instant.”
The voice came from the other side of a hedge, where a birch grew with branches stretching over the bushes to reach toward the trees lining the road. He went that direction, without much thought, and to a narrow break between two leafy shrubs to peer through.
At the base of the tree, half out of sight, he saw a woman in a blue-gray gown. Her head was tilted as she stared up into the tree, and her hands were on her waist.
“I mean it, Jezebel. You come down this instant, or I will leave and you will absolutely starve.”
Glancing up, Harry saw a fat feline perched on a thin branch, perhaps fifteen feet above the ground. The cat was staring balefully down at the woman, tale twitching, as though calling the woman’s bluff.
The woman circled around the tree, out of sight, muttering to herself. He could barely make out the words. “Feline…stubborn…useless….”
The cat remained unimpressed.
The woman came back into view, her back to Harry, her bonnet now dangling down her back from ribbons. He could make out a head full of golden braids and twisting curls escaping above her ears and at the nape of her neck.
Appreciating her lovely hair and shapely figure from behind a bush wasn’t the act of a gentleman, however, especially when the woman he ogled obviously needed assistance. Harry stepped forward, pushing through the bush. The rustling sound brought the woman’s attention to his presence and she whirled around as he approached.
Her blue eyes were wide in surprise, and lovely, too. As was her finely sculpted face. With round cheeks and a narrower chin, her features were almost elfin. Her eyes swept over him as he struggled to emerge from the clinging branches of the hedge.
“Good afternoon, miss,” he said, giving one last lunge in order to stumble out of the bushes. “I couldn’t help but overhear—are you in need of any help?” He looked up into the trees where the fat feline still sat, its attention fixed on him. The furry beast licked its lips and narrowed its eyes.
The woman sighed, a touch dramatically. “Perhaps. But you’ve already fetched this wretched creature down from the trees for me once. It doesn’t seem fair to ask such a thing of you again.” Her eyes sparkled playfully, and then she smiled.
The whole world lit up with that smile. Harry’s heart sped up and warmth crept up the back of his neck.
“I have?” he asked, not daring to look away from her. His mind had turned into a sluggish machine, trying and failing to catch up with his need to understand what the woman meant.
Surely, he’d remember meeting her, let alone rescuing her cat. Where had he seen her before? Studying her more carefully, noting the impish upturn at the end of her nose as well as the blonde lashes framing her lovely eyes, his memory finally heeded his desperate need to know her identity.
“An Ames daughter,” he said at last, rocking back slightly on his heels as he continued to stare at her. The vicar’s children, as young girls, hadn’t exactly been in the same social circles as he, even when he came home on holiday.
Her smile widened. “But which one? My father has three, you must remember.” She turned her eyes up to the cat, finally breaking the spell he’d fallen under the moment their gazes connected. He released a breath, his lungs protesting that he’d held onto it for too long.
“The eldest is in India,” Harry said, thinking aloud. Christine had written him about that exciting happening. “She married a missionary.”
“Mm-hm,” the young woman agreed, stepping away from him to get another view of the cat.
His mind immediately protested the distance between them and he followed her, taking in the speculative tilt to her head and her lowered brows.
“Is now Mrs. Robin.”
He blinked. Was he addressing a married woman, then? If she was married that made him a cad, admiring another man’s wife in such a manner. Harry quickly looked down. Seeing the state of his coat, covered in leaves and twigs. He started brushing off his sleeves to avoid looking like a walking shrubbery.
The young woman glanced sideways at him, narrowing her eyes. “She married a naval captain, actually.”
“She did?” Harry asked, jerking his head up hopefully. “And you are not married to a naval captain?”
“I am not married to anyone,” she stated, appearing unbothered by that fact. “I am too busy taking care of that fat beast in the tree to entertain suitors.” She pointed upward, and when he looked he saw the cat had decided to move up the branch to an even more precarious seat.
“Fat and unintelligent,” she muttered to herself. “Not at all the sweet kitten she was last time you rescued her.”
“Kitten?” Harry said, and then the memory came back to him. Years ago, he could not even remember how far back in the past, he’d come upon Miss Gabriella and the younger sister. What was her name? The vicar’s younger daughters had been beside themselves, as they tried to convince their tiny new kitten to come down from a tree very similar to this one.
What had they called the youngest?
As if she knew his thoughts, the woman took pity on him at last. “I am Miss Augusta Ames.”
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Sally Britton's books on Goodreads
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