Sneak Peek: The Heart's Choice
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.”
As one of their near neighbors was peering out her front window in that instant, Mattie knew there was a great deal of truth in that statement.
Mattie stepped forward, between her sister and the gentleman. “Oliver, how lovely to see you again.” She curtsied, keeping her eyes on the nephew of their steward. “Forgive me. It is Mr. Bolton now we have all grown.”
Oliver had come to live with his uncle after the deaths of his parents many years ago, thus forming an acquaintance with the Rayment sisters out of a polite sort of necessity. He’d been a sad, kind lad then, but he had matured into a handsome man. With him standing before her for the first time in years, grown into his new role of gentleman, Mattie decided he’d aged excessively well.
Beatrice, her eyes wide and lips parted in surprise, seemed to be thinking much the same.
“Oliver Bolton? The steward’s nephew?” The younger woman gasped. “I hardly recognize you.”
Although he’d matured, all his former features remained much the same. If her sister didn’t recognize the man, it was likely because she’d never paid him much attention in the first place. Oliver’s slight frown seemed to indicate he might think the same.
Luckily Mattie had years of practice when it came to smoothing over her sister’s manner. “It is very good to see you, Mr. Bolton. I had no idea you were in London. It’s going on five years since you went away from us.” Mattie kept her smile merely polite, though her words were said with kindness. “How are you settling into your new life? I understand your estate in Lincolnshire takes up a great deal of your time.”
The man’s dark-green eyes glanced from her to Beatrice, but they settled more firmly on Mattie again when Beatrice continued to gape at him. “Westerwind did not take to me as quickly as I wished, but presently the lands and farms are doing well. Have you spoken to my uncle?”
Mattie was the only member of the family who had spoken to the steward in quite some time, and he was forever telling her of his nephew’s successes.
“He is very proud of you, Mr. Bolton,” she answered. “Of course he mentions you from time to time. It is good that you have such a source as Mr. Hapsbury to guide you. Our family would be quite lost without him.”
Mattie chanced a glance in her sister’s direction to see if Beatrice had composed herself yet. The speculative gleam in Beatrice’s eyes made Mattie’s stomach clench. Mattie knew that look. She’d seen it all her life, from the time Beatrice was a child and discovered a toy she coveted.
“Beatrice, darling,” she said, hoping her tone was warning enough for her sister that this was not a man whose affections were a plaything. “We ought to return home and see if Lady Sefton has replied to our request for vouchers.” Mattie had received hints from the patroness that they would be permitted to enter the upper ballroom where they had been denied the previous year for reasons unknown to any but the patronesses themselves.
“Yes, of course.” Beatrice adjusted the reticule on her wrist but looked up at Oliver through her eyelashes in a manner that rather reminded Mattie of a puppy begging for scraps. Unfortunately, the men of London seemed inclined to like puppies. “Will you be applying for vouchers to Almack’s, Mr. Bolton?” Beatrice asked.
Mattie nearly panicked but tried to remain composed. Oliver’s smile diminished.
“I am afraid not, Miss Beatrice. But I do hope you enjoy yourself at the balls. If you will excuse me, Miss Rayment, Miss Beatrice.” He bowed and replaced his hat with an air of gravity. “I hope to see you again soon.”
“Good day, Mr. Bolton,” Mattie said, giving Beatrice no time to ask more questions. She took her sister’s arm and tugged her down the walkway, fixing her eyes on their front door.
Hopefully that would be the last they would see of Oliver Bolton. But a strange premonition made her think that wish was in vain. Oliver had always been a well-mannered boy and he would likely come to the house to call on their father. Even a gesture as well meant as that could be disastrous.
“I wonder if Mr. Redhurst has sent you flowers today,” Mattie said, as cheerily as possible, in an effort to divert her sister.
“He sends flowers nearly every day,” Beatrice responded, boredom coloring her words.
This will never do. Mattie took in a deep breath and launched into speaking with excitement about Almack’s, Mr. Redhurst, and the last few months of the Season. If Beatrice became distracted by Oliver Bolton before being properly engaged, it may well ruin her standing in Mr. Redhurst’s eyes. Before their return to the country, she must see her sister safely married. The family depended upon it.
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