This is a deep cut, dredged out of GoogleDocs after I did a little housekeeping. For my first book, I must have started that first chapter in a dozen different places. The version that lasted the longest was in a London breakfast room as invitations were pouring in.
I loved this version where we get to see a glimpse of the oldest Thornton sister--a peripheral figure in both Her Caprice and The Sweet Rowan. I love that Deborah doesn't know what Beatrice's 'illness' is. She only knows she deserves better.
“You little liar.”
Beatrice froze as she heard the voice behind her and every nerve came alive, prickling with awareness. Quick as lightning came the sensation of polished oak under slippered feet and a sick feeling of relief settled in her stomach. Her heart broke its wild rhythm and her breath pooled.
She turned from the door of her bedroom and when she saw who it was, she wanted to slide to the floor laughing. Instead, she exhaled. “Oh, it’s you.” Casting her old-fashioned hat upon the bed, she strode across the room, kissing her sister’s waiting cheek. “I thought you were supposed to be at the Crenshaw’s house party, Deb.”
Deborah, fingers laced across her midsection, looked her sister over from the chaise where she lay. “I was, you fink. You were supposed to be there too and you can imagine my surprise when Mama sent a note saying you were much too ill to come.” Beatrice shifted from foot to foot as the fire popped in the grate. The bracing ride in the March sunshine had put color into her face. Her eyes would be sparkling. Blast.
“I didn’t promise--”
“But you’re not sick,” said Deb, as languid in her pursuit as a prowling cat. “Tell me,” she drawled. “...would that make you a liar or Mama?”
Having scored a hit, Deborah didn’t wait for the careless shrug Beatrice had decided on in response but swept on. “Michael brought me home early. Louisa Crenshaw, waved me from her doorstep saying how unfortunate it is that the Thornton women are frail and sickly.”
Beatrice’s eyes narrowed. “Better than being malicious and stupid.”
Deb’s vivid face crumpled with laughter which subsided only after she dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. “You should have been there,” she sighed. “Why didn’t you come? You might have had fun for once.”
Beatrice made no answer but looked down, working busy fingers to unbutton the front of her habit, flinging the jacket off and lifting her arm. “Undo me?”
“You should have a maid for this,” Deborah said grumping out of the chaise and beginning to work at the tapes, her fingers moving with the ease of long practice.
“Why ever for, when you or Penny are always about to take care of me? Ow!” Beatrice felt a swat on her backside and reached to rub the spot.
“Because I’m a married lady now. And because it is unnatural not having a lady’s maid when your father is as rich as Papa--even one to share between three sisters. And so you would agree if you ever left this nunnery.”
Dangerous ground. Beatrice felt the familiar pricking of her senses--like a hare in a meadow sniffing out the presence of a fox.
“Does Mama know you’re here?” asked Beatrice, stepping out of the old brown habit and examining her petticoats which, she decided, did not look too bad. She stepped into a plain blue muslin and Deborah took her turn with the ties again.
“She does not. She would fly through the roof if she knew what I was up to.”
Beatrice stilled. “Which is?”
Deborah smiled, her brows arching with self-delight. “I’m breaking my little sister out of her jail.”
“No, you goose. You. I’ve been thinking of it for months.” Beatrice watched as Deb caught a reflection of herself in the mirror and tidied a rich brown curl. She beat off a stab of envy. Her own hair was dressed quite plainly today. And every day.
Deborah continued. “Marriage made me start seeing my family from an entirely new perspective.”
“All that from moving a whole mile away?” laughed Beatrice. It was easier to make a joke of it. Safer.
“Mama has put you in a prison.”
Beatrice raised a sable brow, her arm sweeping across the newly made-over room, the cozy furnishings, the bright, jewel-like paintings lining the walls…
“If you don’t like this topic, you shouldn’t have left me to languish at the Crenshaw’s. I had plenty of time to think it out. Dreary people. But they lead the neighborhood--hosting house parties while Thorndene buries itself like a mole in a burrow--” Deborah sank into her seat and pawed the air with her hands, twitching her nose. “--ever deeper year by year. Well, you can see it’s an outrage.”
“House parties. An outrage.” Beatrice nodded her head in mock sobriety but her lips betrayed her. “I must write that down.”
That earned a black look. “The least you could do is support me because it’s the worst, by miles, for you.”
It was too late to turn Deborah from this path with laughter. Better to let her at it. Beatrice leaned across the back of her sister’s chair and said with every appearance of magnanimity, “I’m listening.”
“You turned twenty last Christmas, Bea and I realized that Miss Crenshaw, plonk though she is, is just a year younger. You ought to be friends.”
“With a plonk?”
“With a girl your own age, doing all the same things she is doing. She was crowing about going up to London last year, almost caught the heir to a dukedom, if she is to be believed. Said she was leading him around by the nose.”
Beatrice pulled a face. “That’s a disgusting way to speak about a man. It’s obvious that I don’t want to be friends with her.”
“Fine. But I saw several girls at the party you used to be quite intimate with,” said Deb, holding a bright lamp up to things Beatrice had buried long ago.
“I have friends,” she muttered.
Deborah sat up. “This ought to be fun. List them.”
“You and Penny…”
“Sisters don’t count.”
“Two decades your senior? Three? I cannot tell underneath all the caps and shawls.”
Beatrice squirmed a little. “Mrs. Farthing.”
Deborah looked at Beatrice’s blue muslin. “The seamstress is not your friend.”
“The horse! If only you had just come to the party.”
Beatrice tapped her palm against the back of the chair and moved away.
Deborah’s voice chased after her. “I know just how it was. Mama was prostrate with worry and you invented an illness. Again.” The word clipped and clattered like a pebble dropped on a pile of them a mountain high. “I’m right, aren’t I?”
Beatrice set her lips and settled on the carpet before the fire, reaching for the latest parliamentary report from a tall stack of periodicals at her elbow.
“And that’s another thing,” said Deborah, kneeling at her side and smacking the paper out of her hands.
“Hey--” Beatrice scrambled for the sheets.
They were five and seven again, tumbling about in a tangle of petticoats as Deborah reached across her and toppled the pile, splaying the magazines out until she found what she was looking for. She picked one up and whacked it in Beatrice’s lap, pushing her hair from her face. “Don’t think I don’t know you keep the fashion monthlies squirreled down where they won’t be seen.”
Deborah’s breath was still shallow and quick. “If I thought you wanted to stay locked in your tower until you die, dressed like you’re already dead--”
Beatrice flung several periodicals at her sister who batted them away.
“--then I would leave well enough alone. But you don’t.” Deborah grabbed a handful of Beatrice’s faded blue muslin, holding it up between them. “You have better taste than this. Enough, surely, to dress yourself well.”
Beatrice cast an envious glance at Deborah’s dashing emerald walking dress. It looked like it had been peeled off the pages of La Belle Assemblée, though it pulled a little around Deborah’s bosom and would need letting out. Marriage was making her sister plump.
“I don’t mind the way I dress…” Beatrice curled her fingers into her palm as she said it. She hated this the most--the lying. The rest of it was bearable...just.
Deborah snorted as she gained her feet, bushing out her skirts and taking her seat again. “No matter. I have found you a solution to being stuck at home, meeting no one, and looking frightful.”
Beatrice leaned forward, despite every intention of not doing so.
Deb raised her chin. “Now don’t be mad. I know how awfully obedient you are but you must own that Mama became a little...unmoored...after your illness.”
“My illness? What has that to do with anything?” asked Beatrice, sounding carefully surprised. Her ‘illness’ had changed everything. “It’s been so long ago.”
“Seven years, pet. Before that we used to do things--go places--and now all she wants is to wrap you in cotton wool. I don’t know how you stand it. I thank heaven that Godmama demanded that they send me up to Town for a Season.”
“Returning victorious to marry the boy next door,” said Beatrice, smiling.
“But there is no Michael in Dorset for you,” said Deb, dismissing every male in the county with a wave of her hand. “I had my chances to do as I liked. You deserve the same and Penny after you.”
Beatrice let herself daydream about the sort of letter Godmama might write which would get her to London. Could such a letter hope to succeed?
Deb interrupted her thoughts. “...wretched news is that Godmama says that she already did her part--threw a right, royal fit about having you up for a Season but it didn’t work. Mama and Papa refused to even consider it.”
Beatrice sucked her breath. Her parents hadn’t even brought her into the library to have one of those solemn conferences around the fire as they went through the pretense of deciding together to do what Mama wanted all along. Indignation began to lay a fire and strike the flint.
“My Season was enchanting,” said Deborah, leaning in to meet Beatrice’s eyes square on, her lips drawing up in a wicked grin. “And I’m going to give you a Season too.”
Beatrice wanted to laugh--right in her face. Her sister looked like an earnest five-year-old poppet, promising her that the mud pie she held in her hands would taste of marzipan.
Who would want to risk getting a mouthful of mud? Beatrice’s eyes strayed to the dull blue muslin, three years out of fashion and as limp as an old carrot. She would like to have a taste of sweetness. “How is this miracle to come to pass?”
Deborah gave a little clap. “Simple. As I had no sister at the Crenshaw’s to distract me…” she said, blinking, her expression too simple to be believed. “...I am afraid my tongue rather ran away.” Deborah leaned back against the chaise, her fingers walking with mincing steps along the silk. “When people asked after you, I said...I said I thought you would be deep in preparations to go up to Town this year.”
“You didn’t!” Beatrice said and clapped hands over her mouth. Heaven help them all. What had Deborah done? The most she had expected was some new dresses, a turn at the Assemblies.
“Don’t look so shocked.”
“But...but…” Beatrice sputtered, desperate to land on something safe to say. “Mama will be in a panic.”
Deborah’s hand became a fist and banged on the cushion. “This is war, Beatrice Thornton. Mama has occupied too much of your life for far too long and I mean to make you drive her from the territory.” Then Deb’s mouth turned up in a saucy smile. This was a joke to her. “To that end, I’ve encouraged several of the ladies to stop in and pay calls on their way home. By tomorrow evening Mama will have received a steady stream of questions and congratulations.”
Beatrice sank against the carved face of the mantle. This would be Mama’s worst nightmare, being driven off to London in a cloud of gossip. Though it was nonsense to pretend it was hers. She had not yet sunk so far that she would lie to herself.
“Shhhht,” sounded Beatrice, holding up a finger at Deborah as her eyes lost focus. “Let me think.”
Was the plan sound? Deborah had hit at Mama’s great weakness. Attention. Talk. Curiosity about any of them but most particularly about Beatrice. And it would take no wheedling or cajoling on Beatrice’s part... No blame could attach to herself. She would simply be floating along on a current not of her making. She let out a short, bitter gust. She was good at that.
A Season. Could she believe in it? Beatrice closed her eyes. She hadn’t ever dreamed of London. She hadn’t dared let herself. This room, beautifully appointed and fitted out at the time of Deborah’s wedding, had been an acknowledgement that she was should seat herself comfortably at Thorndene because there would be no escape.
She dared to dream of London now, tugging at the idea like the strings of a gaily wrapped parcel. In London, she might take a box at the theater, wear whisper-soft fabrics that flattered and clung, attend lectures on the subjects she’d only seen written of in the papers, shop for all the books she liked, meet friends, meet gentlemen…
Her eyes contained a martial glint when they opened. “It would help if I rode out along Lumley Road tomorrow hailing every carriage that crosses my path and looking as blooming as a rose.”
“Bravo!” whooped Deborah. “That will paint Mama into a very tight corner.”
Beatrice’s eyes narrowed. “Not that you aren’t the soul of charity, Deb...but why are you doing this?” she asked.
Deborah cleared her throat and glanced away. “You get such a rotten deal. Mama dug your grave already. If we don’t take care to pull you out, she’ll pitch Penny in after you.”
Beatrice shuddered. Penny would have no part of this. Ever.
Still, there was something fishy about Deborah’s altruism. “Out with it. There’s something else.”
“Can you guess?” Deborah smiled, folding two hands over her stomach.
A child. Beatrice’s stomach dropped to her toes. She bit her lip and then forced a wide smile. Her sister was moving forward with her life which was good news, really.
“Oh Deb!” she managed, throwing her arms around her sister’s neck. “When?”
“In the fall. It’s been wretched not telling anyone. But you know what Mama is about any sign of ill-health...”
Beatrice nodded though Deborah was quite wrong. Her sister was forever circling the truth but never grasping it.
“She’ll be over every day, directing my food, managing poor Michael. I can’t bear to think of it. But if she is gone--until June or July…”
“You’ll be nearing your confinement. She’ll never forgive you for that.”
“Oh, won’t she? I will be surprised if her pique lasts longer than it takes to hold a newborn babe in her arms,” said Deborah.
“And I’ll be an aunt,” said Beatrice, feeling a perilous glow light her insides, the sorrow beaten back for now. She stood and steadied herself on the mantle. “The favorite aunt--”
“Only if you go to London.”
Beatrice smiled but it faded just a little. Should she grasp at this chance? Upset Mama’s well-laid plans in exchange for a little adventure? It was terrifying, now that the treat was offered. Could it spoil her for the lovely room in the lonely house?
Not an hour ago she had been racing through the empty fields on her mount, fresh wind making a riot of her skirts. That was freedom...of a sort. She was surely happy enough. Why risk that?
“Deb, are you sure you don’t want Mama nearby?”
“Oh no,” Deborah shook her head like Blackberry at a hurdle. “You’re not going to try to get out of it. You must go, take Mama out of my hair and let me give you a Season. If you won’t do it for yourself,” she said, turning, all unknowing, to an argument Mama had used time and time again, “do it for your sisters.”