A Convenient Escape – Penny Fairbanks

B CHAPTER 1 June 1831 eth watched the handsome young man seated beside her, his thick blond locks brushing against his forehead in a very charming way. He smiled as he spoke, his words going in one of Beth’s ears and out the other. She offered a pleasant smile of her own, though it did not touch her eyes. Twisting her gloved fingers into her green skirts, Beth came to the uncomfortable conclusion that Mr. Stallworth was, in fact, not her true love. Still, she did her duty and listened to the gentleman regale her with tales of his friend’s recent ball where a poor old matron’s generously puffed sleeve had caught fire on an ill placed sconce. Mr. Stallworth, for reasons unknown to Beth, found this story to be wonderfully hilarious. “Can you believe such a thing?” he said through his laughter, nodding at Beth, encouraging her to agree. “I swear, I have never seen something so absurd. I have not the faintest clue why you ladies insist upon such cumbersome sleeves.” Beth offered an awkward chuckle, not fully able to condone her suitor’s sense of humor. “Alas, that is the style these days,” she mumbled. Her eyes darted down to her own sleeves, modestly round so as to still be fashionable yet not so large that they might potentially catch fire. “Fear not, Miss Waynford,” Mr.


Stallworth added in a condescendingly comforting tone. “I find your sleeves to be of the appropriate size.” “What a relief,” she offered with a strained smile. Luckily for her, she did not have to try much harder to appease the young man. He quickly launched into another topic, words rapidly spilling from lips that Beth had once thought she might kiss someday. The thought of that possibility with Mr. Stallworth no longer made Beth’s heart flutter. Instead, it made her all the more desperate to quit his presence. Of course, when they had first met two months ago, Beth had found him to be almost unbearably handsome. Unfortunately, after having spent many outings with him during that time, Beth had discovered that he did not possess much else to entice her affections. Tonight’s dinner and the following conversation period in the drawing room had only solidified Beth’s conclusion. When she was sure Mr. Stallworth paid her no mind as he chattered on, Beth cast her eyes about the room, searching for an easy escape route. Not being terribly loquacious herself, she often found it difficult to weave a plausible and polite excuse into the natural flow of conversation. To her immense relief, Beth managed to catch her Aunt Caroline’s eye.

The older woman, as always, was surrounded by a circle of guests, all eager for her attention and favor. Aunt Caroline always situated herself so that she could maintain a full view of the room despite the people crowding around her. Gratitude swelled through Beth’s chest, straining against the firmness of her stays, at her aunt’s impeccable skills as a hostess. In an amusing series of silent and subtle gestures, likely only possible in a close-knit family such as theirs, Beth communicated to Aunt Caroline that she needed rescuing from this gentleman. Aunt Caroline lifted a knowing brow. Beth bit her lip and returned her attention to Mr. Stallworth, who apparently still had no idea that his lady’s thoughts had wandered elsewhere—and that the lady herself planned to wander away at the first opportunity. Aunt Caroline had been surprised when Beth had specifically requested that she invite Mr. Stallworth and his family to her dinner, claiming that she wanted to get to know him a bit more before making a final decision. In her typical fashion, Aunt Caroline had playfully scoffed at this and said, “My darling niece, you can barely force the gentleman’s name out of your mouth. I daresay the decision has already been made.” From her peripheral vision, Beth noticed Aunt Caroline excuse herself from her present company and head toward another corner of the room. Mustering up the last of her willpower, Beth gave Mr. Stallworth a sweet smile. She would be free soon.

“Elizabeth, I am afraid I am quite ready to return home,” a gentle voice said just behind Beth. She turned to see her parents approaching from the quiet section of the room they had claimed for themselves with Aunt Caroline’s husband, Uncle Arthur. “Such a shame.” Mr. Stallworth frowned. “I did not yet finish my story.” “Another time, I am sure. My dear wife is rather tired,” Papa said in his deep, authoritative tone. His sharp eyes watched the young man carefully, reading him. Mama put a hand on Beth’s shoulder, smiling down at her daughter and Mr. Stallworth with tender kindness. “If you will excuse us, Mr. Stallworth.” “Thank you for a wonderful evening.” Beth rushed the words out and slipped between her parents, forcing herself to maintain a ladylike walking speed through the drawing room.

An uncomfortable tingle shot down her spine at the thought of Mr. Stallworth’s disappointment. She longed to fly right through the door to escape it, but such behavior would be terribly rude and no doubt make the rounds through Society. The last thing Beth needed now was to limit her pool of potential suitors. “Did you enjoy yourself, Beth?” Aunt Caroline asked with a teasing glint in her eyes when Beth and her parents approached their host and hostess to bid their farewells. “Of course I did,” Beth said, knowing perfectly well how feeble she sounded. “Perhaps you will enjoy yourself even better next time—after we pare down our guest list,” Uncle Arthur offered with an understanding smile and a quick glance to Mr. Stallworth, who had already found a new audience to finish telling his tale to. Beth nodded, looking down at the hem of her skirt. She always felt so embarrassed when it came time to cut ties with another suitor, though she knew none of her family would fault her for it. They all wanted to see her happily married, just like themselves. They had all certainly been through their own fair share of trials to find those happy marriages, as Beth and her siblings and their many cousins had heard over the years. Papa wrapped a strong arm around Beth’s shoulders, pulling her tight into his side. “I think we had best get our dear daughter home,” he said lovingly. “Those of us on the quieter spectrum have had our fill of…interesting conversation.

” Beth stifled a giggle as she offered Aunt Caroline and Uncle Arthur a small wave, allowing her father to lead her toward the door with Mama offering any last goodbyes to other guests on their way out. Indeed, Beth and her parents were some of the most reserved members of their large family. She offered a silent prayer of thanks for their understanding which had extracted her from uncomfortable and overwhelming situations many times. Thankfully, neither of them said anything else as they made their way through the Helsdens’ home and settled into their carriage for the short ride to their own nearby townhouse just a few streets away. As always, Mama and Papa sat as close together as possible, holding hands and looking very in love. The mood in the carriage tonight felt slightly different. Rather than talking quietly about the evening or sitting in comfortably silent reflection, Beth noticed both their gazes on her. She did not look directly at them, shrinking as much as possible into the firm cushion behind her, angling her head so that her acceptable sleeve puff would hide her face. Attention always made her anxious. She suffered through it anyway in the hopes of finding a husband. No young lady could expect to catch a gentleman’s eye without putting herself on display to an appropriate and polite degree. Based on the nervous twinge in Beth’s stomach, she sensed that Mama and Papa also had her marriage prospects on their minds. From the corner of her eye, Beth could see their worried expressions. This only made her want to shrink even further. Her parents had never put pressure on her to marry a certain type of man or to marry within a certain timeframe.

Their only requirement, as they said time and again, was that their daughter be happy with her choice.

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Updated: 24 November 2021 — 02:18

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