Lady Mary’s May Day Mischief – Cerise DeLand

Lady Mary Trentham-Little-Finch bent over her garden box and cursed the letter that crinkled in her garden apron pocket. She needed no reminders of her latest failure. She jabbed her trowel into the damp soil. She would count her assets. Not that letter she’d gotten this morning. Along with the newspaper that bore the announcement of Esme Harvey’s engagement and coming wedding. Or that other page that told of the Princess of Wales’ marriage next week to a German prince. Both reminded her of her failure. Curse it. What had happened to her matchmaking abilities? Fizzled, like a damp fire. She saw men for what they were. Women, too. What they needed in a spouse. Yes, Esme was getting married. Not to the man Mary had encouraged to court her, but to another whom her friend, Lady Fiona Chastain favored.

Esme was the fifth of Mary’s friends to marry in as many years. All of them near the time of this annual May Day Frolic Esme’s parents hosted. But Esme was also the second to find a different man more appealing than the one Mary had proposed. And yes, there was that other irritant. With the back of her hand, she wiped away telltale moisture from her cheek. Everyone was getting married. Finding love and companionship. “Do not say the obvious,” she warned herself about her own state of affairs. “There are benefits to spinsterhood.” She pushed up her floppy garden hat with her forearm.

“First—very liberating, too, if I say so myself—a woman who need not flirt with any creature in trousers need not attire herself slavishly in the latest fashion. That saves money, a useful relief to the strains on one’s limited monthly income.” She sank her trowel into the fine loam of her seedling box. True, too, few liked her taste in clothes. Save her parrot, Caesar. Then there was that other benefit. Spinsterhood also saved a person endless hours of preening one’s feathers to attract a man whom one did not necessarily know well enough to accompany to the altar. “Or to bed. And that, Mama said, should be a race to the bedroom.” A third benefit… She considered her little green sprouts of celery, kale and cauliflower.

Frowning at how small they were this year, she peered upward at the ice blue April sky. “Is there another asset to being an unmarried lady?” Yes, of course. Tedious attempts to enchant a prospective groom meant that one was free to state raw truths. She approved of that. Bending to her work, she carved a straight line in her soil with her hand trowel. But stopped again. Calling a spade a spade—she chuckled at that—had often gotten her into trouble. Despite popular opinion, in her nearly twenty-five years, she’d held her tongue on many occasions. Largely to please her mother. Or her father.

Or their friends. But now… Now that both her parents were gone, and those loved ones who remained were her friends who understood her foibles, was she not free of the thankless obligation to be charming and witty and wise and ever so politic? She had focused on her one grand ability to find husbands for her friends. Until she failed with that match of two years ago. And the one she’d learned of this morning. The announcement she’d read in the Bath newspaper over breakfast had brought a tear to her eye. She never cried. But her cumulative losses overtook her and a few tears had wet down her toast. Soggy toast was not tasty. But she had reason to shed a tear or two. The loss of her parents, affectionate and kind.

Her brother, studious and smart, gone at Badajoz. Her best friend, gone nearly ten years now to school and the wars, a ghost who’d managed a regular correspondence. Written from battlefields, splattered with the rain and mud of struggle and death. And then…after he’d come home two years ago after his own father died, he’d found solace in her company. Kissed her. Often. Then Napoleon returned to Paris from Elba. He’d returned to his duties. Since then, Blake Lindsey, Captain Lindsey of the Royal Engineers and a recently minted baron, had stopped writing. She knew not why.

Years of his letters that sat upstairs in her trunk, tied together in fraying pink ribbons, revealed no reasons her dearest friend no longer wished to communicate. She jabbed her trowel into the dark earth. Oh! She hated grievances she could not cure. She liked growth, excitement, spring flowers and shoots of kale and cabbage. But reading the news of weddings this morning had caught her unawares and stabbed her with grief. Not because she hadn’t chosen Northington for Esme. Not because she wanted Northington for herself. For goodness sake, he was her distant cousin! Not because she hated Esme, either. Esme might be peculiar, yet she had charms none of which were worthy of ridicule. But because… Well, hell’s bells! She winced at the iridescent sky and spoke the bald truth she’d kept locked away inside her.

Once she’d been fearless. At six, she’d saved her hunting dog Rolf from drowning when he’d been but five weeks old. At ten, she’d hauled her friend Blake from the same river when he’d fallen in and might have drowned, had she not pumped his chest and forced out the mess he’d swallowed. At twelve, she’d grabbed the fire bucket in the hall at Miss Shipley’s to throw on a blaze, then rolled her friend Fifi in a blanket to douse the flames that could have scarred her pretty face. At twenty, she’d nursed her ailing mother when the doctor told her all hope was lost of that lady’s recovery from a wasting in the stomach. At eighteen and nineteen and twenty-two, she helped three friends secure loving husbands. However for the past two years, she had performed no feats. She’d stopped aiding her friends when one of her plans—a feint, actually—failed. Ricocheted, more to the point. She jabbed her trowel into the rich earth and glared at the wispy silver clouds that rolled onward, blithe, uncaring of her desire.

“My lady!” her butler called to her from the kitchen door. She caught her broad straw hat from whipping away in the wind. “Yes, Thompson?” “You asked not to be interrupted, ma’am, but Lady Fiona Chastain has arrived. She says it’s urgent she see you.” I expected her to rush in an hour ago. “Did you tell Cook she’s here?” “Yes, milady. I’ll bring a tray up to you within minutes.” “Good.” Long ago, Mary had learned the best way to help Fifi deal with any event was to order a complete tea whenever she called. Her friend loved to eat, especially delicacies that Mary’s Cook created.

Today, she had expected Fifi to fly to her as soon as her friend read the announcement of Northington and Esme’s impending nuptials in this morning’s paper. “I’ll be right in.” He ambled away. With a tug at her gardening gloves, Mary bent to whisper to her sprouts. “This afternoon I shall return.” With a nod at the clouds and the sun and the universe that always blossomed here at least into rich results under her hands, she left her tender aspirations in her garden. Then she limped toward her house. * * * “Good morning!” Mary padded across her salon carpet in her stocking feet and threw out her arms in welcome. This morning, her old friend would want comfort, not formality. Not primping, either.

And Mary hadn’t. So if her waist-length hair escaped her hastily pinned ribbons and her apron bore grimy signs of the weeding she’d done in her garden box, well then, Fifi never minded Mary’s peccadilloes. Especially today, when what Fifi wanted was consolation. “I’m delighted to see you. How are you? I knew you’d come.” “Of course you did. I’m terrible! Angry! Very angry.” Fifi looked it, too. Her rich dark mahogany hair bound back tight as a fisherman’s net over his catch. Her large blue eyes snapping with distress.

Her little spectacles propped on the tip of her nose. Even her toque was tilted at a tipsy angle. “And you? Aren’t you shocked?” “At anything Esme Harvey does?” Mary shook her head. Fifi’s anger was her first emotion? “Ha! No. And neither should you be. Come sit down.” “Sit down! Sit down!” Caesar called from his cage by the tall front windows. Mary cast the parrot a withering look. In response, he hopped from one foot to the other. “Good boy.

Good boy!” “Oh, Mary, I can’t sit. I simply can’t.” Fifi was too disturbed to care about the bird. She extracted from her reticule a little ball of paper and shoved it into Mary’s hand. “Look at this.” “I’ve seen the Chronicle.” “No. This is a letter that arrived this morning. From my Aunt Courtland. A personal invitation to the wedding!” Mary liked weddings.

Had done, too. Until lately. “To tell the truth, I assumed all of us who’d been invited to the May Day frolic and your Aunt Courtland’s ball would go to the church.” “They planned it this way,” Fifi moaned. “Esme knew we’d be there.” Fifi must focus on reason. Her friend was an intelligent woman. Except when it came to this irrational interest in Northington. “It’s as good a plan as any.” Fifi arched a dark brow.

“Especially when you’ve acquired a special license and forgo the reading of the banns!” At the risqué hint Esme might need to marry quickly, Mary was surprised. Fifi was not usually judgmental. “That’s unworthy of you.” “I agree.” Fifi spun away toward the window and stared down at the passersby in the street. “Forgive me.” “I love you,” crowed the large green bird who took any opportunity to crow about his passion for Fifi. “I love you.” Fifi placed a hand over her heart and feigned adoration equal to a Drury Lane actress. “I come to marry Caesar.

” “Not to praise him.” Mary scowled at him and drew a hand across her throat. “I know. Forget him.” “I love you!” he repeated and cast his mistress a dark evil eye. “Tough bird.” Fifi chuckled. “Caesar, stop that. It’s irritating.” She must get her friend onto the topic of the hour.

“But I will give you that Esme wants an audience.” Fifi threw up her hands and whirled toward Mary. “I’m not in the habit of thinking the worst of people. Even Esme Harvey.” But Mary questioned how this engagement had come about. “I had no idea Esme traveled in the same circles as Northington. Did you?” “My Aunt Courtland—God love her—is a sweet soul, but if she has any fault it’s that she encouraged Esme to exceed her grasp. Excel at French, archery, cards. Anything! You know she did.” Mary did not give credence to the ton’s dictum that a viscount’s daughter was beneath notice as a potential bride for a marquess.

But Esme had been pushed by her mother to go over and above any normal expectations. “I remember your aunt appearing any night or day at Miss Shipley’s demanding Esme do more, study longer hours, practice more diligently. Your aunt was a harpy to her only daughter, but in all else a serene lady with a sense of humor.” “Yes. Well! I cannot laugh at this!” Fifi paced back and forth before the pianoforte. Mary pointed to the settee. “Come sit down.” “Sit down! Sit down!” Mary stepped to the bird’s cage and dropped his cover over him. As if that deterred him. “Now then,” she said, then hobbled over to sit and pat the cushion.

“We’ll have tea. Cook made creamed horns yesterday. You like those.” “Oh, Mary. I can’t eat.” Mary couldn’t let that stand! “Dearest, long after I have waddled to my bed stuffed to my gizzard like a Christmas goose, you can always eat.” Fifi heaved a huge sigh. “You’re right. Of course. Why do you always state the truth?” “Hmm.

Not the best of traits. My mama always urged me to discretion. ‘A little politesse, dear girl,’ she’d say. I’m not a diplomat! Never will be! Now do sit—” “Sit down! Sit down!” Fifi appeared half-way between a laugh and a curse. “He becomes more vocal as he gets older.” “And he is company.” Fifi let out an unladylike snort. “You can do better.” “I could hope. Here now.

” She didn’t dare ask her friend to sit. “Let’s figure this one out.” Weary and surrendering, Fifi strode over and sank to the settee. “I cannot imagine Aunt Courtland would encourage Esme to charm Northington into marriage.” “Does your aunt know you cared for him?” “I never told her. But my mother might have.” “That had to be two years ago, before your mama became so ill,” Mary pointed out. “But Esme knows.” Mary drew back. Fifi would never confide in Esme.

“You told her?” “Wasn’t it always obvious? The year all of us came out? I danced with him at that masquerade ball. Later that night, I won all that money from him! He laughed at my skills. Imagine! No one…no one has ever matched him.” “Fifi, you were eighteen. All of us were green. Foolish.” “Six years ago.” Fifi inhaled and her spectacles slipped. She pushed them up. “The wars were on.

” Mary stilled. She hated discussions of the dead, or worse the disabled soldiers who wandered the city streets without bread or board or hope. “We had the ridiculous perception that war was glorious…and that all soldiers would return.” Fifi slouched, repentant. “Forgive me. I didn’t mean to open old wounds.” Mary lifted a shoulder. She had not yet recovered from the loss of her brother, George, at Badajoz, or the demise of both her parents. She reached over and squeezed Fifi’s hand. “No need to apologize.

Things were different with me then. For us both.” Six years ago, when Fifi and Mary debuted, Mary’s parents were alive as well her older brother George who was heir to the Dalworthy earldom. Now her first cousin, Winston, was the Earl of Dalworthy. And she lived here alone, far from her childhood home, striding from room to room with only echoes of love and affection ringing in her ears. Six years ago, Fifi had a different life, too. Her father was alive. Her mother had not begun to stumble over carpets or mumble phrases as mismatched as pieces from two different puzzles. The result was that Fifi lived in her large Georgian home in the Crescent —and for all intents and purposes, she was as much alone as Mary. At twenty-four years of age, both of them had increasingly secluded lives.

Bath was a lovely little town, quaint and tranquil as the patina of its dark honey-colored stone. But the place where society had flocked for more than a century to take the waters, gossip and dance until two in the Assembly Rooms, was so very passé. The town to see and be seen, to find drama and romance and a man who might truly grow to love a lady, was Brighton. To the coast, south of London, society flocked. There the roly-poly spendthrift Prince Regent lived, and lavishly so. He added to his Pavilion with impecunious abandon, brought his mistresses to entertain him and drew the ton to him for dinner, musicales, the theater—and affaires de coeur. And Fifi and I cannot go because we haven’t the desire—or the blunt. But that doesn’t mean we must continue to deny ourselves. “What do you mean?” Fifi blinked. Mary caught her lower lip.

One day soon she must master the art of keeping her truths to herself. Or learn how to present them in a more acceptable fashion. “I’ve been thinking.” Fifi clapped her hands. “That’s the spirit. The old Mary!” Her butler stood in the open doorway with the tea tray—and stared at her. She balked. He was just in time to feed Fifi. But he’d been present when one of her so-called plans had erupted. Millicent Weaver, one of their school friends, had barged in two years ago to her parlor in London and bemoaned how their silliness had ended her relationship with one young man and ruined her life.

That failure had put her off any future interference. “You’ve got a plan?” Fifi urged her to speak. “What is it? Tell me.” Thompson glared at Mary. He was seventy, if a day. He was spry, an inveterate walker and former boxer. He was her Cerberus, her watchdog. Her major critic. He cocked a bushy grey brow in warning. “Mary, tell me!” Her butler might have been set in stained glass, so transparent was his intent to dissuade her from her old ways.

She winced. “Well, it’s not a plan. Not like one of my old ones.” “No?” Fifi tipped her head. No? Thompson imitated her friend. Mary frowned at him. He scowled at her. Fifi licked her lips, wiggling in anticipation. “Hurry. I’m hungry.

” “Thompson, please.” Mary indicated with a wave that she wanted him to finish his service and disappear. She rose to consider the street below as he laid out the feast on the little table before the settee. “Oh, lovely little sweets. Your cook, Mary, is superb. Look at this! Never let her go.” Fifi rubbed her hands together. “Or if you must, send her to me. I will dismiss every servant I have to fund her wages. The cakes and—” “Caesar wants cake.


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