Presenting Miss Leticia – Maggi Andersen

UNCLE ALFORD REPLACED his quill in the standish and looked up at Letty from his desk and the neat pile of letters concerning vicarage affairs. “I have received a letter from your Aunt Edith.” He leaned back in his chair and formed a steeple with his fingers while his serious gaze rested on her. “Have you, Uncle?” Letty bit her lip as her heart began to beat faster. Were her prayers to be answered? She wished her uncle wouldn’t pontificate. He was very sweet really, and she was terribly fond of him, but he sometimes made her want to scream in frustration. She tamped down the urge to hurry him along, impatiently yearning to hear if an exciting life beyond this small, slowmoving village awaited her. He cleared his throat. “You know my feelings about this matter, Letitia. I would prefer you to remain here and marry someone from the village. What about the squire’s son, young Geoffrey, up at the Grange? You seem to be as thick as thieves. You’ve known him most of your life. No nasty surprises there.” “Geoffrey isn’t much older than I am. He has no wish to marry for years.

And it will certainly not be to me!” “Men marry young in these parts,” her uncle persisted with that mulish look he wore when some parishioner failed to listen to his advice. “A good life awaits you here. Why throw it away for a little glitter? London is not as marvelous as you seem to think it is, for—” “Uncle?” “Yes?” “Does this mean that Aunt Edith has offered to chaperone me? For the whole Season?” The last words ended in a squeak. She clutched her hands together and counted to ten. “It seems so.” He raised a shaggy gray eyebrow. “It appears from the look in your eyes, you are determined to go. I must say that I am disappointed.” She smiled at him across the desk. “It is just for one Season.

I’ll be home again in a few months. I’ve wanted to go to London since I turned eighteen, and I’m almost nineteen now. Before you know it, I will be too old!” “What nonsense!” He pushed his spectacles up his nose and picked up Aunt Edith’s letter, perusing it. “Apparently, you will require a new wardrobe. Your aunt believes it should be purchased in London. I would have thought the seamstress in the village, Mrs. Millichamp, would be more than capable of making you a few gowns.” Letty laughed. “No, it won’t do. I shall need many items one can only purchase in London, a ball gown, evening gown, and day wear, hats, gloves and shoes…” When he raised a hand to shush her, she came around the desk to kiss his cheek.

“Surely you want me to look smart? Not like a country mouse?” Her uncle coughed and waved her away. “Now, now, none of that. You won’t get around me with your feminine ways. But well…naturally…” He reached for his pipe and took several minutes to fill it. Then, he sat back and puffed thoughtfully as the air filled with his favorite blend of tobacco, while she hovered, her stomach doing flips. “Very well, I can see you are set on the idea. I don’t see why we can’t spare a little from your inheritance, which I’ve invested for your future. I accept you shall want to appear quite the thing.” Letty gasped. “Uncle Alford! Thank you!” “I shall write to my sister immediately and advise her that if the weather permits safe travel, we will be arriving in three weeks.

Naturally, I shall accompany you. I must book tickets on the stagecoach.” “There is no need, Uncle. I am perfectly able to go alone.” “Nonsense. The curate will take over while I’m gone. A change is as good as a holiday they say.” Letty left him to his letters and climbed the stairs to her bedchamber. She put on her sturdiest halfboots, warm pelisse, scarf, and a velvet bonnet, then pulled on woolen gloves. Outside in the garden, snow covered the path and piled up against the fence.

She walked down the path to the vicarage front gate, opened it, and picked her way over the hard ground through a copse of trees, taking a shortcut she often used. The front gates of the Grange, the home of Squire Varney, was a mile farther on by road. Walking briskly, her breath misting in the still air, she climbed a fence. The Grange appeared in the distance, a long two-story brick dwelling with ivy growing over the walls. Smoke rose from its four chimneys. Letty took the well-worn path to the stables. Despite what her uncle believed, there had never been anything remotely romantic between her and Geoffrey Verney. They had been friends since she came here at the age of seven after her parents died. Geoffrey was five years older than her. He had taught her to ride, as his father, who was master of the hunt, had many fine animals in his stables.

She was confident Geoffrey would be as excited as she was by her news. She trudged along, head down, traversing deep, ice-covered potholes. Her uncle’s opinion of London was exaggerated. Why, everyone flocked there to visit the theatre and the opera and the parks. Her close friend, Jane Ormsby, told her all about it after her trip two years ago. But she had not found a husband there. She had returned to the village and married Gordon, the local solicitor. Uncle Alford had not visited London for years, so he might well have the wrong idea entirely. Letty hadn’t traveled far from Hawkshead village since she came here to live, but she was sure, as long as one learned where one might go, and where one shouldn’t, the city would prove to be most exhilarating. She reached the large stable block.

Horses hung their heads over the top of their boxes to neigh a greeting, their breaths misting the air. The resident goat darted across to butt its head into her hand. “Oh, I am sorry, Julia. I’ve brought nothing for you,” Letty said regretfully. “Your hat will do.” Geoffrey looked up but continued forking hay, moving steadily, his stocky body making light of the work. Finally, he threw down the fork and smiled a welcome. “What’s brought you out into the cold and away from the fire?” Her excited breath drew in the familiar smells of dusty hay, feed, and manure. “I am going to London! My Aunt Edith is to chaperone me for the whole Season!” He wiped his brow with his forearm. “Oh? You’ll be finding a husband then.

” She sidestepped Julia as the goat tried to push Letty off her feet. “I might. And I might not.” “That’s what these Seasons are for, isn’t that so? It’s a marriage market. They get a look at you, and you get a gander at them.” She stared at him, dismayed by his critical tone. “It’s not because of that. There are balls, and dances, admittedly, but I will also see the London sights, the Tower, and Astley’s Amphitheatre. I am to be presented to the queen!” After Julia gave up and wandered away, Letty picked up a piece of straw and shredded it with her fingers, watching Geoffrey out of the corner of her eye. “We are so far away from everything here.

I am rusticated!” He nodded at her. “I daresay.” She frowned. “Aren’t you happy for me? I always wanted to ride in Rotten Row.” He smoothed back his fair hair. “Of course. If it’s what you want, Letty. But I don’t think any place would come close to living here. Not for me at any rate.” “I love it here, but it’s so quiet nothing ever happens.

” “The Thompson’s just had twins.” She laughed. “Exactly! But I was not born here as you were, Geoffrey. As you know, my parents came from Richmond in Surrey, which is quite close to London.” She watched as he worked for some sign he understood. “And my great-great-aunt fell in love with a pirate!” “I’m familiar with the tale.” He grinned and shook his head, then picked up the fork again. “Then I hope you enjoy London. A little excitement is good, I’ll wager. But it’s a dangerous place, and you can’t wander about on your own as you do here.

Take care.” She put her hands on her hips. “You sound like my uncle!” “Aye. He’s a wise one,” Geoffrey said annoyingly. Letty huffed and turned to leave. “Won’t take a minute to hitch up the gig. I’ll drive you home,” he said with a glance at the sky beyond the doorway. “More snow’s coming.” “It’s hours off.” She walked outside.

“Have it your own way,” he called after her. “You always do.” He appeared at the stable doorway. “By the way, they won’t let you gallop in Rotten Row, you know!” Disappointed that he hadn’t welcomed the exciting news, she stomped out across the meadow, the grass crackling beneath her feet. She refused to allow him to put a damper on her trip. It wasn’t that she wished to marry a prince, or a duke, or really, to marry at all—at least not for years. She merely wanted to have an adventure. As did her Aunt Lydia, whose incredible life in the early years of the last century had been recorded in her diaries. Letty returned to them again and again, for they had struck a chord in her, the pages filled with adventure and danger on the high seas, reaching out to her from the past. While she didn’t aspire to a swashbuckling romance, she did wish her life to be as thrilling as Lydia’s.

A portrait of her was once hung in the gallery at her parent’s home. As Uncle Alford had no love for such things, it must be stored away somewhere. She had dark hair, and Letty imagined herself to be a little like her. The birdcalls and the bleating of sheep became muffled as flurries of snow began to fall, icy upon her face. Annoyed that Geoffrey had been proven right, she put her head down and began to run. The snowfall grew heavier, covering the road and the trees in a blanket of white, and threatening to blind her. Shivering, she picked her way over the ground, visualizing hot coffee and muffins. The vicarage gate appeared at last. Her face numb with cold, she hurried up the icy path to the door. Entering the warm vicarage, the thought of a new wardrobe made her smile as she sat and pulled off her wet boots.

“Is that you Letitia?” Her uncle stuck his head out of the study. “Yes, Uncle.” “You should not have gone out. I told you it would snow.” “Mm, Geoffrey said the same.” “Well he would. He’s a sensible fellow.” Letty shook her head and climbed the stairs. THE AFTERNOON BEFORE they left for London, Letty called in to Jane’s home to say goodbye. In her modest parlor, Jane placed a cup and saucer before Letty on the table.

She sat and passed Letty the plate of gingerbread. “It is my dear hope that you meet the love of your life.” Letty smiled at her as she took a piece. “I am looking forward to the experience, but if I come home without a husband, I shan’t be too disappointed.” Jane laughed. “I returned to Cumbria without one and found the love of my life right here in the village. Perhaps you will, too?” “That isn’t likely to happen to me,” Letty said. Jane raised her auburn eyebrows above quizzical green eyes. “So, not Geoffrey?” “No. Although Uncle Alford wishes me to marry him.

” “Don’t marry anyone you don’t feel passion for, Letty. Life would be too long and dreary without feeling that way about your husband.” Jane’s freckled cheeks flushed. “I couldn’t wish for a better marriage than yours and Gordon’s.” It was wonderful to see how much they cared for each other. Letty smiled and took a bite of the gingerbread, a little envious. “Please write when you can. I want to hear all the thrilling news,” Jane said, pouring them another cup. “If I have something thrilling to write about,” Letty said with a deep breath. “Of course you will! Just think, Letty, the balls! And all those handsome gentlemen waltzing you around the floor!” Letty giggled and leapt up to perform a deep curtsey.

“And don’t forget my curtsey to Queen Charlotte!” Jane’s green eyes danced. “And you so pretty in your fashionable new gown.” THREE WEEKS ALMOST to the day, Letty and her uncle arrived weary and disheveled, at the Golden Cross Inn, a huge and thriving establishment in the village of Charing Cross, after an exhausting trip which required several overnight stops at uncomfortable coaching inns along the route. Under lowering clouds, the streets were crammed with wagons, coaches, and pedestrians either seeking to travel or with that lost look of having just arrived, as she supposed she and her uncle did. Letty wrinkled her nose at the chimneys belching dark smoke into the gray air, and the piles of steaming horse dung, but couldn’t tamp down the thrill of being here at last. She glanced at her uncle, knowing he was already affirming his poor opinion of the city, as he went to hail a hackney carriage to take them to her aunt’s townhouse in Mayfair. Letty was a little nervous at the thought of spending a whole Season in her company. She hadn’t met Aunt Edith who’d never visited Cumbria after Letty came to live with her uncle. In Mount Street, Aunt Edith’s narrow townhouse with black iron railings in front, was one of a row of identical two-story buildings of warm brick. As they alighted from the cab, a man selling pies wandered past them, calling in a loud voice.

He paused to offer one to her uncle, who dismissed him with a sharp shake of his head. A maid with a white apron and mob cap greeted them in the gloomy hall and led them to the parlor where Aunt Edith, close in age to her brother, dressed in a dark gray cambric with a lace collar and cuffs, rose from the sofa, a book held against her chest as if she regretted having to close it. “My dear Edith, how very good to see you.” Uncle Alford hurried across to kiss her cheek. “But I don’t know how you can bear to live in this noisy metropolis.” “One becomes accustomed to the noise. Better by far than the bleating of sheep. Goodness, Alford, how white your hair has become.” She turned to Letty. “And this is Letitia.

” As Letty rushed to hug her, Aunt Edith held out her hand. Letty had no recourse but to shake it. “How do you do, my dear.” Aunt Edith gazed at her myopically. “You are nothing like your dear mother. She was fair with blue eyes. It seems you favor your father. Well, never mind, we shall make do.” “Letitia is quite pretty, Edith,” Uncle Alfred said with a frown. For a moment, Letty feared an argument would ensue.

She had visions of being carried off back to Cumbria. But Aunt Edith tapped Letty’s chin. “Well yes, I now see a little of your mother in your features, and you get your dark hair and eyes from your father. A pity, when fair hair and blue eyes are so fashionable.” She turned to the young maid. “Mary? Don’t stand there as if you’re frozen to the spot! Bring in the tea tray. Alford, I’m sure you and Letitia would care for tea? Good. Shall we sit? Don’t tell me you came in a hired chaise? So extravagant.” Letty sat beside her aunt while Uncle Alford chose the overstuffed armchair. “No, we took the stage, and I must say…” As they conversed, Letty sank back against an embroidered cushion.

The room was old fashioned with big heavy pieces of furniture not in the modern style at all, the walls papered in dark green which made the room quite dark, even with the matching velvet curtains drawn aside. Outside the window was the brick wall of the house next door. She wished she didn’t feel so flat. With a sigh, she acknowledged the trip had left her weary. She remained confident that tomorrow, after a good night’s sleep, everything would look a great deal better. THE COAL FİRE sent flickering lights over the Turkey carpet of Fraser Willard’s cozy library, the walls covered in mahogany bookshelves stacked with tomes. A branch of candles, the only other light in the room, perched on the table beside a crystal decanter. A whiskey in his hand, Brandon Cartwright lounged in the leather wing chair, his legs stretched out over the crimson rug as he blew a cloud of smoke from the cheroot he held between his long fingers. “So, I’m to find out all I can about Lord Ambrose Fraughton?” “Become his shadow.” The firelight warmed Willard’s gray-streaked, fair hair.

Brandon’s superior at the Home Office, seated opposite him, took a pinch of snuff from an enamel box. “Whatever ball or soiree Fraughton attends, you attend. We want to know who he meets, and if possible, what is said.” He sniffed delicately. “This mission is eminently suited to you, because as Sir Richard Cartwright’s heir, you can inveigle an invite to any affair.” Brandon stubbed out his cheroot in the dish. “I’ve met his wife, but I don’t know Fraughton. If I’m to be of service, I’ll need to learn more about him.” “There’s a scheme afoot to rescue the Comte de Lavalette from the prison of the Conciergerie, before he is executed,” Willard responded. “As I’m sure you realize, to aid a French subject in escaping his country’s justice is a sensitive matter.

It must be kept under a cloak of absolute secrecy. Difficult, when we have the problem of a group of monarchists wishing to make an example of him. Blood runs high after the deposing of a king, and these men are looking for someone to punish.” “Who is this Lavalette, may I inquire?” “It’s a very interesting story,” Willard said. “The Comte was Napoleon’s postmaster and at one time, his aide-de-campe. He was appointed to the position so he could open, read, and then reseal suspicious mail on the grounds of intelligence gathering. The real purpose was to identify threats to Napoleon from the monarchists as well as others. Lavalette’s wife, by the way, is the niece of the former empress, Josephine.” “And what is Fraughton’s interest in this affair?” “He is one of those who are determined to see Lavalette dead.” “What is the government’s interest in Lavalette?” “We are informed he has information vital to the interests of the British government.

” Brandon took a deep sip of the smooth whiskey. “Why not arrest Fraughton, keep him out of the way until the business is done?” “Can’t do that. We have to wait to see what information Lavalette has passed on to his wife,” Willard said, returning his snuff box to his pocket. “We also need to learn what it is these monarchists are planning.” “So, I’m to hide in the rooms where they gather,” Brandon said dryly, pushing back his dark hair with an impatient hand. “Under the sofa?” “I’ll leave that to you. They are unlikely to view you as a threat. You’ve worked hard to create the image of a harmless rake.” Willard’s lips twitched. “You have quite a reputation with the ladies, not to mention your much talked about affair with Lady Mary Stanhope.

” He cast an eye over Brandon’s snugly fitted, dark blue coat which spoke of the expertise of Schweitzer & Davison who enjoyed the patronage of the Prince of Wales. “You are known to be a dab hand at the reins since you won that curricle race to Brighton some few years ago. You strip well at Jackson’s boxing salon and are an excellent judge of horseflesh at Tattersalls.” Brandon laughed at what he considered an unflattering description of his talents. “Exhausting work, but it befalls me to make the sacrifice.” Willard smiled. “I’m sure. Especially your well-earned reputation with the fairer sex. These men will not know about the work you performed for foreign affairs in Madrid during the war, or the other undercover operations for Whitehall you’ve been involved with. By the way, Princess de Vaudémont has requested we recruit you.

” Brandon raised his eyebrows at that. The princess was a political plotter par excellence. He had always admired her intellect. “Did she indeed? Then I can hardly refuse, can I?”


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