Spinster and Spice – Rebecca Connolly

“Izzy, where did I put the ribbons I bought last week?” “At your toilette, Mama, by your hairbrush.” “I was just at my toilette, and they were not there.” “Are you sure?” “Of course I’m sure, Isabella, I know what I saw.” Izzy laid her book in her lap, keeping her finger on the page, not bothering to avoid rolling her eyes. “Try under the hairbrush, Mama.” There was a moment’s pause from upstairs, and then a faint humming that spoke of her mother’s success in the ribbon hunt. Izzy nodded to herself and returned to her book, not actually reading a single word. She had been faux reading for twenty minutes now, waiting for her mother to finish preparing herself for her outing. It had taken almost twice as long as usual for her to actually leave the house, which was utterly maddening, but fairly typical for recent days. It wasn’t like her mother to be so fussy, but in the last few months, she had grown increasingly so, and her fussiness tended to be directed at Izzy whenever possible. There was only one explanation for that: Izzy was not married. It wasn’t fair, and it was not kind, but there it was. How was it possible, her mother had wondered, for the less likable of two cousins to marry rather than the other? Izzy hadn’t wondered that at all, for her cousin Georgie was very likable, under the right circumstances and with the right individuals. And in the months since her marriage, she had even grown quite cheery and sentimental when compared with her original state. Besides, Georgie was far and away more beautiful than Izzy.

Her mother would never be so coarse as to admit such a notion, but neither was she making any effort to refute it. Or convince anyone otherwise. It would never have been believed anyway. Everyone in London had eyes, and those eyes had seen Izzy often enough to know the truth. Isabella Lambert was plain. And she was nice. And therein lay the problem. She had other charms, and she had a decent enough fortune, to be sure, but it wasn’t enough to necessarily tempt anyone to take her as she was, should they have wanted any such thing in the first place. No one had ever wanted her before, and she saw no sign of that changing, much to her mother’s dismay. “All right, dear, I am off to visit Lady Chesterton,” her mother announced as she entered the parlor, adjusting her gloves.

Izzy closed her book on a finger and smiled as warmly as she could. “Yes, Mama. Do give her ladyship my warmest regards. She has invited the Spinsters to her dinner party next week, and I believe we are all to attend.” Her mother barely avoided giving a harrumph of her own disbelief. “I don’t know why she encourages you. I’ve never found the status of spinster to be anything praiseworthy, and it will only make you all the more notorious.” “Mama,” Izzy groaned, rolling her eyes dramatically. “You know how important the Spinsters are to me, and to Georgie as well. You did give your permission for me to write with them when we started four years ago.

” “I know, I know,” her mother admitted hastily, huffing a little. “And it really is very diverting, dear. But must it emphasize being spinsters so often?” She shook her head and pretended to fix her gloves again. “They’re all coming over soon, are they not?” Izzy nodded, trying not to smile. “They are, yes. Prue and Camden are back in London, so we thought…” Her mother harrumphed an uncomfortable exhale. “In the future, dear, refer to him as Mr. Vale, at least to me. Would you mind?” Izzy smiled and shook her head. “Not at all, Mama.

I would be happy to. Now, don’t be late for Lady Chesterton, it wouldn’t be proper.” Her mother smiled and nodded. “And despite what you may think, dear, you are perfectly, exactly, as I would wish you to be.” “Yes, Mama,” Izzy told her, the phrase so familiar it had lost its meaning, but was quite nice, nonetheless. “I know.” Her smile deepened, and then her mother rushed out of the room. The butler intoned something Izzy couldn’t make out but could well imagine. The door opened, closed, and then there was silence except for the butler’s footsteps. She waited until those footsteps retreated, just to be safe, and only when silence prevailed did she move to the writing desk in the corner.

She moved aside the stack of books and notes from her friends that she had laid out to cover any and all evidence, not that anyone but the servants came into this parlor. If her mother had any idea, she would scour the entire room, and Izzy’s bedchamber, and possibly some of the spare rooms. But she didn’t, and the rooms were left alone, and this particular parlor was unofficially designated as Izzy’s. It was the one in which the Spinsters always met when they were together, and it contained more secrets than anyone knew. Including the Spinsters. She couldn’t tell them this, or let it be up for discussion. Charlotte, for one, would have something to say about it, and it was entirely possible she would refer to it in some way in the next edition of the Chronicles. With the growing fascination over the Spinsters, and the scrutiny of them, it could actually be drawn back to Izzy, depending on how it was phrased. That was a risk she could not and would not take. Glancing back at the door to the parlor, though no one was home to care what she did, Izzy slid the still-sealed letter out from the back of the desk.

She swallowed as her heart suddenly pounded in her chest, and a shaking hand moved a glinting strand of coppery hair behind her ear. It slid back into her eye line at once, but she would ignore it. For now. She exhaled shortly and broke the seal, fingers trembling. She had been on edge for three days waiting for this letter, and now… Dear Miss Lambert, Having received your manuscript portion last week, I have taken the liberty of reading it thoroughly. While the prose is quite good and does lend itself to a story for children, I remain hesitant for reasons I cannot entirely express. But I do not wish to discourage you, nor should this in any way demean your writing. I had my doubts, as I said before you sent the selection to me, but it was more impressive than I anticipated. I had, of course, known you had some skill, given our success with the Spinster Chronicles, but it is clear that your imagination also runs in other courses. Please submit further stories for my review, and perhaps we may meet to discuss what options and opportunities are before us.

I am not convinced that I know the avenue for such works, nor where the production of it could lead, but I am willing to be persuaded otherwise should your writing prove dif erent. I am, cousin, most pleased by our further professional interaction, and hope for a good deal more in the future. Your obedient servant, Frank T. Lambert The words reverberated in her mind, and while the letter held several words of praise and encouragement, there was only one thing that stood out to Izzy. He’d rejected her. He’d said no. He… Izzy sighed and dropped the letter into her lap. Cousin Frank was a good man, and very wise in the field of literature and publication. He had taken a very great risk with the Spinster Chronicles four years ago, and it was only right that he should have reservations about Izzy’s stories. But rejection was a bitter draught for her, and she had been so very proud of the story she had sent him.

The Snail and the Salmon had been a favorite with her nieces, nephews, and cousins, and she’d thought it might have the same effect on her potential printer. However, it appeared that adults took more convincing than children to imagine these sorts of things. She glanced down at the letter again. Submit more stories, he’d said. Well, she could certainly do that. She had a dozen or so written out in various diaries and stuffed into bureaus in her room. Once she had written down the first two, at her sister’s request, she could not seem to stop doing so. Why, half of the stories she had written had never been told to the children, and she knew very well there were several stories she had told that had yet to be written down. Perhaps she ought to try for Robin Red-Breast and the Very Merry Tune. But she doubted it would be the same without the actual whistling, particularly when there were no children to encourage it.

Still, it was worth trying for. Or perhaps Petunia the Turtle and the Muddy Puddle. That one was always entertaining. Tiberius T. Tiger’s Terrible Tuesday? There was quite a clever rhyming pattern in that one. The unnamed one about the fox twins? They sang a song. Or perhaps a new one she hadn’t thought up yet? Stories she had told and stories she had yet to tell all swirled about in her mind, overwhelming and exhilarating her all at the same time. Where should she begin? What if she chose the wrong story and Cousin Frank hated it? What if she sent too many and irritated him? What if…? Her still trembling hand moved to her throat as she swallowed painfully. What if it all worked and she got published, but no one wanted to read what she had written? Her eyes widened. She had never considered that before, but it was entirely possible that she would achieve her dream but not succeed in it.

All of her hard work and creative efforts, and she could be a laughingstock in the literary world. She could spend a fortune in publication and never earn a farthing for it. What would she do then? What would be worse? Izzy inhaled slowly, then exhaled slowly. “Steady on, Isabella,” she whispered to herself. “Let’s not worry about things that have not occurred yet.” Nodding to herself, she refolded the letter and tucked it into one of her half-filled journals. She would need to consider the stories that might persuade Cousin Frank to publish her, despite his reservations, and despite the apparent misfortune of her sex. Women were not writers, he had said when they’d brought the Spinster Chronicles to him. Not because they could not, but because it simply was not done. Izzy had barely avoided reminding him of the works of Mrs.

Radcliffe and Miss Austen for her argument, knowing it wouldn’t do any good to contend with him, whether in the right or not. Then he’d defied his own words by publishing them anyway. If anyone would see Izzy’s stories turned into a collection, it was him. But would he? She drummed her fingers on the dark wood of the worn desk, chewing the inside of her lip in thought. She would have to assemble all of her journals with stories in them and compile them all into one. She’d need to see what she had and what she did not, what might be convincing and what might not. And all of it with the utmost discretion. It would be the most terrifying, vulnerable thing she had ever done, being less than bold and daring in her everyday life. She was the sort to sit still and let life pass her by, and that would not do at all for something like this. Writing a collection of stories for children wasn’t necessarily a great accomplishment or a bold adventure, but it certainly felt close.

“Miss Lambert?” Izzy whirled in her seat, one arm flying to the desk to cover the papers there, though nothing incriminating would be visible anyway. “Yes?” she cried, not hiding her anxiety in any way. Collins, their warm and surprisingly affectionate butler, stood there, not bothering to hide his surprised and sardonic look. “You have a letter.” She blinked slowly in response. “Another one?” “Indeed, Miss Lambert.” His mouth curved to one side. “This one came by express from Mrs. Northfield.” “Catherine?” Izzy blurted out.

“My sister?” Collins raised a dark brow. “Unless you expect to receive express messages from her mother-inlaw, Miss Lambert, I would safely assume all references to Mrs. Northfield regard your sister.” That earned the butler a scowl as Izzy held out her hand for the note. “That’s enough out of you, I should think.” “Indeed, Miss Lambert.” He chuckled and handed over the note, bowing over her hand. Izzy shook her head as she broke the seal, sighing as the butler left the room. He was one of the very few people on earth that she could be impudent with and not feel guilt, and she was now wondering if she had been unwise in doing so. Still, he kept her secrets, so that must be worth something.

She scanned the letter quickly, smiling ruefully that her sister’s penmanship was as perfect as it ever was, though more words had been crossed out than was usual in her correspondence. Rose refuses to sleep without the story of the canary or the bluebird or what have you. She has been exasperating Northfield and myself to within an inch of our very sanity, and unless you wish to take up residence with us and be her nanny until this foolishness has passed, I desperately need a copy for myself. We never had this trouble with Cecelia, or either of the boys, so do save us, darling Izzy. My head aches even now, I don’t know what I shall do if you refuse me. Izzy scanned the lines a few more times, wondering what was possibly so urgent about this that it warranted the additional expense of sending it express. “Well now, that is a promising expression on your face, dear. What’s the note?” Izzy looked up, already smiling, at the sound of her cousin’s amusement. Georgie looked radiant, as she had done for the past few months. Marriage, it seemed, agreed with her, and her bright emerald eyes sparkled with a never-before-seen light.

“What are you doing here?” Izzy exclaimed, rising and going to hug her. “I thought you were not due back for another week at least!” Georgie grinned and kissed her cheek, a fair lock of her hair unraveling from its pins. “Well, the weather has been so mild, and Hazelwood Park is delightful, but rather large for just the pair of us. We decided to come up early, particularly with winter keeping many people out of London. It really is the best time to be here.” Izzy gave her cousin a quizzical look. “Is it? No one is here after Christmas.” “Which is precisely how I like it,” Georgie quipped without reservation. She glanced down at the note Izzy still held and brought her gaze back up to scan her cousin’s face. “That looks like Catherine’s handwriting.

” “It is.” Izzy held the note out for her, knowing her cousin would take it from her anyway. Georgie snatched the paper and gleefully read the words, her lips moving as she did so. “My, my, having trouble with our word choice, are we? Decisions, decisions…” Then she snorted a laugh. “Refuse? When do you ever refuse Catherine anything?” “Excuse me,” Izzy protested, taking the letter back. “I am perfectly capable of standing up to my sister.” Georgie sighed, knowing that was a lie, and shook her head. “So, I imagine after the meeting today, you will be recording whatever story it is she wants and having it sent over?” “More than likely,” Izzy admitted, setting the letter back down on the desk and tidying up the surface. There would be no more thinking or talking of writing while Georgie and the others were here. They were too intuitive, and Izzy was too poor an actress.

She glanced at the mantle clock on the other side of the room. “Unless I can start it now…” “Don’t you dare!” Georgie took Izzy by the arm and tugged her away from the desk. “Just because your sister sent her ridiculous request by express unnecessarily does not mean that…” “What was sent by express by Catherine the Terrible and why are we rationalizing it?” The cousins groaned in a very soft distress even as they smiled and turned to face Charlotte Wright, the most outspoken of the Spinsters, and by far the wealthiest of the group. Charlotte had her hands on her hips, full lips curved in her typical mischievous smile, her dark hair just the faintest bit mussed by the bonnet that had so recently been removed. “My sister is not terrible, Charlotte,” Izzy reminded her, though it was rather weak by way of defense. “No, she’s not,” Charlotte allowed, making a face of consideration that surprised Izzy immensely. Then Charlotte made the most perfectly derogatory expression that she had ever been capable of. “She’s spoiled and helpless and constantly enabled by her family members, and I am terrified of the fact that she is raising offspring of her own when she is so clearly a child herself.” Georgie burst into a fit of giggles and coughs, gasping odd choking sounds in between, while Izzy stared at one of her oldest friends, her lips twitching. “Why didn’t you say that instead of terrible?” Izzy finally inquired, feeling rather impish at the moment.

Charlotte sighed heavily. “It is such a mouthful, so I summarized with terrible.” She rubbed her hands together and moved over to Georgie, bending down to kiss her cheek. “Lovely to see you. How was your Christmas?” “Delightful, thank you,” Georgie replied with a smile. “And yours?” “Dreadful, thank you.” Charlotte rolled her eyes and sat next to Georgie without any of the same elegance. “I hate siblings.” Izzy sat back down in her chair, grinning helplessly. “What did they do?” “Don’t encourage her!” Grace Morledge snapped as she strode into the room, cheeks tinged pink from the cold.

“I had to listen to the entire saga of the Wright Family Christmas, and I went home and almost hugged my brother!” Charlotte cackled in delight and clapped her hands. “Brava, we have finally succeeded! I cannot wait to tell Mama.” Georgie looked at Charlotte in confusion. “Is that something she would be proud of?” “In a very twisted way, yes,” Charlotte answered, still smiling. She turned to Izzy. “What are we refusing Catherine?” “We’re not,” Izzy insisted, more bemused than upset. Charlotte had that effect on people. “Of course we’re not,” Charlotte sighed. “We never do.” Georgie looked at Izzy with the most triumphant expression known to man.

Izzy ignored her. Grace sat down in the chair beside Izzy, shaking her head. “Does anybody know if Edith is coming today? I didn’t hear if she had gone to Scotland for Christmas or not.” “She didn’t,” Izzy said, barely avoiding a sad sigh. “I invited her to spend Christmas with us, but she politely declined. I’m afraid she spent it alone in that drafty house of hers.” There was an uneasy silence among the four of them at that. Lady Edith Leveson was full of surprises and secrets, and she did not share much of either, despite now being an official part of their group. They all liked her immensely, even Charlotte, but her diminished circumstances and lack of public appearances tended to worry them all. A loud crash from the front of the house broke the moment, and they all chuckled at the hasty “Sorry!” they could hear following.

“Elinor Asheley, what is your h-hurry?” Prudence Vale stammered in her usual way, though the tone was filled with laughter. “You’ll hear in a minute, Prue! Come on!” Scant moments later, Elinor and Prue were in the doorway, Elinor panting, Prue smiling. “This is going to be good,” Charlotte muttered as she rose to greet them. Elinor nodded and strode further into the room, still tugging Prue behind her. “Ladies, you will never guess.” “Let Prue go, for pity’s sake,” Grace told the younger girl, taking Prue’s other arm and hugging her. “She’s not a child.” “Right, right, sorry,” Elinor said, her distraction clear as she released her friend and sank into a chair. “I’m just so overcome.” “Really?” Charlotte asked as she greeted Prue.

“I had no idea.” Elinor looked around the room, eyeing each of them. “Is Edith coming?” “We don’t know,” at least three of them said. “I can’t wait.” Elinor sat up and looked directly at Izzy, taking her by surprise. Her gaze was direct and at least partially in accusation. Izzy swallowed with difficulty. Elinor was a clever girl, but could she really know what Izzy was hiding? “Someone here has been keeping secrets from the rest of us,” Elinor intoned with the sort of formality one would have expected from her mother. Even Charlotte seemed surprised by that, and the silence of the room stretched on. “Besides Edith?” Charlotte pressed carefully.

Elinor shushed her with a vicious sound, and Izzy felt her face grow warm with anxiety. It wasn’t possible. It could not be possible. No one knew, and no one could possibly… Elinor shifted her gaze to Georgie with a sharp jerk of her head. “Why didn’t you tell us that Lord Sterling and Horrid Hugh have a sister?”

.

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