The Courtship Caper – Beverley Oakley

F anny bent over her needlework, pretending to concentrate, while out of the corner of her eye she watched her restless sister with foreboding. Antoinette was staring out of the window with the kind of look that past experience suggested would bring trouble. The ingenuous blue eyes and cherubic features framed by errant tendrils of golden hair, might have given the impression that her sister was the most innocent of creatures who lived to please. Nothing could be farther from the truth. And right now, Antoinette was, herself, far from pleased. Fanny took a breath before trying for something lighthearted and bolstering that might defuse her sister’s mood. “If Lady Indigo is really as deadly dull as you say she is, she’ll be snoring into her soup, and you can flit away and do as you please before eight every evening. And, as she’ll be bringing along her companion, that drab little thing we met at Stockton, I’m sure you won’t be required to entertain Lady Indigo entirely.” Antoinette looked over her shoulder with a sigh. “But what if she wants to play cards? Quamby will encourage her; I know he will. He’s got no diversions at the moment, and he wants me to share in his boredom.” Fanny struggled to garner the required sympathy in response to her sister’s look of desperation. “Poor Antoinette, you’re at a loose end, aren’t you?” She had suspected for some time that her sister’s low spirits were due to the defection of her latest lover. The marriage of Antoinette and her husband, Lord Quamby, had been contracted to legitimize Antoinette’s child which would, conveniently, provide the earl with an heir. Though husband and wife were fond of one another, the aged earl was generally absent enjoying his peccadilloes, leaving Antoinette to find her pleasure where she chose.

Antoinette sighed again. “And, if she’s not wanting to play cards, you know that Lady Indigo will want to talk of her nephew. She’ll expect me to sympathise over his death. I’ll have to bite my tongue so I don’t remind her it was his own stupid fault he died falling from Mrs Compton’s balcony after her husband caught them.” Antoinette made a noise of frustration. “And Fanny, you know that pretending sympathy is not one of my strong suits.” “Indeed, it is not. Nor do I think you will have to exercise it since I hardly think Lady Indigo will want reminding of her nephew’s death. Certainly, not the circumstances surrounding it. Oh! I know!” Clapping her hands, she said with sudden inspiration, “Talk of Mrs Compton has brought to mind that ill-used gentleman, Mr Sebastian Wells.

Why not invite him here for a visit to coincide with Lady Indigo’s stay? He’s just come to the end of his mourning period and, as you know, he and Fenton share a godmother. You did think him very handsome, as you confided to me after the fireworks several summers ago, though he was married at the time, of course.” The brief flare of light in Antoinette’s eyes dimmed. “He was, without a doubt, the handsomest man in Sussex. And now he’s the handsomest widower in Sussex, though much good that will do me. When I admired the cut of his gib, so to speak, he told me, quite kindly, that if he had a penchant for golden-haired women, he’d find me irresistible. It was a very respectful letdown, but a letdown nonetheless.” “That’s a strange thing to say since Dorothea was golden-haired.” Fanny glanced up from her needlework to add, “Poor Dorothea. How sad that the doctor could only save the babe who, of course, would be a year now.

Time flies! And how much can change in a year, for Mr Wells did once have a reputation for being the most faithful of husbands.” Resting the needle threaded with lilac silk on its hardanger backing, she added thoughtfully, “I wonder what could have happened for him to have changed so.” “Perhaps I could find out.” Antoinette’s vivacity had returned. “The gossip sheets were filled with his exploits with Lady Banks and then Mrs Compton for months. But all that was some time ago so no doubt he’s missing feminine company. Perhaps Mr Wells is just the antidote I need—” “No, Antoinette!” Fanny admonished her. “Give the man some peace. Until the duel, and then Mrs Compton naming him as the father of her unborn child, Mr Wells had a reputation as a man of honour and integrity. Undoubtedly, he fell into bad company after Dorothea died–” “Yes, that must have been wonderfully refreshing for him and I’m sure that I—!” Fanny wagged her finger at her sister.

“No, Antoinette! I do not suggest you tempt him with whatever you might have up your sleeve. If you invite him when Lady Indigo is here you will still have to entertain her at unfashionable hours around the clock.” “Can’t you entertain her and I’ll entertain Mr Wells?” “No! Lady Indigo is your guest—or, rather, Quamby’s—and I think it’s time you lived up to your responsibilities. But I have a better idea than the schemes you obviously are cooking up. Tell me, what do you enjoy more than furthering your own amours?” Antoinette looked at her blankly. “Matchmaking!” Fanny supplied. “Why don’t you invite Mr Wells and some worthy, unmarried young lady here? The kind of young lady who would drag him out of the doldrums, or bad company, or whatever it is that is the source of his troubles.” “Oh, I don’t think he’s been in the doldrums for one minute since poor Dorothea died! God rest her soul, of course! Anyone could see he and Dorothea were patently unsuited.” Antoinette studied the half-moons of her right hand. “Do you know that when I asked him at his wife’s funeral what he intended to do now, he told me he was leaving for France the next day as he had to…” she nibbled her fingernail as she recalled the conversation, “find someone.

” “What? A woman? I don’t think so,” Fanny remarked. “Yes, a woman! He said he was off to search the length and breadth of England to find his brown-haired girl.” “Well, obviously he didn’t find her.” Fanny wrinkled her brow in thought. “But he certainly couldn’t have been too brokenhearted considering those scandals he courted on his return!” Changing the thread from lavender to lilac, she added, “Or maybe it was because he was brokenhearted. Anyway, if his actions this past year are anything to go by, Sebastian Wells needs a steadying influence: a sweet young woman to take as his wife and to keep him in good order. And you can help him do that, Antoinette. Why, you’d enjoy it!” Antoinette sank onto the chaise longue by the window and tucked her legs beneath her. “Matchmaking? It would certainly be better than having to assist old Lady Indigo into her seat, and turning a blind eye to the old crone dribbling into her porridge each morning,” she agreed. “And you promise you’d stay here with me at Quamby House?” Fanny smiled.

“I wouldn’t miss your famous Yuletide celebrations for anything. Besides, the townhouse renovations are taking longer than we’d expected so it would suit Fenton and me very well. And I’ve just had a marvelous thought. Do you remember that young lady who scandalized everyone by reneging on her understanding with Lord Yarrowby for no better reason than she now thought him dreary?” “Miss Arabella Reeves?” “That’s right! Well, her aunt, Lady March, was telling me that Arabella was such an obedient girl until four months ago when she attended some ramshackle house party where her head was turned by someone quite unsuitable—” “She sounds like a girl after my own heart,” Antoinette interrupted, and Fanny was glad to see her sister’s peevish look replaced by the sparkling vivacity most often whipped up by intrigue. “And who was this unsuitable gentleman?” Antoinette asked, but Fanny could only shake her head and say, “I have no idea. But Lady March has been accommodating Arabella these past two months since she ran away from her father’s house, and keeping as close an eye on her as she is able.” She sighed. “Though I don’t know how successfully, for there is no telling how inventive a highly strung young lady can be when her heart is set on someone entirely unsuitable. Unsuitable in that old Mr Reeves won’t consent to the match for his heart has been set on Yarrowby for his daughter these past five years. And now poor Lady March has been unwell, laid low with an inflammation of the lung—” “Then it is settled!” “What is?” “We shall invite both handsome, widowed Mr Wells who is looking for a second wife, and Miss Reeves, who is searching for someone more exciting than dreary Lord Yarrowby to marry—” “Though I would hardly call Lord Yarrowby dull,” Fanny corrected her.

“He’s a steady, steadfast young man who would make a flighty girl like Arabella the perfect husband if only—” “If only he loved her for herself, and she loved him. But clearly he does not.” Antoinette rose, throwing her arms wide as she contemplated the room. “And we shall have boughs of holly and mistletoe strung across the mantelpiece and from wall to wall. You will help me with the decorations, won’t you, Fanny darling?” Relieved that her sister was warming to the idea with such enthusiasm, Fanny set aside her embroidery to stand beside Antoinette. “Yes, let’s arrange for the mistletoe to be collected and the invitations to go out, right now, don’t you agree? The season for making merry and matching hearts is upon us. And the sooner we find a wife for handsome Sebastian Wells, the more likely we are to save him from any more sin and vice and all the other evils that are so contrary to his true nature.” Antoinette stopped her sister with a frown. “Why Fanny, you talk like vice is a bad thing. Goodness! I don’t think life would be tolerable without it.

” “But dearest, it’s not vice if it’s sanctioned by your husband,” Fanny tried to explain. “And it doesn’t make everyone as happy as you. Certainly not those who have always been exemplified by upstanding reputations and pristine consciences…like Mr Wells.” Antoinette continued to gaze around the room, clearly more invested in how it might look lit up with a thousand wax candles reflected upon dozens of glittering ballgowns, rather than how her sister’s words reflected on herself. “We shall send out the invitations today!” she declared. “And Mr Wells and Miss Reeves will be the first people that we invite!” She turned shining eyes toward her sister, all trace of her earlier despondency now replaced by the prospect ahead of her: of uniting two worthy hearts. For her own entertainment, of course. “Oh Fanny, I am so looking forward to saving handsome Sebastian Wells from himself, and flighty Miss Reeves from a marriage not of her choosing.” Chapter 2 Sebastian Wells contemplated the billiard cue in his right hand, poised over the green baize table. If he pocketed this one, he’d be five hundred pounds plumper in the pocket.

It was a fabulous sum that would keep him in coats and cognac for a considerable time— if he didn’t lose the same sum at the gaming table the following week. Not that he was in need of funds. “Just get it over with,” his opponent muttered. He glanced across the table, offering a disdainful arch of his right eyebrow to indicate his indifference to the lad’s suffering. The boy shouldn’t wager what he couldn’t afford to lose. Sebastian never had. Of course, Sebastian had never been kept short, but he could also exercise self-discipline when required. It was the mark of a gentleman, and this lad, judging by the desperate look in his eyes and the telltale grayness of his linen, was one of society’s hopefuls. “In good time.” He watched the boy’s Adam’s apple make the arduous journey up and back down his throat.

If Mr Barnacle—from memory that was his name, or something similar—only knew how the desperation of an opponent fed Sebastian’s addiction to winning, he might learn to temper his bodily reactions. Carefully, Sebastian drew back the cue, lowering his upper body so that he could make the direct line between the billiard ball and where it must go. He felt the exhilaration of success and power surge through him as the tip made contact with its target with a satisfying click. Then he stood back to observe the perfection of his stellar hit. Who didn’t enjoy winning? Or watching the vanquished squirm? It was in his competitive nature, and one could not change one’s nature for all that Dorothea had tried. Poor Dorothea. He felt regret but little else, and with a sigh, turned to face the boy who owed him a very large sum. In his opponent’s eyes, he saw the devastation masked bravely; but damp lashes rose up as young Barnacle handed over a handful of notes amidst the loud cheering and clapping of those ranged around the room. Ah, but victory was sweet, was it not? Sebastian didn’t bother to hide his gloating as he accepted the congratulations of the well-dressed rabble who crowded about him in the seedy confines of his favorite gambling haunt. What else in life was worth expending effort upon more than winning? After the last four years of misery, nothing gave him greater satisfaction.

His hands curled over the notes though he didn’t look at them. They were meaningless in the great scheme of things. Meaningless, like everything else, he realized with a pang. He’d thought Dorothea’s death had released him to find what he wanted. He’d searched and made inquiries the length and breadth of the British Isles for… He swallowed down the lump of pain and disappointment. A year had passed since Dorothea had died and finally freed him to be with the girl he loved. But…where was she? Since returning from France where he’d followed yet another disappointing lead, gambling and winning were the first vices he’d tumbled into. And he was good at it. Better at it, certainly, than helping maidens in distress. Or should that be matrons in distress? Well, that’s what he’d thought he’d been doing.

Self-disgust squeezed his entrails, but he was not about to take relief in kindness to his opponent. Society hadn’t shown him any quarter after Lady Banks had set him up for a prize fool. As for Mrs Compton, he knew what he should do, but… “I’ll have the remaining hundred paid by the end of the week, Mr Wells.” Sebastian set down his cue and reached for his drink; the dry notes still crumpled in his hand as he peered more closely at the youthful, unformed features of the lad quaking before him. His vanquished opponent was even younger than Sebastian had pegged him. “What? You wagered more than you have to give to me now?” “I can get it by…by Friday.” “Friday?” Sebastian stared at the notes young Barnacle had handed over, and another surge of disgust and disillusionment welled up his gullet like bile. The lad’s linen was not the snowy white that indicated privilege. Lord knew what a loss like this would mean to him when, to Sebastian, it would mean…nothing

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