The Heir’s Proposal – Maggi Andersen

The stillness in the air heralded the coming of a storm. On the roof of her beloved home, Langley, tucked snuggly in between the turret and the green copper cupola, Lady Adelaide Sherringham watched the bright flashes of distant lightning, long before the rumble of thunder reached her, and long before the guests enjoying the garden party on the lawn below noticed it. Addie’s gaze swept over the leafy woods and the trees of the park, dotted with grazing deer. Little had changed here for hundreds of years. Her home since she was born, Addie loved every nook and cranny of the big house. But when her father died, she must leave it. Last spring, King Edward VII breathed his last, and plunged the nation into mourning. Her father soberly announced the king’s death before the family and the staff, and Edward’s portrait replaced that of King George V on the wall of the great hall. Now, it seemed as if the country had taken a deep breath of the sweet spring air and emerged determined to enjoy life once again. Her chin resting in her hand, Addie observed the fluttering hats and chiffon dresses of the guests below. She was reluctant to dress and go down. She’d turned seventeen and she was eager to embrace life. But she refused to marry the man her father had chosen for her, who stood below among the guests. The heir to her father’s estate, Bryce Chedworth, was easy to pick out, he was taller than most of the men. He wore a straw boater on his head, his shoulders broad in the fawn blazer.

At twenty-two, Bryce had left university and was now with the Foreign Office. While Addie wanted to stay in the home she loved, she would not marry Bryce to ensure it. She hated that this was a bone of contention between her and her father. He was ill and had only a few years left to him, and that drove him to secure her future. But arranged marriages were a thing of the past, and no one should have to marry a person they did not love. Addie rubbed her arms as the breeze picked up and ruffled the umbrellas below on the lawn. She wished Diana could have come today. The same age as Addie, her best friend was beautiful, and Diane’s parents expected an excellent match for her. But Diana fought it too, but for a different reason. While Addie wanted to marry eventually, Diana did not, and argued with her stepmother.

Addie had overheard Mrs. Stavely called a social climber. She wasn’t sure what that meant, but she didn’t like her much. Addie was selfishly pleased her father chose not to remarry. Their evenings together in the library playing chess or reading were precious, especially now. She and Diana talked endlessly about their futures. “I’ll remain a spinster and take lovers,” Diana said. Addie suspected her friend already knew a thing or two about men. She admired how determined Diana was, how focused on her future. She planned to have her own business, while Addie wished only to make her own decisions.

And married women couldn’t do that. Addie was sure Bryce was mad about Diana. Not that it did him much good, for she didn’t encourage him. “I don’t like gentlemen,” Diana would say. “I prefer grooms.” It made Addie fall about laughing. But she suspected Diana meant it, she spent quite a lot of time at their stables. A gust of wind drew Addie’s attention back to the scene below. The white tablecloths flapped, while waiters rushed after napkins which looked like white sails as they soared over the grass. Bryce helped them.

His long legs carrying him faster as he gathered them up. Through the years he’d spent school holidays with them. He and Addie would play board games, ride, fish, and take the boat out on the lake. Her father was very fond of him and tutored Bryce in the estate’s running for when he would take it over. Addie drew in a sharp breath at the thought. Ominous clouds rolled in driven by the wind which howled around her. She snatched up her skirts and scuttled across the roof, as the first spots of rain fell, splattering over the slates. Shrieks rose from below as everyone scattered. Waiters held umbrellas over the heads of the women as they ran for the shelter of the house. Addie climbed back inside the window as the rain turned into a deluge.

She crossed the schoolroom floor, trailing a hand over the deeply scored desk. This was where she spent so much of her childhood, studying in preparation, but for what? She wished her father could understand her point of view. For him, it was all about her marriage to Bryce and filling the schoolroom with their children. “Lady Adelaide?” Addie’s governess for many years, Grace Wilmot, called her from the stairs. Grace came across the landing with her familiar brisk movements, dressed in her usual black skirt and white blouse, her watch swinging from its gold chain. “Ah, I thought you’d be up here. Watching the storm? Everyone has come in out of the rain. They are having drinks in the drawing room. Your father has been asking for you.” She frowned at Addie’s soiled gray skirt.

“I will help you change.” Addie grinned at Grace and hurried down the stairs. She donned the pale lemon dress, and Grace did up the tiny buttons down the back. The dainty voile bodice was intricately pleated, the high collar trimmed with lace, more lace trimmed the short sleeves, and a wide sash cinched Addie’s waist. Slipping her stockinged feet into Mary Janes, she flicked back her long, chestnut locks and pirouetted before Grace, who hovered with the hairbrush. “I’ll do it, Grace, don’t fuss.” Addie took the brush from her and tidied her hair with impatient strokes. Grace gave an approving nod as Addie headed for the door. With a backward smile, she walked to the stairs and down, casting a casual glance at the huge tapestries on the walls featuring hunts and blood-thirsty battle scenes, which used to give her nightmares as a child. Her mother used to soothe her when she came to say goodnight before they left the house.

They were always off somewhere, the theatre, the opera, some dinner party, or a ball. Her mother took her to London to visit the department stores. They would lunch at an elegant restaurant, and she would instruct Addie on how to behave and dress once she’d made her debut. Her mother was always impeccably dressed. “A lady should be distinctive, without drawing attention to herself. While her clothes should make a lasting impression, they should not stand out from the rest.” Addie considered herself too short to make a lasting impression, but she loved the displays of delicate gowns made of silks and satins, crepe de chine, and chiffon, and tried on the wide-brimmed hats trimmed with feathers and fur. She and Diana played dress-up in her mother’s gowns and posed before the mirror. Addie could do nothing about her retroussé nose, but burned cork applied to Diana’s fair eyebrows darkened them. They fashioned their own cold cream from beeswax, almond oil and rose oil and studied the fashions in the illustrated Lady’s Pictorial Magazine.

Addie wrinkled her nose at the half of a seagull decorating a lady’s hat, but Diana had approved of it. “I would wear it!” she said. “I shall wear outrageous outfits and be talked about for months.” An assortment of magazines arrived regularly in the post. The penny weeklies, Forget me Knot and Home Sweet Home and Woman’s Weekly which Cook, and Mrs. Ruston the housekeeper, poured over, ostensibly for the knitting and sewing patterns, but Addie, while waiting for a batch of scones or biscuits to emerge from the oven, suspected the romance stories were of greater interest. “I shall have my own magazine, one day,” Diana would exclaim. “It won’t be about decorating drawing rooms or the latest fashion in hats. I’ll write what is important to women and continue the work of the suffragettes.” Suddenly aware of how late it was, Addie stepped off the bottom step and hurried down the hall.

She smoothed the skirts of her frock and walked into the drawing room. The guests in their exquisite finery paused in conversation to greet her. At the end of the long room, a fire blazed in the carved white marble fireplace, as the evening was cool, the glow from the flames painting the flocked bronze wallpaper gold. Lamps with fringed shades sent cozy halos of light into corners and brightened the silver-framed photographs of her mother in her beautiful clothes and jewels, taken by professional photographers at parties and balls or snapped at riding meets. There were a few of her father and some of Addie too, riding a pony, and being carried on her father’s shoulders. How young and strong he was then. An arm on the mantel, Bryce talked to her father who sat in his favorite wing chair, his loyal spaniel, Goldie, lying at his feet. Responding to the greetings, Addie crossed the green and gold carpet. Snatches of her father and Bryce’s conversation reached her. Something about battleships.

“Here you are at last,” her father said with a smile of approval. “We have been waiting for you.” She placed a hand on his shoulder and reached down to kiss his cheek. “Hello Bryce.” She hadn’t seen him for months. How different he seemed. She couldn’t pinpoint the reason, perhaps the change was really in herself. But the friend of her childhood had gone. In his place stood a confident man. His smile belonged to the old Bryce, though, slightly mocking and affectionate.

“Late as always, Addie. What was the book?” She grinned. “No book. I was checking the weather from the roo…” she bit her lip and glanced at her father… “There’s an excellent view from the schoolroom window.” Bryce winked at her and adroitly continued their discussion on the funding for five new battleships recently added to the British military defense budget. Her father frowned. “Any more you can tell me?” “The highest priority for Britain is protecting the trade routes between Britain and India and the rest of the world. We depend on our large and well-equipped navy for that.” Bryce shook his head. “I’m little more than a clerk at the Foreign Office.

I don’t get to see anything classified.” “And if you did, I wouldn’t expect you to divulge it. It won’t be long before you make your mark there,” Papa said warmly as dinner was announced. “Ah, there’s the gong.” He rose to join Lady Montague, an older lady and friend of long standing, to lead her into dinner. Bryce offered Addie his arm. “Shall we bring up the rear?” Her hand resting on the fine fabric of his sleeve, they moved forward to follow the rest. “Surely you don’t think England will ever be at war?” “I fear it. Germany becomes a threat. British policy in Europe states that no country should become dominant.

Our splendid isolation from the rest of Europe might one day be at an end.” She gazed up at him, noting the hard set of his jaw. “Would you fight if that happened?” “Naturally, I’ll go where I’m ordered,” Bryce said. “And that could be anywhere.” Ahead of them, the vivacious guests laughed and chatted, not particularly troubled by the headlines in the newspapers. Life went on as before, the soirees and parties, shops still displaying their wares, new motorcars appearing on the London streets. Next spring, Addie would be presented. She’d been tutored in etiquette and taught to dance. Aunt Helen was to be her chaperone, and already letters arrived from her detailing the extensive wardrobe required for Addie’s London season. Her father had promised her a season, and for all intents and purposes, she was ready.

But she still shivered as if a chilly breeze touched her, for would he be there to see it? “Are you cold?” Bryce inquired. He grinned. “May I offer you my coat?” She laughed. “Fool.” The long hall leading to the dining room was always drafty.

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