I am William St. Clair, and I first fell in love in my youth. I had grand plans to propose to Calliope on her eighteenth birthday. Due to unforeseen circumstances, namely Thomas Harley, it did not happen. I am now twenty years into service in the British Army, and known as Colonel William St. Clair, and have never stopped loving my Callie. I am in London with plans to retire and find some happiness for my future.
Although I fell in love as a young girl with William, the boy next door, I married Lord Thomas Harley and am now the Dowager Countess of Knox. And through all the years, I have never stopped thinking about William. Now widowed but still young, I want more in my life than living as a guest in the house I called home during my marriage, and I loathe the idea of being a burden to my grown son. It’s time for me to take control of my life. A visit to Lady Ambrosia, who made a wonderful match for my son and new daughter-in-law, is in order. Is there a man out there for me?
Publisher’s Note: This humorous adult romance contains elements of mystery, suspense, danger, explicit scenes and domestic discipline. If any of these elements offend you, please do not purchase. This is book two in the series but can be read as a standalone.
Eighteenth Birthday Fete in Honor of Lady Calliope Winterbourne
William St. Clair
Mine. She was mine and tonight I would stake my claim.
Drawing in a ragged breath, I exhaled and willed myself to relax. Seeing the ballroom of Thornthwaite Hall filled with eager young men, all of whom were transfixed by the person in whose honor this event was held, gave me little reason for sanguinity.
The receiving line stretched before me in a seeming river of polished and pampered obstructionists. Dark jackets, shiny shoes, pristine gloves. Each wore the requisite uniform of our class, a sea of sameness broken only by the colorful gowns, fans and feathers of the ladies in attendance.
No amount of primping and priming by even the most beautiful young ladies of the district could hold a candle to the shining beauty of my Calliope.
And now, she was eighteen. No longer a child, as any fool with eyes could see, she perched on the edge of womanhood. Though I still could not even glimpse her for the mass of humanity separating us, the luminescence of her smile, the tumble of her hair, the lilt of her laugh were seared upon my mind and heart.
Not a patient man, I had forced myself to wait, biding my time. The postponement made the prize all that much richer.
Taken in at a young age by my childless aunt and uncle, I had been raised as their own. My father had been the fourth son of a respectable but spendthrift earl. His eldest brother, my benefactor uncle, had inherited the title upon the death of my grandfather. My uncle had made an admirable recovery of the family fortune, but still it was not enough to provide for so many households. Having shown promise in academics as well as those athletic endeavors which were esteemed by fashionable society, I was favored by my more established relatives and offered a place in their home, their family.
Though raised as a son, the title would never pass to me, as the rules governing inheritance were well established and absolute. I knew my uncle had made ample provision for me in his will. Additionally, a trust had been established to provide for a home and income once I was married.
I cared little for titles, except for the fact I wished to bestow upon my dear Calliope the best I could offer her. Riches, wealth and prestige befitting her singular magnificence.
I first encountered Lady Calliope Winterbourne on a fresh spring morning soon after my arrival in the county a few years earlier. I had taken to the woods filling the acres between Thornthwaite Hall and my uncle’s estate. In the solitude of the forest I heard a most animated conversation several yards away. Unsure of what I might discover, I crept up as quietly as I could and observed the scene before making my presence known.
What I had expected to be a gaggle of girls chattering away turned out to be a single girl of approximately twelve years of age sitting upon a tree stump. Thick braids of mahogany hair flapped around her head as she carried on a lively confabulation with herself.
In a matter of moments, she had spoken more words than I used in an entire week. Working my way through the trees, I positioned myself, so I could see her face. So full of joy. She sparkled. Though I was a few years older than this mysterious chatterbox, I envied her confidence and joie de vivre.
‘Twas not as though I had no reason to be joyful, but exuberance was not encouraged amongst young men, or young ladies, of the aristocracy. Her refreshingly unabashed behavior was rare, indeed.
I must not have been as stealthy as I had imagined for she called out to me. “You there. What are you doing?” She stood and stepped toward me. Whether she was fearless or simply too naive to be concerned about a stranger in the forest, I do not know. She paused directly in front of me and curtsied. “I am Lady Calliope Winterbourne,” she said, suddenly all perfect manners and gentility. “You may call me Callie, since I expect we shall be friends.”
I marveled at her ability to shift from girlish gibberish to ladylike polish in a snap. Acknowledging her curtsy with a bow of my own. I introduced myself.
“William St. Clair,” she said, gazing up at me. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance. Would you care to sit down?” She indicated a felled tree next to the stump upon which she had been sitting.
Having no other plans and a trifle enchanted by the waif in the woods, I did as she bid. Thereupon she set about telling me, with elaborate terms and gestures, all about herself, her family and her pets.
Over the next few months, I encountered Callie on a regular basis and sat with rapt attention as she chattered about her lessons and tutors, books she read and her many questions about people and the world around her. My sudden interest in solo morning sojourns into the woods raised some eyebrows with my aunt and uncle, but they said nothing. We, my aunt, uncle and myself, were early in our acquaintance, despite being family, and they allowed me considerable freedom to explore. Had they known my ‘explorations’ consisted of sitting upon an overturned tree while Calliope told me of her fancies and imaginings, they might not have been so liberal. Life with my aunt and uncle was quite pleasant, but Callie brought a unique blend of sunshine wherever she went, and I cherished her company.
That Autumn, I went off to boarding school, as was expected of young men of my station. Though eager for an education and to bring credit upon my uncle for his generosity, the sterile dormitories and dry studies left me yearning for Callie and the light that shone from her.
I knew nothing of her during that period. Letters from my aunt and uncle included no news of her, in part because she was a mere neighbor child but also because, to their knowledge, Callie and I were strangers to one another. I never divulged our encounters in the woods.
In a life filled with duty and expectation, those moments with Callie were my respite and refreshment. I had no wish to share them with anyone else, and kept them close to my young and lonely heart.
It was not until just a few months before her eighteenth birthday that I saw Calliope again. Rather than finding her wandering the woods, I encountered her in the drawing room of my aunt and uncle’s home when I returned from an early morning ride. She and her mother were calling upon my aunt who had recently returned from a trip to London. As I approached the open doorway and heard feminine voices, I braced myself to say hello and vacate the room as quickly as possible, not wishing to engage in discussions of lace and sleeve lengths.
To my shock, the little girl I had chatted with in the woods had moved into young ladyhood. Prim and proper, she sat ramrod straight upon the edge of the sofa cushion listening attentively to my aunt’s descriptions of recent changes in fashion. Only the barely discernible bounce of her heel beneath her long skirts revealed her youthful impatience with the strictures of grown up behavior.
The heavy plaits of hair were now thick curls captured with pins atop her head. My childhood friend had been transformed. And judging from the small gasp which escaped her mouth when my aunt made the introductions, she had noted my own transformation as well.
No longer a gangly boy, I had grown to manhood and looked to my future with determination and expectation. I knew then and there that Lady Calliope Winterbourne would be my wife. If I had learned nothing else at school, I at least came away with fierce tenacity, which I intended to use to achieve my goal.
After we became reacquainted, I made it my singular mission to win her heart. Though she had not been formally introduced at court, she still attended local balls and dinner parties within the neighborhood where I was able to spend precious moments engaged in conversation or dancing with her. The slightest touch of her delicate, gloved hand against mine sent a shiver of desire shooting through me, though I kept such raging passions tamped down. Despite being nearly eighteen and a suitable age for marriage, Calliope had seen very little of the world—as was the norm for a girl of her age and pedigree.
Hardly a well-traveled man of the world myself, still I had attended school with the sons of privilege and had been exposed to much more than a cloistered young lady.
I had spoken of my plans with my uncle and he had been encouraging. “I am sorry you will not inherit my title. A son of my own could not make me more proud. Calliope’s father is a wise man, I am sure he will see you are an upright gentleman and would make a good husband. You may trust me not to divulge your confidences, but the next time I see him, I shall make sure to mention my intention to leave the bulk of my personal estate to you. That ought to ease his mind a bit.”
My uncle’s words warmed my heart and fortified my resolve to have Callie as my own.
At last, I arrived at the head of the receiving line. Calliope’s mother greeted me warmly and with a sparkle in her eye. Her father gave my hand a hearty shake with his right hand and clapped me on the shoulder with his left. “Pleased to see you, William. I had a most interesting conversation with your uncle recently,” he said, and I swear he winked at me.
A bit startled by the attentions of my beloved’s parents, I managed to accept their good wishes with grace before I turned to greet my Callie.
The air froze in my lungs.
Our eyes locked upon each other and time stood still.
I had seen Calliope in formal attire many times over the past few months, but nothing like the confection she wore that evening. The hue of her gown matched the golden flecks in her green eyes. Her delicate pink mouth parted in a smile. “Hello, William. Thank you for coming to my party.”
She bobbed a curtsy then stood, awaiting a response from me.
“Uhm… h-happy birthday,” I finally managed to say. Once the first words cleared my lips, I found I was able to speak a few more. “You look very beautiful this evening, Lady Calliope.”
A bit of surprise crossed her face at my use of her title. I was surprised as well, but for the first time, I truly saw her as an adult. Lady Calliope Winterbourne, soon to be my wife, Lady Calliope St. Clair.
The line of other eager suitors hurried me along, but not before I had claimed two dances with the guest of honor.
The large number of single men in attendance, no doubt all vying for the attentions of Lady Calliope, made it difficult for me to find additional dance partners. This dismayed me not at all, for I cared only for the attentions of one young woman. However, having to stand around watching as others were touching the woman I intended to wed, enjoying her smiles and laughter, put me into a foul mood. At least if I were in the dance I might have something to occupy my mind, however slightly.
I wandered to the terrace in search of fresh air and was startled to find myself standing next to a chap I had met while away at school, Lord Thomas Harley, eldest son of the Earl of Knox. Though we had not been the closest of chums, I knew him to be a decent fellow. I acknowledged him with a nod. He did the same.
“You’ve traveled quite a distance from Primrose Park,” I said, aware of the impressive estate which was his family home.
He glanced toward the ballroom which could be seen through the open door to the terrace. “Word of Lady Calliope’s charm and beauty has spread far.”
In theory, I had no reason to hate Lord Thomas Harley. But in practice, a white-hot rage filled me at the notion of my Callie with any other man. Of course, I was well aware of the many potential suitors who had trekked to the ball in celebration of her birthday, but to have it in my face so blatantly made my blood boil.
“I understand you live nearby, St. Clair, ” Harley said. “I suspect you wished to keep the fair Lady Calliope to yourself.” He raised an eyebrow in challenge.
Forcing myself to remain calm, as a gentleman should, I responded, “That certainly would have been my preference, but I am not intimidated by competition. Are you?”
The corner of his mouth turned up and his eyes darkened. “Oh no, I enjoy it. Besides, when the prize is so desirable, one must expect significant effort will be required for the attainment.”
The music ended and before I could form an answer, my companion spoke again, “Ah, ’tis my turn to charm the fair Lady Calliope with my skills as a dancer.” With a curt nod, he spun on his heel and moved toward the crowd in the ballroom.
Knowing my much-anticipated dances with Lady Calliope followed Harley’s, I decided to stroll the gardens of Thornthwaite Hall in an effort to calm my nerves and improve my temperament before my bit of semi-private time with Callie. I sat for a few minutes upon a bench nestled amongst the ornate shrubbery of the formal garden. Dusk had fallen, and I was sufficiently removed from the candles of the ballroom to make visibility murky.
Though my eyesight might have been diminished by the coming nightfall, my hearing remained sharp as ever and when I detected the familiar melody of Callie’s laughter, my body, as of its own volition, turned in that direction. In the waning light, I made out the forms of Lady Calliope Winterbourne and Lord Thomas Harley. Alone and moving quite intentionally toward the area where the carriages were waiting to return their guests homeward at the party’s conclusion. When I saw Harley lead her between the rows of coaches, I gasped at his audacity and was angered by her gullibility. If they were discovered in a compromising position, a marriage could be required to save Lady Calliope’s reputation.
Even I, in my palpably desperate desire to have her for my own, would never consider doing something so potentially disastrous to my beloved’s good standing in the community.
Leaving the bench, I shadowed the two figures, my mind racing to determine the best course of action. They stopped abruptly, and I was able to halt my own forward movement without alerting them to my presence.
“Oh, is not this the loveliest party you have ever attended?” Callie’s words were a breathless rush and her enthusiasm and happiness pleased me greatly. Only her happiness mattered to me.
Well, her happiness and my own possession of her, which I expected would contribute to her happiness as well. I knew it would mine.
“Yes,” the loathsome Harley said. “I have never had a more agreeable evening.”
“Oh, that pleases me so much.” Callie clapped her gloved hands together in glee.
I eavesdropped and carefully crouched down behind the wheel of a phaeton to surveille them better. My mind raced as I considered my options. My two primary goals were to prevent a scandal and to thwart whatever plans Harley had to usurp my place in Callie’s heart.
Or at least the place I hoped I had in her heart.
I spied the Knox family crest upon the door of the carriage. It was an impressive piece of transportation and bespoke the wealth and status of my competitor’s family.
I fought against jumping to hasty conclusions at Harley’s intentions. As I said before, although we did not move in the same circles at school, I had never heard anything untoward about him which would make me unduly suspicious, though his current actions were questionable.
When Harley opened the door and assisted Callie inside the compartment, I gasped at his brazenness and crept closer. As soon as the door closed, I heard muffled noises coming from within. Placing my ear to the door, I heard Callie say, “Oh, are you not just the sweetest thing? I could just kiss you, you are so adorable.”
Consumed with unbridled fury, I yanked the door open and grabbed Harley by the scruff of his neck and hauled him to the ground. I pounced upon him and put every bit of pugilistic skill which had been forced upon me at school to use in bloodying his nose.
“Stop!” I heard Calliope’s voice, but it was as though it came from down a long corridor, so focused was I upon meting out punishment to any man who dared besoil my Callie. My fists flew through the air and landed with a satisfying thud against Thomas Harley’s flesh.
“William St. Clair,” Calliope shouted my name and kicked me in the shin, instinctively I whirled upon her, fists raised. She shrank back from me, terror etched across her face.
I came to myself, horrified at my behavior. Transformed from gentleman to madman in an instant. What evil lurked in me?
Sweaty and winded, I gaped at what I had done. Dear Callie’s face a mix of fear, confusion and disappointment, gutted me.
I reached down to assist Harley in standing, adding my own handkerchief to the one he held to his nose. I stammered an apology and he was gentleman enough to accept, though he eyed me warily. “Have you lost your mind, man?”
Perhaps I had.
A whimper caught my attention and I turned to find the source. In Calliope’s hands I saw the culprit. A puppy.
“Thomas brought me this sweet little boy as a birthday gift,” Callie said. “What gift did you bring… other than your bossy attitude?”
Callie, no longer fearful, squared off against me, her chin jutted out in defiance. I did have a gift for her. A ring which had been passed down through my family and last adorned the hand of my grandmother rested in the pocket of my jacket. But after my foolish behavior and in the presence of my rival, I dared not consider presenting it to her.
Numb, I said nothing as my mind whirled.
“I thought so,” she said with a huff. “I was having the most delightful time at my party and now you have ruined it.” She glanced down at the puppy in her arms. “And you have frightened my puppy. How could you?”
“I-I thought…” I looked from Harley’s bloody face, to Callie, to the puppy and felt all kinds the fool.
“Please leave. I thought you were a gentleman. I thought you realized I am an adult and have no need of your protection. I was wrong. You are no gentleman.” She slipped her hand through Harley’s arm and turned from me, but not before uttering the final blow. “Leave. You are not my friend.”
My jaw hung open as I took in the scene.
The scene of my self-inflicted destruction.
Lady Calliope Harley, The Dowager Countess of Knox
More than twenty years later
As the carriage made its way through the crowded streets of London, I hummed a happy tune and my heel bounced beneath my skirts. I have been a heel bouncer for as long as I can remember, though I tried to curtail my habit when Thomas was alive. He was a good man, but not exceptionally prone to whimsy and rarely appreciated any unladylike behavior, two of the primary characteristics of my personality.
Please do not misjudge. I am more hoyden than hussy.
Despite my high birth and outstanding upbringing, I simply could never completely conform myself to the strictures of society.
Well, in truth, it is not as though I was incapable, it is just all those rules were just no fun at all.
And what is life without a little fun in it?
As the carriage rolled closer to my destination—an appointment with Lady Ambrosia, the matchmaker who found the perfect bride for my son Jimmy—the flutters of excitement built within my tummy and I fairly burst with the need to squeal in eager anticipation.
To be honest, my life had become rather dull. Much as I hated to admit it—I had become dull. It had been so gradual, I had not even noticed until one day while calling upon Lady Hortense Hamberly I realized we had spent a quarter of an hour discussing lamb chops.
Not only that, but I had been as engaged in the discussion as my hostess.
I shall agree a good meal is a joy, but if the most inspiring conversation of my week involved details on the preparation and consumption of mutton… well, it was time for me to make a change.
Yes, I had my beloved dogs, but their conversational skills were decidedly lacking and in fact, they were not even good listeners. Oh, Darcy pretended to listen, but he always looked a bit peeved by my silliness. Bingley wanted to be a good boy, but he simply could not stop chasing his tail. And Wickham… well, his leg humping had scared off more than a few of my regular lady callers.
And when I saw how happy my Jimmy and his Tempest were together, well, I decided it was not too late for me. Surely there was a nice gentleman out there who would like to have a wife who was — if I may be so bold — still not too old or too unattractive to be appreciated as a life companion.
A small flush warmed my chest and moved up my neck as I contemplated all of my wifely duties.
It had been a long time since I had enjoyed the company of a gentleman. Unlike many of my peers, I had not taken lovers either during my marriage or after the onset of widowhood. I hope you will not think me boastful, but I was not without opportunities. However, I might be flighty and easily distracted, but I am not disloyal. Thomas cared deeply for me and I never had reason to believe he had strayed and I wished never to give him reason to wonder about my own fidelity.
Despite my loyalty, however, I could not help but wonder if there might be more to the marital bed than I had experienced with Thomas. Something within me yearned for something unknown, suspected there were tricks and treats about which only a select few had learned, but had no idea how to go about finding out without great risk to my reputation.
Now, however, I was free. My only child, Jimmy, was happily married and expecting his first child. From all my observations, joy abounded in their household. It warmed my heart, but also made clear to me I did not want to be the hovering, clinging widow who intruded on her child’s life.
Thus, my trip to see Lady Ambrosia.
So lost in my thoughts was I, I failed to notice the carriage had stopped and when the footman opened the door the sudden burst of sunlight surprised me. “Oh, here we are.”
“We are, your ladyship.” The young man assisted me in alighting from the carriage. I enjoyed the feel of his strong forearm beneath my gloved hand.
Yes, I was in need of a man.
Glancing about, I noticed a bright red door and a sign declaring Lady Ambrosia, Matchmaker to the Discerning.
I set my sights on the door, righted my flower covered hat and stepped boldly toward the next chapter of my life.
The door swung open upon my approach and a statuesque woman stood in the doorway, a warm smile upon her lips. She dipped her head in acknowledgment and said, “I do so hope you are Lady Knox. I have been ruminating on your match and am eager to make the final determination for you. Please, come in.”
She had already been thinking about my match? Did she know who would be my new husband? Was she gifted with clairvoyance? What mystical delights awaited me? I hugged myself with giddy excitement and crossed the threshold.
There would be no discussions of lamb chops here.
Lady Ambrosia’s home was tidy but cluttered. Yes, I know that is contradictory. There were piles of books and papers all about, but they were stacked neatly, and I had the firm belief, at any given moment, Lady Ambrosia could find exactly what she sought by going to the correct pile and locating the desired document or manuscript nearly instantly.
We wound our way through her overstuffed home single-file as that was all the width remaining from the mounds of treasures. I tried to keep up with her long strides and she chattered as we moved along. “I simply adore your hat,” she said. “I do love flowers.”
Instinctively, I reached up and touched the brim of the wide, bloom-adorned accessory atop my head. “Thank you,” I said. “I understand you use flowers to make your matches, so I thought it might give you some inspiration.”
Lady Ambrosia came to a sudden halt and I nearly ran into her, but managed to avoid a collision at the last minute. “Why, yes, it is inspiring,” she said and plucked two blossoms with a hearty yank. I stole a peek in a mirror, relieved to see that there were still ample flowers covering the hat. It had cost a fair amount and Jimmy, despite his recent upturn in mood, still fretted over my spending and a replacement hat would not have been in my budget for several weeks to come.
Ah, but I was getting a new husband. A new man to manage my finances and provide for me. Surely a newlywed would not begrudge me a couple of hats and maybe a few sets of gloves?
Lady Ambrosia clutched the flowers in her hand and mumbled to herself as we continued our trek. As a person known for talking to herself, I took comfort in realizing Lady Ambrosia was a kindred spirit.
Lady Ambrosia moved quickly through her home and I followed her as best I could. We traversed a route through the house and entered a solarium filled with warmth and blooms. The aroma wafted all around me and I felt myself begin to relax. I had not, until that time, realized I was tense, but in retrospect I knew I was about to make a life-changing decision, which rested upon the judgment of the woman seated across from me.
The tea items were brought out and Lady Ambrosia poured a cup for me and passed the cream and sugar. I took a sip of the delectable concoction and wondered what blend Lady Ambrosia used which was different from that available to we mere mortals, or mere countesses, as the case may be.
I was eager to learn my fate, but equally curious about the woman into whose hands I had entrusted my future. As I sipped my tea I considered my hostess. Lady Ambrosia was a woman of some height, her hair a large pile upon her head. The variety of shades and streaks of color mesmerized me: a smattering of gray, a bit of brown, and a twirl of golden hue all twined together and secured atop her head with a lovely comb in the shape of a butterfly. I was unclear about her age. The sprinkling of gray in her hair indicated she had lived some years and a slight thickening around her waist showed she was no longer in the youth of her life. However, the sparkle in her eye and the spring in her step led me to think regardless of what her exterior said, the interior Lady Ambrosia was little more than a girl, much like myself.
“I suppose you would like to know the identity of your soon-to-be husband?” Lady Ambrosia asked.
“Why, yes, I believe I would.” My heart pounded and for a brief moment I wondered if I had made a mistake by seeking to find love at my age. But then Lady Ambrosia clasped my hand and warmth tingled throughout my body and my anxious thoughts evaporated.
She gave my hand a squeeze before releasing it. “Ah, it is not so easy as that,” she said with a laugh. Reaching beneath her seat, she retrieved a giant, leather bound book and set it upon the table, nearly engulfing the entire surface. Picking up my cup and saucer to make room, I glanced at the brittle brown pages filled with symbols which I assumed was some sort of code, or maybe just random doodles. It seemed anything was possible in this house.
Noticing my interest, Lady Ambrosia lifted the tome from the table and held it in her lap, like a fence between us. Returning my cup and saucer to the table, I stared at the worn cover of the book, as though somehow, I would be able to read its contents if I tried hard enough.
Meanwhile, Lady Ambrosia continued to flip pages back and forth while mumbling to herself. I managed to make out a couple of phrases, but mostly her words seemed like gibberish.
Patience is not my strong suit. I bounced my left heel up and down beneath my skirts so hard my chair began to wobble. Just when I was at the point of screaming at Lady Ambrosia in frustration, she lowered the book and smiled at me.
“There are still a few matters for me to investigate,” she said, “but I believe I am on the right track to find just the right man for you.” She winked. “I have a good feeling about this.”
“Me too,” I said, excitement building within. I leaned forward eagerly, awaiting Lady Ambrosia’s edict.
“Please stand up,” she said.
Puzzled, I complied.
“Good,” she said. “Now, take three giant steps backward while clapping your hands.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Lady Ambrosia set the book down and focused all of her attention on me. Opening her mouth wide, she repeated herself, this time enunciating each syllable precisely and using her eyes to convey some sort of expression in an exaggerated effort to convey her meaning. I hated to tell her I had perfectly understood her request, I was simply flummoxed by being asked.
Nonetheless, I began to clap my hands together in front of me and then glanced over my shoulder to gauge the amount of space I had to complete the task before taking three giant steps to my rear.
“Outstanding,” Lady Ambrosia exclaimed and opened her book to make notes.
Confused by her methods, I forced myself not to question her. I placed my trust in Lady Ambrosia, for better or worse.
“Next, I would very much like it if you could do a cartwheel for me.” She opened her book again and looked up at me expectantly, pen poised at the ready to take notes on my next feat.
“A cartwheel? Why I have not turned a cartwheel in years.”
“Oh, but I am confident you can still do it. Sometimes our youth gets buried by duty and expectations, but if you dust those things off, you might find it is easy to return to a time in the past.”
I thought back to the last time I had done a cartwheel. I was probably about twelve years old and I had been wandering the woods talking to myself, as I had a tendency to do as an only child with a vivid imagination, when an overwhelming desire to turn a cartwheel had come over me. Months earlier, my mother, ever desirous of making me into a proper young lady, had forbidden me from such exhibitions. This edict came about when a particularly exuberant burst of tumbling came upon me just as the Duchess of Vermouth’s carriage rolled into our drive and that exalted personage was greeted with an image of my naked bottom as I cartwheeled across the lawn.
My mother had told me a grand guest was expected and I thought my effervescent display was just the thing to show her how thrilled we were to have her at Thornthwaite Hall. I was, sadly, mistaken.
But, that episode had been months before and with no one else in the woods but me and it being a glorious spring morning, I took a few steps to build up speed and flung myself wholeheartedly into the cartwheel to end all cartwheels.
And thereupon landed with a thud upon the hard ground, having caught my foot on a tree root in the process.
Suddenly, in recollecting that event there in Lady Ambrosia’s solarium, a vivid image came to mind. The face of a young man. William St. Clair.
It would be a lie to say I had not thought of him in the years since we had parted ways on my eighteenth birthday. The ugly scene by the coaches had played out in my mind repeatedly. I had been so angry at him for treating me like a child, but in retrospect, I could see I had, in fact, acted like one.
But, that was in the past. Far in the past. I shook my head as if to clear the thought, removed the pins holding my hat in place, deposited the chapeau upon the seat I had vacated and proceeded to execute an impeccable cartwheel, if I do say so myself.
When I was upright again, Lady Ambrosia smiled and clapped her hands in appreciation. “Oh my! That was a corker!”
Blushing at her praise, I put my hat back on and resumed my seat, winded but pleased with myself.
Lady Ambrosia scribbled furiously in her mysterious book while I refreshed myself with a hearty sip of tea.
“Now,” Lady Ambrosia said, closing the book again, “I am going to say some words and I would like you to say the first thing that comes to you. One word only. Understand?”
“I think so,” I said. I had come this far, what was the point of questioning her methods now?
“Hot? Oh, I do not know what to say.” I wrung my hands. This test was hard.
“Try to clear your mind. Take a deep breath. Erase every thought in your head and we will try again.” Lady Ambrosia patted my arm encouragingly and then said, “Blue.”
“Sky,” I said. “Oh no, that’s not a good answer. Blue ribbon. That’s my answer.” I looked up at Lady Ambrosia expectantly. “Are you writing that in your book?”
With a heavy sigh, Lady Ambrosia took my hand and held my gaze. “There are no wrong answers. This is just a little game. Whatever word pops into your head, is the one you ought to say. Only one word. Can you do that?”
Another cartwheel would have been easier. How could I only say one word? I took a deep breath and nodded. “Yes, I am ready.”
Lady Ambrosia smiled. I did it!
“Love,” she said.
“Dogs,” I said automatically and then realized what I had said. “No, no. I should say Jimmy, he’s my son. And Tempest. That’s who I love.”
Lady Ambrosia jotted more notes in the book. I expected a reprimand at any moment.
“Let us try again,” she said, and I focused very hard to make sure I followed the rules.
“Regret,” she said.
“William St. Clair.” I gasped and covered my mouth with my hands. What had I just said? My eyes went wide, and Lady Ambrosia gave me a knowing look.
“Hmmm. Interesting,” she said, opening the big book and thumbing through a few pages with scratchings on them that looked like spider legs. She snapped the book closed and put it back beneath her chair.
I could barely pay attention to what was happening around me, so shocked was I by my mention of William’s name. Of course, I assured myself, his name only came to mind because I had remembered the time in the woods when I had hurt myself doing a cartwheel and he had picked me up and carried me home.
He always made me feel safe and protected. Which is what he was trying to do at my party… before it all went haywire.
I wondered what had happened to him in the years since I last saw him. After that ugly incident at my birthday party. Regret was right. I regretted so many things about what happened that night.
A wave of melancholy washed over me, and I pushed my seat back from the table and stood. “I-I have made a mistake,” I said. “Thank you, but I believe I must leave now.”
Lady Ambrosia looked at me and to my amazement, she did not seem surprised.
“You have a tendency to run away when life becomes difficult.” She sipped her tea and glanced at me over the rim of her cup. “Is that how you wish to live the remainder of your life?”
I gaped at Lady Ambrosia, her face placid, her eyes gentle. How dare she speak so boldly to me? Did she not realize I was a countess? I puffed up my chest and prepared to set her to rights about my standing and her impertinence, but a moment of clarity wafted over me.
I had spent my entire life avoiding unpleasantness. Was that such a bad thing? Is it not called unpleasant for a reason? But, I was also an adult. A countess. Despite efforts to shield myself from the unpalatable portions of life, I had nonetheless experienced plenty of strife. The death of my husband and learning to navigate life without him had been more than a little daunting and heart rending. I had gone from my father’s care to that of my husband and when he died, for the first time in my life, I was solely responsible for myself and also for my son. I had been poorly prepared for autonomy.
Thinking about William pinched painfully at my heart and conscience. My feet itched to head for the door, yet I remained in place.
Leaning over, Lady Ambrosia patted the seat of the chair I had just vacated. “Please,” she said, “sit down and tell me about William St. Clair.”
Glancing from her kindly eyes to the exit route and back again, my decision was made. I resumed my seat, though I remained uncharacteristically quiet.
I had forgotten about the flowers which Lady Ambrosia had plucked from my hat until she brought them forward on the table again, her fingers stroking the blooms and stems while she hummed and mumbled to herself.
Watching her, I recalled Tempest’s description of how Lady Ambrosia had used flowers to select my Jimmy as a husband for her. Certainly, they were an ideal match and so when Lady Ambrosia brought out the flowers which I assumed were to be part of her methodology in matching me with my new husband, my heart fluttered, and I hoped this meant she no longer desired to discuss William. My relief over that was replaced with anxiety at what my future might hold.
Glancing down at the flowers which were the subject of Lady Ambrosia’s attention, there were clumps of two different varieties, one had long green leaves and tiny white lantern-like buds. The other included small blue blossoms with five petals and a delicate yellow center. I stole a peek at Lady Ambrosia’s face and noted a smile turning up the corners of her mouth.
“Ah, yes,” she finally said. “It all makes perfect sense now.”
I was pleased to know at least one of us had a confident understanding of what was happening, as I most certainly did not. I bit my tongue and my heel wiggled beneath my skirts, but I forced myself to wait patiently for Lady Ambrosia to speak, difficult though it was for me to squelch the many questions dancing on my tongue.
Thankfully, Lady Ambrosia shared her thoughts before my tenuous self-control snapped. “This flower,” she said, holding up the blue one and gazing upon it fondly, “is called forget-me-not.”
Curious, I cocked my head to the side and silently awaited her further explanation, which she kindly provided forthwith. “As the name seems to imply, this lovely little bud symbolizes remembrance, particularly of those for whom we care a great deal. Or cared for in the past,” she said, studying my face for a reaction.
She was no doubt rewarded with a heated flush which I felt moving from my neck to forehead. My heart fluttered and warmth formed low in my belly.
Lady Ambrosia held the small bundle of blue blossoms out to me and I took it in hand, raising it to my nose and inhaling deeply, though I discerned a barely perceptible scent, despite the robust color of the petals. Curious, I looked to Lady Ambrosia. She smiled. “Ah, the forget-me-not is an odd little blossom. Its scent is strongest in the evening, and quite faint during the day. Trust me, by this evening it shall share a most pleasant fragrance with us all.”
“May I keep this?”
“Of course, since it actually belongs to you and arrived here upon your hat.” We shared a laugh over my forgetfulness and I found myself growing fond of Lady Ambrosia. She was most interesting company.
I tucked the blooms into my hair, finding a secure place for them above my ear and out of the way of my hat.
“And, what of this one?” I asked, pointing to the other cluster.
Lady Ambrosia held the flowers to her nose and inhaled deeply. “Lily of the valley,” she said handing them to me for a whiff, though their scent was strong enough it was not necessary to draw them too near before the sweet aroma filled my senses.
“Lovely,” I said.
“Yes, it is,” Lady Ambrosia agreed. “The meanings for this flower include a return to happiness. It also signifies good fortune in love.”
“Really?” Hope began to bloom in my heart. “I am most eager to learn the identity of my future husband.”
“Patience, my dear. Patience.”
“What more is there for me to do?” I asked. “Questions? Cartwheels? Flowers? What else do you expect?” A bit of pique began forming within me. Why did this process take so long? Was she stalling? Or was she a fraud?
“Please,” Lady Ambrosia said, “tell me more about William St. Clair. It seems he still lays claim to your heart.”
“No, there is no truth to such a statement. How dare you imply it? I was married to Lord Knox for many happy years and to suggest otherwise is not only incorrect but disrespectful to his memory as well.”
“My apologies, my lady. Please forgive me for I meant no disrespect to you or your dearly departed husband.” Lady Ambrosia took on a decidedly remorseful air and I immediately forgave her unintended transgression.
Somehow, it felt safe to confide in Lady Ambrosia, though I had only made her acquaintance thirty minutes earlier. I shared with her thoughts and feelings to which I dared not before give voice. I could never have allowed the words to pass my lips. To whom could I have entrusted the secrets of my heart, particularly when I was married to another?
In many ways, I believed myself foolish. These were the thoughts and emotions of a girl. A girl who knew nothing of the world or life. Now I was an adult, a mother, a widow. A countess, no less. And yet, my heart told me these feelings were very real.
For someone who had spent her entire life talking too much, saying the wrong things and blurting words in a most unladylike manner, I had, somehow, managed to keep my feelings about William to myself. My grief and regret, longing and desire were too strong, and I knew if I dared to give even the tiniest bit of time or energy to them, they would overwhelm me. Consume my being. Possibly cause me to do something foolish which would alter the entire course of my life and undoubtedly, not for the better
But, with Lady Ambrosia, I felt no judgment, no pending criticism. And so, I opened the gate on the tumult of emotions surrounding the young man from my youth, William St. Clair.
The entire story came tumbling out. Once I began to speak, even I was shocked by the mass of words which had been waiting to be freed. The weight of guilt, sorrow and regret lifted from my shoulders.
Yes, he had behaved like a barbarian, but with time and distance I was able to see my own actions had been foolish as well. Going off alone with a young man at the mention of a gift, I had lost all sense. Reviewing the scene as William would have observed it, I could see his actions, though extreme, were intended for my benefit and well-being.
When all was completed, I glanced at Lady Ambrosia, holding my breath as I awaited her response to these words which I had never shared with another human being.
After a lengthy pause she said, “And what became of William? Have you never heard from him or about him in all these years?”
“He took a commission in the army. After the incident at my birthday party, I persuaded my mother that we needed to make a call upon his aunt on the pretext of checking on her health as she had been unable to attend the event at our home, though, in truth, I was desperate to speak to William. I could not have ventured there alone in order to see him, as you know. That would have been quite improper, even for me. His aunt informed us he had left for the army; his uncle having hastily arranged a commission for him. Shortly thereafter, I accepted Lord Knox’s offer of marriage and left the area.
“Every letter from my mother, particularly during the early years of my marriage, I scoured for news of William, but she said nothing, and I dared not ask. I pushed him from my mind, which became easier with the passage of time as well as the duties of motherhood and running a household as the Countess of Knox, my husband’s father having passed on shortly after our marriage.” I sighed and looked past Lady Ambrosia’s shoulder as though I could recapture those years in some vision. “Several years ago, I learned his aunt and uncle had both passed away and a relative had inherited the title and estate. But of William himself, I have heard nothing for more than two decades.”
I took a deep breath and forced myself to smile. “But, that was ancient history. A girlish crush, I am sure.” Turning to Lady Ambrosia, I said, “Let us not speak of this any longer. It is time for me to leave the past where it belongs… in the past, and move on to my new love. I do hope you can make a love match for me. I simply hate the idea of not loving my husband. Though Lord Knox and I were not well acquainted at the time of our marriage, I did grow to love him and he me. Had I wanted to marry for the sake of having a husband, I suppose I could have done that by now without your kind assistance.”
Lady Ambrosia laid her hand palm up on the table before me. “If you would be so kind, my lady, I should like to hold your hand for a moment. I may fall into a bit of a trance, but please do not be alarmed.”
Somewhat taken aback, I paused. I had heard tales of seances and mediums and those who could communicate with the spirit world. Was Lady Ambrosia such a person? Was she a charlatan? A fraud?
Curiosity got the better of me and I laid my palm against hers. Immediately, a pulse of heat shot up the length of my arm. Lady Ambrosia closed her eyes and began to mumble. Her head fell forward as though she had lost consciousness. Alarmed, I was unsure how to proceed. Should I wake her? Disengage my hand from hers and run from the house? Her grasp on my hand intensified and her mumbles increased in speed and volume until, as suddenly as it had begun, it ended. She looked up at me and smiled, released my hand and said, “I am having a dinner party tonight and would be most delighted if you could attend.”
“Wh-what? Dinner? I thought you were going to find a spouse for me. What is happening? Oh dear, is there no man who will have me? Please, Lady Ambrosia, if no match is to be found, tell me now and let us have over with it and I shall go on my way, knowing the notion of finding love at my age is a bunch of silliness. Do not be alarmed, I have been silly my entire life, this sensation is quite familiar to me.”
Though I had made the appointment with Lady Ambrosia on a whim, I had to acknowledge the deep disappointment which fell upon me as I realized no match for me existed. Once I had made the decision to engage Lady Ambrosia’s services, a sense of excitement and possibility had me all a twitter and it now felt as though the rug had been pulled out from under me.
Gathering as much of my dignity as remained, I stood and gathered my things. “I thank you for the invitation, Lady Ambrosia, but I cannot impose on your hospitality any further. I am grateful for your time. You have been most kind.” To my utter embarrassment, there was a catch in my voice as I spoke. One would never have guessed I had spent decades as the Countess of Knox.
Clearly, it was time for me to get back to my life as a middle-aged dowager countess preparing for her first grandchild. I made a mental note to stop off at the local yarn shop on the way home and collect some proper wool and needles to make a cap and booties for the little dear.
“My apologies,” Lady Ambrosia said, “I did not explain myself. That sometimes happens, and I am quite sorry to have upset you. Your future husband will be at dinner here tonight.”
I gasped. “Are you quite certain?” I clapped my hands in excitement. “Oh, I am so pleased. I was afraid there was no man who would have me, being old and widowed and sometimes silly. Thank you, Lady Ambrosia. Thank you ever so much. I shall return for dinner.”
It was not until I was nearly home that I realized I had not asked for one single detail about my husband-to-be.