Elmswood Manor, April 1827
Kate, Lady Elmswood, burst into the morning room waving aloft a single sheet of thick writing parchment. ‘”Lord Fearnoch is most pleased to accept Lady Elmswood’s kind invitation to call at Elmswood Manor on Friday April 6th, with the express purpose of meeting with her eldest ward, Miss Eloise Brannagh, to discuss the possibility of a marriage between the parties on terms outlined in his previous dispatch.” Goodness, that sounds like it was written by his lawyer.’
‘Perhaps, but it’s just as likely he wrote it himself.’ Eloise looked up from her position on the floor, kneeling in front of Phoebe to pin the hem of her sister’s new gown. ‘Remember Kate, until he inherited the title, he was merely Alexander Sinclair, some sort of clerk at the Admiralty, so well used to penning memorandums, one would imagine.’ She smiled. ‘It’s certainly not the most romantic proposal I’ve ever come across. Does he proffer any other endearments?’
‘“Should either party conclude that the match does not fully satisfy their requirements, then negotiations will be terminated without prejudice. Should both parties prove amenable, however, it is imperative that the nuptials are concluded by the second of June, Lord Fearnoch’s thirtieth birthday, whereupon, under the terms of the Fearnoch entail, failure to be of married status would result in the Fearnoch title and estates passing to a cousin.” And he looks forward, etc etc,’ Kate concluded. ‘What do you think, Eloise? It all sounds a bit cold and heartless. It’s not too late to write back and say you’ve changed your mind.’
‘But I haven’t.’ Eloise inserted a final pin. ‘Turn around slowly Phoebe. Yes, I think that will do nicely. Your turn, Estelle.’
One twin replaced the other on the footstool, Eloise resumed her pinning, and Kate dropped into her usual chair by the fire, surrendering the letter over to Phoebe to read. ‘You know, you could make a very handsome living if you set yourself up as a modiste. Those gowns are beautiful.’
‘Madame Eloise, dressmaker to the aristocracy,’ Estelle said in a dreadful French accent. ‘You would have a very exclusive little boutique in…’
‘Bond Street,’ Kate supplied for her, smiling.
‘Bond Street. And Phoebe could bake cakes to serve to your ladies while they wait to be fitted, and I could entertain them by playing on the pianoforte. Am I done?’
‘You are.’ Eloise stood up, shaking out her own skirts and returning her pin cushion to her sewing box before sitting down opposite Kate. ‘May I?’
Phoebe handed her the letter. ‘I shall bake my special spicy biscuits for Lord Fearnoch. I would have preferred to offer him a fruit cake, but you can’t make a good fruit cake in three days, it needs at least a week for the brandy to soak in.’
Estelle threw herself down on the sofa beside her twin. ‘I’m not sure the biscuits are a good idea, Phoebe, they’re very brittle. Not ideal for a man with no teeth.’
‘For heavens’ sake!’ Eloise handed the letter back to Kate, laughing. ‘I’m sure he has a perfectly good set of teeth.’
‘Yes,’ Estelle said, grinning, ‘but the question is, are they his own?’
‘Perhaps I should make a sponge cake then,’ Phoebe said, her eyes alight with mischief. ‘If he does have wooden teeth…’
‘A man as rich as Lord Fearnoch will surely have ivory,’ Estelle interjected.
‘Yes, but he’s not rich yet, is he? Unless he marries Eloise, he’ll have to revoke the title and will have nothing but his salary from the Admiralty to his name. So I think perhaps I will make a sponge after all. What do you think, Eloise?’
‘I will leave that momentous decision in your capable hands, Phoebe.’
‘You’re quite right, you’ve more important things to worry about. Such as what to wear. I think the cream dress with the emerald trim is your most becoming gown. Lord Fearnoch will be so dazzled by your radiant beauty that he will be rendered quite speechless, and without further ado will fall at your feet and beg you to be his.’
‘Now you are being ridiculous,’ Eloise said, colouring. ‘You know very well that I am the bookish sister. It is you two who have the kind of looks that cause carriage accidents.’
‘That does not make a scarecrow of you!’ The twins leapt up of one accord, pulling her over to stand in front of the empty fireplace. ‘Take a look in the mirror, for goodness sake.’
Laughing, Eloise did as she was bid, catching her breath at the reflection of herself flanked by the twins. Though they were not identical, one strawberry blonde and the other Titian, they were both quite ridiculously beautiful. Her own auburn locks were tarnished in comparison, and though all of them had the same hazel eyes, her face was not a perfect oval, and her skin, though the same creamy colour as the twins’ was marred by a sprinkling of freckles. What would Mama, the former toast of Dublin society, think if she could see her daughters now, the younger two grown into such beauties as would put her in the shade? Ha! And there would be the rub, for Mama never could bear to be anything other than the centre of attention, the most beautiful woman in any room.
‘No-one would ever mistake us for anything other than sisters,’ Phoebe said, kissing Eloise’s cheek affectionately.
‘True,’ she agreed, ‘though no-one would deny that I am very much a watered-down version of you two. And besides,’ she continued, cutting short her sisters’ protests, ‘my appearance is quite irrelevant. Lord Fearnoch is not in need of a beautiful wife, but a practical, pragmatic one.’
‘Just like Aunt Kate.’ Phoebe gave her guardian a quick hug. ‘Practical, pragmatic and pretty. And don’t say that old married ladies cannot be described as pretty because you are neither old nor married – at least, not in the conventional sense.’
‘I am twenty-eight years old, young lady, and have been married to your Uncle Daniel for six years,’ Kate retorted. She rolled her eyes. ‘Uncle Daniel! It makes him sound positively ancient, but he has only just turned thirty-four.’
‘And despite the fact that he is our guardian, we have never actually met him.’
‘That is because he has been overseas ever since we tied the knot, a year before your arrival.’
‘Yes, but before that…’
‘There were nine years between Mama and our uncle. When I was born, he’d only have been…’ Eloise wrinkled her nose as she calculated. ‘Eleven, I think.’
‘And by the time he was sixteen,’ Kate said, ‘he was already off on his first expedition to exotic foreign climes.’
‘The wilds of rural Ireland can’t have held much appeal in comparison, I suppose,’ Phoebe said.
‘No, but even if they had, Papa wouldn’t have made him welcome.’ Eloise grimaced. ‘Any more than we would have been welcomed with open arms here, at Elmswood Manor, when Papa was alive. Even if our grandfather had forgiven Mama for eloping, Papa would not have set foot over the threshold, nor allowed any of us to.’
‘How Papa loathed our grandfather for implying he was not good enough for Mama,’ Phoebe said.
‘I don’t know about not good enough, but they were certainly not good for each other,’ Estelle added.
‘Nor for us,’ her twin said sadly. ‘Papa was forever saying he would not darken our grandfather’s doorstep again, which was all very well for him, but we were not permitted to darken the doorstep once, while our grandfather was alive.’
‘I’ve always thought that old Lord Elmswood could have said nothing more completely designed to guarantee an elopement, than to forbid your mother from seeing your father,’ Kate interjected. ‘Though I was too young to know anything of the precise circumstances, I knew Daniel had an older sister, but it was only after I was married and found that portrait of her hidden away in the attics that I realised there must have been some sort of scandal. It is such a shame you didn’t get the chance to know your grandfather. I’m sure, if he’d met the three of you, the breach could have been healed.’
‘Not if our father had anything to do with it,’ Eloise said grimly, recalling Papa’s regular, vicious diatribes on the subject.
‘No,’ Phoebe agreed with a shudder. ‘And now it’s too late. Isn’t it odd, that our only close living relative is a man we’ve never met. Which makes it all the more peculiar, don’t you think, that he offered up Eloise as the perfect wife to a total stranger.’
‘You make it sound so dramatic!’ Eloise exclaimed, shaking her head. ‘Uncle Daniel’s letter made it clear that he has known Lord Fearnoch for many years and that he is an honourable man whom he would trust with his life.’
‘Or, in this case, his niece’s life. I’ve been racking my brains,’ Phoebe said, ‘and I can’t remember him ever mentioning an Alexander Sinclair in any of his previous letters.’
‘But Uncle Daniel rarely mentions anyone in his letters to Aunt Kate,’ Estelle reminded her. ‘Half the time, we don’t even know where he is and what it is he’s doing.’
‘Exploring far-flung corners of the globe! And the more dangerous and remote the place, the happier he is. As the three of you know perfectly well, because you’ve read every one of his very occasional missives, all he ever writes is a brief scrawl to let me know he is still alive. He never even acknowledges my replies. Half the time, I wonder if he even reads them.’
‘Well there you must be in the wrong of it,’ Eloise pointed out, ‘for he has read enough to deduce that I might fit the bill for the Earl of Fearnoch’s vacancy for a wife. Though he did not offer me up, as if I were a dish of stew, he merely suggested, if I was amenable, that the match might suit me.’
‘And we are all agreed, having discussed nothing else since Lord Fearnoch’s first letter arrived three weeks ago, that it will suit you,’ Kate said. ‘At least,’ she added, frowning over at the twins, ‘I thought we had?’
The twins gazed silently at each other for a long moment. Eloise knew they were sharing their thoughts in that disconcerting manner they had demonstrated from a very young age. ‘We have,’ Phoebe said, speaking for the pair of them. ‘Truly Eloise, we haven’t changed our minds. Though we were dead set against it at first, and we hate the very notion of losing you, and if there is any chance that you think you would be the least bit unhappy you must not – but we’ve been over and over this, haven’t we, so I won’t rake over old ground.’
‘Anyway, even if this match didn’t make excellent sense, we really had no choice but to agree, did we Phoebe?’ Estelle said irrepressibly, slanting a smile at her twin. ‘Because we know that you live in terror, dear Aunt Kate, of Uncle Daniel returning home and giving you merry hell because his nieces are still cluttering up the place.’
‘One down, only two to go,’ Estelle chimed in. ‘After five years, the Elmswood Manor coven is breaking up.’
‘Stop it,’ Kate said, laughing. ‘You know perfectly well that all of you are welcome here for always, if you wish.’
‘The twins are just funning.’ Eloise cast her sisters a reproving look. ‘Seriously, we’ve been round the houses on the arguments for and against my meeting Lord Fearnoch, and I thought we were all agreed that it is an opportunity I would be a fool not to explore, at least.’
‘That’s what I just said.’ Phoebe’s smile was conciliatory. ‘Though goodness, do you remember when Kate first read Uncle Daniel’s letter out, in this very room, we thought it must be some sort of joke.’
‘I must admit, I thought he must have been suffering from too much desert sun when he wrote it,’ Kate admitted. ‘It seemed so very odd to think of him sitting in the shadow of the pharaoh’s tombs proposing Eloise as the solution to Lord Fearnoch’s dilemma.’
‘And such a dilemma, as we finally discovered when we eventually had a letter from the man himself. Lord Fearnoch, you must marry before you attain your thirtieth birthday, following the death of your elder brother, the Earl,’ Estelle intoned in the voice of doom, ‘else you will forfeit one of the largest fortunes in all of England.’
‘I still find it very odd, though,’ Eloise said, squinting at the needle she was holding up to the light to thread. ‘Why on earth would there be such a condition attached to the earldom?’
‘An attempt to ensure that it always passed through the direct line, I expect,’ Phoebe replied. ‘What is even odder is why an earl with a fortune must ask a complete stranger to be his wife.’
‘And I’ve told you several times,’ Kate retorted, ‘that it is not an easy thing to do, to secure a platonic marriage. I was the perfect solution to your Uncle Daniel’s problems when his father died. By that time, my poor ailing Papa had been forced to delegate almost all of his duties as estate manager to me. Having grown up on the estate, I knew the lands better than anyone else.’ Kate gazed out of the morning room window to the view of the back gardens rolling gently down to the lake. ‘Old Lord Elmsford, Daniel’s father, had let this house fall into a sad state of neglect by the time he died. I think the whole sorry business with your mother affected him greatly. When I was a girl, I used to dream of living here. I had all sorts of plans for restoring the place to its former glory.’
‘So when my uncle proposed, it was a wish come true?’
Kate shook her head. ‘What I’m trying to say, Estelle, is that your uncle didn’t propose to me. Daniel balked at the idea of depriving me of children – I was only twenty-two at the time. So I proposed to him.’
‘You have never told us that before,’ Phoebe exclaimed, startled.
‘It has never been relevant until now.’ Kate laughed at the twins’ identical expressions. ‘That is what comes of being practical and pragmatic, my dears. As I pointed out to Daniel at the time, it was an eminently sensible arrangement, with both of us gaining. I would secure my independence, I’d be free to carry on doing the work I loved and I’d be able to restore this beautiful house, while he was free to pursue his career abroad, knowing that his estates were in the best possible hands.’
‘And you have never regretted it?’ Eloise asked, though she was fairly certain she knew the answer to the question.
‘Never,’ Kate said firmly. ‘As it happens I would have liked children. But I got them, didn’t I, only a year after I was married? All three of you at once.’
‘We were hardly children,’ Eloise said dryly. ‘I was nineteen, the Twinnies were fifteen.’
‘And you were all three of you quite devastated.’ Kate shook her head. ‘Even now, to think of what you’d been through, losing both your parents and your poor little brother in one tragic accident, with all of them lost at sea. As if that was not bad enough, to be evicted from the only home you had ever known, and packed off from Ireland to come all the way here to live with a complete stranger who happened to be your only relative’s wife. If I hadn’t already been married to Daniel, I’d have married him then, just to give you all a home. Now for heavens’ sake, there is no need…’
But Kate’s voice was muffled as the three sisters enveloped her in a hug, and it was some time before they separated, to return to their seats. ‘Goodness,’ she said, emerging very ruffled, ‘I did not mean to upset everyone, dredging up the past. I was trying to explain why I thought that Lord Fearnoch had chosen to speak to Eloise rather than any other woman, wasn’t I?’
‘Let me, because I think the explanation is quite simple. Think about it,’ Eloise said, addressing her sisters. ‘We know from our uncle’s letter that when he met Lord Fearnoch in Egypt five months ago, he had only just heard of his brother’s death and the terms of the will. It will have taken him some time to secure return passage to England, no doubt to become embroiled in a legal wrangle to avoid the need to marry, because we also know from our uncle that he had no wish for a wife. And now, having realised that he either marries or loses his fortune, he’s up against the clock and since Uncle Daniel has already presented him with a potentially suitable candidate…’
‘Who, thanks to the poor example set us by our dear departed parents, has absolutely no desire whatsoever to become either a wife or a mother,’ Estelle interjected grimly.
‘No-one who witnessed what we did would ever want to marry.’ Phoebe clasped her twins’ hand. ‘Do you remember, Estelle, how we used to pretend we had been adopted, and that one day our real parents would arrive to claim us?’
‘And how we vowed we wouldn’t leave unless they promised to take Eloise too?’
‘We did. We vowed we would never, ever leave you behind.’
Phoebe’s tragic little smile touched Eloise’s heart. She had tried so hard to protect the twins from the worst of her parents’ vicious bickering and confrontations, and in turn they had tried to protect her, pretending that she’d succeeded. They almost never talked of those days, but they all three of them bore the scars, buried deep. She thought she knew everything about her sisters, but she hadn’t heard this sad little story before. ‘Thank you,’ she said, swallowing the large lump which had risen in her throat and trying for a watery smile. ‘I am touched that you were so intent on keeping me with you, though you were by implication disowning me as your sister.’
‘No!’ the twins called in unison.
‘And to think that just a moment ago, you were telling me that no-one would ever mistake us for anything but sisters, too.’
‘We didn’t mean…’
‘She’s teasing,’ Estelle said sheepishly. ‘Anyway Phoebe, we knew at the time it was just a pipe dream.’
‘Yes. Though we also knew that if someone did come along to claim us, our actual real parents would probably have handed us over gladly,’ Phoebe said bitterly.
‘Or they wouldn’t have noticed we’d gone.’
There was no denying the truth of this, and Eloise felt no inclination to defend the indefensible as she inspected the stocking she had been darning before snipping the cotton and tying it off. But nor was she about to let those skeletons creep back out of the closet and colour the present. ‘I think that’s enough talk of those times.’
‘I agree. Let’s talk instead about what it will be like when you are rich beyond our wildest dreams,’ Estelle said, taking her cue and rubbing her hands together gleefully.
Phoebe giggled. ‘You will be able to buy up a whole warehouse of silks to make gowns.’
‘She’ll be far too much a lady of leisure to sew. Besides, I’m not sure it’s the done thing for a countess to make her own gowns. Do you know how to attach a sprinkling of diamonds to a décolleté, Eloise?’
‘Oh, I’ll have a maid for that sort of thing. I shall be too busy, just like Cleopatra, bathing in asses milk.’
‘A rather rare commodity in London, I should think,’ Kate interjected wryly.
‘London!’ Phoebe clapped her hands together, her eyes shining. ‘And you’ll be a countess. To think of our big sister being a countess! Will you go to lots of parties, do you think? And will you live in a palace?’
‘A town house,’ Phoebe said reprovingly. ‘Though a very large town house. With – oh, I should think at least a hundred bed chambers, and a thousand servants, and a French chef.’
‘Who will never be able to bake a cake as delicious as you can,’ Eloise said, smiling at her sister. She stuck her darning needle into the pin cushion and closed the lid of her sewing box. ‘One thing is certain, I will never have to darn another stocking. As for the rest – I am not particularly interested in draping myself in ermine and diamonds.’
‘No,’ Estelle said, ‘you’re more likely to spend a portion of your immense fortune on your own loom.’
‘I don’t see me taking up weaving, not even if Lord Fearnoch turns out to be as life-threateningly tedious as his title of Victualling Commissioner suggests,’ Eloise said tartly. ‘But it is no exaggeration to say that the settlement he is proposing is life-changing, for all of us. If this marriage works out, I will be able to provide Estelle with the funds for her own private orchestra if she likes, and you Phoebe, could set up in competition to the legendary Gunter’s tea rooms. We could travel. We could do anything we want, or nothing at all if we choose to. The future will be considerably brighter than any of us ever imagined.’
‘And all you have to do is put up with a toothless, tedious earl,’ Estelle said, chuckling.
‘Heavens though, what if he turns out not to be toothless but cut from the same cloth as our neighbour, Squire Mytton.’
Kate, Eloise and Estelle gazed at Phoebe in horror. ‘Surely there is only one such. I heard from one of our tenants, who heard from his sister in Leamington Spa, that the squire rode his horse into a hotel there. Right up the grand staircase Mad Jack went,’ Kate said in a hushed tone, ‘and from the balcony he actually jumped down into the restaurant below, then back out of the window.’
‘I heard,’ Eloise said, ‘that he likes to ride a bear around his drawing room to alarm his house guests.’
‘He supposedly set fire to his nightshirt in an effort to stop a bout of hiccups,’ Estelle added, stifling a giggle. ‘Surely that cannot be true?’
‘Nothing about that man would surprise me,’ Kate said dryly. ‘But what would surprise me very much would be your uncle suggesting such a man as a suitable husband for Eloise. And although I don’t know what a Victualling Commissioner for the Admiralty actually does, I think he’d have to be of sound mind to do it, don’t you?’
‘That’s true,’ Phoebe said, heaving an exaggerated sigh of relief.
‘I promise you that if I find I cannot reconcile myself to the idea of living under the same roof as Lord Fearnoch, if I consider his nature unkind or in any way brutish, or if I feel that I cannot trust him, our first meeting will be the last. I will not be a sacrificial lamb.’ Eloise got to her feet. ‘But I will not rule him out as a husband if he has wooden teeth, or a wooden leg, or even if he is simply a stranger to the bathtub. If we find we suit – and let us not forget that, astonishing as it may sound to you, he may not take to me – but if we do find we suit, this is the chance of a lifetime for us. I have to embrace it.’
‘Yes.’ Estelle grinned. ‘Luckily, if he is averse to bathing, that’s the only thing you’ll have to embrace.’
‘That’s more than enough speculation for now,’ Kate said, biting back her own laughter. ‘We will discover the cut of Lord Fearnoch’s jib soon enough.’
‘Kate is, as always, quite right,’ Eloise said briskly. ‘You two, change out of those dresses and let me sew the hems before I become too hoity toity for such menial tasks.