Although Laurel Ames likes to write stories set in the early nineteenth century, she writes from personal experience. She and her husband live on a farm, complete with five horses, a log spring house, carriage house and a smokehouse made of bricks kilned on the farm. Of her characters, Laurel says, “With the exception of the horses, my characters, both male and female, good and evil, all are me and no one else.”
For Ma and Dad, whose unfailing support
and enthusiasm have encouraged me
to write far more than I ever thought possible.
London, February 1815
“Men are the most arrogant, helpless and stupid creatures on the earth,” Miss Gwen Rose Wall said out loud as she strode along South Audley Street into a brisk head wind, strangling her reticule with both hands. “Especially my brother, Stanley.” Her almost military gait caused her brown wool pelisse to flap open, cooling her heated anger to a becoming flush by the time she found the house number she was seeking on one of the corners. Its generous size, the tripartite Venetian windows and long side portico distinguished Varner House from the other residences on the street. However, it was not this grandeur that daunted Rose from entering, but a series of shouted expostulations in a high-pitched female voice. Though the content of the expletives was shrouded by the stout brick walls of the house, it was clear the woman was neither being attacked nor in pain, but was extremely angry. When the screeches momentarily ceased, Rose shrugged and began to ascend the steps under the portico, thinking that once she paid this duty visit her time in London would be her own, no matter what Stanley said.
A youngish man dashed out, putting on his hat and skipping down the steps so rapidly he collided with Rose. He would have overbalanced her backward had he not caught her in his arms. He stared at her with such a look of surprise and friendliness that Rose stared back, wondering if he recognized her. But his boyish face, creased with laugh lines and alight with a pair of merry blue eyes, was unknown to her. She found herself to be holding his hat, which she must have caught as it tumbled from his head. His long black hair was hanging over his brow now in tempting disarray and she had the most maddening urge to run her hands through it to stroke it back in place.
“Bennet!” shrieked the voice from the open doorway. “You come back in here this instant and explain.... What do you mean by kissing female persons on the front steps?”
A small hatchet-faced woman appeared with her fists clutching a silk shawl closed. Her perfectly black hair seemed unnatural planted on top of a face so seamed with age and frustration.
“I wasn’t kissing her, Mother.” He finally released Rose. “I was running her down in my haste. So sorry, miss—uh miss—?”
Rose cleared her throat and handed him his hat. “Miss Gwen Rose Wall.”
“I am Bennet Varner, and this is my mother, Edith.”
“I know. I mean, I was coming to pay a call on my godmother, Edith Varner.”
“Wall? Wall? I swear I must be godmother to half of England. Who is your mother?”
“Mrs. Eldridge Wall.” When this failed to elicit a spark of recognition, Rose added, “Who was formerly Miss Maryanne Varner, a rather distant cousin of yours, I believe. But I see I have caught you at a bad time. Perhaps another day would do better. I’ll leave my card with you.” Rose flicked this out of her reticule and handed it to Bennet, who accepted it eagerly.
“Nonsense,” Bennet said. “You must come inside. Too cold a day to be standing about on the steps.” He took her arm and pulled her up the remaining steps and through the door past his mother, who was staring at him as though he had taken leave of his senses. “And I’ve given you a fright,” he added.
“But you were going out, and in some haste, as I recall,” Rose protested as she surrendered her pelisse to the butler and tried not to gape at the grand staircase leading to the next floor, which must contain a ballroom, she surmised, to do justice to so much carved and polished oak.
“Oh, I wasn’t going anywhere important.”
“You said you had an appointment,” his mother accused as she followed them into a cheerful morning room where a fire blazed on the hearth and a modish young woman sat petulantly at an escritoire.
“My sister, Harriet Varner. This is Miss Gwen Rose Wall from...”
“Wall,” Rose supplied. “It is near Bristol.” Rose seated herself on the sofa Bennet indicated. He claimed the seat beside her, totally ignoring his mother, who had planted herself on a nearby chair.
Harriet stared at Rose appraisingly and Rose felt the girl to be adding up the cost of her blue wool walking dress and weighing it against her own filmy muslin gown and pearls. Harriet’s was a ridiculous costume for February, even the last day of February, Rose decided. Harriet was pretty enough, her sharp features still softened by the bloom of youth, but she had been ill-advised to crop her hair so short. That sort of wavy, flaxen hair was much better left long rather than attempting to tame the remaining short locks with a curling iron.
“I said, are you making a long stay in London, Miss Wall?”
Rose jumped at the imperious question from Mrs. Varner.
“Only a week or so, until we have arranged passage. I am accompanying my brother and his wife on a...a sort of grand tour.” Rose could not admit to playing nursemaid to a young bride. She was not yet twenty-three herself and only her mother could think such an arrangement suitable.
Bennet jumped up and tugged at the bellpull. The butler burst into the room as though he had been standing with his hand on the doorknob. “Tea, Hardy, and some cakes. Perhaps a suitable wine,” Bennet said, rubbing his hands together. “Oh, I expect you know what we need.”
Rose smiled at Bennet’s clumsy orders and she thought that Hardy was tempted to do so as well. She had already put Mrs. Varner down as a shrew and she suspected Harriet also gave her brother a hard time. Why else would he have been escaping the house so hastily? He did not strut or put on airs like her brother, but moved quickly and naturally. And he was strong, she thought, the memory of those arms holding her so safely causing her to stare at him raptly. She forced her attention away from him. No matter how much she thought she could like him, she must not, she reminded herself.
“I expect you know the roads are a bit torn up still,” Bennet offered.
“Where?” Rose asked, remembering their recent drive from Bristol.
“Where in Europe?” she asked, thinking his comment unnecessarily vague. “France?”
“Pretty much all of it. Perhaps I should explain I am in the shipping business, so I have occasion to get news—”
“Not in business,” corrected Harriet. “Bennet has interests, as we all do. He is not directly involved in business.”
“Oh, I see,” Rose said as she watched Bennet roll his eyes heavenward. Rose smiled, for it did not matter to her that Bennet was in trade. Nor did it matter to him, but it obviously caused Harriet some pain and made his mother wring her hands nervously.
The tea tray was brought in and Edith Varner began to serve. “And how is your mother, Miss Wall? She is still...alive, I assume.”
“Yes, of course,” Rose said as Bennet cringed. “She is arranging to move into our house in Bristol, thinking that Stanley and Alice will like to have Wall House to themselves. She wrote to you that the three of us would be stopping in town. But perhaps her letter was misdirected.”
Edith looked guiltily toward the stuffed escritoire, and Rose schooled herself not to glance in that direction.
“It is too bad you are not making a longer stay,” Mrs. Varner said. “Or we might be able to arrange some entertainment for you. As it is...”
“A ball!” Bennet decided.
“A what?” Harriet demanded. “But you just said—”
“How long could it possibly take to arrange? A day or two, no more. I can have my secretary help you. Besides, your birthday is coming up on March third, Harriet. We must celebrate that.”
Bennet ignored his gaping sister and mother to pace about the room and throw out suggestions as to whom to invite, what musicians to engage, as though someone should be taking notes. Rose was glad it was not her responsibility. She liked Bennet quite well as a man, but as a brother or son she thought he might leave much to be desired.
“I shall arrange everything,” Bennet decided, seating himself and taking up his teacup, then turning abruptly to Rose. “Are you sure I did not hurt you when I ran into you?”
“Of course not. I am used to pushing about thousand-pound horses. I do not hurt easily.”
“Ah, you ride. We will go tomorrow. I have a stable full of hacks champing at the bit for exercise.”
“I could not impose in such a way.”