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Laurel Ames

“Well, I will no longer be the impediment.”

“What if he does not ask me, Mother?” Harriet rose, clenching her hands together dramatically. “What if Axel’s feelings have changed, or he has been too put off by Bennet?”

“Oh, he’ll ask you all right,” Bennet interrupted. “He needs your fortune more now than ever. Oh, by the way, I have made an appointment for both of us to see Barchester tomorrow morning. The reins of your future will then be put in your hands, Harriet. Have you engaged a man of business?”

“Not...not yet.”

“Do you wish Barchester to recommend someone?”

“Certainly not. Is it necessary to have such a person with me tomorrow?”

“Not really, unless you mean to change banks immediately.”

“I haven’t decided yet.”

“Let Barchester know when you do and where you want your monies deposited. He can arrange everything.”

“I don’t want him to do anything. He always treats me like a child.”

“He means no harm by acting fatherly. Most women of independent means do not care to handle their own affairs.”

“Most women do not have such an unreasonable guardian. I suppose you will charge me rent now to stay here?”

“Do not be absurd. You are still my sister, but I’ve no doubt you will be married within the month and off my hands for good.”

“Must you both bicker like this?” their mother demanded. “You give me a splitting headache.”

“I have tried bickering alone and it just doesn’t work,” Bennet quipped, sending his mother charging from the room, grumbling to herself.

Harriet waited until their mother was gone before she giggled. “Why do you bait her, Bennet? She cannot defend herself.”

“And I cannot help myself. If only she realized how much we enjoy arguing. Seriously, Harriet, I will be placing a great deal of wealth at your disposal tomorrow. I hope you have considered that it might be wiser to keep control of it yourself than turn it over to a husband—any husband, including Axel.”

“I know what I am about. I am not the green girl I was at seventeen.”

“No, I realize that. There will also be investments to discuss. You will have to decide how you want to manage those.”

Harriet walked dreamily to the window and stared out at the redbrick residences across the way. “I think once I am married I will set up a proper town house. I consider it highly unfair Papa left you both Chesney and Varner House.”

“Hasn’t Axel some residence other than his lodgings and that estate in Yorkshire?”

“He has a house near Epsom, but I require one in London.”

“I am looking for a house for the Walls to rent. I can have Walters make inquiries for you...if you wish to make use of his services.”

“Why are the Walls looking for a house?”

“To rent merely. They cannot stay in that hotel forever, and Mother has made it abundantly clear she does not want them here.”

“But I thought they were on the point of embarking for Europe, at least before you introduced them to the social whirl of London.”

“One invitation can hardly constitute a social whirl—oh. I forgot to tell Mother I asked them to tea today to make her acquaintance before your birthday ball.”

“She won’t like that.”

“Yes, I know, but perhaps you can tell her for me. A diamond necklace should be worth one favor.”

“Very well, I will tell her,” said Harriet, walking in a businesslike way toward the door. “Just make sure my diamonds and my dress are ready by tomorrow afternoon.”

“I have nothing else to concern me at all.”

“Nothing but that nasty shipping business.”

“That nasty shipping business keeps you both in fine gig.”

“But must you flaunt it?” she asked with her hand on the doorknob.

“The world is changing, Harriet. I and other men like me helped win this last war. Don’t ask me to be embarrassed about that. Didn’t Wellington himself come to dine?”

“One evening.”

“Well, he did have a war to fight. Now go and tell Mother the Walls are coming and I expect you both to be polite to them.”

“If we must. But they are such encroaching mushrooms.”

“You have not even met Stanley and Alice yet.”

“Are we expected to entertain every country dowd we are remotely connected with?”

“Why not?”

“Why not? I have better things to do with my time.”

“Just tell Mother.”

Harriet ducked out of the room. Sometimes, just for a moment, Bennet thought he had got through to her and made some impression. There was sense in her somewhere, but then she would quote their mother or one of her fashionable friends and turn his stomach. No, he did not love his sister anymore. She had changed into some creature he disliked exceedingly.

When the Walls were shown into the elegant gold salon there were already two guests present, enjoying their tea, Lady Catherine Gravely, and her daughter, Cassandra. After the coldly polite introductions it became clear to Rose that the other two women were intimates of Harriet’s and had been invited to amuse her, since conversation with the Walls was not expected to. It was also clear who had tempted Harriet to savage her hair so badly, for both women sported a head of tight curls.

Every time Bennet introduced a topic Rose or Stanley might care to discuss, Harriet changed the subject to some personage they did not know, thus shutting them out of the conversation. Poor Alice took everything in with such wide eyes, Rose knew they would put her down as a simpleton. Lady Catherine and Mrs. Varner were no help. The former stared speculatively at Rose any time she opened her mouth and the latter seemed interested only in her daughter’s gossip. If Edith remembered Rose’s mother at all she never made reference to her.

Rose was annoyed and in the mood to show it, but she liked Bennet Varner and did want him for a friend. She admired the way he had charmed her brother and sister-in-law, no matter how much she suspected his motives. And here he was, sending her embarrassed grimaces because his sister and mother were snubbing them. She could at least enjoy that repartee with him. She gazed about the lovely ground floor salon that was used only for tea. She could imagine the elegance of the rooms that must lie above. And yet she felt sorry for Bennet Varner, always having to apologize for his mother and sister. When Stanley cleared his throat meaningfully, Rose gulped her tea and was about to make some excuse to get them away early. Suddenly Harriet did mention a name they all knew.

“Lord Foy?” Alice piped up. “Wasn’t that the man you were engaged to, Rose?”

Stanley choked on a gulp of tea and Rose paused with her cup halfway to her mouth. Bennet looked at her in inquiry.

“Foy...Foy...” Rose pretended to muse. “Is his name Axelrod Barton?”
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