“WILL HE BE AT THE ball tonight, do you think?” Laynie asked of her sister’s reflection in the mirror.
Beth’s gaze shifted to meet hers momentarily before returning her own. “Who?” she asked, though Laynie knew she understood her.
“Mr. Hartright, of course.”
“I really do not know,” Beth answered. “And to be quite frank, I don’t care.”
Laynie turned to her, but Beth would not look her in the eye. Instead, she kept her attention focused squarely on her appearance, working as quickly as she could to mend the damage that had been done to her hair by the gusting of the wind upon their arrival at Ashworth’s Chapel Hall assembly rooms.
“Beth?” Laynie said at last and tentatively.
Beth ignored her.
“It’s quite all right, you know, if you are feeling anxious. I know I would be. I’m sure he must come tonight, and bring her. If you want, I could go out and see if he’s come—”
“I’m quite all right, Laynie, dear,” Beth impatiently interrupted her. “It’s nothing to me if he comes or if he doesn’t. There are other fish in the sea, and tonight I mean to prove the axiom.”
Laynie didn’t believe her, but knew it better not to pester. She chose, instead, to change the topic. “I understand Mr. Vaughn is expected to be here as well.”
“Harold Vaughn?” Beth said, with a brief and indifferent glance. “I thought he was at University? Isn’t he training to go into the church or something?”
“I believe he’s come home. It’s something to consider.”
“I don’t know why you think I should consider him. He was an awkward youth—do you remember?” And Beth could not quite stifle a laugh at the thought of him. Laynie remembered him well enough. Perhaps he had been a trifle awkward as a boy. He had always been extraordinarily tall for his age, and it did not help that he was very lean, as well. The two things combined did not provide much to admire in his appearance. And it was true that he was reserved around strangers, as uncomfortable in a crowd as a fish out of water.
“You thought much of him once upon a time, if I recall,” Beth reminded her teasingly. She laughed once more at her youthful remembrances of him.
“You are being unkind, Beth. He was a good friend to us both, and I expect will be still. And there’s no telling but that he’s changed a great deal in the time he’s been away.”
Beth rolled her eyes, smoothed the last stray hair and adjusted a curl. “Then perhaps,” she said as she prepared to leave the ladies’ refreshing room, “you ought to try him out for yourself. A humble and socially withdrawn curate would be just the thing for you.”
Laynie ignored this and followed her sister into the assembly room. Beth stood, scanning the crowd, trying to look indifferent to the company. A breeze blew through as the doors opened once more. Chapel Hall was a favorite place to hold country balls and little social gatherings such as these, for it had the advantage of a determined and consistent draft, which on any given night during the summer months was a welcome thing. Tonight would prove the exception. A gale was blowing without, and the rain was threatening any moment to come down in torrents. Judging by the weather alone, one would think summer was yet months away rather than a mere few days.
Beth shivered in the draft, and Laynie thought to offer her shawl, but Beth’s attention was fixed on the doors that had now closed. Standing before them was Mr. Jonathan Hartright—and his new bride. Mr. Hartright seemed not to notice Beth, but his wife’s gaze was fixed firmly upon her. She gave Beth an assessing look, which quickly turned cold and then immediately dismissive. She took a firmer hold of her husband’s arm, as if her claim on him was not already sealed by the Bible verses which had two months ago been read over them, and led him into the crowd and out of sight of the sisters.
“It’s all right, Beth. It’s nothing.”
“Of course it’s nothing!” Beth snapped, and forced a smile just in time to greet the friends who were now coming to her rescue. Laynie moved to make room for them.
“I hope you are not lamenting your losses, Miss Durham,” said Miss Annabeth Sharp. She had become, since Caroline Hartright’s betrayal, Beth’s closest friend.
“Certainly not,” Beth assured her. “There are bigger fish than he, you may be certain of it.”
“There is nothing to regret, if you ask me.” Miss Harriet Fisher assured her. “I hear the rooms at Hartfield are ever so small, and there is not nearly as much money as he likes people to believe. I do not envy the brave face poor Caroline must maintain.”
“Perhaps she loves him, after all,” Laynie offered.
Miss Fisher scoffed and turned away toward the dance floor. A smile slowly crept upon her face, and she turned back to speak confidentially to Beth. “Mr. Harold Vaughn is come home. Did you know?”
Beth rolled her eyes and released a breath. “I don’t know why everyone seems to think I should have any interest in Mr. Vaughn’s return. It is unkind of you to suggest, Harriet, that I can do no better for myself than an aspiring curate.”
Harriet’s smile was smug. She leaned close to Beth and whispered a few words into her ear. Whatever they were they served their purpose. Beth’s attention was now fully upon Harriet.
“You were once good friends with him, I believe?” Miss Sharp asked of Beth.
“Yes, I was,” Beth answered , and omitted to add that of the two sisters, Laynie had been the closest.
“Then perhaps you had better strike while the iron is hot. He’ll have no shortage of dancing partners tonight, nor admirers either.”
Admirers of Harold Vaughn? Beth seemed to imply with a dismissive toss of her head. But she was considering; Laynie could see it.
“What do you say, Miss Sharp, to a walk around the assembly rooms?”
“If you wish it,” she returned and appeared a little reluctant. “We will walk in his general direction, and if he chooses to acknowledge me, I’ll speak to him. How is that?”
It was Harriet’s turn to roll her eyes, but Beth reprimanded her with a look. With another look, Laynie knew she was in the way, and so retreated to the far end of the room, where tables had been set up for those who did not wish to dance, or who required rest and refreshment.
She had not been there long when she found she had company. A young man with auburn hair and decidedly ginger whiskers had approached her. An invitation to dance would be welcome. She was hardly a wallflower, but she often had to play one for the sake of her sister’s equanimity.
“I was hoping,” he said, standing there in flattering temerity as she waited for the invitation, “I was wondering if it would be possible, Miss Laynie, to…”
“Yes, Mr. Granger? It is a simple question. All you need to do is ask it. I’m sure to say yes, you know.”
He offered a smile that was at once anxious and grateful. “Would you mind awfully if I sat?”
“Of course not,” she said and watched him do just that. And then she waited patiently for him to go on.
“I hope you won’t consider me forward, nor impolite…”
“Of course not. What can I do for you?”
“You see, the thing is… I was hoping for the opportunity to speak with your sister. Alone, you see. Only…” He looked in the direction of Beth and her companion, seemingly inseparable and engaged in the admirable exercise of walking. “Well, she is never alone. And I thought it time to enlist some help. Will you help me, Miss Laynie?”
“I suppose so,” she said, realizing that his former apology had come in advance of his indiscretion, not in consequence of it. “What is it you would like me to do?”
“If you could perhaps contrive some time for us to meet, when I can be certain she is alone—and available—and where I will have her undivided attention…”
“You might come to the house any day you like, Mr. Granger.”
“But your father…”
“You needn’t fear him. He won’t interfere.”
“Should I speak to him first, do you think?”
Laynie considered this. It was the gentlemanly thing to do, only… “I think you had best feel her out first. My father wants the best for us, but he is inclined to put the pressure on rather thickly at times.”
Mr. Granger seemed to consider this a helpmeet to his aim.
“I think it would be unkind to use my father’s influence to manipulating her into giving you audience, Mr. Granger. Surely you would prefer your own merits to do that.”
“Of course,” he said. “Would Monday suit? Perhaps two o’clock?”
“Certainly, Mr. Granger,” she said. “I’ll be sure we are at home to receive you.”
“Thank you, Miss Laynie.” He arose, bowed, and was gone.
She was not long alone when, once again, she found she had been approached. This time by a large woman with a hat full of black feathers.
“My dear Miss Durham,” she inquired, “why are you not dancing?”
“Lady Vaughn,” Laynie said, surprised and prepared to stand.
“No, don’t get up. I’ll sit, if you don’t mind.”
Please,” Laynie answered, and welcomed her to a chair beside her.
“You didn’t answer my question,” the woman reminded her.
“Well…” Laynie said, and stopped to think. There was really no explaining it to her, not without making Beth look a little ridiculous. “I suppose because I haven’t been asked.”
“That was not Mr. Granger’s intent, then?”
“No, ma’am. I’m afraid not. He only wanted my help in gaining an interview with my sister.”
Lady Vaughn exhaled loudly. “Men can be so frustratingly stupid,” she said, and then paused to study her a moment. “What a tragic loss was your mother’s death. What has it been, ten years now?”
“Nearly that, yes, ma’am.”
“You were old enough to remember her, and you are old enough now to miss the counsel she would offer you during this delicate time in your life. If only you had someone to guide you.”
“I have an aunt, in Gravesend ,” Laynie reminded her.
“Yes, yes, but how often do you see her? You would benefit by her influence though, I dare say. It would put you in the way of… But perhaps I am too forward. Forgive me.”
“You are right, Lady Vaughn, to suggest our prospects are not good. But I never expected much. Beth, if she does not marry a man with property of his own, will inherit the house, but there is not much more for my father to leave us than that. We live comfortably, but when he is gone… Forgive me. I do not like to think of it.”
“And who can blame you? You will be thrown into a life devoid of so many of the comforts you have been raised to enjoy—even to take for granted. It will be a bitter adjustment, I fear.”
“Oh, I don’t mean that, Lady Vaughn. I am prepared for my fate. At least I am working to prepare myself for it. I’m always willing to help Mrs. Hill with her work about the house, and I assist cook one night a week . I do not dread having to do so much for myself. It’s my father’s death I cannot bear to think upon.”
Lady Vaughn smiled quietly to herself, as if Laynie’s words had pleased her. “Now, now, dear. Do not fret yourself. Your father has years ahead of him. I promise you.”
“I hope you are right. I believe you must be, but he is not so mentally attuned as he used to be.”
“Or perhaps you have grown up and are beginning to realize he is not quite as rich in wisdom as you had always thought him.”
“Lady Vaughn,” Laynie returned, a little shocked by the statement. She would certainly never own to such a thing, even if she had considered it.
Lady Vaughn, however, seemed to make much of her own joke and laughed, which inspired Laynie to laugh too—just a little—at her father’s expense. She quickly repented of it, however. There were few things more important to him than his confidence in his own wisdom—a man’s self-respect was nothing to laugh at.
Lady Vaughn’s laughter ended in a cough, which she quickly stifled with a handkerchief, and seemed to struggle with for a moment or two before recovering enough to speak, considerably sobered now. “Forgive me, my dear, that was unkind. You love your father, and esteem him, as you properly should. And your spirit of self-reliance does you credit.”
Laynie smiled a thank you and, finding her hand now freed, returned it to her lap.
“I propose a change of subject,” she said, and then said nothing more.
If it was up to Laynie to choose, she could think of nothing.
It seemed Lady Vaughn was already prepared with a new topic of her own. “My son is home,” she said. “Have you spoken to him yet?”
“No, Lady Vaughn. I haven’t had the privilege. I hope his studies have been going well. There is no trouble, no difficulty that has brought him home, I hope?”
“Yes, some difficulty,” Lady Vaughn answered with a look of apparent suffering, which Laynie regretted, and prayed her old friend had not somehow gone awry. “Oh, not from dear Harry!” Lady Vaughn quickly qualified. “Never from him! He is a good and dutiful son, and ever shall be, I trust. It’s his brother who has caused us the trouble. I had always hoped that Harry would take orders, but it is wrong for a mother to be too firm in her planning on behalf of her children. It is a sure road to disappointment, for fate and circumstance will have their own designs. And I think, after all, that I will enjoy having him at home. I have been lonely without him. And he will make himself useful, no doubt, whatever his circumstances.”
“I believe you are right, Lady Vaughn. He is just the type of man who was always good and who always will strive to make himself useful to those he loves.”
Lady Vaughn gave her a grateful smile and took her hand once more, this time as it sat in her lap under the table. “You know, it has always been my wish,” she said, “that he would find someone who truly appreciated him for who and what he is. Whatever her circumstances, she must, first and foremost, understand him and love him as I do, for his goodness, for his integrity and sincerity of character.”
Laynie suddenly felt a little uncomfortable with this turn in the conversation. Surely Lady Vaughn did not mean to suggest she should marry her son. She’d never even considered it. They had been friends since they were children. She thought of him as a brother, and the possibility of loving him, of marrying him, seemed equally as preposterous as that of marrying a sibling . Marrying a cousin—as her aunt would have her do—was difficult enough to fathom, though for its own, and quite unique, reasons.
Lady Vaughn’s attention was still on her, but it wasn’t the weight of her gaze alone she felt. She looked up to find her father looking approvingly at her. He gave her a nod and a wink before turning a knowing look upon the unaware Mr. Harold Vaughn. Laynie observed him. He was even taller now than when she had last seen him, but he was not so lean. He appeared more man now than boy, though he was as tow headed as ever. Neither did he seem so uncomfortable in a crowd. At least not in this crowd, which may or may not make every difference. Harold Vaughn was not handsome by the common standard, but there was something appealing about him. Perhaps it was his sincerity of character, after all. One felt safe with him because one always knew he could be trusted to do the right thing, even if he did not always say the right things. Not that he was in the habit of giving offense. He was just, plainly and simply, awkward in conversation. Or had been once. Was he still?
Laynie’s attention shifted from Mr. Vaughn to her sister, who was just walking past him, arm in arm with Miss Annabeth Sharp, who was looking bored and a little put out. She was hardly the only one to appear annoyed. The dance floor was now being trespassed upon by no less than a dozen young women who, like Beth, were trying to attract Mr. Vaughn’s attention as he stood in conversation with old schoolmates and childhood friends. He took no notice of any of them, so engrossed was he with his present company. And so the walking—and the trespassing—persisted, to the mounting annoyance of those trying to dance in formation.
“You have not spoken to him at all, you say, since he has come home?” Lady Vaughn said, recalling Laynie’s attention.
“No, ma’am. Not yet. I did not know he had returned until I arrived here tonight.”
“I have been keeping him to myself, I’m afraid. He has spoken of you, however. Do not fear he has forgotten you.”
“Oh, I had no fear of that, ma’am.”
But Lady Vaughn was no longer listening. She put a hand in the air, waved a distinct figure with her glove, and Harry’s attention was summoned. He looked, first to his mother, then to Laynie, smiled, and approached.
Laynie stood. Whether out of respect, or fear, she could not be certain.
“Miss Alayna Durham,” he said, upon arriving to stand before her. “What a pleasure. I had hoped I would see you here.”
“How very good it is to see you, Mr. Vaughn.”
“Have you no dancing partner?” he asked her, and seemed surprised to find that it was so.
“No, none,” she answered.
“That is a pity,” he said, his brow furrowing.
“Not much of one, Mr. Vaughn. I have had the great pleasure of keeping your mother company this last half hour.”
Lady Vaughn gave an encouraging nod, and Harry posed his question. “Would you care to dance?”
“Well… the set is not quite finished yet.” It was so like him to not have noticed.
“Shall we get some refreshment while we wait?”
“Yes, of course.”
He led her to the refreshment table, where she chose a drink and nothing else. He took one for himself, and turned to examine the dance floor. “What is going on over there, do you suppose?” he asked, nodding in the direction where several of the young ladies had stopped walking, and now stood in an odd and haphazard manner, struggling to determine their next move.
“I really do not know,” Laynie answered. She was not about to try to explain what she herself did not understand. Why this apparent desperation to gain one man’s attention? Harry Vaughn had hardly been the sort of gentleman women fawned over before. He seemed a little more self-assured than when she had last seen him, but he was much more the same than changed. Was there something about him, some magnetizing, hypnotic quality she had not yet realized?
“How have you been, Miss Durham?” he asked as if remembering his manners, or perhaps broaching the subject they might naturally have come upon had they been dancing, after all.
“Very well, thank you. You have come home to stay, I understand.”
“Yes. I have.”
“You are not disappointed, I hope, that your studies are at an end.”
“A change in plans is always a little disorienting, but I would not go so far as to call it a disappointment.”
“I’m glad of that. Father would like to see you. I hope you will not be a stranger.”
“A stranger? To oldest and dearest friends? I think not.”
“I’m glad of that. Beth will be glad to see you, I think.” She was not certain it would be true. She was not certain it wasn’t. With Beth it was always hard to tell. She had expressed her resolute indifference toward him, and yet she had taken a sort of half-hearted initiative to seek him out. She was approaching them now. Laynie alerted him to the fact.
Harry’s attention was arrested. If he had not changed in his time away, perhaps it bore some consideration that Beth had. She had always been the more gregarious of the two sisters, if not always the most reasonable. She had always been the prettier, but now she was the established beauty between them. Laynie, average in every way, could hardly compete. It was perhaps a good thing she had no desire to do it. Beth’s fair hair set off an angel’s complexion. The rosy hue of her cheeks and lips was quite natural, and she could raise the color in the former as if on command. She was blushing now, and Harold Vaughn was quite plainly entranced.
“Beth,” he said, then stammered a correction. “M-miss Durham, I mean. Of course. Forgive me. Old habits, you know.”
Beth giggled, then nodded at the refreshment table. “Would you be so kind, Mr. Vaughn? I’m quite parched.”
“Of course!” he said, as if waking from a trance. “Yes, of course.” He delivered the requested refreshment, and apparently knew not what else to do or say.
“You are home, then? Do you mean to stay?” Beth asked him with a look that begged for the unnecessary reassurance.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “That is, I’ve not quite finished my studies, but mother is alone now, and my brother, well…” he cleared his throat and glanced at Laynie as he struggled for the words to relate, in uncondemning terms, the trouble his brother had caused.
But Beth, it seemed, had other plans. “I don’t want to hear about your brother, Mr. Vaughn,” she said. “I want to hear about you. You have left university? Don’t tell me you were expelled!” She affected a look of surprise. “You weren’t were you?”
“Oh certainly not, Miss Durham. No, of course not.”
“And now you are home, what do you mean to do with yourself? I hope you will be a regular visitor at our humble home at the Beeches?”
“Yes, of course,” he said. “If you will welcome me, I’ll consider it an honor.”
There was an awkward silence, and then Beth took Mr. Vaughn’s arm. “I think you were just about to ask me to dance,” she said in a confidential tone.
“Good heavens, yes!” he said. “Would you do me the honor, Miss Durham?”
“Yes, of course,” she said, looking up at him through her lashes and holding to his arm all the tighter. Together they walked away, toward the dance floor, leaving Laynie to sip at her drink and to watch after them. She did not resent the slight. Truly it was hardly a slight at all. If Beth found something to admire in Mr. Vaughn, that was a very good thing, perhaps for them all.
She watched them for a little while, as Beth led the conversation, as she batted her lashes and flirted, as he responded with increased confidence and enthusiasm. Before the set had ended they both seemed to be sincerely enjoying each other’s company, and Laynie was pleased. At least she felt the pressure to consider him for herself fall away as her sister worked her charms on him, and with apparent success. She considered Lady Vaughn’s words on the subject of her son and turned to share in the pleasure of the happiness her sister seemed eager to give him. Only the look on Lady Vaughn’s face was not one of pleasure at all, but of pain. Was she so displeased by the thought? Or…or was there something truly the matter? Was she ill? Laynie thought to return to Lady Vaughn’s side, but it seemed she was not the only one to observe the woman’s altered state. Two gentlemen helped her to her feet, and the doctor, who had been in attendance, was very soon at her side. It seemed he understood the matter at once and ushered her out, stopping in the foyer only long enough to retrieve her things.
Laynie, honestly concerned, followed them outdoors. In the drive she stood and watched as the doctor placed the woman in her carriage, and then as he entered the carriage to sit beside her. Laynie could not help but wonder at the severity of Lady Vaughn’s ailment, and what Harry’s unexpected return portended.
A gust of wind blew Laynie’s hair out of its pins. A clap of thunder, and then the rain fell in torrents. She returned to the shelter of the assembly hall, and she nearly ran into her father as she did.
“Good heavens, child! Where have you been?” He looked her over disapprovingly. “You’re nearly drowned. You’ll never win Harold Vaughn this way!” And he appeared truly sorry to know it might be true.
“Father, please. I don’t want—”
“You’re a girl of nineteen. You don’t know what you want!” And taking her by the elbows he led her to the carriage, where she was to wait while he got her things, and while he retrieved Beth—who would not be pleased to have to quit the dance early because her sister had managed to get caught in a deluge—and then he drove them home, lamenting all the way on the difficulties of being a single father with two daughters who would prove impossible to find suitable husbands for.