Today's Reading

As it turned out, Gwendolyn's brother Hugo arrived in Whitehaven a week after that and within a matter of days was betrothed to a fantastically rich heiress who lived just outside town, thereby neatly solving at a stroke all the family's money problems. Which was just as well, Christopher thought, because Diana had come trailing after him with the news of Hugo's engagement, and added in a low voice trembling with excitement:

"And Gwennie told me that her mama said that Papa asked her to marry him!"

He paused just outside the stable, stupefied all over again. The things girls said! "What the devil are you talking about, you nitwit? Father wants to marry Gwendolyn?"

"Gwendolyn? Oh, no, Christopher, how could you think such a thing? Papa asked Gwennie's mama to marry him! But she said no. Even though she's a widow, and Papa's a widower. Oh, Christopher, I do wish she'd said yes, she's the nicest, kindest lady in all the world! And then Gwennie and I would be sisters! And you would be her brother! We'd all live together in the same house, and maybe, someday, I could marry Percy—or Francis—they're so very handsome—though I can never tell which is which. I do wish they weren't identical twins! But then they wouldn't be themselves! They'd be somebody else. And then I wouldn't want to marry them."

"O God," said Christopher, nauseated to his very soul, then took one long step inside the stable and slammed the door in Diana's face. He brushed aside the groom's offer to saddle his horse and did it himself, doing his best to keep his hands gentle despite the anger firing up inside him again, and within five minutes he was on the wide sandy beach, bent low over his horse's neck, riding hard, half-wishing he could plunge straight into the turbulent blue-green waves and ride, like the mighty Poseidon in his mythical chariot, to someplace far, far away.

A few years after that...
Whitehaven, England 
Winter 1815

"Oh, Gwennie," exclaimed Diana, "isn't this the most beautiful gown you've ever seen?"

The two girls were sitting close together on a sofa in the large, comfortable drawing-room of the Penhallow house, poring over the current issue of La Belle Assemblée, all around them the cheerful sounds of a convivial holiday gathering.

Gwendolyn studied the illustration of an improbably elongated lady wearing an elaborate dress of striped silver gauze, its glossy silver-edged hem drawn up to the knee (boldly displaying the white satin slip beneath) and ornamented with a large cluster of artificial flowers. She was also wearing a gauzy silk headdress, a low-set wreath of brilliants, enormous ruby ear-bobs, half a dozen bracelets on each wrist, and had wide silver ribbons dangling negligently from her bodice—these additional adornments praised in the caption as the height of modish elegance. They may well have been, but to Gwendolyn the lady looked more like an overdressed actress in a bad play than anything else. But of course, taste was a subjective thing, and so to Diana she only said:

"Yes, very pretty."

"Do ask your mama to have it made for you! And you 'must' wear it to Almack's! Everyone will be looking at you!"

Gwendolyn was sure they would, but perhaps not for the reason Diana imagined, and wondered, not for the first time, what it would be like to step into the hallowed halls of Almack's, that exclusive and supremely fashionable London institution. What it would be like to have her Season at last, after years of waiting. There was a time, before Hugo returned from the war, when the idea of a Season had been an impossible one. How different things were now—how infinitely better!

A burst of laughter near the mantelpiece interrupted Gwendolyn's musings, and she glanced over to see Hugo laughing at something his business partner, Mr. Studdart, had said. She let her gaze sweep around the room. It was lovely having her three other brothers home from Eton—and how tall they'd become, too, though they hadn't quite yet reached Hugo's great height. Percy stood next to Hugo, and Francis was talking to Grandpapa; Bertram, two years younger than herself, sat next to Hugo's wife Katherine on a sofa, his hand on her rounded belly and on his face a look of deep interest.

"Did you feel that, Bertram?" asked Katherine, and he nodded.

"It feels like an elbow, or a knee, kicking at me. How curious to think there's a person inside you, Katherine. Do you want a girl or a boy?"

She smiled at him. "I'll be happy with either."

"That's how I felt, Katherine dear," said Mama, who sat nearby with Mr. Studdart's new wife, Céleste, who had once been his housekeeper. Mrs. Studdart looked at Katherine, smiling a little, and Gwendolyn saw how her gaze went thoughtfully to Percy and Francis, and then to Aunt Verena and Aunt Claudia. Two sets of twins. Gwendolyn stared at Katherine wonderingly, then glanced over at the wide doorway as a movement there caught her eye.

It was Christopher Beck, coming into the room but only barely; he went directly to the nearby window and stood with his back to them all. He too had gotten taller in the past few years, and his hair was longer than when last she'd seen him, brushing dark and glossy against his white shirt-collar.

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