Dear Lady Agony,
I'm very much in love with a man my father will never consent to. His opinions on marriage are quite strict, for ours is an important family. But my heart is mine alone to give. I will not marry a man I do not love. Therefore, we must depart for Gretna Green at once. I see no other alternative. Do you?
Going to Gretna Green
Dear Going to Gretna Green,
The words Gretna Green evoke an image of a clandestine excursion through verdant fields ending in eternal happiness. But I daresay it is a false image and one that has ruined many girls' chances for a good life. Running away never solves problems; it only creates more. You state that the man you love is undesirable to your family. Have you asked yourself why they resist the match? Sometimes those closest to us see that which we cannot. In your case, you must try to discover the reasons, for departing to Gretna Green would be disastrous. The journey is perilous, and even if you make it, a three-week waiting period must pass before the ceremony is allowed. By then your reputation will be in tatters. My stringent advice is do not go.
Yours in Secret,
Amelia reread her advice to Marielle, Simon Bainbridge's sister, which Amelia had sent to the magazine under the guise of Lady Agony. The response had been printed. All that was to be done was wait and see if the advice would be taken.
Amelia leaned back in her well-used desk chair. The library was alight with cheery afternoon sun, and if she focused on the miniature rainbows it reflected off the cordial glasses on the corner table, she could almost pretend a girl's future didn't hang in the balance. Not just any girl's, she reminded herself. Simon's sister.
For the past week, Simon had circled her house like a shark waiting for food. She was his keeper and her advice his meal. He was adamant that his sister not run away with their onetime stable manager George Davies, who, according to him, was a no-good gambler and social climber. Unfortunately, fervor rarely guaranteed success. Sometimes it ensured the opposite. Now that the letter was printed, Simon's attention had turned to Marielle, whom he was observing for any signs of departure. Tonight, for instance, Mr. Davies had invited Marielle to attend the opera with him in the box of the esteemed Lord and Lady Burton, so of course, Amelia and Simon were attending also. Simon had informed her of their plans no less than twenty-four hours ago. His exact words were, "We'll be attending Rigoletto tomorrow. Don't wear black."
Amelia glanced at her light-colored dress, lingering over the dusky rose color, and smiled. She cared not a whit for fashion, but wearing colors again was nice. It felt like an age since she'd worn mourning, yet it'd been only a month. For over two years, she'd kept to black and gray out of respect for her deceased husband, Edgar, Earl of Amesbury, to whom she'd been married for just two months when he passed. But in those two months, they were closer than any patient and nurse could have been. His degenerative disease moved quickly, making him reliant on her for his care and everything else, and she learned more about life in those few precious, daunting months than in her previous years combined. Although she was only five and twenty, she was more mature than her age belied, having seen a lifetime pass before her eyes.
Edgar was gone, but she wasn't alone. In his absence, he'd entrusted her to the sizable Amesbury fortune, his dear niece Winifred, and his formidable Aunt Tabitha. Of the three, only the last gave her trouble.
Amelia's eyes turned upward to the second floor of the library, where the punctuated sounds of Tabitha's cane went tap, tap, tap. Leatherbound histories of the Norman Conquest vibrated gently in the cherrywood bookshelves. Someone had made a blunder, and for once it wasn't Amelia. Her lips twisted into a smile as she imagined the misstep of the butler or perhaps Tabitha's cherished lady's maid, Patty Addington. No. Tabitha and Mrs. Addington were of one mind. They rarely disagreed.
The smile dropped from Amelia's lips as she heard the cane thumping down the steps: one, two, three. Drat. Maybe she had done something wrong, but what? As the stomps grew closer, she understood she was about to find out. She shut the paper and stood from her desk. No one-especially not Tabitha Amesbury-could find out about her secret pseudonym. Only Simon; her best friend, Kitty Hamsted; and her editor, Grady Armstrong, knew of her clandestine occupation, and she must keep it that way.
With cheap paper and low postage, the magazine was becoming ever more popular, and the advice of Lady Agony was in high demand. Grady said the magazine's circulation was nearing 500,000, and Amelia believed it. She answered letters every day just to keep up with the weekly print, forgoing some letters for others. Costumes, manners, relationships-they covered the bulk of inquiries. But increasingly, readers asked about her life. Who was she, and why was a lady (a countess, if they knew her real identity) answering letters in a penny weekly? God willing, no one would ever find out.
With a hard push, the door flew open, and Tabitha stood like Nike, the goddess of victory, but instead of holding a crown for victory, she brandished a cane. She wore stiff gray, out of respect for her dearly departed nephew, Edgar. On her, however, the color appeared lavender, perhaps because of her crystal blue eyes, for which the Amesburys were known. Her high cheekbones, another familial attribute, were flushed with exertion or irritation. Amelia was about to find out which.
"Something is afoot," declared Tabitha.
"The three best words in the English language." With a smile, Amelia met her in the middle of the room.
Tabitha dipped her head ever so slightly, but her height was untrimmed. She towered several inches over Amelia. "No, Amelia, they are not the three best words in the English language. Winifred is keeping something from me, and I want to know what."
Amelia gestured to the green leather couch.
Tabitha took the striped chair.
"Winifred doesn't keep secrets." Amelia heard the edge in her own words. Although there was no blood relation, she thought of Winifred as her own daughter, and her ire rose like a mother hen's at the accusation.
Tabitha crossed her hands over her cane. Whatever weakness her arthritis caused was compensated by a strong upper body and perfect posture. "Correction. Winifred did not use to keep secrets. Winifred is almost eleven. Children change."
Amelia had noticed some changes of late. Winifred was spending less time in the nursery and taking more interest in the opposite sex. Which was to say, tittering whenever she passed the neighbor boy in the street. "Continue," said Amelia, sliding back into the plush leather cushions of the couch.
Now that Tabitha had her ear, she leaned into her cane. "Several times I've come across Winifred, and she stops whatever it is she's doing. Hiding something. I cannot make it out."
"Maybe it's private." Amelia stressed the word, knowing Tabitha understood no boundaries when it came to family. She was the eldest and most Amesbury of the Amesburys. She took the job quite seriously.
Tabitha's crystal blue eyes turned to frost. "She is a child. Nothing is private."
"But you said times are changing."
"I said children change-and I don't approve of this change." Her cane punctuated the words I don't approve. "As her mother, you must see to it."
Despite Tabitha's irritation, Amelia basked in the comment. Even Tabitha recognized her as Winifred's surrogate parent. That meant she was doing something right. Truth be told, neither she nor Tabitha had parenting experience. Tabitha hadn't married, and the closest Amelia had come to child-rearing was telling her younger sister, Margaret, what to do. Yet Tabitha was obviously struggling with Winifred's age more than she was. "I can't turn back time, Aunt, and even if I could, I wouldn't. I'm looking forward to seeing Winifred grow into a young woman."
Tabitha pursed her lips, and the delicate skin above them creased.
"However, I'll look into the matter. I'll make certain nothing untoward is going on."
The promise placated Tabitha. Or at least she leaned back into her chair. "Now, about tonight's business with Simon Bainbridge. I'm not sure you should attend the opera unchaperoned."
"Blazes!" Amelia sat upright. "Why would you say such a thing? I'm a widow, for goodness' sake."
Tabitha pointed her cane at her. "To the Amesbury fortune. And do not curse like a sailor."
I'm not even close to a sailor, Amelia thought. But she had grown up at the Feathered Nest, a busy inn tucked into the outskirts of Mells, a frequent stop of travelers on their way to London. Nights could and did grow rowdy when sleep-deprived guests indulged in good wine, food, and entertainment, and her family wasn't above joining in on the fun. Father would push back the tables, her sister Sarah would take up the pianoforte, and Amelia and her other sisters, Penelope and Margaret, would sing songs.
But now Amelia was the Countess of Amesbury and all that title implied. Her responsibilities didn't include physical labor. Sometimes she wished they did, for she was used to work. If it weren't for her column at the magazine, she might have lost her mind by now. "I am not a girl, Aunt Tabitha. I will not be followed around like a debutante. Simon is a family friend."
"In whom you've taken a great interest."
"I have not!"
Tabitha raised silvery eyebrows, and three soft wrinkles appeared on her forehead. "Vying for his attention will prove fruitless, Amelia. He has many admirers yet none whose ardor he returns. It would do our family little credit to have you throw yourself at him."
"I'm not vying for his attention," Amelia countered. "We're friends."
"Men and women cannot be friends."
Amelia understood its truth from her time at the magazine. Attraction got in the way of most male-female relationships she wrote about. Friends, employees, employers. Despite best intentions, curiosity abounded when it came to the opposite sex. But she and Grady were friends, dear friends. Aunt Tabitha would say their friendship was the rare example. "Regardless, Simon's sister, Lady Marielle, will be there tonight, and we're basically . . . mostly . . . acting as her chaperone." Yes, that's right. "How could a chaperone be in need of a chaperone? It would not make sense."
Tabitha's pursed lips slackened, and Amelia knew she'd won. Widows-especially widows of a considerable fortune-were allowed exceptions. Edgar had left her independent and wealthy, the two best ways a widow could be in 1860. Amelia wasn't going to do something foolish to risk her autonomy. And neither would Simon.
"I didn't realize you were escorting Lady Marielle." Tabitha rested her cane on the arm of the chair, indicating the battle was finished. Although she had many beautiful canes, this wasn't one of them. A curved black raven, worn at the wings from Tabitha's strong grip, perched atop a long ebony stick. Amelia didn't subscribe to magic, but she did believe the bird could peck someone's eyes out if Tabitha willed it.
"Lady Marielle is much sought after, this being her first season out," continued Tabitha. "Her debut at the Smythe ball is still being discussed in many circles. Has Simon mentioned any particular suitors?"
Every. Single. Day.
According to Simon, George Davies was a gambler, a rogue, and a cheat. Was it all true, or brotherly protection? If anyone had insider knowledge, it was Tabitha. She was held in high esteem by all of London. Amelia decided to ask. "He has mentioned one person, a Mr. George Davies. He was once stable manager for the Bainbridge family before he became a trainer to some of the fastest horses at the Derby, including theirs, and his fortune changed. His advice is requested often, I've heard."
Tabitha sniffed. "Mr. Davies? That cannot be. Simon cannot allow it."
"Simon's not excited about Lady Marielle's interest, either. He compares it to a schoolgirl infatuation with a teacher. As it so happens, Mr. Davies taught her to ride. That was years before he began training her father's racehorses."
"Simon's right," said Tabitha. "It would be best for him to remove Mr. Davies from the picture altogether. Being seen with such a man will draw unwanted attention."
Amelia wrinkled her nose. London society could be positively archaic when it came to whom one could and could not see. Outside of the city, rules were not as stringent; why must they be so here, in a city of diverse multitudes? Amelia didn't want to see Marielle escape with a ruffian, either, but confronted with this attitude, she also understood why the girl felt she had no other choice but to flee. "What do you mean by 'remove Mr. Davies from the picture'? I don't understand."
Tabitha grasped her cane to stand. Amelia reached out, but Tabitha swatted her hand away, opting instead for the raven's long beak.
"What I mean is to let the man know he's not welcome in the Bainbridge family." Tabitha straightened her gown. "Rebuff him."
"Is that what you would have done to me if Edgar hadn't married me straightaway?" Amelia couldn't hide her incredulity. "Rebuff me?" Hers was a respected family in the country, but here, her name meant nothing. Under the protection of Edgar's wealth and title, however, she was welcomed in every plush drawing room in London.
"Don't be incensed. It's the way the world is."
Amelia tipped her chin, meeting Tabitha's eyes. "Maybe it shouldn't be."
Tabitha strode toward the door. She paused with her hand on the knob, turning around and pointing the cane at her. "You're going to be a terrible chaperone, Amelia."
"I've been called worse things."
Then Amelia was alone, the punctuation of Tabitha's cane sounding all the way down the hall.
Dear Lady Agony,
My husband insists we only attend the opera, for it is the fashionable place to be seen. The theatre, he proclaims, entices the low and tawdry, and he won't deign to go. But I enjoy plays, and my friends attend. Shouldn't I be allowed the entertainment as well? I don't want to create friction in our marriage.
Fan of Fun
Dear Fan of Fun,
I, myself, am a fan of fun, which your husband seems to have little concept of. If I take your letter correctly, he attends the opera for one reason only: to be seen. It's my assumption, then, that the only performance he cares for is his own. Therefore, I say leave him at home with his own good company and attend the theatre with your friends. Friction causes fire but also warmth. Maybe your husband could use some of the latter.
Copyright © 2024 by Mary Winters. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.