Chances and Circumstances – Chapter 5

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Whew! That Ronnie sure knows how to leave poor Bradford on pins and needles!

Two years later…

Veronica stared down at the book in her lap listlessly, attempting to make sense of the words on the page. She felt like crying, but young society women did not burst into tears simply because their brothers wished to throw them birthday parties. She didn’t understand why she had to have a birthday party, much less one that invited people from far and wide who only wanted to gawk and stare at her. She knew that the rumor mills in Town had painted her out as a misshapen figure. One who was so ashamed of her deformities that she would avoid people and society as a whole. Veronica had no interest in dispelling that notion. It simply meant that she wasn’t being forced to go out, since nobody ever invited her anywhere.

But this Season, her brother had insisted that she come to London with him. That a change of scenery would do her some good, and that it would be a good excuse for her to pick out a few new frocks. She missed having new gowns, and had wanted to visit the book shops and so she had relented. Particularly when she discovered that Nurse would not be accompanying her. Thom had secured the services of a young widow, a proper ladies’ companion, to escort her around town and go shopping with.

“You need someone closer to your age when you go to spend all my money on fripperies, my dear Ronnie, so Mrs. Redfield will be perfect. She’s only 26, quite young for a widow, you know, but she has the highest recommendation, and her late husband was an acquaintance of mine at school.”

Veronica had allowed her brother to tug at her and plodded along behind him as he prepared the house to be closed for the Season,  and put on a brave smile for him. But her excitement at going to town was mostly false, and a lot of pretense. Thom tried to entertain her with the ideas of going to musicales, and visiting the theatre. Seeing plays had always been something she’d enjoyed the few times Mama and Papa had taken them to London. But even that was not so much of a draw.

So here she was, sitting in the garden, sulking about a party being thrown in her honor, and being miserable company to the delightful Mrs. Natalie Redfield. She was young, bright, and had a quiet intelligence that sparkled in her eye when she bantered. Her wit was not evidently apparent beneath her poised decorum, but once she got your measure, Natalie was a charming conversationalist and a good person. Thinking back on it, Veronica couldn’t help but smile a little. Mrs. Redfield was easy to talk to, and had a very “decided” point of view that was not so inflexible to be a deterrent to her personality. She simply ‘decided’ things, and you either went along with her, or you didn’t, but she didn’t much mind one way or another. As she put it,

“When you are a lone woman in this world, you must be able to make up your own mind, for good or for ill. No man will be there to take the burden of making choices for you, so you must be very sure, and very decided.”

She and Veronica had known one another for 4 days before she decided that they were going to be fast friends, but that it would be Veronica’s word that would make it so.

“I’m not sure I know how to be fast friends with someone, Mrs. Redfield.” Veronica muttered, attempting to dispel the woman’s natural good cheer. Veronica wasn’t, by nature, a sullen being, but even a chipper bluebird would seem sullen next to Natalie Redfield.

“Well, it begins quite simply, Miss Norwick,” the older woman settled herself onto the couch next to her charge. “First, we go shopping, and spend the day looking at all manner of frivolity and hats and gloves and frocks! Then, we walk out to the park for an afternoon and show off one another to the world. Then we hold one another in confidence, as we are now.”

“But, Mrs. Redfield, we’ve already done all that,” Veronica pointed out, rolling her eyes at the silliness, but inwardly relishing the idea that she might already have begun well on the path to friendship.

“Then there is nothing to be done, but to dispense with the formalities of all the ‘misses’ and ‘miss’ and just be Natalie and Veronica,” Natalie clapped her hands together in delight. Veronica laughed and felt herself lighten.

“I am delighted to be your fast friend, then, Natalie,” and they were. Natalie began to coax some life back into Veronica, regaling her with tales of her first Season, and encouraging the younger woman to come out of her shell again.

“But you know, I’m not intending to marry,” Veronica said very solemnly one evening as the two sat having tea.

“Well, of course not,” Natalie agreed, good-naturedly, “Why should you? You have a home with your brother, and you have money and land, so there’s no true need for a husband.” Veronica eyed her skeptically.

“You’re not going to argue with me on this?” She asked curiously, and Natalie shook her head no.

“I think that you are old enough to make decisions for yourself, don’t you? If you’ve decided that you will not marry, then you shall not marry. It’s as simple as that. Of course, you’re welcome to change your mind. But it must be your mind that changes. I, myself, have said on many occasions that I shall not marry again. Not since my Freddy passed. He was the spirit of generosity, though, and I know that if I were to find love again, he would be smiling down on me because he knew me enough to know that my head and my heart work together to create happiness.”

“Natalie, do you ever miss being married?” Veronica wondered about this quite a bit, because she knew there were aspects of married life that one could not have without a husband. As they always did when she thought of it, her lips tingled at the remembrance of Lord Bradford’s kiss. Two years later, and she had not seen him since that night in the garden. He was gone by the time she’d left her room the next day, and had not returned. Thom saw him in London or at his lordship’s estate. Every invitation to join them at the Norwick Estate was summarily turned down, politely but a rejection all the same.

“I do, yes,” Natalie’s natural exuberance dimmed to a quiet flame as she spoke softly, “I miss having someone to talk to in the dark nights, someone to hold me when I cried, someone whom I could lean on in times of distress, those are things that not even the best of friends can replace for you.”

“But, I mean, more of the, um… physical aspects of being… married,” Veronica blushed bright red as Natalie’s eyebrows shot up.

“The – oh, yes, I suppose that I do. It has been three years since my Freddy died, so I suppose, with time, those… feelings faded some. But I do remember that I quite enjoyed kissing.” Natalie winked broadly, then stood to pour more tea for herself and Veronica.

Veronica blinked as a shadow fell across her book and dsirupted her recollecting. She looked up, expecting to see her brother or Natalie standing over her. Imagine her surprise to see none other than the Earl of Renmount, Lord Richard Bradford, looming like a mountain above her.

“Why, Miss Norwick, you have certainly grown some, haven’t you? No more black?” His teasing lilt startled her, and she smiled in spite of herself.

“No, my lord, I detest black clothing, and it has been two years. I don’t believe that my father would have wished me to mourn him forever.” He stepped to the side of her and sat on the bench beside her.

“No, indeed not. I have never thought that black was a particularly becoming color on young ladies, myself, but I daresay you carry it off quite well.” His fingers caught one of the loose curls from her not very carefully styled chignon. She hadn’t bothered to properly dress her hair this morning, it was supposed to be a quiet day at home with only the family and Mrs. Redfield, who was practically family already. His familiarity took her off guard.

“I don’t think my hair qualifies as something that I can change out of,” Veronica stated tartly, then in a sheepish undertone added, “Believe me, I’ve tried.”

“Of course, your brother told me about the lemon juice incident. Was it that terribly orange?”

“Very bright, if you must know. My Nurse was pale by comparison as she railed at me,” Veronica tipped her chin up proudly. She had attempted, at the age of 7, to do as her Mama did and lighten her hair with a mixture of lemon juice and water. She had squeezed the lemons herself, and pumped up the water from the well on her own, and then sat in the sunny garden as her hair dried. The results had not gone as expected, as she hadn’t counted on the fact that Mama’s hair was naturally light brown and the lemon would only bring it to blonde. On Veronica’s ebony tresses, it became a streaky orange and muddy brown.

“I’m sorry that I missed it then,” Bradford commented quietly, smiling at her teasingly.

“Oh, I’m not,” Veronica insisted, blushing a little, “I daresay I wouldn’t have liked knowing that you had seen me like that.” Her cheeks warmed more as she glanced down at her book again. He raised an eyebrow slightly.

“Does it matter to you?” he pressed, “I wouldn’t have thought that my opinion would have been important.”

“Oh posh, it doesn’t matter what I think, my lord!” Veronica fluttered her hands anxiously, closing her book with a delicate snap. “What brings you around at this time of day?”

The Earl smiled complacently, but allowed her to change the subject, “I came to see your brother. I’ve just arrived back in town, and I hear that there is a very splendid party in the works. I’ve come to secure an invitation.”

“But…” Veronica stared at him, “Why? It’s only a silly party…”

“It’s a party to celebrate a certain young woman’s eighteenth birthday, and entrée into society, is it not?”

“Oh… posh…” Veronica couldn’t think of a good reason why the Earl should not be invited to her birthday party. She didn’t much want to have the damned thing in the first place, but now the thought that she might be permitted to dance with the Earl made her heart flutter in a most unladylike manner.

“I had hoped that your esteemed companion would take pity on me and offer me an invite to tea this afternoon, during which I was fully set to charm my way onto the guest list.” He smiled at Veronica, and that fluttering turned into an all out pounding. Could he hear her heart beating so loudly it made her ears ring? He lifted her hand and held it between his own.

“You’ve gone terribly quiet, Miss Norwick. Have I said too much? That’s it, isn’t it? I’ve embarrassed you with my assumption!” He pulled a dramatic expression of woe, “Now you will never invite me to your party and I will be hopelessly cast down in Society for failing to incite your interest long enough for even one dance!”

“Oh, bother, of course you can come to the damned party!” Veronica blurted out, her voice lilting with amused exasperation, “And I will save you a dance, as well, if you wish it, since your dear heart would break without it!” She turned her face slightly and rolled her eyes away from him. The sound of his laughter made her heart pound again. Was he laughing at her? She faced him again. No, his eyes were twinkling with mirth, inviting her to laugh with him. She couldn’t help herself, and a small, delighted giggle escaped her lips. Her free hand came up to press against her mouth, attempting to stem the flow of laughter, and failing. He still held her hand, but she couldn’t see through the tears swirling in her vision as gales of laughter like she hadn’t had in years poured forth. Minutes went by as they laughed together, and then her own joyous sounds began to falter as she struggled to breathe. She was leaned against his shoulder, shaking and gasping softly as her vision cleared and her head became a happier place. He was gently stroking her shoulder and back as her giggling and gasping subsided.

“That’s truly a beautiful sound, Veronica,” Bradford commented quietly, and it snapped her out of her delirium. She was unchaperoned, with a man, in the back garden, and was practically sitting in his lap! This would never do!

As if he heard her thoughts, Bradford eased back and removed his hand from her shoulders. She immediately missed his touch, but knew that it would never be. She was determined not to marry, and he would need a lady and an heir. Unless he already had one…? No, she fought against the thought violently, no, she would have heard if he’d taken an interest in a girl, much less a wife! He was the Earl of Renmount, and there was no lack of intrigue about his personal goings on from the matrons of society.

“Um, if you will excuse me, my lord,” Veronica stumbled to her feet, and a steadying hand landed on her waist, keeping her upright but turning her knees to jelly. She’d had dancing lessons, she knew that was where hands would end up at her party in two days’ time, but to have his hands on her made her feel weak and unprepared. But then, she knew what it was like to have his hands on her. He’d held her tightly when he’d kissed her… the last time they’d been alone and unattended in a garden. She needed to remove herself before she did something incredibly stupid, like ask him to kiss her again…

“Are you all right?” His voice was soft and a little rough, like he was lost in thought. She blinked up at him as he stood in front of her and steadied her properly.

“I… must have been sitting too long,” she murmured, and her eyes dropped to his mouth. Suddenly, his hands were gone from her, leaving cold spots where they’d been resting on her waist. She glanced up and he was staring over her shoulder with a jovial grin.

“Thom, my good man, what kind of rascal are you? To leave your dear little sister out here to wilt in the sunlight!”

Veronica breathed a quiet sigh, though if it was relief or regret, she wasn’t going to speculate. With a breathy excuse, she turned and would have run into the house, slamming the door behind her, but her father’s years of training had embedded themselves so deeply in her brain that she couldn’t even beat a hasty retreat in her favorite fashion anymore. So she stepped, with grace and ladylike care, into the house and slowly but purposefully made her way to her bedroom.

Reminding herself that she was no longer under the iron rule of her father, Veronica did a very UNladylike thing and threw herself across her bed. She was tired suddenly, probably from her dizzying encounter with the Earl, but she would later come to blame it on the warmth of the garden, and fell asleep with a soft, pleased smile on her face.

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