the residence of Mrs. Mariana Daltry, her daughter Victoria,
and Miss Katherine Daltry
Miss Katherine Daltry, known to almost all as Kate, got down from her horse seething with rage.
It should be said that the condition wasn’t unfamiliar to her. Before her father died seven years earlier, she found herself sometimes irritated with her new stepmother. But it wasn’t until he was gone, and the new Mrs. Daltry – who had held that title for a matter of mere months – started ruling the roost, that Kate really learned the meaning of anger.
Anger was watching tenants on the estate be forced to pay double the rent or leave cottages where they’d lived their whole lives. Anger was watching the crops wilt and the hedges overgrow because her stepmother begrudged the money needed to maintain the estate. Anger was watching her father’s money be poured into new gowns and bonnets and frilly things…so numerous that her stepmother and stepsister couldn’t find days enough in the year to wear them all.
It was the pitying glances she had from acquaintances who never met her at dinner anymore. It was being relegated to a chamber in the attic, with faded furnishings that advertised her relative worth in the household. It was the self-loathing of someone who can’t quite bring herself to leave home and have done with it. It was fueled by humiliation, and despair, and the absolute certainty that her father must be turning in his grave.
She stomped up the front steps girding her loins for battle, as her father himself would have said. “Hello, Cherryderry,” she said, as their dear old butler opened the door. “Are you playing footman now?”
“Herself sent the footmen off to London to fetch a doctor,” Cherryderry said. “To be exact, two doctors.”
“Having a spell, is she?” Kate pulled her gloves off carefully, since the leather was separating from its lining around the wrist. Time was when she might have actually wondered if her stepmother (known to the household as Herself) was malingering, but no longer. Not after years of false alarms and voices screaming in the middle of the night about attacks…which generally turned out to be indigestion.
Though as Cherryderry had once commented, one can only hope.
“Not Herself, this time. It’s Miss Victoria’s face, I gather.”
He nodded. “Dragging the lip down, so her maid told us this morning. There’s a swelling there as well.”
Sour as she felt, Kate felt a pulse of sympathy. Poor Victoria didn’t have much going for her outside of her pretty face and prettier frocks; it would break her stepsister’s heart if she were permanently disfigured.
“I have to talk to Herself about the vicar’s wife,” she said, handing her pelisse to Cherryderry. “Or rather, the former vicar’s wife. After his death, I moved the family to the far cottage.”
“Bad business,” the butler said. “Especially in a vicar. Seems that a vicar shouldn’t take his own life.”
“He left her with four children,” Kate said.
“Mind you, it’s not easy for a man to get over the loss of a limb.”
“Well, now his children have to get over the loss of him,” she said unsympathetically. “Not to mention that my stepmother sent an eviction notice to his widow yesterday.”
Cherryderry frowned. “Herself says you’re to dine with them tonight.”
Kate stopped on her way up the stairs. “She said what?”
“You’re to dine with them tonight. And Lord Dimsdale is coming.”
“You must be joking.”
But the butler was shaking his head. “She said that. What’s more, she’s decided that Miss Victoria’s rats have to go, but for some reason she banished them to your chamber.”
Kate closed her eyes for a moment. A day that had started out badly was only getting worse. She disliked her stepsister’s pack of little dogs, affectionately or not so affectionately, known to all as the rats. She also disliked Algernon Bennett, Lord Dimsdale, her stepsister’s betrothed. He smiled too easily. And she loathed even more the idea of sitting down to dinner en famille.
She generally managed to forget that she had once been mistress of the household. After all, her mother had been bedridden for years before she died, and sickly most of Kate’s life. Kate had grown up sitting opposite her father at the dining room table, going over the menus with Mrs. Swallow, the housekeeper… She had expected to debut, and marry, and raise children of her own in this very house.
But that was before her father died, and she turned into a maid-of-all-work, living in the garret.
And now she was to come to dinner, in a gown that was out of date, and endure the smirking pleasantries of Lord Dimsdale? Why?
She ran up the stairs with a sickening foreboding in her stomach. Kate’s stepmother was seated at her dressing table, examining her complexion. The afternoon light fell over her shoulder, lighting her hair. It had a glare to it, that hair, a fierce yellow tint as if the strands were made of minerals. She was wearing a morning dress with a pleated bodice of lilac net, caught under the breasts with a trailing ribbon. It was lovely…for a debutante.
But Mariana could not abide the fact that she was no longer in her thirties. In fact, she had never really accepted the loss of her twenties. And so she dressed herself to create an approximation of Mariana-at-Twenty. One thing you had to say for Kate’s stepmother: She had a reckless bravery, a kind of fierce disregard for the conventions governing women’s aging.
But of course if Mariana’s costumes were the outward expression of her ambition, they were also the refuge of the failed. For no woman yet has appeared twenty in her forties, and a deliciously sensual gown cannot restore youth.
“I gather you finished your peregrinations amongst your friends and bothered to come home,” Mariana said acidly.
Kate took one look around her stepmother’s boudoir and decided to remove a heap of clothes from what she was almost certain was a stool. The room was mounded with piles of light cottons and spangled silks; they were thrown in heaps over the chairs. Or at least where one presumed chairs to be. The room resembled a pastel snowscape, with soft mountains of fabric here and there.
“What are you doing?” her stepmother demanded as Kate hoisted the gowns in her arms.
“Sitting down,” Kate said, dropping the clothing on the floor.
Her stepmother bounded up with a screech. “Don’t treat my gowns like that, you stupid girl! The top few were delivered only a day or two ago, and they’re magnificent. I’ll have you ironing them all night if there’s the least wrinkle, even the least.”
“I don’t iron,” Kate said flatly. “Remember? I put a scorch mark on a white gown three years ago.”
“Ah, the Persian belladine!” her stepmother cried, clasping her hands together like a girlish Lady Macbeth. “I keep it… there.” She pointed a long finger to a corner where a towering mound of cloth went halfway to the ceiling. “I shall have it altered one of these days.” She sat back down.
Kate carefully pushed the stack of gowns a little further away from her foot. “I must speak to you about the Crabtrees.”
“God, I hope you managed to shovel the woman out the door,” Mariana said, lighting a cigarillo. “You know the bloody solicitor is coming next week to assess my management of the estate. If he sees that scrapheap of a cottage, he’ll make no end of fuss. Last quarter he prosed on and on till I thought I’d die of boredom.”
“It’s your responsibility to keep the cottages in good repair,” Kate said, getting up to open a window.
Mariana waved her cigarillo disdainfully. “Nonsense. Those people live on my land for practically nothing. The least they can do is keep their own houses in good nick. That Crabtree woman is living in a pigsty. I happened by the other day and I was positively horrified.”
Kate sat back down and let her eyes wander around the room. The pigsty of a room. But after a moment she realized that Mariana hadn’t noticed her silent insult, since she had opened a little jar and was painting her lips a dark shade of copper.
“Since her husband died,” Kate said, “Mrs. Crabtree is both exhausted and afraid. The house is not a pigsty; it is simply disorganized. You can’t evict her. She has nowhere to go.”
“Nonsense,” Mariana said, leaning closer to the glass to examine her lips. “I’m sure she has a bolt-hole all planned. Another man, most like. It’s been over a year since Crabtree topped himself; she’ll have a new one lined up by now. You’ll see.”
Talking to her stepmother, to Kate’s mind, was like peeing in a pitch-black outhouse. You had no idea what might come up, but you knew you wouldn’t like it.
“That is cruel,” she said, trying to pitch her words so that she sounded like the voice of authority.
“They have to go,” Mariana stated. “I can’t abide sluggards. I made a special trip over to the vicarage, you know, the morning after her husband jumped from the bridge. Bringing my condolences.”
Mariana preferred to avoid all the people working on the estate or in the village, except on the rare occasions when she developed a sudden taste for playing the lady of the manor. Then she would put on an ensemble extravagantly calculated to offend country folk, descend from her carriage, and decipher in her tenants’ startled expressions their shiftless and foolish natures. Finally she would instruct Kate to jettison them from their homes.
Luckily, she generally forgot about the demand after a week or so.
“That woman, Crabtree, was lying on the settee crying. Children all over the room, a disgusting number of children, and there she was, shoulders shaking like a bad actress. Crying. Maybe she should join a traveling theater,” Mariana said. “She’s not unattractive.”
Mariana interrupted. “I can’t abide idlers. Do you think I lay about and wept after my first husband, the colonel, died? Did you see me shed a tear when your father died, though we had enjoyed but a few months of matrimonial bliss?”
Kate had seen no tears, but Mariana needed no confirmation from her. “Although Mrs. Crabtree may not have your fortitude, she has four small children and we have some responsibility to them—“
“I’m bored with the subject and besides, I need to speak to you about something important. Tonight Lord Dimsdale is coming to dinner and you shall join us.” Mariana blew out a puff of smoke. It looked like fog escaping from a small copper pipe.
“So Cherryderry said. Why?” She and her stepmother had long ago dispensed with pleasantries. They loathed each other, and Kate couldn’t imagine why her presence was required at the table.
“You’re going to be meeting Dimsdale’s relatives in a few days.” Mariana took another pull on her cigarillo. “Thank God, you’re slimmer than Victoria. We can have her gowns taken in quite easily. It would be harder to go the other way.”
“What are you talking about? I can’t imagine that Lord Dimsdale has the faintest interest in eating a meal with me, nor in introducing me to his relatives, and the feeling is mutual.”
Before Mariana could clarify her demand, the door was flung open. “The cream isn’t working,” Victoria wailed, hurtling toward her mother. She didn’t even see Kate, just fell to her knees and buried her face in her mother’s lap.
Instantly Mariana put down her cigarillo and wrapped her arms around her daughter’s shoulders. “Hush babykins,” she crooned. “Of course the cream will work. We just need to give it a little time. I promise you, Mother promises you, that it will work. Your face will be as beautiful as ever. And just in case, I sent off to London for two of the very best doctors.”
Kate was beginning to feel a faint interest in the matter. “What kind of cream are you using?”
Mariana threw her an unfriendly glance. “Nothing you would have heard of. It’s made from crushed pearls, among other things. It works like a charm on all sorts of facial imperfections. I use it myself, daily.”
“Just look at my lip, Kate!” Victoria said, popping her head back up. “I’m ruined for life.” Her eyes glistened with tears.
Her lower lip did look rather alarming. There was an odd violet-colored puffiness around the site that suggested infection, and her mouth had a slight, but distinct, list to the side.
Kate got to her feet and came over for a closer look. “Has Dr. Busby seen it yet?”
“He came yesterday, but he’s an old fool,” Mariana said. “He couldn’t be expected to understand how important this is. He hadn’t a single helpful potion or cream to offer. Nothing!”
Kate turned Victoria’s head to the side so that the light fell on it. “I think the bite is infected,” she said. “Are you sure this cream is hygienic?”
“Are you questioning my judgment?” Mariana shouted, standing up.
“Absolutely,” Kate retorted. “If Victoria ends up with a deformed mouth because you sloshed on some quack remedy you were swindled into buying in London, I want it clear that it’s your fault.”
“You insolent toad!” Mariana said, stepping forward.
But Victoria put out an arm. “Mother, stop. Kate, do you really think there’s something wrong with the cream? My lip throbs terribly.” Victoria was a tremendously pretty girl, with a beautiful complexion and wide, tender eyes that always looked a bit dewy, as if she had just shed a sentimental tear, or was just about to. Since she shed tears, sentimental and otherwise, throughout the day, this made sense. Now two tears rolled down her face.
“I think that there might be some infection inside the wound,” Kate said, frowning. “Your lip mended quickly, but…” She pushed gently, and Victoria cried out. “It’s going to have to be lanced.”
“Never!” Mariana roared.
“I couldn’t allow my face to be cut,” Victoria said, trembling all over.
“But you don’t want to have a disfigurement,” Kate said, schooling her tone to patience.
Victoria blinked while she thought about that.
“Nothing will happen until the London doctors arrive,” Mariana announced, sitting back down. She had a wild enthusiasm for anyone, and anything, from London. Kate suspected it was the result of a childhood spent in the country, but since Mariana never let slip even a hint about her past, it was hard to know.
“Well, let’s hope they arrive soon,” Kate said, wondering whether an infected lip created any risk of blood infection. Presumably not… “Why do you want me to join you for dinner, Mariana?”
“Because of my lip, of course,” Victoria said, snuffling, like a small pig.
“Your lip,” Kate repeated.
“I can’t go on the visit, can I?” Victoria added, with a characteristic, if maddening, lack of clarity.
“Your sister was to pay a very important visit to a member of Lord Dimsdale’s family in just a few days,” Mariana put in. “If you weren’t so busy traipsing around the estate listening to the sob stories of feckless women, you’d remember that. He’s a prince. A prince!”
Kate dropped onto her stool again and looked at her two relatives. Mariana was as hard and bright as a new ha’penny. In contrast, Victoria’s features were blurred and indistinct. Her hair was a delightful pale rose color, somewhere between blonde and red, and curled winsomely around her face. Mariana’s hair had the sharp-edged perfection of someone whose maid spent three hours with a curling iron achieving precisely the look she wanted.
“I fail to see what the postponed visit has to do with me,” Kate said, “though I am very sympathetic about your disappointment, Victoria.” And she was, too. Though she loathed her stepmother, she had never felt the same hatred for her stepsister. For one thing, Victoria was too soft-natured for anyone to dislike. And for another, she couldn’t help being fond of her. If Kate had taken a great deal of abuse from Mariana, the kind of affection that her stepmother lavished on her daughter was, to Kate’s mind, almost worse.
“Well,” Victoria said heavily, sitting down on a pile of gowns about the approximate height of a stool, “you have to be me. It took me a while to understand it, but Mother has it all cleverly planned out. And I’m sure my darling Algie will agree.”
“I couldn’t possibly be you, whatever that means,” Kate said flatly.
“Yes, you can,” Mariana said. She had finished her cigarillo and was lighting a second from the first. “And you will,” she added.
“No, I won’t. Not that I have the faintest idea what you’re talking about. Be Victoria in what context? And with whom?”
“With Lord Dimsdale’s prince, of course,” Mariana said, regarding her through a faint haze of smoke. “Haven’t you been listening?”
“You want me to pretend to be Victoria? In front of a prince? Which prince?”
“I didn’t understand at first either,” Victoria said, running her finger over her injured lip. “You see, before Algie can marry me, we need the approval of some relative of his.”
“The prince,” Mariana put in.
“He’s a prince from some little country in the back of beyond, that’s what Algie says. But he’s the only representative of Algie’s mother’s family who lives in England, and she won’t release his inheritance without the prince’s approval. His father’s will,” Victoria confided, “is most dreadfully unfair. If Algie marries before thirty years of age, without his mother’s approval, he loses part of his inheritance – and he’s not even twenty yet!”
Very smart of Papa Dimsdale, to Kate’s mind. From what she’d seen, Dimsdale Junior was about as ready to manage an estate as the rats were to learn choral music. Not that it was her business. “The doctors will take a look at you tomorrow morning,” she told Victoria, “and then you’ll be off to see the prince. Rather like the cat looking at the queen.”
“She can’t go like that!” Mariana snapped. It was the first time that Kate had ever heard that edge of disgust applied to her daughter.
Victoria turned her head and looked at her mother, but said nothing.
“Of course she can,” Kate stated. “This sounds like a fool’s game to me. No one will believe for a moment that I’m Victoria. And even if they did, don’t you think they’d remember later? What happens when this prince stands up in the church and stops the ceremony, on the grounds that the bride isn’t the bride he met?”
“That won’t happen, if only because Victoria will be married directly afterwards, by special license,” Mariana said. “This is the first time Dimsdale has been invited to the castle, and we can’t miss it. His Highness is throwing a ball to celebrate his betrothal, and you’re going as Victoria.”
“Why not just postpone your visit and go after the ball is over?”
“Because I have to get married,” Victoria piped up.
Kate’s heart sank. “You have to get married?”
Victoria nodded. Kate looked at her stepmother, who shrugged. “She’s compromised. Three months’ worth.”
“For Christ’s sake,” Kate exclaimed. “You hardly know Dimsdale, Victoria!”
“I love Algie,” Victoria said, her big eyes earnest. “I didn’t even want to debut, not after I saw him at Westminster Abbey that Sunday back in March, but Mother made me.”
“March,” Kate said. “You met him in March and now it’s June. Tell me that darling Algie proposed, oh, say three months ago, just after you fell in love, and you’ve kept it a secret?”
Victoria giggled at that. “You know exactly when he proposed, Kate! I told you first, after Mother. It was just two weeks ago.”
The lines between Mariana’s nose and mouth couldn’t be plumped by a miracle cream made of crushed pearls. “Dimsdale was slightly tardy in his attentions.”
“Not tardy in his attentions,” Kate said. “He’s seems to have been remarkably forward in that department.”
Mariana threw her a look of dislike. “Lord Dimsdale very properly proposed marriage once he understood the situation.”
“I would kill the man, were I you,” Kate told her.
“Would you?” She gave an odd smile. “You always were a fool. The viscount has a title and a snug fortune, once he gets his hands on it. He’s utterly infatuated with your sister, and he’s set on marrying her.”
“Fortunate,” Kate commented. She looked back at Victoria. She was delicately patting her lip over and over again. “I told you to hire a chaperone, Mariana. She could have had anyone.”
Mariana turned back to her glass without a comment. In truth, Victoria probably wasn’t for just any man. She was too soft, too much like a soggy pudding. She cried too much.
Though she was terribly pretty and, apparently, fertile. Fertility was always a good thing in a woman. Look how much her own father had despaired over his lack of a son. Her mother’s inability to have more children apparently led to his marriage a mere fortnight after his wife’s death…he must have been that anxious to start a new family.
Presumably he thought Mariana was as fertile as her daughter had now proved to be. At any rate, he died before testing the premise.
“So you’re asking me to visit the prince and pretend to be Victoria,” Kate said.
“I’m not asking you,” Mariana said instantly. “I’m commanding you.”
“Oh, Mother,” Victoria said. “Please, Kate. Please. I want to marry Algie. And, really, I rather need to…I didn’t quite understand and well…” She smoothed her gown. “I don’t want everyone to know about the baby. And Algie doesn’t either.”
Of course Victoria hadn’t understood that she was carrying a child. Kate would be amazed to think that her stepsister had even understood the act of conception, let alone its consequences.
“You’re asking me,” Kate said to her stepmother, ignoring Victoria for the moment. “Because although you could force me into the carriage with Lord Dimsdale, you certainly couldn’t control what I said once I met this prince.”
Mariana showed her teeth.
“Even more relevant,” Kate continued, “is the fact that Victoria made a very prominent debut just a few months ago. Surely people at the ball will have met her – or even just have seen her?”
“That’s why I’m sending you rather than any girl I could find on the street,” Mariana said with her usual courtesy.
“You’ll have my little doggies with you,” Victoria said. “They made me famous, so everyone will think you’re me.” And then, as if she just remembered, another big tear rolled down her cheek. “Though Mother says that I must give them up.”
“Apparently they are in my bedchamber,” Kate said.
“They’re yours now,” Mariana said. “At least for the visit. After that we’ll –” She broke off with a glance at her daughter. “We’ll give them to some deserving orphans.”
“The poor tots will love them,” Victoria said mistily, ignoring the fact that the said orphans might not like being nipped by their new pets.
“Who would accompany me as chaperone?” Kate asked, putting the question of Victoria’s rats aside for the moment.
“You don’t need one,” Mariana said with a hard edge of scorn, “the way you careen about the countryside on your own.”
“A pity I didn’t keep Victoria with me,” Kate retorted. “I would have ensured that Dimsdale didn’t treat her like a common trollop.”
“Oh, I suppose that you’ve preserved your virtue,” Mariana snapped. “Much good may it do you. You needn’t worry about Lord Dimsdale making an attempt at that dusty asset; he’s in love with Victoria.”
“Yes, he is,” Victoria said, sniffing. “And I love him too.” Another tear slid down her cheek.
Kate sighed. “If I am pretending to be Victoria, it will create a scandal if I appear in a carriage alone with Dimsdale, and the scandal will not attach to me, but to Victoria. In short, no one will be surprised when her child appears on an abbreviated schedule after the wedding.”
There was a moment of silence. “All right,” Mariana said. “I would have accompanied Victoria, of course, but I can’t leave her, given her poor state of health. You can take Rosalie with you.”
“A maid? You’re giving me a maid as a chaperone?”
“What’s the matter with that?” Mariana demanded. “She can sit between you in case you lose your head and lunge at Lord Dimsdale. You’ll have the rats’ maid as well, of course.”
“Victoria’s dogs have their own maid?”
“Mary-Downstairs,” Victoria said. “She cleans the fireplaces, but she also gives them a bath every day, and brushes them. Pets,” Victoria added, “are a responsibility.”
“I shall not take Mary with me,” Kate stated. “How on earth do you expect Mrs. Swallow to manage without her?”
Mariana just shrugged.
“This won’t work,” Kate said, trying to drag the conversation back into some sort of sensible channel. “We don’t even look alike.”
“Of course you do!” Mariana snapped.
“Well, actually, we don’t,” Victoria said. “I – well, I look like me and Kate, well…” She floundered to a halt.
“What Victoria is trying to say is that she is remarkably beautiful,” Kate said, feeling her heart like a little stone in her chest, “and I am not. Put that together with the fact that we are stepsisters related only by marriage, and there’s no more resemblance between us than any pair of Englishwomen seen together.”
“You have the same color hair,” Mariana said, dragging on her cigarillo.
“Really?” Victoria said doubtfully.
Actually, Mariana was probably right. But Victoria’s hair was cut in pretty curls around her head, in the very newest style, and fixed with a delicate bandeau. Kate brushed hers out in the morning, twisted it about and pinned it flat to her head. She had no time for meticulous grooming. More accurately, she had no time for grooming at all.
“You’re cracked,” Kate said, staring at her stepmother. “You can’t pass me off as your daughter.”
Victoria was frowning now. “I’m afraid she’s right, Mother. I wasn’t thinking.”
Mariana had a kind of tight look about her eyes that Kate knew from long experience signaled true rage. But for once, she was rather perplexed about why.
“Kate is taller than I am,” Victoria said, counting on her fingers. “Her hair is a little more yellow, not to mention long, and we don’t have the same sort of look at all. Even if she put on my clothing—“
“She’s your sister,” Mariana said, her mouth tight, as if the copper pipe had been hammered flat.
“She’s my stepsister,” Kate said patiently. “The fact that you married my father does not make us blood relatives, and your first husband –”
“She’s your sister.”
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