Her Foolish Heart has been so popular that I ditched plans for Midsummer Masquerade and decided to bring out another in the Loving Hearts series instead. I haven’t quite decided on the title. Most of the good ‘Heart’ titles have been used over and over again. The working title is Hearts Take the Trick, and I may go with that.
Zanthe, a lovely young widow, moves to Bath to escape her mother-in-law and find an eligible husband. Instead she encounters Lord Launceston, the man who jilted her eight years before. This time, she isn’t going to let him get away.
But Zanthe is not just concerned with her own romance. She has her sister-in-law, Margery, to think of. A middle-aged spinster, plain and painfully shy, Margery busies herself with good works until the Reverend Mortimer Cholmondeley comes into her life and transforms it.
Add to the mix an Italian Prima Donna with a past, an oily villain with pomaded side-whiskers, a dissolute younger brother and an antiquarian father and you have all the ingredients for a frothy souffle of a book.
I hope to publish this one at the beginning of December, it’s being edited as I write. As a taster, here is the first chapter.
The afternoon was well advanced and in the library, the candles had already been lit and a good fire was crackling in the hearth. A tray laid with tea and little cakes was placed temptingly on a small table in front of a deep brocade-covered armchair. However, the only occupant of the room, a drooping figure in black, ignored the warmth within and looked out instead across a dreary landscape of leaden skies, sodden meadows and bare trees. The gloom without was mirrored in a face that was not intended for sorrow. Despite the widow’s cap, the heavy crepe weepers and the large mourning brooch at her throat, her face was young and blooming, and the irrepressible curls that escaped confinement under the cap were of pure guinea-gold.
In fact, the lady was only five-and-twenty, having been married for six years and widowed for almost eighteen months. Lord Brookenby, many years her senior, had been a doting husband but not an exciting one. The widow had dared to hope that his death would prove a release but she had been dismayed to find her bondage had only deepened. Mama-in-Law had very decided views on the proper behavior for her son’s widow; views which excluded almost anything that was agreeable.
Lady Brookenby brightened a little when she saw a gentleman’s carriage approach the turn into the driveway, but returned to her pensive attitude when a few minutes more proved the visitor to be no one more interesting than Mama-in-Law’s doctor. She sighed, picked up a book of improving sermons and attempted to read.
A few minutes later the door opened and another lady entered the room. She began scolding fondly as soon as she saw the widow. ‘My dear Zanthe, what are you thinking of to be sitting without even a shawl? It is freezing cold in here, indeed everywhere, for if ever a house was a desolate pile of draughts this is it, but really you should know better by now.’
The widow looked up with a sweet smile. ‘Don’t fuss me, Margery, there’s a love. I’ve but now escaped from your Mama who was worrying and fretting me until I could have screamed.’
Margery shook her head in sympathy and sat down beside her sister-in-law. They made an entertaining contrast. Margery was of her deceased brother’s generation and would never see forty again. She was a tall woman with an imposing Roman nose and massive bosom. Her face, never pretty even in youth, was high-coloured and her expression severe, but this was the misleading consequence of her extreme shyness. Her heart was warm and her affection for her lovely young sister-in-law sincere.
‘Poor dear. I know, believe me, I know. But recollect that your year of mourning has passed and as the weather improves you will be able to go into Society a little.’
‘Yes, with your mother watching like a hawk every time a gentleman approaches me,’ said Zanthe pettishly. ‘She pretends to believe my heart is buried in the grave although she must know that it is not. I became sincerely attached to my lord but you and she both know perfectly well I was never in the least in love with him. And now that we have had to remove to this horrid, draughty dower house she keeps glaring at me and I know very well that she is thinking that if I had produced an heir she would not have had to see William step into his uncle’s shoes.’ Zanthe stood up and began to pace restlessly as her grievances overtook her. ‘It is so unfair for I was a dutiful wife and never once refused— well, never mind that. But considering that Brookenby’s first wife was childless as well, I don’t think I can be blamed.’
Margery had nothing to say to this. She knew that her mother would never forgive Zanthe her childlessness, especially as the prospect of an heir was the only reason she had given her blessing to her son’s marriage to a young person she considered quite unworthy of the position she was called upon to occupy.
Zanthe was fast working herself into a passion. ‘Well, I will not stay here to be worried and fretted and talked at forever. I am five-and-twenty, I have as much money as anyone could possibly want and it is settled upon me so nothing Mama-in-Law may say or do can take it away from me.’
‘Not stay!’ said Margery, alarmed. ‘But where shall you go?’
Zanthe glanced out of the window. ‘I was thinking perhaps—Bath.’ She dimpled mischievously, ‘I might even drink the waters.’
‘Alone?’ asked Margery, a little wistfully.
‘Don’t be silly. Of course you are to come too. I shall require a duenna. You shall come along to play the dragon and I’ll make Paris accompany us!’
‘Much use he will be,’ snorted Margery.
‘Yes, but no one, not even your Mama can call it improper if I move to a watering place for the sake of my health accompanied by my sister-in-law and brother.’
‘As long as they don’t know your brother.’
In the event, Zanthe was proved to be overly optimistic regarding her mother-in-law’s reception of her proposal. That lady found a great deal to say about the impropriety of the scheme.
The Dowager Lady Brookenby was not one of those matriarchs who hold sway over a family through fragile health and plaintive murmuring. She was still, at seventy, a big woman, with a loud voice, unalterable opinions and a habit of quoting Holy Writ to serve her own purposes. Having buried her husband, three sons and two daughters, she lived to terrorise the parish, bully her surviving daughter, and criticise her daughter-in-law.
When the scheme was first broached to her after dinner that evening, her response was to issue an immediate prohibition.
‘Nonsense, nonsense! It is not to be thought of!’
Zanthe and Margery exchanged glances. Margery plainly considered the matter closed but Zanthe was made of sterner stuff. ‘Why is it not to be thought of, Ma’am?’
Her mother-in-law was majestically displeased by the question. ‘It is enough that I have said so. However, if you will have it, I cannot think it right that you, my dear son’s widow, should wish to go pleasuring, so soon after his demise. I am seriously displeased that you should even contemplate it.’
‘It has been over a year, Mama,’ said Margery timidly. Zanthe shot her a grateful glance.
‘When the sixth baronet departed this life I did not leave this house for three years—three years! And then only to go to Harrogate to drink the waters.’
‘But Ma’am indeed I don’t wish to go pleasuring’ declared Zanthe. ‘Only I feel so low in Lincolnshire and I think I need a change of scene.’
‘Do not tell me! I know very well that once you are where no one knows you, you will be going into Society, wearing colours, flirting, disgracing us all. Remember “the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, and making a tinkling with their feet.”’
‘Mama, are you not being a little unjust?’ protested Margery. ‘Zanthe is so young it is only natural that she should be moped after all these months of seeing no one but the family.’
‘Be quiet, Margery. This is nothing to do with you!’
‘Well, yes it is for I hoped Margery would come with me, for propriety’s sake,’ said Zanthe with a courage that commanded her sister-in-law’s admiration.
‘Margery?’ The Dowager seemed thunderstruck. ‘Margery to leave Baguely? I have never heard the like of it.’
Zanthe always believed, when in the privacy of her own room, that she would be able to stand up to her mother-in-law. She would rehearse her arguments in her mind and sometimes even in front of the mirror. But when she was confronted by reality in the shape of a selfish, domineering old woman, her courage would ebb away and, like all their small circle, she retired defeated.
The truth was that her mother-in-law had not the slightest authority to prevent Zanthe doing whatever she chose, but like all tyrants, she depended upon her victim’s dread of the kind of noise and upset that she herself delighted in. Her family submitted to her simply for the sake of peace and quiet.
Zanthe, however, had not lived under her mother-in-law’s thumb for over seven years without learning how to circumvent her. The following day she enlisted the aid of her mother’s doctor, an old ally.
Doctor Miller, a crusty individual with beetling brows and no-nonsense manner, was the only person to whom the Dowager listened with anything like respect. He had been acquainted with her since she had been a bride, delivered her children, tended their childhood complaints and even relieved the old Lord’s gout.
The doctor, called in to prescribe a tonic for the young widow, was easily brought to support the scheme. ‘If you had not thought of it, I should have suggested it myself by-and-by,’ he said. ‘Do both of you a world of good. Now do not be concerned about your mother-in-law, Ma’am, I’ll see to her.’
This he did immediately, representing to her that he could not be answerable for his young patient’s life if her decline were not arrested by an immediate change of scene. She should be allowed to go where she chose and, if the Dowager were anxious about the proprieties, then Margery would act as her deputy.
Furthermore, he counselled his elderly patient not for a moment to think of accompanying the young people as this would be disastrous to her own health. Since, along with the decline of morality in modern society, her health was the lady’s principal preoccupation, this argument carried considerable weight with her. Reluctantly, she gave her consent.
Zanthe’s brother, Paris, when summoned to Baguely Hall for an audience, proved even harder to deal with. ‘Damn it Zan,’ he said in an ill-used voice, ‘I’ve got a dozen engagements in Town already!’
‘Well you can just break them,’ answered Zanthe severely. ‘I know exactly the kind of thing you get up to in London, let me tell you, and who with. It will do you much more good to come to Bath with me than to go racketing around getting foxed, gaming and making stupid wagers and—’
‘Hey, steady on, old girl. It’s not that bad,’ protested Paris, weakly.
‘Yes it is,’ countered Zanthe ruthlessly. ‘And what’s more, without me to bail you out of trouble you will be without a feather to fly with by quarter-day and very likely before!’
Paris looked pained. ‘You mean you’d leave me without funds? That’s not like you, Sis.’
Her eyes softened. The Honourable Paris Sidney, only son of Lord Rothmere, a noted Grecophile, and his Byzantine-born wife, was Zanthe’s adored younger brother. He was a handsome boy of two-and-twenty, and very much like his sister in appearance, for all the Sidneys were remarkably good-looking. Just now he looked so sulky and put her so much in mind of the scrubby schoolboy he had once been that she could not be cross with him.
‘Please Parry; won’t you do this for me? I want to go so much and if you won’t come with me they are sure to saddle me with Great-Uncle Horace or some other snuffy, old bore, for Mama-in-Law insists we cannot go without a gentleman to accompany us.’
‘Aye, very likely,’ agreed her brother, gloomily. ‘Oh, very well, I’ll do it. How long do you mean to be in Bath?’
‘Oh, just until I catch another husband.’
Parry, who had just taken a mouthful of wine, swallowed the wrong way and went into a prolonged fit of coughing. Zanthe helpfully slapped him on the back several times, laughing, while red wine streamed out of his nose and mouth down his immaculate shirt front.
‘What did you say?’ he demanded, when he could speak.
‘I said I am going to catch a husband.’ Her eyes narrowed. ‘I married Brookenby to oblige the family. You know why.’ She looked a question at him and he nodded gravely. ‘I hope I am not unfeeling, and I am very sorry he is dead but I simply cannot live with Mama-in-Law a moment longer. She never liked me, nor I her. I will not stay to be bullied and put upon like poor Margery has been for all these years. So I must marry again, it is the only answer; but this time I’m going to marry to please myself and no one else. Pray do not try to stop me!’
Paris saw with dismay there were tears in his sister’s eyes. He moved to the seat beside her and put an arm around her. ‘This isn’t like you, Zan. Damme, I believe you’re right. You need to get away. You’re moped to death. Cheer up; after all it’s not so very terrible to be a wealthy widow is it? I’ll wager you’ll have all manner of Lords and Dukes and whatnot after you.’
Zanthe wiped her eyes. ‘Particularly whatnots,’ she said.