Once a Wallflower, At Last His Love(3)

By: Christi Caldwell

Because she—just as all the young, unwed heroines in the books she secretly penned, whose family were on the cusp of ruin—had little recourse but to get herself to London for a Season…and make a suitable match.

Her lips twisted in a wry smile. Or in her case, any match.

The door opened with a soft click. She jumped as her eleven-year-old sister, Adeline, closed the door and skipped into the room. “Hullo.” The little girl skidded to a stop beside Hermione.

“What are you—?”

“Hiding from Aunt Agatha,” Addie groused.

“Be nice,” Hermione chided, the response nearly automatic. And then…. “What did she do now?” The ‘she’ in question was none other than their aunt who’d swept into their little corner of Surrey, and declared her intentions to move the entire Rogers family to London, all to give her cherished niece a Season.

“It’s not what she did, it’s what she said.” Her too serious child’s eyes stared down into the gardens at their elder sister. Then she raised her gaze to Hermione’s. “Papa said we’d all be ruined.” She jerked her chin toward Hermione. “But especially you and I.” Well, that much was true. “Aunt Agatha said no one would dare forgive what Elizabeth had done.” She touched Hermione’s arm. “What did Elizabeth do?”

Hermione’s stomach tightened painfully. Fury, regret, and agony all roiled in her belly as a potent brew. “She’s done nothing.” It was what was done to sweet, innocent Elizabeth, more child than woman. Polite Society would never see it that way though.

“That’s not what Aunt Agatha said.”

No, what had happened could never, would never, be forgiven by Polite Society, and it certainly wasn’t fit discussion for a child. So, she settled for a vague truth. “She didn’t do anything that was her fault, Addie,” she said softly. Because it wasn’t. She sighed. It was, however, an act that could never be undone.

A noisy laugh called her attention to the grounds below to the tall, willowy young woman, with sun-kissed blonde hair ambling through the gardens.

“Was it that Lord Cavendish?” Addie asked, unknowingly twisting the blade of guilt all the deeper. “He seemed very nice and did have splendid blond curls.”

Hermione choked on the vitriolic words that threatened to spill out. Even with all the stories she penned, she’d never have suitable words for the bastard who’d taken advantage of her gentle, wide-eyed older sister. She tapped her sister gently on the tip of her nose. “Let us not speak of Lord Cavendish.” The man who’d coaxed Elizabeth into doing things no young lady should ever do and left her with nothing more than a babe in her belly and a tattered name should anyone uncover the truth, which invariably they would; particularly when the babe was born. “I would much rather hear about what Aunt Agatha had to say to Papa.”

Having tired of staring down into the gardens, Addie sprinted across the room and evaluated Hermione’s belongings scattered about the room. “Papa said you’ll make a match and save us all to which Aunt said ‘mph-mph.’”

Hermione looked at her sister quizzically. “What?” Aunt Agatha, their late mother’s only sibling had upended their lives but a week ago. In that time, the lady had spoken with the clear, clipped tones to rival the best English governess.

A slightly crooked grin split the young girl’s cheeks. “I couldn’t hear what she said because the door was closed.” And because the Countess of Pemberly clearly had greater discretion than her flighty brother-in-law, the impoverished baronet with a scandalous family. “I’m sure it was all splendid things about how lovely you are.”

“You’re just being loyal.”

“Well, a bit.” Hermione’s lips twitched at her girlish honesty. “Aunt Agatha said you must make a match immediately.” Worry gleamed in her eyes. “She said even with Elizabeth being simple she could still have any duke in the realm. But you’re also lovely.” Yes, how very faithful Addie was. Her sister continued. “Papa said lovely enough to at least make a favorable match.” Addie hitched herself onto the edge of the bed. “Though not the best match. To be entirely honest, I’m not altogether certain what would be the best match. I’d personally prefer to have a gentleman with golden curls like Lord Cavendish…”

As her sister prattled on and on, Hermione looked below at Elizabeth once more. Feeling Hermione’s gaze, Elizabeth’s looked up. “Hullo, Hermione!” she shouted, excitement tinging her words.