Hattie Wilkinson Meets Her Match

By: Michelle Styles
Chapter One

End of June 1816—the Tyne Valley, Northumberland

A stifled noise, halfway between a giggle and an excited gasp, caused the Honourable Harriet Wilkinson to halt in her march back to the ballroom. Her entire being tensed. She knew what that sound signalled—in Summerfield’s small card room, someone flirted with ruin.

‘None of your business, Hattie Wilkinson,’ she muttered. When had she become a censorious busybody poking her nose into other people’s lives, rather than someone who understood a ball held the possibility of romance? Today was no time to start, and particularly not at a ball to celebrate the first anniversary of Waterloo.

Another trill of laughter sounded. ‘That is highly amusing. Why should I ever feel in danger with you?’

Hattie sighed. Turning her back on an unknown couple was one thing. Turning her back on her high-spirited niece during her first foray into polite society was quite another. Far too much was at stake. Livvy with her clear blonde looks, graceful manner and more than adequate dowry had the potential to be a huge success in the London marriage market...if she was allowed to make it that far.

Hattie leant forwards and rattled the door handle.

‘I wonder,’ Hattie declared in a voice loud enough to wake the dead, ‘where on earth have my gloves gone? I suspect I left them in the card room earlier. I had better check.’

She placed her lace gloves in her reticule, counted to ten slowly and flung open the door. The snug room with its artfully arranged tables, high-backed sofa and small fire in the marble fireplace was the sort of room that could offer privacy, especially as there was an unseasonable chill in the June air. In the centre of the room, her sixteen-year-old niece stood closer than strictly proper to a gentleman in evening dress.

Hattie pointedly cleared her throat. ‘Excuse me, but I have mislaid my gloves.’

The couple sprang apart. Hattie noted Livvy’s bright pink cheeks and mussed lace. Silently she thanked her guardian angel that it was she who had happened on the couple rather than one of the old cats who prowled the corridors searching for the latest tittle-tattle.

‘This is Mr Hook, Aunt Harriet. He and I...’ Livvy flushed scarlet. ‘That is—he’s a visitor to Northumberland and...’

‘I’m looking for my gloves. Have you seen them, Livvy dear?’ she asked brightly, ignoring the way Livvy quickly attempted to straighten her bodice and how young but dangerous Mr Hook appeared with his London-cut frock-coat and tousled Corinthian-styled hair. The time for a lecture on propriety, the necessity of maintaining one’s spotless reputation and not settling for the first man who pays you a bit of attention was due later after Hattie had extracted Livvy from this tangle.

‘You must know the ones I mean, Olivia,’ she continued. ‘The lace ones which your dear mama gave me for my birthday.’

‘Your gloves, Aunt Harriet?’ Livvy did an impression of a trout, repeatedly opening and closing her mouth.

‘I think they might be in here. I was...’ Hattie paused, trying to think up a reason why she might have been in the card room earlier. Her mind refused to yield the excuse. She opted for a brilliant smile. ‘Olivia dear, would you mind helping me to search?’

Livvy behaved like any sixteen-year-old and rolled her eyes. ‘If I must, Aunt Harriet, but honestly...’

‘I positively insist. I am all sixes and sevens. Balls and me...well, the least said about my nerves the better.’ Hattie waved a vague hand, well aware that Livvy had no idea about her normal behaviour at balls and quite probably considered a twenty-seven-year-old aunt bordered on senility in the general course of events.

A crease formed between Olivia’s brows and Hattie could see the desire to appear older warring with her natural inclination to stay with her new swain. ‘Yes, you are always like this at balls. When did you last have them? Think carefully now.’

Hattie’s shoulders relaxed. Livvy had taken the bait, even down to spouting the exact words she always used with her nieces. The next stage of operation commenced now—gently guiding Livvy back to the ballroom with no moonlit detours.

‘And you will do the usual and help me to look. Your sharp eyes are so much better at finding things than my ageing ones.’

Hattie waited for Livvy’s agreement. Slowly and steadily she would prise Mr Hook from Livvy’s life before he did any lasting damage. Unlike Livvy, she knew precisely the pitfalls of London gentlemen who made extravagant promises. Whilst she had avoided ruin seven years ago, she had been unable to avoid the heartbreak that goes with discovering one’s beloved had, in fact, been another woman’s beloved at the same time. Livvy would not suffer that fate. None of her nieces would. Silently Hattie renewed her determination.