To Capture a Duke's Heart(3)

By: Jennifer McNare

“I’m sorry,” Penny replied as she glanced between Maryanne, who was already dressed for dinner in a burgundy satin gown fringed with black Chantilly lace and hundreds of tiny glass beads and Mavis, the frumpy, dour-faced maid, apologetically, “I didn’t realize the hour had grown so late.” If they’d been at home it would have been Sarah, her own sweet-tempered lady’s maid tasked to attend her, but regrettably Sarah had been left behind as only Mavis, Maryanne’s lifelong, devoted maidservant and Godfrey, her father’s exacting valet, had been allowed to accompany them on their journey to Scotland.

“You shall simply have to do as best you can with the limited time you have,” Maryanne directed the maid, as she all but drug Penny across the room to the small vanity table positioned against the far wall, “as I will not allow Penelope’s thoughtlessness to inconvenience the rest of us.”

“Yes, my lady,” Mavis replied, glowering at Penny as Maryanne pushed her down onto the upholstered vanity seat.

Clamping her lips together, Penny bit back an angry retort as Maryanne finally released her arm. Despite her stepmother’s assertion to the contrary, she had more than enough time to prepare for the evening meal. Unfortunately, however, she knew that it would do little good to voice her argument aloud and would only serve to make Maryanne’s spiteful demeanor all the more unpleasant. Thus, as she had done countless times before, she summoned her inner strength, silently counted to ten and managed to hold her tongue.

“I see that you’ve decided to wear one of your new gowns, this evening,” Maryanne noted acerbically as she turned toward the bed, eyeing the peach-colored evening dress laid out atop the coverlet.

“Yes, I have.” Don’t let her get to you Penny, she mentally cautioned, watching her stepmother in the mirror’s reflection, waiting for her to make another disparaging comment.

As luck would have it, however, Maryanne merely gave a disdainful sniff before continuing toward the door. “I shall be in my chamber, Mavis,” she said over her shoulder. “See that you don’t tarry overlong.”

“Yes, my lady,” Mavis replied dutifully.

Grateful that she wouldn’t have to endure Maryanne’s irksome presence as she prepared for the evening ahead, Penny breathed a sigh of relief as the door swung closed behind her stepmother. Although, spending time in Mavis’ company wasn’t altogether preferable to Maryanne’s, as the woman’s disposition was nearly as unpleasant as her mistress’.

That Mavis wasn’t one for idle conversation proved to be the one saving grace, however, as Penny was left to sit quietly as the ill-disposed maid deftly wielded the pearl-handled comb and brush set from her vanity case whilst arranging her hair into a stylish coiffure.

With nearly twenty minutes left to spare before she was to accompany her father and stepmother downstairs, Mavis fastened the final hook at the back of Penny’s gown. Then stepping back, she gave her appearance a quick once over before nodding her head in grudging satisfaction.

“Thank you, Mavis,” Penny said politely, offering the maid an appreciative smile as she turned around to face her.

Not surprisingly a muffled harrumph and a nearly indiscernible bob of the older woman’s head was the only reply she received as the unsmiling maid abruptly turned and hurried from the room, off to see to her mistress’ last minute preparations no doubt.

Spinning around, Penny walked to the tall, oval mirror that stood just a few feet from the vanity table and surveyed her reflection. Despite Mavis’ surly manner, the woman had done a beautiful job with her hair, pinning her thick mass of curls in an artful arrangement atop her head while leaving a few loose tendrils to dangle along the back of her neck. And even though her stepmother took every opportunity to disparage her long, dark tresses, she loved the fiery hue of her auburn locks, as they were the exact shade her mother’s had been.

She sighed a bit wistfully then, for not a day went by that she didn’t think of her dear, sweet mother, just as she thought of her now. Sadly she had died seven years earlier from a tragic illness, an illness that had ravaged her body and cut her life far too short, leaving Penny and her father behind to mourn her loss. It had been a devastating blow, for they had both loved her dearly. And while Miranda Houghton would never be forgotten, time had moved on and both she and her father had been forced to carry on their lives without her.

As such, it was two years after her mother’s death that her father, in the hope of siring a male heir to inherit his title and to provide a mother figure for her, had ultimately remarried. And while the woman he’d chosen to become his second wife and the new Countess of Beckford had promptly done her duty, providing him with his heir some ten months later, Maryanne had never assumed the motherly role her father had envisioned for her. In fact, to her own son she had shown and continued to show only the slightest interest and affection, while to Penelope she had exhibited only a thinly-veiled aversion, a dislike that had grown increasingly more evident as the years had gone by.