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Anne Wickfield sat with her mother at Rosedale on a fine morning in May, knotting a fringe for her white shawl, as though it were just any ordinary day and not the most exciting one in years for her--for the whole neighborhood. Lord Penholme had arrived home from the Peninsular War the evening before. The servants had been the first to hear it, word traveling via the domestic grapevine that exists in small country communities. He had been expected for some weeks now, and at last he had come.
Rosedale, the closest home to Penholme, would surely be the first to hear of his adventures in Spain and of his plans for the future. For centuries there had been more than physical proximity between the two houses. The families had fought side by side in the same battles, defending Charles I against Cromwell's Roundheads, and William and Mary against the Jacobites. Their sons and daughters had fought, played, worked, loved, and married together. They were so intertwined, they almost considered themselves one family.
"It will be good to have Alex back," Mrs. Wickfield said for about the third time that morning. The comment was not so innocent as it sounded. It was accompanied by a questioning glance at Anne, who failed to understand, or at least acknowledge, its full significance.
The existence of a bachelor at Penholme and a spinster at Rosedale quite naturally raised hopes of an attachment between them, but Anne felt the new lord would be looking for someone higher than a provincial cousin for his bride. The Penholmes had always been the more prestigious family, and Alex was ambitious. Three years before, he had left the Hall as plain Lord Alexander, determined to make his way inthe world, for it was his elder brother, Charles, who had inherited the estate and title when their father had died.
"Yes, he'll have his hands full getting things back in shape, with Charles dead for eighteen months," Anne said, and calmly turned her shawl to begin fringing the last side.
"It was a blessing in disguise when he fell off his hunter and died," her mother said curtly. It had been a hard blessing for Anne, however, for she had been wildly fascinated with him. The feeling was not entirely mutual, though Charles had favored her with some flirtation when he was at home. "Between the old earl's extravagance and Charles's wanton ways, Penholme is run into the ground. But Alex is the one to take things in hand, as he did when his father died. Charles was too busy gallivanting. Alex was always the better manager. If it weren't for him, the whole family would be in the poorhouse."
Anne's face wore no condemning frown. She carried in her mind's eye an idealized memory of Charles. He had had all the devastating charm of the Penholmes, much more so than the present earl. Charles had been friendly, agreeable; he had thrown lavish balls at the Hall and taught the local ladies how to waltz. How could any girl with blood in her veins not have loved him? Alex was neither so tall, so handsome, nor quite so well loved, but he was the earl now, and his coming was awaited eagerly.
"I think it was shabby of Alex to run off and leave his brother short-handed. Charles depended on him to run the Hall. I daresay Charles would have settled down in time," Anne said tolerantly.
"He showed no sign of it in the five years he ruled the roost! The only difference between him and his father was that Charles was a bachelor and squandered his time and money in London half the year. Parties, horses, gambling! All the vices of the father, with an interest in women thrown in."
"There's no point raking up the past, Mama. He's dead."
"It's typical of Fate's contrariness that Alex should have caught a bullet the very week he got news of Charles's death. He must have been severely wounded, to have waited so long to come home."
Time, Anne felt, was relative. For five years she had waited, hoping Charles would "settle down," yet it hadn't seemed so long. She would have married him in a flash--wanton ways and all--if he'd offered. There had been seasons when this seemed possible. Indeed, the notion that he might yet come up to scratch had not entirely evaporated at the time of his death. He had hinted that financial affairs at the Hall made it necessary for him to marry an heiress, but she had figured that was his gentlemanly way of damping her ardor, as no heiress had ever been brought home. She certainly regretted losing Charles but, unlike her mother, saw no likelihood of attaching Alex, nor much inclination for it either. It was not the countess's tiara that had drawn her to the late Lord Penholme.
Not that she disliked Alex. She really didn't know him as well as the other members of the family. From having loved Charles for so long, she knew him very well. Robin, nearly her own age, was as familiar to her as a brother, and as dear. The youngsters she saw nearly every day when they weren't having lessons, and the eldest sister, Rosalie, had been such a beauty that everyone knew her. The expectation that she would make a grand match had been filled to the full. A duke, no less--the Duke of Exmore. But Alex....
How had it come she knew so little of him? He'd been the quiet one of that rambunctious family, a little aloof. Even a quiet Penholme, however, was not a quiet person. You couldn't say Alex was shy. He was popular, had his own friends, but he had been overshadowed by Charles. Very likely that accounted for his manner. A younger son would lack the assurance and self-confidence of the eldest.
Alex hadn't counted for much while Charles had been alive. It had always been of his eldest and favorite son that the old earl spoke, and always Charles that the girls had chased after. The countess used to be fonder of Alex than the others, Anne thought. And the countess had died six years before in childbirth. The Penholmes were extravagant in everything, even the size of their family. Ten of them born, two dying in infancy, Charles now dead, and Rosalie married. Still six of them at home, including Alex. And four of them were young enough to require a mother.
Alex, the manager, would no doubt manage that as well, in short order. He'd choose some lady whose dowry would set Penholme to rights and provide a mother for his ready-made brood in the bargain.
Anne supposed it must have been a difficult time for Alex when his mother died, then his father the next year--from a broken heart, really, though his death certificate said pneumonia. The old earl was no philanderer, whatever his other faults. It was expected that Alex would move to Sawburne, the small estate his father had purchased, reputedly for his second son, but it hadn't happened. Instead, he'd managed Penholme for Charles, till he suddenly decided to make his career in the army.
"I wonder why Alex ever went to Spain," Anne said musingly.
"Lots of younger sons do," her mother answered.
"He was always ... strange," Anne said for lack of a better word. "I mean, he never dropped in on us unannounced, the way the others did. He never took potluck with us or joined us as a matter of course when we met in the village. Even Rosalie always did that, and you know Rosalie...."
"A mighty high instep, but of course a well-turned one. Too pretty for her own good, that one."
"You know, as I think about it, I don't believe Alex ever came to this house without a reason," Anne continued. "He used to deliver the rabbits or pheasants Charles had sent, but he'd leave as soon as he said good morning. He never stayed to chat or for a cup of tea, and you know how all the Penholmes love their tea."
"From the day they were weaned from their wet nurse. But Alex attended all the family parties. I've seen you stand up with him at the assemblies and balls, Anne, and a handsome couple you made."
Anne gave an impatient tsk. "Don't get that idea in your head, Mama. Rosalie will find him an heiress in London. Alex never cared for me in the least, and truth to tell, I was never particularly fond of him."
"Things change" was all her mother said, but her voice burdened the words with significance. She meant Charles was dead and Anne was twenty-two years old, with no sign of a suitor on the horizon. Perhaps she meant even more than that. Rosedale would be Anne's home until her mother's death, when it would revert to Florian Wickfield. Not that Mama, at two and forty, was in imminent danger of demise.
Mrs. Wickfield spoke on to make her point perfectly clear. "Alex is no honeybee, like Charles, buzzing from lady to lady. When he singles out someone for his attention, she can be sure of marrying him, and he won't wait long, now that he's home. Twenty-seven is the right age for settling down. An excellent parti, dear. There's Penholme Hall, with an income of ten thousand a year, and Sawburne--the old lord paid ten for it. His wife made him buy it when he inherited money from his uncle, to keep him from gambling it away. There's the London house, and the hunting box in Leicester, worth a few thousand."
"The Hall is mortgaged, and besides, Sawburne will go to Robin when he marries. Don't be thinking Alex will settle for my fiddling dowry of five thousand."
"You'd be a good manageress and a fine mother for the children, Anne" was her mother's trump card, played last. "Alex will bear that in mind when he chooses." Mrs. Wickfield looked hopefully at her daughter to gauge the effect of her statement.
"He has Aunt Tannie to look after the children."
"That Cassandra! She's like a black cloud hovering over everything. I always feel I ought to be striking my breast and saying mea culpa when she starts her litany of complaints. And she's no manager, either. You and I have become pretty good managers, since the price of everything has gone up with this war. We make our own clothes."
"I've even turned cobbler," Anne said, failing to recognize a trump when she heard it. "I got out the hammer and last and nailed the loose sole back on my slipper today. The nails come through the insole and hurt like the deuce. I put some cotton wool in the toe." She smiled to think what Charles would say if he knew to what shifts she was sunk. Charles--she must forget Charles. Break that foolish habit she'd gotten into of harping on his memory, turning him into a paragon, now that he was dead. Really, a dead Charles was more lovable than a living one. Memory selected the endearing qualities and softened the pain of his less admirable traits--in particular his way of oiling around all the local girls.
"I'll make sure the kettle's boiling for tea. He should be here soon," Mrs. Wickfield said, and left, to give her advice time to do its work.
Anne's mind turned to Alex, but it did not flow along those lines suggested by her mother. She wondered if he'd come in his uniform. No, he wasn't the sort to strut and preen about in it. She'd never even seen him in his regimentals, though he'd sent Aunt Tannie a painting of himself so outfitted. He looked very good, too. Wide, straight shoulders and a soldier's stiff posture. The ladies would adore him in it.
Alex would more likely come posting down the lane in his hunting jacket and buckskins, probably carrying a rabbit for their dinner over his saddle. He wouldn't stay more than half an hour, even on this special day.
Glancing once again to the window, Anne saw a handsome bay mare trotting along. The man astride it wore a scarlet tunic, and as he drew nearer, she recognized the lineaments of Alex, who she must remember to call Penholme. A familiar pain stabbed her heart, to think that Charles was dead. She stared as Alex rode closer, till even his expression was visible. She saw no smile of anticipation. He was just doing his duty. He looked thin, almost haggard, and wore a thoughtful frown.
But still he was home after three years, and she ran excitedly into the hall. "Mama! Mama, he's come!"