A Heart to Love
A Newsletter Subscriber Exclusive Serial
With no new disasters rearing their head and only four days left until the ceremony, Beatrice allowed herself to relax. True, rumors floated through the village, but Harper’s clear devotion mellowed most people.
After the first evening Harper and Browning dined at the Archer home, the family found themselves often in the gentlemen’s company. Tonight they gathered at Fieldham hall, settled in one of the smaller reception rooms after the meal. Agatha played the piano while Harper turned the pages of her music. Mr. and Mrs. Archer conversed on the sofa while Jeremy, the youngest member of the family, occupied himself with an illustrated atlas Harper had made available.
“I find it interesting your parents left us to our own devices,” Browning said the two of them regarded the view of the gardens from the tall windows. “Your mother’s doing?”
“This is not by design.” The words emerged harder than she intended, she attempted to soften the sentiment. “Better to spend the evening contemplating the garden than sit where she can decide there is ‘one more thing’ I can do to ensure everything is ready. The list is quite long.”
He chuckled. “Kit keeps fretting about his waistcoat. His valet, my valet, and I all assure him the choice is perfect.” A sigh. “I will be glad when this wedding is done. Don’t look surprised, Miss Archer. Watching my friend with your family this past week, I feel much better. He is happy, which eases many concerns.”
Something lurked beneath what he said, sending a frisson of worry through Beatrice’s brain. “Mr. Harper strikes me as a happy gentleman.”
“He is cheerful and pleasant, which is different. Remember, I have known him since we were at school together.”
Browning gestured toward the piano, where Harper turned the page of Agatha’s music, gazing down at her with an expression which radiated joy. “A bridegroom should be happy. It is a sign he’s not being forced into a marriage against his will.”
“Don’t get me wrong, Miss Archer. I still think he is rushing in headlong, not giving thought to the fact passion fades. But there is a contentment about him which comes from more than his feelings for your sister or any sense of duty. He adopts your brother as his own. Before this evening is done, he will be on the floor, pointing out destinations in the atlas and spinning stories. No matter what doubts I may possess, I believe your family is right for him.”
That he did not say Agatha was the right girl for Harper annoyed Beatrice, but she did her best to let it go. “Has he no brothers?”
“None which lived, nor other sisters besides Kitty and Meg. He is…not close to them.”
She remembered the evening Mrs. Archer had asked when they could expect his family for the wedding as she wanted to invite them to dine. He explained his father was not well enough to travel, and his mother did not think it wise to be gone too long. Of his sisters, he hedged on why they would not attend. “I am sorry. I hope he will regard me as a sister.”
“I believe he does. He benefits by seeing…oh, lord.”
Browning’s scowled at the door, and she turned to see what upset him. The butler stood ready to announce a guest, but a woman swept past him, clad in an elegant traveling costume. Her gaze passed over the room, mouth down turned. “I did not realize you would be entertaining, brother.”
Harper stepped away from the piano, throwing a nervous glance back over his shoulder at Agatha. “We didn’t expect you this evening, Kitty. Why did you not write?”
“I thought it better to simply arrive. You’ll introduce me to your guests?”
Tugging his waistcoat into place, Harper said, “May I present Miss Katherine Harper, my sister. This is Mr. Thomas Archer and his wife.”
Mr. Archer, having risen to his feet when the woman entered, offered a bow, rewarded by a cool nod. Mrs. Archer, who had remained seated as befitted her station as the only married lady in room, favored her with a warm smile. “A pleasure to meet you. We have been longing to know Mr. Harper’s family.”
“I’m certain you have.”
There was a tone to the words which dropped the temperature of the room by several degrees. Mrs. Archer’s welcoming expression faltered as Harper turned to introduce Jeremy. The boy executed a proper bow, but eyed Kitty as warily as she did him. Quickly, Harper turned toward the windows. “Laurence you know, of course, but this is Miss Beatrice Archer.”
Beatrice made her curtsy, noting Kitty did not return the gesture. Instead, she regarded them as if they were livestock who somehow intruded on the lawn.
With the other introductions done, Harper returned to the piano, catching Agatha’s hand to tug her forward. “This is Agatha, who will be my wife soon.”
Her sister must be nervous, but she managed keep a calm expression. “I’m happy to meet you, Kitty. I am glad some of Kit’s family will be presenter the wedding.”
“I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” Kitty said, turning back to Harper. “I hope there is a room you can spare?”
Harper managed something which sounded like “Of course,” before making a strategic retreat toward the hall. This left Kitty and Agatha staring at one another. A tight smile on Kitty’s part, then she headed for Browning. “I must speak to you.” She spared Beatrice a brief glance. “Alone.”
Beatrice stiffened, her cheeks growing warm. A tart reply rose to her lips, stopped only by the slight shake of Browning’s head. Swallowing the words, she stood with her arms rigid at her side as Kitty led him away. Once the pair were in the far corner of the room, she joined Agatha, who wore an expression filled with concern. “I don’t think she likes me,” her sister said, a slight tremor in her voice.
“I don’t think she likes any of us.”
Agatha’s frown deepened, and Beatrice put an arm around her. She had no doubt of Harper’s feelings. But would they be protection against those who opposed them?
“You can guess why I’m here,” Kitty, her voice pitched not to carry. “Mr. Connolly visited us…”
“To portray the Archers in the worst possible light with Kit as the victim, I imagine. He said he would do as much in a note he left, along with his bar bill from the local pub.”
A subtle shift in her expression told Browning some things had been omitted from whatever poison Connolly spilled. “You’re saying the girl is not with child, nor got that way to trap my brother? This is not all part of a plan for the Archers to get their hooks into the family fortune?” She turned away, sniffing delicately. “Which they will be able to do far too soon, given Papa’s condition.”
A handkerchief emerged which she touched to her nose. The gesture was too familiar to find himself concerned. “I’m saying the girl might indeed prove an excellent match as she makes him happy. Does Baron Durfield know any of this? I’m surprised a thundering letter forbidding the vows hasn’t arrived. Your father is more than capable of expressing his wrath via pen and paper.”
Another shift. “Papa does not know the depth of the situation. We thought it best. His health…”
She sniffed into her handkerchief once more. A growing suspicion prompted him to ask, “Does he have any idea Kit is getting married?”
“You didn’t answer my question. Is the girl with child or no?”
“She is.” Why deny the truth?
Kitty moved closer, more so than a single lady should to a gentleman, even if they were visible to everyone. Perhaps especially if they were. “I need your help. If I speak to Kit on my own, he’ll dig in his heels and prattle on about honor. He listens to you. I need you to put a stop to things before he’s irrevocably tied.”
Eyes filled with pleading, she reached out to place a hand on his chest. “Please, Laurence. You’re our only hope.”
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