A Heart to Love
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“Thank you for coming,” Miss Harper said as she rose from the writing desk in the drawing room. No, the Blue Room. Beatrice had not missed the butler stumbling over the new appellation when they arrived. Renaming rooms, usually the privilege of the lady of the house, was not a promising sign.
Mrs. Archer smiled. “So good of you to invite us. I am glad you are here to support your brother on Friday.”
A tight smile flickered across Miss Harper’s face before fading into a more somber impression. “It is that I wish to discuss with you.”
She gestured toward one of the room’s seating groups. Warily, Mrs. Archer took a seat on the sofa, Beatrice and Agatha arranging themselves on either side.
Settling herself in a chair opposite the three, Miss Harper began. “I fear I must speak on a matter of some delicacy regarding the ceremony.”
Mrs. Archer stiffened. “The banns were read, and your brother personally made arrangements with the vicar.”
“Which does not surprise me, as I understand the vows were… anticipated. While I admire his sense of honor, there is the matter of his preexisting betrothal.”
“Kit made no mention of this,” Agatha said, her tone firmer than usual.
“Nor when they drew up the settlement documents,” Mrs. Archer said. “My husband specifically asked about any potential entanglements which might serve as a roadblock.”
“I only wish to save your family embarrassment.”
Beatrice doubted the woman gave a fig about sparing her family anything. “I find it strange,” she said, “you possess knowledge which he does not. Perhaps I shouldn’t as this neatly scuttles a marriage you hope will not take place. What if your brother disagrees with your assessment?”
“Once he reviews the documents, he will understand where his duty lies.” She rose, making her way back to the writing desk. “Here is a copy. Your husband can explain.”
Mrs. Archer took the proffered pages in silence, her eyes scanning down the text. “I wish to speak to Kit,” Agatha said.
“He is riding over the estate with the agent. You may leave him a note.”
Which might not reach him. Not if it passed through his sister’s hands first. From this moment on, Katherine Harper would undoubtedly try her best to keep the couple apart.
Her grip tight on the pages, Mrs. Archer rose. “Unnecessary as he is to dine with us later. Come, girls. We should not take any more of Miss Harper’s valuable time.”
She swept from the room, Agatha and Beatrice scrambling to follow in her wake. As they made their way through the entrance hall, Beatrice managed to catch the butler’s eye. “Please tell Mr. Browning we wish to continue with this evening’s plans,” she said when he drew near.
The man nodded, casting a sideways glance toward the drawing room. “I understand, miss.”
Once in the privacy of the carriage, Mrs. Archer exploded. “Insufferable woman. Save our family embarrassment, indeed. She doesn’t give a fig about our family.”
“Is what she said true?” Agatha asked. “Is Kit promised to someone else?”
“The document gives that impression. But your father says to never trust a cursory examination. I suspect she wished to crush all hope.”
She flourished the pages, now thoroughly crumpled along one edge by her grip. For the first time since Miss Harper sprung her trap, Beatrice smiled. “Then she doesn’t know you, Mama.”
“The advantage to being the wife of a solicitor for over twenty years. I might not understand the law, but I learned early a copy without signatures is not binding. This may be wishful thinking on her part. ‘Ladies luncheon’ indeed. ‘Twas all a ruse to get us to the hall.”
Miss Harper not only objects to the marriage, but backs her own candidate. She has apparently made certain representations to the lady. Browning’s words earlier rang in Beatrice’s ears. Surely Harper’s sister would not sink to producing a false document? This boded ill for Agatha’s future relations with her in-laws. “Once we are back, should I fetch Papa home from his office?”
“Excellent idea. I’ll ask Cook to prepare something since we missed luncheon.” Mrs. Archer frowned. “I wonder if the gentlemen will still appear this evening. Miss Harper will certainly try to stop them.”
“I asked the butler to tell Mr. Browning our plans are unchanged. I believe he will ensure Mr. Harper appears.”
Mrs. Archer nodded, but Agatha still bore a worried expression on her face. Reaching out, Beatrice squeezed her sister’s hand, offering reassurance she did not feel herself.
“You were right to summon me home, my dear,” Mr. Archer said once he finished reading. “If the original of this is signed, then Mr. Harper’s father made certain promises on behalf of his son. Unless it was otherwise revoked.”
Agatha’s grip on Beatrice’s hand tightened once more. “Even if not,” he continued, “preclude your young man from marrying where he chooses. This is not Fourteenth Century England, where a betrothal was a formal contract. The settlement would go into effect only upon the wedding of Mr. Harper to” he peered at the page once more “Miss Penelope Dalrymple, the daughter of Viscount Dalrymple. This does open him up to a breach of promise suit should the family wish to press such.”
“Does this mean the wedding can go ahead?” Agatha asked.
Mr. Archer frowned. “I would suggest warning the vicar. Also, I want to speak with Mr. Harper. I am not happy he didn’t inform me when I asked.”
“They should be here this evening,” Beatrice told him. “I left word with the butler at the Hall.”
“I hope these young men don’t expect a convivial meal with this hanging over us. At least, not until we find a resolution.” He frowned as the housekeeper entered after a brief knock. “I asked we not be disturbed, Mrs. Parker.”
“I understand, sir, but Mr. Archer and Mr. Browning are here. Mr. Archer is most anxious to speak with you.”
“For that, we will be disturbed.” He turned toward Agatha. “A promising sign, him not waiting until supper. Perhaps Miss Harper is mistaken as to the details.”
Beatrice doubted the possibility, though she imagined there was more to the situation than presented. No time to dwell on such thoughts, as Harper appeared in the doorway, Browning behind him. “I heard what happened, sir. I want you to know I have every intention of marrying your daughter.”
Agatha sighed, her shoulders relaxing. Then she was out of her chair, flying into Harper’s arms. “I knew it wasn’t true, that your sister wanted to drive us apart.”
He held her close, but his face bore a worried expression. “Problem is, Kitty’s right. My father did sign a settlement.”
Shocked, Beatrice turned her head toward Browning, who nodded, face grim. They were in the soup now.
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