Bring on the 1820s.
In The Wilful Widow, matchmaking sisters Fanny and Antoinette are preparing a lavish week-long House Party at Quamby House…
Amongst their guests are the ‘notorious’ widow, beautiful Lady Highcliff, and the gorgeous, kind, and soon-to-be-betrothed Alexander.
On the left is a sneak peek of the fashionable ensembles of some of the guests, namely, the fashionable Brightwell sisters – now Lady Fenton and Lady Quamby since their scandalous rags-to-riches marriages.
These are fashion plates from around the mid 1820s, and you can see that the bustline is lower, though not quite yet on the ‘natural’ waist.
The hem of the skirt is heavily decorated with flounces or roulades, which, together with the broader puffed sleeves, is a visual trick that makes the waist or torso appear more slender.
Fanny and Antoinette are great arbiters of fashion. And, while fun-loving and frivolous Antoinette – and slightly more serious Fanny – are keen to unite mismatched lovers, one of their faults is a tendency to judge too quickly.
They did this in The Wedding Wager (but made amends), and they do it again in The Wilful Widow. In this book, it is, in fact, their children – Katherine and George – who come up with a grand plan to reunite two former sweethearts: four-times married Charlotte; and Alexander who is trying to drum up the enthusiasm to ask a different (and rather unsuitable) young lady to become his future wife.
On the right is how I envisage Charlotte, Lady Highcliff. She’s supposed to be a notorious, husband-eating widow, but the reality is very different. She’s kind, shy, and it’s not her fault that her four husbands either died, were murdered, had unfortunate accidents or … divorced her.
Here’s an extract, and below that is my special Buy Direct offer for both ebooks and audiobook.
Chapter Three of The Wilful Widow (#5 in the Scandalous Miss Brightwells series)
It was a cold, crisp afternoon for a walk, but with just an hour left of daylight and with a sudden sun shining through the clouds that had lingered all day, Alexander was glad of an excuse to stretch his legs.
Jessamine had been wanting his undivided attention since luncheon and, the truth was, it was rather refreshing to have a variation in the company on offer. He wasn’t yet ready for a repeat effort of this morning’s almost proposal.
So, a small group set out for a brisk ramble through the fields, following the path that led through the estate’s parkland. Lord and Lady Fenton brought along their daughter, Katherine, a precocious livewire of about eleven, while Lady Quamby led the charge in deep discussion with Lord Ashbrook; her son George, a stolid, sulky lad, lagging behind. Alexander had long since stopped paying attention to Jessamine’s chatter as he’d found himself diverted by George telling Beatrice what she was expected to do for some childish charades or performance he gathered would be taking place the following day. The way George spoke, he got the impression the adults were to be enlisted for the amusement of the children rather than the other way round.
“Anyone wish for a rest or shall we continue?” Lady Quamby called from a few yards ahead. “Miss Squib, do come and walk with me. I’ve been telling Lord Ashbrook all about…”
Alexander missed what Lord Ashbrook had been telling Lady Quamby about, for at that moment he caught Beatrice’s earnest blue eyes and lowered his head to hear her whispered, “You haven’t forgotten, Mr. Pemberton?”
“Of course not, Beatrice!” he replied, silently reminding himself to speak to Hobson.
And when Katherine demanded in what he suspected was her usual busybody fashion—having a rather bossy sister, himself—what the secret was, he put his finger against his nose and said in a mysterious fashion, “I’m afraid that’s between Beatrice and me, Miss Katherine,” before winking at Beatrice and earning a giggle for his reward. When she lost her anxious, pinched expression she was quite a pretty, engaging child, he discovered.
“Mr. Pemberton, here comes the baroness! Do help her over the stile, if you would,” Lady Quamby called over her shoulder from the front of the pack.
Alexander stopped as the others wandered ahead, except the children who crowded about him, earning him a reproving shake of the head from Jessamine who often chided him for spending more time with her younger siblings than herself.
“Is that the Wicked Widow? Or should we call her the Brazen Baroness like Uncle Fenton called her?” George asked, craning his head before receiving a cuff over the ear from Katherine, who sent a meaningful glance at Beatrice. Alexander, too, dropped his interested gaze from the figure striding down the hill to make sure Beatrice had not heard her young host’s unkind barb.
The Brazen Baroness. He’d heard the epithet whispered several times among his hosts, though not in Lord Ashbrook’s hearing, of course, and was intrigued to finally meet her. Beatrice obviously adored her and called her kind, so she couldn’t be too much the husband-eater at the expense of her child’s welfare.
He took in the willowy form, on the taller side, walking determinedly down the hill; head bowed as she battled to keep her bonnet upon her head in the breeze. While he couldn’t see her face, she gave the impression of being a woman of self-assurance, which was just as well, marrying an exacting husband like Lord Ashbrook.
“Baroness,” he said, offering her his hand as she balanced upon the top step while the wind tossed her blue merino skirts about her ankles and tendrils of dark hair about the curve of her cheek. “Mr. Alexander Pemberton at your service.”
She’d already laid one hand on Alexander’s, while with the other she gripped her skirts, putting a foot over the fence, but at his words, she startled and missed her step, stumbling into his arms on the other side. The children giggled and Alexander, somewhat embarrassed, helped her to right herself, supporting her about the waist as she raised her gaze to meet his.
He was not prepared.
“Charlotte.” Every sense fizzed into shocked awareness as the familiarity of those dark-fringed sapphire-blue eyes worked their way through the defenses of nine long years.
“Alexander,” she whispered, gripping his hand tighter, staring at him almost as if she were in a trance.
A trance quickly broken by Beatrice’s happy, “Mama! I missed you!” as she flung herself into her mother’s arms. “This is Mr. Pemberton, Mama! He’s been ever so nice to me. Come. Lady Fenton’s waving to you.” She took her mother’s hand and started to lead her away while Alexander, still too dumbfounded to utter a word, watched as the distance between them lengthened, saw her look over her shoulder once before shaking her head in apparent confusion; and felt his own heartbeat in frightening disarray.
“Do you know that lady?”
“Yes. No. What?” Alexander glanced down to find Katherine staring up at him.
“The Wicked Widow? I mean, the Baroness?” She was testing him. “Mama says she must be addressed by her proper title.”
Alexander continued to stare at her retreating back. Would she look over her shoulder again? What had been behind her expression of shock? Remorse, perhaps? Or regret? He forced himself to attend to Katherine. “Her proper title?” he repeated. “And what might that be?” He barely knew what he was saying as he followed the rest of the party at a distance, young Katherine trotting happily at his side.
“Lady Highcliff. She’s a widow because Lord Highcliff was killed in a duel.” She glanced up at Alexander as if gauging his reaction, but he kept his expression bland. With a sigh, Katherine continued, “Before that she was married to a banker who stole a lot of money. And before that, there was a clergyman only he died on their wedding night. But…” she drew out her words in what was clearly a calculated ploy to highlight the shock value—very effective in one so young and when Alexander was so susceptible— “she was…divorced!”
At this, Alexander did glance down and clearly his expression finally delivered to Katherine what she was looking for. With a satisfied nod and an expression of collusion, she was about to go on when Alexander put up his hand and demanded, “How do you know all this?”
“I overheard Mama and Aunt Antoinette talking.” She withdrew an apple from her pocket and took a bite.
“In front of you?” He was shocked.
She gave him an assessing look. “Some of it,” she said with a shrug. “We heard Papa and Uncle Quamby talking about it when they didn’t know George and I were listening. So we asked Mama and Aunt Quamby.”
Alexander was still shocked. For one so young to be so informed gave him a most uncomfortable feeling.
They were trailing about five yards behind Lady Fenton and…Lady Highcliff, and ten yards behind Jessamine whose neat pink figure should have drawn his gaze, but instead he could focus only on the proud, straight form of the new arrival.
“I think her pelisse is rather fine, too. A very arresting shade of blue with quite an unusual detailing on the collar. When I’m a grown-up I shall be known for my style.”
Alexander understood with ever greater clarity that the young lady at his side missed nothing. She could tell exactly where he was looking.
This was enough. He increased his stride muttering under his breath, “I’m sure you don’t know what divorce even is,” and was dismayed that her hearing appeared as acute as her observational skills, for she replied in suitably horrified tones as she hurried to catch up with him, “I don’t know exactly what it is. Just that it’s the greatest scandal from which no woman escapes unscathed unless she is exceptionally beautiful and wickedly cunning.”
Alexander’s jaw dropped as his stride faltered.
Katherine nodded and replied, as if he’d asked her for her opinion when, right now, Alexander wanted nothing more than to drop the subject completely and, in fact, remove himself from the territory if not the entire house party. Happily, she went on, “That’s what Papa said when Mama was going over the guest list, and they were quite astonished Lady Highcliff was marrying Lord Ashbrook. I thought they mustn’t like her, and I wasn’t expecting to, either. I thought anyone who’d had four husbands had to be terribly old, but she isn’t at all. Papa was quite taken with her charming manners and thought her very beautiful but had not the slightest idea how old she was.”
“Thank you; I shall tell Papa.”
“No! No need to do that at all,” Alexander said hastily. “No need to mention any of this.”
“Any of what?” Katherine seemed genuinely perplexed. “Am I to understand you know Lady Highcliff? You were a little unclear when I asked before.”
“Yes. No.” He shook his head.
“Which one is it?”
Alexander stared grimly ahead. Would Charlotte want their old association brought up at any stage? Surely not, with a husband-to-be as part of their company. And clearly those three days of madness with Alexander had meant little to her all those years ago. It was possible she may even have forgotten. An unexpected three days, nine years ago and four husbands later would surely be entirely forgettable–given that she’d reneged on the fateful meeting that was to have decided their future. Reneged on her wild assertion that she would give up on her marriage to Lord Busselton in order to elope with Alexander the following night.
Charlotte still hadn’t looked back, and Alexander didn’t know if he was disappointed or relieved. Especially when Jessamine waved at him, reminding him of where his responsibilities lay.
“We were once acquainted,” he said, looking down at Katherine, hoping that satisfied her.
“Really?” But the way she said it suggested a whole new level of interest had just been laid bare.
End of Extract
Here’s what the readers and listeners say:
“Scandalous and adorable!” ~ Chirp
“Perfect happy ending for a comedy of errors. Hero is heroic, heroine is worthy. All’s well that ends well.” ~ Chirp