“YOU say you met this young man at the Midsummer Fair?” Alice Courtney’s slightly prominent light-blue eyes widened. “La! I was there with Mama and the only people we saw were ladies from Mama’s afternoon-tea circle. So boring.”
She fluttered a small white hand to stifle a practised yawn, and went on to pat her perfect coiffure.
Alice, to Emma’s despair, was one of those fortunate souls whose red-gold ringlets never strayed out of place, whose gowns never betrayed a crease and who never left a stream of chaos in their wake. Unlike Emma.
Take this morning, for example; going out to collect the eggs from the hens they kept in the stable yard, she’d tripped on the trailing hem of her skirt that she had forgotten to mend.
The egg basket had gone flying and so had the eggs. She’d had a similar encounter with the coal scuttle, spreading a gritty load all over Aunt Maisie’s spotless quarry tiles.
“Emma, my pet, are you listening to me?”
Alice’s voice cut into Emma’s thoughts.
“What? Oh, sorry.”
“You’re like your brother, always daydreaming. Only it’s verse with him.” Alice gave a throaty chuckle. “He read me some the other night. Mr Coleridge, I think it was. Or was it Mr Byron?
“But there, I was saying, Emma,” Alice continued in more businesslike tones, “that you’d be a fool not to keep the muslin. It’s what you wanted, isn’t it? Besides, how would you set about returning it? Go calmly up to this horse-dealer and tell him you don’t want his gift, right under Hamilton’s nose? I vow he’d have apoplexy, and his mama not there to kiss him better.”
“Don’t!” Emma said, giggling despite herself.
She was fond of Hamilton, but whether her feelings extended to the marriage so desired by her grandfather she could not be sure.
It had been an assumption they had both grown up with, so familiar as to be almost dismissive. Now she had pause for thought.
“You do like the stuff?” Alice asked next.
“Well, yes. It’s so pretty. It would be perfect with my new bonnet and I do love this summer’s shepherdess look.”
“Quite the little country girl at heart, aren’t you?” Alice petted the soft-coated Pomeranian lapdog on her lap, a birthday gift from her papa. “Darling Suzette! You should get a dog, too, Emma. We could take them for walks together on the meadows. It’s a prime spot for riders. Some officers from the barracks went by yesterday.” She sighed dramatically. “So dashing! My dear, you can’t imagine how my blood raced!”
“Alice!” Emma was scandalised.
“Well, what of it? Just because I happen to be betrothed to Alfie doesn’t mean I can’t let my eye rove a little. Is your horse-dealer handsome?”
“He’s not my horse-dealer.”
“Nonsense. Dear Emma, my sweet innocent, something must have put those stars in your eyes, and sure as nines it’s not Hamilton . . . though I confess he does have a certain appeal. It’s that boyish look – makes you want to mother him.” She paused. “So, what are you going to do?”
“My heart!” Alice rolled her eyes in despair. “What are you going to do about the muslin?”
“Make it up into a dress, I suppose.”
“I should think so,” Alice said smugly.