(Previously on Debts & Debutantes)
As soon as Rachel Thornwick settled her daughters in Ashcombe, she set about renewing her acquaintance within its society. Old friendships were cooly evaluated for worth. Those who could assist Emma and Eleanor’s paths to successful matrimony were encouraged, those who could not were dismissed without a second thought. Not everyone wished to associate with the disgraced Thornwick family, but if Rachel had her way their name would be restored as well as their fortune.
To Rachel’s satisfaction, Henry Beechworth had sent a fine letter. It was apologetic and conciliatory. Lawrence Beechworth had sent less effusive missive, but since he had once referred to Rachel (in writing) as a grasping harpy, and Rachel had once referred to Lawrence (in public) as a vile murderer, it was more than anyone could have expected.
Rachel was polite and moderate in her reply. Certain undertones in Henry’s letter led her to believe she could have marched Emma to his door immediately and he would have married her on the spot, so great was his guilt, but however calculating Rachel might be in her pursuit, she had her pride. She would be damned if she went crawling to a Beechworth, begging him to take her daughter. No, she would spring Emma on him unexpectedly and let her daughter’s charms do the rest. Henry Beechworth would pay for the privilege of making amends…
In order to orchestrate the perfect reunion between Emma and Henry Beechworth on her own terms, Rachel Thornwick cultivated the acquaintance of Cecilia Thorpe, Henry Beechworth’s cousin and closest relative.
The Honorable Cecilia Thorpe neé Sayers was a budding leader of society in her own right. She had married the wealthy but rather simple Jasper Thorpe at her parents’ bidding. Cecilia conceived a tolerant fondness for her husband and was able to convince him to begin a career in politics. With a driving ambition equal to Rachel Thornwick’s, Cecilia had amassed considerable social clout.
In addition, she was in the confidence of her cousin and knew intimately the dramatic story of Beechworth vs. Thornwick. Therefore, Cecilia was more than happy to ease the Thornwicks back into high society. She threw a shower of invitations their way. Tea parties, walking parties, balls, and card parties. It was truly inevitable that the Thornwicks would stumble across Henry Beechworth sooner or later.
On the eve of one of Cecilia’s card parties (which surely the Beechworths would attend), suspense hung like a muffling blanket over the Thornwick household. Eleanor and Emma were dressed in identical finery, though Eleanor believed the gown suited Emma better than it did her. Their maid of all work, Lucy Pennyworth, busily arranged Emma’s hair into her customary coiffure.
“Come now, Lucy, just a touch of rouge!” Emma teased, bringing a smile to her sister’s face and lightening the oppressive mood.
“You know your mother would have my head if I let you out of the house looking like a common hussy, Miss Emma,” Lucy scolded. “Just pinch your cheeks in the carriage like a lady.”
Rachel burst into the room, dispelling all goodwill with her glowering frown.
“The carriage is here! What are you doing? We’ll be late!”
Deaf to Rachel’s simmering temper, Lucy evaluated Emma’s hairstyle with a judicious eye.
“I believe you’ll do,” she said finally. “But I haven’t done Miss Eleanor’s hair yet.”
“Mother, I -” Eleanor began, but was thrust aside by her mother.
“Never mind Eleanor. Just tidy her up as quickly as you can. Hurry now! We cannot be late! It would be absolutely fatal. Hurry!”
By the time they finally climbed into the carriage, all of Emma’s smiles couldn’t shake the sick feeling in Eleanor’s stomach. Rachel herself was embarrassingly jittery. The ride seemed interminable, especially when Rachel ordered the driver to circle the block so they could arrive fashionably late.
The Thorpes’ brick mansion glowed invitingly in the waning light as the Thornwicks strode decorously to the front door. Rachel took the opportunity to mutter a few last minute pieces of advice.
“Remember, keep your shoulders back. Smile often, but don’t show your teeth. Emma, I am speaking to you. Eleanor, stop fiddling with your dress. Stand up straight.”
“Yes, mother,” the sisters’ intoned. The refrain was one they had heard often. Thankfully, the sound of laughter wafting from the house lightened their mood. While Emma and Eleanor might each be nursing secret fears as to their marital futures, they were still debutantes. They could enjoy a party.
The evening was well under way. Conversation flourished in every corner and more than one sim abandoned card games in favor of a quick gossip with their neighbors. As time waned, however, there was no sign of Henry or Lawrence Beechworth. The mood became tepid (or perhaps that was only Rachel’s imagination).
It took all of Rachel’s good manners to refrain from interrogating their host, Jasper Thorpe, as to the erstwhile Henry. Jasper, oblivious to the growing tension, limited himself to pleasantries. The evening was turning out to be a dead bore.
“In my opinion, Fordyce’s Sermons and Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management should be the sole readings for an accomplished lady.”
“Along with the good book, surely, Vicar?” Eleanor interposed mischievously. Emma’s face was a frozen mask of politeness.
The vicar was oblivious to sarcasm, but Eleanor was able to discreetly dismiss him before her sister’s temper was severely ruffled.
Almost instantly another admirer captured Emma’s attention. She was in her element, bantering and flirting in the most approved manner possible. Eleanor felt awkward and unnecessary. It was always this way with her sister and the men she inevitably attracted.
Another man eventually replaced the first. Eleanor wondered if they all had a gentlemanly agreement to queue politely for her sister’s attention. The entire evening had been a string of such encounters. Every social evening in the presence of Miss Emma Thornwick was the same. Eleanor knew from experience and had long resigned herself to the fact. Or at least, she thought she had resigned herself.
Eleanor’s hostess noticed she was at sea and came by to exchange a friendly word. Cecilia had taken a liking to the youngest Miss Thornwick. If only she could take the girl in hand, she thought privately, surely she could make something of her.
As the night deepened, Rachel was not idle. She might be disappointed in her foremost object but she would not allow this time to go to waste. Politely and methodically she made the rounds throughout the eligible men of the party, probing them discreetly about their means and family. Emma’s marriage to Henry Beechworth would surely open up new avenues for her sister, but it would not hurt to hedge her bets.
Rachel carefully filed away the information she gleaned. There were some solid options among the chaff, but the most effusive gentlemen were certainly the most ineligible. She glared daggers at a certain MARRIED man who seemed especially entranced by her eldest. Really, the evening was turning out to be most vexing.
It was most fortunate that at that moment another guest arrived…
Henry Beechworth entered the parlor oblivious to the disappointment his absence had caused. He looked tired and there was a definite weight to his sturdy shoulders. Nevertheless, his entrance created an invisible flurry of expectation.
He managed a genuine smile as his cousin hurried to greet him.
“Henry! There you are! I had almost given you up.”
“I’m sorry, Cecilia. Father was restless. I left him with Dr. Weston.”
“Well, you are here now. Thank you for coming all this way.”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Henry said politely.
“Hello, old boy!” Jasper greeted his cousin-in-law warmly. “Terribly sorry to hear about your old man. Give him my best.”
“Thank you, I will,” Henry replied evenly.
While Henry chatted with his hosts, Rachel deftly inserted herself into her daughters’ conversation. It only took a moment for her to dispose of their attendant.
Thus reprieved, the sisters turned wordlessly towards each other. A portentous hand of excitement seemed to grip both. They did not need to speak in order to make themselves understood.
“Ready?” Eleanor’s eyes seemed to say.
Emma’s silent shrug and rueful smile seemed to reply, “Ready or not…”
Jasper returned to his card table and Cecilia took her cousin in hand.
“Now then, I believe there are some old acquaintances here you would wish to be introduced to.”
Emma slipped her hand through Eleanor’s arm. It felt like the most natural thing in the world. Taking a deep breath in tandem, they braced for impact.
“Mrs. Thornwick, may I present my cousin, Henry Beechworth? Henry, Mrs. Beechworth and her daughters, Emma and Eleanor.”
Henry Beechworth bowed respectfully, “Ladies. It is a pleasure to see you again after all this time.”
“How do you do?” the Thornwicks murmured in chorus, suddenly meek in the face of their prey. Eleanor could not tell whose heart beat louder, hers or Emma’s.
Henry approached Rachel and grasped her hand. Gracefully, he bent over it.
“Mrs. Thornwick, it has been too long since we have met. The years have left you truly untouched. I hope you will accept my salute in the spirit in which it is meant. From my family to yours, I am truly sorry. May we begin again in friendship and amity?”
“Thank you, Mr. Beechworth. You are an honorable man. However, you are too kind. I am not the young woman I was when we last met. You too have changed. You are no longer a boy but a fine young man.”
Rachel turned and gestured to bring Henry’s focus back to the point.
“My daughters, as well have grown into young ladies. You remember Emma and Eleanor?”
“Of course!” Henry said cordially. “We used to play together often when we were children.
Turning to Emma he chuckled, “And I could never forget when Miss Thornwick pushed me into a mud puddle during a particularly rousing game of tag.”
Rachel’s mouth dropped open. Of all the topics! Of all the cheek! Emma’s eyebrows shot up but her face remained a mask as she tried to formulate a response to this piece of impudence.
To everyone’s utter surprise, Eleanor broke the silence by bursting into laughter. She remembered the incident vividly.
Eleanor’s laugh was one of her best features (her mother called it vulgar). It was warm and infectious. In the face of such a laugh, the tension disappeared. Emma couldn’t help but smile.
“Miss Eleanor remembers the incident, I see,” Henry said mischievously as he met her eyes and grinned broadly. “I’m pleased, for it was a serious blow to my young pride. A formative lesson I have not forgot, you’ll be happy to know.”
Rachel closed her eyes wearily. Watcher, whatever had she done to be cursed with such vulgar children? Her heart had nearly stopped.
Rachel could reassure herself quickly however. Henry’s joking had broken (some) of the ice between the young people and Emma easily steered talk of childhood reminiscences toward one of Henry’s pet subjects: Beechworth Manor.
Emma absorbed the majority of Henry’s attention as Rachel and Eleanor looked on. Their polite chit-chat was only interrupted when Cecilia called for a final set of cards before the company disbanded.
The night ended with Emma, Henry, and Eleanor side by side at the card table. Rachel looked on, practically vibrating with smugness. Despite a few nail-biting moments, absolutely everything was going to plan…
Later that night as they dressed for bed alone in their room, Eleanor and Emma examined the evening’s events. Emma led the conversation onto purely playful terms. Her opinion of Henry was “Not as pimply as he had been formerly” and “Not boring, I suppose, but rather cheeky”.
Eventually they fell into mute reflections which Eleanor hesitated to disturb.
Finally, before she lost her nerve, she said haltingly, “Emma, do you think - do you really think you could marry him?”
Emma regarded her reflection with a sort of pasted on smile for a few seconds. A thousand thoughts swirled around in her head. She would not trouble her sister with them however.
With a smile, Emma turned to Eleanor.
“Mr. Beechworth seems to be a kind man. He is honorable at least. But I am not going to be marrying him tonight.”
Emma leaned over and planted a smacking kiss on Eleanor’s forehead.
“Don’t worry yourself, goose. It will all be well.”
Eleanor was more comforted by her sister’s touch than her words. She could not erase the worry coiled tightly in her heart, however, but she did try and stamp it down for the moment.
Emma struck a confident pose before the fireplace. “We did it! We made it through the first task! We should be celebrating! This calls for an extra shovel of coal for the fire. It is frigid in here! Surely Mother would not object after our roaring success tonight.”
Emma chattered cheerfully as she attacked the fire. Eleanor watched her carefully, but was unable to decipher anything in her movements.
She was right, Eleanor thought. They should be celebrating. They had done it. After all, tomorrow was another day. Today, all was well.
End of Chapter One
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