Tea with the Wentworth ladies

“Smooth your hair, young ladies. You are going to meet a duchess, for Heaven’s sake.” Anne Wentworth chided her daughters as the Earl of Strafford helped them each alight from the carriage in front of Haverford House in London. Although Anne had presided over two mansions of her own back in Philadelphia, and she was currently living in one as the guest of the Earl and Countess of Strafford, she had never seen a home as stately—as large—as this. Her hand twitched just slightly, as it always did before she entered a social event where she was expected to reflect well upon her husband, the illustrious writer, P.H. Wentworth III. Though such onus was no longer on her shoulders, the habit was deeply ingrained after 20 years of marriage.

The earl offered her his arm, and she gratefully slipped her hand under his elbow. Her husband’s cousin had been a stalwart support to her since they had arrived in England, hardly what she had expected, given their past, but she couldn’t be more appreciative.

The enormously stressful situation had been almost more than she could bear. Packed off to Europe by her husband, without so much as a by your leave, expected to sit out the American conflict in England, leaving her son to his fate, and her parents and sisters. She would not even have the comfort of her daughters, as she would escort them to Paris to their new finishing school in less than a sennight, to leave them for a year. And then to find that Palmer had not given her access to his accounts in London as he had promised, but rather expected her to live on an allowance, like a child, at the mercy of a banker who had no idea of her needs or her social standing. It was intolerable.

“You need not dwell, my dear,” Strafford whispered in her ear. “The frown does not suit your lovely face, and we shall find a way to alleviate your cares. I promise you, my cousin cannot abandon his wife in so callous a manner. I will not allow it.”

She squeezed his fingers and pasted on the smile she had perfected before she was fifteen, that had charmed presidents and prime ministers, and half the nobility of Europe, on those few occasions Palmer agreed to such trips.

“Much better,” Strafford murmured. “You will be fine with the duchess. She is a kind woman, underneath her steel, and I am afraid I must speak to her son, Lord Aldridge, with some urgency, or I would be pleased to take tea with you ladies.”

“It is fine, Strafford. We shall be fine. Thank you. Girls?”

Strafford slipped off around the side of the house, for Lord Aldridge had a separate entrance to his portion of the house, and Anne rapped lightly with the door knocker. Before the door was opened, she took one last look at her daughters’ deportment, straightening a ribbon on Fleur’s dress, tucking a curl back behind Belle’s ear. As long as they behaved themselves, they would do credit to her. And to their father, not that he cared.

The butler showed them into a parlour larger than Anne’s dining room at home. No, no longer her home, since Palmer had sold it right out from under her. No sooner had they taken seats in a grouping of chairs set around a tea table than the duchess swept in. Greying hair perfectly coiffed, and a dress that must have cost three times Anne’s and her daughters’ combined.

All three women stood immediately, and Fleur’s and Belle’s curtseys were all their mother could have asked. It was a moment before she realized she was tardy in making her own bow, so she rectified the social blunder immediately. “Your Grace, it is so very kind of you to ask us for tea before the girls leave for school.”

“The pleasure is mine, Mrs Wentworth. Your daughters are charming.”

“Thank you, Your Grace,” the girls recited in unison.

“Please do be seated, my dears, Mrs. Wentworth. Tell me; you are as matched as a pair of bookends, but which of you is the elder?”

“I am,” Belle said, and Fleur finished the thought with, “I am only younger by eight minutes, Your Grace.”

“And I believe I recall from our brief meeting at Lady Bannister’s party that the yellow hair ribbon is Miss Fleur’s and the green Miss Wentworth’s?” With a small giggle, both girls nodded.

“Would you care for a cup of tea, young ladies, or shall I send for some lemonade?”

“Tea will be lovely, I’m sure,” Anne replied, nudging Belle to sit up straighter.

Belle opened her mouth and then closed it again, with a sidelong look at her mother. While the duchess arranged with a maid to bring more refreshments than were available on the sizable tea tray, Anne narrowed her eyes at the girls. They had, perhaps, not spent enough time in society before they left America, and, since they had arrived in England, had shown a propensity for countermanding their mother in company.

When the duchess turned back, Anne, who had conversed with the wives of the most important men in the world, to say nothing of the wealthiest industrialists in America, found herself a bit tongue-tied. Her Grace of Haverford was among the most influential of the nobility. A word from her and the girls’ presentation to the queen next year would be a success, no matter how likely they were to switch hair ribbons and make fools of the gentlemen who would wish to meet them.

“Cream and sugar, Mrs Wentworth?”

“Cream, please,” Anne said. Belle began to ask for sugar, but Anne spoke over her. “None for the young ladies. They are watching their weight.”

The duchess passed the first cup to the maid and prepared the second as it was delivered to Anne.

“You are leaving for school in France soon, I believe you said when last we met?” the duchess began. “I am so pleased you could spare the time for this visit. I do enjoy the company of young ladies. Are you looking forward to your new school, Miss Wentworth? Miss Fleur?

“Yes, Your Grace,” Belle said in a perfectly modulated tone, but before Anne could stop her, Fleur added, “But we’ve heard Madame LaPointe is terribly strict.”

Thankfully, the duchess did not seem disturbed by the outburst. “But very elegant, my dear,” Eleanor assured Fleur. “If one wishes to make a stir in Society, one could do much worse than to learn from the mistress of a French finishing school.”

Turning back to Anne, who couldn’t help thinking this was where the duchess’ attention should have been all along, rather than indulging young ladies not even presented yet, the duchess said, “I met your husband when he worked in London, Mrs Wentworth. Many years ago, of course, but I still follow his occasional columns in the Financial Times. I find his commentary intriguing.”

Anne struggled to keep a smile on her face, but just managed it. “Indeed? A great many people seem to find his commentary useful. Straff–er, Lord Strafford has been investing on Mr. Wentworth’s advice since they were young men.” It would not do for the duchess to think her on intimate terms with her husband’s cousin, no matter that they were sleeping under the same roof. And it would not hurt to remind anyone in the nobility that while she might be from the “colonies,” her husband was a man of global influence. “It has been ten years since we were in London last, but I am given to understand the royal family still follows his columns.”

“I have heard that. My sons, as well. You must be very proud of your father, young ladies.”

“Oh, yes,” Fleur gushed, while Belle merely glanced at her mother before she rightly held her tongue. “Of course, we are too silly to understand all of the things he writes, but everyone says how brilliant he is. My friend Fanny’s papa has been trying to convince him to join Mr. Lincoln’s cabinet.”

“Fleur refers to Fanny Seward, the Secretary of State’s daughter. My husband is close friends with Mr. Seward, and our families often visit.”

“But I understand he insists on remaining neutral in your current conflict?”

“He is, he says.” Anne’s smile slips. “Though it is difficult to see how when he also insists upon living among the slave-trading heathens.”

“I daresay he must live on one side of the conflict or the other, or in another country entirely,” the duchess pointed out. “I doubt his views are popular with the Confederacy, however.”

“His views are not popular with anyone,” Anne said curtly.

At a nod from the duchess, the maid passed each of the girls a plate filled with delicately iced cakes. Anne could not gainsay a duchess, but she hoped Fleur and Belle recalled they were not to be eating sweets.

“But let us speak of pleasanter things,” the duchess offered, seemingly as a peace offering. “Do you intend for the girls to be presented here in London, Mrs Wentworth, when they have finished their schooling? You are remaining here with the Straffords, I believe?”

Schooling her face into a more serene expression, Anne agreed, “Lady Strafford has graciously offered to sponsor the young ladies once they have finished school next year. I… I am not certain of my plans. We have engaged a town house, but I may be… needed in Philadelphia. Strafford—Lord Strafford—is making enquiries on my behalf.”

Her Grace gave no sign that she had heard any of the gossip that had arisen briefly during their last visit to London, which Strafford had promptly put down. Instead, she smiled at the girls. “You shall certainly set the young gentlemen on their ears, my dears. Two such lovely young ladies, and each the image of the other. I shall make certain to ask my friend, Lady Strafford, which of my entertainments might be suitable for you.”

As she spoke, the two gentleman joined the party. Anne cast her eyes down at her teacup at the heated glance Strafford sent her way, hoping the duchess hadn’t noticed.

“We are just in time, I see,” Lord Aldridge said. “Strafford, you sly dog. You did not tell me your cousins were so lovely.”

Fleur and Belle both blushed identically, glancing at the terribly handsome new addition to the party from under their lashes. Anne, however, once she looked up again, saw the same sort of heated stare directed toward her daughters by this new arrival. Milord or no, it would not do. She sat up straighter, clearing her throat to recall the girls’ attention.

“Your Lordship,” she said, standing and smoothing her skirt. “I am Anne Wentworth. Mrs. Palmer Wentworth,” she emphasized. She gave a brief curtsy. “Delighted to meet you, I’m sure.”

Both girls stood up in a rustle of silk, waiting to be introduced. They could wait a lifetime, if their mother had anything to say about it.

“And these lovely young ladies must be your sisters,” Lord Aldridge said, bowing to them.

Anne felt a flush rise to her cheeks as Strafford’s lips twitched. She narrowed her eyes, but it didn’t stop Belle from stepping forward with another deep curtsy, “I am Belle Wentworth, Your Lordship.” Gesturing to Fleur, she added, “And this is my sister, Fleur.”

“How appropriate,” Lord Aldridge said. “Two beautiful flowers transplanted to our English shores.”

“Will you be at Lady Beckett’s ball this evening, Your Lordship?” Fleur asked with more animation than she had yet shown.

Anne gasped and snapped, “Fleur Wentworth, that is inappropriate in the extreme.” Turning to Lord Aldridge, she apologized, with a speaking glance at the duchess. “I am sorry my daughter is so forward, my lord.”

“I am sorry my son is so forward,” said the duchess, amusement colouring her dry tone. With a son who looked like… this, she must see ladies lose their heads on a daily basis. No, hourly.

“You must forgive them, Mrs Wentworth,” Lord Aldridge said with a small smile. “London is very exciting, is it not, ladies? But alas, I shall not be at the ball. How fortunate that your cousin Strafford and I finished our business in time for me to meet you before you left.”

“Indeed, my lord,” Anne said, both girls frowning at the news he would not be availing himself of a dance. “It has been a pleasure, but I am quite certain we have overstayed. I am afraid we must leave before the young ladies forget their manners entirely.”

Lord Strafford stepped forward to take Anne’s hand, tucking it under his elbow, and she let out a sigh of relief. Strafford could keep this wolf at bay. Fleur and Belle kept their eyes trained on Lord Aldridge until Anne’s gesture forced them into another curtsy, murmuring, “A pleasure, my lord.” Finally, not a moment too soon for their mother, they turned back to the duchess with only a pair of warm glances back over their shoulders.

Eleanor smiled at each of the girls in turn. “Miss Wentworth, Miss Fleur, perhaps you will be kind enough to call again when you return from Paris. I shall speak with Lady Strafford to arrange it.” With a spare nod at Anne, she added, “Mrs Wentworth, thank you for calling. Perhaps we shall meet again if you stay in London. But you must be anxious to return to Charleston and your husband.”

Before Anne can decide if she is being cut, Fleur and Belle both curtsied again. Belle said, “It was lovely to meet you, Your Grace,” and Fleur followed with, “Thank you ever so much for the lovely tea, Your Grace. We shall look forward to calling when we return.”

Anne made a much shallower curtsy, in the event the duchess was subtly insulting her. “We thank you for your time and your most gracious hospitality, Your Grace.” Strafford patted her hand on his arm and directed her to the door, the girls following.

Blind Tribute

Every newspaper editor may owe tribute to the devil, but Harry Wentworth’s bill just came due.

As America marches toward the Civil War, Harry Wentworth, gentleman of distinction and journalist of renown, finds his calls for peaceful resolution have fallen on deaf—nay, hostile—ears, so he must finally resolve his own moral quandary. Comment on the war from his influential—and safe—position in Northern Society, or make a news story and a target of himself South of the Mason-Dixon Line, in a city haunted by a life he has long since left behind?

The day-to-day struggle against countervailing forces, his personal and professional tragedies on both sides of the conflict, and the elegant and emotive writings that define him, all serve to illuminate the trials of this newsman’s crusade, irreparably altering his mind, his body, his spirit, and his purpose as an honorable man. Blind Tribute exposes the shifting stones of the moral high ground, as Harry’s family and friendships, North and South, are shattered by his acts of conscience.

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Meet Mari Anne Christie

Mari was “raised up” in journalism (mostly raising her glass at the Denver Press Club bar) after the advent of the web press, but before the desktop computer. She has since plied her trade as a writer, editor, and designer across many different fields, and currently works as a technical writer and editor.

Under the name Mari Christie, she has released a book-length epic poem, Saqil pa Q’equ’mal: Light in Darkness: Poetry of the Mayan Underworld, and under pen name Mariana Gabrielle, she has written several Regency romances, including the Sailing Home Series and La Déesse Noire: The Black Goddess. Blind Tribute is her first mainstream historical novel. She expects to release the first book in a new family saga, The Lion’s Club, in 2018.

She holds a BA in Writing, summa cum laude and With Distinction, from the University of Colorado Denver, and is a member of the Speakeasy Scribes, the Historical Novel Society, and the Denver Press Club. She has a long family history in Charleston, South Carolina, and is the great-great niece of a man in the mold of Harry Wentworth.

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