Haverford House was built to impress, every room at more than human scale, every surface glittering with evidence of wealth and power. As Lalamani and Philip followed the butler up staircases and down halls, the ducal ancestors frowned down from painted and sculpted portraits, and even the occasional landscape appeared to disapprove of the intruder who had infiltrated these august surroundings.
Lalamani clung tighter to Philip’s arm, and resisted the urge to inform a particularly contemptuous portrait of some duke’s favourite horse that she had been invited.
At long last, the butler opened a door to a comfortable sitting room, still built on the grand scale but somehow transformed by the placement and choice of furnishings into a welcoming place that was a fit setting for the lady who awaited them.
“Lord and Lady Calne, Your Grace,” the butler announced.
Lalamani had been presented to the Duchess of Haverford once, at one of her balls — the same ball at which Lalamani had met the Earl of Calne. Three minutes in a receiving line, with a long queue of people waiting behind, but in those few moments, Her Grace had given Lalamani her complete attention and made the rank outsider, the merchant’s daughter, feel welcome.
And now the duchess’s smile of welcome was repairing the wounds to Lalamani’s self-respect inflicted by the house. “My dears, do come and take a seat. How did you find the walk through this dreadful house? Such a long way, and so much clutter. Tea, Lady Calne?”
She spooned leaves from a small tea chest into a waiting tea pot and handed it to the hovering maid to be filled from an urn.
“Thank you.” Lalamani settled herself on a small sofa, sweeping her skirts to one side so that Philip could sit comfortingly close. Though he had grown in this world no more than she, still he was born to it and had spent more time there, besides.
The duchess beamed. “I was delighted when my friend, Lord Henry Redepenning, mentioned that you and your husband first met at one of my balls, Lady Calne. Lord Henry will tell you that I like nothing better than a love match, and if I did not have a hand in this one, I am at least pleased to have provided the venue for its inception.”
“It is a love match,” Philip assured her, gravely, and she smiled.
“Yes, and it annoys you, I think, that Society is calling you a fortune hunter and your lady a social climber. It would annoy me, too, even were it true. And I can see for myself, now that I see you together, that the two of you are deeply in love, as Lord Henry assured me.”
The great lady’s frankness steadied Lalamani. It seemed the duchess had a mind to support them. What could she do, though? Lalamani repeated the wisdom of her Aunt Hannah. “Nothing can be done about gossip and scandal, except to live it down.”
Her Grace laughed. “I would not say ‘nothing’, my dear. Milk and sugar?” She added a little of both to the cup the maid handed her, then gestured for it to be brought to Lalamani.
“I am not without resources to replace one set of stories with another, Lady Calne. I invited you here to discuss what gossip about your courtship you would find most pleasing. The discovery of the hidden Calne treasure? The rescue of a beleaguered widow? A true romance that seemed fated to be unfulfilled, because of the poverty of the hero and the class of the heroine? You shall decide, and I shall make sure that Society takes you into their hearts.”
Lord Calne’s Christmas Ruby is a Christmas novella, released last month. Follow the link for blurb and buy links.