The Matfen Affair by Jen Black
“It’s time you learned to defend yourself against that over-opinionated hussy.”
“Robert!” My hand shot to my mouth at the word hussy and my eyes were no doubt like saucers. A typical feminine reaction, but so ingrained I had executed it before my thoughts caught up with me. Knowing I was blushing did not help, but I raised my chin an inch or so, for I was nothing if not stubborn. “You should not call any lady by such a name.”
His brown eyes sparkled as the sun caught them. “Amelia is far from being a lady.” Tall, vivid and confident, he spoke partly in jest, but did not trouble to hide what he thought of my meekness, or my sister.
“She is outspoken,” I said slowly. “Mama has often said she ought not to be so forward with her opinions.” Then loyalty to my sister came to the fore. “Robert, I cannot agree with you. Amelia is a lady.”
He leaned toward me, his expression surprisingly serious above his impeccably white neckcloth and my heart skipped a beat. I had been in love with Robert Fenwick since I was two years old, but he had no idea of my feelings. Oh, he knew I liked him and enjoyed our friendship, but the intensity of my feelings was my secret. Sometimes I plotted and dreamed of ways to make him fall in love with me, but had not yet dared to put any of them into practice. “You are the true lady, Leigh. Now, come and walk with me while we discuss how best to bring you out of your shell.”
“I am not in a shell,” I protested. “Really, Robert, I am not sixteen. I wish you would not treat me as if I were.”
He glanced down at me as we continued to walk between lines of lavender. “How old are you, Leigh?”
“You know very well that I am nineteen.” Of course he knew, for his family lived across the valley and he and I had learned to ride our ponies together when we were both still in our smocks. I was the elder by one day, but he thought himself vastly superior to me, no doubt simply because he had been born male.
No matter what he said, I could not resist his charm for long. Walking with my cousin Robert Fenwick was always a pleasure whatever the weather, but especially so in today’s early summer sunshine. Blue sky arched over our heads and the hills that formed the border with Scotland rolled green to the distant horizon. At this time of year England’s most northerly county was always beautiful.
“I am serious, Leigh. It is time she stopped bullying you.”
“She doesn’t really bully me.”
His answer was merely to raise his eyebrows almost to his hairline, so in hope of distraction, I said, “Amelia will be entirely focussed on her latest beau for the next few days. She won’t take much notice of me.”
My elder sister had somehow contrived an introduction to Lord Felsham, one of the few notables in Northumberland, and had spoken of little else but his perfect manners, good looks and vast estates for the last three weeks.
Robert glanced in every direction and then leaned closer to me. “That is part of the problem. Haven’t you heard?”
“Can you keep a secret?”
When I nodded impatiently, he said, “Her beau won’t be at Matfen for the wedding. Felsham has contracted measles and will be persona non grata for some time.”
I stopped in the middle of the gravel path. “Oh, no!”
Our families were due to travel south to Matfen Grange in a day or two in order to celebrate my cousin Lucy Fenwick’s wedding. Such gatherings brought the rather large Fenwick clan together in one building, and offered a chance to meet old friends and perhaps make new acquaintances. I had been particularly looking forward to this wedding because I was to be bridesmaid to my cousin Lucy. Almost two years my junior, she was to marry Adam Ridley, aged twenty-five. Seven years was not generally thought too great an age difference, though I did have my doubts, for Lucy was a very young seventeen. Though I hoped Adam was not a frivolous young man about town, I equally hoped for Lucy’s sake he was not averse to gossip and fun.
“The young couple will have to marry without Lord Felsham’s presence,” Robert said with a chuckle.
But I was not thinking about the bridal couple. “Amelia will be distraught,” I said softly. “She has spent days deciding which gowns to take to Matfen. This is poor news indeed.”
“Why so?” Robert asked. “Lord Felsham’s absence should not spoil your enjoyment.”
I had few illusions about my elder sister. Once decided that Lord Felsham was excellent husband material, she had every intention of entrapping him by fair means or foul. News of his indisposition was likely to throw her into a fit of the dismals for days. I looked down at a clump of lavender growing in the border that ran along the side of the house. Several bees collected pollen and their contented hum was as pleasant to the ear as the scent of lavender to the nose. He was right, of course. My sister’s bad humour would not stop my enjoyment in wearing my new gown and being part of the wedding celebrations. A shell pink delight, my dress was already rolled in soft cloth to prevent creasing during the journey.
“The bride won’t care a jot if Felsham is missing or Amelia is in the droops,” Robert said cheerfully. “She probably won’t even notice his absence. The groom has never met either of them, so he won’t be affected.”
“That is true, but you know how Amelia will be if Felsham is not there.”
“She will be in a fit of the dismals, and when that happens, everyone will suffer?”
I could not contradict him. Yet his comment, and the glance that accompanied it, lifted my spirits. “That is true.”
“You give her too much credit, Leigh.”
“You are right. We should not allow measles to spoil anyone’s wedding.”
At that moment, a loud hail drew our attention to the corner of the house where the old pine tree stood sentinel. Cousin Robert groaned.
“Shush. She will hear you.”
“I don’t give a damn if she does.”