In which Lady Dorothea’s beloved stepmother lays out her devious plan to marry off her beloved—but numerous—stepdaughters.
Doro downed the last of the apple cake and sighed in pure bliss. It was Boxing Day. Since they had no servants, Bess, her oldest sister, had declared they must be kind to themselves and one another. And so, they had. The younger girls were in their room giggling over the fashion magazines her sister Susana, who was a dressmaker, brought them. The baby sat on the threadbare rug stacking blocks. The older ones had gone off on a ramble. All was right in Doro’s world—or would be if Ben Clarke wasn’t miles away.
“Patience, you have to give me the recipe for that one. It will make the Hampton famous throughout Harrogate, if not all of East Riding.”
“Or course. My secrets are yours.”
“All of them?” Doro studied Patience pointedly. Exactly the same age as Doro, Patience was more friend than stepmother, almost another sister. “You’ve been fit to burst since I got here. And why did you demand that we all come home for that matter?
“Isn’t being together for the holidays enough?” Patience’s outrage almost looked genuine.
“If that was the entire reason, it would be enough. But it isn’t, is it? Spill it please, dear Stepmama,” Doro demanded.
Patience drew herself upright and raised her chin reminding Doro forcefully that Patience was after all the dowager Countess of Seahaven, head of their household. It behooved Doro not to forget it.
The earl’s fifth wife, Patience had given Doro’s Papa another daughter, the curly haired moppet on the floor in front of them. For her trouble she received a pittance from the estate, and struggled to care for them all. Patience and each of the sisters, even the eighteen-year-old twins, did what they could to bring in money, the social stigma attached to wage earning be damned, with Patience’s reluctant approval. Doro had enormous respect for Patience.
“Very well Dorothea. I’ve had an idea, one that might help all of us, but I’m not ready to share it with everyone just yet. Susana won’t be here until Twelfth Night in any case.”
Doro leaned forward to listen. “Now I’m frantic with curiosity.”
Patience unbent. “You might actually help me refine my thinking—and my budget.” She instinctively moved closer and lowered her voice. “I had a letter from my cousin Rose.”
“The one who plans to jaunt off to Egypt and the Levante?” Doro rather admired cousin Rose. They all did.
“She left earlier in December. Her townhouse in York—the most fashionable part of York, I might add—is empty.”
Doro blinked at her, trying to make out the point. Patience reached into her pocket, pulled out a key and held it up. Doro gasped. “She’s giving you her house?”
“Not giving. Lending. She suggests we all whisk off to York and give you girls a proper Season. Bess had one, but what with mourning and, well, poverty, the rest of you didn’t. Now the younger girls face bleak prospects if nothing is done.” Patience frowned. “I’m sorry, Doro. It is probably fair to say you all do.”
Doro waved that away. “I have made a life for myself, Patience.” As to prospects, she had hopes of a certain curate, but didn’t dare say it. “What exactly do you propose?”
“Nothing major. Merely time in York. A few parties. The races at the end. Perhaps any or all of you—of us—might meet someone.”
Doro shook her head. “I see no point. There are too many of us, and most are past the marriageable age.”
“That is absurd Lady Dorothea Bigglesworth. You are no such thing.”
Doro smiled, warmed down to her toes, hoping it was true. “Perhaps, but in that world, the social world? If we dissipate our efforts it won’t work.”
A sly grin came over Patience’s face. “Are you suggesting that we focus our efforts? I had a similar idea. Josefina, Iris, and Ivy are at the most eligible age, and every one of them is a beauty. They would draw the eye of every gentleman in a ballroom. They could take York by storm if we concentrated on them.”
“Not without a comfortable portion.” Doro tapped a finger on the arm of her chair, biting her lower lip in thought. “The earl made it clear we can split the dowry funds as we see fit,” she said at last. “What if, instead of dividing it among all of us, we invest it in the most eligible three. It might just have enough for them each to snag a suitor.”
It was obvious from Patience’s expression that she had already thought of it. “Their husbands are bound to sponsor the rest of you.”
Doro snorted. “Or at least support you and the young ones.”
“We will see. If they find wealthy husbands even better for all of us. Can we manage it?”
Doro knew what Patience asked. “First you have to get everyone’s agreement to pool the dowry funds. Then there are the expenses. There’s no point of doing this if we don’t do it right: wardrobes including ball gowns, household expenses, entertainment—a presentation ball at the very least.”
“But can we manage it?”
“I’ll have to give it some thought. It will depend on what each of us can contribute. Begin making lists, and I’ll price things out. If working for Crowley at the Hampton taught me nothing else, it is how to keep books and budget. The others have to agree, though. Don’t mention anything to Iris, Ivy, and Josefina until we’re ready, but take the others aside one by one. Perhaps we can figure out how to make it work.”
Patience waved the key again. “I knew this was lucky the minute it fell out of Rose’s letter.” She sobered again. “I can’t do this without you, Doro. I know you plan to return to Harrogate, but if the sisters agree, there will be detailed planning and arrangements to make.”
Doro’s heart sank.
Patience reached for her hands. “Whatever—and whoever—waits for you in Harrogate will be there in June, Doro. I know they will.