A Chaotic Courtship by Bethany Swafford
Genre: Historical Romance
Synopsis: Twenty year old Diana Forester, a country bred young woman fears that her inexperience and uncertainties has driven Mr. John Richfield away. On arriving back home from London, she learns that he is already there, ready to continue their acquaintance. If Diana thought that it was difficult in London, courting takes on a whole new aspect when Diana’s younger siblings become involved. She finds herself dealing with her own feelings, her sister, her younger brother, jealous members of a house party, a jilted suitor, and a highwayman as she falls in love with the charming Mr. Richfield.
A good match is what every young lady dreams of finding. However, defining what makes a good match can be difficult. The majority of society proclaims wealth and consequence as the mostimportant qualities a lady ought to focus on. Physical appearance is of equal importance. Select few would say a gentleman’s character must be examined first and foremost.
Still, all would agree a bad match is to be avoided at all costs, even if it meant being left a lonely spinster.
My aunt’s voice pulled me from my thoughts. “Miss Jennings, I was seeking some clever way to say this, but I fear I could not find it,” I said, attempting to explain away my absentmindedness. “Your Mr. Carister appears to be a handsome man, and you are to be congratulated.”
The young lady, whom I had only known for a few short weeks, beamed at my words. Similar sentiments had no doubt been expressed since the happy announcement was made earlier in the evening. She genuinely seemed to be head over heels in love with her new betrothed, something all too rare in our society.
“Thank you, Mrs. Forester, Miss Forester,” she said, her tone sweet. “I believe I see my mother trying to get my attention. Please excuse me.”
I was more than happy to allow her to make her way to the other side of the drawing room. Her mother was surrounded by several of the matrons, bragging about the excellent match her daughter had made in such a short time.
No matter the kind of match made, society always has an opinion.
“Try to keep your head out of the clouds, Diana,” my aunt said in a low voice. Her gaze slid past me and she walked away. “Ah, Mrs. Richards. How lovely to see you again.”
Left to myself, I found a seat apart from the other ladies, tired of the gossip that filled the drawing room every time the ladies waited for the gentlemen to finish their port. Part of me wished I had brought my hated needlework. At least it would have been something for me to do, and I knew Mother expected me to actually finish the shawl I had been embroidering for the past year.
“It’s Miss Forester, isn’t it?”
Surprised, I lifted my gaze to find a young lady standing in front of me. Her pale pink dress, though simple, was elegant. The dark brown eyes and fair hair were familiar, but I couldn’t immediately think of her name. Admitting so would be horridly embarrassing.
“Yes, I am.” As I acknowledged my identity, I tried to think quickly. After a moment, I had it: we had been introduced mere moments before we had gone in for dinner. She was the daughter of one of Uncle Forester’s business associates. That narrowed it down enough I could remember her name. I gestured to the seat beside me. “Would you like to sit down, Miss Reynolds?”
“Certainly. Thank you,” Miss Reynolds said, moving to sit next to me. “I do so dislike this part of the evening. It’s dreadfully tedious listening to gossip that has already been shared. Nothing new can ever be learned by this point in the day. Do you not agree, Miss Forester?”
“I can’t say I have ever been fond of gossip at any hour of the day.”
My honesty made Miss Reynolds frown and tilt her head as she focused on me. “Why have we never met before this, Miss Forester?” she asked, her tone curious. “I have been here with my family since the beginning of the season. Surely we would have crossed paths at a ball or a dinner party before this.”
“I only came up to London with my aunt and uncle a few weeks ago. My uncle had business to tend to, and I was privileged to be allowed to come as well.”
“You poor thing! How many delightful events you missed! Could you not have convinced them to come sooner? Or to have your parents bring you? Everyone knows the most eligible gentlemen have already been caught by this time.”
“Oh, so you are engaged then, Miss Reynolds?” I asked, avoiding her questions. Forcing her to talk about herself was the only tactic I knew would deflect the questioning from myself. It was a skill I had perfected on my younger sister, Sarah, whom Miss Reynolds somehow reminded me of.
Immediately, Miss Reynolds stiffened. “No,” she said with reluctance. A smile appeared on her face a moment later. “It is only recently I decided upon a gentleman worth pursuing. The others werequite beneath me, you understand.”
“And does this gentleman know of the honor you have granted him?” I asked sweetly. Miss Reynolds frowned again as if sensing my sarcasm but not quite understanding it. “Is he here tonight? You must point him out to me.”
“I have no doubt he will approach me the moment he comes in,” Miss Reynolds told me.
Her certainty made me curious. Which of the men at the dinner party could she possibly have decided upon?
The silence that followed seemed to stretch on and on. Among strangers, silence has always made me nervous, especially when I can think of nothing to say. This was no exception. Just as I was about to offer an excuse to move to Aunt Forester’s side, the door of the drawing room opened.
Miss Reynolds swiftly directed a pleased smile at me. I responded with a polite smile of my own as the gentlemen entered. The last of the men walked towards us. My breath caught in my throat and I glanced from him to the young lady at my side.
I didn’t know what to think as the tall man drew closer. Having met him at the first soirée Aunt Forester had taken me to, he and I had conversed at nearly every event I had attended since then. He was not titled, which made me wonder why Miss Reynolds, who came from a well to do family, considered him so superior to other men.
He was handsome, of course, with hair the color of sand and blue eyes. And there was the rumor I had heard hinting that he was not exactly penniless. Still, I couldn’t see what had so attracted Miss Reynolds’ interest.
My interest, on the other hand—well, I never claimed to be an aristocrat. Everything about Mr. John Richfield proclaimed him to be a most respectable young man. What more could a twenty-year old young lady from the country ask for?
Manners forced me to my feet, mere moments before Miss Reynolds also stood. “Mr. Richfield,” I murmured, dropping a slight curtsy. I kept my gaze on the floor.
“Mr. Richfield,” Miss Reynolds said at the same time, her tone bright and coy. The expression on her face was one of absolute delight. “I was hoping we would have the chance to continue our conversation.”
“Miss Forester, Miss Reynolds.” Mr. Richfield bowed slightly. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”
Miss Reynolds took a step forward. “Certainly not. Miss Forester and I were merely becoming better acquainted. Could I persuade you to take a turn about the room with me, sir? After sitting so long, it will be refreshing to have a change of scenery and I hear the paintings are exceptional.”
Just as I resigned myself to watching Miss Reynolds flirt with him for the rest of the evening, Mr. Richfield said, “I was actually coming to request Miss Forester play the pianoforte for us. I have heard many times she is quite accomplished, but have yet to hear it for myself.”
That brought my head up swiftly. Mr. Richfield held his arm out to me, a smile on his face. “Will you allow me to turn the pages for you, Miss Forester?”
“Yes, of course,” I said quickly. I put my hand on his arm and let him lead me to the pianoforte. “I should warn you, I am not the master of pianoforte my aunt makes me out to be.”
“I never thought Mrs. Forester to be the kind of woman who would exaggerate,” my escort said, looking amused. “No, I think you are being overly modest, Miss Forester. It doesn’t become you.”
I bit my lip as I took my seat at the instrument. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Miss Reynolds talking to another young lady to whom I had been introduced earlier. From the sour look on both of their faces, I guessed neither of them was pleased with this turn of events.
It wasn’t my fault Mr. Richfield preferred my company over her fawning. Since I’d met him, time and again I had seen him ignore any flirtatious behavior directed at him. Clearly, it wasn’t the way to get his attention.
Somehow, without trying, I had managed to do that.
“Is there something wrong?”
Realizing I had been staring at Miss Reynolds, I switched my focus to Mr. Richfield’s question. “No. I’m afraid my mind has a tendency to wander.”
“I am hurt!” he said, holding a hand to his chest dramatically. “Am I such uninteresting company?”
“No! That isn’t what I meant!”
He chuckled as he allowed his hand to drop. “I know, Miss Forester. I was simply teasing. Now, have you decided what you will play for us?”
Feeling my cheeks flush with embarrassment, I spread the sheet music out for a simple ballad. I had always enjoyed music, but there was no possible way I would attempt to show off in front of so many young ladies who undoubtedly had the benefit of a master’s training. Generally, I left that to Sarah.
Mr. Richfield dutifully stood by my side and turned the pages at my nod. I didn’t tell him it was a composition I knew by heart. A sigh of relief left my lips once I finished. The gathered party applauded politely, Mr. Richfield the loudest of all.
“Another, Miss Forester?” he asked, expectantly.
Shaking my head, I left the seat for another eager young lady to take. “I think I have displayed my meager talent enough for one evening.”
Chuckling, Mr. Richfield showed me to a seat and then fetched a cup of tea for me. “Miss Forester, you were lying to me,” he said.
“I don’t think that’s true.”
“As you wish. You implied you were only adequate at the pianoforte, and yet you played exquisitely.”
I raised my eyebrow. “You are trying to flatter me, sir.”
“What reason would I have to do that?” he asked, raising his own eyebrow at me.
Blushing, I dropped my gaze to my cup. There was only one reason a girl would think any gentleman would be paying any attention to her, but perhaps I was overthinking the matter.
“I didn’t mean to embarrass you,” Mr. Richfield said quickly as I sought to find something to say. “Perhaps you would prefer to talk about the latest gossip?”
A few of the other guests glanced over at me, and I felt my cheeks flush even more. In my horror at the thought of having to maintain the senseless gossip commonly discussed, I had spoken a trifle louder than necessary. I forced a swift, polite smile and they returned to their conversations.
Why was it so easy to embarrass myself in front of Mr. Richfield?
“Quite honestly, Mr. Richfield, I have no desire to listen to stories that are told merely to spread scandal,” I said in a much lower tone. “I do not know those involved, and it could well be that matters have been greatly exaggerated with each person who repeats it. I want no part in that.”
“Good,” Mr. Richfield said with a smile, seeming not to have noticed I had, just moments before, drawn the attention of others with my improper exclamation. “I suspected you shared my feelings on the matter. However, I had to make sure.”
“A test, sir?”
“Do you mind?”
I considered the question for a moment. “No,” I said slowly, careful to keep my voice low. “But it is hardly fair of you to do something like that to me.”
“I promise not to do it again,” Mr. Richfield said, gazing at me in a suddenly serious manner. He seemed to hesitate. “Miss Forester, if I were to find my way to your family’s home, would I receive a welcome?”
My breath caught in my throat. “My home?”
Mr. Richfield nodded. “With your permission, I’d like to meet and speak to your father.”
What he was saying, what he was asking, was unmistakable. I felt frozen, not knowing the proper thing to do or say or even think. No one had ever told me how to handle a situation like this. Certainly, I enjoyed the company of Mr. Richfield, but marriage?
With a start, I realized Mr. Richfield’s gaze was still on me, a furrow forming on his brow. I had to say something, and so the first thing that came to mind was what left my lips. “It’s always pleasant to have someone new come to the neighborhood. I believe you said you know my neighbors, the Sandwoods?”
Mr. Richfield’s frown deepened. “Yes, that’s true. And it has been some time since I last saw them. But that wasn’t what I meant, Miss Forester.”
Right. “My father does enjoy making new acquaintances. I’m sure you will find a warm welcome in my home.”
My answer was exactly the vague, flighty response an emptyheaded debutante would give. Mr. Richfield’s expression was puzzled and he opened his mouth to say more.
“Diana, Mr. Richfield,” my aunt said, getting my attention. “We’re setting up the card tables. Would you care to help make up a set?”
“I would love to!” Standing, I hurried to join her. Already I regretted my answer to Mr. Richfield. With great effort, I pushed it from my mind until a moment when I could think it over.
A letter from my mother waited for me at the breakfast table the next morning. I couldn’t help smiling as I picked it up.
“You are aware you will be home in a few days?” Uncle Forester asked, getting my attention.
“By then this news,” I said, holding my letter up, “will be old news.”
“You forget, dear niece, I am from the country as well. News does not grow old so quickly.”
“True. May I plead affection for my mother as a reason for my pleasure?”
“I believe we all know the affection you have for your family, Diana.”
“My dear Mr. Forester, are you teasing Diana again?” Aunt Forester asked, coming in just then. I breathed a sigh of relief to have escaped anymore of my uncle’s teasing. “Diana, what news from home do you have?”
“I’ve not yet read my letter, but I will now and tell you what it contains,” I said, breaking the seal. I ignored my food in favor of reading the letter. The majority was made up of my mother extending greetings to her old school friends. She knew me well enough to guess I had forgotten to do so. The final paragraph, though, caused me to smile.
“Mother wishes us to give her regards to her school friends.”
“Ah, yes. I do remember her giving you those instructions before we left. But what do you find so amusing about that?”
I glanced up. “It’s not that. It is my brother. Listen to this,” I said, lifting the letter up to read aloud. “‘William requests that I tell you there have been rumors of a highwayman in the area. If you should happen to be stopped, cooperate in every way and Will swears he will avenge you as soon as he hears of it.’”
Aunt Forester chuckled. “You wouldn’t dare be accosted by a highwayman without your brother, would you, Diana? He will accuse you of doing so just to spite him.”
“Highwaymen, indeed,” Uncle Forester said, folding up his paper.
“The boy is inventing stories now. I will return this evening, my dear.”
Smiling, my aunt rose to say goodbye to him. Embarrassed, I gazed steadfastly at the words written on the paper in my hand, looking up only when the door closed. Aunt Forester’s smile was pleased when she sat back down, and I couldn’t help smiling as well. The affection that existed between my aunt and uncle was sweet, rivaled only by the love I saw between my parents.
“Well, enough about your brother’s odd fascination with criminals,” Aunt Forester said. “I believe you and Mr. Richfield were having an intimate talk last night.”
I felt my cheeks flush as I folded up my letter. “Did we call much attention to ourselves?”
“No one else seemed to remark upon it. But that may be because it is the kind of situation you should expect when you are being courted by such a well-respected young man.”
“Courted.” I had enjoyed being with Mr. Richfield as we shared similar opinions and tastes. I had never dared to think he might seriously want me as his wife.
Aunt Forester finished her meal, and pushed her plate away. “I had hoped he would make his intentions known before we left. I even warned Mr. Forester he might be approached by Mr. Richfield.”
Oh, dear. I dropped my gaze to my letter. “I don’t think you will need to worry about that.” Even I could hear the misery in my voice.
“What’s wrong?” Aunt Forester asked. “You two didn’t have some sort of quarrel, did you?”
“A quarrel? No.” Though a quarrel might have been preferable. At least then I could make amends. How do you go about apologizing for being thoughtless and willfully avoiding a question? I closed my eyes. All my doubts and regrets were giving me a headache.
Breathing out, I forced myself to look at my aunt. She deserved nothing but the truth. “Last night, Mr. Richfield asked for my permission to speak to my father. And—”
“Oh, Diana!” Aunt Forester reached across the table to grab my hands. “How wonderful! Congratulations! I knew it would do you a world of good to come to London!”
“I didn’t give it!” Allowing her continue under the assumption I was as good as engaged was something I could not do.
Aunt Forester became visibly puzzled. “What?”
“I didn’t give my permission. Not exactly. Please understand I was surprised by what he said.”
“What did you tell him?”
My fingers tightened around my letter, crumpling the paper. I remembered each word with clarity. “I said how enjoyable it was to have new faces in the neighborhood, and my father enjoyed making new acquaintances.”
Holding my breath, I waited to be berated by my aunt for being an empty-headed ninny.
“Well, that’s not as bad as I expected,” my aunt said, with a relieved sigh. “We can fix this easily, Diana.” She narrowed her eyes at me. “Unless you were merely trying to avoid refusing an offer outright?”
“No!” I relaxed my grip on my letter to clasp my hands together as I tried to explain something I didn’t quite understand myself. “I don’t want to refuse him—I think. I just have not thought seriously about marriage.”
“Diana, every girl in your situation has thought about marriage,” Aunt Forester said severely. “You cannot live forever with your parents, and you have no inheritance to start up your own household, which would ostracize you from society. You are already twenty years old. How many more offers can you expect to receive before you are considered to be on the shelf, as they say?”
I flinched under her bluntness. “I know.” I did know. Everything she said had crossed my mind many times the past couple of years, and especially in the recent winter months. “But I cannot accept someone’s offer without knowing him. I have not known Mr. Richfield for long, Aunt.”
“Have you heard anything to make you think he is anything but a fine gentleman? Has he ever acted in a manner other than completely respectful?” Aunt Forester asked.
“No,” I said in answer to both questions.
“Then I fail to see why you are so concerned. Think of Sarah. You know it would not do for anyone to offer for your younger sister’s hand while you are still unwed. Do you want her to become an old maid as well?”
“Of course not!”
“Then, you must accept Mr. Richfield’s offer. As I said, we can save this situation with no difficulty. When we see him tonight, you can merely explain you were startled and you desire him to speak to your father.”
“How do you know we will see him tonight?”
Aunt Forester’s expression became pleased. “Because I make sure to be well informed and know every guest attending the soirée. Now, get ready. It won’t be long before we have callers.”
I left the breakfast room, torn between relief and terror the situation could be fixed with only a few words.