Oakland Manor – 1820

“The carriages are ready,” Lady Oakland said as she entered her husband’s study. Dressed in preparation for their journey to Thorncliff Manor, she’d chosen a comfortable peach-colored gown and was presently pulling on her favorite pair of kid-skin gloves.

“And the children?” Philip, Earl of Oakland asked as he rose from his chair, closed the ledger he’d been updating and came toward her. “Are they ready as well?”

“Fiona keeps returning upstairs in order to fetch one thing or another that she claims to have forgotten,” Lady Oakland said in reference to her youngest daughter who, at the age of eighteen, was still as boisterous as ever, “so I think we should simply decide that it’s time to depart. Besides, the workers we hired are ready to begin on the renovations.”

“Alterations, you mean, considering our home is in perfect condition, save for the small detail that it’s not in the Greek style as you would prefer.”

Stepping forward with a smile, Lady Oakland allowed her husband to pull her into his arms. “You’re very good to me, Philip, there’s no denying that.”

He chuckled lightly as he kissed the top of her head. “The things men do for love…”

Leaning back a little, Lady Oakland gazed up at her husband in adoration. The corners of his eyes creased a great deal more than when they’d married thirty one years prior, and his hair now contained the occasional strand of gray, but he was still as handsome as ever.  “I dare say I only managed to convince you to accept the expense for Spencer’s benefit.”

Contemplating his eldest son and heir, Philip sighed. “If this plan of yours to get him back out into Society so he can find a suitable bride doesn’t work, it will be a terribly expensive failure.”

“At least our home will be de rigeur,” she said, determined to remain positive.

With a snort, Philip released her and gathered up a book from his desk. “You make the most damning arguments, Marie, but I must confess that even I was stunned to discover that Richard has agreed to join us.”

“I don’t suppose he likes the thought of Oakland Manor being overrun by workers or of possibly having to face them.” Regrettably, she failed to avoid sounding bitter.

“You mustn’t take this personally, Marie,” Philip said with a note of sympathy. “He doesn’t want anyone to see him. I’ve only caught the occasional glimpse of him since he returned from the war. The scars on his face are severe.”

“But I’m his mother, Philip, and it’s been five years!” Turning away from her husband, she tried to hide the welling of tears. She would not cry. Not now when they were about to begin their summer holiday together.

“I know, but you have to respect his wishes for privacy. We all do.”

Forcing a smile, she nodded as she turned to Philip once more. “Of course we do.” She allowed her smile to grow wider. “Shall we see if we can be on our way within the next half hour?”

“Do you really suppose it will take that long?”

Marie offered her husband a look that spoke volumes. “There are nine of us with two carriages and seating arrangements that are yet to be decided.”

“We’re only eight since Richard will be riding alone after nightfall.”

“Right,” Marie said with a sigh.

A knock sounded and Fiona popped her head through the doorway. “Mama, have you seen my cream-colored shawl? The one with the sunflowers embroidered along the edges?”

Marie turned toward her youngest daughter. “I thought you might like to bring it along so I handed it to Pierce on my way in here and asked him to give it to you on your way out.”

Fiona’s face brightened. “In that case I do believe I’m ready to depart.”

“What about everyone else?” Philip inquired.

“They’re waiting outside,” Fiona said with a smile. “It’s lovely weather so I daresay we’ll have a very pleasant ride.”

“Then let’s be off,” Philip said as he ushered his wife and daughter out of his study and toward the front of the house where the butler gave Fiona her favorite shawl. Continuing out onto the front step however, Philip was met with a loud discussion taking place between his four other daughters and Spencer.

“You must agree that there isn’t enough space for your box of paints inside the carriage,” Rachel was telling Emily. “It must go on top.”

“What if I sit next to you, Chloe?” Emily asked her eldest sister, “You’re very petite. I’m sure we can—”

“I hope you’re not suggesting that the rest of us are overweight,” Laura said, cutting off her sister’s comment as she crossed her arms with distinct disapproval.

Emily sighed. “Of course not, but you must admit that Chloe is particularly slim.”

A moment of silence followed as everyone turned to regard the eldest Heartly daughter. “Are you sure you’re eating properly?” Rachel eventually asked.

Chloe rolled her eyes. “Yes,” she said, not bothering to elaborate.

“Regardless, I’d still like to have my paints within reach,” Emily said.

“In that case, I should like to have my lap-desk with me,” Laura announced. “I could write another chapter of my novel by the time we reach Thorncliff, which to my way of thinking would be most efficient.”

“Would you all please stop being so difficult,” Spencer said, his tone at the brink of complete exasperation. “Emily isn’t going to start painting inside the carriage any more than you’re going to do any writing, Laura. There’s no room for a paint box or for a lap-desk without ensuring the discomfort of whoever you happen to sit next to. Both items will go on top of the carriage.” Spotting his parents, he turned toward them and said, “Wouldn’t you agree?”

Marie blinked, then nodded slowly as she regarded her six children individually. “The space inside the carriages is cramped enough as it is. You may take a book, if you like, or some embroidery, but anything more cumbersome is out of the question. Now then, who will be riding with your father and I?”

“I’d be happy to,” Chloe said, stepping forward.

“What about you, Spencer?” Marie asked.

Spencer shook his head. “Sorry, Mama, but I was planning to ride with Fiona and Laura.”

“You were?” Fiona asked sounding thoroughly surprised.

“Somebody needs to keep an eye on you and I am happy to volunteer,” Spencer said as he put his arm around Fiona and squeezed her against him.

“Are you aware that you sound horribly overbearing right now?” she asked, though she couldn’t stop from smiling.

“A compliment, considering I’m supposed to be exceedingly so if I’m to do my duty as your brother.” Grinning, Spencer chucked Fiona under her chin, just as he’d been doing since she was three years old.

“Then perhaps you’d like to join us, Emily?” Marie asked while Philip strode toward the first carriage and began issuing instructions to the driver.

“Certainly, Mama,” Emily said.

“In that case I’ll join Spencer, Fiona and Laura,” Rachel said decisively, even though no other option remained.

“We’ll have an excellent time of it,” Fiona declared as she pulled away from Spencer and started toward the second carriage. Her siblings followed suit while Chloe and Emily began climbing into the other carriage.

Approaching Marie, Philip offered her his hand, intent on helping her climb in after Chloe and Emily. “It looks as though we’re finally ready,” he said with a tilt of his lips.

Marie frowned as she nodded toward the second carriage. “Am I mistaken or is Spencer deliberately trying to avoid spending time with us?”

Philip chuckled. “You can’t be surprised.” When she offered him a look of incomprehension, he said, “Your desperation to see him wed is beginning to show. I don’t believe he’s interested in spending the next six hours being apprised of all the marriageable young ladies who are going to be present at Thorncliff during our visit.”

Marie huffed a little. “I’m not that bad.”

Lowering his head, Philip kissed Marie’s forehead. “Said the woman who has spent the last two months devising a plan that will force her son back into Society.”

“Are you saying you don’t agree with my method?”

“I wouldn’t dare,” Philip grinned. “I’m just trying to explain why Spencer might not be so eager to share your company at the moment.”

With that final statement, he ushered his wife into the carriage where she promptly took her seat and began smoothing her skirts. Climbing in after her, Philip shut the door, rapped his fist on the roof and breathed a sigh of relief when the carriage started rolling down the driveway. For better or worse, they were finally on their way.

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