Dearest Aunt Penny,
It has been much too long since our last correspondence. It shames me to be in such infrequent contact with my favourite Aunt! Mummy is presently arranging our annual visit to the seaside, but I have decided to break with tradition this year. Do you think you would be able to accommodate me at Woolford Park for a visit? London has begun to overwhelm me and I find myself longing for the peace of the English countryside. I believe a change of scenery will do me the greatest good. I have such fond memories of Uncle Charles and yourself; you have always been so good to me.
All my love,
P.S. Please tell Miranda that Benji adores her painting. The squirrels are exquisite.
Lady Penelope Hartford read the letter twice before moving to the chaise lounge and reading it again. Her joy grew as her eyes passed over each word. Her niece wished to visit them, the Hartfords in little old Surrey! This was almost too much to bear. She had always suspected that the Ruteledges' life in London was not as charmed as they would like society to believe. Tilly wishing to spend time in Surrey could only be confirmation of this. She called for Mr Hartford, to whom she immediately relayed the news.
“Just think what a prize it would be to have the Earl of Rochford’s daughter with us in Woolford! She would surely draw a higher class of suitors to our circle, and one of them may well be a fine husband for our Miranda. Heavens, even Benji would do. She may be married by midsummer!”
Mr Hartford’s reaction was more muted. “I’ve no objection to Miss Ruteledge visiting, but I must say I am surprised at your eagerness to associate with her, given your history with her mother.”
“Nonsense! I have no qualms with Belinda’s family, it’s only her smug face that I cannot bear.”
Penny had maintained good relations with Belinda’s children despite her disdain for their mother – a testament to her social prowess. She held a special fondness for her niece, who reflected more of herself than her own daughter. The opportunity for Miranda to spend the summer with her more genteel and refined cousin was too good to refuse. Invitations were sent and arrangements were made, and it was decided that Tilly would be a guest at Woolford for two months.
Penny and Belinda’s rivalry stretched back to childhood and was extreme even for a pair of sisters. They had been great beauties in their youth, and Penny had been the first to wed - a perfectly respectable match with the mild but affable Charles Hartford. All was well until Belinda unexpectedly married an Earl. Belinda became the Countess of Rochford, and their subsequent divide in class was responsible for the present frostiness between them. As the lady of Woolford Park, Penny lived in comfort but had no real title, and the Hartfords remained on the fringes of the aristocracy. Belinda’s smugness only sealed Miranda’s fate. If Penny was unable to outclass her sister, then her daughter must.
These things were easier said than done. Miranda, an indulged only child, now possessed a healthy amount of disrespect towards her parents. Attempts to introduce her to sons of Lords and Ladies had been unsuccessful, and Miranda had proved entirely unwilling to accept her mother’s assistance. Penny remained undeterred however, and Tilly’s imminent arrival had only spurred her on.
Miranda was indignant at the suggestion.
“For the last time, I am not marrying cousin Benji!”
“It’s 1813. No one minds! Would you not even entertain a courtship? He will be an Earl one day.”
“Mother!” she shrieked. “I mind.”
Penny sighed deeply, resigned but undefeated. “It’s simply something for you to consider. With Tilly arriving next week you and her brother could have a nice fall wedding. Honestly, you really must stop rejecting suitors or you’ll develop a reputation.”
“I believe you’ve established a reputation as the overbearing mother,” Miranda teased.
“Such impertinence! Everything I do is in your best interest.”
Benji was not mentioned again, and they did not quarrel for the remainder of the day.