An ancestor of Melinda Wychwood’s crossed into the land of Fairy without the sense to stay there. By returning home with a trace of fairy magic, he caused his descendants much sorrow and aggravation.
After an unnaturally long life, Mr. Wychwood had the good fortune to die in bed. He was surrounded by his numerous progeny and his fourth wife, having buried the three before her.
Over time, the land of Fairy and the fae folk fell out of fashion. For all things fairy were now seen as disreputable and smacked of undue influence. But, the taint of fae magic left traces. For in certain lights, those touched by fairy had eyes that shone like polished silver teapots.
Melinda Wychwood’s mother had disconcerting eyes of pure silver, but death closed them forever when her daughter was seven. The village breathed a sigh of relief.
Miss Melinda’s were gray-blue. This was a passable shade, though perhaps still too light for acceptance from the highest levels of society.
It was believed her eyes were the reason Miss Wychwood at age eighteen forswore a Season.
“Wouldn’t want to show that face in Bath or London,” was the talk at the local public house, the Swan. Though kinder folk thought it more likely she didn’t want to leave a father who was starting to decline in health.
As it was, eyes or not, Miss Wychwood may have rued not seizing a chance to widen her company. Her father finally succumbed to his weak heart when she was eighteen. Now at twenty-four, she was without prospects or the support of a loving relative.
Without a male heir, the estate passed to a distant cousin. Mr. Jasper Davenport, his wife, Louise, and their daughter, Cecelia, arrived as Miss Wychwood tossed dirt upon her father’s grave.
The Davenports swept into the Grange, and Miss Wychwood was brushed into a corner.
“At least she wasn’t cast into the street,” commented Mrs. Bartlett, not for the first time, to her confederate, Miss Adelaide Goswick. The two were sitting inside Mrs. Bartlett’s comfortable home in Chipping-Worth, sipping tea.
“Indeed,” Miss Goswick agreed. Miss Goswick was a congenial visitor, concurring with everything her host said.
As the recipient of an insignificant stipend from her own deceased father, Miss Goswick sympathized with Miss Wychwood. Although, if told of this empathy, the lady at the Grange might have been astonished. For Miss Goswick lived in a very humble two-room cottage, and Miss Wychwood had the Grange to call home.
Mrs. Bartlett gave her companion a small fairy cake with cherries and yellow icing on a porcelain plate that cost more than Miss Goswick’s wardrobe. Adelaide admired it exceedingly and was very careful with it.
Mrs. Bartlett often found Miss Goswick at her gate at a time of day when refreshments were likely to be served. Her visits developed into a common ritual of sharing tea.
Mrs. Bartlett continued giving her thoughts about their neighbors.
“The Davenports are not the most sensitive of people. Their rude manners make the girl’s position more difficult than it needs to be.”
“Indeed.” Miss Goswick, hastily swallowed her bite of cake so her agreement could be heard. It was not ladylike to choke down one’s meals. Better to peck at the cake and consume it in small, tidy bites.
“The girl managed the Grange when her father’s health could not. Did quite an admirable job of it. Now, Mr. Davenport seems to think he can do it better without her advice. Which affirms my belief the man is nothing but a fool. How a town man thinks he can advise his tenants on when to plant or where to graze the cattle is beyond me. A proper gudgeon.”
“Yes, but Mrs. Bartlett, a man should be in charge and making the decisions—do you not think so?” The last was added timidly for Miss Goswick sensed her words might cause displeasure.
“It is fine for my husband to visit London and make decisions about finance. That is proper. What would I know about investments? But would I ask Mr. Bartlett’s judgment on what to serve for dinner? Or what servants to hire? Ludicrous.”
It was gossiped that Mr. Bartlett escaped to town for more things than managing finance. However, Miss Goswick did not provide that tidbit of malicious tittle-tattle. Offending her hostess meant no more tea or biscuits served on new Meissen porcelain with roses painted upon it.
Instead, Miss Adelaide asked in a tentative voice, “Do you not think it mannish for a woman to know about crops and drainage? To talk with the tenants? I mean, she was closeted alone for hours with Mr. Lodger to review the estate’s accounts the month prior to Mr. Davenport’s arrival.”
“In the normal course of events, surely, I would think it so. But Miss Wychwood is a friend to the county. As a young girl, she ran wild over these hills. Always tagging along with that young scamp—that Arundell boy—when he was down here visiting.”
Mrs. Bartlett placed her teacup on the table and finished with a statement that would brook no dispute, “It was Mr. Wychwood who brought the motherless girl up, teaching her everything he knew. We could do worse, and I fear with Mr. Davenport we will do worse!”
If there was one thing Mrs. Bartlett couldn’t stand, it was a stupid man. It affronted her. Men were to be strong, and say over dinner when the shopkeeper had been annoying, “Don’t bother your head, my dear, I will sort out the butcher.”
That was a man! Not some silly gudgeon who wore town clothes in the country when he went about to talk with farmers.
“He planted the lower field against Miss Wychwood’s advice. All the seed washed away with the spring rains. What a fool.”
While her eye color was diluted to almost an acceptable color, Miss Melinda Wychwood of the Grange, Chipping-Worth, could not control her blush. Her downcast eyes, slight smile, and tone of voice were always to be relied upon for any occasion.
However, her blush hinted at a wildness of manner. Uninvited, it would color her cheeks, migrating to her forehead. There the pink would highlight a beating pulse, fluttering like a caught bird, at her temple.
Its vibrant warmth would suffuse her pale features at the worst moments. For a girl who liked to remain unnoticed, the violence of her blush was not only an inconvenience but also an aggravation.
After her mother’s death, Miss Melinda Wychwood learned to mask her mistakes and not put herself at risk of public censure. Sometimes counting backward from one hundred could cool her cheeks. Or mentally reviewing the long list of chores she needed to accomplish could drain her face of color.
But gray eyes that sometimes turned silver and a wild blush could not be hidden.
“I do not understand why we don’t have strawberries yet,” lamented Mrs. Louise Davenport to her husband at the dinner table.
“I adore strawberries!” her daughter Cecelia exclaimed with delight. The clapping hands might have deluded one to think the girl was twelve, not seventeen. However, this conjecture would be denied by the maturity of the young girl’s dress.
“Why do we not have any?” Mr. Jasper Davenport demanded of Miss Melinda Wychwood.
The quartet was seated about the dining table at the Grange. It was a lovely walnut table glowing from the application of polish. Its length displayed the family silver and dishes, which Miss Wychwood took pride in displaying, though they were no longer to be called her own.
Sometimes, she forgot her problems by staring at the candle’s reflection in the walnut’s mirrored surface. However, that would not do for if she did this too long, she would begin to hear the distant silver bells of Fairy.
“Melinda, Mr. Davenport asked you a question,” snapped Mrs. Davenport. Brought back from the precipice of succumbing to that mesmerizing flicking light, Miss Wychwood was snatched back to the present.
“The greenhouse glass was broken over the winter. Since you did not replace it, we wait upon what can be grown in the garden and have what the birds do not take.”
Miss Wychwood’s tone was in what she thought of as her “governess voice.” She practiced it often upon her new family, comforting herself that it would prepare her to earn her living. Surely, she could find a position as a caregiver to two-year-old twin boys in a drafty castle on the moors. They would be easy to deal with after her experience with the Davenports.
The request to replace the greenhouse glass was given to Mr. Davenport over nine months ago by the gardener, who was told to do so by Miss Wychwood. The master of the Grange ignored it, thinking he would get around to it later.
Mr. Davenport turned his attention back to his food. His gesture denied responsibility.
Without strawberries to enjoy, Mrs. Davenport amused herself by discussing the latest gossip. The news she had was almost as sweet as the missed berries.
“I heard from Mrs. Spencer that her husband’s nephew, Mr. Arundell, will be returning to the neighborhood.”
“Who?” Mr. Davenport asked around a mouthful of beef. “Never heard of the man.”
“The Hon. Alexander Kaye Arundell is the youngest son of the Earl of Darmont,” murmured Miss Wychwood, as that horrid betraying flush began on her cheeks.
She started counting. Better start at one hundred.
“Know him, do you?”
“A long time ago. When we were children. I haven’t seen him since I was eight. I doubt he would remember me.”
Disliking the idea of childhood friendships, as it seemed to denote an intimate knowledge of the man, Mrs. Davenport returned the conversation to herself. She stated loudly, “He was a summer visitor to Larchmont when his uncle, Mr. Humphrey Varndell, still lived. The Spencer girls do not remember him. Their family inherited and moved to Larchmont at a later time.”
“I adore the Spencers!” exclaimed Cecelia with the same delirious fever of excitement she held for strawberries.
“Yes, yes, to be sure, Sissy,” said the girl’s mother crossly, tired of being interrupted. “He is an unmarried man of twenty-nine and late of the military. Mr. Alexander Arundell recently inherited an estate with a manor house and land, with an income of five thousand a year. Between his age and position, he will surely be looking to start a family of his own soon.”
Mother and daughter’s eyes met over the table. Thankfully, this allowed Miss Wychwood’s blush to go undetected. She was counting down from the eighties.
Seeing no success with ridding herself of her betraying flush, Melinda started going through her list of tasks she needed to get done tomorrow. Bedsheets to be removed and sent to the laundress. Be sure to remind the lower housemaid not to rest the iron overlong like she did last time. It left a scorch mark on Mr. Davenport’s second-best pillowcase.
“New dresses!” gushed Sissy.
“A trip to town—” began her mother only to have Mr. Davenport abruptly cut off his wife’s suggestion. “The estate did not produce the wealth of its previous years. The two of you can settle for a shop in Chipping-Worth. A local will do well enough.”
At her mother’s mulish look, Cecelia saw the chance of new clothes rapidly disappearing.
“Mama, there’s a new dressmaker in town. She has a fairy license for Glamour, and her shop window is full of delightful treasures!”
At the mention of fairy enchantment, the gaze of the Davenport family turned to Miss Wychwood. How irritating that every time fairies were discussed, people thought she would display some magic right before their eyes.
“No relative of mine, I assure you,” Melinda said to their unspoken inquiry. Thoughts of laundry had eased her blushing, and her countenance had returned to its usual paleness. The Davenport women turned away and started discussing dresses.
As she picked up her fork, Melinda’s hand only trembled slightly. Would Kaye remember her?