Pink Carnation Theatre returns with episode two of Bunny & Biscuits: A Very Dorrington Valentine’s Day. (If you haven’t yet read Part I, just click here.)
And, now, Part Two of Bunny & Biscuits….
Later That Day
Penelope’s wedding breakfast was held at the town residence of the Dowager Duchess of Dovedale.
The bridegroom wore boots by Hoby and a coat by Weston; the bride’s mother wore a dress of an alarming shade of puce, and a headpiece that looked suspiciously like a coronet. The bride’s father fell asleep halfway through the ceremony and snored through the vows.
The bride wore a ferocious smile that was worse than a scowl.
Henrietta’s heart ached for her friend. Penelope wasn’t a romantic like Charlotte; she had always publicly disclaimed any hopes of a love match, but Henrietta had always dismissed that as just talk. Like her role model, the Dowager Duchess of Dovedale, Penelope’s bark was worse than her bite. She flirted with the outer edges of convention, delighting in shocking the staid matrons of the ton.
This time, though, Penelope had gone too far and the repercussions were far, far worse than anything any of them had imagined.
It wasn’t just that Freddy Staines was a member of the Hellfire Club—although, given what Henrietta had heard of some of their orgies, that was bad enough. It was that he had made no secret of his reluctance at being forced into wedlock. It was an open secret that only the powerful persuasive powers of the Dowager Duchess of Dovedale had brought Freddy to the altar. It was one thing to dally with Penelope at a party, but he certainly hadn’t intended to be shackled to her for life, and he’d made that opinion rather widely known.
Penelope didn’t deal well with being mocked. Or pitied.
Right now, she was both, and Freddy Staines was the cause. Henrietta had half-expected the Dowager herself to stalk down the aisle behind Penelope, prepared to whap Freddy into compliance should he show any sign of bolting. But Freddy, well lubricated by the contents of a silver flask, played his part and the Dowager had stayed in her seat, looking mildly disappointed at the lack of scandal and bloodshed. The happy couple were to leave for India immediately following the ceremony. That, too, had been arranged by the Dowager Duchess of Dovedale.
It was just as well, thought Henrietta, that Penelope wouldn’t be there for her own wedding reception. The sidelong looks and whispers might have driven Penelope to do something rash.
That is, something else rash.
Henrietta slipped into the room where her friend was changing into her traveling costume, preparing for her imminent exile. She couldn’t help but feel responsible in some way. If she had been a better friend… if she had paid more attention… if she hadn’t been quite so wrapped up in Miles….
It made it even worse that she was so happy with her Miles. Miles was Miles, through and through. Henrietta felt a warm glow at the thought. Miles would never join the Hellfire Club and his primary vice was the overconsumption of ginger biscuits. Even more important, he had never, for one moment, let anyone know that their marriage had been a forced one. He never reproached her for hastening the end of his bachelor existence. He would never have humiliated her as Freddy had Penelope.
Which, of course, made Henrietta feel even guiltier.
“I’m sorry,” she said. Or, rather, croaked.
“I am, too,” said Penelope, straightening her hat. “I ought never to have chosen this shade of orange. It clashes horribly with my hair.”
“That’s not what I meant. I meant about this—all this.”
Penelope raised her chin. “Don’t be. I’d have to marry someone sooner or later—and at least Freddy is a handsome specimen.”
Henrietta couldn’t deny that. “Yes, he is, rather.”
Penelope shrugged. “I know he’s fool’s gold, shiny on the outside, worthless on the inside, but why take substance when one can have a bit of flash?”
Because substance kept one warm at night. Substance stroked one’s hair and brought hot water bottles when one’s back hurt. But Henrietta couldn’t say that; it would only make matters worse.
“India should be… interesting,” she said instead.
“Yes,” said Penelope indifferently. “Thousands of miles away from mother. Thank heavens for that.”
Henrietta couldn’t imagine it ending this way, all those years of confidences and pranks and late night whispers, not like this, hard-eyed and hurting. “You will come back?”
Penelope looked quickly away. “I suppose,” she said, but her voice wasn’t quite as strong as it had been before. She gave a strained little laugh. “One can’t imagine Freddy staying away too long.” Her lips twisted; she managed to get herself under enough control to say, “Be happy with your oaf.”
“Miles isn’t an oaf.” They had been through this same routine so many times, recited these same phrases. The very familiarity of made Henrietta’s eyes sting.
“I know. He’s a great big oaf.” Penelope squeezed Henrietta tight, but not before Henrietta caught a glimpse of the suspicious sheen in her eyes. Penelope’s voice was rough as she said, “Tell him if he doesn’t take care of you, I’ll send tigers back after him. Or at least the Dowager Duchess.”
Henrietta smiled through her own tears. She wished she could believe that Freddy would take care of Penelope, but since she knew he wouldn’t, she said instead, “Take care of yourself. Please.”
With one last squeeze, Penelope released her. “Don’t I always?”
Usually? Not. “I’ll miss you,” said Henrietta.
“Don’t go all soppy on me,” said Penelope, who was looking fairly soppy herself.
Penelope’s mother appeared in the doorway. “Penelope?” Penelope’s mother always managed to look as though she were smelling something nasty whenever she said her daughter’s name. “Time to leave.”
Henrietta squeezed her friend’s hand. “Write to me,” she said.
Penelope sketched a salute, and then she was gone.
It was all Henrietta could do not to run after her. India was just so far, so far from all the people who cared about Penelope and loved her. By the same token, it was also far from all the people merrily tearing her reputation to shreds. Maybe, Henrietta told herself, maybe Freddy would reform under the rigors of life in India. Maybe the long journey by boat would bring them closer together. Maybe….
Maybe Penelope would find a pet tiger. Or conquer a small principality.
Henrietta shook her head and went to go find Charlotte, who had been looking distinctly mopey all evening. Why did everything have to change? They had been so happy the three of them, giggling in the corners of ballrooms together, trying to dissuade Penelope from her more outrageous pranks, teasing Charlotte over her sentimentalism. And now Penelope was off to India, Charlotte had refused the hand of a duke, and she—her residence had changed, that was all. Marriage to Miles hadn’t changed her.
Or had it?
“Why are you hiding here?” Henrietta found Charlotte in a corner of the ballroom, nursing a flat glass of champagne.
“I’m not hiding,” said Charlotte, with a glance over her shoulder that implied quite the contrary. Henrietta knew exactly who she was looking for, the nominal owner of the house, the Duke of Dovedale, who, Henrietta had noticed, was looking nearly as mopey as Charlotte.
“Maybe if you just spoke to him….”
“I have the headache,” said Charlotte tightly, and disappeared up the stairs, probably to hide in her room and read Fanny Burney’s Evelina for the fifteen-hundreth time. It was what Charlotte did when she was unhappy.
At least, that was what the old Charlotte did. Henrietta wasn’t entirely sure she knew this new one.
She looked around for her husband, but, according to her sources (Turnip), he had taken the Duke of Dovedale and a bottle of brandy and disappeared into the study. Didn’t he realize that Charlotte was currently crying her eyes out because of that wretched man? But, no, they were probably happily talking about horseflesh, completely oblivious to Charlotte’s distress.
Men, thought Henrietta bitterly, and set off in the direction of the ladies’ retiring room, not because she particularly needed to retire, but because it was an enclosed space in which she could sulk in private.
Or maybe not. A quick look through the door revealed Lucy Ponsonby holding forth delightedly about Penelope’s disgrace. “—in bed together!” she was saying delightedly. “Without their own clothes!”
“Rubbish,” said Henrietta loudly, but no one paid the slightest bit of attention, the Ponsonby version being infinitely preferable to the truth, which might have been truer, but was distinctly less salacious.
It did nothing to improve her mood.
It might be February and frigid, but there were times when one needed to get away. Henrietta had spent more than her fair share of time at the Dovedale residence (the dowager duchess having happily ignored the existence of the duke for quite some time). Henrietta drew her wrap tighter around her as she let herself out the French doors into the garden. She was glad she’d worn velvet instead of muslin; she just wished she’d worn even more of it. She’d worn blue because Miles liked her in blue.
The sun was setting already, the early winter sunset, glowing orange over the summerhouse, setting the winter-scummed surface of the ornamental pond alight, glazing the frost-blasted statues with the illusion of flesh. In moments, the sun would drop below the columns of the summer house and it would be true dark. Penelope’s wedding day would have come and gone and with it their old, happy camaraderie.
Even if Penelope came back from India, nothing would ever be quite the same again. Charlotte was talking of going up to Dovedale in Norfolk for the rest of the winter, possibly staying up there through the Season. Henrietta squinted into the glare of the sunset, feeling distinctly deflated. All her friends were leaving her. She had other friends, of course, but it would never be the same.
She wanted to bury her head in Miles’ chest and whimper, as she had done when she was a small child and she’d accidentally dropped Bunny-the-Bunny in the pond in the Park.
If this was growing up, she wasn’t entirely sure she liked it.
She put a slippered foot cautiously on the graveled path leading through the parterres. It had rained earlier in the day—good luck! they had all told Penelope—and the ground was wet and waterlogged, staining her satin slippers. She could feel the cold liquid seeping through her stockings.
As she paused, deciding whether or not to go on, she heard a voice from behind the summerhouse, a male voice, pitched low.
“I have no interest in your political designs”—it was Sir Francis Medmenham, head of the local chapter of the Hellfire Club. Henrietta had suspected him of being involved in the dealings that led to the kidnapping of the King, but, as a friend of the Prince of Wales, Medmenham had escaped scrutiny—“but I should like some assurance as to my… shipments.”
“Never fear, my friend.” Henrietta froze, one hand on the door. She knew that voice, too, that laughing, mocking, accented voice. “You shall have your pretty poppies. The Jasmine may have withered on the vine, but the Marigold will see to your needs.”
“I hope this blossom shall be more reliable than the last,” said Sir Francis. “How do I contact your Marigold?”
“Through the usual channels,” said the Frenchman airily, the Frenchman who had told her to call him the Gardener, who had mocked her like—like an irritating older sibling as he had driven away from the site of the King’s kidnapping. “He will coordinate your shipments in India.”
“Where in India is he?” asked Sir Francis silkily. “I should like some assurances. My disciples grow restless without their accustomed brew.”
Back to the house for help? Or stay and listen? Henrietta stood where she was, perched on one foot. If she put the other down, the gravel might crackle. Her calf muscle was beginning to cramp. She felt a new sympathy for pigeons, who stood this way for extended periods of time.
“That, my dear sir, would be telling. All you need to know is that your shipments shall be forthcoming.”
Despite herself, Henrietta wobbled.
“What was that?” said Sir Francis, but the Frenchman was even faster.
“Company, I should think. Uninvited company.” There was the sound of hooves on gravel as the Gardener swung up onto the black of a large black gelding. “Lady Henrietta.”
Henrietta tried to muster words, but it was too much for her. “You—” she began. “Wait!”
He laughed. “I fear I have another engagement. Farewell, Lady Henrietta. Or should I say au revoir?”
As he wheeled his horse around, he winked at her. The cad had the gall to wink at her!
“Stop!” Henrietta cried, but it was too late, the train of her blue velvet gown tripped her up, the boggy ground sucked at her slippers, and Sir Francis Medmenham stepped neatly in front of her.
She could hear the fading sound of hoofbeats as her adversary galloped away. There was no point in pursuit, by the time she found Miles, he would be long gone. Just like last time. But she knew one thing; there was a Marigold on the loose in India. And there was one more thing she needed to know.
“Who was that?” demanded Henrietta of Sir Francis. Her breath made puffs of steam in the cold winter air.
“My dear Lady Henrietta, your”—Sir Francis’ gaze dipped deliberately down—“hands are as blue as your dress! Allow me to escort you inside before you take a chill.”
Henrietta glared at him. “Not until you tell me who he is. And how you contact him,” she added belatedly.
“I don’t,” said Sir Francis, in a way that made her want to slap him. “He contacts me.”
“It’s treason, you know,” said Henrietta shrilly.
Sir Francis gestured gracefully for her to precede him back into the house. “It’s nothing of the sort. It’s merely commerce.”
Henrietta wasn’t the daughter of a marquess for nothing. She drew herself up regally. “I imagine the War Office might take a different view of that.”
“Not,” said Sir Francis gently, “when so many enjoy the benefits of it.”
Henrietta swept past him in frustration. He was right, she knew. His Hellfire Club cast a wide net. Too many high ranking officials were involved. She might be able to force an investigation, but by the time she did, any evidence would long since have been hidden. Her hands were tied.
But not Penelope’s. She would be in India—with the Marigold. If they warned her before she sailed….
Henrietta caught Miles as he was wandering from one room to the next. “I was just looking for you. Ready to go home?” he said cheerfully.
Too cheerfully. Henrietta’s nerves were frazzled and her toes were cold.
“We need to get to the docks,” she said without preamble.
“The docks,” repeated Miles, looking pink-cheeked and more than a little befuddled. “The docks?”
It made Henrietta even crankier that he’d been inside, drinking brandy with the duke while she’d been standing in slush, being thwarted—again!—by that same, blasted Frenchman.
“The docks,” she said snippily. “There’s a spy, the Marigold—oh, I’ll tell you about it later. We have to let Penelope know! Before she sails. Come on!”
Miles remained annoyingly stationary. “You’ll never catch them now,” he said. “The boat was meant to have sailed”—he checked his watch—“five minutes ago.”
“Maybe it was late! We have to try. We can’t just let Penelope go off without knowing.”
“Why not? It’s not as though the spy will be after her,” Miles pointed out.
“I know, but—” Henrietta squirmed with frustration. “Maybe she can find him.” It sounded rather weak, put that way. She never did seem capable of thinking clearly when the Gardener was involved. He just made her so angry.
“I had something planned for us at home,” mumbled Miles.
“As important as this?”
It was the wrong thing to say. Miles crossed his arms over his chest, looking more upset than she’d seen him since she tossed his cricket bat in the lake when she was ten. “I’d like to think so. I jolly well had a surprise planned for you.”
“I didn’t intend to run into the spy—” Henrietta began.
Miles threw his hands in the air. “There’s always someone! Penelope, Charlotte—this spy! There’s always someone else.”
Henrietta blinked up at him. Somewhere, she had lost the plot. “I didn’t mean—”
“Never mind,” he said brusquely, because he was Miles, and, in the end, he always did what she wanted him to do. “You’re shivering. It’s cold. It might be dangerous. I’ll go.”
“You don’t need to—” Now that the initial wave of agitation had faded, Henrietta could see that he did rather have a point. If they were gone, they were gone. She could write Penelope a letter. And the truth was, there wasn’t really anything she could do about this spy; writing to Penelope was merely a way of making herself feel like she’d got the upper hand over that blasted Gardener.
“I’ll go,” said Miles brusquely. He leaned over and gave her a peck on the cheek. “Your mother can drop you off home.”
“Don’t—” It was too late. He was already out the door. “—go.”
Henrietta stood there in the hall of Dovedale House, staring at the closed door, a lump in her throat the size of a ginger biscuit. There’s always someone else, he’d said. She hadn’t meant to take Miles for granted. It was just—it was just that he was always there.
She’d never even asked him what he had planned.
Feeling like the worst sort of heel, she turned slowly back into the house to find her mother. Like Charlotte, she found she had the headache.
Stay tuned for the gingery conclusion of Bunny & Biscuits, coming up soon!