"Talk?" Tabitha frowned.
"The marriage is taking place rather quickly, and what with the courtship conducted on foreign soil and all..."
"You mean they might think I am pregnant. That is what you mean, isn't it?"
"No, not at all. Good Lord, what a thought. Look at you."
For the young heiress was as charming as ever, perhaps a bit thinner than usual, and with a barely concealed darkness under her eyes, but that could easily be attributed to the hardships of her recent crossing, not to mention the understandable excitement at her engagement and the daunting prospect of a grand wedding.
"Because I am not," Tabitha said obstinately. "Pregnant, that is. We are getting married in haste--"
"...so that we may repent at leisure," she recalled the Earl--Jeffrey's--voice, explaining the necessity for the banns to be published immediately upon their return.
There was an awkward pause.
"My dear," the Duchess Middleton began again, putting down the pencil, genuinely distressed by the young woman's troubled manner. "Understand, I am flattered that you came to me. I know we have had our differences. And I admit I spoke harshly to you, about you, even, after Sir Roderick's funeral. But I hope that, since then, you have come to regard me as some sort of friend, or certainly a relation upon whom you can rely. No one was more pleased than I to read news of your engagement. And your coming to me for advice as to how to proceed properly, counting on me to shepherd you through the weeks to come, well, I am deeply touched."
"I had to," Tabitha said. "Jeffrey told me. I was going to apply to the Baroness Tattson but Jeffrey said you were his oldest relative."
"Closest, I am sure he meant. But what I was about to say--what I feel duty-bound to ask--is: Are you free of doubt?"
"Yes, completely," Tabitha replied.
The Duchess was struck at the girl's change of demeanor. She sat up in her chair and delivered this affirmation in a loud, clear voice. It was as if she had been waiting, knowing she would be challenged on the acceptability of this match, and rehearsed her response. Now, glad the initial hurdle had been surmounted, she looked at her new patroness expectantly.
"Very well, then," the Duchess allowed, picking up her pencil again. "Eight, as I said, makes a proper dinner party. Whom shall we invite?"
"The Baroness Tattson," Tabitha said. "She has been good to me."
"Yes, of course. Dorothy and I are old friends. And the Baron as well, I suppose, though he has not consented to dine out in aeons. For practical purposes we shall mark her down as one, merely. Who else?"
"I know no one."
"Come, dear. Surely you have friends. Girls your own age. Those you came out with."
"None." She paused, then silently dismissed a thought.
"Yes?"
"Miss Ethyl Simons, I suppose," she shrugged, thinking of the last conversation they had, over breakfast at Tattson Hall. Have you ever been in love? the gauche young thing had asked. Well, let her now see what passed for love in Tabitha's life and judge for herself.
"Ah yes, she is a much sought after girl," the Duchess murmured, busying herself with notes, "what with the advantages she brings. Now, if I may point out, we are overly weighted on the distaff side. There are other men in the world besides your husband, you know."
"Please," Tabitha smiled. A beautiful smile. It took up her entire face and let you see nothing behind it.
"Yes, it is difficult getting used to that word, isn't it? I remember still being shocked, years later, when hearing it used in connection with my Alfred. Let me see, there is a divine, a young clergyman who is beginning to make a name for himself. He toils in one of the less respectable parishes of the city. But there is a rumor he is held in great favor by the Heir Apparent, and may even be asked to preach at the Palace. His presence would give a certain stamp to the proceedings, and to the match itself. It would be a great coup if we could get him."
"I leave it all in your hands," Lady Tabitha said, getting up to go as gracefully as she could. "This is just the sort of thing Jeffrey assured me you would be good at. I do promise to be there and to behave."
"Behave? Of that I have no doubt. You have an appointment?"
"With my dressmaker, yes."
"Of course. You will make a lovely bride, Tabitha." She held out her hand, rather than offering her cheek, as the degree of their intimacy had not yet been established.