Ten years separated the Farthing sisters; but as Penelope watched Cynthia frolic at the base of a marble fountain, giggling over the rude parts (the fountain depicted a cherub with wings, bare-bottomed and with an arrow poised to fly into the middle distance), the chasm between their ages couldn't be further apart. As of now, Cynthia was flicking water droplets at none other than the esteemed nephew of the Earl of Wrexham. Not minding her elbow-length gloves were getting soaked; she was splashing away at the surface, perched on the rim with pointed feet barely skimming the ground and smiling broadly at John Basingstoke.
John Bathingstoke that was proceeding to splutter and search around his person for a handkerchief.
Penelope was very good at floating around hedgerows like she was ghost. She appeared in front of them, and in her best matronly voice, which sounded nasally at times said, "Cynthia! Mother requires - "
She could only watch on in mere fascination. For hearing the prim tones of her older sister, Cynthia had snapped up straight, but found that her balance was floundering and so, could only reach out to grab the arm of John Basingstoke to recover it. Basingstoke, not a well muscled fellow himself, promptly was jerked backwards and the pair of them went crashing into the fountain with such shrieks of indignation, it caused the Earl himself to come running.
"What is going on here?" he panted, not dressed like one might expect for mixed company.
Penelope turned her embarrassed eyes away, feeling like she'd just caught her father traipsing around in a long nightgown. The same acute blush coated her cheeks. But she didn't dare to open her mouth. Although Penelope enjoyed bringing Cynthia up to task, she fitted the role of a quiet, boorish spinster well. Her figure was a little comely, slender at the ankles and neck but she was short - so short she was frequently overlooked. It didn't help she had a small little face, with a pinched mouth and an upturned nose that frequently wrinkled.
And yet again Penelope found herself being ignored as she dropped to a low curtsy and muttered, "My Lord."
"What the blazings hell!" raged the Earl. "John! What are you doing with Miss Farthing? Do you want to be married by the end of next week due to the scandal that will arise?"
Nobody was looking at Cynthia to see how her pallor brightened.
Except maybe Penelope.
She narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips, creating quite a stern expression that when the Earl swung around, his gaze was immediately transfixed to her face. Penelope had practiced this face enough times, to know it was a frightening sight - but also very effective. Thinking quickly, she passed it off as a sneeze and then relaxed her features to make them appear more ambivalent and withdrawn. She'd caught the Earl frowning at her, several times in the past few days. The mere fact he engaged most people in conversation save her, indicated he found her severely lacking in terms of wit or beauty.
No need to draw his attention where it wasn't wanted.
"Miss Farthing," he asked, clipped. "I assume this was a hare-brained idea of yours?"
For a second, Penelope didn't know what to say.
"M-Mine?" she spluttered. "I'm perfectly innocent of this dunking, I assure you!"
"Yet it is you who I come across standing above the pair without so much as a rebuke flying off your lips. I find your countenance rather troubling. With your passiveness, you seem to be condoning a great deal of indecency. You are older than the pair by a great number of years -" at this Penelope bristled " - but yet your direct influence is leading them astray. Pray, tell me, were you the receiving end of such accosting in your formative years?"
Penelope's mouth snapped close, from where it had fallen open.
From the hedgerow Penelope had emerged from; there was some sinister rustling before it spat out their Aunt, looking rather disheveled, like she'd entered a battle with a juniper bush and lost - there were leaves all over her padded out damask pelisse, which was fur-trimmed and her stockinet appeared to be ripped. Mrs. Haselbury was a large woman, with three chins that frequently bristled and a perchance to looking scandalised, before anything actually scandalising happened. When she saw Cynthia, her eyes nearly popped out of her head and she bustled over with cries, that sounded like a hawk circling a wood-mouse, rather forgetting an esteemed Earl was in their company.
"Girls! This was meant to be a chaperoned walk! Chaperoned, I daresay!"
Penelope's lip twitched.
Cynthia was wearing a dress similar to Penelope's - a white chemise that gathered just under her breasts and neck. It now stuck to every curve, and even her petticoats couldn't hide the outline of her mons of Venus. The only difference to Penelope's attire, was that she was wearing a lemon puff-sleeved spencer, that was tied tightly underneath her own bodice. Their aunt hurriedly looked around for an article of clothing to throw over Cynthia, and rather than focusing on the dry Earl, with hessian boots and a great dresscoat looped over one arm, she instead focused on the next dry person - Penelope.
"Penelope! Take off your spencer and give it to your sister! Hurry!"
The glare thrown her way offered no argument.
Chagrined, Penelope's hands reached for the ties, and slowly pulled them free. She pulled away one half of her overbodice, than the other, and lightly shrugged it off her shoulders. Then she deftly held it out in front of her, and walked forwards to intentionally block any indecent view the Earl might be having of her sister. John had already fished himself out of the fountain and was bent over in half, staring at his waterlogged shoes.
"I - I -I'm cold," chattered Cynthia.
"Help yourself up." She was in no mood to give sympathy.
Behind her, she was aware her aunt had just caught the looming, imposing figure of Lord Wrexham. The shrills that came out of her mouth, would send any sane man fleeing for the hills. "My Lord, I didn't quite catch you standing there, you must have seen this whole interlude, which must paint my girls in an unfavourable light I'm sure -" whilst Cynthia slowly unfolded herself, rose to her topmost height and crossed her arms.
"I'm not coming out until you admit this was your fault!" hissed she.
"Was not!" Penelope replied.
"You dare lie! It was because of you that I ended up pulling poor Mr. Basingstoke into the fountain, and you cannot deny otherwise! Don't stand there and take the God's name in vain. Admit your role in the matter, and I shall come out, appeased."
Aware there was no sound behind her, all conversation having ceased abruptly, the back of Penelope's neck turned crimson. Logically, Cynthia was right. If Penelope hadn't scared Cynthia into falling backwards, this entire situation wouldn't have come to pass. But if she were to make this small concession, what would Lord Wrexham think? He already feared her guilty of leading young walking partners astray - this would only confirm it.
Closing her eyes, she said with defeat, "Yes. It was me that caused you to fall. Are you appeased?"
Vindicated, the younger Farthing sister shook her skirts and waded through the water, in order to climb from the side. Behind them, she heard a clipped, "Miss Farthing," and turned to see the Earl holding out his dresscoat, face averted to the side and a dark frown embedded in his brow. She darted forwards, and accepted the coat with some grace. She bobbed again in his direction and said, "Thank you, My Lord," and turned away with bitter taste. The final days in which the Farthing sisters stayed at the country estate was going to be a calamity. Now, she would be consigned to her room, terrified that if she left, she would run into the Earl and he would be less forgiving of her endeavours in private.
"Come here, Cynthia," she said roughly, wrapping the coat around her sister's shoulders, so it fell to her feet and covered her properly. "Let's get you back, lest you catch a cold."
"My Lord." Cynthia inclined her head beside her. "You are most kind."
"Listen to your sister," he replied, causing Penelope some shock, and then he left in a angry stroll towards the direction of the chapel. For a moment, all three women watched, save John who was running after him, and admired how his stride was long and masculine, and the breadth of his body virile and muscular.
"Damnation, Penelope!" It didn't take two minutes before the tantrum started. Cynthia grabbed the spencer in Penelope's hands and threw it to the ground, in a fit of temper. "Why did you have to stand in front of me like that?"
Muted, Penelope stared at her sister.
Cynthia stamped her foot. "He was staring at your back, not me! How is a girl meant to lead a titled Lord to sweet ruin if -"
Their aunt let out a choked gasp and promptly sagged to the ground.
Both girls were sent to bed early that night. In the little interlude before dinner, where guests were expected to intermingle and listen to the occasional piano recital, Marcus went from group to group with practiced ease. He had thirty five years of being thoroughly bred on his manners and upbringing. He'd invited every single guest here as per wishes of his mother, a kind of matchmaking retreat before the season started in April. The only way gentry could mingle, was through dances and accepting invitations to country houses, such as the one he was hosting now. Maybe his mother hoped one of the single ladies here would catch his eye.
Cynically, Marcus picked up a glass of champagne from a passing tray and held it lightly.
He was standing with a group of men, but all he could focus on was a group of ladies huddled a couple of metres away and furtively shooting glances at the men. Marcus strained his ears, and caught the occasional sentence.
" - do you think she succeeded?"
"Does the Earl look like a man who's been backed into a corner?" They laughed and Marcus tightened the grip on his glass. Suddenly, he wanted to hear every word of their plotting and scheming, because it was clear something underhanded was going afoot.
"Marcus, are you all right?" a close friend from childhood asked, leaning forwards with concern opposite him.
He stared back, stony-faced, and that was cue for the conversation to start up again around him. Whenever he went into one of his moody silences, none of them dared to bring him out of it, so they merely assessed the situation and moved on. Dinner was about to be served in five minutes, and he sensed the conversation happening in parallel to theirs would be wrapped up in that time. He needed those bothersome little - women to reveal their game if they had any.
" - it's a shame Miss -" there was a small rustle, someone's dress being caught underfoot "- Farthing isn't with us because she is the bravest of us, and would certainly ensnare -"
He never heard what came next. But as dinner moved past it's formalities and into it's third-quarter, he brooded over what he heard and tried to fill the possible gaps. If he remembered correctly - yes! He had seen a group of four or five women, including the Farthing sisters walking around the estate, heads bowed together, though there was always that one trailing behind. They wanted him backed into a corner - this immediately sent his hackles raising, and the game in his mouth to taste sour - and it would involve Miss Farthing ensnaring - who? Him?
A deep chuckle broke out, startling the cousin seated closest to him.
He would like to see her try!
When he finally turned to bed in the early hours, he saw a small envelope had been pushed under the door. In small neat handwriting, the letter inside said: Let us sneak away at the ball being held tomorrow night. Meet me in the orangery shortly before midnight. We will welcome the new day together with a sweet kiss and it will be the dawn of our budding love. Goodnight, my sweet, thank you for giving my sister your dresscoat. C .
Marcus firmly remembered the eldest being called by a name, but he couldn't remember what it was. No matter. The last line proved with no doubt who it could be. He absentmindedly raised the letter to his nose and smelt a sweet fragrance. It was the eldest Farthing. She expected a kiss as sweet as this scent, did she? At her ripe old age? His incredulity grew. Sweet kisses were reserved for virgin lips. Marcus was sure the eldest Farthing craved passion and ravishment, and had been the receiving end of a couple to be so forward in her propositioning now, with him. That's what he craved himself. But to offer herself up on a platter?
He'd have to see about that.