Annalise reread the parchment she had folded and refolded many times over with a faint smile on her face. Marion's letter had arrived just a day before she was to depart for the house party and the traveller had spent the entire trip trying to decipher her cousin's real feelings in her written prose.

Marion was an exceedingly gentle girl who would never grouse about any injustices in her life. Annalise always felt she had to protect Marion for her cousin would never share any extreme emotions with anyone. It was not in her nature to give anyone trouble.

Her cousin's effusive letter proved Annalise wrong. Her cousin could indeed display her emotions despite her restrained nature. The happiness she radiated lurked in every curve of her penmanship despite barely alluding to it in her words.

The honeymoon tour of the continent had soared her cousin's spirits considerably although her marriage itself had been a great source of happiness. Her husband was a kind, considerate man who placed her joy over his. Having had no home to call her own after her father's passing Marion was now the mistress of her own dwellings in the heart of London which made her content with her lot in life.

Annalise placed the letter back in her traveling reticule in case it flew outside the carriage. Marion's musings were few and far between and she had no wish to lose their correspondence.

The warm summer breeze was unpleasant on Annalise's face but she knew it would get muggy in the carriage if she closed the window shut. She had no desire to faint in the weather. Her outfit already took much of her breath and she cursed her own decision to wear a constricted outfit. Her maid next to her had already opened her collar buttons. Making a fashionable first impression on the house party had not given Annalise the same privilege. She tilted the window mirror towards herself and grinned. At least she looked nice. She bit her lips to give them a reddened appearance.

The privately owned postchaise, her father's newest purchase, took a fast turn and then began to slow down. According to the traveller's estimations they were not near their destination as yet. They were meant to cross the nearest village before entering the estate and the area around them was still wooded and uninhabited.

"What's the hold up?" Annalise asked the footman, with her neck craning out of the window. The slender boy just pointed at the road in front of them. Three masked riders stood in front of the carriage, blocking their path.

Annalise's maid started babbling very loudly and her words reached a higher pitch as her mistress opened the carriage door and let her gown down the steps. She daintily settled her frilly underskirt and crossed her sleevless arms.

"Rupert, you've already pulled this prank on me before. Come down at once or I'll write to your mother," Annalise's tone was stern though her blue eyes shone with merriment.

"Oh dear, oh dear. Mustn't write to mother dearest. She'll turn me into a condiment," The stout boy jumped off his horse and walked towards her with his hands raised. Annalise pulled off his face covering and glared at him.

"And where there's Rupert, there's Adam. You should have been inventive, my friends. Next time one of you must be an elderly woman with a broken foot. I might buy that charade," The blonde woman advised. She revealed the next young man who had tightly curled hair and an impertinent grin.

"As the lady wishes," Adam bowed and pulled off his hat. The reprimand had no effect on the smile on his face.

"Now, who is the third musketeer. I can only guess the two of you," Annalise sauntered forward and came to a halt in front her third masked rider who had dismounted his horse. She pried off his face covering and was not surprised at her luck to meet him there.

"I should have known you would relish the opportunity to scare me out of my wits," The blue eyed girl's tone turned flat. She had no wish to converse with the person in front of her but polite society demanded they be civil.

"Pity the plan did not work but if there was anyone to ruin my plans it must be you," Montgomery bit out with an expression dripping with venom on his face. He bowed stiffly and lifted his hat from his head revealing his dark hair.

"Just taking pleasure in the small things, Monty boy," Annalise patted him on his plaid covered shoulder and plucked her gown from the gravel lined road and turned her back towards him.

"I must escort you back. They are all watching," Montgomery breathed in her ear. He caught Annalise's arm and tucked it firmly underneath his. What he had done was not considered proper manners but Annalise doubted their company would notice.

"I am not an invalid," Annalise replied instead but let him guide her.

"We've been pulling the trick all day and you're the only one who caught on," Adam informed her as he tried to calm his misbehaving horse.

"I don't fall for the same trick twice," The girl allowed Montgomery's proffered hand to escort her onto her seat, "And you had better return all the party's belongings back."

"Of course, we intended to reveal ourselves at the dance tonight," Rupert grinned. He placed his glasses back on his face, "And I hope you can guarantee the first dance is mine, sweet Anna."

"Oh, stop buttering me up," Annalise giggled in her gloved hand, "I won't censure you so severely when the time comes."

"I wouldn't trust her. She shall stab us in the back and inform your elders before we even get back," Montgomery joked but his former friend knew he wasn't jesting. His dark eyes bored into her paler ones.

"They're young blood but you're too old for such tomfoolery. You should nip this behaviour in the bud. Your example should not be repeated," Annalise lowered her voice but her stern tone was not missed by their companions.

"I did try to settle down from my youthful antics but you took that away from me," Montgomery's bared teeth betrayed no emotion.

"Did you also refuse our fine Viscount," Adam asked, his face alight with mischief, "I always knew you were too eager to go back to your grandfather, Montgomery! The pretty neighbors must have been an enticement."

Montgomery scoffed at the teasing but decided to retain the guise of civility, "The last dance, like always?"

"Your last dance was always with Marion, not with me," Annalise said with a raised brow. Without offering him an alternative point of engagement she closed the cabin door shut. The young woman waved at the three men though her eyes remained on the Viscount. He feigned boredom for the audience but Annalise could read the undercurrent of loathing clearly reserved for her. His eyes were glued onto her vehicle until it left his sight.

Annalise barely noticed the carriage wheels amble through the quaint village. The post-chaise turned right into a carriage path flanked by towering oak trees. After a good few minutes where the estate showed off its delights to the incoming visitors the carriage came to a halt in front of a moat, an obsolete feature of its non-placid past. The wheels finally turned until they the inner courtyard where servants waited for the new arrivals.

Annalise was helped out of the carriage by her footman and found herself with an armful of her jubilant friend. Elizabeth shrieked loudly enough for the both of them.

"My darling friend, you're finally here!" Elizabeth's windswept hair matched her younger brother Rupert's.

"It's been too long. I'm glad you managed to sneak me an invite. I was bored stiff," Annalise replied as she stared at Mansfield court. The stately home had been newly renovated and from its former Tudor appearance it was now a rich brick red.

"Between you and me I'm certain my aunt wouldn't have been this gracious if your cousin was to accompany you. Her current mission is to get her daughter wedded before summer ends and Marion would have eclipsed poor Rose completely," Elizabeth murmured in her friend's ear to deter any loyal servants from overhearing.

"Marion's beauty is otherworldly. No on can compare but Rose herself has no parallel in current company. It's a shame her engagement broke so publicly. She didn't deserve the humiliation," Annalise copied her friend's discretion in speech.

"My Uncle has been sternly pursuing recompense from Harold's uncle for the wedding expenses. He paid a pretty penny for all her clothes and arrangements. And now they sit outdated and out of fashion in trunks while Harold bandies about his new bride in London. What a disgrace that man is," Elizabeth's ringlets shook with disapprobation.

"I hope she has Marion's luck. My cousin has chosen well," The weary traveler wished her friend's cousin, good naturedly.

"Come, we must pay our respects to my aunt. She is welcoming guests in the red drawing room," Elizabeth tugged her friends hand and led her inside. The corridors were confusing for Annalise but her friend knew the way despite the various alterations done to the building. The parlour they walked into had the doors and windows open to allow a circulation of wind for the mistress within.

Duchess Beaucourt was a sickly looking woman who never gained an inch of weight in the years since her marriage. She wore a fashionable silk dress with layers of undergowns to puff up her skirt. There were various ladies around her, dining on the offerings, but the most prominent was her beautiful daughter who sat meekly with her hands clasped in her lap.

Once the butler announced their arrival Annalise allowed her friend to introduce her to her aunt. The woman acknowledged the young girl's bow and gave her some flowery compliments as if she couldn't recall who Annalise was. Elizabeth asked once again for them to be excused and quickly led her friend away from the tedious company.

Annalise cast a look around at the newly redone interior. The wallpaper was fashioned in the same vein as what was rumoured to be in the Queen's private parlour and so were the paintings. Her own mother had wanted to ape the design but hadn't been given the go ahead by her father. It seemed the Duke had no such reservations.

"Your cousin seems to have weathered the heartbreak without losing her looks," Annalise wondered and then mentally berated herself for the unkind remark. She sometimes felt her moral compass was steered by her cousin despite the great distance between them.

"As if that were a love match. Harold was being compelled by his uncle to find a girl with connections and a dowry while Rose had the same pressures," Elizabeth explained.

They were led into Annalise's rooms for the month. They were equally proportioned at both ends and the sofa was dwarfed by the large bed opposite it. The girls settled on the comfortable sofa and dismissed the maid after ordering her to open the windows.

"I cannot judge her for I too feel much too old to fall in love. At this point I would want comfort and contentment then the passion in novels," Annalise sighed. She wished she had asked her maid to loosen up her corset.

"I bet by the end of this summer you will be singing a different tune," The sandy haired friend warbled with an unfinished note. She was ever the optimist.

'You're wearing a cap like an old maid, take it off. With Rose on the market I can't imagine us getting a chance for attention but that cap will put anyone off," Annalise exclaimed as soon as her focus was on her friend's head. The two girls began working on the pins that held the cap on Elizabeth's head.

"We're just here to even out the numbers for all the gentlemen my aunt has invited. Our job is to be adequate dancing partners and fill in the chairs. Nobody's going to look at us," Elizabeth whined. She allowed her friend to meddle with her hair. Annalise had a good eye for fashion and could be trusted to fix things just right.

"I don't blame them," Annalise laughed, "A beauty with a fortune to boot. We may have our own dowries but our estates shall go to our younger brothers and our faces are not enough enticement."

"Did you know your Montgomery is her? I suppose he's besotted with Rose this time. I cannot keep up with the women he's rumoured to pursue," The sandy haired girl revealed a fact Annalise alread knew.

"Neither can I. I suppose it'll be good entertainment to watch him flounder," The blonde felt her thoughts turn uncharitable.

"Yes, yes. At least we can have our fun. You were trapped in that little county of yours for far too long. The season was already in full swing before you made your most unenthusiastic appearance. It was time you came out and enjoyed the delights of society," Elizabeth reclined on the sofa in a way her mother would scold her ten times over if she ever saw.

"Society is not quite as interesting anymore as I would like. I only came to the capital to shop for my cousin's sudden wedding," The blonde declared. She had already undergone a first season last year and had been disheartened by the vexing the rules and regulations in London society. She had been asked for marriage twice but found the suitors not to her taste. Her father's wealth had at least given her the luxury to not be forced into an unwanted match.

Elizabeth took her friend by the shoulders and shook them. They had both been out in their first season in London and had the honour of being presented in the St. James Palace at the same time. The quandary of searching for a mate with all eyes upon them had made them firm friends, "Please, please be a social butterfly this time around. Enjoy yourself instead of brooding. "

"I cannot help that my face looks like that," Annalise shrugged. She thought she was open with her emotions but some people found her uppity and rude just because of how her face looked when it was vacant of expressions.

"I need fresh air," Elizabeth declared and the two girls changed their seats to the window seat. From their vantage point they could see the entire estate.

"Oh, look. The boys are back. They left so early in the morning. I wonder what they were upto," The taller girl mused and true to her word Annalise kept her mouth shut. She would not reveal their secrets despite Montgomery's assertions.

The dark haired man looked up as if sensing eyes upon him. Their eyes met despite the distance of the moat between them. Annalise took pleasure in staring him down until he crossed the drawbridge. She was not one to back down from a battle.