I caught my breath as the butler flung open the doors to the stone patio, and Hari and I stepped through the glass-paned French doors and took in the rolling lawn, formal gardens, and Lake Lily. My sister was always one to make a grand entrance. Her smile was wide, and her face glowed without a trace of our earlier fraught discussion.
Harriet had christened her glittering Mayday evening soirée "A Fairy's Garden Party," and I had to admit, it was fair billing. Her reputation as a brilliant hostess was well-earned.
Delicate lights shimmered about the grounds and glowed throughout the formal gardens. Long glass cylinders each housing a candle hung on the acacia trees dotting the lawn, and small lanterns wound around the garden pathways, from the patio to the lake, and along a hundred or so feet of shoreline, creating what looked like laneways for wood nymphs. Harriet, with an ever-present eye for detail, had directed the gardeners to row over to the small island, just offshore, and place lights along its dock. It made me want to visit the island to see the view of the party from there.
I squeezed Hari's hand. "You've outdone yourself."
"You can have a home like this too if you play your cards right," she said, already surveying the crowd of guests, nodding and exchanging smiles. "Oh there's Lady Persephone Fitzwilliam, the prime minister's cousin. Good! I wasn't sure she would come. I'll be sure to sit with her during the midnight supper."
The idea of my own elegant home 'was' a bit seductive, I thought, as I inhaled the intoxicating aroma of fresh-cut grass, lavender, and camellias. Nearby, the string quartet struck up a Mozart minuet. I reached for a flute of champagne from a passing tray. It was tart but delicious, and the tiny bubbles burst and tickled my nose.
Just as I was beginning to lose myself in the fantasy of Hari's make-believe world, I noticed the patio tables that were set up for games of cards and chance.
"You're your mother's daughter," I told Hari. "It's not a party without card games."
"But you were the one most like her when it came to cards. You always won," she said with a laugh.
Mama gambled, in a very ladylike fashion, of course, but she taught herself strategies and became an expert in games of chance. Tea and cards games at our home always involved small bets. She taught me as well, so that I could be a fourth when needed, and I loved to play. It was one of the few ways my mother took interest in me. A brilliant marriage for Hari was all she had focused on. "Hari is our one great hope," she'd say. "She will restore the fortunes of our family and save us all." It was too bad Mama hadn't lived to see her wish come true.
I didn't notice Charles until he was standing next to us. "There you are, Charlotte," he said. "Perfect timing, and I'll say again, you do look exceptionally lovely this evening." He took my elbow and propelled me forward. "I just saw George chatting with a group of men over on the lawn. Follow me."
Hari took my other arm, and I allowed myself to be led, still reluctant to seal my fate with George. I couldn't quite put my finger on the reason why, but something nagged at me. Of the handful of times I'd seen him, he seemed like a perfectly good sort, but dull as dishwater.
Our progress was slow. It was always like that when I tried to walk anywhere in public with Charles and Hari. As we passed groups of guests, they broke apart, the men approaching us to shake Charles's hand and the women nodding respectfully to Hari. It seemed everyone wanted a word. Charles took it all in good humour; in fact, he revelled in it.
The only one who didn't step forward to shake Charles's hand was a very distinguished man I recognized as Lord Ralston, a grizzled old warhorse in a top hat and tails. Charles didn't move to greet him either.
Beside me, Harriet whispered, "Don't they remind you of a couple of stallions fighting for control of the herd?"
Lord Ralston stood very still, taking the measure of the up-and-comer. I could see that he was reluctant to cede the turf Charles was moving into, but after a moment, he tipped his hat and Charles acknowledged the gesture with a slight, smug nod.
Harriet fit well into Charles's political circles, looking every bit the part. Her gold taffeta gown fell in soft folds over her statuesque figure and set off her pale, patrician face with its high cheekbones, square jaw, and long, thin nose. The final touch was a tiara expertly entwined in her artfully constructed blond curls. Our mother would have been so proud. Harriet was everything I was not, and I suspected people thought that she was the one beauty of the family.
"Poor, dear Charlotte," I could imagine them saying. "Her star can never hope to burn as bright as her sister's. Such a pity she didn't inherit the tall, willowy frame and the taste in clothing to show it off."
I caught sight of our destination, a group of men engaged in an animated discussion, and my throat went dry. I knew I would be expected to make witty small talk, something I dreaded. As we neared the men, there was a burst of raucous laughter at some shared joke, but it faded when Harriet held out her hand. The group parted to make room for the three of us, and each man gallantly took Hari's hand, bestowing a small kiss, an homage to her beauty and to her place in society. I tried to stay back, but Charles pushed me forward once again.
"Gentlemen, I am sure you all know my sister-in-law, Miss Charlotte Harding?" he said.
George was the only one to reach for my hand. His was large and fleshy with surprisingly soft skin.
This excerpt ends on page 20 of the paperback edition.
Monday we begin the book Jingle All the Way by Debbie Macomber.