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A Curious Courting

A Curious Courting by Laura Matthews
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Gareth Rushton wants to build a hunting box in Leicestershire. Selina Easterly-Cummings owns the perfect piece of land--and she's not doing a thing with it, except taking walks, which she can perfectly well do on the rest of her large, prosperous property--can't she?

Could this headstrong young woman, this glorious girl, possibly be the one to finally find her way into Rushton's heart? And could he--impossibly worldly and autocratic--be someone Selina would fall in love with?

Regency Romance by Laura Matthews (Elizabeth Neff Walker)

Belgrave House; November 1980
181 pages; ISBN 9780449501153
Read online, or download in secure PDF format
Title: A Curious Courting
Author: Laura Matthews; Elizabeth Neff Walker

“There’s not an inch of Oak Park that’s not entailed, and even if it weren’t I wouldn’t have the slightest desire to sell any of it. Why do you need some land for a hunting-box? You know you’re always welcome to stay here.” Sir Penrith Southwood dug his hands into the pockets of his buckskin breeches as he stood before the blazing fire thawing from the day’s hunt.

“It never crossed my mind to suggest you sell any of Oak Park to me,” his guest assured him, “and I appreciate your generous hospitality, Pen, but I have an itch to build something, and Leicestershire is the perfect spot. I’ve seldom had better hunting than these last two weeks.”

“Lord, Assheton Smith does give one a good day, what?”

“He’s one of the best masters I’ve ever ridden with. I thought the whole field would go round at that stile, but no, he took the bank and stile in two leaps.”

“And you couldn’t resist the challenge?” Penrith grinned.

“With him waving that handkerchief as though it were child’s play? You know me better, Pen.” Mr. Rushton stared meditatively at the hearth. “I wouldn’t need much land. A few acres would do.”

“You’re not planning to build on the scale of Farnside?” Sir Penrith taunted. “You don’t think perhaps you’ll need twenty guest chambers and an equal number of reception rooms?”

His guest frowned momentarily, the black brows drawn low over deep blue eyes. Sir Penrith instantly regretted his words, though he had meant nothing other than their surface quizzing. Not a month had passed since Julia Longmead had refused his friend's offer of marriage, and Sir Penrith was well aware that Gareth Rushton had anticipated adorning his ancestral home with that beautiful young lady, and filling it with their progeny. No, Farnside was a subject to be avoided. With a shrug Penrith cleared his throat and said, “Don’t know as I’ve heard of any land for sale in the neighborhood. There might be a farm on the other side of Barton, but most of the land is held in large tracts. Would you care to ride into Barton to enquire?”

“Perhaps. I’d prefer to build something, but a farm might do. Had you heard of a specific one?” Mr. Rushton casually used the poker to restore a fallen log to its place in the fire.

“Some months ago. It could well have sold by now. Tidy little place with an older farmhouse that probably needs work. Devil of a nuisance to build something new, Gareth.”

His friend gave him a sardonic smile. “I have nothing better to do with my time just now. The hunting season will be over soon, and I see no reason why I should not devote myself to architecture this spring. As I said, nothing on a grand scale. Have you never had the desire to plan a residence? No doubt it’s all very well to accommodate one’s self to the usages of the past, but frankly I had considered the merits of a little gem without smoking fireplaces and damp corridors. Farnside is all very well—such graciousness is somehow flattering to the ego—but I think it would give me pleasure to lay out the design of a modern building. After all, see what joy Prinny gets of it.”

“Prinny! How he could take a modest farmhouse at Brighton and turn it into that monstrosity is beyond anything! Surely you have no intention of stuffing a hunting-box with fake bamboo furniture and painted dragons! Pagodas and palm trees be damned. Do you know what that place is costing him?” demanded the indignant Sir Penrith.

“I have a fairly clear idea, my dear Pen, but I have no intention of creating a domed pleasure palace in the wilds of Leicestershire. A small villa, perhaps.”

“No, by God, I don’t believe it!” his friend protested before he noticed the other’s laughing eyes. “Oh, you would roast me, would you? What do you know about architecture? For all the experience you’ve had, it might well turn out more on the order of a brothel. I can see the local linen draper talking you into lining the walls with silks and satins to complement the dainty little gilded chairs. Ugh! And perhaps some cupids to ornament the ceilings, or, for a more classical touch, paintings of naked Grecian maidens, or maybe some wood nymphs, to blend with the scenery.” Sir Penrith glared ominously at his companion.

“You do have a vivid imagination,” Mr. Rushton drawled. “Or perhaps that is your dream of the ideal establishment. Have you frequented so many brothels, then? I had no idea. Is that what they look like? I must certainly do some research.”

Toying with an enameled snuffbox, he pursed his lips thoughtfully. “I had something entirely different in mind, as it happens. The one room at Farnside in which I feel completely comfortable is my study, with its leather chairs and oak tables. You can kick off your boots and stretch your legs without fear of knocking over some spindly-legged table with its priceless Sèvres vase or Kakiemon bowl, to say nothing of a Chelsea dovecot potpourri vase balanced precariously on a side table. Not for the world would I think of removing the porcelain figurines that abound at Farnside. My mother has an admirable collection of porcelain in which she delights every bit as much as I do in my study.

“As a concession to me, she even has several Meissen groups of huntsmen with their hounds. No, no, I would never consider destroying the elegance she has created there for a whim. But sometimes I long for less...ah…cluttered surroundings.”

Penrith listened in silence as his friend extolled the virtues of racing trophies and sporting prints over ormolu clocks and silver goatherds, bronzes of favorite hunters over fragile glass ornaments. Although he was basically in agreement with his friend, the underlying cause of such a plan seemed very apparent to him. Before Miss Longmead’s refusal, Rushton had never expressed such sentiments. Both from old and distinguished families, such elegant surroundings as Rushton described were their natural milieu, and they both moved in them with the greatest of ease—a handsome couple, the young lady as blonde as her suitor was dark, as delicately feminine as he was ruggedly masculine.

And it was all the more surprising that Miss Longmead had refused him when one was aware that he possessed not only a handsome person but one of the finest homes and fortunes in England. Although Miss Longmead’s ancestry was impeccable, her family was generally acknowledged to be less well endowed financially than the position they attempted to maintain would suggest. Sir Penrith was no less aware than the Longmeads themselves must have been that Rushton had intended to come down generously in the matter of the marriage settlement.

Penrith’s attention was recaptured when Rushton consigned plate-rooms and nurseries to obscurity in favor of gun-rooms, wood beams on the ceiling in favor of grotesque plaster vines intertwined with gilded birds. Mesmerized by such a vision of comfort, Sir Penrith could only murmur, “And you could clean your pistols in any room, or have the dogs about if you wished.”

“Precisely. No schoolrooms, linen-rooms, and music-rooms. No solariums and summer and winter parlors.” Mr. Rushton waved a languid hand about the room in which they sat. “Every room could be as devoid of feminine artifacts as this one. I cannot tell you how pleasant it would be to have no Rose Drawing Rooms or Green Writing Rooms. My dear Pen, I don’t mean this place to be spartan by any means. No reason at all not to have the latest range for the kitchen or water closets in the house, and I’ve a mind to look into a system of heating I heard of recently. Now if I were to buy a farmhouse, I dare say I might eventually arrange it to my taste, but look at the possibilities of building from the ground up. One cannot wonder at Prinny’s enthusiasm for building, merely at his lack of practicality and exotic taste.”

Sir Penrith shook his head slowly as he stroked his moustache. “Sounds well enough, of course, Gareth, but you cannot have thought how much time it will take to plan and carry out the scheme. Why, I had to be right there every day when they put up the new stables. Hardly an hour without a decision to be made. And a house! Damme, if there wouldn’t be a thousand times the number of questions constantly bombarding you. Say you found some land and spent a month or so in the planning. Just when it would be decent weather to start building, you’d be off to town for the Season.”

“I have no intention of going to London this spring.”

“Not go to London!” Sir Penrith was truly shocked. Another problem to be laid at Julia Longmead’s door, he could not doubt. When speculation had been rampant in London over the possibility of the match, Miss Longmead had given every indication that she intended to have Mr. Rushton. The Season would have been more entertaining than ever in the ensuing activity, had the engagement taken place. Now this! Sir Penrith regarded his friend’s impassive face with its heavy brows and determined jaw, the eyes coolly indifferent but the mouth firmly set. There was no talking to him of the matter; he refused, after imparting the blunt facts, to make any further comment on the matter.

Rushton sat casually in an overstuffed chair, his long legs stretched out toward the blazing hearth. In his hunting jacket and buckskin breeches he looked the picture of a sporting gentleman with not a care in the world. His long hands lay unmoving on his thighs, but his very stillness exuded an air of controlled strength.

Sir Penrith brought his hand down on the mantel with an exasperated smack. “But you’ve been in London for the Season for the last fifteen years! Surely you would not let a chit’s capriciousness change your way of life.”

“It has nothing to do with Miss Longmead,” came the cold reply.

“Hogwash! It has everything to do with Miss Longmead. What is it that bothers you, Gareth? Perhaps seeing her paid court to by other men? Or that you will be talked about when it is obvious that she has refused you? Does that sting your pride? By God, I would have too much pride to let the world see that it had affected me in the least! If the last thing I wanted to do was go to London, you may be sure you would find me there.”

“Well, going to London is not the last thing I wish to do, but it comes pretty far down just now. I have told you that I am interested in building a hunting-box. If I want it ready for next season, I will have to find the land and get started very soon.”

Irritated that Rushton would not rise to the bait, Sir Penrith narrowed his eyes and tapped impatient fingers on the mantel. “This is surely folly, Rushton. If you stay away from town, there is certain to be talk. No one need ever know that you even offered for her if you go and let it be seen that your interest has waned. You made no mention to anyone else that you’d gone to her home, I’ll be bound. Just go to town as though nothing had happened and no one will be the wiser.”

“I think I will ride over to Barton,” Mr. Rushton commented as he unfolded himself from the chair. “You need not come if you would prefer to stay here talking to yourself.”

Muttering darkly of “stubborn addlepates,” Sir Penrith agreed to accompany his guest. “Just give me a moment to see if my mother or Cassandra wants anything from the shops.”

“I await your pleasure,” Mr. Rushton replied, his eyes once more full of amusement.

Their way lay over snow-covered roads, but there was no hard freeze to make the beauty of the scene fraught with danger. Mr. Rushton managed to keep the talk of hunting, though his disgruntled friend more than once glanced in his direction with the clear intent of reopening the subject of Miss Longmead and London. The frown he drew discouraged him each time, and difficult as it was for him to remain silent, he said no more of the matter. Let them speak of the Quorn, Sir Penrith raged inwardly. If one cannot give some friendly advice to a man one has known for fifteen years, then they might as well talk of Meynell and Osbaldeston, Lord Kintore and Valentine Maher. What were friends for, indeed? It was with a certain amount of satisfaction that Sir Penrith received the news from Mr. Dodge that the farm he remembered had been sold and that there was no land available in the neighborhood at the moment.

With mock sympathy he consoled Mr. Rushton. “Such a shame. Here you were with high hopes of diverting yourself, building a little nest in our humble county, and all is dashed. You know, Gareth, you’d do better to rent a box for next season if you don’t want to stay at Oak Park. There is no need to go to the expense of building a whole damn house just to have a spot to retire to when London or Farnside becomes fatiguing. Lord, man, you could rent a place at Brighton or one of the watering holes in the summer and something here in the winter. Assure you it is by far the wisest course.”

“You are full of wisdom today, Pen,” his companion retorted as he swung himself onto his horse. He pointed to a road going south out of the town and asked, “Where does that lead?”

“Nowhere in particular. Winds around until it joins up with our road again, or goes to Ashfordby. Passes a few country places and farms.” Sir Penrith eyed his friend suspiciously. “If there were land available there, Mr. Dodge would know of it.”

“Hmm. No doubt. Let’s take it.”

“You know, Gareth, I am beginning to believe that you are purposely trying to annoy me. What have I done?”

“Nothing, I assure you. Do you mind taking the long way about? If you are in a hurry to return to the Park, I can ride over the south road by myself. You need only say so.”

Sir Penrith surveyed Rushton’s enigmatic face with exasperation. “Oh, very well, but I don’t see what good it will do.”

“Good? Well, for one thing it will give us a longer ride, but I personally am looking for nothing but variety in my route.”

A snort escaped Sir Penrith as he put his heels to his black stallion. Being a very easygoing person himself, he generally had no difficulty in getting along with his acquaintances, but the perversity Rushton was showing this afternoon was another matter entirely. In fact, for the entire two weeks he had been a guest at Oak Park, he had not been himself. Oh, he was as pleasant as ever in company, but when the two of them were alone, he withdrew into himself. Brooding, that’s what he’s doing, Sir Penrith decided, totally unfamiliar himself with that state of mind. The sun always shone on Sir Penrith, or so one would assume from his perpetually optimistic outlook on life. Short in comparison to his friend, and tending to be stocky, yet his cheerful countenance and masses of flaming auburn hair met with approval everywhere. He did not perhaps inspire the ardor of so many young ladies as his friend, but he was welcomed everywhere for his good nature and courteous manners.

Penrith had a good mind to tell Gareth that if Miss Longmead would not have him, there were plenty of others who would. And better ones, in Penrith’s humble opinion. For he was secretly pleased that Miss Longmead had refused his friend. Certainly she was possessed of a rather astonishing elegance, but he could not feel that there was any warmth of heart to back it up, and for all his own polish and address Rushton was a surprisingly sensitive man with strong loyalties. Yes, that was the thing to do, Penrith decided. Point out to him that there were any number of ladies who would welcome his attentions. No matter that Rushton would ignore him; the seed once planted would surely blossom into the fruit Penrith most desired—that his friend would appear in London for the Season, and in a more cheerful frame of mind.

Before Penrith could speak, Rushton turned to him abruptly, his face transformed from moodiness to sharp interest. “That parcel of land there. The one set off by the hedgerows in the vale. Who owns it?”

Bewildered, Penrith followed the line of Rushton’s pointing finger. “Must be Lord Benedict’s land; all of it is on this side of the road. No, hold a moment. I remember that vale, caused quite a stir years ago. The present viscount’s father lost it on a wager to Mr. Easterly-Cummings. Some sort of row over a document Easterly-Cummings found which showed it deeded to his father. The old viscount wouldn’t credit it, so they settled the matter with the turn of a card. It’s surrounded on all sides by Benedict land, but I hear on good authority that the deed was valid.”

“So a Mr. Easterly-Cummings owns it now?”

“Well, no, he had his notice to quit years ago. Must belong to his daughter, unless the present viscount bought it from her. Wouldn’t think so, though, the way it’s still set off from everything around it.”

“That’s the piece of land I want,” Rushton said firmly.

“But, good Lord, man, it ain’t for sale. Miss Easterly-Cummings don’t need the money; her old man left her pots of it. That whole valley over there,” he waved impressively to the other side of the road, “belongs to her.”

“She isn’t doing anything with the vale. I see no reason why she shouldn’t sell.”

Penrith laughed. “I’d love to be there when you tell her so.”

Suspicious, Rushton asked, “Why? What’s she like?” It would have been a little difficult for Penrith to give an accurate idea of Miss Easterly-Cummings, and suddenly he was far from desiring to do so. His feelings were hurt that Rushton would not listen to or confide in him, and it seemed a vastly amusing plan to mislead his friend ever so slightly. “She’s the source of all good works in the neighborhood.”

Rushton sighed. “One of those? An old tartar who upholds God and country for all the lesser folks of the countryside, dispensing elixirs with moral platitudes?”

Such a description could hardly have been further from the truth, but Penrith, his eyes dancing, vowed, “I won’t say another word.”

Detaching his gaze from his friend’s merry face, Rushton once again surveyed the charming vale. “I want that piece of land quite enough to beard the lioness in her den. Where does she live?”

“You wouldn’t call on her at this time of day, surely! It’s almost dinner time.”

“No, I shall call tomorrow.”

“Shalbrook is over that rise about half a mile. The entrance gates are a ways down the road.” Penrith had the most amusing vision of the two strong personalities meeting. To insure the success of his plan he said, “Really, Gareth, you have no idea what you’re doing.”

“What harm can there be? The old lady can only refuse, and who knows? I can be very persuasive when I want.”

“No doubt.”