Obsession Online - Claire Lorrimer

PROLOGUE

January, 1860

‘Bessie, I can’t wait to tell you. I’ve met him … the man I want to marry … I’ve fallen in love and he’s the handsomest man you’ve ever seen … and he smiled at me … and he asked Papa why he’d kept such a pretty daughter hidden in the schoolroom and wanted to know how old I was and …’

Harriet broke off, too breathless with excitement to continue.

The rosy-cheeked, freckled face of the gamekeeper’s eldest daughter was smiling as she helped the fifteen-year-old girl out of the pelisse jacket and dress she had been wearing for luncheon in her father’s shooting lodge.

‘Papa said that because I behaved so well at the luncheon, I might act as his hostess tonight at dinner,’ she continued, ‘so I want to wear my prettiest dress, Bessie.’

She sat down at her dressing table in her chemisette and regarded her reflection in the mirror.

‘If only I was pretty!’ She sighed. ‘My mouth’s too big and my nose is too short and I just wish I had blue eyes like my sisters. Hazel isn’t a proper colour at all!’

Never having heard Harriet pay any attention to her appearance before, her maid hastened to reassure her. ‘’Course you’re pretty, Miss Harriet. Haven’t I told you, you would grow up prettier even than those older sisters of yours?’ She reached for the silver-backed hair brush and began to untangle the young girl’s chestnut curls, adding: ‘’Cept when you’s all messed up playing with the little ones down the farm.’

Harriet laughed. ‘But you know I love playing with the children,’ she said. ‘I’m going to have at least ten of my own when I get married.’

Her face was glowing as she jumped up from the dressing-table stool and, grabbing hold of Bessie’s arms, waltzed her round the room in her chemisette and pantilettes.

‘He’s staying for the night!’ she said. ‘So I’ll see him again, and Bessie, I heard his father invite Papa to join him for grouse shooting in Scotland in the summer and I’ll be sixteen by then and maybe Papa will take me with him.’ Her face fell as she released her maid and sat down on the bed. ‘I just wish they didn’t live so far away from Sussex!’ She sighed. ‘He said Leicestershire is nearly two hundred miles from here!’

A minute later, she was smiling again.

‘He said they had come on a train which was much, much faster than a coach and asked me if I’d ever ridden on one, Deerskeep Manor not being near a railway station, and he said he was sure I would enjoy it as it goes so quickly.’

Bessie put away the discarded garments in the wardrobe and brought over the new dimity dress with cornflower-blue bows which her young mistress would wear that evening, saying: ‘You’ve not yet told me who this young man is you say’s going to be your future husband, Miss Harriet! Any road, I reckon you’s much too young to be having such fancies.’

‘Charity was only eighteen when she got engaged, so I’m not too young. I’m sixteen next birthday, Bessie, and he and his father are staying here tonight so you can help Mary take up the hot water jugs when they are changing for dinner and then you can see for yourself how handsome he is … oh, and his name is Brook, Brook Edgerton, and his mother died like mine but his aunt brought him up. He went to Rugby which is a boys’ boarding school and he has been to Jamaica because his family have sugar plantations there, and …’

‘You’s going to be late down to dinner if you don’t stop chattering!’ Bessie interrupted as she fastened Harriet into her hooped petticoat and then into the new dress, shaking out the layers of flounces that decorated the full skirt. She then fetched a lace collar, and a clean ribbon for Harriet’s hair.

It was a long time, she thought, since she had seen her young mistress so animated. It was the first time that the young girl had ever been permitted to attend a shooting party luncheon as only the wives of the guns and servants who carried the food to the shooting lodge were normally present. Training to be a lady’s maid, Bessie had never been one of the household servants who attended these lunch parties.

Harriet sat down once more at her dressing table whilst Bessie braided the back of her hair, entwining it with the blue ribbon and then anchoring