Eight years, four months, and thirteen days later
Emmeline Pershing sipped her tea, then set it down with a smile. “Your success with the miners’ charity is remarkable, Barbara. I have no idea where you find the patience to deal with all the bureaucracy.”
Barbara, Lady Graham, smiled back at her. “It’s mostly a matter of nodding at the right moment, my dear. Allow the men to argue until they’re exhausted, and then nod at the one whose idea makes the most sense. A following smile nearly always secures support and agreement.”
With a chuckle, Emmie waved away their waiter. They were nearly done here. The Blue Rose Inn kept its tables far enough apart that even on the busiest of afternoons, one could have a reasonable conversation without being either drowned out or overheard. That made it perfect for luncheons such as this one. “Oh, the degree of patience that must take. Does it work with Lord Graham, too?”
“On all but the rarest of occasions.” Barbara took a sip of her own tea. “Don’t tell me you can’t also bend Mr. Pershing with a smile, Emmie. I’ll never believe it.”
“My chance to do so depends on whether Mr. Pershing ever looks up from the papers he’s always obsessing over. I daresay if I could assure him that he’s not the only one who understands that a single silly road in Africa could improve not just Britain’s spice trade but our relations with half of Europe, he would be much more amenable to holding a soiree for our friends and neighbors, for example.”
“I do love your soirees, Emmie.” The baroness leaned forward. “I’ll have a word with Edmund about that road. He’s stubborn as a mule, but he does love Britain making money. And me, of course.”
Oh yes, Lord Graham doted on his wife. Which was why Emmie lunched with Barbara, despite Lord Graham’s very conservative politics. She put a hand to her chest. “If Lord Graham were to support Mr. Pershing’s road, Barbara, I daresay the resulting Winnover Hall soiree would be talked about for a Season or more.”
They stood, and Barbara took her hand. “If you promise to have Mrs. Brubbins bake her delightful blackberry pie, you may consider it done, my dear.”
Emmie inclined her head. “Perhaps I’ll have my cook send you a pie tomorrow, and you needn’t wait.”
“And that is why I adore you, Emmie.”
As she left the Blue Rose Inn, in the heart of the village of Birdlip, in the heart of Gloucestershire, Emmie was joined by her maid, Hannah. “It went well, I presume?” the maid whispered.
They climbed into the waiting coach. “It did. And after dinner with the Hendersens this evening, I think Mr. Pershing may have the support he requires for his road.”
“That’s splendid news, Mrs. Pershing.”
It was what she’d promised Mr. Pershing: to aid his efforts in the government and see him succeed. Thus far, if she said so herself, it had all gone quite swimmingly. She sat back to look out the window as the coach wound along the road and up the long, sloping hill to Winnover Hall. The method she and Mr. Pershing had developed over the past eight years worked well. With a mere note or two, they flawlessly coordinated their separate calendars, his causes, and the points where the three merged for such things as this dinner. Here in the countryside those joint ventures were of course less common, but she did enjoy the time off from the busy London social and political Season.
As they stopped at the head of the drive, the butler pulled open the carriage door and handed her down. “I hope you had a pleasant luncheon, Mrs. Pershing,” Powell said, following her into the house and taking her shawl. “I’ve seen the painting replaced in the dining room as you requested, and I reminded Mr. Pershing that the Hendersens will arrive at six o’clock tonight for dinner. He does tend to misplace time when he’s out hunting.”
“Yes, he does. I daresay he would sleep out beneath some shrubbery or other if he could, just to gain an earlier start to his morning.”
Emmie didn’t hunt, but she did enjoy the woods and meadows surrounding Winnover Hall. After all, she’d grown up walking the trails and picking apples from the orchard and, until her mother had deemed it unladylike, climbing trees and fishing in the large pond beyond the garden. No other place in England could match the view, with the soft, rolling hills, the green pastures set amid copses of oak and elm trees, the wildflowers growing along the lanes … Nowhere and nothing in the world made her heart as happy as this thousand acres in Gloucestershire.
Earlier she’d put a bouquet of fresh autumn roses in the morning room, and the warm, spiced scent of them filled the entire front of the house. Yes, this—Winnover Hall, with its wooden beams and brick fireplaces and yellow Cotswold stone—was the very best place in the world. And she was its mistress.
“Please remind Mrs. Brubbins that the Hendersens are teetotalers; no wine in the broth. Or on the table. Have her start brewing some of that Moroccan coffee at half five; the scent will be delightful for our guests. Then we’ll set it out after dinner. Oh, and I’ve promised Lady Graham one of her blackberry pies for tomorrow.”
The coffee would provide an opening for Mr. Pershing’s over-dinner discussion regarding North African trade routes and treaties. He’d left her a list of things he wished to discuss with Mr. Hendersen, a rather influential member of the House of Commons, and Africa had again been right at the top.
While she wasn’t well-versed in any African dishes, there were other ways to turn a conversation to a particular topic. That was why she’d asked Powell to remove the Thomas Lawrence painting hung in the dining room, the pastoral landscape of Gloucestershire she and Mr. Pershing had received as a wedding gift from her parents, and replace it with the painting of wild elephants her great-uncle Harry Ramsey had left behind in the attic. That would suit the evening’s theme much better.
The butler nodded, the ring of hair that began at his temples and circled round to the back of his head nearly a solid gray now. “I’ll see to it. And the mail just arrived; you have a letter from His Grace.” He retrieved the silver salver from the side table, the letter resting atop it.
Her heart stuttered. She and her grandfather did correspond, but she couldn’t say it was anything she looked forward to. Still, duty was duty. Taking the missive from the tray, she turned it over. The Duke of Welshire’s seal, imprinted in red wax, held the letter closed. It always looked very impressive, even if the contents were more often than not of the “I don’t approve of Lord So-and-So’s politics, pray do not socialize with him more than is strictly necessary” variety.
She broke the wax seal. “Oh, thank goodness,” she murmured, skimming through the first paragraph. “I’d nearly forgotten His Grace’s birthday next month. Luckily, the Duke of Welshire has never been one to pass by the opportunity to be fawned over.”
“It’s his seventieth, is it not?” Hannah asked.
Copyright © 2022 by Suzanne Enoch