Mary Balogh

The wood nymph


Chapter 1


“Do stand still, Melissa," the Countess of Claymore said to her daughter. "Your ribbons are not tied properly in front. The bow is decidedly crooked."

"Whatever I do with it, Mama," the girl complained, "it is still askew just a few minutes later. I do believe Miss James was at fault when she made the dress. I wish we did not have to rely on rustic dressmakers. We are never fashionable."

"I do think Papa could take us to Harrogate occasionally," Lady Emily Wade agreed. "Surely twice a year would not be beyond our means, Mama. We have been stuck in the country here forever, and never meet anyone even remotely distinguished."

"There is nothing wrong with Miss James's workmanship," the countess said firmly. "It is merely that the ribbon has been tied wrongly, Melissa. Stand still and I shall retie it for you."

"Papa said that Mr. Mainwaring is very fashionable," Melissa said. "Perhaps he really will be, Emmy. Perhaps he will also be young and handsome. Papa said he is young, of course, but that could mean any age below fifty."

"I would not raise your hopes too high, Melly," her sister warned. "Have you ever known anyone both young and handsome to settle in this neighborhood?"

"No," Melissa agreed, "but that does not mean that one never will. We know that he is very rich, at least. He owns Graystone and Papa says that he owns a great deal of property in Scotland and the south of England as well. I think it would be most appropriate if he also turns out to be handsome."

"You are too romantic by half," Emily said scornfully. "If he is eligible, Melly, it is fitting that we should meet him. After all, we owe it to our positions in society to make suitable marriages before much more time has elapsed. And if Papa will not take us to a place of fashion, we shall have to make the most of what we have here."

"I have asked and asked Papa to take us all to London for a Season," the countess assured her daughters, "or to Harrogate at the very least. But he cannot take his horses and his dogs to London, you see, and you all know that hunting is the breath of life to your father."

"Mr. Mainwaring really is coming this afternoon, Mama, is he not?" Melissa asked anxiously. "Papa was quite definite about it?"

"Oh, yes," her mother said. "He has been in residence at Graystone for several days, you know, and has been called upon by most of our neighbors. Papa was the first to call, of course. It is time Mr. Mainwaring returned the calls, and he did assure Papa that he would wait upon us this afternoon. I really am most anxious to make his acquaintance, though I feel quite vexed that he has waited all these years to visit his property. We see little enough of good company as it is without a perfectly good estate remaining unoccupied by its master for several years."

"Perhaps it will give a more superior tone to the neighborhood to have Mr. Mainwaring among us," Emily said, "though he would sound a great deal more distinguished if he had a title."

"Pooh," her sister said, "a title is not important, Emmy. He is of impeccable lineage, Papa says."

"Anyway," the countess said decisively, "I want you all to look your best this afternoon. You are all remarkably fine girls, even if I do say so myself, and surely Mr. Mainwaring must show interest in one of you. Your new dress looks quite elegant, Melissa, now that the bow has been straightened. And your hair looks most becoming, Emily. You have had Matty dress it in a new style?"

"I consider it looks less frivolous than the old style," said Emily, turning her head first one way and then the other so that her mother could see the total effect. "After all, I am three-and-twenty already. Will it do for our visitor, do you think, Mama?"

"I am sure he will be most impressed," her mother replied. "And, Helen, when do you plan to dress for the visit?"

The countess's youngest daughter was sitting in the window seat, her head bent low over some embroidery. She looked up when her name was mentioned, a vacant expression in her eyes.

"What?" she asked.

The countess tutted impatiently. "Really, child," she said, "I suppose you have not heard a word of what we have been saying. How can you be in a room with other people and not know what is going on? I asked you when you plan to dress for our visitor."

"We are expecting visitors?" Helen asked in some alarm.

"Oh, Helen," Melissa said with a giggle, "you know we are expecting Mr. Mainwaring this afternoon. We have talked of little else for several days. And you know you are as interested as we are in discovering if he is young and handsome."

"Mr. Mainwaring?" said Helen, frowning slightly. "Is he the owner of Graystone who has recently arrived?"

"I declare, Helen," Emily said coldly, rising from her chair and crossing the room to her sister, "you live entirely in a world of your own. I think you have been indulged far too long. A child who daydreams can seem to be a sweet creature, but when you are approaching twenty years of age, it is time you learned to accept your social responsibilities."

"I am sorry, Emmy," Helen said, "but no one told me about Mr. Mainwaring. I do not wish to meet him, though. He has come from London, has he not? I would expect him to be very different from us and difficult to talk to."

Emily tutted and then put her hands on her hips as she looked down at her sister's embroidery. "Really, Helen!" she exclaimed. "Look at this, Mama. Helen is not following the pattern at all. She is supposed to be stitching dainty anemones, and instead she has embroidered a huge dandelion. A dandelion! How ridiculous you are. You will have to unpick the work, you know."

"Dandelions are the prettiest flowers I know," Helen said evenly, apparently undisturbed by her sister's outburst. "They are like the sun. It is their ugly leaves and stems that make people dislike them. I am tired of creating pretty, dainty things."

"There is no time for one of your arguments now," the countess said impatiently. "You must go upstairs immediately, child, and get ready. Mr. Mainwaring will be here within the hour."

"I will do as I am, Mama," Helen said, putting aside her embroidery and smoothing her skirt over her knees. "My dress is clean."

"You will not do at all, child," her mother said firmly. "Your new muslin will suit very nicely. And I shall send Matty up to try to do something with your hair." She sighed. "Why is it that it will hold into no style, Helen? No matter how carefully it is curled and confined with pins, a half-hour later you have a halo of fine hairs standing all around your head. I am sure you do not take after me."

"It really does not matter, Mama," Helen said placidly. "I am not intending to ensnare Mr. Mainwaring, you know."

"Your trouble is that you have forgotten that you are almost twenty years of age already," Emily said. "We must all be looking for husbands at every opportunity, Helen. It is our duty, you know."

The countess clapped her hands. "Helen, move!" she said. "And remember-it is to be the muslin."

"Yes, Mama," Helen said.

But when she was in her room, Helen did not immediately change her clothes. She wandered to the window and looked up at the sky. The clouds were low and heavy. They promised rain later. It looked like a chilly day for summer. Even so, the outdoors looked inviting. She gazed out across her father's fields to the east, to the large grove of trees that was just across the boundary from their land, on the land belonging to Mr. Mainwaring.

She had not been to her private place there for three whole days, and she was beginning to chafe against the restrictions of home. She knew that Emily was right. She was a grown woman now, and she should be taking an interest in the activities of womanhood. She should be interested in her appearance and in visiting and attending all the social activities that rural living could offer. She should be interested in finding an eligible husband. She should be joining wholeheartedly in the feminine chatter of her mother and her two older sisters. But, oh, she could not.

Her own world, the one she had built up through the years of her girlhood, was still far more attractive to her than she could imagine the real world ever being. Reading and painting and writing could still inspire her with more passion than the prospect of a new gown or a ball. And sitting and gazing at nature around her was infinitely more exciting than sitting in the drawing room listening to the polite conversation of her family and the current visitors. She found it all painfully boring and unsatisfying. If matters were left to her, they would never either visit or entertain.

She hated the prospect of having to sit through a visit by Mr. Mainwaring that afternoon. He was the owner of Graystone, the neighboring estate, and had been for some years, but he had never been there before. Now he had arrived from London and was being made much of by everyone within a ten-mile radius. She had no right to judge someone she had never met, of course, but she had taken a strong dislike to the man. He doubtless thought a great deal of himself. She could almost picture him looking down the length of an aristocratic nose at all the rustics in this out-of-the-way corner of Yorkshire. If he was from London, he was probably a dandy and a man of frivolous tastes. She seemed to remember Papa saying that he was a fashionable man.