The Wicked Godmother

The Wicked Godmother

by M. C. Beaton
The Wicked Godmother

The Wicked Godmother

by M. C. Beaton

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Overview

A country mouse gets help from some matchmaking servants, in this “lively” novel set in a stylish London townhouse (Publishers Weekly).
 
Young Harriet Metcalf has come from the countryside to Mayfair, and her assigned task is to get two teenage heiresses launched in the London ton. For the course of the season, they will be renting at 67 Clarges Street—where the quirky but resourceful servants are always ready to lend a helpful hand.
 
But Harriet soon finds herself being courted by a notorious rake, the Marquess of Huntingdon—much to the annoyance of the spoiled young sisters. The below-stairs staff may just have to step in to set things aright . . .
 
Originally published under the name Marion Chesney, The Wicked Godmother is a witty and delightful romance from a New York Times–bestselling author.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780795314988
Publisher: RosettaBooks
Publication date: 09/01/2018
Series: The House for the Season Series , #3
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 166
Sales rank: 136,767
File size: 479 KB

About the Author

About The Author
M. C. Beaton is the pen name of bestselling novelist Marion Chesney. She is a prolific writer of historical romances and small village mysteries. Born in Scotland, the author began her writing career as a fiction buyer for a Glasgow bookstore and has worked as a theater critic, newspaper reporter, and editor. The author has written under various names, most notably as M. C. Beaton for her Hamish Macbeth and Agatha Raisin series. She also has written under the names Sarah Chester, Helen Crampton, Ann Fairfax, Marion Gibbons, Jennie Tremaine, and Charlotte Ward. The author lived in the United States, but now splits her time between the Cotswolds, England, and Paris, France.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Gossip is mischievous, light and easy to raise, but grievous to bear and hard to get rid of. No gossip ever dies away entirely, if many people voice it; it too is a kind of divinity.

— Hesiod

The sleepy little village of Upper Marcham had never before enjoyed such a juicy scandal.

Widower and local worthy Sir Benjamin Hayner died and left the management of his vast estates and all his fortune to an impoverished gentlewoman, Harriet Metcalf. Miss Metcalf was to hold control of said estates and fortune until Sir Benjamin's twin daughters, Sarah and Annabelle, should reach the age of twenty-one. The twins were only eighteen years old. Harriet Metcalf, their godmother, was a mere twenty-five years old.

Sir Benjamin had been a close friend of Harriet's parents and, after their death, had invited Harriet to dinner at Chorley Hall, his stately residence, on many an occasion.

But no one, least of all his many relatives, expected that he would will the control of his affairs to such a one as Harriet.

The fact that she would have to surrender all on the twins' twenty-first birthday and return to living on a tiny income derived from a family trust did nothing to allay the pain.

For Harriet Metcalf was an Adventuress and a Scarlet Woman. After all, one had only to look at her.

She had a thick cloud of fluffy blond hair and huge deep blue eyes. She had thin arched eyebrows, which were quite dark, and long sooty eyelashes. Blondes were unfashionable. But that was not what made her suspect.

She had a willowy and seductive figure. She was of a sunny nature, but the locals and relatives claimed that no one with such an aura of strong sensuality could be anything other than No Better Than She Should Be. Sir Benjamin had been a handsome man. Tongues wagged as the villagers speculated on the nature of Miss Metcalf's relationship with the late Sir Benjamin Hayner.

Hitherto, Harriet had been respected and extremely popular.

One would have expected a certain amount of sour grapes on the part of the relatives, but the suspicions and animosity of the villagers were new, and Harriet was hurt and bewildered by it.

The fact was that all gossip stemmed from the twins themselves, who were so convinced, through their own jealousy of Harriet, that their stories were true that their scandals carried a ring of truth. Sarah and Annabelle were circumspect in their gossip, and no one ever quite knew the source of it — certainly not Harriet, who adored the twins and considered herself honoured that she was to have the care of them, if only for a short time. (Their birth had been too much for the late Lady Hayner, who had survived only a few hours after she had delivered them into the world.)

For Sir Benjamin had also requested in his will that Harriet should take the twins to London for their come-out, and if they failed to "take" at their first Season, then to present them at a second.

The funeral had been held on a bitterly cold December day, and Harriet had cried for at least two weeks afterwards. But desire to do the best for her old friend made her dry her eyes and begin to think about planning to take the girls to London.

Harriet lived in a cottage on the outskirts of the village. It was small, picturesque, Tudor, and damp. Up until her seventeenth year, she had lived with her parents in The Grange, a handsome Queen Anne mansion on the west side. Life had been comfortable; the future looked secure. It was understood Harriet would be taken to some genteel watering spa to make her come-out and there find a husband who was more interested in refinement than money. Mr. and Mrs. Metcalf prided themselves on their refinement. Mr. Metcalf often said the Metcalfs could have been dukes or earls had they not considered titles vulgar. Harriet never found their threadbare snobbery in the least odd. Never of a particularly critical disposition, Harriet loved and obeyed her parents and could not seem to understand why Sir Benjamin found their conversation, dress, and manners a constant source of amusement. The Metcalfs were more amusing than Astley's Amphitheatre, he used to say with his jolly laugh.

That his twin daughters disliked her and were jealous of her had never entered Harriet's innocent mind. She was too much in awe of her godchildren's exquisite gowns and accomplishments to see the spite beneath the correct façade.

After her parents' death, Harriet had been all too conscious of her straitened circumstances. Her parents had left many debts, and so the house and furniture had been sold, leaving only enough to allow Harriet to purchase the small cottage in which she now lived with Beauty, a large, slavering mongrel of tetchy disposition. Harriet loved Beauty: she often found humans erratic and puzzling, but felt safe with the devotion of this black-and-tan dog that loved her back while hating everyone else in the whole wide world.

There were very few members of the gentry in the village and certainly no female of Harriet's age whom her parents would have considered of suitable rank, and so when Sir Benjamin died, Harriet felt the need of a friend badly. Before the reading of the will, she had at least been on nodding terms with most of the village, but now, mysteriously, even the shopkeepers looked at her askance.

Any men who had proposed when her parents were alive had all been turned down by them as Quite Unsuitable, and now there seemed to be no man around who wanted to marry a spinster of twentyfive who did not even possess a dowry.

Harriet was, however, not entirely alone. An odd friendship had sprung up between the soft and lovely Harriet and a formidable spinster, of the parish of Upper Marcham, called Miss Josephine Spencer. But for the past two months Miss Spencer had been taking the waters in Bath, and, although Harriet had written to her, she had not received any reply.

She did not want to burden the twins with her troubles — they had surely enough to bear with the burden of their father's death. Much as she admired Sarah and Annabelle, Harriet could not help wishing the capricious knight had not seen fit to make her — at a ridiculously early age — the twins' godmother.

Harriet was sitting in the cold and bleak parlour of her cottage on a snowy afternoon, wondering what on earth to do next, when screams of fury coupled with loud barking and ending in the sound of ripping cloth came from the front garden.

It's Beauty, thought Harriet in dismay.

She ran and opened the low door of her cottage. There on the threshold, hammering Beauty on his thick narrow head with her umbrella, stood an irate Miss Josephine Spencer.

"Oh, Josephine," said Harriet, who was one of the very few people who had ever been allowed to call Miss Spencer by her first name, "do come in. Down, Beauty! Bad dog."

Beauty promptly rolled over on the path and stuck all four legs straight up in the air and managed not only to look like a dead dog but one in which rigor mortis had set in.

"Just look at my cloak," raged Miss Spencer. "A pox on that animal."

"I am so sorry," said Harriet, ushering her into the parlour. "See, your cloak has only parted at the seam, so if you will but give it to me, I shall have it mended in a trice."

Miss Spencer took off her cloak. "I don't know why you keep that dog. Useless for hunting, useless as a pet, vicious, greedy, and mean. If he were mine, I would shoot him! I say, you know I hate that beast. Haven't I always said so? Don't cry."

Harriet's blue eyes had filled with tears. "It is not that, Josephine," she sobbed. "I wish I had your strength. I feel so weak and silly."

"Compose yourself," said Josephine gruffly. "You know nothing really matters much if one has courage. Just look at me."

Harriet dried her eyes and surveyed her friend. No one could ever accuse Miss Spencer of weakness. She was a leathery woman with a sallow, lined face and small, twinkling black eyes. No one knew Miss Spencer's age, although she was believed to be in her fifties. She was wearing a repellent hard-hat and a gown of purple velvet, much seated. She had first met Harriet at a church fête three years ago. She did not know even now what had made her take such a liking to the younger woman, for Harriet was gentle and vague, and Miss Spencer normally found it very difficult to get along with members of her own sex at the best of times.

"Did you get my letter?" asked Harriet, taking a needle and thread out of her workbasket and examining the seam of Miss Spencer's cloak. A dismal howl sounded from the garden. Beauty, thinking somewhere in the bony cavities of his limited brain that all must now be forgiven and forgotten, was demanding to be let in.

"Leave the horrible carriage rug where it is for the moment," said Miss Spencer. "Yes. I got your letter — eventually. Those Harrison people with whom I was staying assume that all correspondence consists of bills and so they simply stuffed it away along with all their unpaid accounts and did not discover it until a few days ago. I came as fast as I could. This is a very good piece of fortune. Very."

"How can you say that?" cried Harriet. "The poor twins have lost their father. I am to have the management of the estates and fortune and I have to bring the girls out and I don't even know where to begin."

"The good fortune is this. Until the girls are wed, you will be able to live in a comfortable style and have pretty gowns and a good London address, and, with luck, make a fine marriage for yourself."

"But I cannot afford clothes fine enough to allow me to act the part of a chaperone at the London Season."

"My dear child," said Miss Spencer, "you take the money out of the estate."

"I could not do that," said Harriet. "You see, after the reading of the will, Mrs. Draycott — you know, Sir Benjamin's sister — said in a very loud voice that she was sure I would contrive to feather my nest very nicely before the twins came of age. And also, the villagers are become most strange and unfriendly. I wondered whether Mrs. Draycott had set them against me."

"Mrs. Draycott, as you very well know, lives in the next county and never talks to anyone in the village here. Are you sure those two girls, Sarah and Annabelle, have not been gossiping nastily?"

"No!" exclaimed Harriet, much shocked. "Of course, you do not know them at all well, but they are perfect ladies in everything they do, more mature than I and much more worldly. They would never stoop to do such a thing as gossip."

Miss Spencer delivered herself of a monumental sniff. Outside, Beauty set up another dismal howl. "I must let him in, dear Josephine," pleaded Harriet. "He will not touch you when you are in the room with me. You had been away so long, he had forgot you. He is not a very intelligent animal, but so good-hearted and my only friend apart from you so —" "Let him in," said Miss Spencer grumpily, "and then perhaps we might be able to get down to business."

Harriet rushed from the room, and soon a volley of ecstatic yips and a scrabble of paws sounded from the tiny hall.

Beauty slouched in at Harriet's heels, waited until she was seated and settled with her sewing on her lap, and then he promptly lay down across her feet, turning one small, brown, bearlike, malevolent eye in Miss Spencer's direction. Miss Spencer glanced around the parlour and thought, not for the first time, that all men were fools. It was so like a man, so like the late Sir Benjamin, carelessly to leave such a dotty will. How much more sensible it would have been to have left poor Harriet a tidy sum and thereby ensured her independence.

The parlour was as pretty as Harriet with her straitened means could contrive to make it. A decorative spray of autumn leaves, preserved in glycerine, glowed from a bronze jug in the shadows of the candlelit room. There were two elegant Sheraton chairs and a pretty inlaid table, but the uneven floor was bare and the fireplace a very cottagey sort of arrangement full of dark hooks and chains, showing it had been used for cooking in the days before the tiny kitchen extension had been added.

"You were going to talk about business," prompted Harriet gently. She was already feeling much recovered. There was something very reassuring about Miss Spencer's no-nonsense approach to life.

"The first thing we need to do is to go to see Sir Benjamin's lawyer," said Miss Spencer. "He will arrange for you to be paid a sufficient sum out of the estate to enable you to chaperone and present the girls in style. He will also be able to rent a house for you for the Season. He may find it a little difficult to get you a tonnish address, but he must try. You should not be staying here. As the girls' godmother and duenna, you should be in residence at Chorley Hall."

"I felt that might be a little presumptuous," said Harriet.

"Yes, you would," said Miss Spencer. "It is too late to worry about that now. The one move you should be thinking of making is to London. You will need to be there as soon before the Season begins as possible. You must nurse the ground — that is, give little tea parties, get to know the women of the ton, particularly any women with sons of a marriageable age."

"It is all rather daunting," said Harriet. "I do not know much about the world."

"No, nor people either," said Miss Spencer.

She spoke sharply, and Beauty stirred at Harriet's feet, curling back his black lips in a snarl.

"I mean," went on Miss Spencer, eyeing Beauty with dislike but carefully moderating her tone of voice, "you do not know the Hayner girls very well. I know you are about to say that is ridiculous, but only think! You never actually played with them when you were all little girls together. You have only seen them in Sir Benjamin's company. I have heard it said they take after the mother, who was a cunning shrew."

"Josephine," said Harriet, turning pink, "I have long admired both Sarah and Annabelle. They have a niceness, a delicacy, and refinement, which I must confess I find lacking in myself. Their social manners are faultless. I am shy and never can think what to say to people. They have always welcomed me and were extremely kind and sympathetic when my parents died."

"They used to call on you when you lived at The Grange," said Miss Spencer. "How many times have they called since you moved here?"

"What has come over you, Josephine?" said Harriet reproachfully. Then her face cleared. "I know why you are so tetchy. It is the fatigue of the long journey, and, besides, we have discussed only my troubles and said never a word about your experiences in Bath. Do tell me about all the people who were there? Did the waters help your spleen?"

Miss Spencer, realising gloomily that Harriet's loyalty to the Hayner twins was apparently unshakeable, settled down to entertain her young hostess with an acid description of Bath society out of season.

Harriet sat and listened while finishing mending the tear in Miss Spencer's cloak, glad that her friend had at least stopped criticising the twins.

* * *

At that very moment, half a mile to the north of Upper Marcham, Sarah and Annabelle were arriving home to Chorley Hall after a futile visit to their father's lawyer in the county town of Barminster.

They stood in the hall, removing their cloaks and listening to the hum of conversation coming from the small saloon on the ground floor. Sir Benjamin's sister-in-law, Miss Giles, had taken up residence after the funeral and showed no signs of leaving. Neither did his brother, Mr. Peter Hayner, nor his brother's wife, Mrs. Amy Hayner.

"I cannot bear any of them at this moment," said Sarah. "Let us go to the upstairs drawing room, Annabelle. We must hold a council of war." She turned to the butler. "Biggins, don't you dare tell any of them we have returned." She put her arm around her sister's waist and together they mounted the broad oaken staircase.

"Now, what on earth are we to do about that tiresome Harriet creature?" said Sarah, pushing open the door of the drawing room. "Throw another log on the fire, Annabelle, and don't always be ringing the bell for the servants to do everything or we shall never have a chance of a private discussion."

"The servants are paid to do things," grumbled Annabelle, but she was too lazy ever to argue much with her stronger-willed sister.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "The Wicked Godmother"
by .
Copyright © 1987 Marion Chesney.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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