“Tell me right now, Dianna. This instant!” Sarah made a grab at the papers that her sister was holding behind her back and missed.
“It has absolutely nothing to do with you, Sarah Jane, now mind your own business.” Dianna smoothed her honeyed locks back from her face with one hand. It had come loose from its pins during the tussle.
“What are you up to?” grumbled Sarah, propping an irritated fist on her hip as she surveyed Dianna with a suspicious glare.
Dianna huffed and straightened the pinstriped gown she wore over her tightly laced corset. She turned from her sister, still holding the sheaf of parchment away from her body, expecting another attempt to wrest it from her fingers.
“I repeat,” she said, tucking the letter away into her nightstand and locking the drawer with a small key. “It is none of your business,” Dianna slid the tiny bronze key into the neck of her dress and strode past Sarah, who was looking mightily offended. She glanced back at her younger sister as she made her way out of her bedroom. “Come down for dinner, you. Mother will be in the foulest of moods if we’re both late.”
Sarah was still staring grumpily towards Dianna’s bedside table, as though she might be able to force it open with the sheer power of her will. Behind her, the bedroom window was closed firmly against the autumn chill. Orange and brown leaves, fallen from the aged oak tree in the front garden, swirled past the glass. An ancient rope and plank swing could be heard squawking over the rustling of the wind.
Dianna rolled her eyes and returned to her sister’s side. She took hold of Sarah’s arm and steered her from the room, through the hallway, and down the sweeping staircase of their Manhattan family home.
“You’ve never kept a secret from me before,” muttered Sarah, the most pitiful note of woe in her voice.
Dianna rolled her eyes again, although this was perfectly true. “You’ll know if anything comes of it,” she said, and she gave her sister’s hand a pat. This comment only seemed to cause further irritation. Sarah’s frown deepened and she opened her mouth. Dianna cut her off before she could start again: “You’ll know soon enough,” she repeated, giving her a quelling look. Sarah glared at her, but closed her mouth.
The sisters took steps in time with one another as they descended the wide stairs. They were very alike in facial features, but otherwise had little in common. Dianna’s hair was the color of watered down whiskey, and it flowed around her shoulders in thick waves when freed from its pins. Sarah’s was a deep, rich brown and it hung limply, stick-straight and unmanageable. Dianna was the only one who could coax Sarah’s hair into submission. For, though it grew from the top of Sarah’s head, it refused to do her bidding.
Dianna was tall and elegant, with long willowy limbs that would have been cumbersome on any other woman, but she wielded them with surprising grace. Her sisters often told her that she could have worn an old fisherman’s net and made it look lovely. Yet, somehow, Dianna had managed to gain the age of twenty-nine without having procured a husband. This hadn’t really bothered her until recently, when her younger sister had begun a courtship that was predisposed to end in an engagement.
As there were nearly ten years between the two of them, the knowledge brought Dianna up short, causing her to take stock of her life. She had concluded that her path was heading nowhere fast, and immediately resolved to make any changes that might encourage forward advancement.
The girls stopped in the foyer before they entered the dining room, adjusting their appearances in the large gilded mirror that hung on the wall. Dianna wrinkled her nose at the small spattering of freckles across her high cheekbones and brushed away a final crease in her skirt. The sisters smiled at one another in the mirror and, without saying anything further, entered the dining room. Their parents and two younger sisters were already seated at the mahogany table that lay splayed beneath a large crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling. The room was bathed in soft golden light, and an extravagant flower arrangement dominated the center of the table, making it impossible to converse with those at either end. Dianna recognized her mother’s distinctive taste.
Samantha Brittler frowned as her two eldest daughters joined the rest of the family, observing every minuscule flaw either of their appearances possessed.
Dianna’s mother was a thin woman. Her graying brown hair was pulled into a tight knot at the base of her neck, and she wore an expression that suggested she were contemplating a stubborn speck of dirt on the fine, antique rug beneath her feet.
“Good evening, ladies,” she stated crossly. “We’re ever so grateful that you have deigned to honor us with your presence.” Her sharp eyes darted between the girls, focusing for a fraction of a second longer upon her eldest daughter.
“Sorry, Mother,” mumbled Sarah as she took her place next to Charlotte. Dianna didn’t say anything but allowed the housemaid to pull out her chair and sat down at the table, wearing a frown remarkably similar to her mother’s as she did so. The centerpiece hid Samantha and Dianna from one another’s sight, which was perhaps lucky, as they were so often at loggerheads.
Mrs. Brittler’s bony fingers gestured to the household staff with a haughty finesse that spoke volumes. Dianna’s mother was a former Debutante. She had been born into money, raised in luxury, and married into wealth as soon as she had completed her first season in London.
Educated at Voltanary’s School For Girls, just as her mother before her had been, she emerged from her training with an overwhelming sense of what was proper and what was not. Samantha had done all she could to press her distinct sense of propriety on each of her daughters in turn. When this clashed with their willful personalities, she desisted. All the while continuing to lead by firm, unyielding example.
Dianna could hardly remember her mother ever displaying any form of affection towards her. In fact, she could count the number of times she had felt a connection with the woman on one hand.
Dianna had been eight years old when she had fallen from the family carriage and broken her wrist. She remembered her mother flinging herself from the door and landing beside her in a tangle of skirts. Scrambling about in a panic, Samantha had screamed for a doctor. While the footman had run to the nearest house, Mrs. Brittler had held her daughter to her chest, rocking gently from side to side. Out of nowhere, it seemed, she had begun to sing:
“Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly. Lavender’s green. When I am King, dilly dilly, you shall be queen.”
Dianna remembered looking up at her mother through streaming eyes and suddenly understanding something. Beneath the stubbornly cold exterior that was all she had ever known, her mother loved her very much.
When the doctor had arrived, Samantha had reverted to her usual stoic behavior, leaving her daughter to wonder if she had imagined the entire event.
The meal was served. Thomas Brittler, Samantha’s husband of thirty-seven years and father of their four daughters, said grace. The two youngest girls began to chatter rapidly as the family dished their plates.
“Di?” said her father from the head of the table, reaching over to give her hand a squeeze. “What’s troubling you?” Dianna smiled at the anxious expression on his face. She’d been too distracted to notice him staring at her and, as such, had no time to modify her countenance.
“Nothing, Father,” she said, returning the pressure of his fingers. “I’m quite well.”
“I don’t think you are, my dear,” he said affectionately, releasing her with a gentle pat and cutting into his steak. “It’s not like you to be so pensive.”
“I’m just a bit tired, is all,” said Dianna with a dismissive wave. She eyed her father’s graying hairline as he leaned forward to take a bite. He was a thick-boned man, with the appearance of high muscle mass gone slightly to cede. A hint of a rounded belly now peered from beneath his waistcoat. His mustache and beard were fashionably trimmed, and his shoes were highly polished. The chain of a gold pocket watch clinked pleasantly against the wood of the table as he ate.
“It’s all right to be upset, you know,” whispered Thomas around a small chunk of meat, leaning forward on his elbows so that the rest of the family wouldn’t catch his words.
“Upset about what, Father?” asked Dianna with genuine curiosity, echoing his low tone.
“About Sarah,” he said, keeping his head down and moving his lips little.
Dianna glanced over at her three sisters, who were jabbering to one another with such enthusiasm it was a wonder they could make out what the other was saying.
“Why would I be upset about her?”
“Because of her pending engagement, I assumed,” Thomas shifted his weight in his high-backed chair, looking at his daughter expectantly, his fork and knife held suspended over his meal. It was obvious he thought he had hit the metaphoric nail on the head. Dianna shook her head slowly, and a small smile spread over her lips.
“I am very happy for Sarah. Sir Williamson appears quite taken with her.”
Thomas nodded his head in acknowledgment of this observation, chewing his next mouthful. “Fredrick is a good man,” he said, solemnly, “but I was referring to the effect this development would have upon you.”
Dianna lifted her hand from where it had been lying negligently upon the tablecloth and began to slice through her own meal. Her movements were jerky as she tried to deflect her father’s prodding with a shrug of her slender shoulders. “Surely I will miss sharing my room with Sarah, but I fail to see that her marriage will have any more distinct effect upon me other than that.” A blonde hair tumbled into her eyes at that moment, and she brushed it aside impatiently.
“Come now, Dianna, who is it that you think you’re speaking with?” Thomas lifted a finger to his nose and tapped it knowingly, a crooked grin beginning to form at the corner of his lips. He laid his hand on Dianna’s once again. “There will soon be a man for you, don’t you fret.”
For a moment, Dianna’s composure slipped. She gazed up into her father’s eyes. “What have I done wrong? I’ve gone to every event. I’ve worn every supercilious contraption that mother has deemed appropriate. I have laughed and flirted…” Dianna lifted both of her hands to the crease her brow was making on her forehead and rubbed them firmly across it, as though she might be able to iron it flat.
Thomas’s smile widened further, but his eyes were kind. “You’ve turned several away, my dear. You could have had your pick of the gentlemen in town. Any one of them would have taken a quiet beauty such as yourself.” His expression twitched a bit on the word ‘quiet’ and he looked altogether too amused for Dianna’s taste. She had to struggle not to glare at him so as to remain respectful.
“I had a good reason for turning away every suitor that did not come up to scratch,” she replied huffily, returning her eyes to her fork.
“Why was it that you sent Gillian Tate away?” Thomas couldn’t conceal his amusement now as Dianna flushed to the roots of her hair.
“He had not read ‘Memoirs of The New World,’” she admitted, begrudgingly. “But, I could not even carry on a civilized conversation with the man. He was always asking me about sewing and food and the weather…” Dianna lifted her napkin to her lips and patted them lightly, slipping into—what she hoped— was a dignified silence. Thomas let out a loud chuckle that caused his wife to shoot him a furtive look from across the table. He nodded at her and then let his tone drift back down to a secretive whisper.
“You’re going to have to try to be less particular, my dear,” he said.
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