Ah, here it is, friends, my latest Friday grand free fiction installment. Miss the opening gambit? No problem. Chapter 1 Part 1 is all you need to be caught up!
I arrived just before noon on a Wednesday, tired and hungry and travel-worn. I’d left New York on Friday morning, disembarked at Avonyard just after dawn, and taken a taxi right to the station to catch the day’s train to Taunton. My luggage was by necessity light enough for me to manage on my own; all I carried was my tourobe and my hat bag, and together they were still enough to make me shine with exertion after ten yards or so. My green tweed suit had seen three days of wear and had acquired at least a couple wrinkles to make that clear, although I fancied it still looked smart at a distance. I had donned my black cloche that went with everything, and my fashionably short hair peeped around my neck only a little less glossily than it normally did thanks to the sea spray it had accumulated over the past five days.
The Taunton station was small, hardly more than a platform, and only a handful of travelers disengaged from the train on its boards. I did not see anyone with Aunt Helena’s flair for millinery drama waiting on the platform, but there was a large black luxury car idling just beyond the ticket booth.
When I began to walk toward it, the driver stepped out and came forward to assist me with my bags. I will admit it; I stopped walking and let him come to me. The luggage was that heavy, and I’d barely broken my fast with toast and tea before disembarking, and—well, it was what Aunt Helena paid him for, and she had stressed to me on many occasions the value of letting someone do the job you are paying them to do.
He greeted me with a respectful “Miss Holling” and collected my bags with no apparent effort. I preceded him to the car, my step lightening with every pace forward. Now that my physical burden had been lifted, so too was my metaphysical one. I was in England for only the second time in my life, with my favorite person in the world; whatever came of the summer, I was determined to enjoy myself while I was here.
Aunt Helena leaned across the seat to open the rear door. I could see her hand flap at me and then disappear.
She had settled back into her seat when I stepped into the car.
Perched over her dark curls was a fedora of emerald green with two peacock feathers rising from the right side to accentuate its jaunty angle and a ribbon of turquoise silk banding it. It clashed wonderfully with Helena’s rose-colored crepe tunic dress, which to my eye was more appropriate to a morning shopping in town than a country drive. This was what passed as conservative daywear for my aunt.
“You look absolutely peaked my dear,” she greeted me, a half-drunk glass of champagne in her hand and a bucket full of ice and green glass at her feet. “Have you not had a drink yet?”
A drink was Aunt Helena’s answer to every ill, and, from her perspective, it was a failsafe. I laughed as she pulled out a second glass from the hamper between us and poured me a restorative bubbly.
“To plans coming to fruition,” she toasted once the glass was in my hand.
I raised my rim to hers to acknowledge the toast and sipped the effervescent wine. It tasted like freedom, and that sweetness was irresistible. I took another mouthful and savored every sour pop across my tongue and under my palate, feeling dashing and insouciant. I had learned long ago that it was never wise to be cautious in Aunt Helena’s presence—she took any hint of restraint or reticence as a personal challenge to be overcome—but I had always striven to constrain my recklessness to prescribed parameters, to a certain circumspect naughtiness. But right then, I did not want to play safe. Perhaps it was the lack of sustenance or the fatigue of having traveled for five and a half days straight or the anger at Geoffrey I didn’t want to acknowledge, or perhaps it was a growing frustration with a course of life that had begun to seem predictable and mundane, or perhaps it was the final frantic rebellion of a young heart preparing to assume the mantle of maturity, but for any of those reasons, or none at all, the freedom Aunt Helena offered me felt beguiling. It had before, of course; but the difference was, this time I was ripe for seduction.
I took another drink.
“You look well,” I said to my aunt, and meant it. No reason, of course, that she would not still look in perfect health from where she had been six months prior, but that was not everything. Helena also exuded a certain satisfaction which implied life was exactly what she wanted it to be at that moment.
“And you, my dear, look tragically colonial.” The driver shut up the trunk, having finished stowing my two Hartmanns, and climbed into the front seat. “I hope you did not bring too much in the way of clothes,” Aunt Helena continued as he shifted the vehicle into driving gear and rolled it forward. “Since I knew you would be coming, I took the liberty of shopping for you before I left London…there mightn’t be much room left in your armoire for anything you brought from home.”
I smiled. I had known better than to pack very much, because Aunt Helena was forever buying me clothes. She loved dressing me, almost like I was a doll to her, but surprisingly, considering her own choices, she used the canvas I presented as a place to exercise her skills at understated good taste. In her company I was always perfectly put together, never outrageously bedizened either in or against the extremities of the current mode, and I never knew if Aunt Helena made different choices for me because she recognized I was in a different place in my life (and the world) or because she did not want any competition as the best-dressed lady in the room.
“I found some simply dazzling cocktail dresses for you, my dear. They were much too young for me, but you will quite do them justice, and so I could not pass them by. That did mean I have had to specifically plan a cocktail party for some of our evenings here, in order to give you reason to show them off.” She did not sound as though it had been a heavy imposition. “At least it is the country, where no one will mind if we are a little less formal for dinner.”
“I look forward to wearing them.” And I did. “But perhaps you might tell me what kind of house party you have planned? Is it very large? And how long will everyone be staying?”
Aunt Helena smirked. “I am pleased to say that everyone I invited has chosen to attend, so we will have a houseful with twenty guests, and you and I. The first of them will arrive tomorrow evening, and most will leave on Monday, though I suppose there will ever be a few spoilsports who decide to return home on Sunday. You and I, of course, will not leave for Ripley until Tuesday, at the earliest.”
“Is there anyone in particular you are looking forward to seeing?” I asked slyly. Aunt Helena was on the market again after her third husband had divorced her the summer before. I had never seen her play the role of seductress, and I hoped that she would be doing so this weekend. I could imagine nothing more enlightening—or entertaining—than seeing how a woman such as her brought her chosen husband to the point of proposing. And there would, of course, be no question but that Aunt Helena had chosen him long before he chose her.
“Oh, there is someone I’m quite counting on introducing to you,” she replied, and I smiled again. Oh, yes, this house party was going to be amusing.
I settled back into my seat and admired the view passing by of rolling green hills and the green-gold haze of sunlight off summer grass. I finished my champagne and held out my glass for more.
“It sounds most diverting,” I replied, and Aunt Helena laughed.
“Indeed. I rather expect to find it so.”
It should have been a warning. But I was too happy to be in her company and too mellowed from the wine to pay any heed to whether my aunt and I were likely to find the same situations amusing.