The Heart's Companion - By Holly Newman

"Good Morning, Elsbeth!"

Lady Elsbeth Ainstree twitched in surprise, bumping the round mahogany table and setting the china clattering. Her fine-boned hand fluttered to the fichu about her neck. She took a deep breath. "Really Jane, there is simply no need to sneak up on me. You’re getting quite as bad as the boys," she said in a patently long suffering tone.

Miss Jane Grantley laughed as she entered the sunny salon used for family breakfasts. She skirted the table and crossed the room to a credenza laden with covered silver platters and urns of coffee and hot chocolate. She poured herself a cup of coffee. "I wonder if I’m actually getting that bad or if it isn’t your hearing that’s going. After all, you are getting so old...." She slid gracefully into the chair across from her aunt, her green eyes wide with playful innocence.

Lady Elsbeth pursed her lips primly, but her glowing hazel eyes betrayed her. "Wretch," she returned mildly. "You mark my words, young woman. I’ll have my revenge, for you are treading the same path I did."

"Why? Because I chose to leave London before the end of the season? What would you have me do? Ignore Miss Bailee’s heartfelt plea for release from her commitment here? Really, Elsbeth," Jane drawled theatrically, "who am I to stand in Cupid’s way?" She took a sip of coffee, her dark-lashed eyes glinting mischievously over the rim of the cup.

Recalling the agitated, crossed, and recrossed lines of the letter that brought them to Penwick Park, Lady Elsbeth choked down a laugh along with a bite of sausage. "Stuff and nonsense," she returned austerely, refusing to give vent to her own amusement. She carefully placed her fork on the edge of her plate and folded her hands in her lap. "Nurse Twinkleham is perfectly capable of caring for Bertram and Edward, to say nothing of the rest of the obscenely large staff your sister employs here. Furthermore, the absence of a governess for the few months until their parents return from the continent would not be lamented by the children. And after reading that garbled letter Miss Bailee wrote, I have my doubts as to the woman’s steadying influence on the boys." Her brown curls bobbed in emphasis. She reached for her hot chocolate.

"Your last statement is true enough," Jane admitted. "But though I love Twink dearly, for she was my own nurse, I have my doubts as to her ability to handle my rapscallion nephews. Remember the incident the day after Miss Bailee blissfully departed?"

Lady Elsbeth shuddered, then smiled ruefully. "Poor Nagel. He is worrying himself to flinders that the household will fall apart in his enforced absence."

"It was never together enough to warrant falling apart!" retorted Jane. "And that broken leg is as much his fault as the boys. If he had been watching where he was going.... "

"I disagree. A cricket bat does not belong in the middle of the Great Hall floor. It’s not as if it is a room typically strewn with all manner of items."

Jane conceded that point. "What makes the temporary handicap so distressing is the knowledge that Jeremy has readily accepted and taken over Nagel’s duties, except in his abilities to manage the boys. They are no tamer now than the day we arrived."

"I believe you exaggerate, Jane. They have not done anything untoward in days."

Jane looked at her steadily for a moment, and then she smiled. "Just the other day one of the young chambermaids discovered the boys were trying to develop a worm farm in a chamber pot," she said dryly.

"A chamber pot?" Lady Elsbeth paused, awed by the notion. She shook her head. "I really shall have to have a talk with Bertram. There was no need to go to all that trouble. The herb garden is rife with worms, and there are several patches of soil that could stand to be turned." She picked up a fork and stabbed at a slice of meat.

Laughing, Jane leaned across the small table, whispering beguilingly. "Confess, you are enjoying your time here."

"What I am enjoying," Lady Elsbeth corrected, trying to ignore Jane’s playfulness, "is your company. Being your chaperon and companion has been the least arduous and most entertaining of any family duty our various relatives have imposed on me." She slid a piece of meat into her mouth as if to say that was the end of the issue.

Jane shook her head, refusing to allow her aunt the final word. "That is entirely your