In a low voice Harriet muttered, "Time is running out."
I looked up to see Hari twisting her string of pearls into a ball around her neck. "Time?" I echoed.
Hari turned from the mirror and peered at me, the bright light from the window making her eyes water. "It's just that, after I pushed him to find someone, Charles went to great lengths. If this doesn't work out, I can't keep asking him to help you. George is the best of the lot."
But that's not saying much, I thought. It was a pretty narrow field, and Charles didn't dig very deeply. I wasn't really surprised. Harriet's husband, the Honourable Charles Baldwin, MP, was much more interested in politics than finding a good marriage match for me.
"That will do, Jane." Hari waved dismissively at her abigail, then waited until she left the room to speak again. "There are more complications."
"It's his uncle Lord Ainsley. He told Charles that he's ready to declare him his heir and to pass on his seat in the House of Lords to him. So Charles wants to be very careful not to attract gossip of any kind. Nothing that could affect Lord Ainsley's decision."
"What does that have to do with me?" I wanted to ask why everything had to revolve around Charles and his ambition, but I didn't.
Hari let out a sigh. "Women of a certain age need to be properly married with children or settled in a suitable position for a spinster—a governess, for example."
I shivered at the thought of being a governess and the exhausting boredom it entailed. I wanted something more exciting. Someday I would marry, of course, but I was just twenty-one. Surely I had time to make a match. Harriet was twenty-five and had only wedded three years ago. She and Charles hadn't even started their own family yet. I knew that unmarried women attracted gossip—that while seldom true was always malicious—but I doubted people had much of anything to say about me, certainly nothing that would influence Charles's aspirations negatively.
"But George?" I wondered aloud.
"You should be pleased," Hari said. "Many women would consider George a prime catch. He's just been appointed chief whip, an enormously powerful position. Everyone in Charles's circle fawns over him. He can make or destroy a parliamentarian's career with just a word to the prime minister."
I flopped back on the bed. "I grant you that George seems an attractive-enough fellow in a balding, middle-aged sort of way. Just the sort of very respectable husband women yearn for. But I don't know if we would be happy together. I'm not even sure I'm ready to marry."
"I've just said you have no other option!" Harriet cried.
The sudden sharpness in her voice startled me, and I sat up. "What do you mean? What's wrong, Harriet?"
"I'm sorry." She came towards me and took one of my hands in her own. "But I do worry about you sometimes, Charlotte. One hears such dreadful tales. You remember Mildred Winthrope? Really quite a lovely little thing, wellborn but certainly poor. By her third season she still hadn't found a husband and was forced to beg from relatives. She died last winter. Caught a cold, and in her weakened state she was gone in a fortnight." Hari dropped my hand. "They had to bury her in a pauper's grave!"
I couldn't help but laugh. "Do I look like I'm about to fade away from lack of nutrition? If George doesn't make me an offer, I have another thought." It was hardly formed, if I was being honest, but Harriet seemed to think that this marriage was my last chance for a good life, and I wanted to reassure her. The intense setting sun emerged from behind a tall tree, sending an unforgiving light through the three west-facing windows. Was it a sign?
Harriet leaned towards me, brows raised. "Don't tell me someone else is dangling after you. Someone wealthy? Connected? You are full of surprises. Do tell."
"No, nothing like that. It's something else entirely." I'd seen an advertisement posted in the broadsheets for a new veterinary program just yesterday and it had piqued my interest. I had always loved animals, whether it was barn cats, hunting dogs, or the majestic racehorses my father bred. As a girl, I spent my daylight hours tramping around our estate. Mama was always so preoccupied with making social connections, going to parties, and working to find the right match for Harriet, I don't think she noticed, or if she did, she let it go. When our estate was in arrears and we'd had to let most of the help go, I tried to keep the animals and livestock in good condition until they were sold, but we'd had to get in Dr. Boyd, a veterinary surgeon, to tend to the racehorses, one of whom was pregnant. Harriet had seen the work as beneath me, but in truth, I'd enjoyed it.