Predictably, Iselle dissolved in a flutter of weepy lace onto the chaise longue, without looking one jot puffy or red-eyed or rumpled, Irma thought disgustedly as she bathed her eldest sister’s forehead with lavender water.
“I made sure Mama would give up after all these years,” Ellie groaned. “I’ll go into a decline, I swear, and waste away from a broken heart. Viscount Wingate will marry a faded wraith, and then I’ll come back to haunt him for taking an unwilling bride.”
The only books Iselle ever read, nay, listened to while Inessa or Irma read aloud, were gothic romances from the Minerva Press. It showed. The handkerchief wafted through the air. “I shall die for true love.”
“Don’t be a cabbage head, Ellie,” Irma chided. “No one dies from an arranged marriage. Just look at Mama.”
Ellie moaned again. Then she sat up suddenly, tipping the basin of scented water onto Irma. “Wingate!” she shrieked, as if she’d truly seen a ghost. “Why did she have to pick that stuffed shirt Wingate?”
Irma ignored the spreading wetness in her lap.
“Oh, do you know him? Did you ever meet him in London? Mama says he is handsome.”
“Handsome?” Iselle echoed distractedly. “I suppose, if you like sober-sided and stiff-rumped old men. Why, there’s never been so much as a hint of scandal to his name, not a single affaire or gaming debt or duel, only his stodgy accomplishments at those wretched peace conventions. No, I never met him, although I did see him a few times. But, but, Irma, you were right! He never dances, just stands in corners having boring conversations when he’s not at those fusty government conferences and things. I’d have to be a political hostess,” she wailed, “giving those interminable dinners where no one laughs or gossips or flirts. And you know I never understand any of that other talk about exclusions and excise taxes. You know I don’t!”
“Sh, Ellie, don’t get yourself in a pelter. Mama says Wingate is retiring from the government to take up managing his properties.”
“Worse and worse!” Iselle cried. “Then I’ll never get to London at all! How will I find out the latest fashions? Besides, in the country away from company, I’d have to talk to him all the time, every day!”
“Yes, dearest, that is customary among husbands and wives.”
“But, but, Irma, they say Wingate speaks eight languages! Eight!”
Irma had no words of comfort for the beautiful wigeon who barely spoke one. She turned instead to her other sister, who had been quietly wringing her hands together in the corner of the sitting room the sisters shared.
“What think you, Nessie? Can you be happy with Mr. Frye?”
With blue eyes awash in tears, Inessa looked like an injured angel. Her chin trembled and her voice quavered, but she managed to say, “If Mama wishes it, I shall try to make him a good wife.”
“But can you be happy?” Irma insisted. “Mama doesn’t have to live with him, you know.”
Inessa swallowed. “A woman cannot simply follow her own heart in these things, Irmagard. You’ve always been too impetuous to see that there are higher goals than the mere pursuit of happiness. A daughter owes her parents obedience and…and deference to their wisdom.”
Irma made an unladylike sound. “Is it wise to shackle you to a man nearly old enough to be your father and whose manners, moreover, smell of the shop no matter what airs he puts on for the countryside? That is not wisdom, Nessie, it’s greed for all that money he has.”