The Lady Travelers Guide to Larceny with a Dashing Stranger

CHAPTER ONE

 

Mid-September, 1889

It had once occurred to Lady Wilhelmina Bascombe that she would no doubt die with a laugh on her lips and a glass of champagne in her hand. Now Willie suspected she would meet her maker with little more than watered wine and an equally weak smile. It was a sad state of affairs for a woman who, alongside her late husband, had not so long ago been considered the cream of society’s fast, young, fashionable set. Still there was nothing to be done about it. One couldn’t go backward after all. One could only bravely lift one’s chin and charge ahead.

“So you see Aunt Poppy—” Willie adopted her brightest smile “—I have decided that a change of scenery would be ideal. I was thinking the Mediterranean. The south of France, perhaps. Or possibly Italy. Or, oh, I don’t know, Venice?”

“Venice is not on the Mediterranean, dear,” Aunt Poppy, Mrs. Persephone Fitzhew-Wellmore—who was not her aunt at all but rather her godmother—said in a serene manner. “It’s on the Adriatic.”

“Adriatic, Mediterranean—” Willie waved off the comment “—one vast body of water is as good as another.”

“Is it?” Poppy took a sip of her tea and studied Willie with a sharp eye that belied her advanced years.

“I should think so, yes. After all, the idea is to move on with my life.” Willie heaved a heartfelt sigh that was rather more sincere than she had expected. “Lay George and the past completely to rest, that sort of thing.”

“Something you find difficult to do at home here in England?”

“You understand how these things are, Poppy. Life here is overshadowed by everything George and I shared together. Why even our friends are constant reminders of what we had. And what I have lost.” There was no need to add that she had seen nothing of those friends in the two years since George’s untimely death in an absurd boating accident. Oh, certainly they had been most solicitous at first, but it did seem their concern—as well as their friendship—vanished the moment George had been laid neatly to rest.

Still, a certain lack of friendly overtures might well be expected as Willie had disappeared from society after George’s death, fleeing to Wales and the home of her late grandmother’s companion. Dear Lady Plumdale, Margaret, had welcomed her with open and loving arms and Willie had stayed until a few months ago, contemplating her loss and what now lay ahead of her. Which in and of itself was shocking as Willie had never especially contemplated anything. Still, when one has lost a husband in an absurd boating accident a certain amount of contemplation is probably to be expected. What was completely unexpected were the revelations Willie discovered about her life, some of them brought about by an unceasing barrage of correspondence from solicitors and debt collectors.

Willie truly had no idea that she and George had existed primarily on credit in recent years. And really who would have imagined such a thing? After all, he was Viscount Bascombe of the Suffolk Bascombes, an old and venerable family. Willie had thought her husband quite a dashing sort and life with George was never dull. Indeed, it was great fun and filled with adventure and amusement. They never seemed to pause for so much as a moment between house parties given by what then were friends, masked balls and flamboyant dinners, races and hunts and all manner of entertainment. She now wondered if the ultimate purpose of their life of fun and frolic had been the avoidance of more serious matters. And really one does not have to contemplate the grave aspects of life—annoying details like finances and responsibility—if one never pauses in pursuit of a jolly good time. And it had been fun.

After George’s death, however, the ongoing party that was their life together had ground to a halt and it was time to pay the piper, as they say. A piper who had apparently not been paid for quite some time. Pity Willie had few funds with which to do that.

“That makes a great deal of sense, dear.” Sympathy sounded in the older woman’s voice. “Although, haven’t you spent much of the time since George’s passing away from London, hiding in that charming little village in Wales?”

Poppy knew full well where Willie had been as she was the only one who had continued regular correspondence with her. “I wouldn’t call it hiding exactly but, well, yes although—”

“I should think that would have been long enough to accept the harsh reality that life with George has ended.” Poppy patted Willie’s hand. “I know it’s difficult, dear, but we are Englishwomen and we are made of sterner stuff. We must bravely sally forth into the unknown regardless of what may lie ahead. Why, I remember when I lost my dear Malcolm. It took some time to accept that my life would never be the same.” She heaved a resigned sigh. “I confess I miss him to this day. I daresay you’ll continue to miss George, as well.”

“Yes, of course,” Willie said weakly, and while she would hate to admit it to anyone—let alone Poppy—she didn’t miss George so much as she missed the blissful state of ignorance she had apparently inhabited through the ten years of her marriage.

In addition to the discovery of George’s—or rather now her—financial state, Willie had come to the distressing realization that while she had truly loved George, he was not the grand passion of her life nor was he her soul mate, although they were very much kindred spirits. It was a revelation she suspected she never would have had if he hadn’t died. Indeed, she would have gone on for the rest of her days never realizing the man she had married was not her one true love even if he was exciting and adventurous and a great deal of fun. Whether coincidental or deliberate, her life with George had never paused long enough to come to that realization. Willie couldn’t help but wonder what might have happened if it had.

“But George is gone and as you said, I do need to bravely forge ahead. Which is precisely why I wish to get away from England.”

Poppy nodded. “Although you have no money to do so.”

Willie stared. “Why on earth would you say such a thing?”

Poppy raised a knowing brow.

“Even if it’s true.” Willie sighed and collapsed against the flowered cushions of the overly comfortable sofa that was far and away too large for the parlor in Poppy’s modest house on a tree-lined street in Bloomsbury. “How did you know?”

“For one thing, Wilhelmina, your dress is two to three years out of fashion. I have never known you to be clad in anything but the latest styles.” While the widow of an explorer, adventurer and lecturer of modest success, Poppy had always had an unexpectedly keen eye for things like fashion and decor, even if she hadn’t always had the means to support her taste.

“I have been in mourning, Poppy,” Willie said staunchly. “Being a bit behind the dictates of fashion is to be expected.”

“Perhaps, but do not forget I have known you nearly since the day you came into the world.” Poppy cast her a chastising look. “I would not call you vain, but even as a young girl, you were determined to be fashionably attired.”

“Yes, well, some things are not as important as they once were.” Although it did rather pain Willie to look into the mirror these days. While still serviceable, the extensive wardrobe she’d had before George’s death was starting to appear the tiniest bit sad. Even so, she’d been more than willing to discard the unrelenting black that was the required fate of any new widow. It had never made much sense to Willie that there were strict rules as to how a widow should behave and what she should do. It seemed to her that mourning a lost husband or parent or companion should come from one’s heart, not an edict from society. With her fair hair and blue eyes, she looked absurdly good in black but Willie much preferred to choose black rather than have black thrust upon her.

“Beyond that…” Poppy paused to consider her words. “Your husband’s creditors apparently had little confidence they would ever see their money.”

Willie stared. She wasn’t at all certain she wished to hear more. Still, in her recent experience, knowing was far better than not knowing. “Dear Lord, please don’t tell me they have bothered you. I’ve paid them all. Unless I have missed some. Entirely possible, I suppose. But you have no money to speak of.”

“Yet at the moment I am more than comfortable.”

Heat washed up Willie’s face. “I am sorry, Poppy. I didn’t mean to—”

“Of course you didn’t, dear, and you are quite right. I have no particular fortune—I never have. I am the last person creditors would approach in their efforts to seek repayment. But you know how determined those sorts can be when they wish to get what is owed to them.”

“Actually, I’m afraid I don’t.” Willie said, bemoaning once again her failure to pay the slightest bit of attention to George’s finances. But then what woman did know the true state of her husband’s financial affairs?

Admittedly, in hindsight, there were subtle hints as to their dwindling resources. Willie had noted the country house was showing signs of disrepair but whenever she had mentioned her concerns, George had said he would arrange to have it taken care of. They would then be off to London or to a party hosted at a friend’s estate in Essex or Kent or wherever and upon their return, nothing had changed. Willie had suggested on more than one occasion that they sell the terrace house in Mayfair left to her by her grandmother in favor of a larger residence, as it was nearly impossible to entertain properly. George would dismiss the idea by pointing out they were rarely in London and wasn’t it far more fun to be a guest at someone else’s party than to go to all the bother and expense of hosting their own gathering? She hadn’t given his objections a second thought at the time. Now it struck her it wasn’t so much the bother as the expense that concerned him.

“No dear, creditors looking to recoup their losses would never contact me, especially as we are not blood relations. However…”

Willie sucked in a sharp breath. “Father?”

“I’m afraid so.” Poppy winced. “He called on me, oh, a good six months ago when you were still in Wales. It did appear to be a strictly social visit although, as I have only seen him a handful of times since your baptism, it did seem rather odd.”

“No doubt,” Willie said under her breath.

“He wanted to know if I had heard from you and of course I said no.” She cast her goddaughter a smug smile. “I had no idea why he wished to know and no intention of offering him any assistance whatsoever.”

“Thank you.” Willie and her father, the Earl of Hillborough, hadn’t spoken in nearly eleven years. On occasion, she missed the father he might have been, but not once did she regret the loss of the father he was.

“Any man who disowns his own child simply because she has the temerity to follow her heart and marry the man she loves, even if against his wishes, will get no help from me,” Poppy said staunchly. “At the very least, he could have given you your dowry.”

“That would have been helpful.”

“It was entirely inappropriate of him not to do so. You are his only child after all.” Poppy huffed. “Children are a blessing and are not to be squandered simply because they have minds of their own. I know if dear Malcolm and I had been lucky enough to have children, we would never have turned them away because of a difference of opinion.”

Willie managed a halfhearted smile. In addition to everything else, all that contemplation in Wales had brought her to the inescapable conclusion that in his objection to her marriage with George, Father might well have been right. Something Willie was determined never to admit aloud. Regardless, her father’s rejection made little difference in her life as he had effectively disowned her when she was not born male.

“After a bit of not very subtle probing on his part, your father finally admitted that he wished to contact you to inform you George’s creditors had contacted him. He wanted you to know he would not settle the debts of a man he disapproved of.” Poppy’s lips pressed together in a hard line. “He was quite firm on that point.”

“Nor would I ever ask him to.” Willie raised her chin, a gesture of defiance that had driven her father mad for as long as she could remember. “I would become a beggar on the streets before I would ask him for anything.”

Not that it would come to that. At least not yet. In the few months since returning from her self-imposed exile Willie had reluctantly sold the country house and had managed to pay off all of George’s creditors. She had also discovered most of the jewels given her by her husband were paste, nice enough to look at but essentially worthless. She did hope any jewelry he had no doubt given those women who had been the objects of his fleeting affections through the years was no more valuable than hers.

Willie had long suspected George had not been entirely faithful, but in this, Willie was something of a coward. She had never confronted him about his dalliances with other women. Upon reflection she wasn’t sure why, although there was a vast difference between vague suspicion and certain knowledge. She had on occasion been tempted to stray from her own vows of fidelity but could never quite bring herself to do so. In spite of her many faults—and she was fairly certain that was a very long list—disloyalty and dishonesty were not among them. Still, it was one thing to lie outright and quite another to prevaricate, evade and omit.

“Exactly how bad are your financial circumstances?” Poppy asked.

“Well…” Willie searched for the right words. As much as she needed Poppy’s help she did hate to worry the old girl. “They’re really not nearly as bad as they were.” She drew a deep breath. “I sold the country house, fortunately it was not entailed and so mine to do with as I pleased. And I am now debt free.”

“A difficult step but I must say I am impressed by your decision.”

“I did so love that house.” Willie couldn’t quite hide the mournful note in her voice. From the moment she’d first set eyes on Bascombe Manor, a vaguely whimsical concoction of every popular construction style of the last three hundred years surrounded by grounds that were every bit as capricious as the house itself, she had fallen head over heels. It was a happy, welcoming sort of place and a far cry from her family’s country house. Hillborough Hall was an imposing, unyielding fortress of marble and granite. The building proclaimed someone of unrelenting propriety and single-minded determination held sway here and fun would not—would never—be allowed.

“And your house in town?”

“That I have managed to retain, at least for the moment.” It was perhaps best not to tell Poppy that the Mayfair house was very nearly stripped of all its contents. Willie had felt obligated to pay the servants at both Bascombe Manor and the London house what was owed to them before she regretfully terminated their employment. Her butler and cook—Majors and his wife, Patsy—had refused to accept their dismissal, declaring she was their family and one did not abandon family when times grew difficult. As much as Willie felt a great deal of affection for them, she did not expect this kind of loyalty. The kind that brought a warm rush to one’s heart. Willie and Patsy had wrapped their arms around each other and wept for a few moments. Even Majors—as properly trained as any butler anywhere—had sniffed back something that might well have been a tear. “I would hate to lose that house, as well. I do need somewhere to live.”

“Perhaps, Wilhelmina—” Poppy chose her words with care “—now is not the appropriate time for a trip abroad.”

“On the contrary, Poppy, this is not merely the appropriate time but it’s imperative that I leave as soon as possible.”

“Are you in some sort of danger?” Poppy’s brows drew together. “Have those beastly creditors threatened you in some way?” Her expression darkened. “I daresay, between Lady Blodgett, Mrs. Higginbotham and myself we can probably come up with a name or two of some disreputable types who might be able to—”

“No, no,” Willie said quickly. “It’s nothing like that. As I said, I have already paid off George’s debts and I have enough left to repay a loan and reclaim something of great importance to me. Well, to my future really.” Willie paused for a moment to consider her words. She did so hate to make George appear more of a disappointment than he was, but it really couldn’t be helped. Besides he was dead and probably would be more amused than annoyed by her revelations. And she did need to look out for herself now. After all, aside from two loyal servants and an elderly relative, she was on her own. “When I began to sell, er, take inventory of the furnishings in the London house—something I admit I should have done years ago—I became aware that a few somewhat valuable objects were missing. A small Ming vase from China, an exquisite snuff box that reportedly belonged to a queen of France and a painting left to me by Grandmother.”

Poppy gasped. “Not the Portinari!”

Willie wrinkled her nose. “I’m afraid so.”

“Your Grandmother loved that painting.”

Poppy and Willie’s grandmother Beatrice had gone to school together and had remained fast friends throughout the rest of Grandmother’s life, even if their lives had taken entirely different courses. Grandmother had married the Earl of Grantson, who died far too young and never lived to see his only child—Willie’s mother—past her third birthday. Poppy of course had married Malcolm Fitzhew-Wellmore and had become—according to Grandmother—shockingly independent as her husband was out of the country as often as he was home. As Grandmother had made that pronouncement with what sounded suspiciously like envy, Willie understood that being an independent woman—while not especially accepted by society—was not a particularly bad thing either. Beatrice and Poppy did manage to see one another several times a year. Some of the brightest memories of Willie’s childhood were of those meetings between the two old friends.

When Willie’s mother died when Willie was barely ten, she was sent off to Miss Bicklesham’s Academy for Accomplished Young Ladies. It was to her grandmother’s house she returned for holidays and the summer months. Even if her father seemed to have little use for her in those years, Willie had no doubt as to the affections of her grandmother, her godmother and dear Lady Plumdale.

“Do you have any idea what might have happened to it? Was it stolen do you think?”

“Not exactly.” Once again Willie was reluctant to place the blame on George where it belonged. This was her late husband’s doing and she wouldn’t pause for a moment to point an accusing finger at him if he were still alive. But one did hate to speak ill of the dead even when they deserved it. “According to some correspondence and a note of collateral I discovered in George’s study, he used the Portinari to acquire a loan from an Italian gentleman. A conte, I believe, a resident of Venice and apparently a passionate collector of Renaissance art. I have enough left from the sale of the country house to repay the loan as well as the accumulated interest.” She drew a deep breath. “What I don’t have is the means to get to Venice.”

“I see.”

“Once I reclaim the painting, I intend to offer it for sale.” She shook her head. “I have no other means of support, Poppy.”

“You could marry again.”

“And I am not the least bit opposed to marrying again.”

Although the next time Willie plighted her troth she would be somewhat more discriminating about who she plighted it to. A man of responsibility and maturity would be a welcome change. Not at all the type of man she ever imagined she might want, but then she had never been thirty years of age before with few prospects and no financial security. Although finding a man of that nature who was not, as well, extraordinarily dull might prove difficult. Such a man was not the type to marry frivolously. And aside from everything else, Willie wanted a man she could love. Admittedly, it might well be easier to swim to Venice than find the sort of man she wanted.

“I do not, however, have the slightest desire to marry simply because I have no other choice.” Her jaw tightened. “That painting is my salvation. As much as I would hate to sell it, proceeds from the sale will support me for several years.”

Poppy studied her for a long moment. “Your grandmother would have it no other way.”

Relief washed through Willie. “You don’t think she’d mind then?”

“Oh, I think she’d mind a great deal.” Poppy paused. “I daresay you’re not aware of how she came by the painting but it was given to her by a gentleman she cared for deeply. Who I believe shared her feelings. I don’t know all the details—your grandmother could be remarkably discreet when she chose to be, but I do know he was married and nothing could come of their feelings. He gave her the painting as something of parting gift.”

“I had no idea,” Willie murmured. Indeed, the thought of her very respectable grandmother having a liaison with a married man was somewhat shocking.

“So yes, she would mind but not nearly as much as she would mind your being penniless or having to marry simply to keep body and soul together. She would mind that far more.”

“As would I,” Willie said wryly then paused. “You wrote me about your Lady Travelers Society, how you and your friends started it and then sold it. But you also said the three of you still play an active role in the society.”

“Oh my, yes.” Poppy nodded. “Why, we give lectures and produce pamphlets and lead fascinating discussions with our members as well as offer sage advice on the caprices of travel. We are consulting travel advisers.” A smug smile curved her lips. “And we are quite good at it.”

“I’ve no doubt of that,” Willie said although she was fairly certain Poppy had never actually traveled to any great extent beyond a few months in Paris as a girl.

“I must tell you, Wilhelmina, that the most wonderful things in life are often those we least expect. We are having a grand time. Who would have imagined at our age?”

“No one deserves to have a grand time more than you,” Willie said firmly. “I was hoping, as you and the other ladies are the founders of the society and are still involved in it, that you might assist me in arranging some way to travel to Venice. As inexpensively as possible,” she added quickly. There were still one or two antiquities that had been stored in the attic that might fetch enough to pay at least part of her way to Italy. Although she would have no way to return home.

“Oh, I haven’t the vaguest idea how to do that, dear. However…” Poppy rose to her feet. “Gwen and Effie might have a thought or two. I have learned through the years that when one of us has no solution to a difficulty, all three of us together come up with the most brilliant ideas.” She nodded firmly. “I had planned on meeting both of them at the Lady Travelers Society offices in an hour or so. We shall put this dilemma to them and we will have a means to get you to Venice in no time at all.”

“Why, Poppy.” Willie grinned. “You sound most efficient.”

“I am a woman of business now,” the older woman said primly.

“Are you indeed?”

“I am.” Poppy nodded. “And it’s all perfectly legitimate. Why, I’ll have you know, there isn’t even a suggestion of fraud or anything the least bit illegal.”

Willie stared. “I never would have imagined such a thing.”

“Oh well…good.” Poppy beamed then her smile dimmed. “Although after the society was purchased by Mr. Forge, Miss Charlotte Granville was put in charge. She’s most efficient, horribly well organized and really rather brilliant. And she’s American, as is Mr. Forge, which is endlessly interesting. I’ve never known an American beyond a casual introduction in passing. Malcolm, however, knew any number of Americans. Quite candid I would say, although with Charlotte one is never sure if she finds you amusing or annoying. It scarcely matters I suppose. She is usually quite pleasant under even the most trying of circumstances.”

“I thought you and your friends ran the society.”

“Oh dear, no. At least not anymore. We are simply figureheads. Consultants and wise purveyors of indispensable travel guidance as it were. It would be absurd for us to try to manage an undertaking of this magnitude.” Poppy started toward the door. “Why none of us have the least bit of a head for business.”

 

“You have to admit, Charlotte,” Lady Blodgett said with a knowing look. “Having Lady Bascombe escort a flock of Americans and their daughters on a grand tour is nothing short of brilliant.”

“I’m not sure brilliant is the word I would use,” Miss Charlotte Granville said with a tolerant smile. No doubt she had heard any number of brilliant ideas from the septuagenarian trio in the past. “And it is hardly even in the realm of a petit tour as opposed to a grand tour. It includes only Paris, Monte Carlo, a few stops along the way in Italy, including Venice and Rome, in barely a month’s time. But it is what they requested.”

Poppy and her friends had explained that Willie was eager to travel as she was still trying to cope with the unfortunate loss of her husband. Since Willie had abandoned black some time ago, she wasn’t sure Miss Granville was convinced. The older ladies might not have noticed but Willie could see at once that Charlotte Granville was a force to be reckoned with and not someone easily deceived.

“However, I’m afraid the tour will not come together as expected.” Miss Granville’s brow furrowed in annoyance. “We have already had one mother and daughter withdraw. Oddly enough, it’s the very woman who inquired about a private tour in the first place with specific requests as to what it would include. The others are now uncertain as to whether or not they wish to proceed.” She cast Willie a sympathetic smile. “I am sorry but I am nearly ready to cancel it altogether.”

“Understandable,” Willie murmured, trying to ignore the sense of utter defeat that knotted her stomach.

“Oh, that would be a shame,” Mrs. Higginbotham said with a heavy sigh. “I daresay you poor, unfortunate Americans rarely get the opportunity to see those sights that are practically in our own back gardens.”

“I would suspect the chance to travel in the company of a genuine viscountess is yet another opportunity that rarely comes along for those poor dear ladies. Pity, really.” Poppy glanced at Lady Blodgett. “They don’t have titles in America, do they?”

“No.” Lady Blodgett shook her head in a mournful manner. “Not a one. Unless I’m mistaken. Charlotte?”

“No,” Miss Granville said thoughtfully. “We do not have titles.”

“One always wants what one doesn’t have,” Mrs. Higginbotham said in a wise manner. “It’s the nature of mankind.”

“But particularly the nature of women,” Poppy said.

“Are these American mothers and their daughters wealthy?” Lady Blodgett asked brightly.

Miss Granville nodded. “Our services for a private tour such as this do not come lightly.”

“But you said there was indecision as to whether or not there would be a tour at all?” Poppy asked.

Again Miss Granville nodded.

“I would think the chance to make the acquaintance of a viscountess, perhaps becoming friends during the length of even a short tour, possibly with an eye toward having her at some point introduce their daughters to an earl or even a duke…” Lady Blodgett shrugged. “Well…”

“And you do know very nearly everyone who is anyone in London society, don’t you dear?” Poppy cast her an encouraging look.

“Not everyone of course.” Willie adopted a confident smile. “But I do have a large circle of friends and acquaintances. I would say that—”

“And have you traveled widely, Lady Bascombe?” Miss Granville interrupted.

“Well, I”—Willie began.

“Goodness, Charlotte,” Lady Blodgett said in a chastising manner. “Lady Bascombe’s husband’s family can trace its heritage back numerous generations. Wilhelmina’s father is an earl with a proud and noble heritage and Wilhelmina herself is a graduate of the prestigious Miss Bicklesham’s Academy for Accomplished Young Ladies.”

“Yes, well, that’s very nice but—”

“I assure you, Charlotte, no prominent family in England would allow their offspring to go into the world without first making certain they have the appropriate knowledge of the capitals of Europe,” Poppy said in a lofty manner. “The very thought that Lady Bascombe is not more than capable of leading a small group of Americans around those same capitals is patently absurd.”

Miss Granville’s cheeks flushed. “I do apologize Lady Bascombe.” Apparently wealthy Americans weren’t the only ones somewhat cowed by British titles. “Of course, you’re more than qualified.”

“Thank you, Miss Granville.” Willie smiled in what she hoped was a confident manner.

“You’re right, ladies.” Miss Granville nodded at Poppy and the others. “Having Lady Bascombe escort the tour could be just the thing to get those interested to commit once and for all. Indeed, her addition might well be irresistible.”

“Although really, Charlotte—” Lady Blodgett leaned toward the American in the manner of one confidant to another “—I’m not sure you wish to use the words lead or guide or escort even if that is what she’ll be doing.”

Miss Granville’s brow rose. “I don’t?”

“It just seems to me that if you offered a tour hosted by the incomparable Lady Wilhelmina Bascombe it sounds much more like a group of old friends off on a grand holiday.” Lady Blodgett smiled knowingly. “Don’t you agree, Charlotte?”

The younger woman considered her thoughtfully. “You never fail to amaze me, Lady Blodgett.”

“Thank you, dear.” The modest note in her voice was belied by the smug twinkle in her eye.

Miss Granville directed her attention to Willie. “We will of course provide for your expenses. All your lodgings and transportation. In addition, you will receive a stipend for unexpected costs as well as our standard compensation for the leaders of tour groups.”

“Oh, I think it should be somewhat more than standard compensation.” Lady Blodgett shook her head. “She is after all Lady Bascombe and more than likely the reason this tour will proceed at all.”

Miss Granville thought for a moment. “I see your point. I will see what I can do. Lady Bascombe, in addition to the stipend, you’ll receive half of your compensation upon your departure, the other half when you return. If that is acceptable?”

Willie resisted the urge to grin with delight. “It will do.”

“We were originally set to depart in three weeks. While there remain arrangements to finalize, I think that is still possible. Can you be ready by then?”

“Well, I—”

“Of course she can,” Poppy said.

“Not merely ready but willing and extremely capable, as well,” Mrs. Higginbotham added.

“I must say, I am somewhat envious.” Lady Blodgett’s eyes gleamed with triumph. “My dear departed Charles spoke very highly of Americans. He thought they were an exceptionally interesting lot. And the chance to go off on even a modest tour with Americans, why, it’s a venture simply fraught with exciting possibilities. Don’t you agree, Lady Bascombe?”

All eyes turned toward Willie—three pairs filled with encouragement, the fourth somewhat more skeptical. For a moment Willie had no idea how to respond. She still wasn’t sure exactly what had happened, although her dear, sweet Poppy and her equally innocuous friends had somehow managed to convince the obviously intelligent and competent Miss Granville that Wilhelmina, Lady Bascombe, was more than up to the task of shepherding young Americans and their mothers on a tour of Europe—regardless of whether it was petit or grand. And had, as well, persuaded her to offer financial compensation above what would normally be provided. This in spite of the fact that Poppy knew Willie had never stepped foot off the shores of England. Still, with up-to-date maps, brochures and travel guides how difficult could leading—or rather hosting—a tour be?

It struck Willie that Poppy and her friends, and even Miss Granville, were placing their faith in her and the oddest determination not to disappoint them swept through her. She’d never had any particular responsibilities, but it was time she did. She could certainly do this and do it far better than she—or anyone else—expected. And wasn’t it past time to live up to expectations? To become a trustworthy, reliable adult?

“I do, Lady Blodgett.” Willie beamed. “I do indeed.

now, read the rest of the story . . .

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