After two weeks of dizzying social activity in London, a visit to the English countryside was an enchanting change of pace. Nature had cooperated by blessing the garden party with flawless weather. Puffs of white cloud drifted through a deep blue sky, the grass and trees were impossibly green, and the famous Swindon gardens were in glorious flower.
Yet the grounds were not half so splendid as the guests, who were the cream of British society. All of the men were aristocratically handsome and all of the women graceful and exquisitely dressed. At least, that was how it seemed to Miss Sarah Katherine Vangelder, of the New York Vangelders. As she surveyed her surroundings, she gave a laugh of pure delight.
The woman beside her said, "Don't look so rapturous, Sunny. It simply isn't done."
Sunny gave her godmother a teasing glance. "Is this the Katie Schmidt of San Francisco who scandalized English society by performing Comanche riding stunts in Hyde Park?"
A smile tugged at the older woman's lips. "It most certainly is not,
" she said in a voice that no longer held any trace of American accent. "I am now Katherine Schmidt Worthington, Countess of Westron, a very proper chaperon for her exceedingly well-brought-up young American goddaughter."
"I thought that we American girls were admired for our freshness and directness." A hint of dryness entered Sunny's voice. "And our fortunes, of course."
"The very best matches require impeccable manners as well as money, my dear. If you wish to become a duchess, you must be above reproach."
Sunny sighed. "And if I don't wish to become a duchess?"
"Your mother has spent twenty years grooming you to be worthy of the highest station," Lady Westron replied. "It would be a pity to waste that."
"Yes, Aunt Katie," Sunny said meekly. "If I'm very, very impeccable, may I view the rest of the gardens later?"
"Yes, but not until you've met everyone worth meeting. Business before pleasure, my dear." Katie began guiding her charge through the crowd, stopping and making occasional introductions.
Knowing that she was being judged, Sunny smiled and talked with the utmost propriety. She even managed not to look too excited, until she was introduced to the Honorable Paul Curzon.
Tall, blond and stunningly handsome, Curzon was enough to make any woman gape. After bowing over her hand, he said, "A pleasure to meet you, Miss Vangelder. Are you newly arrived in England?" His question was accompanied by a dazzling smile.
If it hadn't been for her rigorous social training, Sunny would have gaped at him like a raw country girl. Instead, she managed to say lightly, "I've been in London for the last fortnight. Before that, we were traveling on the Continent."
"If you'd like to visit the Houses of Parliament, Miss Vangelder, I'd be delighted to escort you. I'm a member." Curzon gave a deprecatory shrug. "Only a backbencher, but I can show you what goes on behind the scenes and treat you to tea on the terrace. You might find it amusing."
"Perhaps later in the season Miss Vangelder will have time," Katie said as she deftly removed her charge.
When they were out of earshot, Sunny said with awe, "Mr. Curzon is the handsomest man I've ever seen."
"Yes, but he's a younger son with three older brothers, so he's unlikely ever to inherit the title." Lady Westron gave a warning look. "Not at all the sort your mother wants for you."
"But as a Member of Parliament, he actually does something useful," Sunny pointed out. "My grandfather would have approved of that."
"Admiral Vangelder would not
have wanted a penniless younger son for his favorite granddaughter," Katie said firmly. "Come, I want you to meet Lord Traymore. An Irish title, unfortunately, but an earl is an earl, and he's charming. You could do worse."
Dutifully Sunny followed her godmother to the next knot of guests, though she promised herself that she would slip off and view the famous water garden before she left. Until then, she would enjoy the color and laughter of the occasion.
She was also guiltily glad to be free of her mother's rather overpowering presence for a day. Augusta Vangelder was the most devoted and solicitous of parents, but she had very firm ideas about the way things ought to be. Very
firm. Unfortunately, she was laid up in their suite at Claridge's with a mild case of the grippe, so Sunny had the benefit of the more liberal chaperonage of her godmother. Not only did Lady Westron know everyone, but she made racy comments about them. Sunny felt very worldly.