Miss Dashwood's Dilemma
An Authentic Regency Romance
historical fiction · Valentine's Day · clean romance · Regency England · women's fiction
In this delightful authentic Regency romance, Miss Diana Dashwood accepts an invitation to Lady Prescott’s Christmas party at Camden House, in the countryside. But things do not go quite as she imagined. Through an unexpected event, she is forced to spend the night in a woodsman’s hut with one of the guests. What a scandal! Of course, Sir Gareth Blakely must propose, and he does. Unfortunately, Miss Diana Dashwood has already been engaged to and broken off her engagement from Sir Gareth Blakely after a bitter quarrel. Is it likely she will bow to social pressure and accept his proposal, one made only to save her reputation, and if they marry, does their union stand a chance of survival? And what about the pretty heiress, Miss Jemima Plymstock, whom everyone thinks is the lady Sir Gareth had his eye upon? Headstrong and proud, Miss Diana Dashwood is caught in a dreadful dilemma.
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"I have now read all of Arabella Sheraton’s Regency romances and have enjoyed each one. Coupled with well written prose and witty dialogue, these books offer moments of pure escapism from the stresses of the modern world." —★★★★★ Reader Review
"I really enjoyed reading the story. The plot is really interesting..." —★★★★★ Reader Review
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Arabella Sheraton grew up on a diet of Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and many other writers of that period. From Jane Austen to Georgette Heyer, Arabella has found both enjoyment and inspiration in sparkling, witty Regency novels. She also loves history and generally finds the past more fascinating than the future. Arabella wrote her first Regency romance to entertain her aged mom who loved the genre. Arabella is honoured to share the adventures of her heroes and heroines with readers.
SAMPLE FROM MISS DASHWOOD'S DILEMMA
“But you won’t go…I mean, it would hardly be proper, would it now, Diana, dearest?” The question came from Mrs. Anne Dashwood, a still-pretty widow with fading blond curls escaping from a lace cap. She peered over the half-spectacles she used for sewing and reading. She would never wear them in front of anyone other than Diana; such was one of her several small concessions to vanity. “Did you hear me, my love?”
Diana gave a long-suffering sigh, yanked the uncooperative silk thread that was supposed to be part of a forget-me-not on her embroidery, and then yelped as she pricked her finger. She flung the cloth aside and sucked her stinging finger. “Ow! I hate embroidery!”
Mrs. Dashwood offered no sympathy for her wound because, clearly, the social niceties of whether Diana would or would not accept Lady Prescott’s Christmas party invitation overrode her maternal instincts.
“We are both invited, Mama, and I know Lady Prescott would love to see you again. She said so in her letter.”
Mrs. Dashwood took off her spectacles. “Oh, I cannot attend,” she said quickly. “You know I promised your Aunt Margaret I would spend Christmas with her family in Devon. She is Arnold’s only living relative and I feel I must oblige her. After all, she has invited us every year since your poor dear papa died. Margaret is expecting both of us, but of course if you prefer to attend Lady Prescott’s function, then you must do so.”
“Oh, why do you care so much about whether I go or not?”
Flustered, Mrs. Dashwood went pink and blinked as tears sprang easily. She fumbled for her lace-edged handkerchief. “You know why.”
Diana got up, suppressing another sigh, this time of annoyance, and went over to Mrs. Dashwood’s chair. She knelt down, took Mrs. Dashwood’s hands in hers, and gazed at her sniffing parent.
“I’m sorry, but I cannot go around as if treading on eggshells. Lady Prescott did mention he might attend. At some stage, Sir Gareth and I will bump into each other. And when we do, we’ll probably just bow in a distant manner, give each other a polite smile, and make haste to get away as quickly as possible.” She sat back on her heels and laughed. “That will be so amusing. Me scurrying in one direction and him in another in case we have to exchange greetings.”
Mrs. Dashwood burst into heart-rending sobs. “Oh, Diana, where is your sense of decorum? Why do you laugh about something so serious…so…oh…I don’t know what?”
Diana peered at her mother. “You mean scandalous, don’t you? Go on, say it. I don’t mind. My behaviour was shocking and outrageous and most of our friends have dropped us.”
Mrs. Dashwood’s reply was a loud boo-hoo.
“I’m sorry. I know you so wanted the match.”
“And your dearest papa,” Mrs. Dashwood wailed. “He and Sir Gareth were on such good terms, despite your father being at least twenty years older than Sir Ga-Ga-Gareth!”
She turned away from Diana and put her face against the cushions. Her shoulders heaved as she gulped in shuddering breaths.
Diana patted her mother’s back gently. The threat of spinsterhood frightened her much less than it did Mrs. Dashwood. After Sir Gareth, Diana wasn’t sure if she could ever trust what a man said. “Never fear, I’ll marry someone else in time.”
“But when?” Mrs. Dashwood shrieked, sitting up straight and flashing an angry glance at Diana. Her watery blue eyes blazed with an anger Diana had never seen before. She recoiled, startled.
“Why, Mama—” she began, disturbed by her mother’s uncharacteristic anger. Mama only ever displayed genteel emotion, the kind she thought appropriate for a lady of quality and delicate breeding to express. She liked to utter tearful sobs, and faint moans of protest, but never raw, naked anger.
Diana placed one hand against her mother’s forehead. “Are you quite well? I’ve never seen you so…moved.”
To her shock and astonishment, her mother slapped Diana’s hand away and got up. She tottered to the window and leaned against the sill. She put one hand up to her brow in a feeble gesture of suffering.
“How do you think I felt when you broke it off with Sir Gareth, just two days before the wedding? What a scandal! The dress was made, the guests had replied, and then the beautiful presents had to be returned, the ceremony called off, and the flowers cancelled. Everything was wasted.”
Diana felt her cheeks burn and a hot surge travelled down her body. She did not want to be reminded of that humiliating day. If only she could erase her memory in a kind of amnesia. Mama did not intend to stop now and her words poured out in a torrent of tears and anger.
“I have never been so embarrassed in my whole life. The day you accepted Sir Gareth’s offer was the pinnacle of my happiness. My only consolation was that your dear papa wasn’t here to see all his hopes for you crushed in the dust.” She mopped her eyes with the damp handkerchief. “The mortification was almost too much to bear. All those people who sneered at us—”
“I don’t care about them,” Diana muttered crossly, now consumed with guilt. “They’re nothing to me. So shallow and false. Just society fools.”
Mrs. Dashwood turned to her. Diana had never seen such an expression on her mother’s face before.
Wild-eyed, Mrs. Dashwood continued to vent all the rage and shame she had clearly concealed since that fateful day six months ago. “You don’t care, but I do. The young never care about the niceties of good behaviour. Too selfish, that’s why. Oh, the way that puffed-up Mrs. Nicholls and her friend Lady Mandeville sniggered, dripping sympathy, but meanwhile laughing at us behind our backs. Lady Mandeville’s daughter, Cornelia, had the most splendid wedding just three months later.”
Diana crossed the room and put her arms around her mother. Muttering soothing words, she guided Mrs. Dashwood back to her chair, and made her sit. Then she put a large, soft cushion at her mother’s back, mopped the remaining tears from her cheeks, and rang the bell. When Patsy the parlour maid arrived, Diana ordered tea.
“Here, take your smelling salts. A nice cup of tea and you’ll feel better.”
Mrs. Dashwood stared at Diana with huge, tear-drenched eyes. “I never said anything before, my love.” She hiccupped and then sniffed the smelling salts Diana held under her nose.
“But why not?” Diana put down the smelling salts and rubbed her mother’s hands. “You kept it all inside and now you’ve upset yourself for no reason at all. Your poor hands feel like blocks of ice. Here, let me arrange your shawl more closely.”
Once she had arranged the shawl, Diana went over to the fireplace and stirred the coals with unnecessary vigour. Sparks flew up the chimney like tiny, glowing meteors. Then she banged the poker against the grate, pretending to be busy. Anything to avoid that accusing gaze. She had disappointed her mother enormously, that much was clear. At the time, Diana had no idea just how much. She had been too preoccupied with her own anger and mortification.
“Although Lady Cranston and I were so disappointed your first and even second Season had not produced an engagement, Sir Gareth proposed just as we had given up any hope,” Mama said. “He is the perfect husband any mother would desire for her daughter—handsome, cultured, intelligent, educated, courteous, and wealthy.”
Add a dash of sparkling wit and an eye for the humorous in life to the endless list of his virtues, and it was no wonder London’s eager mothers and their daughters pursued him. He had chosen Diana, much to their chagrin. Diana banished the memory of his face. There was no point in dwelling on the past. She had made a choice from necessity, and it was all his fault. Mama’s dream of her daughter making the finest match of the year had crashed when Diana broke it off. Nothing Diana could do would ever make up for what was lost.
Mama sighed, but Diana could not tell if it was with admiration for Sir Gareth’s many qualities, or regret he was no longer a prospective son-in-law. Her next words confirmed it was the latter. “And then to throw it all away for no apparent reason.”
Diana had avoided telling her mother the truth and did not intend to being lured into confessing her reasons now. “Sir Gareth is not the only man in the world. You know Mr. Whittaker has been paying his addresses to me for the past three months. He seems quite serious.”
Mrs. Dashwood’s contemptuous sniff conveyed her low opinion of Mr. Whittaker. He came from an impoverished, albeit well bred family and actually practised law. He had excellent social connections but that was not enough for Mrs. Dashwood. She wanted only the best the Marriage Mart had to offer as a son-in-law. A man with no money did not meet her stringent requirements for her only daughter. While not exactly cold towards Mr. Whittaker, Mama tended to be distant with him.
“Now, it’s not as if we are nobility. Mr. Whittaker is a successful solicitor and well liked. He has a good future. He will make some fortunate woman an excellent husband.”
Mrs. Dashwood made a little moue of displeasure. “As long as it isn’t you, Diana. Let him marry some other fortunate woman. I don’t dislike him—he is amiable and charming—but he’s not good enough for you. You don’t think money is important. Let me tell you, it is very important. When there’s no money, love flies out the window.”
And what about when there’s money, but the love has been killed?
“We have enough money. I don’t need to hold out for a rich man.”
Mrs. Dashwood frowned. “You have a suitable portion thanks to your grandmother’s money which, thankfully, was tied up so your father couldn’t waste that as well as his own. He was foolish with investments and I thank God every day the house is ours. I don’t how there was enough money left in your father’s estate to pay the creditors and purchase the house outright. We live carefully and that is why we have enough to feed and clothe ourselves adequately. You need to set your sights higher, Diana.”
Diana suppressed a sigh of annoyance. Mama meant she should set her sights on someone who was the replica of Sir Gareth with all his money, property, and prospects. It was only because Mama loved her and wanted to protect her from the horrors of poverty. She glanced down at her charming, pale pink morning gown. Mama was a genius at refurbishing last year’s dresses and transforming a cheap hat into a marvellous confection, but her greatest fear was being reduced to a pittance. None of their remaining friends knew the truth about their financial situation: Papa had dabbled unsuccessfully with investments for a long time and concealed the disastrous results from his family until it was almost too late.
Everyone thought Mama lived a quiet life by choice, and was simply not prone to flamboyant purchases. Her scrimping and saving had paid for Diana’s acceptable, although not extravagant debut. Mrs. Dashwood’s godmother, Lady Cranston, had made a discreet but generous contribution. Perhaps the shame of losing everything had killed Papa, although the doctor said it was heart failure. Yes, it was miraculous that the house was saved. Sir Gareth had seen to the winding up of Papa’s estate and he had conveyed the good news to the distraught widow. He had been extraordinarily kind to Mama. Diana could not fault him there. Everyone knew his manners were perfect. He always did and said the right thing, so why had he said— Diana pushed those thoughts away.
“Will you try to make me happy, Diana? It’s not too much to ask, is it?”
“Of course I will. Whatever you say.”
Mrs. Dashwood’s miserable expression changed to a happy smile. She blew her nose. “Will you promise me from now on you will make an enormous effort to meet someone new?”
Oh, here’s the tea,” said Diana, relieved at Patsy’s interruption. Now she didn’t have to make a promise she would most certainly break. Meeting someone new was just not uppermost in her mind right now. “Just in time. Thank you, Patsy, I’ll pour.”
A cup of tea revived Mrs. Dashwood, just as Diana had predicted. She sipped silently, and then she put down the cup and gazed at Diana with a woeful expression.
“I am sorry I never told you how upset I was over the…er…incident, but it has been eating away at me.”
Mrs. Dashwood fiddled with the fringe on her shawl. “I’m not getting any younger, my love—”
Diana let out an unladylike burst of laughter. “Oh, Mama, you are a mere five-and-forty and could easily pass for younger.” She smiled. “And Mr. Buckley thinks you are the most beautiful woman in the world. You wouldn’t want to disappoint him by your premature and wholly unwarranted demise?’
Mrs. Dashwood giggled and put both hands against her now radiant cheeks. “My dear, I’m a widow and your father has been gone only—”
“A whole three years,” Diana interrupted. “And if I remember correctly, Mr. Buckley is a widower of ten years standing, has a comfortable income, and is only fifty years old.” She cast a stern eye on Mrs. Dashwood. “He was also one of Papa’s closest friends and I am sure Papa would not want you to spend the remainder of your declining years alone. He would rather you remarried, especially someone he liked.”
Mrs. Dashwood glanced everywhere except at Diana. “Oh, but I…couldn’t consider it…not while you are still unwed.”
“Oh, so it’s my fault you won’t make Mr. Buckley the happiest man on earth?”
An image of Mr. George Buckley, country squire and man of substance popped into her mind. Diana had to press her lips together to suppress a giggle. Short, prone to portliness and flamboyant waistcoats, but otherwise always well dressed and with excellent manners, Mr. Buckley with his ruddy face and bushy side-whiskers was no Romeo. However, he adored Mrs. Dashwood, and they seemed to have much to talk about when he visited. His visits had increased from a timid twice a month to an emboldened once a week to an adoring thrice a week. He rented a London house, but possibly only to be near Mrs. Dashwood. He frequently talked about his country house, which sounded very much like a manor house with a prosperous farm attached. He never talked about his money—a sign of good breeding—or mentioned any well-known names, despite his friendships with several members of the nobility. Mrs. Dashwood seemed to like the idea of living in the country since she was the daughter of a country parson and before her marriage had never been to London.
Diana suspected her mother was simply nervous, or maybe even concerned about what “people would say.” What could they say? Only that Mr. Buckley was, to some people, a country bumpkin, a hayseed-chewing yokel. Maybe people said as much behind his back, but he was very kind, and he would make Mama an excellent husband. With Mr. Buckley’s money, she need never fear being poor. But that was not the point. Mrs. Dashwood was clearly affected by her daughter’s appalling behaviour. Diana felt even guiltier about everything. How could she have been so blind not to see her mother’s anguish? She would make it up to Mama somehow.
“There’s no need for you to make such an excuse. You could marry Mr. Buckley tomorrow if you wanted to. I’m sure he would want to marry you right away.”
Mrs. Dashwood flapped her hands at Diana. “Oh, my love, let’s not talk about Mr. Buckley. We were talking about whether you should accept Lady Prescott’s invitation to spend Christmas at Camden House.”
“And you’re worried because you think Sir Gareth will be there?” asked Diana in a dry tone. She retrieved her embroidery and began smoothing out the tangled silk. The forget-me-not was, unfortunately, forgettable in terms of workmanship. She picked at an obstinate knot with the needle. The thread frayed. She would never be proficient like the three Misses Dalton, who not only sewed beautifully—their proud mama even put their samplers on display in the drawing room—but each one could sing and play a musical instrument. No doubt, they were skilled in painting in watercolours and other ladylike accomplishments.
“I know he’ll be there.” Mrs. Dashwood clasped her hands under her chin, and widened her eyes in horror. “He is Lady Prescott’s favourite nephew.”
Diana did not raise her eyes but, now armed with embroidery scissors, began hacking at the knot. “Really?” Her tone expressed bland disinterest. “What a surprise. Her favourite nephew? Goodness me, how many does she have?” Unsurprisingly, the thread broke. Perhaps it was a sign, but of what, she wondered.”
“Oh, my dear,” Mrs. Dashwood continued. “If you bumped into Sir Gareth in public or at a large gathering, it would be easy to avoid him. But a house party in the countryside? With a small selection of particular guests?” She made a tut-tut sound. “And what if the weather keeps everyone indoors? You’ll have to participate in whatever entertainment Lady Prescott provides. You’ll be flung together, like it or not. What will you say to him? I defy anyone to escape scrutiny and gossip under those circumstances.”
Diana looked up. “Oh, you’re worrying for nothing. I can assure you I will not be embarrassed if I must greet Sir Gareth at the breakfast table, or participate in a game of charades or cribbage with him.” She shrugged. “Everyone will be too busy enjoying themselves to notice us. I’m sure there will be other delicious on-dits and romantic liaisons to keep their tongues occupied. And besides, you may not have heard but Sir Gareth is almost certainly ensnared by the charms of a siren.”
Mrs. Dashwood raised her eyebrows. “A siren? What nonsense.”
“I was being sarcastic.”
“Who is this siren? I’m sure Sir Gareth is far too sensible to succumb to any lures flung out by designing women.”
“The siren is a Miss Jemima Plymstock of Newbury, and she has twenty thousand pounds a year to her name. She does not appear to be the predatory type of female an eligible man should avoid. I’ve heard she is quietly spoken and charming. However, I believe that an engagement is imminent. Lucretia Dalton made haste to inform me of this development when I saw her out shopping with her silly sisters.”
Mrs. Dashwood gave a derogatory snort. “Lucretia Dalton is a brainless female with more hair than sense. I’m not sure I’d believe anything that girl says. However, if it’s true that means he isn’t wasting any time filling your space at the altar. The fickle man.”
She said the last three words in a reproachful tone.
Diana was exasperated. “Mama, how changeable your opinions are. He is not my property and therefore is entitled to marry whomever he likes. A while ago, you were crying about the humiliation I might endure by meeting him in public. I can assure you that if he is almost engaged to Miss Plymstock then he will feel no mortification upon seeing me and neither will I upon seeing him.”
She pulled out the remnants of the ruined forget-me-not. “I can’t fall into a decline every time his name is mentioned. I’m sure he doesn’t on my behalf. The past is the past. We had best get on with living our lives and making a new future.”
Did he ever think of her? Not likely. His face, altered with blazing anger when she had given back his heirloom engagement ring, a magnificent square-cut emerald surrounded with diamonds, had been almost unbearable to see. Would he give the same ring to Miss Plymstock now?
Mrs. Dashwood pursed her lips. “Jemima. What a very odd name. It’s the sort of name one would give to a pet monkey.” She leaned towards Diana and placed one hand on her arm. “Are you sure it will not upset you to see Sir Gareth with Miss Plymston?”
“Plymstock.” Diana automatically corrected her. “Of course it will not upset me. I am a grown woman of three-and-twenty, not a lovesick schoolgirl hankering after a romantic dream.”
Mrs. Dashwood gave a long, lugubrious sigh. “It’s just that when Lady Cranston introduced you two, everyone thought you and Sir Gareth were so perfect for each other. I always imagined you were twin souls. You’ve known each other for so long and—”
“Perhaps that was the problem,” said Diana gently.
Mrs. Dashwood stared. “Whatever do you mean? Usually the problem is not knowing each other and then regretting it once the ring is on the finger. Marry in haste, repent at leisure.”
Diana shrugged. “Perhaps we knew each other so well that there was no mystery, no romance, and no surprises left.”
As she said these words, an enormous wave of sadness welled up, a wave so fierce and overwhelming that perhaps her heart would burst from the strain. He was her one true love, her twin soul, her everything, and he had destroyed her adoration with those few heartless and careless words.
Mrs. Dashwood blinked. “Is that all? I thought there was something more…something more momentous.”
Diana schooled her features to reflect perfect composure. Her voice almost betrayed her but a cough covered the choking sob. She pretended to examine her embroidery and lied. She even managed a little laugh. “Of course, what else could it possibly be? I hope Sir Gareth has many wonderful surprises in store with Miss Plymstock if he chooses to propose.”
Mr. Buckley’s timely arrival saved her, which was just as well because Diana did not know how long she could sustain her air of careless indifference. Mr. Buckley, red-faced and nervous, crept into the drawing room with the awkwardness of any man in a room filled with small tables, china cabinets, spindly chairs, and so many ornaments that he hardly knew which way to turn. Diana had a sudden thought that perhaps she made him uncomfortable. It might be he was embarrassed to be courting the mother under the daughter’s watchful eye. Diana made an extra effort to be charming as she greeted him. He would look better in his country attire of buckskins and top-boots, she decided. Pantaloons did not suit his physique.
Mrs. Dashwood didn’t seem to notice his clothing. She blushed peony pink, admired the pretty flowers he brought, and fussed about while selecting a comfortable chair for him. Diana murmured something about putting the flowers in a vase. They didn’t notice her slipping away. It was nice for Mama to have some attention. Later, judging by the animated sounds of talk and laughter, Mrs. Dashwood had enough to think about and smile over for at least a week that did not involve Sir Gareth and Diana’s cancelled wedding. But Diana would go to Lady Prescott’s Christmas party. Maybe Sir Gareth would not go but even if he did, she would comport herself with dignity and grace. He did not care about her; she would show the world she did not care about him, even though her heart had shattered into a million pieces.