On a morning when the dawn had not yet broken, Dashwood Manor started the day a little earlier than everyone else.
Mr. Dashwood, having finished his preparations to leave the house, bid farewell to his wife in a lengthy parting. Carrying a large backpack, he looked at Bridget. Bridget’s eyes, which resembled her mother’s, narrowed.
“Since Mom has taken up much of your time, I won’t keep you long.”
Bridget hugged Mr. Dashwood tightly. Tears welled up.
They were repeating their farewells for twenty years, though it may be a bit exaggerated, but partings like these never became familiar. Parting was always a sad and difficult thing.
“I’ll write you letters, Dad. Take care of yourself.”
“Is there anything you want? Like an eastern teacup or something…”
He gently brushed Bridget’s shoulder and asked.
“Not even something small?”
Mr. Dashwood asked with disappointment. Bridget, as if considering carefully, playfully retorted.
“Well…then, when you’re at your travel destination, please pick a single flower from the first rosebush you see.”
Mr. Dashwood was taken aback by the peculiar request. His thick eyebrows furrowed. Eventually, with a relaxed expression, he added.
“Haha, Bridget. Are you imitating Belle? Yes, you liked Beauty and the Beast the most among the fairy tales.”
‘Just kidding. Bridget replied briefly and laughed like a child.
“Well…then I want to read a book about Eastern schools. I’m curious about their educational methods.”
“Hmm…alright, I understand. I’m not sure if I can find it, but I’ll try. Just promise me that you’ll take care of yourself during that time.”
Mr. Dashwood added seriously, and Bridget nodded in agreement. At that moment, the noisy sound of a horn pierced their ears.
The coachman turned his head in their direction with a displeased expression.
Now they really had to say goodbye. Mr. Dashwood comforted Bridget, who looked downcast, in their final farewell. With her face buried in his broad chest, she added with a melancholic tone.
“You don’t have to push yourself. Just the thought of not spending the vacation with Dad makes me a little sad.”
“Yeah, I should really go now. Take care, my dear.”
Mrs. Dashwood spoke as she wiped away the tear that had formed in the corner of her eye with a handkerchief.
Finally, after kissing Bridget’s cheek one last time, Mr. Dashwood climbed onto the carriage waiting in front of the white brick house. Soon, two horses kicked up a cloud of dust as they moved away.
The wind blowing from the west was humid and hot.
* * *
“Bridget’s return is such a relief.”
Viscountess Bass muttered inside the carriage heading towards Dashwood Manor. She swept aside her dark chestnut hair and glanced out the window, smiling faintly at the passing scenery.
The carriage carrying her came to a stop in front of the white brick house after about ten minutes. Mrs. Dashwood, opening the front door in response to the sound of hoofbeats, greeted Viscountess Bass with a warm smile.
“You’ve arrived, Viscountess Bass.”
“Madam Talbot, it’s been ages. How have you been?”
Viscountess Bass embraced Mrs. Dashwood lightly.
The title ‘Madam Talbot’ was a nickname given to Mrs. Dashwood by the customers of her dressing room, a kind of alias. It was a form of respect shown to the owner of the esteemed Talbot Clothing Shop, which had a long history.
“Bridget is coming? You have no idea how overjoyed Megan is to hear that the child is returning. I even brought a letter from her.”
Viscountess Bass sighed as she shook the letter envelope in her hand.
“My daughter, as you know.”
Megan Bass was the only daughter of the Bass family, and the only source of concern for the Bass’s. She suffered from severe social phobia and remained veiled in seclusion, rarely venturing into society until she became an adult.
Due to her aversion to going outside from a young age, Megan was a noble recluse who preferred to stay at home, often immersed in romantic novels. Her only friend had been Bridget, and even that friendship was confined to being pen pals.
“But where is she?”
Viscountess Bass always took satisfaction in choosing Bridget Dashwood as her daughter’s pen pal. She inquired while looking around.
“She’ll be down shortly. Why don’t you wait while enjoying a refreshing tea, madam?”
Mrs. Dashwood skillfully led her to the living room. Soon, Mrs. Lawrence brought a peppermint tea with ice, served in oriental-patterned cups.
Wiping the sweat from her forehead on this hot day, Viscountess Bass took a sip of the tea and continued.
“The owner of the terrace house where Bridget is staying is so strict, isn’t she? Our Megan cried for days, saying she couldn’t exchange letters with Bridget.”
“I heard about it yesterday as well, madam. She’s only ever exchanged pleasantries with me on the phone…… and never really complained, so I didn’t realize it was such a place.”
“But it’s good that she’s moving. I hope she finds a better place for the next semester. If circumstances don’t allow, I can inquire as well.”
Of course, in terms of wealth, there was no lower nobility that could match the Dashwood family. However, Viscountess Bass expressed it with a certain pride, establishing a sense of superiority, that she could help in such a way.
With a somewhat awkward smile, Mrs. Dashwood made an effort to give an appropriate response. Just then, the footsteps that relieved her worries were heard coming from the stairs, accompanied by a cheerful voice.
“Hello, Viscountess Bass. It’s been a while!”
Viscountess Bass, rising from her seat, approached Bridget and hugged her tightly. The lady’s exaggerated attitude was familiar, but somehow a bit more excessive than usual.
“Here, Megan asked me to give this to you.”
She handed the letter she had been holding to Bridget.
“I wrote a letter too, madam. Please give it to Miss Megan.”
Bridget, skillfully concealing her confusion, also handed the letter she had prepared to Viscountess Bass.
「To Miss Megan.」
Viscountess Bass, after checking the letter, wore a kind smile. She carefully placed the letter envelope into her bag and embraced Bridget’s shoulders.
“All right, Bridget. Let’s have a seat.”
As if she were the mistress of the house, she guided Bridget to the sofa and then took a seat herself, making a show of looking after her.
“Is it hot? First, have some tea.”
“Thank you, madam.”
“Anyway, our Megan must be thrilled. She was so sad when she heard you couldn’t exchange letters. Even though she used to come out for a stroll in the garden when you two exchanged letters, now she’s stuck in her room, not moving an inch. She’s my daughter, but really… If she had inherited even half of you, how wonderful that would have been. Don’t you think so, Madam Talbot?”
Viscountess Bass shifted her gaze toward Mrs. Dashwood, her eyes seeking an appropriate response.
“Oh, don’t say that. Miss Megan is so composed. If she resembled Bridget… you’d feel like you’re getting old every moment.”
Mrs. Dashwood replied with a chuckle, adjusting her posture.
Bridget couldn’t understand why adults always exchanged compliments or complaints like this. She lowered her head and took a sip from the dew-covered teacup, feeling her body temperature drop as the cold liquid went down her throat.
Viscountess Bass, with a faint smile towards Bridget, adjusted her posture again and spoke to Mrs. Dashwood.
“By the way, Madam Talbot, your dressing room is going to be very busy soon.”
“Since Madame Dae arrived, the range of women’s clothing has expanded. They now handle both men’s and women’s clothing. Talbot’s Clothing Shop will continue to hold the top spot among Weyburn’s boutiques. Whether you like it or not. It’s going to gain even more fame soon.”
When Mrs. Dashwood still looked at her with a puzzled expression, she added while covering her mouth.
“Oh, you don’t know? Well, I suppose you wouldn’t, as they’ve only sent letters to noble families. I guarantee you, Madam Talbot, it’s going to get really busy.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The Crown Prince’s official schedule is expected to be announced soon. But…”
Viscountess Bass lowered her voice as she directed an inquisitive look towards Mrs. Dashwood.
“Rumor has it that there’s going to be a ball to choose the next Crown Princess. The royal family has invited all unmarried noble ladies to attend. It’s quite obvious.”
“So the Crown Prince himself is going to make an appearance? My goodness.”
The crown prince? Bridget’s eyes widened in surprise, and she straightened up in her seat, no longer slouching. She had been tuning out the boring conversation, but now she perked up and listened intently.
“That’s what I was saying. I imagine all the newspapers will be swarming there. Just like before, they’ll all be looking for Talbot’s Clothing Shop, so this is a chance to showcase your beautiful dresses in the newspapers and further solidify the Clothing Shop’s reputation. Every single one will participate without exception. It’s a rare opportunity to finally see the face of the Crown Prince, whom only a few high nobles were familiar with. Rumor has it he’s quite handsome; we’ll have to see if he’s all show or if there’s substance beneath the surface.”
Hoho, Viscountess Bass chuckled, as if to say that there was no need to discuss the abilities of the crown prince, who had shown his prowess in every aspect since childhood.
“Society will be turned upside down…”
As the conversation continued, Bridget’s face grew paler and paler.
‘There isn’t even the slightest chance for me!’
That cunning Dominic Mayer had clearly proposed that ridiculous bet to me once he knew the crown prince’s imminent appearance. (Of course, it was already an absurd bet even without that knowledge, but Bridget decided to ignore the unfortunate reality.)
That shameless bastard! Bridget gritted her teeth, clutching her skirt fiercely. She even had to control the urge to scream right away and took short, calming breaths.
“That’s right. It’s a huge problem for us as well. To have all the unmarried noble ladies attend…!”
While Bridget was trying to calm her anger, Viscountess Bass, who had always kept her laughter, suddenly pressed her hand to her forehead. She then added with a deeply worried expression.
“Our Megan would faint on the spot if she went to such a place.”
“Oh… If it could be of help, that would be wonderful.”
“Is that true?”
Mrs. Dashwood’s slight remark made Viscountess Bass lift her head. She brightened her eyes and asked in return.
“Can you really help?”
“Yes…? Of course, if it’s an area where I can assist…”
“Well, I want to ask for Bridget’s help…”
Viscountess Bass, with a warm smile, firmly grasped Bridget’s hand as she set down her teacup. A pleasant warmth spread throughout her body, starting from her palm.
With a slightly bewildered expression, she looked up at Viscountess Bass. The lady’s gaze was intensely pleading.
Bridget Dashwood’s sharp senses were speaking to her. Somehow, she had a bad feeling.