"There could be no better setting than Archer House to make a firm statement to the ton," Louise, Avery's stepmother and Dowager Duchess of Netherby, agreed. "Everyone will come. And among us all we can surely compile a list of eligible young ladies for Harry to consider. He will, in fact, be spoiled for choices. Perhaps we ought to pick out three or four to bring particularly to his attention."
"But for this option to work, Louise, Harry must come up to town," Elizabeth, Lady Hodges, Alexander's sister, pointed out. "That is by no means assured."
"Far from it," Jessica agreed. "He will never consent to come, especially if he gets a whiff of a birthday party."
"We will have to see to it that he does not suspect, then," Althea Westcott, Alexander and Elizabeth's mother, said. "But what can we say to lure him?"
"I fear there is nothing," Anna said with a sigh, breaking a short silence. "I believe my dream of hosting a party for him at Archer House will be dashed after all. If anyone knows any other man as stubborn as Harry, I would be surprised." For ten years Anna had been trying to persuade her half brother to accept his share of the vast fortune she, as the lone legitimate child of the late Earl of Riverdale, had inherited from their father. For the past four of those years she had also been trying to persuade him to take ownership of Hinsford Manor, which was legally hers, though he had lived there most of his life and lived there now. It was his home, for goodness' sake.
"I agree with you, Anna, much as I wish I did not," said the Dowager Countess of Riverdale, her grandmother and matriarch of the family. "Harry is very like his grandfather in that way. It is pride more than stubbornness in his case, however."
"I do know that, Grandmama," Anna said. "Unfortunately, pride and stubbornness have the same symptoms. Sometimes I could cheerfully shake him."
"What we need, then," Matilda said briskly as the committee showed signs of sinking into despondency, "is a plan B to fall back upon if plan A cannot be made to work. What are we going to do if Harry cannot be persuaded to come to London? The answer is obvious in one sense, of course. We will have to go to him. But it would all need very careful organizing. We are going to have to make two complete sets of plans, in fact, since we will not have the luxury of sitting together like this after we all return home next week."
"Viola will surely wish to be involved," Wren, Alexander's wife and the Countess of Riverdale, said. "She is worried about Harry too. She is his mother, after all. So are Camille and Abigail, I expect. And Viola is more familiar with Mrs. Sullivan than we are."
"The housekeeper at Hinsford Manor?" Mildred said. "Yes, she will certainly need to know our plan B. We do not want to give the poor woman an apoplexy by turning up on Harry's doorstep en masse and unannounced."
"But Harry must not know," Jessica said. "If he even suspects what may be in store for him, we will arrive to find that he has already left on a six-month walking tour of the Scottish highlands."
"Poor Harry," Elizabeth said, laughing.
"Right," Matilda said, drawing paper and ink toward her and testing the nib of a quill pen. "Plan A first. London. Grand party. Archer House." She wrote the words down and looked up, pen poised, for details to add.
Harry Westcott, all unbeknownst to him, was about to fall victim to the loving determination of his female relatives to see to it that he enjoyed his thirtieth birthday as he had never enjoyed any birthday before it, and that during those happy celebrations he met enough eligible females that he could not help but fall in love with one of them and proceed to make his offer and set his wedding date. He was going to find his happily-ever-after whether he knew he wanted it or not.
The only faint ray of hope for him, Colin, Elizabeth's husband, observed to a group of men who had retreated to the billiard room one afternoon, was that the Westcott women did not actually have a stellar record as matchmakers.
"Most of us have ended up in marriages of our own choosing via weddings of our own fashioning despite rather than because of their efforts," he said fondly.
"Quite so," Avery agreed as he chalked the end of his cue and surveyed the mess of balls on the table with a keen eye. "But our women can be formidable when they grab hold of a cause. On the whole it is wiser—and ultimately quite harmless—to hold one's peace while they scheme and plan and think they have the world and its turning under their control."