"Being a baronet's daughter makes little difference unless one has looks or money," Fiona recited, repeating words she had obviously heard at home. "And Miranda has neither."
"Be quiet, you silly old cow!" Olivia exclaimed, stomping her foot on the ground. "This is my birthday party, and if you can't be nice, you may leave!"
Fiona gulped. She knew better than to alienate Olivia, whose parents held the highest rank in the area. "I'm sorry, Olivia," she mumbled.
"Don't apologize to me. Apologize to Miranda."
"I'm sorry, Miranda."
Miranda stayed silent until Olivia finally kicked her. "I accept your apology," she said grudgingly.
Fiona nodded and ran off.
"I can't believe you called her a silly old cow," Miranda said.
"You must learn to stand up for yourself, Miranda."
"I was standing up for myself just fine before you came along, Livvy. I just wasn't doing it so loudly."
Olivia sighed. "Mama says I haven't an ounce of restraint or common sense."
"You don't," Miranda agreed.
"It's true, you don't. But I love you anyway."
"And I love you, too, Miranda. And don't worry about silly old Fiona. You can marry Winston when you grow up and then we'll be sisters truly."
Miranda glanced across the room and eyed Winston dubiously. He was yanking on a little girl's hair. "I don't know," she said hesitantly. "I'm not sure I would wish to marry Winston."
"Nonsense. It would be perfect. Besides, look, he just spilled punch on Fiona's dress."
"Come with me," Olivia said, taking her hand. "I want to open my gifts. I promise I'll squeal the loudest when I get to yours."
The two girls walked back into the room, and Olivia and Winston opened their gifts. Mercifully (in Lady Rudland's opinion), they finished at four o'clock on the button, which was the time that the children were meant to go home. Not a single child was picked up by servants; an invitation to Haverbreaks was considered quite an honor, and none of the parents wanted to miss the opportunity to hobnob with the earl and countess. None of the parents besides Miranda's, that was. At five o'clock, she was still in the sitting room, assessing the birthday booty with Olivia.
"I can't imagine what has happened to your parents, Miranda," Lady Rudland said.
"Oh, I can," Miranda replied cheerfully. "Mama's gone to Scotland to visit her mama, and I'm sure Papa has forgotten about me. He often does, you know, when he's working on a manuscript. He translates from the Greek."
"I know." Lady Rudland smiled.
"I know," Lady Rudland said on a sigh. This was not the first time Sir Rupert Cheever had misplaced his daughter. "Well, you shall have to get home somehow."
"I'll go with her," Olivia suggested.
"You and Winston need to put away your new toys and write thank-you notes. If you don't do it tonight, you shan't remember who gave you what."
"But you can't send Miranda home with a servant. She'll have no one to talk to."
"I can talk to the servant," Miranda said. "I always talk to the ones at home."
"Not ours," Olivia whispered. "They're starched and silent and they always look at me disapprovingly."
"Most of the time you deserve to be looked at disapprovingly," Lady Rudland interjected, giving her daughter a loving pat on the head. "I have a treat for you, Miranda. Why don't we have Nigel bring you home?"
"Nigel!" Olivia squealed. "Miranda, you lucky duck."
Miranda raised her brows. She had never met Olivia's older brother. "All right," she said slowly. "I should like to finally meet him. You talk about him so often, Olivia."
Lady Rudland summoned a maid to fetch him. "You've never met him, Miranda? How odd. Well, I suppose he's usually only home at Christmas, and you always go to Scotland for the holiday. I had to threaten to cut him off to get him home for the twins' birthday. As it was, he wouldn't attend the party for fear that one of the mamas would try to marry him off to a ten-year-old."
"Nigel is nineteen, and he is very eligible," Olivia said matter-of-factly. "He's a viscount. And he's very handsome. He looks just like me."
"Olivia!" Lady Rudland said reprovingly.
"Well, he does, Mama. I should be very handsome if I were a boy."
"You're quite pretty as a girl, Livvy," Miranda said loyally, eyeing her friend's blond locks with just a little envy.
"So are you. Here, pick one of Fiona-cow's ribbons. I don't need them all, anyway."
Miranda smiled at her lie. Olivia was such a good friend. She looked down at the ribbons and perversely chose the violet satin. "Thank you, Livvy. I shall wear it to lessons on Monday."
"You called, Mother?"
At the sound of the deep voice, Miranda turned her face to the doorway and almost gasped. There stood quite the most splendid creature she had ever beheld. Olivia had said that Nigel was nineteen, but Miranda immediately recognized him as the man he already was. His shoulders were marvelously broad, and the rest of him was lean and firm. His hair was darker than Olivia's but still streaked with gold, attesting to time spent out in the sun. But the best part about him, Miranda immediately decided, was his eyes, which were bright, bright blue, just like Olivia's. They twinkled just as mischievously, too.
Miranda smiled. Her mother always said that one could tell a person by his eyes, and Olivia's brother had very good eyes.
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