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Happenstance

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Augusta Gresham had her first real conversation with Miss Martha Dunstable at her brother’s wedding, after her cousin Alexandrina had been revealed as the vilest deceiver and traitor that ever lived.

Augusta had retreated to the corner to compose herself, and Miss Dunstable came upon her.

“Miss Gresham,” she said, “forgive the intrusion, but I couldn’t help but notice how upset you seem. I was given to understand your family had settled upon being quite pleased with your brother’s match.”

It was shock more than anything, at how very forward the woman was, that made her blurt out, “Oh, it’s that dratted Alexandrina!” She gasped at her own ill manners in revealing such a thing to a stranger, or near enough a stranger, and colored at the expression of detached surprise on Miss Dunstable’s face.

“My, I can see I’ve hit upon a delicate topic. Whatever is the matter?”

“Oh, it’s nothing, Miss Dunstable. Really, don’t trouble yourself.” Augusta turned away and tried to compose herself.

“Now Miss Gresham, I realize we are not intimates, but I assure you I’m only trying to help. I am very fond of Mr. Frank Gresham, and of his new bride, and I should hardly like to see the groom’s own sister so downhearted at their wedding. I swear, I shall be the very soul of discretion if you should care to unburden yourself.”

Augusta was far too upset, and the upset was far too fresh, to keep it inside. “It’s only—my cousin Alexandrina’s fiancé. He had proposed to me first, and she was the one to talk me out of it. It just—it doesn’t seem fair.”

“I imagine not,” said Miss Dunstable. “Nevertheless, I have no doubt you shall rally.”

“Do you really think so?”

“Oh yes. I imagine you can do a great deal better than a man so very mercenary as to immediately propose to your cousin after you have rejected him.” She gave her a knowing look, and Augusta flushed. “You’re worth more than the connections you can bring your future husband, you know.”

Augusta felt the sting of her words, knowing Miss Dunstable had been entirely aware of her previous engagement and how it had ended, and feeling somehow as though it were being brought up. “I haven’t the slightest idea what you mean.”

“No, of course not,” the lady said, smiling in that knowing way. It was odd; it seemed very much like Augusta was being laughed at, but it didn’t feel that way. “I do hope I haven’t offended you. I have every expectation now of remaining longer in the neighborhood than my original intention, and I should hate there to be any quarrel between us.”

“No,” said Augusta, knowing full well that Aunt de Courcy would disapprove of cutting such a rich lady, even if she weren’t marrying Freddy. “No, I am not offended.”

“Good,” said Miss Dunstable. “I do hope we shall be friends, Miss Gresham. For obvious reasons, I have found it difficult in my travels to make very many friends among the young ladies, and I do occasionally miss the company of people unlikely to propose at any moment.”

“Oh, I—”

“I promise I shall not be the least threat to you and your prospects,” the lady continued, heedless of Augusta’s shocked stutters at so forward a statement. She looked deeply amused, and this time Augusta had the feeling it wasn’t at all at her expense, though she still hadn’t the slightest idea why.

“I suppose I should like that very much, Miss Dunstable,” Augusta said at last, and Miss Dunstable smiled the least ironic smile Augusta had yet seen out of her.

“Oh, wonderful. I so look forward to our acquaintance.”

And to her surprise, Augusta found she agreed.