Authors: Kate Dolan
“So she cannot keep an eye on your brother.”
“No. Not unless he decides to take up a career as a gill of river water or a measure of garden soil.”
“But your stepfather, now, surely he can help.”
Lucia shook her head sadly. “I am the only one who can take care of them. My stepfather rarely comes near the house. Or the county, for that matter. I think he cannot bear to see how they are. Or perhaps they remind him too much of Mother. Who knows? He has his solicitor ensure that we’ve adequate funds to keep the estate, but not enough to run away. And so there we shall all stay, as he says, ‘perfectly comfortable together for all our days’.”
This time it was Eugenie who snorted. “Perfectly dreadful together, I’d say.”
Lucia smiled. “It’s not dreadful at all. I love Helen, and Geoffrey too. He really is the sweetest boy. And I know they love me. We’ve enough money to meet our needs. And so we
all be ‘perfectly comfortable’ for—”
“Rubbish. If you were perfectly happy, you would not have come here.”
“But that was a mistake, I told you. I simply wanted to see your family again. And to see London as—”
“As a grown lady. The places we were not allowed before.”
Lucia let a small giggle escape her lips. “Yes, exactly.”
“You cannot see those places if you leave now.”
“I know,” Lucia sighed, “but Geoffrey—”
“How is it that Geoffrey controls your life even when he is miles away?”
Lucia sighed again. “I’ve told you of his previous forays into the working world. Now Helen tells me he intends to take up hunting.”
“Good. The exercise will be splendid, and it is only dangerous for the fox, you know.”
“No, not hunting for sport. Geoffrey intends to ‘put meat on the table’, as she phrased it. He’s secured a rifle and has been shooting at targets in the garden. Helen said he takes the occasional shot at the chickens in the Johnson’s yard. Apparently Geoffrey’s next intended occupation is to work as a poacher. Mr. Johnson has never had much patience with Geoffrey. And
said to be an excellent shot.” Lucia shook her head, resignation already pushing aside all thoughts of the exciting visit she had anticipated for nearly a year. “So you see, I must return home.”
Eugenie nodded as if in agreement, but something in her eyes indicated that she did not agree at all.
* * * * *
“Would you like to have Peggy arrange your hair?”
“No.” Lucia could barely conceal her frustration as she paced in front of the chest of drawers in Eugenie’s room for the third day in a row. “What good would that do?”
“It would save the wear on the carpet from you pacing back and forth.”
Lucia sank into the nearest chair. “I am sorry. I just do not see any point to all this fuss. I should be packing to leave, not primping for somebody’s soirée.” It was unfair for her to take out her aggravation on her friend, but the constant worry for Geoffrey and Helen’s safety had worn her nerves to shreds. Never before had she felt so helpless.
“You cannot leave until Father is ready to escort you. Unless you’ve brought money to hire a private carriage?”
Lucia looked down at the floor, twisting her slipper around the leg of her chair. “No, I have not.”
“That was not fair of me and I am sorry. You should not travel on your own in any case. And while you wait for Father, you may as well enjoy the attractions of the city you came to visit.”
“I came to visit you and your family, not a city.”
“You came for both, and I perfectly understand. But to use your own argument, it would be poor manners indeed for you to leave without a proper visit. You’ve not had full benefit of our company yet.”
“Very well, you know I’ve agreed to stay on until Saturday. But I do not see why I must accompany you out tonight.”
“You must accompany me because any unattached
in her right mind would sell her soul for an opportunity to meet the gentlemen of Adrington’s acquaintance.”
“I’m not in the market, Eugenie.”
“We’ll see about that.”
“You realize that you are not truly obligated to marry her.”
Edmund Rutherford turned at the sound of his friend Adrington’s low voice. “Oh, but I am,” he answered softly as they watched a small circle of ladies and gentlemen flirt with one another across the room.
“No court in the land would hold that promise enforceable. And a breach of marriage suit may be paid off like any other,” Adrington insisted.
One of the ladies in the group they watched, dressed in a sheer yellow gown that glowed almost translucent under the bright light of the chandelier, tipped her head back too far and uttered a coarse laugh that echoed off the polished marble floor.
Edmund closed his eyes for a moment but did not allow himself to turn away. “The promise was made on her mother’s deathbed. Her family relies upon the connection, the acquisition of the title. My mother promised hers that our families would be joined forever by the match.” He shook his head. “Such a promise cannot be set aside like an inconvenient contract for the sale of a horse.”
“So you would have yourself bound to the purchase of that animal, whether or not you want it, regardless of the fact that it might perhaps have been ridden before?”
Edmund sighed. “Choose your words with care, sir, for though you are my closest friend and we stand in your house, I will not let you cast aspersions on my intended bride.”
“Who said anything about Miss Newman?” Lord James Adrington smiled. “I thought we spoke of horses. Come, I do not believe you have yet paid your respects to Mother and Aunt Darlet.”
Edmund allowed himself to be turned away toward the back of the room where older ladies and gentlemen not inclined to dance or speculate on the matches to be made during the season had already begun to size up potential whist opponents. The same annoying laugh echoed across the floor behind him, but now he no longer had to watch Jeanne.
He only had to listen. Every so often, as he exchanged pleasantries with Adrington’s older relations, he could discern Jeanne’s voice above that of the others, followed by that almost ribald laughter. He could imagine the flirtatious flip of her eyelashes, her pouting lips, a playful slap on a companion’s arm—all gestures of which he had long since tired but other gentlemen seemed to still find intriguing.
Why, then, could one of them not be engaged to marry her instead?
“Rutherford, I do hope you will excuse me. I must see to some other guests. I suggest you try some of the Madeira—it is good enough to enable you to forget your troubles with remarkable speed.”
Edmund nodded. “And everything else as well, I imagine. Very well, I shall endeavor to obtain a healthy glass of your remedy.”
But once Adrington had left his side, Edmund decided to seek solace not in drink but in solitude. Because he had to think.
For the past two years, he had tried every imaginable means of discouraging Jeanne Newman from sustaining the betrothal arranged for them at her birth. But she would not be discouraged. Nor would she keep her flirtatious behavior in check. Any words from him seemed only to encourage her to greater indiscretions. Or else it would lead to a tearful scene where she begged him to set a date, accusing him of breaking the promise and failing his obligation.
For some time now, he had used his mother’s poor health as an excuse, but such justification could not be used forever, and indeed his mother’s condition had improved to the point where she herself encouraged him to set a date.
He knew, of course, that he should simply accept the arrangement—a very common circumstance to which other men, and ladies, too, resigned themselves as a matter of course. Heaven knew there were enough examples even in his own family. Loveless marriage was the rule rather than the exception.
But Edmund wanted to be the exception. He at least wanted to live out his days in a home with a woman for whom he bore some respect, if not outright affection. For Jeanne, he felt only a mild loathing mingled with pity. She deserved better than that. He wanted better than that. And Jeanne possessed sufficient beauty and fortune to secure a better suitor once she let go of her attachment to him.
So he would force her to let go.
In his deliberations, he wandered down the hall from the ballroom into a small, unoccupied parlor where he paced back and forth like a great caged animal. Two hideous chairs with ridiculous clawed feet took up nearly one entire side of the parlor, so he could cross to the fireplace at the other end of the room in only three steps.
Two, if he lengthened his stride.
The gilt framed mirror above the mantel reflected dark creases on his forehead as his scowl deepened with each turn about the room. What else could he possibly do? He had tried asking her, tried reasoning with her, warned her of the pitfalls of an unhappy marriage. He had tried to discourage her by being inattentive. When that failed, he attempted the opposite extreme, hoping to frighten the girl. Unfortunately, his forward behavior only served to encourage her further.
And now, he had little time left.
He had to somehow make himself so undesirable that Jeanne would not be able to bear the thought of marrying him. If she ended the engagement, then he could not be faulted for breaking the promise.
So what would make him so very undesirable? He could threaten her with violence. Lord knows he had been tempted to often enough over the years. But he might well end up in Newgate or the criminal wing at Bedlam. Even the prospect of spending the rest of his life with a shrew was not enough to tempt him to risk that fate.
But what if he were sent away someplace only temporarily? Perhaps he could act irrational—not dangerous, but simply mad, as if he’d entirely lost his sense of reason. They would hide him away in a private madhouse for a time, Jeanne could continue her season in London and she might well have secured a good husband before summer. Then he could “recover” and quietly return home. His friends would eventually forgive the deception. And while his own chances of making a decent match would be none too great after such an episode, the chances with such an experiment still exceeded the chances without it, which appeared to be zero.
Tonight would be the perfect time to begin. With so many in attendance to witness his behavior, Jeanne would be mortified.
Edmund stopped pacing and stared at his reflection from across the room. The dark scowl had been replaced by a look of fierce determination. He crossed the small room with one great leap, his reflection drawing closer and larger and even more determined.
And that’s how it would start. He would make a ridiculous leaping entrance back into the ballroom.
He took a deep breath and marched toward the door, anxious to begin before he could give any attention to the nagging thought that perhaps there were aspects of this plan he had not considered.
This was a time for action, not consideration.
The buzz of voices as he approached the ballroom indicated an even greater number of guests in attendance than earlier. A full audience to view his performance. Withers, the Adringtons’ butler, smiled as Edmund approached, but the smile evaporated as Edmund pushed him aside and leaped into the room.
Just as he had done in the tiny red parlor, he leaped across the floor, covering as many of the colored tiles as possible with each stride. In no time at all, he had crossed the room, so that he had to stop abruptly to keep from crashing into the punch bowl. He turned and began to traverse the floor in the opposite direction, deliberately ignoring all comments voiced by other guests. In the middle of his third leap, he was pinned under the arms and dragged unceremoniously from the floor by none other than Adrington himself, with some assistance from the Viscount Mountdale.
“The musicians have not prepared us for this one, yet, old boy.” Adrington pulled him to his feet as they reached the perimeter of the room.
Mountdale sniffed his breath. “What have you been drinking?”
“Get away, Candlesnuffer!” Edmund pushed them both aside, leaped into the middle of the floor, then began counting out tiny steps. His friends soon tackled him again, but he twisted away, rolled, then jumped to his feet with a laugh and capered over to the side of the room where a bevy of comfortable chairs invited matrons past their prime to sit and watch the proceedings.
He collapsed into a chair bedecked with cushions. “Pillows love me,” he sighed. His contented reverie lasted until Adrington and Mountdale caught up with him. Before they had him in their grasp, Edmund writhed between them and dashed over to the nearest window. “I’ll jump off this ship!” he announced. But the window wouldn’t open without more of a struggle than he had time to offer. So he made his exit through the more convenient, albeit less dramatic, doorway with Adrington and Mountdale in close pursuit.
* * * * *
“Lucia, you cannot remain behind that plant all evening.” Eugenie reached out as if to scold an errant child.
Lucia tried to plead with her eyes, apparently to no avail. “I really thought this the best solution, under the circumstances.”