Authors: Kate Dolan
She read the instructions scrawled on the front, recognizing the lines as a hurried version of Edmund’s artistic hand.
The butler waited expectantly, but she waved him away. “Thank you, Franklin. I shall see that the note is passed along to a solicitor, should such action be appropriate.”
“V-very good, miss.” He bowed, watching her with an uneasy gaze. Then he collected the supper tray, and with one last glance at in her direction, left her to read the note in private.
When she finished the short missive depicting Edmund’s deliberate intent to act insane, she collapsed against the back of the chair. Why on earth would he do such a thing? Was his mind perhaps truly unbalanced, to have him make such a statement? She remembered his conduct at their last meeting. He had not appeared insane at all for the first few minutes. His demeanor evinced the aloof, disinterested, polite manner she had come to expect.
Until she had mentioned his return to London. Then he had started to act crazy. Did he not want to return home?
After reading the note for the third time, Jeanne let it slip from her fingers.
“If we send the coachman home tonight,” Eugenie explained as they set off in the carriage from Shady View for the Iron Coxcomb Inn, “he will be able to return tomorrow with fresh clothing for us and Geoffrey.”
“But that means we might not have the carriage to visit Shady View until late in the morning,” Lucia objected.
“We cannot possibly appear out again in the same gowns one more day, Lucia.”
“A visit to Shady View hardly constitutes appearing ‘out’. No one of our acquaintance will be there, and no one there cares what we look like.”
“I dare say Lord Rutherford cares what you look like.” Eugenie smirked. “And he is quite handsome himself. But he’s as mad as a March hare. Why did you allow him to kiss you?”
“Oh.” Lucia cringed. “I had rather hoped you had not seen that. I suppose that now I am ruined.”
“Do not be ridiculous. I will not tell a soul, and you know it. But if someone else had come upon you, I cannot say that your reputation would be so safe. Why did you allow it?”
Why indeed? She did not regret the act for a moment. The magical sense of affection mingled with excitement was a thrill she would probably never again experience in her life. But she was surprised that she had allowed herself to take such a chance.
She sighed. “I do not quite understand, Eugenie. Perhaps I felt sorry for him because he is crazy. After all, he is not likely to have the opportunity to court or kiss ladies while locked in his room in an asylum. Perhaps some misguided young lady will similarly take pity on my brother one day if…” She would not finish that thought aloud, or even to herself. Geoffrey would come home—he would not spend the rest of his life in an asylum.
Eugenie leaned forward. “Had you ever kissed a man before?”
“No.” Lucia felt her face flush with a slow, creeping sensation running slowly up to her hairline. “Well, once back at school, but that doesn’t—no,” she affirmed decisively.
“At school? When? Who was it?”
“Never mind. It was—it was not a real kiss. Gerald, the dancing master’s son, told me I had to kiss him or he would pour ink down my back.”
“Gerald?” Eugenie’s horrible grimace left no doubt as to her opinion of the young man’s charms.
“You can see why I am not anxious to consider that a real kiss, now, can you not?”
“Yes. But your first real kiss, then, was not much better.”
“Oh, yes.” Lucia smiled. “It was.”
“An inmate in an insane asylum?”
“Now, now,” Lucia scolded, doing her best to imitate the artificially dulcet tones of Mr. Groves. “You know we do not refer to the residents as inmates. And Shady View is a special home for those simply in need of a restful environment.”
Eugenie giggled. “I am going to tell Mr. Groves that you are not letting Lord Rutherford rest. Who knows what would have happened had I not interrupted you?”
“Nothing would have happened. I do not feel
sorry for the man. And besides,” she sputtered with a giggle herself, “he is too injured to attempt much.”
Eugenie raised her eyebrows. “So it did occur to you, then?”
“No. I just knew it would occur to
.” But in truth, something, some unknown desire had pricked the back of her mind. A longing for something she could not name. “Are you scandalized?”
“No.” Eugenie laughed. “Surprised, yes. Because it is you, Lucia, the girl who always behaved irreproachably, who only ever got in trouble for leaving her books piled too high in our room so that one of us occasionally tripped over them.”
“That was rather inconsiderate of me, and dangerous. A blow to the head from a toppling book of epic Greek poems could have proved fatal, you know.”
Eugenie wrinkled her nose. “No, that is hardly a fault worth worrying yourself over. The rest of us took advantage of the freedom from our families. We tried what we knew we could not at home. You always acted as if your parents were there watching you every minute.”
“Well, they were, weren’t they? From up in heaven?”
Eugenie cringed. “Oh dear. Of course, you are right.”
“But that was not the reason I behaved ‘irreproachably’, as you say. I was exercising a freedom, the same as you. But instead of freedom from order and rules, I celebrated a freedom from lawless chaos. An imprudent dalliance with a stable boy or a ploy to steal the housekeeper’s keys would scarcely have been noticed at home. I had that sort of freedom all my life. What I enjoyed at school was the freedom to think only of myself, without a worry as to what Helen or Geoffrey might be about.”
“I meant for you to have that freedom again on your visit to London. But then you were determined to return to them so soon.”
“I know.” Lucia smiled. “I suppose Geoffrey and Helen are simply too old now to trust to the care of the servants. When they were younger, we had a wonderful governess—Mrs. Whipplethwait—who kept them well in hand. But she’s in her cottage, living in poor health on a small pension these days, and I dared not ask her to look in on the twins.”
Eugenie said nothing for a moment, then peered earnestly into Lucia’s face. “I am sorry about Geoffrey. That he…and that he has ended up…” Tears rapidly filled the corners of her eyes and began to spill over.
“I know. But you’ve no need to apologize. You have done nothing to be sorry for. You only tried to fix what is incapable of repair. The attempt was admirable.”
“Do you suppose your stepfather might be able to do something for him?”
“As a matter of fact, I wrote to him when we first arrived. I am hopeful that he might help me get Geoffrey home.”
Eugenie nodded. Then a particularly severe jolt made her look out the carriage window. “Oh good, here we are at last. I swear, the jostling on these country roads quite wears me to bits. Does it not have the same effect on you?”
“Not really,” Lucia admitted. “I find the bumping about rather fun. You know, with Helen’s fear of speed, we never hit the ruts with so much force. Sometimes, the jolt even knocks you out of your seat!”
“Yes.” Eugenie rubbed her backside. “But then you land.”
* * * * *
Jeanne smoothed her gown and hair as Mr. Groves knocked on the door to Edmund’s room. She must have been sitting crooked on the long ride out from London, because an ugly crease stretched from midpoint in her gown all the way to the floor. Had she thought to bring another gown, her maid could have worked at straightening this one.
Mr. Groves knocked a second time. “Are you awake, sir? One of your ladies is here to see you.”
Jeanne dropped her reticule. “
of your ladies?”
Mr. Groves smiled apologetically as he retrieved the reticule from the floor. “A sultan must keep a harem, Miss Newman. I do try to humor my guests whenever possible. I hope I have not offended you?”
“No, of course not.” It was a reasonable explanation, surely, but something in his eyes indicated that the man had not shared the entire truth with her.
“You may enter,” a voice called imperiously from beyond the door.
Mr. Groves opened the door for Jeanne, then followed her inside. “I see you are without your turban once again, your grace. Shall I fetch it for you?”
“Do.” Edmund was not seated on the bed this time but in a chair by the window. He eyed Jeanne impersonally. “Then introduce me to this young lady, for I do not believe I have had the pleasure of her acquaintance.”
Jeanne started forward to answer, to throw herself at his feet and beg for him to remember, but the words died in her throat.
This was all an act. Mr. Groves might have been unaware that Edmund feigned this delusion, but she herself was now certain. The eyes glaring at her from under the recently procured turban were those of Edmund in full and complete possession of his faculties.
She still did not know why he pretended to have lost them.
Edmund looked away from her and returned his attention to the book that he held upside-down in his hands.
She addressed her next words to Mr. Groves as if Edmund were not even in the room. “He does indeed know who I am, sir. We have been betrothed for over twenty years. Our wedding date is set for the first of March.”
There was a thump and a flutter of pages as the book tumbled to the floor.
“Are you well, my lord?” Mr. Groves asked with a mild display of concern.
“This woman is mad,” Edmund declared with savage fury. “I do not marry anyone during the season of…” He struggled to think of an excuse. “I refuse to marry during monsoon season.”
“I’m sure Mr. Groves can find an umbrella,” Jeanne replied smoothly.
“I will not have a mere woman dictate such matters to me,” Edmund huffed. “Take her away.”
Mr. Groves offered Jeanne another apologetic smile. “If you would be so good as to accompany me to the drawing room, Miss Newman?”
Jeanne sighed. “Very well. I only came to ask Edmund’s opinion on the menu for the wedding breakfast.”
A turban sailed past her head, hit the wall and slid down ineffectually.
“Goodbye, my beloved,” she called around the door as it closed. She heard some unknown object hit the door as they walked away.
He did not want to marry her! The pieces fit together at last. He was quite content to play the fool here in peace until she made some mention of their wedding. Then he grew furious. That bastard was feigning insanity to put off their marriage contract. He must have hoped his uncouth behavior would cause her to cancel the agreement so he would not look bad to his mother.
She fought the urge to go back to his room and throw something at him, something much heavier than a turban or anything else he could reach.
To smash his dishonorable, scheming brains against the sunny yellow wall.
But that would not help matters at all.
Edmund’s title and inheritance would pass to some distant relative, if such existed, or even to the state. She would not see a farthing, despite the promise, despite all the years of waiting.
He planned to make her look petty and leave her without station in society. Then he would miraculously reappear with his fortune and title intact, free to select a bride from any eligible young lady of the
“Miss Newman, are you well?”
The sound of Mr. Groves’ voice made her realize they had come to the end of the hallway, walking right past the stairs, and she was smashing one fist into the other palm like some sort of prize fighter.
Which is exactly what she was. Edmund’s title, if not the man himself, was a prize worth fighting for. And she knew she could fight.
* * * * *
When Jeanne left the room, Edmund jumped to his feet, clenching his fists as if that effort could lessen the searing pain in his leg and the rage of frustration roiling through his head. His attempt to walk ended after two steps, when his weak leg gave way and he staggered toward the bed. He smashed his fist into the headboard. The move made no mark on the hard wood, just as his recent efforts made no headway against the trap he felt closing around him. He needed to appear sane to get out of Shady View to see his mother. Yet when Jeanne arrived, his reason truly did leave him for a moment and all he could think of was how to be rid of her.
And the worst of it, of course, was that the effort had proven fruitless. A wedding date still loomed on the calendar and the days marched relentlessly closer.
Was there nothing he could do to dissuade the woman? He hit the headboard again, this time with such force that it smacked into the wall with a satisfying
. So he hit it again, this time quickly following up with a blow from the other hand. He continued to pummel the headboard in this manner for some minutes, until sweat ran down his forehead, draining away the frustration and rage pent up inside.
But he felt no peace. Only sorrow and a vague sense of fear—fear that he might never see his mother alive again, fear that he had disappointed her fatally by appearing crazy. Tears squeezed out of his eyes, joined the rivulets of sweat for a run to the edge of his chin, then plummeted to the sheets below.