Authors: Kate Dolan
Actually, he didn’t mind that at all.
He noticed with pleasure that they now approached the sofa that had been the starting point on their social circuit. He would be able to make his escape shortly. And, apparently, he would not even have to exchange words with his betrothed.
He would have to explain things to his mother later, of course. But for now, he would be free to rest.
“Good afternoon, ladies.” He bowed before stepping out into the hall, where Franklin waited to close the door behind him.
* * * * *
Someone was knocking on his head again.
No, that was not it. The knocking in his head reverberated with a low, steady pulse. This other knocking was harsh, uneven and coming from somewhere over his left shoulder.
“Edmund, open this door,” a feminine voice hissed. “I know you’re in there.”
Edmund sat up and pried open his eyes. He was sitting at his desk, his arms folded over a sheaf of papers as a makeshift pillow. He had been fast asleep.
But a bad dream woke him up.
And she was standing outside, demanding entrance.
With eyes still half shut, he pushed his chair away from the desk and made his way over to the door by touch as much as by sight. He fumbled with the lock for moment, then realized the door had never been locked to begin with.
He heard an impatient huff from the other side. “Pray hurry. I do not wish anyone to see me.”
Edmund opened the door wide enough so that he could see Jeanne, but not wide enough for her to gain admittance. “Why did you not simply enter, then?”
Jeanne pushed past him into the room. “Don’t be ridiculous. I could never be so rude.”
“Indeed not,” Edmund offered as he closed the door behind her. “I am sorry that I did not answer your summons right away. I had a headache and must have fallen asleep.”
“Why did you not go up to your bedroom?”
“I thought I’d better attend to some correspondence first.”
“And did you?”
“Well, let us say that I put a few matters to rest. Now,” he said as he motioned for her to take a seat on the sofa near the window. “Whatever can have drawn your attention from the riveting activities of the Samaritan’s Club?”
“I cannot believe you would even dare to ask me that.” She made no move to sit.
Edmund closed his eyes, waiting for her to continue.
“You scampered across the floor on your knees and tried to bite Lord Mountdale.”
I did bite him actually
, Edmund wanted to say. But that would not fit with his pretense of having forgotten the whole affair. Instead, he simply nodded. “So I’ve been told.”
“Is that all you are going to say?”
“I do not exactly know what I can say. What does one say after making a
of this magnitude?”
“Well,” she tossed her head, “you could apologize, for a start.”
“For making a fool of me in front of the
It seemed to Edmund that
was the one who had appeared the fool, but he said nothing.
Jeanne stalked over to the fireplace, then whirled around to face him. “Why on earth would you do such a thing? Whatever could have induced such behavior?”
“Honestly, Jeanne, I don’t know. I believe I was drugged, in a sense.”
“In a sense. A bad batch of homebrew.” He smiled apologetically.
. If that is the case, it is nearly as embarrassing as the rumors.”
“Rumors?” He hoped his voice betrayed none of the hope he felt.
“That you have gone mad. Surely you’ve heard?”
“Yes.” Edmund forced a large sigh. “I have.”
“Aunt Morris tells me there is no history of insanity in your family.” She took a few steps closer to him. “I’m not quite sure whether to believe her.”
“How could you doubt the word of your aunt? She raised you from an infant.”
“But in the matter of this…” Jeanne waved a grotesque flourish with her arm “With all evidence to the contrary…”
“What evidence?” Edmund held up his hand to fend off her objection. She did indeed have evidence—he had made certain of that. “Never mind.” Then he slowed, made his voice hesitant and uncertain. “This was but one episode, one evening of, I will admit, less than exemplary behavior. It is not likely to happen again.” He did not promise, and was grateful that she did not ask him to.
She walked closer to him, and he looked to the floor, stifling the urge to back away.
“Edmund.” She leaned down to catch his gaze. “Please.”
With reluctance, he looked into her eyes.
“I am worried for you.”
Worried about your reputation, you mean
, he answered silently.
“Aunt Morris has said she’s ready for us to set a date now.”
“She is?” Edmund took a step back, fearing he might lose his balance.
“Yes.” Jeanne followed him forward, a vapid tenderness oozing from her voice. “She thinks this is a temporary malady brought on by an absence of…well, I cannot explain fully, of course, but I did understand her meaning.”
What can one say to that? And from one’s own bride-to-be, moreover.
She somehow moved in even closer so that there was scarcely any space between them at all anymore. “I think I agree,” she said in a soft, husky voice that should have sent shivers of desire racing down his spine.
Instead, the shivers were more closely aligned with revulsion.
“Yes, well…” He inched away.
“Shall I have her speak with your mother?”
“Err, yes, I suppose. If you are certain that you are really ready.”
“I am.” She inched closer still, her clear gray eyes staring deeply into his own. “And I do believe you are too.”
Despite his revulsion, a part of Edmund wanted to reach out, fold Jeanne in the embrace that she so desperately seemed to want and ultimately fulfill the desire that Aunt Morris so brazenly hinted about.
But then he’d be stuck with Jeanne through all eternity.
That thought enabled him to continue his retreat across the room.
“Yes, well, that’s…I suppose we’re all set, then.” He had never more fervently wished to be caught in a lie in his life. Something would have to prevent this wedding.
“We are.” Jeanne grinned. “I believe there is nothing wrong with you, Lord Rutherford, that I cannot cure in a fortnight.”
“I’m glad you think so.”
“Or less.” She winked as she moved toward the door. “I am going to make my farewells to the club so I can go speak with Aunt Morris right now.”
“Oh, do not be, uh, too hasty. We wouldn’t want to put your aunt to any worry.”
“Edmund!” Jeanne shook her head. “You really are too naughty. Now I had better make my escape before someone sees me.”
“Yes, absolutely. Don’t let me stop you.”
But he wished someone would. He offered a little wave as she shut the door, then fought the urge to collapse onto the floor in a heap.
Once she started scheming with her aunt, they’d have a date set before he could draw his next breath. And his mother would very likely agree, since she’d been mentioning “poor Katherine’s dying wish” with alarming frequency of late.
Only his mother’s earlier illness had enabled him to put off the wedding this long. She’d had an attack of apoplexy the night Jeanne and her aunt were expected over for an intimate dinner. Details no doubt would have been fixed that very evening. Instead, he’d been able to keep them all away for months to assure his mother a quiet recovery. She now showed no effect from the attack, so it had almost seemed a miracle of sorts.
And the miracles kept coming. For not ten minutes after Jeanne quit the room, Edmund could hear the unmistakable sounds of a flock of ladies descending the stairs, signaling the end of the Samaritan’s Club meeting a full hour earlier than usual.
Which meant his mother would be down to speak with him very soon.
A knock sounded at the door.
Now, for instance.
“Do come in!” he called out with more enthusiasm than he felt.
“Edmund, I must have a word with you,” his mother announced while crossing over to sit on the sofa which Jeanne had ignored a few minutes ago. She nodded at Franklin to close the door.
“Of course, Mother.” Edmund joined her.
She closed her eyes and put her hand to her forehead. “Oh, I did not think they would ever leave.”
“Actually, did they not leave earlier than the usual custom?”
“I suppose so. I cut short a conversation on the advisability of giving Christmas baskets to Methodists, hoping they might take the hint.”
“I see that they did.”
“Yes, although I’m not sure Jane Watling will ever speak to me again.”
“Would that be so great a loss?”
“Edmund!” his mother admonished. “It is particularly wicked of you to point out a truth when it is an evil one. You are no help to me at all.”
“Yes,” his mother grew pensive, “but what are you trying? That’s what I wonder.”
“I’m afraid you’ve lost me, Mother.”
“What were you trying to do two nights ago, at the Adrington’s?”
Edmund forced a laugh. “What do you mean? I wasn’t trying to do anything.”
“You must have had some reason for feigning insanity in such a public forum.”
“Mrs. Adrington would not be pleased to hear you refer to her ballroom as a public forum.”
“You know what I mean, and as usual, you’re trying to steer the subject off course. What were you about the other night?”
“I was not ‘about’ anything. I merely had too much to drink.”
“Then what on earth were you drinking? You forget, I am your mother. I’ve known you for twenty-seven years. I have seen you drink wine, too much of it, on numerous occasions. I have, however, never seen you display the sort of behavior that was described to me by Mrs. Delacroix.”
“What did she tell you?”
“She said you hopped about the room like a large toad…”
I rather thought I was more graceful than that.
“And then you spouted nonsense, rolled on the floor and tried to cut your head off by jumping out a window…”
I did not even attempt to jump out by the window. The very idea.
“And there was something about behaving like a dog, growling, biting and so forth.”
Edmund shook his head. “Can you believe I would really do all that?”
“If you had reason enough, yes.” His mother narrowed her eyes as she peered closely at him. “Did you place a bet with Mountdale or one of those other rapscallions at the club?”
“No.” Absolute truth there.
She sat back slightly. “I didn’t think so. I would not believe you could be that foolish.”
“But I do not believe you were merely suffering the effect of too much drink, either.” She shook her head. “I know of no mental weakness in our family, but that does not mean such does not exist. And if you insist that you did not affect this behavior deliberately, I know not what to think.” Tears sparkled in the corners of her eyes.
For the first time, Edmund began to feel misgivings prick at his conscience. It would indeed feel awful to believe that your only son was going mad.
But she would not have to suffer for long.
And there was absolutely no way he could explain that he planned to feign insanity in order to avoid the marriage she had promised her best friend on her deathbed. He sighed. If only Jeanne hadn’t grown up to be…herself.
He turned his attention back to his mother, who was watching him in silence while tears streamed down her face. Opening his arms, he gave her a hug as if he were the parent and she the disappointed child. “Don’t worry, Mother. Everything will come out well.”
“I am sure it will, dear boy. I’m sure it will.” But she did not look convinced.
“How long of a drive will it require?” Geoffrey asked as he speared a large chunk of ham from the dish on the buffet.
“Geoffrey,” Lucia whispered to him, “it is customary to use a
to serve your meat. So put away the dagger. Besides, it is really not appropriate to appear at the breakfast table with a sidearm.”
He sheathed the weapon after wiping it carefully on his handkerchief. “Nonsense, you silly woman. One can never be too careful in questionable company. We are in London, after all.”
“Yes, we are in London, but we are at the home of one of my dearest friends from school. Her family can hardly be called questionable company. In fact, that description might better apply to us.”
“Certainly not. Our reputation is well known—ask anyone in Hertfordshire.”