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Authors: Cari Hislop

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A Companion for Life

BOOK: A Companion for Life
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A Companion
for Life

Copyright 2008
Cari Hislop

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A Companion for
Life

End of Sept
1816 (London)

An oval of
light hung over the intimate dining table turning the serving
footmen into shadows. Seated between Mr Philips, her inebriated
brother-in-law on her left and William Bowen, her niece’s fiancé on
her right, Miss Lily Leigh hunched in her seat, hoping no one would
notice that her bottom protruded a number of inches over either
side of her chair. She herself wouldn’t have noticed if Mr Penryth
Bowen hadn’t been seated at the other end of the table next to her
sister. Lily’s eyes wove through candlesticks and glinting table
ornaments to snatch another glance at the Welshman across the table
to her right, and then returned directly to her plate. To see the
man so close was to sip the elixir of life. How could anyone want
to die when the sight of him made one’s heart feel caught between
the determined fingers of heaven and hell?

If a swan could
be transformed into a man, it would become Mr Bowen. His every
movement appeared effortless, graceful and noble. She’d never
forget their meeting in her parent’s garden. He’d been standing by
the fountain watching two blackbirds bathing. The servants had told
her that her sister had ensnared a handsome wealthy young man, but
they hadn’t mentioned he was under a magic spell. She’d watched him
from behind a hedge until the need to see him close up dragged her
out of hiding. His dark eyes, brimming with amusement, had
transfixed her as he politely doffed his hat and bowed as if she
were an elegant lady instead of a plump twelve year old girl. He
knew she’d been watching him. She’d wanted to ask him if he was a
changeling, but was afraid that if he had to admit he was a swan
he’d fly away never to be seen again.

In the end he
had flown away, his face as pale as death. That last visit had been
to confront her parents and demand an explanation as to why they’d
allowed their seventeen year old daughter to publicly jilt him only
days before the wedding without even the courtesy of a note. She’d
watched him leave her father’s study, his beautiful calm façade
twisted with fury. The whole house knew why precious Rosamund had
changed her mind. Mr Philips was in line to inherit a Dukedom and
Rosamund longed to be a Duchess, even if it meant being married to
a drunk with a large red nose and bleary eyes that rarely focused
on anything other than a bottle. Lily could still feel the pain of
watching Mr Bowen ride away without any hope of seeing him
again.

Lily snatched a
glance at her brother-in-law silently wolfing down his food. The
man still thought Lily’s name was ‘Girl’. At their first meeting Mr
Bowen had politely asked for her name and then never forgotten it.
Those dark eyes still knew her name even if he greeted her as Miss
Leigh. The thought of her name imprinted on his mind caused a
shiver of delight, but nothing could compare with the rapture of Mr
Bowen seeking her out in the cold corner of the drawing room and
kissing her hand before taking his leave. Of course he was just
being kind; his dark bluish-brown eyes had to be the kindest in the
world. They never looked through her as if she were invisible or
sneered contempt at her plain clothing. He acknowledged her with
respect as if knew that under her orange frizzy hair and fat face
she too was a beautiful swan under a cruel spell.

The mind
holding her name was hidden behind a mask of politeness. It was
impossible to tell what Mr Bowen was feeling; intense ennui,
amusement or anger. If she hadn’t known the man had once been in
love with her sister she’d have laughed at the suggestion. He sat
relaxed, physically indifferent to Rosamund’s nearness. Lily’s eyes
swerved to avoid her sister as she glanced again at the man tipping
his wine glass towards his lips. What would it feel like to be that
glass; to feel his lips…? Her heart nearly stopped as the man’s
eyes swivelled over the edge of the glass in her direction meeting
her stare. Jolted by pleasure and fear, Lily bowed her head over
her plate and pretended to be engrossed in her food. If Rosamund
thought she was casting her eyes at the man, the hounds of hell
would be unleashed.

Mrs Rosamund
Philips dabbed her painted lips with her napkin and lowered the
white cloth to reveal a practiced smile that left her eyes cold and
calculating. “I have great news Mr Bowen.” Uncle and nephew turned
their attention to the fading Beauty. Her strawberry blonde hair
was twisted and braided into an exaggerated Grecian knot while her
powdered charms threatened to burst from her low cut bodice. “This
morning I received a reply from The Prince Regent’s secretary. His
Royal Majesty has condescended to send a representative to Grace
and William’s wedding…” Grace, who’d known since breakfast, clapped
her hands and fluttered her eyes at her intended groom who was
staring in surprise at his uncle. “Everything is arranged; the cake
is being iced, the champagne has been purchased, the glasses are
hired. In two weeks they’ll be married in St George’s and my
darling Grace will look like an angel.”

Grace moaned
with rapture, “Helen’s going to die of envy…”

The elder Mr
Bowen carefully set down his glass. “Mrs Philips, if your daughter
has her heart set on marrying in two weeks, I’m afraid she’ll have
to find an alternative groom. It won’t be my nephew.” The dark eyes
staring at her sister had been cast from steel and enamelled with
colour.

 

“But I’ve sent
out the invitations; the wedding must take place. There isn’t time
to cancel and the young people desire to wed. It would be a sin to
keep eager young lovers apart for so long…accidents will
happen.”

Glancing to her
right Lily could see the younger Mr Bowen turn beet red as his
shoulders stiffened in outrage. “My nephew is a man of propriety;
your daughter is quite safe Madam.”

Rosamund’s
effort to smile, twisted into a grimace. “William inherits a
fortune in two years. You need only advance him five thousand
pounds and let them marry. Grace saw a pretty little property…”

“William’s
money is in a trust until he comes of age and his properties are
rented until his twenty-first birthday. I’m not going to give him
five thousand pounds in the hope he’ll repay my generosity nor will
I have some other man’s wife living in my house. If he chooses to
elope he’ll live off his in-laws or starve in the gutter. He’s
known this since he was sixteen and if you try to force him into
accepting an elopement against his better judgement I shall remove
my nephew to the continent for an extended tour.”

Grace paled as
she struggled to hide her growing fury. “Mamma…you promised…”

“Hush Dearest!
Mr Bowen, let’s set aside the past and do what’s best for the young
people. Waiting two years is simply unacceptable. I promised my
daughter she’d become a wife before her birthday. Surely you won’t
force me to break a mother’s vow?”

“I explained
there would be a two year engagement Mrs Philips. I will not give
my permission.”

“Oh Mamma!”
Grace Philips sobbed as if she’d been condemned to hang by the neck
‘til dead. “I want to be married before Helen…you promised.”

“Mr Bowen, how
can you sit there with a stony face while my daughter’s broken
heart drips into her dinner? Do you think I’ve schemed and connived
this wedding for me? Do you think I want to admit I’m nearly old
enough to be a grandmother? My darling has her heart set on a
becoming a wife before her next birthday; don’t punish her because
I didn’t marry you eighteen years ago. If she was your daughter,
would you sit there demanding she wait to be the last of her
friends to marry? Would you deny her the small happiness of being
first to the altar?” Lily stared in horror at the Welshman as he
looked at her sister with a blank expression. What was he thinking?
Was he angry? Was he relieved? Was he remembering that her sister
had jilted him after professing undying love? The weak selfish part
of her hoped he’d allow the marriage, while the kind part screamed
for him to withstand Rosamund’s machinations if only to save
William from her niece.

“If your
seventeen year old daughter thinks marriage is akin to a sack race
she isn’t mature enough to become a wife let alone a mother.
Perhaps in two years…”

Lily’s spine
seemed to shrink as her sister’s cold eyes cudgelled her from
across the table. “Lily! Grace is upset. Help her to her room and
stay with her.” As her sister’s unpaid companion, Lily had to obey.
Her parents had left everything to Rosamund. There had only been
enough love or money for the eldest daughter. She could feel Mr
Bowen watching as she struggled to push back her chair and then
lift her weight onto her feet. They were all watching. Her nephews
seated across from her sneered in disgust as they both loudly
whispered they’d rather die than marry a fat woman. She didn’t have
to look at her sister to know the beauty was glaring at her.

Lily tried not
to think of the coming storm as she paused to propel the sobbing
Grace to her feet. Glancing across the table she found Mr Bowen
watching her with that unreadable expression. Blushing, she hurried
the young harridan away before the temper tantrum’s second phase
began. By the time she reached her niece’s chamber, the girl’s red
face was turning white. There was only time to drag her inside and
lock the door before red cheeks turned blue and then after gasping
for air the spoiled Grace, her pretty features contorted with rage,
opened her lungs and rent the air with piercing screams. Lily stood
with her back against the door and tried to shield herself with her
arms as Grace clawed at her face screaming unintelligible curses on
Mr Bowen.

The young woman
finally crumpled in exhaustion and sobbed into the floor, “Helen’s
going to marry Lord Langford on Valentines Day in a church
wedding…I hate her. I’ll have to marry William over an anvil…I hate
anvils and I hate Mother. She promised I’d be a wife in two weeks
that lying cow.” Attempting to talk sense into her niece would only
refuel the fire; Lily remained silent. “Helen won’t beat me to the
marriage bed…I’m a thousand times more beautiful. I should be the
first to wed and I will. I’ll seduce William then that hateful
Welsh pig will have to let us wed. I’ll show him.” Lily could hear
her sister pacing the corridor outside waiting for silence to tell
her it would be safe to enter. After another half hour Grace was
stretched out snoring into the floorboards. Lily reluctantly
unlocked the door. Putting off the inevitable would only make it
more painful.

Small dainty
leather soled shoes tapped into the room. “How many times have I
told you not to let her fall asleep on the floor like a dog?” The
loud snores of Rosamund’s precious favourite almost made Lily
smile. Not wishing to wake her daughter, Rosamund pushed her sister
out of the room and quietly closed the door. “What do you have to
say for yourself? I graciously allowed you to share my family table
for the most important dinner of Grace’s life and you ruined
everything with your disgusting conduct. Did you think making eyes
at Mr Bowen would win his heart? The man doesn’t fancy frizzy
orange haired heifers; if he did he wouldn’t have fallen in love
with me. I could have had him with a snap of the fingers, but I
didn’t want him. Is that why you’ve ruined all my plans; your
childhood fancy likes beautiful women like me, not fat ugly lumps
like you?”

“I wasn’t
making eyes…”

“You were
staring at the man like a love-sick cow. It’s no wonder the man
refused to allow his nephew to marry Grace. Enduring your stares
must have made him ill.”

“I only looked
at him a couple times…he’s so handsome, I couldn’t help it.”

“Are you saying
you don’t ogle my husband because he’s ugly?”

Feeling hell’s
breath on her plump cheeks, Lily’s eyes filled with tears. “Mr
Philips is my brother…”

“Is this how
you repay my generosity? You ruin Grace’s hopes of happiness and
insult my husband?”

“Rosamund, you
know I’d never…”

“You cost me a
fortune in food and this is what I get for my kindness; you destroy
Grace’s dreams out of jealousy and insult the father of my
children?”

“No!”

“My darling
girl will hate me forever if I can’t force that Welsh leek to give
his consent and it’ll be your fault…you fat ugly cow.” Lily
instinctively tried to turn to run, but lost her footing as her
sister pounced on her, punching and clawing her from behind. Ten
minutes later Lily was conscious of her sister’s hands in her hair,
her head being slammed repeatedly against the floor and then sweet
oblivion.

BOOK: A Companion for Life
8.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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