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Authors: Judith McNaught

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Romance, #Historical

Almost Heaven (2 page)

BOOK: Almost Heaven
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Charles scratched his head at these complicated notions, but he tried to look as if he understood. “Of course,” he agreed as he led her horse away. “Any fool could understand that.”

“My feelings
exactly.”
she said, then she turned and ran lightly up the front steps, her mind set on going over the account books. Bentner swung open the front door, the stout, elderly butler’s features tense with excitement. In the tone of one who is bursting with delight but is too dignified to show it, he announced, “You have a
visitor,
Miss Elizabeth!”

For a year and a half there had been no visitors at Havenhurst, and so it was little wonder that Elizabeth felt an absurd burst of pleasure followed by confusion. It couldn’t be another creditor; Elizabeth had paid them off by stripping Havenhurst of all its valuables and most of its furniture. “Who is it?” she asked, stepping into the hall and reaching up to pull off her kerchief.

A beaming grin broke across Bentner’s entire face. “It is Alexandra Lawrence! Er . . . Townsende,” he corrected himself, recalling that their visitor was married now.

Joyous disbelief held Elizabeth immobilized for a split second, then she turned and burst into an unladylike run, pulling off her kerchief as she dashed toward the drawing room. In the doorway she came to an abrupt halt, the kerchief dangling from her fingertips, her eyes riveted to the lovely young brunette who was standing in the middle of the room, clad in an elegant red traveling suit. The brunette turned, and the two girls looked at each other while slow smiles dawned across their faces and glowed in their eyes. Elizabeth’s voice was a whisper, filled with admiration, disbelief, and pure delight.
“Alex?
Is it really you?”

The brunette nodded, her smile widening.

They stood still, uncertain, each one noting the dramatic changes in the other in the past year and a half, each one wondering a little apprehensively if the changes went too deep. In the silent room the ties of childhood friendship and long-standing affection began to tighten around them, pulling them forward a hesitant step, then another, and suddenly they were running toward each other, flinging their arms around one another in fierce hugs, laughing and crying with joy.

“Oh, Alex, you look wonderful! I’ve missed you so!” Elizabeth laughed, hugging her again. To society” Alex” was Alexandra, Duchess of Hawthorne, but to Elizabeth she was “Alex,” her oldest friend in the world – the friend who’d been on a prolonged honeymoon trip and so was unlikely to have heard yet of the awful mess Elizabeth was in.

Pulling her down onto the sofa, Elizabeth launched into a torrent of questions. “When did you return from your honeymoon trip? Are you happy? What brings you here? How long can you stay?”

“I’ve missed you, too,” Alex replied, chuckling, and she began answering Elizabeth’s questions in the order they’d been asked. “We returned three weeks ago. I’m
ecstatically
happy. I’m here to see you, of course, and I can stay for a few days, if you wish me to.”

“Of course I wish it!” Elizabeth said gaily. “I have absolutely nothing planned, except for today. My uncle is coming to see me.” Actually, Elizabeth’s social schedule was perfectly blank for the next twelve months, and her uncle’s occasional visits were
worse
than having nothing to do. But none of that mattered anymore. Elizabeth was so absurdly happy to see her friend that she couldn’t stop smiling.

As they had done when they were youngsters, both girls kicked off their slippers, curled their legs beneath them, and talked for hours with the easy camaraderie of kindred spirits separated for years, yet eternally united by girlhood memories, happy, tender, and sad. “Will you ever forget,” Elizabeth laughingly asked two hours later, “those wonderful mock tournaments we used to have whenever Mary Ellen’s family had a birthday?”

“Never,” Alex said feelingly, smiling with the memories.

“You unseated me every time we had a joust,” Elizabeth said.

“Yes, but you won every single shooting contest. At least you did until your parents found out and decided you were too old – and too refined – to join us.” Alex sobered. “We missed you after that.”

“Not as much as I missed you. I always knew exactly which days those jousts were taking place, and I would mope around here in complete gloom, imagining what fun you were having. Then Robert and I decided to start our own tournaments, and we made all the servants participate,” she added, laughing as she thought of her half-brother and herself in those bygone days.

After a moment Alex’s smile faded. “Where
is
Robert? You haven’t mentioned him at all.”

“He . . .” She hesitated, knowing that she couldn’t talk of her half-brother’s disappearance without revealing everything that had preceded it. On the other hand, there was something in Alexandra’s sympathetic eyes that made Elizabeth wonder uneasily if her friend had already heard the whole awful story. In a matter-of-fact voice she said, “Robert disappeared a year and a half ago. I think it may have had something to do with well, debts. Let’s not talk of it,” she said hastily.

“Very well,” Alex agreed with an artificially bright smile. “What shall we talk about?”

“You,” Elizabeth said promptly. Alex was older than Elizabeth, and time flew past as Alexandra talked of the husband she had wed, whom she obviously adored. Elizabeth listened attentively to the descriptions of the wondrous places all over the world that he had taken her to see on their honeymoon trip.

“Tell me about London,” Elizabeth said when Alex ran out of conversation about foreign cities.

“What do you want to know?” she asked, sobering. Elizabeth leaned forward in her chair and opened her mouth to ask the questions that mattered most to her, but pride prevented her from voicing them. “Oh nothing in particular,” she lied.
I want to know if my friends ridicule me or condemn me

or worse, if they pity me,
she thought.
I want to know if it’s common gossip that I’m penniless now. Most of all, I want to know why none of them has bothered to visit me or even to send me a message.

A year and a half ago, when she’d made her debut, she had been an instant success, and offers for her hand were made in record numbers. Now, at nineteen, she was an outcast from the same society that had once imitated, praised and petted her. Elizabeth had broken their rules, and in doing so she had become the focus of a scandal that raged through the
ton
like wildfire.

As Elizabeth looked uneasily at Alexandra she wondered if society knew the whole story or only the scandal; she wondered if they still talked about it or if it had finally been laid to rest. Alex had left on her prolonged trip just before it all happened, and she wondered if Alex had heard about it since her return.

The questions tumbled in her mind, desperate to be voiced, but she could not risk asking for two reasons: In the first place, the answers, when they came, might make her cry, and she would
not
give in to tears. In the second, in order to ask Alex the questions she longed to ask she would have to first inform her friend of all that had happened. And the simple truth was that Elizabeth was too lonely and bereft to risk the possibility that Alex might also abandon her if she knew.

“What sorts of things do you want to know?” Alex asked with a determinedly blank, cheerful smile pinned to her face – a smile designed to conceal her pity and sorrow from her proud friend.

“Anything!” Elizabeth immediately replied. “Well, then,” Alex said, eager to banish the pall of Elizabeth’s painful, unspoken questions from the room, “Lord Dusenberry just became betrothed to Cecelia Lacroix!”

“How nice,” Elizabeth replied with a soft, winsome smile, her voice filled with genuine happiness. “He’s very wealthy and from one of the finest families.”

“He’s an inveterate philanderer, and he’ll take a mistress within a month of their vows,” Alex countered with the directness that had always shocked and rather delighted Elizabeth.

“I hope you’re mistaken.”

“I’m not. But if you think I am, would you care to place a wager on it?” Alex continued, so happy to see the laughter rekindle in her friend’s eyes that she spoke without thinking. “Say £30?”

Suddenly Elizabeth couldn’t bear the uncertainty any longer. She needed to know whether loyalty had brought Alex to her – or whether she was here because she mistakenly believed Elizabeth was still the most sought-after female in London. Lifting her eyes to Alex’s blue ones, Elizabeth said with quiet dignity, “I do not have £30, Alex.”

Alex returned her somber gaze, trying to blink back tears of sympathy. “I know.”

Elizabeth had learned to deal with relentless adversity, to hide her fear and hold her head high. Now, faced with kindness and loyalty, she nearly gave in to the hated tears that tragedy had not wrung from her. Scarcely able to drag the words past the tears clogging her throat, Elizabeth said humbly, “Thank you.”

“There’s nothing for which to thank me. I’ve heard the whole sordid story, and I don’t believe a word of it! Furthermore, I want you to come to London for the Season and stay with us.” Leaning forward, Alex took her hand. “For the sake of your own pride, you have to face them all down. I’ll help you. Better yet, I’ll convince my husband’s grandmother to lend
her
consequence to you. Believe me,” Alex finished feelingly, but with a fond smile, “no one will
dare
to cut you if the Dowager Duchess of Hawthorne stands behind you.”

“Please, Alex, stop. You don’t know what you’re saying. Even if I were willing, which I’m not, she would never agree. I don’t know her, but she’ll surely know
all
about me. About what people say about me, I mean.”

Alex held her gaze steadily. “You’re right on one account – she had heard the gossip while I was away. I’ve talked the matter over with her, however, and she is willing to meet you and then make her own decision. She’ll love you, just as I do. And when that happens she’ll move heaven and earth to make society accept you.”

Elizabeth shook her head, swallowing back a constricting lump of emotion that was part gratitude, part humiliation. “I appreciate it, really I do, but I couldn’t endure it.”

“I’ve quite made up my mind,” Alex warned gently. “My husband respects my judgment, and he’ll agree, I have no doubt. As to gowns for a Season, I have many I’ve not yet worn. I’ll lend –”

“Absolutely not!” Elizabeth burst out. “Please, Alex,” she implored, realizing how ungrateful she must sound. “At least leave me some pride. Besides,” she added with a gentle smile, “I am not quite so unlucky as you seem to think. I have you. And I have Havenhurst.”

“I know that,” Alex said. “But I also know that you cannot stay here all your life. You don’t have to go out in company when you’re in London, if you don’t wish to do so. But we’ll spend time together. I’ve missed you.”

“You’ll be too busy to do it,” Elizabeth said, recalling the frenetic whirlwind of social activities that marked the Season.

“I won’t be that busy,” Alexandra said with a mysterious smile glowing in her eyes. “I’m with child.”

Elizabeth caught her in a fierce hug. “I’ll come!” she agreed before she could think better of it. “But I can stay at my uncle’s town house if he isn’t there.”

“Ours,” Alexandra said stubbornly.

“We’ll see,” Elizabeth countered just as stubbornly. And then she said rapturously, “A baby!”

“Excuse me, Miss Alex,” Bentner interrupted, then he turned to Elizabeth, looking uneasy. “Your uncle has just arrived,” he said. “He wishes to see you
at once
in the study.”

Alex looked quizzically from the butler to Elizabeth. “Havenhurst seemed rather deserted when I arrived. How many servants are here?”

“Eighteen,” Elizabeth said. “Before Robert left we were down to forty-five of the original ninety, but my uncle turned them all away. He said we didn’t need them, and after examining the estate books he showed me that we couldn’t possibly afford to give them anything but a roof and food. Eighteen of them remained anyway, though,” she added, smiling up at Bentner as she continued, “They’ve lived at Havenhurst all their lives. It’s their home, too.”

Standing up, Elizabeth stifled the spurt of dread that was nothing more than an automatic reflex at the prospect of confronting her uncle. “This shouldn’t take long. Uncle Julius never likes to remain here any longer than he absolutely must.”

Bentner hung back, ostensibly gathering up the tea things, watching Elizabeth leave. When she was out of earshot he turned to the Duchess of Hawthorne, whom he’d known when she was a dab of a girl running wild in boys’ breeches. “Begging your pardon, Your Grace,” he said formally, his kindly old face filled with concern, “but may I say how glad I am that you’re here, especially now with Mr. Cameron just arriving?”

“Why, thank you, Bentner. It’s lovely to see you again, too. Is anything particularly amiss with Mr. Cameron?”

“It looks like there might be.” He paused to walk over to the doorway and steal a furtive glance down the hall, then he returned to her and confided, “Aaron – our coachman, that is and I both don’t like the look of Mr. Cameron today. And there’s one thing more,” he stated, picking up the tea tray. “None of us who’ve stayed on here remained because of affection for Havenhurst.” An embarrassed flush stole up his white cheeks, and his voice turned gruff with emotion. “We stayed for our young mistress. We are all she has left, you see.”

BOOK: Almost Heaven
6.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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