Authors: Audrey Harrison
Elizabeth had not uttered anything further since entering the house and Michael laid her down on the bed carefully. He was taken by surprise when her hold tightened around his neck as he tried to pull away. “Don’t leave me,” she whimpered.
“Elizabeth you are on your bed, Violet is here, you must rest now.” he said gently as he tried to pull her arms away.
“Am I truly unlovable? Was Miranda right?” She whispered.
Michael paused before sitting down on the bed next to her. He should be leaving her bedchamber as soon as he could, but Violet was present, providing respectability. The reality was though, he would not have cared if it was respectable or not, he could not leave her when she sounded so vulnerable.
“Miranda was not right.” He said firmly, holding her hands in his and squeezing them, firmly, but gently. “We will speak about this when you will recall the conversation, but remember this Elizabeth; you are one of the most loveable people I have ever met. Don’t ever believe anything less.” He bent to kiss her cheek, but she had turned her face and he grazed her lips. Michael pulled back in shock, but Elizabeth’s eyes were closed and she seemed to have not noticed the kiss. “Goodnight my ward.” Michael said, partly to remind himself who he was dealing with.
He stood and moved away from the bed to allow Violet access to Elizabeth and said his goodnight to his sister. He did not want to hang around for the inevitable questioning that Violet would start as soon as she could. How could he answer questions coherently when all he could think of was how soft Elizabeth’s lips were and how his heart had pounded when he felt her breath on his lips?
The morning light eventually woke Elizabeth. She tried to move her head but groaned when the whole world seemed to dance in her temple. Movement was overrated she decided, and lay back on her pillows. She remembered the night before all too clearly, the champagne had only dulled the events of the journey home, not the shame of finding out she was the joke of the season. She thought again of how the ladies must see her, and allowed her insecurities to surface. Years of not being accepted as the girl she was by her father, and then the hurtful words of Miranda, had subdued the naturally confident person she normally was. This latest episode only reinforced what she tried to fight against, that she was destined to be unloved.
As she lay under the covers, parts of the journey home came back to her. She smiled as she remembered Michael and Violet laughing at her hiccups, then she remembered Michael carrying her into the house. She had felt so secure in his arms. He had held her firmly, but with gentleness and the urge to rest her head against him had been too great to resist. She blushed at her forwardness, but then remembered the touch of his lips and her blush deepened. His lips had been warm and she had wanted him to carry on, but he had pulled back quickly. Even Michael who was obliged to be her supporter did not want to be close to her.
Elizabeth only moved when her companion, Martha entered her room. “Morning Elizabeth, I believe you may need some help this morning.” Violet had advised the long-time servant that Elizabeth had been upset.
“I need you to chop off my head.” Elizabeth groaned.
“You know I don’t like the sight of blood,” came the straight faced response. “I suggest a hearty breakfast instead.”
“Urgh,” Elizabeth moaned. “Has anyone ever told you, you have an evil streak, Martha Fairfield?”
“You have, constantly.” came the smiling response.
Eventually Elizabeth entered the drawing room, looking pale and drawn. She had avoided the dining room and gingerly sat near the slightly open window. Violet smiled to Edward as Elizabeth took a steadying breath.
“Good morning Elizabeth,” Edward boomed from across the room.
Elizabeth flinched and closed her eyes before answering, “Good morning.”
Violet laughed, “Edward, don’t tease her. Speak quietly; you know we ladies cannot take the affects of alcohol as you can. Are you well dear?”
“I never want to taste champagne again.” Elizabeth whispered.
“Oh you will, just not today. Michael will be here shortly, he sent a message round this morning. You are to go riding together.”
“Oh, no! I couldn’t possibly.” Elizabeth groaned, her stomach had lurched in a dangerous fashion at the thought of having to ride a horse.
“You must!” Violet insisted with the tone of voice that would accept no argument. “If you hide today everyone will think it is because of the bet. You must face the world and show them that it does not matter.”
“I just want to go home.” Elizabeth almost whispered to herself, then a lump formed in her chest as she realised that she did not have a home to go to.
Violet heard the comment, but chose not to respond. She would speak to her brother rather than trying to speak to Elizabeth in her delicate state. She ushered Elizabeth out of the room after forcing her to drink some tea.
Elizabeth returned to the drawing room dressed in her riding outfit. She was not quite as pale as she had been, the exertion of changing in a matter of minutes had increased her colour slightly, but she was feeling even more delicate. She greeted Michael with a wan smile and they quickly left the house and mounted their horses.
Michael led the way through the streets and into Hyde Park without starting a conversation. Elizabeth wondered if he had also over indulged as he looked pale and drawn. She tried to fight away the thoughts that he may be angry because she had kissed him, or had he kissed her? She did not know what to think except that every time she tried, it hurt, badly.
As they entered the gates Michael turned to her with a smile that did not reach his eyes. “We are going to give this despicable lot a taste of their own medicine. You need to go along with whatever you are faced with. It may not be easy.”
Elizabeth nodded her head slightly and tried to suppress the knot forming in her stomach. Life had been far easier when she had known exactly what she needed to do. This world was proving more difficult and complicated than she could possibly have imagined.
They rode through the park nodding to one or two people as they passed, but not stopping initially. Elizabeth had the feeling Michael was looking for someone in particular. She was proved right when she heard him mutter “at last” under his breath as he saw Lady Wilmslow and her daughter, and turned his horse in their direction.
“Good morning Lady Wilmslow,” Michael greeted her as they approached the pair. Elizabeth was both wary and alert; she had no idea what Michael was going to do. “Did you have a good evening last night?”
“We did,” smiled Lady Wilmslow, a middle aged dame, who almost filled the carriage she was riding in. Her expression was that of annoyance, her permanently pinched mouth making her constantly look as if she had just eaten something which had disagreed with her. She smiled at Michael. “Although we were sad to see your early departure, my Lord.”
“Ah, we didn’t want to over indulge ourselves, as after all, we have the Duke of Richmond’s party tonight, and a favourite of my ward shall be in attendance. As with all young ladies, she wants to look her best for those who are enamoured with her.”
“Oh really. Do we have a romance in the air Lord Dunham?” Lady Wilmslow asked, clearly looking Elizabeth up and down and almost sneering. Elizabeth met her gaze without flinching, giving no sign that her insides were tense.
“We may indeed, Lady Wilmslow, but I’m afraid it doesn’t bode well for you though.” came Michael’s smooth reply.
“How so?” Lady Wilmslow asked, still smiling, but she looked a little wary.
“Your wager will be wasted. After all, when Miss Rufford has the chance of marrying a Lord, I am sure she would reject any advances from Mr Brooke, wouldn’t you agree?” Michael’s tone had not changed, it was still light and pleasant, but Elizabeth shuddered to think that anyone could look at another person with such a glint in their eyes.
Lady Wilmslow faltered and flushed, she started a sentence three times before she could actually decide how to respond. “Lord Dunham, it was a little joke. Nothing more! I do hope you don’t think our silly group meant any harm by it?”
“I would hope that no one would be foolish enough to start such a scheme maliciously.” Michael responded quietly.
“Not at all!” Lady Wilmslow laughed, the sound a little high pitched for comfort. “Just some silly foolishness. Miss Rufford knew it to be so, didn’t you my dear?”
Elizabeth knew she should be magnanimous, but she chose to follow Michael’s lead. “But the bets were going so high Lady Wilmslow. It seemed to be a serious business to me.”
“Oh my foolish girl, we weren’t serious at all! I should have explained to you. It’s my fault, I should have told you about it from the start. I shall have to make it up to you; I would not want you to be upset by any confusion caused over such nonsense. Oh dear me no!”
Michael let Lady Wilmslow rattle on while her daughter was quiet throughout the exchange. When he had heard enough, he turned to her daughter. “Miss Wilmslow, I was surprised to hear how much your bet was. It must have been a full quarter’s pin money.”
Miss Wilmslow flushed and glared at Elizabeth. “I meant no harm, my Lord.” It was obvious that every word cost her a great deal.
“I’m sure you didn’t. After all, the amounts being placed on you, make Miss Rufford’s scheme pale into insignificance.”
Lady Wilmslow spluttered before managing to speak. “There is a book running on my daughter? How dare they!”
“I beg your pardon?” Michael asked, turning back to the older woman.
“This is ridiculous, why would they have bets against my daughter?”
“Why indeed, Lady Wilmslow. I asked myself the same question when I found out about the bet on my ward. Your response about the one on your daughter would suggest there is a difference between the two girls. Is there a difference between the two cases?” Michael asked quietly, very quietly.
“No of course not,” Lady Wilmslow snapped. “I think this foolishness has gone far enough, don’t you Lord Dunham? We need to nip it in the bud, but you can leave it with me, my Lord. I will sort everything out.”
“I can sort it out to my own satisfaction, thank you. I am inclined to sort it out in the way that I think would be most effective, and remind those who started such a scheme, that they should think twice before doing something to cross me,” Michael replied smoothly.
Lady Wilmslow paled slightly before answering. “You would do me a great favour if you let me sort this nonsense out for you Lord Dunham. I should have nipped it in the bud at the start, so I feel a hint of responsibility, please let me be the one to rectify it. There is no need to trouble yourself over it.”
“As you wish.” Michael bowed to the two ladies and moved away. The conversation had been noted by others in the vicinity, and all were watching with interest. Michael nodded to a few while moving through the park to the area that was less occupied. Throughout, he had spoken of nonsense to Elizabeth. When they had space in front of them, he encouraged his horse to gallop and Elizabeth followed suit.
They galloped as far as they could before turning and making their way back to the crowd, equally as fast. Michael pulled his horse to a stop before they could be heard by anyone and turned to Elizabeth with a smile, a genuine smile this time. “That should do it.”
“What’s that?” Elizabeth asked with her first real smile of the day. The ride had invigorated her and she felt much better once the feeling of nausea had subsided.
“Lady Wilmslow will stop the silliness, and she will not dare to allow anything else to start again. Added to that, we have shown everyone else that you are in excellent spirits, and are not affected by last night at all.”
Elizabeth laughed. “Remind me not to cross you. I’m still not sure how or why Lady Wilmslow would bow to your demands; you are both the same rank after all, but she looked positively afraid.”
“Yes, but I am not married to Lord Wilmslow and having an affair with his younger brother. Something which I discovered a few weeks ago, when I disturbed them in a less than dignified position.” Michael grinned.
“Oh my goodness! How do these people ever survive with each other? There are too many dalliances for me to keep up with,” Elizabeth said shaking her head. “Life was far simpler in Lancashire.”
“Do you not enjoy seeing the foibles of others?” Michael asked. He was used to the women of his acquaintance being desperate to hear the latest gossip, or scandal.
“Sometimes I do find the foolishness of others funny, I admit, but it seems that it too often hurts others, and I dislike that,” Elizabeth replied soberly. “One point I need to question you on though. You told an untruth to Lady Wilmslow, you said that there was the chance I could marry a Lord and that is not true. You should not spread rumours which will make you look foolish when the truth is found out.”
Michael had to try and dismiss the image of Elizabeth becoming Lady Dunham that flashed through his mind at her words before answering. “There is a Lord interested in you my dear. Whether it comes to marriage or not will remain to be seen.”
Elizabeth was distracted from asking anything further by the arrival of Mr Dawson. “Good morning to you both, delighted to see you,” he greeted as he rode up.
The party turned back to the main throng as John teased Elizabeth about too much champagne. “I admit I shall not be indulging again.” She responded. “My headache this morning was not something I would want to experience again. It felt as if a whole army was marching in there,” she smiled at him. “I admit to being reluctant to take part in this outing, but it has done the trick and cleared the army away!”