Authors: Audrey Harrison
“He is considered to be quite a catch, and has enough family wealth to exclude him from being a fortune hunter, so you need not have any worries on that count.”
“I have no worries at all. I am not planning my future with Lord Halkyn after two dances,” Elizabeth was annoyed that Michael seemed so keen to arrange a match for her.
“I was just mentioning that there are worse men,” Michael said a little defensively.
“And I was just mentioning that I was not planning a wedding.” Elizabeth snapped.
“Oh,” Michael could not help the feelings of relief, but he was not happy with the way they were speaking to each other. Until this point they had been on the same side and he did not want that to change. “You do know I have your best interest at heart, don’t you?” He had the overwhelming desire to make the peace with her. It was a feeling he did not usually experience when dealing with people, especially ladies.
Elizabeth smiled, “Not even a little bit is for selfish reasons? To get rid of your ward that little earlier?”
Michael laughed relieved to find she did not sulk, “Well maybe a little selfishness, but your welfare was the overriding motivation.”
“Thank you Michael, but please let me make my own choices. I promise to come to you if I need advice. I have learned enough since meeting you to know that you have some wisdom to offer at times.”
“Your flattery overwhelms me Elizabeth.” he responded drily, but his eyes were filled with warmth.
Lord Halkyn interrupted the pair at the end of the dance. He had come to collect Elizabeth to go in to supper. Michael bowed and moved away, all the pleasure of the last half hour receding. Lord Halkyn ignored or failed to notice any stiffness on Michael’s part and escorted Elizabeth into the supper room, sitting them at a table for two. It was in the centre of the large room so there was no impropriety about it, but Elizabeth would have preferred to be on a table with Violet for a number of reasons, with the main one being that it was the table where Michael sat.
“I should like to call on you tomorrow if you will permit me? Perhaps you would accompany me for a drive around the park in my phaeton?” Lord Halkyn asked as they ate.
“I usually ride out with my guardian and Mr. Dawson in the morning; I enjoy the exercise more than being paraded around. You are welcome to join us if you wish,” Elizabeth countered. She was not giving up her morning out with Michael so easily; sometimes it was the only time of the day she could relax.
“I didn’t think you were one of the usual ladies of the
, obsessed with how you are best seated in a phaeton. It will be a pleasure to accompany you,” came the smooth reply.
Elizabeth wondered if he was always so smooth. It struck her that he seemed a little unemotional in some ways. She decided to prod a little to see if she could provoke some emotion that was hidden beneath that still surface. “I am presuming it is a compliment to be different from the other ladies my Lord? I would hate to think I was the oddity of the season.”
“Miss Rufford, being different is a distinct advantage, believe me.” Halkyn responded, seeming unruffled at her slight challenge.
“I shall take it as a compliment then.” Elizabeth replied with a small smile, suddenly aching to be back home.
Lord Halkyn joined the morning ride as planned. They rode out with Violet, which was an unusual occurrence. Violet had insisted that they needed another female to even the numbers slightly and to avoid causing something of a stir, even though one of the men was Elizabeth’s guardian. The party rode through Hyde Park, taking the well trodden pathways that the original group of three had found they preferred. Elizabeth started out riding next to Violet, but all too soon the shift occurred and Lord Halkyn joined Elizabeth while the others rode together.
“Lord Dunham has certainly been seen more in society since your introduction, it seems.” Lord Halkyn said, opening the conversation.
“Yes, I believe he has been a reluctant participant until now. I appreciate his efforts.” Elizabeth replied.
“He must think highly of you to exert himself.” Lord Halkyn said amiably.
“He has a strong sense of duty.” Elizabeth shrugged. She wished that Michael was exerting himself because he enjoyed spending time with her. She was realistic enough though to acknowledge that he was probably just doing what would be expected of any guardian. The thought of being a burden to him saddened her; she had realised a while ago that she wanted to be more than that, far more than that.
“He does, but enough about your guardian, tell me more about you.”
Elizabeth sighed; she was no good at this game. “I don’t paint or play the piano very well, but I can dance and I’ve been told I have quite a good singing voice.”
Lord Halkyn laughed, “You sound as if you are describing a horse! I have to say you aren’t doing a very good job of wooing me, Miss Rufford.”
Elizabeth smiled a little, “You are obviously presuming I want to woo you, my Lord.”
“The more time I spend with you Miss Rufford, the more I am coming to think I would like to get to know you better,” Lord Halkyn said in a quiet voice. “Perhaps we could spend some time without your entourage?”
Elizabeth did not really know what to say. She did not want his attentions, but did not want to appear rude either. “I’m not sure.”
Lord Halkyn turned his most persuasive smile on her, “Come now, I am a friend of Dunham’s, a drive out with me cannot be so dangerous can it?”
“No I suppose not,” Elizabeth replied.
The following day Elizabeth and Lord Halkyn drove out in his phaeton. Elizabeth had found Michael unresponsive when she had asked whether she should have agreed to the outing, and out of frustration had told Michael that she was going to encourage Halkyn’s attentions. She had failed to notice the firm set of Michael’s lips, or the raised eyebrows of his sister.
Violet decided that she had to speak to her brother whatever his response, before he completely lost Elizabeth. So while Elizabeth was being entertained by a man who could make her smile, but not make her laugh or her heart pound, Violet sat down next to Michael and took his hand.
“I think you should declare yourself to Elizabeth,” she said quietly.
“What?” Michael exclaimed, pulling his hand away from his sister.
“Michael you cannot hide from me. I see the way you look at her. I see the way you smile when she is in the room.” Violet persisted.
“She is my ward and I like her!” Michael explained, cursing himself for not being more circumspect when Violet was near. It was typical that she would see what he strove to hide from everyone else.
“We all like her, but I think it is more than mere
with you. I have never seen you respond to anyone in the way you do to her.” Violet persisted.
“This is nonsense,” Michael maintained his defensive position.
“I will tell you what is nonsense! The way you are encouraging Halkyn to chase after her. Have you thought how you will feel if she agrees to marry him?”
“I will feel that I have done my duty.” Michael muttered, trying to ignore the feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach.
“Yes, you will have done your duty, in finding her a husband. But you will have pushed her towards a man who won’t love her the way you would.” Violet said quietly.
“Why won’t he?” Michael asked genuinely puzzled.
Violet realised she was making some progress; Michael had not denied that he did not love Elizabeth. “He is interested now because she is a novelty; but do you not think he would tire of her eventually, no matter how charming we all know she is?”
“He would be a fool if he did.” Michael said with feeling.
“I agree, but have you not noticed how cold Halkyn is? Elizabeth has sensed it, even on such a short acquaintance.”
“Why what has she said? Has he behaved inappropriately?” Michael demanded. He would kill Halkyn if he harmed a hair on Elizabeth’s head.
Violet smiled at her protective brother. “No he has done nothing wrong, but she has said that he seems cold somehow. He has given her the impression that any marriage he entered into would be a business transaction, nothing more.”
“It is in many instances.” Michael acknowledged. The number of arranged marriages that occurred throughout society to achieve the joining of estates could be seen as nothing but a business transaction. Feelings rarely were considered in such situations.
“I agree in some cases, but have you not seen that Elizabeth could never marry on such terms? She is a girl that is passionate about life; she needs to be loved by someone who would not try to stifle her because of the need to fit into society. She does not openly show it, but she yearns to be loved Michael. Halkyn is not the man for her.” Violet insisted.
“Shouldn’t Elizabeth be the one to decide that?” Michael asked, stubbornly sticking to his sense of duty, wanting to let Elizabeth make her own decisions.
“Oh for goodness sake!” Violet said exasperated. “Have you not got to know her over these last weeks? She is insecure about her ability to receive love; she could make the wrong decision quite easily.”
“Don’t be silly, she’s beautiful and very loveable.” Michael said, dismissing Violet’s comments with a wave of his hands.
“Oh yes, she is beautiful, but she has never been told that. Her father wanted a boy and made it clear throughout her life that she was a disappointment. It did not matter how good she was at running his estate, she would always be lacking in his eyes. Then to top it all, along came her cousin and his wife, and added to her feelings of worthlessness. Has she told you what that woman said?” Violet said, her voice rising at the injustice of the situation.
“Yes she told me.” Michael said, remembering his first encounter with Elizabeth.
“And did you notice the look on her face? She has believed every bad thing ever said about her. I am amazed she still has any fire in her after those setbacks. It was all confirmed even more because of that bet. If Halkyn realises how vulnerable she is underneath that tough exterior, he will use it to his own advantage, and you will have helped her make a marriage that will not suit her. She will be married and the envy of most of the
, but she will be unhappy.” Violet insisted.
“What can I do?” Michael asked. He had to admit his sister’s words rang true.
“You can declare yourself.” Violet said simply.
Michael jumped up from his seat. “If you think I am going to take advantage of my position you are sadly mistaken Violet. I am her guardian!” He could not acknowledge to his sister his real fear. If he developed the madness that his father had suffered from, Elizabeth would suffer a far worse fate by being married to him. A marriage to Halkyn might not be perfect, but it would be preferable to a marriage to a madman.
“She loves you Michael.” Violet replied.
“Has she said that?” Michael asked, a little stirring of hope in his chest.
“No,” Violet said honestly, “but I see the way she looks at you, just the same as I see the way you look at her.”
Michael fought against the disappointment he felt. He might not be able to have Elizabeth, but it did not prevent his feelings being any less real. “I will not force her into any marriage she does not want to enter into, but I am not going to force her into a position where she feels obliged to, either.” He could not explain to Violet his fears. After all, she could suffer from the same fate, so he clung to the excuse that Elizabeth was his ward. It was a poor excuse even to his own ears, as many wards married their guardians, but he would not acknowledge any other reason out loud.
“I don’t understand.” Violet said, with a feeling that she did.
“I am not going to put Elizabeth in a situation that she feels obliged to accept any proposal I may have for her. I want her to make her own choices.” Michael tried to sound reasonable.
“And yet, by not declaring yourself, you are preventing her from making an informed choice.” Violet insisted.
“I am not going to say anything Violet, and I don’t want you to say anything on my behalf either.” Michael said firmly.
The thought had crossed Violet’s mind, but she would never put Elizabeth in a position where she may be rejected by Michael. His misplaced sense of duty could result in driving a rift between the pair and Violet was not prepared to risk that. She had to hope that Elizabeth would not hurry into a decision that she would regret.
Michael cursed himself for obviously betraying more than he had thought. He would have to make sure no one could speculate about any potential relationship between himself and Elizabeth, as it would only damage her chance of finding a husband. He admitted that Violet was correct in her assumptions; he had more feelings for Elizabeth than he had ever had for any other woman. He could not do anything about it though. Not only would she bear the stigma that was often attached to wards who married their guardians, she would be married to a potential madman.
He could not risk putting her in harm’s way. Michael did not think that Violet realised his fear of turning out like his father. Everyone in the family had tried to make light of his sire’s illness. The fact that he had stayed in the country during his lifetime had helped. What society had not grasped fully was that the illness was madness. He was sure some people thought it was, but it had never been confirmed. Michael’s uncle had not had the same affliction, but he was well aware that madness ran in families. How could he put anyone, especially Elizabeth, through such scandal? Secrets had a habit of being found out. If it came out that his father had been mad, and not ill, society’s attitude would change towards him, and she would be affected as a consequence. She had been through enough gossip.