Authors: Alissa Johnson
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
Something, she decided, must be done.
“I had hoped it wouldn’t come to this,” she murmured.
“Beg pardon?” William Fletcher, noticeably aged (particularly about the hairline) since his days as the bearer of sad tidings regarding the late Duke of Rockeforte, reluctantly turned his attention from the truly superb trout on his plate to follow his hostess’s gaze. “Ah. At it again, are they?”
“Ever and always.” She watched the pair for a moment more. “I have decided, William, to take advantage of your gracious offer. If it is still available?”
“Yes. Yes, of course it is,” he replied carefully. He scratched at his bulbous nose. “But if you’re not comfortable with the idea, we could give them a bit more time—”
“They’ve been given time enough. I should have agreed to something like this years ago, when you first suggested the idea.” She sighed deeply. “Only, I had rather thought they would have progressed beyond this by now. I had envisioned things coming to their natural conclusion…well, naturally.”
“And so they would, eventually.”
“Eventually,” she decreed, “is taking entirely too long. I’ll speak with Whittaker to night.”
After seeing her guests retire for the evening, Lady Thurston made her way to Whit’s study. It was nearing midnight, but she knew he wouldn’t be in his bedchamber. Not for hours yet. Her late husband, she mused, had spent less time in that
study over the entire course of his life than her son did in the course of a sennight. There were times she wasn’t sure which of them had the better way of it.
As she had long ago learned the benefits of taking her children by surprise, she didn’t bother knocking on the door.
“Am I interrupting?” she asked as she crossed the room and took a seat in front of the desk. “Oh, never mind, I don’t really care. I wish to speak with you, Whittaker.”
Whit started slightly in his chair before groaning and setting down his quill. “Mother, I love you. I adore you. I’ll admit freely and openly to anyone who cares to listen that it is an honor and a privilege to be your son. I would lay down my life for you, but so help me God, if you’re here to lecture me on my duty to beget an heir, I will pack you off to the continent. To night. This minute.”
“That was quite the loveliest thing you have ever said to me,” she replied with a sniff, clearly unfazed by his threat. “The first part, I mean, and so I forgive you for the latter, which I know to be an empty threat as you could never handle the girls on your own.”
“I am most certainly capable—”
“And I love you too,” she continued as if he hadn’t been speaking at all. “You do know that, don’t you? I sometimes worry I don’t say it enough, or too often as if it’s a trifle.”
Whit came out from behind the desk and placed an affectionate kiss on her cheek. “You needn’t worry on either score.”
She sighed happily. “Excellent. Now go sit down. I have something important to discuss with you.”
“Would it further my cause if I brought up the subject of an heir on a daily basis?”
“I didn’t think so. Oh, well. As it happens that’s not why I’m here.”
“Why are you here? Not that you aren’t welcome.”
“Delighted to hear it. Now sit.” She withdrew her hand and used it to make a little shooing motion.
Ever the obedient, if somewhat harassed, son, Whit returned to his seat and gave her a pointed look. She wasted no time.
“It is time you set aside your differences with Mirabelle.”
Whit was on guard immediately. “Has she said something to you?”
That wasn’t like the imp, he thought. She had never before complained to his mother about their arguments. She threatened to on a regular basis, but she’d never actually gone through with it.
“No,” Lady Thurston replied, her eyes narrowing. “Should she have?”
Whit thought it best not to answer that. “I’m surprised by the request, that’s all.”
She gave him a long look before replying. “It is not a request, Whittaker,” she stated coolly. “In my presence, the two of you may play nice for my benefit, but I am not a fool. All the
knows of your adversarial relationship.”
Whit scowled. “I should think people would have more interesting matters to discuss.” At least by now, he silently amended. The animosity between Mirabelle and him was old hat.
“Aside from poverty, oppression, and injustice, there is no matter too insignificant for the
not to notice,” Lady Thurston replied wryly, “and an earl’s obvious animosity toward a young unmarried woman is always good gossip. I have left you two to your little squabbles because it does you good to lose your head from time to time, and because Mirabelle doesn’t appear to suffer unduly from it, but—”
“What do you mean by ‘unduly’?” Whit cut in. “I have never—”
“Raised a hand to her? Publicly humiliated her since becoming an adult? Yes, I know.”
“The same can hardly be said for her,” he replied, recalling several injuries he’d incurred at her hand.
She gave a small nod. “I’m aware of it. It’s another reason I’ve been reluctant to intervene. In your passion to become the antithesis of your father, you occasionally become a trifle self-righteous. I do admire you, Whit, but it’s not healthy to have the fawning respect and admiration of every human being that crosses your path. Mirabelle is good for you.”
“She broke my nose,” he informed her with a grumble.
“Did she?” She sat up straighter in her chair with unabashed interest. “Did she really?”
Lady Thurston thought about that for a moment. “Care to tell me why?”
Whit barely stopped himself from grimacing. The first time had been with a billiards ball more than ten years ago—in retaliation for an extremely lewd comment he made when Mirabelle had interrupted a round of serious imbibing with his friend Alex. The second time had been for attempting to lock her in the library during a house party.
Whit shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I will admit, there were some extenuating circumstances.”
“I thought there might be. You lose your head with her from time to time. It’s good for you.”
Whit frowned at her assessment. He didn’t want to lose control around the imp. He didn’t want to lose control at all. He’d worked to remedy the scandals his father had caused, and also the financial straits in which the man had left the family. Whit had worked too hard to ruin things with a rash temper.
The Thurston earldom was one of the oldest and least respected
titles in the country. No one could even remember why the Cole family had gained an earldom, but anyone caring to do the least bit of research would find that not a single generation had done a thing to further the family name. The Thurston earls had been an assorted lot of cheats, rakes, and wastrels, with the family fortune ebbing and flowing dramatically while their reputation remained unerringly low. His late father had carried on the tradition with great fervor—drinking, sporting, throwing lavish parties, and finally dying in a duel over a woman who was not the Lady Thurston.
however, the newest Earl of Thurston was everything a peer of the realm should be: honorable, charming, handsome, loyal, levelheaded and, thanks to a great deal of hard work and a little good luck, respectably wealthy. Whit cultivated that image diligently, encouraging his sister and cousin to do the same. He was determined that future generations would be proud of their name.
His resolve to be the perfect gentleman, however, was occasionally forgotten when he was in the company of Mirabelle Browning. He’d always known it to be the case, but he hadn’t realized people still paid any attention to their little disagreements. They’d been at it for years, and he’d never tossed her out of the house or ruined her good name (despite his threats), and she’d never cast aspersions on his honor or his status as a gentlemen (in public, at any rate.) The worst of their disagreements occurred in private, and the smaller public insults w ere no more dramatic than the usual barbs traded amongst the
But if people were talking, then it needed to stop.
“Come to a decision, have you?”
Whit blinked as he came out of his musings. “My apologies, I was lost in thought.”
“No apology necessary, I am pleased you are giving serious consideration to what I have said.”
Whit nodded absently. “I’ll speak with the…with Miss Browning. I’m sure we can come to some understanding.”
“Excellent,” Lady Thurston replied. She stood to take her leave but was stopped short of the door by Whit’s question.
“Why bring this up now?”
She turned to give him her full attention. Never one to sit in the presence of a standing lady, Whit was on his feet behind the desk, his brow furrowed thoughtfully as he fiddled with a quill. “Why have you kept quiet all these years, only to speak up today?”
“She was wearing a new gown today. That small but significant change, along with several others, leads me to believe she may finally be looking to acquire a husband.”
Whit set the quill down and stared at her. “A husband? The imp?” he managed to choke out.
“Yes, a husband,” Lady Thurston replied. “She is a woman after all, not wealthy, and in case you have not noticed, there are very few options open to us when it comes to securing our means of support.”
“I always thought she’d choose to be a governess, or someone’s companion.”
That wasn’t really true. He hadn’t thought much on it at all, to be honest. He had always just assumed Mirabelle would remain unmarried, that she would forever be about the London town house and Haldon Hall. During one of his more fanciful moments he had imagined the two of them, old and grey, seated before the fire in the front parlor and taking swings at each other with their canes.
“Well, she won’t,” he heard his mother say, and it took him a minute to work out that she was speaking of Mirabelle’s possible career as a governess and not her aim with a walking stick.
Because he could think of nothing else to say, he settled for a simple, “Are you certain of this?”
“Not at all. It is merely a guess, but in the event that it is true, I will not have her chances ruined by hostility between the two of you. It is time she had a family and home of her own.”
She has a home and family here.
The thought was no less vehement for having come unbidden, and the force of it rendered him momentarily stunned. Uncomfortable, he set it aside. “I’ll not stand in her way.”
“Of course you won’t, dear.”
Whit nodded and watched his mother leave. A new dress. That was the difference he’d been unable to identify that morning. As a general rule, Mirabelle wore rather drab colors of indeterminate material and unremarkable cut. This morning she’d been wearing something light and flowing. Had it been purple? He couldn’t remember. What ever it had been, it had been unlike her.
As was the blue satin he’d seen in her box. Then again, perhaps such undergarments were the new rage in ladies’ trousseaus. How the devil should he know?
He turned the quill over with his fingers, unaware that he was scowling.
Was she really looking for a husband?
Probably not, he decided. Mirabelle had been on the marriage mart for years now and had never shown the least interest in catching a husband. Her new wardrobe must be a result of something else.
Whit mulled over the possibilities in his head for awhile before giving it up and deciding simply to ask her when he informed her of their new truce. And as he had some idea of where she could be found at present, he decided now was as good a time as any to do just that.
Mirabelle made the short walk from her room to Kate’s, blissfully unaware she was the topic of conversation in another part of the house.
She had decided after dinner that it was time to address the ridiculous issue of spying with Kate. With that purpose in mind, she checked to make certain there was light coming from under the door before knocking softly. She was answered with a moderate-sized crash of what sounded like a chair hitting the wooden floor, followed by a great deal of indecipherable noise and movement. As it was Kate’s room, Mirabelle wasn’t the least surprised by the sound of furniture being knocked over, but the rest was a mystery.
“Kate?” she called quietly against the wood. “Kate, are you all right?”
There was a moment of complete stillness from inside and then the sound of footsteps and the clack of the bolt being thrown back. Kate’s face, when it finally appeared, was flushed, distracted, and just a little bit annoyed.
“Why didn’t you say it was only you?”
Mirabelle’s brows rose. “Who else were you expecting?”
“I don’t know,” Kate answered, peeking her head out to look down the hall. “Whit, I suppose. He came nosing about last night. And there’s that new friend of his, Mr. Hunter. I didn’t care for the way he was staring at me over dinner.”
Unable to stop herself, Mirabelle looked over her shoulders. “Do you really think a guest would be so bold as to show up at your door?”
“I suppose not. I…did you get a clear look at him?” Kate asked, pulling back. “Did he seem at all…familiar to you?”
Mirabelle pictured the handsome, dark-haired man who’d sat farther down the table from her. “Yes, I saw him, and no, he didn’t seem familiar.” She grinned wickedly. “Although, he seemed rather interested in becoming familiar with you.”
Kate merely snorted and peeked around the corner again. “The interest isn’t returned.”
“Are you going to let me in, Kate, or shall we drag a pair of chairs out and enjoy the fine hall air while we eat the biscuits I know you secreted from the kitchen? It’d be almost alfresco.”
“Hmm. What? Oh!” Kate smiled sheepishly and stepped back, closing and locking the door after Mirabelle. “I’m sorry, Mira. I’m a bit distracted.”
“Yes, I gathered as much.”
Mirabelle took in the familiar room with a glance. It was something of a mess, as was usual. Gowns, gloves, and bonnets had been neatly tucked away, but there were papers littering the desk, piled in toppling stacks and sticking out from drawers. The bed was unmade—the pale blue counterpane twisted and pulled back as if Kate had crawled in, tossed and turned for awhile, and then crawled back out again. Books had been piled haphazardly next to the bed and on the window seat. The desk chair was overturned, a hairbrush had been knocked off the vanity, and for some inexplicable reason, there was a teacup on the floor.