Authors: Christina Brooke
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical romance, #Regency
In the carriage on the way home, her fatigued body warred with her overstimulated mind.
“What an evening,” said Clare, falling back amongst the squabs with a dramatic sigh.
“I’ll say it was,” said Aunt Sadie. “What’s this I hear about you and Mr. Huntley, my dear?” she said to Lizzie.
“It’s all a mistake,” said Lizzie. “He asked me to marry him, and now he won’t believe I don’t wish to be his wife.”
“Are you sure you don’t want him?” said Aunt Sadie. “He is very rich, they say. And he would be a good husband. Very solid sort of fellow.”
“You mean dull,” said Clare. “Lizzie can’t marry someone like Huntley.”
“What are you talking about, gel? It’s the dull men make the best husbands. Mark my words. Why, Huntley would not give his wife one moment of anxiety. He doesn’t gamble or drink to excess. And if he is a rake, it’s the first I’ve heard of it.”
Aunt Sadie was right: Mr. Huntley would make some lady an excellent husband. Indeed, the contrast between the cold, dissolute nobleman she had married and the kind, dependable member of Parliament who wanted to marry her was a stark one.
Clare burst out laughing. “A
“Well, then, if you truly cannot abide Huntley,” said Aunt Sadie, “Lord Steyne’s invitation comes at a very opportune time, I should say.”
Startled, Lizzie said, “Invitation? What invitation?”
“Oh!” said Clare. “In all the excitement over your betrothal, I quite forgot to tell you, Lizzie.” She clasped her hands together and bounced a little in her seat. “I am in transports over it. And I’d thought the marquis so insufferably arrogant.”
Lizzie stared at her.
Clare’s aunt patted her niece’s hand. “Indeed, yes, my love. It is beyond anything. He must have done it at Lydgate’s request, of course. Harcourt, Clare! Think of it. And you are invited also, Lizzie, which makes it all the better.”
Lizzie was far from gratified at Steyne’s bold maneuver. But she was touched by Aunt Sadie’s happy acceptance of Lizzie’s good fortune in receiving such an invitation.
Steyne had moved swiftly to set his plan in train. He clearly meant her to attend the party as Lizzie Allbright rather than Lady Alexandra.
No, she was getting ahead of herself. She had not yet agreed to Steyne’s plan, not in so many words. How dared he go ahead with it, regardless of her wishes?
But her annoyance lacked conviction. She knew she would be obliged to do as he bade her in the end. The notion galled her so much, she ground her teeth.
“Well, Lizzie. What do you say?” said Clare. “Is it not the best news? I daresay both of us might get husbands there before the season even begins. You will need to rid yourself of Huntley first, of course.”
“Very true,” said Lizzie.
“I wonder who will be present,” said Clare.
Lizzie wondered also. She could only hope none of her own relations would be present. “You must winkle the information out of Lord Lydgate on your jaunt tomorrow.”
“The Duke of Montford is reputed to be a very cold fish,” said Aunt Sadie. “The most powerful man in England, and not to be crossed. You must both behave impeccably while at Harcourt.” She pointed an elegant finger at Clare. “And that means you, my dear.”
“You mean I must talk as if I have not a brain in my head,” said Clare, turning her mouth down. “No politics, or—”
“You will find the company far better informed about politics than you are, miss,” said her aunt. “You need not hold your tongue. In fact, there is nothing worse than a pretty little ninny with nothing to say for herself. Just do not express yourself with such
Clare. Passion is so gauche.”
Clare muttered that of course, she would not wish to be gauche.
The word “passion” in connection with the visit to Harcourt made Lizzie’s thoughts turn to Steyne and his express intention to seduce her. The knowledge that if she consented to attend this party, she would be agreeing to so much more than a sojourn at the Duke of Montford’s principal estate made her insides tighten with apprehension—and with something else, a thrill of remembered pleasure.
She needed to keep her emotions under a tight rein. Lord Steyne might be as handsome as the Devil, but the resemblance did not end there. After the night they spent together, he’d gone on to a career in profligacy few could match, if the reports of him were true. She must not lose her heart to him, whatever came.
You are more than half in love with me already.
Was it true? She did not believe one could fall in love on so slight an acquaintance even if the circumstances of that acquaintance had been forcibly intimate.
No, she was not more than half in love with the Marquis of Steyne.
The passionate, wounded creature behind the lordly veneer … Well, that was something different entirely.
* * *
When Lizzie arrived home, she was surprised to see a sliver of light under Mr. Allbright’s book room door. Then, with a hard pitch in her stomach, she remembered her conversation with Steyne about the vicar. With the tumult of the evening still tumbling through her, she had all but forgotten Mr. Allbright’s part in the affair.
Her protector had known all along. Every time she’d lied, he’d known it. A cringing sense of shame swept through her. How could she face him? But to pass his domain without attempting to see him would make everything worse.
Steeling herself, she scratched on the door. At his invitation, she walked in.
“There you are, Lizzie.” The vicar rose, wiping his spectacles on his handkerchief.
Had she not discovered the truth about Mr. Allbright’s state of mind from Lord Steyne, she would have thought the vicar as placid as ever. Now she detected an alert air about him that gave the lie to his untroubled expression.
“I met Lord Steyne tonight, sir,” said Lizzie without preamble, closing the door behind her.
“Ah.” Mr. Allbright laid his spectacles aside and came out from behind his desk. “Will you tell me all about it, my dear?”
He led her to the sofa before the fire.
When they were seated, Lizzie said, “You know most of it already, it seems.” Hoarse with emotion, she said, “I—I never realized…”
She broke off, biting her lip, staring at her hands. They were clasped together so tightly, her knuckles grew white.
He waited, and she raised her gaze to his to try again. “Your regard has been so precious to me. I hated lying to you.” Her throat became very tight. Her eyes burned. “What you must think of me!” she whispered.
Mr. Allbright’s brows drew together in consternation. He placed both his large, warm hands over hers and squeezed them. “No, no, Lizzie. You must not feel that way. I have not enjoyed keeping my own counsel on the matter of Lord Steyne, either. I have told myself it was because the marquis swore me to secrecy.” He hung his head. “But in fact, I must confess I had a more selfish reason than that. I worried you would leave us, my dear. And I did not want to let you go.”
He looked up at her a little sheepishly. “We have both been a trifle foolish.”
“Oh, I would never have left,” said Lizzie, leaning forward, returning the pressure of his hands on hers. She bit her lip. “I do not wish to go now.”
“But Lizzie, dear, it is time,” said the vicar gently. “Lord Steyne is your husband. And it seems that circumstances have changed since he pledged to leave you here with us.”
“How can I leave you?” This question hadn’t occurred to Lizzie before. Who would care for the vicar when she was gone?
He lightly touched her cheek. “You are a dear girl. But you need not fear I shall be starved of company. My sister is more than willing to come here to live with me.” He hesitated. “In fact, I have already written to her.”
“Already?” She knew now how fledgling birds must feel when thrust from the nest. The flailing, helpless panic in the fall. The soaring joy of flight seemed a distant dream.
Warmly, the vicar said, “Oh, come now, Lizzie. You must not believe that I seek to be rid of you. I hope we may see each other often. But having steeled myself to accept the loss, I feel it is better for us both if we make the initial break as quick as possible.”
He tilted his head with a rather wistful smile. “I would like grandchildren, I think. For you will always be my daughter, you know.”
Even as her heart rejoiced to hear him call her daughter, the allusion to children made heat flood her cheeks. She could not help but think of the manner in which those children would be made. Of Steyne’s stated intention to seduce her. Of the confusion when her body responded so powerfully at the suggestion.
Mr. Allbright seemed not to notice her confusion. “Steyne will manage the business neatly, never fear.”
For an instant, she mistook his meaning and her eyes widened in shock. Then she realized the vicar referred to the business of Steyne incorporating her into his life as his marchioness.
She said, “I am to remain Lizzie Allbright and travel to Harcourt, to the Duke of Montford’s estate. There, Lord Steyne will pretend to court me, and after a decent time we will marry.” Impulsively, she added, “You will perform the ceremony, won’t you, dear sir?”
It would not be a true marriage, but the ritual would mean more to her than the soulless ceremony that took place in her father’s house.
“Nothing would make me happier, my dear,” said Mr. Allbright.
He observed her in silence for some time. Then he said softly, “Something troubles you, child. What is it?”
She had difficulty phrasing her concerns. “The marquis is a very self-contained man, I believe. I have … misgivings about him. Grave ones. And that is not even taking into account his reputation.”
The vicar nodded, as if he had already considered this point. “My dear, were you not already wed, I might well have entertained similar reservations. I might have counseled you against the match.”
Lizzie waited, but when he did not speak again for some time, she prompted, “And now?”
“Now, I think that perhaps God has a plan for you and Lord Steyne.” He gave a rather impish grin she found difficult to interpret. “You might well be his salvation.”
She stared at him. Such a notion seemed incredible. Presumptuous and fanciful.
And yet …
If only she could manage to make Xavier Westruther, Marquis of Steyne happy. If he were to fall in love with her …
She shook her head at herself. Now, that was folly of the worst and most self-destructive kind. “Really, sir, I don’t think—”
“It will take a great deal of bravery and persistence. And cleverness, too,” said Mr. Allbright as if she had not spoken. “But if anyone has that brand of courage, Lizzie, it’s you.”
In a bid to thrust her encounter with Steyne out of her mind, Lizzie visited Mr. Taft the following morning. The old gentleman’s daughter, Joan, had the care of him ordinarily, but Mr. Taft was such a tyrant that Lizzie had taken to visiting every week to allow Joan a respite from her thankless duties.
Though exhausted from the ball and her disturbing conversation with Mr. Allbright, Lizzie had spent the entire night awake in fretful contemplation of her future. Now, she moved around the old gentleman’s dusty, cluttered parlor, feather duster in hand while he growled at her from deep inside his favorite armchair.
Usually she let Mr. Taft’s grumpy insults slide past her, jollying him along with teasing and raillery that he seemed, grudgingly, to enjoy. Today Lizzie did not feel equal to such verbal jousting, so she ignored the occasional barbs he shot at her over the top of his newspaper and set to work with a will.
The vicar’s words to her kept revolving in her mind. She was to be Steyne’s salvation? How, exactly might she go about that, pray?
She was no angel of mercy, though the good people of Little Thurston often seemed to mistake her for one. If any of them knew what a rotten little liar she was, they would think again.
Had she been some poor stray fleeing from persecution, that would have been one thing. The daughter of a wealthy aristocrat who had enjoyed every material luxury was not likely to gain sympathy or understanding for her need to escape.
She couldn’t justify her flight to anyone. She was not about to discuss her father’s brutality, nor her forced marriage, and certainly not that horrible scene she’d witnessed between Lord Bute and Steyne.
The marquis had desired her to carry on the pretense that she’d lost her memory even after her true identity was discovered, but she had to tell Clare the truth.
Clare had led such a comfortable, happy existence wrapped in the love her family. How could she possibly understand what might have driven Lizzie to weave such an elaborate fabrication?
For the first time, Lizzie wondered if the family she had left would claim her. Would they even know her now? She’d spent a solitary childhood at her father’s country estate while he’d lived for most of the year in Town, only occasionally bringing his cronies down for the hunting season.
A wheezing cough from Mr. Taft recalled her to her surroundings. The parlor in which he sat was a sunny apartment, cluttered beyond belief with more old books and knickknacks than a curiosity shop. Ordinarily, the staff were forbidden to touch anything in this room, but between teasing and persuasion, Lizzie had managed to convince Mr. Taft to allow her to dust once in a while.
The chime of the clock reminded Lizzie of her other duty. “It’s time for your medicine, Mr. Taft.”
He hunched his shoulders and rattled the newspaper he was reading. “That stuff’s horse piss. Don’t bother giving it to me. I won’t drink it.”
“Such shocking language, sir,” she said lightly. “And in the presence of a lady, too. Now, Mr. Taft, the doctor says you must have it, and so you must. Miss Joan will have my head on a platter if I don’t give you your dose.”
“That milksop.” The old man lowered his paper. “Silly female wouldn’t say boo to a goose. Bring me the brandy instead.”
Patience was a virtue Lizzie was obliged to practice often, but today it seemed all the more difficult to maintain her calm in the face of Mr. Taft’s rudeness.