Authors: Elizabeth Aston
Tags: #Single Authors, #Historical, #Holidays, #Romance, #Literature & Fiction, #Short Stories, #Historical Romance, #Single Author
“You are right. I wonder how it might be contrived without my appearing as the demon of the piece.”
They both looked across the ballroom toward Valentine and Marbeck, who were deep in conversation. Sir Richard said, “May I count upon your help in this matter, Lady Amelia?”
“Certainly you may, provided my name is never mentioned in connection with anything scandalous. I need to keep my reputation unsullied if I am to achieve my objective and marry Lord Marbeck.”
“Then I have an idea that I think will work.”
ad Sir Richard but known it, the conversation between Valentine and Lord Marbeck was not at all amicable. As they were speaking, Lord Marbeck drew Valentine out of the dance and, with a hand on her elbow, guided her on to the terrace that led from the ballroom. This caused no remarks; it was a hot evening, and several couples had left the ballroom, which was stifling from the press of people and the hundreds of candles.
Lord Marbeck had not meant to raise the subject of Sir Richard with Valentine. It was none of his business and better left to Lord Mountjoy. Yet in some way that he didn’t care to examine, he was dismayed by what he had heard earlier that day. Dismayed, disappointed—and disturbed.
He had been talking to Lord Mountjoy in the lobby of the House of Lords when another member came up to them. It was Lord Fanshawe, a man whom neither Mountjoy nor Marbeck particularly liked. He greeted them civilly, a thin smile on his scornful mouth. He had a slight lisp, which gave his conversation a hissing tone, and he said to Lord Mountjoy, “I gather I am to congratulate your protégé on her forthcoming nuptials.”
Lord Mountjoy said, “What on earth are you talking about? What protégé, what nuptials?”
“Why, Miss Welburn’s. It is all over town that she is to marry Sir Richard Brindley. I had imagined that you stood in loco parentis to the chit, and that Brindley would have come to you for consent. It is an attachment of considerable standing, I believe, dating back to their time in India. She has behaved with some reticence, but one gathers that there was a friendship between them of a nature that must inevitably lead to marriage. You had best see to it, Mountjoy, if you don’t wish her reputation to suffer; abominable to see her cold-shouldered by the
, don’t you agree? Although, of course, you have never cared for such things yourself; you are above the concerns and scandals of the ordinary world. You will excuse me; I see Lassington over there, and I want a word with him.” He gave a slight bow and went away, leaving Lord Marbeck and Lord Mountjoy staring at one another.
Mountjoy finally said, “I always thought Fanshawe a very vulgar fellow. His title may go back to the dawn of antiquity, but he has no notion of how to behave. He has no manners at all.”
“Is there an attachment between Miss Welburn and Sir Richard?”
Lord Mountjoy said, “They knew one another in India, but she has never spoken of that time. Lady Mountjoy, who is very much aware of what goes on with these sort of matters, said to me only the other night that Valentine does not at all like Sir Richard and rather goes out of her way to avoid him.”
“Sometimes avoidance is a sign of strong feeling,” Lord Marbeck said.
“You think so? I doubt it. I’m not sure that Valentine has formed a particular attachment to any man, and she need not do so. I know her father wishes her to marry well, by which he does not mean necessarily the kind of marriage that is desirable in the eyes of the world. He is a man of sense, he knows that a so-called advantageous marriage is not always the best thing for a young woman of spirit. I am sure he would much rather see his daughter married to a sensible man of modest fortune than to a fool or a wicked man of great wealth. And Sir Richard’s reputation is such that one would not want any young lady whom one cared about to form any kind of connection with him.”
Lord Mountjoy had no need to elaborate, for both men understood what he was talking about: Sir Richard’s unsavoury habits were pretty well known at the clubs.
Lord Marbeck said, “You might drop her a hint as to what kind of a man he is.”
“I might, although she is not a young lady who takes kindly to advice. I will mention it to Lady Mountjoy. She will know what to do. Now as to the second reading of this bill—” And they turned to the more immediate matters before them.
Marbeck was unable to put this conversation from his mind, and it was the subject that he unwisely raised with Valentine at the ball.
As her colour heightened, she was barely able to restrain her disappointment and fury. She forced herself to question her feelings: why should she feel disappointed? Was it because she risked losing Lord Marbeck’s good opinion? And why did she value his good opinion so highly? Nonetheless, he had again shown himself what she judged him to be at their first meeting: one of those infuriating men who felt they had a right to interfere and lay down the law to anyone who happened to belong to the female half of mankind.
Had they not been in company, she might have said some very cutting things. As it was, she drew herself up straight, gave a slight curtsy, thanked him for his concern, and said in a cold voice, “It is really no business of yours, Lord Marbeck, with whom and to what degree I am acquainted with anyone. I have known Sir Richard since we were both in India, so it is an acquaintance of several years. I do not allow anyone to suggest to me whom it is wise or unwise for me to be on terms of friendship with, or indeed something warmer if I wish.”
Her face pale with anger, she turned on her heel and went back into the ballroom.
Lady Mountjoy caught sight of her, and with a sinking feeling made her way through the crowd to ask what had caused her to look like that. “Are you quite well?”
Valentine plied her fan to and fro, saying, “It is only the heat. You would think I would be used to it, but somehow in such a crush it becomes quite oppressive.”
She did find it oppressive; the room that a few moments before been a glittering assembly, a setting for pleasure and enchantment, had become instead a pit of hell, full of people with alien faces jostling against one another. A heavy, unpleasantly musky scent filled the air, and the candles seemed to flicker and grow darker, throwing tarnishing shadows over the many mirrors and turning the ballroom into a shifting, tawdry circus.
Lady Mountjoy, looking at Valentine’s face and judging that there had been an uncomfortable encounter between her and Lord Marbeck, said in a calm voice, “I, too, find it exceedingly hot, and I think the evening is far enough advanced that we may slip away if you would care to, without causing any comment.”
Valentine remained upset and angry with Lord Marbeck. When Lady Mountjoy, prompted by Lord Mountjoy, ventured to raise the subject of her previous friendship with Sir Richard, Valentine cut her short. “I am surely permitted to choose my friends.” There was something so ferocious in her face that Eliza felt it wiser to say no more, but she later gave it as her opinion to Mountjoy that Valentine didn’t give a button for Sir Richard. “I do believe the man she cares for is Lord Marbeck, but clearly there has been some kind of falling-out.”
Lord Mountjoy, preoccupied with political affairs, said, “How extremely tiresome all this young love is. I daresay she will sort herself out in due course. I don’t want to have to write an uncomfortable letter to Philip telling him what she is about.”
“If Lord Marbeck’s affections are engaged—if he is indeed in love with her—you can hardly call it young love,” Elizabeth said with asperity. “He’s a man of one-and-thirty, no adolescent stripling in the throes of an infatuation.”
“Well, let us hope it may come to something. I have a high regard for Marbeck and would hate to see him shackled to Lady Amelia. Valentine would lead him a fine dance, but he won’t mind that.”
s a result of all this, when Valentine met Sir Richard riding in the park with Lady Amelia, she was tempted to accept his invitation to ride out to his manor house the next day.
“The Everetts have arrived; is that not good news?” he said. “They are at my house staying with my sister, who resides there at present.”
Lady Amelia interrupted to say, with an affected smile, “Oh, yes, pray do join us, Miss Welburn. I long to meet the Everetts. I hear such interesting things of them, and it will be a delightful expedition. I believe the manor is an historic and most attractive house, is it not, Sir Richard? I long to see it.”
Sir Richard said, “It is historic, Lady Amelia. It dates back to the Middle Ages and boasts a moat, wood-panelled rooms, and even a ghost, although I have to confess that I have never seen it.”
That brought another trill of laughter from Lady Amelia and a toss of her artfully arranged curls, which reminded Valentine how much she disliked her. Why should she even think of spending a day in her company? Yet to go with Sir Richard would be to assert her independence, to show that she cared nothing for what the Mountjoys, let alone Lord Marbeck, thought of her. And what harm could there be in such an outing? She would not be alone with him; she would be accompanied by Lady Amelia and doubtless a groom, so there could be no objections on the grounds of propriety.
She was, however, somewhat disconcerted the next day when Sir Richard drew up outside Mountjoy House in his curricle with no Lady Amelia but only a groom standing behind. As Valentine came out from the house, she hesitated and asked, “Where is Lady Amelia?”
“Do not worry, she will be there before us. She has gone ahead with her brother, who also wanted to see the manor; he is very keen on ghosts, I believe. He is an amiable rattle. I’m sure you know him.”
Valentine had met three of the Northrop brothers and liked them no better than she liked their sister. She said, “I’m not sure that I should travel with you in your curricle.”
He laughed at her. “Concerned for your reputation? It’s perfectly all right, I assure you. It is an open carriage, and there will be my groom behind us. Go and ask Lady Mountjoy; she will give you permission.”
That irritated Valentine. Why should she ask permission to do what she wanted? She said rather coldly, “Lady Mountjoy is not at home at the moment. I told her I would be going out today with you and Lady Amelia, so I do not need her consent.”
It was pleasant enough to be driving through the country lanes, and Valentine’s spirits rose; it was good to get away from London into the fresh air, and she had not seen enough of the surrounding countryside to dull the delights of rural England.
Sir Richard exerted himself to please her, keeping to unexceptional and impersonal topics, and she began to relax and feel at ease in his company.
“It is farther than I had thought,” she said. “Surely we have been travelling for much longer than half an hour. At this rate, we will not be able to spend much of the day in the company of the Everetts. I have to return to London in good time, as I have some engagements.”
“Oh, as to that, don’t fret,” said Sir Richard carelessly. “I will keep an eye on the time.”
Another half hour later, they came to a charming hamlet with a few thatched houses set around a village green. Valentine said how picturesque it was, but this drew no response from Sir Richard. He drove straight through the village, then turned into an entrance marked by a pair of weathered heraldic beasts perched above dilapidated stone gateposts. They were now on a drive, and Sir Richard slowed to a walking pace as the curricle bumped over ruts and bumps.
Valentine was surprised. She had not thought he was a man to take so little care of his property. The drive curved, and a minute later the curricle drew up in front of a house. It was pleasing enough, with pleasant proportions, but it could never be described as an historic manor house.
“Where is the manor house I was promised, Sir Richard?” Valentine said in a teasing voice. “Does that no more exist than the ghost?”
Sir Richard didn’t reply but held out his hand to help her down. “This is not Brindley Manor. This is another house I happen to own.”
“And the Everetts are here, and not in the manor?”
The house seemed to her to have a deserted appearance; it did not look as though anyone were staying there. Most of the windows were shuttered, and through the archway into the stables, she could see grass growing between the cobbles. There seemed to be no sign of any horses or carriages there, either.
Sir Richard nodded to the groom, who led the curricle and its pair of horses through the archway. Then, taking Valentine very firmly by the arm, Sir Richard guided her up to the front door, pushed it open, and thrust her inside.
By this time, Valentine knew that something was very wrong. She was alarmed but kept her voice steady as she said, “Sir Richard, I do not know what this is about, or why you have brought me to this place. Please take me back to London at once. I can see that neither Lady Amelia and her brothers nor the Everetts are here. This is some kind of a trick you have played upon me, and I do not care for it.”
“You shall have to learn to care for it, my dear. We have come full circle—to where we should have been two years ago, had you not taken fright at rumours that had very little foundation. You are quite right, there is no one else here, just you and I. There is no question of our returning to London. You will stay here tonight as my guest, then tomorrow you may return to London if you wish, although this single night away will mean that your life has changed forever.”