The creaking of the carriage wheels melded with the clatter of stones along the country road, lulling Ambrose Brooks into what might have been a pleasant stupor, if not for his father.
“And look there at the way the trees have been arranged around the perimeter to keep anyone from peering in. Simply marvelous.” Lewis held the curtain of the carriage window aside with a singled bejeweled hand, a boyish smile lighting his face.
“All of this will be yours, you know, through your new wife.”
“Yes, Father, please tell me another dozen times about the purpose for this journey.” Ambrose knew his tone dripped venom, but he cared not. For the better part of the day, they had been on the road, and his backside was sore from the wooden seat that the plush embroidery of the covering had ceased to cushion several miles back. He adjusted for what felt like the hundredth time, and put his boot up on the seat across from him, next to his father.
Lewis looked down at the offending shoe and pursed his lips, but ultimately kept silent about it as he turned his attentions back to the road and the extensive gardens they passed.
“Why are you looking out there, Father? As you said, the trees are so cunningly planted as to keep out the prying eyes of passersby.”
“Sometimes, Ambrose, knowing a thing is there is almost as good as seeing it for what it is.”
“Like the beauty of a woman?”
“All of the missives and messages agree that Eleanor is quite…” Lewis, doubtless about to offer another platitude about the appearance of the woman Ambrose was supposed to marry, cut off, interrupted by his son’s voice.
“All of the missives and messages sent by people who personally know the Beaumont family, who likely stand to gain something by ensuring that the young lady finds an adequate match, and quickly.”
“It is true that tenants on their lands have offered vouchers as to her great beauty, but the accounts differ enough that they are not likely coordinated or … solicited.” Lewis reached inside his coat to a pocket, and not for the first time. Ambrose flicked his eyes from his father’s face to the place in his coat and then back again, wondering what was stored there that Lewis felt necessary to keep checking.
“I never wanted this,” Ambrose sighed and slumped farther in his seat, but sat up as the carriage passed over a particularly rocky patch and bumped his head against the rear wall of their conveyance.
“You wanted to marry, surely. You know that in order to fully take your place in the family business, you need to be master of your own house with the attendant wife and staff.”
“Yes, I wanted to marry. I wanted to marry a woman I knew, a woman I chose.”
“Oh come now.” Lewis’s voice cracked like a whip, snapping Ambrose out of his sleepy boredom. “As if you are the first young man who wished a whirlwind romance of chance, a desert rose growing as if by magic, and instead had to make do with cultivating love out of the seedling of acquaintance.”
Ambrose said nothing to that, merely held his father’s gaze for a long moment and then dropped his head back to the wall. He looked up at the roof, a checkered expanse of light and dark wood. In his mind, he populated it with pieces and began to move them in a game against himself. It was a difficult thing to imagine an entire chessboard, all sixty-four spaces and the thirty-two pieces moving upon it, predicting the next moves based on the ones before them.
“The girl is the daughter of an earl, and an only child. Her mother died young, and her father never remarried, likely out of some foolish sense of sentiment. So he never secured the inheritance of his estates through his own son. These lands will enrich the family greatly … look at me!”
Lewis, obviously having turned back from looking at the road to find Ambrose staring at the ceiling, demanded his attention. For all his prowess at recalling the positions of pieces, Ambrose knew he must look a petulant child, avoiding eye contact, slouching, and putting his feet on the furniture.
“Yes, Father?” Ambrose put both shoes back on the floorboards and straightened himself, tugging his waistcoat back into place.
“The lands are good. The girl is beautiful. Whatever lies you must tell yourself, tell them, and make yourself a match that will lead this family into another successful generation.”
“Yes. Father.” Ambrose said through gritted teeth, then sank back down and looked back up to the ceiling.
Lewis sighed quietly, but having apparently spent his anger and his breath prodding at Ambrose’s disrespect, he returned to looking out the window.
Ambrose walked the pieces through a gambit which had eluded him for weeks. It required sacrificing two pieces in a row as well as a possible third for the chance to lure a queen into striking distance of a knight if she noticed, and a rook if not.
As he imagined the capture of pieces, each one burst into a cloud of fire and smoke. It was so much easier to keep track of all the pieces if he did not also need to imagine the pile of captured tokens at the side of the board.
I feel very much like one of those pawns, used in some gambit of Father’s and sacrificed for the chance to bring a more powerful piece close to hand. There is no alternative to this, then. Not for me and not for the house. I must find something in her I can love, regardless, or I will be the reason my house falls to ruin.
Another long hour passed, and Ambrose played most of a second game against himself, inverting the last gambit to take a different path.
When the rocky road gave way to more yielding ground, a sandy drive, Ambrose knew his pleasant diversion of building chess strategies was at an end. It was nearly time to meet his bride.
How can you be fully prepared to marry someone before you even court them? Before you even meet them?
The horses stopped, and the carriage rocked forward for a moment and then settled back onto its wheels. It jostled as the driver climbed down from his seat, and as Ambrose sat up, stretching, he heard the soft sound of a footstool placed in the sand outside the door.
“Are you ready?”
What you should be asking is ‘Will you behave yourself?’ Because I know that is what you really mean, old man.
“Yes.” Ambrose bit off the end of the word and stomped down on the footstool perhaps harder than was really necessary, but he did it with a pleasant expression on his face. He practiced such things in front of his mirror before bed so that he knew what his face might betray by the feel of how he set it.
Today, of all days, could not be one where the errant twitch of eyebrow or lip gave rise to suspicion or doubt.
Lewis followed his son out of the carriage with a broad smile on his face.
Our driver is the only servant we brought with us, and yet it seems half their household turned out to meet us. Ambrose let his eyes wander over the array of people standing in the front garden.
If Ambrose believed the rumors, the front garden was a much-diminished thing compared to the back of the estates. Still, it held the round sandy drive circling a burbling fountain, trellises of spring rose and lilies formed angles best viewed by those arriving, and finely shorn grass gleamed emerald under the dappled sunlight filtering through the branches of shade trees.
“My Lord Beaumont of Arthur.” Lewis stopped in his approach and bowed from the waist, a cue Ambrose followed in turn. “I trust you are in good health?”
“A touch of gout, Lord Westington, but otherwise, as best as I could expect. And yourself?”
“Rheumatism, my Lord,” Lewis sighed. “The weather, you know.”
Ambrose fought to keep his face pleasant, or at the very least, neutral. Something must have drawn the Earl’s attention, for he turned in Ambrose’s direction and said with a knowing smile, “You watch, young man. Age comes for us all.”
The smile faded, and Ambrose knew he was promptly beneath notice again as the man looked back at Lewis,
“If we are to be family, let us put aside our titles and you may simply call me Victor,” the Earl said with a smile.
“And you may call me Lewis in turn.”
They clasped hands by way of greeting, and Ambrose noted that one of the housemaids looked away from the proceedings up to one of the windows, smoothing her skirts with her hands. When she looked back, she made eye contact with Ambrose, which she quickly broke, returning her measured gaze back to the master of the house.
Hello. And what are you hiding?
Ambrose kept his eyes on the maid for another long moment as his future father by law welcomed them, but she gave nothing else away.
You probably know that you’re going to be in trouble regardless, and trying to make it easier on yourself by not betraying any other secrets.
“Please, do come in. I daresay you should like to freshen up a bit before I introduce you to the crown jewel of my family, Eleanor. Right this way.”
Victor Beaumont stood aside and allowed the butler and steward to escort Lewis and Ambrose into the house ahead of him. Ambrose heard the bustle of servants following them inside, but when he glanced back, the maid was nowhere in sight.
The butler and steward led Ambrose and his father to separate rooms, each of which was equipped with a basin and a pitcher of water with an assortment of sponges. Ambrose had no sooner finished washing his face—and there was no situation not improved at least a little by the washing of one’s face—than the driver rapped at the door and presented a change of shirt and waistcoat to him, still smartly pressed.
Thanking him with a word, Ambrose closed the door, shucked off his travel-worn garb, and changed. Buttoning the white linen up to his throat, he adjusted the standing collar and tied his cravat into an Osbaldeston knot, and then finished with the blue damask waistcoat.
There was nothing he could do for his hair. Curly, like his mother’s, it resisted all attempts to be tamed with rag curls and pomade, so he tucked it back from his face as best he could, the ends just brushing the shoulder seams of his waistcoat.
* * *
Lewis squeezed the water out of the sponge in the basin and rubbed it over his face. It tugged and pulled his skin, bringing the color of life back into his cheeks.
Fingers aching with the rheumatism, he reached into the pocket of his coat and drew out the sealed letter, which had felt like a burning brand against his chest the whole carriage ride. His hands trembled with age as much as trepidation as he worked at the seal when a knock at the door startled him so that he dropped it.
Heart pounding, annoyed at the interruption, he crossed to the door and opened it.
“My Lord,” the driver said, presenting his change of clothes.
Lewis looked from the boy to the clothes then snatched them and closed the door again without a word. And … had he really just thought of the driver as a boy? He must be nearly Ambrose’s age.
That’s the real mark of growing old, Lewis, when young men look like boys to you.
He laid the clothes over the arm of one of the chairs in this one of many drawing rooms at the Beaumont estate. Picking up the letter from where it had fallen, he finished breaking the seal and unfolded the leaves of paper.
The letter began with an improper salutation, and he wrinkled his nose. Whoever this anonymous factor was, they should know the proper address when contacting a member of the peerage.
“My Lord Lewis Brooks, Marquess of Westington,
My Lord, I beg you heed the signs I have seen. It is time for your son to marry, before he reaches twenty-three years of age. However, if you make arrangements for him to wed the Beaumont daughter then calamity will befall your household and hers. Please reconsider the joining of your lines through this marriage, else death will follow in its wake, and likewise if he remains a bachelor upon his birthday.”
It was a short thing, and perhaps better dismissed out of hand. The foolish superstition of soothsayers and no more. Like as not, his wife Jane had consulted the prognosticator on his behalf, and thus Lewis received the letter addressed to him.
He scrubbed his face over with the drying towel, changed his clothes, and emerged from the room, finding the butler waiting to escort him to the study where he would wait with Ambrose and Victor upon Eleanor’s pleasure. Women, it seemed, did have much more elaborate preparation rituals.
Eleanor Beaumont had better things to do than spend four hours bathing and primping to meet the man she was supposed to call “husband” one day. That was one full sixth of a day she could devote to horseback riding, and no one was going to stop her, not even Miriam.
She pulled her hair down from its pins and disheveled it, smearing soot on her cheeks from the fireplace and darkening her eyebrows with it. Sneaking down the servants’ stairs in nothing more than her shift was the least of Eleanor’s tasks to pretending to be a servant.
She crept down the long stone hall to Miriam’s room and jostled the knob just so. The lock was old and loose, and the tumblers disposed to settling in their open position. Miriam didn’t like having a door with a loose lock, and she liked it even less when Eleanor used it to her advantage.
The cot in the corner was neatly made, and the room smelled elegantly of lilies. A few bruised and wrinkled blossoms lay over the rim of a tin cup, ones that were pruned from the vine because they detracted from the beauty of the garden but had not outlived their usefulness to perfume a small servant’s room.
“And just what do you think you’re doing?”
I was so close to getting away clean.
“I’m just going to go out riding,” Eleanor said, turning from the peg where Miriam kept her clean dress. She had three. One to wear, one clean and on the peg, and one in the care of the laundresses.
“You have your own clothes for that.” Miriam crossed her arms over her bosom. “You’re about mischief today because you know you’re supposed to meet your young lord.”
“Lordling or not, no man has ever stopped me from going out riding.” Eleanor held the dress up to herself. It was striped vertically in the green and brown livery the servants of the Beaumont house wore when about their tasks.
“That’s because your father indulges you, and you can order about any other on the grounds. So tell me, why is it you are really taking my dress? This time?”
“I do take them rather often, don’t I?”
“Hmm,” Miriam gave a laconic noise of agreement, nodding and pursing her lips.
“It’s the usual reason,” Eleanor said as she pulled the dress on and moved her hair to the side, taking it as her due that Miriam would help fasten the buttons. She protested, but ultimately she liked Eleanor too well to refuse.
“That doesn’t narrow the field by a large margin.” The housemaid remained where she was by the door, the disapproving pucker still on her face.
“It’s all … this!” Eleanor wheeled her arms in large circles as if to indicate the whole of the estate and her impending marriage in one sweeping movement.
“Your father will be furious if he discovers you’ve done this today of all days.”
“Today of all days I need to do this, Miriam. I need to remind myself who I am before they dress me up and parade me around like a show pony. Please help me.”
“Oh … all right then.” Miriam dropped her arms in exasperation and crossed the room to do up the buttons at the back of the dress. It never occurred to Eleanor that Miriam had no one to assist her in dressing. That she had to fasten her own buttons, all the way up the middle of her back, every morning.
“I wish there was a mirror so I could see how I look.”
“I’m sure you can catch a glimpse of yourself in the windows.” Miriam’s voice still held a note of disapproval. “And see that you don’t ruin this one. It fits me the best of the three.”
On Eleanor, the waist gaped and the bust heldight, but it was passable enough.
“I’m not going climbing in the trees, Miriam! Just a little ride around the garden, to clear my head.”
“You could still get thrown from your horse.”
“Nonsense, Oberon has never thrown me.” Eleanor piled her hair atop her head and let the mussed curls slide over one another on their way back down, tangling the whole mess further.
“Be back within the hour. One. Hour. We’ll need all that time to give you a proper combing before you meet your new husband, and maybe I can even manage a sponge bath. That way you won’t smell like a stable when you do.”
Eleanor flung her arms about her servant and friend in unalloyed joy.
“Thank you, Miriam,” Eleanor said into the other girl’s ear then left the room and the house with a clatter of the side door’s latch sliding home.
If the mansion was not exactly a prison, Eleanor still felt freer than a bird leaving its cage when she could escape it. The bright spring sky arched in a blue dome overhead, traced here and there with lines of scudding cloud.
Eleanor fairly skipped across the lawns, taking in the scent of the grass freshly mown by the chief gardener, who even now must be cleaning the clippings from his scythe.
In a trice, she arrived at the stables which had a comforting scent all their own of hay and oiled leather, and of course, the ever-present smell of horse. The groom was away, no doubt preparing room for the horses bringing Marquess Westington and his son.
No stranger to arranging her own tack, Eleanor set about preparing the stallion Oberon for a ride. In no mood for riding sidesaddle, she arranged a gentleman’s saddle with the attendant girth and stirrups. He stamped restlessly. It had been days since she’d ridden, and Oberon was a spirited animal not well suited to life in a stable stall.
“I’ve got something for you,” Eleanor said conspiratorially, and the black fringe of Oberon’s left ear twitched. She laid her left palm open with a slice of apple on it—pilfered from the kitchens—and Oberon took it delicately in his wide, flat teeth, velvety lips brushing her hand. He lowered his hand and sniffed around her pockets.
“No no, not until after the ride.”
Oberon raised his liquid black eyes to her, slowly blinking with lids fringed in long lashes. He harrumphed and stamped again as if to say, “Well, get on with it, then.”
Eleanor dusted her hands, put her left foot in the stirrup, and swung herself easily up and astride.
It brought to mind a memory from when she was twelve and the last time the groom offered her a leg up when mounting. He stood there, hands making the shape of a stirrup for her to use, when she gauged instead that the strength in her limbs was enough.
The stirrup was nearly as high as her waist, and she still remembered with a cheeky smile the look of horror on her father’s face as she settled her foot into it, skirts pulling free along her calf and shin. Gripping the pommel with both hands, she used all the strength in her left leg and her arms and hauled herself up into the saddle at long last, panting and trembling.
Her father had looked up then, as if beseeching a higher power to give him more patience with his daughter or more temperance from her.
Eleanor’s legs lay bare to the knee as they had that day when she had rejected the groom’s leg up. Riding astride as she was, Miriam’s dress—which was well-suited to a housemaid going about her tasks—did not have the fabric to cover her completely.
Eleanor nudged Oberon’s flanks with her ankles, encouraging him into a brisk walk. He wanted to gallop straight away, but she held him back, knowing that if she let him fly, he could strain a leg easy as anything.
Oberon pulled at the bit, and Eleanor eased the reins a little, letting him graduate to a trot. Posting in the stirrups, she absorbed the shock in her knees and tilted her head up, sunlight kissing her face. They were well out into the gardens now, where young men and women both moved around with shears, pruning the blossoms that did not do justice to the garden’s beauty, as well as the prized flowers for bouquets to adorn the dining table.
There was no one else she could be, servant’s garb or no, and as she passed, the workers bowed or curtsied, a whisper of “Lady” on their lips. Still, none of them would dare report her to her father, lest they be asked why they hadn’t put a stop to her foolishness.
Half a turn around the garden, she let Oberon have free rein, and he took to it eagerly, stretching his legs out in strides that ate up the distance between her and the manor. Soon enough, she had to draw the reins back in again for him to make the corner.
Eleanor’s world was at once as small as the space taken up by herself and her charging steed and as large as the vault of heaven stretching overhead. The wind streamed her hair out behind her, wild and free, and tore the laugh from her lips even as she uttered it.
This is life. This is freedom. There is nothing so fast as a galloping horse, nothing fit to ride. Every day I would ride like this, if I could. Fleet and free, under sun and wind and sky. Without a father or a husband to cloister me indoors.
“I hate their stuffy parties,” Eleanor said aloud to no one in particular, but it felt good to say it, even if only Oberon and the sky could hear her.
“I hate their embroidery circles,” she said too, though it was half a lie. Then she resolved to name off everything she disliked about the life of a society woman, all the activities in which she’d needed to partake to prepare her for a life among the Ton.
“I hate their trite gossip.” She thought of one girl in particular, sent to all the same activities, who had resolved to hate Eleanor upon their first meeting and, it seemed, had never stopped.
“I hate…” She was about to say that she hated gathering around the piano, but that was more that it was always in some insufferably hot drawing room. The piano itself and the singing, that she enjoyed.
“I hate having to refuse dessert the first time and only accepting it after it is offered twice.”
Hairpins, tea etiquette, and others joined her list.
Eleanor was unsure of the amount of time that had passed. The sun had been more or less overhead when she set out, and it was more or less overhead still. Was it the same distance off zenith in the other direction? She couldn’t tell. She could admire a classical painting or sculpture with the best of them, but the passage of the heavenly bodies was one of the arts somewhat lost on her.
“What do you say? If you can get back to the stable before that lad makes it to the gate with his clippings, there’s a sugar cube in it for you.”
Oberon’s ears twitched again, and though Eleanor knew the horse couldn’t really understand her, he scraped the ground with the hoof of his right foreleg, as though testing the grip before he took off.
“Hya!” Eleanor cried, hunching low over his neck and digging her heels into his sides just before his legs. Though he had been changing gaits, sometimes to a gallop, for the better part of the hour, it was nothing to his return to the stable. They reached the edge of the fence just as the gardener pushed open the gate to the manor’s courtyard.
“Whoa!” Eleanor drew in the reins, and Oberon slowed to a trot and then a walk. She slid down his left side and offered the promised apple slice as well as the sugar cube, then led him back to the stables.
There, she saw the groom who looked like he had just finished preparing for visiting horses. He sighed when he saw her.
“I expect he’ll need to be brushed and watered?”
It pained Eleanor to burden him so, with the arrival of her prospective betrothed, but she had to go. She needed to make herself presentable.
“Yes, he does.”
“Give him here then.”
Oberon danced away a few steps, but Eleanor stroked his nose.
“Come now, you know him. It’s all right.”
Oberon let the groom take the reins the second time and Eleanor said “Thank you” as she turned and walked back toward the manor house. It was oddly quiet, and she saw a few of the servants on their way out the side door. Knowing she should head upstairs straight away, she resisted the urge to join the line and follow them out to catch a glimpse of Ambrose Brooks, her intended.
I made good on my promise to Miriam. Eleanor told herself firmly. I was back within the hour, and I didn’t ruin her best dress.
But it soon became evident that the two people she saw leaving were not, in fact, on their way out to greet Ambrose and his father because Ambrose waited outside the door to her father’s study.
“Hello, my Lord.” Eleanor affected Miriam’s accent, poorly, but Ambrose wasn’t likely to notice. She bobbed a curtsy and offered one of her most charming smiles.
* * *
Ambrose’s mood failed to improve upon meeting with his father and Lord Beaumont. No sooner had they all assembled in his study than Lewis Brooks suggested his son leave the room while the men talked privately over the business of the dowry and arrangements of inheritances.
“Father, how am I to learn of negotiations and carry on the family business if I am never permitted to watch them in their course?”
“Ambrose, this isn’t a business dealing. It is a matter of family alliances.” Lewis waved a dismissive hand, but Ambrose noticed he failed to make eye contact.
“For all intents and purposes, it is a business dealing. Adding wealth to our line through marriage and arranging for the distribution of those assets. How is that not a business proceeding?”
Lewis turned then and gave Ambrose one of the hard looks that meant he was pressing too close to the edge of where his father would be lenient. It was out of the view of their host. His father had many years of practice on the precise angles formed by the turn of the head or placement of an arm.
“We will summon you back in as soon as the figures are arranged,” the Earl said with a pleasant smile.
If it were not in the interest of our family for my father to go as a wolf wearing a sheep’s pelt, I would warn you to be wary of him, old man.
Ambrose nodded curtly and stepped out of the room.
Just as well. It was far too stuffy in there. Too hot, too much embroidery. Too many decorations as souvenirs from far-flung journeys. And the furnishings out here aren’t much better.
The lampstands were polished to a high shine, and the sitting couch in the hall was adorned with more embroidered pillows and other fluff. All of it immaculate. Victor Beaumont clearly kept a capable staff, and if their reception was anything to go on, they were certainly happy to work in his household.
Training competent help was one of the many things his mother did capably and well. From nursemaids to stable grooms and head housekeepers, the staff at Caddington Park—their manor house on the estates in Westington—was both ever present and discreet.
For example, a housemaid would never brazenly walk down the upstairs hall, trailing dirt on the carpet runner and smelling of horse with hay stuck in her hair.
“Hello, my Lord,” she said with a trace of an accent and curtsied deeply to him.
“Hello,” Ambrose replied. Whatever else this servant was, she was rather pretty. Even with hay in her dark, tangled hair, the planes of her face were set in a pleasing manner, her lips a pink blossom against her pale skin.
“Are you waiting for someone?” It was rather forward of her, he thought, to speak to him thusly. Nonetheless, he was waiting, and he wasn’t concerned by it.
“Yes, my father and the Earl are discussing family affairs in there.”
“And are you not a member of that family?” she asked, inclining her head.
“I’m sorry, but what business is that of yours?” Ambrose didn’t like the way she was pressing the matter.
“If you are marrying the Lady Eleanor, then this family becomes part of your family and you part of it. Can you say it is not so?”
Ambrose smiled in spite of himself. She was quick with a comment. That much was certain.
“I like to think myself part of the family. I will be managing its affairs someday on my own. Though my father does not seem to see fit to include me.”
“Fathers have a way of noticing growth in their businesses and pocketbooks, and failing to notice growth in their children.”
Ambrose might have been offended if he hadn’t had the same thought about his father for most of their journey, that Lewis still saw him as a child in so many ways.
“You’ve a sharp wit on you.”
“I find wit is like a knife, my Lord. A sharp one cuts where it is meant to, while a dull one misses its target and pricks the wielder all unsuspecting.”
Ambrose laughed in truth then, finding his heart aflutter in his chest. This girl! So refreshingly different from the twittering heads he met at the society parties.
“Too true,” he agreed.
“And what do you know of your new lady wife?”
“Only what I have been told by the letters sent to Westington. They offer accounts of her grace and her beauty, mostly. As if that were all that I hold important.”
“And what do you hold important?”
“A sameness of spirit. A mind for strategy. The ability to hold a conversation for more than five minutes without it turning to the topics of ribbons or lace, or something equally foolish like embroidery, like this,” Ambrose said and walked past the girl to pick up one of the pillows from the couch. He looked at it briefly then held it away from himself as though it were a snake ready to strike at him.
“This house, these furnishings. They are all so gaudy! I bet that the Lady Eleanor is just another one of those spoiled society dimwits whose father acquires for her whatever her heart desires. I don’t want to marry someone like that.”
When he looked up from the pillow again, the girl’s mouth was drawn into a thin line. Her cheeks, which had been flushed before from some exertion now shone red and nearly glowed. When she spoke, however, her voice was level and even.
“That pillow was made by the late mistress of the house by her own hand. She had quite a fondness and a talent for it.” She stepped past Ambrose, snatching the pillow from him and plumping it before setting it down with care against the others.
“I beg your pardon. I didn’t know.”
“Nor could you without asking. But you don’t seem inclined to find out much about the family you are joining.”
“If you would answer me, I would ask after the disposition of Lady Eleanor regarding…” Ambrose stopped abruptly as the girl interjected and cut off the rest of his sentence.
“I have spoken to the Lady Eleanor, and she is not much of a mind to want to marry you either!”
“Now see here…”
“No. All she knows of you is what came in the letters and accounts of others too, you know. And in those letters, she was told that you were a kind, selfless, and intelligent man. That you were slow to judgment of others. I will be sorry to report to her that such rumors as to your character are decidedly untrue.”
Her face was lambent red in the lamplight, and her shoulders heaved with the breaths she drew. Ambrose, feeling as though he had taken a punch to the stomach all unsuspecting, did nothing to stop the girl as she pushed past him to continue up the hall.
“I’m sorry to have given offense!” He called after her as she went, but she did not turn. She did not even acknowledge his presence in the hall. He knew the last of it must have reached the ears of his father and the Earl, their being just on the other side of the door, and he waited for one of them to open the door and demand an answer for the disturbance.
It never came.
Ambrose was left alone with his thoughts in the hallway.
Lewis and Victor sat on opposite sides of his desk to discuss the particulars of the arrangement between their families, and folly or not, the contents of the letter weighed heavily on Lewis’s mind.
What if there was something underneath the superstitious nonsense, something real in the warning that catastrophe would befall them if the marriage went through? Dash it all. Victor has been speaking and I too absorbed in my own thoughts to pay heed to what he said. Something about the horses perhaps?
“I would very much like to take a tour of the stables after our meeting is concluded. Did you say that you own a racehorse in addition to your carriage horses and riding mounts?”
“Yes, my dear man, a fine thoroughbred, with good Arabian stock by way of his dam,” Victor said heartily. His breath caught on his next remark, and he coughed quietly into a handkerchief.
No wonder he is in a hurry to see his daughter make a good match. It wouldn’t do to leave her with no one to look over her.
“Splendid,” Lewis remarked drily, his mind still occupied with other things
“Yes, All Fours won the derby a few years back, didn’t want to take him further than that. Eleanor does so love the horses, and I would hate for him to sustain any injury which would put him down. She has her favorites, of a certainty, but she cares for them all. She even feeds them at times.”
Lewis turned down his mouth at that.
A noble lady should not take up such undignified pursuits. What were to happen if a guest were to call while she was about such business? Would they be made to suffer to wait while she was made presentable?
“Perhaps an offering of the horses can be made as a dowry for Eleanor? I understand an attachment to the racehorse, as well as the matched team, but what of the riding mounts?”
“Oberon and Titania are from the same dam, and Oberon will not let anyone but Eleanor ride him.” Victor tapped the end of his pen against his lips as he considered carefully. “We have another quite spirited bay horse we could offer.”
“From good stock too, I trust?”
“Among the finest. Ah, it was ever something I indulged in, giving Eleanor the very best in the way of horses. I daresay she would have loved a nag all the same, but there was a certain matter of pride, too.” Victor began coughing once more, holding up a single finger of his other hand as if to beg Lewis’s pardon for his infirmity.
“The bay horse, and the agreed upon volume of silver then?” Lewis asked, before his host had quite caught his breath.
“The horse is worth a fair few pounds himself. Say the bay horse and four-fifths of the originally agreed upon volume of silver?” Victor countered, his face still red from the fit, brown eyes glistening with standing tears.
I could press, but that is a better trade than I think we could bargain otherwise. Ambrose needs a woman to settle him down, and Jane and I discussed that we were prepared to accept four-fifths of the silver anyway, if it would see him expediently wed.
“Yes, I think that will be quite agreeable. My Lady wife Jane has been wanting to ride for some time now, and I regret I have not had the cause to see about finding her an appropriate mount. It is, I think, an activity the ladies might engage in together?”
Lewis watched Victor carefully, and saw the barest hint of trepidation in the man’s features. Victor’s hand trembled slightly as he picked up his pen to notate the terms. In the hall, Lewis recognized his son’s voice rising in timbre, matched by the notes of a woman’s tones.
Victor froze in his writing and turned toward the door, regarding it for some long moments. The voices died away, and Victor resumed his lettering.
“Something the matter?”
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Victor smiled in reply, but the corners of his mouth did not lift up fully, and gave the impression of a faint grimace.
Lewis squashed the distrust growing in his heart, reminding himself of what there was to gain by aligning his house with the Beaumonts through the marriage of their only daughter, and harbored a secret hope that the warnings contained within the fortune teller’s missive were false.
* * *
Ambrose was struck dumb for a moment by the abrupt and rude departure of the servant.
Obviously she is very close and loyal to the Beaumont family, otherwise she would not have reacted so to an innocent mistake.
Just the same, Ambrose hoped she would not pass along to Eleanor word of his uncouth behavior.
It would be embarrassing to have her think wrongly of him before their first meeting.
He paced the length of the hall several times, wondering what deals and schemes were taking place on the other side of the door. He thought his father the shrewder negotiator. Victor seemed fine enough, but also seemed prone to doting on his daughter.
As soon as the thought came to mind, Ambrose chided himself for it. He was making assumptions about people he had never met based on seeing a few items in their home, and he recognized the anger growing within his chest.
Breakfast was a long distant memory, and Ambrose was never one to keep a cool head with an empty stomach. If only all of this could be concluded already, they could go and take a meal together and put the awkwardness of introductions behind them at last. He could get to know his bride.
As he paced, he entertained fancies of what it might be like if his life were different, if he came from a lesser station where his marriage was not meant to forge an alliance. If he were a common man, a banker or a bookseller even, then life would surely be less comfortable, but he might have had a say in who his bride was from the start.
He might have stumbled across that desert rose, as his father had said, blooming in adversity. He might have wed a serving girl, like the one he had talked to in that hallway. She was beautiful—there was no mistaking that—and indeed beauty seemed to be the blessing of the rich, a wasted coin in the lower classes.
Curse you, Father, for saying such things my whole life, and curse me for listening to you instead of Mother’s temperance.
And what would it be like to have a housemaid for a wife? Certainly after spending her days cleaning a manor, she would be loathe to return to her own home and do the same. Did housemaids hire housemaids? And when they had children, who cared for them as they went about their duties?
Ambrose found he knew very little about how his quarters maintained their freshness, and how his meals journeyed from farm to slaughterhouse to kitchen and finally to the table.
Another part of Mother’s tutelage I have neglected. I suppose I have fallen prey to the greatest mistake of youth in not trusting that my mother may have wisdom I lack.
Ambrose was about to let his thoughts wander elsewhere again when he finally heard the scrape of the doorknob and the voices of his father and Victor as they exited the study.
“Ah, son, there you are. I trust the commotion had nothing to do with you?”
Lewis fixed him with that penetrating stare that told him if he found out Ambrose had gotten into a fight with the household staff, he would have to answer for it.
“I’m certain it was just a small misunderstanding,” Victor said pleasantly, but his smile had a hint of strain in it.
“Well, congratulations, my son. This is a good match which will make both of our families quite profitable in the long run.” Lewis extended his hand, and Ambrose took it with a smile he hoped looked genuine.
“I will be happy to call you son as well.” Victor’s hand trembled as he stretched it toward Ambrose.
“And I should be happy to call you ‘Father,’ my Lord,” he replied, then took a step back from the encounter.
“Let us adjourn to the dining room. I am positively famished, and you?”
“Indeed,” Ambrose agreed heartily with the master of the house.
Down another long hallway and set of stairs, they passed through the grand foyer which Ambrose failed to notice adequately on his admittance to the home. Polished wood was overlaid with carpets while draperies adornished the walls.
The dining room was large and well appointed, with a long table suitable for grand gatherings and a crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling.
Victor turned to one of the maids working her way around the table, laying out the final place settings at one end so they might all have quiet conversation. Ambrose thought she was looking rather embarrassed to have been caught in the act of setting the table rather than having it ready upon their arrival.
“Ah, Miriam, if you would be so good as to bring Eleanor down so that she may be acquainted with her betrothed.”
“Right away, my Lord,” Miriam said with a little curtsy. She wore a dress in the same green and brown stripes as the servant Ambrose had disagreed with in the hallway.
“If you will all be seated, I’m sure my daughter will be along presently.”
“Inconveniently Betrothed to an Earl” is now available on Amazon.
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