The Reluctant Fiancée - Short Story
"I must have been foxed to agree to this foolish charade."
Nigel Arlington glanced at the lady sitting at his side. "You were, but you are doing your oldest and dearest friend a life saving favour -- think of it as the supreme sacrifice. Besides, you look charming in pink."
"I thank God that the only person who will see me in this get up is your clutch-fisted grandfather."
"Every cloud has its silver lining."
"I still think posing as your fiancée reprehensible."
"If he weren't such a malicious nip-farthing, I wouldn't be goaded to such measures. Thinks I'll squander my inheritance without the steadying hand of a wife. From my experience, wives help one run out of the ready a good deal sooner."
"Your only experience is with other men's wives."
"And they have cost me a pretty penny these past years."
"Nigel you are incorrigible. But what shall we do if the old gentleman doesn't die? Marriage is out of the question -- there's only so much I'll do in the name of friendship."
Nigel snorted at the idea. "What frightens me more is that he will die before changing his will in my favour."
At that moment the coach rumbled to a stop before the entrance of a country manor house. Nigel Arlington alighted swiftly and then stood with mock formality, at the ready to hand his lady down.
"Damn you Arlington! I am still capable of exiting a carriage without your help despite these blasted skirts and delicate slippers!"
With that his fiancée gracelessly flung herself from the carriage and stomped towards the door.
"Temper, temper dear heart," murmured Nigel as he caught up with her. "And please remember to watch your language once we are inside."
All Nigel received for his pains was a fulminating glance.
"You will find Lord Julian in the drawing room, Mr. Arlington," said the butler as he took Nigel's hat.
"What in the blazes is that ivory turner doing here?"
"I would imagine the same as you, sir. Visiting his grandfather's deathbed." The butler's expression, as he looked down his nose at the pair, was bordering on the sardonic. "Impressive family spirit."
"I never agreed to this," hissed the lady into Nigel's ear. "I am not facing Julian Prescott. Tell the butler that I'm knocked up from the journey and must retire to my bedchamber."
"You cannot cry craven now!"
"I can and I will," she responded in a fierce whisper and stopped in her tracks.
Nigel's ability at shaking the lady's resolve was not put to the test, however, due to the sudden opening of the drawing room door. A tall figure was silhouetted in the frame.
"Ah Nigel," said a voice dripping with false bonhomie. "You have come, and with a fair damsel in tow as well. Are you trying to cut me out?"
"I could ask the same!" said Nigel, bristling.
"Aren't you going to introduce me to your inamorata?" Lord Julian was leaning against the doorframe now, the changed fall of light showing his languid form elegantly attired in the height of fashion.
Nigel threw his lady a pleading glance and she stepped forward with her eyes cast down, looking every inch the demure ingénue.
"My dear, this is my unworthy cousin, Lord Julian Prescott," Nigel said in a softened voice. Then he faced Lord Julian and continued with a more challenging tone. "May I present my fiancée, Miss Angela Torringcat."
Lord Julian bowed with a flourish and then stepped aside for them to enter the drawing room. A smirk played about his handsome features. "A pleasure," he intoned silkily.
Nigel stood back for Angela to go first and she was left with no other option than to pass through the drawing room doors. There was a fire burning feebly in the hearth, and on a chair drawn up close to catch some warmth, sat a girl. She appeared startled and stood hurriedly, smoothing out the deep green satin of her gown. Dark ringlets framed a pale face dominated by a vivid pair of eyes that flashed as she put up her chin.
Angela stopped so abruptly that Nigel bumped into her.
"Did I forget to mention my own fiancée?" drawled Lord Julian from behind.
Nigel sputtered incoherently, took Angela by the shoulders, and guided her into the room.
Lord Julian sauntered in and lazily made the introductions.
"Isn't this quite sudden?" asked Nigel, still too completely taken aback to attempt politeness.
"The understanding between myself and Miss Bolderwood is of a longstanding nature. May I be equally impolite and question your betrothal to an unknown? I was in town just yesterday and the only rumour I heard regarding yourself and a lady concerned quite another female. The wife of Haxton, if I am not mistaken." Lord Julian slipped a long-fingered hand into his waistcoat pocket and removed an enamelled snuff box. His eyes never left Nigel's face as he dexterously flipped the box open, took a pinch and held in to his nose.
"My mother tells me never to believe the London gossip mills," Angela intoned softly, coming to Nigel's defense.
Lord Julian bowed towards her, his smirk deepening. "Thank you. I'll remember to attend to your mother in the future." He returned his gaze to Nigel "You have not answered my question."
"Really darling, you are behaving quite abominably," said Miss Bolderwood, advancing from her position by the fire. "I think it is terribly romantic that Mr. Arlington and Miss Torringcat are also secretly engaged." She turned her attention upon Angela. "My family know Lord Julian only by reputation, so you can understand why we have had to resort to secrecy. Once they are truly acquainted with him I am certain they shall come round to accepting the match. Won't you join me on the sofa so that we can discuss our respective fiancées?"
"I fear I have a bit of a headache," said Angela, choosing a chair in an ill-lit corner. At Miss Bolderwood's exclamation of concern, she continued. "All I need is to be away from the bright light."
"I will have you know Miss Torringcat is not yet out," said Nigel to Lord Julian, almost belligerently. "We met in the country."
"Not out?" Lord Julian appraised Angela. "I did not take you for a school-room miss."
"I am fully one and twenty," she responded, "but it has not been convenient for me to be presented."
Nigel was suddenly struck with inspiration. "Nursing her sick mother these past few years."
"An angel of mercy!" Lord Julian appeared highly amused. "Where did you find her -- a parsonage, Arlington? She's not in your regular style."
"No, but you have stayed true to style with your choice," muttered Nigel under his breath. "A high flyer if I ever saw one."
"Miss Bolderwood, your gown is most becoming. Who is your . . . milliner?" interposed Angela quickly.
"You do not think it too dashing?"
"With your hair and eyes, that green . . ."
"Perfection," finished Lord Julian. "I am in complete agreement with you Miss Torringcat. Nigel, I commend you. Your country milkmaid is a charmer."
Angela turned her head away in confusion as Nigel stuttered over an explanation of her unimpeachable heritage and Lord Julian laughed.
Miss Bolderwood cast her a warm smile. "Gentlemen in love are such interesting creatures," she said.
"We have been chastised most severely, Cousin," said Lord Nigel. "There is nothing left for it but to go in to dinner. I see Sneed hovering by the doorway ready to announce the meal as if eating at six were a rare treat."
"But we must see grandfather," said Nigel, remembering his mission.
Sneed coughed discreetly. "Your grandfather is expecting all of you to come to his chambers after the meal."
Dinner was uneventful as well as uninspired. Old Sir Andrew extended his economies to the kitchen in the same manner as he did to all other housekeeping. There were no footmen -- Sneed served the meal.
"At least we can be guaranteed he has not frittered away my inheritance on turtle soup and champagne," said Lord Julian.
"I wouldn't speak too soon," said Nigel. "He has assured me that if I were to marry sensibly I would get the whole."
"Then we shall see which of our ladies can provide him that assurance -- he made me just the same promise as he did you." Lord Julian was clearly enjoying himself despite the fact that it was evident the wine he was sipping had been watered.
"You are both despicable!" cried Miss Bolderwood. "Your grandfather is lying upstairs, dying. Does that mean nothing to either of you?'
"As is evident from our conversation," drawled Lord Julian, "it means a very great deal."
"It would be better if you did not voice such feelings, no matter how true they may be," said Angela.
"But . . ." began Nigel. Then he coughed. "You are quite right, my love."
"I begin to see that you will keep my cousin well in check." Lord Julian leaned back in his chair and sighed. "And it seems I too must give up my wicked ways -- and all for love, if grandfather's money is not to be mentioned again."
Miss Bolderwood cast her betrothed a look of annoyance, but she wisely ignored the remark made only to stir the coals, and asked Angela if she rode, effectively changing the subject. The conversation went from horses to carriages to driving in Hyde Park and by the time dinner was finished Lord Julian had stopped needling Nigel and was in full spate, mocking various London quizzes.
Sneed escorted them to the old gentleman's chamber where his duties were taken over by a wizened valet. Sir Andrew was reposed upon an ancient four poster bed, the heavy curtains drawn back and tied with fraying cords. His gaunt figure was almost lost amid a number of pillows, but he appeared alert despite his weakened state.
"How you bounders managed to convince these ladies to agree to marry you is beyond my reckoning," he rasped. "And now you expect me to leave one of you my fortune, do you?"
"Well, grandfather, you did say . . ." said Nigel.
"Quiet! How do I know that marriage will cure your vices?"
"I cannot abide gambling," said Miss Bolderwood. "Lord Julian has promised to give it up for me."
"Mr. Arlington has expressed an interest in religion," said Angela. "His theological conversations with my father can't but be steadying to his character."
"I plan on retiring to the country and attending my estate," said Lord Julian. "Fishing, shooting, meeting with my steward -- that sort of thing."
"I intend to set up my nursery," cried Nigel, not to be outdone. "Fatherhood holds great appeal to me."
"Fatherhood! You waste your best years bringing children into the world who only marry to spite you and then die out of hand! I have had enough of toadying relatives for one evening. Why could none of my Godforsaken children have presented me with an acceptable heir?" Sir Andrew laid his head back upon his pillows.
The valet untied the cords holding the bed curtains back and began to draw them.
"But!" said Nigel.
"You have been dismissed," said the valet.
Once out in the hall, Angela pleaded exhaustion and asked permission to retire to her bedchamber. Miss Bolderwood did the same. Sir Julian bowed gallantly after them and then suggested to Nigel that they put aside their differences for the rest of the evening, raid their grandfather's cellar to see if they could find a decent bottle or two of brandy, and discover whether or not the billiard table had warped from the damp.
Angela had her hands up to her hair when there was a knock at her bedroom door.
"Miss Torringcat, are you awake?"
"Yes," she squeaked, leaving her hair as it was and grabbing at her gown. She had already undone it and loosened her stays.
"May I come in?"
"But I am undressed!" she cried as the door opened. She hastily threw on her robe and faced Miss Bolderwood.
"I need to talk to you!" cried Miss Bolderwood, throwing herself on the bed. "I cannot go through with this pretence any longer." Her shoulders shook and tears began to roll down her cheeks.
Angela blanched. She held her robe closed tightly at her neck and tentatively sat on the edge of the bed. "What pretence?" she asked.
"This sham betrothal! You must know I could never marry that . . . that . . ."
"Your engagement is not real? You don't love Lord Julian?"
"How could I love a rake and a gambler who would pay a girl to deceive a dying man?" She looked up at Angela, her eyes brimming with tears, appealing with her to believe the words.
Angela reached a hand towards her and then drew it back. "Pay you? To marry him?"
"Never! Only to pretend an engagement. Oh! What you must think of me!"
Angela had the grace to blush. "Sometimes there are . . . extenuating circumstances."
"Yes!" cried Miss Bolderwood. "I so hoped you would understand." She sat up and moved closer to Angela, leaning in towards her.
Angela increased her grasp on the neck of her robe and moved ever so slightly away. "What I don't understand is how Lord Julian came to ask you and not some . . ."
Miss Bolderwood sat up and gave Angela her pleading look again. "If I tell you all, please say you won't think less of me. I'm not -- I'm not that kind of girl."
"I never supposed you were," Angela said softly.
"My family is good, well, mainly on my mother's side. She married a soldier against her father's wishes and he cast her off. She was in love and didn't care, but my father had hopes of her fortune. When she was cut off without a penny he left her, but she was too proud to return to her family, and she wanted nothing to do with his. She worked as a seamstress and raised me and sent me to school to be educated like a lady. I don't know how she planned to enter me into society because she died before I finished school. The milliner took me in to work for her, and then one of her patrons, who owned a gaming house, offered me a job with better pay. It was there I met Lord Julian."
"Did he offer you protection?" Angela's voice had a certain edge to it.
"I refused him. I told him I was a lady and I could not be bought and paid for. Of course he laughed at me. But he soon realised I was speaking the truth. He also discovered that I wanted nothing more than to set myself up in a small house with a respectable lady as a companion and live a quiet life, and he offered me a way to make that possible. I accepted his offer, though I know it was very wrong of me. How could I have dreamt of gaining from duping a dying man? No matter that Sir Andrew is an ill-tempered, hardhearted tyrant!"
Angela looked troubled. "Deceiving him is still wrong, isn't it, even though he is almost forcing this situation on his grandson?."
"Oh! I am not casting aspersions against your Mr. Arlington! It is Lord Julian who is stooping low, paying me to pose as his future bride. Yours is another case entirely, where love is the issue."
"Yes," said Angela meditatively. "Love would make all the difference."
"Love drove me to this too," admitted Miss Bolderwood.
"Love!" Angela stood up from the bed suddenly, almost toppling Miss Bolderwood to the floor. "But . . . you said --"
Miss Bolderwood reached for Angela's hand and tugged imploringly. "Not Lord Julian! Someone else!"
Angela unbalanced and fell on the bed, landing on top of Miss Bolderwood. She pulled herself away from the billowing green satin and rose scented ringlets that bobbed in her face, and clutched her robe even tighter around her neck. "Someone else?"
"Yes. Do you think it silly of me to say I love someone that I have never really properly met?"
"No," said Angela, leaning back on her pillows, away from Miss Bolderwood, and assuming a relaxed expression.
"I knew you would understand because you and Mr. Arlington must have met quite by chance one day, as you are not yet out. Was it love at first sight?"
"No -- not with Mr. Arlington. N-not love at first sight. I-is there such a thing as love at first sight?" she stammered.
Miss Bolderwood tipped her head to one side and looked wistful. "Well, maybe not love. But strong attraction at first sight that grows into love. Do you believe that to be possible?"
"Yes," said Angela, contemplating the candlelight that gilded Miss Bolderwood's cheek.
"Like you and Mr. Arlington!"
"I don't think we need talk of me and Mr. Arlington," Angela choked out.
"No -- I was telling you about the gentleman I fell in love with. I was at the museum, viewing the Elgin Marbles, when I saw someone who took my mind clear off of the marbles. I don't know what it was about him exactly that attracted my attention at first. There are more handsome men in the world, certainly. But his face was rather boyish, and kind. He was with a group of friends. One made a funny comment and he smiled. I felt my knees go weak."
Angela sat up impatiently. "But what does falling in love with a gentleman while viewing the Elgin Marbles have to do with pretending to be engaged to Sir Julian?"
"I'm getting to that. Besides, I was only attracted to him that day. If I hadn't seen him again it probably would have ended right there. I may have forgotten his very existence."
"Did he come to the gaming house?" Angela asked apprehensively.
"He never came to the gaming house. I don't believe he frequents such places," said Miss Bolderwood happily. And then her face fell. "But I work in such a place and if he knew he may never want to know me."
"Then he would be a fool," said Angela dismissively.
Miss Bolderwood smiled. "Thank you -- that relieves my mind greatly. Well, as I said, I saw the gentleman again, in the street when I was walking to the lending library. After that I must admit that whenever I walked out I hoped to see him. I went to Green Park one morning and saw him riding a beautiful grey. He had such a seat! Now you must think me very shallow, falling in love on appearances only. But his countenance bespeaks his character. I don't believe he would ever do anything reprehensible."
Angela shook her head. "You know nothing of the fellow and you are making him into a god!"
"No -- I think him to be very human, but kind, and a loyal friend."
"And because of him you wanted the money?" asked Angela, trying to make some sense of where the conversation was going.
"Don't you see? If I could set myself up with a lady that could chaperone me into society, I might meet him at a soiree or a ball. If I ever had the chance to meet him on equal footing, I would do my utmost to have him notice me."
"I wish you the best of luck. But you will not get the money now, if you are really giving up the pretence."
"I really am, even so. Who knows, my luck may turn again. I hope I have not bored you with all this talk."
"Not at all."
Miss Bolderwood beseeched Angela with her large eyes again. "May I ask you one small favour?"
"Will you come with me now to support me while I tell Sir Andrew about the lie?"
"You are going to tell Sir Andrew?" Angela was horrified. "Shouldn't you just tell Lord Julian and leave it at that?"
"Do you think he would carry the tale to his grandfather? No, I must tell him, and I must tell him now, before he has time to change his will in Lord Julian's favour. Will you come?"
Angela hesitated. "I am only half dressed."
"I will help you put your gown back on."
"No! I'll come like this. In the robe."
Miss Bolderwood smiled, leaned forward, and kissed a startled Angela on the cheek. "Thank you."
Sir Andrew's valet was not willing to allow the girls an audience with the gentleman at first, but Miss Bolderwood's insistence was steadfast. The commotion in the doorway caught Sir Andrew's attention, and as soon as he discovered what was transpiring he ordered the girls in. His bed curtains were drawn back and he looked even more frail than he had when they had seen him earlier in the evening.
"What is the meaning of all this commotion?" he asked. "Do you girls want to be the death of me before my will is even writ? If I die now, my entire estate and all my money will go to the retired Sea Captains' fund. As if they need it. Tell me what you hope to get out of me!"
"I have a confession to make," said Miss Bolderwood.
"You are not really engaged to my grandson!" Sir Andrew's face was overspread with an evil grin. He turned to Angela. "Are you going to confess too?"
"That's not all I have to confess," said Miss Bolderwood before Angela even had time to speak. "I am your granddaughter."
"I have no granddaughter!" cried Sir Andrew, going red in the face.
"Take care," said the valet, giving Miss Bolderwood a warning glare. "Sir Andrew's heart!"
Miss Bolderwood pulled some documents from the pocket of her gown. "Here is the proof of my mother's marriage, and my birth." She handed them to the valet who, in turn, gave them to the old gentleman. "And here is my mother's locket." She reached her hands around behind her neck and undid the chain, passing the memento to the valet as well.
Sir Andrew read the documents and threw them on the bed. "Regina Bolderwood is nobody to me!" he shouted.
"But Regina Arlington was your daughter. And I am her daughter - Amelia Bolderwood. She worked hard to raise me as a lady so I could one day take my place in the society that rejected her. I have worked hard too, and saved. I do not have any big vices, except that I may read too much and be taken for a bluestocking."
"And now you expect me to give you my fortune, based on a handful of papers, a trumpery locket, and a pretty speech or two?"
"No -- you may give it to my cousins. All I want is to be acknowledged as your granddaughter so that I may return to the sphere where I belong and have the chance to marry the man I love."
"Aha! So you are to marry too! Fine lot of grandchildren I have, leading me dances about settling down and marrying. I'll leave all my money to that good for nothing Nigel, is what I'll do!"
Angela had been standing in stunned silence; now she spoke up. "Nigel isn't really engaged either, Sir Andrew. I'm only a friend of his who agreed to do him a favour. We were wrong to deceive you. He's not a bad person . . . he just needs employment. An estate might have given him the responsibilities he needs to take life a bit more seriously. But now . . . now I think Miss Bolderwood is the one who-"
As Angela spoke, Miss Bolderwood gazed at her with a look of satisfaction, and something else beyond definition.
"Don't you be telling me what to do with my money, young lady! You never gammoned me for a minute. I knew no mealy-mouthed parson's daughter like you would be contemplating marriage to a Jack-a-napes like Nigel. Nor would a paltry fellow like him take up with the likes of you. He'd go for someone with more flash, like my granddaughter here! She's the one with the spark."
"Grandfather!" cried Miss Bolderwood. "You accept me?"
"I may. I need to know who this fellow is you are planning to marry. I'll not have my only granddaughter riveted to some loose screw."
"He's not a loose screw, grandfather -- he's a perfect gentleman."
"His name? I need to know if his family is good enough for the Arlingtons. My children married to spite me -- I'll be damned if my granddaughter does."
Amelia smiled and looked straight at Angela. "His name is Mr. Gealan Carrington, and I do hope he wants to marry me."
"I think he would be honoured," said Angela.
"That is the truest thing you have said all day, young lady," said Sir Andrew. "It would be an honour for any Carrington to marry an Arlington, but if it is what my Amelia wants, it is what my Amelia gets. Now go away and let an old man sleep before I change my mind about all this."
Angela saw no reason to argue with Sir Andrew at all.
There were only three sitting down to breakfast, and it is a wonder that the two gentlemen of the party had made a showing at all. They both looked decidedly worse for wear.
"Was the brandy that bad?" asked Amelia in dulcet tones.
"Remind me to destroy that wine cellar when I inherit this house," said Lord Julian.
"When I inherit, I'll send you the lot," said Nigel, his head in his hands.
"Where's your beloved?' asked Lord Julian. "Don't tell me she's done a bunk."
"Headache must be plaguing her still," said Nigel.
"I kept her up late last night, talking" admitted Amelia.
Nigel sat upright and stared at her, open mouthed. "You did what?"
"We talked, and then we visited your grandfather."
Lord Julian lost his composure for the first time since he had entered the house. "Bloody hell, you did!"
Amelia just smiled as Sneed opened the door. "Mr. Carrington," he announced. The gentleman who walked into the room was wearing a snug fitting coat of blue superfine and breeches of the palest yellow. His hair had been tousled with the utmost care. He appeared to be quite pleased with himself.
"Lord!" cried Nigel, pushing back his chair and standing. "What's your game, Gaelan? You are not supposed to be here!"
"Friend of yours, I take it," said Lord Julian.
"Not for long!" said Nigel, advancing.
"Don't get your britches in a twitter, Nigel" said Gaelen.
"But . . . but . . . what about Angela?"
"Don't think you'll see her again," said Gaelen nonchalantly.
"What, are you making off with the light o' Nigel's life?" asked Lord Julian. "A little too demure for my taste but some people do go for those big-boned country maidens."
"Actually, Lord Julian, I'm making off with your fiancée. She is a little more to my taste." He looked over at Amelia. "Coming love? Your grandfather told me to have you back by lunch."
As Amelia held her hand out to Gaelen, Nigel and Lord Julian stared after them like two codfish on a platter.
"Grandfather?" they both cried, when they'd regained the power of speech.
"Oh yes," said Sneed, a glittering smile on his face. "I forgot to mention. Your grandfather took a turn for the better during the night. Looks like he'll be with us for a few years yet. Isn't that good news!"
Gaelen stopped the carriage under some trees and turned to Amelia. "There's just one thing I want to ask you," he said, his expression getting serious.
Amelia looked up at him, her large eyes anxious. "I would have died rather," she said.
"No, that's not what I'm asking," he said, taking her chin between his fingers and studying her eyes. "What I really want to know is -- is my face really boyish?"
"How else could a man of five and twenty pass himself off as an ingénue?"
"When did you know it was me?"
"The moment you walked through the door."
"You must have thought me . . . deranged."
"The only thing I could think was that I finally had my chance with you and I was up to my neck in my own deception."
"So -- tell me the truth -- are there really more handsome men in the world than me?"
"I'm sorry for teasing you -- it was irresistible."
"You are irresistible, my love," he said a he lowered his face to hers.
"I was counting on that," she whispered, and then it was impossible to speak at all.
The horses, finding themselves standing in the lane with the reins slack, took the opportunity to nibble the grass at the verge. By the time the carriage was moving again, the edge of the roadway was completely trimmed.
©2007 Copyright held by the author.