All the time that Amelia was allowing Sir Peter to woo her during the day, at night she was regularly meeting Lord Rupert in the rose bower in her garden. It was the only time they spent together as he had kept his promise to distance himself by day, and at society events they did no more than bow or curtsey in each other's direction. And if conversation was unavoidable they spoke of little more than the weather. But after midnight under the light of the moon it was a different matter entirely.
In the weeks since the conversation they'd had about Sir Peter's suitability as a husband for Amelia, they'd said no more on that head. They spent most of their time discussing common interests and arguing over differences of opinion. They both enjoyed literature but did not always agree upon the most popular books of the day. Amelia's musical tastes were more lighthearted. In art she preferred portraits to landscapes. All these subjects led to lively discussions which served to broaden the tastes of the two, rather than pit their differences against each other.
Travel was another topic that filled much of their time. Amelia had never been anywhere more exciting than London, but she longed to experience the beauties of France, Spain and Italy. She found it unfair that gentlemen regularly did a grand tour after college, whereas ladies usually did no more than attend some finishing academy in Bath. Lord Rupert, of course, had enjoyed a few months on the continent and was able to describe Paris, Madrid and Rome in great detail as well as dispel some of Amelia's most cherished misconceptions about such places and travel in general.
But their time was not only spent in such high-minded pursuits. Gossip was given as much attention as classics, more so in some instances, and many a blithe comment was flung back and forth between them. Amelia was inclined to agree with Lord Rupert that the chance to be open and casual, in a world where propriety and decorum ruled the day, was a freedom to be cherished. No one was there to look askance if Amelia put her feet up on the bench and hugged her knees, if she succumbed to a fit of the giggles, or if she pulled the pins out of her hair and let it fall, no matter how bedraggled it might look.
The night after Felicity had told of her two proposals, and Lord Rupert's comments on the matter, Amelia took him to task as soon as he joined her in the bower.
"I hear that you very nearly proposed to Felicity today! After all your high-minded talk about the seriousness of marriage and having to be in love and be loved in return, you contemplate becoming betrothed for a jest? Or are you in love with her?"
"You know very well I am not in love with Miss Kearney - I would have told you if I were. We do have an agreement as you well know."
"So why take such chances? She may very well have accepted you. She is quite besotted!"
"She is quite besotted with a great number of her swains - I hold no special place in her heart. And besides, she knew it was not a serious offer. If she had agreed to my suggestion you can rest assured that I would not have followed through."
Amelia pulled her shawl around her shoulders and glared at him. "How can you be certain she isn't in love with you? I think it despicable of you to play with her feelings like that."
"Do you not think she would make me a perfect wife? Maybe I should endeavour to fall in love with her after all. She is beautiful and charming and full of gaiety. What more could a man ask for?"
"Her suitableness as a wife is not in question. I do not think you would make her a good husband."
"How so? Do not bring up my dissolute character again - I should think I have lived that down by now."
"You were flirting with a maid while you were practically betrothed, while the lady you were to propose to was staying under the same roof as you!"
"Put like that it does sound as if I were rather a loose fish, but we both know that in actual fact I was flirting with the lady I was practically betrothed to."
"But neither of us knew that at the time!"
"And yet we were flirting. Both of us. Do not forget your part in this."
"I was not flirting!"
"You appeared to be quite taken with the groom."
"You have a great opinion of yourself!"
Lord Rupert slid closer to Amelia on the bench and took both her hands, which had been clutching her shawl closed in front of her. "I know full well that I, as Lord Rupert, have never rated highly with you, but I would really like to know what it was about me, as a groom, that caught your fancy that night in the stables. I readily admit that I found you almost irresistible."
Amelia looked into his eyes and felt herself swimming in dangerous waters. She tried to pull her hands from his, but he held them firm. She swallowed and finally managed to force out some words. "Me as a maid."
"But it was you, when you come right to it. I have never made a pass at a maid."
"And I have never looked twice at a groom."
Lord Rupert relaxed his hold on her hands, but she did not pull them away. He was now so close their knees were touching. "You looked twice at me."
"It seems that way," said Amelia. "But it is hard to get the maid and the groom out of the picture."
"If it were any other maid and any other groom, it would not have happened," said Lord Rupert gently.
Amelia pulled her hands away then and covered her face. "I must truly be wanton!" she cried.
Lord Rupert put his arm around her shoulder and brought her to rest against his chest. "Not wanton - only human, I think," he said.
"I do not know what came over me that night! I almost let a groom kiss me!"
"I was no ordinary groom."
"True. You were quite magnificent," Amelia giggled, despite herself. "All the maids would have been swooning over you, I dare swear."
"And all the grooms would have found you irresistible in your fetching maid's costume, with your hair tumbling so gloriously to your shoulders."
"The maid's costume was not fetching in the least."
"But your hair and face in the golden lamplight were. They outshone whatever outlandish thing you were wearing."
Amelia suddenly became very aware of where she was, resting against Lord Rupert's silk waistcoat, his heart beating in her ear. She looked up and his face was right there, before hers.
"Did you just admit that you almost kissed me?" he whispered as he lowered his lips towards hers.
"Yes," she sighed, "and I'll not make that mistake again." She pushed away from him and his lips did no more harm than brush against her hair. She stood and paced around a bit and then turned towards him again. "Well, I'm glad we've finally got that all sorted."
"Have we?" he asked, still seated comfortably on the bench and looking very unperturbed.
"Indeed. I'll not throw your iniquities in your face again. I do not think you will make Felicity a good husband because you are not in love with her, and you said yourself you would not be a good husband if you married without love."
"So I did. We are back where we started with the same old problem. You have found someone to love and marry, while I am still footloose and fancy free. Your father may just send Sir Peter packing when he eventually feels it the proper time to ask for your hand."
"In all probability he will! There must be someone for you in all of London. Why are you so fastidious?"
"I do not think that is the real question here," said Lord Rupert, relaxing back against the pillar and crossing his ankles. "What really needs to be asked is how you can imagine yourself in love with Sir Peter when you have almost let me kiss you for a second time. What kind of a wife will you make if you are so easily tempted?"
Amelia felt fury rise inside her along with the burning blush. She pulled the key from her pocket and threw it on the stone at Lord Rupert's feet. "Take that and go! When you lock the door behind you that is the last time it will be used. I never want to see you here, or anywhere else, again."
She turned and ran from the garden. Lord Rupert sat, no longer nonchalant, but frozen in place. It was quite a few minutes before he stooped to pick up the key and then stride across the moonstruck paving-stones and through the door, turning the key in the lock with a final, vehement clang.
Amelia barely slept that night. All she could think of was how deceitful and cruel Lord Rupert had been. The way he played with Felicity's emotions was nothing to the way he had played with hers. He had tricked her into almost kissing him again, and then thrown it in her face to prove a point. Why should he care if she married Sir Peter or not? She was furious with him and even more furious with herself for almost being taken advantage of again. For all his protestations he was obviously a seasoned womaniser. And the most manipulative person she had ever met.
In the morning she looked at her ravaged face in the mirror. There were dark circles under her eyes and her cheeks were sallow. Her hair was dull and limp. Maisie would need to perform a miracle if Amelia was to look presentable when Lady Wilmott, Sir Peter's mother, came to call. This was one more thing to add to the long list of resentments she held against Lord Rupert.
Maisie took one look at her mistress and immediately sent down for hot water and set up the bath, to which she added her own special distillation of fragrant rose petals. Afterwards she liberally creamed Amelia's face with Gowlands and helped her into an elegantly cut morning dress of rich apricot, to bring out her colour. Lastly she took great care to style her hair into a loose bun, giving it fullness that was flattering but at the same time as demure as a young lady just out of the school-room.
Amelia was quite pleased with the end result. All evidence of the sleepless night had been erased. And, she in no way looked like a wanton hussy - the type of person who would lead a husband a merry dance with countless cicibeo. She looked artless and innocent. At least that was the impression she wanted to give Lady Wilmott.
To Aunt Seraphina's surprise, the first thing she did upon entering the drawing room was to take out her stitchery basket.
"I thought you were off to the library this morning, not doing your mending."
"Oh, did I not tell you my plans had changed? I expect Lady Wilmott to call upon us. I thought I would work on my sampler while I was waiting."
"You have a sampler?" asked her aunt. "I have never seen you work upon it."
"The season has been so hectic I have not had the chance," said Amelia. She rifled through the basket and came up with a few tangled skeins of embroidery silk and a very wrinkled square of cloth upon which three rosebuds and an oak leaf were inexpertly stitched. "See, here it is!"
Her aunt adjusted her spectacles on her nose and leaned in for a view. "My word! This looks like you were still in the nursery when you began it."
Amelia was quite sure it must be the case. As she set about attempting to sort out the tangled skeins of silk, she realised that her idea of presenting herself as an accomplished needlewoman was not going to work. Luckily her aunt came to her rescue.
"Put that mess away! If you need to have something to keep your hands busy, I can give you a handkerchief to hem, though I never thought to see the day."
When Lady Wilmott was shown in to the drawing room, Amelia was able to put down a reasonable looking piece of work with not too uneven stitches set in the hem.
"As you see we are being very domestic this morning," said Aunt Seraphina as Lady Wilmott took a seat. "Quite a novelty during the London season."
"Yes, we tend to put aside our favoured pursuits when we are in the city," responded Lady Wilmott. "It is refreshing to come upon such a homey setting."
Amelia smiled and asked after Lady Wilmott's recent trip.
"My son keeps such a well-sprung coach that travelling too and from our country estate is no hardship at all."
Amelia, who had been a bit nervous about this meeting with Sir Peter's mother, found she had nothing to worry about. Between her aunt and Lady Wilmott, who carried the conversation, she had to do no more that be agreeable. Plans were made for Lady Wilmott and Sir Peter to call for Amelia at eleven o'clock the following morning to take her to see the marbles. After half an hour, which was the socially accepted time allotted to a morning call, Lady Wilmott took her leave.
Taking up the handkerchief again, Amelia promptly stuck herself with the needle, and a drop of blood fell upon the pristine linen.
"Give that to me at once or it will be spoiled," Aunt Seraphina barked. "I really do not know what has got into you. Why must you play up to that lady and her son when Lord Rupert is the man you are to marry?"
"I will never marry Lord Rupert! And I do mean to have Sir Peter when he asks me, whatever you may say!"
"If his mother thinks you are good enough for him! Though how she could quibble about you with your fortune, I have no idea."
"My fortune does not enter into it. Sir Peter loves me and that is all that counts."
Aunt Seraphina let out a burst of laughter. "Amelia my dear, the world does not work that way. Sir Peter may be completely infatuated with you, but he will marry to please his mother. She will be looking for different things in a wife for her son than he is looking for. His wife will be her companion. And she will not want to give up control of her household to some young chit who knows nothing about anything."
Amelia was startled out of her anger for a moment. "She would live with us?"
"Of course - she is not the type to meekly retire to the dower house."
"With my fortune we would have more than enough money to set her up in a nice house in Bath or some such thing. I am certain she would prefer her independence to living with a couple of newly-weds."
"It is a moot point anyway, Amelia. You are marrying Lord Rupert. He is such a charming boy - he will make you a wonderful husband. It is beyond me why you are so set against him."
"It is beyond me why I should have no say in who I marry, and why everyone wants me to marry such a scoundrel!" shouted Amelia, and she ran from the drawing room before Aunt Seraphina's reprimand left her lips.
Up in her bedroom again, she threw her hairbrush onto the floor and followed it with a pot of powder that broke open and billowed in a cloud of white that settled on everything. Blast the man! They had been on their way to becoming such good friends and he had spoiled it all with his tricks and insinuations. He was more reprehensible than she had ever believed and she had no idea how she had let him place her in such a tenuous position. What was it about him that made her do such foolish, wicked things? He brought out the worst in her. She refused to think of him anymore.
She lay on her bed and gave herself up to a fit of weeping and that was where Maisie found her an hour later, sleeping in a heap, her elegant gown all rumpled.
That evening she begged off attending the musical event that Lady Missingford was holding. She knew Sir Peter would expect to see her and she was sorry to miss him, but she couldn't face encountering Lord Rupert. And the excuse of a headache was no lie. She needed to rest if she was not to make herself ill again. Nothing was going to put off the trip to see the Elgin Marbles on the morrow.
Aunt Seraphina was more than willing for Amelia to stay home, in fact she had been planning on telling Amelia that after her childish outburst earlier in the day she did not deserve to go out. She still demanded an apology, which Amelia grudgingly made, and then told her to rethink all that she had said.
Lady Missingforth's evening of music proved a rousing success. The harpist was in rare form and the cellist and two violins were pronounced out of this world. But the lack of a certain lady rendered it flat for at least two of the gentlemen in attendance. One wondered if Lady Amelia were unwell and hoped the next day's outing would not be postponed. The other was pretty certain she was avoiding him, and inwardly swore at his stupidity of the night before.
Amelia's sleep was again quite disturbed as she tossed and turned and tangled her bedclothes. As angry as she was with Lord Rupert, she still missed her moonlit idyll which had become such an important part of her daily routine. It was all his fault for abusing her trust, and for accusing her of infidelity, that she had now lost the freedom of those meetings. She was sure that her love for Sir Peter was real, and that her lapse in the moonlight was just an aberration brought on by her memory of the night in the stable and Lord Rupert's manipulative charm. Try as she might she could not stop the entire incident playing over and over in her head. One moment she could swear that she hated Lord Rupert, and if she never heard from him or saw him again it would be too soon, and the next she missed having a confidante that she could be open and honest with.
The next morning Sir Peter and Lady Wilmott arrived with their carriage at the stroke of eleven. Sir Peter was as attentive and kind as ever and Amelia felt all her worries drift away in his comforting presence. Lady Wilmott was gracious, as always.
The marbles were duly admired. Lady Wilmott noted that culture was always to be valued, no matter that some of the friezes might be regarded as a little shocking to someone who had lived a sheltered life. Sir Peter said that art rose above the commonplace proprieties of social convention. Amelia thought it all very magnificent and listened more than she spoke for fear of saying something embarrassingly naïve. The sculptures revealed more than she had ever learned of the male anatomy in her short life and led to thoughts that were best kept to herself.
"How wonderful it would be to travel to Greece!" she felt safe enough to say.
"Travel is very well for gentlemen," said Lady Wilmott. "But all that foreign air is too much for delicate female constitutions."
"The rigours of travel can be a hardship on anyone," Sir Peter responded, "but someone young and healthy as you are, Lady Amelia, should be able to withstand the difference in air if the proper precautions are taken."
"Perhaps a shawl, judiciously wrapped about the head, to screen one from any foul pestilence that might abound. But best to stay home in England and journey no further than Brighton."
"But I so long to travel!" cried Amelia. "Surely it cannot be so very bad. I have heard of people journeying to Florence for their health."
"A foolish fad," Lady Wilmott scoffed. "When Peter went abroad he had to cut his excursion a month short and returned with congestion of the lungs."
"It was no more than a putrid sore throat, brought on because I was young and foolishly ventured out during a thunderstorm without an overcoat. I would like to travel again, but I fear that escapade has spoiled it for me. Mother would know no peace for worry, if I should leave England for the continent again."
Lady Wilmott cast her son a fond smile, but Sir Peter's comment could not be looked upon with the same joy by Amelia. If he could not travel, nor could she. Ramsgate for a honeymoon held little appeal as compared to Paris.
When they dropped Amelia back at her door, it was fixed that Lady Wilmott would call the next morning to take her out walking.
"Just the two of us," she said, "without your Aunt Seraphina. I would like a private tête-à-tête."
Sir Peter appeared very pleased with his mother's suggestion and Amelia readily accepted.
As it was Wednesday, that evening saw Amelia attending Almacks again. She refused to become cloistered like a nun just to avoid a meeting with Lord Rupert. Sir Peter had expressed a strong interest in dancing with her and she was looking forward to it a great deal.
"You are looking extremely lovely tonight," he said as he led her out to the set.
She smiled back up at him happily and thought that he, too, looked rather fine, though she did not voice it. She was afraid he might consider complimenting gentlemen a little forward. She intended to act with total decorum from now on. Flaunting conventions had got her nowhere but in trouble.
He led her off the floor at the end of the set, and after seeing her comfortably placed in a chair beside her aunt, Sir Peter went off to procure some lemonade. It was at this juncture that Lord Rupert approached her, accompanied by Princess Esterházy. A chill ran through her and she wanted to turn her back on him until he went away, but she could not snub his companion, one of the patronesses of Almacks, unless she wanted to be dropped like a hot potato and accepted nowhere.
"Lady Amelia," Princess Esterházy tittered. "This young scamp has asked for an introduction, which he hardly needs as we all know. What he really wants is for you to be given permission to waltz with him, which I am more than glad to do. I have often thought it would be a joy to see you waltz. And what better partner could you ask for?"
Amelia would have loved to say 'Sir Peter', but of course that response was completely out of the question. She acquiesced as sweetly and politely as possible, given that she was seething inside. As Lord Rupert took her hand and led her to the floor, she noticed Sir Peter returning with her lemonade. She could do no more than look at him helplessly, hoping that he would not misunderstand. She stood woodenly as they waited for the music to start, refusing to look Lord Rupert in the eye.
"I do not blame you in the least for not wanting to talk to me. I am truly sorry for what I said - you must believe me."
"I am tired of your tricks. This waltz is but another one. You know I would never have consented to stand up with you if not for Princess Esterházy."
The music started up and she flinched as he put his hand on her waist. Other than that she tried to ensure that nothing in her deportment gave her feelings away for all to see. She would not have Lord Rupert make a spectacle of her.
"It was the only way I could think of to manage a bit of privacy to speak to you. Please do not shut me out. I want you to take the key back. I do not expect you to unlock the door, but at least if you have it I know there is a chance that you might."
"I promise not to overstep my bounds."
"Your promises are worthless - you promised me that before."
"And for that I heartily apologise."
"Words are so easy to say. Actions speak more truly."
"In this ballroom I can only use words. You will have to trust my future actions."
Amelia let out a snort of derision and then remembered herself and plastered a grim little smile on her face. "The weather has been quite mild these past few days."
"I miss our talks."
"There are a great number of couples here tonight, do you not think?"
"I miss you."
"And everyone so elegantly got up."
"Even with your stiff back and prim face, you outshine them all."
"Stop it. Is it not enough that you have made me dance against my will? Must I listen to your nonsense too?"
"It is not nonsense."
"You promised me that you would pay me no special attention in public, and now you have forced me to waltz with you. Why should I ever believe anything you say?"
"Because I am being completely sincere. Take the key and I will leave you alone."
"If I were to take the key, I should not use it."
"That is your decision to make. I will wait every night to hear it turn in the lock regardless."
"I cannot meet you clandestinely. I love Sir Peter and intend to marry him and make him a good, loyal wife."
"You do not know how sorry I am that I ever said that."
Amelia chanced looking at his face then. It was pale and strained and lacking in its normal confidence and glinting humour. "It is the worst thing you have ever said to me." Their eyes locked and held, but this time there was no overwhelming temptation. Amelia just felt sad and lost and a little bit lonely.
The music ended and Lord Rupert led her off the floor, back to Sir Peter who still held her lemonade. He bowed stiffly and was gone. To her surprise the key was cradled in her palm. She surreptitiously slipped it into her reticule before turning to Sir Peter and thanking him for the lemonade in as calm a manner as she could manage.
"Lady Wilmott's morning visits with you seem to have become a regular event," Aunt Seraphina said when Amelia announced the planned walk. "Is it she or her son who is courting you?"
"It is only natural that Lady Wilmott would like to know me better if her son has serious intentions towards me."
"Mark my words it is she who will say yeah or nay."
As Amelia had her own growing suspicions that Lady Wilmott would try her best to influence her son one way or the other, she could not very well argue Aunt Seraphina's point other than to say that Sir Peter would make his own decisions and not bow to his mother's wishes. But as insurance she planned to do her best to impress Lady Wilmott with her suitableness as a bride to Sir Peter.
The two walked to a little park at the end of the street where there was a pond with ducks. Lady Wilmott directed Amelia to a bench with a view of the water. Children were at the bank of the pond feeding crusts to the tame birds.
"What a charming activity," said Amelia. "When I am a mother I shall bring my own children here."
Lady Wilmott looked at her directly and said, in a deceptively sweet voice, "Do you currently have plans to marry?"
"No, of course not," Amelia stuttered, "I am only speaking of some future time."
"I only ask," said Lady Wilmott with great care, "because there had been a rumour that you and Lord Rupert were promised to one another."
It was precisely then that Amelia realised just why Lady Wilmott had invited her for this walk, and why she had insisted they be unaccompanied. The lady had a great deal of nerve.
Amelia thought it best to keep the explanation as simple as possible. "It was a wish of our parents, nothing more."
"You understand why I ask you this. My son is very much taken with you, and I should not like him to be hurt or caught up in some scandal if there were complications. You appear to be a decently brought up young lady but I want to be sure that you are not playing fast and loose with him. If this betrothal was both your and Sir Rupert's parents' wish, why has it not come about?"
"Neither Lord Rupert nor I desire it."
"But to go against your parent's wishes! That is most undutiful."
"Do you not think where marriage is involved that love must override duty? I will not marry where I do not love."
"Most young ladies would not turn their nose up at the likes of Lord Rupert. He is one of the most sought after bachelors of the season. What have your parents to say of all this?"
"I have not spoken of it to them since getting Lord Rupert to agree not to offer for me, but my Aunt Seraphina knows all about it."
"And she is in complete accord?" Lady Wilmott's tone and expression showed that she believed otherwise.
Amelia knew that the truth was her only option. "No, she is not, but the decision is not hers. I am certain that if a worthy gentleman of my choice applied to my father for my hand, he would relent."
Lady Wilmott appeared shocked. "And this is how the land lies? I cannot condone your behaviour. You play up to my son, giving him the impression that you are available, when all it can really lead to is the humiliation of sure rejection from your father! I shall tell him exactly what I think on this matter. You are an ungrateful daughter and a devious young lady. Think no more of Peter - I will not allow you to drag him down. Do not fancy your fortune a strong enough incentive to override our principles. Honour is what is at stake here - and the honour of the Willmott family shall not be sullied. I cannot abide being in your presence one moment longer, but I shall escort you to your door, and that will be the end of our association."
She got up from the bench and waited for Amelia to do the same. They walked back in silence, Lady Wilmott ramrod straight, her expression that of performing a necessary evil.
Anger and humiliation juggled for the uppermost spot in Amelia's mind, which was in utter turmoil. All her hopes were shattered. How would Sir Peter react to his mother's pronouncement? Did he love Amelia enough to go against this dragon lady's wishes? And if he did, how were they to reconcile his mother's feelings towards Amelia? Her London season, which she had looked forward to with such excited anticipation, was turning to a complete disaster. And the root of all the trouble was squarely anchored upon Sir Rupert.
Amelia entered the house and was about to mount the staircase to go to her bedroom and attempt to compose her distraught feelings when her aunt appeared and forestalled her.
"A gentleman is waiting in the drawing room and would like a private moment. I thought it best that you deal directly with the results of your folly in insisting to not recognise your true destiny."
"No, I cannot - I am unwell."
"It is time that you stopped thinking only of yourself and took some responsibility for your actions. Be gentle when you turn him down, but remember, turn him down you must!"
Amelia was certain it was none other than Sir Peter, knowing her aunt's opinion of his suit. Maybe it was best this way - to hear him and then prepare him somehow for his mother's displeasure. She took a few deep breaths to try and calm her tumbled emotions and then hurried down the hallway to the drawing room. It was a necessity that could not be put off.
On entering the room she was surprised to see not Sir Peter, but Gilbert Kearney.
"Oh!" was all she managed to get out before he practically leaped to her side and grasped her hand.
"Y-you cannot be surprised b-by what I am about to say," he stammered.
"Please do not," she whispered.
But poor Gilbert could not be forestalled. "I've been head over heels for you since almost the first moment. Please say you will marry me and make me the happiest man alive!"
"Oh Gilbert, I cannot," she blurted out.
"Of course you can - not betrothed to Rupert - nothing to stand in our way!"
After all she had been through already that morning, Amelia became overwhelmed. She could not see through the tears that misted her eyes and soon she was shaking with great, gasping sobs as she choked out, "I do like you so very much, but I . . . I did not mean for you to fall in love with me. Lord Rupert warned me more than once, but I did not heed him. I am so sorry."
Gilbert led her to a chair and encouraged her to sit. "Take my hanky," he said and then stood awkwardly beside her as she hid her face in it. "Felicity bursts into tears at the slightest provocation too. Not the end of the world, you know. My heart may be broken now but it will mend," he added bravely.
"Oh Gilbert!" Amelia almost began weeping again, but she resolutely dried her eyes and looked up at him sheepishly. "You are so sweet. I am sorry to have created such a scene. I was supposed to be gentle with you, but instead you were gentle with me. Your proposal was very flattering and I wish I could have made you happy, but . . ."
Gilbert blushed. "Think no more of it, but if you ever should change your mind, you know where to find me." With that he executed a little bow and backed out of the room with the look of someone making a welcome escape.
Amelia gave him a moment to depart and then left the room in short order too. She did not feel up to dealing with her aunt just yet and she knew that lady would be nosing her way in to find out how the interview had gone at the earliest opportunity.
Safely in her room she threw herself upon her bed and contemplated how complicated her life had become. She was exhausted, physically and emotionally - she felt nothing, only a dull sort of emptiness that begged to be filled with something. Whether she remained miserable or tried to fill that space with a modicum of happiness was up to no one but herself. Her thoughts began to drift and the next thing she knew the room was almost in darkness.
Maisie tiptoed in. "Are you awake, my Lady? It is almost time to dress for dinner." She went around the room lighting the candles.
"Yes Maisie. Thank you for letting me sleep. It has done me a world of good."
"I cannot say the same for your gown, Lady Amelia," Maisie said with a giggle. "But nothing that a good wash won't cure."
"A wash sounds good to me too," Amelia sighed as she sat up on the bed, stretching her arms above her head.
"I knew it would, and have already sent down for hot water. It should be here shortly."
After dinner and an evening of unrelieved boredom with only Aunt Seraphina for company, Amelia excused herself early, making her aunt believe that she truly was in danger of falling ill again. Once in her room, Amelia sat on her bed and desultorily began to brush out her hair. It was no use - she could not stop thinking about the key. She went to her dressing table and pulled open the centre drawer. In the back, underneath a neat stack of lace-trimmed handkerchiefs, it lurked. She picked it up and weighed it in her hand. Considering all it stood for, it was a smallish key - light and cool on her skin. But the longer she held it, it seemed to burn.
The temptation to pull a cloak over her shoulders and go down to the garden was great. She needed someone to talk to about her predicament. Despite his predilection for teasing, Lord Rupert could actually be a good listener. Though in this case he would probably tell her that she was better off, because the dull dog Sir Peter would do his mother's will and Amelia would be saved a life of boredom. Anyway, she could never trust Lord Rupert again, so what was the point of even contemplating meeting him in the garden?
She tossed the key in the air and caught it a few times, then stifling a groan of frustration, she yanked the drawer open and stuffed the key beneath the now untidy hankies, pushing it shut again with a decisive motion. Staring at her reflection in the mirror, she sighed and reached for the bell-pull. Maisie came into the room the next moment and helped her ready herself for bed. She was soon settled under a downy comforter with a branch of lit candles on her bedside table and a book in her hands. It was some few minutes before she even opened it, and her attempts at reading were severely hampered by her eyes continually leaving the page to stare at her dresser drawer.
She got no reading accomplished that night but she did override the draw of the key and stay securely in her bedchamber until morning. Sleep, however, evaded her till the advent of the morning's blush. She awoke to the sun streaming through her windows as Maisie drew back the curtains. There was another day to be got through. She wasn't sure how she would manage it, but she resolutely got out of bed, resolving to make the best attempt she could muster.
Aunt Seraphina spent her Friday mornings making social calls on all her dear cronies. One look at Amelia's pinched face decided her upon letting the girl stay home.
"If you rest up today perhaps you can prevent a relapse," she said. "Rejecting suitors can be hard on the constitution." She smirked at her attempt at a joke.
"Thank you Auntie," said Amelia gratefully.
Alone in the drawing room, she sat at the instrument and plunked out a few simple tunes without much interest. She was surprised when the footman opened the door and announced Sir Peter.
"Do not get up," he said, as she jumped from the piano stool. "I did not wish to disturb you. Is your aunt not with you?"
"No," said Amelia in confusion. "I hadn't expected to see you after . . . your mother . . . I mean - oh, what are you doing here?" She blushed furiously at her awkwardness.
"You know why I am here. But first I must apologise for my mother. She was impolite and said some things to you that you must find unforgivable. But she has my best interests at heart. I think I ought to explain something so you can better understand and find it in your heart to forgive. May we sit?"
Amelia nodded dumbly and sat on the chair closest to her. He took one nearby and looked at her earnestly.
"When my father died, I was but fifteen, a young age to take on the baronetcy. My mother has always been my chief adviser. She has led me through the labyrinth of estate management, kept me from misadventure when I completed my education and entered the even more confusing shoals of London society, and has been my solace throughout. Do not think me molly-coddled, but she has become used to a certain level of involvement in all my dealings, business and social. But here she has overstepped her bounds, and so I have told her. Of course I would not like to marry without her approval of my choice, but whom I marry is my choice. I have chosen you and she knows she must approve and accept you, if we are all to be happy."
"But she told me it was a matter of family honour - that she will not have you take the risk of my father rejecting your suit."
"And I told her that she can only protect me so far - I have to make my own way in this world. If I have your consent, why should your father not grant me his? After how Lord Rupert has treated you, he could not possibly hold out for an offer from that quarter. I may not have the fortune and lineage that Lord Rupert has, but I am a man of means, and I care about you, which should count for something."
It was all going a little fast for Amelia. Here was Sir Peter, unexpectedly speaking of marriage after all his mother had said. And now he was discussing talking to her father, without actually having really proposed to her yet. She picked up on the one thing that was the least relevant of all that he said, but to her mind deserved some sort of explanation. "How Lord Rupert has treated me?"
"I am sorry to have to bring up a subject that must be hurtful to you, and an embarrassment. You will not know this, but Lord Rupert told me how he brought you to agree to let him out of his pledge to marry you. I am, of course, happy that he ended the arrangement, but to put you in such a position, when all of society considered you as good as promised to him - it was the act of a scoundrel."
Amelia recalled referring to Lord Rupert as a scoundrel once herself, but in this case it did not apply. "I asked him not to offer for me. He readily agreed, but do not you see? It was my wish too. I want to marry for love, and so does he. He did nothing wrong."
Sir Peter smiled. "Perhaps scoundrel is too strong of a word. But it was ungentlemanly of him"
"It was gallant!"
"You do have odd ideas about some things - but it is your very artlessness that I have come to love about you. Your support of a gentleman who has jilted you does you much credit, and I can see that it bodes well that you will see your way to forgiving my mother for haranguing you about Lord Rupert as well, so we can all live harmoniously."
"Your mother expressly told me that I was ungrateful and devious and making a play for you and she wanted nothing more to do with me."
"You are imagining things! Of course she did not say anything so cruel!"
"Those were her very words."
"If so, she will apologise."
"If so? Do you doubt me?"
"Of course not, Lady Amelia. It is all some sort of misunderstanding. When we are married you will see that she is not like that at all. She is always very careful of people's feelings; refined and genteel in all her relations."
Amelia knew that Lady Wilmott was capable of firing barbs with perfect aim, but she saw no purpose in arguing the point. There was something much more important she and Sir Peter needed to discuss before he got very much more ahead of himself.
"This talk of what will happen when we are married is all very well, but you have not actually proposed to me yet, Sir Peter.
"Have I not?" he asked, laughing. "But surely . . ."
Amelia smiled in return and said gently, "And I have not yet consented."
Sir Peter leaned forward and took her hands in his. "But we know - we have known for weeks what everything was leading up to. I will go down on one knee and pledge you my troth, if that is what you wish, but your consent is to be counted upon. You have given it me in your every look and smile."
"I had thought my consent to be counted upon too. I made up my mind to fall in love with you when we met, and I was certain I had done so. Somebody very wise recently told me that love cannot be forced. I did not think I was forcing love, but I am very sorry to say, that is exactly what I have been trying to do. And now, when exactly what I wished for has come about, and you have asked for my hand, I find I cannot grant it you."
Sir Peter looked bewildered. "You cannot grant it me? After all the encouragement you have given my suit?"
"For that I am truly sorry. I was so determined to make my own choice - to not have a loveless marriage foisted upon me. I even sent Lord Rupert after you to make sure you understood that I was not promised to him and never would be. I have made a grievous mistake."
"You sent lord Rupert after me?"
"Your mother was right after all," said Amelia, suddenly feeling the weight of how badly she had behaved in the whole affair. "I am devious. And I did make a play for you. And I feel so badly to have hurt you. I hope in time you can forgive me."
"Could you not see your way to marrying me? I would strive to be a good husband, and you could come to love me."
"No Sir Peter - I am not the girl for you."
"But, after all that has been said and done, convincing my mother to accept you as a daughter because no one else would do for me, what can I tell her?"
Amelia smiled sadly. "That you decided not to ask me to marry you after all. She will be very happy."
Sir Peter reluctantly let go of her hands. His face reflected his confusion and disappointment. "I suppose there is nothing left but to take my leave of you. I wish you all the best." He stood and bowed formally before leaving the room.
Amelia found she was shaking. Guilt engulfed her, but other emotions were also strongly in evidence. She was chagrined to have to admit that Lord Rupert was right, and her aunt Seraphina, and even Felicity. She had acted foolishly, blindly, and selfishly. But underneath all the self recriminations there sang a chord that she could not but rejoice in - relief. She had very nearly made the biggest mistake in her life, but she had been saved. And very possibly it was the dragon lady herself who had been most responsible for her rescue.
After Sir Peter left her, Amelia stayed in the drawing room lost in reflection. She heard someone at the front door and thought in dismay that her aunt was already returned from her visiting spree, but instead she was pleasantly surprised when Felicity was ushered into the room.
"I had to come," cried Felicity. "It has been such an age since I have seen you and I have so much I want to discuss."
Amelia laughed. "Today is Friday and we saw each other this past Wednesday at Almacks!"
"That is exactly what I mean - two days have gone by since we have been together! And at Almacks we barely spoke at all, what with all the dancing. Which reminds me - we must talk of your waltz with Lord Rupert, but first my news. I am bursting at the seams!"
"You must by all means go first," said Amelia who had been dreading a third degree from her friend about the aforementioned waltz.
"Two more proposals - and both so awful it almost makes one want to give up on high society if this is all the reward one is to expect!" Felicity made a face and then continued on. "Lord Ullesmore finally came up to scratch. He called me his sweet one and said he has been unable to think of anything but me since our first meeting. 'What, not a thought to my fortune? I rejoined.' You ought to have seen his face! And then Mr Ramsay! You are so lucky to so far have been spared Mr Ramsay"
"Was it so very bad?"
"He had the audacity to pull me into his arms and attempt to smother me with kisses! Most odious. Why could it not have been one of the handsome young bucks that are following me around instead of that toady? I showed him no mercy."
"With any luck the handsome ones will start proposing soon."
Felicity giggled. "I am having so much fun that I do not believe I want to become engaged at all this season. Once I accept someone I will not be able to flirt till after I am married! And what of you - have there been any proposals you need to tell me of?"
Amelia blushed. "Yes, but the first I ought not tell - it would be unfair."
"Gilly!" cried Felicity. "He was in such a dismal mood yesterday I ought to have known he had tried his luck."
"He did not pick the best moment. I was already upset about something else, and so I burst out crying at the thought of the hurt I was causing him. In the end he had to comfort me."
"He will recover soon enough! In years to come I can tease him about how he was your first and that your season would not have been complete without his fond offering. I am so happy for you that you have been able to reject a suitor. Is it not fun?"
While Amelia admired her friend's joie de vivre, she did not take the same view. "I do not find it fun to have to disappoint someone's hopes - especially someone as nice as your brother. Lord Rupert warned me that Gilbert was falling for me but I did not heed him. And then there was all that nonsense with the flowers and I did not heed that either." She sighed. "I have been most pigheaded. And there is worse to report."
"Worse? Do not tell me Lord Rupert has proposed!" Felicity said in mock horror.
"Lord Rupert? Of course not. I am speaking of Sir Peter. He left me but half an hour before you arrived."
"Sir Peter? He proposed? But that is what you wished for - what went wrong?"
"Everything. First there was his mother, taking me out for a walk only to interrogate me about Lord Rupert and then insult me and say she would warn Sir Peter against me!"
"No!" said Felicity, her eyes widening. "He did not come here and renounce you? The cad!"
"He came here to tell me that he had convinced his mother not to stand in his way. He was prepared to marry me."
"Then - where is the problem?"
Amelia sighed. "You will think me such a fool. Just when everything fell into place as I had hoped and had thought impossible after my interview with Sir Peter's mother, I discovered that I was not in love with Sir Peter after all. And to think of how I led him on! My behaviour was most shameful."
"How did you know you were not in love? Was it his kiss? Or the final thought of spending the rest of your days with him?"
"He made no attempt to kiss me," said Amelia primly.
"So that was it!" laughed Felicity.
Amelia considered for a moment. "It may have been part of it, but really it was an accumulation of many things that had been building for a few days. There was his mother and his reliance upon her, the way he took my consent for granted when he had not actually proposed, things he said about Lord Rupert, and things Lord Rupert said about him, and about me." She blushed at that.
"It sounds like he royally botched his proposal," said Felicity. "Tell me all, word for word."
Amelia did not give a word for word account, but neither did she omit anything. It felt good to get it all out and not bottled up inside anymore.
"Do not blame yourself over this. It is true that you encouraged Sir Peter, but he fell in love willingly. You have learned a lesson and will be more circumspect next time, no doubt."
Amelia laughed. "You of all people to preach circumspection!"
"I can easily give advice that I have no intention of taking myself," said Felicity with a saucy grin. "And now that other matter I wanted to broach. In fact, you have made many references to Lord Rupert in all these confessions that have only served to further peak my curiosity. What is going on with you two? I never see you converse, yet he appears to be the number one adviser in your love-life. And on Wednesday you waltzed with him, though neither of you seemed to enjoy it."
"It is long and complicated," Amelia sighed. "We made a pact that we would not notice each other overly in public, so that the rumour of our pending engagement would die down and not interfere with our chances in finding love."
"That only explains part of it. When has he been advising you? Why did you waltz at Almacks - that goes against your silly pact."
"He was not advising me! He just likes to voice his opinion without regard to what I think or feel. And he tricked me into waltzing with him just to give me the key back because he knew I would not take it." Amelia stopped, realising she had said too much.
Felicity pounced upon her unfortunate disclosure. "The key! What key?"
"The key to my garden," was Amelia's reluctant admission. "We used to meet there occasionally, at night, just to discuss things. Nothing unseemly, so you can wipe that knowing look from your face. But then he did and said something that made me angry so I gave him the key back and told him to never visit me in the garden again."
"But if he had the key, he could come in whenever he chose - how was giving the key to him a deterrent?"
"The agreement was that I unlock the door. The nocturnal visits would only happen if I chose them to."
"And they were not for the purpose of a little lovemaking? If it were my garden and I held the key and let Lord Rupert in, lovemaking would be uppermost on my mind. And I would expect it to be on his as well."
"I am sorry to disappoint you but neither I nor Lord Rupert met for those reasons. It was simply a way that we could meet outside of society's interested gaze, where we could talk openly and naturally. I really think we became friends, and now it is over." she ended, meditatively and a little sadly.
"Why should it be over? Did you not say he returned the key during the waltz?" said Felicity reasonably. "Was what he did and said so terrible that you cannot forgive him?"
Amelia was about to say that it was, and then she had a revelation. "As it turns out, what he said was no more than the truth, and what he did . . . well, when it comes down to it he did nothing at all."
"So it is the fact that he has done nothing at all that has you so upset with him." Felicity winked suggestively.
"You are wilfully misunderstanding me," said Amelia.
"By all appearances he has been a complete gentleman," Felicity conceded, "I say you ought use the key."
At that point Aunt Seraphina returned home and the girls' confidences had to come to a close. The tea tray was called for and Felicity stayed for another half hour while Aunt Seraphina regaled them both with all the gossip she had collected while doing her rounds. When Felicity had made her goodbyes, Amelia excused herself and slipped upstairs to her bed chamber. It had been an eventful morning and she had a lot to think about. Whether or not to use the key in the evening, and whether Lord Rupert would actually be waiting to hear it scrape in the lock, were uppermost in her mind.
That evening Amelia and her aunt attended a gathering at Lord and Lady Hoxentrough's grand establishment. Their daughter, Lady Cynthia, entertained the throng with her harp. The music was lovely - worth putting up with the insipidly formal program. Although Felicity and her brother were in attendance, Amelia had no opportunity even to speak with them. Amelia was relieved to see that Gilbert Kearney did not appear too incredibly lovelorn. He did attend to the harp playing with a rather melancholy expression, but he managed to bow to her across the room with all appearance of composure.
Lord Rupert was also among the guests, but he too was assigned a chair on the far side of the room. He did send her a long, meaningful glance when he managed to catch her eye, and after a moment of deliberation Amelia inclined her head in a slight nod. He gave a quick smile in acknowledgement and then returned his attention to the music.
It was close on midnight when Amelia stole through her sleeping house, key in hand, her decision made hours before. Once in the garden she could not get to the door and unlock it fast enough. She was quite sure Lord Rupert would be waiting on the other side. He did not disappoint - the moment the key turned in the lock he swung the door open.
"What a grim evening. If it were not for the rare beauty of the harp playing and the harpist herself, I think I should have died from sheer boredom." Lord Rupert took her arm and led her to the bench under the rose arbour.
Amelia had expected him to be more earnest, as he had been at the waltz, and she was unsure if she were pleased or not that he had just breezed in and started talking as if nothing momentous had happened between them. She was also unexpectedly disconcerted by his commendation of the harpist. "You find Lady Cynthia beautiful?"
"Uncommonly so. I may decide to fall in love with her - that ought to please you."
"But, considering her parents, do you not think you might find her a trifle . . . insipid?" she meditated.
"Speaking of insipid, where was your trusty swain tonight? The evening's entertainment ought to have been just his cup of tea."
Amelia wondered why she had bothered unlocking the door and meeting Lord Rupert in the garden again if he was determined to be as annoying as usual, though there was an element of truth in what he had to say. "His mother should have been delighted by it at any rate."
"Do I detect a hint of disappointment? I am sorry, for your sake, that he was not there, but at least Sir Peter was spared the mind-numbing boredom we all had to endure." he said benevolently.
"Would not the beauty of the harpist have made up for it in his case as well?"
"I doubt it would because he only has eyes for you."
"Then it is perfectly understandable that he did not attend, for there would have been no pleasure for him tonight."
Lord Rupert had been casually tearing a rose apart, but Amelia's comment brought all his attention back upon her. "How so?"
"I have a confession to make," said Amelia, taking a deep breath before continuing bravely on. "I have to admit that you were right in what you said."
"I have said many things, all of them surprisingly accurate. To which do you refer?"
"Sir Peter is a very estimable gentleman, but he does lack a certain spark."
Lord Rupert did not crow, 'I told you so!' He simply took her hand and smiled at her fondly.
Amelia felt encouraged by this reaction and felt that she might as well continue with the complete confession. "And you were right that if I were indeed almost tempted to kiss another person, I might not be in love with Sir Peter." It was not an easy thing to admit, and she blushed furiously.
"And does he know this now?"
"That I could have almost kissed you? Of course not! I could not admit that to anybody!"
"No, I mean does he know that you do not love him."
Amelia nodded. "He proposed and I rejected him."
"Because of what I said?"
"Not entirely. I was still very angry about what you said, but a number of things happened, some to do with his mother and then Sir Peter going on about declaring himself to my father before he had actually gained my consent, taking it for granted, and the complete lack of ardour in his proposal when he finally came to the point, and I suddenly realised I did not love him at all. It was the idea of being in love with him that I was in love with."
"He did not try to kiss you?"
"He is a gentleman, unlike some I could mention!" Amelia retorted hotly. Lord Rupert had no right to ask such questions.
But Lord Rupert was not finished with his impertinences. "Would you have let him, if he had tried?"
Amelia was tempted to slap him, but she held back, taking some deep breaths to control her rising temper. "It is difficult enough for me to admit that you were right without being subjected to this . . . prurient interest!"
"Would you have?" Lord Rupert persisted.
"How do I know? I was never put in the position to discover whether I reel every time a handsome man stares lustfully into my eyes," she cried in exasperation.
"So you think me handsome."
"You, Sir Peter, and another dozen gentlemen of my acquaintance! It is of no moment!"
"Neither is the fact that I find Lady Cynthia beautiful, as well as you and another dozen or so ladies of my acquaintance."
"What is that to do with anything?"
"You appeared to be displeased with my interest in the lady."
"Not at all. It is about time you have settled on somebody, only do not forget that love cannot be forced. You told me so yourself."
"And I must start all over again as well. It is most aggravating. I really had thought Sir Peter was the one, but, oh! I must tell you what probably sparked my doubts. He refuses to travel to the continent! His mother believes that it will make him ill, and he will do nothing to distress his mother!"
"Ever the dutiful son! Very commendable!"
"Though he did stand up to her about me. She did not want him to marry me and he convinced her he had the right to choose whom he married. And then I rejected him! I did such a terrible thing."
"Terrible? I was never more pleased than to hear that you had rejected him."
"No, making him love me was a terrible thing to do. The rejection was certainly necessary. As nice as Sir Peter is, I could not have lived with his mother."
"A chilling thought. I had not realised all that matrimony entailed."
"But I do feel guilty for having broken his heart."
"Look at it this way. Sir Peter was in love, but did he really know you? The real you? Did he really appreciate your independent nature or even your love of the ridiculous? Soon he will make the same discovery that you did - neither of you were suited to the other. His heart is not broken, only bruised. I think it a good thing for a man as complacent as he to be jolted into reality."
Lord Rupert leaned against the trellis, sending a shower of rose petals down upon them. He drew Amelia beside him and looked up contentedly through the crossing stems at the moon that peeked here and there among leaf and rose. "Is it not nice to be here, together in the garden again?"
Surprised at herself and the feeling of contentment that ran through her, Amelia nestled against him, with her head on his chest. "I missed it so," she admitted. Then a thought struck her. "When we each find someone to marry we shall have to give this all up. I cannot imagine even the most understanding suitor accepting such nocturnal visitations, even if it were properly explained."
Lord Rupert laughed. "Sir Peter might have been brought round, but I'd give anything to be a fly on the wall when he was trying to explain it to his mother."
Amelia sighed. "Not even Sir Peter. I can think of no gentleman who would condone this moonlight friendship, and the thought of deceit in marriage is abhorrent."
Lord Rupert released her and, sitting up, gave her hands a comforting squeeze. "I am certain there is one gentleman who will find it in his heart to understand, if he loves you the way you deserve."
"And one lady for you," Amelia whispered, but even as she said it she knew the possibility was highly remote. If she were in love with a gentleman, and he had a private friendship with a lady that was difficult to explain, she did not think she would find it in herself to happily accept it.
She met Lord Rupert's glance and their eyes held. They sat in the dappled moonlight for some time, as more petals of spent flowers drifted slowly down. Amelia felt her senses spinning recklessly out of control. Finally Lord Rupert stood, breaking the spell, and pulled Amelia to her feet. "It is time we both went in, I think. I will see you tomorrow. Pleasant dreams."
With that he kissed her hands and melted into the shadow and through the door. She followed slowly on feet that were unsure of their purpose, and locked the door behind him.
The next day Amelia came downstairs to find Lord Rupert seated in the drawing room, apparently enjoying a comfortable chat with Aunt Seraphina.
"What on earth are you doing here?" she blurted out.
'Manners, Amelia!" scolded her aunt. "Lord Rupert came to ask how your groom has settled in. So considerate!"
"Yes, Lady Amelia - how is the good Binks?"
"He is perfectly adequate, I am sure! You know what sort of attention I afford grooms."
"Quite! Well, now that is settled I should probably run along and get on with my day. The life of a dilettante, you know, can at times be overwhelming."
"But Amelia has only just come downstairs," protested Aunt Seraphina. "Do not allow her incivility to cut your visit short. I am certain you two have much to discuss regarding future plans."
Lord Rupert made a show of looking at his watch. "It seems I have another half hour at my disposal," he conceded.
"Then see that you make the most of it!" said Aunt Seraphina as she stood and majestically swept from the room.
Lord Rupert took advantage of Aunt Seraphina's departure to move to sit beside Amelia on the settee. He stretched out his legs and put his hands behind his head, making himself most comfortable. "Your aunt is so obliging!"
"Tell me what you are doing here," said Amelia suspiciously. "Surely you did not come to tease me of grooms."
"It was not my purpose, but fun just the same."
"Odious man! I could hardly prevent myself from bursting out laughing in front of my aunt - the thought of explaining it to her was beyond frightening."
"You would have carried it off - you can be very inventive."
Amelia chose not to be sidetracked. "And you cannot be here for the reason my aunt suspects."
"Of course not. We are both agreed upon that." If Amelia's conviction in this area was faltering, nothing in her manner or tone of voice gave it away.
"You are right. I have actually come to conduct an experiment."
"Of what nature?"
"It will become evident soon enough," was all Lord Rupert was willing to reveal.
Lord Rupert stood and walked over to the window, pulling back the voluminous curtain to let in a stream of sunshine. He removed a vase of flowers from a side table and put it on the mantle across the room.
"You are planning a career in interior decoration!"
"A good guess but incorrect. A career! Could you imagine the scandal?"
He studied the bookshelf and pulled out a sturdy volume. "Come," he said, motioning her to join him in the window embrasure.
"Fordyce's sermons?" said Amelia upon inspecting the spine.
"I thought it would set the appropriate mood." He opened it to a page at random and began to read. "A lady's reputation is as brittle as glass. Hmm - maybe that is a little too off-putting." He tossed the volume aside and took her hands instead. "Look into my eyes or this experiment will have no chance to work," he said.
Involuntarily, she looked up. The sunshine was full upon them. The air smelled vaguely of furniture polish and dust. The passage from Fordyce was still ringing in her ears. Nothing about the setting was alluring and yet . . . she could not drag her eyes away from his. Little shards of green mingled with the overall amber, and seemed to darken with every passing moment. She forgot to breathe as his head came closer and then his lips were touching hers with their gentle warmth. She felt exhilaration open up deep inside as her lips parted, responding to his. Too soon the kiss ended as he raised his head and looked into her eyes once more.
"All that without any moonlight," he whispered.
Euphoria shattered and she returned to her senses. "You are despicable! You and your horrid, self-serving experiments! I imagine my capitulation has done wonders to bolster your grandiloquent opinion of yourself!"
"I did not do it to bolster my vanity, or to shame you in any way. I simply wanted to prove a point." Lord Rupert smiled gently and reached for her, but Amelia would not be swayed.
"Admit that it is what you wanted since that night in the stables! Enjoy your victory, for it is the only taste of me you will ever get!" Amelia turned her back on him and stormed from the room.
"I am not the only one who has craved that kiss all this time," he called after her, a hint of laughter in his voice. Then he leaned against the window frame and closed his eyes to relive the moment. The look upon his face could only be called smug.
Amelia was furious with herself. She had let him kiss her without any extenuating romantic circumstances, in the plain light of day, with Fordyce's warnings echoing around them. And she had enjoyed it! Worst of all, she did not regret the kiss. There was something indeed wrong with her moral fibre - she probably had none. She might even have kissed Sir Peter, had he tried. Or Gilly! Luckily she had been saved that degradation, for what would they have thought of her if she had kissed and then rejected in almost the same breath? At least Lord Rupert knew, as she did, that the kiss had no amorous strings attached to it.
She was also annoyed by his parting remark, all the more so because of the truth in it. It was more than likely that the fascination of that moment in the stables had never left her, and even its residual effect upon her subconscious was enough to send her senses begging on the two other occasions that Lord Rupert had decided to test her resilience to his charms. Now with the kiss out of the way she didn't have to concern herself with that anymore. Although, whenever her thoughts lingered upon the kiss she had to acknowledge that her hunger had not been entirely sated. But she vowed that she would never give in to Lord Rupert if he were to try again, and it was a vow she didn't mean to break.
Although they had kissed, Amelia did not see any reason for her friendship with Lord Rupert to come to an end. After all, the business in the stable had always been there in the back of their minds and yet they had enjoyed many carefree hours together unfettered by any awkwardness. The fact that their lips had met should change nothing - it was only lips after all, nothing more. It was easy to think reasonably about it when the gentleman with the lips in question was nowhere around. The evening would surely put her theory to the test. They were to be at the same party, but their old agreement had not been annulled so it was only in the garden that the issue should come up.
If she would let him into the garden this night at all. After his trick with the experiment he was in need of a strong set down.
At dinner, Lord Rupert was seated at the other end of the table from Amelia. She was placed beside a very handsome and charming gentleman. He was forty-five if he was a day, and she was certain that he was a rake. He knew how to be entertaining and she had never enjoyed a formal dinner more. She realised that she must have completely blinded herself the past few months, to have even contemplated marriage to someone as staid as Sir Peter. Not that she considered contemplating marriage to a rake. An evening of light flirtation was all she had in mind.
She granted him the first dance and enjoyed it thoroughly. Upon her return from the set, Lord Rupert was waiting for her.
"I did not think we danced in public," she said as he led her back out upon the floor.
"We do now," he said curtly. "Do you not know Elsmerly is the worst kind of rake? Why are you encouraging him?"
"Just because you kissed me, it does not make you my keeper," she shot back.
"No, but as your friend I can offer timely advice. Stand up with him more than once and you will be the talk of the town."
"I see. You are afraid my brittle glass might shatter."
"Not in deed but in perception," he said earnestly.
"I liked you more when you were less serious."
"I like you more each day," he said lightly.
"Ah! Nonsense! That is better." She laughed gaily and they continued a lighthearted repartee to the end of the dance. But he left her with a stern, admonishing look, as Lord Elsmerly closed in on her, which did no more than throw a challenge that she jumped at.
"It is my fervent hope that you will bestow your hand upon me again, kind lady," Lord Elsmerly said with a decided twinkle in his eyes.
"Oh no, I cannot. I have been warned that to dance twice with you would be most improper," Amelia replied saucily.
"I had never taken that young stripling for a busybody. Ah well, then it will have to be a walk on the terrace. What harm could there be in that?"
Amelia was aware that a walk on a terrace alone with a rake was more risqué than a second dance, but it was Lord Rupert's fault for being so interfering. She was sure she could take care of herself if the need arose, besides she had a little experiment of her own to test out.
The terrace was cool and inviting after the warmth of the crowded ballroom. Lanterns had been set up here and there, with groupings of chairs by potted plants. A few people were out, taking advantage of the evening breeze. Lord Elsmerly led Amelia along by the balustrade and around a corner where the terrace formed a sort of private corridor.
"This is more like it," he said. "With all those lanterns set about, the stars were not visible. What is a romantic interlude without stars?"
"We are to have a romantic interlude?" asked Amelia, tipping her head to one side in a coy manner.
Lord Elsmerly nodded. "The entire evening has been leading up to this. You are most tantalisingly tempting, my dear."
Amelia batted her eyelashes, an affectation she had never attempted so she hoped she had done it right. "I am?"
"Indeed," he said, leaning towards her with a provocative look. "I cannot help myself."
"I cannot either," said Amelia, gazing up at him meltingly.
He placed a hand on her waist and slowly lowered his head to hers, playing out the moment with practised care. At the last second, Amelia turned her head and slipped from his grasp.
"Lord Elsmerly! I am not the sort of girl to kiss on a first meeting."
"But this is at least our second meeting, or maybe even our third. First was dinner, and then the dance, and now . . ." He ran a finger lightly down her cheek and along the nape of her neck, leaning in again for a kiss.
Again she held his eyes until ducking away as his lips almost touched hers.
"You are an accomplished tease," he whispered harshly, reaching for her forcefully. "But you might find you have taken on more than you bargained for, unless you like it rough, that is!"
"With you I do not like it any way at all." Amelia backed up against the balustrade. "Is this your usual mode of seduction? Does it really gain you rewarding results?"
"You baggage!" he hissed, grabbing her arm and pulling her tightly against him. "I'll teach you a lesson you'll not soon forget."
"Stop, you vile creature!" said Amelia as she stomped down hard on his instep. It would have worked better if she had been wearing her riding boots, rather than her dancing slippers, but it did cause Lord Elsmerly to loosen his hold just enough for Amelia to break free. She glanced around to take stock of her options. The route to the lit terrace and freedom lay beyond the rake. Behind her the corridor ended in a blank wall. Over the balustrade was a one storey drop to the garden below. Elsmerly was advancing in a threatening manner.
"I will enjoy taking you, temptress." He loomed over her, his eyes bright with expectation, and grasped both her wrists in one vice-like hand. The other stroked her arm. "Your struggling only makes me want you more."
"Unhand the lady at once, Elsmerly!" Lord Rupert grabbed hold of his shoulder and pulled him around. "She does not appear to desire your company."
"She desired it well enough to entice me out here. Do not interrupt what you know nothing about." Lord Elsmerly snarled.
"Leave now without further insult to her!"
Lord Elsmerly let go of Amelia's hands and crossed his arms in front of his chest, facing Lord Rupert in an arrogant stance. "Or what? Will you call me out?"
Lord Rupert almost spat. "I would not stoop to your level."
Elsmerly smirked. "Then I shall have to call you out. Pistols or swords? Or shall we leave that up to our seconds?"
"Do you take me for a fool? I know you are unrivalled in both. I plan on living to a ripe old age." Lord Rupert turned his attention to Amelia, who was leaning against the balustrade, rubbing her wrists, her face flushed with anger. "Come, Lady Amelia. It is high time you returned to the ballroom."
Amelia walked past both men with her head held high.
Lord Elsmerly laughed, a hard, mocking laugh. "You are welcome to the vixen," he said. "She will lead you a merry chase."
"Go near her again and I cannot guarantee to be so lenient," said Lord Rupert in a voice like steel. Then he turned and strode away. Once in the ballroom again, he searched out Amelia. She was sitting with her aunt. Her colour was still a bit heightened but she had all the appearance of being calm and collected.
"Just what were you playing at?" he asked.
She turned her head away and said nothing.
"A thank you might be in order."
"I did not need your interference. I had the situation under control."
"Yes, that much was perfectly obvious." Lord Rupert's voice was heavy with sarcasm. He bowed stiffly and walked away.
Amelia let her eyes follow him out of the room.
"A lovers' spat?" asked her aunt.
"Oh Aunt Seraphina!" said Amelia in a choked voice. "May we go home? I do not feel at all well."
When Amelia turned the key in the lock, it was the first time she had any apprehension that Lord Rupert may not be there, waiting for her action. But he opened the door almost immediately the key was turned and walked into the garden to sit quietly on the bench, not exuding his usual nonchalance.
Amelia stood before him, feeling like a schoolgirl called up to face her headmistress. "Alright, I admit it did not go quite as I had anticipated. I was in a tight spot and your intervention was helpful and I do thank you. I was very angry at the time, as well as completely mortified to be discovered in such a situation."
Lord Rupert sighed and smiled wanly. "I am just relieved that I noticed you were missing from the ballroom and went in search of you. That man is notorious - what were you thinking going out on the terrace with him alone?"
"I was conducting a little experiment of my own."
"I quail to even ask."
"When you kissed me this morning, I knew it must mean that I am wanton, for why would I have had no control, and no desire to stop you? You had asked me if I would have kissed Sir Peter if he had tried, and for all I knew I would have, and Gilly too, for that matter. So when Lord Elsmerly paid me so much attention, I decided it would be easy to get him to try and kiss me, and it was."
Lord Rupert put his head in his hands. "I do not doubt it."
"You must understand that I was not planning on letting him kiss me, however difficult I found it to resist. But even in the moonlight with a handsome man experienced at the art of wooing, I felt no desire whatsoever. I allowed him to try twice, just to be doubly sure, but it had no effect upon me, other than to make my skin crawl. So I must not be wanton, as you so obligingly tried to prove that I am. Wanting to kiss you was just an aberration."
"An aberration?" It was the first time in this nighttime meeting that Lord Rupert's face showed a hint of his usual humour. "How flattering."
"An enjoyable aberration," Amelia felt compelled to admit.
"Please sit," said Lord Rupert, reaching up and taking Amelia gently by the hand. He stroked her bruised wrist, as if lost in thought, and then looked at her intently. "I think it high time we end this little charade."
Amelia found it difficult to breathe. "Charade?" was all she managed to say.
"Yes. I did not experiment with kissing you this morning to prove that you were wanton, rather, quite the reverse. I wanted to show you that we did not need intrigue in a stable, or a moonlit garden to feel an overwhelming urge to cast propriety to the winds and kiss each other. All we needed was to be together, like we are now." He leaned forward and kissed her caressingly. "Don't you see?" he said, resting his forehead against hers. "We are in love."
"We are?" she asked, looking up at him and wishing only that he would kiss her again. "But - we don't want to marry each other. We agreed . . ."
He stopped her words with another kiss which she was only too glad to receive, then pulled her to snuggle up in the crook of his arm, her head against his swiftly beating heart. "That was such a deal of nonsense. We were so deathly weary of being thrown at each other for all those years that we could not accept the truth when it hit us right between the eyes."
"What would have happened had I not gone to the stable - if we had first met each other again, after our childhood meetings, at the breakfast table?" Amelia's voice was filled with awe. "For you must see we fell in love that moment in the stable."
"We did," said Lord Rupert. "Not a groom and a maid, but us, somehow, when our eyes met. But stable or breakfast table, our falling in love was inevitable, though I'm sure we would have made as much of a mull of it regardless of the location."
"Well it certainly didn't happen when I saw you at age 12 all covered in spots!" Amelia laughed.
Lord Rupert smiled teasingly. "Nor when I saw you with your squint! I think we had to get over the most trying years first."
She looked back at him with one eye squeezed almost shut, her nose all wrinkled and an impish grin on her face.
Lord Rupert could not help himself. "Even done in by a squint - I am truly too far gone!" He swept Amelia up in his arms and kissed her again. And she responded fully and completely. She had discovered the passion in love that she had longed for, and it was the most natural, wonderful feeling in the world. Not wanton at all.
"What are we to do?" she asked, as she nestled again against Lord Rupert's shoulder.
"We will just have to give in to our parents' demands and marry. It is hard to have to admit that they were right, but we really and truly are the perfect match." And he kissed her again, just for good measure.
Mr Ramsay and Lord Ullesmore had no luck catching an heiress that season, or the next. Mr Ramsey ended up settling for a lady who had her fortune from trade, was already almost on the shelf when he proposed, and ruled the roost when they were married, keeping a stranglehold upon the purse strings. Lord Ullesmore had to give up his tailor and his cards, retrench and retire to Bath where he took the waters and became a town quiz, much the favourite of married ladies of a certain age with too much time in their hands and not enough hay in the loft.
Lord Elsmerly fared much worse. Having been caught cheating at White's, and with two irate husbands out for his blood, he thought it best to take a sudden trip to the continent. He ended his days in a Paris slum, a knife stuck unceremoniously in his back. The number of suspects was so great that the French police gave up the case altogether, putting it down as just another crime of passion not worth bothering about.
Mr Moresby was introduced to Miss Percival by Felicity, and a month later he was down on one knee stuttering his proposal. Miss Percival waited patiently for him to get out every hopeful, heartfelt word and then accepted with alacrity. It is to be imagined that afterwards he regained his powers of speech and all other aspects of shyness fell away with the familiarity of marriage, for every year saw an addition to their thriving nursery.
And as for Lord Brockingdale, he offered for three other lovely damsels in the space of a fortnight, only to have them turn him down as well. He was enjoying the season immensely, when he met Miss Lily Leason. She spurned his every attempt at conversation and refused point blank to dance with him. She became a number one prospect for a proposal, and the moment he managed to find himself alone with her he broached the question, delighted at the expectation of having been spurned by five women in one month. But to his absolute horror she accepted him. And as it turned out they were not alone at all. Her aunt, having been sequestered behind a potted palm, had heard all,and there was no way for him to squirm out of the engagement. Knowing his reputation, it had been Miss Leason's plan to encourage a proposal by being completely unencouraging, thus outfoxing the fox. She enjoyed living in London and spending his fortune, while he discovered that being married wasn't anywhere near as terrible as he had feared. He barely saw his wife, except when she was on her way to some do or other, all dressed to the nines, and he was still able to flirt with the young debutantes and propose without fear of being accepted. It was actually the best of both worlds!
Gilly indeed soon got over his infatuation with Amelia, just as his sister foretold. As Lord Rupert was his closest friend it seemed expedient not to harbour such tender feelings towards that gentleman's betrothed as he had imagined he felt for Amelia. Instead he cast his eyes and his heart towards Lady Cynthia Hoxentrough, whose harp playing had soothed his wounded soul after his suit had been rejected. Here again Amelia was proved wrong in her assumption. The beautiful Lady Cynthia was not insipid, though her parents were the Lord and Lady of Yawn. Rather, she had a keen interest in all things equestrian and loved to hear Gilly rattle on about his prime 'uns as much as he happily listened to the histories of all her favourite fillies. As well, she could handle the ribbons with a light and confident hand, and had a very fine seat. When they were married, Gilly bought a country estate for himself and his bride. They rode to the hounds together and set up a stud. If they were not to be found in the stables tending to their horses, they were in the nursery with their son and daughter, giving them rides upon their rocking horses. In the evenings Lady Cynthia still played upon the harp, while Gilly sat in contented enjoyment of the lovely music that had brought them together in the first place.
Sir Peter took Amelia's advice and told his mother only that he had gone through a change of heart, and not that his proposal of marriage had been rejected. Lady Wilmott quite happily believed that she had won the day, and when the notice of Lady Amelia and Lord Rupert's engagement appeared in the papers she was able to read it with equanimity, knowing that her son had never had to suffer the indignity of a failed offer for the minx. She even went so far as to wish them well, and was heard to say that she had never seen a couple more well-suited. And if this thought expressed were indeed true it could only mean that she had as poor of an opinion of Lord Rupert as she had of Lady Amelia.
Lady Wilmott was careful to keep her opinions of Lady Amelia to herself though, because Sir Peter would not hear a word against her. Her engagement he bore with fortitude and soon was able to rationalise that she must have always been in love with Lord Rupert, and therefore it was hardly surprising that she hadn't fallen in love with him. Constancy was a thing he admired, so he was able to forgive her more easily. Lord Rupert, however, he still thought a cad, even though he had righted his wrong by proposing as he ought to have from the beginning.
Though he had no desire for society after his loss, he did not want his mother to worry that he was pining for the unattainable, so he resumed the rounds of routs and soirees. One evening at Almacks, Lady Jersey introduced him to Miss Lucy Hamilton. She was quite Amelia's opposite, fair where Amelia was dark. Rather than Amelia's stunning sparkle, she was quietly pretty. She was slender and elegant, with a soft voice when she spoke, though at first it was difficult to get more than two words out of her. It was evident that she took little pleasure in all the hustle and bustle of a grand event. The next evening he saw her at a dinner party and danced with her again. He felt an affinity towards her as they both seemed out of place, each not enjoying having to mingle constantly in social gatherings, but for two quite different reasons.
With time her shyness abated and they enjoyed conversing together, discovering that they shared many common interests. Sir Peter did not know quite how it happened, but by the end of the season Miss Lucy Hamilton had completely replaced Lady Amelia in his thoughts and in his heart. He proposed to her on impulse one evening, on a terrace underneath the stars without ever even discussing the possibility with his mother, though he was certain she looked favourably upon the match. Lucy accepted him with such a look of tenderness in her eyes and such a sweet smile that he almost lost all reason and kissed her full on the lips. Instead he pressed her hand to his mouth with more passion than he had intended and she blushingly leaned her head upon his chest. His heart had never felt more full.
Lady Wilmott was pleased with the turn of events. Miss Lucy Hamilton appeared to be everything she wanted in a daughter in law - demure and biddable. She thanked her lucky stars at their close escape from Lady Amelia and all the upheaval she would have caused to their orderly lives, and pressed for an early marriage.
Sir Peter and Lucy Hamilton were duly married in a sedate ceremony and honeymooned for two weeks at Ramsgate. Upon their return home, Lucy seemed content to be guided by Lady Wilmott in all her domestic duties. The three lived harmoniously at Wilmott Hall - Lucy compliant, Sir Peter complaisant, and Lady Wilmott comfortable. Buoyed by the contentment marriage to Lucy had provided her beloved son, Lady Wilmott felt she could take a journey to Bath, confident that they would continue as they had started, following the lead that she had so carefully and expertly set for them.
Bath soon became a favourite place for Lady Wilmott to go. Her visits were increasingly frequent and of longer duration. Peter and Lucy were always gratifyingly pleased to see her upon her return, and equally unselfish in encouraging her to further her enjoyment whenever the proposal of another visit with her dear friends in Bath came up. It was a number of years before Lady Wilmott realised that the running of the house and the estate was no longer under her control, and had not been for quite some time. It was the occasion that she returned from Bath to find a special surprise lovingly presented to her, that finally made this all too clear.
"I know you will love it immensely, Mama Dearest," Lucy said, wiping tears of happiness from the corners of her eyes. "And we have furnished it with all your favourite pieces, and hung beautiful chintz curtains, and a new family portrait, specially commissioned. I cannot wait to see your face when you cross the threshold of your new home."
"You must have long wanted your own place, away from the hurley-burley of the children," said Peter. "We selfishly kept you with us much longer than we ought have done, but now you have the private haven you most truly deserve, given with our best love."
They took her in the carriage to a very prettily appointed house and showed it to her with such pride and such generosity of spirit that she could do nothing but accept it with an equal show of pleasure and gratitude while she inwardly had to reconcile herself to the fact that her daughter-in-law Lucy wielded a more subtle power than she had ever conceived possible.
Felicity enjoyed the rest of her season flirting with any number of handsome young gentlemen, but none that she met caught her fancy. She was pleased to see that Amelia and Lord Rupert had finally come to their senses and acknowledged their love for each other, her interest in Lord Rupert never having been serious. She was a trifle saddened when the two of them married and left for the continent, for she wondered if she would ever discover that kind of love for herself. She was frivolous and lighthearted on the surface, but inside she had strength of character and a faithful spirit that longed for an outlet. A handsome and charming outlet that saw more in her than she willingly showed. And he, well he had to be more than just a pretty face too. It was no tall order.
After the season ended she and her family retired to their country estate until the time for Gilly's wedding to Lady Cynthia drew near. She was invited with him as a guest at the Hoxentrough's manor house in Kent. She was prepared for two weeks of utter boredom. To escape the harps, horses, and hounds, she took to walking in the country lanes and sitting upon farmers' gates, gazing at grazing sheep and meditating about her expectations. Or lack thereof.
On one such outing her musings were interrupted by a polite cough. She had been so lost in thought she had not heard the approach of a horse and rider. She looked up.
"I am sorry to disturb your solitude," said the rider, "but this is my gate that I need to go through."
"I do beg your pardon," she said, hopping down and stepping aside.
The gentleman got off from his horse but made no move to open the gate. "What was it you were pondering so deeply? You looked terribly serious and quite in another world."
Felicity laughed. "It is not often that I am accused of being serious," she rejoined.
"That does not answer my question," he said with a twitch of his lip. "Or am I being too inquisitive on such a short acquaintance?"
Felicity was about to answer with a fatuous sally, but then, encouraged by the friendly expression of the gentleman's brown eyes, she let out a sigh. "I have just completed my first season, and it was almost everything that I could have wished for. The finest gowns, invitations to all the best places, balls, dinner parties, musical evenings. I was all the crack and had dozens of charming beaux dangling after me. I danced and flirted and was gay and merry."
"But something was missing?"
"Yes, and it is not that my best friend and my brother and numerous other acquaintances are all either betrothed or married now, and I am not. I had many opportunities that I did not take. I blush to think of all the proposals I refused." She said this with a twinkle, and no blush at all.
"Marriage is not a step to be taken lightly."
"No. And if you actually saw some of the fellows who proposed to me, you will understand why I am still single!"
He laughed. "Well I, for one, am glad that you are still single, even if you are not."
"That is very gallant of you sir. But it is not really my single state that has put me in such a brown study, but rather the lack of anyone of substance that I would seriously want to throw my cap at. And by substance," she said with an earnest look, "I do not mean income."
"I never supposed you did," he replied gently.
"Well that is my sad history! I apologise for keeping you from your business. Did you not want to go through this gate?"
"Yes I did," he said, approaching it. "But for the life of me I cannot remember why. Are you staying with Lord and Lady Hoxentrough? May I call on you?"
"You may," she said, and watched as he walked his horse through the gate and closed it behind him. He then mounted, and tipped his hat to her before he cantered off down the lane.
As she turned to walk back to the manor, she realised that they had not even exchanged names. It is to be hoped this did not prove to be any impediment, but that, dear readers, is another story.
When Rupert and Amelia announced their engagement to their families, there were a lot of 'I told you so's on both sides. The joyful couple weathered it all bravely. Now is the time to say that they lived happily ever after, but I cannot tell you that they lived in complete bliss and utter contentment for the rest of their lives, for that would have been impossible for anyone, no matter how strong their love. Rupert could still test Amelia's patience with his devious ploys to prove his points, and she could still be frustratingly obtuse at times. But, for all his little faults, Rupert was honourable and kind and considerate and intelligent and caring and unassuming and handsome and reliable and upstanding as well as having a quick mind and a sharp wit. He kindled that spark in her and kept it lit - delighting in Amelia even as he caused her to delight in him. And in the ensuing years, their children, who took after both parents to varying degrees, led them a very merry dance.
I only have one more little note to add before I leave you. Visitors to the home of Lord Rupert and Lady Amelia could not help but notice that the house maids were all very plain, though industrious, and the grooms gruff, reticent men with little to recommend them but their ability with horses. Not even Felicity was privy to the inside joke that Rupert and Amelia never tired of teasing each other with. And at night, if anyone chanced to look out their windows, they might catch a glimpse of the Lord and Lady of the manor strolling arm in arm under the moonlight in the garden.
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