His Grace of Burwell was sitting in the library of his town house, impatiently watching his son. There was nothing to be done with the boy, his grace had decided long before; not even a good quarrel would come of this meeting. My Lord Asterby’s even temper was proverbial; to provoke him into an argument was beyond even his grace’s abilities – which was too bad, for His Grace loved to argue, and would have liked his eldest the better for indulging him now and then. Still, he had some hope of achieving his goal yet, especially that evening.
“Well, sir?” he snapped. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
“If you vouchsafed to inform me why exactly you wanted to see me, I might be able to answer that question,” the Marquis of Asterby replied coolly. One had to hand it to the boy, his parent grudgingly admitted. He had nerve. His younger brother had not been like that – Matthew would have swallowed the bait in an instant, and they’d have had a flaming row within seconds. Not so with Edward, alas. He always maintained his calm attitude, and was unfailingly polite to both his parents. Damn him.
“Is there anything I have done to displease you? Or have I failed to do something, and have thereby incurred your wrath?”
Cool grey eyes watched the Duke as he wrestled with his temper. There was a hint of amusement in them – though only just. It was that which made his grace hope that his eldest was not the slow-top he had often had reason to fear he was.
“Stop behaving like a dolt.” His Grace did not take kindly to what he thought was mockery from his sons, even though it was better than no reaction at all. “You know why you’re here. It is about your marriage.”
“My marriage, sir?” Lord Asterby looked at his father in unfeigned surprise. “I had no idea a wedding was forthcoming. I thought we had merely agreed that I would look about me for a suitable bride.”
“Have you found one, then?”
“Not yet, no.” Lord Asterby sighed. “I have taken your advice that the married state should not be taken lightly, and so I am still looking for the lady best suited to become my wife. There is no hurry, after all. I have only just turned nine and twenty.”
“I am in a hurry, my boy. An heir and a spare. You know the saying. I want to be certain that your cousin won’t ever step into my shoes – or yours.”
Lord Asterby, who’d just been in the process of pouring himself a glass of port, froze. He knew what his father was implying. The “spare” had been his brother Matthew, the whole family’s darling, who’d died in a tragic boating accident the previous year. Since then, his father had refused to mention Matthew’s name, but he didn’t need to. If anything happened to Lord Asterby before he’d produced an heir, the title would go to his cousin Henry, whom they all despised, and His Grace as well as Asterby himself would go to almost any length to prevent that.
“You mean to tell me that you are no longer content to wait until I have made my own choice, sir?” Carefully, Lord Asterby put the decanter down.
“Exactly. I am glad to see that you appear to have more in your head than just book-learning, my boy.”
“I am glad to hear that at least once I have managed to gain your approval, sir,” Lord Asterby countered. There was a short pause.
“It appears that you are something of a favourite among the ladies,” the Duke said.
“That is not the impression I have, sir, but I shall let it pass. There are worse things that could be said about a man.” Lord Asterby smiled. “I think the word was dependable. One can always depend on the Marquis of Asterby to do exactly as he ought. Dowagers have been known to leave their daughters in my care at festivities, or the theatre, and I have never taken any liberties with them. The daughters, that is. Much to their parents’ chagrin.”
“I’d like you the better for it if you had,” his stern parent replied.
“Anyway, since you’ve been on the town for – how long?”
“And since you have not been able to find yourself a wife, I’ve taken the matter in hand. I have sent an offer of marriage on your behalf to the Earl of Wincham.”
“I don’t think he’ll have me,” the Marquis said dryly.
“Stop being an ass,” his parent commanded. “Listen.”
“Certainly, sir. As you wish.”
“As far as I know, one of the earl’s daughters is still unwed. The youngest – Lady Amelia Rattray. She’s one-and-twenty, which is a good age for getting married – she’s neither too young and silly, nor old enough to be on the shelf. Not the prettiest of Wincham’s girls, I’ve been told, but handsome enough. Her lineage is impeccable, and her fortune not to be despised. The ideal candidate.”
“You mean to tell me that I am to marry the Lady Amelia?”
“You’ve had enough time to find a bride for yourself. You chose not to. Very well; but I am not in the humour to await your pleasure, and so I have found you one.”
“Could you not have told me before you sent that letter to Wincham, sir? I’d have liked to have a say in the matter, surprising though it may seem to you. I cannot in honour cry off now, as you well know, and dash it, sir, I don’t like having my hand forced!”
His Grace of Burwell gave a wry grin. For once, he had succeeded in upsetting his son. Such words from Edward were the equivalent of a full-blown temper tantrum from someone else.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “For all we know Wincham might sill refuse to let you have her.”
Asterby gave a derisive laugh. “As if.”
“Or the girl might have none of you.”
“She might also be abducted by fairies, which is just as likely. I suppose I will have to thank you, sir, for a match well made. Was there anything else you wished to tell me?”
Once his father had informed him that there was not, Lord Asterby took his leave, wondering what he could do to find out more about his soon-to-be bride.
The garden was Lady Amelia Rattray’s favourite place, and so it was little wonder that she was taking advantage of the fine weather and uprooting the herbaceous borders along one of the garden paths, or at least watching while two undergardeners were doing the job for her. She would have done it herself, but her mother had vetoed her intention, and threatened to lock her into her room for a week if she found her engaging in such unladylike pursuits as digging up plants in the garden.
Since her mother had not said anything against her assisting the gardeners in their work by handing them the new plants for the border and giving them precise instructions as to which would go where, this was what she was doing when her mother found her.
Amelia bore with her parent’s shrieks of protest, gave the gardeners some last-minute instructions before she followed her mother into the house and, in keeping with her mother’s orders, went to her room to wash and put on a fresh gown before she joined her parents in the library. Her father had an excellent piece of news to announce, her mother had said, and Amelia wondered what it could possibly be.
“That’s better,” Lady Wincham said when Amelia was ushered into the library. “You must get rid of that gardening habit of yours, my dear.”
“I thought taking an interest in gardening was a suitable pastime for a young lady?” Amelia said innocently. In fact, it had been one of the few outdoor activities that her parents had allowed her which had not bored her to tears. To say the truth, she was fond of horticulture, and would be loath to give it up.
“Cutting roses, my dear, or other flowers, but not digging up tulip bulbs!”
“I see. I am sorry, ma’am,” Amelia said obediently, and upon her father’s invitation sat down on the sofa.
It took a while until Lord Wincham came to the point. He began by telling them about his friendship with the Duke of Burwell – they had been at school and, later, on the Grand Tour together –, their subsequent estrangement when Burwell had married, and what His Grace of Burwell had said or done on that occasion or the other. Amelia listened only half-heartedly; she was used to her father’s rambling ways, and did not pay attention to half of what he said. Until she jerked up when he announced, “And I told him that the match had my blessing.”
“Er … what?” Amelia looked at her father, aghast.
“Don’t say what, my dear, it is not polite,” her mother admonished.
“I beg your pardon, then,” Amelia said. “What did you say about a match?”
“Did you not listen, my dear? His Grace of Burwell has made you an offer of marriage!”
“But I cannot marry a man who is old enough to be my father!” Amelia protested.
“No one wants you to,” her father said. “The offer was on his son’s behalf. The Marquis of Asterby, the Duke of Burwell’s heir.”
Amelia wondered what was wrong with Asterby if his father had to make a match for him but knew that her parents would not tell her, and so she need not bother to ask.
“I don’t want to marry him,” she said firmly.
“Why ever not? You can’t do any better than that! A Duchess! Only think! You will be a Duchess!” her mother cried.
“Duchess be hanged,” Amelia said rudely, not caring whether her expression shocked her mother or not. “I don’t even know the man! I refuse to marry a man I have not even met!”
“You will meet him,” her father said. “We are going to Town, and the Duchess of Burwell is going to give a dress party to announce the engagement.”
“So I am not going to see him before that dress party? What if he had a …. a hunchback, or a clubfoot, or if he delighted in beating up women? What if he’s a drunkard, or a philanderer, or…?” She broke off. It was useless, she knew. For all her parents cared, Lord Asterby could have been all of those things and more. The important thing was that he was the Marquis of Asterby, the future Duke of Burwell, and that he was willing to marry her and take her off their hands.
“Don’t be a fool,” was all her father had to say to her objections. “I’ve seen Asterby in town once or twice; he’s a perfectly agreeable young man. Not exactly handsome, but pleasant-looking, and let’s face it, Amelia. You’re not a beauty either.”
“What about his character?”
“I have never heard anything against him. He is neither a drunkard nor likely to mistreat you.”
While this piece of news, as such, was quite welcome, Amelia was not sure if that was enough to make her look forward to her wedding.
“I have been told his lordship is a scholar of some note,” her mother said. “His head’s forever in a book, or so people say. Who knows, he might even overlook your own bookish tendencies. In fact, he might actually tolerate them.”
“I am not bookish,” Amelia protested. “Just because I read a book now and then does not mean I’m a scholar!”
“I am merely saying, my dear, that there might be some qualities in Lord Asterby that might appeal to you, once you get to know him.”
“You are not giving me a chance to get to know him!” Amelia cried. “The first time I meet him will be on the day that our betrothal is announced to the world at large! Why didn’t you tell me before you sent your letter to the Duke of Burwell, Papa, so I could make a decision of my own? This is the most momentous choice in my life; don’t you think I should have had a share in it?”
“Your father knows what is good for you,” her mother said, and that was that. None of her parents was going to discuss her betrothal with her, it seemed. Instead, her mother told her the next morning that they were going to Town early, to buy her trousseau.
“You must look presentable on your betrothal day,” she announced. “You will need a couple of new gowns before we can let you be seen in Town, and something must be done about your hair.”
Amelia knew that it would be useless to argue with her parents. The only chance she had to escape this wedding, she knew, was appealing to her husband-to-be. If they both refused to marry, there was no more to be done.
If, however, Lord Asterby wished the marriage, as well as their parents did – Amelia was at a loss as to what to do then. In that case, she supposed, there was nothing for it but to try and give him such a bad impression of her that he would cry off. Not an easy task, she knew, considering she had a mother who would make sure she behaved just as she ought. Besides she did not know his lordship, so she had no idea what was most likely to disgust him.
Things looked rather bleak for her, Amelia thought, and sighed. She could only hope that time would bring counsel – or that Lord Asterby was as much against this marriage as she.
In the meantime, his lordship had done his best to find out more about the woman he was supposed to marry. He knew some members of her family; two of her brothers were often in town – Lord Becclesfield and Captain Rattray – but now that he particularly wanted to see them they naturally were elsewhere. He looked the family up in the Peerage – his father had mentioned there were several sisters, after all – and found out that Lady Amelia had, indeed, three sisters, all of whom were already married. The eldest, Lady Constantia Lissett, was in Town, and since Lord Asterby was acquainted with her husband he chose to call on her, giving a matter of business with her husband as an excuse.
Sir Charles Lissett was not at home, but Lady Constantia very graciously received him in her withdrawing-room. It was evident right from the first moment that she was well aware of why he had come, and that business with Sir Charles had nothing to do with it.
“I have been given to understand that congratulations are in order,” she said as he sat down on a chair opposite hers.
“Is that so? News travels fast, it seems.”
“Especially when it concerns my youngest sister’s marriage.” Lady Constantia smiled.
“Does everyone know?” Lord Asterby wondered. “Then why bother with an official announcement?”
“Oh, my mother has written to me about it – in confidence, of course – and I haven’t spoken about it to anyone, except my husband. Surely you do not object to the family being in on the secret?”
“Certainly not,” his lordship replied politely.
“You have made a good choice, I must say. Even though I am Amelia’s sister.”
“I am glad to hear it; though I will have to take your word for it, ma’am.”
“I forgot – you haven’t met her yet! Too unfortunate – she was going to London for the season last year, but then my brother Christopher – my youngest brother; I do not think you are acquainted with him, are you? – fell ill, and so the journey was postponed. Poor Amelia! She was so disappointed!”
“I dare say. Has she ever been in Town before that?”
“Only on a visit to her aunt, when she was sixteen, but she was not presented then. My aunt took one look at her and said she would not take, and that one had better forego the trouble and expense.”
“Isn’t this a cruel thing to say to a girl of sixteen?” Lord Asterby remarked.
“Oh yes, and it is not true either! Papa said it was only because Aunt did not want to go through the trouble of a court presentation, and had always been a spiteful creature anyway.”
Lord Asterby grinned. From what he had seen of Lord Wincham he thought him perfectly capable of stating his opinion in such an unbecoming way - and of speaking unguardedly in his daughters’ presence.
“Amelia was rather thin then, coming to think of it; she looked younger than she was, like a little girl dressing up in her mother’s clothes. Tall, yes, but with nothing … none of the… female assets. That has mended though.”
Lord Asterby noted that piece of news with a sense of relief. He had never fancied thin females. In fact, he was rather fond of the “female assets” Lady Constantia had mentioned, and glad that his future wife was not lacking in that department. Still, he wasn’t going to discuss his opinion of these matters with her sister.
“Your sister is tall, then?” he asked instead.
“For a girl, yes; she is. She will be about your height. I hope you do not mind?”
“As long as she is not much taller than me, that will be fine,” Lord Asterby said. “It would be pretty unreasonable of me to blame her for that, though, would it not?”
Lady Constantia ignored his flippant interjection, and continued her eulogy.
“Amelia has beautiful hair, too – though she does not think so. Brown hair, and hazel eyes. Oh, I wish I had a picture I could show you! But you will meet her before long; my mother has told me that she is coming to Town next week. – Oh, but I should not have told you that!”
“And why not?”
“Because my mother thinks Amelia will need a couple of new gowns before she can be presented to your family.”
Asterby nodded. It was the kind of thing that came into women’s heads sometimes; as if any man had ever cared for what a lady wore! Nine times out of ten he did not know one gown from another; yet the ladies behaved as if the contents of their wardrobes were of paramount importance.
“By the way, Amelia has such excellent taste when it comes to clothing! You will have no reason to blush for her in that respect.”
“I am glad to hear it. Does your sister have any other preferences I should know about? – You see, ma’am, I am in the process of buying a betrothal gift for her, and was wondering whether you could tell me what she will like best.”
Lady Constantia hesitated.
“I would hate to buy rubies for her if she detested the colour red, for instance,” he explained. “A betrothal gift should be something special – something that suits her taste. I would not press you for the world, ma’am, but my father insists on my giving her the present before my mother’s dress party.”
“But that is in two weeks!”
“Quite so. So the more you can tell me about your sister, the better it will be.”
“She often wears white,” Lady Constantia said. “White and blue. Though she has one amber taffeta dress that quite took my breath away the other day. I do hope she will wear it occasionally when she comes to town. It’s perfect – I was green with envy when I first saw it!”
She rattled on in a similar style for almost ten minutes, without divulging much of any real value to him. While it might be useful for him to know what colour clothes his betrothed wore when it came to choosing a bouquet of flowers for her, he had hoped for some more substantial tidings – something that would have told him what kind of person she was. Over the years her wardrobe was likely to change, while her personality was probably going to stay the same.
He was on the point of taking his leave when, finally, Lady Constantia let fall something that aroused his interest.
“You have large gardens at Asterby Court, haven’t you?” she asked.
“Not as large as those in Burwell,” he replied lightly, “but one must not complain. May I inquire why you are asking, ma’am?”
“Amelia will be delighted,” she simply said. “She is in charge of the gardens back home, and leaving them behind must break her heart. It will be such a relief to her that this is one thing she will not have to give up when she marries.”
This piece of information enabled him to solve one puzzle, at any rate – Lady Amelia enjoyed gardening, so it was only reasonable to presume that she was fond of flowers. After some research in London’s jewellers’ stores he found a set of diamonds that, he hoped, would suit her taste. The future Duchess of Burwell would be received in her husband’s family in style, Lord Asterby congratulated himself.
Eight days later Asterby received a note from Lady Constantia Lissett, informing him that he would encounter her and her youngest sister walking in Kensington Gardens if he chose to be there at five o’clock that afternoon. Lord Asterby smiled. Lady Constantia had apparently decided to give her sister an opportunity to meet her future husband in less formal surroundings than the Duchess of Burwell’s dress-party promised to be, and he was not averse to accepting her assistance in that matter. Who knew; her ladyship might even give him the chance to speak to her sister in private – though the Gardens were not exactly a private setting.
Knowing that a great deal depended on their first meeting – one only got to make a first impression once – Lord Asterby got dressed with more than usual care. He was not a fashionable gentleman, in so far as he did not take part in every fashionable folly, but there were some people who commended him for dressing with quiet, unobtrusive elegance – which certainly made him stand out amongst those of his peers who mistook flamboyance for modishness.
He decided to ride to the park. Not only did his riding suit make him appear to advantage, he flattered himself, but also would his appearance on horseback support the facade of a chance meeting, in case Lady Constantia had not informed her sister of the appointment. Even if she had, it would throw the gossiping busybodies off the scent for a while, which suited him perfectly.
Lord Asterby rode into the Park early, so that he would be able to look for the ladies at his leisure. He took his groom along, so he’d be able to hand over his horse to him once he met Lady Constantia and Lady Amelia. He had to admit to himself that he was slightly nervous – not surprising, since the occasion was not a commonplace one. One did not meet one’s future wife for the first time every day.
He could see the ladies before they recognised him. They were admiring a flowerbed, and it was not until he reined in his horse next to them that Lady Constantia became aware of his presence.
“Oh!” she cried, convincingly feigning surprise. Her companion, who’d been examining a particularly beautiful white rose, turned around to face him. She looked up at him, with a slightly questioning expression in her eyes and a faint smile, and Lord Asterby fell in love in an instant.
As Lady Constantia had already told him, Lady Amelia was tall; almost his own height – which, he reflected, was a very useful size for kissing purposes, and he meant to kiss her often. Her form was pleasing, and she was dressed in a charming blue and white striped walking dress that set off her complexion perfectly. Her hair was a beautiful shade of brown and arranged in a highly modish as well as becoming style. Her eyes were large and had a lively sparkle, and her lips were full and immensely kissable. In other words, from the moment he set eyes on Lady Amelia Rattray, he was quite content to have her as his wife.
“Lady Constantia!” He raised his hat to the ladies, keeping his eyes on Lady Amelia all the time.
“You find my sister and myself taking the air on this fine afternoon, sir,” Lady Constantia informed him.
Asterby politely replied that it was a very fine afternoon indeed, and that he hoped the ladies were enjoying their walk. He then dismounted, handed the reins of his horse to his groom, and offered the ladies his escort. Lady Constantia graciously accepted, and proceeded by formally introducing him to her sister.
Lady Amelia flushed, and lowered her eyes in confusion, but her replies to his questions were spoken in a clear voice, and intelligent, and she accepted the support of his arm quite readily. Together they walked along the path, and Asterby made a point of asking her whether she liked the gardens.
“Oh yes! I am fond of horticulture, and I enjoy looking at other people’s gardens and trying to devise a way of adopting their ideas for myself, without making it look as if I’d been stealing.”
“You are an expert in horticulture, ma’am?”
“Hardly, sir. I am still learning,” she said, with a pleasant laugh. Asterby was in immediate danger of taking her into his arms there and then.
Instead, he smiled and said, “I am sure your garden in Wincham is very beautiful.”
“So it is,” she agreed, with a wistful smile. She was not given to false modesty, then, which was good. Asterby disliked dissimulation.
“Have you been to London for long, Lady Amelia?” he asked.
“We arrived last Friday,” Lady Amelia said.
“You have come with Lord and Lady Wincham, I suppose?”
“Quite so,” she said, and looked at him pleadingly. “Please, sir,” she began, as her sister’s attention was claimed by an acquaintance of hers. “I need to speak to you!”
He bowed. “I’m at your service, ma’am,” he said. “Only tell me when, and where.”
She hesitated. “I do not suppose my parents will allow me to speak to you alone,” she said.
“Why not? Considering their plans for our future there can be no objection to our becoming more closely acquainted,” Asterby replied.
“My mother believes it is not seemly for a lady to be alone with a gentleman until she is married to him,” she confessed. “If you come to call on us she will not move an inch from my side.”
“I take it the matter is important?”
“In that case I suggest you express an ardent desire to walk over there and have a closer look at those … flowers,” he ended lamely.
She chuckled. “They are peonies,” she told him. “They have a beautiful scent, which is why I like them.”
Lord Asterby duly resolved to keep the fact in mind, for further reference. “All the more reason to go and look at them,” he said with a wink, and she agreed.
Aloud, she said, “I wonder, Lord Asterby – could we just go and have a look at those peonies over there? They look like a variety I am not yet familiar with, and I’d like to examine them.”
Asterby graciously agreed to that course of action and led her to the peony bush, while Lady Constantia appeared to settle down for a longer conversation with her friend.
“Here we are,” he observed. “Alone, yet with a chaperone in the person of your sister not far from us. Lady Wincham would approve wholeheartedly, I am sure.”
“Probably,” she said, frowning. “Oh dear!”
“Anything wrong with the peonies?”
“Of course not! It is just … I do not know how to formulate the question I meant to ask you.”
“Use plain words, Lady Amelia. Nothing complicated.” He smiled at her encouragingly, but she did not look at him.
“I was hoping,” she began slowly, “that you could do something about this marriage of ours.”
“I beg your pardon? What exactly do you want me to do?” He did not like the direction this conversation was going, but decided to let her have her say nevertheless.
“I … I wanted to ask you to … to cancel the wedding,” she said quietly.
“I am afraid I cannot do that,” he replied earnestly. “A man must not cry off – it’s dishonourable. I thought you knew that.”
She did not reply, but pretended to examine the peony blooms instead.
“If you want to cancel the wedding, you have only got to say the word,” he said after a short pause. “It is for you to decide. Tell your father that you do not wish to marry me, and there’s an end to it.”
She sighed. “It is not that easy,” she confessed. “My parents want this marriage – very much. I’d never hear the end of it if I cried off.” She looked up at him. “Couldn’t you do something dreadful so that my father decides I mustn’t marry you after all?”
“Such as?” Lord Asterby was amused in spite of himself.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I was hoping for suggestions,” he explained. “I won’t murder anyone just to please you, but otherwise I am at your disposal.”
“You are making fun of me,” she said, with a frown.
Hurriedly, he assured her, “Indeed I am not! I realise the tricky situation you are in, and I’d love to help you, but how?”
“Couldn’t you … couldn’t you let it be known that you have a mistress?”
“A what?” Asterby was shocked. He had not expected her to know anything about the matter of mistresses, let alone talk about it.
“Gentlemen often have mistresses,” she observed.
“And who told you that?” he demanded.
“I have brothers,” she said matter-of-factly.
“They told you about … about mistresses and suchlike?”
“Not … not really. But they do not always take care who is listening when they talk about these things.”
From what Asterby knew about her brothers, they knew everything there was to know about mistresses, light- skirts and all the other inhabitants of the demi monde. Though he could not vouch for Charles, the youngest.
He cleared his throat. “I am afraid I cannot oblige you there,” he said. “I have not got a mistress.”
“Oh.” There was a short pause. “Pity.”
Asterby laughed at her evident disappointment.
“I don’t suppose you could…” she began, looking at him questioningly.
“No,” Asterby replied, succinctly and emphatically.
“Have you ever had…”
“A mistress?” Asterby blushed furiously. “I suggest we change the topic, Lady Amelia. Please?”
She shrugged. “As you wish.”
Hopelessly, Asterby said, “Is there any particular reason for you to dislike me?”
“I do not dislike you!” she protested.
“But you do not like me enough to marry me,” he stated. “That’s it, isn’t it?”
“I…I don’t know.” Lady Amelia picked a flower and toyed with it, lowering her eyes in confusion.
“That is better than nothing, at any rate,” Asterby said, and since Lady Constantia chose that moment to rejoin the young couple their tête-à-tête was over, and the debate regarding their engagement had to be adjourned.
Amelia was worried, and confused. Her conversation with Lord Asterby had not gone as she had hoped. She had not expected him to be so kind, understanding and easy to talk to. Nor had she expected him to be so handsome. For he was handsome, although he did not look at all like the picture she had always had of the man she’d hoped to marry. He was rather thin, and not very tall, but his face was agreeable, and as for his smile … Amelia’s heart fluttered at the thought of the way Lord Asterby had smiled at her. His eyes were friendly, too, and his teasing had been gentle, unlike the unkind mockery she had sometimes suffered at her brothers’ hands.
He hadn’t been overbearing, either, which was what her Papa often was. Her frankness had shocked him, but he had not reprimanded her, which was what Papa or Mama would have done, and the thought of the hopeless tone in his voice and the hurt look in his eyes when he had asked her what made her dislike him had been enough to make her wish she could hug him and make everything right again.
She could not deny that she liked him. She liked him a great deal, and suddenly the thought of being married to this man was not as unappealing as it had been before. She would enjoy his kisses, certainly, and … she blushed at the mere thought. Was this maidenly conduct, the kind that was expected of a young lady of proper upbringing, such as herself? Still, she had no doubt that a kiss from Lord Asterby would be everything that was pleasant. If her Mama ever found out what she was thinking at the moment, Amelia feared, there would be trouble.
On their way home, Constantia kept talking about the advantages of a marriage to Lord Asterby, and Amelia had to admit that her sister had a point. Her fiancé was young; he was pleasant, he was good-looking, and he did his best to please her, according to Constantia’s report. He listened to what Amelia had to say and did not patronise her. Provided he would stick to this kind of behaviour once they were married, he would make her a good husband. Amelia knew all that, but still she was not quite certain as to what to do.
It was something that Constantia said that made her reconsider her previous standpoint and think about marrying Lord Asterby after all. Constantia revealed that their Papa had mentioned two more possible suitors for Amelia, in case she decided against Lord Asterby. One of them was Lord Conway, who was fifty if he was a day, gouty and ill-tempered, but very rich and influential and therefore a suitable candidate.
The other was Lord Lewis, who was rumoured to have driven his first wife into an early grave, but who was looking for someone to replace her and take charge of his household and three unruly children. Not to mention her dowry, which would come in handy to pay off his gaming debts. Amelia believed her father to be perfectly capable of marrying her off to either of those men, should she refuse Asterby. She had no choice, it seemed. She would marry Lord Asterby – and that option did not look half as frightening as it had done before she had met the man. In comparison to her other choices, marriage with him would be paradise, even in case he turned out to be less than perfect.
Lord Asterby returned home feeling understandably depressed. He was charmed with his fiancée, and while his rational self told him that he could hardly expect her to feel the same immediate passion for him that he felt for her, his heart still ached when he thought of her wish to be released from their engagement. He had to find a way to make her change her mind.
It was not that he was unfamiliar with the ways of women. While he’d never been a ladies’ man, he’d been courted by ambitious mamas and their female offspring. The problem was that he’d never been obliged to gain their good opinion – if he’d ever so much as betrayed more than common interest in a young lady, she’d have jumped at the chance that had been offered her. Not so Lady Amelia. She might marry him if pressed into it, though personally Asterby was not sure if she would allow herself to be pressed - yet having her as his wife was not enough. Lord Asterby wanted her to fall in love with him. He did not care for those fashionable marriages one often came across among the members of London Society – marriages in which husband and wife went separate ways, careful never to interfere with each other’s amusements. He’d never wanted that kind of marriage for himself; and now that he had met his bride he was even more reluctant to allow this kind of thing to happen to them. He wanted Amelia to love him as much as he loved her.
He was well aware, naturally, that this end could not be achieved by overwhelming her with material gifts. She might come to appreciate his wealth, but that would not necessarily mean that she appreciated him. Lord Asterby was not fool enough to believe that. But generosity was a desirable quality in a husband, he was sure, so if he proved himself generous and considerate she might still relent – and once Amelia got to know him, he reasoned, she would grow to like him more and more.
However, making her love him included some effort. He’d have to take care what he was about – he didn’t want to end up a pathetic figure of fun for his friends, running after a female who would have none of him, even though she was his own wife. But there were things one could do without looking like a fool to the word at large. He could send her flowers, for example. Everyone sent flowers to ladies; he’d done so before, occasionally, after having danced with a lady at a ball or assembly, and the ladies had usually been exceedingly flattered that his lordship should have been so thoughtful.
Amelia had told him that she liked peonies, so he even knew what kind of flowers to send her – an advantage he had not always had when choosing floral tributes to the various ladies he had danced with, or at whose houses he had dined. Peonies were harmless enough – there was probably no flower that was more threatening to a reluctant bride than a rose, which had to be avoided, at least until she was better disposed towards him - and peonies were easy to come by. That might be a disadvantage; flowers that were difficult to procure might be better suited to show her that he was taking pains to please her, but … she did like peonies, so why take the risk of buying flowers she detested just because they were difficult to get hold of? He might still do so next time; this was by no means the last time he meant to buy her flowers – or anything else, for that matter.
A footman was dispatched with orders to procure a bouquet of peonies, therefore, and the flowers were then sent to Lord Wincham’s town house, along with a gracious note saying that he hoped the flowers suited Lady Amelia’s taste, even though they were not the same variety they had seen in the park.
“Who has sent you flowers, Amelia?” Lady Wincham demanded when a maid came in and presented her daughter with a bouquet of peonies that had only just arrived for her.
Amelia opened the note, read it, and blushed. “Lord Asterby,” she said. “We met him when we were walking in the park, Constantia and I.”
“The young man loses no time, I see,” Lady Wincham said. Amelia was not sure whether her mother was pleased with this development, or disapproved.
“I don’t know what you mean, Mama,” she protested. “I told Lord Asterby I liked peonies – we saw some in the park, you must know – and now he has sent me some. Very beautiful ones too, only look! I’d say it is very kind of him.”
“Very. I am not saying that it is not,” her mother replied. “So, since you have met Lord Asterby, I hope all your fears regarding clubfoot, harelip, hunchback and I do not know what else have been allayed?”
“They have. Lord Asterby is quite handsome, in a way,” Amelia admitted, with a smile. “I liked the way he smiled at me.”
“And his manners do not positively disgust you?”
“Heavens, no, Mama; he was all that was kind and proper.”
“Then I see no reason why you should not marry him after all,” Lady Wincham concluded. “I told your father you would get used to the notion, once you met the young man. No reason at all to encourage Lord Lewis the way he has done.”
Amelia shuddered. “Before I marry Lord Lewis I’ll elope with one of the stable boys,” she said firmly. “You may tell my father as much.”
“And which of our stable boys shall have that distinction? Would it not be better if you just married Asterby, since this is what everyone wants you to do anyway? He’ll certainly be better able to support you in the style you are accustomed to than a stable hand will ever be.”
“I daresay so,” Amelia agreed. “I am still thinking about whether it is the best thing to do. Lord Asterby said it was my decision.”
“You did not ask him to release you from your engagement, did you?” her mother asked, aghast.
“No,” Amelia lied, blushing.
“Amelia, do not lie to me. You have never been good at deceiving people. I can tell from here that you have not told me the truth – your complexion betrays you! What did you say to him?”
“Merely that I wanted him to break off the engagement, but he said he could not do that,” Amelia admitted. “He said it was dishonourable.”
“You will be the death of me one of these days,” Lady Wincham moaned. “Has anyone ever heard of anything as ill-bred as that? Lord Asterby must have been extremely shocked to be confronted with such brazen behaviour from his bride!”
“He was very kind,” Amelia defended herself. “And understanding.”
“I dare say he was,” Lady Wincham said darkly.
“Even though he could not release me, he said, he would not oppose me if I called the wedding off.”
“But naturally he would not. Not after the things you said to him,” her mother said sharply. “Ten to one he’ll be quite relieved if you do, after the figure you have made of yourself. - My dear girl, do you really want to cause your own ruin? If anyone found out about this – I shudder to even think what might happen!”
“Why should I be ruined just for telling Lord Asterby the truth? I simply told him how I felt about the whole affair – about this arranged marriage of ours! That cannot be wrong!” Amelia protested.
“My dear girl, there is one thing you must never do when dealing with gentlemen – never wear your heart on your sleeve! Leave your feelings out of this, I beg you! Nothing good will ever come of talking about them! Nothing is more certain to disgust Lord Asterby – or whomever else you will end up marrying, now that you have effectively scared him off! Men do not want to discuss their wives’ feelings with them! A wife has to do her duty, nothing more. If your husband wants someone to talk to, he will go to his club, depend on it.”
“Lord Asterby did not look as if he was disgusted,” Amelia reasoned. Not disgusted, but hurt. She refrained from telling her mother so, however. Lady Wincham was shocked as it was; there was no need to cause her even further dismay. She was well capable of locking her into her room until that dress party at the Duchess of Burwell’s, to prevent further meetings with his lordship. Amelia did want to meet him again, though, if only to find out if he was really the kind of man her mother had described. To say the truth, she hoped he was not.
“I will tell Lord Asterby I have changed my mind the next time we meet,” she said soothingly. “Will that make you happy?”
“I do not think I can be happy until I see you walk out of the church on your husband’s arm on your wedding day,” Lady Wincham snapped. “Whoever he may be.”
Amelia could not resist. Chuckling, she said, “What, even if he is one of our stable lads?”
“Oh, go and write a note to Lord Asterby and thank him for his flowers,” Lady Wincham snapped.
In the meantime, Lord Asterby had recruited his mother’s help in the matter of becoming better acquainted with Lady Amelia, and the Duchess of Burwell had been as obliging as to invite Lord and Lady Wincham and their charming daughter to dine with her and the Duke the following evening. It was going to be quite an informal affair, the Duchess wrote to Lady Wincham; merely to give the young people an opportunity to get to know one another. Fully approving of the scheme, Lady Wincham accepted the invitation, and so Amelia found herself in the Duke of Burwell’s town residence the following evening.
Lord Asterby was there, too; dressed in fashionable evening attire – yet Amelia preferred him in his riding suit. It became him much better, in her opinion. But his smile as he looked at her was still the same; the warm, appreciative smile that made her feel at ease with him and herself.
His lordship soon found out that Amelia was not at her best with her parents present. Lady Wincham kept her under close surveillance, as if she was likely to do wrong, and while Amelia behaved with the utmost propriety, she was rather subdued and not the delightful girl he had met in the park. There was a great deal of dignity in her bearing, however, which he knew earned her his mother’s approval – the Duchess had been afraid that Lady Amelia Rattray, unversed in the ways of Society, might behave in a manner unsuited to her future station in life. That, apparently, was no longer a concern of hers. Instead, she began to test the young woman’s submissiveness. Asterby let her do so, watching closely in case he needed to intervene, but he soon found out that Amelia was well able to hold her own even if she was dealing with her future mother-in-law, whose character was of a domineering kind.
When the gentlemen joined the ladies in the withdrawing room after dinner, the Duchess was in the process of interviewing her future daughter-in-law on any topic she deemed important, while Lady Wincham was sitting next to Amelia and keeping a close watch on her. Amelia didn’t look too happy, but she was treating the Duchess with due deference without becoming subservient in her manners, and spoke her mind freely, whether the Duchess liked her answers or not.
“Horticulture is a fitting occupation for a lady,” the Duchess approved. “I have little taste for it myself, but several of my friends have. Lady Irvine is well-known for her rose garden.”
“So she is. I have heard its praise very often,” Amelia said demurely.
“Have you visited her gardens?”
“I have not, your grace. As far as I know, Lady Irvine’s home is in Northamptonshire, which is a trifle out of the way from where I live. Maybe I will be able to see it one day. In one of my books on gardening it is described as a perfect example of what a rose garden should be.”
“You read books on gardening?”
“Very often, your grace. I am also well acquainted with the contents of every book on botany in my father’s library. The subject happens to interest me.”
The Duchess frowned. She, herself, could not be accused of being bookish, and therefore she was none too happy to discover that her son’s future wife was. On the other hand, Lord Asterby was a notable scholar himself and might not object to his wife’s fondness of literature. Even worse, scientific literature. There was no arguing about taste, however.
“Have you read Mr Randall’s treatise on the English flora, Lady Amelia?” Asterby asked her.
“I have; very often, in fact,” Amelia replied, looking up at him. “I had no idea we shared an interest in botany, sir.” There was a twinkle of amusement in her eyes.
“It is of a very recent date,” Asterby admitted. “I only encountered the book in a bookshop yesterday. Would you recommend it to one who has but recently discovered his wish to become acquainted with the local plants? Or is there something better suited to beginners?”
“Mr Randall will do very well to give you a general idea,” Amelia said. “Unless you are more interested in exotic plants, in which case I can recommend Captain Pendleton’s work. The illustrations in his Plants of the West Indies are breathtaking.”
“Thank you. I will make a point of procuring them both for my own library,” Lord Asterby said. The Duchess and Lady Wincham exchanged a meaningful look.
“What other accomplishments do you possess, Lady Amelia?” the Duchess asked, a trifle haughtily.
“Many, your grace. Most, but not all of the usual ones. I can draw decent water-colours and play the pianoforte tolerably well; my flower arrangements generally pass muster and my sisters admire my dress-sense. I can read and write, speak French fluently – though my Italian is rather weak. My governess was the daughter of a distinguished scholar, so she has also taught me Latin and Greek, but I am telling you this in strict confidence. No one need ever know unless you want it known, ma’am.”
Lord Asterby found it difficult to keep a straight face as his mother was looking at his fiancée with an expression of acute distaste.
“I have not lived up to my governess’ expectations with regards to my mathematical accomplishments, but I can keep a household account as well as anyone, and devising a menu for a dinner party is by no means an impossible task to me. Have I forgotten anything?”
Her mother had grown paler by the moment, and Lord Asterby suspected that she was in imminent danger of having a fainting fit. He found the situation amusing, though, and decided to stir the coals.
“I believe you have not enlightened my mother regarding the quality of your needlework, ma’am,” he said teasingly.
“As to that, I hope to show her grace a sample of my work soon. I know I need not blush for it, although I admit that it is not my forte.”
The Duchess took a deep breath and said, “Very well. I see you have made good use of your education.” Her tone was a great deal less patronising now, Lord Asterby realised. Amelia had earned his mother’s respect. Her Grace had asked an impertinent question, and Amelia had countered with an equally impertinent reply. Lady Amelia Rattray was well able to stand up to her future mother-in-law, and that was good. While they would live in Asterby Court during his father’s lifetime, they would have to remove to Burwell Castle once his grace was dead, and it was more than likely that his mother would still be alive then, and take up residence in the Dower Wing. Her grace was only too likely to ride rough-shod over anyone whom she did not consider a worthy opponent, daughter-in-law or no. But Amelia had shown her claws. She’d made it clear to her grace that she’d give as good as she got, and Lord Asterby knew that his mother liked her the better for it. She had no patience for biddable milk-and-butter misses.
Her grace motioned towards the pianoforte in the room, and requested Amelia to favour them with some music.
“Certainly, your grace,” Amelia said obediently, and rose. “I hope you will forgive me for not singing. It has been such an agreeable evening so far; I would not like to spoil it.”
This time, Lord Asterby could not hold back his laugh, and even his mother caught herself smiling.
“You do not count singing among your many accomplishments then?” she asked.
“I am merely following my music master’s advice, ma’am,” Amelia replied. “He told me never to sing if I could avoid it. Wise counsel, as I have found out.”
“Who are we to doubt an expert’s opinion?” Lord Asterby answered. “May I assist you with the music sheets, ma’am?”
“Thank you, sir, you are very kind,” Amelia said, and took his arm as they walked to the pianoforte on the other side of the room. “Am I very bad?” she whispered, as he got the music sheets for her and held them while she examined one after the other to decide which one she was to play.
“Not at all. I am charmed,” Asterby replied truthfully.
“My mother is not,” Amelia sighed. “Maybe I should not have talked to her grace like this, but this always happens when somebody tries to patronise me. I patronise back.”
“Her grace is well able to bear it,” Lord Asterby said. “It was she who started the game.”
“It is me who will suffer for it,” Amelia predicted darkly, pulling a collection of Bach preludes out of the pile of music sheets. “How about this one?”
“I am looking forward to hearing it.” He took the music sheets from Amelia and arranged them on the instrument.
While she was playing, they could not talk to each other – they both had to concentrate on the music; and so Asterby enjoyed just sitting so close to her. While his behaviour as such gave nothing away, his mother knew him well enough to guess that he was taken with the young lady who was sitting next to him, and from that moment on the match had her full approval.
“They make a beautiful couple,” she whispered to Lady Wincham. “I think they’ll do for each other.”
Lady Wincham, glad that her daughter had found favour in her grace’s eyes in spite of her outrageous conduct, was more than happy to agree.
Amelia finished her music piece and received the polite applause with a gracious smile. She rose from her chair, and thanked Lord Asterby for his assistance.
“You’re welcome, ma’am,” he said, smiling at her. “Should you ever wish to perform again, I’ll be at your service.”
“I will keep it in mind,” Amelia said. “From the way my mother looks at my father, I can tell that we will soon take our leave. Will I see you again before that dreadful dress party?”
Lord Asterby laughed. “As often as you wish, my dear.”
Amelia blushed. He had called her “my dear” – she was not certain whether he was saying it to tease her, or for some other reason. She was merely certain that she liked it.
“You forgot to mention whether riding was one of your many accomplishments,” Lord Asterby remarked. “Do you ride?”
“Oh yes, I do. With proper chaperonage, naturally.”
“Naturally. Would you do me the great honour of accompanying me to Hyde Park at the fashionable hour tomorrow? It may not be a great challenge to your equestrian abilities, I am afraid, but it is all Town has to offer in that direction.”
“I will bear it with fortitude,” Amelia replied.
“Accompanying me to Hyde Park, or the limitations to one’s riding abilities?”
“Both. Although the former, I believe, will require much less effort than the latter,” she said coquettishly.
“I am relieved.”
By then, they had rejoined their parents and what had looked like a promising start at flirtation had to stop. Lord Asterby was gratified to find, though, that Lady Wincham gave her permission for the projected outing – provided her daughter took a chaperon with her she had no objection to make, she said.
The tea tray was brought in, and soon after that the Winchams and Amelia took their leave. The Duchess retired to her bedchamber, and the Duke to his library, asking his son to have a glass or two of brandy with him before turning in for the night.
Once Lord Asterby had poured out a glass for both of them and they had settled down in their chairs, the Duke said, “I take it that Lady Amelia is to your taste after all.”
“I have not found any fault with her so far, sir. But even if I had, you have left me no choice but to marry her.”
“Nonsense. If you truly couldn’t stomach being married to the girl we could find a way to get out of this. Nothing’s official yet. We haven’t signed any binding contract so far.”
“Probably not, but it’s still a question of honour. One does not cry off once an offer of marriage has been made.”
“Tell me now once and for all, Edward. Do you want to marry her, or shall I put an end to the engagement?” the Duke demanded.
“There is no need for you to exert yourself, sir,” Lord Asterby said, blushing slightly. “If Lady Amelia will have me, I will marry her; and you may rest assured that I’ll be quite content being her husband.”
“Trust your old father and his experience of women,” the Duke remarked. “She will have you.”
“What makes you so certain, sir? Has she let you know? Has she betrayed any signs in that direction?”
“No, but her father has confided in me that she is to wed Lewis if she refuses you.”
Lord Asterby, who was acquainted with Lord Lewis, laughed, but it was a bitter laugh.
“I am honoured, I’m sure,” he said sarcastically. “This is just what I’d hoped for – a wife who married me for a good reason. Such as escaping marriage with an old roué.”
“What difference does it make, when all is said and done?” the Duke asked.
Lord Asterby did not reply, but he felt that it made a huge difference to him.
Meanwhile, in the Winchams’ carriage, Lady Wincham treated her daughter to the scold Amelia had already expected.
“Whatever made you speak to the Duchess in such an insolent way?” she demanded. “I was ready to sink – that one of my daughters dared to speak to a lady of her age and station as if – I have never been more ashamed of you!”
In the safe knowledge that she was not required to make a reply, Amelia remained silent.
“And then you flirted with Asterby!”
This time Amelia could not hold her tongue. “I thought you wanted me to marry him!” she retorted. “What is wrong with flirting with one’s future husband? They way I see it, he is the only man I am allowed to flirt with!”
Her father chuckled. “You are a minx,” he informed her, and said to his wife, “My dear, Asterby did not look as if he had an objection.”
“He will think her fast,” Lady Wincham protested, “and who wants a wife who is fast? Being disrespectful to his mama, too! This is not the way to win a gentleman’s approval!”
“Maybe not his approval, but there’s no telling but she might win his heart,” Lord Wincham said.
“By insulting his mother?”
“No, but by being herself. There is no point in trying to convince him that our Amelia is anything but what she is. That way he will know what he’ll get, and there will be no regrets once the knot is tied. – You are going to marry him, aren’t you, Amelia?”
Amelia nodded. “I think I will,” she said.
“Good. Lewis will have to find another bride then.”
At home they found that, in their absence, one of Amelia’s brothers had arrived in Town. Captain Gregory Rattray was a lively and handsome young man, and Amelia’s favourite among her brothers. Lord Wincham had bought his second son a commission in the army to keep him out of harm’s way, but there was still enough potential for mischief in the Captain’s character. He was fond of good company – or of what he thought was good company – and very much a ladies’ man; with no thought of marriage, however. In spite of his inconstancy – he found it impossible to remain faithful to one and the same woman for any longer than a couple of months – he took good care of his mistresses while their affaires lasted, and, in the case of one mistress who’d borne him a daughter, he still took good care of her and her child.
While her parents had done their best to keep this side of her brother’s character from Amelia, the rumours had reached her ears in spite of their efforts. Once Gregory had assured her that the lady in question and her child were well provided for, she accepted the fact without passing judgement. She would not have wanted her brother to abandon a woman and her child, but since he had not done so she was content to forget all about them, at least officially. In private, she often asked her brother how they were doing, and listened to his reports of how her niece – for such she was, even if the poor thing had been born out of wedlock – was growing up. She took great care not to let her parents find out that she knew about such things as her brother’s illegitimate child, though – she knew what was due to her station as a gently nurtured young lady.
Captain Rattray, upon being informed of his sister’s impending nuptials, had hurried back to London to be there when the momentous event took place. He greeted Amelia with a hug and a brotherly kiss on her cheek, and asked her how she was doing.
“I am fine, thank you,” Amelia replied. “We have just got back from dinner with the Duke and Duchess of Burwell, and Lord Asterby.”
“How do you like Asterby? You haven’t met him before you got to town, have you?”
“No, I didn’t know him, but I like him well enough.” She blushed. “He seems a good sort,” she added, feeling that some kind of further explanation was expected of her.
“Oh, he is – a capital fellow, in fact,” Gregory assured her. “I’ve met him often. Dashed respectable, of course, so he doesn’t mix with my set as a rule, but he’s well enough. I wouldn’t want anyone of my set to marry you, anyway. They’re loose screws, all of them, and not worthy to even worship my little sister from afar!”
Amelia chuckled. “Then why do you associate with them?” she asked.
“How can you ask? They are fun to be with!” her brother replied. “But I’ll make damn sure you won’t mix with them; and once you’re married I’m sure Asterby will. He’ll make you a good husband – he’s staid, but not without a sense of humour, mind you.”
“I will inform him that the match has your approval,” Amelia laughed. “Which reminds me – he has invited me to ride into the park with him tomorrow. Are you at leisure? I need a chaperon.”
This highly unusual request made the Captain burst into a shout of irreverent laughter, for he could think of no one less suited for the post of chaperon than himself, but in the end he gave in and promised his sister to ride into the park with her and Lord Asterby – and to be very strict in the execution of his duty.
And the tattle-mongers began to talk, as was to be expected. The Marquis of Asterby had been seen twice with Lady Amelia Rattray, and the Winchams had dined at the ducal table once – privately, with no other guests present. One need not be a genius to figure out what that meant, people said – there was a marriage in the offing. But whenever anyone approached his lordship and made enquiries, he reacted in a more than elusive way. There was nothing to be got out of him; and no one seriously considered approaching the Duke or Duchess of Burwell for news. As for Lord and Lady Wincham, they had let their closest acquaintance know that “an interesting announcement” would soon be made, and the clever ones among them had decided that it was well worth the wait.
One who was not content to wait until his cousin chose to inform him of his forthcoming marriage was Mr Henry Andell, Lord Asterby’s cousin and, in case the Marquis died without having produced an heir, the one to inherit the Dukedom of Burwell. To be fair it had to be said that Mr Andell had never depended on inheriting; certainly not while the Duke’s younger son, his cousin Matthew, had been alive. But since Matthew’s death he had come to regard himself as Lord Asterby’s heir, and while he acknowledged that his cousin did not need his permission to wed, he ought to have informed him before everyone else, at the very least. A man of his consequence ought not to be left out of important family decisions, he felt.
It was, perhaps, not surprising that Lord Asterby had not taken his cousin into his confidence. They had never been close, even though they were nearly the same age. For this, their respective mothers had been chiefly to blame – while the Duke and his younger brother had been rather close, the Duchess had always thought that her husband was doing too much for his brother’s family, while Lady Roderick Andell thought he was doing too little, and had infused her son’s mind with the same opinion. By now he believed that it was only proper if his uncle paid off his debts and thereby rescued him from permanently residing in a sponging-house. It was no more than his due, as a member of the House of Andell, that the Duke should take an interest in his affairs and make sure he came to no harm. Unfortunately, Henry’s father had died young, and had left the boy in the sole charge of his mother. Henry had never learned to be content with what he had, but took whatever was given to him for granted and grumbled when his uncle was not as generous as he’d expected. As for practising economy, that was a measure suited for lesser men than him.
While Henry could be certain that this Duke of Burwell would make sure that no Andell should ever end up in debtors’ prison, he was not as certain regarding the future Duke. Some confidence could be placed in the fact that he was Asterby’s heir – but once the man had produced a son, he felt, it was highly likely that his chief source of income would soon be dried up.
It was therefore with a great deal of ill feeling that Mr Henry Andell greeted his cousin when they met at White’s one evening. Lord Asterby, aware of the hostility coming from his relative, politely returned his greeting but otherwise ignored the man. Since he was at that moment engaged in playing piquet with one of his friends, no one in their right mind could have taken offence at this – but Henry Andell was only too grateful to have found a reason for quarrelling, paltry though it was. He had made his reckoning without his host, however, or, in this case, without his lordship’s proverbially even temper. A man who did not allow himself to be provoked into an argument with his father in the private setting of his father’s library was not going to oblige his cousin in public.
“Too high-and-mighty to talk to me, are you, Cousin Edward?” Henry asked, incensed.
“No; merely too busy, as you can see,” Asterby replied calmly. “If you will be so patient as to wait until I have finished this game, I will talk to you as much as you like.”
“I want to talk to you now,” Henry insisted.
“I am not going to run away, so if you really want to force your conversation on me I cannot stop you,” Lord Asterby said, favouring his cousin with a bland smile.
“Why is it that I have not been informed of your engagement?” Henry demanded.
“Has there been an engagement?” Lord Asterby asked. “It must have escaped my notice.”
Some of the other gentlemen in the room drew nearer to watch. This promised to be highly entertaining.
“One has heard rumours about you and a certain lady,” Henry said darkly.
“Oh! I see. Who is one?”
“You are speaking for everyone then? Or simply for yourself?”
“Don’t try to evade me, coz! I know what’s what!”
“So you do, undoubtedly.” Lord Asterby said consolingly.
“What are your plans regarding Lady Amelia Rattray?”
“My plans for the immediate future, cousin, include playing piquet and minding my own business. A course of action strongly to be recommended.”
This remark caused some approving murmur among their spectators.
“I won’t be fobbed off! I want to know what you mean by taking Lady Amelia for rides or having her family to dine with you!”
“A fascinating topic, no doubt, but one I had rather discuss in private,” Asterby said, unruffled. “There is no excuse for bandying a lady’s name about, let me tell you as much.”
“Afraid your brood mare might take exception at it if she found out?” Henry sneered.
“What have you just called her?” For the fraction of a moment, Lord Asterby’s proverbial calm deserted him, but he had himself well in hand. “You’d be well advised not to speak of the lady in such disrespectful terms,” he said coldly.
“Or what? Are you going to call me out?” Henry asked. “I’d like to see that!”
“There is no need for me to call you out,” Lord Asterby replied. “Though someone else is very likely to do so. Captain Rattray has just come in and heard you, and he does not look too pleased.”
So it was indeed; as everyone turned towards the door they found Captain Rattray standing there, looking like a thundercloud.
“I’ll have you eat your words, sir,” he said icily. “You may be ten thousand times Asterby’s cousin, but no one insults a sister of mine without being made to regret it! Name your friends, Andell!”
Henry Andell nodded towards a certain George Burroughs, a friend of his. “Burroughs will act for me,” he said, and Mr Burroughs gave a curt bow of acknowledgement, although he felt no desire to be mixed up in what promised to be an ugly affair. Still, one did not let a friend down.
For a moment Lord Asterby feared that Rattray might ask him to be his second – but luckily Captain Rattray had more sense than that, and asked somebody else. As he later explained to Asterby, Captain Rattray felt that it would not serve Lord Asterby’s case if he was a second in a duel where one of the principals was his cousin and the other his future brother-in-law.
“For you may depend on it,” he said, “when my sister Amelia finds out about this she’ll be furious, and will want to know what you did to stop the affair.”
“And what am I to say in that case?” Lord Asterby asked.
“That you pleaded for your cousin’s life but that I was not moved,” Rattray said with a grin. “Don’t worry, I don’t mean to kill him. Burroughs was quick to point out to your misguided relative that I am deadly with the pistols, and so it is going to be swords. I’m deadly with those too, of course, but beyond hurting his sword-arm a little there is not much harm I am going to do to him, much though he may have deserved it.”
“What if he hurts you? Your sister might not like it if you got killed in a duel defending her name,” Lord Asterby pointed out.
“That won’t happen,” Captain Rattray said confidently.
In spite of Captain Rattray’s assurances Lord Asterby was considerably uneasy the day the duel took place; until he received a note from the Captain informing him that the fight had ended just in the way he had planned it; that Mr Andell had received a slight injury but, as Captain Rattray wrote flippantly, would not be required to wear his arm in a sling at his cousin’s wedding, provided the wedding did not take place within the next two weeks.
But word of the affair got around, and finally reached Lady Amelia’s ear. Since she found her brother highly unresponsive to her attempts of finding out why he had fought Lord Asterby’s cousin, she decided to ask her fiancé – who had called on her to give her the betrothal gift he had bought for her – what had happened.
“Can you tell me why my brother had a quarrel with your cousin?” she asked, as they were sitting at the pianoforte in her mother’s withdrawing room.
“I cannot,” Lord Asterby replied.
“Cannot or will not?” Amelia inquired.
He laughed. “Very well – I will not tell you.”
“But you know what it was about?”
“Men!” Amelia cried, exasperated.
“We are a dreadful race, aren’t we?” Lord Asterby said ruefully. “But your brother would call me out if I told you, and I have it on the best authority – namely, his own - that he is deadly both with pistols and swords, whereas I am not, so what will you have me do?”
“My brother says a great deal if the day is long enough,” Amelia said ungraciously.
“So he is not deadly with swords and pistols?”
“He is an army man, so I suppose he must know how to fight,” Amelia admitted. “But he would not kill you!”
“And why not?”
Amelia looked up at him. “Because I would tell him not to.”
Lord Asterby laughed. “I am much obliged, ma’am. Do you mean to tell me that you had rather have me alive?”
“There is no one in the world I wish dead, sir,” Amelia said primly.
“I find this highly encouraging,” Lord Asterby said, and took her hand. “I have not really made you an offer of marriage yet,” he began.
“There was no need. Your father spoke for you, as I understand,” Amelia replied.
“And has robbed me of the chance to ask you myself,” Lord Asterby said. “Amelia, will you marry me? Your conduct these days has given me reason to hope that you are no longer … against this marriage, as you were at the beginning of our acquaintance. Am I indulging my hopes too far?”
Amelia blushed. “No, you are not,” she whispered. “I will marry you.”
He kissed her hand, but had to let it go when Lady Wincham cleared her throat to make them aware of her presence in the room.
“I have a present for you, Amelia,” he said instead, and took a jewellery box from his pocket. “I was hoping you’d wear it at my mother’s dress party,” he added, as he gave the jewellery box to her.
Amelia opened it, and gasped. “No one has ever given me anything as beautiful,” she cried. “Thank you! Oh, thank you! Mama, only look!”
Lady Wincham, upon being thus addressed, got up from the sofa and came over to the young couple to inspect the present Lord Asterby had given to her daughter. It was a set of diamonds, consisting of a necklace, brooch, earrings and bracelet. The delicate floral pattern of the trinkets was craftsmanship of the first order – and therefore very expensive. Each of the diamonds was a class of its own, and tried to outshine the others. Lady Wincham was impressed.
“Lady Amelia has done me the honour of accepting my offer of marriage,” Lord Asterby said. “This is a mere trifle I thought she might like.”
“Like it? I love it!” Amelia exclaimed. “How could I not? Mama, what do you say? Isn’t this necklace the most beautiful one you have ever seen?”
Lady Wincham was not only greatly relieved that her daughter was, by the look of it, formally betrothed at last, but had also recognised at one glance the worth of the “trifle” Asterby had given his bride to commemorate the event.
“Lord Asterby is exceedingly generous,” she remarked. “And he has taste.”
Asterby wished his future mother-in-law at Jericho – was there no way he would ever be allowed to kiss Amelia before they were married? – but nevertheless treated her with the greatest respect. However, by the time he left the Winchams’ town house and walked towards his father’s, he had come up with a plan that might well give him an opportunity to catch Amelia alone. For this, he needed his mother’s support.
Burwell Castle, the principal seat of the Duke of Burwell, was not only a huge house and a well-known landmark but also situated in the midst of a huge park which Lady Amelia, being a gardening enthusiast, would find immensely interesting. Surely one could get lost at an appropriate moment, Lord Asterby reasoned, and make good use of being lost while it lasted.
Naturally, this was not what he told his mother when he recruited her assistance that evening. He simply let it fall that Lady Amelia had finally accepted his hand in marriage, and that he though it would be only fitting to invite her and her family to stay in Burwell for a while.
“She must become acquainted with the place sooner or later,” he said.
The Duchess, while flinching at the thought that there would be a day when she would have to hand over the keys of Burwell Castle to her son’s wife and retire to the Dower Wing, agreed with him and added an idea of her own to that of her son.
“How about having the wedding there?” she suggested.
“I have no objection to it,” Asterby said. “Although I can imagine that the bride’s family might wish to be consulted in the matter. Wouldn’t they want the wedding to take place here in London – or in Wincham?”
“That remains to be seen. I must talk this over with Lady Wincham, naturally, but we will see. A wedding at Burwell – it would be fitting, certainly, and an event people will talk of for years.”
“It will also be a great bother,” the Duke chimed in. “Isn’t it enough to entertain the wedding guests at the wedding breakfast? Do we have to make a house party of it?”
“My dear, are you afraid of the expense? It will be minimal, believe me.”
“Never trust your wife when she is talking to you about money,” the Duke said as an aside to his son. “Trust an old married man. If your wife tells you the expense will be minimal, expect to be ruined.”
“I could elope with Lady Amelia,” Asterby suggested with a faint smile. “That wouldn’t cost you a penny, sir.”
The Duke glared at his son, realising that in his own quiet way my Lord Asterby could be just as provoking as his brother Matthew had been; though unlike his sibling he did not give his sire any excuse for attack. The boy possessed an aptitude for irony and was not afraid to use it, damn him for his impudence.
A brief consultation with Lady Wincham the next day settled matters. Lady Wincham was happy enough to forego a Town wedding, especially since by the time the wedding was probably going to take place most people of note would have left Town anyway – although the Duchess did not think that all too likely. An event such as the wedding of the future Duke of Burwell, she pointed out, was just the kind of thing to keep people in Town even in the deadest season. Still, she was glad to agree with Lady Wincham on the desirability of Burwell Castle and the local church as a setting for a marriage ceremony. After all, anyone could get married at St George’s, Hanover Square.
While her mother and future mother-in-law pondered over such important things as guest-lists and bills of fare, Amelia spent most of her time getting ready for the Great Event – not the wedding, but the dress party during which she was to be presented to the world as the future Duchess of Burwell.
Her mother had ordered a grand toilette for the occasion, and the fittings for that dress as well as her wedding clothes took up most of Amelia’s mornings. Amelia loved her dress for the party. It was made of ivory-coloured silk, with exquisite embroidery on her stomacher and manteau, and the finest lace to round off the picture. Since most of the embroidery consisted of floral motives, it would go well with the diamond necklace, bracelet and earrings her betrothed had given her, and Amelia felt that her new family would have no reason to blush for her appearance on that evening.
Nor did they – but Amelia was well aware of the look of approval Lord Asterby gave her when the footman at Burwell House took her cape and everyone caught a first glimpse of her dress.
“Beautiful, my dear!” the Duchess exclaimed. “Quite striking!”
Lord Asterby did not say much, but the way he held her hand as he kissed it made Amelia wonder whether he regretted that they were not alone. She did – she would have loved to hear what he thought of her dress, and she did wonder how she was ever to become accustomed to being alone with him if she was never even allowed to try before they were married.
Since their engagement had been made known that day – Amelia had read the notice in the “Times” and felt rather surreal, as if “the Lady Amelia Rattray, d. of the Rt. Hon. The Earl of Wincham and his Wife, Henrietta Jane” had nothing at all to do with her.
Yet it was she whom everyone wished to meet; no matter if they were relatives or friends of the ducal family, or simply notable members of London society who wanted to take a closer look at Lord Asterby’s bride.
As she opened the dance with Lord Asterby later that evening, she told him just that.
“I think now I know how a tiger in a menagerie must feel,” she remarked.
“How does a tiger in a menagerie feel, then?” Lord Asterby asked her, with a touch of amusement in his tone of voice.
“Watched,” Amelia replied. “All the time. No wonder the poor things run up and down in their cages. They must be trying to get away from all those prying eyes, and to get a moment of privacy.”
“You begin to make me feel sorry for the poor tigers,” Lord Asterby said. “However, tonight, I am afraid we will have to share their fate. I am confident that things will improve once we get to Burwell, though; and it is only two weeks until we go.”
“True. By the way things are looking, I think those two weeks will be like an eternity, but I will not complain.”
Lord Asterby smiled. “I hope you are not having second thoughts?”
“Wouldn’t it be rather late to have them now?” she countered. “No, I am not having second thoughts. I am well content with our engagement so far. It is just – I cannot understand why it seems to matter so much; why people find us so … so interesting all of a sudden! I am not at all an interesting person. I have never been.”
“You are quite wrong, Lady Amelia. I find you eminently interesting. More than that, in fact. You are fascinating – and it is about time someone told you that.”
Amelia chuckled. “You are making very pretty speeches, sir. Is it because you are supposed to compliment me tonight?”
“I’d never say things I do not mean just to please people,” Asterby protested. “It is one of the reasons why I remain silent so often. It saves trouble.”
Amelia laughed. “If you have nothing nice to say about someone, say nothing at all! It is one thing my governess has taught me.”
“I do not know if I am right or not; but not being able to say something nice about people has never stopped anyone from talking about them,” Lord Asterby replied with a grin. “On the contrary. But then it is quite possible that I have moved in the wrong circles so far.”
She chuckled. “I am afraid, sir, that there aren’t many people abiding by my governess’ advice. Even I am often guilty of disregarding it.”
“Thank Heaven! I was already wondering what I had done to deserve a saintly wife,” Lord Asterby said.
“Saintly I am not and probably never will be,” Amelia reflected. “But then you already know that.”
“Indeed I do, and I am glad,” he said. “A saintly wife would bore me to tears.”
The music ended, and Lord Asterby took her back to her seat, only to find his cousin Henry already waiting there to claim Amelia’s hand for the next dance.
“I was hoping my future cousin would do me the honour,” he said smoothly, and led Amelia into the set even before she could say a word of acceptance – or refusal.
After the first few steps of the dance, which had separated them, Mr Andell said, “It is possible that you have forgotten about me, Lady Amelia – you have met so many new people tonight. I am Asterby’s cousin, Henry Andell.”
“Oh.” Amelia needed to know no more. Mr Andell was the man her brother had fought in that duel not long ago – the fight that neither her brother nor her fiancé had told her anything about. Nor would Mr Andell, she was certain – and she was pretty certain that she had better not ask him.
“Has my cousin told you about me?” Mr Andell inquired.
“I am afraid he has not,” Amelia said, with feeling. As much was true – he had refused to talk to her about his cousin Henry. “We never spoke about his relatives when we had the chance to converse with each other.”
“Ah. I am Asterby’s heir, you must know – until you do your duty and present him with a son, naturally.”
“I see.” Amelia wondered why Mr Andell found it necessary to inform her of that fact. It was not as if she had not been aware of her duty as Asterby’s wife before.
“One did wonder why Asterby was suddenly in such a hurry to be married, but my mother informed me it was my uncle’s wish that he should set up his nursery. Asterby has ever been a dutiful son, and he knows his father does not wish to see me in his shoes.”
“You think this marriage was forced on Lord Asterby?” Amelia asked, taking care to sound indifferent even though, to say the truth, Mr Andell’s implication hurt her more deeply than it should. “That he is going to marry me to oblige his father, and contrary to his own wishes?”
“My dear Lady Amelia! I hope I have not offended you!” There was a short pause. “Surely my cousin may choose his own bride,” he said slowly. “Please do not worry! Asterby would not have proposed marriage to you, had he not been certain that he will be able to do his duty by you once you are married! As I said he is a very dutiful man – whatever he may feel in private - and I am certainly no judge of that, for he has never been one to confide in me - he will take great care never to give you a reason to regret your marriage to him. Asterby is a good man; you are very lucky indeed, my lady. He will take good care of you for as long as he lives.”
Amelia did not need Mr Andell’s assurances to know that this was so – during her short acquaintance with the Marquis she had already become aware of that fact. She also knew that the wedding had been arranged by their parents, and it was quite probable that Lord Asterby had opposed his parents’ wish at first, just as she had done. Suddenly, she was no longer certain that marrying Lord Asterby was a good idea.
He was kind, she knew, and even-tempered, and even though he was not the best-looking of men she liked the way he looked. Amelia liked him a great deal, and the more she saw of him the more she liked him. The more she had allowed herself to be persuaded that he liked her just as much. What if all of this was just a polite façade? What if he, like Sir Charles Lissett, her brother-in-law, could barely tolerate his future wife’s presence but was going to marry her anyway, because she was … suitable? What if he meant to have one of those fashionable marriages, in which both husband and wife went their own way, and tried not to interfere with each other’s lives, any more than was absolutely necessary? This was not the kind of marriage she wanted, Amelia realised. Not with this man, certainly, for she cared too much for him to be able to accept this fate without putting up a fight.
There was, of course, the faint possibility that Mr Andell had just been spiteful, and had meant to make some mischief between them; but what could he expect from such a course of action? He could not seriously believe that Lord Asterby would remain single, even if she called off the wedding. He’d find another bride, and have children with her – to Mr Andell it could make no difference which lady bore my Lord Asterby’s children.
Maybe it had something to do with the duel her brother had fought with Mr Andell, Amelia suspected. It could very well be that he did not want to become related – however remotely – to the man who had, according to report, “taught him a lesson he was not going to forget in a hurry” – though why Mr Andell had needed to learn a lesson she still did not know. She was glad her brother had taught him, however. Mr Andell was not the kind of person she could like, and so she was glad that he was not popular with his relatives. It meant she would not be obliged to see much of him.
Still – the doubt Henry Andell had planted in her mind lingered, and was hard to get rid of.
The preparations for her wedding kept Amelia too busy to see much of her fiancé, and never did she see him alone. Her mother was determined that no breath of scandal should cast a shadow over her daughter’s reputation, and although Lord Asterby was a very well-behaved young man, and had always conducted himself just as he ought, one could not trust young men to always keep the line. It was often seen that once a betrothal had taken place, the rules of conduct were relaxed, but Lady Wincham did not hold with such nonsense. So while Lord Asterby was a welcome visitor at almost any time of the day or evening, her ladyship made sure he never got a moment alone with his bride; and even the easygoing Captain Rattray, who was the very last person anyone could accuse of being strait-laced, became remarkably strict when it came to maintaining his sister’s good name. He might occasionally look the other way when he was with the betrothed couple, but never for long enough to allow them enough privacy to get into mischief.
Asterby began to think that an elopement with Amelia was perhaps not the worst idea he had ever had. He was a patient man, but his patience was put to a test that he felt was almost too much to bear. It was not that he meant to do anything that was improper – well, not much. Taking one’s bride into one’s arms and kissing her soundly was not, after all, an unreasonable wish; nor did he consider such an act a lack of decorum. But Amelia’s family kept her under constant surveillance. Probably they had reason. The Rattrays – the male ones that was – were not known for their respectability when it came to their dealings with females. The ladies were all virtuous; at least Asterby had yet to find out anything to the contrary, but the gentlemen were anything but that – and in all likelihood they suspected their fellow men of having the same designs on their female relatives as they had on other women.
All his hope was for Burwell Castle. It was impossible to keep Amelia under guard all day long; therefore it was reasonable to hope that he would catch her alone now and then – and make excellent use of the opportunity when he did.
In the meantime, he managed to keep himself tolerably busy; although the wedding preparations did not overly concern him. He went to see his man of business, who drew up the marriage contract for him, had a new suit for his wedding made, took Amelia shopping for some new furniture for Asterby Court – under the chaperonage of her sister, naturally – and planned their wedding tour.
He had the idea when he took Amelia to a concert at the Ranelagh Gardens one evening and found her not only appreciative of the music, but also impressed with their surroundings.
“I so love being out of doors,” she confessed. “Is there anything more beautiful than a garden? I wish our climate was different, so I could grow all kinds of plants, and turn my garden into something really special!”
“As for that, I give you leave to turn the gardens of Asterby Court into whatever you like,” Asterby said with a smile. “My head gardener will be happy to finally have someone who truly appreciates his work. But I am afraid there is nothing I can do about the English climate. I have my limitations, you must know.”
Amelia laughed. “Our climate is well enough, I suppose, although I sometimes wish I could grow orange and lemon trees in my garden…”
“There is an Orangery in Burwell,” Asterby said, not without hope. The Orangery was a convenient place to disappear into, after all.
“There is? Will you take me to see it?” Amelia asked.
“That goes without saying. I would not have mentioned it, had I not had the intention of letting you see it.”
She sighed. “That will be wonderful,” she said. Asterby was inclined to agree; though maybe for a different reason. Amelia being so fond of lemon and orange trees, however, gave him an idea for their wedding tour.
Like many young men of his rank, he had undertaken a Grand Tour of Europe to finish off his education. With a tutor and a former army officer in tow, he and his brother had travelled across France and Italy, had met artists and scientists, had made new friends, and become closely acquainted with the art and culture of both countries. Asterby was not averse to repeating the experience, and felt that Amelia might share his opinion of that matter. So, during the following intermission, he cautiously introduced the topic of their honeymoon to see what ideas she had. It turned out that she hadn’t previously thought of the matter.
“Are we going to have a wedding tour?” she simply asked.
“Most people have,” Asterby suggested. “Unless you wish to stay at home; but I thought there was plenty of time to do that after we get back from our wedding tour.”
“That is true,” Amelia admitted, blushing slightly. Talking about their honeymoon made her think of certain things that would happen during that trip – things she did not know all that much about, for her mother’s description of them was rather vague, and Constantia had said she was not going to tell her anything before her last night as an unmarried woman. “Where – where do you want to go?”
“It is only an idea I had, mind you,” Asterby began. “You will let me know if this is not what you want, won’t you?”
“The moment I know what your plans are,” Amelia promised. “I can hardly make a decision either way before knowing what it is that I need to decide.”
“Since you deplored the English climate not long ago,” Asterby said, “I was wondering whether you might want to go to Italy with me. We could travel across France, and retrace the steps of my Grand Tour. I have friends all over France and Italy; I could introduce them to you. There are plenty of famous gardens both in Italy and France; and some very interesting people I’d like you to meet. What do you say? Shall I arrange it? Or are you content to travel to Bath or Cheltenham for a couple of weeks, and we shall leave it at that?”
“This sounds tempting,” Amelia said.
“Bath and Cheltenham?”
Amelia laughed. “Stop doing this,” she demanded.
“Acting as if you had not understood what I meant. You know I meant to say that the journey to Italy sounds tempting. – Where do you propose to go?”
Lord Asterby humbly begged to be forgiven, and began to describe the itinerary he had come up with so far.
“We could board my father’s yacht in Bristol,” he began, “and it will take us to France. Paris is not exactly overrun with the fashionable set at this time of year, but that means you can get your clothes done much more quickly because there will be fewer customers the modistes have to provide for – and do not tell me you are not going to buy any clothes in Paris. I may not be well acquainted with the ways of ladies, but even I know that they buy as many gowns in Paris as they can.”
“You are probably right,” Amelia said. “Though it seems a waste, considering how many dresses I have just bought here in London.”
“Never mind. Your father paid for those so they do not count.” Asterby grinned. “How are your sea legs?”
“I do not know if they are any good – they have never been put to the test. I have never made a sea journey in my life.”
“In that case we had better not risk anything. We’ll board the yacht in Southampton instead, or Plymouth. A short sea voyage will do for a start, and we’ll see how you feel during that one. There’s no need to put you through the ordeal of sea sickness for any longer than absolutely necessary.”
“I quite agree,” Amelia said. “What a sensible husband I am going to have!”
He smiled at her, absurdly pleased with her compliment. “I am doing my best,” he said. “So, our options are the following. Provided you feel no ill effects from our sea passage, we will travel south to Marseilles, board a ship there and cross over to Italy – Genoa, La Spezia or Leghorn; I’m none too particular about that. Should you spend our journey across the Channel in your cabin feeling ill, we’ll have to travel to Italy across the Alps. It is not the most comfortable route; for one it will take us longer, and it’s not without risk, but it will be better for you regarding your health.”
“I hope I will not feel ill during our sea journey,” Amelia reflected. “Travelling across the Alps does not sound like an agreeable option.”
“Oh, it isn’t. Even in summer there can be snow, and the state of the roads has to be seen to be believed. Or so a friend of mine said – I made my journey to Italy across the sea, not feeling up to the challenge.”
Since, at that point, the music started again, it was not until supper that Amelia could ask him where their journey would take them once they had, in one way or another, set foot in Italy.
“I have not had the time to come up with any ideas in particular,” Asterby said slowly. “But I must take you to see Venice – a fascinating place; you will enjoy that – and there are some Palladian villas on the banks of the Brenta River that are well worth seeing. Maybe we can even stay in one of them – a friend of mine is married to a lady whose family has a great deal of influence in Venice, and is in possession of one such villa. Almost everyone around here has copied the Palladian style, but one really should have seen the real thing at least once. – We’ll travel to Rome, too, of course, and naturally we will stop at some of the places along the way. If there is anything in particular that you wish to see, do tell me and I will find a way to fit it in.”
Amelia laughed. “Heavens! This sounds like a busy schedule! How long are we going to stay?”
“That depends on us, I’d say. I wouldn’t mind spending the winter in Rome; would you?”
“I think I’d enjoy it very much, in fact,” Amelia said. “Do let us spend the winter in Rome!”
In consequence of this conversation with his bride, Lord Asterby spent the last week before taking her to Burwell Castle writing letters to his various friends in Italy, arranging for accommodation – proper accommodation, for some of the Italian hostelries he had seen during his first journey were not such as he would inflict on his wife – and planning a journey that would include a maximum of enjoyment for both him and Amelia.
This included reading up the notes he had made during his first journey, and the guidebooks he had bought for that undertaking, finding places that had notable gardens for Amelia to admire, and hoping that, in turn, she would humour him and visit the occasional art collection with him. He meant to brush up his Italian, which had grown a bit rusty of late; meet some of his Italian friends and introduce them to his young wife, and, most of all, he wanted to enjoy himself, showing Amelia all the places that had grown so dear to him that he had been loath to leave them behind, and hoped that Amelia would grow to love them as much as he did..
It was a long cavalcade of carriages that approached Burwell Castle a few days later. Lord Asterby was travelling in Lord Wincham’s chaise, with Amelia and her parents, and once again he wished them elsewhere. Soon, he reminded himself, he’d be able to be with Amelia without a chaperon in attendance. In the meantime, he had to content himself with the short moments of privacy they had when both Lord and Lady Wincham were asleep and Lord Wincham had not yet begun to snore and awakened his wife.
To keep himself and his bride entertained, Lord Asterby had taken some books on the journey with him – most of them dealing with Italy – and they took turns reading to each other. Asterby was glad to see that Amelia was fond of reading, for it was one of his favourite pastimes as well, and felt that having a wife with whom one could occasionally discuss a book was a definite advantage. He was not good at small-talk, and having something to talk about was a problem in a marriage if husband and wife had no interests in common. Until they had children, that was – though even then he did not believe one’s offspring provided one with enough to talk about to fill a whole day.
“This is a book about Rome, by a certain Giuseppe Vasi,” Asterby said. “It’s in Italian, unfortunately, but the pictures are very good – I have found it quite useful during my stay in Rome.”
He handed the book to Amelia, holding her hand in his for a moment before letting go.
“It certainly looks interesting.” Amelia smiled, leafing through the pages. “There are plenty of things to do in Rome. By the look of it we shan’t get bored even if we are going to stay in Rome all winter and spring.”
“Certainly not. Rome is full of life; I really think you will enjoy your stay there. We’ll be there in time to celebrate Christmas, and the Carnival Season. You have never seen anything like it; nor are you likely to do so ever again. Unless you go back to Rome, naturally.”
“I remember reading about the Venetian Carnival,” Amelia remarked. “Is the Roman one anything like it?”
“Similar, I believe; though I’ve never been in Venice in time for their Carnival. I will have to ask my friend, Captain Beauchamp; he has been living in Venice for years.”
“Is he the friend who is married to a Venetian lady?”
“So he is. He had to leave England – being a Catholic did not leave him with many options for a career – and is quite happy where he is, I believe.”
“I am looking forward to meeting him,” said Amelia, whose contact with Catholics of the upper-class kind had been somewhat limited. There had been the occasional Irish housemaid or footman in her father’s house; but they’d never had the time to discuss their religion with her, or the limitations it put to their possibilities.
A loud snore from Lord Wincham interrupted their conversation. Amelia glared at her father, annoyed at his lack of self-control, and, when she had made sure that her mother was still asleep in spite of the noise her spouse was making, asked, “Do you snore?”
Asterby laughed. “I do not know,” he said, once he had recovered his poise. Amelia had a worrying tendency of saying things that put him out of countenance sometimes. “I’ll depend on you to tell me,” he added, with a playful smile.
Realising that this was not the kind of question a young lady – a well-mannered young lady, at any rate – was supposed to ask, Amelia flushed. She knew enough about marriage to know that husbands and wives shared their beds at night – some nights, at least – and that Asterby might well think that she had referred to this custom, when all she had worried about was having to travel to Italy in company with a husband who snored when falling asleep in his carriage. If it were so, it would be most bothersome – Amelia did not know how Asterby managed to concentrate on his reading with her father sitting beside him and making such disgusting noises.
Saucy though his fiancée was at times, Lord Asterby became aware that the outrageous things she said were said in all innocence, and so he pretended not to notice her embarrassment but drew her attention to Burwell Castle, which happened to come into view at that moment.
Amelia looked at the huge building and said, involuntarily, “Oh my!”
“You sound none too pleased.” Asterby laughed.
“The house is huge, isn’t it? How am I ever supposed to find my way around the place, let alone manage the household?”
“You will get plenty of time to practise in Asterby Court,” he replied lightly. “My father is in excellent health; so I am not likely to step into his shoes any time soon.”
“Of course.” Amelia certainly hoped so.
“Besides, I have been told Wincham is by no means small either.”
“It is not, but I have never managed the household in Wincham.”
“You have watched your mother do it, though, and I am sure she has taught you a great deal. – Please do not feel intimidated just because of the sheer size of Burwell Castle. No one expects you to become its mistress now; you may have years and years before you to test your skill, and by the time you do take over the household of Burwell you will be well up to the task, I am certain.”
“I have no doubt that she will,” Lady Wincham, who had been brought wide awake by a jolt of the carriage and another loud snore from her husband, remarked. “Are we there yet?”
Up close, Burwell Castle was just as intimidating as it had been from afar, Amelia thought, or even more so. While she had known from the beginning that her husband was going to be a Duke one day – and had therefore expected his family home to be something rather impressive – she was overwhelmed by the grandeur of Burwell Castle. Wincham, although a very grand house in its way, was nothing to this she felt. The Grand Staircase alone was enough to make her look about her in awe – the murals were very fine, and made her feel very small and insignificant indeed. The house had been built in the place of a castle, which had been destroyed during the Civil War, and while it still bore the name of "Burwell Castle" it was a relatively modern residence – though the second Duke of Burwell, who had had it built, had indulged his penchant for grandeur when planning his home. It was awe-inspiring, and not at all cosy, in Amelia's opinion.
The Duke and Duchess, who had travelled before them to get everything ready for the house party, welcomed them to their home, and the Duchess took Amelia and her mother upstairs to their bedchambers to give them a chance to refresh themselves after their long carriage-ride.
"I hope you have had an agreeable journey, ma'am," the Duchess remarked to Lady Wincham.
"Very agreeable," Lady Wincham replied. "As might be expected in this fine weather."
Amelia listened to her mother and future mother-in-law exchanging similar civilities, and took stock of her surroundings in the meantime. The corridor they were walking along was less daunting than the Grand Staircase had been – it looked more homelike, in a way. There were some fine family portraits, she noticed, beginning with paintings from the Tudor days up to a portrait of a slightly younger Lord Asterby and another young man – presumably his brother, if the family likeness was anything to go by. Asterby had told her a great deal about his dead sibling; Matthew had been the family pet, he'd said, beloved by everyone who knew him, and although this was just the kind of thing one usually said about a deceased person, Amelia felt that Asterby's words of praise for his brother had come straight from his heart.
The Duchess noticed the way Amelia looked at that particular painting, and explained, with a sad smile, "My husband used to keep this picture in the library, but after my younger son's accident it was moved here. He could not bear to look at it – and my husband hardly ever has business in this part of the house, so he is not likely to see it often."
"Your son told me about his brother," Amelia said. "I am very sorry that I never had the chance to meet him – he must have been a delightful person. You must miss him a great deal."
"We all do," the Duchess said curtly, and Amelia had the impression that the lady had rather not discuss her youngest son with her.
"It is a good likeness of Lord Asterby, isn't it?" Amelia asked, referring to the picture and allowing the subject of Lord Matthew Andell to drop.
"Yes, we were quite satisfied with it," the Duchess agreed.
Amelia's room was right next to her mother's, at the end of the corridor. It was a spacious apartment, with a wonderful view across the park.
"I felt that you, being fond of gardening, might enjoy staying in here," the Duchess remarked. "It is one of the best guest rooms we have – the prospect is quite nice."
"It is beautiful," Amelia agreed. "You are right; I think I am going to like staying here."
Amelia's own maid as well as one of Burwell's housemaids were busy unpacking Amelia's trunks, but when Amelia announced her intention of taking a nap her maid sent the other girl away, helped Amelia undress, and promised to wake her ladyship so she could get ready for dinner in time.
Amelia lay down on her bed, but she could not go to sleep at first. Too many things were going on in her head – now that she had arrived in Burwell, her engagement looked less fantastic to her than it had seemed at first. Things were finally getting serious. In two weeks she would be married to Lord Asterby and on her way to Italy with him. What was it going to be like, she wondered?
She was looking forward to the journey; it sounded like an agreeable adventure, and she could not wait to get to all those places Asterby had described to her, and to let him show her around. But what was it going to be like to be married to him? They had not even kissed yet – her mother had taken good care of that, Amelia thought grimly – and while Amelia had no doubt that the experience was going to be a pleasant one, she was not certain whether she'd be able to live up to her husband's expectations.
If he had any expectations, that was. Amelia sighed. She had no reason to suspect that she was not everything Lord Asterby wanted in a wife. There was nothing that pointed in that direction, except what Mr Henry Andell had said, and she was not sure whether he was to be trusted. The point was – what did Lord Asterby want in his wife? Did he simply want a suitable lady to preside over his household and to present him with an heir? This was what many fashionable marriages were like, she knew – but it was not the kind of life she wanted for herself. She wanted – a husband who was fond of her, for a start.
Thinking some pleasant thoughts of what she hoped it was going to be like to be married to Lord Asterby, she finally fell asleep.
Luckily the dining room was more to Amelia's taste than the Grand Staircase had been. It was, she soon found out, the family dining room, which was in use when the ducal family were dining in private.
"You see, my dear Lady Amelia, that we already count you as one of the family, and so we did not want to use the State Dining Room. You will see that one soon enough, once all the guests are here. We cannot fit them into this room," the Duchess explained.
Since the family dining room was rather spacious, Amelia suspected that they were going to see many guests in Burwell Castle soon. Which was too bad – she had hoped for some privacy with her fiancé to become better acquainted with him. It was not to be, it seemed.
Something of her disappointment must have become evident by her look, for Lord Asterby asked her later in the drawing room, when he was sitting behind a screen allowing her to trace his silhouette, whether she disliked the notion of many visitors coming to Burwell.
"I was hoping to become acquainted with the place in peace and quiet," she admitted, and added, hastily, when it looked as if Lord Asterby was going peek around the screen, "Don't move, please!"
"This pastime is not exactly conducive to our conversation," Lord Asterby complained. "I should not have consented to it."
"You did it to amuse me, I suppose."
"That, too," Lord Asterby admitted.
"Too? Was there any other reason then?"
"Yes, but I won't tell you."
"Suit yourself, sir. If you think I am one of those females who will allow their curiosity to overcome their sense of what is proper, you are mistaken."
"You admit to being curious, then?"
"I only said so to please you, sir. What other purpose did you have in mind than to provoke my curiosity when you said you would not tell me? Why not keep your other reason – if there was one – to yourself altogether?"
"Why indeed? You have a point, Lady Amelia. I also did it to amuse myself. There, now you know the other reason."
"Sitting behind that screen can hardly be that amusing," Amelia pointed out.
"You are quite mistaken, Lady Amelia. I am very happy with my situation."
Since he was sitting behind that screen Amelia could not see his eyes, and so she was unable to determine whether he was sincere or not. His tone of voice was earnest enough.
"In that case, remain in that situation if you please," Amelia said, trying to sound severe. "It will only take me a few more minutes to finish my work, and then you will be able to do what you want."
"I will not be able to do what I want, unfortunately. But I am making plans that might allow me to do so at last. I believe you are anxious to see the gardens tomorrow?"
"That depends on the weather," Amelia replied. "I am not anxious enough to see them to walk across the park in pouring rain."
"Very sensible, my dear. – My idea was to take you for a ride around the estate tomorrow. What do you say?"
"If my mother will permit it," Amelia said primly, meaning to provoke him, and was rewarded with a sigh from him.
"Your mother will not permit anything of the kind until that wedding ring is safely on your finger," he lamented. "But I am planning to take my groom with us, for the sake of propriety."
"You think my mother will allow that? Grooms can be got rid of at any convenient moment."
"Surely my mother knows that."
"It is not at all unlikely. I do not doubt for a moment that your father may have employed the same tactics during their courtship."
Amelia hesitated. On the one hand she knew that she should not deceive her mother, but on the other hand they were doing nothing wrong. She knew she could trust Lord Asterby not to do anything that she did not want to happen, and therefore she was convinced that she would not come to any harm. Asterby was not an unprincipled rakehell trying to persuade her to meet him in some secluded spot where he could proceed with his seduction without having to fear discovery. This was her future husband; they were going to be married in two weeks, and surely a young couple about to be married was entitled to have some privacy to – to talk things over. Or whatever else it was that they wanted to do. If he wanted to kiss her – so what? She hoped he would; she wanted to kiss him too, and could not wait to finally discover what it would be like to kiss him and receive his kisses in return.
It was the first time he had used her name, without the "Lady" attached to it; and there was a pleading ring to it too, as if he fervently wished her to say yes but was not at all certain of her reply.
"I will ride with you," she decided. "If you can obtain my parents' consent to the scheme, that is. I shall not do anything behind their backs, nor shall I deceive them."
Deceit turned out to be quite unnecessary. Lord Asterby handled Amelia's parents in a way that she would not have believed possible, for she would never have dared to treat them in this high-handed manner – and he succeeded. He merely informed them that his bride was going to accompany him on a ride around the estate the next morning, and hoped that they had no objection to it.
Since Lord Asterby's parents were present, Lady Wincham could not make an objection without offending them, and Lord Wincham, who was the more indulgent of Amelia's parents anyway, gave his permission, once he had casually inquired where their ride would take them.
For this, he had to face his wife's reproach later that evening when they retired to their rooms.
Lady Wincham strode into her husband's dressing-room, waited until his lordship's valet had left, and then demanded, "How could you allow Asterby to ride with Amelia, all alone?"
"My dear, in two weeks' time they will be married," Lord Wincham protested. "Asterby will see to it that she does not come to any harm."
"But what if…?" Lady Wincham broke off. She did not even want to think of what would happen if.
"Must I remind you that Asterby is a gentleman? He will treat our girl with the respect that is due to his bride. His bride, not his wife – he'll make that distinction, never fear. He's a man of honour."
"Even men of honour might go too far in the safe knowledge that there will be a wedding soon," Lady Wincham pointed out.
"Not Asterby. His character won't suddenly change just because he is about to be married. There may be a few kisses, but you will agree that a kiss or two will not do Amelia any harm. He won't go any further than that, I am sure."
"Let us hope so, by goodness!" his wife retorted.
"Cheer up, my dear. If I am wrong you may safely blame me for our daughter's ruin. – Are you going to sleep outside Amelia's door tonight or shall I do so?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Lady Wincham snapped.
"I was simply trying to remind you that, if he had such intentions as you appear to think he has, Asterby could achieve his ends much more easily by creeping into Amelia's room at night than by taking her for a ride in bright daylight, with her parents' permission, and with a groom in attendance."
Lady Wincham went pale. "My dear!" she exclaimed. "Surely he would not!"
"It's what I would do if I were in his place," Lord Wincham said calmly, but with a twinkle of amusement in his eyes. "And, I daresay, each and every one of our boys. Except Charles, maybe, but that is only because he is too young to have started in the petticoat line yet. Asterby has stricter morals than we have, however, so I really think Amelia will be safe with him."
There was nothing left for Lady Wincham to do but to seek her own bed, but she did not sleep well that night. She kept listening for some noise outside her door, some indicator that Lord Asterby did indeed try to visit his bride in her bedroom. In the end, she was almost angry with his lordship for not trying; which denied her the satisfaction of catching him red-handed and giving him the scold that would help her get rid of her ill temper.
It was a fine morning the next day when Amelia, dressed in a smart riding habit that became her very well, and Lord Asterby set out on their ride. Aware of the groom riding a short distance behind them, they did not speak of private matters, but limited their conversation to such topics as could be overheard by anyone.
Lord Asterby described the local landmarks to her, took her to his favourite spots, told her of some memories he had of them, and finally led the way back to Burwell Castle. Only when they reached the gates of the park he stopped his horse, and, when Amelia followed his example, he asked her whether they should walk back through the gardens.
"Richardson here will take the horses back to the stables," he said. "What do you say?"
"The gardens must be very beautiful at this time of the year," Amelia replied, and allowed him to lift her out of the saddle. He was surprisingly strong for a man of his build, she thought – it was a thought that took her breath away for a moment.
Richardson was sent to the stables with their horses, while Lord Asterby offered Amelia his arm and led her along a path into a shrubbery.
"This is a shortcut to the Orangery," he explained. "I told you we had one, didn't I?"
"You did," Amelia said.
"It is a delightful place. Especially since one can sit there and talk in peace without anyone barging in any moment. I confess that this is a thing I have wanted to do for ages."
"So have I," Amelia agreed. "I have often wondered why my mother has kept such a close guard on us. I do not remember her doing so with my sisters; however, not having been one of the interested parties in those cases it may well be that my memory is wrong. She must have been just as strict with them."
"I am relieved to find that Lady Wincham has not singled me out as the most untrustworthy of her daughters' suitors," Asterby said teasingly.
"Why should she? You are not untrustworthy," Amelia said. "If you were, you would have found a way to get rid of our chaperones and be alone with me long ago."
"Such as I did just now?" Lord Asterby asked.
She chuckled. "I suppose so," she said.
"There is some cunning in me after all," he explained. "If I have to employ cunning to achieve my own ends, so be it. Be warned."
"I will make a particular note of it," Amelia said.
They approached a large red-brick building, which turned out to be the Orangery.
"There you are," he said. "My mother wants to hold our wedding breakfast in here, or so she has informed me. What do you think?"
He held the door open for Amelia to enter, and she went inside. "I'd prefer it to the State Dining Room," she said. "It is not as grand."
"You have no taste for grandeur?" Edward asked.
"No; I must confess that I have not. – Apart from that, I feel more at home among these orange and lemon trees than in the State Dining Room in Burwell Castle. This place is light and airy, and there is less pomp and more beauty. No silk wall-paper, never mind how elaborate it is, can compare to the view from these windows."
"Burwell is very beautiful, isn't it? That is, you do not object to living here, once the time comes?"
"No; I like it well enough."
She felt his hands on her shoulders then, and turned to face him.
"I haven't brought you here to talk of Burwell," he said. "Or our wedding breakfast, for that matter. I don't care where it will take place as long as it does."
Amelia laughed. "I suspected as much! That … that you didn't take me here to converse, that is."
"Yet you came."
"As you see. I blame my curiosity – I guess I wanted to see what you were up to."
Meanwhile, he had pulled her closer to him. "Nothing good, I confess."
"That," she said, giving him a challenging look, "is for me to decide."
He leaned in and kissed her. It was only a light kiss, in fact his lips hardly touched hers, but it was enough to make her feel breathless and weak all of a sudden, and so she put her arms round his neck to steady herself.
"I thought you were up to no good?" she murmured appreciatively.
"You should be shocked, Amelia," he stated.
"I should be, but I am not." She smiled at him. "I am feeling – I don't exactly know what my feelings are, but shock is none of them. I – I liked it."
"That's good," he said, looking pleased. "This was only the first kiss of many."
Their next kiss lasted longer, and Amelia, entering into the spirit of the moment, eagerly responded to it. By the time they drew apart, they were both breathless. Amelia's heart was beating fast, and she was suddenly feeling hot all over.
"I… I think I need to sit down," she said. Her fiancé took her to a seat at one end of the Orangery, and sat down next to her.
"Why haven't we done this before?" she asked him.
He grinned. "There was no handy orangery in London," he reminded her, taking her hand and kissing it.
"Edward? Is it always like this? Kissing, I mean?"
Since they had kissed, Amelia felt, it was about time she gave him his Christian name. It appeared to make him happy.
"I certainly hope so. We'll have to give it a try and find out," he said.
Amelia had no objection to this plan of his, and so, when he opened his arms to her she threw herself into his them with an eagerness that was surprising even to herself. A few minutes and several kisses later, Edward suddenly let go of her.
"We had better stop this now," he whispered. "Your mother will kill me if I do not take you back to the house soon. She will think we did – well, more than just kiss."
Amelia flushed, becoming aware that she had behaved like a wanton hussy – and that, if Edward had wished things to go any further than they had gone, she would in all probability have allowed it to happen. It was a good thing that her future husband had more sense than to give in to his impulse. Her own conduct had been very different to the modest reserve she had been taught, she feared. His kisses had made her behave in a manner she would never have thought possible, and she was shocked at her reaction to Edward's caresses.
Edward, though no mind reader, could see that she was going through some conflict, and could make an educated guess as to what she was thinking.
"We did nothing wrong, Amelia," he said gently, taking both her hands. "Your mother wants you to marry me without even having experienced a single kiss – without letting you find out how you will react to the kind of intimacy that takes place between a husband and his wife. That is wrong – it should not be allowed to happen. What if I absolutely repelled you, if you couldn't abide my touch? I needed to find out how you felt about this, because, you see – I really want to make you happy, and if you cannot enjoy my kisses then I am afraid I will never have the chance. That would not be fair on either of us."
Amelia nodded. He was right, of course, and it was sweet of him to say those things to put her at her ease again. This was just what he was like – always doing his best to make her comfortable, always making an effort to ensure her happiness. She loved this man.
The realisation did not quite come as a shock; Amelia suspected that she had felt like this for a while, maybe even ever since they had first met in the park. But it was the first time that she allowed the thought to take possession of her mind. She loved this man, and it was only her mother's adjurations that ladies did not wear their hearts on their sleeves that kept her from saying so, or showing it.
Instead, she said with a smile, "I think you need worry on that score, Edward."
He nodded. "I know, and I am glad I need not."
They walked back to the house through the gardens, taking their time, and more often than not Edward's arm slipped around Amelia's waist and he pulled her closer to him. Now that he knew that she was comfortable with his touch, he was not going to lose a chance to do so. As they got back to the house he even countered Lady Wincham's censorious glare with a challenging one of his own, daring her to say one word against their behaviour. Lady Wincham, realising that Lord Asterby, amiable though he was, would not hesitate to give her a set-down if she asked for it, refrained from commenting and decided to wait until she could get her daughter alone.
Amelia was excited. She wished there was someone around with whom she could talk about what had happened in the orangery. Neither her mother nor the Duchess seemed like the right person to confide in, however. She was not well enough acquainted with her future mother-in-law to discuss personal matters with her – and to say the truth she did not look like the kind of person who wanted her confidences. As for her mother …. it was not to be thought of. Lady Wincham would have a fit of hysterics if she found out what had passed between her daughter and the Marquis, and she would make sure Amelia was properly chaperoned at all times, thereby making it impossible for them to repeat the experience. This would be a pity, for she had rather enjoyed it.
Her sister Constantia had been her chief confidante while she had still lived under her father's roof, and once she had married Amelia had sorely missed her. Somehow Amelia knew that she would listen to her, and would understand what her sister was going through at the moment; all those conflicting emotions – happiness at her future husband's gentle nature, worry that she was not the wife he would have chosen of his own accord; her growing regard for him as well as her fear of having her love rejected because all he wanted was a nominal spouse to take care of his household and the succession. This was what his cousin had suggested, and try as she might Amelia could not forget his allusions, in spite of Edward's kisses.
The problem was that she could not confront Edward with what had been said; or at least she did not know how to go about it. To ask him if he loved her would be too blunt, and it was quite a ridiculous thing to ask of a man whom she hadn't known above a few weeks. Besides she was afraid of his reply. He would not say no, she knew, even if he did not love her, because he was not the kind of man to hurt a girl's feelings intentionally. He'd give her an evasive answer of some kind, and it would break her heart if he did.
Better not to know and keep one's dignity and self-respect intact. The same problem applied to asking him why he was going to marry her. She knew the answer to that, she believed – he had said so at their first meeting. It was not the honourable thing to do for a gentleman to cry off, once some kind of agreement had been reached in matrimonial matters. He would go through with this wedding because it was what everyone expected him to do. The only one who could cry off was she – and although she was in doubt of his feelings for her she was not going to do this. She loved him, and she would make him love her, even if it took her years. Even if it took her the rest of her life, she thought fiercely. Edward belonged to her and she was not going to let him go.
Still, it would have been good to have someone to talk to, to pour her worries into someone's ears and be reassured in return. Constantia was just the person she needed. Instead, she had to justify herself in front of her mother that evening.
Lady Wincham entered her daughter's room just as Amelia was getting into bed.
"Well," she demanded. "I want to know what can have possessed you to allow Asterby to take such liberties with you!"
"He was not taking that many liberties," Amelia said regretfully.
"More than enough," her mother retorted. "I saw you walking across the park, with his arm round your waist, and it did not look as if you minded."
"In view of our imminent marriage, Mama, I felt it could hardly matter. And I liked it," she added defiantly.
"I am not saying this is a bad thing," her mother said. "In fact, things look good for your marriage if this is how your husband is going to treat you."
Amelia smiled. "I quite agree," she said.
"But, my dear, let me warn you that young ladies who permit a man to take too many liberties with them often lose the man's respect; and mutual respect in a marriage is essential!"
"He did not appear to be lacking in respect, Mama. I have no complaint to make."
"Amelia, you must keep in mind that you are going to be the Duchess of Burwell one day! Your conduct must befit your station, or your husband will not only cease to respect you but will even be moved to be ashamed of you! The Duchess of Burwell is not seen in public with her husband's arm around her waist. Next you will be found kissing in a shrubbery!"
"I will take care not to be found kissing E … Lord Asterby in a shrubbery, Mama," Amelia promised.
"You will hardly do your husband a favour by making a figure of fun yourself, or even worse, by behaving in public as if you were a light-skirt," her mother urged her. "Once you are married you may allow your husband any liberties he chooses to take in the privacy of your own bedroom, but not, I beg you, in public! Do not embarrass him! Fond though they may be of their husbands, ladies of quality do not behave like this. Take my advice, my dear; you must admit that I have the advantage of you regarding age as well as experience and worldly wisdom."
"Yes, Mama," Amelia said meekly.
"Very well then. Good night, my dear. Do not let me see you behave like a hoyden again."
"I will not," Amelia promised, and wished her mother a good night, glad that her ladyship had no idea as to what had taken place between her daughter and Lord Asterby in the orangery.
© 2009 Copyright held by the author.