Lady Anne Bishop is back in town, along with the rest of society, eager to enjoy the frigid weather and overcast skies. London is suffering through a spate of cold unmatched in recorded history, and indeed, even the mighty Thames has frozen over. This Author cannot help but wonder whether this means that husbands all over town must now perform all the tasks they had put off by claiming, "I shall throw away my hideous mounted boar's head (or admit I have gout, or listen to the intelligently spoken words of my wife -- you, Dear Reader, may insert whichever you like) when the Thames freezes over."
But despite the cold's tendency to turn one's nose a rather unattractive shade of red, the ton seems to be enjoying the weather, if only for the novelty of it all. Lady Anne Bishop, as noted above, was spied making angels in the snow in the company of Sir Royce Pemberley, who, it must be noted, is not her intended husband.
One can only wonder if this incident will compel the Marquis of Halfurst, who has been betrothed to Lady Anne since the occasion of her birth, to leave his home in Yorkshire and travel to London to finally make the acquaintance of the woman he will marry. Or perhaps he is content with the situation at hand? Not every gentleman desires a wife, after all.
Lady Whistledown's Society Papers, 24 January 1814
Lady Anne Bishop laid the letters on the card table. "Now," she said, smiling, "we've each read all three. Your opinions, ladies?"
"Mr. Spengle's invitation seems to be the most fervent," Theresa DePris commented, chuckling as she brushed her fingers across the missive. "He used the word 'heart' four times."
"And 'ardent' twice." Anne laughed. "He also has the best penmanship. Pauline, what do you think?"
"As if you care about penmanship, Annie," Miss Pauline Hamilton said, giving a delicate snort. "All of us know you're going to go to the theater with Lord Howard, so please stop flaunting your love letters before us poor unfortunate souls."
"They aren't love letters, for heaven's sake." Less amused, Anne turned Lord Howard's letter to face her. Desmond Howard was the wittiest of her circle of male acquaintances, to be certain, but love? That was just nonsense.
"What do you call their correspondence, then? I-like-you-very-much letters?"
With a slight scowl, Anne returned the missive to its former position. "It's all in fun. No one takes it seriously."
"Why, because you've been betrothed since you were three days old?" Pauline pursued, grimacing. "I think you take that agreement even less seriously than your suitors do." "Pauline, you are becoming quite the moralist, suddenly," Anne said, shuffling the letters into a brisk pile. "I do not have suitors, and it's not as though I've done anything wrong." "Besides," Theresa added, rejoining the debate, "when was the last time Annie received a letter from Lord Halfurst?"
"Never!" her two friends finished in unison, laughing.
Annie laughed as well, though she didn't consider it all that funny. In romantic tales, one's betrothed fought witches and slew dragons for one. A letter should have been easy to manufacture, even in godforsaken Yorkshire.
"Exactly," she said, anyway. "Never a word, much less a sentence, in nineteen years. So I don't want to hear any more nonsense about my sheep-farming betrothed." She leaned forward. "He knows precisely where I spend my days. If he chooses to spend his own as far from London as possible, that's no concern of mine."
Theresa sighed. "So you'll never marry?"
Anne patted her friend's hand. "I have a monthly stipend, I get to spend most of the year in London because of Father's cabinet position, I have the most wonderful friends I could ever hope for, and I receive at least three invitations to every event, even in the middle of winter. If that's not perfection, I don't know what is."
Pauline shook her head. "What about your sheep-farming marquis, though? Do you think he'll stay in Yorkshire until he withers and dies? If he decides to marry, won't it have to be you?"
Anne shuddered. Miss Hamilton had always delighted in finding the pitfalls on other's paths. "I really don't care what he does."
"Perhaps he'll perish in a sheep-shearing accident," Theresa suggested.
"Oh, I don't want anything ill to happen to Lord Halfurst," Anne countered quickly. Heavens, if he expired, she would lose the only barrier between herself and her mother beginning an eternity of nagging that she needed to find a husband. This way, she could blame any lack of a mate on the absent marquis. And it would just be wrong if she married someone else without his consent. "I like him quite well exactly where he is -- far away from here." "Hm," Theresa mused. "You say that now, but -- "
The drawing room door rattled and opened. "Anne, come at once!" her mother hissed. Lady Daven's face was white, and for a moment all Anne could think was that something had happened to her father. "Mama, what's wrong?" she asked, shooting to her feet.
"It's him!" the countess continued, not even sparing the other two ladies in the room a glance. "Oh, why are you wearing that? Whatever happened to your new blue gown?"
"Mama, what in the world are you talking about?" Anne pressed, sending her friends an apologetic glance and hurrying forward. "Who is here? Papa?"
"No, him. Halfurst."
Anne's breath caught in her throat, her silent gasp echoed aloud by Theresa and Pauline. "What?"
"Stop dawdling," her mother snapped, grabbing her by the arm and pulling her into the hallway.
"But -- what is he doing here?" A thousand questions jostled for position in her mind, and only that one managed to squeak out with any coherence.
Her mother sent her an annoyed look. "We can only assume. He asked for you. Poor Lambert didn't know what to do with him, but thank goodness the idiot had enough sense to put him in the morning room."
Her betrothed was in the morning room. The sheep farmer. The Marquis of Halfurst. The fat, bald, slovenly, short, smelly sheep farmer to whom her parents had given their word she would marry, and whom she'd never met in all her nineteen years of life. "I think I'm going to faint," she muttered.
"You are not going to faint. This is your fault, anyway, carrying on as you have been. He's probably here to insist that you cry off marrying him entirely."
Anne brightened a little. "Do you think so?" Now that the stupid marquis had invaded London, the prospect of her mother's nagging her about marrying someone else didn't seem so terrible.
They stopped before the closed morning room door. "I wouldn't doubt it," her mother whispered fiercely. "Now behave yourself." She pushed open the door and shoved Anne forward. "Be -- " Before she could finish, the door slammed closed behind her.
He stood before the fireplace, warming his hands. For a bare moment, Anne just stared at his profile. Not bald, nor short, and certainly not fat in the dark, closely-fitting jacket he wore. Aristocratic, she thought abruptly, in the old, elegant sense of the word. "You're Halfurst?" she blurted, then flushed.
With a slight stirring of air, he faced her. Dark gray eyes, one obscured by a stray lock of damp, coal black hair, studied her with a thoroughness that stopped her breath. "I am."
His low tone was clipped at the end, though she wasn't certain whether it was from amusement or annoyance. "Lady Anne, I presume."
Not ugly, either, she noted with a slow breath, then shook herself and sketched a belated curtsy. "What . . . what brings you to London, my lord?"
"Snow angels," he answered, in the same level voice.
"Snow -- beg pardon?"
The marquis reached into his pocket, producing a much-folded piece of paper. With his piercing gray eyes holding hers, he strolled toward her, hand outstretched. "Snow angels." Anne took the paper, careful not to touch his hand. It was silly, but touching him would make his presence unmistakably . . . real. The large ruby signet ring on his right index finger flashed in the firelight, further lending the scene a dark, surreal quality. Glancing up at his lean, stony face, she unfolded the worn parchment. And blanched. "Oh. I . . . ah . . . Lady Whistledown exaggerates terribly, you know."
"I see," he murmured. The tone, soft as it was, vibrated down her spine. "So you weren't wallowing in the snow with Sir Royce Pemberley?"
Her astonishment at his appearance began to dim a little. Admittedly he had a tall, well-muscled form, and a lean, handsome face that would make a poet weep, but she had concerns other than his looks. He was rude, for one thing. She blinked, forcing her gaze away from his Greek-god countenance.
His wardrobe certainly didn't meet any proper London standards she'd ever heard of. His coat was well made, but easily a half dozen years behind the style. Dark buckskin breeches looked as though they'd seen much better days, while the quality of his boots was indistinguishable beneath the mud and snow covering them.
"I was not wallowing, Lord Halfurst. Sir Royce tripped into the snow, and as I attempted to help him to his feet, I lost my balance as well."
He lifted an eyebrow. "And the snow angels?"
Anne resisted the urge to clear her throat. Good heavens, her own mother hadn't asked so many questions, and certainly not in such a tone. "It seemed the thing to do, my lord."
His lips twitched. "I trust it doesn't happen often?"
Anne frowned. Was he laughing at her now? "You might at least have wished me good morning before you began railing at me, Lord Halfurst."
"Considering that I've spent the last three days riding through snow and ice and mud to discover why the devil my betrothed has been consorting with" -- he took the clipping out of her hand -- "with someone 'not her intended husband,' I think I've been quite civil." Maximilian Trent, the Marquis of Halfurst, narrowed his eyes. He'd expected her to be surprised by his arrival, but not that she would give him an out-and-out argument about it. The slender young woman standing before him, her hands clenched into fists and her thick brunette hair coiled at the top of her head, didn't seem to care what he might have expected. And he found that interesting.
Little as he liked leaving Yorkshire, he had to admit that it was past time. Lady Whistledown's paper had made two things damned clear: first, he was going to have to go to London to fetch his bride, since she obviously wasn't going to come to him; and second, if his peers, in anonymous gossip or not, had begun questioning his manhood, then he'd been gone from London for too long, anyway. And when he'd set eyes on the woman to whom he'd been promised for nineteen of his twenty-six years, his first thought was that he should have come sooner.
"I was not 'consorting' with Sir Royce. He is a friend."
"Former friend," Maximilian corrected. Considering this was the first time they'd spoken -- ever -- the conviction he felt at that statement surprised him.
She was glaring at him, none of the earlier curiosity remaining in her moss green eyes. "I don't think you have any right to -- "
"Be that as it may," he interrupted, "here I am." He took a slow step closer. "Where's your father?"
Her brow furrowed. "With the Regent. Why?"
"The sooner we get the details settled, the better. Then we can be off before you have any further snow angel adventures."
She took an equally slow step backward. "Off? Off where?"
"To Halfurst. At this time of year I can't afford to be away long."
Lady Anne halted her retreat, hands smoothing her heavy lavender gown. "Just like that? After nineteen years you appear, and -- snap -- we're to be married and flee off to the wilderness?"
"Yorkshire is hardly wilderness," he returned, pulling out his pocket watch. If they left before noon, they could be back at Halfurst by the end of the week, even with the slower pace that the weather and having a new bride with him would dictate. He pursed his lips, taking her in again. With the lady standing before him as his bride, several stops along the way might prove necessary -- and pleasurable.
"No," she said distinctly.
Maximilian looked up from his timepiece. "What?"
He thought she hesitated, though her shoulders remained square and her chin up. "I said no."
With a snap he closed the watch. "I heard that. Just what do you mean by it, pray tell?" "I thought it clear, Lord Halfurst. I mean that I will not leave London to accompany you to Yorkshire, and that -- "
"You wish to be married here? I can probably obtain a special license without much difficulty, then." It made sense. She'd grown up in London, and he had no objection to marrying her in London.
"Allow me to finish," she continued, a tremor in her fine voice. "I am not going to Yorkshire at all, and I would rather drop dead than marry you."
Maximilian clamped his jaw closed in disbelief. "You can't just say no. That decision is not yours, Lady Anne," he protested, anger tugging at him. "Your parents -- "
"I'm certain my parents must merely have neglected to inform you that they would not wish to see me married unhappily, to a man I've never met and who, I might add, has never even bothered to send me a letter or a note or a torn scrap of paper in nineteen years."
He lifted an eyebrow, wondering whether she was trying to convince him or herself. "You -- "
"I know nothing of your character, my lord," she stated, "and I won't be dragged out of London by a stranger under any circumstances."
"Perhaps you might have thought to notify me about this previously." This female, seven years his junior, was not going to dictate the terms of their marriage. This very attractive female was not getting away simply because he'd neglected to write to her.
"Perhaps if you'd bothered to introduce yourself before now, I wouldn't be refusing your suit."
She had little ground to stand on; her parents would face ridicule and embarrassment if they allowed her to dissolve an agreement with a family as old as his, besides the fact that he had corresponded with her father, and knew perfectly well that both Lord and Lady Daven supported the match. Maximilian opened his mouth, then closed it again. He had already won, though she hadn't yet realized that fact. Whatever he might wish to say next, he was tired and cold and wet enough that it wouldn't be pleasant or helpful. And it would be pointless to make the circumstance of their anticipated union even more difficult.
For a moment he gazed at her. The high color in her cheeks, the quick rise and fall of her bosom, the way her fingers clenched the heavy material of her lavender gown -- he wasn't going to make any progress by yelling at her. He did, however, intend to make progress. Winning by default was no fun at all.
With a last, regretful thought about what the continuing foul weather was likely doing to the North Road, he nodded. "Perhaps you're right."
"Per -- yes, well, I am right," she returned, obvious relief softening her features. Good God, she was lovely. He hadn't expected that. He hadn't expected her, at all. "Then I must make amends."
Her brow furrowed and then smoothed again. "That's not necessary."
"So you think I should return to Yorkshire posthaste?" he asked, amusement touching him again. However unexpected she was for him, Lady Anne was even more flummoxed by his sudden arrival.
"You did indicate that you didn't wish to be away for an extended period."
"So I did. First, however, I would be honored if you would accompany me to -- " he flipped over the worn gossip sheet -- "to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane tonight, to see The Merchant of Venice." He looked up at her again. "I believe Edmund Kean is playing Shylock."
"Yes, he is," she said, a smile lighting her eyes to emeralds. "He's supposed to be quite remarkable. In fact -- " She stopped, blushing.
"In fact, what?" he queried.
"Good. Then I'll collect you at seven this evening." Feeling the need to touch her, Maximilian took one more slow step forward. Running his hand down her wrist, he uncurled her fingers from the material of her gown.
She made a small sound like a gasp as he brought her hand up, brushing his lips across her knuckles. Slow heat ran through his veins as she raised her face to his, gazing at him beneath dark, curling lashes.
"I'll see you tonight," he murmured, releasing her as his mind conjured all sorts of things he'd rather be doing with her than letting her go.
Without waiting for a response he strode out to the hall and the foyer beyond, collecting his hat and caped greatcoat. He had some things to take care of before this evening. And he didn't need to see the butler's expression at his old, out-of-fashion wardrobe to know what the most pressing of them was.
When he'd arrived in town a few hours ago he'd had little thought but to collect Lady Anne and return to Yorkshire without delay. After seeing her, however, the idea of doing a little courting didn't seem so repugnant, after all.
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