You May Kiss the Bride(4)

By: Lisa Berne


“Oh, you’re the little orfin girl. Your papa was sent away from here and he died. And your grandpapa was a runaway and he drownded. And your mama drownded, too. Why is your skin so brown? Are you dirty?” And she had backed away, to hide behind the skirts of her mother Lady Glanville, who had said to her, with that same cold smile that never reached her eyes, “Poor little Livia isn’t a native, my dear, she’s every bit as English as you and I. The sun shines quite fiercely in India, and she had no mama or papa to make sure she stayed under her parasol. Do you see?”

Livia had never forgotten the burning sense of shame from that day. Nor had Cecily made it any easier, for from time to time she would laughingly recall the occasion of their first meeting and how she had thought Livia to be unwashed, as if it was the funniest anecdote in all the world.

Livia did not like to remember, even if only hazily, how when she was four, the monsoon season struck Kanpur with devastating onslaughts of rain. Both her widowed mother and her grandfather had died in a great flood, and it was with grudging reluctance that Uncle Charles had sent money for his niece’s passage to England.

Upon arriving in Wiltshire, Livia was not so much welcomed into the home—if such the ancient, rambling domicile known as Ealdor Abbey could be so termed—of Uncle Charles and Aunt Bella, as absorbed. Aside from grumbling within earshot about the expense of feeding her, Uncle Charles barely noticed her. Aunt Bella, childless, somnolent, always unwell, with interest in neither Society nor useful occupation, accepted Livia’s presence without a blink but also without care or concern for the little girl for whom she was, ostensibly, responsible.

Oh, you’re the little orfin girl.

Livia smiled without humor.

Yes indeed, Cecily certainly had a knack for getting to the heart of things.



Gabriel Penhallow rode alongside the large, old-fashioned, perfectly sprung coach in which sat his grandmother and her companion Miss Cott. Its stately black panels as always were polished to a blinding gleam. Behind the coach, at a respectful distance, followed the light carriage bearing her dresser and maidservant as well as his valet, along with an astonishing quantity of his grandmother’s luggage.

He turned his head to look inside and saw his grandmother dozing, sitting bolt upright and her mouth firmly closed. Even in her sleep she was indomitable, he thought with a flicker of amusement. Miss Cott, slim and short, sat opposite Grandmama, gray hair tucked neatly inside her serviceable bonnet and holding in her lap her employer’s enormous jewelry case. She was gazing out the window, away from Gabriel, her expression calm and remote.

He had known Miss Cott nearly all his life, and never once had he seen her shaken from her pleasant equanimity, no matter how extreme were Grandmama’s outbursts of impatience or anger. Or how frequent her orders to move a sofa cushion, freshen her pot of tea, fetch a stepstool, ring for a maidservant, write a dozen letters, rearrange flowers in a vase, summon the doctor, even put on a different shawl not so distasteful to her employer.

In point of fact, his grandmother was not an easy person to be around. Both his parents having died in the typhus epidemic of 1791 that swept through Somerset, Grandmama had been his guardian since he was seven, and he remembered being secretly glad to have been sent away to Eton, and even gladder as a young man, after a few obligatory years spent in Society, to have seized the opportunity to travel across Europe as a member of the Diplomatic Corps. Between Grandmama’s relentless pressure to marry, and the brazen machinations of ambitious mothers and their wily daughters, he’d had enough of the so-called gentler sex. Experience among the ton had taught him that women were, evidently, crafty and manipulative creatures, vain, shallow, their heads full only of dresses, parties, gossip, intrigues, conquests.

All in all, a dead bore.

He had been happy to seek his pleasures elsewhere, sensibly, in the arms of well-paid courtesans, with whom there was no need to pretend he was interested in Lady Jersey’s latest on-dits about who had been dampening their petticoats, or how much the Regent (then still the Prince of Wales) had spent on new boots, and so on.

When finally the government had summoned him back to England, and released him from service with thanks, he’d been forced to admit that Grandmama was right—about one thing, at least. He was nearly thirty years old and he could no longer ignore the obligations of his station. He needed to marry and produce offspring. There was a nursery, long empty, at Surmont Hall.

Not that he had any particular intention of returning to the Hall. It was merely a place where he’d lived for a few years of his childhood. What would he do there, anyway? For a man used to active occupation, to utilizing his intellect each and every day, life in the country was bound to be unutterably dull. Besides, the bailiff—what was his name? Edwards? Eckers? No: Eccles. Eccles ran the place quite competently.

It all came down to one thing.

Choice.

He could certainly choose where he lived, but he couldn’t choose not to marry.

There had been a time, in his early twenties, after he’d nearly been maneuvered right into the proverbial ball and shackle . . . Good Lord, that fiendish Lady Washbourne, so mind-bogglingly determined that the world would have been an infinitely better place had she deployed her talents in the pursuit of something useful, like a cure for cholera. Her daughter, a beautiful half-wit, somehow ending up in his carriage made more than a little drunk and obediently prepared to yield up her virtue to him: It had been rather startling to discover in this way her ladyship’s estimation of his character, her assumption that he was so animalistic in his desires that he’d cheerfully ravish an innocent girl—one, moreover, who couldn’t even sit up straight on her own—and then, of course, marry her at once. What a tangle that had been, getting her safely returned home and himself neatly extricated from an absurd and awkward situation. He knew that any hint of scandal would enrage his grandmother; he didn’t fear her outbursts, but he owed her, at least, the courtesy of an unsullied reputation.