Authors: Claudia Dain
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Regency, #Romantic Comedy, #Historical Romance, #regency romance
The man really should be so thankful that she was so completely in love with him. He could scarcely hope to find a woman who was so forgiving of his glaring faults.
If Kit Culley had a flaw, and he was quite aware that he had more than one, it was that he was, perhaps, too devoted to his mother. She was a widow and the mother of two sons; that alone was reason enough to both pity her and be devoted to her. His father had died when he was not quite five, his younger brother George having not yet been christened.
It had been a blow for his mother. That was obvious to anyone. It was especially obvious to him as he had been the only one in the house to witness his mother’s slow fall into lethargy.
George did not mourn a father he had never known. Kit did. Anna Culley did. Kit and Anna had formed a new family unit that existed to protect George. Or that’s what his mother thought. Kit knew that he had adapted his life to protect Anna Culley so that she could be a proper mother to George Culley. The situation was one that resulted in Kit functioning as both father and son, a combination which, in turn, resulted in his being a very somber, sober, unremarkable man.
He knew this about himself. He did not like it.
He had found early on that he could only be a son, behaving in childlike ways with no thought to greater consequences when he was at the Harlow’s. He dragged George with him when George was old enough to be dragged and he arranged his daily life around the animated exuberance of the Harlow household. They had welcomed him. He had found a home there, a family of siblings and parents who bickered with calm forbearance toward each other. It was all reassuring ordinary. A normal family living a normal life.
He had loved every moment lived there. He been able to breathe whilst in their company.
They had welcomed him in, and his young pup of a brother, and his softly solemn mother, carrying her grief like a well-loved shawl, and they had carried them along in their boisterous wake until . . . .
Kit’s thoughts rambled, twisting into the fog, lost to coherence and sound reason. Things were not as they had been. It was not only that they were in London for the Season, though that surely must play a part. It had started before that. He reached back in memory, his mind skipping over scattered moments in time, memories of fishing with Emeline and the boys, playing cards with Emeline and the boys, stalking the gamekeeper whilst pretending to be ferocious Iroquois with Emeline and the boys. Picnics in May. Christmas supper. Pip’s first silk waistcoat. Sig’s first book of Latin grammar. Harry’s first cut lip. Emeline’s first modified, plumped up bodice.
Kit tapped his walking stick against the paving stones, pushing the memory aside. He was to meet Lord Raithby in White’s Club for a brief meeting, a
hail fellow well met
moment between two men who had known each other slightly and briefly, though not unpleasantly, whist at Oxford. He was in London to look over the yearly crop of debutantes, the line-up of girls of either beauty or riches, rarely both blessing the same girl, and he was to begin the process of choosing a wife. A proper wife. An appropriate wife.
He was not in any mind to marry. His mother wanted him to marry, to be settled, to begin the life she wanted for him. It would give her peace and joy and all the sensations a mother yearned for in her eldest son. This he knew.
His life had been rooted from the earliest years in striving to give his mother what she wanted, to bring her ease and peace and security. He had, by habit and inclination, shaped his life to do just that. But in this he hesitated.
He did not want to marry. Someday, yes, of course, but not now. The thought of sorting through the young women of the
left him cold. He supposed that he was entirely normal in that. What man wanted to pick a wife from amongst the eager throng, to be married at the very start of what he hoped would be a very long life? His father had not enjoyed long life, and this is part of what drove his mother’s desperation to see him settled into matrimony and producing heirs. He understood it. He was not reconciled to it.
Maternal devotion only carried a man so far.
Kit turned onto St. James’s Street, the spring sunlight warm on his skin, the rhythmic tap of his walking stick comfortingly regular, White’s facade giving a man the sensation that all was solid and familiar and predictable in the world. For a man being forced upon the Marriage Mart, it was a most happy sensation, even if illusionary. He was admitted by the porter, turned over his hat, stick, and gloves, and made his way into the warmth of an exclusively male domain.
Even his mother could not follow him into White’s.
Kit was early. Lord Raithby was earlier.
Raithby stood as Kit approached; he had hardly aged since Oxford. The scar upon the upper curve of his cheek was flatter, his hair was shorter, his cheeks leaner. He looked a man in the sweet center of a well-ordered life, a man with nothing to worry him and no one who expected anything of him.
“Culley,” Raithby said, nodding. “Good to see you.”
“Raithby, it’s been too long,” Kit said.
Raithby sat first, his long legs crossed neatly. Raithby had always impressed Kit as being a quiet, self-controlled man, a man of few words. Raithby devoted all of his passion and energy to his horses, his stables, and the racing schedule. There was no man alive who knew more about horseflesh.
“Are you in Town to find a wife?” Raithby asked when the drinks had been served.
Kit just kept from raising his brows in surprise. This was far more direct than he was accustomed to from Raithby.
“Not to find one, precisely. To look for one, perhaps,” Kit answered. “But don’t tell my mother that,” he said, smiling. “And you? Are you shopping for a bride this Season?”
Raithby grunted and lifted one eyebrow sardonically. “I hadn’t thought to marry so young.”
There was a disquieting vagueness in that response.
“Too young, the both of us,” Kit said.
“There is no one who has snared your interest, I take it.”
Kit felt the memory of Emeline and her blooming bodice knocking. He refused entrance. “I’ve only just arrived in Town,” he said.
Raithby stared at him over his glass, his blue eyes mildly speculative. “You won’t find anyone this Season to interest you. A most uninspired crop.”
There was something purposefully subversive about that. It was not like Raithby at all.
“It’s early in the Season, not even June yet,” he said, feeling that he was being led off into the weeds on a hunt he had no interest in. Or hadn’t ten minutes ago. “Who knows what beauty may show her pretty head?”
“Yes. Who knows?” Raithby agreed.
They drank in companionable silence after that, the mood between them as cordial as it ever was. Raithby seemed off somehow, though Kit could not have said in what way.
“Your mother is eager for you to marry?” Raithby said after an interval of several minutes.
“My father is not eager for me to marry,” Raithby said.
“Takes the sting out of it, I should think. I will do my duty, certainly, but there doesn’t seem to me to be any need to rush about beating the bushes of Society for a bride. A man should take his time, be prudent about it all.”
It sounded very reasonable to him, saying it out loud that way. He might try just such a line with his mother. He couldn’t see an argument against it, as to that.
“My father would agree with you,” Raithby said.
“But you do not?”
Raithby looked down at the space between the mahogany chair leg and the turned edge of the tabletop, lost in thought. “I should,” he said.
“Of course you should,” Kit said. “It’s irrefutable, logical.”
Raithby nodded, his gaze still on the empty space between chair and table.
“Have you been in Town long?” Kit said, changing the subject very intentionally.
Raithby raised his head. “Long enough.”
Most mysterious. Equally perplexing.
“And no one interesting, no one to arouse a man’s interest in marriage?”
“Did I say that?”
“You did. Most emphatically.”
“True enough, then. The marriageable crop is uninspired,” Raithby said. “You shall not be tempted. No man could be.”
For some strange reason, likely the strangeness of the entire episode, Kit felt he had to defend Emeline, who was in Town for the Season and was most certainly looking for a husband.
The thought, never before put into words, even in his own mind, tickled at something entirely uncomfortable. He couldn’t think why. Certainly he wished Emeline every success and every happiness. Of course he did.
“Are you acquainted with Miss Emeline Harlow?” Kit asked, doing his best to be a valiant friend, ignoring the tickle as unbecoming of him. “She is an old family friend; we grew up together like brother and sister, very nearly.” Raithby looked at him, a polite expression on his face. “She’s in Town for her first Season.”
“And you’re offering her to me? I’m flattered, Culley. Most generous of you. But perhaps not entirely brotherly.”
Kit bit back a sharp retort and smiled instead. “Hardly that. I am merely speaking highly of a woman I admire greatly. Would you like an introduction?”
“I should be pleased to make her acquaintance. You will not be insulted if I do not make her an offer?”
“Don’t be absurd, Raithby,” Kit said, his tone sharp despite his best efforts. “It will please her mother to have the introduction made and therefore it will please Miss Harlow.”
“She sounds most . . . biddable.” It sounded almost like an insult.
“She is,” Kit said. It still sounded like an insult. It also sounded untrue. Emeline wasn’t what one would term biddable. She was fun.
Strange, but he would never have thought a woman could be fun, nor would he have thought it a desirable trait. Yet she was, and it was. In her, anyway. He wasn’t certain he wanted his wife to be fun.
“You seem eager to foist her off on someone,” Raithby said. “Is something wrong with the girl?”
“Not at all,” Kit said, sounding quite sharp, indeed. “Her mother and mine are close friends. We grew up side-by-side, as I explained. The introduction would please her mother, and hence, my mother.”
“And perhaps you shall enjoy a marriage reprieve if your mother is distracted by Mrs. Harlow’s happiness at her daughter’s successful Season?”
“A reasonable expectation, wouldn’t you say?”
He didn’t know why he said it. He wasn’t offering Emeline up for Raithby to run away with; no, he was merely making all the women in his Wiltshire circle happy. There was nothing amiss about that. Raithby was an honourable man, and in no hurry to marry. Emeline was safe enough.
“Women are not often reasonable,” Raithby said.
How true that was.
“She’s a very nice girl,” Kit said. Now she sounded dull.
“I would assume so,” Raithby said, a smile teasing a corner of his mouth. “One does not often enough meet truly nice girls Out in Society.”
As this was Kit’s first Season in Town, he wasn’t quite sure what that was supposed to mean. “She’s quite good-natured, too.” Like a well-heeled hound. He could not seem to put Emeline in the appropriate light. Nothing he said painted the true picture. He signalled for another brandy.
“Would you say she’s pretty?” Raithby asked, shaking his head in refusal of another brandy.
Emeline. Pretty. The words refused to bond. Kit was dumbfounded and dumb struck.
“Not pretty, then?” Raithby prodded. With a hot poker, he prodded. Emeline? Not pretty?
“She’s quite pretty,” he said. It was true, wasn’t it? She was truly quite pretty.
“Light brown. Or perhaps golden brown. Dark blond?”
“Should I know?” Raithby said, smiling without remorse. Raithby had been a more congenial, placating fellow at Oxford.
“Light hair. Light eyes,” Kit said, grappling for hard reality, firm statistics. “Trim figure. Piquant features.”
“Piquant. Definitely,” Kit said. Her narrow chin, high cheekbones, tilted . . . gray eyes. Yes, gray eyes.
“Blue eyes?” Raithby said.
“No,” Kit said, memories knocking at his heart with such staccato determination that the door banged open and he was flooded.
Emeline chasing a barn cat into a deserted stall and coming out with a three long scratches on her face, grinning victoriously, the squirming cat in her arms.
Emeline astride her father’s oldest mount, her stockings stained, her smock stained, her hair ribbons mud-splattered, laughing as she attempted to run him from the ring. He grabbed the halter instead and she slipped off the horse’s rump, landed on her arse, and kept laughing.
Emeline, her hair piled high on her head for the first time, scratching at the pins holding it, biting her lip, looking miserable and mutinous and marvelous.
Emeline playing whist with the boys, cheating adroitly, displaying bland innocence when accused.
Emeline dressed in muslin with blue embroidery, a straw bonnet with blue ribbons trailing down her back, her hair gleaming gold, her skin shining, her eyes glowing . . . blue. Sitting in church, looking pure and impossible and so much like a strange and unknowable Emeline that he’d looked away and lost his place in the hymn.
Emeline. Pretty. Yes, she was pretty.
No, she was not pretty. She was so much more than pretty. So far beyond prettiness.
“Yes,” Kit said. “Blue eyes. I think.” He took another deep swallow of brandy.
“You’ve known her all your life, but not long enough to be certain of the color of her eyes,” Raithby said.
“They’re difficult to describe,” Kit said.
“They must be. I suppose I shall have to see for myself. When shall you make the introduction?”
Kit jerked his head up to look at Raithby, truly looking at him. Raithby, Lord Raithby, heir to an earldom as Lord Quinton’s only son, was lean, dark-haired, blue-eyed and eminently eligible. Mrs. Harlow would likely faint at his feet.
But, no, Mrs. Harlow was not a woman to faint. She was more likely to throw Raithby over her shoulder, cart him off, and drop him at Emeline’s feet. A titled, eligible man was exactly the sort of husband that would suit Mrs. Harlow for Emeline.