Read An Improper Suitor Online

Authors: Monica Fairview

An Improper Suitor

An Improper
Suitor

Monica Fairview

March 1818

The summons came at eleven o’clock at night.

Julia Swifton was not yet asleep, but she had blown out her candle and lay on her back, staring at the orange patch of light on the
ceiling
, a reflection of the changing fire as it lost its intensity and started to fade.  

Sally scratched at the door and entered with a candle. She was like a ghost in her white nightdress, standing in the white glow of light. She whispered quietly into the darkness, ‘I’m sorry, miss, but Lady Bullfinch is asking for you.’  

Julia sprang up from the bed, gripped the shawl which was tossed over the end of her bed and, wrapping it around her, made to follow in her bare feet.  

‘She’s not worse, is she?’ she asked.  

Sally paused before answering. When she spoke, her voice was puzzled. ‘I didn’t think so, Miss Swifton. But she was that insistent, it frightened me.’ Sally had been her grandmother’s maid for over twenty years. She knew her well.  

Julia shivered in the cold corridor.
Please let her be all right, please
let her get well
. After almost a month of lung fever, her grandmother had been on the road to recovery. The doctor had said there might still be a setback, but only this morning they had all celebrated in the kitchen – Sally, and Julia’s maid Bethany, Rumbert the butler and Cook and everyone else on the staff, most of them people she’d known all her life. Julia had had wine brought up from the cellars and
they’d all drunk her grandmother’s health.

She can’t have got worse
.

But when Julia reached the bedchamber, she found her
grandmother
upright in her bed, propped up by the pillows. She looked well enough, though she still had dark-brown circles around her eyes, and her cheeks were hollow from her long illness.

‘Don’t let her talk too much, miss,’ said Sally, before closing the door. ‘She’ll tire herself out.’

Julia nodded and approached the bed, perching herself gingerly on the edge of a chair beside her.

‘You can come closer, child. I’m not going to bite.’

Some of Julia’s alarm receded at the snappish tone. She sounded like her old self. Julia’s relief brought a wide grin to her face, and she tugged her chair nearer to the bed.

‘I need to talk to you. Urgently,’ she said.

The smile left Julia’s face. Her grandmother was not given to dramatic gestures. Her urgent tone brought back a rush of anxiety and Julia clenched her hands together. ‘I’m listening,’ she said.

‘My health is not what it was,’ she said. An understatement,
considering
she had been on her deathbed for a good part of a month. ‘And although Dr Lincoln says I am likely to make a complete recovery, I can’t pretend everything is exactly as it was before.’

Julia nodded, partly in relief, and partly in acknowledgement. ‘I understand that.’

Magnificent black eyes met Julia’s, sharp as a sword. ‘Then I hope you will understand what I’m going to say to you.’ She took a deep breath. ‘Though perhaps you will not forgive me for it.’ She hesitated. That itself was so unlike her that Julia’s unease returned.

There was a brief silence. A twig flared up in the fireplace with a sharp snap, startling Julia. It blazed briefly before fading.

When her grandmother spoke next there was no longer any
hesitation
in her voice. ‘You know I have strong beliefs about the
relationships
of men with women. Several of my friends have written about the rights of women, including Mary Wollstonecraft, as you are well aware, and I would have myself, if it were not for the fact that I’m such a poor writer.’ She gave a croaking laugh, to which Julia did not respond.

‘What I’m about to say goes against many things that I’ve taught you. But as I lay in bed, thinking how close I was to death, I realized that I had been remiss in my duty. I can’t continue to be negligent.’ She paused. ‘I have decided that it is time for you to marry.’

Julia recoiled in shock. The illness must have damaged Grandmother’s mind. She had always preached that it was better to become an old maid than to marry and live a life of misery as Julia’s mother had. A woman with an income had no need of a husband, she said frequently.

Safe in this belief, Julia had made no attempt at all to secure one. Now, at the age of almost twenty one, she did not think it likely that she would. Women younger than her were already considered old maids, after three Seasons in London.

Julia stood up, barely able to contain her anger. ‘I did not think that you, of all people, would turn on me. How can you be such a’ – cold fury left her sputtering – ‘
Brutus
?’

‘You are hardly Julius Caesar, even if your name is Julia,’ said Grandmother, a twinkle in her eye.

Julia rubbed her palms together, trying to bring her feelings under control. She had promised Sally she would not disturb her
grandmother
and, when all was said and done, she was still trying to recover from a dangerous illness.

Nevertheless, she could not remain silent. ‘How can you sit there so calmly and order me to do something that goes against everything you’ve taught me my whole life? And how can you actually
laugh
about it?’

She sighed. ‘I haven’t abandoned my beliefs. I still believe in
everything
I always believed in. But on one’s deathbed life looks suddenly very different. When I came close to dying, I began to worry about your future. For you to live respectably within society, it is essential for you to marry.’

Her hand swung out suddenly, and she gripped Julia’s arm with fingers that were surprisingly strong. Tears sprang into her eyes. The tears moved Julia as nothing else could have done. The last time she had seen her cry was in the few weeks following the death of her daughter Olivia – Julia’s mother. She had grown up in this household, yet she had never since witnessed her tears. Until now. ‘And besides
that, I would not for anything have missed the joy I experienced bringing up my two daughters, and then you. You should have the opportunity to explore that pleasure as well.’

Julia looked down at the fingers on her arm. Their strength was deceptive. The veins stood out under fragile skin, the bones
protruding
and skeletal.

‘I took care of you all those years after your mother died,’ she said, ‘and I taught you what I thought was right. But I recognize now that your situation is too complicated. Without my presence to prevent it, old gossip will rear its ugly head. Your father is still alive, but he abandoned both you and your mother, and his departure for the Continent was mired in scandal. You do not have his protection. Society has tolerated you because of my status, even though I am thought an eccentric. But I am not so sure they will tolerate you after I am gone. I am an old woman, Julia, and I do not know how much time I’ve been given. You must marry, and you must marry soon.’

With a few words, Julia’s world had turned topsy-turvy. She opened her mouth to protest, but Grandmother raised a hand to silence her.

‘I know this comes as a shock. You may even think my brain has been touched by my illness. But believe me when I say that I have never been so clear minded as I am now. If you can’t find a husband for yourself, then I will choose a husband for you.’

‘You’ve always spoken against such practices,’ Julia managed to say, her voice coming from a distance. ‘You’ve always condemned arranged marriages.’

‘I’m sorry, child, but I can think of no other possibility. Left to your own devices, you won’t do anything. I won’t, however, go so far as to deprive you of all choice in the matter.’

‘I suppose I should thank you for that,’ said Julia, bitterness making her voice harsh.

‘Here is my proposal. I’ll give you three months, until exactly one week before your twenty-first birthday. You can look for a suitable husband yourself until then. If you are unsuccessful I will send a notice to the
Gazette
to inform Society that you are engaged.’ She paused, this time for effect. ‘To Lionel Blake, the Earl of Thorwynn.’

Julia tore her arm away. Grandmother had gone completely mad.

The Earl of Thorwynn was one of London’s most notorious rakes. Known as the Laughing Rake, he was famous for his devil-may-care attitude. She had never set eyes on him because he did not frequent the kind of places she frequented. It was said he had never set foot in a ballroom since he had returned from the Peninsular War three years ago.

Anybody less suitable for a husband she could not imagine.

But Julia knew better than anyone that it was useless to argue with her grandmother. Once she had an idea in her mind, she would defend it as staunchly as a mongrel defending a coveted bone.

‘What makes you think he’ll agree to such a thing?’

‘I know Lady Gragspur. As you are aware, she’s a very close friend of mine. I don’t doubt that she’ll have her way. She usually does, once she sets her mind to something.’

Not very different from Grandmother. Julia had met Lady Gragspur, of course, and she had no difficulty believing she was right.

‘Do you plan to inform the rake – Lord Thorwynn – of this … situation?’

‘I see no reason to do so, unless you fail to produce a suitable husband.’

‘But you are going to speak to his grandmother.’

‘Of course. I will be sending for her tomorrow morning. And in the event that I am no longer alive at that time, I will entrust her with the task of making the announcement herself.’

The idea that she was making provisions beyond the grave increased Julia’s agitation.

‘Have no fear,’ she said, reassuringly. As if anything she said could reassure Julia. ‘No one but Lady Gragspur will come to hear of it until it’s necessary.’

Julia rose from the side of the bed and paced the room. She was trapped like a bear in a cage.

She had thought herself free.

‘I don’t believe you, of all people, would submit me to such a
nightmare.’

Grandmother smiled. Actually smiled.

‘I know only too well that if I don’t force your hand, you will do nothing. That is why I have given you this time. Choose your own husband: or marry a rake.’

May 1818

The horses snorted impatiently, their breath coming out in balloons of white fog. She could feel Hamlet’s excitement, the strained tension of his muscles.

The silence stretched.

Hamlet shuffled.

At long last, Grandmother raised her arm. ‘Goooo forth!’ she cried.

Hamlet sprinted forward. Julia abandoned herself to the thunder of hoofs as the ground began to fly beneath her. She grinned as
startled
faces whizzed past her. The aroma of earth and grass filled her senses. Above her, white clouds darted across a blue sky that bobbed in and out of her vision. She lost herself in the motion, allowing everything to stream past her, green blurring into brown and blue blurring into white.

She loved their early Thursday morning races in Hyde Park, promptly at half past seven every week during the Season. Of all her grandmother’s eccentricities, this was the one she treasured most. And it was clear she was not the only lady who did. The thudding on the ground behind her proved it.

The few riders at this unfashionable hour in Hyde Park moved out of their way and watched as they galloped by. Fashionable society did not approve of the Ladies’ Cavalry Charge, as Grandmother jokingly called it, but that had never stopped her.

Julia spurred Hamlet on. This was as close to flying that any mortal
could reach. Certainly with the whoosh of air past her ears and the sensation of hovering above her side-saddle she could imagine herself a swallow in flight, or even a sparrowhawk swooping down on its prey.

A high-pitched scream brought her down to earth.

She checked her horse. Colours resolved themselves into shapes. Hyde Park settled back into green grass, Rotten Row, South Carriage Drive, and lines of oak.

From the corner of her eye she glimpsed a lady fighting to control her mount. It reared, then suddenly broke into a fierce gallop. The rider pulled at the reins, and for a moment it looked like the horse had slowed down. But it was only objecting to her clumsy handling. It tossed its head then bolted, running as if pursued by a colony of bees.

There was no time to think. Julia veered off the path and chased after the renegade horse, urging Hamlet onwards. Delighted to show the racing skills for which he had been bred, Hamlet lengthened his stride and accepted the challenge.

So far the girl was still on the horse, hanging on precariously. Julia willed her to remain seated for a few minutes longer, until she could reach her.

They departed the avenue of trees and headed into an area that was more thickly wooded. Julia redoubled her efforts. She did not want the girl to be felled by a low hanging branch. Not far behind her, the beating of hoofs showed that she was not the only rider who had witnessed the event. She did not look back. Her gaze stayed fixed on the unfortunate girl, as though her eyes themselves could pin the girl to her saddle.

Then something large hurtled into Julia, emerging from behind a copse of trees to her right. The impact jolted her. She slid down in her saddle, dangerously close to losing her seat. An iron arm wrapped itself round her throat. A hand reached out and gripped the reins of her horse, pulling them from her.

In a daze, her mind registered that someone was abducting her. She recalled horrible tales she had heard about foolish debutantes who rode in the park without a chaperon or groom. Tales of abductions and ransoms. Only this time, she was in the tale.

She looked desperately around her, but there was no one else in sight. The trees hid her from the main path, and apart from the endangered rider some way ahead of her, there was not a single person who could help. Perhaps someone was around, out of view, but not out of earshot. She opened her mouth to scream.

The iron arm clamped down on her mouth. ‘Don’t be bird-witted,’ said a man’s voice close to her ear. The voice did not sound uncouth. His accent was refined, clearly that of a gentleman. But gentlemen of the ton, too, could be villains. ‘If you scream,’ he continued, ‘we’ll have everyone within earshot descending on us.’

Why exactly did he think I was going to scream?
To frighten the magpies?

She sank her teeth into the flesh of his palm and bit down. Hard. She could feel her teeth cut the skin.

He yelped. ‘Damnation, woman! What did you do that for?’ But to her utter surprise, he did not take his hand away. He kept it firmly in place. A grudging respect for his resilience passed through her.

‘If you give me your word not to start shrieking, I’ll remove my hand.’ She nodded as well as she could. How did he expect her to give him her word when his palm was smothering even the tiniest squeak?

He moved his hand away and examined it. She noted with
satisfaction
the red marks she had made. An impulse to scream as loudly as she could rose up in her, but she restrained it. She would not act dishonourably, even if clearly he did not have an honourable bone in his body. It was possible, of course, that he was a bedlamite. The idea gave her more confidence. She was used to dealing with
unreasonable
people. Her grandmother was one of them, as was her aunt Viola.

‘What the devil do you think you’re doing, sir?’ she hissed. ‘Unhand me instantly.’ Her words had no effect at all. She tried to pry his fingers off the reins, but he held fast. She soon gave up. Her attempt only made her seem childish. ‘You’re making a terrible error,’ she said, attempting once again to reason with him. ‘You must have mistaken me for someone else.’

He did not answer. He seemed to be running into difficulties, trying to control his own horse, Hamlet, and her all at once. A tiny
traitorous part of her admired his skill. But the intelligent part
recognized
that if she kept thrashing about, he would sooner or later be forced to let go of something. So she wrestled with his arm, waiting for him to tire and lose his grip.

A vigorous twist brought her assailant’s face to view. He was exactly the kind of villain they warned young girls about. A pronounced jaw, thunderous brows, piercing black eyes, and a nose like one of Lord Elgin’s Greek statues. What made matters worse, he was gnashing his teeth; a bad indication, surely.

Then Hamlet reared.
My worthy horse
. He came to her rescue, hoping to throw off her assailant. ‘Well done, Hamlet!’ she said.

But instead of releasing the reins, the man tightened them, forcing Hamlet down. Hamlet succumbed with an angry whinny. The reins pressed into her right shoulder now, biting into her.

‘Let go,’ she said again, mustering as much arrogance as she could. ‘And let go of my horse. You’re injuring his mouth.’

‘If you weren’t so hen-witted, and just stopped struggling, I’d be able to let go,’ said the villain. ‘I’m only trying to protect you from injury.’

Definitely a bedlamite.

‘I … do … not … need … protection,’ she said, very slowly, articulating each word clearly. Meanwhile she craned her neck over the very solid arm that was wrapped around her and tried to discover what had happened to the girl with the bolted horse. The arm, however, obstructed her view.

She went limp. It was worth a try. Perhaps he would relax his hold if she acquiesced.

She had not realized that going limp would imply leaning into him. Her position on the side-saddle meant that now her whole back moulded into his chest. His breath tickled her ear. The musky scent of his shaving soap filled her nostrils.

He let go abruptly and moved sideways. ‘It appears your horse has settled down.’

‘Of course he’s settled down,’ she snapped. ‘I’m sure he’s a great deal more comfortable now that you aren’t tugging at his mouth.’

She could see him more clearly, now that he was not breathing into her face. He raised one of those thick brows, his eyes gleaming with
amusement. ‘Such ingratitude in a young lady, considering I saved you from certain injury.’

‘Certain injury?’

He smiled, his teeth gleaming like a tiger about to pounce on its prey.

All the pieces suddenly fell into place. ‘But it wasn’t my horse that had bolted,’ she said, rueful now that she knew why he had grappled with her.

His smiled faded, replaced by a frown. ‘I heard a scream, and someone shouted that a horse had bolted. I saw your horse leave the path and take off like the devil.’

She tried to be patient. But they had already lost precious time. ‘When you chose to bring me and my horse to a halt, I was chasing after a bolting horse. Meanwhile, as you held me prisoner, the lady riding the other horse has been thrown to the ground.’

He whirled round, following the direction of her gaze. She could make out a crumpled form on the ground, under a large oak tree, next to a small ditch.

‘Confound it!’ he said, abandoning her as suddenly as he had caught her, and racing in the direction of the fallen woman.

Julia raced after him. She slid to her feet almost before Hamlet had stopped.

Her abductor sank to his knees next to the figure in blue. She was completely motionless. Julia knelt on the grass next to her, dew
soaking
into her riding habit. The damp made her shiver. It seeped into her chest and settled around her heart.
Suppose she’s badly hurt? Suppose she’s – suppose the fall has killed her?

He felt for the girl’s pulse. The tension strung Julia’s nerves and she chewed at her lower lip.

‘Her pulse is strong,’ he said, finally. Julia almost cried with relief.

Another rider arrived. Judging by his livery, he was the girl’s groom. He jumped down and ran to her, his face crumpled in alarm. ‘She isn’t badly hurt, is she?’

‘I’ve had some experience with injury on the battlefield,’ said Julia’s abductor. ‘As far as I can tell, your mistress doesn’t appear to be seriously hurt.’

‘Heaven be praised,’ said the groom, dropping down on to the
ground next to her.

Her abductor turned the young woman over gently, subjecting her arms and legs to a quick examination. ‘I don’t think she has broken anything, but it will be up to a physician to ascertain that.’

‘She must have hit her head,’ said Julia.

Before anyone could answer, the young girl stirred, groaned, and opened two round blue eyes. She reminded Julia of a cherub she liked to stare at in church when she grew tired of the sermon. The cherub blinked in confusion at the two strangers leaning over her, then exclaimed in obvious relief when she spotted her groom. She sat up tentatively, fingering her head. ‘What happened, Jake?’

‘You’ve taken a fall, Miss Neville,’ said the groom. ‘Stargaze bolted.’
Stargaze?
‘And this gentleman and this lady have been making sure you haven’t been harmed.’

‘Yes, I remember now.’ She tossed back her perfect ringlets and looked peeved, not at all like the cherub, who only smiled. ‘It was those
perfectly horrid
old ladies. They came galloping down the path
straight
at me.’  

Injury or no injury, Julia prepared to give her a piece of her mind.
Horrid old ladies, indeed.
But their Cavalry Charge could be quite intimidating, she supposed. Especially from Miss Neville’s
perspective
, since it had led to her accident. ‘Miss Neville, perhaps I should introduce myself,’ said Julia, before the situation grew embarrassing. ‘I am Julia Swifton, and the old ladies you’re referring to are my grandmother, Lady Bullfinch, my aunt, Lady Talbrook, and a number of their friends.’

The gentleman threw back his head and guffawed. ‘Are they, by God! Well, if that doesn’t top it all!’ Julia noted he made no attempt to introduce himself.

Julia found herself looking into a pair of obsidian dark eyes,
brimming
with merriment. The eyes tugged at her, reeling her in. She found herself unable to breathe.

She peeled away her glance from his, severing the connection. Only then was she able to breathe normally.

‘Well,’ she said, very inadequately. She rose to her feet and dusted her hands. A quick look at the cherub’s face satisfied her. It had changed from alabaster to a more mortal-like shade.

‘Have you recovered from your fall, Miss Neville? Do you think you can stand up? Should I send for a physician?’

‘No, no,’ said Miss Neville, revealing an even row of pearly teeth as she smiled. ‘I think I’m well enough to ride again.’

‘You need not worry yourself, Miss Swifton,’ said her abductor. ‘I’ll escort Miss Neville home.’

Just then the Cavalry caught up with them.

Lady Bullfinch dismounted immediately, producing a vinaigrette which she waved under Miss Neville’s nose. She chafed the girl’s cheeks and tut-tutted over her. ‘Poor child,’ she intoned. ‘What a shock you’ve had.’

Aunt Viola remained on horseback. ‘We shouldn’t crowd the poor thing,’ she said. ‘She needs some air.’

‘What happened?’ said Lady Bullfinch.

‘Miss Neville’s horse bolted at our Cavalry Charge.’

‘Nonsense!’ retorted her grandmother. ‘Horses simply don’t bolt just because they see other horses racing by.’

‘Miss Neville said we charged straight at her,’ Julia replied, amused.

Lady Bullfinch was very proud of the Cavalry Charge. ‘No one who knows how to ride would allow their horse to bolt like that,’ she said, severely.

‘Grannie,’ said Julia gently, ‘Perhaps she’s just learning to ride.’
She snorted.

‘Now, now, poor child,’ said Aunt Viola, sending a look of rebuke towards Lady Bullfinch. ‘Can’t you see she’s had a shock?’ She dismounted and went over to the cherub, gripped her hands and rubbed them vigorously between her own. ‘And to think it was all our fault.’

The dark-eyed gentleman intervened. ‘Miss Neville doesn’t seem to have sustained any injury. Perhaps, ladies, it would be best for her to return home and rest.’

Lady Bullfinch took out her quizzing glass and peered at him. ‘You’re Lady Gragspur’s grandson, aren’t you?’ she asked.

‘There are three of us, Lady Bullfinch.’

‘Lillian’s son. I remember you when you were in leading strings. Grubby little boy you were. And from what I’ve heard, you’ve grown
up to be a bit of a rakehell,’ she remarked.

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