Authors: A Suitable Wife
“I should think not.” Mrs. Parton shuddered, as if to shake off her own memories of the bloody tale. “But tragically, real life is often mirrored in these dramas.” After a moment her smile returned, accompanied by a twinkle in her eyes. “We are meeting Lord and Lady Blakemore at the theatre and will share their box, then go to their home near Grosvenor Square for a midnight supper. They have invited a few other friends, although Grace did not tell me whom.”
“I should like that.” Beatrice found herself hoping a certain viscount would be in attendance. In fact, Lord Greystone’s handsome visage continued to dance across her mind as the landau stopped in front of an imposing building.
“Here we are. The Royal Olympic Theatre.” Mrs. Parton waited while the footman opened the door and handed her down. “Come along, my dear.”
Beatrice scooted across the velvet cushion and reached for the white-gloved hand extended to assist her, all the while fussing with her skirt to keep it modestly in place. But as she emerged from the carriage and looked up to thank John Footman, she gazed instead into the very face that moments before had filled her thoughts. Her pulse quickened with guilt, as when her governess once caught her stealing a sweetmeat before supper.
But to her chagrin, the gentleman did not return her smile.
hy did she have to look so beautiful? Exquisite, in fact. As members of their little party greeted each other, Greystone had no option but to believe that Mrs. Parton and Lady Blakemore, perhaps even Lord Blakemore, had conspired to arrange this evening. Otherwise why would the earl have taken the trouble of driving by White’s to invite him to the theatre? Yes, Blakemore did have some information to impart regarding the laws about child chimney sweeps. Yes, his countess did have her own pretty companion who, Greystone suspected, would be put forward to him for a bride, should they fail to match him with Lady Beatrice. Schemers, the lot of them. He had a mind to have done with it and offer for the Duke of Devonshire’s dull granddaughter, who owned no opinions of her own except those concerning expensive frocks.
But Lady Augusta could never hope to display a dress as Lady Beatrice graced this stylish new creation. No ill-fitting castoff, this, but a perfect fit over a perfect form. Its warm pink shade brought a rosy blush to her flawless ivory cheeks and heightened the blue of her intelligent eyes. Only the questioning frown upon her fair brow marred her beauty, and he was at fault for it.
“My lady.” He offered a bow, then his arm to escort her into the theatre, but his attempt to smile was more of a grimace. He could feel it. Could see it reflected in the hurt that darted across her eyes, in her diminished smile that still succeeded more than his.
“I thank you, sir.” She placed a gloved hand upon his forearm and permitted him to guide her in following their friends through the theatre’s wide doors. “I did not expect to see you in our party this evening.”
“Ah, well.” He managed an honest smile at last, hoping to appease her. “We are at the mercy of our elders, are we not?”
“What a pity.” Now those blue eyes snapped to his, and her tone held a hint of frost at odds with the warm evening air. “Tell me, sir, what would you prefer to be doing rather than attending a performance by the celebrated Robert Elliston?”
Warmth crept up his neck, and he felt—but denied—the urge to tug at his collar. She had all too easily read his reluctance to be in this company, playing this part. Oh, if only she could know the depth of his reasons, not one of them having to do with her, other than her brother. Now the heat in his chest fired up again over the injustice of it all. But he had made too many solemn vows, had too many missions to complete for the Almighty to ruin them all by evil associations. He must not permit himself to become attached to Lady Beatrice.
* * *
Beatrice urgently wished to remove her hand from Lord Greystone’s arm, but she would surely get lost in the well-dressed throng entering the theatre. She located Mrs. Parton in the crush ahead of them only because of the white peacock feathers in her turban.
Still not responding to her question, which she had intended as a challenge, Lord Greystone escorted her through the double doors and across the broad lobby, where they joined their party at the foot of an elegant red-carpeted staircase.
“Do let us go right up,” Mrs. Parton said. “I want to see who is here. Of course Prinny will be late, if he comes at all, but surely there will be someone fascinating to see.” With an impatient wave of her hand she began her ascent, with everyone else following after.
“Humph.” Lord Greystone deigned to lean toward Beatrice as they followed the others. “As if we were not sufficiently fascinating to her.” He offered her a grin, but Beatrice felt no pleasure in it.
She may have spent her entire life in County Durham, but numerous peers and their families had visited Melton Gardens over the years. She had learned from those aristocrats that overdone manners and silly humor often masked insincerity. Clearly Lord Greystone’s attempt at wit was meant to mask his discomfort over being left to escort her. She should not let his deficiencies affect her, but they did. What should have been a thrilling experience for her, one she had anticipated since childhood, was now nothing less than an exercise for her in that same kind of insincere courtesy. How ironic. They had come to be entertained by actors, but they themselves were performing roles neither wished to play. But as the daughter of an earl, she deserved courtesy and would demand it. If she must perform, at least she could write her own lines.
“You did not answer my question, Lord Greystone. What would you rather be doing this evening?” She gave him a little smirk to show him she would persist until he answered.
A frown darted across his brow, but his smile quickly returned, and he stared directly into her eyes. “You mistake me, my lady. I am delighted to be in this company. No other place in the world would suit me.”
But she also felt a measure of pride over not wilting under his gaze, even if her heart did flutter in the most annoying manner. Yet such a reaction was a waste of time, so she let the matter drop and renewed her determination to enjoy this evening.
The theatre looked just as Mama had described it. On the second floor of the playhouse, private doors and lavish draperies led to seating areas partitioned off on both sides from similar spaces around the balcony. Lord Blakemore’s box was comfortably furnished with two rows of velvet-cushioned chairs. Below them was seating for the general audience, and above was the gallery where the lower classes could purchase seats for a penny or two.
The most lavish private box bore the crest of the Prince Regent, but His Royal Highness had not yet arrived, if he was coming at all. Beatrice was only mildly interested in seeing him, for the prince’s well-known self-indulgent lifestyle did not garner her respect. With such a ruler as an example, no wonder Melly surrendered to every temptation London had to offer a naive young peer.
“Come along, my dears.” Lady Blakemore directed the ladies to the front row of the box, while the two gentlemen sat behind them. At least four more people would fit in this space, and Beatrice hoped Lord Blakemore had invited others. Now that she had an appropriate wardrobe, she would be pleased to meet other members of Society, even other unattached gentlemen. Perhaps some of them would regard her more favorably than Lord Greystone. Despite her lack of a dowry and all marriage prospects, her foolish heart could not help but long to be courted, or at least admired, especially since this viscount refused to perform that office.
At the thought of him, and very much against her will, she glanced over her shoulder and saw him in quiet conversation with the earl. She heard a word or two, enough to learn that they were discussing the little chimney sweeps.
“My investigation turned up no parents,” Lord Greystone said. “Apparently the master sweep bought them from an orphanage. I sent him compensation equal to his purchase price, though he actually deserves prison, in my way of thinking.” He shook his head. “We simply must put an end to such wicked use of tiny children.”
“Wilberforce is up for it,” Lord Blakemore said. “After his success in abolishing the slave trade, he has come close to abolishing slavery itself within the Empire. I believe he has many friends in the House of Commons who will support anything he puts forth.”
At his words a guileless and joyful smile lit Lord Greystone’s entire face, reminding Beatrice of his generous nature toward the poor little sweeps. Her heart skipped, but she quickly tamped down her giddy feelings. It seemed that every five minutes she needed to remind herself that the viscount had no interest in her, and she must not permit herself to be wounded by his aloofness.
Further, she had come to see a play, her very first, if one did not count the annual Christmas plays presented by the children in the village church. With some effort she turned her attention to the large stage that extended across the opposite side of the theatre. A luxurious crimson curtain hid the actors and scenery. How delightful it would be to peek behind the red velvet to watch them donning costumes and perhaps practicing their lines.
“Why, there sits Mademoiselle St. Claire.” Mrs. Parton held up her quizzing glass to view a young lady in a box on the other side of the large room. “One would think she’d have followed old Louis to Paris to snare a husband from among the restored French aristocracy.”
“Perhaps she has her eye on an English peer.” Lady Blakemore tilted her head toward Lord Greystone.
Interrupted midsentence, he gave her a questioning look. “Madam?”
“Never mind.” Lady Blakemore chuckled, and Mrs. Parton laughed outright.
Lady Blakemore’s companion, the pretty, stately Miss Hart, said nothing but seemed to deliberately keep her attention on the crowd below. Beatrice had no idea who the lady’s family was, but her manners were impeccable. No doubt she was wellborn but also without a dowry, and thus had sought employment with the countess.
Beatrice surveyed the occupants of the large auditorium and found most of the audience engaged in conversation. No one seemed the slightest bit excited, as she was, about the upcoming entertainment. But with her comfortable chair in Lord Blakemore’s box being the farthest from the stage, she could watch the other ladies and learn proper decorum for this setting.
One thing was certain: she would never giggle and flirt the way some ladies in the upper balcony did. Their behavior and gaudy dresses brought heat to her face. Had they no modesty? Yet they were surrounded by attentive gentlemen. Beatrice would gladly do without such attention rather than behave so outlandishly. Why, one showily dressed woman had an arm slung across the shoulders of a well-dressed gentleman, whose curly blond hair and broad forehead seemed familiar...
Beatrice cringed at the realization that her brother was mingling with such company. She ducked behind the partition of Lord Blakemore’s box and turned her attention back to the curtain, praying the play would begin soon.
* * *
Melton’s heart felt as if it had been cut in two with a sword. Did Beatrice really think he had not seen her ducking out of sight so that once again she would not have to acknowledge him? There she sat, glittering like a fine jewel even in the midst of her well-dressed friends. He was so proud of his sister. No one in this vast theatre would have noticed if she had given him their secret sign. But what could he expect? She was spending her time with that horrid Greystone, who even now looked at her like a besotted fool. Melton wanted to smash the arrogant viscount right on his aristocratic nose.
No, that was not fair. Greystone had shown her only respect from the moment they had stepped into the box. But he was a rather dull fellow—not one word of scandal, either interesting or boring, was ever attached to his name. Still, Beatrice could do worse. Or better. Oh, bother. She must marry Rumbold, and that was that. It was the least Melton could do for the man after all he had done for him, paying his gambling debts and finding him a place to live after Melton had been forced to sell his town house. At that thought a nagging guilt stirred within him. Since seeing her at Greystone’s ball, he had begun to realize all that his gambling had cost them both. He, not Mrs. Parton, should be taking care of his sister.
“Blimey, milord, what’s the sulky face fer?” The gaudily dressed girl, probably no more than seventeen, ran a hand over Melton’s cheek. “Yer no fun at all.”
He shoved her hand away as gently as possible. This was not the kind of woman he wanted to keep company with. But decent ladies, even his own sister, would not welcome his friendship. What had he done to deserve that? He would have to ask Rumbold. Something would have to be done, and soon. He was an earl, for goodness’s sake, a member of the ruling class. He sat in the House of Lords and helped to lead England.
But the pain in his heart ate at him, and the only thing that would soothe it away was another drink.
* * *
In the corner of his eye, Greystone saw Lady Beatrice shrink back in her chair, almost like a child playing hide-and-seek behind the box’s red velvet panel. A quick glance to the upper gallery explained her actions. Lord Melton was consorting with a rather disreputable mob, and no doubt his sister wanted to avoid his notice.
Greystone sighed. Years ago his brother Edmond had chosen evil friends, and the entire family had suffered for it. But Edmond had been sent away to the military, where his life had changed drastically. Newly married to a vicar’s daughter, he was now a model of decorum and had a promising future as a barrister. Perhaps Melton could change, too. Unfortunately he was a peer, and no one could consign him to the harsh discipline of the army, no matter how much his family suffered for his actions.
Empathy for the lady welled up inside Greystone, and he tried to think of something consoling to say to her. What lighthearted comment would turn her attention from her sorrows? Just as he leaned toward her, the massive curtains began to part, and Lady Beatrice’s posture straightened. Even in profile he could see the excitement in her expression. A strange ache filled his chest. He would not mind introducing her to the many innocent charms of London: parks, fairs, leisurely voyages on the Thames. Earlier when she had challenged him regarding his poor attitude, he had been a little annoyed, but admiration replaced his ill-humor. The lady had spirit, as he had seen the night he had met her. But until Melton mended his ways, Greystone dared not associate with her more intimately.
And in this moment, he resented that injustice.
* * *
The audience grew quieter, although not entirely silent. Beatrice decided that many people had come to socialize rather than observe the performance. But once the curtain opened to reveal a magnificent setting, her attention settled on the lone figure limping from behind a stone column. Was this deformed hunchback the handsome Robert Elliston she had heard so much about? Now the audience hushed, and Beatrice held her breath.
“‘Now is the winter of our discontent—’” he paused dramatically, surveying the audience with a victorious look “‘—made glorious summer by this sun of York.’”
As his deep rich voice intoned the familiar line, a shiver ran down Beatrice’s spine. How well she had known her own winter of discontent, yet no bright sun promised
a glorious summer. But such thoughts would only ruin her enjoyment of the play, so she dismissed them summarily and permitted the players to draw her back in time some three hundred years, when England had enjoyed another significant victory like the recent one over Napoleon. So well did the actors represent their characters, especially Mr. Elliston, that Beatrice decided to join the fantasy and pretend she was viewing history as it happened, just like a mouse in the corner.