Miss Richardson Comes Of Age (Zebra Regency Romance) (16 page)

BOOK: Miss Richardson Comes Of Age (Zebra Regency Romance)
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“No gentleman would refuse a lady’s apology.”
She considered his words for a moment. She supposed she would have to be content with this cryptic response. She gathered up her reins to urge her mount forward. Then she paused.
“You may be interested, Lord Rolsbury, to know that Emma Bennet is revealing herself—coming from behind that ‘veil of anonymity’ which you so despised. Good morning, sir.”
With that she was off, unable to endure any more of what she knew would be his censorious looks.
Well, it was done. She had apologized and she need never deal with him again on any but the most superficial levels. Confession was supposed to be good for the soul, but why did it have to hurt so much?
 
 
He looked after her and the groom following, but did not try to catch up with them. Their horses were going at a comfortable gait, though not hurried, past a thick copse of elms. Suddenly, he saw her horse rear and twist. Annabelle slid off the saddle and fell to the right of the panicked animal onto the soft grass beside the riding lane. Thorne kicked his own mount into a gallop, arriving at Annabelle’s prostrate form just as the groom did.
“You get the horse. I’ll see to her,” he shouted at the groom, who promptly responded to the orders of a man long used to having hurried orders obeyed.
Thorne quickly dismounted and knelt awkwardly at Annabelle’s side, only vaguely aware of the pain in his bad leg.
“Annabelle! Can you hear me?” He was afraid to move her lest he injure her further than the fall might have. “Please, love, speak to me.”
She groaned and opened her eyes. “Wh-what happened?”
“Something frightened your mount. Are you all right?”
“I—I think so.” She levered herself to a partial sitting position and moved her legs. “Nothing . . . seems . . . to be broken. Just need . . . to catch my breath.”
“Thank God!” he said fervently. He put his arm around her shoulder to support her as she struggled to breathe normally. He noted the lilac scent he would always associate with Annabelle. He resisted the urge to enfold her in his arms tightly.
“I—I think I am fine now,” she said, “if you could just give me a hand up.”
He rose and extended his hand to her. Standing close, he held her hand firmly until he determined that she
seemed
steady enough on her feet.
She disengaged her hand from his. “The fall merely knocked my breath away for a moment.”
“You were lucky then. You might have been seriously injured.”
“But I was not,” she said brightly. “However, I cannot conceive what might have got into Princess. She is usually a very steady, even-tempered animal.”
“Something startled her,” Thorne said. He looked toward the dense cluster of trees, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. The groom returned, leading the sweating and now somewhat skittish mare. “Did you see anything that might have caused her to panic?” Thorne asked the servant.
“No, sir. She acted like she was hit sudden-like. She ain’t usually so edgy.”
“Do you think she is safe for Miss Richardson to ride now?” he asked the groom. Then addressed Annabelle, “Or should I take you up with me?”
“She be settlin’ down now,” the groom said.
“She will be fine, I am sure,” Annabelle answered quickly. “Jamie will ride more closely and we shall be fine. Really. Thank you for your concern.”
With that formal dismissal, he knew she had regained full control of the situation. The groom held the mare still as Thorne gave her a lift into her saddle. He turned to his own horse and remounted. “Good morning again, then.”
Once more, he watched them ride off and kept them in sight until they left the park. Then he set his own mount to a hard ride, fully aware that he did so to postpone thinking about this meeting with Annabelle.
Fifteen
The fall had shaken Annabelle more than she cared to admit to Rolsbury. She found riding an immensely enjoyable activity, but readily acknowledged that she was not a “bruising rider.” “A
bruised
rider at the moment,” she observed on removing her habit and discovering a blackening mark on her thigh. Still, it was embarrassing to have lost her seat like that—in front of Thorne and just as she had made a dramatic exit. She wondered again what could have set Princess off like that.
She thought over the conversation with Thorne. He had not actually agreed to anything she had said. On the other hand, there had been no outright rejection, either. And he had, however grudgingly, accepted her apology. Perhaps the whole situation had been smoothed over enough to prevent any wide-ranging damage.
Now she faced another tough interview, this one with Celia and Letty. The ladies had called briefly the day after Letty’s small gathering, but Annabelle knew she had satisfied neither friend with her evasive answers. They left just as worried about her as they had been on arriving. Annabelle felt guilty over their worry.
She arrived at the Winters town house just as Celia was removing her cloak and bonnet in the entrance hall. The two were shown together to Letty’s charming private sitting room. They found the mother playing with her baby, a nursery maid standing by. Celia and Annabelle made proper cooing noises over the Winters heir as Letty bragged about his latest achievements.
“He smiles and tries to talk and he will stand in my lap when I hold him under his arms. And he loves to play peek-a-boo.”
“He tries to talk?” Annabelle laughed, unable to keep the skepticism from her voice as she held out her arms to take her turn at cuddling the babe.
“Very well, Miss Perfectionist. He babbles. But
he
knows what he is saying.”
They all laughed at this and soon the maid took the babe to return him to the nursery. Letty rang for tea.
They sat at a small table, talking of everyday, superficial matters—babies, fashions, the latest
on dits
—until the tea tray arrived and Letty finished serving.
Annabelle took a last fortifying drink of tea and set her cup down. “I have something to tell you.”
“Oh!” Letty gave a little squeal. “You accepted Lord Stimson’s offer. Well, I knew it was coming after watching you waltzing with him at Almack’s last week. When is the wedding?”
Annabelle laughed. “No. Lord Stimson and me? No.”
“Who, then? You have not paid anyone else any mind. Of course, it could be Hamilton. I have heard he is quite smitten with you.... Oh! Never say it is Rolsbury! Though, now that I think on it, you did go riding with him in the summer.”
“Letty!” Celia called through her laughter. “Allow the poor girl to explain.”
“Very well.” Letty returned her teacup carefully to its saucer and sat forward on her chair, waiting expectantly.
Annabelle looked from one to the other of her friends. “It is nothing of that sort at all.” She paused. This was far more difficult than she had anticipated.
“Oh,” Letty whimpered in disappointment.
“What is it, Annabelle?” Celia touched her hand in a reassuring gesture.
“Promise you will not hate me.”
Celia and Letty chanted in unison, “I promise not to hate Annabelle.” Each of them made a cross over her breast in a ritual that had developed in a “secret society” at school.
“Now, do tell us,” Celia said, her voice serious and gentle.
“Well ...” Annabelle took a deep breath. “You were right, Letty. And I am sure you suspected, Celia. I
am
Emma Bennet.”
There was utter silence in the room. Annabelle wondered if any of them was breathing.
“You
do
hate me,” she said.
“No. Of course we do nothing of the sort,” Celia said. “ ’Tis such a surprise is all.”
“I knew it! I knew it!” Letty cried gleefully. “Why did you not tell us before—and why are you doing so now?”
Annabelle explained the reason behind protecting a young girl’s name early on.
“That makes perfect sense to me,” Celia said. “You would surely have been an oddity that first Season.”
“So why now?” Letty demanded.
“Because I have a new book—it will be in the shops in a few days. It is being published under my own name and I wanted you to be among the first to know of it.”
“It ... it is not . . . uh, like the last one, is it?” Celia asked with marked hesitation.
Annabelle laughed ruefully. “Not at all. This one is serious. My best work so far.”
“What is the title?” Celia asked.
“Heroism Rewarded.”
Letty had been quiet for a moment. “Wait until Lord Rolsbury finds out about
this.”
“He knows,” Annabelle said.
Again both the others spoke at once. “He knows?”
“He knows.”
“And how did he react?” Letty asked.
“As one might expect,” Annabelle said. “He is not happy about it, but I think he will have moved beyond his extreme reaction to
Innocence Betrayed.”
At least I hope so, she prayed silently.
“What is this new one about?” Celia asked, clearly changing the subject—for which Annabelle was grateful.
“Heroism,” she answered smugly. Her friends rolled their eyes. She grinned and went on, “It is about types of heroism, from the swashbuckling heroics of a soldier in battle to the quiet kind of one who stands up for a principle.” She gave them a brief summary of the story of Portia and Nathan.
“It sounds
good,”
Letty said.
“It seems to have a serious theme running through it,” Celia observed. “I shall look forward to reading it.”
“I shall bring you copies as soon as I receive those promised me in advance,” Annabelle promised. “And . . . thank you, both.”
“For
what?”
Letty asked in surprise.
“For not being angry at my deceiving you—even lying to you on occasion.”
“Oh. Well. As to
that
—” Letty laughed. “Celia and I will work out a proper revenge. But for now you will have made us the most sought-after of dinner guests—after all,
we
are best friends of the famous Emma Bennet.”
“Or infamous Emma Bennet.” Annabelle sounded dubious. “In any event, I feel better that you finally know.
The Baron Brideaux and his lovely wife arrived at Rolsbury House late one afternoon. On hand to greet them were both the Wainwright brothers. Luke picked up his eldest nephew, Samuel, and swung him around in a great circle and then was faced with a chorus of “Me! Me!” from five-year-old Katie and Benjamin, who was three. The children were shyer around their uncle Rolsbury, whom they knew less well.
Rather than dispatch the children immediately to the nursery, Thorne invited them, along with their parents, into the smaller and less formal of the two drawing rooms. Luke carried the babe and Thorne was surprised at the ease with which his care-for-nothing younger brother handled the children.
“Luke, you will be a wonderful father one day,” Catherine voiced aloud Thorne’s thoughts. She had the same dark hair and gray-green eyes as her brothers. Thorne thought her prettier now than she had been in the first bloom of youth.
“Not anytime soon, I hope,” Luke said, turning the babe over to its mother, who kissed it and gave it up to a hovering nursery maid. As soon as Luke sat down, little Benjamin climbed onto his lap.
Thorne rang for refreshments and then sat close to Catherine on a settee. The boy Samuel stood by his father’s chair and Katie clung to her mother’s knee, eyeing Thorne with curiosity. He winked at her very deliberately. She giggled and hid her face, but moments later she was happily seated on his knee.
“Hmm.” Catherine looked from her daughter to her older brother. “It looks as though you have conquered yet another female heart, big brother.”
Thorne hugged the child to him. “Katie and I are going to become great friends, are we not, Katie?”
Katie’s answer was another shy giggle.
Mrs. Ewart accompanied the footman bringing in the tea tray and there was a flurry of greetings and “oohs” and “aahs” over how much the children had grown.
Thorne was struck by how ordinary it all seemed to him, despite his having had little to do with children and real family life in the course of his own growing up. He thought suddenly of Annabelle and the picture she had painted of her own childhood. He shook himself mentally for allowing his mind to drift in that direction.
That evening their Aunt Dorothy joined the Wainwright siblings and Brideaux for a family dinner. Lady Conwick also spent a fair amount of time in the nursery marveling over the next generation.
After dinner, all but Luke, who had excused himself early, sat in the drawing room talking idly. Despite her usual antipathy to stirring from her own house, Lady Conwick invited Catherine to go shopping the next day.
“That will be wonderful,” Catherine responded. “Just like old times. I remember fondly our shopping for my come-out. Oh! And I should like to visit Hatchard’s. I have a long list of books I am dying to have.”
“My wife, the bluestocking,” Brideaux said teasingly.
Catherine grinned at her husband. “I am not sure, my love, what the male equivalent of ‘bluestocking’ is. There
must
be such a term—for you, dear heart, would certainly fit the description.”
“Pay her no mind, David,” Thorne said. “She always did have a sharp tongue, that one.”
Catherine turned on him. “And you, brother dear, also fit that description to a T. I suppose one day you will find some long-faced, dry-witted lump among your literary friends and bring her home to reign as the Countess of Rolsbury.”
“Oh-ho. You get the brunt of it now,” David said.
Aunt Dorothy cleared her throat meaningfully. “Actually, Catherine, my sources tell
me
that the Earl of Rolsbury is considered quite a catch among the so-called diamonds of the Season.”
“And why would he not be so regarded?” Catherine said loyally. “He has title, riches, looks—”
“And could present a prospective bride with a charming sister-in-law,” her husband interrupted.
“Well, yes. That, too.”
They all laughed at this sally.
Later, Thorne marveled at how much simple pleasure he had had this day.
 
 
Annabelle was nervous and had been for two days—ever since
Heroism Rewarded
had arrived in bookstores. She had distributed her advance copies and already received accolades from Aunt Gertrude, Harriet and Marcus, Letty and Celia—but she expected nothing less from these, her faithful champions.
She thought of sending a copy over to Rolsbury House, but recalling Thorne’s attitude, she thought better of that idea.
Now, she was to attend a theater performance, her first public outing since the book began selling. Annabelle chose a gown of pale green silk for this event when a good many eyes would be focused on the Bennet-Richardson woman. The simple elegance of the gown was complimented perfectly by a beautiful paisley shawl of the lightest wool and her emeralds—the grandest pieces of her own family jewelry that had not been on the ship with her mother.
Just as she had expected and as Harriet had warned, her entrance made a stir in the theater. There were six chairs in the Wyndham box. Marcus had invited Aunt Gertrude and her friend, Lord Marchand, and Annabelle’s friend, Lord Stimson, to make up their party.
Annabelle would have taken a less conspicuous seat in the second row of chairs, but Harriet said, “Oh, no, no, no. We are not hiding you in the back as though we were ashamed of you!” The ladies sat in the front. Stimson had the chair placed at an angle behind Annabelle’s. He leaned over her to observe the rest of the theater.
“Good crowd tonight for your debut,” he observed.
“Thank you, Robert, for lending your presence to this little drama,” Annabelle said softly. His arm lay across the back of her chair. He gave her shoulder a brief pat. “I would not have missed it for the world, my dear.”
Annabelle loved the theater. She loved the opulence of the auditorium as well as the splendor of stage sets and the magic of another world created by dramatists and actors. She lifted her glasses to survey her surroundings—and looked squarely into the eyes of Thorne Wainwright.
He was sitting in a box across the way with several others. She recognized Captain Rhys and his sister, and Lady Conwick. The couple with them were strangers to Annabelle. Then the woman leaned toward Thorne and a vague similarity in their hair color and the way they held their heads clicked—she was surely Thorne’s sister.
Annabelle quickly lowered her glasses and focused her eyes on the stage. Her mind, however, stayed on that box across the way. Helen Rhys. He had brought Miss Rhys to the theater—with his sister. Surely that fact carried great significance. She tried to concentrate on the play once it started.
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