Miss Richardson Comes Of Age (Zebra Regency Romance) (9 page)

BOOK: Miss Richardson Comes Of Age (Zebra Regency Romance)
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Later, yet another partner had returned her to the sidelines where he had found her. There was Thorne, waiting for her. Her heart skipped a beat.
“You remembered,” she said foolishly, feeling a bit out of breath from a vigorous country dance.
He grinned. “One is not likely to forget the only dance for which one has signed in five years and more.”
She waved her fan as energetically as decorum allowed. “Would you mind if we enjoyed this dance out on the terrace?”
“Miss Richardson!” A definite hint of laughter lurked beneath his pretense of shock. “First you bamboozle me into a non-dance, and now you are luring me onto the terrace!”
She adopted a very formal tone. “Do not allow your own sense of consequence to lead you astray, sir. ’Tis beastly warm in here.”
Still grinning at her, he silently took her elbow and guided her out to the terrace and down the steps to the garden. There were three other couples on the terrace, but no one seemed to take any notice of Thorne and Annabelle.
Several stone benches were scattered through the garden. Thorne steered her to one of these that offered seclusion but was within sight of the terrace and caught a good deal of light from the ballroom. The air was cooler, but it was a most pleasant evening with a light breeze—little more than a whisper of air now and then.
They sat and an awkward silence ensued, during which Annabelle searched for a “safe” topic to introduce. She dared not ask him about his research lest he bring up Emma Bennet again.
Finally, she said, “Marcus tells us your first speech in Parliament went well.”
“It seemed to. In some quarters at least.”
“So? Are you planning to offer a bill on labor issues?”
“Not this session.” He folded both hands over the head of his walking stick which was planted between his feet.
“Why not?” she challenged. “I gather the issue is one about which you feel strongly.”
“Precisely because I do feel strongly about it.” He chuckled at her apparent confusion at this answer. “The time is not yet ripe, Annabelle. I want any proposed bill to have at least a prayer of passing.”
There was silence again. She noticed his body swaying to the strains of the waltz emanating from the ballroom. She felt herself caught up in the music, too. She stood and extended her hand.
“Come. Dance with me, Thorne.”
“Annabelle ...”
“Miss Rhys said you once danced beautifully—”
“That was before—”
“I know. But you cannot have forgotten how to waltz. No one will see if you stumble and I promise not to tell a soul,” she wheedled.
He shook his head, but he stood reluctantly, leaned his stick against the bench, and opened his arms.
“Do you
always
get your own way?” he murmured.
“Nearly always.” She laughed nervously and knew the instant he touched her that she had gone too far. This had been a mistake—if only because it felt so wonderful and so absolutely right.
Despite some awkwardness, he managed the steps at least as smoothly as a few of her less-practiced partners of the past. She was lost in the music and his nearness, the warmth of his body, the scent of his shaving soap, the flash of his smile.
“Not exactly a dancing master’s performance, eh?” he said, executing a turn somewhat less than smoothly.
“Well, no,” she said honestly, “but you, sir, are a fraud.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You are doing very well. I begin to suspect you have used your infirmity to hold off eager females.”
He laughed. “It did not hold you off.”
“I am made of sterner stuff.”
“Are you now?” he whispered, pulling her closer. He stopped moving and tightened his arms around her. “Annabelle ...” Her own name had never sounded so beautiful to her. He touched his lips to hers gently, tentatively at first then with greater urgency. He held her even closer and her arms were around his neck, her hands in his hair.
She returned his kiss fervently and thrilled to the feel of her breasts crushed against his chest. His hands caressed her shoulders and back feverishly.
The music from the ballroom had stopped and couples began to pour through the open doors onto the terrace and into the garden.
Thorne pulled away from her slightly. He bent to pick up his walking stick and, with one arm still about her waist, he steered her into deeper shadows. She followed his lead blindly, fully aware that he was protecting her.
He stopped to turn and look at her. “That should not have happened.”
“Are you sorry it did?” She held her breath, waiting.
He was quiet for what seemed a very long moment. “No. I am not sorry, but I should not have taken advantage of you so.”
“Well, as to that,” she scoffed, “it seemed wholly mutual to me.”
“For which I am most appreciative.” He gave her a gentle squeeze, kissed her on her temple, and released her. “It will not happen again. Come.” He offered his arm. “I believe we are to have supper together now.”
She smoothed her dress and tucked in an errant curl. Then she took his arm and they blended with other couples returning to the ballroom and the supper room beyond.
“Oh, there you are,” Celia cried as they joined the line at the buffet table. “Letty is saving us seats in that far corner.”
Just as she had at the Literary League meeting, Annabelle quietly took charge and unobtrusively aided Thorne in filling his plate and getting it to the table Celia had pointed out. Hovering servants provided drinks for everyone.
Celia and Letty shot her inquisitive looks, but they chatted freely and Annabelle thought she and Thorne both held up their portions of the conversation.
That in itself was a miracle, she thought later—for nothing in her life had ever shaken Annabelle Richardson to the depths of her soul as had Thorne’s kiss.
Eight
A few days later Annabelle returned from a drive in the park with young Lord Stimson, who had halfheartedly paid suit to her for two Seasons. Both she and Stimson knew he was not ready to settle down. Their relationship was in the nature of a friendly flirtation that kept them both active participants in Society’s matchmaking games—but neither of them was serious about the chase.
Annabelle removed her cloak and bonnet and joined Harriet and Marcus in the library. Marcus had stood at Annabelle’s entrance. As she perched on a settee nearby, he reseated himself in a wing-backed chair matching the one his wife occupied. Annabelle noted that both Harriet and Marcus wore serious expressions.
“Is something amiss?” she asked.
Harriet held up a magazine—The London Review. “Rolsbury has written an essay of literary criticism. His subject is novels and novelists.”
“Yes, I knew he was working on such a piece.”
“I thought he usually dealt with social or political issues,” Marcus said.
“I think Lord Rolsbury has rather wide-ranging interests,” Annabelle responded. “Would you not agree, Harriet?”
“Oh, yes. Very wide-ranging.” Harriet’s ironic tone confused Annabelle. “They even extend to—how does he put it?” Harriet flipped through the magazine and folded the pages back to read. “Ah, yes, to ‘an examination of the sort of sentimental silliness and titillating terrors that appeal largely to the female of the species.’ ”
“It would appear his lordship is fond of alliteration,” Annabelle observed with unconcern.
“Well, he is
not
overly fond of most women writers—and he is particularly critical of the works of Miss Emma Bennet,” Harriet said emphatically.
“Wha-at? I must see this for myself.” Annabelle reached for the magazine, but Harriet did not release it immediately.
“Annabelle, promise you will read this with an open mind and not be hurt by his treatment of your work.”
“Is it
that
awful?” Annabelle felt a sudden sense of trepidation.
Harriet still held the magazine in her own hand. “He presents a relatively fair analysis and he admits his biases, but it is not a very flattering view overall, especially of
your
work.”
“But of course he does not know it to be your work, does he?” Marcus asked.
“No. I feel certain he remains ignorant of Emma Bennet’s identity,” Annabelle said.
“It would appear so from this.” Harriet tapped the magazine with a forefinger. “But he also still harbors resentment over that bit of satire—that much is clear here.”
“Oh, dear.” Caught off guard, Annabelle was uncertain of her own feelings—especially as she had not yet read Thorne’s comments. “Well, let me read it,” she said with a note of resignation.
Harriet handed her the
Review.
“There is another matter to consider as you read this.”
Annabelle waited.
“We accepted Lord Rolsbury’s invitation to his house party,” Harriet reminded her.
Annabelle nodded. “So we did.”
“It would look very strange—particularly to Rolsbury—if we now canceled our acceptance.”
“Is it so very bad that we would want to cancel?” Annabelle asked, beginning to feel really anxious now.
“Just read it and see what you think,” Marcus advised.
Annabelle took the magazine to her room. She removed the dress she had worn to go driving and sprawled across her bed in a dressing gown to spend the next hour or so imagining the sound of Thorne’s voice as she read his words.
He began by saying that, like many other men, he had long held the writings of women in some disregard—and the writings of women for women readers to be usually beneath dignifying. However, his research revealed careful attention to craftsmanship in many instances, making such a blanket view inaccurate at best and mere prejudice at worst.
“Well, that is not such a bad thing to say,” Annabelle said to herself.
Rolsbury admitted that Mrs. Radcliffe’s characters often deserved the praise they garnered from other critics, but for his taste her stories relied too heavily on the standard clichés of Gothic novels. “After a while,” he wrote, “the discerning reader will cease to find secret passages and moldy vaults at all frightening.” He went on to note that, in his opinion, Mrs. Radcliffe’s readership consisted largely of bored women who “possess too much free time and look for cheap thrills to alleviate their prevailing sense of ennui.”
“Oh, my!” Annabelle murmured and read on.
He credited Mrs. Edgeworth with an “admirable ability to depict the social scene in Ireland” and he went on to say it was high time someone created Irish characters who were more than mere caricatures—parodies of their national traits. However, he noted, Mrs. Edgeworth’s stories were far too predictable, though they probably appealed to “females who regularly require fairy-tale endings to life’s problems.”
As for Miss Fanny Burney’s stories, those were “fluff for schoolroom misses—stories of star-crossed lovers who overcome incredible odds in ways only the most naive could possibly credit.”
“Why, the man has nothing good to say of anyone,” Annabelle fumed. “His opening was merely to put one off. What
will
that dreadful man say of Miss Bennet?”
As she read on, however, she discovered that it was not true that he had “nothing good to say of anyone.” He praised Miss Austen’s work highly. “Unlike Mrs. Radcliffe, whose stories are set in distant, exotic lands with which the author is too often clearly unfamiliar, Miss Austen wisely limits herself to her own milieu of country gentry. Her work has a sense of the familiar about it, though a clever turn of phrase offers fresh insight.” He went on to laud Miss Austen’s realistic portraits of ordinary people and the subtle irony with which she presented a babbling spinster or a self-important clergyman.
“... Which brings us to the last writer to be considered here, Miss Emma Bennet. Allow me to digress here to point out to
my
readers that mine, as many will have surmised, may be considered a prejudiced view of this particular writer, but I shall try to present an assessment of this lady’s work that is as objective as the others.”
“Oh, I am sure you will,” Annabelle muttered sarcastically, but she read on, dreading what she would find, yet driven to find it—however negative it might be.
“Unlike Miss Austen—whose satire is never mean-spirited-Miss Bennet’s approach may be likened to one wielding a sledgehammer. In addition, one may note that, while Miss Austen’s portraits are meant to depict general
types
of persons, she cleverly creates recognizable individuals in such memorable characters as Miss Bates or Mr. Collins or Fanny Dashwood.
Miss Bennet, on the other hand, has apparently attempted to depict real individuals only thinly disguised as fictional creations. Where the facts of a particular person were unknown to her, she simply made up characteristics and actions with no regard for reality—and certainly with no regard for the consequences of her error-ridden portrayals.”
“ ‘No regard for—’? ‘Error-ridden’?” Annabelle fairly sputtered her indignation. Did he think so very little of her sense of integrity? She forced herself to calm her emotions enough to finish reading the essay.
“In all fairness, I must point out that her latest work,
Innocence Betrayed
is inferior to her earlier endeavors. So far as this reviewer could determine, she published three novels prior to this (blessedly!) shorter piece. The earlier works show a command of the craft of writing and understanding of human nature that is almost wholly absent in the infamous
Innocence Betrayed.
“In short, were it not so generally known that the events to which she so clumsily alludes in
Innocence Betrayed
occurred only a few months ago, one might well assume this to be an earlier work— produced by some overly emotional schoolroom miss. I would say to Miss Bennet—were she not hiding behind a coward’s veil of anonymity—‘I am sorry, my dear, but this simply does not live up to the promise shown in your earlier works.’ ”
Annabelle threw the magazine across the room. Now she was sputtering in earnest. “
‘Clumsily
alludes’? ‘Overly emotional schoolroom miss’? ‘Hiding’? ‘Coward’s veil’?” She balled her fists and pounded the bed in frustration.
The kiss that had dominated her conscious thoughts ever since the event had meant nothing to him! All the while he had been planning to attack the most defining aspect of her character—her writing. If this was his opinion of her work, he could not think much of her as a person. The kiss was a lie! She felt excruciating pain at this idea. Then she sat up and wiped at her watery eyes.
“Annabelle, my girl,” she muttered at the partial image she caught in the looking glass, “you are not thinking straight.
He
apparently sees no connection between the woman he kissed and the writer he maligns.”
Oh, Lord! How could she face him again?
She arose and rang for Molly to help her dress for dinner. She washed her face and wished fervently that she would never again have to see one Thorne Wainwright.
Harriet was alone in the drawing room when Annabelle went down. “Did you finish reading it?”
“Oh, yes.”
“And . . . ?”
“I have not really sorted out my feelings yet. I need to read it again.” This was true. Anger and humiliation and despair warred within.
“Will you be all right with this house party at Rolsbury Manor?”
“I think so. I do wish we were not going, but I can hardly develop a life-threatening illness only a week before the event. I will, however, ask you to plead my excuses to Lady Grimsley this evening. Were I to encounter Lord Rolsbury tonight, I think I might be tempted to do him bodily harm.”
“I might be inclined to join you, my dear,” Harriet said.
“His house party is likely to be very difficult for me.” Annabelle was thinking aloud.
“It is to be quite a large affair, I believe.” Harriet turned with a smile for her husband, who had just entered the room. “Did you not tell me, Marcus, that Rolsbury had invited several members of Parliament to his place in the country?”
“Yes, he did. In addition to Winters and me, I know of four or five others, Whigs and Tories alike, who have been invited—and their wives, of course.”
“Of course,” Harriet echoed. “And I have heard some ladies talk of having invitations who have no connections with Parliament.”
“It promises to be a sizable group,” Marcus said. He gave his wife an inquiring look. “The question is, my love, will you be able to leave our son for that length of time?”
“I own I shall miss him dreadfully, but as we shall be absent for only a week or ten days, I feel sure Nurse will be able to handle anything that comes up. Perhaps the mothers Rolsbury has invited will welcome a short holiday from child care.” She sounded more hopeful than positive about this, though.
“A sizable group . . .” Annabelle mused.
“Yes, dear,” Harriet said. “So you see? You need not expend excessive worry. Rolsbury is sure to be quite busy with his duties as host.”
 
 
Thorne was rather pleased with his first attempt at literary criticism. He felt he had presented a balanced analysis of fiction by and for women. He wanted to discuss the article with Annabelle, but in the days after its publication, he had seen little of her. He had heard she had been unwell for a day or so, but he also knew she had gone riding one morning with Luke.
He told himself he wanted only to discuss writing and books with her. She was Luke’s special friend; there could be no other reason for Luke’s brother to want to see her. Yes, he had been deeply shaken by that kiss. And for that reason alone it was necessary to put his own friendship with her on a less personal basis.
The upcoming house party would afford him the opportunity to do that—along with giving Luke a chance to further his interests with her. Somehow, that idea did not set too well—especially in view of her uninhibited response to his own kiss. Luke was right, though—the younger brother was only a few months short of reaching the age of majority. The lad—no, the young man—had a right to live his own life. It was not as though the girl were unsuitable. And it was apparent now that Annabelle Richardson was no fortune hunter. So why did Thorne have such negative feelings when he thought of her kissing Luke—or anyone else—as she had kissed him?
It made no sense. In any event, all Thorne wanted—in view of their previous discussions of books and writers—was to discuss her reaction to his article in the
Review.
When he thought about it, though, that made little sense either. After all, he had published numerous articles in the past without this urgent need to know another’s reaction.
Meanwhile, he had no opportunity to speak with her. He had seen her at the theater one evening and he called at Wyndham House one afternoon along with Luke. They found the Wyndham drawing room full and there was no opportunity for serious discussion in such a scene.
In certain quarters, though his article had not always been well-read, it was received enthusiastically.
“Good job, Rolsbury.” A member of White’s whom Thorne knew only fleetingly clapped him on the shoulder.
“ ’Twas beyond time some saner voice chimed in on that drivel,” another member of the gentlemen’s club said. “Now—if only someone could stop the females swooning over Byron’s moronic moping.”
“See you hit back at that Bennet woman,” a fellow member of Parliament said. “Good. Women need to know they cannot be allowed to go around besmirching a man’s character so.”
Thorne thought about this for a moment. He was tempted to ask the man if he thought it acceptable for a man to besmirch a woman’s character as was so often done with the infamous betting books in the gentlemen’s clubs. He let it go, though, and merely said, “My intent was to show patterns or general trends in certain types of literary works—not attack a particular writer.”
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