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Authors: Mad Marias Daughter

Patrica Rice

BOOK: Patrica Rice
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MAD MARIA’S DAUGHTER

 

Patricia Rice

 

Chapter One

 

“You want to what?” Daphne’s voice broke on a high note as she stared incredulously at the gentleman holding her hand. Only her awareness of the crowd behind him kept her nervous question from reaching a shriek.

“Marry you.” Albert’s cheeks reddened behind his military whiskers, but then, his normally ruddy color prevented anyone but a close observer from noticing.

“Marry me?” She sounded like a parrot despite herself, but she couldn’t disguise her disbelief.

Heads turned in the ballroom. This alcove certainly did not lend itself to an intimate setting.

Daphne read his uneasiness as he shifted his gaze from her face to the velvet draperies and then to the floor. He was thanking his stars he’d had the sense to propose in a crowded room. At that thought, Daphne took a deep breath and fought her soaring temper.

“Don’t be absurd,” she answered sharply, lowering her voice an octave.

His ruddy cheeks grew redder, but a stubborn line marred his mouth. “Absurd? What other offer have you?”

Control. One. Two. Three. Daphne squeezed her eyes shut to eliminate the staring crowd. Why did they always stare? She wasn’t her mother. She wasn’t. She chanted the familiar refrain to cool her ire. She was perfectly normal, and this absurd little man wouldn’t prove her wrong.

“We don’t even know each other,” she offered reasonably, although her legs felt as if they were shaking beneath her. She needed to sit down. It had been four years, but sometimes ... She shut out that thought along with the crowd.

“We’ve known each other forever,” he remonstrated.

“We’ve danced one dance at each occasion we’ve met since you came home from the Continent.”

She couldn’t believe this was happening. Just as she had made up her mind to leave London and set herself on the shelf, this abysmal little man had to come along and shake her newly won confidence.

He stared at her as she stood there with her hands clenched in fists, then glanced cautiously to the people behind him. They were staring. He coughed to gather his courage and tried again. “Surely that is sufficient to judge we suit?”

Daphne heard the meaning behind the words—her impeccable behavior these last weeks had been “sufficient” to believe she wouldn’t have hysterics in public as her mother had been apt to do.

Albert had been in Spain when Daphne first came to London. He hadn’t seen her stumble awkwardly across the dance floor, cursed by a lame leg that didn’t adequately support her. He hadn’t seen her fall attempting to enter a carriage.

Most of all, he hadn’t seen one of her rages when these things happened. But he’d heard, as he had heard about her mother. Instability ran in the family, it was whispered.

One had only to remember Daphne’s grandmother Pierce, who proclaimed pigs were superior to men in every way. And there was her Aunt Agatha, who lived the life of a recluse in the backwaters of Devon. And of course, there was always Daphne’s mother, her dashing, lovely, charming, and very dead mother.

No. It wouldn’t do. She had been right to decide to leave London, where her mother had left such an indelible impression upon society. Daphne had tried to eradicate that impression, but she had her own flaws to cope with; she couldn’t hope to cover her mother’s as well.

The memories of her mother’s dramatic departure from this world hadn’t faded from the petty minds of society, would never fade as long as Daphne was available to remind them. She had been young and foolish when she had come to town. She no longer had that excuse. They would never forget, and they would never let her forget.

Daphne opened her eyes and commanded her suitor’s attention. He shifted nervously from foot to foot. “No. I will not marry you,” she stated without the requisite murmurs of honor and flattery. His proposal had just barely been honorable and certainly not flattering.

Albert looked vaguely startled. “Of course you will. What other choice have you?”

It was really quite the last straw. She had forgotten that the hand he didn’t hold was occupied.
Until now
. Lifting the crystal cup of punch, Daphne poured it carefully over his thinning gray hairs.

Sweetly, she replied, “This is my choice.” She handed him the empty cup and limped away.

* * * *

Clutching her reticule in her lap, Daphne stared out at the growing darkness beyond the carriage window. It had been kind of Lord and Lady Lansbury to loan the use of their carriage to take her to her aunt’s. But then, everyone had been so kind and sympathetic—once she had announced she was leaving. And relieved. She shouldn’t forget how relieved they were at the departure of someone as unpredictable as Mad Maria’s daughter.

Daphne bit her lip and tried to retrieve her straying thoughts from the debacle that had capped her stay in London. She was almost at Aunt Agatha’s. There seemed no purpose in stopping for the night despite the driver’s protests. He could travel on to the Lansbury estate in the morning. The carriage had to come this way anyway. The Lansburys had merely been offering a minor kindness, after all.

Clutching her gloved fingers, Daphne wrestled with the twin devils of ingratitude and cynicism. She could have taken a post chaise like anyone else. She was lame, not helpless. She was not even incompetent and certainly not mad. She was actually quite intelligent. Not that anyone cared. Biting her lip, she watched the road to her voluntary exile go by.

In a society that demanded perfection, she lacked the essential requirement. She supposed she looked well enough. Friends and family had assured her that her brunette curls were just as they ought to be, that her features were quite well-formed, even to the point of prettiness and past.

 They even claimed that her eyes were a most extraordinary green, and if they seemed a trifle hazy and mysterious at times, that was more to her account than not. The fact that they were her mother’s eyes created the problem. Part of the problem, she had to admit. The rest of the problem she created herself.

Daphne fought back tears and forced her chin up. She had been green enough at first not to realize why the young gentlemen passed her by for flighty, less presentable girls.

Oh, there was always someone’s kind relative to bow and ask if they might fetch her some punch or to exchange meaningless gossip through a dance set or two. She was never left to feel alone and neglected, but she was seldom asked for more than one dance, either. Once was daring enough. Twice would have been foolish. After all, what if she took leave of her senses in the middle of the dance floor?

Not that her mother had ever committed such a social solecism. She had been very polite about her madness. If her effervescence sometimes reached the heights of hysteria, or her dismals became black whorls of discontent, no one paid them any mind. That was just Maria. Charming, ever-maddening Maria.

Even her suicide had been committed with exquisite care to make it look an accident. It was only by pure, horrible chance that she had been discovered.

Daphne closed her eyes against that long-ago pain. She could remember her mother as sweet and smiling and ever gentle. Why could society not remember her that way, instead of as the lady who had suddenly driven her carriage off a cliff one dark night, in full view of her only daughter?

The period of mourning for her mother had long passed, but the
ton
continued to look at Daphne askance, waiting for her to show signs of her mother’s instabilities. They found them all too frequently in the sharp lash of Daphne’s temper, her cool withdrawal when anyone approached the subject dominating their minds, and in her inability to be one of me crowd.

The members of the
ton
would nod their heads sagely and give each other knowing glances, then treat her to saccharine smiles and insipid pleasantries until they could make their escape. After all, who wouldn’t be unstable after such an experience?

At times, Daphne felt as if the
ton
resented being reminded by her presence that the world outside their hallowed halls was not a perfect one. Perhaps if they knew how imperfect she was, they would turn their backs on her completely.

As it was, Daphne had persisted, refusing to believe all of society could be so shallow and thoughtless as to disregard her because of her mother’s tragedy. Besides, she had no where else to go, naught else to do unless she wished to play the part of sheltered invalid in her father’s house. And then she truly would go mad.

For four long years she had determinedly beat her head against society’s thick walls. Now, she had given up. She would not go back.

Gazing blankly out the uncovered carriage window, Daphne tried not to imagine what her future would bring. Like any other young girl, she had set out in society with the dream of finding a young man who would understand and care, someone she could share her thoughts and her life with.

She certainly hadn’t set any higher goals than that. Considering her lameness, it mattered little to her if the man of her dreams was perfect. She had a secure competence from her mother’s estate, not a wealthy one, but sufficient for a comfortable life. She didn’t require great wealth. She didn’t even need a title. Her father was only the younger son of a relatively obscure north country title. Titles meant nothing. But she had expected to be found pleasing by someone, somewhere. It was not as if she were a complete antidote.

But, as it turned out, apparently she was. After four years on the Marriage Mart, despite the kindness of all her relations, she had received only that one proposal, and it had been an insult.

Albert wasn’t the sort her very protective relations would normally allow near—another reason he’d asked for her hand while in public view. Bankrupt and twice her age, his offer had been made out of desperation. If that was the best she could do, she was better off unmarried. Society could pity her little more for her spinster state than it already did for her mother’s death.

Her maid snored slightly, jolting Daphne back to the present. Aunt Agatha’s house couldn’t be far. They had just come through the village a little while ago. She had forgotten how steep this road was as it wound down to the riverbank. Or perhaps she had never known. She had probably been just as soundly asleep as her maid the summer she traveled here with her father.

The world outside seemed darker. Daphne looked up, trying to tell if clouds were covering the moon that had just risen. From the varying shades of darkness, she surmised the bank down to the river was overgrown with trees. The road appeared to travel along the river a little way before the bridge. She would have to ride here one day and investigate. It ought to be lovely on a sunny day.

If Aunt Agatha would allow her to ride. Dropping back against the seat in disappointment, Daphne had to consider that possibility.

With her brother’s reluctant assistance, she had escaped her father’s home because he had insisted on watching her every minute, forbidding her the stables, insisting that she be accompanied each time she ventured out of the house, all but ordering her to remain inside for fear she would be lost to him as her mother had been. She had been unable to tolerate the restrictions. If he had written Aunt Agatha with those same orders, would she obey?

Her mother’s relations in London had been more understanding, but that had been London. She had been accompanied everywhere by cousins and footmen and maids.

The size and sounds and smells of the city had intimidated her, and she had accepted the fact that a lady could not travel alone, so she had not protested the restrictions there.

But the country was different. She used to love solitary walks with nature, and she had learned to ride as soon as she could walk. She did not wish to abandon those pleasures to please her grief-stricken, anxious father.

For all that mattered, she didn’t see why she couldn’t learn to navigate the streets of London just as well as a garden path, if only people would leave her alone to walk at her own pace.

There had been so many exciting things around her, places she would have liked to linger, people she would like to know, but she was limited to those her family chose to visit. Now that she was older and more sure of herself, she had come to resent their constant vigilance. She was not likely to go berserk or collapse in the middle of a busy street if she stumbled.

But she would never have the opportunity to explore London now. If she and Aunt Agatha rubbed along well, she would in all likelihood spend the rest of her life in splendid isolation in the rugged wilds of Devon.

Relatively speaking, of course. She had heard of the mountains in Scotland and Wales, and learned of the magnificent scenery of Europe and America from her tutors, but unaccompanied, she wasn’t destined to see them. So she really ought to make the most of this rough bit of coast and moor. She and Aunt Agatha would just have to come to an understanding.

A shout outside the carriage shocked Daphne from her reverie. She grabbed the strap as the carriage swayed and pitched forward wildly. What on earth was the driver doing?

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