Authors: Mary Brendan
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #Romance, #Historical Fiction, #Historical Romance, #Regency
‘It looks as though Bridgeman has forgiven George for not selling him Westlea House.’
Mark Hunter’s cynical observation drew his brother’s interest. Jason dropped the opera glasses from his eyes and turned to look to his left.
Colin Bridgeman and George Kingston were indeed looking very cosy together in one of the boxes.
Bridgeman had his head tipped back and was guffawing. Of Iris Kingston there was no sign, although Jason had seen George and his wife arrive together. Jason’s coach had drawn up outside the opera house at the same time as had George’s. The gentlemen had coolly acknowledged one another with a nod. The ladies had exchanged disdainful summarising stares. Diana’s audible aside that a far superior harlot would be needed to put
in her place had made Jason inwardly smile as they proceeded to the stairs in the King’s Theatre.
The house had been scintillating with light and laughter as Jason and Diana took their seats in one of the green boxes just before the performance started.
Now the curtain had fallen on the first act and a buzz of conversation was again growing louder in the auditorium. The performance had been pleasing, but now the main entertainment had begun as people flitted from place to place to pose with friends and gossip over the latest
Mark Hunter had moments ago ambled in to speak to his brother, leaving behind in his own box his current amour. The abandoned actress was with her gallants, yet her soulful eyes were constantly straying to Mark despite the fact that he appeared oblivious to her attention.
Soon after Mark had arrived in Jason’s box, Diana had left it. Jason had made no objection when one of his mistress’s young admirers had entered his domain. The fresh-faced boy had politely asked if he might escort Mrs Tucker to Lord Frobisher’s box where her friend Mrs Bertram was holding court.
The appearance of the eager young buck hovering behind him had started Jason reminiscing on his own youth. For the past few minutes he had been idly training his glasses on the pit to watch the boisterous gentlemen congregating there. Fifteen or more years ago it would have been he and his friends—George Kingston included—laughing and joking whilst fixing a lascivious eye on the elegant females up in the boxes. It had been a game amongst young bloods then, as he imagined it was now, to compete for a lady’s signal. Wagers had regularly been laid on who would be first to be beckoned by a society beauty to indulge in a little flirtation … perhaps more than that before the night was out.
Jason had been following, with some lazy interest, the interaction between Michael Langham and Lady Corbin. The ageing countess had finally given up on subtlety. Her bosom was spilling from her gown as she hung over the edge of her box, frantically jiggling her fan at the object of her desire.
But now Jason lounged back in his chair, bored with the mating rituals of the beau monde. His eyes narrowed on the two gentlemen to one side of him, still deep in conversation.
‘I’d not be surprised if George were negotiating some sort of deal with Bridgeman,’ Mark suggested with a quirk of a dark eyebrow. ‘Can’t be selling him his wife, though.’ He gave a coarse chuckle. ‘I hear Bridgeman’s had Iris for free.’
‘As have above half the gentlemen here tonight,’ Jason murmured on extending his muscular legs comfortably in front of him.
‘I saw those two together in Hyde Park yesterday. Kingston made quite a spectacle of his youngest sister, and the people she was with, much to Bridgeman’s amusement.’
Jason slowly drew himself up in his chair again and rested his elbows on his knees. He turned his face to Mark and gave him his full attention. ‘What happened?’ he asked.
Mark shrugged. ‘At a guess I’d say George was casting aspersions on the worth of the young gentleman taking his sister for a drive. I don’t know why, he seemed mannerly, and there was another lady present so the niceties seemed to be in order.’ He frowned thoughtfully. ‘I was ready to intervene when I eventually recognised the poor fellow’s identity,
but it would have simply prolonged the hubbub. We may not be close, but there is a family connection. Goode looked ready to explode with embarrassment and his sister, Anne seemed to be crying. Kingston can be damned insensitive.’
Jason stared at his linked fingers, then slanted a steady gaze at his brother. ‘Philip Goode was taking Charlotte Kingston for a drive?’
Mark gave a nod. ‘For the last time, I’d say, judging by Kingston’s reaction. If the lad had ideas above his station where George’s sister was concerned, I’d say he’s been knocked severely back into place.’
‘Which means that Kingston must have another candidate in mind or he wouldn’t stir himself to bother,’ Jason muttered. He took a thoughtful look at George Kingston’s box.
Mark read his brother’s mind. ‘I’ve heard that Bridgeman is in the market for a wife.’
At that point Diana swept into Jason’s box in a haze of cream muslin and gardenias. She pouted her thanks at her ardent gallant for safely returning her whilst keeping an eye on Jason to detect a reaction. The fact that there was none, and Jason continued conversing in a low voice with his brother, made spots of colour burn in her cheeks. She settled herself in her chair with much rustling and sighing.
The curtain began to open on the second act and Mark took his leave to return to his own seat.
Jason looked at Diana; she rewarded his indolent attention with an extremely seductive smile.
‘Mrs Bertram and I were just saying that the soprano sounds shrill tonight.’
‘Do you want to go?’ Jason suggested bluntly.
Diana’s lashes lowered to screen a sudden brightness in her blue eyes. ‘I’m not bothered if we do leave. I know you’ll always find us something pleasing to do. Are you bored? Have you something nice in mind?’ She whispered huskily.
Jason straightened his spine against the chair-back, then lithely gained his feet. Courteously he extended a hand to Diana. ‘Nothing in particular,’ he said lazily, his eyes on the dim outline of George Kingston’s box. ‘But I’ve seen enough….’
t had been some months since Helen had set foot in this house, but she saw straight away that the broken hallway chair was still propped against the wall. An air of faded elegance imbued the vestibule of the Goodes’ residence much as it did the interior of Westlea House. Walters, the family’s old retainer, closed the front door behind Helen before turning to give her a stump-toothed smile.
‘Miss Anne will be pleased to see you, Mrs Marlowe.’
‘I … actually, is Mr Philip Goode at home?’ Helen asked. ‘It would be nice to see him too whilst I am here.’
‘He is at home, Mrs Marlowe but he has an important gentleman with him at present.’ The information was imparted with a hint of confidentiality and
a twinkle in the eye. Walters was plainly impressed by the fellow’s identity if not about to reveal it.
‘Helen! It is good to see you. Is Charlotte not with you?’
Helen twisted about to see Anne Goode flitting down the stairs. ‘Charlotte is indisposed … a slight headache, but nothing to worry about,’ Helen quickly added as Anne showed concern. ‘Perhaps I ought come back another time as you have company.’
‘No, please stay!’ Anne urged. ‘Come to the drawing room. Philip will like to see you.’ She linked arms with Helen. ‘I had just slipped away from there for a second to change into my best shawl when I thought I recognised your voice.’ Anne gave an absent stroke to the lustrous silk swathing arms that were lightly freckled. ‘I think our distinguished visitor is only planning to stay a short time. Do come and say hello for it might delay him. I’ll wager he is too mannerly to take his leave soon after someone new is introduced.’ Anne gave a little giggle. ‘It is hard to credit that we are related to such a grand family. In fact, it is so long since Goodes socialised with Hunters that I had quite forgot our connection.’
‘Hunters?’ Helen’s tone held sharp enquiry.
Helen abruptly halted and Anne was jerked about to face her, for their arms were still entwined as they
took a promenade along the hallway. Being so close Anne spontaneously hugged Helen in excitement.
‘Sir Jason Hunter is visiting us. We are distant cousins, you know,’ she proudly informed her.
A startled tenseness shaped Helen’s features on discovering the identity of the eminent guest.
‘Do you know the Hunters?’ Anne asked on a frown.
Helen managed to execute a jerky nod. ‘Sir Jason and my brother, George, were friends when younger. When we lived in Surrey our house was quite close to Thorne Park.’ The explanation was brief and abstracted—already Helen’s mind was attending to the consequences of what she’d heard.
She had promised Charlotte that she would relay a message to Philip today, but she needed an opportunity to be alone with him. With Jason Hunter present there would be even less chance to engineer a private conversation and discover if her sister was to have her heart broken.
But there were other issues besides Charlotte’s happiness rotating dizzily in her mind. When she had left Westlea House this afternoon her first task had been to take to the post a letter for Jason Hunter. In it she conveyed her regrets at Mr Drover’s conduct, but its proper purpose was to ask him to again visit her. She was reasonably confident that her phrasing
and his sophistication would ensure he understood her objective.
Infuriatingly, the two gentlemen with whom she had pressing business were in the immediate vicinity, yet nothing would be gained by seeing either of them now.
It seemed an odd coincidence that Jason Hunter should have recently renewed his acquaintance with her and also with distant cousins he had not seen in an age. Helen felt inclined to ponder if it was connected to the association between Charlotte and Philip.
Charlotte had defiantly told their brother that she would marry Philip despite his objections. George did not like to be thwarted and could bear ferocious grudges. The roses, put in Helen’s cheeks by her brisk walk, faded away. Her reasoning veered between possibility and probability. Had George stooped to enrol Jason’s help in ensuring Philip stayed away? There was no love lost between her brother and Jason Hunter, but she had bitter proof that they could successfully deal together in business.
‘Are you well, Helen? You look very pale,’ Anne said anxiously.
Helen reassured her friend with a smile.
‘Will you come to the drawing room and join us?
You need not feel overawed by Sir Jason,’ Anne advised helpfully. ‘Indeed, he is terrifyingly distinguished and handsome.’ A little shiver of delight accompanied that observation. ‘But he is not at all uppity.’ Anne inclined her head to whisper, ‘I think I have a crush on him already and he has not been here above half an hour. I know his brother Mark is handsome, too. I’ve heard that Emily Beaumont has quite a hankering for him.’ She sighed. ‘It is a shame that Mama is gone out. She will be distraught to have missed him.’
Gently Helen disengaged her arm from her friend’s. ‘I shall not stay, Anne.’ The idea that she might manage to politely converse with Jason in company, knowing that her explicit summons was even now on its way to his door, was enough to make her complexion flood with blood.
Anne skimmed the back of her hand over Helen’s cheek. ‘Heavens! First you seemed too pale now you look very flushed. I hope that you and Charlotte have not taken a chill.’
‘I shall be on my way, Anne. I only called in as I was passing this way to go to the library.’ It was a little fib that she could make truth by entering that establishment on her way home. ‘Charlotte is on her own, so it would perhaps be best that I do not tarry.’
Once back in mellow sunshine Helen descended
the stone steps and turned in the direction of home. As she passed the phaeton at the kerb she hesitated. Belatedly she recognised it and chided herself for having overlooked it when she arrived. Twice recently this very vehicle had been idle outside Westlea House. She glanced at the young groom holding the reins of the fine chestnut horses as she walked swiftly on.
Jason accepted more tea from Walters and wandered to the window with it. He glanced down at the street scene, half-aware that Anne had returned and was bestowing on him another coquettish smile. His mouth tilted in response as his cup travelled upwards. Short of its target the vessel hovered, then was replaced softly on its saucer. He turned fully to gaze through the glass at the girlish figure skipping quickly down the stone steps. The young woman lingered by his phaeton, long enough for him to clearly identify her, before hurrying away.
In Anne’s absence he’d had an enlightening conversation with her brother. By calling on them today he’d finally broken the ice that had been set half a century ago by their warring kin. He’d remained an acceptable amount of time. Now he was ready to take his leave.
Helen had been walking quickly, her face lowered against gusts that whipped her hair into her eyes. She had slowed her pace to pick away the irritating tendrils and clear her vision. Now, as she raised her head, she glimpsed him just in time to compose herself.
The phaeton had drawn to the kerb a little way in front of her and Jason was leaning against the shiny coachwork, watching her approach.
Helen felt her stomach somersault at the sight of him. There was no doubt that Anne was correct: Jason Hunter, despite his casual stance and his dark fringe blown awry by the breeze, was terrifyingly attractive.
She remembered that she had planned on looking sophisticatedly groomed the next time they met. She knew the rudiments of applying cosmetics and could make an adequate job of tinting her lips and complexion. She had also been rather pleased with the way her thick tresses had been teased into a stylish coiffure when she had practised with the tongs earlier in the week.
With a wry inner smile Helen acknowledged that today she looked simply bedraggled, whereas he looked ruggedly windswept. But her steps didn’t falter as she brushed the black tangles from her white skin and neared him.
He was watching her, a slant to his mouth, and she knew he was amused to see how she would react to this unexpected meeting; whether she would stop and talk or simply nod and walk on by. But then he had not yet received her schematic note and had no idea that, in fact, a meeting between them was exactly what she wanted. It was merely the time and place that were wrong.
Her chin tilted and she boldly traversed the pavement to stand before him. ‘Good day to you, Sir Jason. How are you?’
Jason inclined his head. ‘I’m very well, thank you. And how are you, Mrs Marlowe?’
‘I’m well, too, sir, thank you.’
‘And the weather seems quite fine for this time of the year,’ he added smoothly. Slate-grey eyes skimmed the perfect oval of her face as she attempted to gather the loose strands clinging to her complexion. ‘Though it is perhaps a little too windy.’ It was a murmured observation.
Helen felt her face burn where his darkly humorous gaze lingered.
‘Why did you not stay longer at the Goodes?’
‘Anne mentioned to you that I had called?’
‘No. I saw you leaving from the drawing-room window.’
‘Oh …’Helen caught her lower lip in small perfect
teeth. She settled on being honest. ‘I … I wanted to speak privately to Philip about something, but it didn’t seem that I had chosen an appropriate time.’
‘I thought perhaps Anne mentioned my name and you sped away to avoid seeing me.’
‘Yes, she did. But, no, I didn’t … run away, that is. Actually, I have wanted to see you and have today sent you a letter.’ Helen abruptly pressed her lips together. She had not meant to so boldly disclose that fact. But he had guessed correctly her evasive action, and it had nettled her into rashness. She strove to limit the damage. ‘I … I wrote to you because there is something on my mind … but please don’t ask me to explain now,’ she quickly besought as his eyes became narrow with interest.
‘Perhaps I can guess what it is,’ he softly said. ‘You want to know what ulterior motive prompted me to settle your grocery bill. Is that it?’
He was not quite correct, but his thoughts were certainly travelling in the right direction. She backed away a step, said in a strangled tone, ‘It is not a good time or place to talk, sir.’ She glanced about, noticing that people passing by were sliding inquisitive looks at them. No doubt they were wondering why an elegant gentleman, in possession of an expensive equipage, would be in tense conversation at the side of the road with an unstylish young woman. As
Helen noticed two plump matrons give her a scandalised stare, then put their heads together, a shocked breath filled her lungs. Surely nobody thought her to be soliciting! The thought that next jolted into her mind crushed her indignation and her pride. Procuring this man’s protection was exactly her intention; she had simply hoped to proposition him out of sight of prying eyes.
Jason’s head tilted so he might study her lowered face. ‘If you have taken the trouble to write to me about your concerns, they are obviously important.’ He held out an arm to her. ‘Come, if you will allow me take you home, we can talk there—’
‘No …’ Helen swiftly interrupted, her eyes glancing on his. ‘Charlotte is at home today and I would rather not …’
‘I understand. I’m sure I can find a place en route to Westlea House that is neither too secluded nor too public. A drive through the park is sure to turn up a quiet spot. We can stop there and look at the view without attracting attention.’
Helen needed little persuasion to agree. As soon as he returned home he would have her note … and her measure. It would be best to surge ahead with what she’d started. If she had misjudged his interest in her, and her forwardness irritated rather than pleased him, she might never see him again. She
knew that he found Diana Tucker desirable and, Heaven only knew, she was as far removed in face and figure from her as a woman could be. As Helen took his arm to be courteously assisted aboard his phaeton, she drove down any regrets at having despatched the letter at all. The deed was done, and done after much inner debate that had kept her restless throughout last night.
She had been expecting that, once on the move, he would immediately try to prise some snippet from her. But she was wrong. It was several minutes later that Helen abruptly broke the silence. She had become far too conscious of a muscular thigh encased in fawn fabric close to her hip. Feeling flustered by his proximity, she slid a few inches away on the seat before angling to face him. Briskly she marshalled her courage and her thoughts. She might just as well open proceedings and contrive to lead their conversation towards revealing herself … as a brazen hussy. Quickly she blurted, ‘I know that you are related to the Goodes, sir; forgive me for asking, but what prompted you to visit them after so long an estrangement?’
Without losing speed, Jason skilfully manoeuvred a path between two weighty coaches. Once the road was clear he reined back the plunging horses and gave her a glance. ‘Are you asking whether the
friendship between your sister and Philip Goode might have spurred me to go there?’
There was very little hesitation from Helen before she owned up to that. ‘Yes, sir, I suppose I am.’
Jason smiled his appreciation that she’d not prevaricated. ‘I suppose I could say I simply thought a family feud of some decades’ duration had run its course, and it was time to extend an olive branch.’
‘But it wouldn’t be the whole truth.’
Emboldened by his honesty, Helen continued to probe. ‘Did you know that Philip has been quietly courting my sister, Charlotte?’
‘I had heard something of the sort.’
‘From George, I take it.’ Her spontaneous response was curt enough to make Jason frown.
They had passed through the gates of Hyde Park. The earliness of the hour and the buffeting wind ensured that few other people were about to enjoy the spring sunshine. Jason drew the phaeton to a smooth halt in a quiet avenue. Soft afternoon sun filtered through swaying branches to lightly gild them.
‘I first learned of it from my brother, Mark,’ he eventually answered her.
‘Your brother?’ Helen echoed in surprise.
Jason turned on the seat to face her. He leaned back against the side of the vehicle. ‘Mark witnessed
a rather unpleasant scene in this park. It involved your brother and sister and our cousins. Mark interpreted what he saw as George displaying disapproval of Philip Goode squiring your sister.’