Read Sheri Cobb South Online

Authors: The Weaver Takes a Wife

Sheri Cobb South (16 page)

“Mr. Brundy! Mr. Brundy, sir!”

Turning he saw Jennings, the tailors’ underling, hurrying from the shop waving a shiny object in the air.

“Your watch, sir,” panted the young man, dropping it into Mr. Brundy’s outstretched hand.

“Thank you—Jennings, is it?”

“Yes, sir. Oh, and Mr. Brundy—”

“Yes?” he prompted when the hireling seemed reluctant to continue.

“I heard you might be in need of a valet, sir. I’ve never served a gentleman in his home, but I’ve dressed my share of them in the shop, and—and I’d turn you out in style without trying to turn you into a court-card. That is, I would if—if you’d give me a chance, sir.”

Mr. Brundy studied his would-be valet for a long moment and then, satisfied with what he saw, nodded. “You shall ‘ave that chance, Jennings.” He withdrew a calling card from its case and scrawled his direction on the back. “After you square things with your employers, present yourself at Number 23 Grosvenor Square.”

“Thank you, sir! Oh, and Mr. Brundy—” Again, a pause. “I don’t want to work for you under false pretenses. You didn’t leave your watch in there. I took it so I would have a reason to talk to you alone. I had every intention of returning it, whether you hired me or no,” he added hastily.

Far from being offended, Mr. Brundy grinned at him. “Jennings, I’ve a feeling we’re going to deal extremely together—under one condition.”

So great was his relief that Jennings would have agreed to any terms. “What’s that, sir?”

“The day you try to stuff me into a corset is the day I turn you off without a character!”

* * * *

From Cork Street Mr. Brundy made his way to Harley Street, where his dancing instructress awaited him in the music room. She was playing the pianoforte when the butler announced him, but broke off to greet him with a warm smile.

“Mr. Brundy! My favorite dancing partner!”

“Am I, now?” he asked, lightly clasping the hands she held out to him. “And ‘ere I thought I could claim no better than second place in your esteem.”

“Nor, for that matter, could I in yours,” Lady Randall retorted playfully. “But I shall say no more on that head. Are you ready to begin? Very well.”

As her ball was to be held the very next evening, Lady Randall had hoped to provide music for this their last session, but Mr. Brundy had been adamant in his desire for secrecy, and her suggestions that they hire a violinist or invite Miss Maplethorpe to play the pianoforte had met with steadfast resistance. Lady Randall had to content herself with marking time by counting aloud, and when it appeared that her pupil had mastered this skill, she suggested that he might find it beneficial to keep time in his head.

“After all,” she said reasonably, “it would look distinctly odd if one were to whirl about the ballroom chanting
‘one,
two, three,
one,
two, three,’ again and again.”

Mr. Brundy finding nothing to object to in this scheme, the next dance was conducted in silence. And so it was that, when Lord David Markham entered the music room unannounced, he was treated to the spectacle of his longtime inamorata in the arms of his best friend.

“Emily!” he cried, aghast. “And with Ethan, of all people! A man I would have trusted with my life!”

At the sound of his voice, the waltzing couple stepped quickly apart.

“I think I’d best be going,” murmured Mr. Brundy, but Lord David moved to block the door.

“Are you a coward, then, as well as a philanderer?” demanded an outraged Lord David. “And to think I pitied you on your wedding day! I can see my pity was misplaced. It is your unfortunate wife who deserves my sympathy!”

“David, this is not what you think—” Lady Randall interposed, but only succeeded in drawing Lord David’s wrath down upon herself. He reached her in two strides and seized her roughly by the shoulders.

“And you, madam! If you have conceived such a partiality for married men, why not marry
me?
You may be sure I would honor my vows more than this blackguard has done!”

Lady Randall caught her breath, then asked very evenly, “Am I to take that as a formal offer of marriage, David?”

“Yes!” retorted Lord David, as if daring her to accept. “Yes, you are!”

“Very well,” she said placidly.   “I accept your generous, if somewhat obstreperous, offer.”

Lord David merely blinked at her, the wind quite taken from his sails. “You do?”

“I do—as I would have done any time these past four years, had you but asked me.”

Slowly, as one in a dream, he drew her into his arms. “Have I been a fool, Emily?”

“As a matter of fact, yes, but I shan’t hold it against you,” she said with a smile.

“I’m a younger son, and my prospects are no more than what I make them,” he pointed out. “I felt I should establish myself in a career before asking you to share such a life.”

“My dear misguided David, if Mr. Brundy did not let the workhouse stand in the way of his marrying a duke’s daughter, I cannot for the life of me see why having an elder brother should prevent you from marrying a widow of independent means!”

“Then what I saw here—?”

“What you saw here was a dancing lesson—one of many, actually. I would have told you, but Mr. Brundy particularly desired that it be kept secret, and I honored his wishes. He wants to waltz with his wife, David. In fact, he is so much in love with her that he could no more look at another woman than he could fly. You need have no fears on that head.”

Lord David sighed. “I owe him an apology.”

“I should say so.”

“Devil take it, Ethan, I—”

He turned to address his wronged friend and benefactor, but save for himself and Lady Randall, the room was empty. Mr. Brundy, having the sense to know when his presence was no longer required or, in fact, even wished for, had long since made a discreet exit.

* * * *

Upon returning to his domicile, Mr. Brundy headed straightway for his study. Here he calculated the wages of his new valet and dashed off a note to a barber of Jennings’s recommendation, requesting that he call in Grosvenor Square the following afternoon for the purpose of giving Mr. Brundy a haircut. He was in the process of signing this missive when a light knock fell upon the study door.

“Come in,” said Mr. Brundy without looking up.

The door opened, and Lady Helen advanced tentatively into the room.

“Mr. Brundy?”

At the sound of her voice, Mr. Brundy’s attention was fully engaged. She looked, in his admittedly biased opinion, breathtakingly lovely in green sprigged muslin, but her demeanor was so self-conscious that Mr. Brundy’s heart would have gone out to her, had he not lost it long since. He suspected she was thinking of that midnight encounter, and he wanted to set her at ease. He wanted to assure her that it had been none of her fault, and that she need not fear a repeat of the same. He wanted to bend her backwards over his desk and kiss her senseless. Instead, he settled for rising from his chair at her entrance.

“ ‘elen! Come in.”

“Are you very busy, Mr. Brundy?” she asked hesitantly. “I should not wish to interrupt—”

“No, no! You are always welcome, I assure you.” Mr. Brundy hurried to close the door behind his wife, trying not to think of her in her nightdress with her honey-colored hair spilling about her shoulders. “ ‘ow may I be of service to you?”

You may kiss me again,
Lady Helen wanted to say.
And again, and again, and after that, there is a little matter of five hundred pounds. . . .
“I fear I have—quite unexpectedly—found myself in need of additional funds, and wonder if I might beg the indulgence of a—of an advance against next quarter’s pin money.”

“You need not
beg
me for anything,” objected Mr. Brundy, seriously alarmed.   “Is your allowance not sufficient?   Should I increase—?”

“No, no! Indeed, you are generous to a fault. ‘Tis a—an isolated expenditure, never to be repeated, I assure you.”

“Very well, if you’re sure. ‘ow much do you require?”

“Five hundred pounds.”

Lady Helen braced herself for a thundering scold, or at the very least a lecture on the value of money, but none came. In fact, her husband, regarding her with raised eyebrows, looked more amused than angered.

“Five ‘undred pounds?” he echoed. “All I ‘ave is yours, ‘elen, but before I surrender such a sum, is it too much to wonder where it is to be spent?”

“Of course not,” she said with uncharacteristic meekness. She had expected the question, and had prepared for it accordingly, and yet she had hoped to the last that somehow she would be spared the necessity of telling a bald-faced lie.

Unable to look him in the eye, she allowed her gaze to drop to the cluttered desktop—an unfortunate choice, as it landed on a carefully transcribed list of Brighton residences available for hire. Swallowing in order to moisten a mouth suddenly gone dry, Lady Helen continued. “I have recently learned of a—a charity school for orphans, and I was so impressed by the work done there that I somewhat rashly pledged a donation without consulting you.”

“Far be it from me to stand in the way of your generosity, me dear,” said Mr. Brundy. After retrieving a key from his desk drawer, he unlocked the wall safe and withdrew five crisp hundred-pound notes, which he presented to his wife. “There is one condition, ‘owever.”

That Mr. Brundy’s cooperation might come with strings attached was a possibility that Lady Helen had not even considered. Whatever his terms, she was in no position to argue. “And what is that, Mr. Brundy?”

His smile was kindness itself. “You are to consider it a gift, not an advance.”

“Thank you,” Lady Helen said in a voice choked with emotion. “Thank you,
dear
Mr. Brundy!”

Seizing his rough weaver’s hand in both her smooth aristocratic ones, she pressed it to her lips, then hurried from the room with her ill-gotten gain, leaving her bemused husband staring thoughtfully into space, nursing his hand to his cheek.

Upstairs in the privacy of her own room, she collapsed onto the bed and buried her face in her hands. She had lied to her husband, and that was bad enough, but to make matters worse, she had used trickery and deceit to turn one of the very qualities she most admired about him, that generosity of which she herself had so often been the recipient, against him. Like the veriest Delilah, she had arrayed herself in a particularly becoming gown which she knew to be his favorite color, and had come to him with a lie calculated to touch his heart and loosen his pursestrings—and she had not come away empty-handed.

Gradually, however, a new idea struck. It may have been a lie when she first told it, but it did not have to remain so. Leaping off the bed, she crossed the room to her dressing table and opened the little jeweled box where she kept her pin money. Quarter-day was still a month away, but Mr. Brundy was so open-handed that there was still a sizeable sum remaining. She tied it up in one of the monogrammed handkerchiefs she had received as a wedding gift, then after fetching a straw bonnet and pelisse from the clothes-press, went downstairs to instruct the butler to have the carriage brought round.

Half an hour later, she was set down at a squat brick building in a squalid section of town. Resisting the urge to retreat to the security of the carriage, she marched gamely up the front steps and rapped sharply on a door marked “The Templeton Institute for the Education of Indigent Youths.” A moment later the door was opened by a young girl whose threadbare apron and mended gown were nevertheless spotlessly clean and starched.

Lady Helen presented her card. “Lady Helen Brundy to see the headmaster,” said the duke’s daughter at her most regal.

“Yes’m—right this way, my lady,” stammered the round-eyed girl, overawed by the splendor of the unexpected visitor. She led the noble guest to a shabby office on the ground floor. “If ye’ll have a seat, my lady, I’ll fetch Mr. Templeton.”

Lady Helen perched on the edge of a worn armchair and surveyed her surroundings. The light was insufficient for office work, but the desk was tidy and the bookshelves behind it well-organized, containing all manner of titles from scholarly treatises on education to Charles Perrault’s
Tales of Mother Goose.

“My lady?”

A worn-looking man of about sixty stood framed in the doorway, the weak sunlight from the windows reflecting off his spectacles. He was small of stature and his gray hair was thinning, but as he stepped closer Lady Helen could see that his pale blue eyes were gentle and mild. Yes, she had chosen the right place.

“How do you do,” she said, offering her gloved hand.

“How may I be of service to you?” he asked. His handshake was firm, his manner respectful but not toadying.

“It is I who wish to be of service to you, Mr. Templeton,” replied Lady Helen. “Since my marriage, I have become concerned about the welfare of poor children, particularly orphans. To this end, I have set myself a goal of donating five hundred pounds to your establishment.”

Mr. Templeton’s pale eyes bulged. “Five hundred pounds?”

“I regret that I cannot furnish you with the entire amount at present,” she continued, fumbling in her reticule for the knotted handkerchief. “However, I hope this first installment will be of some use to you.”

“In—indeed it will, my lady,” stammered the schoolmaster, watching in awe as Lady Helen tugged at the knot to reveal the riches within. “Words cannot adequately express my gratitude. Establishments such as this depend upon the liberality of people such as yourself to survive. Unfortunately, many of the aristocracy are so far removed from the sufferings of the poor that they feel no particular burden for them. If you will pardon my asking, what inspired you to give so generously?”

Lady Helen was silent for a long moment, and when she spoke, she did not look at him, but gazed pensively out the window. “My husband was not born to great wealth, Mr. Templeton. He came up through the workhouse, and now owns the cotton mill whose former owner was once paid to take him off the parish. If I am generous, it is because of the—the love—which I bear for him.”

“I shall hope for the opportunity to meet your husband someday,” said Mr. Templeton. “If I may say so, he sounds like a most remarkable man.”

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