Read Slightly Wicked Online

Authors: Mary Balogh

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General

Slightly Wicked (8 page)

BOOK: Slightly Wicked
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“Eighteen!” he said. “A mere infant. I would rather choose someone closer to my own age.”

“But that age has grown so advanced,” she said tartly, “that any woman close to it will be at least halfway through her breeding years. I want to be assured that my property will be secured in you and your line, Rannulf. You have brothers, all of whom I hold in deep affection, but I decided long ago that you were the one.”

“I have years left in which to oblige you,” he said. “You are just a spring chicken, Grandmama.”

“Saucy boy.” She clucked her tongue. “But I do not have forever, Rannulf. Far less than forever, in fact.”

He looked keenly at her, his glass halfway to his lips. “What are you saying?” he asked her.

“Nothing to concern yourself with unduly,” she said briskly. “Merely a little trouble that will doubtless take me eventually, perhaps a few years earlier than if I were forced to wait for old age to take me off.”

His glass was down and he was on his feet before she could hold up a very firm staying hand.

“No,” she said. “I want no sympathy, no soft words, no comfort. It is my life and will be my death and I will deal with both myself, thank you very much. I merely want to see you well married before I go, Rannulf. And perhaps, if you are
very
dutiful and I am very fortunate, I will see your first son in his cradle before I go.”

“Grandmama.” He raked the fingers of one hand through his hair. He hated to think of his own relatives as mortal. The last time it had been his father, when he was only twelve years old. He closed his eyes as if to shut out what she had clearly implied.
She was dying.

“You will like Julianne Effingham,” she said. “She is a pretty little thing. Just your type, I would guess. I know you came here fully intending to shrug off my matchmaking attempts, Rannulf, as you have always done in the past. I know you believe yourself to be quite unready for matrimony. But give it a try, will you, this possibility of a suitable match? For my sake? I ask only that you promise to try, not that you promise to marry her. Promise me?”

He opened his eyes, looked down at her, surely far thinner than she had been when he last saw her, and sighed.

“I promise,” he said. “I’ll promise you the earth and the sun and moon too if you wish.”

“The promise to meet and court Miss Effingham is quite sufficient,” she said. “Thank you, my boy.”

“You must promise me one thing too,” he said.

“What?” she asked.

“Not to die anytime soon.”

She smiled fondly at him.

CHAPTER VI

J
ulianne Effingham’s come-out had been declared a resounding success by her mama. It was true that she had failed to achieve that pinnacle of all young ladies’ dreams—the attachment of a rich and handsome husband during her very first London Season. But the situation was by no means desperate. She had attracted a whole host of admirers, several of them very eligible young gentlemen indeed, and she had cultivated the friendship of several young ladies of a superior social rank to her own.

The list of friends and admirers had been carefully pored over by Julianne and her mama, a dream list of houseguests had been drawn up, and invitations had been sent out to attend a two-week-long house party at Harewood Grange. Almost half had accepted, and the desired number had easily been achieved by sending out invitations to a new list of second choices and then third choices. The guests were due to arrive four days after Judith.

It was no coincidence, as she soon realized. Even apart from the fact that her usefulness in looking after her grandmother’s needs must have been the prime, long-term motive for sending for her, there were also a thousand and one other ways in which her hands and feet could be kept busy during the frantic days before everyone arrived.

Aunt Effingham and Julianne spoke of nothing else but the house party and beaux and marriage prospects. Uncle George Effingham spoke of nothing at all and rarely opened his mouth except to put food and drink into it or to answer a question directed specifically at him. Judith’s grandmother spoke a great deal on a wide range of topics, and she was very ready to laugh at anything that slightly amused her. It was soon evident to Judith, though, that apart from herself, no one appeared to take much notice of what her grandmother said.

She was a great deal plumper than Judith remembered, and more indolent. She complained of a host of maladies, both real and imaginary. She passed the mornings in her own rooms, much of the time spent on decking herself out in elaborate coiffures, not-so-subtle cosmetics and perfumes, brightly colored clothes, and masses of jewelry. She moved to the drawing room for the afternoons and evenings, rarely went outside unless it was to visit her neighbors and friends by closed carriage, and overate, her particular indulgence being cream cakes and bonbons. Judith loved her from the first moment. She was good-natured and genuinely delighted to see her granddaughter.

“You are here at last,” she had cried that first day, enfolding Judith in a warm, violet-scented hug, the silver bangles on both her wrists jangling as she did so. “And it is
Judith
. I was so hoping it would be you. But I have been worrying myself sick that all the rain would wash you away. Let me have a good look at you. Yes, yes, Louisa, you may go down for your tea. But have Tillie bring a tray up for Judith, if you would be so good. I daresay she did not eat a great deal during her journey. Oh, my love, you have grown into a rare beauty, as I knew very well you would.”

Grandmama was demanding even though her smiles and apologies and thanks and hugs made all the unnecessary errands less annoying than they might otherwise have been. Whenever she was upstairs she needed something from downstairs. When she was down, she needed something from her rooms. When she was five feet from the cake plate or bonbon dish, she needed someone to fetch her the food since her legs were particularly bad today. It was easy to understand why Aunt Effingham had been willing to take in one of her brother’s daughters when Papa had written to her about his straitened circumstances.

True to her word, Aunt Effingham examined every garment Judith had brought with her and whisked away almost all her dresses in turn. A maid who was clever with her needle let out the side seams so that the garments hung loosely about her, disguising her voluptuously curved figure and making her look simply plump and shapeless. Judith had brought two caps with her, since her mama had always been insistent that she wear one even though Cassandra, one year older than she, still went bareheaded most of the time. Aunt Louisa found her another for wear during the daytime, a matronly bonnet cap that tied beneath her chin and hid every strand of her hair and, together with her altered dresses, made her look thirty years old at the very least.

Judith made no protest. How could she? She was living at Harewood on her uncle’s charity. Her grandmother protested, and Judith humored her by sometimes removing the cap when they were alone together in Grandmama’s sitting room.

“It is because you are so beautiful, Judith,” her grandmother said, “and Louisa has always been afraid of your kind of beauty.”

Judith merely smiled. She knew better.

Much of the family conversation during the days before the guests arrived was for her edification, she soon realized, even though she was very rarely addressed by name. Some of the expected guests were titled or the offspring of titled gentlemen. All were socially prominent. Most were wealthy and those who were not had birth and breeding to recommend them instead. Most of the gentlemen who were coming were head over ears in love with Julianne and very close to declaring themselves. But Julianne was not at all sure she would have any of them. She thought she might well have someone else instead—if he met with her approval.

“Lord Rannulf Bedwyn is brother to the Duke of Bewcastle, Mother,” Aunt Louisa explained in the drawing room the second evening. “He is a third son but still the second heir since neither the duke nor Lord Aidan Bedwyn has yet sired a son. Lord Rannulf is the second heir to a dukedom.”

“I saw the Duke of Bewcastle in London this spring,” Julianne said. “He is dignified and haughty and everything one would expect of a duke. And just imagine! His brother is coming to visit Lady Beamish, his grandmother and our neighbor.”

Since Aunt Louisa, Uncle George, and Grandmama must have been well aware of the fact that Lady Beamish was their neighbor, Judith gathered that she was the intended recipient of this startling information. Lady Beamish, presumably the maternal grandmother of the Duke of Bewcastle, lived close by.

“I know she is looking forward to Lord Rannulf’s arrival,” Grandmama said, lifting one sparkling, heavily ringed hand from the arm of her chair. “She told me so when I called on her a few days ago. May I trouble you to pass the cakes again, Judith, my dear? Cook has made them unfortunately small today. You really ought to have a word with her, Louisa. Three bites and they are gone.”

But Julianne had not finished her recital. “And Lady Beamish particularly wishes to present Lord Rannulf to
me,
” she said. “She eagerly accepted Mama’s suggestion that he participate in the activities of the house party. She has invited me and our houseguests to Grandmaison for a garden party.”

“Of course she has, my love,” Aunt Effingham said, smirking with pride. “Lord Rannulf Bedwyn is Lady Beamish’s heir as well as being in possession of a sizable fortune of his own. It is natural that she should wish to see him make a good match, and what more suitable choice could she make than a pretty young lady of birth and fortune who is also her neighbor? It will be a splendid match for you, will it not, Effingham?”

Uncle George, who was reading a book, grunted.

“And you can see now, Julianne,” her mother continued, “why it was wise of you to take my advice not to encourage the addresses of the first gentleman or two who would have offered for you in London.”

“Oh, yes,” Julianne agreed. “I might have married Mr. Beulah, who is a bore, or Sir Jasper Haynes, who is not even handsome. I
may
not marry Lord Rannulf Bedwyn, either. I will see how I like him. He
is
rather old.”

Judith was sent upstairs at that point to return her grandmother’s jeweled earrings to her jewelry box because they were pinching her earlobes as they always did if she wore them for longer than an hour at a time, and to bring down the heart-shaped ruby ones instead.

Hearts! Her own was heavy indeed, Judith thought as she trudged up the stairs. She had been released mercifully soon from her worst anxiety—her courses had begun the day after her arrival at Harewood. But nothing, she suspected, was going to release her from deep depression for a long time to come. She could think of nothing but her day and a half and two nights with Ralph Bedard, reliving every moment, every word, every touch and sensation, unwilling to let go of the memories for a single moment lest they fade away entirely, wondering if it would not be kinder to herself to let them do just that.

Sometimes she felt that her heart would surely break. But she knew that hearts did not literally break merely because their owners were unhappy—and foolish. How dreadfully foolish she had been. Yet she clung to the memories as to a lifeline.

Late on the morning of the day before the houseguests arrived, while Tillie was curling her grandmother’s gray hair into its usual elaborate style and Judith was mixing her morning medicine, the one that ensured her ankles did not puff up too badly, Julianne burst into the dressing room, fairly bubbling with excitement.

“He is come, Grandmama, Judith,” she announced. “He arrived a few days ago and is to call here this afternoon to pay his respects.” She clasped her hands to her bosom and pirouetted on the carpet.

“That will be delightful,” Grandmama said. “A little higher on the left, I believe, Tillie.
Who
is coming?”

“Lord Rannulf Bedwyn,” Julianne said impatiently. “Lady Beamish sent word this morning announcing her intention of calling on us this afternoon for the purpose of presenting Lord Rannulf. Eight and twenty is not so
very
old, is it? Do you suppose he is handsome, Grandmama? I do so hope he is not downright ugly.
You
can have him if he is, Judith.” She laughed merrily.

“I daresay that if he is a duke’s son he will look distinguished at the very least,” Grandmama said. “They usually do, or did in my day, anyway. Ah, thank you, Judith, my love. I am feeling rather short of breath this morning, a sure sign that my legs are going to swell up.”

“We must all be sure to be in the drawing room, wearing our very best,” Julianne said. “Oh, Grandmama—a
duke’s
son.” She bent her head to kiss her grandmother’s cheek and darted lightly back across the room to leave. But she stopped with her hand on the doorknob. “Oh, Judith, I nearly forgot. Mama says you must be sure to wear the bonnet cap she gave you. You had better not let her see you bareheaded like that.”

“Do hand me the bonbons, Judith, if you will be so good,” Grandmama said after Julianne had left. “I never can abide the taste of that medicine. Louisa must have windmills in her head, insisting that you wear caps when you are a mere child. But I daresay she does not want your hair outshining Julianne’s blond curls. She need not worry. The girl is pretty enough to turn any foolish male head. What shall I wear this afternoon, Tillie?”

A short while later Judith changed into her pale green muslin dress, one of her favorites, though it now hung loose and almost waistless about her person, and tied the narrow strings of the bonnet cap beneath her chin. Goodness, she looked like someone’s spinster aunt, she thought with a grimace before turning firmly away from the mirror. No one was going to be interested in looking at her this afternoon anyway. She wondered if Julianne would have Lord Rannulf Bedwyn even if he turned out to be a three-foot-tall hunchback with a gargoyle face. Her guess was that her cousin would not be able to resist the lure of becoming Lady Rannulf Bedwyn no matter how he looked or behaved.

         

         R
annulf had spent the whole of his first day at Grandmaison in his grandmother’s company, talking with her, strolling with her in the formal gardens, where she refused the support of his arm, telling her more about the recent activities of his brothers and sisters, sharing his first impressions of Eve, Lady Aidan, his new sister-in-law, answering all her questions.

He noticed that she was slower than she had been, that she seemed tired much of the time, but that pride and dignity held her upright and active so that she did not once complain or accept his suggestion that she retire to rest.

He dressed with care for the visit to Harewood Grange, allowing his valet to heft him into his tightest, most fashionable blue coat with its large brass buttons, and to create one of his elaborately folded neckcloths. He wore his buff, form-fitting pantaloons and his white-topped Hessian boots. Since his hair was too long for a fashionable Brutus or any other style currently in vogue, he had it tied back at the nape of his neck with a narrow black ribbon, ignoring his valet’s pained comment that he looked like something escaped out of a family portrait from two generations ago.

He was going courting. He winced at the mental admission. He was going to view his prospective bride. And he did not see how he was going to get out of it this time. He had promised his grandmother. She was definitely ill—it was no trick she was playing on him. Besides, she had asked him to promise only that he would consider the girl, not that he would marry her. She had been as fair to him as she could be.

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