The Brahmin Ball (A Sweet Historical Romance Novella) (Brahmin Brides Book 1) (8 page)

BOOK: The Brahmin Ball (A Sweet Historical Romance Novella) (Brahmin Brides Book 1)
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That brought her up short.
Why am I angry with Grace? She’s been through so much, I’m surprised she hasn’t taken to her room before this. I think of myself as a strong person, but I couldn’t have withstood all that she’s been through, and come out of it with as kind and patient a spirit as Grace has.

But that spirit had been crushed—or at least temporarily bruised—and it killed Madeline to see it.
And here I am, blaming her for taking time to get past it all!

Garrett Gladstone was to blame for Grace’s melancholy.

And Madeline knew exactly what she should do about it.

Chapter Thirteen

 

 

 

Garrett slipped into the coat that the servant held out for him, shrugging it up onto his shoulders.

Felicia Browning smiled up at him. “I look forward to seeing you tomorrow, Mr. Gladstone. It’s been nice having you around again.” She lifted a hand to smooth her hair—an unnecessary gesture, as the glossy blonde locks had not dared stray from their perfect arrangement.

“It’s been my pleasure. Until tomorrow, Miss Browning.” He dipped his head to bid adieu, then took his had from the servant and donned it as he waited for the door to be opened for him. Stepping out into the brisk wind, he flipped his coat collar up against the chill.

He couldn’t wait to get home and relax. Between the long hours at his new firm and the long visits every afternoon to the Browning home, he was exhausted. Too often, his nights were filled with tossing and turning, which didn’t help the matter.

Snippets of his evening at the ball with Grace haunted him. The curve of her neck, the blush on her cheeks, her lovely tinkle of laughter every time he made a joke—every image was an ice pick to his heart.

Shaking his head, he pushed the thoughts away and descended the icy steps carefully.
You need to remain focused on the future, Garrett. Obviously a future with Grace is impossible, so just keep your eyes on what is important: the bright future you have at the firm.

In fact, his uncle’s idea of a political future for him tempted him more and more every day.
Perhaps it’s time I was more ambitious,
he thought as he climbed into the park sleigh.
Why settle for the life my father had? If his death taught me nothing, it’s that life is short. Why not grab my shot at having prestige of my own?

It was a comforting thought…of being a self-made, powerful man who didn’t need to worry what the heiresses of the world thought of him.

 

***

 

“Are you sure we should be doing this?” Clara cast a glance over her shoulder as they made their way down the block for a third time. “We’re going to look like desperate women, hoping to bump into a wealthy man.”

“No, we are formerly wealthy women hoping to confront a desperately ambitious man,” Madeline corrected, holding her head a little higher. “I feel quite in the right about it.”

“Mother would disapprove.”

“Mother disapproves of everything. I have no intention of letting Mr. Gladstone get away with his poor treatment of Grace. It may not be good manners for us to inform him of his own ill manners, but someone needs to do it.”

“There he is!” Clara announced, gripping Madeline’s sleeve.

A few doors down, Garrett Gladstone descended the steps of the Browning home, toward the Dwight’s easily recognized park sleigh.

Madeline walked a little faster, watching her step on the uneven bricks of the icy sidewalk, arriving just as the man was climbing into the driver’s seat. “Mr. Gladstone, may I have a word?”

“Of course. Forgive me, you look familiar, but I can’t seem to remember—?”

“I’m Madeline Barstow, and this is Clara Barstow.” She narrowed her gaze. “
Grace
Barstow’s sisters.”

His eyes widened. “Of course!” He climbed down from the sleigh, smoothing his coat. “I remember seeing you with her at that ball last month. I hope the holidays found you well.”

“I doubt we enjoyed our holidays as much as you did.” Madeline cast a pointed glance up toward the door of the Browning residence.

He followed her glance, then returned his gaze to Madeline. “I would very much like to speak with you. Can I offer you ladies a ride home?”

Madeline exchanged a glance with Clara, then shook her head. “I don’t think that would be wise, under the circumstances. But we’ll accept a short ride, down the street a ways, and back.”

“Very well.” Mr. Gladstone helped Madeline into the front of the four-seat sleigh, then assisted Clara as she climbed into the back seat. Walking around the sleigh, he got settled, and they were soon off.

The wind on her face was cold as they whooshed down the snow-packed street, falling into line between other sleighs. Beacon Street was as busy as always on afternoons following a snowfall—couples enjoyed spending time together, and young men were always eager to show off their new sleighs. Madeline blushed, realizing that it could appear that she was spending time with Mr. Gladstone, with Clara as a chaperone. If Mr. Gladstone was indeed engaged, and people talked, her mother would have a fit.

“This is my uncle’s sleigh,” Mr. Gladstone said. There was an awkward moment of silence. “I wouldn’t want you to think I was going about, pretending it was mine.”

“It’s not my business whose carriage or sleigh you make use of, Mr. Gladstone.” Madeline deliberately made the conversation difficult—probably to the point of rudeness—but she was so angry for Grace’s sake, she found it difficult to stop herself.

“Yes. Well…” he cleared his throat. “I’ve been eager to…no, forgive me, I should let you speak first. You said you wanted a word with me?”

He cast her a sideways glance, and the tension in his jaw told Madeline that he might have an inkling that she wanted to give him a dressing-down.

“I did.” She took a deep breath, steeling herself to be bold. “You embarrassed my sister the night of the ball. You promised her a dance, then cut out in the middle of the ball, with not so much as a word of apology. One could forgive it, should there have been an excuse, such as illness. But I hear you’re doing well. In fact,” she tilted her chin higher, piercing him with a look, “I hear you’re doing
quite
well. Am I to understand that congratulations may soon be in order?”

She caught Clara out of the corner of her eye as she watched Gladstone—she was shrinking down in the back seat a bit, in embarrassment.

Gladstone turned his head sharply, his expression a mixture of shock and confusion. “Congratulations? I’m not sure what you could mean.”

Madeline’s certainty wavered. “Are you not courting Felicity Browning? I apologize if I’m being presumptuous, but it sounds as if the announcement will come any day…”

Irritation passed over his face as he drew himself up in indignation. “You are indeed being presumptuous, Miss Barstow. And I’m surprised that any sister of Miss Grace Barstow would take part in such gossip. It’s no one’s business to make any assumptions about my visits to the Browning home, unless or until I or the Brownings disclose the reason for such visits.”

“I…I didn’t mean…” Madeline had lost her footing, and didn’t know how to stand her ground. He was right. She’d made assumptions and listened to gossip, and even if it was true, it wasn’t her place to ask about any of it. But that didn’t make his treatment of Grace any more excusable.

“What
did
you mean, then?” he said in a clipped manner. “And why do you accost me for ignoring your sister, when it is clearly the other way around?”

Madeline and Clara gasped in unison.

“How can you say such a thing,” Clara demanded, “when you abandoned her and ran off with your former fiancée? She was devastated!”

“Clara!” Madeline chided. Grace would be humiliated if she knew they’d revealed the depth of her pain.

“I didn’t abandon her, I gave her a message through one of the servants. She was all the way across the room, and I had no time to spare.”

Madeline put gloved fingers over her mouth to cover her shock. She’d forgotten all about the footman who had approached Grace after Gladstone’s quick exit.

“Did he not deliver the message?” Mr. Gladstone prompted.

“He did. That is, he tried to, but…oh dear.” She had the feeling her embarrassment was about to deepen.

“Are you saying Grace never heard the message? That explains it!” He slapped a hand on his knee, holding the reins with the other. He shook his head. “I thought she must have changed her mind about me. I asked him to give my regrets, and told him to ask Grace for her address, so that I could call on her later in the week. When I tried to ask Uncle’s footman the next day, I couldn’t find the man. The servants informed me that he’d been fired the evening before.”

“Fired?” Clara asked. “For what?”

“For reasons best not spoken of,” he said. “Uncle Edgar and Aunt Alice were already gone when I came downstairs that morning—I forgot that they were scheduled to leave that day, to spend the holidays with their daughter’s family, so I couldn’t ask for your address. A few days passed before I thought to have a servant find it for me, on Aunt Alice’s calling list. I went to your home that very day, intending to leave my calling card, but no one answered the door, and the house was silent, with curtains drawn.”

Madeline’s stomach clenched. He must have stopped by right after they’d moved from their home. The moving crew Uncle Henry hired didn’t have much to move, as much of their valuable possessions had to be left behind, to be taken by creditors, against their father’s debts. “We…changed residences shortly after the ball.”

Mr. Gladstone shook his head. “I never should have chosen that footman to deliver the message. I should have taken the time to do it myself. If I’d known he was a problem…”

“Oh, but he did,” Clara piped up from the backseat. “He did try. But Grace was so upset about it, she left before he could give it.”

“Clara!” Madeline hissed.

“Upset about what?”

Madeline sighed. She had no choice at that point. “She knew that you knew. She knew why you were leaving. She just couldn’t bear to hear it.”

He glanced at Madeline before returning his eyes to the road. “I’m confused…why would Grace be upset that I was leaving to visit a sick friend? She doesn’t strike me as being so shallow.”

Madeline clenched her hands inside her fur muff.
We’ve made a grave mistake!
“A sick friend?”

“Yes. Amelia Browning. Felicia Browning’s sister.”

Glancing back at Clara, Madeline could see she was as shocked and embarrassed as she was. “You’ve been visiting Miss Browning’s youngest sister?”

“Yes...but…I thought you said Grace knew.”

“No. I’m so sorry. This has all been a terrible misunderstanding. She had no idea you were visiting a sick friend. She thought…that is…we heard…”

“You heard I was courting Miss Browning again?” He raised an eyebrow. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. We were a favorite topic of gossip when we were courting. I think that might be half the reason Miss Browning insisted on continuing the courtship, despite her family’s protests, rather than true affection for me.”

“I’m dreadfully sorry. When you disappeared so fast, at the worst possible time, we just assumed it was because…” she stopped herself just in time.

Mr. Gladstone pulled the sleigh to the side of the street, and turned to give her his full attention. “Because?”

“You…don’t know?” Madeline asked, slowly, unable to believe what she was hearing.

“Know what? Miss Barstow, please stop speaking in riddles, and just say what you mean. I apologize, but given my profession, I prefer the direct approach.”

“Surely you’ve heard about our…situation.”

He shook his head. “Meaning, your move?”

“The
reason
we moved.” She would
not
say it out loud, and she would hate him forever if he made her say it.

“Miss Barstow, please, assume I’m completely in the dark. Because I am. What reason?”

She stared at him in horror, then turned away.

“Our family’s financial ruin,” Clara stated. “You can’t possibly tell us you haven’t heard. It spread through the ballroom that night like wildfire, and tongues have wagged about it ever since.”

Madeline’s face burned, and though she dreaded it, she stole a peek at him to gauge his reaction.

His mouth hung open with shock. “No. No, I did not know. I had no idea. I’ve been working all day and visiting Amelia every evening. She became like a little sister to me when I courted Miss Browning, and I still consider her a dear friend.”

“How is she?” Madeline asked.

“Much better. She came down with an awful case of influenza. They weren’t sure if she would make it. Miss Browning is still very concerned, but the doctor now expects Amelia to make a full recovery.” He heaved a sigh, looking up at the grand homes that towered three stories above them. “I had no idea your family was experiencing difficulties. I never heard the rumor. I hated to leave without saying goodbye to your sister that night, but Miss Browning told me a servant had arrived with a message that Amelia’s condition had worsened tremendously soon after she had left for the ball. She wanted me to go back with her, because she was so upset, and because she knew I’d want to see Amelia. I couldn’t ask Miss Browning to wait, so I gave the footman the message to deliver to Miss Barstow. I had no idea she hadn’t received it. I only assumed she had changed her mind, or that your mother didn’t approve.”

“Oh dear…all this time...” Madeline shook her head, embarrassed that she had said so many terrible things about Mr. Gladstone, without knowing the facts.

“All suffering Grace has been through…” Clara added with a sigh.

BOOK: The Brahmin Ball (A Sweet Historical Romance Novella) (Brahmin Brides Book 1)
7.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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