The Bride Behind the Curtain (5 page)

BOOK: The Bride Behind the Curtain
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VI

James Beauclaire sat in the breakfast room and stared into his cup of coffee. He'd been doing this for a while now, so, for variety's sake, he stared out the window at the falling snow.

The night had not been a good one. He'd sat down at cards with Valmeyer and Pursewell, but it had not been a satisfactory game. His concentration was off, the better part of it having stayed behind in the ballroom. Fortunately, given a choice between him and Valmeyer to fleece, Pursewell settled on Valmeyer as the easier mark. It made for a nauseating spectacle. Valmeyer was drunk, as usual, and, also as usual, he seemed to think his pride demanded he play for, and lose, large sums.

“Never mind, gentlemen, never mind,” he cried. “Plenty more where that came from.”

In your stepsister's purse
, thought James with distaste. The whole world knew Madelene Valmeyer's mother had left her a fortune and Lewis was engaged in throwing it away as fast as he could borrow it.

Usually, James did not let such things bother him. What did it matter where the money came from, as long as it ended up in his pocket? Tonight, though, Beauclaire had played out his hand and left. But when he stepped out again into the ballroom, he saw Patience in one corner and Adele in the other. With the sisters in front of him and the sharps and the flats behind him, James's guts had abruptly twisted with painful disgust—disgust over the ridiculous gathering and, more importantly, with himself. Like Benedict, James found himself no longer in the mood for any company.

But neither could he find any rest in his room, because of the letters that waited on his desk. He'd roamed the darkened halls for a while and after that installed himself in an unused room where he alternated between pacing and staring out at the snow that fell fresh and thick across the already deep drifts. Midnight came and went, to the distant sound of clocks chiming and people cheering, and his discontent remained. He'd finally returned to his own chamber in the small hours. He'd lit the candles and decided since he was already awake and brooding, he might as well have something definite to brood over. He broke the seal on his father's letters.

The good news was that Father's strength and health seemed to be holding. In the last packet, he'd spoken of a passing cold. The bad news . . . well, there was page after page of that.

 . . . I have visited with M. Saint-Croix, and although he was anxious to help, there are further fees for the papers that must be made . . .

 . . . I have spoken again with M. Mathis, and he feels another search in the Monteville archives would yield the correct deed. The cost, however . . .

 . . . in arrears to my landlord . . .

 . . . owing to the clerks . . .

 . . . I am sorry, James. It is shameful that a father should have to ask so much from his son, and yet I must ask . . .

James laid the letters down. He pulled out his purse with the notes and coins he'd won during his brief stay at the tables. He counted them up and added the sum he currently had in the bank back in London. The total was barely enough to cover what Papa needed. But there'd be nothing left to give Marie for the housekeeping and Mama's nursing.

He could have gone back down to the card room to see if there were any additional lambs left to fleece, but he hadn't. He'd climbed into the cold bed and waited for morning.

Now he sat in the breakfast room with a cup of admittedly very good coffee and hoped some new way out of his troubles would occur to him. That way proved infuriatingly reluctant to reveal itself. Instead, the doors opened, and Lady Adele slipped through. She saw him there, and she froze.

“Lady Adele! Forgive me!” Caught off guard, James struggled to his feet to make his bow. “I did not think anyone else would be up so early.”

“I . . . well . . . usually I have breakfast alone.”

“Should I go?” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, James cursed the fact that he'd only had time for the one cup of coffee and roll. His wits were still disordered from his sleepless night. He should not have offered; he should have just drunk his coffee and gone. Now, she had to be polite.

“Oh no! That is, I would not wish to interrupt your breakfast.”

James bowed his thanks. He also noticed there were rings under Lady Adele's deep eyes. She had not slept well, either. What kept her awake? Was it by any chance the memory of their few moments together? Heaven knew, those memories had occupied enough of his own thoughts. He'd imagined what he would do when next they met and dismissed those same imaginings a hundred times over. Lady Adele was not the one for him, and he most decidedly was not the one for her. She was not prepared for a gambler with family entanglements. The world he'd created for himself out of painful necessity would overwhelm this young woman. The reputation of her house would be in shambles in no time, and it would be his fault. He would be worse than Pursewell cleaning out Valmeyer at the tables, because Valmeyer at least ought to know better. Unlike Patience, who could deftly manipulate society in all its complexities, Lady Adele had no experience, no ambition. She had only herself.

And how can you be so sure?
His thoughts taunted him.
One encounter, one dance, and you believe you know all about her. Is this that famous love at first sight? How convenient it should be with one who is so rich, and so alone.

Adele smiled, clearly uncertain what manners these circumstances demanded, and moved to the sideboard. In customary manner of the English country house breakfast, an array of covered dishes, both silver and china, had been set out so that the guests might help themselves whenever they arrived. There was a country ham, as well as coddled eggs and rashers of bacon, smoked kippers, baskets of fresh rolls, a great wheel of sharp cheese, and at least a dozen other such dainties to recoup the strength of those who'd spent the night dancing. Those ladies and gentlemen who could not manage so much activity before noon would be prepared trays.

James meant to stay where he was until she had finished her selections. But as her gaze flickered over the long row of fragrant dishes, not to mention the cakes on their stands, she failed to touch any of it. It was as if she found herself paralyzed by so many choices.

He knew what the problem was. Again, his jaw tightened. He also stepped over to her side.

“Lady Adele, you must allow me, as your
chevalier
and servant, to help you to your breakfast.” He made another bow. “How can I serve you best, m'lady?”

She rewarded his pretty little speech with an equally pretty blush. “Oh, I'll just have a roll, thank you.”

“As m'lady wishes.” James set one warm roll on a plate and added a dollop of raspberry jam from the crock. He then prepared an identical plate for himself. These he set down on opposite sides of the long table, before he pulled out Adele's chair for her.

But she made no move to sit. “Aren't you hungry, Monsieur Beauclaire?”

“Starved, actually,” he admitted.

“Then you must help yourself. I'm your hostess this morning, after all,” she added. “I can't allow a guest to go hungry.”

“But it would be rude of me to feast when you are clearly fasting.” He waved toward her lonely roll.

“Oh no, no. I'm simply not hungry.”

“But your eyes betray you, Lady Adele.” He let himself smile, slowly. His fingers itched to touch her chin, to lift her reluctant gaze to his. But even were that much permitted, he knew he would not stop with so simple a touch. “Your eyes stray toward the cake and the coddled eggs. You are enticed. Possibly even entranced.”

“They do not. And I am not.”

“Lady Adele,” he said sternly. “Do you perhaps take me for one of those monsters who prefers to see a girl patiently starve rather than have her enjoy herself in my company?”

“You make breakfast sound like a dalliance.”

“Do I? How shocking of me. But the facts remain.” He folded his arms. “Either we will feast together, or we fast together. Which is it to be?”

“Oh. Well. Perhaps I will have a slice of the ham.”

“It looks very fine.” He laid one of the thick slices onto a fresh plate. “And this sauce.” He poured a healthy dollop over the salted meat. “It's unusual to find such an excellent sauce in England.”

“Our cook is French.”

“That explains it. Now, as to the walnut cake . . .”

“Oh, I couldn't.”

He sighed and laid down the server. “Then I can't, either. More's the pity.”

She frowned, and for a moment he saw a flash of her real spirit. “How long are you going to play this game?”

“Until I see you with a meal you will actually enjoy, Lady Adele.”

“Why do you care?” She blurted the words out and instantly regretted them. That, decided James, would not do at all.

“Because I like your smile,” he answered her, simply and directly. “And I like your eyes. I suspect they shine when you are happy. I'd like to find out if I'm right.” He slowly cut out a slice of cake and laid it onto her plate and favored her with his most sultry smile.

The results were not as he might have hoped. Instead of smiling and blushing and allowing him to see that bright shine in her eyes about which he fantasized, she turned her face away. “Lady Adele?”

She did not turn around. Her back had stiffened, but if it was in anger or determination, he could not tell.

“You don't have to be nice to me, Monsieur Beauclaire,” she said. It was anger. No. It was rage, quiet, suppressed, but very real.


Pardon
?” he whispered.

“Flirting with me won't help you win Patience. My sister doesn't care for my opinion or my feelings.”

Of course. Of course that was it. She thought he paid her court in order to gain a good opinion that he could use to advantage with Lady Patience. And why shouldn't she? What reason had he yet given her to believe otherwise?

At last she did turn. That rage blazed in her deep eyes, burning away all trace of her earlier bashfulness. She lifted her chin and waited for his answer, imperious and certain she was in possession of the truth.

He should have been angry at her dismissal of his motives, but anger fled him as he gazed into her eyes. Did he think that a man might drown in those eyes? He was drowning now. But her eyes were no more dangerously, magnificently alluring than her full mouth and soft, pale skin. He was standing too close. She was shivering inside her overly elaborate morning dress. Shivering because his nearness affected her, as it had when they'd hidden together. He should back away. It would be kinder to them both. He should not think about wrapping his arms around her, about relieving her of that dress, about kissing her mouth and her throat and her breasts, about discovering the whole of her body and her desire, and hearing her cry out as he fulfilled every need and wish.

But he wanted to. Immediately. Painfully. His prick was at attention, and every nerve was on fire, and it made no sense at all and he didn't care. He did not want Patience, or the card tables, or a life of convenience and duty well done. He wanted Adele. Whether it was love or lust or insanity at first sight, he did not care about that, either. All he cared about was that he would be the one to remove the anger and despair from Adele's beautiful face.

No, he would remove it from her life. He would begin today. He would begin this very moment, with one touch, one word. Now.

“Ah! Good morning, Monsieur Beauclaire,” cried Mrs. Kearsely as she threw open the doors. “And Adele, I'm glad you're here. I wanted a word with you.”

VII

Numb, dazed, Adele stumbled after Aunt Kearsely as she marched up the stairs, dismissed the maid, and shut them both into Adele's little sitting room.

He was going to kiss me.

She was sure of it. The way he looked at her, the way he stood so close. There had been an expression on his face—indecision mixed with desire. She had felt the warmth of his skin, and her heart hammered. Every part of her reached forward, even though she didn't move. Even though she knew he wanted Patience, not her.

Except in that one instant, she'd been sure he did want her. He looked at her. He saw her for herself, and he desired all he saw. She'd seen her reflection in his bright eyes, felt his warm breath against her cheek.

Then that instant shattered, and now here she stood in her rooms, facing her fuming aunt.

“What on
earth
am I going to do with you, you silly girl!”

It was too much. All Adele's nerves were still on edge, and her mind was whirling from James's almost-kiss, from the almost-fulfillment of the restless dreams and imaginings that had haunted her all night.

“Why do you have to do anything with me?” she cried. “Why can't you just leave me alone?”

She'd expected Aunt Kearsely to be shocked at her outburst, but her aunt did not even flinch.

“Despite what you may think, Adele, I do not delight in being harsh, but neither will I let you make yourself ridiculous.”

Oh. Oh, of course.
“Patience has been talking to you.”

“Your sister is rightly concerned, but I have eyes in my own head. And I am not the only one.”

Exhaustion flowed through Adele. She was starved, and she was shaking from the way she'd been whirled from one emotion to the next. She groped for the chair near the hearth and sat. “No one cares what I do.”

“They do care. You are the eldest sister of the Duke of Windford, and the world cares very much! That is why it has been so much work to shelter you!”

Adele's head snapped up. “What?”

“My goodness, girl, what do you think I do with myself! I've spent four seasons working every minute to keep the fortune hunters away from you! It's been maddening, making sure you're safe while making sure Patience has her chance.”

“You're saying . . . all those dances . . . all those parties . . .”
All those dresses!

Aunt Kearsely drew herself up to her full height. “I have done nothing that was not for your own good. You are too eager, too trusting, too friendly with anyone and everyone! On top of that you are stubborn and naive, and never give a thought to the reputation of this house! Just this morning, what do I find? You, alone, in the breakfast room, with Monsieur Beauclaire, who has been blatantly and obviously chasing your own
sister
!”

Adele tried to speak. There must be some way she could fling her aunt's words back in her face.

“Thankfully, I found you before any real damage was done,” her aunt huffed.

Before he kissed me. Before I could find out whether he really did want me, or whether I am what you say. A silly girl.

“Now, Adele, I am willing to draw a veil over this entire distressing incident, but you must let it serve you as a warning. This is your last chance. If you cannot conduct yourself as your situation demands, I will see that you stay in the country for the season.”

Adele looked up at her, mute, furious, lost.

“I have no wish to pain you, my girl, but you have forced my hand. I will speak to your brother if I must. He will listen to me.”

Yes, he will.
“Why would you treat me this way?” she croaked at last.

“Because it is what your mother wanted.”

The words hit her hard, knocking her back and leaving her jaw hanging open. “I don't believe that!”

“You should,” said her aunt stonily. “It was the last thing she asked of me. Almost the last thing she ever said.” Her aunt's eyes went distant, and Adele found herself surprised at the genuine grief she saw there. “I can still feel how her hand gripped mine. She'd been so weak, and yet she almost bruised me. I had to lean over to hear her, and she said . . . she said, ‘Patience is safe. Patience can be trusted to find her own way, but you must promise that you will protect my Adele. Men will prey upon her good nature, and you must save her from that.' She begged me to swear to it, and I did.”

“It can't be true,” Adele whispered.

Aunt Kearsely pulled her handkerchief from her sleeve and wiped her eyes. “It is entirely true, and I have done my utmost to keep that vow.”

Adele tried to picture her mother, lying back on her pillows, holding Aunt Kearsely's hand, but no image came. She'd always loved her mother, but they'd never been close. She and Patience had been raised by nurses and governesses in the usual way. Her memories of her mother seemed to be mere glimpses; Mother poring over letters at her desk, Mother dictating orders to the servants, Mother waiting alone at the table when she and Patience were brought in to say good night and get two kisses each, because Father was away, again.

“But why would she?” Adele hated the plaintive note in her voice, but speaking calmly in this moment was beyond her. “Why would she trust Patience and not me?”

“Because she was your mother, Adele,” said Aunt Kearsely sternly. “She knew you, and she knew the hazards you faced. It is not for you to question her decisions, but to trust in her love and care and obey.”

How did she know? What did she know?
Adele bit her tongue. She didn't trust her voice. Tears prickled hard against her eyes. If she spoke at all, she risked crying, but the question wouldn't leave her.
Why? Why did you do this?

Aunt Kearsely sat down across from Adele and patted her hand.

“Now, now, you mustn't think I've no care at all for your future. Once Patience is properly settled, we will find you a steady widower with his own fortune. We need not be as concerned about rank. Since you will be an older bride, that will not matter so much.”

“Because that's the best a girl who looks like me can hope for,” said Adele dully.

“Best and safest. Yes, Adele, it is.”

There it was. Finally, she had her explanation, and it was all spelled out as plainly and clearly as she could wish. She was too plain, too unsophisticated, too stupid to be trusted. She must be hidden away, broken down, set aside. It was for Patience to make an exquisite marriage, and once that was done, Adele could be handed off to someone who could be trusted manage her money and keep her foolishness in permanent check.

Because that was what her mother, her sad, distant mother, had wanted.

But as she struggled against tears, confusion, and anger, a knock sounded on the door. A bare heartbeat later, the door opened.

“Lady Adele . . . Oh! Good morning, Mrs. Kearsely.” Miss Sewell, without any hesitation, breezed into the room. “I'm so sorry to interrupt, but Lady Adele had promised to show me the duke's famous library, and knowing that she's an early riser like myself, I suggested it be this morning. I thought she might have forgotten, but I ran into Monsieur Beauclaire, and he said he was sure she was awake, so I took it upon myself . . . but that's neither here nor there. I have interrupted, and I can come back.”

Adele watched the silent internal war raging inside her aunt. The need to hammer home her lecture fought desperately against the need to cultivate this fashionable, if unconventional, personage. Fashion, as usual, won out. “Oh no, Miss Sewell. I insist you stay. Adele will be glad to show you the library.”

“Yes, of course,” Adele murmured. Never mind that she hadn't made any such promise.

Aunt Kearsely curtsied to Miss Sewell and took herself off back downstairs, leaving Adele alone with the lady novelist.

“Monsieur Beauclaire thought you might be in need of rescue. Miss Sewell shook her head at Adele and the closed door equally. “I see he was right.”


James
sent you?” Adele was glad she was already seated, otherwise she might have collapsed from the weight of her emotion.

“He did.” Miss Sewell smiled, and while it was a kind smile, it was also too sharp to be entirely comfortable. “He in fact barged into my room and all but shook me by the shoulders and insisted I interrupt the . . . discussion you were having with your aunt.”

“Oh.”

“I have known James Beauclaire for several years,” Miss Sewell went on, cocking her head to the side as if to better examine Adele. “But I have never seen him so agitated.”

He was going to kiss me. In the breakfast room. He was going to touch me, and I was going to let him. Again. He was going to tell me . . . to tell me . . .
She swallowed. Her mouth and throat had gone entirely dry. “Do you know where he is now?”

“I told him to give me ten minutes and then meet you in the library.”

“Oh.” All at once her mind cleared, and the memory that had been held back by the events of the morning poured in. “Oh! No! He mustn't! You must tell him . . . tell him I will find him later. Please.”

“I will, if you tell me why.”

Adele clapped her hand over her mouth to keep in her sudden burst of hilarity. “Because I've already agreed to one secret meeting in the library this morning.”

BOOK: The Bride Behind the Curtain
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