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An Encounter with Venus
By Elizabeth Mansfield
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2003 Paula Schwartz
All rights reserved.
George would be the first to admit that a momentary glimpse of a Venus ten years earlier was not an important event in the larger scheme of things. After all, the ensuing decade had been filled with many more significant occurrences. From that very day, when he'd returned to Cambridge to find that Bernard had lost the use of his legs, the decade had been full of meaningful experiences. After graduation, George had taken a flat with Bernard in London to help him adjust to life on crutches. Then, a year later, with Bernard's insistence that he could manage on his own, George had joined Lord Wellington as an officer in the Spanish campaign and saw firsthand the devastations of war. After Waterloo, he and Bernard had become involved in politics, actively engaging in the struggle for parliamentary reform. Then his father had died, and George had succeeded to his title: Earl of Chadleigh. There hadn't been time to dwell on so insignificant an event as a glimpse of a naked lady.
Yet even now, at the much more mature age of twenty-seven, and even after seeing many unclad females of varying degrees of beauty, he could still close his eyes and bring to mind that momentary sight. And the memory of it could still set his blood astir. That was why he agreed to attend a house party his sister was giving at the Abbey in Yorkshire.
His sister's party was the type of social event he usually avoided, but Felicia had traveled down to London expressly to coax him to attend. Even so, he was, at first, adamant in his refusal. He knew why she tried so hard to entice him. Not only did she need as many gentlemen as she could find to please her female guests, but she was particularly eager to marry her brother off to one of her many unwed friends, all of whom considered George Frobisher, the Earl of Chadleigh, a most desirable catch. George, however, had no intention of being caught. "When I'm ready for wedlock," he'd told his sister more than once, "I'll find my own bride."
Nevertheless, over a sumptuous luncheon at Fenton's hotel, Felicia kept insisting that he come. "I promise you, Georgie, that on this occasion you'll have a lovely time."
From across the table, George eyed his sister suspiciously. She was looking particularly appealing this afternoon. She'd worn a feathered bonnet with a small, round brim that accented her full cheeks and only partially hid her auburn curls, making her look—as she well knew!— much younger than her thirty-three years. Her large blue eyes were looking across at him so appealingly that he had to stiffen himself to refuse her. But he was determined to do just that. He knew he was an easygoing fellow who found it hard to refuse any request from family or friends ... in fact, he was aware that the men at his club referred to him affectionately as a soft touch. But when it came to fending off predatory females, he was determinedly firm. And predatory females would certainly be present at Felicia's house party. "You don't need me, Felicia," he said as he speared a piece of pickled salmon with his fork. "You always have a crush."
"It won't be a crush, this time," she promised. "There will only be ten at table. It will be such fun! I have costumes for an amusing tableau, we're to have a tour of the old church at Rudston—it has a genuine pagan monolith on the grounds!—and my dear Leyton is planning a shooting party—"
George cut off her enthusiastic recital. "I've always wondered, Felicia, why you insist on calling your husband by his family name. You never call me by mine."
"Really, Georgie, I can scarcely be expected to call my baby brother Frobisher."
"But surely a husband is a more intimate relation than a brother."
"It's his given name, you see. Montague. He hates it. But don't try to distract me, dearest. I so want you to come! It will be a wonderful weekend, really it will!"
George would not be moved. "You know how I hate to play the extra man at your dinner table," he told her flatly. "The ladies you ask are invariably annoying."
"That's not true. You seem to find fault with all the women you meet. If you didn't, you'd be wed by this time."
"There may be some truth in that. Most of the young ladies I come across are too compliant and mawkish, too trivial-minded or too aggressively flirtatious."
"Compliant? Trivial? Aggressively flirtatious?" Felicia studied him curiously. "What do you mean by that? Would you describe my friends that way? Too sweet or too shallow or too bold?"
"Most of them. Do you remember your birthday fete last year? One of your friends—I can't remember her name ... the tall one with the frizzled hair that she tied up on one side of her head—"
"Do you mean Lillian Plante?"
"That's the one. She drew me out on the terrace and actually dared me to offer for her, the silly chit."
"It wouldn't have hurt you to have done it," Felicia retorted. "It's about time you were married. But Lillian isn't coming this time. She's gotten herself betrothed. I'm only having Blaine Whitmore and—"
"Whitmore? Whitmore?" George tried to bring her to mind. "Is she the one with the highpitched giggle?"
Felicia shook her head. "You haven't yet met her, but she is, I promise you, the very loveliest creature. I've also asked Beatrice Rossiter and—"
"Ah, Beatrice Rossiter! There's a treat," George scoffed. "Speaking of trivial-mindedness, no sooner do you say your how-de-dos to her than she begins her aimless chattering and never stops."
"You mustn't mind that. She only does it to hide her shyness."
"Indeed? Shy, is she?" He chuckled scornfully. "Shy as a rooster at dawn, I'd say. One wonders how she manages to snatch a breath."
"You're being unkind," his sister accused, but without real bite. Defending Beatrice was not her objective; getting her brother to come to her party was. "But, Georgie, please, stop finding fault. Let me tell you who else will be with us. Let's see, Lord and Lady Stoneham, and Leyton's friends, the Thomsett brothers, Horace and Algy. And Livy, of course."
"Livy?" he asked. "Who's Livy."
"Olivia Henshaw. An old friend from school. You needn't trouble about her."
Olivia Henshaw! The mere sound of that almost-forgotten name brought him on instant alert, in the same way that, when he was on bivouac with the army, a cracking twig would bring him suddenly awake. He felt his whole body stiffen inside, but the only outer movement he made was the lifting of one eyebrow. "No?" he managed to ask. "Why needn't I trouble about her?"
"She's two years older than I—much too old for you."
But George wasn't really listening. He was seeing in his mind's eye a Venus emerging from a tub. The vision was so real that his heart clenched. It occurred to him with a shock that he wanted nothing more than to attend his sister's house party after all.
"Please, Georgie," Felicia was pleading, but without much hope, "I've three unattached females and only two single men, the Thomsetts. I need you! Do be a darling and come this once!"
"Very well," he said in what his sister thought was an abrupt and utterly surprising capitulation, "I'll come to your blasted house party. Just this once."
Felicia gave a little scream of delight, jumped up from her chair, ran round the table, and threw her arms about his neck. "Oh, you darling!" she cried. "I'm so glad!"
George scarcely noticed the embrace. All he could think of was that—at last!—he was going to meet his Venus face-to-face.CHAPTER 2
After leaving Felicia, George strolled along Regent Street toward Chadleigh House, swinging his walking stick jauntily—too jauntily, perhaps, for a man of his age and position. But he couldn't help it. His blood was bubbling with a boyish sense of anticipation, an excitement he hadn't experienced in years. How could he go home to a quiet house when he felt this inner churning? He changed his direction, deciding instead to drop in at Bernard's rooms.
He found Bernard at his desk going over his notes for a speech he was to give that evening at Brooks' club. "I wasn't expecting you this afternoon," Bernard said, turning his wheelchair about and looking up in surprise. "Didn't you say you'd pick me up about eight?"
"Yes, but I wanted to tell you about my luncheon with my sister," George explained. "I agreed to go to her party at the Abbey on the fourteenth."
"The fourteenth?" Bernard's eyes widened in alarm. "But that's right before the ball!"
"A full week before," George countered. "I'll leave on Thursday. I've only promised for the weekend. I can be back on Monday, in plenty of time for a ball on Wednesday night."
"You can't be sure of that." Bernard wheeled himself in nervous agitation across the room to where George stood. "What if there's a storm? Or an accident to your carriage? Damnation, George, you know how important the Renwoods' ball is to me!"
George knew. Bernard was struggling with feelings of love for the first time since their school days. He'd at long last found a lady who attracted him and who'd not shown revulsion at his crippled legs. Women did not often take to Bernard, either when he was standing upright on his crutches or seated in his wheelchair. He was not a handsome fellow to begin with, having a too-large nose and thick, bushy hair that he could not keep smoothed down. In addition, his accident had bent his six-foot two-inch frame into a somewhat hunchbacked shape. George, of course, believed the ladies to be shortsighted. In George's view, Bernard was perfectly prepossessing—his expression intelligent, his eyes bright, his wit keen. But for most ladies, he had little physical appeal, and ironically, on the few occasions when one did find him pleasing, he found reasons not to like her. Until he met Harriet.
Harriet Renwood was a sweet creature with a soft voice, a warm smile, and a pair of melting brown eyes. She'd sat down beside Bernard at a recent dinner party and engaged him in conversation for the entire evening. She'd even refused two other gentlemen when they'd interrupted to ask her to dance. Her manner had been so encouraging to Bernard's hopes that he'd been top-over-tail ever since. When, a few days later, he and George had each received an invitation to the very exclusive Renwood ball, Bernard was quite beside himself. George fully understood why. Because of his incapacity, Bernard was seldom invited to balls; therefore, this invitation was, to his mind, proof of the lady's interest in him. He could hardly wait for the event to take place.
George studied his friend with sincere sympathy. "I know what it means to you, Bernard. I fully intend to be there. But if, as you say, something should occur to prevent me, it shouldn't matter. Dash it all, man, you don't need me with you. If that dinner party the other night is any indication, Harriet Renwood will not leave your side all evening."
"At a ball given by one's own mother, a girl wouldn't be permitted to spend the evening exclusively with one gentleman, even if she might wish to. She'd have to fill at least some of her dance card. And when she does get up to dance, what shall I do with myself without your company? I'll have to stand about on the sidelines, leaning on my crutches like a poor, pathetic mooncalf."
"What rot!" George exclaimed. "As if there won't be a dozen fellows to surround you, eager to argue about your views on the corn laws, to say nothing of the elderly ladies who always flutter about to mother you. How many times have I had to stand about on the sidelines like a lost soul while you were otherwise occupied?"
"Stand about on the sidelines, do you?" his friend scoffed. "I have yet to see the day when you don't have your pick of any of the ladies present."
George waved away the comment. "Seriously, Bernard, you needn't let a ball frighten you. A man who can speak his views before packed audiences at every club in town can certainly handle himself at a mere ball."
"This is not a mere ball. My heart is at stake. Damnation, George, I'll need your support that night of all nights!"
"Very well, you'll have it. I'll be back in time, I promise."
Bernard eyed him dubiously. "I don't understand why you agreed to go to the Abbey in the first place. You've never enjoyed your sister's social events above half."
"This time I have a special interest. I understand that one of her guests is to be someone I've very much wished to meet. I've wished it for a long, long time."
"Oh?" Bernard raised a curious eyebrow. "Who is that? A lady?"
"Yes," George said with a grin. "A lovely lady."
"Do I know of her?"
Bernard peered up at his friend with knotted brows. "How is it you've never told me of her?"
"I've never met her, you see."
"Never met her?" Bernard shook his head in confusion. "Then how do you know she's so very lovely?"
"I didn't say I'd never seen her," George explained. "I only said I never met her."
Bernard stared at his friend in utter perplexity. "What?"
"Don't gape at me as if I'd suddenly grown an extra nose," George said, laughing. "I caught a glimpse of her once, that's all."
Bernard threw up his hands. "This is all too much for me," he muttered. "You're not behaving like yourself at all." He wheeled himself about, returned to his desk, and began rummaging through his papers. "That mere 'glimpse' hasn't so greatly overset you as to cause you to change your plans for this evening, has it?"
George snorted. "Good God, no."
"Then you'll still be picking me up?"
"Yes, of course." George started toward the door. "Eight sharp."
"George?" Bernard asked with an urgent quiver in his voice. "You did mean what you said before?"
George paused in the doorway. "What was that?"
"That you'll be back from your Yorkshire trip on time, no matter what?"
"I'll be back," George assured him. "You have my word."
Bernard lowered his head to his work again. "I only hope that mysterious lady will make your untimely trip to Yorkshire worth your while," he muttered lugubriously.
Feeling a bit foolish about the entire matter, George could only answer, "I hope so, too."CHAPTER 3
Bernard may have felt that the trip to Yorkshire was untimely, but to George the time seemed long overdue. In all the years since his first glimpse of his "Venus," he'd never imagined that he would actually meet her. She'd become, in his mind, a dream, a vision, an ideal beyond reach. Now, suddenly, she was becoming real. A meeting was imminent, and he found himself unwontedly eager for it. Nevertheless, this boyish impatience surprised him. After all, he was a twenty-seven-year-old man-of-the-world, wasn't he?
You're no longer a green lad, he cautioned himself all during the ride to Yorkshire, so stop behaving like one! But the trip, which took only seven hours instead of the expected eight, seemed endless to George. He'd chosen to drive his phaeton and pair, and at one point he caught himself urging his matched bays to race at an almost breakneck speed. His young tiger, Timmy, wondering what maggot had gotten into his lordship's head to make him abuse his favorite horses in that manner, cried out a warning. George got hold of himself and made the bays slow down. I'm no longer a seventeen-year-old, he reminded himself. It was foolish to give such significance to what had been a mere moment of his life. But he couldn't be blamed—could he?—for feeling some excitement at having been given a second chance to learn what might have happened if that moment had not been cut short.
They arrived at Leyton Abbey at sundown. George, windblown and disheveled as he was, leaped from the box, threw the reins to the tiger, and ran up the front steps. His sister was on hand to welcome him, but he gave her only a quick, wordless embrace and dashed past her to the drawing room without so much as a pause to remove his driving gloves.
The room was completely deserted.
He swung about to his sister, who'd followed him down the hall. "Where are your guests?" he demanded in frustration.
"Judging from your eagerness to meet them," she said in surprise, "one would think I was entertaining the Prince Regent."
"Never mind Prinny. Where are your guests?" he insisted.
"Prinny sent regrets," she retorted sarcastically. "The rest are dressing for dinner, of course." She pushed him toward the stairway. "And so must you. Really, Georgie, you're behaving most peculiarly. I can't imagine what's wrong with you. Where's your valet?"
"I only brought my tiger, Timmy," George muttered, trying to hide his disappointment and get control of himself. "He's seeing to the horses."
Excerpted from An Encounter with Venus by Elizabeth Mansfield. Copyright © 2003 Paula Schwartz. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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