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When Cassandra Beringer heard that her daughter had made a dazzling catch in London, she was doubtful, based on her own unhappy experience with marriage. Now, everything about her daughter's intended sounded all too reminiscent of Cassandra's late husband. But sometimes a mother cannot choose a daughter's destiny--or plan on the stirrings of her own heart. Original Regency romance.
At the very moment when he should have made Cicely an offer, Jeremy Tate, Viscount Inglesby, experienced a change of heart. It was a turnabout of feeling so sudden, so violent, so complete, that he was left breathless. It was not unlike the feeling one experiences when, after stealing out early on a summer morning eager for a swim, the placing of one toe in the still-icy water sends one scurrying back, shivering, to the house.
All evening long Jeremy had eagerly anticipated the moment when he and Cicely would be alone, for this was the night he intended to offer for her. But the dinner party they'd attended seemed to go on endlessly, and, as the hours passed, he'd begun to feel somewhat uneasy. He attributed the feeling to the fact that he'd never in his thirty-eight years asked a woman to wed him. Once he'd actually proposed, he told himself, he would probably feel quite normal again.
But when he and Cicely had finally said their good nights to their hostess, Lady Hallam, and had seated themselves comfortably side by side in Jeremy's phaeton, the uneasy feeling grew worse, and before he knew what was happening, he was experiencing this complete change of heart. He didn't want to wed the girl after all!
Jeremy, unused to emotional reversals, didn't know what to do. Cicely was expecting a declaration. And this was the perfect time. The night was mild, a three-quarter moon spread a silver gleam on the rooftops, and the clip-clop of the horses' hooves on the cobbles of the London streets echoed pleasantly in the night air. What made matters worse, the girl was looking up at him with a shiny-eyed expectancy. The moment was at hand. But poor Jeremy, with one toe about to dip into the waters of matrimony, wanted only to go scurrying back to bachelorhood.
He looked down at Cicely's pretty, expectant face and felt his heart sink. "Cicely, I ... I ...," he mumbled.
"Yes, Jeremy?" The corners of her lips curled upward, and with every confidence that his next words would be the loving declaration she was waiting for, she dropped her eyes modestly to the hands folded in her lap.
"I ... er ... hope you enjoyed the dinner," he said lamely.
The girl looked up at him in surprise. "You must know that I enjoyed it very much," she said, wondering if the sophisticated, mature Lord Inglesby had suddenly been taken shy. "Are you merely making conversation with me, my lord?"
"Yes, perhaps I am."
"I think you are feeling bashful," she said, smiling up at him encouragingly. "Mama does not approve of bashfulness, you know."
"No? Why not?"
"She says that modesty is a virtue, but bashfulness is pushing modesty too far."
"Your mother must be a witty woman," he murmured absently, wondering how he could think of hurting so sweet and charming a creature as Cicely Beringer. Yet he knew with a chilling certainty that he did not want to spend his life with her.
"Mama is charming," the girl was saying. "But you'll see that for yourself tonight, won't you?" She threw a quick glance up at him and then looked down again. "She's come in from Dorset especially to ... that is, I expected ... I thought you intended to come in with me and ... er ... meet her."
Jeremy understood Cicely's awkwardness. She was expecting him to declare himself, after which—according to proper protocol in these matters—she would have to invite him in to meet her mother. Cicely could not accept an offer from him until her widowed mother gave her approval. Since Jeremy had not yet met the reclusive Lady Beringer and thus had not had the opportunity to ask her permission to court Cicely, he was expected to do so tonight. But, judging from Cicely's warmth toward him and from the encouraging manner of her aunt, her chaperon, he had no doubt that Lady Beringer would give her approval. The woman was undoubtedly awaiting them at this very moment, willing, even eager, to give them her blessing. The attentions he'd lavished on Cicely these past few weeks had generated these expectations. And the fact that he'd asked—and received—permission to escort her to the Hallams' fete unchaperoned had been clear evidence that he'd intended to make the offer tonight. That he now found himself in this dreadfully awkward situation was entirely his own fault.
Cicely was gazing up at him, her light blue eyes shining, her heart-shaped face alight, her cheeks pink with embarrassment and her soft lips trembling nervously. The hood of her cloak had slipped from her head, revealing tousled, dark-gold hair that glowed with every gleam of light that flickered into the carriage window. She'd never looked lovelier. The girl's happy, eager expression cut his heart. Perhaps he should ignore his negative feelings and go ahead with what was expected of him. Tell her you love her, you clod, he told himself firmly, and ask her to wed you! Be a man! But he knew that a lie to her now would mean a lifetime of lies, and that he couldn't do, not to her or to himself. Something inside him—the attraction he'd imagined he felt toward her these past weeks—had inexplicably and suddenly died, and he could not pretend that it was still alive.
The carriage pulled up at the front door of Lady Beringer's town house. Cicely made no move. Jeremy gulped, hoping that a footman would come running out to the carriage to help the girl down, thus forcibly precluding any opportunity for discussion or explanation. But no one came. The servants had obviously been instructed to give the couple privacy. Jeremy knew he had to speak, but for the first time in all his thirty-eight years he found himself tongue-tied.
After a long moment of uncomfortable silence, Cicely tilted up her charmingly pointed chin and faced him squarely. Her eyes were suddenly fearful. "Isn't there something you wish to say to me?" she asked, her voice unusually strained and unsteady.
Jeremy could not remember ever feeling so miserable. "Cicely, I ... I..
Her cheeks paled. "It is not like you to ... to stammer," she said, trying to smile despite her sudden awareness that her expectations were about to be dashed.
"It's because I suddenly find myself at a loss for words," he said softly, taking her hands in his. "I'm sorry ..."
She gave a gasping intake of breath. "S-s-sorry?"
"Yes. Sorry that I have nothing to say."
"Oh?" Her chin quivered and her eyes filled. "Nothing at all?"
He shook his head, his throat too tight to permit speech. She stared up at him, tearfully wide-eyed. "Then you don't wish to ... to come in and m-meet Mama?"
"No, my dear. Not tonight."
She withdrew her hands from his hold, threw him one quick, tearful glance and turned away, dropping her face in her hands. After a moment she put one shaking hand out to the door handle. "Then I m-must b-bid you good n-night," she managed, her stammer filling him with painful guilt.
"Cicely ... you shouldn't ... mustn't blame yourself. I can't explain ... but the fault is entirely of my ..." His voice died in helpless inadequacy.
"Please," she begged in a small, trembling voice, "rap for your man to come down and open the carriage door."
He obeyed at once. "May I accompany you to your door?" he pleaded, putting a hand gently on her shoulder.
She shook her head. "No, p-please don't!" Her voice, caught in her throat, hovered between a sob and a gasp. She lifted the hood of her cloak so that it almost completely hid her face, but he could see that she was brushing at her cheeks with the back of her hand. When Jeremy's coachman lowered the steps and opened the door, she jumped down quickly and flew by the astonished fellow without permitting him to help her. Before Jeremy could follow her down—before he'd even found a proper phrase to say a proper good night—she'd run up the path to the house and was pounding on the door.
Jeremy watched as the fanlight above the door brightened with the light of approaching candles. Someone within was coming to the door. It opened, and the girl disappeared inside. He waited to see the light in the fanlight recede, but it did not. Her mother must have come to the door to greet them, and the girl was probably weeping in her arms right there in the entryway.
The coachman, who was also Jeremy's valet, butler and general factotum (having been the Viscount's batman in his army days), peered at Jeremy curiously. 'Turned ye down, did she, me lord?"
"I wish she had." Jeremy, filled with guilt and despair (and trying not to recognize that the pain of these feelings was softened by a strong sense of relief), sighed and sagged back against the cushions. "Take me to the club, Hickham," he muttered. "I think I want to get thoroughly sozzled."
As the carriage trundled off, Jeremy turned and peered out the rear window. As if it were a penance, he kept his shamed eyes fixed on the lighted fanlight of the Schofield town house until it was absorbed by distance and darkness.CHAPTER 2
Jeremy strode into White's, tossed his greatcoat to one of the waiters and ordered a double whiskey. "Bring it to me in the lounge," he said over his shoulder as he crossed the entryway and ran up the curved stairway.
He found his friend, Lord Lucas, slouched in an easy chair, nodding over the Times. Without a word of greeting, he threw himself down on the chair opposite. "I hate to admit it, Charlie," he muttered in self-disgust, "but your best friend is the worst sort of cad."
The redheaded, curly-haired, stocky Charles Percy, Lord Lucas, opened his eyes with a start. Shaking his body like a wet dog, he sat erect and blinked at his friend uncomprehendingly. "Eh? Wha' did y'say?"
"I said I'm a cad."
"Cad?" Lord Lucas, now fully awake, raised an eyebrow and peered with one bright blue eye at his friend. "You? A cad?" He snorted in amusement. "Well, old fellow, you'll get no argument from me."
Jeremy eyed him with rueful amusement. "What sort of friend are you? Can't you at least deny it?"
"Why should I deny it? I always suspected it."
"Suspected it?" Jeremy glared at him, too filled with self-loathing to appreciate the teasing.
At that moment the waiter appeared at his elbow. "Your whiskey, my lord."
Jeremy took the glass, put a few coins in its place and, while the waiter withdrew, threw back a hefty swig. Then he resumed glaring at his friend. "Why aren't you contradicting me, you clunch?" he demanded with boyish offense. "I've never been caddish with you, have I?"
"You've never been caddish with anyone, not that I've ever heard tell of. That's exactly why I suspected it. You're too upstanding a fellow to be believed, I've always thought." He threw his friend a grin, his eyes laughing into Jeremy's handsome face, a face that anyone could see was too open, too sensitive and kind, to belong to a cad. "Yes, so much straightforward rectitude must be a mask. There must be a cad lurking inside you somewhere."
But Jeremy was too perturbed to laugh at his friend's taunt. He merely sighed and stared into the glass. "Well, it turns out you're quite right."
Lord Lucas's grin died. This sort of self-flagellation was not Jeremy's style, and as far as he, Charlie Percy, was concerned, it had gone on long enough. "Nonsense, old boy, utter rot!" he declared with finality. "You couldn't be a cad if you tried."
"I was tonight," Jeremy insisted.
Charlie waited for a further explanation, but none came. Jeremy merely twisted the glass in his hand. A long silence followed. At last Charlie could bear it no longer. "So, you gudgeon, are you going to confess what caddish deed you've done, or are you going to let me die wondering?"
Jeremy threw him a sheepish glance and then dropped his eyes. "I've cried off," he said with quiet honesty. "Poor Cicely was weeping when she ran inside."
Lord Lucas's bright eyes lost whatever gleam of amusement had still remained. "What do you mean, cried off? Are you saying you offered for her? For Cicely Beringerl You never told me you'd made her an offer."
"I told you I intended to."
"Yes, but there's an ocean of difference between the intention and the act. Did you actually do it?"
"Well, no, that's just it. When it came to the sticking point, I ... I couldn't go through with it."
"My dear fellow," Charlie exclaimed with a touch of impatience, "if you never actually made an offer, you can't say you cried off. There's been no agreement you can cry off from."
Jeremy lifted his eyes to his friend's face questioningly. "But she—and everyone else in London—expected it. Doesn't that make me almost as guilty as if I'd actually proposed?"
"Not at all. The whole purpose of courtship is to give the parties concerned a chance to think ... to discover whether or not they suit. The only thing you're guilty of—if you ask me—is to have waited until the last minute to discover that you do not."
"It certainly was the last minute," Jeremy muttered ruefully.
"Better the minute before than the one after." Charlie leaned back in his chair and smiled with self-satisfaction. "I, for one, am not at all surprised that you backed off."
Jeremy looked over at him in astonishment. "Are you not? Why aren't you?"
Charlie shrugged. "I know you, Jeremy Tate. After resisting matrimony for all your thirty-seven years—"
'Thirty-eight," Jeremy corrected.
'Thirty-eight, then. After resisting it so determinedly despite having had hordes of females thrown at you since you came of age, I was fully convinced that it would take more than the likes of a simpering chit like Cicely Beringer to capture your affections."
"She's not a simpering chit," Jeremy declared angrily. "She's good-hearted and generous and sweet. And quite the prettiest little thing in all of society."
"Yes, if I remember rightly, those were your mother's exact words in describing her."
"And Mama was quite right."
"Then, if you believe that, you should have offered."
"Yes, dash it," Jeremy responded glumly, "you scored the point there."
"Mothers of bachelors," Charlie opined, "have a disconcerting way of thrusting marriageable ladies at them. They sincerely believe they know just the sorts of women who would suit their sons. They're almost always wrong."
Jeremy raised his glass. 'To mothers," he toasted and downed another gulp. "Mine will probably come storming into my flat tomorrow morning and berate me soundly for failing to come up to scratch."
Charlie leaned forward. "Are you certain, Jeremy, that you don't want to go through with it? That Cicely is not the right girl for you?"
"As certain as one can be in such matters. Why?"
"Then, if I were you, I'd leave town. The best way to resolve such problems is to rusticate for a month or so. You'll avoid your mother's wrath and the embarrassment of coming face-to-face with the girl at some fete or other. And by the time you come back, everyone will have become accustomed to the matter."
"Sounds a cowardly way to deal with it," Jeremy objected.
"If you want to be brave, by all means stay. Stay put and face your mother. Stay put and endure seeing all the gossipy females whisper behind their fans every time you enter a room. Stay put and find yourself running into Cicely at the opera or at the Pantheon Bazaar. You'll have to be very brave indeed."
Jeremy rolled his eyes heavenward and downed another gulp.
"If, however, you should decide to be cowardly," Charlie went on, touch of slyness in his voice, "and agree to rusticate as any man of sense would do, I'd go with you."
Jeremy's eyes narrowed. "You'd go with me?" he asked suspiciously. 'To Inglesby Park?"
"Yes, if you'd like company."
"You hate rusticating. And you always claim that Inglesby Park is the dullest retreat in all of England, being ten miles from the nearest town and equally far from decent society."
"Yes, I did say that, didn't I? But it's a small sacrifice to make in the name of friendship."
"What a hum! Cut line, Charlie, and tell me the truth. Who are you trying to run away from?"
Charlie smiled guiltily. "There is a certain opera dancer who has taken it into her head that I played her false. It might be a good time for me to be far away from her."
Jeremy shook his head. "I thought as much. But are you so eager to escape that you would put up with Inglesby Park at this season, when Mama has taken most of my household staff to employ here in London? Most of the rooms are closed off. I'll only have Mr. and Mrs. Stemple and Hickham and a few of the locals to do for us."
"I don't expect to spend the month in high living. A bit of riding, an afternoon or two of shooting, evenings of quiet relaxation—that's all I need."
"Very well, then, I agree. We'll both be cowardly and run for cover."
Excerpted from Mother's Choice by Elizabeth Mansfield. Copyright © 1994 Paula Schwartz. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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