Read an Excerpt
"How dare you even think to treat your sisters so abominably!"
"Now, steady on, Helen, I don't like your tone. You know I am not legally obliged to house you and Charlotte, or give either of you a penny piece."
"Not legally obliged, perhaps! Morally obliged indeed you are, and not simply to house us, but to keep us in comfort, and you cannot pretend you don't know it."
George Kingston seemed unaffected by the mixture of disgust and entreaty firing his sister's tawny eyes. In fact, he lounged back in his chair and continued to probe his teeth with a little silver toothpick.
Helen Marlowe, née Kingston, felt her stomach churn with impotent rage as she observed her brother's apathy. Tendrils of raven hair were angrily twitched back from a complexion that, customarily pale as porcelain, was flushed with righteous indignation. 'I know you do not truly want to be mean to us, George, for I am certain you recall as well as I the undertaking you gave Papa. We are not asking for your money, all we want is the allowance to which we are entitled. And I need not remind you that Papa stipulated Westlea House was to be a home for Charlotte and me for as long as we needed its shelter." She paused to drag in breath to deliver a final conscience-pricking truth. 'Our parents would be distraught to know you are planning to sell the roof from over your sisters' heads."
Helen's small fingers curled into her palms as she realised that her brother was more irritated than swayed by her appealing to his principles. Abruptly she swished about in a rustle of lavender dimity and addressed her sister-in-law. 'Have you nothing to say on the matter, Iris? Are you comfortable,knowing your husband seeks to eject us from our home?"
Iris briskly stepped to a gilt mirror to inspect her reflection. She tipped her hat this way and that on flaxen hair whilst making her snappish response. 'Another house will be found for you both. George has already looked at one. I can't understand why you and Charlotte would want to carry on so. You are comely enough to find a husband to support you, you know, Helen." It was said with a slight frown, as though already she doubted the value of her compliment. Dissatisfied with the floral embellishment on her new bonnet she tweaked it some more. 'And Charlotte is quite a beauty. I'll wager the girl could net herself a man with good prospects. Perhaps a banker or the like might take to her."
"Charlotte has a suitor. She and Philip are in love and want to announce their betrothal, as you well know."
"How sweet. But he has no money, and no prospects, as you well know," Iris countered acidly.
George Kingston plunged upright on noticing his sibling's darkening expression. He was well aware that, dainty-built as she was, Helen could act the virago when protecting her own or Charlotte's interests.As his wife and his sister locked combatant stares, he took the precaution of stepping across the rug between the two of them. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and rocked back and forth on his feet. 'It's not as though you and Charlotte will be homeless, Helen,"he coaxed. 'I've found somewhere for you actually. Just this afternoon I arranged a short lease on a property on Rowan Walk. Six months should be time enough for you both to make your own arrangements for the future."
"Rowan Walk?" The tone of Helen's voice was initially aghast. A moment later she repeated the address in a voice that had lowered threateningly.
"Yes,"George spluttered, conscious of the reason for his sister's simmering fury.
Rowan Walk was not situated in an area where genteel women would choose to reside. In fact, he was aware that it housed a host of females kept in modest style by wealthy gentlemen of the ton. Such fellows might like a mistress conveniently close to home, but they baulked at paying exorbitant Mayfair rates. The eastern suburb in which Rowan Walk lay was within easy reach. A lengthy carriage ride would thus not take up time destined to be more pleasurably expended. The neat terraces of townhouses in the vicinity were of adequate size and quality and, because of their association with demi-mondaines, very good value, too.
"If you think for one moment that Charlotte and I will move into such an area, you must be addled in the wits," Helen announced. A glance at her sister-in-law revealed her to be maliciously amused. 'But perhaps you have not wasted your money, George. There might be someone you know who would appreciate an available house there."
George tightened his lipshe understood the allusion to the latest gossip doing the rounds. He stabbed a low-lidded accusatory glance at his wife. Iris had the grace to flush and flounce about to primp some more at her appearance.
Iris had never used discretion in her quest for powerful and wealthy lovers. Helen often wondered if her sister-in-law relished the attention she got from being the butt of gossip. The fact that George quite obviously resented, yet regularly endured, being made to look a fool by his wife, was also intriguing to those, such as his sisters, who cared enough about him to ponder on it.
"Good grief, Helen, you're a widow, twenty-six years old, and it's high time you found another fellow to look after you and ceased being a burden on me!" George blasted out the reprimand, more in embarrassment than in anger. He had hoped his sisters might still be ignorant of the likelihood of him again being a cuckold.
A sour taste dried his mouth as he dwelled on his wife's current prey. Iris might deny it, but he knew she was infatuated with a man he detested. The same man who had been his enemy for many years.
His sisters rarely socialised; if news of Iris's latest infatuation had reached Helen's ears, then gossip was rife. Abruptly he stalked back to his chair to slouch into it. 'You may live on Rowan Walk or in the poorhouse, it makes no difference to me." He raised a moody glance to his sister's tense features. 'And it serves you right for choosing to marry a pauper when you might have married well."
"I thought we might come to that. It was exceedingly bad of me, was it not, to marry a man I loved when I might have married a man old enough to be my grandfather."
"Scoville was dead within two years of proposing to you. It would scarce have been hardship to be a sick man's wifea very rich sick man's wifefor such a short time. Had you given the decrepit old fool the heir he wanted, your future at nineteen years old would have been fine indeed."
"I beg to differ. And I have no regrets that I married Harry. He was a gentleman who did not need money to recommend him. And I am not ashamed to demand again and again that you release to us what our father wanted us to have. If you resent me coming constantly to badger you for money, you have only yourself to blame." Helen glowered at her brother from beneath eyebrows as lush and black as sable. 'If we are a burden on you, it is you who has made it so by withholding what is rightfully ours."
George flushed beneath his sulk and snapped his head away from a pair of flaring golden eyes. Imperiously he said, 'If you continue to recommend that our sister encourage Philip Goode, Charlotte will go the same way as did you. Sentiment is all very well, but it doesn't pay the bills. The man has nothing to offer her."
"He has the most important things to offer her: his love and devotion. Apart from which he is pleasant, polite and totally charming." 'What a shame such a paragon cannot afford a wife," Iris murmured with a cattish smile. The bonnet with which she had been fiddling was tossed aside in irritation. Bluntly she informed her husband and sister-inlaw that she was going out shopping.
George stared morosely at the closed door before sighing with such unconscious sadness that a little of Helen's anger evaporated. It was ironic that George could, in all seriousness, criticise her for having wed unwisely when his own marriage was a mockery. At least she had been happy for the short time she and Harry had been man and wife.
Helen studied her brother in profile. He was a handsome man, his hair a similar shade of auburn to their sister Charlotte's. Although in his mid-thirties, George's complexion was unlined, yet his youthful demeanour was spoiled by a constant miserable droop to his mouth.
And little wonder he was miserable, for he had married a woman who seemed to relish making him look ridiculous. Yet Helen felt more exasperated than sympathetic. Despite Iris's callous infidelities, George seemed to be in his wife's thrall, for the baggage had no trouble twisting him about her finger.
But her brother was correct in one respect, Helen realised wryly. Sentimental memories were indeed an indulgence when one was struggling to persuade the butcher to extend credit so one might dine on offal. Harry had been kind and charming, but he had died leaving her with little more than her wedding ring and his outstanding army pay.
"Marlowe's been dead for seven years." George shattered Helen's wistfulness with that harsh truth. 'You've had plentiful time for mourning. Now it is time to be sensible." The toothpick was again between his teeth. Suddenly he pointed it at her. 'Iris is right: you are passably pretty. Dark looks were the rage last season, you know. I recall when you were eighteen and made your come-out, you received more than one offer that year."
"My, what a fine memory you have, George!"Helen drily exclaimed. 'That was eight years ago and most of my suitors now have found wives. Besides, if you honour Papa's wishes and the trust he had in you, there will be no need for me to chase a proposal. I am not going to release you from your duty to us. Release our money and have done with it."
George flushed and flung the silver tool down on a table. 'I have some unforeseen expenses at present and and, besides, I am not legally obliged '
"Ah, we have done that bit, George." She sighed before saying reasonably, 'I would understand your parsimony if I thought you were honestly in trouble, but I know your wife fritters the money we need for essentials on new Paris fashions."Helen's eyes slid meaning fully to the abandoned bonnet.
George lurched out of his chair. 'That's enough!"he roared. He strode two paces back and forth. 'You know nothing of my life or my finances and I will not have you speak so of Iris."
"What would you have me say, then, George?" Helen asked quietly. 'That it is not her new clothes you cannot afford, but her fondness for the gaming tables? Or perhaps her new landau has taken Charlotte's dowry?"
George swung about to stare grimly at his sister. His face now held the expression of a man resentful of unpalatable truths. 'I think you ought go before I say or do something I should not."
Helen recognised her brother's torment and walked, head high to the door. 'You can dismiss me now if you want. But if our cash is not forthcoming in the next few days, I shall be back. We have no more credit at the merchants and have little stocks left of food or fuel. It is early spring and still quite cold."
"If you are both determined to be leeches on me, then you and Charlotte can make a few blasted economies!"
Helen managed a smile tinged with bitterness. She how plump had looked her sister-in-law's figure. Iris's arms and bosom had fair threatened to burst from the fine silk of her stylish gown. In fact, Helen thought acidly, if the woman did not curb her appetite she would be on the way to becoming fat.
"Charlotte and I have long since cut marchpane from our diets ' Helen noticed George's lips angrily writhe at the reference to his wife's liking for sweetmeats. 'And mutton has become a once-a-week luxury," she truthfully added. 'What economies would you have us make, George? Already we make do and mend. Shall we boil up potato broth for every meal and live in the cold and dark?"
"A smaller property would cost less to heat and light. If you want to dine well, then it is sensible to move somewhere else." George's reasoning was accompanied by an impatient whirl of a hand. 'The two of you seem more concerned with pretending you can afford to live in a fine neighbourhood than attending to your comfort."
"That's not true!" Helen cried, outraged. 'Westlea House is our home. You know it holds dear memories of our parents. How can you be so cruel as to imply we care to keep up appearances?"
George seemed about to speak, but abruptly closed his jaw and showed Helen his back. He was not hiding his face, ashamed of his outburst. Nor was he uncomfortable knowing how frugally they lived, Helen realised. He was simply trying to shield his expression whilst summoning up another excuse for why she and Charlotte ought go without.
Helen felt the fight drain out of her. She felt tired and hungry and keen to go home. George was still musing on a way to withhold their allowance when Helen quietly quit the room.