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"If you're cold, Miss Esme, I could ask a footman to lay the fire."
Esme Canville resisted the impulse to gather her shawl more tightly around her. "No, Meg. I am quite comfortable. No need for a fire. No need for anything, actually. I am content."
The maid continued to bustle around the room, straightening things that had been straight enough for hours. "You're sure, miss? Because it seems a bit chill."
"No, really. I am fine. You may go." She tried to sound firm without drawing attention. "I wish to spend the morning reading."
Was the maid watching her with too much interest? It was so hard to be sure. Meg was new, and quite devoted to the master of the house. Certainly not someone Esme could consider an ally. But not an enemy, either, she hoped. Still, if her father had requested a report on any unusual behaviour, it was best not to provide fodder. She moved to the settee, and picked up her book.
Meg hesitated, and then said, "If you're sure, then. But it is still quite cold."
Esme gathered as much hauteur as she could muster. It would not do to allow her lady's maid to decide for her. "I find it invigorating. And most economic. I am sure my father would not approve of me wasting coal in the morning, when the afternoon will be temperate."
Meg nodded, approving of anything that Mr Canville approved of. "If that is what your father wants, then of course, miss. But you'll ring-"
"If I need anything. Certainly. You may go, Meg." The maid let herself out of the room and Esme breathed a sigh of relief as she hurried to the fireplace. Meg took her new duties far too seriously. It had been better when Bess had held the job. But then, Bess had been toogood a friend to Esme for her father's taste. And when service to her lady had smacked of disobedience to her master, that had been the end of her. And now, the much more cooperative Meg was trying to lay fires where none were needed.
Esme dropped her shawl carefully on the hearth in front of her and knelt on it, silently thanking the staff for the cleanliness of the slate. What ashes there were would hardly show on the shawl's grey wool. She opened the damper and leaned her cheek against the bricks at the back of the fireplace.
Voices travelled faintly up from the room below. Her father's study was just as cold and fireless as her bedroom, and it shared a chimney. Esme closed her eyes, trying to imagine the men below.
"-for coming here today. I am sure we can find an arrangement that is agreeable to all parties concerned." Her father was speaking.
"But without even a meeting? Are you sure-?" The visitor's voice trailed off as he walked away from the fireplace.
Esme hissed in frustration. If they didn't stand still, how was she to hear?
"A meeting is not necessary." She could almost see her father waving a hand in dismissal. "She will do as she's told in the matter. And you have seen the miniature, have you not? I assure you it is a good likeness."
Esme touched her own hair. The portrait was a fair likeness of her at best. And done several years ago. At twenty, she was hardly on the shelf, but she was not the wide-eyed innocent in the little painting.
"-lovely." The man was walking back towards the fireplace again and his voice grew louder. "Very much to my taste. And she will agree? You're certain of it?"
"I fail to see how it signifies. She will do as she's told, or face the consequences. And since it is you or no one, she'll soon see the wisdom of cooperation. It is more than a favourable match, milord. She would be a fool to hope for better."
The voices faded away again as the men in the room below walked towards the desk. Esme's mouth compressed to a thin white line. How could she hope for better? She was not to be allowed a Season. Ever. Or to travel unescorted by her father into any of the social circles that other young ladies were permitted to as a matter of course. Evenings were spent at home or in the company of her father and his friends, who were almost all as old as he. Certainly not marriage material.
She hoped. "And I would be well pleased with one so young and lovely as your daughter."
Young. He found her young enough to comment on it. This could not be good. She strained her ears, trying to guess the nature of the man from the voice that echoed up through the brickwork. His tone told nothing, although she could not say the sound of it pleased her. There had been no passion in it as he'd examined her likeness, only cool appraisal. He could as easily have been choosing furniture as a wife.
"She will be honoured by your suit, Lord Halverston."
A lord. But of course. Her father would wish a match that would advance the family. But her future husband's rank did not signify if she could not find room for him in her heart.
The voices increased in volume again. "-and obedient, you say? Girls these days are too wilful by half, and I'll have none of that in a prospective wife." They were walking away from the fireplace again as he continued his diatribe against youth, female youth in particular.
And there was the first emotion she'd heard from him, for his increased volume carried the words to her as he enumerated the faults of other prospective brides, compared with the agreeability of making a match without having to contend with the fractious personality of a girl.
Her heart sank.
Her father responded. "I'm sure you will have no problem there. She knows her duty."
"Or she soon will," Halverston responded.
Both men laughed.
She stood up, heart pounding. It was inevitable, was it not? Of course, her father would find her a husband and make the decision himself. And he would choose someone of a like mind to his own. Someone who believed in the need to use a closed fist to explain one's duty. Someone who was sure that nothing refreshed the memory of a disobedient daughter or a wayward wife like the sting of the razor strop on her back.
She gripped the mantelpiece and tried to steady her breathing. It was possible that the situation was not as bad as it sounded. Without meeting Lord Halverston, it was unfair to judge him. And she was making many assumptions, based on what little she'd managed to overhear of a single conversation.
Her father and Halverston had come to an agreement and were moving out of the study and into the front hall. She brushed the soot from her skirt and hurried out on to the balcony, staying close to the wall so as not to be spied from the street. After a brief farewell, the man would call for his hat and stick and he would come through the door beneath her.
And then she would catch her first glimpse of the man her father intended her to marry. His carriage was already waiting on the street below and she admired the fine matched bays with silver on their harnesses. The body of the carriage was rich, and she could see the well-upholstered squabs, and almost smell the leather. Her future husband would be wealthy. And she would share in his wealth. It would not be all bad. She would have gowns, jewels, and a fine house to live in. Houses, perhaps.
She heard the door closing and watched as the driver and grooms straightened as their master approached. With respect, she hoped, and not fear of punishment for idleness. She would have servants, she reminded herself. Perhaps a maid that answered to her before her father.
Esme bit her lip. All that was well and good. But was it too much to hope that her husband would be gentle, as well as a gentleman? She forced the thought from her mind, trying not to let the snippets of conversation she'd heard affect her opinions.
And then she saw the man step up and into the carriage and she moved forward for a better look.
He was old. She could tell it from the stoop of his shoulders. His gait was steady, but stiff and measured, and his body tall and unnaturally thin, as though wasted by illness. The fingers that he spread on the dark leather of the seat looked bony and twisted, more claw than hand.
She stifled her disappointment. It would have been foolish to hope for a young man, after seeing the carriage. It must have taken time to get the wealth necessary to own such a fine thing. Of course, he would be older than herself.
But if he were as old as he appearedShe shuddered at the thought of him coming to her in the night, and could almost feel the bony hands as they plucked at her hair and touched her bare skin. He was older than her father. And she might soon be a widow.
It was horrible to think such a thing. Perhaps her father was right to punish her, for she truly was wicked.
But the voice inside her refused to be silent. You are not wicked. You know you are not. He is old, but you are young. And your father is doing this to be sure that you never enjoy that youth.
As though he sensed her eyes upon him, Lord Halverston lifted his head and spied her on the balcony.
She held still as he looked at her, and tried not to let the fear of him show on her face.
He held up a staying hand to the driver, and stared at her for what seemed like a long time. And she could feel his eyes, lingering on her body, travelling slowly over her belly, her breasts and her throat, before coming to rest on her face. Then he smiled at her, seeing her without acknowledging her, and there was not a trace of warmth in his face.
She watched as his hand began to twitch and then to stroke the leather of the seat, palm cupping the curves of the upholstery and fingers stroking and thrusting again and again into the crevices between the cushions.
Then he signalled to the driver in a voice that was harsh and excited, and the coach pulled away.
She sagged against the stone of the house and felt her knees trembling beneath her. Perhaps she was imagining his expression. It was the distance, the smells of the street, and the sun in her eyes, combining to overheat her imagination. He could have been thinking about other things entirely than marriage to her. He could have been searching for a key, or a coin, or some other small thing on the seat beside him.
And it was merely the devil in her, as her father had so often claimed, that made her feel that hand travelling over her body. Stroking. Grasping. Thrusting.
She gripped the balustrade and fought down a wave of sickness, taking in great gasps of air. She could not do it. She simply could not. Her father must listen to reason, just this once. Perhaps if she promised to be good, from now on. Not to anger him as she always seemed to. If she agreed to marry any man he chose. Any man other than the Earl of Halverston