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The Wedding Affair
By Leigh Michaels
Sourcebooks, Inc. Copyright © 2011 Leigh Michaels
All rights reserved.
When the heavy brass knocker fell against the front door, the crash echoed through the cottage. Olivia ignored it. She wasn't expecting callers; she wasn't prepared for callers; and she didn't want to greet callers.
But barely half a minute later, the knocker dropped once more. She abandoned the bread dough she'd been kneading and wiped her hands on her apron. The baking was late already, and this interruption wasn't going to help.
As she crossed the narrow hall, she noticed a dusting of flour on her blue muslin skirt and brushed feebly at it, but she managed only to make the smear look worse.
The man waiting on the doorstep was short, stout, and past middle-aged. His face was red, as if the warmth of the day was too much for him, or perhaps his neckcloth was just too tight. He looked astounded to see her there. "Lady Reyne, where are your servants today?"
All two of them? Olivia wanted to answer. But she didn't think Sir Jasper Folsom really wished to know that this was the housemaid's weekly afternoon out or that Nurse was upstairs putting Charlotte down for her nap. And since he hadn't asked about Kate Blakely, who was Olivia's guest, she felt no need to explain that Kate had gone to call at the vicarage.
At any rate, Sir Jasper was Olivia's landlord, not her keeper, so she didn't feel obliged to tell him why she was the only one available to answer her door in the middle of a sunny Wednesday afternoon.
She smiled vaguely. "I find it terribly boring to sit and be waited on, Sir Jasper."
"You are a most unusual lady, ma'am. I have come to collect the next quarter's rent."
"Of course." Olivia hesitated and then stepped back. Better, she thought, not to have this conversation on the doorstep. "Would you care to come inside?"
He looked startled at the invitation, though an instant later he had masked the expression. He bowed and followed her into the tiny parlor, where the single window stood open and a fire had been freshly laid, ready to light in case the evening should turn cool.
Sir Jasper took off his hat and looked around the room. "Quite delightful."
Threadbare was the word Olivia would have used for the furnishings Sir Jasper had supplied along with the cottage, but she supposed there was a certain cozy charm about the mismatched chairs and the way personal items — a smock she was hemming for Charlotte, a shawl Kate had started knitting last night — were sprinkled around.
Don't be so snobbish, she told herself. The cottage wasn't grand, but it was home in a way that her previous residence had never been, and she was grateful to Sir Jasper for offering it at a rent she could afford.
At least, she had been able to afford the rent until now. She braced herself to tell him that at this moment she could not pay the entire amount she owed, but she found she couldn't come straight out with it.
"I don't keep ale in the house," Olivia said, "since we do not as a rule have gentleman callers. But I can offer you tea."
Sir Jasper smiled, displaying yellowing teeth. "That would be most welcome, my lady."
Olivia escaped to the kitchen and made the tea, rehearsing her speech under her breath as she waited for the tea to steep.
When she returned to the parlor with the tray, Sir Jasper turned from his inspection of a perfectly hideous sampler that was hanging on the wall. His gaze flicked over her a little more closely than was proper, and he smiled widely.
Olivia felt a flicker of alarm. Surely he hadn't interpreted her comment as evidence that she regarded him as a gentleman caller, rather than simply as the landlord ...?
"I see you appreciate my mother's needlework," he said.
Olivia had found the sampler wadded in a cupboard when she moved in, and she had hung it only because it was large enough to cover a badly stained spot on the wall. But she lied without a qualm. "I was delighted to add it to the everyday view from my favorite chair. If you could clear a corner of the table, Sir Jasper — I do beg your pardon for having to ask."
"Not at all, my lady. With your servants away, I am happy to assist." He moved a book, a half-written letter, and Kate's as-yet-unrecognizable shawl out of Olivia's way so she could set down the tray.
Olivia poured the tea and drew a breath to begin explaining.
Sir Jasper sipped. "I'm sure you're excited by the news. The entire countryside is agog."
"What news?" She was almost relieved to be interrupted, though also surprised. Rarely did anything worthy of comment happen in Steadham; Olivia found the quiet to be one of the village's greatest attractions.
"The wedding, of course. Lady Daphne's wedding." He looked startled when she didn't react. "You did not receive an invitation? I would have thought ... The festivities are to be held here. At Halstead, to be precise."
Halstead — one of the few country houses in England that had only one name, as if the single word made it clear to any audience what was being discussed. The country seat of the Duke of Somervale, the manor house at Halstead lay less than a mile from the village if one walked across the fields and the park. But the estate was so large and self-contained that when the family was not in residence, it was easy for the villagers to forget the manor lay so close by.
In the months since she had arrived in Steadham village, Olivia had seen Halstead only from a distance. Apparently that wasn't going to change in the foreseeable future. But then, she would have expected nothing else.
Sir Jasper went on, "The wedding itself is to be in the village church, I understand."
He understood? Then Sir Jasper must not have received an invitation, either. That surprised Olivia much more than the fact she had not been included on the guest list — for though Sir Jasper was a mere baronet, he must have been a neighbor of the Somervale family for years.
"I felt sure you would be invited," he mused. "As the widow of an earl ... but the duchess is even higher in the instep than I believed."
"It's hardly a snub for me not to be included, Sir Jasper. So far as I am aware, I have never met any of the family, and I doubt the duchess even knows I've taken up residence in the neighborhood." Or would care in the slightest, if she knew.
Sir Jasper's face had tightened as if the mere mention of a snub had made his own exclusion sting more.
So Olivia hurried on. "Perhaps it's a very small wedding — just the family."
"A small wedding? For one of the Somervales? That family doesn't know the meaning of the word."
The firm click of the empty cup as he set it down made Olivia fear for her mother's china; she had managed to save fewer than a dozen good pieces as it was.
"But perhaps you are correct," Sir Jasper went on. "Now I must continue my rounds. The rent, Lady Reyne?"
Olivia's fingers trembled as she took her reticule from under the smock in her sewing basket and opened it. "I can give you half of the rent today, Sir Jasper, but I'm not able to pay for the entire three months right now. I had hoped to make an agreement in regard to the remainder."
He was silent for so long that the rattle of a carriage wheel in the road outside the parlor window seemed to echo through the room. "What sort of agreement did you have in mind?" His tone was low and suggestive.
Dread trickled down her spine, but Olivia kept her voice level. "I shall be able to give you the remainder at the beginning of next month."
He sniffed. "And I'm to simply take your promise for that, I suppose."
"I am not accustomed to having my word questioned, Sir Jasper. In any case, I would still be paying in advance — just not quite as far ahead as before."
"And then I suppose you plan to continue this practice month after month? I'm not accustomed to waiting for what is owed to me, my lady. What's the difficulty, anyway?"
That's my affair and none of yours. But thumbing her nose at a man when she was asking him to do her a favor wasn't wise. "I'm sure you know that after the death of her father, Miss Blakely has become my guest, and —"
"Adding another mouth to feed in your household was no decision of mine," Sir Jasper said sharply. "I see no reason for me to be inconvenienced by your folly."
"I am not asking you to sacrifice the rent payment or even reduce it, only to postpone collecting the full sum."
"And I'm telling you I'm not inclined to do so. I've been offered twice the rent," Sir Jasper said slyly. "I'd agreed to the bargain with you, so as an honorable man I couldn't go back on it. But if you're not paying on time, then I'm free to change the terms or let the place to another tenant."
Olivia tamped down the desire to snap at him that if he actually had a tenant who would pay more, he should seize the opportunity. She couldn't take the risk that he would throw her out.
This was her own fault. If she'd had the full sum and handed it over promptly, he wouldn't have been able to hold her to ransom.
"But perhaps we could come to an ... arrangement," he went on.
Her skin crawled at the oily note in his voice. But perhaps her imagination was running away with her, and he only meant that his price for waiting would be an outrageous amount of interest. He surely couldn't mean that he wished to pay court to her, could he? His wife had died long since, and Sir Jasper had to be close to twice Olivia's age, for his sons were grown.
How she wished she had not invited him inside or offered tea! If he got the idea that she would welcome his suit, she would have to disillusion him, of course — and gently. She hoped he would not nurse resentment.
"The widow of an earl," he said softly, "living in an out-of-the-way village in a cottage where she cannot afford the rent. Your options are limited, Lady Reyne. You can't take in lodgers, for the place isn't large enough to house them even if you didn't already have enough hangers-on to feed."
Hangers-on? Olivia wondered if he thought her daughter a millstone. With an effort, she kept her expression neutral.
"You can't take a job as a governess or a companion, for no fine lady would hire an employee who was encumbered with a child. But I can think of one thing the widow of an earl could do nicely."
He didn't sound much like a man who was trying to fix his interest with a lady, but surely he couldn't be suggesting something short of marriage. Was he?
He chuckled. "Oh, that's a fine lady's expression, all right. There's no doubt your blood is blue, the way you've gone all arrogant and scornful as you pretend you don't know what I'm talking about. It's nothing you're unfamiliar with, either. You have a daughter."
Olivia tried to control her breathing, knowing that he was watching the effect of her short, shallow breaths. He licked his lips, his gaze focused on her breasts.
"I might waive the rent altogether if you were satisfactory in bed," he said. "I'd want a whole lot more than a taste, of course — my lady. But we'll start with a kiss today as interest on the debt."
Olivia felt as paralyzed as a rabbit caught in the open with a hawk diving for the kill. Then she heard the click of footsteps on the stairs as Nurse came down, and she pulled herself together with an effort.
Sir Jasper had heard, too. "I thought you said your servants were out."
And so you assumed I invited you in on purpose. Perhaps thought I intended to seduce you. Olivia stood up and said coolly, "What a pity you must be leaving now, Sir Jasper."
She thought for an instant that he would refuse to leave after all. But as he put on his hat, he said darkly, "You think about it, my fine lady. As of today, the rent increases to twice the figure we agreed on when you moved in."
She couldn't stop herself from squeaking in protest.
He grinned. "You're the one who broke the terms of the agreement. So if you don't pay up, one way or the other, you'll be moving out come the end of the month."
Olivia only wished she could leave the cottage — and Sir Jasper — behind. She showed him to the front door to be certain he left and because if she called for Nurse to see him out, there would be questions about why she was pale and shaken.
Sir Jasper stepped outside and turned to face her as if to add some new condition to his demands. The gate separating the cottage's garden from the road banged shut. Olivia looked up, expecting to see Kate returning from her calls. She was half-embarrassed to be caught in this predicament and half-grateful for reinforcement from her friend.
Instead she saw a carriage standing in the road just beyond the wall. A footman wearing the white wig and deep blue and silver livery of the Somervales started steadily up the path, his tread measured. He looked as if he'd marched a good distance already today. He reached the steps, bowed, and held out a folded parchment.
"For Lady Reyne," he intoned. "From the Duchess of Somervale."
Sir Jasper's jaw dropped.
Olivia knew she should have enjoyed the moment. Instead, she took the parchment reluctantly. The folded sheet was surprisingly heavy, adorned with silver ribbon and a large blue wax seal carrying the imprint of the Somervale crest, which she recognized from the ironwork on the estate gates.
"So the duchess didn't leave you out after all," Sir Jasper said. "You fine folk all stick together, don't you, my lady?"
The footman's eyes widened in shock as his gaze ran over Olivia.
She thought that no matter how many copies of the invitation he had delivered in the neighborhood — and if she was included amongst the wedding guests, then every other person who had even a hint of noble blood must have been invited as well — this was surely the first he had handed to the guest herself while she stood at her front door decorated with flour and bits of bread dough. But he was too well-trained to actually say so.
"You look very tired," she told the footman. "If you would like refreshment —"
He bowed politely. "Thank you, ma'am. But the invitations were sent down from London — a great box full — and we must see them all into the proper hands today." He retreated to the gate and climbed onto the perch at the back of the carriage, which slowly pulled away.
Olivia broke the seal and looked down at the parchment.
Her Grace, the Duchess of Somervale, requests that Lady Reyne honor the company with her presence at the marriage of Her Grace's daughter, Lady Daphne Elliot, to the Marquess of Harcourt, on Friday, 30 August 1816, at Halstead.
One could scarcely turn down a duchess's invitation, no matter how uncomfortable it was to accept. So Olivia would be going to a wedding.
Sir Jasper peered greedily at the invitation, and Olivia could sense his hot breath against her skin.
"I wonder if your fine friends will loan you money," he mused. "If they don't, my offer is still open." He tipped his hat and walked away.
Olivia stood on the step for a long time, trying to draw enough warm air into her lungs to thaw the chill that his proposition had left deep inside her. But the effort didn't seem to be working.
* * *
Kate Blakely had never exactly enjoyed visiting the sick and needy members of the parish, because the people she was calling upon were in distress. As the vicar's daughter, compassionate calls had been expected of her. However, now that the visits were no longer a part of her duties, she found herself missing the people, as well as the distraction from her own troubles that her regular rounds had provided. Sitting at the bedside of an ailing parishioner helped her to remember that even though her own choices seemed limited at the moment, she still had options.
So after her household duties were finished at the cottage, she had left Olivia mixing bread and stopped by the vicarage with her basket to ask if the housekeeper could spare some produce or preserves to take to the sick.
"I wouldn't ask, Mrs. Meecham," Kate told the housekeeper, "except that I'm a guest in Lady Reyne's house and can hardly take things from her larder to give to others."
"Besides which, Lady Reyne has little enough to keep her own household fed and nothing to spare." The housekeeper filled Kate's basket to brimming. "You're to take what's left home to her ladyship."
"You're very generous, but Lady Reyne does not care to accept charity."
"It is not charity when her ladyship is housing and feeding you, despite the fact that you should still be living right here in your own home."
Excerpted from The Wedding Affair by Leigh Michaels. Copyright © 2011 Leigh Michaels. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
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