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"You changed your mind."
The pure pleasure in the young man's voice dug pain deep beneath Edgar Meredith's ribs. But he managed a smile.
No...Rachel has, was immediately in his mind, and an irrepressible mordant humour wrenched his smile into a grimace. His chest constricted with a piercing regret that left him breathless, unable to respond to the greeting.
After nineteen and a half years of tears and tantrums, he was quite aware his eldest daughter could be headstrong and impetuous; but he'd never thought her callous or sly. Today he'd had the shocking, shaming proof she was. He felt as incapable of speech now as he had when first apprised of the situation by his wife some hours ago. But speak of it he must...
As the young man detached himself from his group of friends, Edgar was again struck by his impressive, muscular figure, yet he moved with such a graceful stride. He automatically took the outstretched hand, letting the firm fingers warm his. He found himself clinging to them, rather than returning the salute as his host might have expected.
"Now, what will you drink? Cognac? Champagne?" The sincere welcome mellowing the lilting Irish brogue simply accented Edgar's pain.
"You managed to slip away for an hour..." Connor Flinte chuckled conspiratorially as he selected a goblet for the man he could tomorrow call father.
Edgar, incredibly, found himself nodding, a half-frown half-smile contorting his features in a travesty of chummy conspiracy as he watched champagne froth towards the rim of an exquisitely chased flute. Yes, he'd managed to slip away for an hour. No, he had not. There was no further need to furtively retreat from beneath his wife's feet as she fussed over last-minute plans and insisted he stay close in case needed. There was no more need for plans. He now had any amount of time to spend with his friends. For six months past, he'd felt proud to class this man as such...and more. After today, would Major Connor Flinte ever want to pass the time of day with him again?
Mr Edgar Meredith was a man with four daughters and an aching yen for a boy. Mrs Meredith said enough was enough. To her relief, and his dismay, nature now backed her in that. What a handsome and welcome addition to his family Connor would have made. Edgar was already mourning the loss of his son. The warmth in the room seemed suddenly unbearable.
"I'd no idea there'd be so many happy fellows commiserating on me last night of freedom." Connor grinned, an indolent hand indicating the boisterous guests, including his drunken stepbrother, cluttering his cosy drawing room. The wry humour and fine wine were still mellowing his tongue, but the bright blue gaze was sharp, seeking to adhere to Edgar's evasive brown eyes.
Mr Meredith simply nodded, passed a hand over his jaw before reflexively putting the silver chalice to his lips. Suddenly aware how awfully inappropriate it would be to drink, he replaced it on the sideboard so abruptly it skated away an inch or so. With a feat of courage Edgar forced himself to look up.
For a moment their eyes held and then relief swamped Edgar. He knew! He knew and was prepared to make it easy for him. There would be no need to scrabble for useless excuses to attempt to justify and mitigate his daughter's outrageous behaviour. There was little comfort to be drawn from the reprieve or acknowledging his cowardice. "I'm sorry. I'm...so very sorry..." The words quivered, suspended in silence, as raucous laughter eddied about them.
Connor steered him brusquely towards a cool corner of the room, far from the roaring fire, the roaring drunks toasting his marriage.
Edgar swayed his head, wincing beneath that single, spat syllable as though it had been a tirade of abuse. "I don't know... She's obstinate...headstrong..." he offered feebly. Then quickly added, "I've not had an opportunity to speak to her or chastise her. When I returned from Windrush she had already absconded to York..."
A choking sound smothered further words. The bleak laughter terminated in an oath and a hand tore into ebony hair. "York? She's run as far as that? Sweet Jaazus," seeped out through scraping white teeth.
"An aunt...she has an aunt who lives there. My wife's sister..." Edgar Meredith informed him quickly, hesitantly. "We had no idea of it, I swear. Mrs Meredith is distraught. She can hardly stand unaided. Had I the slightest notion she'd do this... In nineteen years I've never laid a finger on her in anger, and God knows there have been times when she's tempted me with her wilfulness and impudence. But had I known she'd now act so mean, I'd have taken a lash to her sides years since."
The dark head snapped down; blue-flame eyes seared Edgar's face. "Don't say that...'The caution was sweetly persuasive, gutturally thick and Connor's white teeth were infinitesimally bared.
Edgar closed his weary eyes and licked his parched lips. He made a monumental effort to control his shivering and match the self-possession of his host. "I'll deal with the formalities, of course, inform the guests, Reverend Dean and so on. As the bride's father...the renegade bride's father...I must shoulder the guilt, the shame and the responsibility...."
"She said nothing to anyone? Has she eloped with a secret lover?"
Edgar recognised the frustration coarsening his interrogator's voice and inwardly cringed. How could he recount the pathetic excuses Rachel had left behind her? How could he tell this handsome, personable cavalry officer, who had been decorated several times for valour, that Rachel had jilted him on the eve of their wedding because she had a fancy for a more charismatic and exciting consort? He could barely admit to himself that his eldest daughter and heir to his estate was shallow, inconsiderate and lacking in filial duty, and couldn't see the good in a gentleman because she was dazzled by the peacock dandies she giggled with.
"Is she travelling alone?" 'With her sister, Isabel. My wife and Isabel tried to reason with her. Isabel was for staying behind, so disgusted was she by her sister's deceit. They've always been close; if anyone could have stayed her, I would have chosen Isabel. My wife had sense enough to insist Isabel accompany her rather than risk further outrage by letting her travel alone. By the time I arrived at Beaulieu Gardens they were five hours on the road to their aunt Florence. My time has been better served in attempting to contain the disaster as best I can than following her. She would have known that. She would have calculated on her chastisement being of less importance to me than my duty to you and my family's honour. My Rachel has ever been a beautiful schemer." He breathed raggedly through white, trembling lips. "But such merciless plotting is too much. I'll never forgive her for this! In all my life I've never felt so useless or...so angry...or so utterly bereft..."
"Quite..." Connor said.
"Do you not miss having a husband and children of your own, Rachel?"
"I've told you, I'm happy enough to share your Paul..." 'No! Be serious about it," Lucinda chided on a chuckle. "Are you ever regretful at having turned down that Mr Featherstone?"
Rachel looked mystified for a moment, her pale brow puckered in concentration. "Oh, him!'she suddenly exploded on a laugh, having finally placed the last man who had offered for her. That, she realised, had been the basis of his attraction at the time. She had been persuaded—not without foundation as it turned out—that he might be the last eligible man to present himself. And he had seemed well enough: he had a decent head of auburn hair and his own teeth, and wasn't a widower so there wasn't a danger of having his mewling offspring tipped into her lap. But within a month of their engagement being made public, Rachel had realised she wasn't that desperate to attain connubial status after all.
Aware that her friend was awaiting a reply, she dismissed him with a laugh. "Heavens, no! He was a duellist and a gambler and not very proficient at either. He nigh on had a hand sliced clean off in a sword fight over some Covent Garden nun, and his pockets were to let too often for my liking. I suspect he bargained on having Windrush to refill them at some time."
"Well, what about that other gentleman? The one who walked with a limp and the aid of a silver-topped stick, but had the face of an Adonis..."
"It's odd you should mention Philip Moncur," Rachel said on a frown, recalling that particular admirer. "A month or so ago he sent me some poetry, despite the fact I'd not heard from him for three or more years...since our engagement was broken."
"How flattering he should remember your fondness for Wordsworth and Keats."
"Well, if he did remember, he chose to ignore it, and sent me some drivel he'd penned himself—a quatrain that lauded my ethereal radiance and classical serenity. When I ignored that, it was followed by an ode in which he compared me to a marble statue: bleak and beautiful to behold and in need of the sultry sun of his adoration to fire me..."
Lucinda pressed her lips together to stifle a laugh. "I'd say he's angling to see you in one of Madame Bouillon's togas."
"I'd say he's angling to see me out of it. Silly man! Why does he not just send over details of his proposition?"
"Rachel! You surely wouldn't consider...well...such an offer?"
"Why not? I think marriage is highly overrated. Being a kept woman has its benefits...money and freedom, to name but two."
"Well, for goodness' sake! And I would have sworn you would never say or do anything else to shock me!" Lucinda giggled nervously. "Don't tell June those theories; you know she hangs on your every word deeming it sensible advice. I'd hate her to flee at the last minute in a..." Her voice trailed away and she grimaced apology.
"Panic...." Rachel finished the sentence for her, apparently undisturbed by her friend's tactless allusion to her aborted first engagement. But then no one ever referred to that episode, under any circumstances. So Rachel simply said, "Oh, June's different," whilst fanning her face and throwing back her head to let a breeze beneath the strands of fair hair sticking to her damp neck. "I can hardly have misgivings about June's match; after all, it took me three whole months to bring it about..."
"About the same time it took you to pair Paul with me," Lucinda said quietly.
"Yes...I suppose it was about the same." Rachel cocked her head in mock thoughtfulness. "My trouble is I'm too selfless. What I should have done was conspired to keep one of those fine fellows for myself." She sighed theatrically. "Now I'm on the shelf. I'm reduced to receiving ditties from very poor poets."
Lucinda chuckled. "I think Moncur is very Byronesque! Quite gorgeous, in fact, and sensitively cerebral too."
They sat in amicable quiet for a few moments, watching passing heat-hazy scenery and a procession of flagging promenading ladies. Gauzy muslin shifts were everywhere as were pretty parasols tilting at the hot sun. "That first gentleman, Rachel...the Irish major..." 'Who?" Rachel snapped, as though annoyed at her friend for picking up the threads of that abandoned conversation. "Oh, him." She sighed, bored yet conciliatory. "That was so long ago, Lucy, I can barely recall how he looks..."
"Well, take a glance to your left and refresh your memory," Lucinda archly advised.