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A Breath of Scandal
By Elizabeth Essex
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 Elizabeth Essex
All rights reserved.
There was nothing — no warning, no obvious sign from the heavens that her life would be upended. No deluge. No tremors. No helpful plague of locusts falling from the sky.
Only the bright winter sun, shining down upon the quiet house as if it were a normal day. As if everything at Redhill Manor were still the same.
But it wasn't. Though the comfortably familiar entryway looked as it always had, with its rich-hued ancient Turkey carpet covering the wide floorboards, and its landscape painting of the hunting scene hanging over the marble console table against the wall, there was Papa's umbrella, exactly where he had last left it, sprawled open against the corner of the table, a balm and a jarring reminder that no matter if everything looked the same, everything had changed with Papa's death.
Every routine had been interrupted, every comfort already curtailed. The fire in the drawing room grate had not even been laid, let alone lit to take the aching chill from their bones. But no matter the enormity of their grief, life had to go on. And Antigone would have to be the one to carry on — to light at least some fires, to bargain with the butcher, and to plant the kitchen garden.
"Go on up." Antigone urged her older sister toward the stairs. "I'll send Sally up to you with something warming."
Antigone should have accepted the wisdom of bowing to the convention that funerals were no place for gently bred ladies, and insisted Cassie stay home with Mama, instead of exposing her so cruelly in her grief. But Cassie, in her characteristic generosity, had not wanted Antigone to be alone, and Antigone, in her characteristic tenacity, had been absolutely adamant that Papa not be alone on this, his final journey from this life.
Cassie kissed her cold cheek, and with a light squeeze to her hand, left for the temporary sanctuary of her room upstairs. For Antigone there could be no sanctuary yet. There was too much to be done.
"Antigone?" Mama's thin voice came from behind the open door of the morning room at the back of the house.
Antigone crossed the creaking floorboards of the hallway, thinking to find her mother still awash in grief, her eyes and nose red, and her hair untidy beneath her cap. Ever since the moment when Antigone had found Papa dead in his book room, sitting quietly in his chair, as if he had just closed his eyes to ponder whatever mathematical problem had been besetting him, her mama had lost herself in worry and dire predictions of woe.
"What is to become of us? Where is the money to come from?" Mama had wept and wailed, and ordered the fires put out, as though they could no longer afford fuel. As though Papa had been so thoughtless as to leave them destitute and insolvent. As though his estate were to be be entailed away and leave them at any moment without a home.
In the absence of any real knowledge of the state of their finances, Antigone had tried to calm her mother as best she could, but with Mama in such alarm, it had fallen to Antigone to see that things were done — to order fires lit, to make arrangements with the vicar and purchase black ribbons for their clothes, to write to Papa's mathematical colleagues and collaborators at Cambridge University and in the Analytical Society, as well as the Royal Society, and inform his solicitor in Chichester. To carry on.
But in the green-walled morning room, the morning sun streaming through the east-facing windows revealed her mother looking not wild-eyed and disheveled, but beautifully dressed in a charcoal wool gown, not a hair out of place beneath a black lace cap, and without a trace of red in her eyes. She was receiving a visitor.
Antigone could not have been more surprised.
Lord Aldridge was a rather severe man Antigone knew only as the frosty master of the local hunt, a man who kept tight control of both the hunting field and his prized pack of hounds, kenneled at his estate, Thornhill Hall, some miles from the village. Antigone had often followed the progress of Thornhill Hunt from a distance, but had never hunted with his field, as ladies — especially brash young ladies on horses faster and more powerful than any other mount in the field — were actively discouraged from participating, if not banned outright. Antigone had never had more than a nodding — or more accurately, a frowning — acquaintance with the man.
Lord Aldridge had not been among the mourners at either the church or the graveyard. While Papa had been a gentleman — a mathematical scholar, a graduate and former fellow of the university of Cambridge, and a member of the prestigious Royal Society — the Preston family had been quite beneath Lord Aldridge's entirely more lofty touch.
But instead of offering her his condolences as Antigone expected, what he offered, apparently, was his hand. Although he didn't phrase it quite so romantically.
"My dear Miss Antigone," he addressed her with polite formality from where he stood in front of the cold fireplace. "I have spoken to your mother, and it is all arranged. She has accepted my proposal for your fair hand, and it only remains for you to make me the happiest of men."
Lord Aldridge could not have shocked her any more if he had struck her with his hunting whip — the burning feeling of astonished heat in her face had been about the same. In three short, emotionless sentences, he had declared himself to her with less animation than if he had been discussing the lay of a covert, and not the prospect of taking her to wife.
It is all arranged.
Any other twenty-year-old girl might have accepted his rather bloodless proposal gracefully. But Antigone Preston was not any other girl, and she was certainly no fool. She was her father's daughter, and her quick and clever mind could find no logical reason for Lord Aldridge's shockingly swift interest in making her his bride. She, of all people, who was more at home out of doors, riding her prized mare, or tromping through the woods in any weather than in a lord's drawing room. She, who had neither beauty — she was no ogress, but Cassandra was the delicate, lavender-eyed beauty of the family, and Antigone's plainer looks and ordinary blue eyes paled in comparison — nor fortune, nor any family connections from which he might profit in any way. And who was in mourning.
It was all absurd and strange, and completely impossible.
"You're jesting with me," she blurted with what she could summon for a laugh. Anything else was ridiculous.
"Hush," Mama said instantly, her face blanching with a mixture of censure and mortification at her daughter's blunt manner of speech.
Lord Aldridge's reaction was more tempered. He maintained a tight approximation of a smile, but his face seemed to stiffen, settling into a careful veneer. "I rarely jest. We are now engaged." His tone, though calm, was everything she had come to expect from listening to him direct the hunt — confident that his wishes would be followed to his exact specifications.
The rest of the world might cower, or jump to obey his every word, but Antigone had no scruple in disappointing him. It was impossible for her to accept — every thought and every feeling, from the top of her head to the bottom of her toes, rebelled.
Antigone ignored her mother's wide-eyed nod urging her to accept with all possible alacrity, and latched firmly on to the first and most polite excuse that leaped to mind. "It is impossible, sir. We are in mourning."
Lord Aldridge's quick response showed him prepared for just such an argument. "Just so," he confirmed. "But at such an unsettling time, it is best to secure one's future."
Unsettling? To Antigone's way of thinking, "unseemly" was the more appropriate choice of words. Even she, who had shared Papa's cheerful disregard for appearances and social conventions, found the haste to settle her future shockingly swift — and deeply, deeply disrespectful. She had only just come from her father's grave.
"I am freshly bereaved, sir," she began in a tone no less uncompromising than his own. "While I thank you for the honor you do me by your proposal, it is impossible for me to accept. I must respectfully —"
"Ask that you give my daughter some time to accustom herself to the honor," Mama broke in hastily, having seemed to find her voice at last. "Of course, nothing can be mentioned while we are in mourning.
Our understanding will have to remain a private matter for ..." — Mama foundered briefly —" for some months. And with Antigone so young — a girl just eighteen. She has been raised as a gentleman's daughter, but she will need to learn a very great deal in order to be prepared to be Lady Aldridge, and manage a household as large as Thornhill Hall."
Another shock, as swift but only slightly less appalling than the first because of its unexpected strangeness, buffeted Antigone, knocking the wind from her. She was not eighteen. She had not been eighteen for two years.
Why on earth was her mother so blatantly lying?
But Mama's pointed, almost wild look pinned Antigone to the lie, warning her not to argue, or challenge her fragile authority in front of this stranger. This rich, well-connected, powerful stranger. And Antigone wavered, if only for a moment.
Unfortunately, without any more immediate argument from Antigone, Lord Aldridge took her silence as compliance. "Yes, of course. You may take some time to accommodate yourself. And to make the necessary plans."
Antigone swallowed the profane retort that rose to her lips. His lordship was already very much mistaken in her — she didn't have an accommodating bone in her body, and the only plan she would be making was how to convince her poor, delusional mama of the utter, insane unsuitability of such a match.
"Though our betrothal must at this point remain private," Lord Aldridge continued, "I've arranged for you a small present. A token of my regard, as our engagement cannot yet be made formal."
Again, "arranged." Strangely condescending for a hopeful bridegroom.
In the absence of any sign of acceptance from Antigone, her mother supplied the necessary enthusiasm. "How good you are, my lord."
Antigone refused to be so easily led. If the man thought he could buy her compliance with a trinket, or seduce her with material gifts, he was even more deeply mistaken in her character.
But his offering proved to be something more than a mere trinket. The gift Lord Aldridge drew from the sueded pouch in his pocket was a delicate, ceramic cameo mourning pendant. He held the heart-shaped pendant out carefully so that the luminous pearl edging glowed in the bright winter sunlight, beckoning gracefully to her across the short distance. Luring her into polite submission with its thoughtfulness.
The carved scene depicted a classically draped figure mourning over an urn. Even though it was not large, the tasteful piece must have cost a bloody fortune — enough, at any rate, to keep the Prestons in coal and meat, and free from even imaginary worry, for at least a year.
Antigone could already see the light of relief — as well as the canny calculation of cost and value — spark in her mother's eyes as Mama moved forward, irresistibly drawn by the promise of so much thoughtful beneficence, while Antigone struggled to find a suitable objection.
But there was nothing untoward, nothing inappropriate or objectionable, in such a gift. Any other sort of girl would have accepted it gracefully. But Antigone Preston had never been any other sort of girl but the kind who looked gift horses directly in the mouth, and checked every last one of their teeth.
She chose her words carefully. "I am honored, sir. And I am deeply appreciative of the thoughtfulness of such a gift. But everything forbids that I should accept it."
He made a strange involuntary movement of his mouth, a satisfied turning up and narrowing of his lower lip, as if her resistance secretly pleased rather than annoyed him. "I honor your scruples. But I must insist."
Such a bald statement deserved an equally blunt rejoinder. "So must I." Her tone was just short of tart, but it was better he know that she was no witless gudgeon to be gulled or intimidated into easy compliance. And perhaps her intractability would put him off where her mere objections had not.
Mama gasped at her boldness. "Antigone," she warned under her breath as she grasped her daughter's elbow. "You will accept the gift. Not to do so would dishonor the very kind and thoughtful memorial to your father."
Papa would have cared nothing for the showy sentimentality of mourning, but Antigone's grief was too new and too vast to allow her to give even the appearance of disrespect to his memory. There was nothing for it but to accept.
"Thank you, sir." She had to work to steady her voice. "Pray forgive me if I appeared ungrateful."
"There, now." Mama was restored to some semblance of serenity. She patted Antigone's hand before she turned to encourage Lord Aldridge with a smile and a nod. "You must allow his lordship the privilege of putting it on you."
Antigone was not by nature a docile person, but with her mother at her elbow, there was little she could do, short of physical disobedience, to prevent Lord Aldridge from circling around behind her, and reaching over her shoulders to loop the necklace about her neck.
There was even less she could do to prevent herself from twitching, jumping almost, as if a spider had landed on her neck, when Lord Adldridge's thumbs brushed her skin as he settled the clasp against her nape.
A moment, no more. But it felt as if ... as if he were testing her out. The way one put a horse into the traces of a carriage for the first time. How very strange. And uncomfortable.
Antigone stepped quickly out from under his hands, but the uncomfortably proprietary sensation of his touch against her skin lingered.
For the first time in her life, she felt unsettled — uneasy and at a loss for what to do or say to regain her equilibrium. The chain and pendant were delicate and small, but the necklace hung heavy against her neck with a force all out of proportion to its weight, pressing against her breastbone like a yoke — hard enough to make her pulse start and falter in her veins.
Lord Aldridge, on the other hand, seemed to have gained composure and stability. His mouth arranged itself into an real, albeit acidic smile, as if he were pleased with the results of his little test. "Your gift, Miss Antigone, contains two parts. The first was so you might think of your father. And the second, I hope, will make you think of me."
Lord Aldridge then offered to her an antique lover's eye ring — a small enameled depiction of his left eye, made in much younger days when such tokens had been fashionable, and his hair had been brown, instead of silver, and his cheeks far less drawn than they appeared today.
While such a gift might once have been fashionable, Antigone could not help but find it distasteful — it was too intimate a thing to be given by someone she had only just met. But how clever of him to attach the giving of such an inappropriately intimate thing to the wholly appropriate and acceptable mourning cameo. How bloody diabolically clever.
"I commissioned it some years ago, on the Continent, during my grand tour, and have kept it as a keepsake all these years."
"It is very pretty, my lord." Mama supplied the praise Antigone would not. "Is it not a handsome gift, Antigone?" she prompted.
Antigone could only guess at his lordship's age, but his grand tour must have been at the very least twenty-five, if not thirty-five years ago, as England had been at war with France for one reason or another for the whole of Antigone's life. The recent peace had only just made travel on the Continent safe again. "It must be very old, indeed."
Another squeeze on her elbow kept Antigone from making any further blunt commentary. Mama was the one to say, "I am sure Antigone would be honored to wear such a mark of your favor."
For herself. Antigone was not at all sure.
But his lordship, whatever his years, had not been born yesterday. And his pride ensured that he had the last word. "A little something, my dear Antigone, so you know that though our agreement remains private, I am nevertheless keeping my eye on you."
Excerpted from A Breath of Scandal by Elizabeth Essex. Copyright © 2013 Elizabeth Essex. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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