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In Pursuit of a Proper Husband
By Glenda Garland
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2005 Glenda Garland
All right reserved.
Chapter One"You have taken your sweet time getting back," said Lizzie Grantham to her aunt by marriage. "I do not understand your long walks."
"Am I back?" replied Meg Grantham, rifling through the post that rested upon a salver on a table in the trim little foyer of her brother-in-law Sir George's manor house. Sir George's manservant had taken her admonishments to heart and removed the tarnish from the salver. But this detail provided gratification rather than satisfaction.
Meg was finding herself less satisfied by the day, as thoughts of what could be possible cast their frustrating lure. She knew she could do more with her life in England than her slow takeover of Sir George's household. Her circumstances, however, had fenced her in. At least until Lizzie married. Then there might be more possibilities.
But in the meantime, she walked and could not explain so that anyone in the household understood, although she had tried at first. Sir George, his wife Tessa, and their daughter Lizzie were good people. They had saved her from loneliness by insisting she come live with them after her husband, Sir George's younger brother, had been killed in the Peninsula. Their imaginations, however, did not run in the same roads as Meg's did.
She had tried to describe how, upon first coming home from the war, she had needed the mindlessness of a daily route, putting one foot surely before the other, or how the progress of ice-slicked bud to flower to leaf delighted her, or how the smell of wind and rain made her feel alive, or, more recently, how sometimes she needed to explore, taking the measure of the varying ground of a new hill or meadow or forest.
They had looked at her with confusion or polite skepticism.
"Do you claim you are not back?" Lizzie asked. "You do delight in teasing me, Aunt."
Meg tried not to sigh. At seventeen, Lizzie considered calling someone aunt who was seven years her senior something of an absurdity and, by consequence, an imposition. Worse, she knew that little escaped her aunt's eyes.
"Have you never continued a thought despite being in a new place?" Meg asked Lizzie. "That is what I meant."
"Oh, well, when I think about my music," Lizzie said, "but you don't think about music, so what would you be thinking about?"
Meg shook her head, and said gently, "This and that."
Lizzie relaxed a little, although Meg could not determine whether empathy played any part in it. "Wherever you are," Lizzie said, "you must think about being here now, for Mama and Papa are entertaining a gentleman in the drawing room who has come calling for you."
"His name? Regiment?"
"He was not wearing a uniform," Lizzie said, and her voice took on a wistful note. "But he did appear handsome and excessive fine from the window. I peeked in."
"You did not give yourself away by-"
"No, I did not trip, or fall against the door," Lizzie said, annoyed. "I wish you would stop worrying so. I have not broken anything in days."
Thank God for that, Meg thought. "Do you know the gentleman's name?"
"Yes, and do stop looking at me like that. His name is Dodd. You have never mentioned-"
"Dodd?" Meg asked, alarmed. "Did you say Dodd?"
"Yes," Lizzie said. "What does that mean?"
Meg took off her bonnet and laid it on the bench next to the table that held the salver. She straightened the skirt of her dark blue walking dress.
He could be here for any number of innocent reasons.
He could be someone else. Meg hoped he was someone else.
"You cannot intend to go in there as you are," Lizzie said. "Your petticoats are an inch thick in mud."
"Precisely," Meg replied.
"Precisely?" Lizzie asked and followed in Meg's wake.
The withdrawing room faced north, so that it was never the wrong time of the day to greet visitors.
Meg opened the heavy door and said into the dim room overfilled with blue jacquard-woven settees, "Sir George, there you are. Do you know your prize bull became positively enraged this afternoon when I passed him? He charged the fence, and such a noise it made. Is he going to be moved to the upper pasture soon?"
"You are unharmed, sister?" Sir George asked, standing.
Another gentleman also stood, and Meg decided she could now take notice of him. "I am quite all right, thank you. So sorry, I did not realize you had company. Tessa, my apologies," she said to Sir George's wife, who fluttered her hands and lashes. "I was so concerned about the wretched creature that I have burst in on you in my dirt. Please excuse me."
Meg had learned the first of what she needed to know. The gentleman was not some elderly relative of the Dodd she knew about. The best she could hope for was that he was a close cousin of the man her dear friend Anne had described in her letters.
I could not love a man who did not tower over me, Meg, so he has fulfilled this expectation. Broad shoulders, fine frame, the darkest hair one wants to sink one's fingers into like the ocean at twilight. And did I mention, the most delicious hazel eyes? This one, my dearest, could match you for intelligence. I want him, and I shall have him. So never worry. Here is a reason beyond friendship why I would never betray you.
The delicious hazel eyes drank in every detail of her as she drank in every detail of him. An impeccably tailored blue coat and tan trousers, a simply tied but perfect cravat, and one gold watch fob proclaimed a simple, elegant taste. Dark sideburns highlighted the refined but forceful lines of his face. He had a dimple in his right cheek that likely embarrassed him, for he smiled only from the other side. Too bad, too, for on a woman that mouth would be described as kissable.
Meg and Anne had spent many an agreeable assembly arguing over what made a man handsome. This Mr. Dodd would have appealed instantly to Anne. Meg, however, decided that the cool, ironic gleam in his eyes bespoke an arrogance she would do best to avoid. She had never got on with men who thought they owned the world and all its appurtenances.
Never got on. That was an understatement.
At least this specimen of an arrogant aristocrat did not seem inclined to possess what he saw: a woman of four and twenty, taller than Anne by some three inches, too thin for English taste, with eyes that let the weather decide their color, her blondish hair partially blown from its confining pins, and her dress unfashionable and muddy.
"No, no, sister," Sir George said, "do not go yet. This gentleman has come to call upon you."
The gentleman bowed. "Yes, Mrs. Grantham." He had a deep, resonant voice that reminded Meg of Spanish pomegranates. To her surprise and unease she almost licked her lips.
"We have not met, sir," she said. "Such a mystery."
"His name is Dodd," Sir George said, "and he has come on a commission from Viscount Reversby."
Maybe he was a cousin. Could anyone be so arrogant as to pretend to be on a commission from oneself? Yes, Meg thought, for she had seen worse manifestations of arrogance. She said, "How very kind. I am all astonishment, though, as to why Lord Reversby would send you, sir."
"There is no mystery, ma'am. He sent me to give you this." With long, well-molded hands, he took a packet from his pocket and gave it to her. As he did, his hand touched hers, and a sharp but indefinable feeling made Meg draw her breath in sharply. He likewise appeared startled.
"I, I cannot think of what Lord Reversby would want to give me," Meg said.
"Open it, Aunt, do," said Lizzie and promptly bumped into Meg's elbow. Meg grimaced, and Lizzie tightened her mouth.
"This is my daughter, Miss Grantham, sir," said Sir George.
"Your servant, Miss Grantham," said the gentleman.
"A pleasure, sir," replied Lizzie. "Open it."
"Make a proper curtsy," Meg told Lizzie. "You must get into the habit of it."
"Are you going up to London for the Season?" the gentleman asked.
"Yes," Lizzie said, curtsying without falling on her face. "But I am hopeful that by the time we reach there, my aunt will stop acting like a sergeant drilling troops."
"Lizzie!" Sir George said, while Tessa fluttered her hands.
"I have known many a young woman," the gentleman said, "who would be thankful to know that their manners will flow smoothly when they are faced with one of the Patronesses."
Lizzie sighed, and Meg knew what she was thinking. Why should she expend courtesy on a man who ran errands for other men? Lizzie could not know this man was likely Viscount Reversby himself.
"Thank you, sir, for that reassurance," Lizzie said begrudgingly. "Now open the package, Aunt."
Meg turned the package over, broke the wax seal that held the heavy paper closed. Inside, surrounded by cotton batting, lay an achingly familiar garnet broach in the shape of a Maltese cross. Arrogant or not, Mr. Dodd or Lord Reversby, he had given Meg something precious.
She looked up at the gentleman to thank him from the bottom of her heart, and understood from the tick in his cheek-the same one that held the dimple-that this visit was not about generosity. It was a test.
"A simple jewel," Lizzie said. "Look, Mama, garnets."
"This belonged to Anne. Lady Reversby, I mean."
Tessa and Sir George crowded up to take a look. "Very pretty," Tessa said. "You grew up together, is that not right, sister?"
"Yes," Meg said. "After my parents died, I was all alone in the world until I came to live with my Neville cousins. Anne and I were only six months apart."
"When did she die?"
"In '12, when I was yet in Spain. Sir, please thank Lord Reversby for me, but this cross belonged to Lady Reversby's mother. It should, properly, go to her brother, Mr. Neville."
"It was, apparently, Lady Reversby's dearest wish that this cross come to you, Mrs. Grantham. Lord Reversby regrets only that it has taken so long to bring it to you."
"We have another mystery, then, sir, for I have been living here in western Leicestershire the better part of a year, with my late husband's family." She smiled in Sir George and Tessa's direction.
"That is why he is particularly annoyed."
"That is why he sent you, sir?"
"Precisely, ma'am," he said.
Lizzie snorted and fell back inelegantly onto a settee, kicking a small table and making it jump. "Well, Aunt, finally I may say I have met someone else who says 'precisely.'"
The gentleman raised his brows, but did not comment upon Lizzie. "I hope you will keep the cross, ma'am."
"I feel now I may accept it with gratitude and thanks." Meg closed her hand around the brooch. Its clasp bit comfortingly into her palm, its garnets pebbly beneath her fingers. "I no longer had anything of Lady Reversby's." Would the gentleman reveal himself now?
"I am sorry for that," the gentleman said. "Her loss was a loss to us all."
"Yes," Meg replied, studying him. No irony lurked in his hazel eyes now. If he was Reversby, he had loved his wife as much as Anne had represented in her letters.
But Meg now recalled a reserve that had entered her friend's letters when mentioning her husband. Meg could not remember how long the honeymoon had lasted, but Anne had hinted at something awry in the garden. Had his arrogance dimmed Anne's appreciation of his good looks?
"Do you stay to dinner with us, Mr. Dodd?" Tessa asked. "You would be most welcome."
"Yes, indeed," Sir George said.
Meg expected him to beg off, but he said, "Thank you so much for your kind offer. I should be most pleased."
With more than a little disquiet, Meg excused herself to change into more suitable clothing. She chose a muslin patterned with small, dark purple flowers, pinned the garnet cross on its lace fichu, and asked Hemmie to repair her hair. Then she dismissed the maid and took Anne's letters from her secretary.
The outermost two had lost most of their words to the rushing waters of the Tagus during one of their many crossings. A soldier in the regiment had rescued the packet for her. Meg found the one she wanted. Touching the letter, as she reread the passage that had so often puzzled her, made her feel closer to her friend.
This letter was among the last she had received, shortly before Anne's death.
I adore Reversby, never doubt that. But lately I have felt as if I were skating on a lake, with decided boundaries and no thin ice. He would have me be all too safe. How I wish I could be with you, living all that excitement.
Meg shook her head, as she had every time upon reading it. She had written Anne that there was little of excitement following the drum, mostly death and survival. Anne had not believed her, claimed Meg uttered platitudes to calm her. And in the cold, bloody time between the storming of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, Meg had not the patience to disabuse her.
Why was he here, with his delicious but piercing eyes, garnet cross, and false name? What test had he wanted her to pass? What ordeal did he yet expect to put her through?
Why did his voice remind her of pomegranates, her most treasured fruit? They were a lot of work, but their sweetness could quench the bitterest thirst.
Meg replaced the letters, and not a moment too soon, for Lizzie burst into her room.
"You must do something!" she said, all tragedy.
"About what? Do calm yourself and tell me."
"My pianoforte! Papa has word from your beau Mr. Black-"
"Mr. Black is not my beau."
"Whatever. You sent him to oversee its removal to London. You promised that it would come with us to London. How can I hope to impress gentlemen callers when I have no pianoforte?"
Meg had sent Mr. Black to hand-carry the instrument if necessary, but not because she felt that Lizzie would fail to secure someone's hand because of its lack. Meg had sent Mr. Black after the pianoforte so he would not come after Meg. "What has happened?"
"He says that it has met with some sort of accident being loaded onto the barge at the Oxford Canal, and awaits instructions." Lizzie's voice rose to a screech.
"Has your father given him instructions?"
"Papa wants to speak to you about it, for he does not understand from Mr. Black's letter just what the problem is."
Meg wished she knew who was responsible for breeding such hesitation into the Grantham brothers. "There is nothing we can do today."
"Why ever not?"
"There is the matter of our gentleman caller. Where is he, by the by?"
"Papa let him into the garden."
Let him? Like a dog? "Alone?" Meg asked.
"Certainly. Papa was not going to discuss my pianoforte before him," Lizzie said indignantly.
Meg pressed her fingertips over her eyebrows.
Excerpted from In Pursuit of a Proper Husband by Glenda Garland Copyright © 2005 by Glenda Garland. Excerpted by permission.
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