IMPERILED BY A LADY'S LOVE
Sophia Whitfield paced in front of the door leading to her mother’s bedchamber, wringing her hands and chewing her lower lip. Her father had summoned the physician early that afternoon when her mother’s fever suddenly rose, and she started talking as though she were speaking in tongues. It was then approaching early evening, and the doctor had not exited the room or allowed her back inside since his arrival. Her father had said that he had to go into town for a meeting that he could not reschedule, and that he would return as quickly as he could. Sophia prayed that he would hurry. She did not know what was happening, but as a boulder of dread settled in the pit of her stomach, she knew that it could not be good. Yet still, she hoped against hope that it was not the worst.
Just as Sophia was beginning to think that the doctor would be there until the sun set, the door to her mother’s bedchamber opened slowly. The physician stepped out into the hall, pulling the door closed gently behind him. His face was tired and clammy, and his mouth was turned down in a dejected frown. Sophia swallowed a lump that had begun forming in her throat and put her hand on the doctor’s arm.
“Is she all right?” she asked, a pensive look carved into her face.
The physician met her gaze with sad eyes and shook his head slowly.
“I am afraid that her illness is at the end of its progression,” he began softly. “I brought her fever down with cool water and some medicine, but there is nothing more that I can do for her.”
Sophia felt tears well up in her eyes. She bit down hard on the corners of her mouth to keep it from trembling. She took a deep breath to steady herself, unsure of how to phrase her question, or whether she wanted the answer.
“How long?” she asked, cutting herself off as she began losing her battle for composure.
The physician shook his head again.
“I cannot be sure,” he informed, his expression grim. “But based on my experience with illnesses such as this, it will be a wonder if she survives the night.”
Sophia covered her mouth with her hands, feeling the hot tears begin to flow. “No,” she whispered.
Her mother had been ill for quite some time, but she still had not prepared herself for the eventuality of her death. She had allowed herself to live in comfortable denial, certain that some miracle would occur and that her mother would recover. Now, as the physician spoke, that denial shattered into horrible realization, and Sophia felt as though she might swoon.
“My father…” she murmured, trailing off as a fresh wave of emotion overcame her.
The doctor put a hand under her arm to stabilize her and patted her hand gently. “I will do my best to find him once I return to town,” he said reassuringly. “If I do, I will tell him to come back straight away. Do you know where he was intending to go?”
Sophia shook her head. “I only know that he said he had an important meeting.”
The physician nodded. “I shall do my best to locate him. For now, you should sit with your mother. She was asking for you.”
Sophia swallowed another lump and nodded. She understood what the doctor was saying. If she wished to see her mother before she passed, this would almost certainly be her last chance.
The doctor gave her hand another comforting pat. Then he excused himself and made his way to the front door, where the butler was waiting to see him out.
Sophia quickly pulled her handkerchief from her dress pocket and wiped her face quickly. She knew that more tears would come, so she kept the cloth tucked in her hand as she entered her mother’s room. Despite her grief, she smiled warmly at her mother as she approached the bed where she lay.
The frail woman weakly attempted to reach for her daughter as Sophia reached her. She quickly took her mother’s small, clammy hand to spare the poor sickly woman the strain. Sophia sat on the edge of the bed beside her mother, taking her hand into a lap and stroking it gently.
“Sophia, my darling,” the Viscountess croaked, her voice barely above a whisper.
“Yes, Mother?” Sophia replied, resisting the urge to tell her mother to conserve her energy.
She knew these would be her mother’s last words, and though it pained her, she intended to listen well to what she had to say.
“I love you, more than life itself.”
Sophia nodded, tears once more flooding her eyes. “I know,” she said. “And I love you just as much.”
“I am so sorry to be leaving you at such a crucial time in your life,” the Viscountess continued woefully.
Sophia started to shake her head and tell her mother that she would be all right, but the woman waved her hand with a surprising burst of strength.
“I saw the doctor’s prognosis in his eyes, my dear,” she said. “And I can feel that I shall not last much longer.”
Sophia bit her lip and nodded, unable to speak.
“I have something that I would ask of you,” the Viscountess continued. Sophia gently squeezed her mother’s hand and nodded once more.
“You must promise me that you will ensure yourself a debut ball,” she urged, pausing to catch her breath. “Speak to your Aunt Jane. She will help you in any way she can. But you must have a coming out ball, and you must attend all of the London Seasons.”
Sophia stared at her dying mother, searching for words. Surely, the Viscountess did not expect her daughter to think of such things right then. How could she possibly concern herself with things like dancing and socializing, while her mother was taking her last breaths?
Her mother weakly patted her daughter’s hands once more. “I know that I will miss a very important part of your life,” she said, her voice growing noticeably weaker and more strained. “But I shall not rest unless I know that you will be all right.”
Sophia paused, wanting to tell the frail woman that she would never be all right without her in her life, and that discussing silly social events was hardly the way she wished to spend her last moments with her. However, the Viscountess’s eyes were determined and serious, so she simply swallowed and returned to her mother’s patting.
“What is it that you wish for me to do?” she asked, her voice beginning to tremble.
“Attend every ball in the upcoming Seasons,” the Viscountess repeated. “Find a good, respectable gentleman, and marry well. I must know that you will be taken care of.”
Sophia took a deep breath. The idea of marrying seemed absurd to her, especially at that moment. Her wedding day was an occasion at which she had always envisioned her mother. She had dreamed of having her mother help her with the plans, going with her to the dress fittings, assisting with choosing her accessories, and tending to the last-minute preparations. Now, her mother’s illness was taking all of that away from her. She understood why her mother was making such a request, but she could not bring herself to seriously think of such a thing as she sat at her death bed.
“Please, my darling,” the Viscountess, her grip on her daughter’s hands loosening and her eyes beginning to close, said, “promise me.”
Sophia’s heart began to pound. She would not get another chance to put her mother’s mind at ease. Even if she were not certain about how she would comply with her mother’s request, she knew that she must try.
“I promise, Mother,” she breathed, stroking her mother’s forehead. “I shall find a good husband. Do not worry.”
The Viscountess nodded weakly and settled back into her pillow.
“I love you,” she whispered again.
“I love you too,” Sophia replied weakly, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Rest now, Mother.”
Within moments, the Viscountess spoke no more. Sophia clung to her mother’s hand, bringing it to her cheek as she sobbed. She sat there with her mother for another half an hour. Then, she slowly rose and exited the room, looking back once more at the Viscountess. She looked peaceful, more so than she had in many months. Sophia smiled through her tears. Her heart was breaking.
“Farewell, Mother,” she whispered, closing the door behind her.
As she reached the bottom of the stairs, the front door opened. Her father entered the house and, upon seeing his daughter’s face, rushed to her side.
“Is your mother…” he began, trailing off as Sophia’s tear-filled eyes met his.
Sophia nodded her head, unable to speak through the lump of emotion swelling in her throat. The Viscount shook his head in disbelief. Then, he took his daughter in his arms, and there in the entryway of their home, they stood and mourned together.
“Sophia,” the Viscount called.
She looked up from the sheet music she had been studying. In the months following the death of her mother, she had tried to finish learning the songs they had been practicing before she fell too ill to leave the bed. But she found that it was still too painful to try to sit and play them.
There had been a few times when she had tried that she had spotted her father peeking into the room with tears streaming down his face. Yet still, she sat, looking at the sheets of music, with the hopes of chasing away her grief the more she did so.
“Yes, Father?” she asked, putting away the music.
The Viscount saw his daughter sitting aimlessly at the pianoforte and smiled sadly at her.
“How are you, darling?” he asked, walking over to her and giving her a kiss on her cheek.
“I am well,” she said, returning the kiss. “Is everything all right?”
The Viscount nodded and sighed. “Yes, dear,” he said. “I am just preparing to return to London by week’s end. I came seeking you to let you know so that you can get any of the things that you will want or need from this house.”
Sophia blinked at her father, confused. “But why do you wish to return to the city?” she asked. “It is so peaceful and beautiful out here.”
The Viscount’s eyes flashed several emotions, many of which Sophia could not read. For a moment, she was worried that her father was about to give her some terrible news. After a moment, however, he gave her a small smile.
“I just feel that it would be best for some of the business deals I hope to have soon,” he said vaguely.
Sophia studied his face. She was unsure what moving back to the city could possibly have to do with business, since their country home was not terribly far outside of town. She also did not wish to leave the countryside. She intended to keep her promise to her mother, but she could very well do that from their home there.
Her brow furrowed, and she shook her head gently. “Oh, Father,” she said. “Might I stay here, in this home?”
The Viscount looked at his daughter, considering her request. “Why on earth would you wish to stay here alone?”
Sophia gave his arm a reassuring squeeze. “I shall not be alone. We have servants here, and you could come and visit me any time you wish.”
Her father chewed his lip thoughtfully. “But why would you wish to stay rather than return to London?” he asked.
Sophia sighed. “I am simply not ready to mingle with London society, Father,” she said, her voice resigned. “I made Mother a promise, but I cannot even consider fulfilling it just yet.”
The Viscount nodded slowly, running his hand through his thinning hair.
“I understand, my dear,” he sighed after a few moments. “I suppose that it could not harm for you to stay here. But please, do reconsider returning to London soon. If only to put my mind at ease.”
Sophia rose and hugged her father. “I shall, Father. I just need a bit more time to grieve.”
The Viscount embraced his daughter tightly. “I understand, darling.”
True to his word, her father was ready to depart for London by the end of the week. More than once, Sophia thought that he seemed almost in a hurry to do so, and she supposed she could not blame him. It must have been difficult for him, remaining in the home where his wife had passed, because it was clear it did not provide the same comfort that it did his daughter.
“Are you sure that you won’t reconsider?” the Viscount asked as he was hugging Sophia on the day of his departure.
Sophia held on to her father for a moment before gently pulling away to look into his eyes.
“I am certain,” she said. “In fact, I have decided to enroll in a ladies’ seminary school for a year.”
The Viscount looked at his daughter, and she could see some of his apprehension lifting.
“That sounds like a fine idea, my dear,” he replied, giving her his first genuine smile that she could remember since her mother’s passing. “You must keep in touch and let me know how you are faring.”
Sophia returned her father’s warm smile and nodded. “I shall, Father,” she said.
That evening, after her father had left for London, Sophia sat down at the desk in her father’s study. She looked around, feeling the sudden quiet of the house. She loved her father, but his grief had been as heavy as her own, often leaving her suffocated.
They had done what they could to ease one another’s pain, and they were very close. But often, it seemed that each of their pain and sadness fed the other’s, which was the one reason she had not given her father for wishing to stay in the countryside for a while longer. She wanted her father to heal as much as she herself wanted to, and she felt sure that the decision she had made was the right one. It was the one her mother would have made.
With a sad smile and a tear in her eyes, she pulled a fresh piece of stationery from her father’s desk drawer, took the feather pen from the ink well, and began to write her request for enrollment to a seminary school in Bath.
Sophia sighed as she looked through the first stack of Season ball invitations for the year. It was a notably smaller stack than the others had been in the three years since her mother’s death, but it was still a considerable amount, especially since the Season was just beginning. And, as with every other set of invitations she had received in those three years, she put them to the side to be selectively answered at a later time.
She often felt terrible because of the promise she had made her mother. She knew that the Viscountess had wished for her to attend every single ball hosted during each Season. Yet each year, she chose only a few to attend. In fact, she did her best to attend as few as possible.
She had matured a great deal since her mother’s passing, and she found it hard to mingle with others who were close to her age in the ton. She also found it difficult to find any men who did not either bore her or did not think that she was too quiet or aloof for their tastes.
Nevertheless, she remembered the rest of her promise to her mother, and she knew that, at 20, she was fast reaching an age that many would consider that of a spinster. She knew that she would have to wed, and soon, to keep her most important promise to her mother. With that thought in mind, she put the invitations at the forefront of the small escritoire in her bedchambers, vowing to take the upcoming Season more seriously than she had the two previous ones.
With that done, Sophia made her way to the drawing to spend a few hours crocheting. That was one of her favorite things to do, especially when she had something on her mind. As of late, she crocheted most often when thinking of her mother, but that day she felt that she could contemplate the upcoming Season better while she finished the scarf she was working on for her father. She had hidden it with care, intending to present it to him as a surprise gift when it was finished.
Now certain that he was out of the house for the morning, she closed the drawing room door and took it from its hiding place. She sat down on a bench within ames-ace the large window so that she would have plenty of sunlight to aid her in her work, and so she could hide it quickly between the seat, and the bookcase should her father enter the room and catch her by surprise.
As she worked, she thought more about the Season. She knew that she would need to buy more dresses, which was something she had done rarely since her mother had died. She had gone through some of her mother’s dresses in the months leading up to her first Season without the Viscountess. She was a bit shorter than her mother had been, and quite a bit slenderer. Her medium bust was also smaller than her mother’s, so wearing her dresses was out of the question. She absently made a mental note to talk to her Aunt Jane before she started selecting a dress.
Dowager Countess Lady Linsdale, her father’s sister, had always been as loving and supportive as Sophia could have ever hoped for in an aunt, especially after her mother passed. She had stayed with Sophia and her father for a time after the Viscountess had died, and she had opened her home to Sophia any time her father went away for long business trips and did not wish to leave her at home alone.
She had also organized her debut ball the previous year, upon her return from the ladies’ seminary school she had attended in Bath, and Sophia had been exceptionally grateful. However, she had been unable to help to feel the empty longing of her aunt taking the place of her mother for such a special occasion.
Despite her aunt’s generosity and kindness and support, the entire event had been difficult at best, since she lacked her mother’s guidance. Blessedly, Aunt Jane had understood her mixed feelings about everything, and she had never taken it as a personal insult. In fact, she had grown closer to her niece and continued doing everything she could to help her grow into the woman she was then.
She lifted the scarf, which was now well more than halfway finished. She examined it carefully, noting how much more she needed to crochet and calculating how long it would take her to finish it. She figured that with two or three solid, uninterrupted hours, she would likely have it finished, perhaps even with some fancy bordering work done.
She smiled to herself, pleased with her stitches, and with how well her father’s gift was turning out. Just as she started to get back to work, she heard shouting coming from the hallway. Startled, she quickly shoved the scarf and her crocheting materials down beside the bookshelf. Her heart racing, she slowly walked over to the drawing room door and peeked her head out.
She could see nothing at first, but she could hear that the commotion was continuing. There was not just one voice, but two, only one of which she recognized. She cautiously moved further down the hallway, listening to the voices growing louder with every step.
She thought quickly if her father was fending off a would-be marauder, though she was not certain what she could do if that were the case. If she heard scuffling along with the shouting, she would slip back down the hall and seek the assistance of the first servant she found, silently escorting them out the back door and into the garden, so the intruder did not hear them talking. However, she needed to understand the situation, without being spotted, before she reacted.
Silently, she took a few more steps, just far enough that her father was in view. He was standing at the end of the entryway, closest to the hallway, and from the rectangle of light on the floor, she could tell that the front door was open. As he took a step back, a man, the one to whom Sophia figured the second voice must belong, took a step toward him.
Her heart leaped into her throat as she saw that the other man had his hands raised, and for a moment, she began to panic. Then she realized that he was simply raising his fists in the air as he continued ranting about something that, from this distance, Sophia could not quite understand.
She looked at her father and, though his expression was twisted into a scowl, he did not look frightened. The realization eased her anxiety, albeit marginally, and she took a deep breath. She was preparing to approach the entryway when a sudden clearing of a throat from behind her made her freeze in her tracks.
“Good day, milady,” a honey-sweet male voice drawled from behind her.
Sophia whirled around and locked eyes with the family’s longtime butler.
“Good day, Mr. Curtis,” she greeted, curtsying to hide the sudden flush in her cheeks.
She cursed herself for having dallied, watching the argument for as long as she did. It was terribly unladylike to eavesdrop on a conversation between men, even one as heated and concerning as the one between her father and the stranger—it was scandalous to be caught doing so.
Moreover, Mr. Curtis was endlessly loyal to her father and never failed to report every single thing he heard or saw to the Viscount. It was an admirable trait, to be sure, but at that moment, Sophia fervently wished that it were not so. Her father could not find out that she had been spying on him, even though it had been unintentional. She knew that, regardless of her reasoning, her father would likely be upset with her.
“Do you need something?” the butler asked, raising his eyebrows.
He glanced over her shoulder in the direction of where her father and the man were still talking loudly and then looked at her again, his eyes full of suspicion.
Thinking quickly, she smiled warmly, summoning all her energy to pretend as though she did not hear the commotion going on behind her.
“I am fine, thank you,” she replied, silently triumphing as her voice sounded as sweet and sure as she had intended. “I was just playing some of Mother’s old music, and I got hungry. I thought that I would go to the kitchen to see if the cook has made a batch of my favorite biscuits.”
Mr. Curtis studied her for a long moment. Sophia held his gaze, determined to stand firm in her feigning of innocence. Only her heartbeat betrayed that she had, indeed, been eavesdropping, and she was beginning to fear that the butler could hear it.
Suddenly, however, the man’s face relaxed, and he smiled warmly at her.
“Well, in that case, I shall take my leave,” he said, bowing gracefully. “Forgive me for interrupting you.”
Sophia smiled sweetly at the man, feeling droplets of sweat began forming on her forehead. She feigned, brushing a stray strand of hair from her face to mask her effort to wipe it away.
“Not at all,” she replied kindly.
Slowly, to not refresh the butler’s suspicion, she curtseyed again and walked carefully toward the kitchen. Once she was inside and saw that she was alone, she leaned against the wall and heaved a sigh of relief. While she was not sure that he believed she had heard nothing of the argument occurring behind her as she spoke to him, he did seem to believe that she had not been eavesdropping and that she had been on her way to the kitchen.
Quickly, to keep suspicion from arising once more, she searched the kitchen, finding three of the biscuits she had told the butler she wanted. Though she had no intention of eating them, she wanted him to see her with them, to add further credit to her fib.
As she had hoped, the butler was walking slowly past the kitchen as she exited, biscuits in hand. She held one to her lips and took a small bite, pretending not to see him until she had done so, at which point she smiled and covered her mouth with her fingertips. The butler nodded, seemingly satisfied that she had been telling the truth, and then continued down the hall.
Once he was well out of view, Sophia hurried up the stairs and into her bedchambers, dropping the rest of the biscuits into the bin beside her desk. She sat down in the chair behind it and cupped her chin in her hands.
Now that she had evaded Mr. Curtis’s suspicious gaze, her thoughts returned to the argument her father had been having. Who was that man? Why were they shouting? As much as she wanted answers, she knew that she could never mention it. She must pretend that she had heard nothing and that it was none of her concern. She decided that she would spend the afternoon walking through the gardens so that she could put the strange, disconcerting event out of her mind.
Later that evening, she freshened up and readied herself for dinner. When she entered the dining room, her father had already seated himself, a grim expression on his face. Sophia put on her best, blissfully unaware smile and approached her father, kissing him on the cheek.
“Good evening, Father,” she greeted.
The Viscount seemed startled by her approach, but he quickly composed himself. He smiled warmly at his daughter, placing his hand over hers as she put it on his shoulder.
“Good evening, my dear,” he said. “I am very glad that you’ve chosen to join me tonight.”
Sophia smiled wanly. She did not mention that her father was often gone at dinner and that when he was home, he rarely ate, at least in the dining room. Whatever it was that was distressing him, she did not wish to add to it.
“I am not precisely what one would call excellent company,” she murmured, referring to her quiet, reserved nature. Her eyes were twinkling as she spoke, in an effort to lighten her father’s spirits.
The Viscount laughed, his face beginning to relax.
“Well, believe me, Sophia, your company, does me a great deal of good.”
Sophia smiled again, though with more sadness. Her father’s words were sincere, but the tension beneath them made her stomach tighten. What was going on with him?
The meal was served then, and Sophia was content to let them begin eating in silence. She could not voice her concerns, for fear of exposing her eavesdropping, and it seemed as though her father was not of a mind to divulge any information to her voluntarily.
As she ate, she thought of her mother and tried to think of what she might do in a situation like this one. At the very least, if her mother were there, she would talk to her about what she had overheard and seek comforting advice. As it was, she felt lost and helpless, and it was harder than she had anticipated simply pretending that it had not happened.
“Sophia, darling,” the Viscount began, pulling her from her thoughts.
She gave him her sweetest smile, suddenly afraid that he knew she had witnessed the argument.
“Yes, Father?” she asked, hoping that her voice would not betray her.
“I trust that you are making plans to attend the balls this Season,” he said. His eyes were warm, but his lips were curved into a concerned frown.
Sophia took a deep breath, more than a little disappointed that he wished to talk only about the Season, and not what was happening with him.
“I plan to begin responding to invitations this evening,” she nodded. She had, in truth, intended to wait a few more days. But now that she had spoken the words to her father, she supposed that she better start that night.
The Viscount nodded firmly.
“Very good. I do wish to see you find a suitable match this Season. This could very well be your last opportunity to do so.”
Sophia furrowed her brow and bit her lip. She knew that her father had meant no harm with what he had said, but she certainly needed no reminder of her near spinster status. Nevertheless, she continued smiling.
“Of course, Father.”
The Viscount nodded again, at last beginning to give her a relaxed smile.
“I will be out of town for some time, on business,” he announced, raising his wine glass to his lips. “But I have sent for your Aunt Jane to come in my absence.”
Sophia’s eyes widened, as did her smile. For a moment, she forgot all about her father’s strange behavior.
“It will be wonderful to have her assistance this Season,” she said, thrilled at the prospect of an extended visit from her aunt.
“And I shall rest easy that you will be well cared for, and well advised, while I am gone.”
Sophia nodded. “When will she be arriving?” she asked.
The Viscount shook his head. “I am not completely certain. She had some matters to which to attend first, but she said that she would arrive as quickly as she could.”
Sophia clapped her hands together and smiled warmly at her father.
“Thank you, Father. And I promise that I will do my best to find a suitable husband, just as I promised Mother.”
The Viscount smiled fondly at his daughter. “We have always only wanted what is best for you,” he said.
Sophia thought back to the urgency on her mother’s face as she made her final request. Fighting back the tears, she nodded once more.
“I know,” she whispered.
“What?” Colin Easton gasped, leaping up so quickly that his knee slammed into something.
For a moment, he was utterly disoriented. He had no idea where he was, and there was ice-cold water dripping down into his eyes, utterly blurring his vision.
He froze where he stood, trying to recall where he was and how he had gotten there. He shivered, feeling more cold water dripping down the back of his jacket, which was hanging haphazardly on one shoulder, his hand hidden up the sleeve. He removed the wet clothing, opting to use it to wipe his eyes so that he could better survey his surroundings. Instantly, he wished that he had not.
With the water out of his eyes, the bright sunlight shining through the window of the room, he now recognized as his brother’s library, utterly blinded him, sending sharp stabs of pain shooting through his head. His sudden jump from the bench, over which he had been slumped, sleeping, had caused great turmoil in his stomach, and he felt what tasted a great deal like scotch creeps up his throat.
He put his hand over his eyes as he battled a raging bout of nausea and struggled to compose himself. With great care and his eyes still covered, he felt around until he found the edge of the bench on which he had just been sitting. He eased himself down and positioned his hand over his face to shield it from the intrusive sunlight. Then, he slowly reopened his eyes and looked up, right into a very angry face.
Edmund Easton stood over him, holding an empty bucket in his hands. Colin understood at once that the cold water that was still dripping from his hair and down his face and neck had come from that bucket. He still could not recall how or when he had gotten to his brother’s library, but he was beginning to understand how it must have happened. He offered his brother a weak, sheepish smile, but the Duke of Netherdale scowled at him with his perfected stern glare.
“How good of you to awaken and join the rest of society,” he remarked, his voice as cold and harsh as his expression.
Colin wiped at his face again with his jacket and shook his head at his brother, regretting it at once when the room began spinning wildly as he did so.
“Why are you upset?” he asked, trying his best to recall the previous night.
“That is just like you,” he responded with a dry chuckle. “You make a complete spectacle of yourself, and then you have no memory of it the following day.”
Colin looked up at his brother, wincing as the feeble shade his hand was offering his eyes began to falter.
“Well, if someone will enlighten me as to what I’ve done this time, then I can apologize and try to remedy the situation.”
Edmund stared blankly at his brother. Then, he laughed bitterly.
“It would be easier to explain to you what you did not do,” he said, stepping off to the side so that more of the bright light could reach Colin unimpeded.
Colin covered his face.
“All right,” he sighed, praying that the conversation would end, and he could slink off somewhere and finish sleeping off the previous night’s festivities. “What is it, specifically, that has offended you so?”
Edmund laughed harder this time, and more harshly.
“You have disgraced our family name,” he snapped, his voice rising. “That is what has offended me.”
Colin clenched his jaw at his brother’s voice. His head was beginning to pound so furiously that he expected it to fall from his shoulders at any second.
“I apologize,” he muttered, knowing that simply giving his brother what he wanted was his only hope of putting an end to the interaction.
Edmund was far from finished, however. He pulled something from his black suit jacket and tossed it into Colin’s lap.
Colin fumbled with the paper that was about to slip into the floor. He groaned as he managed to grasp it, squinting his eyes as he clumsily unfolded it. After a moment of trying and failing, to read the words. They appeared to be dancing all over the page through his drunken, blurred vision, and he shook his head, a gesture he instantly regretted.
“What is this?” he asked, closing his eyes and tilting his head down further, hoping to fool his brother by pretending to continue trying to read it.
Edmund stood there silently for a moment, and Colin could feel him relishing his younger brother’s discomfort. Colin supposed that he should not blame his brother for his behavior, but all he felt was pure resentment for the Duke.
“This is my assurance that you will cease your unacceptable indulgences,” he said, at last, his voice smug and haughty.
Colin rubbed his eyes, rapidly growing as agitated with his brother’s cryptic and high in the instep speech as he was ill.
“How is a piece of paper going to assure you of anything?” he asked, his irritation putting an edge to his words. “What are you talking about?”
Edmund snatched the paper from his brother’s hands and unfolded it, holding it within inches of Colin’s face. The quick movements sent Colin’s stomach-lurching, like a ship on a turbulent sea.
Unable to keep nausea under control, he picked up the bucket, which Edmund had placed at his feet when he fetched the paper from his pocket, into his lap, and left the remains of his celebrations from the night before inside. Edmund watched, with what Colin was certain was both disgust and satisfaction. Once Colin was done, he looked up at his brother with bleary eyes.
With a shake of his head, Edmund shoved the paper back into his pocket. For an instant, Colin thought he saw his brother’s face soften. He attempted to give Edmund an apologetic smile, but the softness was gone as quickly as it had appeared.
From his other jacket pocket, Edmund pulled a handkerchief. He held it out to Colin, taking unnecessary care not to touch his brother. Colin took the cloth, averting his brother’s gaze as he did so.
“Thank you,” he said, his voice hoarse from the exertion.
“Go get yourself cleaned up,” Edmund snapped. “Then, come and meet me in my study. We are not finished.”
Before Colin could respond, Edmund turned on his heels and stormed out of the room, gesturing in his direction to one of the servants. The poor maid approached Colin slowly, clearly hesitant to retrieve the bucket from his hands.
“I am sorry,” he breathed, dropping his head in shame.
“It is all right, milord,” she replied, gently lifting the bucket and then hurrying away. Colin noted the irony that he had not felt ashamed while his brother had been admonishing him, but he felt utter humiliation when he had looked into the maid’s face.
Slowly, he rose from the bench. The room swam before his eyes, and for a moment, he feared that he might either collapse or empty his stomach once more. Neither happened, fortunately and after a moment, Colin was able to begin taking small, cautious steps out of the room. He clung to the banister as he climbed the stairs and made his way to his room.
As he stumbled to the washbasin, he caught sight of his reflection and grimaced. He did look like quite a mess, and he quickly looked away, so as not to meet his own gaze. He sat down gently in front of the basin, not trusting his legs to hold him up long enough to clean himself up.
Slowly and carefully, he filled the bowl with water and replaced the pitcher. He took his time splashing the cool, refreshing liquid onto his face, relishing the relief it brought to his hot skin and aching head.
When, at last, he was finished washing his face, he cupped his hands together and drew some of the cold water into his mouth. He swished it around, trying to rinse the horrible taste from his tongue, then he spat it out in the bin on the floor nearby. He repeated the process, then lifted the pitcher straight to his lips and drank deeply of the fresh liquid inside.
At last, he began to feel a bit less like the wreck he felt like earlier. He put down the pitcher once more and fetched a towel from the table by the basin. He dabbed lightly at his face, pausing to massage his eyes gently in an effort to alleviate the terrible headache still throbbing behind them. When he could stand without the world tilting, he made his way slowly back down the stairs and to his brother’s study.
Edmund was sitting at his desk, staring at the doorway when Colin reached it. He silently motioned his younger brother inside, scrutinizing his appearance.
“Well, you at least look more presentable,” Edmund snapped, spreading out a piece of paper on his desk, not taking his eyes off of Colin. “Have a seat.”
Colin did so gladly, pretending to be interested in the paper Edmund was handling so he could avoid meeting his gaze.
“I apologize,” Colin began, but Edmund cut him off with a loud scoff.
“You apologize every time this happens, Colin. The time has come where apologies and regrets are simply not sufficient.”
Colin lifted his head and looked at his brother, his brow furrowed.
“What are you going to do, Edmund?” he asked, managing a weak, dry chuckle of his own. “Would you have me chaperoned everywhere I go from now on?”
Edmund laughed, an almost genuine, or at least gleeful sound. Colin raised an eyebrow warily.
“It is rather strange that you should say that,” he said, a smirk creeping across his face. “I do believe that some form of chaperoning is precisely what you need to clean up your act.”
Colin glared at his brother and scowled.
“You will not have me followed each time I leave this house, Brother,” he scoffed, his voice growing stronger with his rising anger.
Edmund laughed again, harder and louder this time.
“I would not dream of it, Colin,” he said, sitting back and enjoying whatever secret joke was humoring him so at that moment. He laughed a few moments longer, taking a fresh handkerchief from one of his pockets and dabbing at the corner of his eye.
Colin tried to clench his jaw, but it sent another wave of pain up into his head. He relaxed his mouth but kept his narrowed eyes on his brother.
“Have you gone mad?” he asked, watching Edmund’s behavior with as much confusion as anger.
The Duke nodded, chuckling once more.
“Perhaps I have,” he replied, pushing the paper toward Colin again.
Colin refused to pick it up, considering that the last time he had tried, it had caused a scene the likes of which Edmund would never let him live down.
“Just tell me what all this is about,” Colin snapped. “I do not have the time or patience for any more games.”
Edmund’s smile evaporated, and a menacing scowl settled in its place. He rose quickly from his seat and leaned over the desk, glaring into Colin’s eyes.
“You do not have the patience or time?” he mimicked, his voice rising louder than it had previously. “I am the one who has no more room for allowances for your rebellious behavior.”
With each word, Edmund’s thunderous baritone voice rose a bit higher until it seemed to fill the entire study and vibrate against the windows. Colin flinched, not from fear, but from the fresh pain the sound created in his head. Yet, in his brother’s current state of anger, Colin knew it was best to keep his mouth shut and listen to what he had to say.
“Please, continue,” Colin said, staring through the paper, which Edmund had covered with his hand when he rose.
Edmund pushed himself back, his face slowly returning to normal, but he did not sit back down. Instead, he picked up the paper and held it up once more, looking at Colin with stern eyes.
“You shall not be chaperoned,” Edmund bemused, now clearly in no mood for further humor. “But I think that doing some chaperoning for Phoebe would teach you a much-needed sense of responsibility.”
Colin quickly met his brother’s gaze.
“You have gone mad. I cannot possibly chaperone her. I have business matters and things to which I must attend.”
Edmund once more thrust the paper at his brother, his eyes narrowing.
“Yes. You have too long been in the business of humiliating this family with your selfish, rebellious behavior and tending to your desires above those of all others.” Edmund paused, retrieving his pipe from his desk drawer and lighting it, some of his earlier smugness returning. “And now, you shall serve this family, as is your duty as Marquess. You will attend the upcoming Season events with Phoebe as her chaperone, and you will do so as a responsible, respectable member of society.”
Colin stared at his brother, his mouth agape. He was mortified at the thought of having to show his face amidst proper society. His reputation preceded him in many ton social circles, and everyone knew he had no business mingling with those same people.
Colin shook his head; this time, wise enough to close his eyes as he did so. He looked down at his lap until he was certain that the room would not begin to spin again. Then, he looked up at his brother, setting his jaw in defiance.
“And what will you do if I say no?” he asked.
Edmund’s smirk grew, and he gestured to the paper Colin was holding.
“Then, I shall cut off your allowance, dear brother.”
At last, Colin put his eyes back on the page before him. Though his vision was still blurry, he could see that it was a contract.
“I knew that making a verbal arrangement with you would not suffice,” Edmund continued. “And it would not hold up anywhere, even if I made it with you while you were…out of sorts. So, I had this drawn up. You are to sign it and abide by my terms, or you will be disinherited.”
Colin looked at it for several minutes, horrified. Part of him wanted to throw the paper back in his brother’s face and tell him precisely what he thought of his so-called terms. But the logical part of him, albeit much smaller, knew well that his brother could, and likely would, do exactly what he was claiming he would do should Colin not comply.
He ran a hand through his wild, dark brown hair and heaved an exasperated sigh. After another moment of resentful consideration, he glared at Edmund once more.
“Give me your pen.”
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