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Laurel Ames

Chapter Four

The next day Rose and Martin had ridden alone again and Rose decided to go with Martin to return the horses to Varner House. They rode around the corner past that larger side portico to the stable block off the alley. Rose was not surprised at the opulence of this part of the house. She was just complimenting Stilton on the facilities when Bennet drove in with a high-stepping team that required all the efforts of his tiger to subdue while Bennet jumped down in order to be the one who lifted Rose from the saddle and set her gently down on the paved brick courtyard. “I’m sorry I missed our ride today. Surely you were not going to walk back to the hotel.”

“I had some thought of getting a hack and going shopping down Oxford Street on the way back,” she replied, stepping out of his embrace.

“Did you enjoy your ride?”

“Immensely, since I did not have to fend off either Axel or you.”

“I must apologize for my behavior last night I was...drunk.”

“I know when a man is drunk and you were no such thing.”

Bennet, looking boyish in his somber attire, blinked at being contradicted. “Excited then. I lost my head.”

“That’s not much of an excuse for your behavior in the library last night,” Rose said, turning her back.

“Stealing a kiss?” Bennet walked around in front of her, blocking her retreat from the stable block. “Is it my fault you are utterly irresistible...friend?”

Rose noticed that both grooms and the tiger were pointedly ignoring them, meaning they could hear every word. “That was not a kiss of friendship,” she whispered urgently. “Martin,” she called. “Please go find us a hack.”

“Don’t bother, Martin,” Bennet countered. “I will take you back to your hotel or shopping if that’s what you wish.” Saying that he lifted Rose into the curricle, which seesawed slightly behind the agitated team. He had swung her about so effortlessly it almost made her giddy. She should resent that, but somehow she found that she liked to be a bit dizzy when in Bennet’s company. It let her say things she would never think to say to another man.

Bennet hopped in, grabbed the reins and spared no more than a backward glance to make sure Martin and the tiger had swung up behind. “Now where were we?” he asked Rose as he feathered the turn into the street.

“In too public a place to discuss anything private,” Rose reminded him.

“I’m sure I can rely on the discretion of my tiger just as you trust Martin.”

Rose stared at him, wondering how much of her connection with Martin he divined. “It was not your loss of control that worried me the most.”

“What then?” Bennet glanced at her in such apparent innocent good humor she felt unable to upbraid him about the presence of the Frenchman in his library. If he were guilty of clandestine activity against the government would he be likely to have the effrontery to invite her condemnation? The answer was yes. From her brief experience of Bennet Varner, there was little he would not dare and nothing he could not carry off. She must not let herself be as swayed by his charm as everyone else was. Beginning to feel her long silence had grown awkward, Rose scrambled in her mind to find some other flaw with which to upbraid him, but she could not.

Bennet grinned at her speechlessness. “Do you go to the party at Lady Catherine’s house tonight?” he asked absently.

“No, why should they invite us?”

“Because it would be the gracious thing to do for the relatives of a close friend, which is precisely why they have not.”

“You sound as though you resent them as much as...”

“As much as I dislike my own mother and sister? That was what you were about to say, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, but then I remembered my manners.”

“You won’t have much use for them in London,” Bennet said, passing a string of carts and running the danger of locking wheels with a mail coach before he nipped back to his side of the street. “You will meet a great many people here who will be gracious to your face, but who will talk about you unmercifully behind your back.”

“And how are they different from people anywhere else?” she asked, clutching the side of the curricle as he feathered another corner. It suddenly occurred to her that they were not going to Greeves Hotel, that they were not, in fact, even going in the right direction.

She was about to point this out to Bennet when he turned a look of genuine surprise upon her. “You have been the subject of gossip before?”

“Yes,” she said guardedly. “The breaking of an engagement, even when done by mutual agreement, is bound to be a cause for gossip.”

“Was that the only reason for the gossip?” He asked it casually, as though it were a matter of little interest to him. But Rose read it as an invitation to confide in him. Had there not been the tiger pointedly ignoring them, she might have been tempted, but there were Martin’s feelings to consider as well.

“You know what Axel is. I offended his pride by crying off. Even though he took the ring back with relief, he gave it about that he was the one who jilted me and hinted at some dark reason for his decision.”

“Yes, putting all the blame on you without saying anything actionable.”

“As though I would take him to court when all I wanted to do was forget...” Rose ran out of breath, and Bennet looked at her with concern.

“Forget Axel? Impossible. He is like a boil on one’s neck. It is impossible to forget him even when he is a thousand miles away.”

Rose laughed nervously. “Does Lady Catherine entertain often?”

“Nearly every week. She needs material and that is the easiest way to get it.”

“Material? Whatever do you mean?” Rose stared about at the shops they were now passing, mapmakers, chandlers and an excise office.

“For her rumor mill. When I said Harriet had fallen under some bad influence it was the Gravelys I was referring to. They have taught her to be spiteful with a smile, playing people against each other for amusement—the sort of social torture I would like to warn you of.”

“In order to be hurt by them I should have to care what they thought, what anyone thought of me, and I do not.”

“Does Alice?” Bennet asked, drawing a conscience-stricken look from Rose.

“Yes, but she is an innocent. What has she to worry about?”

“Last season they took Miss Robin Coates on as their protégée, led her into excesses that became too dangerous. Now they have dropped her. She will never receive another invitation from either family, and no word of explanation.”

“But what has that to do with—”

“Ah, here we are,” Bennet said with satisfaction, and he pulled the team to a halt on the dock.

“But where are we?” Rose demanded, letting him swing her down from the curricle all the same.

“The Celestine. I was sure you would want to inspect her.”

“And if I feel that the staterooms are too small?” Rose looked critically at the three-masted schooner with its green and gilt trim.

“Why, we can have them enlarged. Of course, we shall have to throw part of the cargo overboard, but it’s only money. Actually I knew they were to remove the old mast today, so I thought you might like to watch.” Bennet looked up at the intricate block and tackle arrangements and nodded.

“You are impossible!” Rose said as she let him take her arm to help her along the crowded quay.

“Just when I was congratulating myself on how agreeable I was being.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Shall I carry you? I would not want you to trip on your riding habit and fall into the Thames.”
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