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Laurel Ames

“Nothing. Martin, check the cinch,” she called. “I shall walk a little way.”

“I’ve said something to disturb you. Do you find it unnatural that I do not love my sister?”

Chaos followed behind Bennet like a large dog.

“No, of course not. It is I rather who have spoken out of turn. To condemn you for something I know nothing of is ill-done of me.”

“Well, I was going to mention that, but as you have admitted your fault I am left with no barbs to fire.”

Rose managed a brief smile, and she almost told him she knew Foy. But no, he would find out soon enough. Why ruin this day, when Axel was likely to ruin the next?

“Tell me what is wrong,” Bennet begged, looping the reins over his arm and taking her hand between his two.

“The engagement and duel, this all happened years ago.” Rose said, shaking the mental image of Axel’s piercing brown eyes from her mind. “Surely it is past history. Perhaps Foy did not even survive the war,” she said hopefully.

“No such luck. He was wounded several times and kept turning up like a bad penny to cut up our peace. This time when he begs for Harriet’s hand I shall agree.”

Rose became conscious of her surroundings and began walking again, forcing Bennet to surrender her hand. “That might make Harriet like you better, but if you did not think him worthy of her then...”

“It is not that Axel has become more acceptable, but that Harriet has managed to descend to his level. I must get her married off before she causes a scandal that I cannot squelch.”

Rose’s glance flew to his face.

“No, do not ask me what all she has been up to. By emulating her intimate acquaintances she has become very jaded. She may merely be trying to get revenge on me for being in control.”

“Perhaps, if you talked things through with her, there might be a reconciliation.”

“Harriet forgive me? Not a chance. Not with Mother on her side, and Harriet is like Mother in that respect. The catalog of my wrongs never has anything erased from it, but grows with time like the national debt. I doubt I could ever be forgiven for all my offenses.”

“You are joking.”

“Except that this birthday ball may wipe out a few. You should have your invitation by now. You are coming, of course.”

“You make it difficult to say no. But then we must be off to Paris.” She watched the smile fade from his face as he halted again.

“Do not go,” he begged.

“But I must. I must go whenever Stanley and Alice are ready to leave.” She signaled to Martin to bring Gallant, and Bennet helped her to mount.

“Help me convince Stanley to spend the season in London. You can stay in Varner House. Mother and Harriet would love to have you.”

“Now that is an untruth,” she said with her usual pert smile as she watched him swing up onto Chaos.

“Then stay to keep me from boredom.”

“To argue with you? I think you will find that grows stale after a bit.”

“Bantering with you? Never.”

The look in Bennet’s eyes could not be misread. He was not joking this time or making game of her. She smiled sadly and shook her head. One mention of her to Axel and he would revise his opinion about that. She urged Gallant into another canter, and the horse responded willingly to have two such treats in one day. What a strange man Varner was, to trust her with confidences about his family that if repeated would do them a great deal of discredit. She would not repeat them, of course. Rose never gossiped and took pains to say the best of people. She was well aware what careless chatter could do to a woman’s character, how it could mar her very life. Was Bennet Varner naive or merely the first frank man she had ever met? She would have liked to further her acquaintance with him just to puzzle that out

Bennet left Rose reluctantly at the hotel and wondered if he should risk delaying the ball just to buy a few more days. No, a celebration at Varner House would be no particular lure to the Walls, at least not to Rose. They would simply shrug and board the next packet. Just as the promise of a fine ship might not hold them. There was the possibility of making London so interesting for young Wall that he did not mind dallying in town, but Bennet caviled at introducing Stanley to any new vices just to serve his own ends.

He returned to South Audley Street, as he did frequently, to a house in pandemonium. Bennet heard his head groom sigh heavily as Bennet surrendered the reins to him and mounted the steps, prepared to untangle whatever setback was making his mother shriek in that disconcerting way. Had she only known, she could have gotten better work from the servants if she maintained her dignity rather than screaming at them like an angry fishwife.

For all her pretensions to society, Bennet felt his mother’s plebeian tantrums more of an impediment to the family’s acceptance than his involvement in trade. After quieting the seamstress and bribing her to finish Harriet’s gown by the following day, after soothing the ruffled feathers of Mrs. Marshall, the housekeeper, and convincing Armand, the chef, not to pack up and leave, be cornered his mother and sister in the morning room.

Harriet was sprawled on the sofa, crying over the dress, which she pronounced ugly beyond words. Her tears would have been more convincing if she had not been wearing an expensive new blue walking outfit.

“Then wear one of your other dresses.”

“I have worn them all. The only thing that will make the new dress acceptable is a proper necklace of diamonds.”

“And I suppose you know just the ones to set it off. Very well, write down who has them and his direction and I will have Walters pick them up tomorrow. They will be your birthday present. By the way, you have sent an invitation round to the Walls, haven’t you?”

“Well, I have invited them, though I do not see the need.” Edith spoke now, two spots of color still remaining in her sallow cheeks from her recent tantrum. “They are, after all, just country cousins. What if they embarrass us with their dress or speech?”

“They won’t, Mother,” Bennet assured her absently as he picked up the Times. Just to discomfit her he glanced critically at her black bombazine. It was an affectation, this wearing of black three years after his father’s death, when she would have looked better in some other color. But like the dyeing of her hair, Bennet put it down to bad advice from someone.

“I’m inviting Axel, then,” Harriet said in the subdued silence that followed.

Bennet raised an eyebrow, and was about to say “why not?” but decided too prompt an acceptance of her suitor might make Harriet suspicious. “If you must.” He sat and tried to focus on the financial news.

“If you get to invite the wallflower and company, I should be able to ask my friends. After all, it is my party.” Harriet seated herself at the messy escritoire and pulled a list toward her.

“What did you call her?”

“A wallflower. Those dowdy clothes. And can you imagine her playing nursemaid to a young bride? She must be odd indeed.”

“If I hear that title fastened on Miss Wall I will know where it came from, and I won’t forget your maliciousness.”

“In another day you will not have any say in what I do. I shall be in possession of my own fortune and I may marry Axel if I wish.”

“Yes, I suppose you may, but do you not think you ought to shop around a bit first? Tomorrow you become one of the most marriageable young ladies in London, and I should think you could do a great deal better than Foy. Don’t you think so, Mother?”

“Harriet is in love with Axel. Aren’t you, Harriet? Why else would she have run off with him?”

“It has been four years,” Bennet said, trying to bury himself in the paper. “May I point out Axel has made up to several other women since then, every time he lands back in London, in fact.”

Harriet’s blue eyes were ablaze with anger. “It does not seem like four years. It was my coming-out season and I remember every moment of it.”

“I too recall the entire season with nauseating clarity, especially that bullet I took for you.”

“That was your fault, Bennet,” his mother informed him.

“Don’t tell me you favored that havey-cavey elopement.”

“It was better than having you break Harriet’s heart by not letting her marry Axel.”
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