“Yes,” confirmed Cassie, her red lips parted in surprise, the bodice of her white muslin gown straining as she turned her plump form the better to stare at Rose. Rose was surprised to discover the look of utter disgust Lady Catherine bestowed on her own child. She knew there were women who hated their children, but she had never actually seen it before.
“Yes, it must be the same man,” Rose confirmed “He was a subaltern whom Father brought home one winter. I believe he was recovering from a leg wound.”
“Shoulder,” corrected Stanley, nervously clearing his throat.
Rose shrugged and silently thanked her brother for his attempt to draw talk away from the engagement.
“By engagement,” Cassie asked playfully, “you don’t actually mean...?”
Rose stared at her as though she had not comprehended. The figured muslin Cassie wore was meant for a younger girl, or perhaps a slighter girl, and did not become her.
“I fear it was just a schoolgirl passion,” Rose said lightly. “You must know how entrancing those red uniforms can be. Was I sixteen or seventeen? I cannot recall, but when I considered seriously marrying a soldier, I thought of all the worry Mother had gone through and I backed out of the engagement. Foy understood.”
This speech damped the interest of the others but failed to appease Harriet, who was staring at Rose as though she wished her to disappear from the face of the earth. Bennet’s gaze was not one of condemnation as Rose expected, but one of sympathy and understanding.
“Then there was that dreadful incident,” Alice said, taking a provoking bite of cake so that everyone had to hang on her words until she had swallowed. Stanley gave one of his impatient sighs.
“What incident?” Lady Catherine finally demanded sharply with more than casual interest.
“Colonel Wall’s untimely death,” Alice replied knowingly.
“Yes,” agreed Rose. “The marriage would have had to be put off for a year anyway, so we mutually agreed to part.”
“How did Colonel Wall die?” Harriet asked, her intense gaze darting between Rose and Alice, “if I’m not being too personal?”
“He was trampled by a horse,” Stanley said without elaborating.
“That is why I never ride,” Alice added. “Nasty, dangerous beasts. I wonder you did not shoot the stallion, Stanley.”
“Perhaps I would have, if I had been there, but Rose was right. It was not Redditch’s fault that Father and Foy decided to ride him when they were in their cups. He’s a little wild around men he doesn’t know, anyway. I assure you he behaves perfectly for me.”
Rose wondered if part of Stanley’s tolerance derived from thinking he had tamed a beast his father could not handle.
“Still, to keep a killer horse...” Cassie shook her head in condemnation as though she knew something about horses, when Rose was quite sure from Cassie’s stout figure that she did not even ride.
“But it was an accident,” Bennet said. “I would never get rid of one of my beasts if it accidently threw Harriet and broke her neck.”
“Bennet!” Harriet cried, incensed. “That is the most unfeeling remark you have ever made.”
“No, I don’t think you can be right there. It comes nowhere near the time I compared you to the opera dancer. Then there was the incident at the East India Docks...”
“If you tell anyone about that I shall—”
“Stop it, Bennet,” his mother commanded. “To upset your sister in this way is very ill-mannered.”
“So sorry, Mother. Sometimes I forget everything you taught me about manners.”
Mrs. Varner had the conscience to look abashed at this. “You must excuse my son,” she said finally to the Walls. “Sometimes his rather misplaced wit takes him beyond the bounds of what is pleasing.”
“Humor is always pleasing,” Rose said, giving Bennet a grateful smile for drawing fire upon himself. “And anyone should be able to take a joke so long as it is made in good fun. And as much enjoyment as we are deriving from the tea, I fear we must be going soon. Alice’s dress is nowhere near completion and I am sure you must have a thousand things to see to before tomorrow night.”
They did not linger over their departure. Bennet would have sent them home in his carriage, but Stanley said they would find a hack.
“What an old tartar the mother is,” he said to Rose in the carriage. “I suppose we must go to this thing, seeing as Bennet has been so obliging.”
Alice stared at her husband, her limpid blue eyes outraged. “Surely you do not mean you would rather not?”
“Not if we are to be subjected to so much frostiness from Mrs. Varner and that other old dragon! Those two chits were not much better. I think they might have spoken to you, Alice, just for the sake of politeness.”
Rose sighed. If Stanley noticed being cold-shouldered, then it was blatant indeed. “Perhaps they will when they know her better. Ten to one she will be so busy dancing tomorrow night she will not even have time to converse with them, but there is no real need for me to go.”
“No, I think you must, Rose. After all, she is your godmother,” Stanley said firmly.
Meaning, Rose took it, that if she cried off, he would as well. That would leave Alice in floods of tears and with her to blame.
“Yes, I suppose I must. After all, an evening can last only so long. Then we will finalize our arrangements for Europe.”
“Mmm,” Stanley replied.
The next day, in spite of Rose’s sporting a new pearlgray riding habit with a modish top hat, Bennet did not come to ride. He did, however, send Stilton with two mounts. Martin conferred with the older groom, making arrangements for returning the horses, Rose supposed.
They sprang Victor and Gallant as soon as they reached Hyde Park, and the carefree ride reminded Rose of their rides together at home. Her feelings for Martin, when she bothered to analyze them, were those of an older sister. She had wrested him and his sister, Cynthie, from a workhouse when their parents had been carried off by influenza. Having made herself responsible for them, she felt closer to them in many ways than to her own brother and mother. At least they had no secrets from each other, which was not the case with her own family.
Martin drew rein first to walk Victor near one of the ponds and let him get a short drink. Rose let Gallant lower his mouth to the water also, but the large gelding only played in it, flapping his lips at the icy ripples. She missed the provoking conversation of Bennet, but was unwilling to say so.
“I imagine Mr. Varner is busy today,” Martin suggested.
“Yes, I am sure that he is always busy, today especially.”
“I made some inquiries about Foy yesterday. He did survive the war.”
“I know. His name came up at tea yesterday. But Stanley and I were so engrossed in distancing ourselves from him, we never got to hear what they were saying about him.”
“He’s on the hunt for a wife, done up, by what I could make out.”
“That’s not much of a change from five years ago.”
“They say he will make a match with Varner’s sister if Varner will give his consent.”
“He will give it.” Rose scratched her mount’s withers then turned to Martin. “I keep feeling I should warn Harriet about Axel.”
“How can you do that without giving yourself away?”
“I do not know. Yet I must do something. Perhaps I should tell Bennet.”
“You can’t do that either.”