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Authors: Cecilia Grant

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BOOK: A Gentleman Undone
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She wouldn’t speak of
bodily emancipation
in such a setting, would she? Kate held her breath. Surely even Viola had better sense than to—

“In particular I introduce the idea that women will never achieve true emancipation until we have absolute governance of our own persons, within marriage as well as without.”

A stout young man, sitting at the long table nearest Kate’s alcove, looked up sharply from his book. An elderly
woman seated on the opposite side of the room did the same. So, no doubt, did every peacefully reading patron in this establishment. Vi’s was a voice that commanded attention, all crisp consonants and breath support, exactly the voice you’d expect from the granddaughter of an earl.

Or the daughter of an actress.

The young man’s table was scattered with volumes, all perused and discarded by patrons who hadn’t bothered to return them to the desk. Kate swiped one up and bent her head over a random page, to avoid meeting anyone’s eyes.
To Elizabeth it appeared that had her family made an agreement to expose themselves as much as they could during the evening, it would have been impossible for them to play their parts with more spirit or finer success …

Pride and Prejudice
. That single line was enough to set her bones vibrating like a struck tuning fork. Surely it had been written for her, this tale of a young woman struggling under the incessant mortifications thrust upon her by a family that did not know the meaning of discretion.

She turned a page. No more sound from the library’s other end; the clerk must have gone to fetch the requested volume, and to escape any more discussion of practical methods for asserting a woman’s rights. In the book, meanwhile, the party at Netherfield dragged dismally on, plaguing Elizabeth with the disagreeable attentions of Mr. Collins and the cold silence of the Bingley sisters and Mr. Darcy.

Of course, Mr. Darcy had already begun to take note of Elizabeth’s fine eyes by this point in the story, and Mr. Bingley was so smitten with Jane that he never noticed half the graceless things the Bennet family did. Could there really be such men in the world? And if so, where did they reside?

“There you are.” Viola stood at the other side of the book-scattered table,
volume in hand, peering at her through those plain glass spectacles she always insisted on wearing in public. “Are you ready to go?”

The stout man glanced up again, no doubt recognizing Vi’s voice. He sent a quick look from one lady to the other, piecing together their relation.

And then he saw her, properly. Though he’d been sitting no great distance away all this time, a mere half turn of his head necessary to bring her into view, his eyes apparently had not landed on her until now.

A dozen or more variations she’d seen of this response, on too many occasions to count. Some men managed it without looking witless. Most, unfortunately, did not.

The portly man’s features stalled, then veered away from the jolly smirk they’d been forming in favor of a glazed-eyed reverence. He blushed and bowed his head once more over his book.

Not terribly useful, the admiration of such a man. Still, it gave a girl hope. If she could one day drive a marquess, for example, into a like slack-jawed stupor—and why should she not? Title notwithstanding, a marquess was a man with the same susceptibilities as any other—then she might make something of the triumph.

“Novels and more novels.” Her sister, indifferent to such small drama, had begun turning over the discarded volumes on the table. “I suppose nobody wants to read what might actually improve his mind.” The man abruptly closed up his book—doubtless a novel—and shoved it away as though he’d only just noticed its offending presence in his hands. His gaze averted, his cheeks pink as fresh-butchered pork, he pushed to his feet and fled to some other sector of the room.

“Yes, I’m ready.” Her own voice, of course, had all the patrician clarity of Viola’s, though she aimed it for
shorter distances and always took care to stir in a bit of sugar. “Help me gather up these books. They oughtn’t to be left lying about.”

How long could a marquess, once stunned, be counted on to remain in that state? Could he procure a special license and marry her that same day, before his first rabid infatuation receded to the point where he might think of meeting her family? Or maybe she’d do better to get him out of London altogether, that he might not encounter any friends who would feel it their duty to knock him back to his senses. She’d have to count on sustaining his state of stupefaction, in that case, for the length of the journey from Mayfair to Gretna Green.

Difficult and unlikely. But not, perhaps, beyond her. Stupefaction was her stock in trade, and she would not stoop to the tedious false modesty of pretending not to know it.

The library clerk, when she stopped at his desk, accepted her armload of stray books with an effusion of gratitude such as no plain lady would ever have received for the same task, and fetched her the other two volumes of
Pride and Prejudice
. She signed her name, paid her pennies, and emerged with her sister into the chill February afternoon.

“You’ve read that already,” was Viola’s pronouncement on ascertaining what book she held.

“Indeed I have. But you
that volume of the
Vindication of Women
, and every other volume, too. I cannot see on what grounds you think you can find fault with my borrowing habits.”

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
, it’s called. The meaning is entirely different. And my purpose wasn’t to borrow a book but to begin making myself known.” She drummed her gloved fingers on the volume’s binding, a rhythmic accompaniment to the ring of their heels on the paving. “The more library clerks and
booksellers I make aware of my project, the more likely it is that they’ll mention me in discussions with one another—perhaps even in discussions with publishers. In fact I think it very likely that publishers spend time in just such establishments. One day I may well be overheard and approached by some enterprising man who sees that the time is ripe for a book like mine.”

Oh, she’d be approached, certainly enough. Behind those false spectacles and taut-pinned hair and the sensible Quakerish garments she favored, Vi had her share of the Westbrook beauty. One day some man would see past her brusque manners to notice the fact, and if he was enterprising, it would surely occur to him to feign an interest in her book, perhaps even to present himself in the guise of a publisher.

That was why Kate could not allow her to undertake these errands alone. For a young lady of intellect, Viola was shockingly ignorant in some matters.

“I wonder, though, if a more gradual kind of persuasion might be to your benefit.” At the corner she turned east, steering her sister along. “If perhaps you concentrated your efforts at first on pleasantries—on asking the clerk to recommend an interesting book, for example, or even speaking on commonplace topics such as the weather or an amusing print you recently saw—then by the time you introduced the subject of your own book, you might have a reservoir of goodwill already in place. Even a clerk who doesn’t necessarily subscribe to your book’s ideas might be disposed to advance your cause with his publisher friends, simply as a favor to a charming customer.”

“But I don’t want to be a charming customer.” Viola’s voice sank into the low passionate chords of the instrument with which she shared a name. “I want to be taken seriously. I want to know my book is appreciated on its own merits—not because the reader finds me sufficiently
. I’m sure Thomas Paine never concerned himself with whether or not he was
.” The word apparently furnished endless fuel for disgust. She jabbed at
Pride and Prejudice
. “Your Mr. Darcy isn’t the least bit charming, and yet everyone tiptoes about him in awe.”

It’s different for women
. She needn’t say it aloud. Vi knew well enough.

Kate shifted the volumes to the crook of her other arm and fished in her reticule for a penny as they approached the street crossing. She wasn’t without sympathy for her sister. The constraints of a lady’s life could be exceedingly trying. Demoralizing, if one allowed them to be.

The trick was not to allow them to be.

“Lord help us all if you mean to pattern yourself after Thomas Paine. Perhaps he wouldn’t have got into such trouble if he’d spent a little effort on charm.” She paid the crossing sweep, a ragged dark boy, with the penny and her sweetest smile. “And Mr. Darcy had ten thousand a year and a grand house to his name. Much will be forgiven in the manners of such a man.” She caught up her skirts and stepped into the street, sister alongside.

“What of his Elizabeth, then?” The unavoidable legacy of a barrister father: progeny always on the lookout for an argument. “She never takes pains to charm anyone, least of all Mr. Darcy, and yet—Where are we going?” She halted, abrupt as a fickle cart horse. “We ought to have turned north by now.”

“The girls won’t be through with lessons for a good half hour yet.” Kate took her sister’s elbow to usher her the rest of the way across. “That gives us time to go by way of Berkeley Square.”

“Berkeley Square?” The way Vi pronounced it, you’d think she was naming the alley where the meanest residents of St. Giles’s went to empty their chamber pots.

“Berkeley Square, indeed. I have a letter for Lady
Harringdon.” Might as well serve up the objectionable news all at once, rather than by spoonfuls.

“Lady Harringdon? The dowager, or the present one?” What difference this detail could make was beyond fathoming, as Viola’s lip curled and nostrils flared equally for both ladies.

“The countess. The present Lord Harringdon’s wife.”
What can you possibly have to communicate to her
would be the next question; no need to put her sister to the trouble of asking it. “She’s just married off the last of her daughters this week. I’m offering my congratulations, as civil people do on such occasions to their kin.”

“Kin, do you call her?” An audible snort, now, in case the sneer and the tone of voice had been too subtle.

“She’s married to our father’s elder brother. That makes her our aunt.”

“Well, somebody ought to tell that to her. Her and Lord Harringdon and whatever mean-spirited offspring they spawned.” Viola walked faster, swinging
, volume one, in a pendulum motion as though she were winding up to brain one of that family with it. “Really, Kate, I would have thought you had more pride than to toady to such people.”

“A brief note of congratulations is hardly toadying.” She made her voice light, unruffled. “Indeed I should think it will provide an instructive example of proper manners to Lady Harringdon, while proving that her own lapses in civility do not guide the behavior of Charles Westbrook’s children. You see I’m partly motivated by pride after all.”

Partly. But in truth she had grander ambitions than to simply make a show of unbowed civility to her aunt.

They weren’t really so unlike, she and her sister. She, too, intended to be known. One day the door to that glittering world of champagne and consequence—the world that ought to have been her birthright—would
crack open just long enough to admit a girl who’d spent every day since the age of thirteen watching for that chance, readying herself to slip through. Even at two and twenty, she hadn’t given up hope. Enough attentions to people like Lady Harringdon, and
must finally happen.
must recognize the aristocratic blood that ran through her veins, and the manners and accomplishments worthy of a nobleman’s bride. Then she’d dart through that open door, take her place among her own kind, and free herself forever from this trial of daily mortification.

“Do what you must.” Viola’s shoulders flexed, as though the insult of a trip to Berkeley Square had an actual physical weight that wanted preparation to bear. “
pride shall take the form of waiting across the street while you go about your errand. Anyone looking out the window may see that
am not ashamed of our mother.”

That was petty; the argumental equivalent of jabbing her with a sewing pin. And it smarted every bit as much.

Papa had made what must be termed an imprudent marriage. Never mind Mamma’s quick wit and generous heart; never mind that she came of a proud theatrical family whose women studied Sophocles and spat on indecent offers from gentleman admirers. Never mind the affection undimmed by twenty-three years of wedlock. All that mattered in the eyes of Society was that the late Earl of Harringdon’s second son had married an actress, thereby forsaking every privilege to which he was born.

She wasn’t ashamed, precisely. But she recognized, as no one else in the family seemed to do, that Society’s judgment mattered. And that privileges were worth having.

Pride and Prejudice
volume was pressing a sharp edge into her forearm, so she switched to a one-handed grip, like Viola with her
. No, she couldn’t accuse herself of being ashamed. But if Mr. Darcy had
come to
with that first grudging proposal, openly acknowledging his abhorrence at so lowering himself, she would have swallowed her pride long enough to choke out a yes. Affection and understanding could come afterward—or if they never came at all, she would have a good name and the grounds at Pemberley for consolation.

She tipped back her head for a view of Mayfair’s rooftops, stretching off in the distance. Surely somewhere in London was a gentleman who would suit her needs. Surely some aristocrat—some marquess ripe for stupefaction—must appreciate a beautiful bride with such pragmatic expectations of the wedded state. Surely someone, someday, could be brought to lower himself as Mr. Darcy had, and spirit her out of that middling class in which she had never truly belonged.

Surely that man did walk and breathe. The trick was only to find him.

BOOK: A Gentleman Undone
6.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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