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Authors: Cecilia Grant

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“Mr. Mirkwood thinks so. I have yet to be convinced. But you may come by and see for yourself any time you like.” She turned her dark gaze on him. “I wish you would.” Ah, here came the concern. The attempt to draw him deeper into the circle of family, where he might properly heal from whatever ailment was preventing him matching up exactly with the brother of her recollections. “Perhaps I could give a dinner party, and invite this lady upon whom we’re going to call.”

“Have you learned nothing from Kitty of how a married sister ought to behave? You must invite young ladies of your own choosing, and foist them upon me with adamance directly proportional to my lack of interest.” He took one hand from the reins to pinch the brim of her bonnet. “However we should leave Mrs. Talbot off your list in any case. She’s no prospective sister; only the widow of a fellow I knew in the Thirtieth. I promised him I would look in on her sometimes, if things turned out … as in fact they did. I hope you haven’t grown too grand to step foot in Camden Town.”

He kept his eyes on the road, watching for a chance to cut left and round the slow-moving dray ahead of them, but he could feel her steady attention. Felt the way she parsed his explanation, gently swirling and resettling his words as though they were tea leaves at the bottom of a diviner’s cup. “Have you looked in on her very often?”

Will shook his head. “I called some months ago to return a few of Talbot’s possessions. Letters and so forth. For a purely social visit I thought it best to bring a female relation.”

“Yes, that’s proper.”

“Proper and pragmatic. I should soon run out of conversation to make on my own, but she has a child—a little fellow two years old or so—and I expect the two of you can fill fifteen minutes in comparing what you know of babies.”

“Camden Town.” She brushed at her skirts, soft swish of kid over wool, as though the knowledge of their humble destination required her appearance be more impeccable even than she’d originally intended. “That’s a long way to travel from St. James’s for a fifteen-minute call.”

“No distance seems long to a man when he has a fine curricle to drive.” He flicked the reins and chirruped to the horses as a space opened up left of the dray. “See if your husband doesn’t second me on that.” He could feel
her quiet disappointment at this resort to flippancy. He wasn’t beyond a slight sense of gnawing grief himself, at the want of openness between them. But what could he ever say to make her understand the nature of his obligation? He only wound the reins round his left hand, and gave his attention to steering the horses into the clear.

A
ND FIFTEEN
minutes, thank goodness, went fairly quickly. Not that there was anything to object to in Mrs. Talbot. Indeed he could easily see how a soldier might sustain himself with thoughts of coming home to her; to her gentle grace, her warm, unaffected manners, the sweetness in her clear blue eyes.

She brought out the child, whom Martha duly admired. “He features his father, I think?” his sister said after patting the boy’s mop of unshorn auburn curls.

“He’s quite the image of Mr. Talbot. I hope he will continue to be so. My husband never had so much as a miniature portrait made, so Jamey is all I have in the way of a likeness.” Mrs. Talbot watched the child as she spoke, and then raised her eyes to Martha with a smile so abrupt she must have pasted it on to cover melancholy feelings.

Will looked away. At his hands. No. At the sofa cushion, a blue brocade faded and worn thin enough almost to show the stuffing in places.

“He may not have left a picture, but he did leave a good sum of money for when the boy comes of age. Not many children are so fortunate.” This was the other Mrs. Talbot, wife of Talbot’s brother and mother of several children who had not been so fortunate as to lose their father and gain the prospect of an early independence. “It’s a pity he didn’t arrange it so Mrs. Talbot could get at some of the money to help with the rent and
other expenses. I’m sure nobody with any pride likes living on charity.”

“Indeed I should have asked him to do that, if I’d known of the investment.” The widow Talbot was blushing, her gaze averted to the floor. “But we weren’t in the habit of discussing such matters.” Her stick-straight posture alone spoke volumes. She had probably not relaxed for two seconds since coming into this house, where she must be reminded at every turn of the burden she and Jamey made.

He looked again at the worn cushion, and dragged a fingertip over one flower in the damask pattern. Lord, how he hated the feeling of helplessness. She needed to be taken out of here, delivered into a home of her own, and he didn’t have the power to do it and couldn’t say when he would.

The remainder of the call centered round the topic of small children and their ways, with particular emphasis on when teeth might be expected, and at last the fifteen minutes were through and it was time for him and Martha to take their leave.

“How did her husband die?” said his sister as he stepped up into the curricle. To keep his footing suddenly required a conscious effort.

“At Waterloo. I don’t … ah …” He sat, gathering up the reins, and angled his head to face her indirectly. “I can’t imagine you want to hear the exact nature of his wounds.”

“Wounds.” She considered the word. “Not an immediate death?”

“Not immediate, no.” No need to trouble her with more information than that. Better she should be kept in ignorance of just how long a man could linger, a wretched bit of refuse that neither Life nor Death felt much moved to claim. “Though I’ve told Mrs. Talbot
otherwise.” He flicked the reins and the horses started off, their heads bobbing in steady rhythm.

You did what you could
, the surgeon had said.
The outcome might very well have been the same
. He’d repeated the words to himself so many times. Why could he never hear absolution in them?

“That’s very good of you.” Like sewing pins poked into him, his sister’s words of praise. “She was grateful for the call, I could see. I expect it’s rather a dismal existence, in such close quarters with that disagreeable sister-in-law.” Sidelong he could see her turn her frown on him. “How is it she must rely on family charity? Shouldn’t a war widow have some sort of pension?”

“Talbot wasn’t an officer.” He settled his feet, one forward and one back, and eased his clutch on the reins. “The army tries to keep married men out of the enlisted ranks, and it doesn’t provide anything to the widows of such men.”

“Then he knew the risk he took, I suppose. Only it’s unfortunate that a widow should suffer for choices her husband made.”

He suffered too, Martha. Believe me, he suffered beyond anything you can imagine. And thank God you can’t
. He’d been fighting a black mood since halfway through the call at Mrs. Talbot’s, and of a sudden he was tired of fighting. Let them come, the sorrow and anger and bleakness and oh, the tireless self-recrimination that swirled up from the pit of his stomach like plumes of coal dust. He was nothing if not accustomed to their company.

“Unfortunate, to be sure,” he said in as light a voice as he could manage. “It’s a pity nobody’s undertaken to establish some policies for the welfare of widows.”

Here was just the sort of topic to consume his sister all the way back to St. James’s, with little need for him to
contribute anything beyond the occasional grunted assent. Indeed by the time they were approaching High Holborn she’d proceeded from the plight of the military widow to the fundamental unfairness of the commission system to God knows what else. He’d lost the thread, somewhere along the way.

But a change in her voice hauled his attention back. “Look at those poor women.” She reached across him to point to the near side of the road. “I think one of them is hurt.”

Will looked. If the women had been facing away, he would not have recognized her. Nothing in her posture or her person was familiar. She wore a plain, high-necked dark blue gown, and she walked slowly, one arm about the waist of a girl who was leaning on her and taking every other step on the ball of her foot. Her face was bent near to the girl, and she was saying something. Words of encouragement, no doubt, or whatever words could just move them one step nearer to wherever they had to go.

He breathed in, deeply. He could feel the fragile burden of that girl’s arm as though it lay across his own shoulders. He knew everything about how another person’s weight took your balance off center. A person carried on your back required you to cant your posture forward. A person carried in your arms meant you must sink your center of gravity down into the pelvis. A person at your side would no doubt leave you with an aching spine and shoulders.

He exhaled. “I know that lady.” Was this an acquaintance he wanted to acknowledge before family? Too late; he’d just done so. “The taller one. At least I’ve met her.” Already he was steering the team to the side of the road. He was helpless to do otherwise.

She doesn’t like you
, said a coal-dust-tainted voice in his brain.
She won’t welcome your aid. And don’t go thinking this is a chance to get right what you got wrong with Talbot
. That voice could go to the devil. She was in need, and nothing else mattered.

His heart pounded with unexpected resiliency as he leaned over the side of the curricle, and called her name.

Chapter Four

M
ISS
S
LAUGHTER
!”

Lydia looked up. Stopped at this side of the moving traffic was Mr. Blackshear, in a lacquered curricle, with a young lady at his side.

Heat raced into her cheeks. She should certainly never have spoken so freely with him, in their last meeting, if she’d known there was a young lady in the case. An exceedingly pretty young lady at that, dark-eyed and slight-figured, in a fawn-colored gown with a matching pelisse.

He swept off his hat, the reins clasped tight in his other hand. “May I present my sister, Mrs. Mirkwood?” he said, and suddenly the resemblance was obvious. Lighter-colored hair, to be sure, peeking out from under the bonnet, and no hint of mischief about the mouth, but those eyes had unquestionably come from the same stock. “Martha, this is Miss Slaughter.” He nodded toward Jane. “Has your friend hurt herself? Can we be of some assistance?”

As though she weren’t ashamed enough already of what she’d imposed upon the girl. “No real injury. Only
I’m afraid I’ve made Miss Collier walk a long way today, and she’s raised a blister on her heel.”

The sister leaned forward. “Where are you bound?”

“To Clarendon Square, in Somers Town.” A spark of hope kindled, irrationally. The curricle wouldn’t hold another person.

“Why, we’ve just come from that way. We’ve been calling on an acquaintance in Camden Town.” She said something to her brother, who answered at the same unintelligible volume. Then he put the reins in her hands and jumped down.

“Would you be so good as to let Mrs. Mirkwood drive you there?” He spoke with a self-conscious formality, miles removed from the man who’d trailed his hand down the wallpaper and accused her of cheating at cards. “I’ve rather been craving a walk, and that would make room for you both, if you don’t mind a bit of crowding.” He waited, still and poised but for the fingers fidgeting on the brim of his hat.

Jane’s arm tensed across her shoulders. Was she hoping for a ride, or was she shy of these strangers? “May I have a word with Miss Collier?” Lydia said, and Mr. Blackshear stepped backward with a bow.

“I think you ought to go with her.” She pivoted round to shield their conversation from the others. “I don’t care for crowding and I don’t mind the walk, but you ought to ride. The sooner you’re at home, the sooner you can sit in an armchair and put your foot in warm water.”

“They’re worthy people, aren’t they?” Jane threw one anxious glance back toward the curricle. “I shouldn’t like to go with a stranger, unless you’re sure of them.”

That the girl should trust
her
to render judgment on the worthiness of such obviously respectable people sent a bittersweet pang straight to Lydia’s core. She did deserve better. “I’m quite sure of them. I wouldn’t countenance
your going unless I were.” She caught the maid’s hand and gave it a quick squeeze. “Do your best to be discreet in speaking to her, but I don’t suppose it’s any disaster if she learns a gentleman pays my bills. I’m not likely to see her again.”

BOOK: A Gentleman Undone
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