Authors: Allie Borne
Lindsay walked past them all, not bothering to look at what she knew to be an outward manifestation of some soul’s inner suffering. Instead, she strode to the end of the hall and up the stairs, towards the women’s ward.
One door, the second to the last on the right of the stairs, stood open. Lindsay’s skin chilled and her lower lip trembled. Lindsay had received one letter from her mother, after she had been sent away. In it, among the scrawled accounting of her accommodations and treatments, Elizabeth had mentioned that, “My room is the second from the end and, on a clear day, I imagine I can see all the way to Warwick, where another, larger window stands tall, encasing my two beautiful daughters in glorious warmth and light.”
Lindsay rushed towards the open doorway, desperate to catch a glimpse of her Mama, nestled in bed, a book of plays propped up on her too thin lap. Skidding to a halt outside the narrow door, Lindsay choked back salty tears. Another too thin frame lay sightless, mouth ajar with a frail arm extended to the doctor within. Just as the balding physician sliced the vein above the crook of the stranger’s elbow and lowered the sallow appendage to drain into the basin on the stone floor, Lindsay’s breath stilled. Blessedly, her vision closed in, and she toppled into the black abyss.
Lindsay woke up within a rocking carriage to a very perturbed Whitney. “It was a nigh thing getting you out of there, Miss Lindsay. I told you not to go in, but, nay, ye had to force yerself to suffer and breath that fowl air and mess with yer humors. Give thanks to God I can talk the streak off a pole cat. Else wise that doctor would ‘ave thought you a patient, with all that unladylike running and gasping and fainting. I explained how delicate and heart stricken you are and active in the church work, and so on and so forth until he couldn’t wait to bustle me out.
“Did ye know there are only ten men and women that staff that devil’s den? Two-hundred and sixty patients and ten people to care for the like of them all? No wonder it stinks to high heaven!”
Lindsay sat up, opened the carriage door, and amidst Whitney’s frantic pounding on the roof and ordering the carriage to stop, she rolled out onto her hands and knees and vomited the contents of her stomach.
“Oh, it’s that sorry I am, Miss,” Whitney cajoled tutting and reaching into her decolletage to pull out a handkerchief for Lindsay to wipe her mouth. “T’will all be just fine, ye’ll see. Yer just riddin yerself of those foul humors ye’d built up. Did ye good to face yer demons and ye’ll rally. I’ll see to that, I will.”
Gathering Lindsay into her arms, Whitney hugged her tightly, scowling at the driver when he cleared his throat impatiently. Bundled back into the carriage, Lindsay allowed herself to be rocked and petted as the tears ran, unchecked, down her cheeks and into Whitney’s voluminous skirts. “Momma,” she cried, “Momma, Momma, Momma,” as the truth of her mother’s death sank its carnivorous teeth past sinew and gristle, devouring the last remaining soft bits of her heart.
~ ~ ~
Standing erect and alone along the edge of the ballroom, Lindsay was grateful for the thick, white powder that coated her face, covering the telltale signs of her grief. She could hide behind the elaborate wig and gown and make-up. She need not feel anything or be anyone while safely hidden behind a simpering, smiling facade.
The second night of Lindsay’s season began much like the first. Cool eyes assessed her from the matron’s corner. Despite herself, Lindsay found her own eyes searching for her old childhood acquaintance, Charles Donovan. She knew she searched in vain.
Well, good riddance
, she thought miserably as her eyes picked out a tall figure making his way towards her. As promised, Dr. Ever’s son, Aiden, made his appearance at her side. “Will you do me the honor of this dance?” he queried, after being introduced and giving her a courtly bow.
He cut a dashing figure in a green and gold waist coat and cued wig. As he raised his chiseled brow, Lindsay appreciated the masculine black arcs and intelligent flash of jade green eyes. She was transfixed.
“Oh, uh, yes, thank you, I will.” Blushing deep pink beneath her pale powder, she followed Aiden out onto the dance floor for a country dance. The piece was well chosen, as it had Lindsay in contact with many other men. Twirling and smiling at each partner, Lindsay felt as if she were floating on air.
The bright blue walls and intricately laid wood floor swirled about her, mixing with the golden light from the chandelier and numerous candelabras. Looking up at the ceiling’s intricately carved molding and angelic mural, Lindsay felt that this must surely be how it felt to dance in heaven.
Soon, she had two more signatures on her dance card. Lindsay did not see Aiden, once he returned her to her grandmother’s side, but she often dreamt of him in the weeks to follow.
Dr. Evers had been right. Once Aiden had broken the ice, more young men, mostly second and third sons, found Lindsay’s face and dowry enough incentive to pay her some attention. None courted her exclusively. However, Lindsay survived her first season without being black listed or dubbed a total pariah.
Thus, she and her grandmother left for the Beaumont estate feeling as if there was hope for her yet. In Lindsay’s young heart lay a secret seed of desire, one that she had been watering with fancy and sunning with daydreams. In her maiden’s fancy, she fully expected Aiden Evers to return to her side, to sweep her off of her feet and carry her away from her uncomfortable home in Warwick.
“Men know that women are an overmatch for them, and therefore they choose the weakest or most ignorant. If they did not think so, they never could be afraid of women knowing as much as themselves.”
~Samuel Johnson, 18th Century Man of Letters
“A house party is in order, I believe,” the Baronet, Stuart Beaumont, declared at breakfast the day following the family’s return to Hartford Glen.
One glimpse at her short and portly grandfather told Lindsay that her grandmother had explained the series of events resulting in her current lack of suitors. A situation that might have been a less pressing concern for a young woman with brothers as heirs, was of imminent concern to the eldest daughter of a knight with no sons. With her mother’s condition making possible matches scarce, the pressure was two fold. Lindsay must produce an heir and do so without losing her senses.
To ensure that the family reputation for mental instability was thwarted before her sister’s come out, she must search diligently and quickly for a spouse. If Lindsay could marry and produce a child with no ill effects, Leah would likely have a plethora of suitors from which to choose.
“A party will bring our long time family friends and acquaintances,” Stuart Beaumont continued grandly. “Let us show their young men what jewels our granddaughters and this estate really are.”
A party! And with Doctor Evers a certain invite, Aiden may well be in attendance! Lindsay’s face broke into a broad grin. By the end of the day, her cheeks ached from smiling. Here, away from London, she would be seen in her own element and judged sane. She could be observed and found worthy of another’s love.
“Aiden,” she whispered often to herself, as she imagined how the scenic countryside might offer them countless opportunities to interact, to touch, and to fall in love.
The month rolled by, filled with preparations, invitations, and reverie. An impressive collection of gowns were commissioned for the four days of festivities. Lindsay must look the part of an engaging future hostess.
At last, the twelfth day of September arrived bringing with it the much anticipated guests. Twenty-eight, in all, arrived. Their neighbors on both sides, the Donovans and the Merewethers came first. The Donovans, an older couple, came with their fifteen year old niece, Sarah.
The Merewethers arrived with two grown sons and four daughters ranging in age from ten to twenty. The sons announced that they would return home overnight to see to the running of their own estate.
In from town came the commissioner and his wife. Both of Lindsay’s newly married ‘cousins’ had accepted invitations. Each had brought reinforcements. They had ordered their husbands to invite and/or bribe their bachelor friends with promises of hunts, gaming, and whisky. Dr. Evers was last to arrive with his elderly aunt and mother.
Lindsay, standing patiently in the entry, received the last of her guests with a sinking heart. Her flowing white cotton gown
suited her petite frame. The embroidered green stalks and blue flowers brought vitality to the picture she created. Hours had been spent, getting her unruly, wavy black locks into a coiffure that appeared to be simplicity itself. Pulled back from her face, it fell in soft curls down the center of her back.
She looked delectable and she knew it. Lindsay wanted Aiden to see her like this, without the stuffy ballroom hoop and wig. Despite the appreciative looks of ten gentlemen, she was unsatisfied. Where was he? Biting her lower lip until its pale pink became a cherry red; she turned to enter the larger of the receiving rooms. Just then the doors opened. She turned hoping desperately to see Aiden there.
No, it was Charles Donovan! Lindsay’s hungry eyes drank in ever chiseled feature. His wavy brown hair had grown lighter from the sun, his skin burnished. Lean muscle rippled beneath his black waistcoat and buff breeches. He gained the room with a lithe grace and self possession she had never seen in him before. Glancing about the room, his whisky eyes fell upon her, raking her up and down as if she were some ship he planned to broadside and board. He looked like a dashing, debonaire pirate, and something told her he was just as dangerous.
How dare he show his face here, uninvited and unwelcome! Unbidden, tears of anger and loathing filled Lindsay’s eyes as she turned to give him the cut. Charles thwarted her attempt, bowing slightly and taking her hand for a brief kiss to her knuckles. Lindsay hiccuped as she choked back her overflowing emotions. Charles had always been handsome enough, but now, something had changed, an inner hardening made him breathtaking.
She stepped back to assess her old chum. His hair was of similar length to Aiden’s but there the similarity ended. Instead of striking green eyes, she met his somber, toffee-colored gaze and glowered. Lindsay squeezed Charles’ work-roughened hand in silent confrontation, then dropped it, shocked to feel the protrusion of bones there. In the four years since their last encounter, Charles had certainly not prospered. And yet, the burning intensity of his eyes, the hard thin lines of his frame sent shivery waves of fire racing up her skin.
Her voice shook as she attempted an ascorbic levity. “Charles?! I have not seen you in years! Please tell me you have not come home to stay. It appears the navy life is not all it promised to be.”
Charles’ wolfish grin threatened to consume her. “My dear Linnie, you positively radiate disdain,” he breathed, menacingly. “Was it not just last we met, you called me friend? Why, you sift through chums as you do your gowns. Yet, your fickle nature has served you well, I hear.”
“Charles, what a riot you are, carrying on as if I were the fickle one, really you are too much,” Linnie’s caustic laugh faltered when she looked up to see that Charles’ ascorbic smile did nothing to hide the lethal intent in his eyes.
Grasping his chest, he murmured, self-deprecatingly, “You wound me deeply, dear Linnie.”
Growing quiet, Lindsay grasped her hands together to keep her younger self from slapping Charles and then sobbing into his chest how much she’d missed him.
This is the man responsible for your mother’s death
, she chided herself.
“I wish I could say it is good to see you again, Charlie,” Lindsay offered, heeding the deep well of roiling emotion beneath both their facades.
Charles’ whiskey eyes devoured her burning face as he again raised her hand to run his lips across her knuckles. Just then, Aiden strolled through the open doorway.
Turning, Charles introduced the new arrival. “Lindsay, this is my friend, Aiden Evers. Aiden, this is Miss Beaumont.”
“It is a pleasure to see you again, Miss Beaumont,” Aiden stated, bending over her hand.
“Likewise,” she flushed an even brighter hue.
“So, you know one another, well?” Charles asked, surprised.
“Ms. Beaumont favored me with a dance in London this season. A pity we were unable to make further acquaintance.”
“Yes, a pity,” drolled Charles, offering Lindsay his arm as they strolled toward the spacious green sitting room that Lindsay’s grandmother used to receive larger groups of visitors. Avoiding Charles, Lindsay slipped her hand into Aiden’s elbow and turned a smiling face to his query.
“I believe we are late in arriving. I hope we have not delayed any activities?”
“Nonsense,” replied Lindsay, her mind over taxed by the sexual aura of the two towering men at her flanks. She struggled to keep her voice light. “You know very well that country hours are not strictly abided to during house parties. Dinner is not until eight. You have a good half hour of visiting before you’ll need to head up to your rooms to freshen up.”
“In that case,” sighed Charles, “perhaps we should have arrived a few minutes later.”
“Try to contain your enthusiasm, dear Charles. You, see,” explained Aiden, turning to Lindsay, “Charles has come to make the further acquaintance of his future meal tic-I mean bride, Miss Charlotte Reynolds.”
“Oh,” Lindsay replied, trying to make sense of her chaotic emotions. “I knew that the Reynolds were invited but I was unaware that they had accepted...”
“Oh, they had decided not to come but changed their minds at the last moment, when they learned that the newly returned, Baronet, Sir Charles planned to attend.”
“How flattering,” Lindsay quipped. “It seems you have yet again lent me, that is to say, my family, an aura of acceptability.” Her words were cold, leaving little question as to her feelings of resentment on the matter. Aiden paused at the entrance to the salon and searched Lindsay’s face, hoping to locate the cause of her new and unsettled mood.
“Forgive me,” smiled Aiden, as if goaded into a dazzling grin. “It was not my intention to lure the lady out of her lair. I had, in truth, invited Charles here so that he might avoid the endless musicales and lectures that Miss Reynolds had snared him into. At which point she, master of evasion herself, quickly ‘remembered’ that she too was engaged, and at the same event, no less.”
“As I know, Miss Beaumont, that there is no love lost between you and Miss Reynolds, I shall offer my apologies and hope that our stay, and hers, will cause you as little trouble as possible.”
Nodding decisively, the normally blunt Lindsay determined to be a gracious hostess, no matter that her carefully constructed reserve seemed to be crumbling about her once more. Pasting her best debutante’s smile between peaked cheeks, she strolled into the salon, clutching a bit too tightly to Aiden’s arm.
~ ~ ~
Lindsay quickly discovered, through a whispered conversation with her grandmother, that Charlotte, the gossip monger herself, would not be attending until tomorrow, but would then be sleeping over, in a room with the other unmarried young women. “Why ever did you not decide to tell me of this?” hissed Lindsay, with a sickly sweet smile upon her face.
“Precisely because of the stress you are now experiencing,” retorted Eleanor, smiling sweetly and patting her granddaughter’s arm in the same attempt to portray a benign and pleasing conversation to possible observers. “I only just received word of their imminent arrival this afternoon and saw no reason to distress you with the news until absolutely necessary. There is no way for us to plan or prepare for what pitfalls their visit may create, so maintain your decorum. Do not over vex yourself, you silly girl!”
“Charlotte’s mother is a spiteful woman, to be sure, but she is here only to watch out for her own interests. Her future son-in-law is your old chum, Charles Donovan. As he will be in attendance, she must find it necessary to keep her eyes on him until he makes it down the aisle. You needn’t worry she’ll trouble herself over you, now that she has found that tyrant of a daughter of hers a titled man. No, you are completely inconsequential to her, my dear, believe me.”
“Thank you very much,” Lindsay retorted, allowing the evident sarcasm to drip from each enunciated syllable. Drifting away from the matriarch, she continued to mingle, her stress unassuaged. Why did it still hurt every time her need for affection and reassurance was rebuffed?
a silly girl,” she told herself harshly. Taking several deep breaths, and circling the room, she regained her composure. Laughing and joking, engaging all she met in conversation, she was, as planned, the glittering jewel of the party. Charles and Aiden, as well as the other five bachelors in attendance, could not help but be drawn to her vibrancy and openness.
Charles was taken aback that his childhood tagalong had transformed into such a stunning and vivacious woman. Four years had rendered quite a change in Miss Lindsay Beaumont. It was really a shame that she came from such blighted stock.
Lindsay’s thick, ebony hair curled in large ringlets down her back and swayed with the movement of her hips. Her ample bosom and petite frame made any man feel masculine against her femininity. She was a woman made to inspire the fantasy of bed play. A simple look of surprise on that round, pink mouth and those large, black fringed, blue eyes was enough to make a man hard with wanting.
, he reminded himself,
Charlotte is an only daughter. Lindsay has a sister with whom her cash dowry must be shared
. Charlotte, though crafty, was the obvious choice for a man in need of quick funds.
Aiden’s thoughts followed the same path. Lindsay was comely, but so was Charlotte, and her voluptuous dowry. In an attempt to raise his son’s prospects, Dr. Evers had incurred many loans to send Aiden to the best grammar schools and then on to Cambridge in style. No whim had been denied, no fancy fettered. His father’s debts would have to be settled, and quickly, if Aiden wished to avoid scandal, or worse, be forced to dabble in trade.
Aiden had explained his predicament to Charles, on the way to Warwick, when Charles had warned against Lindsay’s wiles. “Lindsay is fair of face, and has the cleverest mind I’ve ever found in a girl. Tis true, you’ll want a wife to keep you entertained, but Lindsay is a harpy. She lures men with her promise of loyalty and friendship, then causes them to crash and burn.”
Sighing over his friend’s evident angst, Aiden sought to reassure him, “Charles, I doubt Lindsay had anything to do with her father’s betrayal. Besides, what other choice have I, really? There are few eligible young ladies in these parts. Charlotte and Lindsay are the only two with sizable enough dowries to interest me, and you have already engaged Charlotte’s father in conversation.”
“Worry not. I have decided to marry Lindsay for convenience, not love. Her money and her family name will gain me entrance to the best clubs and gaming hells London can offer. She’ll be here, lording her prestige over her country kin, and bearing my heirs while I am enjoying the city sports.”
“It is a marriage made in Hades, perhaps, but, face it Charles, I am hardly an angel. I’d rather marry Persephone and know what I am getting, then aim for sweet Aphrodite and cause us both misery in the match. Charlotte is Aphrodite, dear Charles. She worships beauty, and money, and status. Lindsay is Persephone. She would prefer to stay in the countryside with her family while the lord of the hells sees to his own needs.”