Authors: Sally Orr
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency
“I could never imagine Mrs. Russell to be troublesome.” James beamed. “I really do admire her so. I wonder if she would consider marriage again?”
Without warning, the bear inside George roared. He tightened his jaw and failed to reply.
“I’m not criticizing your art, dearest, but did you notice that this hand has six fingers?” Meta examined Fitzy’s reaction, hoping her observation had not discouraged him in any way.
Fitzy scratched his head and carefully examined his latest work in clay. Still consumed by his admiration of bolts, this version had a giant hand wrapping around an even bigger bolt.
Meta waited for his response. Bright light flooded the schoolroom from the tall windows, so he couldn’t use dim lighting as an excuse for an extra digit.
“No,” he said, “you’re wrong. See the knuckles? I count five fingers on the hand.”
“Yes, when you look from the top. But below where the hand wraps around the shaft, I count the tips of six fingers. Bolts don’t have fingers, so the extra finger must come from the hand.” She held her breath.
Fitzy leaned his head close to the bottom of the sculpture for a careful examination. Then he straightened and faced her, his cheeks flushed. “Actually, that is the flange on the bolt, but from your viewpoint, it does look like another finger. I don’t see how I can fix it though, since that piece carries the load of the top. If I chop that extra finger off, the weight of the palm will likely collapse the whole thing.” He wiped his hands back and forth. “I told you before, Meta, hands are hard. I should give up sculpture and stick to easy techniques like drawing and painting.”
She immediately embraced him, and he wrapped his arms around her waist. “Certainly not. In the future, you will be the celebrated, official hand sculptor to the King. Having difficulties is a part of every endeavor, every profession. People who succeed in life are the ones who learn from their mistakes and try again. Never be afraid of failure or criticism. Promise me?”
“Yes, but a fellow can get rather discouraged.”
“You can be discouraged, even wallow in it, but not for longer than overnight.” She released him and looked at him directly. “Still discouraged?”
He smiled. “A minute more?”
“Agreed. So what did you learn?”
“Never to let you into my studio.” An impish smile crossed his lips.
She laughed and ruffled his hair. “Maybe if you added another hand next to the first, the excess number of fingers would no longer be an issue.”
“A real man holds a bolt with one hand, not two. No, later I’ll pound this clay into a mound and start over, but not immediately. Today I’m going to pay a call on the Drexels to learn a new drafting skill. After all, the elder Mr. Drexel invited me to visit anytime I wished. Perhaps I’ll get his opinion on whether or not the statue can be fixed. He never uses the word ‘failure’ in front of a fellow.”
Meta sighed, acutely aware of the limitations of a sibling’s direction compared to a parent’s. Now she felt quite guilty about her pontification on failure. “I have a suggestion. Let’s visit the Drexels together. Neither of us has seen them for weeks, and I would like to know how the family is getting on. I know George is very busy with the tunnel, so instead we can ask his father how the tunnel is progressing. How about this afternoon?”
“Yes, please. I’ll bring my sketching pad, since I always discover an interesting model in their drawing room.”
“Excellent. Take off your apron, tidy up, and let’s have some of that fish pie before we leave.” To her surprise, the thought of calling upon the Drexels made her somewhat giddy. Nothing could please her more than seeing George again. Truth be told, she dreamed about him frequently. In her dreams, she saw him in many different forms. George as the proverbial knight in shining armor slaying the dragon, George as a steely Viking at the prow of his longboat, or George as a red-coated general leading his men into battle. But those were just silly dreams. Dreams paled in comparison to reality. In real life, he was George, the man building modern Britain, a far more significant accomplishment than a typical hero in a novel. Now even the sound of his first name caused her pulse to escalate. She turned to hide her over-warm cheeks from Fitzy’s notice.
The door opened and Lily entered the room.
Meta could tell by her sister’s stiff posture and set lower lip that Lily had something important she wanted to communicate.
Lily faced them squarely. “I’m glad to see that you are leaving, Fitzy. Shut the door behind you. I have something I wish to discuss with Meta that does not concern you. Understand?”
Fitzy narrowed his eyes and then waved his hand in dismissal. “Girls.” Then he deliberately took his time cleaning up his art supplies.
“Meta, I cannot wait any longer. Please come to my room. I can lock the door too, so we won’t be interrupted.” She stuck out her tongue at Fitzy.
Meta grabbed her sister’s hand. “We can speak here. Fitzy will leave in a minute or two. Then no one will disturb us, I’m sure.”
Lily huffed. “This is important, very important.”
“All right,” she said, smiling. “You lead the way.” Minutes later they found themselves seated by the window in Lily’s room. Today the sun had warmed the entire area, making it almost pleasant. “What is so important that we must prevent someone from overhearing our conversation?”
To her credit, Lily’s expression took on a tinge of guilt.
“I’ve had a word with my friend, Miss Longacre. Everyone in town is talking about it.” She inhaled deeply. “Lady Codlington has thrown James out of the house.” She sighed and looked out to the garden below. “He must still wish to marry me, don’t you think so? What other reason could she have for throwing her own son out of the house?”
“Poor James.” Meta sympathized with James’s troubles, but she did not want to tell Lily that Lady Codlington was capable of throwing him out for a myriad of other reasons, as well.
“Don’t you see what this means?”
She watched her sister fidget. “No, tell me what it means.”
Lily huffed. “He still wishes to marry me. James is so steadfast, so brave.” She batted her eyelids.
Meta held her tongue. She didn’t want to disappoint her sister without being in possession of the facts. “You may be right, but what do you care? You refused his suit, remember?”
Lily waved her hand like a fishtail. “In the book I’m going to write,
James and Lily: A Lifetime Together
, our mere misunderstanding belongs in chapter one, I can assure you.”
“Fitzy and I are going to pay a call upon the Drexels later this afternoon. Would you like us to take a small detour and stop by Codlington House upon our return? Not to call upon Lady Codlington, but to ask their butler for directions to James’s new residence. Then when I get the chance, I’ll find his new residence and discover what this is all about.”
Lily swung her foot. “You might suggest he resume his addresses to me.”
“I will do no such thing.”
Lily swung her leg faster. “I don’t see why not. Please, Meta. Perhaps just a hint?”
“That is your job.”
“The gentleman must open the subject, clearly. The lady could never do such a…forward thing.”
She took her sister’s hand. “James admitted his mistake, apologized, and asked for your hand. You must now put yourself in his shoes. Why should he ask again when he knows you will refuse?”
Lily’s eyes widened in horror.
“To James, it would mean a third declaration. And gentlemen do not like to expose themselves to being spurned a second time. You hurt his pride with your refusal, so he will be unlikely to seek rejection again.”
“But, Meta, he must ask again. I cannot bring up the subject. I’d be too embarrassed, too mortified.”
“Now you understand how James must have felt when he offered for your hand a second time.”
“Oh, Meta.” Her sister covered her face with her hands as her tears began to fall. “I never thought of it that way, from his viewpoint. What have I done? I did not mean my refusal to be permanent, truly. Please help me.” The tears continued to roll down her cheeks.
She patted her sister’s hand. “I’ll discover his new address and pay a call. Maybe the subject will come up in conversation. Perhaps, with your permission, I can tell him that paying a call will be looked upon with favor?”
“Oh.” Lily snapped her head up. She ignored the single lock of black hair that escaped its pins and fell to her shoulder.
Meta huffed. “Oh what?”
Her sister’s cheeks flushed. “Oh, of course, yes, yes, I am quite sure I will say yes this time.”
“Quite sure is not enough, Lily. Besides, he may not ask again.”
“Yes, I am
sure I will say yes.”
An hour later, when Meta and Fitzy were shown into the Drexels’ drawing room, they found James sitting by the fire reading business letters. “James, I heard you moved out of your house, but I’m surprised to see you here.” Meta approached him.
James bowed, and she curtsied in return.
Mrs. Morris entered and explained that Mr. and Mrs. Drexel would be delighted to receive Fitzy upstairs, so her brother followed the housekeeper out of the room.
Meta admitted disappointment that George was not at home, but she smiled regardless. Now she had a chance to inquire about James’s altered circumstance.
James explained his mother’s unreasonable demands in terms of her approval of his choice of profession and wife. “So you see, with her insisting I practice in Father’s court and marry a bride of her choosing, I had to leave. Her interference had become insupportable.”
“She must have been very angry.”
“Indeed, she cut off my funds.” He sighed. “I have a small living, so I won’t starve, but it might not be enough to support a wife and children. Only time will tell.” He stood and walked over to look out of the giant bay window. “You know, Meta, I used to believe that by this time Lily and I would be wed, and she would be moving her things into Codlington House. My, my, how circumstances have changed. And you know, lately I’ve surprised myself by finding that I have become used to the estrangement. After severing ties with my mother, I actually feel lighthearted and free. Perhaps this situation will end up for the best for all parties in the end.”
“Please, James. Wait until your situation is settled before you make any permanent decisions. Since you are no longer in residence, your mother will miss you and may change her mind. Or perhaps some other event, like a promotion, will improve your circumstances. A year or two maybe? Then at a more convenient time, you can resume your addresses to Lily.”
He exhaled a long sigh. “I don’t know. I wish I could be certain that all would be well, but I cannot raise my hopes. I must be a realist. My circumstances may never improve.”
“But you will ask for Lily’s hand again, when they do improve?”
This time he spun to address her directly, his brows knit. “I don’t know the answer to your question. I truly wish I did.”
“I know Lily will welcome—”
The front door slammed shut, making them both turn. Seconds later George bounded into the room. He must have come from the tunnel construction site, because a great deal of mud marred his coat and trousers.
Mrs. Morris followed him into the room. “Please, sir, hand me your coat and—the state of your trousers! I insist you change this instant, so the mud is not tracked all over the house. Anne swept this room just this morning.”
George glanced toward the ceiling and grimaced. “I shall return.” He addressed Meta. “Will you be here when I return?”
“Of course. Unless you go into hibernation.”
“Ha! Delighted to see you again, Mrs. Russell. Delighted.”
She stood by the fire, keeping her gaze on the red coals in a successful effort to hide what must appear to be a ridiculous smile. Heavens, she was glad to see him. She almost danced a jig on the spot. She lacked the wits to carry on the conversation, so she and James remained silent.
When George returned, he stepped forward and took both of her hands.
She blushed and focused on her kid half boots.
He leaned forward to whisper in her ear, “I want to kiss every inch covered by that blush.”
Meta rejoiced in his words but found herself thankful that at the old age of twenty-four, she had enough experience and composure not to melt into a pool of trembling female at his feet. She hastily glanced at James. “Thank you for the compliment, Mr. Drexel. I’m pleased to see you too.”
A bark of laughter escaped him. “You are very pleased; I can see that.” He motioned for his guests to all take a seat. “So what were you discussing before Mrs. Russell greeted me so effusively?”
“I did no such…”
James blithely answered his question. “We discussed the possibility of resuming my addresses to Miss Broadsham.”
Next he and George exchanged unusual glances, indicating some secret the two men shared.
She smiled at James. “Which hopefully he will resume in the near future.”
George sat back in his chair and crossed his legs. As a result, his polished black boot rested close to her chair. They were not the boots he normally wore, so perhaps he changed into his best boots to impress her?
“In my opinion,” George said, “the game is permanently off and rightly so. Miss Broadsham refused after a fellow apologized. End of the matter.”
James furtively glanced at Meta. “Yes, we agreed no further addresses will likely be made on my part.”
“We?” Meta examined James’s countenance, but his stare remained fixed on George.
She turned to George, but he didn’t appear guilty, as he should. Smug was the word that best described his expression, masculine smugness. “Yes, we—James and I—have requirements when we choose a female to become leg-shackled to. The first requirement is that she must
.” The smug expression grew into a smug smile. “If I were in James’s boots, I’d demand Lily’s apology.” He leaned toward James. “That’s the first thing she must say. After all, you apologized to her. Right?”
“Right.” James appeared to have gained an iron spine in the last minute. No doubt it was courage provided by another member of the masculine race. “You know, I do believe that she must ask me to resume my addresses.”