Matthew Allen strode jauntily up the front portico steps, followed by the most infamous lush of their social set, Amanda Biddens. Her name had not been on the guest list Malcolm had hastily devised, but the vixen had invited herself to his reception, slipping into the party on the arm of Matt Allen, who had the intuition and brains of a flea, in point of personal matters.
"Well," she whispered in passing, "It must be true that the stranger out of the blue carries the day in love."
Malcolm suppressed an urge toward vitriolic retort, willing himself to hide his consternation. He arranged his features into a semblance of welcome toward two people he had not wished to introduce so soon to Olivia. He had not intended that they should meet that night, or ever, if such a meeting could be prevented.
The chamber music ensemble he'd hired for the evening launched into a lively number, as Mrs. Biddens melted into the crowd, leaving him acutely uneasy.
"Just remember that most girls become matronly bores, once they have a ring." Matthew Allen had cautioned, the week before, when Malcolm had telephoned from New London.
"She wouldn't be." He'd countered, not sure but that he wouldn't mind that. "She wouldn't be changed at all. I can't imagine Olivia being changed by anything."
"You've really gone round the twist, old man." chided his friend, amused. "Women fall in love, men know better-or so you've always said."
"Precisely." replied Malcolm, who believed everything was a matter of discipline.
As Malcolm saw it, one of the advantages in acquiring a wife was that he was no longer a target for unattached women who hoped to ensnare him, and those who sought to marry them off. He was weary of the attempts of others to pair him with one of these, impatient with their persistence in introducing him to their sisters, daughters, nieces or friends.
It was this change in his status that allowed him to freely enjoy the party.
Had he been inclined to do so, he could have married any one of a dozen Virginia heiresses. But when Malcolm mapped out his life, he hadn't planned to marry, believing it a supreme waste of time. Upon meeting Olivia, marriage became necessary.
The swiftness with which this conviction took hold in his mind alarmed him. His interest was a certitude beyond mundane physical attraction; she was the only woman he'd known whose conversation revealed intelligence.
On the whole, Matthew and Malcolm agreed, "ladies" were fatuous creatures, one rarely talked to a woman who was anything else. Yet no woman ever thought Malcolm anything but courteous, not knowing he thought them incapable of understanding important subjects; inconsequential chatter was their forte.
Malcolm had dared to tell Olivia a few of his unpopular opinions, trusting that she wouldn't be offended. He sensed between them a like-mindedness. Respect for her was solidified when he realized that she, too, believed they had many philosophies and qualities in common, yet she would have let him leave Connecticut, without making scenes and declarations.
Malcolm had engaged in a drunken, ill-advised tryst with Mrs. Biddens on one or two occasions in the past, and she, not being averse to scenes, would never do the sporting thing and forget it.
"Why, you sneak! You rat!" she hissed. "You could have told us you were engaged."
He recognized, as she practically forced him to take her into the library and draped herself over his desk in lewd fashion, that he would be obliged to deal with her.
Amanda threaded his silk tie through her slender fingers, and deftly moved her hands beneath his jacket to toy with his suspenders.
A keen aversion to her boldness overtook him, and he firmly removed her hands, stalling the obvious attempts at seduction.
"Perhaps it has escaped your notice, but I have a wife."
"I don't believe you." she laughed, sipping delicately from Malcolm's glass of champagne.
Gaiety melted into an offended pout, then she tried to hide her irritation, brightening with a new idea.
"I like her. She's a little sheltered, I can see. We could open her eyes to... to what you could do together-to what the three of us could do together. What do you say?"
"I find it quite a resistible offer." said Malcolm, but Amanda's smile only widened, perhaps detecting the thread of equivocation in his denial.
"Malc, don't be such a kill-joy. I'm willing to play the game."
She gloried in the game, he thought.
Her manner suddenly grew distracted, and he turned to follow her gaze. Mr. Patterson and Olivia stood in the library doorway.
Coupled with his reluctance was a frisson of guilt that Amanda's suggestion intrigued him, but Malcolm could not forego the temptation to probe the limits of his wife's willingness to please him, and therein lay the allure in Amanda's suggestion.
"Olivia, come and meet Amanda." he said, because he didn't have a choice.
But Amanda, too, had seen Olivia's shock, and her petulant reply was scornful of Olivia's wholesomeness, and of Malcolm's stated intent to adhere to his marriage vows.
"But Malc, I've already been introduced to your bride."
He knew, beneath the ripple of fascination for the novelty of the idea, that it could not come to pass. In that second's exchange, one glimpse of Olivia's shock and fury gave him a dozen assurances that she was the correct choice of mate for him. He had no desire for immorality, no wish to share his new wife-that wish might come later, once all mystery was in the past, once curiosities were satisfied, promises and duties fulfilled.
Amusing as was Amanda's proposal, he was glad it would not be borne out in reality, and he hoped she had discretion enough to keep from saying anything too damaging, as he reluctantly left the women together, removing himself from a potentially disastrous scene.
For now, he valued his wife's innocence, glad she was unlike other women who he had branded as cheap and dispensable, knowing too much, soiled by what they knew. She had given herself to no other, and that was as it should be.
He had wanted Olivia, in part, for the very wholesomeness Amanda derided, and because of the devotion and warmth he observed in her family. Between this young woman and her father existed genuine affection, respect and humor, tender attributes, alien among Foxworths, even in Malcolm's earliest recollections.
Orchestrated by a junta of indifferent servants who had tended his childhood haphazardly, Malcolm's upbringing had ingrained in him an unrecognized need for permanence, and for the very attributes evinced in the Winfield home. This father did not hate his child. This pair did not resent each other and their shared memory of the absent third of their small family.
Furthermore, Malcolm was impressed that Joseph Winfield, demonstrating more than simple pride in his daughter, regarded the capabilities of her mind as so valuable that he entrusted the most important component of his business to her, the financial.
And finally, Malcolm felt a rapport he did not wish to lose, manifested as a longing to keep her. This upset him greatly, for he considered himself above happiness and unhappiness, concerned only with success and with avoiding failure. He had seldom been caught up in anything resembling a love affair; this, he assured himself, was not one.
"It was rather a nice affair, don't you think?" he asked Olivia later, his spirits restored and buoyed by the success of their first party.
"I didn't think much of the guests, especially the women," she said caustically, but then her voice betrayed her. "although I saw you did."
The barb deflated Malcolm's ebullient spirits, but mostly it surprised him. Only later would it incite annoyance. Hadn't he a right to enjoy a party? Why should he be held responsible for the harmless flirtations of female guests?
How, he wondered, could a sensible woman allow the stray remarks of a stranger to taint her trust in the life and the man she had chosen?
Olivia ascended the stairs without a backward glance, and he returned to the library, pouring himself a drink which he left untouched. Like the presence of his wife upstairs, it comforted him. He wasn't ready for another drink, he wasn't ready to go up and speak to her, but he would, he decided, as soon as he knew what he should say.
He downed his drink, then another as the night progressed, reviewing the conversation that had passed between them. She had regarded him as if newly discovering his true character, and judging, as flawed, the very substance of that character. What had become of the rapt attention and admiration with which she had gifted him during the weeks of their courtship?
Tonight, Olivia had been unafraid to demonstrate anger toward him. How far would that anger take her into a miasma of doubts?
Following a sleepless night, she could rise in the morning and send word to her father, and be on the next train back to New London. He could not allow her doubt time to take such a detrimental hold.
A stronger incentive than the mercurial emotion of love, or enjoyment of luxury and success was needed to ensure her continued residence at Foxworth Hall, and the imperative to accelerate his plans was upon him; an irrevocable event was required-one he hadn't envisioned occurring so soon.
Donning his robe, he went to her, hoping that the right words would come to him. He watched her, in slumber unaware of him, his determination building, and with it, kindled desire.
"Never leave me." he wanted to implore, words equivalent to an admission of love, but courage failed him. She was his wife, there was a primordial security in this fact. He was supposed to feel that she was precious to him, but such tenderness of feeling was a gift he was afraid to allow himself to accept, much less to share.
Even so, he had meant to slip into bed beside her and wake her gently, but she woke with a start, and remembering the evening, she glared at him her disgust and hurt. He recognized it as reproof, not believing it disguised any other emotion, for he did not believe any woman could care for him deeply enough to be disappointed by him, and thinking this, a great magnitude of bleakness overtook him.
"I want a son." he said, realizing, even before his blunt statement was complete, the error in that approach, knowing, too, that subtlety was not one of his foremost qualities.
Her silence was akin to a slap in the face, but for the events of the evening, he would not apologize. he would not debase himself or his authority by pleading, or mask confusion with obvious and unnecessary words of devotion; such tactics he remembered Garland employing with Corinne, long ago, and to no avail.
Even in this quicksilver moment of uncertainty, Malcolm's esteem for his wife would not allow a lie, and from such auspices, a strong partnership would grow.