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Mrs Isabella Brandon knew she would wait only moments on the step of the enormous town house before her cousin's well trained butler would open the door. She used the time to fiddle with her reticule and then told herself off for fidgeting. She was composed by the time the door opened and was ushered inside. She smiled at the butler as she handed a few packages into the waiting hands of a footman.
"Good morning Varner. How are you today?"
Varner was rigidly formal which made it impossible for Bella to resist teasing him. However, he unbent enough to answer in a regal tone of voice:
"I am well thank you Madam. I shall announce you to Lady Hale."
"No need for that Varner, thank you. But if you could ensure that some of Mrs Varner's macaroons are included on the tray which I am sure Lady Hale has already ordered, then I would be most grateful."
Varner did not smile, but his eyes softened slightly "Of course Madam. Lady Hale is in the Green salon."
He twitched a threatening eyebrow in the direction of the footman who hurried to open the door for her.
The escort was completely unnecessary of course, Bella knew the mansion in Grosvenor Square as well as she knew her own home back in Hertfordshire and she was probably more comfortable here too. Her memories of this place at least were all happy. Granted, she was most familiar with the nursery where she and Rose had played as children and of course the schoolroom and library. But she well recalled the ballroom where she and her beautiful cousin made their debut nineteen years ago.
At seventeen, Rose's golden loveliness had taken polite society by storm and even Bella's more subdued beauty had found great favour. They had been a hit most certainly. Bella smiled at the memory. Time apart had not diminished the affection between the cousins. Indeed Rose had opened her house to them for the Season and offered to hold Alice's debut ball here just the same as theirs had been. So much had happened in that time.
She shook herself from her mental abstraction and stepped swiftly into the Green salon. Rose was seated before the large window, reading. She did not look particularly happy. She glanced up and her expression was transformed as she smiled beautifully into her beloved cousins face. Then her gaze travelled over Bella's attire and it hardened once more.
"Why do you persist in telling me that you hold me in affection and respect and yet leave my house to be seen in public wearing such an utter travesty of a gown?"
Bella lifted the book from Roses slim fingers and perused it.
"I wonder why you will read poetry my darling. It never suits you," Bella dropped a kiss onto her cousin's sunlit hair.
"Do not try to turn the subject," Rose snatched the book back out of Bella's hand.
"Byron, Rose… really?"
"Byron is an oaf," Rose closed the book with a snap. "Why he is so outrageously popular passes my understanding."
"Fashion my dear… and beauty. You should know."
"Beauty, dear Bella, is in the eye of the beholder and I had the misfortune to behold Lord Byron last night. He has the manners of a pig."
"I take it you did not enjoy Lady Mallory's literary evening? You would have done better to develop a headache and stay at home as I did."
"Of course I went. It was the highlight of the season so far. It was quite a squeeze let me tell you and all because of the presence of the poet. Urgh! Revolting," Rose shuddered.
"Did he desire you to fall at his feet?" Bella raised an eyebrow.
"I could not imagine why he wanted another body about him. They were crawling around him like wasps over a honey pot. But yes Bella, I think the lecherous toad rather expected me to faint into his arms." Rose's beautiful countenance screwed up into an expression of distaste.
"You could hardly expect that such a noted adventurer as he would not leap at the chance of conquering the Unconquerable," Bella smiled.
"Isabella Brandon! I have told you before about using that absurd nickname in my presence!" Rose's tone was sharp. "Why we have to put up with these ridiculous tags…and our names in the clubs betting books. I ask you! Placing bets on whether a lady will marry or remain single. It is a scandal."
"It is a scandal that you were told of that vulgar bet most certainly …but it is the way of things my dear. You should have taken one of the million proposals that have presented themselves to you over the years and then you would not be bothered by such nonsense."
"No, I would have been bothered by a husband instead. Thank goodness Papa had the sense to die of influenza before anything of that kind could be arranged."
"And so you will remain the Unconquerable," Bella answered placidly.
Rose drew a quick breath and Bella was certain she was about to receive a famous scold when she was saved by Varner and the entrance of the tray.
"Macaroons!" Bella cooed. "And hot chocolate! Varner, how very dear of you!"
Varner, feathers only slightly ruffled, fussed a little with the placement of the tray and withdrew in good order.
"You should not tease my staff," Rose murmured.
"I only tease Varner and he likes it really."
A teasing light of her own entered Rose's cornflower blue eyes.
"Lord Cullen was there last night too," she purred and was gratified to see Bella jump as she took a sip of her chocolate. Rose was even more gratified to see a large brown splat hit her cousins ugly gown.
"Oh Rose! Now look what you made me do!" Bella scrubbed ineffectually at the spreading stain. "And I daresay it will never come out!"
"I hope not," Rose was composed under Bella's glare. "You will have to buy a new gown. And that will be a very good thing let me tell you."
"I cannot afford to buy a new gown!" Bella wailed.
"Nonsense," Rose said bracingly. "Tell me, how much did you spend on that spangled confection that Alice wore to the opera last week? You are not poor Isabella and you could well do better for yourself if you did not drop every last penny on that god-daughter of mine."
Bella took a breath to reply but Rose was relentless and rode over her.
"And what is more dear cousin, I will go with you to buy that new gown or else you will buy just another such dowdy rag in an equally revolting colour!"
"This is purple bloom, I'll have you know and very suitable!" Bella replied with spirit
"Yes, for a hag! You are not yet forty, for goodness sake. Stop dressing like a dowager."
"I am a dowager and a widow to boot. Would you have me dress like a fancy piece?"
"You are a great goose," Rose said affectionately, taking all the wind from Bella's sails. "But you are doing poorly by yourself." Then, remembering the best way to approach this, she said gently, "You are also doing poorly by Alice."
"That is deeply untrue!" Bella said hotly. "All my thoughts are of her. Why do you think that I am enduring this round of the Season? The parties, the crush, the eyes upon me counting what I have spent. The malicious cats!"
"No, Rose! I want to see Alice happy. I want to see her established in a home of her own with a husband who cares for her and forgive me if I believe with all my heart that Lord Cullen is the man for her!"
"What utter rot!" Rose retorted.
"It is true Rose I assure you! Since that night at the Clearwater's when you were so kind as to introduce us. I could tell instantly that he was struck by her beauty. Over time his attentions have become most apparent."
"If I had thought for an instant that you would be so foolish then I would never have presented him. Good God, Alice and Edward Cullen? The man must be forty if he is a day! And how old is she? Seventeen? You must be out of your mind Isabella."
But Bella shook her head. "She is the same age as I when I married William. However, I intend things to be different for her. I do not wish for her to struggle…or to marry a young man. Boy's affections are not steady, they do not endure. But with a man such as Lord Cullen: gentle and courteous, in every way precisely what one might wish for in a husband. She would be well looked after and very happy. She would never have cause to doubt him…" Bella broke off and stared at her hands as they twisted over her stained lap.
"My own dear darling," Rose said gently. "Just because Charles Swan made a great error when he married you to William Brandon does not mean that every young man is a monster of cruelty."
"I was in love with William: it was not all Papa's doing!"
"I dare say," Rose replied. "And it was all very romantic. William was excessively handsome and could be perfectly well behaved when everything fell into line with his wishes."
"I have sometimes thought that if his godmother had made good on her promise to remember him in her will…" Bella said wistfully.
"He would have had more money to throw away for certain. That might have improved his moods. Thank goodness you had your annuity fixed upon you else you would have disappeared into oblivion! Heaven knows you immured yourself in the country for the last eighteen years which was almost as bad."
"So you agree with me then Rose. It is poverty and disappointment that makes life so uncomfortable… and it makes for a hard marriage when one's husband is always so angry at what the world denied him."
"He had you Isabella and your love…" Rose was gentle.
"And it was not enough," Bella replied simply. "So do you understand, Rose, why I scheme and plot like the most odious harpy alive to fix a good match for my daughter so that her life can be everything that mine was not?"
"No my love, I don't blame you at all for that," Rose replied softly. "But" and here asperity touched her tone once more "I do blame you for talking as if your life is over. May I remind you that you are just thirty-six years old. If you did not drape yourself in disgustingly drab colours, you might pass for Alice's sister!"
Bella shook her head in denial.
"It is true! And as for this precious marriage scheme of yours, you would do better to allow Alice to fall in love with a man of her own choice. In fact I thought that had already happened. I thought she mentioned a young Captain in the Rifles?…Whitlow wasn't it?"
"Whitlock," Bella groaned. "You met him at the opera one evening. I believe he made something of an impression in his green regimentals…" Bella waited for the gleam of recognition to light in Rose's eye and continued.
"No one can doubt that he is very handsome indeed, but he is completely ineligible. He cannot even afford to buy his promotion. He has no expectations and he only caught her eye because we were neighbours in Hertfordshire. Since we have been in Town she has met men of far greater charm and experience…"
"I rather think not," Rose murmured wickedly. "I fancy the Captain to be very experienced."
Bella continued with only a slight hardening of her face. "Alice will forget him in the whirl of the season and will see the sense of it. Can you see her marrying into a regiment? Following the drum, living in garrison towns, tents even!"
"I think Alice would enjoy it very much," Rose said after some thought.
"Well I won't hear of it!" Bella declared. "When you think about the differences between the two. I ask you cousin, where have you ever seen such a man as Lord Cullen? Without considering his wealth or position, he is charming, attentive, gentle and handsome. He has beautiful eyes…What could Alice find in Jasper Whitlock to rival that?"
"Youth," Rose said bluntly. "Indeed she could find a dozen things. For let me tell you Bella. Edward Cullen has been on the Town for years and despite all the scheming Mamas, he has never once been anywhere near caught. It is said that he has no thought of marriage and if you had not immured yourself in the wilds of Hertfordshire then you would know that already."
"Perhaps he has not thought of marriage certainly. But he had never before set eyes on Alice."
Rose smiled. "That at least is true. She is the most beautiful creature."
Bella lifted a pair of deep brown eyes to her cousin's face. "Oh Rose, it is true. I am not just being a doting Mama am I?"
"She is more than beautiful. She is charming, her manners are delightful… and for you to think that you will catch Lord Cullen for her is the greatest piece of nonsense I have ever heard!"
"'Tis not!" Bella shot back, aware that she was about to descend to nursery level.
It was on the tip of Roses' tongue to snap back "'T is!"
However, she remembered in time that she was one of the queens of polite society and utterly above a childish squabble.
"After all," she continued artfully. "Who would want a girl whose mother cannot manage to dress herself properly?"
The arrested expression on Bella's face told Rose how well this arrow had hit the mark.
"Do you really think that is a consideration?" she asked.
Rose shrugged once more "If you want to get a kitten, you look at the cat do you not?"
Bella thought hard for a moment, absently nibbling on a macaroon.
"Perhaps we should go shopping cousin?"
Rose breathed a swift sigh of relief that the fence had been hurdled so easily
"Of course my dear. Let us finish the chocolate and the macaroons you coaxed out of Varner. Then we shall change, please throw that rag in the bin by the way and we shall sally forth. Irina's first I think."
Bella stared covetously at the bolt of deep blue silk. It was embroidered all over with small peacock feathers. She had never seen a more exquisite fabric. Rose appeared behind her, trailing a quietly delighted Mme Irina. Lady Hale was obviously on a mission and Mme Irina was only too happy to reap the benefits.
"That one please…" Rose indicated the peacock bolt, "…for an evening gown obviously. Please ensure that this one shows Mrs Brandon's charms to their best advantage." Irina nodded knowingly "I know I may rely on you Irina, you have such excellent taste…and the leaf green crepe for a day gown. We will take some kid gloves and four pairs of matching silk slippers. What velvets do you have?"
"Rose, stop!" Bella hissed.
"One moment Bella." Rose sailed past unconcerned. "Shall we get a little something for Alice do you think? There was a pearl grey satin that I think would look beautiful on her. Perhaps with an over robe of lace…with pearl buttons? " Rose draped some thick glossy lace over her arm.
"Rose," Bella moaned.
"Yes my dear you are quite correct. It would be a little old for her…perfect for you though, " she nodded at Irina who gestured to one of her underlings to cart the bolt away. "Oh look at that!" Rose moved away. Bella surrendered and drifted into her private thoughts, remembering to make approving noises now and again at Roses choice.
Bella thought back a few days and recalled Alice as she stood in her room dressing for a picnic expedition and trying to decide between a shawl and a spencer to go over her sprigged muslin dress. She flitted about with her customary airy grace.
"It was kind of Mrs Clearwater to invite me was it not Mama?"
"Very, my dear, are there many going?"
"Two carriages for the ladies and the gentlemen ride. So we will be quite a large party." Alice looked up at her mother from under the brim of the straw bonnet she was tying over her raven curls. "Mamma, I feel I should tell you that Jasper will be there."
Bella was pleased that not an eyelid flickered.
"But I remember what you have told me and I quite understand. Jasper does too you know. He has said that he would not wish for us to live upon his Captains pay and that I should see more of the world."
"My dear child!" Bella protested
"Well, I find it is easier if one is direct." Alice said simply. "So I told him that I would listen to you both and see more of the world… It is very interesting." Alice had said the last with such a beautiful seriousness that Bella had felt tears rise in her eyes. Alice stilled at last so her mother knew something more was playing on her mind.
"Mamma, may I ask you something?"
"Of course sweetheart"
"Do you like Lord Cullen?"
"Why yes, I do," Bella said, her words were calm but her heart had picked up a beat. How strange.
Alice clapped her hands and impulsively kissed her mother's cheek. "So do I! He is just the sort of man one might confide anything to. He is never surprised at any of the peculiar things I say. Indeed I think he is the nicest person I have met since coming to London. And he is coming to our ball next week!" Alice slipped her hand into her mothers and squeezed it. "Dearest, I am so glad you like him!"
Bella drifted back to the present to find Rose finalising details of their purchases with Mme Irina and despite her rather inarticulate protests, she was bundled out of the shop and into Rose's waiting carriage before she could hardly blink.
"The park James please," Rose commanded.
"Yes, my lady," the coachman replied. He moved off, the footman swung up behind and they all made their way to Hyde Park which was looking its best under the May sunshine. Several people of Rose's acquaintance were out enjoying the day and the afternoon was spent most pleasantly. Rose deftly avoided any attempts by Bella to pin down her expenditure at Irina's.
"It will be delivered in time for our ball, have no fear of that. You will see that I can indeed be trusted Bella."
"I do not doubt you Rose."
Rose merely patted her hand, "I am so glad my dear."
Bella tried not to feel patronised and comforted herself with the fact that Lord Cullen would be at the party and that Captain Whitlock would not.
As if thought had called him to her she saw Lord Cullen mounted on a fine bay approaching their carriage. A coat of superfine lay taut across broad shoulders and he controlled the large horse effortlessly. His hair gleamed copper in the sun and as he neared, Bella could see the pleasure lighting up his sea green eyes. He lifted a gloved hand to the brim of his hat.
"Lady Hale, Mrs Brandon. A great pleasure to see you today. How do you do?"
Rose smiled at him but remained mute so it was up to Bella to reply.
"Very well, Lord Cullen, thank you."
"I am looking forward to attending your ball next week Mrs Brandon. But may I be so bold as to request another invitation?"
"Certainly my Lord. To whom shall I address it?"
"My mother is coming to Town for a few weeks and I would be very glad if she made your acquaintance…and that of your daughter too."
Bella felt the most curious feeling come over her, a mixture of triumph and sorrow. She shoved it away quickly and promised herself that she would consider it later.
"It would be a pleasure sir," she replied, proud that her voice betrayed no emotion beyond what was polite.
Bella was pleased she concluded later. She had planned Alice's season for many years, curtailing her private expenditure somewhat and putting the savings away so that her daughter might have the best of everything. She had wanted a good match for her but had not thought to reach for a brilliant one. But since the day that Lord Cullen had approached Lady Hale and begged to be presented to Alice Brandon's Mama it seemed that hardly a day went by without some kind of contact between them. He devoted himself politely to Bella while watching Alice dance. He arranged parties to Vauxhall Gardens and balloon ascensions for her amusement. He admired Alice's talents with watercolours and was generous with his praise for her voice. He even found something kind to say about her performance on the pianoforte which was kindness indeed as her skill on that instrument left rather a lot to be desired… and now a visit from his mother… Yes, she was very satisfied. Very. So why did she feel so strange?
The day of the ball arrived. All day the servants were scurrying about, dusting, polishing, spacing out the silver and carrying vast arrangements of flowers about the place. Bella was a little overwhelmed by it all but Alice and Rose were in high spirits. The Hale ballroom was huge but it was still going to be an appalling crush. Bella did not do well in crowds but she would endure what she must for her beloved Alice.
It was to be expected that Alice was looking her best that night and several people commented on her beauty. Although not as many as those who complimented her mother. Rose was beyond pleased, smug satisfaction pouring off her when Bella descended the wide stairs to wait for their guests clad in the peacock blue silk that she had so admired in Mme Irina's. Bella's slim snowy shoulders arose from the glossy blue fabric like clouds out of the sea. The fashionable empire line emphasising just how slender she was despite her grown up daughter. Her hair, intricately curled and braided, was entwined with pearls. Rose had never seen her cousin look so lovely. Varner had almost choked when he saw her.
"Mama is stunning!" Alice whispered in awe to her blonde godmother and Rose nodded down at the child indulgently.
"Radiant. Go and kiss her my darling. I'm sure she is nervous" and as Alice ran in a whirl of white silk to the bottom of the stairs she did not hear Rose murmur
"Poor Cullen will drop dead I am sure."
Edward Cullen, though, was made of sterner stuff than Rose gave him credit. Granted, when his hostesses appeared to greet their guests in an array of beauty stunning to behold, he had to resist the temptation to loosen the snowy white folds of the cravat that suddenly seemed so tight about his throat. But he did not cough or do as one gentleman beside him did and announce for the other guests to hear "By Jupiter!"
Later, after a few dances with Alice he tracked down her mama with a specific goal in mind. He presented her with a glass of champagne, smiled charmingly and asked if she would like to continue her acquaintance with his mother: "No one can every have a decent conversation in a receiving line after all," he said. "She is about here somewhere I am sure."
"Your mother is a countess is that correct?" Bella asked
"Yes, my father is the Earl of Carlisle. He is not with us this evening, but my mother will be delighted to speak with you again. She found Alice enchanting."
Bella laughed "Alice has been on high dough all day. Was she enchanting or simply exhausting?"
"Oh enchanting I assure you," he pulled her arm through his as they strolled about the ballroom nodding to friends that they passed. They eventually found Lady Carlisle seated close to an opened window, fanning herself gently.
"Are you well my Lady?" Bella asked instantly.
"Oh yes my dear, just a bit warm that is all. I am very pleasantly situated here thank you."
"Perhaps some lemonade would refresh you Mother. I will fetch you some." Lord Cullen pushed his way back into the crowd. Bella watched him go and turned to find Lady Carlisle's gentle grey eyes watching her. She blushed slightly under the scrutiny.
"You are to be congratulated Mrs Brandon," Lady Carlisle said. "Your daughter is an undoubted hit."
"Thank you my Lady. It does seem to be going well I fancy."
"And Alice looks delightful, so vivacious yet sweet also. I think too that her face matches her character."
Bella blushed a shade deeper with pleasure at the older woman's praise of her daughter. "She is indeed the sweetest child and I do not think I am being biased when I say that she is very pretty. She follows her Papa you know."
"Really?" Lady Carlisle enquired. "I did not have the pleasure of Brandon's acquaintance but to my mind she follows her mother. Something in the turn of countenance."
"Oh no," Bella said earnestly. "Her Papa was a very handsome man."
Lady Carlisle smiled at the widow "But beauty will only carry one so far will it not?"
"Many would forgive the beautiful greater crimes than they would an ugly person," Bella replied. She gurgled a laugh then "My cousin Rose, however, is not one of those people. You should hear what she has to say about Lord Byron!"
Conversation turned then to a little pleasant gossip on the latest exploits of the great and the good. It did not seem long before Lord Cullen rejoined them. He handed a glass of chilled lemonade to his mother and turned once again to Mrs Brandon.
"Your own debut was made in this very room was it not Mrs Brandon?" he asked.
"Yes my Lord. My mother was beside herself for weeks arranging it. I confess I am very glad for all Lady Hale's help. I doubt I would have known anything about such a serious business as throwing a party! Alice helped an awful lot too. Though I do wish my dear parents were alive to see this day."
Lord Cullen's eyes rested upon Alice's animated figure for a moment: "Well certainly they would have great cause for pride in their grand-daughter today had they lived." He turned his sea green gaze upon the widow. "And her Mama also," he said softly.
"Yes" supplied Lady Carlisle. "It is too rare that one finds such a well informed mind behind a pretty face Mrs Brandon and Edward tells me that Alice owes her education and accomplishments to you."
"My husband refused to allow Alice to have the tutors that I wished for her. So I taught her all I could. We made full use of the lending library too you may be certain but if one such as your son finds her accomplishments admirable then I count myself flattered indeed."
"I never flatter ma'am and I speak only the truth I assure you." There was such a peculiar intensity in his words that Bella's hands started to tremble. He smoothly removed the champagne glass from her tentative grasp and held her fingers gently. "Mrs Brandon, there is a matter I would like to discuss with you, but now is neither the time or the place. May I call upon you tomorrow?"
"Certainly sir" Bella could not stop her hands from trembling and clutched at his fingers convulsively.
"At three perhaps?" he said quite softly
"That is most acceptable" her voice was thready.
He bowed to her and his mother and moved away. Moments later Bella watched as Lord Cullen's tall, well-made figure stood beside her diminutive daughter. She watched as Alice stretched out a hand in welcome to him and he bent to address some teasing remark in her ear. Certainly Alice laughed and blushed a little, looking towards her Mama who nodded at her in pleasure while simultaneously a scolding herself for the sour little pang of jealousy twisting in her heart. It was the work of a moment to push it to one side, along with all the other unexamined thoughts of Lord Cullen. As she did so Bella steeled herself for the following afternoon when Lord Cullen would come and see her to ask permission to marry her daughter. Not one of the many guests, not even the observant Lady Carlisle, could have guessed Mrs Brandon's thoughts for the rest of the evening as she gave every evidence of enjoying the rest of the ball.
The next morning Bella could not settle at all. Her books held no comfort and her needlework just allowed her thoughts to wander back to sea green eyes and tousled copper hair. Deeply annoyed with herself she announced to Varner that she was going out to the British Museum. Varner did not twitch but privately wondered at Mrs Brandon's odd quirks. Who went to the Museum at ten o clock in the morning? And the morning after a ball that went on until three at that.
"Very good madam. Will you be back for lunch?"
"Yes Varner, I will," she said waspishly. "And Miss Alice and Lady Hale will be here too I am sure. Indeed I wonder if they will ever leave their beds again."
Varner, who in all the time that Mrs Brandon had stayed in Grosvenor Square had never heard her speak in anything other than a sweet pleasant tone, blinked at her owlishly.
Even more annoyed at herself, Mrs Brandon turned abruptly on her heel and left the house.
Three hours later she returned. So subdued was she that Varner was worried and wondered if perhaps a little temper tantrum might not be preferable. Lady Hale kept to her bed citing a migraine. Well, Varner knew what that meant but as for Mrs Brandon…and Miss Brandon indeed. What on earth was going on today?
"Is all well Varner?" Mrs Brandon's customary soft tones disturbed his internal monologue.
"Yes, thank you madam. Lady Hale is still abed, though she had a tray taken up about an hour ago. Leah told Mrs Varner that Lady Hale is feeling a little delicate this afternoon and will not be down until much later."
"I see," Bella said diplomatically. "I will go and see her in a little while."
"And Miss Alice?"
"Miss Alice left about an hour ago. She told me not to hold lunch for her."
"I had no idea that she intended to go out today. That is most inconvenient." Bella considered for a moment. "I suppose she just wanted a little jaunt with Kate to blow the cobwebs away…" she stopped at one of Varner's more delicate coughs.
"Kate did not accompany Miss Alice," he said in a regretful tone.
"Alice left the house without her maid?"
"She left the house unaccompanied?" Bella was non-plussed. This had been drummed into Alice since she was a girl. A young, unmarried lady did not go out without her maid. It just was not done.
"No Madam," and here Varner's voice grew even more delicate. "She left with a gentleman."
"Lord Cullen perhaps?" hope balanced thinly in Bella's voice. It would be irregular and certainly strange of him…
"Not Lord Cullen madam. He was a military gentleman. Fair haired…belonging to the Rifles I believe. Miss Alice certainly gave the impression of knowing him very well."
"Oh I see. Yes Varner. Ummm… Captain Whitlock is a very old friend of ours. He and Alice are quite the brother and sister you know."
Varner did not know. But he did know that he had never seen a sister greet a brother like that. Not in all his born days.
"Please stop saying Indeed Madam."
Bella sighed. "I will have lunch directly."
Varner bowed silently. Bella resisted the urge to hit him with something heavy.
Bella entered the informal dining room, one of her favourite places in the house. Propped up on the service laid for one was a note addressed to her in her daughter's flamboyant hand.
With a lead weight sinking in her stomach Bella opened the wafer and read:
Please do not worry. I have gone with Jasper. I do not have the time to tell you all now but I am so happy that I know you will be too.
The lead weight turned over in her stomach and suddenly it was all that Bella could manage not to be sick. The dining room door opened and Varner entered with a coddled egg, buttered just as she liked it. He really was taking care of her today. She smiled at him and did not know how blind she looked. Varner resolved to keep a close eye on Mrs Brandon that afternoon.
It was a supreme effort to be natural for Varner as he served her simple luncheon. Bella dismissed all the waiting servants and pushed her plate away untouched. She meandered round the room. Smoothing the heavy velvet curtains and re-arranging ornaments. Then she sat upon the chaise and read her daughter's note over and over until she felt her eyes might bleed from it.
Alice had gone. Gone with Jasper Whitlock. On the very day that Lord Cullen was arriving to ask for her hand. The temptation to take to her bed and stay under the covers for the rest of her life was almost irresistible.
But she was not a coward. She would deal with Lord Cullen's disappointment. The scandal of her daughter's run away match would have to be bourn. She would return to Hertfordshire, back to seclusion.
Alice would go to Spain with her new husband's regiment to face illness and gunfire and deprivation of every sort. Her grandchildren would be born in a tent…on the edge of a battlefield. Alice would have to manage with army surgeons and she would catch childbed fever and die. Her poor grand baby motherless and carted about Europe in the dirty hands of camp followers. It was obvious - she would have to kill Jasper Whitlock; it was her duty as a mother.
A sudden laugh ripped from her. "Good God what am I thinking!" and then the tears came. Alice was gone and all Bella's hopes and dreams lay in tatters and poor dear Lord Cullen. He would be so hurt. Fresh sobs welled up within her and she pressed her face into the velvet cushions, suddenly surrendering to it all.
It did not seem very long to Bella but she felt her hand being tapped quite urgently.
"Mama! Come now, Mama" Alice's voice was both penetrating and horridly bracing.
"You are dead." Bella stated categorically into the cushions. "You died on a battlefield in Europe somewhere."
"Good heavens Mama. You've been dreaming," Alice laughed. "Unless you have been at Aunt Rose's sherry?"
"You revolting child." Bella said with muffled dignity.
"But why are you sleeping in the day? And you haven't touched your lunch. Are you well? Jasper, darling, ring for some tea."
"Jasper?" Bella opened her eyes to see the tall, leonine figure of Captain Whitlock standing awkwardly just inside the door. She sat bolt upright and patted her hair.
"Forgive me Ma'am." Captain Whitlock drawled. "I will just step out to speak to your butler."
"Discretion is undoubtedly the better part of valour Captain," Bella said, dryly.
"Indeed Ma'am." Captain Whitlock bowed quickly and left.
"I swear…if someone says that to me once more today…" Bella cast a jaundiced eye over her dearly beloved daughter. "As for you Young Lady!"
"Mama," Alice said reproachfully. "I left you a note."
"A note that told me precisely nothing and in fact gave me great cause for concern!"
Alice giggled, a delightful sound that had Bella smiling before she could help herself. "Did you think I had eloped? Oh you poor dear, what an afternoon you have had. But surely you must know that I would want a rather grander wedding than some slap dash affair at The Fleet?"
"Good God," Bella said faintly.
"That is precisely what Jasper said," Alice said, impressed.
"Does my hair look like a haystack?" Bella hissed.
"Not a strand disturbed," Alice replied. She looked up as Captain Whitlock entered the room once more.
"Tea shall be along directly Mrs Brandon."
"And we have some excellent news," trilled Alice as she danced over to the Captain.
"Oh good," Bella murmured but she smiled slightly at Jaspers rueful look of understanding.
"Yes," Alice continued. "Jasper's aunt is dead!" and she bounced excitedly on the balls of her toes.
"My dear child!" Bella remonstrated.
"Oh yes," slightly crestfallen but recovering gamely, Alice pressed on. "I see what you mean. But she was a great aunt really and very old. And she had been sick a long time probably so perhaps it was something of a mercy?"
"Stop while you are ahead my love," Jasper said gently.
"Anyway," said Alice, ignoring him. "She has left Jasper a great deal of money so he can afford to buy his promotion. He will be Major Whitlock, just think! And he will have pots of money left over to keep a wife. And Mama, it has been great fun going to parties and balls, I have enjoyed it very much. I have seen more of the world, just like you said I should, but in all that time I have never met a single person I like better than Jasper and I know I never shall. Mama, I love him and I do so wish to marry him so please let us have your consent. Please?"
Bella passed over her daughter's bubbling enthusiasm and regarded the man who would shortly become her son.
"It is true Mrs Brandon," he said calmly. "I received the news this morning and came to see Alice straight away. She insisted on accompanying me to my lawyer's office and it is all settled. I am not hugely wealthy but Alice will never have to want for money and I promise with all my heart to cherish her and protect her for as long as there is breath in my body."
Alice fairly glowed at his words and Bella simply could not find it in her anywhere to refuse her daughter or the man she so obviously adored.
"You are a good man Jasper Whitlock. Be good to my daughter and you have my consent…and my blessing if you need it."
"Needed and wanted ma'am," Captain Whitlock said as he bowed over her hand and kissed her knuckle.
"Oh please don't call me ma'am. I feel a thousand years old." Bella almost whined.
Jasper who was probably only ten years younger than she laughed down at her. "Shall I call you Mama too perhaps?"
"What about Bella?" she answered. "You can save Mama for when you give me grandchildren," and it was Bella's turn to laugh at his suddenly blank look.
"Mama, Jasper has to leave soon. He only had a days leave of absence from headquarters to sort out his affairs. If I take Kate with me, may I go with him to the coach office?"
"Yes of course my dear. I have Lord Cullen coming to pay a call at three o' clock anyway"
"Oh, Lord Cullen! Would you tell him that I am going to be married? I would tell him myself but I would much rather go with Jasper."
"Of course I will tell him. I daresay he will be very interested."
"He is the greatest dear," Alice said fondly. "Jasper, just let me change my hat and I will be with you directly."
And so it was only a cooling cup of tea that kept Bella company as she waited to lay waste to all of Lord Cullen's hopes. If it had not been for the happiness that positively radiated from her daughter, Bella would have been hard pressed not to have been a little annoyed at the child's utter lack of awareness of the pain that she would inflict on such a sweet and gentle man. Bella's thoughts were appallingly scattered, flitting from one image of him to another. His vivid smile, his fine boned hands at the piano, his sudden laughter. So caught up was she that she hardly heard Varner announce Lord Cullen's presence.
She looked up bewildered and saw him gazing at her intently, an expression of concern upon his handsome face.
"Mrs Brandon, what ever is the matter?" he crossed the room swiftly and sat beside her taking her hand as he did so. "Tell me, who has upset you?"
"It is nothing my Lord," Bella shook her head frustrated as the obvious lie left her lips. "What a bouncer," she said ruefully. "Indeed my lord. I was very upset earlier but I am better now. It has been something of…of a shattering day."
"Shall I leave you?" he asked gently. "I would much prefer to stay and do what I can to comfort you but if you would rather I left…"
Bella pressed her hand deeper into his, seeking comfort where she could until he left her forever. "No my Lord. You must be told immediately although I am sure, considering what we were about to discuss this afternoon you will find it deeply upsetting too," Bella's voice wobbled a little at the prospect of his pain.
"Good God, tell me instantly," Cullen commanded.
"Alice is to marry Captain Jasper Whitlock," Bella breathed out in a rush. She could not bear to look at him, to see him in the grip of heartbreak, so she spoke to her lap.
"I am very sorry my Lord for the ruination of your hope, but her affection for the captain is of long standing. I wish there was a way of easing your pain." She closed her eyes, in agony herself as he dropped her hand. Abruptly he stood and she opened her eyes at the swift movement. He strode to the fireplace, staring down into the empty grate.
"I fear I do not understand you Mrs Brandon," he frowned. "I came here today thinking that I was to ask for the hand of a lady and you tell me that your daughter is to be married."
Bella nodded mutely.
"And you believe that this would cause me pain," he spoke patiently, as if he was laying out a difficult problem to be solved. But Bella knew there was no solution for him and tears started to well up in her eyes for him once more.
His stern features lightened as comprehension finally dawned.
"I arranged parties for Alice and yourself did I not?" he said in a wondering tone. "Contrived always to be in your company. How we enjoyed ourselves."
Oh he was pouring acid upon her, how could she bear it?
"I paid your daughter compliments too. Of course I did," he nodded at the fireplace. "And I introduced you both to my mother. A significant gesture indeed, particularly as she had travelled all the way down from the North Country at my urging in order to meet you both."
This was too much for Bella and a muffled sob escaped her despite the kerchief pressed now to her lips.
Turning toward her swiftly, he paced back to her once more and knelt beside her. His voice was soft and gentle when he spoke slowly to her :
"And you thought I wished to impress the child when I only sought to entertain her as a way of pleasing her beautiful Mama."
"My Lord?" Bella blinked at him, dazzled at the beautiful smile he was offering her.
"How foolish I was." He laughed ruefully. "I had no idea that you could possibly misunderstand me, as clever as you are."
He picked up her hand and traced her fingers with her own. Bella's eyes closed at the sudden fizzing sensation.
"I saw at once that Alice was your whole world and I so desperately wanted to be part of your world. I thought the best way of going about that was to show to you what a fond Papa I could make, even though I have never married. Alice is a dear child and I am very glad she is to marry Whitlock, he is an excellent fellow. And she will be has happy as a skylark gadding about the world with him. But my own dear love, how could you possibly think that I would have eyes for her when you blinded me to all other women the second I laid eyes on you?"
Bella thought that she would never again look anywhere else than the sea green orbs that burned into hers.
"Rose called me a great goose," she whispered.
"One always hesitates to contradict a lady," Cullen said with an especially bewitching smile. "I love you and I wish to marry you. May I kiss you Mrs Brandon?"
"Oh, indeed you may Lord Cullen."
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