It had been another terrible day, one of what now seemed destined to be an unbreakable run of terrible days. Edward Iveson kept his hat firmly on his head and the collar of his coat up as he walked along the street, angling his head down in the hope that no one else would recognise him or speak to him. How, he wondered, did one go from a fairly uneventful and dull existence to finding oneself at the centre of a scandal?
The note had arrived in the morning post a few days ago. Edward had been surprised but had seen no reason to be alarmed. It had been a long time since he had heard from Marie Brannon, but while he’d never been comfortable with their relationship – their short-lived affair – she had always been kind and he had no reason to suspect her of any ill intent.
He should have thought to look more closely. Knowing Marie, she might even have embedded a warning in the note, but he had instead blithely gone to meet her at the inn, proving himself to be a naïve fool. She must have drugged him because so much of the evening was hazy in his mind and the rest a blank, but he’d made it easy for her, drinking more than was wise in his unease. He’d thought then, of course, that was all it had been, waking up the next morning in strange surroundings with a hangover.
“Nothing happened,” was all Marie had said, when he’d dressed, and gone downstairs to find her. “You were very drunk, that’s all. I didn’t want you here, you know! Go home, Edward.”
He’d attempted an incoherent apology, but she’d pushed him out of the door. “Just leave now – and be more careful in the future.”
About a week after his encounter with Marie, an envelope had arrived, containing some shocking photographs that must have been taken during that night – and a blackmail note, demanding a small sum of money in exchange for the sender’s silence on the scandal. Perhaps it might have stopped there, but Edward decided to take the matter to the Metropolitan Police.
He hated the mere idea of showing the appalling and humiliating images to anyone else, but the business had been well-organised and that, he believed, could only signify an established criminal ring. Edward was a minor civil servant in the Foreign Office – or he had been until the scandal broke – and while he supposed he might be of some small use to a blackmailer, he had very little influence and not much in the way of fortune. Such a practised snare must have been set to catch bigger game than he, and so he had marched to the station to sacrifice himself in the cause of battling crime and corruption.
However, by the time he had finished trying to explain his complaint to a disbelieving and leering desk sergeant, he wanted only to run away rather than do his duty, but since he had already given the policeman his address, there was no escape. He had, on being asked to show the sergeant the photographs, insisted on seeing a more senior officer, and eventually been ushered in to see an inspector, who had at least had the grace to try and hide his amusement and scepticism about how Edward had accidentally ended up in such scandalous photographs. He also, to Edward’s relief, immediately grasped his point about the perpetrators targeting other, more important victims.
The humiliation of recounting the tale had seemed as if it would never end. Explaining that he had no memory of the night but that, yes, he did know Mrs Brannon, and, yes, his association with her had been of a intimate nature even if it had ended several years ago, before they even got onto the rest of it had him wishing he had never been naïve enough to think he could lay a charge like this in a detached manner. He had begun wishing he could die about five minutes in and wasn’t sure he’d stopped since.
He had also gone to see Lord Howe, who had once used his influence to help him find an appointment at the Foreign Office, and confessed as much of the situation as he dared. Lord Howe had been angry with him over it – for his folly, Edward supposed, but he also had been scathing about the idea of involving the clumsy officers of the Metropolitan Police. Edward had then offered his resignation to his superior at the Foreign Office, leaving afterwards feeling at least that life could at least not get any worse.
He had been wrong. On the next morning, the story appeared in the newspapers. He would have not thought himself especially newsworthy, but either it had been a quiet day in the metropolis or he was being too modest when it came to a story that involved indecent and compromising photographs of a servant of the government.
Edward had known it must mean bad news as soon as he returned to his rooms at Cambridge and found his uncle waiting there. Uncle Ted didn’t call without warning in term-time and even had he found himself passing, he would have greeted Edward with his usual easy smile, not this strained, serious look.
It couldn’t be Mother, Edward thought. Father would have come if anything had happened to Mother. It must be Father. He looked to his uncle, waiting; hoping he would dispel his fears.
“There’s no easy way to say this,” said Uncle Ted. “It’s your father. I’m afraid he –” He paused, evidently searching for words, and fell back on bluntness. “He’s been drowned,” he said.
Edward didn’t know what he had been expecting, but it wasn’t that. Some illness, perhaps, he thought, not drowned. “How?” he asked, and wondered why he couldn’t yet seem to feel anything. His father was dead, and he could hardly seem to force the concept into his head.
“Yes,” said Uncle Ted, almost talking to himself. “How – we don’t know, Ned. The Coroner ruled it an accident, but he’d had a bad reversal with some investments – that paper-making company –” He stopped again, watching Edward, as if hoping he wouldn’t need to continue. “I’m sure the Coroner knew what he was doing. But in the circumstances, people will talk and you must be prepared for that.”
Edward still couldn’t seem to make himself feel anything. Father had said there was some trouble, but he had assured Edward it was nothing very much – and even if it was, he said, then they would find a way to manage, that was all. “Are we – are we ruined?” he asked. It sounded overly melodramatic, saying it aloud. “Do I need to leave the university?”
“No, no,” said Uncle Ted. “We’ll see you through – be silly to do otherwise. As to the rest, it isn’t that bad. Perhaps you don’t know – both your grandfathers left a certain amount in trust to you. You won’t be thrown out on the streets.” He looked at Edward, the first of many such pitying looks to come, and said, “Well, you’d better go and pack. Your mother will want you.”
He realised, when he went to gather up some clothes and other necessities, that he felt almost angry with Uncle Ted: why come telling him this, when it couldn’t be true? He would go home, he thought, and Father would be there to explain and put everything right.
The first reality of it hit him even as he thought that, sitting down on his bed heavily, doubling up as if in pain. Everything had changed. His father had thrown himself in the river and nothing would ever be wholly well again.
At least, thought Edward as he finally reached Charlcot Crescent and home, he could now hide in peace and scrape what was left of his self-respect from the floor as he tried to decide what to do next. However, he found he had one last problem to deal with: his daily help, Mrs Crosbie, was standing on the doorstep with her arms folded as she watched him make his way up the path.
“Mr Iveson,” she said, before he could open his mouth. “I’m sorry, but I can’t be coming round any more. It’s not that I believe any of the wicked lies they print in the newspapers, but Mr Crosbie won’t hear of it now. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to find someone else.”
Edward nodded, not trusting himself to speak. It was another blow, but he had reached the point of finding each latest catastrophe almost ridiculous, as was the idea of himself as such a disreputable fellow that even respectable charladies couldn’t afford to be seen anywhere near him. Still, he sighed as he let himself inside the house, and Mrs Crosbie sailed on out of his life. He made his way up to the study and sat down in the upholstered chair, hiding his head in its side as he tried to shut out everything else.
He couldn’t think of anything he could do, except for options too drastic to consider, like running away to America or the colonies, or worse. He gave up and decided to try getting drunk and forgetting everything until tomorrow, when at least some other lurid story should have seized the headlines, even if the rest of his troubles remained.
However, he had barely taken the first sip of his brandy, when there someone else started knocking at his door, and he gave a groan and put his hands to his head. Couldn’t people leave him alone? He had had quite enough of newspaper men and so-called friends, and people who just wanted to stare, and he was in no mood to be disturbed again now. He waited, hoping whoever it was would go away, but they didn’t, so he sighed and pulled himself up and marched back down the stairs with a bad grace.
People had been kind. Edward wished sometimes they wouldn’t. There wasn’t anything they could do and he didn’t want to be pitied; he didn’t want to hear people talk about Father, not the way they did these days.
But people had been kind, including Harold Graves who had paid him to come and stay with the family for a month this summer and help tutor his son Christy. Edward had made some embarrassed protest at first, but Mr Graves had given him a dark, amused look and told him that if he could ready Christy for the University of London, he’d deserve every penny of it and that he’d think so too before he was done.
By this point in the summer, Edward was inclined to agree. The Graves were family friends and while he was fond enough of Christy, trying to get him to pay attention to his studies was a Herculean labour and there were times when Edward would have preferred throwing the books at his head.
They had nearly finished for the morning, Christy being due to go out in the afternoon, when Grace, the Graves’s maid came in with some lemonade and a plate of buns. At Christy’s look, she said, “It’s for Miss Julia.” She paused before continuing to straighten up and look around her. “Where is she?”
“Oh, she’s around,” said Christy, but Edward saw his grin and knew he’d been up to something.
“What have you done?” Edward asked, as soon as Grace had gone.
Christy laughed. “Oh, nothing. She was plaguing me earlier, so I shut her in the shed.” He patted the key in his breast pocket. “That ought to keep her quiet. I’ll go let her out presently, though, I promise.”
“Oh, for – heaven’s sake,” said Edward, losing patience and standing. He held out his hand for the key. “Finish your work; I’ll go and let the poor girl out. I don’t expect she’s as amused about it as you are.”
Christy pulled a face at him, Edward saw, but ignored him as he held back to pour out a glass of the lemonade to take with him. It was a sunny day, but while there was a pleasant breeze out in the garden, it must be stifling in the shed. Julia would be bound to be thirsty.
He opened the shed door to find Julia Graves sitting on the wooden floor, leaning against some sacks, half-asleep. She gave a slight cry, and jumped up unsteadily on seeing him. He gave her his hand and helped her out into the garden. She was just fifteen, with long fair hair pulled back from her face with a ribbon, somewhere awkwardly in between a child and an adult – and currently, as red-faced as one might expect from having spent an hour or two in a stuffy garden shed in summer.
“You should have called for someone,” he said, but as she began to protest that she had, he recalled the lemonade and passed it over, which, to his amusement, earned him a starry-eyed look in response. He wondered what sort of reception he might have earned if he’d also thought to bring a bun.
She sat down on the low wall around the shrubbery and drank the lemonade. “Mother says,” she informed him, when she had leisure to speak again, “that girls don’t shout. Besides, Christy might be a beast, but he wouldn’t just leave me there.”
“No, of course not,” said Edward, although he couldn’t help thinking that Christy might well if he got distracted by something, especially the mood he was in this summer. “Still, even if the books of etiquette don’t cover it, I think when one has been locked in somewhere, calling for help and knocking on the door is allowed.”
She gave him a slight smile; her cheeks still scarlet. “I expect you’re right. Perhaps – perhaps I didn’t want – people to know how silly I’d been, falling for Christy’s stupid tricks.”
“I don’t think he likes all this studying in the summer,” he said, and offered her his hand again. “Come on, I’ll see you back to the house. There’s some more lemonade – and there are buns.”
He had managed to displease her now, she stood up, ignoring his hand as she walked alongside him up the garden path. “I’m not a child, you know, Mr Iveson!”
Edward opened the front door to find a young lady there, well wrapped up against the weather, but still clearly recognisable.
“Good God!” he said. “Miss Graves!”
She raised her chin. “Please don’t be so discourteous as to keep me waiting out here, Mr Iveson. Besides, I think we’re more likely to be observed and gossiped about if we have a long conversation on the doorstep, don’t you?”
“A long conversation?” he said, letting her in, and shutting the door behind her, as she put down a bag on the floor and began pulling off her gloves and undoing the buttons on her coat. “Miss Graves, you cannot stay here, and we have nothing to discuss. Let me go and find a cab to take you home again.”
He moved to the door and she looked up sharply, putting out a hand to stop him. “Mr Iveson, you don’t suppose I should have come here alone at this hour if I didn’t have some very good reason, do you? I’m well aware that it’s a shockingly desperate course to take, but I had to speak to you.”
“Of course,” he said, but he was having trouble regrouping his scattered wits as to what could possibly have brought her to his door at this time of night. “Are you in some trouble? Have you been hurt?”
She turned, clearly expecting him to help her out of her coat, which he did; the polite gesture was too ingrained to ignore even when he was ostensibly trying to persuade her to leave. Underneath it, she was wearing a lilac-coloured silk evening dress and the reminder of how attractive he thought her did nothing to calm his disordered thoughts.
“No, no,” she said, almost in annoyance. “You can see I haven’t. But I am in trouble, nearly as much so as you, and I believe together we can solve our difficulties.”
He held onto her coat. “Whatever are you suggesting?”
“Oh, dear, this is difficult,” she said, looking up at him. “Please, may I come in and sit down? I shall try to explain as best I can, but you will understand that this is hardly something I make a habit of.”
He ushered her upstairs, still feeling a little dazed by her arrival and the way his quiet, ordered life seemed to have been irrevocably overturned. It seemed that he should simply expect surprises from now on. He also had to stifle vague feelings of guilt, since Julia’s intentions didn’t appear to be romantic, and he had to admit that he had only been avoiding the Graves family lately because of the way he’d found himself beginning to view Julia not merely as a family friend, as Christy Graves’s younger sister, but suddenly almost as a symbol of everything he wanted and couldn’t have. To have her here now was a breathtaking irony that he didn’t know how to comprehend.
He led her into the study, since that was the only room where he had a fire lit, and offered her the other chair.
“Now,” she said, as she sat, before she halted, looking up at him with a frown. “Oh, Mr Iveson, do please sit down! I can’t possibly explain with you towering over me.”
He obliged and said, “Well?”
“I – I read about you in the newspapers,” she said, colouring slightly as she spoke and adjusting the folds of her skirt. “My brother Christy showed me.”
Edward couldn’t be surprised, knowing Christy, but he was still annoyed at the mere idea. “Then I can only deplore his behaviour – as usual! It was not the way it must have sounded – and there was no need for you to have heard anything about such a – such a scandalous incident.”
“Oh, but it was fortunate that he did,” said Julia leaning forward. “Because I was in such trouble and I could see no easy way out – and now I realise that we can help each other if you will only agree.” She swallowed, evidently working herself up to the point. “You see, Mr Iveson, if you were to – to marry me, it would solve all your immediate difficulties. That’s what I’m here to offer, if you will.”
He started, only keeping himself from leaping out of the chair by catching hold of its arms. “Miss Graves!”
“I know it’s dreadfully shocking of me, but you must see how it would answer – and I mean only a – a marriage of convenience. It would not be such an unusual arrangement, and I believe you don’t dislike me.”
“No, of course not,” he said, “but you simply can’t come here and expect me to accept such an offer. It would be a most unfair turn to serve you. You would bring everything to the match and I would bring nothing but scandal – this, and what happened to my father.”
She clasped her hands together on her lap, twisting her fingers around, her shoulders taut. “I thought you might object, which was why I came here now. You can hardly leave me to the gossip that will inevitably follow such a visit, can you?”
That was true, now that she pointed it out to him, but she was effectively demanding to marry him at pistol point. It was one thing to theoretically admire her from a distance, another to have her turn up and demand he marry her on the spot. Indeed, the only thing that kept him from losing his temper and demanding that she leave and face the consequences of her own actions was the obvious question begged by her statement. “So, what is your trouble?”
“I need to marry someone,” she said. “Someone who is not Lord Howe!”
He stared back at her, unable to help being shocked at the implications of her confession.
“Oh,” she said, watching his face. “Oh, I didn’t mean that. It’s only that Lord Howe wants to marry me and he won’t take no for an answer. If I am already married, however, even he cannot make me!”
Edward pressed his head back against the side of the chair, feeling an impending headache. “Miss Graves, how could Lord Howe compel you to marry him if you do not wish to? I cannot imagine your parents forcing you into such a distasteful marriage, and even if you were dragged to the altar you could refuse to go through with the ceremony, or have Christy object. I would object if it prevented you making such outrageous suggestions.”
“Lord Howe tried to blackmail you this week,” she said. “You refused – and I am so glad, even if it angered him – but when he tried it with me, I could not be so bold. You see, Mr Iveson, when I was seventeen I had a silly, childish affair with a Captain Campbell. I thought he meant to marry me and I was young and – and very foolish, and I let myself fall into a compromising position. Nothing happened, you understand, but that was only thanks to Christy. I don’t know who can have told Lord Howe but there have been rumours flying about concerning me of late. Then he threatened to make the whole story public and ruin my chances if I did not agree to marry him – and he said if that was not enough, he should find a way to ruin my father and beggar the lot of us. I pleaded with him for time to consider my answer, but that was all the concession I could gain.”
Edward found it hard to imagine the rather cold Lord Howe in such a role, but it was clear it was something Julia found difficult to confide. Her manner was hesitant and she kept casting anxious glances at him as she spoke. He was also baffled as to why she also believed it must be Lord Howe who had tried to blackmail him. “Could you not have asked one of your other admirers to rescue you?” He felt the faint sensation of heat in his face, uncomfortably aware that he’d betrayed a burst of something like jealousy.
“Oh, no, Mr Iveson,” she said, with a sudden attempt at humour, “I’m quite desperate, I assure you!” Then she sighed. “Besides, I believe – that is, following the rumours, what ‘admirers’ I had thought I should be eager to marry anyone and had their eye solely on Father’s money. Christy and I have – well, I’m afraid that Christy tells them that Father has suffered a reversal in his fortune and it’s not at all flattering to watch them run away as fast as they may.” She looked up and gave him a small smile. “No, none of them would do, but you’re different. You’ve known my family for years. You might have need of the money, but you wouldn’t marry me only for that reason. Besides, a secret engagement between us is at least plausible. Anyone who cares to enquire will find that our families have been close – they won’t know how little you and I have seen each other.”
“Even so –”
“Well, as I said, now I am here, are you going to let me be ruined or run back to marry Lord Howe – or will you marry me?”
“Miss Graves,” said Edward. “This is preposterous –”
“Is that a yes, Mr Iveson?”
He watched her, still trying to understand even half of it. She was right about her proposal being the solution to his problems, humiliating as it was to admit. Her father would no doubt find him some position in his company and he would make a settlement on Julia, so Edward no longer need worry about the consequences of resigning from his post. The marriage might raise a few eyebrows following the scandal, but to anyone who was more nearly concerned than the casual reader of newspapers, it would strongly suggest that the Graves family at least didn’t believe the stories about him. What he didn’t understand was her wish to go through with it, notwithstanding her claims about Lord Howe.
“It seems I must consider it,” he said, not quite able to be gracious yet. “I don’t understand why Lord Howe wishes to marry you on such terms, however. Are you sure?”
Miss Graves paused before answering and gave him a dark look. “Mr Iveson, when a gentleman says to me that I must marry him or he will ruin me and my family, I can hardly be unsure of his meaning. I don’t know what his reasons are; he has not deigned to inform me. I suspect it rather has to do with my parents than me. As far as I can see, I matter very little to him. He assumes that I will agree and there – there we are.” She stopped, swallowing, and he could see she was close to tears, if only for a moment. “And I fear I can hardly do anything else if you don’t marry me in the morning.”
“In the morning!” said Edward, distracted from his growing sympathy towards her. Then he shook himself, seeing that her hand on her lap was trembling very slightly. He coughed, and stood. “Would you perhaps care for a brandy?”
She shook her head instantly, screwing up her nose a little. “Oh, no, thank you! I think it horrid.”
He had to put his hand to his mouth, trying to hide his amusement at her sudden regression to the schoolgirl from the self-possessed young woman who was prepared to make brazen proposals to gentlemen in their own homes late at night. “Sherry, then?” he tried. “Or tea?”
She nodded and, as he moved over to pour her a glass, he was aware of her watching him.
“Mr Iveson,” she said, a little breathlessly when he handed the sherry to her. “Mr Iveson – I will try and explain a little further, but first you must tell me the truth of what happened to you this week.”
Edward wanted nothing less. Bad enough that she had read the account in the papers, worse still that she was here, trying to ‘rescue’ him in this manner, let alone that he should have to sit there and recount the affair yet again. He clenched his fists, waiting for the urge to snap at her to pass.
“It’s not curiosity,” she said. “Please. I must know.”
He gave a forced smile and crossed to the fireplace, standing against the mantelpiece. “Yes. I quite see. You’re here, offering me everything. You need to know what it is you’re getting in return. Well, please, let me assure you that most of what has been printed is entirely untrue.”
“Oh, no,” she said, turning to face him. “I didn’t mean that! I knew that much before I came here. How could you think otherwise?”
Edward had to look away from her again. “I see. What did you read of the business?”
“Silly, obnoxious things,” she said. “But that you were – taken away by a Mrs Brannon and –” She faltered. “Well, I see how it was: it was all intended to put you in a situation where you could be blackmailed, because why should anyone else believe that it was all – all –”
Edward breathed out. He was, he thought, whatever he told himself, going to have to accept her proposal: she was right about his trouble, and what was more she was right about him not being prepared to ruin her if this visit got out – nor, if it really was true, could he let her be blackmailed into becoming the second Lady Howe. He forgot his embarrassment, crossing towards her, and crouching down beside her in the chair.
“Yes,” he said. “That was essentially how it was. The one thing that I did was to agree to meet Mrs Brannon, because she is – an old acquaintance.” He stopped, since he hardly wanted to explain that further.
Miss Graves gave a small smile. “That’s a polite way of saying that she’s someone you once – well, that you once –”
“Yes,” he said, to save them both any further embarrassment. “Some years ago, just after my engagement ended. But that was then – I had not seen her since.” Marie Brannon had taken pity on him, more than anything else. Which, he thought, with a flush of annoyance, was beginning to become an unwelcome theme with the women in his life.
Miss Graves nodded. “May I ask where you met her?” she asked. “In the beginning, not the other day.”
“That has nothing to do with it,” he said, because, now that she mentioned it, it had occurred on one of the few times he’d been invited to stay with Lord Howe at his estate. Then he sighed, standing again, and confessed that fact. “But it’s impossible, you know. I was only there because Lord Howe was being kind after Father – well, after Father had died.”
Miss Graves lifted her head to look at him, and her eyes looked suddenly more grey than blue. “Was he?” she said. “But Lord Howe is never kind.”
That was true, Edward thought, feeling a sudden chill down his back. And on that particular weekend, he had a feeling that Marie had given him some warning not only about her husband, but about Lord Howe. It was too long ago, though, and he had not really been paying full attention. He thought about Lord Howe’s anger at his insisting on taking the matter to the police. There was some logic in it, but where did it lead? He had nothing such a man could want, nor was he in a position to do anything Lord Howe could not do himself or pay a dozen other people to do.
“I can see the possibility,” he told her. “But I don’t see any reason. And I am equally sure that whatever Lord Howe does has reason.”
Miss Graves nodded. “My father is of the opinion that Lord Howe’s ruthless business methods were what ruined your father. Perhaps he believes you know something of that – or wishes to be sure you do not?”
“He always said that he was sorry for that,” said Edward. “That was why he invited me. I can never like him, but he’s given me cause to be grateful since.”
“Well, the only thing that does make sense is if he believes you possess information that your father also had,” she said.
“That’s rather a large assumption to make,” he said. “Still, I suppose you could have a point.”
She looked away. “He also – said something to me that intimated as much.”
“What did he say?” asked Edward. “Miss Graves?”
She merely shook her head. “Father thinks so too, you know. And Lord Howe did say – well, he was rather foul about you and I don’t care to repeat it.”
Edward raised his eyebrows, but saw that it was no use pursuing that angle tonight. He would, he thought, with some trepidation, have as much time as he cared to try and winkle it out of her later – the rest of their lives.
“One thing,” he said. “I can hardly refuse your – your kind offer, but why in the morning, in heaven’s name? A hasty, secret marriage won’t necessarily restore our reputations.”
She twisted her hands together in her lap before she looked up again. “You’ll only disbelieve me again, but if we give anyone warning, Lord Howe will prevent it. He cannot, however, do very much once we are married. And since you agree, does it make any difference how soon it is?”
“Well, Miss Graves – Julia – there are matters to be arranged,” he said. “*If nothing else, I had always supposed that when I married, I would invite my mother to be present. I have an aunt and uncle and some cousins who may also feel slighted –”
She rose from the chair. “Well, I am sorry, but it must be as soon as possible – Christy has purchased the license and arranged the matter with a register office, which I am sorry about, but it seemed best.”
“Has he indeed?” said Edward. Being ambushed by Julia was hard to take, but discovering that Christy was also behind this didn’t improve his temper.
Julia moved forward and caught at his arm. “Oh, please, don’t be angry with Christy! I know why you would think it was one of his schemes, but I’m afraid the fault is mine – only mine! I begged him to help, or I said, I should do it all myself and I would go to see you regardless; he could hardly have me locked up. And he did see what I meant once I had explained.”
“Well,” said Edward. “I see. I shall marry you in the morning, then.”
She closed her eyes. “Yes. I know that this is quite dreadful of me, but I must insist. And, as I said, I mean only a marriage of convenience. We shall have a month’s trial and see how we go on – and in that time, we may also uncover whatever it is that Lord Howe wants from you.”
“I don’t think it would do either of us any good if I tried to return you at that point,” he said, wryly amused.
Julia gave a short laugh. “No. But people do make – other arrangements. Everything can be quite civilised, I hear.”
“Yes,” murmured Edward, finding it very difficult to imagine the two of them as such people. Indeed, he might consider this invasion an outrage, but he was also warily sure that at the end of a month’s trial period of marriage to Julia, the last thing he would want would be to return her. He coughed. “So, that agreed, what do we do now?”
She raised her chin. “Since I don’t wish you to change your mind, I decided I must stay. And if that means – well, I have put myself in this position,” she said, setting her face, “and I shall take the consequences.”
Edward looked at her, all but screwing her face up at the idea, and said, “No, Miss Graves. You needn’t worry. You proposed a month to see how matters go. That seems reasonable to me. I have a spare room and Mrs Crosbie keeps it ready. What will you do for, ah, your night things?”
“I brought a bag,” she reminded him, and then gave a smile. “If you would fetch it up for me, I shall retire.”
He nodded, and then caught hold of her hand, and kissed it. A month might, in her estimation, be enough time to find some non-existent evidence about Lord Howe (whom she seemed to have made out to be quite the monster) but he thought perhaps it could also be enough to at least start winning her over. He gave her directions to the spare room, but once she’d left, he found himself almost immediately wondering if had dreamt the whole business, and had to go downstairs to fetch her bag from the hallway to prove otherwise.
Maybe, he thought, almost light-headed at the idea, everything he’d kept telling himself since Father had died had been wrong. If he could truly marry someone like Julia Graves, then it must be.
Edward made his way outside, wishing he’d never accepted Lord Howe’s invitation to stay at Ardale Hall. He would rather have left the older man severely alone after all that had happened, but Lord Howe seemed to want to try and make amends for his part in John Iveson’s death. To refuse would have been not only uncivil but to ignore the advantages Lord Howe was offering him. However, Edward found he disliked everything more than he had expected – including the rest of the guests. He felt awkward and stupidly young compared to the rest of them. He’d drunk more than he was used to, also. He hoped some air would help clear his head.
Out of sight of everyone else, he sat down on the step and leant his head against the stone of the wall, feeling the loss of his father more sharply than he had for a while, and wishing he could leave in the morning, but there was still another day to go.
He only wished there was someone else he felt comfortable with here, but the only person that he liked was Mrs Brannon, and that was part of the problem. She’d been kind to him yesterday evening, but he was also sure she’d been flirting with him. He’d returned the compliment, if not especially gracefully, but it had occurred to him today that she might be serious and that was more confusing than everything else.
He wasn’t engaged any more – Caroline, his fiancée had finally broken off the betrothal after months of uncertainty – but he was hardly a man of the town and, in any case, Mrs Brannon was married, even if she didn’t seem to care for her husband. He wondered if he ought to still be in love with Caroline, but after she’d been so awkward and distant for all this time, he couldn’t pretend he was. She’d only waited so long because she hadn’t wanted to deal the blow so soon after his father’s death. There it came again, he thought, with a small, bitter quirk of his mouth: that pity, and from Caroline of all people. He closed his eyes, his head still against the wall.
“It can’t be that bad, can it?” said Marie Brannon suddenly, from one side of him.
Edward started violently and rose to his feet. “No, of course – I – I –” He found himself at a loss to explain.
“Something’s wrong if you’re hiding out here in the cold,” she said, and gave a slight shiver. He pulled off his jacket as swiftly as he could and put it around her shoulders, a little dizzy at the close contact and the smile she gave him.
“You can’t be as miserable as I am,” she said, without any pretence. “Why don’t we console each other?”
He should argue, he thought, but he didn’t. He put a hand to her face and failed again to find words.
“Edward,” she said, moving nearer. “The thing that matters here is that I like you; the rest I’ll explain if you’ll come with me.”
“I should rejoin the others,” he said, but even he could hear how half-hearted he sounded.
She slid her hand into his, her fingers entwining around his; closer to him still. “Never mind ‘should’, this once,” she said. “What do you want?”
Edward gave in and kissed her. It was different than with Caroline, he found: Marie kissed him in return and didn’t let go.
Upstairs, in her room, she attempted to explain, as she’d promised, but he couldn’t say that he was listening as much as he should have, too distracted by her, by this situation.
“John’s a devil,” she said, referring to her husband. “I can’t explain the things he gets into. And sometimes he uses me for his schemes when it suits him. Not like this, though, I promise. This is different. Lord Howe brought me into this, I’m sure.”
“He invited you, you mean.”
She tightened her hold on the lapels of his jacket and forced him to look at him. “Will you listen? John’s used me before to set up gentleman so that he can get money out of them, but this is another thing entirely. I don’t have much choice – John would half kill me if I did anything else, but it will all be well, I promise. Better this way than let Lord Howe find another, less pleasant method of achieving his aims.”
Edward frowned. “I don’t understand. But if someone’s forcing you to –”
“No, they’re not. Forcing me to at least try and get you in here; that’s all we need, after all. But I’d say that man wants some sort of hold over you, and that’s worrying. Any idea why?”
“You must be mistaken,” Edward said, warmth in his cheeks. “He’s the merest acquaintance – he’s been very kind in inviting me.”
Marie watched him. “Well, keep it that way, and play along for the moment.”
“Don’t worry. It’s what you want, and, like I said: I like you and that’s what’s important here and now. Make your mistakes,” she added, with an amused glint her dark eyes. “Just be sure not to marry them like I did.”
Between memories of all the embarrassments of the previous few days and worrying over whether or not he should have agreed to Julia’s proposal, Edward did not have a peaceful night. He also, as he rose, washed and dressed, realised that he was not entirely prepared for a guest.
He knocked on her door, preparing to apologise for any inadequacies in his domestic arrangements. She poked her head out in response, but before he could speak, she said, “Oh, Mr Iveson – Edward, I suppose I should say – will you lace me up? I am otherwise quite decent, you need not fear.”
“It’s a little late to worry about the proprieties,” he said, with a sudden smile, stepping inside. She was, indeed, well-covered, her dress pulled on over her petticoats if not yet over her arms. “I trust you’re not superstitious,” he said, as he obliged, aiming to seem as unconcerned as possible. “I’m fairly certain this is bad luck.”
“Good,” she said, with a glance down, before pulling on her dress. She smiled, catching his puzzled look as she raised her head again. “No, not the bad luck – I thought you might have changed your mind in the night.”
Edward shook his head. “We can’t assume your visit here will go unnoticed. I hope very much so, but I won’t draw back now. I gave my word.”
Julia nodded, waiting for him to fasten up the buttons at the back.
“I’m sorry,” he added, because while everything about this was her fault, he still felt as if he should have been able to provide her with a better start to the day. “With Mrs Crosbie gone, I’m afraid breakfast may be a rather patchy affair. It’s not promising to be much of a wedding day for you.”
Julia turned around with a smile. “Don’t worry, Mr Iveson,” she said, putting a hand to his arm. “I’m not merely ornamental, I assure you. If she has only left us a few supplies, I can manage quite well.”
She walked past him to the door and then, when he remained standing there, looked back at him. “Come – you will have to direct me to the kitchen.”
“Of course,” he said, irritated again for no real reason – aside from the fact that she was forcing him into a marriage that would most likely save him from ruin and promising to cook him breakfast. Entirely unreasonable of her, he thought, his errant sense of humour resurfacing.
Edward was sitting in the dining room, making notes for tomorrow’s session with Christy before tidying the books away, when he became aware of Harold Graves speaking in the other room, and then his brother, Lionel Graves, who was paying him a brief call.
“You never have given enough consideration to the family’s standing,” Lionel said, his bark of a voice far more audible through the adjoining door than Harold’s. “Well, no point in going over old scores now, but what’s this I hear about you having Iveson’s son here? You know what that man did, don’t you?”
Edward, who had been in the act of hastily closing everything up and leaving so as not to eavesdrop, froze, his hands on the book covers. It wasn’t new; it shouldn’t shock him, but somehow, coming out of the blue like that and in this house where he had been made so welcome, he felt quite sick for a moment.
“Mr Iveson,” said Julia Graves, suddenly, from the other side of him. She moved nearer to him as he turned with a start, giving him a slight, almost shy smile. She leant further forward towards the desk, as if about to impart a secret. “I shouldn’t say this, of course – but my uncle is a beast and we all hate him, you know.”
He had to laugh, and finished closing the papers up into a book. “I wasn’t listening,” he said, straightening up again. Then he gave a shrug. “Not intentionally, I mean.”
Julia took his arm. “And he has an awful loud voice,” she added in a whisper. “He usually complains about Mother or Christy, or both. Mr Iveson, if you’ve finished your work, perhaps you could come outside with me? Mr Keynes has some plants for my corner of the garden and I just can’t decide which ones I should choose. Maybe you can advise me?”
Edward knew little enough about gardening, but he recognised a generously given means of escape when it was offered. If he was outside with Julia, there would be no danger of encountering Lionel Graves again as he left. So he tucked the papers safely away in a drawer and gave her a nod and a smile. “I shall try my very best, Miss Graves.”
Edward delivered Julia back to her father and went on to the register office where Christy was waiting for him. He wasn’t sure what to say to him as they waited for Julia and Mr Graves to rejoin them, and so fidgeted instead; adjusting his jacket and waistcoat and shifting from one foot to the other.
“Not being romantic, are you, Ned?” asked Christy. “You know Julia is a decent match for you. More than decent – she’ll have her share of Father’s money, and that business with Campbell never went anywhere.”
Edward glared at him. “Yes, I understand, and, yes, I’m grateful for your assistance, but I would have liked – well, at the very least not this rushed affair!”
“I suppose Julia turning up last night put your back up,” said Christy. “I told her to let me ask you, but she didn’t seem to think I’d accomplish much. But, you know, it’s not the sort of thing she does as a rule. She’s perfectly well-behaved – but a jolly sort, if I do say so myself.”
Edward put a hand to his head, unable to bite back an unwilling laugh. “Yes, I am sure she is. I simply can’t help feeling that it’s unprincipled of me to accept.”
“And let her ruin herself coming to see you last night?” said Christy. “I wouldn’t have thought it of you.”
“That would be her own fault!” said Edward. “And where is she now? I thought there was a hurry.”
Christy coughed. “One thing. I should ask before it’s too late – I don’t suppose there’s any truth in those rumours?”
“I would have thought it was already too late,” said Edward. “And no. I promise you that until this week my life has been entirely unexceptionable.”
Christy raised an eyebrow. “Well, then a change was overdue!”
Edward gave him a glare that didn’t subdue the other in the least. There was, he thought, a distinct resemblance between brother and sister.
“It’s the biggest joke I ever heard,” said Christy. “You, the scandal of the town and when you come down to it, you’re a damned prig. A nice one, mind, but still.”
Edward rubbed his forehead, biting his tongue not to utter a childish denial; that he wasn’t a prig, thank you. “It hasn’t been that amusing for me, I can assure you. If this hadn’t happened, I would never be taking advantage of your sister in this way.”
“Hey,” said Christy, catching at his arm. “You don’t mean that, do you? We’re taking advantage of you if anyone is – and at least we can give you something in return. Father’s pleased it’s you. He’s felt bad for years that he didn’t do anything much to help when your father went under. Well, we weren’t doing so well ourselves back then. And Julia likes you, you know. Thought you quite the hero once.”
Edward turned. “She couldn’t possibly have.”
“Not now, perhaps,” said Christy with a grin. “That summer you were with us, tutoring me. She was always following us about, if I didn’t stop her. That was for you, not me, I can tell you.”
“I don’t think that is a basis for marriage, Christy.”
“This isn’t an ideal situation,” said Christy, “but Lord Howe seems to be serious, and while I think I’d stop the ceremony rather than let him have Julia, he’s not a man to antagonise. When he says he’d ruin us, I think he’s in earnest.”
“Perhaps he will still attempt it?”
Christy shrugged. “Even if so, at least now he can’t use Julia. You needn’t worry about your half of the bargain – you keep Julia safe and that will be enough. There isn’t someone else, is there, Ned? That, of course, would be another matter.”
“No,” he said. “And I shall try, I promise. It’s this arrangement I dislike – not Julia.”