HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY!
ENJOY A POIGNANT LOVE STORY— BROKEN LEGACY!
"The Earl of Lenister, Eloise," said Mrs. Gunton, Lady Beatrice Marichone, whispering in the ear of the willowy figure standing next to her.
"And pray, dear Cousin Beatrice, that is supposed to mean what to me?" Lady Eloise Granville smiled dutifully at the matron of her family.
"Do not play those games with me this night, Eloise. You know full well what I mean. Why, Lady Breck was the third one to tell me that he has asked about you! Now, come, let us go back into the ballroom. We need to be somewhere where he can find you."
"And where do you want me to perch so that I will not be overlooked?"
“Why do you always make things more difficult than they have to be?” Cousin Beatrice replied under her breath. She turned a corner and observed a group of noblemen. Not finding who she sought, she frowned and set off back toward the ballroom. Pausing, she glanced at Eloise in a manner that suggested she approved of her appearance. Her face softened. "You won't be overlooked tonight, I assure you. You look beautiful. I'm so happy you took the time..."
"Don't," Eloise protested. "Please don't harp on me tonight. I have complied with your wishes. I have danced and smiled. Why, I even let your maid set my hair.”
"Heddy’s work is most becoming this night, I might add. Adding the rosebuds was a nice touch with your gown."
Eloise had certainly glanced in the mirror before she left her chamber. Of course, she had taken care with her appearance this day. She wanted no one's pity, no, not at her younger sister’s celebration ball. She wore an extravagant light rose color gown, which accented her dark, almost raven, hair and pale white skin. Though most would comment first upon her eyes; she had heard it many times. Cousin Beatrice said she had never seen such large, telling blue eyes.
Entering into the ballroom, Eloise's eyes swept over the merry crowd. Her brother, His Grace, Edmund, the sixth Duke of Rotheward, had spared no expense this night for their sister's celebration. His London home was exquisitely decorated with exotic plants and flowers. Every room seemed to overflow with the most elegant of guests. The orchestra's minuet accompanied a gay chatter. She caught sight of Susanna. Never had her sister been considered a beauty, not in the classic sense. Tonight, though, Susanna gleamed with her groom, Sir Joseph, Baron of Waverly, on her arm.
“She looks so happy,” Eloise uttered under her breath. Despite herself, she felt tightness in the back of her throat that signaled tears she had sworn not to cry.
“It should have been you,” Cousin Beatrice said, straightening out the back of Eloise’s gown. “You should never have released him. It had been your father’s wish. Why? Why would you have done so? What on earth are you going to do now? If you think for one moment another proposal will come your way…and Sir Joseph had been willing to hold to the agreement.”
“His father was not. The elder Lord Wessex made all perfectly clear to me. How could you even consider that I would want such a marriage? They are ashamed of me.”
“You would have been well cared for. My head aches with thinking of who…”
“Do not concern yourself, Cousin Beatrice. In a few months, I will have my inheritance and will not be a burden upon you anymore. If it is too much to bear until then, I will go and live with Edmund and Julia and become a thorn in Her Grace, the Dowager’s side…”
“You should well call her Momma,” Cousin Beatrice corrected Eloise.
“She was only my father’s wife. She was never Momma to me.” Eloise grinned at the humor of it. “She wished only I stayed across the Channel. She left me there long enough. It was only after…”
“Please, Eloise,” Cousin Beatrice implored. “There you go again. Do I have to remind you again not to talk like that? If you didn’t keep reminding everyone about your birth, one might overlook the slight oversight of your father.”
“You talk as if I’m a bastard, Cousin Beatrice. I do believe Father married my mama much to the chagrin of all.”
“I should wash my hands clean of you with that tongue of yours.”
“But you can’t.”
“No, my child, I can’t.”
“Don’t worry about me, Cousin Beatrice,” Eloise said, albeit a bit more quietly. “But I have no desire to talk of it here.”
“When, Eloise? I have not pressed you. Not when you released Sir Joseph. Not when you refused a season. Is it your desire to become an irritable old maid, destined to travel from one relative home to another? To have no children or husband of your own?”
“All have a different course in life to follow,” Eloise said flatly. She found the retort difficult to utter, feeling as though the words actually burned in her lungs. Pressing her lips together, her mind raced. “And I allowed Julia to launch me into Society. I only refused to stay for the whole of the season.”
"You stayed but a week, my dear."
Suddenly a movement from the far end of the ballroom caught her eyes. Her eyebrows rose slightly. “I do believe that Her Grace is motioning for me. It seems little Lucie has escaped the nursery, if my eyes do not deceive me. I told…”
“Oh, no, you don’t,” Cousin Beatrice said, overriding Eloise. “I will see to your youngest sister and find her governess. What I would ever do if any of you ever minded! If you go, you won’t return. Susanna wants you here. Thank heaven for at least one of your father’s offspring to have the sense of mind to listen. Now, promise me, my dear, you won’t disappear…”
“I will see to her welfare, Lady Marichone.”
Eloise opened her mouth to politely decline the offer from the gentleman’s voice behind her and then realized when she turned that the gentleman stood by her brother. The stranger towered over Edmund and commanded immediate attention with his bearing. Dressed with impeccable elegance with his striped nut-brown coat and breeches, his waistcoat was of silver tissue and embroidered to coordinate with his coat.
His face was ruggedly handsome with a semblance of a scar directly over his right eye. His sculpted cheekbones and strong jaw left little doubt of his masculinity. Her eyes soaked in the sight of his broad shoulders and chest, and followed the view down to his slim waist and hips. He wore no wig, but tied his light brown hair at his neck. His piercing blue eyes looked at her and she looked right back.
“Lord Lenister.” Cousin Beatrice gave a slight bob. Her age and knees allowed no more. “It is good to see you again. And you, also, Edmund.”
“Cousin Beatrice, allow us to oversee Eloise for the moment,” Edmund intervened and stepped forward, evident in his manner he found all amusing. Eloise raised her chin in defiance. “Good evening, Eloise. Julia sent me to find you. May I present to you his lordship, Lord Gerard, Earl of Lenister.”
“Lord Lenister,” Eloise said, sinking into a deep curtsy before the Earl of Lenister. She curtsied again in front of her brother.
“Lady Eloise,” Lenister said simply. “A lovely night for the festivities. I hope you have enjoyed them.”
“Extremely so,” she said. Her eyes flickered back over at her brother. He gave her a large grin. Without a doubt, she was in the middle of a conspiracy.
“Then do me the pleasure of the next dance,” Lenister offered. He had a deep voice…challenging voice. The timing to his request faltered when the music paused.
Eloise tilted her head to the side and glanced back at the earl. “It seems that the orchestra is breaking for the moment. It does look as if someone broke a string. Whatever will Her Grace, the Dowager, do! I will have to see if I can offer my services. I’m certain when they begin again I will find…”
“And give you an opportunity to escape?” Lenister said. “I’m afraid you have me by your side until the time it begins again.”
A retort laid on her lips, but to her dismay she found both her brother and Cousin Beatrice had disappeared. “Come now, Lady Eloise, there are certainly worse fates than being left within my care.”
“Did you lose a wager with my brother, my lord, to have to endure such a fate? I will tell him you did your best. It will be quite understandable to have failed with one such as I.”
“I’m not one who concedes easily, my lady.” He looked her directly in the face. “I’m one who has come to the conclusion that you are not destined for any other fate than one that you have decided upon.”
“Meaning, you do not pity me that my younger sister has married. Lord Lenister, most would find I’m destined to be an old maid, by all accounts.”
“Most have not released their fiancé from their arrangement and in the most extraordinary turn of events, her sister marries the fellow.”
“It was a far better solution, I assure you, my lord. My father, in his wisdom, deemed a connection to Sir Joseph value to the family. Unfortunately, the elder Lord Wessex felt pressure, I'm afraid, when it came to me being the string to bind the tie," Eloise told him.
"Then it is my gain."
Eloise raised an eyebrow. "I assume, Lord Lenister, that you find noble marriages a matter of precedence and fiscal responsibility. Practical and logical."
"Yes, logic would bode well in any marriage." He said his words simply, without a trace of sarcasm. He had the look of a man who lacked a sense of humor.
"And you have experience to your wisdom?"
The corner of his mouth quirked upward. "Alas, no. I have never found the time. I have been away from England for years serving in His Majesty’s army. I have only recently returned. I'm taken back a tad with your question. I thought all would have been common knowledge."
"For an aging old maid? I suppose I should beg your forgiveness for my ignorance."
"Touché, Mademoiselle Granville. I would never consider you ignorant by any means. I stand in marvel at your accomplishments.” Lord Lenister raised his arm as the orchestra had taken their places once more.
Eloise felt her mouth slip open and snapped her teeth together. He had rattled off his last words in perfect French. A distinct feeling encompassed her. Although her knowledge of Lord Lenister was limited at best, he knew of her. Tentatively, she accepted his arm and walked toward the dance floor.
Despite her misgivings, Eloise enjoyed herself immensely. The opportunity didn't present itself often for her to dance, nor would she likely admit she enjoyed the activity. As the music died, his hand lay on hers to escort her off the floor and the whole of her body tingled. To her dismay, she felt her face flush with a sudden warmth.
“Let us retire to the drawing room. I will attend to your refreshment if you promise not to disappear on me. I would hate to scourge the house such as this one for you.” He smiled. The shape of his mouth caught her attention. A slight smile formed on his lips, an arrogant smile much as if he realized the effect he had upon her. Then he added, “But I would.”
Once more, she felt herself at a distinct disadvantage. She eyed him cautiously and then dismissed her apprehension. It would matter little in the morning, she told herself. What harm could come from an innocent flirtation with a handsome man? In all likelihood, she would never see him again.
She nodded politely and allowed him to lead her to a seat near the large vaulted window, which gave her a full view of the crowded room of unfamiliar faces. She gave little thought to the guests. Without question, Lord Lenister held her interest. She watched him walk out the door. She wondered for the moment why was he dispensing attention upon her. She quickly dismissed flattery…that his attraction to her lay with her appearance.
She had long ago comprehended her birth presented a large obstacle to overcome in the eyes of the ton, even with the title of Lady Eloise D’Arcy Granville, the daughter of the late His Grace, the fifth Duke of Rotheward. She glanced around the large room while she waited. Then suddenly a strange feeling surged through her as if someone were watching her.
She turned her head abruptly and met the avid eyes of a man standing in the far doorway. He was a short middle-aged man, dowdy, in fact, with red pudgy cheeks, but without question he eyed her intently. He had a familiar look. Then to her horror, his face brightened and gave her a weak smile.
Panic welled within her with the comprehension of why he seemed familiar. Calm. Stay calm. Surely he would not acknowledge me. Eloise maintained her composure as she sat rigid without a hint of emotion, while desperately trying to assess the situation. Her gaze held firm upon the man. Then he made a step forward toward her, halting only when Lord Lenister entered back into the room.
The stranger nodded to the earl. Eloise straightaway recognized a look between acquaintances. Although for the life of her she didn’t understand the stranger’s presence, she understood the need to withdraw…and quickly.
She rose and gathered up her skirt. With great effort, she exited in a dignified manner out the open side door to the veranda. The warm night gave pause to more than a few guests cluttering the terrace. Ignoring the beauty of the decorative scene, she scurried down the steps into the garden. She escaped only to the far entrance where she collapsed upon a bench.
“Why are you running?”
Her head lowered. She chose not to answer. What good would an explanation do when the words would go unheeded? And what did she owe this man…this stranger?
Lord Lenister stalked up to her and pulled her to her feet. “I asked you a question, Lady Eloise.”
“I needed fresh air, my lord. Nothing more. Pray, release me. You are hurting my arm. I wish nothing more than to retire.”
“And run again? There is to be no more running. I suspected such before my appearance here tonight. Confirmed by vicomte’s identification. Did you not think that you might be recognized eventually, my dear?”
“I have only a few months more to contend with these functions and then…”
“Then what? What exactly do you have in mind?” Both his hands gripped tightly her shoulders. She had no choice but to look him straight in his eyes.
“Why is it a concern of yours, Monsieur? Why do my actions concern you?” Frazzled, she broke into her native French.
He answered her back the same. “Because I need your help, Mademoiselle. I need your help.”