The Heart of Now
Book One of the ‘Fire In My Heart’ Series
Copyright 2015 C. L Bush.
Published by C. L. Bush at Shakespir
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© 2015 Copyright
TABLE OF CONTENTS
All was quiet as Lawrence Sheridan walked up from the library late one spring evening. At twenty-five he was young and fit and had just spent the night with a bottle of Madeira and a good book.
His father lamented him not enjoying his youth, but Laurie could tell he appreciated that he handled responsibility well as he was heir to Waltham, an estate of some 5,000 acres.
Laurie’s younger brother Theodelphus, at fifteen lacked all that Laurie had in terms of temperament and good sense Edmund Sheridan had said. It was only two years ago that Laurie reconciled with his father over his marriage to his stepmother. Edmund, at fifty-seven, had married the eighteen year old Cecilia and six months later she gave birth to Theo. If it wasn’t for the Sheridan gray eyes, many would suspect that child wasn’t his.
Laurie thought about this as he walked up the steps to his room, pleased with another pleasant evening with his father.
As he reached the second floor of the west wing he paused. Something smelled off. Smoke, yes because it was spring the fires would be lit. But it was stronger than normal.
Following his nose he rounded the corner and saw it.
The smoke was seeping out under the door of an unused guest room. He was surprised as the room wasn’t in use and thinking it could possibly be a clogged flue, Laurie opened the door. Flames licked at the entire room as the thick smoke enveloped him and stole his breath.
He quickly tried to close the door, but not quick enough as the renewed oxygen fueled the fire. The room had already been fully alight and now, the fully engulfed flames followed him in to the hall, setting the carpet on fire. Before Laurie even had time to wonder why this room was on fire, he realized that the situation was out of control and the whole wing was at risk of going up.
Laurie quickly ran down the hall, yelling at the top of his lungs that there was a fire. Servants and his stepmother ran in to the hall as he yelled for a servant to notify the fire brigade while he directed the others to exit. He grabbed the butler and his valet, Billingsworth, to help with buckets of water and to prevent the spreading of the fire to the rest of the house.
As Laurie started pouring the water, he realized it was useless. He quickly told Billingsworth and the butler, Thompson, that they needed to exit and make sure that everyone was safe while they waited for the fire brigade.
Leaving the smoke and exiting to the group outside he saw his stepmother was in hysterics. After enquiring what the situation was, he found out that her lady’s maid was still inside. His stepmother was ranting that the maid had been using the unused room for a tryst with one of the other servants.
He quickly asked Thompson, if everyone was accounted for and got a response that they were still counting. Knowing it was the only way to calm his stepmother and that he couldn’t allow an innocent woman to burn when he could rescue her, Laurie grabbed a piece of cloth, covered his mouth and ran back into the burning west wing.
He got as far as the stairs before the smoke reached him. As he tried to navigate through the thick smoke, he started climbing to the first floor. The smoke was lighter here, but still had the ability to make him cough.
He knew the maid usually was in his stepmother’s room at night because she slept on a cot in the dressing room, but if she were having a tryst as his stepmother said, he had best check the main area where the fire had started to see if he could spot her.
As climbed to the second floor and he headed in that direction he was met with fire. It was all around him – climbing up the curtains, on the carpet, burning through the tables along the wall. The fire was spreading so fast there wouldn’t be much of a west wing left by the time the fire brigade got there.
Laurie realized the situation was hopeless. He turned to go back, but at once he saw that the fire had already spread behind him. The curtains had fallen, swinging to light ones further down the wall on fire, setting more of the carpet alight as well.
He could feel the flames starting to burn his hair. The side of his face was getting hot. Knowing there was no other choice, he ducked his head and ran through the wall of raining debris, still lit with flames that licked out at him. He could feel their white hot fingers melting his flesh.
As he reached the other side he tried to scream. There was no air left in his lungs. They felt burnt. He knew he needed to move, but fear and pain were freezing him in place. Just as he thought to give up, he found one final breath and groped to get up only to find Billingsworth there grabbing his arm.
He felt his valet pulling him down the stairs making it down to the first floor, all the while the blinding pain making him want to scream,. Coughs racked his body.
Once outside he collapsed into Billingsworth’s arms and the man laid him down on the ground while calling to the housekeeper to bring water and bandages. The aged woman rushed over as fast as a girl of twenty and poured water on Laurie’s fresh wounds.
He felt himself fading into darkness, but he had just enough strength to grab Billingsworth’s hand and ask “My father?”
Billingsworth gave him a long look and said, “Sir, we will take it as it comes.”
The last thing that Laurie remembered was the burning pain of his skin as they peeled his clothes off of him… and the burning in his heart knowing that his father was gone. He let the blackness consume him.
Lawrence woke with a strangled cry. The memories of that day long ago came flooding back to him after the nightmare he just had. The feel of the fire burning his skin and the gasping when he tried to pull air in his lungs, only pulling in smoke. He took a minute to breath in and out, reminding himself that it was six years ago and that the nightmare was over. He glanced over at the nightstand and saw that Billingsworth had left him a glass of water.
Billingsworth, his valet, had been with him since he was out of Oxford. He had nursed him through his injuries from the fire and been there to guide him through learning to be the new owner of a massive estate. Billingsworth had also been his constant confidant during the last six years Laurie had been outside of society.
The burns that marred his face were a constant reminder to all of what he had survived… and what he had lost that one night.
Lawrence Sheridan was the current owner of Waltham Estate in Kent. The estate, which was passed to him unexpectedly in 1810 when he was just twenty-five, held 5000 acres of woods, farmland and tenants. His father died in that fire in 1810, just six years ago.
The whole west wing of the estate had to be rebuilt. Lawrence, himself, was seriously burned and almost died at the same time. He had rushed back in to save his stepmother’s lady’s maid after his hysterical stepmother’s screams indicated the maid was still in the building.
Laurie had never found the maid, she had already exited the building, but he did find fire. Enough to burn the side of his face, neck and upper shoulder before Billingsworth had found him and pulled him out to safety. His father wasn’t so lucky.
It was officially reported as death by accidental fire. Lawrence knew better. His father was murdered and he was determined to find out who did it.
Billingsworth came in to see to dressing him. “Good morning Sir, shall I have them bring up breakfast to the dining room for you?”
“Yes please, I need to leave as soon as possible to arrive in London in enough time to catch that wayward brother of mine.”
Mr. Theodelphus Sheridan was the younger half-brother of Laurie and a renowned gambler and dandy. According to Lawrence’s solicitor, Theo was up to his eyes in debts from gambling and tradesman bills. He was also in danger of getting thrown out of his club if he didn’t pay his debts soon.
Laurie was determined to go and talk to him and remind him of the family name and how he should be handling his bills. He would bail him out one more time, but that was it.
Billingsworth helped his six foot frame into his clothing and he grabbed a quick bite of toast and tea, he climbed into his coach. He saw that his trunk was attached to the back and he grumbled at having to go into Town. This was the first time he had gone to London since the fire six years ago and he regretted he had to go at all.
At first he had kept away from Town because he was recovering. After that it was learning how to handle the massive estate left to him, so he didn’t have time. Once that had been taken care of, he simply didn’t want to face the stares and comments regarding his scars and his loss.
He knew society discussed him and he had received many offers to visit friends over the last years. He just couldn’t stir himself to leave what was comfortable. All that coupled with rebuilding the west wing, kept him busy the last years and gave him something to focus on instead of the constant need to find out what really happened that early spring night.
In fact that last thought consumed him more often than not.
When he finally arrived at his brothers rooms, he left the coach and instructed his driver to head to his Townhome on Curzon Street. He knew his housekeeper, butler and Billingsworth would have things well in hand to get him set up. He didn’t want to miss his brother when he came back from whatever haunt he was at tonight.
After gaining entrance and being shown the way to his brother’s door, Laurie knocked. Velmont, Theo’s man, opened the door. Laurie inquired as to where his brother was, took a seat on the couch, accepted a glass of sherry, and sat down for a long wait.
After three hours of waiting, Theo finally wandered in.
When Theo saw Laurie he was not pleased. Pulling a face he said, “Oh it’s you. What are you doing here? I thought you never came to Town. Came to rub it in that you have all the money did you?”
Laurie had a pained face. He knew that Theo disliked him, but the shock of the hate always hit him like a brick after a long time away. If only his brother wasn’t so poisoned by his mother. That woman could make any sane man crazy with her venom.
“Theo you know that isn’t the case. I’ve received word that you are up to your eyes in tradesmen’s bills and gambling debts. This must stop before you ruin the family name. You know your allowance and must seek to live to that.”
Theo looked ready to punch him. Instead he spit out, “If you increased it instead of hoarding all the money then I could live as I am accustomed to. Instead you keep it all and leave me to wallow in poverty.”
Laurie sighed, still frustrated that he couldn’t get through to this man who was his blood, but couldn’t have been more far from family.
“Theo, I will not give you more money to just waste. You must learn and prove that you can spend wisely before I will increase your allowance. We are brothers and I hate when we fight.”
Theo actually looked surprised at this admission. “Since when have you treated me like a brother? Get out and leave. I will sort my own mess out. I don’t need help from you. My mother was right. You only like to lord over us and throw the family money in our faces. I should have been heir and you know it so you punish me now.”
Laurie sighed again. He paused a moment to collect his thoughts and come to terms with the fact that his brother wasn’t going to listen. Once Theo started spouting about his mother, Laurie knew the cause was lost.
In the last six years, Laurie had only seen Theo once a year when he would come to visit the family estate to ask for an increase in his allowance. Laurie had always hoped that would be an opportunity to get to know each other better, but Theo would always bring his mother. Laurie’s stepmother, who had hated him on first sight, would spend the ensuing fortnight complaining about how the family money was wasted on him and the estate should have gone to her son.
Despite having a large widow’s allowance, the use of the Dower house on the property and her own Townhouse in London, she still felt that she should have been given more. She always had resented that she was “sold” by her father to Edmund Sheridan and felt she should have been given her due for dealing with him for the sixteen years they were married.
After a few moments of thinking and allowing Theo to calm down, Laurie said, “I will help you this one time, but from here on out you must learn to manage your money.”
This incited Theo again, embarrassed because he needed his brother to bail him out like he was a child. “Fine whatever you want, just get out. Thank you for helping me, but know that it is only our duty as the head of the household now.”
Laurie rose and went to shake Theo’s hand, but Theo rebuffed him and turned away. Laurie walked out the door knowing that his brother would never change.
After arriving at his Townhouse, he changed from his traveling clothes and sat down for a cup of coffee and the London newspaper at the desk in his library. Within a few minutes Thompson, his butler, arrived with a letter on a silver platter.
“Already? I’ve only just arrived and already I’ve receiving invitations?”
With a frustrated grunt Laurie grabbed the envelope and slit it open. It was an invitation to dinner that evening by Augusta Livingston, his mother’s dearest friend. How she had found out he was coming to Town he would never know, but somehow she did. And damn he would have to make an appearance or risk hurting one of his mother’s closest friends and a woman who had been a part of his life since he was a child.
For the first nine years of his life he had regularly spent the holidays with the Livingston’s at their country estate, Kennet Hall. When his mother passed and the same year his father quickly married Cecilia, those holidays stopped and the security that he had known faded with the hate that was spouted on a daily basis until he left to attend school.
Knowing he had avoided that part of his past for enough time, he decided right then and there to make this small dinner the first step into coming back into the world again.
With that thought in mind, he rose and called to Thompson to let Billingsworth know he needed to dress. He was going out into London for the first time in six years. He needed to make sure everything was perfect.
Franny perched on the edge of the couch in her Aunt Augusta’s drawing room and looked in worry at her cousin Lucy.
Aunt Augusta was a fifty-three year old windstorm. When she wanted something she got it. As a member of the ton, London’s premier upper class society consisting of nobility and gentlemen and ladies, Aunt Augusta had the ability to be invited to everywhere and anywhere, but tonight she had chosen to hold a small dinner party in honor of her niece who had just come out at eighteen.
Now eighteen is usually a bit later than normal, but Franny’s parents had long forgotten about their last child and focused on the older siblings that gave them such pride. This didn’t bother Franny as it allowed her the freedom for walks and books and not the pressures of society.
Francis Hudley was painfully shy. With red hair, green eyes and a clear complexion she was comely, but her spectacles were often a bone of contention with her aunt and mother who wanted to see her married not reading. Her father was a gentlemen and it should stand that she should be married well they believed.
After four children, she had come as a late surprise. Franny was ten years younger than her youngest sibling. Her parents had wanted another boy and in their disappointment with a girl, assumed that the name Francis would work for a girl as well.
Now that her sisters were married, she had gained more attention from her parents then she ever had before and she didn’t know how to handle it. Her mother nitpicked every part of her personality, form and clothing. Her father commented regularly on her inability to remove her nose from a book and her always hiding in the woods, taking long walks. Despite this, she suffered on, learning after years how to hide and avoid attention.
After a winter of frustration to her parents, her aunt had insisted she come visit her and her cousin Lucy in London for a season and have her coming out. That is how she found herself where she was now. In her aunt’s drawing room listening to her discuss how fifty people equaled a small dinner party.
Lucy Livingston understood what Franny was going through. As her dearest friend and cousin, she had her own come out three years ago at seventeen. At the time she wanted nothing more than to hide away and pray it was over. After two full seasons out in society now, she had come to enjoy the symmetry that came with how society operated.
Though she was out for two years now, Lucy wasn’t married yet. She, like Franny was shy and enjoyed books far too much to attract a man. The plays, musicales, balls and nights at Almack’s were entertaining to her, but most nights she wanted to curl up in her bed with a candle and a good book. She had learned, though, to converse and actually came out of her shell quite a bit since her debut. She was now regarded as having a quick wit and for being an enjoyable conversationalist.
Her mother disagreed with that practice and saw this party as a means to get both girls out into the light and find them husbands.
Whether they wanted to or not.
“But you simply must wear the white dress. It is how it is done Franny,” Aunt Augusta said in a strong voice. “Lucy you will wear the pale pink.”
“But Mama I hate pink,” Lucy said, with a coy smile.
“You will wear what I say or you will not find a husband.”
“Mama as much as I want to make you happy, please know that finding a husband is not high on my list.” Lucy enjoyed banter with her mother. After nearly three years out, she had mastered exactly what to say to push her mother.
Aunt Augusta looked shocked. She knew Lucy felt this way, of course, as she heard it regularly, but that Lucy would say it in front of impressionable Franny was too much.
“What will your cousin think?” Aunt Augusta asked in shock. “You must not speak this way. She is young and she needs to make a brilliant match. We both know her brother doesn’t have two cents in his head and will waste the family fortune before she is even half way to old and gray. Without a husband she will be reduced to charity!”
“She will think as she always does, Mama. She has her own mind,” Lucy said airily, smiling even broader.
Aunt Augusta humphed. “I see what you are doing Lucy and I will not allow you to wind me up. She will find a husband as well if she knows what is right for her. He father won’t last forever and her brother doesn’t have a thought in his head for anything but horses and cards.”
“Hopefully my brother will find an intelligent wife who will help guide him,” Franny said. “Perhaps we can focus on finding him a wife this season instead of myself a husband.”
“That isn’t to happen Franny and you know it. You are in the pot now and you will be cooked thoroughly before released. Now off to get dressed girls!”
Aunt a pulled the cord and informed the maid that the ladies were off to get dressed.
Franny couldn’t help but think with trepidation about the night that was to come as she and Lucy were dressing. While her maid was putting up her hair, she tried to come up with ideas on how to handle conversation. Franny was known to stutter and freeze when approached by someone directly to talk – man or woman.
Knowing that she had to practice, she asked her cousin to come in and work with her a bit while she was finishing up dressing.
Lucy looked lovely. Despite needling her mother, she wore the pale pink as requested and it suited her coloring quite well. Lucy would never be a true beauty, but once you learned to see look past her plain looks and saw her heart, her real attractiveness shined through.
“What shall we discuss?” Lucy asked as she sat on Franny’s bed and smoothed out her dress. Wrinkles would not go over well with her mother.
“I need to prepare topics to discuss with people. I have no idea what normal conversation sounds like and I always tend to freeze or stutter. My red hair doesn’t help as I flush and look like a ripe tomato.” Both ladies laughed at the picture of Franny as a ripe tomato.
“Well, normal topics will be the weather, fashion and current gossip. For you I think sticking to the weather would be safest and easiest. Don’t worry I will be there with you the whole night to ease your way into conversation.”
With a sigh of relief and a calming look on her face, Franny thanked her cousin profusely.
“Of course, if you get overwhelmed you can always go and hide in the library,” Lucy said mischievously. “Mama will never know and I can send a maid to let you know when to come back in before dinner. No one will know you are gone!”
“What a fantastic idea! I think I shall do that no matter what.” Franny laughed and thought of the peace she found in that paneled room filled with books and the smells of leather and paper and ink.
“Let us agree on a sign so that I can distract Mama when you decide to slip out.”
“Perhaps I can sneeze, delicately of course,” Franny suggested.
“That sounds like the perfect sign. You can leave the room to attend to your needs and slip off and be gone before anyone realizes. I will distract Mama during the time and redirect her to others. She won’t even know you are gone!”
Both ladies spent the next hour chatting about the party and the expectations of the night. With a steadier countenance and calmer face, Franny was ready to handle her first dinner party.
Laurie arrived at the house on South Audley Street in his coach with trepidation.
Augusta Livingston didn’t host small dinner parties. Her idea of small was a house full. He didn’t expect less than fifty people there. He knew well enough he had to get back into society eventually and guessed there wouldn’t be a better opportunity that in the home of a family friend.
With a deep breath, he opened the door to his coach and stepped out. While he walked up the steps. The footman held the door open for him. He handed him his coat, hat and gloves and glanced once more in the mirror to make sure his long brown hair covered the right side of his face, ear and neck. That is where the most visible of the burns were so he wore his hair unfashionably long to help hide them.
He was lead to the drawing room and saw Aunt Augusta leave a group of people to rush over and greet him.
He always referred to her as that, Aunt Augusta, because she insisted upon it. She had always said his mother and she were more like sisters than her own sister and she were.
“Well my boy, you have finally come back into the light,” Augusta said with a smile, her face lighting at the fact that she was able to ensnare him to accept her invitation, knowing that he had been hiding from society for the last years.
“Yes I guess you could call it that. Just don’t let it shine too brightly.” Laurie said with a grunt and a smile.
Augusta laughed. “I’ve missed your wit. Now tell me are you here in Town long? Do you plan on looking for a wife finally?”
Laurie was annoyed, but no less surprised. Augusta was a notorious matchmaker and she, of course, would set her eyes on him immediately as a catch. With his family fortune, he would be a much sought after match – despite his scars. But then again, money didn’t guarantee happiness.
“No woman would marry me and well you know it,” Laurie said gruffly, his face clouding at the thought of anyone being able to love him.
“Oh Laurie. I hope to change your mind. Now have a glass and mingle. My daughter is over there and my niece, Francis, is somewhere around here as well. You are among friends so enjoy yourself please,” she said and then was off in a whirl of purple skirts. She was past her year of mourning already, but yet she still kept to the mourning colors in her clothing choices to signify her love and her loss in her dear husband.
Laurie looked around the room and spotted Lucy Livingston. Having grown up together, there was always a speculation that their mothers would try and pair them up. That had never happened, but Laurie had always admired Lucy’s wit. She was a shy thing to be sure, but he was one of the few that she could open up to and feel comfortable around.
Despite the family’s no longer sharing holidays together when his father remarried, once Laurie had gone off to Oxford he ran into Lucy Livingston out at a play in Drury Lane when he was twenty-one. Upon that meeting it was if the lost years had never happened and the two had kept in contact afterwards, with him coming to call on Lucy and her family whenever he was in Town.
But when the fire happened and the aftermath of pain and rebuilding his life, Laurie had reduced their contact to just the occasional letter. Not wanting to remind himself of what life had been before everything had been changed so drastically.
Now that he was back in Town he was glad that he could once again take up the visits of his youth and hopefully seek refuge in the familiar.
“Does the damsel need rescuing?”
“Laurie!!” Lucy fair jumped in happiness and beamed up at him. “I didn’t know you were coming into Town!”
“I am here to take care of my dreadful brother’s debts and nothing more. It seems I cannot escape my first time in Town, though, without an invitation from your mother.”
Lucy smiled. “Of course you can’t. But how long have you been in Town? How long are you staying? His mother tried to make a match for you yet?”
Laurie couldn’t help but chuckle at her exuberance despite the fact that she was known as being very shy. “To answer your questions in order. I’ve been in Town less than a day. I’m not sure yet how long I plan on staying. And though she hasn’t suggested anyone other than you or your cousin, I have no doubt that your mother has someone already in mind for me.”
“Laurie you mustn’t mind her. Mother only just wants to make everyone happy. She seems to think that the only way to happiness is through matrimony. But I can see that you are uncomfortable here and I know you are overwhelmed, so rest assured if you need to escape a bit before dinner I will distract mama so you can hide in the library.”
Laurie gave her a grateful smile saying, “That is just the thing I need. Thank you.”
While Lucy went off to speak to her mother, Laurie slipped out of the room and down the hall to the well-stocked and blissfully quiet library he remembered as a young man.
Franny did not want to go to a dinner party.
Her aunt had insisted, but she just couldn’t handle all those people looking at her. And wanting to make conversation. Why she didn’t even know what to say! How did her aunt expect her to find a husband when she couldn’t even talk to a man?
She had hidden in the library as soon as she saw her aunt was distracted. Picking up her favorite book, Gulliver’s Travels, and hiding in a chair facing away from the door, she sighed in contentment at the warmth of the fire and the peace of the room and started to read.
She knew she had an hour before dinner and made sure the clock was clearly visible so she wouldn’t be late. It wouldn’t do to have Aunt Augusta find out she had been hiding simply by inadvertence.
She was just into chapter two when she heard the door open and turned in surprise to let the maid know that she would be there in a minute. She had told Lucy she would watch the clock and there was no need to send anyone after her in reminder. She glanced at the clock, not thinking an hour had passed so quickly.
But instead of her cousin’s lady maid, Franny was shocked to see a tall, handsome man walking into the room instead. Her words died on her lips and seeing his surprised look as well, she didn’t even think as the words “Who are you and what are you doing here?” spilled out.
Laurie paused, unsure of who this woman was. It was obvious she was comfortable in the room and she dressed as a lady. But with him just reentering society, it wouldn’t do for him to be in a room alone with a young woman whether he knew her or not.
“My apologies miss. Miss Livingston had said I could seek refuge in here from her mother prior to dinner. She knows I don’t like conversation much.”
He noticed the young woman was reading in a chair with her spectacles on. Normally he thought spectacles weren’t attractive on a woman, but he found them quite lovely as they perched on her little nose with her green eyes slightly enlarged through the glass and the cooper rims matching the shine from her radiant red hair.
Franny smiled and her face lit up at the prospect of dearest Lucy providing refuge to another as well as herself from Aunt Augusta.
“Lucy is well known as a savior for those who are ill used to conversation. Please do come in. I know we haven’t been introduced, but I am sure that will be rectified later. I am Francis Hudley, Mrs. Livingston’s niece and Lucy is my cousin.”
Laurie paused at the door, “Really miss, we shouldn’t be alone together…”
“Oh fiddlesticks, if you sit in this chair here, no one will know you’re even here.”
Laurie couldn’t disagree with her assessment and, after a moment’s pause, came in the room and closed the door. He knew it was against propriety rules, but he had grown up in this house and felt as if he was one of the family – despite his long absence.
He considered if he should sit on the chair right next to her, but instead choose the one facing her by the fire so that he could see the light play on her face.
He was immediately intrigued by this young woman who spoke so endearingly of a woman he had known most of his life. She was slender in a white dress that showed off her creamy skin and vibrant hair in the glowing light of the fire and the sconces on the wall. His eyes couldn’t help traveling around the space of her face and landing on her pink rosebud lips.
After moment he mentally shook himself out of his reverie and said, “Ahh yes the famous niece who had her coming out a year late.”
Franny bristled at the comment but tried to calm herself. “Well it wasn’t my choice, please know that.”
Laurie laughed, taken in by her anger and marveling at the flush in her cheeks. “Good to hear! I hate when people try to dictate my life as well and it’s refreshing to find a woman who doesn’t think just about dresses and bonnets.”
As he laughed, Franny saw his face change and she thought he became even more handsome. She faltered when speaking for just a moment, stunned by the gray eyes that sparkled with humor. Why was it this man, who was so like any other, didn’t make her stutter and want to hide and shy away?
As she stared, she took in his form in a glance. He was tall, quite tall actually, and wore his clothing well. He obviously employed a good valet as his cravat was tied to perfection, his coat brushed and his shoes shined so she was sure she could probably see herself in them. His hair was a deep brown and hung down, just skimming his shoulders. She could see his eyes as she glanced up at his face. A cool gray met her and she lost herself in their depth.
“I’d much rather read then think about fashion to be honest. Many men find an intelligent mind in a woman a bad thing, but I disagree,” she said, feeling bold.
“I find I agree with you on that part. I know far too many men who are without a thought in their head and need a strong woman to guide them. If only Theo would let that happen.” Laurie mumbled the last part, thinking about his brother.
She heard him but chose to ignore the comment, though it peaked an interest in her mind as to who this ‘Theo’ was.
“What are you reading? If I may ask Miss Hudley?” He gestured to the book in her lap.
“I am reading my favorite book, Gulliver’s Travels,” she said with an impish grin. “I know it’s childish to some, but it still gives me great pleasure to read it.”
“Really? That is mine as well.” Seeing the skeptical look on her face Laurie rushed to assure her he was sincere. “Truly it is. The idea of a large group of small people taking on one large person is such a metaphor for big government. Not to mention the imagination leads me to want to travel.”
“Me as well! Do you not find that it allows you to develop ideas of visiting the most unknown places in the world,” Franny asked wistfully.
“Yes I do,” Laurie smiled and sat back. “Miss Hudley, I think you and I will get on very well.”
After a half hour of discussion regarding their favorite books and plays, the clock on the mantle chimed nine o’clock and they knew it was time to leave their sanctuary for dinner.
“Oh dear! I guess the rest of our conversation will have to wait until a later time.”
They both rose and walked down the hall to the drawing room. When they arrived, Laurie waited a minute or two after Franny had gone in to make sure that propriety was observed and no one knew they had spent the last half hour in each other’s company alone.
Lucy rushed over and asked Laurie to escort her into the dining room. Laurie was about to say that he wished to ask Franny, but then he remembered that they weren’t supposed to have met yet – though he suspected Lucy knew who he had spent the last half hour with. It hadn’t mattered either way. There wasn’t enough time for a proper introduction and he saw another young man approach Franny with the same idea in mind obviously.
Laurie frowned at the thought of the lovely Miss Hudley giving her attentions to another man, but smiled down at Lucy when she drew his attention back to her as he escorted her in. He found that they were to be dinner partners as well. This pleased him, but for a moment he looked down the table with a small sigh as he saw that Miss Hudley was seated next to the gentlemen who walked her in.
There was a feeling in his chest that he couldn’t identify at the sight of the young man slobbering over Miss Hudley’s hand, while her cheeks flushed as red as her fiery hair. He wasn’t sure what this feeling was. It was new and he wasn’t sure he liked it.
After a lovely meal, the women retired to the drawing room while the men had their sherry in the dining room. Laurie kept to himself and grunted answers, trying to rebuff any type of conversation. This worked exceedingly well and he enjoyed his spirits in peace for twenty minutes before the men moved into the drawing room again with the ladies.
Spotting Franny with Lucy, Laurie went over immediately and smiled at them.
“Ah Laurie you are just in time to meet my cousin! Francis Hudley this is Mr. Lawrence Sheridan, one of my favorite people growing up,” Lucy said.
“Only growing up? And here I thought I was your favorite person ever,” Laurie said mockingly with a small smile on his face.
“It is a pleasure to meet you Miss Hudley.” Laurie bowed low after Franny gave him her hand.
“You as well Mr. Sheridan,” Franny said with a smile, trying to hold in her laughter at his obvious attempts to make it seem they were meeting for the first time.
“Oh please you two, stop. I already know you both met in the library so no need to put on an act here,” Lucy said quietly, with a giggle. It wouldn’t do for someone to overhear her and get the wrong idea. That is how scandals first start.
With a sigh of relief Franny laughed. Laurie found it to be one of the sweetest things he had heard in a long time. Smiling to himself he continued to talk to the ladies for the rest of the evening before excusing himself to make his goodbyes to Aunt Augusta and head home. He was enjoying himself immensely, but the day of traveling was catching up with him.
Before walking away, he secured an invitation to call on the ladies the next day. As he walked over and waited for Augusta to be available so he could make his goodbyes, he thought of the interesting Miss Hudley he had met tonight and glanced over at her.
She as looking at him too.
Quickly glancing away, he made his goodbyes to the exuberant Aunt Augusta with the promise that he would call the next morning. After retrieving his coat, hat and gloves, he climbed into his coach and headed to his Townhome on Curzon Street with a smile on his face.
It was then that he realized he had smiled more tonight than he had in the last six years. Perhaps the lovely Miss Hudley had much to do with that.
Franny was anxious to make sure she looked perfect. Half the night she had lain awake thinking about the man she had met last night.
Mr. Sheridan was not only handsome and intelligent, but he listened to her. He also seemed to enjoy and engage in real conversation with her about things other than the weather and the length of sleeves this season. That was a rare thing to find in a man.
“But Lucy what should I talk about? I don’t know what to say!” Franny cried in frustration as she sat at her dressing table waiting for her lady’s made to finish the dressing her unruly head of red curls.
Lucy laughed. “It is only Laurie. You spoke with him at length last night. Simply pick up where you left off. Relax my sweet and you will enjoy yourself.”
Then Lucy’s face turned serious and after a pause she said, “There is one thing you shouldn’t bring up though.”
Franny gave her a concerned look as her maid finished on her hair and she dismissed her with a thank you.
“He has scars?” Franny asked quizzically.
“Surely you saw them last night on the side of his face and neck Franny!”
“I assure you that I wasn’t paying any attention to that. His voice was melodious and his gray eyes were much more captivating,” Franny said with a wistful sigh. “Where did the scars come from though?”
“There was a fire at his estate, Waltham woods, six years ago. He lost his father and was disfigured at the same time. I only know what society had passed around and the bit Mama was able to get out. We hadn’t been close to them since his mother passed away and the old Mr. Sheridan married that harpy of a wife. We had only just reconnected with Laurie a few years prior to the accident after not seeing him since he was ten. Of course, after the accident he was too much busy with recovering from his injuries and learning to manage his estate to keep up with correspondence. I suspect that that was a very dark time for him.”
“What was his new stepmother like?” Franny asked, curious.
“Well Mr. Sheridan, the former, was fifty-seven and she only eighteen at the time of the marriage. . . That, coupled with the fact that she was beautiful on the outside but nothing of the like on the inside, had sealed the deal for Mama. She refused to call on them until Mr. Sheridan got his wife under control.”
Franny frowned. “For Aunt Augusta to cut someone directly means she must have been very difficult indeed.”
“Well, yes. She spent money like water, she spoke without thinking and was brash in her manner. She also delivered a son, Laurie’s half-brother Theodelphus, less than seven months after the wedding,” Lucy said primly.
Franny was shocked. “No! Is it the belief that the child wasn’t her husband’s?”
Lucy smiled grimly, transferring her plain face into a mask of anger. “It was long suspected, but if weren’t for the classic Sheridan gray eyes, the rumor would have gained more ground. No, the child was his, but this only proved that the marriage was more due to her getting into a delicate condition rather than of a love match.”
Franny blushed. As unmarried women they shouldn’t discuss these things, but really to behave in such a manner prior to marriage was shocking indeed!
“Rest assured dear cousin I shan’t bring it up. I am curious for more information about this fire, but we haven’t the time so we shall have to discuss it later.”
The ladies finish getting ready and headed down to the drawing room with their needlework to wait for their callers.
Laurie woke again with the echoing nightmare and the fear choking his throat. He grabbed the glass of water and silently thanked Billingsworth for always being reliable, no matter where they were staying. After a few deep breaths and downing the entire glass of water, Laurie laid back on the pillows and closed his eyes.
Before him was the vision of Miss Hudley. What a charming young lady. He had never met anyone who intrigued him as much. She seemed to have read every book in her parent’s library and had an opinion on everything. Though she claimed to be shy, he found her to be anything but and greatly enjoyed their conversation last night in the library.
It was then that he remembered his promise to call on her and Lucy this morning. With a sigh he glanced at the clock and saw it was still early. He laid back with another sigh, this time of relief and thinking of the curious Miss Hudley again, he drifted off into a dreamless and peaceful sleep. Perhaps the first in many years.
He awoke to the sound of the curtains being opened by Billingsworth.
“Do you have to do that so forcefully?” He replied grumpily. “I was finally getting a peaceful rest –” he paused thinking, that it really was a peaceful rest. That troubled him a bit, but he pushed it aside to address his valet.
“Well Sir, you do have to get up at some point,” Billingsworth said primly, “might as well make it during the daylight hours to accomplish something.”
Laurie laughed. “I should fire you for your cheek.”
“You wouldn’t dare Sir, who would be left then for you to declare your discontent with the world to?” Billingsworth said this so dryly that if Laurie hadn’t known him, he would have thought he were being impertinent.
Laughing again, he rose from his bed and Billingsworth helped him into his robe.
“I need to look especially respectable today, I am making a morning call.”
“A…call, Sir?” Billingsworth asked in shock
“Yes a call. To ladies.” Laurie said smugly, as he heard the brush the old man was using his brush his coat fall to the ground.
“Well.” Was the only reply as the brush was placed on the table and his shaving foam prepared.
He sat in the chair and laid his head back, preparing to be shaved clean. He only hoped he hadn’t shocked the old man so much that he nicked him. Once he was clean and smooth, Billingsworth helped Laurie into his clothing and with his cravat tied to perfection and his shoes place on his feet with his face shining back in them, Laurie was ready for his visit.
“I declare you fit for company, Sir. May the words that come out match the perfection that is on the outside.” Billingsworth declared.
“Billingsworth you are pushing your limit for the morning.”
“Ah but Sir, limits are made to be broken,” he said as he glided into the dressing room to see to his duties.
Chuckling, Laurie headed down to breakfast and sat cheerily reading the paper while eating his morning repast. All during he thought about the shock he had given his valet and the enjoyable call on the lovely Miss Hudley that would happen later that morning.
The first of the morning’s callers for Franny, Lucy and Aunt Augusta were Miss Turlington and her mother, Mrs. Grace Turlington. Angelica Turlington was another young lady having her coming out this season and she and her mother were making their morning rounds.
After ordering tea, the ladies sat and discussed the dinner party the previous evening, or rather Lucy made most of the conversation as Franny wasn’t sure at all what to say. She made attempts to join the conversation, but was only given a quizzical look and after a pause the conversation resumed. Rather than face this continued humiliation, she kept her eyes on her needlework, praying her face wasn’t as red as her hair.
“But I do declare Lord Harrington is the most handsome of gentleman and with 5000 a year, he is only more handsome still!” Miss Angelica Turlington stated, before taking a sip from the delicate teacup.
“Oh my dear, yes he is just the man for you and after last night’s dinner party and the attention he lavished on you, I have no doubt that you shall receive an offer,” said her mother, Mrs. Turlington with the confident air.
Franny had no idea what to say to this. The idea that men were only sought after for their looks and their money was repugnant to her. But then again those were the ways of the ton.
Mustering up her courage, Franny decided to speak, but was only cut off again by the incessant chatter of Miss Turlington and her mother.
“Oh but Mama, just imagine – a summer wedding! Lucy how are your prospects coming? I saw that tall, brooding gentleman paying attention to you last night. I’ve never seen him before who is he?”
“Now, now girls, let’s not gossip,” Aunt Augusta interjected.
Finally having something that she felt comfortable contributing to the conversation, Franny spoke up and said, “That was Mr. Sheridan. Mr. Lawrence Sheridan.”
Mrs. Turlington looked shocked. “Not the disfigured one the one from the fire? I heard that half his face it been melted off and that he was incapable of even feeding himself. The man last night… he looked almost normal. In fact, with his long hair I could barely see any scarring at all.”
Aunt Augusta was fuming by the end of this speech, but she tried hard not to show it. She quickly changed the subject and within a few minutes the Turlington’s were distracted and were on their way to their next call, wishing the ladies a beautiful day on their way out.
“The nerve of some people!” Said Aunt Augusta as she rang for the tea service to be cleared. Her movements were swift and harsh. “Talking about him as if he has some animal at an exhibit.”
“But Mama you knew that this would happen when he finally came back to Town. We must do our best to be the friends that he needs and to help smooth his way back into society to help avoid all this useless and unnecessary gossip.”
Just in that moment the drawing room door opened and the butler, Flitwich, announced, “Mr. Lawrence Sheridan.”
Jumping up from the couch with a cry, Lucy ran and gave him a hug and said, “Oh Lord, what a joy it is to see you.”
“Now, now you see. You know that that isn’t the thing at all now that you both are grown.”
“Sorry Mama,” said Lucy, properly chastised as she walked back to sit primly on the couch.
Laurie, smiling, walked over and gave on Aunt Augusta a peck on the cheek and then turned to Franny. He bowed deeply over her hand and said, “Miss Hudley you are looking lovelier today in the sunshine then you did last night.”
Franny blushed to the roots of her hair, but grand smile showed on her lips. “Mr. Sheridan, and how has your day been Sir?”
“I have actually come meaning to ask if you lovely ladies would enjoy a ride in the park this afternoon. I’ve brought my coach so there will be room for us all.”
“That would be fantastic. All the sunshine and the air,” said Lucy. “What do you think Franny and Mama?”
“I am far too old to be seen gallivanting around Hyde Park with a handsome young man. No, no you must take these ladies out Laurie and let them be seen! The season is young and husbands still need to be found. I am determined this year.”
“Fantastic, well then ladies I will wait for you outside at your pleasure.” And with that Laurie rose and gave Aunt Augusta another peck on the cheek as she patted his hand and reminded him to call again soon. He promised he would and headed out to the entryway. He was handed his hat, coat and gloves and walked down the stairs to await the ladies and his coach.
Franny and Lucy rung the bell and instructed the footman to have their pelisses and bonnets brought down. Suddenly realizing that she would be alone but for Lucy with this man who seemed to steal her every attention, Franny was a ball of nerves.
“Lucy what am I to talk about? What if I see his scar in the sunlight? Should I say something? I can’t get it out of my head… what Mrs. Turlington said.”
“You will do nothing of the sort,” said Lucy. “He is a family friend and we are only going for ride in the park. La dee da, if I can be calm about this so can you.”
As the butler and the footman helped them into their pelisses, Franny couldn’t help but feel as if a door was opening that couldn’t be closed.
Stepping through the door held open by a footmen, the ladies descended the steps to see a beautiful coach and four with an open carriage. Laurie waited and handed each lady in and saw them seated. He then took the rear facing seat as to avoid any possibility of the ride affecting the ladies delicate constitutions.
“What a beautiful day,” said Franny after Lucy nudged her secretly in the ribs with her elbow. “Thank you again for inviting us.”
“Please call me Laurie.”
“Oh no, Sir. I couldn’t.”
“It’s true that society does require that we remain to the formal standards, but in private could we not use our Christian names? Surely we have shared enough about ourselves last night to feel comfortable with that?”
“Well I suppose,” Franny said, looking at Lucy for confirmation.
“You won’t hear a peep of censure from me,” Lucy said confidently.
Laurie directed the coachman to take them through the park as they admired the lush greenery and flowering blooms of the season. The weather was light and crisp and perfect for a day out.
“Laurie we are going to ball at the Turlington’s on Friday evening with Mama. Can we count on you being there?”
“Lucy,” Laurie sighed. “I’ve only just arrived yesterday and it is my first time coming out in so long.”
“I know, but it will be jolly fun. And you can escort Franny as Mr. Laurels is to escort me and Lord Halligan, Miss Turlington.” She’d rushed on to say, “Mama would like it.”
Taking a quick look at Franny, Laurie was torn. To make a scene dancing with Miss Hudley, a young debutant after being away for so long or to hide away from society? To go would mean he was firmly out on the marriage mart.
“What would you like Miss Hudley?”
Franny blushed. “I should like to see how you dance Sir.”
Laughing, Laurie finally relented. “All right, I shall be there. Do have your mother send me the particulars, Lucy.”
“Then it’s settled! Now Laurie, do tell us what you’ve been up to these last five years? Your letters are so droll and I would like to know more about how Waltham is doing. I miss the gardens in the summer immensely.”
“Well we’ve got some new tenants and I’ve been seeing to a new enterprise in possibly mining.” Laurie paused. “And of course the west wing has been rebuilt.”
With that statement it was as if a bucket of water had been thrown on Lucy. “I’m sorry Laurie. I wasn’t thinking.”
He put out a hand to comfort her and then remembered they were in public. “Not at all Lucy. Miss Hudley I don’t know if you were aware of the fire at my estate six years ago.”
“I have heard little Sir,” Franny said, fudging the truth to save the remembrance of the uncomfortable conversation just an hour before.
“Six years ago a questionable fire was set at Waltham. The entire west wing was lost – as was my father.”
Franny looked pained. “I am very so very sorry for your loss Mr. Sher- Laurie.”
At hearing his name cross her lips, Laurie looked up and stared into her eyes. Who knew that a simple name could arrest a man so? No not a name – his name – from her lips.
After clearing his throat, he thanked her and decided to change the subject.
“Miss Hudley, do tell me, have you been to the botanical gardens?”
Franny’s face shined and she glanced at Lucy who had a similar smile. “No Sir, I haven’t, but I have thought about it many times. I’ve yet to have the pleasure.”
“Well if you ladies are agreeable, we can head there now and spend an hour watching the blooms opening up.”
“That sounds lovely,” Lucy said at the same time that Franny said, “We would be delighted!”
They all laughed as Laurie leaned to tell the coachmen where they were heading.
As they drove along, they discussed the many different changes in the flora and fauna as the spring had moved into summer. Laurie couldn’t help sneaking glances at Franny every time he asked a question. Seeking her answer in her eyes before it fell from her lips.
The same lips he couldn’t stop thinking about tasting.
As they arrived at the gardens, Laurie helped the ladies out of the carriage and escorted them on the grounds.
“Oh my, this is beautiful!” Franny said, her eyes as round as saucers as she turned to take it all in.
“This is just the outside. Come, let us walk a bit so you can see more.” Laurie led them down the path to the glass greenhouse.
“If you two don’t mind, I’ll just walk a bit ahead to look at the orchids further on. Don’t worry I won’t lose sight of you,” Lucy said as she bustled off.
Franny had a moment of panic and then took a deep breath and turned to Laurie with a shaky smile.
“Mr. Sheridan, I do believe you should lead the way as I’ve never been here before.”
“Back to Mr. Sheridan again are we?” Laurie teased.
Franny went to defend herself, he could tell her ire was up by the flush staining her cheeks. “Now, now I was just teasing you Miss Hudley.”
Suppressing a smile at his smirk, she took his offered arm as he led them down the road and rows of plants. Some were just starting to bloom while others were full of vibrant shades of pinks, blues, yellows oranges and reds.
“This is wonderful. Whatever made you think of it?”
“To be honest, your hair and your lips made me think of an English red rose,” Laurie said shyly.
Franny blushed the red he had just described.
“Miss Hudley, I have to make it known to you my singular interest in you. Since last night you’ve peaked my curiosity as no other has.”
“And you I, Sir. I’ve never had such interesting conversations regarding books. In fact, it’s rare that I am that comfortable with anyone.” Franny admitted candidly.
Smiling at the compliment she just paid him – whether she knew it or not – Laurie said, “Well then I hope you will continue to let me call on you as long as I am in Town.”
If he kept speaking this way, Franny was sure she would remain tomato colored for the whole of the afternoon. “Thank you. I would like that Mr. Sheri- Laurie.”
Please know, though Aunt Augusta seems to want to find matches for us both. I am not looking for a wife.” He hurried to correct his brash statement. “Not to mean that you were supposing in that direction. Blast – I’ve been out of polite company too long.”
“I understand. Please do not worry yourself. I also have no wish to marry. I want nothing more than to read my books, enjoy nature and dote on my nieces and nephews when they come.” Franny replied.
With a sigh of relief Laurie realized they could be friends without the expectations that came with a bachelor and an unmarried young debutant spending time together. Though others would surely speculate, they knew where they stood.
“May I ask why you don’t wish to marry?” Franny asked boldly. “I would think a man with an estate like Waltham would want an heir at the least.”
“Ah yes, an heir.” Laurie said bitterly. “My parents had a love match you see. It was a bond that I witnessed regularly for the first decade of my life. And then for the next decade I witnessed hell.
“My stepmother was never the woman my mother was. She knew it and my father knew it. She couldn’t take it out on him so she took it out on me. It got especially hard after Theo was born. I’m sure you’ve heard the rumors that he might not have been my father’s child, but rest assured he is my brother in name and in blood – as little as he wants to admit it.”
Franny stared at Laurie with watery eyes thinking of the boy who had lost his mother and gained a monster all in one year.
“From both those experiences I’ve determined never to marry. Marry for love and lose your heart, marry for obligation and an heir and lose… Well your mind and pride.”
“Oh Laurie. I’m so sorry. That must have been horrible for you.”
They had stopped by a small deserted bench and now sat looking at a small stream that ran a few hundred yards away. They could see Lucy had stopped to talk to a group of ladies just down the path.
“It’s more than that, isn’t it?” Franny pushed.
Laurie sighed. “The…fire. It wasn’t an accident. I believe my father was murdered.”
“What!” Franny was shocked.
“You must know I was injured in the fire.” Laurie glanced at her.
“It took me six months to recover enough to take over the estate. Even now I still suffer from pain, but I’ve learned to manage it. Once I was of sound mind and partial body, I started learn what was needed to take over the running the estate. All the while the memory niggled at back of my mind. You see, the room where the fire started was a guest room. An unused guest room, but one that was kept ready in case of the unexpected. It was in the west wing, but closer to the stairs then the family suites.
“I had been up late reading and went up to bed and smelled the smoke. It was strong and I went to investigate, thinking a flue had backed up. When I saw the smoke under the door I was surprised. Why would there be smoke in that room? When I opened the door, flames had already engulfed the room. I ran and we got everyone out. Or so we thought. My stepmother’s lady’s maid was left behind, using the room for…to meet another servant…” Laurie said sheepishly.
“I went in to look for her and got trapped. If it wasn’t for my valet coming in after me, I would have died. It wasn’t until they brought me out that I was told my father didn’t make it. I couldn’t understand. He had been well that night. After months of thinking to myself I realized a clue.
“Why that room was used? Where it was located? If the fire started there it would block off access for the rest of the wing to the stairs. The only way would be through the servant’s stairs that connected in the master and mistresses suites. So if the fire blocked there how had my father not been able to exit, but my stepmother had?”
Franny had taken this all in with her emotions showing a range on her face of the shock, grief, pain and anger at the realizations he was making.
“Someone stopped him?”
“Possibly, but there is something else. The fire was meant to block off access from me leaving my rooms. If I had been in them instead of downstairs reading I wouldn’t have made it out.”
The stark astonishment in Franny’s eyes made him reach for her hand, propriety be damned. “I am whole Miss Hudley.”
“But to have someone want to harm you. In your own home!” She cried.
“So you see, until I can determine – if I can determine – who the person is behind all this, I could never marry and put someone else in danger.”
Laurie had let go of her hand as he saw Lucy walking back towards them. “Here comes your cousin. Please don’t scare her with this. I don’t know how is it I’ve known you two days and you seem to pull more out of me than anyone in six years.” Laurie said with a kind look in his eyes that might have just melted her heart on the spot.
“Now compose your face or she will think something is wrong.”
With an impish grin, Lucy asked if they had a pleasant conversation.
With a brilliant smile, “Quite interesting in fact,” said Franny.
“Oh really?” Lucy looked at Laurie. “Well do tell as we head back to the house. Mama will be expecting us home.”
With that Laurie took both ladies by the arms and escorted them back to his waiting carriage. The ride back to South Audley Street was filled with the chatter and gossip Lucy had learned about Miss Turlington while visiting with the gaggle of women at the gardens.
Franny kept glancing at Laurie and meeting his eyes, touched that he had shared so much with her. Her heart was growing towards this man. But oh, that wasn’t a good thing at all. To be falling in love with a man who couldn’t marry and to be a woman who wouldn’t.
Was it a disaster in the making?
The next few days for the ladies were spent indoors as the spring rains had come. Though the weather had turned cooler, this in no way dampened their enthusiasm and excitement for their evening out at the ball the next night.
“I do hope this rain stops in time,” Franny said. “I hate for my hair to be ruined or my dress water stained before we even made it into the ball.”
“Do not worry my dear,” said Aunt Augusta. “You both will be the belles of the ball and there is nothing – not even a few raindrops – that could ruin that experience for you. Rest assured that even if it does rain, our coachman always carries a stout umbrella,” she said, with something of a mischievous grin on her face.
The next day Francis awoke to bright sunshine pouring through the windows of her yellow bedroom. With a smile, she stretched, snuggling deeper under her covers knowing that she had just a little bit more time before her maid came to wake her.
She stayed there picturing her gown for that night. It was a beautiful pale cream with silver scarcenet overlay. It had tiny silver roses along the empire waist and small cap sleeves topped her porcelain skinned arms. The neckline was a little lower than she had been used to and a little more daring then she felt comfortable with, but her aunt had showed her it was the latest fashion. After all she could just wear a shawl if she felt so uncomfortable.
An hour later, after completing her toilette, she was up and heading down the stairs to the breakfast room. She arrived to see in Aunt Augusta, but not Lucy.
“Has Lucy decided to sleep in?”
“I do not know with that girl. She was probably up half the night reading again. Her eyes will be red her and her cheeks will lack bloom. If only she would give up this love of books she would have found a husband by now.”
Franny smiled at this, knowing her own love of books. “We can only be who we are Aunt.”
Aunt Augusta hmmed at that and gave a noncommittal shake of her head. “Now dear we must talk. I know you’ve showed an interest in Lawrence.”
“Oh Aunt please! He’s very nice and a gentleman, but please don’t push us together!” Franny was frantic with worry that her aunt might ruin the peace Laurie was finally starting to find by trying to force a match.
“Oh fiddlesticks I meant nothing like that…though now that you mention it you both would be good for each…” She winded down speaking as she stared off into space.
“What? Oh yes, now I just wanted to say if you plan on being associated with him you should know about the harpy. His stepmother.”
Franny’s eyed widened at the mention of the woman her aunt had cut directly so long ago.
“She is a mean one rest assured. Always felt she deserved more without the breeding and manners to back it up. I’ve always suspected she enticed Edmund to marry her by getting herself in a family way deliberately.”
“Now, now don’t be like that,” Aunt Augusta said as she noticed Franny’s blush. “We as women all go through trials and breeding is one of them. Now as I was saying,” she went on after taking a sip of her tea. “Laurie never benefited from that woman. She hated him on sight and made his life horrible once the vows were exchanged.
“If it weren’t for that boy going off to school, I don’t know what kind of man he would be now. And Edmund… so stricken in his grief that he couldn’t see what a monster he’d brought into his son’s life. Their own son, Theodelphus, isn’t much. A known gambler and dandy. He spends all his money on clothes, horses and cards. His mother has filled his head with nonsense and they are going to become the laughing stock of the Town if Laurie doesn’t rein them in.”
Franny sat with her jaw hanging open trying to digest all the information her aunt had just rapidly imparted. Laurie’s stepmother and brother sounded like a force to avoid.
“I say this because we will encounter at least one of them tonight no doubt. Celica Sheridan has tried to style herself a lady and failed miserably. That hasn’t stopped her from coming out though. Now when Laurie escorts you tonight you may very well be a target of hers. Hold your head high and do not let that horrible woman see you quake. Laurie needs our support. I can see that he cares for you as you do him.”
“Yes Aunt, I will do all I can to be there for him this evening. After this I must admit the sleepy wilds of Yorkshire never seemed so appealing.” Franny swallowed at the thought of her parents being the better of the two options. “It would be too cruel to leave Laurie to handle this on his own tonight, though.”
“Good girl. Now finish your breakfast and go put your nose in a book as I know you are dreaming of doing for a few hours before we are to start getting ready.”
“Oh Aunt Augusta, thank you!” Franny jumped up and kissed her aunt on the cheek. She knew just the book to read and the place to read it. Heading to the library with a smile on her face, Franny put the thoughts of what to expect tonight out of her mind.
Laurie felt confident that he was entering the Turlington house with the most beautiful woman on his arm. When he had waited at the bottom of the stairs for the ladies to come down, all he saw was a vision of silver and copper.
Now to hold onto that feeling so that he could get through the evening.
Billingsworth had been thorough. He was in a brand new set of evening clothes – ones that apparently we’re updated every six months courtesy of his valet’s hope he would someday wear more than just country suits. His cravat was an intricate knot that allowed him to breathe but barely swallow. He had agreed to his hair being trimmed to just below his ears. While this did show some of the scars, he felt confident no one would be looking at him tonight.
Once inside, as a first time visitor, Franny couldn’t help but be impressed. The rooms teemed with people. The ladies wore gowns of every color and then men looked dashing all in their black evening clothes. They had not arrived early and there were already a lot of people.
“What a crush!” Franny said while staring wide eyed in trepidation at the mass of people.
“Relax Miss Hudley. I’ve got you, and your cousin and aunt are here. Your first ball will not go amiss. How about some punch?”
“That sounds lovely, thank you,” she said and smiled warmly up at him. At just shoulder height on him she felt small and petite. He escorted the ladies over to their chairs and, after seeing them seated, left to seek refreshments.
As he was standing waiting for the attendant to fill the cups, he saw something that froze him in place. His stepmother, Cecilia Sheridan, walking in on the arm of a man he didn’t know. It wasn’t the man that froze him that’s for sure. He hadn’t seen his stepmother since last fall when she had descended upon Waltham Hall with Theo. For two weeks she spoke of nothing but complaints. Mainly the amount of her allowance – which Laurie didn’t have to give her but did because he knew his father would want it.
That coupled with the injustice of Theo not receiving a portion of the estate or being named heir made it a hard two weeks to swallow. But he did it every year and at the end he always saw them off and sighed in relief at knowing it was a whole other year before he would have to see the shrewish-tongued harpy again.
Being back in London, he would have met up with her eventually. Best it was in public where she could keep her daggers – real and figuratively – in plain sight.
The attendant handed him his drinks and he returned to where the ladies were. A group of three young men were crowded around Lucy and Franny, complimenting them. Laurie pushed his way past and handed out the drinks to the relieved looking ladies. He then stared down all three men until they had slinked off.
“Miss Hudley, would you do me the honor of the next dance?”
He knew being on the dance floor was one of the ways to avoid his stepmother. Unfortunately, it also left him exposed to be seen more.
“Of course,” Franny said shyly, putting her hand delicately into his outstretched palm.
The dance was a waltz and as he pulled her close he could feel her breathe steal across his face in anticipation when she looked up at him. She smelled of mint. He smiled down at her and the music started.
No words were exchanged. The movement of their bodies was perfectly choreographed as the memories of annoying lessons from his dancing masters came back to him. He spun her around and looked deeply into her eyes, hardly even counting his steps.
Who was this creature that could captivate him so?
As Franny looked up at Laurie, she could only marvel at the situation. Here she was, bookish and plain, and she was dancing with the most handsome man in the room. And he was looking at her… well like he wanted to eat her up. Curious, she thought. She felt his hand grip her back tighter for the spin and then the heat flared somewhere deep inside her that she didn’t know was there.
Who was this man who could make her feel things she had never felt before?
With both of them so entranced by each other, neither noticed the stir they were causing throughout the room as their bodies inched closer and closer when he spun her around the floor. The chatter had started when Mrs. Turlington had pointed out to a group of ladies that that was the Mr. Sheridan.
“The one so disfigured from the fire you know.” She said this as if she were an authority in the information.
As the gossip spread around the room, people tittered about the scandalous way the two were dancing. Many speculated it couldn’t be that Mr. Sheridan at all since he didn’t look deformed. His identity was confirmed once the music ended and they stepped off the floor.
“Well, well. Look who’s here”
The smile on Laurie’s face froze as he heard that voice. Franny, who had been beaming up at him, faltered at the stiffening of his arm.
Slowly turning around he faced his stepmother.
“Hello Cecilia, you look lovely this evening.”
“Don’t I? If you only knew how much this gown cost? Of course I would have more like it if you weren’t hoarding the money away at what should have been my son’s estate.”
With a sigh Laurie realized that in public or not, his stepmother’s venom wouldn’t be steamed. But he was far too skilled a conversationalist to be thrown off by the unexpected, however, and his smile remained firmly in place.
“I trust you are enjoying your stay in London?’ Cecilia said dropping acid with each word.
“It has been most entertaining.”
“Hmm, yes we could all see how entertaining it has been,” she looked at Franny when saying this and something in her eyes made Franny want to take a step back.
Laurie held firm to her hand and she recovered her sense of resolve, knowing she had to be there for him.
“This is Miss Francis Hudley. Miss Hudley this is my stepmother, Mrs. Cecilia Sheridan.”
“Pleasure to meet you ma’am,” said Franny, as she gave a small curtsey. Cecilia did nothing of the same.
“Yes, I’m sure it is. Well Lawrence, I can see your scars are still there. Such a disgusting sight. Could you not have stayed put in the country with them?”
Shocked at her harsh and nasty choice of words, Franny sucked in a breath. “His scars may be visible, but they are not the most disgusting thing in my eye line tonight.” Franny spat at Cecilia.
Shocked, Laurie guffed and looked down at this small woman with so much fire. She was flushed with indignation and had never looked lovelier. Her copper ringlets trembling with her barely contained anger. He had never had a fighter before and was proud to have this woman stand by him.
Patting her hand he said, “Now I do believe Miss Hudley needs some refreshment before we have our next dance. Good day ma’am.” And he turned and guided Franny away back to her Aunt and cousin.
Franny was never gladder for the sight of a chair, as her legs felt ready to give out and her heart was pounding in her chest. She took the offered glass and took a sip to wet her parched throat. She couldn’t believe she had said that.
While Laurie related the tale of the conversation to Aunt Augusta and Lucy, Franny gained her bearings. “She was brilliant and amazing! You should have seen the shocked look on Cecilia’s face as we walked away! I’ve never seen the like!”
“Well my boy, rest assured that for every point earned tonight, she will try to have two more lined up back. Be careful. As for my niece.” She patted Franny’s hand as the girl looked over at her. “I have never been more proud of her. That woman needed to be taken down a peg and she did that alright!”
Franny smiled, happy to hear someone she loved say they were proud of her for the first time.
“Now take this girl and go dance! Show that nasty woman she can’t keep you down.” Aunt Augusta said firmly.
What else was there to do but obey? With a deep breath and a shaky smile, Franny put her hand in Laurie’s outstretched one.
“This was working out just as I thought” Augusta said to herself as she watched the couple stare at each other on the dance floor. They glowed. Ahh new love. She had known the two were a match the minute she saw them both sneaking off to the library at her dinner. How Lucy thought she could get one over on her she never knew, but she knew all that went on in her home.
No, those two were a match and they would make each other extremely happy. Laurie had enough to see Franny secure and the brains to help her idiotic brother manage her father’s estates when he came into them. Franny had the youth and wit and fire that Laurie needed to heal his broken heart and soul. Together they just… Fit.
Now to figure out a way for them both to give up this foolish notion of never marrying. She had ideas but they wouldn’t at all do for someone of her standing to bring up. She’d just have to figure out a way to make it happen without them knowing.
They danced the next two dances and after that both decided to talk a walk on the terrace to cool down.
“My, it’s warm and loud in there! I can barely hear myself think,” Franny said while fanning herself. The air was crisp and cool for a late spring night. She could feel her skin cooling down finally.
“Well put enough people in one room – people who are mostly filled with hot air – and you could heat anywhere,” Laurie said, with a twinkle in his eye.
Franny burst out laughing. “That is very true, Sir! And there are many in there filled with hot air.”
“Perhaps we should seek a safe place to escape? I’m sure there is a library around here somewhere.”
“What a great idea! It’s actually down the hall, the third door on the left. I will go first and say I am off to the retiring room and you follow a bit later? We must be seen together alone of course.”
“It is a plan,” Laurie stated pleasantly. Anything to get away from this place for a bit and calm his mind.
He watched as Franny hurried off to Aunt Augusta to tell her where she was heading and then through the doors. He waited until the count of one hundred before he followed.
Third door on the right she had said. He found it and the door opened with a soft click. He saw a fire was burning and there was Franny, searching the shelves with her back turned to him. Her hair shined as she stood on tiptoe and he could see her slender ankle.
It was too much. He closed the door and strode over to her. She turned, surprised and smiled as she saw Laurie coming towards her. Not even waiting for her to say anything, Laurie slide his hand on her cheek and leaned down to brush his lips against hers.
He leaned back to see Franny staring at him wide eyed. “Oh hell. Franny- Miss Hudley I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have taken liberties…”
He was stopped when she reached up and placed her hand on her own lips and her other on his. In an instant he could see the heat light up her eyes. He leaned in to taste her again. Her hand slide tentatively up to his chest as he deepened the kiss. She was new to this and he didn’t want to scare her off. Damn he shouldn’t be doing this at all, but the fire he had seen and the words of defense that had come from those rosebud lips that had been tormenting him for days was too much.
He gently slid his tongue around the slit in her lips and she moaned, crunching her fingers in his shirt. He moaned back and slid his arms around her waist. She was soft in all the right places. Not thin and boney like so many of the women he had taken to bed prior to his accident. Stop it Laurie and focus, he thought.
Feeling her reach up to touch his neck he slid his tongue into her mouth and felt her start. “Ahh it’s alright. I won’t hurt you I swear.”
“No it didn’t hurt. I… I liked it.” Franny said shyly.
Seeing that fiery blush again, he swooped in for her lips. Their tongues tangled. Hers slowly at first. A game of cat and mouse in their mouths. His reaching hers to pull it out into his. She moaned again and he could feel himself start to rise. The need of six years hitting him like a brick.
He wanted this woman.
Franny had never been shocked as when his lips had descended on hers. But the soft feeling… the gentle touch was so surprisingly sensual that she couldn’t help touching her lips to know if it was real. She raised her hand to his and found they were so soft. Yes it had been real.
The feelings he was inciting in her she couldn’t comprehend. The heat starting to boil in her middle. When he had used his tongue…oh the movement and taste were so unlike anything and she wanted more of it. To fall into this abyss of bliss he was creating. She put her hands on his chest and had moved them up to his neck once he had wrapped her in his strong arms.
Feeling his scars she felt him freeze. She started to pull away. “I’m sorry did I hurt you?”
He shook his head no, in a daze. She gently caressed the side of his neck and the heat in his eyes had her answering with a small sigh of pleasure. He started kissing her neck and she could feel his hands caressing her back. She had never experienced anything so fine in her life.
Yes it was wrong, but knowing she would never marry and never have this, she felt it was only right to keep one memory for her lifetime.
She felt him pull at her bodice as the swell of her breast popped out. At this point she was clinging to him for dear life. Afraid to continue and afraid to stop.
He looked down at her perfect breast. Her nipple were light pink and small. He gently leaned down and suckled it. Her moans almost sent him over the edge, but he knew he could not have her completely. These few moments of passion with the one who would forever remain in his memory would last him a lifetime.
She was pulling herself against him and moaning now. With a quick pop he let go of her breast and moved back to her lips.
“Oh Laurie, oh Laurie.”
Her mewling cries awoke him to reality. He was entangled with a young unmarried woman in another person’s library. She was pressed against the bookcase with her arms wrapped around him half disrobed. She had never looked more beautiful.
Gently he eased her dress back into place over her breast and slid his hands from around her. She remained there, her eyes closed, breathing deeply for a few moments.
“ Miss Hudley- Franny- I'm so sorry. I never meant for it to get that far. I'm ashamed.”
“Laurie its fine. Really. I am well. Just give me a bit to compose myself,” she said as she walked over to the window, smoothing her hair and dress.
When she turned around he stared. She looked well and thoroughly kissed. Her neck was mottled with red and her color had yet to settle.
“We will have to remain in here until your color settles. Everyone will know… Well… if you went out now.”
“Yes I agree.” She shakily went over to the couch and sat. “What shall we talk about while we both… calm down?”
He was flabbergasted. That she would casually throw off what happened. “Miss Hudley-”
She laughed, albeit a shaky one. “Now we are back to formalities? Laurie I have no wish to marry and neither do you. Have no fear my honor will remain intact and so shall yours. Really this talk isn’t necessary.”
“Isn’t necessary?!” He was angry now. “You think I just kiss every woman I come across in a library do you?”
“Well no!” She told him, just as angry. “But I would think that you would consider their life choices before you assume they will marry you!”
Sparks were flying from her eyes and he couldn’t resist. He walked over and swopped up her lips in another kiss.
She had just touched his face when they heard the door open.
“Well! Miss Hudley is that you?”
Both froze and then turned wide eyes on Mrs. Turlington standing in shock in the doorway of the library.
Franny could just make out Lucy peeking over Mrs. Turlington’s shoulder as she looked at the door, horrified.
“I would like to know what is going on here in my library and now!” Demanded Mrs. Turlington.
Franny just stood there staring in shock, hoping that Laurie would think of something to say that wouldn’t leave their reputations in shreds. She had known she was playing with fire when allowing him to come with her alone in here. She had known she was playing with lava when she let him kiss her a second time. She hadn’t known she was heading into full on hell until she heard the door open.
“Surely allowing a kiss from two who are engaged isn’t against the rules Mrs. Turlington?”
Franny shook herself and looked in horror at her cousin Lucy. Lucy just gave her a sympatric look and shrugged.
“Engaged? Since when? Why Mr. Sheridan has only just come to London after six years away. If they had been engaged surly I would have heard of it. Your mother wouldn’t have presented her to society otherwise.”
“While it is true they are engaged ma’am, my mother wanted society to know how Franny was because she knew she was to become Mrs. Lawrence Sheridan. They have been engaged this last year. Surly you know that my family and Mr. Sheridan have been very close for years and wouldn’t have allowed him to accompany her unless there was an agreement?” Lucy felt the words coming out of her mouth so fast she didn’t know how to stop the tale she was spinning. She only hoped she could save the two people she cared most for in the world.
“Well, we shall see about that. Miss Livingston, please go get your mother and ask her to come here and witness this going on. I wish to hear the words from her own mouth before I will believe them.” Mrs. Turlington turned to Franny and Laurie in a huff. “You two stay right where you are…well no both of you sit down…not on the same couch!”
Franny and Laurie both paused in mid seat and after a moment Laurie got up and moved over to a chair by the window. Franny glanced at Laurie and saw the look for horror on his face and then anger as the reality of the situation started to come over him.
Franny feigned a coughing fit to hide his words. Laurie gave her a quick disgruntled look and she shook her head no when she saw the older lady’s back was turned.
A few moments later Aunt Augusta walked in, escorted by Lucy. She shooed Mrs. Turlington away from the door, instructed Lucy to close it and found herself a comfortable seat by the fire. All knew to allow her her will before even speaking.
“Now Grace what seems to be the problem?” She asked with a calm air.
“I’ll have you know that I just walked in on your niece, Miss Hudley, in the arms of that man over there!” She pointed at Laurie as if he was a criminal and she the witness in a box.
Aunt Augusta turned her head slowly and looked at Laurie for three heart beats. He simply stared back and then she turned back to the fuming woman. “Well of course they will steal a kiss every now and then, they are engaged you know.”
Shocked, Mrs. Turlington, sputtered. “Engaged? When? Why have I not heard of it?”
“Well it’s not as if I would announce it around Town when I hadn’t even had the girl staying with me yet would I? And with her just coming out I felt it was better for society to get to know her prior to announcing the engagement. I also hadn’t realized that Laurie would be so eager to see his fiancé again that he would come into Town for the first time in six years. Though after this episode I can see now why he chose to stay away.”
Mrs. Turlington had the temerity to look abashed. She knew she had been discussing Laurie and his scars openly.
“Well that is neither here nor there. They were caught in an improper embrace and what if some impressionable young lady like my dear daughter had walked in?” She said trying to gain control of the situation again.
“Then I would think she would have the good sense to turn around and walk back out of course,” Aunt Augusta said firmly.
With her mouth opening and closing like a fish, Mrs. Turlington was clearly confused. Franny couldn’t help but laugh at the picture it made. A nervous giggle escaped and before she knew it, Laurie, Lucy and her aunt were laughing with her.
“Well I never! I shall go back to the ball, but rest assured Augusta Livingston if I don’t see the banns posted! I will let all know what I have witnessed tonight!” She stormed out of the room in a huff.
“Well you two have really done it now haven’t you?” Aunt Augusta said with a sly smile. Her plan coming to fruition sooner than she had even planned.
Franny couldn’t help but want to hide her head. She had never been more ashamed. To have been caught with a man who wasn’t her husband, wasn’t even her fiancé! How could she have left something like this happen?
“I will arrange with my solicitor that the banns will be announced in the paper the day after tomorrow. The wedding date will be set for five weeks from now and Franny we will have to prepare your trousseau.”
Now it was Laurie’s turn to look at Aunt Augusta with his mouth opening and closing. “But Aunt… Aunt Augusta we aren’t… I mean that is to say… no I never planned…”
“You never planned but you will. You will or you will be ruined. I don’t want that for you my dear because I love you dearly, but also because your mother in heaven would never let me live it down. Allowing her son to come to London and ruin a woman within the first fortnight! The prayers would need to be constant and endless to make up for that. No you must marry and marry you shall and that marriage will be to Franny!”
Franny shifted to attention and looked over at Aunt Augusta, sitting with her hands in her lap. “Yes ma’am.”
“You will do right by this man now won’t you?”
“You will marry him and take his name because he wasn’t able to keep control of his own base desires.”
“Don’t you Aunt Augusta me, he wasn’t the only one that was unable to control himself tonight from what I have been told.”
Laurie had to give it one more shot. “Aunt Augusta I will not marry. I don’t care about my reputation, Please understand I have no wish to marry despite the given situation.”
Franny tried. “Laurie we must. You don’t know what you are giving up. You would never be accepted. People will cut you directly, you will lose friends and those that you counted as close as family will not speak to you. We must marry.”
“So you believe that just because society believes you to be a foolish girl that I should marry you and prove them right? No! I won’t do it.” His fire was coming back out and he could feel his face heating. “I shall go home and pretend that this never happened. Aunt Augusta shall go back and allow all to know that there was a break off of the farce of an engagement and you will go home to your parents.”
“But what about me my dear Laurie?” Lucy spoke up quietly. “If you do not marry, you ruin any chance I have of staying in Town and continuing to see my friends. By allowing this scandal you allow it to hit us all.”
She held up her hands as she saw Laurie begin to protest. “No, no please listen. I love you dearly, more than any blood sister could love another, but you must realize that everyone who is every associated with you will now be cut off from society. Mother thrives on this and this is her constant since father has passed.”
She glanced at her mother to see her look away, eyes shining. “Please remember all the enjoyment you have had from Franny and understand that this could be the answer you are looking for.”
“Lucy I love you as well, but I won’t marry. I just can’t and besides Franny doesn’t want to anyway. She told me so herself!”
Sighing in frustration, Franny said “We won’t get anywhere with this here with a ball right down the hall. Let us head out and I will call on you tomorrow and we can discuss this with cooler heads.”
All of them nodded at Franny’s good sense, but Laurie added in under his breath, “We shall see about that.”
They headed out to the ball with Aunt Augusta making her way to give her thanks to the host, Mrs. Turlington, and assure her that the banns were to be posted and to remind her what would happen if she let word of this get out. With all the color draining from her face, Mrs. Turlington nodded. Knowing what a cut direct would be like from Augusta Livingston. It meant social death.
Laurie collected their coats and helped the ladies into them and they exited the Town home as their coach was being brought up. After escorting the ladies in, Laurie took the seat next to Aunt Augusta, seeing that Franny had quickly sat next to her cousin. He wanted to believe it was because she wanted comfort, but he suspected it was to avoid him. He was hurt by this nonetheless.
Once dropping the ladies off at their home, he had his coachmen drive him around the square to think. After two passes he signaled it was time to head home. Handing his coat, hat and gloves to his butler he couldn’t help but think of the situation he was now in.
He realized something when all this had happened tonight. He wanted to marry Franny. Yes he had only known her a short while, but they had connected as he had with no other.
He knew from Aunt Augusta and Lucy’s love of her that she was kind hearted and worthy. He saw the sincere empathy in her eyes as he told her the tale of the fire. He knew deep down she had felt something when they kissed and that it was powerful.
Franny knew about his past and the danger that he might face knowing that the fire murdered his father and possibly was meant for him as well. So why was she being so insistent that they marry? Of course she didn’t want to at first. She wanted to remain free to read her books and take her walks. But even though he knew she didn’t love him yet, he believed that Franny could see that she could be one that might just be able to look past his scars and his nightmares and do just that.
He also believed he could fall in love with her in return. He might just be halfway there already.
Shaking his head he saw he had been standing for a few minutes in the entryway and slowly climbed the stairs to his room. Billingsworth was there and the fire was warm in the hearth. Billingsworth helped him out of his coat and as Laurie sat down to take off his boots, he began to talk.
He had developed the habit of discussing everything with his valet one month after he had taken over learning to run the estate. He found that Billingsworth was smart, attentive and most of all he cared. Many would see something wrong with sharing so much of himself with his valet, but he saw it as nothing more than speaking with a friend.
“I’ve really done it tonight,” Laurie said running his hands through his hair once his shirt was off.
“It seems so Sir.”
“I just don’t understand why she doesn’t understand why I can’t marry her. She knows of the danger and how I would never knowingly put her in the middle of something that could harm her. Though if we did marry I’m sure she wouldn’t want children. An heir could be a possibly if she wanted some down the line, but she has never discussed it. Until then I would leave her alone.” Laurie said all this thinking of the passion he had elicited in the young woman tonight.
“It seems that that wouldn’t be a problem after what you described tonight,” Billingsworth commented dryly.
Laurie chuckled. “No she has fire alright. But how am I to get her to understand that fire is a good thing when it is between us, not when it threatens her safety and life? Ah this is so much harder than learning to run an estate. I would take farming by hand over this any day!”
“Don’t speak so soon Sir, if your brother continues the way he is you might be doing just that.”
“Go to bed.”
“Right away Sir.” And he hopped up and headed into the dressing room, closing the door behind him.
Franny lay in bed. She had come home and expecting there to be a large conversation and argument with her aunt and cousin regarding what had happened tonight. Instead her aunt had just said she was tired and retired to her rooms. Her cousin had given her a peck on the cheek and a sympatric hug and went off to her bed as well.
Franny had her maid help her change and take down her hair. After it was braided and her sheets warmed, she crawled into bed and prayed for sleep.
It didn’t come.
“Why did it all have to be such a mess?” She grumbled into the dark room, lit only by the low embers from the fire. “If only he hadn’t kissed me. Yes that is it, it is all his fault for kissing me! Well no I can’t agree to that.”
Franny blushed at the reminder of the heat that had pooled in her lower self when Laurie had kissed her. The man had touched her breast! Had licked her nipple as if he were a dog to water! What had she been thinking?
Oh but she hadn’t been thinking, she cried out in frustration. “What a mess you’ve gotten yourself into now.”
She lay there most of the night thinking of ways to achieve this marriage that she knew they would continue to press on him in the morning. He had money, he had property, he would make sure she was happy and secure and would allow her the freedom for walks and books. He probably wouldn’t even need an heir unless she wanted children.
For every avenue she came up with there seemed to be a door that was slammed as soon as she thought of it and felt a glimmer of hope. The only option she felt she had was to face up to the fact that he didn’t want to marry her and accept the scandal. Eventually it would die down and with her only being in society a short while, it was unlikely that it would affect her aunt and cousin much. Right..?
After talking herself into the courage needed for the morning, Franny fell off into a fitful sleep just as the dawn was coming.
“If that girl thinks that sleeping all day is going to get her out of the inevitable, she has another thing coming.”
Lucy’s mother was not pleased. She had been sitting in the drawing room waiting for Franny to come down for the last hour. First she had waited in the breakfast room, and now the drawing room. It was now almost noon and still no sign of Franny.
“If I find that she is hiding in the library she shall never hear the end of it!”
“Mama do calm down. I will go and check on her,” Lucy said placatingly. As her mother was giving her a headache she was glad for the escape.
After knocking on Franny’s door, Lucy opened it when she heard the response to enter. Franny was sitting in a chair in front of the window staring outside. A tray of tea and uneaten toast resided on the small table next to her. She didn’t even have a book in her lap.
“Oh my sweet. I know this is hard for you.” Lucy came over and gave her a hug and took a seat in the chair opposite her.
“Mama is downstairs waiting for you now in the drawing room. Laurie hasn’t arrived yet, but you would do best to come down and get this over with. I can assure you that Laurie is a gentleman. He will agree to this and you will both be happy and you will have all the freedom that you want and all the books you can imagine.”
“Oh Waltham has an amazing library! Thousands of books for you to read until you heart’s content.” Lucy said hoping that she finally had found something that would make Franny see reason.
“No Lucy, I can’t marry him. You don’t understand. When we went to the gardens we spoke…of his scars and the fire. He told me about the night. It wasn’t an accident.”
Cold reality had washed over her when she was getting dressed and Franny had realized why Laurie was so insistent on not marrying her. He feared for her.
“The fire was set intentionally and he believes that his father was murdered and someone set out to harm the whole family. The room that the fire was set it was unused and it allowed the family wing to be cut off from the main staircase. If not for him being downstairs up late reading and there being servants stairs in the master and mistress suites then he and the rest of his family would have been killed.”
“But if there were servant’s stairs why didn’t his father get out?”
Franny just sat there watching Lucy’s face as it all sunk in. “Oh! How dreadful! Poor Laurie has had to deal with this all alone these past six years!”
“I know and for that reason I will not push him to marry him. I don’t know what to do. I’ve gone over ideas in my head all night.” And she had. Each idea getting tossed when logic came into play.
She could run away. No she didn’t have any money. She could join a convent? No she wasn’t Catholic and she didn’t like the cold. She could go home? Yes, but her parents would be furious and never let her hear the end of it.
“My only choice is to leave and go home. Let things die down and the scandal will pass. I am so sorry to do this to you and Aunt Augusta, but I can’t allow Laurie to marry me either. I’m sure he will be relieved once he realizes I understand his reasoning.”
“Well come downstairs and tell Mama at least,” Lucy said reluctantly. She still held out hope that Laurie would come to his senses and propose.
With a sigh Franny rose and they went downstairs to the drawing room. Laurie had arrived in the interim and he and her aunt were on the couch with their heads together talking quietly.
“And here she is. I thought you had planned to sleep the day away my dear.”
“No Aunt, I just didn’t sleep well last night and slept later than I intended. Hello Laurie.” Franny said without feeling.
“Good afternoon Franny, you look lovely today.” Laurie smiled at her with a pained look. He knew she was upset at him not willing to go through with the marriage.
“I hope you understand my reasons for why this marriage can’t take place Franny. I have just been telling Aunt Augusta the situation at Waltham and why it would be dangerous for you to marry me.”
“And I have come up with a plan that will solve both issues,” said Aunt Augusta proudly.
“What? In just the few minutes I’ve taken to say hello you have solved both our issues,” Laurie said surprised. “Pray do tell me how you have achieved this great feat kind woman as I am most curious.”
“Me as well Mama,” Lucy said with a grin.
“I believe that you should and will marry. I want to make that clear Lawrence. Your mother would never forgive me and you will do as I say in this my boy. But once you are married, Franny will remain here with me as a companion to Lucy for the time being until you sort out this mess at home.”
“Sort out this mess at home..?” Laurie said confused. “Aunt Augusta I have tried to sort out this mess as you put it, for the last six years and to no avail. What makes you think that I can have it sorted quickly enough to come back for my new bride in enough time to not cause another scandal?”
“Well you have a head on your shoulders Lawrence. Use it! Find assistance. Use that network of servants who are so devoted to you to ferret it out. Either way you will marry my niece.” With this she paused. “And with that you will finally be in the family you were meant to be in my dear boy.”
Laurie could see her tearing up and felt a lump in his throat as well. To have a family that loved him. To have a family that would support him and be there for him. Could he really have that?
He looked at Franny, who had a cautious look on her face. “Franny-“ He started to say. Then paused, running his hand through his hair, “Ladies, can Miss Hudley and I please have a few moments alone?”
“Alone? Well…you haven’t exactly shown the best track record-“ Lucy started.
“Lucy! Of course you may have a few moments. I will leave the door partially open for decorum’s sake.” And she rose from the couch and hissed for Lucy to follow her. Lucy gave the both of them a cheeky smile before following her mother out.
They both laughed. “You go first please,” Laurie said gesturing to her.
“Laurie, you don’t have to do this. I understand why you would want to protect me. I care for you as well. I don’t want you to feel anymore hurt. Everything you have told me about your past has made my heart break a little bit with each thought. You deserve to be loved, but that can’t come if you are constantly in fear of yourself and what is yours.
Laurie couldn’t believe the depth to this woman. How could someone understand him so completely and yet be so unfamiliar with the world?
“I do care for you Franny,” he said coming to sit next to her on the couch. “I care for you enough to want to protect you from the mistakes that were of my own. Last night –“ he broke off with thrill of the memory of the heat from last night. “-last night was my mistake, not yours. I can only admit that I was captivated by you. You have intrigued me from the very first moment I saw you. I believe that we can make each other happy. Do you believe so?”
Franny’s heart skipped a beat and she flashed him a brilliant smile. “Yes I do believe so.”
Then Franny will you do me the honor of being my wife? Allow me to cherish you as you deserve and we can spend our time with books and walks once I find out how to keep you safe?”
Oh Laurie! Franny threw her arms around his neck and allowed him to pull her into a tight embrace. Do you really mean that?”
“Yes, yes I do Franny. Is that a yes?”
Wiping the tears from her eyes from happiness Franny said, “It is a yes Sir.”
“Good.” He murmured as his lips descended on hers, he pulled her to him and ravaged her mouth as he heard the first moan escape her lips. Instantly his veins were on fire, the good kind. He didn’t know what would happen from here with this woman, all he knew is that he wanted her with a passion he couldn’t deny any longer.
It wasn’t love yet, but he knew the capacity to love was there.
A cough from the doorway had them jumping apart. “No more of that if you know what is good for you,” said Aunt Augusta with a firm shake of her head.
“Now Lucy do call for some tea. Lawrence get comfortable, you are going to go over every detail you know about the night of the fire with us and we are going to solve this mystery. I won’t have my niece married to a man who has death knocking around every corner.”
As the butler, Flitwich, came to the door with the tea, Aunt Augusta instructed him to hand her the paper that was on her desk.
“What is that Aunt?”
Lucy read over the page opened quickly and let out a loud cry of laughter. She handed it to Franny and Laurie and pointed out the listing that said:
25 May 1816 Lawrence Sheridan (of Waltham Estate Kent) & Francis Hudley (niece of Mrs. Frederick Livingston), daughter of Jameson Hudley of Wimpole Hall Leicester, banns also taken June 1^st^ & June 8^th^.
Franny and Laurie looked at Aunt Augusta, both wearing looks of utter surprise.
The old woman just shrugged. “What? I knew you would both come around eventually.”
TO BE CONTINUED
Other Books By This Author
FIRE OF MY PAST
Stay tuned for the next book in the Fire In My Heart series, coming out in December 2015.
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C. L. Bush started reading at a young age. Since then she has voraciously read all she can get her hands on. As a mother of two boys and three grown stepdaughter’s, as well as the wife of a soldier in the U.S. Army, her life is busy, but she has always kept her love of reading and writing. History is also a passion of hers and she regularly goes on trips with her family to experience it firsthand. She looks forward to bringing her love of reading, writing and history to her readers with her new ‘Fire In My Heart’ series.
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After a deadly fire six years ago in which he lost his father, Lawrence Sheridan is finally going back to London. With a hateful half-brother and a venom spitting stepmother, he is determined to figure out if the fire was just an accident or something more. Francis Hudley has been brought to London by her Aunt Livingston and she, at eighteen, is finally having her coming out. She is shy and anything but overjoyed at the prospect of finding a husband. While enjoying the season, she meets an old family friend of her aunt's and is captivated by his love of the same things that interest her most. Neither are seeking nor interested in marriage, but when a connection happens their passion is kindled. Can Laurie find the person who is responsible for murdering his father and trying to kill him while following his heart with this young woman who has so captivated him? And if he chooses her, can he keep her safe until the mystery is solved? The Heart of Now is the first in a three part Fire In My Heart Series by C. L. Bush! The second book, Fire of My Past is set to be released in late November 2015.