A Woman of Good Reputation

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 4 (v.1)

Submitted: May 01, 2007

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Submitted: May 01, 2007

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Stephen did not sleep very well. And when he did sleep, he dreamed vivid, exhausting dreams, so realistic that he never felt as if he were sleeping. The dreams were a tangle of long, creamy legs that wrapped around him and a tumble of brown-red-gold hair that fell over his chest and an onslaught of sweet, luscious lips that devoured him. When he woke, between the disconcerting dreams, he was always unsatisfied and unhappy and out of sorts. By mid-morning, he was tired of tossing and turning, fighting a dull headache and the memory of his new fianc naked underneath him and then slamming the door on him. Damnation. Why did he always end up complicating his life in these farcical fashions?

Stephen pulled at the bell cord by his bed, and his valet appeared.

"I am not getting out of bed today," he announced. "I am in a vile mood. I am an extremely unhappy person. I will not receive anyone."

"Yes, m'lord."

Stephen considered. "Except for Shay and Morton. I will receive Shay and Morton."

"Did you want breakfast, m'lord?"

"No. I am far too depressed for breakfast."

"I will bring you breakfast," remarked his valet, pulling open the draperies.

Stephen lifted his hand against the sudden, blinding sunlight. "What the devil are you doing?"

"Opening your draperies, m'lord."

"I am too depressed for sun. Close them."

"Yes, m'lord," said his valet, exiting the room.

Stephen frowned. He folded his arms and sat up in his bed and waited. The valet walked back in, carrying a tray with breakfast on it. "Did you think I wouldn't notice," demanded Stephen, "that you left the draperies open?"

"What was that, m'lord?" asked his valet, blandly, placing the tray in front of him. "By the way, m'lord. Mr. Morton and Mr. Shay are already downstairs in the library. What shall I tell them?"

"Already here?" Stephen took a bite of the muffin on his tray. "What time is it, Bunbury?"

"It is nearly noon, m'lord."

"Morton and Shay are awake?" said Stephen, incredulously. "Awake and up and about?"

"So it would seem, m'lord."

"I will dress and be with them shortly," Stephen announced, pulling himself out of bed.

"Shall I set out some clothing, m'lord?"

"No, I will dress myself today. Set out some sherry for Morton and Shay."

"I already have, m'lord," Bunbury assured him, withdrawing from the room.

Stephen pulled clothing on haphazardly. He normally paid a great deal of attention to his appearance. He had been told, since he had been a young boy, that he was a strikingly good-looking man. He saw no reason not to embellish his God-given beauty with as much sartorial beauty as he could afford. But he had no interest in any of the delights of dressing well at the moment. He was more interested in taking Morton and Shay to task for the events of the night before.

Morton and Shay were drinking his sherry, in his basically book-less library. When he walked in, they launched into him immediately, cutting off his furious lecture.

"You offered for a girl?" said Morton.

"And you didn't tell us about her?" said Shay.

"How could you have done that?"

"You know we would have liked to meet her."

"Who is the chit?"

"She must be beautiful."

"Is she rich?"

"Wait a second." Stephen put up his hand to stem the tide. "What are you talking about?"

"Your impending nuptials," explained Morton, helpfully.

"I gathered. How do you know about them?"

"Why, the announcement in the newspaper," said Shay.

"The what?" repeated Stephen, and looked behind him at his butler, who silently left the room and reappeared momentarily with the newspaper. Stephen scanned over it. Mr. and Mrs. Augustus H. Bienville, of New York City, are pleased to announce the betrothal of their daughter, Miss Abigail Eleanor Bienville, to Stephen, Earl of Chesham, only son of the Duke and Duchess of Camberley. "'The happy couple will be married at St. Paul's two weeks hence?'" Stephen read aloud, in surprise. Two weeks? How had the Bienvilles managed to get St. Paul's on two weeks' notice? Who was this girl he was marrying? Fairly important, to have such power. And then it occurred to him: the power had been his. The future Duke of Camberley commanded St. Paul's. Augustus Bienville had no problem using his future son-in-law's name shamelessly. "Bloody hell," Stephen muttered, throwing the newspaper to the floor in disgust.

Morton and Shay exchanged a look.

"You don't seem much like a happy groom," ventured Morton.

"Because I am not a happy groom. This is your fault."

"My fault?" said Morton, affronted.

"Not just yours. Shay's as well. You dragged me to that bloody brothel. And now look what has happened!"

"What does the brothel have to do with it?" asked Shay, curiously.

"The girl was at the brothel." Stephen gestured at the newspaper on the floor. "Miss Abigail Eleanor Bienville. She was in my room at the brothel."

"What was she doing there?" asked Morton, disbelievingly.

"I don't know. But she was there. In my room."

"And she screamed bloody murder, didn't she?" guessed Shay, sympathetically.

She hadn't. And he couldn't figure out why she hadn't. Had he stumbled upon the one debutante with enough passion to make her an interesting bedmate? Or had she been so desperate to seal the deal with him, make her so thoroughly compromised that all his options would be closed off? If it had all been a trap, then why protest as firmly as she did?

"She tricked you!" Morton exclaimed, when Stephen was silent.

He did not think this was true. Could she really have been that cunning? Could she really have given such a spectacular performance of enjoying his ministrations? He pulled his hands through his hair. "I don't think she did. I mean, she didn't seem any more pleased with the situation than I was."

"What situation? If she wasn't pleased with it, she shouldn't have been in a brothel," said Morton.

"No, I know. Her father walked in on us. Of all the inconvenient...And I hadn't, exactly, ruined her. Not really. We could have kept the whole thing quiet, except that he wouldn't. He would have told everyone that I was alone in a room in a brothel with his daughter and refused to marry her and what would I have..." Stephen trailed off and sighed.

"You and your stupid sense of honor," scoffed Morton. "Who cares? The girl tricked you."

"She didn't trick me. I tell you, she doesn't want to marry me."

"Then why marry her?"

"Because if I don't marry her, no one else will. And that will be all my fault."

"I say again: Who cares?"

"For a girl who isn't eager to marry you, don't you think it's strange that she's scheduled the wedding for two weeks hence?" asked Shay.

"I'm fairly sure that's her parents. Believe me, she has vowed never to marry me. It's really quite a pleasant situation."

"Does she know who you are?" asked Shay.

"No. I don't think so. I mean, it came out yesterday, but she didn't seem to recognize my title."

"Once she figures it out, she'll want to marry you," Shay assured him.

Oh, and that made everything much better, thought Stephen. He did not want a girl to marry him so she could be presented to the Queen. He had always hated that thought.

"Your family's going to descend upon you en masse," remarked Morton, after a moment of silence.

"Yes," agreed Stephen. "And I remind you: It is your fault."

Stephen would have preferred to run. Anywhere. Run and hide, in a cowardly, childish manner. This was always how the prospect of time with his family affected him. He reverted back to being six years old.

The one small matter of relief was that the entire family did not show up on his doorstep.

"It is just His Grace," Bunbury told him, adjusting his cravat so it was perfect.

"Why just him?" asked Stephen. "I thought everyone would come running to criticize me. Or, possibly, they are too busy, and a small matter like my wedding should not be allowed to interfere with country calling. Wouldn't you agree, Bunbury?"

Bunbury, wisely, did not answer him.

"Where is the old man?" Stephen asked, after a second of gravely regarding his reflection in the mirror.

"I believe that Hopkins put him in the drawing room."

"Fine. Here we go. Let's see what he has to say." Stephen left his bedroom, was halfway down the staircase when he met Hopkins coming up.

Hopkins looked relieved to see him, and also slightly anxious. "His Grace insisted-"

"On what?" asked Stephen, filled with dread.

"On receiving Mr. Bienville himself. In the drawing room."

"Mr. Bienville?" said Stephen, in alarm. How could things keep getting worse? He hurried down the rest of the staircase and walked briskly into his drawing room. His father and his future father-in-law were sitting in the drawing room, talking and laughing with each other as if they were old friends, each smoking a cigar. Stephen stood in his doorway and gaped at the pair of them.

"Ah! My boy!" exclaimed his father, catching sight of him and rising. "Come in! Come in! Bienville and I were just celebrating the merging of our two families. Come and enjoy a cigar, Chesham."

She was an heiress. Stephen realized that immediately. The only thing that could make his father this jubilant was money. "It is my room and they are my cigars. I do not need to be invited to partake of either one."

"He's nervous about the wedding night," his father said to Bienville, and they both laughed heartily.

Stephen frowned.

"Do not sulk, Chesham," his father continued. "Come and have a cigar. Bienville wrote me to tell me that you had offered for his daughter. Why did you not write me, Chesham?"

Stephen said nothing. He did not move from the doorway. His father put down the cigar he'd been offering him.

"I am anxious to meet Abigail. I think she will make you a good match."

"You do not know her yet," Stephen pointed out, stiffly.

"But I trust your judgment, my boy."

"Do you? I have never noticed that."

His father looked at Bienville. "He is a heavily sardonic boy. He will grow out of that."

"I am eight-and-twenty," remarked Stephen. "I do not think I will be growing out of it."

"It does not matter," Bienville said to Stephen's father. "My daughter has a similarly, uh, peculiar sense of humor."

"Well, that makes sense," said his father.

Did his father really not realize how sudden this betrothal was? Or did he simply think that Stephen had scented money and seized it?

"Bienville wrote me," his father said to him, "so that we may begin the marriage negotiations. We do not have much time to get everything settled."

"There will be no negotiations," said Stephen.

His father shot him a warning glance. "My son is rash," he said to Bienville. "Pay him no heed."

"Last night," Stephen said, scathingly, to Bienville, "you were aghast at the idea that I may have purchased your daughter. And today you are here to tell me what you estimate her worth to be. I did not buy her last night. I will not buy her today."

"He is young," said his father, smiling charmingly at Bienville. "Young and idealistic. It is an admirable, romantic notion, Chesham. Now leave it to your elders to be practical."

"I will not buy her," Stephen insisted.

"You are not buying her," his father snapped at him. "You do not understand how expensive a woman's upkeep can be. You will have to take care of her the rest of her life. Let her father thank you for the honor of permitting her to be your duchess."

"I highly doubt that Abigail sees being my duchess as an honor," remarked Stephen, wryly.

"She will need money for all her little fripperies," said his father.

"Then perhaps we should put the dowry in a bank account that only Abigail has access to."

His father glared at him. Stephen smiled back serenely and finally moved from the doorway, over to his sherry, and poured himself some.

"Uh, if you prefer," said Bienville, clearly uncertain what to do in this strange situation.

"I would not prefer," announced Stephen, sipping his sherry.

"My son is being hasty," said his father. "Let us speak candidly with each other. I am well aware that Miss Bienville is not considered a great beauty."

"What?" said Stephen, startled. Who was he missing in society, that Abigail, with her luscious figure and her wildly gorgeous hair and her bottomless compelling deep dark blue eyes was not considered a great beauty?

His father gave him a baleful look. "Do not say ‘what,' Chesham. If you keep silent, you may at least allow people to believe you intelligent." He turned back to Bienville. "As I was saying, in her particular circle, Miss Dawson, now Lady Newcombe, was considered the prettiest, with Miss Dorsey the next prettiest. Your daughter rates a distant third place. Now my son, on the other hand, is generally considered one of the most attractive men of his generation of the aristocracy."

"What?" interjected Stephen again. He was having difficulty believing the words coming out of his father's mouth. He knew he was generally considered attractive, but it seemed incomprehensible to him that his father would proclaim this as a point of pride in the marriage negotiations.

His father ignored him. "And, on top of that, he possesses one of the oldest and most well-respected titles in Great Britain. The price for my son to accept a bride so beneath him will inevitably be high."

Stephen was bristling with fury. It had been building slowly since he had heard of his father's arrival, and it had not been helped by hearing him refer to Abigail was unpretty. But to say she was beneath him was taking things a step too far. He walked firmly over to stand between the two men. "There will be no money changing hands. I will not make this marriage any more of a transaction than it already is, and I believe Abigail would appreciate that. I will support my wife, as is my duty as a husband."

"Again, a noble idea," his father spat out, plainly barely keeping his temper in check. "But you speak from youth, not from experience. Your wife will be accustomed to a certain way of living. If you do not keep her in that style, she will grow to resent you."

"I appreciate your marital advice," Stephen assured him, dryly. "But I am hoping that my marriage fares a bit better than yours."

His father narrowed his eyes at him.

"And," Stephen continued, "at any rate I do not believe my relationship with my wife will be improved by my accepting a great deal of money from her father to ally myself with a woman I consider less beautiful than myself. I am not displeased with my choice for a wife," he assured his father, coldly. The sentence made it sound as if he had indeed chosen her, a startling thought. But he did not understand these men, buying and selling Abigail Bienville as calmly as they were. Stephen sat down on the couch opposite Bienville and looked at him firmly. "No money," he said. "Not for me, and Abigail will not need it either."

Bienville stood hastily, apparently seeing that he might be able to get his daughter a duchess without spending a dime. "It seems your son has made up his mind, Camberley." He turned toward Stephen. "I admire your determination. My daughter has truly chosen an interesting young man."

Stephen cocked an eyebrow. "Interesting?"

"But-" sputtered his father, helplessly.

Bienville smiled at him benevolently. "Sometimes, Camberley, we must listen to the wisdom of our children." Bienville swept out of the room.

Stephen frowned after him in displeasure. The man had traded his daughter for a title, and did not seem at all concerned about whether or not he actually had the ability to provide for her. He might actually be doing Abigail a favor by marrying her out from under the authority of the man.

"Do you know what you have done?" his father shouted at him, plainly in a rage.

Stephen shifted his attention back to him, sipped his sherry casually. "I have never approved of the practice. The buying and selling of women. It is the reason I never go to brothels. Except for when I suffer temporary insanity."

"I noticed you never had any trouble lavishing money on your mistresses, though. You have had one duty to this family! To marry an heiress! And here you are marrying an heiress, and you have refused her money! She is a first-rate heiress! I looked into it for you. Like all Americans, they have money to burn."

"You looked into it for you," Stephen cut in, furiously. "Not for me."

"I will not deny that your wife's money could have kept your sisters and their families, your mother and me, for the rest of our lives."

"I notice you express absolutely no concern about what would happen to me and my family."

"I express as much regard for you as you do for me," his father shot back. "You have one asset, and I have given it to you: your title. The one thing you could barter for a woman with a great deal of money. And now you have squandered it. How do you propose to support yourself and your bride? Because I will no longer pay for your extravagant lifestyle."

"Extravagant lifestyle? I hardly lead an extravagant lifestyle, when compared to your life of utter dissolution. The Merritts would still have a fortune, were it not for you. I will not begrudge you your women, although they must be irrelevant at your age. And I do not even mind the gambling. It is the gambling and the losing that is so ill-mannered."

"I see." His father tipped him a mocking, ironic smile. "And how do you propose to go about rebuilding the Merritt fortune?"

"The key to rebuilding the Merritt fortune is that it will be the Merritt fortune, not the Bienville fortune. And I will rebuild it, and I will never ask my son to marry some woman he doesn't really care for simply to fund my ‘extravagant lifestyle.'"

"I do not know how you propose to make this fortune. You have never been dazzling in that particular way, my boy."

"I assure you that you are the only person in this room who knows only how to make a fortune disappear."

"You forget who you are speaking to."

"I know perfectly well you are the Duke of Camberley. As I am the Earl of Chesham, forgive me for not being overwhelmed, your Grace."

His father stood up, white with fury. "I wish you did not look so much like me. Because then I could at least console myself with the thought that you were not my son."

"Do not let the biology of it disappoint you, Father," Stephen said, nonchalantly, looking up at him. "You may still rest assured that I am no son of yours."

"Indeed," he snapped, before turning on his heel and stalking out of the room.

Somewhere, distantly, Stephen heard a door slam. He looked down into his glass of sherry. It was true that he had always intended to make his own fortune, not steal that of his wife. But it was also true that he had never intended on marrying until after the fortune had been secured. He could not really provide for Abigail yet. The investments he'd made had not yet begun to pay full dividends. He was going to have to step up his pace. And why he should do this for the sake of this troublesome woman he was now engaged to was somewhat troubling. Except he was annoyed at the thought that her father seemed to care so little about her future.

Stephen sighed.

"Will you be needing anything, m'lord?" Hopkins asked him.

"No." Stephen stood. "Give my father anything he wants. I'm going out."

It was inexcusable that he should not call on her. Granted, she had not wanted him to call on her. She had dreaded the whole affair. But it was such bad manners for him not to show up. After returning from Lucy's, she had waited all day for him, determined to be as off-putting toward him as she could manage.

But he had not come.

And then he had not come the following day. Except that her father returned in a jubilant mood, saying that he had called upon him and that the Earl of Chesham had turned down the dowry. Her parents seemed to accept this as more evidence of her brilliance. Not only had she contrived to be a duchess, but it would not cost them anything more than the wedding! And the wedding was to be impossibly cheap, as it was happening so quickly there was little time for extravagance.

She was annoyed with her fianc Did he intend to show up at the altar and say "I will" and then dart off again? He could not even do her the common courtesy of calling upon her, to be formally introduced to her? Miserable man.

Abby eschewed dinner, pleading a headache, then climbed out of her window. Her father had told her where the Earl's townhouse was, bragging about how beautiful it was, in what a fashionable area of the city it was in. One would think he was marrying the Earl, for God's sake, Abby thought, uncharitably, as she trudged to her future husband's home.

She paused in front of it and considered. She could knock on the front door, but she somehow was too embarrassed to have the butler announce her. Would the butler recognize her name, and wonder why he had to meet the lady of the house for the first time when she showed up at the door? Or would he not even recognize her name, which would be even more humiliating?

She made her decision, walked around the back and climbed up the ivy clinging to the house. She nudged open one of the French doors lining the back balcony of his house and found herself in a bedroom. It had the stiff, formal feeling of a guest room, seldom used, although there was a lamp burning in it and a valise open on the bed. The guest room was presently in use, although there was no one in it. But it was not the Earl of Chesham's room.

Abby eased the door open, looked up and down the hallway. There was no one stirring. She chose a direction and tiptoed to the next door. The room it revealed was dark. The Earl's room would be lit, she thought. Waiting for him to retire.

She opened the next door, and smiled in triumph. The room was ablaze with light. It was expansive and comfortably furnished, with a large bed, a grand fireplace, an inviting armchair set by the window. She sat in the armchair, prepared to wait for her fianc

He was a long time in coming. Abby, growing more and more bored and more and more irritated with the man, shifted around in the seat. She wished she had thought to bring cards, something to pass the time. She noticed the book on the table by his bed, and crawled onto his bed and picked it up. Macbeth. Well, she thought, opening the book. He seemed to have at least some literary taste. That was something.

She opened the book and began reading, and she was curled on her side in his bed, halfway through the third act, when he opened the door and blinked at her in astonishment.


© Copyright 2018 Priscilla Darcy. All rights reserved.

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