A Woman of Good Reputation

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

Chapter 6 (v.1)

Submitted: May 06, 2007

Reads: 569

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Submitted: May 06, 2007

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Stephen was coming. For some reason, this filled her with an irresistible sense of excitement. She had meant to chastise him last night, for failing to come and call on her, to help her solve the problem of their impending marriage. Things had not gone as she had planned them, and she thought that absolutely, unexpectedly wonderful. He wanted her. And she wanted him. It was true that they knew little about each other, but surely any marriage so obviously built on mutual passion had a strong foundation.

And he seemed not to mind the fact that she was so distressingly unladylike. Abby had never had much use for propriety, but she was alarmed at the driving, confusing physicality of her desire for her fianc Abby did not know much about the marriage bed, but she did have some understanding that women were not supposed to enjoy it. She did not know what was wrong with her that she did seem to enjoy it. Unless what Stephen did to her was not part of the marriage bed, although she thought firmly that it was. The kissing and caressing were surely things that took place between husbands and wives. And she loved them. She wanted more and more of them. She could not help her reaction to them. She felt mindless, outside of herself, when she was near him. It was terrifying and shocking and distressing... and Stephen did not seem to care.

Stephen did not seem to care about any of her more unladylike tendencies. He had not truly taken her to task over her unseemly presence in the brothel. And he had not ranted and raved about her crawling through his bedroom window the night before. Instead, he had said that he thought it a wonderful idea, began immediately undressing. And then, when she had actually asked him for a last kiss, and it had occurred to her how unsatisfying she must appear as a future duchess, what had he said? She knew exactly what he had said, because she had been repeating it in her head all night. It is your loveliest feature, I do assure you.

She took great care in choosing her outfit. She did not usually take such care with her appearance. She knew her best friends were considered two of the prettiest debutantes of the day, and she knew that she suffered by comparison. But Stephen had not yet met Lucy or Meg. She thought she could easily convince Stephen that he was marrying a beautiful woman. She could make him proud of her.

She regarded her reflection in the mirror. She was wearing a white lawn skirt and a pale blue coat over her lace-throated blouse. She had twisted her curls into obedience on her head, under a pale blue and white hat that matched perfectly her outfit and that she tipped jauntily over her forehead. She thought she looked well. She hoped he would be pleased. Smiling at herself, she ran her hands over the fabric of her skirt. She had had the maid pull her corset as tight as she could bear. She rested her hands on the curve of her waist, pleased with it. Maybe, she thought, she would not shame the title of Countess of Chesham.

"Miss Bienville," began the maid, knocking on her door.

"Is he here?" asked Abby, practically squealing with excitement. She dashed out of her bedroom door, paused at the top of the staircase and looked down it eagerly.

Stephen was indeed standing at the foot of the stairs, with his father and her parents. And he looked downright glum. He looked at her with little interest, and Abby felt worse than disappointed. She felt angry.

"Miss Bienville," he said, with a formal tip of his head.

He seemed so cold and aloof that she did not know how to react to him. Maybe, she thought, it was the setting. Always before they had met in bedrooms, and then, possibly, her behavior did not seem so shocking. Now, here on drawing-room terms, he was probably thinking how thoroughly inappropriate she was.

Stephen was thinking nothing of the sort, and he had barely registered her appearance at the top of the staircase. He was looking about the house with a sinking feeling in his stomach. She was rich. She was very, very rich. He could not afford this. Not now. Possibly not ever. And how could he ask her to marry him and then not give her all that she was accustomed to? The dowry suddenly seemed to him necessary. Above and beyond his father's bit of blackmail. He wondered if it could be structured as a loan. He would pay it back with interest, he thought.

He suddenly realized that Abigail was in front of him. Talking to him. Saying something about the back garden. Looking at him with a question in her eyes.

The back garden, he thought. She had contrived after all to get them alone. He was grateful for it. "But first I must attend to some unfinished business with your father," he heard himself say.

Abigail looked at him in confusion.

"Come," her mother said, taking her arm and smiling broadly. "We will wait outside for the men to conclude their business."

Abby let her mother lead her outside. She was irritated with Stephen's absent reception of her. His mind had been on other things. Money, she thought. Probably the business with the dowry. She did not understand what was going on with the dowry. She would have to make a point of asking him.

She sat, picking up a croquet mallet and twirling it idly in her hands. It was another lovely day outside, and she had fought hard to move the party outside. Her mother was concerned about freckles for the wedding. The papers would cover the wedding, and her mother did not want it said that Abigail Bienville had freckles.

Stephen emerged onto the bright sunlight of the verandah, and he looked drawn and exhausted. He was dressed impeccably, and it occurred to her that she had never seen him dressed anything short of impeccably. The dazzle of his burnished hair was blinding, as he walked over to her and bowed stiffly.

"Are you quite well, my lord?" she asked him, in surprised concern.

"I have been better," he admitted. "But it is nothing of any moment."

"Come, my lord." She handed him his mallet, smiling brightly. "We are going to play croquet."

"We are going to what?" he said, blankly.

She waved cheerfully at her mother and practically bounded off the verandah. Stephen watched her, then, feeling slow and stupid, followed after her. The "back garden" was not much of a garden. It was indeed just a patch of grass. And a game of croquet had been set into position on it.

"You see?" she said, looking pleased with herself, gesturing around. "We are alone."

Stephen stared at her. Then he looked back at her mother, watching them closely. "Alone? In what way?"

"Alone. We can have private conversation."

"Is that why you thought I requested time alone with you? For conversation?"

She blushed. "Well, no. But however was I to get you into my bedroom?"

"I didn't need a bedroom," he muttered in annoyance.

"It was damn difficult orchestrating this," she informed him, crossing her arms, "and you might show some gratitude for it."

"I thought you didn't approve of that language."

"I don't approve of it when you use it in front of me. I may speak any way I damn well please." She cracked her ball smartly through the first wicket. "Your shot."

Stephen stood where he was, clutching his mallet and looking at the cricket ball on the ground in front of him.

Abby stood with her hands on her hips and watched him. "You are a miserable suitor, you know. Any other suitor would have taken advantage of what I have done here to make love to me."

"How can I make love to you, with your mother watching our every move? I confess I had no intention of moving slowly but I do not think I will accomplish much before she pulls me off you."

She blushed again. "I did not mean that. Must we always talk of that?"

"I am in a foul mood. I apologize. It's bloody hot out here."

"You may remove your coat, if you like."

"I do not wish to play croquet."

"If we do not play croquet, we will have to go inside and make conversation with our parents. Please, Stephen. I was so looking forward to our getting acquainted."

It was the fact that she called him Stephen that did it. He looked glumly from his fianc, looking so smart and beautiful in her blue and white and her playful hat, to his cricket ball. And he heard himself say, "I do not know how to play."

There was a moment of silence. "Don't know how to play?" she said. "How can that be? Didn't you play as a child?"

Stephen looked out over the croquet wickets. "I was not very much encouraged to play games as a child," he admitted, trying to make it sound charming and light instead of maddeningly pathetic.

There was another moment of silence. "I shall teach you then," she decided. "It is not a difficult game."

Stephen looked toward the back verandah. His father and her father had walked out onto the verandah, their business apparently concluded. He looked back at Abigail. "I would rather not learn the game right now. Perhaps another time."

Abigail was looking thoughtfully off at his father. Then she looked back at him. "Do you really think he'll think less of you because you can't play croquet? He was remiss not to teach you."

Stephen looked at her for a second. "I don't think he can think any less of me than he already does."

"Then. What does it matter, my lord?"

It was the way she smiled at him, so soft, so private, so just the two of them and their words and their thoughts. There was a very real moment in which he felt that he was no longer looking into her blue eyes but into the sky itself, the world inside her seemed so enormous and free. He turned abruptly toward his cricket ball. "Ball through wicket, yes?"

"Yes."

Stephen stood awkwardly holding his mallet. "How am I supposed to hold this bloody thing?"

She demonstrated wordlessly. He copied, succeeded in connecting the head of the mallet with his ball. It rolled a few feet away from him, completely missing the wicket.

"Harder, my lord," she said, walking to her own ball.

"What's that?" he said, wishing he had not heard it as a plea to him in bed rather than a directive regarding cricket.

"Harder," she tossed over her shoulder at him, as she lined up his shot. "You must play with purpose. Swift, firm motions." She whacked her ball through the next wicket. "You see? One hard, quick stroke."

Stephen was standing fixedly by his cricket ball, looking at her with an odd expression his face. "We must stop talking about croquet," he said, thickly.

She blinked. "It does not interest you, my lord?"

"It interests me far too much, is the problem. Is it my shot?"

"Yes, my lord."

"Must you ‘my lord' me at every given opportunity?" He hit his ball a trifle harder this time. It collided with hers and knocked it a little way away. "Sorry," he said.

"No, very good shot." She lined up with her ball, knocked it back into position. "It is habit. I'm sorry."

Stephen hit his ball in a haphazard fashion, not wishing to aim because he was ashamed at how badly he would miss his mark. "Your father calls you Abby," he commented.

"My friends do," she said, lining up her shot. Then she paused and straightened and looked at him. "You may call me Abby, if you wish."

"Were you ever going to invite me to call you Abby?"

"I thought it would happen naturally. As we spent more time together. That we would naturally fall into nicknames."

"You are not ever to call me Steve."

She grinned at him. "Nonsense. I thought I might call you Buttercup. Or Cuddlekins."

"Dear God," said Stephen.

She laughed and whacked her ball through the next wicket.

Stephen lined up a shot and watched in amazement as his ball twirled its way through a wicket. He turned to her in unabashed delight and pointed. "Did you see?"

"I did see." He was adorable in his triumph. She decided against telling him that he had hit the ball through completely the wrong wicket. Stephen could play croquet however he liked, she thought. He could hit the ball wherever he wanted. She felt devastatingly sorry for him that he had never played as a boy.

"That was really not bad," he remarked, proudly. "I believe I am beginning to master the game of croquet."

Abby did not laugh at him. She knew it would be a fatal misstep. But she did something else entirely, a fatal misstep of its own kind. She leaned over and kissed his cheek. And, when she drew back, she did not move immediately away from him.

"You should not have done that," he said, in a low voice.

"It was dreadfully improper of me," she conceded, appalled that she had done it. "I am sorry."

"Are your parents watching us?"

"Every move."

"Bloody hell," he mumbled, and took a long step away from her. "Make your shot."

She hesitated. She walked over to her ball and cracked at it in a distracted manner. "I am sorry that I kissed you."

"That was not kissing me. Not really."

"You know what I mean."

"I do not mind," he said, and whacked his ball very hard. It ricocheted entirely off the playing field, colliding with a sharp thwack with the brick wall at the far side of the garden. "I'll be back," said Stephen, looking relieved to flee her immediate vicinity.

Abby, frowning, kept alternating her shots with Stephen, until he had got his ball back into some sort of relative position on the field.

"Two weeks seems to me like entirely too long a time to wait," he said, suddenly, breaking the silence stretching between them.

"What?" she asked, in surprise.

"It is too long, dammit." He stood with his mallet, looking cross. "I need a good night's sleep. I am not going to get it until you are in the bed beside me. Two weeks is entirely too long to wait."

She blushed. It was not her shot but she played anyway, to have something to do. "Why must we wait two weeks?" she said, carefully studying the position of her ball on the field.

"Exactly what I am thinking."

"I can come to you tonight," she said.

He looked at her abruptly. She was facing away from him, leaning over to study the position of her ball on the field.

When he said nothing, she straightened and said, quickly, pleadingly, "Forget I said anything. It was terribly improper of me. I do not know what you think of me. Please don't tell my father."

"Why would I tell your father that?" he asked, incredulously.

"I do not know what is wrong with me, and I apologize for the way I behave when I am with you, and forgive me for being blunt, but I feel amazing when you..." She had been speaking in a rush, and she paused to catch her breath. "That is to say that I... I am so confused by this entire situation, but the only time I do not feel confused is when you are... I will make you a good countess, I promise you I will, you must not think that my behavior is-"

"Hush," he cut in, softly. "I am not displeased with you. I have never been. I wish you were not alarmed that you have not been behaving like a lady. I have not been behaving at all like a gentleman, either. We are even on that score. Is it my play?"

She was gazing at him inscrutably. "Yes," she said, after a second.

He did not play. He stayed where he was, hesitating. "Abigail. Abby. There is something I must tell you."

"What is it?" she asked, in foreboding.

"I. .. had to accept your dowry," he said, awkwardly. "Merely as a loan. I will pay it all back, I promise you. With interest."

She shook her head a bit. "I do not understand the business with the dowry, Stephen. It is your reward. For agreeing to manage me for the rest of my life." She said it with a trace of bitterness.

"Yes," he said. "Yes, I know. And that is why I do not want it. You said you did not want a marriage that was a cold transaction in a bank. I want that no more than you do. I need no reward, Abby. I should consider myself very lucky to have a countess as comely as you. But there are circumstances.. ."

"Let us speak no more of it," she said, shakily. She was melting for him. She wanted to throw herself into his arms for his speech. "I would not take the gift of your title, my lord, without providing you something in return. And it is kind of you to say I am comely, but you could do much better, you know. You are quite the handsomest man I have ever met."

He flickered her a quick smile, then, feeling awkward, turned to whack his ball across the field.

"Abby!" called her mother. "Lady Newcombe and Miss Dorsey are here."

Stephen turned in surprise. Two women had arrived, were standing on the back verandah.

"I hope you do not mind," Abby said to him. "I wanted them to meet you." Then she took off at a quick run to the verandah.

Stephen sighed, followed after her. He had never met the Countess of Newcombe, although he had heard of her beauty. She was indeed breathtaking, had skin like porcelain and fine golden hair and a pair of bright eyes. She was also increasing, as he had heard, but he had not expected her to be quite so advanced. He was a bit surprised she had even left the house. And he understood for once why the rumors were flying about the baby's paternity.

Miss Dorsey was of a similar vein of beauty, not quite the equal of the Countess of Newcombe but certainly a conventionally breathtaking sort of beauty. Stephen understood how Abby had been considered the least pretty of the trio, but he preferred her. Abby's beauty was striking; it was born of vivacity, of spirit, of the flash in her eyes and the smile on her lips. It was not this classical, untouchable beauty. It was all fire.

Wasn't it the very reason why he wanted her so badly?

She had hugged her friends, another example of her lack of decorum that Stephen noticed his father frowning over. Then she said, beckoning him forward, "My lord, the Countess of Newcombe and Miss Dorsey."

"How do you do?" Stephen asked, politely.

"Lucy and Meg are my best friends in the world," Abby explained to him.

"Well, I am very glad," he said. He was, too. Her parents did not seem to care overmuch about her. He was glad her friends were currently looking him over critically. Someone should be judging his potential as a husband.

"Shall we go in to tea?" said Abby's mother.

Stephen offered his arm to the Countess, said, "Your husband and I were mates at Eton, Lady Newcombe."

"So he said," she replied.

"Please send him my warmest felicitations on your wedding and the impending birth."

"Thank you, my lord."

She did not seem inclined to warm to him, but that did not worry him. He was confident of his ability to win her over eventually.

His father had taken in both Abby and Miss Dorsey. They all seated themselves and embarked on the social convention of tea.

The tea, all in all, was pleasanter than he would have supposed. The Countess of Newcombe and Miss Dorsey seemed genuinely interested in everything he said, and they, in return, were not prattering fools. He had not supposed that Abby would have foolish friends, nor had he supposed that Newcombe would choose a foolish wife, but it was still a relief.

There was a definite possibility, he thought, that things would turn out well here. He could certainly have done much worse. Abby was not conventionally beautiful, it was true, but she was vividly beautiful, which was better. No one would forget the Countess of Cheshem, he thought. And no one would say that she looked like every other woman in the room. And he found that he liked the idea. He would be envied his wife, and he liked that. So she was satisfyingly beautiful. She wanted him, and seemed inclined toward passion in bed. Always extremely desirable in a wife. She was not a crashing bore. Indeed, she was not boring in the least. In the little conversation he'd had with her, he'd found her interesting and entertaining, clever and somewhat teasing and a little dry. All in all, she was appealing. She looked strong enough to breed well, would give him the sons he needed. And he thought, if he kept her in silks, that she would not fight him over his ideas about raising them. She was a bit unconventional, it was true, but she was young still. He was confident that would fade. Yes, he could have done much, much worse. The main problem was that he had meant to have made his fortune before he offered for a woman. Other than that, he was well-pleased.

As they took their leave, he bowed over Abby's hand and murmured, "Come to me tonight." He met her eyes, to make sure she had understood him.

She nodded, almost imperceptibly.

He winked, feeling in a marvelous mood. He did not even mind when his father said to him, condescendingly, in the carriage on the way home, "I am very proud of you, my boy. For accepting the dowry."

"Even if I insisted on it becoming a loan?" Stephen looked across at him, arching an eyebrow.

His father chuckled. "You will be the one paying it back. I do not mind at all."

Stephen leaned back in the seat and looked outside the window idly. He was satisfied, he thought. It was the best he could hope for the moment.

"I was wondering, Chesham, if you would consider going to Camberley for your honeymoon."

"Camberley?" Stephen looked at him in surprise.

"Your mother and sisters will be eager to meet your lovely bride."

And he couldn't very well afford to take Abby to the Continent. If he was going to start clawing the Merritts out of debt- including the brand new debt to the Bienvilles- he had to start living a bit more leanly. "Camberley will be fine."

His father went out to dinner. He stayed home, ate quickly, because he was uncertain when Abby would be able to get away. He sent Bunbury away, and set about dimming the lamps and lighting candles. He thought Abby might appreciate the atmosphere.

Then he sat by the window and waited for her to climb through it.

He was just beginning to grow restless when there was a knock on his bedroom door. Stephen looked up in surprise. Had Abby chosen a more conventional route this time? "Come in."

"A message for you, sir," said Hopkins, walking in and handing it to him.

"Thank you, Hopkins," he said, waiting for the butler to withdraw.

E of C was written across the piece of paper, in a hurried hand. He unfolded it. There is a guard posted outside my window. I will seek to distract him, but am uncertain I will be able to keep our appointment. Yrs, A. Stephen crumpled the note in disgust and tossed it aside with an oath.

"Bad news, Chesham?" asked his father, pausing as he passed by his open bedroom door. "Wait. Do not tell me. Your fianc will not be crawling through your window tonight, will she?"

Stephen regarded him sourly. "Posted a guard outside her window, did you?"

"I merely suggested to her father that he keep a closer eye on her. After all, my son will not be marrying a woman someone else has ruined."

"And we do not want to give him cause for insisting that I marry her without a dowry," remarked Stephen.

"You are finally beginning to understand, my boy. Good night," he called, pleasantly, as he departed.

Stephen fell with a sigh onto his bed.


© Copyright 2019 Priscilla Darcy. All rights reserved.

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