This is an excerpt from the novel (or possibly long novella) I’m writing for release in late July. This story grew out of the adventures that the Marquess of Aldridge had at the Bluestocking Belles inn. Catherine Curzon and I wrote a long chase, a mixed courtship and negotiation, between my Aldridge and her 18th Century Mrs Angel. They could meet only in the timeless world of the inn, but they inspired this novel.
Mrs Darling is by no means Mrs Angel. She is an altogether more naive and vulnerable creature. But Aldridge continues to be Aldridge, and has no idea of the Pandora’s Box he is opening when he conceives a retirement plan for his mistress of three years.
What follows is not Aldridge’s story. But it is Becky’s, and it is Hugh’s.
This excerpt comes near the beginning of Becky’s story, when she and Aldridge are still negotiating.
After an anxious start to the visit, Becky decided to take it as a holiday. The Marquess of Aldridge left to ransom her and Sarah from the man Perry owed money to. At her insistence, he’d taken her few good pieces of jewellery—far fewer than she’d hoped. Next time, she would have any presents checked by a jeweller!
The press of Aldridge’s hands, and the warmth in his eyes when he made his farewells, gave her hope that he might be her next time.
Meanwhile, the Earl and Countess of Chirbury treated her like a guest, and Sarah was in heaven in the upstairs nursery, with the Countess’s daughter and sister, both of whom welcomed a new playmate. For a few days, she could pretend to a life far further up the ranks of the gentry than she would ever have achieved, even if she hadn’t fallen before her sixteenth birthday.
Aldridge returned triumphant.
“Smite agreed,” he told her, catching her alone in the rose garden where two or three late roses clung to the last remnants of their blooms. He sat down beside her on the stone seat, taking up the centre so that she had to lean against the curved arm to keep some distance between them. “You and Sarah are free.”
“How can we thank you?” she said.
“I’m sure we can think of something,” he replied, leaning into her so she could feel his strength, but not his weight, his warmth sparking a responding heat. His complacent assumption, after five days of being treated like a lady, sparked a contrary impulse to deny him, at least for the moment.
She slid sideways off the bench and stood, focusing on smoothing her skirts as she said, “Perhaps you would accept a few pounds a quarter until the debt is repaid?”
“I would accept a kiss on account,” he said.
“Certainly,” she replied. “Sarah would be delighted to give you a kiss. You are quite her hero.”
The moment she spoke she wanted to take it back. She didn’t want to lose him, after all. But no, he was grinning at her, his head cocked to one side and a light in his eyes that said she had his interest. Ahah. The man enjoyed the pursuit. Well then, Becky would lead him on a right merry chase.
“If you will excuse me, my lord, I promised to help the countess with her knitting.”
She dropped a curtsey and made her escape before he could think of a smart response.
He was waiting for her in the hall outside the countess’s sitting room an hour later.
“I had in mind something more personal than soulless pounds,” he said, without preamble.
“Perhaps I could bake you a cake,” she suggested.
“Certainly what I have in mind involves tasting,” he answered smoothly. “Some licking, undoubtedly. Perhaps a little gentle biting.”
Goodness, it was hot for October.
“A single meal, my lord?”
“Once would not be enough, dear Mrs Darling. Do you not agree?”
If she was not very careful, she would agree to anything he said. “An arrangement, then.”
“Certainly, an arrangement.” He took her hand as he walked beside her, and placed a single chaste kiss on a fingertip before sucking the whole finger into his mouth in a far from chaste gesture.
“Do you garden, my lord?” Her voice was unsteady.
“Garden? No, I don’t garden.”
“I had a garden at Niddberrow. I thought the cottage was mine, you see. Perringworth promised me a house.”
“A woman should have her own house,” Aldridge agreed. “But a woman like you deserves a townhouse in London rather than a cottage in the country.”
“London is so large, though. If I lived in London, would I not need a carriage?”
“A phaeton perhaps, that you could drive in Hyde Park during the promenading hour,” Aldridge suggested.
“It does sound lovely,” she said, but lost what she was going to say next as he whisked her into a curtained alcove and proceeded to kiss her so thoroughly that she almost forgot her campaign plan.
He let Becky go, though, when she pulled back.
“Something on account?” she teased.
“A promise of things to come,” Aldridge said.
“Perhaps.” She peeked cautiously around the curtain and then hurried away down the silent hall.
Aldridge next approached her after dinner, sitting on the other side of the love seat she had deliberately chosen in a shadowed corner of the great parlour, out of the direct view of the earl, who was playing the pianoforte, and the countess, who was turning the pages for him.
“I love that dark blue on you, Mrs D,” he said.
She blushed. Her lovers had seldom bothered to compliment her to her face, though extravagant and excruciatingly bad poetry had been written to the Rose of Frampton by those who didn’t have her in their keeping.
“It needs something else, though,” Aldridge commented. He pulled out a tissue-wrapped package. “This is a nothing. Not the diamonds and sapphires I thought of buying. But when I saw it was just the colour of your eyes, I had to have it.”
‘This’ was a shawl in patterns of blue, so fine that it was small enough when rolled to fit into his jacket pocket, but large enough to wrap warmly around her shoulders. She jumped up to examine it in the mirror, and he followed her, standing inches away, but leaning forward to breathe on her ear as he said, “Exquisite.”
“Something on account?” she asked again.
“Not this time. A present, given freely, with no expectation of reward. Because I admire you, lovely Rose.”
She had to remind herself of every rumour she had heard about the man. And even then, if she hadn’t heard him working his charm on Smite’s men, she might have unravelled as he clearly expected. No wonder he had left such a string of broken hearts behind him.
“And in return,” she told him, “I freely give you my thanks, my lord.”
It was worth it to see the moment’s stunned amazement before the amused look reappeared. “Well played, Mrs D.,” he murmured, just before Lady Chirbury called her to the pianoforte.