At the sound of Aldridge’s voice, Eleanor, Duchess of Haverford composed her face, smoothing the slight frown that creased her forehead and forcing a smile as she turned from her desk to greet this beloved guest.
“My love,” she said, as he crossed to press a kiss on the hand she raised for him, and then on one cheek. The boy looked well. He had a spring to his step that had long been missing, his eyes were clear and bright, and his cheerful grin had lost the cynical twist so pronounced a bare few months ago—to her eye, at least.
Eleanor hoped what she had to say would not cast him back into melancholy.
Aldridge had been raised with the finest manners money could buy. He took the seat he was offered, complimented her on the success of her most recent entertainment, asked about the book her companion was reading, discussed the likelihood of rain on Tuesday next, and generally kept up his end of the conversation without once showing impatience or asking why she had sent for him.
He must be wondering, though. “Cousin Judith,” Eleanor said to her companion, “I would like a few minutes of private conversation with my son. Would you leave us, please? I will send when I want you.”
“What do you plan for that one, Mama?” Aldridge asked. Haverford had an army of indigent relatives, with nothing to do but hang on the ducal coat tails. Eleanor had long since formed the habit of taking the women one by one as companions, finding their talents and interests, and helping them into positions that suited their skills.
“Not, I think, a marriage, my dear. A library perhaps. She is happiest with her head in a book. Or, I begin to think, perhaps she might be persuaded to try her hand at a memoir or a Gothick. She writes the most delightful letters. I can see her living with Cousin Harriet in a comfortable little house, writing spine-chilling stories and having a most wonderful time.”
Aldridge chuckled. “Cousin Harriet, is it? The one that breeds dogs and hates men? Mama, you are a complete hand.”
“I collect that is a slang expression, Aldridge darling,” she said attempting to be disapproving, but twinkling back at him. He really was a sweet boy.
“You must be wondering why I sent for you,” she began.
He leaned over to kiss her cheek again. “Because you missed me?” he suggested. “I have neglected you shamefully, Mama, these past weeks.”
An opening. Eleanor took it. “These past six months, Aldridge. Since you took Mrs Winstanley into your keeping. You have been much engrossed, I take it.”
Aldridge sat back, his eyes suddenly wary. “I am sure discussing one’s mistress with one’s mother is not de rigueur,” he complained.
“Introducing one’s mistress to one’s Mama opens one to such comments, dear,” Eleanor teased, ignoring the subtle withdrawal evidenced in the suddenly bland voice, the stiffness of his posture.
As she’d hoped, Aldridge relaxed, a fleeting grin lifting one corner of his mouth.
But the matter was serious enough. “One hears remarks, my dear. Hostesses who lack the Merry Marquis at their affairs; gentlemen who must play their merry japes without their boon companion; even His Grace your father has commented you have abandoned your usual pursuits.”
“His Grace has no reason to complain. I do my work.”
“Yes, my love. You are an excellent manager. But, Aldridge, I am concerned.”
“You have nothing to be concerned about, Mama.” It would be an exaggeration to say her tall elegant son flung himself to his feet, but he certainly rose more quickly and less smoothly than usual, and then stalked with controlled deliberation to the brandy decanter she kept for him on the sideboard. “May I…?”
She nodded her permission, and he poured a drink while she decided how to approach her topic. It was harder than she expected. She yearned to tell him to do what pleased him, to stay in the fools’ paradise he was building with the lovely Becky.
But she could not ignore the duty owed to the young woman. Eleanor, who seldom allowed herself to feel such a plebian and useless emotion as guilt, was aware she should have given Becky the means to escape when they met six months earlier. She had quite deliberately put Aldridge’s need for Becky’s brand of comfort ahead of Becky’s evident desire to abandon the life of a courtesan. She did not feel guilty. But she did acknowledge a debt.
“You are not the one for whom I am concerned, Aldridge,” she said.
He had been studying his brandy, but glanced up at that, a quick look from beneath level brows before he drew them into something of a frown.
“Mrs Winstanley, dear. I am concerned for Mrs Winstanley.”
Another quick movement, this one sending the brandy sloshing in the tumbler, but he steadied his hand before it spilled. “No need, Mama. Becky and I are very happy.”
“You spend all your time with her, Aldridge. If you are not at her townhouse, she is in the heir’s wing. If you travel, she travels with you. Last time you went to Margate, you stayed with her in the town rather than at Haverford Castle.”
“You are very well informed, my dear.” Eleanor knew that cold ducal tone, but from her husband’s lips, not her son’s. Almost, she stopped. But no; she would do her duty; she had always done her duty.
She matched his tone with her own. “You employ Haverford servants, Aldridge. They answer my questions, as they should.” But this was not to the point. Better to just spit it out.
“If you continue as you are, you will break Rebecca Winstanley’s heart, Aldridge. She deserves better from you.”
Whatever he expected, that wasn’t it. He was too controlled to openly gape, but the muscles of his jaw relaxed. He recovered himself and took a sip of his brandy, gaining time while he thought. It was a trick she used herself.
“What can you offer her, Aldridge? A year? Two? And then what? You cannot marry her, of course…” Was that a flare of longing she saw, quickly suppressed? Merciful heavens, had it gone so far, then?
“You cannot, Aldridge. Even if we could find a way to conceal her past—and with the interest your marriage will attract, every tiny detail of your wife’s history will be uncovered and inspected—she is lower gentry, if gentry at all.”
“Lower gentry,” he conceded, reluctantly. “But what does that matter, Mama? Peers have married beneath them before. What of Chandos? Or, if you want a more recent example, Marquis Wellesley? ”
Eleanor struggled to show no hint of her alarm, keeping her voice level as she said, “And their wives have suffered for it, Aldridge. Their estates, too. You would be doing Mrs Winstanley no favour, Aldridge, even if her past did not come to light. And it would.
“Besides, your duty to your name precludes such an action. You will be Haverford. Your wife will be mother of the next Haverford.
“And consider your little half-sisters, who will only be able to overcome the circumstances of their birth if Society continues to pretend they are my protégées and not your father’s base-born daughters.
“You cannot marry your mistress.”
He opened his mouth to argue, but suddenly the fight drained out of him, taking, it seemed, his ability to stay upright. He sank into a chair, all the joy gone from his face leaving it bleak and lonely.
” I know, Mama. Truly.”
He fell silent again, cradling his brandy in front of his chin and staring into nothing.
She had to ask. “Does she seek marriage, my son?”
Aldridge’s short laugh was unamused. “Becky? Of course not. She has no expectations at all. Not even of common courtesy or kindness, let alone of being treated like the lady she is.
“And I am a scoundrel for taking advantage of that. Were I the gentleman I pretend to be, I’d set her up as a widow somewhere and leave her alone. After the life she has had…
“I doubt she would marry me even if I asked. She is grateful to me, but gratitude only goes so far.”
He glared at his mother. “But I will not give her up, Mama. We have the rest of this contract term, and another after that if I can persuade her to a second term.”
“I am not asking you to surrender your domestic happiness, my dear. Just to reduce it a little for Mrs Winstanley’s sake.”
Aldridge cocked one eyebrow in question, but said nothing.
Should she tell Aldridge his mistress was in love with him? She had seen them in the park: Becky, her little daughter, and Aldridge—by chance as she returned from an unusually early errand and then deliberately several more times. Her son was so absorbed in the woman and the little girl he never noticed the stopped carriage where she sat observing the three of them together.
No. She would say nothing. If he had already considered the logistics of marrying the woman… “You will have to let her go, Aldridge—at the end of the contract, or in any case when you find a suitable bride. The parting will be much harder, for both of you, if she fancies herself in love with you.”
“Spend a few nights a week away from her, my dear. Let her know you are seeing other women. Help her to armour her heart against you, if you love her.”
“Love, Mama? Can Grenfords love? I like her. I respect her. I enjoy being with her. She makes me happy, Mama. Is that so terrible? I’m not sure I know what love is, but I know I don’t want Becky to leave me, or—worse—to hate me and stay.”
“I have every faith in your charm, Aldridge. You will be kind. You will be gentle. And you will do your duty by your mistress as you always do your duty in all things.”
As Eleanor always did hers, she reflected after her son left, and duty could be a cold and thankless master. Aldridge would not soon forget her role in this day’s work, and Becky would be ungrateful if she ever found out. But it was for the best. She had to believe it was for the best—not just for the Grenford family and the Haverford duchy, but for Aldridge and Becky as well. She hoped it was for the best.
I wrote this piece for The Teatime Tattler two and half years ago, at the time I published A Baron for Becky. It gives a bit of backstory to what happens between Part 1 of that book and Part 2. Poor Aldridge. Poor Becky.