With the Heart

byEveHasFallen©

Bella slid her gaze over to Beth’s face, looking for any sign that she was holding in her excitement about becoming engaged. Beth wasn’t usually one to be able to keep a secret, but perhaps this was one that she’d been able to hold in check.

In the dim light of the carriage lamps, Bella had an almost unobstructed view of Beth’s silhouette. At nineteen years old, she was in the prime of her life and beauty. Considered a diamond of the first water, Beth’s milk-and-strawberry complexion, rosy lips, blue eyes, long lashes and golden-brown hair were the ideal of London society. Sometimes Bella wondered how she and this beauty could be of the same blood. Beth possessed everything that Bella did not: charm, grace, wit, confidence, and a gaggle of young men that gathered around her at every ball or social assembly to hold court. Despite these things, Bella didn’t envy her sister, for she was too sweet and kind to be thought badly of. And that was something that Bella could thank the Gods for, because the eldest of the Smythe girls, Beatrice, though just a lovely and accomplished as Beth, was hard and calculating where Beth was gentle and loving.

Indeed, now that Bella thought of it, all three of the Smyth girls seem to have been borne of different people, but made to live together by some twisted kind of fate. And she, herself, was the one who received the harshest blow. An outcast, a recluse, unable to even hold a decent conversation with anyone other than those she’d known all her life. She sighed in disgust, leaning her head back, and closing her eyes.

**************************************************

“Well, well, well, if it isn’t Henry Westingham.”

At the sound of his name being called out in slightly slurred, and obviously drunken tones, Henry, Lord Darcy, Duke of Darcy, turned, clenching his jaw when he saw who addressed him. This was definitely the last thing he needed tonight, an encounter in the middle of the Pinkford’s ball.

“Sutcliffe,” he said, bowing at the waist in greeting to the man who had called his name, “how are you?”

A burst of brandy-smelling laughter caught Henry off guard as his new companion, Andrew, Lord Sutcliffe, chuckled loudly. “I think you know quite well how I am, Lord Duke,” the man sneered, “for it was you who nearly bankrupted me at the gaming tables last month. Had to sell off the estate in Kent that m’mother left to me, you black-hearted bastard.”

Henry crossed his arms behind his back and clenched his jaw to hold back his anger. “If I remember correctly it was you who demanded a game of cards with,” he rubbed his chin as if trying to recall an elusive fact, “ ‘that damned Darcy bastard’.”

The other man’s nostrils flared in outrage. “I was well into my cups, a gentleman would have walked away, but you took advantage of my inebriation and nearly forced me into debtor’s prison because of it.”

“Perhaps, if you stopped blaming others for your misfortunes, you wouldn’t have any, Sutcliffe. My advice? Cease to overindulge.” Tired of the pointless conversation, Henry turned to leave.

As he moved a few steps away along the perimeter of the dance floor, he heard Sutcliffe call out, “You’ll pay for this, damn you, I swear you shall!”

Several curious gazes turned toward the two men, and Henry cursed under his breath, knowing that those who had heard would be looking for any tidbit to feed their gossip mill and break up the seemingly endless moments of monotony of yet another ball.

“Bloody fool,” Henry muttered, to himself as he continued on his way. It was true that a month ago when he’d crossed paths with Sutcliffe he’d known the man was drunk, but he sat down to a game of cards with him anyway. Every fiber of his upbringing to be a proper, honorable gentleman fought against his gambling with a drunken man, but he recalled a friend’s tale about Sutcliffe. Apparently, the man enjoyed taking advantage of innocents and had even had the audacity to try to force one of the friend’s maids to sleep with him when he’d been a guest in their home.

So, it was as Henry listened to Andrew’s slurred insults against his manhood and all other like things, that he decided to teach the man a lesson that he wouldn’t soon forget. Even as Andrew’s friends, the ignoble Sir Nathaniel and Lord Fortson, tried to talk him out of challenging Henry, Henry took off his well-tailored black jacket and settled down to play a game of cards.

It only lasted an hour or so, rather short for that type of thing, but in the end, Henry walked away with a massive portion of Andrew’s fortune and the deed to a hunting lodge in Abbeyshire, which Henry had never heard of but was supposed to be somewhere in Northern England.

Guilt battered his conscious for weeks after the encounter, and he toyed with the idea of returning every single pound to Sutcliffe. Until tonight. The man was reprehensible; unfit to be welcome in society. Yet, his father was a Viscount and his mother the only daughter of an Earl, therefore he had automatic entrée into society, granted that he did not mar his name so black that even his lineage would not proceed him. At that thought, Henry grimaced, for Sutcliffe was coming very close to blackening his name beyond redemption, the licentious toad. “And, now that I think on it,” Henry said to himself, “I’m going to donate every bit of my winnings off him to a charity for battered women.”

A satisfied smirk settled itself upon his face as he made his way through the crowded room.

“What’s that smile for, old chap?”

This time, the voice addressing him was jovial, familiar and welcome. Henry’s smile grew bigger as he turned to greet his best friend since childhood, Frederick, Lord Carstairs.

“Freddy! I almost slipped into a decline, thinking you weren’t going to show tonight.”

Freddy laughed. “If you were a woman, Henry, I’d think you were trying to flirt with me. Since you’re not, I’d rather not think about it at all,” he said, with a mock shudder.

“So, what kept you? Promising your undying affection to some poor chit, just to steal a kiss?”

Laughing again, Freddy slapped his friend on the shoulder. “Ah, but you underestimate me, my friend, if I stole anything I think it’d be more than a kiss.”

His comment reminded Henry of Sutcliffe’s actions, and his mood darkened a bit. “Rather a crude comment, wasn’t it, Fred,” he asked, more harshly than he meant to.

Freddy’s smile slipped a bit as he watched his friend’s face, knowing from experience that something was bothering him. “You know I didn’t mean that, Henry. I have four sisters after all. By the by, man, what’s gotten your goad?”

“Sutcliffe.”

He didn’t need to say more. “Bloody hell, that reprobate actually showed his face tonight?”

Henry didn’t answer.

“He didn’t make a scene, did he,” Freddy asked, immediately guessing the reason for Henry’s dark mood.

“No more than I expected him to do once he managed to drag his sorry carcass back into society.” Neither spoke for several seconds, then Freddy asked, aghast, “Cynthia wasn’t near was she?”

“No, thank God,” Henry replied, “ I don’t know how I would have explained that little incident to her. And I’m having a hard enough time trying to convince her father to allow me to formerly court her without Sutcliffe airing his dirty laundry and placing me at the core.”

“Quite right. So, have you seen the lovely Lady Cynthia tonight, then?”

Henry knew his friend was trying to change the subject to more pleasant things and gladly allowed himself to be carried along by Freddy’s infectious good mood.

“Only as I was first coming into the ball. She was dancing with her cousin, Geoffrey, looking as ravishing as always in a silky, pink confection of a gown.”

“My God,” Freddy chuckled with mock horror, “you know a man’s far gone when he starts speaking about a woman’s pretty clothing.”

“I’ve nothing to dispute you there, my friend. If only her father would let me court her in earnest. The old windbag resists because he remembers hearing tales of my antics from my father when I was down at Cambridge.”

“You can’t be serious, that was a decade ago!”

“Only seven years,” Henry corrected, making Freddy smile. “But I had the same reaction. ‘My boy,’ he said to me, ‘I think that I’m right to assume that you have designs after my Cynthia.’ ‘Yes, Lord Everly,’ I said, ‘but I wouldn’t call them designs, precisely, but more along the vein of the noblest intentions.’”

“Well said, Sir Poet,” Freddy joked.

Henry ignored him. “ ‘Well, I’m a bit reluctant to allow her into your company, Sir, for I have heard tales of your antics,’ he croaked at me. I protested that I have behaved like a perfect gentleman for all of my adult life. He replied, ‘Perhaps, but I remember stories your father told around the card table when you were still at Cambridge. That might have been long ago but my father believed that the way a man comports himself at his education, is the way he will comport himself in life. Therefore, I think I must reflect more on the matter of your courting Cynthia, and until such time that I come to a decision, I expect to hear not even a hint of scandal linked with your name, for I cannot give my only daughter to a man who would drag her name through the mud with his own.’”

“My God,” Freddy whispered in disbelief, “how did you keep from yanking out your hair in frustration? Whoever heard of such nonsense? It doesn’t make any sense, Henry. You’re a Duke, wealthy, in possession of all of your teeth and hair, and show not a hint of madness. What more could the Earl want for his daughter?”

“Indeed, Freddy, you put that so eloquently that perhaps I shall send you to plead my case the next time,” Henry quipped.

“Ah, all of this makes me glad I’ve decided to remain a bachelor until the last possible moment, for no woman I’ve met is worth all this trouble. Come, let us escape the dancing, twittering masses and find something to eat.”

Henry made no argument, and the men winded their way through the crowd toward one of the hall’s two rooms set up for dining, though the journey took them a quarter of an hour, for they had to stop every few steps to acknowledge acquaintances. When, at long last, they finally reached the dining room, Freddy quickly filled his plate while Henry took only a few strawberry tarts, his favorite, and joined his friend at a table in the corner.

Between forkfuls of food, Freddy muttered, “Bloody ridiculous…”

“What’s that?” Henry questioned.

“All of those ‘friends’ we had to stop and make small talk with just to make it from one end of the room to the other. I don’t even like half of those people, and all of this feigned affability—good God, makes a man wish he weren’t so damned correct all of the time.”

“Hear, hear.”

Bella shifted uncomfortably in her seat along the perimeter of the dance floor for the umpteenth time. Vaguely, she wondered if she had ever been to a ball where the seats didn’t seem to be made of steel. Perhaps the hostesses simply didn’t care and the more fashionable guests never noticed because they were always dancing.

Unlike Bella.

Nearly every ball since her debut had been spent sitting along the wall, cast in shadow by glowing sconces as she watched the partygoers enjoy themselves. From time to time, some kind-hearted gentleman might come along and ask her to dance out of pity, and more often than not she made an ass of herself by mumbling her responses or, worst of all, not being able to think of anything to say.

In truth, over the last two years she’d grown rather used to being an observer, for she was able to witness the glittery wonder of her privileged world, but stay out of harm’s way when it came to games of the heart or mind. She told herself that she way quite content to be part of society’s audience, for how many times had she listened to her sister Beatrice rant about the fickle affections of a beau, or witnessed the painstaking precision with which Beth prepared herself to go for something as simple as a ride in the Park with a suitor.

She thanked God that Bea had somehow managed to capture the hand, if not the heart, of her husband, Sir Walters, for if they had not married the summer before Bella’s debut, she could only imagine the torture Bea would have inflicted on her in a cruel effort to ‘make something presentable out of all of your frizzy hair and padding,’ as Bea used to put it.

Although, Bella reflected, perhaps her eldest sister’s marriage was only a stroke of luck for Bella’s sanity, for Bea’s husband was more distant than his wife and rarely attended public assemblies besides his position in Parliament, to which he devoted every second of his time. The ball continued and as Bella let her thoughts carry her away the swirling gowns of the dancers and the boisterous murmurings of the crowd melded together into a haze of familiarity.

Her mother stood a few yards away, conversing with a small group of friends she’d known since her school days. Each woman in the circle could have stepped right off of a fashion plate, for they were all dressed elegantly in jewel-toned taffetas and silks that accented their mature years, rather than diminishing them. Gazing at her mother, the most striking of the bunch, dressed in emerald bombazine with a green-gray turban wrapped around honey colored locks, Bella once again wondered how she could be her daughter. All of the women in her mother’s family were renowned for their beauty, and the legend remained true until Bella had come along.

In fact, she sometimes wondered if she fit into any of society’s ideals for womanhood. She sewed passably, painted horribly, and spoke French with an obvious accent, yet these were the things that defined a woman and a good wife. As a child, it never occurred to her that she might not one day be married and have children of her own, but now the thought settled itself into the pit of her stomach with a sickening tightness. Never to be loved by a good man, never to experience the passions of romance, or the joy of holding her children in her arms.

For a frightening moment, she was afraid that she was going burst into tears in the middle of the ball, but with quiet strength—something she learned from years of practice—she tamped the wave of depression into a tiny ball and pushed it to the furthest corner of her consciousness, hoping that it would remain there. Instead, she thought of more pleasant things, like Beth’s upcoming marriage to Lord Geoffrey, the two were dancing together at that very moment, making a perfect pair with golden hair, fair skin and blue eyes. She thought of her mother’s odd behavior the past week, and that led her to thoughts of Maggie and her adamant demand that she speak with a gentleman tonight and allow him to see the ‘real’ Bella. At that thought, she laughed without mirth, thinking, 'Well, it would be a bit easier if any gentleman wanted to talk to me, Maggie, dear.'

Her melancholy mood was threatening to return as she distractedly scanned the sea of bodies for no one in particular. It was with a jolt of surprise and a crack of involuntary laughter that she set eyes upon her childhood friends, Cathy and Phillip. Her mood brightened considerably when she saw that were coming her way.

Phil addressed her first, bowing at the waist with mock formality. “My Lady Arabella, how do you do this evening?”

Arabella batted her eyelashes coquettishly, simpering, “Quite well, my Lord Rutherford, quite well.”

Cathy wanted no part of their little game. “We’ve been looking all over for you, Bella, you missed Sir Tyesdale step on the hem of his partner’s gown. It didn’t tear, thank goodness, but the man actually reached down, in the middle of the floor, to see for himself that he’d done no harm to it.”

“Truly?” She asked, simply unable to believe that the elderly Knight would so much forget himself that he’d take hold of a woman’s garments in public.

“Truly,” Phil replied. “Though I couldn’t quite believe it myself, and I was there to witness it. He must be getting far, far on into his age to have behaved as he did tonight. It’s a wonder that his family doesn’t insist he remain home in the country.”

“That’s horrible,” Cathy said with widened eyes. “Just because he is old does not mean that he is unfit to be a part of society. He is a rather nice gentleman, actually, and it’s rude of you to imply he should be locked away, Phil.”

“Calm yourself, Cathy. I never said that he should be kept at home, I said it’s a wonder his family hasn’t done so, for I am well-acquainted with his two sons and neither of them are extremely benevolent, if you catch my meaning.”

Both Bella and Cathy nodded in silent understanding. After a few more seconds of silence, Phil spoke again. “Well then, Bella, what’ve you been up to for the last hour or so? Debating the merits of Jane Austen with some stuffy matron? Charming an unsuspecting old lord with your smile to get him to donate to one of your charities?”

“Nothing nearly so entertaining. I don’t believe I’ve moved from this chair since Mother, Beth and I arrived earlier.” Cathy and Phil exchanged a look.

“Ah, playing the recluse again, Bella? Sometimes I wonder if you and the girl I met all those summers ago at twelve years old are really the same person,” Phil said.

“I’m hardly playing at anything, Phil,” she protested. “I simply…don’t enjoy these balls. Besides, if you will recall correctly, the day that we met I ran away into the forest when some of the other boys called me names. Not quite the actions of a girl as stalwart as you seem to remember.”

“And yet, if I recall correctly,” Phil retorted, “you paid each one of those boys back in turn the next night when you put cricket and beetles between their bed sheets.”

“Bella, you didn’t!” Cathy’s shocked tone was belied by a wide smile.

Arabella blushed. “Well, they called me horrible names and they—they deserved it.”

Phil and Cathy both laughed at Bella’s stubborn tone. Then Phil took her hand in both of his. “You see? This is the girl I know and love, why don’t you allow others to get to know you instead of sitting against the wall like a misplaced pot of flowers?”

With an inward groan of frustration, Bella wondered if he and Maggie were working together in an attempt to nag her to death. “I think I’ve had quite enough friendly advice for one night and—,” she stopped speaking as she saw a young man approach the little circle that she, Beth and Phil had made in order to converse.

The gentleman bowed to Bella and Phil, murmuring a vague, “Good evening, my Lord, my Lady,” then turned his full attention to Beth who, Bella noticed with interest, was slightly flushed. “Madam, may I have the honor of this dance,” he asked in slightly accented tones. Bella didn’t remember ever having made his acquaintance in the past, and she knew she would recall a face like his. Long, dark locks of wavy hair fell charmingly across his chiseled features and Bella was struck by the strange violet color of his eyes, his honey-colored skin and the fullness of his lips, visible beneath a perfectly clipped mustache.

Who is he? Bella wondered to herself, watching the way Cathy curtsied to him, her eyes never leaving his face. “Bella…Phil…if you’ll excuse me,” she murmured, not waiting for a reply before she placed her hand in that of her unknown escort and walked to the floor with him to the beginning strains of a waltz.

“Phil, do you know who that man is,” Bella asked in wonder.

Phil didn’t respond and she glanced at him questioningly, only to have his eyes slide away from her own. He seemed angry, but she couldn’t fathom what about. “Phil…” she urged.

She watched in confusion as a muscle in his jaw clenched and relaxed, then he answered evenly. “His name is Etien Brouillard. He is the son of a French émigré and some long-dead lord whose name I cannot recall. He grew up in France with his mother, but recently returned to England to take his place in society, though he has been somewhat withdrawn since his return.”

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