An English House Party Ch. 08byAMY_Monaco©
Jason lifted his fist, ready to knock on Penelope's door. But then he hesitated. He strained to hear movement on the other side, but there was only silence. He must look ridiculous standing there alone in the hall, his golden blond hair raked through and sticking out on ends. He knew the hour was late. Perhaps she was asleep already.
He turned on his heel and started for the stairs. Hardly in the mood for bed, he decided a stiff drink was in order.
Having taken a second bath that night, Alex rubbed the towel vigorously over his naked body. He entered the bedroom and smelled the faint musk of his and Emma's lovemaking. It clung to the sheets of his bed and he turned away from it. It was too much a reminder of what they shared earlier.
He tossed the towel and reached for his breeches and a shirt. He couldn't stay here, while the smell of her lingered in the air and on his pillow.
She refused him. He couldn't believe she actually refused to accept him. What young woman of good breeding would refuse a marriage proposal? He was an Earl, for god's sake.
But then, Emma was just the sort of person to defy convention. After all, hadn't she met him halfway instead of shying away from his advances? Alex shook his head. He couldn't understand her.
His shirt unmade, Alex slipped on boots and left the room.
He had to consider the fact that she came to him untouched. He refused to believe she would be this wanton with other men. Perhaps she really was convinced he would continue his philandering after marriage. Damn it, he'd make her his wife one way or another.
Alex knew Jason kept bottles of liquor in his study and headed there. He didn't even bother to grab a candle for light, choosing to lose himself in the darkness. The study was silent and adjusting his eyes to the night with only moonlight from the windows, he searched the wall for a drink.
"It's to your left on the counter there." Alex turned. Jason was sitting in one of the chairs near the window, a glass in his own hand. Alex poured himself a healthy portion of brandy and joined his host.
"Can't sleep." Alex murmured as he slumped into the high-backed leather chair.
Jason merely grunted and took a large gulp from his glass. For a while, they drank in silence. The room was cold, but it didn't matter as they had the warmth of their drink. Alex found himself staring through the window, thinking of Emma again. The familiar ache was back and he rubbed his chest.
"I've been watching you, Whit." Jason said, breaking Alex's thoughts. Alex looked up and lifted an eyebrow in question. "You may be one of my best friends, but I won't tolerate you breaking Emma's heart. She's like a sister to me."
Alex smirked and slumped further into the chair. "More like she'll break mine." The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them.
"Has the Earl of Whittenhall gone and fallen in love?"
Alex scowled. "I'm obsessed. There's a difference, Fords."
"She's confident, I'll give her that. But Emma is young. She thinks she can act as women twice her age can and not get hurt."
Alex frowned deeply. "You're determined to paint me the worst sort."
"You are the worst sort, Whit." Jason said, though there was no heat in his words. "That's why I'm watching you. If you've bedded her – " Alex cleared his throat, shirting in his seat.
"Damn it, Whit. She's an innocent."
"Did you expect that to stop me?" A semblance of his former attitude weighed in that sentence, but then the feeling was gone as fast as it came. He took another gulp of his drink. "I asked her to marry me."
"She'll be my countess one way or another."
Jason let out a dry laugh. "Brava, Emma. All the women of London would wish herself in her position, yet she refused you. Lost your touch there?"
"We're on the same boat, Fords. You wouldn't be down here if it weren't for problems with the missus."
"Penelope's is just...adjusting."
"For God's sake, man, the answer is simple. Take her to bed. Women are always more compliant after sex."
"I have my own methods, thank you." Was Jason's wry comment.
"Suit yourself. But trust me on this. Seduce her. She'll melt in your arms faster than poetry ever could. I know."
"Yes, you could lecture on it."
There it was again, that ache in his heart. Alex murmured, "That's what Emma said to me." He stood up and clinked his half-empty glass with Jason's, before downing the rest of the liquid. "Cheers, mate. To the Kingsley women."
Two evenings later brought Penny to the front of Jason's door. She stood there for a long moment in her robe and nightgown, the letter clutched in her hand, unable to gather enough courage to knock. But a slight sound in the hall made her jump and she turned the doorknob and slipped in for fear of someone catching her.
The room was dark except for the blazing fire across the room. Her eyes flew to the still figure on the bed. Jason was fast asleep, though it looked fitful as the sheets around his bare waist were tangled and falling off the bed.
He slept on his back, his hair in disarray on the white of his pillow. The gentle rising of his chest fascinated her and she felt the need to just run her hand over him, to feel his chest move beneath her touch.
She must have made a sound, for Jason began to stir. Penny stood frozen.
Jason sat up, his eyes focusing on nothing particular until he saw Penelope standing at the door. He frowned.
"Penelope, what are you doing here?"
"I...I read the letter."
His face appeared slightly flushed, and glanced at her. "I see."
"Why didn't you ever send it to me?"
He shrugged. "It was a long time ago."
She forced her legs to carry her further into the room, until she stood at the foot of the bed. She tossed the letter onto the sheets. Jason stared at it and then leaned against the headboard.
"Why did you give it to me?"
He lifted a hand to rub the back of his neck. He wasn't sure himself. "I just thought you wanted to – " As if he felt foolish, he suddenly shook his head. "Just burn it."
She walked around so she stood next to him. "Jason?"
"I only recently found it among some things I'd packed away. Listen to me, Penelope," He grasped her hands in his large ones. "I gave it to you so that you understand this is not easy for me. But I want you to be happy. I've been trying to tell you this for awhile, but if Julian is the one you want..." He let his voice trail off.
"Jason, I've been such a fool." She blurted out, squeezing his hands. "I always thought you said all those things to get me to marry you with no arguments. I really hadn't intended to be so childish about all this. I thought I would be very calm about it, actually. I thought...Oh, Jason, I want us to be happy, too. And I am sorry for all my childish behavior...the letter has changed things." Biting down on her bottom lip, she knelt onto the bed and straddled her legs over Jason. He just watched her silently, holding his breath.
"I don't wish to argue with you any more, Jason."
He smiled softly. "Might make the days a bit duller, but I think I can live with that."
She hit him playfully on the shoulder, laughing nervously. "You know what I mean. I'm trying to call a truce. No more tantrums on my end."
He lifted a hand to brush as a lock of her hair, caressing her soft cheek as he did so. His smile faded as his gaze settled on her lips. "And I promise to be less over bearing."
He had more to say, but her mouth beckoned him. He stripped her of the robe and nightgown quickly and had her underneath him in even less time.
"I crave you, Penelope." He said, sinking into her warmth in one swift thrust. She arched beneath him, meeting his strokes with equal fever. With hooded eyes, he watched her writhe and squirm as he surged forward, cherishing every sigh and whimper from her parted mouth.
He hadn't made love to her since the night of the Assembly, which only added to the fire that roared through his veins.
He brought them both to climax and found himself soon wrapped with her in his arms. While the fireplace crackled softly, Penelope looked up.
"Why do you always call me by my full name?"
"It makes me think of the tale of Odysseus."
She shifted onto her elbow. "What?"
"The tale of Odysseus. He sailed away and for years while he was gone, his wife Penelope was courted by suitors who pressed her to marry one of them." He paused. "But Penelope remained faithful to her husband, promising to choose one when she finished her weaving."
"But at night, she would only unweave what she'd done, so she never finished."
Jason nodded. "Odysseus eventually returned home to his son and faithful wife."
Penny laid her head back down on Jason's chest. "As I recall, Odysseus did not stay true to his wife."
Jason went quiet. "Do you still intend to take Dunsforth as your lover?"
She felt her heart squeeze. "I won't if you agree not to take lovers."
"No lovers, then. For either of us."
Tension filled the air the last day of the house party. That same evening after dinner, a game of cards was set in the drawing room by the window. Nora Ferguson and Miss Reinhart entertained everyone with duets at the pianoforte.
Needing a distraction, Alex took up a hand and settled into his chair. In the beginning, he concentrated hard on the game and won the first round. Eventually, his eyes wandered the room. He noticed that Jason and Penelope were getting along, their faces not drawn in obligatory civility, but animated in warmth. The couple sat by the fire, their heads bent together in conversation.
Emma was across the room, a book opened on her lap. She was fond of books, he noticed and wondered if she would like the family collection in his villa in Italy. There, hundreds of volumes in Latin, Italian and English lined the shelves in a room of Renaissance splendor.
He could imagine her curled up in the worn leather high-backed chair, whiling away the afternoon hours with a book, a cup of tea at hand. The light was always ample in that room, due to the towering clerestory windows. He himself used the room to conduct business and liked to think she would be there too, performing her own tasks – letter writing, going over menus. It would be nice to have her presence nearby.
Alex snapped his attention back to the game long enough to reveal his hand. Then retreated back to his thoughts as Lord Avery dealt cards.
Emma would like Italy. Some of his most cherished childhood memories had taken place at the family villa. When the weather was sunny, all the doors were flung open, making the place feel more spacious and warm. There the gardens flourished under the hot sun, overgrowing the walls and balustrades creating almost a wild realm in itself.
Alex remembered running through those gardens as a child, chasing after his sisters and playing the dashing knight who rescued damsels. The image made his lips curve. He was far from the chivalrous knight now, but the idea of making love to her there under the moonlight certainly put a new perspective on his sanctuary.
How soon would it be to see his own children running through those gardens with abandon? That very thought made his heart thump faster. Children. Sons and daughters with Emma's dark hair and flashing eyes. He'd want a little girl named Sophia, in the exact image as her mother. Sophia Coulter. It had a nice ring to it. And their son? Alex pondered worthy names.
Alex's eyes darted up from his cards and shook his head. "Too many of those in the family." He answered without thinking.
Then it sunk in that whoever had spoken hadn't been answering his question.
Everyone at the table was staring at him. Lord Avery's eyebrows were arched in amusement.
"We've been trying to gain your attention for the past five minutes, Whittenhall."
Alex flushed from the neck up. Clearing his throat, he threw in a card. "My apologies."
Late that night, after Alex left Emma's bed, he returned to the library for a glass of brandy. Jason was already there with his own glass.
"Don't look so smug, Fords." Alex muttered. "Just because you've got your lovely fiancée tamed."
"I wouldn't be down here in a cold room if I weren't troubled, Whit." Jason answered calmly.
Alex slumped into the chair. "I'm doing the bloody honorable thing and Emma won't have me. She's a little hellcat, if I ever saw one. Soft and sweet one moment, adamant and stubborn the next. "
"Will you be returning to London after this?"
"Very briefly...Before I am away to Italy. I've some business to tend to."
Jason paused. "Emma will be accompanying her sister and father to London in a week or so for wedding preparations. They occupy a house in Grosvner Square, three doors down from mine.
Alex narrowed his eyes, gulping down the entire glass's contents. "What are you trying to tell me?"
"Just that we'll be there. In case you wish to speak to her."
He nodded and they lapsed into silence.
"Your fiancée decided to accept you yet?"
Jason peered over the rim of his glass. "Think so."
Alex smirked. "That'll make the wedding night easier."
Penny and Emma both traveled back to their home in the country. Their father met them at the door and it was a happy reunion. Mr. James Kingsley was outwardly a stern man. But with his daughters of whom he adored, he was affectionate.
"Delaford was just here not two days ago." Kingsley said, as he settled down into his favorite chair. Penny poured the tea and Emma leaned over to pet one of her father's dogs. "He says he and Jason will join us in London. He is anxious for the banns to be read."
Penny's hand stilled – just for a moment – on the teapot, then poured the last cup for herself. Sometime in the last few days, she felt herself becoming anxious for the banns, then the wedding.
"Did you enjoy the house party?"
Penny glanced at her sister, noticing that Emma's eyes remained on her teacup. The biscuit beside it remained untouched.
"Very much, Father. Our new friends, the Fergusons have decided to take a house near Jason's because they found the countryside so diverting. They shall make very charming neighbors. You'd quite enjoy their company, Father."
"Ferguson." Their father grunted. "Related to Henry J. Ferguson?"
"Indeed. He is Nora and Jamie Ferguson's grandfather."
Kingsley nodded, sipping his tea. "Strange that young Jason won't take Delaford as his home. He will after all inherit it. But the one he resides is a fine place as any."
"The gardens are very fine." Emma commented. "The hedges there offer – " She stopped herself and felt her cheeks warm. "They offer a very good shade for reading."
"Do they now?" Her father inquired curiously. "I didn't think you took such an interest in landscaping. I never heard you compliment the grounds here."
His youngest looked up with a wry smile. "I believe I've taken a new interest in landscaping, Father. The fresh air and change of scenery at Jason's has done me enormous good."
"Glad to hear it." He answered approvingly. "I want nothing more than for my girls to broaden their minds and be happy. Penny, you look simply glowing. You're reacquainting yourself with Jason, I hope."
"Excellent." Kingsley nodded with finality and popped a little fruit tart into his mouth. "I'm very glad you are back, my dears."
Tea passed on smoothly. At their father's announcement that he had a meeting with his secretary, the sisters retired upstairs to rest before dinner. Penny went into Emma's room as her younger sister unpacked, dismissing the maid.
"Speak plainly, Em. I know this is about the Earl of Whittenhall, yet you've said nothing about it."
Emma unfolded a gown from one of her trunks, avoiding her sister's eyes. "There is nothing for me to say, really. He was pleasant company, that is all."
Penny watched her sister closely. "Pleasant company? I should think not, if you pine for him so. I see it in your eyes, Emma."
Emma paused for a moment before the open trunk. "Has it become so obvious, Penny? I shouldn't feel so. He wasn't marriageable in any way; a rake of the first order."
"But my dear, he seemed so attentive at the party. He barely spoke to everyone else, devoting all his time to you."
Emma looked up with one brow arched. "Country parties are not his set, I was merely a distraction for him."
"Then he made no promise, of any sort?" Penny asked slowly.
Emma's hands froze on the next gown she was pulling out. "No...none that I could accept."
"He asked you to be his mistress, then?"
Emma nodded vaguely. "Like you, I cannot settle for an arrangement where there is no solid commitment. Alex – "
"Alex?" Penny asked, surprised. "How close have you two become for you to refer to him by his given name?"
Emma tossed the gown back into the trunk and sat next to her sister. She took Penny's hand in hers, needing the comfort only her sister could offer.
"Penny, I've...I gave myself to him."
"I know!" Emma answered. "I know you should be ashamed of me, but I thought to take my own life in hand. Being with Alex made me realize how much we women are deprived by society's strict rules. For once, I wanted the freedom to feel, to experience that sort of abandon we read in all those novels."
"And the freedom to love?" Penny pressed gently.
Emma smiled, a smile tinged with sadness. In her sister's confidence, she need not conceal her emotions. "Very much love. I love him so much. I was convinced I could master my emotions, but found that I could not, not with him."
"Since you have confided in me, then I shall return the favor. Jason and I have been intimate."
Emma's eyes widened at first, then she broke out in laughter. "Penny, does this mean you love him?"
Emma's laughter was infectious and Penny couldn't hold back her own mirth. "I do not know. But I am confident that I no longer view him or this marriage so negatively. I've grown very fond of him in the last few days of the party."
For once, Penny could think of him and not feel sad. "We were not meant to be. My place is with Jason now."
Emma squeezed her sister's hand. "Just look at us, Penny. I shall be so melancholy these next few weeks, and you the glowing bride-to-be. But for you, sister, I shall endeavor to be myself again. From now on, I shall also endeavor to forget the Earl of Whittenhall."
To be continued...