Mr. Darcy’s Compassion is finally off to the editor, so I’m back to work on another Work in Progress.
“I have been searching for you everywhere,” Penelope said to Sylvia between pants. “Where have you been?”
Sylvia sighed and pulled her friend into her chamber. “Keep your voice down! I am supposed to be in bed with a headache.”
“Oh! Then I will leave you—” Penelope turned.
“I am perfectly well,” Sylvia assured her friend as she led her to the bed to sit.
“Lord Brandon has asked after you.”
Sylvia fought to keep her shoulders level. She desired to shrug them, but it would not do to seem so disinterested in the man she hoped to wed. After the wedding, she reasoned, she could sink into indifference. Many marriages did.
“I hope Clara told him that I have a headache.” She frowned for a moment. “You do not think that makes me seem too ill or fragile to be a wife, do you?”
“Not if you recover in time for dinner later.”
Sylvia could not help the cringe which wracked her body.
“On second thought,” Penelope said, “others can testify to your general health, and no one can help from becoming ill now and then.”
Sylvia nodded. It might work.
“Is it the duke?” Penelope played with the folds of her gown. “Is he why you are hiding in your room?”
“Of course not!” Penelope shook her head sending her ringlets tossing to and fro. “No, I mean the Duke of Russell.”
Nate. Sylvia sighed against her will. “No, why should I hide from him?”
“I did not think you liked him. At the Museum he accosted you, and you argued with him. It seemed you were avoiding his company since arriving here.”
“I have not been avoiding his company. I walked with him just yesterday.”
“Indeed! I thought you hated him.”
“I do not think about him enough to hate him,” Sylvia lied. She could scarcely get him out of her head. Of course, a woman such as she should not be thinking about a duke.
“Why did you walk with him yesterday?”
“His sister is in love with my brother. She asked me to get to know the duke better so he might see the Linwoods are a respectable family.”
“I thought you said she was conceited and disagreeable.”
“I thought she was.”
“I envisioned a girl mean like my sister, Augusta.”
Sylvia shuddered. Augusta had been two years ahead of them at school. She had made their lives miserable whenever she saw them. Sylvia never could understand how one could be as kind as Penelope and have a sister like Augusta.
“If she is as kind and sensible as she sounds, then perhaps it is not necessary for you to marry. You might have a very comfortable home with them.”
“No,” Sylvia rushed to say. No, for then Nate would visit, and she could not bear that. He seemed to see through her carefully erected façade. She had never told anyone about her friend Anne. She had never explained to anyone the impact of finding the tenant boy in the brook or Clara and Stephen’s actions to help him.
“What about our promise?” Penelope asked.
Sylvia gazed at her friend and saw no judgment in Penelope’s eyes. She had always been without guise.
“We have all grown up, Penny. Surely, you see it is time to put such childish dreams behind us. Love in marriage is an impossible dream for most of us.”
“Surely you do not doubt it exists. Clara and Stephen are as in love as ever, and you think even Owen will marry for love—”
“Yes, but not me!” Sylvia pushed to her feet. “It is time to dress for dinner, and I would hate to disappoint Lord Brandon.”
“Shall I assist you again?”
“If you desire,” Sylvia said. Penelope nodded and turned to help arrange items at the dressing table, but Sylvia caught her hand and squeezed it. “You are my dearest friend, and I love that you care for me. I know what I am about.”
The two friends talked about other things while they dressed for dinner. Hannah came by to check on the proceedings. Both ladies assured Sylvia that she looked even more beautiful than the night before. They promised Lord Brandon, and every other man, would not be able to keep their eyes off of her. When she entered the drawing room, however, Sylvia could help but search for the only man who mattered.
Lord Brandon bustled to her side, leaving Augusta mid-sentence and Sylvia tore her eyes from Nate’s. The angry red Augusta turned clashed with her attire, making Sylvia muffle a giggle at the other lady’s expense.
Throughout the evening, she reminded herself this was precisely what she wanted. She wanted Lord Brandon to be infatuated with her. She should put more effort into seeming as though she reciprocated his feelings. Sylvia listened with an adoring gaze and spoke as though awe-struck by his every thought and speech. All the while, she could barely breathe due to the tightness of the fashionable gown. The starch which gave her sleeves the perfect shape itched her skin. Beneath her gloves, her palms poured sweat. Sylvia believed she could feel all twenty hairpins digging into her scalp.
Sylvia’s gaze slipped to Clara’s. She watched as Stephen conversed with several of the other gentlemen, her love evident in her eyes. Sylvia would never have that, and she only hoped her mentor knew how lucky she was.
“I have enjoyed our time together this week.”
Lord Brandon’s hot breath was in Sylvia’s ear, drawing her notice away from Clara. She fought to keep the disgusted shudder from becoming visible to her suitor.
“As have I, my lord.” Sylvia reached for her glass of wine.
“I have something very particular to ask you. May I have a private interview with you tomorrow?”
Sylvia’s throat squeezed shut and she just barely avoided another embarrassing coughing fit. Brandon wanted to propose already? That was not the plan—he had said he would at the end of the week. She was not ready for it! She needed the remaining days to entirely reconcile to the notion.
Clara stood and called for the ladies to separate to the drawing room before Sylvia could do more than weakly smile and nod at Brandon. She was too agitated to pay attention to the remainder of the evening. Around her, the ladies played pianoforte and cards. They chatted as usual. The world was not coming to an end for anyone but herself. The gentlemen returned at the usual time, and Brandon once more came to her side. Swallowing back the rising bile, Sylvia listened to all he said. She knew she appeared attentive, but she could not remember a single thing he said. She supposed she should get used to that sensation, for it would be her constant friend for the remainder of her life.
Sylvia left to retire early that night, no longer feigning an aching head. However, sleep did not find her. Once the others were in bed, she tightly pulled her dressing gown around her and crept down the stairs, through the library, and into Stephen’s private study.
She scanned the shelves for a particular book which she knew Clara valued too much to have available to anyone in the library. Many years ago, when Clara was still their teacher at Mrs. Adderly’s School for Girls, she hated her students reading romantic novels and fairy tales so much that confiscated Cecilia’s copy of Stories or Fairy Tales from Past Times translated into English. Once Clara’s love for Stephen softened her, she returned the book. The girls were so impressed, they purchased a copy for Clara and gave it to her as a wedding present.
Sylvia had long ago grown out of fairy tales. However, at this moment in her life, she desperately wished to have the comfort of those old stories. Accepting Brandon’s proposal would be the end of all childish fantasies. As she read, she wondered about the Sleeping Beauty’s life. Had she any romantic dreams of her own? It seemed as though her entire existence was to avoid touching a spindle and yet she fell victim to it all the same. How Sylvia could relate to that. She had long ago given up the notion of marrying for love. She had reasoned that when the time came, she could make a match with any reasonable man. Now, the time had come, and she played with powers beyond her knowledge. Why did the idea of marrying Brandon feel like the death of her?
What had the Sleeping Beauty dreamt of for one hundred years while she waited for her prince to arrive? Did she long for a rescue to her fate the way Sylvia wanted for one as well? At last, sleep claimed Sylvia—before the princess awoke. She could only hope that when she next opened her eyes, her world would be as changed and suddenly perfect as the long-ago princess had found it.
Nate put down his now empty carafe of brandy and carried the glass back to his chair in front of the fire. Cradling the glass in one hand, he bent forward and rested his elbows on his knees. He was going to propose to her. Brandon was going to offer for Sylvia Linwood. The cur had boasted about it over brandy after the ladies retired to the drawing room.
It ate at Nate. Was it that Brandon had been his childhood bully? Or was it that Brandon had managed to secure the hand of a lady as marvelous as Sylvia? He did not even know the treasure he had found?
Nate knew, however. He knew the flecks of gold that appeared in her blue eyes when she grew animated the subject. He knew the tilt of her head when she was trying to argue with him but did not want to admit he was correct about something. He knew a million small details about her, but not why she would entertain Lord Brandon is a suitor.
Of course, who else had approached her as a suitor? From the moment Nate met her, he had Sylvia Linwood marked down as a scandal waiting to happen. Apparently, other men had judged the same. However, with her beauty and a sufficient dowry, many other men would have overlooked such things. Perhaps she had not wanted to marry until recently. Maybe she had never encouraged a suitor before Brandon.
No matter how many times Nate turned the matter over in his head, he kept coming back to the confusing situation of a woman as intelligent as Sylvia Linwood desiring Lord Brandon to propose to her. Could she love him? It was impossible in his mind. He drained his glass of brandy at the thought then focused on the fire for several minutes.
There was an alternative that Nate could offer Sylvia. Yesterday, he had thought impossible. Tomorrow in the sober light of dawn he might also think so. In this instant, however, he was sorely tempted. It was an excellent thing she was asleep, and he was supposed to be. If he had one of their heartfelt encounters now, he probably could not resist his urges.
Nate trudged back to his brandy carafe to refill his glass, letting out a disgusted sigh when he noticed it was empty. There was only one thing to do. He crept down the stairs to Stephen’s study. He would drown his sorrows and silence the ridiculous thoughts swirling in his head.
Upon entering that the room, he was surprised it was not empty. Someone had lit a lamp. Nate drew closer to the source of light as his eyes fell on the most beguiling site. Sylvia Linwood laid sprawled on the settee, sleeping soundly with a book cast aside. He picked it up and turned it over in his hand until he can recognize the title. Fairytales. A slight smile came to Nate’s face. His mother had a copy of this book, and his sister enjoyed it as well. As such, he was acquainted with its contents. Even now, Sylvia slumbered like the beautiful sleeping princess of one of the stories. Had not thought Sylvia Linwood the type to enjoy fairytales. Did she imagine Lord Brandon as a knight in shining armor come to rescue her from some curse or foe?
Nate laid the book down on the floor next to him as he knelt in front of Sylvia. Her beautiful blonde hair had come loose from its pins and a few locks splayed across her forehead. He pushed them aside, reveling in the softness of her smooth skin. She sighed at his touch.
“Awake my sleeping beauty,” he said to her. “You cannot sleep here.”
Without opening her eyes, Sylvia reached forward and cupped his cheek. “My Prince. You came at last.” Suddenly, Sylvia’s eyes fluttered open look of astonishment filled them. “Nate,” she whispered.
Nate observed as a variety of emotions filtered through Sylvia’s eyes. His hand which had moved her hair returned to her cheek. He allowed his thumb to graze across her tempting lips. Encouraged by her deep exhale, he repeated the motion.
Sylvia slightly moaned after repeating his name. Nate was helpless against what he did next. Angling his head closer to hers. His lips found hers at last.
She tasted it as sweet as he expected. There was more than sweetness, though. She was like a forbidden fruit, he could not get enough of her. He should remember that she was a maiden and they were unchaperoned in his friend’s study. Although it seemed like everyone else was asleep, the truth was they could be interrupted at any moment. If they were, she would be ruined, and he would have no choice but to offer for her. Despite such rational thoughts, he could not slow his response to her luscious lips. When Sylvia wrapped her arms around his neck, Nate was all but lost.
Some part of him, some damnable reckless part of him inherited from his father, shrugged off the consequences. Nay, worse; it welcomed them. He wanted this. He wanted to be left with no choice. She had attracted him from the start, and they were well-matched in all ways except her rank. If he were any other man with any other past, he would have no reason to resist. As he pulled Sylvia into his arms to have greater access to her lips and the smooth expanse of her neck and collarbone, the raw truth was exposed to Nate. He did not care about all those claims of duty or all the demands of his rank and legacy. He could not see her marry anyone else.
Words were on the tip of his tongue, and he began to pull back. There was a noise in the hall. Sylvia stiffened in his arms. The look of desire left her eyes, and sadness and derision filled them. Confused by her reaction, Nate pulled back further and released his hold of her.
“I should go,” she said. “I should not have been here–I should not have come. It was a mistake. I hope you understand, it was a mistake.” Sylvia pushed to her feet quickly then paused to hold her head as though she moved so swiftly she grew dizzy.
“You are unwell,” Nate said. “I will escort you to your room.”
“No,” Sylvia hissed. “If we would be seen, it would ruin everything. Things would be presumed and–and no, you cannot.” She pushed past him and swiftly moved to the door, exiting without a backward glance.
The raw emotion and need she had exposed only a moment before pulsed through Nate as he watched her walk away. In the morning she would accept Brandon’s proposal, and then that worthless scoundrel would know the taste of her lips and the warmth of her love. Could he let Brandon succeed?