Stephen attempted to pass by Clara and the other young ladies without drawing notice. Should she be out of bed? Seeing her enter the drawing room on Mr. Windsor’s arm stirred mixed feelings in him. He could not deny the relief that flooded him, seeing she was well. However, anger and resentment mingled with jealousy and churned his stomach.
Thankfully, someone drew Windsor away, only for Clara to be verbally attacked by a lady of breeding. She had an unlikely defender, too. Lady Eleanor was a worthy candidate if Stephen had decided on a marriage purely for political or financial gain. While he would never want to marry a cruel woman, neither did he want his potential wife to be friendly with the woman who destroyed his heart. Lady Eleanor was now entirely out of the question. Clara turned up in the most unexpected places and ways. Perhaps he should court the shrew who belittled Clara after all. Miss Ponsonby, at least, would never befriend her.
“We ought to be allies, not enemies,” Lady Eleanor said to Clara as Stephen walked by. “Do you not agree, Lord Clifford?” she called after him.
Stephen winced, thankful the ladies could not see the face he made. He only slightly turned toward them to answer. “I know not of what you speak, but I would never dare to counter a lady.”
“Is that so?” Lady Eleanor asked. “It looked as though you were listening to us and saw the entire exchange with Miss Ponsonby. Did it not seem that way to you, Miss Lumley?”
Clara blushed and muttered something to her feet.
Stephen’s mind sought a quick denial only for another lady to speak up. “He was most definitely attentive. In fact, I expected him to put Miss Ponsonby in her place if no one else did.”
In India, he had a reputation of being inscrutable. But, apparently, in a room of seasoned man-hunters, he was as transparent as the finest muslin. “You do Lady Eleanor a disservice. She had matters well in hand.”
“Do not leave out Miss Lumley. She defended herself quite well. I wish I could be half so eloquent and collected when Miss Ponsonby or others torment me.”
“I am sure proper decorum dictates that I say nothing,” Clara said. “I ought to have restrained myself better.”
Stephen looked at Clara in confusion. The woman he had known was not a lady who did things by half. This was the speech of someone who had lived in servitude.
“Proper etiquette would have prevented Miss Ponsonby from uttering her words as well, and they did not. So I say you were brilliant,” Lady Eleanor said. Clara blushed at the praise, but her promoter linked their arms. “Come, let us gather refreshments. I would love to hear more about you.”
They walked off, and Stephen breathed a sigh of relief. He had lost his appetite in any case. Before he could leave the room, he heard the aging and husky laugh of Lady Randolph at his elbow.
“Ah, that was superb,” she said. “Yes, Lady Eleanor and Miss Lumley are just what each other needs. I knew it right away; they were destined to be friends.”
“You think destiny controls things as minute as friendships?”
“Destiny?” she scoffed. “Of course not! No, that is only a figure of speech. It is the Lord’s design, and I do firmly believe He has such an interest in our affairs that He would put us in the path of certain friends…and other relationships.” She winked up at him.
“Perhaps,” was all Stephen was willing to say. He was in no mood for theological debate, let alone with his elderly hostess.
“Clifford,” she said, interrupting his thoughts, “would you escort Miss Lumley to dinner this afternoon? My nephew has promised to dine with the children in the nursery.”
“I do not believe she would find me a pleasant dinner partner—”
“There are few others I would trust Miss Lumley too. I must be hostess and see to everyone, and she must have a gentleman escort her lest she garners even more teasing. Thomas’ other friends are good young men, but they have had lives of privilege which would only intimidate Miss Lumley further.”
“I am the son of an earl and now one myself.”
“You are unexpectedly the earl, was never your father’s favorite, and lived in India for many years. That is a great deal less terrifying than speaking with a duke, to say nothing of the fact that you are more approachable in general. In contrast, Gordon thinks too highly of himself to be at ease around a woman from her background.”
At ease around Clara? Stephen would never say so, yet he could not confess such to Lady Randolph. By the time he had formulated a new argument for his hostess, she had left his side. Biting back a groan at the mischievousness of the woman, he left for the billiards room until required to dress for dinner.
The dreaded moment came, his gut twisting in knots as he descended the stairs from his chamber to the drawing room. He had fought the urge to make an excuse or stay in his room until the last moment. However, he also wanted to prove to himself that Clara did not affect him so much. Surely, he could meet her with all the disinterest he would for any other lady in the room. But, upon entering, he realized those thoughts were merely foolish hopes. Slowly, he wandered around the room and managed to become unnoticeable in a far corner. There, he could look his fill.
She still took his breath away, but he noticed subtler things about her too. First, her clothes were not as fine as the other ladies. She had not been a fashion plate during their courtship. Still, this evening’s gown was the sort a lady would wear to ward off interest from gentlemen and signal to ladies she was no competition. He scrutinized her to see any sign of discomfort in her attire, but she displayed none. When had she adapted to the life of a spinster, and why? Even when he hated her the most, he knew she was destined for a full life with a gentleman worthier than himself.
Years of etiquette training had couples emerge by unspoken design. He held back until the dinner gong sounded. Then, as other gentlemen escorted ladies to the dining room, he watched as Clara merely accepted her situation without a look of panic, embarrassment, or even resignation. She was to be alone, and it was evidently a feeling she knew well. If Stephen had ever thought himself a courageous man, he now realized how cowardly he actually was. At the last moment, he emerged from the shadow of his corner, approaching her from behind.
“Allow me,” he said just before she left the room.
Clara jumped a little at his voice, then looked at him with confusion. He held his arm out to her, and she took it after a long moment of hesitation. He could tell she did her best to apply no weight on his arm. It was an unspoken statement but rang loudly in his ears. She expected nothing from him — not even this basic civility. She would not be caught relying on him for anything. Despite the lapse of time and hurt, Stephen found himself mourning that sentiment.
They spoke as little as possible during dinner. Hopefully, it did not look too peculiar to others. While Lady Eleanor was near enough to include Clara in conversation, Miss Ponsonby attempted to monopolize all of Stephen’s attention. She could not succeed, though. With Clara on one side, Stephen remained utterly aware of her despite the other lady’s constant flattery and eyelash fluttering.
By the end of the first course, Stephen recognized the change he could not previously name is Clara. It was not merely her speech or clothing. To someone that had known her in vivacity, her grief and misery felt like a punch in the gut. He wanted to say that she deserved it. That because she betrayed him, she warranted a miserable life…but he could not. He knew all too well how it felt to have such said about him. When his family’s reputation and wealth shattered, tens of thousands of people celebrated their demise. It had followed him even in India. Yet, despite himself and some of the firmest opinions he had held for the last decade, Stephen found himself feeling a smidgen of compassion for Clara.
Before he could ponder the notion more, the dining hall door swung open with a bang.
“Stephen!” a familiar feminine voice cried out over the din of the others.
“Priya?” Stephen stood to his feet. The young woman was in his arms an instant later, sobbing on his chest. “Priya, what is it? How are you here?”
His sister was too overwrought to speak, but Stephen made out the astonished gasps and hushed whispers of the other guests.
“Clifford, is everything well?” Lady Randolph asked, having come to his side. He appreciated that she took a personal interest instead of demanding an answer from her position of authority at the head of the table.
“I must speak with her privately,” he answered. “May she have a chamber for the night?”
“Certainly. Go to the library, and I will have the butler send word about the chamber. She may stay as long as suits her.” Lady Randolph bustled off to speak with the butler who stood sentry at the door. His ordinarily neat hair was now flopped over his aging brow, undoubtedly due to the exertion in chasing after Priya.
“May I be of assistance?” Nathaniel Russell, the Duke of Gordon, had approached at the same time as Lady Randolph.
He had been another friend of Thomas’. They had been close in school. Although Stephen had been destined for civil service while Gordon was the heir to a dukedom, they had kept in touch. Gordon had promised to assist him in Parliament. Now, he was even more grateful for the support of a friend. “I do not know yet. I will meet you later to apprise you of the situation.”
Keeping his arms around Priya, Stephen ushered them in the direction of the library. The whispers at his back surged once more.
“Lord Clifford needs a moment with his sister,” Gordon said as they exited.
Stephen could not say that he cared about what most of the guests thought of him, but he welcomed the explanation given. Undoubtedly, they all believed that Priya was his Indian wife or concubine rather than his half-sister. But, their opinions were the least of his worries at the moment.
Once in the library, Stephen waited for Priya’s tears to subside. He held her and whispered soothing words, all the while feeling woefully inadequate. She needed the comfort of a woman. Why had she left her mother and India behind? Finally, after what felt like hours, she managed to speak.
“Maji is dead.”
Stephen paled at the news. Priya’s mother had offered him love and kindness he had not deserved when she had every reason to hate him. Moreover, it was out of preference for his English family that Stephen’s father never financially supported his Indian offspring. It was the first of many shameful things he had learned about his father once in India.
“Within a fortnight of when you left. There was a smallpox outbreak. I did not know what to do. A letter did not seem sufficient and could be so easily lost or destroyed.”
Left unsaid was that Priya’s family had sent many letters over the years to the old earl, and he claimed to have never received them. Stephen was relatively sure that his father merely disregarded them, likely consigning them to the fire unread. However, upon his return trips to India, the previous lord would claim the messages had gone awry. Priya was not so naïve as to still believe this, but it would weigh on her nonetheless.
“What about the little ones?” Stephen’s father had sired several children with Manpreet Anand over the years. The youngest was only five.
“Kiran watches them, and the Patel family shares food. However, it is no substitute to the income that Maji made sewing for the officer wives.”
Stephen scrubbed a hand over his face. He had loathed abandoning them, but they did not want to leave the home they loved to meet uncertain fates on foreign shores. The primary reason he was desperate to balance the estate accounts was to see to his siblings.
“How was your journey? How did you find me?”
“The woman who runs your house told me. What is the word?”
“I think you mean the housekeeper.” He paused for a moment, uncertain how to ask his next question. “Did you meet with anyone else while you were at the estate?”
“No, the man at the door seemed to understand the situation and took me downstairs right away.” She met his eyes for the first time that evening. “I made sure that I did not trouble your mother.”
Shame and relief washed through Stephen. He was ashamed of his father’s behavior resulting in this family situation. He ought to have made his mother aware of it before his recent departure. But, even now, he wished to spare her the pain that would follow upon her learning about her husband’s other family. “I have not had time to tell her yet. She was still mourning Frederick and was so adamant that I try to find a wife.”
“Is that why you are here and not at your home or in London?” There was no hint of reproach in her voice or look. She was clever enough to know there was much she did not understand about English society. Additionally, she had always adored him.
“You know that my first goal is to balance the accounts for your sakes. Despite appearances, I am not wife hunting or on holiday here. I am making friends with the gentlemen, and they will help me in Parliament. My accounts are under review by my attorney. At the same time, men look for my absent steward who absconded with a sizable fortune.” He rubbed his brow. “Mr. Grant’s theft and my mother’s matchmaking have only been two of the unforeseen problems to our plan, but I remain determined. Besides seeing to the family, I will not rest until the Company is held responsible for its atrocities.”
“I know,” Priya said, clutching a handkerchief. “It is your attempt at atonement for our father’s sins.”
“Not just his…there were many others involved. When it is all exposed, the people will not stand for such things.”
Priya did not look convinced. She had never doubted Stephen’s convictions or abilities, only the motivation. He had no desire for one of her sermons tonight.
“You must be exhausted. I will ring for a servant and find out the status of your chamber.”
“I arrived in London yesterday. I took the cheapest coach here — we rode all night. I am tired deep in my bones, but I do not think I will rest much until we have some solution for the children.”
The butler entered before Stephen pulled the bell, telling him that Priya’s bed-chamber was prepared. Nevertheless, he insisted on seeing her to the room.
“I will send an urgent message to the appropriate people and dispatch as much money as I can. I issued some as soon as I confirmed the accounts were in my name, but it has only been a matter of days. It will take time to reach them. Does Kiran remember my friend Alfred Wellesley? You told her to contact him if she needs more assistance?”
They had reached Priya’s room. “Yes, and he knows that I left for England. He spared us some money of his own with promises to check in as he could.” She looked at her feet.
“What is it?” It was not like Priya to be less than direct.
“He asked me to marry him…but I could not.” Tears welled in her eyes once more. “You do not think he will hold it against the children, do you? He promised he would not—”
“There is no finer man than Wellesley. I trust him with my life. He knows how independent our family is, too. I am sure he only wished to honor that and not offer undue charity.”
A maid entered to help Priya ready for the evening. She busied herself at the wardrobe.
“Rest well tonight,” Stephen told his sister. “You were right to come to me, but with Wellesley still there, I am sure our siblings will manage until the funds arrive.”
Priya threw her arms around Stephen. “I have missed you so much!”
“I have missed you as well.” Stephen tightened his grip around his sister. Perhaps he should panic at the merging of so much past and present at once, but for the first time since he left India, he felt at home.