A pair of spectacles sat perched on the narrow bridge of his nose as he read. Lauren contemplated clearing her throat or tapping her foot on the floor to gain his attention, but decided against it; her grandfather never looked like he was in good spirits.
“I have found a way for you to be useful,” he finally announced.
“You have?” she asked, confused.
“I am to be called sir,” he stated. “Clearly, your parents did not value good manners.”
Clearly your parents never valued family.
“What is it then, sir?” she ground out.
He was dissatisfied but continued. “You have been here for three months and five days.”
And approximately twelve hours.
“Yes, sir. I am very thankful for your generosity,” she sincerely answered.
“Be that as it may, it is time you should not need to rely on it.”
Lauren waited silently for an explanation.
“I have found you a suitable partner.”
“Partner for what?”
“Marriage. He will, thankfully, accept you despite all the flaws you exhibit.”
“Marriage?!” she said, incredulous. “But I am still in mourning!”
“Yes. But you are no beauty; and frankly, why bother with the expenses for another nine months without hope of a return?”
Lauren would have retaliated, but she knew it was true. She had never been an English rose with looks to inspire poetry. She was pleasant to look at, but nothing extraordinary, and that was not enough to spark passion or longing in a gentleman.
“But I. . . “
“That is all,” he concluded.
Lauren stepped back as if the stern reply had physically struck her, and met the intense glare on his weathered face.
“I think. . .”
“No one bloody cares what you think!” the man boomed. “Your measurements are with the modiste right now. You will meet Mr Atherton tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow,” she croaked, before his valet escorted her to her chamber.
Afternoon loomed into view, and Lauren was sat in the parlour of Grange Hall, her fingers nervously knotted into the green muslin of her gown. To think, the first time she was wearing colour and it was for her fiancé.
Fiancé . . . Christ, that sounded terrifying.
She stood at the sound of a masculine voice, and swallowed the painful lump in her throat as he entered with a reassuring smile. He deftly pried her hand away from her gown, and raised it to his lips. “You’re nervous.”
“Bit of an understatement,” she said shakily.
“Perhaps I can help,” he murmured. In explanation, his other hand found its way to the small of her back, and he ran his fingers downwards like raindrops sliding on a window pane. Cool and tranquil and scalding rain drops. Like his touch.
What an asinine thought.
“What are you doing?” she gasped.
He raised an amused brow, “Soothing you.”
“I do not need soothing. “
“I beg to differ, my dear,” he drawled.
“Do not call me dear!” she tore out.
“You will hear it plenty once you’re Mrs Atherton,” he said, seating himself in the wingback opposite her, an expectant look on his face as she reluctantly did likewise.
Lauren summoned her scattered civility, “I realise, Mr Atherton, that we are engaged but . . .“
“I am dreadfully sorry for making you wait, Miss Walter. I’m afraid my phaeton has been suffering all day!” This came from a newly arrived gentleman. “Lovely to see you, Matthew.”
“It should be,” Matthew replied with a glance at Lauren. “I’ve been keeping your betrothed company, Nathan.”
Her eyes leaped to the gentleman in the doorway.
Just who was she marrying?
“Kind of you,” he said, joining them.
Lauren came to know after much needed introductions that Matthew was not her fiancé. Nathan was.
And oddly, a part of her felt the slightest tinge of disappointment.
Nathan was a kind man with pleasing looks and manners. Why he could not find a better wife had therefore been a mystery. Until they had conversed. He needed a wife who did not mind devoting her time to listening to his mundane lectures and ramblings.
Matthew, on the other hand, was always equipped with a jaunty air and easy sense of humour. Shame he showed no plans for immediate (or eventual) settling. He would have made an interesting companion. For another.
“You will make a good wife, Lauren. Do not be so worried.”
She had not in fact been thinking of that at all. Her worry resided in the fact that she was beginning to bore of his company and seek his cousin’s more.
A tremulous smile touched her lips, “Thank you, Nathan.”
“Of course, you’ll need assistance to improve your etiquette before the wedding,” he added.
“Oh, I didn’t-”
“I’ll find the best to educate you, do not fret, Lauren.”
Lauren suppressed her embarrassment as her fiancé obliviously continued. Never so much had she wanted to shrink into a speck of dust just to be unseen. Her parents had loved her, cared for her, and made her a happy child in a poorhouse. She’d always thought love was enough.
Before this life, she’d thought a lot of things.
Still, she supposed she should be thankful to be offered a chance to improve.
It just stung a little.
“It’s just to quieten the ton,” said Matthew, as she related the conversation to him the next day. “This wedding is driving us crazy.”
Lauren mustered a smile, “And here I thought only the bride and groom suffered.”
“Nothing compared to mine, I assure you. The match-making mamas will tear me to shreds about my preferred state of solitude.”
“Clearly, I’ve been self-involved till now.”
“You have a right to be, Lauren,” he said with the dismissive wave of a hand. “Perhaps I can assist you? Would you like any names wiped off the invitation list?”
“My own,” she said despondently.
He slipped her arm out of the crook of his, and they stopped. A thoughtful silence encompassed them.
She looked up into his eyes, and for once they were completely solemn.
It was chilling. But because her heart quivered and stilled in her chest, she knew she loved him.
“No,” he smirked. “I’d love to see you in a white dress, pouting like an angry child.”
But she was engaged.
Lauren mustered her senses and rolled her eyes, “Christ, what do you think of me?!”
His face hovered over hers, “Everything.” And his lips closed over hers, stroking and caressing with an intensity that stole her breath and shredded her resolve.
She didn’t think she could feel cherished and revered again. Like more than a crass-mannered mail order bride.
She wanted so desperately for it to remain.
But it couldn’t and she pulled back breathlessly, unable to force a voice through her parted lips as his eyes roved over her with an unfathomable expression, “I’m sorry.”
She pressed her eyelids together for a moment, and exhaled a trembling breath. When she opened them, he had gone.
And she was left on the grassy ground of her fiancé’s gardens.
Where she had kissed another man.
A week passed, and Lauren heard nothing from either gentlemen.
She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
“The engagement has been called off!” her grandfather spat out. “You bloody twit! Couldn’t even hold onto a sure thing.”
A string of philippic insults followed; and eventually, Lauren pulled on her cloak and bonnet and left the estate.
She sat in the park, under the shade of an oak tree and sighed; the one time she wanted a rainy English day, and it was bloody beautiful. She half shut her eyes as a few broken rays of light struck her face.
Unfortunately, good weather would not impart any joy in her life; she could practically see her grandfather searching for another ‘patsy’ to trick into marrying her.
“Jesus, Lauren! Could you look any more forlorn?”
“Yes, my dear,” he said, swiftly lifting her confused frame against his solid chest.
“Don’t. . .”
“I will call you dear. Sometimes sweetheart or love. Which do you prefer? I prefer Mrs Atherton. If you marry me.”
“I don’t think marrying one’s cousin is legal,” he replied with a jaunty grin. “And I’d much rather spend my wedding night with you, Lauren.”
“Why did he call off the engagement?” she asked shakily.
“I told him what had happened between us. I apologised, but his trust in you had been destroyed. He must also have sensed my affections for you, because he finally said that while you’d been good company to him, he couldn’t deny a love marriage for his own of convenience.”
He nodded, “Nathan is no fool. So, will you marry me, Lauren?”
“Yes!” she said before he wrapped his arms around her and placed a not-so-innocent kiss on her lips.
“About those lessons. . .” He laughed, noticing the frozen people, one of whom had covered her child’s eyes.
“I’m not going by myself,” she warned.
“That can be arranged.” His eyes glittered with mirth. “Unless you fancy an anvil wedding at Gretna Green?”