After dinner, the gentlemen retired to the smoking room for brandy and cigars, and the ladies remained in the dining room for coffee and gossip.
Annabel, however, decided to forgo the coffee. Excusing herself, she murmured something delicate to her mother and left the table. Exiting by a side door, she went straight past the ladies’ retiring chamber, up the stairs, and into the reading room, where newspapers lay on carved tables and rows of books lined two walls. After a hasty scan of the shelves, she found the book she was looking for and lifted it above the two-inch lip that prevented the volumes from spilling onto the floor in stormy weather.
Flipping through pages, she soon reached the one she wanted, but what she found there was every bit as awful as she had feared.
Chilblain: inflammation brought on by repeated exposure to cold, sometimes accompanied by redness, or painful lesions.
Horrified, she stared at the page. Inflammation? Painful lesions?
“Ghastly, aren’t they?”
She jumped, startled, and turned to find Scarborough standing only a few feet away. “You again? Aren’t you supposed to be in the smoking room with the gentlemen?”
“Aren’t you supposed to be having coffee with the ladies? Neither of us, it seems, is good about doing what we’re supposed to.”
He leaned one shoulder against the bookshelf and nodded to the book in her hands. “Best to eschew those pretty little silk stockings that no doubt are in your trousseau,” he advised. “Stout woolen socks will serve to protect your feet much better.”
Fighting the urge to hide the dictionary behind her back, she strove for an air of nonchalant dignity. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Piqued your curiosity, did I?”
“You’re mistaken,” she assured him, careful to keep the book positioned so he couldn’t discern the title. “I was just looking for something to read.”
“Of course,” he agreed gravely. “And the dictionary is so entertaining.”
She slammed the book shut. “You are like a bad penny,” she said, glaring at him. “Or maybe you’re just plain bad.”
“My reputation precedes me, I see. But it’s gratifying to know you’ve been asking about me.”
“I didn’t,” she lied at once. “No need. I know a skunk without having to ask what the smell is.”
“You’re terribly prickly. Love, if you’re going to marry an Englishman, you’d best cultivate a sense of humor. God knows, you’ll need it.”
“I have a sense of humor.” She paused, smiling sweetly. “I just don’t find you funny.”
To her consternation, he chuckled, not the least bit put out. “Point taken. You’re cheeky, too. Has Rumsford seen these aspects of your character? On the whole, I’d guess not. When he does, he won’t like it.”
“I can manage him.” The moment the words were out of her mouth, she wanted to bite her tongue off.
“Manage him?” Scarborough echoed, seeming quite entertained. “Well, I daresay you think so. He does have that weak chin. But I do think it’s a bit unfair of you to correlate that particular physical trait to the lack of a spine. A few days from now,” he went on, overriding her outraged protest about Bernard’s chin, “you might agree with me about that, after you’ve said the bit about ‘until death us do part.’ Men, even those with weak chins, are often much less willing to be managed once they’ve got everything they want, especially an iron-clad marriage settlement in a country where divorce is almost impossible.”
Annabel felt a sudden, inexplicable jolt of uncertainty. Was any of what he said true? she wondered, and then immediately shook her head, banishing that question and her momentary doubt. “You’re talkin’ nonsense!”
“Perhaps I am. I often do. But your words do make me wonder—are you really the sort of girl who would be happy with a man she can ‘manage,’ as you put it?”
It was her turn to laugh, for she was beginning to see just where this conversation was going. “I suppose I’d be much happier with someone else, someone clever and charming who’ll always try to spar and match wits with me? Someone like…” She paused, giving him her best wide-eyed look. “Someone like you, for instance?”
“Possibly. Even I can be managed. If a woman does it properly.”
Something in those words sent a rush of heat into her face for no reason at all. She quickly looked away, returning her attention to the books along the shelf.
“And,” he added, “I like to think I’m a more interesting conversationalist than Rummy.”
“Don’t flatter yourself. You’re not.”
“Quite. You must adore listening to dissertations on the inner workings of Parliament. Now that I’ve been put most decidedly in my place, I shall banish all hope of winning you, my heart broken and my dreams crushed. But before I go to the garden for an aperitif of worms, might I suggest muslin as the best binding for chilblains?”
That reminder of what she’d just read was a bit sobering. “Is that what…what you’re supposed to do? Bind them?”
“Don’t worry, your new sisters-in-law will show you how. Like all British girls, they’ve vast experience with that particular ailment. Well, except my sister. We installed radiators ages ago, along with gaslights, and bathrooms with hot water and flush toilets. Rumsford Castle, alas, is not so fortunate. They still use coal and candles up there. As to the matter of flush toilets, there aren’t any. There hasn’t been a hygienic improvement along those lines since they took out the moat.”
She swallowed hard. No central heating? No bathrooms? Bernard hadn’t told her any of this. Lord, she felt as if she was going back to the primitive conditions of her Mississippi childhood, only at much icier temperatures. What was the point of being an aristocrat if one still had to use a privy pot and bathe out of a bucket?
Scarborough was watching her, smiling, as if he could read her thoughts like the pages of a book. She lifted her chin, rallying. “That’s part of what the earl and I shall be doing. We intend to bring Rumsford Castle up to date.”
That wasn’t quite true, for she and Bernard had only discussed restorations at Rumsford. They’d never talked about installing any modern amenities, mainly because she’d assumed an earl’s house would already have them. Still, now that she knew otherwise, she also knew where her money was going first. Bernard’s restorations could wait. “Our home shall have all the conveniences of modern life.”
“Hmm, I daresay you’ll have your work cut out for you there. The Dowager Countess is a formidable opponent of all things modern. Tradition has always been far more important to that good lady than comfort.” He leaned closer. “I think she wishes hair shirts and chastity belts were still in vogue.”
With a shrug, he turned to the bookshelf. “You obviously haven’t met her.” He lifted out a book and began to scan the pages. “Perhaps you should,” he added, the very nonchalance of his voice making her suspicious. “If you could manage that before the wedding, you’d avoid a great deal of heartache and a great many head colds.”
“I find it hard to believe that any woman, especially an older one, would prefer to live in a house that’s freezing cold when she shall be able to have central heating instead.”
“I told you. Because it’s tradition, and traditions cannot and shall not be broken.” Marking his place with one finger, he closed the book, then he turned toward her, looking down his nose at her, the book pressed to his chest. “’We have nev-ah had central heating, my lady,’” he said in a ponderous voice, managing to seem every bit as proper and stuffy as she’d always imagined an English butler to be. It was so uncanny, in fact, that she had to press her lips together to avoid a smile. Smiling, she feared, would only encourage him. “And we nev-ah shall, God willing,” he went on. “Keeping our feet warm is what the dogs are for.”
“Dogs? You mean foxhounds?”
“No, no, hounds are another thing altogether. They rather go along with the estate, like the entail, you know, and the leaky roof, and the inevitable dowager who always hates being usurped. No, no, I’m talking about Rummy’s own dogs. He has nine.”
“Nine?” She stared at him in some alarm. “Nine dogs?”
“Pugs. Fierce little fellows. I believe Lady Seaworth had to break with him because of the dogs.”
She smiled. “If you’re trying to shock me, you won’t succeed. I know all about Lady Seaworth. Arthur already told me she was Bernard’s mistress before he met me.”
“You know about Lady Seaworth, but not the dogs?” He leaned closer, adopting a confidential air. “Rumor has it the dogs slept with them, and after a time, she just couldn’t tolerate the snoring. Or the drool.”
“You’re making that up,” she accused.
“Ask Rummy if you don’t believe me.”
“Rummy—Bernard,” she corrected herself at once, “would have told me about any dogs.”
“Perhaps he didn’t want to frighten you off. If they’re inclined to drool on you in the middle of the night when you’re in bed—”
“They won’t drool.” Annabel set her jaw. “Not in my bed anyway.”
“That’s the spirit,” he said with approval, resuming his former breezy demeanor. “You Americans are so full of verve. Bringing our English estates up to snuff, and braving Northumberland winters without so much as a pug or two to warm your feet. It’s all very admirable. But I am curious about something.”
He returned the book to the shelf and moved closer to her. “Why did you need to learn what chilblains are from a dictionary? You seem a confident, forthright sort of girl. Why didn’t you just ask your fiancé?” He slanted her a knowing look. “Or perhaps you did ask, but Rummy wouldn’t tell you?”
He was the most irritatingly perceptive man. Still, she wasn’t going to admit he’d been right again. “This has all been very interesting, Your Grace, but I came in here for a book, so if you will excuse me?”
She tucked the dictionary back where it belonged, and moved to the set of shelves where the novels were kept, but of course he did not take the hint and depart.
“My guess,” he added, following her, “is that Rummy thinks chilblains are much too crude a subject to discuss with a young lady. Rather like the lack of flush toilets at Rumsford Castle. I don’t suppose he told you about the wandering hands of his Uncle Henry either? Best steer clear of the old boy, by the way. He’s nigh on eighty now, but still quite spry. He’ll be in the library, which is always the only room lit by a fire during the day, so if you stay away from there, you should be safe.” He paused, tilting his head, looking doubtful. “Although, perhaps not. Henry tried to corner my sister in a stair cupboard once. She bashed him with a niblick.”
“I don’t think you’re serious about anything,” she accused and turned to peruse the shelves. “You’re just havin’ fun at my expense.”
“Ask Sylvia if you don’t believe me. I shall introduce you to her, and she can verify every word I’m saying. Rumsford’s uncle is a skirt-chaser of legendary proportions. He’s rather like our king in that respect.”
Appalled, she stared at him. “The King of England is not like that!”
“Best to toddle off to the Continent whenever Rummy has His Majesty up to Northumberland for a shooting party,” he went on with complete disregard for her protest. “You won’t want to be anywhere in the vicinity. The King would take one look at you, my delicious little lamb, and start licking his chops. I’ve no doubt he’d make Rumsford step aside.”
Despite herself, Annabel felt a hint of dread, for she’d seen photographs of England’s pudgy, bearded king. “He couldn’t do that. My husband wouldn’t let him.”
“My dear girl, Rumsford won’t have a choice. Noblesse oblige, and all that. Another one of the rules.”
“Rules, rules,” she said crossly, at the end of her rope. “Just what are all these rules you keep talkin’ about?”
“The rules we British live by. They are very specific, and they are unbreakable. Violate them, and you’re out.”
Annabel felt her dread deepening into alarm. She couldn’t afford to commit some awful faux pas. On the other hand, she didn’t know whether to believe him or not. Everything seemed like a joke to him, and his motives, she suspected, were less than pure.
“I’ve been reading your society pages, etiquette books, and such, and I’ve learned a lot about England over the last couple of years.” She folded her arms, studying him through narrowed eyes. “I’ve never read anything about these rules.”
“I highly doubt anyone’s bothered to write them down. Someone should, of course. It would save you Americans a great deal of heartache. I say, that’s an idea,” he added as if to himself. “If I wrote such a treatise, a guide to British matrimony for the American heiress, your lot would buy heaps of copies. I might actually make a living out of it, a respectable one. What a refreshing change that would make.”
How he earned his living, respectable or not, was of no concern to her. “Bernard’s never told me anything about rules. Wouldn’t he tell me if we’re to be married?”
“Doing that would be highly improper. Bernard, despite his one or two redeeming qualities, is much too proper to have a candid conversation on any topic.”
Annabel chose to ignore this disparaging remark about her fiancé, not wanting to be distracted by side issues. “Damn it, stop toying with me. Are you going to tell me about these rules or not?”
“I don’t know.” He tilted his head, considering, and his hesitation confirmed everything she’d already decided about him.
“I suppose you want something in return for this information?”
“Why, Miss Wheaton, what a delicious suggestion.”
“I should have known,” she said. “A cad always expects something in return for doing a woman a favor.”
“It was your idea,” he pointed out. “But despite that, I shall resist the temptations of my baser nature. I am happy to give you these rules freely, without any expectation of recompense. The problem is that I don’t see how such a thing can be managed.”
“What do you mean?”
“I told you, it’s not a proper subject, not one I can discuss with you in front of chaperones, particularly your mother.”
Thinking of what he’d said about the king, she had to concede the point, but she didn’t see why that should matter.
“So why don’t you tell me right now?”
As if in answer to this question, the sound of voices floated through the open doorway, and Annabel glanced apprehensively in that direction, for the last thing she needed was to be caught unchaperoned with a man, especially this one. But though the couple talking passed by the reading room without pausing, it was a reminder not to linger here. On the other hand, she badly wanted to know what these rules were. What if she went into London society and made some horrible gaffe that got her shunned? Then all her efforts would be for nothing. If there were rules, and he wasn’t just talking nonsense, then she needed to know what those rules were.
“Meet me the day after tomorrow,” she whispered and lifted a novel from the shelf. “Ten o’clock in the morning, by the second class smoking room. Since it’ll be Sunday, everyone will be at services, but I’ll plead a headache. No one either of us knows is likely to be down in second class anyway.”
“You’re willing to be alone with me?”
He was surprised, she could tell. “As long as you keep your hands to yourself,” she shot back and departed, ignoring his laughter as she walked away.
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