Excerpt from An Arranged Marriage
Nicholas has arranged for his friends, the Company of Rogues, to keep Eleanor company, but when she holds a small party, he attends to keep up appearances...
Eleanor was pleased to see Nicholas exerting his charm to secure the success of the event, but this also led to bitterness. If he can turn it on and off so easily, she thought, why can't he turn it on for me now and then? She was amused by Peter"s jealous care of Amy until she compared it to Nicholas's casual regard of herself.
Lord Middlethorpe, standing beside her, said, "Now what in the sight of those sickening young lovers can be making you look so sad?"
"I'm just worrying about arrangements. This is my first real party, you know."
But he shook his head. "Won't do, Eleanor. May I try my hand at mind-reading? You were looking at Peter and Amy and wishing Nicholas was hovering over you in the same way."
She knew she had colored and did not attempt to deny it.
"He wouldn't be a very good host if he did that, you know. And perhaps he trusts you rather more than Peter appears to trust Amy."
Eleanor was betrayed into bitter speech. "He wouldn't care, I dare say, if I were to throw myself into another man's arms."
Surprisingly, Lord Middlethorpe laughed. "You obviously don't know Nicholas, even yet." He looked at her thoughtfully. "Jealousy is a not very attractive reflection of possessiveness, but would it make you happy if he were jealous?"
"Francis, this is most improper, and very silly. I can't...." Under his gently insistent look she said, "Yes. Yes, it would."
"Come then," he said and held out his arm. "Show me some particular book in the library."
Eleanor looked over at her oblivious husband then put her hand on Lord Middlethorpe's arm and allowed him to lead her from the room. "You expect him to come after us? I doubt he will even notice I have left the room, never mind who with."
"I, however, know I am taking my life in my hands."
His sensitive eyes reflected all his concern for her. Why was she surrounded by care from everyone except the one....
"Cheer up, or you'll have me thinking I am very poor company."
As they entered the darkened library Eleanor said, "Indeed you are not. I don't know what I would do without your friendship, Francis."
He lit the candles with a taper from the low fire and looked around. "Well, which book are you so anxious to share with me?"
Eleanor shrugged, and took up the folder of Chinese prints. "Have you seen these? They are exquisite."
He turned the sheets carefully. "Very fine. I have some similar but none as delicate as these."
Eleanor relaxed as usual into the pleasure of his company. They were studying the prints, Eleanor seated and Francis leaning over her shoulder, when the door opened and Nicholas entered. He closed the door quietly behind him.
Eleanor blushed, and Francis smiled.
Nicholas could not be said to be angry, and yet there had been a flash in his eyes when he first entered. Eleanor had to force herself not to leap to her feet and stammer out excuses.
He strolled over to the table. "You are admiring these? I think we should have them mounted."
"Yes," Francis replied, in an equally light tone. "A shame to hide them, but be careful the light does not spoil them. Treasures need to be cherished." He quietly left the room.
At the click of the door Eleanor looked up in alarm. Nicholas was studying her with careful attention.
"Has something in particular upset you?" They both knew he was not referring to the state of their marriage.
"No, nothing at all," she said hurriedly. "We must go back. It does not do for us both to be neglecting our guests."
"I think everyone is quite content for the moment."
He perched on the corner of the table beside her chair. It was a more intimate situation than any they had been in for weeks. Idly, he twirled one of her curls around his finger.
She found she could not look at him.
His voice came softly in the quiet room. "You are being very brave and very careful, Eleanor. You cannot know how grateful I am."
There was a magic in the moment, but it evaporated when she remembered what he was doing with the time she was so generously allowing him. She was trying, head still lowered, to decide on her response when he spoke again.
"Would it help to know that I am finding this time as difficult as you? And, I suspect, for many of the same reasons."
Surprised, she responded with a slight nod, anger melting into swallowed tears, equal parts grief and happiness. She did not understand what he was saying but his tone of deep concern was balm for her pride. At least he felt something for her.
But then he stood up abruptly, facing away from her. His voice was rough as he said, "I cannot explain things, Eleanor, and believe me, it wouldn't help if I could. Come, we must go back."
When he turned to offer her his arm she rose obediently, knowing no way to make any sense of him. His movement was arrested, and then changed. He raised his hands to cradle her face and she knew the hint of tears must be there, no matter how gallantly she smiled.
"Oh, Eleanor. I cannot even ask forgiveness, my dear."
He leant forward until his lips caressed hers. It was a kiss which spoke more of caring than of need, but there was a sweetness to be so close, to be wrapped in his concern, if not in his arms...
"Oh God." He wrenched back. She saw the bewildering need in his tortured eyes before he turned and left the room.