Love & RejectionEvangeline
Tilleyard Manor, A Fine Spring Afternoon
Evangeline wasn’t entirely sure who threw the first cupcake.
It was probably Mary.
Mary was fourteen, and while a lot of young girls her age were starting to nag about letting down their hems and putting up their hair and generally being lady-like, Mary was very keen to avoid this fate for as long as she could. Her nightmare was, she declared, ending up like Theo, who was the very model of a proper young lady and the bane of her younger sister’s life. They were mortal foes, according to Mary.
Mary did not have much of a sweet tooth, which seemed to disappoint her – tomboys and wild young ladies always loved sweets in the novels, after all – and had filled her plate with cupcakes and sweetmeats that she did not want to eat.
Perhaps throwing a cupcake directly at her sister’s face was not the best way of dealing with this.
Theodosia – or Theo, as she begged her sisters not to call her – was twenty-one, and generally considered to be a sweet, proper, and pretty young lady. Perhaps if Theo had been the eldest sister, she would have been nicely married and out of the way by now.
Not like Evangeline.
No, Evangeline was twenty-four years old, and on the cusp of being openly called a spinster. If that was the worst insult Society could muster, Evangeline wouldn’t have minded. Unfortunately, marrying a decent man with plenty of money wasn’t really an option for her at this stage. It was a necessity. Until Evangeline married, Theo was stuck. Her charms wouldn’t last forever, and while Evangeline couldn’t ever imagine Mary being someone’s wife, she would eventually need to be cared for.
Theo had abandoned her book and was now chasing a gleeful Mary around the maze with a badminton racket. Evangeline noticed that she had a bit of frosting stuck near her hairline. It would probably wash out.
It must be nice to race around like that, unencumbered with the pressure of the future. Theo and Mary were just concentrating on hitting each other with a badminton racket and more cupcakes respectively, and probably didn’t even care that the roses were all wilting and the grass was patchy.
Evangeline noticed. It was her fault, after all.
Perhaps if she’d married someone suitable last Season or even the Season before, they would have a little more money, and the poor gardener would not have had to be dismissed. Poor Gregory. He was such a good worker and didn’t deserve it at all. They’d given him a glowing reference, of course, and in truth, he was probably relieved. Now he could abandon the pretence of loyalty and find himself a decent job, where he was paid regularly, had a proper team of workers and under-gardeners, and wasn’t owed several months back wages.
A gnarled yet elegant hand appeared in Evangeline’s field of vision, the fingers snapping bad-temperedly. Evangeline blinked.
“Grandmother, I wish you wouldn’t do that. I’m sitting right next to you, I’m sure you could find another way to attract my attention.”
The Dowager Lady Mildred Tillewood, the three girls’ paternal grandmother, had lived with them ever since the tragedy that took away their parents. Her gruff, overbearing good sense and dislike of “silliness and excess” had done them a world of good while they were grieving. Lately, however, she was starting to grate on Evangeline’s nerves. This was because Mildred was usually right about most things, and that was extremely inconvenient.
“Well, it’s not my fault that you’re wool-gathering.” Mildred sniffed. “I’ve let you loll around long enough. I want to hear about what happened with Simon Hess.”
Evangeline winced. As if it wasn’t enough that she would be tormented by embarrassment whenever she thought about the event, now she had to repeat it all to her unforgiving grandmother.
“I’m sure you already know it all, Grandmother. You know everything that happens in London.”
“Yes, but I want to hear it from you. Quick sticks – I’ll have to go and shout at your sisters in a minute. I wish they’d just eat their food instead of throwing it at each other.”
Evangeline sighed internally. She might as well get used to it. Poor Simon Hess would probably tell his friends and family, so she’d better get used to feeling uncomfortable around them.
Simon Hess was a young medical student of about twenty-six. He was bespectacled, brown-haired, freckled, and extremely shy. Evangeline remembered wondering how on earth he’d be able to summon the courage to speak up to his patients when he finally qualified as a doctor. It was Rosalind, of course, who introduced them at her father’s birthday party. The Earl of Deerwood’s party was large, fancy, and spectacular, and Evangeline had felt entirely out of place.
But then Rosalind had talked about how kind and intelligent Mr. Hess was, and Evangeline began to wonder whether he might be worth meeting after all. By the time the two young people finally came face to face, she’d worked herself up into quite a state.
“He was very nice, but I doubt we’ll make a match of it.” Evangeline said delicately.
That was putting it nicely.
Mildred sighed. “Fine. Twenty questions it shall be, then. Was he chatty?”
“No, very quiet. I did most of the talking.”
“Well, that is a terrible start. How tall was he?”
“Not tall enough.”
“They never are. You wore your flattest shoes, didn’t you?”
Evangeline sipped her tea. It was cold by now. “Of course, Grandmother. I always wear flat shoes to balls.”
She also wore flat shoes to soirees, garden parties, supper parties, and anywhere there was likely to be other people. It wasn’t her fault everyone was so very small.
“Did you ask him about his interests? As a medical student, I’m sure he likes to talk about how clever he is.”
“Actually, I found it rather difficult to draw him out. And then…” Evangeline’s eyes fluttered closed.
“And then, what?” Mildred said sharply.
“Then I asked him if he intended to marry after he qualified as a doctor, and if so, how long would he intend to wait.”
“Good lord, Evangeline. Why didn’t you just ask him if he thought you were pretty? You might as well have proposed to him yourself.”
Evangeline bit her lip. It had been mortifying. She remembered the way Simon’s eyes had widened at her pointed question, but it was like a bad dream – she couldn’t stop herself. If only he hadn’t been so quiet, perhaps Evangeline wouldn’t have kept blundering on, talking and talking and talking until she wanted to tear out her own tongue and stuff it in her ears.
She remembered asking all sorts of impertinent, personal questions, to which Simon Hess hedged and demurred, until he was finally rescued by his mother. Mrs Hess has scowled at Evangeline, escorting away her visibly relieved son.
Evangeline had spent the rest of the evening avoiding all members of the Hess family and wishing for death. Or, at the very least, wishing she could crawl underneath the dining table, hidden by the long tablecloth, and wait there until everyone was gone.
It wasn’t fair. All the single ladies were looking to marry during the Season, and all the gentlemen were looking to see what the Marriage Mart had to offer. It was all games and dancing, every bit as complicated as the cotillion Evangeline still couldn’t get the hang of. One couldn’t be open about it. It was terribly bad form to announce one’s intentions to marry, but if a lady didn’t marry… well. That was ridiculous, too.
Mildred glanced at Evangeline out of the corner of her eye and sighed. “Did you talk to him again that evening?”
“Not even to say goodbye?”
Evangeline shook her head, and Mildred sighed harder.
“Right. Well. That’s that, then. We can cross Simon Hess off the list. Now, let me see – who’s next?”
“Who’s next? Grandmother, you make the whole business sound like one big competition.”
Mildred eyed her. “Whatever in the world gave you the impression that it wasn’t? Make no mistake, my girl. The marriage mart is a busy place, and finding a husband – let alone a good husband – is a serious business.”
Evangeline bit her lip, watching her two sisters chase each other. Mary was much stronger and fitter than Theo and could easily leave her behind. Still, she let Theo catch up a little, and then sprinted away again. Theo, completely unaware of the fact she was being had, was racing after her, frustrated and furious. Mary was laughing, red in the face and breathless, with no other thoughts beyond evading her sister one more time.
Evangeline couldn’t remember the last time she’d laughed like that.
“Can’t we take a break, Grandmother?” Evangeline asked quietly. “I feel ridiculous. I think I’m already known as the ridiculous, determined young woman in London. Desperate to get married, but not able to charm a single suitor. The Misses Liberty are already calling me The Jolly Giant. That sort of thing sticks, you know.”
“Tiffany and Rosie Liberty are stuck-up wisps, with nothing in their head but cotton wool and the patterns for new dresses.” Mildred said determinedly. “Some men will marry one or the other because he thinks they are pretty, and he will find out the hard way why sensible men don’t put much store on beauty. Beauty is very nice, in its way, but it’s like an early morning frost. It doesn’t last and tends not to have much impact on whether the day is fine or not. You can never tell what will follow a morning frost, and you might not like the weather you get. I was never beautiful.”
Evangeline studied her own reflection in her teacup. Milky tea was not the best reflector of one’s face, but Evangeline knew herself well enough. She had nice eyes, brown and large like a doe’s, a pointed face, curly brown hair that was pretty without being outstanding, and – horror of horrors – freckles.
Evangeline privately thought her freckles were very becoming, but that didn’t stop ladies laughing at her from behind their hands and talking about how ugly they were. She’d gotten used to that.
“This is my fourth Season, Grandmother.” Evangeline said after a while. “I’ve tried my absolute best to find a husband. Surely if there was a man suitable for me, I would have found one by now. I’m starting to look silly, coming back for Season after Season. I don’t even enjoy the London Season.”
“Yes, it’s awful, isn’t it? Character developing, I always say. Discomfort breeds resilience, and suffering is good for the soul. The London Season is a wonderful way of building up all sorts of interesting qualities. It’s like a pearl – only created by constant irritation, but nice to have once it’s all over.”
“That’s one way to look at it.” Evangeline muttered. There was a shrill scream from the depths of the maze. Probably Theo. “It’s just… whenever I talk to a young man, Grandmother – and I’ve met some very nice men, that I truly think I could come to like – I can’t stop thinking about this.”
Evangeline gestured vaguely at the weeds and the broken roof slate that had come off one of the outbuildings about an hour ago. She reckoned that if one combined all of the roofs of the outbuildings and sheds, you could cobble together one decent roof.
Inside the house, there were dozens of buckets, catching countless drips. Evangeline barely even noticed them anymore, just emptying them when they were full.
“About this. About not being able to pay the servants, and dismissing the ones we do have, even though they’ve worked for us for years. Selling off Papa’s beloved paintings and Mama’s jewels to buy new dresses for a Season I don’t even want to attend. Mary is not able to get a new gown, ever, even though Theo’s clothes are too small for her and have to be drastically altered. That’s all I can think about, and the gentlemen I talk to – well, I just know that they think I’m a grasping, greedy young woman. I wouldn’t want to flirt with me after that.”
Mildred sighed. “You’re in a difficult position, my dear, and no mistake. This is very awkward for you. But we have to push through this, you know that.”
“I know, I know. I’d like to be married, Grandmother. It’s not as though I want to be single all my life, but opportunities just aren’t presenting themselves. I don’t know what to do. And, of course, it tends to hurt when one gets rejected by gentleman after gentleman.”
Mildred pursed her lips. “A great many people find roses beautiful; you know.”
Evangeline blinked. “What?”
“Roses. Lots of people find them beautiful, but very few people are willing to risk grabbing one with their bare hands.”
Evangeline frowned. “I don’t understand what you mean, Grandmother.”
Suddenly, she felt very, very tired. Evangeline set down her cold cup of tea and got to her feet. “I’m going inside, Grandmother. I think the sun is getting to me.”
Mildred pointedly glanced up at the cloudy day but said nothing. Relieved to be more or less excused, Evangeline turned back towards the house.
Tilleyard Manor had once been a remarkable place. It wasn’t as large as many mansions, but it was beautiful and comfortable.
These days, of course, the paint was peeling, the stonework was chipped, and weeds rioted on the driveway, which hadn’t been raked in… well, goodness only knew how long. There was a thin layer of grime on the front door, and Evangeline was careful not to put her hand on it. She’d end up with smudges on her hand, which would transfer to her dress or, in one humiliating occasion before a garden party, her nose.
The first thing a person would see when entering Tilleyard Manor was two huge portraits of the previous Lord and Lady Tillewood. Charles and Virginia smiled benevolently down at the few guests that graced their fading home.
Charles had died when Evangeline was twelve, and Virginia when she was fifteen. Contrary to the way most tragic Gothic heroines lost their parents, Charles and Virginia had died of annoyingly mundane issues. Charles had died of a fever, under no suspicious circumstances whatsoever. Virginia had not, as a heroine’s mother should, faded away due to heartbreak in the following years or married a wicked stepfather who mistreated her and loathed the children, but died in a carriage plunging off a cliff. She was driving the carriage at the time.
And now, the three girls were alone. Perhaps if Uncle Edmund hadn’t come along and alternatively gambled and mismanaged their money away, Evangeline’s inability to attract a suitable mate wouldn’t be such an issue.
“Morning, Mama. Morning, Papa.” Evangeline said, smiling weakly up at her parents’ portraits. She couldn’t remember how tall either of them where. She hadn’t hit her first horrific growth spurt until sixteen, by which time she was already orphaned. So, Evangeline couldn’t remember which of her parents had cursed her with tremendous height.
She wearily climbed the stairs to her room. Evangeline’s room was the highest room in the house in the little white attic, and as such was the least cleaned room. She didn’t blame the maids, of course. They had far too much work to be getting on with. The family simply learned not to look up. That way, it was as if the cobwebs clustering on the ceiling didn’t exist. If you used something frequently enough, the dust would rub off.
Halfway up the first flight of stairs, Evangeline paused, glancing back over her shoulder. The elderly butler, Jameson, was standing in the hall, with a single, creamy envelope placed neatly on the centre of a silver tray. Evangeline happened to know that Jameson loved those silly traditions and spent a lot of his own time polishing up those trays to a high shine.
It seemed a waste, but he liked it, so the least Evangeline could do was pick her letters up off the tray. Evangeline hurried back down the stairs and picked up the envelope. It was addressed to her, and in familiar handwriting.
“Ah, it’s Rosalind.” Evangeline said, smothering a sigh. “Another ball, I suppose.”
She’s almost as tireless as Grandmother when it comes to finding me a husband.
“How lovely, Lady Evangeline.” Jameson said politely, swanning off with the tray balanced on one hand. Evangeline stuffed the letter in her pocket and continued up the first floor.
The carpets up here were worn almost threadbare and were worse than useless. The dust was worse up here – Mildred always told the maids to concentrate their efforts downstairs, which is what visitors would see. It was only Mildred, Theo, and Mary who slept on the first floor, along with a few guest bedrooms.
Evangeline had to stoop to get through her bedroom door. It was a low, narrow doorway, designed for a child, not a strapping woman who was just a tiny bit short of six feet tall.
She was certainly six feet tall if she wore shoes with any kind of heel. And since all the gentlemen in Society seemed to be at least half a foot shorter than her, Evangeline spent her days bending down to listen to people, trying not to look at men’s bald spots, and fielding jokes and snide remarks about her height.
Gentlemen seemed to take it as a personal affront that Evangeline was taller than them. One fellow had even half-jokingly demanded an apology.
Simon Hess had been exactly her height, and it was very pleasant not to have to crane her neck down to look a man in the eye. He hadn’t seemed disconcerted to find Evangeline on eye level.
None of that mattered, though, because Evangeline had ruined it all anyway. Once safely inside her room, she lifted her hem to inspect her thin-soled slippers. This short of shoe was more or less useless. They wore through if she danced more than three consecutive dances, became instantly sodden at the merest hint of rain, and as for dealing with mud, wet grass, or puddles – well. Worse than useless.
Evangeline pursed her lips, feeling the familiar stab of annoyance. Why should she have to alter herself? Why couldn’t she wear decent shoes and stand at an even six foot? You didn’t see gentlemen apologising for their receding hairlines, or bad breath, or gin noses, or fat bellies bursting out of their waistcoats, or for the fact they were forty, fifty or sixty and wanted to marry a girl no older than eighteen. Ugh. It made Evangeline sick.
No point wishing things were different, Evangeline’s voice of common sense warned her. That voice sounded suspiciously like her grandmother. Things are the way they are, and you can either deal with them or curl up in a ball and cry. Just avoid the gentlemen with bad breath and bald heads.
But she’d gone through all the other gentlemen. Evangeline flopped backwards on her bed, pressing a pillow over her face. The thing was, Evangeline had no dowry to speak off. There was the estate, of course, but after Uncle Edmund, there wasn’t much left. Evangeline had to marry well in order to put Theo and Mary in a better position for the future. The weight of their futures rested on her shoulders.
That was a lot of pressure, and if the past years had shown Evangeline anything, it was that she was certainly not up to the task. Evangeline closed her eyes. She wanted to talk to Rosalind about it, but it was the coachman’s day off. He’d requested several days off a week, and since they couldn’t afford to pay him what they ought to have done, they didn’t dare refuse.
The Woolfe Estate
Nicholas turned the page in his brand-new medical journal as if it had personally offended him. The parlour was still set out for visitors, their half-drunk teacups sitting on the table. Mrs. Hartford’s cloying perfume was still hanging in the air.
The front door banged, and there was a murmur of voices. Then boot heels, no doubt meticulously polished to a high, glowing shine, echoed across the hall.
When he was young, Nicholas used to stare at his reflection in those boots, when he was getting scolded, and wonder whether he’d ever get his own boots so shiny.
The answer to that was no, unfortunately.
“Nicholas! Nicholas! Come to my study at once!”
Nicholas closed his paper with a sigh. Father was home early. How lovely.
He got up reluctantly, peering out into the hallway in time to see the Colonel’s study door slamming closed. He took a moment to glower at Timmins, their butler, who was the Colonel’s old lieutenant and had almost certainly tattled on him to his father.
There was no point in dawdling. Colonel Bertram Woolfe was an army man, through and through, and had no patience with wasting time. Better get it over with now. Nicholas drew in a deep breath and knocked on the door.
“Don’t tap on the door like a child, boy. Come in.”
Nicholas obeyed and was greeted by his father sitting behind his desk, hands clasped on his papers, glowering. There was no seat set out in front of the desk, which left Nicholas standing. The Colonel would see no need to offer his son a seat.
“Timmins tells me that Mrs. and Miss Hartford left our home in some kind of hurry recently.” The Colonel growled. “Would you care to tell me what happened?”
It wasn’t really a question. The Colonel would find out, either from Timmins who had almost certainly been listening at the door, or from Mrs. Hartford, who was a particular friend of his.
Nicholas shifted his weight, already feeling ill at ease. The Colonel had that effect on people. It had been a long time since Nicholas was a thin, nervous boy who fidgeted in front of his father’s desk. He was now well over six feet tall, with a set of shoulders and a broad chest that most would die for. Nicholas was complacently aware that he had a figure which other men meticulously used padding and corsets to achieve. During his first Season, he’d come to realise – much to his own surprise – that he had a face that women tended to swoon and giggle over.
Still, when Nicholas looked in the mirror, he struggled to see anything beyond brown eyes (boring), auburn hair (too long at the moment and far too curly), and a strong jaw. Judging by his recent attempts to find a wife, he had come to realise that while he was more handsome than he’d ever expected to be, his charms were…
“Well?” the Colonel barked out. “Speak up, lad.”
Nicholas set his jaw. He hadn’t waded through years of medical school only to be bullied by his father again.
“Yes, Mrs. and Miss Hartford did leave. I suppose you might say they left suddenly.”
The Colonel groaned. “Tell me what happened. At once.”
Nicholas bit his lip.
Miss Hartford had seemed such a nice young woman. She had very fair hair, large blue eyes, and was rather tubby, with a round face and a frilled pink dress that made her look a little bit like a ham. But she loved to read, and eagerly talked about novels, plays, and poetry, even when her mother shot her a warning glance. She laughed so hard at something Nicholas said that she snorted unbecomingly, much to her mother’s horror, and Nicholas had felt such a wave of affection for this amiable young woman that he could have hugged her.
Maybe it was the rush of his own newborn feelings that made him so uncomfortable. The conversation had pushed along pretty well until then, with Miss Hartford doing most of the talking.
Then they hit a slow point in the conversation, and Mrs. Hartford icily asked Nicholas something about his medical studies. The next thing he knew, Nicholas was diving into a long and complex story about a particular patient he’d treated about half a year ago.
A very, very long story.
“I told her an anecdote about a patient.” Nicholas mumbled. The silence in the room reminded him of the silence that had sprung up between him and the Hartford ladies. The Colonel closed his eyes.
“What did you say, Nicholas? What were the specifics of this… this anecdote?”
“I… I told her about a patient with gangrene.”
“Oh, good Lord.”
That wasn’t all of it, of course. After describing, in detail, how gangrene should be diagnosed (with a necessary monologue about the difference between wet and dry gangrene), Nicholas had gone on to describe his poor patient’s infection, which was thoroughly wet, came on with remarkable suddenness, and had rotted away most of his leg. Maggots had come into the story. Nicholas often said that it was impossible to describe the foul stench of gangrene, but when he glanced up and saw the green tinge to Miss Hartford’s face, he realised that he’d actually done a rather excellent job of it.
Nicholas didn’t bother to explain all of these details. He was sure that his father would know it all already, or at least guessed at it.
“You stupid boy.” The Colonel said, teeth gritted. “What have I said about talking to guests about your bone-chilling medical horrors? This is not your medical academy – ladies do not want to hear your grotesque stories!”
Nicholas swallowed. “Yes, I realise that now.”
As soon as the story was finished, Mrs. Hartford and a queasy-looking Miss Hartford had left. Come to think of it, he couldn’t remember whether they’d said goodbye or not. Perhaps his faux pas was more serious than he’d thought. It was all so ridiculous. It was just a story. It wasn’t as though he had taken out sketches of injuries and autopsies to show them.
He’d done that once at a soiree. Two ladies had fainted. A gentleman had fainted too, but he pretended that he had tripped on the rug so as not to seem unmanly. Nicholas had offered to administer medical assistance to the ladies. They refused.
“Gangrene.” The colonel muttered, pressing his lips together. “For heaven’s sake. That’s worse than that dreadful story you told Lady Anne Woolworth. What was it? Some drunken sailor with a dented skull?”
“Mr. Jopson had a seriously depressed skull fracture. He would have died soon if we hadn’t been able to lift it up again. We placed a small piece of metal, perfectly designed to fit inside…”
“Stop, stop! Good lord, Nicholas, what were you thinking, telling that story – or any of your stories, in fact – in polite Society?”
Nicholas frowned. “Both of my patients – Mr. Jopson and Harry with the gangrene – survived. Isn’t that a good thing?”
“Yes, that’s all very well, but don’t tell us about it. Even now I feel queasy. Ah, here’s Timmins with the tea. Come in, there’s a good man.”
Timmins came sailing in with a tea tray, which was noticeably laden only for one person. Apparently, Nicholas wouldn’t be taking tea with his father today. Not much of a change there, then.
Nicholas set his jaw, waiting for the business of pouring out the tea to be over with. Timmins shot him a smug glance, and Nicholas glowered back. Timmons was thirty-five, less than ten years older than Nicholas, and the Colonel seemed to like him so much better than his only son. It grated.
“Father, I think we need to accept I won’t be finding a wife anytime soon.” Nicholas said eventually. “I simply don’t have the skills for it.”
The Colonel pressed his lips together. “What sort of talk is that? You’ll marry, my boy. If I had another son, or any other child, really, it would be different. But instead, I only have you.” the Colonel drummed his fingers on his desk, disdain and disapproval evident in his gaze. Nicholas kept his back straight and his chin high. When he was young, and the Colonel still intended to bully him into the military, he’d impressed the importance of proper posture onto his young son. Those lessons had stuck with Nicholas all his life.
That sort of thing was difficult to forget.
“It’s bad enough that you turned down a perfectly good military career, but now you plan to die a sad old bachelor and end my line? No, my boy, I can’t allow that.” the Colonel continued, almost as if he were speaking to himself. “You could have gone far in the military, you know. You’re built for it. Heaven knows you haven’t got any other skills worth writing home about. Medicine hardly came easily to you.”
Nicholas felt a muscle jumping in his jaw. It was a nervous twitch that reappeared when he was nervous or tense. He’d been told that it just made him look angry.
“I think my patients might say otherwise, Father. And while I did need to study hard, I don’t believe that did me any harm. I can do great good with my medical skills.”
The Colonel consigned the fates of men like Mr. Jopson and the gangrenous Harry to the devil with a wave of his hand and a muffled curse.
“Do be quiet, Nicholas. And don’t interrupt. You’ll marry, and you’ll do it this Season, if I have anything at all to say about it. In fact, let me say…” the Colonel was cut off by a cough that turned into a splutter. His face went red and then white, and Nicholas sucked in a breath.
“Timmins, quick.” He called, and the butler was back inside the room in an instant.
With Timmins hovering nervously, Nicholas hauled his father half up from the seat, leaning him forward over the desk just a little and banging on his back, trying to move the phlegm which was blocking the Colonel’s airways and get the breath back into his body. The Colonel kept trying to speak, which only sent him back into a violent flurry of coughing.
The coughing fit reached its peak and died down again. Timmins pushed a glass of water into the Colonel’s hand, and the Colonel smiled gratefully at Timmins. He didn’t look at Nicholas.
“Much better now, thank you, Timmins.” The Colonel sat heavily back in his seat.
Nicholas pursed his lips. “You shouldn’t overexert yourself, Father. Your lungs…”
“Do be quiet about my lungs. I’m fine. I tell you what, if I wasn’t an old man, I’d get that switch out from the cupboard and make you sorry for giving poor Miss Hartford such a fright. I doubt she’ll come back after all that, you know. She’s got some Mr. Edward or something after her.”
Nicholas felt a twinge of disappointment, hastily smothered. He was used to disappointment by now. Almost as used to it as he was to his elderly father threatening to flog his grown son.
“Do you want to end up a sad, lonely old man?” the Colonel snapped. “Want to spend all your days alone, with only your precious patients for company? No? Well, then find yourself a bride.”
I already spend my days alone.
Days at the Woolfe estate were long and boring. Nicholas wasn’t with his patients every day, and of course, he couldn’t save everyone. On those days, he spiralled into a deep melancholy. A few months ago, he’d watched one of his poorer patients, a beloved wife and mother, fade away from a wasting illness, not unlike the illness that had killed Mrs. Sophia Woolfe. The Colonel never talked about his wife, and there were no paintings of her on display.
Nicholas had grown up thinking that if he’d only been a proper doctor, he could have saved his mother. Heaven knew that the man the Colonel chose – an old friend, naturally – seemed to be the worst doctor Nicholas had ever seen. Sophia had always wanted her son to be a doctor, like her own father, but the Colonel had wanted a military career for him, so naturally it was a military career that had been planned. With his wife dead, the Colonel had clearly thought that there would be no more obstacles to the life he’d carefully planned out for his son.
He was wrong. Sophia’s death made up Nicholas’ mind once and for all. He would be a doctor. The Colonel had never quite forgiven him for that.
Nicholas’ attention was caught by the Colonel slowly and painfully trying to rise to his feet.
“Father, you ought to rest.”
“Nonsense. I’m going to my room. Timmins, help me.”
Nicholas bit his lip. “I’ll help you, Father.”
“No, I want Timmins. He, at least, is someone I can rely upon.”
Even Timmins couldn’t be smug over something like that. The butler avoided Nicholas’ eye, and Nicholas tried to ignore the stinging feeling in his chest.
“You’ll rest, won’t you, Father?”
“I’ll do what I see fit.” the Colonel snapped. “Good God, you’re like a woman, harping and nagging at me. At least your mother knew how to keep her mouth shut.” He paused at the door, rifling through his pocket. “Almost forgot. There’s an invitation for you, some ball or soiree. You’re to attend, do you hear? We’ve missed out on Miss Hartford, but by all means, we’ll secure you some woman or other by the end of the Season. Is that clear?”
Nicholas pressed his lips together in a straight line, returning his father’s gaze steadily. When it became clear that he wasn’t going to be able to compel a response, the Colonel flushed, and tossed the invitation roughly in Nicholas’ direction. Supported by Timmins, the Colonel left, leaving the study door swinging open.
Nicholas bent down to retrieve the invitation, smoothing it out. It was some party thrown by the Deerington family. That was a familiar name, at least. It meant the Hess family would be there, too. Simon Hess was a fellow medical student, a quiet, reserved young man who had resolutely befriended Nicholas at some point, and they’d been good friends ever since.
Nicholas didn’t have many friends. He’d often see young men and women talking and laughing together at parties, and stare at them, wondering how on earth their social graces came so easily. Simon had once told him that it looked as if he was glaring at the people in question and advised Nicholas to school his expression more carefully.
That explained why they shrank away and made their excuses if he summoned up the courage to approach them.
He was starting to accept that this was his lot. He had no brothers or sisters – no ready-made friends there. Simon was a good friend, but he was reserved to a fault, and he intended to get married this Season, too. Whoever he married would probably not like Nicholas. Then Simon would start a family, and that would be the end of that.
Not wanting to sit in the parlour and grapple with the scent of Mrs. Hartford’s perfume and the memory of his latest humiliation, Nicholas went upstairs, taking the invitation along with him.
He might as well go. What else would he do? The Colonel had plenty of army friends who invited him out to dine almost every night of the week. Nicholas would come home from his patients, study for an hour or two, then wander around the house, alone. He’d eat a solitary dinner, then read alone, in silence, in the drawing room until he could take it no more and simply went to bed.
More often than not, he would lie awake for a few hours, too, wondering how a whole day had passed without speaking to anyone except his patients. And even then, his patients were only interested in what Nicholas, a doctor, could do for them. That was fine. Doctors were not supposed to be friends with their patients.
And Nicholas wanted friends, badly. He supposed that most people did. It was simply considered too pathetic to say it aloud. He dreamt of love and marriage, like many people. Who wouldn’t want to fall madly in love with somebody, somebody who understood, somebody whose company was so much better than being alone?
Somebody that the Colonel wouldn’t approve of. Nicholas fell back onto his bed, the invitation still clutched in his hand, and grinned. Somebody outspoken, who loved to read and study and learn. Yes, his father would be horrified, but that would be the perfect woman for Nicholas. Somebody who could appreciate a great medical feat, not cringe and whine at the mention of blood.
It wasn’t as if he were showing an autopsy or an operation.
Ideally, however, Nicholas would like to marry a woman who did want to observe an operation or autopsy of some kind.
He thought of Miss Hartford, and the smile falling from her round, pink face as he explained what “wet gangrene” meant.
She probably didn’t even know that there were two different kinds, Nicholas thought, with a burst of resentment. It’s almost as if people don’t know things about gangrene.
It wasn’t fair. Nicholas had made sacrifices to impress suitable ladies, and to show that he wasn’t some selfish hog of a man who only cared about his own interests. He listened to popular music on the pianoforte and practised dancing until his feet ached. He didn’t particularly enjoy dancing, but he’d met lots of ladies who did enjoy it, and they needed willing gentlemen to dance.
He listened to tales about gowns and bonnets, and even tried reading a few popular novels (which he secretly enjoyed) to have something in common with other people of his own age.
So far, nothing was working. He was twenty-six years old, and had not yet learned how to move in Society, something that seemed to come as naturally as breathing to others.
Perhaps it’s me. Perhaps I’m just not able to connect with others. Maybe this loneliness is just how I’m meant to be. Perhaps I’m trying to change who I fundamentally am, and of course that’ll be a waste of time.
Nicholas closed his eyes. He didn’t want to think that way, but as time went on and nothing changed, it was difficult not to think that way. Yes, perhaps he was meant to live a lonely life, concentrating only on his medicine and patients, and feeling only a fleeting jealousy and regret over other men’s wives, friends, and families.
Could a person really change who they were? Was it worth trying? Was Nicholas wasting his time?
Maybe Father is right, he thought miserably. I should have just gone into the military. At least I’d have had brothers-in-arms to rely on.
Nicholas got up, placing the invitation on his dresser. He ran a hand through his hair, cut in that ridiculous cherubim style which was the only one which suited his curls. He paused, eyeing his set, serious face in the mirror. He stuck out his tongue at himself, and immediately felt silly.
Nathaniel wondered whether he could successfully fake his death. He could pretend to have a heart attack, perhaps? Failing that, he could simply point and scream at the window, and run for his life while everyone else turned to look.
Would it be worth it, though?
Probably not. He’d just be summoned back to finish the card game.
Sighing heavily, Nathaniel put down another card. “The trick is mine, I believe.” He said. “It gives me no pleasure, of course.”
The other players groaned, flinging down their cards.
“This is why nobody likes to play cards with you, Nat.” Adelaide Wright, his mother, informed him. “You play mercilessly.”
Nathaniel widened his eyes. “I cannot possibly let you win, Mother. What good would that do? If I allowed you to win, then we would both look silly. You all insist on making me play these endless card games, and you must know that I’ll find a way to get them over with quickly. Unfortunately, the quickest way to end all this for me is to win immediately.”
“You, my boy, are so sharp that you’ll cut yourself one day.” Judge Wright called over from where he was reading his paper in the corner.
Nathaniel’s youngest brother, Theodore – commonly called Teddy – chuckled to himself, shuffling up the cards.
“I’d be careful, Nat. Rosalind’s coming over soon. She won’t spar verbally; she’ll just box your ears.”
Teddy’s new wife, a quiet, mousy young woman by the name of Violet, smiled placidly.
“Oh, I’m sure Rosalind wouldn’t do that.”
Nathaniel pursed his lips, saying nothing. He knew he had a sharp tongue, and rather high standards in what he expected from others. He was glad that Teddy was happy and in love, but privately he found Violet rather boring. Rosalind was marginally more interesting and certainly feistier, but still, she avoided arguing with Nathaniel for a reason.
If ever a man was a born barrister, it was Nathaniel. He loved to argue, and he loved to win. The law was a profession that suited both of his loves. He leaned back in his seat, watching Teddy put away the cards.
“Oh, that reminds me, Nat.” Adelaide said sternly. “I have a bone to pick with you.”
“What have I done now, Mother?” Nathaniel sighed.
“I received a letter from Mrs. Locksley this morning. She’s extremely upset at the conversation you had with her poor daughter. She said that Emmeline has never been so insulted.”
Nathaniel rolled his eyes. “Really? With a wit as sharp as an inflated pig’s bladder? That is the most insulted she has ever been? I doubt that very much, Mother. The girl is barely literate. She probably didn’t understand what I meant.”
Miss Emmeline Locksley was not the Diamond of the Season, but it was generally considered pure bad luck that she wasn’t. She had glossy black curls and flashing green eyes and was almost unanimously considered the most beautiful lady in London. Unfortunately, the fashion was for fair beauties at the moment, and some insipid, golden-haired cherub had been chosen instead. Miss Emmeline was extremely upset at not receiving the distinction of the Diamond but tried her level best to act as if she did not care.
She was rich, beautiful, confident, and generally considered a great Wit.
Nathaniel agreed with all of that except for that last point. He hadn’t found Miss Emmeline Locksley to be very witty at all. Headstrong, opinionated, and spoiled, perhaps, but not witty. It had been rather enjoyable to give her a set-down, and then sit back and take in the bewildered and furious expression on her face.
He hadn’t intended to give her a set-down. Nathaniel knew he was something of a Puck – the prank-loving fairy from A Midsummer Night’s Eve – but he didn’t enjoy hurting people’s feelings. And then he’d stood by and watched as Miss Emmeline had mocked and bullied the tubby but good-humoured Miss Hartford, making insult after insult until poor Miss Hartford hurried away towards her overbearing mother, her large, cow-like eyes full of tears. Miss Emmeline had laughed, smiling maliciously. Clearly, she had confused wit with cruelty.
Nathaniel had decided then and there that he would have to give Miss Emmeline a taste of her own medicine. He smiled to himself at the memory. She’d deserved it, well and truly.
Adelaide glared at him. “Nathaniel, that is not kind. Wipe that smile off your face.”
“I haven’t the patience to be kind.”
“What did you even say to the poor girl? Mrs. Locksley kept saying that she wouldn’t repeat what you said.”
“Probably because she can’t remember it. I simply told dear Miss Emmeline that her understanding of Shakespeare was a rather fine demonstration of how Surrey schooling is woefully inadequate in terms of literature.”
“What? I was right, Mother. You didn’t hear what she said. She said that Romeo and Juliet were a wonderful example of a love story. Mother, they both die in the end. The whole business lasts three days and ends in death and tragedy. They barely exchange a proper conversation. It’s all poetry and nonsense.”
“I thought literature was subjective.” Violet said mildly.
Nathaniel glared at her. “No. Art is subjective. Literature is just literature. It’s rather hard to argue with words on a printed page, don’t you think?”
Violet said nothing, only catching Teddy’s eye.
“It’s supposed to be a tragedy.” Nathaniel continued.
“No one’s arguing with you, Nat.” Teddy said cheerfully. “You don’t need to keep talking about it.”
Nathaniel sighed. “Well, I wish someone would.”
Teddy only smiled mildly at that and moved over to sit beside his wife. Nathaniel drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair, resisting the urge to fidget. Someone wittier might argue that for such a “terrible” play, Romeo and Juliet was one of the most popular stories of all time, and the story itself came from long before Shakespeare. They could also point out that the play was a tragedy, after all, and the titular heroes’ deaths were their final way of standing up to the forces that controlled their lives, and indeed an act of love, heroism, and self-sacrifice that echoed down through the ages.
Someone could have said that, but instead, Adelaide picked up her book again, Judge Wright continued reading, and Teddy and Violet started to talk quietly. Nathaniel couldn’t very well argue with himself. It was like trying to play chess with yourself. Could you ever really win? He longed for a proper debate.
Not the serious stuff in the courts, where people’s lives and freedom hung in the balance. No, he wanted to argue about philosophy, morals, and history. He didn’t object to arguing about literature, assuming he wasn’t forced to listen to too much poetry.
Debating with his family – much as he loved them – was like debating with the crowd of Society darlings at the various balls and dinners he was expected to attend. They looked startled and a little trapped, and generally tried to turn the conversation to more neutral matters.
It was boring.
“Oh, here she is.” Violet said, sitting up in her seat and craning her neck to look out of the window. The Deerington family were climbing out of their carriage. They were kind, good people, but fatally dull.
Rosalind bounced into the room first, beaming all around and offering greetings.
“I’ve brought invitations to the party, by the way.” she said, handing out neatly embossed, creamy envelopes. “I hope you’ll all come. You are coming, aren’t you?”
“Of course, my dear!” Adelaide said, smiling. “We can’t wait.”
Rosalind glanced over at Nathaniel, and grinned. She might not be able to match him in wit, but he knew fine well that Rosalind enjoyed provoking him to argue as often as she could. He didn’t blame her. It was probably very funny.
“And what about you, Nathaniel? Can we expect your illustrious presence there?”
Nathaniel pursed his lips. “What, to preen and mince around in uncomfortable clothes, dance until I’m pouring with sweat, and listen to fifty young ladies all parrot the same opinion about the weather, the party, the dance, and the latest scandal, over and over again? I’m sure it’ll be lovely.”
Rosalind grinned. “Is that a no?”
“Don’t be so impolite, Nathaniel.” Adelaide said firmly. “He’s coming, Rosalind, I assure you. Nat, you need to get married. You’re the only one who isn’t married yet. Dear Teddy is only twenty-one – that’s a good five years younger than you – but he is married. It isn’t as if you aren’t handsome and charming enough.”
Nathaniel bit his lip. His mother was, as most parents were, entirely blind to her children’s flaws. Nathaniel was clever enough to spot his own.
He was argumentative. He had no patience with fools or anyone whose wit wasn’t as sharp as his own. He didn’t care to stand around and waste time on idle chit-chat. He hated small talk, along with all the pleasantries and silly rules demanded by Society. In short, he thought all of Society – and most of the people in it – were ridiculous and to be avoided at all costs.
He was handsome enough, and that tended to lure in the ladies to begin with. Nathaniel was not a tall or broad man – was around five foot six, with a slim build and the tiniest inclination towards dandyism. He had a wide, easy grin, dark blond hair, and sparkling green eyes. He was not shy or reserved, and the truth was, he did know the right thing to say in most situations. He simply didn’t want to say it.
So, ladies and gentlemen got offended when he spoke honestly to them, and he found himself with fewer friends than he would like, and no sign of a fiancé on the horizon.
It would be nice to marry, but Nathaniel would rather die a bachelor than waste his time and love on a dull woman who couldn’t even argue about Shakespeare.
“I’d really rather not go, Mother.” Nathaniel said quietly. Adelaide pressed her lips together, glancing over at her husband for support.
“I would rather you did. You need to marry, Nathaniel. I’m sure that Rosalind could introduce you to a few nice ladies.” She cast a hopeful glance at Rosalind, who picked up her cue neatly.
“Oh, I do. In fact, I was thinking the other day of who you remind me of, Nathaniel.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Why do I feel as if this is going to be insulting?”
Rosalind chuckled. “So suspicious. No, a very dear friend of mine is sharp like you. She’s ever so clever but has a tendency to argue when she should just say something non-committal and politely vague. Once she’d got something in her head, it’s like fighting with a bull terrier. She simply won’t let go.”
Nathaniel winced. “I’m not sure stubbornness is a substitute for wit.”
“Mother, I’m among family and friends, aren’t I? I can speak my mind.”
“Nathaniel,” Judge Wright said quietly. “Do mind your tongue.”
Rosalind leaned forward, clearly not giving up just yet. “I think you’d like her, Nat. She’s cleverer than me – and don’t you dare say something witty about that. She’s such a dear friend of mine, but she has a tendency to let her tongue run away with her.”
Nathaniel inspected his cuffs. He was sure that Rosalind’s friend was decent enough in her way, but stubborn and thoughtless really weren’t proper substitutes for wit. However, the warning tone in his father’s voice and his mother’s glare warned Nathaniel that he’d gone far enough. It almost itched, holding in the things he wanted to say. But he’d better behave – he’d pushed everyone quite enough.
“I’m sure she’s dear.” Nathaniel said quietly. He glanced up and caught Rosalind’s eye. He wasn’t fooling her, that was for sure. He found himself wondering why Teddy hadn’t wanted to marry her, instead of the dull, quiet Violet.
Not that it was any of his business. Teddy and Violet were reasonably well suited, at the end of the day.
“There will be plenty of legal and medical families coming,” Rosalind said, smiling. “Plenty of clever people for you to bounce your wit off. Why not try it out?”
Nathaniel sighed. He’d tried his best to give up on finding that perfect woman – clever, brilliant, sparkling wit, an irrepressible sense of humour – but apparently something inside him wasn’t willing to give up. It was a little annoying.
“Very well, Rosalind, you’ve won me over. I’ll come, but I don’t particularly want to dance.”
“That will be a great relief to all the ladies who are present.” Rosalind said brightly. “They won’t have you missing out steps and standing on their feet.”
Nathaniel had to laugh at that.
“Just for that, Rosalind, I am going to dance with you.”
I hope you enjoyed the preview of my new novel “Love & Rejection – Evangeline” and first of the series “Tillewood Sisters”. Get it now on Amazon!