The Aristocrat’s Charade – Joyce Alec

Nineteenth Century London Miss Ophelia Grey tried her utmost to shed even a single tear as Viscount Marchmont walked away from her, but found that all she felt was relief. Relief that Viscount Marchmont had chosen not to propose and, therefore, had freed her from any thought of marriage to such a man. Sighing quietly to herself, Ophelia turned around and began to walk back towards her waiting carriage. Whilst she was glad of her freedom, she was quite sure her aunt, Lady Sharrow, would not be at all glad to hear of this news. Most likely, she would go into a deep depression of sorts, as she had so often done before. The first time her aunt had done such a thing, some eight years ago when Ophelia had first arrived in the house, Ophelia had been beside herself with both fear and anxiety. She had struggled with her seeming inability to aid her aunt and had worried almost constantly that she did not seem to respond to anything that had been offered her. However, given that Lady Sharrow had recovered from that episode, only to almost immediately decline into yet another one over something as small as a lost china cup, Ophelia had begun to question her aunt’s condition. Lord Sharrow had not been at all concerned, and Ophelia had soon learned that it was rather common for Lady Sharrow to find herself in these pits of despair. Therefore, it had become something of a habit for Ophelia to do as she always did when such a despondency occurred—ensuring Lady Sharrow was cared for and was brought whatever she wished but, aside from that, leaving her aunt alone until she decided herself to return to her life in all its fullness. “It cannot be helped,” Ophelia muttered to herself, climbing into the carriage and glancing at her maid who sat on the opposite side of the carriage, looking steadfastly out of the window. Sighing to herself, Ophelia settled her hands in her lap and waited for the carriage to take her back to her aunt and uncle’s townhouse. Gazing out at the London streets, Ophelia found herself wondering if this would be her last Season or if her uncle would spare her another. He was not in London at present, having left Ophelia and Lady Sharrow to make their own way through the first few weeks of the Season, but Ophelia knew his intention was to join them at a later date. It was early enough in this Season for her to be considered by another gentleman, but most likely, after Lord Marchmont’s rejection of her, not many gentlemen would be willing to so much as look at her for a second time.

There was something about her, they would say, that had turned Viscount Marchmont away from her and therefore, she would be considered unworthy of their attentions. Not that Ophelia considered that to be something of great loss, for her standards had always been particularly high when it had come to accepting the court of gentlemen. Viscount Marchmont had, on the surface, appeared charming, affable, and kind, but once she had come to know him a little better, she had found him to be entirely dull. Their conversations had been thin and staid, leaving Ophelia struggling to find questions to ask or things to say that would fill the awkward silences between them. She had expected that the viscount would bring their courtship to an end, and when he had told her that he would not be able to consider her any longer, she had felt nothing but relief. Attempting to feel some sort of sadness or loneliness as she had watched him walk away had failed completely, for she had simply been glad to be on her own again. Yet Lady Sharrow will mourn for him, Ophelia thought to herself wryly. She will call you a spinster and despair of you all over again. “Then mayhap a spinster is what I shall be,” she murmured to herself as the carriage drew up to Lord Sharrow’s townhouse. “And I shall not consider it to be something worth grieving over, despite what my aunt might say.

” Ophelia knew all too well that she was not particularly beautiful, did not have an overly large dowry to make up for her plainness of face, and had a penchant for speaking her mind. She would never be given the accolade of being called a ‘diamond of the first water’ nor would gentlemen consider her quick wit and sharp mind to be wonderful characteristics. Most gentlemen of her acquaintance sought a dull mind and nothing more than a genteel cordiality, delicate manners, and a beautiful outward appearance so that they might add something more to their own status by having such a creature by their side. Such gentlemen were not particularly worthy gentlemen, as far as Ophelia was concerned, and she did not want to even consider coupling herself to any of them, despite what her aunt wished. No, she would rather remain a spinster than be married to a gentleman who cared nothing for her. Lifting her chin, Ophelia walked into the townhouse and handed her bonnet and gloves to the waiting butler. On hearing that her aunt was waiting expectantly for her in the drawing room, Ophelia drew in a long breath, settled her shoulders, and walked towards the drawing room for what she knew would be a rather long and painful conversation. 1 Viscount Peter Marchmont tried to open his eyes. They were too heavy. He could not do it.

His mouth opened a crack, a long breath making the sound of a groan as he tried to speak. He had no memory of where he was or what he had been doing. Surely he could not have drunk so much liquor last evening that he had wound up in a heap on someone’s floor? That was not at all like him and he certainly could not imagine that he had behaved with such a lack of decorum. It was only the start of the Season, was it not? The groaning became a little louder and Peter began to realize just how sore and painful his head felt. He was lying on something hard, which he thought could only be the floor. A feeling of revulsion rose in his chest, a sense of shame that he had allowed himself to behave in such a way. Trying to open his eyes again, Peter finally managed to do so, although it took a great deal of energy and effort to manage it. His vision was blurred, seeing nothing more than indistinguishable shapes. The room was dark with only touches of light here and there. Managing to push himself up slowly, his hands flat on the floor, Peter heard himself groaning again, louder this time.

The sound seemed to fill the room, filling his head as it buzzed around him. Where was he? What was it he had done? And just why had he allowed himself to drink so much that he could no longer remember precisely where he was? Making to run his hands through his hair, Peter let out a shout of pain as his fingers touched something sticky—and very, very painful. Closing his eyes tightly against the waves of agony that ran through his head, Peter tentatively brushed against the left side of his scalp just above his ear. Pain lanced through him again, making his stomach roll with nausea. Had he been in a fight? No, surely, he could not have done something as foolish as all that! He was not that sort of gentleman. He was quiet, unobtrusive, and entirely without enemies. There was no reason for him to fight anyone. A slow sense of panic began to rise up within Peter’s chest as he blinked rapidly, trying to bring some sort of sense to where he was and what he had been doing. He could not recall anything other than earlier last evening, when he had been preparing for the evening’s social activities. It had been Lord Winton’s ball, which he had been rather looking forward to.

Closing his eyes tightly, Peter searched his memory, trying desperately to recall what he had seen and where he had been. Yes, he remembered that he had attended last evening, for he had greeted Lord Winters and then stepped into the ballroom itself. Having removed himself from Miss Ophelia Grey completely earlier that day, he had been looking forward to availing himself of the company presented to him by the younger debutantes, although Peter always found himself drawn to the quieter young ladies who were so often overlooked. What had he done once he had enjoyed a few dances at the ball? Where had he gone? Yes, he had partaken of a few glasses of ratafia, but nothing more than that. Had he gone to the card room? Or the gardens? “Yes.” The word was hissed through clenched teeth as pain sliced through his head all over again. Yes, he remembered, he had gone out to the gardens with a few of his friends, but thereafter, he could not recall a single thing. It was very odd and most unsettling. Peter had only done such a thing once before, some years ago when he had been a young man in London—and he had vowed never to do so again. Now, some years later, he had a sense of pride that he had never once allowed himself to become so incapacitated by liquor and was utterly astonished—and rather disappointed—that he had done such a thing again and without any memory of doing so.

Blinking rapidly, Peter finally made out the small sources of light which lit up the room. One was a small candle that looked near to sputtering out, whilst the other was a long, heavy curtain with a couple of small chinks of light peeking through. Surely, then, Peter realized, it must be daytime or, at the very least, early dawn? Was he in his own house? He could not be, he realized, attempting to drag himself towards the curtain, else they would have attended him by now. Which therefore meant that he must still be in Lord Winter’s home, unless he had foolishly gone somewhere else in the midst of his drinking. The pain in his head redoubled as he reached the curtain and attempted to throw it back. Light poured into the room, forcing his eyes to squeeze shut as the brilliance hit them. He had not expected the day to be so bright. “Get up,” he told himself firmly, gritting his teeth and opening his eyes again. Squinting feebly, he wished that he could just lie back down and disappear into oblivion until the pain in his head had gone away. His limbs shook with weakness as he pushed himself upwards, grasping onto the curtain and then onto the window sill for support.

His fingers squeezed hard as they held him there, helping him to find his balance. His eyes were fixed on the floor, his breathing coming in uneven gasps as he remained standing, his fingers finally loosening on the window sill. Reaching up with careful fingers, Peter pushed back the other side of the curtain and allowed the light to flood the room behind him. The sun was warm and he leaned into the light, letting it wash over him and finding some relief from it. Drawing in three long breaths, Peter turned around to look at the room where he had clearly fallen asleep at some point last evening. He frowned. There was nothing within the room save for a thin mattress in the corner with a musty blanket on top, two large chairs which were sitting next to each other by the empty grate, and, in front of them, a small box. A closed wooden door was to his left and Peter felt himself flush with the shame of having to stumble from this room and into whoever’s home this might be. How he was going to explain himself, Peter had very little idea. Clearly, he was somewhere within someone’s townhouse and, most likely, in rooms near the attic.

Why had he come here? And why had he come alone? It was most unusual and certainly not in the least bit like him to behave so. “Foolish,” he muttered aloud, turning his head cautiously to look across the rest of the room. There was nothing there. It was all rather odd, truth be told, and Peter had the unsettling feeling that he needed to leave this place just as soon as he could. The sooner he did, the less chance he would have of being discovered. Muttering under his breath, Peter took in a long breath, set his shoulders, and then made his way carefully towards the door. Relieved that he managed to walk in a straight line, he set his shoulders and reached for the handle—only to find it locked tight. Panic set his heart hammering furiously in his chest. He had no idea where he was or what he was doing here and now, it seemed, someone had left him locked up in this room. He could not even imagine what would bring someone to do such a thing, wondering if he had done something so truly awful that he had been thrown in here until he sobered up and could be reckoned with.

Shame burned within him, sending heat crashing down over him. Trying the door again, he pushed at it, hard, but found that it remained entirely unwilling to move. Closing his eyes, Peter forced himself to breathe steadily and not allow fright to overwhelm him. It was rather unsettling to wake up without any knowledge of what he had done or why he was here, but surely, very soon, someone would come and open the door to him to explain precisely why they had kept him within. Shaking his head—and then immediately regretting doing so what with the explosion of agony that came with such an action—Peter wandered back towards the two chairs and carefully lowered himself down into one. His fingers twined together as he looked out towards the window, trying to think of what he should do next. Nothing came to him. He was, for the moment, quite stuck. The door would not open to him and, from the view out the window, he appeared to be quite high up, which meant he could not open the window and climb out. A small groan escaped from him as he ran one hand across his forehead, wondering just how much of his current predicament was his own fault.

He had not behaved well, mayhap, and therefore was reaping the consequences of such discourteous behavior. Sighing, Peter let his gaze travel about the rest of the room. There was nothing for him to do but wait for whoever had put him in here to open the door and allow him his freedom. Frowning, Peter swallowed hard, feeling the dryness of his mouth and wishing that they had thought to leave him something to drink. His throat felt like sand; his mouth filled with dust. Just how much liquor had he taken in last night? His eyes fell to the small wooden box on the floor by his feet. He frowned. It was rather an odd item for someone to leave within the room, directly in front of where he would be sitting. What did it contain? For some minutes, Peter fought the urge to reach down and open the box, telling himself that he had done more than enough already. To open the box and look inside would simply be yet one more thing that would count against him, for surely this was a private item and did not belong to him.

He had no right to look inside, but as the minutes passed, Peter felt the desire to open the box growing steadily. With a groan of frustration, he reached down and grasped the box, closing his eyes for a moment against the wave of dizziness that swept over him as he sat back up. The wooden box was plain, with no ornate carvings or anything jeweled pressed into it. It sat quietly on his lap, the plainness of it shouting at him and stoking his curiosity all the more. Lifting the lid slowly, Peter felt his anticipation grow suddenly until the lid was thrust back completely, revealing—much to his disappointment—nothing more than a single piece of paper. He frowned, looking at it and finding himself rather frustrated that there was nothing more interesting within. Most likely, someone had left a note here regarding what to do with the box itself. He did not need to read it. He should close the lid, set the box down, and wait patiently for whoever was holding him here to allow him his freedom. Unfortunately, Peter’s curiosity was not that easily satisfied.

He found himself reaching for the paper and opening it quickly even though he was berating himself for doing so. The paper was thin and rather cheaply made, although the writing itself was clear. Peter read it and felt his entire world begin to crumble around him. Hair stood up on the back of his neck, a shiver running over every inch of his skin as he looked at what was held within. Resume your court with Miss Ophelia Grey, Marchmont. Propose. Marry her. Else your brother shall bear the consequences of your failure. No one else is to know of this note and what it contains. Consider this fair warning.

His brother? Peter’s dulled mind tried to make sense of what he had read, his heart beating furiously within him. His brother? Edward had not been seen in two years, having left for the continent in order to inspect and protect his interests there that had been left to him by their late father. From his letters, Peter knew that his brother was doing quite well and had no particular intention of returning to England in the near future—so why would he be used in such a manner now? This threat could not mean anything, surely? Edward was not even in England, which meant that Peter did not have to worry about either him or this strange threat. His heart still pounding furiously, Peter folded up the note again, determined not to allow it to penetrate his heart and mind. This was nothing more than a foolish prank. Surely someone had thought it would be a jolly good laugh to see him so upset and frustrated. Most likely, the door would soon be opened to reveal one or two of Peter’s companions, either laughing or irritated that Peter had not given in to their pretense in any way whatsoever. It could not be real. As he was about to put the letter down, Peter’s breath suddenly caught as his eyes found something small that had been resting at the bottom of the box. Peter had not seen it before when he had taken out the letter, but he saw the truth of it now, feeling his heart hammering furiously as he lifted it from the box.

It was a small ring with a gold band and a small, square-cut emerald that rested on top. This was the ring that his brother wore on the last finger of his left hand. Edward had always done so, ever since he had been given it by their father. It was something of a family heirloom, although Peter had never once felt any jealousy over the fact that Edward had been given it instead of himself. His hand trembled as he lifted it high, looking to see if the ring was real, but something within him told him that it was so. This was Edward’s ring—which meant that this note had to be given more weight than Peter had first thought. His hand trembled as he grasped the note again, unfolding it with one hand and letting his gaze run down the page. Miss Grey? What did she have to do with all of this? They had courted in the first few weeks of the Season, for he had found her fairly pleasant with sharp, green eyes that had caught his attention whenever they lingered on him, but there had been nothing more substantial than that. He had found her a little too loudly spoken, with a harshness and bluntness about her conversation that he had disliked. She was also very intelligent and seemed to care a great deal about extending her knowledge in almost every subject instead of improving her painting or her needlework.

Having not expected this from a young lady such as Miss Grey, Peter had chosen to step back from her and had felt relief in doing so. Why were they being pushed together now? Why did this unknown stranger wish for them to be not only courting but wed? If he married Miss Grey, then would his brother be safe? Would he be able to see him again? And just what would he do if Miss Grey refused to accept his court again? Panic was rising up within him and Peter dropped his head down low between his knees, the box clattering to the floor as he held the note and the ring in one hand. Closing his eyes tightly, he forced another breath as he tried to find a way to calm himself. To lose his composure now would not do, for it would only make his situation a good deal worse. Letting out another long, slow breath, Peter opened his eyes and lifted his head, ready to try and find a way forward. And then, he saw it. The door. It was now wide open, having been unlocked by someone he had not seen, someone he had not heard. All he had to do now was leave the room and his freedom would be returned to him. On unsteady feet, Peter began to make his way to the door, feeling sweat trickle down his spine.

His stomach was twisting this way and that, his nerves stretched taut. Who was behind all this? And what, exactly, did they want?

.

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