The Wilful Widow – Beverley Oakley

Alexander placed his hands lightly on Jessamine’s shoulders and smiled. The snow that had been forecast had not yet fallen, and the sun glancing off the frosted branches of the apple trees in the orchard made this a magical location for a proposal. Alexander wasn’t quite yet ready to go down this path, but clearly Jessamine, who’d lured him here this morning, was. And since both their families were expecting him to ask the question before the end of the four-day Yuletide celebrations they were attending at Quamby House, Alexander supposed there was little point in delaying the inevitable. “Sweet Jessamine, have I told you how lovely you look today?” She really did look lovely with her golden hair curling from beneath her bonnet and her bright blue eyes shining with expectation. She was young and vibrant, and she would make an excellent wife. If only Alexander could summon the enthusiasm to make anyone his wife. “Lovely?” She pressed her lips together and sent him a coquettish look. She was angling for more, as she usually did, but Alexander, who preferred honesty, struggled to find a sentiment that would please her. It was cold, and he’d much rather be warming his feet in front of the fire. “You must be disappointed Jane couldn’t come with us,” he said. Jane was his younger sister and had been Jessamine’s bosom friend since babyhood, the two families having grown up next door to each other. Somehow, in the last few months since Alexander had returned to England after years of adventuring on the Continent, Jessamine had been transformed from Jane’s giggling schoolroom companion into a marriageable young woman who’d clearly set her sights on him. A shadow of disappointment crossed her face before she returned, “Why should I be disappointed when she’d probably be here with us now, if she had come?” She paused and put her head on one side. “Is that all you brought me here to talk about?” “I think you know it’s not.

” He wondered if he should kiss her first, and then ask the question. Or should he ask the question first? Proposing to Jessamine felt like a necessary duty with pleasant consequences; yet something that could be done as well next month as it could today. She shifted in his embrace, clearly impatient, and he lowered his face to hers. Kissing Jessamine was pleasant, but pledging himself wholly to her was not the consequence of burning desire raging through him. “Oh, Alexander, you do kiss beautifully,” she sighed, clearly unaware that his mind had wandered, making him feel uncomfortable and deceitful when he knew that a marriage based on mutual liking and respect was a far better foundation than hot-headed passion. That was what had fueled his one and only proposal nine years ago and, many times in the disappointing aftermath, Alexander rationalized the failure of that episode as being, all in all, a fortunate thing. The fevered impulses he’d felt at twenty-two were not consistent with the mature and steady-thinking man he’d become. “And you kiss beautifully, too, my sweet girl.” He studied her more closely and wondered if he’d have considered her at all had she not been so determined in her efforts to convince him that the ten-year age difference between them was nothing. “Kiss me again.

” Since kissing Jessamine was a more pleasurable prospect than proposing to her, Alexander drew her closer into his embrace, and kissed her again; then, because he supposed that now was as good as any to voice the inevitable, began, “Jessamine, I—” “Argghhh!” It took a moment before Alexander realized it was a third member of their suddenly no longer intimate party who was screaming the loudest; a small child resembling something between a white rose in full bloom in all her silk flounces, and a wriggling tangle of arms and legs as she tried to extricate herself from the middle of their kiss. “What on earth?” Jessamine shrieked, stepping back to look at the child now sprawled at their feet. “You were spying on us!” Fortunately the child appeared to have suffered no ill effects from her fall, which had been broken mostly by Alexander’s shoulder—and his nose—for she glared up at them as she pronounced energetically, “I wasn’t spying on you! I was here first!” She was a skinny little thing with dark-blue eyes too big for her pale little face which, due to the force of her fall, was half obscured by the long, waving tresses of black hair that had escaped the confines of a big blue bow. “Well, you shouldn’t have been up an apple tree and not saying anything when…when you should have been in the nursery.” Jessamine was clearly livid as she bent down to haul the child to her feet. Alexander watched the exchange with amusement. Jessamine had more fire in her than one would suppose, but then, she’d always known how to get what she wanted. The little girl rubbed her eyes and sniffed as she regained her balance. “The other children said I’m too little to be bothered with, so Mrs Wood said I could go outside for a walk. Ohhh!” The child, whom Alexander judged to be about seven or eight—though having no idea about children, this was a very wild guess—let out a cry of pain as she put her weight on her ankle.

“Oh, oh, oh! It hurts when I walk!” she cried, collapsing to the ground and putting her face in her hands before obviously noticing the smudge of dirt on her skirts and crying out with greater distress, “Look! It’s ruined! Mama will be so cross with me!” Alexander rolled his eyes above her head as he exchanged a look with Jessamine. “I suppose I’ll have to carry her to the house.” Jessamine said nothing for a moment. She was too busy breathing heavily. And angrily. Alexander gave a helpless shrug for the child had tried to stand, only to collapse again, lamenting in tones of even greater tragedy, the stains on her dress, causing Jessamine to say in a most unsympathetic tone, “That’s the least of your troubles for you were very, very bad to be hiding away and spying.” “I told you, I wasn’t spying. I don’t know anyone in this horrible house. Katherine and George have been perfectly beastly to me, ordering me about and telling me what to do, or worse, not even talking to me!” “’It’s all right,” Alexander sighed, bending down to scoop the child into his arms. “I’m sure your mama won’t be cross.

What’s your name?” “Beatrice.” The little girl smiled gratefully up at him. “She wouldn’t be cross, except that Lord Ashbrook gave me the dress and said I must wear it for the Yuletide Ball, and Mama said I must take extra special care of it…but now look at it! There’s a tear in the skirt and mud too! Oh, I hope we don’t pass Lord Ashbrook on the way in.” Beatrice’s lip trembled. “He’ll be even crosser than Mama. I only climbed the apple tree to be out of everyone’s way and now look what’s happened.” Alexander had met Lord Ashbrook that afternoon and had formed a none-tooflattering impression of the fellow with his handsome looks and cynical sneer. He seemed the type who’d take a dim view of small girls roaming the grounds on their own and coming back covered in dirt. “Lord Ashbrook is too busy with other things to be cross over such a trifle as your spoiled dress,” he reassured her as Jessamine walked beside him up the slope toward the grand manor house. “Like his impending marriage.

” He glanced across at Jessamine who said under her breath, “To the most notorious widow in the land.” Alexander sent her a warning look, though Beatrice fortunately appeared not to have heard this disparagement of her mother, for she said dully, as she looked over Alexander’s shoulder, “Mama says I must be good for Lord Ashbrook and…and grateful for all he’s done for us. But he won’t think I’m good now, will he?” Ignoring this, Alexander said in jollying tones, “So your mama is marrying Lord Ashbrook, is she? Well, when I saw him this morning, Lord Ashbrook was eagerly awaiting your mama’s arrival back from whatever business took her away so early this morning, so my guess is that he’ll have far more important matters on his mind than your dress.” The child bit her lip. “Do you think so?” “I’m sure of it,” Alexander said, feeling a degree of satisfaction that she was so easily reassured. “And you don’t look like a naughty child, so I’m sure he’ll understand that this was all just a little mistake. Just as your mama will.” “Maybe he won’t even know.” She sounded more hopeful now. Alexander nodded.

“I’m sure he won’t. In fact, if you like, we can make a secret plan so that neither he nor your mama will ever know.” “Really, Alexander,” Jessamine murmured beside him, prompting him to say even more encouragingly, “Yes, I’ll arrange for your dress to be washed and mended and returned in time for the ball so no one except you and I and Miss Forbes, here, will ever know.” Her mouth dropped open, and she stared at him as if he were possessed of magical powers. “Can you really do that?” “I can do most things I put my mind to,” Alexander said, earning himself a roll of the eyes from Jessamine who said with a smile, “You do have a way with the ladies, Alexander.” “Indeed, I do,” he agreed readily enough. “I never renege on a promise.” “Is that a promise?” asked the child as if he’d offered her gold. Alexander nodded solemnly as they reached the house, emerging around a twist in the graveled path just as a smart new carriage drew up at the portico. The sound made Beatrice fling her head up and she cried out in alarm, “Stop, go back! It’s Mama! And Lord Ashbrook will be there to greet her.

They’ll see my dress and know I’ve been naughty!” Alexander stopped, then took several steps backward, saying with a shrug as he elicited Jessamine’s opinion, “I suppose there’s no harm in taking her through the kitchens, is there?” “I suppose not but…what a silly girl you are, Beatrice,” Jessamine scolded her, “if you think Lord Ashbrook is going to be cross about your dress.” She sent Alexander a secret, smug smile. “Gentlemen don’t notice that sort of thing.” “Lord Ashbrook notices everything and he…he’s always telling me what a naughty girl I am. I can’t bear for him to know it’s true.” “Your mama will make it all right,” Alexander soothed her. “Mamas are angels. Mine certainly was.” But Beatrice wasn’t to be comforted. “She won’t believe me because Lord Ashbrook is always so nice to me when Mama is there but…but he’s so horrid when she’s not.

Oh please, sir, please promise you’ll see that my dress is cleaned and mended before Mama makes me wear it to the Yuletide Ball.” Alexander nodded, committed now, as they reached the servants’ stairs at the rear of the house. It would not be so difficult. One of the servants would do it for him if he handed over a coin or two. He’d ask Hobson, his valet to organize it. Just so long as he remembered. But Beatrice had thought ahead of him. “I’ll send you a message,” she whispered just before he reached the nursery. “With instructions. You mustn’t say anything to anyone.

You promised, after all. And you said you always keep a promise—didn’t you?”

.

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