Running From Scandal, sequel to The Runaway Countess, is now available! I loved writing Emma and David's story. See it here at Amazon...)
Emma Bancroft was very good at holding up walls. She grew more adept at it every time she went to a party, which was not very often. She was getting a great deal of practice at it tonight.
She pressed her back against the wall of the village assembly room and sipped at a glass of watery punch as she surveyed the gathering. It was a surprisingly large one considering the chilly, damp night outside. Emma would have thought most people would want to stay sensibly at home by their fires, not get dressed in their muslin and silk finery and go traipsing about in search of dance partners. Yet the long and narrow room was crowded with laughing, chattering groups dressed up in their finery.
Emma rather wished she was home by the fire. Not that she entirely minded a social evening. People were always so very fascinating. She loved nothing better than to find a superb vantage point by a convenient wall and settle down to listen to conversations. It was such fun to devise her own stories about that those conversations were really about, what secret lives everyone might be living behind their smiles and mundane chatter. It was like a good book.
But tonight she had left behind an actual good book at home in the library of Barton Park, along with her new puppy Murray. Recently she had discovered the fascinations of botany, which had quite replaced her previous passions for Elizabethan architecture and the cultivation of tea in India. Emma often found new topics of education that fascinated her, and plants were a new one. Her father's dusty old library, mostly unexplored since his death so long ago, was full of wonders waiting to be discovered.
And tonight, with a cold rain blowing against the windows, seemed a perfect one for curling up with a pot of tea and her studies, Murray at her feet. But her sister Jane, usually all too ready for a quiet, solitary evening at home, had insisted they come to the assembly. Jane even brought out some of her fine London gowns for them to wear.
“I am a terrible sister for letting you live here like a hermit, Emma,” Emma remembered Jane saying as she held up a pale blue silk gown. “You are only sixteen, and so pretty. You need to be dancing, and flirting, and—well, doing what young, pretty ladies enjoy doing.”
“I enjoy staying here and reading,” Emma had protested, even as she had to admit the dress was very nice. Definitely prettier than her usual faded muslins, aprons, and sturdy boots, though it would never do for digging up botanical specimens. Jane even let her wear their mother's pearl pendant tonight. But she could still be reading at home.
Or hunting for the lost, legendary Barton Park treasure, as their father had spent his life doing. But Jane didn't have to know about that. Her sister had too many other worries.
“I know you enjoy it, and that is the problem,” Jane had said, as she searched for a needle and thread to take the dress in. “But you are growing up. We can't go on as we have here at Barton Park forever.”
“Why not?” Emma argued. “I love it here, just the two of us in out family home. We can do as we please here, and not worry about...”
About horrid schools, where stuck-up girls laughed and gossiped, and the music master grabbed at Emma in the corridor. Where she had felt so, so alone. She was sent there when their mother died and Jane married the Earl of Ramsay, and Emma had never wanted her sweet sister to know what happened there. She never wanted anyone to know. Especially not about her foolish feelings for the handsome music teacher, that vile man who had taken advantage of her girlish feelings to kiss her in the dark—and tried so much more before Emma could get away. He had quite put her off men forever.
Emma saw the flash of worry in Jane's hazel eyes before she bent her head over the needle, and Emma took her other hand with a quick smile.
“Of course we must have a night out, Jane, you are quite right,” she'd said, making herself laugh. “You must be so bored here with just me and my books after your grand London life. We shall go to the assembly and have fun.”
Jane laughed, too, but Emma heard the sadness in it. The sadness had lingered ever since Jane brought Emma back to Barton Park almost three years before, when Jane's husband the earl hadn't appeared in many months. Emma didn't know what happened between them in London, and she didn't want to pry, but nor did she want to add to her sister's worry.
“My London life was not all that grand,” Jane said, “and I am not sorry it's behind me. But soon it will be your time to go out in the world, Emma. The village doesn't have a wide society, true, but it's a start.”
And that was what Emma feared—that soon it would be her turn to step out into the world and she would make horrid mistakes. She was too impulsive by half, and even though she knew it she had no idea how to stop it.
So she stood by the wall, watching, sipping her punch, trying not to tear Jane's pretty dress. For an instant before they left Barton and Emma glimpsed herself in the mirror, she hadn't believed it was really her. Jane had put her blonde, curling hair up in a twisted bandeau of ribbons and let her wear their mother's pearl necklace, and even Emma had to admit the effect was much prettier than the everyday braid and apron.
The local young men seemed to agree as well. She noticed a group of them over by the windows, bluff, hearty, red-faced country lads dressed in their finest Town evening coats and cravats, watching her and whispering. Which was exactly what she did not want. Not after Mr. Milne, the passionate school music master. She turned away and tried to pretend to be studiously observing something edifying across the room.
She saw Jane standing next to the refreshment table with a tall gentleman in a somber dark blue coat who had his back to Emma. Even though Emma was not having the very best of evenings, the smile on her sister's face made her glad they had ventured out after all.
Jane so seldom mentioned her estranged husband or their life in London, though Emma had always followed Jane's social activities in the newspapers while she was at school and knew it must have been very glamorous. Barton Park was not in the least glamorous, and even though Jane insisted she was most content, Emma wondered and worried.
Tonight, Jane was smiling, even laughing, her dark hair glossy in the candlelight and her lilac muslin and lace gown soft and pretty. She shook her head at something the tall gentleman said and gestured toward Emma with a smile. Emma stood up straighter as they both turned to look at her.
“Blast it all,” she whispered, and quickly smiled when an elderly lady nearby gave her a disapproving glance. But she couldn't help cursing just a little. For it was Sir David Marton who was talking to her sister.
Sir David—who had been visiting at Barton more often of late than Emma could like. He always came with his sister, Miss Louisa Marton, very proper and everything since his estate at Rose Hill was almost their nearest neighbor. But still. Jane was married, even though Lord Ramsay never came to Barton, and Sir David was too handsome by half. Handsome, and far too serious. She doubted he ever laughed at all.
She studied him across the room, trying not to frown. He nodded at whatever Jane was saying, watching Emma solemnly from behind his spectacles. She was glad he wasn't near enough for her to see his eyes. They were a strange, piercing pale gray color, and whenever he looked at her so steadily with them he seemed to see far too much.
Emma unconsciously smoothed her skirt, feeling young and fidgety and silly. Which was the very last thing she ever wanted to be in front of Sir David.
He nodded again at Jane and gave her a gentle smile. He always spoke so gently, so respectfully to Jane, with a unique spark of humor in those extraordinary eyes when he looked at her. He never had that gentle humor when he looked at Emma. Then he was solemn and watchful.
Emma had never felt jealous of Jane before. How could she be, when Jane was the best of sisters, and had such unhappiness hidden in her heart? But when Sir David Marton was around, Emma almost—almost—did feel jealous.
And she could not fathom why. Sir David was not at all the sort of man she was sure she could admire. He was too quiet, too serious. Too—conventional. Emma couldn't read him at all.
And now—oh, blast it all again! Now they were coming the room toward her.
Emma nearly wished she had agreed to dance with one of the country squires after all. She never knew what to say to Sir David that wouldn't make her feel so young and foolish around him. That might make him smile at her.
“Emma dear, I was just talking to Sir David about your new interest in botany,” Jane said as they reached Emma's side.
Emma glanced up at Sir David, who was watching her with that inscrutable, solemn look. The smile he had given Jane was quite gone. It made her feel so very tongue-tied, as if words flew into her head only to fly right back out again. She hadn't felt so very nervous, so unsure, since she left school, and she did not like that feeling at all.
“Were you indeed?” Emma said softly, looking away from him.
“My sister mentioned that she drove past you on the lane a few days ago,” Sir David said, his tone just as calm and serious as he looked. “She said when she offered you a ride home you declared you had to finish your work. As it was rather a muddy day, Louisa found that a bit—interesting.”
Against her will, Emma's feelings pricked just a bit. She had never wanted to care what anyone thought of her, not after Mr. Milne. Miss Louisa Marton was a silly gossip, and there was no knowing what exactly she had told her brother or what he thought of Emma now. Did he think her ridiculous for her studies? For her unladylike interests such a grubbing around in the dirt?
“I am quite the beginner in my studies,” Emma said. “Finding plant specimens to study is an important part of it all. When the ground is damp can be the best time to collect some of them. But it was very kind of your sister to stop for me.”
“I fear Emma has little scope for her interests since she left school to come live here with me,” Jane said. “I am no teacher myself.”
“Oh, no, Jane!” Emma cried, her shyness disappearing at her sister's sad, rueful tone. “I love living at Barton. Mr. Lorne at the bookshop here in the village keeps me well-supplied. I have learned much more here than I ever did at that silly school. But perhaps Sir David finds my efforts dull.”
“Not at all, Miss Bancroft,” he said, and to her surprise she heard a smile in his voice. She glanced up at him to find that there was indeed a hint of a curve to his lips. There was even a flash of a ridiculously attractive dimple in his cheek.
And she also realized she should not have looked at him. Up close he really was absurdly handsome, with a face as lean and carefully chiseled as a classical statue. His gleaming mahogany-brown hair, which he usually ruthlessly combed down, betrayed a thick, soft wave in the damp air, tempting to touch. She wondered whimsically if he wore those spectacles in a vain attempt to keep ladies from fainting at his feet.
“You do not find them dull, Sir David?” Emma said, feeling foolish that she could find nothing even slightly more clever to say.
“Not at all. Everyone, male or female, needs interests in life to keep their minds sharp,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to grow up living near an uncle who boasts a library of over five thousand volumes. Perhaps you have heard of him? Mr. Charles Sansom at Sansom House.”
“Five thousand books!” Emma cried, much louder than she intended. “That must be a truly amazing sight. Has he any special interests?”
“Greek and Roman antiquities are a favorite of his, but he has a selection on nearly every topic. Including, I would imagine, botany,” he said, his smile growing. Emma had never seen him look so young and open before, and she unconsciously swayed closer to him. “He always let us read whatever we liked when we visited him, though I fear my sister seldom took him up on the offer.”
Emma glanced across the room toward Miss Louisa Marton, who was easy to spot in her elaborately feathered turban. She was talking with her bosom bow, Miss Maude Cole, the beauty of the neighborhood with her red-gold curls, sky-blue eyes, and fine gowns. They in turn were looking back at Emma and whispering behind their fans.
Just like all those silly girls at school had done.
“I would imagine not,” Emma murmured. She had never heard Miss Marton or Miss Cole talk of anything but hats or the weather. “Does your uncle still live nearby, Sir David? I should so love to meet him one day.”
“He does, Miss Bancroft, though I fear he has become quite reclusive in his advancing age. She still sometimes purchases volumes at Mr. Lorne's shop, though, so perhaps you will encounter him there one day. He would find you most interesting.”
Before Emma could answer, the orchestra, a local group of musicians more noted for their enthusiasm than their talent, launched into the opening strains of a mazurka.
“Oh, I do love such a lively dance,” Jane said. Emma saw that he sister looked toward the forming set with a wistful look on her face. “A mazurka was the first dance I...”
Suddenly Jane broke off with a strange little laugh, and Emma wondered if she had often danced a mazurka with her husband in London. Surely even though she never mentioned her husband she had to think of him often.
“Jane...” Emma began.
Sir David turned to Jane with one of his gentle smiles. “Perhaps you would care to dance, Lady Ramsay? My skills at the mazurka are quite rusty, but I would be honored if you would be my partner.”
For a second, Jane seemed to hesitate, a flash of what looked like temptation in her eyes, and Emma felt an unwelcome pang of jealousy. Jealousy—of Jane! Loathing herself for that feeling, she pushed it away and made herself smile.
“Oh, no, I fear my dancing days are quite behind me,” Jane said. “But books are not the only thing Emma studied at school. They also had a fine dancing master.”
A horrid dancing master. Emma didn't like him intruding on every moment of her life like this. Would she ever forget him?
“Then perhaps Miss Bancroft would do me the honor,” Sir David said politely. He turned to Emma and half-held out his hand.
And she suddenly longed so much to know what it felt like to have his hand on hers. To be close to him as he led her in the turns and whirls of the dance. Surely he would be strong and steady, never letting her fall, so warm and safe. Maybe he would even smile at her again, and those beautiful gray eyes would gleam with admiration as he looked at her. She wanted all those things so very much.
She hadn't felt such romantic yearnings since—since Mr. Milne first arrived at her school. And look at what disasters that led to. No, she couldn't trust her feelings, her impulsive emotions, ever again.
She fell back a step, shaking her head, and Sir David's hand dropped back to his side. His smile faded, and he looked solemn and inscrutable again.
“I—I don't care to dance tonight,” Emma stammered, confused by old memories and new emotions she didn't understand. She had made a mistake with Mr. Milne, a mistake in trusting him and her feelings. She needed to learn how to be cautious and calm, like Jane. Like Sir David.
“Of course not, Miss Bancroft,” Sir David said quietly. “I quite understand.”
“David, dear,” Miss Louisa Marton said. Emma spun around to find that Miss Marton and Miss Cole had suddenly appeared beside from them from the midst of the crowd. She'd been so distracted she hadn't even noticed them approach. Miss Cole watched them with a coolly amused smile on her beautiful face, making Emma feel even more flustered.
“David, dear,” Louisa said again. “Do you not remember that Miss Cole promised you the mazurka? You were quite adament that she save it for you, and I know how much both of you have looked forward to it.”
Sir David gave Emma one more quizzical glance before he turned away to offer his hand to Miss Cole instead. “Of course. Most delighted, Miss Cole.”
Emma watched him walk away, Miss Cole laughing and sparkling up at him with an easy flirtatiousness Emma knew she herself could never match. She felt suddenly cold in the crowded, over-heated room, and she rubbed at her bare arms.
“I know you think Sir David is rather dull, Emma,” Jane said quietly, “but truly he is quite nice. You should have danced with him.”
“I am a terrible dancer,” Emma said, trying to sound light and uncaring. “No doubt I would trod on his toes and he would feel the need to lecture me on decorum.”
Jane shook her head, but Emma knew she couldn't really put into words her true feelings, her fears of what might happen if she got too close to the handsome, intriguing Sir David Marton. She didn't even know herself what those true feelings were. She only knew David Marton wasn't the sort of man for her.
Emma Bancroft was a most unusual young lady.
David tried to catch a glimpse of her over the heads of the other dancers gathered around him, but the bright glow of her golden hair had vanished. He almost laughed at himself for the sharp pang of disappointment at her disappearance. He was too old, too responsible, to think about a flighty, pretty girl like Miss Bancroft. A girl who obviously didn't much like him in the bargain.
Yet the disappointment was there, unmistakeable. When she was near, he was always intrigued by her. What was she thinking when she studied the world around her so closely? Her sister said she studied botany, among other interests, and David found himself most curious to know what those interests were. He wanted to know far too much about her and that couldn't be.
He had no place for someone like Emma Bancroft in his life now, and she had no room for him. She seemed to be in search of far more excitement than he could ever give her. After watching his seemingly quiet father's secret temper tantrums when he was a boy, he had vowed to keep control over his life at all times. It had almost been a disaster for his family and their home when he did briefly lose control. Once, he had spent too much time in London, running with a wild crowd, gambling and drinking too much, being attracted to the wrong sort of female, thinking he could forget his life in such pursuits. Until he saw how his actions hurt other people, and he knew he had to change.
As David listened to the opening bars of the dance music and waited for his turn to lead his partner down the line, he caught a glimpse of his sister watching him with an avid gleam in her eyes. Ever since their parents died and he became fully responsible for their family estate at Rose Hill and for Louisa herself, she had been determined to find him a wife. “A proper wife,” she often declared, by which she meant one of her own friends. A young lady from a family they knew well, one Louisa liked spending time with and who would make few changes to their household.
Not a girl like Miss Bancroft, who Louisa had expressed disapproval of more than once. “I cannot fathom her,” Louisa had mused after encountering Miss Bancroft on the road. “She is always running about the countryside, her hems all muddy, with that horrid dog. No propriety at all. And her sister! Where is Lady Ramsay's husband, I should like to know? How can the earl just let the two of them ramble about at Barton Park like that? The house is hardly fit to be lived in. Though we must be nice to them, I suppose. They are our neighbors.”
David suddenly glimpsed Lady Ramsay as she moved around the edge of the dance floor, seeming to look for someone. Her sister perhaps? Miss Bancroft was nowhere to be seen. David had to agree that the Bancroft sisters' situation was an odd one, and not one his own highly respectable parents would have understood. The two women lived alone in that ramshackle old house, seldom going out into neighborhood society, and Lord Ramsay was never seen. Lady Ramsay often seemed sad and distant, and Miss Bancroft very protective of her, which was most admirable.
David thought they also seemed brave, and obviously devoted to each other. Another thing about Miss Bancroft that was unusual—and intriguing.
Suddenly he felt a nudging touch to his hand, and glanced down in surprise to find he still stood on the crowded dance floor. And what was more, it was his turn in the figures as the music ran on around him.
Miss Cole smiled up at him, a quick, dazzling smile of flirtatious encouragement, and he led her down the line of dancers in the quick, leaping steps of the dance. She spun under his arm, light and quick, the jewels in her twists of red-gold hair flashing.
“Very well done, Sir David,” she whispered.
Miss Cole, unlike Miss Bancroft, was exactly the sort of young lady his sister wanted to see him marry. The daughter of a local, imminently respectable squire, and friends with Louisa for a long time, pretty and accomplished, sparkling in local society, well-dowered. The kind of wife who would surely run her house well and fit seamlessly into his carefully built life. And she seemed to like him.
Miss Bancroft was assuredly not for him. She was too young, too eccentric, for them to ever suit. His whole life had been so carefully planned by his family and by himself. He almost threw it all away once. He couldn't let all that down now. Not for some strange fascination.
Miss Cole, or a lady like her, would make him a fine wife. Why could he not quit searching the room for a glimpse of Emma Bancroft?