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Берроуз Энни

Portrait of a Scandal

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Chapter Four

Grimly determined not to reflect on how handsome her father must have been to have produced such a pretty child, he concentrated instead on capturing what he could see of her own nature. With deft sure fingers, he portrayed that eager curiosity and trusting friendliness which had so disarmed him.

‘Oh,’ the child said when he handed her the finished sketch. ‘Do I really look like that?’

‘Indeed you do, sweet pea,’ said Miss Dalby, shooting him a look of gratitude over the top of the sheet of paper.

She was many things, but she wasn’t stupid. She could see he’d restrained his anger with her so as not to hurt the child.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw the Frenchman reaching for his purse. He held up his hand to stall him.

‘You do not need to pay me for this picture,’ he said. Then turning to the little girl, because he was damned if he was going to let either of the adults know that he would rather starve than take another penny of the man’s money, he said, ‘It is my pleasure to have such a pretty subject to draw.’

The girl blushed and hung her head to study her portrait. Her mother gave him a tight smile, while the Frenchman openly smirked.

And all of a sudden, it was too much for him. He was burning with an unsavoury mix of frustration, anger and lust as he stowed his materials back in his satchel.

A waiter provided a very convenient diversion at that moment by arriving at the table to ask if they required anything else, or if they were ready to pay their bill. While the Frenchman was preoccupied, Nathan leaned towards Miss Dalby and muttered, ‘Is he really the best you can do? You are still young and attractive enough to acquire a protector who could at least dress you in something approaching last year’s fashions, couldn’t you?’

Her eyes snapped with anger as she opened her mouth to make a retort, but then something stopped her. She subsided back into her seat.

‘You think I am...attractive?’

‘You know you are,’ he growled. ‘You know very well that ten years ago I thought you so attractive I almost threw caution to the winds and made an honest woman of you. But now...now you’ve grown even more irresistible.’

From her gasp, he could tell he’d shocked her. But what was more telling was the flush that crept to her cheeks. The way her eyes darkened and her lips parted.

‘You should not say such things,’ she murmured with an expression that told him she meant the exact opposite.

‘Even though you enjoy hearing them?’ He smiled at her mockingly. She wanted him. With a little persuasion, a little finesse, he could take her from this mean-looking Frenchman and slake all the frustrations of the last ten years while he was at it.

And then, because if he carried on muttering to her with such urgency, people would start to notice, he said in a clear voice, ‘It will be my pleasure to do business with you again, at any time you choose. Any time,’ he said huskily, ‘at all.’

* * *

Amethyst blinked and looked around her. They were standing in some vast open space, though she could not for the life of her recall how she’d got there.

Did Nathan Harcourt really think she was in some kind of irregular relationship with Monsieur Le Brun?

And had he really been on the verge of proposing to her? All those years ago? No matter how much she argued that it could not be so, what else could he have meant by those angrily delivered, cryptic sentences?

The Tuileries Gardens. That was where she was. Where the three of them were.

‘On court days,’ she registered Monsieur Le Brun say, ‘crowds of people gather here to watch ministers and members of the nobility going to pay their respects to the King.’

‘Can we come and watch?’

While Monsieur Le Brun smiled down at Sophie and said he would see what he could arrange, Amethyst’s mind went back to the day she’d stood in her father’s study, trying to convince them that she’d believed Harcourt had really loved her.

‘If you got some foolish, presumptuous thoughts in your head regarding that young man,’ her father had bellowed, ‘you have nobody but yourself to blame. If he had been thinking of marriage, he would have come to me first and requested permission to pay his addresses to you.’

She wished she could stand next to the girl who’d cowered before her father’s wrath, bang her fist on his desk, and say ‘Listen to her! She’s right! Harcourt did want to marry her.’

But it was ten years too late. The girl she’d been had trusted her parents would understand. When they’d wanted to know why she’d been so upset on learning of Nathan’s betrothal, why she couldn’t face going to any more of the balls and routs they were trying to push her to attend, she’d blurted it out. Oh, not all of it, for she’d known it was wrong the very first time she’d let him entice her into a shadowy alcove, where he’d pressed kisses first on the back of her hand, then on her cheek. She couldn’t admit that she had hardly been able to wait for the next time they met, hoping he’d want to do the same. She’d been so thrilled and flattered, and eager to join him when he’d taken her out on to a terrace and kissed her full on the lips.

They’d put their arms round each other and it had felt like heaven.

All she’d been able to do was stammer, ‘But he kissed me...’

And her father had thundered she was going to end in hell for such wanton behaviour. He’d whisked her straight back to Stanton Basset where, in order to save her soul, he’d shut her in her room on a diet of bread and water, after administering a sound spanking.

As if she hadn’t already suffered enough. Harcourt had made her fall in love with him, had made her think he loved her, too, had then coldly turned away from her and started going about with Lucasta Delacourt. She’d been convinced he must simply have been making sport of her, seeing how far from the straight and narrow he could tempt the vicar’s daughter to stray.

For a while she’d felt as though her whole world had collapsed around her like a house of cards.

Eventually they’d let her out of her room and told her she could eat meals with the rest of the family again, but she had no appetite. She stumbled through her duties about the house and parish in a fog of misery that nothing could lift. Then her mother, rather than offering her comfort, had rebuked her for setting a bad example to her younger sisters.

Her father might have accused her of being a trollop, but her mother had heaped even more crimes upon her head. She’d accused her of being vain and self-indulgent, of getting ideas above her station...

Which was ironic, because the last thing she had been interested in had been his connections. Others might have simpered and sighed, and tried to capture his attention because his father was an earl, but she’d just liked him for himself. Or the image of himself he’d projected, whenever he’d been with her.

The last straw had been the attitude of her sisters. The sisters she’d cared for as babies, sat up with during illnesses. They’d closed ranks with her parents. Shaken their heads in reproof. Shown not the slightest bit of sympathy.

She understood them doing so when their parents were around. But couldn’t one of them have just...patted her hand as she wept alone in her bed? Offered her a handkerchief even?

Surely what she’d done hadn’t been that bad? Besides, they could see she was sorry, that she’d learned her lesson. Wasn’t anybody, ever, going to forgive her?

She’d begun to sink into real despair. Until the day Aunt Georgie had descended on them. Sat on the edge of her bed and told her, in that brusque way she had, that what she needed was a change of air.

‘I shall tell your parents I mean to take you on a tour of the Lake District, to give your mind a new direction.’ Though she hadn’t, Amethyst recalled with a wry smile, done anything of the sort.

They hadn’t been on the road long before Aunt Georgie had been obliged to come clean.

‘I’ve a mind,’ she’d said brusquely, ‘to buy a couple of factories that some fool of a man ran into bankruptcy.’

Amethyst had been stunned. Women did not go round purchasing failing businesses.

‘He’s claiming the workers are intractable,’ her aunt had continued. ‘Has suffered from riots and outbreaks of plague and God knows what else. We’ll probably find that he’s a drunken incompetent fool. Naturally we cannot let anyone know our true purpose in coming up here.’ Aunt Georgie had smiled at her, patted her hand and said, ‘Your breakdown has come at a most convenient time for me. Perfect excuse to be wandering about that part of the countryside in an apparently aimless manner. I can sound out people in the know and find out what is really going on.’

‘You can’t use me as some kind of a...smokescreen,’ Amethyst had protested.

‘I’m—’

‘Getting angry at last. That’s the ticket. Far healthier to get angry than mope yourself into a decline. That young man,’ she’d said, ‘isn’t worth a single one of the tears you’ve shed over him. And as for your father...’ She’d snorted in contempt. ‘What you ought to do, my girl, is think about getting even with them. If not the specific men who’ve conspired to crush you, then as many of the rest of their sex as you can.’

Get even. She’d never thought a chance would come for her to get even with Harcourt. Though she’d wondered if there wasn’t some divine justice at work on her behalf anyway. It didn’t seem to have done him much good, marrying that woman. In spite of all the connections she had, in spite of all the money her family spent on getting Harcourt elected, his career never went anywhere. His wife died childless. And then he’d created a scandal so serious that he’d had to disappear from public life altogether.

She’d crowed with triumph over every disaster that had befallen him, since it seemed to have served him right for toying with her affections so callously.

But now he’d admitted that he had been seriously thinking about marrying her. That he’d almost thrown caution to the winds.

Thrown caution to the winds? What on earth could he have meant by that?

Oh, only one of half-a-dozen things! There had been the disparity in their stations, for one thing. He was the son of an earl, after all, albeit the very youngest of them, while she was merely the daughter of an insignificant vicar. Nobility very rarely married into the gentry, unless it increased their wealth. And she’d had no dowry to speak of. Not then.

But that Miss Delacourt had. The one he’d become engaged to so swiftly after he’d given her the cut direct.

She shivered as she cast her mind back to the way he’d looked at her that night. As a rule, she tried not to think about it. It hurt too much. Even now, knowing that he hadn’t been simply playing some kind of a game with her, she recoiled from the memory of the coldness in eyes that had once seemed to burn with ardour.

She dragged herself out of the past with an effort to hear Monsieur Le Brun was now telling Sophie a gory tale of an uprising that had been quelled upon the very spot where they stood. He pointed at some marks in the wall, telling the fascinated little girl that they’d been made by bullets.

She shuddered. Not at the goriness of the tale, though she would claim it was that if anyone should question her. But, no—what really sickened her was the thought that Harcourt assumed she was having intimate relations with this stringy, sallow-faced Frenchman.

Why was everyone always ready to assume the worst of her? All she’d done was leave Stanton Bassett to take a little trip. She’d followed all the proprieties by hiring a female companion, yet just because she’d stepped outside the bounds of acceptable female behaviour, just the tiniest bit, suddenly Harcourt assumed she must be a...a woman of easy virtue!

Based on what evidence—that she was with a man to whom she was not married, dressed in clothing that indicated she was relatively poor? And from this he’d deduced Monsieur Le Brun must be her protector?

Didn’t he remember she was a vicar’s daughter? Didn’t he remember how he’d teased her about being so prim and proper when they’d first met?

Although he had soon loosened her moral stance, she reflected on a fresh wave of resentment. Quite considerably.

Perhaps he thought she’d carried on loosening after they’d parted.

Next time she came across Harcourt she would jolly well put him right. How dare he accuse her of having such poor taste as to take up with a man like Monsieur Le Brun?

If anyone had bad taste, it was he. He’d married a woman with a face like a horse, just because her family was wealthy and powerful.

Or so her parents had said. ‘The Delacourts wouldn’t let one of their daughters marry in haste. If they’ve got as far as announcing a betrothal, negotiations must have been going on for some time. His family might even have arranged the thing from the cradle. It is the way things are done, in such families. They leave nothing to chance.’

The certainty that they were right had made her curl up inside. It had seemed so obvious. He couldn’t have walked away from her, then proposed to someone else the next day. Miss Delacourt must always have been hovering in the background.

But now...now she wondered just how deliberate and calculating his behaviour had been after all. He’d talked about finding her so attractive he’d almost thrown caution to the winds.

As though...as though he hadn’t been able to help himself. As though he’d genuinely been drawn to her.

But in the end, it had made no difference. He’d married the girl of whom his family approved rather than proposing to the girl he’d only known a matter of weeks.

Though none of that explained why he seemed so angry with her now. Surely, if he had been toying with the idea of proposing to her back then, he should be glad they’d finally met up when both of them were free to do as they pleased?

Only—he didn’t think she was free, did he? He thought she was a kept woman.

Oh!

He was jealous. Of Monsieur Le Brun.

That was...well, it was...

So preposterous she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. When Monsieur Le Brun shot her a puzzled glance, she realised that, in stifling it, she’d made a very undignified sound, approximating something like a snort.

She made a valiant attempt to form sensible answers whenever Sophie spoke to her, but it was very hard to pretend to be interested in all the things Monsieur Le Brun was telling them about the park through which they were walking and the momentous historical events which had occurred on just about every corner.

When she felt as though her whole life had been flung up in the air and hadn’t quite settled into place yet. If she could only get past how angry he’d made her, by assuming she’d sunk low enough to...well, never mind what he thought she and Monsieur Le Brun got up to. It made her feel queasy. What about the other things he’d said? About finding her attractive?

Never mind irresistible. Almost irresistible enough to have lured him away from his sensible arranged match, to live in relative poverty and obscurity.

Had he been serious? Not one man, in the last ten years, had come anywhere near kissing her, yet Nathan claimed to find her so irresistibly attractive he immediately assumed she must be making her living as a woman of easy virtue. He had seethed at her and fumed at her, and only stormed off when he was satisfied he’d rattled her.

She stood stock still, her heart doing funny little skips inside her chest. She’d only ever been sought after seriously by gentlemen after they learned she was Aunt Georgie’s sole beneficiary.

But Harcourt assumed she was poor and desperate.

And he still claimed to want her.

‘Are you getting tired, Aunt Amy?’

Sophie had come running back to her and was taking her hand, and looking up into her face with concern.

‘No, sweet pea. I am just...admiring the gardens. Aren’t they beautiful?’

She hadn’t noticed, not until she’d worked out that Harcourt was suffering from jealousy, but the Tuileries Gardens were really rather pretty...in a stately, regulated kind of way, in spite of all the gruesome horrors which the citizens had perpetrated within it. The trees dappled the gravelled walks with shade, the sky she could see through the tracery of leaves was a blue that put her in mind of the haze of bluebells carpeting a forest floor in spring, and the air was so clear and pure it was like breathing in liquid crystal.

It was almost as magical a place as Hyde Park had been, when she’d been a débutante. She could remember feeling like this when she’d walked amongst the daffodils with Harcourt. Light-hearted and hopeful, but, above all, pretty. He’d made her feel so pretty, the way he’d looked at her back then, when she’d always assumed she was just ordinary, that there was nothing about her to warrant any sort of compliments.

That was because she’d always had to work so hard to please her exacting parents. She’d done her utmost to make them proud of her, with her unstinting work in the parish and her unquestioning support of her mother in bringing up the younger girls.

And what good had it done her? The minute she slipped, nothing she’d done before counted for anything. All they could say was that she was self-indulgent and ungrateful, and vain.

Though at least now she knew she hadn’t been vain. He must have liked more than just the way she looked, if he’d contemplated marrying her. He’d liked her. The person she’d become when she’d been with him. The girl who felt as though she was lit up from inside whenever she was near him. A very different girl from the earnest, constantly-striving-to-please girl she was in the orbit of her parents. He’d shown her that it was fun to dance and harmless to flirt. They’d laughed a lot, too, over silly jokes they’d made about some of the more ridiculous people they encountered. Or nothing much at all.

She’d slammed the door shut on that Amy when he’d abandoned her.

She’d tossed aside the former Amy, too, the one who was so intent on pleasing her parents.

It had been much easier to nurture the anger Aunt Georgie had stirred up. She’d become angry Amy. Bitter Amy. Amy who was going to survive no matter what life threw at her.

‘It is time I took you to another café,’ said Monsieur Le Brun. ‘It is a little walk, but worth it, for the pastries there are the best you will ever eat.’

‘Really?’ She pursed her lips, though she did not voice her doubt in front of Sophie. There wasn’t any point. The proof of the pudding, or in this case, pastry, would be in the eating. So she just followed the pair to the café, let the waiter lead them to a table and sank gratefully on to a chair, wondering all the while which, out of all the Amys she’d been in her life thus far, was the real one? And which one would come to the fore if he should come into this café, looking at her with all that masculine hunger?

.

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