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Esme Canville resisted the impulse to gather her shawl more tightly around her. I am quite comfortable. No need for a fire. No need for anything, actually. I am content. The maid continued to bustle around the room, straightening things which had been straight enough for hours. Because it seems a bit chill. I am fine. You may go. No need for anything. Was the maid watching her with too much interest?

It was so hard to be sure. Meg was new, and quite devoted to the master of the house. Certainly not someone Esme could consider an ally. But not an enemy, either, she hoped. Still, if her father had requested a report on any unusual behavior, it was best not to provide fodder. She moved to the settee, and picked up her book. Esme gathered as much hauteur as she could muster. And most economic. I am sure my father would not approve of me wasting coal in the morning, when the afternoon will be temperate.

Meg nodded, approving of anything that Mr. Canville approved of. The maid let herself out of the room and Esme breathed a sigh of relief as she hurried to the fireplace. Meg took her new duties far too seriously. It had been better when Bess had held the job. And when service to her lady had smacked of disobedience to her master, that had been the end of her. And now, the much more cooperative Meg was trying to lay fires where none were needed. Esme dropped her shawl carefully on the hearth in front of her and knelt on it, silently thanking the staff for the cleanliness of the slate.

She opened the damper and leaned her cheek against the bricks at the back of the fireplace. Voices traveled faintly up from the room below. Esme closed her eyes, trying to imagine the men below. I am sure we can find an arrangement that is agreeable to all parties concerned.

And you have seen the miniature, have you not? I assure you it is a good likeness. Esme touched her own hair. The portrait was a fair likeness of her at best. And done several years ago. At twenty, she was hardly on the shelf, but she was not the wide-eyed innocent in the little painting. And she will agree? It is more than a favorable match, Milord. She is a fool to hope for better. The voices faded away again as the men in the room below walked towards the desk.

How could she hope for better? She was not to be allowed a season. Or to travel unescorted by her father into any of the social circles that other young ladies were permitted to as a matter of course. Evenings were spent at home or in the company of her father and his friends, who were almost all as old as he was. Certainly not marriage material. He found her young enough to comment on it. This could not be good. She strained her ears, trying to guess the nature of the man from the voice that echoed up through the brickwork.

His voice told nothing, although she could not say the sound of it pleased her. He could as easily have been choosing furniture as a wife. A lord. But of course. Her father would wish a match that would advance the family. The voices increased in volume again. She stood up, heart pounding. It was inevitable, was it not? Of course, her father would find her a husband and make the decision himself. And he would choose someone of a like mind to his own.

Someone who was sure that nothing refreshed the memory of a disobedient daughter or a wayward wife like the sting of the razor strop on her back. She gripped the mantelpiece and tried to steady her breathing. It was possible that the situation was not as bad as it sounded. Without meeting Lord Halverston, it was unfair to judge him. Her father and Halverston had come to an agreement and were moving out of the study and into the front hall.

She brushed the soot from her skirt and hurried out onto the balcony, staying close to the wall so as not to be spied from the street. After a brief farewell, the man would call for his hat and stick and he would come through the door beneath her.

And then she would catch her first glimpse of the man her father intended for her to marry. His carriage was already waiting on the street below and she admired the fine matched bays with silver on their harnesses. The body of the carriage was rich, and she could see the well upholstered squabs, and almost smell the leather. Her future husband would be rich. And she would share in his wealth. It would not be all bad. She would have gowns, jewels, and a fine house to live in.

Houses, perhaps. She heard the door closing and watched as the driver and grooms straightened as their master approached. With respect, she hoped, and not fear of punishment for idleness. She would have servants, she reminded herself. Perhaps a maid that answered to her before her father. She bit her lip.

All that was well and good. But was it too much to hope that her husband would be gentle, as well as gentleman? He was old. She could tell it from the stoop of his shoulders. His gait was steady, but stiff and measured, and his body tall and unnaturally thin, as though wasted by illness.

The fingers that he spread on the dark leather of the seat looked bony and twisted, more claw than hand. She stifled her disappointment. It would have been foolish to hope for a young man, she scolded herself, after seeing the carriage. It must have taken time to get the wealth necessary to own such a fine thing. Of course, he would be older than herself. But if he were as old as he appeared… she shuddered at the thought of him, coming to her in the night, and could almost feel the bony hands as they plucked at her hair and touched her bare skin.

He was older than her father. And she might soon be a widow. It was horrible to think such a thing. Perhaps her father was right to punish her, for she truly was wicked. But the voice inside her refused to be silent. You are not wicked. You know you are not. He is old but you are young.


An Unladylike Offer

There are, perhaps, a few places where the characters' past history and current personalities might not stand up to close scrutiny -- but the turns of phrase are quite deft, and the characters are Esme Canville is desperate. She's been subjected to her father's abuse since her mother abandoned them, and now her last hope for escape through marriage is gone: the man her father has chosen to Christine Merrill wanted to be a writer for as long as she can remember.




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