Improper Miss Darling
‘Good afternoon, Miss Darling.’
Emma knew the voice. Having heard it that night at dinner, she would have recognized it anywhere. But it was the last one she had been expecting to hear in her garden today. ‘Good afternoon, Lord Stewart.’ She raised her head and peered at him from beneath the brim of her bonnet. ‘If you are looking for my father, you will find him in the house, most likely in his study.’
‘Thank you, but it was you I came to see.’
‘I wondered if we might have a chat. If you do not mind me singling you out.’
‘That would depend on what you were singling me out for.’
‘I wish to talk to you about a matter of considerable importance.
‘Oh dear, that does sound alarming.’ Emma put down her brush. ‘Pray forgive my attire. I was not expecting visitors.’
‘No apologies are necessary. You look charming.’
Emma was too much of a lady to roll her eyes but she was sorely tempted to do so given how easily the lies fell from his tongue. She was wearing a wide brimmed sunhat with ribbons tied loosely beneath her chin, a painter’s smock liberally smudged with paint, and while her hair was pinned up, she could feel the breeze tugging at loose wisps. Charming was decidedly not how she would have described her appearance. Still, he hadn’t come with a view to courting her.
‘Very well, Lord Stewart, you have my undivided attention. What is this important matter you wish to talk to me about?’
‘Your sister, my brother and the unfortunate inequity of the match.’
Emma’s eyes widened in shock. Mercy! The man certainly didn’t beat around the bush. ‘You will forgive me if I say I am somewhat taken aback by the remark, my lord.’
‘I would have been more surprised had you said you were expecting it,’ Lord Stewart acknowledged. ‘But it is a subject I believe warrants further discussion.’
‘I fail to see why? The inequity of the match obviously wasn’t of concern to your brother when he asked Linette to marry him.’
‘Of course not. My brother is romantic by nature and more impulsive than is wise.’
‘Attributes shared by my sister, I’m afraid.’ Emma looked up, shading her eyes with her hand. ‘But what’s done is done, wouldn’t you agree?’
‘Forgive me,’ he said, belatedly aware that his position was causing her to stare directly into the sun. ‘Perhaps we could take a walk?’
‘As you like.’ Emma put her brushes into a pot of water, then stood up and removed her smock. ‘You do not tether your horse?’ she asked, looking past him to the elegant thoroughbred grazing freely beyond.
‘There is no need. He never wanders.’ Lord Stewart stared at the easel for a moment. ‘Impressive. You have a knack for blending colours so that they seem to melt into one another.’
‘It is an attribute of watercolours. If a line is drawn too harshly, you simply brush a wash over it and the line softens. It is a very forgiving medium.’
‘Only to those who know how to use it.’ Lord Stewart smiled. ‘You obviously do.’
It was a new and unusual experience to be complimented by a gentleman. Emma was used to most of the flattery going to Linette, but she had to admit to a warm glow of pleasure at hearing Lord Stewart praise her work. ‘Thank you, but I am an amateur at best. My brother is the true artist in the family.’ She fell into step beside him. ‘So, you wish to talk about the unsuitability of the match between Linette and your brother.’
‘Please don’t misunderstand, Miss Darling,’ he said quickly. ‘Your sister is a lovely young woman with pleasing manners and a charming personality. But you cannot deny the disparity in their social situations.’
‘Of course not, but your brother obviously doesn’t care and given that your parents have not forbidden the match, I don’t see what business it is of ours.’
He stopped, frowning. ‘May I speak honestly, Miss Darling?’
‘I wish you would.’
‘Then I will tell you that my parents are not pleased with the engagement and that they would very much like to see it come to an end,’ he said bluntly. ‘Particularly my father.’
Emma turned to look at him. ‘Is that why he was not at dinner the other night?’
‘No. His doctor has restricted him to bed, but I am not entirely sure he would have come had he been feeling well enough to do so. He has very strong opinions about the obligations owed to one’s family.’
Emma wished she could have said she was surprised, but how could she when Lord Stewart was echoing her own concerns about the inequality of the match? ‘Why did your father not voice his concerns when your brother first made him aware of his intentions to approach my sister?’
‘Because Peter didn’t tell him of his intentions until it was too late,’ Lord Stewart admitted. ‘Now, relations between them are strained and it is difficult for either of them to speak about the situation with any degree of rationally.’
‘I am sorry to hear that,’ Emma said slowly. ‘Does the countess also object to the marriage?’
A pained expression flashed across Lord Stewart’s face. ‘That is not as simple a question to answer. My brother holds…a very special place in my mother’s heart. Above all, she wants him to be happy.’
Emma supposed it was not an uncommon failing of mothers, to wish their children well, but it was obviously a feeling not shared by her husband. And their antipathy towards the marriage at so early a stage did not bode well for Linette’s future relationship with her in-laws. ‘What did you hope to achieve by mentioning this to me, Lord Stewart?’
‘Before I answer that, I would ask you a question.’ He stopped by the base of a large tree and crossed his arms over his chest. ‘Is your sister marrying my brother for love or for what she stands to gain by becoming his wife?’
It was only because the nature of the question caught her so completely off guard that Emma did not immediately take offence to what was, a highly impertinent inquiry. ‘Of course she loves him. Linette is not in the least mercenary. She would never marry if her heart was not fully engaged. You cannot be expected to know this, of course, but she has spoken of nothing but your brother since the day the two of them met.’
‘I feared as much,’ he said. ‘Love is always harder to discourage than gain.’
‘But surely it is not your place to discourage the relationship,’ Emma said. ‘If they are truly in love—’
‘Oh, I believe they both think themselves in love, Miss Darling, but will it last? You strike me as being a sensible young woman; one who knows what the world is all about. And it is not about kindness and love. It is about establishing one’s place through the acquisition of power and wealth. Love plays very little part in that.’
Emma said nothing; not at all sure she liked being coupled with this man when it came to their feelings about matters of the heart. She might not dream about finding romantic love for herself, but that did not mean she belittled it when it came to others.
‘Does that also apply to your forthcoming engagement to Lady Glynnis?’ she asked boldly. ‘Is that union also based on the premise of what each of you stands to gain, with no consideration for love or other feelings?’
He raised one dark eyebrow. ‘I did not come here to discuss my relationship, Miss Darling.’
‘No, but in being so cavalier about my sister’s, it seems only fair that I should ask you about the basis for yours. I may be sensible, my lord, but if I were ever to marry, I would hope to do so for love rather than gain.’
‘Very well. My betrothal to Lady Glynnis was arranged by our parents and accepted by the lady and myself as being eminently sensible. Our interests are similar, our natures compatible, and our desires and goals identical. And we happen to like and respect one another.’
‘So all in all, a very convenient partnership,’ Emma said.
‘You could say that.’
‘Do you love her?’
He clearly wasn’t expecting the question and Emma knew from the look on his face that he wasn’t pleased about being asked. ‘You don’t believe in mincing words.’
‘Not when the issue concerns me as deeply as this one. Do you love the lady you are planning to marry, Lord Stewart?’
He took his time, suddenly more interested in the antics of a robin pulling a worm from the grass than he was in giving her an answer. Finally, ‘If being comfortable with a lady and enjoying time spent in her company is an indication of love, then yes, I suppose I do.’
‘My, how passionately you speak.’
‘Would you have me quote sonnets?’ he retorted sarcastically. ‘Proclaim my undying love in the manner of poets and kings?’
‘I would have you speak of nothing you did not feel,’ Emma said. ‘But neither will I listen to you condemn two people who so obviously are in love simply because you put no stock in the emotion. Your brother has proposed to my sister and been accepted. Were he to break it off now, he would suffer the consequences of his actions and she would be left heart broken.’
‘Perhaps, but if your sister were to cry off, she would be thought flighty but not socially irresponsible,’ he countered. ‘Indeed, proceeding with this marriage would be the more socially irresponsible of the two.’
To a degree, he was correct, but Emma had no intention of letting him think she agreed with him on this or any other front. Or of letting the remark go unchallenged. ‘Why do you dislike Linette so much, my lord? Apart from having spent a few hours in her company, you know absolutely nothing about her.’
‘Whether I like her or not has nothing to do with it. My brother’s birth is such that he should have done better.’
‘Then your parents should have stopped him from proposing to her!’
‘And I’ve already told you they had no idea he intended to do so! And even if they had, it would not have made any difference.’ He turned away so she might not see his face. ‘My mother can deny him nothing. Even when she should.’
They were past the point of polite discussion now. They were arguing—and as someone who disliked conflict intensely, Emma knew they would achieve nothing by it. ‘Lord Stewart, you are the heir to your father’s title and estates. As long as you marry well, what does it matter how your brother settles his affairs?’
‘It matters a great deal. I do not wish to see Peter take stock of his life in ten year’s time and come to regret what he did in a youthful burst of passion. I would rather see him suffer now than in the future.’
‘Suffer? You think your brother will suffer from being married to Linette?’
‘That’s not what I said—’
‘But it is what you meant.’ Dear Lord, the arrogance of the man! Did he really expect her to ask Linette to reconsider her acceptance of Mr. Taylor’s offer? To throw over the man she loved for the sake of…what? Lord Stewart’s misplaced notion that his brother might be happier for it in the long run? ‘Lord Stewart, I…appreciate the concern you must feel for your brother, but you must also understand that the concern I feel for my sister is equally great,’ Emma said, forcing herself to speak in a calm and rational manner. ‘I believe her to be deeply in love with Mr. Taylor and I could not counsel her against marrying him when I know how unhappy it would make her.’
‘Then you will not encourage her to think on it again.’
‘I will not.’
‘You could be sparing them both a great deal of heartache and embarrassment.’
‘Apart from the fact of Linette’s birth not being as lofty as you might like, she will not embarrass you or your family. She is good and loving and I know she will make your brother an excellent wife. I cannot do what you ask, my lord, nor am I sure your brother would thank me for doing so,’ Emma said quietly. ‘You saw how they looked at one another the other night. You heard how he spoke to her.’
‘Lies can be convincingly enacted, Miss Darling. So much so that sometimes, we only see and hear what we wish to.’
Emma’s mouth hardened. ‘I like to think I see what’s there, my lord.’ How dare he suggest that Linette would lie about her feelings! Linette, who was no more capable of deceit than a child. ‘Now if you don’t mind—’
It was tantamount to a dismissal. With a curt bow, Lord Stewart whistled for his horse.
Emma didn’t say a word as the elegant creature trotted obediently to his side. It made no sense that she should be annoyed that even the horse seemed to fall under his spell. Instead, she turned her back on him and walked purposefully towards her easel, heavy in heart and low in spirit.
Poor Linette. What would she say if she knew what her future brother-in-law was saying about her? Linette had gone to Ellingsworth Hall in fear of Mr. Taylor’s parents, yet now it seemed it was his brother who offered the biggest threat to her happiness. He did not want the marriage to take place. And where his father did not have the courage to show his displeasure and his mother hadn’t the heart to, it seemed Lord Stewart had more than enough of both. He intended to march in and destroy his brother’s and her sister’s chances at happiness by spouting duty and obligation and all the other things that obviously mattered to him far more than love.
It was no wonder her creative urges had vanished, Emma thought moodily. She could no more see the beauty in the lily pond than she could in a warty frog.
And yet, what sense did it make directing her anger at Lord Stewart? Had she not questioned the inequity of the match? Was she not the one who had expressed concern over Linette’s ability to take responsibility for her decisions? The one who had told her father that Linette was changeable by nature?
Why then, was she furious at Lord Stewart for having said exactly the same things?