Realization â€“ Chapter 01
By Aurora Eos Rose
In which we learn how NOT to trap a husbandâ€¦
The heavy green velvet drapes rippled in the stiff spring breeze. Amelia stared out the window, idly noticing several dark figures making their way through the dimly lit gardens. The air from outside was fresh and clean, a sharp contrast with the thick smell of ammonia and wax that permeated the small sitting room where Amelia was hiding. She straightened her spine, tipping her precarious mound of black curls backwards. The ridiculous hairstyle made her feel like a basket was perched atop her head. For a moment she felt like she would fall.
Amelia hated parties. Well, perhaps hated wasnâ€™t a strong enough word. She despised them. She longed to search for the relative safety of the library, but the house was literally bursting at the seams. It was a stroke of luck thatâ€™d sheâ€™d found this uninhabited sitting room. It was in the back of the house, facing the gardens, and quite a distance from the ballroom. The quietness and fresh air seeping from the open window were a sharp contrast to the packed room sheâ€™d just exited. It had been noisy, hot, and saturated with the stink of unwashed bodies. Amelia didnâ€™t like the music; it was extremely boring and poorly played. She didnâ€™t like the warm lemonade or the stale cookies and cakes. She didnâ€™t like the gossiping harridans and the simpering misses on the floor. And most of all, Amelia hated her mother.
Amelia knew that coming to London for a season was a Bad Idea. The words were capitalized in her mind, and in her speech. Her mother had lots of bad ideas, but Amelia was sure this one would lead to Very Bad Things. The fluff-brained, idiotic woman was just sure that any girl would die to flick her fan in an overheated ballroom and pretend she had the intelligence of a snail while letting disgusting, gambling lechers who once had illustrious ancestors paw and look down dresses. A soft tenor voice rumbled just outside the door. Amelia tried to shrink farther into the corner where she was hidden. She dumped her overly bitter lemonade into a nearby plant and prayed that her mama was too drunk, or too busy fondling some middle-aged man to worry about Amelia not being on the dance floor. But then again, Amelia hadnâ€™t had a single dance partner since sheâ€™d arrived in London.
Her mother had been banished to the country fifteen years ago by Ameliaâ€™s father for her rather vulgar affairs. In the country, the woman had turned into a plump, annoying busybody. Ameliaâ€™s father had stayed in town, drowning his sorrows in alcohol and gambling. But his excellent painting had managed to keep him afloat, even though there were some whispers that selling paintings was awfully close to being in trade. Amelia simply hadnâ€™t spent time with her father. She was three when she left town, and remembered very little of the man who was responsible for giving her life.
But Amelia was eighteen now, and her parents had decided she needed to be married. Her father wouldnâ€™t help on that end very much. Heâ€™d left for the country when Amelia and her mother came to town. Amelia was sure it was because he didnâ€™t want to see his annoying wife, but she felt the sting of abandonment anyway. Amelia sighed and sunk down into a chair. Sheâ€™d often had fantasies of her father coming to take her away, of him seeing her pale skin, blue eyes, and dark hair, and realizing that she wasnâ€™t her mother. Of being loved, and being accepted by London society. But between her bookish ways, her boyish looks, and her parentâ€™s reputation, she didnâ€™t have a chance in hell of even getting compromised, much less married. She melted into the woodwork like a painting, and when she didnâ€™t meltâ€¦well, she didnâ€™t like to think about the few times sheâ€™d been noticed.
A nasty chuckle broke Amelia from her thoughts. Cecile Meraux was standing at the door with some gentleman, pointing and laughing. Amelia lifted her chin a bit. Yes, her dress was something a courtesan would wear and her hair looked like a bird had built an untidy nest, but she didnâ€™t need to be an object of laughter. After all, Cecile was just a little bitch who found great enjoyment in ridiculing others. Then Amelia noticed who was hanging on the girlâ€™s arm, chuckling under his breath at Cecileâ€™s soft, virulent comments. His name was Zavier Hamilton. He was rich, he was titled, and he was gorgeous. He was called the Angel, but not for his acts of goodness, but rather acts of an entirely different nature. He had curly blonde hair with a touch of red that fell, unfashionably, past his shoulders. His eyes were a glorious pale green color, and his body was enough to make even Amelia sigh. But although his looks could be said to be straight from heaven, his reputation was something else entirely.
The Angel was reportedly able to coax anyone in his bed, from old dried up spinsters to innocent girls right out of the schoolroom. He smiled down at Cecile and whispered something that made the girl blush; Amelia knew if a smile like that were ever directed her way, sheâ€™d be unable to resist. Then she remembered his actions during her first ball in London. Her mother had tried to corner him, practically begging him to dance with Amelia. Heâ€™d looked Ame up and down, and walked away without a word. She could still hear the laughter. Her eyes narrowed. A loud, slightly slurred voice drifted through the narrow hallway. Amelia saw the two glance around for the owner of the voice, and then back at her. Amelia felt herself blush, from tips of her toes to the roots of her hair. Her mother was looking for her. She pushed past the two smirking figures, ignoring the quick look of sympathy on the manâ€™s face. Then she hurried out to the gardens to hide, just like she had at every party for the past two weeks.
Zavier slowly detangled the death grip on his arm and shook the clinging girl off like a nasty vine. She whined and pouted prettily, but Zavier expertly turned her back to the care of her mother. The older woman tried to draw him into conversation, but heâ€™d been avoiding marriage minded mamas for almost eight years. Cecile was the most persistent of the current lot of little virgins, but Zavier knew a bitch when he saw one. And Cecileâ€™s pretty looks would never make up for her personality.
He wound his way through the ballroom, eyeing the latest crop of debutantes. They all seemed to be the same every year, some pretty, some passable, and some destined for spinsterhood. Most with blonde hair, whether it was natural or not, and every single one of them wanted one of two things from him, a romp in his bed or a matrimonial noose around his neck. He often felt like a rack of meat on a butcherâ€™s table. He slipped out the side door into the gaming room and breathed a sigh of relief. There were no innocents here desperate for a husband.
â€œYou look like youâ€™ve just had a brush with the devil, Zavier.â€ He slid into place at the green card table where a game of whist was starting and sighed loudly.
â€œShut up and deal me a hand, Neville. You donâ€™t have every mother in that room after you.â€ Neville snorted and downed his whiskey in one gulp. His eyes and hair echoed the tawny color of his drink. He waved at a passing footman for another. Zavier worried about Nevilleâ€™s drinkingâ€¦and his obsession with gambling.
â€œOf course not, who would want a penniless earl?â€ Nevilleâ€™s voice seemed bitter, and angry. Zavier flinched at the tone.
â€œPenniless makes you sound soâ€¦benign. How about broke as dirt, poor as a church mouseâ€¦â€ Jareth brushed a hand through his already tousled hair. His eyes twinkled, and Zavier knew the scoundrel was up to something.
â€œI swear, Jareth, if you donâ€™t shut up Iâ€™m going to kill you.â€ Neville reached across the table, but Jareth simply smiled and scooted his chair backward a bit. Zavier leaned back and looked at his cards. Jareth loved baiting Neville, but he loved cheating more.
â€œI want a new hand, Jareth. This time make sure my cards come from the top of the deck.â€ Jareth pouted. Neville growled a blasphemy under his breath. A low chuckle came from the other side of the table. Zavier smiled a bit at the gunmetal gray eyes now fixed on Jarethâ€™s second attempt at a fair deal.
â€œWhereâ€™s Matthew hiding?â€ Kevinâ€™s voice rumbled. The sound was always an octave below what Zavier expected. Of course, Kevinâ€™s low voice had come with his silver hair at the tender age of fourteen. Zavier sighed loudly at his new hand.
â€œThis is awful, Jareth. Iâ€™ll never win with these cards. I almost like it better when you do cheat.â€ He paused a moment and organized his cards. â€œI havenâ€™t seen Chillhurst all evening, Kevin.â€
â€œThe Mad March managed to corner him. Chillhurst never did learn to say no. Now heâ€™ll have to dance with the Mad Marchâ€™s mousy daughter.â€ Jareth chuckled a bit. Zavier frowned down at his hand. Cecile had made several nasty comments about the little March chit.
â€œI feel rather sorry for her, actually.â€ Neville leaned back in his chair. â€œI know all about having a hideous parent. Of course, mine did manage to get himself shot. So I canâ€™t complain too much.â€ This time it was Kevin who chuckled.
â€œZavierâ€¦â€ A hand found its way over his shoulder, down his shirt, and into his pants with ease. Zavier smiled coldly. This was what a girl like Cecile would become. This was what his mother had become, an amoral bitch with the lusts of an alley cat. Lady Whitman was a whore in satin.
â€œEver eager, Lucinda.â€
â€œI thought you were going to show me the roses in the conservatory. Are you backing out?â€ Zavier shifted slightly, dislodging her talented hands. Kevin raised an eyebrow, but didnâ€™t comment.
â€œLucinda, I thought we had agreed to go our separate ways.â€ Lucy leaned closer and whispered in his ear.
â€œJust one more time. Please? Iâ€™m so lonely tonight.â€ Zavier sighed and laid down his hand. He hadnâ€™t wanted to accommodate her, but her hands and excessive cleavage had made his pants fit rather uncomfortably.
â€œIâ€™ll see you all later.â€ Kevin frowned disapprovingly, Neville simply grunted, and Jareth shook his head.
Amelia hauled the edge of her dress up for the thirtieth time that night. She knew it was the thirtieth because she'd been counting ever since she put the thing on. The dark green made her skin sallow, and it was cut so low that her nipples almost spilled over the edge. But her mother had declared it the height of fashion. The gardens were fairly dark, and deserted. There was a chill on the air, and Ame felt a shiver run up her spine. She was rather disappointed that there was no maze to hide in tonight.
"Amelia? Amelia March, where are you?" Ame cringed and shrunk back against the rose bushes. She stuck a gloved hand in her mouth to quiet her gasp of pain from the thorns. Her mother was perfectly silhouetted against the wide French doors, mouth wide open, screaming as though Ame were out in the fields, instead of in a Duke's home at a ball.
Ame felt her heart drop when she saw whom her mother had beside her. Matthew Chillhurst was one of the most eligible bachelors in London. He was everything she might have dreamed of in a man; heir to a dukedom, rich, powerful, handsome as sin. And he was very nice too. He was one of the few who had actually not laughed at her, and sheâ€™d once found him hiding in the library. Theyâ€™d discussed politics. Amelia noticed that he was the only man sheâ€™d met who didnâ€™t judge her by her motherâ€™s actions. Ame grimaced. Her mother was harping on about how he had to dance with her beautiful, popular daughter. Ame didn't wait to hear anymore. She headed for the darkened conservatory at a run, ignoring the way her gown slipped ever lower. She resisted the urge to burst into tears. Now was not the time to fall apart. She only had one season to survive. One season and then she could go home. Home to her books and horses, and to her friends.
She missed Magdalena the most. The two had been inseparable for years. Lena would have beaten the prissy little Miss Cecile into a bloody pulp. Rhiannon probably would have castrated the Angel for laughing. Ame smiled a bit. Lena and Rhia would not have enjoyed London at all. They were lucky enough to weasel their way out of a season. Out of the marriage mart. Well, at least for the time being. Ame sighed and put her hands on the cold, metal handles. She pulled gently. The doors opened with an audible whoosh, as warm air rushed for the outside. Ame could feel her elaborate hairstyle wobble. She slipped in the glass doors and shut them behind her with a sigh of relief. The air in the conservatory was fragrant and slightly damp. She knew her carefully fashioned curls would melt away. She moved through the winding paths, mentally cataloging the flowers and plants.
She felt at peace here, in the forest of exotic flora. It was like grandmamaâ€™s garden back homeâ€¦soothing and beautiful. She looked up at the glass-paneled ceiling and watched the occasional star twinkle. The soft sound of dripping led her to a small pond. Several carp moved through the pool, their silvery scales flashing in moonlight. Ame trailed a finger in the water. For the first time since sheâ€™d come to London she felt at peace.
A strange sound caught her attention. For a moment she thought it might have been someone whoâ€™d just finished running a long distance. She followed the heavy breathing around the corner and came face to face with her first view of a naked man. Of course, he was face down on top of a woman, her long legs wrapped around his slender waist. But he was undeniably naked. The blonde in his arms had her head thrown backward, her face screwed into a position that could only be described as rapturous pain. Mentally Ame knew exactly what she was observing. Sheâ€™d read about the method of coitus in her medical books. But actually seeing it was something entirely different. For a moment she simply stared, entranced by the sensual imagery. The woman screamed in rapture.
The man grunted loudly and collapsed. Ame just stood, her hand over her mouth, her eyes wide. Then the woman opened her eyes. And screamed again. Only this was not a sound of rapture, or even of surprise, but rather one of rage. The man rolled off his partner and lunged upward, arriving on his feet in moments. For a moment Ame just stared stupidly at his naked body, her eyes drawn to the still firm part of him nestled between his legs and surrounded by blonde curling hair. Then she looked up into his startled face. And blushed. She tried to open her mouth, to stammer an apology. He swore loudly and took a step forward. Ame turned around and fled.
The plants seemed to reach out and grab her now. She heard several rips and knew her gown was being ruined. Her heavy hair slipped from its elegant coiffure and tumbled around her shoulders. She could hear heavy footsteps from her pursuer. She finally reached the glass doors and flung them open. At that moment her dress turned against her, losing its precarious hold on her shoulders and tumbling to the floor. Her feet tangled in the satin and she turned as she fell, grasping for the doors in an attempt to stay upright. A body hit her face first, and she fell across the threshold, wearing nothing but her drawers. The large body practically suffocated her, and she went wild.
Zavier was having a difficult night. Lucinda had been overly eager, and determined to find a secluded area. Heâ€™d thought the greenhouses a deserted spot, but heâ€™d obviously been wrong. Lucindaâ€™s scream had destroyed the moment of peace he usually found after release. And then he'd seen the March chit staring at them, her innocent royal blue eyes wide with surprise and a touch of curiosity. Sheâ€™d not shrieked in maidenly horror, but had stared at his body like he was a sweetmeat or a piece of cake. Her gaze had warmed his blood. He'd intended apologize, to secure her promise of silence, but she'd run faster than a deer. Now she was lying underneath him, the remains of her hideous gown shredded under their entwined legs.
She thrashed about; ripping what remained of her dress. Her sharp fingernails raked his back and her bony knee tried to find a path between his legs. Zavier grabbed both her wrists in one hand and trapped her legs with his body. For a moment he reveled in the feel of flesh against flesh, and his body reacted to the occasion.
â€œHush, sweetheart. Iâ€™m not going to hurt you. I just want to apologize.â€ He wasnâ€™t sure if she heard his words, but his gentle tone must have penetrated. The girlâ€™s thrashing stilled and her incoherent yells turned to gentle tears. She opened her eyes and stared at his face.
She was gorgeous in the moonlight. Her skin looked milky white and smooth without the yellows and greens her mother always dressed her in. Her hair tumbled around her body and he realized it had to reach nearly to her waist. She always had it tied up into some elaborate design that made his head ache in sympathy. Her eyelashes sparkled with her tears, and Zavier felt the insane urge to comfort her. He brushed a strand of hair from her cheek. Her eyes fluttered. She looked so embarrassed, and miserable. For once in his life, Zavier really looked into a womanâ€™s eyes. The girl sighed gently. A crisp voice broke through the spell of moonlight. "Zavier Hamilton, what the bloody hell are you doing?"
Zavier groaned and dropped his head. He'd know that voice in his sleep. Of course, the foul language was a bit of a surprise, but he should have realized the old woman was capable of just about anything.
"Get off that poor young woman right now." Zavier didnâ€™t move for a long moment. He lifted his head, his eyes shooting angry sparks at his grandmother and the four other people with her. The three women he cared nothing about, but the fourth was Chillhurst, and the young manâ€™s eyes had turned from sapphire to black. Zavier had managed to anger his best friend. He lowered his head and swore softly. Finally he slowly stood up. His grandmother gasped as the light hit his naked body. She immediately moved into action. "Zavier, you get back inside this instant and find your clothes." Zavier nodded meekly and headed back inside. His skull was throbbing. He'd just been caught in a thoroughly compromising situation with an innocent debutante, and he hadn't even had the pleasure of seducing her.
Amelia had never been more embarrassed in her life. The dowager duchess was rich, powerful, and right now she clucked like a mother hen. She helped Ame to her feet, and then the old lady swept Ame's tangled dress from the ground and swiftly covered her body. The woman started dragging Ame across the lawn at an alarming rate.
Ame wished she were the fainting type. Instead she found herself idly cataloging the age and species of the trees and shrubs they passed on the way to the house. Then she calculated the current cost of the marble on the mansion's facade, and the cost thirty years ago. By that point she was being hurriedly swept inside a side door and escorted down several corridors to a small parlor. She was tucked into a chair, given a blanket, a satin dressing gown that was much too large, and a cup of tea, and told in no uncertain terms to stay put. Amelia had no intention of disobeying the Dowager Duchess of Wharton, Lady Woodville. It just wasnâ€™t done.
Amelia finally felt the truth sink in as she sat sipping tea. She'd just been caught, utterly naked, with the Earl of Avon, by no less than three titled elderly ladies, her mother, and the Marquess of Chillhurst. She wanted to die. Then she noticed the thick herbal remedies book tucked underneath the edge of couch. She pulled the book out and settled it on her lap. At least maybe sheâ€™d learn something from her current predicament.
"Well, I'd begun to think you'd never manage to get caught."
Zavier ignored the sarcastic comment and paced around the library, an entire decanter of brandy in one hand, a full glass in the other. His head was reeling. His worst fears were coming true. Heâ€™d be trapped, just like his father had been.
"That was the effect I was trying to achieve, Matthew. Not getting caught." Matt chuckled nastily and sat in the huge leather chair behind the desk. Zavier resisted the urge to pound his cousinâ€™s face into the floor.
"I know you said you never wanted to marry, but you couldnâ€™t have been serious. After all, you are an Earl. Thereâ€™s that whole need for an heir. And you were certainly eager to get started on the heir part." Zavier swore and downed an enormous swallow of the amber liquid. He almost choked as the caustic fluid wound its way into his belly.
"Unlike you, Iâ€™ve never been that fond of children. You can have the bloody title. Women are born whores. I'd spend my entire life watching a wife crawl in some other man's bed and wondering if the children I paid for were even mine." He threw the now empty glass against the fireplace, feeling a strange sense of satisfaction as it shattered.
"Nevertheless, you have managed to totally ruin Lord March's only child. She's not hideous to look upon; sheâ€™s quiet, shy, and demure. She's also intelligent. And she's fairly rich. You could have done much worse." There was a sharp edge to Matthewâ€™s words now; Zavier wondered if the man was gritting his teeth as he talked.
"I could have done much better too. Her mother is a country cow, even if her father is a respected artist and a favorite of society. She's barely two weeks into her first season. She has no sense of style, canâ€™t dance, canâ€™t converse wittily, and she may turn out like her mother. I could have done much better, Matthew." Zavier knew the instant he had gone too far. Matthew surged to his feet, his sapphire eyes flashing.
â€œYouâ€™re the one who seduced the chit, you jackass. If you didnâ€™t see something in her how the hell did you get her lying naked underneath you in the greenhouse?â€ Matthewâ€™s voice had escalated to a roar. Zavier suddenly had a very strange feeling in the pit of his stomach.
â€œWhy do you care so much?â€ Matthew ran a hand through his black hair. Then he slouched back in the chair.
â€œBecause I talked with her at the Cromworthyâ€™s ball. Sheâ€™s the only girl Iâ€™ve been able to converse with since I started this wife hunting adventure. I was looking for a dance when were out seducing her. I would have done much better for her than a quick tumble in the greenhouse.â€ Green eyes met blue. Zavier felt his head start to pound.
â€œYou wanted her. You wanted to marry her.â€ Matthew stood up and paced.
â€œI just met her, Zavier. I donâ€™t know. But you just took the prime pick off my list. We were friends. We might have been more, much more.â€ Zavier had a vivid image of Amelia March, naked, with her long legs wrapped tightly around Matthewsâ€™s waist. Zavier felt jealousy, and the emotion had a bitter twinge. He wondered if this was how it had started for his father.
â€œI didnâ€™t set out to seduce her. I had other prey in mind.â€ Matthewâ€™s gaze fixed on the silver-haired woman now standing in the doorway.
"That's beside the point, dear boy. You've made your bed, now you have to lie in it. Every night. Until I have a few great-grandchildren to hold. I can't say that she would have been my choice, but I think with a bit of grooming, she'll do." Zavier turned on the old woman, his green eyes flashing.
"I don't want her to do, grandmamma. She's the last thing I would have chosen, the last thing I want. I'm not going to marry her." His grandmother's eyes turned frosty. Zavier resisted the urge to run and hide.
"You will marry that girl, Zavier. And you will treat her well. If the story she told me a short time ago is true, then she's the one wronged here, not you. Act like a man."
"I will not marry her, you cannot make me. I do not want her." Zavier knew he sounded like a spoiled child, but he didnâ€™t care. A soft voice echoed from the corridor.
"No one ever said I wanted you." Zavier turned around quickly. Amelia stood in the door, a black dressing gown loosely wrapped around her still naked body. Long black strands of hair surrounded her face. Her blue eyes were clouded with tears, and her lower lip was trembling. But not a single drop fell. Instead she turned her back and walked away slowly.
Zavier turned to face his grandmother and felt a strange and unfamiliar emotion in his belly...shame. Then he felt a sting across his face. Matthew had moved quickly, striding over to Zavierâ€™s side in two steps, and smacked the blonde across the face.
â€œEither you marry her, immediately, or Iâ€™ll put a bullet in you. Consider this a challenge, Zavier Hamilton.â€ Matthew stalked from the room. Zavier swayed a bit on his feet. A hand dropped on his shoulder.
â€œI know youâ€™re not happy about this, Zavier. But there were witnesses. It doesnâ€™t matter if you seduced the girl or not, there will be talk. And if you refuse to marry her, even Matthew couldnâ€™t save her from the gossip. Youâ€™ll have completely ruined her life.â€ Zavier stared into the flames. His voice was high when he spoke, and it cracked a bit.
â€œAnd what if I turn into my father, grandmammaâ€¦what then?â€ There was a long moment of silence.
â€œYou are not your father, Zavier. You donâ€™t have to hold yourself responsible for his actions. Theyâ€™re both dead; let it go. Besides, you donâ€™t love the girl. All you have to do is get an heir and let her be.â€ Zavier watched the old woman leave the room slowly. His mind whirled over the words she had spoken, and he made his decision.
Amelia measured the liquid carefully. She slowly dumped it into the powered concoction and stirred them together as per the directions. After the mixture reached the right consistency, she dumped it into the waiting pan and placed it into the oven. And then she prayed. If this batch blew up like the last, cook would kill her.
â€œAmelia, Ame where are you?â€ The high, laughing voice floated over the house. Amelia smiled and wiped her hands on a towel.
â€œIâ€™m in the kitchen.â€ Marianne Summerton flounced into the room, her lemon blonde hair sweeping behind her like a curtain of sunshine. Her pale blue-gray eyes twinkled with some unknown secret and her mouth twitched with the desire to giggle. Amelia felt her own face echoing the smile. Mary was contagious.
â€œDoes cook know youâ€™re here? I thought he said you couldnâ€™t use his ovens for a lab. Are you trying to blow something up again?â€ Ame felt her laughter bubble over.
â€œHe doesnâ€™t know Iâ€™m here, but Iâ€™m not using it as a lab. Actually I was trying to perfect teacakes. I never seem to get the consistency just rightâ€¦they never turn out like Lenaâ€™s. Actually Iâ€™m lucky if they turn out edible.â€ Mary slid onto a stool and stuck a finger in the bowl. It went instantly into her mouth. Amelia tried not to grimace at the surprised look on Maryâ€™s face. â€œI didnâ€™t even come close, did I? I can make gunpowder but I canâ€™t manage teacakes.â€ Mary stood up and patted Ameliaâ€™s back.
â€œTheyâ€™ll be fine Amelia, after they cook, if you add some more sugar. I have to tell you about this boy I met while riding yesterday.â€ Amelia slid down on a stool and took the cap from her head. Even sitting in a kitchen in clothing that was three years out of style, Mary still looked gorgeous. There wasnâ€™t a man in the county who hadnâ€™t begged for Marianne to marry them. Her sense of style, her grace, and her bubbly personality could make even old harridans bow at her feet. And for some reason Marianne had adopted Amelia.
Amelia tried to listen to Marianneâ€™s happy chatter, but instead she found her eyes glancing down at the heavy sapphire ring on her finger. Her mind drifted back to the night her life changed. Sheâ€™d been dragged out of a warm bed by a very angry earl. Heâ€™d ordered her to put on some clothing and meet him downstairs. Amelia had agreed, not so much because she understood, but she was too tired to question.
Then there was the long, long trip to Gretna Green, the softhearted old priest, the ring thrust on her finger, the many glasses of wine, and the one night in an inn with her husband. She didnâ€™t remember too much, sheâ€™d been far too drunk, only that it had been wonderful to be in his arms. Sheâ€™d felt complete, whole. And then theyâ€™d arrived at the Avon country estate. Amelia hadnâ€™t seen her husband since.
There were stories from London of him jumping from bed to bed. Amelia pretended she didnâ€™t care. She pretended that she wasnâ€™t married, that she was happy here. Well, she was happy. Sheâ€™d met Marianne, and Maryâ€™s younger sister Serena, and the three had become the best of friends. She had an estate to manage. Her husband obviously hadnâ€™t taken any interest, but Amelia loved to try new farming and animal husbandry methods. She kept the books as well. It challenged her mind. Amelia tried to pull herself from her depression.
She ran a successful estate, her servants respected her, and she had friends who loved her. She should have been happy. But even as Marianneâ€™s story rambled to a close, Ame knew she was missing something. A loud bang echoed from the foyer. Another blonde girl burst into the kitchen, only this time, instead of gracefulness and style, one saw chaos. Serenaâ€™s hair was matted and tangled, her twin braids falling out at an alarming rate. The loose strands of her pale blonde hair curled and twirled about her face. Her cheek was dirty, her dress torn, and one stocking hung around her ankle, the garter obviously missing. Amelia resisted the urge to laugh.
â€œIâ€™m sorry Iâ€™m late. Whatâ€™s that wonderful smell?â€ Marianne rolled her eyes.
â€œWhat is it with you and food?â€ Serena shrugged and reached for the bowl. She licked it clean, making a mess of her dress and face. Mary sighed.
â€œAre you two over here for a reason? Or are you just trying to cheer me up again?â€ Amelia turned back to her baking, anxious to see how the cakes were coming. There was a long moment of silence, and then the sisters began to whisper furiously about something. Amelia turned back around, arms crossed over her chest. Finally Marianne spoke.
â€œUncleâ€™s sending us to London. To live with Jareth.â€ The last word was spit out, as though it were a bitter poison. There was a moment of tense silence. Ameliaâ€™s face went white. Serena rushed forward, gripping one of Ameliaâ€™s hands in her own. Serena knelt, her crystal eyes brimming with tears.
â€œHe hates us, Amelia. Absolutely hates us. I donâ€™t want to live with him. Uncleâ€™s spent almost all our trust, thereâ€™s nothing left but our dowries. We have to get married off. But we canâ€™t do it alone, we need your help.â€ Amelia glanced up at Marianneâ€™s face. Ameâ€™s eyes were wide with shock.
â€œYou canâ€™t be serious.â€ Marianneâ€™s happy smile faded away. Her face turned serious, her eyes hard.
â€œUncle has some gambling problems. He decided since weâ€™re both pretty and have some sort of modest dowry, heâ€™d throw us to the wolves in London in exchange for some money. You know what Jareth thinks of us, weâ€™re only half siblings, and not of his fatherâ€™s blood. Thereâ€™ll be no help or support from that bastard.â€ Marianne swallowed hard. She turned slightly away. â€œWe really donâ€™t have enough money to send us off in style without dipping into our already depleted dowries. I tried to explain that to Uncle but he wouldnâ€™t listen. He â€¦he lives in his own little world since aunt Mae died.â€ There was a pregnant silence. Amelia looked down at Serenaâ€™s teary-eyed face, and then up at Marianneâ€™s cold features.
â€œWhat do you need me for?â€ Her voice quavered a bit. Marianneâ€™s eyes turned softer.
â€œYou have no idea who you are, Amelia. I saw the marriage papers your father had drawn up. Do you know you own his estate now? I never told you, because I knew youâ€™d leave us. Youâ€™re independently wealthy. Your husband canâ€™t control you.â€ Ameliaâ€™s face went from white back to its natural pale color. Her eyes lit up, sparkling a bit. Marianne continued in a rush. â€œYouâ€™re rich, youâ€™re beautiful, and for heavens sake youâ€™re the countess of Avon. You can send us off in society with a bang. Weâ€™ll have our choice of husbands, instead of having to settle for the bottom of the barrel. And we can stay with you instead of Jareth.â€ Amelia stood up, paced, and laughed bitterly.
â€œMarianne, you are something else. I canâ€™t say it doesnâ€™t hurt that you didnâ€™t tell me sooner, but I suppose I should have read the papers for myself. I can give you the money you need. Heaven knows you and Serena helped me into this closed country society. Youâ€™ve taught me how to dance at social gatherings and talk to men without blushing, but Iâ€™m not going to London. Iâ€™m far from beautiful, and my entire first season consisted of two weeks of being treated like dirt.â€ Marianneâ€™s face turned from serious to sly.
â€œAmelia, you have no idea what you could do in London. You have to go; I want you to show that dirt pig husband of yours what youâ€™re worth. You could have dozens of men dancing attendance on you with the right dress and some self-confidence. And Iâ€¦we want you to be happy. I watch you try so hard, but youâ€™re so miserable here. You need love in your life, and if that bloody bastard you married wonâ€™t give it to you, look somewhere else.â€ The two girls stood side by side in front of an almost weeping Amelia. She desperately wanted to tell them no, to walk away, to stay in the country alone for the rest of her life. But she knew what would happen to them. And they were right; she wanted more than a life alone.
â€œAll right, Iâ€™ll help. But Marianne, Iâ€™m making you do all the work.â€ Marianneâ€™s eyes lit up.
â€œSpending other peopleâ€™s money is what I do best.â€
Amelia had revised her opinion on parties. Parties were no fun when you were alone, dressed hideously, and didnâ€™t know what to do. Parties were wonderful when you felt and looked like a princess, and were surrounded by friends and flirtatious men. Amelia flicked her fan lightly and bantered with the handsome young man beside her. Sir Gregory Pendleton was intelligent, and kind. Amelia wished she had met him last season. Her life might have turned out happier. She heard a lilting giggle.
Marianne was holding court. She was dressed in a pale gold dress and her hair was in ringlets. Diamonds sparkled at her throat and on her wrist. Amelia wondered for a moment just how much money Marianne had spent on clothing. But then again, it seemed to be working. Men surrounded the blonde, and they were all vying for her attention. She managed to make each one feel special. Amelia envied Marianneâ€™s skills. Another giggle turned her eye to the other end of the room. There was Serena, hair half down, in a pink dress that looked as whispy as a cloud. Her circle of suitors was smaller, Amelia wondered if it was because of Serenaâ€™s clumsiness. Any suitor had to be prepared for bruised feet and catching the girl when she fell.
Amelia glanced at her own reflection in a mirror. She was wearing a deep blue dress, which brought out the color of her eyes. Sapphires sparkled in her ears, at her throat, and on her wrist. Her hair reached her chin now, and the loss of weight had made generous waves appear. She smiled lightly as another man asked her to dance, and she moved onto the dance floor with ease. She wasnâ€™t afraid to show her intelligence, Marianne had seen to that. And Amelia wasnâ€™t afraid to be herself, that had been Serenaâ€™s lesson. But most of all, Amelia wasnâ€™t afraid of parties. That had only come from practice. So she danced, and wondered at the part of her that had become a social butterfly.
Zavier was disgusted with himself. He glanced at the woman in his arms. She was fairly pretty, medium height, slim build, long black hair, and blue eyes. He knew why he had chosen her. She looked like his wife. Zavier ended the dance politely and stalked into the card room. Always it was Amelia. He hadnâ€™t been able to sleep in months, his dreams haunted by her gasps as she lay under his body. He lifted a glass from a half full tray and downed the contents without tasting them. She was everywhere he looked. He had spent two weeks with her, two weeks to Gretna Green and to the estate. And he knew he had fallen for her, despite her innocence, or maybe because of it. She had spoken to him like an equal. She was intelligent, and kind, and so desperate for attention. She had lit up like a candle every time he smiled. But he couldnâ€™t let a woman control him. Heâ€™d never let a woman be important to him. A heavy hand fell on his shoulder, and he jerked in reaction.
She haunted his days as well as nights. He could see her smile in the face of every woman he saw, imagined her dark hair curling around his fingers while she slept. He had stared at her all night in the inn. Before he banished her to Avon. He couldnâ€™t let a woman fill his mind; he wouldnâ€™t let her take over his life. He would not end up like his father, twisted with jealousy. Of course, the man had every right to be jealous. For the thousandth time Zavier wondered what his life would have been like if his mother hadnâ€™t been found in another manâ€™s bed. Would he have still killed her? Would he have killed himself? Zavierâ€™s morbid musings were broken by a soft voice, a voice he hadnâ€™t heard in months.
â€œI thought you were going to leave her in the country forever.â€ Zavier turned around so fast that he almost spilled his drink. Chillhurst stood, fingers curled into fists. â€œI told you I wouldnâ€™t speak to you until you brought her back to London. Sheâ€™s here, I want to know why.â€ Zavierâ€™s mouth opened and closed a few times.
â€œWhoâ€™s here?â€ Chillhurstâ€™s mouth changed to a straight line.
â€œYour wife, you fool. The gorgeous thing holding court in the ballroom, next to Jarethâ€™s sisters.â€ Zavier felt a chill run down his spine. He didnâ€™t notice that he dropped his glass. It shattered on the floor. He pushed past Chillhurst quickly. It took only moments for him to reach the ballroom.
He almost didnâ€™t recognize her. Her gorgeous hair was incredibly short now, reaching only to her chin. She was a bit fuller; a year had matured her boyish figure into that of a slender, willowy woman. She was wearing a fantastic blue dress that brought out her eyes and exposed half her chest. He drank in her beauty. His heart stopped beating for a moment, but it accelerated quickly as a handsome young man leaned in close, whispered something that made her head fall back in laughter, and then drew her into his arms. Zavier didnâ€™t remember walking across the floor, he didnâ€™t remember snatching her away and sweeping her into a waltz. All he remembered was the way her body felt against his, the surprise in her eyes, and the music.
Amelia felt her heartbeat quicken. Her breathing was shallow and rapid; her body followed his easily, instinctively. The music swept over the crowd in a lilting refrain, while a violin wept a harsh counterpoint. And then she met his eyes. They were the same peridot green; their color had haunted her dreams for almost a year. A curl had fallen across his forehead, making him look more like a naughty boy than a man. But his mouth was set in a stern line, and his hands gripped her tightly, as though he were afraid she might escape. She didnâ€™t speak. Sheâ€™d been expecting this for a week now. But heâ€™d either avoided the parties sheâ€™d attended, spent the entire time in the card room, or simply didnâ€™t recognize her.
â€œWhat do you think youâ€™re doing?â€ His voice shook her from her musings. The words were delivered low, soft, and definitely angry. Amelia grimaced inwardly, but Serena and Marianne had spent days preparing her for this moment. Amelia was determined not to let them down. She plastered a brilliant smile on her face and looked into his eyes. But she couldnâ€™t keep her voice from quivering a bit.
â€œDancing?â€ Her smile didnâ€™t waver, her eyes stayed on his face, on his eyebrows actually, she couldnâ€™t make herself look in his eyes.
â€œI can see that. I meant what are you doing in London? I thought I told you to stay in Avon.â€ Amelia felt her temper rising. But she couldnâ€™t let it go just yet. An altercation on the dance floor would not enhance her reputation.
â€œYou may think that any woman would love to spend their days lounging around in the country, but some of us need intellectual stimulation. I was dying of boredom.â€ Amelia kept her smile bright.
â€œIntellectual stimulation, is that what theyâ€™re calling it now? Well, if youâ€™re that desperate Iâ€™d be more than happy to service you.â€ Zavier stopped suddenly in the middle of floor. Amelia plowed into his chest, unable to halt her momentum as quickly. He caught her around the middle and tossed her over his shoulder. Then he headed for the nearest door. Several matrons shrieked, at least two young women and Serena fainted, and the ballroom suddenly sounded like a mob scene. A flash of gold planted itself in Zavierâ€™s path. Amelia kept still, her mouth shut, her face red. She thought she was going to die of embarrassment.
Zavier had never been so angry. All he could thing of was Ame in another manâ€™s bed. He wanted to throw her down on the ground and take her in the ballroom, so everyone would know whom she belonged to, but he managed to stifle the impulse. Instead he was carrying over his shoulder, like a caveman. At least she wasnâ€™t struggling, he wasnâ€™t sure if that was a good or a bad sign. A body moved itself into his path.
â€œI donâ€™t know who you are, or what you think youâ€™re doing, but you put her down right now.â€ The girl was a little bit taller than Amelia; with hair the color of sunlight and a dress in spun gold. She was gorgeous. For a moment Zavier blinked, wondering if the vision would melt away. But instead, the vision walked forward and kicked him in the shin. Amelia instantly added to the confusion, using her fan to beat him across the back, and her sharp toes to pummel him in front. Zavier growled and grabbed onto the girlâ€™s arm.
â€œZavier, I consider you a good friend, but if you donâ€™t let go of my sisterâ€™s arm, I will have to hurt you.â€ Zavier turned around quickly, and me the eyes of a very angry Jareth. Matthew was standing to Jarethâ€™s right, arms crossed, and eyes black with anger.
â€œPut her down and act like a gentleman, if youâ€™re capable.â€ Matthewâ€™s voice was beyond angry. He hissed the words, like a serpent.
â€œSheâ€™s my wife, why donâ€™t you all just stay out of our business.â€ There was a taunt silence. Zavier had shouted the words, unknowingly causing a wild fervor in the room. The hubbub began as a whisper, but quickly rose to a cacophony. Zavier shrugged, almost dislodging Amelia. â€œAw hell.â€
He let go of Jarethâ€™s sister and instead planted his fist in Jarethâ€™s face. He ducked Matthewâ€™s counter attack and tripped Matt with his left leg. Then he whirled and left the room at a run.
Amelia sat across from her husband, arms crossed over her chest in a vain attempt to keep warm. Zavier hadnâ€™t stopped for their cloaks. She felt her temper boiling, rumbling against the fragile bonds that held it in check. She opened her mouth.
â€œNot one word, little girl. Not one word.â€ Amelia snapped her jaw shut. An audible pop filled the carriage interior. Zavier leaned back against the seat, stretching his legs out. He stared at her, obviously trying to control his own temper. Finally he spoke. â€œWhat the hell do you think youâ€™re doing in London, trying to replace me in your bed?â€ Amelia drew her spine up straight.
â€œActually, that would be difficult to do, considering you donâ€™t spend any time in my bed, therefore I have nothing to replace. But if youâ€™re asking if I came to town to look for a lover, the answer is yes. Iâ€™m tired of a cold bed.â€ Zavier didnâ€™t move for a long moment. Then he smiled a cold, angry smile.
â€œI can fix that problem easily.â€ He leaned forward as he said the words. Amelia shrunk back against the seat. Then he pounced on her. His lips grated against her teeth. She twisted her head to the side.
â€œThatâ€™s not what I had in mind!â€ Her voice was high pitched, and she sounded both frightened and angry. Zavier pulled back for a moment. He was breathing heavy.
â€œWhy not, am I not good enough for you?â€ Amelia felt her control snap.
â€œYouâ€™re the one who left me alone, after one night together. Youâ€™re the one who refuses to be with his wife. Youâ€™re the one who said you didnâ€™t want me.â€ The words tumbled out, one over the other, while tears streaked down her face. Zavier felt them burning into his soul. She didnâ€™t stop there, however. â€œI know Iâ€™m not beautiful the way Marianne is. I saw, I saw the look in your eyes when you looked at her. Everyone looks at her like that. Iâ€™m not beautiful like that. Iâ€™m too smart and self-sufficient to make a man feel like he has to take care of me, but dammit, I donâ€™t deserve to be treated like this. If youâ€™re not going to act like a husband, why in gods name do I have to act like a wife? Shouldnâ€™t I be able to find someone to make me happy?â€ She stopped crying for a moment, hiccupping loudly. Zavier started to open his mouth, but Amelia slapped her hand across his lips. She spoke quickly, as though trying to keep ahead of the tears.
â€œNo, this time you will listen to it all. I didnâ€™t mean to walk in on you and that girl you were with. I didnâ€™t mean to trap you into a marriage. I just wanted to survive one season so my mother would shut up and I could go home again. Iâ€™m here in London to help my friends find husbands, good men who will care about them. And Iâ€™m here because Iâ€™m tired of being alone, tired of being unhappy. Iâ€™d ask for an annulment, but thatâ€™s not exactly possible, you made sure of that. So Iâ€™ll ask for the next best thing. Give me a divorce. Or at least let me find a lover. Weâ€™ll leave London; youâ€™ll never have to see me. I want someone in my life. Not a dozen, just one. Someone to spend my life with, to have children with, to laugh and love.â€ She removed her hand slowly. Zavier snapped a single word.
â€œNo.â€ Amelia started crying again. Zavier watched her for several long moments, and then he pulled her into his arms. She pushed her wet face into his shoulder. Her body shook with sobs, and the carriage rocked, wheels digging into Londonâ€™s deep ruts. Zavier felt his mind whirling. But one thing remained foremost in his mind. This girl, in his arms, was his, and would stay that way. Finally her sobs slowed to little sniffles, and her hiccups subsided. Zavier slid sideways and sat her beside him. One arm stayed around her back. Amelia was too tired, both physically and mentally, to complain. Finally he spoke.
â€œI will not let you cuckold me, Amelia. I watched my mother crawl in and out of dozens of beds. If you want someone in your bed at night, you only have one choice, me. I will not give you a divorce. The scandal would be far too great, both for me and for you. Iâ€™mâ€¦Iâ€™m sorryâ€¦for the way I treated you.â€ There was a long silence. â€œI should have given you a chance, given you time. Iâ€™d like usâ€¦â€ He stopped again. Amelia held her breath. â€œIâ€™d like us to start over.â€ Another moment of quiet. Amelia wiped her eyes.
â€œHow?â€ Zavier took a deep breath.
â€œIâ€™ll pick you up tomorrow, at ten; weâ€™ll go riding in the park.â€ He didnâ€™t say anything else and Amelia was too intelligent to question him further.
â€œDid he hurt you?â€ Amelia woke to find two blonde bodies bouncing on her bed. She sat up slowly, her head muzzy.
â€œWho hurt what?â€ She rubbed a hand across her face and grimaced at the foul taste in her mouth. A round, anxious face popped right up, not an inch from her own startled features.
â€œDid your husband hit you? Yell at youâ€¦take advantage of you?â€ Serena said the last words low, in a very melodramatic voice.
â€œItâ€™s not considered â€˜taking advantageâ€™ if theyâ€™re married, you fool.â€ Marianne whacked her sister over the head with a pillow.
â€œHey, what did you do that for?â€ Ame flopped back on the bed, her head pounding, and ignored the now raging pillow fight. There was a sharp knock at the door. A maid stuck her head in the room.
â€œExcuse me misses, but thereâ€™s a gentleman downstairs says he has an appointment with you.â€ Amelia sat upright in the bed, just in time to get smacked by a pillow. It exploded in a shower of feathers. Amelia screeched and reached for another pillow, and went after the offender.
Zavier was seething. Heâ€™d arrived at exactly ten after ten, sure that the extra time would have been enough for Amelia to be ready to leave. Instead, heâ€™d been sitting in the parlor for almost thirty minutes. He didnâ€™t like to be kept waiting, and he had a sinking suspicion that Amelia was making him wait on purpose. Most women didnâ€™t like having things dictated, and Amelia had more reason that most not to listen. Zavier stood and started pacing. The maids had all run from the room, undoubtedly sensing his foul mood. Finally his temper snapped.
Zavier threw open the parlor door and headed up the stairs two at a time; certain he could find Ameliaâ€™s room. Instead he walked in on two maids cleaning, and opened three empty doors. The sound of girls giggling drew his attention on the third story. He raced down the hall and threw the door open. He was greeted with a pillow to the face, which promptly split and sent feathers raining over his clothes, in his mouth, and in his hair. He stood in shock, spitting out feathers.
When his vision cleared, he could see three open mouthed girls, their hair down, in nightgowns and two with robes. Feathers covered both them and the bedroom. Zavier blinked twice. He briefly glanced at the two pink and blonde angels, and then fixed his eyes on the dark haired girl in the center. Amelia was sitting on her bed, an empty pillow cover in her hand, her eyes wide with shock. Her hair was messy from sleep, curling in odd ways. His eyes fixed on the top button of her nightgown, straining against her unfettered chest. She blushed bright red.
â€œI had hoped a ride in the park would be a good place to discuss our future, but if youâ€™d rather settle this in your bedroom, Iâ€™d be happy to oblige.â€ His eyes slid down her body, finally returning to her face. There was enough heat in his gaze to make Serena and Marianne mumble excuses and disappear from the room. Amelia swallowed loudly.
â€œI just overslept. The girls were trying to wake me up.â€ Zavier smiled a soft sensual smile that made Ameliaâ€™s bones go soft.
â€œAnd what a wonderful job they did. You look good enough to eat.â€ Her face turned even redder, a feat that Zavier had thought impossible.
â€œIâ€¦Iâ€™llâ€¦Iâ€™ll be ready in just a moment.â€ Amelia raced for her dressing room, her breathing heavy. Zavier leaned against the bed and examined her room. It was done in shades of blue and white. Classical furniture lines and traditional linens made the room feel crisp, and yet lovely. Zavier thought it suited her well. He noticed the door to her dressing room was cracked open. He moved forward, using a mirror to spy on his bride.
Amelia was flustered, and she hated the feeling. She quickly yanked off her nightgown and reached for a plain muslin dress. She swore under her breath when she realized her washcloth and pitcher were in the main room. Sheâ€™d just have to forgo freshening up. She dressed as quickly as she could, and ran a comb through her wild hair.
Zavier was still in her room, lounging on her bed as though he belonged there. A little voice in her head reminded her that he did belong there. She swept a bonnet, gloves, and shawl from beside the door. And walked outside without acknowledging his presence. Zavier chuckled and followed.
â€œSo you want toâ€¦court me?â€ Amelia felt a strange feeling squeezing her chest. â€œLike weâ€™d never met?â€ Zavier turned the carriage down the parkâ€™s lane.
â€œI never gave you a chance to know me, and I donâ€™t know you. But we shouldnâ€™t just throw everything away without trying. If we really canâ€™t stand each other, then we can just lead separate lives. But I want you to understand me. So consider this our first outing. The way our first outing should have been.â€ There was a long silence as the carriage made a turn around the park. Amelia finally broke the silence.
â€œWell, all right. If this were really our first outing I suppose Iâ€™d ask you about yourself. How old are you? Whatâ€™s your middle name? Whatâ€™s your family like? Where do you live? How do you make your moneyâ€¦?â€ Her voice trailed off at Zavierâ€™s laughter.
â€œDonâ€™t be angry, sweetheart; I was just thinking how amazing your mind is. You seem to catalog all these facts and then spit them out later. Most women would only be interested in my title and my pocketbook. But you, you genuinely want to know about me.â€ Amelia twisted her gloves in her hand.
â€œWell, are you going to answer my questions?â€ Her voice was bit tart. Zavier chuckled.
â€œYes, I guess I am. My name is Zavier Zoisite Hamilton the third. Iâ€™m the Earl of Avon, an illustrious name handed down for generations. My mother was a Woodville, so the Marquis Chillhurst is my first cousin. My father was a good man, but fanatically jealous. My mother was a spoiled bitch who acted like an alley cat in heat.â€ Amelia sat a little straighter, unnerved by Zavierâ€™s polite, conversational tone. â€œOne night, when I was twelve, my father caught my mother in another manâ€™s bed. He shot my mother, then himself. My grandmother took care of me after that.â€ There was a long moment of silence.
â€œIâ€™m sorryâ€¦I didnâ€™tâ€¦I meanâ€¦â€ There was an awkward moment. Zavier pulled the team to a halt. He turned and faced Amelia, his eyes flat and lifeless.
â€œI just wanted you to know. I donâ€™t intend to fall in love. It killed my mother and father, and destroyed what was left of my childhood.â€ Amelia felt a tear trickle down her cheek. But she didnâ€™t speak. Zavier wiped the tear away slowly. â€œThat doesnâ€™t mean, sweetheart, that we canâ€™t be friends.â€ Amelia blinked rapidly. â€œNow, to answer your other questions. I donâ€™t have any siblings; Chillhurst is as close to a brother as Iâ€™ve ever had. My best friends include Kevin Buchanan, heâ€™s the Duke of Montrose, of course Matthew Woodville, heâ€™s the Marquis Chillhurst, soon to be Duke of Wharton. Viscount Stratford, Jareth Dudley, and the Earl of Wythe, Neville Morrison round out the list. I make my money the usual way; I own lots of land and farm it, I also have several dairies. I suppose I have you to thank for making my Avon estate extremely productive. I spend my time in London partying, because Iâ€™m rich and bored. And I like to garden, and to learn new things. And what about you, sweetheart. Do I get your life story?â€ Amelia hesitated for a moment.
â€œWell, I suppose itâ€™s only fair. My parents had an arranged marriage. My mother and father despised each other, because my mother was pretty awful and stupid, and my father was quite a philanderer. So my mother was banished to the country. I donâ€™t even know what my father looks like. I was thrown to the wolves on my eighteenth birthday to catch a husband, who would get not only his own title, but also the title of Earl of March for a second son, since there are no males to pass the title or estate. My mother is a bit crazy. I like books, and science, and every time I cook something I blow it up. I suppose thatâ€™s all there is to know. I have two good friends on the border by my fatherâ€™s estate; youâ€™ve seen my other two friends.â€ There was an odd moment, when Zavier looked into Ameliaâ€™s eyes, and she saw a hint of sympathy, but then he turned the team and headed back to the townhouse.
Amelia lifted the flowers to her nose, inhaling their sweet, subtle fragrance, and read the card again.
â€œTo Amelia, the rarest flowers I could find. May our relationship be as special. Zavier.â€ There was also an invitation to the opera, not only for herself, but Serena and Marianne. Amelia stared at the blue orchids, wondering for the hundredth time where he managed to get them from. They were waiting in the foyer when he dropped her at home. Amelia wandered through the house, ignoring the dozens of red and pink and yellow roses cluttering every available table. Serena and Marianne were definitely expanding their list of available husbands. A small unopened box on a table caught her eye. Inside was a single red rose, addressed to her, from Greg. There was no note. Ame felt a strange tingle in her hands when she touched the flower, as though it would turn out to be something bad. But she brushed it aside and strolled off to put the orchids in water and try every dress in her closet on.
Zavier straightened his cravat, and closed his ears to Jarethâ€™s whining.
â€œWhy in the world do I have to come along? I donâ€™t want to have anything to do with them.â€ Matthew snorted loudly.
â€œJareth, if you spent half as much time getting to know your sisters, or at least treating them like humans, as you do whining, this wouldnâ€™t be nearly so awful. Itâ€™s your own fault that they think youâ€™re evil incarnate.â€ Zavier smirked at the befuddled expression on Jarethâ€™s face.
â€œThey donâ€™t think Iâ€™m evil, they just think I hate them.â€ There was moment of silence.
â€œWell do you?â€ Zavier was only halfway joking. Jareth adjusted his cloak.
â€œI donâ€™t know. I thought I did. But time has a way of changing things.â€ There was another silence.
â€œIn other words, theyâ€™re grown up and beautiful instead of being whiny, spoiled brats?â€ Matthew tapped his cane on the roof of the carriage and the conveyance started forward. Jareth grumbled a bit under his breath. â€œBy the way, thank you Zavier. You do realize you managed to get me an evening with Marianne Summerton? And you also realize Iâ€™m the first gentleman in London to receive such a favor?â€ Zavier chuckled a bit.
â€œI needed escorts for the other girls so I can spend some time with my wife. So you two had better behave yourselves.â€ Mattâ€™s eyes clouded.
â€œIâ€™m not the one who carried my wife over my shoulder out of a ballroom.â€ Jareth took in a deep breath, but Zavier ignored the comment. The London air was heavy with fog and had a cold bite. The carriage rumbled over the rutted road, and finally pulled to a stop outside the second of the March estateâ€™s two town homes.
â€œSheâ€™s still staying in her fatherâ€™s second town house I see.â€ Jareth ignored Zavierâ€™s glare.
â€œShut up, and try to keep your sisters happy.â€ Jarethâ€™s glare was deadly.
â€œTheyâ€™re here!â€ Serena whirled away from the window, her mint colored dress twirling in a column of silk. Amelia resisted the urge to giggle at the excitement in the younger girlâ€™s eyes. â€œAnd Chillhurst is with them.â€ Serena uttered the last sentence on a breathy sigh. Amelia rolled her eyes and adjusted the feather in her hair.
â€œAre you sure this is a good idea, Amelia?â€ Marianne floated into the room on a cloud of pale yellow silk, rubies flashing in her ears and at her throat. Her face was drawn taunt. â€œI donâ€™t like the idea of Jareth being an escort.â€ Amelia cleared her throat.
â€œIâ€™m sure heâ€™ll behave himself. You havenâ€™t spent time with him since you two were little girls. And Iâ€™m sure he wonâ€™t be so awful now that youâ€™re grown up and beautiful.â€ Marianne snorted.
â€œThen why hasnâ€™t he called here? Or even acknowledged us at a party? Instead itâ€™s as though weâ€™re complete strangers.â€ Serena fiddled with a loose ribbon on her reticule.
â€œWell, he could have done something really awful, like cut us dead at a ball, or started rumorsâ€¦â€ Amelia stood up quickly; Serena and Marianne jumped at the sudden motion.
â€œWe donâ€™t have time to sit here discussing this. Letâ€™s head downstairs; Zavier doesnâ€™t like to be kept waiting.â€ Serena rolled her eyes, and Marianne smiled.
â€œIf he barges in here, Iâ€™ll be happy to smack him with a pillow again.â€ Serena dissolved in laughter. Amelia glared.