The Gathering Storm (The Jacobite Chronicles Book 3)(8)

By: Julia Brannan

Daniel’s father.

It seemed, Isabella gushed, delighted at being able to count such a distinguished name amongst her guests, that the earl had arrived in London only yesterday, but had kindly agreed to make up the numbers. The party was informal, and Beth had already decided to seat herself between Caroline and Anthony, and opposite Edwin, if possible. Or some similar arrangement. She whispered as much to Caroline, and made sure she was in their company, firmly glued to her husband’s side for the pre-dinner drink in the salon.

“Oh, Sir Anthony!” exclaimed Anne Maynard, materialising from nowhere at his side, and laying her hand shyly on his arm. “I cannot tell you how happy I am that you and your dear wife are reconciled! I must confess I felt partly responsible for your separation, having foolishly divulged that you had challenged Monsieur Monselle.” Her brown eyes were genuinely pleased and embarrassed, as they passed from Beth to Anthony. He patted her arm.

“Nonsense, my dear Anne!” he trilled. “It was nothing more than a misunderstanding. Beth and I were never separated. We had a slight disagreement before the duel, that is all. She merely returned home early to conduct some business for me in Manchester. I joined her as soon as I was able. People will misconstrue the most innocent actions,” he added, glancing at Lady Winter, who refused to meet his eye. She, after all, had been the main promulgator of the rumour that Beth had had an affair with King Louis and that the marriage was over.

The bell rang for dinner, and all Beth’s hopes were overturned in an instant, as her husband carefully tucked Anne’s hand under his elbow and led her into the dining room, leaving Beth unchaperoned. It appeared merely thoughtless of him, but it wasn’t, Beth was sure, and was puzzled. Edwin was about to come to the rescue by offering her his spare arm, when a hand descended lightly on her shoulder.

“If I may have the honour?” the earl said. Reluctantly Beth surrendered her arm to him, and Caroline and Edwin walked ahead, Caroline casting a sympathetic glance over her shoulder at her friend as they went.

They were the last to enter the dining room, and just as they were about to cross the threshold, the earl held back, forcing Beth to halt as well.

“May I have a brief word, before we go in?” he said, to Beth’s surprise. She had intended to politely avoid him all evening, as far as that was possible at such a small gathering, and had expected him to do the same. Instead he seemed to be set on the opposite course of action. She nodded her head in acquiescence and waited for him to speak.

“I would just like to say that I was utterly appalled by the conduct of my profligate wastrel of a son with regard to yourself. His behaviour was despicable and inexcusable.”

“Yes, it was,” said Beth, impressed by his bluntness, and returning it. “But he is a grown man, my lord, and should make his own apologies.”

“Indeed he should, but will not. I wish therefore to apologise for him, as I must assume some responsibility for how he has turned out, being his father.”

“Children are influenced, but not wholly made by their parents,” she replied, thinking of Richard. “When they are adults they must take responsibility for their own actions. But I will admit, I did feel a little awkward tonight and your apology has put me at ease. Thank you.”

They entered the dining room.

“I would also like to say that I feel you have made a far wiser choice in taking Anthony to husband than Daniel. He is a quite remarkable man,” the earl continued.

“Do you know Anthony well, my lord?” Beth asked. Her husband had never mentioned the earl as being a particular friend of his.

“I would go so far as to say that I know him better than most people, your good self excepted, of course,” he replied, leading her to the only two vacant seats left, near the top of the table, where the highest ranking guest would be expected to sit.

The first course arrived, a mutton broth, and, as is the case at most dinner parties, the conversation began, hesitantly at first, and then more enthusiastically as the half-eaten soup was removed and the second course of roast beef was served. Glasses tinkled, wine, thankfully of good quality, was poured, cutlery clattered, and the earl listened with amusement as Beth gave detailed replies to Lady Wilhelmina’s carefully probing questions about her sudden return to England and subsequent time in Manchester, without revealing anything of moment at all, to that lady’s frustration. The noise level grew. Lord Winter, having listened to Sir Anthony extolling the virtues of Manchester, began to expound, tactlessly and at length, about the merits of the southern towns of England over the north. Edwin and Thomas Fortesque, both MPs, seemed to be continuing a debate begun earlier that day in Parliament, and Anne and the Cunningham sisters were happily discussing curtain material, Lydia reluctantly joining them.

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