Sir James sent Victoria flowers every day that week.
He was not a romantic at heart, and he could already see that she did not yearn for the small gestures that came with courtship such as chocolates and love letters as most women did, yet he felt that he should try to retain a small amount of normalcy as he proceeded in this relationship. For the sake of their acceptance together in public, for the sanity of her family, for the approval of her friends. Without performing the commonplace motions of wooing as expected by society, he knew that he would undoubtedly cause rumor of a scandal to arise.
And it was not that Sir James feared what the vine of gossipers would say; he had been the fodder for their vicious sagas many times. But Victoria was young, and though bold and fearless, she had very little experience in dealing with public disgrace. If it was known that a young lady had allowed a man twenty years her senior to very rapidly pursue her, a man known for parading woman after woman around with him to various events, who had no reputation of keeping whom he courted, they would both be scorned and rejected in society.
He would have to employ the help of his friends to change the whispers of his courtship to Victoria, when the time came. They were well established in the right circles, and knew what to say to whom to sway the rumors in his favor. It amused them to watch his affairs, to see how bored he was with the women who swooned around him, trying to gain his attention. A few of them had bets on how long each relationship would last.
They would be very surprised to know that he intended to keep Victoria. She fascinated him with her boldness, her intelligence, her refusal to be the lady that everyone expected her to be. She was the only woman he had ever met whom he felt was his equal. It was both refreshing and exciting to meet a woman who did not hide her motives. Honesty was a rare gem in his world.
The morning of the dinner, he sat at the breakfast table in deep contemplation; the beauty of the brightening day outside was lost to him, though he stared at it thoughtfully. His mind did not stop to appreciate the clinging of dew to his roses, nor the song of a lark passing by, nor the rays of sun casting a rainbow on the tablecloth. He did not even feel the sullen glare of his mother as she swept into the room, a tower of black thunder.
When she spoke, it was with stern disapproval. "I don't agree with your choice, James. Do you really think this young girl is after you simply for love?" Eudora Mae Bellamy did not hide her opinion of anything. A striking but not beautiful widow, she stood taller than most women, intimidating with her jet hair and strong, aquiline features.
"No, Mother." James lifted his eyes to Eudora's, shaking his head. "I don't think she wants me for love." He smiled slightly. "In fact, I know so. My assumption would be that she desires my money, as does every other woman in the county."
The corners of Eudora's full lips turned down minutely. "Then why court her?" Her dark gaze was scornful. "The thrill of a beautiful woman waiting breathlessly for your every word?"
He chuckled. "If Victoria Cunningham ever waits breathlessly for my words, the world will have indeed changed. No." With a satisfied sigh, he sipped his tea. "Victoria interests me, Mother. She's unusually frank for a woman of her age and station."
"She sounds like the little sluts your brother used to bring home," Eudora muttered darkly.
Raising an eyebrow at his mother's tense words, James held back his amusement. "Does she? Well. Owen always had fun with his women." The words were flippant; had he been any younger, he might have been afraid of the fierce glare of his mother. But he knew that his mother's dislike of Victoria had nothing to do with Victoria, nor with his brother, nor with anything he himself was doing.
Eudora Bellamy was afraid.
She was afraid of losing yet another son to a woman. Afraid of losing what little control she had over the household and over her remaining child. Afraid of becoming redundant, of becoming unwanted, of becoming forgotten. Another strong-minded woman in the house might destroy her, and she knew it. Though staunch and tenacious in appearance and voice, Eudora was lost within, and had been since the day her husband died.
Gently, James reached over and patted his mother's hand. "She'll be of use to this family, Mother."
Eudora slid her hand away from her son's and buttered her toast. Her lips were firmly set, her chin lifted stubbornly, her shoulders pulled back with a proper haughtiness. "What use could a little strumpet such as she have to us, outside of the obvious benefits coming to you?"
Ignoring the insinuation that he was only courting Victoria for what went on inside the bedroom, James finished his tea and stood. "Her grandfather is an Earl."
"What?" Eudora stared at him in shock. "Her father was a common merchant!"
"Disowned." James stood at the window and stared into his gardens. "For the marriage to her mother." It was going to be a pleasant day; there was not a cloud in the sky, which promised a mild evening. Perhaps a jaunt in the maze could be persuaded after dinner, provided it did not rain suddenly.
"Then what good will that do us? If her father was disowned, she'll not get a thing. Especially not with that philanderer of a stepfather spending all the money they have." Eudora's voice was scornful.
Turning to her, James shook his head. "There you are wrong, Mother. Very few people know of Victoria's grandfather, and even fewer that when he dies, everything he has will pass directly to her."
"How do you know this?" Eudora asked skeptically.
James only smiled. "I have my ways, Mother."
In fact, he knew the once-lover of Udolpho Cunningham. An opera singer who had long since been retired and forgotten, who was invited to the dinner tonight, and who, if Eudora ever knew her status, would promptly be turned out by his mother. Eudora turned a blind eye to her son's affairs, but rejected any female who was even remotely suspected of adultery.
"Still." Eudora returned to her disdainful state. "No matter her eventual status in society. I don't like it, and I will not lower myself to like her."
"You've not even met her," James reminded her.
"No," Eudora sniffed. "But any young woman who allows a man to court her with such swift ardor cannot be a gentlewoman. I would not be surprised if she were to offer you everything tonight, when your guests are gone." Her voice was instilled with a heavy sneer.
With the most deliberate movement, James leaned over the table, forcing his mother to meet his gaze. "Regardless of your opinion, Mother, she is coming." He was no longer amused by his mother's stubbornness, and his voice had taken on a dangerous edge. "I am going to entertain her at dinner, I am going to court her in the following weeks, and then- if she is willing- I am going to marry her." At the look of protest, he continued. "And whether or not you approve of Victoria, you will treat her with respect and you will not reject her from your company. Understood?"
Eudora said nothing. Her chin remained haughtily cocked, but her eyes had dropped to the table. It was apparent by her sudden backing down; she knew that she had pushed too far.
"And lest you forget, if I am unhappy with your conduct this evening or in any of the following weeks, I can and I will cut off your allowance and confine you to your rooms indefinitely." Finished, he went around the table and kissed his mother's cheek. "Good morning, Mother. I will see you this evening." His hand on her shoulder was firm. "On your best behavior."
Victoria had never been more nervous than she was the evening of the dinner, stepping out of the carriage and onto the gravel drive before Blackthorne Manor. Her stomach had tightened into an almost painful knot, and she stood for just a moment to calm herself, smoothing her hands over the intricately embroidered blue skirt of her dress. Though she knew that her appearance was impeccable, she still stalled, afraid of what Sir James and his friends might think of her.
The mansion was lit up with a thousand lights, or so it seemed; each window sparkled with life and color against the dusky gray of the sunset sky. She could hear a husky laugh coming from within, and her heart fluttered. What conversations would be had tonight? What secrets might she learn? Who would laugh at her wit, and who would disapprove of her intelligent sarcasm? With everything she had, she begged God to keep her from making a complete fool of herself.
It was only at the gentle murmur of the footman that she went forward to the door, where the butler waited with a stoic expression only cracked by the curiosity in his eyes. As he escorted her in, he stole one swift glance of her, taking in the diamond and sapphires around her neck, the sultry pile of her golden hair, and the daring show of skin about her shoulders. He seemed to approve.
Would Sir James? Would his friends?
Straightening her posture, Victoria lifted her chin and arranged her features into a soft smile. It does not matter what they think at first, she reminded herself as she followed the butler over the inlaid foyer tile and towards a partly cracked door. They will like me before the evening is over. It was determination more than confidence that instilled her with this reassurance.
"Miss Victoria Cunningham," the butler announced to the room as he opened the door.
For one moment, Victoria was invisible to those within and they to her as she paused behind the butler, gathering all the courage she had, remembering every vow she'd made and every wish she'd prayed, and then she stepped forth.
Whether the silence that followed was admiration, surprise, or curiosity at her presence, she could only tell by glancing swiftly about the room. Ten unfamiliar faces stared at her just as she stared at them, expressions holding expressions of jealousy, eagerness, interest, and haughtiness. For one breathless moment, it seemed as though they swirled around before her, as faces from a nightmare. The entire room swayed, and Victoria wanted to run.
But pride would never let her run, and Sir James stepped forward, as dashing and full of masculine beauty as ever. "My dear." He took her arm, kissed her cheek, and turned to the room. "May I introduce the object of my admiration to you all? And most especially to my mother, Eudora Bellamy."
He led her to a woman who resembled him not only in features, but in height. The woman stood taller even than Victoria, who generally rose above most of her sex. As Victoria met the dark eyes, she knew that James's mother was already predisposed to dislike her; the tightening of full yet sullen lips and the clenching of a jaw that was a little too square to be attractive revealed that. Yet, she extended her hand with cordiality.
Victoria took her stiff fingers. "It is an honor to be welcomed into your house, ma'am."
Her greeting was met with a cold smile. "And I welcome you with open arms." It was said with a slightly cautious flick of the smoldering gaze to Sir James.
Cataloguing the action in her mind, Victoria made a note to investigate the undertone of strife that fluttered through Eudora's face as Sir James announced that they would eat dinner before it got cold, and afterward all other introductions could be made.
"You look lovely, my dear," Sir James whispered into her ear as he offered her his arm and led the way to the dining room. "I hope the position of center stage will not be too overwhelming for you."
Concentrating on her beau and not the whispers she could hear behind her, Victoria glanced up at him. "I think I will manage quite adequately. It's not the first time I have been the only person no one knows."
"I can imagine not." He pulled out her chair. As she was seated, he bent, lips just brushing her ear. "I have complete faith that you will enchant them almost as well as you have already enchanted me."
She could not help but blush at his words. There was not one iota of romance in her thoughts, but compliments from attractive men such as Sir James were difficult to receive coolly. Glancing around the table, she saw that Eudora, seated at the end of the table opposite Sir James, was barely holding back a sullen glare that dampened Victoria's excitement considerably. It would take some work to win his mother's approval.
No one else seemed to have noticed the exchange between Victoria and Sir James, nor the tense few seconds that Victoria had held Eudora's gaze. Across from her, a plump, stately woman was saying something in low and dusky tones to the man beside her, and he seemed much more interested in Eudora Bellamy than he did the aging but beautiful blonde who spoke to him. A love triangle, perhaps? Victoria studied the two for a moment as the first course was served.
But the man, who was gray-haired and seemingly jovial, soon started to pay more attention to the blonde woman, and she in turn became more flirtatious.
"I've never known James to under-exaggerate any certain detail until this very moment," the words were said in a pleasingly husky voice by the gentleman who sat at her right hand.
Victoria turned to see herself being studied by an aquiline-featured man, with round glasses resting before his cynical blue eyes, dark hair, and an indeterminate age. The faint scent of something she could not identify seemed to cling to his worn jacket.
Before she could respond, he continued. "Hugh Collingwood, my dear, very pleased to finally meet a woman who has exceeded my imaginations." He was a pleasing man in both manner and appearance; not dashingly handsome nor charming as Sir James, but affable and interesting to behold.
"The evening is yet young and you have thus only looked at me." Victoria felt an affinity with him already, and she returned his smile. "I may disappoint you soon in conversation."
"Well, that I doubt. James rarely praises any woman for any feature or trait, yet he has spoken nothing but good of you thus far. I expect you are as proficient in conversation as you are beautiful of face and form." Leaning away from her just slightly, he studied her unabashedly and coughed a little. "Have you ever sat for a portrait?"
From across the table, a heavily scarred and thick-lipped man grunted, "You'd manage to muddle that beauty even if you were to copy it exactly, Collingwood." He was dark and heavy, not muscular yet nor was he slovenly. There was a general unkemptness about his appearance, even with the neatness of his collar and the combed state of his hair.
"I think an iota of her fairness would be preserved so long as you didn't write about it, Wortham," Hugh returned sharply. There was an air of dislike between them, and the man called Wortham returned abruptly to his soup, ignoring Hugh's reply.
"Who is he?" Victoria inquired curiously. Wortham's continual glower did not lighten for anyone.
Hugh sighed distastefully. "Uriah Wortham." He said the name as though spitting out a bitter tonic. "As you have most likely observed, there is no love between us."
Victoria held back her smirk. "Why?"
"He thinks my art is crap, if you'll excuse the word." Hugh adjusted his glasses and did not taste his food.
"You're an artist?" His almost rude perusal of her person moments before made much more sense to Victoria now.
The sullenness left his gaze. "Yes. I paint, I sketch, I draw beauty to… preserve it." With a secretive smirk, he leaned closer to her. "And it gives me full leave to gaze for hours upon the fair visages of the prettier sex without being questioned for my audacity."
Victoria chuckled. "I see. And do you sell your portraits?"
"To those who have commissioned for them, of course." Hugh tilted his head. "Sadly, my personal art holds no interest to the general public. My last gallery failed horribly." He said it with a hint of self-deprecating amusement. "But a portrait of you, rare and enchantingly beautiful as you are, might be my ticket to fame, eh?"
Victoria was not as shy of his compliments as she was of Sir James's, and she received the flattery with only a smile. "Perhaps it would."
"How would you paint her?" Sir James leaned into the conversation with curiosity. "You, with your fanciful mind, will no doubt portray her as something other than the obvious."
Hugh nodded thoughtfully, and his expression took on a slight deviousness. "Venus rising?"
"That would certainly cause a scandal!" Victoria said with a laugh.
Sir James looked over her, the silent knowledge always present in his gaze. "Yet you would perform so admirably and be portrayed with such beauty that people would love you for it."
"Not my mother," Victoria countered. "Then again, there is little I can do to please her presently." She lifted her chin. "And I feel no need to amend that."
"Then we shall portrait you as Venus, cause a roaring scandal, feed the rumors that we are secretly having an affair, and have the whole county buzzing with gossip." Hugh raised an eyebrow, look giving away that none of his words were serious.
Sir James smiled at his friend. "That would certainly work in my favor, when the time comes for society to accept my courtship of Victoria. After such an event as that, we should look quite normal."
Eyes locked on Victoria, Hugh smirked, but there was something unsettling in his gaze. "Anything I can do to help," he replied to Sir James, yet Victoria had the feeling that he was addressing her with his words, and that somehow it was a warning as well as an offer.
For the rest of the dinner, Victoria only spoke when asked a question. There were so many different conversations going on around the table, and so much information flying about to be snatched, stored, and saved for later study. The stately woman across from her was a retired opera singer named Amelia Steele, and the object of her flirtation was Rufus Tupper, a lawyer. Beside him sat a strange woman dressed in black, whose face was covered with a short gauze veil and whose seemingly exact replica sat on the opposite side of the table; these two did not speak much, but seemed to communicate only with each other by the nodding of heads and slight gestures of the hand.
They were twins, Hugh informed her; Geneva and Nettie York, old family friends and decidedly odd. Uriah sat by Geneva across the table, and beside Nettie, who was on the other side of Hugh, was a young man named Wesley Kemp. He was Sir James's cousin and apparently had come to be exposed to high society. The only things that were not decidedly plain about his boyish features were his great, dark eyes, which exposed his eagerness to please and gave off a pleasant but almost too innocent aura.
A shy, exotically featured woman sat beside Wesley at the end of the table; she spoke only to the man across from her in a language foreign to Victoria. She was Portuguese, and the man she addressed was her husband. Perry and Sabina Rowland had met and fallen in love despite the fact that neither spoke the other's language, and if it hadn't been for Sir James, they might never have been allowed to marry.
The company was almost too diverse to mix, yet conversation flowed freely and the camaraderie was only broken by the occasional jab between Hugh and Uriah. No one seemed to mind the animosity they displayed for each other; in fact, it was the subject of much laughter. Even Hugh took some amount of amusement in the sharp words that should have stung his heart, and only Uriah seemed truly embittered by their exchanges.
Through it all, Victoria listened and catalogued as much information as she could gather from the multiple conversations. She noticed that Sir James played the pivotal role of the room; whatever he suggested was wholeheartedly discussed, and wherever he directed the conversation, it went. He was charming, succinct, and witty. Yet there was also an undertone of something darker; Victoria could see a respect given him that did not seem to be there for his station, but out of necessity.
What was it about him that possessed everyone there with a sense of caution? Everyone, that was, except Hugh, who seemed to have no fear of what the company might think of him. He stated his opinion carelessly, and received all arguments or censure with an amused raise of his brow and a sarcastic reply. There was a connection between him and Sir James that revealed the strength of their friendship above all the others.
Much to Victoria's satisfaction, she was paired with him after dinner as the company trouped outside in the moonlight to wander through the maze. Sir James cast an eye of approval over them as he disappeared with his mother, and the others did not seem to notice that she wasn't walking with her beau.
Her curiosity about Hugh Collingwood had grown throughout dinner; he was a very unique man, and there was something about him that she could not quite decipher. A walk through the maze would give her just enough privacy to probe for information without causing gossip to rise up.
"How long have you known Sir James, Mr. Collingwood?" She let him guide her through the dark maw of the maze's opening, noting the possessive warmth of his hand on her back.
"Longer than you have been alive, my dear." Hugh tilted his head and listened to the laughter of the others as they stumbled through various aisles.
"How did you meet?" Victoria pulled her wrap up around her shoulders; the evening was just becoming chilly, but the soft nip in the air was refreshing.
Contemplating for a moment, Hugh coughed in the clear night and smiled. "Well, I believe we were properly introduced at the coming out ball of a family friend's daughter. And when I say 'properly introduced,' I do mean that we shared an interest in wine and gambling which brought us to the same table in a state of friendly competition." He spoke with a particular rapidity and rubbed his forehead. "And from that night on, we became very good friends."
They took a right turn, through towering and perfectly manicured bushes; in the silver of the moonlight, the sharp planes of Hugh's face were thrown into shadows, sculpting out his cheekbones and throwing a ghastly beauty over him. He was tall and almost too lean; his limbs were graceful yet harsh in the darkness.
"Although I believe at first James's feelings of camaraderie had to do with my status in society." His amusement was not lost on Victoria.
She frowned. "Your status?"
"Yes." He glanced at her, smirk reaching his eyes. "I am a baron." He did not pause to gauge her reaction. "Ruined, of course. Completely penniless now. But in those days, I had money enough, and I was well-liked in any social circle." He chuckled. "They do not think so much of me now." He said it with self-deprecation and not an ounce of self-pity.
Victoria did not quite know what to say. "I'm… sorry." It was not propitious to ask, but she had the feeling that she could say whatever she wanted to Hugh and he would not mind. "What happened?"
He gestured carelessly with one hand. "I was young, free, and stupid." The husky tone gave way to another cough, this one stronger than the last.
"Are you alright?" Victoria asked as he pulled a handkerchief out to block his mouth.
"Yes, yes." He waved off her concern and tucked the 'kerchief back into his sleeve. "It's nothing. Just the… chill of the evening."
"Shall we go inside?" she offered. His hands were shaking.
With a reassuring smile, he held out his arm towards another corner. "If we can first find our way out."
"Well." Victoria rounded the bush and cast her gaze over the tops of the maze towards the mansion. "I suppose if we simply follow the path towards the house, we'll find our way."
"A sound assumption." Hugh allowed her to lead them through the twists and turns in silence; he seemed suddenly preoccupied, contemplative, and distracted. At times Victoria thought she had lost him behind her, so silent was he, but whenever she turned, she found him following along as solemn and pale as a ghost.
Just before she emerged from the maze, he caught her arm. His breathing was deep and deliberate, but his speech was hesitant. "You seem like an intelligent woman, Victoria." His eyes darted furtively into the darkness behind her, and then he shook his head. "I would be sorry to see you beguiled by Sir James's charm, as I was."
Victoria opened her mouth, but at that moment she heard Sir James speak.
"There you are!" A possessive hand slid around her arm, and her beau was at her side, expression pleased. She did not know if he had heard Hugh's words to her. "Come inside, both of you. They've begun a game of whist, and the mulled wine is ready to be tasted." As always, his invitation was a subtle order.
Allowing herself to be led away, Victoria felt trepidation. What had Hugh meant? She certainly would not be put under a spell, if that was his worry. She was even more aware of any guise Sir James might possess now that she knew just how persuasive he could be. As she went with him, she glanced back to see him standing there with an air of defeat; his shoulders hunched over and his chin dropped down as he watched them walk inside.
He was an anomaly in her plan, giving her a warning she had not expected, throwing a sense of nervousness into her that was not characteristic of her boldness.
And for the first time in her life, Victoria felt doubt.