Excerpt from The Jilting of Lord Rothwick
8 February 1840
Two o’clock in the afternoon
The rain, two degrees from sleet, beat down with unrelenting fury. It reduced the rolling landscape to a grey blur, and turned the graveled driveway into a river.
Hugh Fitzwalter, the third Marquess of Rothwick, slammed the door knocker again. Findley’s staff had picked a fine time to go deaf.
After a fifty-mile ride from London, the frigid wet had penetrated his lordship’s overcoat and was working its way through the coat underneath. It seeped into his boots and dripped icily from his hat, down his neck, and into his neckcloth.
The door opened at last, and the wind and rain rushed in, spraying the butler, Freets. In a better frame of mind, Rothwick would have found the man’s expression comical. His lordship was not in a better frame of mind.
After one wild look at the broad-shouldered figure on the doorstep, Freets collected his wits and backed out of the way. “I do beg your pardon, my lord,” he said. “I’ll have someone see to your lordship’s horse. I hope your lordship has not waited long.”
“No more than a quarter hour,” Rothwick growled.
The butler’s face went white then red, and his eyes widened in terror.
Rothwick, who often had this effect on servants and, sometimes, his relatives, took no notice of the butler’s panic but stomped in, leaving a trail of muddy puddles behind him on the marble floor. A footman hovering nearby hurried to him. The marquess took off his dripping hat, peeled off his saturated gloves, allowed the servant to relieve him of the sopping overcoat, and turned the entire sodden mess over to him.
Rothwick wondered where they’d been, not to hear his knock. True, no one would expect visitors on this miserable day. Given the rain’s ferocity, he doubted anyone would have seen him coming even if they’d happened to look out of the window. Had the rain drowned out his knocking as well?
Or perhaps, he thought grimly, a family emergency had the staff all running frantically about the place. He could picture Mrs. Findley in hysterics, and Findley waving his fist in impotent wrath—a state to which his family often reduced him.
“I wish to see Miss Findley,” Rothwick said, advancing into the entrance hall to the chimneypiece, where a fire blazed. The Findleys heated every room of the house, whether it was in use or not. That was one luxury he could not afford. One of many.
The butler hurried after him. “Miss Findley, my lord?”
Rothwick caught the panicked look the butler shot at one of the doors. Down that corridor lay the library. Given the thick walls and the pounding rain, it was hard to be sure, but the marquess thought he detected the sound of voices raised in argument.
“Is that not what I said?”
“Y-yes, my lord.”
“You will not tell me Miss Findley isn’t at home. She can’t have gone out in this filthy weather.”
“No, indeed, my lord, but—but . . . I do apologize, my lord, but the family is not receiving—” He broke off as a young man hurried in though the door Freets was so uneasy about.
Fourteen-year-old Philip stopped abruptly when he caught sight of the visitor, and his green eyes—so like Barbara’s—widened. “Lord Rothwick!”
“Kindly inform your sister,” Rothwick said in his haughtiest drawl, “that I wish to speak to her. Privately.”
Philip turned and ran back through the door. Begging his lordship’s pardon, Freets followed the boy at a slightly more dignified pace.
Though the quarreling seemed to have increased in volume in the last minute, the voices were still muffled. Rothwick couldn’t hear, precisely, what the row was about, but he could guess.
He’d been right, then. Those servants who weren’t fetching and carrying for the palpitating Mrs. Findley must have been eavesdropping with all their might. Small wonder the door had been left unattended.
Small wonder in this household, at any rate.
In exactly the time it would have taken Philip to reach the room and relay the message, a sudden dead silence fell.
Rothwick held his numb hands to the fire and stared into the glowing embers, resolutely ignoring the hurried pounding of his heart.
This couldn’t happen.
He wouldn’t let it happen.
An eternity passed.
Freets returned. “If it pleases your lordship, Mr. Findley sends his apologies for keeping you waiting, and Miss Findley will see your lordship in the south parlor.”
Barbara Findley closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out. She needed more than one deep breath, but the footman Joseph pulled open the south parlor door before she had time for another.
Her coiffure, she knew, was not elegant. Between Mama falling into hysterics and Papa on the brink of apoplexy and even Philip sulky and reproachful, she’d wanted to tear her hair out. She’d only dislodged some pins, but that was enough. Now it must look like a copper-colored rat’s nest.
But never mind.
Rothwick didn’t want her for her looks, such as they were. He’d noticed her appearance only enough, she supposed, to be relieved she wasn’t utterly hideous. Not that it would have stopped him had she resembled a toad.
She managed to hold her head high, but the instant she saw the tall form across the room, she forgot decorum and poise and pride and flew into the parlor like the silly, eager girl she hadn’t been since she was Philip’s age.
Rothwick had his back turned to the door, and his hands held out toward the parlor fire, and for an instant, that human act of warming himself at the fire made him seem vulnerable, for all his great size and great rank. She was taking in the tendrils of dark hair clinging to the back of his neck and the damp patches on the shoulders of his beautiful wool coat when he turned, hearing her footstep, and she saw the weary lines etched in his face.
“Oh, Rothwick, you’re wet through,” she cried. “What possessed you to come out on such a day? All the way from London—on horseback, no less, Freets says—and in this wretched weather.”
“Why the devil do you think I came?” He withdrew from an inner pocket of his waistcoat a letter. “This,” he said. “I thought I might at least obtain the courtesy of an explanation.”
The letter he held up was still folded the way she’d folded it, though it bore a great many creases now. He must have crumpled it and smoothed it out repeatedly.
Why hadn’t he thrown it into the fire? Why did he have to come and wave it in her face?
She lifted her chin. She would not let him intimidate her. She’d never done so before, and now was not the time to start. “Did I not explain sufficiently?” she said.
“We shall not suit?” he said. “That’s your explanation? That’s the sort of mealy-mouthed excuse one gives the world—not the man one has agreed to marry. Was I not entitled to more than three sentences?”
“I beg your pardon, my lord,” she said. “I had understood that one didn’t lay blame or fault or make excuses in such letters—”
“You understood wrong,” he said. “This is a pathetic excuse for a rejection. Do you hate me?”
How I wish I did.
“There are a great many man I don’t hate,” she said. “That doesn’t mean I want to marry them.”
He dismissed all the other men—and there had been scores of them—with a wave of his hand. “You said yes to me.”
“I changed my mind.”
“I realized we didn’t suit.”
Because my heart pounds when you enter a room, and my knees melt when you touch my hand or push a strand of hair from my face, and I think I’ll die of excitement and happiness when we dance . . .
. . . and it isn’t that way for you.
“We’ll never suit,” she said. “We come from altogether different worlds—”
“You knew that when I began courting you,” he said.
“We have nothing in common,” she said.
“And it took you nine weeks to discover this?” he said.
He had courted her for nine weeks and four days.
“Is that why you’ve come?”she said. “Is that what troubles you? You’re annoyed because it took me so long to know my own mind?”
“Damnation, Barbara, you know my situation is dire,” he said. “I’ve made no secret of it.”
“I know all too well,” she said. He was by no means the first impecunious gentleman who’d come calling. She’d had no trouble rejecting any of the others. But he, the most desperate of them all—and the least conciliatory—had stolen her heart. Or run over it like the human locomotive he was. “I’m sorry. But you never gave me time to think. You were always there.”
His gaze shot to hers and held it, challenging her, as he always did. “Of course I was always there. The competition was ferocious.”
“The competition for my fortune.”
“You’ve a dowry of two hundred thousand pounds,” he said. “If you think no man takes that into consideration—no man, that is, past the age of puppyish blind devotion—”
“I should never accuse you of blind devotion, my lord.”
“If you want me to tell you I would have courted you even had you been penniless, I’m sorry to shatter your girlish dreams,” he said. “I can’t afford sentiment. I thought you understood I wasn’t in a position to let my heart dictate to my head.”
And if you had been in such a position?
But she knew the answer to that one. He would never have come near Miss Findley of Little Etford had his father not died six months ago and left him stupendously deep in debt.
“I did understand,” she said. “And I won’t pretend I saw no advantages to myself from the connection. Prestige for my family. Advancement for Philip in whatever profession he chose. And you were so assiduous in your courting.” He had laid siege to her heart, as his ancestors had once upon a time laid siege to the castles and lands they wanted. “Then there were Mama and Papa, so strongly in your favor. Between your wooing and their pointing out your numerous perfections, you seemed to be there, every waking minute. And you can be overwhelming, my lord.”
Overwhelming in every way. Not simply his manner, the absolute self-assurance of an aristocrat of ancient pedigree. There was his personality, so compelling that he made everyone else about him seem like figures in a mist. There was as well the rampant masculinity, in the way he spoke, the way he moved . . . and they way he looked. He was tall and powerfully built, with nothing soft about him, in physique or features. His face was by no means conventionally handsome. His features were too strong: the sharp angles of cheekbones and jaw, the bold, patrician nose, the hard mouth and mocking eyes.
The combination, for her, had proved nothing short of devastating.
“Don’t be absurd,” he said. “Nothing overwhelms you.”
“So I flattered myself,” she said. “But since you returned to London—”
“—to prepare for our wedding—”
“—and reconcile the queen to your marrying the daughter of a man of commerce—”
“Her Majesty doesn’t give a damn who I marry,” he said. “She’s too starry-eyed over her beautiful Albert.”
The Queen of England would be marrying for love.
And Barbara Findley, an ordinary mortal whose grandfather had been an innkeeper, could not.
“The point is, your personality is so forceful that one is swept along in your wake,” she said. “And so I couldn’t think clearly until you were gone. And then I thought about all the advantages . . . but it wasn’t . . . enough. I realized I couldn’t be happy.”
He stared at her for a moment, his dark eyes telling her nothing. Then he let out a sigh. “I see,” he said.
“Do you?” she said.
“Yes, of course.”