Home > A Lady's Guide to Scandal

A Lady's Guide to Scandal
Author: Sophie Irwin







Come now, Eliza, surely you can manage one tear?” Mrs. Balfour whispered to her daughter. “It is expected from the widow!”

   Eliza nodded, though her eyes remained as dry as ever. However many years she had spent playing the part of obedient daughter and dutiful wife, weeping upon command was still beyond her.

   “Recollect that we may have a fight on our hands today,” Mrs. Balfour hissed, sending a meaningful glance across the library to where the late Earl of Somerset’s relations sat. Nine months after the funeral procession, they had all gathered again at Harefield Hall for the reading of the will, and from the frosty glances being sent their way, it seemed Mrs. Balfour was not the only one preparing for battle.

   “Eliza’s jointure was agreed in the marriage settlement: five hundred pounds a year,” Mr. Balfour reassured his wife in a whisper. “Somerset has no reason to dispute that; it’s the veriest fragment of the estate.”

   He spoke with bitterness, for neither he nor Mrs. Balfour had fully reconciled themselves to Eliza’s severely changed circumstances. A decade ago, the marriage of timid, seventeen-year-old Miss Eliza Balfour to the austere Earl of Somerset—five and twenty years her senior—had been the match of the Season, and the Balfours had reaped its rewards quite comprehensively. Within a year of the wedding, their eldest son had married an heiress, their second had been secured a captaincy in the 10th Foot, and Balfour House had been recarpeted entirely in cut-velvet.

   But no one had expected the earl, with so strong a constitution, to succumb so quickly to an inflammation of the lungs last spring. And now, widowed at seven and twenty years, and without a child to inherit the title, Eliza’s position was far less desirable. Five hundred pounds a year . . . Persons could and did live on far less, but on this subject Eliza agreed with her father. Ten years of marriage to a man who had shown more affection to his horses than his wife, ten years of near isolation in the cold, forbidding Harefield Hall, ten years of yearning for the life she might have had, if only circumstances had been a little different . . . Given exactly what—given exactly who—Eliza had been forced to give up, five hundred pounds a year felt a pittance.

   “Had she only given him a son . . .” Mr. Balfour bemoaned, for perhaps the fifth time.

   “She tried!” Mrs. Balfour snapped.

   Eliza bit her tongue, hard. Miss Margaret Balfour—Eliza’s cousin—pressed her hand under the table, and the clock struck half past twelve. They had now been waiting half an hour for the new earl, whose presence would allow the reading to begin. Eliza’s stomach clenched in anticipation. Surely—surely—he would arrive soon.

   “Disgraceful,” Mrs. Balfour muttered, her face still fixed in placid, smiling repose. “Nine months late already, and late today, too. Is it not disgraceful, Eliza?”

   “Yes, Mama,” Eliza said automatically. It was always easiest to agree, though the unnatural delay was truthfully the fault of the old earl, not the new. For it was the old earl who had stipulated his will not be read until all parties named within it were assembled. Since the new Earl of Somerset—Eliza’s husband’s nephew, previously the heir presumptive Captain Courtenay—had been stationed in the West Indies when his uncle died last April, and since sailing conditions in ’18 had been unprecedentedly slow, his delayed return was understandable. Torturous, but understandable.

   All assembled in the library had already been waiting many months and the lateness of the hour today was taking its toll: the Honorable Mrs. Courtenay (sister-in-law to the old earl, mother to the new) had her eyes fixed on the door, her daughter Lady Selwyn was tapping her fingers impatiently, while Lord Selwyn sought to soothe his own nerves by regaling the room with various tales of his own superiority.

   “And I said to him: Byron, old boy, you simply must write the thing!”

   Beside him, at the center of the room, the Somerset attorney, Mr. Walcot, shuffled and reshuffled his papers with a pained smile. Everyone was impatient, but of all of them, surely none more so than Eliza, who felt—with every tick of the grandfather clock—her nerves reach new, dangerous heights. After ten years—ten long years—today she would see him again. It did not feel real.

   He might still not come. A lifetime of disappointments had taught her the virtue of preparing for the worst: perhaps he had mistaken the date, or perhaps his carriage had suffered an awful crash, or perhaps he had decided to return to the West Indies rather than have to see her again. It was unlike him to be late, he had always been so punctual. Or, at least, the gentleman Eliza had once known was punctual. Perhaps he had changed.

   Finally, however, as the clock struck quarter to the hour, the door opened.

   “The Right Honorable, the Earl of Somerset,” Perkins, their butler, announced.

   “My sincere apologies for the lateness of the hour,” the new Lord Somerset said, stepping into the room. “The rain has made the roads treacherous . . .”

   Eliza’s reaction was instantaneous. Her heart began to beat faster, her breath became labored, her stomach clenched, and she stood, not because it was polite, but because the force of recognition reverberating through her meant she simply had to. All the months she had spent imagining this moment—and she still did not feel at all prepared for it.

   “Oliver, darling!” Mrs. Courtenay hurried over to her son, eyes shining, Lady Selwyn close behind, and Somerset embraced his mother and his sister, in turn. Mrs. Balfour clucked her tongue in disapproval of this breach of etiquette—he ought properly to have addressed Eliza first—but Eliza paid no heed. In many ways, he appeared the same. He was still very tall, his hair was still very fair, his eyes the same cool grey as the rest of his family, and he still carried himself with an air of calm assurance that had always been decidedly his own. Under the effects of a decade-long naval career however, there was a greater breadth across the shoulder which had not existed in him as a younger man and his pale skin had darkened under the sun. It suited him. It suited him very well.

   Somerset released his sister’s hands and turned to Eliza. She was suddenly horribly aware that the years had not been nearly so kind to her. With a small stature, brown hair and uncommonly large and dark eyes, she had always resembled some sort of startled nocturnal animal, but now she feared—with the all-black ensemble of her widow’s weeds, and a figure drawn and tired from the uncertainty of the past months—that she appeared positively rattish.

   “Lady Somerset,” he said, bowing before her.

   His voice was the same, too.

   “My lord,” Eliza said. She could feel her fingers trembling and fisted them in her skirts as she curtseyed shakily, bracing herself to meet his eyes. What would she see in them—anger, perhaps? Recrimination? She did not dare to hope for warmth. She did not deserve it. They rose from their bows as one, and at last, at very long last, their eyes met. And as she looked into his eyes, she saw . . . nothing.

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