The Officer’s Temptation, Chapter 3
A Summer Storm
A week and a half after his tryst with Arabella in the woods, Marlowe was sitting down to breakfast with his mother and father. The light filtering in through the tall, rounded windows was dim and leaden, which Marlowe thought was an appropriate setting for his mood. He unhappily served himself some toast and coffee, staring into the black liquid as his mother prattled on about some fabric pattern she had seen in the shops that morning.
The coffee was hot and scalded his throat, but it did help clear his mind. He had been awake for a few hours already and gone for a ride along the property line. He had done so daily since he had last seen Arabella there, but no matter how he longed for it, she had not appeared.
His father was flipping through the newspaper. “I do believe we’re in for quite the downpour today,” he mentioned offhandedly. “The leg’s been twinging. You won’t be able to take your afternoon ride, Marlowe.”
Marlowe had always disbelieved that his father’s leg–which had sustained some injury decades ago–was capable of telling the weather. But since his own injury to his hand… well, perhaps it did feel a bit stiffer than usual today. He wondered if his perspective of the matter was only further clouded by his bleak mood, which was worsening now that he was beginning to despair of ever seeing Arabella again. He worried. Had she had said something untoward to her husband? Would Lord Nicholas Balfrey come to his door any day now, demanding that he satisfy the slight against his wife’s honor?
His thoughts dispelled as a footman arrived carrying the morning’s correspondence on a silver tray. There was nothing for him. He tried not to let his disappointment show and took a long drink from his cup, on which he almost choked when his mother made a high pitched squeal.
“Oh, Dearest!” she said, turning to Marlowe’s father, “we have just received the most exciting invitation!”
His father’s head peaked over the corner of the paper. “Oh?”
Marlowe frowned at his mother. “It had best warrant your reaction, Mother,” he chided. “I nearly drowned myself in coffee.” Still, he placed his hands flat against his thighs under the table so that they could not betray his excitement. Beneath his irritated exterior, his heart had begun to race.
His mother gave him a sharp look of reprimand and then presented the card so that they could read it. “We’ve been invited to Hartsthrone Hall for dinner tomorrow evening. Lord Balfrey has indeed returned, and written that he looks forward to renewing his acquaintance with our family and making introductions to his wife. How lovely!”
There was a rustling of papers as his father turned a page. “That is lovely, my dear, but you do seem rather excited for a simple dinner engagement.”
“Ah yes, well, it says that Lord and Lady Keating will be there as well.”
“The duke and duchess!” his father’s voice was a low sound of approval. “I say!”
“Indeed!” his mother smiled, setting aside the card. “And I forgot to mention the best part. The Jennings family has also been afforded an invitation.”
“You don’t say! I didn’t know that Lord Balfrey was acquainted with the Jennings.”
“They did mention it once, Dearest. I believe that they met in London. During Miss Jenning’s first season.”
“Ah yes,” his father rumbled. “Yes, now I recall. Well, I daresay we will accept?”
“Indeed! I shall send our note straightaway. Marlowe, I suppose it is not too much to hope that you will not make too much of a grump of yourself?”
Marlowe glanced out the window and fought to keep his voice cool and detached. “On the contrary, Mother. I am most pleased. Did you not tell me that I would do well to pursue some new friendships?”
She snorted, and gave him a sharp look, setting her breakfast aside. “Truly a day for amazements. Has my own son taken my advice to heart?”
He smiled at her blandly. “It would seem so.”
“Well, at any rate, I’ll be going back into town, then.”
His father looked up in alarm. “You only just returned!”
“I’d like to purchase something for the Balfreys. Lord Balfrey is newly married, you know. Or recently, enough. I should like to find some token of congratulations. And then call on Mrs. Jennings to discuss the dinner. We will want to make the proper impression on the duke and duchess, of course. I think the ribbon I bought this morning would be quite fetching on Miss Jennings. Maybe I shall make a present of them to her?”
“But the weather, dear.”
“Yes, yes, I know. I shall have the top put up on the Landau. If the weather is truly torrential, then I will prolong my visit. ”
His father shook out his paper and folded it on the table. “Perhaps I might go with you then, Dearest. I had thought of taking the Landau myself, to return a book to Mr. Jennings and then perhaps going for a smoke at the club.”
His mother nodded curtly in approval and stood, straightening her wine-colored skirts. “Yes,” she agreed. “It would be best if you joined me, then.”
“I hope you will find something to amuse yourself while we are gone,” Marlowe’s father said with a glance in his direction. “I know you’ve been spending a great deal of time out-of-doors.”
Marlowe smiled at his father, and meant it. “Don’t worry yourself, Father. I’m feeling very fine today. Perhaps I’ll browse your study for something to read.”
His parents’ eyebrows shot up and he found his pride a bit rankled as his mother exclaimed, “Our son! Reading for pleasure! Good gracious, Henry, did you ever think you would live to see the day?”
His father chuckled and patted his mother on the small of her back, guiding her out of the room. He gave Marlowe a soft, kind smile as they left.
Marlowe stood brusquely, whipping his napkin back onto the table. He did, in fact, occasionally enjoy reading, even if he did not seem to enjoy it as much as his parents both suggested he might. He had always just preferred the doing of things, rather than the reading of them. Still, he shrugged off the perceived slight. His parents meant well, he knew they did. They must be happy to see him seemingly enjoying himself again. Of course, that had everything to do with the invitation. Now that Nicholas Balfrey had returned to Hartsthrone Hall, Marlowe would finally have a formal introduction to Arabella. They were bound to be seeing a lot more of one another, once Arabella had been officially accepted into the local social circle. His mother’s dinners with the Jennings would surely grow to include Lady Balfrey. It was an uplifting prospect and he struggled to keep the grin from his face.
The rain his father predicted had indeed arrived, spilling from the heavy clouds just after noon in a sudden and torrential downpour. Marlowe was safely ensconced in the library, sitting near the fireplace and enjoying the fire that the servants had lit to ward off the unexpected chill. In the back of his mind, he could hear the rain, pounding against the roof and walls, dimming the noises of the house into a soft and comforting roar. Outside, the fields were flooding slightly. He could see the rivulets of mud washing over the grounds just through the window panes where the wind pushed droplets across the glass.
There was a book under his hand, lying open across his thigh. His fingers idly caressed the leather cover. It was an old volume, and its binding was soft and worn with age, as velvety under his fingers as the skin high up on Arabella’s thigh. The skin that he found himself lusting after even now. He was so engrossed in these thoughts, that he did not hear the knock on the door, and found himself flinching when he heard someone clearing their throat.
“I beg your pardon, sir.” One of the footmen, John, was standing uncertainly at the door. In one gloved hand, he was holding the silver tray with a single card. “There’s…” John shifted uneasily on his feet, “a caller, sir.”
Marlowe’s eyebrows shot up in surprise as he glanced from the window to John’s uneasy face.
John followed his gaze. “Even so, sir. It’s… a bit of an unusual circumstance.” The young man’s face seemed to color.
Marlowe rose to his feet quickly and in a few powerful strides was at John’s side. The calling card on the silver tray was soaking wet. The ink was bleeding around the curved edges of the letters. Miss Katherine Jennings, the card read. Her address had been smeared to illegibility by the rain.
“She was inquiring after your mother, sir,” John said. “I told her that Mrs. Hughes was visiting in town, but… I didn’t think that it was prudent to send the young lady away.”
Marlowe placed the card back on the tray and sighed. His book was lying on the side of the armchair, spine facing upwards. How was it that the pages seemed so much more tantalizing now that there was some other duty to attend to? “Well, where is she then?” he asked with a sigh.
“The front hall, sir. She didn’t want to be seated in the parlour.”
Marlowe frowned but nodded, dismissing the man. He was not eager to play host, but seeing as his parents were doubtless waiting out the rain in town, it was his duty as a gentleman. On a less gentlemanly thought, he wondered if he could perhaps deliberately bore Miss Jennings with his company. Make her complain to her mother that a match with him simply would not do. He nodded to himself. It seemed a likely course of action.
And then he saw her standing in the hall.
He nearly choked on his own tongue.
Miss Jennings was standing in his entryway, holding a soaking wet bundle to her chest. She was drenched. Her black hair was piled on top of her head, dark curls sticking to her pale neck. Her dress, a thin, summery muslin frock in the most pastel of greens was plastered to her skin, clinging to every single curve of waist and buttocks and leg and calf, revealing the most intimate contours of her body. And what was more was that the downpour had rendered the flimsy fabric practically translucent!
She had heard his footsteps by now, and as she turned, heavens above! He could see the curve between her legs, and above, as she pushed her bundle forwards, self consciously, the ribs and outlines of the ribbons of her stays as well as the hard protrusions of her nipples under the wet, clinging fabric.
“Forgive me,” she said dryly, “I seem to have created some puddles in your hall.”
He swallowed hard and forced himself to drag his eyes upwards to her full red lips and wry blue eyes. “It seems that you are quite drenched,” he commented. Thankfully, she had adjusted her arms. The nipples were no longer visible. He wondered if she had realized how naked she looked when she had arrived. No wonder poor John had seemed so scandalized.
She made an awkward attempt to pass him the bundle she was carrying. “This was for your mother,” she said. “It’s what’s left of the fabric that she lent mine.”
“Right,” he said, taking the damp cloth. “Very good.” It immediately began to soak into the fabric of his coat. He eyed it awkwardly, suddenly unsure of what to do with his hands.
Her pale arms crossed over her body as she attempted to cover herself without looking as if she were. “I suppose that I will be on my way, then.” She turned abruptly on her heel and his eyes shot upwards to the ceiling, but not quickly enough. He had not missed the sight of her shapely buttocks, fabric cupping her bottom, sticking to her legs as she walked.
“Oh no,” he said. “That won’t do at all.” He swallowed. “It’s so damp out.” Truly, it was the understatement of the century. “You should wait out the rain. But you should take off that dress. That is to say, you should change your dress, not that… not that you should be in any state of undress. I could help you with the dress…” Oh dear. He was bungling this. He shut his eyes quickly. Why was it so hard to think? “That came out wrong. What I meant to say was that perhaps you would like a change of clothes? I believe that there are some old dresses of my sister’s in her room.”
Her cheeks were bright pink, but she gave him a little smile and her eyes glinted with humor. “That would be ideal.”
He averted his eyes. Twas safer by far to look at the floor. “I’ll call a maid.” He hurried for the bell. He would certainly not be escorting her to the bedroom himself. His heart seemed to beat faster at the thought. Which, he reflected, was exactly why he would be going nowhere near this lovely creature and any beds or private nooks where his imagination might provoke certain unseemly thoughts. “Look for me in the library when you are done,” he said quickly as a maid came to rescue him from his plight.
And then he was alone in the hall, holding a soaking wet bundle of cloth, standing like a ninny struck dumb. He dumped the cloth to the floor in a huff and rung for another servant.
As soon as that was in hand, he turned quickly and found himself safe inside the library in moments. He sank into the chair, head in his hands, heart beating just a bit too fast. Damn his perverse mind. Here he was, a man in love, tempted from his mistress at the first pretty pair of legs that came walking through his door. Granted, he had already been in a certain frame of mind, daydreaming as he had been about the sweet temptations of Arabella’s flesh. He heaved in a sigh of relief. That actually explained things quite a bit. He had already been quite aroused when Katherine Jennings had made her extraordinary arrival. It was only natural that the feelings he had for Arabella had been transferred for a moment. It did not, in fact, indicate any sort of weakness in his ardour.
Thus relieved, he forgave himself his momentary lapse and reached for the strong Scottish whiskey his father kept in the library.
So it was that by the time Miss Jennings arrived in the library, he was feeling substantially more at ease, reassured by his thoughts (and perhaps the tumbler full of whiskey). She was now dressed in a light yellow garment with round sleeves. The dress was a bit too short for her, her round breasts peaking a bit more than he would have liked over the bodice, her ankles flashing under the too-short skirts, revealing a pair of house slippers also borrowed from his sister. Still, it was a marked improvement, and she smiled at him warmly, clearly more at her ease.
They smiled at each other blandly for a moment, and then Marlowe remembered to look away from her bright blue eyes, which were wide and framed by long lashes. “How did you find yourself caught in the storm?”
She sighed, and walked closer to him, examining the spines of books on the shelf. She had an excellent profile, with a nose that pointed up ever so slightly at the tip. “Mama had asked me to return the fabric to your mother. It was cloudy, but she didn’t believe it would rain. And since it wasn’t too hot, I didn’t bother to take the carriage.”
“Do you ride?”
She shrugged, and pulled out a book. “From time to time. I don’t like to ride out alone, however. I was in an accident when I was younger. My filly threw me, and I broke my finger.” She replaced the book and then showed Marlowe her hand. There was a small crook in her pinky finger. “I am loathe to risk an accident like that again.”
“Your hands are very important to you,” he noted, “because of your art.”
Her eyebrows shot up. “Yes, that’s right.” She gave him a friendly smile. “I didn’t expect that you remembered.”
He sighed and then regretted it, as breathing in brought him the slightest hint of her scent beside him. Orange and jasmine. “I apologize for any slight I offered you that night.” He frowned. “And the time before. My mother and I… “ he waved his hands uselessly. “We have our disagreements.”
She nodded. “I understand. Every family does.”
The moment had arrived. “She has certain expectations of me,” he said. “She wants me to be someone that I am not.”
Miss Jennings blinked at him slowly, comprehension dawning on her pretty face. “Oh,” her lips were perfectly round, “I see.” She blinked again and smiled gently. “I quite understand what you mean. My parents… have their own expectations as well. But you and I, we should not have to live within the bounds of what others think that we ought to do. Perhaps we could have our own expectations of each other, namely that we do not expect more than the other is willing to give? Simple friendship, if you will.”
He grinned at her, unexpectedly enjoying her company. “My mother did say that I could use more company,” he admitted. “I wholeheartedly denied it, just to spite her, but since the war… Well, so many of my friends were soldiers, you see. Some of them are still fighting. Some of them will likely never make it back. And it is difficult for me now to be around others that I used to know, who haven’t seen what I have seen. Who haven’t been changed by it.” He sighed and swiped a hand down his face. “I’m prattling on again. Would you like to see the art collection?” he asked impulsively.
She returned his grin. “I would love to,” she said. “And for the record, you do prattle. But I like it. Much better than your sullen silences over dinner.”
He found himself suddenly repressing a snort of laughter, “Teasing me already, Miss Jennings?”
Her answering smile was devilish. “There is such ripe material for it, Lieutenant Hughes. How could I stop myself from harvesting the bounty that lies before me?”
“You are an impish girl. Who knew you hid such a sharp tongue?”
“Why,” she exclaimed, “Anyone who deigned converse with me for more than a few moments would know it!” She pressed a delicate finger to her chin. “But as for you… who could guess that a young man such as yourself would be turning into a prematurely stodgy old fellow?” She touched his arm lightly. “But I think that we shall cure you of it yet.”
“I’m afraid that I may be a more difficult case than you realize,” he admitted. His mind drifted, as it was want to do, to Arabella. He felt the flicker of unease wash over his body, remembering the dinner invitation, and that he would be expected to dine with his lover’s husband, of all people. He felt unwell at the thought. The shadow of his feelings must have shown in his eyes, for Miss Jennings glanced at his face and gave him a reassuring smile, patting his arm companionably.
“We shall see,” she said simply.
They were approaching the stair now that led up to the gallery on the next floor. He offered her an elbow as they climbed, her holding the edge of her slightly too short dress in her hand out of habit. “Have you seen the gallery before?” he asked. “I know that you seem to be fast friends with my mother.”
“I have,” she said. “But I always enjoy pouring over the collection. One frequently finds new details to enjoy in complex works.”
The upper landing was dim, and cool. A draft stirred by Marlowe’s ear, and he tucked a lock of his wavy hair behind it. Miss Jennings didn’t seem to notice. She had dropped his arm immediately, and begun trotting down the long corridor that ran the length of the floor. The tall walls were papered in blue, and large framed canvases were hung at intervals along their length. It was an art collection that had been started by his grandparents many years ago, added to occasionally by his own parents. He knew the paintings like the back of his hand, having grown up staring into them, wistfully longing to visit their exotic locales.
Miss Jennings had stopped before a large piece. Marlowe hauled himself over, stopping behind her elbow. “I have always liked this one,” he said.
“What draws you to it?”
He hesitated. “The little boats. That’s why I liked it when I was a boy. Seems a stupid thing to say now.”
“Not at all. They are quite well executed, don’t you think? Look at the precision.”
He stared at the canvas. “I suppose so, but I must confess that I know very little about art.”
“You don’t need to in order to appreciate a piece. But I find that doing so adds even more richness to the enjoyment. Look here,” she pointed, “do you see the way the that the painting mimics your own vision? The way that the buildings along the canal get smaller and smaller, as if you were truly standing on a bridge in Venice, looking down the river? That is called perspective. The Italians are masters of it. You’ll see the shading as well. The colors grow dimmer, less vibrant to mimic the way our eyes cannot perceive colors so well at a distance. It’s practically mathematical, recreating the order of the universe on a canvas.”
She turned then and smiled at him. “Now I am the one who is prattling.”
“No,” he said, frowning at the canvas. “Go on. I have never heard anyone discuss a painting in such terms.”
“Do you see the people there, in their little boats?” she asked, and continued after he nodded. “You perceive their faces, do you not? You can make out their clothing. Step closer.” He edged up behind her as they stepped closer to the painting, making it so that the whole picture was reduced into blotches and dabs of paint. “Look now,” she instructed. “Do you see their faces?”
His eyebrows raised in surprise. “No,” he said. “There is nothing at all! Just tiny brushstrokes. I thought that I could see the eyes… but there is nothing but a hint of shadow here. No detail at all.”
“The work of a talented artist is to create an illusion,” she said. “This is one such method. Such tiny little details that make up the whole of a person. And you only perceive their secrets when you are close.” She stepped back suddenly and exclaimed. “I hadn’t noticed, but look!”
He looked around in bewilderment. “What?”
“The sun has come back out!”
Indeed it had. He had not realized that while they had been studying the painting the light had changed subtly. He had not needed to squint to see the tiny figures on the canvas as the clouds had been rolling away outside and the oppressive roar of rain had died out without him noting it.
She turned to him and smiled. “As much as I would love to continue your art education, I should be away back home. Mother will be worried that I got caught in the downpour. She always thinks that I will take ill after being caught in the rain.”
He nodded. “But I shall drive you home,” he said. “I’m afraid my parents took the landau, but come, let’s have the buggy hitched.”
“I would insist that you not go through the trouble,” she said, “except for that I have borrowed your sister’s dress and I would hate to ruin it by brushing the hem through the mud.”
“So it is settled, then” he said, and with her on his arm, they walked down to the stables, had the buggy hitched in no time and enjoyed a quick ride to her home, chatting amicably the entire time. It was not until he was returning on his way home that he remembered the dinner that was awaiting him. His reunion with Arabella and her husband. His stomach went cold at the thought.