[It seems Roger is going to the Abernathys’ house party after all. His Darling Friend is book two in the Touches of Austen Collection and nods to Jane Austen’s Emma.]
Roger Shelton slumped down on the cream-coloured settee in the far corner of the Abernathy’s drawing room next to a pretty young lady whom he knew would not bat her lashes at him or smile coyly as all the other eager young women at this house party seemed wont to do. Not that he blamed them, of course. He would make a fine catch if he were ready to be caught.
“Why must we attend these things?” The petite blonde next to him whispered.
“Because neither you nor I are married, and our parents wish to be rid of us,” Roger replied.
How often had he heard his mother bemoaning his unmarried state to her mother, who would return her own tale of woe about having an unwed daughter? It seemed to be a frequent bent in nearly every conversation when their two families gathered for tea, dinner, or whatever excuse either her mother or his could conjure for themselves to be together.
“Perhaps your mother would like to see someone take over your care, but my father is not anxious to send me packing,” his companion retorted.
Roger chuckled. He enjoyed these moments of unfettered banter with his friend. She would speak openly to him, for she wanted nothing from him. Not a kiss, not a dance, not a marriage – with her, he was free to be himself. Even if that often led to her scolding him.
“Is that so, Vic? Then why do you suppose your father gave me this.” He withdrew a small packet from his pocket and handed it to her. “I was to deliver it to you here with the accompanying message that he trusts your decisions but would like to meet the chap before the vows are read.”
With a resounding thump, Victoria Hamilton’s right hand connected with Roger’s chest, causing him to exhale quickly. She was not one to pull her punches as some chits might. She did not care one jot if Roger thought her less than delicate, and he liked that about her.
“He said nothing of the sort. You are the worst liar – no! I cannot say that. I know you to be a very good liar – but in this, you shall not deceive me.”
“It was worth a try,” Roger admitted, rubbing the slightly sore spot on his chest where she had hit him.
He had known she would not believe him. Her father was too kind to tease in such a fashion, and he was in no rush to see his darling daughter given away to anyone.
“Your father did give me that package for you. That is the truth. As is the fact that my mother suggested I take a good turn through the ladies of the room looking for more than pleasant curves and a willing smile.”
“You are dreadful!”
Roger placed a hand on his heart. “I promise you she said that very thing. Mother is not known for her delicacy when chiding me.” In that way, Victoria was a lot like his mother. “There was also something in her diatribe about grandchildren before she turned her toes up.” He shot a devilish grin at his friend.
“Do not say it,” Victoria hissed.
It amused him how her expression was appropriately appalled at the mere thought of what he was about to say. She did know him well. Of course, her expression would not prevent him from continuing.
“Mother was not pleased when I suggested that producing children did not require a marriage license.”
“You did not!” Victoria shook her head. “Of course, you did. I can nearly hear you saying it.”
“I am wounded.”
“By the truth?”
“No, by the thought that you think I would –” A severe glare stopped his words.
“Are you or are you not, Roger Shelton, the charmer of ladies, the stealer of kisses, the seeker of pleasure?”
He could not refute her statement, so he did not. He simply sat quietly and waited for her to continue.
“None of that embarrasses you as it should,” she muttered. “Did you get your hunter?”
Apparently, the discussion of his ill behaviour was at an end.
He nodded and extended his feet out in front of him, crossing them at the ankles and making himself very comfortable. “Clayton helped me.”
“Mr. Clayton?” she asked with a smile that caused him to raise a brow in question. “He is pleasant,” she retorted with a huff. “Naught else.”
“That is good to know since I do believe he is getting married. At least he seemed on the point of proposing when I left Stratsbury Park, and I dare say the lady was only waiting for him to ask. She’ll accept him, happily.”
“Indeed?” Her tone was filled with delight.
“Thanks to my assistance.”
Victoria blinked, and her mouth dropped open for a moment. “I beg your pardon?” she asked incredulously.
Was it so impossible to believe that he would help a friend in such a way? He supposed it likely was. He was not known as the sort of gentleman who looked for ways to be snared. But then, he was setting the parson’s trap for his friend and not himself, so it really should be more believable.
“I may have pointed out to Clayton how he and his neighbour Miss Tierney would suit each other quite well.”
“You?” There was not a single ounce of belief in her tone. “You helped a fellow charmer make a match?”
Ah, that was why she was so disbelieving. It was not just any gent he had helped. Graeme Clayton was nearly as much a rogue as he himself was. Roger shrugged and puffed out his chest a bit. “I have always been very good at reading people.”
She shook her head.
Why did she have such a difficult time believing that he could do anything good?
“I assure you I am. How else have I remained a bachelor for so long when there are so many who would trip over each other to be my bride.” He winked at her, and she rolled her eyes, just as he knew she would.
“I am certain I could find a match within the assembled hopefuls. Not for myself,” he clarified. “I am not in any hurry to be married, but several gents seem eager and, yourself excepted, there is not a lady here who is not hoping to snare a husband.”
“I am not the only lady who does not feel a need to rush to the altar,” Victoria retorted as if he had affronted her most grievously, but there was a small curl of her lips that told him she was not entirely put out with him.
He leaned toward her. “Marrying at three and twenty would not be rushing,” he muttered near her ear.
“Oh, good heavens, you have been talking to my mother, have you not?”
Roger nodded. “Why do you not marry?”
“Why should I?”
“Do you really wish to live with your brother and his wife?”
Victoria expelled a great sigh but said nothing. Roger knew very well that Victoria did not like the new Mrs. Hamilton and had been quite delighted to hear that her brother and his new wife would be spending a great deal of time in town or at a rented cottage near the sea when the weather got too warm to abide London.
“Why do you not marry?” she asked instead of answering his question.
“I do not marry for quite noble reasons, or so Miss Tierney says.”
The brow over her left eye rose skeptically. “And what pray tell are your noble reasons?”
Roger folded his arms and looked at her — his dear friend who did not believe there was a noble bone in his body. “Do you not think me capable of being honourable?”
Her lips pursed, and her brow furrowed. “It is not that you are incapable of such,” she said after a full minute of silence. “You know that I have always told you how honourable you could be. You have the potential to be a very fine gentleman who is sought after for more than his looks and a bit of fun.”
Her cheeks coloured slightly as she said those last words. Impropriety of the sexual nature always made Victoria blush when she referenced it. She was as proper as he was improper. She might not agree with all of society’s strictures, but her behavior was always impeccable. She assured him that it was possible to both disagree and still adhere to the rules. He was not certain he believed her.
“If you think me capable of being honourable, then why do you question so vehemently as to whether or not my reasons are noble?”
She expelled an exasperated huff. “Because I see little evidence of your nobility when it comes to the fairer sex.” The blush on her cheeks deepened a shade. “And I did not question you vehemently. I questioned. That is all.”
Roger’s lips tipped up on one side. “I will only tell you my reasons after you have told me your reasons for not marrying.”
Her eyes grew wide, and she shook her head. “I cannot.”
“Cannot or will not?”
That answer stopped Roger from any further prodding. They had not had any secrets – or at least not many secrets – ever. They had shared nearly everything with one another growing up, and it bothered him that she would choose now to decide she would keep something so interesting from him.
“I would not tease you,” he offered.
“I know you would not, but…” She sighed and shook her head. “I would feel too foolish.”
She did not trust him. She said she thought him capable of nobility, and yet, she did not actually trust him. It stung as much as if she had slapped him. He drew a breath and released it.
“Very well,” he said, “then, I shall not tell you mine. You may write to Miss Tierney to discover them if you wish, but I shall not tell you.”
“I have hurt you,” she said softly as she placed a hand on his still folded arms.
Feeling very much like a petulant child, he merely shrugged and changed the subject – somewhat.
“Who shall we see matched?” He would prove to her in some way that he was capable of thinking about marriage in a serious fashion.
“I really could not say,” she replied. Her brow was furrowed. “Are you well? I did not mean to – “
“Perfectly,” he cut off her apology. He did not wish to hear it at present. “I am perfectly well.”
He was not. His closest friend in all the world had just told him in so many words that she did not trust him. However, he was not about to admit to it.
“I say we spend a day considering who might complement whom at this gathering, and then I shall begin.” He leaned close to her and nudged her shoulder with his. “If you would be so kind, I should rather appreciate it if you would attempt to discover which sort of gentleman we might match with Miss Grace Love.”
There was that skepticism again.
“She knows my reasons for not wishing to marry since we played a little game when I was visiting Clayton, and rather than heeding the fact that I have no desire to marry, she has taken it upon herself to follow me around and attempt to prove my reasons are not insurmountable.” He lowered his voice. “Frankly, I do not trust her. She is very marriage minded and only seventeen.” He shuddered.
“Far too young to be attached to an old man such as yourself?”
“Far too flighty. And I am not old. Might I remind you that you are only four years younger than me?”
“Younger is the important word,” Victoria said with a laugh that always lifted his spirits — even when he was put out with her. “I shall see what I can learn about Miss Love.”
“Thank you.” Roger pulled a second small package from his pocket and after rising handed it to her.
“What is this?” She turned the item over in her hands.
He smiled. “Did you really think, my darling friend, that I would not remember your birthday as I always have?” He winked and then giving her a bow, left her so that she could open his gift in private.