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Training Lady Townsend(31)

By:Annabel Joseph

August erupted into laughter. They were joking, both of them. If they only knew... But he didn’t want them to know.

He was ashamed of the things he did to his wife.

The thought struck him like a punch to the gut. Yes, he was ashamed to admit that he used his wife in such a fashion, that he demanded sordid acts of her nearly every day. He had been so content with the way they were rubbing along in this marriage that he hadn’t even stopped to think about whether he was behaving in a gentlemanly fashion.

He most certainly was not.

It wasn’t only his shame that kept his lips pressed in a thin line. There was his wife’s honor to protect. He hadn’t cared before he’d come to love her, but oh, he cared now. He stared at her back as she walked on the Duke of Arlington’s arm, the perfect, proper lady in her perfect, fashionable gown. She would suffer utter annihilation, not to mention public repulsion, if anyone were to discover the nature of their marital dealings. Even his friends, if they knew, would think less of her. They might even believe her a fair target for their amorous wiles.

No, not his friends. They would never disrespect his wife or betray him...would they?

He wondered if these uncomfortable misgivings were related to his newfound feelings of love for Aurelia. All at once there were three more gentlemen in her vicinity, one of whom escorted her upon his arm. Of course, it was Arlington, who was a stick of a stickler when it came to manners around respectable ladies. He wondered how Aurelia felt, if she was fighting the same nervous anxieties he was. He didn’t doubt she was, doubly so. He tried to put such troubling thoughts away and exchange pleasantries with Warren and August so they didn’t become any more suspicious than they already were.

“How long will you stay?” he asked them.

“As long as you’ll have us,” said August. “But not so long that we wear out our welcome.”

Warren glanced at Aurelia. “We’ll try to behave, Towns. We know you’re a married chap now, and newly fond of picnics and sitting home by the fire. Lady Townsend looks well.”

“She is well. We’ve both adjusted to our new life, and become close to one another.”

There, that was as much as he need say. His friends would take away from it that any disparaging language or behavior toward her would be out of bounds.

“I’m happy to hear you are both happy,” said August with typical amiability.

“I’m happy to hear it too,” echoed Warren in an even tone that nonetheless pricked him. Hunter pursed his lips. Why did it feel like, in a mere three months’ time, a vast chasm had opened between him and his unmarried friends?

“Anyway, I’m not the only one fond of picnics,” he said, falling back on the comfortable act of mockery. “I noticed the three of you ate every one of my wife’s favorite cakes.”

*** *** ***

Aurelia sat to her husband’s right at dinner, with Lord Augustine at her right side, and Arlington and Warren across from her. His friends were the most congenial sort, well-spoken and polite to a fault. They smiled at her often and went to great lengths to include her in sundry conversation, and never made her feel the least bit uncomfortable.

But she felt uncomfortable all the same. She couldn’t shake her memories of that afternoon in the forest, when she’d abandoned all sense of decorum and coupled with her husband in a coarsely animalistic way. Even after a long soak in the bath and some quiet time stitching at linens in her sheltered window seat, she felt sullied and not like a lady at all.

She feared Hunter’s friends would realize this about her, that she was not a respectable lady. Now and again her husband caught her gaze, even touching her hand beneath the table, as if to reassure her, but he couldn’t really understand. Here she was, seated directly across from Lord Warren, a man she once idolized, feeling like the cheapest, most whorish woman in the world.

Did she still idolize Lord Warren? She was afraid to ask herself that question. She tried to behave naturally toward him, as if his comments and questions were no more clever than those of the other men, but she thought perhaps her smiles at him were too wide, her replies to him a touch too high pitched.

She tried not looking at him at all, but then some implacable impulse would draw her gaze his way and she would remember why she had loved him so, why she had called so often on her friend Minette in hopes of catching a glimpse of her brother. He was incredibly handsome.

So is your husband, she reminded herself sternly. She looked over to find Hunter staring back at her with a darkly assessing expression. An unwelcome flush heated her cheeks and spread down the front of her neck. She placed a hand there, as if that might hide her disgrace. Hunter knew she used to have a tendre for Lord Warren. She had flung the fact in his face on more than one occasion, and wished now that she hadn’t.

“Lady Townsend, have you met many of the neighboring families?” asked Lord Augustine beside her.

“Yes, I have. They came to call soon after we arrived. They don’t live nearby so we don’t often have callers, but when we do, it’s a very pleasant experience. All of them have been particularly welcoming.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

“Speaking of callers,” said Lord Warren, “Minette sends her warmest regards. She asks that you call on her the very moment you return to London, Lady Townsend. That is a direct quote, by the way,” he said, poking his spoon in the air. “The very moment. She said so quite emphatically.”

“I shall be happy to call on your sister when we are back in London,” Aurelia replied. “I wish you had brought her here with you. It would have given me the greatest pleasure to visit with her.”

She saw, or rather sensed, the glances that passed between the gentlemen. Lord Warren nodded. “I’ll tell her you said so. She was not able to accompany us this time.”

“Oh. But you left her well?”

“Yes, very well,” he said quickly. “And very busy. You know how my sister is, always flitting and fluttering about town, and getting into mischief.”

Aurelia smiled, remembering many amusing scenes she’d witnessed between Minette and Lord Warren. The past few years, he’d been more like a father than brother to her friend, despairing at her many scrapes while always offering her affection and warmth. It was part of the reason she thought he was so wonderful. Her smile faded as she realized she was gazing at him too long again. She could feel more than see her husband’s regard at her left, even though she didn’t dare turn to meet it. She looked instead at His Grace the Duke of Arlington, then down at her plate.

“When will Minette make her come out?” asked Lord Augustine, who could always be counted on to fill any awkward silences.

“She’s eighteen now,” said Lord Warren. “I suppose I must consider her eligible, but she still seems such a child to me.” He made a grimace. “Whoever takes her will have his hands full, poor devil. Pardon my language, ma’am,” he said to Aurelia.

“Come now,” said the duke, his angular face softening into a smile. “Minette is a charming young lady who shall make some lucky gentleman very happy.”

After a beat, everyone at the table burst into laughter, even Aurelia, who knew her friend too well.

“I’m glad I had the good sense to only have older sisters,” joked Lord Augustine. “All of whom are happily married off.”

“Why, you’re the only one who hasn’t any siblings at all,” Aurelia said, turning to her husband. “Were you lonely growing up?”

“Somewhat.” He paused, looking around at the other gentlemen. “When I grew older, I had my friends for company. None of us had brothers, you see. All of us are only sons.”

She had never realized that either. “I suppose that resulted in a lot of familial pressure for all of you,” she said sympathetically.

Arlington was the only one to speak. “I’m sure we all want a handful of sons to our names, eventually. It’s what I would prefer, if I had my choice. Being an only son is a dreary thing. But daughters are a blessing too.” The men concurred in polite tones.

Aurelia looked sideways at her husband, and then, without meaning to, she looked at Lord Warren, with whom she had always imagined having a houseful of blond, curly-haired sons and daughters. It was a horrible, regrettable lapse of behavior, but it was too late to go back a few seconds in time and not do so. Worse, Lord Warren was looking back at her, so both of them were obliged to guiltily drop their gazes.

“The pudding is so sweet tonight,” she said, touching her forehead and putting down her spoon. “I don’t know what cook was about. I can hardly think your friends find it pleasing. I’m very sorry.”

The gentlemen all insisted that of course they found it delicious and that they were simply too full to eat any more of the graciously appointed fare, and so on and so forth. Aurelia’s face burned. She must not remember her old feelings for Lord Warren, or give any sign that she still admired him. She didn’t want to.

But she was afraid she did.

Hunter took her hand, and she felt the tension in his grip all the way to her fingertips. “Perhaps you should retire, my dear. No doubt we shall be tedious and linger far too long over our port.”