“You want to what?” Daphne Templeton’s voice broke on a high note as she stared incredulously at the gentleman holding her hand. Only her awareness of the crowd just beyond the alcove prevented her nervous question from reaching a shriek.
“Marry you.” Albert’s cheeks reddened behind his military whiskers.
“Marry me?” She sounded like a parrot, but she couldn’t disguise her disbelief.
Heads turned in the ballroom. This alcove certainly did not lend itself to an intimate setting.
Daphne read his uneasiness as he shifted his gaze from her to the velvet draperies and then to the floor. He was thanking his stars he’d had the sense to propose in a crowded room. At that thought, Daphne took a deep breath and fought her soaring temper.
“Don’t be absurd,” she answered, lowering her voice an octave.
His ruddy cheeks grew redder, but a stubborn line marred his mouth. “Absurd? What other offer have you?”
Control. One. Two. Three. Daphne squeezed her eyes shut to eliminate the staring crowd. Why did they always stare? She wasn’t her mother. She wasn’t. She chanted the familiar refrain to cool her ire. She was perfectly normal, and this absurd little man wouldn’t prove her wrong.
“We don’t even know each other,” she offered reasonably, although her legs felt as if they were shaking beneath her. She needed to sit down. It had been four years, but sometimes. . . She shut out that thought along with the crowd.
“We’ve known each other forever,” he remonstrated.
“We’ve danced one dance at each occasion we’ve met since you came home from the Continent.”
She couldn’t believe this was happening. Just as she had made up her mind to leave London and set herself on the shelf, this abysmal little man had to come along and shake her newly won confidence.
He studied her as she stood there with her hands clenched in fists, then glanced cautiously to the people behind him. People were staring. He coughed to gather his courage and tried again. “Surely that is sufficient to judge we suit?”
Daphne heard the meaning behind the words—her impeccable behavior these last weeks had been sufficientto believe she wouldn’t have hysterics in public as her mother had been apt to do.
Albert had been in Spain when Daphne first came to London. He hadn’t seen her stumble awkwardly across the dance floor, cursed by a lame leg that didn’t adequately support her. He hadn’t seen her fall attempting to enter a carriage.
Most of all, he hadn’t seen one of her rages when these things happened. But he’d heard, as he had heard about her mother. Instability ran in the family, it was whispered.
One had only to remember Daphne’s grandmother Pierce, who proclaimed pigs were superior to men in every way. And there was Aunt Agatha, who lived the life of a recluse in the backwaters of Devon. And of course, there was always Daphne’s mother, her dashing, lovely, charming, and very dead mother.
No. It wouldn’t do. She had been right to decide to leave London, where her mother had left such an indelible impression upon society. Daphne had tried to eradicate that impression, but she had her own flaws to cope with; she couldn’t hope to cover her mother’s as well.
The memories of her mother’s dramatic departure from this world hadn’t faded from the petty minds of society, would never fade as long as Daphne was available to remind them. She had been young and foolish when she had come to town. She no longer had that excuse. They would never forget, and they would never let her forget.
Daphne opened her eyes and commanded her suitor’s attention. He shifted nervously from foot to foot. “No. I will not marry you,” she stated without the requisite murmurs of honor and flattery. His proposal had just barely been honorable and certainly not flattering.
Albert looked startled. “Of course you will. What other choice have you?”
It was really quite the last straw. She had forgotten that the hand he didn’t hold was occupied. Until now. Lifting the crystal cup of punch, Daphne poured it over his thinning gray hairs.
Sweetly, she replied, “This is my choice.” She handed him the empty cup and limped away.
Clutching her reticule in her lap, Daphne watched the growing darkness beyond the carriage window. It had been kind of Lord and Lady Lansbury to loan the use of their carriage to take her to her aunt’s. But then, everyone had been so kind and sympathetic—once she had announced she was leaving. And relieved. She shouldn’t forget how relieved they were at the departure of someone as unpredictable as Mad Maria’s daughter.
Daphne bit her lip and tried to retrieve her straying thoughts from the debacle that had capped her stay in London. She was almost at Aunt Agatha’s. There seemed no purpose in stopping for the night despite the driver’s protests. He could travel on to the Lansbury estate in the morning. The carriage had to come this way anyway. The Lansburys had merely been offering a minor kindness, after all.
Clutching her gloved fingers, Daphne wrestled with the twin devils of ingratitude and cynicism. She could have taken a post chaise like anyone else. She was lame, not helpless. She was not even incompetent and certainly not mad. She was actually quite intelligent. Not that anyone cared. Biting her lip, she watched the road to her voluntary exile go by.
In a society that demanded perfection, she lacked the essential requirement. She supposed she looked well enough. Friends and family had assured her that her brunette curls were just as they ought to be, that her features were quite well-formed, even to the point of prettiness and past.
They even claimed that her eyes were a most extraordinary green, and if they seemed a trifle hazy and mysterious at times, that was more to her account than not. The fact that they were her mother’s eyes created the problem. Part of the problem, she had to admit. The rest of the problem she created herself.
Daphne fought back tears and forced her chin up. She had been green enough at first not to realize why the young gentlemen passed her by for silly, less presentable girls.
Oh, there was always someone’s kind relative to bow and ask if they might fetch her some punch or to exchange meaningless gossip through a dance set or two. She was never left to feel alone and neglected, but she was seldom asked for more than one dance, either. Once was daring enough. Twice would have been foolish. After all, what if she took leave of her senses in the middle of the dance floor?
Not that her mother had ever committed such a social solecism. She had been very polite about her madness. If her effervescence sometimes reached the heights of hysteria, or her dismals became black whorls of discontent, no one paid them any mind. That was just Maria. Charming, ever-maddening Maria.
Even her suicide had been committed with exquisite care to make it look an accident. It was only by pure, horrible chance that she had been discovered.
Daphne closed her eyes against that long-ago pain. She could remember her mother as sweet and smiling and ever gentle. Why could society not remember her that way, instead of as the lady who had driven her carriage off a cliff one dark night, in full view of her only daughter?
The period of mourning for her mother had long passed, but the ton continued to look at Daphne askance, waiting for her to show signs of her mother’s instabilities. They found them all too frequently in the sharp lash of Daphne’s temper, her cool withdrawal when anyone approached the subject dominating their minds, and in her inability to be one of the crowd.
The members of the ton would nod their heads sagely and give each other knowing glances, then treat her to saccharine smiles and insipid pleasantries until they could make their escape. After all, who wouldn’t be unstable after such an experience?
At times, Daphne felt as if the ton resented being reminded by her presence that the world outside their hallowed halls was not a perfect one. Perhaps if they knew how imperfect she was, they would turn their backs on her completely.
As it was, Daphne had persisted, refusing to believe all of society could be so shallow and thoughtless as to disregard her because of her mother’s tragedy. Besides, she had no where else to go, naught else to do unless she wished to play the part of sheltered invalid in her father’s house. And then she truly would go mad.
For four long years she had determinedly beat her head against society’s thick walls. Now, she had given up. She would not go back.
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