The library was my sanctuary, my refuge. It was always quiet there. So quiet that the click of the door opening and closing, then the hiss of footfalls on the plush Turkey carpet, sounded as loud as artillery fire in my consciousness.
Who had come to invade my solitude? I half rose from my seat, set aside the stocking I was darning and peered over the scrolling ironwork of the gallery railing. The interloper was stretched out in a wingback chair drawn at right angles to the fireplace, his booted feet propped up on the brass fender. I didn’t have to see his face to know who it was.
Lord Alfred Frederick Leopold Wraxhall. Second son of the Marquess of Dorchester. The wastrel younger brother who’d never done a lick of work in his life and would never amount to anything, at least if one listened to his parents.
While his given name was Alfred, he’d always been known as Leo.
Cousin Leo to me, but not my cousin. Not my anything.
I’d met him for the first time on my wedding day, when he and his siblings had been introduced as my new cousins. I’d been all of twenty, in awe of my husband’s grand relations; Leo had been a boy of fifteen, just beginning to grow into the man he would become.
Then as now, he lived in his brother’s shadow. Arthur, so fair and noble and perfect in every way. Arthur, the apple of his parents’ eye, the brother who never failed to please them, who always conformed, who always behaved. Who looked at me as if I were something he’d scraped off the sole of his boot.
Leo, on the other hand, was interesting. He was intelligent and funny and always had a kind word for everyone. He had beautiful golden-brown hair that curled when he let it grow too long, was half a head taller than his brother, had not an ounce of fat on his fit, lean body and had a dimple in one cheek when he smiled, which was often.
He also drank too much and gambled too much, raced his horses where he oughtn’t and consorted with the wrong sort of women. He’d left university after only two terms, refused to buy a commission in any of the fashionable regiments, and fell asleep on those rare occasions when he could be convinced to attend church. He was, predictably, the despair of his family.
I’d watched him for years, had been half in love with him for nearly that long. But he’d never seemed to see me, not properly. If I were in the room, his gaze always seemed to slide past me, as if I were a mere shadow. Or a nonentity, which in truth I was.
Why should he pay me the slightest wisp of attention, after all? Dissolute and profligate he might well be, but he was still the son of a marquess—while I was the plain, poor, insignificant widow of his cousin.
If only Charles hadn’t been so deeply in debt when he died. If only my parents had been living. If only I’d had somewhere else to go, or some friend who might have helped. But there had been no one, and after Charles’s debts had been settled, I’d been left with nothing. So I’d gone to Lady Dorchester and begged for help.
She was a kind woman, had even instructed that I call her Aunt Augusta. But I received no wages for my work as her lady’s companion, nothing apart from my room and board. I was beneath her, dependent for every crumb that passed my lips. She knew it, and I knew it. I didn’t hate her for it—I was grateful, truly I was—but it galled me.
I stared at Leo hungrily, wondering why he had come to the library. No one ever came here, for the Dorchesters were not a reading family. Day after day, year after year, the books remained unopened, their pages uncut. And the library itself was undisturbed, apart from the whispered footfalls of the maids who swept out the grate each morning, laid and kindled the fire and twice a week stayed for another hour to dust and polish.
Just then, a feminine giggle told me that someone else had entered the library. It was Ida, one of the maids. She had worked at Bexington Hall for as long as I’d been here. Not one of the young ones; I would say she was in her late twenties. Pretty enough, with a jolly, round face, dimpled cheeks and ringleted blond hair that always seemed to be escaping the confines of her cap.
Perhaps she’d come to dust; perhaps it had been overlooked that morning. But she’d brought no rags with her, nor any polish.
Cousin Leo spoke, his voice so low that his words evaporated before I could catch them. The maid went back to the door and turned the key in the lock. Then she returned to stand before him, a bold smile on her face.
I’ll never forget my amazement at what she did next.
Improper Relations is available now from Carina Press.
I couldn’t look away.
We had stopped by the side of the road a few minutes before. Apparently something was amiss with one of the carriage’s wheels, or the fastening of an axle, or some such thing. I was glad of the respite, for I felt as if I’d been traveling for at least a year as we bounced and bumped along the narrow, rutted mountain roads.
When I’d first caught sight of the Alps—last Wednesday? Thursday?—I was entranced. I filled page after page of my sketchbook with penciled views captured hastily from the carriage window, mere placeholders for my memory until I had the chance to render them fully in ink and paint.
After a few days, however, I’d become rather inured to the splendor of my surroundings, and when the coachman started shouting I was fast asleep. My French was tolerably good, so I was able to follow most of what he said. Apparently there was a madman, and only a fool spits in the eye of death, and God did not give men wings for a reason. Since the coachman had scarcely said a word all day, this seemed to merit my attention.
“What is the matter?” I called out.
“Over there, madame. On the rock face to the right of us.”
“What of it?” There was only a wall of granite, such as I’d seen any number of times over the past few days, quite clear of vegetation apart from a few stunted conifers and scrubby patches of moss.
“Look up, madame.”
I did so, leaning out of the carriage window, and that was when I saw him.
High above us, at least a hundred feet from the ground, a man was climbing the rock face. That in itself wasn’t terribly unusual, for young men in the region, I’d been told, were fond of such pursuits. But he seemed to be alone and, moreover, was climbing without any kind of rope or safety harness, or at least none that I could see with the naked eye.
I scrabbled in my leather satchel, which had fallen to the floor of the carriage, and extracted my binoculars. I was right—he was climbing the rock face on his own, with no ropes to support him, and he was doing so in a state of rather shocking undress.
I adjusted the focus on the binoculars, just to make certain, but my eyes hadn’t deceived me: the climbing man wore nothing but a pair of breeches, or perhaps trousers cut off at the knee, and that was all. He had no shirt, not even a singlet, and his feet were bare.
“Celui-là, il est fou,” said the coachman. “Only a lunatic would try such a thing.”
It did seem the height of folly to climb such a height with so little regard for safety, but as I watched the man move up and across the rock face I found my initial horror giving way to admiration. There was a kind of grace to his movements, a considered decisiveness as he reached above, into the unknown, found something to grasp, pulled himself upward and then repeated the entire motion. It was so seamless, so fluid, that he might have been moving through water.
Eventually he reached the crest of the rock face, pulled himself over the top and disappeared into the forest above. I waited for him to reappear, but he seemed to be gone for good. Unaccountably disappointed, I turned my attention back to the coachman and his attempts to repair the carriage.
“It is no good, madame. The wheel is broken. We must wait for another carriage, or if you wish I can walk on to the village.”
The village in question was Argentière, several miles north of Chamonix. From there I intended to begin my walk along the famed High-Level Route to Zermatt. Assuming, of course, that I and my baggage were ever to reach our destination.
“How far is it?” I asked.
“A kilometer or two. No more.”
“Then I shall come with you. What about my trunk and my bags?”
“Your trunk is already padlocked to the rear of the carriage. As for your bagages, I will secure them in the compartment under my seat.”
After stowing my smaller cases, he unhitched the horses from the struts of the carriage and secured their leads to a nearby tree. He fetched them a bucket of water each from a barrel that was secured beneath the vehicle, then strapped on their nosebags and left them to their dinner.
I had kept my satchel and my two smallest traveling cases, which contained my art supplies and valuables respectively, and the coachman was kind enough to take all of them in hand for me.
The road we followed was quite level, and not at all taxing. There was little traffic between Chamonix and Argentière, at least at that hour, for no carriages or wagons passed us. I soon learned the coachman’s name—Monsieur Durand—and that he had grown up in Argentière. After seeing to the repair of the carriage, he told me, he planned to stay with his sister overnight.
We hadn’t been walking for long when I heard the sound of someone approaching from behind. I turned to see a man walking toward us, and as he drew near I realized it was the man we’d seen climbing the rock face earlier.
He now wore a shirt, left open at the neck, with a pair of braces to secure his breeches. But he had no tie or waistcoat or coat, and his legs were bare. On his feet he had low boots, quite worn and scuffed, and he carried nothing but an empty waterskin.
He looked to be a handsome man, although his dark, rather scruffy beard badly needed a trim, and his hair was unfashionably long, falling in unruly waves to just shy of his shoulders. Were there no barbers in Argentière?
I determined not to speak, to simply smile—only a hint of a smile, mind you, nothing more than that—but then he drew close, so close he was but an arm’s length away, and I looked into his eyes.
His irises shone a pale, clear gray, so light they might have been silver, and were ringed with a narrow band of blue the exact color of India ink. In all my life, I’d never seen such unusual eyes. He stared at me intently, as if there were some corresponding aspect of my appearance that was just as distinctive as his strange, cold gaze.
“Good morning,” I offered.
“Good morning.” Another surprise—the inflection of his speech marked him as an Englishman.
“Was it you we saw earlier? Climbing the rock face?”
“I was so worried you might fall.”
“I hardly ever fall,” he replied, his expression so grave I couldn’t tell if he meant me to take him seriously or not.
“But you might have been killed.”
“Hasn’t happened yet.”
I offered him my hand, and there was a very awkward moment when it appeared he might refuse to take it, for he simply stared at my white glove and made no move to take my hand in his. But then he wiped his hand on his breeches and shook my hand decisively.
“Are you going on to Argentière? Would you care to walk with us?”
He answered with a nod, no more, and with that we continued our northward journey. The road opened up, the flanking cliffs giving way to grassy banks and hills of conifers, and we passed by a small farm, then another. We walked in silence. After a few minutes, I realized I could hear birdsong, the harmonizing rush of a nearby stream, even the soughing lilt of the wind as it hurried through the trees.
It was warm in the late morning sun, and after a few hundred yards I stripped off my gloves and unfastened the top button of my jacket. I had foolishly left my parasol behind, still packed in my large trunk, and my fashionably delicate bonnet offered little protection from the sun. I would soon have the freckles to show for it. It was nothing a little lemon juice couldn’t mend, however, and in the meantime I had the chance to admire the man who walked a few paces before me.
I stared at him, drinking in every ripple of muscle beneath his worn linen shirt, marveling at the unconscious, easy grace that imbued his every movement. And I wondered what sort of lover he would make.
Improper Arrangements is available now from Carina Press.