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Maid in Disguise

“Father.” Liz tried to reason with him. “His teeth protrude so far forward that he cannot even close his lips around them.” Not the largest of her concerns about his suitability, but one that surely her father would recognize.

Chuckling while he glanced over the ledger on his desk, he responded, “Lizzy, Lizzy. Come now. What is a little awkward teeth placement when you consider his station in life, his holdings, his family. You could live in any of his lovely estates, have every opportunity, every frivolity…”

“All of that, without love or affection would feel like prison. You ask too much.”

“I hope that you will change your mind. Get to know him. You have hardly spoken three words to each other.”

“Which is why I cannot fathom your acceptance of his suit without consulting me, without even knowing him properly.” She leaned forward, palms down on his desk, hoping he would look into her eyes. “He might be cruel, prone to fits of temper.”

At this, the Earl leaned back and laughed. “My dear, he is thin as a rail and short besides. You could squash him like a bug, temper or no.”

“You are not thinking, Father. He could command the household to lock me up. You might never see me again. ‘Oh, she is unwell today.’ They would say. ‘Oh, she couldn’t make it this trip.’ Years could go by, years and you would never speak to me, not knowing if I lived or died.”

He shook his head. “If it wasn’t such a frowned upon profession, I would have encouraged you to be an actress.” He began filling in numbers on a ledger. “I have no time for your theatrics.”

Liz rested her elbows on knees, and held her face in the palms of her hands. Thinking on the last ball, she breathed out in exasperation. The room had been full of handsome gentlemen, kind gentlemen, fun, smart, engaging men; and who did her father accept? Lord Nigel Pinweather. Pinweather. Was she to be Lady Pinweather?

Her father pulled his timepiece from his pocket. “Did I mention he is coming to walk in the park this morning? Should be arriving any moment.”

“Ugh! Father, you did not mention it, no. I would have been completely indisposed had you brought it to my attention.” She stood. “As it is, I feel a headache beginning to pinch between my eyes.” She held the bridge of her nose with two fingers and walked to the door.

Lemming, their Butler stepped in front of the doorway just as she moved to exit.

“Oh, do excuse me, my lady.”

“It’s quite all right, Lemming.” Her father waved him into the room and Liz stepped aside.

“Lord Nigel Pinweather here to see you, my lady.”

She reached a hand out to steady herself on the wall.

Lord Davenport chuckled. “Early riser. As he should be. Lemming, please show him into the morning room.”

“Very good, my lord.”

Liz paced in front of her father. “Must I entertain him? Alone? Where is Mother?”

“Of course your mother will join you, don’t be silly. Your sisters too, I’d imagine. Now, give him just a moment to get settled in there and then pour the man some tea.”

“And we’re to go for a walk?” She craned her neck to see outside, but alas, the birds chirped prettily on a bright and sunny day.

“Come now. Give it a chance, my dear. Who knows but he has a charming personality with a bit of wit to recommend him.”

***

A full thirty minutes after her first sip of tea, she longed for their promised walk.

Lord Nigel pointed at her with his cup. “And then the swine all ran to the far corner of the yard, chasing the young lad while he yelped and hollered. He sounded like the hounds were after him.” He laughed with deep heaving breaths. “You understand. As if he were on the hunt…” He looked from her to her mother with his eyebrows raised.

Her mother forced a smile.

Liz did not. During his first such account, she had waited for more, for the purpose, but it never came, just his laughter. And a cruel sense of humor. Watching him rock, celebrating his own abysmal humor, she wondered if he noticed no one else cared. Or did he think they were all as enthralled as he?

And his teeth. She did not consider herself so utterly frivolous that his teeth should matter, but his lips could not close properly. Would she ever have to kiss those lips? She brought a handkerchief to her mouth, hiding the slight upheaval and burning in her throat.

Food passed across his mouth, and his tongue couldn’t quite reach to dislodge it. Tea didn’t fully wash it away. She found herself distracted, cringing at a piece of cucumber marring his teeth’s yellow surface. And then a bit of sandwich flung outward and landed on her knee, a crumb. Watching that piece of soggy bread soak into her lovely pink taffeta, she knew Lord Nigel could not be her future. How was one to dislodge bread crumb spittle from her person? And how was one to dislodge a suitor?

She stood. Perhaps if she made herself ridiculous, he would turn away and seek a suit elsewhere. Interrupting his next inane account, she rose. “It is time for our walk, is it not?”

Her mother’s eyebrows rose.

If she had to endure a walk in the park with this man before he would leave, then they had best get started. “Do you not agree, Lord Nigel?” She giggled and snorted, wiping her glove below her nose. She offered the same gloved hand to him.

His smile widened as he clasped her hand in his own. Then he raised his eyebrows twice before bowing.  She winced when the weight of his lips pressed into her fingers—those same appendages which had just now been wiping her nose in such an uncouth manner.

Subtlety would not turn him away.

She pulled her hand from his grasp. “Oh come now, we have no need of this romantic gallantry. Let us be off, shall we?” She pulled at his arm, dragging him through the open door and ignoring the raised eyebrows of the footman who scrambled to open it soon enough that they could pass.

“Lady Elizabeth, really.” Her mother’s soft tones of disapproval did nothing to dissuade Liz in her course. She turned to eye her mother with a look of defiance.

Ignoring her mother, she used more force to yank Lord Nigel down the hallway.

“Lady Elizabeth. Such strength. Excellent for bearing sons.” He patted her hand where it gripped his sleeve.

She released him. Bearing sons, indeed. “You are too bold.”

“Am I? I feel it is almost decided between us, is it not? Your father seemed most pleased.”

“I cannot speak for him, but as for myself, I am not decided.”

They waited at the front door for the butler to open it. Her maid fell in behind them. Lord Nigel stepped closer. She couldn’t identify the smell on his breath, but, so strong it was, she tasted it on her tongue.

He placed a hand at her elbow. “A proper courtship would be dull, would it not, if I could not spend my efforts convincing you? Turning your heart to mine?” He squeezed her arm and gave it a little shake.

She returned her eyes to his face. “Hmm. I am unprepared for such an effort in my behalf. I do believe you might be better served focusing elsewhere?” There, she’d said it. Perhaps he would desist without her father knowing she’d been the cause.

“Naturally you are unprepared. But I am happy to step in to help, as they say, prepare you.” He raised his eyebrows a couple times and leaned forward, teeth first toward her own mouth.

She yelped and stepped back, bumping against the wall behind her.

“Lemming!”

“Yes, My Lady.” He entered the hallway from their drawing room.

“We are ready to be off to the park.”

“Very good.” His eyes held sympathy. Then he straightened his jacket, stepped forward and opened the door.

***

Liz stomped into the house, threw her bonnet at Lemming and would have shouted to the walls if she hadn’t first heard laughter from her father’s study. And her name. She stepped closer.

“But she must go through with it. How can you be sure she will marry the idiot?”

“She will. Has no choice, really.” Her father’s voice sounded strange, giddy, desperate even.

Laughter carried out into the hallway with the sounds of clinking glasses together.

“Lord Pinweather will make up for any grief you hear from her.  Padding your pockets, he is.”

Liz fisted her hands.

“Nigel’s father made the whole arrangement quite lucrative, not even requiring half what I would offer in dowry. But I’d never force her like this, you know, if we weren’t in such a bind.”

“Ol’ Horace wants his money, that’s all. And now we’re gonna give it to him.”

Tinkling of glasses followed her as she ran down the hall and up the stairs, straight for her mother’s sitting room. She burst in unannounced. “Mother, you cannot let Father go through with this.”

Her mother frowned. “Leave, and come back in with more decorum. We have not raised you to be the harridan you appear at the moment.”

Sighing, she turned and waited at the entrance to the room.

“Hello Liz, won’t you come in?”

Stomping, she came forward in a flurry. “Father is being compensated for my marriage to Lord Nigel. I am part of some sort of business deal.”

She waited for the shock, the denial, the worry, any expression to cross her mother’s smooth features.

“Every marriage is a business deal of some sort.”

Liz’s mouth opened. “How can you say that? Was yours?”

Her mother waved the idea away. “Of a sort, yes. Your father met with mine and they arranged the financial details.”

“Yes, I know all that, but this is worse. They were laughing and patting each other on the back about it. Calling Lord Nigel an idiot even. Father wants me to marry an idiot?”

Her lips pursed and her brow wrinkled. “You were eavesdropping on your father?

“Mother, this is my life! Surely you can reason with him. I don’t want to be tied in marriage to a man my own father does not respect.”

For a moment, her mother’s eyes showed compassion, and she said, “Come here, dear.”

Leaning in, she hugged her mother. “You will speak to him, won’t you?”

“I will not.”

“What?”

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