Stephen and James were sitting in Stephen's study sharing a late night drink as James filled Stephen in on all that had happened during his two visits to see Arabella. He hadn't had much chance to talk to Arabella alone but long enough to know that she was afraid of her uncle even though the threats were not made to her. James let the Squire continue to think he accepted that everything was as it should be and that Arabella's gowns had somehow been delayed in arriving.
"Our plans for the drive tomorrow afternoon have been altered," said James.
"You are not taking Arabella for a drive in the park?" asked Steven.
"I am," said James. "And you may still happen to meet with us. But Bella's cousin, Miss Sangster, will be along. I do not know how I could have refused the suggestion when the Squire made it. I must admit that I was not unhappy to have her join us."
"I see," said Stephen. "She is a pretty little lady, is she not?"
James blushed slightly and Stephen continued. "Although I have not spent as much time with her as I have Arabella's younger cousins, I have found her to have very nice manners. I know Arabella cares for her greatly. But that will make talking to Arabella about her uncle near impossible."
"Yes, but I did manage a counter move," said James.
James grinned. "Bella will come riding with me before breakfast. I do hope I might borrow your mare that she has become so accustomed to for the ride."
"Certainly! I will meet you at the park then. James, have you any plan on how we shall proceed? I do hate the idea of having Arabella continue to live there."
"I understand. I do believe she will be safe now that her uncle knows I will be close by and seeing her often. Until we can be certain the others are safe though I do not think she will want to leave."
"I know but the Squire must realize his game is up and a desperate man can be a dangerous man."
"True. You have hired men to watch him, have you not, Stephen?"
"I have. He will be followed around the clock."
"It will be interesting how he manages to get Bella outfitted appropriately. He can not ask me for money as he wishes me to think all the money spent already was for her. He has no ready money."
"The most obvious solution would be to sell something. Do you think he has anything worth selling, James?"
"He has Bella's mother's jewelry. I do not think he has sold it yet as I have been agreeing to every request he has made for money since she went to live with him."
"I see. So, James, shall we allow him to sell them?"
"Yes. Could your contacts be sure that I am the buyer? Without my name being revealed, of course."
"I believe so but why do we not just prevent the sale?"
"So that Bella can be properly outfitted for the season. I shall accompany Bella and her cousin to the balls, routs, musicales, and other events they attend. Come, Stephen, admit it. You would like to see Bella all decked out and lead her in a waltz."
Stephen laughed. "You are right. I would. By the way, I was not idle today. Mr. Johnson, on my behalf, has acquired Squire Sangster's vowels."
"Capital!" said James smiling.
The next morning James did call on Arabella to go riding with him. The red mark on her face, though faded slightly, still stirred anger in him but he did not let it show. It was probably just as well that she would not be outfitted properly for a few days. There was no point in giving the ton something to gossip about.
"Good morning, Cousin Bella," he said placing her hand on his arm and walking her down to the street to the waiting horses. "I have a surprise for you."
Arabella looked at James and smiled. Then she looked toward the street. "Lady Star!" Arabella wanted to run to the mare.
James laughed. "Stephen did say you were fond of her. I believe he is quite jealous of her."
Arabella laughed, too. "What silly nonsense, Cousin James!"
James said nothing further as he helped Arabella mount but having watched the affection Arabella bestowed on the horse he could understand his friend.
As they rode toward the park, James told her. "There is another surprise waiting at the park."
When the park came into view, Arabella saw a horse and rider waiting. They were very familiar to her. Unconsciously, she nudged the mare out of her sedate walk and hurried toward the waiting horseman. She did not notice that James halted and did not join her.
"Stephen!" she cried as she neared him.
"I mean, Viscount Chandler. Good morning, my lord," she said hastily, blushing at her faux pas and looking down.
Stephen had rode toward her when he had seen her approach. They now were stopped, side by side. "Good morning my lady. I liked hearing you call me Stephen as you did when we were children," he told her.
He was close enough to touch her chin and lift her face to look at him. The smile disappeared from his face as he saw the mark on hers.
Arabella realized what had caused the change and tried to think of something to say. "It is not as bad as it looks."
Stephen continued to stare at her cheek. "Really, it isn't." she insisted.
He realized he was making her uncomfortable and shifted his gaze to her eyes. "I would like you to call me Stephen. May I call you Arabella?"
She smiled. "I would like that." She enjoyed looking into his emerald eyes. She felt such strange and exciting things when he looked at her like this.
A discreet cough broke the spell. Stephen dropped his hand from Arabella's chin. "James," he said.
"James," she said.
"We do have much to discuss this morning," James reminded them.
As they walked the horses, Stephen and James told Arabella some of what they knew. She was not sure what to think of it all; to realize she was not penniless; that her uncle had been using her money all these years. She would need time to think. She did tell them she was sure that her aunt had not known of her uncle's schemes. She told them about the conversation she had overheard between her aunt and uncle regarding her cousin Patricia. She was relieved that James, and not her uncle, was her legal guardian.
"Cousin Bella, you could come to live with me right now if you like," James told her.
"No! I think that would anger Uncle and someone could be hurt," Arabella said.
"We thought that might be your reaction," said Stephen. "For now, we'll see how things play out. You must save me the dinner dance at the first ball you attend."
Arabella smiled at him. "If you wish, my lord."
Squire Sangster did indeed sell Arabella's mother's jewelry. He believed himself very clever. He had insisted to the buyer that they not be resold in England. If the Earl ever asked about them he had thought of denying the jewels had ever been given into his care but decided against that idea. He would pretend to look for them and claim them lost or stolen. The proceeds from the sale had more than covered the cost of Arabella's wardrobe and fripperies. He did resent spending the money that way, regardless of the fact that it was her jewelry he sold. He had not yet thought of a way to pay off his gambling IOUs. He was surprised to find they had all been bought up by one man. He had never even heard of this Mr. Johnson before but the man was being very reasonable. He was allowing the Squire till the end of the season to pay them.
Arabella was surprised how tedious getting fitted for a wardrobe was but she did like the new gowns. She had wanted Stephen to see her in them and been most pleased with his reaction. She knew now that she was not without a dowry, but she was still too old and too plain, in her estimation, for the marriage mart. For the most part, she was a very practical woman. She was sure Stephen's interest in her was as a friend but sometimes she could not help dreaming that there was more to his interest. In truth, he sometimes looked at her in a way that sent shivers through her. She knew she loved him.
She had watched her cousins, James and Patricia, over the last few weeks and felt quite sure they would make a match. She hoped her uncle would not stand in their way out of spite. He could have no real objections to James.
The season would end in a few weeks and what would happen then? she wondered. Where would she go? What would happen to her aunt and young cousins? There were so many questions. She would put them aside for today though as she and Patricia were going on a picnic with Stephen and James. Aunt Beatrice would be along to chaperone, of course. Arabella smiled. Aunt Beatrice was the ideal chaperone.
Aunt Beatrice demonstrated her qualifications as an ideal chaperone in Arabella's eyes when she suggested after they had eaten the picnic lunch that the young people go for a walk while she rested awhile. The four started out walking together but when they reached the riverbank, the two couples turned in opposite directions. Stephen walked Arabella toward a large weeping willow tree on the river's edge. The branches bent to the ground making a private alcove. Stephen had some things to say today to Arabella and wanted the privacy the screen of branches and leaves would provide.
"This is a lovely place," said Arabella.
"Yes, it is," agreed Stephen. He took her hand from his arm in one of his and then took her other hand. "Arabella."
"Yes Stephen?" she asked looking up at him, feeling a tension in him she had never sensed before.
"I have wanted to say this to you for so long. Will you do me the honour of being my bride?" he said.
"Stephen! Why?" she asked.
"Because I love you and want to spend every day of my life with you," he said smiling at her.
"Truly?" she asked. "But you could have your pick of young women."
"You are my choice, Arabella," he said.
"Oh Stephen, I love you," said Arabella, "but how ..."
Stephen had heard enough with her confession of loving him. He bent his head and kissed her. He let her hands go so that he could wrap his arms around her as he continued the kiss. He felt her reach up to place her arms around his neck as she returned his kiss.
When he finally broke the kiss, he asked, "Is that a yes, then?"
Arabella wanted to say yes but said instead,"How can I leave my aunt and cousins to deal alone with my uncle?"
"I do believe that James has a solution to that."
"He does? What?"
"It is not my story to tell but should soon be resolved. Will you then marry me?"
"Only if," started Arabella.
"If what?" asked Stephen.
"You promise to kiss me like that everyday," answered Arabella.
"With pleasure," he answered proceeding to kiss her again.
That night, as she prepared to retire for the night she thought about the day's events. Stephen loved her and wanted to marry her. It was such a beautiful dream. Was it truly going to come true?
Her thoughts were broken by a scratching on her door. Arabella opened it to find Patricia standing there.
"Arabella, may I talk with you?" she asked.
"Of course. Come in."
Arabella saw both delight and fear in her cousin's sweet features. What an odd combination she thought but then realized she was experiencing much the same combination.
"I have wished to speak to you all day but there never seemed to be a moment," started Patricia.
"Well let us sit on the bed and chat as we used to do," suggested Arabella.
"I have missed that since coming to London and becoming 'a proper young lady'," said Patricia with a smile.
When they were comfortably settled Arabella took Patricia's hand, "Now, tell me, cousin, what is it?"
Patricia smiled at her. "James, I mean the Earl of Cumberly, has asked me to marry him."
Arabella hugged her cousin. "How wonderful!"
"But what if Father does not give his consent?" Patricia asked worriedly. Although Patricia knew much less about her father than Arabella knew, Patricia did know well of his cruelty. "James is coming to talk to him tomorrow. Arabella, I am so worried. Father has been in an especially foul mood of late."
Arabella had noticed that too but felt that James must have a plan. Then she realized that it must be what Stephen had referred to this afternoon.
"I am sure James will deal with your father just fine, Patricia. It will work out," said Arabella.
"You do believe that, don't you?" asked Patricia.
"Then I shall too," said Patricia.
After Patricia had left for her own room, Arabella lay in her bed thinking. Stephen must know of James plan and have confidence in it so she would too. True happiness seemed within her grasp. She loved Stephen. She was still astounded that he loved her but she did not doubt his declaration. She would never have guessed how wonderful kisses were. Or were only Stephen's kisses like that? Funny how they had made her whole body tremble. Did married people really get to experience that everyday? She thought of her parents; remembering the looks and touches she had seen them share. Oh yes, it was possible. But not inevitable she thought, thinking of her aunt and uncle. She supposed her uncle was a handsome man outwardly but with so much ugliness within. He must have hidden that when he courted her aunt. Poor Aunt Beatrice. James plan must include protection for her and the children. That brought her thoughts back to James and Patricia. She was pleased that two people so dear to her loved each other. She was sure they would be happy together, as would she and Stephen. With her thoughts on Stephen, she started to drift to sleep. Strange as it may seem, she felt sure she had seen her parents' faces looking down at her and smiling, just before sleep overtook her.
James stopped by Stephen's home on his way to confront Squire Sangster and obtain his permission to wed Patricia.
"Here you are," said Stephen handing an envelope to James. "The Squire's vowels."
"Thank you," said James. "Are you sure you will not allow me to buy Bella's jewels from you? I did ask that you have your agent buy them for me."
"I know but I wish to keep them. I asked Arabella to marry me yesterday. I suppose I should have spoken to you first as her guardian."
"You know that I have no objections. I am happy for you my friend."
"Thank you but she has given me a conditional yes. She must know her aunt and cousins are safe first."
"They will be," assured James.
"I know. I wish to return the jewels to Arabella when we wed."
"I see. I guess I better get on with this then," said James.
"I wish you would let me accompany you," said Stephen.
"I will get word to you as soon as I can," promised James.
As Stephen and James were meeting, the Squire was in his study pouring himself a drink. Things had not gone well for him on his morning errand. He had decided to accept the generous offer a rich baron had made for his daughter. The man's very ungentlemanly reputation did not bother him in the least. He had not told his wife about it. He knew she would object but he could handle her. His plan had hit some obstacles. First, Mr. Johnson had refused to sell his IOUs to the baron. He had to get those settled. He had not been accepted at any of the gambling houses and he was sure that those slips of paper were behind it. He had to get them settled. He had gone to see Mr. Johnson this day to try to find out why he would not let the baron buy them. Mr. Johnson had sold the vowels. He would not say to whom or for how much but said that the man would call on the Squire soon. What did this man want with him? This London trip had been a big mistake.
There was a scratching at the door. "What is it?" he bellowed.
The butler entered and announced, "The Earl of Cumberly."
Sangster wondered what he could want. Despite his fears when the Earl had first arrived in London, the Earl had not confronted him. He had almost forgotten about the man.
Sangster dismissed the butler with a nod. "Cumberly," he greeted the Earl.
"Sangster," returned James.
"You wish to see me?"
"I do. I have come to ask for Miss Sangster's hand."
"You are too late. I have already accepted another man's offer."
"Are you referring to Sir Howard Steele?"
"How the devil .."
"It does not matter how I know but you will find that gentleman has changed his mind. Now then, do I have your consent?"
"I guess it depends on what you have to offer."
"Besides my good name I will care for your daughter and give her the life a lady such as she deserves."
"What about financial settlements? For the loss of my daughter's companionship?"
"Sangster, do not think me a fool. I know more about you than you imagine. I also own your vowels."
"Yes. Will you consent to the marriage?"
"I have no choice do I?" he bellowed turning rather red in the face.
"Not really. I should go let Miss Sangster know the happy news but there is one more thing."
"I intend to have her mother and sister and brothers come live with us at Cumberly Park. I assume you have no objections?"
The Squire looked at James with such a stunned expression that James nearly laughed. He finally said, "A wife's place is with her husband."
"Only if she wishes to be there. Agreed?"
The Squire knew he was defeated and silently nodded.
After leaving the Squire in his study, James met with Patricia in the drawing room privately.
"He has given his consent Patricia. Will you make me the happiest of men and be my countess?" asked James.
"Oh James! Yes!" said Patricia.
When Arabella entered the drawing room a little later, she saw the two wrapped in a kiss and tried to quietly back out but knocked a book off a small table by the door as she backed into it. At the thud of the book hitting the floor, the couple jumped apart.
"I am so sorry," apologized Arabella. "I did not mean to ..."
Before she could say more Patricia ran to her embracing her. "Arabella! James and I are going to be married!"
Arabella hugged Patricia and then James who had followed her. "I am so happy for you both."
"Oh!" exclaimed James reaching in his pocket. "The ring!"
When he took the diamond and sapphire ring from it's case he said,"It's the family betrothal ring but if you don't like it Patricia, we can get another."
"It's beautiful!" exclaimed Patricia as she put out her hand for James to put the ring on her finger.
"I do have one other bit of news," said James knowing that Arabella must hear this before Stephen arrived. "Your father has agreed that your sister, brother and mother may live with us at Cumberly Park."
"That is wonderful, James," said Patricia.
"Thank you," said Arabella.
They heard steps approaching the drawing room. The butler entered through the open door and announced, "Viscount Chandler."
"Thank you, Jennings," said Arabella as Stephen entered the room.
After Jennings departed, James said to Stephen. "Wish me happy my friend. Miss Sangster has agreed to be my wife."
"Please call me Patricia."
Stephen shook James hand, "I do wish you happy." He looked from James to Patricia. He had no doubts that they would be happy.
Stephen's gaze then went to Arabella who was smiling at him.
James saw the way Stephen and Arabella were looking at each other and knew that they needed some privacy. "Patricia, shall we find your mother and tell her our news?" he asked.
"Oh yes," said Patricia. "We will return shortly."
As soon as the newly betrothed couple left, Stephen turned to Arabella. "Well, is everything arranged to your liking?"
"Yes!" she exclaimed, throwing her arms around his neck.
When the kiss ended, Stephen asked, "Is that yes to both things are settled and that you will marry me?"
"It is," she assured him.
As James had done earlier, Stephen reached into his pocket. "This is the Chandler betrothal ring."
There was a large emerald, the colour of Stephen's eyes surrounded by diamonds and she wondered if all the Chandler men had possessed those green eyes. "It is so beautiful, Stephen."
"Until this morning, it has been in my mother's care. When I asked her for it this morning and told her why I wanted it, she was so overcome with emotion. I think she loves you almost as much as I do. I am so thankful she introduced me to you."
Three weeks later, Stephen and Arabella were married in the chapel at Cumberly Park. It had been where Arabella had always expected to marry and she felt sure her parent's spirits were in attendance. The Dowager Viscountess watched the ceremony through happy tears. She, too, felt the presence of Arabella's parents, and her own dear husband. Their children would be happy, as would the young Earl of Cumberly and his bride after they upcoming nuptials.
To Lady Arabella -
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