A Proper Prodigal (Part 2)
A Regency Short Story ~ by Susan Karsten
Upon awakening the next morning Virginia lay back with her fingertips laced behind her head. She’d just woken up from a dream. One of those that replayed again and again. A good dream, though. In it, she danced the night away with a tall man. A man who looked like Quentin Ashleigh.
A tap on the door signaled the maid with a breakfast tray, she and her mother having decided in advance to breakfast in their own rooms. The kitchen maid placed the tray on the bedside table. Next, to her surprise, a housemaid entered with a large bouquet of flowers.
“Where would ye like this put, Miss?” The maid staggered under the ungainly weight of the large display.
“Over there.” Virginia pointed to a table near the window. “Please hand me the card, Ruthie.”
Savoring the moment, she waited to open it. When both maids left, she propped and fluffed her pillows, then smoothed her hair, before prying open the envelope’s seal.
‘As you have danced your way into my affections, I would like to see you today. A walk in the Primrose Hall gardens perhaps? I shall call at two. Fondly, Quentin Ashleigh, Esq.’
Virginia’s hands flew up to her warm cheeks. Oh my, a beau! Nothing I ever expected here in Beckston. I’d anticipated withering away on the shelf without a backward glance. No sooner do I submit my life completely to the Lord and he brings me a man. This time, maybe a good one. The one intended for me.
There was no doubt in her mind Quentin was interested. She’d been plagued by boys and men since she was thirteen. Her looks drew them like flies and made her a target. Oh, it was sometimes fun to get the attention, but mostly it was a bother, finding a way to let them down without bruising their amour proper.
It wasn’t until Randall came her way that she succumbed to any of them. Why did it have to be? Why couldn’t Randall have aimed his potent brand of seduction at another beautiful girl? Providence could be a hard pill to swallow, but the whole experience had brought her to a place where she threw herself on the Lord’s mercy. She’d truly put it behind her. Praise the Lord the world didn’t know of her fall.
He spotted her. She was sitting on a garden bench under an arbor, a portrait of feminine loveliness. “The maid sent me around – told me you were out here.”
Quentin picked up her hand and kissed the air above it. He held her hand longer than necessary, then caught himself and dropped it as if scalded. “Sorry, I lost track of my mind, I mean my thoughts. For a moment.”
What a buffoon I am. Seeing her in the light of day had thrown him. He knew she was a pretty girl, but daylight revealed her true exquisiteness. Never mind that her intelligent wit and charm drew him – she was also a diamond of the first water. He hoped she wasn’t above his touch.
“I thank you for the flowers. Roses are my favorite. How did you guess?” She tapped his arm with her fan. Thank you, Lord, she’s flirting like she likes me.
“They are my favorite as well, and our succession house had some beauties in bloom. I couldn’t think of a better place for them than to grace your vicinity.”
There. That should make up for my earlier cloddishness. The combination of her lithe yet lush figure, dark glossy long hair, classic features, and soft brown eyes caused him to go silent, wanting only to drink in the sight of her.
“Shall we walk the garden paths?” She began to rise from the bench, and he slipped his hand under her elbow to assist.
“I’d love to go down the garden path with you, Miss Mortimer.” This sally brought a delightful fluttering of her eyelashes, a delicate hand to her bosom, and a smile perking the corners of her mouth. Be still my heart. She likes me so far. Good, that’s a start.
She placed her hand on his proffered forearm, and they strolled off. Quentin noticed she was just the right height for him. Not too short or too tall. He liked that.
“This is the herb garden. Mother and I make medicines and so forth with some of these plants.” She broke off a stem of rosemary, rubbed it, and passed it close in front of his face.
“My yes, I can see, I mean smell, that would be quite medicinal, Miss Mortimer.”
“Let’s go to the fountain. It’s over there.” They moved off in another direction and were soon out of sight of the house. “We should stay closer to the house, but you must see the fountain first. I think you’ll like the inscription.”
“I love inscriptions.” Quentin wanted to say ‘I love you,’ but held his smitten tongue.
“Ah, here it is.” He struck an orator’s pose and read from the fountain’s rim, “The law of the wise is a fountain of life, to depart from the snares of death. A Proverb.”
“Apropos, don’t you think?” She looked up to him, as if he held the key to wisdom.
Dropping his self-mocking pose, he grasped for a response. “Apropos? The whole of Scripture is that, Miss Mortimer.”
“I have a request, sir.” She turned from perusing the fountain to face him.
Oh no. This sounds serious. Have I spoiled it?
“Since we are going to be friends, might you call me Virginia, and I call you Quentin?”
“Indeed. Yes, that would be fine.” He almost choked with relief. She’s going to be my friend? How sweet. He’d be her best friend if she’d let him.
They moved back onto the main path and toward the house. Her parents were standing on a terrace off one of the rooms on the west side of the house. Mr. Mortimer waved. Disappointed their idyll appeared to be at an end, Quentin comforted himself that he’d made wonderful progress, both in getting to know Virginia, and in gaining her favor.
“Hello, Mr. Ashleigh. Won’t you come inside before tea? I want to show you a folio I just added to my collection.” Mr. Mortimer hooked his thumbs in his vest pockets.
Mrs. Mortimer waved Quentin on. “That’s quite fine. We’ll see you back out here for tea in a trice, when Mr. Mortimer’s done showing you his new treasure.”
The two men looked over the folio, and Quentin was taken aback when Virginia’s father shoved it in a drawer, and said, “I wanted to speak with you.”
He mustered up his courage, and answered, “How amusing, I wanted to speak with you as well, sir.”
“You first, then, young man.”
“I, sir am a man of thirty years, of good fortune and good repute and I’d like permission to court Miss Mortimer. She’s a real treasure and I must make her my wife. Do I have your permission?”
“My, you’re a blunt one. Charging right to the point, no? I’ll consider it, but there’s something you must know. She’s more fragile than she looks. I mean her spirit. You must promise to value her, never hurt her, and be a valiant champion for her. You see, she needs that, after all.”
After all? What does he mean? “You have my word on that, sir.”
“Good. Since I have your word to prize her happiness, I shall let you proceed. We can discuss settlements another time, after you’ve secured her heart.”
Weeks of rides commenced, Virginia always chaperoned by Lizzy, who hovered in the background. A picnic with Annabelle in attendance, dinners and lunches at both Primrose Hall and Fairbrook took the couple to the point of knowing their minds.
On a warm afternoon, Quentin found Virginia alone in the garden when he came to call. “Hallo! The maid told me where you were.”
She watched his approach, drinking in the good looks of this man who’d become so dear. Finding true love came as such a surprise, but her secret made her sad. The time had come to tell Quentin the truth about her. She couldn’t let him propose, which she sensed imminent, without knowing all about her.
“Virginia, you must know that I have something I must ask you.”
He looked down at the ground, and suddenly she knew the time had come. He was going to drop to one knee. Forestalling him, she held up a hand face out. “Before you do, I have something I must tell you.”
A shadow passed across his face. The poor man, he probably thought she was about to let him down easy. The silly man, she’d go to the ends of the earth with him, if she could. “Sit here.” She patted the bench.
Hating what she had to say, she forced out the words. “I must inform you that I was taken from here by a cad, and cruelly mislead. The good Lord saw fit to restore me to my home without anyone else finding out about my shame. Before you say anything more, I need you to decide whether you can see past this blot on my maidenly escutcheon.”
“Say no more. This must be heartbreaking for you and your parents. But I see no stain on you, my lovely. God doesn’t either, since you’ve certainly repented, correct?” He put his arm around Virginia’s shoulders and lifted her chin with his other hand.
“Of course I have, but this society of ours – so harsh on a woman who errs, and giving a blind eye to the sin of the males. Never have thought that fair.” She shuddered and Quentin gave her shoulder a comforting squeeze.
A tear rolled down her cheek and she let it fall, not caring a whit about hiding her sorrow. “Don’t rush into this. Take the night to think it over. Make sure you can forget.”
“Darling, now I must tell you a secret. The reason my sister and I moved to the country, is that she was seduced and abandoned. Removing from society seemed best at the time. The fact that I fought a duel over her lent urgency to our departure. And I’m glad we did, because that led me to you, darling Virginia.”
In one smooth move, he went down, not on one knee, but on two. Before Virginia could get out a word of protest, he asked her to be his wife.
“My dear. I would be highly honored if you would grace my life with your presence all my days. Nothing would make me happier than to settle down with you and enjoy our life together, come what may. Say you’ll be mine?”
She couldn’t resist his dark blue eyes beseeching up at her. “I will. And I will never disappoint you. I’ll always be your proper prodigal.”
Dear readers, nay, I shall call you friends…I’d love to hear your comments! Thank you for reading this, my first Regency short story. Susan Karsten