Friday, July 31, 2015

Fiction Friday - A Midnight Engagement - Chapter One

April 7th, 1878
Bedfordshire, England

            Angie rested in the drawing room, her lessons over for the day, bored beyond imagination. At nearly 14 years old, she was too old for the playroom, and her over-protective father thought to protect her from the brisk wind and light rain outside. Her half-brothers were grown and long gone. She had already read all of the books in her father’s extensive library. She was too young to be part of “society” and too rambunctious to sit quietly and sew like most girls.
            Her foot tapped anxiously as she waited for something exciting to happen. She heard a quick rap on their front door. A caller had arrived! Her personal maid, Lottie, ran in to the room, her hair escaping wildly from under her small white cap.
            “He’s a fine one miss; I declare this is your lucky day.” Lottie was only a year and a half older than Angie, and the two had been close friends for years. Lottie was the cook’s daughter and they had grown up as playmates. “Tall, handsome, blond wavy hair…”
            They both silenced quickly and rushed towards the large opening to the foyer as they heard the massive door squeak open. The pressed themselves on either side of the open doorway to stay out of sight, winking at each other.
            “Welcome, Marc Andrew von Sheinburg, youngest son of the Count of Limburg.” The butler said, reading the proffered calling card. “Do you have business with the Duke today?”
            “Yes,” Marc replied, with a nod and a brief smile. “He asked me to stop by at about half past three o-clock, but I confess I may be a bit early. I’m not sure of the custom in your society.”
            Angie glanced at the mantle clock above the fireplace, it was hardly three o-clock. This particular businessman must be a stickler for punctuality.
            The butler nodded his head back in congenial agreement. “His Grace is not yet returned from a prior business engagement, but it should not be a long wait. May I take your coat? If you will, kindly follow me to the library.”
            Angie gave Lottie a strange look as the voices echoed down the hall. “Business,” She whispered disgustedly. Then she brightened, she could hide in the study before her father arrived home: a tiny room next to the library, her father never went into, but only used for storage. “Do you still have the key to the study?”
            Lottie nodded, and pulled a long silver key from her apron. “I had to clean it today, some of the boxes had fallen over, and you know how your father hates to go into that room. What will you do?”
            “I suppose I’ll just listen and see if I can catch a glimpse of him. You said he was handsome, right?”
            “I’m not sure that’s a good idea. I thought he might be calling for you, with your birthday coming up soon. But I’m not sure about eavesdropping on your father’s business.” A tiny wrinkle formed between Lottie’s eyebrows.
            “My father never keeps any business ventures from me, so what can it hurt?” Angie knew her father never kept anything from her. He gave in to her smallest amount of pestering. Even though she was a daughter and not a son, she was the daughter of his favored third wife. The marriage he made for love and not land, money, or politics. She had only to flutter the long black eyelashes she inherited from her mother, and anything she wanted, her father gave her.
            “Alright, but make sure they don’t catch you.” Lottie knew she had no control over what the Duke’s daughter did, but she did worry she would be blamed if something went awry.
            “I must hurry, before my father gets home.” Angie gathered her childish gowns, lifting the hem above her knees, and nearly flew up the stairs, almost too quickly, as the butler was still at the end of the long hall, headed towards the servants’ stairs.
            She slipped into the study unnoticed and went towards the private locked entry door leading to the library. She thought of opening the door a crack, but figured her father would notice. Instead, she bent down and peered through the large keyhole. A perfect view, but the gentleman caller had his back turned to her. She could only see the wavy dark blond hair, brushing just past his collar. His shoulders were wide and muscular, and he rested an arm casually along the back of the settee.
            She watched him as he gazed around the room, taking in the vast collection of books, art, sculpture, and nearly a dozen tiny model ships encased in glass. She remembered working with her father on the tiny ships, using tweezers and paste to make fantastic creations in a tiny world. Her father had spent hours teaching her the art form, when she knew how busy he was with his business ventures. After she had seen one in London, she didn’t let him rest until he learned the practice and taught it to her.
            Marc picked up the model from the table next to him, and turned the wick higher on the gas lamp to view the ship more clearly. It was such a dreary day outside, even with the curtains open and the lamps turned on, the library was dreadfully dark. With the odd lighting, she could only make out his shadowed profile but saw him smile as he looked at the ship. This was one of her own creations, with a tiny person clinging to the rigging, and a tiny woman passenger standing at the bow of the ship. She felt oddly proud and excited as he admired her work, and she settled down on an overturned trunk to watch her first crush.
            As her father conducted his business over the few hours, she learned more about the mysterious caller. Reviewing his interactions with Lottie later, she sighed at every new fact.
            “Lottie, you would not believe how sweet he was. He was so pleasant and polite even though his background is so different. His German accent is so mysterious. His name even sounds different when he says it. He had to spell it for Daddy on their business agreement. Can you believe that?”
            Lottie sighed in a different way, “I’m not sure I should encourage this crush of yours. He’s so much older than you. I thought he was younger with his blond hair and thin build, but you said he was 21 years old already, he’s not liable to wait for you to get old enough.”
            Angie suddenly had a terribly wonderful idea, “Didn’t you tell me a story the other day about how Betsy Sadler finally caught a man? What exactly did she do? Do you think it would work?”
            “No, no, Angie, you can’t do that! Your father would kill me, and likely you too! And he would definitely kill Marc.”
            “I did hear Daddy offer that he could stay in the cottage house just over the manor wall, so he wouldn’t have to go all the way back to town. I think this could work.”
            Lottie buried her head in her hands as Angie ran about the room, preparing for a midnight rendezvous, which in her childish daydreams she didn’t entirely think through. Lottie was sure she made a good argument against Angie’s plan, and went about the rest of her daily duties with only a few moments of fear and worry over what might happen that night.
            An hour past her bedtime, Angie crept out through her window onto the small balcony. She climbed down a rope she had borrowed from her father’s study. She crept through the wet grass and climbed a tree near the manor wall to help her scale the nearly 8-foot height. She dropped carefully into the mud on the other side, and spied an open window near the cottage guest room. Lifting it as carefully and silently as possible, she entered the guest room. Not certain where to “lie in wait” since the room was empty, she innocently snuggled under the covers and fell asleep.
            The Duke checked on his daughter shortly before midnight. He often retired late due to the busy social schedule he kept most of the year. He peeked in on his sleeping daughter before bed, just to see the angelic beauty in her sleeping form. Only that night, his daughter was not in her bed. Within a half hour, the whole house was in uproar. Every servant was awakened and scouring the house and grounds.
            When Lottie finally convinced her mother to “mention” something about the cottage house, the Duke and nearly a dozen servants crowded through the muddy lanes and banged on the door at an inappropriate hour.
            Meanwhile, Marc had completed his business correspondence and finally decided to retire to bed. Wearing only his nightshirt, he was startled to realize that someone else occupied the bedchamber. When he heard the banging on the front door, he immediately pulled on a dressing gown and went to see what was happening. As he answered the door, the entire party was shocked to see Angie in her white nightgown, staring at everyone from inside the bedroom door.
            The Duke quickly dismissed the servants and pulled Marc into a nearby room, shutting the door. Lottie and the cook huddled Angie close, whispering about what she was thinking and what happened, but she asked them to be quiet as she tried to determine what her fate might be. In the end, it was not what she had hoped.

~~~

            “I swear that nothing happened, I had no idea she was in the house, much less my room. I didn’t even know who she was!” Marc insisted.
            “Nevertheless, she is my daughter. Her muddy footprints on the sheets are evidence she was in your bed, and my servants are not likely to ignore the facts, despite their loyalty to me. She needs some protection from this for her future.” The Duke sighed, resignedly. “She’s my daughter. I can tell that she’s unharmed physically or you would be facing a more serious consequence right now. But I can’t ignore what her irresponsibility has done. You must marry her.”
            “I can’t marry a child, this is preposterous, she’s not even out of the schoolroom yet!”
            “Can we find a compromise, to protect my daughter’s future and everyone’s reputation? I know you are a man of your word from our business dealings. My daughter is headstrong, spoiled, and impulsive. I can see now that something must be done, for her future, if nothing else. What if I send her to a finishing school? We will formalize betrothal paperwork before sending her off to school. In four or five years, when she is fully of age, she can decide whether she wants to marry you, or she can break the engagement.”
            Marc knew that he was on his own in a foreign country. He was facing a powerful, if slightly insane father and a terrifyingly forthright young child. Faced with no other choice, he admitted defeat. “It’s true that I don’t currently have any marriage prospects. I agree to your terms, with one caveat, she must attend a religious school. I can’t imagine what her education has been up until now.”
            “If you weren’t going to India on our mutual business venture, I would wonder at your own education.”

An awkward laugh and handshake later sealed the gentlemen’s agreement for the night. By noon the next day, the paperwork was complete and Marc was on his way to India.
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