“I must tell you that we were all vastly relieved to hear the gossip about you and Anthony,” Clarice confided cheerfully.
Louisa tripped over a small stone on the path. She staggered a bit and nearly lost her grip on her parasol before she caught her balance.
“You were relieved?” she managed to say, aware that her mouth was probably hanging open in a most unbecoming fashion.
She and Clarice were strolling through the extensive gardens behind the Stalbridges’ large house. Anthony had remained inside with his parents.
This was not the first time Louisa had been flummoxed by a statement from one of the Stalbridge clan. It had been like this since Anthony had escorted her into the family’s elegant drawing room an hour ago and made introductions.
Nothing had gone quite as she had expected. In spite of Anthony’s reassurances to the contrary, she had been braced for grim disapproval. Instead she was welcomed with unsettling enthusiasm. No one seemed the least bit horrified by the gossip that implied that she was having an affair with Anthony. Neither did anyone show any indication of being shocked by her career as a correspondent for the Flying Intelligencer. Instead, Mr. and Mrs. Stalbridge and Clarice had been all that was charming and gracious. They seemed fascinated rather than appalled by her.
The discovery that Mrs. Stalbridge and Clarice were both devoted adherents of the rational dress movement had come as another pleasant surprise. Then again, she thought, why had she anticipated that the members of Anthony’s family would be any less out of the ordinary than he was? Emma had warned her that the Stalbridges were considered to be eccentrics, one and all.
She remained cautious, of course. Given her dark past, she could not afford to become too close to anyone. Nevertheless, she had been unable to resist taking an instant liking to Clarice. It had been so long since she’d had a friend who was close to her own age. Navigating the waters of friendship was a treacherous proposition when one carried a terrible secret.
“We are happy to see Anthony taking an interest in you because we have been so worried about him,” Clarice explained. “Last year, after his fianc'ee died, he became absolutely obsessed with the notion that she was murdered. It affected his mood for weeks. We all became quite alarmed, to be honest.”
Clarice absently twirled her parasol. “We thought he had gotten over it after he was forced to abandon his inquiries last year, but when he suddenly renewed his investigation a couple of weeks ago we realized that he was as committed as ever to his theory that Fiona was murdered. Then we heard the rumors about the two of you. Mama and Papa became extremely hopeful. Indeed, I did, as well.”
“Now that we have had occasion to see the two of you together, it is obvious that the gossip is true and that is why we are all so delighted to make your acquaintance today.”
“I’m not sure I follow your reasoning,” Louisa said warily. “My connection to your brother actually is founded upon a business arrangement. As he explained to you, I am assisting him in his investigation. When it is concluded, I plan to write a report for the Flying Intelligencer.”
“Yes, of course.” Clarice gave her a warm smile. “I’m sure that it will be an excellent piece of journalism. But it is also obvious that you and Anthony have formed an intimate connection, and we couldn’t be happier. It is good to see him looking at a woman the way he looks at you.”
Louisa sighed. “You feared his heart was broken when Fiona died. Now you believe that he is at least willing to allow himself to be distracted by another female, but I really don’t think you should leap to any conclusions about the nature of his feelings for me.”
“Rubbish.” Clarice laughed. “There is no other obvious explanation for the improvement in his mood.”
“Maybe he is more cheerful these days because he feels he is close to solving the mystery of Fiona’s death.”
“That may be part of it, but I still suspect that you are the main cause of his elevated spirits.”
“I really do not think so,” Louisa said weakly.
“Come now, Mrs. Bryce. You do not give yourself enough credit. I assure you, my brother would never have brought you here to have tea with Mama and Papa if he was not enamored of you.”
Louisa stopped abruptly, horrified. “I assure you, your brother is not in love with me.”
“It’s all right, Mrs. Bryce. You don’t have to pretend around this family. We are not like most of the people who move in Society. In this household, we are all quite straightforward.”
“Forgive me, but I fear that all those thrilling plays you write for the Olympia Theater have affected your imagination.”
Clarice nodded somewhat wistfully. “I admit that I do find the notion of illicit affairs very intriguing. I insert at least one into every play.”
“I have seen several of your plays. While they are marvelously entertaining, I cannot help but note that the illicit affairs always end badly.”
Clarice grimaced. “That is only because the audiences and the critics demand such endings. Mind you, they are all quite keen to savor the excitement of illicit affairs on stage, but they feel they can only justify their pleasure if the affairs come to unfortunate conclusions.”
“I see.” Louisa exhaled deeply and resumed walking slowly along the path. “It is the same way in novels.”
“Indeed. Literary conventions and critics can have a very restrictive effect on art,” Clarice said with a sage air.
“Do you think that if the conventions and critics did not exist it would be possible to write a play or a novel in which the illicit affair ended happily?”
“Of course,” Clarice said.
Louisa stopped again and looked at her.
“Well?” she said eagerly. “How would it conclude?”
Clarice waved a hand. “Why, the lovers would get married, naturally.”
Clarice raised her brows. “You don’t like that ending?”
“I believe I see a problem with your logic.”
“What is that?”
“If the lovers were to marry, the relationship would no longer be illicit, would it?”
Clarice frowned. “I see what you mean. Still, marriage is the only conceivable happy ending for an illicit liaison, is it not?”
“I suppose so.”
And, in her case, an impossible ending, Louisa thought.
ANTHONY STOOD at the window, hands clasped behind his back. His mother stood on one side, his father on the other. They all watched Louisa and Clarice stroll through the garden.
“Those two appear to be getting on quite well,” Marcus announced. He looked pleased. “I must say, I like your Mrs. Bryce. Fascinating young woman.”
“I told you that she was somewhat out of the ordinary,” Anthony said.
Marcus chuckled and clapped him on the shoulder. “Indeed you did, and you have seldom been more accurate in your description of a lady.”
“Those two do make a pretty picture walking in the sunlight with their parasols unfurled, don’t they?” Georgiana observed. She gave Anthony a sidelong glance. “Your Mrs. Bryce was widowed rather young, wasn’t she?”
“That does appear to be the case,” he said carefully.
“Interesting career she has fashioned for herself,” Marcus said. “No wonder she and Clarice hit it off so well. They have a lot in common.”
“I wonder what they are talking about out there,” Georgiana said. “Whatever it is, they both seem very intent on their subject.”
“Gardening, perhaps,” Anthony suggested, although he doubted it.
The tension in Louisa’s shoulders warned him that the conversation had veered toward the personal.