A Dangerous Affair Sneak Peek

Here’s a sneak peek at a chapter of A Dangerous Affair, Book 6 in the Branwell Chronicles:

Clara was as good as her word—she did not stay awake reading. Nor did she beguile the late hours gazing into the fire and considering her filial duty. This was something she had never been allowed to forget, and she was entirely familiar with its import, its urgency, and its utter futility. She was young—scarcely two-and-twenty—beautiful, tolerably skilled in every womanly art, and charming to a fault. However, she had a larger view than simply to waste these attractions on an early marriage. All the enjoyment of a woman’s existence seemed limited to the period between her come-out and her marriage, where she could test, improve, and revel in her powers over the male sex. Marriage effectively ended such delights, for it not only considerably restricted her scope but removed the power of refusal, sentencing her to a lifetime of obedience and monotony—if not indignity.

That the man was not so restricted, either before or after marriage, was one of those inconsistencies with which the world was riddled, and which Clara observed with disdain. She* would not suffer herself to be subjected to such inequality, and so marriage must wait. She meant to enjoy her salad days—just as a young man of her age was expected and even encouraged to do. But she would take care not to relinquish a jot of control into the hands of her admirers. There was much to enjoy in the company of young gentlemen without engaging in those forbidden acts which were only too likely to end her freedom.

Indeed, she could think of no inducement powerful enough to tempt her willingly to put an end to her independence—except perhaps the sort of attachment her brother Geoffrey had formed with his wife. But their situation must be extraordinary, she was persuaded, and quite unattainable for the generality of persons. They were lately married, and though they were bound together by law and in God’s eyes, their happiness together seemed to know no bounds and had given them both an inconceivable freedom. Upon reflection, she was made to admit that Mr. Noyce’s marriage to her mother was in a fair way to becoming such an attachment.

This really was most astonishing, for it flew in the face of everything she had understood of marriage all her life. Her mothers’ first marriage had been entirely the opposite—a study in frustration and antagonism that had endured nearly thirty years. Nothing about that marriage had excited so much as a particle of longing in Clara for a husband, and she had grown to womanhood believing that true satisfaction belonged in remaining single. But Geoffrey and Mr. Noyce were of an entirely different stamp than Colonel Mantell had been, and it followed that the felicity of their marriages was due to their peculiar goodness.

It was precisely this aspect that gave Clara to believe she was incapable of achieving such a marriage herself. She was not so foolish as her mother, and would not make the mistakes she had, but neither had she ever been an angel. Clara took strongly after her father and her elder brother Francis in that she was entirely disposed to use her youth and beauty to tempt and to ensnare, to confuse and to vex members of the male sex. She did not strive to be worthy of the goodness that Mr. Noyce and Geoffrey extended to their wives. Indeed, though she respected and even envied their marriages, she considered them something akin to a faerie tale which one delighted in knowing but accepted the folly in aspiring to.

Though this conviction might have troubled some, Clara knew herself too well to allow it to affect her. Her mother may have found the faerie tale, but Clara most certainly would not end up like her mother. Thus, she did not waste much time in reflection after Mr. Noyce left her, but finished her chapter and went on her way to bed.


The following morning at breakfast, Mrs. Noyce looked cheerful and bright as she observed, “You are late to the table this morning, my dear. Almost as though we were in London, and keeping Town hours.”

“As much as I could wish that were the case,” replied Clara, matching her mother’s bright tone, “I merely considered it my duty to come down when the family would be present, so that we might share our repast together. I had collected that you might rise late, for you were severely fatigued last night, and it would not do for me to have come and gone before even you had left your rooms.”

Mrs. Noyce colored and sniffed, pouring herself a cup of coffee, but a sly glance from her husband transformed her pout to a dimpled smile, and she refilled his coffee as well, adding milk and sugar just as he liked it.

He turned a grave look upon his stepdaughter. “Your filial scruples did well to forbid your early rising, for we wished particularly to speak with you. In light of your expressed desire for a respite from Southam society, we have decided upon removing to Bath directly, for I generally spend some months there in the winter, and wish to carry you both away with me.”

“To Bath?” inquired Clara, pausing in her surprise with her cup halfway to her lips. “Whatever for?”

“Bath is quite congenial in autumn—far more than London,” said her mother. “And Mr. Noyce has need of the hot baths. But I ought not to have expected that you should be mindful of his needs, for you are ever selfish, Clara.”

Mr. Noyce tutted. “None of that, my dear, for your opinion of our going was much the same last night. Ah, but I persuaded you otherwise, did I not? Let me try if I may persuade her as well. What say you, Clara? Shall you come with us to a watering place where there are plenty of fresh young men to fall over themselves, and parties and assemblies to divert one, or shall you keep yourself immured in the country with a paltry three or four unvarying admirers?”

Clara made a show of skepticism while ruminatively sipping at her coffee. After several moments, wherein her mother fidgeted in annoyance and Mr. Noyce looked amused, she set down her cup with a careless hitch of her shoulder. “Very well, sir. I shall accompany you to Bath. But I warn you, I haven’t a stitch to wear.”

Mr. Noyce’s amusement gave way to a grin. “That’s the spirit! I knew you would be sensible. You’ll see, we shall have a wonderful time, and be prodigiously comfortable together, though it does cost me a pretty penny.”

“How can you talk so, Mr. Noyce?” demanded his wife, putting down her coffee cup with a clink. “Clara is merely wheedling you, and you oughtn’t to let her do it! She will do very well without anything new, for she has a whole room full of gowns that you bought for her at our wedding. A few of them may need furbishing up, but you need not pay more than a few guineas for that, I assure you.”

“But my dear, that is just what I said of your wardrobe last night, and you very quickly undeceived me. I shall not be so sapheaded as to make that mistake again.” He stood, offering her his hand to rise and go with him out of the room. “Clara’s gowns must be in as sorry a state as yours after two months, and I will gladly lay out as much as either of you wishes, to fit yourselves out so that I shall not be put to the blush.”

Their voices faded away as they strolled down the corridor and into the sitting room, and Clara smiled as she helped herself to more toast, lavishly spreading butter on it. Mr. Noyce was a dear, and even she, with her cold heart, adored him. She certainly did not repine that it was he and not Colonel Mantell who now presided over their meals and remonstrated with her mother.

When she had eaten her fill, she went upstairs to get her hat and gloves and, donning a pelisse against the cool of the morning, went out into the flower garden to tend to the roses. The former abbey cloister, having lost a wall to improvement, had become the garden, and had been tended by generations of Noyce ladies until it was the jewel of Southam. Clara, who enjoyed gardening more than any other womanly art, was pleased to do her small part in the succession.

It was at this noble task that Mr. Lawrence Simpford found her some thirty minutes later, snipping the shriveled heads off the late roses. He was a cheerful fellow of five-and-twenty, one of Geoffrey’s good friends, and had known Clara since she was in leading strings. He was quite good-looking, with brown hair and brown eyes and a fine figure, which was displayed to advantage in a blue coat over a gold-and-blue embroidered waistcoat and buff pantaloons.

“Good morning, Clara!” he said, coming up to her on the gravel walk.

She put the shears into her basket and gave him her hand. “Hello, Lawrie. What brings you out on so fine a morning? It cannot be the glory of the sun that has seen fit to shine upon us at last.”

Mr. Simpford grinned, bowing low over her hand. “Not the glory of the sun, ma’am, but the glory of your person, which cannot be compared.”

“Fie, flatterer,” returned Clara with a mischievous look. “But for that piece of flummery, you might have taken my basket and walked with me back to the house.”

With an air of unconcern, he took the basket from her hands, offering her an arm. “As it is not my intention to return into the house, I am glad. I have a great desire to walk around the ruins instead.”

“And if I have better things to do than to ramble about a lot of tumbled rock with you, sir?”

“Impossible,” he said firmly, guiding her with exquisite cordiality toward the gate that led out of the rose garden and into the open area beyond.

Discarding the basket on an obliging bench, Mr. Simpford opened the gate for his companion to pass through, then followed her onto the flagstone path. Mr. Noyce had installed the path for the pleasure of his guests—his particular malady prohibiting his enjoyment of traversing uneven ground. The path led around the perimeter of the remains of the abbey church, now only crumbling walls and the occasional column laid out in the shape of a cross in the grass. It was a small ruin, but delightful to the imaginations of young and old alike and, Mr. Noyce being the kind-hearted and friendly man that he was, most of the neighborhood children had been allowed to run riot within its precincts at some period of their lives.

Mr. Simpford led Clara to the right of the nave, assisting her to scramble up onto a berm that had overgrown a fallen column. He laughed at her readiness to come with him, saying, “It is a happy occurrence that you were to be found in the garden on such a lovely morning, else I might never have persuaded you out of doors.”

“I am not such a slug-a-bed, sir,” she said, allowing him to lift her down the other side. “I imagined I should be spared the annoyance of visitors by absenting myself from the sitting room. However, I suppose your society is not so irksome as to entirely cloud my enjoyment of the day.”

He grinned, sweeping off his hat and bowing at her compliment. Replacing his hat, he strolled with her along the path, which they had rejoined on the far side of the ruin. They paused beside a lonely portion of wall that stood apart from the rest and was oddly pockmarked, as though it had been used as a target for shooting.

“It is only right that you should bring me here, Lawrie,” said Clara solemnly regarding the wall, “for it is a just penance to you for the impertinence of stealing the solace of my morning hours.”

“I had forgot this place,” he said, grimacing.

“Three times out of five I outshot you, sir! How could you forget?”

“It was only twice you beat me, Clara!” exclaimed Mr. Simpford, holding back a smile.

“Oh, no, sir! Three times. I never tell untruths.”

“Perhaps. But I had beat you innumerable times before that.”

She sighed happily. “Yes, but never after, recollect. I am become the better shot, and you must admit to it. There, after all, is the irrefutable proof.”

“I am in no way obliged to admit to it,” he said loftily, but his twinkling eyes belied him as he led her onward down the walk. “It should never have happened had Geoffrey not given in to practicing with you. Have you heard from Geoffrey?”

“Yes. We had a letter from him only two days ago. They are safely embarked from Lisbon, and are looking forward to the long journey round the Cape. They will quite miss winter, for it is nearly always summer in much of Africa and India, you know.”

“I see you are become an authority.”

“And must, therefore, be accorded the respect I deserve, sir,” she replied primly.

He chuckled, but after a pause said in a reflective tone, “I am glad Geoffrey has left the army behind and may be his own master. It is far less worry to have one’s income dependent upon nothing more dangerous than the rents and the weather—or, in his case, his wife’s inheritance. I own, I am glad never to be obliged to wonder at what cost my income will be given me.”

Clara laughed. “No, unless your mama takes a sudden notion to become very expensive. Though, if she retains her aversion to London, I cannot conceive where she should spend her money. There are only the two shops in Southam, and even Warwick could not provide her with enough gowns or wares to exhaust all your funds, surely.”

“I trust not,” said Mr. Simpford, his brow creased in mock concern. “But perhaps she could find her way into one of the select gambling houses there, and ruin me after a few nights’ hard play.”

“As her character was ever vicious, one could easily imagine her capable of such a thing.”

She caught his eye and they both burst into whoops at the vision of the comfortable and motherly Mrs. Simpford, who never left her couch if she could help it, and whose only vice was a partiality for rich foods. Their mirth was redoubled at Clara’s suggestion that even were Mrs. Simpford to indulge in a fit of gaming, perhaps she would not* lose, for having driven all the other players distracted with her voluble chatter.

“It will come as a welcome surprise to her,” said her undutiful son, wiping his streaming eyes, “that her propensity for talk could be turned to such good purpose.”

“Better not to suggest it, else she may imagine it her duty to try it, if only to improve your income.”

“But then she should be obliged to leave the house, which she would not like,” pointed out Mr. Simpford, nearly in command of himself. “I think my income is safe, for now.”

“And a very good thing, too,” said Clara, twinkling up at him. “Not many sons can boast such security.”

“No,” agreed Mr. Simpford, gazing down into her upturned face. His smile faded and he hesitated, the look in his eyes intensifying and his countenance becoming suddenly determined. All at once he stopped, turning to face her, and took both her hands in his own. “No, Clara, many cannot, which is why I must not take it for granted. I know I ought not—despite my fears that you—that is, I know it is not what you—but I simply must ask—”

Clara, recognizing to what this tangled speech tended, removed her hands from his grasp and said with embarrassed impatience, “Do not be a gudgeon, Lawrie.”

He blinked at her as she studiously adjusted her shawl. “Clara, I—”

“You are trying to make love to me, Lawrie, and it will not do,” she cut in, her tone all amiability as she took his arm again and compelled him at a meander along the path. “You know that I do not think of marriage. It astonishes me that you should allow yourself to be so carried away as to forget it,” she added, with a significant glance.

His spirits palpably perturbed, he answered stiffly, “Pray, pardon me. I ought not to have overstepped.”

“It is perfectly understandable,” she said, pressing his arm in a comforting way. “Geoffrey is continually chiding me for that effect I have on gentlemen. It is very unjust, however, for I hardly ever intend to deceive them.”

Her swain merely shook his head, and after casting him a sympathetic glance, she went on.

“I really have too much to consider at present. My mother lately married, the change in my home and circumstances—it is simply impossible that I should think of another change so soon.”

“Certainly not,” he said, his equilibrium returning.

“And we are very soon to remove to Bath. You see, I could not consider taking so significant a step before we are back.”

His gaze flicked to her, his mouth puckering in irony. “If you are not intending to deceive me, Clara, you are doing a very poor job of it.”

“Oh!” she said, making a face. “Forgive me. I sometimes forget just how well you know me. It is very bad of you to always be so very observant. But you must all the better comprehend my dislike of marriage!”

He sighed. “I do.”

“I knew I could rely on you,” she said, smiling up at him. “But you are always so obliging, and never take a pet. I should vastly prefer your company to any other gentleman—despite … everything.”

“I may only hope that your sentiments prevent your forgetting me in Bath.”

Clara pressed his arm. “How could I do so? We shall only be there until Christmas. That is not enough time to forget anything!”

“I hardly know what to say to such a compliment,” he said, turning to take her hand. “But I suppose the best thing to say at this point is thank you for the walk.”

He bid her good day, bowing over her hand with a perfunctory smile and walking away around the house. Clara, shrugging off whatever burden her conscience attempted to lay upon her, let herself into the vestibule, removing her pelisse and carrying it over her arm up the stairs. On the landing, she met Mr. Noyce.

“And what did young Lawrie have to say?” he inquired, winking. “He seemed mightily full of something.”

“Only nonsense, sir, as usual,” she said blithely, kissing his cheek as she passed.


She stopped at the unaccustomed gravity of his tone, turning to look an enquiry.

“Did he make you an offer?”

“He did, sir.”

“And you refused him?”

“Of course.”

He gazed ruminatively at her for a few moments. “If it had been Shelby Frean, I should applaud you, Clara, for he is nothing but a boor. But Lawrence Simpford is another breed altogether—a better breed. Indeed, I must tell you that he is an excellent man, Clara.”

“To be sure, sir, and that is why he is not the man for me. I was not bred to excellence myself, and so I can find very little in it to tempt me.”

Mr. Noyce tutted. “But what, then, could you look for in a husband?”

“Nothing, sir, for you know I do not think of marriage. There is very little scope for the imagination in marriage—at least for a woman. I wish for adventure and, indeed, a little danger, before I am tied by the heels to a man and a home.”

“My dear,” said Mr. Noyce, “marriage can be a grand adventure, and even a little dangerous at times. I recommend it highly.”

Clara reached up to kiss his cheek again. “If I could find another such as you, sir, I should consider it, depend upon it. But I fear you are unique, and so I must make my own way through this world.”

She went on her way to her apartments, and Mr. Noyce, after a protracted pause, shook his head and continued down the stairs.