The drive home was particularly awkward. Neither of them wanted to be the first to bring up what they thought had happened outside the theatre, yet it was the only thing on both of their minds.
They both went to bed almost the same minute they arrived home.
The next morning, Michelle joined Max later than usual for breakfast, just after he had gone through his mail. He smiled shyly at her as she entered, and indicated the letter he was holding.
"You mentioned last night that you were proud of my reaction to the incident yesterday afternoon," he stated.
"Yes, I was," she said warmly. He interrupted before she could go on.
"Then I think you will be even more proud when I tell you that I revised my design of the house you were so impertinent as to send to Mr. Grey, and I copied your impertinence."
"You did?" She was surprised and delighted. "Then indeed, I am proud of you. Was the outcome any different?"
"No," he said without emotion, then smiled broadly. "But I thought you'd be proud to know I took that step."
"You mean you righted the things he said were wrong about him, and he still did not accept it?" Michelle calmly set her fork back beside her plate, before she had even taken a bite. Max merely handed her the letter to read for herself. He felt strangely detached from what was said in the letter. He did not feel hurt or angry. He could not understand why he suddenly felt differently, but he did. Michelle finished reading the letter and said in an angry voice,
"This is insupportable. What does the man want, if he does not take it now?"
"A more experienced artist, I expect," said Max, pausing to chew thoughtfully.
"Maximillian?" said Michelle, confused. "Do you mean to say you are not upset?"
"Not particularly," he conceded.
"What are you going to do about it?"
"I don't think there is anything to be done. Perhaps we could try another...."
"Nonsense! Mr. Grey is the most respected person in this field! He would help you to gain more respect in the world, if he were to accept these drawings of yours. It must be Mr. Grey."
"Well, at least one of us is ambitious," Max commented.
"Maximillian..." Michelle changed the subject abruptly, staring at him in wonder. "You're not dressed."
"My valet overslept." Max shrugged and continued eating while Michelle continued to stare. Finally she looked down and went on with her own breakfast. When she was finished, she said,
"I am going to Mr. Grey's office. If I am not back for tea, I will be enormously surprised, but don't worry. I won't come to any harm."
"Wait!" Max exclaimed, jumping up and running after her. "Why should you go to Mr. Grey's office?"
"To make him see reason, of course," she smiled sweetly, then added, "I know you don't like the idea, but I really want to do this for you."
He frowned, scratching the side of his head as he thought.
"Well, as long as you allow me to come with you. I don't like the looks you've been receiving lately. And for Heaven's sake, keep your shoes on!"
"Yes, Maximillian," she agreed demurely. But as he helped her into the carriage a few minutes later, there was a decidedly mischievous twinkle in her eyes.
When they disembarked from the carriage, Max was somewhat disappointed with the sight of Mr. Grey's office. He had expected it to be somewhat more intimidating, and yet it looked perfectly ordinary. Michelle, however, was undisturbed by such paltry distractions, and marched in determinedly, demanding to speak with Mr. Grey.
"Ah," said that man when he deduced who was paying him this unexpected visit. "So this is Mr. Callahan. Who might you be, again?" he turned to Michelle.
"Who I am is of no consequence," she replied tartly. She was a bit put out that Mr. Grey seemed to be such a reasonable man. He was somewhere before or after middle-age, with slightly-graying black hair, features that were, if not handsome, quite distinguished, and a carriage that spoke of nobility. "My purpose in coming is not to talk of myself, but to demand an explanation from you, sir."
"From me?" he raised his eyebrows. "Whatever for?"
"This," she said, flinging Max's papers on the desk before them. Max flushed a bit, and was forced to look away. He was careful to stay out of the argument that ensued, having an astonishing lack of interest in the affair. After twenty minutes of ranting, pleading and reasoning, Michelle was worn out and much too angry to be rational. She turned away from Mr. Grey and began fumbling in her reticule. Max looked reproachfully at Mr. Grey and went to assist her.
"She's not armed, is she?" said Mr. Grey suspiciously. Max snapped at him to be quiet and let him handle this. Michelle laughed quietly, still searching in her reticule. Mr. Grey, seeing her shaking shoulders, was almost disposed to pity her, until she turned around with a rope in her hand. His eyes widened and he took a step back.
"I'm not going to strangle you," said Michelle. "Honestly, what good would that do me, or Mr. Callahan?" She proceeded to tie the rope around her own wrist, and the other end around one leg of the desk. Max watched in dismay as Mr. Grey burst into laughter.
"You might as well have taken your shoes off," Max muttered when she asked him to please tighten the rope for her. She was now seated on the floor with her back to the desk. She screwed up her face in a gesture of pain.
"I would if I could, but you see, I cannot reach my feet anymore."
Max was forced to admit he was more than a little amused by the affairs, when he failed to stop himself from bursting into laughter.
"How long do you plan to stay here?" asked Mr. Grey over Max's whoops.
"Only until you see reason," said Michelle prettily, then burst loudly into song. Using her voice more for volume than for melody, her efforts were hilarious. This did nothing to help Max's laughing fit. Mr. Grey was now scowling, as the noise coming from Michelle's lungs was disturbing, not only the people in the building, but the pedestrians outside as well. He went towards the door, and looked grimly at the other two occupants of the office before closing the door behind himself.
Michelle's song ended and she soon launched into another, raunchier one that left Max's jaw hanging open at the knowledge that she would know such lyrics. When she had finished that one, she eyed him somewhat rebelliously and shrugged.
"Dear Papa," she explained. "What is going on outside?"
Max crossed to the window and looked out. There was a crowd forming just outside the door, apparently listening in efforts to hear what Michelle would sing next.
"Oh, my throat is sore," she complained.
"I'll help you," said Max. He had decided to dive into Michelle's scheme - whatever she hoped to gain by it, he did not know. He sat on the floor next to her and wedged himself between the desk and the rope that had been hanging limply. It was a tight squeeze, but after taking a few deep breaths, he found it did not feel quite so constricting as it had before. As soon as he had situated himself, he nodded at Michelle and they began singing together. The additional voice caused quite a stir, and they could hear a few cheers drifting in through the windows as Michelle would take over for Max on the notes he could not reach. Neither of their voices were especially good, which only added to the hilarity.
After about twenty minutes, they were getting a bit hoarse, but none the less enthusiastic. They were relieved when Mr. Grey entered the room. He looked a bit cross, Max thought, but he did not know if that was because of their display, or because of the person who pushed his way in after him.
"Jay Jay!" Max exclaimed. He began to stand, but the ropes held him down and he landed with an "Oof!" on the floor again. Michelle giggled, the ludicrous situation taking over her head.
"What on earth are you doing?" said James Darcy, keeping his composure with great difficulty. Michelle thought his head would burst like a volcano if he did not laugh soon.
The door to the office was still open, and Max could have sworn he saw a tomato go sailing through the hall.
"Are they throwing vegetables?" he asked, amazed. Mr. Grey confirmed it dismally. Michelle burst into laughter.
"I know I can't sing, but this is going too far!"
"You have a lovely voice," Max croaked defensively. James laughed.
"They're not throwing them because of you; they're throwing them for you."
When Max and Michelle begged him to elaborate, he explained,
"They think you are protesting an injustice. This is also a newspaper office, you see. It is not completely unheard-of."
"Well, we are protesting an injustice!" said Michelle. "Mr. Grey refused to acknowledge Max's art!"
"Max is an architect?" James was surprised and impressed.
"Could we discuss this in a civilized manner?" Mr. Grey pleaded as a tub of cabbage was dumped into the office. He stepped out of the way of a rolling head of lettuce.
"We could, certainly. We already tried that, remember?" said Michelle peevishly.
"I can't sponsor poor work," he hedged.
"Did you even look at it?" asked Max. Mr. Grey blanched, then smiled persuasively.
"I swear I will, if you both will leave."
"Very well, then," said Michelle. "We go."
Max gratefully wriggled out of his bonds, and helped Michelle to untie herself. James offered to take them home in his own carriage.
"No, thanks," said Max. "It isn't really your carriage, after all."
"All in the family," said James defensively. "I didn't steal it."
"I'm sure the thought of theft would not have prevented you," said Max. Michelle was confused, but James looked offended.
"Hmph!" he said. Max laughed and tried to stand, soon finding his legs were nearly numb. James helped them both to stand, and escorted them out of the building and to his carriage.
Max and Michelle were surprised by the violence they had incited. The people crowded outside Mr. Grey's office were veritably seething with suppressed fury, and Michelle involuntarily stepped back at the impact of seeing them. James grabbed them both bracingly by the arms and dragged them towards his carriage.
"Best to just dive in," he explained. "It hurts more if you dodge."
"What the devil," Max started to say, but was interrupted by a foot inserted in his path. James's steady grip was the only thing that kept him from falling flat on his face. He heard Michelle gasp with fright and looked around James to make sure she was all right.
"Who knew we'd cause a riot?" Michelle muttered, side-stepping a flying tomato. James had to laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation. By the time he had led them to the carriage, both he and Max were sustaining minor injuries from their attempts to protect the lady in their group. Michelle sulked.
"I wish you hadn't stepped in the way. I could very well have swatted that bloke with my parasol." She demonstrated on the seat. James and Max exchanged bruised glances and decided to let her think that.
"It's just past time for tea," Max remarked as they climbed the steps to their house. "Perhaps I could convince Cook to bring us something to eat. Are you hungry?"
Michelle was very hungry - rotten tomatoes were not at all to her liking - but she was prevented from saying so by the unexpected and unwelcome sight of Mrs. Agnes Stanhope-Wilson.
"Aunt Agnes!" she exclaimed in dismay. That lady stared in disbelief at Max's eye, which was very sore, not to mention, he was certain, very nearly black by now.
"It's worse than I thought," she muttered, then turned on her niece. "It's no use protesting, girl. I know all about your little arrangements here, and I have come to save you before you go further with this debacle. You will come with me now. I will not allow you to stay here another minute."
"Why not?" Michelle gasped, moving instinctively closer to Max, who straightened guardedly.
"Where is Eleanor?" asked Aunt Agnes shrewdly. She received no answer. "There is your reason, missy. I thought even you would know better than to live alone with a man." She glanced depracatingly at Max as if she hardly thought he was qualified for that term.
"Nonsense," said Max. "She is my brother's ward." He folded his arms defensively across his chest and tried to adopt a platonic stance towards Michelle.
"What has that to do with it?" Aunt Agnes snapped.
"In any case, I see no reason for her to leave."
"Indeed," Michelle agreed. "Why should I leave? The damage has been done. The only people I care about have no cause to doubt my virtue, so why should I care about other people?"
"That is not the point!" said Aunt Agnes. Michelle raised her eyebrows.
"Indeed? Then what, pray, is the point, Auntie?"
Aunt Agnes opened and closed her mouth, then looked sternly at her niece.
"I will brook no opposition. Go upstairs and pack your bags."
The two women continued to argue as the butler came with a steak to put on Max's eye.
"It was all Cook would give me, sir," he said apologetically. "She did say it was the best thing to use, though," he added. Max took it gratefully and collapsed onto the sofa. After a few minutes, Michelle seemed to be winning the argument. However, Max had been thinking as he bathed his eye in raw meat.
"I think Aunt Agnes may have a point," he said reluctantly, still seated on the sofa. Michelle turned to glare at him.
"What did you say?" she said between clenched teeth. He shrugged modestly.
"I wouldn't want to be the cause of your ruin, Michelle."
"You're not," she insisted. "I insist that I will cause my own ruin, if I choose to be ruined! It may be romantic, but it is not at all what I desire!"
"But you cannot dictate what people think of you," Max pointed out.
"And I do not care about people, anyway."
"Still, if you don't want to be ostracized, we had better rectify this situation."
"How do you propose we do that?" said Michelle warily. "I will not ask Aunt Agnes to live with us!"
Startled, Max glanced at the old lady, who thankfully looked equally indisposed to such a scheme.
"That is not what I would propose, but if you prefer that, certainly," he said mildly. "But I would prefer you ... that is, I think it would be advisable for you to marry me. After all, it is my name yours is obviously being linked with."
Michelle blinked at him in a mixture of shock and happiness. Then her brow furrowed and she asked,
"Are you proposing to marry me, Maximillian?"
"Yes," he said, uncomfortably shifting the steak. Michelle was still unconvinced.
"Because you want to save my reputation?"
"Because I am a selfish person who wants Michelle Stanhope as his wife," Max replied, his face turning different shades of red. Michelle grinned.
"Very well, then, Maximillian. I will marry you."
However satisfactory this outcome was to Max and Michelle, Aunt Agnes was not satisfied.
"Even if you are engaged, you cannot live together without a companion!"
"Very well," said Michelle flippantly. "I will move into St. George's."
"No, I will," said Max gallantly.
"No, I will," Michelle corrected. "This is your home, and I will not kick you out of it! I like being at the church, and I actually look forward to living there temporarily."
"Well, of all the notions!" said Aunt Agnes, her nose completely out of joint. At that moment, the door swung open and Brian entered, carrying a giggling Eleanor in his arms. They paid no attention at all to the scene in front of them, but gazed, cooed and giggled at each other like a pair of ducks until Brian had deposited Eleanor on a chair near the fireplace.
"It's devilish hot in here, Max," said Brian, casually surveying each of them by turn. "Why don't you open a window?"
"Brian!" said Max. "My eye!"
"Never mind," said Michelle, rushing to perform the service requested. Aunt Agnes, realizing the need for her visit had been suddenly rendered obsolete, left as quickly as possible, vowing to be glad to be rid of her wild brother's daughter. When she was gone, Brian looked at his brother with irritating patience.
"It seems you have been quite remiss in informing me of your ... shall we say, adventures, Max. Would you care to enlighten me, please?"
Brian was more than a little embarrassed when it was made clear to him that he had completely forgotten to find a suitable chaperone for Max and Michelle while he was gone. Michelle consoled him by saying that nobody else had thought of it, either, until it was too late.
Eleanor suggested that they forego lessons with Miss Beech, but Michelle said she was enjoying her time at the theatre too much to give it up.
Max suggested that they get married tomorrow, but Michelle reminded him that she was still in mourning, and Eleanor said she would like to give her little cousin a grand wedding.
Brian thought that since they were home now, it didn't matter a jot what they did, and Max was inclined to agree with him. However, Eleanor pointed out that if Max and Michelle continued to live in the same house together, before they were married, people were bound to talk. It would not have been so bad if Brian and Eleanor had not gone away together, or if Max and Michelle had simply stayed quietly at home instead of parading about Town as they had done, but the damage had been done, and none of them were very sorry, except for the gossip.
"Well, this is tiresome," Michelle proclaimed. "One minute I think I will be married tomorrow - which is a frightening prospect, I assure you! - and the next I think we don't have to do anything. It is making me very sleepy, I can tell you!"
Brian, Eleanor and Max continued to talk amongst themselves, often all at the same time, until Michelle finally said,
"I said before this was tiresome, and now it is doubly so! If the situation is so dreadful, I will simply take myself elsewhere until Maximillian and I can be married!"
"Where?" Max scoffed. "To St. George's?"
Michelle's eyes lit up.
"The very thing! Maximillian, you are a genius!" She kissed him soundly on the cheek and ran upstairs to pack her bags. Max looked, astounded, at his brother.
"Well! I didn't think she would!"
Brian shook his head and grinned.
"You've gotten yourself quite a wild one, Max. Do you think you can handle her?"
"I don't need to handle her," said Max. "I like her wild ways. They're amusing."
"But will you think so when you are married to her?"
"Of course." He reapplied the steak to his eye as punctuation to his statement and turned to leave the room. Seconds later he came back, in a state of bewilderment.
"How does one go about a wedding?"
Eleanor leapt out of her chair, as much as a pregnant woman can be said to "leap," and putting an arm around her brother-in-law's shoulders, soon had extravagant plans for the wedding underway. Max only grew more bewildered as she waxed eloquent. He hadn't thought it would take so much trouble.
Michelle was residing in St. George's by midnight. Brian had suggested she wait until morning, but she had cheerfully refused, saying that when an idea was lodged in her head, she could get no peace until she had carried it out.
Several of Max's relatives were shocked by this drastic action, and Christopher Blakeney actually offered to let Michelle stay in his house until the wedding, as he was removing Georgiana to the country until the baby was born. (This move had the reluctant approval of Georgiana's physician, who only cautioned them to take their time traveling.) However, Michelle was like a rock in her decision, and only began a lecture on the stained glass windows or some such thing when somebody asked her how she could stand living in a church. Max thought the house was terribly empty without her, and begged Brian to exert his guardian's influence over his ward, but his brother would have none of it.
"I have never behaved so high-handedly with you, Max. What makes you think I would do so with Michelle?"
So Max was forced to put up with the idea of his betrothed sleeping in a church.
Edward Little took the news admirably, though Max and Michelle warned him strictly not to talk of it, as it was not to be formally announced for awhile. They did not expect him to heed this warning, but it was necessary to tell him of the engagement, as he had been annoyingly persistent in trying to strike up a flirtation with Michelle. Oddly enough, his visits to St. George's became less frequent at this point.
The wedding was set to take place in July of next year, right after Michelle's year of mourning would end. When Max heard he still had over half a year to wait, he nearly went so far as to lose his temper. He could bear Michelle sleeping in a church for a month or two, but it was unthinkable to have her there through the holidays. He tried to make her see his point, but of course she would not. She claimed that she was enjoying herself thoroughly, sometimes curling up in a pile of clean linens, rather than on the cot that had been provided for her. When she was finished painting this charming portrait of herself, Max was too struck by it to remember his arguments, and they parted amicably at the end of the day.
It seemed Max would simply not get his way on this issue.
Until one evening in November, when Max was just preparing to go to bed, there was a sudden clamor of bells nearby. Max was unfamiliar with certain modes of safety, and did not recognize the warning for what it was, until Brian burst into the bedroom and threw his coat at him.
"The church is on fire," he said bluntly, and left as quickly as he had come. Max looked down at his half-dressed self, and shrugged. If the church was on fire, there was no time to re-dress himself. He shoved his arms into the sleeves of his coat and made haste to the church. The realization did not dawn on him until he saw the flames actually licking the roof of St. George's that Michelle might be in danger, and when it did, Brian was hard-put to calm him down.
Max strained his eyes in the darkness, trying to spot her in the crowd. If she was there, he could not see her. Brian was able to calm him for a few minutes by asking a passing fireman if there was anybody in the building. The fireman said there was not, as far as he knew, and Max was able to breathe easier.
"He said there's nobody in the building," he said superfluously, resting his hands on his knees to catch his breath, which had a habit of leaving him when he was excited. Then he jolted upright. "As far as he knows," he said. "What does that mean, Brian? That he could be wrong?"
Brian sighed and pulled another fireman over.
"Has anybody come out of the building since the blaze started?"
"Aye, a lady," said the fireman. "She's been goin' in an' out since we got 'ere, and a good deal before, too. Bawled us all out for not gettin' 'ere earlier."
"Is she about so high, with black hair?" asked Max. Brian smiled wearily.
"Let him do his job, Max. Of course it's her."
Max went in search of his bride-to-be, and was a more than a little disturbed when his first sight of her was of her coming out of the church, blackened with soot, carrying a basket of toys that one of the children had left inside. He rushed to her side when she began to cough and handed her a handkerchief.
"When did you get here?" she asked, surprised to see him.
"What were you thinking, going back in there for toys?" he asked.
"I was writing a poem when the fire started, and I dropped it in one of these boxes," she said distractedly. "It was actually a good poem. Wouldn't it be just like me to lose it?"
Max laughed and hugged her.
"Are you all right? Any burns?"
"Singed a little, I think. Then, when I was looking for my poem, I heard a cat, so I had to find that, too. It was a very pretty cat. I gave him to one of the firemen."
"How did this start?"
She shrugged and sat down on the wet grass and brought her knees to her chest.
"I don't know. All of a sudden I looked up, and there was Father Prescott, telling me to get out of there, there was a fire."
"Where is he now?"
Michelle's lip trembled.
"He was burned very badly."
She covered her face with her hands, ashamed of crying in public, even with so much reason to do so. The joy Max had felt in finding Michelle was tempered by the bad news about Father Prescott.
"Where is he?" he repeated, more softly, almost dreading the answer.
"One of the neighbours took him to the hospital."
Max helped her to her feet and guided her to the carriage as, behind them, the firemen were finally able to bring the flames under control. In a matter of minutes, they were completely doused and the only thing left of St. George's cathedral was a dingy, blackened mass of debris.
As Michelle warmed herself over a cup of hot cocoa, in front of a fire Brian had started as soon as they got home, Max tried to convince his relatives to allow Michelle to move back into the Callahan house.
"It's been two months since the tiny breath of scandal. It should be perfectly fine for a girl to stay with her fiancé's family."
"I don't want to risk it," said Michelle.
"There's no need to cause another scandal, Max," said Andrew Darcy wearily.
"And we are not referring only to that `tiny breath,' either," said Brian with a significant glance at James, who looked affronted.
"I don't see why you always need to bring that up," he muttered.
"What?" said Michelle, looking from cousin to cousin in bewilderment.
"She could stay with us," Andrew offered, quickly changing the subject.
"No, you and Nellie have your hands full with Thomas and Fanny."
"I should think Michelle would be more of a help than a nuisance, when it comes to children," said James.
"Why?" his wife inquired.
"Because she's a girl."
Kitty hit him and transferred her baby into his arms.
"I would love for Michelle to come and stay with us until the wedding," she said. "Though I don't see why she cannot stay here. I lived in the same house as Jes-James before we were married."
"We know," said Brian and Andrew at the same time.
"Well, if it is a choice between burdening my pregnant cousin or burdening a couple already burdened with children, I would have to choose the burdened couple," said Michelle without the least hint of shame. Kitty bit her lip to stifle a giggle. Even she would not have mentioned the `delicate condition' in which Eleanor found herself in mixed company.
"Andrew and Nellie have enough to worry about," said Brian.
"I could help with the children," said Michelle defensively.
Max sighed and threw up his hands. He was irritated with the way his relations were assuming that Michelle was somehow a troublemaker.
"Why can't you just make up your minds?" he demanded. "It's not that difficult a decision."
"She could stay with us," said Kitty. "James and I would love to have her."
"There!" said Max.
"But..." said James.
"You see?" Michelle crowed. "Mrs. James is not afraid of me. I promise I will not be too difficult," she said, kissing the other woman's cheek.
"She really isn't that difficult," said Max. "I don't see what all the fuss is about." Michelle kissed his cheek, too.
So it was settled. Michelle went that moment to collect the things she had remaining, and James dutifully helped her load them into his carriage. As he did so, the sleeves of his jacket slipped up his forearm and Michelle caught a glimpse of scars on his wrists. She could not think of how he could have come by them, and was tempted to ask, before Kitty distracted her.
"I cannot think how we will spend our time, now that the church is gone," she said. "My brother-in-law might not allow us to use his London house, now that James has nothing to do with his time. Of course, I cannot see why he should care so much. It's not as if a rich gentleman has much to do, and yet he does not cast himself out of Pemberley for being bored."
"It does seem rather heartless," Michelle conceded.
"Yes, it does," said Kitty. She shifted Ian in her lap. "And I don't want to live at Longbourn anymore!"
"Isn't Longbourn your father's house?"
"Yes, but my mother is there."
"Oh." Michelle blinked, not quite understanding. Kitty smiled. James jumped into the carriage, and they were off.
Michelle soon became occupied with trying to find a reasonable way to steer the conversation towards James's scars. Unable to think of one, however, she simply blurted out the question.
"Rather cruel scars, there," she said. James and Kitty looked at each other in bewilderment.
"Pardon?" they said together. Michelle pointed at his wrist. He looked down at it and Michelle could have sworn he turned pale. Due to the darkness, however, she was forced to doubt her eyes.
"When did it happen?"
James stammered and looked at Kitty to assist him. Michelle began to feel sorry she had brought it up.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I should not have asked. It is not my place."
"French prison!" Kitty finally shouted triumphantly. James's countenance changed suddenly and he grinned appreciatively. Startled by the outburst, Michelle looked at each of them alternatively.
"Yes," said James, picking up the idea. "Um...I was in a French prison for awhile. Devilish." He could not think of anything to add, so only shook his head and clucked his tongue.
"Oh, you were a soldier?"
"Yes, a captain," said Kitty.
"But not anymore."
"No, he resigned his commission."
"Of course," said Michelle slowly. "I suppose being in a French prison would do that to a man."
James frowned suspiciously.
"Well..." It was Michelle's turn to blush, and she only motioned generally in his direction. Uncertain of what she was implying, James crossed his arms over his chest and slouched in his seat.
"Don't sulk, James," said Kitty, laughing. "She did not mean it that way."
"Of course not," Michelle hastened to assure him. After a few moments of silence and observation, she ventured, "How long were you in prison?"
"Four or five days."
"What?" Michelle was now skeptical. "How did you come to be incarcerated for so short a time? Did your friends ransom you quickly, then?"
"Umm...no, not exactly." James was stumped.
"Max broke him out!" said Kitty, nearly bouncing in pride for being able to think of such wonderful lies.
"Well, he had some help..."
"Well, of course. Sir Brian, Andrew, the colonel, Fitz, Lord Cavendar..."
"Good Lord!" said Michelle. "When was this? The war ended two years ago; Max must have been very young then!"
"Yes, he was. Very young. But, uh..."
"He was a lot wilder back then." James nodded sagely to reinforce his point.
"Wild? Max?" Michelle burst out laughing. James and Kitty joined in faintly, unsure of whether she was accepting their tale or not. "I'm going to have to ask him about that, the next time he tries to reproach me for something."
"Does he reproach you?" asked Kitty, thankful for the chance to change the subject. "He doesn't seem to mind your antics."
Michelle stopped laughing and sighed dreamily.
"No, he doesn't, does he? He never scolds."
"Well, hardly ever," Michelle amended. "He didn't like it when I sent his designs to Mr. Grey, behind his back. But other than that, I can't think of a single time he was the least bit reproachful."
Max called at the Darcy house first thing the next morning. He was disappointed to find Michelle somewhat too preoccupied to pay much attention to him. She was sitting at a desk in the drawing room and chewing on the end of her pen, which resulted in much face making on her part. He tried to subtly gain her attention, but none of his efforts worked. Finally, she threw her pen down and, stretching out her back, noticed him leaning sullenly against the wall.
"Maximillian! When did you get here?"
"A half hour ago."
"I'm sorry," she said, standing to give him a belated kiss of welcome. "I was just thinking, though, of what we are going to do now. The church is gone, but the people are still there, and some of them are depending on us."
Max did not think this was the way to greet your fiancé, but he kept silent on that issue, and asked after her health.
"I'm fine, why do you ask?"
"You said last night you were `a little singed.'"
"Oh! Well, yes, I was, a little, but Kitty--I mean, Mrs. James's maid has a lovely ointment she let me use. I hardly feel anything at all."
"Where does it hurt?" He looked her over anxiously. She laughed.
"That is none of your business, my dear."
"But I am marrying you!"
"Not today, you're not. We still cannot be married for over half a year, unless you want your bride to wear black. And I will be entirely recovered by July, so you needn't worry about that."
"Stuff! I told you there was no need to worry. The wedding and following will be as near perfect as I can possibly make it."
Max drew in a breath and looked reproachfully at her. She raised her eyebrows.
"Surprised that I would allude to the honeymoon? I am quite shocking, aren't I?"
"I am shocked," he agreed. "But not by that allusion. What reason have I ever given you for thinking I would be more concerned with...that...than with your welfare?"
Michelle's face fell and she dropped her gaze to the floor.
"I'm sorry, Maximillian. It was very wrong of me."
Max smiled, hurt erased, and began to think of a way of putting her more at ease. He sighed dramatically.
"I don't know if I shall ever recover from that shock," he moaned, putting a wrist to his forehead. Michelle gasped and helped him to the sofa, where he immediately collapsed onto the pillows. He turned his head to look imploringly at the back of the sofa. "Michelle..."
"No, darling, I'm over here," she said soothingly, patting his hand. "Oh, dear, if you're to be delirious, I think you must be past hope!"
"No, I've stopped moving, so I'm sure hope is past me!"
"And now you've lost your senses completely! What shall I do? Are you going to die?"
"Oh, no! When?"
"In about fifty or sixty years, I should think." Max sighed dismally. "It doesn't take long."
"Only fifty or sixty years!" Michelle put a hand to her mouth. "To have your life cut so short!" She began to feign sobs and threw herself over his chest. Max became alarmed, but did not want to give up the very amusing charade.
"Oh!" he exclaimed, raising himself on his elbows. "Look! I'm better now!"
"Really? Hurrah!" She sat up and threw her arms around his neck.
"Hurrah!" he echoed, and pulled her down towards him for a kiss. "I have something to ask you," he said, pulling apart suddenly.
"Hmmmm?" She grinned, indicating she wanted to continue kissing him. He smiled back, but refused to be distracted.
"Can you please call me Max?"
Michelle choked on her laughter.
"I'm tired of Maximillian," he confessed sheepishly. Michelle laughed and hugged him again.
"I told you Max fits you better, you goose."
"Goose? I thought we had agreed on Max."
"What's your middle name?"
"Max it is!"
"What is your middle name?"
"Alicia Frederica Selena Corinna Marie. I was the baby and everybody wanted to name me."
"I didn't know you had any siblings."
"My brothers were killed in the war."
"Why? Did you side with Napoleon?"
"Come, there's no cause to talk about that. Now, about the church..."
"Last I heard, the church burned down last night," came an unwelcome voice from the door. Edward Little waited patiently for Michelle to jump off of Max's lap in consternation, but was unnerved when she stayed put. "Oh, don't mind me," he said, and took snuff. Michelle grinned at Max and slid off his lap. He stood grudgingly and shook hands with Little.
"I seem to have interrupted something," said Little. "I was sorry to hear about the fire, Max. However, now that you're finished with that business, perhaps you and I could go to..."
"Finished with what business?" said Michelle, standing and looking coldly up at the man.
"Well, you can't very well operate now that your headquarters have been destroyed."
Michelle bristled and Max could have sworn he saw the tiny hairs on the back of her neck stand on end as she took on her cat-like stance.
"For your information, Mr. Little, the fire has not deterred our intentions in that respect. While it is an unfortunate setback, Max and I mean to keep providing the people in that neighborhood with food and other necessities, just as we have the last few months."
"Is this true, Max?" asked Little, turning away from Michelle with a derisive smile.
"I suppose it must be; Michelle hath spoken."
"Do you really think that's wise?"
"In what respect? It is a risk financially and socially, perhaps. But just because it will not benefit me personally doesn't mean it is not the right thing to do."
"But do you think it's wise to accept orders from a chit of seventeen?"
Michelle took a step towards Little but Max kept her in place with one hand on her shoulder. He shook his head at her and she calmed down visibly; at least, smoke stopped coming out of her ears. She smiled sweetly at Little.
"I'm eighteen now; my birthday was last month. I am not ordering Max about. And he does not order me about. However, I think it would be advisable to give you an order right now."
Little stared at her in wide-eyed astonishment.
"An order for me, hm?"
"Hm." Michelle nodded firmly and turned to Max. "Would you care to take over for me, darling?"
"Maxy?" Little looked to Max. He smiled persuasively. "I'm very sorry if I have offended your little lady. However, I don't think we should let her come between us."
"She hasn't," said Max. "Our friendship was over long ago, Edward."
"What?" He actually looked hurt. Max shrugged and shook his head.
"I don't need you anymore, Edward. We have nothing in common, and your only interest seems to be in controlling me. Added to which, you have insulted my fiancée and had the gall to say `she should not come between us.' I think you should go."
Little looked at him quizzically, then at Michelle. He could not believe what was happening; nobody had ever spoken to him that way before. He was not without class, however, and had the sense to leave graciously. He smiled and bowed to both of them and wished them happy, then turned on his heel and left, barking orders at his tiger as he went.
"Well," said Max after he had gone.
"I'm sorry about that," said Michelle.
"It was long in coming."
Michelle smiled, then remembered what James and Kitty had told her the night before and giggled.
"Now that I have seen you stand up to him, it is easier to believe what I heard about you last night."
Max was not a little puzzled. He cocked his head and smiled nervously.
"What did you hear?"
"Mr. Darcy and Kitty told me you had a hand in breaking him out of prison a few years ago."
"They told you that?"
"Is it true, then? I admit, I had the oddest feeling they were not telling the truth. Not that I am accusing them of lying," she added hastily.
"N-no, but...wait, they said a few years ago?"
"Hm." He frowned and thought a moment. "How time flies," he murmured. "I could have sworn that was only last year."
"No, because the war ended three years ago."
"The war? What has that to do with it?"
"Well..." Michelle looked at him in bewilderment. "He was in a French prison."
"Oh!" Max blinked as he realized what was going on. "Well...umm...yes, well..."
"Does it embarrass you?"
Max was becoming indignant at the thought that his cousins did not trust his fiancée enough to tell her the truth. But he did not want to tell her if James didn't want her to know. After all, he did not know the whole story; maybe James was ashamed of the debacle, instead of merely being afraid Michelle would turn him in. He mumbled a vague agreement and left the room in a hurry.
James and Kitty were in the midst of personal business, and enjoying it, when they were interrupted by Max bursting into the room.
"Jesse!" he said indignantly, putting his hands on his hips. James frowned.
"What is there to object to now, Max? She is my wife!" Kitty giggled into his neck.
"Not that," said Max slowly, trying not to laugh. He reminded himself that he was angry, and continued. "I want to know why you lied to Michelle."
All he received were blank stares.
"I lied to Michelle," James repeated. "When did I do this?"
"Oh!" said Kitty, and she giggled again. "He means last night, in the carriage. We told her he had been in a French prison because ... well, because we don't want to risk being arrested."
"He won't be arrested, because everybody thinks he's dead," Max reminded her patiently. James swore and shifted uncomfortably.
"Not everybody," said Kitty. "And Michelle would just be one more person to worry about."
"Oh, I see," said Max. "So you think my fiancée would be the one, out of all your cousins, to tell the Runners you're alive and in London."
"Well, not necessarily, but....."
"Do you really want her to know?" asked James. "She might call off the wedding if she knew."
"She wouldn't do that," said Max. "She's marrying me, not you. Neither of us cares about such things."
"Then why do you think it is so important that she knows?"
Max faltered for a moment, then pursed his lips and went on.
"That is not the point. I don't like that she was lied to."
"Why? Did she take it badly?"
"I didn't tell her."
"So you allowed her to think it."
"I had to consult you. I had to know your reasons for keeping it secret. You were brash enough last year."
"Then she doesn't know?"
"No." James relaxed. "She will hear it from you."
"Wherever did you get that notion? I hardly know the girl!" James was horrified.
"You will know her well enough," said Max. "You have agreed to provide a home for her until she becomes my wife. You can't help but get to know her. You might as well let her know the truth, since she will belong to our family, anyway."
James sighed heavily and looked down at his hands. Max waited anxiously for his decision. He had not expected his cousin to be so nervous about this. James bit his lip and looked up at Max.
"A policeman almost recognized me the other day," he said quietly. "You know that if just one person recognizes me, there will be nothing between me and the hangman."
"You have nothing to fear from Michelle," Max assured him. "All I ask is that you trust her, for my sake, if not for hers. Think of all I've done for you!" he grinned mischievously. James was not amused. After all, it was his life Max was asking him to risk.
"And besides, you have an easy way out of the noose with the Darcy name," said Kitty. Max watched as James rose and left the room, leaving his wife as uncertain about his decision as his cousin.
"I'm sorry," said Kitty with a sigh. "The lie was actually my idea. You see, he looked so very uncomfortable, and though he is adorable when he is uncomfortable, I cannot bear the thought of him being in the least out of sorts. So I had to do something!"
When he did not say anything, Kitty continued.
"It was a good lie, if I do say so myself. Of course, no lie can be really said to be `good' in the correct sense of the word, but....it was a good lie! It made sense, and the only illogical part of it was that I told her you had gotten Jesse out of prison."
"Me? But I was only eighteen when the war ended!"
"I know!" Kitty snickered. "We explained to her that you were particularly wild in your youth."
"Poor James," Kitty sighed. "He was exhausted, because of the fire, you know, and then he had to take all of Michelle's things and put them in the carriage......"
"I thought the footmen did that."
"Max, it was the middle of the night! We didn't bring any footmen with us. That would have been unfeeling."
"And then to be confronted with his past, after all that! The poor thing was fairly distraught!"
"Then he has reformed?"
"Not in that particular sense. He is reluctant to talk about it because of the consequences of it, not because he is sorry."
"Oh." Max had trouble digesting this news. "So, if there was not the possibility of being hanged, he would go back to highway robbery."
"Perhaps." Kitty laughed, which shocked Max even more. "Though not because he really likes stealing. He is easily bored. And you realize that nobody could have been hurt by his hand during one of those robberies; he cannot shoot a gun!"
"I see." Max had never felt more blind. He grinned foolishly at the mental image of James aiming a gun at a barn and shooting a tree instead. Kitty laughed.
A few minutes later, James came back in the room looking dazed.
"What?" said Max.
"I told her the truth, as you requested, and .... she laughed!" He collapsed next to his wife and rested his head on her shoulder.
"She did not believe you, then?"
James shrugged helplessly.
"I don't know! She seemed absolutely delighted with the news."
Max grinned, thinking how very like Michelle this reaction was.
"Thank you for telling her, Jesse."
James smiled wanly in response and Max left the couple alone. As he left that room and entered another, he happened upon Michelle, who appeared to have been looking for him.
"There you are, you goose!" she said, and punched him on the arm. "Why didn't you tell me that James is actually Jesse Matthews?"
"You're not upset." Max was so pleased, he kissed her face.
"Of course I'm not. How could I be? On the contrary, I'm quite enchanted! What a strange coincidence."
"You do not mind having an outlaw in the family?"
"Of course not! I lived with one for seventeen years!"
"What?" Max blinked in astonishment.
"Well, not quite as famous an outlaw as Jesse Matthews...."
"Please, call him James."
"Of course. Not as famous as James. Or rather, infamous. But my father did have a small stint when I was a very young girl as a highwayman."
While Max was learning about Michelle's family history, Brian had decided to take his wife out for some entertainment. There was a showing at a local art gallery by one of Eleanor's favorite artists, and Brian was determined to surprise her. It did not work out quite as he planned, though, for while he was trying to give the driver directions to the museum, Eleanor stuck her head out of the carriage and said,
"Darling, the Moore exhibit is to the west, not east, of the river. And why don't you tell him outright what street it is on, instead of giving him those ridiculous directions? `Drive five miles north' indeed!"
Brian sighed and obediently took a seat next to his wife. Eleanor smiled at him sympathetically.
"I'm sorry. I meant to act surprised, but I couldn't let you confuse the driver any further. A few more minutes and we should be late! Why isn't Max coming? I'm sure he would be interested."
"He was going to visit the Laurels this afternoon, with Michelle. They are probably just arriving at their house now."
"Oh, I see. Well, I suppose it couldn't be helped, though it's a pity he should miss it."
Later, as they were traversing the rooms of the museum, Eleanor suddenly gasped.
"What's the matter?" Brian calculated quickly and, realizing it was too soon for the baby to come, quickly panicked. "Are you all right? Do you need a doctor? Come, sit down." He led her to a nearby bench.
"It's not the baby," she said as soon as she had regained her powers of speech. She pointed to the wall behind his head. Turning around, he recognized with a start Michelle's likeness on the wall. Both of them being struck quite dumb, they stared for a few seconds before Brian realized they might be causing undue notice. After all, it was a tiny little picture on a wall covered with huge portraits.
"What if somebody else recognizes her?" Eleanor whispered, her lips barely moving as she tried to keep a smile plastered on her face for any observers.
"She doesn't know that many people in London," Brian assured her.
"Brian, it could ruin her," said Eleanor, distress written on her face. "How on earth could she have allowed this?" Her jaw dropped open as she thought of another possibility. "Brian, who drew it?"
Brian frowned as he took in her meaning, and went to check. When he came back, he looked slightly relieved.
"It is anonymous. There is no name on it."
Eleanor nodded and thought for a moment before saying,
"It must not stay there."
"Why not? I think it is a fine likeness."
She gave him a stern look and folded her arms. He nodded and backed away with a placating motion of the hands for her to stay calm. He inched over to the drawing, trying not to draw attention to himself. An elderly man walked by and gave him a quizzical look.
"What are you up to, boy?" he asked toothlessly. Brian coughed. It had been awhile since anyone had called him by that term.
"I am here to study the work of the great artists of this age, and when I go home," he leaned in confidentially, "I'm going to make my own copies."
"Oh," the old man smiled and waved dismissively, making as though to walk away. Brian went on.
"Because, you know, my country would be gladdened to find such works of art within her borders. Such genius deserves to be on French soil!"
Eleanor sputtered into her handkerchief in the corner. The old man looked less amused and more confused.
"What are you saying, young man?"
"Saying? Nothing. I am simply too excited not to tell somebody. You struck me as the sort of person who would like a hand in such heroism."
The man now looked absolutely frightened and ran away from Brian as fast as he could. Brian grinned and winked at Eleanor then quickly removed the drawing from the wall and stuck it between his shirt and coat. He turned around to find an old woman staring at him. He blushed. Just as the old woman was about to accuse him of thievery, Eleanor screamed.
The reaction in the place was astounding: nobody moved. Nobody, that is, except Brian and the old woman. Brian, panicked once more, asked her what was the matter. She gave him a look then continued whimpering. The old woman, finally convinced that this was not a plan to distract her from what she had seen before, began giving her directions on how to breathe.
"Is this your first child?"
"Well, you sit tight. This young man will be glad to fetch a doctor. Won't you?" She fixed a quelling glare on Brian, not realizing that he was the woman's husband. He nodded vigorously and nearly ran out, then came back and said, with a mischievous smile,
"I think I'll take her with me. To save time." He picked her up and carried her out of the museum. As soon as they were out of hearing distance from the old woman, Eleanor's whimperings ceased and Brian murmured,
"A fine performance, m'dear."
She giggled and rested her head on his shoulder. Max and Michelle may be in for a scolding, but for now, Brian and Eleanor were happy as clams.
Max had been speechless when he had learned the truth about Michelle's father. By the time they were nearing the Laurels's residence, however, he had regained his powers of speech and was stammering on about various nonsense.
"You're adorable when you're shocked," Michelle commented.
"I'm not shocked. I'm ... surprised. How ... how long was your father's small stint as a highwayman?"
"I think he tried it for a month or two. He wasn't very successful, and one night he came home with a hole in his hat, so he retired."
"Oh. So ... what did he do then?"
"Then he tried to write an opera."
"He went from highway robbery to music composition?"
"Yes, but he wasn't good at that, either," said Michelle apologetically. "Then he invested in the Funds."
"What did he invest?" asked Max, who was quite amused.
"The money the Army forwarded to us when my brother, Robert, died. After that, Papa's schemes became significantly less risky." She giggled. "But no less amusing."
"How many brothers did you have?"
"Four. Robert was the oldest and the last to die. I was closest to Ashleigh, though."
"My mother's maiden name."
"He was just your age, now that I think of it. We weren't prepared for his death in the slightest. He had been assigned to a post in Wales, away from the war, and we thought he was safe. But his ship sunk. And the war ended within two months."
"That must have been devastating, losing two brothers in such quick succession."
"Yes." She snorted in disgust. "Such a waste. At least Robert died in battle, doing something. Poor Ash was probably sleeping at the time."
Max thought sleep was probably the last thing on her brother's mind as his ship went down, but he thought it best not to mention that.
"What about the other two?"
"George and Trevor."
"I don't know what to say. They never had much time for me, being boys and older."
They were forced to give up the conversation as their carriage pulled up to the Laurels's residence. Mrs. Laurel was recovering nicely, and the new baby, Charlie, had already turned from a monkey-faced infant (which was Michelle's observation) into a comely baby. Joey and Robbie were delighted to see their friends, Mr. Callyan and Miss Staope, and could barely stand to leave them alone long enough for Michelle to tend to their mother.
She did eventually finish, but not without providing a decoy with one of her shoes, which the children found fascinating. As Max and Michelle were preparing to leave, Mr. Laurel came into the room to discuss what was to be done, now that the church was gone.
"You and your friends were doing a good thing," he said. "It would be a shame to give it up now."
"We don't intend to," said Michelle cheerfully.
"I hear congratulations are in order," Mr. Laurel appeared to change the subject. Max beamed and confirmed this. "Perhaps, when you are married, you will want to settle into a more normal life, raising a family, and other things."
"Heaven forbid!" said Michelle.
"I should like to have a family," said Max quietly.
"Well, yes, but...." She blinked several times. "Not right away! Good heavens! Settle down? Every feeling revolts!"
"If I remember rightly," said Mr. Laurel, "your artistic talents are quite high, Mr. Callahan."
Max blushed and Michelle confirmed this.
"If you could find a place to do it, I would be able to find the men and the supplies to build a place of our own."
Max gawked. Michelle's face broke slowly into a smile.
"The very idea! It is brilliant! Is it possible, Max?"
"Well...." Max stammered. "It sounds plausible, I suppose, but..... there is the matter of money."
"Oh, yes, of course." Michelle was obviously disappointed. Mr. Laurel thought for a moment, then smiled encouragingly.
"Well, I hope you find a way to keep up the good work, whatever it is. Thank you for your help with my wife."
"It is our pleasure," said Michelle warmly, and after saying good-bye to the children, they left.
"If we could just find the funds," said Michelle once they were inside the carriage and rumbling home, "this would be the perfect opportunity for your designs to be noticed."
"I have realized this," Max assured her. "But whether we intend to start our family right away or not, it would be nice to have some money saved for that. I would not wish to spend all our security on this."
"It is a hard decision," she said after a few minutes. "Of course I want security, as well, especially after living with my father. But we cannot give this up, Max. Not now!"
When they entered the Callahan house, however, the thought of charity was driven out of their minds by the sight of Brian and Eleanor sitting in the parlor, trying to look solemn.
"What is the matter?" asked Max.
"How are you, Michelle?" asked Eleanor wearily. "You were not too harmed by the fire, I hope."
"Not in the least. Well," she amended more slowly, "I would like to rest for awhile. But you have something to say to us, do you not?"
Brian pointed at the table, where a piece of paper was lying in the center. They went to look at it and both turned crimson. Michelle's head snapped up to look at her fiancé.
"Did you draw this, Max? Eleanor, where did you find it? You didn't snoop in Max's belongings, did you? He doesn't like that."
"It was hanging on the wall at the museum this afternoon," said Brian. He allowed that to sink in. Max felt the need to defend himself.
"I didn't give it to the museum," he said. "And I didn't draw this. Well, I didn't draw it exactly like this. I assure you, Michelle," he swallowed, "the one I drew took ten seconds. I couldn't have....."
"How did it end up in the museum, then? And in this condition?"
Max shrugged helplessly, speechless.
"It is a good likeness," he attempted weakly after a few awkward moments. Michelle's jaw clenched and she took the drawing in shaking hands. At first glance, it looked quite innocent; a simple drawing of a girl's head and shoulders. But however innocent it may have been, there was no denying the stunningly mischievous and seductive look on the girl's face, or the way the lines portraying one of the naked shoulders--for whoever had drawn the picture had forgotten to add lines to represent a collar--went farther than one could allow even for the scantiest of ball gowns.
"How did it get from your pen to the museum wall?" she asked quietly.
"Firstly," he began, "it's not pen; it's chalk. And I haven't the slightest idea. I left it with..." He trailed off. Michelle looked at him quizzically, then sighed and put it down on the table.
"I think I should go back to the Darcys's house," she said. Max consented reluctantly.
"I'm sorry, Michelle," he said as he accompanied her to the carriage.
"Oh, don't worry. It's not your fault. I can't understand why anybody would do this to me, though." She looked down at her hands then back at him, forcing a smile. "But why should we worry? There's nothing we can do, after all, is there? Good-bye, Max."
She had meant to make him feel better. It was true; there was nothing to be done, so why should they fret? But he felt worse. From her tone of voice, he could tell she had deduced that he had left the drawing with Harriet. If she knew that, she would have to be a saint not to be jealous of the actress. It was his fault; he had known Harriet guarded her conquests zealously.
When he entered the parlor again, Eleanor took one look at his dejected countenance and began trying to cheer him up.
"It wasn't there for a long time. Today was only the first day of the exhibit; perhaps nobody saw it."
"Hundreds of people went through that showing before you even got there," said Max glumly.
"Well, who's to say any of them would recognize her if they saw her on the street?"
Max looked at her with an expression that plainly said her efforts were in vain.
"We can remove to the country, if you like," said Brian. "Not that I'd advise it, but if you'd feel more comfortable away from all these people, it might be wise. We have been in London far longer than we are used to, anyway."
"We can't go back to the country until this business with St. George's is cleared up," said Max. "If we could just find someone to pay for it." He collapsed into a chair. "Why does everything always come down to money?"
"Well, this has a bit more to do with it than money," said Brian.
"Laurel offered to provide the men, and I could design the building," said Max. "The only thing standing in our way is we don't have the money. And now this business with Harriet comes up...." He shook his head. "It seems the only thing I can do now is sleep." He stood and began to go upstairs.
"If money is all you need," Brian shouted after him, "I can provide that."
Max stopped in his tracks and turned around slowly.
"Do you mean that?" He looked at Eleanor. "Does he mean that?"
"He's your brother," she said laughingly.
Max laughed in spite of himself. He rushed forward to shake Brian's hand enthusiastically, and feeling the urge to kiss him but reluctant to do so--as such sentimentality towards one's own brother was somewhat appalling--he kissed Eleanor instead. She giggled girlishly.
"Now that that is settled, all we have to do is wait for this business to blow over--if it makes any fuss at all, which is yet to be seen--" Max stopped and his face darkened. In an instant he was out the door.
"What now?" Brian groaned. "Max, where are you going?"
"To the theatre," he yelled back. "A certain actress has a lot of explaining to do. Don't wait up for me."
Max was disappointed in his search for Harriet at the theatre. She was nowhere to be found and he was forced to discover from one of the lackeys where she had gone. The obvious answer was, of course, she had gone home. Max did not need to ask where this was, and he was outside that building within twenty minutes. He didn't bother knocking, but went right in, hoping he would not find her with Finley. His path was blocked by a diminutive middle-aged woman with a scowl on her face.
"Miss Beech is not seeing anyone," she informed him in frosty accents. Max smiled charmingly and taking her by both shoulders, deposited her at the side and moved past her. He burst into Harriet's room, surprising that lady into sitting up on her sopha.
"Harriet, I must speak with you...." his voice trailed off as he viewed the scene before him. She was dressed elegantly, yet she looked somewhat disheveled. There was a small table beside her that was set for two.
"Max," she faltered, her eyes shifting towards the door on the other side of the room. "How nice to see you."
"I wish I could reciprocate. What did you think you were doing?"
He assumed it must be Finley on the opposite side of the door. Harriet frowned perplexedly.
"I assume I have the right to entertain whomever I choose in my own house."
"Undoubtedly. But I was referring to the picture."
"The picture of Michelle, of course."
"Of course." She shrugged, not grasping what he was saying. Max blinked in bewilderment.
"You really have no idea what I'm talking about, do you?"
"No. Now please leave."
Max opened and closed his mouth and began to walk towards the door. Halfway there, however, he stopped and turned to face her again.
"How do I know you're telling the truth?"
"Why should I lie? My God, Max! I've never seen you so upset! Over a picture of your little fiancée, no less!"
"What else should I think? I left it exclusively with you. How else would it end up in a museum?"
"Your art was in a museum?" She smiled artlessly. "How perfectly lovely! I wish I could have seen it!"
Max stared at her incredulously. The possibility that it could have been someone else had not occurred to him, and the thought that he would have to simply not think about it anymore was too much to consider. He wanted to know why such a spiteful thing would have been done. His jaw clenched and his breathing became tighter as he tried to keep a rein on his temper.
"It was not my art," he said coldly. "It started out as mine, but somebody improved upon it in a way that was no improvement at all."
"Do you think I would do such a thing? You hurt me, Max. In any case, I don't even remember having a drawing of Michelle. Are you sure you left it with me?"
"Well, somebody must have stolen it, then."
"I don't know. Maybe it was a thief who knew good art when he saw it."
"Then why would he make such changes?"
"I don't know. Perhaps you will be able to figure it out, but I cannot. I beg you would leave me alone, Max. As you see, I have company."
"Finley has nothing to fear from me, and he knows it. I need a drink."
Harriet noted he was a bit pale, but insisted that he must leave immediately. Just as she was pushing him towards the front door, the back door opened and Harriet's male visitor stepped into the room, drying his face on a towel. Edward Little was almost as astonished to see Max as Max was to see him.
"How lovely of you to stop by, Maxy-boy. Would you like a biscuit?"
"No, thank you." Max couldn't move. He only stood there, stunned. There was a knock on the front door. Max opened it automatically and was pushed aside as the Earl of Finley strode into the room. Max wondered if it could get any worse.
"Entertaining, I see, Harriet," said Finley, glaring daggers at his fiancée.
"Oh, I'm not..." Max said. "I mean, I was just dropping by. Personal business, you know."
Harriet and Little were more than a little embarrassed. Little offered Finley a biscuit, which was dashed to the floor angrily.
"Can you blame me?"
"Now that's going too far...."
Finley quieted his rival by pushing him down into the sopha. Little sulked while Finley raged. Finally he turned on Harriet.
"I wanted to marry you," he said. She stared at him, then at Little.
"I'm sorry," she said quietly. "He said...."
"I don't care what he said," said Finley. "What do you expect me to do now? Do you think I like being cuckolded? Especially before we are even married? During the blasted engagement, woman!"
"I thought you wouldn't..."
Max quickly handed each of them a glass of wine, hoping to quiet them a little.
"Drink up," he said. "That's it, drink the whole thing." He watched as Finley downed the entire glass, but interrupted before he could start again. Little and Harriet were sipping theirs slowly, but he did not mind their noise so much, as they were not making so much. "Now, before you break your engagement, my lord, I would like to put in a word for the lady."
"Who are you?" said Finley blankly.
"Oh, terribly sorry. Max Callahan, if you please." He gave the man's hand a brief shake and let it fall. "Now, I know it looks bad, but from what I have observed in the last five minutes, I don't think Harriet is entirely to blame."
Finley's eyes widened and he looked once more to Miss Beech.
"Harriet," he repeated mockingly.
"Well," Max continued, "what I think is that Harriet was persuaded by .... someone .... to believe that you, my lord, would eventually break the engagement. Under that conviction, of course she would want to .... try new things." He smiled in weak defense.
"Why would she think that?" Finley demanded.
"No offense, but you have the reputation of being somewhat under the thumb of your mother.... sir."
"Is this true, Harriet?" he asked quietly. Harriet looked at Little, then back at her fiancé with tears in her eyes. She nodded and swallowed and allowed herself to be taken into Finley's arms.
"Did you really think I would be so faithless?" Finley asked. Max sighed and wondered if the irony struck anybody else that Finley would be the one defending himself against faithlessness. He sat down next to Little and poured himself a drink of wine.
"You're the one who sent the picture to the museum, aren't you?"
Little looked surprised, but he smiled and said,
"I did think your talents combined with Miss Stanhope's ought to be appreciated by the public."
"It did not occur to you that you would actually be showcasing your own imagination."
"Imagination? O ye of little faith. I wouldn't call it that."
Max's ire rose. He felt his back straighten and he set his glass down on the table with deliberate calmness.
"If I were not certain that Finley meant to call you out, I might be persuaded to do so myself."
"Might be?" Little shook his head. "I'm disappointed in you, Maxy."
Max was struck with the sensation of being forced into a duel. Not liking the feeling, he chose to ignore him, not deeming him worthy of a fight, and looked over at Finley and Harriet. They did not look particularly lover-like, but he decided it was safe to leave now. He was startled on leaving the house to hear angry voices being lifted and the sound of something being thrown against the wall. The door opened and Harriet ran out.
"Max! You have to talk to him!"
"Finley. He has broken our engagement."
"Why? I thought the thing was settled."
"He has forgiven me, or so he says," she fell into step with him. "But he doesn't think I love him."
"Of course I do!"
"Then what are you doing out here, with me?"
"I told you; I need you to talk to him."
"What should I say, Harriet? I cannot defend the choice you made of cheating on your fiancé."
"But Max...." she looked up at him tearfully. "I need to be married."
"I cannot help that." He did a double take. "You mean, you need to be married?"
She nodded and looked away.
"I always thought you could persuade anybody into anything. Surely you can make Finley..."
"Is it his?"
"No." She frowned. "Does that matter?"
"Do you know whose it is?"
"Well? What about him?"
"He's already married."
"Can't you see, Max?"
"Does Finley know....?"
"It's a long story. Please, Max. For old time's sake." She held the lapels of his coat with both hands and stood on her tip toes to see into his eyes. "You loved me once."
"No," he said, backing away instinctively. "Even if I wanted to--which I don't--I couldn't. I'm engaged."
"I'm not asking you to sacrifice yourself," she insisted, her lips so close he could almost feel them tickling his own. "Convince Finley that it's not over between us."
"Everything that's happening now would seem to point to that conclusion. Harriet, let go of me." He peeled her hands off of himself and turned to go.
"Please, Max," she said quietly. "I want to be a countess."
"Oh, so that's it." He turned on her angrily. "Well, if that is all you want, I'm sure you'll be able to find another earl, richer in possessions but not in mind or principles, than Finley. You are not good enough for him, and I would not try to burden him with you for the world."
She stared at him incredulously.
"Max!" she breathed. "Can it be that..... I cannot believe what you just said." She dimpled. "You must be jealous."
"Hardly," he snorted, and began to walk away. She ran after him.
"What are you saying?"
"I told you already, Harriet. I am not one to repeat myself."
"I can make you want me."
"I don't, and I won't. I have what I want."
She grabbed his shoulder and pushed him into the wall. Trapped as he was, Max could do nothing as she slipped her hand underneath his jacket and kissed him fully and with all the passion she could muster. He could not help but respond initially, but once his mind swung back into operation, he pushed her away. He could think of nothing to say that he had not already said. As he turned around to head back to his carriage, he saw Michelle standing several yards away. She said nothing, did not look at him reproachfully, but only turned around and walked away with her head held high.
Max took off at a sprint.
"Michelle, wait!" he called pleadingly. She did not turn around, but broke into a run when she heard him calling after her. Max was able to see firsthand that she would have been a fine equestrienne, indeed, as she hopped onto her little brown mare and rode away as fast as was possible.
Max looked back at Harriet, who was smiling smugly.
"Do you want my advice, Harriet?" he asked lowly. Her countenance changed and she nodded eagerly. "Go back to Little. You two deserve each other."
Her eager smile changed once again into a look of derision as she looked him up and down.
"Maybe I will," she said, her lip curled into a sneer. "He appreciates what I have to offer. You're hardly old enough to know what I'm talking about." She swung around and stalked back to her room.
Max felt terribly weak. He would have liked nothing better than to have collapsed to the ground and cried his eyes out. As it was, however, he did not think he had much time to waste. He had to explain to Michelle exactly what she had seen. Disregarding the late hour, he hurried to the Darcys' house.
Max was dismayed, when he arrived at the Darcys' house, to have the butler coldly inform him Miss Stanhope was not available. There was an awful fluttering in his stomach and he was barely able to stammer out,
"Is there any message for me from her?"
The butler's eyes shifted as if contemplating his answer, but in the end he only shook his head slowly from side to side, and closed the door. Max walked dejectedly back to the carriage and informed the driver that he would walk home. Walking quickly to keep himself warm, he watched as the carriage rolled out of sight. He soon realized that he would need to work hard to keep from crying, and began amusing himself by thinking of different adjectives, in alphabetical order, to describe Harriet and Edward. He went from A to Z several times before he finally got home.
"Arrogant, bad? Bedlamite?" He shrugged and began climbing the stairs. "Class-climber, dastardly, evil, fixture! Ha!" He entered the house. "Gold-digger, hateful, incogitant, juvenile," he handed his coat and hat to the butler. "Knavish, loathsome," He got no further for, on entering the parlor, he found Michelle waiting for him. She turned from her place near the fire and looked him over coolly.
"Michelle," he breathed, and was hard-put not to rub his eyes to be sure she was not a hallucination.
"Hello, Max." The words were emotionless. Max flinched inwardly and waited for her to lash out at him. Nothing happened, however, and finally he dared to speak.
"I looked for you at James's house. I was told you wouldn't see me. Did you change your mind?" He watched her in dread, at once hoping she would speak and that she would not.
"I came to speak to my cousin and Sir Brian," she said primly. "But you will do, as well."
"Michelle, please..." He begged, but she held up a hand to stop him.
"I did come here to end the engagement," she said. Max drew in his breath sharply and stood there looking like a wounded bird. "However, I have had time to think now, and I'm not sure that is what I want to do."
"It is certainly not what I want," he blurted out.
"Max, I know that Harriet took advantage of you tonight. I did not see only the kiss, so you needn't worry about that."
Max blinked, momentarily relieved.
"Then... why? If you are not... I mean...."
"That was the problem," she said, her tone softening considerably. "I was not jealous. I wanted to hit her over the head with my reticule and carry you away with me on horseback, but not because I was afraid she would steal you. I think that the real reason was that I was angry with her for....for trying to take what was mine."
"What is the difference?"
"I felt betrayal on her side, but no fear for you. Don't you see?" she pleaded. "Haven't you noticed that all the endearments, the declarations of love, have been on your side?"
"No, I hadn't noticed that."
"I have wanted to say them."
"But I couldn't. And don't you think, if I loved you, I would be able to tell you so?"
"But Michelle.....you said you would marry me. And I had a steak on my eye at the time. You have to have loved me to have accepted under those circumstances."
"I do like you very much."
"Then why are you so hesitant? You are never hesitant about anything."
"Yes, but this is forever! I am only eighteen. For all I know, we could be married for eighty years! I'm not sure I want to spend that much time with anybody!"
"Do you want me to beg?" he asked without the least hint of bitterness. He swallowed down the lump in his throat and went on. "I will, if that's what you want. Please, Michelle. I only want to be with you."
"I'm sorry, Max," she said, equally tearful. "I need more time to consider."
"More time! We're already waiting until bloody July! Do you really need more than seven months? Why did you accept me in the first place?"
"I...I don't know. I was surprised and flattered that you had asked again. And I didn't want to live with Aunt Agnes, and you had been so sweet that day, helping me with Mr. Grey and defending me against the crowd. It was very romantic." She looked down at her hands. "I know I'm being truly awful to you, Max, but I can't marry anybody without being sure of my own feelings. I pray you can forgive me."
Max found anger was less overwhelmingly uncomfortable than grief. After a few moments of glaring at Michelle, he turned on his heel and stalked out of the room. Michelle sank onto a sofa and proceeded to cry her eyes out.
The noise Max made in stomping to his room would have been enough to wake a cemetery. As it was, there was no cemetery nearby, and the only person wakened by the ruckus was Brian. He leaned on his little brother's door and folded his arms.
"How much did you lose?" he yawned loudly.
"What?" Max nearly snapped.
"At White's. How much did you lose?"
"I didn't go to White's."
"Then what has you in a miff?" He yawned again and came into the room, slipping a guinea into the abused valet's hand. Max collapsed onto his bed and held his head in his hands.
"She broke off the engagement."
Brian's eyebrows flew up.
"That would do it. Why?"
Max shook his head and explained what had happened. When he was finished, Brian frowned, then chuckled.
"Go to sleep, Max. It will all right itself sooner or later."
Max stared at him in disbelief, then smiled reluctantly.
"Do you think so?"
"Of course. She'll come to her senses, eventually."
"I wish it could be now," he said glumly as Brian pushed him onto his pillow and proceeded to tuck him in. Brian laughed.
"Soon enough. In any case, I wouldn't suspend hope for a July wedding."
"True. I do have eight months to convince her."
"Exactly," Brian soothed and shutting the door softly, halted a servant in the hallway. "Has Miss Stanhope gone yet?"
"No, sir. She is downstairs." Brian nodded and headed back to his room. Several minutes later, a dazed Eleanor wandered into the parlor, where Michelle was staring into the fading fire. She looked doubtfully back at the door, then touched her cousin tentatively on the shoulder. Michelle screamed and jumped up, brandishing the fire poker, but relaxed when she saw it was only Eleanor.
"Are you all right?"
Michelle nodded and burst into tears. Alarmed, Eleanor guided her back to the sofa and sat down with her, comforting her as she would a child.
"I'm so confused!"
"He must hate me!"
"I'm sure he doesn't."
"What will I do if he never speaks to me again?"
"That is a good question. What will you do?"
Michelle frowned and thought a moment.
"Well, it doesn't matter, because he couldn't stop speaking to me!"
"You never know, darling. He may think that he should end all contact with you in order to avoid another broken heart."
"I didn't mean to break his heart."
"But you did, all the same. Twice."
"I thought you were here to comfort me, Eleanor."
"I am, but we must be practical. After all, you are the cousin of his sister-in-law. You cannot go through life without meeting. Eventually, it must happen."
"Very true." Michelle seemed to brighten, then a thought occurred to her. "But it would be terribly awkward if he ignored me all the time! I don't think I could bear it."
"Why could you not bear it?" Eleanor prompted. Michelle stared at her cousin suspiciously, then bit her lip as a faint blush spread over her cheeks.
"I think I made a mistake," she whispered softly. Eleanor nodded. "Why didn't I see it before?" She kicked the sofa, jumped up and hurried out of the room.
Max was just beginning to go to sleep when his door burst open. His reflex was to throw the blankets over his head.
"Brian, I was almost asleep," he whined. The blankets were jerked away and Max was stunned to see Michelle standing above him. She dropped down on her knees so that they were at eye level and took his hand in hers.
"Marry me, Max," she said, and kissed him. He mumbled a question against her lips and she broke away. "What was that, dearest?"
"You're not joking me, are you?"
"Not at all, you goose."
"This is highly unusual......" He turned bright red and squirmed uncomfortably under his covers.
"You're not going to moan about the proprieties, are you?" she sighed. "You asked me twice already, I decided it was my turn, and I didn't want to wait. Please say yes."
"Yes," he grinned.
"Yes what?" she raised an eyebrow.
"Yes, I will marry you." As soon as he said it, he burst out laughing and fell back onto his pillow. Michelle giggled and demanded in a voice that was trying hard to be serious,
"What is so funny, fiancé mine?"
"I proposed in a stable, with a steak on my eye, and now I'm in my nightshirt, accepting your proposal!"
Michelle laughed and stood up, only to sit down beside him.
"Really, though, I don't think you should be in here." He cleared his throat and tried to push her towards the door.
"Don't you want to know why I'm proposing?" she asked. "It is usually proper for the proposer to inform the proposee of the reasons for the proposal."
"Very well, then." He assumed a falsetto. "What, may I ask, are your reasons for asking me such a ridiculous question?"
"Well," Michelle grinned, "the first is that I love you." She kissed his nose. "The second, that I love you, the third, that you are the most charming, adorable, amusing man I have ever met, and the fourth, I love you!" She kissed both his hands and stood up, executing a perfect curtsey.
"Well!" Max would have questioned her further about her mercurial behaviour tonight, but decided it was best to leave that issue alone. It had, after all, only lasted an hour! If it only took Michelle an hour to make up her mind, who was he to argue? He was able to convince her to leave a few minutes later, and though neither of them slept much, they did sleep peacefully.
This was not the last of the turbulence which Max and Michelle would experience during their engagement, and afterwards, in their marriage, but it was the worst. Neither of them ever doubted the love of the other--or rather, they never doubted for long. The marriage took place in July of the year 1818, as originally planned.
As it turned out, Max did not have much time to think about the length of the engagement, for Mr. Laurel had been serious when he said he would like to build one of his designs. Construction was well underway by Christmas, and before it was finished, Max had been approached by three more men of Mr. Grey's ilk who wished greatly to have their names connected to this new talent. Perhaps Mr. Grey regretted not giving Mr. Callahan a chance when he was given the chance--but that is not likely.
Eleanor gave birth to a healthy daughter in March. Though it was understood there would be no more children, Eleanor was not inclined to grieve as much as she had, for this baby was what she had been praying for since her marriage to Sir Brian. The girl was given the name Angela Celeste Callahan. Being only four months old when her uncle married her cousin, she was not inclined to be respectfully quiet, but let out a loud wail just as the groom was about to kiss his bride.
Michelle's nerves, which had been about to overset her, erupted into giggles as Max moved towards her. Max grinned and, determined to have his kiss, took his bride around her waist and pulled her off the floor so that he did not have to bend down. She squealed in surprise but ended up dropping her bouquet on the floor as she wrapped her arms around his neck. Some of the people attending the wedding were probably shocked. Some may have been concerned for the bridegroom's sanity, as well as that of the bride's. Perhaps some were embarrassed for the mother of whichever child had screamed so inopportunely. But the ones whose opinions truly mattered to those being married that day were no more than lightly amused and gladdened by the display, and from their mouths burst a loud roar of approval as, when Max set her down, Michelle pulled him down by his cravat for another quick kiss before they began walking down the aisle, arm in arm.
By July, Lord Cavendar and Miss Dashwood had been married for precisely nine months, and were expecting Lady Jocelyn's brother or sister at literally any time. At the wedding breakfast, Max thanked Margaret profusely for not giving birth in the middle of his wedding.
What precisely happened to Harriet Beech after her engagement to Finley was ended is not known for sure. Some say she tried unsuccessfully to get her job back at the theatre, others say she gave up immediately and moved to Yorkshire (some accounts said Bristol; others said Penzance). What is certain is that none of our heroes or heroines ever saw her again.
James and Kitty Darcy lived in apprehension of a visit from their brother for a few more weeks before word came that one of Kitty's great-aunts had died and left a considerable amount of money to each of her great-nieces. Whence this money came, nobody knew, but James and Kitty were not likely to waste time speculating. They sent a note to Pemberley, indicating their decision to do as Sir Brian and Lady Callahan had done, and take a tour of the Continent, perhaps a permanent one.
But Mrs. Darcy was not the only one to conveniently inherit a fortune. When Michelle turned twenty-one, and any remnants of her being anybody's "ward" were removed, it was revealed that her father had provided a great deal more for her than anyone had originally thought, including Aunt Agnes. She used the money to buy an estate in Cheshire, which she promptly turned into an orphanage. The rest of the money was divided into separate accounts for her children, totaling six accounts (Max remained optimistic, despite Michelle's protestations of woe at the number) of three-thousand pounds each. After that, there remained exactly enough money for a "darling house" in London, just big enough for their growing family.
Despite her youth, Michelle got her wish, not conceiving a child in the whole course of the first two years of marriage, and by the time their first child came along, he was much-anticipated by both of his parents. Two more sons followed, and Michelle, though she did wish she could have had a daughter, much enjoyed being once more surrounded by men, big and small. When the boys began to outgrow simple at-home mischief and to seek mischief elsewhere, they found their mother was as eager for adventures as they could wish their own playmates to be, and their father was amused to watch and cover up for them, occasionally joining in, himself.