DR. AUGUSTINE LAWRENCE’S cuffs were stained with blood and his mackintosh had failed against the persistent drizzle. He looked damp, miserable, and scared.
Jane Shoringfield couldn’t take her eyes off him, even though her attention was clearly overwhelming. This was the man she intended to marry, if he’d have her. If she could convince him.
He was frozen in the doorway to her guardian’s study, and she was similarly still just behind the desk. Even from here, she could see that she had several inches on him in height, that his dark hair was full, slightly waved, and going silver already at his left temple, and that his wide eyes were a murky green, and gentle, but almost sad in the wrong light.
She hadn’t expected him to be handsome.
Her guardian’s voice boomed down the hallway, and the man startled, turning to face it. “Mr. Cunningham,” he greeted in turn. “I’m sorry, I’m afraid I lost track of your maid, and—”
“No matter, no matter. How good of you to join us! I was afraid you might change your mind.”
Jane couldn’t see Mr. Cunningham, but she could picture him perfectly: white hair carefully combed back, a fine but comfortable suit, bright brown eyes. Short and narrow, almost too narrow for his orator’s voice and charisma.
“I’m afraid I may not be the best or most decorous company,” the doctor said, hazarding a furtive glance back at her that lasted only one appraising second. “One too many house calls. I wasn’t able to stop back at the surgery.”
That explained the state of his cuffs, at least; but that meant he wasn’t early. Jane looked at the clock and winced. An hour had passed while she wasn’t looking. She wasn’t ready. She was still wearing her reading glasses, and she could feel a smudge of ink on her temple. Mr. Cunningham’s account books lay spread out before her.
She was not making the best first impression to aid her suit.
“Don’t worry,” Mr. Cunningham said, closer now but still out of sight. “You will find that this isn’t a peacocking courtship.”
The doctor’s cheeks pinked. “I understand, but I have given it some thought, and I must—”
“Before you continue,” her guardian said, cutting him off, “I want to remind you that you have not heard her logic yet. I think you should.”
It had been Mr. Cunningham who had presented the match to Dr. Lawrence last week on her behalf, when the doctor had come round to evaluate his lungs in preparation for the Cunninghams’ great move to Camhurst, capital of Great Breltain and a full day’s ride away from Larrenton. However her guardian had framed the proposition, it had been enough to get the doctor here, now, today.
Looking very pale and very nervous. Looking like he was about to flee.
“Please do let me explain,” Jane said, grateful that her voice came out more than a whisper. The doctor turned to her again, lips slightly parted in surprise, whatever protest he’d been about to voice—whatever demurring—silenced.
Mr. Cunningham laughed and appeared in the doorway at last. “Ah, that explains what waylaid you.”
“I apologize, I hadn’t meant to … spy,” Dr. Lawrence said, weakly. “Miss Shoringfield.”
“Dr. Lawrence,” she said, inclining her head in greeting. “Will you allow me at least to make my argument in full?”
The doctor looked between her and Mr. Cunningham and recoiled, the reflex of a cornered animal.
She was coming at this all wrong; she should have paid better mind to the time, met him in the sitting room as Mrs. Cunningham had planned out the night before. But they were here, now.
Save me, she thought at Mr. Cunningham.
“The brandy,” he said, not hearing her desperate thought, “is in the sideboard.”
And then, chuckling, he was gone.
Jane and the doctor regarded each other again across the space between door and desk, and Jane gestured, as gently as she could, to a chair. The doctor hesitated, but at last took a few tentative steps into the study. He didn’t sit. Jane turned from him and busied herself pouring two glasses.
As her hands moved, she summoned up the steps of her argument, and selected, for her opening, the strongest and least specific to her situation. “Marriage is, at heart, a business arrangement, not one of hearts or souls,” she said, without turning. “It is best to discuss it plainly from the first.”
She could hear his startled exhale.
Still too much. And yet she didn’t know how else to approach this. She had already botched whatever chance at a gentle introduction they might have had.
Keeping her back to him as she stoppered the decanter, she continued: “I have evaluated our options thoroughly, Dr. Lawrence. Leaving aside dances, which I suspect you have no time for, and childhood acquaintances, whom I haven’t seen in many years, there are few opportunities for courtship for us.
“So I start from a premise of shared goals.”
She listened for his fleeing footsteps.
They didn’t come.
Copyright © 2021 by Caitlin Starling