The Price of Temptation by M.J. Pearson: Epilogue
Three days later, Jamie and Stephen were breakfasting in the morning room. It had been a hectic few days, full of celebration and budgets and bonfires. And love-making, of course. Jamie stole a glance across the table at Stephen, unshaven, his hair still tousled from sleep. They had both recovered from the ordeal at Madame Novotny’s, although he imagined it would take time for his nightmares to fade. He smiled to himself. Even those had their bright side: waking up to find himself safe next to Stephen was worth the shadowy dreams of fear and confusion.
Jamie was reaching for another lemon tart when there was a knock on the door, and Mr. Symmons stuck his head in.
“My lord? Mr. Riley? Lady Matilda wonders if you would be at home to her.”
Stephen looked up from the newspaper, startled. “But we’re not even dressed yet.” He tugged his dressing gown closed, over silk pajamas.
“Lady Matilda has said--”
“Move aside, boy.” Stephen’s great-aunt used her cane to advantage, pushing the elderly butler from her path. “She has said that as long as you’re not carnally engaged at the moment, she would like to speak to you. Symmons, bring another cup for my tea.”
Mr. Symmons, still reeling that he could be thought a boy by anyone, bowed dumbly and obeyed. Aunt Matilda waited until her tea was poured and sugared, then took a great swallow before beginning. “Hits the spot. It’s damned cold outside. Another winter like this, and I’ll be pleased to go to the Devil, if just for the warmth of the fire.”
“Good to see you, too, Lady Matilda,” Jamie said, blue eyes dancing behind his new spectacles.
“Hang the pleasantries. We all like each other here, don’t we? Good. Mr. Riley, I have a Christmas present for you.” She reached into her embroidered bag, and placed an item on the table in front of them.
It was the portrait of Jamie’s mother, looking only slightly the worse for wear.
“The frame’s broken, but there’s nothing wrong with the canvas,” Aunt Matilda said, beaming. “I had Hammond and his boys scouring the pawn shops these past few days.”
Jamie looked up. “Thank you, Lady Matilda. This means—this means so much to me.”
“Oh, that’s not all. Turn it over.”
“Yes, the frame is broken, but we can…oh.” Careless handling had caused the wood to come askew from the backing, revealing something behind the canvas. Jamie plucked at the paper, removing it from its hiding place.
“Read the pages. Both of you.”
Stephen looked at her. “You’ve already done so, I presume?”
“You presume correctly. I would have waited until you came for dinner tomorrow otherwise.”
Slowly, Jamie unfolded the two sheets. They were covered with the same handwriting, but it was unfamiliar. “My mother didn’t write these.” But he didn’t have to glance at the signature to tell who did. Why else would they be secreted away, within the last other souvenir of Maria Riley’s youth?
The same hand authored both missives, but they were very different in tone. The first was dated December, 1793. My dearest Maria, I cannot wait for us to be together as man and woman were created to be…I dream of the sweet kisses you allowed me in the garden…as soon as Father returns from Toulon and we get his permission, we can be together for always… Jamie couldn’t bring himself to read every word, skimming the careful schoolboy script. A love letter, from his father to his mother. He put it down, picking up the next. March, 1794. How could you be untrue to me? Your face is hateful to me now, to think that so soon after That Night you lay with another… This was much worse, and his hand shook to read it. …such lies you tell me, but I know the truth. I almost believed it, & so I asked not one, but two doctors, and even Doctor Moore who tends the King confirmed that it is not possible for a woman to conceive her first time & since I know you were a virgin when you lay with me on the night of the Perkins ball, your child must have been fathered by a rival sometime after…
There were more reproaches, and a passionate order to never bother him with the matter again. He passed the letter to Stephen, who read it more slowly, taking in every ugly word. “Is that true, Aunt Matilda? About a woman’s first time?”
She snorted. “It’s absolute horseshit. If Carrington had asked any practicing midwife instead of those quacks, the story would have ended quite differently.”
“Thank you for bringing this to my attention,” Jamie said quietly. “It’s painful, but at least I know how it all happened.” He picked up the portrait, shaking his head. “Look behind, if you want to understand where you came from, she told me. I didn’t realize Mother was giving me a clue. She was probably even looking at the painting when she said it, and I thought she was just lost in memories.”
“You don’t understand, not yet. Your father admits, in writing, that he lay with your mother, and even gives a date that can be verified. I’m guessing we’ll find that the Perkins held their ball some nine months before you were born. Any court would accept this to confirm your paternity.”
“I’m not taking this to court, Lady Matilda.”
“How would you like to take it to Cambridge?”
Jamie blinked at her. “What?”
“I spoke to Jack Carrington yesterday, and this is enough for him to agree to stand you to a university education.”
“Oxford,” Stephen said. “He’ll go to Oxford, like I did.”
“I can’t leave--”
“I’ll go with you, Mouse. We’ll take a house, and come home to London for holidays.”
“But…” Jamie felt decidedly short of breath. “Oh, God. University.”
“With a good lawyer, you could have the whole bloody estate, and the title, too,” Lady Matilda added. “Look at the first letter again. Johnnie doesn’t use the word marriage, but what else can he be talking about? He wouldn’t need his father’s permission to offer the girl a slip on the shoulder. A promise of marriage, followed by consummation…”
It was Stephen’s turn to gasp. “Jamie could be legitimated.”
“No.” He pushed away from the table. “That’s too much. And I don’t think…even if that would still be accepted under common law, they were both underage.”
“Unless the Carringtons choose to accept you. It’s not impossible. Johnnie and his wife have no living children. If Jack decides he wants you as an heir, he can force an adoption to cement the legality.”
Jamie tightened the belt on his dressing gown. “Lady Matilda, you’ve given me much to think about. Just the idea of going to University…”
“You will accept that, won’t you, Mr. Riley?”
“Of course he will,” Stephen said.
“Good. I’ll tell Jack.” She had one final salvo to fire. “I’ve invited him to Christmas dinner as well. Unless you object to meeting your grandfather? He’s very interested in meeting you.”
Jamie swayed on his feet, and Stephen quickly put an arm around him. “We’re looking forward to it. Now, perhaps you should leave, Auntie, before you kill the poor boy.”
When they were alone, Jamie burrowed into Stephen’s arms, his face against his lover’s chest. It was a long while before he came up for air. “Just a few days ago, I had nothing. Now I have a grandfather, my family here, and you.”
“It’s not true you had nothing, Mouse. You had yourself.”
Jamie disengaged himself from Stephen with reluctance. “I suppose I should get dressed and get back to work on the ledgers. Care to join me?”
“It’s Christmas Eve, sweetheart. You deserve a holiday.” He crossed over to the sideboard, and came back with something that had been waiting patiently for Jamie’s return.
Stephen set the board on the table. “Here, Mouse. You take white.”