Cassandra Dean interviews the Earl and Countess of Malvern
Surprisingly, Malvern House is not in the fashionable part of London. It’s set a few streets back from Hyde Park, in a little cove populated by only four townhouses. Of course, this fits with the Earl’s notorious disdain for society, so it’s not without trepidation I find myself seated in the front parlour, awaiting the presence of the lord and lady of the house.
The butler opens the door and announces the Earl and Countess of Malvern. Hastily I stand, but I don’t quite know how to proceed. Should I curtsey? As soon as I think this, I discard the notion. If I curtsied, I would look ridiculous, as I wore my usual uniform of jeans and a t-shirt ( this one, actually).
Damn, now I feel woefully under-dressed.
Before I can make the decision on how to greet them, the Earl and Countess enter the room. The Countess, Lady Malvern, comes forward to greet me, taking my hand and shaking it vigorously. Somewhat bemused, I let her do so and then turn to the Earl.
The Earl looks at me, then my hand, and then back to me.
I blanch and curl my fingers into my palm. There’s no way he’ll offer to shake my hand.
Lady Malvern bids me to sit and I do, watching as they do the same. The Earl has still said nothing, merely arranging himself on the sette next to his wife. I try not to let his presence put me off.
I thank them for finding the time to meet with me and Lady Malvern offers a wide smile. There’s something delightfully infectious about her, and I find I can’t help but return her smile. I congratulate them on their marriage.
The Countess beams. “Thank you! It’s been a wonderful two months!”
The Earl’s mouth quirks, but apart from that, no response.
I ask about the big day, and Lady Malvern is only too happy to talk of it. “Our wedding was lovely, and exactly what I wanted, even if there were a few mishaps. We had this ice sculpture, you see, even though it was still summer when we married, and thus there was a bit of a race to ensure the wedding and celebrations would be done before it melted completely out of shape. The sculpture was woefully impractical, but James thought we should have one because…um, because…”
Lady Malvern turns a bit red, and I’m interested in exactly why an ice sculpture should make her blush. Before I can ask, though, she continues on. “Oh, and then there was the mountainous cake with the too-sweet icing, the ring bearer’s sad fascination with stray cats and my mother’s insistence on drinking too much champagne.
Finally, the Earl of Malvern speaks, and his voice is rich, deep and overwhelmingly cold. “I believe Lady Malvern is inferring our wedding was an imperfect affair.”
She grins at him, and it’s plain from her expression she has noted the imperiousness of his tone but, amazingly, bears it no mind. “Now, James, I thought it was rather wonderful.” On the last word, her voice breaks and I can tell Lady Malvern truly thought her wedding was wonderful, imperfections and all.
The Earl says nothing.
I look between the two of them and all I can think is, what on earth drew these two together? And so, I ask how they met.
Here, the Countess reacts interestingly. Her smile dims somewhat, and she seems for the first time a bit uncomfortable. “We met when I…Well, when…” Her eyes brighten. “We met at a ball, which sounds odd, as James never goes to balls and my family is not as, um, lofty as his, but, you see, James had decided to come to this particular ball on a whim, and I went because my sister bullied me into it, and during the second or third waltz, I can’t quite remember, we made our acquaintance and, well, it was love at first sight!” She finishes with a flourish and beams at me.
I smile rather weakly back. Lady Malvern might be a lovely person, but she was really bad at creating falsehoods.
The Earl, however, has been watching me closely. “Lady Malvern, I don’t believe she is convinced.”
His wife still smiles at me, though it now seems rather forced. “James, that is how we met.”
“And it is patently false.”
She turns an exasperated look upon her husband. “Well, you didn’t have to confirm it.”
“Tell Ms Dean the truth.” The Earl looks at me, and it’s all I can do not to shiver under his icy perusal. “She did ask.”
Lady Malvern exhales, and I can see her cheeks have turned pink. “Forgive me, it is only–It’s a bit–Well, you’ll see.” She folds her hands in her lap. “All right. Well. We met because… I wanted to learn… Good Lord, this is difficult.” She takes a breath. “I wanted to learn of pleasure. Of an erotic nature. Erotic pleasure.” Her hands tighten. “Thus, in pursuit of this, I applied to a madam of a brothel, and she decided James should be the one to instruct me, and so when I arrived for my first lesson from the madam, instead there was James, and we arranged to meet for lessons, and that was how we met.” The deluge of words delivered, Lady Malvern sits back, slightly out of breath and flushed.
The Earl, meanwhile, had turned to look at his wife. “That is how you chose to describe our meet, Lady Malvern?”
With a scowl, Lady Malvern crosses her arms. “It answers the question asked, James.”
“But not its intent. And I will not have Ms Dean think it a mundane occasion.”
“Mundane? I have just described how we met in a brothel.”
“That is how we met, madam, but it is not how we arrived here.”
“Fine.” She sits back. “You tell it.”
The Earl trains gaze his upon me. “I believe you wished to know our tale?”
I nod, a bit intimidated. Okay, a lot intimidated.
The Earl inclines his head and begins. “It is as my wife said. I was asked to see to her education. Upon our meeting, I didn’t think much of her, but, you realise, I was then a complete fool.”
“You weren’t a complete fool, dear,” the Countess interjects. Her arms are still crossed, but her expression displays a hint of humour.
The Earl’s mouth quirks but the movement is swiftly quelled, as if he wants to smile but my presence restricts the expression. “Ah. I was not a complete fool. Lady Malvern, as always, you slay me with your affection.” He turns his consideration back to me, and any warmth to his countenance has disappeared, if ever it existed. “I did not think much of her, as I’d said. A mouse of a widow, I believe I thought her. Ridiculous, as is plain, but I was once ridiculously ignorant. I met Lady Malvern–”
“At a brothel.”
The Earl raises a brow at his wife. She grins back.
He continues. “At a brothel. After that meet, we arranged to meet in my townhouse after dark. This proceeded for some months, with twice-weekly lessons.”
“No, my lady, twice a week.”
“Oh. Right.” She waves a hand. “Do continue.”
At his wife’s words and actions, the Earl’s mouth quirks again and his eyes warm with humour before he quells the emotion once more. “As I said, I did not think twice about her, and if I did, she was simply that widow I tutored. However, one lesson she wanted to discuss kissing, an endeavour I thought pedestrian when compared to other pleasures. She told me of some courting couple she had witnessed, and that she wanted to explore a simple kiss, and I–I could only…” He falters, as if gripped by emotion, which in him is ridiculous.
Clearing his throat, he continues. “After that, she could only ever be Elizabeth.”
“James, you don’t have to say anything further.” Concern creases Lady Malvern’s brow. “Truly, what you’ve said–”
He holds up a hand, and I can see a barely perceptible shaking. “Elizabeth, I am fine.”
“I am fine.”
She isn’t convinced, though. Lady Malvern shoots me a glance, and I am taken aback by the fierceness of her gaze. Could it be she seeks to, I don’t know, protect the Earl? From what? Me?
The Earl clears his throat again. In another man, this would surely be panic. “We continued our meets but she… I…”
Lady Malvern takes his hand. “We grew close.”
The Earl looks down at their joined hands and his fingers tighten. “Yes. Close.” He takes a breath. “You cannot imagine the affect my wife has had upon me. Prior to her, my life was serviceable, you realise. I enacted the legacy my father had bequeathed, acted the degenerate he trained me to be. I would have continued thus, and been none the wiser.”
Lady Malvern says, “James, you would have changed your life eventually–”
“No.” He turned his gaze to me, and my breath catches at the emotion I see in him. “My wife knows I am uncomfortable with a public display of emotions, and she does not detail our story as she knows I value our privacy, but I will suffer this discomfort. I will not have it said she is less than the person she is, or that she did not change my life, wholly and completely. She has given me more than I had ever even thought to imagine, and I would have you all know of her magnificence.”
I realise my mouth hangs open and abruptly close it. Dear god. That is why they are together. He loves her. He truly loves her.
My gaze drifts to the way she holds his hand, the expression she wears as they look at each other.
And she loves him.
The time has come for me to depart. I thank them both for their time, but they seem wholly occupied with each other. I see myself out, and as the mid-afternoon sun warms my face, I grin to myself.
It’s so nice when your characters live happily ever after.