Home > A Substitute Wife for the Prizefighter

A Substitute Wife for the Prizefighter
Author: Alice Coldbreath

1

Sitwell Place, Pimlico, London 1845

“A toast,” said Uncle Josiah jovially. “To the prospective bride and groom!”

Everyone scrambled to pick up their tumblers of water. Lizzie Anderson raised hers aloft like the rest of the company, though she thought there was precious little to celebrate. Cousin Betsy had lost her mind. Why else would she go and throw herself away on a reprobate like Benedict Toomes? There could be no other explanation for it, Lizzie thought, as her gaze traveled from her pretty, dimpling cousin to the dark male specimen lolling in his seat next to her.

Benedict Toomes’s shoulders were twice as broad as any other man sat there, and maybe that was supposed to excuse the fact he had seen fit to remove his jacket in polite company and unbuttoned the top of his shirt. To Lizzie, it just looked slovenly. Uncle Josiah would never sit to supper in his shirt sleeves. Then, too, he had barely spoken a word throughout dinner, though his every pore radiated an ill-bred arrogance that set Lizzie’s jangling nerves on edge. Instead of trying to ingratiate himself to the company at large, like a decent man would, he looked, if anything, rather bored.

How did he dare to sit there so silent and scornful, she fumed, when he was surrounded on all sides by good Christian folk? Lizzie’s bosom swelled with indignation as she unfolded her napkin. She knew full well he had only been released from prison two months ago for common affray, yet instead of looking even remotely abashed, he sat there bold as brass with those cool, hazel eyes of his and a faint curl to his sensual full mouth that spoke of pride and disdain.

What did he have to be arrogant about, that’s what she’d like to know! From what Betsy had told her, he was nothing more than a common prizefighter, and though her cousin had airily talked of his having money to invest and enough put by for a house of his own, Lizzie would believe it when she saw it! Men like that were soon parted from their money by fast living. She only hoped that Betsy would not rue the day she had decided to let flashy good looks overrule good sense.

Lizzie could not for the life of her understand why Uncle Josiah had permitted the man a seat at his table, let alone to become engaged to his only daughter. Of course, she knew a repentant sinner must be welcomed back into the fold, but Benedict Toomes did not look remotely repentant, and besides, he had never been part of their fold! Sometimes, she even wondered if he was a regular churchgoer at all!

Her gaze sought out the reassuring presence of Reverend Milson, who sat at the opposite end of the table in his somber black robes. From her seat, she could just about make out his melodious voice informing his neighbor of the charity fundraiser he was currently devoting his energies to. Lizzie hoped the rich Mrs. Lessing would prove receptive to his cause. Although a wealthy widow, she could be extremely mean with her largesse and liked to keep her prospective beneficiaries dancing constant attendance on her.

How shocked dear Reverend Milson must have been to find himself having to share a meal with the likes of Benedict Toomes, Lizzie thought, yet you could not tell from his wonderfully serene expression. Everyone knew the good reverend had regretfully declined to read the banns in his own church after Benedict had refused to formally pledge himself a member of their congregation. Lizzie had never been so shocked as when she had learned that poor Betsy was having to be married out of a neighboring parish. Lizzie did not know how Betsy could bear the indignity after being raised in the same church all her life. It must have been a cruel blow, yet her cousin seemed determined to forge ahead on this dubious path in life.

The only consolation was the proof that their pastor was indeed a man of principle, she thought, looking at how Reverend Milson’s pale hair swept back from his noble brow. He knew a sinner when he saw one, and he did not flinch from his duty. Fortified by this thought, Lizzie reached for her water glass and took another refreshing sip. It was overcrowded tonight in the Anderson’s dining room, and she was starting to feel a little hot in the face.

“Lizzie, my dear,” Mrs. Hedgcomb addressed her with a kindly smile. “I wanted to thank you for that pretty shawl pattern you dropped by yesterday. Why, it’s just the thing for my niece Hilda’s new baby.”

Lizzie leant forward. “I’m so glad, Mrs. Hedgcomb,” she replied. “I’ve made it several times, and it always turns out very nicely indeed. ”

She turned and apologized to old Mr. Scott, who she had inadvertently jostled. There were so many extra seats crowded around the dining room table tonight, it made it hard to avoid scraping elbows.

“Not at all, my dear,” he assured her, patting her arm. “Don’t give it another thought.” Lizzie smiled back at him and steeled herself to ask after his elderly father who suffered from the gout.

She was not sure at which point her attention started to wander. Mr. Scott always went into so much detail about his father’s maladies, and the buzz of conversation around the table somehow made it easier to disassociate from the gently plaintive voice as it unhurriedly ran through the elder Scott’s various ailments.

Lizzie nodded absently, her thoughts miles away as her eyes wandered over the flowers and the dishes of wax fruit stacked down the center of the table. She had just noticed that someone had spilled gravy on Aunt Hester’s pristine table linen when her eyes were dazzled by a flash of light. Glancing up, she saw the candlelight had caught Mrs. Lessing’s diamond brooch as sly fingers plucked it from her black lace shawl and dropped it into a discreet breast pocket.

Lizzie started, her disbelieving eyes travelling up from the breast pocket up to the serene features of Reverend Milson as he smoothly continued his conversation with Mrs. Lessing without even pausing to draw breath. She blinked. What just happened? Her eyes traveled back disbelievingly to Mrs. Lessing’s plump bosom. The shawl was bare of adornment for the brooch was gone.

“Lizzie, my dear?” She turned back blankly to Mr. Scott. “You must not take on so, my child,” he said with an indulgent chuckle. “He is a very old man, and it’s only natural that he feels his years at ninety-one.”

She nodded dumbly. “It s-seems hard the old gentleman should have to suffer so,” she managed to stammer from lips that felt strangely numb. Her mind was reeling. What had she just seen? Could Mrs. Lessing have asked Reverend Milson to take her brooch for safekeeping? she wondered. Could the brooch pin have become loose? Or a stone have fallen out? Madly, she scrabbled for a reasonable excuse for the vicar to have legitimately removed the brooch, but all the while, in the back of her mind, she kept remembering how his lips had flowed with speech while his fingers surreptitiously removed and pocketed the brooch.

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