The silence at the dinner table was deafening, Maria wanted to clatter her knife against her plate, or her glass, something, anything to break the bitter, suffocating blanket their mother had thrown over all of them and their father was doing his best to ignore.
Marcus did it for her, casting down both knife and fork near hard enough to crack his plate and slapping his palm on the table. Both parents started and looked at him with varying degrees of astonishment and affront.
He turned to Mother. “What, precisely have we managed to do to offend you this time?”
She sniffed and did not deign to reply. This was normal. It was supposed to be obvious. Like the time Maria had forgotten to mention she’d had the maid collect more embroidery silk, and didn’t need to go out to buy it herself. Or when Marcus had ordered a new waistcoat without first conferring with her on the colour, style or decoration. Or when her father had ordered a new carriage for her as a surprise.
Marcus rolled his eyes, their mother pinched her lips. He ignored her, and addressed Maria. “Come along then, if you’re finished, we’ll be going. Don’t want to be late.”
That got their mother talking. “Late? Where are you going?”
“Oh, you can speak. Nowhere you need worry about. All very respectable I assure you and we’ll be home at a decent hour.”
He smirked. “Father knows about it, but then he has been available to speak with.”
Maria’s rise from the table was too much of a scramble to be called elegant but it served its purpose and she was halfway out of the dining room door, Marcus at her heels, before their mother tried to call them back.
Marcus hustled her forward and closed the door behind them, gesturing urgently to the butler who, clearly primed, handed them their cloaks and opened the front door. Maria was still fastening hers as she skipped down the front steps and all-but tumbled into the waiting carriage (the surprise one).
Marcus gave the order as he ducked in after her, and they drew away from the house just as the butler re-opened the front door. Their mother appeared in the opening, but could not follow them out, or call after them for fear of making a scene.
Maria looked across at her brother and gave way to giggles. “She is going to be so cross.”
He smirked back at her. “Worth it though, she’s been a spoke in your wheel all season and I am determined to see you out from under that roof.”
She screwed up her nose. “So’s Mama. Unfortunately, we seem to have different ideas on what makes a suitable husband. That’s probably what’s set her off. I mentioned over tea with Lady Cowper the other day that I hoped for a husband nearer my age than Mr Delauncy.”
“She’s pushing that old roué?! Good God. He’s older than Father.”
“And has bad breath and likes to pinch.” She cast Marcus a resigned look. “So, really, the standard to beat isn’t terribly high.”
Marcus scowled. “I’ll have a little word with the man, don’t you worry. He’ll find other places to be from now on.”
Maria smiled at him, he really did make up for their parents. A random thought occurred. She asked. “What are you going to do though?”
“Well, you’re going to want to marry sooner or later. But I don’t think you’d want to bring a wife into that household.”
Marcus tipped his head in thought. “Depends on the wife. If she turns out to be a timid sort, I’ll buy another place. Mother has no view of my business activities but I can well afford a neat little place at an inconvenient distance.”
He grinned wickedly. “Or, I’ll marry a strong-minded, steel-spined woman like your friend Jessica and let her have at them.”
Maria’s eyes rounded at the thought.