Gazing at Waistcoats
"At this rate we shall not arrive in London before sunset," the dowager said in her plaintive voice. "Do see what is keeping the coachman or I will be sure to have a fit of the vapours, Millicent."
The thought of Lady Stanton having the vapours in the confines of the carriage, no matter how well appointed and comfortable, filled Miss Millicent Mainwaring with trepidation. She hurriedly got down from the coach and trudged to the door of the inn. They had been all day on the road, and a lame leader had slowed their progress the last five or six miles. Lady Stanton had refused to get down at the inn for refreshments during the change of horses and Millicent was glad of that. Another day in such close confines with her ladyship and she feared she would lose her temper and with it her position as companion to the testy dowager. ‘It could be worse,' she reflected. ‘I could be a governess.'
Lost in thought as she was, she did not notice a gentleman who was just coming through the doorway until she came suddenly up against his chest and was rewarded with the view of a remarkably fine brocade waistcoat.
"I do beg your pardon," she cried hastily, just as he put his arms up to steady her.
"It is of no moment," he said as he gently but effectively moved her aside. And then without a backward glance he walked off to a waiting carriage.
Millicent was left staring after him, dazed not only by his brusque manner, and his complete indifference to her, but also by his vigorous stature and elegant bearing. She had not seen his face but from the back he looked to be a very fine figure of a man. She was about to attempt to enter the inn again when Caruthers, the coachman, came around the side of the building.
"Miss, tell her ladyship it won't be a moment. The new horses are just being brought ‘round. Seems a Marquis has more sway than a dowager at this establishment." He sniffed as he said it, an indication that he held the innkeeper in deep disdain.
Millicent hastened to the carriage and climbed back inside.
"There was a marquis being attended to first, my lady, but the coachman says we will be ready momentarily."
"A marquis given precedence over a duchess? Whatever is the world coming to?"
"Truly unthinkable," agreed Millicent dutifully.
Fifteen minutes later a fresh team was hitched to the carriage and Caruthers guided them once more upon the high road. Millicent withheld a sigh as Lady Stanton finally ceased her querulous diatribe and allowed a handkerchief soaked in lavender water to be placed upon her brow.
Millicent looked out the window at the passing countryside, but her thoughts were far from the hedges and rolling fields that were on display. She was thinking instead how well it was working out for her, finally. When her parents had both died tragically just short of her eighteenth birthday she had been forced to put aside her grief and take charge of her younger siblings. She had known her father to be improvident, but the full scale of his debts had been a severe shock; Lucinda, Cedric, and she had been left with little more than the clothes on their backs. Her father, the youngest son of the Earl of Dorsham, had been disowned upon his marriage to the beautiful actress Sybille Wooten, the wild and willful daughter of a respectable clergyman. Millicent refused to go to the earl for help and instead accepted the kind offer of her Aunt Prudence to share her little house in a respectable, if unfashionable, quarter of London. But Millicent had no intention of living upon her aunt's kind graces forever.
On her twenty-second birthday, Millicent had applied for the position of companion to Lady Stanton and she had held that position now for a full two years. Her wages all went to provide Cedric with schooling at Eton and to assist her aunt with fulfilling the dream of both their hearts: launching Lucinda upon London society.
Lucinda took after her mother in appearance. She had a bounty of golden curls, a rosebud mouth, and eyes that sparkled like sapphires. She was just turned seventeen and a sweet and obliging miss. Both Millicent and Prudence were certain she would be able to make an advantageous marriage if only given the chance. Prudence Wooten did not move in the first circles of society, but she had old school friends who did and who were sympathetic to the idea of bringing the beautiful granddaughter of the earl to the forefront of the Ton.
When Lady Stanton had announced her intention of spending the season in London, Millicent had been overjoyed. She had written to her aunt immediately and wheels were set in motion for Lucinda's debut. Through Lady Stanton she had wangled invitations for both her sister and her aunt to a ball at Billings Court, the town house of Lady Stanton's son, the duke. And Millicent and the dowager were also to be in attendance. Everything after that night depended on the kind of splash Lucinda made.
Millicent surveyed herself in the hall mirror subsequent to retrieving Lady Stanton's spangled shawl from the cloakroom. After dithering about leaving it, the dowager had changed her mind the moment Millicent had ensconced her into a comfortable chair in the ballroom where she had a good vantage point to watch all the dancers. What she saw in the mirror was none too impressive. The image that looked back at her was overly tall, tastefully but very simply dressed, with hair of an indeterminate colour and pale green eyes. But all that mattered not a jot to Millicent. What was important was that Lucinda was there and in perfect looks. Her complexion was like soft cream with the rosy blush of peach over her cheeks. And already, though she had just arrived, Millicent had heard whispers running through the crowd, wondering who the new beauty was. She turned away from the mirror and almost tripped over the leg of a gentleman as she caught him mid-stride. Hands grasped her shoulders and she had the eerie feeling of history repeating itself. She found herself gazing at a silver and black striped waistcoat, and then she looked up.
"Do be careful."
It was the same voice, but languid this time instead of rushed.
"I am so sorry," she said, almost brought speechless by the sight she beheld. His face matched the rest of him, beautiful chiselled lines that held an expression of boredom. "I hope I have not ruined your attire."
He looked down at her, his hands still lightly on her shoulders. "My pantaloons shall survive a few wrinkles. I was more concerned about you and your habit of running into people."
"I do not make a habit of it sir," she sputtered, surprised that he had even remembered the previous incident.
He raised an eyebrow. "It would seem otherwise, or do you save this behaviour just for me?"
She coloured and stammered something incomprehensible, and then recalled the shawl in her hands. "Oh my goodness, Lady Stanton!" she exclaimed.
He looked down the hall both ways. "Where?"
"In the ballroom, waiting for this shawl. I must go to her at once."
"By all means," he said.
"But . . . sir . . . if you do not free me, I cannot."
He looked at his hands as if he were only just aware they were holding her shoulders, and then lowered them without saying a word or taking his lazy hazel eyes from her face.
When Millicent returned to Lady Stanton she was greeted with a peevish expression.
"You took quite an age -- what if I were to have caught a chill?"
"I am so sorry, your ladyship."
"Oh never mind your excuses. Hurry and place it around me. No, not like that, higher, not so loosely . . . now you are doing it too tight."
A few minutes after Millicent had arranged the shawl to her ladyship's satisfaction, she decided it was too warm and asked for it to be draped over the back of her chair.
"And could you fetch me a glass of lemonade? I'm quite seriously parched."
Millicent turned to go to the refreshment table and was immediately glad that she had not taken a step forward with the turn. The same gentleman was standing before her. His eyebrow rose and he said, "I was about to ask you for a dance."
"I do not dance, sir"
"But this is a ball. I had assumed that the purpose of attending balls was to dance."
Millicent looked towards Lady Stanton, who was eyeing her anxiously, and then back at the gentleman. "You are suffering under a misapprehension. I am here as companion to Lady Stanton."
His glance rested momentarily upon Lady Stanton. "I fail to see the problem," he said as his eyes returned to her face.
"I am just about to procure some lemonade for her."
"Ah," he said, but he made no move to get out of her way.
"If you would excuse me, sir?"
He stepped aside and she walked away. When she returned she was surprised to find him sitting in deep conversation with Lady Stanton whose usually mournful face was wreathed with smiles.
"Finally!" she sighed, reaching out for her lemonade. "You took forever, my dear."
"There was quite a line-up for refreshments."
"You should have given my name," she admonished. "You would have been served faster." Lady Stanton returned her gaze to the gentleman who was getting up from his seat and motioning to Millicent to sit down.
"You needn't do that, Beverly. Sit right back down - she's only my companion, after all." nice!
He indicated the seat to Millicent again and then stood beside it, making room for her to take it. "Won't you introduce us, cousin?"
"This is Miss Mainwaring. Her father was Reginald Mainwaring -- a son of the Earl of Dorsham, but then he married badly and died insolvent." She gave him a meaningful stare. Millicent didn't bat an eyelash. She was used to Lady Stanton putting her in her place.
Beverly held out his hand. "Lord Broughton." He said, rather than wait till the dowager condescended to give out the information.
The dowager added imperiously, "The Marquis of Steadly, my third cousin."
Millicent could not help herself. After shaking Lord Broughton's hand she looked demurely at Lady Stanton and said, "The marquis who changed his horses at the inn last week, my lady." lol
Lady Stanton almost choked and then managed to say, "How could you possibly know that?"
"I bumped into Miss Mainwaring when I was leaving the inn," said Beverly in his leisurely way. "And in my haste I failed to apologise, an incivility I hope to make up to her."
"And why did you not tell me of this, girl? Secretiveness is a vice I abhor."
"I had no idea who he was and the incident was really very minor. Considerations for your comfort were more important to me at the time," said Millicent steadily.
Lady Stanton turned to Beverly. "She means well, but is young and very untrained. I took her on out of compassion and I'm sure she will amount to something once I have instilled sufficient social graces."
"I see nothing lacking," said Beverly, "except for a strange notion she has that she ought not dance at a ball. I know you will agree with me that this is a faux pas that must be rectified, cousin, and allow me to lead her out for the next dance."
"But she is my companion! Who will tend to my needs if she goes gallivanting off with you?"
"I will return in a moment," he said, and walked off into the crowd.
"How could you put yourself forward in such a manner?" asked Lady Stanton once Lord Broughton was out of earshot.
"But, my lady, I informed him that I do not dance."
"I ought to have realised there was something of your mother in you. I regret that I agreed to sponsor your sister tonight."
Millicent took in a deep breath and then exhaled slowly. "Lady Stanton, my sister is the sweetest, most tractable girl I know -- she was chiefly raised by my aunt Prudence who is the soul of propriety."
Lady Stanton had to grudgingly admit that this was true. Prudence Wooten was well known as a spinster of alarming integrity and virtue. It was that fact that had caused the dowager to take a chance on Miss Mainwaring as a companion. Well, that and to send a fly up the nose of that pompous Earl of Dorsham.
"Be that as it may, I still don't understand why Beverly should want to dance with you at all."
As Millicent was busy asking herself the same question she had no answer for the dowager. A moment later Lord Broughton returned with an older lady in tow. "Lady Stanton, you must remember my Aunt Euphoria. She is looking forward to a half hour in your company."
The two ladies exchanged greetings and then Millicent gave up her seat to Miss Euphoria Broughton and followed the marquis to the dance floor.
"I must warn you that I haven't danced in years," she said.
"All the more reason you begin again," he replied with a slow, soft, smile.
Millicent took her place and then said, "Are you doing this as a sort of apology? You said earlier . . ."
"That I bumped into you, but we both know it was the other way around, so I suppose it is your apology to me."
"You know very well that I apologised both times."
"True, but I prefer dancing over apologies, don't you?"
While they were separated by the figures of the dance Millicent looked around to see how Lucinda was faring, feeling a little guilty for her lack of attention to her sister's debut since she had met the maddening marquis. Her sister was dancing further down the room in another set and looked radiant. The gentleman squiring her appeared to be very attentive. Millicent smiled.
"What is it that gives you such happiness?" asked Beverly as they were brought together again. He would have liked to have thought it was him but her inattentiveness was readily apparent.
"It is my sister's first season," she said with a smile. "I think she will be a resounding success."
"And what of your first season? I do not remember ever seeing you in town before."
"Oh, I have never had a season," said Millicent with unconcern.
"Then this is also your first season."
"That is nonsensical. I am well past such considerations."
He raised an eyebrow. "I beg to differ."
"Lord Broughton," she said roundly, "I am four and twenty, on the shelf, quite ordinary and decidedly plain. My sister, on the other hand, is seventeen, amazingly beautiful, kind, gentle, and caring. She will make one very lucky gentleman a perfect wife."
"You must point her out to me."
"There, in the other set, dressed in pale blue with golden curls."
"Exquisite," Beverly said after glancing in the direction indicated, "but she is far too young. Do not expect me to come asking for her hand."
"I was not . . . do not think that I told you all that in order to . . . I am not trying to sell my sister to a marquis if that is what you are implying."
"Stay. I only thought it was fair to let you know that I had no intentions in that direction. To tell you the truth, there is another lady that has already caught my fancy."
Millicent wondered why she experienced a sudden sinking feeling. She had only fleetingly thought of matching Lucinda with Lord Broughton, so it was not for Lucinda's sake that she was upset at the notion of his having a prior attachment. She tried to shake off the feeling by saying, "I wish you every happiness with her."
"I think I do need your good wishes," he said, "for I fear she is completely oblivious to my interest and thoroughly unimpressed by my attentions."
"I cannot imagine that would happen with a gentleman such as you," said Millicent, somehow feeling better now that she knew the course of his courtship was not running smoothly.
"It is not the only thing you cannot imagine," he responded as the dance ended.
As he returned her to Lady Stanton, she asked him to explain himself, but he only smiled and shook his head.
On her first half day off, Millicent took a hackney to her aunt's house. She had barely spoken with her sister since coming to town; Lady Stanton kept her so busy. Even when they were at the same parties, which happened occasionally, there was no time to converse. And Millicent did not wish her sister to waste moments when she could be making a conquest, by sitting with her sister, the paid companion.
Lucinda was thrilled to see Millicent and threw herself into her arms, almost crying in her happiness. "Oh Millie! How I wish you could be having as much fun as me instead of being tied to that dragon!"
"Lady Stanton is not so very bad. She would make a decidedly feeble dragon with all her fretful petulance. Her main problem is that she is lonely because her family ignores her." Millicent had recently noticed how Lady Stanton's mood changed when her cousin the marquis came to visit. Though she tended to be rather critical of her companion on these occasions, she chatted gaily with Lord Broughton.
"If only you did not feel you needed to work for a living. Why do you not find a husband for yourself?"
"Lucy dearest, you know I have never had any thought to marry."
"Then why are you so very interested in my getting married?"
"Because, you goose, you will make a splendid match for yourself. Tell me about all your beaus."
"Oh Millie, the gentlemen are so very charming. I will feel very sad to shatter the hopes of any whose offers I refuse. How will I know which one to say yes to?"
"The one you love the best, of course."
"I do not think I love any one of them yet," she said with a slight blush.
"It takes more than a week to fall in love, dearest," laughed Millicent. "I do not want you to agree to marry any gentleman just to spare his feelings. Promise me that."
"I promise," said Lucinda.
At that moment Cedric popped his head into the parlour. "Is it safe to come in?"
"Whatever are you doing here, Ceddie?" asked Millicent. "It is not the end of term."
"I've been rusticated," he admitted sheepishly.
"Rusticated? Whatever for?"
"It was only a harmless prank. I put a snake in the Bagwig's study. How was I to know his wife would visit that very afternoon? Her screams were frightful -- we could hear them all the way up in our rooms."
"I know you're disappointed, Mil, but I did apologise most decently -- and really the snake was quite tame."
Millicent hugged her brother knowing that he must already have received a dreadful scold from his Aunt Prudence.
"Have a care, sis, you'll squish my pet earwigs." He took a peek inside his waistcoat pocket to ensure that they were safe.
After tea and cake and a long, lively chat with her family that Millicent wished would never end, she announced it was time for her to go.
"I'll help you find a cab," said Cedric.
"Me too," said Lucinda.
Millicent knew they only wanted more time with her, and so all three put on their outer clothes and went out onto the street together. As there were no hackneys to be seen they walked down to the corner to the busier street.
"I see one!" cried Cedric and he was about to flag it down when a neat curricle pulled up beside them and the driver handed his reins to his tiger and jumped down to the flagstones. Cedric was distracted by the fine pair of bays that were restlessly standing in front of him, and lost all interest in the hailing the hackney.
"Miss Mainwaring," said the marquis as he held out his hand. "And Miss Lucinda. What a lucky chance to meet you on the street here -- I was on my way to visit Lady Stanton this very minute."
"You were?" asked Millicent who knew London well enough to know that this district could not possibly be between wherever a young, rich gentleman resided and the home of the dowager.
"Indubitably. And you are out for an afternoon stroll?"
"We were just about to hail a hackney to take my sister back to Lady Stanton's," said Lucinda "but now we have no need for you can take her, can you not?" She smiled up at him very sweetly.
"It would be my pleasure," he responded before Millicent could say anything to the contrary. "And who is this young gentleman?"
"This is my brother, Cedric. Ceddie, this is Lord Broughton."
"Mr. Mainwaring," said Beverly, holding out his hand. "I have hoped for the pleasure of meeting you, but I heard that you were at Eton."
Cedric looked a little shamefaced. "I got sent down," he mumbled.
"In the Bagwig's desk drawer?"
Cedric nodded. "But his wife found it."
"Bad luck, old chap. She didn't
like the bats I put into the parlour either."
"No -- did you really? But you're so . . ."
"Were you going to say old?" Beverly leaned over and continued in a confidential tone. "Yes, I fear I'm all of eight and twenty, but I was young once, and I swear the same old Bagwig and his wife will still be there when my own son goes to Eton."
"How old is he now, sir?'
"I'm not even married yet, but I will talk to you more about that on another occasion. For now, what do you think of my horses?"
"A bang up pair!"
"I had a feeling you had an eye for good horseflesh. So, what do you say? May I take your sister up with me, sir?"
By the look on Cedric's face it was obvious that he would rather be the passenger himself. "I think she should count herself lucky," he said wistfully.
Beverly handed Millicent up into the curricle and then ruffled Cedric's hair. "I promise to take you another time before you go back to school." Then he turned to Lucinda and wished her good day and hopped up to take the reins from his tiger who retreated to his little step behind the carriage.
"When you gave me that list of your sister's attributes the other day you omitted to mention astute and helpful," he said conversationally as he tooled up the road.
Millicent's mind was on something else. "I know you meant it for the best, but it does not do to make empty promises to young boys," she said.
"I meant it when I said I would take him for a ride," said Beverly evenly.
"Please, your Lordship, you have no reason to take Cedric out just because he admired your horses. I am sure there are dozens of things you would rather do instead."
"Yes, in truth there are, but as I am unable to do any of those dozen things in the near future, my next choice would be to drive out with your brother."
"Sometimes I do not understand you at all."
"I am well aware of that -- hopefully with time it will change."
Millicent sighed in exasperation. She thought he spoke in riddles just to tease her, but she had no idea why. She decided against even attempting to figure it out and instead gave herself up to the joyous sensation of riding in a well-sprung vehicle and being driven by someone who could handle the ribbons like a Corinthian. As they went along the more fashionable streets, she noticed people turn and stare and could only imagine that they were wondering what the handsome Marquis of Steadly was doing with such a plain and commonplace person by his side, and she couldn't blame them in the least.
Lady Stanton was not pleased that members of the Ton were seeking her insignificant companion out. Not only did Lord Broughton pay her attention, but since he was seen driving her home one day the number of ladies and gentlemen that came for morning visits trebled. And when they visited they invariably included Miss Mainwaring in their conversation. It was inexplicable. Absurd. Aggravating.
In an effort to combat this unexpected turn of events the dowager sent Millicent on more errands than she had in the past, most of them quite unnecessary. She particularly enjoyed doing it while her cousin the marquis was visiting so that she could have him all to herself. She suspected it was just the young man's overblown sense of civility that caused him to include Miss Mainwaring and she attempted to impress upon him that the girl was little more than a servant and not deserving of that sort of consideration at all.
But somehow she never managed to get the fact through to his philanthropic brain. Whenever they attended a ball he brought his garrulous Aunt Euphoria to sit in Millicent's place for the half hour that a dance took. Lady Stanton warned him that people might get the wrong idea but he only laughed and said they could think what they would, he knew what he was doing. Really! It was carrying Christian kindness a little too far.
Millicent had arrived at a similar conclusion. Obviously the marquis was attempting to provide her with the season he thought was her right, and put her in the path of some deserving young man. He had even sat with Lady Stanton himself when his friend, Mr. Uruquart, had petitioned her for a dance. Later that same evening, she had found herself approached by yet another gentleman.
"I'm afraid I cannot dance," she had answered. "I am here for Lady Stanton's benefit and may not leave her alone."
The gentleman, Viscount Benchly, regarded her with a look that was barely short of a sneer. "You were upon the floor but a few minutes ago."
"That is true, but I feel I have left her ladyship without my company enough for one night. It would be uncivil for me to dance a third time when she has already been more than generous with me this evening."
"You have a fine idea of your consequence," he retorted.
"I understand my duty, sir."
"I rather think you are attempting to worm your way into society in a most insidious manner. I warn you not to set too much in store by Broughton's attentions; I have no idea what game he is playing at but you can mark my word that it is done to spite me rather than as a compliment to you." He then turned on his heel and stalked off, leaving Millicent staring after him in shock.
"I had expected something of this nature to occur," said Lady Stanton. "Did not I warn you that you were playing with fire by thinking you could enter into society?"
"Why on earth would he say such a ludicrous thing to me?"
"Do you have no idea who Viscount Benchly is?"
"Other than that he is the rudest man I have ever met, no I do not."
"He is your cousin. The apple of your miserable grandfather's eye, and very like him in nature," said Lady Stanton with relish.
"But why does he think Lord Broughton wants to spite him?"
"Possibly because the marquis is not the first of this family to use you in such a way."
"Whatever do you mean, my lady?"
"This draught is really most unpleasant! My shawl, if you please Millicent."
After the shawl had been arranged to her exacting specifications, Lady Stanton demanded lemonade, and then leaned back in her chair, sipping it lethargically. Millicent knew an answer would not be forthcoming, but she was certain that she knew the truth of it at any rate. It explained a lot. She had often wondered why she had been hired as the dowager's companion when she was so young and had a questionable past. It was not as if the lady felt any sympathy for her or her situation. It was easy to believe that she had become a pawn in some malicious retribution of Lady Stanton's, and it really did not bother her at all. The only reason she was with Lady Stanton was for the money, after all -- there was no love lost between them. What her mind rebelled against was the idea that Lord Broughton's apparent befriending of her was motivated by revenge. The pain this caused brought on a headache and made it difficult for her to put up with all the dowager's neurotic requests.
She looked out on the dance floor and saw that the marquis was dancing with a raven-haired lady who laughed up at him with sparkling eyes. Was this the lady that he fancied? The one that did not yet return his regard? Or was it the red-haired girl with the porcelain complexion that he had danced with earlier? Did it really matter which it was? He was nothing to her anyway, the sooner he won the lady over and married her the better for all concerned. She wiped at a silly tear that had escaped her eye and then readily attended to Lady Stanton.
"It is positively oppressive in here. Fan me!"
As she waved the fan she listened to Lady Stanton's animadversions about the collected company and remarked appropriately when expected. Yes, Lady Worthing did have exceptionally yellow teeth, Amelia Swindon reminded her of a pug too, and Felicity Craddock, though she could not help it in the least, was a pale, meek little thing and no amount of lace was about to change that. Her patience was almost tried when the marquis walked off the dance floor in their direction. She steeled herself to meet him and smiled tightly when he sat in the empty chair beside her.
"I can see that my cousin is overtaxing you -- you look done in," he said in a voice soft with compassion.
"It is merely a headache."
"By the look of you I would say there is nothing mere about it. You are clearly not well." He then leaned forward and addressed the dowager. "Ma'am, do you not see that Miss Mainwaring is ill? I will call for your carriage and then escort the both of you home."
"If she is ill then I must be at death's door," said Lady Stanton weakly. "This room is stifling and none of my friends have seen fit to spend more than two minutes by my side."
"Be thankful that you have such a paragon accompanying you that she is ruining her health while attending to your whims," he said brusquely, then he stood up. He reached his hand out towards Millicent and tilted her face up, looking deep into her eyes. "I will be back momentarily. Can you hold out till then?" She nodded and then he turned and hurried across the floor.
Tears blurred her eyes and she dimly heard Lady Stanton say, "You do look a little peaked, Millicent."
When Lord Broughton returned Millicent had collected herself enough to refuse his arm and insist he assist Lady Stanton instead. In the carriage she was aware of his solicitous glances even though she kept her eyes averted and Lady Stanton monopolized him with a fretful account of all her aches and pains. He saw them to their door and urgently requested that Miss Mainwaring go straight up to her room.
"I will come by to see how you do in the morning," he said as the butler ushered them into the house, and then he was gone down the steps and into the night.
"That young man has become very attached to me," said Lady Stanton.
Millicent just looked blankly at the closed door and then turned and headed up the stairs. Sleep was what she required. Maybe on the morrow she would be able to make sense of everything.
Lord Broughton returned to the party and looked around for Miss Wooten and Miss Lucinda. He was concerned for Miss Mainwaring and hoped that they could help convince her not to run herself so ragged. It burned him to see her at the beck and call of that harridan Lady Stanton, blood relative or not he found her treatment of Millicent reprehensible. He longed to be able to relieve her of all her burdens, but he knew she would not accept financial assistance. From the corner of his eye he noticed Miss Lucinda going out through the French doors to the terrace in the company of a gentleman. It seemed he had barely returned in time.
"Is it not a lovely night, Miss Mainwaring?" asked the gentleman as he stood beside her.
Lucinda was feeling uncomfortable. Viscount Benchly had been most charming while they danced but she was not sure that she ought to be out on the terrace with him alone. It was darker than she had expected and he was standing much too close. She had not minded so much the other night when she had gone out for air with Mr. Dawson, but there was something very comforting about Mr. Morris Dawson that the viscount lacked.
The viscount reached to her hair and played with one of her curls. "Like spun gold," he whispered.
She shivered involuntarily. "I would like to return to the ballroom, sir."
"Has anyone ever told you how beautiful you are? I hear you are your mother's match and her beauty was renowned."
Lucinda smiled her thanks but all the while her uneasiness grew.
He leaned closer to her. "Your mother was an actress I am told. You know what they say about actresses -- are you like her in that respect too? I mean to find out right now." He pulled her to him and as she struggled to get free his hand came down over her mouth. "Don't think you can get away from me till I have got what I want," he whispered harshly. "No one will have you after I am through with you," and then her pulled her tightly against his body.
She could feel the tautness of his muscles through her thin silk gown and the warmth of his breath on her cheek. She was aware of the animal smell of him as she turned and twisted her head and tried to get away. All of a sudden she was free and the viscount was being held against the wall by a towering figure.
"Has it come to this Benchly? Seducing innocent maidens? I ought to have given the game away long ago when I caught you cheating at cards."
"She is not innocent. She's a brazen hussy like her mother before her and that shrew of a sister -- all of them defiling the family name."
Beverly strengthened his hold on the Viscount's neck, crushing him harder to the wall. "Not one word against any of the ladies or you will be sorry you ever lived," he said through his teeth. "You are the only one defiling the family name. Your cousins have just as much right to be in London as any of their family, to walk the streets with impunity, to be accepted into the finest of houses. Their only fault is poverty -- and that has not been of their making but of their grandfather's, your father's and yours. They are more gentlewomen than you could ever hope to be a gentleman. You disgust me. When I let go of you I want you to leave this house, this city, and this country and not return until you can at least behave like the gentleman you were born to be. If you do not leave you know that I will find you and the charges I can bring against you for your past deeds will destroy you more thoroughly than death itself."
When he was done speaking he lowered the Viscount from the wall and pushed him in the direction of the doors. The man straightened his cravat and left hurriedly. Beverly turned to Lucinda to offer his comfort but saw that someone had beat him to it. A young man was holding her in his arms as she buried her face in his chest.
"You seemed to have that part under control so I left you to it," the young man said. "Thank you so much for your intervention."
Lucinda lifted her head at these words. "Lord Broughton," she cried, letting go of the young man and coming towards him. "I do not know how to thank you. I was never more terrified -- I believe you saved my life."
He took her outstretched hand and kissed it. "It was a pleasure. I do not think Benchly will bother you anymore. He knows that I meant what I said."
"Is he truly my cousin?"
"I mean to offer Miss Mainwaring my protection sir," said the young man.
"I can see that you do," said Beverly with a smile. "I suggest that you speak with her sister at your earliest convenience." And with that he left the two of them alone on the terrace.
Lucinda turned to the young man. "Mr. Dawson, I apologise for crying all over your waistcoat, I hope it is not ruined."
"You are welcome to do so any time, Miss Lucinda." He put out his hands and took both of hers in his. "You know I mean us never to part."
"I never want to part from you either," she whispered, "only . . ."
"Only what, dearest angel?"
"Only my aunt and my sister expect me to make a most advantageous marriage and I fear nothing below a lord will do." A tear escaped her eye.
"Do they love you?"
"Oh yes, assuredly."
"Then all is well. I am certain they wish only for your happiness, unless . . . you will not be happy married to a mere mister with only two thousand pounds a year."
"I would be happy with you even if we had not a feather to fly with."
There is only so much a gentleman can withstand. After such an admission he had to kiss her, and Lucinda found his lips so comfortable that she could not help but kiss him back.
The next morning two gentlemen found they had very important visits to pay. The first made a stop at a fashionable house in London to drop off a bouquet of flowers and a note before heading his curricle towards Eton. The second arrived at the same fashionable house and knocked upon the door, steeling himself to deal with the butler.
Millicent awoke from a troubled sleep to find that her headache had still not left her. She dressed and went down to breakfast hoping that Lady Stanton would sleep late as she was wont to do. As she sat down to eat, a bouquet and note were brought to her by one of the footmen whose expression seemed to imply that she had no right to be receiving flowers from anyone. She held the flowers to her nose and smelled their sweet fragrance and then put them on the table beside her plate and took up the note. She contemplated it for a few minutes, wondering if she could will it to be from whomever she wanted, and then she opened it with trembling hands.
Forgive me for taking the liberty of sending you these flowers and this note. I hope they find you feeling better. I know that I promised to visit this morning but important business has taken me from town for the day. I will come to see you upon my return tomorrow. Until then, I remain yours,
Her heart was fluttering as she read it, but she cautioned herself not to read too much into his words. He had promised to visit and, as a gentleman, it behooved him to let her know that he was unable to. He had sent flowers because he thought she was ill. The only part she could not explain away at all rationally was that one word, yours. She picked up the flowers again and smelled them, reread the note, and gazed off at the long windows without seeing them. Her breakfast became cold on the plate. Yours. Is that how gentlemen always ended polite little notes? She had no idea and there was no one she could possibly ask. She managed to eat a piece of cold toast and drink a few gulps of tepid tea, then she ran up to her room with her treasures, put the flowers in water and tucked the note under her pillow.
When Millicent returned downstairs she was informed by the even more disapproving footman that there was a gentleman waiting to see her in the green salon. Even though she had the note to prove that she should not expect it to be Lord Broughton, she could not help but think it was. What other gentleman could possibly call on her? But when she entered the room she found herself faced with someone she had never set eyes on before. He stood as she came in and stepped forward, holding his hand out to her.
"Miss Mainwaring?" he asked tentatively. "My name is Dawson, Morris Dawson. I . . . I have come to ask you something very particular."
"Sit down," she said as understanding blossomed. She ought to have expected this. "Are you a friend of my sister Lucinda?"
He looked relieved. "Yes -- she has become very dear to me and, in fact, we, that is I, would like your permission to marry her. I had not meant to ask just yet but last night, well, something happened and Lord Broughton suggested I talk to you as soon as can be and then, of course, I could not help myself but ask Lucin . . . Miss Lucinda first, and . . ."
Millicent held up her hand to stop his flow of words. "Something happened last night and Lord Broughton was involved?"
"I'm sorry, I am explaining very badly. I have never done this sort of thing before, and always expected I would have to confront a father and not a sister when the time came, but, I don't know quite how to put this . . ."
As she watched his face redden, Millicent began to feel very uneasy. "You did not . . . compromise my sister in any way, did you?"
"You have my word I would never! I hold your sister in the highest esteem and honour . . . but . . . I had best just tell it straight. She was dancing with this Viscount who I thought to be an untrustworthy individual so I was keeping my eyes on them when a friend of my mama's began talking to me and when I finally managed to shake her off neither your sister or this cad were anywhere to be seen, so naturally I became worried and I went out to check the terrace and I found her weeping while Broughton had the fellow up against the wall and was threatening him with all sorts of ghastly consequences."
"Oh my poor Lucinda! Did he hurt her in any way?"
"No, she was only frightened. He had meant to . . . destroy Miss Lucinda's reputation but Broughton happened along just in time and took care of him. It seems he is some sort of cousin of yours and he bears you both resentment, but you need not worry about him because he is most likely half way to France by now."
"And Lord Broughton saved her?"
"He did, but I would have if he had not been there. I mean to offer Lucinda every sort of protection."
"Yes," Millicent said with a smile, "I see that I must be indebted to both of you."
Mr. Dawson shuffled his feet. "I would do anything for Lucinda."
"So," said Millicent, getting back to the business of the visit, "while Lord Broughton was instilling fear into the Viscount you comforted Lucinda and then proposed to her."
"It was after Lord Broughton had sent the rat packing and then gone off himself that I actually did my proposing."
"So he left you and my sister unescorted on the terrace together."
"I think he had an idea of my intentions, Miss Mainwaring, and if he had stayed I don't think it would have stopped me, the way I was feeling by that time."
"If my sister has accepted you wholeheartedly I don't think much harm has been done."
"There is one thing, though, that she was a trifle concerned about," he admitted sheepishly.
"Well, I am not a lord, or even a baron or a baronet. I am just Mr. Dawson."
"I recall you saying that when we were introduced."
"She said you and you aunt wanted her to marry very well and she was concerned you would not look favourably on my suit, but I convinced her otherwise because I said you must really want her happiness above all. I was not wrong in that, was I?"
"You were not wrong at all, Mr. Dawson. I think she has made a very fine choice."
"Then I am the luckiest man alive!"
Away in Eton there was another meeting of a similar nature taking place, but it was conducted in a slightly different manner.
"What a wonderful surprise," said Cedric as he jumped up beside Lord Broughton in the curricle. "Can we spring'em when we're through the gate?"
"I'll have you know young man that I did not drive all this way only for your pleasure. Do you remember our first meeting when I told you that I had something of importance I would need to discuss with you soon?"
Cedric nodded his head and tried to look mature beyond his years.
"Well, the time has come."
"How can I help you?" he asked in a most collected manner.
"This has to do with your sister Millicent. Normally, in situations such as this I would go to her father, but that is not possible. I do not think your Aunt Prudence is really the person I ought to deal with either."
"Certainly not," said Cedric. "What is it Millie has done?"
"It is not what she has done, but what I would like to do with her," said Beverly gravely. "And I cannot ask her for permission to ask her, if you catch my meaning."
"I think I do, sir," said Cedric, looking a bit puzzled.
"I want to assure you that I am very rich and can provide for her, so if you have taken me into aversion there is always the financial aspect to consider."
"Are you . . . are you asking my permission to marry Millie, sir?"
"Why yes, I thought you understood that."
"I was just making sure," said Cedric quickly. And then with a feeling of power he added, "I will have to consider this -- it is not a decision to be made lightly."
"Of course not," said Beverly. "I might add that even before I marry her, if she indeed accepts me, that is, I will remove her from the clutches of the gorgon dowager."
"Do you know," said Cedric thoughtfully. "If I were you I would mention that part first. It could help forward your suit."
"You don't think I should tell her how much I love her first?"
Cedric wrinkled up his nose. "That would be soppy."
"It would indeed, but for some inexplicable reason, ladies do like the soppy stuff."
"You might even have to kiss her," Cedric reflected.
"I had thought of that," admitted Beverly.
"Do you know? I shall be very happy if you marry Millie."
"I am relieved to hear it."
"Now can we spring the horses?"
"I knew there was a reason you capitulated so easily," said Beverly with a laugh. And he did.
The next morning Millicent woke up filled with tense excitement. She felt about under her pillow and pulled out the note, now a little wrinkled, and read it again, though she had no real need to look at it for she had memorised every word. At some time in the day Lord Broughton would come and she could thank him for what he had done to save Lucinda from that horrible cousin of theirs. Millicent was quite sure that she could discount whatever Viscount Benchly had said to her -- he had said it to hurt, and for no other reason. It was much easier to believe that than to consider the marquis vindictive. He was the most gentlemanlike man she had ever known. If only he did not care for that other lady, whomever she may be.
But they could still be friends, she assured herself, that was what the note meant. They were friends. That was why she had felt so pained the other day, so deserted. She had thought she had lost her one true friend. After all -- she had no other expectations. Marriage was for sweet young girls like her sister, not for her. She had given up on finding love years ago.
She dressed and went about her daily routines in a state of happy anticipation. Even Lady Stanton's rudest criticisms and most pointless errands had no effect upon her. They were just pouring an afternoon tea when Lord Broughton was announced. Millicent looked up and smiled delightedly when he walked into the room, which caused him to immediately lose any apprehension he had been feeling and return her smile with equal brilliance. Unfortunately, Lady Stanton was under the misapprehension that he had come to visit her, so whenever he directed a remark towards Millicent the dowager answered before Millie had a chance.
"You are looking much better today, Miss Mainwaring."
"She is so resilient whereas my health is completely fragile. I still have not recovered," answered Lady Stanton.
"I hope you liked the flowers."
"Flowers? Which flowers? I was sneezing for a week from the roses Millicent picked and put all over the room."
"I was at Eton yesterday."
"Why ever did you go to Eton, Beverly? Do you have a nephew attending there? Your sister Ermenhilda's son perhaps?"
"Cedric sends his love, and he wants you to know his earwigs escaped but there is a mouse he is trying to tame."
"Cedric? Who on earth is Cedric? Really, Beverly, sometimes I have no idea what you are talking about. I used to have a pug named Cedric, but that was above five years ago, so I doubt if you ever knew him. Miss Mainwaring certainly did not because she has only been with me for two years, and very trying it has been, training her to all my likes and dislikes, almost like training the pug."
Beverly turned to the dowager. "Lady Stanton, I am going to take Miss Mainwearing out onto the terrace right now, whether you like it or not. And I would prefer it if you would give us at least five minutes on our own." He held out his hand to Millicent. "You will come with me, won't you?"
Millicent looked at her employer, who was laying back on the divan making a show of gasping for breath, and nodded her head.
When they got outside Millicent turned to him and said, "You were visiting Ceddie yesterday?"
"I had something of a personal nature to ask him."
"What could you possibly . . . wait, I am sounding just like her ladyship. It is none of my business what you went to Eton to discuss."
"It is rather," said Beverly with a smile.
Millicent looked up at him and could think of nothing but how wonderfully handsome he was. "Thank you for the flowers," she said finally.
"So you are not the least bit interested in the nature of my business with your brother?"
"Yes indeed, but I did not want to appear officious."
"He had some excellent advice for me."
Millicent stared at him. "You went to ask Cedric's advice about something?"
"No, he offered me the advice as a matter of course."
"Oh -- I see."
"Do you?" asked Beverly with a slight grin.
"I must admit that I really do not. But I have noticed that you are developing a habit of teasing me."
"I would like to develop many more habits concerning you."
"I think I had better ask what the advice was, my lord, or this conversation will lose all bounds of sense in a few moments."
"He said I should mention the part about taking you away from the gorgon dowager first, in order, I believe, to increase my appeal."
"You have effectively done that -- we are out here alone," she pointed out to him.
"I mean permanently. I cannot abide the way she orders you about and insults you to your face, even in front of company, and treats you like you are a piece of dirt beneath her shoes when you are one thousand times her superior in every respect." He reached out and clasped her hand.
Millicent turned her head away. "You know I cannot give up this job. I must keep Cedric at Eton. And Lucinda. . ."
"I think Lucinda will be well taken care of, and you need have no worries about that brother of yours either."
"Yes I do. I cannot expect Mr. Dawson to pay for Cedric's schooling and support me as well, if that's what you were intimating."
"I knew I should not have listened to Cedric!" Beverly grabbed a hold of her other hand and pulled her closer to him. "He said my idea was soppy, but I think it would have prevented this sort of misunderstanding."
"Yes -- I said that I thought I should first tell you how much I love you, before asking you to marry me. And I do love you, very, very much. I want you to be my wife and share my life. I want to remove all your burdens and give you your dreams." He leaned his head down until it touched her forehead. "What do you say, Millie my dear?"
Millicent found it hard to control the surge of joy that ran through her. "What about . . . what about that lady you told me had taken your fancy? Have you forgotten about her?"
"I could never forget about her. I am holding her hands at this very moment."
Millicent gasped. "Me? You were talking about me even then?"
"Of course I was, my sweet."
"But whatever caused you to think of me?"
"You bumped into me twice, and the rest was inevitable."
"Almost three times," said Millicent giggling.
"And I want you to keep bumping into me for the rest of my life." He lifted his head and looked into her eyes. "You have not yet answered me -- could you please put me out of my misery and tell me if you feel the same as I do."
She leaned against his chest. "I am so overwhelmed. I never imagined what you were feeling. I thought you were only being kind to me because you are such a gentleman. I thought we had become friends, but I discovered I wanted more than friendship; only you had already given your heart to another. I was so envious of that lady."
He let go of her hands and brought his arms around her. "No need anymore, though I am intensely flattered."
She gazed at his waistcoat. This one was dark green, patterned with falling leaves of silver. It seemed she had come full circle. "I do so love you," she whispered as she raised her eyes up to him.
He smiled and stroked her cheek. "There is one last thing that Cedric warned me about."
Millicent looked up at him questioningly.
"He said I might even have to kiss you."
"You might," she agreed.
"I was hoping you would see it that way," Beverly said. He kissed her lightly at first and then with greater ardour as she returned his kisses eagerly.
It was at that moment that Lady Stanton, having given up the idea of anyone returning to attend to her, stepped out into the sunlit terrace. What she saw there made her faint, probably the first real faint of her life. It was sad that no one even noticed.
© 2005 Copyright held by the author.