"Well. But how extraordinary! To think I should find myself -- and at my age, no less! -- quite moved upon the occasion -"
His lordship's lips, upon closer inspection, seemed to twitch a little, but that did not seemingly deter him from his train of thought. He was perfectly able to reassure his companion. "No, no, my dear, have no fear! I shall soon enough return to my old, overbearing ways, I promise you."
"Edward, I beg you not to be an imbecile!"
Lady Eleanor St. James, Countess of Denham, a handsome, elegant woman of about fifty years of age, directed her unyielding gaze at her provoking spouse of the past thirty-some years. She was an intelligent woman and being very well acquainted with his lordship's little quirks and, as she deemed them, rather, if not of alarming frequency, all the more unfortunately timed temporary relapses into infancy, it took her no effort at all to detect that only a direct approach to the matter would answer.
The Earl looked up from the piece of correspondence that had inspired these reflections, sighed deeply as if to put emphasis on his bewilderment.
"But I find your conversation most puzzling, my love. It grieves me to cause you but a moment of anxiety and therefore I must beg you to enlighten me. Is it my affinity with the matters of the heart you object to or the assurance that it shall only be of short duration?"
Lady Eleanor opened her mouth - only to close it again almost in the same instant, lest an unladylike oath should escape her. Primly, she arched her back, rose from the writing table and moved to ring the bell for tea. Her ladyship felt she would be in great need of nourishment, if the conversation should come to a satisfying conclusion.
"Thank you, Thompson. That will do."
"Very well, sir."
Mr. Thompson had been in his master's employment for only a twelvemonth and yet was well trained in showing great presence of mind in the face of such calamities as the one that had presented itself. Not a quiver of the mouth, no sigh of deeply felt injury .... not even the smallest sign of an irrepressible shudder was detectable on the much tried valet's countenance.
And yet, he did not fail to impress the wrongness of the situation on the gentleman that had just then declared his satisfaction. He was a master of respectful aloofness.
The object of Mr. Thompson's scrutiny smiled at his reflection in the full length mirror whilst attempting to convince the abundance of linen that was to be his neck cloth of the strategic advantage of giving in to one's superior's demands.
"Dear me. A less courageous man would instantly seek refuge underneath his bed covers, but I don't think we have reached quite that stage yet, have we, Thompson?"
Mr. Thompson, his posture slightly more rigid, replied in the negative.
"I am glad to hear it for were matters at a more grievous state, I should be obliged to inform you that her ladyship is of the firm opinion that I have taken an unfortunate turn towards obstinacy, "he tucked insistently at the fabric," -- alas, due to lack of proper management of my person! -- and as you know, my mother is never wrong."
The faithful valet rose admirably to the occasion. It was, after all, not only his lordship's reputation that was at stake, but his own as well. And if it were to come to his old school fellow Jenkins´ ears. Well, there was only so much a man could take.
"Yes, my lord, but if your lordship will allow - "
"I perceive I am not the only one afflicted. Very well. What is it today? Does the cut of my coat give rise to such vehement feelings or are my poor boots in need of more thorough attention?"
"No, sir, but - "
For all appearances, Mr. Thompson seemed rather unmoved by the arched eyebrow he encountered.
"If your lordship will permit me," Thompson determinedly closed the distance between himself and his employer, "... the style your lordship is about to adopt..." his hands had seized the bundle of resistant cloth, "...as much as your lordship's coat will set your lordship's shoulders to advantage..." a twist here and a knot there, "...will, if not applied expertly..." - there. Perfect! - "...distract prospective admirers from any other perfection on your lordship's person."
Satisfied with the fruit of his labour, Thompson straightened up and made to devote himself to the dark coat that had been first laid out on the impressive four-poster-bed in the adjoining bedroom and was now waiting for permission to be joined with the carefully chosen striped waistcoat, crisp white shirt and cream coloured breeches.
"So it would", the victim of this strict code of honour meekly contributed, his apparent surrender betrayed by a hint of laughter in his grey eyes, as he easily shrugged into his coat.
Content with the turn of events, Thompson set forth to finish his piece of art with a little more attention by the ever useful brush, which he was about to apply to his lordship's black boots, when this moment of reference was disturbed by the untimely arrival of The Honourable Theodore St. James, the youngest male member of that noble family, who unceremoniously burst into the room, seemingly agitated and quite oblivious to the widely practised custom of announcing one's arrival by a firm knock on the door.
"I say, brother, you would think that our parents - but no! They think of me as a child! Dash it, I am not a green one..."
The outraged young gentleman broke off in sheer rapture and stared at the spectacle before him. As much as Mr. Thompson's opinion of the improper conduct of the youth of that age had been, once again, sadly confirmed by the complete lack of ceremony he had been forced to witness upon Master Theodore ´s bursting onto the scene, he could not help but be moved by so obvious an admiration of what could only be described as an object very close to his heart.
The gentleman thus ogled appeared quite unperturbed by the reaction on the part of his new audience and had, with the air of one seemingly unimpressed by the sudden silence, sat down to calmly devote himself to the task of putting on his boots.
Mr. Thompson, with a heavy sense of foreboding, made to excuse himself to his employer after a final inspection of the elegant coat by a quick brush at its shoulders and an inquisitive stare at the polished boots, lest a mark should have dared to escape his notice.
As soon as the door had closed on him, Theodore, who had timely remembered that it was unwise to attack an unsuspecting victim in the presence of witnesses, could not contain himself any longer.
Completely forgetting the real purpose for seeking out his elder brother at such a time of the day -- his lordship had only just risen from his breakfast - he was about to dedicate himself to his goal with enthusiasm, when Lord Tristan St. James, Viscount Langton, who had been patiently awaiting the onslaught whilst sorting through the pile of letters and messages on his desk, forestalled his youthful admirer.
"Yes, it is Weston and no, you will not bamboozle me into lending you the sum so as to enable you to commission your tailor to imitate half a dozen such coats in abominable colours for you to sport amongst your friends. I do have my reputation to consider, you know."
The gentleman at the receiving end of this speech was not impressed.
"Yes, but Tristan -"
Theodore smiled impishly. "How am I not to disgrace you if you will not assist me at acquiring a wardrobe fitting to one bearing our illustrious name?"
His lordship heaved a sigh.
"Oblige me and remind me why I have so far omitted to assist you at obtaining a commission in the 4th Dragoons? Who knows, it might take you quite far away!"
His brother laughed.
"Because you would miss me, dear brother. Now, I have come to speak to you about something very particular, Tristan."
"God help me...!" was a murmur to be picked up from the general direction of Lord Langton.
The very same evening of Master Theodore's encounter with his brother's new coat, the Viscount found himself -- a not inconsiderable amount of time before admission to the establishment would have been firmly denied to whoever would have been so heedless to its rules (an idea that would have very much appealed to his lordship) -- stepping over the threshold of the inexhaustible provider of damsels with their heart set on marriage and - the even worse consideration - their ambitious mamas - that was Almack´s.
It was early in the Season, and so his lordship entertained hopes that a great part of his friends would remain oblivious to his subjecting himself to such an evening's entertainment. The extent of which was debatable in itself. Not that he had high expectations in that respect. Still, Theodore had been at his most persistent...
And, judging from the number of fluttering eyelashes that were directed at his person -- some of their owners quite proficient at pretending that they had not meant to look, too! -- it would be a long, long evening. Be that as it may, he had come for a purpose. First, there had been his mother's missive. And Theodore's communication, edifying as it had been, seemed to have missed the finer points.
"On sheepdog duty, my lord?" inquired a well bred voice into his lordship's ear.
"It positively defies me how anyone could possibly assume one did not intend to spend the evening in determined pursuit of one of the charming, albeit mostly rather bird-witted, toasts of the Season. Clearly it behoves me to remember I must strive not to be so transparent", he replied as he turned into the general direction of the voice, an inquisitive eyebrow raised as if in question. "As for you - no loving wife expecting your immediate return to her apron strings?"
The voice smiled.
"Alas, not tonight."
"You shock me! Has she followed my advice at last and left you to the mercy of your enterprising brats? Certainly that would explain why you have taken refuge at such an insipid establishment as this."
"Nothing could induce Sophia to leave the boys to my care without supervision! She fears I might corrupt them - "
"No!", exclaimed the Viscount.
" - with tales of my heroic deeds", the gentleman continued, quite unmoved by this tribute. "No, I have been assigned the pleasant duty of providing milady with an opportunity to bedazzle all those unfortunate youths with her new French robe, and so, here I am."
"You have my sympathy. Where is my abominable sister?"
Her husband was not required to dispatch a search party.
"Here she is, dear brother, and quite impatient to learn what brought you here!"
The Lady Sophia Albury had appeared at her brother's side, linking her arm with that of her husband's. She was generally considered a beautiful young woman whose greatest attraction was neither her mane of blonde hair, nor her sapphire eyes but her vivacity, which, at the time when she had still been Lady Sophia St. James, had more than once inspired her beloved papa to shake his head in despair lest his eldest daughter should frighten away prospective suitors with her liveliness. Not that his lordship had experienced any pressing desire to give his darling's hand to one of the worthless young sprigs that had seemed to haunt Denham House from the moment she had made her London debut -- in fact, the Earl could not have been more formidable and resolute in his dealings with the abundance of hopeful candidates (young Mr. Telmore still shuddered in remembrance of his little talk with his lordship -- that quizzing glass!) that had presented themselves before his person at the most unsuitable times of the day. Before his lordship had had his breakfast. No manners! After his lordship's breakfast, when he was usually seen in his study, deeply engrossed with his man of business. No sense of duty! When his lordship had been engaged with his youngest children in the schoolroom. No family feeling!
Fortunately, Colonel Lord Albury, had had the good sense to not only admire Lady Sophia's beauty and to find her spirit rather more enchanting, but had also had -- a fact which, to that day, he attributed to his military training -- the courage to not only approach the Earl for the lady's hand but to firmly inform his lordship of his intention of haunting the house on a very frequent basis until his lordship should relent in his favour. Such determination not only raised his beloved's admiration for his handsome person even more but also endeared himself to her father.
The Alburys had been blessed with twin sons a year after their marriage and enjoyed not only a very happy union but also the upbringing of their energetic offspring; who, at six years of age, were not only the apple of their nurse's eye but also excelled at keeping the entire household on their toes.
"I am looking for a wife".
"No, are you?! And you came to Almack´s to find one? Of course, there are young ladies enough who would enjoy it immensely were you to make them a future Countess, but I do not think you would find them very amusing. Now, let me think..." Lady Sophia furrowed her brow in concentration. "Ah yes, Miss Kentwell perhaps. She is a brunette, so not decidedly in fashion, but she has a dowry of, oh, 40 000 pounds, so that will do. Only, her mama, poor soul, has a great passion for diamonds and feathers, so -"
"No feathers in the family, I beg you!"
Sophia's eyes danced. "Well, that rules most of the assembled ladies out then. But if you could convince yourself that an occasional feather might not do much harm - ?" She raised her eyes to those of the Viscount. "No, you are quite right. There is only so much that distinguishes one from a peacock, after all."
Her brother occupied himself with his cuff as he replied coolly. "And I could not possibly marry a peacock."
"Alas, no. Even if you could do with a little more colour in your house."
The Colonel, who had followed the exchange between brother and sister in patient amusement, deemed it time to interfere.
"Forgive my wife, Langton. Her head is, I'm afraid, full of the latest Parisian fashions. She would have you change the carpet in your study in no time, if you encouraged her."
His lady smiled up engagingly at him. "Of course I would. It really is a detestable object." She turned her attention back to her brother. "Now, do be serious, Tristan. Why are you here? Even if you were looking for a wife -- don't look at me like that! You know everyone expects it of you -- you would never seek her at Almack´s. I warn you, I am quite worn out from all the dancing and so have ample time to devote myself to my beloved eldest brother."
His lordship raised his eyebrows in mock astonishment. "You, dear sister, have a much tried husband. I do not pretend to have higher claims than him."
"The much tried husband begs leave to inform his lordship that he is most willing to relinquish his superior claims."
"Something tells me I shall regret your generosity", countered the Viscount. "Very well, Sophia, I am, as your altruistic spouse will attest, on, err, sheepdog duty."
"I thought I had seen Theodore! Poor Tristan, what you must have been suffering", laughed Lady Sophia.
"And he bears it with perfect magnanimity", added the Colonel and continued in a more serious tone. "I take it the gossip mills have been most active?"
"They have moved Lady Farnborough to threaten her arrival at Denham at her earliest convenience."
Lady Sophia was visibly disturbed to receive this communication. "Oh dear, my Aunt Farnborough means to pay mama a visit?"
"No, she intends to descend on her to let her benefit from her infinite well of wisdom."
"Nonsense, Tristan. As if Mama would heed her."
The Colonel was prompt to support his wife's view.
"Indeed, she did marry your father!"
"A fact which milady still finds hard to forgive." the Viscount added, with a touch of a smile. "Have no fear, little sister, our mother has taken to her usual resourcefulness and has informed me that my presence at Denham during this happy event is a point open to no negotiation."
The wisdom of this was not immediately apparent to the sister and her uncertainty was all the more obvious to her brother.
"She seems to think, I understand, that an energetic debate of my upcoming nuptials will distract our Aunt from her mission."
"But you are not getting married, Tristan!" exclaimed her ladyship.
"Thankfully, no. But for some mysterious reason or other, my domestic felicity is a matter very close to Lady Farnborough's heart."
"Whereas Theodore's is not?", smiled the Colonel. "Well, I see we need have no qualms feeding you to the lion then. You have, so far, withstood the combined forces of the most determined matchmaking mamas and their gentle offspring; Lady Farnborough's subtlety should, in view of that consideration, not inspire you to march down the aisle at St. Paul's."
"Your faith in my steadfastness quite warms my heart."
The Colonel did not seem to pay much attention to this salutation as he squinted across the Viscount's shoulder.
"I see young Theodore is most desirous of catching your attention -- and I am even more desirous to lead my lovely wife down the next set." He gently stirred his lady towards the assembling pairs. "Good evening, Theodore.", he briefly inclined his head to the newcomer. "I must deprive you of your sister yet again, but Langton here has told me how fortunate he was to receive your invitation to join him tonight."
The Viscount's scowl was not entirely lost on the couple as they proceeded onto the dance floor.
"There you are! I have been looking for you for an age!"
Theodore was almost short of breath from excitement.
"Easy, my tulip. I am, of course, touched to learn that the idea of my company has moved you to undertake such dedicated research, but I must confess it quite eludes me how you could have supposed me to be anywhere else but in the nearest vicinity of this wonderfully placed archway."
"Tristan, you are standing near the doors."
"Yes. Fortunate, is it not ?" replied the Viscount agreeably.
Theodore grinned. "You are roasting me!"
"Now what have I done to deserve such suspicion?!" demanded his incredulous brother, his brows lifted.
"Never mind that - " replied his younger sibling. "Tristan, you must come and meet Miss Charwood! She sits over there - "Theodore inclined his head towards the other end of the bustling room, where two young women sat amidst a growing group of admirers, most of whom the Viscount shared no more than nodding acquaintance with - with her mother. And her cousin."
His lordship found, looking down at the hand that had taken siege of his left arm - only a moment away from shaking it enthusiastically, he felt certain - , that lest he should entertain an ardent desire for being dragged towards the party by the hands of his energetic sibling, he had better signal his compliance.
"Theodore, if you do not release my arm this instant, I will send Thompson to confiscate the shirt you seem to think I have all but forgotten about."
Theodore was shocked.
"Tristan! You wouldn't!"
"I would." The Viscount continued with wonderful equanimity. "What's more, Thompson, if I know him, would be quite unmoved by the most fervent entreaties."
"No!" The treacherous hand performed with alacrity.
"Yes." Langton smiled. "Introduce me to Miss Charwood now."
Theodore was visibly shaken by the idea of parting with an item he had become very attached to, but a quick, speculative glance at his senior convinced him that the immediate danger had passed, and so he was happy to respond to the Viscount's demand at once.
"Will one of the gentlemen have the goodness to fetch me some lemonade?"
Miss Cassandra Charwood had been well trained by her mama and so it was not altogether surprising that two of the group of young gentlemen surrounding the ladies instantly stepped forward, most ready to respond to this request. Indeed, a smile by Miss Charwood was considered reward enough for even the most tedious task amongst them, and so a small commotion was about to break out when Mr. Barrington and Lord Sotherton both insisted on seeing to the lady's comfort.
"Miss Charwood, I may go, mayn´t I?" cried the obliging Mr. Barrington.
"Oh hang it, Barrington - I mean ..." Lord Sotherton begged the ladies´ pardon," Really, you went last time and were not to be seen again for an age! If you cannot find your way through a ballroom without consulting a map, you had much better let me go. I should be back in but a moment!"
"It is hardly my fault that there was such a squeeze! Much it would help Miss Charwood if I were to return with a glass more empty than full, like you persist in doing, Sotherton!" replied the affronted young gentleman.
The object of their dispute, meanwhile, had been engaged in conversation by another member of their group, seemingly oblivious to the logistic complexity of her wish.
"I say - Miss Charwood!"
She looked up at this; a brief frown of annoyance clouding her beautiful face. She was not used to being kept waiting. She made to rise from her chair with the air of one resigned to her fate.
"Of course, if you do not care to go -"
The horrified gentlemen would have been quick to protest; had not a cool, slightly amused voice forestalled them.
"What abominable manners you have!"
Two pairs of eyes that spoke of displeasure at being addressed thus were directed at the Viscount. Lord Langton, at a little more than thirty years of age, in one way or other, always made the two gentlemen feel as if they were still inhabitants of their respective nurseries. Most vexing. As they did not have too pleasant memories in that respect, no-one, they felt, could blame them for their animosity. As it was, they were too much in awe of the Viscount to acknowledge this interruption with more than a brisk bow upon being the recipients of a curt nod.
Another pair of eyes; in well faked maidenly reserve, mustered his lordship from behind a richly embroidered fan. The Viscount was provokingly immune to any form of inspection and favoured the damsel with only a swift glance before he encountered a pair of laughing brown eyes that belonged to the other young woman, who had been engaged in conversation with what he, quite rightly, judged to be the beauty's mother -- the resemblance, even if the lady had passed her fortieth year, was marked.
Theodore, always mindful of the proprieties, was quick to perform the required office.
"Mrs. Charwood, Miss Charwood, allow me to introduce my brother, Viscount Langton."
Her ladyship expressed her delight by way of a smiling bow. Her daughter was rather more expressive in her sentiments.
"Oh! You are dear Theodore's brother!" Cassandra favoured his lordship with her most brilliant smile, her blue eyes sparkling in the candlelight. "We have heard so much about you that we feel we know you quite well already."
"Do you? And yet I had hoped to pass myself off with some credit."
She blinked in momentary confusion. This was not the reply she had expected to her friendly invitation of familiarity. Perhaps the Viscount needed more encouragement?
She smiled at him. "You may be assured of our discretion, of course."
Something akin to a choke of laughter that had been quickly turned into a cough came from the direction of the lady with the brown eyes. The Viscount made a point of turning towards her. Cassandra's mama had too much sense to betray her annoyance upon the interruption of what she had hoped would end in an invitation to her daughter to partner his lordship during the next dance and rose to perform the tedious duty.
"My lord, this is my niece, Miss Leighton." The Viscount bowed and received a curtsey in return, which was accompanied by a friendly smile.
She was a young, chestnut haired woman of about twenty years of age and wore a light blue gown which, in comparison to her cousin's more elaborately trimmed dress of pink silk, seemed rather simple in its design but all the more elegant for it. If not as beautiful as her cousin, who, with her fair curls, large blue eyes and alabaster skin was considered something rivalling a Greek goddess, Juliana Leighton was still a pretty young woman on whom, at least, the Viscount's subtle sarcasm evidently had not been lost.
Any possible intent of furthering their acquaintance was prevented by an abrupt, horrified exclamation at his lordship's side.
The aghast Mr. Barrington was off towards the refreshment tables; Lord Sotherton hard at his heels, determined to not only supervise the provision of it but to rob his friend of the opportunity to present Miss Charwood with the same, regardless of casualties on the way.
"Really - I have a very good mind to inform Mr. Barrington's mother of this deplorable lack of manners. Surely it must be a defect in his upbringing. I am, as anyone will be able to tell you, my lord, very attentive to these things. My own son - well, I should not be saying so, for I might be called prejudiced in his favour -- although it is a rule with me to never give praise when not justly deserved -- such a comfort he is to me. Such graceful manners, such tact - "
"My brother? But mama -" Interpolated her daughter.
Lady Charwood, not entirely pleased with this uncalled for interruption of her motherly musings, waved her gloved hand and continued unabashedly.
"Indeed. Is it not so, my dear Juliana? Have you ever met any gentleman of such distinguished person as your cousin?" Juliana was not required to respond, a fact that was quite welcome to her, lest she should be tempted to roll her eyes at this ingenuous attack on her wits. "No, indeed." Her ladyship, fortunately, had not yet quite forgotten to whom she was addressing her speech. She smiled regally at Lord Langton. "Of course all the world knows of your lordship's excellent person and character, so I need not point out that present company is excluded, I am sure."
The Viscount seemed strangely unmoved by this handsome declaration. He merely favoured her ladyship with one of his blandest smiles.
"You surprise me, madam. It evidently behoves me to be more on my guard in the future."
Cassandra did not like the turn that the conversation had taken and put her elegantly gloved hand on her mother's arm. To compare her brother with the Viscount!
"Mama, you will make Lord Langton think that we have put him on a pedestal with my brother!" She smiled a little apologetically at the Viscount. "Surely he knows that there can be no comparison?"
"My vanity is most intact, Miss Charwood."
Theodore, having thus far shown admirable control over his features, mindful of his surroundings, was forced to admit defeat at last. His facial muscles sadly could only take so much provocation -- he grinned. Fortunately, the force behind this relapse into boyishness did not seem to be prominent on Lady Charwood´s mind, for she seemed to understand the implication as a matter of fact.
"And so it should be. You see for yourself, your lordship, what a dear little goose my daughter is." Her motherly affection was expressed by way of a loving pat of her hand. "She would shrink from the thought of giving the least offence to your lordship, even if she must very well know that your lordship is far too experienced to pay the least heed to a loving parent's musings."
"Miss Charwood may be reassured. I seldom ponder but on my own musings."
At this point, Juliana found that her control, ultimately, was only little better than Theodore´s, even if it had perhaps been nibbled at for different reasons. And like Theodore, she was not one to quarrel with fate.
"How uninspiring you must find the recurring process!"
Lady Charwood made a heroic attempt to stare her niece into silence, which sadly did nothing to discourage the Viscount from responding in kind.
"Not at all, Miss Leighton. My thoughts rarely give me cause to feel melancholy."
"It would be rather impolitic if they did. Sadly provocative, too, for that might lead one to experience the novelty of entering into the opinions and ideas of other persons. And that, unhappily, would demand a great deal of one's forbearance."
A smile had crept into the back of Lord Langton´s grey eyes. He found himself returning the frank gaze, the message in which was unmistakable.
"A very great deal, Miss Leighton."
Juliana bit her lip, lest she should feel compelled to enter into further debate with his lordship, and relapse into what her Aunt, ever so forthcoming, referred to as the result of her hoydenish upbringing. Surely enough -
"Pray do not pay any heed to my niece, my lord. She has yet to learn that in Society, one cannot go on as one is wont to do in the wilds of Derbyshire." The stare had become a most quelling frown. "I wonder whatever became of poor Mr. Barrington? And Lord Sotherton? My love, it seems you shall have to be a little more patient. But I know that to be not at all a great request of you. For I defy anyone to have a more patient and sweet tempered daughter than I have."
Juliana, enjoying her own opinion of her cousin's inexhaustible array of virtues, yet showed admirable sense in view of the delicate situation that was pronounced by the displeased pout that had appeared on her cousin's face.
"Excuse me, I think it will be better if I go and fetch the lemonade myself."
She smiled in a friendly way at Theodore, who had immediately -- he had been nothing but properly raised -- offered to escort her to the adjoining room.
"Thank you, but that is not necessary. You had much better stay and -"
"Of course you may go on your own, Juliana.", Lady Charwood waved her hand. "Sit down, dear Theodore, and tell me all your news!" Her ladyship patted the empty space beside her. "And his lordship as well." She would have thanked providence, had providence been at hand. Already the Viscount's presence had attracted the attention of some of her friends and acquaintances. Well, it was only to be expected, of course. Her darling was not so beautiful for nothing.
Theodore was clearly torn between the prospective pleasure that the invitation in the smiling eyes of Miss Charwood conveyed to him and the recollection of his good manners, which decidedly protested against the non-gentlemanly action of the suggestion.
"You may sit down, Theodore. I shall escort Miss Leighton."
His lordship offered his arm to Juliana, who was too surprised at the turn of events to not take it. He nodded to the rest of the group before leading her off towards the next room, leaving behind a displeased Lady Charwood and her daughter, who, annoyed as she might have been about the attention she was used to be concentrated on her person having been momentarily taken from her, was still confident enough that the Viscount should be added to the list of her admirers in no time and so turned her full attention on his younger brother. Theodore, bless him, was completely oblivious to any unpleasantness and was only grateful to his idol -- for he viewed the Viscount in quite a heroic light -- for providing such a satisfactory solution to the problem.
Juliana felt the number of pairs of eyes on her person. She was not surprised that the Viscount escorting her should arouse the interest of the majority of the present company, but some of their owners seemed to take a rather insolent view of the matter, which provoked her to lift her chin a little as they proceeded.
Nevertheless, the whole situation appealed to her ready sense of humour. It was not as if she had asked for his escort. And moreover, here she was, having attempted to prevent what the cloud on her cousin's face had told her well trained self was looming on the horizon, only for her efforts to be foiled and very likely -- and she had known her Aunt long enough to be entitled to the assumption - for the fire to have been stirred. And all because of his lordship's gallantry.
A tiny smile danced around her lips.
"Something amuses you, Miss Leighton?"
She quickly looked up to find the grey eyes inspecting her.
Oh. Had her former governess been present, she would no doubt have scolded her charge for engaging in her own, private musings rather than remembering her lectures. Juliana made haste to live up to the good lady's high expectations. After all, one was expected to at least strive to give the impression of always having something to say. And she had already proven that she was not incapable of fulfilling said expectations, although the result in itself was debatable. Well, then -
"My lord - " she began.
"Miss Leighton", he replied obligingly.
Her governess would have been happy in the knowledge that she was well trained.
"I was going to thank you for your assistance at procuring the lemonade."
"Were you?" His lordship lifted one of his dark eyebrows. " Might I suggest, then, that you withhold your gratitude until we have accomplished the actual task? I overheard enough of Mr. Barrington's and Lord Sotherton´s energetic debate for it to make me feel a little apprehensive."
"Your lordship is not in the habit of procuring lemonade?"
"Not if it can be helped."
They had arrived at the tables on which all sorts of refreshments had been laid out. She took hold of a glass and, after brief contemplation - white gloves and lemonade surely were not meant to go together - she turned to his lordship and held it out to him. If he insisted on accompanying her, he might as well make himself useful.
"Please have the goodness to hold this while I pour the lemonade."
The Viscount was momentarily taken aback by the novelty of this request and accepted the piece of crystal without protest.
"You must hold still or I shall spill some of it", she reminded him.
"Thank you", his lordship responded gravely. He studied her face whilst she filled the glass with the distasteful fluid, apparently oblivious to his inspection. That, or not at all daunted by the idea of his finding something amiss about her person. Indeed, she gave the impression of one not at all impressed by one of his noble lineage standing before her.
His lordship was not used to finding himself intrigued at Almack´s of all the tiresome institutions, but he was not wholly averse to adapting himself to a change of routine.
The second glass filled, Juliana turned to her companion to relieve him of his burden. Her attempt to take one of the glasses was repelled.
"My lord - "
"My dear Miss Leighton, I assure you, I shall strive to perform the task with utmost care -- ", he nodded his head towards Miss Charwood´s two admirers, " - but you cannot expect me to draw back now. Think of my position!"
Juliana watched the pair at the other table, who seemed to have some difficulty deciding who should have the honour of filling Miss Charwood´s glass. She half turned back to the Viscount, her eyes still on the unfortunate Lord Sotherton, who appeared to have lost the battle and made to lung for the silver scoop instead.
"Yes, I can well understand that you think my anxiety misplaced, but I must warn you, I shall resent every attempt of removing them from my person."
Juliana, momentarily caught off guard, was about to assure the Viscount that her unheeded comment had not been meant for him, when she recognised the gleam in his eyes. Very well. If he insisted...
"What will my Aunt think if we return and you are carrying both glasses?"
"She will think that you have inspired me to remember my manners."
She raised an eyebrow.
"Sir, you informed me -- only a moment ago! -- that you are not in the habit of procuring lemonade - "
" - not if it can be helped." He nodded approvingly. "What an excellent memory you have, Miss Leighton."
She could not but laugh.
"How can you be so - oh!" She had, after all, only just made his acquaintance. And furthermore, there were enough eyes staring at them already as it was. And it did not help that he looked at her rather disconcertingly, too.
"How can I be so - ?!" His lordship prompted.
Juliana was not obliged to reply, as the gentleman's attention was demanded by a ravishing lady that had advanced on them.
"My dear Langton! How delightful!"
The woman that so unceremoniously interrupted their conversation was Lady Trent, who had been married to a man more than twice her age in her first season and now not only enjoyed all the luxuries an enraptured elderly husband was fond of bestowing on her but rather more freedom in her doings than General Leighton, Juliana's grandfather and old school friend of the lady's husband, considered acceptable. The acquaintance between the two ladies was therefore of only a slight degree, which Juliana herself did not at all repent.
"Lady Trent." The Viscount's tone was all that was foreboding. Yet her ladyship did not seem to be deterred.
"To find you at Almack´s! Of course, considering the circumstances -" She added, with a knowing smile, followed by a curt nod at Juliana. "You have been shamefully hiding yourself from us all for far too long, so I could not resist making a third of your charming party. I could not have kept away!"
"Your notion of restraint is, as ever, all that is inspiring, madam", Lord Langton drawled.
"Lord Langton and I are quite old friends, as you see, my dear Miss Leighton. He delights in joking me." She chuckled. "I declare I should like to punish him!"
"Then I should only be in your way."
Juliana was only too happy to take this as her cue. Whatever the relationship between the dashing Countess and the gentleman might be, she had no intention of being part of her ladyship's onslaught on his person.
"Excuse me, I must bring my cousin the lemonade".
The Countess stared after her retreating form. She had always detested her. Still -.
"Well, my dear Langton, I must say I was surprised to see you escorting Juliana Leighton to the refreshments. And with her incomparable cousin by her side! I would have thought your taste ran into quite another direction." This was accompanied by a knowing smile.
"You are mistaken."
As the Viscount had made these his curt parting words and was already diminishing amidst the crowd, her ladyship was left to hide her displeasure with the outcome of this unexpected, but not unsought, encounter by making good use of her elegantly embroidered fan and advanced towards the group of dowagers and other tedious personages of unspeakable age and afflictions that surrounded her doting fool of a husband.
"Are you enjoying yourself, my pet?" inquired the happily oblivious spouse.
Lady Trent made out the dark head of the Viscount, who was about to stand up with Miss Charwood for one of the quadrilles.
She put a delicate hand on his arm and favoured him with a dazzling smile.
"Immensely, my dear."
Lord Langton solicited the hand of Miss Charwood for the next set, who was so enchanted upon the prospect that she quite put the thought of having already agreed to dance with his younger brother out of her mind.
Juliana's memory, sadly, was not so adaptable.
"Cassandra -- "
"Oh hush, cousin. Theodore will not mind." She favoured the young gentleman with a brilliant smile. "You may dance with him, if you wish. It is not that you have had many dances this evening." And with the appearance of one quite unperturbed by the possible offence she might have caused, she accepted his lordship's arm.
Juliana, her eyes dancing at this handsome proposition, managed to answer Cassandra with only the slightest tremor in her voice.
"Thank you, cousin."
"Do not make yourself uneasy, Miss Leighton. I assure you my brother will be most happy to oblige you." The Viscount was all that was solicitous. Or so it seemed.
"Yes, of course." Even if not quite pleased with the change in situation, Theodore was far too well bred to forget his manners. "I would be honoured, madam."
It was almost too much for her composure, she was in danger of bubbling over with mirth. And that would never do. With admirable restraint, she was able to profess her gratitude.
"You cannot think, sir, how much that relieves me!"
Lady Charwood felt called upon herself to remind her wayward niece of her surroundings, whilst her daughter, observing the gleam in the Viscount´s eyes, felt it was time to detach herself from their entourage.
"Mama, the set is beginning to form. Do not be angry with me, dear Theodore! My lord, I am ready!" and with a nod to her relations, providing the assembled company with an excellent view of her enchanting profile, she let herself be led away by his lordship.
Mindful of his orders -- (Lady Denham's missives to her eldest son generally -- and rather more wisely - left no doubt as to the flexibility of their interpretation) - Lord Langton had left Town only two days after the enlightening evening which he had been obliged to spend at Almack´s. The journey that had taken him into Sussex had been an uneventful one and so he found himself at Denham well before the appointed hour of dinner.
Having given instructions to the stable hand to see to his horse he went inside, ridding himself of his travelling coat and gloves; his hat already being in the custody of the attendant footman.
"Is my father at home?"
"Yes, my lord. His lordship is expecting my lord in his study before dinner."
Lord Langton raised an inquiring eyebrow.
"Come now, Johnson, surely it has not been so long?"
Mr. Johnson, who had known the Viscount from his infancy and had, due to his incomparable sense of timing, more than once prevented a looming crisis by providing the resident nurse with sufficient time to extricate the young master from any evidence of his youthful exploits - by means of engaging his tutor in a serious discussion, under the pretence of a striving thirst for knowledge - was not in the habit of disappointing.
"Master Tristan!" exclaimed the harassed servant.
"That's better", approved the Viscount.
As no more than a hint of an attempt at a stern frown was forthcoming; his lordship was moved to ponder.
"I see I have come not a moment too late." He went on, seemingly oblivious to the sudden shudder that crossed the faithful servant's features. "I presume Lady Farnborough has already arrived?"
"Yes, my lord. A day sooner than milady had hoped to do so." The shudder seemed to reach its peak. "I should inform your lordship that Lady Farnborough is currently engaged in admiring her ladyship's roses."
"Under the supervision of my mother?"
"Indeed, my lord."
"Well, it can't be helped." The Viscount stated, subjecting his neck cloth to a determined tug. "There, much better."
Johnson, mistaking this move on the Viscount's part for uneasiness in view of the subject, rather than an incurable aversion to being at the mercy of a misbehaving piece of linen, ventured on in the kindly voice he had been used to adopt during the gentleman's nursery career.
"It is hardly to be expected that your lordship should develop a passion for botany".
"Certainly not. Where is my sister?"
Filial devotion never failed to impress Mr. Johnson.
"My lord will, I believe, find Lady Georgina in the Blue Drawing Room".
The young lady thus addressed look up from her sketchbook, a smile appearing on her face.
Denham Hall, an impressive, handsome building of sandy coloured stone, was set amidst a glorious park; a lane of about a mile leading up to the house from its gates; before giving way to a spectacular view of the south front, which overlooked a fine range of trees and a pond.
The current Earl's father, contrary to some of his contemporaries´ masterful undertakings, had refused to bow to the latest fashion of the day that had been the muddling with and re-shaping of perfectly sensible gardens - to impress countless generations to come with their grandeur and style - but, much to his lady's consternation, had stood firm in his decision of his park not being turned into a line up of Greek temples, cascades and other, as he deemed it, some such folly.
It was due to this resolute intervention that the gardens and park of Denham had, over the years, not lost in their charm -- the rhododendrons were still allowed to bloom in their natural array; the daffodils peeked out from their beds at the pond and the magnificent oaks were a welcome refuge to the aspiring painters of the family, who were seen to spend many hours beneath their shady leaves.
There was a small summerhouse as well as a conservatory; Lady Eleanor's pride was her rose garden, and her children were known to be at their happiest when allowed to roam the wilderness that was to be found not far from the house; on the look out for dangerous beasts -- both of her male offspring, despite the gap between their ages, had seemed respectively convinced of the notion that the woodland was haunted by some such animals and were determined to fend them off with their swords - and wood nymphs; whom her youngest daughter once informed her ladyship she thought to have caught a glimpse of on a clearing.
"Nymphs only exist in stories, silly!", young Master Theodore had resolutely informed his sister.
"Oh." Georgina had wrinkled her brow. Her doll was hugged a little more tightly and its hair brushed with dedication, disappointment clearly visible on her little, chubby face.
"I think you are a little nymph", had said a grave voice from the doorway.
The interlude with The Lady Georgina St. James having been such that in a man of less fortitude, the consequences of the same would have been identified as a head throbbing due to an overload of alarming intelligence, his lordship, seemingly unshaken from the onslaught on his mind and person, went in search of his mother.
He found the Countess in her sitting room on the first floor and entered the same in his customary elegant stride. Lady Denham looked up from her embroidery, perceived her first born on the threshold and knitted her brows in inexplicable consternation.
"Tristan! You have not!"
Disheartening as such a reception by one whom any not altogether unhopeful offspring would very likely think of as experiencing more joyful sentiments on such an occasion might be, the Viscount, if he thought this manner of greeting unusual, gave no sign of it, went up to his mother and saluted her cheek.
"It is quite possible that I have not, mother, but if you are in need of certainty, you will have to limit the options somewhat."
His parent was not to be deterred.
"Sit down. I have had a letter from Theodore."
"I thought you might have," offered her son agreeably, pulling up a chair.
The Countess chose to ignore her first born´s insolence. "What possessed you to agree to this scheme? And in your phaeton!"
"Oh my God!" His lordship exclaimed, his voice a shade lower as he continued mournfully. "My greys, too?"
Lady Denham studied her son for a moment; as if to contemplate her opinion on the matter.
Then she came to a decision.
"I suppose it will serve you right."
Lord Langton seemed to consider this.
"Quite possible, madam", he agreed after a brief pause. "I wonder I should not have thought of it sooner."
"Tristan, there are times when I wonder how you manage to go on as you do." Her ladyship waved her hand as if to impress the needlessness of an explanation on her eldest born, who accepted this tribute with great composure.
"Now, what is it that I wanted to speak to you about -" The Countess frowned in thought. "Oh, of course. The ball." She directed an unyielding gaze at the Viscount. "Yes, you shall be attending it."
"So I have already been informed by my sister." The Viscount's tone suggested that he found the idea of the same somewhat repulsive. "Indeed, she was so full of quadrilles, pink champagne, French silk and flower arrangements that I confess the combined image overwhelmed me so much that I found myself quite incapable of conjuring up a pressing engagement that would shield me from all these promised pleasures."
Her ladyship put her cup down, rose from her seat and made to leave the room, pausing on her way to pat her much tried son's arm.
"No, no French silk. We would not wish to provoke your father more than necessity commands. He finds it a little difficult to adapt to the idea of his youngest eventually leaving the nest."
"I imagine he might. I shall exert myself and shall try to remember to exhibit some compassion for the aspiring swains", offered the Viscount.
The Countess was somewhat alarmed at this complaisance.
Her ladyship took a deep breath. If she had been partial to the practice of rolling one's eyes to put emphasis on one's position, she would have done so. However, it had not quite come to such an undignified state yet.
"Very well. Go and see your father about this tiresome business. He is, as usual, hiding in his study. But I suspect Johnson has told you as much."
"Dawlish, do look what you are about! Not the lavender one, the lilac!"
"Certainly, your ladyship. If you will just - "
"Has my grand-nephew arrived yet?"
The maid admitted that she could not be certain. Would her ladyship prefer the -
"Then go and find out. Does one have to do everything oneself these days?! I want to be informed of his arrival the moment he comes. Now go!"
The lady's maid made haste to obey her mistress´ order and left her in front of a golden mirror in her chamber to make the necessary inquiries. The stately old matron stared at her reflection. Piercing blue eyes looked back at her; in between them a nose that spoke of her aristocratic lineage. Her grey hair was hidden under a formidable wig, which had been heavily powdered. They might say as they wished, but Lady Augusta Farnborough, widow of the late Sir Archibald Farnborough, vehemently refused to adopt the current fashion -- she still found it difficult to forgive that wigs had given way to what she deemed a careless -- no powder! - wearing of one's own natural hair, and made a point of dressing in gowns that had been the height of fashion during earlier years, when ladies of breeding still knew how to dress themselves with an eye for style and propriety. The young girls those days! No wonder they had such difficulties catching a husband.
Her own marriage had produced no offspring and, since the passing of Sir Archibald, she had been the exasperation of his heir and nephew, taking the greatest of interests in all his matters - private or business. Her ladyship's generosity in offering wisdom and advice to those nearly connected to her knew no bounds. Nor to those decidedly more unconnected, but the missing twigs on the family tree did not deter the formidable lady.
Even at the age of seventy-one, her bearing was that of a supremely confident member of the Ton, her voice was strong and commanding and she bore no signs of fragility, as one would have expected from one as advanced in years.
She was the maternal aunt of Lady Denham; whose mother had been her much admired elder sister, The Marchioness of Vale, neé Lady Henrietta Henley. Upon her sister's early death, she had wished to step in as a surrogate mother to her young daughter but found the Marquess most vehement in his refusal to part with his only child. This, provoking as it had been, had not stopped Lady Augusta from interesting herself in her niece's upbringing and she had been busily forming plans for the girl's future, confident, for one, that her father should see the advantages of the match she proposed.
Unfortunately, the Marquess had passed away before she could have laid her proposition before him and even more disturbingly, the Lady Eleanor Hamilton went on to marry Edward, Viscount Langton, and no entreaties or threats on behalf of her Aunt could deter the headstrong girl.
Yes. The old lady smiled at her reflection. It would do very well.
Now, where was Dawlish?
"Ah, Tristan. Come in."
The Viscount, having sought out his other parent, moved forward to shake hands with his father.
"So. What do you think of this business then..."
On the whole, Lord Denham was well satisfied with the interview. He knew his son rather well, he flattered himself, and had therefore not been really alarmed when the same had - in a voice that had borne a hint of smiling incredulity -- marvelled over the unexpected deepness on his afflicted sibling's part.
However, the Earl was of the opinion that even the remotest possibility of any such enthusiasm inflicting the Viscount as well - and thus provoke him to take leave of his senses - should be quenched in its roots already and had therefore expressed himself in unmistakable terms.
Having informed him of Theodore having been most affecting in his elaboration, that it had almost pained him to put a stop to such a poetic flow, but that he had quickly realised he would have to take a firm line - " ...Comparing the girl to a summer's day or some such thing!..." -- he had left the Viscount in no doubt as to his willingness to countenance his heir serenading an agitated damsel from below a balcony -- be it a summer's day or evening.
He had been pleased to receive -- and the Viscount had expressed himself with feeling -- the confirmation that his lordship had no taste for lyricism.
"So, as I see it, all that remains for us to do is smooth the ruffled feathers, ignore the more determined tattletales and put our faith in Theodore's compliance."
"Especially in his compliance." Lord Langton´s lips twitched. "Has my Aunt mentioned the matter yet?"
"Surprisingly, no. Either she has put all her energy into her wonderfully articulate missive to your mother, or she means to lay her sorrows at your door. Either way, not very flattering for my own person, I confess. But I do not mean to pine over it." Lord Denham smiled. "I have hardly had a glimpse of your Aunt since her arrival." The smile broadened. "It is most considerate of milady. I cannot remember ever having been obliged to contribute so little to the entertainment of a visitor."
"Take care what you are about, nephew. You will regret it if you disoblige me in this matter!"
This unwise statement was the result of a rather one-sided interview between great aunt and grand-nephew, which had taken place before breakfast the next day. Not usually an early riser, Lady Farnborough had made certain to corner her victim before the rest of the family had materialised from their respective retreats. Dinner the night before had been a surprisingly subdued affair, given that Lord Denham had the reputation of one quite enjoying what his spouse unashamedly referred to as bickering with his Aunt by marriage. As it was, the very same Aunt had limited herself to exchanging only the merest commonplaces with her dinner partners -- except for the Viscount, on whom she had primarily focused her attention and whom she had favoured with detailed accounts of various matters of the Ton that she considered of paramount importance -- much to Lady Georgina's relief, who had lived in dread lest her ladyship should lecture her on all things proper with regards to her come out ball.
Lady Farnborough eyed the Viscount with something akin to reluctant respect. She was not used to such open opposition. Or rather, it had been years since her niece..... but that was beside the point. She refused to have her plans crossed this time!
"Her ladyship is mistaken if she believes me to be susceptible to threats."
"It should not be necessary!"
Lady Farnborough was seriously displeased by the Viscount's cool assurance. Indeed, she had entertained high hopes of having pressed the urgency and, even more so, excellence of her proposal onto her nephew in view of the seemingly complaisant manner in which he had paid reverence to her. Never had she been more shocked than at his flat refusal to enter into her plans at the end of her recital. And he had the effrontery of seeming utterly unmoved by her displeasure. It was not to be borne!
"Have you no consideration for your lineage? It is your duty to beget an heir! And dare not tell me that there is that younger brother of yours -- I know all about that affair! And now he is dangling after that silly chit -"
Her ladyship was not to have the pleasure of finishing her wonderful train of thought.
"I am most obliged to your ladyship for your interest in my personal affairs-" - his lordship's tone suggested the degree of appreciation on his part -- " - but I have no intention of succumbing to the temptations your ladyship proposes, and that is my final word. Good day."
"Well, I think that went quite well, wouldn't you agree, my dear?"
The Earl, having seen off his formidable guest and repaired back into his house, smiled at his wife, who had just sat down in front of the piano to assist her youngest daughter at choosing her music.
"I thought you might think so, Edward."
"Indeed? And you, I infer, do not?"
"This one perhaps, my love?" She handed some sheets to her daughter. Lady Georgina inspected the selected piece, her brow wrinkled, and, evidently having faith in her own abilities, she prepared her fingers for the performance. "No, I do not, Edward. Have you not seen your son this morning?"
"Ah. Of course." Had his lordship been in the possession of a stately beard, he would have made good use of its presence, but as, alas, any such gentlemanly aspiration had swiftly been seen to by his lady during his younger years - the young Viscountess had shown strong opposition and her spouse, shocked by the unexpected violence of her ladyship's feelings, had, not unwisely, let the subject rest -- he limited himself to silent meditation, his lips briefly twitching.
Lady Denham recognised provocation when she saw it.
"No doubt you will presently take it upon yourself to acquaint us with your musings."
"No, no, sooner than that, naturally - " Lord Denham directed an inquisitive eyebrow at his daughter - who was trying her best to not allow herself to be distracted from her musical task by an attack of mirth and almost succeeded -- and an attentive observer might have stated that the Earl favoured his youngest with a wink. Not that Lord Denham was at all partial to any such frivolous behaviour. " - I thought the thundercloud must have come from somewhere."
"But you did not think to enquire into its origins?"
The Earl looked a little affronted. "I know better than to launch a parental attack on your son before he has had his breakfast, madam."
"Of course. That would be quite impolitic. Well, I shall feed him." As if an afterthought, her ladyship added "And then we will have a little talk."
"My presence at the interview will, I presume, not be required?"
"No, you should only be in the way."
"Quite so." The Earl, content in the knowledge that he and his lady saw eye to eye on the subject, picked up his paper and settled back into the comfortable armchair.
Georgina, having, thus far and for one of so young an age, shown masterly control of her features, eventually looked up from the piano, her fingers continuing the performance.
"Tristan spoke to my Aunt Farnborough this morning, mama."
"And what would you know about it, nymph?" demanded a new voice from the door.
Lord Langton advanced into the room, his dark hair slightly dishevelled, his riding coat swaying about him.
The Earl lowered his paper, briefly subjected his heir to his scrutiny and raised the paper once more.
Georgina went a little pink.
"I met her on the landing ... when I went down for breakfast -"
The Viscount held up a hand, as if to repel an invisible onslaught on his person.
"Say no more! Poor George. I must make it up to you. Shall I pick you a ball bouquet from mama's roses or pretend to look away when one of your admirers leads you down the set?"
"I should hope you to have more common sense than to raid my conservatory and even more than to try and frighten any of our guests into retreat", interposed Lady Denham.
Georgina was quick to come to her adored brother's defence.
"Oh no, mama! Tristan would not!"
"He most certainly would not", added the Earl ominously, from behind his paper. "That honour I demand for myself."
The Viscount bowed.
"Papa! You promised -", interjected his much afflicted youngest, throwing herself at his feet and tugging at the object that was a knowledgeable barrier between them, her blue eyes raised imploringly to his.
Lord Denham, much to his own dismay, was not immune to the entreaty in the gaze directed at him -- and had, even though his resolution had found itself subjected to similar attacks on numerous occasions during the past weeks, yet to find an adequate remedy.
"Yes, yes ... well ... we shall see - There now. No need to crumble my paper!" He patted the fair head that belonged to the slender form that had cast itself onto his bosom and gently disengaged himself from the arms that had encircled his person. He was saved by the timely arrival of a servant whose noble mission it was to inform Lady Georgina that the dancing master had arrived. "Off you go now, my child."
"Oh! Yes, of course. We mean to practise the quadrille again." She kissed her father on the cheek and hurried out of the room.
Father and brother watched her leave. The Earl heaved a sigh.
"Edward, you survived it with Sophia, you will do so with Georgina."
However reluctant the Earl was to agree to the wisdom of his lady's interpolation, he was not so unwise as to offer objection.
"As always, my doubts must give way to your reason, my love -", he offered handsomely and then addressed his heir, his quizzing glass raised to his eye in disapproval. "And what do you mean to descend upon us in your riding habit, sir?"
Lord Denham had an eye for finery and proper dress, a trait which his younger son also called his own, the latter only with a little more enthusiasm.
"I went out riding, sir," the Viscount gently informed his sire.
"Humph. I am not too far gone as to not be able to box your ears, son."
"I should not think so, sir."
"Good. Remember that. You will, judging by your edifying communication about bouquets and all that nonsense, be present at the ball?" The Viscount nodded. "Very well. At least someone shall be there to assist me at preserving my sanity."
The Earl was not to be deterred.
"First Sophia, now my Georgina - and My Lady Farnborough amidst us all. I am very sorry, madam, but ´tis more than a man should be expected to bear -"
"Will she indeed?" The Viscount's eyes bore a dangerous gleam. "How wonderful to think that milady should exert herself so much on behalf of others."
"Yes, there is that. However -"
Lady Denham was more apt to detect the sudden shift in her firstborn's mood. She shot a quelling look at her spouse.
"Whatever do you mean, Tristan?"
Instead of answering, he went up to his mother and bestowed a kiss on her hand. "I must go now. Do not let this business with Theodore trouble you, madam."
Her ladyship, her brow slightly creased, showed no other visible sign that she considered this sudden departure unexpected. Even if her son's abruptness puzzled her more than a little, she knew that subjecting him to maternal interrogation at that moment could only end in obstinacy in his current state. She therefore resolved to address the matter another time and gave voice to another concern that seemed as pressing for the moment.
"Yes. And Tristan, the phaeton -"
He paused a the door.
"If you must let Theodore drive it, do strive to make sure he is not otherwise distracted."
"Not otherwise - !? Am I to understand that you are taking your brother for a drive?", the Earl demanded of his heir.
"I rather fear he means to take me", replied the Viscount somewhat thoughtfully.
Lord Denham had every faith in his younger son's horsemanship -- as long as it included the same son atop one of the species - as it were, but he recalled only too well an incident in the young gentleman's career that had involved a curricle, a road stubbornly bent on curving and a passing vehicle.
"Yes." The Viscount smiled. "But there is always my new coat." He put on his gloves and held out his hand. "Goodbye, sir."
It was a few days after the ball at Almack´s and Juliana had coaxed her cousin into taking a turn in the Park. Cassandra, of course, knew of the vital importance of being seen in the Park during the fashionable hour, but she had much rather have paid a visit to her favourite dressmaker in Bond Street than stomp around in all the dirt -- it had rained the night before and she was certain that it was still too damp to risk the exercise of her new, pretty boots. Besides, the clock had yet to announce the aforementioned hour. But her cousin had been most persistent and a visit to Madame Celeste would, moreover, be decidedly more amusing in the company of one of her dearest friends, who was almost as much of a natural at admiring a new silk or a fashionably trimmed bonnet as herself. Her cousin never seemed to pay the required attention.
And she might meet the Viscount. Theodore had mentioned that he enjoyed riding out at such early hours as these, after all. She had been a little vexed that his lordship had not called after the ball at Almack´s, but when she had learned that he had gone to Denham Hall soon after, she was happy enough to attribute this circumstance to very urgent business than to any lack of interest in her own person.
Chance would not have it that the ladies were to encounter the Viscount in the Park but they had the felicity of meeting his brother at the steps to the house in Hanover Square, which Lady Charwood had pressed her husband to take for the Season.
"Oh, look, it is Theodore!" Cassandra hurried forward to shake hands with him. "How do you do? Have you come to see us? But of course you have. You must come inside and have some tea!"
"How do you do?" Theodore, not unmoved by the reception of his person on behalf of his angel, would have made his bow, had not his arm already been seized and thereby made it necessary for his remaining limbs to spring into action. He was only able to nod at Juliana over his shoulder, mounting the steps to the house, his boyish smile disarming affront. "Yes, indeed. I have come on an errand and hoped to find you at home."
Cassandra cast off her bonnet with one hand and presented the footman with the charming confection.
"Whatever can you mean? Will you not tell me?"
"Well -" Theodore was not obliged to engage on an explanation for his early visit.
"Mama, here is Mr. St James! He is most desirous of speaking to you about a matter of great importance, which he will not tell me anything about!"
Juliana was too late to check her and could only permit herself a roll of her eyes, closing her sunshade in resigned patience. Her eyes caught those of Jones, the Footman, who was still, with some reluctance -- he had not been engaged as a lady's maid, after all, and had, moreover, no taste for female frivolities - holding the offending bonnet in his hand.
For all his outward stoic demeanour, Mr. Jones knew an ally when he saw one.
"I trust you had a pleasant outing, madam?" He closed the door behind her and made to relieve her of her bonnet and shade.
"Thank you, yes."
She smiled at the servant and followed her cousin and their guest to the drawing room, where Lady Charwood was known to spend her mornings.
"What a splendid idea, my dear Theodore! A picnic in Richmond Park. Cassandra will be honoured to join you, I am sure."
Her ladyship saw no harm in permitting her daughter to spend an afternoon amongst her friends, she even went so far as to promise her darling a new sunshade for the purpose -- a red nose was most unflattering, even on the most beautiful face -- and informed Theodore that she had every faith that he would take care that her only daughter would meet with no harm. Mrs. Hampton, one of her ladyship's bosom friends - who happened to have paid her a visit that day in the company of her daughter -, added her entreaties for her own offspring, who had been duly included in the invitation. Theodore was very earnest in assuring both loving parents of his sense of duty.
"And will your brother make one of the party as well?" inquired her ladyship. She was, by all means, an excellent parent.
"Why, yes, to be sure."
Juliana, who had, so far, silently followed the exchange from her position in the windowsill, raised her eyes at this.
"Lord Langton will be joining you?"
Theodore beamed at her from across the room.
"I asked him. And he promised to come."
"And very right of him to do so, I am sure -" Her ladyship broke in brusquely. "Just what I should expect of an elder brother."
Juliana was moved to think to herself that her ladyship's own son, William, hardly showed as much filial devotion to his sister.
"Oh, he is the best of good fellows! In fact, I mean for him to bring his phaeton. And his greys. Prime flesh, they are."
He had the grace to blush, recalling his surroundings.
"Are they indeed? Then of course they should be exercised as much as possible. How sensible of your brother to accept your invitation!" Juliana smiled at his enthusiasm.
Theodore smiled at her gratefully and was quick to assure her that his brother's horses were amongst the finest to be found in the country.
A thought occurred to him.
"Are you fond of horses, madam?"
Cassandra, tired of a conversation in which she was not the first object, broke in with one of her gentle smiles.
"My cousin, sir, is known to jump fences and race her poor, dear mare across open fields."
If her aim had been to shock Theodore with the information, she had failed. He eyed Miss Leighton with new-found respect.
"Oh, but then you must join us as well!" He bowed to Lady Charwood, one of his boyish smiles accompanying the move. "With your permission, of course, madam."
"Yes, do please come, Miss Leighton! It would not be the same without you."
Miss Cecilia Hampton, a lightly freckled, curly haired damsel of just eighteen, added her entreaties and was quickly supported in them by her friend, who, if not as earnestly, begged her cousin to consider the invitation.
"Yes, do join us, cousin." She smiled somewhat condescendingly at Juliana. "You need not think you would be in our way."
"You cannot refuse now, Miss Leighton", added Theodore, quite unabashed.
"True. It would be very bad of me, would it not -" Her eyes twinkled. As it was, she longed for a breath of fresh air away from the bustle and noise of London and her faithful Duchess would indeed be most offended were she to learn of her mistress´ refusal of such an opportunity of much desired exercise.
"Then it is settled." Theodore smiled, not altogether unhopefully. "And you will bring your horse?"
The smile brightened. "Excellent."
Having agreed on time and day for their outing to Richmond, Theodore took his leave and set off for his brother's house, at which he had taken up residence until his parents and sister should return to Town for the Season. He would remove himself to his parental home in Grosvenor Square presently, but for the moment the situation suited him very well, for not withstanding the excellence of his brother's cook and access to his inspiring wardrobe -- he had become quite proficient at evading his elder's faithful valet's attempts at curbing his enthusiasm, he thought -- and as much as he had a fondness for the sister closest in age to himself, there was only so much even his forbearing mind could take when it came to Court dresses, the existence of which, in itself, quite offending his tender sensibilities.
Her daughter having retired to her chamber for the purpose of selecting a habit guaranteed to impress the Viscount on their outing, her guests having taken their respective leaves, Lady Charwood was left to favour her niece with her satisfaction on the progress of events.
My lady, commenting on the handsomeness of his lordship's person, his pedigree and his wealth, speculated on how wonderful it would be for her darling Cassandra to have her so happily secured in life.
Juliana had just taken a sip of her tea.
"Why, of course. You saw for yourself how determined he was to engage her for the next set at Almack´s! Nothing would have pleased him more, and he is, you know, generally not fond of dancing. I cannot but feel a little for poor Theodore, but a Viscount - he will be an Earl one day! And now he is taking her out for a drive, when he is known to never take females driving. Could anything be more wonderful?!"
Juliana was a sensible young woman and was very much aware that she could hardly boast of being on intimate terms with Lord Langton, but the little she had observed during the course of the aforementioned evening and the information shared by his brother that very afternoon -- as much as her own common sense - compelled her to try and gently reason with her ambitious relative.
"Indeed, Aunt, are you sure that you are not mistaken? They have only just met and danced once with each other -"
Lady Charwood put her cup down with unbecoming vehemence.
"Pray, niece, what do you know of these matters? And what, pray, were you thinking, monopolising his lordship in such a forward manner? I have been meaning to mention this matter to you ever since! Whoever heard of such a thing as Lord Langton being called upon to see to the refreshments! I have no patience with such improper conduct in a young woman, let me tell you that."
There was a limit to how much must be forgiven a loving mother's intentions, even if the governesses of the world would beg to disagree.
"Forgive me, Aunt, for presuming that it would be unwise of me to offend a person of Lord Langton´s consequence. Indeed, I am very grateful to you for pointing out how grossly at fault I have been."
Juliana was too well acquainted with her Aunt's character to let such a speech distress her. How wonderful it was, she thought, how Lady Charwood sometimes strived to forget propriety where her own daughter was concerned.
Her ladyship observed the small smile on her niece's face as she rose from her chair. "Your impertinence is most unbecoming in you, Juliana."
Her tone conveyed that, as far as she was concerned, the subject was closed.
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