Ivory and Opals
Marmaduke Reginald Ellingham the third, Marquis of Gillingsworth, flicked an invisible speck of dust from the creamy leg of his inexpressibles. He turned to face his mother and drawled, "You can't mean to bring out the chit. How excessively boring."
"Boring? My dear boy I'll have you know I intend to make my goddaughter all the crack."
"A country nobody? How do you propose to manage that?"
"She is my dear Esmeralda's daughter so I imagine she's a stunning beauty, and I will have you to squire her around, of course."
"Me?" he cried with unusual fervour.
"Dearest! It is such a small thing to do for your mother. And it will be the making of her as you well know."
"Do you realise just what you are asking of me?" He curled his lip in distaste.
"I will ensure that she is dressed to the nines -- there will be nothing for you to be embarrassed about."
"Mama -- I saw that last creation of yours." He shuddered.
"Marmie . . ."
"Not that! Anything but that," he said in despairing accents. "Better that I oversee her wardrobe."
"You won't regret it dearest," said his mother as she stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek.
Lord Gillingsworth had the distinct impression that it had been her plan all along.
It was a shock the next morning when he was introduced to Miss Lavinia Ravenhurst. She was not petite and blonde and ravishing as he had imagined. Rather, she was tall and awkward, with mousy hair, and excessively shy.
"I would prefer not to be presented at all," she admitted in a shaky voice.
"Nonsense!" replied Lady Gillingsworth. "It is every young lady's dream. My son shall see that you are decked out as you should be."
"Your son?" she said, eyeing the sprig of fashion who was standing languidly before her twiddling the lavender ribbons of his eyeglass. He held it up to survey her and she cowered noticeably.
"It is only a glass, my dear girl," he said. "It will do you no physical harm," and he slipped it into the pocket of his waistcoat. He gazed at her impassively. "Lovely isn't it?" He stroked the silken fabric. "The colour is water lily -- but I really do think it is more akin to camellia -- do you not agree?"
"I . . . I really c-couldn't say," she stuttered.
"Miss Ravenhurst," he said in tones of utmost boredom. "If you expect me to escort you to balls and routs you must lose that most gauche habit of stuttering. It is really not becoming."
"I d-do not believe that you w-want to take me any m-more than I want to go," she burst out.
"It is certainly not my utmost desire," he said. "But I did promise mama, so we must make the best of it."
"Yes," he said gently. He reached out and took her chin, turned her head to one side and then the other. "Certainly more of a challenge than I had anticipated, but I think we may be able to make something of you -- just give me some time for thought." He sat back in a chair and stared at the ceiling. In the meantime his mother spoke in consoling tones to her goddaughter in an attempt to put the poor girl at her ease.
Lavinia had thought the marquis had gone to sleep when suddenly he stood up and waved an arm extravagantly in her direction. "When I am done with you," he announced, "all the ladies will wish they were tall." Then he smiled in satisfaction and sauntered from the room.
Lavinia shook her head in aggravation as unheralded tears began to flow. Her come-out was going to be worse than she had ever imagined.
"Gilly," sputtered Lord Percival Fortescue, "You cannot seriously expect me to accompany you and some country mouse to the demmed mantua makers!"
"That is very rag-mannered of you, Fortescue."
"And my heart quails to think what will be said when you are seen with such a dowd."
"Let the wags say what they like. When Miss Ravenhurst makes her first appearance they will be the ones to look like fools."
"I've got it -- wrap her in Holland covers! Just the thing!"
"I think my credit is secure enough for such measures to be unnecessary. Besides I have supplied her with an unimpeachable cloak of pale primrose satin."
"But . . . but I still cannot come. As sick as a cushion, you know."
"Cropsick, more like." He eyed his friend with distaste. "You know you've not the stomach for blue ruin."
"Don't read me your sermons, Gilly. My head it plaguing me enough already."
"Your head is plaguing you? I have to turn a gawky scarecrow into a prime article, and I've less than a week to do it. Furthermore I can't help but wonder if I made a mistake when I ordered these Hessians. Surely the tassels should have been silver rather than pewter to go with this particular shade of lilac." He stroked his hand down his skin-tight breeches. "It's called orchid mist."
His friend groaned. "I rather think that is what's made me feel as queer as Dick's hat-band."
The marquis gave his friend a disparaging look and left the lodgings without another word.
Lavinia Ravenhurst was stunned when, upon hearing a knock and calling for the person to enter, it was not one of the maids but Lord Gillingsworth himself, in all his finery, who entered her dressing chamber. She gasped and took a step back.
"The hair!" he cried. "We cannot leave this room until something is done!"
Her hand flew up to the thick bun at the nape of her neck.
"Who knows what may be living in it?" he asked as he held a cologne soaked handkerchief to his nose.
She blushed a deep red. "Sir, y-you are o-offensive."
He ignored her and pulled the bell rope. As he waited for the servant he threw open the doors of her wardrobe and studied the contents. "It all must go," he said at last. He looked back at her and eyed the dull green gown she had on with evident distaste. "Especially that!"
"Wh-what makes you th-think you can just c-come in here and . . ."
"My mama gave me a carte blanche," he said, and then turned as his mother's dresser entered the room. "Francine, take all this away and burn it." His arm made a wide swoop in the direction of the wardrobe.
"B-but those are my clothes! I l-like them! Y-you c-cannot just walk in h-here and order them g-gone!"
"I have just done so," he said. "Unfortunately we can do nothing about the . . . item you are currently wearing. Your taste, Miss Ravenhurst, leaves much to be desired. But luckily you have me to advise you now. Sit down at the dressing table. Francine -- leave the clothing for a minute and take up your scissors. Together we might be able to make something of this mouse's nest."
Lavinia was used to not getting her own way, but on this occasion she felt as if she had been run over by a coach and four. Looks were certainly deceiving. The Marquis, all decked out in violet and cream, a lavish creation about his neck, had not the appearance of a dictator. She sat and stared gloomily into the looking glass, wishing that she had an ounce of backbone. If anyone ever deserved a set down from her it was this azure-eyed fop.
Francine brushed out the hair and then, following Lord Gillingsworth's directions, sheared off a great length, following that drastic action by snipping here and there, piling what was left of Lavinia's locks atop her head now and then to get an impression of the final outcome.
"Yes!" said the marquis softly. "It is so much lighter that it bounces and almost curls. Pin it up . . . so . . . and run a ribbon here. Not yet perfection, but it will do, for now."
Lavinia could not believe what she saw reflected in the glass. She looked almost pretty. She opened her mouth but no sound came out.
"Flummoxed?" Gillingsworth laughed. "Save your thanks till the end of the day -- there is much still to be done in your transformation."
"B-but I had no w-wish to be t-transformed."
"You will thank me all the same. Oh! I almost forgot. What have you in the way of jewels?"
She drew open a drawer and took out some boxes. "G-garnets, p-peridots, a-aquamarines."
He opened the lids and gave them a quick perusal, then pushed all but one aside. "At least you have a passable string of pearls. As for the rest -- they must stay in their boxes." He went to the door. "I will meet you below stairs in fifteen minutes to take you to Mme. Fanchot's establishment. Francine has a cape for you to wear."
The milliner's was another eye-opener for Lavinia. The Marquis involved himself in deciding the fabrics, colours, and styles of every gown ordered. His knowledge of fashion and detail was inexhaustible. And his instinct for what would suit her was as flawless as it had been with the trimming of her hair.
"We must accentuate her height," he said as he and Mme. Fanchot put their heads together over fashion plates. "She must be willowy, fluid, elegant."
"With my creations she will look like a swan."
"This colour will bring out the amber in her eyes," said the marquis, swathing a length of pale gold about her neck. "And this, the green." He held up an Indian muslin shot through with emerald threads.
Lavinia studied her eyes. They had always seemed an unremarkable hazel to her, but she could see the colour shift and change as the fabrics swirled around her.
The marquis pulled out a shimmering ivory silk. "For her first ball. Most debutantes wear white with pearls. Miss Ravenhurst will wear ivory and opals.
"I w-will wear my p-pearls, Lord Gillingsworth," she said. "As y-you well know I h-have no opals."
He waved this off as if it were unimportant and resumed deciding on her necklines and sleeve lengths.
The Marquis threw himself upon the chaise lounge in his mother's dressing room.
"Reggie -- your posture is indecorous!" admonished that lady.
"Yes, and these breeches of mine will probably not be wearable again, but oh! What a task you have given me mama! Most fatiguing."
"You are enjoying every minute of it."
"Fustian! Even after all my efforts I am afraid she will not take. She stands like a stock with no grace at all. What do they teach young ladies in the country? And her speech! I am inclined to advise her not to open her mouth the entire night. One word in two is garbled."
"I am certain she will make a splendid entrance tomorrow."
"I wish I had your optimism," he replied. "My nerves are completely shattered. I fear I shall be committing a major faux pas and will have to rusticate for weeks."
"Nonsense! She will cast everyone into the shade with your brilliant direction."
"Do not offer me Spanish coin, mama, I really don't have the stomach for it." He reached for her bottle of vinaigrette and took a deep sniff. Even that didn't help but he was dashed if he would fall back on brandy -- not after the tongue-lashing he had given Fortescue.
Lavinia sat nervously at her dressing table. She could not recognise the girl that stared back at her through the glass though she knew the vision in ivory was herself. Francine was pinning the freesias that the marquis had sent her into her hair. They smelled heavenly, but all she could think was she was about to let everybody down. It was inescapable. There was a knock at the door and she turned as Francine went to open it. Nobody came in, but the dresser returned with a slim package.
"His Lordship wishes you to wear this," she said, and she began to remove Lavinia's string of pearls.
Lavinia put her hand up to her neck. "No!" she said. It was bad enough that he had changed her hair, ordered all her gowns, and attempted to teach her how to walk and talk with grace. He was not going to replace the pearls that her father had given her with some trumpery . . . she held her breath as she looked at what lay upon the dark green velvet. A circlet of tiny, evenly matched pearls alternating with opals.
Francine ignored her protest and fastened it about her neck. It fit perfectly, looked exquisite, and completed her toilette in a way her sad little string of pearls hadn't quite managed. Lavinia vowed to return it to the marquis in the morning.
Lord Gillingsworth stood at the bottom of the stairs waiting for Miss Ravenhurst to appear, and hoping she would not fall and break her neck upon her descent. Everyone who was anyone had been invited to the come-out ball and the house was jammed to the rafters with overly adorned matrons, giggling debutantes, would be Corinthians, and Bartholomew babies. Nobody was as elegantly put together as the marquis, though. He wore dove grey, with alabaster trimmings. The buttons of his waistcoat were mother of pearl. The arrangement of his neck cloth was such a marvel that more than three aspiring tulips of the Ton had already left in despair of ever achieving such mastery. A fire opal winked from amid its creamy folds. His dark gold locks glinted in the light from myriad candles.
When he finally saw Miss Lavinia he was cast breathless, thinking that he had truly outdone himself. But by the time she had reached his side he realised it was none of his doing. The week he had devoted to transforming her from a shrinking violet into an opulent orchid, he had been oblivious to all but his ingenious urges. He had not created those richly hued eyes, the fine cheekbones, the timorously smiling lips, the fall of creamy skin upon which the circlet of pearls and opals lay.
He took her arm and leaned to whisper in her ear. "Divine." He was almost overwhelmed by the sensation of the mingled fragrance of the freesias in her hair, and the way the curls Francine had coaxed it into cascaded to her silky neck. He had an insane urge to whisk her onto the terrace and let nobody see her, but instead he escorted her to the ballroom where they were both announced.
"D-don't leave m-me just y-yet," she whispered to him.
He squeezed her elbow and smiled. That she wanted him beside her warmed his heart -- the stutter, rather than rankle, was nothing short of endearing. It was with pride that he introduced her around. Not pride in himself and what he had accomplished, but pride in how she looked in her own right, and what she had endured at his hands to bolster his atrocious vanity. He led her out for the first dance; she was a little hesitant and stumbled over the steps.
"Ought to have hired a caper merchant," he said under his breath. "Nodcock!"
Miss Ravenhurst almost tripped and looked at him in alarm.
"Not you -- you are doing splendidly." And he spent the rest of the dance advising her on the steps and offering encouragement. When he gave her up to her next partner he stood and watched to see that she was all right, instead of paying his attentions to the other young ladies, as he ought.
"I thought you were above pitching gammon," said Fortescue in his ear.
"In what way have I lied to you?"
"Trying to steer me clear of Miss Ravenhurst so you could have her all to yourself."
"I myself never knew until tonight how incomparable she is."
"That's doing it to brown. You've been closeted with the wench for a week, Gilly."
The marquis only glared.
"I would prefer it if you did not refer to the lady as a wench."
"Blows the wind in that quarter? A thousand pardons, old chap!"
"Fortescue, you are a fool," said Lord Gillingsworth, and he took himself off, mindful now that he was both making a spectacle of himself and ignoring his duties.
The next morning the marquis rushed through his toilette in record time, to the astonishment of his valet.
"Must have been something devilish particular," confided that fellow to Francine. "He accepted the first waistcoat I offered and only tossed away three neck cloths."
"There's only one thing affects a gentleman that way," she responded with a knowing wink. "But for his Lordship to be bowled over by a country nobody!"
"Are you bird-witted? Don't you be repeating such a faradiddle below stairs."
"I'm no gabster, but you mark my word if I'm not right -- time will tell."
The valet shook his head and chastised himself reprovingly for having even mentioned the strange occurrence.
In the breakfast room, Lord Gillingsworth was toying with a plate of braised kidneys. He looked up as Lavinia entered. She stopped just inside the threshold.
"Y-you are n-never up this early!" she exclaimed. "Oh! I-I do beg your p-pardon."
She was wearing her Indian muslin morning dress. All he could think of for a moment was how right he had been about her eyes. "I was impatient to discover how you enjoyed your first ball."
She smiled and went over to the sideboard to serve her food. "It w-was much less in-intimidating than I had expected, th-thanks to you, my l-lord."
"Do not thank me," he said.
"Y-yes, I m-must. You p-prepared me so w-well, and I w-was so resentful th-the whole while."
"I was officious and, I begin to realise, quite rude as well."
"Y-you were indeed, s-sir." She giggled.
"I hope you will forgive me for my many impertinences."
"I-I have. And I h-have even f-forgiven you for d-destroying all my c-clothes. My n-new ones are so very m-much more b-becoming."
"They look well because you wear them."
"F-fudge! That i-is not wh-what you said about m-my green g-gown. Y-you called it an i-item, as I r-recall. And the l-look on your f-face!" She giggled again.
"I was blind then," he said simply.
She blushed and turned away. "I d-do not n-need empty c-compliments. Wh-why are y-you acting so s-strangely this morning? Y-you have not once y-yet admonished m-me for m-my stuttering."
"I apologise -- I hadn't noticed -- please refrain from stuttering, Miss Ravenhurst. There -- is that better?"
She smiled. "M-much."
"Did you enjoy the dancing?"
"I am a-afraid I w-wasn't very g-good at it. I f-feel that I l-let you down."
"Let me down? It is I who let you down, my dear. I ought to have hired a dance master for you."
"Oh, y-yes. A c-caper merchant I th-think you c-called it."
"Yes, but on second thoughts I will teach you myself. I promise not to be too hard of a task master."
"Y-you could d-do no worse th-than you already h-have done."
"Lord Gillingsworth . . ." Lavinia stopped and blushed self-consciously.
"Is there some way I can help you?"
"I-I was wondering. I w-was quite . . . t-taken with one of th-the gentlemen I-I danced w-with last n-night, and . . ."
The marquis felt a strange sinking in the pit of his stomach. "And?" he asked with trepidation.
"N-never mind. It is s-silly of m-me to even m-mention it."
He reached across the table and gave her hand a squeeze. "I am your friend. I hope that you can tell me anything." As he said it he wondered at himself. He knew that what he said was true, but he had never made such a suggestion to anyone before. Usually he would have sighed with boredom and come up with a quick excuse to leave the room.
"H-how kind!" she said. "I am s-so lonely h-here, away from m-my home for the f-first time, w-with no one to share m-my t-troubles." She blushed and then continued. "Y-you don't know h-how much I w-wished for my s-sister this p-past week s-so I c-could complain about y-you."
He managed a crooked smile. "At least I had my mama and Fortescue upon which to unburden myself."
"I-I knew I w-was as m-much a trial to y-you as y-you were to m-me."
"You may take a little longer to say it than anyone else I know, but you are very plain spoken. Let us return to the point: which gentleman did you wish to know more about?"
Lavinia blushed again. "I d-do not r-remember his n-name. He w-was very h-handsome."
The marquis thought back to all her dancing partners. He did not think he had missed a one. He immediately struck Fortescue off the list. As much as he liked his friend, anyone would have to have windmills in their attic to describe him as handsome. After a long pause he said, "Taller than me, broader in the shoulder, dark hair in the disordered style Corinthians affect. His clothes are tailored by Weston; well cut but unimaginative. Black evening coat with a deplorable silver waistcoat -- a neck cloth I would be embarrassed to leave my dressing room in, brown eyes, a straight nose, and, in my opinion, rather a heavy jaw."
"M-my goodness! I sh-should have guessed y-you would know all the d-details of his r-raiment."
"I omitted the sapphire tie pin because it was so very insignificant and his watch fob which even my valet would scorn to wear."
"Oh, d-do not b-be such a high s-stickler about f-fashion!"
He gazed at her in mock horror. "Madame! Fashion is my life."
"Y-yes! And y-you have described him p-perfectly, I am s-sure, only I cannot b-but disagree w-with you about h-his jaw. I thought it w-was determined, b-but not h-heavy in the l-least."
"The gentleman is Sir Anthony Bellows, a baronet of quite respectable property in Derbyshire. He is a member of the Four Horse club and not in my circle, but I do not know any ill of him."
"D-did you think h-he was . . . d-do you think h-he liked me?"
"My dear, I did not study him that closely."
"But y-you have only j-just described h-him to me in the m-minutest detail."
"The work of a minute. Name any of your partners and I will describe him as specifically."
"B-but I w-would not be able to j-judge if you w-were bamming m-me or not because I r-remember nothing about th-the rest of them."
"Not even the first one?" His tone was mournful.
"The f-first one," she answered with a look of mischief, "w-was the b-best dressed gentleman at m-my ball. And s-so he knows i-it."
"He does have a rather inflated opinion of himself," admitted the marquis.
"Which h-he justly d-deserves. Promise me y-you will h-help me?"
"Help you what?" he asked, taken aback.
"H-help me w-win Sir A-Anthony, of c-course."
His every instinct cried out to him to say no, but one look at the beseeching expression upon her face did him in. "I will do what I can," he replied gently. "But I'm not a skilled matchmaker, you must understand."
"Y-you could accomplish a-anything you p-put your m-mind to," she said with such trust and confidence that he almost forgot he had promised to set her up with another man, so strong was his desire to kiss her.
‘I truly am in the suds,' he thought to himself.
The next morning, Lord Gillingsworth took himself off to Tattersall's. He was considering the purchase of a bay mare when he bumped into Sir Anthony. The horse was a showy creature, but he had reservations about it. Besides the fact that it seemed to have a nervous disposition, he wasn't quite sure that it would be a good match for Miss Ravenhurst's riding habit.
"Ah, Bellows," he cried, in well-feigned surprise, "Just the fellow to advise me. I have the mounting of Miss Ravenhurst. What think you of this filly?"
Sir Anthony hid his surprise at such a familiar greeting from someone who was no more than a nodding acquaintance and eyed the horse in question. "Too high strung for Miss Ravenhurst, in my opinion," he answered without demur. "You would do better with a gentle mount like that grey over there. A nice piece of horseflesh for a quiet lady."
Gillingsworth glanced at the other horse. "Not a grey! Completely out of the question -- her eyes are hazel."
Sir Anthony appeared baffled for a moment. "You are choosing a horse based on coordinating with the lady's eye colour?" he asked in a slightly shocked voice.
"That is not the only consideration, to be sure. Her riding habit is a delicate fawn that would not be shown to advantage at all on a horse of that colour. Perhaps a strawberry roan?"
"Do confirmation and disposition not count for anything?" Sir Anthony was barely able to hide his contempt for such frivolous reasoning. .
"Of course, but the visual effect is of primary importance," said Gillingsworth with the sweetest smile he could manage, but his expression changed radically upon his looking down at the ground. The blond leather of his previously impeccable Hessians was stained on the corner of the left toe. "Much obliged for your help, Bellows, but I find myself in a most desperate and alarming situation all of a sudden. I do not know if my Hessians can possibly be saved -- I must put them in my valet's care immediately."
Two days later, Gillingsworth sauntered into White's. He was dressed entirely in the palest of cobalt blues, with darker blue boot tops and a cane stained deep indigo. In his lapel was a sprig of periwinkle. He glanced around, and upon spying Sir Anthony alone at a table with a glass of brandy before him, he walked over and pulled out a chair, sitting carefully with his legs extended so as not to stretch his breeches out of their glove-like shape.
"Your help was indispensable the other day," he said. "After repairing my wardrobe I returned to Tat's and purchased the sweetest little sorrel you ever did see. Very even tempered, but not overly docile or sluggish. Just the thing for Miss Ravenhurst."
"I am pleased I was able to assist you. I do hope the lady is happy with her new horse."
"Why don't you join us in Hyde Park tomorrow? You will be able to see for yourself how well I have chosen."
Sir Anthony could not readily come up with an excuse so he politely accepted the invitation. As the marquis only sat and smiled, giving no indication of any plan to leave his table, he decided that it was incumbent upon him to institute some form of conversation. "Miss Ravenhurst is your relative, I take it?"
"Not at all -- she is my mama's goddaughter."
"She mentioned this was her first trip to London."
"Ah yes, you danced with her at the ball. A delightfully refreshing young lady, don't you think? Quite out of the common way."
"She barely spoke more than two words to me, so I cannot judge -- but she is handsome enough."
Gillingsworth could see that he had his work cut out for him. The man appeared completely unaffected. "She certainly does not rattle on like a giddy ingénue. I have found her conversation quite stimulating, but perhaps she was caught up I the pleasure of her first ball and enjoying it all too much to have time for words."
"Perhaps. She is from Somerset, I believe?"
"The Ravenhursts have a large estate in Dorset."
"And she is an only child?"
"No, she has younger siblings. She is no great heiress but she will be adequately provided for."
"I am sure such considerations would not weigh with you at any rate."
"Weigh with me? I have no claim upon her!"
"I had thought . . . I must have been mistaken."
The marquis was strongly tempted to tell Sir Anthony that he was not mistaken at all, but he had promised Miss Ravenhurst and he could not go back on his word. He could only hope that upon further acquaintance she would discover what a cold fish the gentleman truly was. "The field is quite open," he said with generosity that he did not feel.
Soon after that he left and walked the entire way to Fortescue's lodgings to try and ease his troubled mind. He threw himself upon his friend's settee with so little consideration for his attire that Fortescue gasped. He gazed up at the ceiling and did not say a word.
"Why have you come here if only to fall into a brown study?"
"I am sorry. I promised to do a favour for Miss Ravenhurst but I fear I'm only milking the pigeon." He pulled the periwinkle from his buttonhole and began ripping the petals off, and then the leaves. He was tearing the stem to shreds when Fortescue spoke up again.
"If I didn't know any better I'd say you were properly shot in the neck. What is this impossible task you must accomplish?"
"She has become infatuated with Sir Anthony Bellows and wants my assistance in wooing him."
"But . . . but . . ." his friend stuttered.
"If that is all the help you can offer me I may as well take myself off!"
"I could have sworn you were dangling after her yourself."
"How many times do I have to tell you I am not? But that fellow! He is too boring by half. If only he were an elbow shaker or a charlatan and mama could warn her off! But no -- he's a paragon of respectability, handsome as all Hades, and full of juice into the bargain."
"So, where does your problem lie?"
"He is barely aware that she exists! And I am the one who must cut a wheedle with him to promote her."
"You really are in the basket, poor sod! Nothing for it but to have a drink." He reached for his decanter and splashed a large amount of brandy into a crystal snifter. He held it out, but the marquis only shook his head. "No? Well, if you won't, I will." And he raised the glass to his lips and drained it.
The marquis did not think he had ever seen anything as lovely as Miss Ravenhurst upon her new mount. Her eyes glowed richly amber, and her cheeks were flushed with pleasure. What moonshine Bellows was spouting when he decried matching horse and rider by colour.
"H-how can I th-thank you enough, your l-lordship? This is th-the most beautiful h-horse I have ever r-ridden."
"You could call me something other than your lordship, Miss Ravenhurst. It sounds much too formal for friends such as us."
"Wh-what else could I c-call you?"
"My friends call me Gilly," he said with a smile, as they walked their horses down the street towards Hyde Park. They were to meet with Sir Anthony just inside the gate.
"I c-could never c-call you that."
"Could you not? Ever?" he asked. He could not prevent the disappointment he felt from being echoed in his wry smile. "Then can you call me cousin?"
"B-but, you are not my c-cousin."
"B-but you may c-call me Miss L-Lavinia rather than Miss R-Ravenhurst, if you l-like."
"I would like that very much."
The rest of the way to Hyde Park they kept up a jovial conversation about Lavinia's country home -- her horses, her sisters, and her little rapscallion of a brother who she missed most fervently.
When Sir Anthony saw them approaching he had to admit that two so elegantly dressed persons were rarely to be seen riding in the park together. He also noticed that for all his affectations Lord Gillingsworth was a fine judge of horseflesh. It was either that or just blind luck that had placed such a specimen of perfection under Miss Ravenhurst's undeniably attractive body. He decided that he must revise his thinking in her regard too. Conversation or no conversation, the marquis must be the fool he appeared for not keeping her all to himself. And who really needed conversation if the lady were comely?
In the weeks that followed the marquis spent many an afternoon showing Lavinia the steps to all the most popular dances. He was seen less and less in his most usual haunts and his friends began to despair of him. In their opinions he was soon to be caught in the parson's mousetrap. From his perspective he didn't see that as an option at all, no matter how attractive the prospect was to him.
Sir Anthony had become one of the many admirers that flocked around Lavinia. Every morning after a rout or soiree she would relate all her conversations with him to the marquis over a hearty breakfast, sighing at just how he looked when he had said some promising remark or other. Sometimes it was all Lord Gillingsworth could manage to swallow his food.
"He s-said that I have a v-very good seat," she said with glowing eyes.
The marquis was well aware of the quality of her seat, and the rest of her body for that matter, but he wasn't about to say so. He was ready to respond hotly that it was a knavish thing to say when he realised that Bellows had meant upon a horse. "You ride very well," he said, but somehow, coming from him, it did not brighten her eyes to quite such an extent.
He attempted to divert her conversations to stories about her home and family. He had always been a city boy himself -- his mama having taken a strong aversion to the country upon his father's untimely death. He visited his estates for a fortnight every year, but it was a visit taken up with such boring estate business that he could not but wait to return to the city and all its excess of frivolous entertainment. Not that he wasn't almost as thoroughly bored after two weeks back in Town. Miss Lavinia's stories showed a country life he had never known, and a feeling of family that he had never experienced. He also noticed that the more she spoke about the home she so patently loved, the less pronounced her stutter became.
"The c-countryside of D-Derbyshire sounds very f-fine," she said. "I am s-surprised that S-Sir Anthony can s-spend so much time in T-Town when he has s-such a magnificent estate. H-he only goes to the c-country for the s-sporting months and s-spends the entire s-season in London."
"That may change when he marries," said Gillingsworth encouragingly.
"D-do you really th-think so?"
"If I were married I would spend all my time in the country and barely ever come to Town again."
Lavinia began to laugh until tears rolled down her cheeks.
"What did I say that was so very amusing?" he asked, slightly affronted.
"I c-cannot even imagine y-you in the country, with y-your pale yellow b-breeches and camellia w-waistcoats."
"That particular shade was called water lily. And of course you cannot imagine it, because in the country one wears quite different colours, I assure you. Fawn breeches. The waistcoat a mossy green. A tourmaline tie pin in a cravat the colour of freshly separated cream."
Lavinia set off into peals of laughter again. "Oh I d-do want to see it, I r-really d-do."
"And if I have my way you shall," said the marquis, putting down his fork and almost stalking from the room, if any movement as elegant as his could be called stalking.
Lavinia looked after him, hoping that she had not hurt his feelings, and then burst out laughing once more.
One evening, at a ball at Lady Asterly's, Lavinia found herself upon the terrace with Sir Anthony. The night was warm and the sky was full of stars. He had offered to fetch her a shawl but she had declined.
"I-isn't the sky g-glorious?" she asked, as she leaned upon the balustrade.
"I wish you would cure yourself of that stutter."
She blushed. The marquis had been quite ruthless about her stutter that first week of their acquaintance, but ever since her come-out ball he had left off mentioning it at all. Sir Anthony, on the other hand, seemed to bring it up more often than before. All that did was discourage her from speaking. He did not seem to mind, but she was not able to share as many of her thoughts with him as she would have liked. She could say anything at all to Gilly without fear of criticism. But she was only able to bring herself to call the marquis Gilly in her head.
"Sorry," she said, as carefully as she possibly could.
He smiled at her, and all her cares slipped away. "You do not need to speak. You look perfectly beautiful standing there in the starlight." He drew closer to her and then whispered a soft, "Damn," under his breath.
She looked up, startled.
"It's that dashed Bond Street beau of yours."
She turned and smiled when she saw the marquis approaching. "You m-mean Lord G-Gillingsworth," she amended.
"He's an ill-timed Macaroni, is what he is."
"I t-take it th-that term is i-insulting. Y-you may th-think him a f-fop, but you w-would do w-well to r-remember h-he is my f-friend."
"Don't take on so -- it sends you gabbling like a peahen. I wanted to be alone with you for a very particular reason, my dear."
He smiled again and this time it took a little longer to soften her heart, though the idea that he wanted to impart something special to her soon caused her senses to reel just a bit.
"Are the stars not beautiful tonight?" asked the marquis when he was close enough for conversation. "Like silken flowers in a field of velvet."
"If you had waited till a bit later," said Sir Anthony, "I think they would have put on a more splendid show."
"My timing has always been impeccable." Lord Gillingsworth gave Sir Anthony a look that was almost challenging. "They are perfect just as they are now."
"Indeed," said Lavinia. "Th-they remind me of th-the stars at h-home."
"They are the same stars wherever you may be," said Sir Anthony condescendingly.
"Yes they are," replied Gillingsworth. "But in some places they hold more magic than in others."
Lavinia smiled up at him and his heart missed a beat.
"I actually came out in search of you, Miss Ravenhurst. You are promised to me for the next dance."
Lavinia made a show of inspecting her card in the moonlight. "Oh! I-I am s-so sorry. Sir A-Anthony, pray excuse m-me."
The marquis walked off with Lavinia while Sir Anthony stood seething upon the terrace. He would ensure he had no interruptions next time he had Miss Ravenhurst alone. That insufferable tulip was not going to prevent him from declaring himself.
When they reached the dance floor Lavinia balked. "I d-did not know this w-was to be a w-waltz," she said.
"Either did I," Lord Gillingsworth replied easily, "but you have danced it once at Almacks, and you cannot have forgotten all that I taught you since then."
"No," she said as they took to the floor smoothly, "b-but Sir Anthony b-bade me promise never to d-dance a waltz with a-anyone but him."
"It is only me," the marquis said with a smile. "He cannot possibly mind that. Besides," he looked at her very intently, "he has no right to dictate who you dance with, does he?"
"N-not as yet," said Lavinia quietly.
"Then there can be no harm in it," said Gillingsworth with satisfaction.
"You d-do realise th-that your name is n-not really on my d-dance card for this d-dance," whispered Lavinia.
"I am more than aware of that. When we are finished I will rectify it immediately," he said, and then he gave himself over to the extreme pleasure of holding her in his arms and the fact that she was still free, that he could do so.
The next morning Sir Anthony presented himself before Lady Gillingsworth and requested the honour of an interview alone with her goddaughter. That lady, being more than fly to the time of day, agreed with alacrity. As much as she loved her dearest friend Esmerelda, it had not been her intention for her precious son to marry outside of the peerage. Sir Anthony was an answer to all her fondest motherly dreams. When her son stormed into the room not five minutes later and asked her just what in the blazes was going on, she ignored his foul language and evil temper and told him that he would thank her in the morning, or failing that, a week or two. As he left the house she reminded him not to forget that they were promised to a rout at Lady Haversmithe's that evening.
His friend Fortescue did not even bat an eyelid when the marquis threw himself into an armchair and then went on to ravage his own neck cloth. He'd known the day was coming -- it had only been a matter of time.
In the small blue salon at Gillingsworth House, Sir Anthony was debating whether to go down on one knee or simply take Miss Ravenhurst's lovely body into his arms.
"You cannot be in doubt as to why I am here," he said as approached her with one hand held out.
"No," she said, suddenly overcome with shyness.
"Then what is your answer?" he asked as he grasped her hand in his and brought it to his lips.
"I h-have not b-been asked a question y-yet," she said softly.
"Dash it! You know what I am about to ask. Can you not say yes, clearly and distinctly, without so much as a stutter?"
"I . . . had . . . expected . . .a . . . more . . . romantic . . . proposal . . . than . . . this."
He pulled her close and put both arms about her. "I knew you could do it if you only gave it a try. I love you, my sweet Lavinia. Will you marry me?"
She looked up at his handsome face. His dark brown eyes. His disordered locks. This was all she had ever wanted from the moment she had first danced with him. Why did it seem so hollow right now? Inconsequentially she thought that his emerald tiepin was the wrong shade of green for the olive waistcoat he was wearing. She gazed up at his face a little longer and realised that he was a trifle heavy about the jaw.
"Well?" he asked, close to exasperation.
"I-f you h-had asked m-me last night, u-upon the t-terrace, I w-would most likely h-have said y-yes. A-and I know n-now that we b-both would have r-regretted it. I thought th-that I l-loved you. I t-truly did. B-but I think all a-along I w-was in love w-with the idea of y-you."
"Is this because I was not romantic enough? I can get down on one knee and swear my undying devotion if that is what it takes. Or I could kiss you until your head spins and you find your reason again." He leaned closer and she had to turn her head quickly so that all his lips found was her cheek.
She pushed herself away and enunciated clearly. "I . . . must . . . apologise . . . if . . . I . . . lead . . . you . . . on . . . or . . . hurt . . . you . . . but . . . please . . . just . . . go."
He bowed stiffly. "Do not expect me to bother you in this way again, Madame." He turned quickly and left the room.
When Lady Gillingsworth found Lavinia crying alone in her bedchamber a half an hour later she sighed deeply and then took the girl into her arms. If things didn't turn out the way she wanted, she realised she had only herself to blame for throwing her son at the chit in the first place.
It was a quiet group that arrived at Lady Hammersmithe's party. Lady Gillingsworth had not seen fit to inform her son of the actual result of Sir Anthony's proposal and the marquis had not the heart to congratulate Miss Ravenhurst until those words that would be like a death knell to his soul were announced. Lavinia was all in turmoil as awareness of what was really in her heart became more and more apparent to her. It was not until they entered the ballroom and encountered the interested stares of the assembled company that she realised that the marquis was wearing the same clothes he had appeared at the breakfast table in and not evening attire at all. And his cravat looked like gorilla escaped from the zoo had hastily tied it.
Five minutes after his entrance, two tulips of the Ton had rushed home to change into morning clothes and four others had gone to great lengths to make their neck cloths as dishevelled as his, though, as usual, no one was able to match his artistry. Lord Gillingsworth was oblivious to it all. The only thing that he noted was that Bellows was not dancing in attendance, and for that he was sincerely grateful. He did not think he could stomach the man, tonight of all nights. He went through the motions of dancing with the debutantes, but after four dances his disappointment weighed so profoundly upon him that he slunk through a set of French doors into the cool night air.
He leaned heavily upon the railing and stared at the stars. They were the same ones as he had found so magical the night before, when he had been so elated at having averted near disaster. Why had he not realised that all he had achieved was to put off the inevitable? He heard a step beside him and smelled the faint fragrance of freesias. He turned. She looked as lovely as ever, but she was just as unreachable as the stars themselves.
"I have been remiss in offering my congratulations," he said in a voice that sounded foreign to his ears.
"Y-yes you h-have," she answered with an enchanting smile. Having all her dreams come true became her.
"I hope you have a very happy life." He could not bring himself to say Sir Anthony's name. It was painful enough to think it.
"I h-hope so t-too," she said, "b-but I am n-not at all s-sure of m-my future yet."
"You are not?" he asked.
"N-no." She hesitated and then seemed to gather fortitude from the air about her. She took a step closer. "Y-you see th-the gentleman who I l-love has n-not yet asked m-me to m-marry him."
"But I thought that was the whole reason for Bellows' visit this morning! Is the man nothing short of a fool?"
"I h-have become c-convinced that h-he may well be th-that," she answered, a roguish gleam in her eyes. "And besides, h-he has a m-most heavy j-jaw -- and a d-deplorable waistcoat. Y-you could n-not expect me to m-marry a man w-whose tiepin does not m-match the rest of h-his attire, could you?"
He reached out to hold her. "No, indeed I could not."
"But, it i-is bound to disappoint y-you to d-discover that if I t-truly loved a man, I w-would agree to m-marry him even if h-he attended an e-evening engagement in m-morning attire."
"I cannot fault you for that, Lavinia dearest, because I am certain it is due to my rackety influence."
"And would it interest you to know that the only reason the gentleman would have presented himself in public in such disarray is because he loves you so very much that when he thought he had lost you nothing else in this mundane world mattered?"
"Very m-much so."
"And that now he is so amazingly happy that he doesn't care in the slightest that his clothing will be wrinkled beyond repair once he holds you as closely as he is about to do?"
"I w-wouldn't h-have it any o-other way."
The marquis wrapped his arms firmly about her and rested his cheek against hers. "Did I ever tell you that you are the perfect height for me?" he asked.
"Or that when you stutter it makes me want to kiss you all the more?"
"And that I want to spend the rest of my life with you, in the country, exploring our estate?"
"In f-fawn breeches and a m-mossy green w-waistcoat?"
"Even in water lily and palest yellow, though you may laugh at my expense, if you will have me, my love."
"You k-know that I will h-have you, Gilly. After I most sh-shockingly almost p-proposed to you, h-how could you w-wonder?"
"For all I know you may have meant someone else," he said with a laugh. "It never pays to take anything for granted." And then he kissed her.
The stars circled above them as they discovered just how sweet a kiss could be. And how one kiss could be so easily followed by another, and another. Fortescue wasn't the only person to enter the terrace and then back out again immediately. The next day they were the latest ondit in Town, but neither of them cared in the slightest.
© 2005 Copyright held by the author.