Authors: Alissa Johnson
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Regency, #Historical Romance, #Holidays
Copyright © 2014, Alissa Johnson
William Renwick, Earl of Casslebury had a plan.
It is safe to assume that this would have come as a surprise to no one. William Renwick, Earl of Casslebury
had a plan. He was, by all accounts, a most organized individual.
Some went so far as to call him a rather charming but ultimately predictable and even cold individual. William took exception to that. In his estimation, a preference for order over chaos was not the mark of a dispassionate nature but rather that of a man in possession of a modicum (and therefore uncommon amount) of good sense. It was also a fairly reliable sign the man had spent some portion of his life in uniform.
If forced, William would have described himself as disciplined, responsible, and—again, if forced—perhaps just a touch stubborn.
It was his sense of responsibility that had necessitated his most recently constructed plan. He would marry a young lady of good blood, excellent reputation, pleasant nature and appealing physical appearance. He was four-and-thirty, and it was time he did his duty to the title by producing an heir. Never mind he hadn’t expected to outlive two cousins and an
older brother to inherit the title, it was his now, and he would plan accordingly.
But it was the aforementioned stubborn streak that had him executing his plan by striding down the halls of Lord Welsing’s London townhouse, peering into rooms and stopping to question any passing staff, while guests danced and laughed in the ballroom. The young lady crucial to his matrimonial campaign had gone missing. Again.
Miss Caroline Meldrin seemed always to go missing. Not in such a way as to invite attention or ridicule, mind you, rather she made perfectly reasonable excuses and slipped away from ballrooms and parlors with her friend, Miss Patience Byerly, whenever one attempted conversation, or offered a dance, or looked directly at her for more than five consecutive seconds.
It was damnably irritating.
And he wasn’t having any of it tonight. How the devil was he to execute a well-planned courtship of Miss Meldrin if she kept herself hidden away with her friend? Or perhaps Miss Byerly was a paid companion. He didn’t think she was a poor relation. Whatever the connection, he was going to find the both of them, secure Miss Meldrin for a waltz, and make absolutely clear his intention of courtship. If she didn’t care for the idea, she could damn well admit to it. He was quite
done with chasing the chit around. . .Or would be, after tonight.
After a bit more searching, he found the two women in the library, tucked away in a large window seat while an elderly man snored softly in a chair by the fire.
Miss Meldrin, with her ivory skin, pale blonde hair, and soft blue eyes looked a very pretty picture with the glow of candlelight casting streaks of gold across her petite form. Her feet were tucked up somewhere under her legs, which in turn were tucked up on the cushions of the window seat. Several wisps of hair had slipped free and curled around a heart-shaped face with a small mouth, high brow, and slender nose lightly dusted with freckles.
Seemingly unconcerned with rousing the gentleman in front of the fire, she laughed merrily and pushed a small plate holding a thick slice of cake toward her friend.
“Go on, then. Or I’ll not agree.”
Miss Byerly scowled. From his position in the darkened hall, William considered Miss Byerly and concluded that she was a rather severe looking creature, particularly when compared to her friend. She kept her feet on the floor, neatly hidden beneath the blue skirts of her gown, and her hands demurely folded in her lap. Her thick brown hair was pulled into a tight and unadorned knot at the back of her head, revealing an oval
face with sharp cheekbones, wide mouth and thin nose. Her rather plain brown eyes peered out from behind small round spectacles and below sharply arched brows.
William thought perhaps it was the hawkish eyebrows that lent her such a disapproving air, as if she were looking down on a man despite her relatively short stature. One always felt a bit chastised when conversing with her.
Which was why Miss Byerly did not feature in his matrimonial plans.
Pity, really, that she wasn’t a bit softer. He’d spoken to her once or twice before and she seemed an intelligent sort, with an efficiency of speech and manner he appreciated.
But he wasn’t in need of additional efficiency in his house. He was drowning in efficiency. He was in need of a feminine touch. He wanted a gentle woman with a soft voice and open heart. Someone free with her laugh. Someone who could provide a bit of light in his life. Someone who wouldn’t make him feel on his wedding night as if he were bedding the governess.
Confident in his assessment of Miss Byerly, and in his choice of bride-to-be, he straightened his cravat, brushed at his waistcoat and otherwise readied himself to begin the overdue campaign for Miss Meldrin’s affection.
But then, before he could enter the room, Miss Byerly did the most extraordinary thing he ever had occasion to witness. She picked up the slice of cake with her ungloved hands—which was odd in and of itself--and then, to his supreme astonishment, began to slowly and methodically stuff it into her mouth.
He stood in the shadow of the hallway and watched as she opened wide—tremendously wide--and very carefully wedged the thicker end in first. It caught at the sides of her mouth, leaving behind smudges of chocolate as she pressed the cake in deeper. Next came the center, which required a substantial amount of wiggling of Miss Byerly’s jaw, and then finally, with the confidence obviously born of extensive practice, she folded the remainder of the slice in half and neatly mashed it in with the rest.
With her cheeks rounded like a fearful puffer fish, she daintily wiped her fingers on her napkin, and then used the napkin to dab gingerly at the upturned corners of her lips.
It was astonishing. It was appalling. It was, he had to admit,
impressive. Even his sister, whom William always felt to be in possession of a regrettably large mouth, could not lay claim to such a feat.
Miss Meldrin struggled to speak around fits of laughter. “That. . .must be. . .
be the most you have ever managed.”
Miss Byerly waggled her finger in disagreement, and then used that finger to spell something in the air.
Miss Meldrin squinted at the invisible word before erupting into more fits of laughter. “Oh, the peas!. . . The bowl of peas! I’d forgotten!”
William couldn’t imagine how anyone could possibly forget the day one’s friend decided to fit an entire bowl of peas in her mouth. Fascinated by the absurdity of it, he watched as Miss Meldrin once again lost herself to mirth and Miss Byerly chewed with laborious bites.
“There,” Miss Byerly pronounced after her final swallow. “It is done.”
Miss Meldrin sighed heavily and wiped tears from her eyes. “Oh, that was brilliant.”
“Admiral Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar was brilliant,” Miss Byerly replied dryly. “This was desperation.”
“Effective, though.” Miss Meldrin leaned forward to plant a kiss on her friend’s cheek before uncurling herself and hopping down from the window seat. “You’ll have your dances.”
dances,” Miss Beverly corrected and stood.
Realizing that his presence would soon be noticed, William cleared his throat and stepped into the room as if he’d only just arrived.
“Miss Meldrin. Miss Byerly.” He hid a smile at the guilty start of both women, and moved forward as they curtsied, his gazed transfixed not on his future bride, but on the woman next to her. She of the haughty brows and wide mouth. He stopped in front of them as they straightened, and his eyes caught on a small dab of chocolate Miss Byerly had missed at the corner of her lips. Without warning, he experienced an extraordinary, almost painful urge to lean down and neatly clean away the bit of sweet. . .with the tip of his tongue.
Why he should find food on her lips so irresistible, he couldn’t begin to say. His body seemed to react independent of all reason. And he placed the blame of what happened next squarely on that dab of chocolate and his unreasonable reaction. Without thought, without any consideration whatsoever given to his plan, he looked right at the woman and said, “Miss Byerly, would you indulge me in a dance?”
She blinked rapidly for a moment, her eyes rounding behind her spectacles. “I. . .” She shot a quick glance at Miss Meldrin, who looked as surprised as she, then looked back to him only to resume her blinking.
Perhaps his earlier assessment of her intelligence had been a trifle premature. “If you’d rather not—“
“No,” she cut in quickly. She blinked once more, as if coming to herself. “That is, yes, I would be delighted, of course.”
“Miss Meldrin, there you are.”
The group turned toward the door at the sound of a young masculine voice. Mr. Edward Seager stepped into the room, looking impossibly dapper in clothes and hair cut in the latest style. Rumor had it Mr. Seager was soon to accept a living, and William felt a pang of sympathy for his future flock. Dandies did not make for ideal vicars.
Mr. Seager’s large brown eyes fell on Miss Meldrin with unabashed adoration. “I’ve been looking for. . .That is. . .” He tugged at his waistcoat and bowed low. “Would you do me the very great honor of dancing with me?”
Miss Meldrin slid a covert glance at her friend, a small mischievous smile curling her lips. “It would be my pleasure, Mr. Seager.”
His face lit with a delighted grin, Mr. Seager held out an arm and led Miss Meldrin from the room. William watched them go and wondered if it was a bad sign that he didn’t feel particularly put out by the sight of Miss Meldrin on another man’s arm.
Miss Byerly cleared her throat delicately. “Shall we. . .?” She nodded toward the open door, and fiddled a bit with the waist of her gown.
He found the act of nerves oddly appealing. She’d never struck him before as a woman easily unnerved. “I was thinking perhaps a waltz.”
“A waltz,” she repeated, and her face took on a blush of pleasure, something else he found appealing. She didn’t seem nearly as severe when she was blushing and fiddling with her gown.
As if suddenly becoming aware of the movement, she gripped her fingers tightly at her waist. And then, for several long seconds, the two of them stood in stiff and awkward silence. It occurred to William that he shouldn’t have asked for a waltz, but the suggestion had come without thought. It was the dance he’d wanted with Miss Meldrin. There was some time before the orchestra was scheduled to play a waltz, which neatly provided an excuse to draw his time out with the lady. Time he’d imagined filling by engaging Miss Meldrin in conversation on topics he knew, from the discreet questioning of her mother, she found of interest. Miss Meldrin was an avid reader. Spain was her favorite country on the continent. She was accomplished at both the pianoforte and the flute.
Unfortunately, he hadn’t the foggiest idea how to pass the time with Miss Byerly. Her interests were a complete mystery to him. Usually, a circumstance such as this would require him to begin a conversation on a suitably banal topic. Something along
the lines of “fine fall weather we’re having.” In fact, he had a very clear memory of making that exact comment the last time they’d spoken. He’d be damned if he’d have the same discussion tonight.
“This is your first London season, is it not?” As alternatives went, it left something to be desired, but it was the best he could come up with without planning.
“It is, yes.” Her eyes flicked away briefly. “I spent the last year on the continent with the Meldrins.”
Curiosity nagged at him to discover where she’d been in the years preceding. She was six-and-twenty if she was a day. Far too old to be making a come out. Why was it that the questions one wasn’t suppose to ask were always the questions one most wanted to ask?. . .Like why she’d eaten an entire slice of cake in a single bite.
“Are you enjoying yourself?” he asked instead, fully expecting a polite response hiding her true opinion. Miss Byerly didn’t strike him as one to appreciate the social whirl.
She surprised him by smiling brightly, and saying in what appeared to be complete sincerity, “Oh, yes. Very much.”
It was his turn to blink. “Really?”
“All of it?”
Her expression turned quizzical. “Yes.”
“The balls, the dinners, the operas?”
A small laugh escaped her. “Yes.”
“Oh, well,” she faltered a little. “It’s the tradition of the thing.”
“So it is,” he agreed. Growing more fascinated with her by the second, he took her arm and led her to a small settee at the center of the room. “What of the rest? The balls and such. Do you enjoy the stifling crush, the inane talk, the often questionable food and--”