Amanda Scott - [Dangerous 04] (8 page)

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“I know you will do what you can,” Letty said.

Less than ten minutes later, she sat comfortably at a proper dressing table in a room considerably larger than the first.

Jenifry, looking around, said flatly, “They must have given you the smallest chamber in the palace, that first one. I’ll wager you’ve been having a dreadful time of it downstairs, too, Miss Letty.”

“Not dreadful, exactly, but I cannot pretend they welcomed me. Except for one, if they spoke to me at all, they did so in a way that would have cast a more sensitive woman into quite a deep depression.”

“Poor Letitia,” Miss Dibble said sympathetically.

Letty grinned at her. “I expected you to say that it serves me right for all the worry I have given you.”

“I would never say such a thing,” Miss Dibble replied. “It is not my place to speak so to you. More than that, however, I do not condone rudeness in others, ever, as you should know, Letitia; and this goes well beyond rudeness.”

“It does indeed, ma’am; however, Papa warned me to expect small welcome, so their behavior downstairs did not shock me. Slops cast all over my bedchamber is another, more serious matter, certainly. Still, I do not think it will serve our purpose to make an issue of it. As Jen suggested, we will simply take care never to leave my room unlocked or unattended again.”

“In this instance, your lack of sensibility quite unnerves me, Letitia.”

“I should think you would be grateful for it, ma’am. Only think how trying it would be if I were to cast myself on your bosom, weeping and wailing and demanding to be taken home at once.”

“I do not think we could simply leave, you know,” Miss Dibble said judiciously. “One simply does not walk away from a royal appointment.”

“Certainly not,” Letty said, smiling fondly at her. “Moreover, all is not bleak, Elvira. I did meet someone who occasionally talked like a sensible man. You will never guess who he was, either.”

“Not being blessed with second sight, I am sure I cannot,” Miss Dibble said. “While you tell us, do let Jenifry arrange your hair more suitably for the evening.”

“It was Raventhorpe, but there is nothing more to tell,” Letty said, getting to her feet again. “In any event, before I say another word, I am going to take off this dress and loosen this devilish corset.”

“Letitia!”

“Well, I’m sorry if you don’t like the word ‘devilish’, but no other word aptly describes this thing, Elvira. Jenifry pulled my laces far too tight. Moreover, I have been standing or walking the whole time I’ve been away, and these shoes pinch my toes. I want to put my feet up on a stool and relax, if only for a few minutes. What I’d really like is a hot bath with lots of lovely French bath salts, but I daresay I should not take so much time.”

“I need only ring for a tub and hot water, Miss Letty,” Jenifry said. “That nice footman who brought us here said to let the servants know about anything you require, and after what was done to your room, I expect they’ll want to make amends. Of course, later we’ll make a list of what we need and bring our own things, but in the meantime—”

“First, we want comfortable chairs,” Letty said, turning so that Jenifry could unbutton her gown. “The only one we’ve got is that pole-backed one by the window, which looks amazingly like a device from the Spanish Inquisition. For now, just fetch me a stool.”

Jenifry chuckled, but Miss Dibble clicked her tongue. “That Catholic nonsense need not trouble us here in England, Letitia. I know your papa believes in religious tolerance. I do myself, when all is said and done, but any religion that can put its people through such dreadful ordeals as what they say the Inquisition did don’t bear thinking about in a civilized land. You just turn your thoughts to something more suitable, if you please.”

“Well, I did not mean to discuss the Catholic question, if that’s what you mean,” Letty said. “However, considering that it’s become a major issue here in England just now, Elvira, I think you had better not say such things where others can hear you. You are bound to offend someone if you do.”

“As if I don’t have better sense than that. If you are going to take off that gown, for heaven’s sake, be careful not to crease it. Hang it up carefully, Jenifry.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Jenifry replied. “Miss Letty, there’s a footstool by the door. I’ll draw it right up for you; then I’ll go fetch a couple of cushions for that chair.”

“I can get the stool,” Letty said, kicking off the offending shoes and suiting action to words. Sitting in the chair, which proved to be as uncomfortable as it looked, she put up her feet with a sigh. When Jenifry returned minutes later with two cushions, she accepted them with thanks, adding, “It seems you’ve gotten to know that footman rather well in the short time we’ve been here.”

To her surprise, Jenifry reddened self-consciously. “He’s a knowing one, miss, and quite willing to offer his advice.”

“Most men like to do that, in my experience,” Letty said dryly, thinking instantly of Raventhorpe. “He is very handsome, too, is he not?”

Jenifry grinned. “He is that, miss, but not as handsome as the one what took us to see the common room. You should have seen
him
.”

Involuntarily both young women glanced at Miss Dibble, but she only shook her head at them, saying, “Ten minutes by my watch, Letitia. Then you simply must put your dress back on. They tell me the queen takes no more time than necessary to prepare for dinner, and you must not keep her waiting.”

Letty did not argue. Ten minutes later she took her place on the dressing stool and let Jenifry rearrange her hair with pearls and ribbons from the dressing case woven into the ringlets. Then she got back into her gown and shoes.

Drawing on her gloves, she picked up her lacy reticule and went downstairs, finding herself neither first nor last to return. Although no one spoke to her, she saw the young woman with whom she had conversed earlier and remembered that Sir John had addressed her as Catherine. Taller than Letty, she had hair the color of old guineas. When she saw Letty looking her way, she smiled briefly before turning to an older woman who had plucked at her sleeve.

Shortly thereafter, Letty’s dinner partner appeared, introducing himself as Althorn, as if the brief appellation were sufficient to tell her all she needed to know about him. His air of abstraction made normal conversation impossible, and she found herself watching for Raventhorpe. When he did not appear before queen and company went into dinner, Letty felt an unexpected stab of regret.

Dinner passed minute by crawling minute. Neither her partner nor the man on her left seemed to feel the least obligation to speak to her. After a quarter hour of finding that her conversational gambits fell on apparently deaf ears, she gave up.

Conversation buzzed around her, for the dining table filled the long room, with no fewer than twenty-five chattering diners on each side. Servants scurried to and fro, carrying huge platters, carafes of wine, and buckets of iced champagne. Letty drank water and sipped only occasionally from her wineglass, a trick her father had taught her the first time he allowed her to drink wine with her dinner.

“He who remains in control of his senses throughout a meal is the one who will remember the most of what was said and done there,” the marquess had told her. “He also will make fewer errors of judgment in his conversation during the meal or afterward.” Letty had long since taken that lesson to heart.

As instructed, she kept her ears open and paid heed to those around her, but she learned nothing that she could imagine was important or even interesting, politically or otherwise. She would not pass on anything to do with the queen, certainly, but what others said about party politics was fair game.

Generally, she found the evening more boring than any other in her memory. If she looked forward to the queen’s drawing room the next day, it was only in the hope that it would prove more eventful.

She had attended royal drawing rooms before, of course. Not only had her mother presented her to Victoria shortly after the young queen’s accession to the throne, but Letty and both of her parents had attended two coronation drawing rooms the previous year.

The next day’s event took place at St. James’s Palace, which the queen traveled in state with her suite, in three royal carriages, escorted by a party of Life Guards. Letty rode in the third carriage with two bedchamber ladies and another maid of honor. The two bedchamber ladies chatted to each other. The maid of honor stared out her window.

At St. James’s, a guard of honor from the Life Guards stood on duty in the courtyard, and members of the Queen’s Guard protected the color court. Martial music stirred the air, and as Letty knew from experience, bands of both royal regiments would play alternately throughout the afternoon.

Before the drawing room began, Victoria received a deputation from Christ’s Hospital in the royal closet. Then members of the royal family arrived with their attendants, and soon after that Victoria entered the throne room to take her place, standing in front of the throne, surrounded by her ladies.

The diplomatic presentations began, and when those with the entrée had come in, and the Countess of Kinnoull moved to present the lady mayoress of London, Letty began to see more familiar faces. Both the Russian ambassador and the Danish minister had dined with her parents in Paris. Each smiled when he saw her, and minutes later, she saw a pair of familiar, twinkling eyes that nearly moved her to leave her post in order to greet their owner. He clearly lacked her scruples, for he came to her at once.

“Herr Hummelauer, how delightful to see you,” she said when he took her right hand and bent over it, clicking his heels together as he did.

“Gnädiges Fräulein,”
he murmured, kissing the air just above her hand, then looking up with his twinkle still firmly in place. “I hope I find you well.”

“You do, indeed,” she replied in his language.

No one seemed to be paying heed as she continued to chat amiably with the little man in German. He was the Austrian Chargé d’Affaires and a good friend of her father’s. When he excused himself, she was sorry to see him go, for the general presentations had begun. Again, time crawled at a snail’s pace.

“I heard what happened in your chamber yesterday.” Viscount Raventhorpe’s now-familiar voice, coming abruptly, and apparently out of nowhere, startled her out of her boredom.

Turning to face him, she found herself fighting a flurry of mixed emotions but managed to say evenly, “How kind of you to concern yourself, sir.”

He retorted, “Concern myself? I, I thank heaven, need not concern myself. What the devil was your father thinking, to let a chit like you come here all alone?”

FIVE

LETTY DREW HERSELF UP
to her full height to glare at the viscount, and gave her words measured force when she said, “My father considers me perfectly capable of managing my affairs, Raventhorpe. It would please me greatly if you could bring yourself to do likewise.”

His reply being more in the nature of a snort than anything else, she could not flatter herself that she had made her point, but she was wise enough not to embellish it. Instead she waited patiently to hear what he would say next.

“My dear girl …”

She ground her teeth together.

“… I am sure you must overrate his opinion of you. He undoubtedly thinks you beautiful, for anyone of sense must see that. I do not doubt that he admires your accomplishments, for they must be legion. However—”

“You
would
have a ‘however’,” she said sourly.

“Well, any idiot might guess I had a reason for offering you a string of compliments,” he retorted. “No, don’t interrupt me again,” he said when she opened her mouth to do just that. “If you think that your father would admire your visit to Mr. Clifford’s office, you are mistaken. Nor would any right-thinking man want his daughter to face the outrageous sight you faced last evening without the benefit of his protection. If I am wrong and he does think you capable of handling that sort of thing, not to mention worse that may come, he is a fool.”

“How dare you!” Angrily she turned on her heel, only to stop in her tracks and stiffen when his hand gently touched her arm.

“Don’t storm off in high dudgeon,” he murmured, “unless you want to provide your enemies with grist for their mills.”

Knowing he was right, and oddly calmed by both his tone and his touch, she curbed her temper and looked ruefully at him. “I apologize, sir. You seem to have a knack for sending me into alt, and I confess, I do not understand it, for it is not my custom to indulge in distempered freaks. Moreover, I have two brothers who delight in teasing, and they never can infuriate me. You managed to do it with one sentence. You should not have called my father a fool.”

For a moment, he hesitated, saying nothing. Then he smiled.

It was, she decided, a singularly attractive smile. There could be no doubt that Viscount Raventhorpe was a disturbingly attractive gentleman. It was a pity that he was also arrogant and presumptuous. Had he proper manners, she could perhaps come to like him rather well.

Still smiling, he said, “I don’t believe I actually called him a fool, you know. If you will recall my exact words, I said only that he
would
be a fool if he did not believe that you stand in need of protection. I do him the honor to believe he would agree with me.”

Feeling her temper stir again in that unfamiliar fashion, Letty decided that further acquaintance with his lordship would do untold damage to her disposition if she did not take charge of her emotions. Therefore she suppressed the wish to throttle him and said sweetly instead, “Since you clearly believe my papa to be a sensible man, sir, I shall accept your apology. Oh, dear,” she added quickly before he could deny having made one, “I see Lady Tavistock beckoning. I must go to her at once, so if you will excuse me …” Without looking back, she hurried through the crowd toward the principal lady of the bedchamber.

Lady Tavistock had turned to speak to another woman before Letty reached her, so she stood patiently until the second woman moved away again. Then she made her graceful curtsy.

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