Authors: Audrey Harrison
“So, Miss Rufford,” John started easily, as he took the last vacant seat around the table. “How is my friend faring as a guardian?”
Michael grunted in mock indignation, but Elizabeth laughed. “So far he is doing fine, although he will have to learn to trust his ward more.”
“Why’s that?” John asked with a smirk at Michael.
“He didn’t believe I could ride, and he believes I will fall in love with parties and festivities when I have told him I prefer the country.” Elizabeth said lightly.
“I don’t know why he doesn’t believe that you say you prefer the country, when he normally has to be dragged to London himself. He is usually found hiding out on his estate.” John supplied with a mischievous grin.
“Oh, is that so?” Elizabeth asked, turning to Michael, with raised eyebrows. “Can I ask, my Lord, why it is one rule for you, and another for me?” Elizabeth had reverted to formalities whilst in mixed company.
Michael glared at John before replying. He would speak to his friend later about giving away his preferences. “I am not looking to be married.”
“Neither am I!” Elizabeth replied tartly.
John decided it was time to smooth the waters, he could tell that his friend was not happy with him, and although he was not afraid of Michael in the slightest, he would never purposely upset him. He decided to find out more information that might prove to be of benefit to himself.
“So, you are you not looking for a husband, Miss Rufford? I am surprised, I thought it was every young lady’s aim to secure a husband and have a family.”
“Having a family would be lovely,” Elizabeth admitted a little wistfully. “But it would mean becoming something I am not; I can never be the type to sit sewing and gossiping all day. It isn’t in me.”
John smiled. “Your words will make you even more attractive to the men around you Miss Rufford; you shall be soon fighting off suitors.”
Michael did not like the tone John was taking. He was openly flirting with Elizabeth now and although he was his oldest friend, it was not sitting well with Michael. John’s flirting had been made worse by the wistfulness in Elizabeth’s voice. It had stirred something in Michael, and it was the same feeling which he had experienced during their first meeting. He could not describe it, but it unsettled him to some extent as he was not used to feeling slightly out of control. Another worrying tendency that he was developing was the increasing urge to keep Elizabeth away from every eligible man in London. He tried to mentally shake himself. The sooner she found a husband the better, however much she protested.
As they rode through the park Michael watched the responses that Elizabeth received from the parading fashionables. Many times their presence was acknowledged, but it was by acquaintances of his, rather than those to whom Elizabeth had been introduced. Violet had told Michael of those whom she had taken Elizabeth to visit in the hope that friendships would develop. She had also wanted to ensure that her brother was happy with the connections that his ward was making; neither wanted fortune hunters to take advantage.
After a while Michael had to acknowledge that although Elizabeth was receiving much attention from the men, many of the women were barely acknowledging her. He wondered if it was jealousy on their part.
“How are you settling into the madness that is the London Season?” he asked. It had been over a week of complete madness in his opinion, but he was determined to show her all that London had to offer.
“It is an experience that I will certainly remember.” Elizabeth replied non-committedly.
“What do you think of your fellow debutantes?”
“Honestly?” Elizabeth asked.
“Of course.” Michael replied dryly, barely suppressing a smile at the expression on Elizabeth’s face.
“I cannot abide their shallowness and they see me as the freak I am,” Elizabeth said in her usual forthright way. “I do not talk about my accomplishments as they do, and I cannot, and I certainly do not simper in front of the men as they insist on doing.”
Michael smiled warmly, “You are not a freak and I, for one, am glad you do not simper.”
“Well exactly!” Elizabeth responded with a harrumph. “Can you imagine me fluttering my eyes behind my fan at anyone and giggling, or even worse, sighing every time they speak?”
“No, I cannot.”
“If I was forced to do that I would insist on you sending me away now. I am sure that they do not realise how silly they look, or they would not act in such a way. How can one attract a man and expect him to be a respectful husband when one simpers and agrees with everything he says or does? Who would want a wife like that?” Elizabeth asked with derision.
“You would be surprised with how many men would want a wife exactly like that.” Michael answered truthfully.
“No man I would ever be attracted to, I hope,” Elizabeth said with a shudder. “Would you ever be attracted to such a woman?”
“The fact that I am not married may answer that question.” Michael responded dryly.
“Well, at least there is one man with sense in town!” Elizabeth replied tartly.
Michael smiled at her; she was so unaffected and honest. It had not been many days before he had acknowledged to himself that he had begun to enjoy every moment in Elizabeth’s company. Every other woman was paling further and further into the background when she was around.
Michael stood watching Elizabeth as she spoke with her admirers around her. She had definitely become popular with the men of the
, if not the women. To be pretty, have a natural wit and grace,
to have two thousand a year, definitely made her attractive to most of the single men in the room. Whenever she was surrounded he would place himself not too far away and observe what was going on. He defended his actions to himself by telling himself he wanted to make sure no fortune hunters managed to impose their affections on her. In reality, he found himself drawn to watching her. The more he saw her, the more he wanted to see her. When she laughed at some witticism uttered by one of the dandies, for the first time in his life he felt the stirrings of jealousy.
She had also managed to bring out his protective streak more than he had ever felt it before. Violet had been a popular debutante with the men and women she came into contact with, but Elizabeth had been seen as too rural in her ways and any female acquaintances had cooled. She was acknowledged because of her connection with Michael, and that made him even angrier with society than he had been before she had burst in on him. He wondered how to overcome it, but was coming to the conclusion that perhaps it was best for him not to interfere for once. She would hate to think someone was offering her friendship because of pressure from him.
Michael’s musings were brought back to the present when he saw Elizabeth’s face change slightly before her expression was schooled into a slightly smiling one. He had no idea what had been said, but he had seen a look of hurt pass quickly across her face. He had to almost physically restrain himself from marching over and punching each of the men surrounding her, but gritted his teeth as he walked slowly across to the group.
Elizabeth looked over at his approach and greeted him with a warm, relieved smile. “Ah Lord Dunham, have you come to join us?”
“I have come to steal you away. Would you care to accompany me for some refreshments?” Michael asked.
“That would be lovely; I have wanted to try some champagne for some time.” Elizabeth moved from the group, curtsying and waving off the numerous apologies for their neglect and thoughtlessness at leaving her without champagne.
She took Michael’s arm and walked silently with him across the room. He handed her a glass of champagne, which to his surprise she emptied in seconds. Without saying a word she indicated that another glass was required and drank half of it before Michael intervened.
“What happened out there that has turned you to drink?” He asked with a slight smile. He tried to keep his tone light, but he was aware of the tension he felt at her obvious discomfort.
Elizabeth’s expression remained unchanged, but she finished the second glass before speaking. “I needed the refreshment; it is uncommonly warm in here.”
Michael bristled, he was used to complete honesty from Elizabeth and her words had annoyed him. He looked at her without speaking, but her eyes did not meet his. She was avoiding telling him something and he was determined to find out what it was.
“I have come to expect more from you than the usual bland comments that young ladies usually utter,” he said in a tight voice. He wanted her to feel more comfortable. He needed her to confide in him, his reasons why he did not want to examine.
Elizabeth glanced at him quickly before reaching for another glass of champagne. “I have been a fool.”
Michael paused, a knot in his stomach had developed so fast at her words it had almost taken his breath away. Surely she had not compromised herself with one of her admirers? She could not, he reasoned with himself, she had never been unaccompanied. His panic subsided a little when he saw her face and noticed not for the first time the hurt in her eyes.
“You could never be a fool, although you are constantly surrounded by them. What has happened to upset you Elizabeth?” His tone was gentle.
Elizabeth smiled at his words and looked at him gratefully. “At least through all this I have your friendship and the friendship of Violet and Edward. You do not know how I appreciate you all.”
“We do know and we value your company too. You have made a dull Season thoroughly enjoyable, but something has happened tonight that has upset you. If you don’t tell me soon, I fear you will have emptied the reserves of champagne our hostess has supplied.”
Elizabeth laughed openly at the comment, her cheeks a little flushed, as the unusual amount of alcohol started to have effect. “I have been foolish,” she started, “Because I thought that by accepting that I was not the type of person the ladies wanted to socialise with that they would leave me alone.”
Michael’s mind raced, he could not possibly imagine what their acquaintance could have contrived. “What could they do to discomfort you so?”
“I know you will ridicule me for being so sensitive, but it seems that there are a large number of ladies who are placing bets on which gentleman will have the misfortune to marry me. It appears that my fortune is not enough to tempt any man of sense after all. I am only attracting those that will wish to hold my fortune rather than me. The favourite at the moment for me to marry is Mr. Brooke.”
Michael almost winced at her words. Gentlemen placed bets against each other, but for ladies to bet against another lady was unheard of in his circle. The bet was cruel in the extreme. No lady of fashion would wish to be associated with Mr. Brooke. Although he came from a respectable family, he was an idiot, more suited to an asylum than society. Michael was beginning to regret ever persuading her to stay in London; it seemed his scheme was bringing her nothing but heartache.
“Their motivation is jealousy,” he tried to console her, but knew that it would take more than his few words to soothe such an insult.
“I have nothing for them to be jealous of,” she replied. “I would never act in such an uncharitable way against anyone I have met.”
“No you would not, but you are wrong. They have much to be jealous of, and that is the problem. Any other time your liking for the country and its ways would have been indulged. I should have acted more forcefully in promoting you as my ward and under my protection; my lenience has led you to being left open to this attack. That you are linked to the Dunham name has obviously not been taken seriously, and that you should be treated with the associated respect. I will put it right.” Michael blazed inside. The only woman of his acquaintance who was beautiful, funny and a refreshing change to the insipid women that he knew, and she was suffering by their actions. He was determined that everyone would understand his displeasure within the shortest possible time frame. For now, he wanted to take Elizabeth home; as he decided what should be done he saw Dawson and beckoned him over.
“My Lord,” John bowed.
“Dawson, please stay with Miss Rufford while I seek out my sister. We need to go home. I would appreciate it if you remained here while I find Violet.”
John had picked up the tension in his friend’s tone and face and nodded. “It will be my pleasure.” He turned to Elizabeth. “My friend is preventing us from having our dance tonight. I hope you will mark your card the next time we meet.”
Elizabeth nodded her assent. “I am sorry to keep you here when I am sure you must wish to dance with someone else.”
“Although I have more of a taste for dancing than Lord Dunham, I do not wish to be anywhere else. Would you like a drink?”
Elizabeth accepted her fourth glass of champagne and confessed as much to John. “You must think me foolish trying to block out a tiresome night in such a way.”
“Not at all, I’ve done much the same on more than one occasion. I’m surprised you have been able to cope without so much champagne at other events.”
Elizabeth giggled, but tried to gain control as she saw Violet and Michael approach them. Violet hugged Elizabeth. “Come my dear, we have sent for the carriage. It is time we went home.”
“Oh no!” Elizabeth moaned. “I do not want to spoil your evening.”
“I would rather spend an evening with you at home, than remain here without you. I shall brook no argument, we are returning home.” Violet said firmly, linking arms with Elizabeth. The effects of the champagne meant that Elizabeth was unable to resist. She allowed herself to be led towards the ballroom exit, after an unsteady curtsey to Mr. Dawson.
Michael turned to Dawson, “I shall see you tomorrow. If anyone asks as to our early departure you are free to express my displeasure at having my ward ridiculed by those foolish enough to think I would not step in or show my anger. I will find out each and everyone who has placed bets.”
John raised his eyes. “I shall wait for you to tell me the full story, but until then I will try and find out what I can. Will Miss Rufford be well?”
“She will be. Thank you John.”
When Michael entered the carriage he was faced with Elizabeth who was fully inebriated, the fresh air emphasising the effects of the alcohol. She was giggling and whispering to Violet. Michael looked at the pair with raised eyebrows.
Violet smiled, “Elizabeth is experiencing the nicer side of too much champagne. I hope we shall reach home before any other effects develop.”
Michael smiled, “As do I. I think a steady journey home is advised.”
Elizabeth kept the pair entertained throughout the journey. She described each sensation she was feeling with childlike wonder. It was obvious that although she may have been treated as a boy at home, she had not been allowed much alcohol. Michael could not help to be amused at her exclamations and hiccups.
Finally the carriage came to a halt and Michael stepped out. Violet climbed out and whispered that she would take Elizabeth straight to bed. Elizabeth faltered as she reached the door of the carriage. She looked uncertainly at Michael. “Has the ground been lowered since we went out?” she asked struggling to focus on the ground or the carriage step.
“No it hasn’t. Give me your hand, I won’t let you fall.” Michael reassured her.
Elizabeth put her hand in Michael’s and as she took a step down, she faltered, missing the carriage step completely. Michael moved swiftly and caught her before she reached the ground. He swung her up into his arms and moved towards the house.
“Oh Sir, I think I cannot walk very well.” Elizabeth giggled and wrapped her arms around his neck, resting her head on his shoulder.
Michael had smiled at her words, but stiffened at her touch. She felt so comfortable, so at ease with him. He needed to get her inside as soon as he could before the feelings that were rapidly developing for the woman in his arms reached the point where he would do something rash. Violet indicated that he should take her straight upstairs and she led the way to Elizabeth’s room.