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“Weston-under-Lizard,” she said, in a shaky voice.

“I beg your pardon?”

“I live in a little town called Weston-under-Lizard, not far from Market Drayton. I am the eldest of five in my family. Papa died a little less than a year ago, and we are rather modest in our demeanor and society. Not at all interesting, you see.” She finished near breathless.

“Modest in your demeanor, and yet you read Latin and Greek?”

“I should not have boasted, sir,” she said, feeling her face flush. “Indeed, my Latin is only acceptable and my Greek barely passable. Papa was teaching me, you see, and we only got so far with it. It’s heavy going alone, so I’m afraid I neglect it terribly, now.”

“Dreadful of you.”

She stole a glance at him and found he was staring at her. Although she would not tell him so, he was extraordinarily handsome, now that she got a good look at him through her lenses. He had not moved his hand. It lay lightly on her own.

“And how do you find the contrast, Miss Quinn? Surely there is a world of difference between Weston-under-Lizard and Bath.”

“Oh, indeed, sir! Too much so, I must say. In fact, without meaning to sound ungracious, I am so sorry we ever came here. It has been worse even than I imagined, and I thought I was being fanciful at the time.”

“Well, why did you come then?” He stared at her. Behind his lenses his eyes were a deep and beautiful blue.

“I thought it would aid my mother to have the two of us away for a while,” she said, unwilling to say that it gave her mother two fewer mouths to feed. “And also because I thought Harry might benefit from seeing a bit of polite society. He has so little opportunity at home. We are quite rustic at Weston-under-Lizard.”

“And not to find a husband for yourself?” Now his deep blue eyes were amused.

“Hah! I wouldn’t marry any of these puffed-up popinjays if any of them did ask me!” she declared.

“Oh, dear. I believe I am wounded, Miss Quinn.”

“Well, naturally I didn’t mean to include you, sir,” she answered in some confusion.

“Naturally.”

“Although you are no kinder than any of them,” she said.

“How so?”

“You flirt with me just to put Caroline into a pique.”

“Why would you think that?” he asked, looking at her. He still had not moved his hand.

“Ask anyone in the Assembly Rooms what they think,” she replied smartly.

“And do you always draw your opinion from what everyone else thinks, Miss Quinn?”

“Certainly not. I don’t give a...a...I don’t care at all what these...” she broke off, embarrassed, aware that she was insulting his set.

“Puffed-up popinjays?”

“Well, perhaps I shouldn’t have said that. Papa always said my tongue would be the ruin of me.”

“A wise man, your papa.”

“Still, Harry will be no better for having spent the Season watching these…gentlemen of the
ton
mince about,” she declared.

“Now I must take exception, Miss Quinn. I spent a great deal of my youth teaching myself not to mince. It was quite a point of honor with me. In fact, I took to practicing striding about looking purposeful, and now you tell me I mince.”

“Well, to be fair, I can’t say I’ve ever seen you mince, sir,” she said laughing.

“I can’t tell you how deeply relieved I am to hear you say that. Thank you for putting my mind to rest on that point. Although, I do not believe I shall ever be able to put one foot in front of the other in your presence again. I shall be so paralyzed at the thought of inadvertently mincing, I’ll fall flat on my face. Would that be worse than mincing, by the way? Falling down, I mean.”

“You are impossible, sir!”

“Please don’t tap me with your fan. I am quite tired of being tapped by lady’s fans.”

“Oh, I’m not allowed to use my fen. My aunt says I hold it like a cow would. Most unacceptable, she says.”

“I have my strong suspicions that your aunt has never seen a cow hold a fan. Still if you don’t care to use it, that’s fine with me. Dreadful invention, ladies’ fans. The very plague of gentlemen.”

Now he did move his hand, and turned, leaning his back against the balustrade. She could see his eyes even better now, in the warm light cast by the long French windows. Big beautiful blue eyes, made larger by his lenses.

“And what shall you do if one of the puffed-up popinjays begs for your hand in marriage, Miss Quinn?" he asked her, smiling.

“I shall decline with feigned regret, sir,” she said, with a loud dismissive sniff.

“To what end, may I ask?”

“Not that it is any of your business, but I prefer to go home, sir, to live out my life in quiet amiability with my family in the country.”

“That does sound rather enviable, at that.”

“Now you mock me, sir.”

“Indeed, I do not. I should above all like to return to the country, to live out my life in amiable pursuits.”

“But I thought...” she stopped, confused by the turn of conversation.

“What did you think?”

“Caroline said....”

“What did Caroline say?”

“Why nothing at all, actually. I can’t think why her name popped into my head,” Elspeth said, reddening. It was ill done of her to tell tales on her cousin, however well-deserved.

“Elspeth!”

Elspeth jumped at the sound of her aunt’s strident tone. Her heart sank as she turned her head to find Aunt Bettina bearing down on them like a ship rigged for battle.

“I’ve been looking high and low for you, gel. And here I find you skulking about out here, quite monopolizing poor Mr. Thorpe. My apologies again, sir, for my niece’s forward behavior.”

He made a slight bow to Mrs. Quinn. “I can assure you, madam, Miss Quinn’s deportment has been decorum itself,” he said coolly. “And, again, it is I who have been monopolizing her, not the other way around.”

“You are kindness itself, sir, to say so. Just what I would expect from a gentleman such as yourself. Still, I know what I see. Come along, gel. We’re going home.”

Elspeth’s heart gave another lurch. “Is the ball at an end already?” she asked.

“Not for a good number of hours yet, you silly gel. But I find I have the headache, and I need you to see to it at home.” Her hand closed on Elspeth’s arm like a vise and she felt herself good and trapped. “Mr. Thorpe,” Aunt Bettina went on, turning her attention to him, “I have convinced Caroline she must stay so that we do not offend Lady Dowling with a too-hasty departure. Caroline, of course, is frantic to come home and minister to my pain, but I’ll hear none of it. Mrs. Hastings has kindly agreed to see her home in her carriage, but I’m sure I can count on you to keep an eye on her for me, can’t I?"

If it was all Elspeth could do to keep from rolling her eyes at this speech, Mr. Thorpe was not quite so circumspect. Eyebrow cocked, expression dubious, he made no reply, merely sketching a bow so slight as to be nearly an insult.

Squeezing her niece’s arm, Aunt Bettina nearly yanked Elspeth forward, propelling her to the doors that led into the ballroom. Just inside the doors stood Caroline, face bright red, eyes snapping with anger. She said nothing, merely watching as her mother and cousin went flying by. Elspeth turned her head and saw Caroline slip out of the French doors, onto the terrace, where Julian stood.

If Aunt Bettina had pulled her unceremoniously from the library, now she barely allowed her niece to put one foot ahead of the other as they made their way straight for the doors that led into the grand hall, and thence to the broad doors and the stairs that swept with staid elegance down to Duke Street, where the groom whistled up their carriage, which had waited down the street. Behind her Elspeth could hear the orchestra strike up another waltz, and it was all she could do not to weep.

 

Chapter Six

 

“I have never been so humiliated in all my life, Elspeth! What can you have been thinking? Once was bad enough, but twice? Why, never mind what the man thinks of you—that’s lost already—but you’ve made a laughingstock of this family. Throwing yourself at the likes of Julian Thorpe! Why, do you know his second cousin once removed is an earl? Julian has a townhouse in the finest part of London, and magnificent estates in Suffolk. He is welcome in the very best of homes in all of England. How dare you debase me, not to mention your cousin, in front of the entire
ton
of Bath by making such a fool of yourself?”

As this tirade had been going on without variation for the better part of the last hour, Elspeth made no reply. In the carriage she had attempted to defend herself by suggesting, ever so gently, that Mr. Thorpe had actually sought out her company, but she had given up that tack as ineffective. Now that they were home, Mrs. Quinn seemed to have undergone a miraculous cure. Of her headache there was not a sign. On the other hand, she had passed it on to Elspeth, who suffered in silence.

“Now I am going to bed. I have half a mind to send you and your brother home in disgrace, indeed I do. The very idea! The very idea.” Aunt Bettina was fairly humphing as she spoke.

“Good night then, Aunt,” said Elspeth. “I’ll retire now as well.”

“Do not think to show yourself anywhere tomorrow, miss. I’ll speak with Caroline and see how the tongues have wagged about you this evening. She’ll hear whatever is being said, I’m sure.”

And a great
deal of the worst will be said by her,
mused Elspeth, who wisely did not voice her thoughts.

“Good night, Aunt,” Elspeth said again firmly, then turned and left the room, not willing to hear any more. But outside her aunt’s room, her step lightened and a smile lit her face in the dark hallway. She should be devastated at her aunt’s words, but she knew in her heart they were spiteful nonsense. Julian had sought her out, not once but twice! And he had held her hand. Oh, she knew not to lay too much importance on that. Hands were offered and accepted quite casually among the
ton
. But this had been different, hadn’t it? A quiet, private touch.

Or was she a rather pathetic country girl—woman, actually—just another foolish spinster fast on her way to a broken heart? Her spirits plummeted. It felt as if her feet had landed with a thud on the carpet. She stopped in her tracks and stared at nothing in the dark. Didn’t she know enough about the idle flirtations of this society not to fall wildly in love with the very first (and only) man who paid her a light compliment? Was the entire
ton
laughing at her? Was Julian laughing at her with Caroline at this very moment, his arms locked around her pink-satined form as he waltzed her around the room, eyes only for her?

It took an effort to walk the last few steps to her room. And the chilly water that she poured into the basin on the washstand was warmed by her tears.

* * * *

“A picnic, my dear Miss Quinn. The weather will be perfect. We can ride out to the vineyards at Claverton. Do say yes!” Edgar Randall implored.

“Whom shall we invite to join us?” asked Caroline. Her eyes scanned the room, but he sensed she was having no luck in spotting her quarry, whoever he might be. She had danced a good bit with young Ledbetter all evening, something he must nip in the bud.

“Oh, I suppose I can round up our usual crowd, Benjamin Watkins, Wesley Ames, Thomas and Robert, although to be sure I can never quite tell those two apart....” This did not receive the expected wicked laugh from Caroline. The chit was preoccupied, indeed. The question was, with what—or whom? “And Julian, of course.” Now that got her attention, he noted with approval. Good. So Julian had caught her eye again. The hundred-pound winnings almost made a weight in his pocket.

“Well, I suppose it might be pleasant at that,” she responded, turning her attention to him at last.

“You must invite some of the ladies to join us. Say an hour or two after noon? Won’t do to try to start too early. We shall barely get enough sleep as it is. Well, I shall pop off and speak to the gentlemen. We’ll call for you and your cousin at the appointed hour.” Now that brought a scowl to her lovely face. Interesting. So the cousin from the country was proving something of a thorn in the flesh. It might prove an entertaining sidelight to watch that byplay at tomorrow’s picnic. Perhaps he could throw a little oil on the fire. This Season was shaping up nicely, indeed.

* * * *

“Julian, you simply must join us,” Edgar importuned, having run his friend to ground in the card room, where Julian had sought refuge from the relentless Caroline Quinn.

“I’ve got business and correspondence to tend to, Edgar,” Julian replied, absently throwing down a card from his whist hand. “I don’t have time to cavort about on ant hills.”

“Actually, dear boy, we need your carriage. Fine pair of bays, you have there. Don’t you wish to give them a bit of a run?”

Julian sighed. Edgar had been pleading with him for at least the last ten minutes and showed no sign of weakening. “Can’t you hire a carriage? I really have no wish to spend tomorrow afternoon exchanging idle remarks with the same people I’m exchanging idle remarks with tonight and the same people I’ll be exchanging idle remarks with tomorrow night at Mrs. Danbury’s musicale. Actually, I’m sick of this nonsense already, and I’ve been here a bare fortnight. How do you stand all this banality year in and year out?”

Across the whist table, Wesley rolled his eyes. Mr. Middleton, a newcomer, looked vaguely offended, and Sir Henry snored into his prodigious mustache. He had to be awakened each time it was his turn to play a card.

“I’d take offense, dear boy, but I’m sure you’re just annoyed because you have such a bad hand.” He paused to allow Julian to throw him an exasperated look over his shoulder. “Look here, Caroline Quinn is gathering up the demoiselles to grace our picnic. And if their conversation bores you silly, why you can entertain yourself watching Caroline make the country cousin’s life miserable. I do believe things are fraying there quite satisfactorily.”

“The cousin will come as well?” Julian asked, very deliberately keeping his tone disinterested. Edgar was like a rat terrier when it came to sniffing around other people’s business.

“Why, of course she will. P’raps we could ferret out what happened this evening. Mama Quinn bounced the cousin out of here several hours ago, most unceremoniously. Quite the delicious mystery, eh?” Edgar smirked.

BOOK: Corey McFadden
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