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Corey McFadden (32 page)

BOOK: Corey McFadden
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“Let’s see, where should I began? Have I mentioned that it is you who are now engaged to Julian, and not Caroline?” He seemed to delight in her obvious confusion. “No? Then perhaps we should begin at the beginning. It seems, for reasons I am not at liberty to disclose, that the voluble-tongued Lady Haverford owes a debt of discretion to the Viscountess Alderson....”

* * * *

Julian never enjoyed these squeezes—too crowded, too hot, too inane—but tonight he had absolutely no desire to attend. Viscountess Alderson had been adamant that he appear at the Assembly Rooms this evening. He was sure the evening would be a crush—these things always were—but he was also quite certain he would be one of the main attractions. As a man who prided himself on his privacy, he did not appreciate knowing that he might as well be decked out in a Punch costume for everyone’s entertainment.

And it appeared he was right. Heads turned and mouths went to ears as he passed. Last night, at least, he had been drunk enough, and intent enough on Elspeth, that he had not noticed the jibes and japery. She, on the other hand, had been stone sober last night. Every whisper must have cut through her like a knife. Well, he would have a lifetime to make up for the pain his stupidity had caused her.

Not that Caroline Quinn and Edgar Randall weren’t mostly to blame. He caught sight of Caroline dancing with the poor benighted Mr. Ledbetter. Well, he wished him joy of her, although he rather thought that if Mr. Ledbetter were so unfortunate as to gain her hand, she would eat him alive. The music brought the couple close to where he stood and she caught sight of him. A look of pure loathing crossed her face. Good. He felt the same way about her.

Now where was Elspeth? After all, what did any of it matter beside Elspeth? It had been all he could do to concentrate on anything this evening—going through the motions of dressing, shaving, et cetera. Poor Forbush had been near to gibbering at the state of Mr. Thorpe’s attire this afternoon. Mr. Thorpe refrained from mentioning to his valet that he had scaled a brick wall, and had an unexpected partial dip in a hipbath before returning home, and the state of his cravat bore no discussion at all.

He spotted the Viscountess Alderson in a knot of biddies and dragons, Lady Haverford among them. Ducking behind a column, he continued scanning the room for Elspeth. It was always possible she had stayed at home—all the better, he decided, since he would simply join her there, propriety be damned.

At last, she swam into his view, like something out of Greek legend, the personification of beauty. Praxiteles would have considered himself a lucky sculptor, indeed, to have had the likes of Miss Elspeth Quinn for a model. Gad, how she made his heart thud. She would be his, if they had to hie for Gretna Green by morning. She was walking on the arm of a toff, who it was he couldn’t clearly see. They were walking toward him, and as they grew closer, he could see that it was Edgar Randall. Drat! He wanted to talk to Elspeth now, not deal with Edgar’s perfidies. That subject could be explored at another time. He watched their slow progress, made all the slower by the beckonings and greetings from others.

It was apparent that Elspeth had risen considerably in the eyes of the other attendees this evening. Far from hiding in the corner as she had been inclined to do, very much over-shadowed by her cousin, Elspeth now seemed to be the center of attention. She nodded and smiled and was obviously making pleasant small talk. She hadn’t spotted him yet; at least he didn’t think so. He stepped out from behind the column to catch her eye. Right into the path of Thomas and Robert, in raiment that should be the envy of every lady there.

“Ooh, Julian!” gushed Thomas—or was it Robert? “I’ve heard the most delicious prattle about you!”

“You naughty boy!” said Robert—or was it Thomas? “You had everyone fooled! Neatly done, my dear sir.”

Julian sighed audibly. “To what do you refer, gentlemen?” he asked. “I find it very difficult to keep up with the rumors about myself. I must be exceedingly fascinating, considering the amount of time the gentry spends discussing my every movement.” Might as well find out what was being said at this point. He supposed it was too much to hope that Caroline had told everyone she was not betrothed to him after all.

“Silly man! As if you didn’t know!” giggled one of the two popinjays.

“Such a taradiddle, Julian! Brilliant of you, I must say!” giggled the other.

“Gentlemen, please,” he interrupted, holding up his hand. They would stretch this out for hours for the sheer entertainment value, knowing these two. “I’ve only a minute or two to spare. Enlighten me as to the details, if you please, so that I may know whether tonight I should play the villain, the hero, the clown, or the boozer. It gets confusing, you know.”

“Oh, you were marvelous last night as the jug-bitten Julian! But we noticed—didn’t we?”—the one smirked at the other—“that you weren’t the least bit foxed when you danced the waltz with Miss Elspeth Quinn! That’s when we suspected something was afoot—didn’t we, Robert?” Must have been Thomas speaking, then.

Julian remained silent. It seemed that whatever he said veered them off in another direction.

“Well, dear boy, what we want to know is—just how angry is Bettina Quinn with the lovely, if headstrong, Caroline? Why the girl is lucky the dragons seem to find it all so amusing. Otherwise, she’d be ruined. You, too, for that matter! Whatever possessed you to play such a dangerous little scene in the maze?” tittered one.

“I declare, Bettina could still take a horsewhip to you, if she chose!” tittered the other.

“She’d have to catch me first,” growled Julian, hoping they would continue with their prattle. He liked where this was going.

“Ah, Mr. Thorpe?” came a timid voice at his elbow. Trying not to show his exasperation, he turned around. It was one of the elderly ladies—a biddy, rather than a dragon, he noted. “Ah, good evening to you, Miss...Worth,” he caught at the name at the last possibly polite moment. “I trust you are well, this evening?”

“Why certainly, sir, thank you for inquiring, indeed. But it’s Viscountess Alderson. She wishes for you to attend her at once, she says.” She cast her eyes nervously in the direction he had last seen the clutch of dragons.

Well, there was nothing for it. He cast a quick look around for Elspeth, and saw that she and Edgar were caught up in a small knot of his contemporaries, many of them the lovely eligibles
of the Season. He could hear squeals and giggles from that direction. Between the devil and the deep blue sea, indeed.

“Humble yourself abjectly, Julian!” cried Thomas, or was it Robert? He’d got them confused again.

“Let us know if she treats you to the Cut Direct immediately, Julian, so we can shun you as well!” cried the other. They all but waved lace handkerchiefs as he moved away with Miss Worth on his arm.

This falling in love business let one in for a great deal of difficulty, he thought as he closed on the clutch of dragons. He therefore intended to do it only this once in his life.

* * * *

Elspeth had caught a glimpse of Julian a good five minutes ago, and she longed to be on her way to him. Edgar Randall, however, appeared to have other plans for her this evening, and getting away from him had proved, thus far, to be an insurmountable challenge. In small whispered bits and pieces, Edgar had filled her in on how things stood. Quite remarkably, they had managed to turn the whole scene in the labyrinth into a big jest, if a sorry one at that. Elspeth endured knowing smiles and winks and murmured noncommittal pleasantries as they made an aimless progress through the room.

“You mustn’t look confused,” he had whispered, as they had started out. “I’ll explain everything as we go. Look like the cat who swallowed the cream, and leave everything to me.”

That was harder than it sounded. From what Elspeth had gleaned from the quick, whispered remarks, Caroline was alleged to have played a dreadful hoax on her mother and Lady Haverford. Julian was coming in for some censure for having agreed to assist her in the matter. Sympathy did not seem to run high, however, for the duped ladies. One might gather much of the
thought they had it coming to them. It was apparent that everyone appreciated the mid-Season diversion and would dine on it for weeks to come.

“What are these mysterious, veiled references to Lord Rokeby, Mr. Randall?” she whispered, through a tightly held smile, as they threaded their way from one group to another.

“A red herring, my dear, or, at least, what we came up with as motivation for Caroline. As it turns out, she may be lucky at that. I heard through the grapevine this evening that he is, indeed, returning to Bath. Can’t wait to watch what unfolds when he arrives. He’s all but betrothed to Caroline, and he doesn’t even know it.”

“What’s he like, this Lord Rokeby?” she asked. They were coming upon another group and she knew she would lose his ear for a time.

“Oh, arrogant, mean-spirited and demanding. Thick as mud. He and she are made for each other, never you fear. If he winds up leg-shackled to the malevolent Miss Caroline Quinn, it will be nothing less than either of them deserves.”

Elspeth wasn’t sure she should take comfort in that. She would still have to feel some pity for the unsuspecting Lord Rokeby, who, at least, was one of the few in all this who had done her no ill. Caroline went sailing by, on the arm of the devoted, if ill-fated, Mr. Ledbetter. She looked to be in high spirits, laughing and tapping at his arm with her fan. She did not spare her country cousin so much as a glance.

Right in the middle of some inane remark someone was making in her ear, she spotted Julian again. Tall and utterly handsome, he stood in a clutch of dragons, right next to Thomas and Robert. The contrast couldn’t have been more striking. Where they wore a veritable rainbow of amazing colors, Julian was attired in his usual buff and black. She could see him only from the back, but the way his breeches molded his rear was enough to bring a dark blush to her cheeks. Was she indeed a wanton that every glimpse of him produced such un-maidenly thoughts? She was beginning to understand there was more to this marital relations business than she had ever guessed. And that thought, too, made her blush anew. Thank heavens no one could read her mind.

At that moment, Julian shifted slightly to make room for yet another dragon who bore down on the clutch. Their eyes met across the space that separated them. It was like a jolt of lightning between them. His face lit up at the sight of her, and he smiled a broad smile. She was a fish caught on his hook. She could do nothing but allow him to reel her in. Her hand still lightly topping Edgar’s arm, she pushed slightly, signaling that it was time to move on. Maddeningly the man continued his nattering. Oh, yes, he had been sadly abused by the perfidious and manipulative Miss Caroline Quinn, but wasn’t it all so terribly amusing, and didn’t the old biddies deserve their comeuppance? It would serve the chit right if Rokeby would have nothing whatsoever to do with her, and had they heard that Rokeby, himself, was on his way to Bath? Quite possibly in haste to stop this supposed betrothal. Oh, wasn’t it all just too diverting?

She pushed again with her hand, and that earned her a knowing and amused glance from Mr. Randall, who nevertheless continued his chatter. Half the room away, Julian gazed at her, his love clear for her to read. Enough was enough! She moved first one foot, then the other, keeping a grip on Edgar’s arm. It was now up to him to make a graceful exit from the group, and, consummate toff that he was, he did so, extricating them with his smooth and witty excuses.

“Mustn’t appear too eager, my dear,” he murmured in her ear. “I declare we are near to sprinting.”

“Mr. Randall, so help me if you stop and talk to one more of these scandalmongers, I shall haul you bodily away,” she said, although to be sure, she was near to panting from their speed.

“Do I take it we are on the way to seeing our dear Julian?” he asked, nodding cordially at several interested sorts.

“Of course we are,” she replied. “He’s been signaling me these past ten minutes to come over to him.”

“Why hasn’t he come to you, then... oh, no, he’s with Lady Haverford and the viscountess! Oh, please have mercy, Elspeth. I had only just managed to escape them when you came in!”

“Not on your life, Edgar,” she replied, continuing to steer him with great determination toward Julian. “Don’t forget, you still owe us great penance for your part in this.”

“But, Julian, well, that is...” he hesitated, then stopped dead in his tracks. No amount of tugging could budge him.

“Oh, what is it, Mr. Randall?” she asked with great exasperation.

“I haven’t made my peace with Julian, Elspeth,” he replied, sounding truly miserable. “I doubt he would be speaking to me at all.”

“Well, no time like the present, Mr. Randall. Let’s go.” He gave up the fight and shambled along next to her, but the spring was most emphatically gone from his step, and his bubbling repartee had vanished.

In less than a moment they had reached the clutch of dragons. Belatedly, Elspeth saw that Aunt Bettina was among them, hidden behind several of the stouter ladies. She looked as though she had just swallowed something gone terribly off. Seeing Elspeth at last, Julian’s eyes lit up. Ignoring Edgar, Julian offered her his arm. With a smile that came from her heart, she placed her hand on his arm, and he covered it with his other hand. She could not take her eyes from his.

“Ah, I believe Mr. Thorpe has an announcement to make,” rang out the viscountess’s powerful voice. Elspeth could feel her heart start to pound and she was glad of his arm supporting her.

“Indeed, I do, your ladyship,” Julian said. He had not yet taken his eyes from Elspeth’s own, but his hand tightened on hers. “Allow me to announce that to my undying joy, Miss Elspeth Quinn has consented to be my wife.”

The collective “ahhhh” from the ladies was music to Elspeth’s ears.


Chapter Fifteen


“I thought this moment would never come, Elspeth,” Julian said, holding her as tightly as he dared. They spun through the room to the lilting strains of a waltz. He had never much cared for the dance before—always made him feel as if it gave the lady unrealistic expectations with regard to his intentions—but tonight, his intentions had never been clearer. And never more beautiful and welcome was the lady in his arms.

BOOK: Corey McFadden
6.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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