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“Drat?” he said. “Now I’m sure I recently heard...pardon my terribly trite line, but haven’t we met before?”

“No, no, it couldn’t be, sir,” she answered. “I’ve only been in Bath a few days and today is my first outing. I’ve met no one, sir.”

He peered carefully and now he was squinting at her. “No, I’m quite sure of it. You’ve been at Mrs. Quinn’s, you say?”

“Indeed,” was her dismissive response.

“You said you met a toff in the library a few days ago, El,” Harry said helpfully.

Two pairs of eyes turned on the boy, then on each other, realization dawning.

“You were cleaning the library.”

“I was not! You were hiding from my aunt.”

“I was not!”

Their words jumbled together; then they paused, staring at one another. He flashed her a grin and she smiled back. His grin turned into a chuckle and then she started to laugh, too.

“What is so funny?” asked Harry, sounding rather plaintive.

“It was you, though, wasn’t it?” she asked, when she could draw breath. “Skulking about, hiding from my aunt in the library?”

“I was not hiding from anyone!” Julian expostulated. “I had merely grown weary of being kept waiting and thought to amuse myself among the books. And I take it that was you? Dusting the books, I mean. Promise me your aunt does not require your cleaning services in exchange for your room and board.”

“Certainly not!” Elspeth exclaimed. “And I was not cleaning them, for Heaven’s sake. I was reading.”

“Reading? I wouldn’t have thought any of the Quinn tribe cared for such an intellectual pastime.”

“Perhaps you should not judge us all based only upon your acquaintance with my aunt and cousin. We are quite a disparate lot.”

“I am admirably set down, my lady,” he answered, flashing her a broad smile.

“Julian!” Caroline’s imperious tones rang out. Elspeth turned to see her cousin bearing down on them, annoyance flashing in her dark eyes.

“My cousin is quite monopolizing you, I fear,” Caroline began, loud enough that several turned to stare. “You must excuse her prattling. I am quite determined to teach her the fine art of conversation while she visits with us. Her sphere is so limited, you know.”

Elspeth could feel her face flaming. But Caroline was right—she had made a perfect ass of herself. Not that it mattered, of course. She was here as a foil for Caroline, and was doing a fine job at that.

“To the contrary, Caroline,” Mr. Thorpe replied smoothly. “Miss Quinn is quite a spirited conversationalist. I have enjoyed our talk.” He made a sharp bow and moved quickly away, no doubt relieved to finally be quit of the awkward country cousin. Oh, how awful this visit would be!

“Well, still waters run deep, I must say, Elspeth,” said Caroline. Her voice was low but her tone waspish. “I never expected you to set your sights so high. You’ll be wasting your time, I warn you. Julian is much smitten with me. And he is quite the wit. You’d do better to aim at a more realistic target. Ah, yes, I can see Mama has the same thought. Do excuse me, my dear cousin.” Caroline abruptly disappeared in a whirl of satin and scent, leaving Elspeth peering befuddled into the blurred distance. The shapes approaching resolved themselves into her aunt, rather literally hauling an elderly gentleman in her wake. It appeared he might just trip over his cane, such haste as they were making.

“My dear Elspeth, here you are. Sir Richard, allow me to present to you my niece, Miss Elspeth Quinn of the Shropshire Quinns....”

* * * *

“This might be quite amusing, actually,” Edgar Randall said, with a wicked chuckle. “Note, if you will, the
dramatis personae
: Julian has been waylaid by our lovely Perennial Toast, while Mama has decoyed the country cousin with poor old Sir Richard.”

“Actually, Sir Richard might be quite a catch for the cousin, if she’s as poor as Caroline intimates,” said Thomas. “Although I must say the girl is far more presentable that I would have thought. Given the
on dit
, I thought she might be quite the ape leader. She’s rather pretty, really.”

“Indeed she is,” echoed Robert. “Not nearly as old as I’d been led to understand.”

“Well, neither Caroline nor her cousin are in the first blush of youth,” Edgar said, “but that makes them both so much more interesting. Now, what do you gentlemen say to a little wager? I say Caroline lands Julian before the country cousin lands poor old Sommers.”

“Oh, Edgar, you’ll be throwing your money away!” exclaimed Thomas. “Julian will not be brought to heel so easily. And Sommers is just too disgusting, even for a poor girl.”

“Then I take it we have a wager?”

“How much?” asked Robert.

“One hundred pounds.”

“Rather rich for me, Edgar,” said Thomas dubiously.

“But you did say I’d be throwing my money away,” Edgar coaxed.

“I’ll take the wager,” said Robert excitedly. “Come on, Thomas. We’ll split it!”

“I don’t trust you, you know,” said Thomas, a little sourly. “No tricks, mind.”

“Tricks? Dear boy, you wound me. Besides, it won’t be necessary. See how poor Julian is already caught in the serpent’s coils.”

 

Chapter Five

 

“I am saying this only for your own good, Elspeth. I know these people. You may think they’re all very friendly, but when your back is turned they gleefully pull out the long knives.” Aunt Bettina peered carefully at her own reflection in the mirror in front of her. “The left side is a little higher than the right. Perhaps we should start over.”

Elspeth sighed. In the dim candlelight, she could barely see to pin up her aunt’s hair. The single lady’s maid they all shared was busy, as always, with Caroline. Dutifully, Elspeth plucked the pins from the gray coils, more by feel than sight. Her aunt’s hair was thick with goose grease, slightly rancid. Thank God the younger generation had moved away from this particular affectation.

“Now, the other day at the Pump Room, I’m sure it was tempting to throw yourself at Julian Thorpe. He is something of a catch, although I’m given to understand he’s quite keen on Caroline, you know. We have it on good authority that he will be asking for her any day now. It will be a perfect match. You, yourself, however, must not be unrealistic. Everyone will have great fun at our expense if you’re seen to be making a fool of yourself. I simply cannot allow it.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Elspeth. She had heard the same speech too many times from her cousin and her aunt over the past few days to blush any further. Indeed, she had chastised herself a thousand times for her gauche and awkward attempt to converse with the man. Caroline and Aunt Bettina need have no fear that she would go anywhere near him tonight.

“Now, Sir Richard is a good catch, too, my dear,” Aunt Bettina went on. “Much more on your level. Quite satisfying accounts, I understand.” Aunt Bettina cast a sly look at her niece in the glass. Elspeth schooled her expression into one of bland interest. Poor Sir Richard! Passed every year from one wallflower to the next, and still no one would take the doddering old widower seriously. There were benefits to being single, indeed.

“Mama, this dress will not do at all!” came a shriek from the hallway. Caroline burst into the room, a whirl of shimmering rose satin.

“Why, it’s beautiful, darling,” said Aunt Bettina, rising hurriedly from her dressing table, spilling hairpins across the floor. Elspeth bent to pick them up, casting a surreptitious eye on her cousin. Indeed, the dress was stunning, although Caroline was loudly detailing a dozen fatal flaws in its design and execution.

“But she’s the best modiste in Bath, Caroline. I declare the seams look straight as an arrow to me. And it’s quite the prettiest dress that’s finished. It brings out your perfect complexion. I do so want you to make your very best impression tonight. It’s the first ball of the Season, after all.”

Elspeth rose and placed the pins in their rosewood carved box on the dressing table. In the sudden silence she raised her eyes to the glass, to find her cousin carefully perusing her.

“Will I do?” Elspeth asked, turning so that Caroline could get the full effect. Elspeth had learned over the past few days that Caroline must assure herself on every occasion that her cousin would present no competition. Indeed, Elspeth’s dress, the midnight blue satin, while exquisite in her own eyes, was merely passable and spinsterish in the eyes of her cousin. “You’ll do nicely.” Caroline smiled, not bothering to hide her smug and satisfied expression, “Just see to it that you don’t go haring off after Julian Thorpe. You must not make an ass out of yourself tonight. Your conduct reflects on me and Mama, after all.”

“Of course,” Elspeth murmured. She turned back to the dressing table and busied herself with the pins, keeping her eyes down, so that no one would see the anger smoldering. She’d had about enough of such insults. In a month or two she could take Harry and go home, she consoled herself, the grand experiment over and done with.

“My pearls would look nice with that neckline, Elspeth,” mused Aunt Bettina, moving toward the dressing table.

“Mama, whyever does she need pearls with that dress?” Caroline asked.

“Sir Richard has a fine eye, my dear. He’ll notice the little elegant touches.” Aunt Bettina rummaged through her drawer, pulling out a simple strand of pearls.

“Of course,” Caroline purred, looking smug again.

It was all Elspeth could do not to emulate Harry’s gagging routine.

* * * *

The large room was beastly hot and beastly crowded. Everyone who was Anyone, and some who were Not, was here, the usual great triumph for Lady Dowling, a grand doyenne, who prided herself on giving the first and the most elegant ball of each Bath Season.

“Lovely pearls, Miss Quinn. Very tasteful,” murmured Sir Richard, too close for comfort.

“Thank you, sir. My aunt lent them to me,” replied Elspeth, grateful that said aunt had taken herself to the punch bowl yet again, and was thus not on hand to hear her ploy savaged by an ungrateful niece.

“I see,” said Sir Richard, a trifle more coolly, although he did not, unfortunately, pull away. They stood together and alone against the wall while the others danced. Elspeth could occasionally catch a flash of rose satin as Caroline swirled by. She danced with a nice-looking man, one whom Elspeth had not yet met. The peacocks, Thomas and Robert, were here in full splendor, tittering and mincing about the room, although Elspeth was not yet sure which was which. Neither of them danced, but both had plenty to say regarding the style and grace of those who did. Of Julian Thorpe there was no sign, and Elspeth felt curiously deflated about that, considering that she never intended to exchange a word with him again.

Elspeth glanced rather desperately around the room, but there was no rescue in her blurred sight. It could be no accident that she had been abandoned here with Sir Richard. Those very few people whose acquaintance she had made in the last few days would not approach her now. Sir Richard, Elspeth was fast learning, seemed to be no one’s cup of tea.

“I’m quite sure you promised this dance to me, Miss Quinn,” came a voice at her elbow.

Turning, she beheld the very object of her thoughts, Julian Thorpe, looking every bit as handsome as she’d pictured him these last few days. “I did?” she managed to say, mortified that her voice sounded like a squeak.

“Indeed, ma’am. I am wounded that you would so easily forget,” he said smoothly, but his eyes danced with amusement. He held out his gloved hand. Bemused, Elspeth placed her gloved hand in his, stiffening her fingers to keep them from trembling. “Sir Richard, please excuse us,” Julian said, not waiting for Sir Richard’s sour-sounding “harrumph” before whisking her away.

“I’m quite sure I did not promise you a dance, Mr. Thorpe,” Elspeth began, thoroughly at a loss.

“Indeed, I lied, Miss Quinn. One of my many character flaws. Shall I return you to the devotions of Sir Richard?”

“Heavens no!” she exclaimed, then felt herself blush scarlet. “That is, I know so few people here, and I’m sure he’ll appreciate the opportunity to chat with his other acquaintances.”

“I’m sure he will not,” replied Julian. “In fact, he’s still glowering at me,” he went on, casting a glance over his shoulder. “I’ll bet he’s jealous.”

“Oh, I do hope not,” said Elspeth with a shudder.

“Do you really want to dance?” Julian asked. “We can’t talk if we have to parade around and bow to each other.”

“Not particularly,” she admitted. “I find these steps rather intricate and I fear for your toes. At home, our dances seem simpler, more of a jig than a promenade, really. Not terribly dignified, but we all enjoy them.”

“Ah, yes, you’re a country lass, aren’t you,” he replied. “Would you like to take a turn about the library? Lady Dowling has a splendid collection, although
on dit
has it she’s never read a word herself.”

“Oh, I’m quite sure my aunt said I shouldn’t…that is, I’m not supposed to...oh, dear,” she broke off, embarrassed at her foolish stammer. Was there no end to the number of ways she could humiliate herself in front of this man?

“Quite right. You’re not to wander off alone with a roué and cad such as myself, particularly not into the shrubbery. Very proper.” He kept right on walking, though, leading her toward the wide double doors that led into the grand hallway. “However, the library is quite liberally sprinkled with some of the
ton’s
most formidable dowagers, each trying to bleed the next one dry over a round of cards. Your honor will remain quite intact, I assure you.”

Again Elspeth felt eyes upon them, and her aunt’s warnings echoed through her thoughts. A furious whirl of pink satin came close to knocking her over and she caught a glimpse of angry eyes before the dance steps carried her cousin off again.

“Caroline is dancing with Ledbetter, I see. Good fellow. Seems quite taken with her.”

Elspeth cast a glance up at Julian, trying to read his thoughts. Caroline and Aunt Bettina had taken great pains to assure her that Mr. Thorpe’s attentions were entirely engaged in Caroline’s favor, but for the life of her, she couldn’t find anything but a benign bonhomie in his tone. Either he wasn’t jealous at all, or he was very good at hiding it.

BOOK: Corey McFadden
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