Authors: Gayle Buck
The boxing took longer than she had anticipated and she had to rush back upstairs to change in time for dinner. In the cheerful atmosphere generated by the boxing, she had forgotten the uncertain prospect before her in the dining room. There would likely be tension between Cecily and Sir Peregrine, as well as the usual reluctance of anyone to share table with Mrs. Nickleby, and she did not particularly look forward to the evening.
Judith had dreaded the half hour before dinner when all of her guests could be expected to assemble in the drawing room. But it went easier than she had expected, principally because the Nicklebys did not immediately appear. She was talking quietly with Lord Baltor and Sir Peregrine when Cecily came hesitantly through the door.
Judith knew that Cecily had entered when Lord Baltor’s eyes flew wide and a stunned expression settled on his face. She rose and went toward the girl. “Cecily, my dear child,” she said, holding out her hands.
Cecily grasped her fingers with almost a desperate grip and Judith looked searchingly at her. The girl appeared strained and her eyes were overbright. Judith smiled reassuringly. “I shall stay right beside you,” she murmured. Cecily cast up a grateful glance and allowed herself to be drawn toward the gentlemen.
Lord Baltor had leaped to his feet. His eyes had never left Cecily’s face. His thoughts tumbled incoherently, but one remained crystal clear: He had never seen a more beautiful vision. When Judith brought Cecily up to him and introduced her, Lord Baltor accepted Cecily’s hand almost with reverence. “Your servant, Miss Brown,” he said in a strangled voice.
Cecily was not unused to admiration and she forgot her nervousness for a moment. She looked up at Lord Baltor with her wide innocent gaze. “I am so very glad to make your acquaintance, my lord,” she said softly. She was quite taken with the manner in which Lord Baltor kissed her fingers and she was smiling as she reclaimed her hand.
But when she met the glance of her guardian, her smile faltered and a scared look entered her eyes. “Good-good evening, cousin,” she stammered.
Sir Peregrine looked at her somewhat grimly. “You have led me a fine chase, Cecily. I hope that you are aware of the folly of your actions.”
Cecily looked ready to sink into the carpet. Judith came to her support. “You shall be much better able to discuss these private matters at another time,” she said firmly.
Sir Peregrine threw a piercing glance at Judith, who awaited his reaction with lifted brows. He seemed to reconsider whatever comment that he was on the point of making and instead nodded. “Miss Grantham for once is right. We shall speak after dinner, Cecily.”
Lord Baltor had listened to the interchange with a gathering frown. He understood little but that somehow Sir Peregrine was related to this glorious creature and that she was frightened of his displeasure. When Lord Baltor looked into Cecily’s piteous and lovely face, he was seized with a strong feeling of chivalry. He knew that he would do anything in his power to protect her from distress. “I hope that you will do me the honor of joining me at dinner,” he said, addressing Cecily as though she was the only other individual in the room.
She nodded with a shy smile, soft color rising in her face. “You are most kind, my lord,” she said, and placed her hand trustingly in his. The young couple drifted toward the settee, their heads inclined toward one another as they softly conversed.
Judith looked on with astonishment. Surely she was not witnessing what she thought she was. It actually appeared to her that Cecily and Lord Baltor had fallen in love on the instant. When she glanced toward Sir Peregrine, she was annoyed to find that he had been waiting for her to do so, a faintly superior smile on his face. “You needn’t look so smug, Perry,” she said, unconsciously falling into her old habit of address.
Sir Peregrine noticed it, but he did not let on. “Needn’t I? One so rarely is handed an opportunity to be able to point out one’s infallibility. I did mention, did I not, that Cecily had been in love half a dozen times in two years? I was certain that I had. Do pray correct me if I am mistaken.”
Judith surrendered the point with a laugh. “Oh, I would not date to counter your memory, sir.”
“Would you not, Judith?” Sir Peregrine spoke quietly and there was a strangely intent look in his blue eyes.
Judith felt her heart turn over in her breast. “I-I think not,” she said with an odd breathlessness.
Mr. Smith and the Nicklebys’ came into the drawing room and Judith greeted their appearance almost with relief. She hid a shudder at Mrs. Nickleby’s appearance. That lady had attired herself in a rich purple robe, a feathered velvet turban, and a ruby necklace that was matched by large rubies in her ears. An additional deep red stone flashed on the finger of one hand. The colors clashed hideously, thought Judith, but nothing of her opinion appeared on her pleasant countenance. “Here are the others. Pray excuse me, Sir Peregrine. There you are, Mr. and Mrs. Nickebly. And Mr. Smith, too! I see that Withers is ready for us. Shall we go to dinner?”
She was surprised when her elbow was taken in a firm grasp. In her ear was Sir Peregrine’s civil voice. “I shall claim our fair hostess’s company this evening, I believe.” Judith looked up. She was quite unprepared for his cool smile or the challenge in his keen eyes.
“That is only proper, I am sure. You look a fine couple, too,” said Mr. Nickleby approvingly. He did not appear to notice the slightest stiffening of Judith’s frame. He held his arm out for his wife. “As splendid as you appear this evening in those shiny baubles, pet, I would not give you up if the Queen herself wished me to escort her.”
Mrs. Nickleby tossed her head, pleased. The black feather in her turban waved above her deep-set eyes. “Why, Mr. Nickleby, I never!” For once she seemed to be content with the utterance of a mere phrase.
Judith and Sir Peregrine preceded the others into the dining room. They were followed by Lord Baltor and Cecily and the Nickleby’s, with Mr. Smith bringing up the rear. When all were seated, only Mr. Smith was without a dinner companion, but Judith did not think that he minded in the least. He had tucked his napkin into his collar and rubbed his hands together over the first course of mince pies, barley soup, and a choice of vegetables. Her glance traveled about the table. Mrs. Nickleby was supplying her spouse with an opinion on the entrees of roast beef and the customary seasoned Christmas goose to which the gentleman was paying but half an ear, and no one else was giving even a semblance of polite attention.
Dusk fell at an early hour in the winter and the dining room had been lit with several branches of candles, which shed a soft glow over the faces of those present. Lord Baltor’s and Cecily’s shared glances and shining faces made the candlelight seem rather redundant, thought Judith. She could only feel misgivings about Cecily’s obvious attraction to Lord Baltor. Not that his lordship was other than a pleasant young man, but this latest infatuation could only damage Cecily’s case in Sir Peregrine’s eyes.
“A penny for them.”
Judith glanced around. Sir Peregrine’s expression was quizzical. She shook her head and a fleeting smile crossed her face. “I was only reflecting on the caprices of human nature.”
“Ah.” Sir Peregrine’s keen eyes immediately sought out his ward and Lord Baltor. He swung his glance back to the lovely lady at his side. And she was very lovely, he acknowledged silently, his eyes traveling slowly from her smooth-skinned face to the exquisite figure that was set off nicely by a close-cut velvet gown. He cocked his dark brow, his devastatingly keen gaze once more meeting her gray eyes. “Do I detect a hint of regret for opportunities lost, Judith?”
Judith had colored faintly under his scrutiny. Now she sucked her breath in startled surprise. Her eyes flashed at his audacity. “I am sure I do not know what you mean, Sir Peregrine,” she said loftily.
Across the table, despite her absorption with Lord Baltor, Cecily had caught a portion of their quiet exchange. Her curiosity had been aroused earlier by Miss Grantham’s obvious knowledge of Sir Peregrine’s nature and now she had heard him address Miss Grantham by her given name. “Why, cousin, I did not know that you and Miss Grantham knew one another so well,” she said in surprise.
Judith’s eyes flew to meet Sir Peregrine’s. He regarded her for an infinitesimal pause before he replied. “We are…old acquaintances.” He gave his ward no chance to pursue the matter, as she seemed inclined to do, but at once asked Lord Baltor where he enjoyed shooting. Cecily’s attention was immediately diverted as well as she listened spellbound to her new-found love expound on the types of sport one might find in his part of the country.
Judith was able to respond to a sally from Mr. Nickleby with all appearances of composure. She gradually relaxed as dinner progressed. It went far better than she had dared hope, there being no rash words between Sir Peregrine and Cecily and even few complaints from Mrs. Nickleby. Indeed, Cecily seemed in her best manners, thought Judith, approving of the subdued civility that the girl showed to her guardian and the rest. At least Sir Peregrine could not say that Cecily’s head had been so turned by Lord Baltor’s attentions that she had behaved in too forward a fashion.
When at last the ladies left the gentlemen to their wine and repaired to the drawing room, she was actually beginning to believe that the interview between Cecily and Sir Peregrine would also go off well.
“Miss Grantham, I do not feel at all the thing,” said Cecily faintly.
Judith turned to look at her and she became instantly alarmed. The girl’s eyes had become fever-bright and there were hectic patches of color in her cheeks. “My dear!” Judith laid a cool hand across Cecily’s brow and her heart plunged. The girl was burning to the touch. “You must be gotten to bed instantly. I shall myself take you up to your room. Only wait one moment so that I may ring for something for the fever to be brought for you.”
Mrs. Nickleby regarded Cecily’s drooping figure in some alarm. She drew back her skirts from possible contamination. “Fever! I do hope that it is not catching. My dear Miss Brown, surely you could have shown more consideration for the rest of us and stayed up in your room if you were ill.”
“I am sorry. I thought at first it was only my nerves that made me feel so peculiar,” said Cecily. She sat down abruptly on a chair. Her flushed face had gone stark white.
Judith stared at Mrs. Nickleby with acute dislike. “Madam, I doubt that any fever would dare take residence in one of your constitution,” she said. Mrs. Nickleby opened and closed her mouth, astonished and confused by the biting setdown.
Judith tugged vigorously on the bell rope. The door to the drawing room was opened instantly by a footman. “John, Miss Brown has been taken ill. Ask Mrs. Wyssop to make up something for her fever. I shall myself help Miss Brown upstairs to her room.” The footman bowed and hurried off on his errand.
Judith put her arm about Cecily’s narrow shoulders and helped her rise from the chair. The girl swayed and Judith steadied her. “There you are, child. I shall not let you fall,” she said gently.
Cecil threw a grateful glance up at her face. “You are unfailingly kind,” she murmured. Judith admonished her not to speak but to concentrate on making her way up the stairs.
When Judith returned from settling Cecily comfortably in bed, she discovered that the gentlemen had taken up residence in the drawing room and that they had been informed by Mrs. Nickleby of Miss Brown’s surprising collapse.
Sir Peregrine looked over at Judith, his visage a bit sardonic. “Protecting her to the last, are you?” he asked.
Judith’s already frayed temper flared. She said coldly, “I do not know what you mean, Sir Peregrine.” She turned her shoulder on him then and smiled encouragingly at Lord Baltor, who inquired rather anxiously of Miss Brown. “Miss Brown has apparently contracted a fever from becoming chilled yesterday, but I daresay that she will presently be much better.”
Lord Baltor was struck with remorse. “It is my fault,” he said hollowly.
“Indeed it was, your lordship. A heavier-handed whipster I hope never to see! It is a wonder any of us escaped with nothing worse than a few bumps after being tossed hurley-burley into the snow,” said Mrs. Nickleby with a decisive nod. She embarked on an involved recital of the accident to the mail coach and her thoughts on the matter.
Judith could not stifle an impatient exclamation. Sir Peregrine had the audacity to laugh. Pointedly ignoring him, Judith pinned a smile to her lips and set herself to endure what was left of what had been for the most part a trying day.
After a moment she heard someone whistling “Good King Wenceslaus”. She turned her head in relief. “Mr. Smith, what a truly happy notion,” she said.
The gentleman broke off in mid-note, disconcerted and faintly alarmed. But Judith was no longer looking at him. “Lord Baltor, let us do as you once suggested and lift the ceiling with a few Christmas carols.” She seated herself at the pianoforte, the top of which was covered with an arrangement of laurel, bay, and rosemary that filled the air with spicy scent.