About the book
He would conquer the heavens to make her his…
After her parents’ separation, Lady Vivien Exter is left at the mercy of the two people she hates the most: her stone-hearted father and the lecherous betrothed he has forced on her. Until she finds herself in the strong arms of a tempting knight.
Francis Farbridge, the Earl of Landon, lost everything overnight. Known as the tragic orphan all his life, he avoids the pitying eyes of the Ton. But the touch of a seductive Lady awakens in him feelings he did not know existed.
Called to face both society’s scorn and the vehement opposition of Vivien’s father, Francis is determined to prove his worth. What he never accounted for was his country estate turning into the scene of two murders: one committed and one waiting to happen. Or the strangely written letters that foresaw them both...
Vivien’s hand trembled as she placed the letter on the stack inside her lap desk, before closing and locking the drawer. It was not much of a lock, anyone with a hair pin and a degree of patience could open it. But what else could she do? Her father would be so angry if he saw these letters.
She swallowed hard, thinking about how he grew red in the face, and became so incensed that spittle flew from his lips. The last time he had been angry, he had gripped her arm so hard it left bruises.
Isla Jones, his mistress, would smirk at her over his shoulder. As if it was not enough that her mother had been given permission to move out of their home as a means to protect her life, her father had scarcely let the ink dry on the decree before openly moving his mistress into their home.
She would be so glad to have me wed and out of this house. How I miss my mother!
A tear trickled down one cheek, and she angrily scrubbed it away.
The first letters had been rather sweet. They had praised her poise, the delicate curve of her cheek. The writer had even been able to turn the wisps of her plain, brown hair into something poetic. Irrepressible, he had called them.
But lately the letters had been more specific, more intimate. This one praised the turn of her ankle when her hem chanced to spin away from it during a dance. Then it waxed poetic, speculating on what lay above that ankle.
Vivien snuffled, and pulled a handkerchief out of her sleeve. She wiped first her eyes, then her nose. She drew in a deep breath, and tried to still her emotions.
I must not let my fear show. If I do, Father and Isla will want to know why I am upset. I cannot show these to Father, he will never believe that I have done nothing to invite such attention.
Vivien drew in another breath. If only her father was like other fathers. How she longed for someone she could count on, instead of always being afraid that she would be punished for the least infraction, or being humiliated when her father appeared in public with his mistress at his side, as if she were his wife.
I must be brave, and I must have faith that there can be good things in my future.
Were it not for her friend, Kitty Wells, daughter of Lord and Lady Mast, she would have no refuge at all. Fortunately, Isla was always glad for her to go visiting, so she spent weeks on end at Mast Manor.
Even so, Vivien felt very alone.
Kitty and Vivien descended from the coach Kitty’s father kept on hand for her use. The footman, John, gave her a wink as he handed her down from the coach.
Seeing Vivien hesitate at the bottom of the steps, Kitty said, “Do not worry a bit. Everything is going to be fine, Vivien. Lady Adams always gives lovely parties. We will dance, have cakes and punch, and meet lots of people.”
“It is that last that worries me,” Vivien said softly. “Are you sure I could not just go back to your house and wait for you there?”
“Absolutely not,” Kitty said firmly. “Come along now, we are holding up the other carriages.
Vivien allowed Kitty to lead her into the bustling townhouse. The front steps were lined with linkboys holding lanterns. Footmen were taking tickets, and a line of butlers were waiting to take cloaks, hats, and umbrellas since it had begun to drizzle.
Vivien allowed one of the butlers to take her shabby old cloak. Fortunately, it revealed a pretty, new gown of the palest peach silk over a darker peach underdress. The scoop neckline revealed her slender neck, adorned with a delicate cameo strung on a bit of peach-colored ribbon. Beneath the embroidered hem of the gown peeped dainty black kid slippers polished to a beautiful shine.
“How lovely you are!” Kitty exclaimed. “Don’t worry about meeting eligible bachelors, just be yourself. You will be all the rage before the evening is out.”
Vivien frowned a little. “I’m not sure I want to be all the rage. And it is not the eligible bachelors who worry me,” she replied. “Father tells me that the Earl of Blythe will be here, and that I am to be especially nice to him. I suspect that Father owes him a ‘debt of honor.’ Although why gambling debts are ‘debts of honor’ while the greengrocer and butcher bills are not, I shall never know.”
“Probably because the greengrocer and butcher will simply cease to deliver,” Kitty commented, while carefully retying the silk bow on her slipper, “Whereas gambling debts can smirch a gentleman’s honor. But now is not the time to worry about the greengrocer, the butcher, or your father’s debts. Tonight, we are going to have fun. I think I see the musicians setting up even as we speak.”
“I believe you are correct,” said Charlotte Aylesworthy, Kitty’s aunt, their chaperone for the evening. “I do hope that your cousin, Francis, will be here. I know that Clark intended to try to persuade him.”
Kitty made a face. “He is always so dull. All he wants to do is find a corner or a bit of drapery and hide behind it.”
“Then you should make it your job to persuade him to come out and join everyone else,” Mrs. Aylesworthy said firmly. “If he is feeling uncomfortable, you can make it your mission to help him feel at ease.”
Kitty mumbled something, but Mrs. Aylesworthy, who was her mother’s next-oldest sister, tapped the young lady with her fan. “I’ll try,” Kitty said dubiously, “But I don’t have great hopes of persuading him.”
Vivien looked from Kitty to Mrs. Aylesworthy, feeling puzzled by this exchange. It must have showed on her face because Kitty explained, “My cousin, Francis, Earl of Landon… you remember him?”
“I think, perhaps. Wasn’t he at the birthday party where you caught one of your side curls on fire in the candles on the cake?”
“The very one. It was my eighth, and I was so excited to have a real party just for me.”
“Yes, I do remember. He was leaning against the wall beside the punch bowl, and he put the fire out by pouring the punch over your head.”
Kitty laughed. “Yes, indeed he did. I wasn’t sure whether to thank him or scream at him because I was a sticky mess.”
“But alive,” Vivien pointed out, “And with only one curl destroyed. But where did he go after? I didn’t see him for the rest of the party. I was disappointed, for a I rather liked him. He was so tall and grave, while the other boys were all silly, teasing each other and all the girls.”
“Back to his room,” Kitty sighed. “When he was four years old, his parents were killed in a carriage accident, and he nearly died as well. For a long time, he could scarcely bear the presence of anyone outside the family. Parties were hard for him, and he was making the effort for me. But the punch bowl incident drew more attention than he could handle.”
“Francis was two-and-ten years old at the time, and trying so hard to overcome his shyness. It was not easy. He had been so overset by the carriage accident,” Mrs. Aylesworthy took up the tale. “I remember when I visited one occasion, and was completely enchanted because he consented to play a game of checkers with me. He won, too, precocious lad that he was. I believe that checker game was the beginning of mastering his afflictions. But he is still quite reserved in company.”
“Which is why,” Kitty put in, “He was extremely embarrassed by all the commotion at the party and quickly hid away.”
“I’d not heard about this,” Vivien said, interested in spite of her general fears about being at Lady Adams’ large party. “How very thoughtful and brave of him, to put the fire out. Why did you not tell me, Kitty?”
Kitty giggled a little. “I am afraid I didn’t appreciate the rescue. I do so dislike being sticky, and my new gown was certainly spoiled. I was angry with Francis for an awfully long time, and have only recently begun to speak with him again.”
Vivien took a moment to remember a slender, gawky boy who had grabbed up the punch bowl, dumped it over Kitty’s head, and then run away from the scene. She had often thought about him, building up his heroism in memory. If only she could have a protector like that!
In her reverie, she nearly missed hearing Mrs. Aylesworthy say, “Oh! There is Lady Adams, our hostess and a particular friend of mine. If you do not mind, my dears, I wish to go catch up with her.”
“That is a deep and thoughtful frown,” Kitty observed, after Mrs. Aylesworthy had hastened away. “Hardly the face to bring to a frolic such as this one.”
Vivien gave herself a mental shake and smiled at Kitty. “It is nothing. Just remembering.”
“I hear the musicians tuning up,” Kitty said. “Shall we go in?”
Vivien swallowed hard. Then, obedient to her friend’s hand on her elbow, she replied, albeit a little shakily, “We shall.”
Inside the ballroom were two great fireplaces, one at either end, with a roaring fire in each. Blazing chandeliers hung from the ceiling, filling the air with the scent of burning beeswax. No cheap tallow candles for this elite gathering.
People were packed in around the edges of the dance floor, filling the outer area so full that one could scarcely walk without brushing against someone. Since glasses of punch were already circulating, this led to more than one spilled drink.
Vivien paused at the threshold, appalled at the noise, a steady susurrus of voices, like a rising tide. On a raised dais along one wall, halfway between the fireplaces, the musicians were tuning up, adding eerie squeaks and squalls to the general cacophony. “Come, come!” Kitty exclaimed. “The fun is just beginning. I’ll take you around and introduce you to people.”
Vivien entered the room, propelled not so much by her friend’s hand on her elbow as by the sight of her father, eyeing her from across the room. Lord Blakesley elbowed aside several people, and met her no more than halfway down the edge of the crush.
“There you are,” he remarked jovially. “I was beginning to think that you had cried off. Remember, I granted you leave to visit Miss Wells on the condition that you attend as many social events as possible. Since this is one of the largest of the season, I expect you to take full advantage of it.”
“Yes, Father,” Vivien murmured, maintaining a dutiful mien. “I am sure I shall enjoy it above all things. Thank you for allowing me this pleasure.”
The words were sawdust in her mouth. She would far rather be in the old nursery at home, or better yet, in some out of the way nook of Kitty’s house. With Kitty’s parents touring Europe, more than half the Mast townhouse was draped beneath dust covers, allowing plenty of places to hide away with a book or a sketch pad.
“You are welcome, Daughter. You are looking exceptionally fine tonight. Go bag yourself a Duke, or at least an Earl. Make me proud. After all, this is your third season. You are getting rather long in the tooth, and shall soon be unmarriageable, especially with all the nonsense your mother inflicted upon me.”
“Of course, Father. I shall do my best.” Vivien cast her eyes downward, hoping that no one had heard the exchange. In such a tightly pressed crowd that was a vain hope, she knew. But perhaps the people nearby did not know either of them.
When the Viscount of Blakesley moved away in the crowd, Kitty whispered, “Did he mean that? Surely he was jesting.”
Vivien shook her head. “Sadly, no. He fully expects my marriage to repair his fortunes.”
“Try not to think about that, and just focus on having fun,” Kitty advised, although not without sympathy. “Look, the musicians have finished tuning and are about to play a real dance.”
Kitty pulled Vivien to the front of the crowd, and almost immediately caught the eye of a young man of her acquaintance. “Mr. Johnson,” she exclaimed when he came up to them. “This is my friend, Miss Vivien Exter. She is staying with me for a few days. Do tell, how was Eton?”
“About as one might expect, Miss Wells. Long stuffy lectures, lots of sports, and no ladies at all. I have quite missed you. I thoroughly enjoyed that lovely midsummer fest your father and mother put forth.”
“Will you be going back?” Kitty asked.
“No, no. I am matriculating out by special dispensation. My father fell off his horse, and requires me at home. I doubt I shall go back, since he is getting on in years. But we are boring your friend. Miss Exter, is it? I’ve met your father.”
Vivien longed for the floor to swallow her up. Of course he had met her father. Had not everyone who was anyone? Or at least any gentleman who could hold cards or attend the races. What could she say to him? “I do hope my father does not owe you money.” Or, “Do not play cards with my father’s cronies, I’m fairly certain more than one of them is cheating.” Aloud she said, “I am pleased to meet you, Mr. Johnson.”
Mr. Johnson turned to another young man who came up just then. “Oh, and here is Mr. Gaither, oldest son of Sir Jamison Gaither. We call him Gate because we had to carry him home on one, more than once. He has the worst luck with fences. But he dances well enough still, don’t you, Gate? Please allow me to introduce my neighbor, Miss Kitty Wells, daughter to the Baron of Mast, and her friend Miss Vivien Exter.”
“Delighted,” Mr. Gaither responded. “Would either of you care to dance?”
Vivien and Kitty both assented to dance. Vivien felt sure that she could feel her father’s eyes burning holes into her back as she moved onto the dance floor supported by a callow schoolboy.
He will be so angry with me. But one must begin somewhere. I can scarcely go through the crowd searching for dukes or earls.
Francis, Earl of Landon, braced himself as the carriage hit another pothole in the London street. In the shadowy lights cast by the carriage lanterns, he looked across the carriage to where Clark Farbridge, his uncle and, until three years ago, his guardian, sat.
“Tell me again, Uncle Clark, why it is that we must stir ourselves out of doors on a wet, rainy November evening to attend a party during the Small Season? It is likely that anyone with sense has already left for their estates. Which is where we should be heading before the weather shuts down.”
“Because, my dear Nephew, you are your father’s only heir other than myself, and I have no heirs at all. If the title and estates are to remain in the family, one of us must wed and start up a nursery. Since I am well past such antics, that someone needs to be you.”
“Uncle, I sincerely doubt we shall meet any eligible young ladies at this ball. Lady Adams is well known for putting on a good show, setting a bad table, and packing in any warm body she can find. It cuts down on the fuel bill, I am told.”
“Nephew! Now that is a cynical way to describe your hostess. Lady Adams is putting on the final crush of the autumn season. Everyone who remains in London will be there, so we should be seen there, also. You have done a fine job of taking over the running of the estates. Just think of this as one more task that is before you.”
“And is not that a rather cynical way of attempting to find a new mistress for Landon? Whatever happened to finding someone I can cherish, appreciate, and perhaps share a laugh or two?”
“Oh, Nephew! All those things are desirable, but you are not going to find them riding across the fields at Landon, checking on the winter wheat crop. If you wish to locate a filly for a young stallion, you must go to the horse market. If you wish to locate a lady for a young lord, you must attend the marriage mart.”
“Now you are just funning me,” Francis protested. “I know very well that is not how you feel, or you would have tried harder to find someone after Lady Cecilia passed on.”
Clark sighed. “She was the love of my life. After losing her to that nasty fever, I had no heart to look for anyone else. Then…” Clark paused and did not go on. Inside a carriage was not a good place to remind his nephew of the loss of his parents.
“Then,” Francis sardonically took up the tale, “My parents were in a carriage accident involving a half-trained team, and I nearly died as well. And you devoted yourself to raising me. I am no longer four years of age, Uncle. I am not likely to have a fit of hysterics in this carriage, especially since to do so would likely spook the horses.”
“Well, well,” his uncle said, “You must admit that I did rather have my hands full with raising you and seeing after the estates until your majority. Who knows? Perhaps I shall meet some rich widow and set up a household of my own now that you are of age.”
“I do believe you would make some lady a delightful lord, Uncle Clark. Perhaps you should find one with a gaggle of half-grown lordlings since you already have had a great deal of practice as a guardian.”
“Now you are just being cruel, Nephew. I am enjoying my freedom. My single state aside, it is important that you find a wife and you will not find one in the villages and countryside near Landon. Especially since more than half the neighbors are related to us in one way or another.”
Francis heaved a gusty sigh, as much for the dramatic effect and to irritate his uncle than from any real ennui. “Very well, if I must go hunting for a bride among the ton, I suppose Lady Adams’ over-blown crush will be as good a place as any.”
“That’s the spirit,” his uncle encouraged him. “Who knows? You might discover than an evening of conversing, dancing, and meeting people can be enjoyable.”
“Now you are going too far, Uncle.”
Further conversation ended as the carriage drew up in front of a fine townhouse, with wide marble steps and a row of footmen with umbrellas waiting to usher them inside.
The sounds of a lively dance tune greeted them as they divested themselves of their outerwear, handing off greatcoats and hats to the waiting line of butlers.
“It seems they have started without us,” Clark remarked jovially.
Indeed, as they wormed their way into the ballroom, past the frieze of onlookers, a lively country dance was in progress. As the dancers spun past, Francis asked, “Is that not Cousin Kitty? Do you suppose she has forgiven me for the punch bowl incident?”
“Long since,” Clark replied. “If you would stop bringing it up, I believe she would even forget about it.”
“I rather doubt it,” Francis replied. “She does so hate to be sticky. On the other hand, I believe she would have been more distressed had her curl set light to that gauzy muslin she was wearing, while I would have been deprived of one of my favorite playmates.”
“I do remember that you had good times,” Clark nodded, although the gesture was lost in the press of the crowd. “Too bad that she is your first cousin.”
“Oh, even were she not, I doubt that Kitty and I would do well as man and wife. It usually took less than a day for her to start pouting about some imagined fault or other. I’ll admit that when I saw her at Midsummer, I found that she had grown up rather well.”
The set ended just then, and a tall young gentleman who had been partnering Kitty caught sight of them. With a word or two, he ushered his partner, and her friend and partner, over to them.
“I say,” the tall gentleman said, “It has been a while, Landon. I am guessing you are well acquainted with Miss Wells, but I would like to make known to you Miss Vivien Exter, and Mr. Edmund Gaither. Gate, Miss Exter. Francis, Earl of Landon, was my upper classman mentor and sometimes tutor.”
Miss Exter seemed to be speechless, somehow stunned by the introductions. There was a look of surprised awe upon her face, as if she could not believe her eyes or ears.
Then her dance partner said, “So this is the legendary Landon who got Johnson through Algebra and Geometry. I stand amazed.”
“Be easy, Gaither,” Francis replied. “Johnson was doing well enough, he only needed a little boost over the top. He returned the favor by coaching me through the physical requirements.”
“At which he needed very little coaching,” Johnson put in. “All he required was a fencing partner, which suited us both very well. But gentlemen, we are boring the ladies. Miss Wells, Miss Exter, might I sign up for more dances? I can, I believe, have two more from Miss Wells, and I have not yet danced with Miss Exter. Landon, you could do worse than to dance with them, they both know the latest steps.”
Clark nudged Francis surreptitiously. “I shall be glad to help fill up their dance cards,” Francis said, responding to the elbow and accepting the stubby pencil handed him by his cousin, Kitty. He was not sure what impulse prompted him, but he signed Miss Exter’s card for the French quadrille scheduled just before the supper. This meant that he would be expected to escort her to the evening repast.
Just as he had finished writing his name on three lines of Miss Exter’s dance card Dixon, Earl of Blythe, bustled up.
“I do hope you have saved a dance for me, Miss Exter,” he said, practically snatching the pencil and card from her hands before she could hand it to Mr. Johnson.
Miss Exter looked disconcerted, but her gaze was not on Lord Blythe who was happily scribbling away. Instead, Francis realized, her attention was on an older man who stood nearby, with an ugly glower on his face.
Kitty retrieved Miss Exter’s dance card and clicked her tongue. “Now, Lord Blythe, you know you can only sign up for three dances and that you cannot fill up Miss Exter’s dance card in this manner. I saw Lady Jersey sitting with Lady Adams, and they are sure to be counting the number of times each lady dances with a gentleman. Surely you do not wish for us to be barred for defying the rules.”
Kitty leaned in toward the gentleman confidingly, “I can see that you like her very much, so which three dances would you like most particularly?”
Lord Blythe frowned at the card, “I have her father’s permission,” he said. “I cannot see how it is that our hostess can dictate with whom we dance.”
Clark chuckled. “It is all about the numbers, My Lord. To make sure that every young lady and young lord have a chance on the dance floor, the ton elders decreed that a young lady should dance no more than three dances with a single partner. There was a time during the war when it was difficult to get enough gentlemen in attendance. If one of them devoted himself exclusively to a single lady, then many of the young ladies would be standing forlorn beside the dance floor.”
“Oh, I see,” Lord Blythe paused in thought a moment. “But I have her father’s permission.”
“Unless he has spoken with the hostess and she has approved, exclusivity is strictly forbidden,” Clark gently remonstrated. “Besides, both you and the young lady in question will have a much better time if your charms and hers are shared.”
Lord Blythe seemed puzzled by Clark’s tone, but Francis recognized it as the voice he used with a servant who was one error away from dismissal. “Now be a good fellow,” Clark urged, “And remove the excess signatures. You would not want Miss Exter to be barred from attending these parties. Imagine how difficult it would be to see her socially.”
“Oh, very well,” Lord Blythe said, accepting a bit of erasing rubber from Kitty. “But I shall speak to your father, Miss Exter. I have his permission to pay my addresses to you.”
Miss Exter seemed to turn a little pale, but she maintained her equanimity as she accepted her card back. “Thank you for keeping us in our hostesses’ good graces,” she said. “One would scarcely wish to ask for an exception when this is my first time attending one of Lady Adams’ famous crushes.”
The next dance was another lively country dance, so it scarcely mattered who one was partnered with in the beginning. Francis had put his name down on Kitty’s card for this dance, but was quickly whirled away from both the young ladies as he passed down the line of dancers.
Before long, however, he found himself palm to palm with Miss Exter, gazing just for a moment into beautiful hazel eyes, set in a slender face framed by soft, brown hair that was escaping its pins in little tendrils. Her bewitching Cupid’s bow mouth was slightly open with the effort of trying to breath without drawing attention to her bosom, which was tantalizingly concealed with a drift of peach gauze, sprinkled with tiny bits of something sparkling.
Before he could commit the social gaffe of staring, she was whisked away into the figures of the dance. It was fortunate that his next partner was Kitty, for he fumbled a step before getting back into the dance pattern. That saucy miss simply giggled at him, and gave him a wink before she, too, was whisked down the line of dancers.
His final partner for the set was an older woman who thanked him for following the figures correctly before she ambled off to join some friends at the edge of the crowd. Francis then looked around and spotted Miss Exter and Kitty standing with Mr. Johnson, Lord Blythe, Mr. Gaither, and two young ladies he did not recognize.
Francis hurried around the edge of the dancers to join the group. He was introduced to the other two ladies, but promptly forgot their names. His focus was on Miss Exter as the four couples arranged themselves in a square, for the next dance was the new French quadrille.
His uncle, Clark, had enrolled both of them in dancing classes as soon as they arrived in town. Now, Francis saw the sense of it. The French quadrille was complex, beginning with a part where the ladies had to skip backwards. The following figures were intricate, and had to be nicely timed to avoid running afoul of the other dancers.
Miss Exter flowed through the figure with grace, like a flower petal on the wind. Her dainty feet kept time perfectly, without revealing so much as a hint of ankle. Her back was straight, her eyes shining with enjoyment. Her hands in his, when they met in the pattern of the dance, were perfectly placed, neither flinching from him nor clinging. In truth, she was the perfect partner, and he found himself hoping they would have the chance to become better acquainted as the evening progressed.
At the end of the dance, he offered her his arm, and she placed her hand with perfect propriety on top of his wrist. “That was quite enjoyable,” he said. “You dance beautifully.”
“You also dance very well,” she replied, her slight bosom heaving only a little as she caught her breath. Exertion, and the heat of the room had brought a glow to her face, and a tantalizing scent of something floral tickled his senses.
“Shall we go to supper?” he asked solicitously. “Dancing is nearly as tasking as hunting or marching. I declare I am quite famished.”
“I am told that a lady never admits to appetite,” Miss Exter smiled up at him, “but I do not find the thought of food repulsive.”
The dining hall was arranged so that four people could share a table. Francis had just seated Miss Exter when Kitty came their way with Lord Blythe in tow. At these affairs, the gentlemen were expected to procure refreshments for themselves and for the ladies, but it quickly became clear that Lord Blythe expected a waiter to appear to serve him.
Francis realized that unless something was said or done quickly, he would have the burden of providing for the entire table. As he rose slowly, Miss Exter recognized his dilemma. “Allow us to help, Lord Landon,” she said, rising as well.
“I will also help,” Kitty said quickly.
As the three of them moved away from the table, Kitty said softly, “I am so sorry. Mr. Johnson and Mr. Gaither were called away, and I could find no excuse to get rid of him.”
“It is all right,” Miss Exter comforted her friend.
Francis added, “He’s a mushroom, a regular April squire, but we shall contrive to have a good time in spite of him.”
Kitty giggled at this, and Miss Exter smiled. “Thank you, Lord Landon,” she said. “It would be too bad to spoil Kitty’s evening.”
“Or yours,” Francis said. “Or mine, for that matter. I did not want to come, but I am beginning to quite enjoy myself.”
Miss Exter smiled up at him at that comment, the expression warming her hazel eyes, hinting at passion in their depths. “So am I, Lord Landon. Very much so.”
Engaged in collecting viands for themselves, and even for the truculent lord waiting at the table, they did not notice the heavy frown Lord Blythe cast their way, or when he got up and conversed a moment with Lord Blakesley before sitting down again.
Vivien became aware that there was something wrong shortly after they returned to the table. They had just sat down and were sharing the food, when she looked up and saw her father glaring at her from three tables away. He tapped on the edge of the table, signifying that she should attend him.
Vivien felt the color drain from her face. “Pray excuse me for a moment,” she said. “My father wants me. I shall be back shortly.”
“Do not forget that we are dancing the waltz right after dinner,” Lord Blythe reminded her, around a mouthful of the food they had brought over.
“I have not forgotten, Lord Blythe,” Vivien replied. “Your name is on my card. I simply need to speak with my father, then I will return.”
“Put in a good word for me,” Lord Blythe encouraged ingratiatingly, “I’m sure he’ll want to hear how many times we are dancing together.”
Vivien snapped a look at him, then went to speak with her father.
“Let me see that dance card,” Rupert Exter, Viscount of Blakesley, said to his daughter. “Just as I thought. Frittering away your time at my expense. Why does Lord Blythe have only three dances on your card? And who is this Francis L.? Is he the other person seated at your table? And what about this Johnson fellow you danced with earlier?”
“Dearest Father,” Vivien began ingratiatingly, “If I dance more than three times with anyone our hostess will think I am very fast, or at the least setting my cap for the gentleman. Unless you wish me to be the latest on dit, allow me to keep all within the bounds of courtesy.”
“She right, ya know,” drawled one of Lord Blakeley’s table companions, “Mustn’t look too eager. Fish will get off the hook. Hostess might ban her. No more parties, no more suitors.” The fellow raised his glass, “To opportunity!” He gulped from the glass, then hiccupped. “Ish only right, ya know.”
“Montgomery, I think you’ve had a few too many,” said the third of Lord Blakeley’s companions. “All the same…”
“Yes, yes, I understand,” Lord Blakesley waved off the gentleman’s explanation with a shooing motion of one hand. “Rules of the hostess, reputation… but the gel does not have a reputation to speak of, thanks to her mother. Need to get her married off while there is a chance.” Then he turned to Vivien. “Furthermore, Vivien Leanna Exter, if you are concerned about your reputation you will mind who you are speaking with. Lord Blythe is kindly paying most particular attention to you, a favor you should keep in mind and not go cutting capers with some young jackanapes.”
Vivien felt her face flush hot. “Yes, Father.” It was the only possible answer, and even that might not keep him from punishing her when she returned home. She stood very still and looked down at her hands.
The fourth gentleman at the table, a hard, cold-eyed man, simply smiled lazily. “My pot,” he said. “Are you in or out for the next deal, Lord Blakesley?”
“In,” Lord Blakesley replied. “I need to make back my losses, Naven.”
“That is Lord Naven to you,” the fellow said. “I’ll be glad to take the rest of your ready. Do you have enough to ante up? Or would you like to wager the hand of your lovely daughter?”
“Lord Naven, I have no interest in wagering the hand of a young woman nearly betrothed.” Lord Blakesley extracted some rumpled notes from a pocket and threw them on the table. “I’m making an investment in you, young lady. Be a good girl, and make up for what your mother has cost me. You’ll dance with Blythe, be nice to him, and if he asks you to marry, you will say yes.”
“L’il prefi-us,” Montgomery commented, tossing his bet on the table. “Since Lord Blythe has not come up to the mark and proposed yet. Might want to shet the hook ‘for reeling in the fissssshhhh.” He drew out the sibilant on the last word.
Vivien glanced over her shoulder at her table companions. “Please, Father, you and your friends are embarrassing us. Everyone will hear you.”
“Just do your duty, Daughter. You need to make a good marriage so I can recoup my investment.”
Vivien bowed her head in a slight curtsey. “I will do my best, Father. May I be excused to go back to my companions?”
“Go, go,” Lord Blakesley waved his hand. “I’ve no further need of you just now.”
Vivien stepped away from her father, struggling to maintain her poise. How utterly humiliating and embarrassing. Bad enough that he treated her this way at home, but to be called out in public was beyond bearing. She kept her head high as she returned to the table, blinking rapidly for a moment to keep back tears.
By the time she had traversed the distance, she felt that she had herself under control.
“Is everything all right?” Kitty asked.
“Quite,” Vivien replied. “Father simply had a few instructions for me since I am not to go home for a fortnight.”
“Is that indeed so?” Lord Blythe asked. “I was not aware of this.”
“I am promised two weeks to visit with my friend,” Vivien said firmly. “We have not seen each other for some time.”
Kitty caught up the idea, and reinforced it. “That is so,” she said. “We have several parties to attend and a sight-seeing junket or two. Perhaps we will see you at some of the events,” she said, waving her ostrich plume fan about.
Lord Blythe seemed about to say something, then seeing Lord Landon’s lowering expression, he apparently thought better of it. “Then I must make the best of my time this evening,” he said, stuffing a whole comfit in his mouth, then speaking around it. “I believe I hear the musicians tuning up.”
Vivien swallowed hard, just managing not to step back from Lord Blythe. He had a smudge of icing at the corner of his mouth, and she was sure that his hands were smeared with the same stuff. “Perhaps we could call for a finger bowl,” she said hesitantly, not wishing to boldly tell the gentleman that he was slightly less than presentable.
Lord Landon came to the rescue. “Why do we not go for a brief stroll, Lord Blythe, and give the ladies a chance to freshen up.”
“That is a lovely idea,” Kitty endorsed the thought, since she, too, had seen the sugary smear and had a horror of being sticky. If they were dancing in a set, Vivien would not be the only one to endure sugary palms.
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