Wiltshire County, England, 1811
This was dangerous. If she bit her lip any harder, thought Livia Stuart, it would probably begin to bleed, sending a bright red rivulet dripping down her chin, and end up staining — in a spectacularly uncouth way — the bodice of her gown.
The bodice of the gown which, Cecily had casually mentioned, was hers from two years ago.
“And you’ve altered it so cleverly, I scarcely recognized it.” Cecily’s voice was soft and friendly, but in her pretty blue eyes there was, unmistakably, the gleam of cruel mischief. “I knew, of course, from the color, which is no longer quite in fashion.”
Short of telling Cecily to stuff it, there didn’t really seem anything Livia could say, but she was spared the necessity of trying to think up something polite when Lady Glanville, Cecily’s mother, turned her gaze to Livia and subjected her person to a comprehensive scrutiny.
“Indeed,” her ladyship finally said, with the gravity of one considering a matter of deep existential import. “That particular shade of rose was very popular. Princess Charlotte, I believe, favored it highly. I’m not at all certain, however, that it’s suitable for one of your coloring, Livia dear. It complements fair hair, such as Cecily’s, as well as a pale complexion, like hers. I’m sorry to say that you are rather brown.”
“She would be out of doors so much,” Aunt Bella interpolated in her vague, melancholy way. “I’ve told her repeatedly how injurious it is to both health and appearance, but I do not think Livia attends to me.” She sighed gustily, sending the faded ribbons of her cap a-fluttering. “I do not think anyone attends to me. I do not think I am listened to by—”
“Far be it from me to pontificate,” said Lady Glanville, “but one ought not to dwell on oneself, you know. We must always think of others. As Cecily does, for example. She could give her cast-off gowns to her maids, as most other young ladies do, but instead she insists that dear little Livia have them. It’s quite touching, really.”
“Your Uncle Charles doesn’t give you a dress allowance, does he, Livia?” Cecily’s tone was sympathetic. Too sympathetic. “But then, you don’t go anywhere, so perhaps it doesn’t matter a great deal.”
“No,” Livia answered flatly. “No, it doesn’t matter at all.”
Now it was Lady Glanville who audibly sighed as she glanced around the large drawing-room with its dated, shabby furniture, the wallpaper from a generation ago pockmarked with ghostly rectangles where valuable paintings had once hung but had since been sold. “It’s dreadfully lowering,” she said, “to see a gentleman’s family so reduced. Why, it was only ten years ago that we met nearly as equals.”
Livia felt her teeth grit. She’d been forced to participate in these occasional morning visits from Cecily — the Honorable Miss Orr — and her mother — the Right Honorable Viscountess Glanville — for years. Because they were wealthy and highborn, apparently their arrogance and rudeness were to be endured. Livia clenched her hands tightly in the folds of her gown.
“Well, there’s no use in dwelling on what can’t be changed,” went on Lady Glanville. “I am afraid that life simply isn’t fair. A disagreeable fact, but what can one do? Now, do stop frowning, Livia dear, for I’m delighted to tell you we’ve come for the express purpose of offering a little treat.”
“I’m all ears, ma’am,” replied Livia with what had to be obvious sarcasm, but Lady Glanville only said, with her arctic smile:
“We are hosting a ball next week. It shall be a kind of début for Cecily. In addition—”
“Mr. Gabriel Penhallow and his grandmother, Mrs. Penhallow, come to visit us!” Cecily said breathlessly. “The Penhallows! Of Surmont Hall! We met Mrs. Penhallow in Bath a few months ago. She wrote us a letter. He’s going to—”
“My dear Cecily, pray refrain from interrupting. It is most unbecoming,” said her ladyship. “As you know, Bella, earlier in the summer I insisted that Lord Glanville go to Bath in order to drink from the waters. His gout, unfortunately, had been paining him a great deal. The nobleman’s affliction! And I thought Cecily might benefit from mixing in a wider society, for it is sadly limited in this neighborhood. There are, alas, so few families of our caliber. As both the daughter of an earl and as a viscountess, I fear I cannot but be aware of how limited our acquaintance must necessarily be. Yet one must, in these rackety modern times, sometimes unbend, and here we are.”
“Too, too kind,” Aunt Bella murmured, evidently with real, if muzzy, gratitude. She took a sip from the delicate crystal glass on the little table at her elbow. In it was her cordial which, Livia knew, was heavily laced with laudanum.
Lady Glanville nodded serenely, and the peacock feathers in her elaborate silk turban waved gently, as if in agreement. “While in Bath, we had occasion to observe Mrs. Penhallow in the Pump Room. I distinctly noticed her looking at Cecily but, naturally, would not have dreamed of encroaching upon her. An earl’s daughter is as nothing compared to her. The Penhallows came to England with the Conqueror, you know, and it’s said that the Conqueror bowed to them. Thus, imagine our gratification when she sent the Master of Ceremonies to us, so that he could escort us to her and perform the introduction.”
“My knees were positively shaking!” Cecily put in. “But I curtsied quite well, didn’t I, Mama?”
“Creditably so. I had no occasion to blush. I must plume myself on my foresight in having you practice curtsying before we left for Bath. An hour a day works wonders. But I digress. Mrs. Penhallow and I spoke for some fifteen minutes, and at the risk of seeming boastful I must say that she was condescension itself! We discussed the weather and the dreadful state of the roads. I happened to mention Lord Glanville’s gout, and she recommended a treatment which—”
Her ladyship went on to recount further details of her conversation with the redoubtable Mrs. Penhallow, a personage of whom Livia knew nothing and cared less. Bored, she stopped listening and instead she looked at the rapt, lovely face of Cecily as she hung on her mother’s every word.
Not for the first time, Livia thought how uncannily Cecily resembled the china shepherdesses Aunt Bella had once collected — it was that shining hair of hers, the color of new straw, those cornflower-blue eyes, that pale, creamy skin. Today she wore an exquisite long-sleeved gown of the finest, whitest cambric, which set off her willowy figure to perfection; from underneath its lacy appliquéd hem peeped dainty kid slippers with pretty little pink rosettes. Livia resisted the urge to glare at her own slippers, very old, very run-down.
Instead she looked over at Aunt Bella (her slippers weren’t much better), who kept her sleepy gaze fixed on Lady Glanville as she droned on, occasionally murmuring “Indeed” and “How delightful.” She lay half-reclining on her sofa, draped in innumerable shawls, some of which puddled forgotten on the floor. Aunt Bella suffered from an extensive variety of ailments, none of which she ever openly discussed, all of which she treated with her cordial which she described, nebulously, as a superior medicinal. She spent a good deal of her time dozing in this room, with only a cage of small birds to keep her company.
Livia glanced at them now, huddling on their perches. Their cage was set near the window, but because Aunt Bella had an aversion to sunlight at all times, the heavy greenish-black drapes were drawn as was her custom and the drawing-room was gloomy and dim. It felt like she was underwater, Livia thought. Drowning. At least she would escape this room, for eventually this epically awful morning-call would end, but those little birds were trapped.
Quietly she stood and went to them. They looked at her without moving, their eyes dark, soft, pitifully dull. Livia inched the drapes apart and a welcome beam of sunlight illuminated the cage.
“—and after kindly informing me that my color was a trifle high, Mrs. Penhallow advised a diet of dry toast with a small quantity of pickled onions to stimulate the juices of digestion, for which she very generously divulged the receipt.”
“How delightful,” said Aunt Bella. “Livia, close those drapes at once.”
Sulkily Livia obeyed and returned to her seat.
“In short, it was a most gratifying exchange,” said Lady Glanville, “and concluded with Mrs. Penhallow actually offering two fingers to shake. I don’t know when I’ve been more pleased! You may therefore envision with what transports I received a letter from Mrs. Penhallow just a few days ago.”
She withdrew from her large beaded reticule a folded sheet. “My dear Bella, rejoice with us! Mrs. Penhallow writes that her grandson, Gabriel Penhallow, is in London, having returned from several years abroad. ‘He and I agree that it is high time that he marry and ensure the succession,’” Lady Glanville read aloud. She took a deep breath, causing her already prominent bosom to swell prodigiously.
“Only listen! ‘Your daughter, Cecily, seems to me to be a most suitable candidate. Her demeanor is ladylike and her movements graceful. I perceived, too, that her teeth are good. Following our propitious meeting at the Pump Room, I of course had my man of business thoroughly examine your situation in life and your family lines. Your fortune is sufficient and, aside from a slight taint of trade arising from mercantile activities during the time of Queen Elizabeth, I find your ancestry to be acceptable.’”
Lady Glanville cleared her throat. “I need hardly say that those activities occurred on Lord Glanville’s side of the family.”
“Indeed,” Aunt Bella murmured.
“So they are coming here!” burst out Cecily excitedly. “So that Mr. Penhallow can meet me!”
“It is an honor quite overwhelming,” said her ladyship. “We’ve entirely put off our plans for Cecily’s Season. Naturally Mrs. Penhallow most specifically states that no promises have been tendered, but she makes it very clear that should Mr. Penhallow find Cecily agreeable, we may expect to promptly receive an offer of marriage.”
“They say he’s one of the most eligible men on the Marriage Mart!” Cecily said happily, her blue eyes sparkling. “He is so wealthy, too! Only think of my jewels and carriages! I shall move in quite the highest, most fashionable circles!”
Remarkably, Livia thought, Cecily had no objection to being inspected as if she were some sort of prize heifer. And if the fabled Mr. Penhallow were to deem Cecily an acceptable wife, why, what a perfect match it would be. So perfectly, terribly romantic. She felt her lip curling in a sneer she just barely managed to repress.
Cecily now smiled at Livia with that same kindly air. “And I won’t be too grand to forget you, Livia dear. Your future must be thought of, too. I don’t suppose I’ll be able to arrange a match for you — that would be reaching a little too high — but perhaps I could ask among my new acquaintance if they might need a governess. That, I daresay, would suit you admirably. Not quite belowstairs, but elevated above the other servants.” Then she lifted her delicate blond eyebrows. “Oh, dear, no, it would be impossible, wouldn’t it? You’ve had no training. But perhaps I can find something for you by and by, once I’m Mrs. Penhallow. Perhaps even in my own household. Wouldn’t that be jolly?”
“Well, well,” Lady Glanville said indulgently, “let’s not get ahead of ourselves, my dear. You are not Mrs. Penhallow yet. Although I doubt that Mr. Penhallow will meet with a prettier girl anywhere, here or abroad.” She folded the letter and with conspicuous care put it back into her reticule. “We must be on our way. There’s a vast deal yet to do, for the Penhallows arrive the day after tomorrow. Our ball will be, I may say without false modesty, exceptional. All the neighborhood gentry are to come.”
“And you,” Cecily said, still smiling sweetly at Livia, “are invited too. And dear Mrs. Stuart, of course.”
“Too, too kind.” Livia could tell her face was getting red with the effort of remaining civil.
“I know you do not dance, not having had the benefit of a master,” Lady Glanville told her, “but you must come, find yourself a quiet little corner, and enjoy the decorations. We are doing up the ballroom in the Egyptian style. Quite a hundred pounds have been spent on potted palms alone.”
“How delightful.” The hot flush was spreading down her neck.
“Yes, yes, delightful,” Aunt Bella said to Lady Glanville, struggling feebly to sit a little more upright, “but you know I don’t go out. Charles must take her.”
Her ladyship smiled archly. “I knew such would be the case. Lord Glanville sent a message to that effect. He is bringing up from the cellar some Spanish port and trusts Charles will share it with him.”
“Oh, he’ll go then,” answered Aunt Bella, visibly relieved and sinking back onto her cushions. “How nice for you, Livia.”
“Yes, and we brought some more of my old gowns for you,” added Cecily. “My maid has them in the hall. Perhaps one of them might suit you for the ball. Though you are wider than I am.”
“My Cecily is quite the soul of benevolence, is she not, dear Bella? Well, Livia, you must be anxious to see your new dresses. Why don’t you run along, and retrieve them from Cecily’s maid. What fun you shall have.”
She had been dismissed. Livia rose and after dipping the briefest of curtsies in Lady Glanville’s direction, went to the door with long strides, so angry that she felt she had to get out of there or explode. Behind her she heard Aunt Bella saying in a soft little bleat, “Livia! No word of gratitude! Pray come back!” Instead, she closed the door with exaggerated gentleness and leaned against it for a moment.
By the bannister stood a maidservant with an armful of gowns. With a muttered sentence of thanks Livia took them and hurried upstairs to her room where with savage satisfaction she flung the gowns against the wall, leaving them to lie in a crumpled heap on the floor. She paced back and forth, back and forth, until the red haze of rage subsided. Then she went to her bed and dropped full-length upon it with unladylike abandon, causing the old wood frame to creak alarmingly.
It was stupid of her, she knew, to react like that to the Orrs. But it was hard, so hard, when Cecily had everything and she had so very little. No parents, no brothers or sisters; no money, no education, no prospects.
Your future must be thought of, too.
It was strange, now that she considered it, how little time she had spent thinking about her future. Possibly because there was no point to it. In her existence here she was like a great hoary tree, deeply, immovably, rooted into the earth. She couldn’t even hang onto the morbid hope of inheriting anything from Uncle Charles when he died. He’d run through most of Aunt Bella’s money ages ago, and year by year everything had slowly declined, dwindled, faded away. Now there wasn’t much left; the estate barely brought in enough for Aunt Bella to pay for her cordial, and for Uncle Charles to spend his days hunting, drinking, and eating. Speaking of romantic marriages.
Well, it could be worse. At least she didn’t have a mother like that revolting Lady Glanville. Imagine having her breathing down one’s neck all day.
Still, this was only a small consolation.
A very small consolation.
Livia thought about Cecily’s beautiful white gown and those elegant kid slippers with the dainty pink rosettes.
It was those rosettes that did it.
Envy, like a nasty little knife slipping easily into soft flesh, seemed to pierce her very soul.
Abruptly Livia twisted onto her side and stared at nothing.
She would not cry.
Crying never helped anything.
There came to her, suddenly, the memory of the first time she had met Cecily, some twelve years ago; they’d both been around six. Cecily and her mother had come to call. Livia, recently arrived from faraway India, desperately lonely, was so anxious to be friends with the lovely, beautifully dressed girl with the long shining curls. Shyly she had approached, trying to smile, and Cecily had responded by saying in a clear, carrying voice:
“Oh, you’re the little orfin girl. Your papa was sent away from here and he died. And your grandpapa was a runaway and he drownded. And your mama drownded, too. Why is your skin so brown? Are you dirty?” And she had backed away, to hide behind the skirts of her mother Lady Glanville, who had said to her, with that same cold smile that never reached her eyes, “Poor little Livia isn’t a native, my dear, she’s every bit as English as you and I. The sun shines quite fiercely in India, and she had no mama or papa to make sure she stayed under her parasol. Do you see?”
Livia had never forgotten the burning sense of shame from that day. Nor had Cecily made it any easier, for from time to time she would laughingly recall the occasion of their first meeting and how she had thought Livia to be unwashed, as if it was the funniest anecdote in all the world.
Livia did not like to remember, even if only hazily, how when she was four, the monsoon season struck Kanpur with devastating onslaughts of rain. Both her widowed mother and her grandfather had died in a great flood, and it was with grudging reluctance that Uncle Charles had sent money for his niece’s passage to England.
Upon arriving in Wiltshire, Livia was not so much welcomed into the home — if such the ancient, rambling domicile known as Ealdor Abbey could be so termed — of Uncle Charles and Aunt Bella, as absorbed. Aside from grumbling within earshot about the expense of feeding her, Uncle Charles barely noticed her. Aunt Bella, childless, somnolent, always unwell, with interest in neither society nor useful occupation, accepted Livia’s presence without a blink but also without care or concern for the little girl for whom she was, ostensibly, responsible.
Oh, you’re the little orfin girl. Livia smiled without humor. Yes indeed, Cecily certainly had a knack for getting to the heart of things.
Gabriel Penhallow rode alongside the large, old-fashioned, perfectly sprung coach in which sat his grandmother and her companion Miss Cott. Its stately black panels as always were polished to a blinding gleam. Behind the coach, at a respectful distance, followed the light carriage bearing her dresser and maidservant as well as his valet, along with an astonishing quantity of his grandmother’s luggage.
He turned his head to look inside and saw his grandmother dozing, sitting bolt upright and her mouth firmly closed. Even in her sleep she was indomitable, he thought with a flicker of amusement. Miss Cott, slim and short, sat opposite Grandmama, gray hair tucked neatly inside her serviceable bonnet and holding in her lap her employer’s enormous jewelry case. She was gazing out the window, away from Gabriel, her expression calm and remote.
He had known Miss Cott nearly all his life, and never once had he seen her shaken from her pleasant equanimity, no matter how extreme were Grandmama’s outbursts of impatience or anger. Or how frequent her orders to move a sofa cushion, freshen her pot of tea, fetch a stepstool, ring for a maidservant, write a dozen letters, rearrange flowers in a vase, summon the doctor, even put on a different shawl not so distasteful to her employer.
In point of fact, his grandmother was not an easy person to be around. Both his parents having died in the typhus epidemic of 1791 that swept through Somerset, Grandmama had been his guardian since he was seven, and he remembered being secretly glad to have been sent away to Eton, and even gladder as a young man, after a few obligatory years spent in Society, to have seized the opportunity to travel across Europe as a member of the Diplomatic Corps. Between Grandmama’s relentless pressure to marry, and the brazen machinations of ambitious mothers and their wily daughters, he’d had enough of the so-called gentler sex. Experience among the ton had taught him that women were, evidently, crafty and manipulative creatures, vain, shallow, their heads full only of dresses, parties, gossip, intrigues, conquests.
All in all, a dead bore.
He had been happy to seek his pleasures elsewhere, sensibly, in the arms of well-paid courtesans, with whom there was no need to pretend he was interested in Lady Jersey’s latest on-dits about who had been dampening their petticoats, or how much the Regent (then still the Prince of Wales) had spent on new boots, and so on.
When finally the government had summoned him back to England, and released him from service with thanks, he’d been forced to admit that Grandmama was right — about one thing, at least. He was nearly thirty years old and he could no longer ignore the obligations of his station. He needed to marry and produce offspring. There was a nursery, long empty, at Surmont Hall.
Not that he had any particular intention of returning to the Hall. It was merely a place where he’d lived for a few years of his childhood. What would he do there, anyway? For a man used to active occupation, to utilizing his intellect each and every day, life in the country was bound to be unutterably dull. Besides, the bailiff — what was his name? Edwards? Eckers? No: Eccles. Eccles ran the place quite competently.
It all came down to one thing.
He could certainly choose where he lived, but he couldn’t choose not to marry.
There had been a time, in his early twenties, after he’d nearly been maneuvered right into the proverbial ball and shackle . . . Good Lord, that fiendish Lady Washbourne, so mind-bogglingly determined that the world would have been an infinitely better place had she deployed her talents in the pursuit of something useful, like a cure for cholera. Her daughter, a beautiful half-wit, somehow ending up in his carriage made more than a little drunk and obediently prepared to yield up her virtue to him: it had been rather startling to discover in this way her ladyship’s estimation of his character, her assumption that he was so animalistic in his desires that he’d cheerfully ravish an innocent girl — one, moreover, who couldn’t even sit up straight on her own — and then, of course, marry her at once. What a tangle that had been, getting her safely returned home and himself neatly extricated from an absurd and awkward situation. He knew that any hint of scandal would enrage his grandmother; he didn’t fear her outbursts, but he owed her, at least, the courtesy of an unsullied reputation.
After that charming little debacle, he’d toyed with the idea of remaining unwed, and allowing the Hall to eventually pass into the hands of his cousin Hugo Penhallow. He was a nice young chap, good-tempered, poor as a church mouse, Army-mad. As soon as Gabriel had come into his inheritance he’d set up Hugo with an allowance and purchased his commission. The lad was now roiling about the so-called United States, happy as a lark.
But there was no certainty that madcap Hugo would return alive and whole, leaving open the ominous possibility of the heir being his distant Scottish cousin Alasdair Penhallow who, if the rumors were correct, was a most unsavory fellow as well as being irremediably stupid.
Before long, he’d come to accept his fate. The Penhallows had been arranging dynastic marriages for decades — centuries, really. He would wed and do his duty, but aside from the congress necessary to create progeny, he and his wife would lead separate lives. It was the Penhallow way. Besides, he wasn’t in any danger of giving way to maudlin sentimentality about his lot in life. Generally speaking, he was a fortunate man, blessed with intelligence, good health, and a substantial fortune; too, he wasn’t some callow lad, pining away in the quest for some kind of grand idealized love.
No, he had business to transact.
And luckily, Grandmama had spared him the tedium of having to search for a bride.
Some months ago she had left Bath — where she’d been ensconced for many years — and made her way to London. There she had taken occupancy of the family townhouse in Berkeley Square and proceeded to spend the Season looking for a worthy young lady. Invited everywhere and universally fawned upon, she attended breakfasts, teas, dinner parties, assemblies, balls, Almack’s; indefatigably had she searched, interviewed, investigated. Her letters came to him bristling with detailed reports.
Angrily, she wrote that this earl’s daughter was already affianced, and that duke’s girl had just gotten married; their available sisters were too young, or too old, or had a squint, or teeth that made one blench. The girls of a fine old family from the North would have been considered if not for their abject lack of fortune. One otherwise promising young lady, Grandmama had learned to her fury, had been concealing the ugly fact of an uncle in the fishmongering trade. The granddaughter of an old friend, whom she had long thought to be a possibility, looked decidedly consumptive. Another girl who had seemed likely at first came from a family in which the women were notoriously poor breeders. And, naturally, there were whole swathes of young ladies who could be ignored — no matter how wealthy or pleasing in appearance—as their bloodlines were pitifully inferior.
On and on it went, until at last the Season had come to an end, and Grandmama returned to Bath in defeat.
Then she had met the Orrs.
Not long after he arrived in London had come the jubilant letter with the news that she had finally met the perfect young lady for him: the Honorable Cecily Orr was from a noble family, wealthy, exceedingly good-looking, elegant, fashionable, and graceful.
It was all arranged.
He was to come to Bath immediately, whereupon they would together set out for Wiltshire so that he could meet his prospective bride. She had no doubt that he would approve her choice.
He’d been slightly annoyed by her peremptory tone, but, after all, business was business. He might as well get it over with, and the sooner the better.
So off he had gone to Grandmama’s palatial residence in Upper Camden Place where she had — over a distinctly odd supper — declared her intention to leave at dawn the next morning. But it had taken several hours until the carriages had been loaded to her satisfaction. In the meantime, two footmen had nearly been dismissed. The cook, castigated for the inappropriate nature of the muffins she had baked and tenderly packed in a basket, wept. Miss Cott had trotted up and down the steps with an apparently infinite number of bandboxes, cases, and shawls. And when finally they had set out, the pace of the massive coach was so ponderously slow that Gabriel felt like they were on a royal progress of yore. He half-expected the people they passed on the road to wave and offer posies.
Once underway, Grandmama’s spirits had brightened considerably. At their halts she spoke ceaselessly of the wedding, the brilliancy of the guests, the beauty of the bride-to-be and the handsomeness of the Penhallow sons she would produce; he listened politely and thought of other, more interesting things. He was thankful to be riding outside, as at least she did not shout to him through the carriage window, and confined her seemingly endless flow of remarks to the more receptive Miss Cott.
Livia looked balefully at the rumpled heap of expensive, fragile gowns lying on the floor. So Cecily thought one of her old cast-offs might suit her for the ball? And Lady Glanville thought that she’d be thrilled, grateful, to peek out from behind a potted palm to enjoy a glimpse of luxury?
Well, they were wrong.
Livia jumped to her feet and went over to the gowns. She snatched them up and shoved them onto a low shelf of her armoire. She was not going to the ball. Uncle Charles might if he wished — and let him drink port until he had to be carried out by the servants. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.
Gabriel walked rapidly to the Orrs’ stables, conscious only of an overpowering desire to escape the house and each and every one of its occupants. A day (not even a full day) here had stretched his patience to the limit — not to mention how his grandmother had, within an hour of their arrival, managed to entirely overset the household. The sheets in her bedchamber hadn’t been properly aired, the wood in the fireplace looked wormy, the chairs were inconveniently placed, Miss Cott’s accommodations were too far away, she required better candles, and the cook was to prepare her special dishes according to exacting specifications. Oh, and dinner needed to be served forty-five minutes earlier.
Lord and Lady Glanville had scrambled to meet these demands, and servants had scuttled about under a dizzying array of orders. He’d had only a brief opportunity to meet their daughter, the Honorable Miss Orr, who was indeed as beautiful as he’d been led to expect. She had smiled and swept into a graceful curtsy while Grandmama looked meaningfully at him. Later, Miss Orr had been quiet during dinner, her eyes cast down in maidenly modesty; it wasn’t until he and Lord Glanville and his gawky lout of a son Tom, after a vapid interval over some very good port, had rejoined the ladies that he realized, without surprise, that Miss Orr was like every other young female he had met among the haut monde. She talked about the roads, she chatted about the weather; she complained about the servants, and casually let fall the fascinating fact that her gown for the ball had cost thirty-eight pounds.
“But what about yourself, Mr. Penhallow? You have recently been in Town, I believe? Tell me—” And here she leaned forward, her blue eyes shining in the candlelight. “—have you met Mr. Brummell? Is he as diverting as they say? And is it true that he wears coats made of pink silk?”
Grandmama stopped short in her elucidation to Lady Glanville regarding the most efficacious methods of polishing silver, as she had noticed (she did not scruple to divulge) a certain dullness in the implements set out at dinner. “Brummell? An upstart grandson of a valet and a dreadful égotiste, whose so-called charm I find to be entirely overrated.” She fixed her gaze sharply on Miss Orr. “How on earth do you know about his absurd pink coats?”
Quailing slightly, Miss Orr answered, “I only happened to read about Mr. Brummell in one of Mama’s magazines.”
“Magazines.” Grandmama sniffed, managing in a single audible inhalation to convey a rather ominous disapproval.
“Of course, dear Cecily doesn’t make a habit of reading magazines,” Lady Glanville interpolated hastily. “She’s far too busy visiting the poor. Why, just the other day she gave away quite a number of her old gowns to a deserving orphan.”
“Very laudable,” Grandmama had said, unbending, and deigned to accept from Miss Orr a cup of tea.
The conversation then meandered again to the weather, Lady Glanville expressing at length the hope that it might be fine for the ball. Tom stared into space and Lord Glanville snored quietly on a sofa. Miss Orr expertly played for them several songs on the pianoforte. Grandmama nodded off but did not snore. Lady Glanville came to sit next to Gabriel and in a low, confidential tone regaled him with details concerning the extremely costly carpet they had recently laid in the drawing-room — the very one upon which his feet now rested. Miss Orr joined them and animatedly described to him the distinguished people to whom she had been introduced while in Bath. “Mrs. Penhallow being first among them, to be sure,” she had concluded with a pretty smile.
“Without doubt,” her ladyship added punctiliously. “But Cecily was quite an acknowledged favorite, Mr. Penhallow, I assure you. Why, the cards we received were beyond counting.”
“I can easily believe it, ma’am,” he said, his boredom by now so acute that he wished he could take a nap too.
Miss Orr had blushed and at that moment Grandmama snapped awake. “A charming performance on the pianoforte, my dear,” she said graciously. “Most refreshing.”
When later he had escorted his grandmother to her rooms she pronounced the evening to be an unalloyed success, aside from the unpalatable food served at dinner and the draughts roaring throughout the drawing-room. “And I could see how taken you were with Miss Orr,” she said, with what in a lesser person would have been termed smugness. “Shall we announce the engagement at the ball?”
Gabriel felt a cynical smile curving his mouth. Although he had certainly exerted himself not to let it show, he was not particularly taken with the beautiful and accomplished Miss Orr. Not that it mattered. She was, in fact, an entirely suitable choice. And it had been made very plain to him how satisfied she would be to accept his offer. For all she knew he was the worst sort of monster imaginable, but he was a Penhallow, with his limbs intact and a full head of hair, and that was clearly good enough. Miss Orr had spent well over twenty minutes inquiring in the minutest detail as to the particulars of the Penhallow townhouse in fashionable, exclusive Berkeley Square, while her mother sat by, nodding approvingly.
“Perhaps,” he had suggested to his grandmother, irony in his tone, “I ought to propose first.”
Airily she waved a bejeweled hand in the air. “Fine.”
He had planned to speak to Miss Orr the next day, but found himself at breakfast being eyed by Lady Glanville and Miss Orr as if he were a juicy first-rate carcass hanging in a butcher’s shop. And when her ladyship made a blatant attempt to hustle him and Miss Orr out into the garden for a private stroll, a flash of intense irritation overrode his good intentions — how he loathed being manipulated! — and he only said, standing:
“If you’ll excuse me, ladies? My horse is in need of exercise.”
“But—” Miss Orr glanced toward the window. “But it looks as if it might rain, Mr. Penhallow.”
“Then perhaps,” he said, pleasantly, “it would have been a mistake to walk in the garden. Your gown would most certainly have been spoiled. Good day.”
At the stables he had his horse Primus saddled, and rode away toward the woods. Already he was a little sorry for giving in to his annoyance; he really should have gone out into the garden and gotten it over with. When he got back to the house, he’d do it. A few polished phrases, perhaps a quick obligatory kiss, and then everything would be nicely settled to everyone’s satisfaction.
Cheered by a comfortable sense of resolve, Gabriel rode on.