Authors: Claudia Dain
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Regency, #Romantic Comedy, #Historical Romance, #regency romance
They were all, the three of them,
this Season, the difference being that Lady Eleanor was the younger daughter of the Marquis of Melverley, a man of a most unsavory reputation, though, as he was a marquis, his reputation did him no harm whatsoever. Even Mama had nothing ill to say about the Marquis of Melverley, and Mama could think of ill things to say about nearly everybody.
How Emeline and Elaine had become caught up in Lady Eleanor’s grasp Emeline had not been able to puzzle out; she supposed that she should be thankful enough that Eleanor bothered with her at all, which was very nearly a direct quote from Mama, but she did wonder at it. Eleanor Kirkland was
, a condition which almost certainly was a direct result of being her father’s daughter. Lady Eleanor was not ruined, not actually and not even circumstantially, which is why Mama encouraged the connection, but she did travel in fast circles and knew the most sophisticated people in the highest reaches of the
, another reason why Mama strongly encouraged the connection. Mama was no one’s fool, as Papa liked to say.
“Emeline! I did not imagine we’d find you here,” Lady Eleanor said, her eyes sparkling.
Eleanor Kirkland’s eyes were a very dark blue and they were always sparkling with, if not exactly mischief, a glimmer of audacious action that should have resulted in mischief. That she was the daughter of a marquis most assuredly saved her from actual, documented mischief. Emeline could not have hoped to dare half of what Eleanor proposed over a tepid dish of tea.
“I have been bonnet shopping,” Emeline said, dipping her knee and her head to both Miss Montford and Lady Eleanor. They returned the gestures, all the proprieties maintained. “And now Mrs. Culley is bonnet shopping.”
“Ostrich feathers? Very daring,” Elaine Montford said.
“I am assured she has the bearing to carry them off,” Emeline said, feeling suddenly protective of Mrs. Culley, an absurd sensation.
“I think one must be quite regal to carry ostrich feathers,” Elaine said, casting a casual eye upon Mrs. Culley. Mrs. Culley was tallish for a woman and she had quite a nice bust.
“I think a woman should wear whatever it is which makes her feel regal, and then she will appear regal to all who see her,” Eleanor said. Only the daughter of a marquis could make such a circular argument and make it sound triumphantly true.
“Do you wear ostrich feathers?” Emeline asked.
“Lady Jordan will not allow it,” Eleanor said. “She determines that I am too young and too ungainly for them.”
Lady Jordan was Eleanor’s aunt and chaperone, and a more slipshod chaperone would have been difficult to conjure. It was for this reason that Louisa, Eleanor’s older married sister, was also something of a chaperone. Also, all the many brothers of Louisa’s husband, and the male cousins of Louisa’s husband. Louisa Kirkland marrying Henry Blakesley had resulted in quite a lot of chaperones for Eleanor. Eleanor did not seem to mind in the slightest. Emeline would have minded greatly. A pile of chaperones would never have allowed her the free access to Kit that she had enjoyed until coming to Town.
“I don’t think you ungainly,” Elaine said loyally.
Emeline resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Eleanor Kirkland was slight and slim and fairly elfish in appearance. She had dark red hair and her fair skin was heavily dotted with freckles. She was no beauty. She did, however, have an engaging way about her. She was also the daughter of a marquis. Eleanor had nothing to worry about upon the Marriage Mart.
“Oh, I am,” Eleanor said, “but I hope to outgrow it. Louisa was ungainly and far too tall, and then she wasn’t. It happens that way with girls. I suspect the same will happen to me.” And if it didn’t, who would complain with the dowry the marquis was settling upon her? “Is that Mr. Culley?”
The three girls turned their eyes upon Kit. Emeline didn’t like it one bit. Eleanor was just the sort of girl that Mrs. Culley wanted for her son.
“It is,” Emeline said. “He is helping his mother with her selection.”
“How very agreeable of him,” Elaine said, making Kit sound the veriest bore.
“He is a very devoted son,” Emeline said, making it sound complimentary.
“And those are not thick upon the ground,” Eleanor said, making it sound quite insulting, as if Kit were some vile deviant of proper male etiquette.
“I suppose not,” Emeline said. “She quite depends upon him. She has long been a widow.”
“How lovely of him,” Elaine said.
Everything Elaine Montford said sounded like an insult to Kit. Emeline did not know what was wrong with her; Elaine did not even know Kit.
“Will you make the introductions?” Eleanor said.
And, of course, one did not refuse the daughter of a marquis, not when one was in the first steps of one’s first Season.
“Of course,” Emeline said, leading the way across the shop. It was not a very large shop; it was not impossible that Mrs. Culley, Kit, and Mama had heard nearly every word of their exchange. Even every other word would have been mortifying. Emeline had learned from an early age not to mention Kit much in Mama’s hearing. If Mama suspected that she was violently in love with Kit, the connection would have been promptly severed. “Mr. Christopher Culley and Mrs. Culley, Lady Eleanor Kirkland. I believe you have previously met Miss Elaine Montford.”
The bows and curtseys were performed, Kit looking rakishly godlike throughout. He might be tied rather too tightly to his mother’s strings, but he didn’t look the part.
“Lady Eleanor,” Kit said, his voice a soothing rumble, “it is a delight to make your acquaintance. Miss Montford.” He bowed. “Your names are hardly strange to me as Emeline has told me something of your adventures.”
“Adventures?” Mama said. “I was aware only of tea taken at Miss Montford’s and a chaperoned walk through the more populated areas of Hyde Park.”
Kit had used the word on purpose, she was certain of it. It was a revenge for her making comments about his mother, or more to the point, his attachment to his mother.
“With the proper company, even Hyde Park can seem an adventure,” Eleanor said, her dark blue eyes sparkling as they always did. Mama seemed slightly settled by that sparkle. Emeline supposed that it was too late in life for her to learn how to sparkle Mama into compliance. “I am so delighted that I have made the proper friends this Season, Mrs. Harlow. I would so hate for any of us to have a dull Season.”
A dull Season, defined as a Season without at least one solid offer of marriage, was Mama’s personal nightmare.
“Of course a dull Season would be the worst of outcomes,” Mama said.
“I hardly think that the three of you should fear to suffer such a fate,” Kit said.
“Oh? Do we look adventurous to you, Mr. Culley?” Eleanor asked.
“Of course my son did not mean to imply any insult,” Mrs. Culley said.
“I should take it as a compliment, Mrs. Culley,” Eleanor said. “I have always wanted to be thought adventurous.”
“Then I find you very adventurous, indeed,” Kit said.
This was far too much for Emeline. They sounded moments away from posting the bans.
“Yes, I suppose some might find taking tea to be an adventure,” Emeline said. She stared at Kit as she said it.
“Not quite of the homeric standard,” Eleanor said.
“But then, Homer did not sacrifice his ink on tales of women,” Elaine said.
“You’ve read Homer, Miss Montford?” Kit asked.
“Yes, though only one book,” Elaine answered. “I don’t suppose I should admit that, should I? It’s likely not the sort of thing a . . . ” and here she trailed off, clearly realizing that it was not the thing to admit to being on the Marriage Mart, even if it were quite, quite obvious to everyone.
“It’s quite an adventurous thing,” Eleanor said. “I think it quite wonderful of you to admit to Homer. I wish I had read Homer. I’ve only read Shakespeare and Fielding.”
“I can claim Moliere,” Emeline said.
“Emeline!” Mama said.
“It’s the truth. Should I deny it?”
“Deny it, no, but it’s also not necessary to admit it without provocation,” Mama said.
“Oh? Was I not being provoked? How stupid of me. I thought that’s exactly what I was being,” Emeline said.
Kit grinned, his teeth showing white against his lips.
“I don’t suppose you read your Homer in Greek, Miss Montford?” Kit said.
She was being provoked, most definitely.
“What answer will make me sound most adventurous, Mr. Culley?” Elaine said, smiling at Kit, as if she had every right to do so.
“On the original scrolls, I should think,” Emeline said.
Eleanor laughed. Kit stared at her. Mama scowled. Elaine kept her tongue behind her teeth. All in all, a most satisfying moment.
“Rather too bookish, I should think,” Mama said, “but, of course, Mrs. Montford will be the best judge of what you should reveal whilst in Town, Miss Montford.”
Mama was quite remarkably good at the most cordial sounding set-downs. She had made not only Elaine Montford look spectacularly lacking, but had thrown doubt upon Mrs. Montford’s parenting skills. It was in moments such as these that Emeline felt that Mama truly did deserve to have an earl or marquis in her immediate family circle.
“Yes, that is certainly true, Mrs. Harlow,” Elaine said. “I will, of course, follow my mother’s every word of wise counsel.”
Emeline struggled to suppress a chuckle. Elaine Montford was also quite adept at the cordial insult. It was a most impressive and useful talent during the London Season.
Mama clenched her jaw. Eleanor sparkled. Mrs. Culley frowned and looked most uncomfortable. Kit compressed his lips, something he always did whenever he was trying not to laugh.
Emeline caught his eye, he would not do anything so convenient as bother to try and catch her eye, and they shared a moment of silent amusement. Then his mother broke into the moment, as usual, and said, “Christopher, do let’s get home and take our tea. I do so want to be at my best tonight for Lady Jordan.”
“How lovely to know that we shall meet again so soon,” Eleanor said. “I do hope we may continue our conversation on Homer, or was it Moliere?”
No one answered. No one dared.
Emeline was caught up in Mama’s grip, Kit in his mother’s firm grasp, Miss Montford and Lady Eleanor lingering in the milliner’s, casually perusing ostrich feathers. If there was anyone who was capable of defying her chaperone, it was Lady Eleanor. The daughter of a marquis could get away with anything.
“I think you are too young to marry.”
Kit looked at his mother and continued to stir his tea.
“Then why am I in Town for the Season?”
“It was a mistaken idea of mine. I think hearing Mrs. Harlow speak so often about Emeline having her Season, the hopes she holds for Emeline to make a stellar match, put the thought in my mind.”
“You seemed very certain.” Kit laid aside his spoon.
His mother took a sip of her tea and sighed, looking out the front window onto the street. “Mrs. Harlow is so very certain of everything. It is difficult not to become caught up in her certainties.”
Kit nodded. How true that was. Just look at Emeline, all set to marry whomever showed the slightest interest in her just because her mother had decided it was time for her to marry.
“She is so very certain Emeline will marry this Season?” he asked. The thought was a cold knot in his throat.
“Perhaps not marriage, but a betrothal, certainly. Mrs. Harlow has her heart set upon an earl, at the very least. For myself, I think she is over-reaching. Emeline is a nice looking girl, but nothing spectacular. As her dowry is not spectacular, I think she would do well to achieve a well-established gentleman of good family.”
Such as he.
No, not such as he.
He was not interested in marrying Emeline Harlow. He had spent his childhood mucking about in streams with her. One did not marry a girl one had seen barelegged and muddy to her knees.
“Now, Lady Eleanor Kirkland,” his mother continued between sips of tea, “with her connections, she should have a most spectacular Season. It is to her credit that she has taken Emeline and Miss Montford under her wing, so to speak. It will raise their visibility and yet do nothing to harm Lady Eleanor’s chances for a proper match.”
“I did not get the impression that Lady Eleanor was determined to marry this Season.”
His mother chuckled and set down her cup on the small mahogany table in front of them. “As I said, she deserves much credit.”
“You are saying that she is determined to marry and that I, a young buck on the Town, am too stupid to recognize that?”
“Kit, I never said you were stupid. Hardly that.”
“Just too stupid to see when a woman is ready to marry.”
“Kit, all women are ready to marry. Surely that is obvious.”
Actually, he did not think that was obvious.
“Are you eager to marry again, Mother?”
“I was eager to marry and I married your father and I was, and continue to be, very happy with my decision,” she said, giving him a rather impatient look.
She did not
very happy with her decision. She always called him Kit when she was impatient with him. He had learned early in life that the best way to manage things was to embrace the situation and run with it; he had taken the name Kit and embraced it, telling everyone he met that is what he preferred being called. He had found the Harlow family and thrown himself into their midst, leaving his mother little choice but to follow him. He had found Emeline, the only sister in a tangle of brothers, and he had joined that tangle, becoming yet another brother to her.
Sometimes, things learned early in life did not stand the test of time.
“I think Lady Eleanor is too young to marry,” he said, thinking of Emeline. They were the same age, weren’t they?
“If she is Out, then she is not too young to marry. Surely her father, the marquis, is responsible for decisions of that sort.”
The Marquis of Melverley, the dissolute and debauched Marquis of Melverley. “You know of Melverley?” he asked.
His mother stood up, her skirts barely moving as she walked to the front window. The house was well-appointed, well-situated, and had the unusual feature of a bright red door in a veritable ocean of black lacquer London doors. He had come to rather enjoy that red door.