Comfortably ensconced within the soft cushions of the library chair, Elizabeth studied da Vinci's theories on astrology, the same theories that had caused the Church to declare him a heretic. Feeling slightly nervous that her father might discover her reading such controversial information, Elizabeth glanced around the brocade-covered wing of her chair...and caught sight of Catherine, tiptoeing across the floor toward the door that connected the library to their father's study. "Cat?"
Catherine skidded to a halt. "Shhhh," she whispered testily as she moved the last few paces to the door.
Elizabeth might have managed to ignore her sister's odd behavior if Catherine hadn't then leaned forward and pressed her ear against the door. "What are you doing, Catherine?" Elizabeth exclaimed, unable to believe her sister would eavesdrop upon their father.
Twisting around, Catherine pressed a finger to her lips. Even from across the room, Elizabeth could see annoyance brightening her sister's eyes. "Do you want me to get caught?" Catherine hissed.
"Of course not, but still, Catherine, it's not right to listen to Papa's private conversation," Elizabeth protested softly.
"It most certainly is when Papa's discussion concerns me." She waved her hand. "Now quiet down, Elizabeth, so I can hear what they're saying."
Her curiosity now overriding her disapproval, Elizabeth set aside the astrology charts. "To whom is he speaking?"
It took a moment of thought, but Elizabeth finally placed the name. "Is he that foppish dandy with reddish hair?"
Catherine shot her an exasperated glance. "Only you would describe one of the most eligible gentlemen of the season in such a despicable fashion."
Elizabeth rose from her chair with a decidedly unladylike snort. "If he's considered one of the most eligible gentlemen, it is little wonder I have yet to find someone who interests me."
"That's not the reason at all, Elizabeth, and you know it." Catherine shook her head. "You're far too busy burying your head in all of your books and silly experiments to even consider entertaining a suitor."
"The gentlemen of the ton aren't exactly beating down the door to court me," Elizabeth pointed out.
"Only because you don't give them a chance to get to know you."
"I do so," Elizabeth protested. "Why, just last evening I spoke with Lord Connor about the complications I was encountering in designing a catapult."
Glancing over her shoulder, Catherine rolled her eyes. "Good heavens, Elizabeth, gentlemen don't wish to discuss gadgets and gears at a ball!"
"Then what do they want to discuss?" Elizabeth asked, genuinely at a loss.
Catherine shrugged. "Most gentlemen don't really require actual conversation. If you simply look fascinated with whatever they're saying and add an occasional nod, they find you fascinating."
"How could that be?" Elizabeth countered, even more confused than before. "Are gentlemen really interested in an empty-headed miss who does nothing more than hang on their every word?"
"For the most part," Catherine agreed with a firm nod.
"If that's what gentlemen really want, then I fear I am doomed to spinsterhood," Elizabeth predicted.
"Pshaw," Catherine said, waving her hand dismissively. "All you need is to find the perfect gentleman who appreciates all of your fine qualities."
No, what she needed was a miracle. Elizabeth dropped her book onto the chair she'd recently abandoned. "What I need is someone who can help me to fit into society, someone who loves me, someone who can teach me how to successfully converse at parties, someone who can help me belong."
"You belong now," Catherine countered. "After all, you're the daughter of an earl."
Shaking her head, Elizabeth continued, "That's the only reason I'm accepted. It doesn't help me to feel a part of society. It's as if everyone simply sees me and dismisses me as a brainless, vapid lady. Worse still, I don't know how to dispell their mistaken beliefs. Even you have to admit, Cat, that I'm woefully bad at conversing with people or thinking up those witty replies you toss out with such ease."
"Carrying on polite conversation is a skill like any other," Catherine pointed out. "Which means it can be learned."
"I've been out two seasons, Catherine, yet I am no closer to mastering that particular skill than I was on the eve of my debut," Elizabeth said, trying not to allow the panic she felt to come into her voice. After seeing her parents' marriage, Elizabeth wanted to marry, to have children, to achieve the happiness her parents had found. "I doubt I shall ever find a suitable gentleman in town. They are all far too sophisticated, too glib, to ever take an interest in a country girl like me. Perhaps I'd be better off returning to our country estate and searching for a husband there. I know I'm far more comfortable in the country than I've ever been in town."
"But then I'd never see you," Catherine cried. "I couldn't bear that, so we shall simply have to find a suitable gentleman here in town."
"How?" Elizabeth asked. "It's not as if I haven't tried to find a husband here, but apparently it is not meant to be."
Catherine sighed deeply. "If only Mama were still alive, she would have helped you find the perfect husband."
Mama. Her name alone brought the familiar ache to Elizabeth's chest. Memories of Mama growing weaker and weaker, until she became bedridden, assailed Elizabeth. In her mind's eye, she could still see her mother wasting away, fading slowly, then finally, after a few months, simply giving in to the consumption.
Mama's death had devastated their family, destroying them all. Even now Papa was a shadow of his former self, while she and Catherine tried to negotiate the difficult waters of polite society unscathed.
"Perhaps that is true," Elizabeth conceded, "but even if Mama were still alive, it wouldn't change the fact that I'm pitiful at traversing the social world."
"Not pitiful, merely inexperienced."
Smiling at Catherine's protest, Elizabeth shook her head. "If I haven't gained any experience in two years, then I hold little hope for the future. I think it best that I resign myself to the fact that I shall be the loving, old maiden aunt to your children."
"My goodness, Elizabeth, you can't give up hope that..." A loud burst of laughter came from behind the closed door to their father's study. "What's going on in there?" Catherine mused softly before lifting a finger toward Elizabeth. "Hold on a moment, Elizabeth, while I try to figure out what Papa's saying." And with that, Catherine turned and pressed her ear against the door once again.
Elizabeth didn't see the point of returning to their conversation, as she knew that Catherine -- with her rosy outlook on life -- would never acknowledge the hopelessness of her situation. But before Elizabeth could bid her sister a swift farewell and leave the room while Catherine was distracted, the door to Papa's study opened, sending Catherine stumbling forward...and right into Papa's chest.
"I thought I might find you here," he remarked dryly as he grasped Catherine's shoulders and steadied her.
"Why, Papa..." Catherine began, her voice altering as she smoothed down her skirts. "I was just coming in to see you."
Papa lifted a brow in reply, causing Catherine to shift beneath the pointed look.
"Well, I was," she protested. "While I know it might appear that I was trying to eavesdrop upon your private conversation, that's not the case at all. I was simply, er, trying to ascertain if you were alone or not before I entered your study."
"A knock would have sufficed."
Catherine bit her lower lip. "Perhaps, but it still would have been interrupting you if you were engaged with a visitor."
"You, my darling Cat," began Papa, leaning forward to tweak Catherine's nose, "have always been an abominable liar."
"I'm not lying," Catherine replied weakly. "Elizabeth was here; she can tell you that..."
Laughing, Elizabeth lifted her hands. "Oh, no, Cat. Leave me out of this mess, thank you very much."
With her back to Papa, Catherine scowled at Elizabeth's refusal to cover for her.
"Then again," Elizabeth began softly, unable to keep from teasing her sister, "perhaps I should tell Papa that you were..."
"...about to inquire after his guest," Catherine interjected, cutting off Elizabeth's confession as she spun about to face Papa once more. "Who called upon you this early, Papa?"
"As if you didn't hear each and every word I said," Papa replied with a laugh.
"In truth, Papa," Elizabeth began, finally coming to her sister's aid. "I doubt if Catherine overheard more than a few moments of your conversation before you opened the door."
Catherine nodded quickly, immediately latching onto Elizabeth's explanation. "It's true, Papa."
Their father's lips twitched, but he didn't argue the point further. Instead, he clapped his hands together. "So, Catherine, would you like to hear what Lord Dunham had to say?"
All assertions of innocence were immediately dropped as Catherine stepped forward eagerly. "Yes, Papa."
"He offered for your hand."
"I graciously declined his offer."
Disappointment warred with annoyance upon Catherine's face. "Without even discussing the matter with me?"
"I believe that is my right," Papa said smoothly, clasping his hands behind his back.
Catherine shook her head fiercely. "Since I'm the one he offered for, I believe I should be the one to decide if he is refused or not."
Papa tilted his head to the side. "You seem more upset that I didn't consult with you first than over the loss of a match with Lord Dunham."
"Well, of course I am," Catherine retorted. "I would have refused him as well...but it should have been my choice."
"Heaven save me," Papa muttered under his breath. "You've received at least two dozen proposals since your debut, Catherine. Did you actually expect me to consult you on each and every one?"
Papa rolled his eyes. "Then you'd best become used to disappointment, for I have no intention of doing that."
"You're being so unreasonable, Papa!" exclaimed Catherine, looking toward Elizabeth. "Please help me reason with him."
It was all Elizabeth could do to hold back her smile over Catherine's dramatic plea. "I don't hold much hope to sway Papa in this matter, Cat. After all, you know how he is when he sets his mind to something."
Glumly, Catherine nodded. "An unmovable force."
"Precisely." Lifting one shoulder, Elizabeth added, "Besides, I don't see why you are so upset about this, Catherine. Not one of the gentlemen Papa refused was someone you would have actually considered marrying. If I remember correctly, you said that you found Lord Dunham to be a bit of a bore."
With typical flair, Catherine threw her hands up in the air. "Well, you know that, Elizabeth, but I never told Papa how I felt about Lord Dunham." Dropping down into a chair, she looked up at Elizabeth. "For all he knew, I could have considered Lord Dunham my perfect mate."
"With his preference for outlandishly bright jackets, his affected lisp, and his habit of using snuff until you weary of the snorting noise he makes, I highly doubt anyone would think him a perfect mate, much less a man of intelligence like Papa," Elizabeth assured her sister.
"Thank you for coming to my defense, Elizabeth," he said before turning his attention onto Catherine. "As for you, my youngest, I shall continue to do what I consider best for you."
Elizabeth could tell by Catherine's expression that she was biting back a remark.
"And you need to socialize more, Elizabeth," Papa continued as he turned his sharp gaze onto her. "If you became more interested in town life, you might find you actually enjoy social outings."
"I hold little hope for that, Papa," murmured Elizabeth.
His expression let her know he didn't believe a word of her denial. "Then I think you underestimate yourself. At the ball tonight, I don't want to see you off by yourself in a corner or chatting with the elderly ladies." He leveled a finger at her. "You are to dance, laugh, and generally enjoy yourself with other young ladies and gentlemen."
"No 'but,' Elizabeth." Leaning forward, he pressed a kiss upon her forehead. "Why don't you show the ton how special you truly are?"
Elizabeth bit back her groan. "Yes, Papa."
"Thank you." Stepping back, he gestured toward the door. "Now why don't the two of you go prepare for our evening at Almack's?"
"With pleasure," Catherine said, wrapping her arm through Elizabeth's. "I'll even help Elizabeth choose her gown."
Alarm flared within Elizabeth as she remembered the deep bodices of the gowns Catherine had insisted upon ordering for her. Having learned her lesson, it had been the first and last time Elizabeth had sought her sister's fashion advice. "I'm perfectly capable of choosing my own attire, Cat."
"Of course you are, silly," Catherine replied with a knowing grin. "But it will be much more fun if I help." Turning wide eyes onto Papa, she asked, "Don't you agree, Papa?"
"I most certainly do." He patted Elizabeth's arm. "You won't regret allowing Catherine to help you."
Oh, but she already did, Elizabeth thought, as Catherine tugged her out of the room. "I'm not going to wear one of those indecent gowns you ordered without my approval," Elizabeth warned her sister. "And you won't be able to change my mind."
Catherine laughed brightly. "We'll see, Beth."
Elizabeth scowled at her sister. "You don't fight fair."
"Not when your happiness is at stake, Beth."
"Happiness?" Looking down at her gown, Elizabeth adjusted the fichu she'd put around her shoulders to help hide her low décolletage. "What on earth would make you believe I'd be happy standing here in Almack's with my..." Unable to voice the word out loud, she merely waved toward her bosom. "...exposed."
"You're hardly exposed," Catherine returned. "Especially not since you insisted upon wrapping that horrid shawl around your shoulders."
"A fichu is a perfectly acceptable accessory to any gown."
"Perhaps when you're an elderly matron, but not when you're trying to attract a husband."
"I believe I've made my feelings on that subject very well known."
"Come now, Beth," Catherine began, concern darkening her eyes. "Surely you don't wish to be alone when you're..." She broke off her sentiments as Lord Hutton joined them.
"Pardon the interruption, Lady Catherine, Lady Elizabeth," he murmured politely, bowing to each of them in turn, "but I've come to claim my dance, my lady."
Holding out her hand, Catherine graciously accepted his proffered arm. As she watched her sister walk away, Elizabeth bit back a sigh and glanced down at her woefully empty dance card. Only a few dances were claimed...and most of them by elderly gentlemen who were friends of Papa's.
Another sigh escaped her as she lowered the card and lifted her chin. "It doesn't matter," she murmured softly to herself.
"Of course it does."
Startled, Elizabeth spun around to face the gentleman who had spoken from behind her. Though she felt herself grow warm with embarrassment, she refused to allow this stranger to see her chagrin. "Excuse me?" she said so coldly that ice practically dripped off the two words.
Grinning wickedly, the gentleman pretended to shiver as he rubbed his arms. "Brrrrr," he retorted.
Determined to ignore him, she turned back around and resumed watching the dancers.
"Ah, the direct cut." His voice floated over her shoulder, but she refused to give in to the urge to glance back at him. "If this is how you treat a gentleman, it is little wonder that you're standing here all alone."
"A gentleman?" she scoffed, unable to remain silent for one moment longer. "Sneaking up behind a lady, eavesdropping upon her, then daring to address her without an introduction are hardly the actions of a gentleman."
His laugh was low and outrageously appealing. "Lord, you do possess a tart tongue, don't you, my lady? Lucky for you, I am a stalwart soul and not easily put off."
Flustered, Elizabeth forgot her resolve to ignore him and looked over her shoulder. Immediately she wished she hadn't, for his grin made her insides jittery. With his dark hair, handsome blue eyes, and dashing features, he was precisely the sort of attractive gentleman who left her feeling awkward and gauche. "You presume far too much if you consider me lucky for having to suffer your overly familiar person, sir." Struggling to maintain her cool poise, she faced front again. "I am not in the habit of speaking with rakes."
"A rake, am I?" he murmured softly, stepping forward until he stood beside her. "Now it is you who presume too much. Perhaps I am merely another person who understands what it is like to be utterly alone in a crowd."
A gasp broke from Elizabeth as she stared at him in amazement. "P-p-pardon me?"
"I believe you heard me quite well." His smile softened. "I saw you standing here, all alone, wistfully watching the dancers, and I couldn't help but be moved by the sadness in your expression."
Hope, fragile and pale, bloomed within her, but she squashed it ruthlessly. "What could a gentleman such as yourself possibly know about being lonely?"
"A gentlemen such as myself?" he repeated, an eyebrow curving upward. "Do you mean a rake like me?"
No, she meant someone so handsome, so self-assured, so...appealing.
Mistaking her silence, the gentleman nodded sharply. "Perhaps I misunderstood you, my lady, for anyone who can't look beyond the appearance of a person is undeniably shallow."
His remark touched her deeply. Here she'd stood, judging him, put off by his handsome appearance, and unwilling to credit him with true emotions. Good Heavens! She'd treated him just like the ton treated her. As the gentleman took a step forward, she reached out, clasping his arm, and brought him to a halt. "Forgive me, my lord. I didn't mean to offend you."
For a moment he merely gazed down at her, then a corner of his mouth tipped upward. "A prettier apology I've never received," he murmured as he brought her hand to his lips. "Still, I would rather you afford me the honor of this dance."
Not waiting for her reply, he tucked her hand into his elbow.
Elizabeth tried to dig in her feet, but her kid slippers found no toehold upon Almack's gleaming wooden floor. "No, please," she pleaded softly. "I fear I lack the skill to dance."
The corners of his eyes crinkled as his smile broadened into a grin. "Don't worry, my lady, for I shall guide you through every step."
Aware of the weight of the stares they were garnering, Elizabeth reluctantly began to walk beside him. She dreaded making a fool of herself upon the dance floor, but this gentleman left her with no choice. If she struggled and caused a scene, the dragons of Almack's might revoke her voucher.
And being dragged onto the dance floor would certainly constitute a 'scene.'
"If you insist I dance with you, I should at least know your name, my lord," Elizabeth said as she took up position in the quadrille.
Even his appealing grin did little to ease the hard knot of apprehension in the pit of her stomach. "Forgive my oversight. I was so taken with you that I quite forgot a minor triviality such as introductions."
The charming response caused another flutter inside her. "Luckily it isn't too late to rectify that mistake."
"Lord Richard Vernon at your service, my lady." He tilted his head at the introduction. "And you are..."
"Horrible at dancing," she returned as she stumbled against him.
Instead of the annoyance she was expecting, Lord Vernon tossed back his head and laughed aloud, drawing more than a few gazes. "Very well then, you may keep your name a secret." As they dipped closer in the dance, he whispered into her ear. "Besides, I do so love a woman of mystery."
Elizabeth stumbled slightly at the teasing remark, but caught herself before she could make another misstep. While she wished she hadn't let him know how desperately unsettling she found him, she had to forgive herself that one tiny display. After all, his outrageousness was something she'd never before encountered. Perhaps all the men of the ton weren't so dreadfully dull.
Still, this banter was a skill she'd never learned, and she found herself searching for something to say that wouldn't make her look like a naive country miss.
Thankfully, the dance came to an end a few moments later, saving her the need to devise a sparkling comment.
"Would you care to join me in a refreshment, my mystery lady?"
In her tongue-tied state, she'd thoroughly embarrass herself if she spent any more time in his presence. Needing to collect herself, Elizabeth shook her head, pushing aside her regret. "While I appreciate the offer, my lord, I believe it might be best if I return to my sister."
"The loss of your charming company will forever wound me," he said, dramatically pressing a hand to his heart.
Oh, Lord, how was she supposed to respond to that remark? Offering him a wavering smile in farewell, she gathered her skirts and stepped around him. She hadn't even made it a foot away when he called out to her.
"Perhaps you should adjust your fichu," he suggested. "I'd rather you not share that delightful view with any gentleman other than myself."
A gasp broke from Elizabeth as she glanced down to see that her fichu had completely slipped from one shoulder, fully exposing her plunging neckline. His soft chuckle only added to her unsettled emotions.
Feeling her cheeks burn, she clutched the dangling material to her chest as she hurried away to the ladies' chamber to repair her person...wondering all the while at the odd desire she had to tear off the fichu and face him, bold and wild, letting him look his fill.
Dear Heavens, what was happening to her?
Watching the fair lady scurry away, Richard continued to chuckle as he made his way off the dance floor. When he'd come to Almack's this evening, he'd had no intentions of dancing with anyone, much less forcing some lady he'd never before met to dance with him. He'd only come at his mother's request.
He shook his head as he imagined what his brother, the noble Lord John Vernon, Marquess of Wykham, would have said about this latest escapade. Lord, he'd have to hear about his brash behavior for hours on end. No, John would never be able to understand the reason he'd pulled that blonde goddess onto the dance floor with him. Instead, his brother would look at him in bafflement.
Hearing her sigh as she'd watched her companion step away with a dance partner, Richard had seen, felt, and heard her utter loneliness. And, hell, he knew just how lonely a person could feel, even in the most crowded of rooms. Though he'd admitted this dark secret to her, she hadn't believed him. Instead, she'd judged him and decided he was a rake. While it was true that he was considered a rake by reputation, for some odd reason he'd thought that this woman who understood what loneliness was might be able to see beneath the facade to the man inside.
And just when he thought she'd dismissed him, she surprised him by offering him a pretty apology and accepting his offer to dance. Her shy response intrigued him, and he promised himself he'd discover her name before the night was through.
Still smiling, he glanced around for his mother, hoping she might be able to identify the blonde beauty. Scanning the edges of the room, he was lost in the search for his mother until someone tapped him upon the shoulder.
"You certainly seem to take pleasure in setting the dragons atwitter. Whatever have you done now?"
The amused observation came from his elder brother, John. Grinning broadly, Richard looked around to see that several members of the ton were staring in his direction. "One must make the most of their strengths," he observed.
John's expression grew sober as he looked at Richard. "The ease with which you astound the ton isn't a strength."
"Shall we say it's a gift then?" Richard countered swiftly.
"More a curse than a gift, I'd warrant." John clasped his hands behind his back. "Until last year, I'd worried whether you'd ever tire of the wastrel lifestyle you'd embraced. But you have quite admirably reclaimed your dignity." His brows furrowed. "What I can't understand is why you continue to act the rake? Why don't you behave -- "
"This isn't the time or place for this conversation," Richard interrupted. "Now if you'll excuse me, John, I see Mother across the room, and I need her help in identifying someone for me."
"Perhaps I can help," John offered. "With your...more adventurous pursuits this past year, you've spent little time at these affairs, but I've attended most of them."
"Naturally," Richard remarked with a laugh. "After all, you must fulfill all the social obligations befitting your station."
"Why is it that whenever you speak of my preference for polite behavior you always end up making me sound like a priggish bluenose?"
"Because you're fast becoming one," Richard returned, trying to soften his words with a smile. "Really, John, I'm starting to worry about you."
John rocked back on his heels. "Isn't that ironic?"
"Yes, but it doesn't change the fact that I worry you are becoming too set in your ways, too rigid...too much like Father."
"I shall take that as a compliment," John said smoothly.
"It wasn't meant as one," Richard muttered, shaking his head. "Father could barely crack a smile on his best days. Is that really what you want to become?"
A side of John's mouth quirked upward. "As long as I have you around, I doubt it would be possible to give up smiling. You're just too bloody entertaining, Richard."
Richard rolled his eyes. "You're deliberately missing my point, John. You should heed my warning and start to live a little before you turn around and find you're
a crotchety old man with no wife, no children, no friends."
Amusement brightened John's expression. "Well, at least I'll still have you, brother."
"Fine, then. Make light of this, John," Richard replied. "I'm too busy trying to discover the identity of my mystery lady to spend more time arguing with you now."
"I offered to help," John reminded him.
"Very well." Searching the ballroom again, Richard spotted his dance partner sitting along the far wall, next to one of Almack's patronesses. "The one seated next to Lady Sefton."
At a glance, John nodded. "That is Lady Elizabeth Everley, the daughter of the Earl of Shipham."
Elizabeth. Richard turned the name over in his mind. From what he could tell of her nature from their brief acquaintance, he acknowledged that the name fit her well: formal, cool, and yet still soft and feminine.
"Would you like an introduction?"
Imagining the lady's response, Richard began to grin as he nodded. "Lead the way."
Copyright © 2001 by Victoria Malvey
Wedding of the Year
requests the honor of your presence...
at a madcap, merry celebration of love's unpredictable ways!
Two sisters have promised their father that both will marry...or neither will: Elizabeth Everley, shy and serious, endured a disastrous first Season, and she dreads being a wallflower forever. Catherine Everley, a starry-eyed optimist, dreams of marrying a handsome Prince Charming. But first she must find a husband for Elizabeth.
Each of two noble brothers believes the other should take a wife: John Vernon, the Marquess of Wykham, is a solemn gentleman; his younger brother, Richard, is lively and outrageous. When Catherine picks John as her sister's perfect match, it is just the beginning of a wild romp of mistaken intentions and matchmaking schemes gone scandalously, hilariously awry. At the end of this unforgettable Season, there will indeed be a wedding -- but who exactly will marry whom?
- Pocket Books |
- 304 pages |
- ISBN 9780743421843 |
- February 2002