Dermot Mandeville, Earl of Heronforth, lounged negligently in the brocade covered chair. His cravat was loosened and his normally impeccable hair was in considerable disarray from the times he had pushed his long-fingered, shapely hand through it. He was utterly at variance with his habitually elegant appearance. With great deliberation he selected a card from the few he held in his hand and placed it on the others before him on the table.
“I fancy you cannot beat that, George,” he remarked with satisfaction.
George Fenton, a fair haired, fresh complexioned man, his own cravat hanging about his neck in loose folds, laughed and triumphantly displayed his own cards. The Earl threw his own hand down in disgust.
“You have the luck of the devil tonight,” he declared, rising to fetch a full decanter to replace the empty one that stood between them.
“Lucky at cards, unlucky in love,” George commented. “I do not seem to make headway with the Lady Anne.”
“I had not thought you a marrying man,” the Earl laughed.
“I am not, but I have determined that it would be foolish to let a fortune go begging,” his friend replied with a shrug. “How fares your own pursuit of the fair Julietta?”
“Scarce my pursuit,” the Earl disclaimed lazily.
“Oh, we are well aware that the Earl of Heronforth is a catch of the first water, and every unmarried female sets her cap at you,” his companion rejoined with a laugh. “But I had thought you were not averse to the notion of Julietta?”
“My dear sister-in-law thinks I should not be, and is devilishly persistent in her praises of her latest protegée. You would have thought, with her scarce concealed dislike of me, and resentment over my inheritance, that she would not be so urgent in her desire to see me leg-shackled,” he continued musingly, refilling the empty glasses and carrying his own across to where, despite the warm evening, a fire glowed in the grate.
George considered his friend dispassionately. He frequently wondered why the Earl had for so long resisted the charms of the many beauties who had placed themselves or been thrust in his way since he had appeared in town. The determination of fond mamas to ensnare him had been increased since he had inherited his brother’s title almost two years earlier.
Dermot, Earl of Heronforth, was a sight to set maiden hearts palpitating. Tall and slim, he was yet broad enough that his coats needed no padding at the shoulders, and muscular enough to show a fine leg. His face was not precisely handsome, for his features were not entirely regular, and his eyes, large and fine though they were, too often held an abstracted expression as he stared unseeingly at those who attempted to engage him in trivial conversation. But the women either did not notice, or were intrigued at his apparent aloofness. Since, apart from this, his manner was invariably polite and considerate to them, it did not seem to be of great moment that he rarely appeared to hear what they said.
“How much is that I owe you?” he asked now, his deep, pleasant voice breaking in on George’s reflections.
George consulted a paper beside him and added a figure. “Three hundred,” he said briefly. “Shall we play again?”
“Indeed, and then let us dine.”
“Do you propose going to the ball Lady Carruthers holds tonight?”
“I had thought to look in, if no more congenial entertainment offered,” the Earl replied, returning to the table and cutting the cards.
For half an hour there was comparative silence as they concentrated on the game, and then a second time the Earl threw down his cards in disgust.
“You have me again.”
“You are not up to form tonight,” George answered lightly.
“I never was as good as James.”
The Earl crossed to a small walnut bureau and unlocked it, taking out a rouleau of gold. He counted out the coins.
“Was James good?” George asked in surprise. “I was much younger than he, of course, but I never saw him play.”
“He did not from about the time he married Sylvia. I collect she complained, though as I was in the Peninsula at the time I did not know much about it. Before that he played an excessive amount and was very skilled.”
“Why in the world did James marry Sylvia? It has always puzzled me, for she does not in the least seem the type of female to attract a Heronforth.”
“James never did have much luck with his women, poor fellow,” the Earl said, relocking the bureau.
“Then it was not perhaps so great a misfortune that he died at Waterloo. Though Sylvia would not think so!”
“Poor Sylvia. Her only child a girl, unable to inherit the title, and left with an adequate but not overgenerous jointure. Naturally she resents me!”
“If only she would not display it to all and sundry. It does her no good to be continually complaining.”
“It does me no harm. But you have reminded me that she comes up to town in a few days.”
“Is she still using the town house?”
“Oh yes, she prefers Berkeley Square, and it suits me to have the house opened for her. It would never otherwise be used, since I prefer to stay here in my rooms.”
“That I can understand, for it is a gloomy barracks of a place. But she will have to make other arrangements when you marry.”
The Earl laughed. “You do persist in this notion, George! Are you more foxed than I thought? I have no intention of being hustled into matrimony by the wishes, ill wishes, I might add, of my so-called friends.”
George grinned. “Then have a care, for the fair Julietta means to ensnare you if she and her mama and Sylvia can contrive it.”
“I shall have more to concern me these next few months,” the Earl said with a slight grimace. “Your talk of James has reminded me.”
George raised his eyebrows. “What in the world do you mean?”
“It is a long story.”
“Then start it soon,” he recommended, helping himself to more wine.
The Earl sipped his own wine, gazing into the flames. Then he began, in a slightly mocking voice.
“I received a letter yesterday from the son of an old friend of James. He is coming to London and I have agreed to introduce him to the ton.”
“You have what?” George stared at his friend in fascinated disbelief. “It is you that are foxed, Dermot! Who the devil is this friend?”
The Earl grinned amiably at him. “I am not castaway, George, have no fear of that. I have no desire to bear-lead this young sprig about the town, but James promised to do it just before he went off to the continent, before he died. As I inherited all else from him, this is a part of it.”
“Rather you than me,” George said unsympathetically. “Your friends will wonder what the devil possesses you, trailing a stripling about. How old is the lad?”
“Just seventeen, I understand. But I hope Sylvia will take him about with her. I have no desire to be accused of introducing an innocent into evil ways.”
George laughed. “Why did James agree? Has the lad no relatives of his own?”
“Apparently not. I did not know Robert Blain, James’ friend, but I heard a great deal about him from James, and since James owes him so much I must take on the responsibility.” He lapsed into silence for a while, gazing musingly into the flames. “It was like this,” he went on slowly, “Robert Blain was a year or so older than James, and when James went to Eton he protected him from bullying. James had much illness as a child, and was not strong even then. Later, when they were both at Oxford, James became entangled with some harpy who would have tricked him into marriage if it had not been for Robert. He contrived in some manner to send her off. I never heard the full account, but I told you James was a fool where women were concerned.”
“Blain? I have heard the name, I think, but cannot recall having met this man. Odd his name is never mentioned.”
“He had dropped out of society a great deal after his marriage, and almost completely these last six or seven years. While protecting James from an early marriage, Robert fell into one himself. I do not say he was trapped, I think it was a most respectable, dull affair, but he was only just of age. Having escaped himself, I can remember James declaring that early marriages were the devil, and indeed he did not eventually marry until he was almost thirty.”
“Having learned wisdom?” George queried, amused.
“Perhaps not,” the Earl agreed. “After Robert married he spent most of his time on his estates in Dorset, enlarging his already vast fortune, and rarely came to town. He fathered this brat and when his wife died some years later, was saddled with him. That was about the time of James’ marriage, and I do not think they saw each other after that.”
“Was Sylvia jealous?”
“I do not think so. There was no cause, for after his marriage Robert had been immersed in his estates. He occasionally came up to town on business, but never spent the season here, possibly because his wife was in poor health. I do not know. It is likely that he disapproved of James’ marriage. I doubt if he would consider Sylvia much better than the harpy at Oxford!”
“So the fortune-hunting mamas will be after this youth. I do not envy you your task.”
“The money is tied up with trustees until the lad is of age. I shall no doubt have to go and see them too,” he said in disgust.
George laughed unsympathetically. “It will give you something to do, Dermot, to prevent you from becoming too bored.”
The Earl flashed him a quick glance. “Bored? With the follies of fashionable London to observe? And friends like you? Never!”
“And attacks by footpads to repel?” George interposed, referring to a recent episode when the footpads had received decidedly the worst of the encounter. “And women like Julietta to pursue or evade as your fancy dictates,” he continued.
“As you say! Well, do we go to the ball?”
“Unless you prefer more cards?”
“I have had enough. My luck is out tonight and I know when to declare a halt. You shall not pluck me any more tonight, George.”
“Then dinner. Where shall it be?”
“Dine here, and then we can go straight round to Lady Carruthers’.”
George grimaced. “I am not overfond of Fielden’s cooking. Why do you keep him?”
“He is an incomparable valet, and no one puts a better shine on hessians. But you need not fear his cooking tonight. His niece has just arrived in London and stays with him until she can obtain a situation. She is an excellent cook, and I am thinking of retaining her. Can I tempt you?”
“In that case, yes, and you can tell me more of Robert Blain. I am still curious.
The Earl smiled, and rose to ring the bell. His valet appeared almost at once. Fielden was a slightly built man with quick darting eyes and sandy hair, and an air of contempt for all except his master, who was always obeyed with prompt efficiency.
“Can Betty provide us with dinner?”
“Indeed, yes, my lord, she has it all prepared, having said to me that you would be sure to invite your friend. There’s a pair of spring chickens done to a turn, as well as pork cutlets, and some Rober sauce to go with them. And a veal pie, and some lobster soup, and a couple of tarts as well.”
“Then we will sample them,” the Earl said, breaking into this enthusiastic recital of the treats in store.
Turning to George as his man left the room he raised his eyebrows quizzically. “Will that be to your taste, George? It’s clear Fielden thinks highly of his niece’s abilities in the kitchen.”
They preserved a companionable silence while Fielden came in with a loaded tray and swiftly laid the small table which he drew nearer to the fire. He bustled about fussily, then with as much pride as though he bore the dishes for a banquet, he carried in the culinary delights he had enumerated to his master.
They set to, and George was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the meal.
“Far superior to Fielden’s own efforts,” he praised. “Hire the wench at once, Dermot, and I shall dine here regularly!”
“I think I might, though as I shall be living in Berkeley Square for the next few months, it seems unnecessary.”
“You can hardly introduce her there, Monsieur Henri would have hysterics!” George laughed, referring to the Earl’s temperamental French chef. “But you are bound to want to come here on occasions for a bachelor party. Even though the house is yours you will not wish to spend all your time in Sylvia’s company.”
“True,” the Earl agreed. “I might need to escape. That was what you had in mind?”
“From your protegé too.”
“Is that his name?” George asked, revolted.
The Earl laughed at his tone. “That was what Robert called him in the letter he wrote to James.”
“Tell me more about the lad. Or do you know much?”
“Almost nothing. James received this letter two years ago, as I said, just before he went off to Brussels. It seems Robert Blain was dying. I do not know the details, except that he said he had only a few months to live, and asked James and Sylvia to take on the task of showing Bobby the town when he was seventeen. There is apparently an aunt, the sister of his wife, who was in charge in Dorset, and the lad was being educated at home.”
“Why did he not send him to Eton?”
“I do not know. I could wish he had, for a country-bred lad, brought up by a no doubt doting spinster aunt, will be the very devil! I anticipate having to restrain him from all manner of mischief. Or he might be a lumpish yokel, and need to be pushed every step of the way, open-mouthed in astonishment at the wonders he observes.”
“Neither will suit Julietta. Whatever he is like, he will get in her way.”
“That might be the only virtue to emerge from the whole scheme,” the Earl said, grinning at him.
“Is Sylvia pleased at the idea?”
“I fancy not, though she talks a great deal about her duty to do all that James would have wished, and proses on about my responsibilities that I have inherited along with the position. She prates about duty until I am sickened of the word.”
“And yet that is why you do it,” his friend said percipiently, in a quiet tone.
“For James only,” Heronforth returned shortly, and led the conversation onto other topics, asking which of their friends and acquaintances had arrived in town as yet, for the season was barely started. Fielden removed the covers and set a decanter of fine brandy between them, then quietly withdrew. The Earl poured out the brandy and sipped it appreciatively.
“I really do not care for parading at Lady Carruthers’ ball, making insipid conversation with insipid damsels whose mamas hope that being on the scene thus early, they will catch the poor worms there,” he said suddenly.
“You are hipped. Is it the wretched Bobby, or the fair Julietta?” George enquired.
“Both,” responded the Earl, rising and prowling restlessly about the room.
“Sylvia seems more determined this time than ever before.”
“She positively thrusts the girl under my notice. She was greatly offended when I did not offer for Julietta last season. I had to evade a house party she organised a month ago, on some excuse. I fear she encourages Julietta to hope too much. Yet I suppose I must marry some time and provide an heir, especially now I have the title. I confess I would be averse to thinking it would pass to Kennard.”
“Indeed no!” George shuddered. “Not that prosy old fool. But as you can give him more than fifteen years there seems little hope for him. Incidentally, I heard he is selling up? Is that true?”
“It may be. He has been very short of the ready these last two years.”
“And might be hoping for your early demise. You must disappoint him by marriage. But surely it does not have to be Julietta?”
“What have you against her? She is lovely, and amiable.”
“Oh, she is a veritable beauty, I grant you. But she seems too concerned with pleasing you, and shows no will of her own.”
“Admirable qualities in a wife, I should have thought,” the Earl commented, amused, leaning back against the mantlepiece.
George shook his head decisively.
“For some men, aye, but not for you, Dermot! Why, you would be confoundedly bored in less than a month.”
Heronforth glanced at him. “Then recommend me a female who would not bore me,” he suggested, half seriously. “I cannot, off hand, call one to mind.”
“Neither can I,” George said with a laugh. “Such a paragon does not exist.”
“Save me from a paragon of virtue, at all events,” the Earl shuddered. “It seems I am doomed.”
“You will have to be content with the company of the stripling Bobby. When does he arrive?”
“In ten days. I have the letter here.” He strolled across to a small table on which writing materials were spread, and picked up a sheet of paper. “Read it. What do you make of the lad?”
George perused the letter with some effort.
“Atrocious writing!” he commented. “They would not have permitted this at Eton! Terse and to the point. A surly lad, possibly? He does not seem overanxious to come.”
“Sylvia must deal with him, and the sooner he decides to retreat to Dorset the better pleased I shall be.”
They sat for a moment, then George attempted to distract his friend by enquiring where they should spend the evening.
“Do you fancy Watier’s?”
The Earl shook his head. “I have had my fill of gaming for today.”
“Vauxhall then, let us see whom we can find there.”
The Earl agreed, but made no move to straighten his cravat, or put to rights his disordered hair. In the silence the sounds of the street outside drifted to the two men. It was the hour when the members of the ton were setting off for fashionable parties or their clubs, and several carriages could be heard, with the occasional shout of a coachman as someone obstructed his way.
George eyed the Earl worriedly. Though he was often silent, and derived great amusement from observing the follies of his friends, he was rarely moody as he had been tonight. George wondered whether it was the prospect of accepting, out of apathy, a marriage with Julietta, or the task of bear-leading the young Bobby Blain that cast him down so much. But he was not allowed much time to pursue these thoughts.
There arose a murmur of voices outside the room, and Fielden’s was heard, raised in accents of protest. A high, feminine voice cut across his, but no words were distinguishable. The Earl glanced in annoyance at the door, and took a step towards it.
“What the devil goes on? If that is Betty making a commotion, I shall send her off instantly!”
The door opened and Fielden, his expression a comical mixture of apology and disgust, appeared. He seemed incapable of speech.
Heronforth raised his eyebrows. “Well, have you an explanation for that hubbub?” he asked coldly.
“I beg pardon, my lord, I’m sure. I would not have disturbed you, knowing that you do not wish to be disturbed, and thinking you would not wish to be troubled by the young person – “
The Earl’s expression had softened to one of amusement. “What is amiss, Fielden?” he asked calmly, but the man was not to be hurried.
“I told the young person that you would not wish to be disturbed, so late in the day as it is, and that if she returned tomorrow at a respectable hour, you would no doubt condescend to see her,” he continued, unperturbed. “But she would not be denied, and has some faradiddle that you are expecting her,” he concluded, the repugnance in his tone indicating clearly what he thought of such an unlikely tale.
“And so he is, you great looby. If you could bring yourself to stop talking fustian, and announce me, the Earl would be a great deal wiser,” a girl’s voice, high and clear, came from behind him.
Fielden swung round, his mouth open to administer some reproof, but the visitor, taking advantage of the gap thus left in the doorway, slipped quickly through it followed by her companion. She stood there, her head tilted slightly to one side, composedly surveying the room and its occupants.
“Which of you is the Earl of Heronforth?” she asked after a moment of stunned silence, glancing from one to the other, a gleam of amusement in her eyes as she took in their disorder and noted the wine glasses on the table.
They stared back speechless for a moment. She was tall, slenderly built but shapely, as her tightly fitting pelisse clearly demonstrated. Her face was heart shaped, and her eyes, a vivid blue, seemed enormous as she stared at them. Beneath a fetching bonnet they could see that she possessed an unruly mass of short, red-gold curls. A smile curved her lips, and an enchanting dimple appeared.
The Earl recovered his wits, and while one hand strayed unconsciously to his hopelessly disordered cravat, the other waved to Fielden to go.
“I will ring when I need you,” he said abruptly, then turned to the girl, noticing briefly that a pale, frightened looking woman in her early thirties stood beside her.
“I have not the pleasure of your acquaintance, I collect?” he said smoothly, bowing to them both. “I am Heronforth. Pray will you be seated, and tell me to what I owe this visit?”
The girl looked at him as she and her companion took the chairs George hastened to pull out for them, and a slight frown creased her brow.
“But are you not expecting us? I own, I was puzzled after having received your invitation to find that the house in Berkeley Square was closed, and to be directed here by the porter, but surely you have had my letter telling you of our arrival?”
“I am at a loss, I must confess. May I introduce my friend, Mr George Fenton? You are - ?”
He paused, raising his eyebrows at her and smiling encouragingly, and she acknowledged George’s greeting abstractedly.
“How do you do, Mr Fenton? My lord, it was arranged that you would receive me, or rather that your wife would, long ago. I sent you one letter and received a reply that you would be expecting me, and a week since I sent to notify you of the date we would arrive.”
“But who are you?” the Earl demanded, wanting confirmation of the suspicions that had occurred to him.
“Roberta Blain. My father was a great friend of yours, long ago – although you do not look nearly so old as he did,” she added consideringly, causing George to turn away and bury his face in a handkerchief hurriedly dragged out of his pocket, into which he sneezed unconvincingly.
“Bobby!” the girl’s companion protested, and with a start the Earl recollected her presence and turned towards her.
“I do beg your pardon! My wits have gone a-begging. Miss Blain, will you not introduce me?”
The girl smiled. “My dear Aunt Rose, Miss Holt, who has cared for me since my mama died.”
“Welcome, Miss Holt. I am exceedingly sorry to appear so unprepared. Will you and your niece take some refreshment? Have you dined?”
“We have dined, my lord, but some wine would be very welcome,” Miss Blain replied, her aunt appearing lost for words.
The Earl turned towards the table, but was forestalled by George who poured out the wine which he carried across to the ladies. He then stationed himself to the side from where he had an uninterrupted view of Miss Blain’s delightful profile.
“Were you not expecting me, my lord?” she asked, after a slight pause, during which the Earl stared at her, bemused.
He grinned engagingly.
“Not precisely. You see, I read your letter for the thirtieth, not the twentieth, and – it’s a little difficult, for I was under the impression that your father’s child was a son.”
He was watching Miss Blain’s face, and admiring the even white teeth that showed between her full lips as she suddenly laughed, realising how the confusion had arisen, and it was George who, with an exclamation, sprang forward to catch Miss Holt as she moaned and subsided in a swoon towards the floor.