Relatives, thought Toby Stacey-Brown as he stood before his Aunt Gertrude and her slightly deaf and very much bland escort Sir Pinderston, are invariably talking to the people you are least interested in when you finally force your way over to them, no matter how well you try to time your courtesies to them. The Blandforth's ball was in full swing, and their London town house was hot and crowded, despite the fact it was only early March. Behind him, Toby could here snatches of gossip being exchanged by the ever shifting crowd on the edge of the dance floor, underscored by sounds of a cotillion being danced by members of the upper ten thousand. Aunt Gertrude was painstakingly trying to prod Sir Pinderston's memory about the last occasion on which the Blandfords had given such a well-attended ball, a full four seasons ago. As if, Toby thought a bit crossly, any average ball could be memorable enough to be distinguished in the mind for more than a fortnight, let alone for four whole seasons.
Yet later he was to remember this very thought and this very ball for very much longer, for fate when challenged, will often delight in proving her powers, and Toby's eye in the very act of rolling up to the ceiling in mixed dismay and boredom caught sight of a young woman leaning over to whisper in an old belle- dame's ear. She sat in the cluster of chaperons scattered over the chairs behind Tony's aunt and the hard-of-hearing Sir Pinderston, who was saying "What about poor Yearstow?" and stubbornly refusing to grasp the significance of four years ago. Tony keep smiling and nodding at his aunt and her old beau, but eyes and his mind focused completely on the pale beauty he had glimpsed.
Although the first thing his eye had caught was the tantalizing view revealed by the lady's bent posture, Toby's eyes immediately moved up to lingered over the startling contrast of pale white skin against the deep midnight blue of a silk ballgown and the black and white of an intricate collar of cameos. I never realized how sensuous and graceful the line of a throat could be, Toby thought as he ran his eyes up and down the arched column of the neck encircled by the delicate carved shell portraits of the cameos. He found himself wanting to pull off that necklace and run his tongue down from that perfectly curved chin along that beautiful white throat to the hollow at its base. I'd linger there he decided lost in the fantasy, and listen for sounds from that throat. He'd hear soft, delicious moans, moans a woman makes when she wants you not to stop ... Holding this image in his mind, a deeply wicked smile curved across Toby's face.
Barbara Dearson was telling the story of her late husband, his much older friend, the Mad Marquis of Beldmore, and a certain Bavarian princess--whose name could not be disclosed--to Lady Royston for the fourth time. Lady Royston, who had had a wild crush on Beldmore in her first season some fifty years ago, seemed to take a perverse delight in hearing of the mad marquis' humiliation at the hands of the spoiled and feisty young princess. The story, never one of Babs' favorites, was growing tedious to tell, and she resolved never to repeat it again. But Lady Royston, her aunt's close friend, had been kind enough to pick her up and take her this ball when Aunt Julia had taken ill after tea today. Surely telling old stories and watching the display of a successful London ball was better than a night home curled up with a novel, Barbara reminded herself. She had just got to the point in her tale at which the princess drove a hat pin into the marquis' false wooden calf, when Lady Royston gave an inappropriate gasp and hissed to Babs behind her fan, "My word, girl, look at young Toby Stacey-Brown staring at your throat like he'd like to bite it and grinning like a libertine. Beldmore used to eye women like that all the time. I'd never thought young Stacey-Brown had it in him to lust like that, given the all the puritan prosing of the Brown strain in him ..."
Babs looked up abruptly and froze. His eyes locked on hers and seemed to bore into her. He is tall, she registered, and he wants me. For an instant she panicked, wanting David and knowing he could not longer be her protection and refuge on this earth. Then some of Lady Royston's words sunk in, and Babs let herself relax. She was in London with a crowd of everybody who was anybody. No one who any sense of resectability and family pride could carry her off unwillingly. David wouldn't be here if he was alive anyway; for his last years had been spent in a sickbed or a bath chair, and they had both greeted death as a sweet release from ever-increasing pain. David, gone, gone forever.
Babs closed her eyes and ached a moment, and then took up her end of this new conversation, "What is his family name, did you say, Lady Royston?" As Lady Royston began detailing the history of the Brown line of the Stacey-Browns in the interregnum, Babs willed herself to focus on this obscure information and not show a sign she was conscious a tall, handsome, brown-haired man was staring at her like she was the only thing he could see. Her hand started to tremble wanting to reach up and play with her necklace and cover up the decolletage of her low-cut dark silk gown. She gripped her thigh so hard to resist this impulse to cover herself that she knew she would have at least two tiny green-yellow fingerprints above her stocking- tops tomorrow. Rather bruises, she thought, than to give such a rude man any sign he was frightening her. Was he being rude? Surely when she was with David on the continent in dresses much more revealing than this one, she had been stared at through quizzing glasses and by much more highly questionable characters. But David had been there, enjoying their stares and proud of them. They had never scared her. Well, almost never. But David would know if she was uncomfortable and whisper silly things in her ear, urging her to give her best imitation of her Aunt Augusta staring at the ogler as if he was a little boy with jam on his face.
Without thinking, Babs turned her head to look at the man and consider how he would look with jam on his face. He was still staring. It was a handsome face. It didn't look that frightening actually on a longer perusal. In fact, this Mr. Whatever-Brown would look delightfully sweet with jam on his chin. A grin of amusement flashed across Bab's face, and she turned her head away towards Lady Royston to keep herself from giggling most inappropriately at the history of the Brown family's religious and politic woes in the seventeenth century. Her hand unconsciously came up to play with cameos of her necklace. When she looked again, some minutes later, he was gone.
Toby was heading for the card room and his Aunt Miranda. He'd already talked to her this evening, but Aunt Miranda was the queen gossip of the family and would like as not know who the beauty in the dark blue dress was. And surely if she did not know, she would know someone who did. As he politely manoeuvered his way out of the ballroom towards the card room, Toby smiled at friends, and swerved to avoid cups of punch, stray elbows, and ladies' skirts, without any conscious effort. He was trying to decide if her hair--and there was only one "her" right now--was a dark, ash blonde, or a pale, glossy brown. He hadn't been able to determine this as he had been so distracted by that glorious pale skin and those pale jade green eyes that had stared into his for a moment. Those eyes--how they had stunned him when she had unexpectedly turned her head to stare at him. What had that enigmatic smile meant as she looked away? What would those eyes look like in full daylight? Would they look at hauntingly beautiful as they did in the light of hundreds of wax tapers?
It was nearly an hour later when he caught up with his Aunt Miranda standing with his mother by the door to the lady's cloakroom. By this point Toby was feeling a bit harassed as his aunt's trail had been littered with acquaintances that it would not do to neglect, but were not his intimates with whom he felt he could relax. Indeed, the vision of the lady of the jade eyes was fading, and Toby was wondering if he had lost his chance to try to dance with his friend Peter's pretty little sister.
"Toby what is it? What is wrong?" queried his mother the moment after he greeted her.
"Why should anything be wrong, mother? So far as I know not even a reputation has been wounded, let alone murdered tonight."
"The boy's got a lady in his sights, and he needs an introduction Clara, don't be so daft," Miranda corrected, "why else would he be lurking by the lady's cloakroom. So who is she?"
"Well, aunt, as you seem in the mood to make some introductions, you might as well come introduce me to a certain beautiful woman in dark blue wearing an unusual set of black cameos."
"Oh Toby, don't you even know anything about this woman besides her toilette? You should find out if she is suitable or at least if she is available, before you fall in love. You are not going to win a desirable bride by being so impetuous ..."
"Mother, allow me to reassure you that I am not in love, and that I'm not here to tell you I am getting married--"
"And why not, for the sake of your family, if not your god, aren't you? My only son is still single at thirty-five!"
"Well mother, if you want me to get married, I shall have to overcome the unholy lust I am feeling now--" Toby ducked quickly to avoid two fans that at once flew out to hit him and finished with an impish grin," and to accomplish that, you and Aunt Miranda will have to find out who my jade beauty is--
"--and if she is suitable--" interjected his mother
"--so that I maybe purged by her pure character of my wicked inclinations," finished Toby.
"You scamp Toby, stop talking like a rake to your aunt. Perhaps Clara we shouldn't introduce the fellow for fear of a scandal."
"But how much more scandalous Miranda, if we don't supervise the meeting. And what of Peter's little sister? I thought Toby you came to dance with young ladies in white, not older women in colors?"
But before Toby could make any reply, Miranda abruptly asked, "Jade lady, eh? Do you mean with jade-green eyes?"
"Yes, with eyes the color of pale green jade or celadon green china, and skin like the most translucent white jade, more beautiful than cold white marble or mere alabaster could ever be. Do you know who she is?" Toby asked with an eager note he couldn't keep out of his voice. Thinking back on that glorious white skin, Toby began thinking his hour spent pushing through crowds after his aunt would be a well-spent one, if he could meet the lady and whirl her in his arms. How tall would she be in his embrace if they waltzed?
"Translucent white jade, eh?, my, my nephew you are smitten, and becoming a poet," teased Miranda. "Clara, I think the boy could be fallen for Dearson's relict, Babs the baby bride--she's was a Rosemont, and jade-green eyes have made at least two generations of Rosemont women beauties."
"The baby bride, the little Rosemont that threw herself on Dearson before she was even out? Oh no Toby, she is rumored to have lead a most wild and loose life with Dearson on the continent. Though of course it was he that was wild before she had even put away her primer. But still, it was said she encouraged him in these ways. Why I believe someone said her husband and she would even ..."
"Even what mother?" asked Toby a little more sharply than he had intended.
"It is rumored they would select each other's ... well, friends" finished Clara lamely, and rushed on to add, "Toby I don't think you should consider questionable widows; you must give her up at once!"
"Mother, I can't give up someone I've never even been introduced to, and we have not even established that Aunt Miranda and I are talking about the same woman," Toby burst out.
"What woman is this, nephew?" asked Lord Barston, the head of the Stacey-Brown family, as he put his arm around his wife Miranda and joined the trio in the hallway by the door to the lady's cloakroom.
"A lady I saw sitting with--" Toby broke off abruptly as he turn to face his uncle. She was here. She was coming towards him, and he was blushing like he had jam all over his face. And Aunt Miranda was calling out to her, and his mother was sniffing in disapproval. She had heard Aunt Miranda and was here.
When Timmy "Bitzer" Hurlington sloshed a full glass of deep red wine on Lady Royston, and she had insisted that the two of them head home, Babs had tried not to feel disappointed. Her puritan-rake, Mr. Stacey-Brown, had not returned to the ballroom, and she admitted to herself, she had wanted him to do more than stare at her. Not that I had any intention of furthering his acquaintance, she told herself, but it would be interesting to see what sort of conversation he had. Would his voice say things as outrageous as his eyes had? she wondered, and then stopped herself. It is a good thing Barbara Penelope Rosemont Dearson, she sternly told herself, he didn't come back or think twice about me, for curiosity killed the cat. Besides, she added mournfully, my reputation needs all the respectability it can get.
It seemed no one in London ever forgot any scandal, even one so remote and half-speculated as David and hers long-ago hasty marriage and their flight from England. Not that they had considered it a flight at the time. As Babs mechanically followed in Lady Royston's wake to take adieu of their hosts, she dwelled on the contrast between the wild tales newly recirculating in a few of London's best drawing rooms and the reality of her marriage.
True, she had been awfully young, a month shy of fifteen, and David had been twenty-seven at the time. Her parents had been having a house party, and David was invited as one of her older cousin's potential suitors. But he had fallen for her at once. She was his sylph, his fairy princess. And they had married by special license a month later and left the country for eight years--eight wonderful years of romance, travel, and love- -until David had become ill. For every time they had considered going back to London, David had put it off saying they had plenty of time before they needed to settle down and start a family. How he had enjoyed life abroad. Always a new harbor to dock in, news of the war and local politics, new places, new languages, and yet always some few British folk willing to exchange talk of "home."
They had loved to sit and guess the histories of the people they encountered, sometimes trying to be as wildly fanciful as possible, other times to be as precise and specific as could be. It be no fun in England, David had assured her, for they'd know everyone or would know someone who knew everyone. Part of the fun had been striking up acquaintances with some of the more colorful figures they had spotted, trying to discover who had been more accurate. Once a woman they had both been convinced was an Indian princess or the daughter of a maharajah at the very least, had turned out to be a nabob's mistress. And there had been the questionable character, David had insisted was a white slaver, whom they had later discovered was a theater manager desperately seeking to augment a cast depleted by influenza.
When they had finally come back to England, they had been shocked to find how unacceptable they were. There had even been a print sold in the shops after their marriage, depicting David with horns and a tail pushing her in a baby carriage, while she was pictured licking a pacifier in a most indecent way and looking lasciviously at other men strolling by in the print's background. Barbara shook her head suddenly as if to shake the memory of the print out of her mind forever.
It had been twelve years since she married David, and he had been dead for almost two years. One of his last requests was that she'd not bury herself in the country, but go see London at last and look for someone to love her. But since she'd arrived in London, she'd felt unable to relax, and had tried to keep cool and detached from her surroundings. Surely somebody else with a scandal would arrive in London soon, she thought, and the gossips would shift to digging up another person's past. Why no doubt I am exaggerating my importance to the London gossips--who am I to discuss amid this glittering crowd?
The sound of gay chatter swirling around Babs as she moved under the wax tapers and amid the bejeweled and scented bodies that paid her not the slightest of attention reassured Barbara of her relative unimportance and anonymity in this glittering social world. As Lady Royston and Barbara finally were nearing their hostess, Lady Blandforth, the words of one elderly matron covered with diamonds caught Bab's ear: "I can't like that young girl at all, no spirit at all. She's so concerned with being proper she is nothing but a timid mouse ..." As she moved to make her farewell, Babs turned the words of the unknown matron over in her mind. Am I nothing but a timid mouse? One who lives her life in fear of what others say? As she and her companion retreated towards the lady's cloakroom to fetch their shawls, Barbara resolved to show more spirit tomorrow. When a strange man looks at me, I'll stare right back. If I meet that puritan-rake again, perhaps I'll even venture to flirt a bit. Or even dance. It was time to start dancing again. She had not danced for four years, and pondered whether she should consider taking dancing lessons before venturing out on the dance floor again.
Someone was calling her name, and then suddenly, there he was. She was introduced to several older people and hoped Lady Royston was catching their names for she was not hearing them. His eyes she could see were dark brown, a beautiful dark brown, and they seemed to be whispering to her, I want you, I want you. Babs felt breathless and confused. Had he said something? He was holding her hand to his lips, and she was quivering. He seemed to be waiting for an answer, she thought, as her eyes were lost in the brown depths of his. A soft husky voice whispered "Yes," and Babs registered it as her own, when his eyes widened with delight, and he replied "I am honored by your acceptance." The sound of his voice startled Babs, convincing her, he had asked her no question--in words that is. She felt herself begin to blush a fiery red and hoped no one would ask the inevitable question.
But Lady Royston's piercing eyes were darting between the pair of them, and being closely related to neither of the two and having some of the license that fifty years of seasons gives a peeress of realm, she demanded what to know what Mrs. Dearson had accepted, "for my hearing has been a bit shaky lately."
Toby's cravat felt several sizes too small as he rapidly calculated what answer to make. The one fact that he could see, namely, that Mrs. Dearson's pale white complexion owed nothing to chalk or lead cosmetics for she was completely rosy from her cheeks to edge of her silk gown, was distracting him. The delay was costly for Lady Royston continued in a loud voice that attracted some notice from others in the corridor, "I am consumed with curiosity, for I know it cannot be a dance that Mrs. Dearson has accepted, for she hasn't danced in nearly five years."
The silence that followed this pronouncement was broken by the sound of muted titters of laughter and whispered speculation from a group of three young men waiting for their partners to emerge from the lady's cloakroom.
"But a dance--"
"A drive--" Toby broke off but then continued seeing Barbara fall silent, her pale skin still flaming with color--"a drive in the park followed by a dancing lesson, Lady Royston. Mrs. Dearson is planning to join the dancers some time this season."
"That is true, Lady Royston," added Barbara, "having begun to move about in society, I feel that it is time I polished up my social graces."
A rather speculative "humph" was Lady Royston's reply to this, and fortunately Lady Barston quickly intervened with some social chatter about the latest on-dit about the Carlton house set. It wasn't until Barbara was sitting beside Lady Royston in her barouche that she realized she had not given Mr. Stacey- Brown her address, nor had see found out any particulars of their planned drive or dancing lesson. Glad that Lady Royston had not taken her vis-a-vis which would have made hiding her face from her companion difficult, Babs could feel herself flushing. She wanted to return to Lynde Cottage, the small home David had bought her on their return to England. But the jarring of the barouche over a rough cobble recalled to Barbara all the discomfort of the long journey to London and made her think more philosophically about remaining in town. No doubt Mr. Stacey- Brown would not attempt to seek her out for a drive and had merely been trying to cover her blunder and save her from looking foolish. But perhaps he would ... he had looked so intently at her.
And despite two whole hours debating with herself over whether or not she would be disappointed or relieved if Mr. Stacey-Brown sought her out to take her for a drive, Barbara feel asleep that night in her aunt's fourth-best guest room not having resolved the issue.
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