Wiltshire, July 1811
„Might I enquire why?"
The lady resisted the urge to present the gentleman with an audible sigh at his persistence and contented herself with the most acceptable of explanations that was -
"We should not suit."
If she was surprised at the ready acceptance of her reply, she did not show it. She rose from her chair and made to -
She found that her wrist had been taken in possession by a firm, albeit unexpected, hand. Which had, it occurred to her - like its brother - been bereft of the protection that was a pair of white gloves. Well, even if she might have considered it an interesting - and not quite unpleasant - situation, she had no patience for such frivolity at this point, as it were. Her attempt at relieving herself of her predicament, however, only resulted in a tightening of the grip, which provoked her to eventually raise a pair of fine, questioning eyes at her captor.
It did not seem to inspire the offender into retreat.
Well, she knew him too well to be intimidated.
"Have the goodness to let go of my arm, sir."
Her tone spoke of cold civility.
Instead of responding with alacrity, its twin took possession of her chin, raising her face so that she found herself subjected to an unnervingly interrogating gaze, the dark eyes seemingly boring into her - and she felt her resolve ....
She wrenched herself free, her exasperation mounting. Why could he not perform as was generally expected from a gentleman - and of his rank, too! - at such unfortunate occasions as this and accept her refusal with the adequate degree of composure! And furthermore -
"Miss Allington -"
The tone left no room for an attack of vapours. Not that she was generally inclined to indulge in hysterics.
She turned towards him once more, released her breath and addressed him in her usual calm, if decisive, manner.
"I am sorry to have put you into an inconvenient position, but please understand that my answer is final. I am most sensible of the generosity of your offer, but I am convinced you must see that, upon reflection, it is for the best. We need not regard the gossip mongers; surely they will soon find a worthier subject to engross their attention." She smiled a little. "They usually do."
This reflection did not seem to satisfy her opponent, who had listened to her elaboration with marked politeness. When she had finished, he at last spoke, his tone all that was cool assurance.
"You will find, madam, that I have little interest in what may or may not ruffle the feathers of persons wholly unconnected to me. Nor am I in the habit of permitting my generosity to put me into an, as you phrase it, inconvenient position. What, however, interests me in somewhat greater proportion is your - " A grim smile flickered across the noble features - "- determination to disregard an event which, if memory serves correctly, was not quite as repugnant to you as you seem now inclined to make one believe."
The colour rose into her cheeks at this outright attack. Of course he must -
With deliberate calmness, she held his gaze.
"It was a mistake. I wish you would not allude to it any further."
Something seemed to momentary flicker in the dark eyes that had fixed themselves on her face - but she began to think she had imagined it. She watched the gentleman walk over to the small table on which his hat and gloves had been deposited. She knew herself to be right in her actions, however, she had hoped they could still part as friends. An absurd notion, upon consideration, but she had clung to it.
"Sir, I -"
She was not to finish her thought.
"I must thank you for enlightening me, madam." The gloves were rejoined with their respective owners. "Accept my best wishes for your health and happiness."
A curt bow, and she found herself alone in the parlour.
Bath, November 1811
"Ju - do you have any commissions? I am heading towards Milsom Street."
The lady thus addressed looked up from her letter and raised her brows in faint amusement.
"Then may I charge you with procuring me some new ribbons? Only, I must ask you to take care that the shade will match the fabric I have recently chosen - " Her eyes twinkled merrily -" - it is imperative to always look one's best at such an advanced age as mine, as my Aunt Longwood so frequently informs me."
"Judith - ", began her stern brother -
"It was irresistible. But to be serious - thank you, I only wish to exchange a book and as I have not, as yet, made up my mind as to its successor; it will fall upon me to make the expedition myself."
Her brother smiled.
"You appear to always have your nose in a book, little sister. Take care my Aunt hears nothing of it."
On that brotherly advice, and with a wink at his sister, James Allington left the elegant sitting room, in which Judith, the younger of the siblings, had been seeing to her correspondence.
When Lady Allington had been still alive, the Allingtons had been known to generally spend the festive season in the King´s Circus - her ladyship had had a great fondness for Bath and her husband had, upon their marriage, found himself momentarily shaken at his surprisingly ready acquiescence when his lady had first, with gentle insistence, presented him with her proposal. Be it as it may, he had had no hesitation to admit that his fondness for his young wife stood in no comparison to his dislike for that fashionable resort, and so it had become tradition for the family to abandon their estate in Wiltshire some few weeks after Michaelmas.
A tradition which the Allingtons had carried on in the years since her ladyship's much too early passing; and Elizabeth Allington would have been pleased to see her only daughter enjoying a regular early morning walk to the Sydney Gardens - as had been their shared habit during her lifetime, and would certainly have felt a tiny spark of motherly pride at the knowledge that her son's manly features had inspired more than a few sighs on the part of a young lady in the Pump Room. Not that her ladyship would have openly admitted to such favouritism - she would have been the first to firmly repress any appearance of conceit in her first-born´s character. Still, it was the prerogative of a mother, she would have reflected.
It would naturally have been the prerogative of Sir John Allington to discourage his daughter from her partiality for prolonged exercise - which his sister Mrs Longwood had been known to deplore - as well as to hint to his heir that he should, in all fairness to his own cousin (of which gentleman said lady was a doting mother), leave the parading in the aforementioned establishment to gentlemen less favoured by nature; but he considered himself suitably liberal in his approach to parenting - and certainly had no patience for any such folly.
Judith Allington was often seen walking out on her own - and if some of the more determined Bath quizzes thus saw something to unsettle them in their sense of decorum, they were almost inclined to accept this personal defect at the realisation that even the pretty, young and, above all, rich Miss Allington was not Perfection. The more sensible among this abundance of naturally disinterested mothers and ever-harassed dowagers did not see quite so much amiss with regards to Miss Allington´s conduct. One, after all, need not be as strict in one's notions in Bath as in Town, and there was many a mother who permitted her daughter to venture out to Milsom Street, or even as far as the Royal Crescent, in the sole company of an equally active friend.
What had more dramatically affected some of the more suspicious members among the residents of Bath was the fact that for all her beauty - Judith Allington was in the happy possession of a mane of golden hair, a set of fine, deep blue eyes and a tall, elegant figure, amongst some of her enviable physical attributions (indeed, some rather more despairing damsels took considerable solace in the knowledge that the particular shade of Miss Allington´s hair was not precisely after the current fashion - being much too rich in its colouring) - she had yet to enter into the matrimonial state. How a girl with so much in her favour - her father a baronet, a dowry of fifty-thousand pounds or more and such physical advantages - could be still of the single state was beyond their combined comprehension. Surely her father could have influenced her in a more profitable manner!
If Judith Allington was aware of these speculations, she did not give them another thought.
As her view on the subject of matrimony sadly differed from that of a great many of these well-meaning matrons, and as she, moreover, felt little inclination to offer her personal affairs by way of conversational variety in these busy ladies´ regular outpours, they were to remain sadly deprived of the knowledge of the very creditable offers she had received since her presentation - and that her heart had, against all appearances, not been left untouched.
Sir John stood at the top of the grand staircase as his daughter came out onto the landing. His brows knitted.
"Must we, Judith?"
"Surely you have not forgotten, papa", she replied calmly.
Sir John heaved a sigh.
"I wish I could claim early senility, but I fear it is past hope." He shook his head. "Do put me in mind of it - why am I to be forced away from my warm, comfortable study on such an abominably cold evening?"
His daughter kissed his cheek as she made to descend the staircase.
"You permitted Lady Warmouth to coax you into attendance, sir."
The brows lifted in recollection.
"Ah yes. I suspected she was about to threaten to descend upon us before dinner and thereby avail herself of my unwilling arm on the journey to the Rooms. I had to draw a line."
"Yes, sir", his daughter replied in meek assent.
Sir John was not to be fooled.
She halted in her step.
"Lady Warmouth has a son."
"Yes." Sir John, or rather, his fingers - and with great leisure, made good use of the near banister. "I thought you should like to know."
His daughter merely shook her head, her eyes smiling, and continued in her descend of the stairs.
"Well, old chap, seems to be rather low water with you tonight, eh?"
The young gentleman thus addressed did not dignify his friend's good-natured pronouncement with an answer. Instead, he took a swig from his glass and called out to another member of the merry party that had assembled in a back parlour of the White Hart; which had, rather patiently for such a respectable institution, stood in as host to a greater number of its members.
"Now, Eve, I wouldn´t, really - Go to bed! Much better!"
Lord Stanton seemed somewhat aghast, and his face suggested to his companions that he was most ready to burst into tears at his friend's devil-may-care approach to the matter.
"A recommendable notion", drawled a new voice from the door. "One that should instantly inspire indulgence."
The majority of the gentlemen which comprised the party had sprung from their seats at the unexpected apparition in their midst.
"Oh my God!"
The latter was mumbled under a somewhat intoxicated breath.
It did not seem to visibly impress the intruder, who, his great coat swaying in his stride, a pair of elegant gloves in one hand, had advanced into the room under the watchful gaze of the daring young man, who eyed him with not inconsiderable hostility.
"Come to try your hand?", the same inquired with unbecoming hauteur.
"It would be very much the worse for you if I had", came the unmoved rejoinder. The dark-haired gentleman observed the inventory on the table, on which, amongst other items, a stack of cards was still waiting for an expert touch, and raised both his brows in pained surprise.
"Sherry, Everad?", he inquired of the young gentleman in mournful accents.
This appeared to be too much for the younger man. He shot from his chair and expostulated -
"I should be very much obliged to Your Grace if Your Grace would mind Your Grace's own business!" Remembering his dignity, the much afflicted gentleman returned to his seat. With a pointed look at his friend Lord Stanton - who duly, if a little apprehensively, took to his own chair once more, an apologetic look offered to the Duke during the process - he added: "I am, as you see, engaged at present."
An uncompromising hand had placed itself on his shoulder.
"The only engagement you have this evening still is with your valet. No, spare me your heroics, they are not of the smallest interest to me", came the dismissive command at the first sign of wrathful protestation on the part of the younger man. "And you, gentlemen -" The Duke had cast his disdainful eye over the remaining members of the group - "- had best to remember your own."
Their response was one of surprising alacrity and a moment later, the young man found himself alone with his adversary.
His first instinct was to haul himself forward, however, upon reflection; he had to admit that he should very likely come off the worse from the encounter. Not that His Grace would stoop so low as to have it out with him - like a man! Well, he, at least, knew what behoved his name and station.
With great dignity, he rose from his seat; his youthful chin beautifully complemented by the folds of his cravat, and made to walk out of the card room, a picture of aristocratic haughtiness.
He could, however, not resist one last shot at defiance.
"You are not my father!"
"A fact that affords me no insignificant gratification." The Duke uncompromisingly pushed the young man out into the hall. "Come and see me at the York tomorrow."
His Grace Aidan Maximilian Charles Deverell, 5th Duke of Aldworth, with a rather forceful tug, freed his noble person from the constraints of his cravat. He had applied the same measure, albeit in less vehement proportions, to his coat - whether the exquisite cut of the same was more to the credit of its wearer's taste or to that of his tailor - which the latter gentleman, though most respectfully, seemed to be inclined to presume - was a subject open to debate - and now stood before a small desk in the private parlour at the first hotel in Bath, flicking through the correspondence that had, partially, been sent on to his attention.
The Duke's valet, to his utter shock and consternation, had found himself constrained, by his employer's express orders, to remain in Grosvenor Square whilst that honoured gentleman travelled to Bath - in the firm intention that his sojourn at that resort should be of the briefest duration.
If Mr Johnson had harboured some understandable feelings of ill-usage at such an unprecedented conduct, he had known better than to give voice to his misgivings. Moreover, as he had grudgingly admitted to himself that unexpected morning - he had been in the Duke's employ long enough to be able to flatter himself with the notion that whilst no-one might provide such an expert touch when it came to such delicate matters as a pair of elegant black boots and a dark coat of superfine fabric; His Grace of Aldworth knew his duty.
Thus, and with a very creditable performance of respectful aloofness - which had prompted the Duke to recommend to his valet to take care as to not inspire in him the desire to offer his services to one of his more persistent acquaintances - Mr Johnson, with one last, satisfied glance at his morning's work, had watched the Duke mount the carriage that was to convey him to that infamous resort. Johnson sincerely hoped that the roads had considerably improved since his own last visit to the town - he shuddered to think that such an image of Perfection should be spoiled by an excessive array of dust.
The Duke surveyed the array of cards and letters with a stoical expression. Then, with a sudden lift of his brows, he tossed a larger number of the same into the fire, which provided a welcome warmth on such a cold evening - and proceeded into the dressing room, unbuttoning his shirt sleeves during the process.
"Mama - look! It is Aldworth!"
"Oh! I do wish he will ask me to dance!"
Such and other most inspired exclamations greeted His Grace upon arrival at the Upper Rooms that evening, some more hushed than others, but generally to that information. To the great consternation of some of the more doting mothers and their gentle offspring, the Duke, for all his good looks, material worth and other such decidedly creditable qualities of person, seemed supremely indifferent to the bashful looks cast at him across an elegant fan and the inviting smiles accorded to him in passing. It would be an untruth to state that he was bent on being purposefully unpleasant or that he had arrived with the sole ambition to make a greater number of the present female congregation miserable by shameful neglect - it would, however, be much nearer the truth to state that His Grace had no patience for the simperings and affectations generally accorded his person and that he had, when called upon, no scruple to deflect them in their origins.
The unexpected arrival of the tall, dark and elusive Duke of Aldworth gave rise to speculation as to what it might have been that had inspired him to present his noble person in Bath - one would, even if one would have declared oneself openly reluctant to admit such a fact; at least among the more permanent residents of the resort; have thought him to prefer to fix himself in Town until Christmas - surely no ailment could have been the reason for the impromptu appearance in their midst. No, closer observation - and more than one female was happy to let her gaze, most unconsciously, travel to his handsome person - suggested that His Grace enjoyed the best of health. Perhaps he - well, one could always hope, after all. And were not the ladies of Bath as handsome and accomplished as their counterparts in the capital? Granted, there had been rumours of an appearance of the gentleman possibly showing signs to eventually being prepared to contemplate the possibility of soon-after entering into the holy state of matrimony, but as yet - no prospective bride had sprung itself onto the other very willing candidates for that enviable position and thus it had been decided to have been only that - a rumour. Or at best, an insolent girl had attempted to snatch the prize and had, quite rightly, been rebuffed in her endeavour. Deservedly so. Who would, after all, throw herself at a possible suitor. No, they hoped they all showed better conduct than that - letting their eyes follow the Duke's handsome person across the ballroom.
The object of their speculations, cutting an elegant, if somewhat forbidding figure in a dark evening coat, crisp white shirt and elegant waistcoat - Mr Johnson would have been relieved in the knowledge that his trustworthy employer had taken care to live up to what he expected him to remember to be the lot of a person of his consequence (he was not to know that the Duke had, quite irresponsibly, not applied the necessary reverence during the process) - proceeded through the room, nodding at acquaintances, until he found himself accosted by a female member of the congregation, who took a decidedly less enthusiastic view of the aforementioned consequence.
"Well, my dear Aldworth, it occurs to me that I must thank you for quite lifting our spirits this evening! I had almost despaired of it - but you have created quite a stir."
The Duke raised a quizzical brow at his informer.
"Am I to infer that your resources have defied you?"
The lady shook her head in a mournful gesture.
"It is a sad admission, is it not?" She linked her arms with that of the Duke. "But I am, I own, very happy to think that my cousin shall always appear to my rescue!"
"I hesitate to disappoint you, madam, but I fear you shall have to content yourself with a non-recurrent performance."
The Duke's tone left nothing to be deliberated.
"For shame, Aidan -" The lady's eyes sparkled. "Almost you induce me to give up all my hope. But I shall not be so easily defeated." She raised a questioning face to that of her cousin's. "Now, do be serious, pray. What made you come to Bath? And I forbid you to tell me that you are thinking of taking the waters - you will induce me to sever all ties with you if that should be the case and - " She favoured him with an attempt at a stern frown at the hint of a smiling lift of the dark brows - "- if you will be provoking, I shall inform you that Lady Morton and her three lovely daughters are simply dying to make your acquaintance, and that I am quite in charity with the thought of promoting such a promising new friendship!"
The dark eyes surveyed her coolly.
"You may be easy. Much as I must consider myself tempted by your generosity, it is, to my regret, of no such great impact. I have been summoned by our esteemed grandmother."
"Grandmama?" The lady frowned. "But what can she want with you?"
The Duke appeared to be inclined for frivolity.
"Is it not possible that she may feel an overwhelming need for my society?"
"Nonsense." His cousin dismissed the notion with a wave of an elegantly gloved hand. "She has her dogs. No, it must be of greater importance than that. Or -" - she continued unperturbedly, in an afterthought, "- she might at last feel the inclination to cure you of your unaccommodating ways."
His Grace seemed to accept this with great composure.
"Yes. And that puts me in mind of another thing - you may not have been apprised of it yet, but Everad is here." She wrinkled her brow. "I have not yet seen him, but I was informed he meant to come to the Assembly tonight."
"You may be certain that it may have been his intention, but as it happened -", the Duke stated with wonderful equanimity, "- he found himself obliged to adapt to a change in plan."
"So you have already seen him!" She shook her head, disengaging herself from his arm. "Do you know, my dear Aldworth - sometimes I almost despair of you." She smiled up at the Duke. "But I shall not tease you any further. You will come for dinner, I hope."
And with a curtsey, Lady Harriet Courtenay disappeared among the throng of people that had assembled in the course of the evening.
"Miss Allington - I must thank you for a most invigorating dance. I hope we shall have the opportunity of repeating the same very soon."
With a smiling bow, Judith's partner took his leave, thus granting her a few moments of respite. She was not generally disinclined to spend a half-hour in a set; it was, after all, a ball and not a philosophical debate; however, having stood up for every dance thus far that evening, she was glad for some moments in which to catch her breath and rest her feet, as it were. Having found a quieter spot at one end of the crowded room, near an alcove, she observed the progress within.
A smile escaped her at the sight of her friend Miss Thornton strategically engaging to devote equal attention to three determined young gentlemen, who appeared to have made it their mission to personally see to her refreshments - thus Miss Thornton seemed to be in the happy position to be able to have her pick amongst three generously filled glasses.
She became more and more aware of the heat and stuffiness in the room and resolved to take a breath of the fresh evening air for a moment, intending to return within a few minutes.
Sensible as this intention undoubtedly was, Judith found it difficult to live up to it - having to weave her way through the crowds of people in and outside of the rooms and in the hall, at the same time taking care that her dress should not be torn and her arm not scratched by one or other of the more inspired adornments some of the ladies had chosen to decorate themselves with.
Almost as she had reached the doors, she found herself suddenly pushed sideward and collide with another person - at the hands of a small group of young people, who, in the highest spirits, had unperturbedly pressed forward in order to reach the dance floor as soon as earthly possible, or so it had seemed.
"Oh! I am sorry -"
Her apology was cut short at the realisation of whom she had collided with; whose arm it was that had, reflexively, she would later tell herself, steadied her for support. Her cheeks momentarily flushed as she found herself staring into a pair of familiar, dark eyes - which, after a brief moment of surprise, seemed to harden as they rested on her face.
Judith, though not unaffected by it, was quick to gather her wits. In a calm, cool manner, she curtsied and spoke again.
"I beg your pardon, Your Grace. Please excuse me."
Another curtsey - and she was gone.
"Ah, Judith. Ready to rejoin the spectacle?"
Sir John had appeared at his daughter's side, a half amused, half exasperated smile on his face as he watched the proceedings on the floor. He squinted across the room towards one of the couples.
"Ah. I see your brother is not yet worn out." He sighed. "Almost I envy him his constitution."
As no response was forthcoming, Sir John turned to glance at his daughter - and frowned.
Judith, who was still pondering her unexpected encounter with the Duke, looked up at him, shaken from her thoughts.
The Baronet was not one to mince his words.
"What has occurred to put you out of countenance?"
Startled, Judith quickly shook her head.
"I am not out of countenance, sir." She offered her father a smile. "Merely a little tired."
"Is that so?"
Sir John eyed his daughter in a manner that clearly suggested he should be very much obliged to her if she should make a little more concession as to his mental capabilities.
"It is nothing, papa", she reassured her father, whilst linking her arm with his. "Please do not trouble yourself."
"Very well." If Sir John was not entirely convinced, he also knew when he met with obstinacy. As it was, further investigation should prove itself decidedly more fruitful in his own home. Where one would be able to hear one's own words, to begin with. "Let us then desert your merry-making brother and take leave of this abominable crush. Mind -", he patted his daughter's hand as they made their way out of the ballroom - "- if someone should enquire as to the reason for our untimely departure -" Sir John's tone was all that was conversational - "- you have the headache."
Judith's eyes danced.
"Of course, sir."
"- and then my Charlotte was called to the harp, and - though I do not like to boast of my own child's abilities - there simply was no comparison. Everybody said so, you know, and Charlotte - the dear child! Imagine how it put her to the blush, Your Grace. But it is always so with her." The fond mother tapped her bashful daughter's hand with her fan. "Always worrying how her performance might be received by persons of such fine, exquisite tastes, who must be accustomed to listening only to the very best! But no, the darling child insists on undermining herself. She -"
The Duke was gone on a curt nod.
"Well." The matron pulled herself up to her full, irritated height. "Upon my word, if he has no taste for music, he should have informed us so! To walk off in such a -" She broke off and, fixing an indulgent smile on her painted face, turned to another gentleman at their side. "You see, Lord Branning -" She was not one to waste an opportunity, whether ducal or a Viscount; besides, she might learn more of the Duke's preferences from his friend - "- my Charlotte and I should not dream of discomforting His Grace in any way. Indeed, quite unlike some of the ladies present." Her tone suggested that she considered herself above such inspired tactics.
"I am convinced His Grace will be very pleased to hear it, madam", his lordship responded gravely. "And I shall regard myself as honoured beyond measurement if Miss Cranston will permit me to lead her down the next set," he informed her promptly.
A winning smile - and the young lady's mother was all compliance.
Miss Cranston, taking the Viscount's arm, was only grateful for his chivalry in the face of her fond mother's enthusiasm.
"Leaving the battlefield?"
Judith, who had been putting on her pelisse in the hall - her father having been detained by an acquaintance - was startled at the unexpected, albeit familiar voice at her ear. It would be useless to pretend that her hearing had suffered a decline during the evening's progress, she reflected.
Thus, having done up the last button of the light blue fabric, she looked up and faced its owner in a calm, collected manner.
"It would be considered very strange in me were I to present myself in the ballroom in a winter coat, sir." She pulled on her gloves. "One should always be mindful of the proprieties, I think."
"Ah yes -", came the low reply, after a momentary pause. "How could I forget?"
Judith's eyes flew to the Duke's face. Her cheeks flamed at the intensity of the dark gaze, but she was too shaken to pay it any heed.
"I wish you -"
Judith, her colour still heightened, turned to see that her father had reappeared at her side.
If Sir John thought anything amiss in his daughter's appearance, he did not give any such impression. Instead, he nodded a greeting at the Duke and then addressed himself to her.
"The carriage is waiting." With a hint of a dismissal in his tone he inclined his head towards the Duke. "His Grace will excuse us."
This was answered by a curt bow.
"Oh. Of course." Judith was quick to respond to the command. She turned to the Duke once more and curtsied, her apparent calmness belying her unsettled state of mind. "Your Grace."
His Grace, however, did not appear to be similarly affected. Indeed, his coolness was almost provocative.
Being led towards the carriage by her father, Judith permitted herself one last look at the Duke over her shoulder.
The expression in the dark eyes was unreadable - she quickly looked away, firmly resolving to put that episode behind her once and for all.
„Your Grace wished to see me?"
Lord Weston, a credit to his noble lineage in his aristocratic bearing and exquisitely cut dress, had presented himself at the Duke's residence as the same had just risen from his breakfast. The young Earl had dispensed with the services of the servant who had, rather offensively, in his lordship's severe opinion, requested his lordship to wait in the parlour, so as to enable him to announce his visit to His Grace; and had, somewhat impetuously, brushed aside this helpful specimen, unceremoniously stalking into the Duke's dressing room, his face set.
The Duke briefly looked up from his toilet and, returning to the same with unhurried precision, addressed himself to his visitor.
"Do not be a fool."
Stiffening, his lordship turned and betook himself of a chair, crossing one elegant leg over the other as he proceeded - a picture of languid impatience - to observe his brother from his seated position. He could not but experience a pang of jealousy at the sight of his noble sibling's expertise in creating just the fall in the white bundle of linen which he had himself been wishful to achieve for many months. He brushed aside this unhappy reflection and - his voice highly suggestive of boredom - enquired of his brother the reason for the unexpected condescension of His Grace's invitation.
"I am very busy, if you please. If you mean to lecture me, I will tell you now that I won't stand for it! Dammit -", he exclaimed hotly, as no immediate reply was forthcoming; His Grace being in the leisurely process of adjusting his cuff links - "- what is it to you if I lose a few coins at cards? No doubt such little mishaps must be beyond Your Grace's attention. Full of blunt, as you are," he bitterly added, in an afterthought.
The Duke, who had by then walked over to a small desk, seemingly unmoved by the young gentleman's heated outburst, retrieved what appeared to be some papers from its drawer. Upon closer inspection, the colour rose to his lordship's cheeks.
"What the devil -", he expostulated. "You know I cannot pay -". Lord Weston was, however, stopped short in his outrage by the cool tone in his brother's voice.
"Sit down." The younger man, his face clearly suggesting to the Duke that he considered his interference intolerable, promptly complied with the order, his arms crossed in youthful defiance.
"Let me make myself perfectly understood, Everad", His Grace began in low, ominous accents, having dispensed with the offending bundle into the blazing fire a moment earlier. "If ever I hear of more of your exploits - you will wish that I had left you to the mercy of your altogether inspiring friends. Do not make me feel obliged to waste my time in Bear Alley again."
Everad, who had whitened at the understanding that the knowledge of his business with some of the more disreputable members of the money-lending institutions had left the confines of the unrefined streets around London's Fleet Market, straightened in his chair, high on his dignity.
"Mama says it is your duty to be of assistance to us", he proclaimed stiffly.
"I am obliged to Mama", the Duke replied coolly. "My gratitude, however, should be in even greater proportions were she to direct her genius towards your enterprising career."
His lordship rose from his chair, his youthful chin rising beautifully within the confines of his neck cloth.
"I shall take leave to tell you, Your Grace, that I find your tone offensive!"
"By all means, do so, if it gives you pleasure." The Duke appeared to be at his most phlegmatic, putting on his gloves. "Can I offer you a seat? I am expected at Holbrooke."
"Thank you - I prefer to walk", responded the younger man with all his dignity.
The Duke paused to look back at his sibling, one dark brow lifted.
"Take care I do not regret my liberality."
The young Earl - he had not yet reached his majority, stalked off from his brother's lodgings in a state of great pique. The product of his mother's second marriage to The Most Honourable The Marquess of Clifton; Lord Everad Ware, Earl of Weston, was not only the heir and hope of that noble house - but also the apple of his mother's doting eye. One might indulge her ladyship in her favouritism; it was, after all, not unreasonable to suppose that a mother should always reserve a special place in her loving heart for her first-born child - three siblings had followed Lord Everad´s birth - but even the most tolerant of well-wishers, under view of that consideration, would have been surprised at the observation that the Marchioness seemed to apparently have misplaced the knowledge that that privilege should have been accorded to the son born by her during her earlier marriage to the present Duke of Aldworth´s father.
Her ladyship would have been the first to declare herself equally fond of all her children - and if relations between herself and her eldest son were, perhaps, a little strained, she made certain to always emphasise that on no account was she to blame for the unhappy situation, as the poor, dear boy; at the tender age of nine, had been wrested from her motherly bosom at the hands of her deceased lord´s relations, who had sent off the child to school without consulting his mother´s wishes.
As more than two decades had passed since these unfortunate events, no-one could have truly blamed her ladyship for the inconsistency of her memory - and her refusal to consider that she might have been grossly at fault in the treatment of her young son, when, some months into her second marriage, which had taken place not twelve months after her first husband´s much too early demise, she had declared herself unable to see to his education and upbringing in the manner that befit his position, and had, within weeks of the birth of her new lord´s son and heir, contrived to have the boy taken in by his ducal relations, who subsequently enrolled the young Duke at the school his father had boarded at at the same age.
Infrequent visits by the mother ceased when the number in her second family increased - she could not bear to be parted from her dear children for longer than a few hours! -, the obligatory present was sent to the boy every Christmas, and he was invited to spend a week or two at Clifton House in the summer when he had reached a more advanced age. The first such visit, however, proved to be the last, as the young Duke had henceforth shown no inclination to have that honour repeated, and the Marchioness no wish to press her first-born into truly becoming one of her family.
Thus the acquaintance between the Duke and his younger half-siblings - there was a gap of more than ten years between His Grace and Lord Weston - was not of such proportions as would generally have been expected. As time progressed, however, and the fortune of the Wares declined (both the Marquess and his lady were known to be highly extravagant and inclined to go through the world without paying much heed to such unnecessary trivialities as the cost of a new wardrobe, the annual refurbishment of her ladyship's suite, or a pair of fine chestnuts - a happy trait which their first-born called his own as well), the Marchioness had become fond of remembering the existence of her son by her first marriage, and had come to accept it as only natural that he should interest himself in his family - and show himself agreeable as to their well-being. As was only his duty, as the eldest of her children - an understanding her ladyship frequently pointed out to her friends, without any feeling of doubt in the matter.
Unfortunately, her ladyship had also contrived to install in her younger son - her other boy, Lord Rupert, being the youngest of all her children (there were twin sisters between him and Lord Weston) had received less of her motherly attention during his adolescence and had thus been spared some or other of her more inspired lectures on the subject of the good fortune of His Grace of Aldworth - the firm belief that fate had played him a cruel trick in providing him with an elder half-brother who not only surpassed him in rank, but also in the means to support a life-style his lordship felt to be his own just due given his position in life. And the worst - Aldworth was such a stingy fellow!
That His Grace had only just relieved him of one of his greater worries - the bundle of notes had contained vowels in the grand sum of seven thousand pounds - had no effect on Lord Weston's conscience. He was much more inclined to call his over-bearing brother insupportably meddlesome - and much too high in the instep. And in any case - such a paltry sum could be nothing to him.
Judith Allington had been the first to come down to breakfast the morning after the ball at the Assembly Rooms. She had spent a rather restless night - and once sleep had come to her, she had dreamt of the strong hands that -
She had awoken with a start, her hand flying to her hot cheek.
With a shake of her head, she had risen from her bed.
Clearly, she was in need of some tea.
As she was pouring her second cup, her brother came into the breakfast parlour. James Allington appeared to be a little discomforted, though impeccably groomed.
Judith could not resist.
"Good morning, dear brother!" She smiled at him over her tea cup. "Did not the ball end at the usual hour?"
"Be quiet, Ju", came the disgruntled rejoinder, a reluctant smile belying its severity.
Judith took pity on her sibling and rose to pour him some coffee.
James Allington looked up at his sister as she waited for his cup, which he duly presented.
"You left early last night, Judith."
Judith calmly buttered some toast.
"I had the headache."
"Well, no - but Papa thought it best to be prepared, you see. In case someone should enquire."
James merely rolled his eyes. Taking a sip of the sustaining beverage, he instantly seemed to revive - and turned to address his sister once more.
"Aldworth is in town. I only managed to corner him for a few moments -", his blue eyes twinkled roguishly - "- but it was enough in order to impress on him the necessity of joining us at dinner tomorrow. I had opted for tonight, I confess, so as to spare him the onslaught - but Lady Harriet was there before me."
"He is coming here?"
James was momentarily startled at his sister's aghast countenance. His brows lifted.
"Yes. Is that so extraordinary? He came to Allington quite regularly this summer, after all. I did not think you would object."
Judith was quick to regain her composure.
"No, of course not. I was only surprised." She busied herself with another piece of toast. "Only I did not suppose he would be making a longer stay in Bath." A generous amount of strawberry jam followed the butter. "You have always told me how much he disliked it here."
Her brother's features relaxed - and he accepted the offered specimen gratefully.
"True." The smile had returned to his face as he took another bite. "I ventured to remind him of the fact - but he advised me not to be insolent."
Judith merely shook her head with a small smile.
"Well, here you are at last. You certainly took your time."
The Duke, his grey travelling coat swaying in his stride, did not appear to consider this manner of address extraordinary and, repulsing the more ardent advances at the hands - or, rather, paws - of a pair of Italian greyhounds - the fourth resident in the room, a lethargic pug who did not deem to rise from his position on a cushion within a comfortable distance of a roaring fire - walked up to the elderly lady who had thus reprimanded him.
"I was under the impression that I had promptly responded to your orders."
"Yes, that is all very well -" The old lady submitted to having her cheek kissed. "But to be more to the point, young man - I should not be obliged to have to take the trouble to command you to come and see me. My fingers no longer travel across the pages as swiftly as they were wont to do!"
"Certainly not. Which is why, if memory serves correctly -" His Grace let his gaze travel across the handsomely furnished room - "- I engaged a companion for you." His brows lifted. "Where is she?"
"Out, of course! Do you think I wish to be disturbed by an ogling female during the far too infrequent appearances on your part?"
The Duke seemed moderately revolted.
"What, do you think only because one is an old maid; one does not have eyes in one´s head?" She rang the bell with a vehement tug that quite belied her advanced years. "We shall have some tea. And cake. But first -" She inspected her grandson from head to boots, her piercing eye not wavering during the process. "- you will have the goodness to change. It is all dirt and dust with you!"
"So, Aidan. What have you to say to me?"
The Dowager Duchess of Aldworth was of a rather petite stature, her once dark hair having adopted a decidedly grey shade quite a number of years past, an array of lines and wrinkles gracing her face - and yet, as she sat in her armchair and faced her favourite grandson, her posture - and the direct stare of her piercing blue eyes - suggested to impartial observers that Her Grace was not a force to be easily disregarded.
"I had hoped that you should tell me."
"Impudent as ever, I see." If there was a hint of fondness in her voice, Her Grace would have, upon suggestion, most vehemently denied any partiality for such disrespectful deportment. "What became of your wife?"
The Duke, seemingly unshaken by the enquiry, handed the old lady a delicate cup.
"I hardly know."
Her Grace favoured her grandson with a withering glare as she accepted the same.
"Then let me remind you!" She put the silver spoon to dedicated use, stirring the consoling beverage in unprecedented homage. "Lady Mary Something-or-Other, if I am not mistaken. Which, according to Lady Shelton, I apparently cannot be. You are held to have taken siege of her heart - and her many siblings. Siblings, Aldworth!" She had become a little agitated. "Must you?"
The old lady, upon that horrible recollection, took a restorative sip of her tea. Then she eyed her stoical grandson expectantly across her cup. As no reply was forthcoming -
The Duke, after what seemed to be a brief moment of contemplation, eventually lifted his brows.
"I suppose I must." Then, in a lower voice - "How many?"
Her Grace was understandably flustered. Her tea cup almost shook in her fragile hand.
"Well upon my word! You did not think to make the necessary enquiries before you presented yourself at her feet? Have you completely lost your senses?"
A quizzical smile crossed the handsome face.
"I fear I might have."
"You fear -" The old lady paused in her breath and directed a sharp glance at her grandson. After a moment - "I see. Dare one hope that should you ever find yourself in the conviction as to the state of your mind - one shall have the honour of being apprised of it?"
The Duke, having risen from his seat, bowed over her hand.
"My secretary, madam, is of a singularly efficient nature." The dark brows lifted once more. "Much to my chagrin."
The Dowager, putting the pug, which had left its throne upon the Duke´s departure, into a state of idiotic bliss by the precise appliance of her able fingers, was left with the gratifying notion that she was, thankfully, in the happy possession of at least one grandchild who did not put the illustrious family tree to the blush.
Judith took one last look at the mirror. She was conscious of the fact that she had been blessed with good looks, but so used was she to her golden head and deep blue eyes that she hardly thought them extraordinary. That evening, she had chosen a simple dress of white silk satin; her hair had been caught up in an elegant arrangement, some of the fair curls having gained permission to escape their confinement in loose tresses.
The altogether picture she presented was one of elegant loveliness. Her mind, however, had been fixed on quite another matter, and most persistently so. As it was, she had no time to further dwell on the subject upon a servant's appearance to apprise her of the arrival of one of the guests - with the clear, if politely restrained, hope that she should be ready to welcome this unfashionably early person; the Master not having returned to the house yet, and Mr James still being only half-dressed.
Thus Judith found herself walking down the staircase to greet this first guest - only recalling to enquire who it had been that had sprung themselves onto them at that early hour as her hand reached for the door handle.
"His Grace of Aldworth, madam."
The servant, most respectfully, bowed his retreat.
Judith, her gloved hand momentarily resting on the aforementioned object, sighed - and walked into the room.
"I must make you my apologies, Miss Allington. I appear to have mistaken the time."
The Duke - his grandmother should have seen reason to dispense with the services of her companion once more - had turned from the window upon her entrance. Not a flicker of emotion crossed his face as he beheld her at the door, though he moved forward and made his bow.
"Not at all, sir. I fear it is us who must beg your pardon. Or more specifically -", she smiled in recollection - "My brother. He is sadly volatile when it comes to the clock." She became serious once more at the Duke's stoical expression; resisting the sudden urge to request him to return at a later point. "Will you take a seat?"
She followed his example and, though very much conscious of, for the first time since that morning more than four months ago; if one were to discount their brief encounter at the Upper Rooms; being on her own with him, strove to show herself capable of polite conversation. She sought for a subject. Well, at least it was not the weather. She looked up at him, her voice all that was distant politeness.
"Will you be making a long stay in Bath, sir?"
The Duke answered her in equal accents.
"I have not yet fixed the duration."
If the wringing of her hands would have been a plausible option, Judith, for all her general calmness of disposition, should have felt inclined to adopt it. As it was, she forwent the same, and strove to not let his coolness affect her. In truth, she had expected it, and yet - no.
"I fear Bath may be considered lacking in its means of amusements, especially to those not used to its ways - but then, I have frequently spent some weeks here before Christmas, and so my fondness for it is rooted differently perhaps."
The dark eyes surveyed her intently. Then -
"And you should wish me to quit it."
Judith, her momentary surprise at the direct observation conquered, answered him with more calm than she felt.
"I hope I am not so insensible as to expect Your Grace to deport himself so as to accord with my wishes."
"No, you have made yourself quite clear on that head." Upon her stricken look - "Do not distress yourself. You have nothing to fear from me."
Judith, attempting to suppress her conflicting emotions, knew she should speak now before they should be prevented by the arrival of the remaining guests. It had not been her intent; she had not expected to receive the opportunity to address it, but she should be even more discontented if she did not prevail herself of the same.
"I do not fear you. I was only surprised at your unexpected presence at the ball." She looked up at him, a certain frankness in her look. "I am sensible of the fact that our former accord must be at an end, but I hoped that we should be able to remain civil to each other, should we meet in Society. I -"
The Duke, who had shown himself unusually forbearing until this point, lifted his brows.
"Other than interrupting your inspired communication at this moment, Miss Allington - have I shown myself uncivil?"
"No. Not yet, at all events. Oh! " Judith had to suppress a laugh at the questioning eyebrow she encountered. It almost reminded her of - "I do beg your pardon." She smiled, shaking her head. "That was uncivil of me."
After a moment, the noble features softened a little; a hint of a smile flickering across the handsome face.
"You will induce me to assume, Miss Allington, that you have made it your mission to cure me of my conceit."
She answered him in kind, much as she had been used to do until -
"Not at all. I promise you I have no great ambitions."
The Duke fixed his gaze on her, causing Judith to flush a little under its intensity.
"You will permit to tell you, madam -"
"Aldworth! Forgive me, a nasty habit of mine. But I see my sister has taken pity on you."
James Allington had walked into the smaller of the drawing rooms, his blue eyes twinkling ruefully as he bowed to their guest.
Aldworth surveyed the younger man unmovedly. "I will thank you to retain your charm for those more easily persuaded. Miss Allington -", his gaze briefly flickered towards Judith - "- has indeed been good enough to bear with me."
Judith felt an inexplicable urge to dismiss the insinuation, whatever it might be.
"It was no hardship, sir."
"Ah, Judith. Always so proper." Her brother rolled his eyes in good humour. "We need not add to his consequence. Now, let us proceed to the great room, before the onslaught begins."
The light flush to his sister's cheeks quite escaped his brotherly notice.
"What an unexpected pleasure it is to find you here tonight, Your Grace! I had no notion of your arrival in Bath. I do hope you do not mean to desert us again too soon - I should consider it highly naughty of you!"
It was fortunate both for her ladyship and the object of her reproof that their current proximity did not permit Lady Shelton the use of her fan to stress her point, Judith mused from her seat across the Duke.
His Grace, she was somewhat amused to see, seemed to share her view of the matter - or so the distasteful flicker of his eye towards the offending object in her ladyship's hand seemed to suggest. Looking up, her eyes still smiling, she briefly caught the Duke's eye. A barely perceptible lift of a brow - and she found she had to look away, lest an irrepressible bubble of laughter should escape her. For a moment, at least, she felt she had been forgiven.
"My dear Judith! Do come and sit with us - we have hardly had a moment in which to talk to you."
Mrs Stanhope, who had been a great friend of Lady Allington´s, smiled up at Judith as the latter had finished pouring tea and coffee for her father's guests. Mrs Stanhope, herself the fond mother of an energetic brood of five children; her youngest only just having gone off to school; held a special affection for her deceased friend's only daughter in her heart. However, she was not one of those who felt it to be their duty to entertain an interest in such cases - refreshingly, Mrs Stanhope admired Miss Allington for more gratifying reasons; her calm, good sense, her friendly disposition and the unmistakable humour that often lurked in the deep blue eyes when faced with a calamity.
She had been exchanging the latest news - under no circumstance would she stoop to call it gossip - with Lady Amelia Collingbrooke when she made the request of their young hostess, who was most ready to comply with her wish.
"Now, my dear -" Mrs Stanhope reached out to press Judith's hand, an arch smile in her eyes. "There is a profound mystery which you must help us unravel! I do count on your superior information and hope you will be able to put our minds at ease."
"Then I will, of course, be happy to assist you - even if I must confess myself equally mystified at your request, ma´am."
"It is very grave", Mrs Stanhope assured Judith, her voice a shade lower. "Amelia and I hardly know what to think."
Lady Amelia merely rolled her eyes, opening her fan with a snap and putting it to dedicated use.
Judith showed herself adequately commiserative, the smile lingering in her eyes.
"Indeed." Mrs Stanhope straightened in her seat, her hands folded in her lap. "Do tell us, my dear - and I beg you will spare us no detail, no matter how gruesome the truth may be! - how, if you please, it occurs that -", she raised an elegant eyebrow, her cap well-adjusted on her head - "- we find ourselves experiencing the very great honour of being in the company -", she lowered her voice again - "- of His Very Elusive Grace?"
Judith merely shook her head, her eyes dancing.
"Indeed, ma´am, I cannot vouch for His Grace." Her voice was smiling. "All I can tell you is that James invited him, and he chose to come."
"I have been given to understand that this may be the approach generally favoured by one's host, madam."
Judith almost jumped in surprise at the familiar voice - she looked up to find the Duke at her side. It was impossible to read his expression; he had retired behind a cool, aristocratic façade, and when his eyes momentarily rested on her, he merely accorded her a polite nod.
"Very true, Your Grace." Mrs Stanhope was the first to find her voice. "Forgive our high spirits. We did not mean to offend."
The Duke bowed.
Judith, better acquainted with him, and sensing that both ladies stood a little in awe of the gentleman, was quick to attempt to disarm affront. She smiled up at him, a silent entreat in her eyes.
"Indeed. His Grace may attribute it to female curiosity. It is, unfortunately, one of our most cherished possessions."
"You relieve me, madam."
She was pleased to notice the unmistakable hint of a smile in the cool voice.
"My dear! I must protest. You will make His Grace think that there is nothing on our minds but gossip. When in truth, of course -" Mrs Stanhope, her posture having adopted its former position, waved an elegant hand - "- we have so many more accomplishments."
"Oh no -" Judith, shaking her head with a smile, dared not catch the Duke's eye. She had a very precise notion of what might be his view of a greater number of what was generally deemed a female accomplishment. "I believe his opinion of our sex is already firmly fixed." Noticing that Sir John had been signalling her from the other end of the room, she rose from her chair. "Pray excuse me, I believe my father needs me."
Her departure came as a severe disappointment to a particular member of the dinner party.
"Well! Here she goes again! And I have been meaning to speak to her all evening. Did you know, my dear Penelope - I hope Your Grace does not mind my interrupting -" Lady Shelton, who was a woman of many resources, upon being foiled in her attempt once more, decided to make the most of her situation - bespoke the vacated seat, lowering herself with great care to the folds of her gown.
His Grace of Aldworth, who had risen at Judith's departure, his eyes fixed on her retreating form, showed himself of a surprisingly complacent temper, her ladyship flattered herself. That he had not proven himself specifically respondent to her suggestion did not deter her in her favourable assumption. Thus she continued.
" - that we may be expecting a wedding at last? I have always held it to be a shame that such a beautiful creature as Judith Allington should remain single, and well -", she eventually had the felicity of applying her fan to its full advantage - "- apparently, there is talk of a gentleman in Wiltshire and -"
With a curt nod, the Duke was gone.
„His Grace not in! What can you mean?" Her ladyship suspected the servant, who had been the bearer of the unhappy message, to her utmost disbelief. "Was he not apprised of my arrival?"
"His Grace was obliged to honour a prior engagement, your ladyship."
She did not appear to be pacified by the information.
"Engagements can be broken. I am his mother!" The Marchioness, her tender feelings quite seriously ruffled by the turn of events, eventually adjusted her gloves. "Very well. I shall leave a note for him. Have the goodness to bring me some pen and paper."
Judith, the object her father had wished her to retrieve in her hand, made her way back towards staircase.
As she reached the landing on the first floor, she came across the Duke, who was descending the same, pulling on his gloves in the process. He was leaving?
"You are leaving, sir?"
Aldworth merely accorded her a curt nod, proceeding in his step.
Judith was thoroughly perplexed as to not only this sudden departure, but the change in manner from - well, she might not be able to call him her friend any more, but she had thought that they had formed a truce of sorts during the course of the evening. Apparently, she had been wrong in her conjecture.
"I am sorry if you should have felt unwelcome."
The Duke halted, his cool gaze momentarily fixed on her. She felt her colour rise at the dark eyes´ scrutiny. Then -
"Goodnight, Miss Allington."
Judith was left to look after him on the staircase, silently berating her unrepentant heart.
Mr Johnson, his relief at his master's ultimately having come to his well-born senses - he had been sent for the previous day - of no insignificant proportions, surveyed his employer with an experienced, uncompromising eye. Eventually, having satisfied himself that no greater harm had befallen what could only be described as items very close to his fastidious heart, he took a respectful step backwards.
"Very good, Your Grace."
"You relieve me." The dark brows lifted. "Almost I had begun to fear I should find myself obliged to endure the pretensions of some of the more inspired members of your profession. But then, of course -" The Duke's tone had become slightly meditative - "- it should have fallen to your charge."
"Yes, Your Grace."
Johnson had possessed himself of the dark coat that had been selected by his able eye. It had been almost ten years, and still he could not but be touched at the sight of the finished effort. Mr Weston certainly knew his trade, if he might say so himself.
Without examining the fruit of his labour once more, secure in the faith in both his expertise and his employer's sense of decorum, the valet turned to devote himself to the discarded garments on a chair.
His Grace calmly adjusted the cuffs.
"You may consider yourself fortunate, Johnson."
Johnson kept his gaze firmly fixed on the discarded fabric. It would not do to indulge in far-fetched fantasies. This was Bath, after all.
"In one of my more complaisant moments -", the Duke continued prosaically, "- I agreed to present myself at Lady Hartington's ball."
The faithful valet, his head still bent over the aforementioned item, could not but permit himself a speaking sigh at the communication.
"Precisely." The well-bred voice smiled. "I shall trust in your discretion."
„My dear Aidan! What a delightful surprise!"
The enthusiastic effusion met with faint disdain in a habitual cool voice.
"I appear to have laboured under a misapprehension. Almost I had indulged myself in the assumption that I had been summoned."
Lady Clifton permitted herself a girlish chuckle.
"Cannot a mother be wishful to see her son?"
"I should not presume to have an opinion." His Grace took a seat, one booted leg resting on an elegantly clothed knee, the gloves in one hand. "What is it that you wish of me?"
Her ladyship was slightly irritated at her first born´s insolence. Still, she knew it behoved her to progress carefully in order to entice him as regarded her plans. Her conscience did not affect her; she had two daughters to launch into Society.
"My dear, you always take delight in teasing me! But you are right - I did have a particular reason to see you so soon after my arrival. I am so fatigued from the journey, the state of the road - it was such a bustle! But I did not mind it, for I knew I should find you here, and less besieged than in Town." Her ladyship could not repress a commiserative sigh - "Often I cannot help but wonder how you are able to bear all the demands on your time and patience. Indeed, I worry you should be neglecting yourself!"
As this motherly interpolation, most irritatingly, did not produce the desired effect -
"It is Cecilia and Annabelle. Your sisters," the Marchioness added, after a moment's pause, an encouraging smile on her still rather youthful face.
"I am aware that I am in possession of them."
"Yes. Well." The smile remained firmly fixed on her ladyship's face, if a little strained. "They are of an age which makes it necessary for your father-in-law and me to consider their presentation."
"You have my sympathy."
Her son's provoking disinterestedness inspired the Marchioness to firmly grip the embroidery in her lap. He was so like his father! Well -
"Cecilia especially has her heart set on a ball. To have it at Clifton, well, I need not tell you how insupportable it should be! And as for the house in Town -" She sighed despairingly, as if to suggest that there was no other conclusion to be drawn from the mere existence of the same. "You may imagine how difficult we must find it to deny the girls any pleasure. The dear darlings do ask so little, after all." The fond mother smiled once more. "I am sure I need not convince you of all the advantages!"
His Grace was most precise in his position.
Lady Clifton, even if she might have been permitted to speculate as to her first-born´s resolution; given the rather distant acquaintance between them; was sadly certain as to the meaning behind this monosyllabicism. Her ladyship bristled in her seat, her cheeks flaming.
"Am I to understand that you refuse to do this tiny, little thing for your only sisters - who have been talking of nothing else for weeks and whose hearts you shall be breaking by your refusal to show yourself capable of this small morsel of brotherly affection? I am ashamed of you, Aidan! I should not have thought you susceptible to such cruelty!"
"Evidently not," the Duke responded coolly. "I must entertain the hope that his lordship is not similarly mistaken in my character."
Her ladyship, however, feeling all the injustice of her situation, had not yet finished.
"And poor Everad! Your younger brother! Have you really no compassion at all? I begin to think that it may have been a gross mistake in me to send you to your relations all those years ago! Had I been there to check you, you should never have become so - selfish." She shielded her eyes with her hand, her voice threatening well-timed tears. "You have no idea what I suffered when they tore you from me - and this is how you repay me!"
The dark eyes remained unmoved.
"Console yourself with the knowledge, madam, that you were not called upon to correct these defects. As for Everad -", His Grace continued in his customary cool voice - "- I should advise you to endeavour to curb his preference for certain establishments of more disreputable fame. No doubt your maternal instincts will guide you."
The Marchioness, her maternal sacrifice momentarily forgotten, was quick to come to the defence of her young.
"Nonsense." She waved the suggestion away. "He is merely enjoying himself a little. I find it most unjust in you to begrudge your brother every small pleasure. You can have no notion of how tiresome it is to be always considering economy!"
The Duke had risen from his seat.
"No. Nor can he, it would seem."
On a curt nod, His Grace was gone.
"Aidan! I did think it was you! Mama was in such a passion -"
"Oh Cecilia - hush!"
Lady Annabelle was somewhat horrified at such undutiful behaviour, her blue eyes wide.
The Duke, having accepted his hat and coat from the attendant footman, turned to find his sisters peeking down at him from behind the balustrade. The two young ladies had escaped their governess for a moment, hopeful of catching a glimpse of what they had, quite correctly, judged to be the form of their formidable elder half-brother from their schoolroom window.
At the advanced age of almost eighteen - and with the knowledge that the rein of the aforementioned lady should soon be past - these two damsels presented a delightful picture of youthful exuberance paired with a notion of being wise beyond their years. Cecilia was the elder of the sisters; having been born a full ten minutes before her twin, and henceforth had adopted the role of natural leader within the scope of their small regiment. Both girls had a shocking mass of red hair, and yet the differences were not only noticeable in their fresh faces - from green eyes to blue - and the shape of their fine noses - they were also very much evident in their temperaments. Lady Cecilia - vivacious, stubborn and fiery-tempered; Lady Annabelle serene, gentle and fiercely loyal. Being in the possession of no less than two-and-a-half (as they were frequently corrected by the exasperated young Earl) brothers, they had, from a young age, decided that His Grace of Aldworth should be the one to be regarded by them in most heroic lights. He was much older, he did not live with them - and, as they had quickly learned during the few occasions of a meeting with him, he was strangely non-partial to catering to their every whim.
The Duke raised an elegant brow.
This was deemed encouragement enough.
"You look as fine as sixpence!"
"Cecilia! You should not say that!"
Lady Cecilia furrowed her brow at her twin.
"But why should I not? It is the truth!"
Her sister acknowledged the wisdom of this with a quiet sigh.
"Well, yes. But if Miss Reed should hear you -"
"No, no, Belle - it is our own beauty she says we are not to stress. Besides, Aidan will not mind. I am sure he is told so very often." Cecilia turned an innocent face towards her elder brother. "Am I not right?"
"My vanity is most intact", His Grace assured her gravely.
Cecilia, pleased with her success, ventured further in her interrogation.
"Will you be coming to the ball? Mama says we may attend - it is only Bath, you know." Her green eyes sparkled in happy expectation. "We mean to stand up all night! And our friends will be happy to dance with you", she added kindly.
The dark brows lifted.
"Thank you, I must consider myself forewarned. I can only entertain the hope that your Miss Reed has a decided partiality for Greek mythology!"
With a delighted laugh, Lady Cecilia made her way back to that long-suffering lady's side. Her twin, at the brink of following her example, quietly addressed her brother once more, a shy smile in her eyes.
"Thank you for my book. I do hope you will come."
The Duke looked up from the door - and smiled.
"Be off with you, goose."
"Will you be ready soon?"
James Allington let his gaze wander around the premises, a slightly harassed look on his normally good-humoured face. He had offered his escort to his sister - but even with his good humoured disposition, he fell prey to that affliction that was known to haunt most gentlemen of the age - a strong aversion to having his services enlisted for the demanding process that was the careful selection of a fabric or other for a new gown.
Judith, looking up from a beautiful fabric that had caught her attention, twinkled at her suffering brother.
"If you will tell me whether you think that particular shade will go well with my new shawl?"
She took pity on him.
"Yes. I am perfectly happy with this silk."
James, his relief quite evident in the lightening of the pained frown, released his breath. He loved his only sister dearly, but there was only so much interest that one could feign in such a decidedly female territory.
"Excellent. Shall we walk to the Gardens and have George convey the purchases home?"
"Lady Harriet! Good morning!" The blue eyes smiled as their owner bowed. "May I tell you how well you look this morning?"
To say that Lady Harriet was unmoved by the radiant countenance that greeted her would be to stretch the truth a little too far. However, she was well accustomed to being the object of flattery and therefore refused to be fazed by it. No matter how handsome and charming the subject.
"Since you have already told me so, Mr Allington, my refusal should be of only nominal effect." She turned to smile at Judith. "Good morning, Miss Allington. I see you permitted your brother to escort you on your walk. How very brave of you! But then, I suppose you are safe from his gallantry," her ladyship mused almost philosophically, "- being so intimately connected with him."
James heaved a tragic sigh.
"You wound me, madam. I speak only the truth."
Lady Harriet turned to him, a brow arched in accusation.
"Mr Allington, you are worse than my cousin!"
James merely smiled into the accusatory face.
"Which cousin, ma´am?"
Her ladyship, shaking her dark head, ignored this frivolity. Instead, she turned to Judith once more, who had been following the exchange in silent amusement.
"Miss Allington, I hope that we shall see you at our ball? I promise you that it shall not be a sad crush. Or in any event, not a sad one. My mother is determined that there has been enough bleakness this November, you see. She never had a partiality for winter."
Judith assured her that she should be happy to be in attendance.
"I shall look forward to speaking with you there then. And -", Lady Harriet proceeded, as she stepped into her carriage, in a voice that suggested she considered it a great trial on her forbearance - "- if you will come as well, Mr Allington, I dare say you shall find plenty of beauty to please your fastidious eye."
Retaining the hand that had accepted his assistance for a brief moment, James Allington pressed it fleetingly, a charming smile on his face.
"Indeed, I find myself quite persuaded."
Lady Harriet adjusted her hat, seemingly indifferent to the proceedings.
"Good day, Mr Allington."
The siblings had reached the Gardens shortly after; a silence between them for some minutes.
At last, James Allington spoke again.
"What do you think of Lady Harriet?"
Judith, sensing that her brother's sudden pensiveness had rooted in their chance meeting with her ladyship, stole a quick look at his profile. An unusual earnestness seemed to have overcome him. It was not that her brother was altogether frivolous or of a flippant nature, indeed, she could not have wished for a more caring and solicitous sibling, but he was in the possession of an easy temper, rarely out of spirits - and called an abundance of charm his own. That combined with his good looks and pedigree had quickly opened doors for him in Society, and so, at the age of six-and-twenty, he enjoyed a carefree and largely untroubled existence - and generally infected those around him with his humorous approach to whatever it was that life laid at his door.
"I like her. Very much." Judith smiled.
James nodded. After a while -
"She is Aldworth´s cousin, you know."
"Yes. On her mother´s side." After a moment, he added thoughtfully - "They are quite good friends."
Judith, formulating her reply, strove to keep her tone disinterested.
"And you believe there to be an attachment between them?"
"What?" Her brother seemed momentarily bewildered at the suggestion. "Good God, no!" A glimpse of humour reappeared in his eyes. "Can you imagine Aldworth having a tendre for anyone? No. However -", James continued more seriously, after a brief pause - "He knows his duty. I should not be surprised if we hear of an engagement soon. In fact, there seems to have been some expectation in that corner last summer. But -" He tapped his nose with an air of mystery- "- the name shall not escape me. Or I shall have to consider myself worse than one of your Bath quizzes."
Judith merely smiled lightly as they walked on.
She need not hear the name - she knew it only too well.
© 2009 Copyright held by the author.