The Perfect Match


Part 1

"I am so very tired of hearing that phrase," cried Amelia, throwing her stitchery down upon the hearth rug.

"My love," admonished her mother in a tone that exhibited no love whatsoever: more querulous irritation than anything else, if truth were told. "Please learn to restrain your outbursts - Lord Rupert will want an even tempered wife."

"I do not care what sort of wife he would wish," retorted Amelia, "for I will not have him, and if my bad temper is discovered, then he will not want me either. We cannot be a perfect match after all, whatever you and papa have to say of it."

"You are generally the sweetest and most tractable young lady imaginable," replied Lady Mary vigorously, as if saying so with enough conviction would add more veracity to the statement. "Lord Rupert can have nothing to complain about, what with your beauty and your riches. The proposition is everything that is perfect – two fine estates bordering upon each other; lineage, breeding and wealth on both sides in equal proportion; and looks, for I hear he has grown into a very fine figure of a man."

Here Amelia snorted, which stopped her mother's monologue in its tracks momentarily as she glared at her daughter in disapprobation. Then she warmed into her subject again, listing the multiple benefits of the proposed union.

Amelia had heard it all countless times before, ever since she could remember. Both were to inherit estates that had belonged to their grandmothers, who had been lifelong friends. Both had spent a good portion of their childhood visiting their grandmothers, though not usually at the same times, but they did have occasion to meet now and then.

As a very small girl, Amelia had been apprised of the fact that her future was already planned out for her. The older she got, the more opposed she was to the idea, especially as the few times she had chanced to meet this paragon he had not made a good impression upon her. Besides, he was a boy, and she had been unable to see why she should be made to marry a boy when playing with her puppy and having tea with her dollies was a much nicer way to spend her time. Her nanny had told her that when she was older she would change her mind, and now, at the advanced age of eighteen, she was perfectly prepared to agree that marriage to a gentleman was preferable to being a spinster, but not the gentleman in question, if she had any say in the matter.

"Remember the time Lord Rupert threw sticks at me and bade me stay clear of his river? His river! A river belongs to no man!" she cried, interrupting her mother's listing of that gentleman's innumerable virtues – most probably all imaginary for no gentleman, no matter his breeding, could be quite so saintly.

"Amelia!" chided her mother, "You must recall he was all of ten."

"And what of the time he pulled a face at me in church?"

"You ought not to have been caught staring."

"But his knees looked so very funny – all bulbous and bony, sticking out from his shorts."

"Little boys always wear shorts before they advance to long pants. I am quite certain his knees are very elegant now, not that it is proper to talk of such things in polite company."

"When I last saw him in the street, one of the times he was down from Eton, he did not look very elegant at all. He was overly plump, to my way of thinking. And shockingly rude – he barely nodded at me when papa stopped to talk to his father – yet you puff him off to be such a paragon. No one could change quite so dramatically in such a short space of time."

"It must be ten years since you have laid eyes on one another, what with him having been off at Eton and Cambridge, and you going to your finishing academy. Why you are so set against the gentleman I cannot fathom. Most young ladies would give their eye teeth for the chance to wed him."

"I prefer to keep my eye teeth – I should look very foolish without them."

Amelia's mother frowned at this jest. "My dear, be reasonable. Lord Rupert is a grown man of two and twenty and both his views on the ownership of rivers and his looks have changed since he was a child."

"His views may have changed, but mine have not." Amelia got up from her chair and stooped to pick her sampler from the floor. She resumed setting angry little stitches that formed a rather jagged rosebud. "All my life you and papa have discussed my marriage to Lord Rupert as if it were my only possible destiny, and I am heartily sick of it. When he proposes I intend to reject him, no matter what plans his parents have made with you. While I am in London I plan on meeting someone of my own choosing and marrying him, not some mealy-mouthed lord who wants to marry me just because his parents think he ought, and for the sake of enlarging his already eminently adequate coffers."

"Don't talk such fiddle-faddle, Amelia. We are giving you a London season, for that is your right and society expects it – but this marriage is also an expectation in our circle. Besides it is a splendid match – why can you not see that?"

"And what of love? You make no mention of it, and yet it should be my foremost consideration when contemplating marriage."

"Love," said her mother dismissively. "Your father and I did not marry for love and we have never had cause to regret it. We have always been on most amiable terms and perfectly comfortable together."

"Amiable terms? Comfortable together? That might be fine for you and papa, mother – I mean no disrespect – but I want more from marriage than that. I want bliss and passion and . . . and . . ."

"I knew it was not wise to allow you to read so many novels, or so much poetry – you have been filling your head with nonsense. This talk of bliss and passion is positively wanton. Do not speak of it again." Lady Mary clutched her handkerchief to her face and began to sob.

Amelia put down her work and knelt beside her mother, placing her arms about Lady Mary's shuddering shoulders. "There, there mama. I only meant love, in all its purity of feeling."

She truly regretted her outburst. No matter how strongly she felt, she knew she ought not to have said such things to her mother. Were her feelings really wanton? Unnatural? Was marrying for love an impossibility? Was there really nothing she could do to escape a life of servitude to a man she felt no desire for, and who cared even less for her? Did her London season have to be a farce, or would there be a gentleman who felt enough for her to surmount all opposition and successfully petition her father for her hand. Because although she was set against her parents' favourite plan for her future, she really was a dutiful daughter. The idea of marrying without their approval was almost as repellent as giving in and marrying Lord Rupert. But she knew, deep down, that if her own happiness hinged upon it she would run to the border with her own true love rather than end her days a spinster, or worse yet, lose her soul in a loveless union.

Part 2

Amelia's come out was to be sponsored by her great aunt, as Lady Mary thought herself too frail to bear the rigours of London society. Lady Seraphina Bridlington was made of sterner stuff, however. Though she was getting on in years there was nothing she enjoyed more than a great squeeze at a fashionable rout or soiree. She had been well apprised of Amelia's forthcoming betrothal and was completely in favour with such an agreeable state of affairs, so Amelia's parents felt there was no danger of their daughter making good her dire threats, which they did not take very seriously in any course. They were quite satisfied that Amelia would be brought around to their way of thinking once she came to realise that life in society was very much different from that in a story book.

On her way to London, Amelia was to stop for a week's sojourn at Rivermead, the home of her friend, Miss Felicity Kearney, whom she had met at Madam Marchand's Finishing Academy. The Kearneys were to have a number of other house guests as well, and planned a casual, pre-come out ball for the two girls before they were whisked off to London to enjoy the delights of the season. Aunt Seraphina was looking forward to the break in the journey with much more anticipation than Amelia.

In the coach Amelia fingered the letter she had received from Felicity the day before their departure. She had no need to read it, for she knew word for word the news it carried – news that had taken all the joy from a visit that she had previously looked forward to with pleasure and excitement.

You will never guess who is to be of our party – none other than your own Lord Rupert!
My brother Gilbert met him at Tats recently and they have become fast friends, if you
can credit it. So your future husband must be of the four-horse set. I expect he wears
yellow pantaloons and will drone on and on about his greys and how they can best
any other pair in Town. You have my deepest sympathies. Of the other guests, I do not
hold any greater hopes, but then it is London where we shall both find our hearts' desire.
I firmly believe it. Lord R will have to find solace with his horses. How I pity him!!!!!
I look forward to seeing you soon and talking deep into the night.

Felicity may well find it amusing, but Amelia could not. To have to suffer being at such close quarters for a week with a gentleman she had sworn to avoid! She wondered how many headaches she could justifiably retire to her room with, without worrying her hosts into having an apothecary brought around to attend her.

Upon her arrival, Amelia was relieved to hear that both Mr Gilbert Kearney and Lord Rupert were dining away from home and not expected at all that evening. The other house guests consisted of a rather pallid brother and sister, Mr and Miss Percival, the vicar, Mr Ramsey, who appeared to have quite a great opinion of his own stature in society, and an absolutely brilliantly dressed gentleman who simpered over Amelia's hand when introduced and studied her through a most elegant eyeglass periodically during dinner and throughout the evening, particularly while Amelia and Felicity performed a number of duets at the pianoforte. She and Felicity had trouble stifling their giggles on more than one occasion.

"I cannot wait to get you on my own," whispered Felicity while they were rifling through the sheet music looking for a final song to play. "I have so much to tell you about a certain somebody!" This comment was followed with a significant wink and another smothered giggle. "And I do not mean our friend in the rainbow waistcoat."

"I really do not care to hear anything about Lord Rupert," said Amelia quellingly.

Felicity only smiled broadly and winked even more suggestively as she grabbed up some sheets and set them upon the stand. "Perfect!" she purred. It was a love song the two girls had played together at the academy, a song that had led them to confide in each other and elaborate on their hopes for the romance that would come their way once they were ultimately released upon the world.

"I get you to myself at last!" cried Felicity when they were finally able to retire to their bed chambers, and she had joined Amelia in hers. She threw herself upon Amelia's bed and stretched her arms above her head. "I do not know why you never told me that he is an absolute dream."

"Who is an absolute dream?" asked Amelia as she tugged at her hair ribbons.

"Your Lord Rupert."

"For the zillionth time, he is not my Lord Rupert, and he is more a nightmare than a dream, as far as I am concerned."

"You cannot mean that – the gentleman is exquisite!"

Amelia was well aware of her friend's propensity to exaggeration, but to call Lord Rupert exquisite seemed to be pushing the bounds of credulity much too far. "I am prepared to admit that he is probably not quite so pale and podgy as he was at twelve, but I wish you would stop pulling my leg in this cruel manner. How am I going to avoid him and his inevitable unwanted proposal?"

"Pale and podgy!" Felicity almost shrieked with laughter. "Believe me my dear, he is no longer pale and podgy – quite the reverse, in fact. If you do not want him I shall be happy to take him off your hands."

"Be my guest."

"You are lucky that I am your closest friend. I will let you see him first before you make such an ill-judged decision."

Amelia almost threw her hairbrush at Felicity. "I am tired from my journey," she said shortly. "Do you mind if I go to sleep now and we forego our discussion till tomorrow?"

"Oh, my sweetest dear, how selfish of me! Of course you must be tired. Let us both retire to our own delightful dreams of Lord Rupert, and tomorrow you will discover how right I am when you see him in all his splendour and we shall have the biggest falling out as we both lose our hearts to the same gentleman." Felicity jumped up from the bed and hugged and kissed Amelia.

"Oh, do be serious, just this once!" said Amelia. "You have not had to live with this hanging over your head all your life as I have done. It is hardly a laughing matter."

Felicity patted Amelia's cheek and sauntered out of the room with the cheekiest of smiles upon her face.

Amelia sat heavily on her bed and sighed. She ought not have allowed Felicity and her perverse sense of humour get the better of her, but she was thoroughly annoyed. And suddenly not at all tired into the bargain. She knew if she completed her night time ablutions and went to bed she would end up banging her head against the wall in frustration. What she really needed was some fresh air and a place to think things out, but wandering about a strange household in the middle of the night was not the same as escaping into the garden at her own home to walk under the moonlight. Servants, she decided in sudden inspiration, had a bit more freedom of movement. Who knew what they would be doing upon their mistresses or masters orders? She rang for her ladies' maid.

"Shall I help with your dress now, my lady?" asked the girl as she padded in from her seat in the adjoining dressing room.

"No Maisie, I am not tired yet. I want to go out. Can you bring me your apron and your cape?"

Without blinking an eyelid at the strange request, Maisie curtsied and hurried out of the room. Within moments she returned with the requested articles and she helped her mistress into them.

"You do look a strange sight, my lady," she said with a grin as she tied the hood strings under Amelia's chin, tucking stray strands of the dark, tumbled hair as she did so.

"But will I pass muster?"

"If no one notices your silks and satins peeping from beneath, my lady. I've never in my life worn such finery."

"Good. I promise not to be too long."

Maisie curtsied, and returned to the dressing room.

Amelia took one last glance in the mirror. A strange sight to be sure, she thought, the hood of the drab cape casting her face into shadow while its hanging folds turned her body into a shapeless mass. All that could be seen where the front gaped open was the white of a starched linen apron. She nodded at her reflection in approval and slipped from the room.

Finding her way through the house along unfamiliar corridors and staircases was a trifle confusing. She almost ended up in the kitchen where scullery maids were still banging pots around, but she managed to avoid it when at the last minute she noticed a door that led out to the yard. The moon and stars were obscured by cloud, but she was able to make out the shapes of the long sweep, a garden wall, and what looked to be stables. Warm light spilled from a partially open door, and she could hear the soft noises of horses moving in their stalls. She peeped through the door. The building appeared empty, except for the animals housed within. She was about to turn around and search along the garden wall for a gate when she heard a sound that sent her scurrying into the stables, closing the door behind her.

She walked along past the stalls, taking in the familiar smells of hay and horse. A lantern hung upon a hook, its glow giving enough light to make the place welcoming, but she knew full well the welcome could not be for her. Someone must be attending the horses, so her visit would need to be swift – she did not want to be caught either by a groom or a stable boy. Even though, in such simple surroundings as the stable afforded, she found herself relaxing and her cares lifting from her shoulders.

Amelia realised that she had been wrong to work herself into such a high-strung state – but she had done so, ever since Felicity's letter, and even before in her arguments with her parents. Here, as she stepped across strewn hay and whispered soft endearments to the animals who looked up in curiosity at her passing, she was able to see that it was all for the best. She would have to meet Lord Rupert face to face sometime, much better get it over and done with. She would be polite, but not give him any opportunity to act upon his pretensions. He was a gentleman, she decided, and so would act accordingly. He could not force her into something she did not wish. And then she would be free to find the love she knew was waiting for her. London society would forget the rumoured betrothal before the season was over with no wind of truth to fan the coals of speculation.

Part 3

Amelia was about as far from the door as she could possibly be when she heard the sound of a horse's hooves upon the cobbles. There was nowhere for her to hide but an empty stall and she saw no other recourse but to use it. She heard the door open, a horse being led in, and the soft whistling of whomever was leading the beast. And then it was struck home to her that in all probability the very stall she had so unthinkingly chosen as a hiding place must surely be the destination of the man and horse. She pulled her hood forward over her face as far as possible without totally obscuring her vision, smoothed the folds of the cape, and stepped out of the stall with attempted nonchalance.

The whistling stopped. "A maiden!" The man's voice was slightly slurred, but pleasing.

"No maiden, but simply a maid," said Amelia, lifting her head a bit to better see who had addressed her. The man had one arm slung over the horse's neck, the other holding the lead, and he was dressed in the garb of a groom. Regaining her confidence, she released her breath. "I will leave you to your work."

"Stay a moment," he replied, dropping the reins and holding out his arm against her passage. "Have I seen you before?"

Amelia took a step back. "You would not know me. I am Lady Amelia Fanshawe's ladies' maid – we arrived only this afternoon."

"Ah, the infamous Lady Amelia!" The groom leaned against the horse a little more heavily. "How does your lady?"

"I did not come here to discuss my lady with a groom!"

"Then what did you come to the stables for, if I may be so bold to ask? Was your lady requiring a mount at this time of night?"

The look that attended this question was full of friendly mirth, and settled Amelia's nettled temper, piquing instead her curiosity.

"Why would you describe my lady as infamous? She has done little of note in her life and is only just coming out."

The groom grinned. "I thought we were not to discuss her Ladyship."

Amelia blushed and made to leave, but the groom barred her way with his arm again.

"She has done no worse than set her cap at my lord."

"Your lord? You are Lord Rupert's groom?"

"As you say."

"She has not set her cap at him! Far from it, and so you may tell him."

"I see now. Your purpose in coming to the stables was to relay this message to his Lordship?"

"Of course not," retorted Amelia crossly. "I came out for some fresh air."

"Which one generally finds in amongst horse stalls." His eyes twinkled mischievously and Amelia found her anger melting once again.

"I know it seems odd . . . but why am I explaining myself to you? Let me go – my lady will be wondering where I have got to."

"I would imagine her to be asleep by now."

"She sleeps ill," said Amelia.

"What has she to disturb her sleep? Her future is assured – marriage to a rich and handsome lord – two estates united – and not even the throes of love to keep her restless."

"You forget yourself - it is my lady you are so disparaging!"

"I apologise for speaking out of turn," he replied in a tone more amused than apologetic.

Amelia's ire rose again. "Lady Amelia has no interest in marrying your Lord Rupert. Neither his riches or his appearance appeal to her – why she was telling me just yesterday that the last time that she saw him, his face was all covered in spots!"

"And my lord told me that the last time he saw your lady, she had mousy hair, a nose much too large for her face, and a decided squint."

"What?" cried Amelia, completely caught up in her temper. "She is no less attractive than I am. Moreso, indeed," she added, recalling that a ladies' maid ought really not put herself on the same level as her mistress.

"Let me look at you then," he said. He reached out and tilted her chin up gently with his thumb and forefinger. "Your hood is in the way." He pulled it back quickly before she could draw away and her hair cascaded down. "Lady Amelia is not such a beauty, surely!" His eyes held hers with arresting warmth.

"I am nothing – my lady is incomparable!"

The groom took a tendril of her hair and twirled it round his finger. "Enough talk of your lady – it is you who have me intrigued."

He leaned in closer and she could see his hazel eyes clearly now; the smoothness of the skin on his cheek; his lips as they curled into a lazy smile. She found it impossible to look away, and eventually it was he who broke the spell.

He tucked her hair behind her ear, pulled the hood of her cape back over her head, and whispered, "Go now while you safely can."

Amelia scurried out of the stable without a backward look. She thought she heard a soft laugh before the whistling resumed again. Somehow she made her way across the yard and through the silent house to her bedchamber without a misstep, but she had no recollection of how she had managed it. All she knew was that sooner than she could have expected it, the real ladies' maid, Maisie, was helping her out of her clothes and into her nightdress, and then she was alone on the big bed, her mind still a jumble of images. The stable. The lantern. The patient horse. The groom. His smile. His eyes. His soft laugh. Their bizarre conversation.

She had come into contact with few grooms in her life. The ones in her father's employ were quiet and deferential, speaking only when spoken to. Big, solid fellows who went about their work briskly, who bowed when she approached them and never looked her in the eyes as this one had. True, he had thought her a maid which would explain his ease of conversation and casualness of manner. He would never have spoken to Lady Amelia in such a brash and outspoken way. Nor openly flirted as he had just done. But even with the flirting, there had been something in his manner that had set her so much at ease that she had not been frightened at all in his presence. He had made her angry to be sure, but there was no denying that at the very same time he had fascinated her.

She ought to have been shocked when he had touched her chin and twirled her hair about his finger – she ought to have slapped him in the face – but his eyes had held her captive. With a delicious thrill she relived the feeling – and she had to accept an indisputable flaw in her character. She was indeed wanton, for she had not only enjoyed the clandestine attentions of the handsome groom, she had wanted more. Thankfully he had acted in an honourable manner and released her without taking any other advantage. It appalled her to think what could have transpired. If he had stooped to kiss her lips, would she have turned away? She had no way of knowing, and vowed not to put herself in such a precarious position again. No matter how much the look in his eyes or the thought of his lips upon hers haunted her dreams, she would not chance going near the stables.

And anyway, the very idea of Lady Amelia Fanshawe allowing a common groom to kiss her was totally preposterous.

Part 4

After a restless sleep, Amelia found herself down to breakfast earlier than most of the company. It was apparent she had not been the first, as the partially filled platters upon the sideboard attested, but whoever had breakfasted before her had come and gone and the room was quite empty. She took a poached egg and a sliver of toast and sat down. She gazed out the window in abstraction as she toyed with her egg, wondering what Felicity would have to say about her night time adventure, if she ever came to hear of it. In the light of day Amelia could very well see that it was best kept to herself. She hoped the groom would be as discreet, for if he chanced to meet Maisie, he would soon realise just whom he had conversed with in the stables – just whom he had taken those liberties of.

Amelia blushed at the remembrance of his final words, and the touch of his bare fingers upon her chin. Just then the door opened and someone entered the room, and she looked up, welcoming the distraction of having to make polite conversation. Her train of though was in great need of shifting. But it was instantly clear that the gentleman who had stopped abruptly in the doorway was not the antidote she required. Her cheeks blanched as she stared up at him. He was the first to recover.

"Lady Amelia. I see you have finally grown into your nose."

"And you have got over your spots, Lord Rupert," she faltered.

He nodded and ambled over to the sideboard to choose his breakfast. Amelia stuck her toast in her egg yolk and distractedly drew a pattern upon her plate. Eating seemed out of the question. He returned and sat opposite her, his plate heaped with all number of things. He started in with apparent relish, not paying any attention to her.

Finally, as her annoyance grew with his every bite, Amelia spat out, "You might have said who you were, rather than pretending to be a groom!"

He raised an eyebrow. "The pot calling the kettle black?"

She was about to tell him just exactly what she thought of him and his supercilious, smug attitude, when the door opened again and Felicity walked into the room.

"Oh! You two have finally met, and I had so wanted to be there when it happened," she exclaimed, smiling upon them in a most cheery manner.

As Lord Rupert politely stood to greet Felicity, Amelia quickly spoke before he should say anything she might have difficulty explaining to her friend. "It is not as if we have not met before – we have known each other all our lives."

Felicity laughed. "But you haven't seen one another for simply ages!"

"Indeed," said Lord Rupert. "We had just established that we would not have recognised each other, we have both changed so much since our infancy."

Felicity gave Amelia a very expressive look. "You must have so much to talk about! And I have thoughtlessly interrupted your tκte-a-tete. Would you like me to leave the room and return in half an hour?" She served herself breakfast as she spoke, obviously having no real intention of leaving.

"That would be quite unnecessary," said Amelia shortly.

"If you had not arrived so fortuitously," said Lord Rupert, "our conversation would have completely faltered. You could not have interrupted two people with less to say."

"Well, I can think of a number of interesting subjects," bubbled Felicity, but a glance at Amelia's icy countenance caused her to think better of what she had been about to say. "The weather has been delightfully warm for this time of year," she amended lamely.

Lord Rupert seemed willing to follow up on this innocuous topic and he conversed very entertainingly with Felicity about climatic anomalies while Amelia looked at her congealing breakfast and wondered how she was to make her escape from the room.

Mr Ramsey joined them soon after, and seated himself beside Amelia, smiling ingratiatingly.

"Your first season, Lady Amelia! Great delights await you in Town. I will be most happy to wait upon you at your earliest convenience and take you out to some of my most favourite haunts – you could not find a more knowledgeable guide than I, and though our friendship is so newly fledged I am assured that I may presume upon it to make this offer."

"You are most kind," said Amelia, "but you must not trouble yourself on my account."

"'Tis no trouble, to be sure, but an honour," he simpered. "To be seen with someone as lovely as you, whilst walking in Green Park – I will be the envy of all my friends."

"Riding in Green Park would be more the thing," put in Lord Rupert.

"Riding, yes, quite," said Mr Ramsey. "Most fashionable. I have not yet set up my stable, but when I do, rest assured Lady Amelia, you will be the first damsel I petition to accompany me in the park. You do ride, of course? I pride myself with having a good seat, and I am a fair judge of horseflesh – I could set you up on a prettily behaved mare."

"I am certain Lady Amelia must have something incomparable in her own stable, if I know anything of the matter," said Lord Rupert blandly, then he turned back to Felicity and continued their discussion as if he had been attending to it undistracted all along.

Amelia flared scarlet. "My horses are, indeed," she said with some asperity, "but sadly the grooms are completely loutish."

Amelia thought she heard a whispered, "Touchι," before Mr Ramsey started in again.

"If it is a new groom you need, I could put you on to a number of good ones, just say the word and I can send them round to your man of business for inspection."

"Perhaps Lady Amelia would prefer inspecting them herself," interposed Lord Rupert.

"I have no interest in grooms!"

"I would have thought otherwise."

Felicity looked from Lord Rupert to Amelia and back with growing interest.

The gentleman turned back to Felicity and said, "You may wonder at my strong opinion upon this matter, but grooms are indispensable to a young lady who enjoys to ride, therefore it is important to be assured that one's groom is trustworthy and dependable, and has his mistress' safety truly at heart."

"Indeed," Felicity giggled as she glanced again at Amelia's glowing cheeks.

To Amelia's relief, newcomers to the breakfast room brought this uncomfortable conversation to a close. Mr and Miss Percival had nothing more innocuous to talk about than the upcoming ball.

"Ah, the ball!" cried Mr Ramsey. "I was about to petition all the young ladies for a dance. In the first I think I ought honour the daughter of my host." He smiled at Felicity with the utmost confidence at her acceptance of his most generous offer.

"I . . ." started Felicity, completely taken aback.

"What Miss Kearney is trying to say," said Lord Rupert, "is that she has already promised the first dance to me, and Lady Amelia has granted me the second. You must be up with the birds to beat me to the march." He smiled innocently at both the ladies, and leaned back in his chair.

"Yes!" said Felicity eagerly, before either Amelia or Mr Ramsey had a chance to speak. "And Lady Amelia was petitioned for the first set by my brother Gilbert."

That gentleman had just entered the room in time to catch the tail end of his sister's announcement.

"What is it I have done?"

"Nothing terrible, Gilly," said Felicity. "I was just remarking that you will be partnering Lady Amelia in the first set at Saturday's ball."

"I have asked her and she has accepted?" he asked rubbing his eyes as if he had just woken.

"So it would seem," said Mr Percival, who was still trying to work it all out. "Then that would mean, Vicar, that you would have to ask Sally, if you want a partner for the first set. She is the only lady yet unspoken for. And I will have to settle for partners for the second and third dances - if Miss Kearney and Lady Amelia would be so kind as to oblige me."

And thus Amelia received her first ever dance request for a ball – it may not have been as well-worded as she might have wished, but at least she was asked, unlike the first two dances where her partners were impolitely foisted upon her.

"I would be happy to," she said to Mr Percival.

Felicity accepted charmingly as well, and Mr Ramsey was left with no option but to ask Miss Percival for the first dance. He would have asked the other two ladies for their next available dances, but the opportunity was lost as the conversation surged ahead.

"La!" cried Felicity, "We shall have to write up our dance cards at once or we shall not know what we are about and find ourselves with more than one partner for the same dance."

"Any man to try and take over my position as your first partner shall wish he were never born," said Lord Rupert with mock heroicism.

Gilbert had finally made his breakfast selections and seated himself at the table. "Doing it too brown, old fellow," he said. "No point trying to impress the lady, she's only m'sister."

"She may be your sister, but she is delightful, unlike you, Nodcock!"

"You are in fine fettle this morning! I am surprised after what you got up to last night."

Amelia turned very pale and stood up quickly. "Pray excuse me I have something that needs attending," she managed to choke out to no one in particular, and then she blindly rushed from the room. Once in her bedchamber she remembered that at least Lord Rupert could not yet have told Felicity's brother exactly who it was he had flirted with in the stables. It eased her shame, but her anger flared just as strongly as ever. The man was totally unconscionable.

Part 5

It wasn't unexpected when Felicity knocked upon Amelia's bed chamber door half an hour later, and peeped her head in.

"May I come in?" she asked, and then slipped in without waiting for an answer.

Amelia looked up from her desk where she had been pretending to write a letter. She knew by the look on Felicity's face that she would have to be be very careful not to let anything away to her friend. "I am quite done now."

"An important letter to your parents?" asked Felicity in a teasing voice. "Finally thanking them for the perfect match they set up for you?"

Amelia stuck her tongue out and failed to elucidate Felicity upon the subject of her supposed letter.

"You must agree that he is a most attractive gentleman!" said Felicity.

"I will give you that," said Amelia grudgingly, "but there is more to consider than appearances. Lord Rupert and I should not suit."

"Should not suit? He is completely charming and intelligent and . . . what on earth happened between the two of you before I arrived, to put you in such a state? You were livid! Did he propose? Did you reject him? It appeared that you had done something to put him out of temper, though he attempted to cover it quite well."

"There was no proposal and no rejection. We simply do not get on – we never have."

"There was nothing simple about the way either of you were behaving," said Felicity, pouting. "I dare swear there is something you are not telling me, and it is my turn to be put out. I thought we were best friends – confidantes."

Amelia relented a little. "Lord Rupert may indeed be perfectly amiable, but we did not get off on the right foot. We both mentioned things from our childhood that we ought not have. You need not concern yourself overly – it will pass and Lord Rupert and I shall continue on as common and indifferent acquaintances. There shall be many delicious secrets for you and I to share once we are in London. The subject of Lord Rupert is best forgotten." She got up from the desk and went over to give Felicity a hug, then they both sat down upon her bed.

Felicity looked her full in the eyes. "So you truly do not want him?"

"Truly," said Amelia steadily.

"And you give me leave to attach him?"

A sudden feeling of irritation arose in Amelia's breast but she did her best to hold it down. "You will meet many gentlemen in London more worth your while, I am sure."

"Am I to only attach one?" Felicity asked, giggling. "I should like legions worshipping at my feet!"

"And so you shall have." said Amelia, suddenly brightening up. "And I hope you lead them all a merry dance, especially Lord Rupert."

"I fully intend to." Felicity jumped up from the bed. "Anyway, we have much more important matters to discuss. How do you intend to dress your hair Saturday evening? What jewels have you brought? You must show me your ball gown!"

They became completely involved in all those feminine considerations that necessarily precede any social function, and a first ball being such a great event in their lives, they were happily entertained for the rest of the morning and afternoon, and went down to dinner arm in arm, still full of the ball, Lord Rupert firmly in the shadows where he rightfully belonged.

At dinner Amelia found herself seated beside Lord Ullesmore, the quiz of the evening before. He was just as extravagantly dressed and exuded such a strong smell of cologne that it put her off her meal. He had no conversation, limiting himself to the occasional fulsome compliment, and spending the remainder of his time examining the rest of the company through his lorgnette, as he picked delicately at his meal. Amelia caught Lord Rupert regarding her across the table once or twice, a malicious twinkle in his eyes, but no words passed between them. Felicity was seated beside him and having no trouble at all in keeping most of his attention to herself.

The evening passed as they usually do in the country. The ladies retired to the drawing room after dinner, leaving the men to their port, and spent the time until the gentlemen joined them in discussion of their personal merits. The young ladies were then all called upon individually to entertain with music and song, until tea was served. Mr Ramsey lost no time in making up for being forestalled at breakfast, and got himself onto both Felicity and Amelia's dance cards. It was completely uneventful and mundane, and Amelia was glad of it. She looked forward to an early night and a sound sleep and was pleased when Mrs Kearney announced that the ladies would all be retiring, and the clock had not yet struck eleven.

Maisie brushed out Amelia's hair and helped her out of her evening gown and into her night dress. Amelia pulled her quilts up around her chin and snuggled her head into the downy pillows, leaving her candle to burn low on its own. She drifted off to a gentle, relaxing slumber.

And suddenly she was wide awake. She had been fooling herself all day into forgetting, but everything was crowding back into her mind. That paragon, Lord Rupert, flirting with maids in the stables! And then boasting of it to his friend! How dare he? And her family and all her friends and acquaintances expected her to marry a man like that, with loose morals and profligate tendencies? It was outside of enough. And then he had the gall to throw it all in her face at the breakfast table, with his insinuations of her interest in grooms. She had never been more appalled, except, maybe by her own behaviour the other night, when she had let the groom, as she had supposed Lord Rupert to be, touch her chin and gaze into her eyes. What had come over her? She had been taken in by his false charms, the closeness of the stables, the illicitness of being there in another persona, alone with a gentleman. His inviting smile.

She would not think of his smile that had influenced her to throw discretion to the winds. She would not think of him at all – not as a handsome groom and certainly not as Lord Rupert. She would push it firmly out of her mind and make believe none of it had happened.

The clock struck midnight, but still she could not sleep. She got up from her bed, wrapped herself tightly in a voluminous shawl, picked up the candlestick with the almost gutted candle, and slipped from her room, treading softly down the darkened corridors. She now had a better idea of the layout of the house, and had no intention of finding herself anywhere near the stables. Instead she headed for the morning room where long windows opened onto a prettily planted and quite private garden. The sky was clear this night so she left her candle on a small table by the window and stepped out into the moonlight. A bower grown over with wisteria vines dripped long racemes of scented flowers above her head, breaking and scattering the light into a thousand silver coins upon the grass.

She gasped in delight and all her unwanted thoughts fled, replaced by the beauty of the midnight garden and the still, fragrant air. She pulled her shawl close around her to ward off the chill of the spring evening, but it could at least not be called cold, and she relished the fresh feel of the night upon her cheeks.

And then a shadow detached itself from a nearby tree.

"The incomparable Lady Amelia," Lord Rupert drawled. "I have been waiting for you."

Part 6

Amelia stepped back, stifling a shriek with her hand. "Waiting for me?" was all she could bring herself to say.

"Yes. I believe we have some talking to do, and I guessed you would not be frequenting the stables tonight."

"How dare you?" she hissed. "You know I do not . . . in any event you may think we need to talk, but I do not wish to talk to you – not after what you have done. You are insufferable!"

Lord Rupert leaned against one of the supports of the bower and gave her a long stare. "To which of the many things I have done in my life are you referring?"

"You know full well!" Amelia cried, practically stomping her feet.

"If I did, I would not feel the need to ask," he said in a tone of calm reason.

"You told . . . you told Gilbert Kearney all about the meeting in the stables – what you did, and how I behaved."

"I did? Were you listening at keyholes?"

"I had no reason to listen at keyholes! He mentioned it himself at the breakfast table!"

"He did?" Lord Rupert stood in thought for a moment. "Ah – you would have done better to have listened at the keyhole – then at least you would have got it right."

"You may think this all very amusing, but I do not! I will not have my character besmirched by you or . . . or anyone!"

"I have no great opinion of your predilection for grooms, but you may rest assured that I will keep such information to myself."

Amelia surged forward, her arms stretched out. She was not sure if she would actually have struck Lord Rupert, but she was not given the chance. His hands came around her wrists and held them like a vice.

"Hold your temper and allow me to speak," he said sternly. "I told Kearney nothing. He was referring to my condition when he spoke so injudiciously at breakfast. I was foxed."

"Drunk?" asked Amelia, taken aback, and she twisted mightily in an attempt to free her hands. "So, as well as take advantage of innocent maids, you are a drinker? It is a wonder they allow you in polite society!"

All this comment produced was a bark of laughter.

"How dare you mock me?" cried Amelia, close to tears. "I should not marry you even if I were dragged to the altar."

Lord Rupert's expression changed from one of smug humour to concern. He led her to a bench and seated her, then released her hands. "Allow me to explain myself. Firstly, I apologise for laughing right now, but if you only realised what polite society is really like, you would know why I could not help myself. Secondly, I am not such a hardened dissolute as you think. I rarely find myself in my cups, but the prospect . . . how can I put this without upsetting you once more? Our parents have set it up that we are to marry, and knowing that I was to meet you soon and what would be expected of me, I was in need of a little fortification."

"Afraid of spending the rest of your life with a large-nosed, squinting fright?"

He nodded, a grin beginning to form at the corner of his mouth.

"I'll have you know the sun was full in my eyes that day!" said Amelia, then she broke into giggles.

"I am sorry for what I said to you in the stables – I was nettled by your maid's remark about my spots. I was truly offended that Lady Amelia would discuss my appearance with her maid, so I retaliated – do you forgive me?"

"For that, yes."

"What is it you do not forgive me for?"

Amelia sighed. "There are so many things too numerous to mention, but I suppose the main one is that I am being forced to marry you."

"The proposed wedding is not of my doing – nor would I force you – in fact, I am beginning to realise that the only thing we two are completely in accord with is our views on this marriage."

"You do not want to marry me either?"

"Not in the slightest."

"Did your parents hound you about it for years?"

"Since you were in leading strings. It was the bane of my existence."

Amelia smiled up at him. "Mine too. I am so relieved – I may marry whomever I choose after all!"

"Yes," said Lord Rupert. "I release you from our parents' expectations – but you do realise that this will put me in a bad light socially?"

"How so?"

"For jilting you."

"But we are not engaged, and anyway I am jilting you!"

"As a gentleman. I must take the full blame."

"And have it look like I was the one jilted?" Amelia flared. "In my first season? How would I live it down?"

"You would manage," he said, his face serious but for the mischievous twinkle in his eyes.

'Oh, those eyes,' thought Amelia irrelevantly. "Can not we act like there was never any understanding between our families, and it all may be forgot?"

"Society may forget, but our parents never will."

Amelia sunk her face into her hands. "Indeed," she said.

"But if it is what you prefer, no announcement will be made at present. When the time comes, our parents will simply have to accept the inevitable, and hopefully scandal may be averted."

"You are so afraid of scandal?" asked Amelia.

"For your sake, yes. I am a gentleman, do not forget, and not without scruples."

"From what I know of you, little would I think it – you are a tease with a cutting tongue. And a philanderer."

Lord Rupert reached forward and selected a strand of her hair to play with, as he had done the night before. His voice reached her like velvet in the moonlight. "I may say the same of you, if you recall the situation I discovered you in last night. You did not appear too concerned to be alone with a groom, and you were ready enough to accept his attentions. If I had not done the honourable thing, would you have stopped at just a look, or would our lips have met?"

Amelia almost raised her hand to him, and then thought better of it. He would only grab it in his firm grasp and then it would be harder still for her to get away. She jumped up from the bench instead, and stalked towards the open window. "I would sooner kiss a groom as kiss you!" she cried.

He laughed softly as he watched her go. "Your attire tonight was much more to my taste then that of yesterday," he called after her.

It was only then she remembered she was in her nightdress, and her shawl, that should have been tightly wrapped around her, was slipping from her shoulders. She grabbed it and held it firmly about herself as she walked through the window with as much dignity as she could muster.

Part 7

After a night of little sleep, Amelia awoke with a headache and black rings under her eyes. She almost thought to stay in bed, but decided not to give Lord Rupert the satisfaction of knowing how much he had unsettled her. She washed her face and then bathed her forehead with lavender water. Maisie arranged her hair in a looser style, to ease any strain that would have exacerbated the pain in her head, and dressed her in the brightest of her morning gowns, to take attention from her sallow complexion. As she walked along the corridor to the breakfast room, she pinched her cheeks to bring colour to them.

Felicity, Gilbert, and Lord Rupert were all ahead of her at the table.

"You have been quite a lazybones this morning," teased Felicity. "Everyone else has ate and gone, excepting Lord Ullesmore, of course, who never gets up before noon. Mr Ramsey tried his best to make his tea and toast last, but as he was forwarder than the rest of them he finally had to give up without a sight of you and depart the room with Mr Percival, who wanted help finding a tract in his bible."

"Thank goodness I slept so soundly, then. Maisie did not have the heart to wake me."

"It must have been all the fresh air," said Lord Rupert.

"Fresh air?" asked Felicity.

Amelia said nothing, just stared at Lord Rupert to see what he would say – if he would prove himself the gentleman he claimed to be, or the cad she knew he was.

"I have it on the best authority that she always sleeps with her window open wide. It is amazing what one's parents think one ought to know about the habits of a young lady they wish one to marry."

"At school she did no such thing."

"It is also amazing," said Amelia, "the things one's parents tell one about the gentleman they wish one to marry that are pure invention. It would seem Lord Rupert's parents are just as creative."

"Indeed," said Lord Rupert.

Gilbert laughed. "You shall have to compare notes before either of you commits yourself to this marriage, then, or you might discover the thing you like the most about your future spouse is nothing but fabrication."

"His fortune and estate are real," said Amelia sweetly as she sat down with a plate that held no more than a slice of toast.

"I never took you for a fortune hunter," said Gilbert.

"I am no such thing," said Amelia with an air of great innocence, as Felicity spurted giggles that she could no longer hide.

"I feel exactly as Lady Amelia does," said Lord Rupert.

"It is not a subject I wish to discuss," Amelia said primly.

"Forgive me," said Gilbert. "Of course, one must not say anything until the announcement is made."

"And then what congratulations will flow in!" Felicity clapped her hands and winked merrily at Amelia who shot her an angry glare. "We have a rare treat in store for us this morning, Lady Amelia," Felicity continued, finally changing the subject. "These two charming gentlemen have agreed to take us out driving in their curricles. I am to go with Lord Rupert and you with my brother, for he says he will not drive his sister out."

"I hope you do not mind, Lady Amelia," said Gilbert apologetically.

"I would be very pleased to drive out with you," said Amelia. She did not add that going for a drive with Gilbert Kearney was preferable to having to spend time alone with Lord Rupert, but she was quite sure that her meaning was clear to that gentleman, by the smug little smile that played over his face. For the remainder of breakfast he attended mainly to Felicity, then the gentlemen excused themselves to make ready for the outing.

Amelia was standing with Felicity at the bottom of the front steps as Lord Rupert brought his curricle around. When he swung himself down and came forward to meet them, Amelia gasped in shock. He was dressed just as he had been that night in the stables! It was obvious his audacity knew no bounds.

"What game are you playing at, dressing as a groom?" she seethed.

"Amelia, you pea-goose," tittered Felicity, before Lord Rupert could say anything. "This is how gentlemen in the four-horse club dress. They think it very modish."

Lord Rupert bowed with a flourish, secret laughter not quite hidden behind his expressive eyes. Gilbert joined them and Amelia saw he was dressed in just the same manner. Their raiment was very much like what a groom would wear, but in the light of day Amelia could see the expert tailoring and quality of the fabrics – details that had not been evident in the dimly lit stable.

"I must seem a ninny," she said.

"Not at all," Lord Rupert had the grace to say. Gilbert merely looked confused, having missed the beginning of the conversation.

It took Amelia some minutes to recover her equanimity and by that time she was securely seated beside Gilbert Kearney in a very stylish equipage, pulled by a handsome pair of greys. Lord Rupert's horses, she noted, were beautifully matched bays, She had a feeling that they would best the greys in any competition, and for some reason the thought only made her all the more irritated with his Lordship. It was a good thing, she reflected, that she was being driven by someone as innocuous as her friend's brother. She would have exploded at Lord Rupert and then felt badly about it later – it was preferable that neither eventuality occurred.

After they had been driving along the narrow country lanes for a bit exchanging trite comments about the countryside, Gilbert came out with, "Lord Rupert tells me he has renounced all claims on you, and that the field is open, as it were." He coughed apologetically at his turn of phrase, but glanced her way hopefully.

"I have never had any interest in him," said Amelia stiffly. "The field has always been open."

"Then, I may call on you in London?"

"Of course," she assented.

He smiled with a little more confidence. "Mind you, I think his head needs examining. I would not have cast aside such an excellent chance with you."

Amelia admonished herself for wondering whether it was the fortune or herself that was the biggest draw, and smiled at Gilbert with a little more warmth than she actually felt. "Your sister says the same to me about Lord Rupert, but there you have it. I have no interest in an arranged marriage and neither, it seems, does he. I believe love should be the deciding factor."

"A romantic, just like m'sister!"

Amelia smiled and turned the conversation back to the landscape. Gilbert Kearney was a nice enough fellow, as far as she could judge, but not anything approaching what she had her heart set upon. While she liked him well enough and was happy to spend time in his company, she didn't want to do anything to get his hopes up. As for Lord Rupert . . . she could well understand him being opposed to the arranged union before he had met her, but afterwards to still not have the slightest interest – it was not as if she were unattractive or unpleasant. Of course, she had not the slightest interest in him, but then he was decidedly unpleasant, when he wasn't trying to charm ladies' maids, that is.

She would have to warn Felicity somehow, without giving herself away. She did not want her best friend hurt – the man was so unscrupulous. He said he had scruples, but she knew otherwise. Actions spoke volumes – had he not pretended to be a groom when she had mistaken his identity? Being in his cups was no excuse for the way he had flirted, and then, last night, to lay the blame at her door and insinuate she had invited his attentions and that she would have allowed the kiss. It was offensive and outrageous. He was the most self-satisfied, smug, conceited person she had ever met. She was glad to be shot of him. Now if only this week were up and the ball over, but she still had a dance promised to him, and she could not very well back out of it. If she cried craven and refused to stand up with him, she wouldn't be able to dance with anyone else for the entire evening.

"Lady Amelia?" Gilbert had stopped the horses and was worriedly looking at her. "Is anything amiss? Are you unwell?"

Amelia shook her head to bring herself back from her rampaging thoughts. "I am well, Mr Kearney. Why the concern?"

"I addressed you three or four times without any response, and the expression on your face . . ."

"Truth to tell," said Amelia with an embarrassed blush, "I awoke today with a slight headache, but I did not want to worry anyone by mentioning it. It really is much better so please do not tell the others. To be outdoors in the open air with the sunshine and the bird song is exactly what I need. I apologise for my fit of abstraction – I have not been a very good companion."

"Think nothing of it. As long as you are feeling well – it would be no problem at all to return you to the house this minute."

"I thank you for the offer, but driving with you is divine, really. And your horses are lovely animals – so smooth and even their gait."

Gilbert smiled like a little boy at her commendation, and began speaking of his horses, a subject, Amelia discovered, that he never tired of. A half hour later, when they did return to the house, he was still expounding upon the merits of his greys.

Part 8

The remainder of the week went by quietly. Amelia and Lord Rupert treated each other with the utmost politeness, when interaction between them was unavoidable. One afternoon they were sitting in the library for half an hour, virtually alone, but for Miss Percival – whose presence was so unobtrusive she might as well have not been there – and not a word passed between them.

There were no more night time meetings. Though Amelia would have liked to have gone out into the garden in the moonlight – fully dressed, of course, as she had learned that lesson – she did not. It would have been just like Lord Rupert, so full of conceit as he was, to suppose she went out purposely just to meet him. She hoped that he had wasted a few hours loitering around in either the gardens or the stables each evening in the hopes of seeing her. It served him right.

The day of the ball came and the house was busy with servants running hither and thither cleaning and decorating and preparing the refreshments of the evening. The young ladies were performing last minute adjustments to their gowns and changing their minds over which jewels they would wear. Amelia and Felicity went back and forth between each other's bed chambers, trading shoe roses and hair ribbons, spirits soaring high in anticipation of the evening's delights.

"Whose flowers should I wear?" asked Felicity. "Mr Ramsey has sent me pink hothouse rose buds, Lord Ullesmore this purple orchid, Mr Percival these yellow primroses, and Lord Rupert a straggly bunch of bluebells which I am certain he picked from one of my own flowerbeds."

As Felicity's gown was all white gauze and lace, any of the flowers would have adorned it to advantage. Amelia suggested the orchid, knowing full well that Felicity had no intention of wearing anything other than the bluebells.

Felicity held the orchid up against her bodice. "Do you not think it is overly garish for a dιbutante?" she asked coyly, then she pinned the nosegay of primroses to her shoulder and swayed to and fro in front of the mirror. "No, the yellow sallows my complexion." She unpinned it and placed all four floral offerings beside each other, making a great play of pondering over her decision. "Pink rosebuds are so passι – it will have to be the bluebells, as simple as they are, because they will bring out the colour of my eyes."

"Lord Rupert will be gratified," said Amelia dryly.

"Oh pooh!" said Felicity. "I am not wearing them because Lord Rupert gave them to me, and so I shall tell him."

Amelia rolled her eyes and then bade Felicity farewell.

"When we next see each other, we shall be transformed!" Felicity cried, and blew kisses through the air at Amelia's departing figure.

Amelia paused by her dressing table as Maisie waited to assist her out of her day dress. Four nosegays sat waiting for her choice. Only four, and by rights there ought have been five. Lord Rupert had not even bothered to pull up some weeds from the hedgerow and tie them with a piece of string. Quickly, she undid the bunches of flowers and took one from each, fashioning a new corsage. That would send the message to the gentlemen that she had no preference.

A half an hour later, Amelia could not believe the vision she beheld in her mirror. Her dark hair was dotted with rosebuds and worked into an array of bouncing ringlets that framed her heart-shaped face. The pearls that dangled from her ears and circled her neck glowed with soft luminescence. The creamy silk of her gown made her eyes appear larger and darker than usual. The little bunch of colourful flowers, tied with ivory ribbon, added a spark of lively colour that finished off her toilette to perfection.

Felicity rushed into the room, her gown pillowing and frothing around her, and stopped still. "You are so beautiful!"

Amelia blushed. "So are you, dearest!"

"Lord Rupert will kill himself for having let you go!"

"He will be too busy looking at you to bother," said Amelia.

Felicity took Amelia's arm. "What a splash we shall make this season! Hearts shall break left and right as we pass through Town. It shall be like the parting of the Red Sea. Come, it is time to go downstairs and make our entrance. Aren't you just bursting with excitement?"

Amelia was caught up in her friend's joy, and the two of them almost ran along the corridors to the grand staircase. They descended in a more demure manner, showing that their parents had not wasted their money at Madame Marchand's Finishing Academy. They were complimented on their appearance again and again as they made their way through the crush of guests.

When the ball truly began, and the first dance was announced, Amelia tried to take no notice of how well Lord Rupert looked in his evening dress, and turned to Gilbert Kearney with a happy smile as he led her to the floor.

"Hang it, but you look ravishing," he said as they took their places in the set.

She smiled and thanked him, and then lost herself in the delight of dancing in a glittering ballroom. She responded to his light conversation without really attending to it and enjoyed herself thoroughly. She was almost surprised when the closing bars of music played – it had seemed so quickly over. As Gilbert Kearney led her off the floor, she suddenly remembered who she was next partnered to, and she tensed, but was not about to let her pleasure in the evening be destroyed by that man and his self-satisfied attitude.

He appeared at her side and greeted her with perfect amiability. Together they went to the centre of the floor, where the set was forming. As they began dancing Amelia breathed a sigh of relief. It appeared Lord Rupert was going to behave himself after all.

"I must compliment you on your flowers," he said.

She smiled demurely. "Thank you."

"I did not send you any for I knew you would not wear them – why have flowers die in vain?"

Amelia realised she had thought too soon. Lord Rupert had just been biding his time. "Why indeed?" she responded.

"Have you been enjoying your nocturnal walks these past few days?"

"I have not taken any."

"Not even a trip to the stables?"

That finally got a reaction. Amelia looked up with her eyes flashing. "As you well know, for you did not see me there."

"I went to bed unaccountably early and slept soundly every night – the country air has this effect upon me."

"I will tell my parents to add that to your list of attributes – if it is indeed an attribute."

Lord Rupert laughed. "Let us call a truce!"

"I am more than willing," said Amelia. "Shall we not put our first encounter behind us to be forgotten and not referred to anymore?"

"It is hardly something I can forget," said Lord Rupert, serious but for his twinkling eyes, "but I will make an effort not to refer to it again."

Amelia looked at him crossly. "That is exactly the attitude I mean."

"My humble apologies. While in London we shall not be in each other's pockets as we are here, so the temptation to nettle you will not arise. However, we will certainly attend the same functions. I promise neither to search you out nor cut you, and we can go along nicely in comfortable indifference."

"I am agreeable to that."

They continued to dance without speaking, when a thought occurred to Amelia. "If I am to find a gentleman to love me and ask for my hand, it will help my cause with my parents if you also fall in love with someone."

Lord Rupert smiled and nodded his head in assent. "I fully intend to."

"Thank you," said Amelia. "But I do not think Felicity would be the right choice for you."

"Did I say anything to indicate that Miss Kearney was my chosen target?"

"No, but . . . I just want to protect her from . . ."

"Ah yes, my latent tendencies. Your friend is safe from me. What think you of Miss Percival?"

"Now you are funning me."

"Indeed, and may I suggest Mr Ramsey as a likely candidate?"

Amelia almost choked. "I'd as lief marry you."

"That bad, is he? Just as well, he is little more than a fortune hunter."

The dance ended with Amelia feeling better disposed towards Lord Rupert than she ever had. It was good to have arrived to an agreement and to know that she need not worry about him unsettling her again. She had no time to think any further on the subject as Mr Percival claimed his dance. The evening continued, bright and sparkling, a whirlwind of dance and conversation and laughter. She went down to dinner with Gilbert and was content to listen to him talk of horses while she took her fill of the elegant gowns and splendid decorations – all novel and delightful to her on her first ever major foray into society. Eventually, she knew, it might pall, but tonight it was wonderland.

Part 9

In a few days' time, Amelia and her Aunt Seraphina were ensconced in their town house in Grosvenor Square. The house had belonged to Amelia's grandmother and was part of her inheritance. It was still furnished with her grandmother's old-fashioned furnishings, but Amelia was much more pleased with it than if she had been housed at her father's little used, formal and pretentious London house.

Amelia and Felicity had gone together to the milliner's, a necessary trip upon arriving in London, for though they had both been provided with completely new wardrobes well in advance of their come-out, augmenting them with fripperies from Mme Fanchot's establishment was a matter of course. Not that new gowns could really be termed fripperies, but neither young lady could resist the lovely fabrics that establishment had to offer.

"The Indian muslin shot with silver will make you such an enchanting gown!" cried Felicity as they climbed into the carriage with all their neatly wrapped parcels and hat boxes. "It should be perfect for Lady Almerston's party this Friday!"

"I was thinking to wear it to Almacks next Wednesday," said Amelia.

"Almacks!" cried Felicity. "It is like a dream, is it not? When Lady Jersey visited mama yesterday with our vouchers, I swear I was so giddy with delight I could have fainted on the spot."

Amelia knew it would take much more than expected vouchers for Almack's to cause Felicity to faint. "She visited Aunt Seraphina yesterday as well. I didn't find her at all stuffy as I had expected from a patroness. She showed a deal of kindness and interest whilst talking to me."

"Oh she is an absolute dear," said Felicity. "I believe it is Princess Esterhazy who is a regular dragon!"

"You will be at the Hamilton's dinner party tonight, will you not?" Amelia asked, changing the subject. "Aunt Seraphina can speak of nothing else - it is to be our first formal London engagement."

"Indeed! Mama says that if Mrs Hamilton knew what she was about she would have ensured that her plain daughter was launched without such stiff competition as ourselves about – but I disagree. We are going to be all the rage and that can only help Lucy Hamilton by association." She giggled.

"Lucy Hamilton is not so very plain," said Amelia of the girl who had also attended Madame Marchand's Finishing Academy. "I do not know her very well, but she was always well-spoken, if quiet and retiring."

"A mouse!" said Felicity without rancour. "We must do what we can to bring her out."

The carriage drove up outside the Kearney's town house and the girls bid each other adieu until the evening. Felicity ran up her stairs with a backward wave, followed by a footman laden with all her purchases. Amelia leaned back against the cushions and let her mind wander for the short drive home. She had great expectations of the evening. So far, since her arrival in London, she only had visits from her friend Felicity and the eager Mr Ramsey who would have outstayed his half hour if her aunt had not sent him upon his way. Aunt Seraphina was a stickler for doing things as they should be done. But this evening would bring introductions to a much larger segment of society, and who knew – the very gentleman she was hoping for might be of that number. She had no clear picture of what he should be like or look like – just that he would not be Lord Rupert. He would not be a man who she had been told she must marry since her earliest days. He would be a man who treated her with respect and politeness, not mockery. She shook her head to erase the image of Lord Rupert's teasing smile and began to build a picture of a tall, amiable gentleman – considerate and thoughtful, and not at all full of himself.

"Lord Rupert visited while you were out," her Aunt Seraphina proclaimed. "I had asked him to call and he made his visit most promptly. It is a pity you were away from the house – there is so much to settle."

"There is nothing to settle, Aunt," responded Amelia. "I have told you my wishes, and Lord Rupert feels just as I do."

"Fiddlesticks!" she replied. "The gentleman would not be so ungallant as to back out of his obligation to you and his family. We had a charming visit together. I told him of our troubles with Henry and he has everything fixed."

"You told him . . . and he did what? Cajoled Henry into being happy in London?"

"I told him as how Henry missed the country, and his family, and how Mr Ramsey had offered to look out for a groom for you to replace him and he immediately said there was no need of Mr Ramsey going to any bother. Which I was in accord with, for who is Mr Ramsey to us, pray? And then, what do you think, but not half an hour after he had made his farewells, a man appeared at the kitchen door with a note from his Lordship. A new groom sent especially for you from Lord Rupert's own establishment!"

"I do not want Lord Rupert's groom! I will send him back."

"Too late for that, my dear girl. I told Henry to pack as quickly as he may and catch the next stage home."

"This is outrageous! How could he be so . . . so managing? It is none of his business."

"Of course it is his business, Amelia. I was impressed with how quickly he handled it – and so gallantly."

"I will not keep the man – I will send him off! It is entirely unacceptable for Lord Rupert to be involving himself in my affairs."

"You will do nothing of the sort. I am in charge here and I approve wholeheartedly of the placement. Lord Rupert knows his duty and has acted as a gentleman ought. I will hear no more about this, nor your silly notion that Lord Rupert has no plans to marry you. This very act proves his intentions."

But Amelia saw something other than her aunt did in this supposed philanthropic and dutiful gesture. And after her visit to the stables she knew that it was just as she had suspected. The man had not stopped throwing her indiscretion in her face – this was just another slap to get back at her. Never had she seen a more homely or stolid man than the groom he had sent.

As soon as all the introductions had been made, Amelia joined Felicity where she was sitting with Lucy Hamilton in the drawing room.

"It is to be a frightful squeeze after dinner," Felicity said gleefully. "Miss Hamilton has just told me that her mother has invited everybody who is anybody!"

"I am not looking forward to it quite as much as Miss Kearney," admitted Lucy. "So many people that I do not know and I shall be expected to talk to them all."

"Oh la!" said Felicity. "Just smile and nod and use your fan to advantage."

"I should feel a complete fool looking coyly out from behind a fan," said Amelia. "I understand how Miss Hamilton feels."

"Then dance with the handsome ones and ignore the rest!" Felicity advised with a giggle. "Lord Rupert is to come."

"How nice for him."

Dinner was then announced so Amelia did not have to explain herself to Lucy Hamilton. The first few days, she realised, would be the most difficult, with everyone's eyes upon her and Lord Rupert in expectation, but it should soon die down. The best thing for it was for her not to show her true feelings. No matter how much Lord Rupert irritated her, she would keep it to herself. Comments like the one she had just made would have to be a thing of the past, unless she was alone with Felicity. She would be the epitome of politeness where he was concerned.

At dinner she was seated next to a very nice young man, Sir Peter Wilmott, who showed gratifying interest without Mr Ramsey's style of obsequious attention. He was also quite handsome with thick, blond hair and gentle grey eyes. She warmed to him immediately and they made pleasant conversation till the meal was over. Then the entire company moved to the ballroom where more guests were beginning to accumulate for the evening's entertainment.

As the music finally started, Sir Peter came to claim her for the first dance which he had successfully petitioned during dinner. She was enjoying herself so much that she hadn't noticed Lord Rupert arrive, but when she came off the floor he was there, conversing with Lucy Hamilton.

"Lady Amelia," he said, bowing.

"Lord Rupert." She dropped a perfunctory curtsey.

"You look well."

"I am well."

He smiled ruefully. "Well met."

Amelia nodded, wishing suddenly for the fan Felicity had talked of earlier, so she could hide her satisfied smile behind it. "I was so sorry to miss your visit this morning."

"Yes, I can imagine."

"You will understand when I say that I feel no need to add my thanks to those of my aunt for the favour you performed."

"I did not do it for thanks," he responded silkily.

"I am certain your reasons were complex and varied." Her voice was infused with sweetness.

"They were."

"As are my reasons for having to decline your most generous loan."

"Ah, but your aunt is most happy with the arrangement, so it is out of both our hands, no matter what we may think of it."

"But I . . ." began Amelia crossly, and then steadied herself with a calming breath. "As you wish, Lord Rupert."

"Now that is something I never thought to hear you say," he whispered languidly.

The music started up for the next dance and Lord Rupert took his leave of Amelia and led Lucy Hamilton to the floor. When Sir Peter returned to her side with a glass of lemonade Amelia was still not quite sure whether it was she or Lord Rupert who had just won that last round.

Part 10

It was quite late when Amelia returned home from the party, or rather, quite early, for it was in the wee hours of the morning. And though it was so late, Amelia found she wasn't at all sleepy. She sent her maid away, wrapped her spangled shawl around her evening gown, and found her way downstairs to the little garden at the back of her house. Amelia was glad that her grandmother had the same love of the outdoors as she had, and had ensured that her house had this private little bit of country in the city.

The garden was not much more than a pathway that went between beds of spring flowers to a small fountain with two crescent shaped benches in an alcove grown over with climbing roses. The roses were not yet in bloom, but their delicate young leaves had unfurled, and fluttered gently in the soft night air. In the fountain, water spilled from an urn held aloft by a young goddess.

It was a lovely place to sit and think in the moonlight, and Amelia had much to think on. She had danced half the night, and with so many engaging partners! Though she had to admit that of all the partners, Sir Peter was the uppermost in her mind. He was so tall, so handsome, and so amiable. The kind of person one might want to spend the rest of one's life with. And he seemed to be as taken with her as she was with him. He had danced with her twice, and had stayed by her side between dances, conversing easily on any number of subjects.

She had also danced with Gilbert Kearney, who was engaged to take her riding in Green Park on the morrow. And as she was to go with Gilbert she would have no need of that taciturn groom of Lord Rupert's. The very thought of the groom, and all he represented, spoiled her mood. She got up from her bench with a sigh and was about to return to the house when she heard a scrabbling sound. She turned towards the noise and saw a figure atop the wall between her garden and the next door establishment. She stifled a scream as it dropped to the ground not a few yards ahead of her, and she recognised the lithe form of her nemesis.

"I thought you a robber!"

Dusting himself off, he came forward. "I am sorry to disappoint," he said. "Do robbers get the same sort of reception as grooms?"

She chose to ignore this sally, though it did not do anything to stay her mounting anger. "How came you to my garden?"

"As you saw – over the wall. There is a door, and I have found a key that ought to fit the lock, but I didn't feel right about using it without permission."

"You didn't feel right? But scaling walls and scaring one half to death is perfectly acceptable behaviour?"

"I was not sure you would be here – but I had hoped. I wanted the opportunity to speak freely with you, and that would not be possible at a morning visit with your aunt breathing down our necks and planning announcements for the Sunday papers." He sat on one of the benches as he spoke, and dipped his hand into the water of the little pond around the fountain. "What a cosy place you have here."

Amelia was still standing, vainly attempting to control her ire. "I still do not understand how you came into my garden over my neighbour's wall, or how you come to have a key, or why you insist on interrupting my nocturnal solitude all the time!"

He grinned up at her. "I thought you enjoyed my company," he said teasingly.

Amelia stood with her arms crossed, tapping her toe impatiently. "You might find yourself incredibly amusing, but I do not!"

His smile turned apologetic. "You do not know? No, I can see that you don't. Our grandmothers were such close friends that when they both married, they convinced their husbands to buy them houses in Town next door to each other. I am your neighbour. They shared this little garden – my grandmother used to talk to me about it when I was a young lad. She told me of the door, and the key, and I just had to see it for myself."

"And you never thought to ask for an invitation?"

"The thought did cross my mind, but I feared I might be denied the treat."

"Your fear was well founded," said Amelia. "Now, if you will excuse me, it is late and I am going to bed. You may leave the way you came."

Lord Rupert stood and reached out his hand to her. "Stay a moment. We may not want to marry each other, or to spend time together socially, but does that mean we cannot be friends at least here in this refuge from society's eyes?"

"Friends?" Amelia scoffed. "When all you do is continually remind me of our . . ."

"Tryst in the stables?" he supplied helpfully.

"Our first meeting!" she amended adamantly. "If you were a gentleman, you would act as if it had never happened."

"But I am a gentleman, as it turns out. If I were a groom, on the other hand . . ."

Amelia did not let him finish whatever bit of nonsense he had been about to say. "Grooms! I was never more insulted in my life by that fright you set me up with. Do you think that I am such a loose woman that I cannot be trusted with a groom unless he is hideously ugly?"

"Poor Binks. If he heard you describe him thus he would be very hurt indeed. He is an excellent fellow – loyal and dependable – you couldn't do better. The fact that he was not graced with looks just added a subtle something to the whole affair that I thought you would appreciate." Lord Rupert took a step closer to Amelia and continued in a more serious vein. "I neither think you loose nor untrustworthy. And, if it gives you any comfort, I truly do not think you would have kissed me that night, were I a groom or otherwise."

"Of course I would not have kissed you!" Amelia exclaimed with more assurance than she actually felt.

"So why can you not accept it as an amusing misadventure, as I have done, and be friends."

Amelia hesitated. "Only here, in this garden?"

"Yes. No one else need know."

"But, to what purpose?"

He took her hands and brought her to sit down on one of the benches beside him, then let them go. "We both have parental expectations that we cannot abide and fortunes that make us sought after not for who we may be, but how valuable a connection with us may be. We are always under scrutiny and must behave as society wills us to at all times. Do you not feel the strain of it as I do? Do you not wish to be able to say or do anything that comes to mind, without the social repercussions that might accompany it? I do believe, that night, that is what we experienced. That freedom – not wanton desire."

Amelia had never thought of it in that light, but it did make so much sense. And it eased her mind to think she had not behaved wantonly after all. It would indeed be nice to have someone to talk to openly – to say things to that she could not even say to Felicity. And when Lord Rupert was not trying to be annoying, she did feel comfortable in his presence. "At night only?"

"That would perhaps be the safest. Servants talk."

"How would we arrange it?"

Lord Rupert fumbled in his pockets and pulled out a large key. "Let us try this in the door and see if I have found the right one. I will give it to you, and when you feel the need for an evening's escape, you can unlock the door and I will join you here."

He led her to the opposite corner from the alcove an pushed aside some trailing ivy to reveal an ornate door. The key stuck at first in the lock, but after much fiddling, Lord Rupert managed to turn it. The lock sprang open and the door moved slowly on its rusty hinges.

"There." he said, pulling the key from the lock. "All it needs is some oiling and you should have no trouble with it." He pressed the key into her hand, squeezing it lightly for a moment before letting it go. "The choice to unlock and let me in will be all yours."

"What is to stop you climbing the wall?"

"My word." said Lord Rupert solemnly. "And my valet," he added with a twinkle. "He will have my head when he sees the state of my clothing in the morning."

With that, he stooped a bit and passed through the small door. He turned jauntily and blew Amelia a light-hearted kiss before disappearing across a little cobbled yard into the darkness. Amelia closed the door, and then put the key back in the lock. It turned stiffly with a solid click, and the door was locked once more.

Amelia leaned against it and suddenly realised how very exhausted she was. She hoped her sleep-deprived brain had not made a rash decision in accepting the key and the plan for midnight assignations. At least she had the key, and control over whether or not the meetings would take place. As long as she could be assured Lord Rupert would not scale the wall again. She was not certain how good his word actually was.

Part 11

The next morning when Gilbert Kearney arrived to take Amelia to Green Park for a ride, he was accompanied by his sister and Lord Rupert.

"I thought it was a top notch idea if we all went together, Lady Amelia," said Gilbert after all the polite greetings had taken place.

"Ha!" said Felicity. "I am certain it was Lord Rupert's suggestion."

"And I had thought it yours," quipped Lord Rupert innocently. "However it is of no consequence who decided it as long as Lady Amelia is not disappointed by having to bear the burden of our company."

"Not at all, Lord Rupert," she replied. "I will ring for my horse to be brought round."

In a few minutes they set out, Lord Rupert and Felicity leading the way.

"That is a very sweet stepper you have there," said Gilbert. "Did you bring him from the country with you?"

"Yes, I am very attached to Monarch and did not want to ride a hack whilst in Town."

Gilbert smiled. "A lady who appreciates good horseflesh is right up my alley. You handle him well. Often London traffic frightens horses who are not city bred."

"My groom takes him out for his paces each day, so he has made the adjustment."

"You mean Binks?" asked Gilbert. "However did you convince Lord Rupert to part with him? What I wouldn't give to have his services! He's one in a million, that little man."

"It was Aunt Seraphina, and not me, who asked Lord Rupert to find us a new groom. I do not know what sorts of threats she used upon him."

"Or what form of inducement," Gilbert said with a wink.

Amelia could not understand why Lord Rupert should have given her his most prized groom, but she had no wish to conjecture with Gilbert about it. She changed the topic of discussion and when they turned into the broad avenue of Green Park they were harmlessly elaborating upon the scenery. While in the avenue, Felicity and Lord Rupert waited for Amelia and Gilbert to catch up to them, and they walked their horses four abreast, with Amelia in the middle between the two gentlemen.

When she had a chance to speak to Lord Rupert more privately, as the other two were distracted by the sight of close friends, she said, "I have just discovered, Lord Rupert, that the groom you sent me is your favourite. You must allow me to find another and send Binks back to you."

"Gilbert Kearney is a loose-lipped gabster – pay him no mind."

"But I cannot accept . . ."

"It is done, Lady Amelia," said Lord Rupert shortly. "I will hear no more of it." And he rode ahead a few paces, effectively ending the conversation.

Amelia was unsure whether to spur Monarch forward and insist on having her way, or leave it until they met again in the garden, that is if she decided she wanted to meet Lord Rupert in the garden. He was just as aggravating when he was polite as when he was teasing. She was saved making any sort of decision, however, by Sir Peter, who waved to her from a bench where he was seated with an older lady.

"I was hoping to see you here this morning, Lady Amelia," he said, as soon as she came close enough for conversation. "I would like to make you known to my mother." He helped Amelia down from Monarch and performed the introductions. While the ladies made polite conversation, he held the horse's reins.

It was not long before Gilbert rode up to claim his companion, but Amelia had enough time to ascertain that Lady Wilmott was as kind and considerate as her son appeared to be. As she took her leave, Sir Peter asked permission to wait on her later in the day, and she happily granted it. Gilbert Kearney seemed a trifle put out by her desertion of him, so she smiled on him more fully and listened with all the appearance of interest as he related the details of a sporting event he had attended on the weekend. Every so often Amelia was distracted by the sound of Felicity's tinkling laugh, and looked over to see her friend and Lord Rupert deep in animated conversation.

When they returned to the house, the gentlemen took their leave of the two girls. Felicity stayed behind to visit longer with her friend. They ran upstairs to Amelia's bed chamber where she threw off her riding hat and began to remove her habit.

"Would you like to borrow a gown of mine so that you can do the same?" asked Amelia.

Felicity had taken off her hat as well, and set it on the dressing table. She was now occupied with tidying up her hair before the mirror.

"I am quite comfortable like this," she said, and then she dropped upon the bed and stretched her arms above her head luxuriously. "That was such a fine outing, was it not? I hope you found your companion as much to your taste as I found mine. Though how could you have, because you were with Gilly whilst I had Lord Rupert all to myself. "

"Your brother is very pleasant company," said Amelia defensively.

Felicity giggled. "But Lord Rupert is sublime! I noticed you had another fish strung on your pole. Sir Peter would be a tasty catch."

Amelia blushed. "I must admit I like him very well indeed. He introduced me to his mother."

"We have not been in Town above a week, and we already have one good prospect each – we shall have no need of the obliging Mr Ramsey."

"Lord preserve us from him!" cried Amelia fervently. "Even if he were not such a self-serving bore, according to Lord Rupert he is on the lookout for a fortune."

"So are more than half the gentlemen that will pay us court, but let it be hoped that the others will be more entertaining. I do so love to be entertained – that is why I have fallen so deeply for Lord Rupert. Besides he is so handsome! So gentlemanly! So tantalisingly everything a girl could possibly wish for!"

"Do not let his charms blind you." Amelia had suddenly begun to feel very short tempered. "I suspect him to be inconstant."

"Do I detect a hint of envy? I have noticed he has not been very gallant by you - the two of you barely converse."

"That is because we we have nothing to say to each other," said Amelia with great dignity. "I much prefer talking with your brother."

"With Gilly? You are too droll!"

Amelia threw her hat at Felicity who had collapsed in a fit of giggles. "I do not mean that I have a tendre for him!"

"You were fascinated by his retelling of the Newcastle races, no doubt."

The laughter became contagious as Amelia admitted to not having attended at all closely to the tale.

It was just after nuncheon when Sir Peter paid his visit. Felicity had returned home and so it was only Amelia and her aunt who received him. He spent the first ten minutes of his visit in polite conversation with Aunt Seraphina, until she took up her embroidery and suggested that Amelia show Sir Peter her sketches.

"They are really nothing at all out of the ordinary," said Amelia, taking a few pieces of drawing paper out of her sketch box and laying them before him on a low table.

"Allow me to be the judge of that," said Sir Peter with a smile. He studied them for a few moments with every indication of unfeigned interest. "You have a good eye for proportion and a delicate touch. I like your drawings very much."

"I know they are only simple, schoolgirl attempts," said Amelia, pleased by the praise, "but I do so enjoy going to my favourite places and trying to faithfully capture them."

"The pictures show your fondness of nature. Are these scenes from your home?"

"Yes." She pointed to one of the pictures. "Here is where the river runs through my grandmother's estate, and this other shows the dovecote at the bottom of the garden."

"Have you had the opportunity to sketch since you have come to London?"

"I have been busy every day with engagements here and there, but I hope to soon – there are so many lovely parks."

"Have you yet seen much of the sights of Town?"

"Hardly anything but the inside of the milliner's shop and the Pantheon Bazaar, except for riding in Green Park this morning."

"What of the British Museum?"

"No, but I should like to see it above all things."

"My mother," he said, "wanted me to convey an invitation to you to accompany her to the museum. The display of the Elgin marbles is not to be missed."

Amelia had a feeling that his mother was as yet unaware of this proposed outing and that he had suggested it as a way to spend more time in her company. The thought suffused her with a happy glow. "That is most kind of her. I will ask my aunt if I may go."

After it had all been arranged with Aunt Seraphina, Sir Peter took his leave.

"A very proper young man," said Aunt Seraphina. "He knows just how long a visit ought to be. And his mother is quite the same. You will be looked after well by Lady Wilmott and so I need not go – museums tire me out with all the walking and standing and looking at antiquities. But if it pleases you . . ."

"It does, very much indeed Aunt," said Amelia, her eyes shining.

"And Sir Peter dangling after you should show Lord Rupert that he had better not take too long coming up to the mark."

"Lord Rupert has no intention of proposing to me Aunt, as you very well know."

"I know nothing of the sort," said Aunt Seraphina irritably. "You have a bee in your bonnet about him. It is best you get over it as soon as can be. A husband likes a wife to show a bit of interest – how you feel is neither here nor there."

Amelia sighed and decided there was no point in arguing with her aunt. She was in charge of her own destiny whether her aunt believed it or not. She thought of the key that she had hidden in her dressing table drawer. Earlier in the day she hadn't been sure whether she should keep the assignation in the garden that evening, but a talk with Lord Rupert insisting he set her aunt straight was beginning to sound like a good idea.

Part Twelve

The large key weighed heavy in Amelia's hand as she tiptoed down the stairs and made her way through to the back of her house. A sudden noise made her start, but it was only the watchman calling out as he did his rounds up and down the street and back alley. She admonished herself for being such a ninny – this was her own house so she had no need to be secretive, or explain her own actions, if it came to that.

When in the garden she was still unsure if she wanted to use the key. The night before what Lord Rupert had said made so much sense, and the idea of having the freedom to talk about anything at all without censure was appealing. And there were still things she wanted to say to Lord Rupert that she could not say to him openly, especially as she wanted to spend as little time as possible with him publicly, in order to dispel all the rumours of their pending nuptials. But she wasn't sure that she really wanted to spend time with Lord Rupert alone in the dark in her garden either. What if he should behave in a forward manner? What if he thought that was what she was expecting? What if the whole thing had been a ruse so that he could continue where he had left off in the stable?

Amelia tried to ignore the little thrill that ran through her as she walked closer to the gate – she was sure it was caused by the clandestine nature of the exploit, and nothing to do with illicit desires. As far as she knew she had no hidden wishes of any nature – only the curiosity to find out what indeed Lord Rupert was playing at – whether he were sincere or depraved. At that she gave herself a mental shake for building things all out of proportion. For all she knew, she would unlock the door and then sit in the garden fruitlessly while Lord Rupert failed to appear.

She pushed the large key into the lock, took a deep breath, and turned it with resolve. There was a resounding clank as the bolt slipped back that reverberated loudly in the still of the evening. She stood listening intently after the sound of it had died down, and had just about given Lord Rupert up when there was a rhythmic tap-tap-tapping on the door.

"May I come in?"

"Yes." Amelia's voice came out hoarse, as if she had not used it in days. "Of course," she tried again, more loudly and naturally. She backed away as the door swung open, much more silently than it had the previous night.

"You see that I oiled it," said Lord Rupert as he breezed in. He walked over to the fountain and sat upon one of the crescent benches, perfectly at ease.

Amelia followed with some timidity and sat upon the far end of the other.

"What? So distant?" he said. "We shall have to shout to converse."

"I can hear you perfectly well," said Amelia, sliding to the middle.

"But my hearing is not what yours is – I can barely make out a word."

"That is why you are able to answer me so well, I suppose," retorted Amelia.

Lord Rupert grinned. "You have nothing to fear from me, if that is what has driven you so far away."

"I am not afraid of you."

"You are afraid of yourself, then?"

Amelia came right to the end of the bench and looked him in the eye. "Don't be preposterous. You may leave at any time if this is how you intend to go on!"

"That is much more like it," he said, leaning forward companionably. "I did not see you at the Lewison's tonight."

"No. Aunt Seraphina said it would be very dull, so we stayed in and played at cards with a couple of her cronies instead."

"And that was not dull?"

"It was tedious! I would have much rather been able to see some of my friends."

"Well you missed nothing. The evening was a flat bore from start to finish – weak lemonade, stale fingers of cake, a melancholy harpist, and everyone sitting about on straight-backed chairs, all prim and proper. How I loathe such functions!"

"Then why do you go?"

"I must find myself a wife, to get my family off my back about you. It is no easy task, believe me."

"It should not be so difficult – I have seen countless beauties of the season throwing their lures in your direction."

"You think I am so shallow as to be bought by a little interest and a pretty face? Marriage is for the rest of one's life. If I cared not who I married, I could have stuck with you, or better yet, I could have proposed to Miss Percival last week and had it over and done with. She would have had me like a shot!"

Amelia bristled. "You have no small opinion of yourself."

"I simply know my own worth on the marriage mart," he answered ruefully. "In actual fact, I would not make any of those young ladies a good husband."

"Such unexpected modesty!" said Amelia, laughing at him.

"Not at all," he said seriously. "If I could find the right young lady, who loved me as I loved her, and was willing to put up with my quirks, I am sure I should be a nonpareil."

"So it is a question of the lady accepting your carousing and womanising?" asked Amelia in the sweetest of tones.

Lord Rupert looked at her quizzically. "You have a very odd opinion of me. No, it is a matter of love. I would have thought that you, of all people, would understand that. Love cannot be forced – it has to somehow, magically happen. I have no clue how one goes about finding it."

Amelia relented. It appeared she had been misjudging him after all. "Well, not at the Lewison's musical nights, it would seem."

"No indeed," he chuckled. "Your Aunt Seraphina saved you from an evening of purgatory."

"I believe she only did it because she was annoyed with me!"

"So she punished you with cronies and cards? What perfidious thing had you done to deserve such a fate?"

"Sir Peter had just paid us a visit."

"Sir Peter got your aunt up in the boughs? I would have thought him more circumspect than that."

"It was not he who did it. He was most polite and obliging – his mother has invited me to go with her to view the Elgin Marbles."

"Completely above board, as I should have expected of him. Do not tell me you put him off and thus brought Aunt Seraphina's ire down upon your head."

"If you would stop interrupting with your fatuous comments you would know soon enough that it was you, and not Sir Peter, who caused my aunt to get into one of her moods."

"I? Forgive me if I am wrong, but I do not believe I was even in the room at the time."

"No, but somehow your presence is always felt," said Amelia crossly. And then she continued before Lord Rupert had a chance to interrupt again. "After Sir Peter's visit, Aunt Seraphina was quite pleased because she feels that with him dangling after me, you should come up to the mark more quickly!"

"Rather I should give him my blessing!" said Lord Rupert with feeling.

"You do not have to be quite so eager about it," said Amelia shortly. "That is more or less what I told her, but she is determined that it is all in my head and that you are as committed to our union as the rest of our families. Your giving me Binks has sealed that in her mind."

Lord Rupert stifled a shout of laughter. "Giving you my groom is equated with plighting my troth?"

"Apparently it is the next best thing!" Amelia giggled. "So you see why I came down here and let you in tonight. I want you to convince Aunt Seraphina that you have no intentions of marriage. She refuses to listen to me."

"And I thought it was because you wanted to spend time with me. I ought to have known you had ulterior motives that in no way matched my own."

"Do be serious – this is important to me."

But it seemed Lord Rupert was not to be so easily moved. "Why would my word weigh with her if yours will not?"

"Because you would be confirming what I have been attempting to convince her of – your disinterest in me."

"I think it would take more than anything you or I could say together to change your aunt's position in this matter. The only thing for it is for one of us to become betrothed to someone else, and quickly, if your peace of mind is to be protected. How many nights of cards with her cronies will you be able to endure?"

"Then you ought to have proposed to Miss Percival! You still may, I am sure."

"I am sorry – my gallantry will only go so far."

"Then how about Lucy Hamilton? You appeared to enjoy dancing with her the other night. It was two dances you had, was it not?"

"So you were paying attention!"

"I only remarked upon it," said Amelia with great dignity, "because I am trying to assist you in finding someone worthy to fall in love with. Lucy Hamilton is a very good sort of girl, and I think you should be lucky if you could get her to love you."

"And if I were to love her in return." he said agreeably. "One night's dancing, however, has not yet done the trick. I will have to persevere."

"And I as well," said Amelia.

"With my poor besotted friend Gilly?" he asked with a grin.

"I did not mean Mr Kearney!"

"Then you will have to stop leading him on. As amusing as it is to see poor Gilbert crossed in love, I'd rather he not get hurt."

"I? Lead him on? Never."

"The way you smile up at him, and encourage him to ramble on about his horses is positively shocking."

"I am merely being kind to my friend's brother. If you cannot tell the difference . . ."

"It is Kearney who cannot tell the difference," Lord Rupert murmured.

"Stuff!" said Amelia hotly. "You are simply trying to annoy me, and after we had been getting along so well too."

"Remarkably well," Lord Rupert agreed, then he looked up at the stars and saw how far the moon had travelled in the sky. "It is getting late. You will need your sleep – until tomorrow, then?"

Amelia nodded. "Yes."

They walked towards the door, and as he opened it, Lord Rupert took Amelia's hand and said, "See, it wasn't so bad, and none of the dire things you were afraid would happen took place."

"Indeed," Amelia said, smiling. "You were not forward at all."

"You must allow me to rectify that at once," said Lord Rupert, and he lifted her hand to his lips. At the last minute he turned it and placed a gentle kiss upon her bare wrist before letting it go. "Sweet dreams," he whispered, and he closed the door behind him.

Amelia swiftly shot the bolt home and then leaned against the door. Why was her heart racing so fast when she knew he had only done it to tease her?

Part 13

The next day, Amelia and her aunt went on a round of morning visits. Amelia found that while some of the young dιbutantes she met appeared to be sincerely friendly, most eyed her with suspicion behind their smiles. She supposed they must see her as competition for all the eligible would-be husbands. She smiled sweetly back and dismissed each one from her mind. The idea of setting herself up in competition with them for the best goods of the season was deplorable. She had never thought of her London season in quite that light before, though she fully intended to find someone to love and spend the rest of her life with at all the routs and balls on offer.

Amelia's aunt seemed to be enjoying her visiting immensely. Whenever Amelia looked her way she was in close conversation with one matron or another, her face wreathed in smiles. After the last visit they returned to the house in quiet contentment to rest up and prepare for the evening ahead of them. They had been invited to the theatre to make up a party in the Kearney's box. It was to be a drama, and Amelia's first real play, other than makeshift family productions supervised by her governess. The fact that Lord Rupert was to attend as well didn't bother Amelia in the least, though she had not yet forgiven him for his parting liberty of the night before. She looked forward to an evening of showing him it had not affected her in any way.

The theatre was all glittery and opulent with myriad candelabras and red velvet curtains and seat coverings in the box, against mahogany woodwork. Added to that was the elite of the ton in all their finery, talk and laughter, and the flash of opera glasses as the multitudes studied the other boxes for friends and acquaintances. Amelia's faith in her society, and her season in Town, was restored. She thrilled to the excitement of being in the throng, and hugged Felicity joyfully as she entered the box,
Her face was glowing with happiness when she faced Gilbert Kearney and he bowed low over her hand. She sat between her two friends as Felicity chattered about all that had gone on since they had parted company the morning before.

Just before the curtain rose on the play, Lord Rupert entered the box and took the vacant seat beside Felicity. He bowed to Amelia after he had greeted Felicity, then turned his attention to the stage. Amelia did so also, and all other thoughts left her head as she became engrossed in watching the actors play their parts. She was vaguely aware of some movement beside her during the first act, but she was too caught up in the production to register what was actually transpiring. Thus, when the curtain fell upon the act, she was surprised to find that Lord Rupert was now sitting in the place beside her, and Felicity was occupying the outermost seat.

She shot Lord Rupert a questioning glance, and he replied blandly, "It seems your friend was uncomfortable in this spot."

"Oh yes!" cried Felicity, smiling across Lord Rupert. "The cushion of the chair is decidedly thin. Lord Rupert is such a gentleman to make the sacrifice for me. This seat is ever so much more comfortable."

"Anything for a lady," Lord Rupert murmured.

Amelia found her attention being called for by Gilbert Kearney. "What thought you of the first act?"

"It is hard to find the words – to say it was good does not do it justice. It is all so new and interesting for me. I am enjoying it very much."

"The characters are too excitable for my taste. The girl in red kept crying at the slightest provocation."

"But the villain is treating her so shamefully!" declared Amelia, jumping to her defence.

"I am sure you would not be so lily-livered as that."

Amelia laughed. "It is nice to know you have such faith in me."

Gilbert Kearney continued talking about the play in the same vein and Amelia found herself with not much to do besides nod every now and then, and look about at all the other boxes. She finally discovered Sir Peter in a box not too far from theirs and smiled when she caught his eye. He gave her a slight bow of acknowledgement and then turned towards the stage. The curtains were being raised for the second act.

Amelia was a little surprised at the brevity of his greeting, but put it down to the imminent continuation of the action upon the stage. She became just as transfixed with the second act of the play as she had been with the first, despite Gilbert's comments upon overacting and melodrama. When the curtains fell again, Amelia glanced over to Sir Peter's box and saw him exiting it. She smiled, thinking that he would be joining them soon, as visiting from box to box was the expected activity during the long intermission. Gilbert claimed her attention again as their box began filling up with various acquaintances.

Amelia was introduced to a fair amount of the elder Kearney's friends and did not lack for conversation, but the intermission came to an end without the expected visit from Sir Peter. She happened to be looking in the direction of his box when he returned and seated himself again, but he did not even glance her way before the play resumed. The play did not keep her attention as well as it had the previous acts and she found her eyes drifting over to where Sir Peter sat. He always appeared to be studiously watching the actors, but on more than one occasion Amelia thought it seemed as if he had just turned his head, and that he had been looking toward the box in which she was sitting only a moment before.

At the end of the play, and the last heart-wrenching scene was played, Amelia felt a trifle flat. The euphoria she had experienced at the beginning of the evening had been replaced by a sort of emptiness. She and Felicity excited the box arm in arm, closely followed by Lord Rupert and Gilbert Kearney.

"What an excellent tragedy!" cried Felicity. "That most everyone should die, and with such dramatic speeches! I was afraid I would burst into giggles during the evil viscount's soliloquy!"

Amelia answered in suit as, from the corner of her eye, she saw Sir Peter hurriedly escorting his mother from the building. A moment later they passed a group of young ladies who appeared to be staring at her and then speaking in whispers. The crowd in front of them stopped and Amelia found herself jostled back between Lord Rupert and Gilbert Kearney. At the same time she heard a gentleman off to their right say in a carrying voice, "A great heiress, but as good as betrothed to Lord Rupert. Not about to waste my effort there. I hear the Miss Dunns are swimming in it too, no matter that they are both plain as pins. I plan to try my hand with one of them."


"I dare swear it makes no difference."

Amelia almost choked; her cheeks burned brightly and her eyes flashed with anger.

"It is a good thing I know the truth of the matter," said Gilbert. "You needn't worry that I will desert you."

Amelia almost bit his head off for this ill-timed, if well-intentioned remark. She turned to treat Lord Rupert to the same abuse, but found that he had disappeared into the crowd and Felicity was by her side once again. It was obvious, from Felicity's demeanour, that she had missed hearing the offensive remarks, and Amelia was too cross to elucidate her. Instead she was busy thinking what she would have to say to Lord Rupert when she had him alone later in her garden.

Unfortunately she did not get the chance to expunge the bitter feelings from her chest that night. The light drizzle that met them as they departed the theatre had already turned into a solid downpour once her carriage deposited her and Aunt Seraphina at their doorstep.

The next morning the rain still fell undiminished. Amelia did nothing more exciting than attend the lending library. Upon her return she discovered that Lady Wilmott had visited, leaving her card and a note of regret at having to cancel their proposed visit to the British Museum. It seemed she had suddenly to go out of Town upon urgent family business. Amelia was so chagrined that tears welled up in her eyes.

"Never mind," said Aunt Seraphina bracingly. "If you have such a great desire to go, I am convinced Lord Rupert will take you. He is such an obliging young gentleman, and knows his duty by you."

If Amelia had had anything at hand, she would have hurled it at her aunt. As it was she exploded with, "Lord Rupert! I hate the very sound of his name and will not have it spoken in this house again!" Then she stormed up to her room and threw herself upon her bed, crying as she never had since she was a small child,

Aunt Seraphina came up and knocked upon her door. "Please take control of your tantrum, Amelia dear. We are to attend Lady Almerston's do tonight and I will not have you present yourself with puffy eyes and a red nose. Lord Rupert should not like it either."

Amelia's pillow hit the door with a resounding thud, and though her aunt had already continued along the corridor, she still felt a deal of satisfaction that helped in curbing her angry tears. It did not, however, stop her from devising various horrendous scenarios for Lord Rupert's early demise.

Part 14

Maisie took great care arranging her mistress' locks that evening, afraid that the young lady's wrath, which had been bubbling all afternoon, would explode upon her full force. When she was finished, and stood back to look at her handiwork, she was impressed at how pretty Lady Amelia looked with her heightened colour. Her irises flashed darkly – their usual chestnut almost black. Her gown was sea blue, with spangles and gauze, and a huge bow with ribbons that streamed down her back. Whomever had scorned her would wish he had never been born, to have lost such a prize as that.

Amelia, for her part, was quite pleased with her appearance as well, and for almost the same reasons as her ladies' maid. Except she knew who was the cause of all her troubles – Lord Rupert who would not talk to her aunt, who had refused to have it announced that they would not be married, and who, though he had said he would not seek her out in society, had managed it so they were seated together in the Kearney's box all evening, validating the flying rumours that they were an affianced couple. Why he was going out of his way to do these things when he professed to have no interest in her, she had no idea. The man had a perverse sense of humour.

And now his actions were putting off Sir Peter. Amelia was certain that Sir Peter's interest in her was sincere, but he had too much delicacy to pay attentions to a lady who was promised to another. That was the only explanation for his avoidance of her at the theatre and his mother's cancellation of their outing. And it was all Lord Rupert's fault.

When Amelia and her aunt arrived at Lady Almerston's, the first person she saw was Felicity. At the soonest opportunity she pulled her friend into a quiet corner to converse, and it wasn't long before all her concerns and frustrations about Lord Rupert came spilling out.

As soon as she was given the chance, Felicity commented in a soothing voice, "I think you are doing Lord Rupert a disservice – the rumours cannot be laid at his door."

"You would say anything in his defence, you are so besotted with him," shot back Amelia.

"I do think I'm a little bit in love with him," giggled Felicity, "but that is not why I am defending him. I happen to know from a reliable source that it is your Aunt Seraphina who has spread the news about town. Lucy Hamilton told me that her mother had it directly from Mrs Southerton who is one of your aunt's bosom friends."

Amelia remembered how her aunt had been in her prime that day they had performed so many morning visits and now she understood why her aunt had looked like the cat who had eaten the canary at the end of the day. "She is outside of enough!" cried Amelia. "I tell her and tell her that Lord Rupert and I have no desire to marry but she will not listen to a word I say. And he is no help either – though I have implored him many times to clarify the situation with her, he refuses."

Felicity looked at her closely. "When have you done so? Whenever you and Lord Rupert have been together lately, you two have barely spoken at all."

"I whispered it to him when you were not attending."

"Well here he is coming towards us, you may tell him loudly to his face now, and this time he might hear you."

Amelia looked around, and indeed Lord Rupert was walking in their direction, as nonchalant as ever. "I have nothing to say to him," she declared.

Felicity laughed and, once Lord Rupert was close enough, greeted him with this sally: "Lady Amelia is quite annoyed with you."

"How unusual," he drawled.

Amelia looked daggers at him. "If you will excuse me," she said. "I feel the need for a private walk alone. The terrace will have to do, as my own garden is not available."

"You do say the silliest things, dearest," said Felicity. "I hope the night air will do you some good and help put what we have been discussing into the correct perspective."

"I expect it will," said Lord Rupert. "Fresh air is such a restorative."

Felicity tapped Lord Rupert upon the shoulder. "You are too bad, my Lord! Poor Lady Amelia is really severely distraught – you ought to have more compassion – and here I thought you such a gentleman."

Amelia hurried away from them and slipped out through the heavily curtained French doors. She was hopeful that her message had been understood. All she needed now was to wait in the shadows and see if he would heed her summons.

She had not long to wait. Within five minutes Lord Rupert sidled up to her hiding spot. "You wish to speak to me, Lady Amelia?"

"Indeed," she replied. "You must do something about this fix we are in! It is all of your creating."

"Mine?" he responded. "I am not the one setting up trysts in the shadows at public parties. If anyone were to see us it would only confirm the rampant rumours."

"No one shall see us, for you will listen to me and then go almost immediately."

"Anything you say, my Lady." He bowed exaggeratedly.

"Can you not put an announcement in the papers?"

"Stating what? That I have no plans whatsoever to marry you? Decidedly not. How uncivil do you think I am?"

"Is propriety so very important to you?"

"Yes. As I told you before, I will not besmirch your reputation over this. Things will die down – you will see."

"No one of any worth will pay me notice, thinking that I am promised to another," she said with feeling.

"What? Are your suitors so easily frightened away?"

"Sir Peter is honourable – not afraid."

"Sir Peter, is it? If it were me, and I were in love, I would let nothing stand in my way, least of all some idle chit-chat."

"The information spread abroad came directly from Aunt Seraphina – who would not give it credence?"

"Knowing your aunt as I do, I would have to say me."

"Well Sir Peter is not you. He is a gentleman of sense and breeding."

"I would have picked someone a little less stodgy for you, but if he is who you want I will do my utmost to get this particular flea out of his ear. Will that satisfy you?"

"Thank you. And I will be sure to let Lucy Hamilton know that the rumour has no substance."

Lord Rupert smiled. "Without even being asked! You are so much more accommodating than I am. But how do you know it is not Miss Kearney I have my sights set on?"

"Felicity knows everything already, so there is no need to tell her."

"Everything? She knows of our first meeting in the stable, our nights in the garden, and this?"

"None of that," said Amelia quickly, "but she knows neither of us will accept the betrothal, and she also knows that you are not to be trusted."

"Ah yes, but I don't think she will let that stand in her way," he said smugly.

"Go!" she urged him, and as he turned to leave someone came out onto the terrace. A man stood, silhouetted in the doorway for a few moments. Amelia shifted deeper into the shadows, stayed as still as could be and held her breath. It was Sir Peter! He made no attempt to come out any further, just retreated through the door and closed it behind him.

"The very man himself," said Lord Rupert, rubbing his hands together.

"Do you think he saw us?"


"Catch him up as quickly as you can. You must explain it all to him at once," cried Amelia in consternation.

Lord Rupert took both her hands in his and gave them a squeeze. "I'll do my best. You are not to worry – rejoin the party and enjoy yourself." And with that he was gone.

Amelia took another few minutes to collect herself and slipped back into the drawing room through the same French windows she had left by.

Felicity joined her almost immediately. "You were gone simply an age. Are you feeling better now?"

"Much, thank you," Amelia lied.

"You have missed some minor excitement. Sir Peter was mooning about like a lost dog, and then he left in quite a state with Lord Rupert hard on his heels. I wonder what that could have been about?"

"I really have no idea," said Amelia with as much composure as she could muster. "Do you think the dancing will start soon?"

"It is about time for the first dance of the evening. Though with Lord Rupert absent, there is not much for me to look forward to. But you are in luck because my brother Gilbert is fast approaching."

Amelia was happy for the diversion and went off most readily with Gilbert Kearney to join the first set. The rest of the evening a few other brave souls sought her hand for a dance, but neither Lord Rupert nor Sir Peter returned to the party. What the gossip mill would make of that, she had no idea. She only knew that Lord Rupert had better join her in the garden that night or she would go distracted.

Part 15

Amelia spent a fruitless hour in her garden – Lord Rupert did not make an appearance. Finally the cold drove her indoors. As she relocked the garden door before returning upstairs, she vowed to not be so foolish as to entertain the notion of meeting the man in such a way again. He was beyond annoying. After all, he knew how much this all meant to her, and must certainly realise her mind would need to be set at ease with all rapidity. Yet he had not bothered to show. He was probably enjoying himself in some vile gaming hell, drinking copious amounts of whatever it was that his set liked to drink, a serving wench or two upon his lap.

After a night of fitful sleep, Amelia awoke with a raging headache, a throat that burned whenever she swallowed, and a nose that dripped like a tap. The apothecary was called and he announced that she had caught a violent cold, a fact she was already painfully aware of. He prescribed a number of curative draughts, left a dose of laudanum in case of fever, and sentenced her to an undisturbed week in bed.

The first few days Amelia had no complaint with the doctor's orders – she could barely sit upright for the pounding in her head, and she was content to enter the oblivion of sleep and escape the uncomfortable symptoms. By the third day all the sleep and fortifying broth she had been administered in her waking moments had put her on the road to recovery and she was aching to leave her bed and rejoin the land of the living. But her aunt believed in following the advice of doctors to the letter.

"It would not do to enter into activities before you are fully recovered and suffer a relapse," she admonished when Amelia begged to be allowed to come downstairs and sit in the parlour. "The doctor said a week in bed, and so a week it shall be!"

"But Aunt!" cried Amelia. "I must not miss my first outing to Almacks! It is in but two days and I am already as fit as a fiddle – I promise you."

As she punctuated this outburst with a sneeze, she received nothing but a reproving glare from her aunt.

"At least cannot Felicity visit me in my bedchamber today? I fear if I have no society whatever I shall succumb to a fit of the dismals."

Her aunt finally relented and allowed that Felicity should be able to visit as long as her parents thought the risk of infection worth taking.

"You have received some flowers which I will have sent up," Aunt Seraphina added. "I do not suppose they shall do you any harm now that you are beginning to be on the mend."

"Flowers!" cried Amelia. "Oh please have them brought up right away – they will cheer me so."

Her aunt warned her about how such excitable behaviour could overtire her, so Amelia demurely promised to be as sedate as a church mouse. A few minutes later her room was adorned by three bouquets tastefully arranged in china vases, each with a card from the sender. The added fragrance alone did much to revive her spirits. Once the maid had left the room, Amelia bounced out of bed to collect the cards. Her head reeled upon standing and she had to sit back down, then proceed much more slowly and carefully. She was glad her aunt was not in the room to witness her weakness.

Once back in bed with the cards, Amelia plumped up her pillows and settled herself cosily into them , prolonging the mystery of which of her admirers had missed her enough to think of cheering her with flowers. The first card was from a huge bouquet of delicate pink camellia blossoms. They had delighted her the most of all the flowers, but when she saw that they only came from Lord Ullesmore, she sighed, and their beauty diminished in her eyes. The second bouquet was a pleasant combination of blue hyacinths, yellow primroses, and red tulips. Gilbert Kearney's name was written rather blotchily on the square of card she had detached from it. She smiled and set the card aside, then turned to the last one which had accompanied a rather unusual choice in flowers – pink and white hawthorn. There was only one letter upon the card, carefully executed in the finest copperplate. R. So, at least he had not forgotten her completely, even if he had not bothered to meet with her in the garden the other evening.

Amelia tossed the cards upon the floor and lay further back into her pillows, eyeing the flowers with disfavour. Now that she knew none of the bouquets had come from Sir Peter, they no longer held the same charm they had initially. For if Lord Rupert had spoken to Sir Peter after he had left Lady Almerston's party so hurriedly, surely he would have made some attempt to visit her by now. And upon discovering she was ill, surely . . . but maybe Amelia had only imagined his preference for her. Maybe he did not want to be bothered with a young lady who was the talk of the town, even though it was through no fault of her own.

She reached over to her night stand and picked up a book she had been attempting to read before the flowers had been brought in, but the words swam before her eyes. She tossed it on the floor to join the cards and then gave herself up to the bout of self pity that swept over her. She was destined to become and old maid – either that or be locked in a loveless match with a decidedly untrustworthy husband. No matter how handsome and persuasive Lord Rupert might be, she knew he wasn't husband material. God help the lady he actually did end up married to, because Lord knows it would not be her. Not a chance of it.

Just then there was a tap at the door. It opened slowly and Felicity's head peered around it, a cheery smile upon her face. "May I come in?"

Amelia held her arms out to her friend. "Felicity – just the person I needed!" And she broke down into gusty sobs.

"Dearest!" cried Felicity as she ran across the room, plopped on the bed, and took Amelia into her arms. "What is this? Your dragon of an aunt said you were on the mend."

"And so I am," said Amelia, taking a lace trimmed hanky from her bodice and blowing her nose into it lustily. "But I have been so alone, and I thought at least one bunch of these wretched flowers might be from Sir Peter, but I know now he must have given me up for good and I cannot bear it! I want them taken away!"

Felicity held Amelia away from her and looked her in the eyes, saying sternly, "You must really have been ill! I would never have expected such hysterionics from you! Who did send the flowers if not he?"

"Lord Ullesmere, your brother, and my supposed prospective fiancι."

"And what is so terrible about that?"

"They are meaningless, sent only out of insinuation and obligation."

"You do not think they could possibly represent true concern for your welfare on the part of these gentlemen?"

"Lord Ullesmere show true concern of anything that doesn't regard his raiment?"

Felicity squeezed Amelia's hands and then let them go. "Even he is capable of some finer feelings, I should hope. Now stop being such a pea goose. I have just had a splendid thought. You said the flowers are meaningless, but it is well known that flowers have special meanings and can be used to send secret messages. Often messages of love. Would your library have a book on flowers and their meanings?"

"I do not want messages of love from any of those three! I have no romantic interest in them."

"Oh pooh!" said Felicity. "What has your romantic interest in them to do with it? It is always gratifying to have made a conquest and broken a heart or two!"

Despite herself, Amelia giggled. "Lord Ullesmere has no heart to break, nor should I think has Lord Rupert, but your brother is a dear and I should not want to cause him any pain."

Felicity waved it all aside. "I will be back in a moment – there is sure to be some volume in your library that will help us."

She was, in fact, gone for the better part of an hour. Amelia retrieved her book from the floor and languidly perused it. Just a few minutes of Felicity's company had done much to relieve her doldrums.

"I was lucky that I had your maid to help me," said Felicity as she returned to the room with a slim volume in her hand. "I should never have found such a small book all on my own in those crowded shelves. And such dust!"

"My grandmother was not a great reader – she keept a good library because it was the thing to do. But I am surprised she had the sort of book you were looking for. Most are reproving works – I have to go to the lending library to find anything worth reading."

"Well this is perfect for our needs!" She held the book out to Amelia so that she could read the title. The Secret Language of Flora. "Which shall we look up first?"

"Lord Ullesmere's camellias!" said Amelia with a laugh. "Let us discover at once his secret message to me."

Felicity leafed through the book and then ran her finger down one page in concentration. "Let me see – it says camellias are a sign of admiration and perfection . . . oh my! Pink camellias mean longing for you!" She let out a trill of laughter. "Who knew there was such depth to his feelings! You have made a conquest!"

"He is longing for my fortune, more like," said Amelia acidly.

"'Tis a pity he did not send you red ones. Then you could have been as a flame in his heart! So romantic!"

Amelia snorted and grabbed for the book, but Felicity held it out of reach and stood up from the bed.

"Now for Gilly's gallant offering," she said, looking through the book and reading snippets to herself. "My poor brother is more besotted than I thought," she cried out after a few moments. "Listen to this. Blue hyacinth are for constancy, red tulips a declaration of love, and primroses – oh the poor lost soul – I cannot live without you! He is yours to do with as you will!"

"He probably chose the flowers simply because they were pretty," said Amelia reasonably. "He might know more about horses than any other person in Town, but what would your brother know of the meanings of flowers? Neither you nor I even knew any of that, and it is a thing more likely known by a lady than a gentleman."

"I disagree," said Felicity. "Gentlemen give flowers, ladies do not. They must have some awareness of the meanings of the flowers they are giving so as not to catch themselves up in saying something they do not mean. What if a gentleman were to give his true love geraniums in order to win her heart, not knowing that they indicate stupidity and folly?" She looked at Amelia with raised eyebrows.

"Believing in the language of flowers is all folly," said Amelia.

"So let us see what folly Lord Rupert has committed with his choice of hawthorn."

"He probably plucked them from a hedgerow," said Amelia dismissively.

"In London?" asked Felicity. "I think he chose these flowers specifically, for why send them otherwise?" She turned back some pages and was quick to find her answer. "It barely says anything at all, and nothing to really make sport of."

Amelia reached for the book and this time Felicity let her have it. All it said under the word hawthorn was hope.

"I suppose he means he hopes you are feeling better," said Felicity, obviously disappointed that it was something so mundane, and not another declaration of undying devotion.

But though she had been angry with Lord Rupert, and blamed him for most of the bad things that had befallen her since their first meeting in the stables, Amelia was charitable enough to see what she thought must be the true message in the flowers. He hoped that his efforts with Sir Peter had succeeded. That must be what he was trying to say with the hawthorn, because he had no way of knowing how much she liked them, that when she walked along the hedgerows on a May morning the happy blossoms filled her with contentment at leaving winter behind with summer not far to come. But she kept all this to herself and only nodded her agreement, wishing that she could indeed share in his hope.

Part 16

The next day Amelia was so improved that she was allowed to dress and come downstairs to the sitting room. She had great hopes of being permitted to go to Almacks the following evening, so she abided by all her aunt's strictures upon wrapping up in a warm shawl and staying close to the fire, out of any possible draughts, even though she would have loved to have been able to open a window and drink in some fresh, outdoor air. The day was bright and inviting, and if she were allowed to follow her own inclination she would have chosen going riding in Green Park.

Though Aunt Seraphina had gone so far as to allow Amelia to be up from her bed, she insisted on disallowing any visitors, other than Felicity Kearney. All others were asked to leave their cards and well-wishes at the front door. Amelia was quite content to be spared a visit with Mr Ramsay and the Percivals, no matter how much she longed for more varied companionship. But she was disappointed when she learned Miss Lucy Hamilton had been turned away, and she would even have been glad of Lord Rupert's and Gilbert Kearney's company, but the only one of that party admitted to her presence was Felicity.

"I teased Gilly no end about the flowers," said Felicity, when Aunt Seraphina finally left the two girls to their own devices. "He was red as a beetroot, I declare!"

"I do not doubt it, when he discovered what the flowers meant!"

"He denied nothing," said Felicity smugly. "Both he and Lord Rupert sent their best wishes to you, and admonished me to not tire you out - they want to see you at Almacks tomorrow."

"I have every intention of going, even if I have to tie Aunt Seraphina to a chair and order the carriage myself."

Felicity spurted with laughter at the idea of the formidable lady bound and gagged and left for the evening in the drawing room while Amelia enjoyed the delights of her first ball at the illustrious rooms of Almacks. "She would be cross as a hornet!"

"Well it will not come to that anyway because today I am being a model of propriety and paying so much consideration to my health that my constitution will be perfectly restored by tomorrow."

"In any event, my mother has promised that when she comes to pick me up this afternoon she will encourage your aunt to let you come out tomorrow evening."

The butler entered the room with a deprecating cough, and a large bouquet of purple lilacs. "These were just left for you, my lady," he said, bowing as he presented them.

Amelia lost no time in sending him from the room in search of a vase, and pulled the card from the ribbon that attached it. "They are from Sir Peter," she told Felicity, her eyes aglow.

Felicity peeped over Amelia's shoulder so as to get a good view of the card for herself. "He had been away from Town for a few days and sent them as soon as he heard of your illness! He hopes for the pleasure of seeing you tomorrow night, and dancing with you, if your health permits! I must look up purple lilacs in the book at once!"

Amelia blushed prettily. "Do not be silly." But she made no attempt at stopping Felicity from ringing for the maid to bring the book to them from her bedchamber.

"First emotions of love!" cried Felicity when the book was finally in her hands and she had found the right page. "Here, see for yourself."

Taking the book, Amelia glanced over the page. She made no protestations about the intentions behind Sir Peter's flower choice, she simply smiled and glowed even more with pleasure at the thought that Sir Peter was no longer put off. This surely must mean that he planned to pursue her.

When her aunt returned to the sitting room, Amelia was the picture of health and happiness. Mrs Kearney arrived to fetch Felicity shortly afterwards and was able to honestly say how she thought Amelia had never looked in better health.

"Young people bounce back from these things so quickly," she went on to say. "You or I would be set back for a fortnight! Ah, to be young again."

Aunt Seraphina conceded that if nothing deleterious happened between now and the next evening, Amelia should be able to attend the assembly, as long as she always wore her shawl when not dancing and they made an early evening of it.

Amelia went to bed that night with her heart singing. Her wishes had won the day and the morrow held promise for every chance of happiness. What a difference a day made, and the right bunch of flowers from the right somebody!

Amelia and her aunt presented their vouchers for Almacks at the appropriate time and were announced into those hallowed halls of social elegance and prestige.

"Remember to deport yourself with the utmost of propriety at all times," her aunt whispered loudly in her ear as they walked along the edge of the dance floor in search of seats. "And under no condition may you dance a waltz unless you have the express permission of one of the patronesses."

Amelia looked about. The rooms were not as fine as some of the private ballrooms she had previously frequented, but there was a charm in the ageing hangings and carefully placed potted palms that won her heart. This was Almacks and even the chipped crystals on the chandeliers and the watered lemonade couldn't fade the glow of glory it held in her mind. She ignored the worn velvet on the chair and sat, eyes bright and shining as she ran them over the room, taking everything in.

"There's Felicity," she said, giving a little wave.

"Remember - decorum!" hissed her aunt. "Don't be waggling your arm around like a common street urchin."

Amelia only smiled - what would a common street urchin be doing dressed in ivory silk and pearls, with a shawl of the finest Spanish lace cradling her shoulders? "Yes Aunty,"

Aunt Seraphina obligingly gave up her chair to Felicity so that the two friends could sit beside each other and retired to the back row of chairs with Felicity's mother. It wasn't too long before both girls were led out to the floor by young gentlemen of their acquaintance. It would not do to accept someone they had as yet not met without an introduction from one of the patronesses. But even restrictions such as these did nothing to dampen their delight in their first experience of Almacks.

Before too long Gilbert Kearney and Lord Rupert arrived to lead out Amelia and Felicity respectively.

"Dashed if I know why the ladies go on so about this place," were Gilbert's first words as they took to the floor. "Never seen a more nip-cheese establishment, and the idea of being waylaid by Princess Esterhαzy and introduced to some stuttering dιbutante has me quaking in my boots."

Amelia just laughed. It was exactly the type of comment she expected of Felicity's brother, and it could not change her enjoyment of the evening one jot. She looked over to the other set which Felicity and Lord Rupert had joined. True to his word, he had bowed politely in Amelia's direction before applying to Felicity for her hand, and nothing more. With such slight attentions to her, speculation ought soon die down.

At some point during her dance with Gilbert, Sir Peter must have arrived because he was waiting at the edge of the dance floor to claim her.

"I trust you are fully recovered, Lady Amelia," he said, bowing low over her hand.

Amelia smiled. The shine in her eyes and rosy blush upon her cheeks exuding health and happiness. "The doctor and my dear aunt quite magnified the issue. It was nothing more than a trifling cold. I am so relieved to be back in society once more - I was bored to tears relegated to the sick room."

"I am certain they had your best interests at heart," he responded. "Though I am very pleased you were allowed to attend tonight. I know how much you were looking forward to your first outing at Almacks, and I hope it is living up to your expectations."

Nodding her assent, Amelia immediately thanked him for his flowers, which led to more pleasant and kind comments upon her recent illness and his hopes that she would not overtax herself on this, her first evening out, ending with his offer that they sit out the set rather than dance.

"I am not such a fragile flower!" cried Amelia. "I would dearly love to dance"

"And so you shall," he said in such a tender voice that Amelia felt she would be a fool indeed not to fall in love with such an amiable, caring gentleman. If it were Lord Rupert she had been conversing with, by now he would have said something outrageous that would have put her out of countenance.

In her bedroom, recalling all the delights of her evening as Maisie brushed out her hair, Amelia sighed in contentment. Sir Peter had not mentioned the night at the play, his mother's cancellation of the outing to see the Elgin Marbles, or his early retreat from Lady Almerston's party and subsequent conversation with Lord Rupert. He was too much of a gentleman to bring up any subject that might be embarrassing to either of them. But he did show, through his considerate conversation and his earnest expressions, that he was not going to let the rumours of her forthcoming betrothal stand in his way of gently pursuing her. It was all that she had longed for.

And so, as she slipped through the sleeping house and out into the garden to unlock the adjoining door, she could not but wonder why she was doing so, when she ought to have tumbled into her bed to dream sweet dreams of Sir Peter.

Part 17

"How I have missed our trysts!" said Lord Rupert, opening the door as soon as the key turned in the lock. "Though I was in half a mind whether or not to come tonight, thinking you might still be avoiding me."

"Avoiding you? I was ill!"

"I would not expect a girl of your stamina to be felled by a mere cold!"

Though Amelia had for days tried to convince her aunt that she possessed just this constitutional trait, she was contrarily offended by Lord Rupert's statement. "There was nothing mere about it," she flung back, "and anyway, you were to blame for my getting so terribly sick."

Lord Rupert grasped her hand and brought it to his breast in an affected manner. "Lovelorn! I do apologise, my sweet!" He would have brought her hand to his lips then, had she not snatched it away first.

"Do not be so ridiculous. You know very well what I meant. I waited in the miserable cold for over an hour after Lady Almerston's party and you did not have the decency to show." Her tone of voice clearly conveyed how she believed he had spent his evening when he ought to have been reporting back to her.

"Now who is being ridiculous?" asked Lord Rupert. "I went after Sir Peter - he would hardly lead me to a den of iniquity, would he?"

"You may have gone to one after you spoke to him."

"Of course, because I cannot let a day go by without committing some kind of debauchery."

"If you say so," said Amelia sweetly.

"No, I was only voicing what I know to be your thoughts. Is this the thanks I get for the trouble I took over you?"

Amelia was immediately contrite. "Thank you so much. Whatever you said to him has erased the impediment."

"Proposed already?" Lord Rupert smirked.

"He would not think of doing anything of the sort on such short acquaintance. And he would apply to my father first."

"Of course he would. Such a dull dog! You do not know how diplomatic I had to be to coax him to speak with me on such a delicate subject as my intentions towards you. And how careful I had to be not to give away your involvement in my mission. And though he is happy as may be that I have no desire to marry you, he still thinks me the veriest cad for throwing you over."

"You - you told him that you have no desire to marry me?"

"Was that not what you requested?"

Amelia crossed her arms over her chest, her eyes flashing. "Yes, but I hardly call that diplomatic!"

Lord Rupert lounged against the pillar supporting the rose trellis and gave Amelia a long, appraising look. "You are offended by the bald fact that I have no desire to marry you!" he said triumphantly.

"I am delighted by it!" she retorted.

"Yes, one is always delighted when one knows that a member of the opposite sex does not find one in any way attractive. I have had the same delight visited upon me by you." He laughed to show that his comment was not made in bitterness of spirit.

Amelia laughed as well. "It is rather a deflating notion, regardless of the fact that I do not desire your interest," she admitted. "But please tell me those were not your exact words."

"Did I not already say I was diplomatic? I was only paraphrasing just now. You would be shocked if you heard how mealy-mouthed I can be when I put my mind to it."

Amelia giggled. "I was about to say that nothing new I learned of you could shock me, but then I know that would only lead you to do something so excruciatingly shocking that I would soon regret my comment."

"Do not tempt me."

That, of course, was unanswerable. Amelia knew she was treading dangerous waters where temptation was concerned. How was it that Lord Rupert could be so annoying and so enticing at the same time? And how was it that she could even find him so when she was completely decided to fall in love with Sir Peter? Was there some terrible fault in her character? Or was it the nature of these nocturnal visits that led her thoughts astray? In daylight she had no interest in Lord Rupert whatsoever. She barely even liked him. She pulled herself out of her thoughts to realise that he was still languidly leaning against the pillar, waiting for a response. She met his eyes with as bland an expression as possible and said nothing.

"So that is how it is to be, is it? How do you know that I do not find the very challenge of your silence tempting?"

"You are insufferable!"

"No, I just enjoy matching wits with you." He sat then and smiled warmly. "Let us call a truce. I take it you had a pleasant evening in the hallowed halls of Almacks?"

"I did. And I must thank you again. You behaved just as you said you would."

"Sometimes I even amaze myself."

"You are really not so bad as you would like me to believe."

"Nor even so bad as you would like to believe."

And Amelia had to admit that it was true. Which brought her to a sort of epiphany. This sensation that she felt when she was with him in the garden was not some lustful attraction, it was simply that she liked him - not in the way of a lover but as someone liked a friend - and this liking was so unexpected, after all the years of resenting his existence, that she had been completely confused by it. "I think I may have to reassess my opinion of you."

"I am so glad to hear it." His expression became saucy once more. "And I now feel impelled to admit that I might just have a teeny-tiny feeling that marrying you might not be the most terrible fate in the world after all."

"I suppose rather than insufferable, I ought have said you are incorrigible."

"I believe that is the very word for me," Lord Rupert agreed.

"So, now that I am well on my way to finding a replacement for you in the marriage department, how is your search going? You know that both sets of parents will be brought to accept it better if each of us has a new prospective partner."

"I have told you before that love cannot be forced. I am happy for you that you so easily found someone upon whom to shower your fond emotions, though I have my doubts that Sir Peter is the right man for you."

"What, pray tell, is wrong with Sir Peter? I know you constantly refer to him as a dull dog - but I believe you only do that to antagonise me. He is honourable and kind and considerate and intelligent and caring and unassuming and handsome and reliable and upstanding and . . ."

"And dull as dishwater. The incomparable Lady Amelia would be wasted on him. And languishing in boredom within a year."

Amelia chose to ignore the incomparable comment, knowing full well Lord Rupert only said it as a tease and she was not about to let him get the better of her. "All those attributes I listed are splendid, especially in a husband. How can you discount them? Or him?"

"I don't deny that he will make an excellent husband for some deserving girl, like Lucy Hamilton, but not you."

"So, I am not to marry someone honourable and kind and considerate and . . . all the rest? Who must I marry, then? A rake? A fortune hunter? An unprincipled lout?"

"If that last one was meant as me, remember I have taken myself off your list."

"No, I removed you first," Amelia replied sweetly.

"Be that as it may," said Lord Rupert agreeably. "You are wilfully misunderstanding me. What I am saying is that you deserve all those attributes in a husband, and more. You need someone with a quick mind and a sharp wit, someone who can kindle that spark within you and keep it lit. Someone who not only delights in you but has the ability to engender your delight."

"I do not want to be set on fire! I would be perfectly content with Sir Peter."

"You deserve more than mere contentment."

"And where am I to find this nonpareil?"

Lord Rupert sighed and shrugged his shoulders. "That is truly the question. I can safely say that no one of my acquaintance fits that description."

"Not even you?" Amelia asked acidly, after all, Lord Rupert had a very high opinion of his own wit and mind.

"Least of all me," said Lord Rupert with conviction.

Part 18

In the next few weeks, Amelia's relationship with Sir Peter progressed just as she had hoped. He took her riding in Green Park regularly, visited her at her aunt's on her mornings in, met her at the library, and sought her out at all the soirιes, musical evenings, and dances that their London society had to offer. Other gentlemen paid her marked attentions as well, but Sir Peter was the most devoted of her followers. Gilbert Kearney complained of him at every opportunity.

One morning Gilbert had managed to whisk Amelia off to Hyde Park for a drive in his phaeton. He was expounding upon the merits of his new pair of high-stepping roans when they were hailed by none other than Sir Peter himself.

"I say, that fellow is really trying to queer my pitch," he announced, looking daggers at Sir Peter.

"You are Felicity's brother and I consider you a dear friend," Amelia responded. "I do not see how Sir Peter's attentions could change that."

"I am very much obliged," stammered Gilbert, blushing, "but you must know . . ." He was unable to say more as Sir Peter was now alongside on his horse, greeting Amelia most cordially.

"My mother is returning to Town," he said, when the preliminaries were done with, "and is most anxious to renew her invitation for the outing to view the Elgin Marbles."

"I should like that very much," said Amelia.

"May she call on you tomorrow morning? Together you can set up a date."

"I am completely at her disposal," Amelia replied.

"But I was to take you and m'sister to the library, Lady Amelia," Gilbert sputtered. "You cannot have forgotten"

"Oh dear!" said Amelia. "Can you give Felicity my regrets? I am certain she will not mind in the least if we change it to next Tuesday morning instead."

"But I mind!" Gilbert baulked.

"My mother could visit another morning, if tomorrow is too inconvenient," said Sir Peter tightly.

"It is not inconvenient at all," said Amelia and she turned to look up at Gilbert with a sweet smile. "It is only one day, after all. You probably have better things to do with your time than escort your sister and her friend out every morning."

Gilbert protested that he was happy to be at her service morning, noon or night, but he could not help but agree to the change and swallow his disappointment with some degree of composure.

"Then it is settled." Sir Peter smiled and would have lingered but Gilbert said his horses needed to get moving, being such a spirited pair.

"That fellow is outside of enough," muttered Gilbert as they drove off. "His mother cannot be put off at any cost! I ask you if that doesn't show feebleness of character, or what?"

"His consideration of his mother's wishes is commendable," said Amelia. "Besides I have a great desire to resume my acquaintance with her, and to see the marbles."

"On that head, I could take you to those demned marbles any time you please."

Amelia expressed her gratification and then reminded Gilbert that they should return to the Kearney establishment if Amelia was to keep her luncheon date with Felicity.

"What a morning I have had!" cried Felicity, as she greeted Amelia. "Lord Brockingdale and stuttering Mr Moresby both proposed within an hour of each other! Lord Rupert said I ought at least to have accepted Lord Brockingdale, just to see his expression. Apparently he has a penchant for proposing, but he hates the idea of marriage so much that he always only proposes if he can be assured to expect rejection."

"That is just like Lord Rupert to say such a thing! What if you did accept and were stuck with that old toad - he must be eighty if he is a day!"

"But think! He could not last all that long and I should then be a merry widow! I would be free of all the chaperones and other restrictions that plague dιbutantes!"

"Not a bet I should take if I were you. Actually Brockingdale's this side of seventy," said Gilbert seriously, "and his family is shockingly long-lived. His aunt Esmerelda is still ruling the roost at ninety-five, with no sign of faltering."

"Then I've made a close escape," said Felicity, laughing heartily. "I did feel bad for poor Moresby, though. Down on one knee and stuttering so badly I had to complete his proposal for him, and then decline it as politely as I could. I shall have to introduce him to Miss Percival, to make it up to him. He was quite red in the face and could not look me in the eye as he made his departure. And all the time Lord Rupert was in the adjoining room! How he laughed afterwards."

Amelia frowned. "I know I accuse him of many things, but I did not think him so unkind!"

"Oh no! You misunderstand - he was laughing at me, not at poor Moresby. He even offered to propose himself, so that I could reject three suitors in one morning as some sort of record, but as I pointed out that he might not be rejected if he tried, he rethought his offer."

"Surely you would not accept him!" said Amelia in some apprehension, before stopping to think.

Felicity eyed her speculatively. "And why should I not?"

Amelia glanced at Gilbert, who appeared more interested in his cold beef than in their conversation. "You know he is untrustworthy."

"Do I?" asked Felicity. "I have only your word on that, and no explanation to back it up."

"Can you not just accept that I know what I am talking about? Or ask your brother - if he will tell you about their exploits."

"All gentlemen have exploits. Even your sainted Sir Peter, I'll wager."

"A wager you would lose," announced Gilbert suddenly. "But don't expect me to tell tales on my friend. He's not lily-white, but I'd trust him with my life, I would."

Felicity cocked an eyebrow at Amelia. "If you were not so intent on Sir Peter, I'd swear you want to keep Lord Rupert to yourself, like some dog in a manger. You have never liked the idea of me falling in love with him."

"And have you?" asked Amelia, afraid of the answer.

"That would be telling," said Felicity with a saucy smile.


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