From Fash to Fancy
The balled up sheet of writing paper bounced off the grate, missing the fire completely and joining three or four other such unsuccessful missiles. The briskness of the flames, however, attested to the fact that many others had hit their target. Lord Randall Napier sighed and put his pen to paper once more. Business correspondence he never had any trouble with, but writing to his ward was another matter indeed. This was the first time during the seven years of his guardianship that he had even made the attempt.
Lord Napier was not a negligent guardian, but he was a reluctant one. He had already spent most of his young life managing his estate due to his father's early demise. At the age of one and twenty Randall Napier was further burdened with being the sole executor of his godfather's estate and guardian to Sir Wilmington's orphaned children after that gentleman and his lady died upon an ill-advised journey to the continent. Every need of the children was seen to, from hiring tutors for the boy and governesses for the girl, but he had not set eyes on either child. A trip as far north as Yorkshire had always been out of the question. Now it appeared unavoidable. Miss Wilmington was to make her come out under the aegis of his Aunt Augusta, and that formidable personage had informed him that it was his duty to escort the girl to London personally. It was now up to him to apprise her of the arrangements that had been made.
He looked at his latest effort and decided that it would have to do. He was just melting the wax to seal the missive when his mother entered the room.
"Randall, dearest, I hope you remembered to tell Annarilla that I would have undertook the task years ago if my health had permitted it."
"And that she should on no account wear yellow at her first ball. Pug agrees with me too, don't you, Pug?" Lady Lavinia Napier cuddled her little dog in her arms as she settled in one of the armchairs by the fire. "White with pink rosebuds!"
"I saw no need to mention clothing beyond that Aunt Augusta would take her to be outfitted upon her arrival in London."
"Dear boy! Augusta has no clue as to fashion. She will have the girl in green!" Lady Napier shuddered and drew her spangled shawl close about herself. "You must add it in -- and tell her never to trim her hats with anything but ostrich feathers -- peacock will not do."
"It is written and sealed, mother," he said as he pressed his signet into the drop of red wax.
"I doubt you even told her of my peridot set. The most lovely necklet and earrings. I am certain I can trust her to look after them. I am even thinking she might like to have the use of my silver combs as well. I know they are only trinkets but it is the least I can do to help with her come out if you won't even pass on my fashion advice. Pug says it is awfully naughty of you. Can you not write the letter over again?"
"At your feet lie my numerous attempts. I see no reason to discard this one too, just to fill a letter with inconsequential things you can easily tell Miss Wilmington when you meet her in London."
"London! I daren't go to London! All those routs and balls would be the death of me, and you know full well that dearest Pug cannot abide unfamiliar people or surroundings. No, I shall never have the pleasure of meeting little Annarilla, and my heart bleeds just thinking of it. You must take her my pearl drop earrings as well. I do hope she is a responsible young girl. I would not have them lost for the world. They were an engagement gift from my dearest Harvey." This announcement was accompanied by a whimper as Lady Napier pulled a lace handkerchief from her sleeve and dabbed at her eyes.
Randall sighed. His mother's offerings were made to assuage her guilt at not presenting his ward to society herself. This particular activity would begin to bore her in a day or two, though, and he knew full well that none of the jewellery would ever leave his mother's dressing table. Instead he would be charged with insincere excuses and frivolous advice that he would forget as soon as he was in his travelling carriage.
Annarilla read the letter through one more time before crumpling it into a ball and throwing it at her own hearth. Her aim was no better than her guardian's.
"Intolerable!" she cried.
"There, there, Miss," said her governess, picking up the offending letter and smoothing it out. "I do not know what you are getting yourself into a pucker about. You have been longing for a season since you turned sixteen and now you are to have it. And to think Lord Napier is escorting you to London himself. Such attention!"
"Attention! Does he think me a child? I am nineteen! Practically on the shelf and he finally deigns to allow me to come out. Such a pompous letter too -- he must be the biggest bore imaginable -- and I shall have to endure days on the road with him! It is outside of enough!"
"Miss Annarilla! Refined girls do not take on in such a fashion. I do hope you mind both your tongue and your manners in front of his lordship -- and in London too. You must deport yourself well in society and not let your unruly temper get the better of you."
Miss Sneed was wasting her breath. Annarilla ignored this lecture as she ignored all others. "I have only two weeks in which to get ready! I shall have to go to London in such outmoded gowns I shall look like a complete dowd. And then I am to be palmed off on some aged aunt of his who will invite a few ladies to tea and take me to a recital once a week! I think I shall elope with Geoffrey Hodgins just to spite him! I would love to see Lord Napier's face when he arrives and finds me gone!"
Miss Sneed pointed out that if she eloped with young Mr. Hodgins, which was not at all a proper thing to do, she would not be there to see the look on his lordship's face.
"I know that Geoffery would oblige me if I begged him," said Annarilla, warming to the subject. "He has been in love with me for simply ages."
"A well bred young lady does not beg gentlemen to marry her," said Miss Sneed primly. "Even if you are given to such hoydenish behaviour, I know that Mr. Hodgins has higher principles."
"We shall see," cried Annarilla and she stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind her.
"But . . . you refused me when I asked you."
"I have changed my mind," said Annarilla.
"So you want to marry me? You said I was being a mooncalf."
"You were -- but it suits my purpose to elope now. Can you borrow your father's gig, do you think? We could set off tomorrow."
Geoffrey sat down on a garden bench and stared at Annarilla. "Dash it! I'll not marry you just because you are in the hips with Sneed."
"It's not Sneed -- it's my mutton-headed guardian."
"That makes all the difference in the world."
Annarilla sat down beside him and took his hands impulsively. "I knew you would understand!"
"I never knew you could be so gooseish. Don't you realise that if we elope I will be your husband and you will be my wife -- not just for a day or a week, but for the rest of our lives?"
"I thought you wanted that."
"I do -- but only if you love me -- not to give your guardian a leveller. What's he done this time anyway? Refused to turn Sneed away and get you a companion instead?"
"He expects me to go to London in two weeks for a season!" Annarilla managed to say it as if it were the biggest outrage imaginable.
Geoffrey burst out laughing. "That's what you've always wanted, you ninny!"
"But he as good as ordered me, and I don't have any gowns, and he's coming to accompany me, and I'm to be presented by some ancient aunt of his who is probably half deaf and will expect me to make up a table of cards with her and her cronies every evening."
"So that's what this is all about. He's set up your back and Sneed had no more sense than to lecture you, I suppose. Look, Annarilla -- don't you see? The best way to deal with his overbearing treatment of you is to take advantage of his offer. Go to London and give him a run for his money while you are there."
Annarilla's eyes lit up. "That's much better than marrying you! Thank you Geoffrey -- you're the best of friends."
Geoffrey sighed. He knew it was too much to expect her to return from a London season heart whole and ready to be wooed by him after she had set the town on its ears.
Randall was not in the best of moods when he arrived at Wilmington Hall. The journey had been long and tedious, but what irked him the most was the feeling that it had also been highly unnecessary. Why could not the chit have just travelled to London in the company of her governess? Aunt Augusta was such a stickler. The butler led him into a gloomy parlour where a prim looking lady of indeterminate age was applying herself to some embroidery. He decided she must be the governess but could not for the life of him remember the lady's name.
"Your lordship," she said, putting her needlework down, "it was so good of you to come. Annarilla will be so pleased to meet you. She is delighted, absolutely delighted with the prospect of her London season -- you can well imagine. She ought to have been here to greet you but we were not quite certain of the exact time you would arrive. I will send for her directly." She bobbed a curtsey and then rang the bell for the servant. "Did you have a pleasant journey?"
"Tolerable," he responded, and then settled himself before the fire as Miss Sneed bethought herself to order tea.
"The dear girl is most likely out in the garden -- she does love it so."
Randall only nodded. He feared the governess' personality tended towards volubility and he had no desire to encourage her -- he wanted to survive the return trip to London with his sanity intact.
"You will be very pleased with her I dare swear," continued the governess. "She has grown into a prettily mannered young lady under my tutelage. Her temperament has a tendency towards the lively but I do pride myself that I have taught her to restrain herself in company. And she excels on the pianoforte -- a desirable accomplishment. Her paintings of flowers are a delight, and I've seen to it that she has many histories and reproving books at her disposal rather than waste her time reading novels as many young ladies of her age are prone to."
"I am confident that you have done all that was required of you," he replied in a bored voice, then he took up a book from the nearest table and affected an interest in it.
With a sigh the governess went back to her embroidery until the refreshments arrived. Shortly after Miss Sneed had served Lord Napier his tea, Annarilla came into the room. She was slightly breathless, having rushed up from the bottom of the garden. The brisk wind blowing outdoors had loosened her curls and brought colour to her cheeks, much to Miss Sneed's dismay. She had been hoping her charge would make a good impression upon his lordship and now she was afraid that Annarilla had undone all the careful groundwork she had laid.
Randall beheld a girl both taller and prettier than he had anticipated. The untidiness of her hair and simplicity of her plain round gown made no impression upon him. It was the brightness of her eyes that struck him, and he was caught trying to discern whether they were green or hazel when he should have been offering his greetings. This did nothing to improve her impression of him, since she interpreted his silence as the rude behaviour she had expected from a man who had already proved his disinterest over the seven years of his guardianship.
"Lord Napier," she said, instilling as much hauteur as possible into her voice. "I do hope the journey was not too much of a strain upon you."
He looked taken aback for a moment and then replied, "Not at all, Miss Wilmington."
She smiled sweetly. "I should have thought otherwise, after all it was of seven year's duration."
He rapidly adjusted his first impression of her. The eyes were most definitely green, and decidedly shrewish. "There was no need for me to make the journey till now."
"I should not have thought the journey necessary at all. I am not an infant," replied Annarilla, her temper rising. "Miss Sneed and I would have been perfectly capable of travelling to London without your escort. I suppose you came only to see if I was at all suitable to unleash upon society and also to put me firmly in my place -- but as you can see I have been firmly in my place these past seven years -- and the very fact that I am suitable for society is none of your doing."
"I have no need to explain myself to you," he said, his temper also rising. "Be ready to travel at first light. I will take my supper in my room." With that he rang for the butler and requested to be shown to his bedchamber, ignoring Miss Sneed's offers to perform the service herself and her profuse apologies for Annarilla's outburst. Annarilla composedly took a chair and sat with her hands in her lap until Randall had quit the room.
"I hope you realise that your bad behaviour reflects upon me!" cried Miss Sneed, almost in tears. "How could you have offended his lordship like that, after all the man has done for you, especially after he has undertaken such an arduous journey solely for your sake?"
"Do not fret Miss Sneed, I am sure he has laid all the blame at my door. You will get the recommendation that you need to find a new post."
"A new post?"
"I will not be in need of a governess any longer," said Annarilla. "now that I am coming out. That much must be obvious, even to you."
Miss Sneed spent the rest of the evening lecturing about ingratitude, conceit, and small-mindedness. Annarilla went to bed with a headache. She reflected that if one good thing were to come from this London season, it would be her freedom forever from the harpings of Sneed.
With three such convivial companions, the journey to London was doomed from the start. It did not help that it rained the entire time. The roads were deep in mud, which slowed the progress of the coach. The inns had poorly aired sheets. And to make everything worse they were stopped at one very out of the way posting house for almost two days while repairs were made to a coach wheel. If at the beginning conversation was constrained, at the end it was nonexistent. By the time they finally arrived in London, Randall would have gladly changed his place with the bootblack on the corner, Annarilla wished she had indeed eloped with Geoffrey, and Miss Sneed was relishing answering applications for a new position -- even a passel of screaming nursery brats would be better than another hour spent in such forbidding company -- and breathed a sigh of relief when she was finally let down at the doorstep of her cousin.
Lady Augusta Fanshawe looked from the stony face of her nephew to the sulking countenance of his ward and prayed for patience. She did not bother with the niceties but sent them both up to their chambers to bathe away the strain of travel. She hoped that when they made their appearance for dinner they would at least have remembered their manners enough to put aside their apparent differences. She was pleased that Randall arrived to the drawing room ahead of Miss Wilmington, looking more his elegant self.
"Bad journey?" she asked without preamble.
"I take it the two of you do not get along."
"She resents me completely. I hope for your sake you fare better with the hellion than I have, but I will apologise in advance for foisting her upon you."
"Am I to believe you have done nothing to send her into the boughs?" asked his aunt. "You can be terribly stiff-rumped, Randall."
"I was prepared to be obliging but she gave me no opportunity."
His aunt looked at him appraisingly. For all she knew it was true, but she imagined he had done nothing to attempt conciliation with the poor girl.
When Annarilla entered the room Lady Augusta beckoned for her to sit by her side. "Let me look at you my dear," she said as she held up her pince-nez and scanned the girl from head to foot. "Wherever did you come by such an outlandish gown? You cannot be seen in the streets till we have remedied your wardrobe, but I see nothing lacking in face and figure- nothing lacking at all." She turned to her nephew. "Do you not agree, Randall?"
"Miss Wilmington is undeniably attractive, Aunt," he said in a flat voice.
Annarilla blushed angrily. It was like being treated in the same way as a horse at a fair. "Do you want to inspect my teeth too? They may be getting long."
Lady Augusta smiled at her and patted her hand. "I like your spirit, girl. And I see no fault in your teeth. I think you will do very well indeed. Tomorrow I will take you to my modiste for a fitting. I think you will look lovely in green -- it will bring out your eyes."
Randall snorted and both ladies scowled at him. "My mother," he said, struggling for control, "foretold that colour choice, but did not recommend it. I was supposed to forward her suggestion of white with pink rosebuds. And on no account ostrich plumes. Or was it only ostrich plumes and on no account peacock feathers?" By this time he could suppress his laughter no longer. Annarilla looked at him as if he had sprouted two heads. She hadn't imagined he even knew how to laugh.
"Your mother will be pleased that you have done your duty," said his aunt, "but that is as far as it goes. White with pink rosebuds indeed! With Miss Wilmington's complexion? I think not. And as for feathers -- I shudder at the very idea. Your mother is a delightful pea-goose, Randall, but she has no idea how to launch a debutante in style."
"Oh, I trust your judgement completely Aunt Augusta. I myself see nothing wrong with the gown Miss Wilmington is currently wearing so I suppose it is for the best that I leave everything in your hands."
Annarilla was on the point of fuming once again. Of course he would prefer she wear some dowdy provincial gown! "May I not have a say in how I am to dress?" she asked.
"Apparently your understanding of fashion is no better than mine," he responded. "I think we must both rely on my aunt."
"I am well aware that this gown I am wearing is completely outmoded, even if you are not, sir! Can you not give me an ounce of credit?"
"He may not," said Lady Augusta, "but I do, my dear. I will offer all my advice as will Miss Mullins, but the final decision on all your gowns will be yours. I am certain that your powers of discernment will guide you adequately, and if you do make mistakes no doubt you will learn from them, which is more than I can say for a certain young relative of mine."
Randall's head shot up at the remark, certain he knew to whom his aunt was referring. The amusement he had earlier felt fled instantly and was replaced by the unpleasant burden of his present responsibility. All he could hope was that Miss Wilmington would attract some fool quickly. He resolved to approve the first gentleman who approached him for her hand -- with her married he would only have the young boy at Eton to contend with, and boys were by far easier to manage.
Later that night, after she had settled herself into the wonderfully soft goose down bed, Annarilla found sleep evasive. Never in all her life had anyone irked her as much as her guardian did, and he never more so than now when she had finally made his acquaintance. Lord Napier was the most overbearing, impolite, unfeeling gentleman in existence -- so why could she still hear his unforeseen laughter ringing in her ears and why did she constantly remember how his face had been transformed -- the warmth that had come to his hard grey eyes and the way his usually stern expression had softened, giving his countenance a much more youthful cast?
Randall had never anticipated that two weeks later he would still be in London. He thought the task of delivering his ward to his aunt would have fulfilled the requirements of duty, but he was sadly mistaken. Not only did Aunt Augusta expect him drive Miss Wilmington out in the park of a morning, she flat out informed him that he was to squire her to her come out ball.
"If I had known I would have to dance attendance to the chit all season I should never have brought her out!" he exclaimed.
His aunt just patted his hand and told him to behave himself. Unfortunately Annarilla, who had been about to enter Lady Augusta's chambers to ask her opinion upon the moiré silk or jaconet muslin for the dinner at Lady Ellingthorpe's that evening, overheard this ill-timed remark. She ran back to her bedroom and scrawled a quick note to Geoffrey begging him to come to London and rescue her. ‘Nothing can induce me to stay here a moment longer. I will marry you immediately! Try and procure a special licence.'
She was still very out of humour when they departed for the dinner party and cast her guardian fulminating looks. He was still chafing under the bit and barely responded in a civil manner to any of his aunt's comments. Lady Augusta was of a mind to ring both their necks. Luckily, by the time they had reached their objective Lord Napier's good breeding took over and he was scrupulously civil the entire evening. Annarilla found his forced graciousness galling and became increasingly lively as the night wore on. Whenever she felt his critical eye upon her, she flirted even more outrageously with the closest available gentleman. Consequently she created quite a stir.
In the carriage going home Lord Napier could not restrain himself.
"The object of a season in town is to find a husband. No man of any worth wants to tie himself to a cheap little flirt."
"Randall!" exclaimed his aunt.
"Are you afraid that I will destroy your credit?"" asked Annarilla.
"Your behaviour puts only you in a bad light," he replied scornfully. "My concern is that you will have nobody but scapegraces paying their attentions."
"Not everyone is as straight-laced and boring as you. I'll wager I receive a proposal before the week is out -- and from someone eminently suitable."
"I would be exceedingly glad of that, but be warned that I will not countenance fortune hunters."
Annarilla tossed her head and stared out the window. Lady Augusta sighed and wished she were home and in her parlour with a glass of Madeira close at hand.
The next morning a number of frippery fellows and counter coxcombs came to call on Miss Wilmington and she wished she'd been a little more selective about whom she had bestowed her smiles upon the night before. Lord Napier sat in the corner and smirked the whole time. At the end of the week, while they were out for their ride, he brought up the subject.
"I have yet to receive a call from a gentlemen begging for permission to address you," he said. "Does this mean someone has been so bold as to propose without your guardian's permission?"
"He would need your permission?" she asked, aghast.
"Could I not be married by special licence?"
"With you still underage? Impossible."
"So, my happiness depends entirely upon your whim!"
"My dear girl, I shall be more than glad to get you off my hands -- do not despair that I shall deny anyone eligible."
"The day is not over yet, your lordship."
Annarilla seethed with resentment. There was a high flush upon her cheeks that Randall had to admit made her all the more handsome. He felt a pang of guilt for having teased her so.
"A wager made in pique is best forgotten," he said gently. "And a hasty offer has little value."
His about face from oppression to benevolence served only to infuriate her. "I will get an offer!" she insisted.
When they arrived back at the townhouse she rifled through all the cards that had been left, but there was nothing from a Geoffrey Hodgins, Esquire. It was almost four o'clock when he finally made his appearance and Annarilla had begun to despair.
"Quick!" she cried. "There is not a moment to lose. You must go to Lord Napier's study and ask for my hand."
"It is the most wretched thing imaginable -- I have only just discovered that I cannot marry without his permission until I am five and twenty."
"And you want me to ask him now? I was hoping there was some other way to help you out of your predicament. I do not think my father will allow me to wed at present."
"Do you want me to lose a wager?"
"A wager! First you want to marry out of spite and now for a wager. Does love mean nothing to you?"
"I am certain that once we are married I shall grow to love you excessively. Now please, go beg an audience. I must dress for the evening soon -- there is a tedious rout at Lady Stanley's we must attend tonight -- I will ask Lady Augusta if you can make up our party. If we are betrothed she can have no complaints."
As he knocked upon his lordship's door, Geoffrey wondered what he was letting himself in for. At the brisk ‘Come in' he entered and stood on the threshold wishing he had stayed in Yorkshire.
"Ah! I have been expecting you," said Randall. "Sit yourself down and let's get this thing over with, shall we."
Geoffery sat and then pulled out his handkerchief and mopped his brow. "Sir, my name is Geoffrey Hodgins and I have come to ask you for permission to marry Annar . . . Miss Wilmington."
"Yes -- I rather thought that was the case," he responded quite unhelpfully.
"She has already said that she will have me -- all that is left is for your blessing."
"She explained the matter when she proposed, did she?"
"Sir!" said Geoffrey. "It was I who proposed."
"Whatever you say," said Randall. "It hardly makes any difference if the outcome is the same. How old are you, young man?"
"I . . . I shall be twenty in two and a half months," he admitted.
"And may I ask how long you have known my ward? I want to ensure that yours is not just some spur of the moment infatuation."
"Oh no, sir. I have known Annarilla since we were in leading strings."
"Aha! So it is a romance of some longstanding. I can see why you are champing at the bit for marriage, then."
Geoffrey began to comprehend why Annarilla was always at outs with her guardian. "In fact it was only in the last two years that I -- er -- we formed an attachment. Before that I used only to tease her and pull her braids."
"And I'll bet she entangled you in all sorts on mischief."
"Don't you think it is time you stopped allowing Miss Wilmington to lead you about like a trained monkey?"
"I truly wish to marry her, Lord Napier," he spluttered.
"Do you? Then I suggest you came back to see me when you reach your majority, and if she is still available, which I shouldn't doubt she will be the way my luck is running, I will be more than happy to grant your request."
Randall could swear that a look of relief quickly flashed across the young man's face before he hurriedly bowed and took his leave. As he was going out the door, Randall called out to him, "Please inform Miss Wilmington that eloping is not a good idea, should she contemplate it. I have the right to withhold all her fortune in just such a case and confer it upon her brother's head."
After the door closed he shook his head and laughed. He could not remember when he had had a more satisfying interview. He was quite sure that his threat would work -- neither of them would guess that he had no power to cut his ward off without a penny no matter how foolishly she acted. And it seemed she was dead set to tire him out with her idiotic pranks. Well, he was not about to be led around by the nose like poor young Mr. Hodgins.
The evening of the ball had finally arrived and Randall was disposed at the bottom of the steps waiting for Miss Wilmington to come down so that he could escort her into the ballroom. The last week had been fraught with panicked preparations and he was glad the event was almost over. Maybe now he would be able to retire to the country as he had been longing to. His steward was a good man, but he had never been left this long without Randall's personal supervision. Their correspondence had been very intensive.
As Annarilla came down the stairs Randall noticed that she had taken neither his mother's advice nor his aunt's. Rather than white with rosebuds, or green, she was wearing cream satin with an overdress of amber gauze. Her dark hair was arranged in a profusion of ringlets with no more ornament than a ribbon running through them. Topaz drops hung from her ears and adorned her throat. Her eyes gleamed clear hazel.
He held his arm out to her. "You look lovely."
She smiled tremulously.
"You have nothing to fear," he whispered as he led her into the room and all eyes turned their way. They then opened the dancing. Randall had never thought of it before, but this was actually the first time he had danced with Miss Wilmington. Though she was new to the art she was light on her feet and never missed a step, matching Lord Napier in elegance of execution. They danced in silence -- but in perfect amiability, not brought on by annoyance as their silences usually were. When the set ended he escorted her to a chair by his aunt.
"Is there room on your card for another dance with your guardian?"
She nodded and smiled and wrote his name in for the fifth set. Lord Napier -- it looked very well indeed. He offered to procure some lemonade for both ladies and then left.
"It is a pleasure to see the two of you not at odds with each other," said Lady Augusta.
"Hid lordship is behaving like a perfect gentleman tonight," responded Annarilla.
"If you would only take the blinders off your eyes you would know he is a perfect gentleman."
"Usually he is perfectly odious."
"When provoked," Lady Augusta said under her breath as young men began to crowd around and petition Miss Wilmington for dances. Her card was filled in no time and she was just regretting that she had given a valuable dance to Lord Napier, thereby leaving her no choice but to disappoint a handsome young baronet she would have preferred to dance with.
"I shall ensure that I am quicker next time," he told her with a smile. "Will you be attending Almacks this coming Wednesday?"
"And will you promise to save me a dance?"
At that moment Lord Napier returned with the refreshments. He saw the smiles that had passed between his ward and Sir Harold Kinney and for some reason his pleasure in the evening suddenly deflated. There was no accounting for it, however, as Sir Harold was just the sort of gentleman he should wish for her. He was honourable, intelligent, had a comfortable estate, and was known to be on the lookout for a wife. If she managed to curb her willfulness and temper she just might be able to catch him. She was certainly on her best behaviour tonight and in fine looks. He handed her the lemonade and then took his place at her side.
"Sir Harold," he said with a pomposity he had not intended, and was answered with a polite bow.
Annarilla smiled up at him. "Sir Harold came to ask for a dance but my card is filled. Do you think you could give yours up for we have already danced once?"
It was a perfectly rational request and Randall saw no reason why he should not grant it, other than that he had no wish to. "If I did, that would defeat my purpose in asking for the dance early, would it not?"
"I do not expect you to give up your place for me!" cried Sir Harold. "I was late and must therefore suffer the consequences of my actions. Waiting till Wednesday will make the prize of a dance with Miss Wilmington that much sweeter."
Annarilla shot Lord Napier a swift look of icy cold before smiling upon Sir Harold, whom she conversed with eagerly until she was claimed for the next set. When it was time for her dance with her guardian she stayed in her chair and said, "I am so fatigued. Can we not sit this one out?"
"As you wish," he replied, taking the seat beside her. "How are you enjoying your ball?"
"Very much," she said. "But I would have enjoyed it more if you had not behaved in such a spiteful way."
"I? What evil thing am I supposed to have done?"
"You could have given up this dance to Lord Harold. You only kept it to spoil my fun and make me look a fool for asking."
Randall regarded her evenly. "Is it not possible to entertain the notion that I might wish to dance with you?"
"You?" she said with scorn. "Whatever for?"
"I am beginning to wonder that myself," he rejoined. They spent the next half hour in silence -- not the amicable one of their opening dance, but a stony silence where their eyes did not meet.
Later that night in their darkened bedchambers they each had trouble falling asleep. Annarilla constantly pounded her pillows and lamented that she had such an annoying guardian. Her come out ball would have been an evening of perfection if not for him. Randall wondered why he had allowed Miss Wilmington and her moods to get under his skin. The sooner she charmed Sir Harold into proposing to her the better. What had he been thinking when he had refused to give up the dance? He ought to have welcomed the opportunity with open arms.
The next morning when they went out for their drive Annarilla swore to herself that she would not talk to her guardian, but after a half hour of circling the park in a silence which Lord Napier made no attempt to break, she could take it no longer.
"Can you not just go away and let me live my life in peace?" she cried.
"I did not ask to be your guardian," he said in a grim voice, "and it certainly isn't any more pleasurable for me than it is for you, but I have a duty to perform that I cannot ignore."
"If you would but let me marry Geoffrey I will be off your hands." These words were accompanied by a sniff. Annarilla searched about in her reticule for a clean hanky which she held up to her eyes.
Randall smirked. He was certain the handkerchief remained completely dry. "I did not disallow your union. If you both are of the same mind when your playfellow reaches his majority he may have you with all my blessings."
Annarilla bridled. "Playfellow! We are not children!"
"How am I to remember that if you do not stop playing childish games?"
Annarilla tossed her head and turned away from him, her lips pressed tightly together to prevent herself from saying something truly impolite.
"If you hold your breath you will only faint," he said.
"Oh! You are such a . . . beast! First you turn away my suitor and then you will not let me dance with a most eligible young man."
"Why should not dancing with Sir Harold matter, if you are intent on marrying young Mr. Hodgins?"
"Why indeed?" she cried, completely ignoring her lack of logic.
"Come, Miss Wilmington, give up this charade. You do not wish to marry Mr. Hodgins and we both know it. He is just a little puppy who answers to your every call. I am sorry if I am such a burden on you, but you are stuck with me and you shall have to make the best of it, just as I am attempting to make the best of being subjected to your nonsensical whims. Let us come to a compromise. I will not stand in the way of future dances; in fact, if it is what you wish, I promise never to request another dance from you again."
Holding herself firmly in check, Annarilla gave Lord Napier a cold, hard stare. "Thank you. That is most obliging."
They continued with the drive, stopping once or twice to speak with acquaintances. On the way back to the townhouse the sky suddenly burst and rain came down upon them in torrents. Annarilla's bonnet, a lovely creation of starched lace and gauze, collapsed about her face. Randall's carefully styled hair was plastered to his head and rain was running in his eyes. It was all he could do to guide the horses to the front entrance of his home. He handed the reins to the groom and jumped from the phaeton and then ran around to help Annarilla down before the footman even opened the door.
"Come, make haste. We must get inside," he said as he held his arms out to her.
She looked down at him. His dove-grey riding jacket was stained a dark charcoal. His neck cloth lay limp and bedraggled around his throat. He was standing in a puddle of water that lapped around the ankles of his once shiny Hessians. She laughed.
"You have rain dripping from your nose!"
"You look quite a sorry sight yourself," he said as he hopped her down and ran up the stairs, almost dragging her into the house.
They stood in the vestibule laughing as water dripped from their garments.
"Towels, Brimstoke!" Randall said to his shocked butler between bouts of laughter. "Miss Wilmington and I need to dry off before we take another step. Mrs. Illings will have our hides if we ruin her precious carpets."
Annarilla giggled at the idea of the housekeeper chastising her lord and master for anything. Mrs. Illings thought the sun rose and set over Lord Napier.
"I believe your bonnet is ruined," said Randall as he assisted Annarilla in her attempts to untie the wet ribbon. "There, that is better, is it not?"
Annarilla looked up at him as he gently removed the sodden bonnet from her head. His smile was most beguiling and she could not help but return it. He had suddenly changed before her eyes from a stiff figure of authority to a person it was actually fun to be with. The towels arrived and he urged her to dry herself quickly and then hurry upstairs to where a hot bath was being prepared.
"We cannot have you catch cold and miss your evening at Almacks this Wednesday."
"No," she whispered. "We cannot miss that."
As she climbed the staircase, she cast a lingering look back down to the foyer. Lord Napier was busily rubbing his head with his towel. She thought of how he had looked as he was taking off her bonnet, droplets of water hanging haphazardly from the ends of his hair, his eyes suffused with the warmth of his laughter.
Wednesday night at Almacks was all that Randall had expected it to be, an evening of unrelieved boredom, without even good refreshments to make it palatable. The one saving grace was that Miss Wilmington appeared to be enjoying herself immensely. She was never without a partner and Sir Harold had not only danced with her twice, but he had also stayed close to her chair and supplied her with lemonade between her dances with other young gentlemen. It was exactly what Randall had been hoping for so he had no idea why he should find himself thrown into a peevish mood.
From then on Sir Harold was a constant visitor. He often invited Miss Wilmington to go out for drives in the mornings, thereby relieving Lord Napier of the onerous task and freeing up much needed time for him to attend to letters of business. But while he ought to have been writing instructions to his steward, Randall found himself in his study staring out the window, his mind drifting to Hyde Park rather than estate problems in Exeter.
At the balls and routs they attended almost every night, Sir Harold was always among the first to approach Annarilla and claim her hand for the two dances allowable. It was notable that he danced with very few other ladies, however Randall danced with none at all.
"Why do you come and never dance?" asked Annarilla one night, as Randall made to go to the card room after he had seen her and his aunt well settled at the side of the dance floor.
"I do not wish to."
"But I have seen you dance before and you appeared to enjoy it very much."
"I suppose it depends on the partner," he said shortly, and then he turned and left. The eyes that followed him were wistful.
Randall was not surprised when at the end of the month Brimstoke knocked upon his study door and informed him that a gentleman wished to have an audience with him.
"Send him in," he sighed.
As Brimstoke pompously announced Sir Harold, Randall stood and held out his hand.
Sir Harold executed a slight bow. "Lord Napier."
"In what way may I be of service?" asked Randall as he motioned for his visitor to sit.
Sir Harold's hand went swiftly up to adjust his cravat and then he coughed lightly.
"May I offer you a glass of wine?"
"No thank you, your lordship. I have something of the utmost importance to ask you."
"I had thought this was simply a friendly morning call," said Randall, smiling blandly.
"No, sir. Not that my call is of an unfriendly nature -- I do not mean to imply that."
"I can imagine I know what brings you here. You wish to ask for my permission to address Miss Wilmington."
"Yes sir," replied Sir Harold, somewhat taken aback by Randall's straightforward approach.
"Come Kinney -- you need not stand on such ceremony with me. Are we not friends?"
"To some degree, yes," he assented.
"Then you will allow me to be frank with you. This is not the first request of this sort I have received, nor do I expect it to be the last."
"You do not?" Sir Harold's face was beginning to show scarlet.
"Not at all. Miss Wilmington is a beautiful, vibrant young lady. It is hardly surprising that gentlemen are losing their hearts to her."
"But, is it not conceivable that she will accept me, making this request the last?"
Randall stared at Sir Harold and then threw off his act. Had he hoped to intimidate the man so that he would not have to answer him? He had the power to deny Sir Harold the right to ask Miss Wilmington for her hand, but what kind of hollow victory would be his then? He put his head in his hands and asked the question that was uppermost in his mind, then braced himself for the answer. "Have you already made your proposal to her? Has she . . . accepted you?"
"I have not asked her. I thought it best to follow the correct form and approach you first. I had always taken you for a man of honour." He was on his feet and ready to leave the room. "I can see I was mistaken."
"Stay," cried Randall, holding up his hand. "I must apologise."
Sir Harold sat, his arms crossed upon his chest. His stare was almost belligerent.
"You find me in a most awkward position. As we both very well know there is no reason I can give to deny you the right to approach Miss Wilmington. You are just the sort of man I am certain her parents would have chosen for her. You have fortune, breeding and integrity. You are kind, caring and considerate. You would make her an ideal husband."
Sir Harold put his hands on the arms of his chair, crossed his legs and leaned back. "But?" he asked conversationally.
"But I have no wish to give you permission. I have no wish to give any man permission to ask Miss Wilmington for her hand. You see I am in the very worst of positions possible. I am afraid that I am in love with her myself."
"Then why have you not yet asked her, before someone like me could come between the two of you?"
"I suppose you will laugh if I say I have no desire to abuse my position of guardian, especially after what I almost attempted to do just now. I do not see any way free to ask her until she is five and twenty and I am liberated from my responsibility." Randall brushed his hair back from his forehead with both hands. "I know I cannot help but lose her to another before the season is out."
"I see nothing to laugh at," said Sir Harold softly, "but I will ask for her hand regardless."
"I will not attempt to stop you," said Randall, "but do not expect me to wish you any luck in your endeavour."
When the door closed behind Sir Harold, Randall punched his fist hard down upon the mahogany surface of his desk. The pain in his hand was nothing to the hurt that coursed through his chest.
Annarilla was sitting in the back parlour applying herself to some needlework when the door opened and Sir Harold walked in.
"Oh my," she said, standing upon his entrance. "Lady Augusta is not yet down."
"I am pleased to see that," he replied. "It is an advantage that I had little hoped to expect, given the nature of the interview I have just had with your guardian. As he had not thought to provide me with your location, and the drawing room was quite empty, I have had to poke my head into all manner of rooms."
"You . . . you spoke with Lord Napier?" Annarilla turned quite white. "And did he give his permission to . . ."
"He could not very well withhold it," said Sir Harold with a grin.
"No, of course not. He has been looking forward to this day," said Annarilla bitterly.
"He has?" asked Sir Harold, and then recollected himself. This was not the direction he had intended to take with the conversation. And as he did not completely trust Lord Napier not to send his aunt down immediately to play watchdog to her charge, it would not do to waste another precious moment alone with Miss Wilmington. "You can have no doubt what I am about to ask of you, but please allow me to express the depth of my regard," he said as he strode forward to shorten the distance between them.
Annarilla coloured as he took her hand, looked up into his eyes and then looked away again.
"Miss Wilmington -- dearest Annarilla -- I . . ."
"No! Please do not continue," she said, grasping his hand tightly.
"But why? You must have been expecting my declaration. I was sure that you felt the same way as I do."
"Forgive me." Her eyes were filling with tears that she attempted to blink away. "I know that I led you on and it was very wrong of me, but . . . this is what I thought I wanted too."
"I do not understand," he said, drawing her over to the settee and gently convincing her to sit by his side. "Is it something that I have done?"
"No. You have always been most kind -- perfect in every way -- and I feel so terrible for having to disappoint you. Please allow me to explain. I have never been happy living under the constraints imposed upon me by my guardian, and he has had little pleasure in the arrangement as well. Until he decided at long last to bring me out he was dreadfully negligent, in fact, but once he met me and brought me to London he became a regular tyrant. I vowed that I would marry as soon as possible to free myself of him and he was just as eager to have me finally off his hands. So, when I met you, you seemed to me to be the answer to all my dreams -- a wonderful knight in shining armour to rescue me from my dragon."
"And then you discovered that the dragon was not quite as perfidious as you had imagined?" he asked, taking his handkerchief from his breast pocket and pressing it into her hands as her lacy one appeared inadequate for the job.
"In truth he was not, nor was I the most cooperative of damsels," she admitted, "but that is not what I was about to say. I was rushing headlong towards marriage for all the wrong reasons. I wanted to marry for escape, not for love. I like you very much indeed -- I was well on the way to believing that I was in love with you -- but then something happened that caused me to doubt. I was inordinately disappointed when another gentleman did not ask me to dance -- and I should not have been affected at all if I were deeply in love -- should I?" Here she faltered in her speech and looked at him appealingly. Sir Harold tried his best to appear reassuring, but his feelings of loss were such that he almost wished he had not given her his handkerchief, for the very fact that he might need it soon himself.
"Could you not give me the chance to make you love me completely?" he asked in a voice tinged with desperation.
"It would not be fair to agree to marry you if I am unsure of my feelings; if I think I may . . . love someone else, even though he has no interest in me."
"No man could be placed within your orbit and remain unaffected," he whispered.
"You have seen me only at my best," she said. "I have kept my faults well hidden."
He looked at her intently, the anguish in his face slowly replaced by bitter jealousy. "Then it is the dragon."
Annarilla hung her head. "I am so very sorry."
"No more sorry than I," he said, and he took his leave.
As Sir Harold walked down the steps of the house and onto the street, he felt a small twinge of guilt for not telling her what Lord Napier had revealed to him, but it did not last long. "Let the dragon fight his own battles," he muttered to himself, startling the footman. And then he walked without any thought to direction till he found himself near the docks at dusk, hungry, parched and bone weary.
Geoffrey arrived at Napier House only about a half hour after Sir Harold had left it. He was ushered into the salon where Annarilla was sitting with Lady Augusta. It was obvious that Annarilla was suffering under some kind of emotional strain.
"Oh! Thank goodness it is you," cried Lady Augusta. "She declines to tell me what has upset her, besides the fact that she has refused Sir Harold. I see no point in crying over someone that one has seen fit to reject, though I will say that she wasted a goodly portion of her season playing up to him if she had no real desire to marry him."
"Oh please, Lady Augusta, I feel so dreadful about that," said Annarilla, and burst into a fresh bout of tears.
"If you are going to continue in this manner I shall have to send a card to the Ilverstokes with our regrets that we cannot attend their soirée. Your eyes will be too puffy for you to be seen abroad."
"Please do -- I have no desire to go anywhere tonight,"
"Then I shall leave you two alone. If my nephew should happen along, can you please send him up to my boudoir?"
When Lady Augusta was gone, Annarilla threw herself into Geoffrey's arms and gave way to her tears in earnest.
"My dearest girl," he said. "Was it so very awful? I was certain you wanted to marry Sir Harold."
"So was I until he walked into the parlour and I knew he was about to ask me."
"Here, will you not take my handkerchief? I would prefer it if you did not wipe your nose upon my shoulder. This is a new coat and my tailor would be most displeased to see his best work ruined."
Anarilla took the proffered square of linen and blew her nose loudly. "It is all Lord Napier's fault!" she cried.
"He did not allow you to accept the proposal?" asked Geoffrey in some confusion.
"No -- but he allowed Sir Harold to make it." She burst out crying again.
"You are not making any sense."
"I know -- that is what has me so distraught. Why did I reject a perfectly good offer of marriage when I cannot expect one from the man I love?"
Geoffrey held her at arm's length and stared into her swollen eyes. "You haven't gone and fallen in love with him?"
He let her go and sat down with a thud. "I knew this would happen the moment I laid eyes upon the man."
"You knew no such thing! I only really discovered it this morning."
"But I am a man who loves you -- I can sense a rival a mile off. He stands up to you in a way I do not and I know that you have never wanted a lap dog -- besides he's a devilishly handsome brute."
"You are quite handsome yourself, Geoffrey," Annarilla said, sitting on the floor by his chair her arm flung over his knees. "And I do love you in my own way."
"Yes -- as a brother."
"And if you would give up all your romantic notions you would realise you love me no more than as a sister."
"You are accusing me of romantic notions? You are the one who wanted to elope."
"And you were thankful when Lord Napier disallowed it."
He grinned and took her hand. "I was -- I do not believe I am ready for marriage yet." He raised her fingers to his lips. "I wish you luck," he whispered, just before he kissed them.
The door opened and Lord Napier strode in. His face looked drawn and pale. "Another one of your little intrigues, Miss Wilmington?" he asked in a hard voice.
She leapt to her feet. "I . . . no . . . I."
"At a loss for words? That is hardly like you. Have you informed your little friend about your engagement yet?"
"Yes -- I only came to wish you joy with Sir Harold."
Annarilla smoothed her dress, squared her shoulders and looked him directly in the eye. "I am not engaged to be married to anyone, Lord Napier."
"But . . ."
"I rejected him," she said as she swept from the room.
Randall looked from the closed door to Geoffrey with a question in his eyes.
"Yes, it is true," said Geoffrey, rising from his chair. "And she is quite upset."
"Why?" Randall asked, his senses a tumult of confusion.
"If you cannot guess then I am not at liberty to say."
"You have not refused her, have you?"
"Lord Randall, you are trying my patience, and I have nothing further to say to you," said Geoffrey. "Your aunt desires you to attend her in her boudoir. I would suggest that you go there."
Randall realised that he had just been dismissed from his own parlour by a boy still wet about the ears. "You have more gumption than I thought," he said as he opened the door and left.
Geoffrey sat back down and rested his head upon his arms. He had just come to the realisation that he had most certainly lost Annarilla forever, if Lord Napier's strange behaviour was any reflection of the way he was feeling.
By the time he had arrived at his aunt's chambers, Randall was much more at his ease. It had been a shock to discover that Miss Wilmington had rejected Sir Harold's offer when he had been sure that he would no longer be able to even think of her. His morning had been lived in Hell but now he was returned to that state of Limbo, which, while not being ideal was certainly preferable to the earlier alternative. He was contemplating the possibility of placing her in a nunnery for the next six years so that events such as had happened this day would cease to play havoc with his peace of mind.
"What did you wish to see me about, Aunt Augusta?" he asked as he kissed her cheek.
"It seems you are not yet rid of the chit," she said.
"I was most certain that she would accept him," he said. "I have never been more relieved."
Lady Augusta raised an eyebrow. "I thought Sir Harold most eligible."
"It does not do to try and play cat and mouse with me, Aunt."
"So, what is stopping you from offering for the girl before some other worthy gentleman impresses her more than Sir Harold seems to have done?"
"Besides the fact that I am not even sure that she likes me, let alone would be willing to promise herself to me? How can you ask? I'll not abuse my position." Randall wandered over to the window and stood looking through the parted chintz drapes to the street below.
"How would marrying your ward be an abuse of your position?"
"Because I hold her completely within my power."
"Stuff and nonsense! I have never before heard such rabid fustian!"
"Nevertheless it is true. I have control of her fortune and most will see it as a bid to keep that fortune for myself."
"As if you had need of it!"
"Many a wealthier man has not hesitated in stooping to deceit to become richer still."
"Why should you care about appearances?" his aunt admonished him.
"It is not only appearances, Aunt Augusta. I will not have her coerced into marriage with me."
"You are acting like a fool, Randall. That girl could not be coerced into anything she did not want to do."
"No, but there is no telling what she might do in a flight of fancy," he said bitterly.
The next day Geoffrey sought Annarilla out again. He was pleased to see that her eyes, though they had dark circles under them, were no longer puffy.
"You look on the mend," he said as he took a seat beside her.
"My face is an absolute horror, and you know it," she said.
"Never. Just a trifle peaked, but still as lovely as ever."
"Flatterer! I thank you for at least trying to raise my spirits."
"I think I can do more than that. Your case is far from hopeless."
"Do you intend to propose yet again, my Romeo?" she asked.
"I doubt that I will have the honour to propose to you ever again. In the not too distant future I will no longer be able to call you Annarilla as I have grown so used to and will have, instead, to refer to you as Lady Napier."
"Such teasing will hardly bring me comfort," said Annarilla, her eyes sparkling with quick anger.
"Did you not see Lord Napier yesterday? When he came into the room he was absolutely haggard."
"Some business problems, no doubt. He cares for nothing but those two estates. He resents me for keeping him here in London and away from his beloved fields."
"I'll wager he'd rather look upon your face than a crop of summer wheat."
"Are you saying all this out of spite because I have finally fallen in love, and the gentleman is someone other than you?"
Geoffrey fought against his desire to give Annarilla a good, hard shake. "No, I am saying it because I observed Lord Napier closely yesterday, and he was struggling to keep in check some very powerful emotion."
"Indeed -- he was angry that I had rejected Sir Harold."
"He was relieved, and beside himself because it was the last thing he had expected."
"If that were the case, then why would he ever have given Sir Harold permission to address me? He did not allow you."
"I am too young -- he was perfectly right. But he had no reason at all to refuse Sir Harold -- especially if he thought it was what you wanted."
"If he thought it was what I wanted, and he cared about me himself, he ought to have been even more inclined to disallow the match."
"And win you by default? Is that the act of an honourable man?"
Annarilla stared at Geoffrey for some time, her mouth half open.
"Are you hoping to catch some flies?"
"I had never viewed it in that light. I just -- well, he said he wanted to marry me off, he refuses to dance with me anymore, and he avoids me every chance he has. That does not seem to me to be the way a gentleman in love would act."
"Unless he had reason to believe that is all you want of him."
"I have not given him reason to believe . . ." cried Annarilla angrily, then she stopped in mid sentence and held both hands up to her face. "Oh dear, maybe I have," she said in a choking voice. "I was angry and he said we should come to a compromise. He said he would promise never to ask me to dance if that is what I wished, and I agreed to it and said he was most obliging. And then I barely spoke to him again for the rest of our drive, I was still so vexed with him, but after that -- after that . . . we were caught in the rain and it was so funny when he was wet, and he helped me with my bonnet, and he was so . . . sweet, that I completely forgot everything that had passed before."
"You fell in love with him on account of a rain shower," said Geoffrey ruefully. "If only I'd known the trick."
She reached out and grasped his hands in hers, and pleaded, "Oh Geoffrey! How am I ever going to get out of this coil? Please, please say that you will help me."
"No, Annarilla. The time for schemes is over. This is something you will have to fix by yourself." He placed her hands on her lap, gave them an affectionate pat, and bid her good day.
In the ensuing days whenever Annarilla was in Lord Napier's company she was overcome with shyness. She was afraid that if she were to attempt to follow Geoffrey's advice she would appear very forward, especially as his lordship was treating her with such guarded politeness. Lady Augusta wondered if the way they were tiptoeing around each other was worse than their earlier constant bickering. As far as both were concerned, she was ready to throw in the towel. For all she cared Randall could remain a bachelor all his life, and Miss Wilmington could become forever lodged firmly on the shelf.
At a ball at Lady Eversley's Annarilla finally got up the courage to face Lord Napier, bolstered by three dances with very obliging young sprigs of fashion who had bored her stiff.
"Would you care to dance?" she asked, her voice almost failing her.
"I beg your pardon?" said Randall whose mind had been elsewhere when his ward had approached him and had no idea he was about to be addressed until the words were spoken. He hadn't a clue what she had just said, only that he had been thinking of her and she was now by his side looking up at him with the most vulnerable expression he had ever seen upon her face.
"Excuse me -- it was a silly thing for me to suggest."
"I am sure it was not, though I do not precisely know what your suggestion was."
"I am certain you have every right to mock me. You once told me that you would never ask me to dance again -- I thought it was because you assumed I wished it -- now I see I was in error." Annarilla turned away as her face flamed scarlet.
"Wait!" cried Randal, catching her by the hand. "Did you just ask me to dance?"
"Yes, for you were never going to ask me," she said, blinking back the silly tears that had come too quickly to her eyes.
"I would be delighted," he said, leading her out upon the floor before she could run away. "Were you aware this was to be a waltz before you asked me?"
"Well, I hope we do not set the town upon its ears. You know the steps, do you not?"
"Yes, though I have never danced it," she said shyly.
"Nothing could be easier," he said, and he held out his arms to her. "Come."
They danced for a few minutes without speaking as Annarilla concentrated on following his lead. To have her in his arms when he had been denying himself her for so long, and contemplating the same denial for six years to come, was a heady experience; Randall felt all his reservations crumble and float away upon the music.
"Why did you refuse Sir Harold?" he asked, despite his intention not to.
"Because I do not love him," she answered in a light, breathless voice.
"Thank you for being honest," he said. "I was afraid you were going to attempt to have me believe your heart belonged to Geoffrey."
"That would be foolish -- you know it does not."
"Poor Geoffrey," said Randall as he twirled her about the room, "you have led him a merry dance, but I think he is finally growing up. He showed some real mettle the other day."
"He did nothing for me that he did not want to do," she replied, her eyes sparking.
"Oh indeed," said Randall agreeably. "He was quaking in his boots when he was asking my permission. I am certain that if I had said yes he would have begged me to reconsider."
"You really are insufferable."
He smiled his rare, teasing smile. "Am I? That is a pity for I find you incredibly sufferable."
Annarilla sputtered -- her ire turning into laugher. "I do not think one uses the word in that way."
Randall gave an exaggerated sigh. "Does one not? I thought it very apt. But what think you of the sentiment expressed?"
Annarilla's cheeks suffused with colour.
"Your face is very red, Miss Wilmington. I cannot help but think that the room is too hot -- let me take you outside." He danced her through brocade curtains behind which open French windows led out onto a terrace. "Do you feel better now?" he asked, as myriad lanterns lit their way along the balcony.
"Ought we still to be dancing like this?"
"Can you hear music?"
"Then we may dance," Randall said reasonably. "Consider this as an exterior extension of the ballroom."
"But there are no other couples out here."
"So much the better," he whispered, drawing her closer and resting his cheek upon her hair.
They circled the length of the terrace slowly as the music became more indistinct. Randall stopped by a stone pillar and leaned against it. He took Annarilla's face by the chin and tilted it up until moonlight shone from her eyes.
He raised one hand to the sky and said, "With these stars standing witness, I hereby renounce my guardianship of you."
"You no longer wish to be my guardian?" she asked.
"I do not. It is a yoke we have both chafed under."
"Indeed, but perhaps I was a trifle foolish in my complaints."
He ran his finger softly down the gentle curve of her cheek. He hesitated and then spoke with trembling sincerity. "I was thoughtless and inconsiderate. In seven years I ought to have visited you more than once, and when I did it should have been with a little more grace."
She answered with equal candour. "I received you with nothing but ill will."
Randall chuckled. "Justly earned, I am afraid."
"But, in truth it has not been a terrible thing to be your ward."
"I am relieved to hear that," he responded, with a smile that filled his eyes.
Annarilla spoke earnestly. "But for the connection we may never have met."
"I still renounce it," he said softly.
"But why?" she asked, from the circle of his arms.
"Because, as your guardian I cannot hold you like this, or tell you how dearly I love you, or ask for your hand, or kiss you as I am longing to do." It was difficult to restrain himself from doing just that, but he needed to wait for her answer before he could claim his reward.
Annarilla's heart was pounding, but she managed to tilt her head to one side and say in a cheeky manner, "But, without a the existence of a guardian, who will you ask for permission to pay your addresses to me?"
"I will ask you, for I was never the right person to ask such a question of." He gave her a look so beseeching that she almost giggled.
"I used to be a foolish and giddy girl who did not know my own mind and chose to do things solely to oppose you, but now that I have no guardian to guide and protect me, I find myself agreeing with everything you say."
"And so I may address you?" His expression was as eager as that of a young boy.
"Yes," she said happily.
"And you will accept me?" He could not withhold a responding grin.
"Yes." Her smile deepened.
"Because you love me?" Randall's face had suddenly become serious.
"Yes," Annarilla replied with an intensity that almost staggered him.
"And now may I . . ."
"No more questions," she said quickly, and pulled his head down to bring his lips to hers.
A few paces away, Sir Harold strolled out upon the balcony to get some air and had a full view of their final exchange. So much for the dragon fighting battles he thought, rather despondently. It seemed the maiden had successfully subdued the dragon on her own.
© 2005 Copyright held by the author.