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"I mean no offense to you at all, Madeline, but this must be the most excruciating event I've ever attended."
Smoothing the beauty patch on her cheek back into place, Madeline looked at him sidelong, and her painted lips stretched into a thin smile. "Well, I did warn you that this was not Boston, nor Philadelphia."
"My dear, this is not merely provincial. It is positively barbaric." Michael was fairly certain Madeline would not take umbrage with his statement, and, indeed, she offered only a slight shrug of her bony shoulders. Another displaced member of society, thanks to her husband's agricultural bent, the lady could easily understand his ire at his unwilling banishment to this backwoods hellhole.
"You have no one to blame but yourself."
Oh, and was that not the truth? Not that Michael would ever admit it aloud, at least not to her. Still, she had a point. If only he had learned the hard-won lesson of discretion before he was sent away in disgrace to this tiny corner of Virginia. Sadly, though it perhaps was indeed the better part of valor, discretion had never been his strong suit. Deciding to start immediately upon a campaign to better his familiarity with the word, Michael chose not to answer the accusation and sipped at his brandy instead.
What a lot of boorish, semi-illiterate louts, he thought as he surveyed the room. Yes, he knew that was unfair. Yes, he was certainly spoiled by the glittering soirees of New York and Boston. But really, he could go to a tavern in Newport and find better conversationalists than these people. Listening with only half and ear to his companion, Michael amused himself by cataloguing thepoor fit of this one's coat or the obvious outline of that one's truss.
"Oh. Oh, my. Who is that?" The grip Madeline had on this arm became suddenly painfully tight, which made Michael return his attention to her.
Following the direction of Madeline's pointing fan, Michael looked. Oh, my, indeed. Clothed in a rather old-fashioned coat of somber blue, with equally somber breeches and hose, the gentleman in question removed his hat and handed it to the servant just inside the door. Tall, well-built, with hair the color of walnut heartwood pulled back into a severe club at the base of his neck, he was truly a magnificent specimen. He was brown as a nut from the sun, with tiny lines that crinkled at the corners of his eyes when he smiled at his hostess, and even from the distance of half the room, Michael saw that those eyes were a rich, mossy green. Michael shifted uncomfortably as his body tightened. So much for his resolution to practice discretion.
"Well, well, Madeline," he said. "You did promise me amusement. It very well may be that you did not lie to me after all."
Lord above, but he despised these confounded affairs. A bunch of corpulent ne'er-do-wells and their women, standing around drinking and gossiping about their neighbors. Men with paint on their faces, of all things. Daniel knew very well that most of these folk thought he was some sort of Puritan. Far from it. He simply preferred his pleasures honest. A strong drink, a hot fire, maybe a good pipe. Maybe a soft woman.
That was the trouble with this high-end sort, he thought, as he removed his heavy outer coat and hat, handing them to a silently waiting bondsman. Their women weren't soft. They had a hardness about them, a brittle demeanor that never failed to unnerve him. No matter that he had not met most of the guests here tonight. They were all the same.
Except for his hostess. Daniel turned to her and smiled, bowing a bit, showing that he knew how to present a decent leg. Jane was his cousin, and a brighter, kinder soul he could never hope to meet. Married up, she had, and sorry he was to see it, for all that he liked Gerard. The man was decent enough, but he moved in what passed for high society circles in their tiny parish, and Jane simply wasn't mean enough for these people. A fox among the hounds, as it were.
The grateful look little Jane turned on him upon his arrival told him that she was well into the desperate stage, and he immediately offered his arm to her, taking her for a turn about the room. Fair to be certain that no one would bother her when she was with him. Daniel was big enough and work hardened enough to be intimidating to these soft, bored people, and he exploited that advantage at every opportunity.
"You look a bit frazzled, cousin."
"I am, I fear," Jane replied in her quiet voice. "The party seems to be going well, but I tire quickly these days, and everyone is so very clever. It is difficult for me to keep up."
"Gerard should know better than to ask you to host these damnable things in your confinement."
"Don't be unkind, Daniel. He has a position to maintain. And don't glower so at me. I am the one person in this room that you cannot intimidate."
Conceding with a sigh, Daniel led Jane to the refreshment table for a glass of punch. They had been quite studiously ignoring the other guests in an attempt to give Jane much needed breathing room, and so were quite blindsided by the approach of a garishly dressed female with a heavily made-up face.
"Jane! Darling. You must introduce me to your friend."
Good lord. She had a voice like a chicken whose chicks were being eaten by a blacksnake. Daniel surmised that the lady, to use the term loosely, must be Madeline Barstow, newly arrived in the county. He had met her husband the previous day at the livestock auction, and he saw that they were very well-matched indeed. Jane simply smiled politely and performed the introductions.
"Mrs. Henry Barstow, may I present my dear cousin, Daniel Calhoun. Daniel, Madeline Barstow, lately of Richmond."
"Madame," Daniel greeted, with the barest of nods.
"How delightful to meet some of Jane's family." The woman leaned forward, batting her sooty eyelashes and giving him a horrifying view of her shrunken cleavage. "Will you be here for the dancing later on this evening? I should very much like to see what sort of figure you present."
Blinking at the audacity of her double entendre, Daniel shook his head. "I'm not certain I shall. I have a mare in foal that I may be called away to deliver."
"How ... capable."
Daniel tried very hard not to laugh aloud at her expression, and though Jane's face did not change, he could feel the stifled laughter in her chest where it pressed against his arm.
"Madeline does not care to get her hands dirty, I'm afraid." The new voice was deep, clipped, and offensive in tone. The man it belonged to was obviously just as offensive to judge from his expression, which was perhaps best summed up as ironic. Obviously a dandy, in his rich burgundy brocade, shot through with gold threads. His hair was simply done, though, and Daniel thought it was vanity rather than defiance that made him go unpowdered or without a wig. Unlike many of his peers, this man had a full head of hair, the color of burnished cherrywood. His eyes were brown, shot through with as bright a gold as his coat. And for all of his fancy looks and pale skin, he still managed to be completely masculine.
"Michael St. James, at your service. And may I echo Madeline and say what a pleasure it is to meet any of the fair Jane's relations?"
Prepared to bristle over any perceived insult of his cousin, Daniel frowned dampeningly at the man. But the smile St. James turned upon Jane was genuine, and for him, kind. The look he turned back upon Daniel, however held a glint that he could not decipher.
"At any rate," St. James said, "I do hope your mare holds off long enough for us all to learn a bit more about you, my good sir."
"Really. I cannot imagine why."
Posted May 4, 2013
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