London was cold, damp, and dirty.
And Lady Vivian Carlyle was delighted to be there.
As the liveried footman lifted his hand to help the lady down from her carriage, Vivian paused for an instant in the open doorway, her vivid green eyes alight with anticipation. It was still January, too early for the event to be truly fashionable, and Lady Wilbourne was not known for exciting parties. But none of that was important. All that mattered was that Vivian was back in London and going to a ball, with the whole long Season stretching out before her.
She stepped down from the carriage and swept up the front steps into the house. She had barely handed her cloak to a footman when Lady Wilbourne, a small, energetic woman who reminded Vivian of a sparrow, spotted Vivian and bustled forward, both hands held out in greeting, her eyes shining.
“Lady Vivian! I am so pleased you could attend.”
“I arrived in town only yesterday,” Vivian told her. “Please forgive me for not responding earlier.”
“Don’t think a thing of it.” Lady Wilbourne waved off the apology with an airy disregard. They both knew that Vivian’s presence at her ball would raise Lady Wilbourne’s position as a hostess for the rest of the Season. “I am so glad that you made it back in time. I am sure it must be hard to leave Marchester. Such a magnificent house.”
Vivian smiled. Marchester, known familiarly to her family as the Hall, was considered one of the grand old homes of the country, but truthfully it was a drafty old pile of stones, and during the winter the family largely kept to the newest wing of the house, avoiding the vast great hall and public rooms of the original medieval castle. She loved it; the sight of it never failed to bring up a rush of pride in her. But for comfort she would take the London house any day.
“I trust you left your father well?” Lady Wilbourne went on. “Such a lovely man. And Lord Seyre? Dare we hope that your brother will make an appearance in town this Season?”
Vivian suppressed another smile at the mention of her older brother. Gregory, the fifth Marquess of Seyre, was perhaps the most sought-after matrimonial prize in England. It was not every day that a future duke happened along, and it was considered a stroke of luck that he was also a pleasant-natured young man of better-than-average looks. Unfortunately for all the matchmaking mothers and daughters of the ton, however, Gregory was a shy and studious sort who rarely visited London and who avoided flirtatious young women like the plague.
“The duke is quite well, thank you,” Vivian assured her. “As is Seyre, but I doubt that Seyre will travel to London. He was ensconced in the library the last time I saw him.”
Lady Wilbourne frowned in the same puzzled way that most did when mention was made of Gregory’s predilection for books and studies, but she said only, “Such an intelligent young man.”
She steered Vivian around the room, making sure that her guests saw her in close conversation with the Duke of Marchester’s daughter, and all the while she chattered about the upcoming Season. Was the new fashion for lower waists here to stay, did she think? Would Lady Winterhaven be able to surpass the fabulous ball she had given last year? And had she heard that Mrs. Palmer’s youngest daughter had chopped off her long blond hair, leaving her with a cap of curls scarcely long enough to wind a ribbon through?
“It’s said she looks charming, a veritable cherubim, as it were—or is it seraphim, I always get such things confused—but, really, such a willful child. Everyone hoped that she would have the same success the eldest girl had—she married a count, after all, and I suppose it couldn’t be helped that he was Italian. But I fear this one looks to be a handful. I’ve heard that Mrs. Palmer is considering holding her back another Season so that she will at least not look like a boy in a dress.”
“Mm. Oh, look, there is Lady Ludley.” With some relief, Vivian spotted her friend talking to an older woman near the edge of the dance floor. “I must speak to her. And no doubt you must see to your guests.” She threw one of her charming smiles at her hostess, murmuring a compliment about the party, and smoothly eased out of the woman’s grasp.
Vivian would have been glad to escape Lady Wilbourne’s flow of chatter in any case, but it was with real pleasure that she approached Lady Charlotte Ludley. Charlotte had been her friend since they were still in short skirts and had come out the year after Vivian had made her debut. But while Vivian had remained determinedly single all the years since, Charlotte had married Lord Ludley in her second Season and was now the proud mother of a lively brood of boys.
“Charlotte, how wonderful to see you. You are not usually here this early.”
“Vivian!” Charlotte gave a delighted smile and held out her hands to her friend. “Indeed, no, Ludley had to come to London, and I could not stay home, even though we will be here for two weeks only. Come, have you met Lady Farring?”
They exchanged the usual pleasantries for a few moments, then excused themselves from the other woman and strolled farther away from the dance floor.
“I am so happy to see you!” Charlotte squeezed Vivian’s hands.
“And I, you. Please, do not tell me you really mean to leave in two weeks?”
“I fear Ludley’s business will take no longer.”
“So the rest of your family is not here? Camellia and Lily? I am so looking forward to their first Season.”
“They will come later, I am sure. Hardly anyone is here yet. Indeed, I quite feared that you would still be at Marchester.”
“I could not bear to stay away any longer,” Vivian confessed. “’Tis almost five months since I was last in London. I think it’s the first Little Season I’ve missed since I came out.” Not everyone cared so much for the social whirl that sprang up in London each fall, but Vivian enjoyed the Little Season almost as much as the elegant full Season.
“I could scarcely believe you stayed at Halstead House with your uncle for so long—especially since there was an outbreak of measles.”
“It was ghastly. I had to tend to Sabrina, and you can imagine how much I enjoyed that.” Vivian rolled her eyes drolly. Sabrina was the young woman her uncle had married after his first wife died. She was only a few years older than Vivian herself, and their relationship was rocky at best. “But I could not leave them in the lurch that way. And I did at least have the satisfaction of seeing Sabrina come all over in spots.”
“That would have been worth any price. And there was more excitement at Willowmere, I understand. I don’t know why I am never there when these things happen.”
Willowmere was the country estate of Charlotte’s family. It was only a few miles from Vivian’s uncle’s house, and it was on Vivian’s frequent summer visits to her aunt and uncle that she and Charlotte had become friends. The sprawling old house was now the residence of Charlotte’s cousin, the ninth Earl of Stewkesbury—and of his set of American cousins. The four girls, all named after flowers—and nothing like the delicate creatures their names implied—had arrived at the end of the last Season. With their blunt speech and easy manner, it had been clear that they were not ready to face London society yet, and the earl had whisked them up to Willowmere to prepare them for their debuts.
Like Charlotte, Vivian had found the young women refreshing and charming. Though it was clear that the Bascombe sisters would need some polishing to get along in the ton, Vivian had readily agreed to sponsor them this Season, and she had grown even closer to the girls during the time she had spent at her uncle’s house.
She laughed now, recalling the events of the preceding autumn. “Things do tend to happen wherever the Bascombe girls go. If it isn’t kidnappers popping up, it’s French balloonists falling from the sky. Indeed, I found Marchester sadly lacking in excitement after being around your cousins for a few months.”
“Tell me, which did you miss more—Camellia’s and Lily’s escapades or your exchanges with Stewkesbury?” Charlotte’s eyes twinkled.
“Stewkesbury!” Vivian grimaced. “As if I would miss his sniping.”
The last thing she intended to admit to her friend was that more than once while she was at her father’s house, she had found herself thinking of some particularly clever remark she could make to the earl, only to remember a moment later, with a distinct sense of disappointment, that Stewkesbury was not there.
“And here I thought it was usually you sniping at him.”
Vivian let out an inelegant snort. “I would not have to snipe at him if the man didn’t insist on being so stiff-necked and self-righteous.”
Charlotte shook her head, making a sound that was half laugh, half sigh. “And Oliver is never so stiff-necked as when you are about.”
“Then you see what I mean.” Vivian shrugged. “The two of us simply cannot get along.”
“Yes, but what is odd, I think, is how much the two of you seem to enjoy not getting along.”
Vivian glanced at her friend, startled, and found Charlotte watching her with a knowing expression. “I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about.”
“Mm. Yet if I remember correctly, you admitted only a few months ago that you once had a tendre for Oliver.”
Color bloomed along Vivian’s cheekbones. “When I was fourteen! Good heavens, I hope you don’t think I am still carrying some sort of . . . of schoolgirl infatuation with the man.”
“No. I am sure not. If you were interested in a man, I feel certain you would act upon it.”
Vivian tilted her head to the side thoughtfully. “I suppose I would . . . if there were such a man.”
“And if you were aware how you felt.”
“I beg your pardon?” Vivian’s eyes widened with surprise. “Are you saying . . . do you think . . .”
Charlotte simply waited, her eyebrows faintly raised in interest as she watched her usually articulate friend fumble for words.
“I am not interested in Oliver,” Vivian said at last. “And, believe me, I know my own feelings.”
“I will admit,” Vivian went on candidly, “that Stewkesbury is a handsome man. That much is obvious.”
“Of course,” her friend agreed soberly.
“There is nothing to mislike in his face or form.”
“He is intelligent, if often provokingly narrow in his thinking. He rides well. He dances well.”
“It goes without saying.” Charlotte’s eyes danced, though she kept her lips pressed firmly together.
“I am sure that he is as eagerly pursued by marriage-minded young ladies as is my brother.”
“But I am not marriage-minded. And I am not foolish enough to think that there is any possibility of romance between Stewkesbury and me.”
“Still, I cannot help but notice that you seem . . . happy . . . when you and Cousin Oliver are engaged in one of your clashes.”
Vivian’s lips curved up faintly. “Sometimes it is rather fun.”
“Even though you dislike him.”
“I don’t dislike him,” Vivian protested quickly.
“No?” Charlotte cut her eyes toward Vivian slyly.
“Of course not. Why, there is no one I would trust more if I needed help.” She paused, then added judiciously, “Though he would, of course, make a perfect nuisance of himself afterwards telling me how foolish I had been.”
Her friend chuckled. “Indeed he would.”
“But the two of us? We are as unlikely as oil and water.”
“I am sorry to hear it. For I believe that the two of you will be thrown together a great deal this Season, what with your sponsoring Lily and Camellia.”
“I shouldn’t think it will be a problem.” Vivian dismissed the idea with an airy wave of her hand. “I am sure Stewkesbury will be up at Willowmere most of the time, as he usually is.”
“I would not count on that,” Charlotte said drily, glancing over Vivian’s shoulder.
An instant later a deep male voice said, “Lady Vivian. Cousin Charlotte.”
Vivian’s face went suddenly hot, and her hands cold. “Stewkesbury!”
Stewkesbury strode purposefully across the floor, a tall, lean man in black breeches and jacket, his shirt blazingly white and decorated with a conservative fall of ruffles down the front. His white linen neckcloth was tied in a simple arrangement and centered by a pin of onyx. Neither on the cutting edge of fashion nor lagging behind it, his attire was of the finest quality and cut, but with no hint of flash or ostentation. His thick, dark brown hair was cropped close, more for the sake of convenience than for any attempt at fashion. He could not claim the male perfection of face that was his brother Fitz’s, but he was, as Vivian had said, a handsome man, with firm, even features and level gray eyes.
He had seen his cousin and Lady Vivian the moment he stepped into the ballroom. Indeed, he thought, it would have been hard to miss Lady Vivian. She was dressed in rich black satin overlaid with a filmy material of the same color, a stark contrast to the pale white skin of her shoulders and elegantly narrow neck above it. Her flame-red hair burned like a beacon.
It was one of the many annoying things about the woman, he thought. She never blended in, never entered a room quietly. She was always immediately, flamboyantly there. He started across the room toward her, wondering as he did so how she managed to make a simple black ball gown look so thoroughly elegant, yet also seductive. Vivian Carlyle was never anything but stylish and tasteful, clearly a lady, but there was always something about her that made one think of secret, illicit passion. Oliver was not sure if it was the way her lips curved up in a slow smile, her green eyes lighting as if only the person she looked at shared in her humor, or perhaps it was the way the delicate hairs curled upon the milk-white skin of her slender neck, or maybe the way she carried herself, without stiffness or shyness, her curvaceous body pliant and soft.
Whatever it was, Oliver was certain that only a dead man could look at Vivian and not imagine, at least for an instant, having her in his arms, that soft skin beneath his hands. Certainly he had found himself thinking it on more than one occasion, and Oliver was certain that he was more immune to the lady’s charms than most. After all, he had known her when she was a gawky girl, all sharp angles and giggles and mischief, that wealth of fiery hair tamed into bright orange braids down her back. She had been the bane of his summers down from Oxford, always up to some trick or other with his cousin. She still had the ability to annoy him as almost no one else could. God knows why he had agreed to let her sponsor his American cousins this Season. No matter how high a place she held in London society, it could not be worth the aggravation of dealing with her daily.
Oliver had been expecting to see her at any time for the past week. The social life that London offered was like food and drink to Vivian. Where others might grow weary during the exhausting round of activities that constituted the Season, Vivian thrived on it. He knew that she rarely stayed away from the city longer than a month or two. It had been most unusual for her to spend as much time as she had this fall at her uncle’s—or, he should say, at her uncle’s and at Willowmere, for it had seemed that every time he turned around, she was there in his house, the scent of her perfume in the air, her laughter echoing from some hallway, or sitting at his table, her eyes alight with laughter as she verbally sparred with him. The house had been so much quieter since she left for Marchester, so much calmer and somehow emptier.
It went against his grain, he told himself, to give up that calm, that quiet, and voluntarily place himself in Lady Vivian’s path. But he was not one to shirk his responsibilities, and right now he was responsible for his newfound American cousins and their first Season. He had to watch over them, and that meant, perforce, watching over Lady Vivian—especially now that Eve, who would have been their chaperone, had married his brother Fitz and would no longer be in constant attendance on the girls.
Lily would manage just fine. She was already engaged and safely out of the politely cutthroat competition of husband-hunting that marked the Season, and she seemed much more attuned to the social activities—the parties, the shopping, the theatergoing and obligatory calls, the pervasive gossip—than did Camellia. It was the straightforward, blunt-speaking, so very American Camellia who was likely to go awry, to argue or to break a rule—not with any ill will or purposeful disobedience, but simply because the tenets of the beau monde were as incomprehensible to her as Sanskrit. The good thing about Lady Vivian was that, even though she was the daughter of a duke, she was rather like Camellia and therefore able to understand and predict Camellia’s actions. The unfortunate thing was that, being like his cousin, she was as likely to join Camellia in some mad undertaking as to dissuade her from it.
His lips tightened at the thought. The only thing for it, he knew, was to keep a close eye himself upon both Cousin Camellia and Lady Vivian. It would mean a great deal more parties and social interaction than he liked, as well as spending far too much time around a woman who tried his patience. But he saw no way around it. He could not abandon his cousin; for all her unruly behavior, Camellia was sincere and honest, an innocent, really, among the far more sophisticated and lethal members of the ton. So he would attend the parties. He would put up with Vivian Carlyle. And, he promised himself, he would make a dedicated effort to get along with the woman, no matter how she might fray his nerves.
That resolve was tested the moment Vivian turned to greet him and he received the full impact of her dress up close. The heart-shaped neckline was low and wide, skimming over her breasts and leaving much of her chest and shoulders bare. The rich satin hugged her form, and the jet bugle beads that adorned the neck seemed designed to draw one’s eye to the swelling of her creamy white bosom. Desire slammed through him, fierce and immediate, and only years-long training kept his face expressionless.
“Stewkesbury.” Vivian smiled at him in that way she had, a way that hinted of secrets and laughter.
Oliver was aware that Vivian considered him a hopelessly dull sort, and he often had the faint suspicion she was laughing at him, which made him even more unbending in her presence. Now, in response to her greeting, he gave her a punctiliously correct bow.
“How nice to see you,” Vivian told him. “Are Lily and Camellia with you?”
“No. I drove down alone last week. The Bascombes are coming later with Fitz and Eve. I am sure it will not be long before they arrive.” Despite his best efforts, his gaze kept returning to Vivian’s bosom. Damn the woman—the way she is dressed is bloody distracting.
“I am surprised to find you here alone,” Vivian went on. “I know how infrequently you are wont to visit London.”
He wasn’t sure why her assumption irritated him, but it did. “On the contrary, my lady, I am often in the city. I don’t know why people persist in thinking that I am always stuck away up at Willowmere.”
“Because no one ever sees you.”
“I am in London. I simply do not spend my time at parties.”
“Ah, I see.” A smile twitched at the corner of Vivian’s mouth. “No doubt you are occupied in far more useful activities.”
There it was again, he thought—the amusement at his staid personality. Sometimes he imagined how delightful it would be to do or say something outrageous, just to see the surprise flare on Vivian’s face. But, of course, that would be an entirely silly thing to do, so he said only, “I am usually here on business.”
His cousin, who had been watching their exchange, spoke up for the first time. “Oh, Oliver, surely that does not take up all your evenings as well. You might at least go to a dinner or a ball or two.”
Vivian glanced at Oliver, her eyes glinting a little. “I suspect, dear Charlotte, that your cousin finds such things as balls or dinners tedious. Isn’t that true, Stewkesbury?”
“Not at all,” he responded drily, meeting Vivian’s glance with something of a challenge in his gray eyes. “I find them much too stimulating for someone of my sedate nature. I might be utterly overcome.”
Vivian let out a little laugh. “Now that is something I should like to see. I have always wondered what it would take to overcome you.”
“Ah, Lady Vivian, you should know that ’tis easily done. You have accomplished it on many an occasion.”
Vivian hesitated, looking faintly surprised. Then she furled her fan and reached out to tap him lightly on the arm with it, her eyes twinkling. “A very pretty compliment, my lord. I am shocked.”
“You do not think me capable of it?”
“Oh, no, you are capable enough. You forget, I have heard you talk to others. But I would not have thought you willing to hand a compliment to me.”
He raised his brows. “What a picture you hold of me, my lady. Do I appear such a boor?”
“No, not a boor. But not capable, perhaps, of polite flattery.”
It was Oliver’s turn to look surprised. Polite flattery? Could Vivian possibly think that he was not aware of her beauty or her powerful effect on men? Did she not realize that even now, as he stood here, chatting, carefully keeping his features composed, his nerves tingled with an awareness of her? That her perfume teased at his senses and his very blood hummed? He presumed she had chosen her dress and styled her hair, dabbed a scent behind her ears, in the hope of eliciting this exact response. She must know how men reacted to her. The only possible reason for her surprise was that she did not expect him to react as a man.
The idea galled him. Did he appear so sober, so boring, to her?
“Dearest Vivian,” he said, his tone taking on a sharper edge, “I suspect you would be surprised what I am capable of.”
Her eyes rounded a little, and he had the satisfaction of knowing that his words had taken her aback. Ignoring his cousin’s indrawn breath of surprise, he went on, extending his hand to Vivian, “Perhaps, my lady, you would favor me with this dance?”
What in the world has come over the man? For an instant, Vivian could only stare at Stewkesbury in astonishment. It wasn’t as if he had never asked her to dance or even that he had not paid her a compliment. She was sure that there had been other times, other places, when they had taken a turn on the dance floor together or when Oliver had said that she was looking lovely that evening or some such thing. But those compliments, those invitations to dance, had always been polite, expected, simply part of the world in which they lived. Just as he had offered his arm to her at a dinner party because she was the highest-ranking female present, he had no doubt escorted her onto the floor after he had dutifully danced with Charlotte or some other female relative or the hostess of the party.
But something about tonight was different. Something in his eyes, in his tone when he spoke to her. The compliment he had paid her had not been extravagant, but neither had it been the bland, customary acknowledgment of her looks that one heard at every turn. It had been . . . almost flirtatious. And his words before his invitation to dance had carried a dare. Indeed, his very invitation to her seemed almost a challenge.
Well, a challenge was certainly something Vivian never turned down.
Her lips curving up into a smile, she placed her hand in his. “Of course, my lord. I would be honored.”
They took their place on the dance floor. Couples were forming around them, and Vivian realized that they were taking up the position of a waltz, not a cotillion or a country dance. She faced him, aware of a heightening of nerves inside her. Had she ever waltzed with Oliver? She could not remember doing so. Of course, the dance was no longer considered so shocking; it was even done in country assemblies now. She had danced it with many men over the years. There was no reason to feel this faint sense of unease.
Yet, she had to admit, Oliver had always had the ability to intimidate her a little. That was a rare quality, she reflected, for at twenty-eight years of age, she was a woman who knew her own mind and in general did mostly as she pleased. Wealthy in her own right and the only daughter of a duke, she was under no man’s control. She had spent the last decade being pursued by many men, but none had ever won her over, and she was certain by now that none ever would. She enjoyed a light flirtation now and then, and she had a wealth of admirers from whom to choose when she wanted an escort to a play or a ball. But she could just as easily decide not to take any of them, as she had tonight. In short, Vivian felt she could hold her own with any man.
But Oliver . . . somehow Oliver was a little different. Perhaps it was that she had known him when she was young and unsure of herself, and he had seemed to her far older and more mature. Perhaps it had been the adolescent yearning she had felt for him—not only unreciprocated, but unnoticed. Or perhaps it was simply that he was the sort of man who was invariably, maddeningly correct—in words, in action, even in thought. She had once heard Fitz complain of the ‘burden of perfection’ that having Oliver for a brother had placed on him, and she knew what he meant. The Earl of Stewkesbury set an imposing standard, and she could not help but feel a niggling doubt sometimes that his side of any argument was, if not necessarily right, certainly the most correct.
Of course, that he could intimidate her did not mean Vivian intended to allow him to. She lifted her chin a fraction as she looked up into his face. His eyes held an expression that she could not quite read, and she felt the oddest little flutter in her stomach. At that moment, the music started up, and he took her hand in his, the other going to her waist as he moved closer to her.
The sensation in her stomach increased, and suddenly Vivian felt flushed, almost embarrassed at being this close to him. She glanced away, concentrating on her steps as they moved into the music. It was silly, she told herself, to feel so disconcerted at dancing a waltz with Oliver. She had known the man forever, after all. While it was as close as one could get to being held in his arms, nothing in his demeanor was loverlike. It was like dancing with her brother . . . except that it wasn’t at all like dancing with her brother.
She was intensely aware of the way his hand curved around hers, of the way his fingers felt against her waist. Even though the material of her dress lay between her skin and his, the touch felt curiously intimate. The masculine scent of his cologne teased at her senses. She could not help but remember how giddy she had felt when she was in his presence when she was younger.
Vivian lifted her face to look at him, unaware of the slow, dreamy smile that curved her lips and lit her eyes. Oliver’s hand tightened on her waist, and he pulled her almost imperceptibly closer, but then he turned his head away quickly, and his fingers relaxed their grip. As he looked out over the other dancers, a frown started between his eyes.
He glanced around, then said, “We seem to be the object of a number of gazes.” His eyes returned to her, and his frown deepened. “No doubt ’tis the gown you’re wearing.”
Vivian came crashing quickly back into the present. How could I have thought Oliver was any different? She scowled back at him. “My gown? You think people are staring at us because of my gown? I take it you do not mean because it is so fashionable.”
His mouth tightened. “It exposes rather more of you than is quite decent.”
Vivian’s eyes flashed. “There is nothing improper about my dress, I assure you. Mrs. Treherne’s neckline is a good deal lower than mine.”
“You wish to be compared to Mrs. Treherne?”
“I don’t wish to be compared to anyone,” Vivian retorted. “It was you who commented on the appropriateness of my dress. I was merely pointing out that there are a number of women here whose gowns are no more decent than mine, and I don’t see anyone staring at them.”
“That is because they don’t look as you do in yours.”
Vivian stared at him, nonplussed. “I scarce know whether to take that as a jab or a compliment.”
He looked faintly surprised. “I’m not sure that I meant it as either.”
She could not help but let out a little laugh. “Really, Stewkesbury, you are quite hopeless. Have you never looked in the mirror and seen that you are not old?”
It was distinctly unfair, she thought, that a man should have such compelling pewter-colored eyes, not to mention a smile that could suddenly light his face so that one’s heart turned in one’s chest . . . and yet be so unwaveringly staid.
His face stiffened. “Are you saying that one has to be old to expect certain standards of—”
“No, I am saying that no young man has ever criticized me for exposing too much of my bosom.”
Color rushed into Oliver’s face, and a light flared briefly in his eyes. “Vivian! Have a care what you say. Not everyone knows you as I do. There are those who would take your free sort of speech quite the wrong way.”
“But I know you never will.” Vivian sighed. It was useless to get upset over what he said. Oliver was simply being Oliver, after all. She cocked her head a little to one side and smiled up at him. “Please . . . let us not argue, especially over something as inconsequential as my gown. The music is too lovely, and I am too happy to be back in London.”
“Of course.” He gave a brief nod of his head. “I did not intend to argue with you.” He paused. “How was Marchester? Did you enjoy your visit home?”
“Yes.” The lackluster tone in her voice was clear even to Vivian, and she went on hastily, “I could scarcely imagine being anywhere else at Christmas. ’Tis home, after all.”
“And that means a great deal,” Oliver agreed.
Vivian suspected that it meant far more to him than to her, but she did not say so. “I am always happy to see Papa and Gregory.”
“How is Seyre? Still buried in his books?”
Vivian chuckled fondly as she nodded. “And in his correspondence. Gregory receives letters and packages from all over the world—gentlemen farmers in America, managers of tea plantations in Ceylon, explorers from around the globe. He is mad for plants at the moment, and I think he is going to build another greenhouse.”
“Yes, I have talked with him now and then about crops. He has some interesting ideas.”
Vivian grinned. Few besides her brother and Oliver would term such a conversation interesting. “I think that experimenting with the farms is one of the few things that reconciles him to inheriting the title someday. Of course, most of the tenants think him mad—harmless and good, but a trifle touched in his upper works.”
“I am sure his people are most fond of him.”
“Yes, they are—but I don’t believe they think he will be quite a proper duke, not the way Papa is.”
“They prefer your father?”
“You needn’t be so surprised.”
“I’m sorry.” Oliver looked somewhat abashed. “I didn’t mean—”
“That the duke is a little wild? The sort who hies off to London instead of inspecting his lands? Who has never gone over an account book in his life?” Vivian chuckled at the earl’s rueful expression. It was clear Oliver did not approve of her father, but of course he was far too polite to admit it. “The truth is, yes, they feel Papa is precisely what the Duke of Marchester should be. Not that they would prefer someone like my grandfather, of course, whom everyone agrees was a proper libertine. But Papa is just the right blend of charm and arrogance. A duke, after all, isn’t supposed to care. Or to worry.”
“Mm.” Stewkesbury seemed to have nothing to say to that statement.
For a few moments, they were silent as they twirled around the floor. It was easy, Vivian found, to follow Oliver’s steps; his hand at her waist guided her firmly without pushing or tugging. One could always be sure with Stewkesbury, Vivian thought, and while that might not make him terribly exciting, it was a very good thing in a dance partner. Actually, she supposed, it was a very good thing in many ways. Especially, she mused, when he had a firm yet mobile mouth and wide shoulders . . . and that charming stray bit of hair that curled against his neck.
“I am surprised you stayed so short a time at home,” Oliver said after a moment, breaking into Vivian’s reverie.
“Oh!” She glanced at him, wondering with embarrassment if he had noticed her eyes straying assessingly over him. “Well . . .” She shrugged. “I love Gregory and Papa, but there’s little to do at the Hall. I found it too cold for walking or riding—though little deters Gregory from riding. The Hall had to be decorated for Christmas, but Falworth and Mrs. Minton had that well in hand. They are quite able to run the entire place without my advice, as they do the remainder of the year. And Gregory is usually stuck away in the library or the study or his greenhouses.”
“I would think that after your time at Halstead you would have found it restful.”
Vivian smiled. “Yes, but while I cannot wish for a repetition of the measles and all the rest, it was never dull there.”
“That is true, at least since my cousins arrived at Willowmere.” The earl gave a rueful smile. “Before, as I remember, it was rather peaceful.”
“I could have endured the boredom at home, but then my brother Jerome and Elizabeth and their brood of hellions came for Christmas.”
Oliver grinned, and the movement changed his face, suddenly making him look far younger and turning his gray eyes almost silver. “You are not a doting aunt, I take it.”
Vivian could not help but smile back at him. At moments like this, when Oliver was warm and open, his face alive with humor, it was impossible not to like him. Indeed, it made her want to do or say whatever it took to keep that look on his face. “I think not. But my niece and nephews are less than lovable children. If they were not whining and sniveling, they were running about the halls, screeching. However, that was only part of it. Jerome and Elizabeth cannot bear each other’s company—which would be all right, I suppose, if only they would keep themselves apart. But they seemed determined to inflict themselves on each other—and on us.”
“I thought they were a love match.”
“So they were . . . at one time. But I have known a number of marriages of sheer convenience that were more pleasant than their ‘love match’ after the first year or two.” Vivian saw no need to explain the basis for the couple’s falling out; she felt sure that Oliver knew as well as she of her brother Jerome’s string of London mistresses.
“But surely they left after a time?”
“Thank goodness. Then Papa decided to invite a number of his friends for a few weeks of cards and conviviality. As that sort of party generally entails as much port drinking and general revelry as cardplaying, I decided I would be more comfortable in London. Besides, I was eager to get started on the Season with Lily and Camellia.”
Stewkesbury’s brows pulled together. “The devil. Your father shouldn’t have invited his lot there with you at home. A drinking party with a gentlewoman in the house! What was he thinking?”
Vivian stiffened. Her father had not been the best of fathers; she would admit that. But she loved him and would not stand by to let others criticize him. “It is his house, after all.”
Oliver grimaced. “That does not make it right. It’s all of a pattern—to have raised you the way that he did, bringing in his latest para—” He stopped, apparently realizing that the topic he was broaching would not be considered fit for a lady. “That is to say, he did not always have a care who he allowed around his children.”
His words made Vivian bristle even more. Naturally Oliver would not decry that her father had spent most of his time in London, leaving his motherless infant daughter to the care of nannies and governesses for much of her life. What bothered him was the inappropriate lifestyle her father had lived, that he had brought home groups of his friends, sometimes including one of his mistresses.
“Whom Marchester brought home is no concern of yours,” Vivian shot back. “Nor is the manner in which he raised his children.”
She stopped abruptly, jerking her hand from his. Startled, Stewkesbury, too, came to a halt as the other couples whirled about them.
“Vivian! The devil! What are you doing?” he hissed, glancing around. “You can’t just stop in the middle of a dance.”
“Can’t I? I believe I just did.” Whirling, Vivian walked off, winding her way through the other dancers.
Stewkesbury stood for a moment in stunned disbelief, then strode off the floor after her.
Copyright © 2011 by Candace Camp