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"I saw them with my own eyes!"
"Her reputation will never recover."
Stepping around the knot of gossips, Joanna Patterson entered Berkeley Square, where shrieks of laughter from two lads playing in the central garden revived her homesickness. She missed her brothers, especially young Jeremy. But it was time to build a life of her own. This job was the first step.
Another shout from the boys drew a censorious stare from a passing dowager and attracted a ratty-looking dog, to the dismay of their nurse.
Joanna forced her mind back to business. Her half-boots beat a quickening tattoo on the cobbles, for she had dawdled too long over this errand, entranced by the sights and sounds of London. If she didn't return soon, Lady Wicksfield's fretting would plunge Harriet into tears--a terrible fate, for the girl recovered slowly from any upset. Tonight's ball was vital to her come-out. An emotional scene before they left the house would reduce her chances of finding a good match--not that either mother or daughter would understand. Lady Wicksfield was as hen-witted as Harriet, and her stubbornness had ultimately led to today's errand.
The arguments over Harriet's wardrobe had started even before last week's arrival in London. A limited budget meant patronizing a less-fashionable modiste. But Madame Francine was so eager to please an aristocratic patron that she meekly accommodated every demand, even when she knew the countess was wrong. Joanna had protested, but not until two hours ago had her reasoning finally carried the day.
"The neckline on Harriet's ball gown is too low," she had said again, ignoring thecloying scent of potpourri and heavy perfumes in Lady Wicksfield's sitting room. Changing the countess's mind was too important to be distracted by an inability to breathe.
"Further discussion is pointless," the countess had snapped, flushing with irritation. "Wicksfield's folly has already squandered half the Season, leaving Harriet barely eight weeks to find a husband. She must attract attention."
"Attracting the wrong attention will prove fatal," Joanna had countered. "Surely you saw the disapproving stares at last night's rout! There wasn't a dowager in the room who looked on her kindly. Harriet's beauty will draw sufficient notice, and you know how gentlemen respond to her sweetness. But she is barely seventeen. Low-cut gowns make her appear desperate, forward, or both--not the image we wish to cultivate." Harriet also sang like an angel and seemed so fragile that men rushed to protect her--an irresistible combination if they kept the image pure.
"Miss Cathcart wears even lower gowns."
"Miss Cathcart is in her third Season without an offer. Is that what you wish for Harriet?" A gesture cut off any response. "And I know that the Silverton twins have lower necklines, but even gentlemen consider them shockingly encroaching. If Harriet were older, she would have more leeway, but at her age, flaunting her bosom can only court derision."
"How can you know? We have attended two routs and one small ball--hardly typical entertainments."
"Exactly. And none were top-drawer, but that does not mean we can ignore the disapproval. The guests may lack the breeding of more exalted families, but they aspire to the same manners. Tonight's ball will include Society's most glittering figures. Even the Regent was invited, though no one expects him to actually appear. If Harriet makes a poor impression, she will be ruined; the Season is too advanced for her to recover. Tonight she will meet the very gentlemen she must attract."
Lady Wicksfield had shrugged. "We cannot afford a new gown, so this discussion is pointless. She will have to act demure." It was the closest she had ever come to admitting fault.
Joanna had silently accepted her capitulation. "Madame Francine can modify the rest of the order. For tonight, I will add a double row of lace like Miss Cunningham wore last evening."
"Not lace." She glared. "It is far too sophisticated. Surely ribbon or a fichu would be better."
Lady Wicksfield's objection had more to do with money than sophistication. Every shilling spent on Harriet was one shilling less she could spend on herself. She had already declined to make morning calls twice, pleading a headache, but Joanna knew she had slipped away for some surreptitious shopping. She could only pray the debts would not prove exorbitant.
The lies, like the arguments about Harriet's come-out, were born of resentment over Joanna's position in the household, for she was more than Harriet's companion and chaperon. Though she deferred to Lady Wicksfield in public, in truth, she was in charge. Thus their relationship was awkward and frequently hostile.
On this occasion, she had merely repeated, "Lace," then gratefully escaped the drugging perfume. But the confrontation had revived other fears. So much could go wrong.
She was unsure whether a fichu was even accepted as evening wear in town--it wasn't near her home--but she had opposed it because the excitement of the moment often drove Society's rules from Harriet's mind. High spirits prompted broad gestures and loud tones. Humorous tales released unrestrained laughter. An unkind word sent tears rolling down the girl's cheeks. Harriet might easily remove a fichu if she felt overheated--which would be inevitable if the Regent actually did attend the ball. His fear of drafts was notorious.
Joanna stifled her rising trepidation. Imagining potential disasters served no purpose, so she returned her mind to London.
As always, Berkeley Square brimmed with activity. Servants, vendors, and delivery boys scurried in all directions. Ladies strolled about, taking the air. Others alighted from vehicles to make the first formal calls of the day.
Deftly sidestepping a footman carrying a tray of ices from Gunter's, she threaded a cluster of carriages before cutting through the grove of plane trees that shaded the garden. The nurse was gathering up her charges. Abandoning any hope of a game, the dog turned on a cat nearly twice his size, happily chasing it toward Mount Street. A horseman swerved around the pair, his reckless speed drawing a glare through a gentleman's quizzing glass and a snort from a scowling lady.
Her eyes scanned the rows of elegant Georgian houses, finding their clean, classical lines more pleasing than the façades of the great houses near her father's vicarage, most of which were centuries old.
You are dawdling again.
Tearing her eyes from the view, she briskly followed the dog. Woolgathering served no purpose and would likely draw a stinging rebuke from Lady Wicksfield. A well-deserved rebuke, added her conscience as she stepped over a pile of dung. She was not being paid to enjoy the sights. The countess pounced on every mistake, in part to avenge her demotion.
Perhaps she would be less entranced if she had expected this visit. But barely a fortnight had elapsed between Wicksfield's summons and her arrival in the largest city in the world. Was it any wonder that she tried to see everything at once?
Yet London was more than impressive houses, elegant wardrobes, or even a stunning variety of entertainments. It was more than bustling crowds, high-stepping horses, and the vast array of shop goods.
She frowned at two dandies mincing toward Gunter's, their enormous buttons and nosegays nearly obscuring wasp-waisted coats that stretched across improbably broad shoulders.
London was a state of mind that combined excitement, awe, and longing, though that didn't describe it exactly. She wasn't sure just how to describe it. Even her current position on the fringes of Society so far surpassed her dreams that she found it overwhelming. Perhaps she needed more than a week's residence to understand. But the memories would stay with her forever. And the experience would make it easier to prepare her future charges for their own come-outs. A governess post awaited her once Harriet was settled.
"Watch where yer goin'!" shouted a coachman, jerking his team sharply aside. The horses screamed their own insults as a dray cut the corner too sharply, locking rear wheels with the carriage.
"Watch out yerself! Wearing fancy livery don't mean you can drive."
The coachman cursed, trading increasingly strident accusations with the draysman across the combined lengths of their vehicles. Within moments, they had drawn a vociferous crowd. Even those who hadn't seen the actual accident hurled advice and blame.
Joanna cringed, though much of the language was incomprehensible. New arguments were breaking out among the bystanders over which driver was at fault. She gingerly detoured around the mob, hoping to reach Mount Street unscathed.
The drivers leaped down to exchange blows. Within moments, half a dozen others had joined the fray, pushing and shoving as their own tempers shattered. Shouts of "A mill!" brought men running from all over the square.
Joanna ducked into Mount Street, grateful to escape. The men were exerting less control over their tempers than her youngest brother usually managed. How could they shed their gentlemanly facades so easily--and for so little reason? Shivering, she hurried toward home.
But despite the unexpected brush with danger, London still enthralled her. Afternoon sunlight glinted off myriad windows, once more drawing her eyes. Never again would London seem the same, for a governess would not attend fashionable gatherings and would never be charged with running the household. Should she rejoice or weep over Lord Wicksfield's demand for assistance?
The earl had fallen into folly, losing nearly everything through bad investments. His best hope of recovering was through agricultural reform and expansion of the cottage industries already existing on his estate. But that would cost more than he had left, and loans were not forthcoming. His recent lack of judgment left the bankers skeptical. So he hoped Harriet could find a husband who would help. And knowing Harriet would need a chaperon, he had asked the advice of his cousin, Joanna's mother.
Joanna sighed. Her mother had recommended her, and Wicksfield had accepted. Their brief interview had seemed to cover all her duties. Only later had she realized that he'd allowed no questions, extracting a commitment even before introducing her charge.
Her head shook. She should have demanded more information, but she had believed that she could handle any crisis. Fool. Despite eight-and-twenty years spent addressing all manner of village problems, she was only now realizing how naïve she remained and how many details he had withheld.
"Harriet is young," he had acknowledged, his blue eyes guileless. "She will need someone with her at all times, lest an inadvertent word or deed spoil her chances. Without frequent reminders, she might blurt out our circumstances. But Lady Wicksfield will wish to renew old acquaintances. Your mother swears that you unwaveringly fulfill every duty, so I can count on you to avert any scandal. You must also screen Harriet's suitors, sending only the most qualified to seek my approval."
"If you wish--"
"Excellent." He had interrupted before she could explain that she knew nothing about London gentlemen. "I understand that your judgment is impeccable. Keep records of any expenditures. I cannot provide the allowance I would like, but you will know how best to utilize the funds in your care. I can no longer trust Peltram," he added, naming the man of business whose advice had precipitated his problems.
He had continued for nearly half an hour, larding his orders with praise and preventing any protest. But some of the blame was her own. She had allowed him to ride roughshod over her good sense, stifling every warning her conscience had tried to raise.
Only now did she understand his reasoning. They were sufficiently related that he could retaliate against her family if she let him down. Since her life would be spent in servitude, she would do nothing to jeopardize her reputation. And the fiction of assisting his wife covered the fact that Lady Wicksfield was incapable of bringing Harriet out on her own. An interesting on-dit was enough to drive all thought of duty from the lady's mind, and her instincts were extravagant. Since the earl was remaining at Wicksfield Manor, he had needed a keeper for his family.
She had reconciled herself to her odd position. In public, she was an unobtrusive chaperon who deferred to Lady Wicksfield. In private, she ran the household, controlled the purse strings, decided which invitations to accept, and screened all suitors.
Unfortunately, Wicksfield had ignored the ramifications of placing her above his wife. The countess resented this reversal, indulging in countless petty arguments to relieve her pique.
As if that wasn't enough, Wicksfield had omitted a great number of facts. Harriet's lack of intelligence had been the first shock. Sweet, yes. The girl could also be caring and giving. But her age and disposition worked against making a successful entry into London's demanding haut ton. She was naïve, high-spirited, shockingly frank, and probably had other faults Joanna had not yet discovered. None of these were bad in themselves as most derived from her youth, but Harriet's behavior was a long way from the controlled ennui that was currently the mode.
Lady Wicksfield's lack of sense had provided the second jolt. But not until they'd arrived in town had Joanna faced a more basic problem: Her only knowledge of London society derived from tales her mother had heard from her cousins during childhood and from comments made by her upper-class neighbors. Even Lady Wicksfield had not visited town since her marriage twenty years ago. She doubted that Wicksfield had understood what a handicap that posed, for despite attending most sessions of Parliament, he avoided the social Season. She lacked the intimate knowledge of noble families that would allow her to appraise any suitors. And knowing Society's rules did not adequately prepare her for mingling with the ton.
Every day she discovered additional problems. Lady Wicksfield's goals were baser than the earl's. Only his direct orders had kept the countess in the country all these years. Now that she was back in London, she was determined to return regularly, an impossibility if Wicksfield rebuilt his finances slowly through loans and hard work...
But she could handle Lady Wicksfield.
Her conscience was another matter. Her vow to hide Wicksfield's financial reverses fought daily duels with her innate honesty. She had already faced one determined fortune hunter who believed the earl remained wealthy. And how could she find Harriet a caring husband who was willing to help Wicksfield obtain the loan he needed when she could explain none of the circumstances? After only a week in town, the guilt gnawed at her. She lacked the most basic skills necessary to judge anyone they met, so how was she to manage? Could she even control Harriet?
The girl needed a firm hand on the reins. She already basked in the attention of her growing court of sprigs, blind to anyone's background or intentions. Unless Joanna steered her toward the most eligible suitors, she would likely form a tendre for an impoverished lad or a flattering rogue. Or Lady Wicksfield might maneuver her into the arms of someone who would make her miserable. The woman was already making lists of the wealthiest lords.
Whatever the outcome, they had little time. The Season was near its midpoint. Their late arrival meant that many eligible gentlemen were already courting girls in earnest, so--
A yelp of pain jerked her head around. Pushing her spectacles up her nose, she gasped.
Predator had become prey. The cat was gone, but two boys had cornered the dog and were now tormenting it.
"Stop that!" she ordered, fury blinding her as she raced to the rescue. Helping others had been drummed into her since birth.
Only after a shouted warning penetrated her anger did she realize that a carriage was rapidly bearing down on her.
"Admit it, Randolph." Lord Sedgewick Wylie grinned at the Earl of Symington, his closest friend. "You not only survived a month in town, you actually enjoyed it."
Randolph laughed. "Thanks to Elizabeth. Her pleasure casts Society in a different light, and our betrothal removed me from the sights of the matchmakers."
"Deflecting their attention to the rest of us," Sedge moaned in theatrical agony before turning his quizzing glass toward Randolph's wife of four hours. "Congratulations, my dear."
"Will you put that down," Elizabeth begged, flapping her hand at his glass. "You know how I hate being quizzed."
"Very well, but only for you." He made a dramatic production of dropping the glass. "Now may I congratulate you?"
"Thank you, dear Sedge. Your welcome has made the past two months bearable."
"And your presence has made the Season memorable. London won't be the same without your company."
"I never expected such fustian from you." She shook her head mockingly. "With all of Society prostrate at your feet, will you even notice my absence?"
"How could I not? Impressing you is impossible, for you delight in pricking my pretensions."
"An admirable sport," said Randolph with a chuckle.
Elizabeth turned to her husband. "He only welcomed my company because planning our wedding kept his mother occupied." She had spent recent months with Sedge's family, being estranged from her own.
"Alas! My secret is revealed."
"Doing it too brown, Sedge," admonished Randolph.
His laugh hid an instinctive grimace. "Not at all. Mother is sure to concentrate on me now that you are wed."
Elizabeth sobered. "Too true. She has regaled me with complaints about your intransigence, and she vows to succeed this Season. So be warned. She may resort to dishonor. Her determination troubles me, for you know how I abhor force."
"As do I."
"Is she really that bad?" asked Randolph.
"Worse." He sighed, wishing their banter had not turned serious. "I appreciate your concern, Elizabeth, but Mother's insistence is hardly new. She was obsessed with the succession even before Father's latest spell. My one hope is that she will concentrate on Reggie." Reggie was his older brother and heir to the marquessate.
"I doubt she means to ignore either of you," said Elizabeth.
"And she has enough candidates to keep you both busy," added Randolph. "But count your blessings. Her antics may occasionally make Bedlam seem inviting, but at least she cares for you."
The reminder dampened everyone's spirits.
Why had Elizabeth raised the subject of families at her wedding breakfast? It was a depressing topic all around. Poor health had kept Randolph's family in the country, though they had insisted that he follow tradition by marrying in London. Elizabeth's father hated her, and her mother wasn't much better. They had ignored her nuptials, despite Elizabeth's hope that the occasion might lead to an eventual rapprochement. Her sister had also stayed away, which cut far more deeply. Cecilia had wed Sir Lewis two months ago, but they had promised to be here.
"Pardon, my lord. A letter forwarded from Glendale House." The butler's silver tray held a missive directed to Elizabeth.
Sedge exchanged a puzzled glance with Randolph. Her luggage had been transferred that morning, but late-arriving mail did not warrant interrupting a celebration.
"It's from Cecilia." Elizabeth scanned the contents and gasped. "He's--" She swayed as all color drained from her face.
"Has something happened to Lewis?" demanded Randolph, easing her into a chair.
She handed him the letter.
"Good God!" Randolph gestured for wine.
"What is wrong?" Sedge kept his voice low. Elizabeth was clearly in shock.
"Fosdale is dead."
"Her father?" The news raised intense satisfaction. Sedge had never actively hated anyone before meeting Fosdale, but the man had cruelly tossed Elizabeth out into a raging storm, nearly killing her. And when Cecilia accepted a baronet of modest means instead of forcing Sedge to the altar, Fosdale had tossed her out as well.
"You needn't whisper," said Elizabeth. She had regained most of her color. "I was merely surprised." She shook her head. "But how typical of him. And how appropriate. Refusing to repair the dairy after that last storm killed him."
Randolph finished reading. "He was dismissing the dairymaid, blaming her for a decline in cheese production--not that she was at fault, of course; those spring floods decimated the herd." Disgust filled his voice. "A gust of wind collapsed the building, crushing him. The maid escaped with only a few bruises."
Poetic justice. Or perhaps divine retribution. Fosdale had been a thorough scoundrel, though Sedge kept the sentiment to himself. Despite the estrangement, the man had been Elizabeth's father. Shocked eyes belied her composed face. But comforting her was now Randolph's problem. At least the letter had not arrived before the wedding.
Bidding his friends farewell, he watched Randolph escort Elizabeth upstairs, then encouraged the few remaining guests to leave. The newlyweds would retire to the country in the morning.
Randolph had found a wife who suited him perfectly, Sedge admitted as he headed for his chambers at Albany--he had dismissed his coach on arrival, expecting to remain through dinner, but he liked walking.
In Society's eyes, Randolph was his oddest friend, for they seemed to have nothing in common beyond growing up on neighboring estates. Randolph was a renowned expert on medieval manuscripts, who cared little for appearance and less for Society. Sedge had replaced Brummell as the quintessential dandy, reveling in gossip and the London Season. Few knew he cared for anything beyond manners and the cut of his coats. Green cubs slavishly copied his style, and even the older bucks looked to him for sartorial leadership.
Yet the bond he shared with Randolph included a plethora of similar interests. Both cared deeply for people, working to better the lives of others. Both kept a close eye on business and estate matters, unwilling to blindly place their fortunes in other hands. And both possessed adventuresome spirits, though expressing them had taken different paths in recent years.
But Sedge kept his serious interests out of the public eye, for Society was suspicious of anyone it could not easily understand. One-word labels were comfortable, imparting the order and structure that made thinking unnecessary. Lady Beatrice was a gossip, feared because she knew everything. Lady Warburton was a hostess, her balls the highlight of any Season. Lord Devereaux was a rake, unprincipled enough that parents kept daughters out of his path. Lord Shelford was a Corinthian, determined to best his own numerous speed records. Lord Sedgewick was a dandy, caring only for clothes and on-dits.
He derived considerable amusement from Society's antics, much of it rooted in this willful blindness. Few people acknowledged that Lady Warburton was as obsessed with gossip as Lady Beatrice. No one admitted that Devereaux knew as much about horses as Shelford did. And as for himself, not only did people ignore his intelligence, the pleasure he derived from helping others, and even his love of history and literature, but disclosing these interests would actually reduce his credit.
Not everyone adored him, of course. Some even held him in contempt. Like Lord Peter Barnhard, whose vast wealth had failed to dispossess Sedge of the most lavish suite in Albany or of London's most desirable courtesan. Or young Lord Braxton, who craved wealth and the power to ostracize those he didn't like. Or any number of sprigs who dreamed of leading fashion rather than following it.
Did any of these aspiring arbiters understand the responsibility attached to the position? Bestowing his favor on the wrong person could expose Society to predation. Yet withholding his favor could harm innocents. Every day he had to assess others, often with little information at his disposal. Questioning his judgment kept him awake more nights than he cared to count.
Perhaps that was why his assumed ennui had become all too real. The shallow concerns of a jaded society now seemed trite rather than diverting. Even wielding his enormous credit to deter greenlings from trouble no longer brought satisfaction.
The command cut through the usual street sounds, pulling him from his reverie. A woman dashed in front of a carriage, oblivious to its approach.
"Look out!" he shouted, sprinting forward. Stupid wench! Didn't anyone think before acting these days? Only two months ago, Randolph and Elizabeth had each courted death by refusing to consider the consequences of their actions.
As did you, reminded his conscience.
"Move out of the street!" She had frozen at his first warning and now stiffened, turning his way rather than toward the carriage. He lunged, jerking her to safety and slamming her against his chest hard enough to drive the air from their lungs.
Nice body, noted his mind even as his eyes took in her appearance. Well-worn half-boots. A threadbare cloak over a serviceable gown. Spectacles perched on the tip of a pert nose. Plain bonnet hugging her head. Obviously a servant, for she lacked an escort. But her features were refined, so she was probably a governess or companion.
"Not at all the thing to walk about in a fog," he drawled once he managed to inhale. His heart pounded from the aftermath of fear. Pain stabbed his left arm, which remained weak from a break suffered during his own recent lapse in judgment.
"Tha ... dog ... boys ... I don't--"
He'd overestimated her position. Her voice was cultured, but shock had reduced her to incoherence. Such a woman would make a poor governess. Too bad. Lack-wits had never attracted him.
Nor would they now, he decided, setting her firmly aside. The unflattering garments hid a wealth of curves that were stirring interest in his nether regions.
"Are you blind or merely stupid?" he snapped to cover his reaction.
"Pay attention! You could have been killed."
"D-dog." A finger directed his attention across the street.
Two boys shifted their eyes from the departing carriage to the woman who had nearly died. Discerning their sport was easy. Hands pinned a whimpering dog to the ground.
Raising his quizzing glass, he adopted his most disapproving frown. "Well, well, if it isn't Tom Pratchard. Up to no good again?" This son of a Jermyn Street tobacconist had a penchant for mischief. He must speak to Pratchard himself this time. The lad's mother had done nothing to curb his tendencies. He didn't recognize Tom's redheaded companion, though learning the boy's identity would not be difficult. But that was for later. The moment he stepped off the curb, they fled. He turned his gaze to the dog.
"And Maximillian. I might have known you would be here. What have you done now?" Squatting at the animal's side, he checked him for injuries. Max licked weakly at his gloves. But aside from one shallow cut, he seemed intact.
By following him, the woman had successfully traversed the street. She crouched in the gutter, making incoherent noises. Either she was more addled than he'd thought or fright had affected her wits.
Max took in her concern, wiggling with pleasure when she scratched his ears. He always groveled to females, treating them to none of the questionable temper he inflicted on males. Thus they all adored him.
"Sweet little dog," she crooned, finding her voice under the influence of Max's charm. "You are having a miserable day, aren't you. That nasty nurse tried to beat you with her umbrella. And a horse nearly stepped on you. You really must be more careful, you know. If that cat had been less of a coward, it would be dining on you at this very minute. And how did you run afoul of those horrid boys? Wicked monsters! Are you all right?"
Max squirmed with pleasure, licking her fingers.
"He will be fine," Sedge assured her, adopting a stern tone to hide his relief.
She ignored him, prattling as inanely as his aunt and her dotty friends, her focus wholly on the dog, who was now pressed close to her side. She seemed unaware of his own presence, which made his fight to regain control of an unruly body even more irritating.
"He will be fine," he repeated sharply, furious at being ignored. "But I can hardly say the same for you. What sort of idiot steps into the street without checking for traffic?"
That gained her attention. "I didn't ... that's not..." She inhaled deeply several times, lowering her gaze to his cravat. "Are you sure he is all right?"
"Of course." How dare she question his judgment? The woman was more addled than he'd thought. "He merely escaped Lady Barkley's garden again. As for you, this is London, not a country village. If you wish to survive, think before you act--or stay at home."
"Of all the presumptuous--"
"Thus speaks the woman who threw herself in front of a carriage," he scoffed, interrupting. "Hen-witted fool. Are you even aware that I just saved your miserable life?" Giving her no chance to respond, he batted her hand aside and scooped Max into his arms. "Come along, Maximillian. Your taste in friends grows worse each day."
Max growled, snapping at his chin.
He tightened his grip, glaring at the scruffy animal.
"I can carry him," the woman offered. "He seems to like me."
"Which proves his lack of intelligence. Why would I trust an animal to someone incapable of crossing a street unescorted?" he demanded, stifling an urge to wring her neck. He hardly expected instant adulation, but couldn't she at least thank him for risking his life?
He nearly grimaced as his body recalled her curves. Even his façade was slipping out of his control. Never had he met anyone who elicited such a debilitating range of emotions.
Ignoring her reversion to stammered gibberish, he collected his walking stick, noting the chipped head where it had hit the cobbles. Turning his back on the woman, he headed for Barkley House, even more annoyed than before. This was not how he wanted to pass the afternoon.
"Don't turn that innocent look on me," he grumbled at the dog. "Your mistress may fall for that trick, but I know you better. That was a nauseating performance just now. How can you lower yourself to grovel? And to a brainless idiot."
Now that he had no female to wheedle, Maximillian squirmed around to lay a paw on Sedge's chest.
"No, I won't forgive you, you beastly little rat. It is bad enough that you've ruined my walking stick, my coat, and my newest pantaloons. Must you also destroy my waistcoat and shirt? Turrett will weep," he added, naming his valet. "He truly loved this outfit."
Maximillian yelped in delight.
"Proud of yourself, aren't you. Stupid dog. This escapade was not one of your brighter ideas. Adventures are all very well in the country, but sneaking about in London will be the death of you. I cannot be forever available to rescue you from these antics."
Maximillian hung his head.
"As well you should. I must now summon my coach, for I dare not resume my walk. Appearing on the street in so disheveled a state would destroy my reputation."
It was true. Even if none of Maximillian's blood smeared his coat, dusty paw prints would never escape notice. Every eye turned his way whenever he ventured out. And though he was noted for poking fun at current on-dits, how could he describe this encounter without appearing ridiculous? Not only had the woman ignored him, but his own reactions did him no credit.
"But summoning my carriage will not be the worst penalty I must pay," he continued. A commotion in the square was attracting attention, so if he reached Barkley House unseen, he could avoid any questions. "Your mistress is undoubtedly at home."
He cursed, then cursed again when he reached his destination, for his fears proved prescient. His aunt insisted on serving tea, then demanded to know when he planned to wed. She'd been his mother's bosom bow since childhood, and the two remained close. He wasn't sure which of them was more adamant about setting up his nursery. Why wouldn't they leave him alone? He would eventually wed, but in his own time and for his own pleasure.
By the time his carriage finally arrived, he felt like striking something.