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"It's good to be home, Father." Simon strode forward with hand outstretched.
The Marquis of Stokesbury coldly looked his younger son up and down. "The proper greeting, Derwent, is 'How do you do, sir.'"
Simon Hurst, Earl of Derwent, stiffened and let his hand drop to his side. "How do you do, sir," he said quietly, suddenly aware of his mud-splashed riding breeches and boots. In the three years he had spent at sea since last he was in Hampshire, the memory of his father's unbending formality had faded.
Lord Stokesbury's long, haughty face had garnered a few new lines and his temples were touched with gray. He was still in full mourning for his elder son, his black coat and breeches more suited to an evening in town than a March afternoon in the country. Diamonds sparkled on his lean fingers, an old-fashioned affectation he had refused to abandon when he reluctantly cut short his hair and exchanged velvet and brocade for Bath superfine.
"I had hoped," he said, "that you might see fit to return with due dispatch to England upon receiving news of your brother's death."
"I was in the South Pacific a year ago, sir. That's where Captain Hughes died and I took command of the Intrepid. Then we were caught in a typhoon in the Indian Ocean. I didn't hear about Cedric until we put in to Cape Town for supplies and repairs."
"So you are now a captain?" inquired a lazy voice behind him. "My congratulations."
Simon swung around. "Gerald!" he greeted the tall, elegant young man lounging in the doorway. This time his outstretched hand was grasped and firmly shaken. "Not captain, a mere commander."
"Ah well, I daresay your new civil rank is somecompensation," said Viscount Litton sardonically.
"I've quit the navy, of course." He turned back to the marquis. "I'm ready to start learning how to manage the estates, sir, and--" he shrugged, feeling awkward, "--whatever else is required of your heir."
Lord Stokesbury raised his quizzing glass. Once more he inspected his son's stocky figure, from muddy boots, past comfortably worn riding jacket and loosely knotted cravat, to the square, firm-chinned face and ruffled sandy hair. He sighed.
"Alas, Derwent, it seems the navy has not quit you. I fear I cannot find it in me to face with equanimity introducing you as my heir. Litton, may I beg a favor of you?"
"If it be not too great an imposition, pray take your cousin up to town for the Season and attempt to add a little polish to his manners and appearance."
Simon knew with helpless anger that nothing had changed. In his father's eyes he would never measure up to Cedric, the firstborn and always the favorite.
If Lady Stokesbury had been any more welcoming than the marquis, Simon might have stayed at home for a few days. As it was, when her son went to see her in her boudoir, she raised her lorgnette, shuddered, and said in a failing voice, "I fear it was a mistake to permit you to go to sea."
To his relief, his cousin was only visiting for one night on the way to London from Crossfields, his Dorset estate. That evening, Simon had his father's valet pack up all the clothes that had hung in his wardrobe since his last leave. In the morning the trunk was loaded onto Gerald's escutcheoned traveling carriage and the two young men departed in good time to reach town that same day.
The trunk might just as well have been left behind in Hampshire. In the course of the following week, Simon made the acquaintance of tailor Weston, boot-maker Hoby, and hatter Locke. His dressing room at Stokesbury House filled with new coats, waistcoats, shirts, unmentionables, Hessians, dancing shoes, hats, and gloves. He also acquired a gentleman's gentleman of impeccable references. Without Henry's assistance he was unable to don the tight-fitting coats or remove the tight-fitting boots; moreover, the little man was a wizard with a cravat.
Simon discovered that the navy's clove hitch and single wall crown knots were not half so complicated as fashion's Waterfall, Mailcoach, Mathematical, Oriental, or Osbaldeston. He admired Henry's artistry with a neckcloth, without being in the least tempted to emulate it.
As for Henry, he regarded my lord Derwent as a challenge to his abilities.
At last Gerald pronounced his cousin ready to make his bow to Society--and Society was all agog to meet the new Earl of Derwent. Simon was invited everywhere. To his surprise he began to find amusement in the entertainments of the Beau Monde, though he missed the wide open spaces, the camaraderie, and the feeling of doing a useful job he had had at sea. If now and then he overheard a whisper that he was not a bit like his brother, no one said so to his face and he was able to ignore it.
And then he fell in love.
One wet April evening, Simon was still dressing when Gerald arrived to drive him to Lady Bessborough's ball. Waving a greeting, he turned his head from side to side and grumbled, "Damn it, Henry, this collar is choking me."
"If the shirt points were only a fraction of an inch lower, my lord, I fear your lordship might be considered--" the valet took a deep breath before pronouncing the dread word, "--unfashionable!"
Lounging in a chair to one side of the dressing table, Gerald laughed. "He's right, old fellow. If Henry didn't know to the last stitch what is acceptable, I'd not have hired him for you."
"Devil take it, I thought nothing could be more uncomfortable than getting caught in a storm at sea, but I'll be damned if a London Season doesn't come close."
"Your lordship's cravat," Henry murmured.
With a groan, Simon raised his chin. Mustering his patience, he bore the tedious business of having the length of starched muslin wound around his neck and tied with utmost delicacy in a trône d'amour.
During this process, Gerald continued the conversation. "You're not telling me you haven't enjoyed the past month. The ton has been falling over itself to welcome you like a prince, and you have succeeded in stealing the Incomparable out from under my very nose."
"Lady Elizabeth is quite the most beautiful creature I have ever seen," said Simon dreamily.
"My lord!" wailed the valet. "Ruined, quite ruined! I must beg your lordship not to speak while I am engaged in arranging your lordship's neckcloth." Ruthlessly, he whipped the cloth away and produced a replacement.
Silence prevailed for the next few minutes, until Henry pronounced himself satisfied. "If your lordship will condescend to lower the chin." His gaze did not waver from his master's throat as Simon pressed the creases flat. "Now a little to the right, my lord. And to the left. Excellent." He turned to Gerald, soliciting his opinion. "My lord?"
"It will do," said the viscount carelessly. "You know Lord Derwent's cravats are always limp by the time he's been in a ballroom for half an hour."
"My lord!" Tears appeared in Henry's eyes. "I assure your lordship I have tried every method of starching known."
"And his coat is wrinkled, his shoes smudged, and his hair ruffled," Gerald went on. "Don't worry, man, I'm not blaming you. It seems to be some irresistible force of nature."
Simon ignored this slander. "She promised me the first dance and the supper dance tonight," he announced. "Do you really think she'd have me, Gerald, if I popped the question?"
"Not a doubt of it."
"Your coat, my lord."
He braced himself for the struggle to insert himself into a coat he considered ridiculously tight and his mentors considered barely decent.
His toilette completed at last, he and his cousin set off for the ball. Limp neckcloth or no, Society had indeed opened its arms to him, and though he still thought it a shocking waste of time, Simon was enjoying the frivolities of the Season. Lady Elizabeth's kindness set the crown on his pleasure.
The Toast of the Ton, the Incomparable, a diamond of the first water, she had dismissed a score of suitors, including Gerald, to favor him, Simon Hurst, with her languishing glances. Nor could his father possibly object to the match. The only daughter of the Earl of Prestwitton, Lady Elizabeth was known to have a dowry befitting her station. Not that birth or fortune meant anything to Simon, entranced by her golden ringlets and cornflower-blue eyes, but it would please the marquis. For once the younger son was doing something right.
"Shall I ask her tonight?" he whispered to Gerald as they stepped down from the carriage and hurried out of the rain into Lady Bessborough's brightly lit vestibule.
"Why not?" Gerald responded as a pair of footmen relieved them of their topcoats.
Self-consciously, Simon inspected his neckcloth in a gilt-framed mirror hanging on the wall. It seemed perfectly all right to him. He smoothed his sandy hair. How did Gerald manage to remove his beaver without ruffling his dark locks? Like his late lamented brother, his cousin never looked less than impeccable. Nor, once he left his expensive valet's hands, did he ever appear to feel a need to check his appearance.
Following Gerald up the marble staircase, Simon envied the tall, athletic figure, the smooth fit of the blue cloth across the broad shoulders, the mirrorlike gloss on the black dancing shoes. Small wonder that Lord Litton had been, hitherto, the Incomparable's preferred suitor. Yet she had cooled toward the viscount from the moment that Simon was introduced to her.
He hurried on to claim her hand for the promised cotillion.
Simon generally threw himself wholeheartedly into his chosen activities--hence his command of one of his majesty's frigates at the age of twenty-six. Dancing was no exception. His version of the cotillion was decidedly energetic, and by the end Lady Elizabeth was fanning her pink cheeks vigorously, her delectable bosom heaving beneath blue sarcenet and blond lace.
She managed to find enough breath to say, with a flutter of darkened eyelashes, "La, my lord, there is not another gentleman in the room with half your spirit, I vow."
"That's because I alone have the joy of dancing with you, ma'am," he returned, pleased with himself for finding, for once, a neatly phrased compliment.
Reminding her that the supper dance was his, he returned her to her mother and went in search of his next partner. Despite his devotion to the Incomparable, he hated to see any young lady playing the wallflower when he could be standing up with her. Lady Elizabeth, of course, never wanted for partners.
Some time later, after the third country dance, he left a witty but muffin-faced miss with her chaperon and turned away to go in search of his beloved. Standing by a bank of potted palms, he was scanning the room when her melodious voice floated to his ears from behind the screening plants.
"I had made up my mind to let him kiss me on the terrace tonight."
"Oh, Lizzie, had you really?" Miss Jellaby's shocked squeak was unmistakable.
Simon's cheeks grew hot. She was going to let him kiss her! Was he conceited to believe she was speaking of him? He was too desperate to find out to do the gentlemanly thing and interrupt before he heard any more confidences not meant for his ears.
"Only it's raining," Lady Elizabeth continued, "and I feared he might turn into a frog."
"You don't really care for him, do you?"
"That clodhopper? Do you take me for a widgeon?"
Miss Jellaby giggled. "Jack Tar, not clodhopper."
"True. When I dance with him, I am in constant fear that he will break into a hornpipe."
"Then why do you not encourage Lord Litton? He is elegant, charming, wealthy, everything you want in a husband. I'd wager he was about to come up to scratch when you met his cousin."
"Lord Litton? My dear, he is a mere viscount. Derwent is an earl, and heir to a marquis, and the Stokesbury fortune casts the Littons' quite in the shade. Besides, he is so smitten I shall be able to rule him by raising my little finger. I should have him even if he really were a frog."
The courage needed to sail into enemy fire was nothing to the resolution Simon had to summon to walk up to the Incomparable and lead her onto the floor. He waltzed stiffly, and at supper found himself unable to swallow a bite. She chattered away, apparently unaware of any change in his manner.
Gerald, seated at the same table, was more perceptive. "What's amiss?" he hissed in Simon's ear as they all rose to return to the ballroom.
"Cut line, coz."
It was useless to try to hide his angry distress from the cousin he had been close to since childhood. "I'll tell you later," Simon muttered, and hurried off to do his duty by his next partner. Would she, he asked himself, be equally delighted to dance with him if he were not the heir to the Marquis of Stokesbury?
In the carriage on the way home, the whole story poured out. Gerald listened in attentive silence.
"You should be thanking heaven for the rain," he pointed out when Simon's voice trailed miserably away. "If it had been fine, you might have kissed her and popped the question. A narrow escape from a devilish fate."
"I suppose so. Nonetheless, you must admit it's a lowering reflection that my popularity in Society is due entirely to my father's rank."
"I wouldn't say it's quite as bad as that."
"I shall find it impossible to trust anyone's protestations of friendship. I'd best just go home and start learning estate management as I originally intended."
"Your father isn't going to like that."
Simon looked down gloomily at his smart, constricting clothes. "If I haven't yet acquired enough town bronze to suit him, I might as well give up and be comfortable again."
"God forbid. That is not the only difficulty, however. Cedric was never allowed to take an interest in the estates, you know, although your father is not an active landowner, as I believe you would wish to be."
"What do you mean? Wait a bit," he said as the carriage stopped. "Why don't you come in for a brandy and explain yourself?"
A few minutes later they were ensconced in deep leather chairs by a roaring fire in the library of Stokesbury House, with glasses of mellow amber liquid warming between their palms. Gerald sniffed appreciatively and took a sip.
"The marquis knows his cognac better than he does his lands," he remarked. "He leaves the management entirely to his bailiffs. As long as the expected revenues are produced, he asks no questions."
"He doesn't oversee his agents?" Simon asked, shocked. "If the captain of a ship failed to supervise his officers, there would soon be a mutiny--or she would sink. He is responsible for the welfare of both crew and vessel, as a landowner surely is of tenants and land. Is that how you run your estates?"
"Lord, no. It's not uncommon, though. I'll tell you what, if you are determined upon leaving town you had best go and stay with Aunt Georgina. Her bailiff, Wickham, is the best there is."
"Then why do you not have him at Crossfields?"
Ignoring this irrelevant query, Gerald continued, "He can teach you all you need to know. And Aunt Georgina will be pleased to see you. She always asks after you."
"As Uncle Josiah's heir, you must see a good deal of her, I daresay. I haven't visited Mere House in a decade. My mother was never as close to the old gentleman as yours was--only natural since she was so much younger than her brother and sister." Simon loyally kept to himself the thought that his revered mama had not liked the reminder provided by Sir Josiah Thompson that she was the sister of a humble country baronet. "Wait a bit!" he went on, refilling his glass and topping up Gerald's. "No one knows me there. I can go incognito."
"Why the devil would you do that?"
"Perhaps I shall meet a girl who loves me for myself, not for my rank and fortune." He sighed. "At least I shall know who my real friends are. But would Aunt Georgina keep my secret?"
"Undoubtedly. She would revel in being part of a conspiracy. You really mean to do it?"
"I shall ride up to Cheshire tomorrow," said Simon decisively.
"Ride! Good gad, old fellow, you'll be two days on the road. Hire a carriage, or buy one, or borrow mine."
"Frogs don't travel in carriages."
"They don't ride on horseback, either, to my knowledge."
"Oh, go to the devil, Gerald," said Simon with an unwilling laugh. "I don't wish to make a splash by arriving in style. And I'll have my old, comfortable clothes sent after me. Make my excuses to any offended hostesses, will you?"
Gerald merely shook his head, his expression foreboding, and finished his brandy.
The next morning, leaving a tearful Henry behind, Simon set out for Cheshire. The continuing rain had no power to add to his dejection. After all, it was fine weather for frogs.