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By Amanda Scott
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1985 Lynne Scott-Drennan
All rights reserved.
The damp wiltshire fog turned at last—as, indeed, it had been threatening for some hours to turn—into a steady drizzle, and the dismal gray light of the late December afternoon all but faded into darkness, causing the two lone riders on the Marlborough Road to urge their weary mounts to a quicker pace. The larger of the two, a man of middle years and medium bulk, his square face framed by salt-and-pepper sidewhiskers, was clad in gray-and-green livery beneath a thick drab frieze coat. As the raindrops began to fall, he reached to turn up the coat's broad collar to meet the drooping brim of his felt slouch hat in a futile effort to protect himself against the elements, but as he did so, he kept his dark eyes on the rapidly forming puddles in the roadway ahead. Though his expression was grim, he would not so far forget himself as to express his displeasure aloud.
His companion, stealing a glance at him from beneath long, thick black lashes, was conscious of a twinge of remorse when she noted the raindrops streaking his weathered face, despite the hat, and realized that even the heavy frieze coat would not long protect him from a thorough wetting. Though her own hat provided little protection and her elegant new blue riding habit would scarcely be the better for a soaking, Diana Warrington, Countess of Andover, didn't mind the dreary weather in the slightest. On the contrary, she found the experience of riding through the light rain an exhilarating one. To be sure, once the initial novelty faded, there would no doubt be discomfort, even irritation, but for the moment she reveled in the taste of raindrops upon her rosy lips and the smell of the soft, rainwashed air. So far, the English winter had been unseasonably warm, so although the slight chill in the air might well be the precursor of snow, at the moment it was merely a crispness, stimulating to the blood and to the high spirits of stolen freedom.
On the other hand, the black velvet lapels of her dashing habit would no doubt be ruined, and Ned Tredegar—who had been her groom since the day long ago when her father, the Earl of Trent, had carefully lifted her onto the back of her first pony—was not one with whom she wished to be at outs. Still, the rain was scarcely her fault.
"The turning is just ahead, Ned, I'm sure of it."
"Aye, m'lady," he returned curtly, his eyes still not leaving the road.
Diana sighed. But just then the black feather nestled between the crown and the jauntily upturned brim of her hat wilted and drooped, tickling her straight, broad-tipped little nose, and a sound perilously near a giggle escaped her lips. Even in the dim twilight, the twinkle in her wide-set blue eyes could easily be discerned, as could the roses in her cheeks and the flash of white, straight, well-formed teeth as she pushed the feather away from her face and grinned widely, saucily, at her companion.
"I daresay neither Lydia nor Ethelmoor will recognize such a bedraggled honey as I shall be by the time we reach the hall," she said lightly. Her words were clipped, well-enunciated, and her voice was lower-pitched than one might expect in a person of her small size. She was slim and straight-shouldered but, to her chagrin, of less than average height. It had often been said of her that the Countess of Andover had the best seat on a horse and the best hands, for a woman, in the country, that she rode with the lightness of thistledown but with the firm, seemingly effortless control of a Nonesuch. The same persons who said such things of her when seeing her on a horse, however, often expressed astonishment to discover, when she dismounted, that she was not taller. And when they heard her speak for the first time, those same persons were likely to suggest that such a voice would better befit a lady, of greater stature. Such comments rarely disturbed Diana, but she was accustomed, generally, to receive a polite response when she spoke, particularly when she addressed one of her servants. When Ned Tredegar's only response to her conversational gambit was Tittle more than a grunt, she straightened in her saddle, her eyes sparkling indignantly. "Give over, Ned, do. I'm prodigiously sorry you're getting wet, but how was I to know it would come on to drizzle like this?"
"Because I told you it would, Miss Diana," he retorted uncompromisingly.
She wrinkled her nose at him and wiped raindrops from her lashes with the back of one dainty York tan glove. "Well, of course you said it would. You always seek to put a rub in my way when you think I'm heading into the briars again. But the sun was shining when we left Wilton House. You know it was."
"Aye, but there was black clouds in the west, 'n' now they be upon us. And ye'd no business, any road, leavin' Wilton House like a willful gypsy, Miss Diana. Not when it was yer own birthday they was celebratin', 'n' not without the master had so much as a whiff o' yer intent," he added with the frankness of long and privileged acquaintance. "Like as not, I'll be losin' m' place over this latest bit o' tomfoolery."
"Pooh," Diana retorted. "Simon would never be so gothic. He'll know perfectly well that you have no power to stop me from doing as I please. If Papa never blamed you for my antics, you may rest assured that Simon will not."
Tredegar said nothing, but there was little in his expression to lead Diana to think he had much faith in her opinion of the matter. She knew he had no reason to fear the Earl of Andover, however, despite that gentleman's nearly legendary temper. The only person who had cause to fear him at the moment was Diana herself. A shiver raced up her spine at the thought, and she wondered if Simon had already set out in search of her. The likelihood was that he had not yet discovered her absence, for she had excused herself from the day's hunting on the pretext of a migraine headache, and even if it had come on to rain at Wilton House, a drizzle would scarcely have daunted the hunters. They would be coming in by now, of course, but as angry as Simon had been with her, it was unlikely that he would seek her out until she failed to appear at dinner. Even then, he might merely assume she was sulking. With such thoughts as these passing through her head, she made no further attempt to pursue her conversation with Tredegar, and silence prevailed until they reached the turning they sought. Fifteen minutes thereafter, the iron gates of her brother's house took shape in the gloom ahead.
The gates were open and they passed between the tall stone pillars supporting them and on down the gravel drive without bothering to announce themselves at the lodge. Less than a mile beyond, the shapely bulk of Ethelmoor Hall loomed ahead with warm, welcoming lights glowing through a number of large gothic-arched windows. Diana and Tredegar followed the drive as it circled around to the porte cochere protecting the main entrance.
Out of the rain at last, Tredegar dismounted, dragged his wet hat from his head, smacked it down upon his saddle, and moved quickly to assist Diana. Before her neatly booted feet had touched the ground, however, the front doors were pulled open, and the warm glow of a vast number of candles spilled across the low stoop to bathe the visitors in its light. A liveried porter peered out at them, then motioned to someone behind him. Seconds later, a footman stepped across the threshold, followed by the stately figure of my lord's butler.
"Lady Andover?" that worthy inquired doubtfully as he peered nearsightedly into the gloom from the stoop.
"Yes, Patcham," Diana replied cheerfully, "'tis I, indeed, though a trifle damp about the edges. Is my brother at home?"
"No, my lady, but her ladyship is in the drawing room. I shall send at once to inform her of your arrival."
"No need to do that, Patcham," said a laughing voice from behind the butler. "The commotion stirred a most unladylike curiosity, I fear, so here I am." A slim, dark-haired young woman in a neat twilled evening dress appeared in the doorway as the butler stepped aside to make way for her. She shook her head in fond exasperation at the sight of her visitor. "Did Ethelmoor neglect to inform me that we were expecting you, Diana, or is this merely one of your starts? Where is Andover?"
"At Wilton House, no doubt amusing Pembroke and his bevy of fashionable guests with tales of my latest escapade," Diana replied easily. "It was my birthday party, but it grew to be rather tiresome, so I decided to visit you and Bruce instead. I'm sorry he is from home, but I hope I am welcome."
"Don't be foolish," Lydia, Viscountess Ethelmoor, told her. "He has merely gone into Marlborough for the night. You must be soaked to the skin, you unnatural girl," she added in brisker, scolding tones when Diana moved further into the light. "I shan't give you a proper, welcoming hug until you are dry, so do you come upstairs with me at once. Patcham will see to Tredegar whilst our people attend to your horses." Another thought occurred to her. "I say, have you brought anything else to wear, or do we take you as you are?"
Diana grinned, following her hostess into the elegantly-appointed, well-lit hall. "Does nothing faze you, Lyddy? I arrive on horseback, dripping water all over your lovely, polished floors, with no more than my groom for escort, and you wish merely to know if I have brought a change of clothes?" The speaking glance that Lydia threw over her shoulder told Diana clearly that there was a great deal more that lady wished to know, and she chuckled mischievously before adding in more virtuous tones, "As a matter of fact, Ned has just relinquished two entire bandboxes stuffed full of clothes to your footman, but as the contents are more than likely to be damp by now, I hope you can find me something warm to stave off the ague until they can be dried. An old robe of Bruce's will do," she suggested provocatively, "if you have nothing better to offer."
Lydia laughed, shaking her head. Refusing to be diverted, however, she led the way into the stair hall and up the polished steps to the first floor and then to her own spacious bedchamber.
"Since we are nearly of a size," she said as they entered the cheerful primrose-and-gray room, "you may have whatever you like of mine until your own things are dry." Shutting the door, she stepped to the French wardrobe between the two tall, yellow-velvet-draped windows and began to sort through the gowns hanging within. A moment later she pulled out a medium blue, soft woolen gown with long sleeves and held it up for Diana's approval. "This will do for now," she said, "to warm you."
Diana wrinkled her nose. "Dowdy," she said flatly.
"Never mind, it's the warmth that matters now. Ethelmoor would throttle me if I allowed his precious little sister to expire for lack of a warm gown. Surely, you do not insist upon carrying London fashions into the country in wintertime, Diana."
"One must dress well all the time," Diana replied with a shrug, "but everyone suffers equally, so it scarcely signifies."
"Well, it signifies to me," retorted the ever-practical Lydia. "I cannot think of anything sillier than traipsing about a drafty country mansion in nothing more than a thin muslin gown with tiny sleeves and a less than adequate bodice, unless it's the damping of one's skirts under like circumstances. Pure foolishness. Not," she added with a complacent glance around the cozy, well-appointed room with its crackling fire and heavy curtains, "that Ethelmoor Hall is at all drafty. But here, you get out of that wet habit at once. I intend to maid you myself, for I mean to know without roundaboutation, if you please, what has brought you to us like this. Have you and Andover quarreled again?"
"Quarreled?" Diana's blue eyes glinted with sudden, bitter anger, and her voice when she spoke was brittle and higher pitched than usual. "Heavens, Lydia, we do not quarrel. Simon issues orders, and I obey them. Simon scolds, and I am contrite. We are the model modern married couple, the very talk of the beau monde.
Surely, you have heard the tales of the Earl and Countess of Andover and their merry match. Why, Lady Jersey informed me only yesterday that we provide all the best tit-bits for the gossip-mongers."
"Well, you need not need such stuff from her ladyship, of course," Lydia said quietly, "and if she was able to say all that with a straight face after cuckolding poor Jersey all these years with the prince, I can say only that I have a smaller opinion of her than ever. She is a grandmother, after all, several times over. Such behavior is too absurd."
Diana shrugged, pulling off her bedraggled hat and flinging it onto a nearby chair. "Her ladyship's morals make little difference to the matter at hand. What she said was true enough."
"Well, I have heard things, naturally," Lydia admitted, "but I learned long ago to discount three-quarters of what I hear and to take the rest with salt."
"Oh, you may believe everything you hear about me," Diana said grimly. She reached to unfasten her spencer, muttering, "Surely, you of all people must know how spoilt I have been by my doting parents and what a hey-go-mad hoyden I was when Andover chose to cast the handkerchief to me. And now I am held to be a loose screw with no principles, besides."
"Merciful heavens," Lydia said in damping tones, "whatever can you be talking about? Open the budget, my dear, and quickly, for Patcham will have told them to begin laying the covers for our supper, and I mean to get to the bottom of this tangle before we leave this room. As I recall the matter, you chose Andover quite as quickly as ever he tossed any handkerchief. Why, everyone knew yours was the love match of the Season. And I have never heard anyone but Ethelmoor complain of your having been spoilt. As for your principles, well, that's naught but a bag of moonshine, as our John would say."
"How is John?" Diana asked absently, slipping from her damp habit and handing it to Lydia, who hung it on a wall-hook where her maid would be certain to spy it at once. "Does he like Eton, or do they beat him?" Diana stood now in her thin chemise and York tan halfboots, a slim, athletic young woman, her sun-streaked blond hair darkened now by the dampness, her nearly turquoise eyes lightless under the long, thick lashes.
Lydia regarded her with concern. "Never mind John. He is well enough. What happened, Diana?"
Silently, Diana picked up the blue woolen gown from the high primrose-draped bed where Lydia had put it, and slipped it over her head, wriggling her hips to make the soft skirt fall properly into place. But when she would have turned her back to let Lydia do up the numerous tiny pearl buttons, the dark-haired woman stopped her with a gentle touch and a direct look.
"Tell me, dear."
"Simon thinks I have been engaging in an illicit affair with Rory," Diana said listlessly. Her gaze met Lydia's, and she was grateful for the disbelief she saw in the other woman's soft brown eyes.
"With his own brother? His twin brother? How could Simon be such a knock-in-the-cradle?" Lydia demanded. "How could he possibly believe such a thing of you, Diana? Or of Lord Roderick, for all that. Even that rascally scalawag would never do anything so reprehensible. Why ...why, that would be incest! Simon deserves to be thoroughly shaken if he truly believes such stuff."
Involuntarily, Diana chuckled as the vision danced through her mind of Lydia, no bigger than herself, after all, attempting to shake sense into the tall, broad-shouldered Earl of Andover, a gentleman as well-noted for his abilities in the amateur ring as for his diplomatic prowess in political circles. A distinct twinkle lingered in her eyes as Diana shook her head fondly at her sister-in-law.
"He found us together, you see, and jumped—as, indeed, he always jumps—to all the wrong conclusions. But I'm fed to the back teeth with his temper and with his scolds," she added, turning now so that Lydia could attend to the pearl buttons, "so I simply ordered up my horse and Ned Tredegar and rode here to you, Lyddy dear."
Lydia had accepted Diana's rapid change of mood with a placidity born of long experience and had actually buttoned the bottom two buttons of the wool dress, but at these last, casual words, her hands went still, and a discerning eye would certainly have noted a paling of her cheeks. Her voice was carefully expressionless, however.
"Andover doesn't know where you are?"
Diana shrugged, saying in an airy tone, "I daresay he will find me if it suits him to do so."
"Merciful heavens," Lydia breathed, "he'll murder the lot of us."
Just then there was a scratching at the door, and a maidservant entered, bobbing a curtsy and saying politely, "M'lady, Mr. Patcham be wishful to know if y' want he should 'ave supper put back. It be ready t' serve, 'e says."
Excerpted from Lady Escapade by Amanda Scott. Copyright © 1985 Lynne Scott-Drennan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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