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Mrs Emmeline Skelmersdale raised her lorgnette to inspect the cream of Bath society with a critical eye. Then she set-tled her satin turban more securely upon her elaborate coif-fure and turned to her companion.
"You may say what you will, Clarissa," she announced, "but let me warn you. I shall listen to no more excuses about the behaviour of that Wentworth girl. Just look at her now, laughing and chattering to that oddity, James Richmond, in the most unbecoming way!"
Clarissa Melville was startled. To her certain knowledge Miss Wentworth's name had not passed her lips that eve-ning, but she knew better than to argue.
"I do not know the gentleman," she said cautiously. "Is he a recent visitor to Bath?"
"You must know of him," came the tart reply. "But if you will go away for months on end you cannot expect to be au fait with what is happening here at present. Richmond is a connection of Beatrice Langrishe. I believe he is the son of one of her oldest friends.' "Is he a naval man? He looks quite brown and weather-beaten."
"Nothing so interesting, my dear. He goes about the world digging up antiquities in India and Egypt and other out-landish places. Beatrice has bored us sadly with stories of his brilliance. We were all agog to meet him when he re-turned two days ago, but I find him disappointing."
"Why so? He looks every inch the gentleman' "Well, if you consider it gentlemanly to speak in public about obscurities and things that no one has ever heard of, you are entitled to your opinion. Skelmersdale finds him interesting, but I find it affected to sprinkle a conversation with long words. I cannot understand one half of what he says "
Mr Richmond's companion appeared to find no difficulty in understanding him.
"What have you been doing to the lady with the lorgnette, Amy?" he teased. "If looks could kill, you would be lying dead at my feet."
"Which one is that?" Amy looked about the room. "Oh, I see! You must mean Mrs Skelmersdale I'm not her fa-vourite person since I refused her son."
"And why did you do that?" James smiled down at her. "You wouldn't ask if you had met him. He is a pompous bore. I wish you might have heard his offer for me. He was kind enough to explain that he was prepared to make allow-ances for the feeble nature of a woman's intellect. His duty would be to guide my thoughts into the proper channels."
"A red rag to a bull, my dear?" James was laughing openly. "I must hope that he escaped with his life "
"Only just!" Amy grinned at him. "Besides, had he been the most charming creature in the world, Mrs Skelmersdale would most certainly prove to be the mother-in-law from hell!" Her hand flew to her mouth. "Oh, dear, I should not have said that, should I?"
"No, you should not, you wicked imp! Amy, you haven't changed since you were ten years old. What are we to do with you?"
"You sound like Mother," Amy mourned, "who can't think how she came to produce such wayward creatures as Perdita and myself "
"And your father?' "Papa just laughs. He says that he can guess.' James chuckled. The lovely Elizabeth Wentworth was re-nowned as much for her outspoken views as her beauty.
"Your parents must have been delighted by Perdita's mar-riage to Rushmore," he continued. "I met him some years ago, and liked him very much."
"He and Perdita are so very happy, especially since she is now expecting " Amy paused. "I suppose that is some-thing else which must not be mentioned in polite society."
"I hope you don't regard me merely as a member of polite society, my dear. You may speak of anything you wish. I promise that I won't be shocked."
"Dear James!" Amy laid an affectionate hand upon his arm. She had recalled too late that the mention of Perdita's coming child might bring back unhappy memories of his own loss. "I may not have changed, but neither have you in all the years you've been away. I am always perfectly at ease with you."
He made her a little bow. "I am honoured, Amy, I value your good opinion Are your parents with you?" He looked about the Assembly Rooms.
"No, they are gone to stay with Adam and Perdita. I am "on loan'' to Aunt Trixie for these next few weeks. I'm to visit Perdita later in the year."
"So you are here to recover from the excitement of your Season? Tell me, did you enjoy it?' "Parts of it," she told him frankly. "It was my first, you know, and I loved the balls and the routs and the balloon ascents and the military displays. There is so much to do in London aside from all the parties. We saw the wild beasts in the Tower and the effigies at Madame Tussaud's, and the shops put Bath in the shade."
"But ?" he prompted. "Well, at times I did feel rather on sale to the highest bidder. You cannot know what it is like to walk into Al-mack's and to be assessed so coldly by all the matchmaking mammas as to fortune and breeding potential."
James regarded her with undisguised enjoyment. "Can't you be more specific?" he teased. "I take it that you were not tempted to bestow your hand upon any of their sons?"
"No, I wasn't, but it had its comic moments. It was vastly entertaining to watch the struggle between these ladies tak-ing on an impossible daughter-in-law, and serious consid-eration of my fortune. Father did well in the wars, you see. His prize money was enormous. Then Aunt Trixie made me her heir, or should it be heiress? I am a catch, you see!"
This was too much for James. He shouted aloud with laughter.
"Now you are behaving badly," Amy protested. "A gen-tleman must not laugh aloud. The merest twitch of the lips is all that is permitted."
"Good Lord, where did you get that outlandish notion?' "I've been reading Lord Chesterfield's Letters to His Son. It's a sort of manual of etiquette."
"Forget it!" he advised. "His lordship meant well, but the son, alas, turned out to be a disappointment. All Chester-field's advice was wasted on him."
"I didn't know that." Amy was intrigued. "But really, James, you must not laugh at me. These are serious prob-lems."
He chuckled again and then spun round as a hand rested lightly upon his shoulder.
"Richmond, won't you share the joke?" a merry voice enquired. "You two good people seem to be enjoying your-selves to a rare degree "
There was the faintest trace of an accent in the words, and Amy turned to confront a gentleman unlike any of her acquaintance. Stripped of his fine clothing he might have been taken for a gypsy. His hair had the glossy blue-black of a raven's wing and the eyes that regarded her with open admiration were darker than any she had known. He bowed, apologising for his intrusion upon their conversation, but clearly determined upon an introduction.
"Amy, this is the Comte de Vionnet," James Richmond said with some reluctance. "Philippe, pray make your bow to Miss Amy Wentworth."
"It will be a pleasure!" The gentleman bowed low, and there was no trace of servility in his manner, and the eyes that met her own held a challenge.
Amy found it irresistible. "Are you recently arrived from France?" she asked. "I thought the émigrés had left when the Terror started."
"Not all of them, Miss Wentworth. Some of us stayed behind in the hope of crushing the sans-culottes, but when the Corsican came upon the scene our cause was lost."
"I am sorry!" Amy's quick sympathies were always with the underdog. "But now, since Napoleon is defeated, your property must be returned to you"
"I must beg leave to doubt it, ma'am. Matters are not so simple. You see me as I must remain a soldier of for-tune " His voice held not the least trace of self-pity and Amy warmed to him.
Her companion was not so easily moved. "Amy, I believe that we should find your aunt," he said. "I have reserved a table in the supper room, so if Monsieur le Comte will ex-cuse us ?"
Amy was furious with him. "Need you have been so rude?" she hissed. "You might have asked Monsieur le Comte to join us. After all, he cannot know too many people here "
"I don't expect he does," James said mildly. "But he's a gregarious sort of fellow. He won't be short of company for long."
"And much you care! Why do you hold him in such dis-like?"
"Have I said that I dislike him?' "You had no need to do so. I hate you when you look so uppity!"
"I am desolated!' "No, you are not! You don't care a fig what I think. James Richmond, you are a bossy creature! Pray don't think that you may order me about!"
"I shouldn't dream of it, my pet. Always, in your com-pany, I am minded to preserve a whole skin!"
She was forced to laugh at that. "You are impossible! Now, James, you will admit that the Count is interesting. There was so much that I wished to ask him."
"Why not ask me?" he offered helpfully. "Because you are not an émigré. I wanted to know how he found the courage to stay in France, knowing that he would be executed if he was discovered. I am a coward. I couldn't have been brave when faced with the guillotine."
James looked at her with some concern. "Amy, these are dark thoughts. Must you concern yourself with them?"
"I think so." Then Amy smiled at him. "We are growing much too serious. Let us find my aunt."
That was no difficult task. As always, Miss Langrishe was surrounded by her friends. Confined for the most part to a wheelchair and a martyr to her gout, she had refused to allow the complaint to affect her way of life. Now she held out both her hands to Amy and her companion.
"Come, sit by me, and let us be comfortable," she said gaily. "Now, Amy, tell me, has Bath society changed since you were here two years ago?"
"No, ma'am, it is just the same." Amy was never less than truthful.
"And is that a compliment. Or a criticism?' "It could never be a criticism, Aunt. I love Bath and I have always done so. I wonder that the entire population of these islands does not come to live here."
"It would become a little crowded, my darling. James, you see we have a convert. Perhaps Amy will persuade you not to desert us again for wilder shores."
James was about to reply when a strident voice rang out about the general hubbub. Mrs Skelmersdale was seated at a neighbouring table, and was haranguing the timid-looking girl who sat beside her.
"Charlotte, must you slouch in that stupid way?" she snapped. "Pray sit up straight! These die-away airs which you affect do nothing for your appearance. Are you not plain enough?"
It was a question which merited no reply, and the girl did not answer, but Mrs Skelmersdale was not done with her strictures. She turned to Mrs Melville.
"Be thankful that you have no daughters, Clarissa. My own girl is naught but a trial to me. Here she sits mum-chance. As usual she makes not the slightest attempt to fix her interest with any gentleman in this room. What a future she has, to be sure! First to become an ape-leader and then to wither into spinsterhood!"
Mrs Melville looked uncomfortable. Several heads had turned in the direction of their table, and the unfortunate Charlotte had flushed to the roots of her hair. It was a very public humiliation and her eyes were bright with unshed tears.
It was too much for Amy. She sprang to her feet and walked towards the girl. With the briefest of bows to the older woman, she greeted Charlotte with a friendly smile.
"Miss Skelmersdale, I am so happy to see you here this evening," she announced. "I have been meaning to ask you for this age if you would care to accompany us on an ex-pedition which we plan to make to Bristol in the coming week?"
It was hard to decide which of her listeners was the most astonished. Mrs Skelmersdale's mouth fell open. To date the fiery Miss Wentworth had shown no desire to become better acquainted with her daughter.
She glanced at her daughter's face and was tempted to veto the invitation out-of-hand. She had suspected for some time that Charlotte admired Miss Wentworth to a ridiculous degree. If they became close friends, who knew what no-tions the girl might get into her head. Now she was smiling up at the tall figure who stood before her.