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"Th-thank you, sir." Mary Seabrook cursed the childhood stammer that had resurfaced in London, certain that it contributed to Mr. Timor's haste to be rid of her--now that the set was over, he was returning her to her sister at a near run.
The dance should have passed without incident, for he was hardly intimidating--barely eighteen, thin as a rail, with an Adam's apple that bobbed twice above a loosely tied cravat whenever he readied himself for speech. His shyness should have made him a kindred spirit. Yet this set had been her worst yet.
Her face heated with the memory.
On the very first pass, she had trod on his foot, making him stumble. Mortified, she'd then turned left instead of right so his outstretched hand slammed into her bosom. Two ladies laughed. Mr. Wendell, deeper in his cups than usual, murmured something about ladybirds, making Mr. Timor blush scarlet to match his hair. Mary had wanted to flee, but the door was too far away.
Mr. Timor's stuttered apology had made her feel even worse, because she knew it was all her fault. He did, too, remaining a full arm's length away for the rest of the interminable set.
Why had Catherine insisted that she attend Lady Debenham's ball? They both knew she had no chance of making a match this Season. Nervousness made her clumsy. Shyness tied her tongue in knots until she lacked even basic conversation--at least what society considered basic. While she talked well enough about birds, animals, and the natural history of Devonshire, the polite world cared only for fashion and gossip. But Mary paid little heed to fashion. And she had been the subject of too much gossip to ever repeat its endless scandals.
Shewould have been happier attending tonight's meeting of the Ornithology Society. Mr. Duncanson was sharing his studies of the reedling, a bird found in reed beds along the east coast. But Catherine had refused, and Blake had backed her judgment.
Mary stifled irritation with her eldest sister. Where was the harm? It wasn't as if she'd expected the family to accompany her. Her sister Laura was a diamond of the first water and had to attend Marriage Mart events. Now that Blake was supplementing Laura's meager dowry, she would find the brilliant match she deserved.
But even a large dowry wouldn't win Mary a match. She would have preferred to stay at Blake's estate or go home to her brother. But she had not been offered either choice. Instead, she was in London, forced to spend the Season in Laura's shadow.
Be fair, urged her conscience.
All right, they had only been in town for three weeks, and Laura needed to become established quickly. At two-and-twenty, she was already old for a first Season. And while Catherine's husband, Blake, was Earl of Rockhurst, their father had been an unknown baron. Once they settled into a routine, Mary could seek other entertainment.
Blake had promised intellectual soirees and societies devoted to her interests. But he was so involved in Parliament that he couldn't look after his wife's sisters. Catherine tried, but this was her first foray into society, too, so she had to establish her own place. Being unsure of the rules, she espoused rigid propriety, which kept Mary in ballrooms instead of with fellow intellectuals.
Catherine would mellow once she relaxed, though. The real problem was Laura.
Laura had changed since reaching London. Her sapphire eyes and blonde ringlets had always attracted every gentleman in the vicinity. They wrote odes to her porcelain skin and musical voice, comparing her to Aphrodite, Helen of Troy, and other mythical beauties. Laura had always accepted such praise as her due, but now she flaunted her looks and demanded constant flattery, turning petulant if she didn't receive it. And next to Laura, Mary's straight brown hair, freckled shoulders, and embarrassing penchant for doing and saying the wrong things drew unwelcome comparisons.
She sighed. She couldn't blame Laura for distancing herself, but her efforts too often focused attention on the very incidents she wished to ignore. And knowing that Laura's friends would laugh at every mistake made Mary even more nervous.
Mr. Timor deposited her with Laura, mumbled something under his breath, then retreated so fast he nearly tripped.
None of Laura's admirers noticed. As they vied for the next set, they inadvertently squeezed Mary against the wall.
A year ago, she would have accepted her invisibility with thanks--it was a normal condition when Laura was nearby. On those few occasions when neighbors noticed her, they accepted her shyness and her interest in natural history. She hadn't stammered since age ten.
Then Blake had hired Miss Mott to prepare her for London, believing polish would reduce her shyness. Instead, Miss Mott's rigid rules and perpetual disapproval had destroyed her self-confidence. Nothing she said or did or thought was acceptable. The harder she tried to conform, the worse she became. Her feet caught on phantom obstacles. Her tongue either froze or stammered embarrassing truths. She couldn't even hold a cup without rattling it against its dish these days. Thus she could only keep from plunging the family into scandal if she stayed out of sight--difficult when Laura was always the center of attention.
The next set was called.
Laura glanced around. "There you are, Mary. Mr. Griffin requested this set. Catherine knew no one else wanted it, so she accepted for you."
None of Laura's admirers noted the verbal jab. Nor did they recognize the lie. But Mary knew that Catherine had been gossiping across the room for nearly an hour. Laura had accepted his offer to avenge last night's insult.
This need for revenge was also new. Laura resented sharing her Season. Any attention to Mary irritated her, even polite greetings, for she expected gentlemen to see no one but her. So when Lord Whitehaven had led Mary out, Laura had been furious. As heir to the Duke of Cromley, he was the highest-ranking bachelor in town. But he wasn't ready for marriage. Instead, he used his charm to set the nervous and shy at ease.
Last night had been Mary's turn.
"You study birds, I hear," he said when the steps brought them together. The music was the most sedate of the country dances, allowing time to converse.
"I d-do, my lord. They are more interesting than people."
He ignored her stammer. "Less threatening, at least. A bird will never reveal your secrets."
"Unless it's a parrot," she riposted, amazing herself. "Our neighbor has one who is quick to learn and faithfully reproduces the speaker's voice."
"That could be embarrassing." He smiled.
"Very. Nemesis has criticized our leading gossip, revealed details of a smuggling venture, and repeated at least one amorous encounter."
"Remind me never to buy a parrot." His eyes sparkled. "Have you discovered any interesting birds in London?"
"Very few," she admitted. "Laura's social schedule keeps us busy."
He nodded, but he must have heard her wistfulness. "You might consider riding in Hyde Park in the morning. My groom mentioned a pair of--what do you call those tiny falcons with the white collars?"
"That's the name. Thank you. He spotted them last week."
"Is he sure?" Enthusiasm animated her voice. "Hobbies are quite rare. Though they supposedly nest along the south coast, I've seen only one before. Could they possibly be nesting so near town?"
"I have no idea, but Trotter likes birds almost as much as horses, so I would trust his identification. He saw this pair beyond the Serpentine, near Kensington Palace." He shrugged--very elegantly--then turned the conversation to on-dits, entertaining her with a witty description of Miss Derrick's latest attempt to attract Lord Wroxleigh.
Mary had laughed, survived the set without a single stumble, then endured Laura's animosity for the rest of the evening. Laura wouldn't admit that an invitation from Whitehaven would have insulted her by grouping her with society's misfits. Instead, she felt humiliated by his indifference.
Now Mary had to deal with her revenge, and a fiendish one it was. Mr. Griffin was Lord Whitehaven's antithesis. Her skin crawled whenever he was near, as it did now.
"Come along, Miss Mary. The music is about to begin." His voice hissed.
She dreaded the next half hour. His malicious tongue eroded her confidence by criticizing her stammering, her awkwardness, and her education. And he repeated his observations to others, adding to her reputation as a laughingstock.
At least he wasn't courting her, though she was his primary victim just now. Since his eyes gleamed whenever she flinched, she deduced that he enjoyed inflicting pain. Perhaps he needed to feel superior, attacking society's antidotes because they made such easy targets. And maybe he would give up if she ceased reacting.
To distract her thoughts from Griffin, she studied the ballroom. Lady Debenham had one of the few private ballrooms in Mayfair. It was classically appointed, with Greek columns marching down each side, elaborate frescoes at either end, and heavily carved friezes framing an ornate ceiling. Tonight's decorations included an unusual number of palms massed in corners and lined up between columns. Perhaps she'd been striving for a garden effect, though flowers might have achieved it more easily.
Mary smiled as the music started. Lady Debenham's niece, who was calling the sets, must also be cursed with an unwanted partner, for she'd chosen an energetic country dance performed mostly with other gentlemen. Mary could enjoy this set after all.
The music stopped a scant quarter hour later, making it the shortest set of the evening--possibly the shortest at any ball this Season. But Griffin foiled her escape.
"We need fresh air," he said firmly, tugging her toward the terrace. "You look ready to faint."
"Hardly," she replied curtly.
Alarmed, Mary dug in her heels and jerked her arm free. "I have no desire for fresh air, sir. It is foggy and cold tonight. Either escort me to Lady Rockhurst, or I will go alone."
He narrowed his gaze, surprised by her resolution. But she saw no reason to flatter him. Nor would she give him time to argue. Perhaps those rumors she'd overheard last week had more substance than she'd thought. She had trusted Blake to warn her if they were true, but Blake might not know Griffin was plaguing her. Parliament kept him too busy for ballrooms.
When Griffin again reached for her arm, she backed out of reach, darted around four men arguing about last night's riot at the opera, then skirted a dozen dowagers speculating on Miss Derrick's next ploy. When a cluster of ladies screened her from view, she ducked behind a pillar near the refreshment room. There was some advantage to being shorter than half the ladies in town.
Breathing deeply, she waited for her pounding heart to settle, then peered through a palm. It was stupid to be afraid of a man when she was surrounded by people, but she wasn't sure she could scream, even if Griffin dragged her away. It would draw attention.
Eighteen months earlier she had stood in a similar crowd, shocked into paralysis at the hatred, disgust, and censure being hurled from all sides. Though she'd been innocent of all charges, her neighbors had turned on her, casting her out of local society--temporarily, but she would die if it happened again. So she effaced herself, avoiding attention, good or bad. It was safer that way.
Griffin was seeking her. She snapped her head out of sight, cringing farther into the shadows. Perhaps he meant to see her safely back to Catherine, but she doubted it. He wanted something from her, and it wasn't marriage. Unlike his namesake, there was nothing noble or protective about this griffin. Slyness lurked beneath his façade. His eyes watched her like a cat toying with a mouse.
So far he'd attacked only her obvious flaws, but eventually he would discover facts London didn't yet know--her years as governess to her niece, her solitary treks about the countryside to study birds, and the false accusations of eighteen months ago. Reviving that fiasco could throw the entire family into scandal. Laura would be furious.
But maybe she was doing him an injustice. Perhaps Laura had triggered this sudden urge to take her outside. Laura was a poor judge of character and might have laughingly suggested a romantic stroll in the moonlight as part of her retaliation--discovering Mary in a compromising position would remove her from town. It was an unworthy thought, but one Mary couldn't stifle. And if Laura was scheming with Griffin, she must tell Blake. Griffin was not right in the head. Encouraging him could only lead to trouble.
He was heading for the refreshment room, so she sidestepped to keep the pillar between them. But she forgot to check behind her. The pillar and palms screened a servants' door propped open by a cluttered table. Her skirt snagged a tray, knocking it to the floor. Breaking glass stopped conversation cold.
Mary cursed. This was her worst accident yet. Every eye was now turned toward this corner. If Griffin had heard the crash--and how could he not?--he would know where she was. Who but Mary Seabrook would cause such a disturbance? Only last week she had overbalanced while making her curtsy to the royal Duke of Clarence, bumping his arm so wine spattered all over his coat.
She darted past the door, followed the palms along the next wall, then paused to peer out. Griffin was rounding her pillar. Praying he would think she'd escaped through the servants' door, she sauntered past the terrace, then slipped behind another row of palms near the card room--a thick, double row that screened a shocking hole in the wall.
She stared. A hole in Lady Debenham's elegant ballroom? It looked like someone had struck a heavy blow with a club. But this explained tonight's plethora of palms. They must be camouflage.
The hole reminded her of a truth she'd ignored until now. London society was built on façades--hypocritical matrons decrying vices they practiced in private, elegant drawing rooms in houses falling into disrepair, ladies fawning over people they savaged elsewhere, suitors disguising poverty with fancy wardrobes. She could trust nothing. But that very fact gave her hope. If she could erect her own façade of competence, she might survive the Season intact.
Leaning against the wall, she pulled a tiny sketchpad from her reticule. Catherine wanted her to leave it home, but Mary needed to escape nearly every evening, either to recover her composure or relieve boredom. Its pages captured scenes she wanted to remember and transformed disasters into humor.
Under her flying pencil a picture of Eden evolved--lush plants, bubbling streams, mouthwatering fruits, and a poisonous snake curled around the branch of an apple tree. Its face bore a striking resemblance to Mr. Griffin.
Smiling, she turned to a new page and began drawing a common chaffinch. It wasn't a particularly interesting bird, but one had landed on her window ledge yesterday and cocked its head as if amused, evoking a laugh.
Lord Grayson sauntered across Lady Debenham's ballroom, pausing frequently to exchange greetings with acquaintances or flirt lightly with matrons. His path was far from straight, for he avoided a dozen disapproving dowagers and every unmarried lady--a habit honed over three years of society's censure. Avoiding innocents maintained an uneasy truce, keeping his name on guest lists. Sometimes he wondered why he bothered, for he had more than enough work to fill the hours, and he was always welcome in his clubs. But he couldn't stay away from the Season.
He quickly suppressed the thought, though it was true that only in society could he meet ladies of quality. And despite everything, he still dreamed of one day marrying and setting up his nursery--not that he could imagine what that fantasy family might be like. He would cast himself into the Thames before reproducing his own. And no decent young lady could speak to him, let alone accept an offer.
He skirted a cluster of misses, then deflected an invitation from Lady Alston. She was renowned for entertaining gentlemen, but he had no interest in sampling her charms. Rumor had always exaggerated his raking. And even at his worst, he'd never bedded matrons. The last thing he wanted was to emulate his father.
Long practice hid his disgust at allowing Rothmoor into his mind. At least half of his reputation arose from the assumption like father, like son.
The Earl of Rothmoor had long pursued anything in skirts, ignoring rank, wedded state, or even desire on the unfortunate female's part. The man had three loves--horses, hounds, and whores. And in his view, if it was female, it was a whore. Ladies gave him a wide berth, and villagers hid their daughters when Rothmoor approached.
Gray felt Lady Cunningham's animosity as he passed her. She was one of his more vocal detractors, not that he could blame her. She'd whelped eight children, six of them girls. If his calculations were correct, she would be firing off daughter number three this Season. In her eyes, he should have been ostracized three years ago so he couldn't endanger her offspring.
The shield protecting his heart quivered, but he quickly steadied it. No one had promised that life would be fair. Those who followed the rules suffered as much as those who didn't. Yet honor demanded he at least try, so he did whatever was necessary, then hoped for the best. All in all, he managed a tolerable existence. If donning his public façade seemed difficult tonight, he could blame only himself. Attending a ball after six hours of skidding into muddy ditches and bouncing across ruts was one of his poorer ideas. But he'd wanted the latest news. Where else to get it but in Lady Debenham's ballroom? She was the second most formidable gossip in London.
"Gray!" A grin split Nicholas Barrington's face as he shook hands. They had been close friends since school. "When did you return to town?"
"An hour ago." He shuddered. "Horrible journey. All this rain." His eyes took in Nick's appearance, from the Byronesque curls, through the intricate cravat and wine-colored coat, to the highly polished dancing shoes. "New knot?"
Nick laughed. "New valet. I've not yet broken him in. He has delusions of dandyism, I fear."
"Not a bad idea. The affectation would mask your intellect to a nicety." Gray was one of the few who knew that Nick supported himself entirely on wagers based on his understanding of human nature.
"I would rather be thought intellectual than court comparisons to peacocks."
Gray laughed. "So who's in town this year?"
"Atwater is back, though it's barely six months since his wife died. He seems smitten with Miss Warren--Forley's sister."
"This is his first Season in London, but you might recall his father. Died about six years ago."
"Ah. Fast parties. Ran with Cavendish, as I recall. Dissipated his fortune trying to keep up."
"That's the one." Nick scanned the room. "The latest Cunningham chit will do well--looks and a keen sense of humor. Rockhurst is back and supporting the reformists in Parliament. He's sponsoring his wife's two sisters. The elder Miss Seabrook is a diamond, though too aware of it. She uses the younger as a foil, which I deplore."
"Perhaps it would have been kinder to leave the younger at home another year."
"Perhaps, but Miss Mary is already twenty--the family was destitute until Rockhurst stepped in. Once she conquers her nervousness, she should do well." A shrug dismissed the Seabrooks. "The other diamonds are Miss Norton and Miss Harfield. As for the lesser lights, Miss Huntsley is beyond hope. I expect she will return home within the month."
"Clumsy, gauche, not overly bright, and looks that would make a bulldog seem handsome. Her dowry is too small to compensate. That's her talking to Lady Stafford."
Gray glanced across the room. Horse-faced and dressed in a gown so bedecked with ribbons and bows that she could pass as a display in a draper's shop. He would have to avoid Miss Huntsley.
Socially inept females were his bane, though he could only blame himself. As a stripling, he had sympathized with society's misfits. So he'd tried to set them at ease, drawing out the shy, relaxing the nervous, introducing originals to gentlemen who shared their interests.
No more. He'd been badly burned for his efforts and now stayed far away from eligible misses. Another scandal would ruin him. Only his fortune and expectations had kept him in London ballrooms after the last one.
"What are the latest on-dits?" he asked, his eyes scanning the crowd for potential trouble. Lady Alston playfully rapped a fan on Wigby's arm--arranging an assignation? Lady Cunningham had pulled her daughter behind a pillar, probably to warn her away from Lord Grayson. Griffin burst from the refreshment room with a face like thunder.
Nick smiled. "Shelford made a cake of himself last week. Fell off his horse in Hyde Park."
"Fell?" Shelford was a noted Corinthian and outstanding horseman who could prose for hours about horses, riding, and carriage construction. Gray found his lectures as boring as Rothmoor's discourses on hunting and shooting.
"At least fifty people saw him. He was so smitten by a young lady's beauty that he wasn't ready when his horse shied."
Gray shook his head.
Nick continued. "Renford and Garwood are suddenly at odds, though no one knows why. I suspect the complaint is Garwood's."
"Not surprising. The man's a prime prig."
"True. And in another dispute, Atwater may regret returning while in mourning. Blackthorn is trying to provoke a challenge."
"Atwater had best look out, then. Blackthorn has already killed several men."
"He won't be the next. I've never seen him in a temper, no matter what the provocation. The man is a saint--and just as annoying as one." Nick shrugged.
Gray chuckled. Nick always suspected those who were too perfect. "Anyone I should look out for besides Miss Huntsley?" Some girls were drawn to rakes. It made no sense, since such associations could ruin them. But every rake knew they existed.
"Miss Derrick. Her mother is dead, so her father hired Miss Pettigrew as chaperon."
"Damnation. The woman is too enamored of cards to watch anyone." He ought to know. One of her previous charges had made his life hell. "Does Miss Derrick court danger, or is she already unchaste?"
"Danger, certainly, but I doubt she is experienced. Her ultimate goal is marriage, and after a month in town, she's growing desperate. Her father can't afford a second Season. Doubtless she will ruin herself before long, but in the meantime, she is forward enough to be a serious problem."
"I won't be the one who ruins her. Maybe we should direct her to Devereaux or Lord Roger, and be done with her. Neither cares a whit for society or for convention."
"It wouldn't work. She's drawn to rakes, but demands wealth and position, too. Devereaux would never offer marriage, and Lord Roger lacks social standing. She cut my acquaintance when she discovered I have no fortune and am only remotely connected to a title. She's been after Wroxleigh for the past week. He set her down quite firmly yesterday, then cut her dead in the park this morning, so she will rejoice over your arrival. You also meet her standards."
"Heir to an earl who despises me. An exaggerated reputation that is often out-and-out false."
"But you are rich."
"From engaging in trade." He shrugged.
"I doubt she would care, and Rothmoor can't cut you out of the title. So watch out."
"Is she here tonight?" Gray frowned. Girls who craved danger were as bad as the greedy ones who had destroyed his credit. He would gladly throttle the lot of them.
"She's talking to Lady Beatrice. The white gown with rosebuds on the bodice. She always dresses in white. It makes her look angelic if you ignore her eyes. They are alive with scheming."
Nick would know. He could see beneath the surface better than anyone.
Gray casually glanced toward the corner. Honey blonde hair, light eyes, heart-shaped face. With a decent portion, she would have no trouble making a good match, so why did she risk a reputation that must already be tarnished? Only two gentlemen were paying her heed, and neither had marriage on his mind.
He shuddered when she turned and met his gaze. She must already know who he was, for her eyes lit like lanterns, and she coquettishly waved her fan.
"Is Justin here tonight?" he asked, turning back to Nick. Lord Justin Landess was the other member of their trio.
"In the card room. Heatherford is trying to convince him to replace his team."
"I'd better rescue him, then. Once Heatherford starts talking horses, he never stops."
Nick nodded. "I'll see you at White's later. I've bespoken this next set."
Gray watched Nick move off, then headed for the card room. But he'd not gone three steps before spotting Miss Derrick headed his way. Damnation! She'd already crossed half the room.
He joined a group of gentlemen discussing the latest news from Spain, then ducked behind a screen of palms when they headed for the door. Since two of them wore jackets the same blue as his, Miss Derrick might believe he'd left with them. But his real destination lay in another direction.
He hugged the wall, careful not to brush the branches as he followed the palms toward the card room. He'd traversed half the distance before he realized he was not alone. A young lady was also hiding.
Curses exploded through his head. He was neatly trapped. Retracing his steps would draw Miss Derrick's attention, yet he must squeeze past this new threat to reach the card room.
But was she a threat?
She almost looked like a companion or governess, though she could not yet be twenty. Brown hair coiled untidily atop her head--or perhaps it was falling out of an attempt at curls. A plain white gown encased her slim body, a single ribbon beneath the bodice its only embellishment. The high neckline covered a lack of jewelry. One hand clutched a pad of paper.
He shook off that notion as she added lines to a picture, the tip of her tongue protruding past her teeth. She couldn't be sketching the ballroom, for she never looked at it. She might have been alone in a field for all the attention she paid her surroundings. Odd. Very odd.
Curiosity is dangerous, warned his conscience.
Ignoring it, he peeked over her shoulder, then inhaled in surprise. She was a talented artist and a student of natural history. Who else could draw so well from memory? A chaffinch perched in a gnarled apple tree, head cocked perkily to one side. A few lines evoked rough bark, soft feathers, and lustrous fruit. But he could see why she was frowning. The bird's beak was too thick, pushing it slightly off balance.
"Try this," he murmured, grabbing the pad.
"Oh!" She whirled, one hand to her breast. "I d-didn't know anyone was here."
"Not so loud." He rubbed out the beak. Brisk strokes reshaped the appendage, bringing the bird to life. "That's better. Are you from the west country?"
She nodded. "How did you know?"
"That is the only place you find apples that shape. Those in the east are rounder. You are an accomplished sketch artist."
"I--" She blushed. "I was hoping to see some different birds in town, but we have so little time to look about."
"If you walk in the park in the mornings, you will see hoopoes and bee eaters. And a magnificent purple heron visits the Serpentine at dawn most days."
"I heard a pair of hobbies was spotted near Kensington Palace recently."
"Interesting. I've not seen them here before." He smiled, leaning negligently against the wall. "Richmond is better suited for bird watching. Forest. Heath. River. Plenty of space and food."
"Perhaps Laura will consider an excursion to Richmond, then," she murmured, half to herself.
"You would enjoy it." Gray knew he should leave before someone spotted him--clothes notwithstanding, this girl was clearly quality, and unmarried quality at that. But he couldn't do it. Aside from the certainty that Miss Derrick still lurked, he was enjoying her company. Obviously she didn't recognize him. She was not flirting or swooning or regarding him as Satan. It had been too long since he had talked with a young lady--or relaxed while talking to anyone. His reputation overshadowed every contact.
He idly turned pages. A sparrow hawk, a hedgehog, a caricature--
"Egad, that is Wigby to the life. We were schoolmates." He chuckled. She had sketched him as a stork. Very appropriate, as the dandy was tall and very lean, with thin legs and a long pointed nose. No amount of padding could cover his defects. The next page depicted Lord Edward Broadburn as a charming pouter pigeon, so overburdened by a thrust-out chest that he teetered on his feet.
"Sir--My l-lord--" She stammered to a halt.
He knew his manners were outrageous--she was an innocent, for God's sake--but something about her drew him. Her presence behind the palms told him she was shy, though her sketches displayed a wicked sense of humor. Four years ago he would have set her at ease. And maybe he still could.
"My apologies," he said softly. "But I must wonder why so talented a lady is hiding in the shadows. London is not filled with ogres."
"Of course not. But it takes only one."
"An ogre? Are you sure? Did someone spurn your smiles? Surely you need not fear rejection." He turned the page and chuckled again. Griffin hung from a tree, his forked tongue hissing. "You've a delightful eye for character, my dear. He is pure poison, though too few see it. But except for ungentlemanly insults, you should be safe enough. He prefers country innocents of fourteen or so."
"I had heard rumors, though no one will confirm them to young ladies. Yet he clearly seeks me out. Though I try to avoid him, he is forever popping up."
"Like a weed?"
She laughed. "Exactly. Bindweed, most likely. One moment the room is quite congenial, the next it contains Mr. Griffin. One cannot root him out."
"So circumvent him. You might befriend Mr. Hempbury. Not only is he fascinated by birds and other natural wonders, but Griffin cannot tolerate the fellow."
"Th-thank you," she stammered.
When she was nervous she seemed quite young, and very unspoiled. Perhaps she had reason to fear the snake after all.
It might be instructive to check on Griffin's current activities. The man inhabited society's fringes. As long as he behaved, he was welcome at large ton gatherings, but even a mild scandal would banish him. Rumors suggested that he frequented a certain house of punishment, though not as a penitent. He was said to have a strong arm with a whip.
Gray returned her pad. "Au revoir, my dear artist. It has been a most delightful meeting. I needed a chuckle after a frustrating day. But be careful whom you parody. There are those who lose all humor when they are the subject."
Stepping past her, he grinned at the damaged wall her skirts had hidden. That explained this convenient excess of palms.
The set was over, with the usual confusion as gentlemen returned partners to their chaperons, then sought new ones. Thus it was easy to slip unnoticed into the card room.
But he felt an unexpected tug of regret. She had talent, intelligence, and eyes that saw beneath the surface. Quite different from the usual society miss. Were she a man, they might have become friends.
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