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Dance of Seduction
In Books or Work, or healthful Play
Let my first Years be past,
That I may give for every Day
Some good Account at last.
"Against Idleness and Mischief" Isaac Watts,
Divine Songs attempted in Easy Language
for the Use of Children
Lady Clara Stanbourne was descended from a long line of reformers and rogues. Her late father's side had produced Quakers and Whigs whose passion to effect change was surpassed only by their respectable station. Her late mother's side, the Doggetts, boasted a broad assortment of feckless scoundrels who'd gloried in gambling, delighted in debauchery, and wallowed in wild living. The Doggetts possessed no respectability at all except through their tenuous connection to the Stanbournes through marriage. Fortunately for England, the Doggetts had virtually died out. Only Clara's uncle Cecil, the card cheat, carried on the family tradition of wreaking havoc upon the unsuspecting and the virtuous. But he did it in America now, having fled England eight years earlier, when his cheating had landed him on the wrong end of a very large pistol.
Thus Lady Clara was surprised when she came downstairs on a bright spring Monday to learn that her uncle's American solicitor, a Mr. Gaither, had just arrived at Stanbourne Hall from Virginia. She didn't even know her uncle possessed something so lofty as a solicitor. Yet Samuel, her new footman, insisted that such a creature awaited her in the front parlor.
With a sigh , she glanced at the clock. "They're expecting me at the Home any minute. After my being awayin the country for two weeks, they 'll worry if I'm late. I suppose you'll have to send a boy round with a note."
"Yes, m'lady," Samuel said nervously, looking very smart in his new footman's uniform. Samuel was her most recent success from the Stanbourne Home for the Reformation of Pickpockets. Though he was a bit short for a proper footman, he performed his duties well enough, which was all that mattered.
An eruption of barking from the front parlor warned that her aunt, Verity Stanbourne, had reached the parlor first. Clara hastened to the doorway, groaning to find her aunt's three beribboned miniature poodles dancing around the American. Poor Mr. Gaither teetered on rickety legs atop a footstool, crying, "Shoo! Go on, you beasts! Get away!"
Aunt Verity flapped her hands fruitlessly at the capering, yapping dogs. "Now, Fiddle, you mustn't—Oh, come away, Faddle! And Foodle, if you don't stop this—" She cast Mr. Gaither a helpless look. "See how you've upset my lassies?" They're all much annoyed, I tell you." A sharp woof preceded the entrance of an old spaniel bitch. "Lord have mercy, here comes Empress—stay put, Mr. Gaither! If she doesn't approve of you, she's liable to bite you!"
Clara crossed the room and threw herself into the midst of the dogs. "Down, all of you, this minute! No one's biting anyone." She glared at the poodles until the barking turned to whimpers and three curly heads drooped in shameless obeisance.
When Empress kept woofing at poor Mr. Gaither's feet, Clara added sharply, "That's enough, Empress," and the aging spaniel retreated to Aunt Verity's side.
Unfortunately, Clara could do nothing about the low growl the dog continued to emit. Empress had taken a distinct dislike to their guest, which boded ill for Mr. Gaither. The dog had an uncanny ability to judge people accurately. Whomever she growled or barked at was eventually shown to possess serious character flaws. Empress was so adept that Aunt Verity used her to sift out good applicants from bad when interviewing new servants. As a result, Stanbourne Hall's staff was the envy of all Aunt Verity's friends.
Judging from Mr. Gaither's scowl, his character flaw was a hatred of dogs.
Clara held out her hand to help him down from the stool. "I'm so sorry, sir. I'm Lady Clara Stanbourne, and I see you've already met my aunt. Please forgive us for our chaotic ways. I fear we aren't much used to visitors."
"I can see why," he grumbled as he climbed down. Bestowing glares all round, he brushed at his frock coat to eliminate any remaining essence of canine.
"It's your own fault, sir." Aunt Verity sat down on the settee and arranged her skirts as carefully as any coquette. "You wouldn't let them sniff you, and they don't like that." One of the poodles jumped into her lap, and she clutched him close.
"You tried to kick Faddle, and she's very sensitive about these things "
"Sensitive! She's a blasted dog! And furthermore, I don't think—"
"Won't you sit down, Mr. Gaither?" Clara put in, "Perhaps you'd like some tea?"
That brought him up short. He glowered at her. "No, madam. I'd just as soon attend to business and be done with this." Fixing his gaze on the still growling Empress, who'd plopped down on Aunt Verity's feet, the solicitor took a seat as far away from the dogs as possible. "Letting beasts run wild ... setting them on strangers ... I swear, the whole country is mad."
Ignoring his complaints, Aunt Verity patted the settee, and Fiddle and Foodle leaped to cram their little bodies into the coveted space next to her. With a sigh, Clara sat on her aunt's other side. Good Lord, what a day. And it wasn't even noon yet.
Still keeping a wary eye on the dogs, Mr. Gaither opened his satchel to rummage through some papers. "I'm here to inform you, my lady, that Cecil Doggett is deceased."
He made his statement so baldly that Clara was sure she'd misheard . . .Dance of Seduction. Copyright © by Sabrina Jeffries. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.