Regency Society Revisited
Click on image to enlarge.
by Susanne Marie Knight
Description: The future and the past collide! Anthropologist Serenity Steele meets her heart's desire in the form of a short-tempered Regency rake, Nicholas Wycliffe.
eBook Publisher: Awe-Struck E-Books/Awe-Struck E-Books, Inc., 2007 2007
eBookwise Release Date: November 2007
27 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [417 KB]
Reading time: 249-349 min.
"A fun read for any history or time travel fan. The romantic would also enjoy this story. Talented author Susanne Marie Knight opens the door for a peek into a time we can only speculate at. Written in an easy-to-read style the movement and characters will hold your interest to the last word. Enjoy. I did."--Anne K. Edwards, Mysteryfiction.net
"This well written love story comes special delivery for readers of historical romance and fans of time travel romance. The characters are likeable and the dialogue is clever as it speeds the plot along at an agreeable pace. Prepare for an exciting journey in Ms. Knight's newest offering, Regency Society Revisited. The author has given the tried and true theme a twist that satisfies and entertains at the same time."--Rho, A Romance Review, 4 1/2 ROSES
Before Serenity had a chance to reply, Brockton brusquely demanded where, exactly, were they headed?
"Twenty-three Bedford Street. Didn't Lady Zeena give you my address?"
A stony silence was Serenity's answer. Heavens! That was why none of the Wycliffe household paid her a visit yet. Somehow, she must've left the wrong address. The excitable Zeena most likely had assumed her new friend was missing ... or worse.
Oh no! That explained why the toplofty Lord Brockton was driving his stylish curricle down the produce lanes of the Covent Garden Market. He'd never willingly exert himself to interrupt his daily routine--unless persistently nagged to do so. And Zeena could be as persistent as she was loyal.
"I gave the wrong address, didn't I?" She stared at her gloved hands, completely humiliated. "I must go immediately and apologize to Lady Zeena."
As difficult as it was to do, she had to apologize to him as well. "Um, I'm also so very sorry for inconveniencing you."
"May I suggest you change your clothes before you go calling, Mrs. Steele?" Brockton stopped his horses in front of number Twenty-three. "Lord knows, you are unpredictable enough to head out to Rotterham House just as you are."
"Doing it too brown, Brockton," Harrison admonished. He helped Serenity alight, and walked a pace with her to the brick townhouse.
"Don't pay any heed to Brockton, Mrs. Steele. He is just bluedeviled at rising so early in the morning. Knowing Lady Zeena, it is very likely she misunderstood your words. Never fear, when you visit Lady Rotterham this afternoon, all will be well."
A sting of tears blurred her vision, and she thanked Osborne for his kindness and reassurance. When he patted her hands, she heard Brockton mumble something--in all likelihood, something unflattering.
Saying her good-byes, she hurried inside the townhouse. * * * *
"I must pull myself together. I must!" In a fit of anger, Serenity stomped around her bedchamber, her gown swishing behind her. "Here I am, an associate director for the prestigious United Anthropological Institute, on a plum assignment, and I'm behaving as a perfect fool ... or ninnyhammer--whatever. Oh, damn it all!"
She'd almost broken down and cried outside the townhouse. Now her emotions threatened to overcome her again before visiting Zeena. She had to get herself back on an even keel. How could she have been so stupid, giving the wrong address?
Now spotless in a gingham striped round gown, Serenity looked at her pale face, and pinched her cheeks for color. That done, she rushed over to Rotterham House to apologize.
The Marchioness and Zeena would have none of it. They sat in the Gold Salon, deflecting the blame from her, and shifting it onto the butler.
"It is likely Rawlins misunderstood you, Serry," Lady Rotterham said. "You do have a bit of an accent. The North country, I presume. At times Rawlins has been known to be deaf."
An occupational requirement, Serenity thought in the butler's defense. Again, she tried to shoulder the blame, but found herself invited to the Duke and Duchess of Lyndon's ball, instead.
"I have been beside myself, wanting to give you the news. It is tomorrow night," Zeena bubbled, her anxiety all but forgotten. "It will be the first ball of the season. Everyone will be there. Even Lord Byron is planning to attend."
"Zeena!" The Marchioness was scandalized. "You have not formed a tendre for him, have you? Zeena, he is only a baron, though all the rage, I must admit. But he is also the subject of numerous on-dits around town. Especially since his name is linked with that indiscreet Lady Caroline Lamb. And they just met--at a waltzing-party--only a few days ago."
"Oh, Mother!" Zeena sing-songed the age-old words of protest.
Serenity almost could hear those same words uttered by her own sister, Tracy. But the change in topic lightened her feelings of guilt. And what a stroke of luck to be invited to the Lyndons' ball. There were bound to be a variety of informants present. Hopefully she could gather information about British reaction to the Napoleonic War.
She took a deep breath. Maybe by tomorrow she could get her wayward emotions under control.
Lady Rotterham rapidly fanned herself with a hanky. The older lady needed to calm down.
"I'm sure Zeena isn't interested in the poet, my lady. If I'm right, someone much closer to home is attracting her attention." Sir Rodney Presson rented a house for the season, also on Grosvenor Square.
Zeena blushed. The girl probably didn't think anyone noticed which way her heart was leaning.
"Perhaps," she admitted shyly, straightening a cushion on a glistening gold sofa. "But say you will accompany us tomorrow. We will come 'round to pick you up. We can attend the ball together." She looked to her mother's now-relaxed form for confirmation.
Lady Rotterham smiled her agreement, then sent her daughter off to fetch an embroidered shawl. "Had to get her out of the way," the Marchioness confided. "We certainly have missed you around here, Serry. Your presence always soothes my high-strung daughter. And Edward, too. When Rawlins announced you, the relief I felt was palpable! Now, do tell me. Who does my daughter favor?"
Serenity bit her lip. "I really can't say. Perhaps I'm wrong."
"No matter. After all, Zeena is very young and very eligible. As I told you before, I have dreams of her securing an earl, at the very least."
Serenity wisely kept quiet and took her leave. * * * * Chapter Twelve
Entering his study, Nicholas shot his jaded gaze at the fireplace mantle, now infested with gilt-edged invitations. More examples of haut ton celebrations of excess. Of course he would decline them all.
He strolled over and picked up the vellum card on the end. Osborne's parents, the Duke and Duchess of Lyndon requested his presence at their ball. While the Duke was a good sort, Nicholas hated these extravaganzas, each one more lavish than the last.
The topper had to have been the overdone fête at Carlton House, given last June by the new Prince Regent to hail his ascension to the throne. A good enough reason to spend 120,000! The affair had boasted of streams of water--complete with live fish flowing down the huge dining table. How plebeian. Nicholas had refused to attend the debacle--one of the few noblemen not in attendance. Grand spectacles, what good were they? Reminded him of ancient Rome. And look what happened there.
He laid down the invitation. While he would not reply to the others, for the Lyndons' he would send his regrets. He owed a debt of thanks to the Duke. After cashiering out of the Navy, Nicholas had needed advice getting established in the House of Lords. The Duke helped him take his seat and showed Nicholas the Parliamentary ropes.
His Grace also had steered Nicholas past both doddering, tea-sipping peers and members concerned with lining their pockets. Disgraceful to think his colleagues concentrated on themselves rather than the problems facing the nation--the most important problem being the long war with France.
But, attend the Duke's party? No. Nicholas would not be amusing company. Osborne and his father would understand.
After penning his regrets, Nicholas rubbed his hand over his chin. Lord, but he was restless. What were his options for the evening? He could visit the succulent Lillian and drown his boredom in her silken hair.
An image of Lillian Fairfax surfaced causing him to drum his fingers. No, she was becoming too possessive. Why, she actually demanded an accounting of his time away from her. Preposterous!
What about Raphaela? Again, he pictured the singer. No, Raphaela would only further bore him to tears.
That left him no alternative but to seek fresh game. Perhaps he should pay for a night of pleasure and be done with it. The Rose Tavern, a well-known house of ill-repute, was as good a choice as any. It had a reputation for providing whatever the buyer desired, no matter how debased. Not that his tastes were unnatural.
He shrugged into his great coat. The Rose Tavern was located in Covent Garden. Not too far away.
But the Garden also brought to mind the perplexing Mrs. Serry Steele. This time, the vision appearing before his eyes did not displease.
Slamming his beaver hat on his head, Nicholas left his townhouse to exhale his frustration into the cool April air. Why was he so fidgety?
And why the devil did Serry Steele choose the location of Covent Garden to reside? Surely she heard of its reputation for bagnios and bawdy houses. Who hadn't? Indeed, there was a new edition for sale of the infamous book, Henry's List Of Covent Garden Ladies.
A cold blast of midnight air whipped through his coat causing him to shiver. Besides, Bedford Street ran right into the Strand--home to London's most sordid prostitutes.
Would she be safe at her present location?
Sighing, he turned onto St. James' Street and headed for White's. Women held no allure now. He would just spend the night losing himself in a card game.
For a long second, he stood in front of White's bow window, then turned away. The club's staid atmosphere was too confining for his present unsettled state so he repaired down St. James to the more countrified Boodle's Club.
Again, he changed his mind. Perhaps he should just go home and drink himself under the table.
But instead of going north in the direction of Hanover Square, Nicholas headed south on St. James. He crossed the street and stopped at number Sixty. Seeing bright lights blazing in the elegant windows of Brooks, he took refuge from his boredom in his father's club.
Nicholas nodded at several acquaintances and headed for the Great Subscription Room on the first floor. Though he was not a member of Brooks, he had no fear of being escorted out. Lord Rotterham's umbrella covered Nicholas's audacity in entering the inner sanctum. In the paneled gaming-room, he spotted several ongoing games of Whist, Faro, and Hazard. When one player asked him to sit in for another member, he accepted with alacrity.
Passing the time agreeably, he filled the dead space in his mind with the intricate rules of Whist. When a powerful hand rested on his shoulder, at first he did not feel it.
"Brockton, dear fellow! It unmans me to see you at this bastion of Whiggery. How came you to our modest club?"
Nicholas looked up from his cards, and saw his father's tall, commanding form. He silently swore his luck must have run out. As he threw down a knave of hearts, he gave his father a curt greeting.
When an opponent covered the knave with the queen of hearts, Lord Rotterham commented dryly, "How apt. May I infer that you are here because your current ladybirds no longer please you?"
Nicholas ground his teeth at the Marquess' out-of-character wagging tongue. To speak of such personal matters in front of spectators was surely as abhorrent to his father as it was to him.
Trying to control his fiery temper, he replied that he was merely indulging in a game of cards.
The Marquess eyed another misplay, then said, "That relieves my mind. Since you are still so busy with your, er, female friends, no doubt I shall not see you at the Duke of Lyndon's ball tomorrow."
"You are attending, sir?" Nicholas almost shot out of his upholstered chair. His father attended even fewer haut ton events than he did.
"Ah, yes." Lord Rotterham smiled and signaled to a page to fetch his top hat and cane. "Yes, ever since I heard you had overcome your aversion to society dances--Almack's, no less. I decided I must be missing the treats this season has to offer. And the delightful Mrs. Steele has agreed to accompany us to the ball. A splendid woman, don't you think, Brockton? Has made quite a change in our lives."
The Marquess accepted his belongings from the uniformed page. Turning to take his leave he added, "A pity we shall not see you tomorrow. Your mother tells me she has grown quite used to finding you at Rotterham House these past few weeks. Your newly discovered filial devotion must be commended."
Lord Rotterham acknowledged several farewells and then departed from the Great Subscription Room.
Brockton lost the round of Whist, much to the disappointment and shock of his partner. Deciding to quit Brooks, Brockton returned to the brisk outdoors and pondered his father's words. His father was playing a deep game. Had that underfed adventuress cast out lures to him? Was she planning to secure a marquess as her protector?
Hell and blast! Nicholas would be damned if he stood by and let that baggage break up a happy home.
Although he still wished to decline the invitation to the Lyndons' ball, he had to tear up his regrets. There was more at stake here than his own preferences. He would not permit Serry Steele to set her trap and steal his father. He would not let his mother become a laughingstock.
With his face grimly set, he walked home without any interference. His foul temper protected him from any of London's unsavory citizens. * * * * Chapter Thirteen
Edward Wycliffe, the Marquess of Rotterham, leaned against a huge column in the Great Hall, and waited for his wife and daughters to appear. The Marchioness, dressed to perfection, hummed an obscure tune and descended the marble staircase, obviously eager to be on her way to the ball. When she spotted him, she stopped in mid-tune and covered her heart with her gloved hand.
"Edward!" she gasped. By bobbing her white head, her toque's turquoise feathers fanned the hall. "Edward, it cannot be that you are accompanying us. The Duke is your friend, of course, but it has been years since we have attended an event together."
Her deep blue eyes grew misty and tiny tears started to form. While she searched in her reticule, she hid her face. "Please forgive me. I know you do not care for emotion."
As he handed her a handkerchief, he admired her trim figure swathed in varying shades of greenish-blue. The gown's unusual color suited her pale complexion, bringing green hues to her blue eyes. She reminded him of the Sylvia he had courted long ago.
Edward was aware he deviated from his usual behavior since he never attended haut ton parties. However, this one would be an exception. He wanted to observe his son's conduct with a particular guest at the Lyndons' ball. By baiting Nicholas last night, the Marquess was certain his son would be in attendance. Predictable cub, in some instances.
And he had a feeling that maybe, just maybe, Nicholas might have met his match in Serry Steele. She would be good for his son. She certainly had been good for Edward Wycliffe.
He chuckled, remembering how Serry had burst his complacency on the supremacy of man--as in the male of the species. Gad! Had he been such a boor to treat women as ... what did Serry say? As second-class citizens?
She had said something odd then. What was it? Yes, she said it would not do for her to press her own opinions on people she studied. That was it. After that, she turned red, embarrassed.
Something not up to snuff about Mrs. Steele. He could place a bet on that. Harmless though. Whatever it was, he would let Nicholas discover it.
She did have a point. His attitude did need rearranging. Like now. Edward saw his wife's simple joy at being in his company tonight. It touched his heart more deeply than any words could have. He took Sylvia's tiny, gloved hand and placed it on his arm. When turquoise plumes tickled his nose, he magnanimously ignored the sensation.
Feeling tender, he maneuvered his way past her toque's feathers and kissed her small forehead.
As they set forth for the Lyndons, Lady Rotterham, usually talkative, seemed to be in a daze. * * * *
Serenity stared at the opulent Lyndon ballroom. To her novice eye, this party must have been the event of the season. The crowd mingled in seemingly preordained groups, and barely an expanse of gleaming mahogany floor remained visible. Overhead, sparkling chandeliers swayed with the abundance of energy flowing throughout the room, and the rich texture of the draperies reflected the elegant tastes of the owners.
As Zeena had said, anyone with any pretensions to being anybody was found at the Duke and Duchess of Lyndon's ball. The company glistened with magnificent jewels prestigious enough to match the titles present. Serenity heard the guests' names announced. Those with only the common Mister or Missus attached were definitely in the minority. It was rumored that a royal duke planned to attend--maybe even two.
The social-climbing Mrs. Piedmont was not only present but eagerly flit from guest to guest, rubbing shoulders with the crème de la crème of British society.
The profusion of wealth and beauty in this room clashed horrifically with the squalor and poverty Serenity had passed on her way here, only a few streets down. But her purpose in attending tonight was not to belittle the abundance of the haut ton, but to seek British opinions about the war. A war that was in no way evident tonight.
Spotting a distinguished man dressed in a military uniform, Serenity tapped on Lady Rotterham's arm. Etiquette demanded introductions before conversations. Serenity tingled with excitement to get started. "If you wouldn't mind, my lady, I'd like to talk with that gentleman."
The Marchioness peered over in his direction. "A military man? Serry, you do have odd preferences, do you not?"
But Lady Rotterham complied, first learning the soldier's name then leading Serenity to him. "Colonel Jenkins, I would like to present my dear friend, Mrs. Steele."
The colonel's blue eyes bulged at the sight of her. "I am so very pleased to meet you, Mrs. Steele. You are a rare vision for my battle-weary eyes!"
A flame of embarrassment burned her face. Heavens, he was a smooth talker, wasn't he?
It didn't take many questions for him to open up and talk about his experiences with Napoleon Bonaparte. In fact, the colonel was a treasure-house of information. Too bad she couldn't take out her digital recorder and get everything down verbatim.
Right in the middle of one of his amusing anecdotes, she spotted Zeena talking with Sir Rodney Presson. But instead of engaging in flirtatious glances, the girl looked ready to cry.
Serenity put her hand on the colonel's red uniform. "Please forgive me for interrupting you, sir, but I see a friend I must go to. Perhaps we can continue our conversation later?"
He bowed. "I would be delighted, Mrs. Steele."
As Serenity headed in Zeena's direction, the girl left Sir Rodney's side and seemed to wander about in a random fashion. Reaching out, Serenity caught up with her. "What's wrong, Zeena? Please, tell me. Shall we go someplace quiet, until you calm down?"
Zeena's lips trembled. "Oh Serry! It is Sir Rodney. He was so attentive to me before. I even thought that perhaps ... well, never mind. I do not understand. I have not played him false. What could I have done? He looks as if ... as if he hates me!"
From across the room, Serenity observed the knight. Although he was talking with someone else, he looked sad. Terribly sad.
Serenity pulled on her ear lobe. "Why don't you go over to your mother, while I see what this is all about."
Giving her a grateful smile, Zeena quickened her slippered steps to take refuge in her mother's presence.
When Serenity reached Rodney, he was practicing his gallantries on another lady. His eyes said his heart wasn't in it. Serenity tapped him on the shoulder and gestured to go outside on the balcony. Rodney willingly followed.
"What's this all about, Sir Rodney? You don't strike me as a man who would trifle with a girl's affections. You saw Zeena's state. What did you say to upset her so?"
The man sighed, and refused to look at Serenity. "Lady Zeena is perfection itself. Her radiance and innocence outshine the brightest diamond in this sea of jewels. I do not deserve her kind consideration." He fell silent.
Well, that made a lot of sense. "Then what's the problem? Why have you hurt her?"
Rodney turned around, his hazel eyes hardening. "I have to forget about Lady Zeena. No matter how desirable she is. Why, oh why has Cruel Cupid plunged his capricious arrows so deeply into my heart? Of all people to be related to. She is sister to that ... that libertine bastard."
He apologized for his vulgarity, and swiftly left the balcony.
"Libertine bastard," Serenity softly repeated. Exhaling her surprise, she reentered the ballroom and headed back to Colonel Jenkins. The plot was thickening. * * * *
Nicholas arrived at the Lyndon residence, oblivious to the overwhelming crowd before him. He was interested in only two people, one of whom was his father. After a quick look, he did not spot either person. Not wasting any time, he walked over to his hostess.
"Why, Nicholas!" the Duchess of Lyndon exclaimed. "What a surprise. I am gratified to have you attend. You so seldom make your appearance at any of Polite Society's functions. I promise not to engage in any matchmaking schemes. Your mama and I gave up that pastime years ago."
He endured these familiarities. "A pleasure, Your Grace, as always. Would you be aware of my father's whereabouts?" He had to make sure the Marquess was not sitting in Serry Steele's pocket.
"Oh yes. I just saw Edward. In fact, he stood with your mother--until he noticed your arrival. Then he whispered to Sylvia and took off for the gaming-room. Should still be there. Oh, here comes Harrison. I have to take him to task. Told me you were not coming. The rascal!"
The Duchess good-naturedly gave her son a ribbing and then left to circulate among her guests.
Osborne lifted a wine glass at Nicholas. "Did a double-take when you arrived, you know. So did several other party-goers. You being here must mean a certain young military widow is also present. Let's see. Where is she?"
He scanned the immense ballroom. "Whoa! What is this? I see the drawn brows and tightened pink lips of Lady Lillian Fairfax. Lud, Brockton. She is surveying you from this distance and her thunderous look does not bode well. Been a falling out between you two?"
Brockton sighed. He avoided Lillian's direction and shrugged his shoulders.
"Well, hope the pair of you control your explosive tempers. Bad ton to create a brouhaha at m'mother's party."
"Not interested in Lillian, Os. Looking for Serry Steele. Talk to you later."
Needing to ferret out the widow, Nicholas suddenly noticed a slender figure dressed in black. Her gown was solid, yet in close rows, shiny spots shimmered in the chandelier light. The material hugged Mrs. Steele's feminine curves, and flared short sleeves circled her upper arms. A toque of the same fabric added extra height to her already unfashionable inches, and a black rose twinkled seductively at her left ear. He was reminded of a black widow spider.
"Disgraceful," he muttered. No proper widow would wear that wrap-around gown.
"I quite agree," said a bewigged matron, obviously mistaking his words.
Another fawning busybody, eager to get on his good side.
"I find this ratafia not only warm but also lacking fruit flavor," she continued. "Would you be so kind as to fetch me a glass of punch instead, milord?"
Nicholas ignored the woman and purposefully strode in Serry Steele's direction. Not only was this harpy after his father, but here she was toadying up to that poor excuse for a soldier. Blast it, a set of regimentals could seduce a woman faster than the finest French brandy.
The heated blaze of Nicholas's stare must have attracted Serry Steele's attention. Her gaze met his from across the ballroom. Even at this distance, she must have known he was angry with her.
As he gained ground toward her, she seemed to hover indecisively. She stood on tiptoes to whisper into the military man's ear. What was this? The man guided her onto the dance floor.
Nicholas smiled a humorless smile. In her haste to avoid him, Serry Steele apparently forgot her widow status. Now she was fair game for any and all toe-steppers who requested a turn about the parquet floor--including him. She would not be able to escape from him again.
Osborne's solicitous voice startled him. "Brockton, old fellow, you really are making a spectacle of yourself. Do cease and desist your unholy sulks. Your eyes are issuing storm warnings, for God's sake. Get yourself a drink. Who is her partner, by the bye? He looks familiar."
Nicholas turned his back on the graceful black-garbed widow and headed for the refreshments, his friend at his heels.
After downing a shot of brandy, he growled, "You remember the colonel, Osborne. Colonel Jenkins, of late at White's Whist tables."
"Ah yes, a Captain Sharp, I believe we agreed. I ought to warn Mrs. Steele." Osborne placed his crystal glass down to await his opportunity to approach the widow, but Nicholas stayed his hand.
"No, let her find out for herself. See how she hangs on his shoulder and acts as if she is memorizing his every utterance? Do her good to cross swords with one as dishonest as she is. Jenkins will keep her busy and away from ... my father."
After Nicholas completed his words, Osborne widened his eyes. "Lord Rotterham!" he choked out. A few people turned their heads at his interjection. "Nicholas, are you coming down with ague? Have you a fever?" he urgently whispered.
"The old man is balmy about her, I tell you," Nicholas wearily explained. "He came tonight just to see her."
"As your father is in one of the adjoining rooms playing cards, I can give your statement all the merit it deserves--none! Brockton, you need to forget all this. Have some fun. Quit brooding. Just the thing, have a dance with Caro Lamb. She is a wild thing, they say."
"Too old," Nicholas commented into his glass. "Seven and twenty. And indiscreet as well. I pity poor William, her husband. You go on, Osborne. Your mother is signaling to you. I shall wait for my opportunity with the Willowy Widow."
Lord Wilfred Uffing now led Serry Steele through the steps of a minuet, and Nicholas raised an eyebrow. The widow was popular, wasn't she? Who else had she sunk her claws into tonight? But Uffing was such a parody, the woman could barely conceal the chagrin on her face. Who could? Uffing's yellow and purple striped waistcoat was at odds with his thinning red hair. Pathetic! * * * *
After the dance set, Serenity sent Lord Uffing on a mission to procure a glass of lemonade. She had to get rid of him; her nose threatened to explode in multiple sneezes. Luckily, he gladly assented. Once he was gone, she took off in the opposite direction. In her haste to escape the fragrant fop, she bumped into Georgiana.
"Serry! Am I glad to see you. I am prodigiously happy you took my advice and decided to take a few turns about the floor. Your hand has been sought after as much as our own incomparable Zeena. Faith! I will wager Lord Uffing is prepared to make you an offer tonight."
Serenity winced. Her toes still throbbed from the baron's overzealous stomping of his heeled shoes. Her lightly clad feet protested being a willing victim to his abuse.
She had agreed to dance only to avoid an approaching confrontation with Lord Brockton. Why had he glowered at her? Hadn't he said, "let's cry friends?" Of course, that was a while ago.
But still.... Damn, was he inconsistent.
She had to put a halt to Georgiana's expectations. Uffing offering for her ... please! "I told you early on, Georgiana, I'm not interested in husband-hunting. It's not been a year yet.... "Serenity hung her head to emphasize grieving for her fictitious husband.
Immediately, Georgiana's cheerful expression changed. "I know you are still mourning your Gerald. Not a day goes by that I do not think of my own dear Trent. But life goes on. Even I might consider the married state again. With the right man, of course."
She blushed with this confession, and Serenity impulsively gave her a hug. Georgiana would thrive with the right person's attention. Serenity was beginning to think the right man was--
Lord Harrison Osborne interrupted her thoughts. "A thousand pardons, beautiful ladies, but I must disrupt this tête-à-tête. Lady Trent, your mother begs for a few moments of your time. She is waiting for you in the Rose Salon."
"So formal, Harry." Georgiana laughed and then flashed a sheepish grin at her two friends. "Mama is probably having trouble with those feathers in her toque. I warned her not to wear so many."
With a quick apology, the dutiful daughter headed in the Rose Salon's direction.
After a companionable silence, Harrison asked, "Mrs. Steele, might I have the next dance?"
She turned, saw his friendly face and twinkling brown eyes, and decided to be honest. "Lord Harrison, I'd much rather sit this one out. In fact, I hadn't intended on dancing this evening. Somehow it just happened and I feel uncomfortable about it."
He led her to a gold-studded sofa placed off the main ballroom. "I do understand how you feel, Mrs. Steele. War is a terrible thing. A close friend of mine was also killed in battle. Sometimes, I look around at events like this one, and think of my friend. His young life was snuffed out to preserve our right to drown ourselves in English excess. Doesn't seem right, you know."
Harrison sat by her side, and for a moment his sunny nature dimmed.
Serenity was overwhelmed by this British nobleman opening up to her. She hadn't expected to find morals, ethics, and conscience tonight in this grand ballroom. She moved closer to try to alleviate some of the man's pain.
"I'm sure your friend died as my husband did. Proud, knowing he protected English society as a whole. Their sacrifice, while perhaps not appreciated now, will enable their birthplace to continue free from foreign oppression. They'll earn the gratitude of the Britons of the future."
"Mrs. Steele," he whispered, the words seeming to stick in his mouth. "Mrs. Steele, I feel humbled in the presence of such a sage. Astonished at the wisdom of your words. Your husband was a lucky man to have wooed and won you. And I am a lucky man to know you."
It was Serenity's turn to be tongue-tied. She tried to brush away his extravagant praise.
But he insisted. "May I have the honor of addressing you by your first name? I would be pleased if you call me by mine. My friends call me Harry."
After Serenity agreed, he commented, "Surrey is an out-of-the-ordinary name, if I might say so. What can your parents have been thinking of, to name you after a county? You were not, perhaps, conceived in the bushes, were you?"
After he spoke, he blushed pink at his indelicate words. "Please, you must forgive me. I did not mean any disrespect."
She grinned. His guess fit the circumstances for her middle name. But she wouldn't mention that. "Well, you must admit, 'Serry' is better than being called 'Dorset,' or 'Berkshire,' or ... 'Norfolk!'" she joked, naming other English counties.
"But no, Harry. It's not S-U-R-R-E-Y." She spelled her nickname for him.
They both laughed at his mistake. * * * *
Leaning on a nearby Corinthian column of white marble, Nicholas intently watched Osborne and the Steele woman's exchange of words and levity. Nothing would convince him that this upstart was not after every male member of the bon ton. Now Osborne had fallen into her clutches. Just look at him--enraptured by her devious smile. Look at her, moving closer, cozening him.
No envy tainted Nicholas's observation. Why would he be envious? But he did admit a sense of disappointment. At what? Osborne's behavior? Or was it Serry Steele's?
Nicholas had to get away. If he watched the pair of them any longer, who knew what he would do?
Nearby, he spotted Lillian Fairfax talking to a wealthy, portly squire. She was provocatively dressed in a silver satin gown. The décolletage must have been giving the stout squire heart palpitations. Nicholas eyed her bosom and weaved his way through the crowd to her.
As he reached Lillian's side--or well-exposed bodice, he heard Serry Steele's distinctive voice. She and Osborne must have also reentered the main ballroom. From a close proximity, she said, "Like a Regency Buck in rutting season!"
Who the devil was she talking about? Puzzled, he turned around to follow her line of vision. She was looking directly at him! He caught her gaze and she reddened.
Osborne, damn him, laughed. "Serry, you are an original. A rutting buck indeed." Then he winked at Nicholas and guided her to a far corner, out of harm's way.
Rutting buck! The jade referred to him! For one second, he saw purple. The next second, he vowed his revenge. He would make her think twice about crossing swords with him.
Unfortunately, Serry Steele's reputation gained prestige. Osborne did not call every good-looking woman an "original." As stories of the widow's latest "conquest" drifted through the titled revelers, he left an open-mouthed Lillian, to wreak havoc on the widow's black-toqued head.
Where had she gone? There! He found the new society wit in the midst of being asked to supper by the color-clashing Lord Uffing.
Serry Steele obviously did not want to insult Uffing. Yet she probably did not want to spoil her appetite by sitting next to his wafting scents. By hemming and hawing, she was stalling for time.
He took in the situation and strode to the widow's side. "Sorry, Uffing. Mrs. Steele promised to dine with me."
After Uffing drooped away in disappointment, she murmured a low, "Thank you, my lord."
Not replying, he held out his arm for her to take. When she looked up at his face, her expressive eyes widened and her creamy complexion paled. Good. She now realized she made a mistake in refusing Lord Uffing's invitation. * * * * Chapter Fourteen
She was in for it now. Serenity followed a silent, but deadly Lord Brockton to a secluded table adjacent to the main area. Passing rows of fashionably attired members of the Upper Ten Thousand, she glanced at their gilt-edged plates loaded with foods as appetizing as turtle soup, quail, and some small items that looked suspiciously like deer tongues.
Who could eat a heavy meal so late at night? Her own stomach bubbled at her. More to the point, who could eat under the relentless gaze of Nicholas Wycliffe? What bad luck for him to hear her totally inappropriate remark back inside the ballroom. No wonder his eyes blazed fire at her. As she realized early on in her dealings with him: this man could be a dangerous opponent.
Under the shadow of a potted palm tree, they sat, facing each other. The quiet before the storm was about to end.
He gestured for a servant to bring some food. "So, Mrs. Steele, how are you enjoying your many successes tonight?"
"My successes?" No hurricane winds there. The only success she could think of was in buttonholing Colonel Jenkins to talk about the war. "I'm afraid I don't know what you mean."
Brockton's steely stare bore into her; he scrutinized her every action. As she peeled off her long black gloves, he somehow made it seem as if she indulged in a striptease.
Maybe she was over-reacting.
He helped himself to the Russian caviar. "Come now, m'dear, don't play the coquette with me."
She met his gaze, then looked down. "I'm not, honest."
He was devastatingly handsome tonight. Also dressed in black, he had only the whiteness of his starched cravat and shirt as contrast. His sole jewel, a diamond stickpin, linked his stark apparel with that of the over-jeweled, over-colorful guests.
After choosing a thin shaving of ham to nibble on, she concentrated on cutting it. Her peripheral senses, however, indicated Brockton still keenly observed her every movement.
His full attention was something other women diners wished they had. Especially one half-dressed blonde shooting daggers at her and Brockton. Maybe Serenity should feel flattered that he chose to dine with her instead of those walking mammary glands!
Heavens, what was wrong with her tonight? Embarrassed, she again focused on her dish.
Brockton brought out the worst in her!
He tapped the tine of his fork against her plate and remarked, "You have not placed enough food on your dish to feed a bird, m'dear. You could use additional ... padding." He raked his gaze over her body, stopping on the soft swells revealed in her décolletage.
Even from this distance, she felt the heat from his stare penetrate her skin. Her traitorous nipples hardened and her breath quickened.
Cool it, Steele.
His lean face held a sardonic grin and his heavy-lidded eyes missed none of her body's reactions to him.
Recovering her dignity, she dabbed at her lips with a cloth napkin. "Indeed, my lord, if I aspired to attain your ideal of womanhood, I'd have to consume mass quantities of edibles." She nodded in the direction of the blonde bombshell.
He acknowledged Serenity's hit with an amused "Touché, Mrs. Steele. And, if I may ask, since you are not interested in becoming my ideal, whose did you have in mind?"
She placed her silver fork down to emphasize her next words. "Lord Brockton, I believe I told you. I've said it enough times to your family. I am not in the market for a husband. One was enough. With that out of the way, why don't we change the subject?"
Now she was going to get down and dirty. "Your father told me you were in the Navy a few years ago. Frankly, I find that hard to believe. You don't seem like military material. But, since you're a former officer, I'd like to hear your views on the war with France. And also on England's continued impressment of American sailors."
She purposely taunted him. Maybe because of his "padding" comment. But if she angered him, he might answer her questions more truthfully than in his present state of detached coolness.
Maddeningly, he just smiled. Buttering a hot potato roll, Brockton's thoughts obviously weren't on her question. "That is a change of topics, m'dear. Discussing the war is not as engrossing as you."
He must have seen her lips pinched with disapproval. "You are an unusual woman, Mrs. Steele. You prefer to converse about serious subjects, rather than yourself. But I must hasten to assure you, I did serve in His Majesty's Royal Navy. Actually promoted to commander. Not as high as your colonel, but I did my job." He waved a depreciating hand.
Her colonel? As she puzzled over his statement, she tilted her head. Must mean Colonel Jenkins. But Brockton didn't pick up on her request for information. She'd have to get blunt. "Back to the war. With waging an overlong conflict to the east, don't you think it's foolhardy to disregard the threat of war with the United States to the west? A war fought on two fronts dilutes a country's defenses. By necessity, because resources, like men, ships, and ammunition, have to be spread over more territory."
A parallel could certainly be drawn between Great Britain's situation here, and the United States during World War II--Germany to the east and Japan to the west.
One of Brockton's eyebrows arched higher than the other. "Very well, I shall indulge you. We Britons have nothing to fear from the United States. In spite of all their posturing, they are ill-prepared to fight. Most of the impressed sailors are Englishmen, in any event. Besides, war is not inevitable with them. However, combat with the Colonies would be a new and unwelcome wrinkle to a very old war."
"I think it is inevitable." Serenity spoke with the knowledge that the War of 1812 would be declared in June--two months from now. "The United States sees its neutrality rights violated. As a new nation, it has no choice but to defend its shipping lanes."
"Ah, there you are wrong, my dear. There is always a choice. I must admit a certain inquisitiveness. How have you become an expert on our young neighbor across the ocean? Your comments show considerable intelligence. Beauty and brains. What a volatile combination. Tell you what I will do. I shall discuss your concerns at the next session in Parliament."
The sarcasm in his voice frustrated the heck out of her. To add to that, he hadn't offered any of his opinions. Fortunately, she'd had better luck with Colonel Jenkins.
Beauty and brains? To quote Ebenezer Scrooge, "Bah humbug!"
"Don't trouble yourself to patronize me, Lord Brockton. I don't care a fig what you think."
She finished her glass of champagne and pushed her chair away from the table. She had enough of his "indulgence." Though different in appearance, for some reason, Nicholas Wycliffe reminded her of the obnoxious Stanhope DeVries in her own century. All talk, no action. Odds were that Commander Wycliffe resigned his naval commission at the first sign of bloodshed. She was certain of it.
As she stood, she spotted Lord and Lady Rotterham dining together. She banished her uncharitable thoughts and smiled in greeting.
The Marquess' gaze traveled from his son to her. Lord Rotterham returned her greeting with a dip of the head and gave Brockton a salute with his glass. For some reason, Edward Wycliffe looked very pleased--well satisfied.
Brockton also seemed puzzled by his father's gesture, but smoothly went to her side to assist her from the table. His arm briefly touched her back. Warm vibrations wiggled down her spine. Pleasurable sensations--soft and furry--but her brain issued warnings to be wary.
"I appreciate your, um, rescuing me from Lord Uffing's company, my lord. But I won't detain you any longer. I know you must have other plans." She gestured at the still-seated blonde.
"Are you dismissing me?" Brockton asked. "What a novel situation! However, my dear Mrs. Steele, I thought we could take a stroll to work off that vast meal. The Lyndon gardens are well-known in London. I could show you around. And, by the bye, Lady Fairfax does not figure in my plans."
Before Serenity had a chance to say yea or nay, he lightly wrapped his arm around her, and steered her toward the balcony. Serenity, trying to shake those soft and furry sensations from her mind, allowed herself to be led.
They walked into a beautiful courtyard lined with clipped yew hedges shaped like modern-day Popsicles. Strolling silently on the graveled path, they came to marble steps guarded by two inscrutable sphinxes. The cool, starry night air was a relief from the stuffy ballroom, and she relaxed under the influence of fragrant exotic flowers, champagne, and the touch of Brockton's arm.
Inhaling deeply, she relaxed for the first time this evening and looked over at her companion. Amazing how he should have taken offense at her words ... but he didn't.
What was he thinking? She admired his profile: the high forehead, straight nose, and his smooth, well-defined jaw. His features, though, gave no clue to his internal thoughts.
She exhaled again. Of course it was unwise to relax in the presence of a rake, but then again, how else would she see how a professional seducer practiced his art? Something told her she wouldn't have long to wait.
While she was looking up at the moon of the nineteenth century, Brockton stepped closer and brushed her ear with his lips.
Suddenly she was no longer curious. An image of a brilliant peacock feather tickling her skin exploded in her mind. She frantically chased it away. Why did she always have these bouts of synesthesia when she needed all her wits about her?
"That's not a good idea." Retreating from him, she stumbled on the carpet of grass surrounding the walkway.
He firmly gathered her back onto the path and they continued their walk, crunching small stones beneath their feet--the only sounds that broke the quiet.
"You are right, of course. Not a good idea. Please forgive my momentary madness, my girl. Blame my lapse of good manners on this romantic atmosphere."
A smile lurked about the corners of his mouth. He seemed so sure of himself--so certain she would respond to him. Certain of success.
Anger coursed through her veins. "I am neither!" she denied hotly.
"Neither yours nor a girl." She left his side again, but the darkness seemed almost tangible. The blackness of night distorted the manicured yew hedges into maniacal shapes. As the wind rustled close-cropped leaves, it was easy to imagine pairs of hands reaching out--grabbing her.
She quickly returned to his comforting, yet infuriating nearness.
"You are too literal with your words, are you not, Mrs. Steele?" A wolfish grin showed he enjoyed her unease. He circled his arm around her waist.
His touch felt warm through her silky gown. Again she saw that peacock feather. When his fingers gently kneaded her skin, she flinched.
"We should be getting back now. If you please." She placed some space between them.
Her report on a libertine's motus operanti would have to be glaringly omitted from the monograph. She was too nervous, too affected, and right now she didn't have time to study her reactions. Escape was utmost in her mind. "I've heard it's not at all the thing for a lady to be alone with a rake for any length of time."
The term "rake" failed to trouble him. Probably had been called worse!
"Is that how you see me? As a rake and a rutting buck?" He stopped walking, and leaned over her to trace an imaginary line down her forehead, nose, and lips.
She shivered. "I don't know you well enough to venture an opinion. But we do need to return before anyone notices our absence."
"You can start getting to know me by calling me 'Nicholas.'"
He drew her closer. She tried to push him away, but he held her tighter. Leaning down to nuzzle her ear with his nose, he whispered, "And I shall call you 'Serry.' What is that short for?"
Without waiting for an answer, his lips met hers.
She trembled, and after a brief hesitation, her lips opened slightly to welcome him. He deepened the kiss and their heated breaths mingled.
Without meaning to, Serenity moaned. Snuggling closer, she drank in the taste of Nicholas Wycliffe.
Alive. She finally felt alive.
He tightened his arms around her, tilting her head back and exploring the inner recesses of her mouth.
A flash of bold colors--crimson reds, scarlet pinks, and flaming oranges--rose up in her mind. Percussionist cymbals clashing sounded in her ears. As their mouths melded, her senses slowly spun out of her control....
Colors? Cymbals? Serenity opened her eyes, sanity returning. She roughly pulled back from Brockton and his potent kiss.
Her heart pounding a path out of her body, she shook her head to clear the last traces of the vision.
The truth was obvious: Nicholas Wycliffe was responsible for plunging her into a world of synesthesia. His touch--no one else's. Just his touch turned her upside down, inside out.
Good heavens! What was she going to do now?
She slid her hands down her gown, ostensibly to straighten her garment, but in reality, she needed to steady her trembling body.
As she did, he watched her. His eyes held a peculiar expression and his hands were tightly clenched by his sides. She stood mesmerized by the light of the full moon dancing brightly on his dark, wavy curls. She had to say something. Had to pretend his kiss meant nothing to her. Which was true, right? Absolutely nothing.
She flicked her tongue over her lips before speaking. A mistake. She tasted him again. "Um, since you asked, Serry stands for Serenity. Now, if I understand society's conventions correctly, this outing could compromise you ... and me. We don't want that to happen, so I'll do us both a favor and leave. We'll forget about this..." Her voice cracked. "...this interlude by tomorrow. Good-night, my lord."
Moving swiftly as if the hounds from hell nipped at her heels, she returned to the sanctuary of the ballroom.
Nicholas watched the woman named Serenity leave. He sank down onto a bench, bathed in the night's fickle moonbeams. Why did he want her so badly? Why did kissing her burn like fire? What would it be like to bed her?
As soon as possible, he would have to satisfy his curiosity.
"Serenity," he murmured, liking the sound of the word. "Serenity, we will not forget. I will see to that."
He stood and slowly walked inside the mansion.