Authors: Claudia Dain
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Regency, #Romantic Comedy, #Historical Romance, #regency romance
It was at the moment when Emeline laughed into Raithby’s smiling face, that a footman appeared at his elbow and said, “Sir, there are seats available.”
“Sir,” the footman said a bit more forcefully, “I can show you a couple of very nice seats. You can see the playing just fine from there.”
“I said I was fine,” Kit said crisply.
The footman, who was a tall, well-formed fellow with light red hair and small light green eyes, actually took him by the elbow and tried to lead him away, toward the available seat, Kit presumed.
Kit pulled his arm out of the fellow’s grasp and said . . . nothing. What could one say to a footman who was so completely beyond the pale of acceptable behavior?
“Sir, I have been instructed to lead you to a seat.”
“You are overplaying your instructions,” Kit said.
“The wallpaper is not to be touched.”
There was nothing to be said to that. People were starting to stare in their direction. The butler and another footman were moving toward them rapidly. Was he to be hauled into a seat?
“Sir, I am new to this house. I must ask that you find a seat.”
The more he insisted, the more Kit was determined to stay exactly where he was. It came to him that he had been accommodating others all his life. Every decision he had made in his life had been made for him and he had gone along with it. He had gone to school where he was told, studied what he was told, left school when he was told, lived where he was told, loved where he was told. His one moment of independence had been in finding the Harlows and digging himself in there; but he would never have been able to stay if he had not managed to dig his mother in alongside him.
He was not going to leave the wall of Melverley House, no matter what the footman thought he could possibly do to damage the wallpaper. As far as world rebellions went, his was of the minor sort. Nevertheless, he was not moving.
“Ben!” one of the approaching footmen said. “Ben Skrewd!”
Ben, the wallpaper footman, took that as a sign that he must remove Kit from the wallpaper or be sacked. Ben, green eyes squinting, grabbed Kit’s arm above the elbow and yanked.
Kit, who might have gone to school where he was told and studied what he was told, had done a few things he had not been told, was more than ready for rough play. He jerked his arm away from Ben’s and shoved him backwards, not a strike but a shove, a mere shove, but that shove caught the footman unprepared. He stumbled and fought for his footing, arms wheeling. Kit reached for him. The footman smacked his hand away, the action violent enough that, their hands entangling for the briefest of moments, they hit the gilt frame that housed the portrait of an Elizabethan lady with red hair and copious strands of pearls so that she, frame and all, careened against the wall and looked very close to popping out of her frame and skidding across the polished wood floor.
Neither the lady nor her frame actually toppled. She did, however, leave a long tear in the wallpaper. The wall covering, not actually paper, was blue silk damask. It looked quite old, and rare, and fragile.
After that, no one cared about the orchestra. The violinist had sought perfection in his bow for nothing.
And after all that, Kit left his position on the wall. Still, at least in his own mind, the point had been made and he had won the point.
“Did he actually hit the footman?” Harry said at breakfast the following morning.
“Of course he didn’t,” Mama said. “How absurd that would have been. One doesn’t treat servants that way.”
“But I’ve never heard of a servant hauling off on a gentleman either,” Harry said. It was all quite high drama for Harry. In that, he was not alone. Emeline expected that the whole of London was gobbling up every morsel of last night’s misadventure. “The footman did hit him, didn’t he?”
“He most certainly did not,” Emeline said. “Where did you hear that?”
“He’s not certain,” Pip interrupted, looking at Harry sharply.
“I can’t remember,” Harry chirped.
“The details hardly matter,” Mama said, “the point is that poor Mr. Culley will never be admitted to the best houses now. His chances for finding a wife this Season, and likely the next, are much reduced. I should be surprised if he is not forced to wait years for this to die down.”
Emeline grinned and took an enthusiastic bite of her kippers.
“If I were a girl,” Sig said, “I imagine I would prefer a man who doesn’t allow a footman to tell him what to do.”
“Me, too,” Harry said.
“What do you think, Emeline?” Pip said. “You’re a girl.”
“Thank you for noticing,” she said.
“Don’t you still like Kit?” Harry asked.
“Of course I still like Kit. I shall always like Kit,” she said, the faint heat of a blush moving up her throat.
“Liking Mr. Culley is not the issue,” Mama said. “Of course we all like him and shall continue to do so. The Culleys are family friends and we are not so tepid in our friendships as to cut someone for a . . . ”
Mama seemed to have no word for what Kit had done.
“Faux paus?” Sig suggested.
“Unfortunately, it was more than that,” Mama said, “though no matter what it was, we shall not desert Mrs. Culley and her sons. They shall need us now more than ever. Of course, based on what Mrs. Culley said as they were leaving Melverley House, they are soon to leave Town. To remain now would be folly.”
“They’re leaving?” Emeline said, the kippers tumbling in her belly.
“How can they stay now?” Mama said, and she then went on and on about suitability and scandal.
“Excuse me, madam,” the butler said, holding a tray with a card on it. “A note from Lady Eleanor Kirkland for you.”
Mama’s eyes widened. Mama took the note and opened it, read it, her eyes widened further, and then she passed the note to Emeline.
According to the note, Eleanor most cordially requested that Mrs. and Miss Harlow accompany her to Madame Lacroix’s millinery shop, the same shop in which they had accidentally met only the day before, to aid her in choosing a new hat as the skill with which they dealt with milliners and fashion had so impressed her. Would they do her the honor?
They most certainly would.
Kit was browsing the library shelves of his borrowed London home when Pip, Sig, and Harry burst in upon him. They were unannounced, not having the patience to wait for such a pointless thing as that.
“I beg your pardon, Mr. Culley,” the butler said, frowning.
“It’s quite all right,” Kit said. “‘Tis their habit and no reflection on you.”
Ever since the wallpaper incident at Melverley House the night before, Kit had been treated with great care by any servant he happened upon. It would have been quite amusing if it hadn’t been so ridiculous.
“Are you leaving Town?” Harry said the minute the butler closed the door behind him. “You can’t leave. How will we have any fun at all if you’re back home?”
“Aren’t you having fun?” Kit asked, sitting on the large sofa positioned under the largest window in the room. Harry plopped down beside him, slouching so that his head was a mere inch from Kit’s arm.
“Aren’t you?” Harry said. “You got to punch someone. I didn’t think you could do that in London.”
“I didn’t punch anyone. Don’t spread false tales.”
“Someone said you wanted to punch Lord Raithby,” Sig said.
“Who said such a thing?” Kit said.
“Why would I want to do that? Raithby is a friend.” Though not as much of a friend as he had believed only twenty-four hours ago. What had he and Emeline found to laugh about?
“Because he and Emeline got on so well?” Pip said, sounding very sophisticated for fifteen.
“Where did you hear that?” Kit snapped.
Pip shrugged and walked to the far window, his back to the rest of them.
“Didn’t they get on well?” Sig asked.
“Did Emeline say so?” Kit said.
Sig shrugged and walked to the bookshelves. The books were mostly histories, nothing that would interest Sig.
“Are you really leaving Town?” Harry asked, slouching further, his hair getting mussed.
“I suppose so,” Kit said. And in so doing, he would leave Emeline to Lord Raithby. The thought was horrifying. “It seems I must.”
“Because you punched the footman?” Harry said.
“I didn’t punch anyone,” Kit said.
“Then why are you leaving?” Sig said.
“It’s expected,” Kit said.
“By whom?” Sig said.
To that, Kit had no answer.
“No one can make you leave Town, can they?” Pip said. “When I come to Town to look over women, I don’t think anyone will be able to make me leave.”
“I am not looking over women. Don’t be coarse, Pip,” he said.
“Is it coarse to say what’s truly happening?” Pip countered, coming back across the room to face him. “Isn’t that why Emeline is here? To be looked at and found favorable?”
Yes, it was coarse to put into words the actual state of affairs.
Yes, Emeline was in Town to be looked over and found worthy.
What a revolting notion. What devil had come up with it in the first place?
“If no one is making you leave, why are you leaving?” Sig said, giving up on the bookcase and walking to a display case with a beaver skeleton carefully labeled and preserved. “Do you think this is a mature beaver? Do you know if the males are larger than the females?”
“I don’t know,” Kit said. To all of it. He knew nothing of beavers and he had no idea why he had to leave Town. His mother had pronounced it and he had been so shamed by the episode at Melverley House that he had allowed her to continue the thought. She was still abed or he was certain she would already have put action to the thought.
He didn’t have to leave Town. He was not being forced. He didn’t have to leave Emeline to face London, and Lord Raithby, without him. He could do as he wished. Whatever he wished.
And he knew precisely what he wished to do.
“Where is Emeline now?” he said, getting to his feet.
The boys turned to him in unison, their faces breaking into simultaneous grins.
“She’s gone to Madame Lacroix’s. It’s a millinery shop,” Pip said.
“I know it,” Kit said, walking to the door.
“Are you not leaving London after all?” Harry said.
Kit turned at the doorway to face them, these boys he had treated and loved as brothers for as long as he could remember. But Emeline was not his sister. She never had been. She never could be.
Praise all that was holy for that.
“I am not leaving London. No can make me do anything. I did not strike the footman. I have not, yet, struck anyone,” he said.
“What about Lord Raithby?” Harry said, looking entirely too excited by the notion.
“That,” Kit said, smiling, “remains to be seen.”
“I can assure you that no one at Melverley House blames Mr. Culley in the least degree,” Eleanor said, their heads nearly touching over a selection of ribbons. Mama was only a few feet from them, talking with Madame Lacroix. “The footman, Ben Skrewd, was not at all appropriate for the position. He’s been sacked.”
“Skrewd?” Emeline asked.
“An old Norse name, I’m told,” Eleanor answered. “Is it true that Mr. Culley will be leaving Town over this?”
“Perhaps I should say something to discourage him?”
Emeline looked at Eleanor, her blue eyes, for once, not glimmering. “What could you possibly say? And why would you want to say anything at all?”
Eleanor leaned back, tossing aside a deep green ribbon as she did so. “Would you not prefer that he stay?”
Emeline did not often blush. She did not enjoy the experience in the least. She refused to blush now, though it was an effort.
“I don’t believe my preferences play any part in Mr. Culley’s decisions,” she said.
Eleanor shook her head. “With that sort of attitude, you shall never get what you want.”
“And what do you think I want?”
“Not Mr. Culley?”
That was it. Emeline blushed in a hot wave of scarlet. She was certain of it.
Before she was required to answer, the door to the shop opened and the most sophisticated, elegant lady entered, Lord Raithby trailing behind her like a pet. Lord Raithby looked as sharply handsome as always, his coat nut brown, his waistcoat sapphire blue, his cravat impossibly intricate. The lady was black of hair and eye, white of skin, and superior in manner. Madame Lacroix abruptly deserted Mama and made her way to the lady on quick feet.
“Lady Dalby, you are most welcome,” Madame said. “How may I serve you?”
Lady Dalby. Even in Wiltshire Sophia Dalby was famous. She had been a courtesan until she had decided to become a countess, choosing the Earl of Dalby to provide her with that honor. She was a widow now, but never acted like one. At least, according to every rumor of her, she never acted the way Mrs. Culley acted in her widowhood.
“Excuse me, Madame,” Lady Dalby said, “I see a dear friend is here. Please, continue on. I shall let you know when I need you.”
“Indeed, my lady,” Madame said, and with a quick bob of her head she returned to Mama, who stood with her mouth agape.
“Lady Eleanor,” Sophia said, walking towards them. Her walk was grace itself, the fabric of her sprigged muslin barely moving, “how delightful to see you. You look hardly marked by the excitement at Melverley House last evening. How I do wish I could have seen it myself. The entire Town can speak of nothing else. What coup for you.”
“It was very exciting,” Eleanor said.
“And is this the charming girl I’ve heard so much about?” she said, scanning Emeline with her eyes. It was almost alarming. Mama made noises. Madame kept Mama at her side, how, Emeline could not imagine. “Please introduce us, Lord Raithby.”
The introductions were made, Emeline curtseying at the appropriate moment, Sophia Dalby smiling her approval. “You are just as lovely a girl as every rumor of you. Small wonder you are caught, Lord Raithby. Miss Harlow looks precisely the type of girl to ensnare any man she chooses.”
Mama made a noise of delight. Madame plunked a hat upon Mama’s head and began arranging things upon it.