Miss Richardson Comes Of Age (Zebra Regency Romance)

A REQUEST TO DANCE
Annabelle noticed Thorne’s body swaying to the strains of the waltz emanating from the ballroom. She felt herself caught up in the music, too. She stood and extended her hand.
“Come. Dance with me, Thorne.”
“Annabelle . . .”
“Miss Rhys said you once danced beautifully.”
“That was before—”
“I know. But you cannot have forgotten how to waltz. No one will see if you stumble and I promise not to tell a soul.”
He shook his head, but he stood reluctantly, leaned his stick against the bench, and opened his arms.
“Do you
always
get your own way?” he murmured.
“Nearly always.” She laughed nervously and knew the instant he touched her that she had gone too far. This had been a mistake—if only because it felt so wonderful and so absolutely right....
Books by Wilma Counts
WILLED TO WED
 
MY LADY GOVERNESS
 
THE WILLFUL MISS WINTHROP
 
THE WAGERED WIFE
 
THE TROUBLE WITH HARRIET
 
MISS RICHARDSON COMES OF AGE
 
 
Published by Zebra Books
MISS RICHARDSON COMES OF AGE
Wilma Counts
ZEBRA BOOKS
 
Kensington Publishing Corp.
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
I daresay every writer has unpayable debts to those who have offered help and encouragement. I would like to acknowledge some of my indebtedness here.
 
Jane Toombs
has been a source of inspiration and
encouragement from the very beginning;
Dee (Emily) Hendrickson
has been more than generous in sharing
her expertise and knowledge of the Regency;
Jane Jordan Browne
managed to sell that first book for me
and she continues to offer great advice and to work on
my behalf;
Members of my Critique Group
continue to keep me on my toes as a writer.
One
Very early in her third Season, Miss Annabelle Richardson had not one but three proposals of marriage.
“Good heavens!” Harriet, Countess of Wyndham, exclaimed after the third one. “You are sure to best last year’s record.”
“I think she already has,” the Earl of Wyndham said. “I managed to discourage two others.”
The three of them were enjoying a rare evening at home together. They sat in the family drawing room of Wyndham House, lingering over after-dinner tea.
“And I thank you, Marcus,” Annabelle said. “You undoubtedly spared me two more fortune hunters. Would that you had spared me the Viscount Beelson and Mr. Ferris as well.”
Marcus’s eyes twinkled with amusement. “I did try to discourage them, but it is well known that Miss Richardson has a mind of her own and will not be directed in the choice of husband by her guardians.”
Annabelle smiled. “For which Miss Richardson is very grateful to said guardians.” Her teasing tone turned serious. “I truly am grateful that neither of you has ever seen fit to be overly controlling in my life.”
“I am thankful,” Harriet said, “that it was never necessary that we be so.”
“You have—usually—shown uncommonly good sense,” Marcus noted, “as in your rejection of those two.”
“Many girls would be taken in by the fact that Beelson and Ferris are extremely handsome men of considerable charm,” Harriet noted.
“Handsome is as handsome does,” Annabelle said airily, pleased at the approval of these two whom she loved so dearly. “I doubt either of them cares two figs for
me.
I would wager that each of them knows to the last shilling what my fortune is worth.”
“And young Wainwright?” Marcus asked.
“Mr. Wainwright—Luke—is a sweet person, but he is very young, is he not?”
Harriet laughed. “I believe he is exactly your own age, my dear.”
“Well, he
seems
younger.” Annabelle knew she sounded defensive.
“What he
seems
is very intent on winning your affection,” Marcus said. “He is likely, though, to be ruled by his brother. Rolsbury takes a keen interest in matters involving family members, and he controls the younger Wainwright’s purse strings. Still, Luke is quite smitten, and I doubt your refusal discouraged him overmuch.”
“I know.” Annabelle felt both regret and impatience at this idea. “But at least Luke took my refusal in stride. Lord Beelson and Mr. Ferris both seemed terribly affronted, especially Lord Beelson.”
“Beelson is not accustomed to failure in dealings with the fair sex,” Marcus said. “His first wife was swept off her feet early in her only Season on the town.”
“I remember her as such a shy, sweet little thing,” Harriet said. “She died within a year of the marriage.”
There was a moment of relative silence in which the only sound was the clink of teacups against saucers.
“I did try to be diplomatic in telling him I could not love him as I thought a wife should love her husband.”
“That alone would have inflamed his anger,” Harriet observed. “He sets great store by having women fawn over him.”
“That he does. My diplomacy was wasted on him. He simply dismissed my explanation,” Annabelle went on. “He insisted love is unimportant in marriage in our circles.”
“Did he just?” Harriet’s tone was indignant and she exchanged a knowing look with her husband.
“I think,” Marcus said, his tone utterly serious now, “you should be careful around him, Annabelle. Beelson is a ladies’ man, but he can be vindictive when he is crossed. Your refusal of his suit will not have been palatable news to him. And he and Ferris are birds of a feather.”
“What can they possibly do?” Harriet asked.
Marcus shrugged. “Hard to tell. But I should expect some sort of retaliation from one or both of them.”
“Can you do nothing to forestall such, Marcus?” his wife asked.
“I tried to discourage them from offering at all, but they were both determined and each knew very well it would be up to Annabelle herself in the end.”
“So their resentment will be directed at her.”
“Yes. And it is difficult to say what form it might take.”
“Oh, dear,” Harriet murmured.
“Still, I could do naught but refuse them.” Annabelle raised her chin. “And I would do so again.”
 
 
In the next few days any worry over the actions of Lord Beelson or Mr. Ferris was lost in a flurry of acting on invitations arriving at Wyndham House. Some were sent directly to Miss Annabelle Richardson and others included her along with the earl and his countess. The Season this year was especially hectic. An unusually large number of the nation’s notables had already arrived and would stay through July for the king’s coronation. The residents of Wyndham House were high on many a guest list.
At these affairs they often encountered the three erstwhile suitors. Annabelle was wary of Beelson and indifferent to Ferris, but, mindful of Marcus’s cautionary words, she maintained a polite demeanor around them. Viscount Beelson continued to seek Annabelle’s partnership for at least one dance when such activity was on the hostess’s program. Mr. Ferris remained cordial.
“I do hope I may still change your mind,” he said. He had stopped her as she returned from the ladies’ withdrawing room during an intermission at a musicale.
“Mr. Ferris—” she started in an admonishing tone.
He put up his hands to forestall her continuing. “No. No. I shall not press you now, my dear.”
“Good.” She took his arm. “Now if you will just see me back to my chair, I believe Signora Margoni is about to perform.”
She slid into her seat beside Harriet, who raised an eyebrow at seeing the gentleman who accompanied her. Annabelle, her back to Ferris, rolled her eyes slightly and shrugged. She was thankful there was no empty seat nearby for Ferris to claim.
Harriet leaned closer to whisper, “Do not take any notice now, but young Wainwright is leaning against the wall over there. He keeps watching you and looks not unlike a puppy lost in a rainstorm.”
Annabelle sighed. “I think he views himself in the same light as the poet Byron.”
“Byron?”
“You know—melancholy and misunderstood. He even writes
poetry
to me! Bad poetry, I might add.”
“I noticed he has called on you several times of late,” Harriet said.
“He does not take ‘no’ for an answer. I think he hopes to wear me down. And, to be truthful, he means well and can be amusing.”
At this point their hostess introduced her featured performer and further conversation would have been rude.
Later, as Harriet and Annabelle prepared to leave, a light drizzle was falling. Luke Wainwright suddenly appeared at their side and snatched an umbrella being held by a footman.
“Do allow me,” he said.
Rather than make a scene, Harriet and Annabelle thanked him as he accompanied them to their carriage. He handed Harriet into the vehicle first, then lingered over Annabelle’s hand.
“Thank you again,” Annabelle said, regaining possession of her hand.
“My pleasure entirely. I would do anything for you. Anything,” he said fervently.
As the carriage moved away, Annabelle saw Luke still standing there, gazing after the vehicle and seemingly oblivious to the rain.
Despite Ferris’s assertion that he would not press his suit, he did exactly that the next day. He had arrived for a morning call and invited Annabelle for a drive in the park, extending his invitation in front of others and in such a manner that she could not refuse without appearing woefully arrogant.
He called for her later in a brightly painted green-and-gold curricle drawn by a pair of matched white horses. On the seat in the rear sat a small boy in livery to match the vehicle. Ferris was dressed in elegant day wear, his wine-colored coat cut to show off a perfect male body. It occurred to Annabelle that with his black hair, brilliant blue eyes, and even features, the man epitomized the word
handsome.
Why was it that she simply could not warm up to him?
They chatted amiably as he negotiated city traffic. Once they reached the park, he seemed determined to have others acknowledge the two of them together. Annabelle was already less than wholly comfortable when he stopped the carriage in a secluded spot and instructed his tiger to jump down from his post in the back to hold the horses’ heads.
Ferris turned to Annabelle and grasped her hand. “I have been a patient man, my dear, but I simply must renew my suit. Please say you will be mine.”
She tugged at her hand, which he refused to relinquish. “Mr. Ferris! Please. Did you not just last evening promise not to press me on this matter?”
“George. You really must call me George, my darling Annabelle.”
She felt a flash of annoyance. “I am not your ‘darling’ anything, sir. I gave you my answer on this matter.”
“Of course you did—and quite properly so.” His tone was condescending. “No young lady accepts a proposal on its first being offered. We gentlemen are willing to play the game by established rules.”
Finally, she jerked her hand away and made no attempt to hide her anger.
“This
young lady, Mr. Ferris, is not ‘playing a game.’ As I said before, I appreciate the honor you do me, but I simply cannot accept your offer.”
He drew in a deep breath and suppressed fury turned his normally beautiful eyes into hard blue stones for a moment. He quickly masked this expression. “As you wish. We shall continue to play the game.” She thought his smile was intended to be indulgent.
“No. We shall not. This ‘game,’ as you put it, is over. Now, I would appreciate it if you would take me home.”
Taking up the reins, he motioned the tiger to return to his seat. Both were silent on the return trip, but Annabelle knew her companion’s frustration was tinged with anger more than regret.
She did not discuss the incident with Marcus and Harriet, but mulled it over herself at some length. She knew she was passably pretty, but she doubted Mr. Ferris was overwhelmed by her personal attributes. Perhaps he was in more desperate financial straits than they had realized. Ferris turned distantly polite when they met at social functions thereafter.
Soon, however, Ferris’s attitude and feelings paled in comparison to the actions of Lord Beelson and young Wainwright.
The Patterson ball was a grand affair to introduce Miss Melissa Patterson to Society, its grandness clearly intended to show the extent of the dowry that would accompany the rather plain Miss Patterson to the altar. Annabelle, standing on the sidelines with her friend Celia Hart, observed that Ferris pursued the young woman with some vigor.
“Hah!” Celia said in a low but sarcastic voice. “As Frederick would say, that dog will not hunt.” Frederick was Celia’s husband, who had gone for refreshments.
“Why? What do you mean?”
“The Baron Patterson is not likely to shackle his precious darling to a man so lacking in prospects.”
“I suppose you are right.”
“Of course I am.” Celia laughed with mock superiority, then said in a more serious tone, “Frederick and I were quite relieved when his pursuit of
you
cooled.”
“No more so than I, I am sure,” Annabelle said, “but—tell me—what do
you
object to in him? I confess I cannot put my finger on my own reservations.”
“Well, for one thing, Frederick knows him to be a frightful gamester. He is said to have squandered his entire fortune.”
“Marcus intimated as much.”
“Apart from that, I just do not feel he is truly sincere. . . I mean, he often seems just too glib, too polished. Do you understand what I am trying to say?”
“I think so.” Annabelle thought Celia’s view of the man paralleled her own.
“Such a shame,” Celia went on. “The outer packaging is so very pretty there.”
Any reply Annabelle might have made died on her lips as she observed the approach of Viscount Beelson.
He gave the two ladies an exaggerated bow. “I believe the next dance is mine, Miss Richardson.”
She had been dismayed earlier to see him signed up for a waltz, but she made no show of reluctance as they took to the floor. They had gracefully executed a complete turn around the ballroom when Beelson waltzed her through the tall French doors to the terrace.
“Lord Beelson! Whatever are you about?” she asked in some alarm.
There were three or four other couples on the terrace and heads turned with casual interest in their direction. Beelson pushed Annabelle into an unoccupied, but far from secluded, area of the terrace.
“Just this, my dear.” He wrapped his arms around her and lowered his mouth to hers, his tongue immediately seeking entrance.
Momentarily shocked, Annabelle soon became aware of giggles and smothered guffaws from the other couples. Trapped in the viscount’s embrace, she nevertheless struggled to be free. He tightened his hold. She went limp and opened her mouth ever so slightly. She heard an appreciative grunt from him just before she gripped his lower lip with her teeth and bit down—hard. He immediately jerked his head back from hers.
“Why, you—” It was a murmur of pure fury. “You go too far in this ploy of being hard to get, my love.” He touched his fingers to his injured mouth.
She jerked away. Despite being angry and embarrassed, she did not raise her voice, but neither did she bother to keep it unduly lowered. “No, my lord.
You
have gone too far. I never—never!—gave you leave to take such liberty with my person.”
“Oh, come now, my dear.” His placating tone—adopted, no doubt, for the benefit of their now avid audience—belied the fury in his eyes. “A lover’s quarrel,” he explained in an aside to their public and reached for her again.
She sidestepped his grasping hand. “Why, you insufferable boor!” Without pausing even a second to think of her reaction, Annabelle doubled up her fist, slammed it into his face, spun on her heel, and returned to the ballroom. Behind her she heard shocked squeals from the ladies, even louder guffaws from the gentlemen, and Beelson’s surprised outrage promising that she would be “sorry for this.”
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