Miss Richardson Comes Of Age (Zebra Regency Romance) (8 page)

BOOK: Miss Richardson Comes Of Age (Zebra Regency Romance)
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“He spoke primarily of labor unrest in the midlands and the need for reform to allow workers some rights to organize.”
“I can just imagine the reaction to that idea in certain quarters,” Harriet said.
“Right,” her husband agreed. “Teslake took particular umbrage—accused Rolsbury of disloyalty to his class.”
“Teslake? Is he not a particular friend of Lord Beelson?” Annabelle asked.
“He is,” Marcus affirmed.
“And both have interests in knitting mills in Manchester if I recall correctly,” Harriet said.
“Yes, they do, though I believe Teslake’s primary source of wealth comes from elsewhere. Coal mines. So Rolsbury has made no friend in that quarter.”
“I do not understand,” Annabelle said, waving aside second helpings being offered by a footman. “What have coal mines to do with workers in textile mills?”
“Both employ a good many children,” Marcus explained, “and Rolsbury was particularly outspoken in accusing employers of abusing child workers. He went so far as to suggest that such children should, instead of working, be in school—at public expense.”
“Hmm. I am not surprised,” Harriet said. She signaled the servants that they might clear the table for the next course. “His article in the
Review
contained similar ideas.”
“Reading is one thing. Hearing the man speak is quite another.” Marcus leaned back in his chair. “He is a very effective speaker. There will be those—more of Teslake’s lot—who will not welcome this new addition to Parliament.”
“I wish Annabelle and I could have heard the speech,” Harriet said longingly.
Annabelle nodded her agreement.
“I believe the
Post
has printed it in its entirety,” Marcus observed.
His wife gave him an arch look. “But as you say, dear, reading is one thing, hearing is quite another.”
Annabelle was struck again by how much more there was to the man Rolsbury in the flesh, so to speak, than her previous image of him. Before, he had been merely a title and label, “Luke’s older brother.” Now, she found a caring, concerned human being—one whose friendship she would have actively sought, were it not for Emma Bennet.
Seven
What with his maiden speech in Lords and other Parliamentary matters, Thorne had found little time to put his literary ideas to paper. His discussion with Annabelle had helped him refine some points and discard others altogether.
Striving for a more focused piece, he decided to limit himself to works by women that seemed aimed primarily at a female audience. He would further limit himself to discussing the works of five authors—Mrs. Ann Radcliffe, Mrs. Maria Edgeworth, Miss Fanny Burney, Miss Jane Austen, and Miss Emma Bennet. To this end, he reread works by each of them, trying to focus on similarities in their approaches, yet he also took a mountain of notes on the unique qualities of each writer.
Finally he was ready to write the piece. He was pleased to find that it went quite smoothly. True, he had to modify some of his views on what he had heretofore assumed were the inferior efforts of female scribblers. Indeed, these women seemed as concerned with their craft as the best of male authors. Still, he intended to explore the differences in novels aimed specifically at women and those aimed at a more general readership.
As he usually did with a writing project, he wrote it quickly, referring to his notes only occasionally. He would then let it “jell” for a few days and return to revise, refine, and supply pertinent quotations. With the first draft completed, he sat back, basking in self-satisfaction.
That should put the Bennet woman in her place, he thought.
Meanwhile, his evenings—and some days as well—continued to be taken up with social engagements. There were musicales, soirees, “breakfasts”—served in midafternoon—routs, and balls. True to the plan he had outlined to Luke, the two of them accepted as many invitations as they could manage.
“I hear you have become a veritable social flutterby.” His Aunt Dorothy leveled this accusation at him when he called one afternoon.
“I probably would not use precisely that term,” he said mildly.
“Why, you have set more hearts aflutter this Season than even Lord Dixon in my day. And believe me—that is saying something!”
“I think your sources are exaggerating, Aunt.”
She gave him an arch look. Dressed in her customary purple, she looked as regal as a queen despite the canine occupying her lap.
“There is no need for false modesty with
me,
Rolsbury. We both know your fortune alone would insure your success on the marriage mart. And when you add your title and your looks—you get those from our side of the family, you know—well, as I say—your success is a foregone conclusion.”
“You forget the splendid showing I make on a dance floor.”
She waved her hand to dismiss this petty objection. “Irrelevant in husband material.”
“Well, for your information, dear aunt, I am not looking to become ‘husband material.’ ”
“All men say that—right up to the time they let themselves be caught.”
“In my case, it is not necessary to be caught. Luke will eventually see to the succession.”
“You just wait.” She reached behind her to a bellpull that was within easy reach of her favorite chair. “Some young miss will get her talons in you sooner or later. Sooner than later, from what I hear.”
Her butler, whose years rivaled her own, answered her summons. “Send Leeds in with a bottle of that French brandy,” she ordered and said to her nephew, “You
will
join me, will you not? Unless you prefer something more ‘ladylike’?”
Thorne grinned at her. “Brandy will be fine.”
When the footman named Leeds reported with the bottle and two glasses, Thorne’s grin widened. The young man presented the tray to his mistress with a flourish, poured for her, and bowed extravagantly as he left.
Thome made no effort to smother the laughter in his voice. “I see you still surround yourself with pretty things.”
“Well, of course. But see you do not allow yourself any unwarranted conjecturing there.”
“Never.” He loved this crusty old woman. She did, indeed, like pretty things, but her morals never bent to the level of some members of the
ton
who were known to take advantage of employees in every way imaginable.
“He has something going on with one of the upstairs maids,” his aunt confided. “I am not supposed to know about it. ’Tis very amusing to watch them tiptoeing around each other.”
“Naughty of you to notice,” he joked.
“At my age, dear heart, one lives vicariously.” She sipped her brandy, then set the glass down, and said, “Now. Out with it. Why are you here?”
He shook his head in resignation. “You always did read me too easily.”
The widowed Lady Conwick had been the only mother the Wainwright children knew after her sister-in-law died during an influenza epidemic when Luke was still a toddler.
“Well, you are displaying that same caged-cat manner you had when you were trying to persuade your poor, beleaguered father to allow you to go to that military school.”
“Beleaguered? Arrogantly stubborn, I should say. I never did know exactly why he just suddenly decided to grant his permission. I suspect you had a hand in it.”
“I did. I merely pointed out to my dearest brother that his son was equally as stubborn as he—and that if he did not allow you to go to that school, you would likely run off and take the king’s shilling.”
He raised his glass in a salute to her. “And thus did you spare me the life of an enlisted man in His Majesty’s army—for which I extend my belated and heartfelt thanks.”
She nodded. “Now—?”
“You are right. I am here to ask a favor.” He paused.
“I am listening.”
“I should like you to come to the Manor and act as hostess for a house party at the end of the Season.”
“A house party? Me?” she squeaked, her tone stirring the dog on her lap. She murmured soothingly to it and then addressed Thorne again. “You know very well that I have been as much of a recluse as you in recent years.”
“Yes. And it would probably do you as much good as it has me to stir out of that rut. But beyond that, I need your help.”
“What about your sister?”
“Catherine has a brood of children demanding her attention—and she is increasing again.”
“Why are you doing this—after all these years?” Lady Conwick seemed genuinely curious.
“For a number of reasons. First, I want to reestablish ties with some old friends. Also, I intend to invite certain members of Parliament in order to present some of my ideas in a setting removed from the halls of Westminster.”
“I see. But that is not the whole of it, is it?”
“As I say—you know me far too well.” He paused again. “I also intend to invite the Earl of Wyndham and his immediate household.”
“Miss Richardson.”
“Yes.”
“Are you thinking of offering for her?”
“Good heavens—no! She . . . uh ... she is Luke’s friend. And I thought to give him an opportunity to find out . . . well . . . to see if they really do suit . . .”
“I thought you opposed such a match.”
“Well, I did. I do. I am banking on that old maxim that ‘familiarity breeds contempt.’ Perhaps in such a domestic setting he will find the girl less enchanting.”
“And if he fails to do so?”
“Well, then, despite his youth, I shall give him my blessing.” He kept his tone casual as a cold feeling of emptiness accompanied this thought.
“I see,” his aunt said again, and Thorne feared she might really see more than he intended her to.
“Will you do it?” he asked.
“I shall think on it.”
But Thorne knew she would capitulate. Moreover, he truly believed she would enjoy rousing herself to doing something focused outside the limited world she had created of late. After all, one in her fifties was far too young to leave life on the shelf.
And one in his thirties? that recurring silent imp of mischief prompted.
 
 
Annabelle dressed for the Finchleys’ ball with as much care as she had for her own come-out ball two Seasons earlier. Yes, she loved pretty clothes as well as the next woman, but she was rarely overly concerned with her appearance—much to the dismay of her maid. Tonight, however, she was being downright fussy. When she realized this and asked herself why, Thorne Wainwright’s image floated into her consciousness.
“How ridiculous!” she muttered.
Her maid, Molly, paused in the act of setting the last pin into her hair. “Oh, miss, you don’t like it?”
“No, no, Molly. The hair is fine. Do finish. I am merely out of sorts with
me.”
“You look ever so fine, miss.”
Annabelle stood and looked in the cheval glass, turning this way and that. The ball gown was a soft sea-green concoction of silk shot with silver. A matching ribbon wound through her hair. Simple diamond eardrops and an heirloom necklace of diamonds and silver graced her ears and neck. A very light woolen shawl of sea-green was to be tossed across her shoulder.
“Yes, I do look quite fine, I think. Thank you, Molly. You have done wonders at creating a silk purse from a sow’s ear.”
Molly, who was a good decade older than her mistress, had been with Annabelle for nearly five years. The maid sniffed. “I think we had a bit more to work with than that. I am just glad to see you truly interested in how you look. There is a man, I’ll wager.”
“Oh, Molly!” Her impatience was plain. “Can one simply not want to appear to advantage at a grand ball?”
“There is a man.” Molly gathered up the clothes Annabelle had tried and discarded and left the room.
Well, yes, Annabelle admitted to herself, there was a man and tonight she intended to examine just why this man disturbed her as no other ever had.
 
 
Having determined that their house failed to offer facilities adequate to her ambitions for elegance, Lady Finchley had secured the grand ballroom at one of the city’s finest hotels. It was from here that she would launch her only daughter into the sea of Society. It was late May and the weather had been excessively warm in recent days. Annabelle noted with approval that three sets of French doors had been opened to the terrace and a garden beyond.
“I thought we were early,” Harriet said. “But just
look
at the number here already.”
“Yes,” her husband said darkly. “And each body producing an unknown degree of heat!”
Harriet tapped his arm with her fan. “Now you know very well, my love, that no hostess would consider anything less than ‘a sad crush’ to be successful.”
“And why is that?” Marcus asked. “Any
man
would provide more space at such an affair.”
Annabelle turned away from this latest skirmish in a familiar battle of the sexes. Surveying the crowd even as she allowed admirers to sign her dance card, she spotted Celia and Letty and their spouses.
And then, like the parting of the Red Sea, the crowd seemed to disperse and the Wainwright brothers were approaching the party of Lord Wyndham, Luke in the lead. The brothers had similar coloring and they were both dressed in evening attire, though Luke wore a flamboyant embroidered waistcoat of canary yellow. So why was it that her breath caught in her throat at the sight of only the elder of the two?
Annabelle had arranged earlier with Luke which two dances he would have. When he had signed, she thrust the card in Thorne’s direction.
“Here, Thorne. I have saved this last dance on my card for you.” Already feeling nervous and bold, she observed Harriet’s raised brow at her brazen use of Lord Rolsbury’s given name.
Thorne looked at her with curiosity, but he smiled. “I am sure you know I no longer dance, fair lady.”
“But you used to,” she stated rather than asked.
“Once upon a time.”
“Well, then . . .” She thrust the card at him again, knowing he had no choice but to take it.
“Annabelle,” Harriet said, obviously surprised at her one-time ward’s behavior.
“Never mind, my lady,” Thorne said. “If Miss Richardson wishes to deny herself the attentions of an adequate partner, I shall be glad to sit with her.” He examined the card, preparing to sign. He looked up and caught Annabelle’s gaze. “It is the supper dance.”
“Yes, I know.” She held her gaze steady with his.
He hesitated only a moment, then gave a slight shrug. Handing a grinning Luke his walking stick, he braced himself to sign the card. He gave it back to her with a look of “you asked for this.”
The five of them engaged in idle conversation for a few moments, then the musicians switched to a dance tune and Annabelle and Luke took the floor for a country dance.
“Well done, Annabelle,” Luke murmured between figures in the dance.
“You approve?” She made no pretense of being coy about what she had done.
“Yes. He needs to be more sociable—that is, beyond mere attendance at affairs like this.”
Annabelle was struck by the genuine affection with which Luke regarded his brother. It was not merely hero worship. There was a protective quality to Luke’s attitude. She wondered what it would have been like to grow up with siblings.
Orphaned at the age of nine, Annabelle had been delivered to the doorstep of the ill Earl of Wyndham. The earl’s wife and his eldest son had shipped the child off to a boarding school. When she was fifteen she had been expelled from the school for a series of misdemeanors, some of them involving her friend Letty. Once again she was deposited on the doorstep of an Earl of Wyndham. Marcus Jeffries had by then unexpectedly succeeded his brother to the title. Marcus had been surprised to find that not only was he this young girl’s guardian, but he
shared
the guardianship with a certain Harriet Knightly.
In the way of families, the Jeffries clan had molded and evolved, and made room for yet another member. Still, Annabelle often wondered what it might have been like to grow up with a traditional mother and father and brothers and sisters.
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