Chapter Ten

"Me?" Phoebe nearly choked.

Lord George led her easily toward the dancing now it was their turn. They took up their positions in silence. He bowed, she curtseyed. Together, they moved as the orchestra began to play.

"No," she said when she rested her hand on his sleeve and they paced through the first steps of the dance, "No, thank you."

He tipped his head to one side. "Why not?"

"I'm surprised you have to ask. You have a perfectly good list of credentials you look for in a flirt. I do not remember you mentioning anything about a plain, far-sighted heiress who is entirely preoccupied with farming."

The corners of his lips turned up. "Are you far-sighted? I have not seen you with spectacles."

"I only wear them when I have no choice."

He laughed. "Why should you care about my list if I do not? Indeed, you may talk me in as many circles as you want, Miss Gilbourne, but it will not change the fact that I am in earnest when I say I want you to be my flirt. You are not plain—I have told you this before—and as for the rest, who gives a fig? You are not only Miss Gilbourne the Gentlewoman Farmer, you know. You are Miss Gilbourne the Heiress too, and she—as any gentlemen soon discovers—is a delight to be in company with. Just consider all the advantages you have. You have wealth, good-birth, and that elusive something all women secretly covert—complete independence from the male species. You, Miss Gilbourne, will be a setter of fashion. Why would I not want to be associated with such a woman?"

"Do not tease me, sir." She willed him to smile, willed those extraordinary blue eyes to twinkle.

"I am not teasing you."

"Then you would wish to change me into something I am not."

He shook his head. "I would wish to give you the opportunity to become a woman who knows—even for a short while—what it feels like to have the cares of a hundred people lifted from her shoulders. Mostly I want you to be my flirt because I like you and because I think that you like me too. Why should we not flirt?"

The dance moved on. Her hand left his sleeve and she walked around the other couples before meeting up with him once more. At least Lord George was right on one point, she conceded. She wasn't only a gentlewoman farmer. She would never get excited when it came to fashion and colour and lace and all the other myriad fripperies that were supposed to delight elegant and genteel young ladies, but she did like the dress Anne had designed for her. Indeed, she could almost imagine herself pretty in it. Even the draughty old great hall with its high eves festooned with flowers and ivy, felt almost magical in conjunction with a roaring fire and the flickering of a thousand candles.

"A flirtation of convenience?" she said, since he seemed to be expecting an answer.

"Not at all, for I do not find you in the least convenient, Miss Gilbourne, or you would have let me flirt with you from the first."

That was the trouble with magic, she supposed. One always knew that it was a trick, even if one did not quite understand how it was being done. In the cold light of day, when there was no orchestra playing and she was far away from the buoying force of his personality, she knew she would be petrified at the prospect of becoming his flirt.

"When we are alone we tend to bicker," she pointed out. "That is no way to carry on a flirtation. I do not believe you have thought this matter through."

He smiled, revealing teeth that were white and slightly crooked at the front. Strange how this slight imperfection reassured her—made the rest of his startling beauty somehow easier to bear.

"All the better," he said. "It would be a dull flirtation indeed if we thought alike on every topic. There are only so many ways that even I can compliment a lady before it grows tedious. A battle of wills and words will set us up nicely."

"Is it a rule for you then," she asked, curious despite herself, "that you must tease and torment all your flirts?"

"I like to tease," he agreed, "for that is all part of the game, but do I ever set out to deliberately torment a young lady? No, I have to say that I do not. The word 'torment' implies the presence of strong feelings and that is something I have never sought to cultivate in a virtuous and innocent young woman. The mothers and fathers of Society would not welcome my attentions to their daughters were I a breaker of hearts." He was silent only a moment. "Do you really think my company a torment?"

"Well no," she admitted, "but I am woefully out of my depth when it comes to this sort of thing."

"Less so than before, I hope," he said with a small inclination of his head.

She smiled. "Yes. You have been very helpful. Can you not see, though, why the additional attention of being seen to be your flirt might justly terrify me? In that respect your notice will be a torment."

A change in figures meant they were briefly separated and Phoebe could not fail to notice the appreciative female glances thrown in Lord George's direction as he moved down the line. Nor could she blame them. He made an impressive sight this evening. He wore a coat of deep-blue superfine over a cream waistcoat and old-fashioned knee-breeches—Lady Cumberford had been quite vociferous on what she thought the correct attire for a gentleman attending a country ball. A sapphire pin nestled within the folds of his neck cloth and a single fob hung at his waist.

He danced with a strange kind of rigid grace that suited the slow and stately form of the quadrille more than it did the lively country dances. Phoebe discovered herself vain enough to appreciate having him for a partner and the quality of his conversation, which had initially put her on edge when in his company, was easier to square up to now she knew him better. Indeed, she could only marvel that she felt so at ease in his company.

"I have thought on it some more and you are right," he said, as soon as they were alone again. "Maybe I was wrong to ask you. I believe I thought only of how much I enjoy your company and of how much I should like to continue enjoying your company in Town. I know how much you dislike the idea of flirting with me. You have never made a secret of it and yet here I am, trying to force the issue in the most public manner. Please accept my apologies for alarming you."

She nodded, unable to look him in the eye. Had her words upset him? She had not meant them to.

"It does, however, leave me with no one to flirt with when we arrive in Town," he admitted.

"Unless you have changed your mind about Miss Huddersfield," she agreed, and felt pleased when he threw his head back to laugh.

"You try me, Miss Gilbourne, by heavens you try me!"

"Yes, well." She cleared her throat. "I have a solution, if you will hear it."

"Go ahead."

She sighed because she knew it was inevitable… that it had been from the very first moment Lord Cumberford made the introductions. Lord George's admission about not being a breaker of hearts, along with Charles's assurances, cleared the worst of her fears. His reputation spoke for itself. He was a good man and she would be foolish in the extreme to ignore the opportunity his company offered. "I think you ought to make my sister your flirt."

His eyes widened. "Miss Pengrove?" They moved apart once more but this time his eyes remained fixed on Anne, further down the line.

Anne was partnering Mr Jarvis for the quadrille. They were smiling and talking as they danced.

"Miss Pengrove," Lord George said again. "Really, I had not considered the possibility."

To say Phoebe was surprised was an understatement. Oh, she knew she was biased when it came to her sister, but even when she tried to look impartially on Anne, the girl's beauty was hard to deny. Her hair was plaited in a high crown tonight. A few delicate gold curls hung to shiver and bounce as she danced. Her white gown—the only colour fitting for a young debutante—opened to reveal a petticoat of deep gold. Anne looked lovely most days. Tonight she was quite positively breathtaking. How could any man not consider flirting with her?

"Think of your requirements," Phoebe said to him now. "Beauty, wealth, connexions… my sister has them all."

He nodded. "Now you mention it, Miss Pengrove is almost perfect in that respect, and it will give me the opportunity to be much in your company, too, and all without putting any obvious or unwelcome notice on you."

The set was at an end. Lord George took her hand and bowed over it. The two lines began to break up. Phoebe was pleased to see that he really was considering her proposition.

"Your sister is an agreeable young lady and we get on well together." She took his arm and they began to move through the crowds towards the supper room. "And as you say, she is comely too. It will not be a trial to flirt with her and, since you are her sister, it would be only natural that I extend that flirtation—to a smaller degree, of course—towards you. Yes, I begin to like the idea better and better; but are you sure?"

"Yes. Your notice will be all I need to secure Anne's success." Why Phoebe still found the idea of flirting with him herself so discomposing she could not say. Flirting with Mr Jarvis had proved easy enough. Indeed, she was proud of her progress in that regard. "At the risk of further feeding your pride, I have heard enough of your reputation to know that it would be an honour for our family to be singled out in this way."

He laughed. "Yes, yes, let us not starve my pride of sustenance, Miss Gilbourne, for it is a living, breathing thing and may not grow into pomposity if left to its own devices for too long."

Her cheeks grow pink. "Must you remind me of my hasty words?"

"Why should I not," he countered, "when I do not recall you ever apologizing for them in the first place." He looked speculatively at her a moment and then laughed again. "No, not even now I see. Ah well. Shall we sit with Miss Pengrove and Mr Jarvis for supper?"

"Yes, but before we do I have something else to say to you. Perhaps you have already guessed it but I must say it anyway." She took a deep breath. "Despite our half-blood I love my sister very dearly. Her happiness is my happiness. I could not bear to see her hurt. She is a good girl."

"I know." His voice was deep and firm and he put his free hand over hers, where it rested on his sleeve. "And if she agrees to be my flirt you have my word as a gentleman that I will look after her."

"I am sorry to have to…"

"Do not apologise. You have need of the assurance and I am more than willing to give it."

Her relief was profound. "Thank you," she said, and moved away to take a seat beside Anne.

Lord George left almost immediately with Mr Jarvis to broach the supper buffet, but he looked in Phoebe's direction and nudged his head towards Anne before leaving. His parting sigh said all it needed to about how little he would enjoy the company of his brother-in-law in the mean time; but that would change, Phoebe was determined it would. Mr Jarvis was not any more to blame for Lord Jonathon's marriage than Lady Jonathon was for falling in love with a kind man and having the good fortune to have her affections returned. Lord George would be brought to see this soon enough, he was not unintelligent. Prejudice could not blind him forever.

She smiled and turned to face her sister.

"You look very pretty this evening, Phoebe?" Anne said as soon as they were alone. "I knew, just knew that shade of blue would become you."

"Yes, dearest, you may brag incessantly." Phoebe checked no one was looking and ran a thumb under the bodice. No, no matter what she did it would not pull up any higher. "Although I do wish I had not let you talk me out of wearing the fichu. This tucker does nothing to hide anything."

Anne made a rude noise. "The tucker makes the neckline a good half inch higher than the original design suggested, practically prudish by the London fashions, or so Miss Emery tells me. I like Miss Emery immensely by-the-by—which is odd, considering that she was quite ready to hate me at the beginning of the house party. She says I am too pretty by half and that she only tolerates me because I share some of my beaux with her, is that not silly? I think she is sweet on Mr Huddersfield but I do not see the attraction. He is a proud, cold man, do you not think? And his sister… well… she is a cat, and no two ways about it."

Phoebe tried to suppress a grin and failed.

"A jealous cat too," Anne continued. "She wants Lord George Holbrooke all to herself and is mad beyond belief that he prefers your company instead of hers; though any person of good sense must understand why."

This was true. Miss Huddersfield had not even tried to disguise her dislike of Phoebe the last few days.

"Look," Anne said, nudging Phoebe's arm, "he cannot take his eyes off you."

She looked toward the buffet table and sure enough, Lord George was watching them. He raised his eyebrows at their scrutiny and then pulled a face. Anne giggled. Phoebe shifted uncomfortably on her seat. The sooner she put her sister right on that score the better.

"Actually, it is about Lord George that I want to speak to you Anne. He has made an offer when it comes to you and I think it is something you ought to consider."

"Really?" Anne said, her eyes widening, "Well, I do like him of course. He really is quite, quite handsome, but I had not thought him particularly enamoured of me. I thought him too old to be quite so silly."

Phoebe laughed aloud. "I wish he were here to hear you say so. He cannot be much over thirty."

"One-and-thirty. At least, that is what his brother tells me. I did not think he would offer…"

"No, no, no, not marriage you goose," Phoebe said between giggles. "He wants you to be his flirt when we go to Town." She gestured in his direction. "I told him I would speak to you. That is why he is looking in this direction."

"Oh," said Anne somewhat perplexed. "Could he not have asked me himself?"

"I think he thought it would be better coming from me."

Her sister didn't say anything for a long time. Phoebe was glad she was giving the matter some serious thought. "What do you think I should do?" she asked at length.

Phoebe did not even pause to consider. "I think you should agree."


"Because the benefits would be exponential. Think carefully. There will be a lot of young gentlemen vying for your attention when we get to Town and not all of their intentions will be honourable. We have to be careful and we have to be smart. Lord George will make your path much easier. His notice will give you the attention you deserve and protect you all at the same time. With Lord George as your flirt your success will be almost immediately guaranteed and I very much doubt there are many gentlemen in London willing to cross a former officer in His Majesties army and the son of a duke. His escort will shield you from the worst elements of the London drawing rooms without hindering your marriage prospects in the slightest. It's perfect."

"And you are not worried that he will fall in love with me himself?"

"I would be lying if I said I was not, or that you might fall in love with him. As you said, he is very handsome, but then I do not think a marriage between the two of you would be such a bad thing. He will be a duke some day. My little sister could do a lot worse."

"Phoebe Jane Gilbourne, are you trying to match-make?" gasped Anne. "Oh goodness, I never thought I would see the day."

"I'm not matchmaking," she protested, crossing her arms. "I'm being pragmatic that is all. There can be nothing wrong with me wanting you to marry a handsome and kind man."

Anne's face grew serious. "And you really do not mind?"

"Why should I?"

She shook her head. "No reason. Very well, let me talk to him and then I will make a decision." She turned on her seat and waved to Lord George.

With a nudge to Mr Jarvis's shoulder, perhaps a little more roughly than was polite, Lord George ushered his brother-in-law back to the table.

"Gracious, is there any food left for the other guests?" quizzed Phoebe, when Lord George slid a plate before her with an extravagant flourish.

He took the seat to her left. "Of course. Let it not be said that her ladyship scrimps when it comes to entertaining. I have never seen so much food in all my life."

"Then why is your plate only half as full as mine?"

"Because I have too much weight and you have too little. Now eat while I speak to your sister." He turned to address Anne, seated opposite them. "You have spoken, have you not? Do you agree to the plan?"

"What plan?" inquired Mr Jarvis, carefully carving a piece of ham and popping it in his mouth.

"Lord George wants me to be his flirt when we get to Town. Is it not vastly exciting?"

"Oh vastly," he grumbled, as soon as he had swallowed. "What more could a young girl making her come-out possibly want? I am to have the mill dust washed from my back and be herded around London on his lordship's favour too, we shall be a delightful pair, shall we not?"

Well then. Perhaps the antagonism did not only flow one way.

"And you will benefit greatly for it," pointed out Phoebe, "as will Anne."

"If she agrees," added Lord George.

"Oh, I am almost certain that I shall, my lord," replied Anne, "but there are yet some issues I would talk to you about. I have the next dance free, should you care to sit it out with me."

Lord George inclined his head. "I thank you for the honour and gladly accept."

"And you are right, Miss Gilbourne," said Mr Jarvis. "I will profit greatly from my brother-in-law's assistance, and should not be such a bear about it, but I find the prospect somewhat unpalatable."

"A sentiment I agree with," added Lord George, with that air of haughtiness that so spoiled his character. The product of being the son of a duke, she supposed, but she could not help but wish it unlearned.

They were fortunate to be joined then by Miss Church and Charles. The antagonism between the two men almost instantly eased when confronted with a larger audience. It played into Phoebe's hands too, for she had consulted with both Anne and Lady Cumberford before dressing for the ball, and she had something most particular to ask Miss Church.

She waited a moment, for Charles was telling them a story about taking a wrong turn on a neighbour's field when he was fifteen and, on finding himself confronted with Mr Aimsworth's prize-winning bull, had had no choice but to scamper up the nearest tree to escape being chased.

"I carried a little more weight back then than I ought," he admitted, "and the branch I climbed was not up to supporting me. The branch began to break and I thought it a certainty that I would either fall to my death or fall and then be trampled to death by a ton of disgruntled bull. Fortunately, or unfortunately—depending on how one looks on it—my breeches caught on a sturdier branch on the way down and broke my fall. Alas, it did not spare my blushes, for I could do naught but hang in that most uncomfortable position until someone came to rescue me." His eyes danced with laughter. "Dashed if I weren't left hanging there for three whole hours. The goose girl found me, the bull having long since lost interest and moved onto another field, and I had to wear her apron on backwards the entire way home for I had a hole in my breeches the size of a dinner plate."

The whole table laughed.

"I remember hearing about it," admitted Miss Church. "The goose girl did like to spin a tale. I do not remember you ever being over-weight, though."

"Oh, he was," put in Lord George, "he had a nickname at school, and I use it still, but it would be more than my life's worth to repeat it in company."

"Damn straight it would," laughed Charles, and then blushed when he remembered his manners. "Forgive the language ladies, but this man would drive a saint to cursing."

"Here, here," added Phoebe, and there was more laughter.

"Is your brother much recovered?" she asked Miss Church, when a conversation started between the gentlemen that did not require their attention.

"Thank you, yes. He will not be up and about for several weeks yet but it was a clean break and there was no fever. Is it not amazing how fast the young ones heal?"

Phoebe agreed that it was and got straight down to business. "I do not know how much longer we are to stay here before heading off to Town. Mama thought we might stay another week but Lady Cumberford says that it is important that we arrive in London early to 'lay the ground' whatever that means. I had hoped to make a formal visit to you tomorrow but since time is of the essence I have decided to speak with you tonight instead. That way I may have an answer as soon as possible." She smiled and took her new friend's hands. "I want you to come with me to London. Lady Jonathon is to be her brother's hostess in Town and I have promised her husband that I will take her under my wing, but you know how it is. I do not feel in the slightest bit confident in my own abilities. I could not upset Lord Jonathon and refuse him, but it will mean a lot to me if you will come for his lady's sake and my own. I still feel I need your guidance."

Miss Church looked uncertainly down at her hands and the dress she wore which was quite obviously old and re-trimmed for the occasion. "I could not possibly… the expense… Papa is…"

"Yes," Phoebe agreed, not unsympathetically, "I know the reasons why you want to refuse me, but I really think you ought to consider my proposition and speak to your father too. I will not embarrass you by offering you a salary, for I know your pride will not allow it, but since you will need to be seen in company I will make an allowance for clothes and any other accessories you may need. You will not, however, be coming to London as my governess. You will be coming as my companion and my friend, for I do consider you my friend, and you will be treated as an honoured guest and be as free to attend the parties and events of your choosing as Anne and I. Certainly I do not want anyone to know that I am still in the schoolroom." She chuckled. "What do you say?"

"It is not charity?"

"Most definitely not! The simple truth is, now it has come to the point, I find I am a coward and cannot face the thought of going to London without you to steer me right."

Miss Church squeezed her hand. "Then I will consult with Papa and, so long as he can spare me at home, I shall come."

"Thank you," Phoebe replied, trying to keep the triumph from her voice. Miss Church's father would have to be mad to deny his daughter a chance of a Season in Town, more so when the expense to himself would be negligible. Nor were her words a lie. She really would feel better with Miss Church's good sense to fall back on. Indeed, knowing that both Lord George and Miss Church would be always on hand to guide her was an immensely cheering prospect, so much so that she was almost contemplating the next few weeks in London with pleasure, nay, dare she say it, with anticipation.