Chapter Nine

A ball hosted by the Cumberford's was not an event for half measures. Tonight would be no exception. The old Tudor hall, having been scrubbed and polished to within an inch of its three story height, looked set to do the family proud.

Garlands of ivy and hot-house flowers twisted gracefully around its crooked timber frame; wax candles reflected triumphantly in the panes of twelve stained-glass windows and the modern parquet floor was polished to a glossy shine.

On drear winter days, servants and guests alike avoided stepping foot in the draughty old hall. When the wind rushed down the chimney and out through the capacious fireplace it did so in a gale of soot and leaves, and what little heat remained, escaped gleefully back out through the ancient eaves above.

Not so this evening.

Tonight all families of note in the county would attend. The usually dormant fireplace was filled to bursting with firewood and flame, which is why Lord George looked down from the minstrel gallery in relative warmth and took comfort from the familiar smells of the ballroom. Flowers, beeswax, wood-smoke and—as more and more guests arrived—a mixture of expensive perfume, hair pomade and sweat.

For the past three years a ballroom was as much his home as any other in England. More so than any of the rooms in his father's old-fashioned townhouse, or the disgusting shrine to hedonism in Lincolnshire they called their family seat.

Strange to think that it was a single devastating letter which had set him on this course; a letter in which Humberside had broken the news of Gerald's death and ordered him to resign his army commission all in one sentence.

At the time he had not dreamed of disobeying his father's command, for it had seemed sensible, nay, desirable to re-establish the dukedom as one of the oldest and most impressive in the land. True, the indolent life of a fashionable man about Town seemed ludicrous to a man who had once trekked across mountains and lived on his wits alone but Lord George, ever resourceful, soon learned how to find comfort from within the farce of fashionable Society; mostly, it had to be said, because he was not a man to turn his back on something he considered his duty.

It was only as he had began to understand his father's motives better, and when his efforts to become a leader of high society were just taking hold, that he had realized how fully he was already immersed in Humberside's meddling. How difficult it would be to go against his father's edicts.

The servants would not help him. Financially he had little to fall back on—not even the original price of his commission. The money left to him by his mother was comfortable but by no means vast, and his own popularity did little to persuade any of his fashionable friends that it was worth crossing the will of a man with a reputation as unforgiving as the duke.

All feared Humberside's influence.

If it were not for his late wife's money—money only his solicitor knew about—he would not be in the position to buy a house at all; and so now, and with his time in Cheshire almost at an end, he wondered how his father would react to this latest escapade. It would not take the duke's spies long to hear word of the house party. More to the point, what would happen when Humberside learned of Chubby's generosity?

Lord George could not regret coming, never had one thousand pounds been so easily earned—he did not think a betrothal would have been announced by the end of the house party with or without his influence—but he did worry about the consequences of his actions.

Chubby, as it turned out, did not consider the Duke of Humberside much of a threat. His friend had come to him at the dower house earlier that evening to thank him for his help and to give him a draft on his bank.

In vain had he tried to make Chubby see reason. "You are not out of danger yet, my friend. Humberside will find out what you have done for me and he will not be happy, of that you may be certain; and on top of all that you will have to contend with your mother's matchmaking when we arrive in Town. We have achieved very little here."

"Stuff! I told you, I'm not afraid of your father. He cannot hurt me. And Mother will have a difficult time pinning me down in London. No, let me hear no more. The worst is over and I shall be comfortable again."

But the worst was not over, not if the conversation between Lady Cumberford and Mrs Pengrove this evening was anything to go by. Far from accepting that the match was at an end, they had agreed on being too optimistic in their plans for an early wedding.

"I think they are only wanting more time," Lady Cumberford had said, unaware that Lord George was standing on the minstrel gallery above her head. "I have thrown them together as much as I dare these two weeks and I am not at all confident of their affection. As dearly as I would wish for a match between our children, and as sensible as it seems for us to forge ahead with the alliance, I do not wish for them to marry without a fondness for each other.

"In this, I have been remiss. I have allowed Charles too much freedom. I thought it would be good for him to be about in the world as the new Earl of Cumberford. I was mistaken. I ought to have asked him to stay for longer periods at Stonely Park, at least until our mourning was over. Perhaps he might feel a greater affection for Phoebe now if I had. We must be patient, Fanny. Time and familiarity is what they need, I am certain of it."

"Perhaps you are right, Gussie" Mrs Pengrove agreed. "Things are not done now as they were in our day. I shall never forget how Papa brought me to his library one morning and calmly presented Mr Gilbourne as my future husband. Now the young ones think only of romance, and I cannot say as I blame them, for look how happy I was with my dear Mr Pengrove." She sighed. "And I shall take some comfort in having Phoebe married to a fashionable young man like Charles. Perhaps she will think less about helping the wretched tenants at Fallow Hall, and more about looking and acting like a lady of quality when she is a countess."

Lord George vowed not to let them succeed. Never were two people more unsuited than Chubby and Miss Gilbourne. His friend had been right about this; if only for all the wrong reasons.

Miss Gilbourne was not drab, nor was she boring or particularly plain. She would, however, run rings around a husband like Chubby. She would meddle in all his affairs and generally make his life uncomfortable; and why? Because she was a strong woman, a strong woman with an independent mind, and a woman who would never be content to sit idly by and embroider all day while her husband was out seeing to the estate.

Together they would stifle all Lord George liked best about the other.

Chubby would lose the care-free good humour which won him so many friends; and Phoebe… Miss Gilbourne… well, she needed to be busy, that much he had seen. She enjoyed her work—it was never duty to her—and she deserved to keep her mind sharp and active. He liked that she was blunt, argumentative, and at times, just a little bit gauche.

Lady Cumberford and Mrs Pengrove would change this—damn them—and Miss Gilbourne was already beginning to fall in with their wishes. Not only that, but even he—damn him—had unwittingly been dragged into becoming their accomplice.

The thought of her turning into one of those simpering and empty-headed young women in Town, the ones who thought no further than the next ball and never lifted a finger but to call for a servant, utterly appalled him.

Which left him, for perhaps the first time in his life, entirely unsure how to proceed. On the one hand, he did not want her to lose that compelling naivety which so beguiled him and other gentlemen, and on the other, he wanted her to explore and glory in her own femininity. It was all the more frustrating because she was completely oblivious to her appeal; to the way men looked at her. Yes, their initial attention must always be focused on Miss Pengrove—there was no helping that—but soon, and with closer acquaintance, the shift in an intelligent man's regard was all too obvious.

Lord George felt the attraction himself.

Indeed, on the morning she'd accused him of flirting, when she'd entered that small sitting room fit to bursting with laughter and he'd seen her hair—the one area she could claim true beauty in—dishevelled and tumbling around her shoulders, this attraction had become all too physical. The dress she'd worn that day, old and faded, must have been made for her when she was much younger, for when he had moved closer to her, he'd watched the material draw tight around her outstanding breasts and found himself incapable of looking away.

Looking back on the episode impartially, her hasty departure was a benediction. The current fashion for tight breeches did nothing to hide a man's arousal, and it had taken him some time to conquer his passion. Better too, because he felt certain he would have kissed the poor girl soundly had she not slapped his hand away and fled.

Damn, but he was ashamed of himself. Above and beyond anything else he liked Miss Gilbourne, had come to think of her as a friend, and the loss of her company—the possible loss of her regard—unsettled him more than he liked to think on.



He'd never thought less about flirting in his life. For once he'd said exactly what he'd meant, at exactly the time he'd thought it, and completely without considering what he might gain from the endeavour.

God knows he'd tried to apologise since, but never had she allowed him a moment alone with her. Well, tonight he was resolved to put things right, for he needed to act swiftly on the Haversley estate if he wished to secure it as his own. A hellishly long journey, almost the length and breadth of the country, would have to be undertaken before he could even think of returning to Town for the Season. He did not want to suffer two weeks of knowing she was still at odds with him, during a journey which would give him all the blasted time in the world to let his conscience torment him.

He had only tonight to make amends.

From his vantage point, high at the back of the ballroom, he could see the receiving line without being observed. Miss Gilbourne was there with Chubby and Lady Cumberford on one side, and her sister and Mrs Pengrove on the other. He smiled. The gown she wore was daringly modish for a country ball—for he and Miss Pengrove had designed it so—but then, Miss Gilbourne was one-and-twenty and could get away with a wardrobe her sister could not. She did not need the demure white gowns of a debutante.

Her gown was blue—not a soft baby blue or white with blue detailing—the silk was so vividly blue it practically glowed. The neckline was square and low-cut. The hem showed just a little more ankle than one could get away with outside the ballroom and the waist, high under her breasts, was cinched with a length of silver ribbon; the same ribbon which had been threaded so alluringly through her magnificent auburn hair.

With the last of the guests now arriving, the orchestra seated themselves and began to tune their instruments. The receiving line was about to be broken up and a few daring young men could be seen circling nearby, trying to get a march on each other for a share of Miss Pengrove's notice.

It was Lord George's cue to go down and enter the ballroom himself, for he could not help but hope that Miss Gilbourne would turn to him for advice on her sister's popularity, and all the uneasiness of their last meeting would be forgotten.

By the time he navigated the small wooden stairs leading down from the minstrel gallery and walked the short distance to the hall's ancient double doors, however, the orchestra were already calling the dancers to order with a few bars of a country dance. His entrance was lost in the confusion and since Miss Gilbourne was to open the ball with Chubby, they were already at the head of the dance.

He was not, however, a man easily defeated. He might be too late to help her with her sister, but he was not too late to speak to her privately.

Quickly surveying his surroundings he found a young lady without a partner, gained an introduction from a passing matron, and led the bemused and rather awkward girl swiftly into the tail end of the opening set.

Normally he disliked the chaos of a country dance for the pace was fast and one changed partners so often there was little time for flirting. Tonight it suited his needs perfectly. He waited patiently, bowing graciously to each new lady as the lines moved down, linking hands and spinning her down the length of the hall until inevitably, inexorably, it came to Miss Gilbourne's turn.

"I fear this will not be a dignified apology," he said, as soon as he lifted from his bow, knowing that their time together was short. "Regardless, please lend it the weight it deserves, for I'm most heartily sorry for flirting with you when I had promised you I would not."

He took her hands and sent them twirling down the set.

"I did not do so intentionally. 'Tis a poor creature indeed who has become so used to acting one way that he can no longer control his tongue, especially when a young woman asks him to give her the respect she deserves."

For the first time he noticed that there was a lace tucker pinned to the slender bodice of her gown which had not been in the original design. A sop to modesty, he supposed, but it failed in its duty, for his eyes drifted along that bodice in full male appreciation. The gown was cut low, but not scandalously so. It was high enough to prove the woman wearing it respectable, and yet low enough to show him how her breasts jumped in time with the steps of the dance. A small mole nestled on the inside of one plump mound and drew his attention inexorably down.

"If you cannot find it in yourself to forgive me Miss Gilbourne," he continued, determinedly wrenching his eyes away, "at least tell me you pity the man who has lived such a depraved life." He could not help teasing her. "At least say you are no longer angry with him."

They reached the end of the line. "How can I take you seriously when you apologise thus, Lord George?"

"Because in this," he said, with all the solemnity he could muster amid a roistering country dance, "I am as serious as I have ever been in my life."

A polite cough reminded him that they were supposed to be moving on.

"Very well," she said, slipping her hand free of his. "I will save you the super dance. Perhaps then you may find a way to apologise in grander form." She curtseyed, skipped around the outside of the dance, and quickly rejoined Chubby.

He watched her go with misgiving. It wasn't quite the softening he'd hoped for, but it was something.

Another cough—this time, not so polite—told him he was holding up the line. Obligingly, he moved back to his own partner.

The next few hours went by in a whirl of partners. He sat one dance out with Lady Cumberford and then led Miss Emery, Miss Pengrove, Lady Farnborough, and Miss Church into the subsequent sets.

With only one dance left before the supper dance, Lord George found himself somewhat disgruntled to see his brother-in-law, Mr Jarvis, leading Miss Gilbourne into the midst of a lively reel.

Over the past four days he had watched with growing unease Miss Gilbourne's tentative attempts to flirt with Mr Jarvis. It made no difference that the idea had been his to begin with, it seemed vastly unfair to him that she was allowed to flirt with Mr Jarvis, and for that gentleman to respond while he, Lord George, could not flirt with her himself.

Miss Huddersfield, his own partner for the reel, did little to distract him either. It was a rare thing indeed for him to dance with a pretty young woman and feel such complete disinterest in anything she might say; and this despite the fact that she talked incessantly.

Mr Jarvis, damn him, showed to advantage dancing the reel, and he heard Miss Gilbourne laugh several times; not the usual tinkling laugh one heard in a ballroom, but that throaty all-encompassing laugh that bordered on vulgar and yet charmed him utterly. He kept the smile on his face by sheer dint of will. Only when the dance was ended and he had relinquished Miss Huddersfield to her next partner, did he go in search of Miss Gilbourne.

In London that daring new dance the waltz was called before supper, but the sensibilities of those attending a private country ball were still somewhat scandalized by the notion of it being performed in front of them. The Cumberford's super dance was to be the quadrille instead. The quadrille was almost as new to the provinces as the waltz, but not quite so alarming in its intimacy.

He found Miss Gilbourne quite easily, for she was parading on Mr Jarvis's arm and quite obviously pleased to be there.

"How are you enjoying your come-out ball?" he enquired, as soon as the niceties were over with and he was leading her into the dance on his own arm. They were to be part of the section which watched for the first movement and would join in later on. He was grateful for the chance it gave him time to speak to her without interruption. "The dancing is not fatiguing you too greatly I hope."

"I do not feel tired in the least, my lord," she replied quietly. Her eyes were fixed on the other dancers.

"I never asked if you knew how to dance during our lessons," he observed ruefully. "I am glad it is not a costly oversight. How came you to learn?"

"My sister forced me to partner her during her own lessons, for we had no dancing master and Anne's governess found dancing too strenuous. She was not a young lady. You will not be surprised to learn that I lead almost as well as I follow." The beginning of a smile trembled on her lips. "Do not worry, though, I have no intention of embarrassing you by taking the steps of a gentleman tonight."

"Ah, it is a balm to know you do not wish to see me embarrassed. Does that mean I am forgiven?"

"Not at all," she declared, "for I discount your previous apology as ridiculous in the extreme. How can one take an apology seriously when one is skipping down the length of a ballroom, and when the man who offers it unrepentantly goes on to admit to his own depravity?"

"Then I shall tell you I am sorry again, and a thousand more times until you forgive me. Please say you will, Miss Gilbourne, for I have become quite fond of you and your family and would wish to help you when you get to Town… as I have helped you here."

"And you will honour your promise not to flirt with me?"

It was on the tip of his tongue to agree with her, but he simply could not force the words out. Seeing her with Mr Jarvis had awakened in him an inexplicable feeling of ill-usage. Damn it! He wanted to be allowed to flirt with her.

"My lord?" she questioned.

"Here's the thing," he said slowly, reassuringly he hoped. "I really think I ought to flirt with you." There, that was not so very difficult.

"What? Why?" she asked. "Do you doubt your self-restraint? I understand if you do for we would not be having this conversation were you able to control your tongue better, but could you not at least promise to try?"

"No, no, you misunderstand me. If it were just the two of us in private, as we have been these past few days, then I see no reason for us not to go on as we have. I am thinking more about how it will appear in public if I treat you differently to how I treat the other young women of my acquaintance. At best they may think I have taken you in contempt and that I am only putting up with your company because you are a relative of my friend. At worst they will think I like you too much to flirt with you. They may think we are courting."

"Courting? Us?" She burst out laughing. "How ridiculously absurd!"

"Well yes, you and I might think it so, but a stranger may not be quite so certain. Am I not a perfectly eligible bachelor—albeit sadly impoverished? And are you not a personable young woman of good family and even better fortune?"

"Ah, of course." She sagely nodded her head. "The money. Yes, I see what you mean. They will think you are pursuing me for my fortune. I had not considered."

Would people really think him a fortune hunter? Yes, he supposed they might, and although it was not something he had ever seriously considered until now, he said nothing to contradict her, for it served his purposes not to do so. "I would not mind being called a fortune hunter if I were married to you," he said with a wink.

"Fustian," she said, the twinkle in her eyes mirroring his own. "We would strangle each other before a month was out, and do not flirt with me, my lord, for we have agreed on nothing yet—although I do see the problem. And there is another consideration too. What if you fall in love with a young lady this Season and really do wish to court her. It would not go well if that young lady thought you were already courting someone else."

He lifted an eyebrow. "Trying to marry me off, Miss Gilbourne? Fie, fie, you know better than most why that is a bad idea."

"Do I?"

Seeing the other couples so close, he lowered his voice. "There are very few who know I am a widower."

"True, but what can that matter? Did you dislike being married?"

"Dislike it?" he asked in surprise. "No, not really. I found it more frustrating than anything else, for I was a soldier and it is remarkably difficult to cultivate one's happiness and maintain one's amour when one is marching on the enemy and facing death every day."

"She went with you to Spain?"

"We were married in Spain," he corrected. "Maria was a Spanish lady. Daughter to a Duke Grandee. Fitting, is it not? Although technically, in Spanish aristocracy her father would outrank mine for he was considered a royal duke, even though there was no direct royal bloodline. And you know very well that I have no intention of marrying this season, or any other, for I told you so not four days ago. I like flirting and do not want to give it up."

"In my experience there are very few gentlemen who quit the occupation of flirting when they are married; and very rarely do they flirt with their own wives. Only look how Lord Farnborough behaves with Mama."

Lord George smiled and said nothing.

"With fair inducement, I grant you," she said, unable to defend her mother's own less that decorous behaviour towards the elderly gentleman.

"Well, it is neither here nor there anyway, for I am looking for a flirt when we get to London, not a wife, and I can think of nothing I would like better this year than to be allowed to flirt with you."


AN - This is the last chapter I have fully written. Please be aware that future updates might take a little longer.