The Dangerous Viscount Excerpt II
Sebastian followed her up a drive lined with ancient oaks and wondered if he'd lost his mind. Two constant principles guided his life: avoid all women, at all costs; and eschew meaningless social discourse with chance acquaintances. So why was he going to call on a family he didn't know and had no reason to believe he'd find congenial? Worse still in the company of a person who was, definitely and without question, female.
From his vantage a couple of yards behind, he had a splendid view of Lady Fanshawe's figure. She sat on her horse with perfect posture, showing off a fine high bosom and slender waist. But not her legs. He'd never been interested in a woman's legs before, or in any part of her except in a general, theoretical way that he had no difficulty dismissing. Now he couldn't stop thinking about them. That little tease of calf and knee had him thinking about ankles and thighs too. The complete legs, both of them, not in rationed sections but in their glorious entirety. Clad in pink silk.
Not that there was the least chance of his seeing them, so what on earth was he doing here? Conversely, if there was any chance–or danger–of seeing Lady Fanshawe's legs, common sense demanded he turn around and gallop off in the opposite direction, never stopping until he reached the haven of his bachelor household in London.
“Lady Fanshawe,” he heard himself say. “Is your husband planning to join you at Mandeville?”
Where the hell did that come from? He didn't give a damn about her husband's whereabouts. Or hers for that matter. He'd be much happier if she wasn't here, happier still if he wasn't. But ever since he'd caught sight of her in the stable court he seemed to have lost control over his movements and his powers of speech.
She turned her head at his question and his heart performed a jig in his chest. He'd already observed, in a dispassionate, almost scientific way, that she had blue eyes fringed in thick lashes that matched shining, dark brown hair. Nothing to get excited about. They were just features on a face. Agreeable ones–well, beautiful if you were being honest and Sebastian prided himself on his honesty–but nonetheless just eyes. Everyone had them, along with forehead and chin, nose, lips, and so forth. It was quite illogical that the sight of her cheek, plump and curved and the color of rich cream, should do strange things to his sense of balance.
“Sir Tobias Fanshawe died nearly two years ago,” she said.
He made some kind of noise in lieu of a more appropriate response. He feared she'd start weeping. Weeping, he had some idea, was what widows did when their late spouses were mentioned.
Lady Fanshawe, however, remained dry-eyed and showed no appreciable grief, or even agitation. She continued their progress at a slow trot that displayed her seat to advantage, until coming to an abrupt halt. “Min!” she cried.
“Di!” The response came from a girl perched on a stile, reading a book. She closed the volume and waved. Lady Fanshawe descended nimbly from her horse and met the girl by the side of the road. They embraced.
“What are you doing here?” asked the girl. Min? Was that a name? “We didn't expect you before tomorrow at the earliest. Why are you riding? Where is your luggage?”
“I am staying at Mandeville for a few days. I rode over.”
“Really?” In the mysterious manner of females, “Min” managed to invest the simple word with a wealth of meaning.
Lady Fanshawe nudged her head in Sebastian's direction with a little frown. “Mr. Iverley has been good enough to ride over with me.”
“Not Lord Blakeney?” Min didn't giggle but she did smirk.
“Lord Blakeney is out shooting with the other gentlemen of the party. I had intended to come alone.”
Min nodded. “Of course.”
“But I met Mr. Iverley at the stables.”
Obviously important information had been exchanged and he had missed it. It took Sebastian back to his childhood and the company of his girl cousins, whose conversation always appeared fraught with hidden meaning. He waited, teeth on edge, for the inevitable peal of giggles.
“Mr. Iverley, allow me to present you to my sister, Miss Minerva Montrose. Min, this is Mr. Iverley.”
He dismounted and sketched a bow. Min, despite her age, which Sebastian estimated to be in the teens, curtsied with admirable gravity, then somewhat marred the effect by complaining to her sister. “You know, Di. Since you are married I should properly be introduced as Miss Montrose.”
“I do beg your pardon! Mr. Iverley, this is my younger sister, Miss Montrose.” This last came with a smile that scrambled his insides. In addition to her other manifest attractions, Lady Fanshawe possessed lips like ripe plums and straight white teeth. “Really, Min. When did you become such a stickler?”
“Since I determined on a diplomatic career.” For a moment Sebastian had made the mistake of judging Miss Minerva rational. She held up her book and Sebastian seized with relief on the reassurance offered by an ordinary object, despite the lunacy revealed by the girl's statement.
“What are you reading, Miss Montrose?” he asked.
“Monsieur de Pradt's history of the Congress of Vienna.”
“Is it good?”
“I haven't finished it yet. But evidently the diplomats could have done better.”
“You speak of becoming a diplomat. An unusual ambition for a lady.”
“I know it is impossible. I shall have to marry one and become a power behind the throne. Or perhaps I shall wed a statesman and become a famous political hostess. Either way, it is important for me to know the forms of polite society. That's why I have become a stickler.” She cast a triumphant look at her sister, making her appear very much her age despite the precociousness of her conversation. Sebastian half expected her to stick her tongue out.
“It's very hard living in Shropshire,” she added. “I hardly meet anyone worth practicing on. I have to learn everything from books.”
“Don't underestimate the virtues of the printed word,” Sebastian said. “Books are usually coherent and never answer back.”
He found himself in the position, once his impression of her common sense was restored, of tolerating female company. He was almost disappointed when she declined to accompany them to the house. Miss Montrose, unlike her sister, did nothing to upset his internal equilibrium.
“No thanks,” she said. “I haven't been through the front door in three months.”
“Is Papa is his study, then?” Lady Fanshawe asked.
“We shall have to sneak around to the garden door.”
Obviously he'd overestimated the intelligibility of the sisters' conversation.
He and Lady Fanshawe continued up the drive on foot, leading their horses. “You must forgive my little sister, Mr. Iverley,” she said. “She does tend to run on about subjects that have taken her fancy.”
“It's good to be interested in something.”
“Then you have come to the right place. Wallop Hall is full of enthusiasm.”
The drive veered off to a modest stable block where they consigned their mounts to the care of a groom. As they rounded some thick shrubbery a low, sprawling stone house came into view. As promised, the building appeared to be of considerable antiquity, covered with thick ivy right up to an arched front door of scarred oak planks. Although the glossy vine almost obscured a small window to the right of the entrance, Sebastian detected movement behind the diamond-paned glass.
Lady Fanshawe stopped and placed a restraining hand on his arm. “Don't look,” she said softly. “Keep to the left and don't let your feet crunch on the gravel.”
He did his best to comply, intrigued by the air of mystery and a little dizzy from her proximity. She exuded a subtly perfumed warmth as she leaned on his arm and whispered directions. They'd almost made it to the corner, another few paces would bring them out of sight of the front, when his booted foot slid on a large pebble and sent up a shower of stone, shattering the summer silence. He was not generally so clumsy, but how could he concentrate when she touched him? It was her fault.
For a few seconds they froze. Without any idea what they were trying to avoid, he prepared to run, pulling her with him.
Too late. The front door opened and she muttered a mild oath.
“Diana! My dearest child!”
“Now we are in for it,” she muttered, releasing his arm. She turned to greet a man with a bald pate, gray whiskers and a paunch, a very caricature of the jolly country squire.
“Papa!” she cried, further confusing Sebastian by sounding happy to see him. “How are you?” He swept her into a great hug.
“Who's this?” he asked, after his daughter had briefly explained her presence.
“Mr. Iverley. Allow me to present my father, Mr. Montrose.”
“I am acquainted with Lord Iverley.”
“I'm surprised, sir,” Sebastian said. “My great-uncle never leaves Northumberland.”
“We may have met in years past,” Mr. Montrose amended. “I don't perfectly recall. But we exchange correspondence from time to time.”
“You must be interested in machines, then. Uncle Iverley rarely writes a letter on any other subject.”
“I do like to tinker with all sorts of mechanisms.”
For some reason this seemingly innocuous remark made Lady Fanshawe tense. “Is Mama in the garden?” she said. “I think I'll just run around and find her.”
Her father seized her arm to prevent her escape. “Nonsense. You haven't been here in six months. And Mr. Iverley has never been. You must both come into the hall.”
She let her father guide her through the oak door. Though not given to fancy, Sebastian detected the desperate air of a prisoner approaching the gallows. What could this affable man threaten that so oppressed his daughter?
Coming in from bright sunlight was like entering a cave and it took a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the gloomy hall and notice something out of the ordinary: a wooden seat suspended by a chain from a metal contraption. Whatever it was, it looked relatively benign, certainly not the instrument of torture suggested by Lady Fanshawe's agonized expression.
“Up you get, my dear,” Mr. Montrose ordered. She looked around as though contemplating flight, then climbed into the swinging chair.
Watching her father conduct some business with blocks of metal h
anging from a horizontal bar, Sebastian realized the device was a weighing machine.
“Eight stone, two pounds,” Mr. Montrose announced. “Let me see.” He picked up a vellum bound volume from a small table and flipped through the pages. “Five pounds more than last time.”
“I'm wearing a riding habit. This cloth is very heavy,” she said.
Her father wagged his finger at her then pointed at the entry in the ledger. “None of that. Last time you wore a winter gown and full-length fur-trimmed pelisse. See? You made me record it in the book.” He dipped a pen in an inkwell kept handy for the task and entered his daughter's new weight.
Although not in the habit of judging people's emotional reactions–men, thank God, didn't have them–Sebastian noticed Lady Fanshawe looked as though she were about to cry. Was she, for some reason, upset about the increase in her weight? He couldn't imagine why. He found her figure absolutely perfect. Its diminution by even an ounce would be a sad loss.
If he cared for such things. Which of course he didn't.
“I've never been weighed,” he said.
Mr. Montrose beamed. “Of course you must take your turn. All the visitors to the house do. Get down, Diana.”
The ordeal with the weighing machine over, Diana obeyed. Honestly she'd like to murder her father. He had no idea how acutely he'd embarrassed her, in front of a stranger too. She could only be thankful that Iverley, not Blakeney, had witnessed her humiliation. How sound was her instinctive determination not to allow the latter anywhere near her family's house. His cousin, on the other hand, seemed to fit right in with her eccentric family.
Iverley took her place in the hanging chair. It was on the small side for his frame and sank several inches from his added weight. He had to tuck his legs under the seat to keep them off the floor. His long arms hung limply at his sides, putting her in mind of a Guy Fawkes effigy on a bonfire.
Her father looked him up and down. “With new people I like to try and guess their weight. Eleven stone, I think, perhaps eleven and a half.” He adjusted the balancing weights. “God bless my soul! Twelve stone, five pounds. You carry more muscle than appears.”
It was apparently a good thing, Diana thought bitterly, that Iverley weighed more than he looked. A fleeting recollection of his thighs crossed her mind. There might be a fine figure beneath his long coat and waistcoat, a good decade out of style, and breeches that she assumed were made for comfort since they lacked any discernable shape.
“Tell me, sir,” Iverley asked. “What is the object of collecting this information? Have you been able to draw any conclusions from your observations?”
“That's a good question. I purchased the scale after I saw the jockeys weighed at a horse race. It's only a simple steelyard and I had some notion of improving the mechanism for reading the weight. But nothing came of it and I moved on to other things. I like to record the changing weights of my family and acquaintance over time. The children love it, don't you, my pet?”
He looked at Diana who managed to bite her tongue. How could Papa be so oblivious to her feelings? The boys didn't mind, of course. And their mother hadn't been weighed in years; since her weight never varied by so much as an ounce she refused to waste her time. But Papa couldn't get it into his head that his daughters didn't enjoy being the subjects of this particular scientific experiment.
“I haven't used my records to pursue any particular line of enquiry,” he said in answer to Mr. Iverley's question.
“Might I suggest you record the heights of your subjects as well as their weights? Then there would be more of a basis for comparison.”
“God bless my soul. That's a fine idea. I might have expected a relation of Iverley to have such a fine grasp of the sciences. What are you? Six feet, at least, I think. I shall set up a device immediately. Next to the bootjack would be best. For of course people must remove their shoes before their height is measured.”
And off he went, into his own world. Since the measurement of height presented little challenge, he would no doubt come up with a needlessly complicated and ultimately impractical invention, perhaps a water-powered bootjack. Diana loved her father dearly but he made her want to scream. Often.
“Run along, Diana,” he said. “I daresay you'll find your mother in the drawing room.”
As she led Iverley from the hall she heard her father thinking aloud. “Boot removal, hmm. I wonder if people should disrobe before they are weighed.”
Before he could act on that particular notion, she closed the drawing room door behind them and found herself in a small outer circle of hell. With every window open the room was yet stifling. On an unusually warm July day a fire burned in the stone hearth, a massive affair doubtless designed for the roasting of whole oxen in days of yore. Diana's mother knelt on the floor talking to the reason for this madness: her favorite foxhound bitch stretched out on a blanket with a litter of tiny blobs, attached and noisily suckling.
Mrs. Montrose looked up. “There you are, darling. Locket pupped yesterday. We had the devil of a time getting her pregnant. I'm breeding for longer noses so I sent her to Squire Mostyn's Bobbity over at Charlton. Bobbity did his business but it didn't take until the third time. Locket just didn't fancy him. But the clever girl had ten in the litter and not a runt among them.”
This was a good deal more information than Diana wished to hear.
“Congratulations, Mama. I've brought Mr. Iverley for a visit. He's interested in antiquities.”
Her mother rose from the floor, looked dubiously at her doggy hands, shrugged, and wiped them on the skirt of her shabby riding habit. “How do you do, Mr. Iverley,” she said.
Iverley accepted the proffered hand without apparent reluctance. “How do you do, ma'am.”
“Do you hunt?”
“Not with any regularity, though I have done so occasionally,” he replied.
That was enough for her mother. In short order Mr. Iverley was cornered on a sofa and Mrs. Montrose proceeded to interrogate her guest on his acquaintance with different packs of hounds. In the old-fashioned drawing room Mr. Iverley no longer looked so odd. His appearance fit in with the solid oak furniture, dark paintings in crooked frames, piles of books and journals, and dog hair everywhere. He didn't even seem to mind the heat. He and her mother made quite a pair. Like Iverley she was tall and thin and dressed only to please herself. Her idea of suitable attire for a London ballroom still gave Diana nightmares.
To be fair to Mama, her aged riding habit fit her well, for she never stinted on those garments. Her fair hair contained hardly a hint of gray. Were it not for the ravages to her complexion wrought by days in the hunting field, she might have passed for a woman much younger than her forty-eight years. Margo Montrose was a very handsome woman and her younger daughter resembled her. Diana took after her father, dark with a tendency to plumpness.
Avoiding dog hair on her forest green habit and thus the displeasure of her French maid, Diana took a plain wooden chair with the advantage of proximity to a window. With a jerk of her head she summoned Minerva, who had managed to creep into the house without attracting her father's notice, and was sitting in a corner with her book. Waving her hand in a vain attempt to encourage cooler air, she whispered the dreadful news. “I put on five pounds.”
Minerva examined her critically. “You don't look it.”
“Too much good food during the season, too many dinners with a dozen dishes for each course. You wouldn't believe how delicious the meals are at Mandeville. I have to stop trying everything.” She looked enviously at her sister's slender figure. Of course poor Minerva didn't have much of a bosom, but there was still time for it to develop. And if it didn't, the right modiste would take care of the problem. Min would not suffer the humiliation of making her bow to society inadequately dressed. She had a sister with the knowledge and the purse to ensure she found the husband she wanted, first time out.
Meanwhile, Diana had her own problems. Some of her gowns had grown a little tight and her maid was complaining. “I thought,” she said softly, “I might stop eating the dishes I particularly like, then I won't be tempted to eat so much.”
“That's a stupid idea,” Min said. “Why don't you only eat the dishes you particularly like and leave the others. Then you'd eat less and enjoy it.”
“I like your plan better. I could try that.”
“Now, while you have the chance, tell me how you come to be staying at Mandeville.”
“It was a miracle!” Diana said. “My leader cast a shoe near Wolverhampton. While I was waiting for the coachman to return from the smith's, Blakeney and his party drove up and offered assistance. He insisted on taking me up so that I could wait at an inn in comfort.”
“Did he recognize you?”
“Of course he did. He's known me forever.”
Min looked skeptical. “But did he recognize you?”
“I can safely say I have gained his attention this time.” Excitement made it hard to keep her voice low, but a quick glance told her Mrs. Montrose was happily occupied. “He invited me to join his guests for a few days before I return home to Wallop.” Reliving the moment made her almost giddy.
“I don't understand why you care for the opinion of a man who has ignored you for most of your life. What is he like? He has certainly never paid any attention to me.”
“You've seen him, Min. He's as handsome as ever.”
“His clothes are superb. In all of London only Tarquin Compton is better dressed. And I believe Blakeney has the better figure, though he isn't as tall.”
“Is he intelligent?”
“He excels at every kind of sport.”
“You hate sports.”
“It doesn't matter. When I look at those blue eyes and golden hair I forget what he's saying. Besides, everything sounds good in his voice.”
“That's idiotic, Di.”
“You'll understand one day.”
“I hope not. And don't smirk at me in that odious way as though you know something I don't.”
Poor Min, only sixteen and buried in dull, rustic Mandeville Wallop, had no notion of what delicious things could happen between a man and a woman. Diana's smile broadened. She spent a good deal of time thinking about what she'd like to do with Lord Blakeney in a large bed.
“Who is Mr. Iverley?” Minerva asked.
“Blakeney introduced him as his cousin. I'm not sure of the connection. He doesn't speak much, though he grunts quite a lot.”
“He's talking now,” Min observed.
On the other side of the room Mrs. Montrose, having exhausted the enumeration of Iverley's hunting experiences, had moved on to her other favorite topic, the breeding of hounds. Her guest displayed a level of interest that could only lead to trouble. “Do explain, ma'am,” he was saying, “exactly how you go about enhancing the various desirable characteristics in your animals.”
Diana hastened to the rescue before her mother could get into embarrassing detail about the mating habits of dogs. “Mama! Pray recall that Mr. Iverley is interested in antiquity.”
Mrs. Montrose gave her a suspicious look, then turned back to their visitor. “If you want the history of the house you'd better see Mr. Montrose. I know it dates back to Henry IV or Henry VI or some other Henry, but I have no time for such stuff.”
“Papa's had an idea,” Diana said.
“Oh dear. Minerva, be a good girl and run to the kitchen. Tell Cook dinner will be an hour late. No! Better make it two. There's no saying when your father will be ready if he's inventing something.”
Minerva winked at Diana and tossed Mr. Iverley a grin on her way out. Mrs. Montrose put her head out of the window and yelled. “Stephen! Come in please.” A few minutes later the youngest Montrose joined them.
“Hello Step,” Diana said.
“Hello Di.” Being fourteen, he didn't kiss her.
“Stephen,” said their mother. “Would you take Mr. Iverley into the garden and show him something ancient? I need to speak to Diana.”
That sounded ominous. Though she was twenty-three years old, three years married and almost two widowed, Diana, like everyone else, found it hard to resist her mother's will when she chose to exert it. Luckily that wasn't often.
“Minerva tells me,” Mama began once they were alone, “that you are staying at the House. Is the duchess in residence?”
“No. I came with Lord Blakeney's party. It's perfectly correct, Mama. Lady Georgina Harville is there with her sister. And may I remind you that I am a married woman and do not need a chaperone.”
Really it was the outside of enough for her mother to be bothered about propriety at this stage. She'd been completely inadequate as the mother of a debutante, making no secret of the fact she found the whole business a dead bore. Diana's clothes had been all wrong and she hadn't met the right people. Small thanks to her mother that Diana had made a good match.
“You are there as Lord Blakeney's guest?”
“Yes. With several others. I daresay we'll all stay a week or two and then I shall come home.”
“Blakeney has a ramshackle reputation. I worry for you, Diana.”
“Oh really, Mama,” Diana scoffed. “He's no different from any other gentleman of the ton. He won't offer insult to a lady.”
“Don't be naive. You are a widow now and gentlemen do not see widows in the same light as they do unmarried ladies.”
Diana rolled her eyes. Did her mother think she was stupid? “I have no intention of succumbing to Blakeney's seduction. Quite the contrary.”
“I doubt he'll be allowed to marry you. The duke wouldn't have it.”
Diana said nothing. What was the point arguing?
“Take that mulish look off your face.” Mrs. Montrose's voice softened. “I don't want you to get hurt. Fanshawe wasn't a man to make a young girl's heart race, but he was a decent man. Your father and I wouldn't have let him have you otherwise. I understand you want to find a younger husband, but don't lose sight of what is important. Mr. Iverley seems a nice young man.”
Iverley? Her mother had finally lost her mind if she thought Diana would prefer that scarecrow to his cousin anytime in the next millennium.
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