Excerpt: The Dangerous Viscount

Mandeville House, Shropshire, England, July 1819

It all began with a glimpse of stocking.

Women’s stockings were not something he’d ever thought about. He didn’t know they were made of silk. Or that they could be pink.

He walked through the arch into the stable yard and saw her. Already mounted, she leaned over to adjust her stirrup, revealing the arc of a calf, the rounded angle of a knee.

His breath hitched. Instead of turning on his heels like the sensible man he was and always had been, he found himself propelled forward, captivated by the expanse of shapely leg bracketed by an ankle-high boot and a green cloth habit. A leg encased in pink silk that—although this fact was unknown to him—had been christened Maiden’s Blush by the exclusive Bond Street haberdasher who sold the stockings.

A name, as it happened, quite appropriate for Sebastian Iverley, a man whose carefully arranged existence included the avoidance of all things female.

But the first time he saw Diana Fanshawe, Sebastian had no idea his life was about to be ruined. When he walked into the library at Mandeville he anticipated an undisturbed afternoon browsing the Duke of Hampton’s collection of ancient maps.

Instead he found representatives of three classes of people whose company he scorned. Four men of fashion whose collective heads contained scarcely a full-sized brain between them. Three ladies, youngish, one them giggling. And his cousin, the Marquis of Blakeney.

Blakeney could have been included in the first group, but to Sebastian he was sui generis, the single person in the whole world Sebastian disliked the most. Though not without competition for the title, Blakeney was an easy winner.

“Blake,” Sebastian said.

“Owl—er—Sebastian,” his cousin said. “I didn’t expect you.”

“And I didn’t know you were here,” Sebastian replied. “I met the duke at White’s on his way to Brighton. He told me I’d have the place to myself.”

He looked about him, willing the unwelcome company to magically dissolve into a vapor. Or failing that leave the room on foot. Alas, Blakeney remained both concrete and present. Sebastian, an unfailingly reasonable man, conceded that his cousin, as eldest son and heir to the duke, had the right to be there. What he disputed was the attitude of superiority with which Blake had regarded him since they first met at the age of ten.

“We were bored to tears at Blenheim so we left early.” Blake’s careless tones always set Sebastian’s teeth on edge.

The giggling girl reacted to this evidence of brilliant wit on the part of her host by modulating her tone. She tittered.

“Decided to come to Shropshire early and a few of the fellows joined me. And ladies too.” Blakeney turned to his companions. “Are you acquainted with my cousin, Mr. Iverley? Lady Georgina Harville.”

One of the ladies curtsied, a plumed mess on her head bobbing with her. She reminded Sebastian of his female cousins, Blakeney’s sisters.

“And her sister, Lady Felicia Howard.” The giggling girl. She reminded him of his female cousins before they grew up. Their giggling had always been directed at him. Lady Felicia he absolved of that offense. Her mirth appeared completely lacking in discrimination.

The elder of the two eyed him curiously. “Mr. Iverley,” she said, “I don’t believe we’ve ever met.” What to Sebastian was a cause for celebration, Lady Georgina seemed to take as a personal affront. “How very odd. I’m Blakeney’s second cousin by marriage on his mother’s side and my husband has known the family forever.”

Sebastian ignored this riveting piece of information and waited impatiently for Blakeney to finish his introductions and leave him alone.

“Lady Fanshawe.” His cousin indicated the third lady. In the two seconds of attention he afforded her, Sebastian noted that no birds had been harmed in the arrangement of her hair, and that she did not giggle. Remaining blessedly silent, she evinced no interest in him whatsoever. With Lady Fanshawe he found himself in mutual agreement.

Blakeney moved on to the men in his party. With the exception of James Lambton, Sebastian knew none of them, nor did he wish to. He promptly forgot their names, though he did register that one of them belonged to the woman with the dead avian on her head. With Lambton he exchanged greetings of barely concealed disgust. Then he adjusted his spectacles and looked longingly at a corner of the library where the largest folios were shelved.

“We came in here because this window gives the best view of the coverts. We’re planning some rough shooting for tomorrow. I don’t suppose you’ll join us. You never did enjoy sports.” It was clear Blakeney actually thought his comment an insult. Sebastian refused to waste another minute on these ridiculous people.

“If you don’t mind,” he said, “I’ll find the atlases I came to see. No doubt I’ll see everyone at dinner.”

Unfortunately.

********

Diana Fanshawe assured the groom she would prefer to ride alone and dismissed him, prematurely it turned out. Her stirrup leather was an inch or so too long. She gave a quick glance around the empty stable quadrangle, hitched up the skirt of her riding habit, and removed her left foot from the stirrup.

Botheration! How had she forgotten to change her stockings? The pale pink ones were a favorite pair, and too fragile for riding. She cursed silently as she struggled with the stiff buckle, not realizing her solitude had been interrupted until a deep voice, a few feet away, asked if she needed help. Not a servant’s voice.

She looked up to discover Mr. Iverley staring at her exposed limb. At least it wasn’t Lord Blakeney. Normally she would have been pleased by the chance to “accidentally” display her hidden assets to the marquis and allow him to admire her seat on a horse. But today she had a particular reason to avoid him, so she’d timed her ride to coincide with the shooting expedition. Had she given him any thought, she’d have supposed Blakeney’s peculiar cousin immured in the library. He’d barely spoken at the dinner table, addressed not a single word to Lady Georgina sitting next to him, and shown no interest in the house party’s plans.

He was, however, showing considerable interest in her leg.

“May I help you adjust that?” he asked.

Really! She twitched the skirt so it covered her knee. Then realized he meant her stirrup. Why not? The alternative was to dismount. She was impatient to be on her way before the two weird sisters decided to join her. Or the gentlemen appeared. There was always the chance they’d take it into their heads to seek alternatives to avian carnage as a way to pass the morning. Iverley didn’t seem the sort to take liberties. If he did, she had her riding crop in hand.

“Thank you, sir. One notch shorter, if you please.” Her well-trained horse from the Mandeville stable was fifteen hands or more, yet Mr. Iverley’s head reached the level of her waist. He had to stoop to undo the buckle. All she could see was the crown of his hat, but she sensed his fingers at work and felt his arm brush her silk-clad calf.

“Is that high enough?” He mumbled the words and when he looked up he avoided meeting her eye, as far as she could tell through steel-rimmed spectacles. Color tinged his cheekbones.

Diana aimed at the stirrup and missed. Grasping her ankle Iverley deftly guided it into the metal hoop. While his hand on her booted foot was unexceptional, she felt a little frisson at the contact.

“Very good, thank you,” she said, letting her skirt down and adjusting her reins.

He gave a little grunt of acknowledgement. She expected him to step back and let her ride off. Instead he hesitated a moment. “May I accompany you on your ride?”

“I am going to call on my mother and father at Mandeville Wallop,” she said.

“That’s at the north end of the park, if I recall correctly. Three or four miles perhaps?”

“Just over three. If you wish to ride with me to the Wallop gate I’d be glad of your company,” she lied. Double botheration. She’d gone to considerable trouble to make sure her duty visit to the family was made on her own.

At that moment the groom appeared leading a handsome bay stallion, saddled and ready. “Here’s my horse,” Iverley said. He mounted with easy grace. Bookish or not, Iverley was more than capable of handling a challenging animal.

“Do you know the way?” she asked as they rode abreast through the stable arch, “or will you follow me?”

“I know it.”

“Do you stay here often?”

 “I came as a boy,” Iverley replied. “I haven’t in several years.”

“Don’t you enjoy Mandeville? I think it must be the most beautiful house and park in the world.”

The only response was another grunt. The joys of Mandeville didn’t inspire Iverley to an eloquence to match her own. Growing up just beyond the vast encircling wall, the park had always seemed like paradise and the great Palladian mansion a palace, shared with the duke’s less fortunate neighbors in carefully dished out tastes on public days and the occasional dinner or ball.

“It feels a little odd to be staying here, with my family only a step away. Lovely, of course. I am enjoying getting to know the house better.” She intended to know it very well indeed, but that thought she did not share.

Her uninvited companion wasn’t much of a conversationalist. Without appearing inattentive, he failed to reply to any of her openings, merely staring down at her. Diana didn’t believe his face expressed admiration. More like bafflement.

Tired of trying to draw him out, she urged her mare to a canter and gave herself up to the beauty of her surroundings on a clear summer morning. With the superior strength of his mount, Iverley passed her and she was able to confirm her impression of a skilled rider with an excellent seat. On horseback his ill-fitting and old-fashioned garments were hardly noticeable. Instead she discerned that he had the muscular thighs necessary to control a spirited horse. In the final half mile stretch to the gate he accelerated to a gallop. Her mare followed and both of them, rider and mount, were panting by the time she drew to a halt.

“Good girl!” she said, leaning forward to praise and pat her horse. “What a splendid ride.”

The north access to the Mandeville park was a more modest affair than the triple-arched main entrance. A pair of rusticated stone pillars bracketed the iron gate, used mostly by tradesmen and farmers. Diana exchanged greetings with the gatekeeper, an old acquaintance, as he emerged from his cottage, then turned to Iverley.

“Thank you for your company,” she said. “But don’t let me keep you.”

“The village of Mandeville Wallop lies beyond this gate, I believe,” he said. “I don’t ever remember seeing it.”

“There’s not much to see. When the first duke came to Mandeville in the last century he built Duke’s Mandeville as a kind of model village. That’s where all the elegant houses and most of the shops are to be found. Everything in Mandeville Wallop is old.”

“Your family lives here?”

“Yes, at Wallop Hall.”

“An old house?”

“Very old.”

“I’m interested in antiquities.”

Without being shockingly rude, there wasn’t much else Diana could do. “In that case, you’d better come with me. If you have a taste for the Gothic, or perhaps the poetry of Sir Walter Scott, you’ll probably like Wallop Hall. My father Mr. Montrose will be glad to point out the parts that go back to the Middle Ages.”

It wasn’t the end of the world.  Since Iverley was obviously an eccentric, he should fit in perfectly with the Montrose family.

 

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