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The Season had, in Miss Claire Dalton’s estimation, come early, and come directly to her. It had arrived—or was soon to arrive—in the form of her cousin Charles, whom she had not seen since childhood. More interestingly, it was to arrive in the form of two of Charles’s friends, young men he had seen only a few times since leaving for the Coalition Wars more than seven years ago.
Claire’s mother had warned the Lads would be much taken with one another, but had not stopped Claire from dressing in the finest gown appropriate for home. She was consequently adorned in a white gown embellished with a rather high collar that nearly brushed her jaw but left the hollow of her throat exposed. The day was warm, and she had foregone a wrap, satisfied instead with the splash of pink allowed her by the ribbon of a deep straw bonnet that protected her skin from the weakening September sun. She felt quite pretty, with dark ringlets brushing her cheekbones as they fell free from the bonnet, and if her steps minced due to the slight gather at the gown’s hem, then at least she was ladylike and not striding about like a man.
It would be more suitable, she supposed, to await Charles’s arrival in a sitting room, pursuing her needlepoint or reading…or singing, or painting, or Italian, or any one of the myriad applications well-bred young women attended to. She had spent the morning engaged in similarly appropriate activities: calling upon the widow down the road with her mother before stopping in to visit friends and discussing, in breathless anticipation, the arrival of Charles and his Lads. The only pall that lay over these enjoyable duties was the absence of Claire’s elder brother, recently commissioned and off to the Peninsula, but in their way, the morning engagements distracted her from that as well.
And if she wished to spend the afternoon pacing—not that she was pacing; she was merely taking a refreshing stroll up and down the precise length of the garden walk from which she could still see the drive—then that was her business and hers alone. Her mother’s mouth had not, Claire was sure, twitched with amusement when Claire had announced her intention to take some air. Nor, surely, was her mother now watching from an upstairs window with poorly-concealed laughter on her features. No, she was merely smiling at her only daughter, and nothing more. Claire was determined, if not actually certain, of this, and carefully didn’t look toward her mother’s well-cut figure in the window for fear of dislodging her own determination.
Some little while ago dust had risen on the road, lifting Claire’s spirits with it. In due time, though, that dust had ejected not a trio of young men, but a wagon filled with victuals intended to sustain three strapping youths over the course of four days. Claire’s spirits had been hopelessly dashed. Now she presented an expression of complete indifference to a new cloud rising from the end of the drive, though her heart beat at an unnatural pace and her fingers were white about the knuckles where she strangled a trembling sapling with her grip.
Charles had, in her memory, been quite handsome: tall and with the promise of shoulders that any maiden would swoon for. He looked a great deal like their grandfather, or at least like the paintings of that gentleman (in, of course, his youth) which now adorned the halls of the Dalton residence in Town. It stood to reason, then, that Charles’s friends would also be handsome, as they were all gentlemen and surely like called to like. Claire’s first glimpse would tell all, and that was well worth skulking about in the garden.
Not that she was skulking. She lacked the opportunity to re-form that thought into a more pleasant interpretation before the carriage—no, the riders!—appeared. All three of the young men rode ahead of the carriage, so far ahead of it that its dust cloud had become a distant lie about their approach. They were so far ahead of it, in fact, that although she had been watching for them for three hours, their arrival came as a surprising thunder of hooves and laughter.
All of them sat beautifully upon their horses, with buckskins and Hessians, round-fronted tailcoats and light, capeless great coats all of such fine quality that in the rush of their appearance, not one man could be said to stand out from the others. Two of them had dark hair and the third, light, but beyond that, there were no immediately distinguishing characteristics. Hardly worth peering through the hedges for, Claire thought with a sniff of irritation. She took a single step back, and in doing so, attracted the attention of one of the riders. He had been in the lead, but without warning he spun his horse—a fine bay gelding—so that he circled the other two and came up behind them. He was not, though, attuned to his companions, but rather to the gardens beside the drive. Appealingly, he was framed, as if deliberately, by a slender archway in the hedge that allowed egress and exit from the garden to the drive.
Claire saw at once that he fell short of devastatingly handsome—a slight weakness of chin in profile stole that from him, though as his gaze came around to her, it became evident that his jaw had all the necessary breadth from the front to disguise its minor lack in profile. His nose, though, was perfect, and his cheekbones so sharp as to have been carved by a razor. Black hair was worn full of height and swept forward so that the fringe softened the width of his forehead; sideburns accentuated both his cheekbones and the length of his jaw.
Their gazes locked and a jolt of excitement stopped Claire’s heart, only to have it start again at a racing pace as a wickedly sly half-smile slid over full and sensual lips. His eyes were as blue as a lightning flash, and Claire stood as though struck by them, unable to retreat or advance. It made no matter: he had seen her, his smile was for her alone, and he would sweep her into his arms, unguarded against passion, and within hours he would ask to speak to Claire’s father privately, neither of them able to wait a moment longer than necessary for consummation of the fire that even now burned in both their breasts—
“What ho!” this vision of manliness cried, “Charles, there is a mouse in the garden!”
The girl herself, truth be told, was barely visible within the long confines of a poke bonnet. Her bonnet, though, glimpsed through the tangle of branches and changing leaves that lined the drive to the Daltons’ country home, made so strong an impression of a mouse’s quivering nose extending from a hole that Benedict Fairburn spoke before he thought. The words had barely left his lips when he saw the girl more clearly through the green archway that separated drive from garden. Dismay clawed his voice, and any amelioration he might have made, away.
Beyond the bonnet, a prim and old-fashioned dress did so little for the girl’s attributes that it could only have been chosen to disguise them, or by a servant grateful to wear the outdated cast-offs of a wealthy mistress. He had shown poor enough manners by calling attention to her. It was worse yet to tease someone of such obviously lower rank than himself. His companions wheeled about, already laughing. Flushed with embarrassment, Benedict did his best to wave them off. “Never mind, it was a mean jape, let us ride on—”
Charles, a man of more genial nature than his wartime reputation suggested, chuckled agreeably and clicked to his horse, bringing it around again. Evander Hewitt, though, somewhat meaner than Benedict remembered from school, urged his forward a few steps, ducking to peer through the arch at the young woman. “Looks like a mouse to me, Benny. Shall I be the cat?” He pressed the horse forward, moving implacably toward the girl.
Just beyond Hewitt’s shoulder, Benedict saw the girl’s expression clear to such forthright astonishment that the vividness of her green eyes became visible despite the bonnet’s depths. She did not, he thought with surprised admiration, look afraid. But then, she could withdraw easily enough: they were in a garden, not an alleyway, where Hewitt’s horse would block any avenue of escape.
Still, it had already gone far enough. Benedict said, “Hewitt,” at the same time Dalton, more firmly, said, “Evander,” but neither man’s voice stopped their third. He advanced, smirking with anticipation of the girl’s oncoming fearful break.
Instead, she held her ground, small jaw set within the confines of her bonnet. There was hardly anything to her, Benedict thought. She was a slight and delicate creature, not much larger than a mouse after all, though there had never been a mouse with such a forthright gaze. The set of his shoulders said even Hewitt lost confidence in the face of her calm. Pride kept him urging the horse onward, though, until the girl, who had not moved a step, put her hand up with slow and gentle certainty to take the animal’s bridle at the cheek piece. The horse blew a lippy breath full of commentary as it lowered its head. Hewitt’s spine, already stiff with his riding posture, went positively rigid.
The girl took no notice of him at all. She could not, Benedict realized with slow horror, be a servant, regardless of how unfashionable her gown was. No servant, not even Dalton’s valet Worthington, who ranked among the most unflappable men Benedict had ever encountered, could remain so arrogantly collected in the face of three gentlemen and their horses. He was not surprised, then, when the girl placed a gentle hand on the horse’s nose and murmured to it in cultured, dulcet tones, “What utterly appalling creatures you travel with, my beauty. I don’t suppose you would care to dump the one astride you into the garden pond? Well, yes, I’m certain you would, but you are far too well-mannered a beast to do such a thing, aren’t you? What a shame.”
She lifted her gaze then, to look through Hewitt as if he were not there at all, to disregard Benedict as if he were something too unpleasant to acknowledge, and to lance Charles with disgust. “Cousin Charles. I’m sure you are welcome to my father’s house. I expect you remember where the stables are. Perhaps you and your companions could take yourselves there, tend to your horses, and before dinner is announced, do something about the dreadful smell of horse embedded in your clothes and skin. Good afternoon.” With another gentle touch to the horse’s nose, showing clearly that it stood highest in her estimation of the gathering before her, the girl turned, walked away, and did not look back.
All three men gazed after her, mesmerized, Benedict with the heat of bad manners scalding his cheeks. He had not yet scraped together an apology to Charles, much less attempted to form one to offer to the young woman, when Hewitt barked, “Well! Good thing we’re not here for the society, isn’t it?”
“That was badly done, Evander,” Charles said quietly. Dalton never spoke loudly, not anymore, Benedict thought. He’d been hotter of head in their school days, but not since his return from the front. Now he was always reserved, even in his sensibility, and yet his mild tone caved even Hewitt’s stiff posture.
Sullen, he muttered, “Thought she was a servant. and I’d put a scare into her, that’s all.”
“It is almost worse to terrorize a serving girl than a gentlewoman,” Dalton said in the same softly chiding voice. “A lady might have the education, self-possession and wit to stand her ground, as my cousin did, whereas a servant could only quake and tremble for fear of losing her position if she dared defend herself. Fear is no way to live a life, Evan. Come. We have horses and, if Miss Dalton is to believed—and I dare say she is—bathing to attend to.”
With the faintest uncomfortable suspicion that the smooth waters of Dalton’s tones could turn suddenly dangerous and rough, and that Miss Claire Dalton might well be a topic that could set those rough waters a-boil, Benedict followed after his host and tried not to think too long on the green-eyed girl.
His cousin had not, it seemed, grown much in stature, though she had retained the boldness he recalled from her girlhood. Dalton smiled as he led the Lads toward the stables, where, despite Claire’s pointed suggestion, they handed the beasts over to the stable-boys rather than tend to the animals themselves. He was, indeed, smiling still when he met the other two at the stable doors, and Fairburn blushed to see Dalton’s humor still engaged.
“I’m ashamed of myself, Dalton, I truly am. I’ll apologize to Miss Dalton—”
“If she’ll let you,” Charles said with an upward flick of his eyebrows. “I remember Claire as a proper little thing, Benny, but deuced if she didn’t hold her ground once she’d made a decision. She may go through the forms, but whether she’ll forgive you, that’s something else entirely!” Still with uplifted eyebrows, he added, for clarity’s sake, “You, Evan, will apologize.”
Hewitt’s lip curled. “You’ve just said she wouldn’t accept it.”
“And yet.” Charles offered one of his gentlest smiles and watched with a trace of sorrow as Evander Hewitt’s shoulders bowed slightly, as if the smile had the weight of a blow.
Evander had been generous in boyhood, a generosity made easy by an income guaranteed to him as both only child and beloved son, and by good looks that artists loved to paint. Things had changed since their school days, though, many things, and where generosity had once flowed, meanness now too often ran in its stead. Several of the other lads—not just lads, but the Lads, half a dozen of them in all who were closest to Dalton’s heart in friendship—didn’t care for Hewitt, but thus far they were all willing to tolerate him for Dalton’s sake. Dalton himself had lost too much to give up on this Lad, and so Hewitt remained.
He also nodded, muttering an agreement to apologize, and to Dalton’s way of thinking, all was once again right with the world. He fell into step between the Lads, momentarily aware that he stood—if they were to measure men as they did horses—a full hand shorter than the other two. Claire’s diminutive size was something of a family trait, although Dalton considered his friends tall, rather than thinking of himself as short. The three of them passed through the stable doors together before Dalton took the lead, though anyone could see the pathway to the main house.
It was a fine-looking manor, not ostentatiously large and set into well-kept lawns and gardens that had not yet lost the jeweled colors of summer. A chicken yard and vegetable garden, attended by a white-capped girl who dipped a curtsy as the Lads passed by, lay between stables and house. The whole of it made a pretty picture, the very essence of a quiet, comfortable country life. There were lands enough to hunt on—indeed, that had been much of the appeal in agreeing to his uncle’s invitation—and there were, aside from Claire, no young women to confuse a lads’ holiday with the never-ending Society nonsense of matchmaking. Charles had returned from the Peninsular War some weeks ago only to be accosted by his parents’ hopes of a swift and suitable marriage, a barrage as ceaseless as the guns of war. He consequently spent as many waking hours as possible in the Lads’ company, avoiding not only his mother’s unsubtle hints but what few parties and socials that nice society held in the autumn. His Uncle George’s offer of a country visit had been a respite Charles both desperately desired and felt was ideal for the time of year; London was dull in September. All this reflection took him in companionable silence around the chicken yard and toward the front doors. Just before they swept open, Benedict seized Charles’s arm and spoke in a tone of nervous concern.
“Cease your musing, Charles, and tell me what to do if Miss Dalton refuses my apology. I’m unaccustomed to insulting young ladies.”
“Brave it out, man,” Dalton said in surprise. “She won’t be rude, and aside from meals, there’s no call to speak to the girl. We’re here for a bit of sport, not to fuss over whether a country miss has had her nose put out of joint. Besides, it’s Hewitt who tried to intimidate her and from whom a proper apology is necessary. You only made an unfortunate remark.”
“But one that needs redressing.” Fairburn straightened his shoulders, earning an eye-roll from Hewitt before the doors opened and all three Lads were ushered in.
Dalton was drawn directly into an embrace by his short, sweet-faced aunt, whose dress, he noted, was no more fashionable than that of her daughter’s. The house, at a glance, gleamed and was well-kept, suggesting their lack was in a sartorial sense, not funds, though it was possible a commission for their son had set them back farther than they might care to admit. But, no: in thinking about it, it seemed to Charles that even when he was young, his aunt’s fashion sense had been some years behind the times. Having a daughter of marriageable age had not, it seemed, improved the matter. George Dalton, a man of middling height and little hair, was not badly out of fashion, but men’s styles changed less rapidly than did women’s.
“Charles Edward,” his aunt, oblivious to his thoughts, said with real pleasure. “What a delight to see you again.”
“Aunt Sylvia. You look well. Uncle George.” Dalton shook the latter’s hand, then, smiling, allowed himself to be drawn into an embrace there as well. The elder Dalton gentleman rumbled a greeting, surprising Charles, as always, with the unexpected depth of his voice from such an unprepossessing man. “And George Arnold?”
“In Spain.” Sylvia Dalton put visible effort into not allowing a shadow to cross her smiling face. “Not at the front, or not last that we heard. And these are your friends?”
“Yes, of course. May I present you to Mr and Mrs Dalton, my beloved uncle and aunt. Aunt, Uncle, these are Benedict Fairburn and Evander Hewitt. You will recall me speaking of them, perhaps, from my school days.”
Hands were kissed and shaken with polite murmurings as Aunt Sylvia said, “You would be Benny and Evan,” with a smile. “How splendid to finally meet you. Claire mentioned you were all in dire hope of a bath before supper, so I’ve had hot water sent up. I hope Worthington won’t be too put out.” Her light blue eyes sparkled, bringing a laugh to Dalton’s lips.
“I see you remember him too. Well, he’s traveling with the carriage and our belongings, so he can’t protest too strenuously if I’m clean before he arrives. I have no doubt our dinner wear will be laid out and presentable, all at his able hand, before we’re out of the bath.”
“Knowing Worthington, he may well somehow have it done before you’re in the bath. Best hurry before he proves me right.” Uncle George’s words were made droller yet by the depth of his voice.
Charles felt Fairburn and Hewitt exchange a surprised glance as they heard George’s voice properly for the first time. As a footman escorted them up to their rooms, Benedict breathed, “He ought to have been a politician, with that voice.|”
“I believe he was slated to be,” Charles murmured in response. “But he fell quite in love with my aunt rather than make the fortuitous marriage my grandfather had arranged for him, and in pique the old man cut him off. They retired to the country to live on Aunt Sylvia’s younger brother’s sufferance, but he died in a riding accident when I was only a child. There being no others of her lineage, she inherited this house and lands. It nearly gave my grandfather apoplexy to have his disinherited son come into such comfort.”
“Charming family,” Hewitt muttered.
Charles chuckled as they were led into their separate rooms. “Cast no stones, Evan. Heaven knows what we all are, beneath the surface.”
For a country estate with no pretensions at grandeur, Worthington decided the Dalton house was tremendously well presented. The room appointed to his immediate employer, young Master Dalton, was spacious enough to house a large bed and wardrobe with a vanity without crowding, yet small enough that the generous fireplace would easily warm it on a cold winter’s day. Even the uppermost corners were clean of cobweb and soot. The leaded glass windows fit snugly into their frame, and the shutters were padded to hold in heat. The colors were, if not fashionable, at least pleasant, and were kept up; there were no faded patches in the duvet cover or on the upholstered chair, and the mirror above the fireplace reflected wallpaper of handsomely striped cream and burgundy.
He had been suitably welcomed by the staff. The butler himself had shown Worthington the way to Charles Edward’s room while the three footmen carried luggage to each of the young men’s rooms. When the footmen were gone, Worthington had, in a politely conspiratorial voice, wondered if there was anything within the household of which he should be aware. He was informed in an equally conspiratorial tone of the set-to betwixt Miss Dalton and the Lads upon their arrival, observed, the Dalton’s butler murmured, by a maid watching from an upper window. Worthington extended his gratitude for the bit of knowledge, and butler and valet alike had shared the brief, expressionless look perfected by servants the world over that spoke volumes about the ladies and gentlemen they served without ever betraying a word or a thought of it on their faces. Both parties departed the discussion with the satisfaction of knowing they could work comfortably with the other man.
The young master’s clothes were, of course, unpacked, and a suit pressed and laid out for the evening before he emerged from the bath. For some reason that caused Charles Edward to laugh, but laughter had been rare enough from him in the past months, and Worthington was glad to hear it. He now helped Dalton slip a deep blue, double-breasted tailcoat over his shoulders as the young master observed himself in the mirror, Worthington an unremarkable shadow in its background. Dalton turned twice, examining the fall of the tails to the backs of his knees and the admirable upward nip of the front, then brushed his thumbs down the lapels with satisfaction. “I believe that will do, Worthington, thank you. Tell me, is my aunt and uncle’s house a tight ship? Do you approve?”
Worthington lifted his eyes to meet Dalton’s in the mirror, his own non-committal brown; Dalton’s a lazy hazel. “Of course, sir.” He took precisely enough breath after the last word to leave things unsaid, and Charles Edward, of course, seized upon them.
“It wouldn’t be my place to say, sir.”
“Oh, please, Worthington. I know we’re back in civilized territory, but must we return to all that prattle?” Dalton shook off Worthington’s hands so he could face the valet with all the laziness gone from his hazel eyes. “Haven’t we been through enough to forgo the niceties of society, at least in private?”
“What is practiced in private cannot be forgotten in public,” Worthington replied, but held up a hand to forestall his master’s complaint. “Very well, sir. I may have heard that your companions, Master Hewitt in particular, were badly behaved toward Miss Dalton.”
“Oh, that.” The laziness came into Dalton’s eyes as he waved the concern away. “I’ve spoken to them already, Worthington. They’ll apologize, both of them. Anything else?”
Worthington hesitated, examining his employer’s features. Dalton was monied, of course, his parents having easily afforded a commission that the young man had not necessarily required. Nor had he needed to serve at the front; he might have had a safe and respectable desk job that no one would have sneered at, but such caution was not in Charles Dalton. Serving had been a passion; serving well, an obligation to that passion.
Similarly, Worthington might have stayed behind, sending a more adventuresome valet in his stead, or indeed allowing Dalton’s person to be cared for from within the military ranks. But Worthingtons had served Daltons for over half a century, and James Allen Worthington would not be the son to abandon his duty. He had grown up with—or near, at least—Dalton, who was only a few years his junior; they had been man and servant since Dalton’s eighteenth year, just under a decade now. There had never been any real question that Worthington would join Charles wherever he went.
Nor was there any question that if Worthington felt strongly about any topic that he should, in time, be able to make his employer aware of it, though that was in Worthington’s opinion the duty of any valet. It was somewhat less expected, perhaps, that a man of Dalton’s stature might deign to listen to his valet’s opinions, but listen he did.
That did not mean the moment was always right to express one of those opinions. Worthington, judging Dalton’s pleasantly curious guise, concluded that this was not the time. The softness had already slid once from Dalton’s gaze, and Worthington knew well what dangers the harder edge in Dalton’s eyes could unveil. So rather than pursue topics that could ignite a fire, the valet straightened the tall and slim lines of Dalton’s ballroom cravat and, with a step back, said, “Nothing, sir, now that I’ve got that tidied.”
“Very good. I’ll call for you after dinner, Worthington. I think I can manage until then.”
“Probably not, sir,” Worthington said dryly, “but I’m sure you’ll muddle through.”
Dalton grinned, the familiar and friendly smile of an equal, and clapped his hand to Worthington’s shoulder before hastening to the dinner call. Worthington trailed a few steps behind, retreating as the other Lads came down an opposite stair to meet Dalton at the landing. Worthington, silent and attentive, might have been no more than another sculpture.
But he watched Evander Hewitt, and as the Lads departed, Hewitt’s sharp gaze met Worthington’s neutral one. The valet lowered his eyes as was appropriate to his station, and knew that Hewitt could not read the mistrust that Worthington felt in his bones.