Authors: Joan Overfield
A Proper Taming
A Proper Taming
Copyright 1994, 2014 by Joan Overfield
"YOU DO DANCE?"
"Yes, I dance," Connor replied in a cold voice.
"What of waltzing?"
"If you wish me to waltz, then you have only to teach me."
The riot of color that flooded Portia's face delighted Connor. "I cannot teach you to waltz!" she exclaimed, thoroughly vexed.
"Why not? Are you saying that
do not waltz?"
"Of course I waltz!" she snapped. "That is to say, I have learned the dance, but I have never actually performed it."
He gave a pleased nod. "Then we shall learn from each other. When would you like to start?"
Portia opened her mouth to continue arguing, but realized the wretch had outmaneuvered her. There was no way she could insist he learn to dance if she did not follow suit. "You are enjoying this, aren't you?" she accused.
"Not yet, my dear," he drawled, his green eyes dancing. "But I will."
Sheffield, England, 1817
t was not that she was one of those ladies who went about engaging in fits of the vapors. Indeed, Miss Portia Haverall had always held such creatures in quiet contempt, and had vowed never to emulate them. But after the events of the past year, she was beginning to wonder if it was time to reconsider the matter. Surely one small swoon would not compromise her lofty principles, she thought, glaring at the butler who was blocking her path. A moment later, she angrily shook off the impulse.
"What do you mean her ladyship is not here?" she demanded, lifting the black veil covering her face to better see her elderly opponent. "I wrote my great-aunt I was coming!"
"I am sure you did, Miss . . . Haverall, is it not?" the majordomo said, his tone condescending as he studied her down the length of his nose. "However, your missive, if indeed you sent one, appears to have gone astray. Nor do I recall the countess mentioning she was expecting company, as she surely would have done. Perhaps you have the wrong address?" he added with a superior smirk that set Portia's teeth on edge.
For a moment she contemplated the pleasure it
would give her to bring her reticule down on the butler's balding head, but she was too weary to make the attempt. The journey from her village near London in the Cotswolds, which should have taken two days at the most, had taken closer to four, and she was at the end of her endurance. First her rented carriage lost its wheel, then the lead horse had gone lame, and as if that were not bad enough, the drink-sodden driver she had foolishly engaged had managed to get them going south rather than north.
She was exhausted, aching from the constant bouncing, and she wanted nothing more than to collapse on the nearest bed and sleep for a week. Unfortunately, it seemed even these simple luxuries would be denied her by a fate which had proven capricious of late. Fighting back the renewed desire to give in to the vapors, she raised her face until her gray eyes met the butler's suspicious gaze.
"If you would be so good as to tell me where her ladyship has gone, I would like to send her a note," she said haughtily, clinging to the frayed edges of her composure with grim determination.
The butler hesitated, then said, "Lady Lowton is in Scotland to attend the birth of her grandchild. I have no idea when she may return."
"She has gone to Edinburgh?" Portia exclaimed in dismay, the hope that her aunt was enjoying a mere weekend in the country vanishing.
The fact that Portia knew her ladyship's oldest son lived in Edinburgh seemed to relieve the elderly butler of some of his reservations, although he still showed a marked reluctance to let Portia inside.
"Yes, Miss Haverall," he replied, his tone not quite so supercilious. "She is residing with the earl and his lady on Charlotte Square. If you like, I
would be happy to forward your message for you. Will you be staying in Sheffield?"
From this Portia surmised that staying in the elegant manor house was out of the question, and she bit back an angry retort. "If you could recommend a respectable inn, I will be staying," she said, her mind already turning to the difficulty of an unescorted female remaining at a public inn. She had engaged a companion to accompany her from Chipping Campden, but she wasn't sure she could convince the older lady to remain for an indefinite time.
"The Red Dove is considered fashionable, and I am sure you shall be comfortable there," the butler offered hesitantly, clearly uncertain what to do. "I should allow you to stay here had her ladyship left instructions to that effect, but as it is . . ." His voice trailed off and he gave a helpless shrug.
Portia sensed he was weakening, and toyed with the idea of pressing her advantage. In the end, however, she decided the effort was not worth the candle, and accepted the inevitable with a weary sigh. "That is all right. I understand you can not admit me without permission," she said quietly, resisting the urge to connive her way past him.
"If you have need, I will send a maid along to attend you," the butler said, apparently anxious to offer what assistance he could. "It would not do for a member of the countess's family to be attended by a common maid from an inn."
Whereas it would apparently "do" for a member of her ladyship's family to stay at that same inn, Portia thought with a flash of her usual irreverence. "That is not necessary, sir. I brought my own maid with me." she said, raising her chin to give the man a mocking smile. "But I do thank you for the kind offer," she added, her tone fairly dripping
with sarcasm. She then turned and stalked back to the waiting carriage.
"Well, what is it?" her companion, Mrs. Quincy, demanded, her black eyes full of distrust as Portia climbed inside. "Your great-aunt refuse to see you? I'm not surprised; you likely offended her sensibilities by arriving in a rented hack. The gentry's queer that way, did I not warn you?"
"Indeed you did, Mrs. Quincy, a dozen times at least," Portia replied, closing her eyes and collapsing against the cushions with a heavy sigh. After spending four days trapped inside the cramped conveyance with Mrs. Quincy, Portia did not know what she feared more—that the older woman with her rigid sensibilities and a tongue that dripped acid would refuse to stay with her another day, or that she would agree.
"What is amiss?" Mrs. Quincy prodded, her brows meeting in a scowl. "If your aunt isn't refusing you the door, why are you still here? We're not lost again, are we?"
"No, we are not lost, nor has my aunt refused me admittance," Portia replied, gritting her teeth as she fought to remain civil. "It seems her ladyship has gone to Edinburgh for a visit, and since she left no instructions to the contrary, the staff cannot let me stay in the house. We shall have to put up at an inn until I contact my aunt."
"We?" Mrs. Quincy's expression grew even more sour.
Portia clenched her hands in her lap. "I was hoping you would be gracious enough to remain with me," she said, mentally cursing the necessity for such an arrangement. "I have Nancy with me, of course, but I feel it might look better if I was properly chaperoned."
"I should think so," Mrs. Quincy opined with a loud sniff, giving the middle-aged maid sitting be
side Portia a baleful glare. "Bad enough that an unmarried female should stay at a public inn in the first place, but to stay with only a simple maid to lend you countenance . . ." Her massive frame shook with horror. "Well, I am sure I need not tell you what people would think about
Pompous old hag
, Portia thought, although she managed to keep her expression blank. "Then you will stay?"
Mrs. Quincy drew herself up rigidly. "I should hope I know my Christian duty as well as the next woman, Miss Haverall. I would never dream of leaving a fellow sister in danger of jeopardizing her virtue and her good name. You may rely upon me to remain so long as I am needed."
With that hurdle behind her, Portia was able to scrape up a tired smile. "Thank you, ma'am. That is most gracious of you."
"Of course," the other woman added, a sly look in her dark eyes, "I was paid to accompany you only as far as Sheffield. I had planned to return home on the next mail coach, as I have another position waiting for me. But naturally I shan't give such paltry financial considerations another thought."
Perhaps she wouldn't be eternally damned if she should accidentally kick the old witch's shins, Portia thought, wistfully studying Mrs. Quincy's bombazine-draped limbs. She had but to uncross her ankles and . . .
"I should be more than happy to reimburse you for the inconvenience, Mrs. Quincy," she said instead, mentally admonishing herself for the lapse in control. "Another ten pounds, shall we say?"
"I would have made fifteen at the other post." Mrs. Quincy's prompt reply told Portia she had been unwisely generous in her initial offer.
"Fifteen, then," Portia agreed, then uncrossed
her ankles, allowing the toe of her kid half-boots to come into painful contact with Mrs. Quincy's thick ankles.
"Did I kick you?" Portia's eyes were wide with innocence. "Oh, dear, how very clumsy of me. I am sorry."
"Sour-faced, mean-spirited, money-grubbing old witch!" Nancy muttered, her jaw clenching with fury as she flung Portia's belongings into the small wardrobe that came with the simply furnished room. "I vow, that one could tell vinegar how to be bitter! Whyever did you hire the harpy in the first place? Your wits must have gone begging, is what."
"Please, Nancy, no more, I implore you." Portia groaned, pressing the washcloth dipped in lavender water to her throbbing temples. "My poor head feels as if it is about to split open."
"And small wonder, I shouldn't think," Nancy grumbled, although she lowered her voice. "Four days with that female could give a statue a case of the colic! And as for you . . . well, all I can say is 'tis a good thing your father wasn't here to see you. He'd have thought you dicked in the nob for sure."
Portia opened one eye to give the maid an indignant glare. "Me? I have been a pattern card of propriety!"
"That's what I mean." Nancy placed her hands on her hips and fixed Portia with an accusing look. "Since when would you have put up with that female's nonsense for more than five minutes, hmm? I could hardly credit my own eyes and ears the way you kept casting down your eyes and simpering like a green school-miss." She shook her head in obvious disgust.
"I never simpered!" Portia denied, eyes flashing at the hateful accusation.
"And you didn't put Mrs. Quincy in her place as you ought to have done, either!" Nancy was merciless in her summation of Portia's behavior. "Whatever ails you, girl? You've never acted like such a ninnyhammer in the past."
The querulous comment from someone who had known Portia since she was in short frocks drove out her anger, and Portia collapsed back on the uncomfortable bed. She remained silent for a long moment, struggling to find the words that would explain the abrupt change in her manners.
"Perhaps I am tired of playing the vixen," she said at last, her expression troubled as she gazed down at her clenched hands. "I have been thinking, and I've concluded that 'tis my own fault Papa disinherited me. If I hadn't acted like such a willful child, he would never have cut me out of his will."
"But he was always disinheriting you!" Nancy protested in alarm. "He cut you out of his will at least four times a year, only to put you back in once his temper was cooled. Even Mr. Clinden's solicitors admitted he'd have doubtlessly put you back in that last time, except . . ."
"Except that he died before he had the chance," Portia finished when Nancy's voice trailed off. "I know, but that is precisely the point. If I hadn't squabbled and disagreed with Papa over every little thing, he wouldn't have needed to disinherit me at all."
"Don't you see?" Portia interrupted, raising anguished eyes to meet Nancy's gaze. "Papa had every right to disinherit me! I failed him as a daughter, and I do not deserve to be his heir."
Nancy's jaw dropped in shock. "You can't be
lieve that," she managed' at last, twisting her work-worn hands in dismay. "Your father loved you!"
"And I loved him." This time Portia made no attempt to blink back the tears scalding her eyes. "He was the dearest father anyone could want, and I shall miss him always. But toward the end, I knew I had disappointed him. He wanted a sweet-tempered, well-behaved daughter, and he got me instead."
"Oh, pet." Nancy hurried over to sit beside her. "You mustn't think such sad thoughts! Disappointed in you? Why, your father was proud as proud could be of you! Many were the times he would say to me, 'Nancy, that daughter of mine would invade hades and tell the devil himself how to manage purgatory.' Now, does that sound like he was ashamed of you?"