Authors: L. A. Hilden
Tags: #Romance, #Historical Romance, #LA Hilden, #Historical Fiction, #regency romance
“Most definitely. Come on, Lydia. What say you?”
“I would love to go, Pax.” Lydia pitched forward into him as the carriage hit a hole in the road. She laughed, righting herself. “Let’s hope that whomever I marry is closely acquainted with many doctors.” Although she protested against the institution of marriage, Lydia still wanted to marry and raise a family. This Paxton knew, despite her bluster to the contrary.
“Perhaps we should wed you to a doctor,” he said in jest, and he was rewarded for his humor with a light kick to his shin. The carriage came to a halt and the livery opened up the door and positioned an umbrella. “Should I carry you to the door? We wouldn’t want you slipping on the wet stones walking to the house.”
“Oh, do stop teasing!” Lydia took her time alighting, with ladylike grace, from the vehicle. As long as she didn’t hurry, she wouldn’t hurt herself, but then Lydia always seemed to be in a hurry. Exhausted from the night’s activities, she bid him good night and went up to her room.
Paxton on the other hand was far from tired. He was filled with unexplainable anxiety. Entering his study, he poured himself a three-finger glass of bourbon and sat on the sofa in front of the warm fire. It was quiet in the house, the only sounds coming from the crackling of the wood and the pitter-patter of rain as it hit the window. Staring into the blue flames of the fire, Paxton imagined the lady from the theater. Her eyes had been as luminescent as the blue flame in front of him. He wondered who she was and if he’d see her tomorrow.
He swirled the amber liquid in his crystal snifter and then downed the rest of it. It didn’t do him any good to think about a woman he wouldn’t allow himself to have. He reminded himself that he needed to focus his energies on seeing his sister through this Season.
Looking up at a walnut-framed portrait of his father over the fireplace mantle, he began to wonder how his father would have raised Lydia had he lived. The former Earl of Devonhurst died, according to the doctor from a weak heart, when Paxton was eighteen and Lydia was ten. It upset Paxton to think how much his father would have enjoyed handling his energetic sister. Thankfully, they still had their loving, but often absent, mother. The countess spent most of her days, when she wasn’t busy telling Paxton how to run his life, in the country or traveling. She didn’t like to venture into the city, and Paxton assumed it was because the manor was a sad reminder of Father’s death.
His mother should be the one overseeing Lydia’s Season and future marriage, he thought.
He detested the very idea, but if there was ever a woman who needed a husband, it was his willful sister. Although, in truth, he could not come up with one man of his acquaintance he’d deem good enough for her, let alone intelligent and clever enough to deal with such a challenging and vocal lady as Lydia. The task before him was daunting.
Madeline sat patiently at the long wooden breakfast table watching her daughters fill their plates from the sideboard. She thought she had a clue as to which man her sweet daughter bumped into last night, and the possibility worried her.
“So have you thought about the description I gave you, Mother?” Eve asked as she took her seat. She brought a fork full of scrambled eggs to her mouth as she waited for her mother to answer.
Madeline smiled at Evelyn’s obvious excitement and hoped her conclusion was wrong regarding the man’s identity. “Yes, actually. This quandary kept me up a good portion of the night, but I’m still unsure. I need more information.”
“He sounds like an angel sent down from heaven,” Cassie declared, taking a drink of her hot chocolate.
“Indeed he does,” Madeline agreed.
“Well, he did mention that he was married…”
“Married!” both she and Cassie cried out at the same time.
Oh dear God in heaven, what is my daughter thinking?
Eve giggled at their stricken faces. “Married to bachelorhood. I assumed he was issuing me a challenge.”
“Then I know who it is,” Madeline said with disappointment, for she had been correct in her thinking. “And your description fits, somewhat.” Eve was going to be terribly disappointed.
“Who is he?” shrieked Cassie.
Eve sat there, silent, her stomach churning. The tone of her mother’s voice suddenly made her not want to know who he was. Whatever her mother was about to tell her, it wasn’t good.
“It has to be the Earl of Devonhurst. He is a big man with dark hair and dark eyes, and he is most charming. However, I am sorry to inform you, dear heart, that he was being truthful. It was not a challenge he was issuing you. You need to stay away from him.”
“Yes, I agree with Mother. You don’t want to lose your heart to someone who is unattainable,” Cassie said sadly.
Everyone telling her to stay away from him was not helping her feel any better. Eve liked this Earl of Devonhurst, if indeed her mother was right about his identity. She had taken one look at him and felt warmed by his dark gaze. His lopsided smile had caused her stomach to somersault and her heart to race. He could not be placed on the unacceptable list. He was an earl. His title alone should keep him in the running. “If I promise to protect my heart, will you take me to the Countess of Madison’s this evening? I do wish to go.”
“He’s going to be there, isn’t he?” Cassie guessed, clapping her hands together as if she was thrilled by the thought.
“Cassie, dearest, I hear commotion in the hall. Go see who is here,” Mother instructed, and then turned her attention to Eve once Cassie fled from the room. “Now, Evelyn, I’m not only worried about your heart. You said the Earl of Devonhurst did not introduce himself to you. This is because he either did not wish for you to know him or he was too enthralled by you to remember his manners. Knowing him to be a gentleman of the finest ilk, I believe it was the latter. This being the case, you must stay away from him. You are searching for true love and marriage, not a night of pleasure and a lifetime of ostracism.”
“Mother! I’m sure that isn’t his intent.” In spite of her protestations, the one night of pleasure did sound interesting in Eve’s mind. She tried to picture the earl sans clothing but stopped when she noticed her mother’s glare.
“Please trust me, dearest. I know about such things. The Earl of Devonhurst is in the habit of removing himself from any and all eligible females. Everyone knows this.”
“Very well. Then he will keep his distance from me and we can still attend,” Eve said, trying to convince her mother they should still go to the event. She hoped her mother was wrongly labeling the earl, but Evelyn knew her mother rarely made mistakes of this kind. And yet, she still wished to see him.
“True enough, but remember he does so because he is against marriage. I do not want him suddenly deciding to make an exception to his rule by seducing my daughter. He told you he is married to bachelorhood. Why are you purposely missing my point?”
“Of course, you are right. I shall stay away from him.” Eve felt deflated by this news but tried to remain hopeful about her prospects. The Season had only begun and she was bound to meet more men like him. Or would she?
“That’s my girl. I promise we’ll find you the perfect suitor.”
Cassie came back into the room, her eyes wide and a brilliant smile upon her face. “Father’s here!” she stated loudly, and she quickly hurried back to the foyer to welcome him.
Eve shared a smile with her mother before they walked into the foyer behind Cassie.
The third Viscount of Stonehaven stood in the entry hall listening to Cassandra’s endless chatter. His gray hair was tousled from his long ride, but his sky blue eyes sparkled with merriment. “Come here,” he called to his wife, who walked happily into his open embrace. Eve smiled at the love her parents had for each other.
“How are my girls?” Father asked, handing his gloves to Hamilton, the butler.
“London is wonderful, Father. The theater was excellent. The performers were so spectacular that I was moved to tears.” Cassie proceeded to pour out all their recent adventures enthusiastically, not leaving out a single detail as the family made their way into the parlor.
“I am glad you are having such a jolly good time. And you, Eve? Did you enjoy the theater?” her father asked, knowing she probably hated it. He knew her predilections well. Father realized Eve preferred the outdoors and toiling in flowerbeds far more than theater performances and music recitals.
“No, Father. I don’t believe I care much for plays.”
“Yes, well, we all prefer different entertainments. That is what makes life exciting and people unique.”
“She liked the intermission,” Cassie thought to add in.
“Fall silent, Cassandra! I don’t think that was what father was asking.” Eve glared at her sister. This exchange likely had her father wondering what he had missed in the last few days, she realized, which made Eve glare even harder at Cassie.
The loose-lipped traitor. How dare she bring my misbehavior to Father’s attention.
“Girls, I’m sure your father is hungry after his trip. Why don’t you both make him a plate from breakfast.”
As the girls went down the hall, Eve pushed Cassie and moved past her. “You need to grow up.”
“And you need to compose yourself,” Cassie said to Eve’s retreating form as she went into the dining room.
“Where do you think Mother is?” Cassie poked her head up from a book of Shakespeare’s sonnets and peered at the chaise their mother usually occupied at this time of the day. It was three in the afternoon, which meant the Stonehaven ladies could usually be found outside in the garden reading, unless it was raining and then they were likely found in the parlor reading or doing needlework.
Eve looked up from her book on botany. “I assume she is still with Father,” she answered, returning to her reading on Dutch tulips. She loved everything about flowers. She loved their variety, color, smell, and the different moods they evoked. When she married, she was going to create the most spectacular garden. Her garden would have stone curved benches and trellises with flowering vines, marble statues of various Roman and Greek gods and goddesses, and every type of flower she could find that would grow in England’s countryside. The multitude of colors and variations would not only be beautiful, the smells would be intoxicating, the scents of rose, honeysuckle, lavender, and lilac.
“What did Mother say when I left the dining room this morning?” Cassie closed her book, clearly bored with her reading.
Eve, realizing her sister wanted to talk, placed the hair ribbon she used for a bookmark between the pages of her own book and set it aside. She reached over to the small table nearby to pour them both some lemonade.
“She said,” Eve replied, coming to her feet to hand her sister the filled glass, “that I should avoid the earl at all costs for he is only after one thing.”
“And that would be?”
Eve shrugged as if it wasn’t important, and then answered, “My virtue, according to Mother.”
Cassie’s eyes widened in dismay. “But that is your most cherished asset,” she exclaimed, and Eve couldn’t help but roll her eyes skyward. Their mother had always told them that, in order to capture the perfect suitor, one had to hold on to her virginity for their husband. Although Eve knew this was important, she felt the endless warnings tiresome.
“So are you going to stay away from him?” Cassie asked.
“I will.” Eve grinned seductively and gave her sister her best come hither look. “Unless, he comes to me.”
“Oh no! Look out, Lord Devonhurst! Here comes Evelyn Manning!” Cassie laughed as Eve sashayed by practicing a sultry look over her shoulder. “That is a good one,” Cassie insisted. “You should use that one.” Cassie came to her feet and imitated her sister. “How do I look?”
Eve nodded her approval. “Very alluring, Cassie. Try not to pucker your lips so much.”
Eve noticed their mother watching them from the window as they did their best portrayal of an alluring miss. Mother did an exaggerated sashay out to them. Her daughters laughed at her overly sensational arrival. “I see we are practicing. I came to tell you both that we have a long evening planned, including two parties. It would be wise if we all took a short nap.”
Eve saw Cassie’s face fall. She was saddened by the news. Mother noticed and went to lift Cassie’s chin. “That includes you too, dearest. Your father and I have decided that, since we are both attending tonight’s festivities and since you are leaving for the country tomorrow, one night out in the city will help to prepare you for your Season.”
Cassie hugged her mother in her excitement and then they all went to seek out their beds.
Eve had a hard time falling asleep. She kept wondering if she would see the earl tonight.
What should I wear? What is his favorite color? Will he approach me? Will he ask me for a dance? Or will he truly ignore my existence?
She had promised she wouldn’t seek him out, but if he didn’t approach her, if he didn’t at least smile in her direction…
She scolded herself. She had to put him out of her mind. Tonight she would meet many eligible men and perhaps even the man of her dreams.
Paxton and Lydia stood in the entrance of the glittering ballroom. The parquet floor gleamed from numerous layers of wax and candles shimmered from every mirrored wall. The painted ceiling was done in separated sky scenes, puffy white clouds on top of which sat tiny chubby cherubs observing the sea of people below.
“It’s beautiful,” Lydia exclaimed as she looked at the marble statues in niches lining the entryway.
Paxton felt the entrance a little overdone for his tastes, but he agreed that it had quite an effect on the viewer. “The Countess of Madison takes great pride in her home and her gatherings. The earl is often out of the country, and the parties seem to be a way for the countess to entertain herself.”
The Countess of Madison walked up in her pale green muslin gown with an elaborate lace collar. She also wore a dark green turban with a white feather plume.
“Lady Madison,” Paxton said in greeting as he bowed and kissed her white-gloved hand. She was a lovely woman in her middle years known for her flirtatious behavior with any man who crossed her path. None of the wives seemed to mind, knowing her flirting was all for show.
“Lord Devonhurst. It is wonderful to see you. You usually break my heart by not attending my functions; however, since you are here now, I shall forgive you. I do hope you will save me a dance.” She ran her index finger along his forearm.
“Of course, my lady,” Paxton agreed.
The countess turned her attention to Lydia. “And this must be your sister, Lady Lydia. It is nice to meet you.”
Lydia curtsied and smiled. “I’m honored to be here, my lady.”
Lady Madison smiled and looked at Paxton. “She is charming. Do enjoy yourselves.” She grinned at Lydia and flicked her fan at Paxton before turning to greet more guests.
“She’s strange,” Lydia stated quietly as they descended the few steps to the ballroom.
“We say eccentric, my sweet sister, not strange,” Paxton corrected her with a laugh. “Look who’s coming our way.”
Lydia didn’t have time to react as her cousin threw herself in her arms. “How are you, love? It’s been ages. You look beautiful as always.”
Lydia was finally released from the enthusiastic embrace. “I’m fine. I have been enjoying the Season. That is, when I can get Paxton to leave his work to take me somewhere.”
Rebecca turned to offer Paxton her gloved hand. “Still working too hard then, cousin? Well, if you don’t feel up to it, Lydia is always welcome to join William and me.” Rebecca turned to her husband who had come up behind her. The Duke of Arlington smiled as he put his arm around his wife.
“Of course, Lady Lydia, you are always welcome to join us. Perhaps then I might be able to miss a few of these functions myself and allow you two ladies to make the rounds.”
Paxton was sure Lydia appreciated their kindness and would accept their offer, but he also knew that their cousin drove Lydia crazy trying to play matchmaker. Paxton had the impression that, once a lady was married, she wanted everyone else to immediately follow suit. Regardless, Lydia had always managed their cousin quite well. The bizarre part about Rebecca’s marriage was not that she was happy and wanted everyone to be the same, but that she and the duke were complete opposites. He was always so calm and introverted, whereas she was always so talkative and energetic. Definitely a case of opposites attracting, but these two seemed to complement each other.
“I think I would like to dance, Pax. What say you?” Lydia grabbed his arm and pulled him to the dance floor.
“Why the sudden need to dance?” He spun her around on the floor.
“I felt like everyone was watching us. I hate that.”
Paxton agreed with his sister. Paxton knew how nervous Lydia became when she first arrived at these events, but he had felt the gaze of many upon them too. High society watched everyone closely, always looking for something to gossip about, anything that might cause the room to buzz. Part of the fun, he guessed. But in truth Paxton hated the close scrutiny at these occasions even more than his sister.
Lydia looked at him sideways, and asked, “Who do you want to walk through the door?”
“This lady I met.” Paxton’s mind was elsewhere as he recalled the night at the theater. He searched the entry for a glimpse of her. Looking back at his sister, he realized he had spoken without thinking.
“And who, pray tell, is this lady and where did you meet her?” He knew his sister’s interest was piqued. Their dance ended and they moved out of the dancing area and back to Rebecca who was conversing with a group of young debutantes.
“I think I’ll excuse myself for a bit,” Paxton said in lieu of answering his sister’s question and quickly bowed to the women huddled together. “Ladies.” As he retreated, he heard a chorus of giggles and whispers. He headed into the game room, stopping to converse with many acquaintances along the way. He found the gentleman he was looking for at the whist table. “Well, if it isn’t Lord Geary.” Paxton slapped his friend on the back. “Are the cards being good to you tonight, Cole?”
Cole stood. “Deal me out,” he told the dealer, then scooped up his winnings and left the table. “The cards are like the ladies, Paxton. They are always good to me. I am surprised you showed up here. Did you bring your sister?”
“Yes. I told you I had to make up for last night somehow.”
Two ladies walked by and Cole bowed graciously. “I’ll take the one on the left.”
“You never quit. And you can have both of those ladies. I’m not interested.” They made their way out into the ballroom area and he surveyed the guests quickly.
Where is she?
“Is something amiss? You seem distracted.”
“No. I just don’t care for these events. All the young ladies are trying to determine which man they would like to try and trap into marriage, all the older matrons pointing out the men with titles and listing their assets. Then next year there will be another fresh batch of ladies off their country estates brought to London for the Season in search for ‘the one.’ I find each Season monotonous.”
“Stop!” Cole was laughing. “You sound ridiculous. Do you ever listen to yourself? What you have described happens to be part of the fun and excitement. It’s what the Season is all about. Besides, your sister happens to fit into the young lady in search of ‘the one’ category.” Cole watched as Lydia twirled by on the dance floor with a handsome young man, her face aglow with happiness.
“See there, your sister is enjoying herself. Ladies love these functions. You cannot expect women to want to sit in Gentleman Jackson’s and watch two men beating each other’s brains out. You need to try to understand women.”
“I understand women perfectly,” Paxton growled defensively.
“In the bedroom perhaps, for like me you are known for your prowess, but certainly not in the ballroom. Behold the young girl over there, the one sitting with the matron I assume to be her grandmother. I expect she would be flattered if you asked her to dance. It would make the young girl’s night. How about it?”
“Do you think that I cannot be as charming as you if I try?” Paxton looked at the scared little creature twisting her handkerchief nervously between her fingers.
“Of course not. You ooze charm when you wish. At least all the ladies seem to think so.” Cole nudged him. “Go on. Ask her.”
“Are you out of your mind? That girl will take one look at the length and girth of me and hide under her grandmother’s skirts.”
Cole nodded. “Perhaps you are right. She may be too timid for a man with your, uh, stature. However, we are both handsome men, which is most fortunate.”
“We don’t have to try so hard to be charming, which is lucky for you because you definitely need practice.”
Paxton shook his head and laughed. “Would you clam up. You are conceited. Even the beautiful ones get hurt.”
“Back to that again.” Cole sighed. “You really need to move past her. She was nothing but a harlot, and besides, that was over two years ago. She is miserable and married to some old prune now. You’d think that would make you happy. Divine retribution, I would say.”
“Lydia seems to think I should marry for convenience sake.”
“What in the world is convenient about marriage?”
“Nothing. I’ve found, after careful consideration, the only thing marriage has to offer is more free time.”
“I agree that a wife would shoulder some of the household responsibilities, but marriage isn’t the remedy for too little time to pursue one’s leisure. Find a good housekeeper or estate manager. I was only trying to tell you to have a little fun. Join in the chase. You may find it amusing.”
Two more ladies walked by and Cole gave him a sly smile. “Watch a master at work.” Cole bowed, addressing the ladies. “How would you two lovely ladies like to join my friend and myself for some
Paxton shook his head at Cole’s purposeful double entendre. He knew the ladies didn’t catch it.
Cole continued. “We were wondering if women preferred to receive flowers or chocolates after a romantic picnic in the park.”
The ladies giggled and the small brunette spoke first. “Personally, I would prefer another invitation to the park over flowers or candy.”
“I wouldn’t,” said the tall blond eyeing Paxton. “I would prefer the flowers to be hand delivered.”
Cole smiled. “Those are both wonderful answers.” He then made the point of introducing everyone. “Would you ladies care to walk in the garden?”
“We’d love to.” The blond immediately stuck her arm through Paxton’s and the brunette took Cole’s.
Paxton removed the lady’s hand from his sleeve and placed it on Cole’s free arm. “I’m sorry, ladies, but my friend here will have to escort you both. I need to check on my sister. Brotherly concern, you understand.”
Both ladies nodded and looked at Cole, who grinned happily. “I feel like the luckiest man alive.”
Paxton shook his head at Cole’s false flattery and watched as Cole led the women to the veranda, down the steps, and then off into the garden. With another shake of his head, he turned around to scan the room. The hour was growing late, and he doubted the lady from the theater was going to make an appearance. He wished he understood why he even cared. With a silent huff, he went to search for his sister.