Nicola and the Viscount (2 page)

BOOK: Nicola and the Viscount
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Before Nathaniel could protest too much over this, Eleanor's other brother, ten-year-old Phillip, burst into the bedchamber his sister would soon be vacating forever, also without bothering to knock. He had no eyes for his female relations, however. All his attention was focused on his twenty-year-old brother.

“Nat,” he cried excitedly. “You should see the phaeton that just pulled 'round! Matching bays, eighteen hands each if they're an inch, and had to have cost a hundred quid each, easy—”

“Phillip!” Lady Sheridan was shocked by the lack of decorum her sons were exhibiting. “Really. A gentleman always knocks before entering a lady's boudoir.”

But her youngest son merely looked confused. “Lady? What lady? It's only Eleanor's room, after all. Listen, Nat, you must come and see these bays—”

“Mademoiselle.” All eyes turned to the doorway, where Nicola's maid Martine stood, holding on to her mistress's bonnet and parasol, her dark eyes wide. “Begging your pardon, mademoiselle, but the Lady Farelly sent me to fetch you. Their carriage just pulled 'round. They are all waiting for you downstairs.”

“So those are Lord Farelly's bays, then,” Phillip said with a low, appreciative whistle. “Well, no wonder.”

His elder brother's reaction to this news was not nearly so sanguine, however. Nathaniel nearly leaped from the seat in which he'd been lolling a second before. “Lord Farelly?” he burst out, not very politely. “What the devil? You're not going to stay with the
Bartholomews
, are you, Nicky?”

“What if I am?” Nicola wanted to know, as she reached for the bonnet her maid held. “They are perfectly nice people.”

“Perfectly
rich
people, you mean,” Phillip said. “No wonder Nicky's staying with them, with bays like that.”

“Phillip!” Lady Sheridan looked to be at the end of her patience with her children. “It is uncouth to comment upon the financial status of others. And Nathaniel, I told you before, you are to address Nicola as Miss Sparks.”

“And really, Phil,” Eleanor said scornfully. “The idea of Nicky choosing to stay with the Bartholomews over us simply because they happen to have more money than we do is positively ridiculous. How could you think something so wicked, and of our Nicky? Why, it's got nothing to do with that. The fact is, she's in love with Lord Sebas—”

“Eleanor!” Nicola cried.

But it was too late. The damage was done.

“So
that
's who you were talking about when I walked in.” Nathaniel pushed some dark hair from his eyes and glared at Nicola. “Well, just so you know, Sebastian Bartholomew is nothing but an
oarsman
.”

Nicola, furious over hearing the God slighted—though she couldn't imagine why joining a college rowing team should be such a crime—but equally furious with Eleanor for letting her most treasured secret slip, gasped. She could not remember ever feeling so truly angry with anyone. Anger, Madame had always reminded her pupils, was unbecoming in a lady. And so Nicola struggled to contain her feelings. But she could not. They burst from her in a frothy torrent.

“You should be ashamed of yourself, saying things like that,” Nicola cried. “You don't even know him!”

“I know him a good deal better than you do,” Nathaniel replied. “He was in my same college at Oxford.”

“And?” Nicola demanded. “So what if he was an oarsman? I should think that's a good deal more exciting than what
you
were doing at Oxford.”

“Getting an education, you mean?” Nathaniel's laugh was humorless. “Yes, I should say Bartholomew had a more
exciting
time of it at Oxford than I did.”

Though she still wasn't certain what he meant, Nicola felt another spurt of rage. How dared anyone speak disparagingly of the God! She wanted to break something, but since this was Eleanor's room, and not her own, there was nothing nearby that she could get away with breaking, so she settled for stamping a slippered foot and declaring, “You make him sound like a wastrel!”

“You said it,” Nathaniel retorted. “Not me.”

“Don't pay any attention to him, Nicky,” Eleanor said. “Lord Sebastian is a poetry lover, like you. You know how Nat feels about poetry.”

“Nathaniel's feelings about poetry aside,” Lady Sheridan said, stepping between her son and her daughter's friend, who stood almost nose-to-nose, their arms folded across their chests and their breath coming a little too quickly as they glared angrily at one another, “are you quite certain your uncle approves of your staying with Lord and Lady Farelly, Nicola?”

“My uncle?” Nicola shot Lady Sheridan a bewildered glance.

“The Grouser,” Eleanor prompted helpfully.

Understanding dawning, Nicola cried, “Oh, you mean Lord Renshaw? But he isn't my uncle, Lady Sheridan, only my cousin…and my guardian. And yes, he knows all about it. My staying with the Bartholomews, I mean.” She narrowed her eyes at Nathaniel. “The Grouser is a bit of a curmudgeon, but at least
he
isn't a narrow-minded poetry hater.”

Nathaniel opened his mouth to comment on this, but his mother said, before he could utter a sound, “Fine, then. If Nicola's guardian knows and approves, then I don't think, Nathaniel, that we can have any objec—”

“Oh, he doesn't approve,” Eleanor interrupted with a giggle. “The Grouser was quite put out with Nicky for not agreeing to stay with him and that dreadful milksop of a son of his in London. Wasn't he, Nicky?”

Lady Sheridan looked heavenward. “Eleanor,” she said. “Kindly do not refer to Lord Renshaw as the Grouser, and his heir as a milksop.”

Eleanor, surprised, asked, “Why shouldn't I? He
is
one.”

“Nevertheless—”

“Mademoiselle.” Martine, still standing in the doorway, cleared her throat meaningfully. “I am sorry to interrupt, but we must not keep Her Ladyship waiting.”

Nicola turned to Lady Sheridan. Really, this was not the way she'd wanted to say good-bye to these people who'd been so kind to her for all the years she and Eleanor had been at school together. Then again, surely they'd see one another quite often, once they were all back in London. She and Eleanor would undoubtedly be invited to many of the same balls and soirees….

Unfortunately, it seemed likely Nathaniel would also be there. But Nicola intended to maintain an air of queenly disdain around that person from now on. Imagine, slighting the God in that way!

“I must go,” Nicola said regretfully to Lady Sheridan. “But might I call upon Eleanor, when she is settled back at home?”

“You may call upon Eleanor anytime you like, Nicola,” Lady Sheridan said, reaching out to wrap her daughter's closest friend in her arms. “And remember, if you should change your mind about staying with the Bartholomews—for
whatever
reason—our home is always open to you.”

Nicola returned the hug gratefully, averting her gaze from Nathaniel, who she saw was still looking at her with a very grim expression on his face. Eleanor's brother was a tease, it was true. But he was also very, very intelligent. Didn't his first in mathematics prove that?

Still, he was wrong, Nicola knew, both about poetry and about Lord Sebastian Bartholomew.

And she'd prove it to him, one way or another.

Dear Nana,

I hope you received the gifts I sent you. The shawl is pure Chinese silk, and the pipe I sent for Puddy is ivory-handled! You needn't worry about the expense; I was able to use my monthly stipend. I am staying with the
Bartholomews—I told you about them in my last letter—and they won't let me spend a penny on myself! Lord
Farelly insists on paying for everything. He is such a kind man. He is very interested in locomotives and the railway.
He says that someday, all of England will be connected by rail, and that one might start out in the morning in
Brighton, and at the end of the day find oneself in
Edinburgh!

I found that a bit hard to believe, as I'm certain you do, too, but that is what he says.

Nicola paused in her letter writing to read over what she had already written. As she did so, she nibbled thoughtfully on the feathered end of her pen.

Nana was not, of course, her real grandmother. Nicola had no real grandparents, all of them having been carried away by influenza before she was even born. Because her sole remaining relative, Lord Renshaw, had had no interest in nor knowledge of raising a little girl, Nicola had been reared, until she was old enough to go away to school, by the wife of the caretaker of her father's estate, Beckwell Abbey. It was to this woman—and her husband, whom Nicola affectionately referred to as Puddy—that Nicola looked for grand-motherly advice and comfort. Dependent, as Nicola was, on the small income the local farmers supplied by renting the abbey's many rolling fields for their sheep to graze upon, Nana and Puddy lived modestly, but well.

But never so well as Nicola had been living for the past month. The Bartholomews, as it turned out, were every bit as wealthy as Phillip Sheridan had declared…perhaps even wealthier.

But what Phillip had not mentioned, since he could not have known, was that the Bartholomews were also generous, almost to a fault. Nicola needed to express only the slightest desire, and her wish was immediately granted. She had learned to bite back exclamations over bonnets or trinkets at the many shops she and Honoria frequented, lest she find herself the owner of whatever it was she'd admired. She could not allow these kind people to keep buying gifts for her…especially as she had no way to return the favor.

Besides which, Nicola did not really
need
new gowns or bonnets. Necessity, in the form of her limited income, had forced her to become a skilled and creative seamstress. She had taught herself how to alter an old gown with a new flounce or sleeves until it looked as if it had just come straight from a Parisian dress shop. And she was almost as fine a milliner as any in the city, having rendered many an out-of-fashion bonnet stylish in the extreme with an artful addition of a silk rose here, or an artificial cherry there.

Eyeing her letter, Nicola wondered if she ought to add something about the God. It seemed as if it might be a good idea, since it was entirely possible that Sebastian Bartholomew was going to play an important role in all of their lives, if things kept up the way they had been. Having grown up almost completely sheltered from them, Nicola knew very little, it was true, about young men, but it did seem to her that Honoria's brother had been
most
attentive since she'd come to stay. He escorted the girls nearly everywhere they went, except when he was not busy with his own friends, who were quite fond of gambling and horses, like most young men—except perhaps Nathaniel Sheridan, who was too concerned with managing his father's many estates ever to stop for a game of whist or bagatelle.

Even more exciting, the God was always the first to ask Nicola for a dance at whatever ball they happened to be attending. Sometimes he even secured
two
dances with her in a single evening. Three dances with a gentlemen to whom she was not engaged, of course, would be scandalous, so that was not even a possibility.

On these occasions, of course, Nicola's heart sang, and she could not believe there existed in London a happier soul than she. It seemed incredible, but it appeared she had actually accomplished what she'd set out to do, which was impress the young Viscount Farnsworth—for that was Lord Sebastian's title, which he would hold until his father died, and he assumed the title of Earl of Farelly—with her wit and charm. How she had done it—and quite without the help of any face powder—she could not say, but she did not think she could be mistaken in the signs: the God admired her, at least a little. She supposed her hair, which she wore upswept all the time now, with Martine's aid, had helped.

All that Nicola needed to forever seal her happiness was for the God to propose marriage. If he did—no, when,
when
—she had already decided she would say yes.

But there was, in the back of her mind, a niggling doubt that such a proposal might ever really materialize. She was, after all, not wealthy. She had nothing but her passably pretty face and keen fashion sense to recommend her. Handsome young men of wealth and importance rarely asked penniless girls like Nicola—even penniless girls of good family and excellent education—to marry them. Love matches were all well and good, but, as Madame had often reminded them, starvation is not pleasant. Young men who did not marry as their fathers instructed them often found themselves cut off without a cent. And it was perfectly untrue that one could live on love alone. Love could not, after all, put bread on the table and meat in the larder.

But from parental objections to a match between her and the God, at least, Nicola felt she was safe. Lord and Lady Farelly seemed prodigiously fond of her. Why, in the short time since she'd come to live with them, they seemed already to think of her as a second daughter, including her in all of their family conversations, and even occasionally dropping their formal address of her as Miss Sparks, and calling her Nicola.

No, should Lord Sebastian see fit to propose to her, she could foresee no difficulties from
that
quarter. But would he? Would he propose to a girl who was merely pretty but not beautiful? A girl with freckles on her nose, who had only recently been allowed to put her hair up? An orphan with only a bit of property in Northumberland and a vast knowledge of the romantic poets?

He had to. He just
had
to! Nicola felt it as surely as she felt that the color ochre on a redheaded woman was an abomination.

Really, the only cloud in Nicola's otherwise sunny existence was Nathaniel Sheridan, who took every opportunity that arose—and there were many, as the two of them were often thrown together at various balls and assemblies—to tease and bedevil her about Lord Sebastian.

But Nicola tried resolutely to put Nathaniel from her thoughts as she penned her letter home, dwelling only upon the many merits of the God—to whom she correctly referred as Lord Sebastian in writing: only in her many private conversations with Eleanor, whom she saw with pleasing regularity, did she call him by their pet name for him—so that when she later wrote to inform Nana of their engagement—and please God, there would be an engagement—it would not be such a shock.

It was as she was describing the God's godlike dancing ability that Lord Sebastian himself walked into the room. Nicola hastily hid beneath a sheet of foolscap the lines she'd been penning.

“Good morning, Mother,” Sebastian said, stooping to kiss Lady Farelly, who sat writing her own letters in a robe of stunning blue satin that, to Nicola's knowing eye, must have cost at least as much as one of Lord Farelly's new hunters, of which he was not a little proud. “I'm off to Tatt's to see a man about a horse. Is there anything I can get for you while I'm out?”

Lady Farelly made a distracted noise. She was busy writing letters of her own. Only hers were letters of regret, declining some of the many invitations Honoria had received to various balls and entertainments. A girl just out could be invited to as many as twenty events in a week, and had to be scrupulously careful which she chose to attend. The wrong dinner party could result in a connection with a bad crowd from which a debutante might never recover.

His duty to his mother having been dispatched, the God turned his attention to his sister and Nicola. He did not have the teasing sort of relationship with Honoria that Nathaniel and Eleanor Sheridan shared. Instead, the viscount was unfailingly polite to his sister, which Nicola thought only right and proper behavior, for a god.

“And how will you two occupy yourselves today?” he wanted to know, though the question seemed more directed at Nicola than at Honoria.

Still, it was Honoria who answered, as she lazily flipped through the pages of a copy of
Lady's Magazine
—Honoria disliked letter writing, and, being a bit of a standoffish type of girl, hadn't anyone to write to anyway, having made virtually no friends at Madame's other than Nicola—though Nicola knew the standoffishness was only to cover up for a case of crippling shyness, stemming from Lady Honoria's insecurities over her somewhat horsey looks.

“We've got Stella Ashton's garden party,” Honoria said in a bored voice. “Then supper and Almack's.”

“Of course,” the God replied. “It's Wednesday; I'd quite forgotten.” He grinned at Nicola, who sat with what she hoped was a calm expression at the desk she'd appropriated, the one by the window with the view of the garden below. She trusted he couldn't tell how quickly her heart had begun drumming at the sight of him, so handsome in a spotless white cravat and a coat of hunter green. “I suppose it would be too much to ask that we dodge Almack's this once. I've had quite enough of crowded assembly rooms, I think. What I'd like is a bit of fresh air for a change.”

Nicola, pleased to hear this, as she harbored no particular love for crowded dance halls either, said, “‘There is pleasure in the pathless woods; there is rapture on the lonely shore; there is society, where none intrudes, by the deep sea, and music in its roar.'”

But the God, instead of uttering the last line,
“‘I love not Man the less, but Nature more,'”
said instead, looking impressed, “I say, that's jolly good! Did you make that up just now?”

Feeling the slightest—only the slightest—pang of disappointment, Nicola said gently, “No. It's Byron.”

“Oh, is it?” Lord Sebastian, looking supremely unconcerned, reached for an apple in a nearby fruit bowl, and bit noisily into it. “Well, that's exactly how I feel. There was such a crush at Almack's last week. Can't we just skip it?”

Lady Farelly looked up at that, horrified. “After what we went through to get tickets? We most certainly won't
skip it
.”Then she went back to her letters.

The God sighed, then sent a wink in Nicola's direction. “Oh, well,” he said. “I suppose I'll live through it, if you'll do me the favor of promising me the first and last dances, Miss Sparks.”

Nicola felt herself blushing. All of her disappointment with Lord Sebastian's lack of familiarity with the Romantic poets evaporated in her pleasure over his request.

“If you wish,” was all she said, however, and that she uttered with a demureness that would have well pleased Madame Vieuxvincent.

Grinning, Lord Sebastian left for Tattersalls, the horse market, and Nicola, smiling happily, returned to her letter. Where was she? Oh, yes. Describing the God. How could she do justice to those fine eyes and easy smile? It was going to be difficult, to say the least. She doubted even Lord Byron could do it properly.

Interestingly, it was as Nicola was carefully extolling all of the God's virtues in her letter to her loved ones back at Beckwell Abbey that Lord Farelly's butler entered the morning room to announce that two other personages for whom Nicola had pet names had come calling, and were waiting to see her in the drawing room—her cousin Lord Renshaw (the Grouser) and his son Harold (the Milksop).

Nicola made a face and laid down her pen. Lord Renshaw and his heir were just about the last people she wanted to see. Still, she supposed she had no choice but to spare a moment or two for her only living relatives, distant cousins though they might be.

Accordingly, she smoothed her gown and patted her upswept hair before sailing into the drawing room, her shoulders thrown back and her head held high, just as Madame had instructed all of her pupils. A lady, after all, never slouched or looked anything less than pleased while receiving callers, no matter how much she might happen to detest them.

“Lord Renshaw,” Nicola said, holding out both hands toward the spindly, nattily garbed man standing beside one of Lord Farelly's splendid marble fireplaces. “How good it is to see you.”

Norbert Blenkenship—now Lord Renshaw, thanks to Nicola's father, who had left his title to his only living male relative, but all of the property that came with that title to Nicola—had been blessed at birth by neither fortune nor nature. He'd made up for the former inadequacy by marrying, through some miracle of fate, an heiress who'd had the good sense, after realizing what she'd done, to die. Nicola had always ungenerously supposed that the poor woman had rolled over one morning, gotten a good look at her husband, and promptly expired. In any case, she had left the unprepossessing Norbert the whole of her fortune, with the exception of what had been settled upon their only offspring, Harold.

The real mystery, of course, was why the poor woman had chosen Norbert Blenkenship at all. Lord Renshaw was markedly unattractive. He had never, in the sixteen years Nicola had known him, smiled. Not even once. His thin lips seemed permanently set in a frown of disapproval, and he tended to dress in the somber colors of an undertaker, though his wife had died long ago, several years before Nicola had been born. That, and his nearly constant complaints about everything from his health to the state of the empire, were what had earned him from Nicola the pet name of the Grouser.

BOOK: Nicola and the Viscount
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