In Which an Unbelievable Number of Biscuits Are Consumed
Stonemeadows Hall, Kent
The clock on the drawing room mantel ticked away the seconds loudly, and James drummed his fingers on his knee in time with it.
Perhaps it was excitement that caused his every nerve to feel on edge. A man should feel excited to meet his fiancÃ©e's family, shouldn't he? Certainly not nervous, though. Not when that man was a viscount, accustomed to the sharp eyes and sharper tongues of the
But ever since Lord Oliver had written to approve James's suit of the Honorable Louisa, James
felt nervous, as if something might go awry and upset his swiftly laid plans. Now that he was in the Olivers' drawing room, his feeling of anxiety grew even stronger.
He sighed and walked to the window, but his eyes could hardly take in the well-tended grounds outside. Once again, he ran through his mental checklist of Reasons This Engagement Made Sense.
First, Louisa was intelligent and poised. Second, she came from an old and established family. Third, he liked and respected her. And fourth and perhaps most important of all, she'd agreed to marry him after a courtship that even he would have to describe as perfunctory.
Behind him, the drawing room door slammed open with a bang.
James whirled at the interruption, expecting to see the elderly butler who had shown him in a few minutes before.
Instead, a young woman burst into the room at a halfrun. She was muttering loudly, her expression harried and the bodice of her frock askew.
“Curse and drat that girl, drat her. I
she hadn't left her music in here, but where could it be? We'll never find it before the viâ”
As her eyes roved the room, she froze in mid-word upon seeing James. Her mouth dropped open. “Urr.”
The clock on the drawing room mantel ticked off four endless seconds as James stared at her, still too surprised to speak, and she stared back with wide blue eyes.
The young woman spoke first. “Well, I'm embarrassed. I don't know what to say.” She glanced at the doorway with an expression of longing. “Could I go back out and pretend this never happened?”
James stifled a laugh. “Please stay,” he replied, bowing to his companion. “I'm delighted to meet you.”
He was pleasantly surprised to find he meant those trite words. Since the door had banged open, his tension had begun to ebb, as if he'd simply needed a jolt to bring back his sense of self-possession.
“I'm sorry, you are . . . ?” The young lady seemed still to be struggling to comprehend James's presence in the drawing room.
“Lord Matheson. That is, I'm James, Louisa Oliver's fiancÃ©.”
She gasped and grew pink with embarrassment, so James prompted her in his gentlest voice. “May I assist you with anything?”
She met his eyes again, and he was pleased that the flush began to fade from her cheeks. She was rather pretty, small and fair, with a heart-shaped face and a wide mouth that was currently pursed in thought.
“I don't think so, but thank you. Unless you're willing to forget that this happened at all, which it seems you are, since you're being very polite to me. I hardly know why, unless that's just something that viscounts do. I promise, I did mean to have everything perfect for your arrival, but instead I've blistered your ears in the first minute we met.”
“It's quite all right,” James assured his companion again. He gestured her toward a pin-striped sofa. “Please, be seated if you wish. I've heard much worse language before.”
“Really?” The young woman looked intrigued. “From ladies? What did they say?”
James coughed to hide another laugh.
Who on earth was this impulsive creature? She seemed to say whatever was on her mind, which he'd rarely encountered among females but found now that he enjoyed immensely. He'd never met anyone so unguarded in her behavior. His interest was piqued, and he tingled with an excitement quite different from his earlier anxiety.
Unable to keep a smile from his face, he replied, “It would hardly be polite of me to repeat such words to you, especially since you've just complimented me on my manners.”
“Nonsense,” she replied at once. “I'll give you another compliment if you tell me. I'm sure I can think of something.”
There was more than a small part of James that wanted to take her at her word, to say forbidden things to a young woman. He had a feeling this one wouldn't be scandalized; she'd laugh and ask for more.
And he was curious, too, about what she might offer him as a compliment.
Perhaps a little too curious?
“I'm sorry to have to disappoint a lady,” he said. “But I really shouldn't.”
His companion sucked on her lower lip, deliberating. “I suppose you're right. Anyway, I like your coat.”
James stared down at the sleeves of the garment in question. It was well-tailored, but apart from that it looked ordinary to him. “Thank you?”
“That was your compliment. Or rather, my compliment for you,” she explained. “You see, I followed through on my part of the bargain. Perhaps sometime soon you'll follow through with yours, since you'll be visiting our family for a while.”
This was too ridiculous. James shook his head, protesting, “Absolutely not. There was no bargain. You're not going to manipulate me into teaching you how to talk like a guttersnipe just by telling me you like my coat.”
“But I really do like it,” insisted the young lady. “You look quite noble, if that's the right word for a viscount. I'm well aware that my own appearance is out of sorts, which is another thing I meant to remedy before your arrival.”
She brushed an errant lock of blond hair from her forehead, looking rueful. “I intended to have my hair pinned up properly, but perhaps you know how it is when you are with young children. I'm always having to crawl after something or other, and it is just so much easier not to attempt misguided elegance when one is alone with family. Which I suppose you soon will be, but still, first impressions can be so lasting, and I didn't want to come across as a complete hoyden despite the possible truth of the matter.”
The cheerful lilt returned to her voice by the end of this speech, and James was again transfixed by the play of her eager expression as she talked, the curve of her mouth, her animated hands.
Her hands. As if time slowed to a crawl, James watched as one of her hands reached for his.
He stared at her hand on his, feeling burned by her cool fingers. It was a whisper of a touch, but his skin prickled under it anyway.
But she was talking to him. What was she saying? He mentally shook himself to pay attention, trying to ignore the fingers holding his.
“Louisa seems to like you very much,” the young woman added, still holding James's hand in her impulsive grasp. “Since I know she likes me too, I daresay you can tolerate me as well as she does, and we'll both get to like each other.”
Her innocent words acted on James like a slap across the face.
His mind reeled. How quickly he had forgotten all his nervousness, and even his very surroundings, while talking to this girl. He drew his hand back slowly. “We'll get to like each other,” he repeated, avoiding his companion's avid gaze.
He feared that was too true.
He had to remember he was here to arrange a swift marriage with Louisa, not to banter with . . . who was this young woman, anyway? She was obviously a member of the family, but she looked nothing like his tall, elegant fiancÃ©e.
“I'm sure we will,” he replied at last. His voice came out stiff and formal. The stuffy tone disgusted him, but he needed to place some distance between them.
“Forgive my ignorance,” James began again in his best I-am-a-viscount manner, “but . . . who
you?” It was something a viscount probably ought never to have said, but really, sometimes it was so much easier just to cut to the essence of a subject.
“Who am I?” she repeated. “Why, have we really been sitting here these minutes and I never said? Oh, my lord, you must think I'm the rudest person you ever met.”
“Not even close,” he replied. “Remember all the words I know. I've been in some very rude company.” Guilt twinged through him as the playful words fell from his lips. He really shouldn't talk with her like this.
“Rude company . . .” She gave a sigh of pure envy. “You're so lucky. Anyway, I'm Julia, Louisa's sister.”
“Then you are lucky, too,” he replied automatically. He was still confused, though. How had his dark-haired fiancÃ©e wound up with this tiny blond slip of a sister?
Julia seemed to read his confusion on his face, because she added, “I'm not really a blood relative, but I feel as close to Louisa as if we were. I mean, what I imagine I would feel like with a full-blood sister, though neither of us has one. Just half-blood. Though I feel as if they are full relations, too. Anyway, Louisa and I are stepsisters. Do you have any sisters?”
James restrained a smile as her cheerful words bubbled over him. “Yes, one elder sister,” he answered when Julia finally wound down. “Gloria, the dowager Viscountess Roseborough.”
Ah, Gloria. The smile dropped from his face, and he chose his next words carefully. Gloria's troubles had already been laid out before the entire
, but they might not yet have made it to the Oliver household in the country.
“My sister is rather a . . . well, a serious-minded person, and very conscious of propriety. But then, her life has not been easy of late.”
He berated himself for saying too much and averted the subject. “Still, I can vouch from my own family experience that being related to someone need not make you close, and I'm sure the reverse is true, too.”
Julia beamed at this affirmation, and a jolt of delight shot through James. She'd accepted him; she'd perceived his reply as honest. Perhaps he could have told her more, after all.
Just as Julia opened her mouth to respond, a footman entered the room with a large tea tray. Immediately on his heels marched three girls and a boy of decreasing size.
Julia's attention was distracted by these new arrivals. “Ah, I thought someone would soon join us in here! We've all been wild with curiosity to meet you, you know. Hello, children. I suppose you want some biscuits?”
She motioned to the footman to set down the heavily laden tray on a table next to the sofa, which he did with an audible groan of relief.
Julia turned to James and introduced the lineup of eager young children with great formality and flourish.
“Lord Matheson, may I present Miss Elise, Miss Emilia, Miss Anne, and Master Tom.” As Julia indicated each child, a well-grown and pretty girl of perhaps nine or ten years curtsied properly, a smaller and more saucy-looking version tipped him an equally fine gesture, a chubby fiveyear-old shyly flounced her dress and ducked her head, and a small boy bent into a giant bow, teetering as he hauled himself upright again.
James had long experience with small children, and dutifully matched the solemnity of young Tom's bow. “Misses Elise, Emilia, and Anne, and Master Tom, I am delighted to make your acquaintance. Would you care for some . . .” He trailed off, and peered at the tea tray. “What type of biscuits do we have?”
“Ginger and shortbread,” Julia replied, parceling the treats out onto plates. “And they've given us watercress sandwiches, too. I can't imagine why. No one ever wants to eat them.”
“Actually, I rather like them myself,” James admitted. He pitched his voice casually, mindful of the eight small ears and eyes now regarding him, but disappointment nagged at him. He wanted to continue talking to Julia, to know what she would have said next had they been left alone. He had never felt such an immediate pull toward another person. Did she feel it, too? He wanted to grasp her hands again, to feel the gentle shock of her touch. Given a few more minutes, he might have unburdened himself completely.
Don't be a fool, James
. His burden was his own, his and his family's, and not to be dumped onto young women he had only just met. He sighed again, but thankfully none of the family members noticed in the bustle over biscuits and cups.
With a great effort, he wrenched his mind away from the present, back to a silent library six weeks before, and a dark-haired young woman named Louisa Oliver who had hidden there to escape a crowded ballroom. The ballroom in which he'd been bidden to find a wife.
But Julia's voice interrupted his thoughts almost at once. “Children, why don't you sit on the sofa over there to eat your biscuits? You may fidget to your heart's content, and Lord Matheson and I will pretend not to notice a thing.”