Authors: Sara Bennett
Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #Fiction
“You might as well put a placard on them. Sold to the highest bidder.”
Tina choked back a giggle. Because Lady Isabelle really had gone too far this time, and she could see her mother was almost bursting to say aloud the unflattering things she was thinking. Lady Carol cast a glance at Sir Thomas that promised “words” later on. It was he who had invited Sir Henry and Lady Isabelle. And Mr. Eversham as well!
As if the thought of him had made the sight of him irresistible, Tina found her gaze seeking him out, way down the table. She had to know what Mr. Eversham thought of this conversation.
e was looking right back at her, his gray eyes warm and smiling, his handsome face alight with enjoyment. She realized then, with a leap of her heart, that he had sought her out, too, and they were sharing a special moment. Tina relished it, knowing that for this fraction of time she and Mr. Eversham were in perfect harmony. But a heartbeat later she came to her senses and looked down at her soup, the color rising to her cheeks, her fingers trembling slightly as she lifted the spoon.
“My dear.” Sir Henry, with his deep, measured tones, was used to calming the agitated atmosphere around his wife. “We all know your views on the marriage mart, but there have been some very happy marriages made without the participants feeling more than a modicum of affection for each other.”
“But without love,” Lady Isabelle declared dramatically, “we never truly live.”
There were some hastily disguised sniggers around the table.
“My dear,” her husband insisted, a warning in his eyes.
“I agree with Lady Isabelle,” Horace murmured at Tina’s side. “It would be the very devil to marry a woman one didn’t like, just for her fortune or her connections. How would one ever go home, knowing she was there?”
She flashed him a smile, feeling too shaken up to say anything. What would Horace think of her if he knew what she was planning? Suddenly, she wished she could sink beneath the table and vanish completely.
“What do you think, Mr. Eversham?” Horace raised his voice. He must have known he was causing mischief, but he didn’t care. As Tina well knew, Horace had always enjoyed causing mischief.
Richard Eversham smiled politely, but his eyes were no longer warm. “I think if marriages always began smoothly, then I would have a great deal of spare time on my hands.”
There was a ripple of shocked laughter, and Lady Carol grew even more stony faced. To have Mr. Eversham to dinner was bad enough, but to discuss his scandalous occupation was worse. Tina shot Horace a quelling glance, but he deliberately ignored it.
“I do not think all the gentlemen you help to their happy event are madly in love with their ladies, Mr. Eversham. I think they often have far more pragmatic considerations at play.”
“Perhaps they do, but I’ve yet to see a marriage I had some small part in making fail to thrive.”
The dinner guests were agog. Rattled, Lady Carol began a conversation about the weather, but Horace only spoke more loudly.
“Do you mean to tell me that everyone you’ve dealt with is deliriously happy? Come now, Eversham, you must have some failures. Admit it, some gentlemen are simply lacking in the ability, or more likely the will, to make any lady happy.”
Richard considered. Tina held her breath, appalled and yet eager to hear what was said next. Horace was being awful, but Richard wasn’t a man to be easily browbeaten.
“I don’t consider anyone beyond my help. I make it a point never to turn away a potential client.” His gaze slid briefly to Tina. “Please feel free to make an appointment, Lord Gilfoyle.”
There was a murmur of shocked amusement.
Horace flushed angrily. “I wasn’t speaking about myself.”
“Oh? You seem so interested in my, eh, vocation, I thought you must be having difficulty persuading your chosen lady to marry you.”
“You are mistaken,” Horace spoke coldly. “I have no need to use you. I think anyone who does must be a poor sort of fellow indeed.”
Richard smiled and said nothing, and his lack of answer seemed to infuriate Horace even more. Horace didn’t like to be bested, and he’d been bested tonight.
Sir Henry frowned, glancing between the two men, but Lady Isabelle was enthralled. “My goodness!” She clapped her hands like a child. “How generous of you to help others to find love and happiness, Mr. Eversham.”
“My dear, this is not a subject for dinner conversation,” Sir Henry said. “Mr. Eversham’s personal life is his own business, and we have no business interrogating him in this manner.”
“I don’t mind answering,” Richard spoke evenly, as if he responded to such intimate questions all the time. “No, Lady Isabelle, it is not entirely generosity that drives me to help others to the altar, but it is kind of you to think so.”
Another ripple of shocked laughter. This was certainly a night the guests would remember, and not for the reasons Lady Carol wanted it remembered. She forced her way into the conversation, her cheeks flushed with anger.
“It is the parents who must make decisions in regard to marriage, not the young lady or gentleman. And certainly not you, Mr. Eversham,” she snapped. “I cannot imagine any parent willingly handing over a child to an unsuitable partner, no matter how much the word ‘love’ is bandied about. An ill-judged match could taint an entire family, and that would never do. Love is all very well, Lady Isabelle, but there are limits.”
Lady Isabelle looked mutinous, but Sir Henry’s frown prevented a hasty retort.
A second wife, Lady Isabelle was some twenty and more years younger than Sir Henry, and Tina wondered whether Isabelle had married him for love. Or did she have a lover somewhere, a man more her own age and opinions, someone she hurried to in the dark of the night, when Sir Henry was at his club.
And would Tina do the same, in her position, if she were married to a man she didn’t love? She gave a little shudder. She didn’t want to live a secret life; she didn’t want to have to.
Mr. Little was watching her again. Tina was beginning to find his constant regard irritating. When he leaned toward her to speak, only politeness prevented her from turning her head away. “Has Lord Horace some grudge against Mr. Eversham?”
Unfortunately Horace overheard. “The man is a rogue who has no place in civilized company,” he said, at least lowering his voice. “And I do not like the way he has been ogling Miss Smythe.”
Shocked, Tina stared at him. Ogling her? She had not noticed him ogling her, but then she’d been keeping her gaze firmly away from him, apart from that one moment when . . . Had Horace seen that? Was he anxious for her reputation?
Or could he possibly be jealous?
The main course arrived to interrupt her cogitations, and roast pigeon, perfectly cooked, with all the trimmings, was sufficiently distracting to halt the guests’ conversation. By the time it began again the topic had drifted to more mundane matters.
Over the meringues and trifle, Tina noticed how well Charles and Anne seemed to be getting along, lost as they were in each other’s eyes. She was surprised and then wondered why she should be. Just because Charles was her brother didn’t mean he couldn’t be of interest to a beautiful heiress like Anne. He was rather handsome, and he had an engaging way of smiling and turning a joke upon himself.
Lady Carol was watching them, too, an acquisitive gleam in her eye. Did her mother hope for a match there? It would certainly be a wonderful thing if Charles were to bring a large dowry into the family—and it would solve a great many of their problems. Perhaps then, Tina wouldn’t need to marry Horace. Or Mr. Little.
Immediately she felt guilty.
Hadn’t she already decided it was her duty to marry, to save her family and make a good match? And of course Horace was her childhood sweetheart—although he’d never known it. What was the matter with her that she could so easily be turned from her chosen course?
Tina had never considered herself flighty. She was practical, levelheaded, and here she was behaving like a silly debutante. And it was all the fault of Richard Eversham.
The meal finished, Lady Carol rose to her feet. “Ladies, shall we leave the gentlemen to their cigars and brandy?”
They followed her into the drawing room. Tina found herself hemmed in by her two friends, eager to hear why the scandalous Mr. Eversham had been invited to dinner.
“I didn’t think he was welcome in polite society,” Margaret said prissily. “His reputation!”
“But he’s very handsome.” Anne had a twinkle in her eye. “Don’t you think so, Tina?”
Tina did think so but was not about to say it aloud, not when she noticed her mother listening avidly as she commanded the pouring of the tea. “Mr. Eversham’s invitation was none of my doing,” Lady Carol said firmly, “and so you should tell your mother, Anne, if she makes a fuss.”
Anne didn’t appear perturbed. “My mother makes a great deal of fuss over nothing. It is because I am an heiress, Lady Carol. But I think it is interesting and exciting to meet people who are so different from oneself.”
“No, my dear,” reprimanded Lady Carol. “It is neither interesting nor exciting, and there is a very good reason why men like Mr. Eversham are kept away from young ladies such as you. They are not to be trusted.” She hesitated, finished pouring a cup, and handed it to a servant to carry to one of the guests. “Not like my Charles,” she went on with a fond smile. “He is a dear boy, not an untrustworthy bone in his body.”
Anne smiled back, eyes lowered, a flush in her cheeks.
The signs were there, Tina thought wryly, and her mother knew it. She only hoped she would be subtle and not upset the budding romance before it could begin to blossom.
“Mr. Little is an interesting gentleman.” Margaret took a studied sip of her tea. “He was telling me about his tobacco. It is all very complicated, you know.” Something in the way Margaret avoided their eyes made it obvious the girl was infatuated.
thought Tina, secretly relieved.
I’ve lost Mr. Little.
Well, Mr. Eversham or no Mr. Eversham, somehow I must get Horace alone tonight and kiss him.
ichard spent an uncomfortable twenty minutes in the library, with Lord Horace making pointed remarks about gentlemen who were not gentlemen, Sir Thomas looking embarrassed, and Sir Henry enjoying it all immensely.
“You wanted to come,” he murmured to Richard, when the conversation had finally taken another turn.
“I didn’t expect to be such a hit,” Richard said wryly.
Sir Henry chuckled and puffed on his cigar before he replied. “I think it has worked out very well. Gilfoyle loathes you, and we’ve seen he is the sort of chap who doesn’t bother hiding his feelings. Hotheaded I’d say. As for Little, he is a bit of a mystery man, isn’t he? I’m not sure I believe the meek-and-mild act. Do you?”
“I think he is here because he has an interest in Miss Smythe,” Richard said coolly.
“Oh?” Sir Henry was watching him, but Richard refused to meet his eyes. “And do you think that interest is reciprocated?”
Did he? Instinctively Richard decided he didn’t, but perhaps that was just wishful thinking. When Tina had met his eyes over dinner, while Sir Henry’s wife was rattling Lady Carol, he’d felt as if he’d found a kindred spirit. Someone who was enjoying the ridiculous humor in the situation as much as he, someone he could always rely on to understand perfectly how he was feeling, just as he understood how she was feeling.
Dangerous, very dangerous. Thinking like that could only get him into trouble.
“Anyway, at least we have a clearer picture of the men we’re dealing with,” Sir Henry went on without expecting an answer. “If one of them turned out to be the Captain, then I’d put my money on Gilfoyle.”
Despite his dislike of the man Richard wasn’t so certain. Gilfoyle was certainly a hothead, but it was men like Little, quiet and unobtrusive, who needed to be watched.
When they joined the ladies, he was amused to see Tina reluctantly seat herself at the pianoforte at her mother’s prompting. Lady Carol was smiling at her daughter fondly, looking very different from the cold-eyed creature who had greeted him. But then he couldn’t blame her for wanting to keep her daughter well away from the scandalous rogue who’d weaseled his way into her home.
Although Tina was a competent if not brilliant pianist, it was clear her heart wasn’t in it. Richard watched narrow-eyed as Gilfoyle sauntered over to claim the spot next to her, launching into a song in a pleasing tenor. Tina and Gilfoyle exchanged smiles as he turned the pages for her. Little wandered over and stood behind them, waving away their invitations to join in, claiming his voice was unfit for such illustrious company.
“Your singing has much improved while you’ve been away,” Horace said to Tina with unflattering candor. “It was dreadful at one stage—like a cat screeching.”
“Thank you, Horace,” she said with grave humor.
“Was singing one of the accomplishments taught at your finishing school?” asked Little.
“One of many,” Tina teased.
Neither of them seemed to know how to respond.
Richard would have known; if she’d given him that provocative look, he’d have known exactly what to do. She was a lovely woman. Far too good for Gilfoyle or Little. Whether they were villains or innocents made no difference; she deserved better.
Eventually someone else was persuaded to display her piano playing, and Horace rose with Tina, while the young lady with the red hair led Little away. Tina lingered by the doors onto the terrace, engaging Horace in conversation.
Richard could see what she was up to. She had it in her mind to take Horace outside. It was a mild enough evening, and with everyone else busy, this was the perfect opportunity. Half of him was urging her on, but the other half . . . the other half didn’t like it at all.
oft music was drifting on the evening air, and there was a strong scent of lilies from the garden. Tina was well aware that Lady Carol had had to let the gardener go, but as yet there was no sign that the area was untended. No doubt it would soon take on the appearance of a jungle, and Horace would gasp in shock, but for the moment he seemed more interested in her.
There was something in his expression. A mixture of puzzlement and curiosity, as if she had changed in some way, and he couldn’t fathom what it was. Or perhaps it was his perception of her that had changed.
Her heartbeat quickened. Were Richard Eversham’s lessons working? Had Horace begun to see her as the desirable and passionate woman she longed to be? And, perhaps more importantly, as a future wife?
“Tina,” he said, his voice dropping lower, as he moved toward her.