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Authors: Mira Stables

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He smiled a little at her eager curiosity, which left him in small doubt that the proposed expedition was very much to her taste, and explained that his aunt had come by her tenancy because her mother had been one of Queen Caroline’s ladies. Growing old, and being of an independent nature, she had disliked the idea of being a pensioner on her son-in-law’s bounty—and His Majesty had been graciously pleased to grant her the use of an apartment at Hampton Court for the term of her life. As for the Palace being haunted—well—there were usually such stories told of any ancient building that had harboured tragedy and despair. The ghost of Queen Katherine Howard was reputed to haunt a certain gallery leading to the Chapel Royal. She was said to have run along it in an attempt to reach the king with a plea for mercy. But all old buildings creaked and groaned and a lively imagination could read a good deal into the strange noises that they produced. Certainly his present majesty’s aversion to the place had nothing to do with ghosts. If report spoke truly, it stemmed from an occasion when his grandpapa, King George the Second, had lost his temper with him and boxed his ears—in public, too, an insult which had never been forgotten.

Only when Damon broke off to enquire whether she would like to drive home by way of Hyde Park did Alethea realise how swiftly time had fled. She exclaimed in dismay when he told her that it was long past noon, and said that she must go home at once.

Obediently he turned the curricle and urged the bays to greater effort, suggesting pleasantly that perhaps she would drive out with him again and adding, as they turned into Berkeley Square once more, “And you will let me know which day would be convenient for our visit to Hampton Court, so that I can make arrangements with Marianne.”

“If Aunt Maria says I may go,” she agreed, gathering her skirts with one hand in readiness to descend from the curricle.

He bowed, and she reached up her hand in farewell, thanking him formally for a delightful morning and curtseying slightly before she turned to run up the steps. He watched the door close behind her before setting the bays in motion again. A pleasant little creature, refreshingly lacking in artifice, honest and loyal, he thought approvingly, before dismissing her from his thoughts and turning with a groan to contemplation of the tasks that would have to be accomplished in payment for his morning’s holiday.



Both ladies
had secret misgivings. But Alethea dearly wished to accept his lordship’s invitation and Aunt Maria was equally anxious to convince herself that Tina’s interest in that gentleman had waned. She had not so much as mentioned his name since Alethea’s party. Doubtless his facial scars had been too much for her. Besides, the projected outing would not be at all to
taste. Had she not regularly evaded Kit Grayson’s eager pleas that she should accompany his sister and himself on one of their periodic visits to Lady Emily? Mrs. Newton refused to believe that the substitution of Lord Skirlaugh for Kit might change her daughter’s attitude. So Alethea was directed to write a pretty note to his lordship, informing him of her aunt’s approval, so that his arrangements could be set forward.

Alethea had been carefully taught to set small value on outward show, but she could not quite suppress her regret that Mama and Susan could not see her stepping into the Duchess of Byram’s landau. Lord Skirlaugh might deprecate its shabbiness, explaining that his mama so rarely came to Town that it had not seemed worth while to have it re-furbished, but the only sign of shabbiness that Alethea could see was a slight fading of the lining from vivid gold to a soft and pleasing amber. She stole a respectful glance at the crest which adorned the door that his lordship himself opened for her, and decided that Papa would certainly rebuke her for so easily succumbing to the glamour of worldly trappings. But she had never ridden in so elegant a vehicle before, and she did not propose to allow moral reflections to spoil her pleasure.

That pleasure was increased when, as soon as the paved streets were left behind, his lordship enquired if the ladies would like the top lowered so that they might see better. Since it was a sunny morning with a promise of greater heat to come, they agreed with enthusiasm. And even Papa, thought Alethea, must have approved of the way in which his lordship sprang down and went to lend a hand with the job. Nothing consequential about
—and the poor man could not help his birth. She was quite sorry to think how sadly she had misjudged him at their first meeting, but there—if a man was so foolishly sensitive about his appearance, he must expect to be misunderstood from time to time.

His lordship, settling back into his seat surveyed his two guests with approval and a happy sense of holiday, thankful that the long drawn out conferences with his father’s agent and lawyer were done at last. Marianne had always been his favourite cousin. She had a gentleness that seemed to him truly feminine, and a quiet sense of humour that peeped out when she was not overshadowed by more strident companions. As for little Miss Forester, she looked surprisingly pretty this morning. Excitement and fresh air had brought colour to her cheeks, and though she had little to say it was obvious that she was hugely enjoying herself. Even as he watched, she sketched the faintest possible acknowledgement to a hawthorn tree that, in its array of blossom, might pass for a lady in court dress. There was a gracious gesture of one slim hand for a young horse that came trotting up to the hedge to watch their passing. Play-acting, mused Damon, biting back a smile. And why not? She was little more than a child. Probably saw herself as a princess, or as Cinderella, riding to a ball. He relaxed in peaceful enjoyment of a perfect May morning, grateful that his guests did not seem to desire an uninterrupted flow of animated conversation, but rousing himself occasionally to point out such features as might be of interest to Miss Forester, since to Marianne they were already perfectly familiar.

They had left Town betimes, since they were to partake of an early luncheon with their hostess before setting out on their exploration of the ancient palace. It was not until they had passed Bushey Park, failing, to Alethea’s disappointment, to catch a glimpse of the famous tame deer, but much impressed by the glory of the chestnut blossom, that it occurred to his lordship that it might be as well to warn Miss Forester of some of his aunt’s eccentricities.

“Don’t be surprised at anything she may say,” he advised. “She is forthright to a degree, and will say exactly what comes into her head if she so chooses. Marianne will bear me out that the best way is to stand up to her. She cannot abide what she calls ‘mealy-mouthed simpering’.”

Alethea was somewhat alarmed by this daunting description, but comforted herself with the thought that Lady Emily was unlikely to pay much attention to her insignificant self. And at first sight her hostess’s appearance was reassuring. She was slight and small, no taller than Alethea, though she held herself very erect, and her white hair was piled high on her head in an elaborate coiffeur that had been fashionable in her hey-day and was, in fact, very becoming. Closer inspection revealed a pair of bright dark eyes, a dominant nose and a wide, thin-lipped mouth, all of which conveyed a strong suggestion that this was no sweet old lady who could be written off as a nonentity. However she greeted her visitors with due civility and acknowledged Damon’s presentation of Alethea with friendly welcome. If the bright eyes were agleam with curiosity they held no malice, and though she scolded Damon for extravagance in bringing her flowers when the Palace gardens were ablaze with them she was plainly pleased by the attention.

During luncheon they touched lightly on a number of topics, ranging from the scandalous mismanagement of the late war against what Lady Emily still described as ‘our American colonies’, to the encroaching ways of a number of shabby-genteel persons who had been permitted to take up residence at the Palace. Her ladyship could not imagine what the Lord Chamberlain was thinking of. Since Damon wickedly encouraged her to enlarge on this theme with fluent acerbity, Alethea very soon understood why it was not desirable that her ladyship should reside with her married daughter. So forceful a personality would not take kindly to the management of others, however well-intentioned.

It was at this point that she realised that Lady Emily had turned the whole of that penetrating intelligence upon herself. Casually, skilfully, she was being subjected to a searching inquisition as to her birth, breeding and social standing. Half annoyed, half amused, she answered her ladyship’s questions with calm composure. She had nothing to hide and nothing to fear, so she was even able to admire the artistry of the approach. Her ladyship nodded her satisfaction.

“H’m! Good blood—and it shows. You’re nothing out of the way to look at, but there’s quality in you. Good manners, too. You didn’t like my questioning you so dose, but you suffered an old woman’s impertinence and answered me fairly and with courtesy.” And then—could it be apologetically?—“I’m very much out of the world these days. If I wish to know anything I have to find it out for myself. But you’ll do, my gel. Believe me, you’ll do.”

Damon, who had been listening to this exchange with an uneasy notion that something unusual was afoot but nothing that a fellow could put a finger on, heard Alethea say gently, “You do me too much honour, ma’am. It is only thanks to the combined efforts of my parents and my Aunt Maria that I have the least idea how to comport myself in society. I go in constant dread of doing the wrong thing. It seems it is all too easy to be stigmatised as ‘fast’ or, perhaps worse still, ‘a dead bore’. But I am grateful for your ladyship’s kindly encouragement and I shall study to improve.”

Her ladyship chuckled. “Think you’ve put me in my place, don’t you, miss? And very neatly and politely, too. I don’t blame you. I like a gel with spirit.” She turned her attention abruptly to her young relatives. “So you’ve made up your mind to it at last, have you? Looking about you for a wife—or so your Mama informed me in her latest letter. High time, too. Twenty-eight, isn’t it? And doubtless set in your selfish ways like the rest of your sex. You’ll find yourself a crusty old bachelor eccentric if you don’t make haste. And then what’s to become of Byram? Your family have never figured prominently in the history books—which speaks well for their judgement and good sense—but they have always cherished and served their land. Failing heirs of your body, it would fall to your Cousin Barnard—and we all know what he is! A man-of-the-town if ever I saw one. What he didn’t spend on his light-skirts would be squandered at the gaming tables. It wouldn’t take him long either,” she added reflectively, “since he never had any luck to offset his stupidity. And Byram’s coffers are not deep enough to stand that sort of nonsense. You must look about you for a well-born heiress. Not too young, but a sensible wench who would know her duty. Such a one would suit you to a nicety, since you are, thanks be, past the age of falling in love.”

Damon had endured this extremely personal diatribe with commendable good humour, but when Lady Emily added, on a suddenly sharpened note, “Not thinking of offering for your cousin, I hope. That would never do. As like as not to breed a moon-calf,” his mouth tightened ominously. Seeing him on the brink of impetuous and probably extremely blunt speech, Marianne swiftly intervened.

“Set your mind at rest, aunt,” she said, sweetly mischievous, “for I wouldn’t have him. The kindest of cousins, but
, do you think, a comfortable husband? His notions are so very fusty! Why, when Mama was telling him how it was the custom in her younger days for ladies to receive especially favoured gentlemen in their dressing rooms to advise them on the final stages of their toilets, he said he thought it was most improper. Poor Mama was
taken aback. And not all her assurances could convince him that such a practice was perfectly commonplace. All he would say was that no wife of his would ever be permitted so to flout his authority. So when you say that he would not do for me, you are very right.”

Since Marianne was the most gentle and biddable girl and would undoubtedly make a pattern wife, Aunt Emily was not deceived by this gallant attempt to deflect her attack, but she had recognised Damon’s annoyance and was very ready to accept the offered loophole. She made a fighting withdrawal, pointing out tartly that it was small wonder that Marianne was still unwed in her fourth season, so pert as she was growing, but put out a hand to draw the girl down to sit beside her on the couch and added in gentler tones, “Now you shall tell me all the news of your mother and Kit while Skirlaugh takes Miss Forester to see the sights. You’ll probably have to pay for the privilege,” she warned that gentleman. “There’s no decent respect these days.
guests, having to pay a fee to view the State Apartments! They don’t dare extort it if
with ’em,” she went on with relish, “but you can’t expect me to trail about with you at my time of life just to save your pocket. Be off with you, now, and don’t walk this poor girl off her feet.”

Damon said mildly that he thought he might manage to defray any necessary expenditure without actually having to sell out of the funds, and that he would take every care for Miss Forester’s comfort. He then took Alethea’s hand and made his escape swiftly before his aunt could do more than snort and damn his impudence. Outside the door of the apartment he paused, loosed his companion’s fingers, and looked at her beneath quizzically lifted brows.

“You didn’t mind, I hope? She’s in good form, the old tartar. Pray what was she about to question you so close about your parents? Does she imagine that the families might be connected? They are not, are they?”

Alethea laughed. “Not to my knowledge. She was merely assuring herself that I am a fit and proper person to be a friend for Marianne.”

He stiffened visibly, brows drawing together in outrage. “Then I make you my apologies. I deeply regret that you should have been subjected to such overbearing insolence while you were my guest.”

She stared up at him, divided between amazement and amusement. He was not even aware, she thought, that his own arrogance was fully as great as his aunt’s. “Oh, do, pray, come down out of the boughs,” she said good-humouredly, much as she might have spoken to young Susan. “Your aunt did no more than any of society’s leaders would do if she was not informed of a newcomer’s background. She did it beautifully, and far more kindly than most. At least she did not enquire into the extent of my expectations! You make too much of it. Believe me, after six weeks in Town I have all the answers as pat as my Catechism. It is quite amusing to see how often it is brother Charles who takes the trick. He did so again, today, with your aunt.”

“I did not know until today that you
a brother,” said Damon, his expression still far from amused.

“Did you not? Well, he is a good deal older than Susan and me, and he is usually abroad. But for all that he is my greatest social asset. A clergyman for a father is merely respectable, but a brother in the diplomatic service commands much more attention. Which gives food for some interesting speculation as to the relative importance of this world and the next,” she suggested demurely, but with a sideways tilt to her head and a quivering dimple that invited him to share the joke.

He had to smile. “It seems that Aunt Emily is not the only one with an edge to her tongue,” he told her, and his smile deepened as he recalled his instinctive belief that this girl would give a good account of herself in a battle of words and wits. The bleak look vanished, his anger dispelled by her sunny good humour, and he was just about to claim her sympathy for the raking down that he himself had got from Aunt Emily when she stopped short and put out a hand to clutch his sleeve on a long-drawn, “Oh!” of wonderment.

They had come, in the course of their argument, to the head of the King’s Staircase. Damon smiled indulgently. She was but a child, after all, to be so carried away by the lavish display of the painted walls and ceiling. For his part, he did not know which he disliked more—the exuberance or the flat conventionality—but that was no reason to spoil the child’s pleasure in them. He held his tongue. And then saw the down-bent head and realised that she was not even looking at the paintings.

It was the delicate wrought-iron balustrade that had caught her attention. With one tentative finger she was lovingly smoothing the curve of a leaf. Her voice sank to a whisper as she said, “So perfect! Just think of the infinite patient toil that must have gone to its making.”

Once again she had surprised him. When she bestowed only polite praise on the concourse of classic gods and goddesses, his interest deepened. Her tastes were fresh and her own. At the end of an hour’s strolling progress she had lingered long over the mantel carvings in the King’s State Apartments, dismissed the classical paintings with a cool, “I daresay they are very pretty but I prefer the portraits,” and seemed, in general, more interested in the people who had lived in the rooms than in the faded magnificence that was displayed for the admiration of visitors. “It’s not a happy palace, is it?” she said once, thoughtfully. “Those poor queens of Henry’s! Well—perhaps Queen Jane was happy enough, though she didn’t live to enjoy her baby, poor thing.”

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