A Lady for Lord Randall

By: Sarah Mallory
Chapter One

Randall glanced at the clock. Had it only been an hour since they had arrived at the Bentincks’? It felt longer. He was not naturally sociable, preferring the company of a few close friends to parties such as this where the room was crowded with strangers, but he knew he must try to make himself agreeable, for his sister Hattie’s sake. The Bentincks were a cheerful couple whose children had flown the nest and who now liked to fill their time and their house with interesting young people. The problem was, their idea of interesting was not Randall’s. Hattie had explained that the Bentincks’ house would be full of intellectuals, artists and atheists.

‘And tradesmen, too, no doubt,’ he had retorted.

‘They are invited because of their intelligence, not their rank,’ she told him and gave a little trill of laughter when Randall grimaced at the idea. ‘You must come, they will be quite delighted to have an earl, a real live peer of the realm in their midst. And a soldier, to boot.’

‘And does the Bishop approve of you and Graveney attending these parties?’ he had asked her, thinking of her husband, the rural dean.

Hattie’s eyes had twinkled merrily at that.

‘Not at all, but Theo loves to go there, he approaches these evenings with all the zeal of a missionary. As he says, what is the point of always preaching to the converted?’

Observing his brother-in-law across the Bentincks’ drawing room, Randall could well believe it. Theo Graveney was involved in a lively discussion with a group of gentlemen in loose coats and untidy hair. Arms were flying and voices were raised as the debate grew ever more heated.

Randall’s gaze moved on. Most of the guests were writers or scholars, he guessed, his eyes dwelling on one or two shabbily dressed men with ink stains on their fingers. There were no military men present, save himself, the rest of the party being made up of tradesmen, artists and even a couple of French émigrés. They were all gathered in little groups, engaged in animated conversation. There was a smattering of women amongst the crowd, some of them pretty, in a blowsy sort of way, and all giving their opinions as decidedly as the men.

Randall disliked such loud, overbearing society and he had retreated as soon as he could to a quiet corner. He had known how it would be and he should have remained at Somervil. Oh, Mrs Bentinck had greeted him warmly enough, but her first comment had warned him just what to expect from the evening:

‘We are very informal here, my lord, and stand on no ceremony. I shall make no introductions, you must take your chances like the rest of the guests.’

She had carried Hattie away then, leaving Randall to mingle as he wished. But Randall did not wish. With Bonaparte even now marching through France and the country on the verge of war again, he was not to be distracted with idle conversation. His sister came up and handed him a glass of wine.

‘Well, Randall, what do you think of our little gathering?’

‘Little gathering, Hattie? Such a number would be considered a crush even in the Latymor town house.’

‘They travel from far and wide to attend the Bentincks’ soirées,’ she said proudly.

‘That may be so, but it is not to my taste,’ muttered Randall. ‘I am a soldier, plain and simple.’ A shout from the far corner caught their attention and he glanced to where a group of young men were now arguing noisily. ‘I have no patience with artistic tantrums.’

‘Pray do not be tiresome, Justin, there are more than just artists here, and plenty to entertain, if you are not too high in the instep.’ Hattie patted his arm, murmuring as she prepared to move away, ‘You should relax and enjoy yourself, dear brother. You are a man of the world, so I trust you not be shocked by the company we keep.’

* * *

Randall knew he could not stay in one spot all evening and he began to stroll around the room, listening to the conversations, but joining in with very few of them. He had not worn his uniform, but began to think he would have been more at home if he had done so. At least then it would have been plain what his role was and he would not have been asked for his opinion on so-and-so’s latest stanzas, or if he had read some new and profound religious tract. He was wondering how soon he could possibly retire without giving offence when a soft, musical voice sounded at his elbow.

‘You look a little lost, sir.’

He turned, vexed to find himself addressed by a woman he did not know. But he should not be surprised at such brazen behaviour, given the company gathered here tonight. He could not recall seeing her before amongst the crowd, for there was certainly nothing blowsy about her. She was neatly dressed in a gown of cream muslin with her dark hair swept up on her head, unrelieved by ribbons or flowers. She carried herself with an assurance that seemed odd in one so young—she looked about two-and-twenty, the same age as his sister Sarah. The woman was regarding him with a humorous twinkle in her green eyes and he found himself wanting to respond with a smile. Impossible, of course. One did not encourage such persons. Still, he replied more politely that he was wont to do.