Masquerading the Marquess(2)

By: Anne Mallory

A shrill giggle drew his attention to Lucinda Fredericks. He had developed a tendre for the vain debutante who allowed him a single dance each night, and only because her guardian forced her to do so. Calliope found his infatuation incomprehensible. But she supported her friend, which meant she reluctantly left Lucinda out of any damaging drawings.

Terrence was Calliope’s only friend among society and as far as the ton was concerned they shared many traits. Everything about Terrence made him fodder for the sharks, from his timidity to his lack of looks and fortune.

Calliope took a sip of the saccharine lemonade and restrained a grimace at its taste. Too much sugar. Again.

Terrence continued to gaze longingly at Lucinda, who glanced at him in irritation before touching Angelford’s arm in a coy gesture. It was time to sidetrack her friend. "Mr. Smith, how are you progressing on your book of poetry?"

His drooping face perked up. "Quite well, actually. I have penned several poems this week."

"How wonderful. I’d love to read them."

He shot her an anxious look. "I’m . . . I’m still revising."

Terrence was no different from any other young man of his age and station. He dreamed of fortune, fame and winning Lucinda Frederick’s hand. He knew writing would not give him any of those things, so he invested in one harebrained scheme after another.

Calliope assessed his apparel. His outmoded coat showed the ineffectiveness of his ventures.

Lady Simpson’s voice sliced through her musings. She was staring at Calliope’s drink. "Stop lollygagging, girl, and get me some punch. I’m quite parched."

Calliope reminded herself for the hundredth time that she needed material for her deadline. She bit her tongue and nodded. Her pen would flay Lady Simpson later.

"Lady Simpson, it would be my pleasure to fetch you a lemonade," Terrence said.

"Nonsense. Miss Stafford will do so. That’s why I employ her."

Calliope cast Terrence a reassuring look, but he had assumed the dogged look of determination, which sometimes caused him trouble.

Calliope shoved her nearly full cup back to Terrence. "I appreciate the offer, Mr. Smith, but I do need the exercise. It’s good for my leg."

Lady Simpson’s eyes narrowed as she glared down at Calliope’s barely visible slipper. At that moment, Angelford turned in her direction, and he also cast a look downward. He must have been listening to their conversation. Heat spread from Calliope’s toes to her head and she excused herself before Lady Simpson could make disparaging comment or Angelford could add his own.

It was one thing to be criticized by Lady Simpson, quite another to have it come from Angelford. Using her walking cane, she headed for the refreshment area, deftly navigating the dancing couples and groups gathered on the perimeter.

The room was stifling. Calliope surreptitiously pulled her dress from her body, trying to create a breeze under the heavy, coarse material. She could feel moisture gathering along her spine and resisted the urge to waft air down the back of her dress.

But then, imagining the scandalized glances the action would garner, she was tempted to do it. Lady Simpson would surely have a fit, or at the very least a fainting spell. The series of thuds reverberating through the room, as the woman’s plumpness inelegantly bounced on the floor, would prove satisfying enough to outweigh the consequences.

Calliope was nearing the end of her time with Lady Simpson, and she was more than ready to find a new post. From the outset, the Simpson position had yielded exceptionally lucrative material. As a companion to one of society’s matrons, Calliope attended many of the Season’s major social events, giving her access to people and activities she had only dreamed of previously.

Unfortunately, she had underestimated her own exposure.

In her two prior positions she had blended into the background and proceeded unnoticed. Yet those roles had not provided her with the rewards she had come to expect from this post. Lady Simpson had the tongue of a viper and delighted in striking those in her path. Calliope was often tempted to pull out parchment and take notes while Lady Simpson gossiped.

As she had in previous positions, Calliope wore her hair in severe, unflattering styles and clothed herself in drab garments and spectacles. But moving in loftier circles had brought her to if the notice of the more acidic debutantes, who viewed her as an easy target on which to practice their cutting wit.

She winced. Her scathing reply a few weeks ago to Cecelia Dort’s pointed commentary on fashion had been unwise. Her relationship with Lady Simpson had been in a steady decline ever since Calliope had humiliated the reigning debutante.

A line formed at the refreshment table, and Calliope noticed someone had finally propped open a terrace door. She stole a glance back at Lady Simpson, who was engaged in an animated conversation with the elegantly attired Earl of Flanders. Calliope estimated Lady Simpson would monopolize him for at least fifteen minutes. A short but blessed reprieve.

Calliope edged toward the door, trying to keep as many bodies between Lady Simpson and her as possible. A brief period of solitude was in order. Just a little farther ....

Lady Simpson gestured to the terrace and Calliope realigned her body toward the refreshment table. But the earl shook his head, drawing the lady’s attention once more, and Calliope crossed the threshold and slipped into the cool spring air. The brisk night enveloped her.

Lanterns were strung loosely across the upper terrace, illuminating it in soft light. Walking near the shadows, she avoided contact with the revelers seeking refuge from the stuffy ballroom. Calliope expelled a breath as she glimpsed a niche near the edge of the veranda. Her emotions and body temperature were still in turmoil. She had managed to keep a serene mask in place until that arrogant man had arrived.

Calliope maneuvered around a small hedge, and delight swept through her at the sight of a small bench nestled in an alcove overflowing with colorful spring flowers. The sweet fragrances of clematis and hydrangea were heavenly compared to the overly perfumed bodies inside. She couldn’t imagine a more perfect place. She plopped down on the smooth, cold marble and rubbed her neck.

Calliope tipped her head and winked at the heavens. It was a clear evening and even the heavy London air could not contain the twinkles. The constellations gleamed in the night sky. There was Leo and Draco, and if she strained just a little she could almost see Lyra and --

"l say, what a boring rout this was until you joined us, my lord."

Footsteps approached the hedge of her sanctuary. Calliope frowned at the intrusion. Couldn’t someone remotely intelligent have come her way? Sarah Jones’s repertoire consisted of ten different sayings, and she had just used one.

When no answer came forth, Calliope leaned forward to peer through the hedge, curious to see if Angelford had accompanied Sarah outside.

"I am so pleased you sought us tonight, my lord. The stuffy set has been selfishly keeping you to themselves at the gatherings lately. How utterly trying for you."

"I enjoy their company. "

Calliope whipped her head back and shivered. It was definitely Angelford. His strong, silky voice had imprinted itself on her mind the first time she had heard it.

"You are too kind, my lord. I know you must be quite bored with their endless debate. All of that scientific talk and Greek this, Roman that--it fairly makes my poor head turn."

Calliope shook her head. Angelford’s intelligence was obvious, even to a ninny. But he was part of the beau monde, and just as lacking as his peers. The ton was overflowing with well-educated members who held extremely conservative views of the world.

A titter drew her back to their conversation.

"You certainly put her in her place, my lord. Quite skillfully, I must say," cooed Lucinda Fredericks.

"And to whom are you referring?"

"Margaret Stafford, of course. Natty little thing. Always trying to appear better than she is. Why, you should hear some of the things out of her mouth. She’s a veritable bluestocking."

Calliope could picture the dainty shiver of disgust Lucinda liked to affect when she found something distasteful.

"She is causing Lady Simpson a fit. Why she was hired in the first place, I’ll never understand. She obviously doesn’t know her place," Sarah added.

James nodded mechanically to their drivel. This was almost as bad as the time he and Roth were spying on two French lieutenants and their wives came into the room and talked about fans for an entire hour. The lieutenants had beat a hasty retreat after five minutes, but James and Roth had been forced to keep their hiding places until the women left. So help him, if one of these dimwits mentioned a fan, he was leaving.

Like most women, these two latched on to a topic and drove it to ground. He ignored them and mentally reviewed the Corn Laws. The argument in the House last week had been fierce. If he could just sway the three older earls . . .

Sarah looked at him expectantly and he nodded. Apparently satisfied, her mouth moved again. James returned to his review. He should send Finn to gather information on the dissenters, find out if they would be willing to form a coalition.

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