Masquerading the Marquess(3)

By: Anne Mallory




Both Sarah and Lucinda were gazing at him expectantly. He nodded again and their brows creased. He replayed the conversation. Sarah had asked about his favorite flavored ice.



"Lemon."



She smiled and laid a hand on his sleeve. They must have finally exhausted the topic of Miss Stafford.



There seemed to be more than a little vindictiveness aimed at her, and it wasn’t just due to his pointed remark. He had delivered harsher rebukes to Miss Stafford, not that these two had been privy to them.



Strange, that successfully launched debutantes should feel inferior. Margaret Stafford was a mere lady’s companion. Compared to these two, she was a neophyte. She didn’t compare in looks or breeding. Indeed, she hardly garnered a second glance. James had the distinct impression that to most people she simply blended into the decor.



But he wasn’t most people. He had been trying to shake some spell ever since overhearing Miss Stafford censure Cecilia Dort in support of a debutante Cecilia had been humiliating. He and Miss Stafford had made eye contact and a tingle had prowled his spine. The sensation had become a common occurrence when she was near and was a feeling he neither understood nor enjoyed.



From the outset he had seen spirit, pride and intelligence in those eyes she tried so hard to conceal. And when he had glimpsed her eyes in the ballroom tonight, they had been full of passion. A deep well simmering below the surface, so palpable he could almost taste it.



James felt a powerful need to seek her out and demand to know what she had been thinking at the time. He suppressed a grimace as his father’s tortured face flashed in his mind. He couldn’t afford his interest in her.



He deliberately riled Miss Stafford each time they came in contact. She had been present at every engagement he had attended for the past few weeks.



A faint rustle sparked his attention, and he caught a whiff of lavender and a hint of something else. The elusive scent had been vexing him. A reluctant smile curved his lips. Sometimes just thinking about a person could cause her to appear.



"Oh, here comes Lord Pettigrew, this is the waltz I promised him." Sarah looked up and batted her lashes at James. "However, I’ve saved the last waltz."



James made a noncommittal sound, and Sarah frowned.



Before she could say anything further, Lord Pettigrew and Mr. Terrence Smith approached to claim the two ladies.



"I say, Angelford, did you find the Egyptian scroll I described? Deuced lucky Smith here told me you were looking at a new shipment," Lord Pettigrew said.



James looked at Terrence Smith, a man he couldn’t recall having spoken to before. "How did you learn about the shipment?"



Terrence shuffled his feet and cleared his throat. "It is well known you enjoy antiquities, my lord. Someone mentioned the shipment last week. I merely informed Lord Pettigrew when he expressed an interest."



James watched a bead of sweat wind down the younger man’s cheek. James inclined his head slightly and turned to Pettigrew. "I will know tomorrow."



"Good, good. Now, my dear, shall we join the others inside?" Pettigrew inelegantly clasped the hand of Sarah Jones to his meaty arm.



She looked at James, her eyes beseeching and lashes fluttering in a poor imitation of the accomplished flirts. He didn’t move a muscle in his face. If he allowed his feelings to show, he doubted the girl would be pleased.



Bowing slightly, he watched the four stroll into the ballroom. Smith was fawning over the Fredericks chit, who in turn was coolly rebuffing his attentions.



"My guardian forces me to dance with you. I don’t do it freely."



James shook his head. He wouldn’t want to be saddled with either bit of baggage. They would drive any man to Bedlam.



He inspected the terrace. Most of the guests had rejoined the crush inside. He smiled at the predicament of the girl on the other side of the hedge. She could not leave without being seen, and she wasn’t aware he already knew of her presence. He pulled a cheroot from his pocket and lit it.



"Miss Stafford, are you spying on me?" James walked around the hedge.



He saw her wide-eyed frozen look, and was pleased at catching her off guard. But all too soon she regained her wits and stiffened her posture, nose in the air. "It is you, not I, who sneak up on people. Quite bad form."



"Indeed it is. About on par with eavesdropping, I'd say."



She sent him a haughty look. "Eavesdropping connotes intent. I was merely seated here enjoying the air when you three happened by, like ants invading a picnic."



He found himself enjoying the repartee, as usual. "I was taught one should announce one’s presence and not skulk in the shadows."



"I’m not surprised to find you’ve been caught skulking before, Lord Angelford." There was a sparkle in her eyes even as she frowned.



She was never a slowtop. Although her earlier comment in front of the others had been uncommon in its vehemence, it was her habit to verbally abuse him when no one was within earshot.



He smiled. "Miss Stafford, if I didn’t know better, I’d say you’ve missed me."



"Missed you? My lord, I was not even aware you were absent. I’m not even sure we’ve been properly introduced."



He carefully studied her over his cheroot. On the surface she was no great beauty. In fact, any sparkle was hidden beneath heavy layers of bombazine and netting. She was the exact opposite of the showy women he usually squired about town. Yet something about her drew and held his attention.



It was difficult to discern her features in the evening shadows, but in the ballroom her cap hadn’t fully covered hair the color of honey. No fashionable curls hung around her features due to the ruthless hairstyle pulling her skin from her face, but her bone structure was fine. High cheekbones and kissable lips. And unattractive spectacles could not mask bright eyes full of intelligence.



When he had returned her earlier barb, those eyes had contained mortification followed by disdain. He was struck by an unusual twinge of conscience.



He bowed low and plucked a blue-and-purple-tinged flower from a vine covering the hedge. "Miss Stafford, I am pleased to make your acquaintance." He offered her the bloom, but she eyed him suspiciously and didn’t accept the token.

The flower matched the color of her eyes.



"I am not pleased to make yours, my lord."



He smiled. "Apparently not."



A maid rounded the corner, a tray in her hands.



She emitted a squeak as she toppled backward, surprised at finding someone in her way. James grabbed her and the tray before either hit the stones.



"Goodness. I beg your pardon, my lord. I was just collecting stray glasses, and . . ." The maid wrung her hands.



James returned her tray and the maid scurried around the hedge. Miss Stafford sat frowning at him.



"You should probably fetch that drink now, Miss Stafford, or may I call you Margaret?"



She looked outraged. "No, you may not. Good night, my lord."



She rose quickly and, with head held high, walked gracefully across the terrace and into the ballroom. James watched her, extinguished his cheroot and bent to retrieve the soft flower, which he had sacrificed to save the maid and her tray.



He twirled the bloom between his fingers, then picked up Margaret Stafford’s forgotten cane, unsure whether to smile or frown.



* * *



Calliope moved into the ballroom and toward the refreshment table,. What an irritating man.



While reaching for a cup, she was intercepted by the heavy bulk of Lady Simpson.



"Miss Stafford, where have you been?"



She had been on the terrace waiting for the interlopers to leave.



Calliope gathered her wits. "My apologies, Lady Simpson. I grew warm and thought the cool air might be soothing."



"Walking alone in the garden? Really, now, you must endeavor to maintain decorum."



From past experience Calliope found it better to ignore Lady Simpson once she began a tirade. "Yes, my lady. Here is your lemonade."



Lady Simpson sniffed. "When you failed to return, Lord Flanders graciously brought me a cup. I was parched and feeling faint."



Calliope nodded apologetically and set the cup down. "Are you ready to retire?"



Lady Simpson stared at her coldly and raised her voice above the din. "No. However, I do believe it’s time you did. Yes, indeed. As others tonight have brought to my attention, it is painfully obvious you are not suited to this position. Your behavior is questionable and your presence disastrous. It is time you find other employment. Unfortunately, it is quite impossible for me to provide you with a good reference, so I will save myself the trouble and not give one at all."



Calliope heard murmurs and snickers. Her eyes skimmed the assembly. A number of people were staring. Some guests appeared to be enjoying the show, some were eyeing her with pity and others looked uncomfortable. Calliope’s glance fell on Angelford lounging in the doorway. She tried to read his expression, but he was too far away. No doubt he was pleased with the entertainment unfolding in the ballroom.



Calliope straightened her spine and addressed Lady Simpson. "And it is a good thing, Georgina, " Calliope said, drawing out her Christian name. "A reference from you would mean I might be tempted to seek employment from one of your friends, such as Lady Turville. Looking at her muttonchops over dinner every night would probably upset my ability to eat, just as you claimed it upset yours. Or perhaps I would have tried Mrs. Dunleavy’s employ. I remember you calling her an ordinary fishmonger. And let’s not forget Lady Flanders, a woman you claim dresses and acts like a flagrant strumpet. I would have been plumb fatigued after opening her well-used door for each devotee."

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