He frowned. “I doubt I shall manage that. However, since I am a gentleman and you have asked me twice to leave, I will comply with your wishes.”
As he stood to go, he heard a soft sound from beneath the desk. “Please…”
“Will you give back the books?”
“Of course.” He passed them down, pressing them into the small hand that emerged. “I wish you good day.”
Court walked out, thinking the house party was not off to the most auspicious start, when one was obliged to converse with a strange woman huddled under the host’s desk. He walked the halls for a half hour or so, until he felt less rattled and more relaxed again. Back in his private parlor, he found his mother and Mrs. Lyndon returned from tea, trading captious gossip on the sofa.
“Did you find Lady Emberley’s bonnet quite out of fashion?” his mother appealed to Mrs. Lyndon. “I was shocked at how dilapidated it was. That rose silk—I daresay it was from two seasons ago.”
Mrs. Lyndon tut-tutted and agreed that she found it quite out of style for the wife of an earl, particularly the rose silk.
His mother looked up at him and indicated the chair to her right. “Come and sit with us, dear. Have you toured the house? Did you find it pleasing? And did you happen to glimpse Lady Emberley’s bonnet?”
“The house is exemplary. And no, I did not see this bonnet.” He strained to sound pleasant as he seated himself near the pair. “I’m sure, despite her bonnet’s dilapidation, that the lady herself is all that is proper and kind.”
His mother’s eyes widened at his subtle reprimand. “She would have been kinder had she worn a nicer bonnet. It hurt my eyes.”
“What of Mrs. Dawson’s hair?” Mrs. Lyndon asked. Both ladies tittered.
“Perhaps it is the style in Yorkshire,” said his mother. “But I found it so very…ugly. Yes, I cannot think of a milder word.”
“Hideous,” Mrs. Lyndon offered.
“Hideous is less mild,” the duchess chided her friend. “But called for in this case.”
Court sighed, almost wishing himself back in conversation with the chit beneath the desk. At least then he had been repeatedly asked to leave, whereas now, since he’d seated himself, he was stuck by courtesy for at least ten minutes.
“Honestly, Courtland, I wish you would not look so sour.” His mother leaned forward to tap at his knee. “You will have your hunting on the morrow, and many esteemed gentlemen to smoke and play cards with. And there are so many lovely ladies in attendance, all of them eager to meet a dashing and distinguished duke.”
“Are there?” he asked in a bored tone. “Too bad they are stuck with me.”
Her sharp hazel eyes snapped. “For Lady Darlington’s sake, you must make an effort to engage with her guests. Particularly the ladies. It is high time you settled on a bride.” His mother puffed up like a hen ruffling its feathers. “Perhaps gossip of your unfortunate proclivities will not have reached these remote moors.”
Court grimaced and considered, just for a moment, flinging himself from the nearby window. “Do not be offensive, mother.”
“Oh,” the duchess exclaimed. “Speaking of offensive, you will never guess who is here. Lord Morrow’s children! Do you remember the viscount? He was one of your father’s odder friends.”
“I never made his acquaintance.” He knew of him, although Viscount Morrow had retired from society in recent years. He remembered him as a studious, serious fellow, forthright in manners, which Court respected. His son, Mr. Barrett, was a few years younger than Court and not a member of his set.
His mother pounced on this lack of knowledge, eager to share what she’d learned. “Apparently Stephen Barrett is not the best sort. He is given to vice and leisure as are so many young men these days, and his sister is five seasons out now, poor dear. The ladies say she is woefully strange in manners. She must be tiresome to all the gentlemen,” she said in an aside to Mrs. Lyndon, who sighed appropriately.
Court arched a brow. “I thought Lady Darlington’s parties only had the quality.”
“Oh, you are very rude today.” His mother scowled and fluttered her fan. “Now, you see, Viscount Morrow was a particular friend of Lord Darlington in their younger days, and so they must be civil to his son and daughter. The son, at least, is engaged to the Earl of Needham’s daughter. Mr. Barrett must be dashing to win an earl’s daughter, or perhaps it’s the Morrow fortune.”
“What is left of it,” Mrs. Lyndon intoned.
“But you shall have to avoid the sister,” his mother said. “I heard at the Bettlemans’ ball in London last season, Lord Bettleman took pity on Miss Barrett and offered her a dance, and she spoke to him nearly the entire set on the topic of Mongol hordes.” His mother whispered the latter words as if they were not fit to utter aloud. “Can you imagine his chagrin?”
Mongol hordes? It could not be coincidence. Nothing in Court’s blasé expression revealed that he had already met this young woman—or that he had spent the last half hour trying to forget the image of her peering up from between his legs.
“And there was some debacle at Almack’s,” his mother continued, “so traumatizing to those in attendance that the ladies will not speak of it.”
The old women clucked at one another behind their fans. Miss Barrett seemed to have created significant mayhem across her five unsuccessful seasons, which wasn’t surprising considering what he knew of her thus far.
His mother’s lips went tight. “Suffice it to say, no one would associate with her after that. What a sorry situation for Lord Morrow,” she said to Mrs. Lyndon, who nodded in mournful agreement. “An odd daughter and a son who does not understand responsibility and couth. It is heartbreaking when sons disappoint, is it not, Mrs. Lyndon? Although, at least, Mr. Barrett has managed a fine match for himself.”
His mother gave him a speaking glance. Court ignored her and studied the floral pattern on the arm of his chair. “Perhaps Miss Barrett and I would make a good match. Perhaps I shall court her here in the north and bring home a bride. What do you think, mother? Might we suit?”
The duchess gasped and feigned a fit of vapors while Mrs. Lyndon shook her head, her loose chin skin wiggling like a turkey’s wattle.
“You will do no such thing, Benedict Thomas William Hawthorne,” his mother cried. “Imagine, the Duke of Courtland paying his addresses to the daughter of a viscount. A peculiar daughter at that!”
Court glanced out the window at the late-summer moors. “I might like a wife with whom I can discuss Mongol hordes.”
His mother gave a beleaguered sigh and whispered viciously to Mrs. Lyndon. In truth, she had nothing to fear. He hadn’t the heart to court any woman at Sedgefield, peculiar or not. He was for cards and a little hunting. Otherwise, he would make himself scarce.
He would survive this house party just as he survived all the others he was compelled to attend.
Chapter Two: Magic
Every night after dinner, the entire company retired to Lady Darlington’s largest drawing room to socialize and make merry, and every night Harmony lagged behind, dreading the proceedings. There were refreshments and punch, and pleasant music provided by the more talented guests. The gentlemen asked all the ladies to dance, except for Harmony, who had not yet been invited to dance by anyone. She hid within the protective circle of her acquaintances, perfectly happy not to reveal her two left feet.
At least Stephen was having fun mucking about with Lady Smythe-Dorsey and Mrs. Waring every chance he got. When Harmony had confronted him about being unfaithful to his fiancée, he’d laughed at her. “You don’t understand the ways of society. These flirtations are perfectly acceptable. In fact, they’re expected at parties like these. It is better to be a jovial, sociable guest than a prim stuck-up like you.”
A prim stuck-up. Apparently this was the gentlemen’s assessment of her, along with the other usual descriptors, “strange” and “odd.” At least there was no gossip of her hiding under desks in libraries, even though three days had passed since her encounter with the Duke of Courtland. Something so horrifically embarrassing could only happen to her. She wondered why he did not tell tales about their meeting when he could so easily amuse his friends.
As for her friends’ staunch intentions to snub His Grace—every topic of conversation now revolved around him.
The duke did not appear anything like the villain they’d expected. His teeth were white and straight and his eyes intelligent, set off by dark eyebrows. His face was neither broad nor narrow, but just right, with a masculine nose and fine, well-shaped lips. His chin was strong without seeming pointy or prominent. Taken together, the duke was indeed dangerously handsome, though not in a classical sense. It was more that when one looked at the Duke of Courtland, one wished to keep looking.