The Accidental Earl by hibiscus
Summary:

Duncan Beaufort finds himself, to his astonishment, suddenly inheriting the title of Earl of Blackwood. Raised a minor country gentleman, he has no idea how to behave in the highest circles of Society.

And he really ought to find a wife straightaway.

Lady Thea Desmond, daughter of one of the patronesses of the exclusive (and exclusively proper) Almack's assemblies, has spent her entire life behaving with absolute perfection.

The last thing she wants is a country bumpkin for a husband.

(Regency romance from 2011 NaNoWriMo)


Categories: Historical Fiction, Romance Characters: None
Challenges:
Series: None
Chapters: 4 Completed: No Word count: 21843 Read: 105430 Published: 14 Aug 2012 Updated: 10 Sep 2012

1. Chapter 1 by hibiscus

2. Chapter 2 by hibiscus

3. Chapter 3 by hibiscus

4. Chapter 4 by hibiscus

Chapter 1 by hibiscus

 

“I'm the earl of what?” Duncan Beaufort sat back in his chair, mouth open with disbelief.

“Blackwood, my boy, the earl of Blackwood,” boomed the older woman sitting across from him, as if he might have been hearing-deficient and not understood her the first time she'd said it.

“I don't understand,” Duncan said carefully. “How can I be the earl of Blackwood? How can I be the earl of anything and not know it?”

“Well, I don't like to cast aspersions on the deceased, but clearly your father did not adequately explain his position in the line of succession to you,” she said in what she clearly thought was a delicate voice. It was not.

Duncan stared at her. He was twenty-seven years old, raised as a country gentleman but certainly not a titled one. He'd awoken this morning planning to supervise the cleaning-out of the cow pasture (and probably help with the mucking, to be honest) and entertain his brother when Ned returned from his regiment this evening, and then a knock on the door from a liveried servant had informed him that the Dowager Duchess of Blackwood would be arriving shortly to speak with him about a Very Important Matter.

The Important Matter, it had turned out, was informing him that he was the heir to her late husband's earldom.

Duncan rubbed his forehead. This was not something he knew how to deal with. He had known, in a general sort of way, that his great-great-grandfather had been an earl, but his father had never mentioned there was a possibility of him inheriting the title. He was the product of a series of younger sons, for God's sake. He was having a hard time taking it in.

“Are you certain I'm the one you want? Surely someone else is more closely related to your, er, late husband than I am.”

“No, my boy, I am quite certain you are the next eldest male relative. My sons died years ago, without siring heirs of their own – Auggie was only married for a year before he went, his wife is remarried now, sweet young thing – and then George died at Waterloo. Married to his regiment, that one. John, my late husband, did not have any brothers. So we had to go further back, to the second earl, to look for an heir.”

“The second earl?” Duncan repeated rather weakly.

“John's grandfather. It's all there in the papers I brought,” Lady Blackwood said vaguely, waving her hand to indicate the large stack of papers her solicitor had set on Duncan's desk before she'd dismissed the mousy little man to handle matters herself. Duncan was getting the impression that the dowager countess was a very managing sort of female.

“Let me see, then, John's uncles.” The dowager countess ticked them off on her fingers. “Charles had an array of miscellaneous daughters – one of them joined a convent in France, if you can believe that – and then Edward was in the Royal Navy, an admiral, don't you know. Married to his ship, never to a woman. If he had any children, they certainly weren't legitimate. Then was William, who had a pair of daughters and then a son, William like his father, then another daughter and another son. Now the second William-”

Duncan's eyes widened in disbelief that she could keep all this straight and reel it off the way a country gentleman might talk about his pastures. The second William she was referring to, he recognized at once. His grandfather had had two older sisters, a younger sister, and a younger brother. The younger sister, his great-aunt Charlotte, had lived in Yorkshire, married to a wealthy merchant. They'd gone to visit her a few times when he was a lad.

“-and after his elder son died without issue, the title passed to the eldest son of his younger son. Which is you, of course. The fifth Earl of Blackwood.” Lady Blackwood beamed at him.

He almost asked again if she were certain, but of course she wouldn't have come all the way to Shropshire if she weren't. And clearly she knew the family's genealogy better than he did. It came as something of a shock to think that if his father hadn't died only last year, the earldom would have passed to him first. How could his father have died as the heir to an earldom and not told his children? He must not have realized that his second cousins had both passed on without siring heirs of their own.

“Well.” Duncan was not certain what the expected social response was to learning one was an earl from the wife of the man he'd inherited the title from. He stared again at Lady Blackwood, this time taking in her appearance more fully.

She was dressed richly, her mourning blacks beaded and tailored to perfection, and she held herself ramrod-straight in the chair she'd perched on. She was older, in her late fifties most likely, and still a rather handsome woman. She'd probably been quite pretty in her younger days. But what Duncan most liked about her was the air of steely determination and self-assurance that she carried around her like armor. He wondered if that came with the title or if it was something she'd learned as a countess.

He wondered if she could teach it to him.

He was rather afraid to be an earl, quite frankly. Managing estates, having the care of so many people on his shoulders... It did not sound like something he would have chosen for himself, something he could be good at. But it was now being thrust upon him nonetheless.

He would just have to figure out how to rise to the challenge.

“I'll be happy to introduce you to Society, my boy,” Lady Blackwood said suddenly, her voice much softer this time. “It won't be as bad as all that. And we have quite a wonderful solicitor who is overseeing the estate while the earldom transitions to you, so you shan't have to worry about that.”

“What will happen to you?” Duncan asked, frowning slightly.

“Oh, I'll putter along. I've got the dower estate in Kent, it's entailed so it is yours really, but John left me the use of it in his will, for the remainder of my years on this earth. I'll stay in London though. You own two townhouses in Mayfair. Auggie lived in Number Four when he was married. I'll take that so you may reside in the main house.”

“Absolutely not,” Duncan said immediately. “You must stay in the family home in Town. It's been your home for years. I will stay in Number Four.”

Lady Blackwood smiled at him, her eyes gleaming. “You sounded very much like a lord there, my boy. We'll make an earl of you yet. Very well, I shall retain my residence at Grosvenor Square, and you shall have Number Four when you come down to London.”

“Must I? Come down to London, that is.” Duncan had never particularly cared for town, but then, he hadn't been to London since he was a very young man. And he certainly had never experienced it as an earl.

“Of course,” the dowager countess boomed. “You must present yourself before the Privy Council, and take your seat in the House of Lords. My late husband was not much of a politician, but if you've the inclination, you can certainly make of it what you will.”

“I see,” said Duncan, mostly for something to say. He had not even thought about the earldom conveying a seat in the House of Lords. A thrill of fear went through him. What did he know about making laws and governing the country?

“You have a sister, do you not? Still in the schoolroom, I believe.”

Duncan nodded. Iris was probably listening at the door at that very moment. “She is sixteen, my lady. Too young to be out yet.”

Lady Blackwood waved this aside. “Plenty of gels are brought out at sixteen, my boy. I've always thought it a bit young, though. And she'll need more instruction than what a country governess would have given her-”

Duncan squirmed a bit at that. Iris had not had a governess since she was twelve. Their father had never gotten round to hiring her a new one when Iris had run off her last governess, and Duncan had not thought to hire one for his sister now that he was head of the family. He supposed he should have done something about that.

“-so we shall simply wait until she's seventeen. That's more the fashion these days, in any case. Still, she shall come to Town with us. It's highly educational for a young lady. And I feel certain she shall enjoy it immensely.” Lady Blackwood cast a brief glance toward the door that made Duncan wonder if she knew Iris was likely eavesdropping.

“And your brother?” Lady Blackwood went on blithely. “I believe he serves in the Fourth Cavalry, with Colonel John Wallace?”

Duncan blinked. “Yes, my lady. How did-”

“My solicitor is very thorough. Your brother's regiment is arriving this evening, I believe. I shall expect to see Captain Beaufort in town with you, however briefly, before he returns to his duties. And now-” the dowager countess rose gracefully, and Duncan hurried to his feet as well, “-I shall leave you to your thoughts, and expect to see your family in London by Friday next. Good day, Earl Blackwood.”

The words stunned him momentarily, so that she was able to sail out of the small office leaving him at a loss for words at being addressed by his new title.

Duncan fell back into his chair and covered his eyes with his hands. The entire day felt slightly surreal. He was an earl, for God's sake. The weight of new responsibility pressed on his shoulders. He'd spent the last two years since the death of his father being responsible for his younger sister and brother, and now he was to be responsible for the well-being of hundreds of strangers living on his land and working for him.

His land. Hell, he owned more land. His father had left him a piece of Shropshire and the home he'd grown up in, appropriately sized for a country gentleman of no title but decent breeding, and he'd never thought to own more than that. He didn't even know how much he owned now. A dower estate in Kent and two townhouses in London, to begin with, at least from what the dowager had said.

Duncan eyed the stack of paperwork in front of him. It had to be a foot high. He was no solicitor, he did not know how he was meant to go through it all himself. He'd have to get a solicitor of his own, he supposed, though probably he could go and see the late Lord Blackwood's solicitor. No doubt the man knew all about this and could explain it all to Duncan. The officious little man brought along by Lady Blackwood had seemed the type to explain almost anything.

The door cracked open and the dark, slightly disarrayed head of his younger sister poked in. Iris never hesitated, and the fact that she was hovering at the door showed her own shock at the news. Duncan waved her inside, and Iris came in to flop down onto the chair Lady Blackwood had just vacated, curls flying. She had not pinned them up properly, again.

“I can hardly credit it,” his little sister exclaimed. “My brother, an earl! A peer of the realm, a pillar of society, member of Parliament. And all of us summoned to London to learn how to go about in Society. I never would have thought today would turn out like this when I woke up.”

“Neither did I,” said Duncan dryly.

“Is that it, then?” Iris went on, pointing to the stack of paperwork in front of him. “Aren't you going to read it?”

“I will. I need to find a solicitor now, I suppose.”

Iris picked up a good-sized chunk of the papers. “I cannot believe this is happening. Ned is going to be stunned. Is this in English, do you think?”

“I believe it's in solicitor,” Duncan said, reaching across to remove the papers from her hands.

“You're going to need a wife now, you know,” Iris informed him. “You need an heir, now that you're an earl. You'll need to find a duke's daughter to marry.”

“You read too many novels,” Duncan muttered, but she had a point. Earls were supposed to have heirs. An heir and a spare, wasn't that what they said? Though it had not done the late Lord Blackwood any good. His heir and spare had both predeceased him. It suddenly struck Duncan as extremely sad, and he wished he'd been more solicitous of Lady Blackwood during her visit. He'd offered his condolences on the death of her husband upon her arrival, when she'd announced it rather imperiously, but he'd been so stunned by the news of the earldom that he had not thought to do the same for the deaths of her sons. Waterloo was not that long ago, for her to have lost her younger son.

He looked up and caught his sister's eye. She looked very excited by the entire prospect. It probably seemed a grand adventure to her, and no doubt it would be. As an earl's sister, she inherited all of the adventure and none of the responsibility.

“What the devil am I going to do, Iris?” he asked slowly, almost to himself.

She raised an eyebrow at him, and some of the sparkle in her eye turned to sympathy. “You're going to be the earl of Blackwood, dear brother. And you're going to do it well. You're going to go to London, move into your townhome, present yourself to the Privy Council, and you're going to spend a great deal of time with Lady Blackwood's solicitor to learn about the estate.”

Duncan nodded. “Right. Yes.”

“And when we get to London, you're going to buy me a lovely new wardrobe,” Iris added with relish.

Duncan let out a heartfelt groan, trying to hide his grin.

 

Chapter 2 by hibiscus

The orchestra, such as it was, began with what they undoubtedly thought was a flourish. It was more of a crash, really. Lady Thea Desmond sighed into her fan and attempted to school her face into an expression of polite interest before lowering the delicately painted fan to listen with every appearance of attentiveness to the musicale.

The three women onstage were from this year's crop of debutantes. As the reigning belle of last year's debutantes, Thea wanted to encourage them, but it felt somehow wrong to encourage this wanton slaughtering of what was actually a rather lovely piece of music. It was not their fault, she supposed, trying to be fair. No doubt their mamas had pushed them into this.

Thea was quite familiar with the subject of pushy mamas.

Her eyes slid sideways to her own mama. Helena, Countess of Hawley, sat poised elegantly on the gilt chair with a serene expression and every appearance of mild approval of the musicale. Mild approval was the most Lady Hawley ever mustered.

Thea let out her breath slowly through her nose and tried to think of other things. Distracting oneself from the screeching of the violins (was that a string snapping?) was no easy task. Her eyes wandered, though she was careful not to turn her head. The audience in attendance were primarily other debutantes there in support of their friends - not to mention hopes of an eligible bachelor being in attendance - and the usual assortment of overbearing society mamas and elderly dowagers who always attended these sorts of things. There was a decided lack of bachelors in the room, with only a small handful of men present. She recognized Viscount Warlow, who had come after her fortune last year and had been rebuffed by her father, over in the corner. He did not notice her glance. He was quite good-looking. It was rather a shame, actually, though she hadn't felt any attraction to him. He must still be angling for an heiress, if he was subjecting himself to this sort of thing.

Lord Ferris sat a few seats ahead of Thea, with his quiet little wife at his side. His wife was cousin to the young lady currently mangling the pianoforte, which no doubt explained their presence. Next to them was the Countess of Atherstone, whose face was set in a determined smile, though it looked a bit frozen.

"Pay attention," Lady Hawley murmured, and Thea drew her eyes forward again. She popped her fan up to hide her annoyance, but held her tongue.

Another subject she was quite familiar with.

By the time the young ladies had finished assaulting everyone's ears, Thea begged her mother's pardon for some fresh air, in hopes that the sounds of the musicale might be erased from her brain by the sunshine. This was no doubt a futile hope, but one must hold on to optimism in the face of adversity.

The garden was bright and verdant in the late afternoon sun, with birds twittering prettily in the carefully cultivated orange trees and bees buzzing lazily about. The Season was only getting started, so spring was just beginning to bless the world with hazy golden warmth. The day was delightfully warm, even as evening approached. Thank goodness it hadn't been a nighttime recital, or her mother would have insisted on accompanying her into the garden as an unnecessary chaperone (though not unnecessary to her mother's eye - Lady Hawley was nothing if not mindful of the proprieties) and she never would have had a moment's peace.

Thea wandered in blissful silence for a while, taking in the flowers and artfully trained hedges, and then found a stone bench to sit on. The gardens were by no means extensive, but they were quite lovely, and she spent some time simply letting the sun warm her face (after looking around to ensure her mother wouldn't see her and remind her about freckles). She began to hum the Mozart piece the young debutantes had attempted earlier; it really was a shame all of them had a tin ear.

She hummed most of the first movement, and then started in shock as a voice interrupted her.

"That sounded far better than those poor gels on the stage."

Thea turned to see an older woman wearing black widow's weeds of a very high quality, standing behind the hedge that formed the back of her bench. She recognized her at once.

"Lady Blackwood, good afternoon."

Lady Blackwood was the recently widowed - only two months ago - wife of an earl, and quite a prominent figure in society. Thea's own mother, as a patroness of Almack's, spoke highly of Lady Blackwood's breeding and had lamented the deaths of the two Blackwood sons, each in their turn, as removing potential highly eligible men from the pool of prospective mates for Thea. As Lady Blackwood's younger son had turned thirty-five before Thea had even left the schoolroom, she could not wholly regret the loss of their competition for her hand.

The dowager countess eyed Thea with frank appraisal. "You don't play an instrument, do you, my dear?"

Thea shook her head. "Sadly, it is among my failings, despite much tutoring in the pianoforte. My mother never saw fit to force me to subject myself to public humiliation in performance."

"Public humiliation?" Lady Blackwood echoed.

Realizing what she'd said, Thea felt her cheeks flush. "Er, that is-"

The countess waved a hand as she came around the hedge to sit next to Thea on the bench. "Do not bother attempting to rephrase, my girl, I completely agree with you. Those poor gels inside ought never have been allowed to touch a musical instrument in public."

"I should not have spoken so unkindly," Thea said, aware of her mother's persona as patroness of Almack's. The daughter of the Earl and Countess of Hawley must be above reproach, a paragon of proper behavior. Thea had learned to keep her opinions to herself long ago.

"Pray do not hold back on my account," said Lady Blackwood. "I find speaking unkindly of others highly entertaining. And if you think I am alone in that, you have clearly not been out in Society."

"But they do put a good face on their unkind remarks," Thea added, then put a hand to her mouth. "I do not know why I said that."

Lady Blackwood chuckled. "You said it because it's true. Gossip is Society's favorite pastime, but they do love to pretend they're doing it for everyone's good, don't they?"

Thea glanced back at the house. She could see the French doors from where they sat, and her mother was standing on the patio with their hostess, Lady Fentress, both drinking glasses of lemonade and chatting with serene expressions on their faces. Lady Hawley would not look so serene if she could hear her daughter right now, Thea thought.

"Please do not tell my mother," she blurted out, and Lady Blackwood raised an eyebrow.

"Whyever would I do that? I don't believe our private conversation is any of her business."

Thea breathed out a sigh of relief. "Thank you," she said gratefully.

"Speak your mind with me, my girl, always." Lady Blackwood leaned back and let her legs stretch out. She grimaced a bit as her knee made a popping sound. "I feel older every day, ever since Blackwood died."

Thea made a sympathetic noise at that; she had offered her formal condolences to Lady Blackwood shortly after the earl's funeral, and though she knew all the ton's rules on grieving, she had never found it easy to speak from the heart on matters such as this. She knew what to say, but she never felt sincere saying it, and instead found herself saying nothing.

"Speaking of the earl," Lady Blackwood said then, turning sharply to Thea. "We've a new one, you know."

"I heard," Thea murmured. "My mother was speculating on him. My father as well." Her father's specific words had included the phrase 'what countrified twit the Beauforts must have had to turn up to take the title, I have no idea', but Thea thought it was prudent not to relay this to Lady Blackwood.

"I have no doubt. He's quite a nice young man, actually. Rather rough around the edges, but that's easier on a man with a new title than a woman, is it not? I feel certain he shall shape up nicely." Lady Blackwood looked quite satisfied, and Thea smiled at the older woman's expression. She had not seen Lady Blackwood so animated since the late earl had passed. It was rather nice to see her cheered up. It had been difficult seeing someone with so much verve settling back into her grief. Bringing the new earl up to scratch appeared to be just what the doctor ordered.

"In fact, he is come to Town only last week, and now I have had him fitted out at Weston's and sent him round to Blackwood's club - my own Lord Blackwood, that is - he is very nearly ready to make an appearance in Society. He was at the Privy Council this morning, and I have no doubt things went smoothly. I would have heard about it otherwise," Lady Blackwood added with a wink. "I have sources, you know."

Thea's smile widened to a grin.

"And so I suppose I must now accustom myself to referring to him as Blackwood," the dowager countess mused. "It will take time. John, my late husband, was Blackwood to me for so many years. But the new Lord Blackwood is quite a nice young man."

"I have not heard much about him, though the ton is abuzz with his accession to the title," Thea said, falling back a bit on her extensive social training at her mother's hand. "What is he like? Is he a pleasant man?"

"Quite," said Lady Blackwood. "And very handsome to boot." She gave Thea a conspiratorial smile. "You will like him immensely, I expect. Everyone will. He is tall, as tall as my sons were, with dark hair and a pleasant countenance. I believe he will make quite the splash, and not simply because he is newly come to a title and the Blackwood fortune."

"Has he any family? He did not go about in Society before, from what I have heard."

"A brother and a sister. The brother is a captain in the regiments and the sister still in the schoolroom. I shall bring her out myself next year. Quite a lovely young lady. Strong-willed. I am enjoying her company immensely," Lady Blackwood said with relish. "I find it invigorating. I never had a daughter, you know. Young Iris is exactly as I could have hoped."

Thea smiled. She could only imagine the sort of young lady that Lady Blackwood would find invigorating. It must be quite an adventure with the new Earl of Blackwood, she thought, and immediately wondered it he was truly as handsome as the countess had said.

"I believe your mother is signalling you," Lady Blackwood said, nodding to indicate Lady Hawley on the stone veranda. Thea looked over to find her mother giving her what could only be called a significant look.

"I believe you are correct." She rose and then dropped a brief curtsy to the countess. "Thank you for the conversation, Lady Blackwood. Would you care to accompany me back to the music room?"

"Not at all, but I suppose I must. It is over, isn't it?" Lady Blackwood asked suspiciously as she got to her feet.

Thea smiled as they walked back to the veranda, though she was careful now to keep it the pleasant, serene smile she'd practiced for Society events. Smiling too enthusiastically would never do for the daughter of Lady Hawley. "Rest assured, Lady Blackwood, the program indicated that was the only act."

"Thank God," said Lady Blackwood sincerely.

*

Duncan stood at the window of the townhome known universally as Number Four - located directly across the square from the Blackwood family seat in London - and watched the carriage pulling up out front. It was well-maintained and ornate, with the crest of the Earl of Blackwood emblazoned on the side in carved, gilded and painted wood. It looked about fifty years old, which meant it was probably the newest of the Blackwood carriages. He now owned several, he had discovered, each more ancient and gilded than the last.

He had been in Town only two weeks, and in that time he had been poked and prodded by tailors and bootmakers, been to a dozen clubs who had been only too happy for his membership, and spent hours closeted with Seward, the officious little man who was the Blackwood solicitor these past twenty-five years and who knew every inch of the Blackwood estates and holdings. Duncan had been a little stunned by exactly how wealthy the title he had inherited actually was.

He owned four houses in the country - and though he had not seen them, he was certain that 'house' was something of a misnomer for what were no doubt enormous manor homes - along with the two townhouses in London he'd already been aware of. He had a fortune vast enough that he'd been completely stunned by the number Seward had circumspectly indicated to him. Seward assured him he could settle quite a generously respectable portion on his sister, thereby assuring her ability to snag any rich, titled husband she might want once she was out of the schoolroom.

Since he'd never thought to be able to give Iris more than a hundred pounds in a dowry, this was a part of the earldom that he was very glad of.

Iris, for her part, was taking it all very much in stride. The new change in her social status - from a country squire's young daughter to the sister of an earl - had not fazed her for long. She had especially taken to the accompanying shopping like a fish to water, Duncan thought ruefully. The staggering amounts of money she had spent procuring a new wardrobe, with Lady Blackwood by her side, had sent him reeling. Seward assured him he could buy Iris a dozen new wardrobes and not feel a financial twinge, however, so he tried to simply ignore it when she paraded in with a new hat or pair of elegant gloves.

It was damned difficult though, for a man who had not been raised to a title and fortune.

"I don't recognize that carriage," drawled a voice next to him, and Duncan turned to see his younger brother Edmond, dressed in his uniform.

Edmond, or Ned as he'd been all his life to his family and friends, was on an extended leave from his regiment. Upon learning that his brother was now an earl, Ned had requested leave in order to assist his brother in getting accustomed to the title. The Colonel, whom Duncan and Ned had known since boyhood, had agreed readily - having the heir to an earldom in his regiment was evidently something to be desired, and the Colonel thought Ned ought to be acquiring some Town polish of his own while Duncan was being polished.

Ned looked quite dashing in his woolen red uniform, the gold braid glinting in the candlelight. "Is that a new one? Or another old one?"

"Another old one, but one we have not seen yet," Duncan said dryly. "We seem to have an endless supply of them."

"The horseflesh looks excellent though," Ned said bracingly. "A fine pair of blacks." He grinned then. "A pair of blacks for Blackwood. Do you think they did that on purpose? Must you always have black horses, do you suppose?"

"Probably. Who knows."

Ned tugged at his epaulettes and adjusted his cuffs. "And we are meeting Lady Blackwood at the ball?"

Duncan eyed his younger brother. Ned was more nervous than he was trying to let on, he realized. His brother had been in the army since shortly before their father had died. One of their late father's final acts, in fact, had been to purchase Ned's commission, to give his younger son a career. Duncan rather thought now that their family's circumstances had changed, Ned wouldn't spend too much longer in the regiments. Being an officer agreed with Ned, but until Duncan married and sired an heir, Ned was his heir. His brother's sense of duty would bring him home out of danger, at least for a while.

And he felt rather sorry about that. Ned ought to have the opportunity to do as he pleased with his life. Perhaps the army was not what he wanted, Duncan realized with a start. He was not entirely certain anyone had ever actually asked Ned what he wanted.

Well, he could certainly have it now, whatever it was that it might be.

"Yes," Duncan murmured. "We're meeting her there."

Lady Blackwood had commanded their attendance at what she called 'the Atherstone rout', and what the eventual invitation had indicated was a ball held at the home of the Earl of Atherstone. This was to be their initial introduction to polite society, to be followed by a more official debut for Duncan as the Earl of Blackwood, at a ball Lady Blackwood was plotting (with Iris's assistance) for the following Friday.

Duncan did not particularly want to attend either. He did not feel at all polished yet, although Lady Blackwood and the valet he had hired had been tutoring him in the ways of the ton and what might be expected of him as an earl. His valet felt reasonably confident that he could move about in society without causing undue embarrassment at this point, but Duncan was not so sure. He was certain to say something unbecoming of his new title.

And that was something he did not want, it had rather surprised him to realize. Once the shock of his new title had begun to fade, he found he wanted to do credit to the Earls of Blackwood, to his line. He may have inherited it quite indirectly, rather by accident almost, but he was descended from the same stock as the third and fourth Earls of Blackwood had been. He was determined to make a good showing of it, and that meant learning to go about in society with what were now his peers - the other members of the House of Lords and their social circles. If he were to effect any kind of influence in Parliament, he would have to learn to play the game.

Part of that game, he had learned, was acquiring the proper sort of wife. Lady Blackwood had assured him that his fortune would make any prospective young lady (and more importantly, her mother and father) overlook his country origins and upbringing, and the fact that he had not been raised to the title. He did not need an heiress, so he could select whichever young lady struck his fancy.

However, Lady Blackwood had noted - and here she got a gleam in her eye that he was coming to recognize as being just as dangerous as the gleam his sister acquired whenever she was about to have fun at his expense - however, he ought to select a wife who could bring the sort of polish and refinement that he lacked. And as he would be thirty years old before too much longer and the earldom had recently passed through a shaky period as two heirs and the earl had all died within the space of four years, and the title and estates passed to a distant cousin - namely, him - he should secure his line at once by producing as many sons as possible in as rapid succession as possible.

Duncan was not particularly opposed to marriage - the state of matrimony had much to recommend it in the right circumstances, from what he recalled of his parents' happiness together - but he would have liked more time to get used to his new position before embarking on another upheaval to his life that would be just as permanent. But he acknowledged Lady Blackwood's point and so was prepared to be on the lookout, as he made his debut in society, for an appropriate female.

He only hoped he could find one he liked. His experience with gently-bred young ladies was limited to the few he'd known in Shropshire, and none of them had ever impressed him much. They had been, to a one, far too delicate and weak-minded, in his opinion. Not at all good examples of a possible wife. Then on the other end of the feminine spectrum, there was his younger sister Iris. God forfend he should marry a woman like Iris. One of her was all he could handle in this lifetime.

The Atherstone ball was a good first foray into both the social scene and the Marriage Mart, Duncan felt. He could be introduced to the other lords and also meet their sisters and daughters, get a feel for what society was like. And Lady Atherstone's stepmother was extremely good friends with Lady Blackwood, so he could be assured that his initial outing in society would go well, at least for his hostess, so long as he mostly kept his mouth shut and observed. Discuss the weather and other inanities, Lady Blackwood had said dismissively when he'd expressed a hesitation about his ability to converse with peers.

"They're not much different from country society," she had said with her customary assurance. "There are men who discuss their health in far too much detail, men who are clearly more fond of their livestock than their wives, and men who couldn't find their backsides with both hands."

Duncan bowed to her superior knowledge of the peerage.

He was not so used to his new position in life, however, that he wasn't a bit nervous, and so he was glad for Ned's presence at his side.

"Thanks for coming," he said, cuffing his brother on the arm.

Ned nodded. "Anything I can do to help, Duncan." He grinned then. "Lord Blackwood, that is."

Duncan rolled his eyes. "It's going to be a long time before I grow accustomed to being called that."

"Well then, let's get you started on it. The carriage appears to be ready."

A knock at the study door and a discreet cough from a footman indicated Ned was correct, and Duncan strode out to the vestibule and down the steps. He still felt rather uncomfortable with so many servants, as well. They'd had a few in Shropshire, but nothing like the number that staffed Number Four. Knowing these were only the tip of the iceberg, and probably hundreds more people worked for him at his other properties, was enough to give Duncan an erratic heartbeat. Far too many people depended on him for their livelihood now. He could not mess this up. Becoming the Earl of Blackwood in truth was his new aim in life, and he could only try to have faith that he would live up to his predecessors and add to the Blackwood fortunes rather than destroying them.

He blew out a long breath as the carriage set off.

"It will be fine," Ned said softly from the seat opposite him. "You're an earl. They'll surely give allowances for a few social faux pas thanks to your title."

"Thanks for that." Duncan slid a finger into the elaborately tied neckcloth his valet had declared a work of art this evening, trying to loosen it a bit. "At least I look the part, thanks to that Frenchman Lady Blackwood hired for me."

"You do turn up smart when you have to," Ned agreed amiably. "There are some compensations for all this society nonsense, aren't there? I heard you start at Manton's next week, and with Gentleman Jackson after that."

"Insane. I know how to fight. You and I wrestled often enough as youngsters."

"Youngsters? We wrestled two months ago when I saw you at the Colonel's house."

Duncan grinned and watched the streets pass out the window.

The street outside the Atherstone townhouse was packed with carriages, and the pavements choked with elegantly dressed people laughing and chatting as they headed for the brightly lit home. They had arrived at what seemed to be a fashionably late moment. Duncan fingered the invitation in his pocket, uncertain of how this worked entirely and wishing he'd asked Lady Blackwood to accompany them after all. She would be arriving separately, however, and might already be inside, having assured him that he did not need her company upon his arrival. He rather suspected she wanted him to stand on his own two feet, although she had not objected when he'd declared his intention to bring Ned along for moral support.

They had to queue up to hand their invitations to the liveried servants at the large double doors, which were thrown open to admit the ton. Strains of music could be heard floating out above the dull rumble of the crowd; the dancing must already have begun.

His invitation was examined briefly by a silent footman, and then they found themselves being shuffled into a line that led past the vestibule and into the ballroom. It was late enough that no one was announcing the new arrivals, for which Duncan was rather grateful, but their arrival caused a bit of a stir anyway. Quite a few people already seemed to know who he was, and he returned a few polite nods from men he did not recognize.

"There's Lady Blackwood," Ned murmured, indicating a row of ornately gilded, upholstered chairs on the opposite side of the ballroom. Duncan followed his gaze and picked Lady Blackwood out immediately, with her heavily beaded black gown. A black ostrich feather adorned her steel-grey updo. She was speaking with a trio of ladies who appeared to be society matrons.

"She does make mourning look fashionable, doesn't she?" Ned added, his mouth quirking as he tried to stifle a grin.

"She really is something," Duncan agreed, and set off toward the dowager countess.

"Why Lord Blackwood," she exclaimed as soon as she saw them. One of her companions broke away with a murmured comment Duncan could not make out, and Lady Blackwood nodded at her significantly and then took Duncan's arm. "I am so pleased you have arrived at last."

At last? Duncan thought wryly. She'd practically ordered him to arrive late.

"The pleasure is all mine, Lady Blackwood. You look a vision of loveliness tonight," he added, hoping it was not uncouth to compliment a widow. He knew she would enjoy it, though, and she gave him a wink that confirmed it.

"My dear boy, you flatter me. And you've brought your gallant brother along. Lord Blackwood, Captain Beaufort, may I present Lady Charville and Mrs. Thorpe." She waved to indicate her remaining companions.

Duncan bowed to them. He could see his brother echoing his movements out of the corner of his eye. "Lady Charville, Mrs. Thorpe. I am delighted to meet you both."

They made small talk for a few moments before the two ladies left, and Duncan breathed a sigh of relief at having gotten past his first small hurdle in society.

"You did very well," Lady Blackwood murmured.

"Thank you," Duncan said, giving her a wry smile. "It has only been five minutes in society and I have avoided disgracing myself. I feel certain the evening is a success already, Lady Blackwood."

"My dear boy," she said, winking at him. "Do call me Aunt Regina. I feel quite certain we are destined for long and happy years avoiding disgrace together."

Ned was chuckling. "Do you know, Lady Blackwood - sorry, Aunt Regina -"

She inclined her head with a smile, and Ned went on, "I am very glad that my brother has inherited a title solely because it has brought us into your close acquaintance. I do not know when I have so enjoyed the company of a dowager countess."

Duncan laughed, and a few people looked round at him. "Oh dear," he said, eyes twinkling. "Are we not meant to be so obviously enjoying ourselves together? I notice a lot of ennui around the room."

"I believe it is more of a concern that you can get on so well with my own humble person," Lady Blackwood responded. "It is quite out of the usual for the widow of the previous titled gentleman to be friendly with the distant cousin who takes the title next. I believe we're meant to have resentment simmering in every glance, and not speak to each other unless with frosty disdain."

"You see, I am doing it wrong already," Duncan murmured, and Lady Blackwood grinned.

"Come along, dear boy, and fetch me a glass of champagne. I shall introduce you to all the 'important people' that I do not find repellent."

Lady Blackwood took them round the room after her champagne was in hand and was true to her word, introducing both Duncan and Ned to a dozen titled lords and their ladies. Duncan did his best to memorize names and faces, hoping to keep them in mind later, while at the same time trying to keep his conversation to the topics he'd been instructed were proper. It was damned difficult talking about nothing for so long with so many people.

They met their host and hostess, the earl of Atherstone and his countess coming off the dance floor, and Duncan rather liked Atherstone better than the other lords he'd been introduced to. This man did not seem quite as empty-headed as some of the gentlemen in the room, and his wife was more than passingly lovely. The couple was clearly very much in love, as well, which Duncan was cheered at seeing. Love matches in the ton were something out of the ordinary, he knew.

A few more introductions later, Ned was dispatched to dance with the wallflower daughter of a viscount whom Lady Blackwood had described in a whisper behind her fan as quite influential in the House of Lords, and Duncan escorted his aunt back to the chairs lining the back wall of the ballroom.

"I am not as young as I used to be," she admitted as she sat heavily. "I find sitting down more and more appealing an activity the older I get."

"You have certainly earned your rest, Aunt Regina," Duncan said, sitting next to her. "I do not know if I will remember all the names and titles tonight, though."

"You'll get the hang of it shortly," she said with assurance, her eyes scanning the room. "I expect you to dance as well tonight, Blackwood. You cannot leave your brother the only one doing his duty stripping the willow and such."

"Do they dance Strip the Willow in town?" Duncan asked in surprise. "It seems rather more energetic than Londoners might like."

"It was my favorite dance when I was a girl," Lady Blackwood said wistfully. "They certainly do not dance it at ton functions these days. Such a shame. Such a lively dance. My knees are no longer up to it, you know, but I still enjoy seeing it danced."

"I shall bribe a musician," Duncan promised her, and she chuckled heartily.

"You are too kind, Blackwood. You remind me at times of my son George. You would have got on well with him." She settled back into her chair. "Go on now, it's time for you to make a few rounds on your own. You cannot hang on my skirts all night. What a bore that would be."

Duncan got to his feet and sketched a bow for her. "Never a bore, Aunt Regina. And please call me Duncan."

"Absolutely not," she said firmly, with a wink to soften her words. "You must accustom yourself to the title eventually, you know. Now leave an old lady to her rest."

He grinned and took himself off. Wandering the edges of the dance floor slowly, he examined the couples dancing a sedate country dance with interest. Ned was dancing with the wallflower daughter, who looked very pleased to be with the dashing young captain. Ned's regimental uniform stood out in the crowd of pastel-dressed ladies and dandies, though he was not the only man present wearing military dress. Red coats dotted the sea of pastels and blacks like islands.

There were a few ladies around the edge of the dance floor, clearly angling for a partner, but as Duncan had not been introduced to any of them, he knew it was not the thing for him to simply walk up and ask one of them to dance.

A tap on his arm drew his attention, and he turned to see his hostess standing at his side with her fan in one hand.

The diminutive Lady Atherstone smiled up at him. "Lord Blackwood. Are you enjoying the party?"

He nodded, giving her a polite smile that he hoped was not too warm. He was not entirely certain of correct behavior still. "I am, my lady, thank you. You have certainly done a wonderful job here as hostess tonight."

Her eyes twinkled a bit. "Why thank you. How prettily you put it, my lord. And are you enjoying the dancing?"

"Very much so, although I have not danced yet myself," he admitted.

"How fortuitous that I am here, then. I am already engaged for the next dance, which is a waltz, you'll be pleased to know, but I can certainly help you find a partner." She looked around speculatively and then pointed across the hall. "Are you acquainted with Miss Anne Spencer?"

He shook his head and tried to follow her indication. "The young lady with the squint?"

Lady Atherstone's eyes widened, and then she snapped her fan open, not fast enough to cover her grin. "Oh my goodness. You are frank, are you not?" She lowered her fan after she had controlled her expression, mirth still dancing in her eyes. "I suppose she does have a bit of a squint. I happen to know for a fact that Miss Spencer requires spectacles but does not care to wear them in society, poor dear. She is quite a kind soul, though, if you give her a chance. But perhaps not right away. You might shock her."

Duncan winced. "I apologize. That was rude of me, wasn't it? I don't always hold my tongue well enough. I am still learning the ropes of proper behavior, I must admit. Lady Blackwood has been instructing me, but-"

"One can only imagine what she has been telling you," Lady Atherstone murmured with perfect innocence. "If you wish to learn proper behavior and deportment for an earl, my lord, you can do no better than to be introduced to Lady Thea Desmond. Her mother, Lady Hawley, is one of the patronesses of Almack's, you know."

"You don't say." This did not sound like something to recommend a young lady, Duncan had to admit, but after the squint remark, he kept his mouth shut about it.

"Oh yes. Lady Thea is well-known for it. She is considered quite the paragon, you know." Lady Atherstone popped her fan open again, which Duncan was beginning to realize ladies did when they were about to make a remark they probably shouldn't. "My husband calls her 'The Perfect Paragon'."

"Very alliterative," Duncan said approvingly. "Very well, my lady, do your worst. Introduce me to this paragon of perfection."

Lady Atherstone smiled at him. "At once, my lord."

He followed her over to the edge of the room, near the large French doors that led to the Atherstone gardens, where a small group of young ladies were talking. Duncan scanned them quickly: a tall blonde with a somewhat horsey face wearing an unfortunate shade of peach, two brunettes both wearing pastel blue who looked alike enough to be sisters, and a brunette wearing pastel green. The predilection of young ladies in the haute monde to wear watered-down pastels was rather dull. It was like wandering around in a watercolor painting. He had never cared for watercolors.

The four young ladies curtsied almost in unison, and he noticed the tall blonde glance at the green-clad brunette and adjust her curtsy to match. The brunette, then, must be the famous Lady Thea. He examined her more closely. Eyes a deep shade of blue-gray, hair a medium brown that probably looked almost blonde in the sunlight, and a trim figure. She was quite pretty, in a very classical sort of way, with a rounded chin and pert little nose. Very pretty, in fact, the more he looked at her.

Lady Atherstone nodded to the quartet of young ladies to acknowledge the curtsies. "Lord Blackwood, may I present the Ladies Throckmorton, Elizabeth and Sophia-" the pair in blue smiled at him politely- "Miss Emma Baxter-" the tall blonde gave him a nervous look that was probably meant to be a smile- "and Lady Thea Desmond. Ladies, the new Earl of Blackwood."

She was the only one who appeared utterly composed, and inclined her head briefly to him before giving another curtsy. He had no doubt it was the perfect curtsy, as the other three ladies glanced at her and then hurried to imitate her. They seemed like dolls, bobbing up and down in sequence after their leader.

"Ladies," he said, trying to hide his amusement.

Lady Thea was clearly a pillar of debutante society. The young misses all looked up to her, no doubt because of her mother's position at Almack's. He had learned enough about the social whirl in London to know that vouchers to Almack's were considered quite coveted. The newer young ladies fresh on the Marriage Mart probably stuck to Lady Thea like glue in hopes of getting one sooner rather than later, particularly if they were not high-born enough to expect one automatically. Miss Emma Baxter seemed to be one of those, hanging on in hopes of riding Lady Thea's coattails, so to speak.

She gave him a smile as his gaze lingered on her, and he realized he ought to say something more, but wasn't certain what. He glanced at Lady Atherstone, feeling a bit helpless, and was grateful when she took over control of the conversation.

"Miss Baxter is an accomplished watercolorist, I am told," she began, and Duncan nodded at the horse-faced young woman. It was probably not her fault; no doubt the watercolors had been foisted on her as the only acceptable medium of painting for a young lady.

"My sister attempted to learn watercolors," he said gamely. "I believe they were more difficult than she expected. It must take skill to become accomplished at them, I should think."

Really, Iris had declared them too dull, and refused to paint with anything less than oils. This had led to the resigning of her second governess.

"Thank you, my lord," Miss Baxter managed.

"Lady Elizabeth and Lady Sophia both play the violin," Lady Atherstone went on. "I have been to a small musicale at their father's home - the Marquess of Bairnbridge - and found them quite pleasant to my ear."

One of the Ladies Throckmorton - Duncan could not be certain which - smiled proudly at that. "Why, thank you, Lady Atherstone."

She inclined her head, and when she indicated Lady Thea, Duncan suddenly realized what she was about. She was quite the clever lady, the Countess of Atherstone. She had maneuvered them both rather neatly.

"And Lady Thea is quite an accomplished dancer. My lord husband had the pleasure of partnering her in a cotillion last week at the Netherton rout, and tells me she is very light on her feet."

"How very kind of him to say so," murmured Lady Thea, raising an eyebrow slightly at the countess. "Do pass my regards to him. He is a fine dancer as well."

"He certainly is," said Lady Atherstone, nodding.

"Such accomplishment must be exercised regularly, I believe, to be maintained," Duncan said, bowing to Lady Thea. "Perhaps you would do me the honor of showing me how it is done?"

"I would be delighted," she said without hesitation, and held out her hand to him.

He led her onto the dance floor, and he was certain she knew that Lady Atherstone had intended to pair them off in a dance all along, but she did not say a word about it as they took their positions.

The next dance was a waltz, he remembered as he glanced at the other couples on the floor. He was not a terribly accomplished waltzer himself, but he moved closer to Lady Thea and held out his arms. She stepped neatly into them, and he hoped he wouldn't tread on her toes. They did not do much waltzing in Shropshire.

The orchestra began the strains of the Viennese waltz, and Duncan relaxed a bit after the first moment or two. He was not stepping on her toes or her skirts, and she did not appear to be annoyed by his lack of grace on the dance floor.

"I realize I am not the best at this," he admitted once he was comfortable enough with the steps to speak. "If I step on your toes, you must rap me sharply with your fan."

She started a bit and looked up at him. Her eyes looked extraordinarily blue in the candlelight. "I beg your pardon?"

He had probably been a little too frank again. It was difficult getting the hang of London etiquette. They were much more formal than in the country. "My apologies, Lady Thea. I am told I speak without thinking too much for polite society. I confess, Lady Atherstone encouraged me to dance with you because of it. She tells me I can do no better than to learn proper deportment from a lady of your reputation."

Lady Thea stared at him in consternation. "She did?" she managed eventually. "Well." She appeared to regroup. "I shall have to thank her for her kind words about me, but I am afraid I am not well-versed in training earls in behavior."

Duncan hid a sigh of disappointment. She was a bit stuffy, this paragon of perfection. He could see why Lord Atherstone had given her the appellation. She seemed too proper to possess a sense of humor. He tried to stick to inane topics of discussion the rest of the dance, from the weather to the ballroom décor to the number of couples dancing, and Lady Thea seemed on firmer ground with the more regular conversation.

It was damned disappointing. She was so pretty, and her lips looked very kissable, and she felt so good in his arms. He had been hoping to find her personality as sparkling as her appearance, but she seemed to be just another missish society lady.

On the other hand, she did not seem to resemble Iris to any degree in her behavior, and perhaps that was a good thing. If she didn't know about training earls, she certainly ought to know how Iris was supposed to behave.

Perhaps she could teach Iris a few things before she made her nod next year.

He had mentally consigned her to the bin of interchangeable ton misses by the end of the dance, and as he bent over her hand to thank her for the waltz, he tried again to say what was expected of him.

"You are as accomplished as Lady Atherstone said, Lady Thea. I hope I did not injure your toes."

"Not unduly," she murmured, dropping another flawless curtsy.

"Not unduly?" he echoed, unable to resist. "Well then you must send me your physician's charges."

He was astonished to see a flash of amusement in her eyes. "Directly, Lord Blackwood," she said, unfurling her fan to hide what he was sure was a smile. "Good evening."

He watched her go as she made her way off the dance floor, and wondered if he'd really seen what he thought he'd seen.

Shaking his head slightly, he threaded through the crowd to check on Lady Blackwood. She was still sitting in the same chair he had left her in earlier, and she smiled at him as he took the empty seat next to her.

"Well done, Blackwood," she said with what could only be described as a cackle. "Dancing with Lady Thea on your first outing in society? Very well done. She will suit you perfectly."

"Suit me perfectly?" He raised an eyebrow at her. "Not the young lady I just danced with. She seemed far too shocked by my uncouth ways. I had to speak of the weather through the entire waltz to soothe her sensibilities."

"Ha," Lady Blackwood said archly. "You might be surprised, my boy."

Duncan pulled a face at her, and when she cackled again, he schooled his features. One was probably not supposed to make schoolboy faces at dowager countesses when one was an earl. With any luck, no one else had noticed.

"Lady Atherstone said Lady Thea is a paragon of perfection," he remarked, scanning the ballroom for a glimpse of her honey-brown hair. He thought he caught a flash of minty green skirts, but then she was gone again.

"She is certainly reputed to be that," Lady Blackwood agreed. "Exactly the type of wife you ought to be seeking out, you know."

Duncan sputtered a bit, unable to stop himself. "Marry her? She was ... stuffy! Aunt Regina, I do not think she would ever agree, even if I were to offer for her."

Lady Blackwood hummed to herself for a moment as if she had not heard him, then said, "I have always liked Lady Thea immensely. I had a private chat with her a few weeks back, before you came to town. Such a witty young lady."

Duncan wondered if they were speaking of two different Lady Theas. "She did not say much to me." He thought of her parting remark then, and wondered if he'd missed something in Lady Thea. Perhaps he ought to re-evaluate his opinion of her. "Perhaps she needs to get to know me better."

"Perhaps," murmured Lady Blackwood. "She frequents unpleasant musicales of the sort that marriage-minded mamas love to put on, displaying the alleged talents of their progeny in hopes that they will manage to catch a husband with their musical skill. Or lack thereof, to be more accurate. I have never understood this, but I frequently wind up attending them myself. I do not know why."

"Because you're more tenderhearted than you let on, I expect," he said complacently.

Lady Blackwood turned up her nose at him. "If you spread such ugly rumors around, I shall disinherit you."

Duncan laughed.

*

Thea found a quiet corner of the ballroom without any of her usual hangers-on and hid behind a potted plant with a sigh of relief.

The new Lord Blackwood had a rather strange effect on her. She had not meant to let that remark about the doctor's charges slip out, but slip it had. She had no idea why she had said that. Only he was so... so different from anyone else she'd ever met. Well, except possibly for Lady Blackwood - the dowager countess had a frankness to her that was not far off from Lord Blackwood's directness.

He certainly said what was on his mind.

It was something of an alien concept to Thea, who had not been allowed to speak her mind since the age of ten. She had been suppressing her opinions so long, she'd almost begun to believe she did not have any.

At least, not any that differed from those of her mother, Lady Jersey, and the other patronesses of Almack's.

Thea had known for quite a long time that her mother was grooming her into the next generation of Almack's patronesses. In theory, she did not object to this, only it was not something she would have chosen for herself. She was not entirely certain what she would have chosen for herself, but sitting in judgment over the propriety of society and deciding who could be allowed in and who was left out in the cold did not particularly appeal to her. She rather thought she would never set foot in Almack's again, if she had her druthers.

But she did not, and she was too well brought up to say anything to her mother, and so she kept silent. She was becoming so accomplished at holding her tongue that it was a wonder she ever remembered how to speak at all.

She peeked around the potted plant and scanned the ballroom for signs of Lord Blackwood. After a moment's search, she found him seated along the back wall where chairs were reserved for the elderly members of the ton and the spinsters who had given up hope of dancing. Sure enough, Lady Blackwood was beside him.

Lady Blackwood's face was turned so Thea could not see her expression, but they were clearly conversing, and a moment later, Lord Blackwood laughed with the hearty lack of refinement he had displayed on the dance floor. But dash it, he looked so perfectly happy in his uncouthness. He did not seem to care much that he said the wrong things. Oh, he was aware of it, and apologized for it, but he did not appear particularly contrite when he was apologizing. Instead he had a boyish sort of sheepishness about it. It was very odd.

Earls, in Thea's experience, did not behave as Lord Blackwood did.

She remembered what he had said during their waltz, about how Lady Atherstone had indicated that Thea would know proper deportment for earls. She had demurred, but she supposed she did know, at least by observation. Perhaps he truly wanted to learn how he ought to be behaving. He seemed intelligent enough; there was no reason he could not learn, and she thought it was not his fault; after all, he had not been brought up in the ton. She ought not hold it against him if he behaved in a rather countrified manner.

The memory of his strong hand at her waist, holding her a bit closer than was strictly proper, and the feel of his shoulder under her own hand warmed Thea straight to her toes.

If he asked her to dance again, she decided on the spot, she would offer him a few tips on refinement. It certainly could not hurt.

 

 

Chapter 3 by hibiscus


Thea normally had any number of callers on Thursday mornings. Young ladies hoping for an invitation to Almack's if they befriended Lady Hawley's daughter, the girls who had made their nod last year with Thea who continued to court her acquaintance, bachelors looking for a wife who knew they might find one in one of Lady Thea's salons, even if they did not manage to catch Lady Thea herself. She had begun her Thursday morning salon - ostensibly to discuss the latest poetry - at the behest of her mother, who believed it was good practice for her as a future hostess. She had agreed because people always seemed to turn up anyway, and they might as well have a reason to do so.

Somehow it did not surprise her much to see Lord Blackwood at that Thursday's salon.

He was accompanied by a young lady she did not recognize who bore a striking resemblance to him. A younger sister, she guessed. The girl did not look quite old enough to be out in society, but there was no reason she could not attend a reading salon accompanied by her brother. Many young ladies did so to practice their social wiles before being brought out.

Normally the social events one attended were more intended for young ladies not quite out, and young men still at Cambridge and Oxford, but the reading salon was still perfectly proper. Thea expected they were here more for Lord Blackwood than for his sister, since he needed to meet young ladies of the appropriate social standing, and someone had apparently aimed him her way to find them. It was hardly unusual. There were seven other men present at that day's salon, all hoping for wives before the Season was out.

After last night's unusual conversation, however, she found it a little disappointing to find him behaving as other men of her acquaintance behaved. She had secretly been looking forward to hearing what shocking thing he might say next.

She mustered a welcoming smile and went to greet them. "Lord Blackwood, how lovely to see you again. Welcome to my reading salon."

"Lady Thea." He bowed to her, a little more deeply than was required by their relative rank and the earliness of the hour.

"And who is this charming young lady?" Thea asked, turning to his companion with a smile.

"My younger sister, Iris. Er, Lady Iris? I'm not entirely certain if she gets a title now as well."

The young lady elbowed her brother in the ribs in what she probably thought was a subtle manner. "Duncan, honestly."

Thea held back a giggle. "I believe since your father was never the Earl of Blackwood, she would be Miss Iris Beaufort."

"I'm sure my solicitor told me that at some point," Lord Blackwood murmured. "And Iris, you are not supposed to address me by my Christian name in public. That I do know."

His sister blinked. "You are my brother. That is your name. What am I supposed to call you?"

"Lord Blackwood, or simply Blackwood," Thea told her.

"Ridiculous," the young lady said.

Thea took her arm. She rather thought now that Lady Blackwood might have encouraged Iris's presence at the salon. Lord Blackwood did not seem the type to think of it, actually, and Iris could use some deportment lessons. "Society rules often are a bit ridiculous, but we all must follow them, mustn't we?"

"I don't see why," said Iris.

Lord Blackwood appeared to be restraining himself from rolling his eyes with great difficulty. "Iris..."

"If I have to call you Lord Blackwood, then you ought to call me Miss Beaufort. Isn't that right?" Iris turned to Thea for an appeal.

Thea was starting to feel at something of a loss. "Well... I suppose he could call you Miss Iris, but it's less improper for him to call you by your given name than it is for you to call him by his."

"It is the title, isn't it," said Iris. "It is always the title, these days. It will take me ages to get used to calling him Blackwood."

"I apologize for my sister," Lord Blackwood put in. "She was raised by wolves, you know."

"What an unkind way to refer to my governesses," murmured Iris.

"She had rather a lot of them, for all the good it did her," her brother said.

Thea chuckled and attempted to redirect them before the conversation deteriorated any further. This sort of thing had been much closer to what she'd been expecting out of Lord Blackwood, and she found she was rather enjoying it. "Miss Beaufort, why don't you come with me to the refreshment table and have a glass of lemonade. Lord Blackwood, we should be glad of your company."

"So if my father had lived long enough to become the Earl of Blackwood, I would be Lady Iris," Iris said as she helped herself to some lemonade. "But because my brother became the earl instead, I must be Miss Iris. That hardly seems fair. I am still the same person."

"Nevertheless, that is how inheritance works. You must acquire your own title through marriage. If you choose to," Thea added. "I suppose you could marry an untitled gentleman, but now that your brother is an earl and you seem to desire being addressed as Lady, you will need to marry a man with a title to do so."

"I still think it is ridiculous," said Iris. "What sort of books do you read in your salon, Lady Thea?"

"Poetry."

"My brother hates poetry," the young lady said cheerfully.

Thea turned to Lord Blackwood, who had not bothered to take a glass of lemonade but was instead looking around the room with an expression that bordered on discomfort.

"She is referring to her other brother," he assured her.

"I am not," Iris said, sipping her lemonade. "I am referring to his ninnyship."

Thea tried to smother a laugh at that, but it slipped out, and a few people turned to look at them.

"Oh my," she managed to say, swallowing her laughter. "Miss Beaufort, may I introduce you to Miss Eleanor Beacham? She is only just out; it is her first Season."

Thea deposited Iris with Miss Beacham, who had the right sense of humor to appreciate the bold young lady, and returned to Lord Blackwood, who was still at the refreshment table, as if he weren't entirely sure what to do next.

"I sincerely do apologize for Iris," he said when she rejoined him. "Her governesses were never able to pound correct behavior for a gently-bred young lady into her head. She is really a very nice girl, though. Just rather... outspoken."

"Pray do not pay it any mind, my lord," Thea said reassuringly. "Your sister still has another year before she makes her debut, does she not? She has plenty of time to acquire some polish before she is brought out."

Lord Blackwood looked doubtful. "I suppose that is possible."

"My mother would be happy to give you advice on hiring a proper governess for her," she suggested.

He waved this away. "I am leaving that up to Lady Blackwood. She assured me she will have Iris brought up to scratch in time to launch her next Season. It is a strange way to describe it, I thought, but it seems strangely accurate in Iris's case. Launching her, that is. Rather like a heavily armed warship, I should think."

Thea pressed her lips together to hold in a laugh. "She is not so bad, my lord."

"I suppose after you have already met me, Iris does not come as such a great surprise," he said dryly.

"Not at all," Thea murmured. "Your manners are perfectly adequate, my lord."

"Adequate, eh? Not a resounding recommendation, there. I suppose adequate is the best I can manage," he said with a fake sigh. "I can only hope to learn at the feet of a master of manners, then, and must therefore remain in your presence, Lady Thea."

She smiled slightly. He was very amusing, but it would not do for her to laugh too much with him. She did not do that sort of thing, and people would get ideas. There were too many people here for her to relax.

She was rather startled to realize that she did want to relax around him. There was something very easy about being with him, though his sort of manners should not appeal to her. Perhaps it was he who was so appealing, that made her want to overlook his manners and make jokes with him.

"Is that why you are here, then?" she asked. "To learn manners and deportment from me?"

"Not at all," he said easily. "I am here for the pleasure of your company. Iris is here so that she may learn manners and deportment from you."

Thea found herself repressing another laugh.

"Aunt Regina - Lady Blackwood, that is - suggested it," Lord Blackwood went on. "Iris is eager to be out in society and went along with our plot despite being aware of the ulterior motives of this visit. I think she would overlook just about anything if it would allow her to attend a ball."

"She is too young for that. But I will help her be ready for that when she is old enough." Thea did not know why she was offering. She had given a few gentle hints to the new debutantes this year, but she had not wanted to help any of them in depth. And she did not know Iris well enough to become her mentor in social matters - a role she was certain Lady Blackwood was already filling.

She glanced up at Lord Blackwood's handsome face and knew exactly why she was offering to help the girl. His lips curved with amusement as he glanced around the room, checking on his sister. His eyes were a lovely light brown, his hair a soft chestnut and freshly cut. She liked his wit, though she could not entirely respond to it publicly. It was hard to resist the pull of this man.

He looked down at her and smiled, and his eyes crinkled a bit at the corners, as if he spent a lot of time smiling (and probably a lot of time in the sun - he was far too tanned). Her heart flipped a bit, and she realized she was already smiling back at him.

"That is very kind of you," he said. "I must own, however, that I suspect that is what Lady Blackwood had in mind when she encouraged me to bring Iris to your salon today. So this was likely all contrived by her to have you teach Iris how to behave like a lady. And probably me to behave like an earl, as well," he added quite unabashedly.

"You did warn me about that when we danced." She was rather amused by his honesty. "I shall send you the bill for deportment lessons, my lord."

"Such a lot of bills I shall be receiving from you," he told her, heaving a mock sigh. "First for your bruised toes, now this. I fear soon I shall have to sign over my properties to you to repay you."

"I am certain you have an estate you can spare," Thea murmured.

Lord Blackwood laughed. "I shall find one for you directly."

People were beginning to notice their extended conversation. Thea realized she was neglecting her guests, and turned to Lord Blackwood, hiding her reluctance. "My lord, I fear I have been avoiding my duties as hostess quite shamelessly at the pleasure of you company. I must get back to entertaining my guests. Do allow me to introduce you to someone."

"Ah yes, I heard about this social nicety," he murmured. "You cannot leave me banging about the room unattended, as one of your guests, and so must introduce me to someone else before you abandon me. Very well, pick someone and aim me at them; I am prepared to do my duty as earl and have a less interesting conversation."

She felt her cheeks turn a bit pink. "I think you could be better at manners and deportment than you might guess, my lord. You pay compliments very prettily."

"Perhaps prettily, but far too frankly." He gave her a little bow.

Thea introduced him to a young viscount she had known since she had begun her first Season, and then made her way around the room, making sure everyone was in conversation and enjoying themselves. She took a moment after a round of the room, back at the refreshment table, to survey her guests. Her eyes went unerringly to Lord Blackwood.

Duncan, his sister had called him. The name suited him, and she had to clamp down on her thoughts to stop herself from assigning that name to her private thoughts about him. She did not want to call him by his given name accidentally; it was far too forward. Worse still, she was certain he would not mind. She was not sure of her opinion of the new earl just yet, but she did know that she did not know him well enough to refer to him as anything but Lord Blackwood.

Not yet, anyway, whispered a voice at the back of her mind.

She ignored it and rang for a fresh pot of tea, then went back to mingling with her guests.

*

"That was very enjoyable, was it not?" Iris said, cheeks flushed with excitement, as her brother handed her up into their carriage.

"Very." He did not elaborate, partly because he did not want to encourage Iris's newfound admiration of all things tonnish (she was still too young, he thought, though Lady Blackwood had assured him that bringing her along today was quite socially acceptable), but mostly because he did not want Iris catching on to his fascination with Lady Thea Desmond.

Iris chattered on about her new friend, Miss Eleanor Beacham, and Duncan stared out the window as the carriage waited to set off, paying no attention to his sister.

Aunt Regina, as he was now growing accustomed to thinking of the dowager Lady Blackwood, had been right about Lady Thea, it seemed. Once he'd had a lengthier chat with her, and seen her eyes twinkling at him when he made a remark that was less than proper, he had realized she was not as stuffy as she had seemed at first. He was sure he seemed very uncouth to her, with his countrified manners, but she did not seem to mind, actually.

He had expected her to turn frosty on him when he said things he probably should not, as a few of the other ladies he had met had done, but she had surprised him by laughing right along with him. From the reactions he had seen at the salon, it was not her usual behavior. She seemed to bury her amusement and her wit, maintaining the same serene facade that the other ladies of the ton affected. He knew ennui was the order of the day in the Haute Monde, but underneath her calm and collected demeanor, Lady Thea had a surprisingly sharp wit. She rather reminded him of Iris, though significantly better behaved. And no one seemed to realize it but him.

Lady Thea was a very intriguing young lady.

He was determined to dig deeper into this, to find out if the Lady Thea he suspected was under there, the one she showed him glimpses of, was the true Lady Thea. She presented such a different face to everyone else that he almost thought he had imagined the suppressed laughter at his jokes, and the way she had teased him back.

He liked that other Thea much better than the one everyone else seemed to see. He liked her very much, in fact. Suddenly Lady Blackwood's suggestion that he court her seemed far more appealing. He ought to find a woman of Lady Thea's reputation, it was true, and somehow he was certain that no one else with that reputation was as interesting as she was.

The coach rumbled to a start, and Duncan rapped the roof and slid open the little window that allowed the Earls of Blackwood to order their drivers about.

"Stop at the corner, would you?" he said, and the coachman nodded, looking rather surprised.

"I do not think you are supposed to ask them," Iris said. "I think you are supposed to simply order them about. What are you doing, Duncan?"

"I am going back for a moment. Stay in the coach, I shall only be a moment."

Iris's mouth fell open. "What on earth are you talking about?"

Little sisters were such a trial, he reflected. Questioning one's every move. Iris had done it since she had learned to speak. "I want to ask Lady Thea if I can take her for a ride in the park tomorrow."

Eyes wide with disbelief, Iris shook her head. "You cannot just trot back there after we have already made our goodbyes to ask her if you can call on her. It is not done."

"Since when did you care about what was done?" he asked in surprise. Having Iris lecture one on proper behavior was rather like having a fish lecture one on the finer points of flight.

"Because you will embarrass us both," she said primly. "That is not how you go about courting a lady."

His sister was full of surprises today. One reading salon and she had discovered proper behavior. He supposed Aunt Regina had been correct about bringing Iris along after all. Still, he couldn't believe she was telling him how to court anyone. "How do you know? You have never been courted, and you would not know embarrassing if it bit you on the bum."

"I have been learning about it from Aunt Regina," she retorted, sticking out her tongue at him. "And I saw enough today to see how differently we both behave. I know how things are supposed to go, you know. You need to see her a few more times at soirees first, then you may ask if you can call on her. You cannot just run about asking to ride in the park with her out of nowhere. You have not even been introduced to her parents."

"Bloody hell," Duncan said.

"I am serious," Iris insisted.

He groaned. "Very well, I shall do it your way." He opened the window to the coachman again. "Drive on, if you please."

Iris sighed heavily. Duncan supposed he'd ordered the coachman about incorrectly. "You are hopeless, Duncan."

"Probably," he agreed. "But I am trying."

*

Lady Blackwood did not seem at all surprised that the salon had been a successful outing for Iris, not to mention a good influence on her.

"I told you so," she said smugly when Duncan had told her of Iris's newfound appreciation of propriety. "She had only to see what was out there to realize she wanted to learn how to behave. And of course once she puts her mind to it, she shall learn all the rules of society quite admirably."

Duncan was not so certain. Oh, Iris would undoubtedly learn them, but whether or not she would follow them was an entirely different kettle of fish. "I do not see you acting the way the other ladies do, Aunt Regina," he pointed out.

"I am old," she told him matter-of-factly. "Age has its privileges. And everyone knows my generation is not so refined."

"That seems a convenient excuse," Duncan said suspiciously.

"It is indeed," Lady Blackwood agreed, eyes twinkling. "I enjoy it immensely. Now, my boy, what did you think of Lady Thea's salon?"

"The poems were rather boring," he admitted. "But I must admit I enjoyed it more than I had expected to."

"The charming company, no doubt." She gave him a knowing look. "Did I not tell you that you ought to consider Lady Thea among your prospective brides?"

"I believe you said I ought to consider her alone, not her among," Duncan said dryly, "but yes, you were quite right."

"My favorite words," Lady Blackwood murmured. She looked very pleased with herself, and Duncan frowned a bit.

"Do not get your hopes up," he warned her. "Adding Lady Thea to my list of possible wives does not mean she intends to add me to her list of possible husbands."

"Of course she has," Lady Blackwood said confidently. "Why wouldn't she? You are an earl, wealthy, handsome, and a suitable age for her."

"That does not mean she'll want to marry me," he pointed out.

"Of course it does. This is the ton, my boy."

Duncan was silent for a moment. He was well aware that among the upper echelons of society, love matches were rather atypical. But he had not grown up in the ton; his parents had married for love, and as a country gentleman of no particular importance, he had expected to do the same. He did not like the idea that the freedoms he had gained as a wealthy earl came with yet another limitation, another responsibility: the need to marry for the good of the title over his own personal inclinations.

"There is no reason you cannot find a wife who suits you, Blackwood," his aunt said softly. "We are only getting you started in society. If Lady Thea won't have you, or you decide that you won't have her, we shan't be at a loss for other options. There are plenty of other young ladies looking for husbands during the Season. You can meet a few more of them tonight, in fact. We are going to the Rossfield soiree. It will be filled to the rafters with eligible young ladies who will be only too happy to dance with you."

He murmured an agreement, but he was certain there were no other young ladies like Lady Thea. Still, he did not know her very well, he had to admit, and he did not know any of the other young ladies at all. Lady Blackwood was right; he ought to test out a few more of them, so to speak.

But he was going to make certain he asked Lady Thea to dance tonight.

Iris had said he must dance with her a few more times before he could take her on a drive, and while Iris was at times quite maddening, she did usually know what she was talking about.

It was part of what made his sister so maddening, in point of fact.

*

The Rossfield townhouse, an enormous mansion in the center of Mayfair, was filled to the rafters, as Lady Blackwood had predicted. Duncan did now know how they had fit so many people inside. Lady Blackwood had assured him that an affair being a complete crush made it successful. The Rossfield soiree, then, was an astonishing success. One could hardly even move in the ballroom.

Half an hour after arriving, Duncan had not seen Lady Thea, but he had danced with one of the Ladies Throckmorton. He was not certain which one, but she had been a pleasant enough partner, giggling at one of his less well-thought-out remarks, but she hadn't seemed shocked by his manners. This was quite encouraging. Perhaps he was getting better at this being an earl thing.

He was scheduled for two more dances with two more young ladies, but he was leaving the waltz free in hopes of running across Lady Thea. According to the dance cards he'd seen, the waltz was coming up very soon and he had still not seen her.

Lady Blackwood found him between dances, rapping him on the shoulder with her fan, and informed him that such a successful crush was too much for her, and she had ordered her carriage.

"Shall I escort you?" he asked, rather worried. He was growing extremely fond of the dowager countess, and the heat in the ballroom was a bit stifling, despite the doors and windows having been opened to admit a breeze. He examined his aunt's face; she did appear rather flushed.

"No, thank you. I have already commandeered Captain Beaufort for that duty."

Duncan saw his brother making his way toward them from across the room. He turned back to Lady Blackwood. "Are you certain?"

"Yes," she said firmly. "Stay. Dance, enjoy yourself, and endeavor not to say anything foolish."

"I cannot promise that, madam," he intoned gravely, and was rewarded with a smile.

"Make an attempt," Lady Blackwood retorted tartly.

Ned had reached them, and took their aunt's arm. "The carriage is waiting, Aunt Regina. Are you ready?"

She nodded imperiously at him. "Quite. Let us be off. Good night, Blackwood."

"Yes, good night, Blackwood," Ned echoed, grinning at his brother. Duncan considered giving him a kick in the shin.

"Such manners," said Lady Blackwood with a shake of her head. "Come along, Captain."

Duncan watched them go, turned around to look for his next dance partner, and nearly ran down the young lady standing behind him.

"Oh!" Lady Thea exclaimed, rocking back on her heels to avoid a collision.

He reached out automatically to steady her, grabbing her arm. From the look on her face when he took hold of her, this was not entirely proper either, and so he released her at once.

"So sorry," he said, trying to salvage things by bowing to her.

"It's quite all right," she murmured.

He realized she was accompanied by an older woman with the same blue eyes that Thea had, but a much less pleasant expression. The woman's face was pinched with disapproval. He definitely ought not have grabbed Lady Thea's arm, then.

"Lord Blackwood, may I present my mother, the Countess of Hawley." Lady Thea indicated the pinch-faced woman, and Duncan nearly groaned aloud.

He could not have made a good first impression on Lady Hawley, as was clear from her expression. She was now aiming the full force of that pinch-faced disapproval at him.

"Lord Blackwood," she said, curtsying very slightly.

He gave her his best bow, aware that she could keep him out of Almack's if she did not like him, not to mention keeping him away from her daughter. "Lady Hawley."

"How are you finding town life, my lord?" Lady Hawley inquired, evidently able to make polite conversation despite his misstep. This was probably the result of a great deal of training by better governesses than Iris had ever had, Duncan suspected. "I understand you are only recently arrived."

He nodded. "I am, indeed, my lady. I find it quite enjoyable."

"My daughter tells me you attended her literary salon today," the countess went on. "Did you find it instructive?"

"Extremely," he said, mostly because it was apparent that this was the preferred response.

"I am so glad," Lady Thea said cordially, without a trace of the humor and warmth he had seen in her earlier that day. It made him want to tease her until she laughed the way she had done at the salon, away from her mother's repressive gaze. "We were so pleased to have you and your lovely sister join us. I do hope you can attend next week."

"I would not miss it," Duncan said with perfect sincerity.

The strains of a waltz began, and Duncan jumped on the chance to get Lady Thea away from her mother and to get her to dance with him again as he'd planned. "I believe the waltz is begun. Would you honor me with a dance, Lady Thea?"

She glanced at her mother, and he wondered if he had been meant to request Lady Hawley's permission first to dance with her daughter. Lady Hawley looked disapproving again, but he was not certain if that was her normal expression. He began to believe it was.

"Of course," Lady Thea said then, and he held out an arm to lead her away.

He waited until they were on the dance floor and she had stepped lightly into his arms before remarking, "I did that wrong, I suspect."

"Not at all," she assured him, but she was a bit stiff as he swept her into the dance.

"Tell me truly. No need to spare my tender feelings," he added. "I assure you, I do not possess any."

Lady Thea smiled, and this time it reached her eyes, Duncan saw with a small thrill of triumph. "Yes, you did it a bit wrong."

"I thought so." He whirled her through a turn and then said, "I do not think your mother was impressed by my manners."

"I cannot imagine why," she said, and then grew serious. "It is only that she is so strict about the proprieties, and correct behavior. You were not so very wrong, really."

"Only wrong to the eminent Lady Hawley, I see."

She fell quiet and looked away, and he kicked himself mentally.

"I don't mean to insult your mother," he said gently. "Please accept my apologies. I only meant that she is such an illustrious lady."

She looked back at him. "It is quite all right."

She was wearing her proper young lady expression, he realized, which probably meant she was still annoyed with him. "I do not believe you accept my sincerity," he said, trying to tease her into showing him what was hidden beneath that facade again. "Shall I get down on bended knee? Will that convince you? I must have your forgiveness."

He made as if to kneel down, and Lady Thea let out a gasp that was half-giggle.

"Oh, don't! I forgive you, my lord, truly."

He swung her into another turn. "Thank you. I was afraid for a moment I would have to actually do it."

"You would, too, you beast." Lady Thea blinked as she realized what she'd said. "Er-"

Duncan was chuckling. "There you are. I was starting to believe I had lost you beneath the ice."

"Whatever do you mean?" she asked cautiously.

"I am on to you, Lady Thea," he told her. "You are not so proper as you would have everyone believe. If you were, you would not even speak to me."

A smile curved her lips, and he tried not to stare at her full lower lip. Quite suddenly he wanted nothing more than to bend down and kiss her. A bit startled, he remembered that they were in the center of a very crowded ballroom where dozens of eyes were undoubtedly focused on them, especially those of Lady Hawley. This was the last place he should be thinking about kissing anyone, much less the Paragon of Perfection.

"I don't think you are so bad as you think you are, Lord Blackwood," she said, and he could see the warmth return to her eyes.

The sparkle was there, the one he had seen before and thought for a moment he had only imagined, but there it was. And he had put it there.

And just like that, he didn't want to court anyone else. He didn't want any other ladies on his list of prospective brides. He only wanted Thea Desmond.

The waltz was ending, he realized with a stab of disappointment. He let her go and stepped back reluctantly, bowing to her. She dropped an elegant little curtsy, and he led her back to her mother, who was waiting at the edge of the dance floor. No doubt she did not trust the oafish Earl of Blackwood with her daughter, even on a very public dance floor.

Duncan handed Thea over and made his excuses, as he had promised the next dance to Miss Claire Musgrave.

Thea watched him go, trying to keep her expression still. Her heart still fluttered a bit from being in his arms. He had been holding her a little too closely again, but she did not mind. She wished he was not dancing with someone else, although she knew he could not dance with her again tonight without causing comment. At least their one dance had been a waltz, so he could hold her in his arms, if only for a few moments.

She was growing fanciful. She tried to shake off the feeling of his hand at her waist, and realized her mother was also looking after him.

"He is not very refined, is he?" Lady Hawley murmured, keeping her voice carefully modulated despite the disapproval on her face.

"He is new to his title," Thea told her in a soft voice. "We must give him time to learn how to behave properly."

Lady Hawley sniffed. "Lady Cowper and Mrs. Burrell have already planned to extend him a voucher for Almack's simply based on his title. I suppose we must allow it. He is Blackwood now, after all."

Thea felt a pang of annoyance with her mother's snobbishness. "Of course you must. It would not do to snub him."

"I am not sure how long he will be able to maintain it. I am already hearing things about his manners. I only hope he knows the proper way to dress for Almack's."

"I am certain Lady Blackwood will inform him of it," Thea said. "She has held vouchers for Almack's for many years, you know."

"She has not been to a Wednesday assembly for many of those years," Lady Hawley pointed out.

Thea wished she could argue, but when her mother was looking for reasons to complain in this manner, it was best to be silent and let her get on with it. It would be ill-bred of her to argue the point. She held her tongue, and thought of what Lord Blackwood had said.

You are not so proper as you would have everyone believe.

She thought he might be right. When he was around, something about him made her behave as if he were right, made her want to behave that way. He was such fun, and she so enjoyed hearing his teasing. She had not had much fun in her life, not since her childhood, she realized. She was held to a higher standard than other debutantes, thanks to her mother.

And so she remained silent while her mother took her off to the next dance partner.

*

Thea knocked on the door of her father's study and then slipped inside. Her father was sitting behind his desk with his solicitor at his shoulder, looking through a large stack of papers and stroking his long and bushy mustachios.

"Father?"

The Earl of Hawley looked up and peered at his daughter through his spectacles with a frown. "Thea?"

He had evidently already forgotten that he had summoned her. "You wished to speak with me?"

"Yes? Yes, I do. Go away, Andrews," he added to his solicitor.

The young man nodded at Thea as he made good his escape, and she went over to give her father a kiss on his brow.

"Do not try to distract me, gel," the earl said gruffly. "Your mother tells me you are receiving attentions from unwanted persons."

Thea blinked in surprise. Her mother certainly worked quickly when she did not like someone. "I am not receiving 'attentions' from anyone, Father. The new Earl of Blackwood asked me to dance at the Rossfield soiree and I accepted. That was the end of it. Only a dance."

Her father gave a grunt and scowled at her. "Why is your mother behaving as if you are imminently to be carried off to Gretna Green, then? She was in here only this morning, raving at me. Has Blackwood tried anything with you, gel?"

"Of course not. I barely know him." She wasn't certain that was strictly accurate - she began to think she had a pretty good idea of the earl's character, but it would not do to say that to her father.

"Try not to give your mother any further cause for concern, then. Must I speak with young Blackwood, do you suppose?" Her father's eyes darted down to the paperwork in front of him. Thea smiled wryly; he had already lost interest in their conversation.

"No, Father, it is quite unnecessary."

"Good. Contact Roddy if you need anyone called out on your behalf, then. The young pup will be happy to oblige, and then I can get back to my work."

George Desmond, Viscount Wrotham - or Roddy, as he was universally known to family and friends - was Thea's brother and their father's heir. Roddy was young and a bit of a hothead. He would undoubtedly be happy to lay down the gauntlet left and right, but fortuitously, he was still at Cambridge and would not be attending the Season this year.

Thea pursed her lips. "Mother is overreacting. Nothing has happened, and nothing is going to happen. Have I ever given you cause for concern about my behavior, Father?"

"No, not you," he said, and his lips quivered a bit. He rarely smiled, but his daughter recognized his version of a smile.

"Roddy will outgrow it eventually. I shall leave you to your work, then, Father." Thea smiled fondly at him. He rarely involved himself in social matters, leaving all of that to his wife. Lord Hawley was far too concerned with politics and the business of padding the family fortunes to attend any social events. The closest he came was spending the evening at his club a few nights a week. Thea rather liked his laissez-faire attitude toward his children, as it provided such a nice contrast to her mother, but of late Lord Hawley had grown more concerned with reigning in Roddy's excesses with gambling and women.

Roddy's budding reputation as a rake was a bone of contention with their mother, who was somewhat horrified that the son she had raised was behaving as if he had been, well, as Lord Blackwood had put it about his sister, raised by wolves.

Thea rather thought Roddy's behavior was a direct reaction to their mother's somewhat overly draconian rules.

"Run along, then. And if Andrews is lurking outside, tell him to come in." Lord Hawley waved her away.

Andrews was indeed lurking just outside the door, and Thea sent him back in to her father's beck and call. The poor young solicitor was still rather in awe of his most powerful client. Hawley liked him because Andrews was easily cowed and did anything the earl told him to do. This was perhaps not the best recommendation for a solicitor, but it was what the earl required.

Thea headed for the library, dodging her mother in the music room, and selected a slim volume of poems by Lord Byron. She had read it many times, but they were to examine one of the poems in her literary salon next week and she wanted to refresh her memory.

But when she had settled down into a comfortably upholstered chair in the library and opened the book, she could not seem to concentrate. The poetry sat forgotten on her lap as she stared at the empty fireplace, lost in thought.

How could her mother have accused Lord Blackwood of untoward behavior? Whatever Lady Hawley had said to her husband, it had alarmed him enough to have a meeting with his daughter in the middle of his workday, something he rarely did. Lord Blackwood was a little inept socially, it was true, and had grabbed her arm at the Rossfields', but it had only been to steady her when he had nearly knocked her over. He should not have touched her, true, but he had clearly not had any ulterior motives. It had appeared to be an automatic reaction, honestly.

She thought it was very unfair of her mother. Lady Hawley thought Lord Blackwood was quite vulgar; a jumped-up country bumpkin. His manners were not as fine as most lords, Thea could admit, but she still quite liked the new earl. He was very earnest in his attempts to converse, and he seemed sincerely to want to learn. If her mother was planning to snub him over the silly little incident at the Rossfield soiree, that was simply unfair.

Thea made up her mind on the spot to help Lord Blackwood learn to be so proper, even the Lady Patronesses of Almack's could find no fault with his manners.

She closed the book on her lap with a little frisson of excitement laced with fear. She had never done anything so bold before, something that was patently against her mother's wishes and must needs be done behind her mother's back. It was quite rebellious, she thought, smiling slightly to herself. Perhaps she was a bit like her brother after all.

But unlike Roddy, she would make certain that their mother never found out.

If she wrote to Iris and invited her to tea, perhaps she could make the arrangements straightaway, and right under her mother's nose. She could use the earl's younger sister as a cover story, and though her mother might object to the earl's manner, she had never met Iris. It was not unusual for a young lady to try to secure Thea's aid for her come-out. She supposed she could pass this off - with Lady Blackwood and Iris as chaperones, there was nothing untoward about her meeting with Lord Blackwood to teach him deportment.

He would turn up at his first Wednesday ball at Almack's able to out-do Lady Jersey herself, if Thea had anything to say about it.

She dashed off to her room to write to Iris, leaving her poetry forgotten on the chair.

 

 

Chapter 4 by hibiscus

Duncan stood in front of the drawing room window at Blackwood House. He had arrived from Number Four only half an hour before, earlier than he was meant to meet his sister and the dowager countess. Iris had summoned him to meet her there at eleven o'clock, an hour of the morning she had likely not seen since arriving in town. Iris was adapting frighteningly well to London hours.

Iris's note had not been specific about what she wanted with him. He could only imagine what the devil she wanted.

Lady Blackwood ambled in, accompanied by a maid carrying a tea tray.

"Sit down, Blackwood," the dowager commanded him, settling into a chair that rather resembled a throne. "You will give me a crick in my neck if I have to look up at you like this."

He smiled at her and came to sit on the chair next to hers. "Iris sent a note saying she wished to speak with me," he said, allowing his voice to indicate an explanation would be in order.

"She is still abed, the silly thing." Lady Blackwood waved a hand dismissively. "If only I could sleep so late. The older one gets, the less one is able to sleep. You shall see when you are my age."

He could only imagine, as she had never been specific about her age. "Aunt Regina-"

"Lady Thea is coming this morning to see your sister," Lady Blackwood interrupted him in a conversational tone. "She asked your sister to ensure your presence as well."

Duncan was brought up short. "Indeed?" he managed to say eventually.

Lady Blackwood poured him a cup of tea and handed it over. "Yes. So let us prepare a bit. Your sister will be down presently, and I am not certain you wish to have this conversation in her presence. Do you know what is going on? She seems to want a private meeting with you."

"I haven't the vaguest idea. What did Lady Thea's letter say?"

"It was not specific."

Duncan's imagination was something at a loss. He would like to think Lady Thea was developing a tendre for him and had therefore arranged a meeting, but it did not seem the sort of thing she would do. Especially when she was bound to see him the following evening at the dowager Duchess of Atfield's ball. It was a huge to-do that was not to be missed, from what he understood. Only two years ago a chandelier had fallen directly in the center of the ballroom. Duncan could not resist the humor value in that sort of thing and was looking forward to it immensely.

"I cannot conceive of any reason Lady Thea would want to meet in private," he admitted. "She did not seem that attached to me on the three occasions I have spoken with her."

"Hmm." Lady Blackwood sipped her tea.

The door banged open and Iris rushed in, dressed in a cheerful pale yellow and hair dressed fashionably.

"Oh good," she said when she saw the two of them, "I am not late. My maid took forever with my toilette. Being a lady is ever so taxing."

And with that, she threw herself onto the sofa and reached for the teapot.

Duncan rolled his eyes. "Yes, you look very taxed, Iris. What the devil is going on?"

"I have no idea, honestly." Iris sipped her tea demurely. Duncan did not believe the facade for a moment. "Lady Thea wrote me, but I don't know any more than I am certain Aunt Regina has already told you."

The butler gave a knock and then opened the door. "Lady Thea Desmond, your lordship."

Apparently he was the lord of the manor even when he wasn't technically living in the manor. Duncan got to his feet quickly, hoping Lady Thea had not been standing outside long enough to overhear any of their conversation.

Iris had also sprung to her feet, her teacup forgotten on the tray, and was rushing over to take Lady Thea's hands.

"Do come sit," she said, smiling. "Would you care for a cup of tea?"

"Yes, thank you." Lady Thea seated herself as Iris bustled about the tea tray, and Duncan couldn't help but notice how much more elegantly she did so than his sister managed.

Once the niceties had been observed and the tea declared quite delicious, Iris got right to business, as Duncan had known she would.

"I was ever so surprised to receive your letter, Lady Thea," she said. "Especially the part about asking my brother to join us this morning."

Lady Thea smiled slightly. Her face was set in the serene expression she wore at society events, but Duncan rather thought he could see amusement in her eyes. She seemed to find Iris quite charming, to his great astonishment. He rarely found his sister charming. Exasperating, certainly, and occasionally baffling. Oh, he supposed there was a certain charm to her. Rather like a puppy that chewed at one's shoes.

"I feel certain you are dying of curiosity, Miss Beaufort."

Iris waved a hand at her to dismiss this. "Let us do away with the Miss and Lady, don't you think? Please call me Iris."

"Very well," Lady Thea allowed with a gracious nod. "I should quite like you to call me Thea, in that case."

Duncan was about to volunteer to have his title dispensed with as well for the familiarity of Christian names, but Lady Blackwood interrupted. "Ladies, let us get to the point. I expect Lady Thea has quite a particular reason for this little meeting. Blackwood, ring for biscuits, dear boy, I am quite famished."

Duncan got up to ring for the butler, and was certain Lady Thea's eyes followed him. The conversation was held as the door opened almost immediately to admit the butler with a tray of assorted biscuits and small cakes. Duncan was instantly suspicious at the rapidity with which this had arrived. Did the servants listen at doors? Or did they simply know Lady Blackwood well enough to anticipate the request?

"I did indeed have a particular reason," Thea said as soon as the butler had departed. "I should like to offer my services to both Iris and his lordship in lessons of deportment and the rules of society."

He turned to look at her in surprise. "I believe when I suggested that, you said you were no expert in the proper behavior of earls."

"I have changed my mind," she told him.

"Hmph," Lady Blackwood said. "And what makes you think he needs it?"

"I am not denigrating your ability to train him in how to behave," Thea rushed to assure her. "It is only that he did ask me, and not to sound immodest, but you are aware of my reputation and my mother's reputation. I feel certain I can have him schooled in the finer points of proper etiquette with admirable rapidity."

"I know quite well how to behave," Duncan put in. "I simply lack practice at it. It is not second nature to me yet."

They both ignored him.

"You do not need to sell your services to me, young lady," said Lady Blackwood. "I know your qualifications quite well. I am merely wondering why you suddenly wish to impart this knowledge to him?"

"Why does no one question my need for lessons?" Iris asked of no one in particular.

"Because your reputation precedes you as well," Duncan told her, unable to resist needling his sister.

"I am not certain I should say," Lady Thea remarked to Lady Blackwood.

"Aha," said the dowager. "It is something to do with your mother."

Thea's cheeks flushed a bit, and a crack showed in her facade of perfect demeanor. "It does me no credit to say so, but you have found me out. I wish to show my mother how wrong she is. She has taken a dislike to Lord Blackwood, and I confess I believe I could have him ready to show up the best of them at Almack's within a fortnight. He is not so bad as she thinks, he only requires training to hold his tongue, and a bit of guidance."

"His bowing could use a bit of work," Lady Blackwood said. "I expect he did not get much practice in Shropshire. His valet has been training him, but the man can only do so much."

Iris looked fascinated by the discussion. "What about me?"

"You are even worse," their aunt told her.

Duncan shook his head. "I said I was trying, Aunt Regina, but I have not been at this very long." He was rather amused that they were speaking of him as if he were a badly trained hound. Perhaps Iris was not the only one with the charm of a puppy.

"Has he joined a club yet?" Thea asked Lady Blackwood.

"White's," she responded. "As every other Lord Blackwood has done. I believe he has only been once, though."

"Are you keeping track of my movements now?" Duncan asked politely. "Shall I send reports any time I leave the house?"

"That would certainly help," Lady Blackwood told him, then returned her attention to Thea. "I have done the best I could, but I have never been terribly refined myself. Still, he was not born to this, and they will judge him, the horrible old crows. He ought at least learn all the rules before he breaks them. I leave him in your capable hands, then, Lady Thea."

She smiled warmly. "Thank you, my lady."

"Have I a say in this?" Duncan asked.

"Absolutely not." Lady Blackwood got to her feet just as the maid came in with a tray of pink-iced biscuits. "I shall leave you to it, then. Teach Iris if you can, but do try to civilize Blackwood a bit."

And with that, she reached down to collect a generous amount of biscuits and swept out of the room. The butler closed the door behind her smartly, as if he had been expecting her grand exit, or possibly had been listening at the door.

Thea turned back to Duncan and Iris expectantly. "Shall we get started?"

"I am going to get the deportment books that Aunt Regina keeps giving me. I shall only be a moment." Iris darted out of the room before Duncan could stop her.

At least she left the door open behind her for propriety. That was one rule he did know, as they followed it in the country as well.

Duncan and Thea looked at one another in silence for a moment, and then he told her, "I am really not so ignorant of the rules of good society as all that. I only have an ingrained habit of speaking my mind."

"That is not a desirable quality in the ton, my lord."

"Only to some."

"To most, I should think," she said, her voice carefully modulated so it did not sound like the retort it was.

"Not everyone holds themselves so apart from their own natural selves as you do," he told her, and her cheeks turned pink.

"I merely follow the rules of society. Knowing when to be silent is not a thing to be ashamed of."

He frowned. "If it means you are silent all the time and never allowed to speak your mind, I believe it is. I would not like that, and I can't believe you do either."

A tiny frown creased her brow. "It is not a question of liking, my lord. It is a question of proper behavior."

"Oh, do call me Duncan. If you are to tutor me like a schoolboy, you might as well use my name." He reached over for a biscuit.

"If I am to tutor you in the proprieties, that is all the more reason I should not," she said gently.

"Call me Blackwood, then. Only I would prefer Duncan. I am not so used to my title yet," he admitted.

"Duncan," she murmured, somewhat to his surprise. His eyes flew to hers, but then Iris rushed back in, red-faced from dashing to her room and back.

"I have it. I am going to make notes in the margins," she added, showing them a small volume and a pencil that was probably meant for sketching.

"Let us begin, then," Thea said, setting her teacup down firmly.

*

Duncan made good his escape an hour later, after listening to Iris read (quite self-righteously) passages from her book on deportment, while Thea gently corrected his attempts to play along and demonstrate proper social discourse with Iris as a partner.

He was rather surprised to find Iris was quite accomplished at faking proper behavior. One might almost assume she was a demure, shy, and retiring young lady but for the twinkle in her eyes that let you know she was having you on.

Still, he had to admit it had been extremely instructive for both of them. Well, certainly for him. One could never be certain with Iris.

He alighted the steps to Number Four and made his way to his study, which had fast become his favorite room in the house. Relaxing in the comfortable leather chair, he propped his feet on the desk and stacked his hands behind his head, reveling in the impropriety of it.

At least the morning had afforded him an hour in Thea's company. Oh, his sister had been there as well, but he had managed to make Thea laugh once or twice as she scolded him about being serious in his studies.

And he was serious, sort of, though he could not help thinking it was all a bit ridiculous. He still wanted to learn it all, damn it, so as not to disgrace the title, it was just that he had not thought his adjustment period to the ton's rigid codes of behavior would need to be so swift. Iris had another year in the schoolroom to learn it all, and he must acquire the manners of a dandified peer within a fortnight, from what Thea had said, for some damned ball at Almack's.

Simply unfair, really, but there it was. He supposed he must apply himself and show how very proper he could be in public.

Damned if he wasn't going to teach Thea to be a little more improper while she was teaching him, though.

She had seemed the very model of propriety in all its stuffiness when she had arrived at Blackwood House this morning - her lips pressed tightly together and face with that oddly still expression she affected - but she had loosened up the longer she had been in his company.

And she had grown more beautiful to him the more she had relaxed. With every smile, he felt himself wound more tightly with the desire to kiss her, to taste those lips when they curved into a perfect bow. Sitting across from her, listening to her musical laugh wash over him, he wanted to haul her into his arms whenever she looked at him.

Damn Iris for being their nominal chaperone, though how much chaperonage a sixteen year old girl could be expected to provide was questionable (even if that girl was someone like Iris). Still, she had been there, and Duncan had restrained himself.

Probably best. Likely the chit would fly into hysterics if he did half the things dancing about in his head.

He was going to get that ride in the park with her somehow, though. He did not want to wait to see her again until the Thursday literary salon, or some ball where he could dance with her once and then must set her aside so as not to cause comment. He wanted a lengthier conversation in private, to dig a little deeper into Lady Thea Desmond.

Figuratively, that is.

Mostly.

*

White's was more crowded than Duncan had been expecting, given that it was quite early for London hours, and there was a large soiree later that night where most of the ton was expected. No doubt plenty of husbands wanted to enjoy the refuge of the club before having to be subjected to their wives' whims and complaints. Duncan had enough of that from his sister, but he still appreciated the all-male environment of White's.

He knew a few members of the exclusive establishment, if only in passing, thanks to his aunt's introductions at the last two balls he had attended, but he didn't feel entirely comfortable conversing with them straight upon arrival. Still, he wanted to be seen at the club so the men who were now his peers grew accustomed to him being the Earl of Blackwood.

The previous earl had spent a great deal of time here, he understood. He was not the man's son, but he did want to follow in at least some of his footsteps. The previous earl had, as his widow mentioned, not been a politician, but he had done his duty in the House of Lords, and acquitted himself well enough that Duncan did not want to embarrass his legacy.

It was a lot more pressure than he had expected.

"Blackwood."

He turned at the hail and saw an older man, razor-thin and with impressive mustachios, gesture to him from one of the cozy leather armchairs scattered about the hall.

"Sir," he said as he approached, uncertain if this was an acquaintance he had forgotten. The man seemed strangely familiar, and yet Duncan was certain he had not seen him before.

"Have a seat, sir, have a seat. Care for a glass?" The mustachioed gentleman waved to indicate a bottle of brandy and several glasses on the table next to his chair.

"Thank you." Duncan accepted a glass and took a sip, trying to decide how to admit he hadn't the faintest idea who the man was. Perhaps that did not matter so much in White's. Lady Blackwood had been unable to fill him in on most of the specifics of the club, as her late husband had considered it his refuge and refused to discuss it with her. His valet had done the best he could, but most of it Duncan was having to figure out on his own simply by accepting the membership he had been offered and patronizing the club. It was damned difficult.

"I expect you do not recognize me," said his companion. "No reason you should. Haven't been introduced. I know you, of course. The new earl of Blackwood. Everyone's talking of you." He took a sip of his brandy, and then announced quite simply, "I am Hawley."

The title registered instantly. Duncan tried to hide his surprise. "Lady Thea's father?"

Lord Hawley nodded. "The very same. I gather from my wife that you have an acquaintance with my daughter."

After what Thea had said that morning, Duncan had a fairly good idea of what Lady Hawley had said to her husband. "I am acquainted with her, sir. We have spoken only a few times, however."

"M'wife seems to think you are after Thea. Are you planning to run off with her, sir?" Lord Hawley's face was stern, but Duncan did not think the earl was entirely taking this seriously, and couldn't restrain himself from making a quip.

"Imminently, sir, imminently. In fact, I am due outside her window in five minutes."

Lord Hawley harrumphed loudly, which Duncan rather thought was hiding a chuckle. "Thought not. Acquiring a title does not often put a man in an eloping sort of mood. You'll be wanting a wife eventually, I reckon, but a lengthy engagement first. Has that old harridan been pestering you to marry?"

Duncan snorted and tried to cover it with a cough. "Indeed, sir, Lady Blackwood tells me I must do my duty to secure the title after such a shaky time as it has had. Lack of heirs and all that."

"Heirs are a necessary part of the title, sir," said Lord Hawley. "Mine is at Cambridge, determined to set himself up a fine reputation as a rake and thereby give his mother gray hairs. Viscount Wrotham, you know. Good lad. I wouldn't mind the rakishness, if his mother would leave me alone about it."

"I imagine she would prefer him to be the image of propriety, like Lady Thea," Duncan said gravely. "A paragon of perfection, in fact, as I have been informed, though that sounds quite boring to me."

Another harrumph. "I see why my wife does not like you, sir. Another glass?"

Several glasses later, Duncan had decided he quite liked Thea's father, and was relatively certain that the gruff earl with the luxurious mustachios liked him as well, or at least did not dislike him as Lady Hawley apparently did. He wondered if the earl knew about Thea's plan to civilize him, and decided it would have come up by now if he did know.

Probably he should not mention it, then.

The hour grew later as the bottle grew emptier, but Duncan was enjoying himself immensely. Thea had clearly inherited her sense of humor from her father and not her mother. The earl seemed to recognize and appreciate sarcasm when he heard it. This was, in Duncan's limited experience so far, a rare quality amongst the ton.

Lord Hawley was also extremely knowledgeable about the inner workings of the peers - he seemed to personally know not only everyone with a title above a viscount, but also their family histories, having been acquainted in most cases with the fathers of the present peers. It was quite illuminating to listen to him tell stories about dukes and marquesses in their wild youths, and made Duncan feel not quite so uncouth, as well. If there were dukes out there behaving even worse than he did, surely he could weather this initial period of being considered countrified.

"Alas, I cannot drink any more," Lord Hawley intoned. "I must meet my wife for my monthly appearance at a social event, and she does not approve of strong drink, sir."

Duncan grinned. "One would never know, sir, not a drop of it. Thank you for the brandy and conversation."

"You seem a decent young pup. Endeavor not to embarrass yourself in front of my wife again, though, and do not spend too much time around my daughter. I shall never hear the end of it. Women and their gossip," he added knowingly, as if he had not been gossiping for the past hour.

"I hope I shall see you again, sir. I need all the friends I can get as I get used to the title, you know." Duncan held out a hand, and Lord Hawley looked a bit surprised at first but then shook his hand. The earl was quite steady. Duncan was impressed; the earl had downed half a bottle of brandy. Clearly the man was an experienced drinker.

"Indeed, sir, indeed." Harrumphing again, Lord Hawley took himself off, leaving Duncan alone with the remains of the brandy.

He set his glass down quite deliberately. Lord Hawley had told him to stay away from his daughter in quite a friendly way, and seemed to object more to his wife's badgering than to the actual acquaintance. Duncan did not believe the earl truly cared whether he furthered that acquaintance or not, though he would likely object to Thea's current machinations with Duncan and Iris.

Social life in London seemed to be one pit of spikes after another. Duncan was not entirely certain what he ought to do, but he did know that staying away from Thea was now the last thing he wanted to do.

The Atfield soiree was tomorrow night, and he could hardly avoid seeing her then. Even Lady Hawley could not object to a single dance, when Thea was likely to dance with a dozen men tomorrow. He was only one among many. Surely it could not hurt.

He did not want to make an enemy of Lord Hawley, though. Perhaps he ought to keep his public relationship with Thea as impersonal as possible so that he could continue being tutored by her in secret. And he would just have to hope like hell that her parents never found out about that, either.

 

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