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The Accidental Earl by hibiscus

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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.

 

 

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