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.
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.
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.