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."
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.