COWES, ISLE OF WIGHT, ENGLAND
My goodness, Miss Lloyd! You are so very, very lucky! How I envy you! Was there ever a more fortunate girl on the face of the earth?"
Constance smiled as she held the veil over her head. "I doubt it, Melody. I doubt it very much indeed. But at the age of twenty and seven, I do believe I ceased being a girl sometime during the last decade."
"Do you know how the other girls envy you? The coming out was for us, after all. And who won the glittering prize? Who danced with the Prince of Wales himself for three waltzes in a row? Who did the son of a duke ask to be his wife? My own governess! Honestly, Miss Lloyd, if I didn't love you so much, I do believe I would hate you."
Constance was about to respond when she glanced at her former charge. "Oh, Melody," she breathed. "I can scarcely believe it myself"
A luscious breeze, sharp and salty from the sea, billowed the curtains of Constance's room. It seemed impossible that, after nine years in the employ of Mrs. Whitestone as a governess and, more importantly, as a friend, she would be leaving within the week to join her fiancé at his family's estate. And he would arrive in his father's carriage, ducal emblem encrusted on the doors, any day now, to escort her to her new home.
It would be a temporary home, of course, because she was sure that when they were married, he would want to establish a household of their own. Perhaps they would live in London. Perhaps her fiancé had a different idea, one he had not shared with her yet simply because the whole engagement had been so deliriously swift.
Her fianceé. The word seemed peculiar, a different feeling entirely from when she had been engaged during the war. Wade had seemed such a child, perhaps because she had known him all of her life and could even now recall him as a little boy with freckles and a chipped front tooth.
Now the very word fiancé was filled with mystery and surprise and romance.
"Oh, Miss Lloyd, please tell me again. Tell me the whole story."
Melody Whitestone sighed as she rested her head upon her hand. She was the prettiest of the two Whitestone girls and, unfortunately -- in spite of all of Constance's attempts to counter Melody's high opinion of herself -- she knew it, and used those charms mercilessly. Her beauty was of the plumpish sort, a childlike softness that reminded Constance of an idealized Cupid, all pink cheeks and golden curls.
Constance, by contrast, was tall -- some said too tall -- and dark. Her height, well above five-and-a-half feet, had been quite an advantage as a governess. It was only during her first moments dancing with the portly Prince that she felt a flush of embarrassment because of her stature. Instead of looking directly into His Majesty's small, protruding eyes, she was forced to cast her gaze downward, just slightly, but noticeably.
Her coloring, dark hair, and pale blue eyes, also seemed remarkable to some of the Whitestones' neighbors, and to the curious onlookers at the ball. She had been noticed before by the cream of society, always during the brief Cowes season. The first time she had come to anyone's attention was when she came to Lady Montclair's rescue when her horse bolted from the gently trotting pack of sidesaddled ladies. Constance Lloyd, with her practical gray dress, curiously adorned with a sprig of dried laurel leaves at the throat, grabbed the reins and calmed both the horse and the whimpering Lady Montclair.
For that service Lord Montclair offered her a glass of sherry. Constance declined with grace, her peculiar American accent both soft and charming.
She declined the sherry, but she had most certainly been noted. And because of her startling good looks and surprisingly expert handling of horses, two unheard-of traits in a governess, more than one observer speculated out loud that perhaps Miss Lloyd was part savage. She was, after all, from America. Hair as dark and lustrous as hers was seldom paired with eyes the shade of fine turquoise.
The rumor was further spun that her grandfather had been an Indian warrior, of a tribe varying from Cherokee to Mohawk, and he had scalped her grandmother -- a highborn English beauty -- on the very day of her mother's birth. The Indian warrior, of course, had wanted a son, not a daughter, and the scalping was merely a suitable punishment for the warrior's disappointment. Such things were appallingly common in America, it was said.
Constance did nothing to clarify the idle suspicion. Again, it was quite an advantage as a governess. When the children were very young, they obeyed her simply out of fear that she would, at any moment, turn savage -- a notion Constance reinforced on a regular basis by eyeing their hairlines when they misbehaved.
It would never do to reveal that both maternal grandparents were, in fact, natives of London, and that the most barbarous display she had ever seen her grandfather perform was his habit of eating green peas with the blade of his knife.
"Please, Miss Lloyd," Melody begged. "Please tell me everything that happened the night of the ball."
"You were there, Melody," Constance laughed, carefully folding the veil. It had been sent by her fiancé's mother, most likely the very same delicate veil she had worn when she married the duke. "You saw more than I did, for you were a spectator. I was in the middle of the play, so I was not able to see the entire event."
Melody slumped onto the bed and rolled over on her back, clutching a pillow of Battenberg lace against her chest. "It was such a blur, I hardly know what I saw. But, Miss Lloyd, I knew the night would be special when you came down the stairs in Mother's gown."
"That was so very kind of her, not only to allow me to attend the ball, but to lend me one of her gowns." How they had worked on the gown, both Constance and Harriet, and even Melody, lengthening the hem, elongating the waist, and adding bits and pieces of other garments. The end result had stunned not only its creators, but everyone who had seen it, a frothy confection of pale pinks and ivorys with a bold neckline that highlighted Constance's slender, surprisingly alabaster shoulders. Her thick hair had been woven with pink ribbons, the gloss of her hair rivaling the shimmer of the satin. Never had a mere governess been so bedecked, if not bejeweled.
It had been a farewell gesture, a final dash of kindness from the generous Harriet Whitestone. Since Captain Whitestone's death several years before, the family fortune had been on a decline, and upon the coming out of Melody it was understood that Constance would have to find another position. Mrs. Whitestone simply could not afford the luxury of a governess for three now-grown children, nor did Constance expect to remain.
So Mrs. Whitestone managed to have Constance added to the list of attendees at the Royal Yacht Squadron Ball. The late captain's name still carried some weight in military circles; the bulk of his legacy had been in honor rather than in tangible goods. It was an unheard of gesture, inviting a governess -- one of the most invisible members of any household -- to such a regal event. But Harriet Whitestone knew Constance would rise to the occasion, and then some. After all, before Constance was reduced by the events of the American Civil War, the Lloyd fortune had been well-regarded in England, and the Lloyds themselves had been above reproach.
Melody closed her eyes, recalling the night just weeks earlier. "You came down the staircase, and Miles was the first to gasp. Did you hear him, Miss Lloyd?"
"How could I not?" She smiled. "I feared he was suffering yet another bout of the hiccups. Remember how he used to be overtaken by them when he was a child?"
"I'd almost forgot. But he has always rather fancied you, Miss Lloyd. He may have been your charge, but he is only five years younger than you."
"A fact Master Miles has always taken great delight in mentioning on a frequent basis," Constance laughed.
"Miss Lloyd, had you ever seen him before?"
"Miles? Why of course." A small dimple appeared on one side of her chin, a telltale sign to those who knew her well that she was repressing a grin.
"No, I mean your him. Your fiancé."
Constance paused, wondering if she should tell young Melody the whole truth. In fact, Constance had been very much aware of Philip Cyril St. John Arthur Albert Hastings, the second son of the venerable Duke of Ballsbridge. For the past seven years she had seen him ride past the Whitestone home for the two weeks of the Cowes season, always riding a superb mount, always wearing an impeccable riding suit of the latest cut.
In short, he was glorious.
Never had Constance uttered his name out loud. He was her private dream, a fantasy to weave and cherish during the long hours in the schoolroom or in her small comer of the house. Rain would beat against the window panes as the seasons passed, weeks and months lapsing into years, when once again it was time to see the splendid image of young Lord Hastings -- his spine straight, his aquiline profile set, his pale hair ruffling in the breeze -- ride past the house where she was employed.
Once he seemed to turn towards her, perhaps alerted by the sound of some birds in a nearby shrub, but his gaze did not rest on her. She had been wearing a dull gray gown that day, appropriate to her position as a governess, rendering her as invisible as she indeed was to society. Pinned at her collar had been her customary sprigs of bay, a habit she had fostered during the war, when jewelry had been a distant memory and the fragrant laurel had both adorned her increasingly limited wardrobe and reminded her of a distant hope of victory.
Lord Hastings, as she had learned was his name from the local blacksmith, had been clad in magnificent shades of evergreen and black, his boots gleaming even in the sunless afternoon.
He had not even seen her. No one ever saw the reliable Constance Lloyd, tucked away in her neat quarters above the rest of the house.
And then, when she was dancing with the Prince of Wales, he did see her. Everyone saw Constance Lloyd. Everything changed in the span of two hours.
"May I, Your Majesty?"
Those were the first words she ever heard Philip speak. He was standing just beyond the prince, a stiff bow, a small smile on his lips. The prince laughed and said something, what it was she would never recall, and then she was waltzing with Philip Cyril St. John Arthur Albert Hastings, son of the Duke of Ballsbridge.
"Have we met before?"
Those were the first words he ever addressed to her. Constance smiled and shook her head, still looking up at his face. He smelled vaguely of brandy and cigars, a scent that was not at all unpleasant and seemed to suit him very well indeed.
They stepped outside for some Roman punch, and he crooked his arm for her to clasp, for her to touch. The night air was misty and cold, and they spoke of his home and his title and his hopes to be elected to Parliament, to the House of Commons, representing his ancestral seat of Ballsbridge.
As a second son, he was not entitled to a seat in the House of Lords. In time, his elder brother would claim that right, along with the entire estate. Philip was not bitter about his position, did not seem to mind that, barring a family tragedy, he was forever consigned to the role of second son, the "spare" born following the all-important "heir."
Another aspect of Philip was his lack of curiosity about her past. He did not seem the least bit interested in anything concerning her life before that first waltz. Once he asked if she was an American, and she admitted to the fact. Once he asked what part of America she was from, and she began to describe Virginia and the plantation that had been her home a long time ago, but he had simply looked to the ocean and asked if she minded if he smoked a cigar.
When was the last time a gentleman had asked Constance permission to do anything? Of course it was against the strictest code of behavior to ever smoke in front of a lady. Yet he was a lord, and she was a governess, and his asking permission seemed the kindest, most considerate gesture of all.
After the ball she went home in the Whitestones' rented carriage. It had been a lovely interlude, a brief spell before the real world intruded. Melody Whitestone was bubbling over with news; Mrs. Whitestone smiled and stared at Constance, who imagined she could still detect the fragrance of Lord Hastings on her borrowed gloves and hidden in the folds of her employer's fan.
The next morning, she finished packing her bags and wrote a final note to her new employers in Bath, letting them know when she would be arriving. They were a young family, with four children and another on the way. As she continued her arrangements to leave, Lord Hastings called on her, this time in a spectacular ruby-colored jacket. Harriet Whitestone, just past forty herself and still every inch a romantic, asked Constance to delay her departure for just a while longer, for the house would seem desperately empty without her, at least until Melicent -- her eldest daughter, now married to a Mr. Furman of Newcastle -- arrived for a visit.
Of course, Harriet simply wanted the duke's young son to have a chance to forge a bond with Miss Lloyd. And within four days, with his mother's permission, Philip had proposed marriage.
It still seemed a dream, a fairy tale come magically to life.
How much should she tell Melody, or even her future husband, of the times she had watched him from such an impossible distance? She looked over at Melody, her eyes still unfocused with her own daydreams. Perhaps she should keep it to herself, the truth that she had been so very aware of Philip long before they met.
The door to the governess's room received a gentle tap before Harriet Whitestone entered.
"So there you are, the two of you." She smiled. Even four years after the death of Captain Whitestone, Harriet still wore half mourning, shades of gray and jet, and a simple brooch made of her husband's hair, braided and set in a gold circle.
It had been fortunate for the Whitestone finances that Queen Victoria's mourning had lasted well over a decade. That made Harriet's perpetual status as a grieving widow fashionable, although the mourning clothes were more a nod to economy than to overwhelming grief. One could wear the same mourning gown for years with nary a comment from the neighbors, something that could never be said of a more cheerful dress.
"Mrs. Whitestone." Constance rose to her feet, and Harriet began to laugh.
"My dear! Do you realize that within the month you will be Lady Philip Hastings? Please, allow me to get accustomed to rising upon your entry to a room!"
"Mother, isn't this the most exciting, romantic thing in the world?" Melody Whitestone again sighed.
"Indeed it is, Melody. But this just arrived, Constance. It's a letter from Hastings House. I wanted to get this into your hands as soon as possible."
Harriet passed the letter to Constance, who stared for a moment at the unfamiliar handwriting. It was small and very neat, and she assumed it was the hand of Philip's mother.
"May I?" Constance automatically asked Harriet's permission before opening her mail, not noticing her former employer's quick wink at Melody before nodding towards Constance.
When she opened the letter she realized it was from Philip himself.
"How odd," she muttered before she even began to read the contents.
"Is anything wrong?" Harriet was far too polite to peer over her shoulder, and kept a distance.
"No. It's just that I've never seen Philip's handwriting before."
"It's quite a tidy hand," commented Harriet, repressing a smile. "I imagine there is a great deal you will very soon learn of your future husband. Come, Melody. Let us allow Miss Lloyd her privacy."
But Constance held up her hand. "Oh, dear," she frowned, scanning the words.
"I do hope there is no bad news." Harriet paused.
"No. no. This is just rather odd. Philip will not be able to take me to Hastings House after all."
"No. His mother feels it would be a better use of his time to actively campaign for the election instead of wasting four full days in fetching me." She blinked, shaking her head. "I suppose she's right. After all, Philip has been in London all these years, so only his name is fully known in Ballsbridge."
"Four full days?" Harriet tilted her head in confusion. "But by the railroad a journey to Yorkshire should take much less time."
"According to this letter, the duchess does not trust the railroads." Constance shook her head. "She feels they are unnatural and perhaps ungodly. So she wishes me to travel by coach."
"Oh, how sad," Melody reached out and touched Constance's wrist. "I was rather looking forward to seeing the dashing Lord Hastings again. Have you noticed his nose, Mother? It's terribly well-formed. Regal, almost. Miss Lloyd, I'm sure you have noticed what a magnificent nose your future husband has."
"I have noticed that very fact." Constance smiled. "And it is so attractively placed, right between his eyes and above his mouth."
Harriet laughed, giving Constance an affectionate hug. "Oh, my dear, you have no idea how much I'm going to miss you. How I do envy those lucky persons at Hastings House."
"They do have a treat in store for them, Mrs. Whitestone." Constance returned the hug.
"But, Miss Lloyd." Melody lead the way towards the door. "How will you get to Hastings House if Lord Hastings is not going to accompany you? How will your safety be ensured? My goodness, the stories I have read of these roads at night, with all sorts of dangerous pirates and murderers lurking about behind trees at every turn. They are all but abandoned since the railroad. Surely you are not expected to make the journey on your own."
"No, I am not. This is the curious part; he is sending an old schoolfriend of his to collect me. Let's see." She again glanced through the letter. "Oh, here it is. He's a very dear friend from public school and then Oxford. His name is Mr. Joseph Smith."
"Joseph Smith?" Melody frowned, and then, realizing the expression might spoil her complexion with wrinkles, set her face into a line-free, neutrally pleasant cast. "What a dreadfully common name. I don't suppose he is anyone important, certainly not a peer. He can't possibly be anyone at all."
"Why, Miss Whitestone, what a monstrous snob you have become," her mother scolded. "I must speak to your governess directly."
And the three women, laughing, descended the stairs for their afternoon tea.
"The things I do for you, Hastings," Joseph Smith muttered, taking yet another liberal swallow of whiskey.
Philip raised a finger in a subtle gesture to the impeccably dressed steward, who silently placed the crystal decanter on the mahogany table between the two leather chairs. The loud noises of London, the barbarous shouts of street urchins and the grinding of carriage wheels, were muffled on the quiet Pall Mall street, and further subdued by the club's thick walls and heavy drapes. If one had to be in London, this was the most civilized place to be, apart from the Prince of Wales' Marlborough House. Of course, Marlborough House was widely known to be the best-run household in all of London, and therefore all the world.
One day soon, Philip had high hopes of being invited as a guest to HM's home. He had seen the glint in the Prince's eyes as he danced with Miss Lloyd, a most certain signal that anyone attached to Miss Lloyd would be received eagerly by the future king. Once she was his wife, he would very soon be established in the Marlborough House set. One day very soon. Perhaps he would even be invited to join the prince's exclusive Marlborough Club, the royal heir's own bastion within a stone's throw of Marlborough House.
He grinned at his friend, the hopelessly unfashionable Joseph Smith. "Come, come, Smith. It will only take you four days to fetch her, and I know for a fact that you need to look in on that new factory of yours. Where is it again?"
"Nowhere near the Isle of Wight. For God's sake, Philip, why couldn't you marry a girl from London, and save us all the travel time?"
Philip was aware that his friend was angry. At such times his accent, usually a studied Oxbridge blend, reverted to the lilting cadences of his childhood in Wales. Philip never did know exactly what town Joseph was from. All he was told by his friend was that it was a very long name with very few vowels. Philip gladly left the subject alone.
"She's to be your bride. You should get her yourself, not send me. You know that, don't you?" Joseph splashed more whiskey into his glass.
"Mother insists I remain behind." Philip suddenly became quite interested in his fingernails, examining them for any unsightly shreds or tears.
"Tell me more about her, Hastings. All I know is that she is an American of good stock. That's all you've revealed thus far. Where is she from in America?"
"The eastern part, I believe. Did you hear that Randolph Churchill is in town? I need to talk to him about marrying an American. I wonder if his wife knows my fiancée. Both from America, you know."
"Good old Gooseberry." Joseph grinned, referring to their young friend's schoolboy name. He had been an infamous "scug" while at Eaton, such a rascal that even those who had left the school years earlier knew him by reputation. There was not much hope for Churchill's future, rather a general feeling that he would spend the rest of his life disgracing his family's illustrious past. "So what's her name?"
"You remember, Joseph. She is the former Jennie Jerome, the daughter of Leonard Jerome of New York City. Now, of course, she is Lady Randolph Churchill. She's about to pop their first child. A boy, no doubt. American women always seem to have boys, bless them. That's what Mother says, at any rate."
Joseph Smith took a deep breath and shook his head. Unlike his friend, who was pale and elegant and utterly patrician, Joseph was unfashionably tanned from being outdoors. While Philip wore an impressive set of sideburn whiskers, slightly darker than his blond hair, Joseph's face was clean-shaven, leaving the very slight -- but in Philip's mind unsightly -- scar on his left cheek visible for all the world to see.
His lack of facial hair was more a result of his restless nature than a comment on fashion. He simply did not have the interest nor the inclination to embark on the never-ending quest to cultivate a splendid set of whiskers. Joseph Smith -- his auburn hair too long, his skin too bronzed and his body too muscular for elegance -- did not have the patience to fit in with the rest of the patrons of the Carlton Club.
But he was a member. His wealth, new though it was, made him more than acceptable in most clubs and as an extra man at the finest of assemblies. And many women, more than would openly admit, found him absolutely fascinating, and his masculine edge -- just slightly wild -- a refreshing change from the most refined gentlemen.
"Philip, I am asking about your fiancée, not Gooseberry's wife. What is her name?"
"Oh. Constance. Well, er, yes. She is an orphan as far as I know, although I do believe her family at one time had some sort of wealth. Her name is Constance Lloyd."
"And she's from the eastern coast of America? Any clue as to where exactly?"
"What do you mean, 'where'? Joseph, your obsession with details can be quite tiresome."
"If I am to spend long hours in a closed carriage with this woman, I would like to know as much as possible about her. A start would be where she is from. Now can you recall if she is from Maine or New Jersey?"
Philip gave his friend a disinterested shrug.
"I will make it easy, Hastings. She's from the coast. Now, is her place of origin up or down?"
"I can't recall. You know bloody well I've never been there, Joseph. Wait. Virginia. That's it -- she's from Virginia. Or was it South Carolina?"
"A Confederate, then," Joseph said. "Interesting." He grinned at his friend. "So she stole your heart at first glance?"
"It's no use hedging with me. I know you too damn well. Why on earth is the very eligible Lord Hastings marrying a penniless, orphaned, Confederate governess? Just curious, I suppose. Tell me."
"Blast. All right. Because no one else would have me"
Joseph had not been prepared for that answer. Had he anticipated the nature of the response, he never would have taken such a liberal swallow of whiskey, and therefore he never would have spit it directly into his friend's face.
"Not on my whiskers, Smith! I've just had them trimmed and powdered!" Philip dabbed carefully at his sideburns.
"Sorry, Philip. Just what do you mean, 'no one else would have me'? To the left, you missed a spot."
Philip glared at his friend, annoyed to discover the obvious amusement on the sun-darkened features.
"Because of my father. Bloody hell -- now I smell like a distillery."
"You usually do anyway. What do you mean, because of your father?"
"You know as well as anyone that my father is considered rather eccentric. Is my cravat wet?"
"No. It's as impeccable as ever. Your father is considered eccentric? But he is also considered one of the wealthiest peers in England. That should count for something."
"It does, certainly. You and your investment suggestions have had more to do with our financial status than any of our land holdings. Chemical dyes, what? Who would imagine that synthetic indigo would save us from disaster. But, damn it, Smith, he spends his days digging tunnels at Hastings House. Do you know he just had a ballroom built that can hold over two hundred people?"
"Did he, now? That should be a welcome addition to the house."
"It would be, but he built the thing underground, beneath the apple orchard. One has to journey through his tunnels in handcarts to reach the place." Philip folded his handkerchief and returned it to his pocket. "I am fully aware that Father is called the Mole Man by most of polite society. I do wish you would wipe that smile off your face, Smith. It does not become you."
"Sorry. The truth is, I am enormously fond of your father. He has shown me more genuine affection than my own relations back in Wales. He's a good, kind man, Philip. If I were you, I would be proud of him."
"Proud of him? He hasn't left the estate in fifteen years! He will only travel by tunnel, and then he insists on carrying a lunch pail, convinced that nothing can go wrong if one is provided with a packed meal. I think his ultimate goal must be to tunnel his way to London, so he will never have to venture above ground again. My poor mother..."
"Your poor mother couldn't be more pleased with the situation," Joseph interrupted. "She likes to think she controls everything, the running of the estate, most of the business matters." Under his breath he added, "And she controls you."
Philip seemed not to hear. "The papers refuse to print her latest notice. She is most vexed, Smith. Most vexed, indeed."
"Is she still sending the Times those fraudulent death notices? They simply evoke more comments, Philip. No one believes your father is dead. When he does pass on, and God willing that will not be for many years, you will have a devil of a time convincing anyone, including his physician, that his time has come. What cause of death did your mother cook up this time?"
"Oh, well. She issued a notice proclaiming that he had been killed in a hunting accident."
Joseph Smith laughed. "Your father hasn't hunted in years!"
"It's not funny, Smith. She had hoped that with Father out of the way, or at least believed to be out of the way, I might have a chance at one of the better women who came out this season. I'm a second son with no means of employment, and I do have something of a reputation for being rather reckless."
"Come, come, Philip, it can't be as bad as all that."
"It is, and worse. I offered myself to no less than five women this season, and every single one of them refused me. Even Lillian Lisle."
Joseph chuckled. "How is Miss Lisle? I have yet to see her since last Christmas."
"Well, she gained another stone and her mustache is becoming quite alarming. But even Lillian Lisle had the audacity to laugh at me when I professed my love for her."
"For God's sake, Hastings, what did you expect? It was only last year that you sent her the hedge trimmer for her upper lip. Surely you can't be surprised that she did not want to spend the rest of her life receiving gardening tools for her dresser top."
Philip was silent for a moment. "Was it only last year, that hedge-trimmer incident? Good Lord, I had almost forgotten. I was terribly drunk at the time, you know."
"Of course you were. What about the others you proposed to?"
"They are all afraid that insanity runs in the family. It's because of my father, blast it all. No woman will have me because my father is the mad Mole Man."
"Your father is not insane. He's one of the sanest men I've ever met. He just wisely chooses to avoid society, which makes him very clever indeed."
"It doesn't matter. My brother seems to remain untouched by the family curse. It's because he's the eldest, you know. He'll have no trouble at all finding a wife. He's to inherit. He could be mad as a hatter, and still have his absolute pick of any season."
"Still, he's never made it to the altar."
"He's come damn close, and that's the thing. No, Mother is not worried about Dishy finding a wife. It's me she's worried about. All those rumors, Smith, all about some of my, well, escapades. Not all of us have our nose to the grindstone like you, old boy."
"Not all of us have to," Smith added grimly. "In any case, you have managed to snare a beautiful bride. From what I've heard, she is a real corker. And there must be an element of love on your part, to hasten the ceremony."
Philip shrugged. "Mother insists that I marry before the elections."
"What on earth for?"
"Well, she fears that, as a bachelor well into my thirties, my being single would seem, well, peculiar. I went to Cowes with the intention of finding a bride. And just when I was about to give up, I saw HM dancing with an extraordinary-looking young woman. Old Bertie was positively glowing, and the Princess of Wales was eyeing the woman as well. So I waited three waltzes, cutting off that Rafferty fellow with the scar on his face. Oh, sorry. No offense."
Smith smiled and nodded, and his friend continued. "So, I asked this creature for a dance. Mother did a quick check -- she has her sources, you know. It seems that her family is solid, and the fact that they are dead was also quite appealing to Mother."
This time Smith swallowed the whiskey instead of spitting it out. "Why on earth would that be appealing?"
"Because with no family we do not have to worry about a shipment of loud Americans descending upon Hastings House, or any vulgar mother snapping up the jewelry and snuff boxes or influencing my sons."
"American women always have sons. Other than for the elections, that is the main reason for my marriage. Mother made sure her hips are wide enough for breeding -- we took her measurements for the wedding gown Mother is having made."
"This is absolutely ridiculous. Do you know anything about the woman who is to be your wife? What is she like, Philip?"
"She is lovely, dark hair, as I recall, and her accent is tolerable."
"Well, that's all we need to know, isn't it?"
A steward appeared at Joseph's left arm, bearing a silver salver with a sealed note upon it. The return address was facedown, as was always the case when a gentleman received mail at his club. Many a lady's reputation would be lost forever if her club correspondence were revealed.
Joseph took the letter. "Thank you," he muttered to the steward as he opened the envelope and scanned the contents. The lines on his forehead became more pronounced as he read, then folded the letter and replaced it.
"A reply, sir?" the steward asked, bowing slightly.
"No, Baker. No reply is necessary, but I thank you."
Philip waited for the man to withdraw before he spoke.
"So you'll do it, Smith? You'll fetch Constance to Hastings House for me?" In spite of his dampened whiskers, Lord Hastings suddenly looked like a worried adolescent.
"Of course I will. It seems I have some business in that direction after all." Joseph was silent for a moment, his gaze focused on the fire screen. Then he shook his head, his expression lightening. "One of these days, you know, I'm going to call upon you for a favor, and it's going to be immensely costly and inconvenient."
Finally Philip chuckled. "I expect it will. Thank you, Joseph. You are a true friend." He lifted his glass, and they toasted their friendship.
Copyright © 1997 by Judith O'Brien