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Excerpt from TAMING MISS TEEL by Jane Grix © 2017
In a dark corner of a gaming hell, Sir Peter Hocking, Baronet, observed a familiar scene of two well-dressed bucks with more brass than sense taking their chance at a less than reputable faro table. He mentally estimated the size of their purses. One of the gentleman, taller, in his mid-twenties, with a ridiculously intricate cravat, stood back, watching the other play. But after a series of losses, he tugged at his friend’s sleeve.
“Come away,” he urged. “You seem determined to ruin yourself tonight.”
That sounded promising. Hocking waited patiently.
The shorter man let himself be led away from the gaming table, then angrily pulled his arm free. “What does it matter?” he said roughly. “If I can’t have Julia, I don’t care about anything.”
Ah l’amour, Hocking thought wryly. Love and its many disguises had ruined countless young men and would no doubt ruin countless more.
“You’ll care if you end up at the cent per centers,” the friend persisted.
Good point. But rash young men in love rarely thought about tomorrow. And thought even less about money.Hocking wondered if the angry young man would be different from the hundreds before him.
The young man looked around, his eyes wild. “Where’s my glass?”
Now we begin. Hocking spoke. “I have a bottle, if you would care to join me.”
The two men startled at the sound of his low voice and peered at him in the dim candlelight. He knew what they saw – a man approaching middle years, in need of a haircut, with clean linen slightly frayed at the cuffs. Would they accept his invitation? Hocking had been on the fringes of society for so many years that he no longer took offense at rejection. Water seeks its own level, as his grandfather used to say. If these two gentlemen did not join him, others would – in time. The night was young.
“I say, that’s very good of you,” the young man said and pulled out a chair to join Hocking at his table.
The other hesitated, his eyes narrowing as he noticed the deck of cards in Hocking’s hands.
Hocking bared his teeth in a smile. “Do not fear. I am no card sharp.” That at least was true. He did not cheat his victims. He played fair and square and let the cards determine his fortune. Was it his fault if he were more skilled than most in determining the odds? He also was not greedy. He had found it much better to win a hundred pounds here or there, rather than gain notoriety by winning a large sum in a flamboyant gesture that would taint future games. He set his cards aside. “I am merely lonely and could use the company.” He slid the bottle toward the younger man.
“And you are?” the wiser young man persisted.
“Sir Peter Hocking. One of the Devonshire Hockings.”
He waited for the familiar reaction, but the name meant nothing to them. They were too young to remember the old scandal. They introduced themselves. The shorter man was Mr. Steven Granby, of Kent, and the other gentlemen was Lord Rusden. Hocking seemed to remember one of Rusden’s brothers at Eton — a lifetime ago. “Pleased to make your acquaintance,” Hocking murmured.
Rusden sat as well, still looking ill-at-ease.
Hocking waved his hand, and one of the footmen brought two more glasses.
Granby sipped his wine and his eyes widened. “This is good.”
It was surprising how good the gaming house’s cellar was, if one was prepared to pay. “I’m glad you like it.” Hocking leaned forward. “So, tell me about your Julia.” At their surprise, he added pleasantly, “I couldn’t help overhearing.”
“She’s a Venus. The most beautiful girl in Town.”
Hocking smiled. Young men rarely fell in love with the plainest girls in town.
“And talented, too. She sings like an angel.”
“From a good family?”
“One of the best. The Teels are accepted everywhere.”
Teel. Hocking had never heard of the family, but then, it had been years since he had moved in the first circles. There were no vouchers for Almacks for him. “And she turned you down?”
Granby shook his head. “No, that’s the worst of it. She loves me, too. She wants to marry me, but her father won’t give his permission.”
Hocking said, “There is always Gretna.”
“She’d never agree to that.”
You might be surprised, Hocking thought as he sipped his wine.
Lord Rusden, suddenly talkative, added, “It’s all Mr. Teel’s fault. He has the insane idea that his older daughter should marry first, before Julia.”
Hocking shrugged philosophically. Having the eldest daughter come out into society and marry first was a common practice, but few parents would refuse an eligible suitor for a younger sister. It was more likely that Teel did not approve of Granby. Perhaps Granby was not sufficiently grand – not enough blunt or only a second son. Maybe Teel was holding out for a title for his pretty daughter. Or perhaps Teel knew the young man frequented gaming hells such as this, Hocking thought with concealed humor. Even the largest of fortunes could be decimated by a run of bad luck.
Would Granby make a good husband, Hocking wondered, then pushed that thought aside. He had given up most of his scruples years before. He said only, “All you have to do is wait until Miss Teel marries, and Julia is free.”
Lord Rusden gave a bark of laughter. “Hell will freeze first.”
Granby added, “If Julia has to wait for her sister Margaret to find a husband, she’ll die an old maid, for certain.”
“I assume Miss Margaret doesn’t share her sister’s beauty?”
“No,” both young men said in unison, then Lord Rusden explained, “She’s a bran-faced ape leader with a mean temper.” He turned to Granby. “You remember what she did to Palmer.”
Granby nodded and tapped his temple. “I’ve seen the scar. The man’s lucky he didn’t lose an eye.”
Hocking’s eyebrows rose. He was intrigued. Had the young lady challenged a man to a duel? “Her choice of weapon?”
“A book, I believe,” Rusden said. “Palmer tried to propose, and she boxed his ear.”
Hocking was amused. “A lady of decided opinions.”
Granby snorted. “Call it what you will, the fact is, she will never marry and Julia will never be allowed to marry, either.” He drained his glass of wine and poured himself another, then stared morosely out into the room. “I wish I were dead.”
Hocking made no comment. Granby seemed like an earnest, well-meaning gentleman, but he was young. In six months, he would have forgotten all about Miss Julia Teel and be madly in love with some other young lady.
Rusden sighed. “It’s a tragedy.”
But hardly Romeo and Juliet, Hocking thought. This sounded more like Taming of the Shrew, but he doubted he could be another Petruchio. He had no stomach for a shrewish wife. If he married again, he would prefer a quiet, peaceful woman who would be content to stay at home and rear his children.
But on the other hand, he wouldn’t turn away a fortune, if it were available. “Tell me, does Miss Margaret have a dowry?”
Rusden nodded. “Teel says she’ll get fifteen thousand pounds, but it would take twice that to make a man take her.”
Fifteen thousand was a nice sum, Hocking thought, but hardly enough to counterbalance putting up with an unpleasant wife.
Granby stared morosely at his wine. “I’d double it myself if I thought it would help.”
Hocking’s hand paused as he brought the glass to his lips. “I beg your pardon?”
“I said I’d double it myself if I thought it would get her out of the way.”
“You’d pay a man fifteen thousand pounds to marry Miss Margaret Teel?”
Hocking’s voice lowered. “Are you willing to put that in writing?”
The room was still with nothing but the steady sound of the clock ticking on the mantle and her aunt occasionally turning a page in her book to disturb the silence. Margaret Teel felt as if she could not breathe. She threw her needlepoint on the sitting room floor and stood, startling both her aunt and her sister. She walked over to the window.
“Don’t,” Mrs. Barnes began as Margaret pushed up the sash. It was too late to stop her, but she finished nonetheless, “let all that wet in.”
Margaret ignored her and leaned out the window, taking a deep breath of the damp air. If only she could go outside, out of their expensive townhouse, into the square below to walk in the garden or to sit on one of the stone benches. Fitzwilliam Square was located only a few streets away from Grosvenor Square in the center of fashionable London.
“You’ll ruin your dress,” her aunt continued, tsking her tongue with annoyance. “And your hair.”
Could she ruin her hair? Margaret wondered. Her red tresses were the bane of her maid’s existence already – they refused to lie flat or curl on demand. She was often tempted to snip it all off like Caroline Lamb and be done with it, but she was afraid of making herself look worse.
She stared glumly out at the gray sky. If only there were a break in the clouds, a few rays of sunshine to brighten her dungeon cell. She needed to go outside, to do something. If only she could go riding. “I shall go mad if it doesn’t stop raining.”
“You will go mad, either way,” Mrs. Barnes murmured. She sat quietly, embroidering a seat cushion cover with neat, tiny stitches.
Margaret spun around. “What?” she said, voice rising. “What did you say?”
Julia hastily hid a smile by looking down at her own needlework. She was hemming one of their father’s shirts.
Mrs. Barnes shrugged. “I haven’t noticed that the weather has any effect, positive or negative upon your nature.”
Margaret clenched her hands into fists, determined not to rise to the bait. Mrs. Barnes, her Aunt Amelia, was her father’s sister and as such, deserved respect. Margaret did not want to argue with her. Despite what her aunt said, she did not purposefully create discord.
Mrs. Barnes was a large woman with a permanent sour expression. She was a widow of moderate means and had joined their household recently to act as their chaperone for the season. Mrs. Barnes had managed to secure husbands for her three unexceptional daughters, and Margaret knew that her father hoped Mrs. Barnes would find one for her this year as well.
“You are uniformly sullen,” her aunt continued. “I had hoped that you would have grown out of your childish distempers, but you have grown worse. I don’t blame you completely, for you were spoiled as a child. Your mother, God rest her soul, was a weak –”
Margaret felt the blood rush to her face. “Don’t you dare criticize my mother.”
“A weak woman,” Mrs. Barnes continued firmly. “She let you run wild. But you are a woman now, and it is time you acted appropriately.”
Appropriately. The word cut Margaret like a whip. For the past thirteen years, everyone had wanted her to act appropriately. While her mother was alive, she had been free and happy, adored by her parent. But once that kind woman was cold in her grave, she hadn’t had a moment’s peace. Sit still. Be quiet. Stop fidgeting. Walk, don’t run. Stop shouting. Lower your voice. Why can’t you be more like your sister, Julia?
She glanced at Julia, who refused to meet her eyes. Julia had inherited their mother’s angelic beauty, the pale golden hair and the cream and rose-petal skin. But Julia would not come to her defense, for she did not understand her, either. Julia had no trouble sitting quietly, obediently following orders.
In contrast, Margaret often felt like a caged dog, straining through the bars to get out. What she would do if she ever were free, she did not know, but that did not lessen her frustration.
“It’s no wonder you are still unmarried after four seasons,” Mrs. Barnes continued, warming to her subject. “For what man in his right mind wants an ill-tempered shrew?”
It was a question Margaret could not answer. “Forgive me, Aunt Amelia,” Margaret said quietly, determined to keep her voice steady. “I am not my best today. I will relieve you both of the burden of my presence.” She gave a little curtsey. “Until dinner, then.”
Mrs. Barnes said, “Remember, we are dining with the Reynolds this evening.”
“Yes, ma’am.” She walked over to the staircase that led to her bedroom above. A footman saw her approach and backed out of her way. Wise man. Ever since she threw a plate of cold eggs at the breakfast table, the London servants gave her a wide berth.
She mentally swore with each deliberate step. Damn Aunt Amelia. Damn the Reynolds. Damn dinner. Damn everything. The silent oaths made her smile ruefully, but they did not alter her predicament.
Tonight she would be laced into a corset to appear fashionably slim. Her hair would be pulled and twisted into a monstrosity of ribbons and flowers. She would wear another narrow dress that forced her to take little mincing steps in her dainty slippers. Then she would have to sit at a table and make conversation with half a dozen idiots, or more, and pray that her stomach didn’t growl while she nibbled at the dinner provided by her hosts. Heaven forbid she be allowed to eat until she was full.
She hated London.
She hated the Season.
All the rules and restrictions, all the idiocy, made her want to scream.
And sometimes she did scream, but then they sent for Dr. Compton to douse her with laudanum to calm her. Laudanum gave her horrible nightmares, so she was learning, slowly, to control her temper.
But it was difficult, and so often she failed, lashing out with cruel words that she later regretted.
She reached for the doorknob to her bedroom, just as her father walked past her. “Margaret,” he said with a nod.
Surprised, she stared. “Sir?”
Mr. Teel was a stocky, ginger-haired gentleman of less than average height, once handsome in his youth, now hearty in his advancing years. “On my way out again,” he said simply. He motioned to his patterned waistcoat. “Had to change. Sir Walter and I sat too close to the pit.”
That meant either cock-fighting or bear baiting, but she did not want to ask and listen to a detailed description of the fight. She asked, “Will you be joining us for dinner?”
“Dining in or out?”
He snorted. “Absolutely not. Reynolds has the worst seat in three counties. Can just imagine what slop he’d have at table.” He patted her arm comfortingly. “But you go and have a good time, my dear.”
“I won’t have a good time,” she said bluntly. “I will have a miserable time. I hate dining out.”
He blinked, surprised. “What’s this?”
She hesitated, then blurted out, “Let me go home. I don’t wish to marry. I hate London. Without me, Julia could find a husband and I wouldn’t have to – ”
“Not wish to marry?” he repeated, ignoring the rest of her speech. “What nonsense is this?” He chucked her under her chin. “Don’t be discouraged. You’re not as pretty as Julia, but there will be a gentleman for you. One of these days. You must be patient.” He patted her shoulder encouragingly. “These things take time. I remember when I was looking for a matched set of grays. Leyburn was selling a set, but their mouths were bad. And then I looked at a pair of Maxwell’s. One was a fine horse, but the other was skittish. I took them for a drive and had to be heavy on the whip to maintain a steady pace. I began to give up hope.”
Margaret bit her lip, waiting for him to finish. Once her father started a tale, there was no gainsaying him.
“Then Multon’s youngest lost ten thousand at the tables, and suddenly the finest stable came on the market. I had my pick of the lot. So you see? My patience was well rewarded.”
He surveyed her critically. “Stand up straight. You’re shorter than most, but you’ve a fine figure, if you’ll stand up straight.”
Margaret reluctantly obeyed, rolling her shoulders back and her ample bosom forward.
“That’s my girl.” He smiled his approval. “And don’t worry about your hair. Some men prefer redheads. Some even like a chit with a little spirit, a little fire. But not too much, mind you.” He wagged his finger at her in warning. “A woman should be like a horse, strong and beautiful, but obedient, quick to recognize the slightest tension on the reins.”
Margaret knew he meant well, but his horse analogies were difficult to stomach. She was not a horse and she had no intention of being bridled. She should have kept her silence earlier to avoid his lecture now.
“But enough of that. Sir Walter will think I’m standing him up.” Mr. Teel laughed. “Take Julia as your guide,” he called over his shoulder as he continued down the hall. “Men buzz around her like bees.”
Yes, but she was vinegar to Julia’s honey. And she did not want men to buzz around her. She wanted to be left alone.
Once she was safe within her room, Margaret closed the door and started pacing back and forth. It was not as satisfying as a walk outside, but at least she was moving. She waved her arms around herself in a wide circle.
What was the matter with her? She slipped out of her shoes and wiggled her toes. Why couldn’t she be happy? Life would be so much easier if she were like Julia.
Julia who often spent entire afternoons embroidering or reading sermons.
Sometimes Margaret was tempted to tear out Julia’s hair, just to get a reaction from her.
Maybe she did have an evil spirit as one governess had said. But if that were the case, why was she so miserable? If she were truly evil, her rebellious nature wouldn’t bother her, would it?
The trouble was, she had inherited more of her father’s temperament than her mother’s. But her father was a man, who could do what he wanted, when he wanted. He could spend the majority of his day outside, hunting or riding, and didn’t have to be cooped up like she was.
Margaret chewed a knuckle reflectively.
If she could think of a place to go, she would have run away years ago. But there was no one she could turn to, no safe haven. The Teels were not a large family, and the few extended members she knew were much like her father – respectable men of property who thought she should find a man and get married. The common consensus was that a strong-willed man and brat or two would settle her down.
What else could a young woman of quality do?
She couldn’t earn her living. Her sewing was atrocious, her musical ability minimal. She knew she didn’t have the patience to teach someone else’s children, and she would last less than an hour if she tried to be some elderly lady’s companion. It was difficult enough not to shout at Aunt Amelia.
If she were a man, she might be able to get hired as a stable hand for she loved working with horses, but she wasn’t a man, and no amount of disguise could change her full figure.
That left working as a lady’s maid or a kitchen maid, and she knew too well how precarious those positions were.
The truth was, she didn’t want to starve or to end up on the streets, so she stayed where she was – angry at herself and at everyone else.
Her only hope was to keep all her suitors at bay until her father gave up his plans for her or died. Then, finally, she would be free.
* * *
The Bellingham’s ballroom was overly hot. The windows were open, but with the crush of the crowd, it was stifling. The women with their thin muslin dresses and short rounded sleeves fared better than the men attired in coats, waistcoats and shirts, not to mention close fitting knee breeches and hose. Hocking gave a subtle tug to his cravat. He was no dandy with stiff collar points up to his ears, but even the most conventional neckware reminded him of a mummy in the British Museum. One hardly had room to breathe.
Which might be a blessing, considering the unwashed state of half the crowd. The rising generation tended to follow the example of Beau Brummell and bathe regularly, but the older generation relied too heavily on powder and French perfumes, leaving a pungent wake.
A rotund lady in puce satin stepped heavily on his foot. “I beg your pardon,” she murmured with a giggle in her voice. She looked at him with interest for a moment, surveyed his face, assessed the cost of his clothes, then mentally dismissed him, and turned to her companion. “Don’t you love a ball? Do you see anyone you know?”
“Smile,” another woman behind him hissed.
Hocking smiled, then realized that she had been speaking to her weak chinned daughter.
“Have you seen Boyce’s matched grays?” a gentleman asked another. “Heard he paid over five hundred guineas.”
“A piece or for the pair?”
“Did you notice how Mrs. Allen’s son looks nothing like her husband?”
Hocking let his breath out slowly. In the years that he’d been away, London society had changed little, and he liked it no better now than before. He would much rather spend his time at home in Devonshire, but sitting in his crumbling manor house didn’t pay the servants’ wages. Having married once for love, he was determined now to follow the Hocking family tradition and marry for money. Miss Margaret Teel was as likely a candidate as any other.
Or perhaps more likely, if she were as plain and old as Lord Rusden implied. And if Mr. Teel were eager to have her wed, he might be willing to overlook his checkered past.
But first, he must meet the young woman and make up his own mind. But that was a mere formality, a sop to his pride, for inwardly, he knew that he was already committed to his chosen course of action. Miss Teel could have a face like an anvil and weigh twenty stone, with hardly a tooth in her head, and he would still proceed. Thirty thousand pounds was too great a fortune to give up lightly.
Nothing comes amiss, so money comes withal, he thought wryly.
So no more mingling silently with the crowd; he must act. First, he must find Richard Bellingham, the host. He had not been invited to tonight’s ball, but had won the engraved invitation over a hand of whist, and had entered the party this evening under an assumed name. He did not think anyone would recognize him, but he did not want to risk being forcibly evicted.
He surveyed the crowd and saw Bellingham over by the ballroom doors, greeting the guests. His one-time friend had changed over the years. He looked the image of Bellingham Senior – a portly, jolly fellow, with little hair.
Hocking made his way through the throng.
He stepped past an older lady who turned to speak to one of her party at the same moment, thereby stabbing him in the arm with her fan. “Pardon me,” she murmured.
At the sound of her voice, he looked up into the eyes of his mother, Lady Cranston. Although over fifty years of age, she was still a handsome woman, slim and impeccably dressed. The Cranston sapphires glittered on her neck.
Hocking held his breath. He had not spoken to his mother in nearly two years. Before that, it had been more than a decade since he had seen her. They moved in very different circles.
His father had died when he was a small child, and she had married a second time, moving up from the widow of the eldest son of a Baronet to the wife of a Viscount. She did not want to bring him into her new family, so he had been raised by his grandfather.
She had spoken to him less than a dozen times while he was growing up, but two years ago, when he needed money quickly, he had approached her as a last resort, seeking a loan.
She had given him the entire sum as a gift with the understanding that he would never speak to her again. “Nearly everyone has forgotten that I was ever married to your father,” she said at the time. “I wish to forget it myself.”
She looked at him now with distaste, her lips tightening into a firm line. No doubt she feared he would go back on his word and claim the family bond.
But he would honor her wishes. Hocking met her gaze calmly. “Your servant, ma’am,” he said quietly with a nod, and stepped past her.
Lady Cranston breathed out a sigh of relief, which stung him far worse than the jab from her fan.
But he would not think of that. He would always respect her for giving him birth, and he appreciated her gift two years ago, more than she would ever know.
He straightened his shoulders. There was no point dwelling on the past. He was a firm believer that a man should play the hand he was dealt without complaint. Now, he must find his host. He searched the crowd and saw him standing by a wall.
“Richard, how are you?” he began in a voice loud enough to be heard over the orchestra. He steeled himself for the potential rejection.
Bellingham startled, then recovered quickly. “Peter, this is a surprise. How good to see you.”
Hocking felt the tension in his neck and shoulders relax. Perhaps he still had a friend after all these years. “Thank you.”
Bellingham surveyed him closely. “So you’re back in England, now. To stay?”
“I was sorry to hear about your wife.”
That phrase could have any number of meanings, but Hocking chose to consider it sincere. “Thank you.”
“What brings you to Town after all these years?” The press of the crowd made it difficult to hear the question.
Hocking cleared his throat. “I want – I need to marry again. I’ve heard good things about the elder Teel girl. Do you know her?”
“A little, but what I do know isn’t promising. I hear she has a temper.”
I come to wive it wealthily in London. If wealthily, then happily in London. Hocking shrugged. “Beggars can’t be choosers. Can you introduce me?”
“If you insist.” Bellingham turned to his wife. “Excuse me, my dear. Sylvia, I would like you to meet my good friend Sir Peter Hocking.”
In contrast to her husband, Mrs. Bellingham was tall and thin with a pointed nose. She wore a bright green turban with an ostrich feather bobbing in front. Her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open as she realized whom she was greeting.
“Tell him you’re pleased to meet him, Sylvia,” Bellingham prompted.
She closed her mouth. “I beg your pardon. Of course, I am pleased to meet you. Any friend of Richard’s . . .” she began, then faltered. She touched her husband’s arm. “I must find Louisa – I mean Cook, to make certain we have enough pastries. If you will pardon me.”
Hocking gave a slight bow as she retreated. He watched as Mrs. Bellingham hurried to a well-dressed young lady’s side. She spoke to her in a hurried manner, behind a gloved hand, then they both looked at him and looked away, embarrassed to be caught staring.
“That’s Miss Louisa Fine, my wife’s sister,” Bellingham explained. “She’s been out two years, and this year my wife is determined to find her a husband.”
Hocking nodded with understanding. “You can tell your wife not to concern herself. I have no designs on her sister.”
Bellingham looked uncomfortable. “I beg your pardon. Women can be foolish, sometimes.”
Hocking said nothing. He followed Bellingham, who walked along the room’s perimeter to avoid the couples dancing. “I’ve seen Teel’s sister, a Mrs. Barnes, several times at the refreshment table,” his host continued. “His daughters must be somewhere.”
“What about Teel?”
Bellingham shook his head. “Not here. Sent his regrets. He spends most of his time with a sporting crowd. Sir Walter Grisham and Lord Kinsbrough and that set. Teel had a horse that came in second at the Derby a few years back.”
Bellingham pointed to the couples dancing. “Ah, there’s the younger girl. One with the yellow hair.”
Hocking looked. Granby was correct. Miss Julia Teel was a lovely girl with pale hair. A graceful dancer with a pretty smile. She turned her head to speak to her dance partner, not Granby, and the gesture reminded him of Susan. Susan had been pretty once, with the same artless poise, but the intricate country dance continued and the fleeting resemblance was gone.
The music suddenly seemed unusually loud. Hocking turned to his friend. “And the other girl?” he prompted.
Bellingham surveyed the dance floor. “I don’t see her. No, wait. There she is,” he said triumphantly. “Sitting by herself.”
Miss Margaret Teel wore a gold colored dress with fancy stitch work at the hem, unlike the white muslin of her younger sister, to show that she was no longer a debutante. She held a fan in front of her mouth to hide a yawn, but there was no disguising the boredom in her eyes. She looked as if she, like he, wished to be somewhere, anywhere else. Perhaps they would find more things in common, Hocking thought hopefully, as he drew closer. Marriage without mutual understanding would be a nightmare, but he was willing to chance it.
“A pretty girl,” Richard commented. “But not in the common way.”
“No,” he agreed. She was a redhead, with freckles partly concealed by a dusting of powder. He had always liked red hair. She had a slightly upturned nose, an elegant neck, and a fine full bosom. He was slightly disappointed that she was not as plain as he’d hoped, but he was also pleased that she wasn’t an antidote. It would make his task easier.
As they drew closer, Hocking hesitated. “Wait a moment,” he said. As he and Bellingham watched, a young gentleman approached Miss Teel. By silent, mutual agreement they stood quietly, pretending to watch the dancing before them, but actually listening intently to the interaction.
The gentleman, no more than twenty by the looks of him, approached. “M- Miss T-Teel,” he said.
“H-h- how nice to see you again.”
Miss Teel eyed the gentleman coldly. “I don’t recall your name, sir.”
A lesser man would have retreated at her frosty tone. “I’m Mr. Gordon,” he said, bowing. “We met at Mrs. Carstair’s picnic last week?”
Miss Teel looked at him for a full minute before responding. “Ah, that explains it. There were so many insects, I noticed little else.” She sniffed and looked down her nose at him as if perhaps he were six legged, too.
He swallowed. “W-w-would you care to d-d-dance, Miss T-Teel?”
“No, I have no intention of dancing this evening, and even if I did, I would not waste my time with you, Mr. Gordon.”
The poor man looked at if he had been skewered in the ribs. “Then I will take my leave.”
“As you please, Mr. Gordon. Do not bother me again.” She waved him away with her gloved hand.
Hocking looked away, distressed by her manner. She was not a shrew to rival Shakespeare’s Katharina, but she was cold tempered and unkind. There was no reason for cruelty. She could have refused the man more gently.
“Second thoughts, eh?” Bellingham guessed from reading his expression. “She’s a disagreeable one, to be sure. Who’d want to wake up to that every morning?”
“What does that matter?” Hocking scoffed, strengthening his resolve. “I am no callow youth to be discouraged by a cold look or cold words.”
And do you tell me of a woman’s tongue, That gives not half so great a blow to hear as will a chestnut in a farmer’s fire? Tush, tush! Fear boys with bugs.
If anything, her proud disdain had merely driven away any qualms he might have had about courting her for her fortune.
“Then I will introduce you.”
“No, thank you. Not yet.”
Richard motioned to his guests. “I don’t have all night to wait for you to muster your courage. I’ll venture my wife is already wondering where I am.”
Hocking smiled and placed his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “No, that is fine. Go if you must. I am not afraid of Miss Teel.” At his friend’s mocking look of disbelief, he added, “Like a good general, I merely want to observe the enemy for a while, in order to plan my attack.”
Richard Bellingham eyed him closely. “You are determined to have her, then?”
“I am determined to try.”
“Heaven help her.”
Hocking laughed. “What about Heaven helping me?”
Mrs. Barnes walked, almost ran, across the dance floor and sat next to Margaret. “What is the matter with you?” she whispered fiercely behind her fan. “Mr. Gordon is a perfectly respectable young man. How could you refuse to dance with him?
Margaret should have known there would be consequences for rejecting him. Her aunt seemed to have eyes in the back of her head this evening. “Quite easily, ma’am. Mr. Gordon may be perfectly respectable, but he is a perfectly respectable bore. He has the look of a man who would step all over my shoes.” She put her feet forward so that her gold slippers peeped out below the hem of her dress. “And they are such dear slippers. Dear Aunt, you would not leave me to such a fate, would you?”
Mrs. Barnes sputtered, not quite knowing how to respond to her niece’s humor. “Cover your ankles, girl,” she ordered. “Do you want everyone here to think you’re a hoyden?”
“No, ma’am,” Margaret said quietly, dutifully sliding her feet back under her hem. She wished everyone would think she was a hoyden if it meant they would leave her alone. But with the dowry her father offered, she had to be harsh to discourage the gentlemen. Merely acting uninterested had not been enough. Mr. Palmer had cornered her with a proposal one afternoon at Lady Biscayne’s musicale, and Mr. May had tried to take her out onto the balcony at Mrs. Leach’s ball. It had taken a well-aimed jab with her elbow to stop him.
It was better to be cruel from the beginning than to give them false hopes.
And there was another reason, also. If Julia’s suitor Mr. Granby could be believed, some gentlemen asked her to dance as a wager. Their friends dared them to approach her, betting that she would turn them down. There were wagers in at least one gentlemen’s club, with odds of four to one against her dancing with anyone. Her verbal rejections became on-dits, repeated for amusement.
Margaret doubted that Mr. Gordon frequented such clubs, but there was no telling with gentlemen. Sometimes the most pleasant manners hid the greatest depravity.
Mrs. Barnes tsked her tongue. “Why can’t you be more like your sister? Just look at her – dancing nearly every dance.”
“You don’t see her worrying about her slippers.”
“She’ll have half a dozen offers by the end of the season, and what will you have?”
None, hopefully, Margaret thought, but kept her rebellious thoughts to herself.
“Oh look, there’s Mrs. Stiles. Is she with her brother? I know he’ll dance with you, if I ask him.”
“No, please.” Margaret rapidly fanned her face as she searched for an excuse. “I am sorry, Aunt. I am not feeling well. The room is too crowded. I am too hot. I have a dreadful headache. Would you mind if I stepped out of the ballroom for a moment?”
Mrs. Barnes sighed with irritation. “Very well. But don’t wander far, and be back within twenty minutes. We don’t want anyone talking.”
As if anyone would notice that she had left. “Yes, ma’am.” Margaret walked quietly through the crowd to the doors of the ballroom. She spoke to a footman. “Pardon me, I am overheated. Is there a room where I could sit down for a moment?’
“Some of the ladies are retiring to Miss Fine’s bedroom,” he said.
She smiled. “That would be lovely, thank you.”
“Upstairs, second room on the right.”
Margaret started up the stairs, then hesitated when she saw that the footman was no longer watching her. She didn’t want to drink punch and use a chamber pot in a room with half a dozen silly giggling girls and an equal number of gossiping matrons. She wanted to be alone. So instead of going upstairs, she changed directions and crept back down the stairs. After looking both ways to avoid detection, she walked down another hall. She tried a door handle. It was unlocked. She pushed the door open and saw an empty sitting room.
It was an ideal retreat. No one would notice her here. She could sit for a few minutes and then return to the ball. The room was dark, but she did not want to draw attention to herself by lighting candles, so she left the door open a few inches, letting in a little light from the candles in the hall.
Margaret sat down on a settee and slipped her feet out of her shoes. The gold satin slippers were pretty, but they were unbearably tight. Aunt Amelia thought a girl’s shoes should be as small as possible. Margaret rubbed her toes and sighed. Peace at last. For fifteen minutes she could relax.
She closed her eyes. She heard the orchestra playing softly in the background and smiled. Finally, she could enjoy the melody without fear that some gentlemen would want to dance with her.
She mentally recounted the weeks she had been in London. It was already the end of April, and she doubted her father would stay through June when he’d been invited to stay with Lord Kinsbrough for a summer house party.
That meant she only had to endure four or five more weeks of polite society, and then she could go home.
There was only one worry. Her father had the ridiculous notion of making Julia wait to marry until she herself was married, but Margaret did not think he would hold to his plan. He could be stubborn at times, but he was a practical man who did not like his comfortable life disturbed. If one of Julia’s suitors were wealthy enough, he might be persuaded to let her marry first. Margaret hoped so. She did not want to ruin her sister’s chance of happiness by ensuring her own.
She smiled wryly – if only one of Julia’s suitors were a fine shot or a bruising rider, then her father would be quick to accept him. It was unfortunate that Lord Kinsbrough, her father’s closest friend, was already married.
The orchestra silenced for a few minutes as the guests readied themselves for another dance – a cotillion, if she remembered correctly.
She sighed. She ought to return to the ballroom, but she did not want to go. Not yet. She stood up and stretched her arms above her head as high as her tight sleeves would allow. It was hot. Her excuse to her aunt had been truthful, after all. She walked in her silk stockinged feet over to the sitting room window and opened it. She looked out onto the moonlit street below.
Carriages lined the street. She could hear the coachmen talking amongst themselves and the horses stamping. Margaret took a deep breath. The air, although fresher than that in the ballroom, had the unmistakable acrid London odor. London was too crowded, with too many buildings, too many people, too many filthy chimneys. She wished she had a magical clock that could hasten time, so she could go home to Hertfordshire tomorrow.
At home, no one minded if she spent hours outside in the gardens or in the stables.
“I believe you have found the most comfortable room in the house.”
Margaret stiffened at the sound. Her hands gripped the windowsill. She turned to see a man standing in the doorway. With the hall’s light to his back, his features were hidden, and she didn’t recognize his deep voice. Who was he? Why had she been so foolhardy to leave the safety of the crowd? The last thing she wanted was to be trapped in a room, alone with a man.
Would anyone even hear her if she screamed?
But she need not worry, yet, she told herself. She should be careful and not overreact.
But just as one didn’t make sudden moves around a strange dog, she should still be wary.
In the faint moonlight, she saw an ivory handled letter opener on a writing table. It was a paltry weapon, but would inflict some damage if he were dangerous. She wrapped her fingers around it and hid it by her side in the folds of her gown as she faced him. “I don’t believe we are acquainted, sir,” she said coolly.
“We are not,” he said cheerfully. There was amusement in his tone. “But we will be.”
“I think not. I have no interest in a man who skulks in shadows like a thief.”
“Forgive me. I hoped you preferred the dark, as I do.” He stepped into the room. “It is quiet and peaceful here, much more pleasant than the ballroom.”
“Stay where you are,” she warned.
He continued to walk toward her as if she had not spoken. “But if you insist, I will gladly – ,” he lit a match next to the candelabra on a side table. “ – Light a candle.”
In the flickering light, she saw that he was tall and broad shouldered, dressed in evening clothes. He was one of the guests, not a servant. His hair was dark, slightly longer than fashionable. His features were handsome, more harsh than classically beautiful with a thin pointed nose and a strong jawline. He watched her intently.
He held the candle up to get a better view of her. “You are very lovely, this evening, Miss Teel.”
Margaret startled. How did he know who she was? If she had been introduced to him, she would have remembered him. “I have not given you leave to use my name.”
“I beg your pardon, Margaret,” he said with a small bow. “Or should I call you Maggie?”
She flinched. Her mother had called her Maggie. For a second she was too stunned by his effrontery to speak. “You go too far.”
His eyes glittered. “And too fast, as well. Forgive me.” He held his hand to his chest. “My heart dictates the pace.”
Margaret had heard her share of insincere flattery over the past few years, but this was the most absurd. His words were better suited to the stage than to real life. Did he expect her to believe him or was he mocking her? “You must be foxed,” she said finally.
She walked cautiously in an arc toward the open door, being careful to keep several paces and a chair between them.He seemed a friendly drunk, and was most likely harmless, but she intended to keep her distance.
“Completely intoxicated,” he agreed. “Intoxicated by your beauty.”
“Fustian.” Her hand closed on the doorknob. He was only a few feet away.
He acted surprised and leaned forward, toward her. “Don’t you know that you are the most beautiful woman at the ball?”
His words cut through her like a sword. “You are either a liar or blind. My sister is the most beautiful woman at the ball.”
“No, she is merely pretty. You are beautiful. You are fierce and radiant like a burning fire. Someday I will commission a painting of you.”
There was no response to this sort of madness. Talking to him merely encouraged his excesses. She shook her head. “I don’t have the time or the patience for this nonsense,” she said and slipped out into the hallway.
Within the brighter light, she felt safer immediately.
“Miss Teel?” he called pleasantly from within the room. “Your shoes?”
Her face grew hot with anger and embarrassment. She hesitated, torn by indecision. She couldn’t go back to the ball without her shoes, for her aunt would conduct a complete Inquisition, but she didn’t want to face him again, either.
Finally, she stalked back to the room, only to see him standing, holding the gold slippers high, out of her reach.
She growled, deep in her throat. Did he think she would jump like a pet dog for a treat at the dinner table? “Damn you. I won’t play this game. Give me my shoes.”
He smiled at her dilemma. “Aren’t you the least bit curious to know who I am?” he asked as he lowered the slippers to her chin level.
She snatched her shoes, but he held on tight. She refused to have a tug of war, so for a moment, they stood face to face, only inches apart. She glared up at him, her bosom lifting with her agitated breath, and he met that glare direct on, without backing down. “Very well,” she said finally, through clenched teeth. “Who are you?”
He released the shoes, and she staggered back a step, to regain her balance.
“I am the man who will marry you.”
NOTE: That’s the end of the excerpt. If you enjoyed it enough to purchase, you can find it at the booksellers below. Whatever you choose to do, thank you for taking the time to read my story!