...but enough talk of Lady Neeley's ill-fated fête. As difficult as it is for much of the ton to believe, there are other subjects worthy of gossip...most notably, London's bluest-eyed earl, Lord Matson.
Although not intended for the title (his elder brother died tragically last year), Lord Matson does not seem to be having difficulty assuming the mantle of man-about-town. Since arriving in London earlier this Season, he has been seen with a different eligible female on his arm each day.
And at night, with ladies who would not be considered eligible at all!
Lady Whistledown's Society Papers, 31 May 1816
"But we weren't invited," Charlotte Birling said.
Her mother, seated behind the morning room's oak writing desk, looked up from the new Whistledown column. "That doesn't signify, because we wouldn't have attended, anyway. And thank goodness for that. Imagine us standing about chatting, and having Easterly walk in. Infamous."
"Sophia didn't have to imagine it. She was invited." Charlotte glanced at the mantle clock. Nearly ten. With a quickening heartbeat, she set aside her embroidery. She needed to get to the window without her mother noticing.
"Yes. Twelve years of trying to forget that man, and just as her life begins to recover, he reappears. Your cousin must have been mortified."
Charlotte wasn't so sure about that, but she made an assenting sound, anyway. The clock's ornate minute hand jerked forward. What if the clock was slow? She hadn't considered that. Or what if he was early? Unable to help it, she bounced to her feet. "Tea, Mama?" she blurted, nearly tripping over her cat. Beethoven rolled out of the way, batting his paws at the hem of her gown.
"Hm? No, thank you, dear."
"Well, I'll just have some."
Her gaze out the front window, she splashed tea into a cup. The street in front of Birling House boasted a few stray leaves, fooled by the cold weather into thinking it still winter, but nothing else moved. Not even a vendor, or a carriage on the way to Hyde Park. Above the sound of paper rustling at the writing desk, the clock ticked again. Charlotte took a sip of tea, barely noting both that it was too hot, and that she'd forgotten to add sugar.
And then, she forgot to breathe. Heralded by a jingle of reins, a black horse turned up the lane from High Street. The world, the clock, the clopping of hooves, the beat of her heart seemed to slow as she gazed at the rider.
Hair the color of rich amber played a little in the soft morning breeze. The dark blue beaver hat shadowed his eyes, but she knew they were a faded cobalt, like a lake on an overcast day. His jacket matched the color of his hat, while his close-fitting dun trousers and his polished Hessian boots said as clearly as any gold-embossed calling card that he was a gentleman. His mouth was set in a straight line, relaxed but somber, and she wondered what he might be thinking.
"Blotte? Charlotte! What in the world are you gaping at?"
She jumped, spinning away from the window, but it was already too late. Her mother nudged her sideways, leaning forward to peer through the window at the passing rider.
"Nothing, Mama," she said, taking another swallow of tea and nearly gagging at the bitter flavor. "I was just think-"
"Lord Matson," the baroness stated, reaching over to yank the curtains closed. "You were staring at Lord Matson. For heaven's sake, Charlotte, what if he'd looked over and seen you?"
Humph. She'd been looking out the window for the past five days, and he hadn't turned his head in her direction once. Xavier, Earl Matson. For all he knew, she didn't even exist. "I'm permitted to look out my own front window, Mama," she said, stifling a sigh as the Arabian and its magnificent rider vanished behind green velvet draperies. "If he saw me, I hope he would assume that I was looking out at our fine roses, which I was."
"Ah. And you regularly blush at the sight of roses, then?" Baroness Birling resumed her seat at the desk. "Put that scoundrel out of your mind. You have the Hargreaves ball this evening to prepare for."
"It's ten o'clock in the morning, Mama," Charlotte protested. "Putting on a gown and pinning up my hair doesn't take ten hours. It barely takes two."
"I don't mean physical preparations. I'm referring to mental preparations. Don't forget, you'll be dancing with Lord Herbert."
"Oh, bother. The only preparation I'll need for that is a nap."
She hadn't realized she'd spoken aloud until the baroness swept to her feet again. "Obviously, daughter, you have forgotten the efforts to which your father went in seeking out Lord Herbert Beetly and ascertaining his interest in finding a wife."
"Mama, I didn't-"
"If you require a nap in order to behave in an appropriate manner, then go take one at once." Scowling, the baroness crumpled the Whistledown column. "Take care, lest you end up in here as well."
"I never do anything, so I don't see how that could possibly happen."
"Ha. Sophia's only error was in marrying Easterly twelve years ago. And even after not seeing him in all that time, even after living an impeccable life for over a decade, the moment he reappears, her name becomes associated with scandal again. Whatever you may think of Lord Herbert, he will not cause a scandal. You can hardly say the same for that man you were gawking at. Lord Matson has only been in Town for three weeks, and he's already managed to be noticed by Whistledown."
"I wasn't gawk-" Charlotte snapped her mouth closed. At nineteen, by now she knew all the steps and turns of her mother's tirades. Interfering now would only make things worse. "I'll be in my room, then, napping," she said stiffly, and left.
Besides, in all honesty, she had been gawking at Lord Matson. She didn't see the harm in it. The earl was exceedingly handsome, and gaping at him through a window or passing by him on the way to the refreshment table was the closest she was likely to get. Dashing, unmarried war heroes certainly weren't allowed on the Birling premises. Heavens, one might wink at her and cause a scandal.
It wasn't as if she wanted to marry him, or something. Even without her parents obsession with respectability and propriety she knew better than that. The handsome, dashing, daring men were for dancing and flirting. Marrying a man who always had an eye toward his next conquest B that seemed a sure path to misery.
But he hadn't flirted or asked her to dance. Charlotte sighed as she reached her bed chamber, Beethoven on her heels. It would never happen. She could tell herself that her parents would warn off any male with a single blot on his reputation, and so they would, but she wasn't likely to attract any such man's notice, anyway.
Considering she'd only risen two hours earlier, napping didn't hold much appeal, though Beethoven had already curled up on her pillow and was snoring softly. Instead she retrieved the book she'd been reading and sank into the comfortable chair beneath the window. Ordinarily she would have pushed open the glass, but since summer refused to appear and the sky had already begun throwing down yet another drizzle, she pulled a knitted throw over her legs and settled in.
This was how she prepared for her encounters with Lord Herbert Beetly B by pretending to be somewhere else. In her favorite novels princes and knights thrived, and even the third sons of minor marquises were either dashing or villainous. At least no one in the faerie realms could be said to be dull.
Charlotte lifted her head, gazing at her faint reflection in the rain-streaked window. Heavens, what if that described her, as well? Was she dull? Was that why her father had chosen Lord Herbert as her perfect match? Narrowing her eyes, she intensified her scrutiny.
She wasn't a ravishing beauty, of course; even without the occasional muttered commentary disparaging her height and her less than bountiful bosom, she'd seen herself often enough in the dressing mirror to know. She did like her smile, and her brunette hair with its tint of red. Brown eyes, but she did have two of them, and they were set at the appropriate distance from her nose. No, it wasn't her appearance. It was the way she always felt like a duck, quacking among elegant swans.
So she enjoyed gawking at Xavier, Lord Matson while he rode to his daily boxing appointment at Gentleman Jackson's. She wasn't the only one who liked to look at him and she didn't doodle his name linked with hers at parties, as she'd seen other girls do. She knew better. But it was still nice to daydream, once in awhile.
As the hall clock signaled nine o'clock in the evening, Xavier, Earl Matson shrugged out of his greatcoat and handed the sopping wet thing over to the care of one of the Hargreaves footmen. As he took his place in the line of nobility awaiting introduction into the main ballroom, the rush of warm air coming from inside felt pleasant, if highly perfumed B which didn't quite cover the faint musty smell. He imagined that in a very short time he would find it stifling. The event itself closed off his breathing, made him want to yank off his cravat and flee back into the cold, wet evening.
It still amazed him that an event so closely-packed could feel so . . . isolating. He much preferred an intimate game of cards at some club or other, or even a night at the theater where at least there was something to focus on besides the gossiping mass of humanity B especially when a large share of them seemed to be focused on him.
Yes, he was newly arrived in Town, and yes, he had a sizeable fortune to his name. But for God's sake, he'd spent the last year at Farley, the family estate B his estate B in Devon, and after twelve damned months of paper-shuffling and mourning clothes, whose damned business was it but his own if he cared to spend a few quid wagering and enjoying a good glass of port? And an actress or two? And an accommodating young widow of uncertain reputation, but well equipped with a seductive smile and lovely long legs?
Places like the Hargreaves ball, however, were where eligible, marriage-minded young females came to show off their plumage, and tonight he was hunting more respectable prey. So he handed the butler his invitation and strolled into the main room on the tail of his name and title being announced in a stentorian bellow.
"Matson," another voice boomed off to his left, and Xavier turned as Viscount Halloran strode up to grab his hand and pump it vigorously. "Came for the show, have you? Looks as though everyone has."
"'The show?'" Xavier repeated, though he had a good idea what Halloren was talking about. Apparently everyone read Whistledown.
"That Neeley bracelet debacle. Seems all the suspects have put in an appearance."
As far as the missing bracelet concerned him, at least the mystery columnist now had something to discuss besides his social calendar. He nodded. "It looks as though everyone in London's put in an appearance."
"Ha. Have to be seen at the Hargreaves Grand Ball, don't you know. And I told you, this is the place to begin if you're looking for a likely chit to marry. More lively crowd than Almack's, anyway." The viscount leaned closer. "Just a word of advice. Don't drink the sherry. And get to the port early."
"My thanks." When Halloren seemed ready to begin a dissertation on the single females present, Xavier excused himself.
He'd never been to a Hargreaves Grand Ball before, but the decorations seemed so sparse as to be nonexistent, and it didn't take a mathematician to see that there weren't enough chairs for everyone by half. Apparently this was expected, however, because everyone avoided the drinks and snacks, and instead stood in clusters discussing who might have stolen Lady Neeley's infamous bracelet. Apparently he'd landed in the gossip capitol of London. Grateful as he was that he wasn't the topic of conversation, it was just a damned bracelet, for God's sake.
"Mother, just because Lady Neeley decides to accuse Lord Easterly doesn't mean we have to join the flock," a female voice to one side of him said.
"Hush, Charlotte. She's only saying what everyone is already thinking."
"Not everyone," the voice returned. "For goodness' sake, it's just a blasted bracelet. Ignorance of its whereabouts hardly seems to balance out against ruining a man's reputation."
Xavier turned his head. It was impossible to figure out which chit had spoken, since a hundred of them in various ages, sizes, and dress colors seemed to be wedged into a solid slice of feminine charms. He wasn't the only one interested in navigating it, however. A ripple inside the wedge opened to reveal a tall, brown-haired gentleman B Lord Roxbury, if his memory served him.
He took a lady's hand, bowing over it and cooing something that made her flutter, then went on to the next, a tall, thin female with dark hair.
"Good evening, Miss Charlotte," Roxbury drawled, kissing her hand.
"And to you, Lord Roxbury." She smiled at the baron.
That was the voice which had caught his attention. The smile she gave the baron was a little crooked, not poised and perfect and practiced for hours in front of a mirror. Genuine, in a sea of faux humor and humility. Charlotte. With an impatient breath Xavier waited until a chuckling Roxbury moved away, and then stepped in before the chits closed ranks again.
"Charlotte, I've told you not to encourage such scoundrels," the older woman beside her hissed. She took the young lady's hand and rubbed at it with the corner of her matronly shawl.
"He didn't leave a mark, Mama" Charlotte replied, her brown eyes dancing. "And he's kissing everyone's hand, for heaven's sake."
"That is his error; you don't need to encourage it. Just be thankful Lord Herbert didn't see you showing favor to another gentleman."
"As if he would no . . ." She looked up, brown eyes meeting Xavier's. The color drained from her face, and her mouth formed a soft "o", before it clamped shut again.
Something grabbed his insides and wrenched him forward another step. Oddly enough, the sensation wasn't at all unpleasant. "Good evening," he said.
"Good . . . Hello," she returned, offering a curtsy. "Lord Matson."
"You have me at a disadvantage," he said quietly, noting that the mother had stiffened into a fair imitation of a board. "You know my name, but I don't know yours."
"Charlotte," she gulped, then with a breath squared her shoulders. "Charlotte Birling. My lord, this is my mother, Lady Birling."
The name didn't sound the least bit familiar, but then he'd only been in London for three weeks. "My lady," he said, reaching out to grip the woman's fingers.
"My . . . my lord."
He released her before she could have an apoplexy, turning his attention back to Charlotte. "Miss Charlotte," he said, taking her hand in turn and repeating the manner in which Roxbury had addressed her. Her fingers through her thin lace gloves felt warm, and despite her initial stammering, both her gaze and her grip remained steady. Abruptly he didn't want to release her.
"I'm surprised to see you here tonight." With a sideways glance at her mother she twitched her fingers free.
"And why is that?"
The smile touched her mouth again. "Warm lemonade, stale cake, and a barely-audible orchestra with no dancing."
Xavier lifted an eyebrow. "It sounds as though no one should be here." With a glance of his own at her white-faced mother, he leaned closer. "So what is the attraction?" he asked in a lower voice. Besides this unexpected female, of course.
"Gossip, and morbid curiosity," she answered promptly.
"I've heard the gossip, but explain the rest, if you please."
"Oh, it's simple. Lady Hargreaves is at least a hundred years old, and she has seventy or eighty grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She refuses to choose an heir, so everyone comes by to see who the latest favorite might be."
Realizing something he'd never expected of the evening B that he was enjoying himself B Xavier chuckled. "And who is the current frontrunner?"
"I have no ide-"
"Charlotte, you were going to escort me to the refreshment table," the baroness broke in, stepping between the two of them.
Xavier blinked. He'd all but forgotten anyone else was there B and given the crowd and the noise and his usual fairly keen sense of self-preservation, that was highly unusual. Paying attention to a proper chit was a good way to get either gossiped about, or worse, entangled B and it was far too early in his selection process for that. "Good evening, then."
"It was nice to meet you, my l-"
"Oh, there's your father," Lady Birling interrupted again, grabbing her daughter's arm.
He looked after them for a moment as they made their way through the crush. She'd known who he was, and while that wasn't all that surprising considering the attention the Whistledown columns had been paying him, it bothered him that he'd spent nearly a month in London and she'd never caught his eye. Certainly she wasn't a classical beauty, but he would definitely set her on the pretty side of plain. In addition, her smile and her gaze had been . . . compelling.
"There you are, Xavier," a female voice cooed at him, and a slender hand wrapped around his arm.
"Lady Ibsen," he returned, checking his flying thoughts.
"Mm. It was Jeanette last night," she breathed, pressing her bosom against him.
"That was in private."
"Ah, I see. And this evening you're otherwise occupied. Well, I've been keeping an eye out, myself. I have several prospective brides in mind for you. Come along."
He gazed down at her oval upturned face and dark eyes which bespoke her Spanish ancestry. "Brides who wouldn't mind if their husband continued his philandering with a particular female of questionable reputation, I assume?"
She smiled just enough to hint of private seductions. "Of course."
With a breath he gestured her to lead the way. As they pushed into the crowd, however, he couldn't resist a last look over his shoulder at a tall chit with warm fingers and a crooked smile. "Of course."
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