A Season of Flirtation
January 24, 2023
A fun foray into the London Season
Her lessons in flirtation…
Could work too well!
When Lady Laura Pomeroy offers to give her friend lessons on surviving the Season, she doesn’t expect her friend’s brother to join! Banker Miles Rochdale is dubious of the aristocracy and clearly thinks Laura is shallow and silly. Frustratingly, mathematical genius Laura finds herself attracted to him and enjoys challenging his assumptions. But, as a marquess’s daughter, there’s no point impressing Miles because she’ll never be allowed to marry someone in the trade…
"A lively, sweet romantic tale of class differences with a twist."
~Elodie, Elodie’s Reading Room
“Thank you, Haines, I can escort myself in,” Lady Laura Pomeroy said, smiling over her shoulder at the butler who’d ushered her to the door of her friend Susanna Rochdale’s parlor. She turned back to enter the room--and collided with the tall man who was just exiting.
Knocked off balance, she stumbled. Strong hands reached out to catch her wrists, steadying her. About to offer an apology, she looked up into ice blue eyes so arresting she caught her breath.
The rest of the gentleman, she thought, giving him a covert glance from under her lashes, was equally worthy of admiration. A wide forehead brushed by sable locks, high cheekbones and a strong chin combined into a pleasingly handsome face. Broad shoulders set off a well-tailored dark blue coat that, while not in the latest kick of fashion, was made of expensive wool, as was the waistcoat beneath it, while the shirt was pristine and neckcloth expertly tied. The long legs outlined by buff trousers were shapely as well.
In addition to his good looks, the man radiated an aura of command and potent masculinity that prickled her skin with awareness. Even with gloves on, the feel of his hands on her wrists seemed to burn her skin, radiating heat up her arms and throughout her body.
“Excuse me, sir!” she said belatedly, a smile curving her lips at this vision.
It took her a moment to realize her smile wasn’t being returned. Indeed, an expression of annoyance passed over the man’s countenance.
“Undoubtedly my fault,” he said as he released her and stepped back. “One should always avoid females who don’t look where they are going. You must be Lady Laura Pomeroy. I’m Miles Rochdale, by the way.”
Without being immodest, Laura knew she was considered pretty. Her looks combined with her breeding and elegance generally won her appreciative masculine attention. Or at least courtesy.
Miles Rochdale was barely civil.
She made him a curtsey, to which he bowed. “I shall endeavor in future to do a better job of looking, Mr. Rochdale,” she replied, an edge to her tone.
“I’m sure my sister will be down directly, if you would care to await her in the parlor,” he said, gesturing into the room. “Unfortunately, pressing engagements prevent my lingering to entertain you.”
Inferring that she was too lack-witted to amuse herself for a few moments? Her own annoyance deepened. How regrettable, she thought, staring back up into Miles Rochdale’s remarkable eyes, that it was considered unladylike to strike a gentleman. It would be immensely satisfying to slap that faintly patronizing look off his far-too-handsome face.
“Oh dear, how disappointing,” she replied in the brightest, most vacuous tone she could manage. “However shall I endure the boredom of sitting alone with nothing to divert me?” She gave an elaborate sigh. “But I suppose I can tolerate it for a few moments.”
“Only for a few. Your servant, my lady,” Rochdale said, giving her a bow.
He’d been anything but, Laura thought, disgruntled, watching him walk away. She really should have resisted the temptation to play the shallow debutante he obviously thought her. But his dismissive attitude, which she had nothing to deserve, had been too annoying.
How dare he sum her up as lacking after exchanging barely a few words!
At the same time, she was conscious of an illogical disappointment. Not that she would expect the son of the house, having encountered her by chance, to delay his departure to converse with her. Besides, why would she wish him to?
Of course she wouldn’t. Not if he were going to imbue every remark with that irritating undertone of disdain. No matter how commanding his form or mesmerizing his ice blue eyes.
Even more irritating was the realization that despite his unappealing personality, his physical presence had left her nerves simmering.
Maybe she was as shallow as he’d assumed her to be.
She’d taken two agitated turns around the room when her friend Susanna rushed in. “So sorry to be late!” she cried, coming to exchange a hug with Laura. “I didn’t mean to keep you waiting.”
“I bore the delay with fortitude,” Laura said drily. “As I assured your brother I was capable of doing.”
“Oh, you met Miles? I’m sorry I missed him! I knew he was to be home this morning and hoped I’d be able to introduce you. He’s so busy, always at the bank or the exchange or the stock market, he’s hardly ever here. And though he occasionally gets invited to ton events, he never attends. I so wanted you to meet my dearest, most considerate brother.”
Dear? Considerate? Laura gave her head a tiny shake. Either her friend viewed her brother through a lens of sisterly blindness, or his behavior with a chance-met stranger was quite different from his treatment of his family.
Still, even a chance-met stranger could have expected to be treated with more courtesy.
“You’re frowning,” Susanna observed. “Did Miles upset you? He…he can be abrupt.”
“Oh, no! I love being dismissed as empty-headed and frivolous.”
Susanna gave a peal of laughter. “I’m afraid he does tend to view all females that way. He was probably impatient, on his way to some meeting or other. Since Papa turned over the running of the bank to him, he’s had to shoulder a staggering amount of responsibility. But Papa says he’s wonderfully competent and fully capable of taking charge, despite his young age.”
“Your papa must be young, too. I’m surprised he’s ready to retire from business.”
“Some of his cronies want him to stand for Parliament. They’re always in meetings, talking about boroughs and hustings and I-don’t-know-whatall. Getting elected seems to be somewhat complicated.”
“Not complicated—simpler, and fairer too, since the Reform Act passed. No more pocket boroughs that can be bought or controlled by…” At the slightly-glazed look in her friend’s eye, Laura squelched her enthusiasm about matters political and let the sentence trail off. “But I daresay you’ve no interest in the inner workings of Parliamentary elections! Shall we discuss something else?”
“Something more pressing, like Lady Ashdown’s upcoming ball?” Susanna said. “I must admit, I view the prospect with as much dread as anticipation.”
Shaking her head, Laura took her friend’s hand. “You really mustn’t let the old beldames intimidate you. Hold your head up, smile, and show you believe you’ve a right to be among them—as you do!”
“The society doyennes are frightening enough. But the gentlemen…” Susanna’s sentence trailing off, she sighed. “I find them even more alarming. The top-lofty ones terrify me so much I can’t manage to utter a word. And I never know how to respond to the ones who are gallant. Sometimes I wish I’d just refused Lady Bunting’s offer to sponsor me. Except Mama would have been so disappointed. Between you and me, I don’t care whether or not I make the great match she hopes for. But I did promise to do my best, so I suppose I must continue on until the bitter end.”
“Wise of you not to be anxious to make a match,” Laura said approvingly. “You are young yet, very lovely, and possessed of a handsome dowry. You’ve no need to accept the first offer that comes your way. You should refrain from marrying unless or until you meet a gentleman with whom you feel you could be happy for a lifetime. I know I shall not be forced into a choice. No matter how many Seasons I must remain on the Marriage Mart!”
The more Seasons, the better, she thought. Her indulgent Papa, in no hurry to see her married, allowed her far more liberty to pursue her mathematical interests than a spouse likely would. To say nothing of the demands that would be imposed by acquiring a husband and children.
“The beautiful daughter of a marquess will always be able to take her pick,” Susanna was saying. “Though I am just the offspring of a humble banker, I intend to be equally discriminating.”
“With your whole life’s happiness dependent on choosing wisely, I should hope you plan to be discriminating!” Laura retorted.
Susanna grinned. “When one can barely manage to speak a word to gentlemen, it does make it easier to discourage them. So perhaps my social ineptitude has its advantages.”
“It won’t be an advantage when you meet the gentleman you do wish to encourage.” After studying her friend, Laura shook her head. “You must conquer your shyness. Learn what to say, how to communicate without speaking—even to flirt.”
Her eyes widening in dismay, Susanna said, “I wouldn’t wish to be forward!”
“Not forward. You just need to know how to converse with eligible gentlemen. How to politely depress the attentions of ones who don’t attract you and encourage those who do. Also, how to stand up to those who would try to intimidate you, gentlemen or ladies.
“Not being gentry-born, I’ll never be truly accepted by the ton,” Susanna said. “Which is the main reason I wasn’t keen to have a Season and would rather not marry a titled gentleman. My fortune might be prized, but my person would be disdained.”
Having been recently disdained herself, Laura felt that remark strike home. Frowning to shake off the memory of her encounter with Susanna’s brother, she said, “You simply ignore the discourteous and concentrate on those who treat you kindly. And with those gentlemen, you really do need to be able to carry on a pleasant conversation. Besides, knowing what to say and when will make attending social events a pleasure, rather than something you dread. Even if you don’t end up finding the man you wish to marry.”
“Shall we stop by Hatchard’s after we visit the dressmaker and purchase me a book of instructions?” Susanna asked, laughing. “I doubt such a thing exists!”
Laura grinned. “No need to visit Hatchard’s. I shall teach you. I can’t always be around when you go into society, and I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable ever again.”
“I do admire how you always seem to know just what to say to everyone! But can such skills be taught?”
“Of course. Now, I don’t mean to imply that I know everything—but I have learned a few useful techniques after weathering my first Season! For instance, there are certain conventions—ways of holding a fan, and the language of flowers--that allow you to send and receive messages without saying a word. Then there are general situations to which you can practice the appropriate responses, so that the correct reply comes to you automatically, without your having to think about it. A very helpful skill, I can assure you!”
“It would be wonderful to feel more at ease in company,” Susanna admitted. “Do you really think you can teach me?”
“Absolutely! Are you free this afternoon?” At Susanna’s nod, Laura said, “I am as well. I shall have to return home briefly after our shopping expedition, but after that I could return here and we could begin this very day. With Lady Ashdown’s ball only two nights away, there’s no time to lose! After a bit of practice, you’ll be ready to take on the ton!”
Susanna shuddered. “I quail at the prospect. But if you truly wouldn’t mind, I would be vastly grateful. Imagine, not having to dread every encounter with a Lady Arbuthnot or a Lord Sinclair! Or Miss Arsdale or Miss Wentworth,” she added the names of two of the most elegant--and snobbish--Diamonds of the current Season.
“All are best avoided, if possible. But if you must meet them, we shall prepare you something appropriate to say. Now, if we’re to have time for a lesson later, we should skip having tea and head to the dressmaker immediately. We don’t want to rush through choosing fashions.”
“That endeavor I can genuinely enjoy,” Susanna said. “I’ll run upstairs to get my pelisse, summon my maid and meet you back here directly.”
“Excellent. I spied some pale green crepe when I visited the modiste last week that I think would look wonderfully on you. I can’t wait for you to see it.”
After giving her a quick hug, Susanna hurried out. Laura gazed after her, smiling faintly. Some in Society questioned why she’d chosen to befriend a banker’s daughter with nothing to recommend her save a vast dowry. As unimpressed by grand titles as she was by centuries of breeding that often produced self-important individuals of great pride and little compassion, Laura couldn’t understand how any sensible person could not be beguiled by Susanna Rochdale’s sweetness, innocence, and gentle charm.
With the two close friends she’d made in her debut Season unavailable, Lady Margaret D’Aubignon banished to the country and Eliza Hasterling more often than not preoccupied by family concerns, Laura had been drifting through her second Season, bored and lonely. She’d been immediately drawn to Susanna’s shy smile, and the genuine friendship that soon blossomed between them was brightening what she’d feared would be a sad, dull season like the first daffodils of spring bring cheer at the end of a long dreary winter. To be able to repay that warmth by equipping her friend to better deal with the Society into which she’d been thrust would be a delight.
She had a sudden memory of a pair of icy, mocking blue eyes. Tutoring Susanna might mean more encounters with her dismissive brother. While preparing her friend to face Society, perhaps Laura ought to prepare herself by coming up with a conversational way to wipe the condescending look off Miles Rochdale’s handsome face.
A few hours later, Miles walked back from his office to return the book he’d borrowed from the parlor. As his hand touched the door latch, he paused, remembering his encounter from this morning.
It wasn’t often that a lovely young lady fell into one’s arms. For a startled moment, he’d simply gazed at her.
She’d been well worth gazing at. A gamin, heart-shaped face, eyes bluer than a summer sky in June, blonde curls that the sunlight streaming through the glass transom over the entry door had shot through with silver, and a deliciously curved figure… He might push himself, working tirelessly for long hours, but he was still a man, and couldn’t help his automatic response to such feminine beauty.
Fortunately, before he became too enraptured, she looked up at him and smiled--a teasing, tempting sort of smile he remembered all too well. A smile that made his heart contract painfully and stabbed him in the gut, calling up the bitter memories he thought he’d put well behind him.
She might be blond rather than brunette, tall rather than petite, but that practiced look she’d fixed on him was designed to allure, just as Arabella’s had been. On his guard now, had she not needed his help to recover her balance, he would have shoved her away.
At the same moment, he realized this tempting damsel must be the marquess’s daughter who had unaccountably taken up his sister. He frowned again at the thought.
She looked the part of an elegant young Society lady. He didn’t know much about feminine fashion, but even he recognized costly fabric and expert tailoring when he saw it. Her mass of golden hair had been pinned up in elaborate curls, exposing dainty ears that sported expensive sapphire drops, their blue hue echoed in a matching necklace and bracelet.
Fortunately, this time he encountered a Society charmer, he was older, less impressionable, and on his guard.
He’d probably been rude, he thought with a sigh, but he hated the idea of his sister spending time with a woman like that. Bad enough that Mother had lunged at the chance when an old friend whose husband had been ennobled had offered to present Susanna to Society. He’d tried, without success, to talk his mother out of accepting Lady Bunting’s offer. The last thing he wanted was for his sweet sister to be dazzled by one of the idle sprigs of gentility whose fathers came into the bank needing loans to fund their extravagances.
All those men were gentlemen—of a sort--and he’d insisted that Susanna be well-chaperoned, so he didn’t fear she’d come to any physical harm. But he knew only too well how, out of boredom and a desire to pursue some novelty, an aristocrat might encourage her, trifle with her affections, and end up breaking her heart when he lost interest and abandoned her.
Arabella had done a masterful job on him.
Naïve, trusting, and dazzled as he’d been, it hadn’t taken much encouragement for him to fall for her. To believe the relationship she’d beguiled him into was genuine. When on her part it had been all pretense, a mere toying with him to practice her charms. His face flushed again in anger and remorse as he recalled her scornful rejection of the offer he thought she’d invited and desired.
But in his sister’s situation, it would be worse if, intent on securing Susanna’s dowry to fund a life of idle indulgence, some aristocratic suitor did convince her to wed. Such a marriage could only mean misery for her, always an outsider in the world of the husband who’d ignore her while he frittered away her money on cards, gambling, horses, finery and mistresses.
Miles had no idea why Lady Laura Pomeroy had decided to befriend his sister, a girl with no pretense of being gently bred. Likely as fickle as her masculine counterparts, she too could wound his gentle sister, dropping her after the newness of whatever had appealed to her about Susanna wore off.
Until it did, he was equally worried about the influence of this woman he knew his sister admired. He didn’t want Lady Laura turning his sister another vain, frivolous Society debutante, a self-centered flirt who played with men’s hearts.
Much as he wanted to discourage the friendship, he wasn’t sure how to go about it. Looking up to Lady Laura as she did, Susanna was sure to defend the woman if he tried to disparage her.
Sighing again, Miles walked into the salon and put the book back on the shelf. He just wanted his little sister to marry a man of her own class who would value her for herself, take care of her, make her happy, and keep her safely among her own kind. If he had to, he might force himself to go out into the ton Society he normally avoided in order to watch over Susanna and make sure she was not beguiled by some aristocratic ne’er-do-well like the many he’d encountered during his years at Oxford.
And at the same time, prevent her from being led into copying the attitudes and habits of her would-be ton friend.