The Wallflower's Last Chance Season
August 22, 2023
A fun foray into the London Season
Enter this 1830s London season full of fun and flirtation
Has the reluctant wallflower…
finally met her match?
When impoverished vicar’s daughter Eliza Hasterling helps an older viscount after he falls at a ball, his son Lord Giles Stratham is suspicious she’s out to wed his widowed father! This season might be Eliza’s last chance to find a husband and have the family she longs for, but she’s no fortune hunter! In fact, it’s the brusque but handsome Giles who sets her heart racing, but is that any basis for a good match?
London, May 1836
Eliza Hasterling tucked back into her reticule the needle and thread she’d used to repair the tear in her skirt where the hapless Mr. Alborne had trod on her hem. Hopefully it wouldn’t show; her meager allowance wouldn’t allow replacing the gown. Giving her feathery curls one last look in the mirror, she left the Ladies’ Withdrawing Room and headed for the stairs back down to the ballroom.
Her forthright friend Lady Margaret would say it was her own fault for dancing again with Alborne, she thought with a sigh. But with his spotted face and eager, puppy-dog eyes, she found it impossible to fob him off as Maggie—and so many other young ladies—did. Being neither handsome nor rich, and clumsy into the bargain, he was hardly considered a desirable parti. Knowing what it was like to be overlooked and disparaged, she couldn’t help feeling sorry for the young man. Which meant, as she didn’t snub him, he repeatedly sought her out.
Even she might have to start refusing him if he were going to destroy her limited wardrobe.
She’d descended the stairs and began to cross the room when the older gentleman to whom she’d nodded as they passed uttered a sharp cry of dismay. She turned to see the cane on which he’d been leaning skid off the first step and clatter to the floor. Losing his balance, he pitched sideways.
She rushed over to grab his arm, not strong enough to prevent him staggering to his knees, but at least able to keep him from falling full-length onto the floor. After she helped steady him back to his feet, she knelt to recover the cane.
She’d just handed it back to him when two matrons entered the passageway and stopped short, eying them curiously--the gentleman leaning on his cane, looking down at her, and Eliza beside him on her knees. Seeing the flush of embarrassment on the gentleman’s face, Eliza held her hand out to him, saying quickly, “How clumsy of me to stumble! I do thank you for offering to help me up.”
Catching on, the man took her fingers and pulled them as she rose to her feet. Belatedly recognizing one of the matrons as the imperious Lady Arbuthnot, Eliza braced herself.
“Lord Markham, how condescending of you to lend her a hand,” the lady said before turning to Eliza. “You should be more careful, Miss Hasterling. You might have careened right into Lord Markham.”
“No harm done, your ladyship,” Markham said.
Giving Eliza a disdainful glance, Lady Arbuthnot nodded to the Viscount, then linked her arm with her friend’s and proceeded past them up the stairs. As they reached the top of the stairway, she murmured—but quite loud enough for them to hear—“A clergyman’s daughter. No grace or poise—but then, what can one expect?”
Her companion sniffed. “Gracious of Markham to even acknowledge her. She ought to know her place and keep silent!”
Eliza pressed her lips together, feeling her own face redden but determined to ignore the remarks. Once the women walked out of earshot, she said, “You are unharmed yourself, Lord Markham?”
“Yes, thanks to you—Miss Hasterling, was it? So very generous of you to spare my blushes—at the cost of bringing down the unkindness of Lady Arbuthnot on your own head. I’ve half a mind to follow her and put her straight!”
“What, and undo my good work?” Eliza said with a smile. “You mustn’t concern yourself about her ladyship. As she considers a mere clergyman’s daughter far beneath her notice, she is unlikely to trouble me further. I’m just glad I was here to prevent you suffering an injury.”
“Have we been introduced? You seem to know me, but I’m afraid I don’t recall meeting you. A terrible lapse, not to remember so fetching a young lady.”
“We were introduced last Season, but it was just before…” she hesitated a moment before continuing, “Just before you lost your lady wife. Quite understandable that much of that sad time became a blur. My condolences, by the way, on your loss.”
The smile faded from the Viscount’s face, a look of haunted grief replacing it, and Eliza chided herself for reminding him. Why could she not have just said they’d been introduced, and left it at that? She knew Markham, having finished a year of mourning, had only just reentered Society. By all accounts, he and his late wife had been very close, and he’d been devastated by her death.
“I’m so sorry!” she cried. “I didn’t mean—I shouldn’t have—“
Markham waved her to silence. “No need for apologies, child. It was a grievous loss, but I’m coming to terms with it…gradually. After my unexpected meeting with the floor, I should probably not strain my knee further tonight by dancing. But may I escort you to take some refreshment, in thanks for your kind and timely intervention? Had you not come to my aid so quickly, Lady Arbuthnot would have found me sprawled out on the parquet, a humiliation she would have excused at the moment and afterward delighted in describing to her friends.”
Eliza chuckled. “So she would have! I’m happy I was able to prevent that.”
“Shall we have a glass of wine to celebrate that felicity?” Markham asked with a smile.
Smiling back, Eliza had just allowed Markham to tuck her hand on his arm when a tall, dark-haired man hurried into the passageway. “Father, is everything all right? You’ve been gone rather long. Withram is asking for you.”
“Just chatting with this lovely young lady. Do you know my son, Miss Hasterling?”
Eliza stared up, fascinated, at the handsome, rugged face of the man who was regarding his father with concern. Dressed in simple, understated black evening garb, he was whipcord lean, with dark hair curling onto his forehead that he brushed back impatiently, and intense dark brown eyes. When he reached his father’s side, she noted the marked resemblance, the newcomer a younger, stronger, more vital version of the gentleman she’d rescued. A strong current of attraction rippled through her as he halted beside them.
“N-no, we’ve not been introduced,” Eliza said, pulling herself from her scrutiny of the gentleman.
“Let me do the honors. Miss Hasterling, may I present my son, Lord Stratham? Stratham, Miss Hasterling.”
After bows and curtseys were exchanged, Markham said, “I’m about to escort Miss Hasterling to the refreshment room. You can tell Withram I’ll look for him afterward.”
Bedazzled at first by Stratham’s virile figure and handsome face, Eliza only then realized that he hadn’t returned her smile of greeting. Instead, he was staring, stone-faced, at the hand she had rested on his father’s arm.
For a moment, she thought he would remark on it—though what could he possibly say? Although there was nothing remotely improper about a lady taking a gentleman’s arm, Eliza nonetheless felt a flash of discomfort, as if she had been caught doing something she shouldn’t.
“Shall we go, Miss Hasterling? With the ball ending soon, you’ll want to return to the dancing, and I wouldn’t wish you to miss that treat.”
Markham nodded to his son, but instead of leaving to deliver his father’s message, Stratham said, “I believe I shall have some wine as well.”
A look passed between the men—gentle resignation on the part of the father, determination from the son. “Accompany us if you wish,” Markham said mildly.
As they strolled, the Viscount said, “You must let me repair the lapses in my memory of meeting you last season. Where does your family reside? I don’t recall being acquainted with your father. He’s a clergyman, you said?”
“Yes, but it’s not surprising you have not met. He seldom leaves his parish in Saltash, near Plymouth, where he resides with my mother and the rest of my family. I’m staying in London with my older sister, Lady Dunbarton, who has been kind enough to act as my chaperon so Mama can remain at home with my younger siblings.”
“Have you a large family, then?”
“Quite large. I have two married sisters; my only brother is still at home, being tutored by my father, who is a notable scholar, while Mama tends to the little ones.”
As she answered the Viscount’s questions, Eliza was all too conscious of his son walking behind them, seeming to tower over her, still unsmiling. Disapproving, it seemed?
But of what could he disapprove? He hadn’t encountered Lady Arbuthnot, so he couldn’t have been regaled with an account of her “clumsiness.”
Or—did he think she had designs on the Viscount? Markham was, she knew, a wealthy widower—if he’d not been titled, he’d be just the sort of parti her friend Maggie was urging her to beguile into marriage, the sooner to become a rich widow in charge of her own life. Not a goal to which she aspired, though she was trying to give Maggie’s Grand Plan a fair hearing.
Still, she had to suppress a smile at the ridiculous notion that anyone would suspect lowly Eliza Hasterling, daughter of an obscure county clergyman, of having designs on a viscount.
Less amusing and more irksome was the unusual experience of encountering someone who seemed to view her with disapproval. She was accustomed to being treated with kindness and courtesy by her friends and family, while with her modest dowry and undistinguished connections, she was usually overlooked or ignored by Society gentlemen.
Taking another quick glance at Stratham’s somber expression, she wasn’t sure she liked being noticed.
By now they’d arrived in the refreshment room. Eliza accepted the glass of wine Markham obtained for her, trying to ignore the scrutiny of Lord Stratham, who continued to hover nearby. Recalling her friend Lady Laura Pomeroy’s advice that the best way to engage a gentleman in conversation was to inquire about his interests, she said to Markham, “You have lately been in the country yourself, have you not, my lord?”
“Yes, at our main resident in Hampshire, Stratham Hall.”
“Do you have other children residing there with you?”
“No, alas—all but my son have married and moved to homes of their own, one daughter residing outside York, another near Portsmouth and the youngest recently wed to a gentleman from Northumberland.”
“Do you plan to stay long in London?”
“The rest of the Season, probably. I grew…lonely in the country.”
“London will certainly cure you of that! Always something to do and people to see! What are you most looking forward to in the City?”
“I enjoy seeing old friends and visiting the theatre, but especially love perusing the King’s Collection at the British Museum.”
“Ah, you are a scholar, too, my lord?”
“Probably not on the order of your father. I do enjoy philosophy, poetry and the classics.”
An avid reader herself, Eliza exclaimed with delight, “The classics? Which do you like best? I’m no great scholar myself, but Papa did teach me Latin and a little Greek. I particularly enjoy Petrarch.”
“Do you indeed?” Markham said, looking impressed. “As do I! You must allow me call on you, so we might discuss our favorite passages.”
Shaking her head, Eliza held up a disparaging hand. “You mustn’t be thinking me erudite! I only know the poems for which I had Papa’s help with the translations.”
“I should be interested to discover which ones he felt worthy of you reading.” After a slightly exasperated look at his son, who contributed nothing to the conversation but still hovered at his elbow, Markham said, “I must let you go back to the dancing. But you will allow me to call on you tomorrow?”
So he might thank her again for assistance, Eliza suspected, which he did not wish to do with his son listening in. He wouldn’t want to admit his embarrassing near-fall in front of Stratham.
“I’d be honored,” she replied. “As I mentioned, I’m residing with Lady Dunbarton at Holly House on Brook Street.”
Markham waved to a waiter to take their empty glasses, then offered her his arm. “Let me escort you back to your chaperon.”
Putting aside his own glass, Stratham once again followed them. Like a knight vigilantly protecting his king from danger, Eliza thought, suppressing a smile.
As they entered the ballroom, Eliza spotted her sister chatting with friends. “My sponsor is over there,” she said, pointing.
“I’ll walk you over,” Markham said. “You will introduce me--us,” he added with a rueful glance at the man trailing them, “won’t you?”
Just before they reached Lady Dunbarton, Stratham paced forward to walk beside them. “You enjoy dancing, Miss Hasterling?”
Behold, the sphinx speaks, she thought. “Very much, Lord Stratham.”
“Would you do me the honor of standing up with me for the next waltz?”
A hollow feeling swooped in her stomach at the thought of being held close to that lithe, powerful body, her hand in his, his other hand clasping her waist. Then her brain caught up with her overexcited senses and reminded her he seemed to look on her with disfavor.
Besides, she should know better now than to let herself be carried away by a strong physical connection. One humiliating rejection should be enough for a lifetime.
But if he disapproved, why had he asked her to dance?
However, she was not promised for the waltz, and as usual, couldn’t quickly come up with a convincing reason to refuse. “It would be my pleasure,” she said reluctantly.
Her sister noticed her approaching, her look of annoyance changing to surprise as she took in Eliza’s escorts. Smoothing her expression to one of welcome, she curtseyed to the men, who bowed in return.
“I return your charge to you safely, madam,” Markham said.
“Thank you, sir! I’d been wondering where she’d gotten to.”
“I had to repair my hem,” Eliza explained.
At her sister’s frown, Eliza realized she shouldn’t have brought attention to the slightly shabby state of her gown. As Lady Dunbarton would doubtless later point out, she should instead have simply said that she’d gone to the retiring room.
Would she ever master the art of social chit-chat, where one automatically refrained from doing or saying anything that might show one in an unfavorable light?
“The delay is my fault,” Markham was saying. “I encountered her in the passageway and persuaded her to brighten my first ball in a year by taking a glass of wine with me.”
“Maria, you will remember Lord Markham—and his son, Lord Stratham? My sister, Lady Dunbarton.”
“Of course. It’s good to have you back in London, Lord Markham. And I don’t believe I have previously met your son.”
“Stratham never had much interest in larger Society,” Markham said, a marked dryness in his tone. “Then over this last year, he’s been taking much of the burden of managing the estate off my shoulders, which has kept him in the country.”
“Always a delight to have another handsome gentleman in town,” her sister said, giving Stratham a bright smile.
“As it is pleasant to renew our acquaintance, Lady Dunbarton. And yours, Miss Hasterling,” Markham said.
“I’ll be back to claim my dance,” Stratham said. With another bow, the two strode away.
Her sister’s gaze followed them across the floor before she turned back to Eliza. “What happened?”
Briefly, Eliza recounted her meeting with the Viscount—although she didn’t mention that she’d saved him from falling, instead inserting the fib that he’d recognized her, then asked her to accompany him for a glass of wine, where they encountered his son.
“Two very eligible partis,” her sister said, nodding approvingly. “And the younger one coming back to waltz with you! Well done, Eliza!”
“He asked out of politeness only,” Eliza insisted, not wanting to reveal more of the complicated undercurrents that flowed between them. Attraction on her part, regrettably. Enough skepticism on his that she really wasn’t looking forward to him claiming that dance.
No matter how aroused her silly senses were at the prospect.
“I know you’ve been cautioned to be more…reserved in Society than you are among family, and often have little to say to young gentlemen,” her sister observed. “But with Stratham coming for a waltz…what a sterling opportunity! You must make a determined effort to converse with him.”
“I do converse…some,” she protested. “I’m just not comfortable voicing the sort of fawning flattery, or worse, clever but critical observations about others that seem to make up most of the conversation between young Society ladies and gentlemen. I have no trouble talking with older men, who like Papa generally have more wide-ranging interests.”
“Mature men like Lord Markham? He’d be an excellent catch, if a bit old for you. Gossip is that after mourning his wife, he’s now decided he wants to find a congenial companion to brighten his golden years. Though I would think you would prefer the son. What a handsome devil he is, to be sure! Stratham has a good deal of money in his own right, for after his mother’s death, he inherited the estates that had been her dowry. Already a courtesy baron, he’ll be viscount after his father.”
“Let’s not be marrying me off to either of them yet,” Eliza said quickly. Heaven help her if the already-suspicious Stratham sensed from her sister’s demeanor that Eliza was setting her cap for his father!
“Well, you need to put your mind to attracting someone,” her sister reminded. “You know Papa can’t afford to give you another Season. Dear as you are to me, my pin money wouldn’t extend to funding another one for you, either.”
“I know. I appreciate you taking the time to squire me about again this year,” Eliza said.
She was all too aware that this would be her final season. If she didn’t find a husband before Society dispersed for the summer and she returned to the wilds of Saltash, she likely never would. And would end up sharing the unhappy fate of other well-born but indigent spinsters, shuffled from one family home to another to help with children, ailing relatives or the elderly.
Much as she enjoyed her sisters’ children, she still cherished hopes that one day the babes she tended would be her own. And that she could be mistress of the home in which she lived, supported by a husband whom she loved and admired.
She would take her sister’s advice and make best efforts to converse with Lord Stratham—if he did in fact come back to claim his dance.
Though she was quite sure that her as-yet unknown husband would be neither Viscount Markham nor his handsome, suspicious son.
As they traversed the ballroom, Giles Stratham braced himself for a scold from his father over his playing gooseberry during the Viscount’s interlude with Miss Hasterling. Perhaps he was overreacting, but the proprietary hand the young lady had placed on his father’s arm had immediately roused his alarm.
He knew his father was still emotionally fragile, by no means fully recovered from losing his childhood sweetheart and lifelong companion. He was also lonely, having just weathered his first winter without his wife and dearest friend. Giles had provided what comfort he could, but congenial as their relationship was, he was an inadequate replacement for his father’s beloved spouse.
He keenly missed that sweet and energetic lady himself. And despite his father’s loneliness, he didn’t want to see her over-hastily replaced.
“Where did you say Withram was waiting for me?” his father asked at last.
“In the card room.”
“I’ll join him there, then. Until later?”
Giles watched his father walk off and drew a relieved breath, glad the Viscount had chosen not to discuss the touchy subject of potential courtship--or Giles’s interference in it. With his father safely ensconced in the card room, he could let down his guard.
Not ready yet to return to the ballroom, he strolled down the deserted passage, glad to have some time alone with his thoughts. It wasn’t that he resented on his beloved mother’s behalf the possibility that his father might marry again; Mama would have wanted her dear Markham to go on with his life.
Giles just worried that his lonely father could be vulnerable to some scheming miss eager to weasel her way into becoming a rich viscountess.
By asking solicitously about the gentleman’s home and family, teasing out his interests, then expressing surprise and delight at sharing them, perhaps?
He’d be very interested to hear Miss Hasterling discourse about Petrarch.
She’d not be the first female to give chase. A mere six months after his mother’s death, hopeful mamas from all over Hampshire began paying calls on the Viscount, expressing their eagerness to lighten his burden of grief by inviting him to a “quiet family dinner”—the dinner company always including some comely, unmarried female.
The campaigns had intensified once the Viscount’s mourning year ended and he returned with Giles to London. Within hours of their arrival, invitations began pouring in—particularly to parties at which his father would be introduced to attractive unmarried ladies, from ingenues straight from the schoolroom to widows with grown children of their own.
Miss Hasterling’s Petrarch ploy had impressed Markham enough to induce him to promise calling on her, Giles thought uneasily. Which was why Giles had asked the chit to dance, giving him a valid excuse to call on her, too. Along with his father, if he could finagle it, or if that was too unsubtle, at least allowing him to linger at her sister’s house until the Viscount called, when he could keep a protective eye on him.
Miss Hasterling seemed nice enough--if how she’d presented herself reflected her true character. He had to concede, too, that while she was no Diamond, she was attractive. With her slender frame, heart-shaped face and enormous brown eyes, she certainly looked the part of the sweet innocent, an appearance that would inspire gallant men like his father to want to shelter and protect her.
A sweet innocent…like Arabella.
The old pain seared him, deepening his disquiet as he recalled the wide-eyed ingenue who’d captured his youthful heart—before abandoning him while he was away at university to wed an older, wealthier, already titled gentleman.
Like Miss Hasterling hoped to?
Not if he could help it, Giles thought, setting his jaw in a grim line. He’d protect his father from the sort of anguish he’d suffered at the hands of scheming females—be they young innocents or sophisticated beauties.
In a flash, the image of artless Arabella segued into a vision of the dazzling Lucinda…reclining on the sofa in her sitting room, draped in a negligee designed to emphasize her voluptuous figure, admiring the diamond bracelet that adorned one slender wrist. So absorbed had she been in admiring it, she hadn’t attempted to hide it until after he’d walked in.
Anger, distaste and a deeply-buried ache escaped to reverberate through him.
He hadn’t learned much from his first heartbreak, he thought bitterly. From the moment he’d met the newly-widowed Lady Evans when he came down from Oxford eight years ago, he’d been captivated.
He’d pursued her ardently, been thrilled to finally possess her—and made himself ignore the fact that she sometimes entertained other men. Pressed on by believing he’d lost Arabella by not early securing a promise to wed, he’d even impulsively asked Lucinda to marry him. To which she replied that she’d been married, and it was boring.
It had been a disaster of a union for her—shackled practically out of the schoolroom to Lord Evans, an older admirer with grown children. Lord Evans, whose deep pockets after they wed had, not incidentally, alleviated her family’s pressing financial woes. She’d been hauled out of London and isolated at her husband’s country estate until his death freed her to return to Society.
Giles met her that first triumphant Season. Of course, he’d agreed, after her long exile, she deserved to have time to be feted and admired as the Beauty she was. Of course, she deserved to flirt and tease and thrill at working her way into the inner circles of the politicians at the peak of power in Parliament and the Court. He’d hoped, as she’d assured him, that after a time in the limelight she would have her fill of acclaim and be ready to settle down with a single, faithful love.
That little display last week, when he’d caught her admiring the diamond bracelet another gallant had given her while he’d been in the country tending his estate, would once have filled him with jealousy. In an angry exchange, he would have wheedled out of her the name of her paramour—Melbourne, in this case, who though he had many flirts, wouldn’t have gifted her with a diamond bracelet just in thanks for her political advice. Then after an acrimonious parting, determined to reestablish his preeminent place in her life, he’d have immediately hared off to his jeweler and commissioned something even more magnificent to adorn her.
This time, the next bauble he chose would be a farewell gift.
He wasn’t sure the exact moment when his patience had finally become exhausted, when he realized that all the care and devotion he’d lavished on her these last six years wasn’t enough. That she would never be ready to settle for just one man. And that he was, finally, tired of the game.
Would she seek to ensnare him again, once she realized he was actually walking away? Did he want her to try?
He didn’t know the answer to either question.
Lucinda hadn’t bothered much in the past with admirers who ceased to pay her court. There were always newcomers eager to take their places.
What would fill the void giving her up would leave in his life?
He suppressed an empty, hollow feeling. Running Stratham would keep him busy enough. With his father incapacitated by grief last summer, he’d assumed the reins of necessity. As the Viscount gradually recovered his spirits, Giles had offered to turn the day-to-day management back over to him, but his father had declined. The estate would be his to run soon enough anyway, his father said, and in the interim, the Viscount would be able to devote more time to his music and his books.
A rising swell of melody roused Giles from his reflections. The musicians had completed their break; he must return to the ballroom and claim Miss Hasterling for the dance she’d promised him.
Perhaps she was the sweet innocent she seemed, genuinely interested in his father rather than simply calculating how to ensnare a rich husband. Although getting what she wanted from a man was what all women schemed to do, wasn’t it?
This time, he’d keep in mind the hard-won truth that a female’s primary concern was securing for herself the most advantageous situation possible—whether that was a rich husband, or a succession of wealthy, generous lovers.
He’d ensure his father wasn’t as taken in by some heartless female as he had been. Keep watch until the Viscount recovered enough presence of mind to be able to discern whether a woman valued him as much for his person as she did for his wealth and position. Once convinced his father had recovered that capacity, Giles could withdraw and leave him free to choose a companion to brighten the rest of his life.
He would then do what he’d once believed unthinkable—abandon London, settle permanently in the country and concentrate on managing the estate.
As heir to both the property and the title, however, he couldn’t escape his duty at some point to find a wife himself. Thankfully, that unpleasant chore could be put off until later.
Steeling himself to his task, Giles entered the ballroom and went in search of Miss Hasterling. He found her chatting with a tall, auburn-haired lady and an older gentleman, neither of whom he recognized. Which wasn’t surprising. Though he was nearly a decade out of Oxford, over those years he’d spent little time at Society functions, Lucinda preferring the intimate gatherings of her political friends and Court events rather than the crush of balls beloved by most Society women. And having no interest in any woman but Lucinda, he had resisted as much as politely possible being introduced to other ladies.
“Miss Hasterling,” he said, bowing as he reached her. “You are promised to me for the next waltz, you will recall.”
“So I am,” she replied, curtsying to his bow. “Before we go, may I make you known to my dearest friend? Lady Margaret D’Aubignon, this is Lord Stratham, son of Lord Markham, who has recently returned to London. Stratham, Lady Margaret and her friend, Mr. Fullridge.”
As the parties murmured the appropriate greetings, Giles wondered if Fullridge was another older gentleman Miss Hasterling was trying to entice. From the unfriendly look given him by that gentleman, it seemed the man resented him bearing her off.
“Mind you return after the dance. Mr. Fullridge has hardly had time to converse with you,” Lady Margaret said, giving some credence to his suspicions about the other man’s interest in his partner.
“As you wish, Lady Margaret,” she replied tranquilly.
Giles tried to covertly study the girl he was escorting onto the dance floor. She seemed neither eager to claim his escort nor impatient to return to the older courtier. Nor did she immediately try to engage him in conversation—as if she didn’t care whether or not his attention remained focused on her.
Which seemed odd. Being as prime a matrimonial candidate as his father, on the handful of times he had ventured solo into Society, he’d been sought-after and flattered by a bevy of eligible maidens and their hopeful Mamas. Although Miss Hasterling must certainly be aware of his position, she seemed…indifferent to the possibilities of being singled out by him.
Though such a phenomenon was foreign to his own experience, perhaps not all females felt compelled to try to captivate every man they encountered.
Still, he was surprised to find himself a bit..piqued by her obvious lack of interest.
Perhaps she preferred older suitors? he wondered, his unease intensifying. He must use the opportunity of this waltz to learn as much about her circumstances as she had been trying to dig out of Father about his.
“Have you been in London all Season?” he asked as they took their places.
“We arrived shortly after the beginning of the Season, yes.”
“You must have enjoyed a number of balls by now, then.”
“Not so many, actually. My sister brought her children, and some of them have been unwell. It was necessary to tend them, of course.”
“They were too ill to be left in their nurse’s care?” Giles asked, surprised.
“Not seriously ill, thank heaven. But fretful enough that they appreciated a doting aunt’s care,” she said, her face warming at the mention of the children.
Most Society matrons either left their offspring in the country, or if they bothered to bring them, consigned their care to the nursery staff. He couldn’t remember hearing that some lady had missed an entertainment to care for a sick child. Was Miss Hasterling required to act as unpaid help for her sister?
He would have to discretely inquire about her circumstances. He hadn’t needed her comment about repairing the hem of her gown to notice that the frock she wore was neither new nor in the latest kick of fashion. Having accompanied Lucinda on numerous forays to her favored modistes—and paid for many of the gowns—Giles knew more than he cared to about current styles.
If Miss Hasterling were in financial straits, she might be even more desperate to land a husband than most girls. Desperate enough to settle for an older, wealthy husband rather than the passionate, handsome younger one such a lady would probably prefer.
“How very…compassionate of you to nurse them,” he said at last, trying to keep the skepticism from his voice. “You must enjoy the entertainments you have been able to attend even more, then.”
She gave him a sharp look, as if she’d noted his tone. “I enjoy music, dancing and the theatre. But I most enjoy the opportunity the Season allows to spend time with my friends, Lady Margaret and Lady Laura Pomeroy. Since my family resides near Plymouth, Lady Margaret’s family estate is in Somerset and Lady Laura’s in Warwickshire, during other times of the year we must settle for correspondence.”
“How did you come to be friends, if you hail from such widely dispersed locations?”
“We meet during our debut Seasons last year.”
“So this is your second Season. And have none of you yet found a gentleman to your taste?”
A look of annoyance passing swiftly over her face, she opened her lips as if to respond, then hesitated before saying, “Not yet.”
He waited in vain for her to continue. Exasperated by her silence, he was about to speak again himself when, with a determined smile, she seemed to rouse herself. “And you, my lord?” she said at last. “Although I met your father last Season, I don’t recall seeing you at any entertainments then. Or this year, until today.”
He hadn’t been present at many, happily deferring to Lucinda’s preference for political gatherings. He’d gritted his teeth through the few balls they had attended together, for with her dazzling beauty, she immediately became the focus of every gentleman in any room she entered. It was annoying enough at small events, for she enjoyed the attention and responded by flirting with any man who caught her interest. And a ton crush contained far too many.
Such occasions had frequently led to quarrels afterward. She’d mocked his jealousy even as she exploited it, telling him no one would ever lock her away again as her first husband had, but that shouldn’t cause him any concern. She would always choose him over any other gallant.
Several times, she’d dallied with another man before choosing to come back. He’d agonized over the lapses until, with her seductive charm, she’d soothed him into forgetting them. Or rather, succeeded in getting him to force them from the forefront of his mind, though the memories—and the hurt they caused—always lingered just beyond the edge of consciousness.
Soon, he’d put an end to that bitter, fruitless cycle.
He suddenly realized that while he’d been silent, lost in memory, Miss Hasterling had been patiently awaiting his response, her large dark eyes fixed on his face. Vexed with himself for letting thoughts of Lucinda distract him yet again, he said shortly, “No, I’ve not gone about in Society very much.”
“Your father mentioned you’d taken over supervising the family estate, which has kept you out of London. Do you prefer the country?”
“Until recently, I’ve preferred the city.”
She gave him a tiny frown. “Then I’m surprised I’ve not encountered you—oh, but of course. Your father did say that you don’t much favor Society events. One can hardly blame you, when there are so many other entertainments available to a single gentleman. Gatherings and performances at musical, theatrical, sporting and philosophical societies, Tattersaal’s, gentleman’s clubs. Do you share your father’s enjoyment of theatre and books, or are you more given to sporting pursuits?”
He could hardly admit that his primary activity had been the ardent pursuit of a beautiful, capricious lady. “Though I enjoy reading, I’m no scholar, not like Papa. Though I do attend the theatre, I would prefer to be outside, riding in the park or driving in the country.”
Lucinda wasn’t much of a horsewoman, but she’d always enjoyed having him take her on drives outside the city. Especially to snug little inns for an afternoon tryst. The ghost of a bittersweet smile curved his lips before he realized that Miss Hasterling was doing more interrogating of him than he was of her.
Determined to refocus on his need to learn more about the lady, he said, “And you, Miss Hasterling? Do you enjoy riding, or are you completely absorbed in your books?”
He tried to keep the skepticism from his voice, but she gave him another sharp glance, as if she suspected him of doubting her self-proclaimed scholarship. Beneath that innocent ingenue façade, she possessed a keen discernment, he noted grudgingly.
She didn’t take him to task for his mistrustful tone, though, responding simply, “I love to ride and very much miss having a daily gallop. But it was much too expensive to bring my mare to the city.”
Noting that further evidence of her limited means, he continued, “What other activities have you found to take its place?”
“Just the usual round of social events. As those do not interest you, nothing worth mentioning.”
He paused, but again she’d fallen silent. Annoyed that apparently he was going to have to keep the conversation flowing, he continued, “Come, tell me more. I’d like to hear about your pursuits.”
She raised her eyebrows. “I can’t think why. You would doubtless find a description of the teas, musicales, and soirees I’ve attended only a little less tedious than my nattering on about my delightful nieces and nephews. Surely it would pass the time more pleasantly if you were to tell me about your own activities.”
A female who didn’t want to talk about herself, even when pressed? That was, in his experience, also rare. His interest sharpened in spite of himself, he said, “You seem very much involved with your family. Tell me more about them.”
At this, her eyes brightened, though her expression remained wary. “Only if you are quite sure you wish to know.”
With his desire to discern how pressing was her need to marry—and discover as much as he could about her preferred suitors--he could certainly promise her that. “I do indeed. A lady who misses social events to tend her sister’s ill children, who prizes time in the city more so she may visit friends than to attend parties, must spring from a remarkable family.”
“Well—if you insist. They are very dear to me. My father Robert, as I’ve said, is a clergyman and cousin to the Earl of Winterstone. My mother, the former Esther Lyons, is a clergyman’s daughter, her uncle Lord Lyons of Lyondale. My sponsor is my eldest sister, Lady Dunbarton, who married Sir George Dunbarton of Farnworth; they have the three children over whom I dote. Her husband, a confirmed countryman, prefers to remain at home tending his property, though he does pay us frequent visits. My next eldest sister, Mrs. Abigail Needham, is recently married and lives at her husband’s estate near Bath. Still at home in Saltash are Samantha, Agatha, Anna and little Penelope. As you can imagine, Papa was delighted after all those girls to finally have a son, my brother Timothy, whom he tutors along with several other young gentlemen.” She smiled. “Even if school fees weren’t ruinous, Papa has such a reputation as a scholar that the boys receive a far better education from him than they would at Eton or Harrow.”
Perhaps so, but they wouldn’t be making the friends and connections that would help ensure their futures, Giles thought—and her father must know it. With such a large brood to support, funds would be short, especially if, as Miss Hasterling’s dated attire suggested, there was a limited amount of family money to draw upon beyond his clergyman’s stipend. With numerous sisters waiting in the wings to be fired off, her parents were doubtless eager for her to wed as soon as possible.
Following the tune dimly in his ear, Giles recognized the music would soon draw to a close. He had only a few moments left to press for as much information as he could. “Shall I return you to Lady Margaret rather than your sister when the dance ends, as she bid me?” He smiled. “I’m sure Mr. Fullridge would appreciate it. He looked cross with me for leading you out. Did I steal the dance he’d wished to claim?”
“He had not yet asked me to dance, so I cannot know,” she said—but her fair face colored.
So there was something going on there. “Are you inclined to favor the gentleman?”
She swung her gaze up to his. “That is an impertinent question.”
He gave her what he hoped was an ingenuous smile. “You ladies always say we gentlemen are worse gossips than you are.”
“Not holding with gossip, then, I shall return you no answer.”
The dance ended, perforce requiring him to walk her back to her waiting friends. A transit during which, as she had when he’d led her onto the dance floor, she seemed content to let silence reign between them. Not sure how next to proceed, this time Giles didn’t try to make conversation either.
A moment later, they reached her friend, who was still chatting with Fullridge. After giving Giles another suspicious look, the gentleman smiled at Miss Hasterling. “You must be thirsty after the rousing efforts of the waltz! Allow me to escort you to take some refreshment.”
“Yes, do,” Lady Margaret encouraged. “I know Mr. Fullridge is longing to talk with you.”
Miss Hasterling hesitated—about to confess she’d recently had a glass of wine, and didn’t need another? But then she said, “I should be honored,” and offered the older man her hand.
As he claimed it, she looked up at the man and smiled—a genuine smile which, he had to admit, enhanced her Madonna-like features into something damnably appealing. With her appearance so different from Lucinda’s—her beauty subtle rather than showy, her stature petite rather than tall and willowy, her soft curls brunette rather than blonde, her large eyes deep-brown rather than pure spring bluebell—he’d not at first paid much attention to her physical attributes.
The surprising strength of the attraction that tightened his body now brought home that along with her unspoiled, English-rose sort of beauty, she possessed a subtle sensual charm.
No wonder that combination of innocence and muted sensuality intrigued his father.
As Fullridge led her off, he called after her, “I shall look forward to calling upon you tomorrow.”
She gave him only a nod—not another of the charming smiles she’d bestowed upon Fullridge. Giles found himself once again unaccountably piqued.
She certainly wasn’t trying to charm him. Or did she consider trying to entice a younger gentleman with no interest in Society too unlikely of success to bother? Did she intend to focus on older gentlemen? Both Fullridge and his father had seemed quite amenable to being enticed.
She’d neatly avoided answering his final question about whether she smiled on Fullridge. Which showed her to be clever as well as perspicacious. This was no naïve ingenue relying solely on her youthful appearance and sweet amiability to charm, able only to chatter about gowns and soirees. If she were setting her cap for the Viscount, she’d be a formidable opponent. The task of protecting his father might prove even more difficult than he’d feared.
If she had set her cap for him. Or was she tossing a wider net, encompassing men of wealth but lesser position, like Fullridge?
His indelicate probing of her family situation showed that she probably needed to marry as soon as possible. The Viscount would be a much bigger catch. And was therefore more likely to become the focus of a determined campaign.
If his father seemed as inclined to be conquered as he’d shown himself tonight, Giles was going to be seeing a good deal more of the cryptic, not-as-unworldly-as-she-appeared Miss Hasterling.