from Chapter Two
Hero and longtime family friend Nick Blackshear has come to dinner at the Westbrook house, where heroine Kate has asked him to help her in cheering up her younger sister Rose. Mission accomplished, Kate draws Nick aside for a few words of thanks.
"Well done," Kate said later, under her breath. She'd waited for this opportunity, watched Mr. Blackshear even while she'd drifted among siblings and parents, passing out cups and praising whatever creative endeavor engaged them; and when their caller had excused himself from a visibly revived Rose and gone to replenish his tea, she'd contrived to encounter him over the cream and sugar and cake. "I don't mind admitting you made a much better job of that than I would have done. No, this smaller pot has your murky devil's brew. The other is merely tea, such as refined people prefer."
"Refined people don't know what they're missing." Of all Father's young proteges, none sparred so readily, or with such good cheer, as Mr. Blackshear. He leaned in a bit, holding out his cup, and lowered his own voice. "You give me too much credit, though. I only followed your own instructions, asking her to sing and then engaging her in conversation."
"No, you did better." She refilled his cup and set down the pot. A little to the left was the bay window that overlooked Gower Street; she could draw him that way and then they'd have the piano between themselves and the rest of the room, and they wouldn't need to keep their voices quite so low. "You engaged her in argument. You didn't simply make her feel attended to, as I would have had you do. You made her feel clever and capable."
"She is clever and capable, and a seasoned disputer, as you said." He followed her to the window and took up a place on her right. "It's nothing to do with me."
"For Heaven's sake, take the compliment, Mr. Blackshear. If there's one thing I can't abide it's false modesty."
"Indeed." He eyed her sideways, one brow arching as he lifted his cup. "I hadn't noticed you to have much use for modesty of any kind."
So he was in that sort of mood, was he? Good. She could keep up with all the plaguing he cared to throw her way. "Ah, I take your meaning." She shaped all her features into an exaggerated show of comprehension. "You think me vain of my looks."
"No, Miss Westbrook. Think suggests an element of doubt. And that particular doubt, in my acquaintance with you, was long since done away with." He took another swallow of that disgusting double-strength tea he favored, this time angling to watch her over the rim of his cup. His eyes, dark and glossy as a dandy's polished boots, brimmed with mischief.
He was a decidedly handsome man. He always had been. His face had the excellent foundation of a strong chin, straight nose, and pronounced cheekbones, and his hair, though he unfortunately chose to wear it quite short, presumably to forego a cap under his barrister wig, was of an agreeable color. Under sunlight, and given a bit of length, the shade might be reminiscent of a much-handled guinea.
All that, of course, was neither here nor there. Looks had never been the issue between them, unless you counted the bounty of her own looks that had justified setting her marital sights high.
"I must say, you gentlemen are very vexing in your expectations of us." A small toss of her head would not go amiss here, so she added it. "A man wants a lady to be beautiful, but to drift about in ignorance of the fact until the day he can come along and enlighten her. And all the while, a well-looking lady is subjected to such incessant attentions and courtesies from the lot of you as can leave her in no doubt of her appeal."
"Subjected, to be sure. I can see it must be excessively trying, to be constantly the recipient of flattering notice from men." He'd been shy of arguing with her, back in those days when he'd thought to court her, and in the succeeding period when mortification had kept him from speaking much to her at all. His society was infinitely more enjoyable now.
"The trying part is the inconsistency, the inherent contradiction in what gentlemen would like us to be. There's simply no such thing as a beautiful woman who's unaware of her beauty, unless she's monumentally oblivious. More likely she's feigning her ignorance in order to snare a credulous man in a web woven out of his own illogical expectations."
He grinned down at her from his superior height, cup arrested halfway to his mouth, eyes practically sparking with mirth. "You were on your way to a first-rate argument, up until that last bit." Oh, he was about to become pedantic. She'd seen this manner before. "Webs don't snare things, I'm afraid. Snare refers to a tightening action like that of a hangman's noose. Something caught in a web just sticks there. It may strike you as a fine distinction, but the last thing you want is to have a juror distracted by that detail when you're trying to drive your case home."
"Excellent advice. I'll be sure to remember it if I ever find myself arguing in a courtroom." She turned to look out the window, that no one in the room might glance over to find them facing one another with Mr. Blackshear smiling so. Mama and Papa, she knew, had never quite let go the hope that her heart might turn toward him, though the moment for that hope had long ago come and gone, even before there'd been any blot on his family name.
He turned, too, smoothly as though she'd given him a cue and he'd picked it up. In the window's many panes she could see their faint reflections. His eyes stayed on her and his head tilted to a quizzical angle. "What's happened to put you in such a fine contentious mood?" he said. "You were grave and solemn at dinner, and now you're pert and pleased as if you had a set of Almack's vouchers in your pocket."
All the triumph of Lady Harringdon's note went rippling through her again, not that it had subsided so very much in the minutes since she'd read those elegant words. "No vouchers quite yet." She hadn't meant to tell anyone, but his guess was so close to the truth, and her secret so deserving of congratulation, that to share the news seemed only right. "However, I received an equally gratifying item in the late post: an invitation to call on a grand lady in her Mayfair home."
"Did you, now?" He made no attempt to hide the fact that he was impressed. He might needle her as mercilessly as Viola on the subject of her preoccupation with society, but he understood ambition and he knew how to respect an unlikely goal achieved. "Then I don't suppose you'll have any need of my baron Barclay after all. And here I was prepared to do what I could to flush him into your snare, or your web. But who is this grand lady, and how have you come to her notice?"
She truly hadn't meant to tell this part, but perhaps she could approach it as practice for when she must tell Papa and the others. She clasped her hands behind her back and lifted her chin. "The lady is my aunt, as it happens, and I expect she's been aware of my existence for years."
He twisted sharply left, frowning. "A Westbrook aunt?" Three words were enough to make his disapproval plain. You would think Mr. Blackshear of all people would have a bit of understanding for a family who'd chosen to cast out a brother upon his marriage. Of course she couldn't make any remark to that effect.
"A Westbrook aunt, indeed. Given that none of my Stanley aunts keeps a house in Mayfair, I should think that would be obvious." Her attempt at sauciness fell flat: the pique in her voice stood out like sharp notes on a wrongly tuned piano.
Not that he seemed to notice. "Why would a Westbrook aunt invite you to call, when there's been no intercourse between those families and yours since before you were born?"
"We haven't been entirely without communication." She stared out at the nearest streetlamp, to avoid his interrogating gaze.
"She's written to you before? Is your father aware of this?" He was so disagreeable all of a sudden; so peremptory and lawyer-like, and she could imagine all too well what would be his response if she admitted that the writing had been all on her side.
"With respect, Mr. Blackshear, those details are no concern of yours." She would not look at him. Not even at his reflection in the window. "I wouldn't have told you if I'd known you'd be so officious. You're not my elder brother, recall."
"Believe me, Miss Westbrook, I've never for a moment imagined I was." His reply came out so quickly, on the whiplash of his temper, and she knew if he'd taken time to think, he would never have said those words. He pivoted away, stepping nearer to the window and bringing the teacup to his mouth again.
Her face heated. Her stomach turned over. The bay in which they stood felt suddenly very small. The piano played on behind them, a Bach sinfonia whose cool precision only underscored her discomposure, and she could not for the life of her think of what to say.
She'd thought . . . well, in truth maybe she'd had some inkling of his finding her attractive. Yes, of course she had. Men generally did find her attractive; there was nothing remarkable in that. She just hadn't imagined him to harbor, these three years later, any feelings as could spur him to speak so . . . pointedly.
Her hands were still clasped behind her back, and her nails were digging into her palm. How long had she been silent now? He'd been the last to speak; she ought to say something in answer.
But he spoke first. "Let me try again, without the officiousness." He frowned into his teacup as though the right words were floating there. Because he wanted to avoid looking at her. "As a friend to you and your father, I strongly recommend you confide in him. In your mother as well, for that matter. I'm sure they'd agree with me that it seems odd, this aunt wanting you to call now when she's had years to issue such an invitation."
"On the contrary, it's easily explained." All at once she couldn't seem to remember how to talk to him. His presence scrambled her thoughts and she could only spit them out as belligerence. "Lady Harringdon has heretofore chiefly occupied herself with making matches for her daughters. Now they're all married, I expect she's in want of something to do, and why shouldn't she like to repeat her success with another young relation?"
"Kate." Rarely, rarely did he call her by her Christian name, and she wished he hadn't done it now. The single syllable fairly dripped with pity. "Do you really think the countess intends to make a match for you? Has she said anything at all to support that notion?"
"I don't wait for her to say so." Now wounded pride leaped headlong into the whirlwind of mixed-up sentiments, making her more belligerent yet. "If she hasn't already formed the idea of sponsoring me into society, I shall have to form that idea for her."
"Such a thing isn't easily done." Said like a grown man lecturing patiently to an impetuous little girl.
"I never supposed it was. I don't limit myself to easy undertakings, you see. And you'll pardon me, I hope, for questioning the extent of your authority on the intricacies of better society." She knew perfectly well he'd always spent his evenings in study rather than going out to balls and card parties as other young men liked to do.
He blanched, and too late she heard the words she'd said, or rather, heard the insult he must have heard in them. For an instant his eyes widened, and flicked back and forth trying to read her, as if he couldn't believe the Miss Westbrook he knew would really say such a thing and he must make sure she was not some other woman in disguise. Then he shifted his gaze to a spot over her shoulder. "Quite right." His voice had gone crisp and remote. His posture was stiff as a soldier's. "I'm no expert in these things. I oughtn't to have taken up the subject at all." He made a partial bow, his eyes still not meeting hers. "I'll excuse myself now. Thank you for the tea. I wish you such success with your aunt as may render my concern laughable."
She nearly put out a hand to stop him from leaving. She'd meant to refer only to his retiring habits. He prided himself on those; she couldn't truly wound him with a jibe on the subject. She would never deliberately mention the scandal that had hurt his standing in society. Not once in the months since she'd learned of it had she given him the slightest indication that she knew.
But any explanation, now, must involve invoking that same set of events. And she was too agitated from their argument to find her way to a more circumspect apology. She could only watch as he withdrew from her company and made his way to the opposite side of the room.
He did not again address her for the remainder of his call. He spent a good while speaking to Viola at her desk, and obligingly looked through some of Sebastian's innumerable drawings, and laughed with Mama and Papa by the fire. And when he took his leave it was with one bow to encompass all the Westbrooks, his glance skipping over her like a stone across the water in a game of ducks and drakes.
© Cecilia Grant