For all the trouble he had expressing his thoughts, Alfie was a man who knew his own heart. He had known it, in fact, since he was a very young man, and knew there was nothing he could do to change it.
Alfie would never make a good husband for any woman. He would have to marry one day, of course, but he'd decided long ago the least he could do for womankind was to wait for someone suitable. A widow would be perfect, a little older than he with no expectations of romance or passion. Preferably she would be someone who had borne children in the past and could do so again, giving birth to the required heir with a minimum of fuss. Then, Alfie would install his wife and child at the Derbyshire estate and once more be left alone in London with his books and his plays.
It was a practical rather than a romantic outlook. Eleanor clearly did not share it. "Lord George is a very sweet man. Only a second son, I know, but I can't really hope for more than that, and at least he is kind and intelligent. And Rupert is quite charming, don't you think?"
"You c-can't m-marry a m-man for his dog," Alfie pointed out.
"Alfie, I know that." Eleanor clucked her tongue. "Lord George is very handsome, as well." She leaned in close, as if about to impart a secret. "He's got a little sister, the Lady Margaret. She's quite young still, but she's said to be a great beauty. Lord George says she's the loveliest girl in London. She won't be out for another year, at least not officially, but I'm certain that if I mentioned your interest..."
"I h-h-have no in-interest."
Eleanor frowned a little, but she did not press the subject.
The Whitworth was not one of Alfie's regular theaters. It was primarily a location for ballet performances, and Alfie was less fond of those than of plays that used words or song. It was pleasant small theater, with plush red carpets and gilt cherubs flying high on the domed ceilings. Gas lights burned in sconces on the walls. The foyer was crowded before the performance, and Eleanor clung to Alfie's elbow as they maneuvered through the crowds of fan-waving ladies and frock-coat wearing gentlemen.
Alfie spied Lieutenant Markham first. He was difficult to miss, standing in his naval uniform next to an oil painting of some austere theater patron. Lord George was with him, as was a woman Markham introduced as, "My sister Mrs. Fitz."
Mrs. Fitz looked nothing like her brother. She was short and plump, with a pillowy decollete and fingers like little sausages. She took Eleanor's arm as soon as they were within reach. "I am so glad to make your acquaintance, Miss O'Reilly. Lord George has told me much about you. About both of you," she added, although Alfie was clearly an afterthought. "Come, we have much to discuss."
A brief look of panic crossed Eleanor's face, but she was a lady. She composed herself and let Mrs. Fitz lead her toward the stairs.
"My sister is an enthusiastic hostess," Markham commented dryly.
"Indeed." If Lord George was irritated at having Eleanor spirited away so quickly, he was too well-bred to show it. "Thank you for agreeing to join us, Lord Brentworth."
"M-m-m-my p-pleasure." He allowed himself a glance at Markham. The man was as well-favored as Alfie remembered, with a handsome face and a fine figure made even finer by his dashing uniform. All told, Markham was as appealing as any man Alfie had ever seen on stage. That thought caused a tremor of unease in Alfie's stomach, and Alfie looked away.
"After you, gentlemen." Lord George extended a hand gallantly.