"If I had known it wasn't to be an engagement party, I would not have chosen a theme of hearts and flowers," Sir Reginald said with a moue.
He gazed forlornly down the length of his small, bijou ballroom, which had been transformed into a bower of bliss for the expected betrothal. He had gone to inordinate pains and to great expense to import every flower he could get his hands on, to say nothing of the hundreds of gilded hearts glittering amid the foliage. Not only did flowers festoon the entrance hall and doorways of the ballroom, they even hung, heads down, in nosegays from the ceiling, their stems cleverly wrapped in sodden cotton batting and covered in leaves. Nothing done for Art was too much trouble for Sir Reginald Prance.
His own elegant person, thin as a herringbone, was outfitted in a jacket of violet velvet, to indicate he was in half mourning for the loss of Lady deCoventry due to her betrothal to Lord Luten. He had had his valet trim a handkerchief with violet lace, which he planned to apply to his moist eyes when the announcement was made. In his pocket rested a bottle of hartshorn to evoke the necessary tears.
"A lady can hardly accept an offer of marriage before it is made," Lady deCoventry replied. Her lovely lips did not form a pout. She was determined not to reveal by so much as a blink that she was disappointed at Luten's failure to come up to scratch.
"One cannot but wonder why didn't he offer," Prance mused. "Surely he has been on the edge of it all week. After he saved your life in that extremely harrowing adventure regarding your stolen pearls, you have been especially nice to him."
"Perhaps he would prefer not to marry a widow," Lady deCoventry said, and raised her fingers to cover a well-simulated yawn. She was actually the Dowager Lady deCoventry, the relict of a gentleman old enough to be not only her papa but her grandpapa, to whom her Irish father had sold her for five thousand pounds when she was seventeen years old. After three years of marriage, her husband had conveniently died four years ago, leaving her well provided for.
"Oh, my dear! Surely Luten is not so common. He will screw himself up to the sticking point tonight when he takes you home. He is only flesh and blood after all. You look positively luminous this evening. Who could resist your exquisite beauty?"
He allowed his eyes to play over Corinne's manifest charms. Luten called her Black Irish, whatever that might mean. In any case, her hair was black as a raven's wing and looked delightful against the ivory cameo of her delicately carved face, with those big emerald eyes and full lips. Her toilette, he thought, was not quite up to the standard of its wearer. Corinne had a slight tendency to over-ornament herself. The diamond necklace was quite sufficient, without that brooch. He blamed this excess on the dearth of garniture available to her in her impoverished youth. But it scarcely mattered, for friends without flaws were boring after all.
"I didn't come with Luten. Coffen will take me home," she said, smiling thinly at her cousin, Coffen Pattle.
"Have the waltzes with Luten," Sir Reginald said. "They will put him in the mood. You must not fail us, my pet. Tout le monde is awaiting the announcement."
When Sir Reginald Prance spoke of tout le monde, he really meant the particular friends of the Berkeley Brigade. This set of young Whig aristocrats, so called because they lived on Berkeley Square, were the acknowledged leaders of the ton. The nucleus consisted of Lady deCoventry, Prance, and Coffen Pattle, with the dashing Marquess of Luten their unofficial chief.
"Tarsome fellow," Coffen said, rubbing his ear. Coffen presented a surfeit of flaws to endear him to Sir Reginald. His appearance was in sharp contrast to the elegance of the other members. His short, stout body was covered in a rumpled jacket. Even his cravat pin was poorly chosen. His modest pearl disappeared against the white linen of his cravat. Beneath a tousle of mud-colored hair, a pair of blue eyes peeped innocently out from his ruddy face. "Where is Luten anyhow?" he asked, looking around.
"One of his footmen brought him a message a moment ago," Prance replied. "Probably from the House. He went into my study to read it. Some new machinations from Mouldy and Company for us to thwart, no doubt."
"Mouldy and Company" was the Brigade's derogatory name for the reigning Tory government, against which they waged unholy war for reform in the House.
"I hear the fiddlers scraping up for a waltz," Coffen said. "Shall I haul him out of the study?"
"Not on my account," Corinne said with an air of the utmost indifference, and scanned the room for an escort handsome enough to annoy Luten.
Before she found one, Lord Luten himself appeared in the doorway. Prance gazed at him in despair. How the deuce did Luten invariably manage to look so elegant? He spent scarcely a moment with his tailor, yet he turned out magnificently. Nature had given him a head start, of course, and his valet, the inestimable Simon, was an acknowledged wizard. That cravat was absolute sleight of hand. Luten was tall and lean, with a good set of shoulders on him. His jet-black hair grew in an interesting point on his forehead. His cool gray eyes were saved from severity by an enviable set of lashes. His strong nose and square jaw lent him a masculine air, but it was his thin lips that added that lovely touch of arrogance Sir Reg envied, and that Luten was not even aware of. Unconscious arrogance was the very cream of arrogance.
Trust Luten not to come forward, or even to beckon. He just tossed his head commandingly to summon his minions. Corinne ignored him, until Coffen put his hand on her arm.
"He looks worried. Best come along," he said. "It must be important."
"Hurry! I cannot delay supper. My ice sculpture is melting!" Prance exclaimed, and darted forward. Cupid's bow and arrow were very fine. He should have settled for a heart, but it was too pedestrian.
"What's afoot?" Coffen demanded, when they reached the doorway.
"Susan's been kidnapped," Luten said in a hollow voice. After shooting this verbal cannonball at them, he turned and retreated to Prance's study. The others looked stupefied for a moment, then hurried after him and closed the door.
Prance had kept a rein on his originality in this serious chamber. It was a severe room with oak paneling and the usual desk, chairs, and cabinets. A gentleman needed one room in which he could play at being a serious man of affairs. Luten sat on the corner of the desk and the others stood around him.
After the first stunned silence, Corrine asked, "When? How did you find out?"
"A note from Jeremy Soames came to my house a moment ago. As it was marked 'urgent,' my butler had it sent here."
"What does Soames want you to do?" Prance asked.
"He doesn't say, but of course, I shall go to Appleby Court at once." His eyes darted uncertainly to Corinne.
Prance looked around in alarm. "Tonight? But my party--"
"A lovely party, Reg. Sorry I must leave, but Susan--"
"I'll go with you," Coffen said.
"Yes, of course, we must all go," Corinne said. "Little Susan is like a sister to me," she added hastily, lest Luten take the absurd notion she was going on his account.
To say Susan was like a sister was a slight exaggeration. Corinne's mind roamed back to the past. She had spent her year of mourning at Appleby Court, in East Sussex, after her late husband's death. It was there that Luten had proposed to her, three years before. And she, like a fool, had rejected him. She had wanted a period in which to enjoy her new freedom. His pride had been sorely bruised. The refusal had led to three years of snipping and sniping between them, before the affair of the stolen pearls had brought them together.
There had been a strange sequel to her refusal. In a fit of pique, he had turned around and offered for his cousin, Susan Enderton, who had also refused him. That bizarre week sometimes seemed like a dream, but it was no dream that Luten was terribly upset at Susan's being kidnapped. His lean face was pale and drawn. Was it possible he really loved Susan? That his offer hadn't been made in a fit of pique, but that he had loved her all this time? Was that why she, Corinne, hadn't received the expected offer tonight?
When she turned her attention again to the conversation around her, she realized she had missed a good deal. Prance was saying, "I can't leave my own party. It would be too outre, but I shall join you and Pattle at Appleby Court tomorrow."
Coffen said to Luten, "The rest of us can go together-- you, Corinne, me."
Again Luten glanced at Corinne, then quickly averted his eyes. "I'm taking my curricle. It's faster," he said. "It only seats two. You can come with me if you like, Pattle."
"What about Corinne?"
"She could come tomorrow with Prance, if she feels it necessary to come at all."
"I shall go tonight," she said, glaring at Luten.
"I'm not sure that's a good idea," he replied. "A lady can't be much help. Just one more to worry about, with a kidnapper on the loose."
Her Irish temper broke. "Susan is like a sister to me," she repeated. When Luten lifted his well-arched eyebrow in derision, she added, "I expect I know her better than any of you. A lady is more likely to notice little details amiss."
"I am quite as familiar with Susan as you or anyone else," Luten said.
"What sum do they ask for her return?" Coffen asked.
"Soames didn't mention it, but her dowry is twenty-five thousand. I expect whoever snatched her is well aware of it."
Coffen squeezed his face into a frown. "By the living jingo, we must find her before the money is handed over. Twenty-five thousand! I'm off."
"It was a lovely party, Reggie," Corinne said, pressing his fingers. "Sorry we must dart off."
"Say no more," Prance said with a wave of his white fingers. "Naturally Susan's safety must take precedence over a party." It did seem hard, but he had to maintain his reputation for exquisite manners and sensibility.
Since it seemed there would be no wedding arrangements to engage his talents, he would amuse himself by finding Susan, and perhaps instigating some romance between her and Luten, to vex Corinne. The rogue in him enjoyed these games. Ill natured, but there you were. He, too, had his flaw. He drew his lace-edged handkerchief between his fingers, then raised it to his nose to inhale the delicate scent of lavender water--not Steakes, but a superior brand smuggled in from France at an inordinate price.