Standing in the receiving line outside Russell Gordon's Kensington ballroom, Lord George Albert Westin smiled and inclined his head at the other guests, trying not to let his panic show. Given the amount of laudanum he'd drizzled into his tea in anticipation of this outing, he shouldn't have any panic left to display. But were it not for the telltale sense of floating, of a world carried on clouds and fuzzy around the edges, he would have wondered if he'd remembered to add the opiate at all. The problem, he acknowledged grimly, was not that he'd forgotten. It was that once again he'd acclimated to the dose and would require more to achieve the desired effect.
"Quite a crush," a lady said beside him.
Wes blinked. To his surprise, it appeared it was he to whom she spoke. Everyone else was busy removing wraps and handing over canes and hats to footmen, and she was staring directly at him. He scrutinized her face, not recognizing her but thinking perhaps he had only forgotten her, but she seemed too singular to do so. She had a flat American accent, an elegant but eclectic dress, and flaming scarlet hair.
She chuckled. "No, you don't know me, so you can stop trying to recall where we have met. My name is Penelope Brannigan. But you may call me Penny." She arched an eyebrow. "Go ahead and be appalled at my lack of manners. I'm accustomed to it, and I don't mind."
Wes was indeed appalled. First she spoke to him as if they were longtime friends, then she introduced herself, and to seal the outlandishness told him to call her Penny. Unwilling to cut a woman direct, unable to form complete sentences and not knowing what he would say even if he could, Wes simply stared at her.
As the foyer quieted, he realized he wasn't the only one staring, though people were watching him, not his companion. It had taken the small crowd lingering at the door a few moments to identify him, but they knew him now. Fans and drinks shielded the gossiping tongues, but the eyes followed him as his identity spread like wildfire.
"Daventry, that's who he is! He's the Marquess of Daventry's son!"
"Daventry's son? Do you mean to tell me that's the Earl of Vaughn?"
"No. That's the other one. Lord George Albert. The stammerer."
The woman regarded Wes with new interest--and a strange empathy.
Wes left. He told himself he was only moving forward in line, that Mrs. Gordon was looking at him expectantly, wanting to perform her hostess duties, but the plain truth was that he'd cut Penelope Barrington. He'd had to. His hands shook, the panic of so much attention threatening to drag him down. It was all he could do to keep walking as the whispers around him continued.
"Second son. I've heard stories about him. Wrong in the head, isn't he?"
"Didn't even make it through Eton. Had to be tutored at home."
"Fixated on plants. He's in some society about them."
"Never goes out. No idea why he's here now."
Wes drew a deep breath and urged the drug to temper his fragile nerves as the old black fears rolled around him. No one will commit you to Bedlam tonight, no matter what they think of you. No matter how frightened they are of a potential madman in their midst, they're more afraid of your father.
Mrs. Gordon pasted on her brightest smile as she held out her hand to him. "My dear Lord George. Such a pleasant surprise to see you here today."
Wes wished he could have swooped in with a smart smile and a breezy retort. Alas, madam. The Royal Botanical Society received your invitation, but it is with great regret I report that only I was able to attend. But I am delighted to be here with a peer of science. A lady who, according to my sources, is one of the most learned botanists in all of Britain.
Instead he said, "It-t is g-good t-to s-s-see you, Mrs. G-G-Gordon."
Mrs. Gordon's countenance transformed into pity. "How kind of you to grace our humble gathering--we are honored, my lord. Quite honored." She looked abruptly eager. "How does the Regent's Park garden fare? I have heard such wonderful things about it."
Quite well, quite well. We finally have the piping sorted, and the tropical house is finding its feet. You should see the bromeliads. Nothing finer. Would you care to stop by sometime and see them yourself? I'd be happy to give you a personal tour.
"G-G-Good," Wes said.
"Wonderful." Mrs. Gordon fixed her smile a little firmer.
Wes stood there stupidly. This was his moment, he knew. This was where he should make some small talk about her notable skill with plants, of how he longed to see her conservatory, which reportedly rivaled any in London. This was where he said, I hear you have acquired a strange new orchid, delivered in full bloom, with an unusual shape and oddly colored lip. Could you be persuaded to allow me to see it?
This was the reason he had drugged himself nearly insensible and braved traffic and the crowd, the reason he'd sifted through the usual pile of discarded cards to find Mrs. Gordon's invitation. But while the drug could carry him here, it seemed it could not grant him charm, could not even loosen his tongue, and in the end Mrs. Gordon made him a curtsey and urged him to enjoy himself.
Wes moved away from the receiving line and into the room, hugging the wall as much as he could as he looked for a safe place to stand. He ended up near an ornate vase filled with flowers and greenery beside a window, an empty space which, by the time he reached it, was noticeably larger because the guests were giving him a wide berth.
He tried to tell himself it was because he was so far above the social station of everyone here, but he doubted that was the truth.
A servant offered a glass of punch to Wes, who accepted it with a nod. He didn't drink, however, only continued to watch the others in the room. They watched him back. He could not hear their conversations now, but he could imagine them.
What is he, thirty? Thirty-one? Does he have his own money?
Thirty-three. And yes, his mother's father left him five thousand a year. He's hardly touched it, with his father covering his apartments and his dues at the club, and practically everything else. A girl could be very happy with Lord George. If she could overlook his...problem. One would have to pray, of course, that the damage would not pass on to the children.
Wes curled his lip as he raised his punch cup and pretended to sip. Even within the Royal Botanical Society, where he monthly produced papers for others to read in lecture, where no one could claim better knowledge of plants and their care than he--even there he knew they whispered of him. He was a member of all the right clubs, yes, but he got in not because of his merit but because no one dared upset his father. They all talked of the crazy lording, he knew.
What was wrong with his lordship's mind? Yes, his papers were brilliant. But why could he not read them aloud himself? Why could he not, most of the time, even be present when they were read, and at best could only stand in the back of the room? Why did he never go out? Why did he always look like a rabbit about to bolt to its den?
Why couldn't he speak even a single sentence without stammering through every consonant like some simpleton dragged out of a village gutter?
Lowering the punch cup, Wes stared down into the fruit-scented depths. This, his stammer and the public's reaction to it, was why Wes never went out. This was why it had taken a dangerous amount of Doctor Jacob's wicked little pills mixed in with his usual laudanum to bear him to the carriage and to this party. It depressed him beyond measure that even despite this he had broken into a sweat and stammered almost beyond comprehension at the door and had failed so utterly with his hostess.
This was why he should have stayed home tonight as well.
"Whatever fish it is you're trying to catch here tonight, glaring less will almost certainly help."
Wes blinked and turned toward the voice. Good Lord. "Penny" stood beside him again. Her eyes were fixed out at the crush of people. They seemed to amuse her.
"It's not a bad ball, for the Gordons. Though I think Griselda is trying too hard. That is the way of it here in England, though, as far as I can tell. The middle class crushes itself in its desperate attempts to become part of the upper class." She sighed. "I wish they'd stop long enough to realize most of the gentry is miserable too, perhaps more so because they have no one to ape, only their wealth and status to maintain." She paused and glanced at Wes with a wry smile. "This is where you tell me I am mad, or too forward, or say, 'Why, I never!'"
By God, Wes nearly laughed. "Y-You are."
Her eyebrow lifted. "Mad? Forward?"
"B-B-Both." But he was still smiling, which made her return the gesture before she turned her gaze back to the crowd.
"I'm proud to claim both. Though what I need just now is a bleeding heart, and one with money at that, as I'm running out of the latter and wearing down my former. That's why I've come here, you see. I need a patron. Someone with money who wants to do good things with it. My uncle was high enough in stature that a connection to him can get me in almost anywhere but the haut ton, but his money dried up long ago. So I'm here to find some for my 'little project', as most people call it. I've found I do better at the parties of the Mrs. Gordons than the Lady Somesuches. More people hoping their charity will elevate them." She glanced at him again. "That, my lord, is why I am here. May I press my forwardness enough to ask why it is you are?"
Wes rubbed his thumb against the side of his punch cup as he considered his response. Uncouth as she was, he found himself charmed by Miss Barrington--she must be Miss, not Mrs.--and wanted to answer her. She had heard who he was and had sought him out on purpose. He wasn't certain this had ever happened before.
"To s-s-see a f-f-flower." He flushed, embarrassed by his stammer, but the opium made everything soft, and he pushed on. "R-R-Rare orch-ch-chid. M-M-Mrs. G-G-Gordon h-has one."
She stayed silent, and he dared another glance, worried she was appalled at his speech, but it turned out she appeared only to be considering something carefully. At last she favored him with a wicked smile. "Judging by the fact that you stand here looking frustrated and Mrs. Gordon seems to have no interest in giving you a tour, might I assume you plan to find this rare flower on your own?"
Wes hesitated before nodding.
Miss Barrington smiled at him. "I wish you success. If you need a distraction at a doorway, let me know and I will do my best." She inclined her head at the crush. "Would you care, my lord, to return the favor, and tell me in which pool of guests I might best find my fish?"
Warmed by her lack of convention and her easy acceptance of his impediment, Wes decided to indulge her. He turned to give the crowd a proper study.
It truly was a gauche attendance. Merchants and bankers, West Indies plantation owners returned--a few Army and Royal Navy gentlemen, though of course none of any quality. But Mrs. Gordon had scored a coup, for a few men of fashion had deigned to attend. They were the lower sort, but they were here. It would lend credence to the Gordons's social aspirations. "I saw the most charming statue at the Gordons's party last week. Yes, darling, the Gordons." And the fops would jockey carefully, riding the line between demeaning themselves by the association and elevating slightly the reputation of someone who didn't deserve the elevation at all.
In short, London society as usual.
Wes knew none of the attendees personally, though he could guess a few by reputation. He didn't circulate in society, no, but when one did most of one's dining at clubs, the most amazing tidbits could be overheard. The short man in the striped trousers had to be Benjamin Bennett, of the Devonshire Bennetts. Yes, it would make sense that he would be here, balanced on the edge of decency, as the rumors were that he'd been left practically at the altar. Given what Wes had heard of Bennett's gaming debts, the bride-to-be had made a narrow escape. And there was the broad-shouldered gentleman with a bright blue waistcoat and an Osbaldiston knot: that had to be Fredrick Grainville. He'd married Lord Gatley's daughter and, according to rumor, left her to languish in Scotland while he chased actresses and dancers. But his father had left him a fortune from his time in India, and his brother was an admiral in the Royal Navy, fighting away in China. Plus, he was a notorious charmer. Certainly half the women in the room were swooning over him.
Indeed, Wes could scarcely blame them.
He wasn't finding anyone for Miss Brannigan, he realized.
Wes was scanning faces in a crowd he thought might be her likeliest bet when he saw the man. He was as much a darling of the crowd as Grainville, but Wes didn't know a single thing about him. He might have dismissed him, except the man was very charming and exceptionally pretty. Dressed in a long cream coat with tails, he looked like he belonged at a masquerade ball, or perhaps the court of George III. He drifted through the guests with such ease and grace he was almost dancing. His dark blond hair was long, unfashionably so, but on him it was so winsome as to reset the fashion itself. Blond tendrils curled artfully against his forehead and cheek, and even his hair, pulled back in a queue, had been set to the iron so that it caressed the lip of his gold-embroidered collar whenever he turned his head. He wore a cravat even more old-fashioned than Wes's own, tied loosely to offer a tantalizing view of a long smooth white neck.
The man moved in and out of conversations with the same grace he employed to drift across the ballroom floor. He was a practiced flirt, making his dancing and conversation partners blush while never managing to encourage anyone too much. He flirted, too, Wes noticed, with the men. Older men, especially those well-married and firmly off the mart. Though in truth any man who had set himself aside but smelled of money was approached with wide smiles and shining dark eyes. Laughter too--soft, beguiling laughter that was almost feminine. In fact, everything about the man was a tantalizing mix of male and female. The boldness of a male, the obsequiousness of a female. The frame of a man but the softness of a woman. And pretty. Handsome and pretty at once.
In short, he was the very sort of man Wes preferred.
"No one, my lord?" Miss Brannigan prompted, sounding wistful.
Wes startled and hastily jerked his gaze away from the blond man. He made one last sweep of the room before nodding as casually as he could at a sad-looking gentleman in a worn brown topcoat near the punch table. "Elton," he managed, after coaxing his open mouth around the "El" for three seconds of preparation. "Welsh b-b-businessman. L-Looks sh-shabby, but h-he's h-heavy p-pockets. M-M-Misses his w-w-wife. T-Talks c-c-constantly of the n-n-need for f-f-founding h-h-hospitals for w-w-women."
Miss Brannigan looked pleased. "Thank you very much, my lord. I am quite in your debt."
Wes inclined his head in her direction. "H-H-Happy to ob-b-blige."
The expression on her face went briefly enigmatic, and then she lifted her reticule and fished inside it. "I suspect you won't like my mentioning it, but I cannot help but notice you possess a rather pronounced stutter, and I would feel remiss if I did not offer this." She handed him a card. "It bears my name and address, and should you ever wish to look me up, I would be more than happy to share with you the techniques I know to overcome the affliction."
Wes did not take the card. "I h-h-have s-s-seen d-d-doctors--"
"Oh, I promise you," Miss Brannigan remarked dryly, "I'm as removed from a doctor as one can be. But as the former owner of a prominent stutter myself, I believe I might be able to help." When Wes's mouth fell open in shock, she laughed. "Yes, I know, it's difficult to believe. But from ages five to eight I said not a single word, and from eight to thirteen every one of them was better butchered than anything you could serve up." Still smiling, she tucked the card into Wes's pocket. "Ignore it for now, of course, because I know I am horribly shocking, but please don't toss the card straightaway. You might change your mind later, and in any event, I won't be moving from that address." She made a pretty curtsey and nodded at him. "And now, if you will excuse me, I believe I will take my forward self over to Mr. Elton, the lonely businessman. Good day, my lord. May your quest be profitable."
Wes watched her go, touching his hand to the pocket where she had tucked her card. She had been a stammerer? As he watched her go, fiery hair and straight spine and forest-green velvet dress with no hoops of any kind swinging freely as she moved--well, he acknowledged, were he a different man, he'd be in love.
Or, he supposed, if she were a man.
The thought made Wes's eyes slide back to the pretty young gentleman. He didn't look Wes's way, but Wes wished he would. Even just a glance. A glance and a small, secretive smile.
Flirt with me too.
He thought of the way Miss Brannigan had approached him, and for a moment he let himself indulge in the fantasy of meeting the pretty blond fop. He imagined himself striding across the room, catching the blond man's attention with a wry quip and holding it with a seductive smile. He pretended his tongue was light and cunning as air, and he imagined how the man's flirtations would falter under the assault of his own. As the man blushed, Wes would lean close and ask if he would like to step outside. Though it was cool and had begun to rain, they would go. They would find a dark corner where the young man's desire would no longer be able to be held back, and he would confess, trembling, how much he wanted Wes.
Smiling, Wes would run a finger down his cheek. "It's all right. Let me take care of you, my lovely. Let me take you back to my rooms. We can sample wine together, and then..."
God help him, and then.
But this, of course, was only a fantasy. The one time the pretty young man glanced Wes's way, his gaze passed through him as if he were invisible. A pause just long enough to register--and reject.
Wes made himself turn away, forcing his mind back to his true reason for attending the ball.
The room had become full as he stood against the wall. The way to the door was thick with people, and even thinking of pressing through them made him sweat. Even the indomitable Miss Brannigan had been swallowed up.
He began to feel dizzy. Though he'd been warmed by the heat of the room since his arrival, perspiration now ran down the back of his neck in a steady stream. Pressing himself to the wall, Wes fought his uneasy stomach, regretting the punch he'd sipped. He would be sick. He would be sick, and then he would pass out, and once his father found out what a disgrace he'd made of himself, and where, and why, he'd give Wes that long, sober look that made it quite clear that never in the history of the world had a son been more disappointing than he.
Just one more pill.
Wes shut his eyes, trying to push the thought away. He couldn't take another pill. He'd taken too many already. But the panic was too great, and the thought kept coming back. It was true, he'd taken this many once before. He'd passed out that time, but with as much tolerance as he had now, surely he'd be fine?
At this point it was practically an emergency. Because he wasn't Penelope Brannigan. He was Lord George Albert Westin, stammerer and all-around disappointment. He needed this much opiate just to haul himself to a plant.
The white pill slipped between his lips and slid into his stomach with a large gulp of punch.
Ten minutes later he made his way through the press of people toward the door, mindful of the crowd but uncaring of any of it. Uncaring, in fact, of anything at all. A few people glanced worriedly at him, but he didn't mind. What did they know? They were all liquid color anyway, nothing but stalks of feathers with eyes, swaying in the breeze. He didn't need Miss Brannigan's brass or her tricks. He had his little pills. He would be fine.
His thoughts were blurry, however, and he had to wrench them back to his purpose. Orchid. He wanted to see Mrs. Gordon's orchid. "There's something odd about it," his source had told him. "Something strange. She paid dear for it, that much is known." A new, blooming orchid. It would be lovely, far more lovely than any of the women in this ballroom.
Perhaps even more beautiful than the man who had shunned him to flirt with a fat, balding man whose tongue never failed him, not even in his cups.
The additional opium had shaken out the dark corners in Wes's mind, and his disobedient tongue sat soft and tingling in his mouth. I would like to show you my tongue, pretty young man. I would like to thrust it between the cheeks of your round little bottom and into the heat of your hot passage.
Wes let the image possess him for a moment, arresting him on his path to the door. He glanced back into the room, catching sight of the man, and he waited. His breath caught when the blond head turned his way--then continued turning, as if Wes weren't even there.
Shunned not once but twice.
Wes let the opium swallow his disappointment as he squared his shoulders and continued to the hall, taking himself deeper into the house. The flower. He'd come for the flower, and once he found it, once he saw it, he would forget all about the indomitable Miss Brannigan and the delightfully delectable blond-haired man.