"My dearest Hortense, there is no doubt about it! Ravenworth is the man!"
Licia Dudley, peering over the rim of a delicate Wedgwood cup at her vehement Mama, suppressed a shudder. Mama had always been a little difficult, and Papa's death had only made her more so. She'd always been given to flights of fancy. But this latest start of hers...
"Dorothea, pray have some sense!" Aunt Hortense's stately face and majestic mien were the opposite of Mama's butterfly smallness and quickness. And Aunt Hortense had a tongue that could be quite biting. Not that Mama ever took any notice of it. Mama was like that proverbial runaway horse: once she took the bit between her teeth, there was no stopping her.
Still, Aunt Hortense was making a valiant attempt. "I'll grant you the chit has a look about her," she continued with a frosty smile to Desiree. "But she's not the sort for Ravenworth. It just won't suit. Why, the man will eat her alive."
From a delicate Hepplewhite chair Desiree turned to her sister. Her blue eyes widened in fear. "Licia, I don't want--"
"Hush, my dear." Licia automatically patted her sister's hand. "It will be all right. I promise."
In truth, Dezzie should have a husband. She needed someone to look after her, someone with more sense than Mama. Oh, Mama was entirely right about one thing--there was no one back home in York who was suitable. But this trip to London...
Mama took up her needlepoint, a half-finished fire screen that was supposed to show a Gothic ruin. Since Mama never picked out a misplaced stitch, and since she misplaced a great many, her endeavors in this area were almost always unrecognizable. That had never deterred her, of course.
Licia sighed again. If only she'd been able to keep Mama at home. She longed for the peaceful York countryside, for the sane and comfortable life they had led there.
Mama stitched serenely for several minutes, but since she never gave up easily, Licia was not at all surprised to hear her observe, "You said yourself that the duke should have a wife."
Aunt Hortense frowned. Dezzie pulled in a sharp breath and glanced anxiously at her sister.
"Of course the man ought to have a wife." Aunt Hortense was obviously trying for patience--and just as obviously not achieving it. "His poor mama has been saying that for many a year. But he's found no one to his liking."
"Then he's sure to like Dezzie," said Mama complacently, with one of those weird turns of perverted logic that no other mind could hope to follow.
Aunt Hortense uttered an outraged and very unladylike snort and turned to her niece. "Licia, can you not talk some sense into your mama?"
Since Licia had been attempting that very thing for many years, and with a singular lack of success, she could only shake her head. She did manage, however, to summon a smile. "Might I suggest, Aunt, that the whole question is rather speculative? I mean, surely his choice of a bride is up to the duke."
Aunt Hortense brightened considerably at this piece of common sense, and Dezzie sighed with relief.
But Mama raised her head. She was clearly not about to give up her sentiments on such an important matter. Then, just as she opened her mouth to continue, Herberts appeared. "Callers, Your Ladyship. The Dowager Duchess of Ravenworth and the Duke."
Dezzie tugged at her sister's sleeve. "Licia--"
"Sssh," Licia whispered. "Everything will be fine." Dezzie was undeniably a pretty girl, but she was so scatterbrained. How could Mama expect her to attract a man of high station? "Hortense, my dear," the dowager duchess said. "Eglantine. Do sit down. And you, your grace." The small, elegantly dressed woman crossed the room. She was dark and still lovely. The smile she gave her friend held warmth and affection. Licia decided she liked her.
But the duke ... he was tall, on the dark side for an Englishman, with eyes that were almost black. He was dressed with impeccable taste in inexpressibles and coat that fit like second skin and boots that came near to blinding with their brilliance. He was quite too high-and-mighty for the likes of her, Licia thought. And he most certainly was not the man for Dezzie.
Mama put down her needlepoint and bestowed upon the visitors her most gracious smile. "I'm so pleased to meet you," she said, bubbling. "I'm Dorothea Dudley, Hortense's sister. And these are my daughters--Licia and Desiree. We've come all the way from York. Finally, after that dreadful winter. To give my darling Dezzie her come-out. My dear sister--"
The dear sister finally gathered her wits enough to interrupt this fountain of words. "Eglantine, my friend. How nice to see you."
"We've but recently returned to town ourselves," said the duchess with a nod to Mama. "David"--she cast an affectionate glance at her son--"has espoused some new farming methods. He is forever wanting to stay in the country to see that they are properly undertaken."
Licia sent the duke another glance. Perhaps she had misjudged him. Perhaps under the dandified clothes there was a man one could respect. She imagined the duke in the country, astride a restive stallion. It was a pretty picture. But it made her long for home.
"So you're going to launch another young woman," the duchess continued. "Is dear Penelope--"
Aunt Hortense frowned. "Penelope is still at home. She's out on errands at the moment. I hold that it's better to have no husband than an unsuitable one."
Mama looked about to comment on this, but fortunately the duke spoke first. "Quite right," he said. "All this marrying off results in much unneedful misery."
The duchess chuckled. "David is against the institution."
Mama gasped and gave the duke a telling glance. Fortunately, since he was looking at his mama, it escaped his notice. The duchess saw it, though. She laughed lightly. "Or so he claims. I hold that he has just not met the right young woman."
"Quite so," observed Mama. "Now take my Licia."
Oh, if only someone would, that unfortunate daughter thought. Take her far away from the effect of Mama's words.
But no such fortunate event occurred, and Mama went right on. "She's such a sensible girl. She'd make some man a very good wife. But somehow the right man has never come along."
"Perhaps he still will," observed the duke with a look of kindly condescension.
Licia stiffened and swallowed a sharp reply. She didn't need anyone's pity, least of all that of a rakish duke!
"Yes, of course," Mama rattled on. "But we are here for Dezzie's come-out. I know she will find a husband. Don't you think so. Your grace?" And Mama turned the full force of her smile on the duke.
To Licia's relief he appeared singularly unmoved by it. "Miss Desiree is a lovely young woman," he remarked dryly. "Any young man in need of a wife must agree to that."
Mama positively glowed at this and sent her sister an I-told-you-so look.
"Hasn't this been a most dreadful winter?" Aunt Hortense observed in an obvious attempt to change the subject.
"Yes, indeed," her bosom bow agreed, with a little twinkle in her eye.
The duke chuckled. "Now, Mama, didn't you tell me the Frost Fair was the most fun you'd had in ages?"
The duchess dimpled. "You dreadful boy. You weren't supposed to mention that."
The duke's eyes left his mama's and somehow encountered Licia's. She smiled before she quite realized it, and then, aware of her indiscretion, looked away. She didn't want him to think the whole family was as dotty as Mama.
"Eglantine," said Mama. "What a lovely name."
The duchess wrinkled a pert nose. "A family name. You know how those are."
"Oh, yes," said Mama. "My dear Mr. Dudley wanted me to name the girls after his mother and mine. But I had quite different ideas."
The duchess did not look even mildly interested, and the duke said "Indeed" in a tone that could mean anything.
But Mama, as always, took any reply as a sign of great interest. Though Licia cast her a quelling look, it was to no avail. Mama's eyes already had glazed over with that look that meant she was going to do it.
"Licia's real name is Delicia," Mama said. "But for some reason she doesn't like it. Won't answer to it, in sober fact."
Feeling the duke's eyes upon her, Licia looked up. His smile was kindly but she hurried her glance away. She didn't need pity, she needed someone to silence Mama.
But no one did. "You see," Mama continued, "Licia is a special child. She comes from Dr. Graham's celebrated Celestial Bed."
Aunt Hortense's complexion, which already tended to the rosy, took on an even more crimson hue. "Really, Dorothea. This is hardly a fit subject for--"
Mama shook her head. "I'm sure it's all perfectly proper. The girls have heard the tale many times."
The dowager duchess smiled. "If you please, Hortense, I really should like to hear more. I remember hearing tales of the celebrated bed, but unfortunately I never got to visit it. Dear Dorothea, do go on."
And of course Mama did. "It was the most magnificent bed. On the dome were figures of Cupid and Psyche. And behind them stood Hymen. He's the god of weddings, you know. In one hand he held a flaming torch, of that new electricity, and the other hand supported a celestial crown, sparkling over two live turtledoves in their own little bed of roses."
Licia could not help herself. Much as she wanted to pretend he was not there, she had to see how the duke was responding to this recital. He was sitting perfectly erect, his expression attentive to the extreme. Surprisingly she could detect no indication of amusement on his face.
Most men, when Mama launched into this story, were given to sniggering behind their hands, but the duke was the perfect pattern card of politeness. Except--there it was: a little muscle that persisted in twitching at the right corner of his mouth.
She knew it. He would think the whole family had bats in the attic. Look at Mama, ranting on about a twelve-foot bed and magnetic fields. And Dezzie, who had so far not uttered a single word and looked as though she actually feared being eaten.
"Really, Dorothea," Aunt Hortense began, trying to stem Mama's prodigious flood of memory.
But Mama gave her no heed and, like a flood, swept everything before her. "The mattress was filled with sweet new wheat straw. And balm, rose leaves, lavender flowers. And spices from the Orient. Never have I smelled anything so glorious."
She paused and smiled beatifically. "And the sheets were silk. All the colors of the rainbow."
Licia felt the rosier hues rising to her own cheeks. What he must think of her, the product of such an outrageous parent!
For the hundredth time she wondered if she ought to have accepted one of the proposals that had come her way after Papa's death. But there had always been something to attend to at home. She'd feared leaving Mama to run amuck with the accounts. And anyway, there had been no one with whom matrimony had seemed at all attractive. So the years had passed and here she was, approaching the wrong side of thirty, still on the shelf. And at the moment wishing that shelf were far away in York.
"I wanted Mr. Dudley to take me back there," Mama concluded. "But that dear Dr. Graham sold up. And his mud baths were not nearly so efficacious."
"Not nearly," repeated the duke in a tone of such commiseration that Licia devoutly wished she might sink through the floor.
However, no such relief was forthcoming. The floor remained solid, and the duke remained attentive to Mama's every word.
"Ah, yes, mud baths." The duchess smiled sweetly. "If I remember rightly, they were intended for the general health."
Mama nodded. "Yes, but they were so--"
"Muddy," supplied the duke in a carefully polite tone that made Licia work hard to swallow a sudden and surprising tendency to giggle.
Not hearing the humor, Mama cast him an appreciative smile. But the duchess evidently knew her son better. She sent him a look that spoke volumes before saying to Mama, "That's quite an interesting tale." Her smile changed to a slight frown. "But I believe Hortense is right in this. It's not a thing to be discussed in the ton."
For a second Mama looked mutinous. The story of the bed was her stock-in-trade. Licia held her breath. The situation was rapidly losing whatever humor she had managed to see in it. What horrendous thing would Mama think to say next? But Mama merely directed a smile to the duke. "And you, your grace? What do you say?"
The duke smiled, too, all politeness. "With due respect to Miss Dudley and the fascinating details of her ... ah, introduction to life, I find I must agree with Mama."
Did his voice hold the hint of a chuckle? But his appearance was sober, even stern.
"Such intimate details," he continued, "enlightening as they are, if bandied about, might make Miss Dudley the target of gossip. Certainly the gossipmongers have enough fuel without our endeavoring to provide them with more."
Aunt Hortense cleared her throat, but a glance from the duke kept her silenced. "And," he went on, "since you are here to find Miss Desiree a husband, it's hardly the thing to frighten the prospects off by talk that even borders on the unseemly."
Mama looked about to argue, but then she apparently remembered that the duke was the first man on that very list of prospects, the man she'd singled out for Dezzie. She dimpled and said, "Thank you, your grace, for your advice. It's most kind of you."
Kind! Oh, yes, he was kind. He wasn't laughing at them. At least not out loud. He wasn't giving Mama the set-down she clearly deserved. But what was the man thinking? It couldn't be anything good.
Though the conversation continued, it was most thankfully about the latest London on dits. Licia, letting it all flow past her ears, endeavored to calm her ravaged nerves.
The damage was done, she told herself. The duke had heard the whole of the infamous tale. And actually, mortifying as the experience had been for her, the duke had behaved far better than most gentlemen.
She stole a glance at him. After the conclusion of Mama's tale he had allowed himself a more relaxed posture. His long legs were stretched out in front of him, and staring into space, he was absently making and remaking a steeple with his fingers.
He was obviously suffering from ennui. And no wonder, this London gossip was dreadfully dull. And so she did as she would have done at home: she moved to relieve his boredom.
"Tell me, your grace. What species of land improvement do you hold with?"
His head came erect and his black eyes surveyed her intently. "Part of it has to do with the rotating of crops. I want to--But the details will no doubt bore you."
"Oh, no." Licia shook her head. He was going to know that at least one member of this family had some understanding. "Not at all," she replied. "Papa was much interested in land reform. He spoke to me about it often."
The duke's expression betrayed disbelief, so she continued. "It's quite true. Since Papa had no sons, he used often to speak to me of his beliefs and desires. And land reform was one of them."
The duke's eyes seemed to grow lighter. "I see. Then you will be interested in knowing that..."
It was some time later when the dowager duchess rose to go. Her son got to his feet and bowed to Licia. "Thank you for a most stimulating conversation, Miss Dudley."
"You're welcome, I'm sure, your grace. I, too, enjoyed it." Conscious of Mama's eyes on her, she added, "The duke was telling us about his plans for land reform. Dezzie was most interested. Weren't you, dear?"
Dezzie's dutiful "Oh yes" would not have fooled anyone else. But Mama only saw what she wished to see--and she wished to see the duke and Dezzie getting along famously.
"Thank you, your grace. Dezzie's such an intelligent girl."
His grace bowed in acknowledgment, though, since Dezzie had not uttered even one word during the entire conversation, he could hardly have formed much of an opinion of her intelligence.
"If you would accompany me to the door," said his grace in a tone meant only for Licia's ears.
She got to her feet with alacrity. And while Aunt Hortense and the duchess made their good-byes, the duke said softly to Licia, "I assure you, the tale of your--ah, of the bed will go no further. Mama and I know how to keep our tongues between our teeth."
Licia smiled. "You're most kind, your grace. But that's Mama's favorite story. I don't know if even your words of wisdom will deter her."
"They should," he replied slowly. "Not only does such a story work against Miss Desiree's prospects, it does nothing to help yours."
For a long moment she stood, suffused in rosy warmth. This man actually thought she had prospects! But then common sense returned. "I am past the age of worrying about such things. But I thank you for your concern. And I shall do what I can to contain Mama. For Dezzie's sake, of course."
"Of course," he replied. And bowing again, he followed his mama to the brougham.
Mama and Aunt Hortense immediately went to discussing the visit. And Dezzie complained, though in a whisper so Mama could not hear, "Licia, what a Banbury tale! Me! Interested in land reform."
But Licia heard little of anything around her. She was lost in remembering a pair of dark eyes and a quizzical smile. And of course it had been most enlightening to talk to a man whose ideas were so progressive.