Vivi cleared her throat delicately and made a production of speaking brightly to Ella across the picnic, “Ella, you should try your hand at drawing a collection of figures…perhaps Nick and Kit and I should be your subjects this afternoon?” With a graceful movement, she settled herself nearer the Worthington brothers, conveniently upwind of Alex and Lord Stanhope, and produced a deck of cards. “It’s not the most masculine of games, my lords, but may I tempt you into a round of whist?”
And, with that, Vivi had redirected everyone’s attention away from Alex and Stanhope, who were now left alone on their patch of linen. Nick noticed and said with a mock threat in his voice, “I’ve got my eye on you, Stanhope…Remember, you flirt with my only sister.”
Stanhope nodded at Nick with feigned seriousness and replied, “I wouldn’t dare be inappropriate, Lord Farrow.”
His use of Nick’s seldom used title amused the group, and he turned a wide grin on Alex as laughter floated across the green.
“Your reputation is quite impressive, my lord,” Alex spoke quietly, referencing Nick’s jest, her tone half teasing. “I confess, growing up with you, I wouldn’t have expected it.”
“I could play as though I do not understand your inference, my lady, but that would be a silly pretense. I assume you’re referring to my notoriety as a rake? You shouldn’t believe everything you hear gossiped about in ballrooms.”
“Oh, no need to worry, my lord. I don’t.”
“Not remotely. Considering my memories of you from our shared childhood, I find it quite difficult to believe you a danger either to me or to my reputation.”
He chuckled and replied quietly, “Be careful, my lady. There’s a fine line between complimenting a gentleman and wounding his ego.”
Impishly, she smiled up at him. “My apologies, Lord Stanhope. Of course, I meant that I don’t believe you pose a threat to either my reputation or to me at this particular moment. I would certainly think twice before allowing you the chance to escort me somewhere where your notorious wickedness could be unleashed, however.”
With a loud laugh that caused the other four members of their party to look over, he flashed her an admiring glance. “Much better, and exactly what I imagine the elderly ladies of the ton would want you to think. After all, if the rumors are to be believed, I eat young ladies fresh on the marriage mart for breakfast.”
“Ah, well, then, I am safe from you. I am not ‘on the marriage mart.’”
“Oh, you aren’t?” His reply was laced with interest.
She shook her head with a smile, “No. I’m not. I’m not interested in marriage.”
One of his eyebrows cocked. “You’re not?”
“No. When you were seventeen, were you thinking about marriage?”
His response was filled with humor. “Certainly not.”
“Aha!” She pointed at him with emphasis. “You see? That answer proves my point! You think it’s completely unfathomable that a boy of seventeen even think about marriage!”
“Yes. I do.”
“So why should I be thinking about it?”
“An excellent question.”
His frank response surprised her and she pulled back to assess him. “You really mean that.”
“To be sure. I’ve never understood the expectation that women and men should adhere to different rules and protocols when it comes to courtship and marriage. I say, stay unattached as long as you like. From the marriages I’ve witnessed in the course of my life, the institution isn’t quite what it’s cracked up to be anyway.” Leaning closer, he wriggled his eyebrows in mock villainy and continued, “I shouldn’t like to see you married off too soon, anyway, my lady.”
The extreme flirtation inspired a burst of laughter from Alex, which forced Stanhope to chuckle himself and to offer, “Well, what did you expect? I have a reputation to keep up!”
Alex’s eyes twinkled with humor, and she grinned broadly. “Why, Frederick, Lord Stanhope. You’re a fraud!”
He leaned close to her ear and spoke in a voice too quiet to be overheard by their neighbors, “Shhh. Don’t let that get around. ’Twill ruin me.”
So thoroughly had Alex been enjoying their banter that she hadn’t noticed the approach of two newcomers to their idyllic afternoon. Looking up from Lord Stanhope, she noticed that they had arrived just as she had burst into laughter, and her humor died in her throat. There, standing at the edge of the linen square, gazing down with expressions that could only be described as, respectively, bored uninterest and supreme aggravation, were Penelope Grayson and Gavin, Lord Blackmoor.
From his place on the linen blanket, Lord Stanhope, curious about Alex’s sudden change in demeanor, followed the direction of her gaze and, as proper etiquette demanded, immediately stood to greet Penelope and Blackmoor, along with the already standing Nick and Kit. “Lady Penelope, as always, it is a pleasure to see you. You’ve only made this pleasant afternoon more lovely.”
One of Alex’s eyebrows shot up.
“Thank you, my lord. I admit that I was skeptical about a walk in the park. I prefer to ride, but the day is bright and sunny, if on the cool side. I hope I do not catch a chill.”
At this, Alex rolled her eyes, only to be caught by Blackmoor, whose gaze sharpened. Pretending not to notice, Alex smoothed her skirts and looked over at Ella, who had stopped sketching to send an Is she serious? look in Alex’s direction.
“You must join us!” Nick exclaimed. “What luck that we would meet!” With a resigned sigh, Alex stood to move closer to Ella—secretly afraid that the expanse of linen that had been unoccupied would be filled with the odious Penelope, and Alex would be forced to ruin a perfectly charming afternoon by interacting with the unpleasant young woman.
Before she could move, however, Blackmoor intercepted her, speaking quietly while bowing low over her hand. “Lady Alexandra, I trust that you don’t object to our company for the afternoon. I would hate to ruin your outing.” Their gazes met and Alex noted the warning in his grey eyes; she knew he was daring her to say something negative about his arrival with Penelope, and she stiffened, wishing she could wipe the expression from his face without causing a scene that would be discussed in London ballrooms for years. Of course, she didn’t. In a feat of good manners that rivaled those of Queen Charlotte herself, Alex plastered a smile on her lips and spoke brightly, albeit through her teeth, “Certainly not, my lord. I cannot think of two more welcome additions to our little gathering.” Removing her hand forcefully from his grasp, she continued, “I think I shall take a walk—I do so enjoy them…especially in the cool air.” Her remark, designed to underscore the ridiculousness of his companion, hit home and his eyes narrowed at her boldness.
Vivi, who had overheard their conversation, stood and offered, “I should like to join you, Alex. I would benefit from a turn about the green.”
Ella spoke from her perch on the blanket, “I shall come, too!”
And with that, the three were off, walking down their little hill and onto the greensward. Alex set the pace, her long legs eating up the ground as she marched away from the group, Ella and Vivi rushing to catch up.
“It’s utterly remarkable how a perfectly pleasant afternoon can be ruined by the arrival of one unpleasant person.”
Vivi spoke drily, “Are we talking about Penelope? Or Blackmoor?”
“If we keep going at this pace,” said Ella, “I’m not going to be talking much at all…I’ll need all the breath I have just to keep from swooning for lack of air.”
Alex slowed her strides. “We’re talking about both! Though, to be fair, she’s always unpleasant. What befuddles me is that he seems to be becoming unpleasant himself…as he becomes more and more enamored of her!”
“With all due respect, Alex, you seem slightly more than befuddled. You seem…” Vivi paused, searching for the word.
“Furious,” Ella supplied frankly.
“I’m not furious,” Alex said in frustration, “but besides not understanding what he sees in her…I simply find it unbelievable that he would think he could speak to me as if I were a child! It makes me…” She stopped, at a loss for words.
“Furious?” Ella offered.
Alex threw her a glare. “Irritated.”
“Blackmoor seems just as chivalrous as always to me,” said Vivi. “Although, considering his prior warnings to you about Stanhope, it wouldn’t surprise me if he were slightly unnerved by the portrait the two of you were making.”
“It would serve him right!” Then, forgetting her ire momentarily, Alex turned to Vivi. “What portrait? We were simply enjoying our afternoon. Stanhope has been a perfect gentleman.”
“That may well be the case, Alex, but the two of you did appear rather…” Vivi let her sentence trail off.
“Cozy.” This, again, from Ella.
“Must you finish all her sentences?” Alex gave Ella an exasperated look.
Ella smiled brightly. “It’s a particular skill.”
“Stanhope and I were not ‘cozy.’ We were having a perfectly harmless conversation until Blackmoor appeared with that awful…”
“Penelope.” In the pause that followed her addition, Ella looked innocently at Alex, a twinkle in her cornflower-blue eyes.
Unable to be angry with her friend, Alex chuckled and wagged a finger in warning. “Ella. You tread on thin ice.”
“Ah, but you must admit, my ability to exasperate is part of my charm.”
“You have charm?”
Vivi answered with laughter in her voice, “A very small amount. If you blink, you might miss it.”
“Oh!” Ella cried out in mock offense, and the three laughed together.
Alex smiled and continued, “I suppose I shouldn’t let them mar an otherwise lovely day. I shall rise above it.”
Vivi nodded. “Very generous of you.”
“Thank you. I rather thought so.”
Ella spoke, squinting at a figure approaching them. “Is that Baron Montgrave? It is! Vivi, you have to meet him. He’s got some fascinating tales—you’re going to just adore him.”
“Well, considering your eagerness to reacquaint yourself with him…I find I am quite eager myself.” Vivi looked toward the tall Frenchman and continued, “If what you both say of the baron is true, he’s bound to be the most interesting part of the afternoon.”
Alex spoke under her breath as the baron drew near, “That’s not saying much, considering the recent less than scintillating addition of Penelope to the afternoon.”
Ella turned back at Alex’s sarcasm. “As your friend, I feel I must tell you that you’re becoming obsessed.”
“I am not obsessed! I simply—”
“Baron Montgrave!” Ella spoke cheerfully as the Frenchman reached them. “What a pleasure to see you! You’ve rescued us from an afternoon filled with repetitive conversation!”
Standing slightly behind her friend, Alex poked Ella in the back none too lightly and over her quiet “Ow!” pasted a smile on her face to rival her friend’s. “Indeed, my lord, you are well met.”
Bowing deeply, the baron returned the girls’ smiles. “Surely it is you who have rescued me, my ladies. Fortune appears to have smiled upon me to have provided me with such elegant company.”
Alex turned to Vivi. “My lord, may I introduce our dear friend Lady Vivian Markwell? Lady Vivian, I present the Baron Montgrave.”
“Enchantée.” The baron bowed low over Vivian’s hand. “I know your father well and have heard him speak of you with great pride. It is an honor to meet you finally.”
Vivi fell into a deep curtsy and met the baron’s warm gaze. “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, my lord. What brings you to this meadow by the Serpentine today?”
“One can never have too many afternoon walks in the beautiful weather. That is something I learned in the country and I am loathe to forget it now in the bustle of the city.”
Alex smiled. “Well said, Baron. I imagine that, after a lifetime in France, you must find us rather soggy.”
With a chuckle, the baron nodded in agreement as Ella spoke. “We were taking advantage of this lovely weather ourselves, as it happens. Would you care to join our little party, my lord?” She extended her hand to indicate the cluster of young people up on the knoll.
Following her gaze, the baron shook his head to decline gracefully. “Thank you, no, my ladies. I fear I would ruin such a youthful outing.”
“Nonsense!” Alex’s unladylike outburst drew startled looks from all three of her companions. Looking at her friends, she lowered her voice defensively, “Well, it is.”
“What Lady Alexandra means to say, my lord,” Vivi offered, unable to hide a wide, amused grin, “is that you are more than welcome at our little gathering; we would very much enjoy your company.”
Laughter came to Alex’s eye and she interjected, “Isn’t that what I said?”
The baron laughed again and spoke warmly, “Certainly, my lady, that is what I heard.” Offering an arm, he continued, “May I escort you back to your party, although I regret I will not join you?”
Alex took the aging Frenchman’s arm and spoke in a conspiratorial tone, “Thank you, my lord—both for the escort and for your failure to mention my bad behavior. I assure you, my parents have done their best and all discernible flaws are entirely my own.”