There was a reason why an invitation to a Worthington House dinner was one of the most highly coveted of the season. They had been hosted for years, in a tradition that had been handed down from duchess to duchess for generations. On these evenings, the enormous dining table at Worthington House was filled with the most impressively titled members of London society, as well as with those deemed most interesting. This, of course, infuriated any who held an ancient title or an obscenely large estate and were left off the invitation list…all the while making the invitation itself one that was not to be declined.
Over centuries, the dinners had been attended by some of the most well-known and well-respected people in history, from playwrights and poets to politicians and royalty and everyone in between. Family lore spoke of one such dinner that had hosted William Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth—legend had it that it was on this particular evening that the Queen had commissioned a play from Shakespeare for the royal Twelfth Night festivities, resulting in one of the playwright’s most famous comedies. The proof? The then Duke and Duchess of Worthington were Sebastian and Olivia, coincidentally the names of two of the play’s main characters, who fall deeply in love.
Alex had heard the story countless times and never entirely believed it, finding it a little too outlandish for her taste, but tonight she was coming close to changing her opinion. Looking around her, she saw that this evening her mother had outdone herself. In a far corner, the Duke of Sunderland, revered for his ability to raise the best racing horses in England, was being introduced to Marcus Sinew, the common-born publisher of the Times, who was rumored to be one of the smartest and most charming businessmen in all of England. By contrast, the Duchess of Sunderland, a powerful voice in the movement to stop child labor, was receiving a young member of Parliament who was expected to become prime minister in his sure-to-be-impressive future.
Everywhere she turned, amidst impeccably mannered servants laden with refreshments, people with vastly different but fascinating skills were deep in conversation—laughing, chattering, and enjoying themselves. There was no inane flirting nor boring discussion of fashion or livestock. No, these were the thinkers and doers of London society. Her mother had achieved what few other hostesses could boast—frank, exciting, honest conversation with fascinating company, and Alex was relieved by how comfortable she felt in the room.
She took a tiny sip of her champagne and soaked in the atmosphere. Across the room, she saw Ella in a heated conversation with Will and Vivi’s father, the Marquess of Langford. She smiled at the clear admiration on the men’s faces, realizing that the trio must be talking politics…and Ella was clearly holding her own.
A rumbling from her stomach interrupted her thoughts. Attempting to be subtle, Alex looked toward the ancient clock at the end of the room and wondered when dinner might begin.
A blush rose on her cheeks as she turned to meet Blackmoor’s amused gaze. “You caught me. I’m famished—but you mustn’t tell my mother. Ladies aren’t supposed to have physical needs. Or, at least, they’re not supposed to express them.”
“I see. Well, then, I shall endeavor to keep your mind off the one at hand.”
She gazed at him, taking notice of his handsome frame. He was wearing a stunning coat, a deep midnight blue so dark it was almost black. The crisp white of his shirt and cravat brought out the bronze of his skin and the blue-grey of his eyes—so serious and adult. But deep in his eyes, beneath his hardened exterior, she saw a hint of the same boy who’d been her savior her whole life. She let out a tiny sigh. Frankly, it was exhausting to argue with him—she rather missed him. The challenge of the season, combined with the demons she was sure he was fighting, had gotten the better of them both.
She was about to say something alluding to that when he spoke, his tone clear and earnest. “We seem to have started off this season on the wrong foot.”
She was flooded with relief that he shared her sentiments. “Exactly my thoughts, my lord.” Their gazes locked, clear green and rich grey, and Alex felt warmth rising in her cheeks at the honesty of the moment. Theirs was a friendship which—until recently—had never been strained, had never been complicated; it had always been filled with fun and humor and silliness. She still hadn’t a thorough grasp on how or why it seemed to be undergoing such an oddly emotional change. Did he understand?
“I am thrilled we are in accord. Shall we swear a truce?”
Clearly he was less concerned about their changing relationship than she was, and now certainly wasn’t the time to discuss it anyway. Falling back on the comfort of humor, Alex cocked her head, pretending to consider the proposition seriously. He laughed, attracting attention from the other guests, and whispered, “Minx.”
Alex rewarded him with a grin and all was forgiven—her rudeness to Penelope, his arrogance, their mutual distractions over the past several weeks. They shared a moment filled with silent pleasure, a moment lasting just long enough to once again raise the color on Alex’s cheeks.
The dinner chimes rang, interrupting their private moment, and Alex, despite years of training in the proper method of being escorted to dinner was suddenly lost…a stranger in her own home. She watched as those around them paired off—highest-ranking men with their highest-ranked female counterparts—and she felt panic begin to rise in her chest as she realized she had no idea where her place was in this moment. Who was to escort her into dinner?
Her father was escorting the Dowager Duchess of Lockwood into the dining hall; he was followed by her mother, escorted by the Duke of Sunderland. She watched as Vivi and Ella both took the arms of their escorts—no help there, as the gentlemen in question were Will and Nick. She couldn’t be accompanied to dinner by Kit—he was her brother. It was like watching an elaborate dance to which she had forgotten the steps—she knew she should have given more attention to her governess’s droning.
Her mother was going to have her hide. Perhaps she could beg off and cry headache—that would solve the whole problem.
Lost in her own mental hysterics, Alex had forgotten Blackmoor, standing at her side. Turning, she saw his calm smile—he was clearly amused by her panic. He waited for her to realize what he’d known all along…that he, as an unrelated earl, was a perfectly proper escort for the daughter of a duke.
With a sigh of relief, she took the arm he offered, whispering, “That was cruel. I thought you declared a truce?”
As they made their way to dinner, he replied, “On the contrary. I offered a truce. You did not accept.”
“Mere words, sir.”
“That may be. But this is London in season—words are paramount.”
She chuckled. “Either way, I must thank you—you seem to be ever saving me from getting myself into trouble.”
With an exaggerated sigh, he replied, “It’s a task I resigned myself to long ago, Alex.”
She couldn’t help but think of the first time he’d saved her. “Lucky for you, you don’t have to catch me jumping from trees anymore. I daresay your more recent missions have been rather more easy.”
“I wouldn’t be so certain,” he spoke enigmatically.
She didn’t have a chance to ask him what he meant, because they had arrived in the dining hall and were immediately swept up in the energy of the conversation and the extraordinary food.
Alex found herself seated at the far end of the table, to the left of the Marquess of Langford, sure to be a fascinating dinner companion. It didn’t hurt that he was the father of one of her closest friends, which served to put her at ease. She sent a silent offering of thanks to her mother for the seating arrangement. On her left was Mr. Sinew, whom she almost immediately decided she liked—the newspaper publisher was clearly intelligent and unpretentious, a welcome change to most members of the ton.
Across the table was Lady Charlotte Twizzleton, a brilliant woman who, at the age of six and twenty, was considered very much “on the shelf” and who very much didn’t seem to care. Instead, she had traveled the world, attended salons with the greatest minds of the era, and spent her days talking with whomever she chose about whatever she chose.
Alex had always found Lady Charlotte a particular inspiration and she was pleased to note that, while the duchess was clearly obsessed with seeing her only daughter married off without delay, it didn’t seem to have diminished her admiration for such a freethinking young woman…or else why seat Alex near such a risky influence?
Vivi and Ella were seated farther away, a fact that Alex noted with slight disappointment, but she threw herself into the vibrant conversation, which ran a gamut of fascinating topics, from art to politics to the ever-present war. Her excitement and interest in the discussion were soon joined by the remarkable realization that these particular gentlemen seemed actually to listen to the opinions of the women around them! What was this strange new world that her parents had been hiding from her?
Turning, Alex looked down the table at her mother, who was holding court at the end of the room. She watched with fascination as the duchess said something witty, garnering a round of laughter from her companions. She caught Alex’s eye over the feast laid out between them, and with a slow nod of acknowledgment, she shared a knowing look with her youngest child, as if to say, Your mother isn’t all she seems, is she?
Alex felt admiration burst in her chest. For all her frustrating qualities, her mother certainly was a remarkable hostess. For the second time that night, she felt very proud to be a Stafford…and very honored to have received an invitation to this particular gathering.
After dinner, the guests adjourned to the music room, where the conversation continued, and they were able to mingle with each other. Despite her intense enjoyment of her dinner companions, Alex was particularly happy to be able to ensconce herself in a corner of the room with Vivi and Ella—whom she’d missed during the meal.
“I’ve heard about these dinners for years.” Vivi spoke in a hushed voice but was unable to keep the excitement from her tone. “But I never imagined they would be so…”
“Different from every other event we’ve ever attended or been prepared for?” Alex finished for her friend. “I know! Imagine how you would feel if the dinner were hosted by your parents. I’m barely able to recognize them! How was your company?”
Vivi replied, “I was seated with Lucian Sewell, Blackmoor’s uncle, and the dowager duchess. He was quiet but charming, and she was positively outrageous! You wouldn’t believe the things she’s willing to say!”
Looking across the room, Alex watched as the aged character in question swatted Ella’s father with the tip of her ever-present walking stick. She pointed out the interaction to the other girls and said, “Oh…I think we can imagine.”
Ella laughed at her father’s indignation. “I hope you didn’t upset her, Vivi—I wouldn’t like to be on the receiving end of that stick.”
“I have been on the end of that stick,” Alex said. “It’s as pointy as you’d imagine. But it doesn’t compare to the scolding you receive as part of your punishment for perceived slights.”
She hunched over and raised the pitch of her voice, mimicking the old woman—sending the other two girls into gales of laughter at her eerily accurate impression. The laughter drew the attention of the rest of the room and an oddly knowing look from the Dowager Duchess of Lockwood herself.
“Uh-oh…” Alex gave her friends a sheepish look, making them both snicker. “I’ve a feeling I’ve been caught.”
A masculine voice interrupted them. “You’ve definitely been caught—I’ve received that look one or two times myself. Prepare yourself for a deafening set-down the next time she’s got you in earshot.”
She turned to Blackmoor. “She’ll have to catch me first.”
“Don’t let the cane fool you. She’s decidedly fleet-footed when she wants to be.” Then Blackmoor spoke to the trio. “I’ve been sent by the duchess and countess to separate the three of you. Your mothers evidently don’t trust you to stay out of trouble.”
Vivi chuckled. “Unfortunately, they appear to be right. And not alone. My father is looking equally concerned—I seem to be caught as well.” She continued, “I suppose I’m going to have to go make amends. Would anyone like to join me?”
Ella grinned. “I’ll come. After all, your father is far less likely to give us a scolding than my mother is at the moment.”
Left alone, Alex turned to Blackmoor and with mock accusation, “Well, you certainly ruined that fun, my lord.”
With a short bow, he responded, “It’s a particular gift of mine. Would a turn about the room provide you with any entertainment?”
She took the offered arm and answered casually, “I suppose that if I have to take a turn about the room with someone, you’re better than most.”
“Your ability to flatter is absolutely mind-reeling, Lady Alexandra.”
“It’s a particular gift of mine, my lord.”
He laughed at her use of his own words. “I noticed you were having a good time at dinner. You seemed to be participating in a very exciting conversation.”
“I was lucky to be seated with fascinating company. If a little surprised by the entire experience.”
“I suppose I never imagined my parents to be so different as hosts from how they are as parents. It’s silly, really. I mean, of course, they have lives beyond their children.”