The Cooperage. Bartley Green, England, 1820
Lucy sat in the bow window of the second parlor and watched the young groom fumble with the step to the carriage in the driveway below. The servant, rather smart in the suit she’d bought him from last week’s winnings, managed the trick at last, then struggled with the carriage door. Well. He was new to the position. She hoped and expected he would improve rapidly.
The elderly hound at her feet rose and placed his head on her lap. She rubbed the dog’s head. “Well, Roger, old boy.” She glanced out the window again. “Here they are.”
The dog, an Irish Wolfhound, if one squinted just so, did not reply.
Outside, her father hurried down the front stairs to greet their guests. A breeze riffled his iron-gray hair. A gentleman exited the carriage; Captain Niall. Yesterday’s excellent weather had given way to clouds, and Captain Niall quickly buttoned his greatcoat against the wind. He was a man of immense charm and refinement whom others had hinted would be a good match for her. As if such a thing were conceivable or in comportment with her desires. No. Simply, no.
The second occupant of the carriage emerged. This was Lord Thrale. The Marquess swung his arms and looked at the sky a moment before he shook out his coat and wrapped his scarf around his throat. Other than his being unmarried and in possession of a title, he had not been a particularly dashing figure in Town last season. Thrale, however, had made a friend of her sister Anne, and that was enough to recommend him to anyone. Other than her appreciation of his height and brawn, she did not find him particularly interesting.
Captain Niall put his hands on his hips and arched his back. Thrale said something in that somber way of his, and Captain Niall laughed. They seemed unlikely friends those two, yet here they were, traveling together all the way to Bartley Green. A month or more at The Cooperage and then another at Rosefeld when her brother-in-law and the others arrived. She did like Captain Niall’s quick smile. Who did not like a handsome, amiable man?
The groom now held the head of Thrale’s lead horse. Here, he displayed the expertise that had made her hire him over an older man. He had his mouth by the horse’s ear and gave every appearance of whispering secrets to the animal.
Roger settled his head onto her lap as she absently rubbed his ears. Outside, her father and Lord Thrale shook hands. The same exchange occurred with Captain Niall. She had an excellent view of Thrale. He was a man of restraint and reserve who, she had observed, rarely extended his friendship to others. One must earn his regard, which her sister Anne, now a Duchess, had done. As if anything else were possible.
The men continued to converse, and then Papa went to Thrale’s lead coach horse and ran a hand down its front leg. They were fine horses. Not ostentatious, but one saw the quality there. Undeniable. One of the hunting dogs came round from the stable, and her father gave its shoulders a rub. Thrale did the same. Conversation turned to Thrale’s carriage, for the marquess patted the side of the vehicle.
Captain Niall, Lord Thrale, and her father remained in the driveway chatting while the groom led the horses and rig to the stable block. Papa gestured, describing, most likely, the general bounds of the property. He then pointed in the direction of Rosefeld, the home of her brother-in-law, Baron Aldreth. Not, at present, in residence, though he soon would be.
The men were here to ride, and to hunt, and fish, and do the sorts of things gentlemen did in the country, but she strongly suspected that several upcoming battles of pugilism were the primary reason for their visit. Bartley Green was a fertile location for a Sporting man. Exhibitions and battles between talented and renowned prizefighters were frequent here. Johnson’s Academy of Pugilistic Arts in town offered those and numerous other opportunities for manly entertainments; a place to train and improve one’s art and science, should one be so inclined. Johnson’s Academy was one of the better ones in England, actually.
They would be here at least a month unless Aldreth and the others arrived sooner than expected. Recent outlays made her a bit thin in the pocket as far as meeting the expense of houseguests. After paying the grocer, the butcher, a few other outstanding bills, she’d laid in more supplies to meet the appetites of two hale and healthy male guests. Additional staff had put a strain on the household budget. From her own funds, she’d hired the groom and his sister—as another downstairs maid—and engaged a cook for the duration. The new cook was on loan from Mrs. Levinson.
At last, they turned to the house. Some of the melancholy that settled on her father when he was alone at the house lifted. No one could say Mr. Thomas Sinclair, Esquire, was not a congenial host. Most everyone assumed the Sinclair fortunes were beyond reproach. After all, there were now two noble sons-in-law, one of them a duke. In reality, he’d had a year to run up new debts to offset the ones most recently paid by His Grace, and he’d done so with disheartening rapidity. He had only to say; My second daughter’s husband is Baron Aldreth, and my eldest just married Cynssyr. Yes. The duke. And credit was extended.
Roger lifted his head when the front door closed. Voices he did not know meant new people to admire and pet him. She leaned over and stroked his head. So much grey around his muzzle. “We shall meet them presently, and you will be your noble self, yes?”
They’d want to refresh themselves after their drive here. Anyone would. If her father stayed true to form, he was unlikely to give them the opportunity. She’d locked the door to the wine cellar only an hour ago and was reasonably certain he was not too terribly drunk. He’d have found his way to the port and sherry, though, and could be counted on to be well-to-do at this time of day.
She stood and ran light fingers over her hair, securing an errant pin or two, then adjusted her shawl and smoothed her bodice and skirts. If all one had was one’s looks, then appearing at one’s best was vital. Time and again she’d been told beauty did not matter, that what mattered was one’s mind and heart. The evidence for that, in her experience, was not persuasive. The exception only proved the rule; her sister Anne’s marriage to the duke, for example.
With Roger at her heels, she walked down the corridor to the stairs to meet her father and their guests, fully armored, to paraphrase the great Boswell, with perfection.
“Lucy.” Her father extended a hand to her and leaned in to kiss her cheek when she met them. “Look here, it’s Lord Thrale and Captain Niall come to visit.”
“Sit, Roger.” She did not care for situations in which she was expected to converse and be cheerful and amusing or, worse, interesting. What ladies were expected to find interesting rarely interested her. Sometimes, oftentimes, she missed the bluntness of her old life.
Roger sat like the magnificent dog he was. He had no trouble meeting people. Every new person was someone who would surely adore him. She remembered, only just, to curtsey to Lord Thrale first. She’d been away from London only a few months, and she’d already fallen out of the habit of genteel manners. Disaster awaited if she forgot herself. “My lord.”
Few men could stand silent and be so terribly present as the Marquess. How had she forgotten that about him? His silence made her worry she’d already misstepped. He was taller than Captain Niall by three or four inches at least, much broader across his shoulders and torso, too. At last, though, he bowed.
If she had managed to offend him so soon, well, there was nothing for it. He would have to live with his disappointment in her and she with his disapproval. Captain Niall bowed. In contrast to Thrale, his clothes were a la mode, everything a man of taste and fashion could hope to be and more. “I hope we find you well.”
“Yes, thank you.” Assuming or, rather, resuming her social personae was a deal easier with Captain Niall than with Thrale. In her time away from London, she’d gotten out of practice with the pretense that she must be delicate and fragile. From the corner of her eye, she saw her father frown. He took it as a point of pride that men found her desirable, as if she were a performing dog who mattered only when it performed the requested trick.
Everyone falls in love with Lucy’s beauty.
Sometimes she wondered if her father kept a running list of the men he felt had fallen in love with her face or figure, and whether his satisfaction with her depended upon the ever-increasing length of that list.
“Delightful to see you, Captain Niall.” Ah, yes. This was the trick, wasn’t it? A smile that meant nothing at all.
“Is Miss Sinclair at home?” Captain Niall had been one of Emily’s most ardent admirers last season.
“My sister is visiting a dear friend, but she will be home presently.” Roger bumped against her thighs, and she came perilously near to losing her balance. Lord Thrale caught her shoulder and steadied her. There was unexpected strength in him. “Thank you, my lord. Before tea I expect.”
Roger left his sit to sniff Captain Niall’s boots and then his knees. He gave the dog a gentle push away with one leg. Thwarted in his quest for admiration, Roger moved to Lord Thrale.
“Now, Lucy, m’dear.” Papa’s frown deepened. “Not everyone wants a dog coming up so bold as that.”
“My apologies.” She moved toward Lord Thrale to pull Roger away, but he’d bent to give Roger’s shoulder a rub.
“This is your dog, ma’am?”
Captain Niall’s mouth twitched. “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a dog of such uncertain antecedents. Are you certain he’s yours, Mrs. Wilcott? I thought ladies only kept dogs they can hold in their arms. This one is a monster.”
She would defend Roger to anyone; the King, the Prince Regent, anyone at all, including Captain Niall. “I’m sure some do,” she said. “But he is mine.”
Lord Thrale found the spot behind Roger’s ear that the dog loved best, and Roger groaned in ecstasy, all dignity abandoned.
“I hope you had a pleasant journey here, Captain Niall. My lord.”
Papa spoke over her. “Now, Lucy, that mongrel of yours…”
Lord Thrale gave Roger one last pat and straightened. “Yes, madam. We did.”
Her father clapped Thrale on the shoulder. Roger, meanwhile, plastered himself against the marquess’s legs, tail wagging. “I’m going to show you the billiards room, what do you think of that?”
“I think,” she said carefully, “that Lord Thrale and Captain Niall might first like to change from their travel clothes.”
“Are you saying our guests do not look presentable?”
“No, Papa. Not at all.”Anne knew how to deal with him. She knew the words to say and how to say them, and Lucy failed so utterly at that. She always had.
Thrale and her father both were watching her. Captain Niall, too.
She took a step back and her elbow bumped a marble bust of Aristotle on the table behind her. For several seconds, she lost the feeling in her arm. “If I’d been traveling all day, I know I should want a moment to put myself to rights.”
Her father guffawed. “If there’s a light breeze, you want to put yourself to rights, ain’t that so?” He shook his head. “I never saw a girl so worried she might have a hair out of place. From the day she was born, I own.”
“I’m sure,” she said, “quite sure Lord Thrale will enjoy the billiards room.” And there was Captain Niall, standing here, so handsome and charming. “Captain Niall, too.”
“Respite would be most welcome.” Whether Thrale said this because she was floundering so horribly, she had no idea, but she was grateful he had. “Thank you, Mrs. Wilcott. Sinclair, shall we find you afterward?”
“Yes, yes, of course,” he said. “I’ll show you your rooms, then, my lord. Captain. We’ll have a friendly game afterward.”
“I look forward to it,” Thrale said.
Captain Niall’s gaze lingered on her, and she gave him what she’d come to think of as her drawing room smile. “Will we see your sister later, Mrs. Wilcott?”
“Oh, yes, certainly.”
This was a difficulty she’d not anticipated. How was she to manage an entire month of presenting herself to their guests as the woman they expected her to be?