Let Me Be the One
Battenburn Estate, June 1818
It was their laughter that drew her attention. Elizabeth Penrose leaned to her left until her vision was unobstructed by the easel in front of her. The stool wobbled a bit as she shifted. A paintbrush dangled from her fingers. She failed to notice the fat droplet of blue-black watercolor collecting at the tip, gathering size and weight enough to break free and fall squarely on the one part of her lavender muslin gown that was unprotected by a smock.
It was a pure pleasure to hear their laughter. Unrestrained, it had almost a musical quality. Four voices, all of them with a slightly different pitch, gave it a certain harmony. Elizabeth's eyes darted quickly to some of the other guests and she saw more heads than hers had turned in the direction of the laughter. She did not think for a moment the men had meant to call attention to themselves. Not above a half hour ago they had been circulating among the baron's guests, slipping in and out of the small conversational groups that had formed naturally once everyone had taken their fill of the picnic repast.
Blankets covered a good portion of the gently sloping hillside. Like patches of a quilt they were shaped into a larger whole by the strips of grass and wildflowers between them. In various states of repose the guests enjoyed the late afternoon sunshine, the occasional breeze, and the steady rushing rhythm of the stream running swiftly between its banks.
Elizabeth blinked as the men laughed again, heads thrown back, strong throats exposed. Although the tenor was deep, there was something unmistakably youthful in the sound of it. Mischievous, she thought. She could not help smiling herself, feeling not so much an eavesdropper as a co-conspirator, even though she had no idea what had prompted their great good humor.
That they knew one another was not surprising, she supposed. With the exception of Mr. Marchman they were all members of the peerage and breathed the perfumed air of the ton. What was interesting was that they appeared to be fast friends, not rivals, yet until they had slowly gravitated toward the same unoccupied stretch of blanket, Elizabeth could not have said for certain that they shared more than a polite nodding acquaintance.
They dispelled that notion once again as the Earl of Northam plucked three ripened peaches from the basket beside him, drew his legs under him tailor-fashion and began to juggle. Fresh gales of laughter, a little ribald this time, practically erupted from the others. For reasons she did not entirely understand, Elizabeth Penrose felt a certain amount of heat in her cheeks. Though confident no one had noticed her, she nonetheless sought protection by ducking behind her easel.
It was only as she began to apply brush to paper that she realized the Earl of Northam had stolen most of the subjects of her still life. Brendan David Hampton, the juggling, thieving sixth Earl of Northam, lost his rhythm when one of his friends pitched him another peach.
"Devil a bit, East," he said, grinning, "but I could never get the hang of four." He gathered the peaches before they rolled off the blanket and lightly tossed one to each of the others. The one he kept for himself he held up in the palm of his hand and pretended to study it.
"Tender-skinned. A copse of fine hair covering it. A delicate blush deepening to ruby at the cleft." Northam split the peach. "Succulent when parted. Moist. Scented. And the heart of it is revealed lying nestled at the center of the sweet delicate flesh."
Quietly, so that his lips barely moved, he said, "Gentlemen, I give you Madame Fortuna's quim. God bless her." He paused. "And God bless naive Hambrick boys."
Matthew Forrester, Viscount Southerton, South to his boyhood friends from Hambrick, almost choked on the bite he had taken. He coughed hard, torn between opposing forces of laughter and swallowing. Mr. Marchman leaned toward him helpfully and pounded the viscount on the back.
Because he used more force than was strictly necessary, South glared at him meaningfully. The threat of retaliation went unregarded because it was difficult for any one of them to take South seriously when his cheeks were flushed and his eyes were glistening with tears. To avoid another blow between his shoulders he had to roll off the blanket entirely.
"It's not dignified," he muttered, brushing himself off. "Knew this would happen if we got this close. Someone always brings up Madame Fortuna. It's amusing until someone's choking and someone else is trying to kill him by separating his cranium from his spine."
"I believe you were the one to mention her first," Mr. Marchman pointed out calmly. He bit into his own peach. "And if I wanted to really separate your head from your shoulders I'd use my knife."
Gabriel Whitney, Marquess of Eastlyn, glanced automatically at Marchman's right boot. "You're carrying your blade, West?"
Marchman's answer held no hint of the humor his friend had inserted into the question, though whether this absence was attributable to the question itself or the nickname attached to it was unclear. "Always," he said. He changed the subject, his gaze turning to Northam. "You don't appear to be enjoying the fruits of your labor."
Indeed, Northam was still holding each half of his peach in his open palms. He was not looking at his comrades but rather beyond them to where an easel had been set up in a patch of bluebells. The young woman who had been painting there had removed her pad and was packing her supplies. Northam was not naturally given to expressions of remorse, but as he glanced at the split peach in his hands, a shadow of regret briefly darkened his eyes. "I believe, friends, I must make my apologies to the lady. I fear I have confiscated the subjects of her work."
Eastlyn glanced over his shoulder. One of his brows kicked up. "Aaah, yes. Lady Elizabeth Penrose. I escorted her to dinner last evening. You'd know that, North, if you had arrived on time. The very same goes for the rest of you."
Northam scowled at him but there was no real heat in it. "A difference of an opinion with my mother delayed me until today. She, being of the opinion it is time for me to take a wife. I, being of the opinion the time has not yet arrived, nor is it imminently approaching."
Moving back to the blanket, Southerton nodded. "I'm familiar with that argument. Tell me, do you suspect it is a daughter-in-law she wishes or grandchildren?"
Northam did not hesitate. "Grandchildren."
"Just so. It is the same with my mother though she never speaks of it plainly. Why do you suppose that is?"
Eastlyn casually drew back his arm then snapped it forward, letting his peach pit fly in a long arc toward the stream where it landed with a satisfying plop. "She doesn't speak plainly for the same reason no mother speaks plainly about such things: she doesn't want to believe her dearest son knows anything about how he might go about conceiving an heir."
Marchman nodded. "East is right, though it pains me to admit it." He rested his watchful glance on each of them in turn. "Does this mean I shall soon be wishing you happy and kissing your brides? It appeals to me, you know. The idea of the three of you leg-shackled and me with an open field."
The Earl of Northam tossed both peach halves at Marchman who caught them neatly. "I don't think there is a field you haven't plowed, West." He stood, brushing his hands lightly together. "I am off to make amends," he said. "Endeavor not to embarrass me while I am in the presence of the lady."
"Have a care, North," Eastlyn said. "She's Rosemont's daughter and a particular favorite of our host and hostess."
"I don't intend to compromise her," North said dryly. "Merely want to speak to her."
Eastlyn, Southerton, and Marchman watched him walk off. Eastlyn leaned back on his elbows and crossed his long legs at the ankles. Sunlight glancing off his chestnut hair gave it a streak of fire. A half-smile played casually across his lips and his dark brown eyes glinted. "I say he will be married before year's end."
"To Libby Penrose?" Southerton asked incredulously. "You're daft."
Now Marchman regarded Southerton with interest. "Libby? That appellation signifies some familiarity. You know her?"
Southerton shrugged. "Never saw her before today. Arriving late with North has its disadvantages. My sister knows her, though. They made their debut at the same time. She wrote me letters filled with the most excruciatingly painful details of her first Season. Of course it was all a delight to her, but I can tell you I was almost grateful to be in the Admiral's service and not in London. Lady Elizabeth figured prominently in those missives. Emma found much that she admired about Libby -- as she called her -- but I can't say that I remember any of the particulars. I do know that Lady Elizabeth was considered something of a bluestocking, which endeared her to Emma, but made her debut rather less than successful. Now that I think on it, Libby was older than Emma by, oh, two or three years it seems. Why, that would make her twenty-six now."
"My God," Marchman said, pretending to be much struck by this. "I do believe she has one foot planted. Yes, that is precisely what I noticed about her on first acquaintance. Her toes are practically curling up in anticipation of her own imminent demise."
The viscount gave him a sour look. "Make light of me at your own peril, West. You know perfectly well what I mean. The blush is off the peach, as it were. The Dowager Countess Northam won't approve of her."
Eastlyn's deep chuckle drew his friends' attention. "All the more reason North's interest might be engaged."
"True," Southerton said, more thoughtful now. "Too true. North's rather predictable in that regard. His mother may regret getting what she's wished for."
Evan Marchman's head tilted to one side as he regarded his companions consideringly. "A wager? I believe there is one in the making. I have a sovereign that says North will present the Dowager Countess with a daughter-in-law by year's end."
Viscount Southerton laughed. "A sovereign, eh? Very well, if I'm to wager an entire sovereign, you'll have to be more specific. Is it Libby Penrose he'll take to the altar?"
Marchman glanced back to where Northam was standing beside Lady Elizabeth. Northam's features were politely fixed and serenely unpenetrable. He could have been wishing himself anywhere else or finding himself thoroughly entertained. If Elizabeth Penrose was in anyway an accomplished woman, and something of a bluestocking to boot, then Marchman was of a mind to wager that Northam was entertained.
"Agreed," he said. "It's Lady Elizabeth he'll marry. East, will you hold our sovereigns?"
"A pleasure." Eastlyn held out his hands and collected one gold piece from each man.
Excerpt © 2005 Jo Dobrzanski. All rights reserved.