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Golden Season

Golden Season

EXCERPT

"What about Lady Lydia Eastlake?"

Ned might have rolled an unexploded missile into the group's midst. For a moment, no one spoke and everyone stared. Then Borton broke into laughter and the others joined in.

"That is rich! Too, too good, Ned!" Borton laughed and then, abruptly, "Good Lord. He isn't joking. He— Oh, my heavens. I completely forgot."

He took note of the group's confused expressions. "Captain Lockton has never spent a season in London. He doesn't know."

Sounds of understanding rippled through the group.

"Elton, if you would be so kind to fetch The Book," Borton said and sank back, a cat's smile on his face.

The men standing around traded knowing looks while Ned waited, curious. Soon enough, Elton returned carrying a thick ledger that he dropped unceremoniously onto Borton's lap. Licking his index finger, Borton began leafing through the pages, his gaze scanning the years printed on the topmost line. Finally arriving at 1808, he paused and journeyed the tip of his finger down a long column.

"Here," he said, shifting the book so that it faced Ned. He tapped at an entry two-thirds the way down the page. It read: Byng wagering Colonel Ross a hundred guineas to ten that the newly arrived violet-eyed toast is not bespoke within in twelve months to this day. April 5, 1808. The entry was marked paid on the appropriate date.

A little further down the page, Borton pointed out another record: Brummell offers Lord Butte. 500 guineas to 25 if L.E. does not wed him before next season. Paid.

He read aloud a few more entries before moving on to the next year and then the next, reciting a litany of wagers and bets placed on whether or not Lydia Eastlake would marry or become engaged. But as the betting book's years progressed the focus of the bets subtly shifted .

Lord T . 1000 g to H.H.E's 500 should a certain violet eyed lady dance thrice with the same partner at Almack's Friday next.

General Sneed-Worth Price has 50 g to A. Marly's 5 if Lady L wears a yellow gown to Devonshire's fete.

Brummell 2,000 Col. D 500 should the colonel secure LL's consent to a carriage ride.

There were fewer and fewer bets on how long Lady Eastlake would remain a spinster and more and more on what she would wear, with whom she would dance, and at what hour she would appear at various balls and fetes. Borton found the last entry and tapped it with his finger, raising his gaze to Ned's as he read aloud. "'Lord A. 10,000 pounds to Lords Glass, Johnston, Barnell and Fletcher's 5000 if she does not accept his marriage proposal.' Need I tell you who 'she' is?"

"And Captain," the stout Elton said with a smile, "That wager was lost."

Borton sighed and sank back in his chair. "More men have dangled after Lydia Eastlake than there have been lures cast in the Thames. Have you met the lady?"

"No," Ned said. "I've merely seen her image and was curious about her."

His companions nodded sanguinely, donning expressions either sentimental or lascivious depending on their natures.

"Stunning woman."

"A lady of quality."

"The Incomparable."

"Not as downy as she once was," a silky male voice interrupted the murmured accolades. "Though not a mean bit yet."

"Smyth," Borton said in ill-concealed irritation. "There is no chitty-faced wench half as beautiful as Lady Eastlake and you know it well."

Ned rose to his feet and turned. An elegant gentleman in biscuit colored breeches and dark blue broadcloth jacket lounged against the marble fireplace, idly fingering a Sevres snuffbox. He had handsome, narrow features and artfully tousled dark locks shot through with gray, though Ned supposed him to be close in age to himself. His manner was profoundly languid. His heavy-lidded gaze traveled coolly over Ned and his smile was no more than a thin pleating of flesh at the corners of his mouth.

So this, thought Ned, was a dandy.

"One of the footman said you were asking after me, Borton," Smyth said.

"That's so, Smyth." Borton rose, too. "Captain Lockton, may I present the Honorable Childe Smyth? Mr. Smyth, Captain Edward Lockton."

"I am glad to meet you, sir," Ned said politely. "I understand you know my nephew Harold, Lord Lockton."

Smyth snapped open the lid of his snuffbox one handedly, earning admiring murmurs from some of the gentlemen. He dabbed a pinch on the back of his wrist and inhaled it delicately, his thin nostrils pinching closed, before answering. "Ah, yes. Young Harry. I do, indeed."

The circle of gentlemen, intuiting that they'd become de trop, faded to the side, leaving Ned with Smyth and Borton.

"I believe you have my nephew's vowels," Ned said. "I would like to make it possible for you to return them to him."

"Good God," Smyth exclaimed with exaggerated surprise, turning to Borton. "Most impressively tactful for a bloody naval captain, ain't he?"

Ned noted Borton fidgeting, anticipating unpleasantness. Borton would be disappointed. It would be a sad day when a few words caused Ned to lose his temper. Far worse had been said of him, and to him, by far better men. Many under his command.

"Not so surprising, surely?" Ned replied. "As a naval captain, one might expect me to make use of the weapon most likely to hit true."

"Weapon? I didn't realize we were engaged in combat," Smyth drawled, looking amused. "I thought we were conversing."

Ned smiled. "But I have been made to understand that in Society all conversations are skirmishes."

Smyth laughed. "Very true, captain. But tell me, just what weapon are you most likely to employ in a verbal skirmish?"

"The one least familiar to my adversary," Ned replied.

"As you have done?"

Ned inclined his head while around him the men fell into confused silence and Smyth lifted one sculpted eyebrow. Borton suddenly grinned.

"Tact," Borton burst out like a schoolboy who suddenly thinks of the answer to his tutor's question. "Why, Ned's referring to tact, Smyth! You said it yourself."

Snickers and laughter rippled through the group as they realized Borton was right.

Smyth's eyes narrowed and his mouth tensed before relaxing. "I concede the hit, sir. Well done." The admission was gracious, but no accompanying geniality reached his eyes. "Kind of you to handle this affair with young Harry for your brother," Smyth continued.

Ned let his assumption stand. It served his current purpose to let this dandy think Josten's fortune was intact. No one need know that he was paying Harry's debt out of his captain's share of the prize money from a ship he'd captured in the waning days of the war.

When Ned did not reply, Smyth shrugged, the amusement he'd expected to have at Ned's expense not materializing. "At your convenience then."

"The funds are available to you now, sir," Ned said.

"Really?" Smyth asked. "Well this is an unexpected boon. Indeed, this may just be my lucky day. Perhaps you are a talisman, Captain."

"Oh?"

"Yes. My luck has been vile of late, but you've changed that with a few words. Why, I've half a mind to tow you around as me good luck charm." The words were ludicrous, amusing and subtly offensive.

Borton flushed.

Ned did not bother replying. Once he left Boodle's, he was unlikely to ever exchange words with Smyth again.

" 'Pon my rep," Smyth said when the silence had gone on too long, "I will take you with me and you'll want to go, too. For I intend to do you a good turn for the good turn you've done me."

"And what would that be?" Ned asked growing bored with the fop's affectations.

"I heard you inquire after Lady Lydia Eastlake."

The muscles in Ned's back tensed, as did his biceps. He would take it much amiss if this popinjay said something untoward about the lady. Lydia Eastlake would doubtless laugh at such misplaced chivalry. And that was all it was: The reflexive impulse to protect, engendered in boyhood by a family who always needed protecting from themselves and then further honed during his years as a captain in His Majesty's navy. It wasn't anything more personal. How could it be? He'd not even properly met the lady. He smiled.

Smyth misread his smile. "Ah, as I suspected. Most natural thing in the world," he said with heavy patronization. "She is Lady Lydia Eastlake after all. Admired, emulated and unattainable." He smiled himself. "No. I'm not surprised you are interested in her based on the images you've seen. But I warn you, an image is not always a proper representative of a person."

"What do you mean?" Borton asked, frowning.

"She's a bit unconventional, something of a scapegrace, truth be told. Oh, not so anyone protests. She is Lady Lydia, after all." He paused, his brows climbing inquiringly. "I am sure you've heard… you do know about her companion, don't you?"

"Pardon me?"

"Her companion. Mrs. Cod. No one would tolerate her except that Lady Lydia treats her like a pet, so we all do. Seeing how Lady Lydia not only sets fashion but is fashion, it's surprising we don't all trail mad thieves in our wake. Personally, I'd prefer a dog. Might pee on the rugs but at least it wouldn't steal the china off one's hostess's table, eh?"

His remark did not invoke the sniggers he clearly anticipated and Smyth's eyes studied the group of men with subtle contempt. Ned barely noted it as he was busy considering on Smyth's words.

Lydia Eastlake had a thief for a companion? Ned did not give Smyth's words much credence, but whatever truth there was in the claim suggested an unexpected dimension to Lady Lydia's character. Smyth was gazing at him expectantly, clearly waiting for Ned to thank him for his favor. "I see, Mr. Smyth. Thank you for being so… illuminating."

Smyth looked taken aback. "Oh. Oh, no. That ain't the favor I was going to do you. Consider that bit gratis. No. I have something much better in mind."

"That won't be necessary."

Smyth ignored him. "I know for a fact Lady Eastlake will be dining al fresco next Saturday at Lady Pickler's house. The Pickler is preparing to set her daughter on society and if the daughter is anything like the mother, society had best beware." He again gazed at the group but didn't receive the agreeing chuckles he solicited.

"It will be a dead bore, of course," he drawled. "Lady Pickler is the worst sort of stiff-rumped bully but she and the Almack harpies are thick as thieves and should you offend by refusing, you might as well sip arsenic because from then on you will be dead to the highest society.

"Only the cream of ton is tolerated," Smyth went on and the languid dismissal of his gaze made it clear he doubted any of those standing nearby would be on the guest list. "But say the word and I will secure an invitation and the opportunity to meet our legendary Lady Lydia. Why, I'll introduce you myself. We are friendly." He pursed his mouth together in a mocking moue. "Oh, please allow me to do this thing?"

Smyth was welcome to whatever pettiness he plotted, for Ned would not refuse the chance to see Lady Lydia again. He meant to discover if her eyes were really the color of a martin's wing, if she would feel as light on the dance floor as she had in his arms when he'd caught her from tumbling off the ladder and if her smile was as quick and breath-taking and inviting when she was not posing as someone she wasn't.

"Captain?"

"Yes," Ned said. "Thank you."

"Oh, no, my dear Captain, 'tis I who thank you. You shall have the invitation, I promise." He motioned toward the betting book still lying open on the seat of Borton's vacant chair. "May I take it back to the library? I'd like to enter a wager."

"Of course," Borton said, leaning down and closing the book. He handed it to Smyth who received it with an enigmatic smile and sauntered off.

"He didn't used to be like that," Borton said, watching him go. "There was a time I rather liked him. But his grandfather's been squeezing him between his thumb and forefinger for years. He feels fiercely his lack of antecedents. Society is growing much more select these days. I believe he took up with the dandies to increase his consequence and now he seeks to impress them."

Borton shook his head worriedly. "You shouldn't have accepted his invitation. He only means to make sport of you to his friends."

"Oh, I know," Ned said.

"Then why ever did you agree?"

Ned smiled. "Why to meet Lady Eastlake. What else?"