“Oh, Roddy, don’t you begin to be a dead bore,” drawled Lady Alicia Alston, gazing out over the great hall of Perdon Abbey with a distinctly jaundiced eye.
The Honorable Roderick Massingham, second son of the Earl of Murne, sighed and leaned an elbow on the carved oak banister of the ancient minstrel’s gallery. The one trouble with Alicia, he thought, was that she was so deuced easily bored. It took all a fellow’s time just to keep her mildly amused, and he couldn’t remember when he had last seen her really laugh. Often, struggling to hold his own against her lightning wit, he wondered if the thing was worth the effort.
Watching Alicia’s discontented profile, Roddy decided yet again that it was. Though he had known her for most of his twenty-six years, he had never become accustomed to her beauty. It struck him every time he looked at her. It was because of her mother, of course. The Duke of Morland, Alicia’s father, had startled London society by bringing home the dazzling daughter of a Swedish count as his bride, and Alicia had inherited her silver blond hair, ice blue eyes, and slender willowy body that was entrancing despite her height. It would help if she weren’t so tall, though, Roddy thought. It was difficult to impress a woman who stared one straight in the eye. And Alicia was far too accustomed to giving orders and being obeyed. That was her father in her. Roddy nodded wisely to himself. Old Morland was known for his high-nosed ways. It was all very well in him, but he should have kept a tighter rein on his daughter. When she used that certain tone of voice, Roddy often caught himself doing what she commanded before he thought, and only afterward wishing that he had protested first.
But they were all that way, the group of young fashionables who surrounded the ton’s most spectacular deb. Or hardly that now, Roddy corrected himself. Alicia had been out for, what, six years. She had refused several very eligible offers. Ned Trehune was making a cake of himself, calling her “the Ice Queen” since she turned him down. And if she wouldn’t have a belted earl…Roddy sighed again. One of the throng of suitors who hung about Alicia had to win her. Was it so ridiculous to believe that it might be he? With a sinking suspicion that it was, he looked up, to find Alicia watching him.
“You look just like a stuffed frog, Roddy. What is the matter?”
When she cocked her head at that angle, and lowered her eyelids just that way, Roddy thought, he always felt an inutterable fool. “Nothing’s the matter. Thinking.”
Alicia’s beautifully molded lips curved upward. “You, Roddy?”
“What are we doing this afternoon?” he answered hurriedly. “Didn’t old Perdy say something about a riding party?”
“Perdy! Why did I let him cajole me into coming here? I might have gone to Vienna to visit Papa at the Congress. But no, I listened to Perdy, who promised all sorts of new amusements. I should have known better.”
“Well, you should,” agreed Roddy. “After all, Perdy.”
They contemplated their host, Viscount Perdon, in disgusted silence for a moment.
“How is the duke?” inquired Roddy then, recalling his manners.
“Oh, you know Papa, always terribly busy.” Alicia’s tone was airy. She didn’t want Roddy inquiring too closely into her imagined trip to Vienna, for Papa would probably not have been pleased to see her there. On his increasingly rare stops in England, between diplomatic chores, he welcomed her company for as much as three days together, but at the end of that period they invariably began to irritate one another. Each was too accustomed to his own way, and entirely unaccustomed to opposition. “Did you see that chaise arrive a little while ago?” she added to change the subject.
“The fusty one with the old-fashioned boot? Yes. Prime cattle, though.”
“Who was it? Some fresh guests, I hope. I am so tired of the same faces—here, in London, in Leicestershire hunting.”
Roddy professed ignorance. “With that outmoded carriage, can’t be anyone from town.”
“Provincials? That would be unlike Perdy. But they might amuse us.”
He shrugged. “Could find Perdy and ask him.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Alicia stared into the great hall again, frowning. She was horridly bored. Her friends bored her, Perdon Abbey bored her, and the thought of another Season in London, soon to begin, bored her most of all. She had seen everything the haut ton had to offer. She had received its adulation as her due and become the undisputed leader of the younger smart set. But she was weary of that as well. From the moment of her birth, Alicia had gotten whatever she wanted, with only her mother’s premature death to mar her happiness. Now, at twenty-five, she had run out of requests. “I suppose we may as well.”
“What?” Roddy had been racking his brain for amusing ideas, and he had been just about to suggest they search out some of the others and organize a game of croquet. He felt the plan was weak, and when Alicia spoke just as she might have if he had mentioned it, he was almost afraid she had been reading his mind.
“Look for Perdy,” she replied impatiently, starting toward the stairs.
“Oh…oh, right. He’s probably in his study.”
Alicia made a derisive noise.
“Well, he can sit there, can’t he?”
“He can sit wherever he likes. But to call it a ‘study’ when Perdy hasn’t the brains of a lap dog…” She shook her head, lifting the flounced skirt of her blue morning gown to walk downstairs.
They found Viscount Perdon asleep in a red leather armchair. Its back had been turned toward the door in a pathetic attempt at concealment.
“Perdy,” said Alicia, shaking his shoulder sharply. “Wake up. It is eleven o’clock in the morning!”
With a snort, as if surfacing from the ocean depths, their host jerked upright. “Wha…oh, Alicia. Must you do that? You frightened me nearly out of my wits. It’s very bad for one’s health to wake suddenly, you know. Causes—”
“It’s even worse to sleep at midmorning.” She eyed Perdy’s plump, sandy-haired form and unbuttoned waistcoat. “After an immense breakfast.”
“Now, Alicia.” The viscount looked apprehensive.
“Perdy, why did you ask me here? To drive me mad with boredom?”
“Now, I say. Lots of people to amuse you. Roddy.” He indicated him. “Jane Sheridan. You like her. Jack Danforth. Emmy Gates.”
“I know who is staying, Perdy.” Alicia’s light blue eyes narrowed as she surveyed him. There was something odd here that she hadn’t realized before. Perdy was notoriously lazy; he rarely invited guests, and when he did, they were a selected few of his male cronies, who could be relied upon to look after themselves and not to expect prodigies of entertainment.
The current house party was unprecedented. She should have seen it as soon as he began pressing her to visit. It was quite out of character. “What are you up to, Perdy?”
“M-me?” But he quailed under her gaze like a rabbit before a fox.
Intuition led her to add, “Does it have anything to do with those people who arrived today?”
Perdy went pale, gaping at her. “People?” he echoed in a strangled voice.
“Who is it, Perdy? What have you done?”
Their host swallowed, groped for his handkerchief, and passed it over his face. “Not my fault,” he muttered.
“What isn’t?” Abruptly, Alicia sat on the arm of his chair. Her voice became cajoling. “Now, Perdy. Tell us.”
Roddy stifled a laugh as the viscount raised his head hopefully. “It was my Aunt Sophia.”
“Yes?” Alicia was the picture of sympathy now. “What did Lady Corwin do?”
“Said I must invite my cousins, second or third cousins really, and see that they met some people. Give them a push, you know.”
“So it is your cousins who have arrived?”
Perdy nodded, looking dejected. “It’s what put me out, so I thought a bit of a nap…he’s bad enough. I’ve met him before. But she…” He mopped his brow again. “It ain’t my fault, Alicia. I couldn’t help it. You know Aunt Sophia.”
“Umm.” Alicia seemed lost in thought.
“You will stay out the week, won’t you?” added Perdy anxiously. “It’s only two more days.”
When Alicia said nothing, Roddy replied, “Of course we will. All of us.”
“So there is a he and a she,” mused Alicia. “Who are they, Perdy?”
“The Earl of Cairnyllan and his sister Lady Marianne MacClain. And their mother, of course.”
“Cairnyllan? I don’t think…”
“Scotland,” muttered Perdy unhappily.
Alicia eyed him. “And what is so bad about them?”
“Him, I said. I’ve never met Marianne. Though from what Mama tells me…but she can’t be worse than Cairnyllan. He makes my blood run cold.”
“Good heavens, is he a hunchback?”
Perdy stared. “Of course not. Nothing like that in our family. Who told you so?”
Alicia’s blue eyes twinkled. “No one. But if he makes your blood run cold…”
“Well, he does. But it’s his eyes, not his back. He looks at me as if I were a dead cat—several days dead.”
This raised his hearers’ eyebrows. None of Perdy’s friends thought him keen-witted, but he was well-liked.
“He don’t care for the ton, you see,” added Perdy in explanation. “Disapproves of fashionable fribbles.” He nodded as if remembering some incident. “Very cutting, his tongue.”
Both men, instantly wary at this familiar exclamation, turned to gaze at Alicia. She was smiling slightly.
“What are you planning?” asked Roddy.
“Don’t play the innocent with me. I know that look.”
“Roddy! I was simply thinking that we may find this visit quite amusing after all. You must tell me all about your cousins, Perdy.” She smiled down at him, and Perdy met her eyes with worried fascination.
“Well,” he began, “Marianne is to come out this Season, you see.”