The Duchess of Avon was going to say 'bah' again. It was written all over that lovely yet determined face. Mary Challoner contemplated the woman who was, God willing, imminently to become her mother-in-law and feared very much that she would come to adopt some of Her Grace's less polite mannerisms.
'Bah', for example, had a power that no more elegant exclamation could afford. The ambassador's gossip-seeking cousin reeled back from its impact, her china blue eyes baffled, bewildered, and yet also charmed by the foreignness of the experience. Though, Mary reminded herself, it was presumably not considered so foreign in Paris. She would have to make some mental adjustments to her new status if she was not to appear uncomfortably rustic in her new station. (Marchioness of Vidal, good gracious. A little Gallic flair, and a considerable portion of 'bah', would probably be most helpful in covering moments when she felt overwhelmed by the absurdity.)
The Duchess was in full flow now. Fragments of her speech reached Mary over the genteel ambassadorial hubbub. "...so very romantic... quite a whirlwind... General Challoner's granddaughter... perhaps not of the first stare but most suitable for mon cher Dominique's particular fancies... Gravity and good sense..."
All too flattering, to Mary's mind, though she appreciated the effort being put into her introduction to Society. Some of the duchess's half-caught phrases, however, seemed more likely to cause a scandal than to avert one. "Elopement" was one particularly worrisome such. "Naturally, I felt it my duty to travel..." was another which seemed all too likely to be part of an explanation which would sink Mary's respectability to the lowest depths.
Mary, temperamentally far from a wallflower, found herself shrinking ever more closely into a discreet and welcoming corner, unwilling to step down into the full flow of the gathering and face the inevitable inquisition from the ton. Her apparent security was however sorely misleading. A miscreant had inveigled himself into the space behind her, quite undetected. She startled as his arms clasped her firmly round the waist.
"I cannot see your face, but I trust, sir, that you are my affianced husband? If not, I fear your lifespan will be sadly curtailed within a brief time. I have yet to convince my lord that his violent impulses should sometimes be controlled."
The miscreant laughed in her ear. Mary shivered at the contact of even that slight breath of air. And his arms were still around her.
"Have done, wench. You know perfectly well it is I. And you may save the lectures for after we're safely wed, my dear."
"My lord! Such behaviour!" Miss Challoner, greatly daring, leaned back comfortably against his solid frame. "Most unbecoming. And I do not lecture. I inform unfortunate persons of the wonts of polite and educated society. For their - and your - own good."
He chuckled again. "Fortunate that I find it endearing, for I foresee your lectures becoming the foundation of our marriage. Tell me, is Maman quite giving away our secrets? Or only in part?"
"I believe the latter. Though I observe Her Grace has a love for storytelling which might, perhaps, lead to indiscretion."
"I fear you may be correct. We must ensure that Rupert's story about Dijon, and the provenance of his wine, never meets her delicate hints of romantic flights, or the tabbies will add two and two. What the result might be, I shudder to think."
Mary chuckled in turn. "Comfort yourself, my Lord-"
"Yes, Dominic, their arithmetic is unlikely to make an accurate four. The complexities of our recent actions are not readily divined, even from heavy hints. Mr Comyn's part, for example, is likely to remain obscure."
"Still, I wouldn't have your reputation tarnished on account of... all that."
A small, severe tut escaped his beloved, "On account of your actions, my lord. And, if you will, on account of my own also. Let us be plain."
"Oh, by all means let us be plain. Plainness is a great trait of my family."
At that, they both frankly laughed aloud. Vidal broke off at a new sight.
"No need for alarm, Mary my love. His Grace of Avon rides to your rescue. Quite a thing, to see my father playing the white knight. I thank you for the novelty."
The conversational duet they were considering was metamorphosing into a trio, absorbing the grand and alarming figure of the Duke in full evening rig. Perhaps a little less fine than in his youth, with the changing of fashions, but to Mary's young eyes, magnificent enough that she could scarcely recognise the quiet gentleman she had first met three days before.
The Duke's manner, now, Mary did not feel she would ever be able to adopt. Even Vidal (Dominic) could not quite achieve that superlatively sinister effect without a word or, apparently, a gesture. He was evidently coming to his wife's aid (insofar as she could be said to require assistance; it was the Ambassador's importunate cousin who looked the more frantic). Some freak of the acoustic allowed Miss Challoner to hear his low tones with great, but not reassuring, clarity.
"Leonie, ma cherie, you are becoming sadly befuddled. Miss Challoner has barely stirred from the Embassy this week. I fear Juliana's stories and escapades are becoming so baroque that you have begun to attribute them to her friends. But I assure you, my dear, all the tales are but single aspects of Juliana's social whirl."
Thus did the Duke calmly sacrifice his niece's good name. Mary felt a qualm for her friend's reputation, but it was not an opportune moment to intervene in that conversation. Besides, she felt that anyone marrying so very respectable a figure as Mr Comyn had little need of worldly credit. Her Dominic, on the other hand, would need a little more polite cover, and an irreproachably respectable wife to match.
Dominic's hold on her waist loosened at last. "My dear Mary, I believe it is quite time that we make our formal bows to His Excellency. He's keen to offer his felicitations to us. We will smile, nod, bow and quit this stuffy affair as soon as we may."
Mary turned to face him, and to take his proffered arm. "My lord, Dominic, this is in effect my betrothal ball. We will indeed smile, nod and bow. Then we will dance, and accept good wishes, and dance some more. That is the way of polite society."
"Dash it, woman- My apologies... Dash it, my love. Must we?"
But even as he protested, my Lord Vidal - smiling reluctantly, with teeth bared - was leading his beloved towards the ambassador, drawing his noble parents in his wake (and, incidentally leaving the ambassador's stunned cousin gaping like a codfish as her interlocutors walked away with the briefest of bows).
Mary's smile was perfectly authentic. His family were quite, quite impossible, but somehow their inimitable manners were accepted.
And Dominic could, after all, be managed.