Antonia Stark was not the toast of the ton. She was too clever and too outspoken by half to ever be society’s darling, even if they loved to gossip about her, and at seven and twenty far too close to on the shelf to be an appealing prospect for marriage. Really, anyone else that scandalous who had turned down her number of proposals over the years she’d been out would never have been received in the best houses, especially not without the protection of a title. Antonia’s fortune (or, more accurately, her late father’s fortune, now in her control after her majority and better-managed for it) opened doors to be sure, but it was more that no one could seem to say “no” to her and mean it, and that she had friends in high places.
For no reason anyone could fathom, Miss Stark was, if not the friend, at least the cordial protégé, of Lady Nicola Fury, intimate friend of Lady Jersey and one of the matrons who could make or break a young lady’s reputation without batting an eyelash. She’d given Miss Stark permission to waltz on her first evening at Almack’s almost ten years before and had been shockingly permissive of her ever since. Tongues wagged, but no one could ever quite figure out exactly what about Miss Stark had caught Lady Fury’s eye.
Antonia, however, was all too aware of what sort of favors she did Lady Fury—assistance in matters of investment thought to be unsuited to a lady, and in matters of information that any woman might want or need. Lady Fury did like holding all the cards, and for a bit of freedom Antonia was prepared to surrender a least a few of them. (Not all, every lady needed her secrets, after all, and as long as she kept a few back as insurance she would always be guaranteed the kind patronage of Lady Fury.)
Given the nature of Antonia’s usual favors for her, the reason why Lady Fury might be beckoning her over at Almack’s two weeks into yet another (boring, boring, boring) Season was a complete mystery. Still, one did not simply gainsay the woman without good reason, so Antonia turned to her companion. “Pepper, I’m afraid the Fury calls. Do tell Lieutenant Rhodes I shall miss him if I am found dead in the morning.”
“One day,” said Miss Potts with the air of one who’d said it a thousand times before and didn’t expect to be listened to this time either, “she will catch you saying that, and I am going to disavow anything beyond the most professional of relationships. I may not be on the marriage mart, but I don’t want to cross her, and if you’re smart, you’ll remember not to rile things up just because you’re bored with society.”
“Of course, I shall be the soul of propriety and discretion.” Antonia rolled her eyes. It wasn’t like half the ton didn’t consider her a widow of sorts, since she certainly wasn’t prim enough to fade into obscurity like someone’s maiden aunt. Lady Fury beckoned again, impatiently this time, and Antonia took her leave of her companion, loftily ignoring her unsympathetic snort, and made her way through the crush to Lady Fury—and, it turned out, a miserable-looking young lady in an unfortunate green gown hovering near her elbow. “My lady,” she said, executing her best curtsy. “What can I do for you this evening?”
Lady Fury sighed the sigh of the extremely beleaguered. “Miss Stark. After so many Seasons in these hallowed halls, I believe you know more of those present than you do not know.”
Antonia arched an eyebrow and looked at the young woman standing awkwardly by. “Am I to be elevated to the status of society matron?”
“Miss. Stark.” Oh, so they’d already progressed to Lady Fury ending each word as if she’d said a whole sentence. It was sure to be an entertaining evening. “I thought you might be willing to take this young lady in hand and introduce her to some of your own acquaintances. She has an interest in the sciences and I thought you would be well-suited for companionship.”
The sciences, Antonia knew, most likely meant an interest in pressing flowers, or perhaps in pinning butterflies for the more adventurous young ladies, but clearly this was to be one of the Fury’s favors so she had little say in the matter. The path of least resistance was certainly to smile and offer a curtsey to the young lady, at around twenty too old to be in her first season but unfamiliar all the same. “Of course, Lady Fury, I’d be delighted. Perhaps she’ll have an interest in joining the Ladies’ Improvement Society that Miss Foster and I engage in.”
Lady Fury sniffed her opinion of that and turned to the girl. “Miss Antonia Stark, may I present to you Miss Lucy Banner, recently come from the country.”
“Pleasure,” said Antonia, and got a mumbled response in return. “Perhaps, Miss Banner, we might take a turn about the room? It’s always good to meet people at this kind of affair.”
“A wonderful idea,” said Lady Fury, and started edging away. Apparently she had something against Miss Lucy Banner, which did more to endear her to Antonia than anything else could have.
Miss Banner, on the other hand, did not seem similarly endeared. The moment they were out of Lady Fury’s earshot, she dropped Antonia’s arm like it was burning her. “You don’t need to feel obligated to squire me around, Miss Stark, I may be a country girl but I know you have better things to do with your time.”
“If I had better things to do, I would have introduced you to Lord Reed and let him tread on your feet for the length of a dance, during which time I would make my escape.” Antonia put her arm firmly through Miss Banner’s again. “At the very least tell me what sort of science you do, there are few young ladies who claim an interest.”
“And even fewer whose science could truly be called that,” the girl muttered in a tone that implied Antonia was among those who dabbled in identifying flowers.
“I, for instance,” Antonia said, choosing to ignore that statement in order to refute it, “have always enjoyed studying the works of technology. Everything from pocketwatches to these new trains, and I’m fond—altogether too much so, if you ask many people, so I make a point of not doing so—of taking them apart to see how they work. It’s amazing how they work much better when I put them together again.”
That, at least, seemed to please Miss Banner. “I have more of an interest in medicines, and lately in the work of Gregor Mendel. The potential applications beyond pea plants are dizzying.”
Antonia beamed; perhaps Lady Fury was onto something after all. “If you call on me tomorrow, you’ll be in time to meet another friend of mine, a Miss Jane Foster who’s a governess in Lord Odinson’s household and another devotee of the sciences, though her interests run more to Newton and Galileo. We shall have ourselves a regular meeting of like-minded women.”
“You don’t need to be kind, Miss Stark, surely you’d rather have time with your friend without the presence of an interloper as well,” said Miss Banner, but she was smiling, which meant Antonia had surely already won.
“Nonsense,” she said firmly to put paid to any last doubts. “It will be delightful, you’ll see, it’s so dull around here when there’s nothing to do but go to parties with the same people, so a bit of new company never goes amiss. Come now, let me introduce you to absolutely everyone so Lady Fury won’t string me up by my ears, and then I’ll pass you off to someone relatively harmless to dance with.”
Mornings in Hyde Park were generally quiet, even peaceful, affairs. Antonia, who spent as little time asleep as she could possibly manage, often went for a ride to wake herself up in the mornings (or a walk, if Pepper woke up in time to look at her disapprovingly), and the morning after she met Lucy Banner was uncommonly lovely and sunny. She went out, followed by the long-suffering but indulgent smile of Jarvis, the butler, and took one tearing circuit around the park to wake herself up and get out her energy before slowing to a more sedate pace.
Most everyone in the park recognized Antonia, and she nodded as she went by them even if she had little interest in making conversation with most of them. After all, if people were at Hyde Park before most of the ton had risen from their beds, it was certain that they weren’t looking for company. After a quarter hour, just as she was toying with the idea of taking another tear around the park and going home, she passed a man of her age (or perhaps a bit younger, though Antonia would never own to that), well turned out enough that he must be of the upper echelons of society but no one she recognized, a rarity especially in the place where she knew most of the regular morning walkers, and handsome to boot.
“Good morning,” she said as they passed, giving him a quick nod when he looked up at her. “Pleasant day.”
“Morning, ma’am, it is,” he said, when she’d almost passed him, surprised at being so addressed.
Normally, Antonia would have considered that quite enough and simply made it her business to be introduced to him the next time they crossed paths, but his accent made her tell her horse to stop and twist in her seat to give him a second glance. He wasn’t even a country squire come to town for a few weeks, then, he was all the way from the Americas. “Pardon me for being a busybody, but I couldn’t help noticing your accent. You’ve come quite a ways.”
He nodded quickly. “Yes, ma’am. New York, though I’m in London indefinitely, staying with a family friend.”
“I’ve never been, but it must be quite different, Mr. …”
“Captain,” he corrected, more firmly than she would have expected, and she scrutinized him again, noted his build and the way he held himself straight. She ought to have guessed the army—or perhaps the navy. “Steve Rogers, ma’am, but I know we shouldn’t be introducing ourselves.”
“Captain Rogers, I do not exactly see a horde of outraged mamas descending upon us for daring to speak in the street, do you?” His mouth turned down at the corners, and she hid her own smile. She shouldn’t bait strangers, but there was something about him that made it all too easy, a stiffness that was nothing like the too-polite smiles and edging away that her teasing usually prompted.
This one didn’t even look around as if her words had struck the fear of ruination and forced marriage into his very heart. Obviously men were made of sterner stuff in the Americas. Instead, he just nodded politely after a moment. “Not yet, ma’am. From what the Carters tell me they lurk around every corner and it’s only a matter of time. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” With that, he touched the brim of his hat and was on his way, down a side path that horses weren’t welcome on.
Antonia smiled and turned the horse towards home. The Carters, as luck would have it, were old friends of her father’s, and Lady Peggy was a few years younger than Antonia herself, an acquaintance more than a friend but one who shared a measure of mutual respect with her. Perhaps, in a day or two, Antonia might pay a call.
“Lady Darcy and Miss Foster, miss,” said Jarvis from the door to Antonia’s favorite sitting room, the one where she received only her most intimate friends as visitors because anyone else would have been scandalized by the gears and devices scattered on most every available service.
Antonia looked up from dealing with the tea and letting Pepper make polite conversation with Miss Banner, who seemed somewhat intimidated by the lavishness of Stark House and stuck out in her plain dress (another odd one in green, it was anyone’s guess whether she ever wore another color) and purple shawl, but much more comfortable than she had in the ballroom the night before. “Show them in, then.”
“Lady Darcy?” Miss Banner inquired when Jarvis bowed himself out again. “I thought this meeting was made up of Miss Foster and yourself.”
“Lady Darcy often comes, but she generally brings a novel along with her and is little bother. She’s Lord Odin’s ward, she’s only fifteen, and it’s good for her to get out, Odinson House is a dire place to be these days, the sons are never in Town and—”
“The sons,” Lady Darcy interrupted from the door, book clutched under her arm and bonnet askew as she grinned, “are coming to town tomorrow. I haven’t seen Thor and Loki for months, since it was decided I need my yearly polish and they were held up and couldn’t make the beginning of the Season. They haven’t even met Jane yet!”
Antonia stood to usher her in to her favorite chair at the window, smiling at Jane as she went. “I shall look forward to making their acquaintance, considering how highly you speak of them. I hope it was nothing too onerous that held them up?”
“Matters of inheritance,” said Darcy in a low, thrilled tone.
Jane sighed, but she was indulgent of her charge and everyone knew it. “You shouldn’t gossip, Darcy.”
“Oh, nonsense, it’s only Miss Stark—and Miss Potts, of course, and oh! Hello, who are you?”
Pepper intervened to make the introductions before Antonia could, because after years of being her companion she knew all too well how Antonia conducted introductions. “Lady Darcy Lewis, Miss Jane Foster, may I present Miss Lucy Banner, who is new to town this season?”
They all made their greetings and Pepper began serving the tea. Antonia waited for a lull in the conversation to jump in again. “Really, Lady Darcy, you can’t just stop in the middle of gossip. You know it will be common knowledge the moment they arrive, and I do so love to know things first.”
“Well.” Darcy lowered her voice. “The estate is entailed, of course, and many of the funds that come with it, so of course all that is going to Thor when Lord Odin dies, but there’s a second estate with its own income and some not-insignificant funds that Thor and Loki both have rights to from an uncle’s recent death, and it’s to go immediately to the man that marries first! Neither of them wishes to marry yet, but I imagine the temptation will prove too much, and—”
“Enough,” Jane broke in. “That’s quite enough of that, before you devolve into speculation instead of the facts. Won’t you do your reading, Darcy? We ought to get to our meeting. Miss Banner, I presume you have an interest in the sciences?”
Miss Banner managed to settle in and look at least slightly more comfortable. “I do, Miss Foster, and lately in the work of Gregor Mendel. Miss Stark tells me that your interest is in Galileo and Newton?”
“Certainly, though I am familiar with Mendel as well. As a governess I do try to impart a basic knowledge of the latest advances in the sciences on my student—”
“Endlessly,” Darcy added.
“—so my interests are broader. I’m glad to have someone else to talk theory with, though! Antonia is so focused on the practical, but without a grounding in theory, application is impossible.”
Antonia snorted, since no one present cared if she was ladylike or not. “How shall we ever have progress if we just sit around and talk about theory all day? Give me a well-made machine any day, that’s more likely to help someone.”
“This sounds like a well-worn argument,” Miss Banner said with a good stab at diplomacy, looking between them. “I am a practical student as well, I must admit, Miss Foster, so perhaps I shall come down between you and say that either is useless without the other.”
Pepper laughed. “Well done, Miss Banner, agree with them both and take the wind out of their sails.”
For the first time, Miss Banner looked as if she might be settling in, biting back a smile and looking between Antonia and Jane as she waited for a reaction. Antonia, already pleased, gave a smile back. “I can already tell we’re all going to get along famously. Now, do tell me everything about those pea plants you mentioned.”