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.”
In which Antonia has a second encounter with Captain Rogers and introduces Miss Banner to acquaintances both old and new.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
As luck would have it, Antonia had no need to call on the Carters to be introduced to their American guest. The Monday following brought the ball the Storms threw every year, and everyone who was anyone made sure to come. Even Miss Banner, who Antonia had privately wondered about, given that she seemed to simply be the daughter of a country squire, received an invitation, so it was a perfect time to introduce her to the society that hadn’t been at Almack’s the previous Wednesday.
They arrived in a small party, just Antonia, Miss Banner, and Pepper, even Miss Banner’s chaperon released for the night, and Antonia did her duty of introducing Miss Banner around. She would, Antonia surmised by the end of the first half hour, never be toast of the town, or the sort to receive many proposals, but she was charming enough when given the opportunity, and seemed especially adroit at pleasing the mothers and fathers talking business or trying to marry off their children, an advantage not to be denied.
And, to her delight, being Miss Banner’s sponsor for the present meant she had an excuse to speak to acquaintances she hadn’t seen in ages, including the Carters, who she found when Miss Banner began to flag, looking as if she wanted nothing more than a glass of lemonade and a wall to pin herself to (and Antonia would have to warn her off the that particular beverage, the Storms were generally quite generous with their refreshments but the lemonade was always inexplicably piss-poor). “One last introduction, and then you are released until I find you a suitable dance partner,” Antonia whispered to shore her up, and descended on the Carter party.
Peggy intercepted her. “Antonia, delightful to see you. And who is this?”
“Miss Lucy Banner. Miss Banner, this is Lady Peggy Carter and her family and …” She made a great show of peering around Peggy to see the American Captain standing behind her looking rather as if he wanted to vanish into the floorboards. Poor man.
Of course, Peggy knew what Antonia was up to, or at least thought she did (though Antonia held that she was nothing like the flirt most people termed her, she simply enjoyed engaging interesting people in conversation regardless of their gender. Or marital status), but with Miss Banner there she couldn’t refuse an introduction. “Miss Stark, Miss Banner, might I present Captain Steven Rogers? He’s visiting from the Americas, New York in particular.”
“A pleasure, Captain,” said Antonia, holding her hand out. He gave her a suspicious look but bowed over it nonetheless. Impeccable manners, then, which was rather delightful. It was always good to have someone new and interesting around.
While he still didn’t look happy, he dredged up more of a smile for Miss Banner, who looked about to faint, since Antonia had been working her way up to the more handsome gentlemen of her acquaintance and being confronted directly with Captain Rogers would be a shock for anyone. Still, she managed a credible “It’s an honor to meet you, Captain,” and Antonia wouldn’t ask much more than that.
To the Captain’s credit, he noted Miss Banner’s awkwardness and relaxed, holding her hand a moment longer than necessary. “The honor is all mine, Miss Banner. This is my first Season in London, is it always like this?”
Miss Banner blushed to the roots of her hair. “I’m afraid you’ve asked the wrong person that question, this is my first Season in Town as well. Perhaps if you were curious, Miss Stark could answer your—”
“I’d be delighted, of course, but perhaps not while I’m meant to be making you at ease,” Antonia interceded, because enjoyable as baiting people might be, it would be tiresome to spend the whole ball with people who would rather she was elsewhere, and the Captain and Peggy both seemed ready to edge away. “So I shall promise the Captain a dance at some point—do find me for a waltz, I do love waltzing, Captain—and we shall excuse ourselves and find you a proper dance partner.”
They all said their goodbyes with the greatest of courtesy and a complete lack of sincerity on everyone’s part except Miss Banner’s, which left a bad taste in Antonia’s mouth. She did so hate being disliked by interesting people, and if the Captain continued barely managing cordiality, she would have to give up on gaining his friendship. “Who are you planning on having me dance with?” asked Miss Banner when the crowd had swallowed them again. The dancers seemed to be preparing for a quadrille.
“Details,” said Antonia. “I’m sure I’ll know once we run across him. I do keep meaning to ask, though, how this can be your first Season. Most girls come right out of the schoolroom.”
“I’ve been … unable to attend, these past few years, and did not think this year would be any different until Lady Fury showed up on my doorstep and told me she was bringing me out.”
It was a close thing for Antonia not to simply gawp at her like a green girl. “Lady Fury is bringing you out? Lady Nicola Fury?”
Miss Banner looked at her, a puzzled line between her brows. “I thought you had gathered that, since she was the one who introduced us.”
“No, and it would have been good to know! How in heaven’s name did you manage to gain the Fury as your sponsor?”
“I believe she knew my mother,” said Miss Banner, still confused. “She was the daughter of a duke, it was a great scandal when she married my father of all people. Lady Fury is very kind to ignore it all, though I suppose the money helps.”
“The money,” Antonia parroted, and then stopped herself. There was no reason to talk about fortunes at a private party, and if she had to adjust some of her views of Miss Banner as a possible candidate for matrimony, that was entirely her own fault. She knew there was something more in the Fury’s request. “Well, we shall continue introducing you, there’s no need to discuss your entire family history here.”
It took nearly the whole of the dance for Antonia to find a partner who wouldn’t trod on Miss Banner’s toes or otherwise unduly frighten the poor girl. Lord Clinton Barton was walking the room with a redheaded woman in what appeared to be widow’s weeds (but couldn’t possibly be, if she was attending a ball so large; Antonia would already have sought out and befriended anyone who dared to be that brazen), and stopped readily when Antonia flagged him down.
“Miss Stark, I’ve hardly seen you this Season. And who is your companion?”
“Lord Clinton Barton, may I present Miss Lucy Banner? She’s new to Town this year. Miss Banner, Lord Clint is one of our heroes from the Continent, an expert marksman. Though I’m afraid I don’t know his companion …”
Clint barely took a second to realize that he was meant to jump in with an introduction of his own and made an elaborate gesture towards the woman standing with him. “Of course, I apologize. Lady Natasha Romanova, this is Miss Antonia Stark and Miss Banner.”
“Pleasure to meet you,” said Antonia, taking Lady Natasha to the side and leaving Clint and Miss Banner to make an acquaintance (and, if Clint was any sort of gentleman, which was debatable, to find their way to the dance floor. Clint was a perfectly respectable partner for anyone, and wouldn’t trod on Miss Banner’s toes, besides). “Are you Russian, then?”
“I wonder what possibly could have given that away,” Lady Natasha said dryly, which put Antonia in instant charity with her. She was always fond of those who had no patience for idiots. “I was invited to London and saw no reason not to come.”
There was barely a hint of an accent in her voice, Antonia noted. “I hope it isn’t too dreary here for you.”
Lady Natasha gave her a look that might have been incredulous if she were anyone else. Instead, she managed to continue to look bored and yet emanate an air of incredulity. “Are we going to talk about the weather, Miss Stark?”
“We don’t have to. For instance, we could discuss any number of other things you’re sure to find dull, like the decoration of the room, the refreshments available to us, and the latest on dit among the company, of which I am sure one or the other of us is a part. We needn’t, though, it’s terribly dull. What sort of conversation would you prefer?”
Before Lady Natasha could do more than open her mouth to produce what surely would have been a scathing commentary that would have at least allowed Antonia some entertainment, Clint broke in. “Ladies, if you will behave yourselves, I’m going to take Miss Banner to the dance floor. I promise you both you’ll like each other eventually.”
With that, he swept away, Miss Banner looking a little green with nerves at his side, leaving Antonia and Lady Natasha to exchange mistrustful looks. “I don’t suppose you’re interested in science,” Antonia offered. “I’ve a small gathering of like-minded ladies, there’s always room for more.”
“Not as such,” said Lady Natasha, “but it’s more interesting than the weather.”
It turned out that Lady Natasha had an unnerving stare that made Antonia want to fill the silence with anything and everything, so she set herself to giving a brief overview of her scientific interests, and at least managed to gain Lady Natasha’s interest while talking about the train and her thoughts about the impacts it would have on travel between countries—making travel between Moscow and Calais, for instance, a matter of just a few days instead of longer. In between, she kept an eye on Miss Banner on the dance floor, who seemed to be doing credibly for herself, and Lady Natasha eyed the crowd in what seemed to be mild amusement. When Antonia caught her looking at Clint a few times, she almost asked if there was an understanding, and then decided she didn’t wish to be branded a horrible gossip quite yet and left it for another time.
After the dance, Clint did not seem to be leading Miss Banner back to Antonia, instead letting her name the direction, which happened to be making a beeline for a free spot behind a pillar. That couldn’t be allowed, Antonia decided. “If you’ll excuse me, Lady Natasha, I have a charge to rescue from the dire fate of decorating the wall for the remainder of the evening. I’m sure we’ll meet again.”
“I have a feeling you’ll make certain of it,” said Lady Natasha, and Antonia ignored the quiet sally in favor of sweeping off to take Miss Banner in hand.
Miss Banner, after her one trip out to dance, seemed perfectly content to remain on the sidelines for the rest of the evening. Antonia had no wish to force her into dancing if she didn’t wish it, but made a point at least of circulating through the crowd while they chatted about Miss Banner’s thoughts on how one ought to extrapolate theory from Gregor Mendel’s work and how it might relate to the fields Antonia and Miss Foster were interested in.
Just as Antonia was about to screw up her courage to drag Miss Banner (who encouraged her, after what must have been one formal address too many, to simply call her Lucy) over to the Fury for a recitation of all the illustrious personages she’d met, there was a light tap on her shoulder and she spun around to find two unfamiliar men who couldn’t have looked more different if they’d aimed for it.
The first—who looked friendlier and was presumably the one who had flouted all attempts at propriety to get her attention—was large and blond and bearded, looking rather as if he ought to be posing as a Viking in someone’s painting but well turned-out in his evening wear, if uncomfortable. The other was slighter and dark-haired, fashionable to the extreme and, if his expression was any indicator, feeling his ennui rather than pretending it. Antonia raised her eyebrows at them. “Can I help you gentlemen? I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.”
“I heard the subject of your discussion,” said the blond one, quite excited, “and wondered if you might be the ladies with whom my father’s ward sometimes visits to discuss the sciences with.”
“Oh!” Antonia smiled. “You must be Lord Odinson’s sons, then, Lady Darcy seemed so pleased that you two were coming to Town. I’m Antonia Stark, yes, and this is Miss Lucy Banner. I won’t tell anyone that we’re introducing ourselves if you don’t.”
“We shall say Darcy has introduced us, in absentia,” the dark-haired one inserted smoothly, bowing over their hands and lingering over Lucy’s. That was interesting, to be sure, but Antonia kept her face straight. “I’m Loki Odinson, and this is my brother Thor.”
Antonia curtsied, noting that Lucy did the same a half-beat later and with a good deal more blushing and clumsiness. “It’s a pleasure to meet both of you gentlemen.”
The musicians struck up the next song—a waltz, of course, and there was a moment of all of them silently attempting to figure out how to navigate the situation before Lord Thor stepped forward again. “Miss Stark, if I may, I would greatly enjoy hearing all you know about Lady Darcy. It seems like years since we have had the chance for real conversation.”
“Of course. Miss Banner, you’ll be fine with Lord Loki?”
That made Lucy blush again, and Antonia sent up a quick prayer that Lord Loki was on the Fury’s approved list of possible husbands for her newest protégé, as she was in trouble otherwise. “I haven’t got permission to waltz,” she admitted.
Lord Loki, to his credit, was not fazed in the least. “In that case, Miss Banner, I would be pleased to escort you for a turn about the room. I gather you are interested in the sciences, and while I don’t do more than dabble, I was interested in the discussion my brother and I so rudely interrupted. If you would?”
Antonia was whisked away while Lucy was in the midst of stammering her way through an answer, and she smiled at Lord Thor, who was all too eager to ask questions about his foster sister, and hoped that the glint in Lord Loki’s eyes was simple amusement and not something that would lead to scandal. “Darcy seems to be doing well under Miss Foster’s tutelage,” Lord Thor began, and Antonia settled herself into the conversation.
There are a few references from elsewhere in the Marvelverse in this fic. The Storms who are throwing the ball are, of course, the family including Sue and Johnny, two members of the Fantastic Four (and "Lord Reed" from the first chapter is Reed Richards from same). I'll mention any other references for the curious at the end of the chapters where they appear.
In which Antonia is summoned to see the Fury, has an odd conversation with Captain Rogers on the street, and makes several interesting observations at a scientific lecture.
I am so sorry it's taken this long for an update! Normally updates should not take more than a week (and hopefully will take less!) but I've had houseguests.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The afternoon after the ball at Storm House, Antonia received a summons from the Fury. The done thing, of course, was to go calling, but Lady Fury never seemed to see a use in that, and when one received a pointed note from her (never quite polite enough to be called an invitation) to the effect that she would be home at precisely three o’clock, one had best have a good reason not to turn up at the appointed time. Antonia was no fool, and for once she thought that perhaps she mightn’t be in trouble, so she put on her favorite bonnet and took a brisk walk to Fury House.
Lady Fury’s butler, a man named Coulson who never so much as twitched a muscle no matter what Antonia did to get a response out of him (Pepper swore he’d smiled once, but Antonia decided Pepper was a terrible liar and should not be believed), swung the door open before she could even pull the knocker. “Lady Fury is expecting you, Miss Stark.”
“I’m sure she is,” said Antonia, and swept by him to the parlor where Lady Fury always had her audiences, a sparsely decorated room, all done in silver and a blue so dark it might well have been black.
“Come in, Miss Stark,” said the Fury when Antonia walked through the door without knocking, voice dry as dust. Antonia was careful not to roll her eyes; such things could have dire consequences and she was not particularly in the mood for ruining it when she could for once bask in being in favor with the most difficult-to-please matron of the ton. “I assume you know why I’ve asked you to call?”
Antonia took her usual seat when Lady Fury indicated that she ought, sweeping her skirts out as she did. “I have a guess or two, milady, but the most obvious one would be that you’re asking me how your protégé does in society. It might, may I add, have been easier to introduce her to everyone if you’d told me that she was under your special protection. It does grease the wheels a bit for a bookish country miss.”
Lady Fury remained entirely impassive. Antonia didn’t think she’d ever learn to remain that stone-faced, not if she tried for years. “I assumed you might have guessed from the very fact that I introduced you in the first place. The girl’s mother was a dear friend of mine, even after she ran off with Lieutenant Banner, and now that she’s out of mourning I thought it best to take her in hand. No use letting a fortune languish out in the country.”
An heiress, then. Yet another piece of information it would have been good for either Lucy or the Fury to see fit to tell her before, and one Antonia would have to keep in mind in the future. “I quite agree. Are you bringing her out, then?”
“Yes, the girl has no relatives to do it. She is not living with me, I can’t abide having giggling girls about most days, but I am in charge of her future, a charge I do not take lightly. How do you think she is doing?”
A glib answer would do Antonia no good and, more to the point, Lucy no good either, and since she was becoming quite fond of the girl, she considered her response with care. “She’ll never be a belle of society, I’m afraid, but with a little more confidence she could do quite respectably for herself. Lord Clinton seemed entertained by her, and Lord Loki enjoyed their dance.”
“Lord Clinton is entertaining the Russian, though,” said the Fury with a wave of her hand, dismissing him as a potential prospect for the marriage mart. Antonia hid her delighted smile; if Lady Fury was dropping gossip like breadcrumbs for her to pick up, she was pleased. She would have to keep an eye on Clint and Natasha Romanova. “Lord Loki is a possibility, I suppose, even if he is a younger son. There is that inheritance that brought the Odinsons to Town.”
Of course she’d heard about that. Then again, with the way Lady Darcy chattered away, it was entirely possible the whole of London knew about it. Hopefully Jane knew enough to prevent that, and it was just Lucy mentioning the situation off-hand to her sponsor. “I’ll see if they take a shine to each other. Really, if Miss Banner is comfortably well-off, I don’t see much worry about her finding a suitable match. She simply needs to get used to town, I imagine it’s all rather difficult for her after a retiring life in the country.”
Lady Fury snorted, an unladylike sound that only she could get away with. “Of course.” There was no further explanation of that, but Antonia made a note of it. There was no use in letting possible information go to waste. “I do not expect you to find her a groom, Miss Stark, have no worries about that. You don’t have one of your own yet, after all.”
A direct hit. Antonia acknowledged it with a quirk of her eyebrows but didn’t bother responding in words. “And I have no intention of finding her one, Lady Fury, you need have no worries there. As I see it, it shall simply be my occupation to make her feel at home in London and to introduce her to those in society who won’t bore her to tears. Easy, and enjoyable on top of it.”
That gave her a thin smile. “I am glad to hear it. I will make sure you two receive invitations to as many of the same places as possible, and do keep up with inviting her to that Improvement Society of yours. A governess may not be the highest-ranking company she could keep, but the connection with the Odinsons could prove helpful, and there’s no reason to prevent Miss Banner from doing what she enjoys, after all.”
“We seem to be thoroughly in agreement.” Which was nothing short of a miracle. “I shall continue doing my best to facilitate her enjoyment of Town. There’s a lecture next week on the steam engine, I thought I might go. Perhaps I should take her?”
Lady Fury looked rather as if she’d inhaled something unpleasant. “If she wants to go, there’s no reason to stop her, I suppose. It’s no good hiding her brains.”
“I’m pleased to hear you think so,” said Antonia, dry as she could. “Now, if you’ll excuse me and if you have no more to say, I ought to be going. It’s a lovely afternoon, pity to waste it all indoors.”
“Of course. Do see yourself out. I imagine I’ll see you at Almack’s on Wednesday?”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Antonia promised, and walked out, waving to Coulson as she passed and going out onto the street.
Antonia was barely on the street for a minute before she ran almost directly into Captain Rogers. “Goodness, Captain, I do apologize,” she said, setting her clothing back to rights after coming perilously close to stepping in a puddle.
Any lesser man who seemed to dislike her so would have been unable to hide his wince, but Captain Rogers was admirably poker-faced. “My apologies, Miss Stark. I wasn’t expecting to see you.”
“Much less be run down be me, I imagine. I don’t recall this being the neighborhood where the Carters let, are you paying a call?” She gave a nod to Fury House. “To Lady Fury, perhaps? One could not possibly ask for a better sponsor, even if the woman is terrifying.”
“I don’t believe I’ve had the honor of making her acquaintance beyond the very briefest,” said the Captain, relaxing slightly against all Antonia’s expectations. “While I would be glad to know her better if she’s earned your respect, I’m afraid I’m out for a very mundane walk.”
Antonia could put her arm through his and force an invitation on his walk, and had done similar things in the past, but decided against it. There was always another time, and really, it was more enjoyable to cause a scandal if the other person enjoyed it as well. “Enjoy your walk, then, as you can see the area is quite lovely.”
“Yes, much of London seems to be.” He hesitated, and Antonia assumed he was about to think of the politest way to part that he could, but instead he spoke again. “New York has its architecture, its own way of being, but it’s still a young city. London seems ancient in comparison.”
Antonia snorted. “Yes, you colonial upstarts. Your city is nothing to ours. I’ve never been, I admit, so I shall have to take your word for it.” No one else seemed to be walking in the area, giving either of them an excuse to extract themselves from the conversation, so Antonia made another attempt at a conversational sally. “Do you miss it? I hope London society is sufficiently diverting, but you did grow up there, after all.”
“I had friends there that I miss, yes, and my career, but London is fine for now. Somewhere new to explore.”
“You sound terribly enthused. Our young lads enjoy their Grand Tours, but you seem less than impressed with yours.”
“It isn’t—” He stopped. “I suppose I am simply homesick today, Miss Stark, and not fit for company.”
“Of course.” If she thought for a second that he had admitted that out of some desire for her company or sympathy, she would have offered a listening ear or some tea in her home, but it seemed she’d simply caught him by surprise. “I do hope you settle in as time goes on, and enjoy your walk through this part of the city. Feel free to ask if you ever want an introduction to the—to Lady Fury. I know her a bit better than Lady Peggy does, for my sins, and if you want to be on the marriage mart she’ll be a great help.”
Captain Rogers winced and made a complicated face the second the word “marriage” left her mouth. “I’ll keep it in mind. Thank you, Miss Stark.”
“My pleasure, I’m sure.” She executed a quick curtsy and went on her way with a great deal to think about from a short conversation. Captain Rogers, if she was any judge at all, had some sort of scandal in his past, perhaps even preventing him from returning to America, and by the way he’d reacted to the suggestion of matchmaking it was quite likely he’d had an unsuitable young lady. It wasn’t any of her business, of course, but it was very rare that anyone in Town paid attention to trifling matters such as those.
When she peeked over her shoulder, the captain was giving a pocketwatch in his hand a pensive look, and before he could look up and see her, she turned forward and marched away a bit faster, nodding at a passing acquaintance as she went.
Against all odds, it seemed like half of London was at the lecture on the steam engine Antonia had been looking forward to since its announcement. She, Lucy, and Pepper arrived together and looked for Miss Foster, who’d promised to bring Lady Darcy for the educational value. The party from Odinson House, however, also included Lord Thor and Lord Loki, who seemed to dote on Lady Darcy. Lord Clint was also in attendance, with Natasha Romanova on his arm (and Antonia would bet it was more the lady’s interest in the subject than his own which caused their presence), and as he and Lord Loki were members of the same club they all ended up sitting quite close. At one point she even glimpsed Captain Rogers from a distance, but he was sitting with Lady Peggy and made no move to do more than briefly acknowledge their group.
The lecture, as it turned out, was so basic as to be laughable, nothing Antonia hadn’t studied and figured out on her own ages before, but at least the company was enjoyable. Lord Thor seemed more interested in staring besottedly at Miss Foster than in the education (and oh, wasn’t that going to be interesting to hear about, if Lord Thor didn’t want to set the entire town’s tongues wagging he would have to be more subtle, and if he didn’t want Miss Foster ruined he was going to have to leave her alone), but Lord Loki was interested, if as unimpressed as Antonia with the level of intellect the lecturer expected them to have. He spent most of the evening alternating between listening to Lady Darcy complain under her breath with an indulgent smile and chatting quietly with Lucy, who didn’t seem to know quite what to do with the attention.
Antonia talked to the lecturer afterwards and got a bit more useful information out of him, but he seemed disinclined to discuss science with a lady and wandered off to stare slavishly at Lord Reed, who was known to be a great patron of the sciences, even if technology was not his special interest. “That is what I call impolite,” she muttered, much to Pepper’s amusement. “Oh, very amusing, mock my pain. If it weren’t for Miss Foster and now Miss Banner I would have given up in despair months ago, nobody will talk sense to me.”
“I am perfectly willing to talk sense,” Clint said from behind her, smiling when she spun around. “It’s just that all this nonsense makes very little.”
She flapped a hand to dismiss his statement. “You are useless to me, then. Go impress someone with your marksmanship, I have no idea why you’re somewhere you’re expected to show your intellect.”
Anyone else would have walked off in a huff and cut her in public thereafter, and judging by Lucy’s intake of breath and Miss Foster’s scandalized look from nearby, they were expecting a similar response. Clint just laughed. “Perhaps I am just showing Lady Natasha the dazzling advances of our great nation.”
“Of course, that would make a great deal of sense.” Antonia looked over Clint’s shoulder to Lady Natasha, who seemed coolly disinterested in the proceedings. That didn’t deter her in the least, though, as that seemed to be Lady Natasha’s default. “And what did you think of the lecture, Lady Natasha?”
Natasha shrugged. “Science doesn’t interest me as it does you, Miss Stark. I will say that it was enlightening.”
“Pity. I’d hoped we might have another for my group of scientific ladies. We’re always collecting them, if you change your mind.”
She received a nod for her pains, with no change of expression at all. “If I have a change of heart, you’ll be the first to know. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” With that, she turned and engaged Lord Thor in conversation, neatly interrupting his attempts to get Miss Foster to say more than a few words to him at a time. Miss Foster, wisely, seemed more suspicious than besotted. Lady Darcy, to her credit and despite her romantic nature, seemed equally suspicious.
“Terribly friendly,” Antonia muttered, just quiet enough that only Clint could hear, and he laughed, just as quietly, and turned to snag Lord Loki, just finished with telling Lucy about a trip to Amsterdam.
“I know you two have been introduced, but I thought you ought to know each other better,” said Clint, smiling. “Lord Loki is new to my club, Miss Stark, but he’s come highly recommended by Viscount Selvig, and he’s getting along quite well.”
After a suspicious squint at Clint, who had shown no bent toward matchmaking in the past and hopefully had no intention of taking it up at present, Antonia smiled at Lord Loki, who seemed willing to smile back and bow over her hand. “I’m surprised I haven’t seen you in the Season before,” she offered. “I believe I recall Lord Thor’s presence a few years ago.”
He shifted but kept on smiling. “Yes. I always spent a great deal of time learning about the estate and our various properties, and spent a few years on a Grand Tour, so this is my first time in Town. Lord Clinton and others have been most helpful introducing me, and of course my brother as well.”
“I’m pleased to hear it.” If Clint intended them to make a match of it, he’d best not retire from his usual occupations, because he was neither a matchmaker nor a seer. Lord Loki seemed perfectly nice, if apt to keep his smile pasted on as if something dire might happen if it slipped, but he was barely her age, if that, and seemed more interested in Lucy besides. Surely she was not so much an old maid that her only prospects were second sons more interested in country misses. “And hopefully Lady Darcy has shown you all her favorite places in the city as well,” she offered, since at least both of the brothers Odinson liked talking to and about the girl.
“Yes, she and Miss Foster have both been very kind,” said Lord Loki, and Antonia had just enough time to note his sidelong look between Miss Foster and Lord Thor, who luckily were not looking at each other or even in proximity at that moment, before he started talking about all the sights Lady Darcy saw fit to show him when he went on walks with her.
Antonia mostly tuned him out, uninterested, but made a note to keep an eye on the brothers Odinson in future. With the elder brother and heir making eyes at his father’s ward’s governess and the younger one showing a marked interest in Miss Lucy Banner, they were sure to make the Season more interesting.
The Lord Reed I have mentioned several times is, of course, Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four.
In which Antonia gains Captain Rogers's esteem through unladylike means, Miss Foster is distressed, and Lucy gets permission to waltz.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Another Wednesday, another Almack’s. Antonia checked in on Lucy, at the Fury’s heels and being introduced to gentlemen in a blatant attempt to match her off, and got herself a glass of punch as an excuse to ward off the more boring attempts at engaging her company. “It’s all dull,” she complained to Pepper.
Pepper, as she might have guessed, had no sympathy whatsoever. “It’s not as if you’re required to come.”
“But then I’d miss the gossip!”
“Surely if everything is dull there’s no gossip worth having?”
Antonia subsided with a glare, Pepper smirking at the win. It was a thin crowd, for Almack’s, so perhaps it wasn’t worth it to attend in the end anyway. The young Lords Odinson, she’d found, were having an evening en famille, probably at Darcy’s behest, Clint was all wrapped up in his Russian, and Lucy was being dutiful, which made even the company (saving Pepper, of course, but if she only wanted to speak to Pepper she might well have remained at home) dull.
Captain Rogers, she noted, was there with the Carters, but she wasn’t particularly in the mood to tease him into entertaining her, so she let him be and deliberately lost track of him in the crowd, instead choosing to engage Pepper in conversation about the latest engagements and jiltings and scandals, which were always plentiful even if it seemed that all that changed about them was the names. Pepper, who knew Antonia’s occasional bouts of boredom after years of being her companion, indulged her where she normally would have sent her off to dance, probably remembering what happened in the past when Antonia was bored.
Eventually, Clint managed to separate himself from Lady Natasha and asked Antonia for a dance, which she did gladly. At the end of it, he winked and deposited her at the window alcove nearest the Carters, and Antonia would really have to ask around to see when the acquaintance that could barely be called that became common knowledge. For the moment, though, she had no desire to attempt a conversation and have Captain Rogers be polite, which from him seemed as close as he got to cutting, so she looked around for a likely victim to take her arm for a walk away.
When she chanced to glance at Captain Rogers, however, he was staring at a pocketwatch, too plain and scratched to be part of his evening dress, and attempting to wind it in a manner that made her guess that it must be broken. She debated whether his gratitude would outweigh his annoyance, but if she knew anything, it was the working of little machines like that one, and if it was broken undoubtedly she could do something about it. “Excuse me,” she said, walking closer and ignoring the long-suffering look Lady Peggy bestowed upon her from nearby where she was engaging a dance partner.
“Oh, Miss Stark,” he said, with the forced kind of politeness she’d been dreading.
She forged on. “Your pocketwatch is broken.”
He looked down at it, then back up at her. “I suppose it is. I hadn’t checked it since this morning and it was wound then, but it seems to be broken now.” He shrugged. “It’s certainly not new and probably wasn’t of the best quality when it was.”
“Let me see it.”
That made him wince. “Really, Miss Stark, I’ll just put it away and—”
Antonia interrupted, impatient. “I’m good at fixing this sort of thing, I promise this isn’t some sort of convoluted gambit, Captain Rogers. You may, of course, tell me to mind my own business, but if it’s simple I can fix it with a hairpin and you’ll have it back in minutes.”
She was certain, almost completely so, he would say no by the way he clutched his hand around the watch in his palm like he thought she might take it from him by force. Before she could apologize for her forwardness and excuse herself, though, he opened his hand again and looked up at her. “I suppose it can’t hurt,” he said quietly.
“I promise, even if I can’t fix it I won’t break it worse.” Probably. It had been a long time since she’d broken anything irreparably. Still, Antonia put on her best reassuring smile, and it didn’t take more than half a minute before Captain Rogers surrendered the watch into her care, unhooking the chain from his jacket. She squinted at it—plain indeed, scratched in a way that she suspected meant that it had seen combat, and with a half-worn inscription where she could make out Steve and Bucky and nothing else—before taking out a hairpin and going about opening the clock.
Captain Rogers hovered and watched the entire time she was working on it, but Antonia didn’t let it bother her. If she could fix a carriage wheel with Pepper, Jarvis, and Rhodey all looking on in disapproval, she could handle a clock when no one else seemed to be paying attention (and if they were, well, Antonia was widely known to be an eccentric with an interest in machines and fixing a pocketwatch was entirely innocent and wouldn’t have her in the captain’s bed or in the church if everyone knew). Sure enough, when she opened it, it was easy enough to fix, simply a gear jarred out of its proper course.
In the length of a dance, she had the biggest problem fixed, and in the length of two, when she was starting to attract attention, she moved things around inside until it would run smoother with less winding and less chance of breaking again before shutting the casing again and re-inserting the hairpin she’d appropriated in entirely the wrong place. Pepper would sigh, but it wasn’t as if she wouldn’t already. “There,” she said, handing the watch back to Captain Rogers and making a point of not giving the inscription a closer look even if she wanted to. “Hopefully that should fix it, give it a wind and see.”
“Of course.” Captain Rogers sounded more surprised than dubious, and when he wound the clock and it began to tick, he even bestowed a smile on her. “Miss Stark, I cannot thank you enough. It was a present from a friend and I would have been sad to replace it.”
“My pleasure, Captain.” Antonia made a show of looking around the crowd, since she might as well leave him while he was feeling in charity with her. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must—”
“I wondered if you might like a dance,” he blurted out, and Antonia stopped to stare at him. “As thanks. I’m afraid I haven’t been very friendly to you.”
“It’s a waltz next,” she said, as if he didn’t know. “I mean, yes, that sounds lovely.”
He swept her out on the dance floor as the music started, and they spent an awkward interlude exchanging painfully boring conversation while they danced, but at the end Captain Rogers bowed over Antonia’s hand and smiled at her. “Thank you again for fixing my watch, I was worried I would have to put it away.”
“You’re entirely welcome,” she said, and went to find Pepper, since the evening had just gotten far less dull.
It was rare that Miss Foster visited outside of one of their scheduled times. She was busy with Lady Darcy, and Antonia was certainly busy with her own life, so it was nothing short of a shock when Jarvis came to Antonia when she was tinkering with her latest machine and told her that Miss Foster wished to see her. “For heaven’s sake, send her in, did she look well? No, never mind, just send her up and send for tea.” Normally she would ask for Pepper as well, but it was Pepper’s afternoon off, so Antonia was on her own.
Jarvis, with a smirk Antonia pretended not to see, left the room and returned moments later with Miss Foster at his heels. Antonia shooed him until he left again, though she imagined he was listening in at the door even after Miss Foster closed it after her. “I’m so terribly sorry to bother you.”
“Nonsense, Jane, whatever’s the matter?”
She sat down with the air of someone who would have been pacing if she wouldn’t have banged into one of Antonia’s projects. “I don’t think it’s come to be too bad, yet, but Lady Darcy remarked on it this morning, and I’ve been noting it since they came to Town, so I thought I ought to talk to someone about it.”
“Lord Thor.” Miss Foster winced saying the name.
Antonia scowled. Lord Thor seemed personable enough, but if he was importuning a governess of his household she would have some sharp words for him. “What has he done?”
Miss Foster made a horrified face. “Not that, you have no worries there, Miss Stark. But he is showing an interest in me marked enough that Darcy sees it, and if word gets out, I’ll lose my position. This isn’t one of Darcy’s novels, and Lord Thor isn’t going to marry me, nor be required to if he ruins my reputation.”
“I could speak to him,” Antonia offered, though she already knew what the answer to that would be. “Or perhaps you ought to leave the situation before you’re forced to. Miss Banner might be willing to hire a companion or chaperon of some sort, and with a reference from me Lady Fury wouldn’t object.”
“Thank you, but no.” Miss Foster set her jaw. “I must endure, Darcy and I get on well and I am far more suited as a governess than a companion, even if I enjoy Miss Banner’s company. I simply wondered if you might have some advice for me on discouraging him gently.”
Antonia shrugged. “I’m afraid I have little counsel on the matter. Avoiding him might be wisest, as he doesn’t seem the sort of man where disinterest makes his heart grow fonder. Rigid professionalism against all odds, and all.”
“I suppose so.” She sounded dubious at best, but disinclined to argue. Antonia gave her a helpless look and wondered if she ought to offer tea, missing Pepper. It wasn’t as if she knew terribly much about how to deal with such things. “The Odinsons are my third family, and not the first where I worried about my virtue.” Miss Foster paused and deliberated. “At least I don’t believe Lord Thor will do anything without my consent. He could just make my life difficult.”
That, at least, Antonia knew exactly how to respond to. “If he shows any signs of doing so, you are to tell me at once. Even if you’re turned off, a reference from me will go quite a ways towards securing you a new position. Though if you apply outside of London I may withhold it, as you mustn’t be allowed to leave our little group just as it grows.”
Miss Foster smiled. “I shall do my best, though I admit I am more used to the country. Though considering Lady Darcy’s growing adoration for Town I imagine I shall be here for most of the next year. Heaven only knows what I shall do when she comes out, I don’t wish to do what Miss Potts does.”
“We’ll find you some sort of situation.”
That seemed to reassure Miss Foster a great deal, and Antonia led the conversation over to the latest work and study they’d both been doing since the lecture they’d attended. Antonia glossed over fixing Captain Rogers’s watch, since that sort of thing was routine, after all, and talked more about the pulley system she was thinking of installing in the kitchens to help with moving bags of supplies, and by the time Pepper arrived with tea, Miss Foster was looking much more relaxed.
Pepper, bless her, was sympathetic and practical and fierce on Miss Foster’s behalf when the reason behind her visit was explained, and the three of them ended up having their dinner in Antonia’s sitting room (much to Jarvis’s disapproval), chatting on and off about Lord Thor, science, and anything else going on in Town that was of interest to all three of them.
When it got to be dark, Miss Foster excused herself, and Antonia summoned Hogan to take her back to Odinson House, since it wasn’t safe on the streets at night, before disappearing into her machines for the remainder of the evening. It was, on the whole, far more enjoyable than anything else she could have been doing that evening.
Saturday brought a ball at Cage House, and Antonia tagged on to the party from Fury House, after an invitation to do so that was more like an edict. Her presence, thankfully, seemed to be more for Lucy’s benefit than the Fury’s, so Antonia was perfectly happy to gossip in the carriage ride over, although she kept Miss Foster’s confidence for the moment. There was no reason to be premature, after all, and Jane could have been blowing a polite interest in her wellbeing from her employer out of proportion (even if Antonia suspected that was not the case; Miss Foster was quite lovely, after all).
Lucy, in the presence of Lady Fury, mostly kept to herself, looking mildly alarmed when Antonia asked for her opinion on anything but the weather and the crush outside Cage House when they were obliged to wait for their carriage to reach the front of the queue. In the end and a fit of mild desperation, Antonia asked about one of the finer points of Mendel’s work and let Lucy chatter on about it despite Lady Fury’s long-suffering look. Antonia was meant to make Lucy feel comfortable, after all, the Fury would simply have to find someone more entertaining when they got inside.
The crush of the carriages was a good indicator of the crowd inside, and Antonia used the opportunity to take Lucy’s arm and lose Lady Fury as soon as they went through the receiving line. “We’ll have much more fun on our own, and we can always find her again if something scandalous happens,” Antonia assured Lucy when she looked a bit nervous. “Here, I see the party from Odinson House, let’s say hello, it’s an excuse since we’re personally acquainted and Lady Nicola isn’t.”
Lucy flushed, which was rare enough to be interesting, but followed obediently in Antonia’s wake, parroting her greetings and smiles as they moved through the crowd.
Lord Thor and Lord Loki seemed on the verge of parting themselves when they reached them, but they smiled readily enough when they noted their approach. Lord Thor was his usual friendly self, and Antonia did her best to keep any suspicion of him out of her face, since it was entirely possible that his friendliness was what had made Miss Foster uncomfortable in the first place. He did talk for a bit too long about her acquaintance with his father’s ward and her governess for Antonia’s taste, but he seemed so genuinely fond of Lady Darcy that it was difficult to disapprove.
Next to them, Lucy and Lord Loki were … well, not conversing in the strictest sense of the word, Antonia realized when she chanced a sideways look. Lucy was still blushing, looking down as if embarrassed, but smiling, and Lord Loki had a smile stretched across his face as well, though his seemed less friendly than his brother’s. Antonia took a moment to size up the situation and broke into their conversation with an apologetic look at Lord Thor. “Lord Loki, how are you this evening?”
“Glad to hear it. I feel as if we hardly know each other at all, which is a great pity considering how fond I am of Lady Darcy—and I believe you share a club with Lord Clinton, who’s another friend of mine! We ought to expand our acquaintance.”
Given that, of course, Lord Loki could do nothing but ask her to dance, and Antonia blithely ignored the reproachful look she received from Lucy as she was led away. If Lucy was going to be besotted with someone, there were worse objects of affection than Lord Loki, but then again, almost no one knew anything about him, since he’d rusticated for so long after he left Oxford and done his Grand Tour. Antonia would just have to make sure that his intentions in encouraging Lucy were genuine interest and not interest in his uncle’s bequest. A match for money was one thing, but if one of the parties involved thought it was for affection it could only end in disaster.
“Is there anything you wished to know about me, Miss Stark?” Lord Loki inquired mildly once they were dancing.
Antonia drew him into conversation about Lady Darcy, since she was more of a common acquaintance than Clint, who might belong to Lord Loki’s club but did not seem to be a dear friend of his. While Lord Loki was certainly more reserved than his brother, and a good deal colder, his obvious and genuine fondness for Darcy went a long way towards assuring Antonia that even if he had his ulterior motives for gaining Lucy’s interest he at least would not be cruel to her. She left their dance feeling at least somewhat reassured and didn’t try to invite herself along when he took Lucy for a turn around the room during the next dance.
It was a busy evening, half the ton in attendance and all of it seeming to wish to catch Antonia up on the gossip or to see what on dits she considered to be the most interesting. Antonia indulged them and kept an eye on Lucy whenever possible, but did not have the chance to converse with her again until they met next to Lady Fury halfway through the evening. It was entirely an accident on Antonia’s part, and not a happy one, but Lucy, for some reason, had searched the Fury out, and Lord Loki was at her heels once again, though they had been quite properly apart for some time.
Lady Fury looked at the three of them as if she was rather hoping they might disappear if she wanted it enough, and sighed when none of them proved to be an illusion. “Is there something you would like?”
“I’m just passing by,” said Antonia with her most winning smile.
“I’m …” Lucy blushed yet again and looked over her shoulder beseechingly at Lord Loki, who simply gave her half a smile and an encouraging gesture. “I wondered, Lady Fury, if I might have your permission to waltz. Lord Loki has asked me for the next one.”
That snapped Lady Fury out of her annoyance and made her give Lord Loki a narrow-eyed assessing look. She knew who he was, of course, probably knew more about him than anyone even if they weren’t acquainted, but Antonia was entertained by the show nonetheless. Her impression of Lord Loki got a good deal better when he managed not to look intimidated in the least, a rarity if there ever was one. Whatever Lady Fury saw, it at least wasn’t objectionable, and she snapped her fan shut after a moment. “You may, Miss Banner.”
“Thank you, Lady Fury,” said Lucy, and wisely scampered, Lord Loki following at her heels until he caught up to her and offered his arm.
“I’ll just be going,” Antonia said hastily, before the Fury could decide she’d done some grave misdeed and deserved a dressing-down. It hadn’t happened before, but there was always the threat of it.
The music was preparing for the waltz when there was a tap on Antonia’s shoulder. She turned around, startled, to meet Captain Rogers’s eyes. “Miss Stark, how are you this evening?” he asked, entirely in earnest about it.
“I’m well, thank you, and you?” she returned, the politeness beat into her by years in society coming out when she couldn’t for the life of her think of anything else to say. She’d thought that after fixing his pocketwatch and getting a dance in return, she and Captain Rogers would have no reason to interact again, but apparently she was wrong and had somehow gained his respect, if he was seeking her out.
“I’m quite well. I wished to thank you again for fixing my watch, it’s been working better than ever since you worked on it.” Antonia couldn’t restrain her smug smile at that, but he didn’t seem put off by that. “And while we’re talking, do you happen to have a partner for this waltz?”
“If I did, Captain Rogers, we would be taking the floor at present, I assure you.” He smiled and acknowledged the hit, but didn’t speak, so Antonia filled the ensuing silence as the music began. “Are you asking me, or simply inquiring as to my status?”
“Asking you, surely.”
Antonia eyed him. “This will be the second time we’ve waltzed, you know.”
His brow crinkled. “I know not to dance with a lady three times in an evening, but two waltzes on different occasions can be no harm, surely?”
“Oh, people will talk, but then again, people talk about everything and I certainly don’t mind. I just thought I would give you fair warning.” Antonia held out her hand, and he took it with a smile that was certainly more real than any he’d bestowed upon her before she fixed his watch. Apparently the way to men’s esteem was through machinery, though she could have told any idiot that.
Captain Rogers told her innocuous stories from America as they did their circuit of the room, didn’t disapprove of her asking questions about things young ladies of the ton oughtn’t show an interest in, and did not even comment when Antonia kept craning her neck to make sure that Lucy and Lord Loki were still in full view of everyone. Somehow, she had become a society matron without realizing it, and bypassing the marriage part of it altogether. She wasn’t sure she liked that.
At the end of the dance, Captain Rogers walked her to the table of refreshments and stood there with her drinking punch instead of melting away, and they had perfectly warm conversation until Antonia spotted Lucy free in the near distance and excused herself with apologies.
“How was your first waltz?” she inquired, sidling up beside Lucy.
Lucy jumped, but kept her chin up and didn’t let on if Antonia embarrassed her, which was half the battle. “It was perfectly enjoyable, thank you. Lord Loki was kind to take me for my first turn.” She gave Antonia a sideways look and a smile. “I saw that you were dancing with Captain Rogers. He seems like quite a nice gentleman.”
Antonia just laughed. “I suppose he is, but I’m not the blushing miss who just got permission, I’m quite blasé about it all now.”
She didn’t quite know what to make of Lucy’s secretive little smile. “Yes, I’m certain that you are.”
The ball at Cage House is the home of Luke Cage, who is Power Man in Earth-616.
In which a meeting of the scientific society is sacrificed to gossip, Antonia has a turn about the park with Captain Rogers, and Lucy discusses her prospects with Lord Loki (as Antonia ponders her prospects in general).
I am SO SORRY I disappeared there. Other fic commitments and family illness conspired to make it difficult to update. I will try not to disappear like that without warning in future.
On a happier note, a glorious anon has made some ABSOLUTELY GORGEOUS fanart of our dear Miss Stark, which you can find here. I do not know where this anon receives feedback, but all my love for you, wherever you are!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The next meeting of their science society was really more an excuse to gossip, which annoyed Antonia at first. It wasn’t that she had anything against gossip, of course, or she would have retired from society after any other young girl would have declared herself on the shelf, but there was a time and a place for such things, and she’d had a promising article on the feasibility of someday visiting the skies to discuss when Miss Foster, Lucy, and Lady Darcy arrived together and dashed her hopes.
Their heads were all bent together even as Jarvis announced them (with the long-suffering look he had perfected over the years), Darcy looking happily scandalized and Miss Foster and Lucy both blushing. “I see you all must have run into one another in the street,” Antonia said in her driest tone.
Lucy rallied first. “We did. We were just discussing Lady Darcy’s foster brothers.”
For a moment, Antonia considered whining or being firm and having the discussion she’d been waiting for, but there was little use in it and if a day for gossip it was to be, then she had no desire to ruin it for the others at the beginning. Advances in the sciences could wait for another day or two, but the brothers Odinson, it seemed, could not. “Were we now?” she asked, arching her eyebrows and smiling. Pepper, sitting over in a corner with a stack of papers, was hiding her own amusement when Antonia turned around.
“They’re both quite interested to hear absolutely everything, these days,” said Lady Darcy with a roll of her eyes that put Antonia in instant charity with her. “Which of them would you rather hear of, Miss Stark? Thor and his dissolute youth, or Loki’s fight with Lord Odin about whether he ought or ought not join the clergy?”
Antonia wrinkled her nose. “The clergy? He certainly doesn’t seem the sort.”
“He isn’t the sort,” said Darcy, sitting down and pouring her own tea. Miss Foster looked as if she despaired of the whole world and every creature on its surface. Pepper gave her a speaking and all-too-sympathetic look. Antonia ignored all three of them to usher Lucy into a seat as well. “He’s simply bookish, and finds religion an interesting study.”
“I’m sure he does. What a lot of scholars we all know,” Antonia said in her driest tone, taking the teapot back from Lady Darcy to pour for everyone. “Speaking of which, does anyone know this Xavier from Oxford who’s coming down to give a lecture next month? He’s some society fellow who’d rather teach students, goodness only knows why, but his area of study seems to overlap with Miss Banner’s.”
Miss Banner perked up in such a way that Antonia thought for sure she’d headed any swooning off the pass (unless, of course, it was swooning over scientific figures, which she wouldn’t be surprised about), but Lady Darcy blithely interrupted, apparently having decided to stage rebellion on the usual plan of events. “Loki went to Oxford, actually, though I don’t recall him ever mentioning a Xavier. I can’t remember if Thor did, though if he did he was out of it long before I came to them.”
Antonia gave up and just decided to enjoy it, especially the way Lady Darcy seemed dead set on making Lucy and Miss Foster sigh and smile in turns. It seemed Miss Foster was not as distraught at Lord Thor’s potential interest as she had intimated at their last meeting, or that something in the circumstances had changed. “Did he fail out?”
Darcy shrugged. “He might have done, I really don’t know. It might be what made Lord Odin so angry he nearly disinherited him. Likely would have, if I hadn’t come to stay and distracted them all.”
“Quite the savior,” Lucy said with a smile, and got one in return from Lady Darcy. Good. If Lucy was still on the marriage mart in a few years she and Darcy would at least have each other to entertain each other, because if Antonia was still single when Darcy was old enough to come out she would retire to the country at once. There were limits to that sort of thing. She already felt ancient compared to some of the debutantes.
“He’s much better behaved now,” said Darcy, taking one of the biscuits that Pepper offered. “Though I slapped him the first time I met him. And Miss Foster almost beat him about the head with an umbrella! He makes very poor first impressions.”
All eyes turned to the usually mild-mannered Miss Foster, who was pink-cheeked but meeting all their eyes without shame. “He arrived hours ahead of his brother’s carriage, in the middle of the night, and I thought he was an intruder,” she explained. Antonia hid a smile; that certainly might have something to do with Lord Thor’s interest in her. Lady Darcy didn’t bother suppressing her giggle, which got her a glare from her governess. “Lady Darcy thought no such thing but she slapped him again nonetheless.”
“He had to be reprimanded for scaring you so,” said Darcy, not discomfited in the least. Really, if she’d been ten years older she and Antonia would never have been out of one another’s company.
Pepper, with her usual fine sense of timing, interrupted before Miss Foster could look any more despairing or Lady Darcy more smug. “They certainly sound like interesting gentlemen.”
“They are,” said Lucy, looking dreamy enough that the plural was a transparent ploy, or a simple politeness for Miss Foster’s sake. “Lord Loki was kind enough to call on me yesterday afternoon and take me for a short drive.”
They all remarked with polite surprise, though Antonia filed it away to remember in case Lady Fury took it in her head to interrogate her about marital prospects for her charge, and ended up discussing Lord Loki (and more occasionally Lord Thor, though Miss Foster was much more efficient than Antonia would have assumed at stopping those conversations before they started—even if her desire to stop them was just as telling) for quite a while longer, Lady Darcy all too delighted to make her foster brothers seem wonderful in the eyes of the women they seemed to have their eyes on.
Eventually, conversation widened out to the latest gossip in general and not just the Odinson brothers in particular, and after an hour Lady Darcy realized she had an engagement to get ices with the objects of such scrutiny and the party dwindled down to Lucy, Pepper, and Antonia, and then to the two of them after Lucy admitted she was meant to attend a card party in the evening and was sent away to prepare herself.
“The Odinson brothers are causing quite a stir,” Pepper observed after she’d left, ringing Jarvis to ask about dinner. “We’ll have to keep an eye on things.”
“We certainly shall,” said Antonia. “You know how I hate to miss anything.”
“Miss Stark,” someone called after her on her morning walk the next day, and Antonia turned around to find Captain Rogers jogging a bit to catch up with her. “We seem to be walking the same path today, and it would have seemed quite strange had I kept to myself twenty paces back. Would you care to walk with me?”
“If only to save you from skulking behind me like a besotted boy,” Antonia returned, taking his arm with a smile. “How are you this morning, Captain?”
“Quite well. Still not used to society hours here in London, I’m more used to waking at dawn. Though I see you have something of a habit of early mornings as well.”
Antonia shrugged. “Early mornings, late nights, it’s all the same. Why sleep when you could be doing something more interesting? Pepper and Jarvis despair of me.”
“Miss Potts is your companion, I believe.” Antonia nodded, and was glad she realized a second too late that she’d never introduced the two of them to her recollection and had no idea where he might have found that out or why, because she didn’t have time to ask before he continued speaking. “And Jarvis?”
“The butler. It seems as if he’s been around forever.” Something she’d said made Captain Rogers smile to himself, looking out at the path in front of them, but he didn’t tell her what had pleased him and while she dearly would have loved to ask, it seemed impolite when they were getting on well and didn’t even have the excuse of a waltz to give them common ground. Instead, she let that thread of conversation fall and several paces pass without speech beyond a quick hello to a vague acquaintance whose name she couldn’t remember as they passed. “Have you settled into Town more since we last spoke?” she asked at last.
Captain Rogers, she fancied, looked grateful for the new topic of conversation. “Quite well. Lord Carter has begun to hint to me that I might find rooms at one of the clubs. Lady Peggy always tells him I should do no such thing, but … well, I suppose it isn’t proper. I’m not family even if they’re dear friends, and Lady Peggy is unmarried, after all.”
“That sort of thing doesn’t matter as much in New York?”
“It matters, it just never came up for me to worry about. My closest friend was Bucky, and we never had to worry about that with him. Not really, anyway.” Bucky, of the pocketwatch Captain Rogers couldn’t bear to replace, but his mouth tightened up as he finished speaking enough that Antonia could guess the subject was closed. There was a great deal about him that she wished to prod at, but anything might get her put out in the cold again, so she could always bide her time. “And when Peggy and I knew each other as children it hardly mattered at all,” he added, in a somewhat brighter tone, seeming to notice that she had nothing to continue with.
“The idylls of youth,” she said, seizing on the opportunity. “You must tell me all about it.”
He told her about New York and the visit from the Carters (apparently his mother was a cousin of some sort) and then extracted some discussion of her own childhood from her, though she kept it as light as possible—growing up in London and not in the country like so many society misses, her father encouraging her bookishness and interest in mechanics even if that didn’t sum up their relationship very well, meeting Pepper, times with Jarvis. The discussion lasted for their walk, and indeed required them to take another circuit around their chosen path, since he’d just started discussing the architecture in New York and she was loath to let him stop.
Eventually, the conversation and the stroll drew to a natural conclusion, and they walked a short ways down the street together, ignoring the looks they received as the crowd grew with the day’s progression. When they reached the place where Antonia had to turn, she extracted her arm from his (and noted for the first time how odd it was that neither of them had let go for more than a few moments the entire walk) and turned to face him. “This was a delightful walk, Captain Rogers, and if you don’t object we ought to make the attempt to run into one another again.”
His smile wasn’t wide, but it was real. “You aren’t worried about ruining your reputation?”
“If I haven’t managed it on my own, I have my doubts that you will make any impact. You don’t seem the sort to cause a scandal, even if you are living with the Carters.”
“You’d be surprised,” he said, and with that enigmatic statement, he bowed over her hand and walked off down the street.
Later that day, Pepper and Jarvis both watched with eyebrows raised when there was a delivery of little red and yellow flowers with a card but no message from Captain Rogers, and Antonia, for once, couldn’t think of a single thing to say.
The following Wednesday, Antonia received a summons to Fury House to be part of their party for Almack’s, and they were held up by Lady Fury realizing at the last moment that she’d forgotten a necklace she wanted to wear.
That, of course, was a terrible lie, as Lady Fury had never forgotten a thing in her life, but Antonia wasn’t going to mention it, especially as she received a beady-eyed glare when Lady Fury swept back up the stares and left conspicuously alone with Lucy. That meant, most likely, that she was to gain confidences and see if anything more serious than a call or a dance or two was going on between Lucy and any of the men that had shown an answer. Antonia, willing to get the gossip since it didn’t mean she had to pass it on (and since the Fury would owe her yet another favor. She was building up a delightful bank of them), didn’t waste time once there was nobody within earshot. “Have you spoken to Lord Loki since last we spoke?” she inquired.
“Not since our turn about the room on Monday night, and you were there for that,” said Lucy, with a remarkably even tone. Her blush gave her away, but she was learning nonetheless. “Why do you ask?”
Antonia laughed. “You know why I ask. He’s quite a catch, even if he is a second son.”
“I’m not entirely a green girl, you know,” said Lucy, and continued when Antonia gestured that she ought. “I do know that he and Lord Thor are fighting for that inheritance and that I’m a convenient person for it given even if he loses the race I’m an heiress, but I do believe he has at least some genuine regard for me.”
“I wasn’t going to tell you to be careful because of that, you aren’t stupid.” Never mind that she had been worried about it, there was no need to seem as if she had no faith in Lucy. “But you should also remember that this is only your first Season, nobody is calling you on the shelf yet.”
Lucy gave her a sardonic look. “Antonia, I don’t believe anyone calls me anything at all, if I get any gossip it’s because I’m under Lady Nicola’s protection and they’re all terrified of her.”
“You’ll certainly get a lot of attention if Lord Loki comes up to scratch, that’s all I’m saying.” Lucy rolled her eyes, because of course they both knew that wasn’t even close to what she was saying, but she didn’t comment. “It isn’t as if I’m trying to be obnoxious. I’m simply curious if you think his courtship is going to go past a few dances.”
“And Lady Nicola asked you to find out.”
“Well, it wasn’t an actual request so much as it was a significant look. I won’t break confidence, if there is one.”
“In confidence?” Lucy smiled. “I think if Lord Loki is simply looking for convenience to get married before his brother, there are easier candidates. Lady Darcy, for instance.” Antonia had no idea what the expression on her face was at that moment, but it certainly wasn’t a good one judging by Lucy’s haste to explain her reasoning. “Lord Odinson would be more than delighted to keep her in the family, he’d consent, I’m sure.”
“Let us hope you’re right, then. He seems a pleasant enough fellow.” A bit too prone to sitting silently on the sides of ballrooms and brooding for Antonia’s taste, but perhaps Lucy liked them quiet and more apt to frown than smile. No accounting for taste, after all.
“He is. Pleasant, I mean. I’m trying not to get my hopes up, but, well. It’s difficult, sometimes.” Lady Fury chose that moment to reappear, and Lucy changed the subject, loudly, in revenge. “Anyway, what’s this Miss Potts tells me about Captain Rogers and a bouquet of flowers?”
Antonia scowled at her for throwing her to the dogs, because Lady Fury looked entirely too interested as she descended the stairs. “You know, I think introducing you and Pepper is the worst decision I ever made, I knew the two of you would gang up on me someday. And for everyone’s information, since my acquaintances are now apparently to be public knowledge and gossip, Captain Rogers and I met in the park the other morning and had an enjoyable walk, but I have no idea why he sent me flowers and I have neither seen nor spoken to him since.” He’d gone out of town for a few days, she’d been told on Monday without even asking—Lord Clint did enjoy sticking his nose into other people’s business even when he was all wrapped up with Lady Natasha.
“See how you like it,” Lucy whispered, but she was smiling as they fell into step behind the Fury, who wasn’t even pretending not to listen.
“My affairs have been the subject of gossip for the last nine Seasons, Lucy, I think I have earned myself a reprieve if I do say so myself.”
“Nobody gets a reprieve,” said Lady Fury as they were all handed into the carriage, smiling at both of them in a disconcerting manner that usually meant trouble on the horizon for someone. “You should know that by now, Miss Stark, really.”
Anyone else would have received a cutting remark, but with society’s most powerful matron Antonia tried to keep her tongue at least somewhat tied. “I’m an eternal optimist,” she couldn’t help saying.
Lady Fury was not amused. “After nine Seasons, you would have to be.”
That, much as Antonia hated to admit it, stung, a direct hit to any young lady of the ton who was still unmarried at her age, even if she had turned down her fair share of proposals. Lucy, next to her, stiffened but didn’t speak or look away from the window, though the smile she’d been hinting at dropped off her face. “One thing you can say for the ton is that it’s never boring,” she forged on. “There’s always someone new to gossip about—or someone old, in my case.”
Lucy took the obvious opportunity to assure her she wasn’t old in the least, and the conversation moved on, but Antonia still felt sour from it when they arrived at Almack’s, nothing quite able to lift the mood, not even Lord Loki seeking Lucy out for a dance twice or exchanging nods with Captain Rogers over the crush of people even if they kept missing each other for a dance. At the end of the night, she climbed out of the Fury’s carriage and met Jarvis at the door. “Am I getting too old for this, Jarvis?” she asked, making it as much a joke as she could.
“Miss,” he said with the long-suffering look she knew so well, “if you’re worried at your age, I should simply give up in despair, and I have no intention of doing that.”
“Right you are,” said Antonia, and went to her room feeling much better, and with the intention of not letting the Fury get to her in the least.
The "Xavier" mentioned is, of course, X-Men's Dr. X, but he will not be playing a large role in the fic if indeed he makes a speaking appearance at all.
In which Antonia receives an unexpected call, goes for ices, and attends a ball.
Readers, I am so sorry this chapter has taken such an inexusably long time! I was out of town and then busy/having writer's block, but it should not have taken me so long nonetheless.
Next time there's actually some plot!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Antonia did not receive callers often. It wasn’t that she was unpopular, but more that as a single female living with only a companion for chaperonage nobody quite knew what to do with her and erred on the side of caution. Since she was perfectly happy making calls and only occasionally receiving her scientific society, the Fury, or a few other hand-picked acquaintances, Antonia didn’t mind, but it did mean that she was often surprised when someone unexpected came to call.
Especially Antonia did not receive calls from unmarried gentlemen outside of her immediate set, most of them mortally terrified of being forced to come up to scratch if Pepper’s guidance was not seen as sufficient, so it was quite a shock when Jarvis rapped on her study door, interrupting a particularly delicate attempt to see if she could create a watch whose gears were no larger than her fingernail, to tell her that she had company. “A young gentleman, miss,” he added pointedly, holding out the card tray, as if reminding her that she wasn’t so old as all that and this gentleman had showed up out of the blue simply to prove him right.
“What, Lord Clint deserves some mystery? Did he bring his Russian? He really goes nowhere without her, if she weren’t terrifying she would be irrevocably compromised by now.” Antonia wiped her dirty hands on the skirt on the dress that probably had not been worn enough to merit its relegation to the workshop but was nonetheless now ruined for any greater purpose. “I must learn from her.”
“Lord Barton has not graced us with his presence today,” said Jarvis with all the resigned serenity he could muster, and proffered the card tray again, probably so she would stop guessing.
The card, which she left greasy fingerprints all over, proved to belong to Captain Rogers. Antonia stared at it for a few seconds but it seemed unlikely to change its mind. There was no earthly reason for Captain Rogers to be visiting her, but apparently his opinion differed from hers. “This is the right card?”
“Yes, Miss Stark. Miss Potts is already present, if you would like to take time to prepare for your guest.”
Antonia sighed. “I suppose I ought. Do stall him, and if Pepper begins to say anything mortifying or even hint at the word marriage, you have my permission—no, my encouragement!—to step on her foot.” Not that Jarvis would do so. He and Pepper were united against her. As well as Lieutenant Rhodes. Really, everyone was against her, it was most upsetting. She needed to cultivate more allies.
“Of course, Miss Stark.” Jarvis was perfectly blank and perfectly professional and going to turn on her at the first hint of a chance to learn more about Captain Rogers, and Antonia looked at him narrow-eyed for a moment before sweeping out of her workshop and up to her room, where she changed and had her hair re-dressed faster than she’d had to do it in years before going down to the sitting room where Captain Rogers and Pepper waited.
Captain Rogers stood politely when she entered and bowed. “Miss Stark, I hope I wasn’t interrupting your day.”
Pepper widened her eyes meaningfully. Antonia blithely ignored her. “Oh, you were, but never mind it, it was nothing that won’t wait.” As she’d hoped, Captain Rogers looked rather baffled, and she continued before he had to decide whether to apologize to her or not. “The wonderful thing about metal and gears is that they’ll wait for one nearly endlessly. To what do I owe the honor of a call, Captain?”
“Lady Peggy gave me a list of places to go and when I realized the route I’d planned took me by your home, it seemed impolite not to call.” Antonia raised her eyebrows, certain there was more to the story, as she sat down, and he waited to follow suit, shifting sheepishly. “Her ladyship has a suitor visiting this morning and thought it best that I not be present for the visit. I was rather firmly ejected and told to get ices and go to a bookshop and perhaps a club, so here I am.”
“Me over the betting books of White’s? I’m honored.” It still wasn’t a very good explanation, as she was certain any dozen of her acquaintances passed her door on a given day and decided not to visit, especially when there were other diversions, but with Pepper and Jarvis looking on she wasn’t going to pry much further.
“I can’t say I have much interest in gambling, and some of the wagers there are …”
Antonia snorted. “Scandalous, yes. Not that anyone will ever give the ladies specifics, as if we don’t have our own forms of bets on all the gossip that goes around.” Pepper made a quiet, despairing noise into her tea. Captain Rogers took a sip of his, apparently mostly to hide his smile. “Simply because I am nosy, do you think Lady Peggy’s visitor is there for a … final visit?”
“For your betting book, I assume? I don’t feel that’s fair.” He shifted on his chair. “This may not be the done thing, Miss Stark, and it seems that you’re busy anyway, but partly I wondered if you might want to go out on the town with me—you and Miss Potts, of course. There is something depressing about buying ices for oneself without anyone else present, and I thought I might head that off at the pass.”
It wasn’t the done thing at all, but Antonia was pleased enough to beam at him when Pepper gave an elaborate shrug of capitulation. “I would be delighted. If you would simply wait a few minutes and allow me to find a bonnet, we can be on our way shortly and no one will think a thing of it.”
With that, she put her practically-untouched teacup down and fled back up the stairs to her long-suffering maid to dress herself once again for an outing, leaving Captain Rogers, Pepper and Jarvis in her wait all with near-identical smiles on their faces.
Half of London, it seemed, was buying ices. It was a warm day, and a lazy one, the sort that made balls too hot to breathe and Rotten Row crammed with more slow-moving carriages than seemed reasonable. Captain Rogers, Pepper, and Antonia slid easily into the crowd at the shop and found themselves a table after, each of them with a lemon ice that Captain Rogers insisted upon paying for.
Before they’d been there ten minutes, while Captain Rogers was explaining something about his voyage to England to Pepper, Lord Clint and Lady Natasha descended on their table with ices of their own in hand. Lady Natasha held her spoon as if she was rather expecting she would have to stab someone with it, but greeted them cordially enough when Antonia hailed them and told them to pull up seats.
“I’ve been harassing poor Captain Rogers about the Americas,” Antonia said when they’d all settled in and exchanged greetings. “I would love the chance to do the same about Russia, Lady Natasha, if you’re willing.”
Lady Natasha gave her a flat look. (It remained to be seen if she possessed any other expressions, but to have it honed from general ennui to specific disdain was remarkably effective. Antonia would have to learn her methods.) “It’s colder.”
That was a resounding no to polite chatter about the countryside, then. Pepper, bless her, waded into the fray and somehow managed by arcane arts or chance to get on Lady Natasha’s good side, which made it much easier to return to chatting with Captain Rogers and Lord Clint. Clint, to her surprise, turned to her after a few minutes of pleasantries, giving Captain Rogers a brief smile first. “You’re friends with Miss Banner, aren’t you?”
Antonia eyed him. “I am. I don’t think you’re good enough for her, if that’s what you’re asking. Though you’ll have to put your suit to Lady Fury either way, heaven knows I’m not her chaperone.”
“I have no intention of offering for Miss Banner, we’re barely acquainted.” Nobody looked at Lady Natasha, which was more telling than mass staring might have been. “No, her name simply came up at my club the other day.”
“Did it now?” Perhaps Lucy’s infatuation with Lord Loki wasn’t entirely hopeless after all, if he was bringing her up in his club, and surely it must be he who’d brought her up. It would be too great a coincidence otherwise. “Might I ask who brought it up?”
He snorted. “I suspect you know already, that’s why I thought to mention it to you. I’m not about to approach Lady Fury, but perhaps you might spread the gossip about judiciously that Lord Loki is considering asking her to marry him before the end of the Season.”
Antonia lowered her voice, and Captain Rogers, bless him, took the hint to join Pepper and Lady Natasha’s conversation for a moment. “Did he give any particular reason for this sudden slide into matrimonial bliss? I don’t imagine you all sit around writing sonnets about your beloveds at the club.”
“Certainly not, any member who did so would be ejected immediately and without question.” He shrugged. “The usual reasons. He seems a good enough man, we’ve been talking lately. I just wanted to drop a word in your ear.”
“Well, I thank you for it.” And Lucy would certainly be pleased. The Fury most likely would as well—a titled match for her young protégé and unloading her in her first Season, with the bonus of removing herself from Antonia’s company once again. Or giving Antonia the excuse to do the same, which was just as good. “Have you turned to matchmaking these days?” she inquired, raising her voice just enough that the others could join in if they wished.
Clint took the turn in the conversation well. “Heavens forbid that, Miss Stark. No, I simply like helping out friends when I can in case I need to ask for favors in return.”
Antonia gave a sharp and obvious look in between Clint and Lady Natasha. “I shall look forward to seeing what you cash your favor in on, certainly. Now, do tell me all the gossip, I feel as if I am totally out of touch. Shepherding a debutante around does take energy out of one!”
“Shocking,” muttered Pepper, which wasn’t fair in the least.
“That isn’t fair in the least,” said Antonia, and that managed to bring the group all together, everyone exchanging bits of harmless gossip as they relaxed. Everyone except Lady Natasha, but Antonia was beginning to come to the conclusion that she never relaxed. Or possibly slept.
The afternoon whiled away, and after an hour Captain Rogers cleared his throat, interrupting a spirited discussion of the latest operas they’d seen (a subject that Lady Natasha was unexpectedly passionate about, of all things). “I’m very sorry, but the Carters have an accepted an invitation to Murdock House for tonight and I ought to be returning to prepare.”
“What luck,” said Antonia. “I’ve accepted my invitation as well, so I suppose I ought to go too. Perfection takes time, after all.” Pepper snorted. Antonia magnanimously pretended not to hear. “If you’ll excuse us, Lord Clinton, Lady Natasha, we’ll be on our way.”
“Not at all,” said Lady Natasha, standing as well. “His Grace is actually a distant cousin of mine, so we’ll be attending this party as well.”
Antonia blinked. “Is he now? I suppose I can see it, you both have red hair. I simply wouldn’t have expected it. Then I shall see all of you this evening, and shan’t wish you goodbye.”
After more pleasantries, and Antonia promising a quadrille away to Lord Clinton, Antonia took Captain Rogers’s arm once again and they strolled back down the streets towards her home, Pepper trailing in their wake looking vastly entertained about something. Antonia had theories as to what, but she wasn’t about to ask with Captain Rogers right there.
He stopped at the door, and Pepper walked up to it to talk to Jarvis, giving them a moment on their own. “Thank you for entertaining me this afternoon, Miss Stark,” he said after an awkward moment. “The day would have been much duller without me.”
“I think you can say that for most things,” she said with a smile. “If there’s one thing I’m not, it’s boring.”
“I can certainly agree whole-heartedly with that. Is your dance card for tonight’s ball full, or may I reserve the first set?”
“The first set is entirely yours, Captain, I’m not so popular as all that.”
He bowed over her hand. “Thank you, Miss Stark. It will be my pleasure.”
The door creaked, and since Antonia knew for a fact that Jarvis had it oiled against such possibilities and only arranged for it to creak when he was disapproving of something, she took it as a hint that she shouldn’t stand on the street with Captain Rogers for much longer. Everyone was conspiring to ruin her fun. “No, I assure you, it’s mine. I’ll see you in a few hours, and thank you for the ices.”
Before he could assure her yet again that she’d done him the favor, Antonia gave him a quick wave and walked into her home, where Jarvis was looking more indulgent than disapproving and Pepper had already disappeared from the entrance hall, undoubtedly to do something terribly efficient.
The ball at Murdock House was always well-attended. It had been so since before the current Duke took his coronet and probably would remain so for time immemorial, so Antonia didn’t bat an eye at the crush when she arrived, Pepper at her heels, to find everyone standing elbow-to-elbow and sipping at their punch. The reception line seemed to take ages, but once she’d done her duty they forged bravely through the crush to find a place to stand where Captain Rogers might find her in time for the first dance.
As it turned out, the party from Odinson House found them first, Pepper fading tactfully in the background as Lords Thor and Loki greeted her and passed along Lady Darcy’s greetings as well. Judging by the way Lord Thor kept smirking indulgently at his brother and Lord Loki looked more interested in the crowd than in the conversation, they were there more for her capacity as Lucy’s friend than because they were particularly interested in her company, but neither of them was impolite and Antonia didn’t have anything better to do for the moment.
When the first set was about to start, Lord Thor came back to himself after staring off into space for a few minutes while Lord Loki talked about the upcoming lecture from the Oxford professor with Antonia, looking rather sheepish. “Would you care to take the floor for the first set with me, Miss Stark? They seem to be getting ready.”
“Actually, the first set’s been reserved already, if my partner can find his way through the crowd. I’d be glad to have a dance later in the night, though.”
He inclined his head. “I shall have to find you, then. Loki?”
“A pleasure as always,” Lord Loki said, right on cue, and the brothers Odinson excused themselves in search of greener pastures just as Captain Rogers shouldered his way through the crowd, a bit out of breath but smiling.
Antonia smiled reflexively in return. “I was beginning to think you wouldn’t make it, Captain Rogers. The sets are forming.”
“I do apologize. It seems that all of my meager acquaintance in London is here tonight and bent on saying hello, I barely escaped the countess of Darkholme to come find you.”
“Good heavens, she’s a difficult woman to escape. Shall we?” Belatedly, he offered his arm and she took it, following him out to the dance floor, where there were enough couples that the sets were close enough that they’d be tripping over one another all night.
It was a vigorous dance, and the polite and intermittent chatter of the couples was too loud to let Antonia continue discussing any of the subjects she and Captain Rogers had gone through earlier, so she contented herself with pleasantries and silence through the end of the dance. “I’ll find you again later, if you’re amenable and free,” he said when he deposited her back where he’d found her, smiling briefly at Pepper as he did, “but for now I’m afraid I’ve promised a dance to Lady Peggy.”
“By all means, and I shall see you if we can find one another in this crowd,” said Antonia, waving him off.
Pepper was just opening her mouth, undoubtedly to say something terribly insinuating that Antonia would have to loftily ignore, but she was saved by the arrival of Lucy, looking quite pleased with herself. “Antonia, Miss Potts, good evening, I’d hoped to see you when you came in but Lady Fury wanted me to meet a few people and I rather lost track of time.”
“A pity, that. I had Lord Thor and Lord Loki here with me earlier, and you know how I detest entertaining two gentlemen at once.” That was a blatant lie, but Lucy knew what she meant, judging by her blush. “I’m sure you’ll see them sometime tonight, though. Lord Thor, at least, stands head and shoulders above most of the throng, so if you look for him you may have the luck of finding his brother.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Lucy in what was nowhere close to the lofty tone she was attempting. She was blushing. Really, it was quite sweet. She was very much the country miss, but it was a breath of fresh air among all the London polish.
“Of course you don’t. So you won’t be at all interested to know that Lord Loki looked as if he was surveying the crowd looking for someone in particular earlier and barely attended to my conversation at all, I suppose.” Lucy coughed but managed not to ask; she was learning. Antonia felt unaccountably proud of her. “Lord Thor promised to find me to dance with me later, though, so you should stick near me to tempt them closer.”
Lucy ignored her, but Antonia would have expected nothing less. Instead, they ended up discussing a book Lucy had purchased about some mathematical theories being used in science, and talked a whole set through about it, Antonia dramatically faking a sore ankle whenever it looked like any gentlemen were getting close. She wasn’t in the mood to dance with anyone she barely knew, and felt very little guilt about misleading them. She did feel a bit more about Lucy, since she was meant to be helping her to attract a husband, but not enough to draw any nearby men into their conversation.
After a set to indulge their conversation, Antonia sent Lucy off into the arms of one of the host’s friends, one Mr. Nelson who she didn’t recognize and who looked entirely too harmless to bother Lucy so she felt no guilt in abandoning her to a stranger. She sat out another set, not in the mood to fight the crowd to shove herself to the forefront of the girls waiting for partners. She’d done plenty of that in the past and lost interest in it with every passing ball. Instead, she found herself near Lady Fury and grit her teeth to give her a greeting.
Lady Fury’s long-suffering look was no more long-suffering than usual, by which Antonia assumed that they could be in each other’s good graces as much as they ever were. “Would you care to tell me who my ward is dancing with, Miss Stark?”
“Friend of his Grace’s,” Antonia said with as much cheer as she could. “Someone nearby introduced us, I thought she ought to dance.”
“And she hasn’t spoken to Lord Loki this evening?”
Antonia rolled her eyes. “To my knowledge, no. Though I believe he wouldn’t be averse to a dance. Do you think he’s going to offer for her? Or ruin her?”
“Making sure I have all the information, is all. You haven’t danced since the first set.”
She was prepared for that change of topic and just gave a studied shrug. “I’m simply resigning myself to inglorious spinsterhood. I’d hoped to gain widowhood, but even the rich old goats are looking to greener pastures these days.”
It was an indelicate subject for a ball, but the wonderful thing about Lady Fury (perhaps the only wonderful thing about Lady Fury) was that she didn’t care about delicacy as long as no one was listening. Really, Antonia hated to admit it and in fact would never do so in anyone’s hearing, but most likely she and the Fury would be more fond of one another if they were less alike. Her response to Antonia’s melodrama was simply to smile slightly and raise her eyebrows. “If you would like introductions to some of the recent widowers coming out of mourning and into society you have only to ask.”
“I may just take you up on that.” Antonia wondered if she cared enough about the promise of punch to actually go in search of it.
“I shouldn’t think you’d need to. You’ve been dancing a great deal with the Carters’ American lately.”
Antonia had, she had to acknowledge, walked right into that. That didn’t mean she had to make it easy, since it was just the Fury being nosy. “Captain Rogers? He’s good enough company, and everything else seems so dull this Season. Aside from Miss Banner, of course.”
“Of course.” Her voice was dry and utterly disbelieving. “He’s of good family, you know, for all they were on the wrong side of the Revolution, and he has good connections. Rumor has it scandal is keeping him in London, and you could do much worse. You’re also a year above him in age, but no match is ideal.”
“A ringing endorsement.” The set, thank heavens, came to an end, and the quadrille was next, which meant she could expect rescue from Lord Clint’s quarter at any moment. He had an unerring ability to find people in crowds, which was not a talent to be taken lightly.
Sure enough, he arrived before Lady Fury could find anything else suitably horrifying to say, though she was gearing up for it. Someday Antonia was going to find something to needle her about that would ruffle her (Lucy, most likely, providing the opportunity), and she was going to take the chance and run with it. As it was, she took Clint’s offered hand with alacrity and chattered on about Lady Natasha and how exactly she was related to the Duke of Murdock throughout most of the set. He indulged her, a little smirk on his face the whole time, and gave an exaggerated nod at the end of the set when he caught sight of Lord Loki engaging Lucy for a dance at last.
The rest of the ball seemed to pass in a flash. Antonia danced with Lord Thor, Lord Clint again, the Duke himself when Lady Natasha stopped to talk to Lord Clint and he had to offer or seem impolite (he didn’t dislike her, or at least she didn’t think so, but they had never had occasion to talk before and there was little for them to discuss beyond the weather, which Antonia loathed discussing unless necessary), and, to her great surprise, Captain Rogers again for the last set of the evening. In between, she kept as far away from Lady Fury as she could, mostly talking to Lucy when they found themselves nearby, and with Pepper when she made it back to the correct area of the ballroom. Lord Loki, she noted, danced with Lucy not once, but twice, and while he wasn’t so improper as to spend a third set giving her a turn about the room, he was most solicitous in bringing her punch twice. Even Lord Thor danced with her, with the sort of evaluating expression that any brother looking over his younger sibling’s prospects might have.
All in all, it was a most satisfactory evening, which was why Antonia wasn’t surprised in the least when a few days later, everything went terribly awry.
Cameos: the Duke of Murdock and Mr. Nelson are, of course, Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson from Marvel's Daredevil.
In which Antonia is interrupted at her work by petty gossip, pays a call to Odinson House, and receives a great many callers.
Another chapter by way of apology for the long gap between five and six! The next one won't be quite this quick to come but hopefully will come soon.
Antonia’s first hint that something was amiss came when Miss Foster and Lady Darcy failed to come to Professor Xavier’s lecture, expanding and extrapolating quite a bit from Gregor Mendel’s theories with some odd ideas of what that might imply for humans. It was more Lucy’s area of interest than either Miss Foster’s or Antonia’s (she listened the whole time with rapt attention that the good professor seemed to find flattering while Antonia let her attention wander on occasion), but Miss Foster had seemed excited, and at some point Lord Loki had even mentioned going, though he seemed more interested in Lucy than in the science. It wasn’t like her not to send some sort of message.
The next hint came the next day, when Lucy turned up on her doorstep, all the starry-eyed wonder from the previous night’s lecture gone out of her face. “I’ve just gone to call on Lady Darcy to make certain she wasn’t ill, and the butler told me she wasn’t in.”
The butler at Odinson House was mildly terrifying, Antonia knew from experience, but entirely within his rights to deny entrance to a guest if his employers were busy. “Well, it’s possible she wasn’t. She and Miss Foster do go out and about on occasion.” She ushered Lucy to sit down and poured her some tea, wondering where Pepper was. “Do you suspect foul play?”
“Well, I asked when I ought to call back if I wanted to speak to her, as I wanted to tell her and Miss Foster about last night’s lecture, but then he got this look on his face.” Lucy frowned. “I don’t know quite how to explain it, but then he said that the household wouldn’t be in for several days and perhaps it would be best if I left my card or a note for Lady Darcy so she could speak to me at her leisure. Am I wrong in thinking that’s more than a bit odd?”
“You aren’t wrong. If they were in the country for a few days, Heimdall would have simply told you so.”
Lucy nodded. Sometimes she was so awkward Antonia forgot she was also terribly intelligent, but the way she frowned and worried at her lip reminded her that it wasn’t only science she was good at. “Perhaps they’re ill, or Lady Darcy is, but I got the impression that the entire family was meant to be considered not at home, even when I asked after Miss Foster in specific.”
“If it’s a large piece of news, it will be among the on dits within days,” Antonia assured her. “Lord Thor and Lord Loki are subjects of constant gossip, in case you hadn’t noticed, being two eligible gentlemen with an inheritance on the line. And moreover, someone will be certain to tell you, because your name and Lord Loki’s are growing more attached by the day.”
“I suppose.” Lucy seemed more concerned than apt to blush, so Antonia spent a bit long comforting her despite her own growing curiosity and gave her three cups of tea before sending her firmly back out to the Fury’s clutches, since neither of them would get any news sitting about and fretting.
The third hint Antonia got wasn’t a hint at all. It came in the form of Pepper bursting into her workroom without knocking early in the morning when Antonia had expected to be left alone, since she’d woken even earlier than usual with an idea for a pulley system that would help the servants immensely and wanted to tinker with it. She was waving a few pieces of paper about, which resolved themselves into the day’s marriage announcements. The paper must have just barely been delivered. “Whatever can be the matter?” she managed, a bit blearily. She was lucky it was just Pepper, she was still wearing her nightgown.
“You’ll want to read today’s marriage announcements.” Pepper’s voice was a bit high with alarm or annoyance.
“Will I? Before my morning tea, even?”
“You will.” She was firm enough about it that Antonia took the paper, with a great show of reluctance. There were a few announcements—they had yet to pick up for the end of the Season but they would soon, and there were always a few couples who jumped the gun—but it was the last one that had Antonia gaping. Lord Thor Odinson and Miss Jane Foster, it said, mentioning the title Lord Thor stood to inherit and Miss Foster’s gentle breeding but not her career as a governess.
“That,” she said somewhat faintly, “would explain why they missed the lecture the other night. And why they weren’t in to Lucy yesterday. Good heavens, is the man an imbecile?”
“I rather think he’s in love,” Pepper said dryly. “But either way perhaps it might do to pay a call on Miss Foster and encourage Lucy and a few other friends to do the same, to make sure the impression isn’t that he’s marrying her because he compromised her.”
Antonia winced. “They’ll think it anyway, she’s living under the same roof as him, what sort of idiot proposes to his sister’s governess? I’d thought he might try to importune her, but not that! I suppose she’ll have to come stay with us until the wedding, I dread to think what the society matrons will say otherwise.” She squinted at the announcement again. There was no mention of a date for the wedding. “And we need to find out when the wedding is, that will make a great deal of difference. Everyone will say he’s picked the easiest target to beat his brother to that inheritance, and I can’t say as I blame them. Miss Foster is lovely and of course worthy of the highest of titles, but the whole thing makes one a bit suspicious.”
“It does indeed.” Pepper usually looked mildly entertained or exasperated by the antics of the ton, as anyone sensible was, but she was looking serious enough about the issue at hand that Antonia knew she was right to be worried about it. “Shall I tell Jarvis to have one of the better guest rooms made up?”
“Yes, Pepper, I have no idea what I would do without you.” Antonia drummed her fingers on the table in front of her. “I can’t decide whether Lady Darcy is going to be in transports of joy or despair, but either way we need her on our side, she’s the only sensible person in that household for all she’s the youngest.”
“I quite agree,” said Pepper in a tone that cast great aspersions on Antonia’s own ability to be sensible.
Since there were more pressing matters at hand, Antonia ignored that where she might usually have at least pretended to take offense. “It’s early for a call, so I’ll have to sit around fretting with the news for a while, but maybe when the time comes I’ll stop by Fury House on my way to see Miss Foster and get Lucy to come with me. If she’s the most likely candidate for sister-in-law it would be good for her to visit.” She grimaced. “If I were feeling especially magnanimous I would call in a favor and ask Lady Fury to give the match her public blessing. Ought I be feeling especially magnanimous?”
“It wouldn’t do any harm, I would imagine.” Pepper, now that Antonia had taken over making plans and fretting, seemed much calmer about the whole matter.
“In that case,” Antonia said, squaring her shoulders and giving one last reluctant look around her workshop, “I suppose I should dress for battle.”
Antonia, much to her displeasure, had to debase herself quite a lot to gain the Fury’s company for her call to Odinson House. Lucy, of course, was all too willing to put on her bonnet and go, but Lady Fury took more delicate handling, and in the end Antonia had to promise her two unspecified favors before she would agree to pay a call on the soon-to-be happy couple and confer her approval on Miss Foster.
If greater things than Antonia’s worry about what sort of favors she would be called to do weren’t afoot (shepherding Lucy around was pleasant enough, but if she was to become sponsor and mentor to a group of giggling debutantes following her around like ducklings she would at least like some warning), Antonia would have been quite out of countenance by the end of that particular interview. Instead, she forced a smile and urged Lucy and the Fury to hurry so they could make it to Odinson House before anyone with less noble intentions could do the same.
Heimdall gave them all an unimpressed look when they appeared at the door. “The family isn’t in.”
“I’m a friend of Miss Foster’s, and having seen the news in this morning’s papers, if she’s not in to me I would like to know why,” said Antonia. “I’m offering her a place to stay until the wedding.”
He stared at them for a few more seconds and then let them inside. Everything was quiet, but gave the impression of having recently been in an uproar—and Antonia was willing to bet that Lord Odinson himself and his lady had not yet found their way from the country to tell their son he had no responsibility to marry a governess of his household, and that in fact he might have a responsibility to do the opposite. If fate was kind, she would have Miss Foster away in time to miss that charming interlude.
They were left, without much politeness, in the entry hall, and Antonia avoided Lady Fury’s eyes so she didn’t get told she owed yet another favor. Instead, she talked quietly with Lucy about a few points of Professor Xavier’s lecture that she was still considering and waited as patiently as she ever did, which wasn’t very.
Luckily, it was only about five minutes before they were ushered into a parlor where not just Miss Foster but the entire household waited. Lord Thor looked utterly, deliriously, stupidly happy, as if he had no idea that he’d just caused the greatest scandal of the Season, but everyone else was shifting around awkwardly. Miss Foster, Antonia made a point of noting quickly, was wringing her hands as if waiting for someone to tell her she was ruined and fired and being sent away without a reference but couldn’t help sending tiny little smiles in Lord Thor’s direction every few seconds. At least she had some comfort that he hadn’t ruined her and offered for her in penance.
Lord Loki, on the other hand, had pasted on a stiff smile that Antonia hoped he didn’t expect to fool anyone with, and was the one to greet them. “Welcome. I’m afraid it may take us some time to offer you refreshments. We weren’t expecting company this early.”
“You should have been,” said Lady Fury. Antonia winced on her behalf. “I imagine we won’t be the last callers you have today.”
“Congratulations on the happy event, by the way,” Lucy interposed, glaring between Antonia and Lady Fury until both of them chimed in with their own congratulations.
“Thank you,” said Lady Darcy. She looked more entertained than anything else. Antonia knew she liked her for a reason. At least someone in the house still had sense. Lord Thor and Miss Foster had clearly taken leave of theirs and with the inheritance suddenly on the line with more urgency than before she wasn’t sure she trusted Lord Loki to be impartial. “We’re all quite … excited about it.”
“I’m sure you are.” Lady Fury looked as if she wanted a stiff drink of the sort only gentlemen ought to indulge in, or barring that, at least some tea. “Miss Foster, I wanted to personally congratulate you on your upcoming nuptials and extend and invitation to the annual ball I will be hosting in my home later this month—if you aren’t already married by then, of course.”
Antonia raised her eyebrows, since an invitation to the Fury ball, one of the most coveted invitations of the Season (Antonia always got hers late, like the Fury was attempting to make her believe she wouldn’t receive one, or more likely like she was debating the merits of inviting her at all when they were a constant irritation to each other), was not part of what they’d discussed on their way over. Miss Foster, though, managed to take that with equanimity. “You’re most kind, my lady. And we don’t have a special license, so we’ll probably not marry until near the end of the Season.”
On one level, that was a good thing, since it would make less people think that Miss Foster was compromised or even a fallen woman. On another, it would only protract the gossip. Antonia sighed. “I also came,” she said before Lord Thor could turn his beam at the invitation into words, “to offer you a place to stay in my home, Miss Foster. We’re known to be acquaintances, and with Miss Potts around we will be properly chaperoned.”
“She accepts,” said Lady Darcy firmly while everyone else was still dithering about it. “Thank you, Miss Stark, you’re most kind to my future sister-in-law.” Her gaze flickered to Lucy and there was a moment when Antonia wondered with delight if she was going to say “both of them,” but the moment passed. “Isn’t that a lovely idea, Jane?”
“Oh, yes. Most kind. Thank you, Miss Stark,” said Miss Foster. Who Antonia would really have to remind herself to call by her given name, if they were to be living under one roof for the remainder of the Season.
“Excellent. You are welcome at any time, and I will arrange for my coachman to be available to pick up your things.” Heaven only knew what Miss Foster intended to do about a trousseau, but that was firmly not Antonia’s problem. They weren’t near good enough friends for that offer to seem like anything but pity.
The rest of the call was as social and polite as they could all manage to make it, but nobody but Lady Darcy and Antonia seemed up for more than the barest of conversation. Lady Fury glowered around at them all as if they had personally offended her, Lord Thor and Jane kept exchanging besotted smiles that would make it obvious to the whole ton that theirs was a love match, Lord Loki continued to look as if someone had frozen a smile onto his face, and Lucy valiantly attempted conversation but spent more of her time attempting to engage him in it and failing utterly.
When they’d been in there long enough, Antonia reiterated that Jane was welcome in her home at any time and had only to send for the carriage (with strong implications that sooner rather than later would be best for everyone if she wanted to retain any shreds of her reputation at all) and made up an urgent call to pay elsewhere. Lady Fury got up with every sign of relief, not bothering to hide it, and Lucy went with more reluctance and a few more parting words to Lord Loki, murmured low so Antonia couldn’t have heard even if she were trying.
The carriage ride was mostly silent until they were nearly to Fury House, when Antonia gave up and spoke. “You are going to pick the most awful favors you possibly can to make me do, aren’t you?”
Lady Fury smiled thinly. “I’m sure I have no idea what you mean.”
Jane, probably under Lady Darcy’s insistence and supervision, was moved into Antonia’s home by the end of the day, with strict instructions to Jarvis and Pepper to treat her like any noble guest and not a former governess. That, with all the gossip going around the ton, meant that Stark House was busier over the next several days than Antonia had seen it since her father still entertained (and even then it was more businessmen than society).
Lord Thor called every day without fail, taking Jane for walks or drives in his phaeton, beaming wildly the whole time like he didn’t know what sort of gossip he’d pulled down on his head. Lady Darcy seemed to be constantly underfoot, the student now the teacher as she reminded Jane of a hundred things that she probably already knew but seemed to have forgotten in her anxiety, as well as dragging her out to a modiste to fit her out with clothes enough for society and the beginnings of a trousseau. Lucy was a frequent visitor, far better at tea and sympathy than Antonia (if not quite as adept as Pepper) and thus even more welcome than she usually was. Half of society suddenly found it imperative to call on the scandalous Miss Stark and gawk at her houseguest, and many of them weren’t there in shows of unfailing and unwavering support.
The worst was when Lord and Lady Odinson themselves showed up on Antonia’s doorstep, Lord Odinson looking incensed, Lady Odinson looking martyred, and their sons hovering behind them with identical expressions of nervous worry. Antonia settled them in and promptly fled like a coward, deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, even though Lord Odinson’s shouts were audible all over the house.
It was into that particular interview that Captain Rogers walked. Antonia was lurking in her own entryway, pretending to inspect the dusting job on some piece of unidentifiable furniture, when the knocker sounded and Jarvis appeared out of seeming thin air, gave her an exasperated look, and swung the door open to reveal Captain Rogers with a smile on his face and his hat clutched in his hands. “Good morning,” said Jarvis. “May I help you?”
“Yes, I’m here to see Miss Stark, if she’s in.”
Jarvis turned around and fixed Antonia with a look. “Miss, are you in?”
Captain Rogers’s face was undoubtedly a picture, but Jarvis was a spoilsport and blocked the view. Antonia stood straight with as much dignity as she could muster. “I suppose I am, considering I’m standing in my hallway. Good morning, Captain Rogers. Things are in an uproar here, as you will hear for yourself in a moment, but you’re welcome to come in if you like, I’ve got a free parlor and we’ve had a constant supply of tea from belowstairs these past few days.”
Jarvis cast one last look over his shoulder and stepped aside, allowing Captain Rogers in. “If you’re that busy, Miss Stark, I won’t stay. I just wanted to ask how you are, since everyone’s saying you’re wrapped up in—” He was cut off by a particularly loud shout from Lord Odinson, met by one from Lord Thor. Captain Rogers wrinkled his nose. “That.”
“About as well as can be expected. This is simply one of the more awkward moments. Please do feel free to stay, it’s refreshing having a guest who isn’t here to get a close-up view of the proceedings.”
He smiled, the honest and bright one she was unused to seeing in polite society. “Perhaps I ought to take you for a drive instead, it seems as if you could use a bit of time without all this hanging over your head.”
Antonia considered the proposition with great longing for a moment. A drive in the park with quiet company that would rather discuss real things than gossip, time away from the family Odinson and its dramas … there was little, in fact, that sounded better. However, it would be shirking duty, and she sighed her regret. “Much as I would love to take you up on your offer, perhaps I had best defer it. Things are in uproar enough here without the mistress of the house running for the hills at the first opportunity. I’m waiting for the shouting to get worse and then I’ll go in and smooth some ruffled feathers.”
Captain Rogers kept smiling, by some miracle not upset in the least by her refusal. “It’s very kind of you to take Miss Foster in like this, Miss Stark. Not everyone would have, from what I understand.”
Antonia shrugged. “She’s a friend, and I do so hate this tiresome sort of scandal. I couldn’t have done less.” He opened his mouth and she forestalled him. “Really, don’t flatter me too much, you’ll have me thinking that your expectations of me are low if simple kindness gets such praise.” That shut his mouth, though he opened it again looking apologetic mere seconds later. Before he could start being gallant again, however, there was the sound of crashing from the parlor where she’d stashed the Odinsons. She grimaced. “If you’ll excuse me, perhaps I ought to check on my other guests. You’re welcome to wait for me in one of my less-combated parlors, if you’d like some conversation, and I’d enjoy a drive soon if the offer remains open.”
“It certainly does, and I think I will absent myself rather than give you one more guest to worry over.” Captain Rogers bowed, still barely in the door, and started backing out with a nod to Jarvis. “A pleasure as always, Miss Stark. Good luck with your guests—and all my best to the happy couple, of course, even if I’m not acquainted. I’ll try again soon for the drive, it sounds as if you’ll need one.”
With that, he was out the door, leaving Antonia in her entranceway listening to the renewed shouts from her parlor while Jarvis gave her a pointed look she chose to ignore the point of. “I’d best go check on things,” she said brightly.
Jarvis’s “And she talks about spinsterhood” was quiet enough that she could just pretend not to have heard it.
In which Antonia spends far too much time dealing with the Odinsons' scandal, Lady Peggy pays a call, and the Odinsons have a dinner party.
Ack, sorry, everyone, this chapter was like pulling teeth. We are working towards a few big scandals, though!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Antonia spent the next week and a half on a one-woman campaign to keep society from dismissing Jane and Lord Thor entirely, and by the end of it had decided that science suited her far better than politics. It was exhausting spending her days making calls, both on her own and with Miss Foster in tow, to all the society matrons and wheedling her way through the door when they were denied entry, to talk indulgently about an impetuous young couple in love. She cashed in more than a few of the carefully cultivated favors she had with those like Lady Fury and reaped invitations to quite a few parties for Jane, especially once she happened to mention she was invited to the ball at Fury House.
Meanwhile, her home always seemed to have one Odinson or another in it. Lady Darcy was a frequent visitor, glorying in being between governesses (“I don’t think I shall let them get me another one,” Antonia heard her confiding to Pepper at some point. “I’m coming out next year, after all, it would be silly”) and giving Jane the gentle handling Antonia couldn’t manage, forcing her to eat when she seemed too distracted to do it. Lord Thor, of course, couldn’t go a day without sweeping Jane out for a walk or a drive, and the sight of the two of them so obviously besotted seemed to soften the hearts of some of society. Lord Loki was a less frequent visitor, but turned up on occasion to make forced conversation with his future sister-in-law, sometimes when Lucy was visiting and sometimes when she wasn’t. Lord Odinson avoided Stark House whenever possible, but Lady Odinson seemed to come to some sort of peace with the match, probably softened by the fortune Thor stood to inherit since he was marrying before his brother, and came on occasion to assist Lady Darcy with the making of the trousseau.
There was also, it seemed, a large contingent of cousins in Town who wished to adopt Jane into their fold. There were three men who Antonia didn’t bother getting to know as a collective and who could easily eat a person out of house and home, and a Lady Sif, who would also easily eat a person out of house and home but did it with somewhat more delicacy and a winning smile (she and Lady Darcy working in tandem were frankly terrifying).
In between all of that, Antonia missed two calls from Captain Rogers, had to usher him out five minutes into another because the cousins Odinson and the brothers Odinson had arrived at the same time. It wasn’t until Antonia took Jane to Almack’s for the first time that they had a chance to dance and chat. “I’m being held hostage by my attempts at hospitality,” she said ruefully when he asked after her. “Someday I shall take you up on your offer of a drive, but it may not be until after the wedding, which is when the Season is nearly over.” She frowned. “And you may be back in New York by then, mightn’t you? In that case I shall definitely abandon poor Miss Foster for your sake.”
Captain Rogers looked uncomfortable in a way he hadn’t since she fixed his pocketwatch. “I am expecting to stay a while beyond this Season, Miss Stark. The Carters are assisting me with setting up my own living arrangements, since I don’t wish to live on their good graces forever.”
However much Antonia wanted to ask about what exactly had made him flee New York so utterly, it was none of her business, and even less her business in a crowded ballroom where anyone might overhear. “Good,” she said instead, “I much prefer London to the country unless there’s a good house party going on, but it does get terribly dull sometimes, with everyone leaving the second the Season is over. Unless you mean to set up as a country gentleman?”
He didn’t quite manage to hide his distaste at the idea, which warmed Antonia more than she cared to admit. “I’ve spent my whole life in New York, Miss Stark, and we were rarely in the country. I would feel out of place there.”
“Excellent. In that case, I feel much less guilt over putting you off in favor of dealing with the affairs of a wedding.” Antonia wrinkled her nose. “With all this fuss and bother, one understands the appeal of eloping to Gretna Green.”
“Ah, but then all the fuss and bother happens afterwards, with a good dose of scandal as well,” Captain Rogers pointed out with a winning smile, on much firmer ground now that she wasn’t interrogating him about his past or his living plans.
Antonia rolled her eyes. “I’ve certainly had plenty of scandal in these past few weeks. Miss Foster is lucky I am fond of her.” She nodded over at Lord Loki, who was dancing with Lady Natasha, neither of them looking terribly impressed with the other. “I wouldn’t put up with him otherwise.” That was probably indiscreet to say in public, but Captain Rogers certainly wasn’t a gossip.
He was also, disappointingly, far too good a person to want to ask what about Lord Loki annoyed her so. Instead, he shifted the subject to the sheer amount of Odinson connections coming out of the woodwork, and how impossible it was to keep everyone in Town straight if one hadn’t grown up being told their names. Antonia allowed herself to be led into the more diplomatic conversation and left Captain Rogers with great regret at the end of the dance to collect Jane and introduce her to a few more people.
For the first time in years, Antonia sat out more dances than she danced, much to her displeasure. Most of the evening was spent relentlessly introducing Jane to anyone who looked in the least sympathetic to her situation and then, around the gentlemen, faking a sore ankle so they would be forced from politeness to ask Jane to dance. By the end of the night, she owed a few more social favors than she liked, but the Odinsons owed her just as many, if not more, so she tried to consider it even.
Near the end of the evening, Antonia found herself miraculously without a charge, since Jane was dancing with her fiancé and Lucy, who’d been doing her best to assist despite her lack of connections, was dancing with Lord Loki (for the second time, even, and Antonia really did need to ask her if there was an understanding in the works). The Fury walked up next to her before Antonia could consider finding Pepper and fleeing, leaving Jane to ride back with her future family. Antonia put on her best smile. “Is this how it feels to be you?”
Much to her surprise, Lady Fury handed her a spare flute of champagne. “Oh, Miss Stark. Not at all, it’s much worse.”
Antonia made a face. “Thank you, that’s terribly comforting,” she said, and got nothing but a clink of their glasses in return.
A few days later, Antonia found herself with a free afternoon, much to her shock and delight. Jane was out having tea with her mother-in-law-to-be, and the steady stream of callers seemed to have been diverted by the latest scandal (Antonia wondered if it would be too shocking to send a note of thanks to the two lords who’d engaged in fisticuffs over Lady Jean in the middle of Hyde Park). Antonia, delighted with the unexpected freedom, debated for all of two minutes about whether she ought to send for Captain Rogers for the promised drive or retreat to her workshop, which had been sadly neglected, when Jarvis knocked on her parlor door and presented her with a card.
“Lady Peggy Carter to see you, Miss Stark. Are you in?”
Antonia knew that couldn’t mean anything good, but refrained from doing more than wrinkling her nose. She had no illusions that putting off the conversation would avert it entirely. “This will be a charming interview, I’m sure. Send her in, Jarvis. And tea.”
“Of course, Miss Stark. I shall make sure the household is on alert in case of emergencies.”
“Come now, we’re too civilized for violence,” she said, and waved him off before he could spend too much time looking mildly disbelieving.
Lady Peggy entered thirty seconds before the tea tray, and Antonia told Jarvis that no, Pepper’s presence would not be necessary at the moment even if she would be a mitigating factor. There was a time and a place for hiding behind Pepper, and that time was not when Pepper would exact revenge by spending the next week asking Antonia what her intentions towards Captain Rogers were. (At least with Lady Peggy alone it would only be half an hour at most.) “Miss Stark,” said Lady Peggy with utmost politeness.
“Do sit down,” said Antonia, doing her best to match it. “Would you care for a cup of tea?”
“Please. Sugar, no milk.” Antonia poured for them both accordingly and sat back in her chair. “You are well, I assume? You’ve been very much in the middle of things lately, taking in Lord Thor’s Miss Foster.”
“I’m always well, even in the face of scandal. Miss Foster and I have been acquainted for a while now, so I was a natural person to take her in.” Antonia took a sip of her tea, and then sighed and put it down. “I must admit to some curiosity as to your reasons for this call.”
Lady Peggy shrugged, eyes sharp. “Your acquaintance with my family friend seems to be growing by the day, judging by the amount you two are seen in public, not to mention the amount he talks about you.” Antonia wasn’t going to ask about that, for her own sanity. “I’m sure you can understand that he’s as dear as a brother to me and that I want to be friends with those he’s friends with, or at least better acquainted than what gossip can tell me.”
“I am fully in support of that, since I don’t imagine gossip has anything flattering to say about me these days,” Antonia drawled, doing her best to keep control of her expression. “It’s very kind of you, I’m sure. Though I feel rather as if I’m undergoing some sort of examination right now.”
“Nothing quite so formal.” Lady Peggy quirked her lips. “I suppose if I were more polite I would thank you. He came to London quite sad, due to the loss of a childhood friend, but he’s seemed more himself since he’s been spending more time with you. I’ve helped as much as I can, but it means a great deal that I’m not the only one he’s comfortable spending time with here, especially as he means to stay a while.”
Antonia carefully stowed that piece of information away, and connected it neatly to the inscription on the pocket watch she had repaired when she and Captain Rogers moved from her antagonizing him to something resembling friendship. His past, for all he willingly talked about New York, was still something of a sensitive topic, and Antonia was curious as to how it all connected together. “I’m honored, though it’s likely mostly because I annoyed him into a friendship, and not anything noble at all.”
Lady Peggy took a drink of tea. “Oh, he’s talked some about that as well.” Antonia pretended she wasn’t curious or bothered about that, since it was blatant bait—though she was curious if she’d really made that much of an impression on Captain Rogers at first. “Either way, I decided it was best to make overtures of friendship before the ton got bored and started speculating on the two of you and why his family friends weren’t speaking to you. You know how inventive the gossips can be, they would have you setting your cap for him to keep yourself off the shelf in mere hours after someone noticed.”
That was more likely Lady Peggy’s own worry, but Antonia wasn’t about to mention that. Instead, she just waved a hand as carelessly as she could manage. “They wouldn’t think such a thing. Captain Rogers may be an American, but surely he can do better than a woman more than a year his senior who’s probably been on the shelf for years. If you’re worried, I have no intention of making him come up to scratch. He’s enjoyable company.”
For some reason, that made Lady Peggy laugh, but after that, she changed the subject to much more neutral topics, about Antonia’s science (since apparently Captain Rogers had talked about that) and the latest scandals that did not involve the Odinsons (though Antonia shared a bit of that by way of currency; she wanted Lady Peggy on her side, and was under no illusions that one strained interview would earn her trust).
When she left, more than half an hour later, Antonia sprawled as dramatically as she could manage on her most comfortable chair. “She’s not allowed in anymore,” she told Jarvis when he put his head in to check on her.
“Of course, Miss Stark. I’ll get Miss Potts,” he said, with all the wisdom of long acquaintance, and smiled indulgently before ducking out.
The Odinsons, once everyone had done their best to sweeten Lord Odinson’s temper, held a dinner party for Jane and some of those in the ton that she and their sons were closest to, along with family friends.
Antonia, as Jane’s hostess, found herself at the dinner party, along with all the various members of the Odinson family (including Lady Darcy, allowed out of the schoolroom for the evening and delighted about it), Lucy, Lady Fury, several people she barely knew, and, to her surprise, Lord Clint and Lady Natasha. Lady Odinson, she noted, had seated her second son across from Lucy, likely delighted that he was wise enough to have an heiress in his sights, and Lucy spent the whole dinner blushing and talking quietly with Lord Loki, who managed to stop looking martyred long enough to talk to her, and though Antonia couldn’t say she’d ever in their short acquaintance look enthused about something, he at least looked engaged.
Lady Darcy, seated across from one of the cousins whose names Antonia could never keep straight, seemed to notice as well, and gave Antonia a smug look like she was responsible for the whole thing. Antonia indulged her, since the little drama was much more palatable than the awkward attempts at conversation that the table at large was trying to make. After the first course, everyone gave up and splintered off into smaller discussions—Lucy and Lord Loki, Jane and Lord Thor, and everyone else switching partners whenever the well of conversation ran dry. Lady Darcy seemed fascinated by Lady Natasha and spent much of dinner trying to get her to say more than a sentence at a time about her home country. Antonia used the opportunity to badger Lord Clint into a chat, since it seemed ages since they’d had a few uninterrupted minutes to talk.
When the ladies withdrew from the table, everything was much easier. Without Lord Odinson there, Jane seemed to breathe a little easier and while she still wasn’t comfortable with her role as guest of honor she still made conversation. Antonia, with Lady Darcy’s help, made it her goal to draw her out, and was quite satisfied with her work by the time the gentlemen joined them and promptly made Jane quiet down again.
All the ladies took their turns at the pianoforte. Antonia’s own skills were less than polished, so she made a hasty retreat after the one showy piece she had bothered to learn for such occasions and spent the rest of the night observing and talking with whomever was being the most entertaining. Generally, she would have taken Lucy or Jane aside to discuss her latest work in her workshop and what readings they had been doing, but they were occupied more by the brothers Odinson, so she found herself more in the company of Lady Darcy and Lady Natasha (since Lord Clint had abandoned them to talk with several of the Odinson cousins). Lady Darcy, being the youngest, had to take more turns at the piano than most everyone else, and was quite rebellious about it. Lady Natasha, like Antonia, executed one difficult piece with terrifying precision and then ceded the bench despite all pleas to the contrary.
“It’s not fair that you two get to do that,” Lady Darcy sulked when she’d taken her next turn, three pieces long, before making Lucy take her place and fleeing. “I have to play for them and you two can get out of it.”
“One of the pleasures that comes with being on the shelf,” Antonia said dryly, before wincing and turning to Lady Natasha. “Not that you are, of course, but you’re a guest not only to the house but to the country, the rules are different.”
Lady Natasha gave an eloquent shrug. “I simply do not care much one way or the other. I enjoy music, but am not in the mood for it tonight. This displaying oneself like a peacock seems to be of little use.” She arched her eyebrows at where Lord Loki was turning pages for Lucy, as solicitous as Antonia had ever seen him. “Or perhaps of some. But then, it seems I cannot go anywhere without hearing that he’s going to offer for her, so I doubt her skill at the pianoforte has much to do with it.”
Lady Darcy was listening with rapt attention, undoubtedly delighted at the prospect of not one but two future sisters-in-law she was already fond of. Antonia lowered her voice; with all she’d had to do for Jane, she felt quite out of the loop for gossip about Lucy, though she’d been keeping note and talking to her whenever she had the chance. “Are they saying that?”
“Clint says even the man himself has, at the club.” Once again, Lady Natasha’s shrug was eloquent. “Probably in that way that men do, when there are no women around. I can’t say that I asked many questions.”
Not terribly helpful, but then again, if Lord Loki had brought it up at his club, chances were it was serious enough that Antonia didn’t feel the need to press for details. “It will be a good match,” said Lady Darcy, satisfaction all over her face as Lucy finished playing her current piece and everyone applauded.
“Hmm,” said Lady Natasha, lips pursed, and Antonia followed her gaze to Lord Loki applauding loudly without a smile on his face. “I suppose you might say that.”
Much as Antonia wanted to ask about that, she knew Lady Darcy was watching, so she ignored that and moved on to talking about anything else that crossed her mind while Lucy called Lady Sif over to play a few tunes, pleading that she had to take a rest to remember anything else she knew how to play. Antonia gestured her over, but she smiled and went to the Fury instead, where they had a low-voiced conversation while Lady Sif started playing with a great deal of enthusiasm, if not great skill.
Lord Loki, to Antonia’s surprise, approached her little group. He gave Antonia and Lady Natasha a polite and somewhat pained bow and then Lady Darcy a genuine smile—of course. Lord Thor might be an idiot and pigheaded, and Lord Loki might be unpleasant and rather sneaky, but they both had genuine affection for their father’s ward. “I came over to request a song from you,” he said, sitting down in the free seat to Darcy’s side.
“If I am only to be called from the schoolroom to entertain at dinner parties,” Lady Darcy started mutinously, and was interrupted.
“I thought perhaps the Italian duet we were working on the last time you were in the country. It isn’t fair for you ladies to have to do everything, after all.” His smile dimmed when he looked at Antonia and Lady Natasha. “You won’t mind if I purloin your companion for a while, will you?”
“Not at all,” said Antonia with her best smile, and Lady Natasha sent them off with a languid wave of her hand, Lady Darcy complaining quietly the whole way but with a smile on her face for her brother.
They were silent for the rest of Lady Sif’s piece, when Lady Darcy went back to the piano, Lord Loki standing nearby, and Lucy came over to them, smile on her face. She didn’t seem inclined to gossip, just looked rather shy and pleased, and Antonia kept from rolling her eyes (unlike, she noted, Lady Natasha, who had looking long-suffering down to an art and seemed to be entertaining Lord Clint from across the room by doing so), just elbowed her and gave her a grin.
The rest of the evening was quiet, eventually the pianoforte giving over to conversation until Antonia excused herself and Jane early when Lord Odinson looked inclined to corner Jane and start haranguing her about something again, but while she was there, Antonia did her best to keep an eye on Lucy and Lord Loki and noted that Lady Fury seemed to do the same.
The brief reference to Lady Jean is Jean Grey, and the men fighting over her are of course Scott Summers and Logan.
We shall just ignore that Professor Xavier was more at his XMFC age.
In which Antonia and Lucy discuss marriage, Captain Rogers takes Antonia for a drive, and Lady Darcy longs for a scandal.
As you can see, there's now a projected number of chapters on this fic! Everything goes very exciting in the next chapter, there'll be another to wrap things up, and then an epiloguish sort of thing (that may or may not raise the rating, I haven't decided yet).
“I feel as though it’s been ages since we had a chance to really talk,” said Antonia, smiling and serving Lucy a cup of tea.
Lucy grimaced and looked around as if expecting that innocent statement to cause the whole Odinson family to come crawling out of the walls. It was a rare quiet morning at Stark House, with Jane off on a day-long trip to visit some sights outside the city along with all her future in-laws, and Antonia was celebrating by working in her workshop with Lucy there for company, since she’d turned up and she was far more restful than the Odinson clan. “I feel that way as well, or at least as if we haven’t had a chance to do so without pandemonium everywhere.”
Antonia smirked. “If you look so hunted already, the odds aren’t good for the rest of your life.”
Lucy’s blush was immediate and comprehensive, but if it weren’t for that she would almost have looked calm as she took a sip of tea. “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, don’t you? You had Lord Loki turning your pages the other night, in case you hadn’t remembered—”
“He was merely being polite—”
“—and I have it on good authority that it’s common knowledge that it’s only a matter of time before he offers for you, and that he’s even been talking about it at his club.”
Lucy looked entirely poleaxed. Antonia turned to fiddle with a gear in her latest invention to give her a moment to control herself. “I’m sure he’s done no such thing,” she managed after a few seconds.
Antonia shrugged. “Perhaps gossip is wrong, but even observation says the same thing. Perhaps you two aren’t as passionately in love as Lord Thor and Jane, but that’s not to the bad, after all. The two of them are the exception to every rule, it seems.” She smiled over her shoulder at Lucy, who was still warring between pleasure and embarrassment. “If you and Jane are to be in-laws, it’s a pity there isn’t a third brother for me, it would make it far easier to keep our science society going. I suppose I shall have to marry one of the gaggle of impossible-to-tell-apart cousins.”
“They look nothing alike.”
“It’s the principle of the thing. Anyway, I’ll marry whichever one I figure out the name of first, it’s decided.”
Lucy’s expression went sly, or as sly as it could when she was generally so wholesome. “Is it really? What about poor Captain Rogers, then?”
“I’m sure I have no idea what you mean,” said Antonia, before realizing she’d just used the same excuse as Lucy even though she was nowhere close to being a green country miss. She might as well be honest. “Fine, I have some idea of what you mean, but despite Lady Peggy trying to terrify me as some sort of initiation into their circle, I don’t think it so serious as all that. We enjoy one another’s company, but even if he’s American and not well-established in town, he can almost certainly do better than me. I’m holding out for a widower of means.”
“Hush, now you’re just fishing for compliments. I think the two of you would get on well.”
Antonia made her voice as dry as she could. “Clearly your own romance has put you into a matchmaking frenzy.” When Lucy just looked at her, she relented. “We likely would, but the simple truth is that I have more to get out of the match than he does, for all we’re becoming friends, and I’m not going to pin my hopes to something that has the chance to end so disastrously. If Lord Loki doesn’t offer for you—though I suspect he will, before the Season’s end—then both of you will come away with plenty of excuses to keep your reputations from being ruined, with your relative youth and both of you having your first proper Season in London. If I set my cap for Captain Rogers and am left dangling, gossip won’t be quite so kind.”
“I suppose, though I think Lady Fury would defend you.” Lucy frowned. Antonia snorted and gestured her over to hold a bar in place while she screwed it in. “I do think, sometimes, that he might ask me, if I’m not being coy.”
If she were Lord Loki, she would have asked the second Lucy seemed willing, to keep Lord Thor from getting the contested inheritance, but perhaps he was being kind to his brother since Jane wasn’t bringing a large dowry with her (Antonia had considered settling one on her before deciding that was outside the bounds of friendship and would undoubtedly end being construed in some awful way by most of the involved parties). Antonia didn’t mention that, though, since she doubted it would be a comfort to Lucy. “Perhaps he’s waiting for the Fury’s ball or to get permission from the woman herself, as the closest thing to a guardian you have here. It’s coming up soon, after all.”
“You should really stop calling her that, one of these days she’s going to catch you.” Lucy stopped Antonia from over-tightening a screw and Antonia smiled at her in thanks. “And perhaps he might. That would be quite romantic.”
“You sound as though you’re not sure if that’s a good thing or not.”
“Well, I’m not, as we’ve discussed, ours is not a very romantic courtship. Though I suppose using the opportunity to get Lady Nicola’s permission would make sense.” Lucy knit her brows. “I can’t say I expected to become engaged in my first Season.”
“Lady Darcy will be jealous, she’s always going on about how married women have more freedom,” said Antonia. “If she’s not engaged within her first Season I’ll eat my favorite bonnet, and I’ve no intention of doing that. It will take both of us and Jane to keep her from doing something dreadful, I can tell already.”
Lucy grinned. “I shudder to think,” she said, and Antonia decided to let the subject turn. There was plenty of time to figure out exactly what Lord Loki’s plan was, since he seemed the sort of gentleman to always have one. They would just have to see what came of it.
That afternoon, she sent a note to Captain Rogers, indicating that she was free if he still wished to go for a drive. In lieu of a note, he came himself, in a plain but well-made carriage with a pair of horses that weren’t matched well in color but certainly in pace. “I’m not going to take the opportunity for granted,” he explained when Antonia raised her eyebrows at him from her position behind Jarvis, where she was tying on her bonnet. “It may well be the last time you’re free until the end of the Season.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised, this wedding business is dreadful.” She smiled at Jarvis, who seemed to have given up on looking unimpressed when she met Captain Rogers at the door instead of waiting for his card. If he’d wanted a conventional household, he’d never have fallen in with the Starks in the first place. “I don’t know when I’ll return, Jarvis, do apologize to the kitchens for me.”
“Of course, Miss Stark,” he said, and showed her out the door with a brief squeeze to her shoulder after Captain Rogers turned away.
The first few minutes of their drive were spent in companionable silence as Captain Rogers guided his team towards Hyde Park, where absolutely everyone would be. With any luck, the ton would have enough of its own intrigues going without needing to stop Antonia and Captain Rogers every few minutes for a talk. Perhaps she ought to have saved her ride for a time when they’d have something resembling privacy—but then again, she would have felt duty bound to take Pepper in that case, and she was unsure that the phaeton would take another passenger. Just as she was about to open her mouth and ask the first question that popped into her mind, he gave her a sidelong look. “I feel I ought to apologize for Lady Peggy.”
Antonia rolled her eyes. “Nonsense, believe me, I am quite certain that you did not ask her to come and attempt to figure out my intentions. We women can do quite enough of that on our own.”
“Nonetheless, I apologize. I know how she is when she’s protecting someone—or me in specific, I’ll admit. I was anything but imposing when I was younger and she and Bucky would always—”
He broke off, rueful smile fading into something sadder, and Antonia winced. “Bucky, I suppose, is the friend of yours Lady Peggy mentioned who unfortunately passed away? I offer my condolences, however useless and late they may be. I suspected when I fixed your watch, but she did confirm.”
“I thought she might have.” He didn’t look particularly uncomfortable or angry, just somewhat melancholy, so she allowed herself to relax a bit. “I don’t mind you knowing, but I would have liked the chance to tell you myself. It’s a little odd, knowing that she went to see you like that.”
There was no telling if that was good or not, since it was odd no matter how one looked at it and it didn’t tell Antonia a thing about whether Lady Peggy had been wrong in assuming romantic interest at all or if it was the simple fact of her visit that was making him shake his head. “Don’t worry, we didn’t tell too many deep dark secrets about you,” she tried.
His smile was a little forced, but only a little. “I’m not worried in the least about that, Peggy is the most trustworthy person I know, but I am worried about the embarrassing stories she might have told. We were young together, after all.”
Antonia took that cue and ran with it, and ended up discussing the childhood antics that he and Lady Peggy and his friend Bucky would get up to in New York. Sometimes he would avoid a story, usually just after Bucky’s name had come up, but that was only natural, and Antonia would always take the opportunity to tell him about one of the scrapes she’d gotten into as a child, running wild with Jarvis and a series of long-suffering governesses trying to keep track of her. That passed the time on the rest of their ride to Hyde Park and through much of it as well.
As it turned out, some other scandal was going on further down the line in the park and nobody was much interested in interrogating Antonia for going driving with Captain Rogers (or Captain Rogers for driving with Antonia, which might have been somewhat more likely—the ton appeared to have adopted him entirely). They still stopped a great deal to greet acquaintances, but the conversations didn’t last long, and there was enough of a gap in between to let their conversation continue.
On the way back, they fell silent, the stories of childhood wearing thin and nothing else urgent taking their place. Normally, Antonia would have been scrambling for another subject, but Captain Rogers didn’t seem to find the silence awkward and watching the London streets as they drove by was quite relaxing. “I’ve missed spending time with you off the dance floor, Miss Stark,” Captain Rogers said as they got close to Stark House. “I was growing rather used to our walks.”
Antonia blinked and turned to look at him, but he was looking over the horses’ ears, not at her. “Believe me,” she managed after a moment, “if it weren’t for Miss Foster and the Odinsons, I would still be there. It isn’t as if I wanted my life to be taken over by this wedding.”
“Of course, I never thought so. I was simply hoping that after the wedding you would be starting back up.”
“After I sleep for a week, perhaps. As I’ve said, I stay in London most of the time, so usually my walks are solitary. Somewhat erratic, as well, I hasten to warn you. There are weeks outside the Season where I barely leave my workshop at all.”
He smiled. “I shall have to make it my mission to be sure you see the sunlight at least once a week.”
Antonia grinned in return. “I can’t say that I’ll object.”
With that fine piece of timing they arrived at the front of Stark House, and Hogan came to hold the horses so Captain Rogers could help Antonia down from her seat, giving her a smile that would have been a wink if they hadn’t had company. “Save a dance for me next time I see you, Miss Stark,” said Captain Rogers.
“If we’re planning on off-Season walks, you might as well call me Antonia,” she returned before she could think better of it.
To her delighted surprise, he actually blushed at that. Really, his chivalry knew no bounds. “If I remember, Miss—Antonia. Though in that case I will insist that you call me Steve.”
Steve, and not Steven, but then again, that suited him. “We shall both do our best to remember,” she promised, and was interrupted by the door to her own home swinging ponderously and pointedly open, with the creak that only Jarvis knew how to produce (the door was meticulously oiled, but he always seemed to defy logic in that way when he wished to summon her to the house). “I believe my presence is required inside,” she said, breaking the moment.
“Of course.” He gave a quick bow over her hand and then a winning smile. “I did mean it, you ought to save a dance for me.”
“The very next time we see one another,” she promised, and went into the house smiling. Jarvis met her at the door, face carefully blank. “You ruin all my fun.”
“I have no idea what you mean, Miss Stark.” Jarvis barely cracked a smile as the door swung shut. “Though I feel I ought to say that you are free to spend as much time as you wish flirting in the street after you’re married.”
Antonia snorted and worked at the ribbons on her bonnet. “Why, that’s just as good as saying that I’ll never be able to do it, that’s terribly unfair of you, Jarvis.”
Jarvis gave a pointed look out the door. “I don’t think it’s the same thing at all, Miss Stark.”
There was no answer to that, and Antonia didn’t even bother trying to come up with one.
Lady Fury’s ball, it seemed, was to be the height of the Season. It usually was a highlight, but Antonia didn’t think she’d seen such a frenzy over it in all her years out (though perhaps that was because she spent a great deal of time with Lucy, who was expected to be in the receiving line and was feeling rebellious about it, which made her talk about it almost more than she talked about Lord Loki). Accordingly, she ordered a new gown from the modiste, red and gold even if it was rather daring for an unmarried girl, even one of her age.
Everywhere she went, it was the topic of conversation—what musicians were hired, how the ball was to be decorated, what food and drink would be served. Normally such petty concerns were far beneath the ton’s notice, or at least they pretended so, but Lady Fury had mystery down to an art as a hostess and the fact that no one had an inkling made everyone mad with curiosity on it.
The ton’s obsession also gave Antonia an unexpected reprieve from the constant scurry her Season had turned into. Even the Odinsons fell prey to the desire to make sure they were well turned-out for the ball, and Antonia felt less obligation to squire Jane around making falsely-polite calls at all the best houses now that social attention had moved elsewhere. The scandal, it seemed, was mostly over, even if the distaste for the whole situation continued. There wasn’t much Antonia could do about that.
Lucy and Lady Darcy remained constant visitors to Stark House. Lucy seemed mostly to be avoiding preparations for the ball, and was quite happy to sit in Antonia’s workshop with a book and occasionally throw in a comment on whatever she was reading. Lady Darcy pretended the first few times that she was there to coach Jane a little more on how to act, but after that gave in to complaining that she didn’t get to go to the party.
“I promise, it won’t be as interesting as all that,” said Antonia about the eighth time that Lady Darcy brought it up in her presence. “It will be the same as any other ball in the Season, only with more people making the room stifling, and less chance of finding an interesting conversation. I can guarantee you that this late in the Season any party is boring, even the most exquisitely laid-out ones. Unless of course there’s a scandal.”
Lady Darcy slumped in her chair, then straightened when Jane, likely still acting on the instincts of a governess, prodded her none-too-gently. “There’s always a scandal, though! Other than Jane and Thor, and … well, I suppose that mess with Lady Jean and her suitors, and the constant speculation on what exactly is going on with Lord Clint and Lady Natasha … but really, there hasn’t been near enough scandal!”
“Now you’ve done it,” said Antonia, sharing an amused roll of the eyes with Pepper, who was making a point to stay out of the conversation. “Though I can’t tell if you’ve jinxed it to be even more dull or whether the night is going to be filled with scandal.”
Lucy coughed, cheeks pink. “Lady Fury would likely be upset if there was a great scandal at her party.”
“Nonsense.” Lady Darcy waved a hand. “Any hostess likes a good scandal, it makes the party more memorable.”
“I knew I let you read too many novels,” muttered Jane.
“No such thing.” Lady Darcy crossed her arms. “At the very least I shall ask for a detailed account of the evening from all of you. Though I can already tell what it will be, because none of you pays the least bit of attention to anything important. Jane will talk about Thor, Miss Banner will talk about Loki, and Miss Stark will talk about Captain Rogers. I suppose that leaves you, Miss Potts.”
Pepper smiled. “We’ll have to see, Lady Darcy. If there’s any gossip big enough, though, surely it will filter back to you. Perhaps we’ll be lucky, and someone will elope from the party, or be ruined on a balcony, or—”
“Don’t even joke about that,” said Lucy, cheeks still bright pink and staring into her teacup. “Like I said, Lady Fury would eviscerate anyone who dared.”
Antonia raised her eyebrows at Lucy, wondering at her evident distress at the thought, but didn’t get an answer. It seemed she would have to take her aside. “We’ll all find out soon enough,” she said to cover up the following silence. “It’s only in a few days now, after all. By the way, Lady Darcy, I feel I ought to be offended that you think I have no conversation that doesn’t revolve around Captain Rogers. Really, I barely know the man.”
Nobody dignified that with an answer, and Antonia wondered when she’d apparently grown transparent, but Jane seized the opportunity to change the subject to an article she’d been reading while trying to get to sleep, leaving Lady Darcy and Pepper to talk about gossip and the unfairness of not being allowed out in society at sixteen and the other three to talk about science.
After that, Antonia decided she would ignore Lady Fury’s ball until the day of the event, because everyone was far too interested in it, and surely no ball could live up to those expectations. It would be boring, if lavish, and a few people would go home engaged but little more excitement than that would be there to be had.
Of course, just because she’d thought that, she had to be proved wrong.
In which someone is ruined, someone attempts to elope, and there is a dramatic nighttime chase, because this is a Regency romance, after all.
Sorry it's been a while again! Now that all the excitement is over with hopefully I can get the last two chapters pumped out pretty quickly.
There is a repurposed line from the Avengers film in this chapter, and I would apologize for it, but I am really not sorry.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Lady Fury’s party was every bit as dazzling as Antonia would have guessed.
The ballroom was lit up in a blaze, there was a crush of people in their very finest clothes, and unlike most of the balls Antonia went to, Lady Fury stinted with neither the food nor the drink. Lucy, at the door in lavender and pale green, looked rather ill and nervous at the amount of people, cheeks stained a permanent pink without the help of rouge (since Antonia knew first-hand that she hated the stuff). Antonia squeezed her arm as she went by. “Just think, tonight and it’s all over, a few more weeks of the Season and you’ll be and old hand by next year,” she said, as quietly as she could and still be heard in the crowd. “I promise, once you’ve been in the receiving line for a party like this, everything else is easy.”
Lucy winced and shifted about. “I’m sure it is, but that doesn’t make tonight much easier to get through. At least I—” She threw a glance at the Fury and seemed to think the better of whatever comment she was about to make. “If I don’t see you again tonight, have a good evening, Antonia.”
“You too, Lucy.”
“I shall certainly try,” said Lucy, and Antonia was shunted out into the ballroom proper.
Everyone of Antonia’s acquaintance, it seemed, was distracted in the extreme. Lord Clint and Lady Natasha, when she saw them, seemed to be in a hurry to follow someone and barely greeted her. Lord Thor and Jane were standing with a contingent of Odinson cousins, Lady Sif among them, looking rather uncomfortable (Antonia made a note to find Jane a few dance partners who weren’t related to her fiancé, just to drive home that she’d found a place in society). Lord Loki, as was his wont, was lurking at the edge of the room, but he was vibrating with nervous intensity.
That, Antonia decided, was quite interesting indeed, but before she could make it over to him, the first dance had been called and he’d found a partner, some woman Antonia had never seen before who he mostly seemed to ask because she was nearby. Antonia, thwarted, sighed and agreed when a nearby gentleman (and good heavens, it seemed she had reached the age when she was considered a good partner for middle-aged men escorting their broods to parties, it really was time and past to get married) asked her to dance.
From there, she had no time at all to think about Lord Loki, because it seemed that she wouldn’t have a moment to herself. She went from one dance partner to another with barely a space in between and barely a conversation worth having, because it seemed all her friends and favorite dance partners were either too far across the crush of the ballroom to reach her or otherwise busy (she really would have to ask Lord Clint later on precisely what he and his Russian were doing, it was clear they had some sort of errand). She danced with several Odinson cousins and Lord Thor, which was a relief in between all the strangers, but it was nearly the end of the night before someone tapped on her shoulder and she found Captain Rogers smiling at her when she turned around.
“I am so glad to see you, it’s impossible to find anyone in this crush,” she said, raising her voice a bit to be heard over the general noise. “I don’t believe I’ve seen Miss Banner for more than an hour, that’s how bad it is.”
He smiled. “I haven’t seen her at all, I shall have to look out for her and tell her what a lovely party it is. Lady Fury had sent her off to dance by the time I made it through the receiving line. Would you like a dance?”
“Possibly, but I think I would like to breathe more. Would you care to take a turn about the room, perhaps have some refreshment?”
“That sounds lovely.” He offered his arm, and she leaned on it with all the exaggeration she could—though the exaggeration wasn’t entirely necessary; it seemed that every clumsy dancer in London had set her in their sights for a dance, and her foot had been trod on more than once, especially in the close quarters. “Shall we duck out of the hall? It’s a beautiful evening, and there’s bound to be more air in the garden.”
Antonia smiled instead of sighing out her relief at the thought and gave a quick look around to be sure that nobody was watching them, or at least no one who would cry scandal the moment they went into the garden alone. Luckily, even Pepper seemed otherwise engaged at present, chatting quietly with Lady Fury of all people (and, sadly, too far away to parse either her expression or their conversation). “That sounds delightful, please let’s sneak out before someone decides our presence is required for anything at all.”
In answer, he directed their course towards the garden door, entirely casual if one ignored the little smile on his face as if he was getting away with something forbidden (which, she supposed, he was). Antonia grabbed a pair of champagne flutes from the tray of a passing footman and allowed herself to be led, acting as non-suspicious as she possibly could when they could be ruined if they strayed out of sight for too long. She was willing to take the risk that nobody would notice their disappearance in the crush, and it wasn’t as if she intended to be gone for longer than the space of a dance, because that would cause talk, and it wasn’t as if she wanted to trap Steve into marriage. That wouldn’t be sporting at all.
They both sighed their relief upon making it out of the ballroom unscathed, and Antonia released Steve’s arm in order to wander away a few paces and breathe in the night air, much clearer and cooler than the air inside the ballroom. “I do love London,” she said, almost at random, “but it is so frightfully crowded sometimes.”
“New York could be like that, though nothing compared to London during the Season.” When Antonia turned around, he was looking out into the garden, sipping at his champagne. “I like it here, though. Enough to stay, at least.”
“You can always visit New York,” she offered, toasting him with her own glass. “I’d love to visit someday, all our talk about it these past weeks has made me quite long to see it.”
He laughed, and she walked back to his side, looking out at the parts of the garden they could see at night. The ball seemed very far away, for all it was only feet behind them. “You would take New York by storm,” he said after a moment. “I would like to see that, I think.”
Antonia took a chance. “Well, I suppose that means you would have to come with me.”
“Perhaps.” His smile tilted, went just a bit roguish. “Yes, I think I would like that a great deal.”
Out in the evening chill, she could feel his warmth radiating at her side, and they were in their own little world, and suddenly all she wanted in the world was to kiss him. She turned towards him to try to think of something to say, he turned towards her in return, eyebrows raised in inquiry, and she couldn’t help herself, just leaned forward and kissed him. It wasn’t her first kiss, nor even her fifth—after ten Seasons on the market, one found a few opportunities—but it was certainly less quiet and chaste than those others.
Antonia dropped her glass of champagne five seconds in, breaking the glass and splashing her slippers with what she hadn’t consumed, but Steve kept hold of his, holding her waist with one hand and leaving the other well out of the way. She put her arms around his neck and smiled against his mouth, breaking the kiss for a moment before going back in. They probably didn’t have very long before someone else came out to take the air, and they weren’t far out of sight of the door to the ballroom, so she made the most of the moment she had—until a voice interrupted.
“Miss Banner, if you are—Miss Stark.” Antonia and Steve startled back from each other, Antonia barely missing stepping on a shard of glass from her champagne flute, and turned to find Lady Fury with several other guests at her back, all looking entirely scandalized. When the Fury spoke again, it was between gritted teeth. “The two of you will proceed inside immediately. Miss Stark, you will find Miss Potts, and then the two of you will find your way to my guest parlor. Captain Rogers, you will also go, but for pity’s sake wait a few minutes. It seems I am destined to have two scandals on my hands tonight.”
Antonia couldn’t quite bring herself to hang her head and look properly ashamed, though she did dare a sideways look at Steve, who was standing straight and blank, the perfect officer. She would have to find a private moment to tell him that no matter what anyone said he wasn’t required to offer for her and indeed she would be offended if he only did it because she was effectively ruined. “Wait,” she said after a second of frosty silence, “two?”
“Miss Banner seems to have been temporarily mislaid.” Antonia thought of how fidgety she’d been, and how nervous Lord Loki had looked, and barely swallowed down an unladylike interjection.
“I think I may know something,” she offered.
Lady Fury looked grim. “To my parlor, Miss Stark. We can have this discussion there.”
The air in Lady Fury’s parlor was less than congenial. Antonia was in one chair, fidgeting and wishing she had something mechanical to play with to keep her occupied, and Pepper was in another, face buried in her hand as if looking at Antonia caused her too much pain to bear. They had been alone for less than five minutes, and all Pepper had said was “Ten years, and now you decide to do this?” to which Antonia could only offer a sheepish shrug.
Luckily, the silence was interrupted by the entrance of Lady Fury, with Captain Rogers, Lord Thor, and Jane at her heels. “Miss Stark, Captain Rogers, I will deal with your indiscretion momentarily. Miss Stark, what sort of information do you have on my ward? As far as the party is concerned, she has the headache and told you so and is sleeping soundly in her bed. However, funnily enough, when this announcement was made, Lord Thor happened to mention that his brother went home due to the same ailment. Would this have anything to do with what you think you may know?”
“She didn’t confide in me,” which stung, and Antonia would really have to scold Lucy for that later on, “but I did think she was acting odd earlier, and when I saw Lord Loki he didn’t seem his usual self either. I didn’t think they would do anything so drastic as … has Miss Banner left a note?”
“Nothing that I saw,” said Jane, and smiled tightly when Antonia raised her eyebrows. “I went up to check, since Lady Fury couldn’t leave the party. Her room was in some disarray, but she didn’t leave word.”
Lord Thor looked disconcertingly sober, given his normally genial appearance. “We can only assume they have gone to Gretna Green, and we must bring them back. I fear Loki may be doing this less out of affection for Miss Banner and more in hopes of gaining the inheritance that will come to him if his marriage comes before mine.”
“Unless we want them to be forced into marriage anyway, and give me two scandals under my roof, I can’t go after my ward.” Lady Fury fixed everyone in the room with a steely look. “I leave it to you. Miss Stark, Miss Foster, for some reason she trusts the two of you, and you will need escort. Bring her back with her reputation intact before she gets to Scotland, and you will still have a place in society.”
Antonia put on her brightest, most irritating smile. “Don’t worry, Lady Fury. If we can’t protect her virtue, you can be damn sure that we’ll—”
“Miss Stark,” said the Fury in quelling tones. “I may be asking your help, but that does not mean you are in my good graces. Captain Rogers, I hope you intend to ask for her hand, and Miss Stark, I hope you intend to agree. I can see to a special license.”
Steve squared his shoulders once again, after giving Antonia an apologetic look from across the room. “If you’ll pardon me, Lady Fury, while this unfortunate incident did happen under your roof, I would ask you to leave the business of it to Antonia and me. It is our future, after all.”
Jane smiled at Antonia, seeming to relax ever-so-slightly at the words. “If we’re to catch her, we should go.”
“Our carriage goes fast,” said Lord Thor, “but only has space for so many. It will take five, if the ladies squeeze together on one side, so if we are to have space for Miss Banner on the return trip …”
Pepper finally removed her face from her hand, looking exasperated. “Miss Foster and Miss Stark will have to be enough escort for each other and for Miss Banner. Stark House should have someone at home to guests in the morning, anyway, and it might as well be me.”
“You are an angel, and deserve to enact any revenge you please,” said Antonia. “Lord Thor, can you call for your carriage?”
The next twenty minutes dissolved into a blur of activity, Lady Fury glaring around at all of them, Pepper at the edge of her patience but as wonderfully efficient as ever, and everyone leaving by one of the side doors because everyone would assume that Antonia and Steve were slinking out in shame and that Lord Thor and Jane were off to get a few minutes to themselves in the carriage on their way home. They still ran into Lord Clint and Lady Natasha before they could get into the carriage, both of whom stopped and put on their most stony-faced expressions when faced with the group in front of them. “Is there something the matter?” Lord Clint asked after a silent moment.
Lady Fury, to Antonia’s shock, neither demanded if one of them was ruining the other (Antonia rather thought it would be Lady Natasha ruining Lord Clint, if any such business was going on, but society likely wouldn’t see it that way) nor seemed at all perturbed that they were sneaking around the back door of her home. “My ward has done something unutterably stupid. Have you overheard any of Lord Loki’s conversations at the club lately?”
Lord Clint’s eyes widened and then went right back to normal. Really, it was quite disconcerting, and Antonia intended to grill him about his ability to stay calm at a later date. “He and a few of the other gentlemen were talking about hunting spots in the north a few weeks ago, and the best ways to get to the lodges. It’s possible he used that to establish the route, since he wouldn’t want to mention Scotland.”
“Do you remember what route they decided was best?” asked Antonia.
He reeled off a list of possible routes that they’d decided would be useful, which Antonia mostly ignored because everyone else was paying such close attention and she wasn’t going to be the one driving. “Do you need me to follow along?” he asked at the end. “I’m a good marksman, if it ends up that you need a second if things get bad.”
“Between Captain Rogers and myself, we should be fine, but thank you for your offer,” said Lord Thor, who was looking rather as if someone had kicked his favorite dog. His fondness for his brother must have taken quite a blow.
“Besides,” said Lady Natasha, “I believe we have other things to do, Lord Clint. Lady Fury, if you will excuse us?”
Lady Fury inclined her head. “I will speak to the two of you later. You know what to do.”
They left, and Antonia couldn’t help the suspicious look she gave the Fury as everyone else piled into the Odinson carriage. “You aren’t going to tell us what they’re doing, are you?”
She didn’t even blink. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, Miss Stark.”
“Really, it’s as if you like them better than me,” she said, and let Steve hand her into the carriage before Lady Fury could give her an answer.
The ride out of London was mostly quiet. Antonia could tell that Steve was quite twitching to talk to her, but he didn’t say anything in front of their companions, and he and Lord Thor hardly knew each other so had little conversation. Antonia did her best to talk to Jane, but she ended up nodding off as they drove into the countryside.
She was awoken sometime late, closer to dawn than to midnight, by a jolt and a loud noise, and everyone swearing as the carriage tilted. A second later, the coachman popped his head in apologetically. “We’ve broken a wheel, we’ll have to stop until we can get some assistance. There’s a village a little ways on, someone will hopefully be awake to get us help.”
“At this hour?” Antonia scowled and pushed her way to the door. “I’ll just fix it, as long as you’ve got a few things I can use to repair.”
He looked rather as if he might faint. “My lady—”
“Let her. I’ll help,” said Steve, smiling and handing Antonia down. “I can speak for her skills at repairing things.” She blessed him for not mentioning he’d only seen her work on his pocketwatch—though perhaps he was remembering a story or two she’d told him during one of their conversations. She was definitely capable of repairing a carriage, given the correct tools.
They were, it transpired, in luck, or as in luck as they could be while racing across the country to drag a pair of idiots back home. The coach had tools and a few helpful things in a compartment under the seats, and Antonia had the wheel fixed enough to muddle on until morning within half an hour, with Steve’s assistance. She’d quite ruined her lovely new gown by that point, but she considered it a fair price to pay for the satisfaction.
The stop, however short, put them behind, but the coachman pushed on, and there was always hope that once they were far enough out of London Lord Loki had stopped for the night (as long as he hadn’t ruined Lucy thoroughly). They were in real trouble if they’d taken the wrong route, but everyone (especially Lord Clint) had seemed certain it was correct, and Antonia decided to believe it.
By some miracle, around dawn, Lord Thor woke everyone from their dozes with a shout and started banging on the wall so the coachman would stop. “That’s Loki’s carriage, in front of that inn!”
Antonia started awake and peered out of the window where, indeed, there was a carriage decked out in the green and gold that Lord Loki seemed to favor in the stableyard of a village inn. They must have left the party quite early or driven quite quickly to have gone that distance and had time to sleep, but it was them. The coachman, likely recognizing the other carriage, pulled into the stableyard with a clatter that probably woke everyone in the inn, and everyone poured out, yawning and trying to straighten their clothes, all far too overdressed to be anything close to inconspicuous. The mudstains and rips in Antonia’s gown made her look as if she had the starring role in one of Lady Darcy’s Gothic novels.
The proprietor of the inn stumbled out into the entryway as they trooped in, squinting in the grey dawn light and scowling. “What are you here for?”
“It’s a matter of a lady’s honor,” said Steve, since Lord Thor suddenly seemed too overcome by his horror to speak. “Would a man and woman, both dark-haired, happen to have ordered a room last night?”
The man’s expression was some unholy combination of suspicion and glee. Antonia supposed it was good for gossip in such a village if they were party to such goings-on. “There was a pair, came in quite late, said they were brother and sister, got separate rooms.” Antonia silently blessed one or both of them for having some semblance of sense. “Are you saying they’re not?”
No use letting gossip get around. Antonia stepped in before anyone could say anything irrevocably stupid. “Yes, they had a fight with their parents and went off like a pair of fools. We’ve been sent to retrieve them. If you’ll show us to their rooms, please?”
For a second, she thought he might refuse, but then he sighed and pointed up the stairs. “Two rooms across the hall from each other, left as you go up, she’s on the right and he’s on the left.”
Antonia took charge, since Lord Thor still looked distraught, Jane was trying to comfort him, and Steve seemed to have no idea what to do. She supposed late-night chases to go after wayward misses weren’t something that happened in New York. “Jane, you and I will see to Lucy. Gentlemen, can you see to it that Loki is ejected firmly but uninjured from this fine establishment?” She lowered her voice. “I would rather not add a duel onto this endless night.”
Everyone nodded, and Antonia took Jane’s arm and led the charge up the stairs. It wasn’t a large in, so it was easy to find which room was Lucy’s. She knocked firmly and constantly until the door swung open, Lucy’s befuddled look becoming horror as she realized who exactly was there. “Antonia! Jane! What are you doing here?”
Antonia barged past her into the room and shut the door after them. Lucy had a small bag packed, even, the sneaky miss. Really, when had she and Lord Loki had time to make their plans? “Pack up for her, would you, Jane? Really, Lucy, sneaking out on the night of your sponsor’s great triumph, it was probably intelligent but it’s just adding insult to injury. She’s going to shout at you, and you’ll be lucky to leave the house before the Season is over. Also, you missed me being ruined, really, it was an entertaining evening.”
Lucy went a sort of greenish-white color. Antonia patted her shoulder and went to dump belongings back into her bag, since Jane wasn’t moving. “Ruined?”
“Captain Rogers and I. I imagine we’ll have to deal with that when we get back to London, but we got special dispensation to come after you. Idiot. I thought you had more sense than to elope.”
A little color came back to Lucy’s cheeks in the form of a blush. “He thought his parents might not give him permission, what with … everything.” She gestured helplessly at Jane, who looked as if she couldn’t quite decide if she was offended or not.
Antonia sighed and turned around from her work, tossing a traveling dress at Lucy as she went. “Or,” she said patiently, “he wanted to make sure his wedding came before Thor’s and he knew his father would be glad to have him marry an heiress but wouldn’t, out of fairness, let his wedding come first when Thor’s engagement came first.”
She felt guilty when Lucy just looked down at the floor, somewhat despondent. “You think this was all about the inheritance?”
Jane rushed in. “Perhaps not all. He does seem to like you fine, it’s only the timing that’s suspicious.”
“He’s not as impetuous as his brother,” said Antonia, winking at Jane, who rolled her eyes. “Come on, Lucy, get dressed and we’ll take you back to London. There’s room enough in the carriage. If Lord Loki proves himself worthy and the Fury doesn’t have him brutally murdered, he can court you properly later on and you can get married outside of Scotland.”
Lucy wrapped her arms about herself and Antonia had the sudden and fervent wish that she had sent Pepper on this mission instead of herself; she was useless at comfort. However, a second later, Lucy squared her shoulders and looked at them. “If he was going to use me to get money, from me and from his great-uncle, I don’t know if I want him to court me properly.”
“We can deal with that later,” said Antonia, breathing out a sigh of relief. “Really, though, we don’t need two ruinations in one night. Mine’s already been made public, so we might as well save you yours.”
“You really will need to tell me that story later.” Lucy’s smile faded, replaced by anger. “I can’t believe—bastard!” Her sudden shout was loud enough to make Jane and Antonia jump and for the gentlemen to have almost certainly heard it across the hall. Antonia hoped it made Lord Loki quiver with fear; Lucy seemed mild-mannered, but she was willing to bet that when her temper got the best of her she was fearsome. “I didn’t think it was wise, but I was willing to believe him because I thought he loved me, and … damn it.”
Antonia grinned at her language; Jane looked as if her governess training was attempting to make itself known. “We will make him suffer, if it turns out he deserves it.”
“He does,” said Lucy darkly, pulling her dress on over her nightgown. Both pieces of fabric bunched and pulled, but she didn’t seem to care. “I knew it was stupid. Is Lady Nicola going to kill me?”
“You had the sense not to throw yourself in his lap,” said Antonia. “She’ll make lots of hints about how I ought to have had your sense.”
“Don’t try to distract me.” Lucy finished packing the last few things into her case and starting tugging her shoes on. “Antonia, what did you do to your dress?”
“She fixed a carriage wheel,” said Jane, and held her arm up, hovering near Lucy’s shoulder. She didn’t touch her, though, which Antonia deemed wise. Lucy looked prepared to explode and smash up the room at any moment.
There was the sound of voices across the hall, raised for a moment, and then the sound of the gentlemen going down the stairs. Lord Loki was either more tractable than Lucy, or he knew when he’d been beaten. “We ought to be on our way,” said Antonia, picking up Lucy’s bag. “Lord Loki can drive back at his own pace, and we’ll try to have you back to London in time for evening. You’ll miss all your afternoon callers, but perhaps everyone will assume you still have a headache or that you’re comforting me while my house is closed in terrible shame. We’re keeping this quiet.”
“Very well.” Lucy straightened up in a manner eerily reminiscent of Steve at his most soldierly. “Let’s go, then. We’ll talk about you and Captain Rogers on the way back to London.”
She preceded them out the door and Antonia exchanged a quick look with Jane before following. The men were in the courtyard, Steve and Lord Thor holding Lord Loki at the elbows as they marched him to his carriage. The innkeeper was standing by looking rather entertained. “Ladies,” said Lord Loki, smirking in a way that made Antonia want to hit him.
“If you’ll wait a moment,” said Lucy, sounding quite calm. Steve and Lord Thor stepped away from their captive warily, as if expecting for them to make a break for it, but Lucy stepped smartly forward and slapped Lord Loki right across his smug face. He reeled back and she nodded and turned towards the other carriage. “Now we can go.”
There wasn’t a better cue than that, so Antonia let the coachman hand the ladies into the carriage, all squeezing on the same seat, and all three of them spied out the window while Lord Thor had a few more choice words with his brother and sent him sternly into his carriage to return to their home. They would have to come up with some tale for the Odinsons, but Antonia decided that was none of her business. It had been a long night and she had quite a lot to take care of on her own.
When Lord Thor and Steve entered the carriage, both looked tired and sober, but neither offered any details of the conversation they’d had with Lord Loki. Instead, they both greeted Lucy quietly and fell silent as the carriage pulled out of the inn yard. On the whole, they’d been there perhaps a quarter of an hour.
Dawn was breaking, but all of them were exhausted. Jane fell asleep first, and then Lucy on her shoulder, and then Lord Thor, leaving Antonia to exchange smiles with Steve before drifting off herself. They could always talk later.
Sorry for not including Natasha and Clint on the chase! As far as I am concerned, they are dealing with Matters of National Security, because of course the Fury has her hand in that pie.
In which Antonia recieves a proposal, has a meeting of her science club, and there's an unnerving conversation with Lady Fury.
Last proper chapter! With all the cheesy romance-novel-wrap-up business you could possibly hope for. Epilogue should probably go up in the next couple of days (and likely will not actually end up raising the rating, sorry!).
Thank you all for reading!
It was two days before Antonia saw Steve again. The moment she’d returned to London she told Jarvis she wasn’t home to anyone and shut herself in her room (in defiance of his disapproving look, because she couldn’t stand up to one of his firm, unbutler-ly scoldings, and she knew Pepper had told everyone), where she’d slept the night through and well into the next morning. The next day, once Antonia dragged herself out of bed, was consumed by Lucy’s business rather than her own, though when she returned from Fury House Jarvis was very pointed in telling her that Captain Rogers had stopped by (considering the Fury had made a point, in the middle of scolding Lucy, to inform Antonia that she’d procured a special license and Antonia should use it at the first opportunity, Antonia was willing to call it a conspiracy). She knew how things would end, though she was worried Steve was doing it more out of his sense of honor than out of any real desire to wed, but Lucy, at the moment, seemed the more important person to deal with. She was standing up well to Lady Fury’s anger, but her own was making her inclined to throw things and snarl at several Odinsons when they came to attempt to smooth things over (Jane and Lady Darcy were the only ones to make it through the door).
The next day, though, Antonia was told in no uncertain terms to remain in her own home and deal with the consequences of her actions, which she blithely took to mean that she could spend the whole day in her workshop. Jarvis, despite the steady stream of callers (which had sent Jane fleeing into her fiancé’s arms, lucky girl), didn’t bother her until sometime after the lunch tray was sent up. “Captain Rogers to see you, miss,” he said in leading tones.
Antonia winced. “You should send him up, I suppose.”
Jarvis raised his brows. “Do you think that perhaps you wish to change and meet him in the parlor? Refreshments will be made available, of course.”
“For pity’s sake, Jarvis, I think we should start as we mean to go on, and I’m afraid that will include machine grease. Tea would be lovely, though.” She paused and worried at her lip. “You might wait a few minutes to send Pepper up, though. Privacy would be welcome.”
She was sure she wasn’t imagining the faint relief in his expression. “Very good, miss. I will escort him up.”
Antonia went back to the equations she was scribbling while she waited for Steve to make it up the stairs (she was willing to bet that Jarvis was delaying him with disapproving looks, as he considered his right since he’d known her all her life and her father wasn’t around to do the same, not that he would have), and had just enough time to get engrossed before a knock came on the door. “Come in!”
“Captain Rogers to see you, miss,” said Jarvis, as if she didn’t already know, and stepped out of the way to let Steve through.
Steve was fidgeting awkwardly in the doorway, but he relaxed somewhat when the door swung shut behind him with the rest of the household on the other side. “Antonia, hello. I stopped by yesterday but you were at Fury House.”
“Yes, I do apologize.” She looked at her paper. “Would you hold on for just one moment, please? I’m in the midst of an equation and I don’t want to forget where I am.”
“Of course.” He waited until she finished with patience, which put Antonia in charity with him, and smiled when she turned round to pay attention to him. “What are you working on?”
She shrugged. “A thought experiment, of sorts, about whether armoring our soldiers like knights would be wise now that rifles are in such common use. The answer, I think, is only if we can find a near-indestructible metal that wouldn’t weigh several tons, but I don’t suppose you’re interested in that.”
He blinked. “Well, I am, but perhaps we ought to discuss it at a later date. I’m sure we both know there are things we ought to discuss. And Lady Peggy says I’m not to come back until I’ve apologized for ruining you.”
Antonia flapped a hand. “Oh, nonsense. We ruined each other, more like, or did you forget that I’m the one who kissed you? I’m going to save you a long awkward conversation and inform you that if you are apologizing out of obligation rather than desire I will not hesitate to refuse you, and to hell with my reputation. I don’t care that much about society, and I hope you don’t either.”
“I don’t, but it’s giving me an excuse. Miss Stark—Antonia. If you refuse anyway, that’s of course your choice, and I will continue to defend your honor to anyone who besmirches it, but I can assure you that I am here to say that Lady Fury’s procured us a special license and we might as well take the excuse to use it.”
It was, Antonia thought, a rather delightful shock to remember that for all Steve was a disgustingly honorable and upright citizen, he had a wicked streak. While he’d looked uncomfortable when he arrived, that seemed to have faded almost as soon as Jarvis left them alone (though Antonia would bet her fortune that he was eavesdropping at a discreet distance, and most likely Pepper as well). “A special license ought not be wasted, of course, but I do seem to remember you living in fear of matchmaking at the beginning of the Season.”
“We’ve made the match, Lady Fury is simply facilitating its conclusion.”
Antonia put her hands on her hips. “She can only do that, Captain Rogers, if you actually propose.” If Pepper and Jarvis were listening, they were likely exchanging looks of despair, but Steve grinned. “Well?”
On cue, Steve fell to one knee in the middle of Antonia’s dusty, messy workshop, and she obligingly went over to let him hold her hands. It felt rather like play-acting, but neither of them could keep their smiles to themselves, so perhaps that was all right. “Very well, then. Miss Stark, will you marry me?”
“Of course.” She pulled him to his feet and he went with a laugh. “I believe a kiss is traditional, don’t you? One got us into this, after all.”
Steve kissed her, both of them controlling their smiles so they could do it properly, and Antonia counted out thirty seconds of glorious, breathless silence before there was a pointed knock at the door. She put her face in Steve’s shoulder and let him deal with it; Jarvis and Pepper and the rest of the household would be his as well quite soon, after all. It took him less than a second to take her cue, though he did take a gentlemanly step backwards. “Come in.”
It was, of course, Pepper, Jarvis somewhere in the hallway behind her with an undisguised expression of relief on his face. “I thought,” Pepper said, smiling in a way that meant she’d heard every word of their conversation, “that perhaps we might take tea in the parlor instead of the workshop. Miss Stark?”
Antonia straightened her gown, which had gone unfortunately askew during her all-too-brief interlude with Steve, and tried to look above it all (which she thought was probably ruined by Steve’s pleased smile and her own pink cheeks). “That sounds like a good plan. Shall we go?”
“I think I’d like that,” said Steve, and offered his arm.
At the next meeting of the scientific society, they remarkably began by discussing science. It was two days before Jane’s wedding to Lord Thor, and her nervousness meant that she wanted to talk about anything else, which suited the others (well, most of them), perfectly well. Antonia had spend the week following her engagement talking to every busybody in the ton about whether her marriage was due to her ruination and she only had another week until her wedding (Lady Fury hadn’t been joking about the special license). Lucy didn’t want to talk about anything to do with Lord Loki, which included anything to do with Lord Thor, and was still vacillating between bouts of anger and bouts of shame about the whole ordeal. Pepper spent more time out of the house than in it, since Antonia had bribed her to deal with her trousseau, so she wasn’t present to turn the subject.
The only one, in fact, who was disappointed at the lack of gossip was Lady Darcy, who turned up even while not being dragged by her governess and scowled and read a novel as the rest of them discussed Antonia’s defensive armor, which Antonia had decided would have to have weapons attached as reloading a rifle with one’s hands in gauntlets was likely a daunting task. After the first hour, when Antonia and Jane degenerated into a spirited argument about whether the armor would solve or create more problems, Antonia started counting minutes until Darcy interrupted.
Sure enough, less than twenty minutes later, she huffed and put her book down. “I can’t believe all of you. Your lives are more interesting than most of the ton’s, I haven’t anyone else to gossip with, and you’re all talking about science.”
“Gossip is a good deal less fun when you’re living it,” Lucy said mildly. “And I hope people aren’t gossiping about me. Everyone went through a great deal of trouble to keep that from happening.”
Darcy at least had the good grace to look abashed at that; she was, Jane had told Antonia, annoyed at the loss of one of her brothers, since Lord Loki had mysteriously decided to return to the country and miss his brother’s wedding, but she knew it was all his own fault, so at least she wasn’t angry at Lucy. “Fine, you have an excuse, but the other two are being dull.”
“In all fairness, we finished gossiping about Jane weeks ago,” Antonia pointed out. “And it isn’t as if I have much to say for myself. I was ruined, I’m getting married, it’s all terribly boring.”
“Here I was hoping Lady Fury’s party would give us a few scandals, and it does, but nobody will talk about them!” Darcy sighed. “At least next year I’m coming out and I’ll be able to see things for myself, it is dreadfully inconvenient hearing everything second- and third-hand. Lucy, you and I shall have to take the ton by storm.”
Lucy looked mildly intimidated by the prospect. “I don’t think I’ve taken anything by storm in my life.”
Darcy flapped a hand. “Nonsense, obviously you had some sort of effect on my idiot foster brother, if he’d really been after that fortune he would have attempted to seduce me, I’m much more convenient.” All of them went silent while contemplating the prospect, in various states of horror. “On second thought, perhaps not. But my point stands! We shall be much more careful than these two, have our pick of the suitors. And if Loki does turn out to court you properly, we’ll make him pay.”
That did not make Lucy look at all reassured, but Antonia decided it would be good for her. She and Steve had no plans to retire from society, since they both enjoyed London, but Lucy ought to have unmarried friends anyway. “If that’s settled,” she said, “are we allowed to go back to the actual purpose of this meeting? We can all go for ices after, Lady Darcy, but do remember that Jane isn’t dragging you here any longer and you could have remained at home.”
“It’s boring there,” she said, but she settled back down into her novel without looking too mutinous about it.
After that, though, it was rather difficult for them to keep concentrating on Antonia’s thought experiment (which she did want to try someday, but the materials weren’t there and she couldn’t build the technology entirely on her own. After all, it would be a pity to make it if she couldn’t make it properly). It was possible Darcy had planned that, she was a great deal more cunning than she let on. They wandered into discussions of Jane’s and Lucy’s fields of interest, though not for long, since they hadn’t had time to read much recently, for obvious reasons.
Finally, they were all left sipping tea in the parlor in companionable silence. “Can we go yet?” Darcy asked when five minutes had passed with only a few passing comments. “It’s unfair to promise me ices and then sit about like this.”
Antonia laughed. “Fine, let’s go. It’ll be my treat. This may well be our last meeting for some time, after all, what with Jane’s wedding.”
“And yours,” Lucy pointed out.
“Steve and I plan to live in London, so it shan’t be a problem for me. Jane, you must promise to bring Lord Thor to Town frequently, even outside the Season. We can’t have you forgetting about us now that you’re a fancy lady.”
Jane smiled. “I think I can promise that. We can keep on meeting indefinitely, as far as I’m concerned.”
Lucy nodded. “Me too.”
“That’s settled, then, and just as well. I hate sentimental goodbyes. Now, really, I’m sure we all have places to be this evening. Let’s go before Lady Darcy leaves without us.”
“Well, Miss Stark, it’s certainly been quite a Season.”
Antonia refused to jump, even though Lady Fury had snuck up behind her (really, she was quite the sneak for a woman of her age, Antonia was going to have to aspire to her level). Instead, she turned around and toasted her with her glass of lemonade, looking around the lavish party at Odinson House where the newlywed couple was being pressed into hosting half the ton. “I suppose it has been. Certainly more eventful for me than usual, at least.”
Lady Fury gave her a thin-lipped smile of satisfaction. “None of us could have guessed it would turn out quite like this,” she said in the insincere manner of one who had indeed guessed about, if not arranged, all the great scandals that had occurred.
“You do yourself a disservice.” Antonia decided she might as well not play the fool. “Really, you machinations are worthy of Signore Machiavelli. Although I am afraid that I failed in my task of finding your ward a suitable match. At least not one she could go through with.”
“No matter.” For all it had seemed Lady Fury’s sole intention earlier in the Season, she gave every appearance of being utterly calm about the matter. “I have it on good authority that everyone assumes Lord Loki offered for her at my party and was rejected for some mysterious reason, so she’ll be a catch next Season.”
For a second, Antonia thought about asking if she really had planned that all, if the whole ordeal was simply a ploy to set Lucy up better for her second Season, but she dismissed the question. It would be disappointing if she hadn’t and unnerving if she had, so it was best not to know at all. “And now I’m no longer a thorn in your side, which must be a great relief to you.”
“You could have married years ago. Captain Rogers is a good man, though.” She nodded across the room, where Steve was gallantly standing up with Darcy, who was allowed out of the schoolroom for the evening and was taking the opportunity to dance with every possible man she could bat her eyelashes at, though the pickings were slim, the crowds trickling out of London as the Season ended. “There were worse men to be ruined by.”
“At your party, yes. I fear I owe you another favor for that, and I was already in your debt after Jane.”
“Your assistance in the retrieval of Miss Banner repaid one or two of those.”
“But not all?”
The Fury’s smile was occasionally terrifying. “No, Miss Stark, not all. Do not think that your marriage will free you of me. On the contrary, some things are much easier to do as a married woman, or otherwise outside the bounds of being an unmarried miss.”
On a chance and a whim, Antonia nodded to where Lady Natasha was dancing with an Odinson cousin (Fandral, perhaps? She would learn them eventually). “Like a foreigner, perhaps? It doesn’t take a genius to know that she and Lord Clint have been up to something.”
Blank innocence, Antonia decided, was more terrifying than a smile could ever be. “I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about. Perhaps your paranoia is getting to you, Miss Stark.”
“Fine, I suppose I shall have to be nosy at a later date.” The music ended with a flourish and Antonia clapped politely. “Do let me know what I can do for you, when you decide.”
“Oh, believe me, I will.”
Steve was walking over towards them, though he checked himself when he noticed that she was having a private conversation with Lady Fury (he was nervous around her, likely because of something she’d done on the night of her ball, before she sent them on their chase after Lucy and Lord Loki). She waved him over nonetheless. “Thank you for that enlightening conversation, Lady Fury. I shall keep it in mind. At least married life won’t be dull.”
“It certainly won’t be that,” said the Fury with the air of a promise, and nodded her greeting to Steve when he got close enough. “Captain Rogers. I assume you want a dance with your fiancé?”
“Only if you’re finished speaking with her, ma’am. My lady.” Antonia squeezed his hand gently when he got close enough.
“We were just exchanging pleasantries. Enjoy your dance,” said Lady Fury, and drifted off to terrify someone else.
Steve gave Antonia a sidelong look. “Do I want to know what the two of you were talking about?”
“Probably not,” Antonia admitted. “It all sounds terribly underhanded when you say it out loud. She uses her favors like weapons, but at least it will keep life interesting.”
He led her into the set. “I should think it will be interesting anyway. You. Me. London. New York, someday, maybe we can sail there late in the summer so you can meet my family and return in time to miss the snows—or stay the winter, if you like it.”
“We’ll just have to see.” The music started, and they took their positions. “No use making plans to early, they’ll only go awry. Improvisation is more my style anyway.”
Antonia could just see him itching to ask if improvisation was what had led her to flag down an American officer in the park, to fix his pocketwatch when he obviously disliked her, to corner him in a garden and kiss him, but he let it go with a brief shake of his head. The answer was yes, anyway, but chances were he’d already guessed that. “Then we’ll make it up as we go along,” he said at last, and grinned as they twirled into the dance.
Chapter 12: Epilogue
In which Antonia and Steve dream of the future. It involves robotic suits, but what can you do? Some things never change.
Thank you all so much for reading along with this WIP and dealing with the sometimes-inexcusable gaps between updates! It's been lots of fun to write and I'm so glad that so many of you seemed to enjoy it. My thanks for all of your comments along the way (with a special shoutout to the anon who did the Antonia picture a few chapters ago, I still go back and look at that sometimes when I need inspiration!).
“Do you think a boat with a propulsion system would work? Something like those new steam engines that are being invented, though coal might weigh down the ship.”
The sailor Antonia was talking with looked around for his fellows, who were all doing their own work. He’d been perfectly willing to answer her questions until the moment she got theoretical about them, so she wasn’t surprised when his answer was a stuttered “perhaps, ma’am. I couldn’t tell you.”
Antonia continued regardless, since thinking out loud was one of the easiest ways to work through a problem. “It’s simply that this mode of travel may be the fastest across the ocean, but it seems so inefficient.”
There was a laugh from behind Antonia, and she spun around to find Steve standing on the deck. “I should have known that the moment you were over being seasick you would teach yourself everything there is to know about boats.”
“Thank you,” said Antonia to the sailor, who vanished with every appearance of relief, and walked over to her husband standing by the rails. “I like traveling, but the time spent in transit is dull. And I refuse to admit I was seasick, I merely felt a bit green.”
If he’d been anyone else, he would have reminded her of the three days she’d spent shut in their cabin refusing to eat anything but broth. Instead, he just smiled indulgently and didn’t mention it. “More time to read and work on your experiments, though. I think the captain would appreciate it if you refrained from making anything explode, however.”
“I never have.” That was a blatant lie, possibly worse than the seasickness, so she relented when he raised his eyebrows. “Fine, I won’t while on board the ship, I have no desire to drown.” She leaned her elbows on the railing and looked up at the sky, clear and blue in the middle of the ocean. “I think someday people will fly across this ocean like it’s nothing, maybe in a matter of hours from London to New York.”
“Fly?” Steve looked skeptical. “We aren’t birds.”
“Nor are we fish, but look where we are.” She gestured around them. “I think we’ll fly, though perhaps not soon.” She grinned. “Maybe I should see if I could arrange for my armor to fly.”
He laughed, but more in delight than derision. “If anyone could manage it, Antonia, it would be you. By the time you finish designing that armor, you will have changed the face of modern technology.”
Antonia grinned. “That’s my intention, if it ever gets built. At the very least it gives me ideas for a few other things.” And now that she was married, she could wrest her father’s company out of trust and take over the handling of what it produced and its designs, which she was looking forward to doing the moment they returned to London from their belated honeymoon in New York. Steve had, to her pleasure but not her surprise, made it clear that her company was hers, and was to remain Stark Industries indefinitely so far as he was concerned, and while it wouldn’t be quite that simple in practice, it did give her some freedom. Perhaps she could even talk Lucy into helping her somehow, as time went on.
Steve laughed. “Things are never going to be boring.”
“Of course not. Next Season will be quite an adventure. Lord Loki will be back and undoubtedly trying to land an heiress, Lucy will have to restrain herself from killing him, Lady Darcy will take the ton by storm, the Fury undoubtedly has nefarious plans to orchestrate things to her satisfaction …”
His shudder, she suspected, was not entirely feigned. “At least we have New York first. That will give us some time to just be us.”
Antonia shook off her plans for the future and gave her husband a quick kiss. “I think I’ll like that very much. We’ve got time to take over the ton, after all.” A look around proved that a few of the sailors were watching them with too much interest. “Now, I think, Captain Rogers, that we ought to retire to our cabin for a while. I find myself seasick and in need of a rest.”
His momentary look of concern smoothed out when she winked at him, and he offered his arm like they were in a London ballroom and not the middle of the Atlantic. “By all means, Mrs. Rogers, let’s go take a rest. The view will still be here tomorrow.”
(Until Antonia brings on the Age of Steampunk, but that's a different story.)