"I knew that infernal Baluchistan Hound would land us in trouble one day," said Alverstoke, strolling into his wife's sitting room without ceremony. He handed her two letters and sank down next to her on the sofa. The hound in question lifted his head and thumped his tail encouragingly on the hearth rug, but subsided when it was clear that there would be no back scratches forthcoming.
She opened the first letter, waving in the direction of the tea tray for him to help himself. He sometimes still forgot that he didn't need to wait for the polite dance of pouring and offering. "Oh dear," she said, as the purpose of the letter was revealed to her. She glanced at the top of the second letter. "Oh, dear," she said again.
Alverstoke raised an eyebrow as he helped himself to tea and a slice of fruit cake. Frederica continued reading, reaching the end and folding the paper thoughtfully. She handed them back to Alverstoke with a little frown.
"I must say, it is in the highest degree unfortunate that your ownership of a Baluchistan Hound should have become known to an actual person from that area," she said, hoping that she looked sympathetic and concerned.
"My ownership?" asked Alverstoke.
"Of course," said Frederica, putting on an expression of mild surprise. "The letter is addressed to you, is it not?"
"You know damned well-" started Alverstoke, stopping abruptly as he looked more keenly at Frederica. "Wretch!" he said, clearly recognising the teasing gleam in her eye, and acknowledging her success.
She laughed and picked up her own cup. One of the first things that had attracted her to Alverstoke was his quickness to appreciate a joke, and marriage had only enhanced the understanding between them. It was certainly a helpful facet of their relationship as they negotiated their return to London, and all the wretched details of Charis's engagement and wedding.
"Well, what do you expect me to do about this Mr Henry Pottinger?" she said. "Clearly, we do not actually have a Baluchistan hound, or Afghan hound, as he calls it, and it would be pointless to pretend that we do. On the other hand, he has a letter of introduction from Robinson's personal secretary, and I am not certain that one can ignore such a thing from the President of the Board of Trade."
"I find myself wishing that I had disavowed all knowledge of you both, right back when you pitchforked me into this imbroglio," said Alverstoke. "I should have had you ejected from the house, and left you to the mercy of that hatchet faced female."
"Unhandsome!" said Frederica. "When we provided you with such diversion, and turned your life upside down in the most agreeable way."
"Agreeable is not the word I should use to describe the chaos and trials you have visited upon me," said Alverstoke. "The evils of Restorative Pork Jelly still haunt me."
"I keep a stock, just in case you should be struck down by gout or one of the other cursed maladies of your age," said Frederica. "Besides, you couldn't have had me ejected; you had not yet left your room."
"I begin to wish I had not left my room today," said Alverstoke. Frederica laughed and put down her tea to cover his spare hand with both her own. He leaned closer, and she kissed him, simply glad to be close to him.
"We will just have to be vigilant about keeping Lufra out of the public rooms, and I shall think of some ridiculous mendacity with which to satisfy Mr Pottinger. We should be safe from embarrassments." There was a crash in the middle distance, followed by raised voices, and Lufra picked his head up, suddenly alert. "Apart from the usual ones. After all, we're leaving London in just a few days."
Frederica had never been a big believer in providence. In her view, if something could go wrong, it probably would, and almost certainly at the most inconvenient time. Therefore, she was not surprised at all when the one day that Lufra had picked up a thorn on their morning walk and therefore had to be taken to the drawing room to have it pulled was also the day that Mr Henry Pottinger decided to call. It was inevitable, given that, that he also called early, and found her alone, with a pair of tweezers and a pile of lint, and the services of James, to hold him still.
"Mr Pottinger," announced Wicken, at his blandest, as if walking in on his mistress and one of the under footmen wrestling with a large dog on the hearth rug was an everyday occurrence. Rising to her feet and extending her hand, Frederica reflected that it almost was, in this household.
Sadly, letting go of Lufra had given him room to rise to his feet, and he gave a kind of interrogatory bark, and started to bounce towards their visitor.
Mr Pottinger bowed over Frederica's hand with creditable composure for a young man who had just walked into a scene rather outside the norm for polite circles, before he turned to Lufra and extended his hand, fingers carefully curled in to reduce the risk of a bite to them.
"It is a great pleasure to meet you, Lady Alverstoke," Mr Pottinger said. "I had been told you were the owner of a Baluchistan hound, but I see I have been misinformed." Lufra, having decided that the visitor was harmless, barked cheerfully in agreement. "I believe that this is more properly a Kuchi Shepherd Dog, a vastly more adaptable and intelligent breed," he continued. "Would you care for my help with his foot?"
Frederica looked at James, who had given up trying to restrain Lufra, and who probably would need yet another suit of clothes, to go with the small allowance he got - Frederica didn't like to call it danger money, though it undoubtedly was - and at Lufra, before opening her mouth to tell the whole story. Then Lufra incautiously put weight on his foot, and Frederica decided to avail herself of this unexpected help before explaining the ridiculous origins of their Baluchistan Hound.
"Thank you," she said instead. "If you could take the head, perhaps, he doesn't generally bite."
Mr Pottinger grinned, and suddenly looked rather like an older version of Jessamy with a well-developed sense of adventure, and Frederica felt much less awkward about the whole thing. When Mr Pottinger sank to his knees and expertly restrained Lufra, including holding his muzzle, Frederica's last reservations vanished. She took up her tweezers and James took hold of the back half again.
With two assistants, the thorn was soon removed, just in time for Alverstoke to walk in at the same time as a small tea tray was served. Lufra squirmed from their grip and launched himself on Alverstoke, with the wounded aspect of a dog who had been tortured by the three unfeeling souls who were still stranded on the carpet. Frederica felt vaguely like a child caught in mischief, and James merely absented himself from the room at just short of a run.
"Alverstoke, may I introduce Mr Pottinger, who has just been helping me with Lufra's foot. He picked up a thorn this morning."
Mr Pottinger climbed to his feet with alacrity and extended his hand. Alverstoke shook it politely, pretending he hadn't noticed any of the irregularities his wife allowed in their drawing room. His lips twitched, though, and Frederica was very sure he found the whole thing vastly amusing.
"Mr Pottinger was just saying that he thinks Lufra is actually a Kuchi Shepherd dog," she said. "But now you're here, you can explain the whole thing."
Mr Pottinger solicitously helped Frederica to her feet, saying, "Indeed, please don't think it's disparagement at all. Baluchistan hounds are silky featherwits, in my opinion. The Kuchi Shepherd dog is by far more loyal and intelligent. I doubt not that the many distinctions between the Balochs and the Kuchis are unknown in England."
Frederica gazed imploringly at Alverstoke, hoping he would see the ridiculous side of the whole situation and not get up on his high ropes and make the young man feel uncomfortable. As she watched, Alverstoke's lips twitched, and he gave a genuine smile.
"I see we must tell you the whole sordid story," Alverstoke said. "It involves a herd of cows, the duplicitous falsehoods of my wife, and a hatchet-faced busybody."
"I was not your wife at the time," said Frederica, handing him a cup of tea and offering one to Mr Pottinger, who accepted with a smile. Frederica was pleased; he really was a most unflappable gentleman.
"That doesn't make it better," said Alverstoke, with considerable bitterness, though the quizzing look in his eyes told another story.
Mr Pottinger laughed at all the appropriate points of the story, seeming to regard this sort of elaborate ruse as commonplace, and being admiring of their quickness.
"I am sad to hear that Lufra is not, indeed, from the wilds of Baluchistan," said Mr Pottinger at the end of the recital. "I have just come from there myself, having undertaken an exploration of the area for the East India Company. However, I can assure you that such a story as you have told would do a Kuchi Shepherd dog and its family proud, for such tales of tricksters are held in high regard in the desert regions."
He made his leave, and Frederica watched him go with a smile, before turning and catching a quite different expression on Alverstoke's face. Frederica crossed the room to his side, turning her face up for a kiss.
" Don't be too cross, Vernon. That was quite one of the most entertaining morning calls I've had," she said.
"Indeed, was it?" asked Alverstoke. "I am not surprised, for I am sure that cavorting on the rug with two gentleman and a dog, looking like a birch broom in a fit, is outside of the ordinary, even for you." His voice lacked bite, though, and Frederica was relatively sure that amused resignation, not indignation, was his primary feeling.
Frederica smoothed back her hair rather ineffectually, feeling the tell-tale signs of disarray. "Oh, dear, do I look like a quiz?" she said. Alverstoke kissed her again, more lingeringly this time.
"The veriest quiz," he agreed. "It would be only reasonable of me to accompany you to your room so you can tidy yourself a little."
Frederica smiled and slid her hands around his neck, lifting up on her toes and kissing him once more, as his arms encircled her. "You are always so helpful," she said.
"Do not think you can distract me," said Alverstoke, spoiling the effect by running his hands up her back and then down again. "After you look seemly again, we will have a talk about Mr Pottinger."
"Do not be too cross," she said again. "Imagine how stuffy if he'd made his morning call and listened politely while you told your respectable falsehoods about Lufra!" She would much rather have had the chaos and mess of the morning, than the starched up pleasantries of the latter. Alverstoke didn't always agree, though he was by far more relaxed than when they'd first met, and she'd thought him so hard and inflexible.
"No," said Alverstoke, "I was merely thinking that Mr Pottinger is quite the sort of forward-thinking and adventurous young man who might be a good sort of a person to introduce Jessamy to. It will give him another view of the world."
Frederica was touched. She'd known, since well before she'd considered matrimony, that Alverstoke had the best interests of her brothers at heart, but it always made her happy to hear him thinking of ways to encourage and nurture them.
"We should go to my bedchamber," she said. "I feel like I may need considerable help to tidy myself adequately."
Alverstoke's look promised rather more ruffling of her person would occur before she was restored to order, but Frederica didn't mind.