The manor lay ahead, all the gleaming windows illuminated. Silhouettes of guests were visible here and there, both on the terraces and within. Carriage after carriage was trundling along the gravelled drive, casting up chips of stone.
Within one of them, a young woman sat and surveyed the grounds.
“Must we attend, papa?” she asked, looking to her father.
Viscount Cranbrook was sitting on the opposite side of the carriage. His eyes were closed, his swollen hands resting on top of his walking stick. He looked pale and tired, as he had done for months. He opened his eyes to look at her. “You know that we need to improve our prospects, m’dear,” he murmured. “We cannot do that if we do not move in society.”
His daughter leaned over to clasp his hand. “But you are unwell, papa. I would be so much happier were you to rest abed, rather than fuss around these fops and dandies.”
Thomas Maurice moved one of his hands to clasp hers. “Belle, dear,” he said, “If we stayed in Cranbrook, if we chose to close the world out, then we would end up as naught more than beggars in a grand and empty house. We need to find you a good match, and ensure we have better allegiances.”
Belle nodded unhappily. Their fortunes had fallen steeply in recent years. It had begun when her mother passed away, but six years earlier. Papa’s heart was broken, and try as he might, he could not mend it, nor bring himself to work as hard or determinedly as he might. For a whole year, the estate had languished while he mourned, and now, it was too late to undo the damage that had been done.
There had been little sympathy from others of their rank. Few of them would mourn the sharp-tongued Gallic creature who infiltrated the echelons of society on Lord Cranbrook’s arm, despite her station. No matter that she was a beauty at the time. She was too low-born, too tempestuous, altogether too French. It mattered to none of them that the Viscount had loved his wife passionately. Love had no place in a civilised marriage, after all.
The fact that Cranbrook’s only child and heir was a half-French girl-child had not helped. He adored her and doted on her, but with all the anti-French sentiment bubbling, it was near impossible to find someone who would give a young woman born of a middle-class French woman and a low-ranking Viscount a second glance.
Belle knew she hardly helped matters, but her mother had spoken often to her of the corruption and greed of the French aristocracy. She found it impossible to hold her tongue when the so-called noblesse of England waxed poetic about their French cousins and the tragedy of their fate beneath Madame La Guillotine.
Their carriage rolled to a halt. It was in a dire state by comparison to those flanking it, the paint cracked and peeling, and the steps squealing alarmingly as Belle stepped down. She offered her hand up to her father, helping him to descend. Even that small movement made him wheeze, his poor chest weak.
“Papa,” she said anxiously.
He offered his arm gallantly, his lips turning in a small, pale smile. “Come, dear,” he said. “I will find a couch inside and rest.”
She reluctantly slipped her arm through his, resting her fingers lightly on the threadbare cuff of his best frockcoat.
It was too many years since he had been able to afford something suitable for an occasion such as this. Instead, any moneys they had went on providing her with dresses that were not terribly out of fashion. She had learned some skill with a needle, adjusting them as delicately as she could, to at least give the pretence that she had more than one or two formal gowns.
“Shall we?” she said, looking at him.
Together, they ascended the broad staircase.
The sound from within rose to a roar of noise, of gossip and music and laughter. The grand foyer was splendid, filled with richly-attired men and woman. Belle noted self-consciously that there was an abundance of powdered hair, and wished not for the first time that her own dark tresses were fairer. The lack of powder would have been less noticeable then.
The doorman tapped his staff once. “The Right Honourable The Viscount Cranbrook and his daughter the Honourable Miss Isabelle Maurice.”
A few eyes slanted towards them, grazing over their attire, their appearance, but for the most part, their arrival went unacknowledged. Belle knew that murmurs would pass behind fans, nods and winks and the very pettiness that her mother had loathed.
Rather than think on it, she schooled her expression into her most radiant smile as she and her father descended into the hall. His arm tensed under hers, and she looked about, as if admiring the proliferation of gowns, but in truth, she was seeking somewhere that he might sit, quiet and undisturbed.
Her father no more enjoyed these events than she did, but they both knew it was a necessary evil, if she were to find a suitable match.
They found their way to a less-populated parlour, where the dowagers and some of the more elderly Earls and Marquises were speaking quietly over brandies and sherries, while their wives occupied themselves with fripperies and gossip.
“This will do,” her father murmured, sitting down heavily in a well-padded chair close to the fire. He looked up at her, his pale, tired eyes watery. “Will you be quite well on your own, my dear?”
Belle leaned down to press a filial kiss to his cheek. “I will be, papa,” she promised. “I will find you if it becomes too tiresome.”
She left him there, his eyes already drooping closed, and stepped out into the hall. There were people milling aimlessly, but she set out instead for the room where the dancing would be. It was where the youngest and most energetic of individuals were to be found.
It was probably a little selfish, she knew, that she wanted a husband of a close age to her. It was far more likely she would find herself married to an older aristocrat, someone who had been married before, and did not mind that his second wife was known to be wilful and stubborn.
“Isabelle, dear!” She was caught by surprise when a beaming young woman hurried towards her, eyes shining.
“Lady Eaglesham,” Belle said, forgetting to curtsey in her surprise, then hastily doing so, colour rising high in her face. “Your pardon, my Lady.”
“Blanche,” Lady Eaglesham insisted, smiling and clasping Belle’s hands in her own lace-clad ones. She was a fair woman, only a few years Belle’s elder, with jet black hair, which was styled elegantly and powdered to snowy whiteness. Her lips were beautifully rouged and the colour brushed upon her cheeks made Belle more aware of her own lack.
She was also one of the few women who Belle could bear to speak with. There were rumours her own grandmother had been a lower-ranked lady, though no one dared to broach the matter with her. While she was a gracious lady and an elegant hostess, there was no doubting that Blanche Melville, Marchioness Eaglesham, could be a tigress if crossed.
Yet, while the tigress smiled, all was well in the world. “We have not seen you at many balls this season, my dear.”
“My father has been unwell, I fear,” Belle murmured, lowering her eyes. “It has meant there has been little opportunity to come to town.”
Lady Eaglesham patted her hand comfortingly. “At least he is well enough now to be here,” she said warmly. Belle drew her most warming smile on and nodded. “Well, then, we should not stand here like gooseberries. Have any marked your card yet?”
“Not yet, my Lady,” Belle replied, blushing.
Lady Eaglesham looked her up and down thoughtfully. “That will have to be remedied.” She slipped her arm through Belle’s drawing her further into the room. A minuet was already underway, so they circled the dance floor. Various people nodded in salutation to Lady Eaglesham, who smiled and inclined her head in return.
“May I intrude?”
Belle would have needed to be blind to miss the almost wickedly gleeful look that crossed the face of Lady Eaglesham. She drew Belle around with her, to face the speaker, a dashing young man with unpowdered dark hair and laughing brown eyes. He was dressed in the most extravagant fashion, with a ludicrous cravat and he was smiling. He bowed deeply.
“Lord Cathkin,” Lady Eagelsham said warmly, extending one hand, which he bowed over gallantly. “Might I present the Honourable Isabelle Maurice. Miss Maurice, The Most Honourable The Marquis of Cathkin, son of the Duke of Rutherglen.”
Belle’s mouth went dry. “M-my Lord Cathkin,” she said, sinking into a bow.
“Odd’s life, Blanche,” he said with a chuckle. “I believe she blushes! Look! Not a dash of powder on her cheek, and yet, pink as the summer roses.”
If aught, Belle’s cheeks darkened in embarrassment, and she straightened up, looking steadily at the Marquis. His mouth twitched into a smile and he raised his eyebrows as if in challenge to her.
“I believe, Lord Cathkin,” she heard herself say and wished she could make her hands move to clasp over her mouth, “that you wear enough for both of us.”
Lord Cathkin’s shout of laughter drew some amused looks. “She strikes, my dear,” he said to Lady Eaglesham, clasping his hand to his chest. “She strikes true.” He bowed again, just as deeply to Belle. “Your pardon, Miss Maurice. I meant you no insult.”
Belle eyed him doubtfully. “Thank you, my Lord Cathkin,” she said.
He brought his hands together briskly in front of him. “Well, now that we are friends again, might I have the honour of a dance, Miss Maurice?”
Belle’s mouth near dropped open in astonishment. Her eyes were focussed on Viscounts, and if ambition allowed, perhaps even a Baron, but to be approached by a Marquis, the firstborn son of an Duke, even a Scotch Duke, was not something that she had anticipated. “I-I would be honoured, my Lord.”
“Yes, yes, of course you would,” Lord Cathkin said, waving a hand dismissively. “But I do not seek the honour. I seek a dance partner who will not tread upon my toes in a Bourrée, and my dear Blanche tells me you are quite proficient.”
Belle shot a look at Lady Eaglesham who smiled shamelessly back at her. “Her Ladyship is too generous by far,” she said.
“Come now, Isabelle,” Lady Eaglesham said with a warming laugh. “Few of my guests are bold enough to dance with this roguish Scotch ruffian.” Lord Cathkin chortled gleefully at the description. “You are well-known for your boldness.”
Belle’s cheeks darkened again. “I believe that is said of my tongue, my Lady, not my dancing.”
“Let us see then,” Lord Cathkin said cheerfully, “if your delicate feet cannot match your indelicate tongue.”
Belle lowered her eyes, still flushed, as the minuet came to an end.
Lord Cathkin offered his hand, bowing deeply. “Miss Maurice.”
She hesitated but a moment before laying her hand in his. “Lord Cathkin,” she murmured. “I apologise in advance for any mishaps that may occur.”
“Deliberately or otherwise?” he offered with a knowing, caddish grin.
She was relieved that she didn’t need to answer, as they began the dance. It was a quick-paced one, and the flush of embarrassment was rapidly replaced with the more natural blush of exertion. Lord Cathkin was a proficient dancer, and when she chanced to glance at his face, he was smiling.
When the dance came to an end - none to soon, for she had been growing quite breathless - he bowed elegantly. “You have a most becoming form, if it is not too bold to say so, Miss Maurice,” he said. “You quite nearly took my breath.”
She sank into a curtsey, wishing her legs were not trebling quite so much. It had been far too long since she had danced at all. “The same could be said of you, my Lord,” she replied. “I fear I must sit momentarily, if you will excuse me.”
The smile that crossed his face was somehow more real and less mocking. “Naturally, Miss Maurice,” he murmured. “Perhaps, another dance, once you have recovered?”
She inclined her head. “Perhaps. There is usually a Gavotte upon the stroke of nine. Would that be sufficient?”
“Quite so,” he agreed with a shallower bow. “I shall see you anon.”
Belle retreated briskly to one of the couches in another room, sitting at once. The room was stiflingly warm, and she opened her fan to cool her cheeks. A few looks were turned her way, no doubt murmuring about the Viscount’s half-common daughter daring to dance with an Duke’s son, even if he was only a Scotch Duke.
Footsteps walked closer, and she saw a pair of buckled shoes in her line of sight, then raised her eyes. A handsome, dark-haired young man bowed formally to her. She recognised him from previous balls, though she had no recollection of his name.
“You must be Miss Isabelle Maurice,” he said.
Belle drew on her smile, fanning herself delicately. “You have me at a disadvantage, sir,” she said softly, holding out one hand.
“I am George Aston,” he said, lifting her hand and bowing over it. To her astonishment, he kissed it, the warmth of his lips tangible through the fine net of her lace gloves. She drew her hand back at once, wide-eyed. “Your pardon, Miss Maurice. That was too bold.”
“Not too bold at all, Mr Aston,” she stammered. She remembered the name, a family only recently elevated to the nobility. Their star was certainly on the rise, and for him to pay note to her was enough to make her heart race.
He smiled. He really was a handsome specimen, much taller than she, with thick, dark brown hair and a strong jaw. He sat down on the couch beside her, and that made her blush, lowering her eyes. He was being much too bold, but he was the son of a Baron and he was showing an interest in her, and that was what her father had hoped for.
He asked of her home, of her father, her family. She answered softly, carefully, keeping to subjects that she knew would not boil her blood. Her temper was well-known within their small village, particularly towards injustice to those of lower ranks. She was well-aware of rumours that she was likely one of the rare breed of republicans. Half-French, some whispered of her. It was her tainted blood that made her wild.
So she kept her smile placid and calm, and when he asked of her thoughts on the revolution across the waters, she folded her fan and wrapped her hands around it, and said as gaily as she could, “This is not a night to bask in their misery, Mr Aston.”
His broad smile told her this was the correct response.
No doubt, he had heard the tales of her ready tongue and was seeking evidence that they were false.
It was unfortunate that she had to mask herself, but until there was someone willing to accept her, someone who might be able to grant her father respite, then she was willing to behave as needs must. If a man was willing to take a woman at first appearances, then more fool him when he found himself bound to her.
She turned the fan over in her hand, wondering at which point it would be considered rude to get up and walk away from him. She could feel his knee brushing hers through the fabric of her skirt, and it was beginning to make her uncomfortable, no matter how charmingly he spoke.
George Aston looked up in indignation, releasing an explosive huff of breath. “Why, Bay! I didn’t know you were back from the north.”
Lord Cathkin smiled thinly at him. “I imagine not, Aston,” he replied. “Father and I come down occasionally for the season. We were only a little late in arriving this year.” He bowed to Belle. “Miss Maurice, if you recall, you promised a Gavotte?”
She took his hand at once, gratefully, rising from the seat. Lord Aston rose too. “It was an honour to meet you, Mr Aston,” she said with a quick and polite bow. “I hope that you did not find my company too tiresome.”
He smiled his winning smile, and Belle blushed again. “Not in the least, Miss Maurice,” he said, bowing. “It was a delight.”
Lord Cathkin led her back through the throng, but rather than taking her immediately to the ballroom, he drew her into a smaller chamber, some manner of office, closing the door over behind them. Belle drew away from him in alarm.
“My Lord, the dance…”
“The dance can wait,” he said and the lack of manners brought her up short. “I do not mean to pry into what is your business, Miss Maurice, but I would consider it a personal favour if you do not see nor speak to Mr Aston so intimately again.”
Belle stared at him. “My Lord?”
Lord Cathkin stood with his hand still on the door handle. “Blanche speaks well of you, Miss Maurice,” he murmured. “She says that despite your family’s misfortunes, you are a good and respectable woman. Do not let Mr Aston take advantage of you.”
Belle knew her colour was high. “May I speak freely, my Lord?” she asked, her voice trembling with barely contained outrage.
“If you wish,” he replied.
Belle took a slow breath to calm herself, but it did little to ease the fury. “I see no reason why it is any of your business how I converse with any man, my Lord,” she said. “Mr Aston has been naught but civil. I do not see how speaking with him suggests in any way that he is taking advantage of me.”
Lord Cathkin released the door handle and turned to face her fully. “Your pardon, Miss Maurice,” he said quietly. “You seemed ill at ease with his closeness.”
“And that is reason enough for you to warn me to keep my distance, my Lord?” she said.
He looked at her, and for a moment, the dandy was gone and a stern-faced, serious man gazed back at her. “There are many reasons, Miss Maurice,” he replied, “but foremost among them is the fact he put you in a state of unease, and that he was unashamed to sit so boldly with you in public.”
Her small hands clenched by her sides. “I do not mean to offend you, sir,” she said, as calmly as she could, “but whatever state I am in, I believe it is none of your affair.”
Lord Cathkin gazed at her in silence, and that silence was enough for her to catch her breath and realise to whom she had raised her voice. Colour flooded her faced and she looked down at her skirts.
“My apologies, Lord Cathkin,” she said in a whisper. “I speak out of turn.”
“No, no,” Lord Cathkin said dismissively. “You are quite right. It is none of my affair whom you choose to dally with.” His hand moved into her line of sight again. “Come, Miss Maurice. We have a dance to join.”
She laid her hand in his, and followed.
After that exchange, however, the mood of the evening was soured.
Belle sought out Lady Eaglesham and made her apologies, then went to find her father. He was fast asleep in the chair, where she had left him. Gently, she roused him, and when he sleepily asked how the evening had gone, she smiled and lied and said it was marvellous.