Eight: An Insufferable Flirt

Anthony stared slack-jawed as the woman tromped away, her boots making a sucking sound in the mud. He couldn’t help but notice the perfect form of her figure, accentuated by her sodden dress. “Wait,” he shouted, trying to be heard over the rain. “Let me help!” He jogged up beside her, pulling his horse along behind him.

The rain had eased a little, and water continued to stream down her face in a manner Anthony found quite alluring. She kept walking, her mouth pulling into a grim line.  “Thank you for your offer, but I assure you I am a seasoned walker. Your assistance is not required.”

Desperate, he laid a hand on her arm.

“Unhand me at once,” she demanded, practically elbowing him as she wrenched out of his grasp.

Anthony stepped in front of her, blocking her path. “You may not want my help, but now you have it. Somerstone Manor is still half a mile away and walking in this,” he gestured to the ubiquitous mud, “is madness. We can take my horse.”

The woman looked up the road and then glanced back at the horse, as if considering her options. She swallowed with a great deal of force and finally nodded. “Fine.”

He pulled on the horse’s reins and mounted, then reached out a hand, easily pulling her up. The more difficult part was arranging her soaking skirts in a way that allowed her to sit without falling off. When he tried to help she shoved his hand away. “I can manage,” she said coldly.

Once all was situated, he urged the horse forward. She sat sidesaddle, practically in his lap, and Anthony smiled at his good fortune, despite the rain that continued to fall.  They rode in silence for several minutes before he spoke up. “If you don’t mind my asking,” he said, his mouth just inches away from her ear, “whom do I have the pleasure of rescuing?”

“Rescuing?” she scoffed. “One could hardly call it that since I was already going for help.”

They reached the long driveway, and his horse moved more quickly on the gravel. “Ah, yes, of course,” said Anthony, his voice tinged with irony. “We are merely occupying the same horse by coincidence.”

Her brow furrowed. “No doubt it was only the guilt from your ungentlemanly behavior that motivated your assistance. Though I have yet to hear an apology for you nearly trampling me.”

Anthony bristled at her accusations. “Apology? Why should I apologize when you were the one walking down the middle of the road? And why were you traipsing around in a rainstorm in the first place? If your situation is so dire, why didn’t your father go for help?”

“My father is not in good health, not that you have the good manners to ask. I have seen your kind before, and it was clear to me in a moment that you are an insufferable flirt who cannot even put aside your provocative behavior when a serious situation requires it.” Her expression conveyed all sorts of disapproval.

“As I recall, I offered my assistance to a half-drowned woman who would not have made it even another quarter of a mile.” He pulled on the reins and they came to a stop in front of the enormous house.

She turned around, facing him squarely, her forehead flecked with mud, her dark brown eyes brimming with fire. “I assure you, sir, that you are the last person whose assistance I will ever require in the future. Good day.”

And with that, she slid down from the horse, shook out her soaking skirts, and ascended the stairs up to the house with all the regality of a queen. Anthony sat in stunned silence, slack jawed for the second time in the twenty minutes since meeting her.

***

Several hours later, Anthony held out his arms as Alfred helped him into his coat. With one good shrug of his shoulders and a tug from Alfred, the fit was perfect. Pulling out the brush, his valet wiped at any trace of lint that may have appeared while tying Anthony’s cravat.

“What think you, Alfred? Is a man a cad if he flirts a little with a woman in a desperate situation?”

Alfred frowned, his face filled with disapproving lines. “Of course, sir. Any true gentleman would put aside his own—er, pursuits—and help the lady with absolute forthrightness.”

Anthony nodded, unsure why he had even asked. For him to expect anything else from Alfred, who was just as starched as the cravat he had just tied, was ridiculous.

But what if the woman begged to be flirted with? He shook his head, sighing. The woman in need of assistance—he still did not know her name—was clearly more than capable of looking out for herself. With her sharp tongue and arresting brown eyes, she was just the sort he liked to avoid. It was a pity, though, for he’d rarely seen her equal in beauty. And to think of what she would look like when she hadn’t walked through a rainstorm. He let out a soft whistle.

From down where he was polishing Anthony’s shoes, Alfred paused and glanced up, looking askance at him.

Oh well, some women were better observed from afar. Perhaps he would point her out to Lord Ian or Reginald, several of his best friends who were also guests. Not that they wouldn’t notice her on their own. But it would be highly entertaining to see her cut them to ribbons when they made their first pass.

He stepped away from the mirror. “That will do, Alfred, thank you.”

Anthony sauntered down the stairs, trying to remember which way the dining room was in this vast assortment of corridors. He was sure Miss Greystock had mentioned it, but she had said so many things, and Anthony had been distracted by the way the curls around her face bounced as she walked.

After passing by the same staircase for the third time, Anthony finally had the presence of mind to turn left instead of right, entering into the waiting room where all the house party guests gathered, waiting for dinner to be announced.

The Countess Du’Breven caught his eye as he walked through the door. Well, there was nothing for it; he must head over and pay his respects.

Anthony thought perhaps the Countess looked a little plumper than the last time he’d seen her, or perhaps the emerald green dress she was wearing just didn’t suit her. One thing hadn’t changed, and that was the hawk-like lookout she kept as she scanned her guests. Her attentiveness served her well, for she was always the first to know the juicy tidbits of gossip that society craved. Here in her own domain, she looked over the room almost as if she were the ruler of a small kingdom.

She pulled out her fan as he approached. “Why Anthony, how very ignoble of you to wait so long to pay your respects.”

Anthony bowed, giving her an unapologetic smile. “Lady Du’Breven, I hope you will not fault me. I have been rather distracted by some of your promised morsels.”

“Not wasting any time, I see.”

“I pride myself on seizing the moment. It is a lesson learned from one of my teachers at Eton.”

She sniffed, as if unimpressed. “I doubt the lesson was meant in the way you seem to apply it.”

Anthony inclined his head, lowering his eyes. “You flatter me, Countess.”

A whack of the fan on Anthony’s shoulder let him know that was not her intention. “I expect you to behave these next few weeks. Do not make me regret my invitation.”

“Have you so little faith in me?”

“I have no faith at all, but I shall watch you with interest.”

Of that, Anthony had no doubt.

“I shan’t monopolize you, Countess.” He bowed and stepped away.

She gave him a wry look, turning her attention back to the other guests.

Anthony crossed the room, where he found Ian and Reginald in conversation. Ian had a disgruntled look on his face, and his eyes darted around the room, as if expecting someone.

“Lord Ian, my good man.” Anthony pounded him on the back, then did the same to Reginald. “So, tell me. Whom have we got our eyes on tonight?”

Reginald nodded over to the left. “That pretty redhead over there, but Miles has been monopolizing her in the rudest manner. He’s set Lady Winters on me.” He gestured toward a dark haired beauty, whose height and bearing gave one the impression that she was quite domineering. “She’s nice looking from a distance, but don’t get too close. I call her the Ice Queen.”

Anthony shivered, making a mental note to avoid her, and turned toward Ian. “What about you?”

Ian looked up, as if just now listening to their conversation. “Oh, well—you know I’m pursuing Miss Simmons, but I’m not leg-shackled yet. There’s a very enticing blonde over there in the corner that caught my eye. Miss Easton, I think her name is. But she’s surrounded by a pack of wolves, so I think we had best wait for another opportunity.”

They both followed his gaze over to where Miss Easton stood, surrounded by what looked to be a family of brothers. Ian was right; the men were set around her in a protective stance.

Reginald spoke up. “Perhaps at some point two of us could divide the pack, while the third goes in for the kill. I volunteer myself to be the third.”

Anthony shook his head. “Not a chance. One of us will distract Miles, and you can have the redhead.”

Reginald’s face fell, as if disappointed he couldn’t have both.

Ian was silent, his brows deeply knit together and his arms folded across his chest. Reginald gave him a searching look. “Are you quite all right, chap? You don’t seem quite yourself.”

Anthony leaned in. “Out with it.”

Ian dropped his arms, standing more casually. “Conrad and I had another of our fights right before I left. I crossed into the Dun territory this season and I’m banned from the gaming tables for the remainder of the year.”

Reginald shook his head, a look of tragedy on his face. “Perhaps you really will have to settle things with Miss Simmons. Miles wants me to do the same with Lady Winters. Not a chance, I say.”

Just then, another party entered the room. An older gentleman with an exquisite blonde on his arm approached the Countess. Reginald and Anthony continued to discuss the ladies in the room, but Anthony’s gaze followed the pair, intrigued.

A large smile brightened the Countess’s face. “Sir George, there you are at last. I’m very relieved you made it after all of the hubbub with your carriage.”

“Lady Du’Breven, what a pleasure.” He gave a deep bow. “It had been far too long. We are here safe and sound, despite the whole affair. The weather can never be counted on.”

The Countess turned to the woman at his side. “You must be Anne. I remember you as a girl of seven or eight, but no longer, I see. And where is your sister?”

Anne smiled and curtseyed. “You’ll have to pardon Isabel. She’s quite wrung out after her long hike in the rain.” Anthony’s ears perked up. So these were the father and sister who had been stranded.

“She’ll take dinner in her room this evening,” said Sir George, his voice apologetic.

The Countess nodded. “Understandable, of course. But I hope she doesn’t take ill. Nothing puts a damper on a house party like a spreading ailment.”

Anne shook her head, laughing softly. “No, no. Isabel has never been sick a day in her life. She hasn’t the constitution for it.”

Anthony tried to focus on what his friends were saying, but it was difficult, for he was distracted by the thought of the beguiling woman he had encountered in the rain.

***

When she heard the soft knock at her door, Isabel nestled further down into the covers and closed her eyes, feigning sleep. A moment later the door open and soft footsteps padded across the room.

“Dear Izzy,” Anne murmured, adjusting the comforter around Isabel. She blew out the candle and retreated, shutting the door quietly behind her.

Isabel wasn’t sure what had come over her, for she and Anne always talked before bed. They usually sat together atop the coverlet and brushed and braided one another’s hair as they shared sisterly gossip before separating for the night. But tonight Isabel wasn’t in the mood.

Perhaps it was only the long day and her excursion in the rain, or perhaps it was the infuriating man she’d met along the way. Indeed, he had crept into her thoughts more than once this evening, the memory of his careless grin only serving to worsen her mood. But it was more than that. Normally such things didn’t ruffle Isabel.

Something heavier weighed on her. Her arrival at Somerstone Manor—as elegant as it was expansive—and seeing the affluence of some of the other guests made her all too aware of the precariousness of her family’s situation. As Father’s mental stamina had declined, Isabel had taken to looking through the ledgers. What she saw there surprised her: for the last few years, they had overspent their income and gone into a great deal of debt. Father barely even seemed aware of it, and when she tried to bring it up, he had become defensive, asking if she thought he wasn’t capable of taking care of his family. For the past few months, Isabel had managed the finances single-handedly, and though she did her best to economize, the sacrifices she made barely put a dent in the mountain of debt.

The sound of voices outside the door distracted her, and she rose and tiptoed across the room. The voices passed, but Isabel thought she heard one that sounded familiar. Grateful that her room was dark, she cracked the door open and peeked down the dimly lit hallway. Three gentlemen moved down the candle-lit corridor.

“Ah, but Miss Fairchild. Is she not a vision?”

The familiar voice spoke up. “Ian, are you still feeling mulish over what happened with your brother? You need to distract yourself.” With his laugh, she became certain. “Isn’t that why we’re all here?” It was the insufferable man from this afternoon, bringing all sorts of unwelcome memories with him. The thought made Isabel wish to slap him.

She shut the door quietly and went back to bed, nestling down in the coverlet. The maid who brought dinner had pulled the drapes closed, and the room was almost pitch black. Isabel lay under the heavy blankets, breathing deeply and taking comfort in the darkness. For the next few hours, at least, she was free of the burdens that would no doubt heave themselves back upon her shoulders as the sun rose.

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