Of Good Ton
The burning memory of his lips lingered on her wrist.
"Miss Mariner?" said her coachman.
Interrupted from her trance, the girl flushed and stepped into her vehicle; seconds later the horses set out at a comfortable pace. Miss Anne Mariner looked out the coach's window, in time to catch a glimpse of the closing stages of a ball. Vauxhall Gardens was still illuminated by jewel-colored lanterns.
Perhaps it was not so bad, she mused, engaging in the merriments of London society, being away from her library long enough to truly enjoy the Season. Her silk-shod feet still ached from the dancing, but she did not regret it an ounce. Her lips tugged at the corners as she pressed her wrist to a cheek.
"Miss Mariner, someone's hailing us over there," the driver called to her. "Shady character, no doubt. Don't want me to stop, do you?"
She was forced to pop her head out the window in order to get a better look at the "shady character." Her clear blue eyes peered through the fine rain that had just begun to fall. "I think it would be best if you did, Roole. It looks to me like—Nevan!"
The coach squealed to a halt. "Evening, Miss Mariner." The Viscount Stafford bowed elegantly, but his thick speech made her perk her ears.
"Viscount Stafford," she acknowledged. "Please, get in, we'll see you home."
The Viscount Stafford needed no prompting. He was soon seating himself next to Anne, grinning sheepishly at her with brilliant dark eyes. "Hallo brat," he said, the formal air gone, "you're looking dashed pretty this evening. I'm much obliged for the ride." He fumbled for his wallet and solemnly handed her a few shillings. "Grosvenor Square, on the double my man," he called to the coachman in a slurred voice. Roole rolled his eyes--on the double? As if anyone at the Viscount's quarters expected him home before two.
Anne stared at the coins. "I…Nevan..this is my private coach, not some hired hack!"
He brightened. "Ah!" He took the shillings back and pocketed them.
Anne drew back to regard her childhood friend suspiciously. "I believe you're foxed!"
He shook his head. "No, no, 'm sober as fudge," he assured her.
Anne paled. "If my mother hears that I've been driving drunkards over town—"
"Not drunk, I tell you! Didn't touch a drop of brandy all night."
"You're sure?" she asked doubtfully.
"On my honor. I never drink brandy on Tuesdays. Turned down the brandy 'mediately. Though I might have had one or five glasses of claret…"
The girl clasped her hands together anxiously. "If my mother hears of this, Nevan…" she sighed.
But the Viscount had already turned his mind to other matters. "Here, Anne, why're you out and about so late? Must be past midnight."
"It's one'o'clock. Oh, this is dreadful I should have known you—"
"Now, my girl," the Viscount's brown eyes flashed sternly, "y'know very well you shouldn't be tramping around London in the rain at one. Especially," he sniffed at her attire, "in fancy dress. It's not done."
Anne felt tired all of a sudden. "You wretch, you're the one who was tramping around in the rain. Just look at your boots, all muddied."
He stared. "So they are! What'd you want to wear my boots out in the rain for?"
"I'm awfully fond of you, Anne, have been for eight—
"Nine," she corrected mechanically.
"—seven years. Thing is, you don't run about in a man's Hessian boots, especially in the rain. And," he said, thoughtfully, "especially if you're not a man." He scanned her figure. "Which you're not," he concluded.
"What I'd like to know is what you've been doing," interpolated the young heiress. "Why were you walking home?"
He leapt at the chance to tell of his woes. "Well y'see, Jayden dropped me off at White's on his way to a ball at Vauxhall to play cards. No, wait, that's not right, Jayden didn't want to play cards at Vauxhall. I wanted to play cards."
"At White's," Anne supplied.
"Exactly. Zain'd promised to meet me there. Except, he wasn't there. Waited an hour. Two hours. Maybe three. Drank a glass of claret."
"Exactly. And still no Zain. Then the people at White's ended up, erm, escorting me out of the club," he said delicately.
"I see." Anne's lips twitched.
"All Zain's fault you know," Nevan confided. "Can't think where he got to."
Miss Mariner cast her eyes down at her silvery gauze skirts and blushed unexpectedly. "I think I may be able to help you there…"
Nevan clenched his fist. "Don't tell me he was tramping around in the rain with you! And in my best Hessian boots too," he muttered darkly.
Anne stared at him. "You are hopeless."
"Only on Tuesdays." Nevan winked in what Anne admitted to herself was a charming manner. She would never tell him, but he could easily catch most of the females in London with his roguish smile—then again, he probably knew it.
Nephrite gritted his teeth as he said: "Now then, you and Zain were walking in the rain…"
"No," his companion interrupted, "we were at the Vauxhall dress ball."
"You were there too?" Nevan demanded. "Well that's dandy, everyone going to a dress ball. Didn't think to invite me did you?"
Anne blinked at her hot-headed friend. "Um, I did, actually. And you declined, saying you were already acquainted with all the girls who attend those balls and that none of them are 'up to par'. By the by," she said innocently, "what did you mean by that?"
"By what?" he asked sharply.
"Up to par."
Nevan coughed in embarrassment and told her she was too young a chit to worry her head about such goings-on.
"I'm only a year younger than you Nevan," she pointed out.
He looked a bit surprised. His brown eyes gazed at her curiously. "So you are."
The Viscount sat back. Anne watched him, not without amusement. A few strands of his dark brown locks had tumbled out of their ribbon and lay across his stormy brow. The startlingly handsome lines of his face made up a thoughtful frown, his expressive eyes fixed on nothing in particular. He seemed absorbed in matters deeper, more serious than usual; beyond race horses and whist.
Soon though, the frown disappeared and he caught her inquisitive blue gaze. He smiled at her.
"I'm dashed fond of you, Anne," he said sincerely.
She returned the smile. "I'm fond of you as well."
"And, you know…" he hesitated, "A man has got to marry someday. What do you say?"
Anne straightened up very suddenly. Her eyes had widened twice their natural size.
"I-I beg your pardon?"
"Dash it, I knew I would bungle this up. When I said man I meant me, not you…that is…marry me?' he tried. So proposed Viscount Stafford, renowned and accomplished flirt.
Anne blustered. "Wh-Nevan you don't mean…you're foxed!" she said in desperation.
"Yes," he agreed affably. "But I've been thinking about it for a while."
"About being foxed?"
"No, about marriage!" He raked a hand through his hair with a sigh. "Fact is, I can't go on like this. Can't even darn my own stockings you know!"
Anne raised an eyebrow. "Nevan, you have an army of servants. I'm sure one of them will be willing to help you with your stockings."
He shook his head sadly. "You don't understand. It's…I need a wife." It was true that Nevan had been hanging out for a wife for some time now; his mother had put the idea into his head that he needed one. Nevan saw the sense in it and luckily for him, there was no end to the women willing to oblige a wild, charming man with an equally charming inheritance. Only, Nevan was never one to settle for less.
"Nevan," she laid a gloved hand over one of his pleadingly, "you aren't in desperate need of a wife."
"Anne, we should deal famously together. We really would." He seemed so eager that it tore at her. She felt flustered when for a moment, she pictured going through what he described. No one would think it strange, an alliance of two wealthy families, two purses, childhood playmates….
"Nevan, you don't have to have a wife," she made herself say.
He bristled. "You seemed enthusiastic enough when I began chasing after that Raye girl…until she'd thrown one too many china vases at me, of course."
Anne bit a lip at the memory. "Yes well, Raye has no one now except her grandfather and it would do her good to have someone to look after her. That someone is not you, I suppose. But she needs someone, I think."
"And you don't?" he asked her very quietly, meeting her eyes.
She could not bring herself to answer. Instead she looked away, bringing her palms to brush her cheeks. The face framed by golden waves faded a little from her mind.
"You don't love me," she said softly, and was immediately shocked that she'd said it.
Her comment had struck a chord. It silenced him for a minute. Finally: "Anne, we'd be happy together. You would make the perfect wife for me—I know it. We enjoy each other and know each other's secrets. I still haven't told anyone that you once dove into that fountain…"
She interrupted hastily: "Yes, but Nevan, you don't need me. You don't need a wife. You seem to do quite well without one."
With a finger and thumb, Nevan lifted Anne's chin to look her full in the face. His eyes, dark and clouded, looked searchingly into hers, seemed to devour her. She'd never realized he could look at her so. "I don't know about that, but I think I'm doing quite well, right now...with you."
And before she knew it, he had lowered his head to kiss her.
A few seconds before, there were a thousand reasons Nevan's kissing her would be, simply put, a bad idea. Yet strangely enough, Anne could no longer think of even one.
The full, sweet flavor of claret greeted her lips. She felt his hand reach to play with her neat, inky-black chignon until it swung freely about her shoulders. His fingers traveled further and curled around the back of her neck. His lips became fiery and crushing till she felt dazed…
Then she broke the kiss, her emotions frantically trying to settle down where they belonged. Her cheeks flamed as she realized what had happened. "Nevan, I can't think how I did that…I…you are wanting in conduct, sir!"
Nevan didn't help any. He grinned slightly then drew closer to her to whisper in her ear. "Marry me," said his dark, rich voice.
She could still feel the ghost of a pressure on her lips, but suddenly, she was reminded of another whisper in the darkness, darkness only broken by the lantern light of Vauxhall Gardens. The burning on her wrist woke her from the intoxication of the claret on her lips.
His dark eyes, full of questions and confusion, rashness and emotion, reflected hers. Maybe they would deal well together. Maybe they would be happy with one another. But Anne refused to live in a world of maybe.
"I'm sorry." Anne averted her eyes. She felt a traitor to them both.
"As am I." His voice was stiff as the ruffled collar of his grey coat.
A silence gripped them.
She glanced at the young viscount; his eyes were fixed on her glove as if searching for that burning kiss that tingled on the back of her hand. He shrugged vaguely to himself. It was then that she knew—he was hurt, but he would recover. It had been more a blow to his self-esteem than anything else.
He smiled grimly. "What if I had been the one who'd gone to Vauxhall instead of Zain?"
She ducked her head, taken aback by his shrewd comment. "I don't…think…"
He nodded. "You're right, I suppose. You never did tell me what happened."
She twinkled her eyes at him. "I don't plan to."
They realized that the coach had stopped. "Your quarters, my lord," the coachman called, still resentful of the fact that he had had to make a detour for the nobleman who servants had nicknamed "the uninhibited." And that didn't refer to just brandy (or claret).
"My deepest thanks, Miss Mariner," Nevan said loudly. And in a softer tone: "Though I hope you lose at least a little sleep over me, I wish you joy with him, brat," he said affectionately. He squeezed her hand. "And next time I see him, I'll say the same."
"I wish you wouldn't," Anne said admonishingly, embarrassed.
"But I must," he said as he almost dismounted into a puddle. He looked thoughtful. "Though of course, there's no need to wish him joy if he's soon to be on the receiving end of such delightful kisses as yours." He turned to leave, muttering: "I really must tell him so…"
Open-mouthed and speechless with horror, Anne dumbly watched the Viscount's broad shoulders disappear into the darkness.