A true gentleman will delare himself with a view toward matrimony,
whilst a true libertine will declare himself with a view toward scandal.
Although a lady may think she can differentiate between who is the
gentleman and who is the libertine, at times, it may prove to be impossible.
-How To Avoid a Scandal, Author Unknown
Bath, England, the 21st of August 1824
The Linford country estate
Although Jonathan Pierce Thatcher, Viscount Remington, was all but nineteen, and therefore in the eyes of society very much a man, a part of his soul had always secretly remained twelve-years-old. It was the part of his soul that still believed in absurd notions such as courtly love, magic and destiny. Though he knew magic and destiny had no place in the head of a real man as was defined by the real world, for him, magic and destiny were but alternate words for hope, and no one could ever convince him that hope did not exist. For it did.
And right now, in the setting of a sprawling garden in fading bloom and dwindling sunlight, hope ardently whispered to him that his time for love had finally come. It whispered that the young woman in the embroidered, flowing white gown and gathered blond curls, who lingered in boredom beside her governess in the shade of her orchid parasol, was going to change his life forever. If only he could convince her to change his life forever.
Jonathan refrained from mouthing Lady Victoria’s name in reverence or staring at her through the demure crowd of chattering house guests dividing them. He had almost kissed Grayson’s left boot for inviting him to the Linford house party. Almost.
Being in close quarters with Victoria over these next two weeks was going to ensure she was finally his in both name and heart. He simply needed to be mindful of the fact that the host was none other than her father, the ever brow creased Earl of Linford who was all too easily riled into shouting fits whenever anything displeased him. Fortunately, the gruff man had always liked him and often boasted that he was but another son.
Aside from his year-long acquaintance with Victoria, something far more unearthly drew him to her. There was an unspoken depth within those jade eyes that went beyond her seventeen years. Even as she spoke to him in that witty, self-assured manner that announced she needed no one and most certainly not him, never once had she duped him. He could tell that deep inside, she was an even greater romantic than him. She simply chose to deny it.
Veering toward his friend Grayson, Jonathan made sure his lips and his words were shielded from the men and women indulging in all the fruit, biscuits and cakes that had been lavishly piled onto silver trays and set upon tables around the garden. “When should I declare myself?” he ventured. “Before I leave? Or upon my return from Venice?”
Grayson picked up the remaining sliver of banbury cake from his porcelain plate and shoved it into his mouth. As he heartily chewed, he shook his dark blond head, his eyes darting across the length of the garden toward Victoria. “I would never condone rushing--” he said, in between several chews, “--but given your predicament, don’t wait until your return. Based on my cousin’s dowry alone, half of Europe is already lining up at my uncle’s door.”
Jonathan half-nodded, his stomach clenching at the thought. “I only hope to God she feels the same.”
Grayson sighed and set his empty plate on the corner of the linen covered table beside them. “Whatever you do, Remington, don’t be a sop and tell her that you love her.”
Jonathan angled himself and lowered his voice. “And why wouldn’t I? It happens to be what I feel.”
“It doesn’t matter what you feel. Victoria is a Linford of the worst sort. The moment you use the word love, she will call you out for being insincere.”
“Insincere? By telling her--”
“Yes. By telling her. If you haven’t already noticed, she is a lot like her father. Only without all the grumbling and shouting. And can you blame her, after all that has happened in her life? Stars cannot shine when clouds blacken the sky. It has nothing to do with you personally; it is simply the way it is. Which is why I suggest you be subtle over these next two weeks. Don’t overwhelm her with your stupid goose antics or she will run. Regardless of what she does or does not feel.”
Jonathan drew in a breath and let it out, refusing to listen to anything but what his gut was telling him to do. And his gut was telling him subtle was not about to win fair maiden. “Go distract her governess for me, will you? I need to talk to her.”
“Now?” Grayson echoed.
“Yes. Now. Go. Do it.”
Grayson leaned toward him and hissed out, “I didn’t invite you here to watch you slit your own throat. You need to be subtle. Declaring yourself with my uncle and half of society thirty paces away is not subtle.”
Jonathan rolled his eyes. “I don’t plan on asking for her hand here and now. All I want is a few moments alone without that damn woman at her elbow. You know what Mrs. Lambert thinks of me. I am anything but honey on that old crone’s lips.”
“That is because you pose a threat to the commodity she hopes to sell to a duke. And I hate to point out your sad reality, Remington, but you are not a duke. Nor are you a marquis. Or an earl. Or--”
“Enough already.” Jonathan glared at him. “Are you going to do this for me or not?”
“Forget it. I have already done more than enough to ensure each and every single one of your children bear my name. Boys. Girls. It doesn’t matter. They will all be known as Grayson.”
Jonathan stepped closer to emphasize he was a full head taller and a few inches broader, too. “Considering all the times I took a fist for you, you owe me this and more.”
Grayson snorted. “What the hell do you expect me to do? Rope up Mrs. Lambert and shove her in a cupboard while everyone watches you play Romeo?”
“Yes. That is exactly what I expect you to do. I only have two weeks to extract a promise of matrimony. Two weeks. I need every moment I can get.”
Grayson jabbed him beneath the cravat. “You have your whole life ahead of you. Your whole life. Why are you rushing into this anyway? Hm? From what I hear, Venetian women send men into spasms that last all day and night. Enjoy a bit of that first, then come back to this.”
Jonathan sighed. This wasn’t about meeting a woman and having a few nights of passion. This was about meeting THE woman and having a whole lifetime of passion. “Fifteen minutes.”
Grayson shook his head from side to side. “Why must you always complicate not only your life, but mine? Why?”
“Oh, you think I complicate your life?” Jonathan lowered his voice. “I’m not the one stealing bank notes to pay for women who most likely will end up costing you vials of mercury and the inability to piss.”
Grayson puffed up his cheeks and deflated them with a single breath. “I don’t need another father pointing out everything I do wrong.”
Jonathan refrained from smacking him upside the head. “One father would never be enough to reign your ass in. Hell, six fathers wouldn’t even be enough. Just as you don’t approve of my life, Grayson, I don’t approve of yours. Which is why we must agree to disagree. Now are you going to do this for me or not?”
Grayson sighed and scanned the garden around them. “I will ensure fifteen minutes if you promise not to tell my father about the bank notes.”
Jonathan grinned and elbowed his arm. “Done.”
Grayson elbowed him back. “Stay here. I’ll send Victoria over and occupy Mrs. Lambert for you.”
Jonathan pointed at him. “You are a good friend.”
“A better friend than you will ever be.” Grayson smirked, rounded him and the table and strode across the lawn.
Jonathan adjusted the cuffs of his morning coat and stepped toward the nearest table laden with silver. Finding a tray that had been emptied of most of its biscuits, he leaned over it and used the polished reflection of the silver platter to see if his black hair was still decent. He brushed back a few unruly strands from his forehead, which had strayed against the wind, straightened and stepped back, glancing toward the direction Grayson had disappeared to.
Lady Somerville sauntered past his view with her elderly husband, heading toward the fountain beyond. Her dark eyes lifted and purposefully met Jonathan’s across the distance. She offered a refined nod in passing as a slow smile touched her painted lips. She continued to watch him out of the corner of her eye in a heated, predatory manner that caused Jonathon’s skin to crawl.
He ignored the blatant flirtation by glancing away. Why was it only married women found him attractive? Did he have the words ‘Play with me if you are over thirty’ etched all over his forehead? He was almost young enough to be their first born, for God’s sake.
Jonathan paused as a slim figure dressed in embroidered white lace and India muslin appeared on the other side of the table he lingered by. His pulse drummed as Victoria angled her parasol against the puffed sleeve of her upper shoulder and quietly perused the silver trays laden with food.
God love you Grayson.
Jonathan drew in an assured breath, grabbed up one of the stacked plates for service and rounded the table toward her. He paused beside her and leaned in, offering up the plate. Though he wanted to convey everything that had ever been buried within him in that one pulsing moment, all he could do was hold out the plate and wait for her gloved hand to take it.
She turned, her full skirts brushing his trouser clad legs, and lifted pretty green eyes to his. Jonathan’s stomach flipped as her full, soft-looking pink lips curved into a radiant smile. She edged back, setting a more respectable distance between them, but never once broke their gaze.
For a long moment, neither of them said a word.
He continued to stupidly hold out the plate, while she continued to stand there as if he wasn’t holding anything at all. Though she offered him no conversation aside from the playful glint in her eyes, he knew she was merely embracing the well practiced role of a lady before the eyes and ears of society gathered all but strides away.
“The banbury cake deserves infinite praise,” he offered conversationally, scooting the plate closer to her. “You might want to eat what little is left before I do.”
She lowered her chin, adjusting the parasol on her shoulder and glanced toward the sliced cakes. She lifted a blond brow. “Do you really intend on being a glutton and eating all four cakes?”
Jonathan let out an awkward laugh, realizing there really were still four banbury cakes left on the trays. He cleared his throat, gesturing toward the plate he still held. “I was trying to make conversation, is all.”
“Conversation about cake? I see.” She promenaded the length of the table, offering him a taunting smile. “Whatever you do, my lord, don’t comment on the weather next. In the past hour, six people have pointed out that there isn’t a single cloud in the sky. I have been praying for rain ever since to ensure more cultivated conversation.”
He chuckled and lowered his voice. “You needn’t worry about uncultivated conversation here. In truth, I haven’t even noticed the weather at all. Not dressed as you are. Might I point out how incredibly beautiful you look in that gown? An angel in its truest form. ‘Tis a pity there aren’t any clouds in that sky for you to sit on, eh?”
She let out a laugh and shook her head. “Why is it, my lord, you had far more intelligent things to say when I last saw you?”
"I wasn’t leaving the country the last time I saw you. He pushed away the thought and focused on being subtle. Subtle, subtle, subtle. “How many more months before your coming out?” he ventured, even though he already knew the answer.
She sighed. “Seven. Mrs. Lambert won’t make me forget it. Nor will my father.”
Seven months. He’d be gone all seven of those months, maybe even eight to ten of those months, depending on how long it took him to settle his stepsister into her new way of life. And then there was his stepmother. He hoped the woman not only stayed in Venice, but died there.
Jonathan intently met Victoria’s gaze, and knew if he waited to declare himself, he’d have to compete against a hoard of richer, better titled men. He was only worth two thousand a year. And while it allowed for an excellent living most would envy, it only allowed for one estate. Unlike the five her father owned.
Victoria lowered her chin and eyed him expectantly, silently prodding him to do more other than just blatantly stare at her.
He wished to God he could just grab her and kiss her and declare himself that way. “I’m leaving for Venice,” he blurted, fingering the plate he still held.
She half-nodded, causing her gathered blond curls to sway against her cheeks. “Yes, I know. After the house party. Grayson told me.” A soft sigh escaped her lips. “I wish I could travel. Sadly, Papa is set against my doing any tours.”
Was that delicious yearning in her voice meant for him? Or for the damn tours? “Might I write to you about all of my travels?”
Her green eyes brightened. “But of course. Who else will keep me from boredom but you?”
This really wasn’t going anywhere. It was the same old, same old. Everything said, yet nothing said. Subtle simply was not going to win fair maiden, regardless of what Grayson thought. In truth, Grayson’s idea of courting a woman amounted to lifting her skirt and whistling.
Jonathan rounded the table, and closed the remaining distance between them, feeling as if his fifteen minutes had already dwindled down to a mere one. He leaned in, offering her the plate once again, trying not to get too distracted by the alluring scent of soap and lavender drifting toward him.
“Victoria,” he whispered, searching her face, memorizing the arch of those blond brows and how soft her porcelain skin appeared against the fading afternoon light. “Take the plate if you love me.”
Her eyes widened. She edged back and glanced toward those in the distance. With the flick of her wrist, she shielded them from view, then leaned in and tsked. “Being more amorous than usual, I see.”
“Forgive me, but there are times a man has to be.”
“Oh? And what times are those? The end of days?”
“I want assurance of your devotion.”
She giggled. “By offering me a plate?”
By offering you my life. He gestured toward the porcelain still in his hand. “This plate is but a metaphor representing all that I am. Polished. Clean. Able to present, hold and endure whatever you place upon it, whilst allowing you to feast for both substance and pleasure. Though surprisingly, it is also incredibly fragile. If dropped, it will shatter and become nothing but a worthless mess. I would say more, but we have an audience beyond your parasol and this is about as forward as I can get without altogether grabbing you.”
She stared up at him for an abashed moment and dropped her voice a whole octave. “So by taking the plate I would in fact be taking your heart? Is that what you are informing me of, my lord?”
He drew in a ragged breath. “Yes. Exactly.”
“Ingenious.” She smiled, leaned in and playfully tapped her gloved finger against the painted rim of the plate. “Have it polished and ready for my coming out. I’m certain I can find a place for you somewhere at the table. In the meantime, use this plate to enjoy however many banbury cakes you can stomach. I should go. Before Mrs. Lambert realizes Grayson is a decoy.” She grinned, twirled her parasol once in a form of bravado and breezed past.
Hell. That was neither a yes or a no.
Jonathan heaved out an exasperated breath and set the plate back onto the table. He turned to watch those delectable, curvy hips sway beneath her flowing, bright white gown. She and that gown trailed across the length of the green lawn, past men and women wandering out toward the fountain in the distance.
He had two weeks to convince her that his heart beat solely for her. Two weeks. Because if he left England without extracting a promise of matrimony from those lips, he knew he’d return only to find her married to some lucky bastard and his heart would forever bleed in never ending regret of what could have been.