You have a caller, madam," Godfrey said, in a tone of voice that implied Diana was at fault for this circumstance.
Diana looked up from her needlework in surprise, as it was past visiting hours and so close to dinner that it could only be assumed whoever was calling was angling for an invitation. She turned to look at her companion in confusion and inquiry, but "companion" was an exaggerated description of Mildred, her late husband's sister, who was asleep on the sofa. Mildred was the one thing Diana's wealthy husband had left to her upon his death that she could have happily done without.
"Mildred!" Diana said loudly.
Mildred's head snapped up. "I beg your pardon, but I slept poorly last night. The moon was waxing. Or waning. I always get the terms confused." She blinked a few times, before shaking her head. "Whichever it was, it had quite an effect on the river, and it was roaring ferociously. But I'm sure you heard it yourself . . ."
"I enjoy the sound of the river," Diana said.
"Yes, I know," Mildred said. "Your constitution is unnaturally robust for a widow." She looked reproachfully at Diana, as she often did, as if she knew Diana didn't mourn Mr. Boyle's death sufficiently. Diana found herself almost pleased at the news of an intrusion that she'd previously found annoying, as it gave her an excuse to change the subject.
"We have a caller, Mildred."
"A caller? At this late hour?" Mildred turned to Godfrey, who had stood watching this byplay and was now directing his disgruntled look at her. "Who is it, Godfrey?"
Ignoring Mildred, Godfrey walked over to his mistress, presenting her with the card he held. "Mr. Raymond Pryce," Diana read aloud.
"Never heard of him. Send him away," Mildred said.
Diana had considered doing exactly that, as she had grown so unused to going about in society since her husband's death (not that she had been what one would call gregarious before that), and she was anxious at the thought of entertaining a perfect stranger. Still, she was the mistress of Whitley House, little though Mildred might like it, and she had very few opportunities to exert her authority. So she nervously patted her hair and her dress, took a deep breath, and told Godfrey, "I am at home."
Mildred looked at her as if she had gone mad but said nothing in reply, though she made a clicking sound that signified her disapproval and caused Diana to feel even more pleased with her small act of rebellion.
Godfrey sighed, as if wondering how he'd sunk to serving such a troublesome pair of females, but left to do Diana's bidding. She spent the time while he was gone considering whether it was worth her while to look for a new butler, or if she should continue to employ her late husband's choice. It seemed cruel to reward Godfrey for his many years of service by giving him the sack, but neither did she think that the lady of the house should be intimidated by her own staff, and Diana had always been made to feel as if Godfrey were doing her a favor when he performed even the simplest of his duties.
Her musings were cut short by the entrance into the drawing room of their mysterious caller.
Even though Diana had been married for five very long years and widowed for more than one, she had just recently turned five-and-twenty. However, Mr. Pryce looked even younger than she was, though Diana might have been misled by the fact that his ears were slightly oversized and gave him the appearance of a child who had not yet grown into them. Or it could have been that she had grown so accustomed to Mr. Boyle, who had been fifty-eight years old when he died, that a man of her own age appeared infantile in comparison. But it was not only Mr. Pryce's appearance but also his demeanor that gave the impression of a shy young boy, as he entered the room as if he was afraid of them, darting a quick nervous glance at Mildred before performing a jerky bow.
Diana and Mildred rose at his entrance and bobbed their heads in response to his bow, before Diana gave him permission to sit. His reaction to her command was also very bizarre, as he looked at Diana in surprise, which quickly transformed into delight.
"You are Mrs. Boyle?" he asked, smiling tentatively at Diana and looking her up and down-a little too obviously, Diana felt. Mildred must have shared Diana's opinion, as she cleared her throat angrily.
"I am," Diana replied. "Allow me to present you to my sister-in-law, Miss Boyle."
Mr. Pryce looked as if he'd just been informed he'd won a lottery. "Miss Boyle, a pleasure," he said, and he smiled so happily at her that Mildred's own expression lightened reflexively.
They all sat in silence while Mr. Pryce stared at Diana, a grin on his face, and Diana wondered if she was not as socially inept as she had heretofore thought herself because she could never imagine behaving as awkwardly as he was. And while she believed she presented a neat and pleasant appearance, she did not think her charms so great as to cause him to be stricken mute at the sight of her. Diana knew he was most likely comparing her to her older, formidably plain sister-in-law, and so the comparison would inevitably be in her favor.
However, Diana was doing herself an injustice. Having been married at eighteen to a man thirty-five years her senior, she had never had a suitor and so did not realize how attractive she was. Her silky black hair had fallen out of its confines and was in wisps around her face, framing a countenance that was sweet rather than striking. Shy by nature, she frequently cast her eyes downward, so that when she did meet a person's gaze one was struck by the beauty of her large amber-colored eyes with their long dark eyelashes. Certainly, Mr. Pryce had noticed that his hostess was a very lovely young woman.
The silence was growing more and more awkward, their guest apparently having forgotten that he should offer a reason for his call, and so Mildred finally prodded him to do so. "I do not believe we've previously made your acquaintance," she said, her expression having hardened again into its usual rigid lines.
"No, not exactly," Mr. Pryce said. As Diana and Mildred continued staring at him in silent inquiry, he must have finally become conscious of the strained atmosphere, because he stopped grinning and said to Diana: "That is, I am acquainted with a distant relation of your late husband's, and since I was in the vicinity-"
"A relation of mine? Who, pray tell?" Mildred interrupted him to ask.
Mr. Pryce turned to her, a disconcerted expression on his face, as if it had just occurred to him that a relation of Mr. Boyle's would also be related to Mr. Boyle's sister. "Mr. Cartwright," he finally said, before correcting himself. "That is, Mr. Carter. Or perhaps it was Carnes? Started with a 'Cah' sound, at any rate. It was a brief acquaintance," he mumbled sheepishly, before looking again at Diana, fear writ large in his brown eyes.
Mildred took a deep breath, her bosom expanding impressively, and Diana closed her eyes, as she had begun to pity poor Mr. Pryce, perhaps because of his youthful appearance and his obvious inability to lie. Before the volcano could erupt, however, they were again interrupted by Godfrey.
"Lord Jerome Vincent," he announced, and Mr. Pryce, who had at first seemed to view the butler's appearance in the nature of a deus ex machina, saw who was with him and frowned.
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Boyle," Lord Jerome said, approaching Mildred with a charming smile, though it faltered just a bit when he saw her.
"I am Mrs. Boyle," Diana said, wondering what in the world was happening.
Lord Jerome turned to Diana, and though his countenance gave little away, Diana thought she detected a hint of relief in his sardonic gaze. "I see," he said, and somehow the way he drew out those two words, along with the look that accompanied them, made them seem very suggestive, indeed.
Mr. Pryce pokered up even more at this interchange and said to Lord Jerome, "I might have expected to find you here."
"And why was that?" Lord Jerome asked. Diana and Mildred looked at Mr. Pryce inquiringly as well.
Mr. Pryce flushed a dark red. "No reason," he finally said, and Mildred rolled her eyes and said something under her breath, though the words "half-wit" could be faintly heard.
Somehow the two gentlemen ended up staying for dinner, though Diana wasn’t sure how they accomplished it. She felt that she could have overcome Mr. Pryce’s feeble attempts to wrangle an invitation, but even Mildred had proved no match for Lord Jerome. He looked to be in his thirties and was neither handsome nor ugly, but had such an air of sophistication that he gave the impression of being much better looking than he actually was.
He was also a very different species of gentleman than Diana had ever before met. Her husband had not been a fixture of London society and had ignored it as determinedly as it ignored him. Even though Whitley House was on the outskirts of town and only a short drive from its myriad entertainments, Diana could count on one hand the number of times she'd been there. Her husband was a quiet, serious, unsociable man, and thus Diana had been forced to live that way as well.
Mr. Boyle had certainly never flirted with her, as Lord Jerome was attempting to do, though Diana responded to many of Lord Jerome's overtures with blank stares and silence. It didn't help that his most outrageous compliments were punctuated by snorts of derision from Mr. Pryce, who spent much of the meal shooting murderous glances at Lord Jerome, interspersed with admiring ones directed at both Diana and her home.
Diana was totally at a loss as to how she'd come to the notice of two of London society's fashionable fribbles. For even though Mr. Pryce was far less sophisticated than Lord Jerome, it was obvious by their familiarity with each other and from Mr. Pryce's clothing, as rumpled as it was, that he was also an inhabitant of that elite sphere.
However, she was not so ignorant as to why they were there. While Lord Jerome was much more subtle and did not glance around the room with covetous eyes, instead saving such looks entirely for her person, he had betrayed himself when he had first arrived and directed an appraising look at Mildred, before realizing his mistake.
Both gentlemen were obviously fortune hunters, there on purpose to court a wealthy widow. But how had they even learned of her existence?
Lord Jerome had also claimed, as Mr. Pryce did, to be acquainted with a relative of Mr. Boyle's, but he had had the good sense to say this person's surname was Boyle as well. There were many branches of the Boyle family, as Diana had good reason to know, as she also had been a Boyle before her marriage to her distant cousin. It could even be that Lord Jerome was acquainted with a relation of theirs, but Diana found it entirely too coincidental that a chance meeting with a distant relative would spark within both Mr. Pryce and Lord Jerome a desire to call upon her, and on the very same day.
She noticed that Godfrey also appeared perplexed and was watching both men with a furrowed brow, although he directed the serving of dinner in his usual manner, as if it were a chore that was beneath him. Toward the end of the meal, however, while he was removing Diana's plate, he said in a lowered tone, "I have taken the liberty of bringing a bottle of port up from the cellar, ma'am, in anticipation of your wishes."
Diana could only conclude from this statement that he intended to serve after-dinner drinks to her unwelcome guests and wondered why he wished to prolong their visit. But since she knew her butler to be far more au courant than she was, she was not in the least affronted that he'd dropped a hint as to what behavior was expected of her. After all the plates had been removed, she stood up from the table and said: "Miss Boyle and I will retire to the drawing room, but Mr. Pryce and Lord Jerome, do not feel you must join us immediately. We will leave you gentlemen to your port."
Before the men could think of protesting, though it was unlikely that they would have, Godfrey was serving them their drinks and the ladies had left the room.
“You dastard!” Mr. Pryce said indignantly to Lord Jerome as soon as the door had shut behind Diana.
"Exactly what dastardly behavior on my part are you complaining of?" Lord Jerome asked, though he seemed more interested in watching his port as he swirled it around in his glass than in anything his companion had to say.
"You know perfectly well! You've come to court Mrs. Boyle merely because she's a rich widow."
"Mister Pot, meet Lord Kettle," Lord Jerome said, nodding his head at Mr. Pryce in a mock bow.
Mr. Pryce looked flummoxed for a moment, and then his brow cleared in comprehension. "It's just-I thought everyone else would begin with the A's, and if I skipped to the B's that I'd have the field all to myself. And she's in Twickenham, not in London proper. Didn't expect anyone would want to come all this way."
"Twickenham isn't exactly Timbuktu. That was actually a point in her favor, in my opinion; she has a country house that isn't actually in the country."
"A rather nice house, too," Mr. Pryce said, looking around the dining room appreciatively. But then he seemed to realize he shouldn't be making Mrs. Boyle look even more desirable a prize and hurried to add: "Still, she didn't seem to take to you, so you'd be better off casting your line where the fish are biting."
"Are you likening the beauteous Mrs. Boyle to a fish? Not a very romantic simile, dear chap. Especially when you're a bit of a gudgeon yourself. She wasn't exactly bowled over by your charms," Lord Jerome said, placing an ironic emphasis on the word "charms" as he looked over Pryce in a way that drew attention to all of his sartorial and anatomical deficiencies, and which would have caused a more sensitive man to retire from polite society for a week at least.
Mr. Pryce, however, was unfazed by his dinner companion's supercilious behavior, though it did cause him to notice he'd somehow spilled a bit of gravy on his waistcoat. He rubbed ineffectually at it as he considered why his courting had proven unsuccessful thus far. "Tell you what; I think she's whiddled our scrap."
Copyright © 2024 by Suzanne Allain. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.