Pleasanter, less aggravated faces could be found before feeding time at the zoological gardens in Regent's Park, she mused. He reminded her at once of Master Grumbles, an Irish wolfhound her father once owned. That gentle giant of a dog had followed her everywhere with a misleadingly depressed expression, as if the onerous responsibility of looking after her was almost more than it could bear, despite the fact that they always had a great deal of fun together and nobody had ever told the dog it must be her companion."Sir, your foot." Pointing the end of her fan downward, she gestured to the item that kept her prisoner. "If you don't mind."
"My foot?" he snapped impatiently, his mind clearly on other matters he deemed more important. Perhaps he was thinking of a bone he'd buried and trying to remember where. "What? What about it?"
"It's on my shawl."
His irritable gaze finally shifted to the marble steps as he swiveled partially around. "For pity's sake! Why the devil do women need all these blessed... attachments?" he growled at the lace shawl, holding it up to peruse the large, dirty hole he'd rendered there. "Something this flimsy has no practical service whatsoever and merely gets in the way."
The wolfhound growled onward under his breath, "Too many frills and furbelows dangling off you. As if all the hoops and petticoats aren't enough to keep us at bay. I believe the soldiers at Agincourt wore less armor."
Before he got any more dirt upon her sister's shawl, she snatched it from his over-sized paw and draped it over her arm. "I quite agree. I'd be more content in my drawers alone, but I suspect this society would be outraged by the sight. Believe me, I've considered it more than once, even if it was only to liven up the proceedings."
About to dismiss her by turning away again, instead he pivoted fully around, his gaze sharpened, those cool, gun-metal grey eyes inspecting her thoroughly. She stood before him, pinned to the spot, feeling as if invisible, commanding fingers gripped her face and held it to the light. "What's wrong with you?" he demanded.
Where does one start, she thought wryly. But, of course, she must keep up appearances, for her sisters' sake. "I cannot imagine what you mean," she replied with all necessary hauteur. "There's nothing wrong with me. At least I'm in marginally appropriate dress for a ball." He, on the other hand, was not. Surrounded by gentlemen in crisply groomed evening attire, he stood out in his top boots, riding breeches and tweed coat.
His thick hair was damp and tousled enough to suggest a very recent ride through the rain, in great haste and hatless. The state of his boots and breeches— for he wore no spatterdashes— also revealed the muddiness of the streets through which he had traveled. Apparently he cared little for the impression he made in the grand entrance hall of Lord Courtenay's town house and had as much concern for his appearance as Pip had for her own. The mud specks across his face— which she first mistook for freckles— told her that he, unlike most gentlemen on the staircase, had not consulted any of the mirrored panels on the wall. The skewed sideways knot of his neck cloth, smudged with the same grimy prints as the fingers of his gloves, hinted at the frequent tugging of an angry, frustrated hand. Everything about him suggested disdain for convention and so much impatient haste that it seemed as if he moved at speed, even while he stood still before her. And she must be moving with him, for her heart raced and all the other people on the staircase became mere blurs of color.
Most young men she met struck her immediately as uninteresting, their minds sluggish and as little predisposed to anything beyond their own uncomplicated, immediate pleasure as plump cats on a sunny veranda. But this man's face was guarded and clever, his eyes lit with the restless, hungry, throbbing gleam of a hungry, bustling internal life. It drew her in; made her curious and challenged at first sight. Made her want to wipe away the remaining mud spatters for him, even at the risk of being bitten.
He squinted hard at her. "There is something wrong with you." Moving up to join her on the same step, the man persisted, "You speak... strangely."
"Yes, there is something the matter with you."
"I can't think what you mean."
And then his eyes flared, "You're a bloody American."
She drew a quick breath, standing as tall as she could— which, in her mind, was six foot at least, and in reality was a little over five feet and two scant inches. Allegedly. She was certain the measuring stick lied. "Yes," she said proudly, "I am American."
"Why didn't you say so then?"
Eyebrows raised, she replied, "I beg your pardon. I didn't think that was what you meant by there being something the matter with me. Something wrong with me."
He huffed, apparently amused in an arrogant way. "Didn't you indeed?" Shaking his head, he added, "Americans at the Courtenay's spring ball. Whatever is the world coming to? Still, I suppose it's a comic novelty for the luridly curious. Last year I heard they had acrobats and a fortune teller. Lady Courtenay once rode in on a unicorn, so they say." He flicked a finger across his nose, disposing of several dried mud flecks, as he exhaled a curt sigh. "It must be exhausting coming up with a diversion nobody has yet thought of. But Americans? I didn't realize old Courtenay had such a riotous sense of humor."
Pip smiled brightly in a manner that would have fooled nobody who knew her. "Just you wait. In a year or two we'll be all the fashion and everyone will want one. Even you."
"I wouldn't make a wager of it." His eyes narrowed, fingers paused in the process of fidgeting with the knot of his neck cloth again. "What are you doing here in any case?"
Now that was an odd question, she mused. "Why does one usually attend a ball?" But when answered by his silence and another thorough perusal that could only be described as darkly suspicious and slightly indecent, she added, "I'm a spy, of course. Why else would I be here amongst you miserable people? Certainly not likely to have any fun, am I? Somehow your countrymen manage to take the pleasure out of everything with all your stifling, petty rules of etiquette. You wouldn't know a good party if it ran up and slapped you. I have already been warned that I must not, under any circumstances, laugh out loud in this society."
"A spy?" he muttered. "I might have guessed."
"Our government sent me to understand the workings of that." With her fan she pointed up at his mouth, almost touching it, "English Stiff Upper Lip."
He did not flinch away from her fan, but looked at it and then at her again. "And what have you discovered?"
"That it keeps you all in a state of pompous and frigid inflexibility, so confined by your traditions, unwelcoming to foreigners and outraged by anything different or new, that you dare not move forward."
"I can see you have your advantages as a spy, being so... short of stature. Indeed I barely knew you were there." With airy nonchalance, hands behind his back, he added, "Until you began to make noise."
She laughed. "Oh, I may be short, but I have ways of bringing men down to my size. I wouldn't underestimate me, if I were you, sir."
Once again he had begun to turn away, but then stopped. "And how, precisely, do you imagine you'd bring me to my knees?"
(copyright Jayne Fresina 2017)
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Find out how Miss Epiphany "Pip" Piper brings Damon Deverell to his knees in DAMON UNDONE - out now!
(Image above is a beautiful detail from "Portrait of a Young Woman with a Lace Shawl" by Adelaide Salles-Wagner c. 1850)