The Rules of Gentility

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Miss Wellesley-Clegg at the Ball, juggling suitors and her reputation

“‘Pon my word, Miss Wellesley-Clegg, you remind me of my little Guernsey cow,” Elverton says. Well, at least it is a change of subject from Sirius, the dog who should be Prime Minister and Cabinet together, if Elverton is to be believed.

“Why, thank you, sir.” I must confess I am somewhat puzzled by the compliment, if that is indeed what he intends.

He leads me back towards Mama, gripping my arm as though he wishes to slip a halter over my head and milk me. Oh, dreadful thought. The horror! 

Standing next to Mama is Mr. Tom Darrowby, who steps toward me, one hand held out, and his smile is so sweet and honest I immediately feel guilty. In his dark green coat and breeches he looks almost handsome, for the color shows off his chestnut-brown hair and dark eyes to great advantage. Oh, it is such a pity…

“Moo,” says a voice behind me.

It is Mr. Inigo Linsley, and I am almost glad to see him.

“I believe we are engaged to dance, Miss Wellesley-Clegg, if you’ll excuse us, Elverton.”

“Oh, yes, indeed we are, to be sure.” Goodness, I babble like a fool, and I drop my fan.

“Allow me, Miss Wellesley-Clegg.”

Mr. Linsley stoops, so do I, and our skulls crack together, dislodging the silk flowers in my hair.

“Good God, my dear woman, do you seek to render me insensible?”

Dear woman! He called me his dear woman! I am speechless with delight.

He hands me my fan and a handful of silk flowers.

Oh, dear. There is a flower caught on his coat. Well, not really his coat. Lower down, in fact hardly his coat at all. It is in fact perilously close to the area at which I vowed I should look no more.

“Allow me, sir.”

He jumps backwards, and makes a most peculiar grunting noise.

“Philly!”

“Yes, Mama.”

Under pretence of repairing the damage done to my hair, she mutters, “One dance only and pray do not flirt with him for people stare enough already and we do not want to upset dear Elverton as I am convinced he will make an offer although of course he must speak to your dear papa but it would be so charming if passion propels him to address you first and we should be prepared to overlook any hint of impropriety under the circumstances and Philly my dear what about Darrowby he is most dreadfully in love with you and may yet ask first indeed we will be stuck between a rock and a hard place then to be sure but only in a good sort of way.”

In my usual awe at Mama’s ability to fire off so many words without drawing breath, I nod, hoping I reek of filial devotion. Papa, I know, could not care less. He currently agonizes over a letter from my brother Robert, reporting that the floor of the butler’s pantry has caved in, taking with it half the third best china.

“Our dance is a waltz, Miss Wellesley-Clegg.”

Heavens! “How delightful,” I quaver foolishly.

He smiles. It is a charming smile; well, charming in a way which reveals a lot of large, white teeth, and which reminds me of the revered Sirius. I am glad Inigo does not drool. The one time Elverton brought Sirius to call, he slobbered all over my gown–the dog, that is–and then lay quiet at his master’s feet. There, he gnawed his way through the leg of a Hepplewhite chair, much to Mama’s annoyance.

“What are you thinking about?” He offers his arm.

“Why, that if you wore a lace cap and spectacles, you would make a passing good wolf.”

“Indeed.” His smile grows wide and thoughtful. “You should have to enter my bedchamber to witness that phenomenon.”

I almost trip over my own feet as he leads me onto the floor. “So you are also in the habit of wearing old ladies’ nightrails?”

“That is a vice I have no compulsion to acquire, Miss Wellesley-Clegg. Although you might wish to visit my bedchamber to make sure.”

“I am sure I should wish to do no such thing.” I attempt a haughty toss of the head at the moment his hand lands on my waist, and I fear the effect is one of a nervous wobble, as though I suffer from some distracting ailment.

“What a great pity.” His other hand clasps mine. “For if you did, Miss Wellesley-Clegg, I should gobble you up straightaway.”

Oh, heavens, these men. What is strange is that although Elverton’s desire to milk me makes me want to rush shrieking from his presence, the idea of being gobbled up by Mr. Linsley has a peculiar sort of attraction. I do, in fact, feel quite warm in a way of which ladies rarely talk (except in ladies’ cloakrooms, retiring-rooms, bedchambers of close female friends and sisters, walks in the park, viewing exhibits, waiting to be asked to dance at Almack’s, et cetera).

“I see you are not indifferent to the idea of being devoured by me.”

Oh, botheration. Apparently he reads my mind.

I concentrate on the steps and the music, not letting myself harbor delicious, wicked thoughts of Mr. Linsley in bed, baring his wolf-like teeth. I wonder if he wears a silly nightcap like Papa’s? I do hope not. One-two-three…one-two-three…And a nightshirt? Or would he, possibly, be unclothed?

For the first time in my life I understand why the waltz is considered an indecent dance.

“So, are you engaged yet to that dolt?”

“I beg your pardon, sir?”

“Elverton, you silly little ninny. Or possibly Darrowby. They buzz around you like bees around a hive.”

Heavens! First he calls me his dear woman, and now a silly little ninny, and compares me to a beehive, which no one has ever done before. I tread on his foot in my excitement.

“Why, no, Mr. Linsley, I am engaged to neither gentleman, and that is a most impertinent question.”

He grins. How warm and large his hand is on my waist!

“Miss Wellesley-Clegg, you are quite delightful when you pretend to be offended.”

“I am offended, sir.” He thinks I am quite delightful! I get out of step, and release a small shower of silk flowers.

“Dear me, you are quite disordered. Let us repair outside and make all well.”

Before I know it, he has danced me through the open doors onto the balcony outside, where I am beyond the sight of my chaperones. There are a few other couples out here, standing close together, who pay us no attention whatsoever.

I am alone with a man of bad reputation. I cannot wait to tell my sister.

“Do you wish to scream and run to your mama?” We are no longer dancing but he still has one hand on my waist.

“No, sir. You do not frighten me.” Oh, but he does, but it is in a very good way.

He takes a step closer while pulling me towards him, and I am now pressed close to him. Some bits of me, despite my stays, squish up against him…and he is interesting. Bony and hard, and very, very warm, with a faint scent of lavender. He is not so tall as that great gangly Elverton, so he has only to bend his head a little to…

“I believe I am about to kiss you, Miss Wellesley-Clegg.”

“Oof.” My breath is entirely gone for some reason.

His lips brush mine. They are very soft and gentle, and I remember their contours as I have observed them from time to time–the full lower lip that now twitches, although I think that is the wrong word, against mine. It is both shocking and innocent. I open my mouth to ask him if that is all that is involved, for why should people make such a fuss if that is all there is? And then his mouth brushes mine again, with the tip of his tongue, warm and soft and wet, reaching to touch mine.

Did he really mean to do that? He tastes delicious. Of wine, naturally, and, although this sounds most silly, of velvet, and music, and the smoothness of a seashell. And beneath all, he is the wild creature who will eat me up.

Now I want to eat him too.

The Rules of Gentility

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