“And what happens after my visit to Lavenham Court? What if they expect me to make an offer right away?” Hugo scowled. “Which, for your information, I have no intention of doing.”
Almeria shrugged in a nonchalant manner.
“This is the nineteenth century, Hugo. No one arranges marriages any longer, well, I don’t think so. Moreover, I am sure Lord Lavenham doesn’t expect you to propose to someone you have just clapped eyes on. Let’s simply set the old gentleman’s mind at rest with a gracious visit to introduce yourself. And if you and Miranda get along with each other…well, won’t that be a nice surprise.”
“And if we don’t?”
Hugo put on his recalcitrant look, one he knew his sister recognised. It meant he would not be pushed farther than he could bear.
She laughed and made an airy gesture with one hand, as if to wave any potential problems away.
“I think Miranda Lavenham is an unspoiled young woman who has possibly not met many handsome, elegant, wealthy, and sophisticated men like you, Hugo. More than likely her head will be completely turned.”
Having met a few young damsels just out of the schoolroom, Hugo grunted. “Unspoiled” generally meant gauche, prone to furious blushes, and incapable of holding a sensible conversation without coy giggling and gazing about for a protectively hovering mama.
“Hasn’t Lord Lavenham got a pile of money?” he demanded.
“Oh, yes,” said Almeria with a sage nod. “Miranda will be a very rich young woman some day.”
Hugo pounced on this information with glee. “Aha! So, there’ll be no problem getting her a husband if she comes with a large settlement.”
He snapped his fingers in the air. “Why, she’ll be married in a trice. You don’t need me to offer for her.”
Almeria gave him a cold stare. “At the risk of repeating myself endlessly, all I want you to do is fulfil whatever part of Papa’s wish that you can, without inconveniencing yourself too much. That means simply being polite enough to respond to Lord Lavenham’s invitation to pay them a visit.”
She fanned her hands in a noncommittal gesture. “However, if you two do not get on, why, you’ll just return to London, having done what was required of you. What more could anyone ask?”
Almeria scrutinised him with a critical eye. Hugo squirmed under the minatory gaze he knew so well.
“I know there’s nothing wrong with you, Hugo, because I am only too well aware that you have had numerous barques of frailty pandering to your every whim.”
He reddened. “Dash it, Almeria. Has a man no privacy? You shouldn’t even know about these things.”
“Don’t be so ridiculous,” she replied in a sharp tone. “I haven’t been married to Pickerton for twenty-five years without learning something about men along the way. Most men have kept a mistress at some time or other. I know Papa even had one many years ago for a little while. He was involved with her before he married Mama, and I suppose old habits were hard to break.”
Hugo clenched his jaw. “How on earth did you come to hear of it? It was a mistake, he told me. He said he got rid of her once he was sure he loved Mama.”
Almeria gave another martyred sigh.
“You can be so naïve sometimes, Hugo. Mama found out much later, and since the woman was already a thing of the distant past, it did not bother her. Papa was just lucky the creature was so accommodating and accepted his decision without a fuss. Some men end up having to pay through the nose just to get rid of their paramours and avoid a scandal.”
She adjusted the lace ruffle on her cuff. Her next words came out as casual, but Hugo picked up her implication right away.
“You should never have taken up with Dolly Wardle. I’m surprised you chose someone so indiscreet. The woman can’t keep her mouth shut about anything.”
Hugo scowled, angry that his current fling had been so imprudent regarding their arrangement. In his mind that was all it had ever been.
“It’s…er…over. Definitely ended. Been over a few weeks now.”
Almeria raised a disbelieving eyebrow. “Really? Perhaps you should inform the lady her services are no longer required then.”
She smiled in the smug way Hugo found so annoying. Almeria always smiled like that when she had won a verbal tussle.
“Possibly this little expedition comes at the right time?” she said in a condescending tone. “Hmmm?”
“That’s none of your business,” Hugo muttered, when in fact he was quite relieved at his sister’s comment.
Dolly, the prettiest little dancer in London, was becoming extremely possessive. Although Hugo plied her with exotic gifts and paid many of her numerous expenses in exchange for her favours, she wanted more. For a woman like Dolly, “more” meant the inevitable, a status he had managed to evade quite easily up until now.
He was positive he had explained to her that when he married, (some time in the very distant future), his family and society expected him to marry a lady of quality. He chewed his lower lip. Yes, in fact Almeria had come up with something of a solution. He would rusticate in the depths of Cambridgeshire for a few days, and with a bit of luck, Dolly would take up with Lord Arlington in his absence. Arlington, wealthy and single, was besotted with the enticing dancer. He would give anything to edge Hugo out and take his place in Dolly’s warm, willing embrace.
Hugo rubbed his hands together in what he hoped appeared to his sister to be a merry, enthusiastic way, related only to his family duty and not to his problems with Dolly.
“I think this little trip has come at just the right time, Almeria, as you say.” His tone was cheerful. “Good of you to remind me of my responsibilities towards Papa and the family.”
She narrowed her eyes, as if wavering between nascent suspicion and complete distrust at his sudden change of heart.
To allay any reservations she might have, Hugo flashed his charming, boyish grin.
“Actually, I think I am quite looking forward to a change of scenery. You know, getting away from the hurly-burly of the city.”
“Good. I am glad you can spare the time out of your busy schedule of…er…time-consuming interests to do a favour for Papa’s old friend,” said Almeria.
Her crisp tone implied her intense disapproval of all the activities her younger brother and his friends found so amusing. She appeared to have forgotten her earlier tears and the declaration that she could not ask Hugo to give up these pleasurable pursuits. Hugo hid a wry smile. It was just like Almeria.
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