A Suitable Affair
It was not an everyday occurrence that Lady Susanna Macalister was nearly trampled to death in the middle of Hyde Park.The pounding of hooves should have been her first intimation there was something amiss that fine Tuesday afternoon, but her thoughts at the time were scattered, delaying her response to the potential danger. As she turned to see a great, black beast charging straight towards her, Susanna stood helplessly frozen in shock, wondering how the day could have gone so terribly wrong.
Fortunately, her walking companion, Viscount Riverton, managed to keep his wits and push her out of the rider’s path, shouting as the great, black horse reared up.
Susanna caught herself against a tree and turned to see her would-be assailant, tilting her head against the afternoon sun to where he was perched atop a very large horse. As the rider pulled sharply on the reins to regain control of his animal, she could see that his very handsome face was highly displeased, his gaze boring into Lord Riverton with something akin to hatred.
She could just barely make out the color of the rider’s hair tucked beneath a cap—dark blond, matching the scruff around his mouth, chin, and jaw—but as he narrowed his gaze and focused solely on her, the color of his eyes was inscrutable, which was a shame because Susanna believed everything was in the eyes. She felt warmth rush through her, coloring her cheeks red, more from the heat of anger in the insolent gaze of the rider, than the adrenaline from her near-death rendezvous with the horse’s hooves. The beast neighed angrily, clearly unhappy that the slight form of Susanna had curtailed his romp through the park.
“D’artagnan, will you cease?” the rider cried at the horse, pulling him in a circle, attempting to regain control. The horse did not appreciate his master’s tone in his command; he reared up again and spun about. Susanna took a few steps backward again, and Lord Riverton darted out of the way.
“Westcott, contain your cattle!” Lord Riverton exclaimed, grasping his jewel topped cane and waving it at the horse, which only angered the beast further. The rider glared again at Lord Riverton before digging his heels into the horse’s flanks and taking off in the direction he had been initially headed.
“Goodness!” came a cry from Susanna’s sister-in-law, as she hurried towards them. Clara, the Duchess of Bradstone, was close in age to Susanna, though half a head shorter and remarkably pretty. “What was that?”
“That, your grace, was the Earl of Westcott,” Lord Riverton replied with indignation as he replaced the beaver hat that had toppled off his head, tucking his dark hair beneath the brim. He pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed at the perspiration on his neck before replacing it in his pocket. Riverton was a solid fellow, taller than Susanna—but only just—with dark brown hair and eyes. He was decidedly attractive yet not alarmingly so. Not someone you would necessarily notice in a crowd.
Susanna watched as he fiddled with the angle of his hat, expecting more of an explanation. “And who is the Earl of Westcott?” she asked impatiently, since he seemed more acquainted with the earl than either she or Clara were.
Lord Riverton did not meet her gaze, but answered her query. “Westcott was once almost my brother-in-law, when I was affianced to his sister, Lady Elizabeth, before she was tragically taken from me.”
“How terribly sad for Lord Westcott to have to endure such a terrible loss,” Susanna said, and Clara discreetly nudged her with her elbow. “And you too, of course, Lord Riverton,” Susanna added.
He nodded sadly and looked away. “I am sorry for his appearance, Lady Susanna.”
“No bother,” Susanna said dismissively. “You cannot control the comings and goings of the earl.”
“Quite right,” Lord Riverton said, but he still looked crestfallen and quite shaken by the episode. “I beg for your apology, but I must take my leave. Westcott’s appearance has quite thrown me into despondency. I was unaware he had returned to town.”
Susanna nodded, though she was less traumatized than the viscount, and she was the one who had been throw into a tree and almost trampled by a horse. “Yes, of course.”
“You will be able to find your way safely home, yes?” he asked, and took a few steps backwards, his dark eyes glancing around nervously.
Susanna glanced at her sister-in-law, who looked as bewildered as Susanna felt. “Yes, we will manage,” Susanna replied with a roll of her eyes.
Riverton shot her a look that was so brief she almost thought she had imagined it. She stared at him for a moment longer, wondering if the anger that had flashed across his face was intended for her or for the man who almost trampled her. Lord Riverton tipped his hat and walked quickly away.
Susanna shook off the feeling of unease creeping up her back. Having been courted by him for months, Susanna thought she had assessed Lord Riverton’s disposition fairly accurately, but she had never seen him agitated or frightened, never anxious, and certainly never hateful. He seemed to be a very calm and even-tempered fellow—steadfast—though almost boring if she was being completely honest. She must have misinterpreted his facial expression.
“Well, what an interesting turn of events,” Clara said, raising an eyebrow at the viscount’s retreating back.
Susanna couldn’t agree more. The day had begun normally enough: her maid, Annette, had laid out a wonderfully pretty, lavender morning dress with a cream, satin sash across the midsection. After dressing, she broke her fast with her sisters in the breakfast room, then did some light reading in the garden. It was a bright day in early September, and Susanna was pleased when Lord Riverton had made a surprise appearance after tea and invited her to go for a walk. She donned her best bonnet and made sure her chaperone was the proper distance behind her as she and her fiancé strolled through the park.
Well, almost fiancé. Susanna had been hoping her suitor’s unannounced appearance today would mean there would be a ring on her finger by the end of the afternoon. Apparently she had quite mistaken his intentions. He had merely come to ask for her forgiveness for being unable to attend the house party this coming weekend.
Clara linked her arm through Susanna’s, and they turned back toward Bradstone House on the other side of Hyde Park. Riverton had forwardly introduced himself during a mutual friend’s house party in July, and while his suit wasn’t unwanted, it was surprising. Until then, Susanna had never heard of him. Her brother Andrew, the Duke of Bradstone, had been initially hesitant about him. Lord Riverton was the first to openly approach the stoic family patriarch and ask for permission to court her. Susanna knew her position in society and her family connections opened many doors, but they closed just as many when it came to her marriageable prospects. Not only was she the daughter and sister of the Dukes of Bradstone, but she had four additional brothers, and not many suitors were willing to take on the lot of them in order to pursue her hand. Some proclaimed they were not intimidated by her pack of brothers, but, in the end, she had not been worth the hassle. The fact that Riverton had been willing to brave the Macalister clan had been enough for Susanna to give the viscount a chance.
It had been over two months since Lord Riverton had begun to court her. She was expecting a declaration any day now, but there was something holding him back, and she wasn’t certain how to push him along.
“It is curious that Lord Riverton seemed more shaken by seeing someone from his past than you were by almost getting trampled by a horse,” Clara commented, slyly glancing at Susanna for a reaction. Careful not to give her one, Susanna nodded in agreement.
“I’ve not known him to be so skittish,” Susanna replied evenly. “Odd, yes, and peculiar in his choice of friends, but perhaps it was the memory of his lost fiancée that bothered him so?”
Clara shrugged. “Either way. At least this gives us a chance to walk by ourselves without a male looming over our shoulders and interfering with our conversation.”
“Was there a topic you wanted to discuss in particular?” Clara glanced at her and nodded. “There was, actually.”
Susanna sighed. “You’ve been dancing around this since last week, Clara. Let us have it out and see how we can fix whatever problem you have created.”
“It is not I who created this problem,” the duchess rectified. “It is you.”
“Me? What could I have possibly done?”
“I know Andrew has approved of this match mainly because you asked him to,” Clara began. “I want to make certain you know you do not have to engage with him any longer if you truly do not want to. I fear you are agreeing to Riverton’s courtship based solely on a desire for a husband and not due to actual affection for the viscount.”
Susanna stopped walking and eyed her sister-in-law. “You think I am merely accepting the first man to ask?”
“Of course not,” Clara said. “But I must tell you what a bore Lord Riverton is.”
“He is not a bore.”
“He is quite peculiar, as you have already mentioned,” Clara responded. “And his manners are uncouth.”
“He was startled,” Susanna said in Riverton’s defense.
“He left us in the middle of the park with no footman or means to get safely home,” Clara replied. “It was quite ungentlemanly.”
“But we are home,” Susanna said, indicating the large Park Lane mansion just on the other side of the street.
Clara crossed her arms and sighed. “I do not want to quarrel with you. I simply wish you to be as happy as I. You need not settle simply because the viscount showed you some semblance of attention. You deserve a little romance, Susanna, and I do not think Riverton possesses anything of the sort. Yes, he would provide a good, solid household and position, and a reasonable companion, but you should be wooed, Susanna, not simply courted. Courting is boring.”
“This is coming from the expert on courtships,” Susanna said, rolling her eyes. Her brother’s courtship of Clara was not exactly the example by which all courtships were expected to follow.
“My courtship may not have been traditional, but the end result was the same,” Clara said defensively.
“I know, Duchess Clara,” Susanna replied, using the family’s pet name for their new duchess. “I do appreciate your concern, but I think the situation with Riverton simply needs to run its course.”
Clara nodded. “I am merely a champion for your happiness, dear.”
Susanna smiled genuinely at her. In the few short months she had known Clara—through her very unconventional and dramatic courtship to her brother—the duchess had become more than simply a friend. She really felt as though Clara was truly her sister.
“I am famished,” Susanna said. “Let’s see what Cookie has set up for luncheon.”
Clara laughed and linked her arm through Susanna’s as they made their way across the cobblestone street, the events of the park pushed to the back of their minds.
Ian Carlisle, the Earl of Westcott, was not pleased.
He had been late to his meeting, and it was all his brother-in-law’s fault.
Almost brother-in-law. And it was not entirely Viscount Riverton’s fault. Had the viscount’s dark-haired walking companion not stepped into his path, Ian would not have been forced to give up his course in order to not trample the poor girl to death. Still, Riverton was present and that gave Ian reason enough to blame his almost brother-in-law.
He glanced around the rose tea room he had fashioned into a makeshift study in his father’s London home. It had been Beth’s favorite room, and while his first instinct had been to board it up upon her death, he found himself unable to do so. It comforted him to be here, to hold onto a piece of his poor, dead sister.
Ian was startled out of his brooding thoughts by Lord Rheneas Warren, the Earl of Bexley.
“Same problem as always, Rheneas,” Ian answered and watched his cousin as he strode into the room. The earl winced at his Christian name but did not correct him, though Ian was the only person aside from Bexley’s mother whom he permitted to call him Rheneas. They had once been boys together at Ashford Hall in Wiltshire. Ian had not been allowed to attend Eton, on his father’s orders, and had envied his cousin’s time spent there and the friends he had cultivated. As soon as he could muster enough courage, Ian bought himself a commission and left the country, leaving his sister in the care of his senile mother and father. He would never forgive himself for his moment of rebellion.
“I came over as soon as I heard,” Bexley said, taking a seat across from Ian’s desk. “Heard what?” Ian asked, looking back down at the missive in his hands.
“That you have officially returned to town,” Bexley replied, popping off his hat and gloves and setting them aside. “It’s been three years, cousin.”
Ian looked up at him shrewdly. “I saw you not six months ago at Easter.”
“Yes, but Easter was not spent in town.”
“So the startling revelation is that I am in London?” Ian asked, placing the parchment in a file. “Nice to know I can still cause a stir. Besides, I have been here many times in the past three years.”
Bexley scoffed. “But no one was paying attention then. Your appearance will turn some heads, though not as many had you waited until the regular season. At least now people will not think you are here to look for a wife.”
“Gads no,” Ian replied, shaking his head. “Last thing on my mind, I assure you.”
“However, the fact that you raced hellbent through Hyde Park, almost trampling Lady Susanna Macalister, is bound to cause some commotion.”
“Is that who that was?” Ian asked, the surname ringing a bell. Bexley nodded. “I am friends with her brother, you know.”
“The duke, right?”
Bexley nodded again. “He was most displeased to hear you were causing quite a dangerous disturbance in the park.”
“Is he the Hyde Park Watch now?”
Bexley chuckled. “No, just very protective of his kin.”
“I assume you sent my utmost apologies for offending his grace’s sensibilities?”
“He demanded a personal apology for himself and his sister,” Bexley responded. “The duke is hosting a house party this weekend, and he has issued you an invitation. Or rather, his new duchess has.”
“I am honored,” Ian replied sarcastically, weary at the thought of having to attend a society function. “I suppose I cannot refuse?” he asked, rubbing his brow.
Bexley shook his head. “No one refuses the Duchess of Bradstone.” His cousin stood and retrieved his hat and gloves from the side table. “I will be here at nine sharp Friday morning to collect you.”
Ian nodded and Bexley left, leaving Ian alone with his thoughts. As much as he avoided London, he really did not avoid society. Truth be told, he never had a proper season. He left the country just before he was old enough to make his own bows before the King, only doing so when his father forced him while home on a brief leave. Ian was gone again after having only attended a few balls, one musical, and two nights at Almack’s Assembly Rooms. He had not returned again until his sister’s betrothal three years ago. Since then, the Home Office had kept him busy enough, not allowing him to spend much time in England, much less London.
Ian threw his quill down on the table and sighed, resigning to his fate. His appearance in London this time was only spurred by a summons from his superiors; it was the unfortunate encounter with Lady Susanna that had made him tardy this morning.
He supposed he owed Lady Susanna a sensible explanation and apology. It wasn’t very gentlemanly of him to nearly crush a lady of quality with his horse, especially when that lady was the sister of a duke who was a friend of his cousin. Plus, he felt oddly obligated to warn Lady Susanna of his past with Riverton. He knew not of her connection to the viscount, but if she was walking with him in Hyde Park, she should know the sort of character Riverton was. Ian did not think the viscount was fit company for any lady, and he doubted Lady Susanna was aware of that just yet. He could not divulge everything he knew about the viscount, but he would think of something to get Lady Susanna away from Riverton. Ian would be damned if another unsuspecting young lady fell victim to Riverton’s whims.