Copyright 2010-2014 Gwendoline Ewins. All Rights Reserved.
“Who is that man?”
“The tall one – with dark hair and eyes.”
“There are lots of tall men here! Many of them have dark hair and every one of them has eyes!”
“But only one with eyes searching the room feverishly as if all will be lost if he fails to find what he is looking for.”
Miss Hester Urquhart and her best friend Lady Deborah Appleby had stopped their slow promenade around the edge of the Pilkington’s dance floor to whisper behind fans they fluttered with well-taught delicacy. It was generally agreed by the guardians of polite society that these two young ladies had risen like cream to the top of the vast quantity of milky maids in London during their very first season: their deportment was perfect, their behaviour demure, their conversation proper. And more than one eligible male had taken notice.
“Oh – that man, Lady Deborah said. "Mmm – he is rather handsome, is he not? He is the Wainwright heir. You know, the Earl of Darlinghurst’s cousin ninth removed or some such. The only surviving male in that illustrious family of his. Not that he has ever shown more than a passing interest in the family, except for a desultory attempt to prevent its extinction by pursuing Jane Throgmorton and her fortune. It did not work but perhaps he will have more success now he is returned from the Antipodes.”
“The Antipodes?” Luminous eyes shone with innocent radiance that might – in the right circumstances – darken with passion.
“Yes, Hester, the Antipodes, that land mass at the bottom of the world full of deserts and strange creatures. Apparently he was helping one of the darlings of the botany world collect flowers – hundreds of them. After a while that must have become most tedious -” Deborah followed her pronouncement with the bored sigh she had recently perfected.
For a brief moment Hester almost forgot Deborah as in her mind’s eye she saw the tall, dark-haired figure of Mr Wainwright with his beautiful eyes – which if she were closer to him she would surely be able to confirm were of the deepest blue, sensitive and passionate at the same time - fixed steadfastly on field after field of beautiful flowers of every conceivable hue while above him in an azure sky delicate clouds floated happily towards the horizon.
“What sort of flowers is he collecting?” she breathed.
For an instant Deborah looked confused. “Is collecting? You mean was collecting, do you not? He was collecting orchids.”
“Yes – apparently orchids grow wild over all the hills around Botany Bay.”
“Deborah! How glorious that sounds and how wonderful it must be to be a man – able to leave everything behind to travel to distant places like Botany Bay and pick armfuls of real orchids.”
Deborah giggled and almost lost the ennui she was trying so hard to perfect.
“Unfortunately setting foot on Botany Bay requires a voyage of several months across the oceans of the world, tossing and turning on a narrow cot in a tiny cabin - and regularly losing the contents of your stomach on the floor. I must tell you now, Hester, I am sorry. I cannot find it in my heart to accompany you. You will simply have to find a man who has the wanderlust and travel with him to paradise. I promise faithfully to answer your letters.”
“I think I may have found him.”
Deborah’s fan stopped fluttering as she followed the direction of Hester’s eyes.
“Hester - please think carefully before you do anything!”
For all her attempted sophistication Lady Deborah was at heart the more compliant of the two. She was also kind-hearted and protective of her far more adventurous friend.
“We are no longer children. We have made our come-out. This is not the time for pranks and devil-may-care schemes.”
Hester scarcely heard. Her attention was fixed on Luke Wainwright, who in turn appeared transfixed by one of the dancers who had come to a halt in front of him.
“Jane Throgmorton,” Deborah whispered and Hester studied the heiress from behind her fan.
Miss Throgmorton was a most attractive young lady. Her hair fell in perfect golden ringlets over perfect shoulders revealed by an exquisite – if extraordinarily low-cut – gown of palest lemon. Hester could well understand any man, let alone a man who had spent the past years collecting orchids from the hills around Botany Bay, being overwhelmed by such beauty. However more than beauty was needed to make a man happy, she decided. Among her friends Hester had a fine reputation of reading character. It took but an instant to read Miss Throgmorton’s and pronounce judgment.
“He is making a terrible mistake,” Hester said briskly. “Miss Throgmorton may be lovely to look at but she could never make him happy.”
Deborah accepted the verdict without question. Hester was rarely wrong.
“Well, we do not need to worry ourselves about Miss Throgmorton and Mr Wainwright because she has allowed herself to fall for the fortune and dubious charms of that elderly libertine Lord Frankton -”
“Poor Mr Wainwright,” Hester sighed. “He has been out of society and free from the wiles of devious women for years. I think we – you and I, Deborah, should prepare a plan to protect him from Miss Throgmorton.”
“That gleam in your eye frightens me,” Deborah said nervously. “Painful experience tells me you do not always consider the consequences of your schemes. What plan - and I use the word advisedly, meaning something properly thought out - do you have in mind?”
Luke positioned himself against an overly ornate gilded column and waited as a host of butterflies swirled in front of him, each guided from imminent disaster of twirling into the path of another butterfly by partners in impossibly tight silk jackets. Flowers packed every available stand and crevice filling the air with cloying perfume. Fond mamas and chaperones kept a scrupulous - if indulgent - eye on their charges. A pair of debutantes in virginal white stopped to plot some great escapade behind their fans. They were a pretty pair, one tall and willowy with golden hair, the other small and dark and lusciously endowed.
But there was no sign of her.
The Throgmorton servant had told him she would be attending the ball. With her parents she would be returning from the houseparty some time today. But their coaches must have been delayed and all he could do was hope she would soon come and he could have his first sight of her – the first of a lifetime of them spending each day and night together. Never again would she be out of his sight for more than a day.
He had sent letters by every ship headed for England. Even after The Dougal began its slothful homeward journey he continued the practice lest another ship make better time. But that was not to say she had received them. She probably had no idea he was here tonight or even that he was returned to England. He had quickly learned she was not the best of correspondents – she was too young to understand how each of her letters lifted his soul and enabled him to go about his work so that it might be completed and he could return to her.
And then he saw her in the throng of pastel-gowned women.
He caught his breath and almost burst with glorious relief as his Jane dipped under the arch of male arms and stood shimmering before him.
God she was lovely.
Lovelier than she had been four years ago. Utterly bewitching, and golden. Over the years her red hair had burnished to pale copper. Tonight it fell in tempting ringlets over the perfect white skin of her bare shoulders. The gossamer gown she wore could have been scandalous, the bodice so low it barely covered the nipples of her delectable breasts, but was little different from any other gown here – apart from the maidenly higher cut of those worn by the two debutantes.
The virginal pair was forgotten as Jane dazzled him. He was aroused by the sight of her, livid that other men could see what only he should see. His thinned lips softened - by tomorrow the special licence he had procured on his arrival and carried around for almost two days would be out of his pocket into the hands of a vicar. She would be his.
His ardour blinded him to what anyone else could see – that she was not the woman he thought he saw. Her very smile – cold and hard - should have forewarned him but he was entranced by a different smile, a figment of his imagination, full of sweetness and love.
“Luke – you are home. How lovely to see you again. How are you? When did you get back? Are you here for good?” The litany of questions should have alerted him. The calculating look in her eyes should have prepared him. However, he was no longer in the real world, he had flown away to a world of fantasy though Jane had not left with him.
An hour later he knew what an imbecile he had been.